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Matt felt hot, his underwear was swampy, and he hadn’t even put on his foam helmet yet. The dojo owners liked for him to show his face during intros so that when he was fake-raping the women who’d come to take the self-defense class, they’d remember there was a soft, responsive body swaddled in padded, repulsive acts.
The helmet was a synthetic pleasure raft, suffocating enough to afford a light erotic charge. Given the context, this was pretty alarming, but it also kept Matt lightheaded, which he considered a plus. It gave him just enough distance from his conscience to commit his role-play assaults: pretending to crawl in through the women’s dorm room windows, leaping at them from behind grocery topiary, offering to escort them home from parties only to lure them into dark foyers. Usually, the “foyers” were a patch of creaky flooring at the end of the far mirror wall.
“Don’t worry about hurting us,” Matt said to the dozen or so women sitting in semicircle below the stage. “These things are tough as sin.” He thwacked his cushioned hood, fortified with duct tape. “We just wanted to say hey so that y’all see you’re in no real danger here, with either Tim or me.” He nodded to his co-assailant, who was reclining on the big blue mat beside him. “I’ve been doing this with Dwight and Kelly”—the dojo owners—“for nine, ten years.”
In that time, Matt had learned to grab and hoist and mount the women in such ways that if he ever, heaven forfend, happened to get an erection, he could deal with it discreetly, with the aid of his groin pads.
Dwight was an old friend from Jordan High. Matt had spent much of the 90s in Dwight’s white Geo, smoking up and huffing nitrous. When, after a particularly dazzling bender, Dwight had plowed his sweet piece into a tree, been arrested, and sentenced to 72 hours of community service, he’d abandoned canistered drugs and taken up Shotokan karate. That’s how he’d later met Kelly, in the martial arts club at NC State.
After Dwight and Kelly had agreed to leave their day jobs and open the dojo in a strip mall off NC-10, Dwight had recruited Matt’s help. Matt had been in a semi-tough spot financially then and was glad to suit up.
Notably, there was another reason he’d signed on, which Dwight knew. Matt’s college girlfriend had been raped one night at knifepoint on her walk home from Davis Library, and the incident had stirred up all the sludge in Matt. After it’d happened, he’d gotten wasted on whiskey and painkillers, called Dwight, and slurred out the details. In fact, that had been one of Dwight’s motivations for starting the self-defense classes. It was also why Matt had acted as a padded attacker at Triangle Dragon for one or two Saturdays a month since 2004. A decade later, he still felt singed by that breakup—how ineffectual he’d been. How many nights she’d spent soothing him. So even after he’d gone back to school for C++, signed on in IT at Bellva Pharmaceuticals, and righted the money ship, he went on donning the thick black suit.
† † †
“Any questions for us?” Big Tim gently asked the group, standing up, pulling his long, brown hair into a low pony at his nape.
A woman on the right side of the horseshoe raised a hand. “Please don’t get offended,” she said, finger-combing her blond bangs, “but why y’all do this? No offense.”
“I assure you, none taken,” Big Tim said, with a delicate dip forward from the waist. Placing a hand on his ample chest, he elaborated: “We’re advocates, ma’am. We believe it’s our obligation, as trained self-defense experts, to be of service to you in whatever ways we can. Granted, there’s some cognitive dissonance involved when someone claims to be a helper-subordinate by taking on an aggressor role.” Tim was a PhD candidate in sociology. “But the fact remains that far too many people who look like me perpetrate violent acts against those who’ve been divested of power. As feminist allies, we intend to hold them accountable, preferably at the policy level. But in the meantime, we also want to help you kick their asses.”
This earned a small, delayed smattering of applause, as it often did.
Matt said, “Tim’s a lot smarter than me,” which was true. “Just to add: We’ve all got the same goal. It would be awesome if men would stop beating women up. But seeing as in the history of people that’s never happened, we’re here for you to practice fighting back on.”
It was a fairly representative group: about half were white, the rest black and Latina, a range of ages, from a girl who looked no older than 16 up to a lady who was probably putting finishing touches on 60. Most, though, were in their 20s and 30s, and from what they said, no strangers to assault. This, unfortunately, was also representative. (Matt’s male friends rarely believed official statistics: One in five women will be raped in her life.)
Several in the group broke down crying as Matt and Tim sat behind the curtain, pretending not to listen in. (Tim maybe really wasn’t listening—he had headphones on.) The stories always brutalized Matt, and he was perhaps even more disturbed that the women thought he couldn’t hear them being told. But he felt the listening to be a kind of loathsome duty. If they’d suffered at the hands of lovers, strangers, “friends”—choked, dragged by the hair, bounced off of bathroom fixtures—he should at least hear their testimony before visiting more violence on them.
† † †
That morning, eavesdropping proved profitable. The women had made it through nearly all their introductions, Tim had ducked into the bathroom, and Matt had already put on his helmet and gloves when he heard the unusual sound of banging on the dojo doors.
No one was allowed into the workshops after they’d begun—there was a sign saying so—and the strip mall was sleepy enough, especially on Saturdays, that drop-ins were rare.
