Sunday, May 18, 2008

A Fair Fight

Kristy just wanted to spend a couple of hours away from the kids and her husband. She put in her time as a mom for the past eight years, she argued, since marrying Kevin while seven months pregnant, to the disapproving eyes of her pastor. It was football season and Kevin said that she could have Monday night, since he didn’t like her hanging around anyway, while he and Brad watched the game and drank their Buds. They would watch the kids, he promised, and she and Rochelle could “go take a sewing class or something. “

Brad’s wife Rochelle was even more excited about the idea than Kristy. She suggested that they sign up for the yoga class at the Adult Education Center, a converted dentist office in one of the town’s aging strip malls, next to a flower shop with an old, handwritten sign in the window advertising “Five Dollar Bokays.”
She wasn’t sure about the idea. She had heard that yoga was a kind of religion and that same disapproving pastor said that it was the work of the devil. She was relieved to find out that the course was already full. Kristy began to walk out of the sign-up coordinator’s office, but Rochelle was not ready to give up.

“What else do you have on Monday?”
“The only other course is the Women’s Self Defense course.”

Rochelle looked at Kristy, her eyes pleading. Kristy thought it was ridiculous.

“I don’t need to defend myself.”
“C’mon, it’s just a good way to get out of the house.”
“What if I don’t like it?”
“We can just drop out and pretend to go if we don’t like it. We’ll go up to Paso and do some shopping.”

Kristy smiled. She liked the idea of just running off to nearby Paso Robles with Rochelle every Monday night for the next 2 and a half months.

“Alright, lets do it.”

They decided to attend the first course to make sure that they had a good cover story, in case their husbands started asking questions. In truth, their husbands weren’t likely to ask many questions. When Kristy appeared in her living room in “loose, comfortable clothing” as recommended in the course description, Kevin was already ensconced on the couch, a cigarette resting in the ashtray and halfway through his first beer, more interested in the wiggling cheerleaders than Kristy in sweat pants. Her son Jeffery looked up at her, smiling, and imitated a karate chop. Kristy laughed and held up her hands in her best kung fu imitation, recalling the nights she had endured her brother’s Bruce Lee obsession, while their parents spent their time at the local biker bar.

“Kick some butt, Mom!”
“I’m gonna kick your butt in a minute, Jeffery.”

She chased him around the room, running in front of the television.

“Get away from the TV, I’m watching the game.”

The game hadn’t even started yet. Kristy ushered their son away from the television, the merriment of the moment successfully squashed by Kevin who, at 47 and on his second marriage and family, was less enthused about his active young son. Kristy met Kevin when she was only 26, fresh out of a bad relationship that simulated the one she had had with her father. Kevin was at least better by comparison, and whatever his faults, he was the first man she’d been with who held down a good, steady job. He worked at Atascadero State Hospital, a glorified prison for the criminally insane, as a corrections officer.

Brad and Rochelle also worked at the state hospital as psychiatric technicians. It served as a cash-cow for a town that had little else to offer. A proposed Super Wal-Mart will soon be the only other major employer in what is otherwise just a stop-off for travelers, half-way between L.A. and San Francisco, with 7 exits onto the main street called El Camino Real, after the old California mission trail it displaced. Now it serves as a grotesque, dystopian conclusion to the American dream, circa 1964. It stalks Highway 101, barely inviting travelers, desperate to empty their bladders and get some cheap food, still three and a half hours from either metropolis. Arguably, the town would be beautified by the addition of a Super Wal-Mart.

Kristy had grown up here and never got a chance to travel beyond Las Vegas. She got pregnant only a couple of months after she met Kevin. The security of a home and enough money to take care of the basic needs of the family had been enough, at least until now. Kristy’s daughter Ashley responded to the doorbell.

“They’re here.”

Brad came into the living room, followed by their three children. Rochelle stayed at the door, also clad in loose comfortable clothing, the car still running. She hated Kevin even more than she hated her own husband and wished to avoid the usual digs from him. Kevin ignored the hint.

