A Dangerous Woman
“It came burning hot into my mind, whatever he said and however he flattered, when he got me
to his house, he would sell me for a slave.” —John Bunyan, A Pilgrim’s Progress
When the girls in my writing group in juvenile hall found out that I actually boxed and kick-boxed and fought with sticks and knives in the Filipino combat style called Eskrima, they were entranced.
“Damn, you do that? Like, for real. You get hit by guys?” they all wanted to know.
“Excuse me,” I objected. “I prefer to do the hitting.”
They were speechless for a moment, as if it was impossible to comprehend such a scenario.
Finally, one of them asked, “So you gonna teach us?” They all got very excited by that.
I laughed at the unexpected question. “I don’t think I’m allowed to in here. Anyway, I bet you all know how to fight better than me.”
There were seven of them, seated around a long steel table. All were High Risk Offenders, facing life sentences for serious crimes. Brittany had helped her uncle to kidnap a girl at gunpoint. Julie had shot a friend of hers on a dare. Ipress had participated in an armed robbery with her homeboys. Elizabeth and her boyfriend had stolen a car and led police on a wild chase almost to the Mexican border. Maria had been left with the gun while her homeboys ran away after a shooting in the park. Silvia and Leonor were accomplices, along with Silvia’s boyfriend, in a robbery and murder on the beach.
They were experts at giving and receiving violence, the abuse having started in early childhood and progressing from there. I knew this much about them because a few weeks earlier I had gone into Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles, the largest juvenile hall in the world, with the idea to help incarcerated youth write their stories. After jumping through various administrative hoops, I had ended up here, on the farthest side of the compound, inside Omega Unit and with these girls.
There were certain rules to their fighting games. Girls beat up girls. Guys beat up guys. Guys beat up girls.
Girls never beat up guys.
“A girl tries that and she gets killed, straight up,” declared Ipress.
“We get even in other ways,” said Maria. “Like, I know
a girl bleached all her boyfriend’s clothes. She tried to poison him, too,
‘cept it didn’t work. See, that’s smarter. Girls are smarter than guys. We
gotta be, cuz we can’t beat them up. So we gotta use our brains.” She tapped
her curly head.
Brittany, who spoke little and always seriously, said, “I stay outta that shit. Do my own missions. I don’t get into it with men. Don’t let them have no control over me.”
I didn’t see the point of reminding her that she was here because she had obeyed the bidding of her uncle. Hopefully, she would someday come to that obvious realization on her own.
“So then, how does a girl protect herself and get respect on the streets?” I asked.
Silvia answered. “You can’t by yourself. You gotta belong to a man.” She looked at me sharply. “But it’s like that in your world, too, right? I mean, you gotta get hooked up, gotta get married or you’re just a nobody.”
“Not exactly, not these days. It used to be like that,” I said. I spoke the right words; the words that were supposed to make sense in a modern world, but deep inside I knew Silvia was right.
She snorted, “Uh huh?” as if I hadn’t fooled her a bit.
“The best a girl can do is get jumped into a gang, just like the guys do,” said Maria. “They beat you up, and if you take it like a man, then you get respect.”
Leonor’s pale face twisted with painful memories. “Yeah, I did that. I got jumped into the Playboys. I got so fucked over, my face swollen, I couldn’t open my eyes. My lip was cut, my nose broke. Still, it got me no respect. Not like the guys get. And you know what? They beat me up hard. They’re not that hard on each other.”
Maria nodded solemnly, and then all the other girls did, as if Leonor had just stated one of the unchangeable laws of the universe.
Leonor was so small and delicate. The thought of her willingly being beaten up by a gang of men was too horrific. And to think she had done it to gain respect.
Silvia explained further, “Yeah, well, supposedly, if you get jumped in it means you’re down, a player for real. And some girls do get respect but that’s cuz they dress and act like guys. We’re not like that. If you’re a girl, you get used for, whatever. Like, if the gangsters want you to carry a gun, sell drugs, sell your body, you do it. They pass you around like a piece of gum and just chew on you until there’s no flavor left, and then they spit you out.”
“Damn, girl, don’t be depressing me like that,” chided Elizabeth. She turned to me eagerly. “So, you gonna teach us how to box? I mean, I’d lose weight, right?”
“Yeah, come on,” they all pleaded.
“You’d have to do sit-ups and push-ups,” I said. “You’d sweat a lot. It’s hard work.”
Elizabeth’s face fell. “Oh God, no.”
Maria threw up her hands in disgust. “You see, heina, that’s what I’m talking about. You get all into it, and then when you find out you gotta actually do something, you give up.”
Before Elizabeth could respond, Maria continued, “I just wanna know how to beat up my enemies. Isn’t there something quick you can show us?”