Matt assumed there’d been a wreck on 10, but there were other options; once, a woman’s estranged husband had showed up, screaming through the glass that he had a gun. It wasn’t clear if he had it on him—he hadn’t bothered, at least, to wave it around before cops came. But after that, Matt always served as Dwight’s backup if anything weird went down. As soon as he’d heard the pounding, he’d stepped out from behind the curtain. Dwight wasn’t in the dojo, and Matt guessed he’d already stepped outside.
The women looked around with evident unease. Some stared grimly at Matt as he made his way quickly toward the door. (He knew he looked scary wearing his helmet, but getting it on was enough of a bitch that he hadn’t wanted to take it off.) Most of them, though, were wrenched around in their seats, trying to discern what was happening outside. But there wasn’t much to see; when workshops were under way, Kelly drew curtains down over the glass front wall.
“Don’t worry, ladies,” Matt said, as he took the few steps off the stage. By the time he could hear Big Tim’s heavy tread behind him, Matt had reached the door. Its small glass pane was covered by a red bandanna. Pulling it aside, his other hand on the handle, Matt peeked into the bright, late-spring parking lot, surrounded by pink crape myrtles.
Dwight was standing by a banged-up white Toyota, engaged in heavy discourse with a petite woman. She had on tight, light-blue jeans and combat boots. Her hair was streaked pink. And suddenly, there wasn’t quite enough air in Matt’s muggy hood.
When Matt cracked the door, he could hear her explaining that she was late because she’d taken her son to the ER that morning. Kid crashed his bike, she said. Nine stitches.
She made some motions—gestured toward the dojo doors. Matt instinctively let the corner of the bandanna fall, stepped back, but he could still hear her pleading: “You’ve got to let me in. I’m fucking terrified. I don’t—”
Matt closed the door, with some difficulty. The gloves had become unwieldy; inside them, his hands were shaking a little and slippery with sweat. The woman in the parking lot was named Lindsay. Her son was Jay. Matt hadn’t seen them for maybe a month—she hadn’t been returning his calls.
† † †
Whatever Lindsay said to Dwight must have been convincing; Matt watched them walk back toward the dojo together, Dwight’s arm on Lindsay’s thin shoulders.
Matt retreated quickly. To focus on just one of his feelings: He really didn’t like the thought of accosting a friend. Especially not one he’d kissed and used a dildo on.
There was no official No Friends policy. He and Dwight did it case by case. Matt got to see the workshop sign-up sheets ahead of time, and if he knew any of the women, he’d tailor an ethical course forward. With most of them, he knew there’d be no problem. For a few, he’d absent himself, ask a sub to take his place. It didn’t happen often—just a couple times a year. (Not many of Matt’s friends knew about his dojo gig, including Lindsay; he thought it sounded too weird, made him seem more heroic than he felt. Or worse, might come off as kind of twisted. Easier just not to mention it.)
Lindsay was certainly someone he would have vacated premises for, but he hadn’t seen her name on the roster for that day. Although, in fact, Matt had actually tried to keep this from ever happening: Shortly after he’d met Lindsay, when she’d told him about her ex, he’d encouraged her to take a self-defense workshop at the Y. Apparently she’d dispensed with that advice.
And now it was too late for him to leave. She and Dwight were already hunching in through the door, and then Dwight was locking back up again, giving a last peek at the street from behind the bandanna. Standing beside Dwight, Lindsay looked tiny, like a paperclip.
Matt wondered, of course, if he should speak up. For a moment, he felt sure he should, and he reached up to loosen the chinstrap on his helmet. But almost as quickly, he realized how upsetting this might be for Lindsay. That, in turn, would again upset the other women. And since there was no chance of getting a replacement for Matt so last minute, there’d be no recourse anyway—Lindsay would likely just leave. It was clear she felt a real need to be there.
So he wouldn’t out himself. Was that actively deceptive? Even if better for Lindsay? It wasn’t better for Matt. He felt ill. Somehow, he’d have to keep his helmet on, stay silent all day. Could he do it? Maybe. But no, probably not. He should talk to Dwight, at least.
When Dwight turned around to face the room, Matt waved at him. Lindsay, fortunately, was texting and didn’t notice. But Dwight didn’t see Matt, either, or pretended not to. They were behind schedule. Dwight didn’t like to get behind schedule. Readjusting his yellow headband, Dwight looked sternly at his watch.
It was only then that a bad thought occurred to Matt: Had Lindsay found out that Matt worked there? It wouldn’t have been hard; she knew Dwight was his friend. Had she decided now to come confront Matt, get him involved in some awful shit? For weeks, he’d been hoping to speak to her, but not like this. That anxiety decided things for him. He could manage to keep quiet. It would be a self-challenge, gladiatorial.
When Dwight glanced back up from his watch, he was smiling at the women still circled in their seats. They looked at him uncertainly, and then at Lindsay, who was standing just outside their ring of shaky intimacy.
† † †
“You can’t call here anymore,” Lindsay had said over the phone, late, the last time she and Matt had talked. Matt had been on the futon in his living room, watching a cooking show on mute. Live cephalopods roiled across a countertop. She’d spoken in a soft, practical tone, not sounding afraid. But in hearing her, Matt’s whole body had taken on the wicked fire of a throat on whiskey.