“Have fun breaking some balls, ladies.”

Kristy gave Kevin an irritated look as she walked out. She could hear Brad twisting open a Bud he retrieved from the refrigerator. She didn’t care that he wouldn’t pay them for it. The price of 8 or 9 beers was her ticket out of the house.

They arrived a few minutes before the class began. The other women were standing around in a makeshift semicircle, twenty strong, facing a beautiful, dark woman with long black hair in a pony tail, wearing a white martial arts uniform, who was setting up the worn gym mats. Kristy and Rochelle chatted with the women on either side of them. One had been the victim of a sexual assault several years ago and was afraid to go out at night. The other had a “Life Coach” who told her it would help her become more confident and assertive. Kristy couldn’t think of a good reason for taking the class and might have made something up if Rochelle hadn’t been there.

“I just wanted to get out of the house.”

They all laughed in agreement. The woman conducting the class cleared her throat with enough authority to silence the class. She spoke with a thick accent.

“Good evening, ladies. I am Marina. I am from Brazil and I have a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. I will teach techniques from Jiu Jitsu and you can defend yourself from the attacker.”

Kristy loved the way she said “BrahZEEL.” Marina was certainly exotic for this town, made up mostly of Whites and Mexicans. Marina wasn’t quite either. Her family had come from Brazil a few years before and they had hoped to eventually open a Jiu Jitsu studio. For now, she worked stocking shelves at Target and lucked into teaching this adult school course when the local karate instructor cancelled and the class coordinator happened to see her and her husband and brother doing a demonstration at the Farmer’s Market.

“We start with defending from a choke.”

She paired off the women and had them alternate between choker and choked, showing how to protect the airway. As they practiced this technique, two handsome male equivalents of Marina, her husband and brother, entered the class, also in martial arts uniforms. They were going to serve as the male “attackers” for the course. They approached each pair, putting a loose chokehold on the students and instructing them on how to break free of it. Marina’s brother, Paolo, approached Kristy and Rochelle. Kristy blushed slightly as he introduced himself, and then wrapped his arm around her in a chokehold. He cupped the top of her head, turning it to the proper position, then grabbed her arm and put it between her head and his taut, muscular arm, showing her how to break free. Then he did the same to Rochelle.

After he moved on, she felt a lingering warmth, interpreting his friendly casualness as mutual desire. Not that she would act on it, unlike Rochelle who would jump at the chance, but it felt good just the same. She hadn’t felt like that since high school. The class ended as all the rest would, with the women paired on the ground, tussling with each other using techniques taught that day. This was a surprisingly physical affair, leaving them exhausted. Kristy had never even liked gym class in high school, but now understood what was meant by “endorphins.” After class, they sauntered across the parking lot to the taqueria and Kristy looked at Rochelle as if to say, “forget sneaking off to go shopping.” They were hooked.

Marina’s husband and brother came less frequently over the next several weeks, having their own menial jobs to attend to, but whenever they did, she gave a little extra effort, soaking in the approval she had rarely received from the men in her life. The two Brazilian men played the role of attacker with exaggerated clumsiness, giving the women a sense of confidence. Marina began to steer the course away from the typical techniques to get out of chokeholds and crotch-kicking the attacker and focused on “ground techniques.” This basically involved an intricate form of wrestling holds. The class dwindled down to 10 – 15 women after a few weeks, but they were surprisingly dedicated. Kristy and Rochelle were the two best students.

Kristy used to dread Monday nights during football season, but now she longed for that night each week, when she could head out to see Marina and hear her say “BrahZEEL.” By Thanksgiving, she had lost 15 pounds, unnoticed, or at least unmentioned by Kevin, and was more fit than she had been in years.

