I stepped out onto the mat. With my feet placed firmly beneath me, I began to breathe. I heard the cheering from the line of women at my left. They were waiting for it to begin, for my triumphant win, waiting for something to happen. And happen, it did. Julie, a woman no taller than 4’9, stood beside me and asked me to lie down on my back. “Remember, he can’t hurt you. I’ll be right here the whole time. I won’t leave your side.” I dropped gently to the ground and stretched my legs out in front of me. I could feel my assailant, a man in a homemade padded suit, standing over me. It didn’t matter who the man behind the mask was anymore, the only thing I saw when I looked up at his makeshift helmet was the rapist, the kidnapper—the enemy.
Originally, I was going to use this piece as an opportunity to discuss the illusive soccer player I had been seeing and his latest fuck up, but none of that really seems to matter to me anymore. Looking back, the challenges I faced with him seem so miniscule in comparison to what I confronted on the old blue mat in my self-defense class. I enrolled in the course on a whim. My mentor got me an amazing deal, one too good to pass up. She had been talking up the benefits of self-defense classes for weeks prior. She explained that it would give me a chance to make peace with my rape and reclaim ownership over my anger and my body. It all sounded good until I learned that I would have to reenact the experience of being raped and fight the man— the rapist, off of me. Then, I got scared. It was the kind of scared that makes your stomach jump and whine and leaves your hands and knees shaking long after the excitement has settled. Consumed with unease I could no longer focus on the boy and our non-relationship.
Lying on the mat, I clenched my fists and the man knelt over me. He stroked my arms and grabbed hold of my wrists—a move I always hated. Joe would grab my wrists a lot. He’d grab them and pull me on top of him, “No, no….can’t we just talk? I don’t want to.” But soon my “no’s” would be silenced and he’d have me anyway he wanted. But now I was here, surrounded by friends, I was safe. “Use your voice Liz, use your voice.” The women called to me. I choked on my “no” and could barely get it out. My voice was shaking and its weakness surprised me. “NO.” I tried again, this time it was louder—angrier. Tears were rolling down my cheeks and into my mouth. My vision was turning black and I had to fight to stay present and aware. “NO” I said again and waited for my opening, a moment when he’d be the vulnerable one, and then I could strike. He was down at my feet and about to flip me onto my stomach when the women screamed, “Kick…kick….KICK!!!” I kicked him in the face once, and then again, and then one final time before his head hit the floor and he assumed the “technical knockout” position.
I didn’t fight when it happened. I never fought with him. I was too afraid to face what I already knew, that if I refused to give him something, he would take it anyway. The night he pinned me up against his wall, I froze with fear. My screams went unnoticed and my “No’s” were ignored. Something deep inside of me was broken that night. Some kind of God given trust was lost and my mind and my body were separated from one another. I was no longer in control; I could no longer protect myself.
It wasn’t just my physical boundaries that I had trouble protecting, but my emotional ones as well. As I stood in line and cheered along for the other women I couldn’t help spacing out. The moment was gone and I was no longer in Joe’s bed, hands pressed against the wall. Now, I was in my hotel room in St. Augustine, Florida, lying beside a man I had been fantasizing about for months. We were inches apart but I couldn’t have felt further away. I was turned over, crying silently to myself and listening to the low hum of his snoring. We had, had sex…semi-painful, unromantic, awkward sex. It was nothing like I had imagined it would be. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I didn’t need to be there for it. Like, I could have been anyone, it didn’t matter, the connection we once shared was lost and I was just a body for him to rest on.
“I’m about to blow your mind, Liz. Listen up…this is serious.” I wiggled around in my chair and looked over at my friend, awaiting her next words. We were sitting on the front porch of her mother’s cozy Italian Village home and the sunlight seemed to dance around our bare feet. “You wanna know why we date guys who treat us like shit and have nothing going on?” “Because boys suck?” I joked, half-heartedly. “ERRR. Wrong! It’s because we don’t think we deserve those nice guys with college educations and good jobs, the ones who will treat us like queens.” She was right. I had spent most of my adolescence convinced that there was something wrong with me. I was a victim—I was damaged; I had, had an abortion—I was controversial. Nice guys like nice girls, ones without scars or pain, the kind of girls who wear pearls and smile a lot—girls who are whole and happy—girls who weren’t like me.
Then something shook me from my trance. It was my mentor; she had placed a bag of ice on the back of my neck. “This will help keep you present. Hold it to your chest.” With shaking hands I thanked her and took the ice focusing my attention back onto the mat. One by one I watched the women step out onto the mat and fight their battles. Some were fighting old lovers, nameless attackers, and others were fighting family members. I watched as they screamed from their bellies and kicked and punched as if their life depended on it—because for many of us, it did. I stood in awe as I watched quiet, reserved women rise with ferocity and anger like phoenixes, hungry for redemption. I saw women who had never gotten their chance to scream and fight retrieve their dignity from the ones who stole it and revisit dark places they had spent years trying to hide away. The energy in the room grew thick with power and I fed from it. I gathered strength from their strength and their cheering kept me awake and ready.
I was my turn again, and this time I was going give it everything I had. Before I had a chance to catch my breath he grabbed me from behind. The line roared with support and direction. He threw me on the ground and slipped a pillowcase over my head. “This changes nothing. You don’t need your sight—you can feel him. Wait for your opening.” Julie’s voice was calm and clear. I breathed and centered myself, waiting for my chance to get out from under him. “I’m going to fuck you in the ass and throw you in the dumpster.” The words slithered out from behind his mask. My eyes widened and I got pissed. In that instant I knew exactly what I was fighting for. With one move I heaved him off of me and ripped the pillowcase from my head. I kicked and kicked without stopping, my limps flailed about and I hit every target on his body I could find. Finally, I got up—refusing to fight him on the ground—I was going to show him that I could take him where he stood. At the same moment he charged in my direction I shot my foot into his groin and he fell to floor. Julie blew her whistle and the women screamed with joy. He took off his helmet and looked up at me with a smile, “Well I know I wouldn’t mess with you if I wasn’t wearing this suit.”
I’ve been called brave before. They’ve called me brave for sharing my story on the Internet, or for handling my abortion alone, but this was the first time in my life that I had actually felt it. I had overcome my greatest fear and persevered when I was at my most vulnerable. In a lot of ways it was the best moment of my life. It was better than the time I meditated under the sun in New York City, or climbed the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and saw a lake so clear it looked like another sky. I ran back to join the women in line and I heard a familiar voice calling me from the other side of the gym, it was my father. Smiling ear to ear he held out two big thumbs up and I realized how blessed I truly was. I have people who love and care for me because I’m worth being loved. I’m tired of letting others push me around and silence my voice. Now is my time celebrate my life and my body. This is the beginning of the greatest love affair of my life—the one I’m having with myself.