“Why not?” he asked, trying not to sound spooked or mad.
“You just can’t,” she whispered. And then she hung up.
He’d called right back, but she’d clicked him off before it even rang, and so he’d texted, frantic: “Is he back? What’s going on? Want me to come over?” This string of messages chirped off without reply. So did several more until he’d sent, “I’m about to dial 911.”
Finally, his phone buzzed with a message back: “DON’T call the cops.” He saw an urgent string of blinking dots, and then: “You really need to NOT do that.” A few seconds later, while he tried to decide what to do, she’d written, “Please just leave us alone.”
† † †
Dwight had unfolded a chair for Lindsay. She wasn’t sitting on it so much as she was cocked, like a slingshot. Staring down at the pink bunch of fingers resting in her lap, she said to the group, “He came in through the window.”
Matt instantly felt sick again, and tense, as if waiting for the impact of a crash. He both did and didn’t want to hear what she’d say, what she’d been suffering these last weeks. The other women all watched her intently, some seeming slightly annoyed by the delay she’d caused. Matt could almost see them wondering if her late, dramatic entry was a ploy for extra sympathy. But the feeling in the room was mostly one of compassion. An older churchy-looking lady next to Lindsay reached out and put a hand on her knee. Lindsay didn’t move.
“It was hot that night,” Lindsay said softly. “I opened the window so I could sleep.”
Matt, sitting silently on the edge of the stage with Tim, thought it best not to look at her. He did the math: The attack must have happened very soon after she’d dumped Matt.
“He used my shoelaces,” she was saying. “Which means he was in my room, taking them out while I was sleeping.”
What he saw, in the spongy bog of his mask, was the unwelcome reel of a fantasy: He watched himself drive a spike through her ex-husband’s face. His head exploded, like a watermelon. And it kept exploding.
Had her ex hurt her because of Matt? Was that why she’d dumped him so abruptly? Maybe—he’d never considered this—Alex had forced her to write the texts. And what would Alex have done if he’d found Matt at her place that night?
But Matt also couldn’t keep from picturing another parade of scenes: light bondage, choking, gags, hand-shaped bruises on her ass. Not things she’d wanted to do with Matt, but that he’d imagined or inferred she’d done with her ex. The true beatings flashed at Matt, too: broken cheekbone, livid arm burns, bloody mouth.
And now there was another image, this one dimmer: Lindsay pinned in by her blue sheets, wrists tied with hot-pink laces, bucking wildly. He could sort of squirm his mind away from this if he focused on the rupturing head. But her white, struggling body was there in the shallows of his attention, ready to rise up if he let go of the gore for even one second.
“You know the worst part?” Lindsay was saying. All the women listened. Matt did, too, much as he wished not to. He would have clamped his hands over his ears if he weren’t padded up. Instead, he did now force himself to look at her.
She stayed silent for a moment. She seemed collected. She seemed—Matt was ashamed to think it—almost as if she were acting. He knew better. But was that something? She’d done drama in college, maybe. Why would she do that now, though? Here? A dark spot appeared in his memory, and he couldn’t help but pick at it: some accusation of lying, or instability. Hadn’t she once told Matt that Alex had claimed she made stuff up? Some scheme to get him back, that fucker said, or juice more cash out for the kid. She’d had Matt’s full allegiance then. But hadn’t he now seen for himself the way she could be? Go hot-cold, no warning. Disappear. Could that be a sign of something? Of what? Was she—what? He noticed there were no marks on her wrists. It had been—how long? three weeks?—since the assault.
As he watched her, battling the stinging nest of his thoughts, Lindsay’s calm dissolved. She started to talk again, but then faltered, her body seizing in a shiver that made her arms jerk, like a sleeping dog’s. The church lady pulled her hand off Lindsay’s knee, and Lindsay tried once more to speak. “The only thing worse,” she said, her voice cracking a little. “My kid, my—Jay, he’s 11. That’s who found me.”
Matt felt so sick that he did then put his mitts up to his helmet, thought for a second he’d have to tug it off. His breath got shallow, and the room’s sounds started to fade.
His sudden movement made a few women shift their gazes from Lindsay to him. Lindsay didn’t turn, thank God. She was still looking fixedly at her hands—or, more likely, at the hands in her mind. Pinning her down.
He felt a warm pressure on his back. Tim said, very softly, “Hey, man, you alright?”
Matt made a small nod, brought his glove up to tap Tim’s.
With supreme will, and a weird tingling in his face, Matt managed to regain some control over his circuitry. He took a few breaths in through his nose, exhales through his mouth, and for several minutes, he was submerged in a sort of trance, not looking at Lindsay or Dwight or Tim, not really thinking of anything, except maybe chores. The broken porch step. Leaky kitchen sink. Recycling.
When he was once again aware of his body, the women were stepping carefully onto the stage, lining up along the near mirror wall to take their turns at being grabbed from behind, thrown to the mats, dragged by their feet.