On Thanksgiving Day, they had Rochelle and Brad over with their kids for the usual holiday celebration. Kevin and Brad planted themselves in front of the television for the Lions’ game, while Kristy and Rochelle prepared the turkey. They usually tried to have the Turkey ready right after the Detroit game, before the Dallas game started. Kevin was a lifelong Dallas Cowboy’s fan, despite never having been to the state of Texas, perhaps honoring his grandfather’s ancestry as a dust-bowler from Oklahoma. The turkey was finished a little early and Kristy called everyone into the kitchen. Kevin and Brad didn’t get up, so she went into the living room, standing between Kevin and his big screen television. “Dinner is served, boys,” she said playfully. Kevin, on his fourth beer, was irritated by this intrusion, unfazed by the fact that the Lions had no hope of catching the Packers this late in the fourth quarter.

“Get the fuck away from the TV.”

Kristy lost her playful demeanor. She hated it when Kevin swore in front of the children.

“It’s Thanksgiving, Kev. We made a nice dinner for you, now come and eat with us at the table.”
It grew quiet, only the sound of the announcers chastising the Lions’ performance, as they prepared for another punt, could be heard. Kristy stood her ground, angering Kevin.

“I’m not eating until the game is over. Now move the fuck out of the way.”

Rochelle yelled from the kitchen: “Why don’t you make her move.”

Kristy tried to ease the tension by taking an exaggerated Bruce Lee posture. Kevin put down his beer and tamped his cigarette. He got up to grab Kristy. She moved out of the way, ducking below Kevin’s flailing reach, making him look drunk and awkward. He lunged and grabbed her around the shoulders. She extended her arms onto his shoulders above the chest and backed her feet away for some leverage. She spun in a circle as he tried to push her away from the television. It went on like this for a while. Finally, Kevin jumped onto her and pulled her to the ground with his body weight, turning to land on top of her.
“Now I’m going to make you my little bitch.”

Brad got up from his chair
“Easy, Kevin. Let’s just have some turkey, man.”

Kevin pushed himself to his knees, preparing to pin Kristy, but Kristy wrapped her legs around his midsection. Rochelle yelled encouragement to Kristy:

“Nice, get him in the guard.”

Brad tried again to ease the tension.

“Get a room, you two.”

Kristy could hear Kevin panting, his beer breath spitting down on her. She tightened her legs. Kevin was already too winded to deal with this constriction.

“Enough, enough – I’m getting a cramp,” he offered dubiously.

Kristy relaxed her leg grip and Kevin rolled off of her. Rochelle catcalled at Kevin:

“She whupped you good, Kevin.”

Kevin went red with rage and humiliation. He grabbed Kristy as she was sitting up and put her in a headlock, squeezing tight.

“Now who’s my bitch?”

Kristy was initially frightened, but anger and practiced instinct took over. She began using the techniques from the class, protecting herself from his painful headlock and again wrapping her legs around him, then sneaking one of her legs up to his shoulder. He was even clumsier than the Brazilian men had been in the class demonstrations. Soon she had his arm locked and extended between her legs, applying pressure. Kevin was trapped, exhausted and beaten.

“Enough, Kevin?”

It wasn’t enough for Kristy, though. She was possessed by the desire to erase decades of misogynistic condescension. She couldn’t just leave it at that.

“Are you my bitch now?”

Kristy began to tighten the painful arm lock.

“Are you my bitch, Kevin?”
“Yes, yes, I’m your bitch, let go. Fuck.”

Kristy let up on his arm, silently reveling in her victory, but at the same time noting Kevin’s humiliation for which there would be fallout, she was sure.

“Whoah, mom!”
“You go girl!, “ Rochelle shouted.

They all went to the table, except for Kevin who sat back down, sulking, and chugged down the rest of his beer, despite barely being able to keep his breath. Kristy had Ashley bring him some food. He went to bed even before halftime of the Dallas game and Thanksgiving ended a bit early. Kristy prepared herself for an argument when she got to bed, but Kevin said nothing, pretending to sleep. For the next few days, he showed no signs that anything unusual had happened, other than not initiating sex for their usual, weekly, Saturday session.

That Monday was their last class. Brad came over for the Monday Night Football game and it was back to the routine, Rochelle waiting at the door with the car running. This time, though, Kevin didn’t make the usual smart remark and Brad brought over his own six-pack.

