So, waaay back in college, when the earth was green, I decided to take a self-defense course. These were very popular at the time. They were a weird mixture of karate and judo and cosmica rama ding-dong female empowerment, and they were typically taught in massive gyms to hordes of terrified nineteen year old girls who had been told for years that every man they met wanted one thing, and one thing only: their tender young pootie. In our minds, these men were pirates, or cartoon hobos. They’d start off offering you candy, we figured, and then: out would come the cutlass.
The most important thing about the class was that it was all-women: attended by women, taught by women, conceived by women, for women. In fact, it was generally billed as a “safe space for women,” which was a totally OK thing to say in the mid-90’s.
I hated my class. In fact, I hated all exercise classes. They reminded me of high school gym, plus, I had a tendency to fall down a lot. Yoga class? Fell down during tree pose. Step aerobics? Fell off my step. In my Womyn-Friendly Self Defense course, I made it through two weeks before I lunged at an opponent, missed and went right down like a plank of wood. The fugging jammies probably didn’t help with the whole traction issue.
But things didn’t get really bad until about a month in. That’s when I came to class, and found a huge hairy man standing in front of the class, arms crossed like a bouncer. He was all decked out in his white kick-ass suit, and had a gleam in his eye that suggested he wanted nothing more than to school us, in a variety of ways.
I immediately went straight to my instructor, a very nice if painfully earnest grad student named Amy.
“Amy,” I said, in a stage whisper, looking at Hairy Jammies Man, “Um, I’m really not comfortable sparring with, er–“
“Greg. He’s an old friend of mine. We go way back!”
I looked at Greg again. He cocked an eyebrow and stood up straighter.
“Yeah. OK. See, the thing is, this is supposed to be a Safe Space, and I don’t really feel like sparring with him. Is that OK? I mean, I’m still having trouble with the yelling–“
“Yeah, that. Anyway. I’m a Lutheran? And we don’t yell. We also don’t hit men. Or women. Or anyone. If that’s OK. Mostly, we just fight about the Keys of Confession. But there’s absolutely no yelling or hitting of any kind, I can tell you that. I think you need Baptists for that. Anyway, they’re better at loud.”
Amy held up her hand. “Listen, you don’t have to spar with Greg.”
“Oh, thank God.”
“You just have to hit him in the stomach.”
“Ha ha ha. Wait. I just have to hit him in the stomach? Like, ‘hit him in the stomach as hard as I can?'”
If there was a joke there, Amy missed it. “Yes! Exactly!” She grabbed me by the shoulders, and steered me toward the line. “And don’t forget your Kiai.”
“But I don’t have one of those yet.”
The girl in front of me in line raised her eyebrows at me.
“I don’t have a Kiai,” I told her. “I tried yelled ‘AIIIIEEEE!’, but it just sounded like I’d seen a mouse.”
She turned around.
It was a long wait to punch Greg. During that time, I thought long and hard about my problem. I’d joined this class, hoping to overcome a certain amount of physical awkwardness, as well as my paralyzing fear of men. (The latter was less of a problem, since I’d developed a convenient crush on an emotionally unavailable man who lived on the floor above me.) But here I was, a month into the class, still unsure what to do with my hands, still falling up the stairs at least twice a semester, no Kiai in sight, and I was getting frustrated. I would punch him, I decided. I would punch him solidly.
The girl behind me tapped me on the shoulder. She was not someone I wanted to talk to. She’d transferred to UMass last year, after fucking her way out of art school in New York.
She smiled at me coquettishly. “I’m going to punch him like he’s never been punched before,” she said. I thought about a mutual friend of ours, who said that this girl had hopped into her bed one night, cuddled up with her, and then said in seductive whisper, “I know you want to have sex with me, but I’m really not attracted to you.”
I wished she hadn’t touched my shoulder.
“Do you mind?” I said. “I’m working on my Kiai.”
The line dwindled. Most girls didn’t even make a proper fist. They dropped their shoulders, and giggled, and shuffled their feet, did everything but bite him under the chin or bring him a dead bird, to indicate that they were the betas. Seeing this, finally, finally made me mad.
When it was my turn, I stood solidly on my feet, and forgot Kiai for a second. Mostly, I wanted to make sure that I didn’t make any statements that sounded like questions. Mostly, I didn’t want to flinch.
“Hi, there,” Greg said, uncrossing his arms. “Are you ready to hit me as hard as you can?”
“You know, Greg, I was ready to hit you,” I said, smiling sweetly. “I really was. But then I realized something.”
He gestured for me to continue. It was the same gesture he made to each girl in the line: Hit me with your best shot! He’d slap guys on the back instead of hugging them, I thought.
“I realized, Greg, that you want me to hit you.” The grin faded a bit. “I mean, really want me to. And so I’m not going to. Because I think you like it when girls hit you. I think you think it’s cute. And more than that…” I dropped my voice to a whisper. “…I think you think it’s hot. And Greg? That’s disgusting.”
I’d love to tell you that Greg broke down weeping at this juncture, but I’m sure he just thought I was a crazy bitch. “Have it your way,” he said, and shrugged it off. But I went to the back of the line feeling much, much better.