Before any of them had a go, Big Tim demonstrated the first maneuver on Kelly, who gamely screamed “Eyes! Throat! Groin!” while pummeling his dense padding. She was a good foot-plus shorter than Tim; it was very impressive when she managed to flip him flat on his back. The women clapped.
But there was something queasy about the atmosphere. The light was so bright it seemed oiled. It slid across the dirty linoleum and glinted off Tim’s black body suit. It lit up the clockface on the back wall, near the changing area, and bounced out of the floor-length mirrors. It sparkled in the women’s hair.
None of them talked much as they waited in line. One by one, they peeled away from their reflections to face off against Tim. Some of them were smiling with nerves. Most of their faces were blank. A few started crying as Tim’s big body came at them. Tim and Matt always stopped when this happened, and Kelly stepped in to put an arm around the women, check in. Usually, they soldiered on. Sometimes, they disappeared into the changing room for a long time, emerged with puffy eyes.
But today the air was charged with extra anxiety. Matt sensed it in the women’s silence between sessions, and in the especially desperate edge to their anatomical screams: Nose! Knees! Feet! Like a children’s song gone rogue.
And though he disliked for his thoughts to bend this way, he felt the bleakness might be down to Lindsay: her disruption of the delicate ecology that had already gelled before she arrived. He was glad she was there, obviously (though glad was not the word). He wanted her to learn to kill the fucker, if necessary. He just wished he weren’t involved.
He still couldn’t really understand why she’d sabotaged things between them. The week before she’d called it off, Matt had taken her and Jay out three times: to a movie ( Kung Fu Panda 2), for burritos, and to the Life and Science Museum, which usually went over well with single moms. Jay had seemed happy. Lindsay, too. On her couch, she’d squeezed Matt’s hand between her knees, crinkled her eyes.
Later, after Jay was in bed, they’d fucked for hours. Matt may have been a bit rough, said some stuff he regretted. Squeamishly, he remembered asking if she wanted to be tied up. (She said no.) She hadn’t seemed to believe it was an accident that he’d got the wrong hole from behind. Right before he came, he choked her a little. But he apologized for all of it. The next morning, things had been fine, Matt thought.
Soon after that, though, she stopped texting him back.
Matt had been kind of a disaster since then—as bad as anything since Sadie, his college girlfriend. And in reading up again on victims of abuse, he’d learned more about triggers: how a moment of mild frustration might cause an afternoon of agitated silence. How a small piece of advice—about the storm windows, for instance—could provoke accusations of controlling behavior. Once, when he’d come out of her bathroom too fast, he’d seen her leap halfway across the kitchen.
But the thing that made most sense, now that he thought of it, was that Alex had found out about Matt, and had threatened Lindsay, or even Jay. If that was true, though, why hadn’t she told Matt? Did she really think so little of him? He’d spent the decade since Sadie molding himself into a man who could handle things.
Matt hated her ex. Fucking despised him.
He watched from the sidelines as Tim took turns with the first group of women. He could hear grit crunch beneath his thin leather shoe soles as he stepped along the far mirror wall.
It was hard not to stare at Lindsay; he was having trouble training his eyes on anything else. She’d changed into clothes he’d never seen: a red T-shirt and black leggings, which showed off the perfect curve of her ass. She looked so defenseless in bare feet, toenails painted pink. Her faded pink ponytail was pulled back high on her head, and without makeup, she was very pale, as if she’d been indoors all spring. She was the prettiest woman in the room by far. An inappropriate thought, maybe, but there it was.
He kept expecting her to make some sign of recognition, even just glance back. But if anything, she was avoiding looking at either Matt or Tim. The more time that went by, the less likely it seemed that she’d come to ambush Matt. Irrationally, he started to feel a little hurt, like she was rejecting him again. He tried to force the dumb anger down.
And then, in the process of monitoring Lindsay’s slow progress toward the front of the line, Matt made a bad discovery. He and Tim always switched off halfway through each round: the person who’d been perpetrating assaults got to take a water break, regroup. When Matt had first counted the women off in his mind, he’d been very relieved to see that Lindsay had just made the cut-off for Big Tim this time. In fact, while Matt had been pacing the stage, he’d been trying to figure out how he could avoid attacking Lindsay for the rest of the day. Well-timed phone calls? Strategic bathroom breaks? It wasn’t until it was nearly her turn that he saw his mistake: She’d be the first woman in his group. He made this realization just before it was time to trade places with Tim.
† † †
When she landed her first hit, an uppercut to Matt’s chin, it felt like almost nothing. He snapped his head back in an exaggerated arc. Tim did this, too: outsize motions that were half cartoon. Matt didn’t know why they hammed it up. Were they trying to show what would happen if they weren’t wearing padding? Was it paternalism? He couldn’t say. He and Tim never talked methodology.
Grand gestures were especially necessary with Lindsay. She didn’t weigh much, and she was clearly struggling to inhabit an aggressive stance. Her strike to Matt’s eyes—the women were taught to deliver powerful finger pecks to the foam mask—was also soft. It was no wonder: Her own eyes were nearly closed.