Kristy was sad to be finishing the class. Marina reviewed all of the maneuvers that they had learned and they paired off for the last time. Rochelle and Kristy were the two top students in the class and Marina paired them together. They began to grapple. Kristy could see that Rochelle was very focused and serious, wanting to be at the top of the class, and also the “alpha” of their two families. Rochelle got rough, throwing her heavier weight into Kristy as she fended her off. The rest of the class watched and applauded their stalemate.

When the class ended, each of the women hugged Marina, telling her how the class had helped them with fitness, confidence, assertiveness, etc. Marina put in a plug for the studio she and her husband would be opening at the beginning of next year. Kristy knew that this would be her last Jiu Jitsu class.

The next two weeks Kevin became more passive and withdrawn, never acknowledging Thanksgiving, but things had changed. One day Rochelle called, almost giddy. The past three summers Brad and Kevin had set up a vacation in Laughlin, Nevada, where they could drink and jet ski on that desert strip of the Colorado River. Rochelle demanded to Brad that they go to San Francisco that year, instead. Brad, had already agreed and, unbeknownst to Kristy, had discussed the situation impotently with Kevin at work the day before. Kristy was caught by surprise when Kevin put up no resistance to the idea. He just shrugged and continued watching Survivor. Brad and Kevin were now the fairer sex, and wholly unaccustomed to trying to get their way without force. They would be going to San Francisco. Later that week, their son had a nightmare and came to their room asking for his mother. Usually, he would ask for his father.

Another Saturday night came and Kevin didn’t initiate sex. Kristy was getting frustrated and a little concerned by his lack of interest. She took the rare tack of initiating it herself, stroking her hand down his chest, and sliding it down under his boxers. She was surprised that he was fully aroused despite his feigned indifference. He still made no motion toward her so she pulled off her pajama bottoms and his boxers and simply mounted him. It was his preferred position, anyway. She had never really liked it, too self-conscious as he leered at her breasts in the same way he did that waitress at the International House of Pancakes.

This time, though, she didn’t care. She rode him without her usual inhibitions, clandestinely keeping the image of Paolo in her mind. Far from leering, Kevin looked up at her with a sense of awe. She hardly noticed him. For once, he was an instrument for her to use to feel what she wanted to feel. She began to moan and cry out, as he had never heard before. Afterwards, they made brief eye contact, conveying the understanding that all her previous “orgasms” had merely been theatrics for Kevin’s benefit.

The next two weeks Kevin became more withdrawn. He even called in sick to work, breaking a solid attendance record. Kristy was getting concerned. He was inconsolable. She tried to talk to him as he sat watching a football game, even feigning interest in the game, but he seemed to take it as another encroachment on his manly territory.

On Christmas Day, Rochelle and Brad came over, again. The football was slim pickings, but there was a Lakers game on. Brad and Kevin hunkered down to watch it, even though neither was much of a basketball fan – Kevin mostly using the games as an excuse to make racial comments. He had always hated the Lakers and Kobe Bryant until Kobe was accused of that rape. Then Kevin had come to his defense over Kristy’s objections. At halftime of the game, Kevin’s son Jeffery came into the living room to announce that dinner was ready.

“And you better hurry or Mommy will kick your butt.”
“Is that right? Let her come over here and try it.”

Kristy wasn’t sure what to do. She came into the edge of the living room.

“C’mon, Kev.”

Kevin jumped up and lunged at her, taking her onto the ground and putting her into a headlock.

“You had enough?”

Kristy made no attempt to fight him other than to protect herself from his headlock.

“Enough Kevin. I give up.”
“Are you my bitch?”

Kristy looked into his eyes coolly.

“I give up,” she repeated.

Kevin knew that this was the best he was going to get. He stood up, hands held high and waltzed over to the kitchen. The charade was believable enough for the children. Rochelle was disappointed that Kristy let the power pendulum swing back a little to the men, but it was really the only way. They would still go to San Francisco this summer, she thought.