And Matt soon had to open a new vein of fakery; her physical closeness was really starting to mess with him. As she jumped around, her tits bounced beneath her red shirt. Color started coming to her cheeks. When she yelled in his face, her nostrils flared, and the little hairs haloing her temples quivered. He felt the very regrettable stiffening of his cock inside his thick, humid suit. Images came to him of one of the last times they’d fucked, in his shower. All her skin had been flushed from the heat. She’d had her eyes closed then, too, to keep out the water spray. When she came, she’d screamed.
As she punched him in the gut, Matt wondered, for the first time, if she’d ever embellished her gestures as well. The doubt didn’t soften his dick. To get it down, he tried thinking of work tasks he had to do. (De-bugging Vivex, helping with the email blast to East Coast reps, working with Miranda on that banner ad of brawny older dudes on statins.) But it wasn’t enough, and when Lindsay kneed him in the groin—hard this time, a real solid hit—he nearly groaned from arousal and pain. When he doubled over, hands cupping his balls, none of it was simulated.
Lindsay had leapt back, too. And when Matt stood upright again, water still blurring his vision, he thought he saw a sharpness in her eyes. She was squinting at him, hands still up. Neither of them spoke.
Dwight yelled, “Nice one. Next up!”
† † †
The second scenario required Matt and Tim to creep behind the women, lift them clean in the air, and throw them down on the battered blue pads. Tim ended up with Lindsay that round, thank God; Matt wasn’t sure he could handle it.
He was finding it especially hard not to talk. And in fact, when his turn as attacker came around again, he screwed up.
If a woman ever freaked out mid-drill, he’d try to comfort her before Kelly stepped in. This time, it happened with his fourth woman, the church lady who’d soothed Lindsay. As soon as Matt lifted her, she went rigid and started shrieking. The sound was so awful and loud—their heads were together—that he could feel it in his teeth. For a moment, he thought he’d drop her.
He managed to set her down, a little roughly, without fumbling. But when he straightened up, he saw that she was shaking all over, like a spider web. He’d never seen a whiter face on a live person, and he was afraid she might be having a seizure.
Without thinking, gently reaching out an arm, he started to ask, “Are you OK?” But before he could even finish the phrase, she swayed a little, elegantly, and fainted.
Matt leaped to catch her, but they went down hard. There was a gruesome thud as they hit the floor, and he worried that he’d hurt her with his knee. In the seconds that they were jumbled together, while she was still out cold, Matt began quaking a little, too.
Once the workshops were under way, Matt was generally able to block out things that particular women had said about why they were there, sacrificing whole Saturdays like this one—a warm, clear day in May—to battering bulwarked men. During the decade of his dojo service, he’d heard just about every brutal and revolting story there was. But some did still manage to get at him. And seeing this lady splayed out on the blue mats beneath him, her hair-sprayed white hair flattened, face slack, eyes closed and arms flung out, one corner of her shirt riding up to expose a small, jellied triangle of belly flesh, he felt defeated.
When he and Tim had been behind the curtain earlier, it had been easy to pick out her voice—she sounded her age. And he couldn’t forget what she’d said. The things some man had done to her.
As disturbed as Matt generally was by anecdotes of coeds coerced by friends and women slapped around by drunken husbands, he could find his way inside some crimes—at least understand how they’d happen. (Tim had accused him once of prurience for listening.) It kind of freaked Matt out that he could occupy these guys’ minds. He also felt, though, that it helped him act.
But with the church lady—a grandmother, retired schoolteacher, volunteer with illiterate adults—Matt couldn’t detach. He thought of his own Grandma Jude, whose house he’d gone to every day after school. She’d fried him bacon, fed him buttered Farina, drawn murals of zoo animals alongside him at her dining-room table. An image flashed: Grandma Jude bound and gagged. He wanted to punch the mirror wall. Crack it to the top.
† † †
Instead, he went for a cigarette. Dwight and Kelly had decided to break early for lunch. As it happened, the church lady, Jeanine, had neglected to mention her low-blood-sugar condition, which seemed to have exacerbated her fit.
Matt hadn’t smoked in years, but Big Tim still did, and bummed him one when they went out back, behind the dumpsters, piling their sweaty black helmets and pads at their feet.
Flicking ash at the glimmering asphalt, Tim said, “What’s up with you, man? Your aura today is, like, fucking black.”
Matt couldn’t disagree. He took a hard drag, tobacco crackling pleasantly. He said, “It’s my three-year anniversary.”
Tim’s face softened. “Of what?” he asked. “Sobriety?”
“Of finding a massage parlor in East Durham that’ll do happy endings,” said Matt, trying to suppress a smile. He didn’t know why this stuff came out of him sometimes. Where it came from.
Tim shook his head. “You’re an asshole,” he said, crushing his empty pack of Pall Malls and chucking it in the dumpster.
† † †
In the third and last cycle of assaults, Matt and Tim pretended to break in through the women’s windows while they feigned sleep, pinioned by their own bedding.
Before they began, Matt kept eyeing Lindsay, trying to gauge if she’d recognized his voice. Was she looking his way more? He couldn’t tell, but it didn’t really seem like it.
The round began fairly smoothly. Jeanine requested that her assailant be Tim—this bothered Matt only a little; he knew it wasn’t personal—and when she’d kicked Tim off in victory, she got a wild ovation, the women hooting and clapping and pounding the stage. Matt applauded too, hard, with a feeling like warm soup in his throat. This lady was damn brave. These women were all so loving, so lurid in their grace, their strength like cave stones, and it was a fucking beautiful thing.
Jeanine was Tim’s last woman of the day. After they finished their exchange, Tim de-padded in evident relief, easing himself down onto the edge of the stage, smiling at Matt as he leaned back against the mirror. “You’re up,” he said gratuitously.
Matt nodded, took his place, crouching by the “window” in the center of the floor as his first victim, a thickset Latina, stretched prone on the blue foam. For some reason, he was as nervous as he’d been in his early days. He felt his pulse pick up. He felt, in fact, faintly pukish. Something about the woman—the way her fat bunched up at her gut. He thought with regret of the cigarette, the turkey sandwich he’d tossed after three forced bites.
He tried to picture the assault, move his mind through what he’d do to her. But he was distracted by his anxiety, and then self-conscious about the extra time he was taking. Balanced on one knee, he wobbled, almost tipping over, even with both hands on the stage.
“Ready?” Dwight called, sounding impatient.
Don’t think too much, Matt scolded himself, and abruptly stood, quickly taking the three strides needed to reach the woman.
Her body was so odd and round that dropping onto her was awkward, like mounting a sea lion. For a crucial moment, Matt hesitated in his descent. But the woman had misanticipated his position in space, and screaming a shattering “No!” she kicked Matt in the side of the head with the full force of her wrath and weight.
The helmet, even bolstered by tape, was not designed for such a thing; he later thought that he might have blacked out for a second midair. It was tough to say, though, because he landed hard on his left shoulder with a conspicuous crack, and as a sear shot through his side and back, things did definitely darken for a moment.
When he came to, he was lying faceup, and the brightness through his mask’s eyeholes was an electric hell. His head felt like a box of nails, and there was a hot stripe in his belly. He heard a thick wedge of silence, and then the fat Latina loudly saying: “Fuck!”
Hurried footsteps juddered the stage, and then there were a few faces above Matt, and Dwight’s hand on his arm.
“OK, bud? Can you sit up?” Dwight sounded scared. That worried Matt. He sat up.
Dwight said, “Let’s get you some air,” and Matt heard the crunched-gravel sound of his chinstrap unfastening, released pressure, freedom at his throat. It happened fast. And for Matt, everything had turned slow, like he was going through a carwash. Dwight managed to tug Matt’s helmet all the way off before Matt remembered his powerful need to keep it on—he wasn’t even quite sure why right then—and wrested it back from Dwight. Shoving it down again, he felt fiery honey in his eyes. But he made no noise, refastened the strap. And then, very much wanting to do otherwise, he grabbed Dwight’s hand and silently struggled to get up, wincing. A pink light swung through his vision.
When he was standing, he mumbled to Dwight, “I’m OK. Give me a second.” Then he hobbled a few paces and shook himself, like he’d just stepped out of a lake.
† † †
Tim offered, of course, to suit back up, but Matt refused without thinking it through. For a few minutes, he couldn’t think clearly; his mind was like a hole in the sand that kept filling in. He didn’t want to sacrifice the effort he’d made to keep his identity hidden from Lindsay. But in his daze, he’d also sort of forgotten that she didn’t know it was him, and he worried, contradictorily, that she’d think he was weak if he tapped out to Tim.
The flaws in Matt’s logic didn’t occur to him until he was back on his knees, steeling himself to tackle another woman, or girl, actually—the high schooler. Somehow, it did not fucking occur to him that he could have spared himself another attack on Lindsay. An attack, he finally reflected, that was a near perfect echo of the one she’d recently survived.
But then he made another realization: There was no way she hadn’t seen his face. Right? They’d all been staring. His mask was off. So she knew it was Matt, and she hadn’t lost her shit. She was just standing there, redoing her ponytail. She didn’t fucking care.
Matt felt huge relief, like he’d just woken from a dream that he’d killed someone in. And then he had another thought. It struck him again that she’d come here on purpose, to seek Matt out. She knew (didn’t she?) that he was friends with Dwight. There were photos of Matt on the damn Triangle Dragon website. Maybe—was it possible?—she was into it. Maybe this was all some arcane plan she’d explain later, while sucking his dick. Maybe she’d never even been beaten up. Where were the bruises?
If Matt was right, he’d just have to play along, pretend he hadn’t noticed what was going on. He could do that. No problem.
Even if he was getting ahead of himself with the blowjob, it didn’t matter. All that mattered was that she knew it was him. Because that could only mean forgiveness, do-over, redemption.
† † †
Lindsay waited patiently on the floor for Matt to violate her. She was patient, and she was tough, her jaw set firm. He could also see that she was either turned on or very afraid: eyes fixed on him and fists balled up by her sides, as if gripping real sheets.
And yet watching her felt like being dipped in holy water. He had so much respect, so much love for this thin windmill of a woman with hair the color of old gum. Not much chest, glorious ass and legs. Man, she was a good kisser. And she did the best damn Lucille Ball. Lucille Ball! Why? It made him laugh so hard every time.
She worked like crazy all day—like a fucking ant colony—with those “special needs” kids, who might put a pocketknife in your arm at any time, or try to film your butt on their phones, or suffer some grisly fit that made them nearly bite through their own tongues. And then at night, she hauled that perfect ass to Durham Tech, to finish her nursing degree. And then, on weekends, she bartended at the Cave, where she handled more than her share of shit. (Some of her worst fights with Alex, it seems, were about that place. In fact, it was where she and Matt had met.) Of course she’d drive straight home after her shifts, because on top of everything, she had Jay. “He stays up for me,” she’d once said with a weary, grudging gratitude. “Three, four in the morning. It doesn’t matter what I say to him or the sitter. Now he claims he’s too old for her. I hope that’s not true.”
It was that woman—the one who, for months, had made him quesadillas at whatever hour, kneaded crimped muscles in his neck, and weighed in on the vagaries of his boss’s passive-aggressive emails— she was the woman he’d give a kidney for.
† † †
But for a jarring moment, the person on the dojo floor seemed like something else. A charred pile of sticks, almost. And the quick shift in his feelings made the estrangement even stronger. Watching Lindsay lie still, Matt didn’t want to picture her dark bedroom, or see her shrouded in sheets, trying to thrash her way up out of them like a caught fish.
But he couldn’t keep from seeing these things. No more than he could stop his cock from getting hard again. You’re repulsive, he reflected. How did you get this way? You have no right to be here. To his horror, these thoughts only turned him on more.
He knew exactly what would happen next, and he felt powerless. As he mimed opening the window to her bedroom and crawling through, his breath began to get heavy. By the time he was looming over her, about to straddle her waist, his ears were ringing like the wet lips of wineglasses played at a wedding.
Then he was on top of her, such a familiar feeling. Something in muscle memory kicked in, like laying hands on a guitar. As his dick rubbed against the stiff rubber of his suit, he could swear he saw permission, even desire, in her eyes. And then her arms tensed, and her legs swung up wildly, and she was yelling, “No!” as she kicked his torso and arms.
He was supposed to fall back, end the interlude. But he couldn’t resist wrestling her a few seconds, gripping her firm calves and one of her bare feet. When she kicked him a second time, though, he submitted with a groan, flailing down with an embellished motion.
† † †
Dwight and Kelly let him lay low at the end of class, stay in the changing room and skip the goodbyes. Matt didn’t know what Lindsay might want from him, and he hoped to speak with her in private. Still, Kelly did scrunch her sweettart face at Matt and ask, “What is up with you today?”
The timing was tricky. The first thing was to wait out Big Tim. (“See you, man,” Tim said as he left. But he thumped Matt’s shoulder roughly.) After Tim was gone, Matt got changed real fast, banking on the fact that women always take longer to get dressed. Despite Lindsay’s baroque busyness, this was true of her, too.
Then Matt snuck out back with his duffel and ducked behind the dumpsters. It was steamy as a school gym, and though it was nearing 7 PM, the sun hadn’t started to set. Matt caught the bogdeath smell of old garbage coming from the bins. The blooming crape myrtles at the edge of the lot had dropped a pink skirt of blossoms on the concrete and grass.
Hurrying—and starting to feel a sting in his hurt shoulder—Matt ran-walked from dumpster to dumpster behind the whole strip mall, past the back of the post office and China Thai and Luxury Bliss Nails.
He came out on the other side just in time to see Lindsay striding to her car, changed back into her boots and jeans and moving quickly, in her don’t-fuck-with-me way, keys already out in her hand. Probably rushing home to Jay, recovering from his bike accident. Stitches? Had that really happened? It seemed unlike her to leave him alone after a hospital visit. Maybe she was just afraid to leave him alone these days.
All Matt really wanted was to talk. Find out how she’d been, if she was OK, if Alex was respecting the restraining order. He wanted to know, too, of course, if she’d recognized him inside. If there was a chance they could reconcile, maybe fuck later in the car. He also wanted to know if there was anything he could do, help, provide. He could stay with Jay some nights after school, at least. They got along.
But when he’d nearly caught up with Lindsay, before he’d even said her name, she turned around quickly. And he was a little startled to see her keys thrust out, weaponized, as she’d just been taught not to do. He was a lot more surprised by the stricken face she made when she saw him.
“Oh my God,” she said, taking a few steps away. “What are you doing here?” Her eyes swept the parking lot. “Are you fucking stalking me?”
Matt was stunned. “Stalking you?” he said, just barely managing to contain his voice. He looked around the lot, too, and saw that on the far side, a few other stragglers from class were chatting by an open car door. He also noticed Dwight and Kelly’s black van still parked near the dojo, triangle dragon martial arts and self defense stenciled in white on the side. They’d be stepping out at any moment.
Matt reminded himself about triggers, the class she’d just had inside. The reason she’d taken it. He worked to keep calm, keep her calm, and started to say, “What I—”
“I’m studying karate,” Lindsay said. Her keys were still pointed at him. “I was at my class, self-defense class, inside.”
“Yeah,” said Matt, peaceably raising a hand. “I know.” He tried to smile. Glancing over his shoulder, at the dojo, he went on: “I wanted to tell you—I thought you knew—I was there, in the class.” He lifted his lumpy black duffel.
“What?” Lindsay said. She looked from Matt to the bag, brows dipped, frowning. And then she clapped a hand to her mouth. Shaking her head, eyes wide, she said, “Jesus Christ.”
Matt could see in her face that she was reviewing the day. His wet gaze behind the mask. His heavy breath as he pinned her.
She shivered, like a zipper of disgust, and then squared her shoulders. Matt noticed she was in a good fighting stance: grounded, one leg slightly back. He was disturbed to see that the hand holding her keys was trembling.
“Back off,” she said.
This was going real damn bad real fast. Matt fought the urge to look around, see if anyone was watching. With both his hands now raised, he took a few slow steps toward Lindsay as she moved out of range.
Quietly, he said her name, but she kept retreating, watching him fixedly.
“Come on,” he said. “Hey, Linds. I should have said something. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I was scared to freak you out. But I’m not the enemy.”
He saw the watermelon burst again. Maybe she was afraid Alex would find out about the dojo. She was so edgy, and he hated it. He’d ruined her. Matt was starting to get real pissed, though, about this transference, or whatever it was. She’d put him in a fucking bind.
She was closing in on her car, and Matt was feeling desperate. He reached for her shoulder, but she wrenched away.
“Don’t,” she said, raising her voice. She was shaking with rage. Her face was maybe the ugliest thing he’d ever seen, including in some fetish porn. Ugliest because he still really loved her, and because she was usually so beautiful.
He sensed that the group at the other end of the lot was on alert. One person was moving toward them.
“I thought you saw me,” Matt said, sounding pathetic. He grabbed her arm again, a little more roughly this time.
Still holding her keys, she reached with her free hand into her purse and brought out a black canister with a bright red top. “Matt,” she said. “You need to back the fuck off.”
Right then, he heard the dojo doors bang open behind him. A moment later, Dwight’s thick twang tore the air: “What’s going on over there? Everything OK?”
Matt didn’t turn, but he did let go of Lindsay’s arm. What would happen, he wondered, if she claimed he’d been harassing her? Would Dwight and Kelly intervene? Would they call the cops on him? (Ever since an uncomfortable incident last year, when a workshop attendee had claimed Matt “groped” her, Kelly had acted kind of coldly toward Matt. He was afraid she’d been poisoning Dwight’s opinion of him.)
But Lindsay quickly dropped the pepper spray back into her purse. She yelled back, “Everything’s fine! I’m just leaving.”
There was a pulse of silence.
“You sure?” Kelly yelled.
Matt felt a little knuckle of rage scrape his throat. Fuck you, Kelly.
“Yeah,” he hollered over his shoulder. “I was just walking her to her car.”
Lindsay opened her door. As soon as she was inside, he heard the maddening click of power locks. Then she drove off.
† † †
It had seemed best to tell Dwight and Kelly that Lindsay had confused Matt for a friend of her ex-husband’s. Dwight looked convinced. Matt couldn’t tell about Kelly. But pretty soon, they’d headed home to their dog. By then, everyone else had gone, too.
Matt had needed to stay a few minutes, cool down. He now sat alone in his car in the empty lot, a hand wrapped around his cock.
Why had she been like that? Who fucking knew? At this point, Matt couldn’t rule out that she was just fucking nuts. Maybe there was no restraining order. Maybe Alex had never even laid a hand on her. Matt was actually starting to feel a little compassion for the man. What had he been through? And they had a kid.
Matt hadn’t done a thing to Lindsay. He was a decent fucking guy. He didn’t love the word “feminist,” but he was doing just fine. If this was about one very minor sexual indiscretion—about which she’d said nothing at the time—then what the fuck? Really, she was nuts. He’d had women ask him to spank them with paddles, gag them with pantyhose—even punch them in the face. One had actually asked him to burn her. He’d never done any of that. And if Lindsay was freaking out about something unrelated to sex, then Matt gave up. He should probably be kissing a fucking rabbit’s foot.
It was true that in vulnerable moments—driving home drunk on a Tuesday night; waking up beside a strung-out waitress he’d found online who’d spent half the night crying; Lindsay, screaming at him in public—Matt could be attacked by unwelcome visions. But he knew that there was nothing so deviant in his thoughts. Which, anyway, he couldn’t control—he was responsible only for his actions.
Now, leaning back in the driver’s seat, his hand quickening, he saw the net-caught look that had glittered in Lindsay’s eyes when she’d turned around and noticed him behind her in the parking lot. He felt the struggle she’d put up when he’d grappled her on the mats.
On the seat beside him was a box of tissues, and as he imagined her thrashing in her sheets, his fingers on her throat, he snatched one out.
When he was done, he balled it up, opened the door, and dropped it on the ground.