“You have a lot of enemies?” I asked her.
She squinted as if I were stupid. “Hell, yes.”
“I already killed all mine,” said Julie, her voice disconcertingly soft and devoid of emotion.
The other girls shuffled uncomfortably, none of them meeting Julie’s dead stare. Julie was the youngest of the bunch, just fifteen. She had committed her murder at age thirteen, and she was the only one who made me seriously nervous.
“Everybody’s my enemy,” said Brittany. “I don’t got no friends, just enemies.”
Elizabeth rolled her eyes. “Oh, and aren’t you a sad story?”
“I never won a fight in my life,” said Silvia. “But I sure would like to pay some people back.”
I asked, “When you think about revenge, who do you wish you could get even with?”
All of them said either fathers or boyfriends.
Silvia reflected for a moment, and then added, “Maybe I don’t want no revenge. I don’t really hate nobody. My boyfriend, Jerry, sometimes I feel like I hate him. He hurt me so much. Like one time I was waiting for him outside my house, and he didn’t come so finally around midnight I went to bed. Then my friend Marisol came and said he was there so I went outside in my bathrobe and slippers. I ran out the gate and followed him but he was real drunk and kept pushing me. I begged him not to walk away but he got tired of my crying and begging so he turned around and punched me in the mouth, and I started bleeding. I ran inside my house after that, crying. There was a lotta guys outside and they seen my boyfriend hit me but they didn’t do nothing.”
“Why not?” I asked.
Silvia shrugged as if it wasn’t a big deal. “It was my problem not theirs so why should they care?”
The next time I was in the gym, Silvia’s answer rang in my head. The fact that she was getting beaten up was her problem. How many women from all walks of life, all over the world, all down through history and until the present time had heard that admonition—it’s your problem, it’s your fault. Be a better wife, a better girlfriend, a better daughter. Obey.
I didn’t want to think about it, but I had heard it myself.
I like the quiet of the gym in the early morning, knowing that before long the room will be filled with bodies moving just like mine, pounding air and earth to the beat of ear-splitting rap music. When I walk in, the gym is clean, and the smell of last night’s sweat is a faint memory. The owner, a small slim man with quick, nervous movements, is obsessive about cleanliness and can be seen at all hours pushing the vacuum cleaner or wiping the mirrors and bags with disinfectant, while admonishing everyone to stop sweating on his stuff, a crazy thing to say since that’s what the gym is all about; pushing to the limit of endurance—and that means sweating.
I wrap my hands with long pieces of cotton cloth, like bandages, to protect my wrists and knuckles. All fighters have their own way of wrapping their hands, like a signature. I jump rope or run in place to warm up, do jumping jacks and push-ups. Then, I stretch. When my trainer, Stan, arrives, we don’t talk much, just get right into it. Three minute rounds in the ring remind me to keep my hands up, never flinch or take my eyes off my opponent, tuck my chin, stay light on my feet, and, for God’s sake, keep moving, never get stuck in a corner, always make sure there is a way out, bob and weave, fake, anticipate, take control.
In the ring a person’s character is quickly revealed. You find out if you are easily flustered and distracted or made angry; or if you can command yourself under pressure, completely focus your energy and master your anger and fear. I face various opponents, each with his or her particular fighting styles, but in the end, winning or losing has nothing to do with them and everything to do with my own, inner battles. What I like best about the ring is that, unlike day to day life, it is clear and absolute. I never wonder if I’ve done right or wrong, failed or succeeded. I don’t have to wait days or years or a lifetime to figure out if I’ve achieved my goals. I know immediately. Either I do a technique correctly or incorrectly. Either I win or I lose. It’s obvious when I’ve given my best and when I haven’t and the reasons why. And each time I overcome my fears by stepping into the ring, I grow stronger mentally and physically because it is a process by which, simply by keeping at it and not giving up, I improve, even on the days when I am a little sick or unenthusiastic. Sometimes, just showing up and surviving the training is the biggest achievement of all.
Yet, there I was, tough, strong, determined—and knowing exactly how the girls in my writing group felt as abused victims. After each session, I take their writing home with me, and it keeps me awake at night and when I finally fall asleep, the nightmares come. I am back in the tiny London flat, in the days before I learned how to fight, cowering in the bathroom, terrified of what awaits me on the other side—my husband, the man I loved and feared, just as the girls in my writing group described their boyfriends.
In my dreams, as in that former reality, he raps on the bathroom door, louder and louder, until at last he is banging and yelling in a frenzy. He knows that I have no choice. Eventually, I will have to come out. He enjoys his little game, him the cat and me the mouse. The edge of the bathtub is where I sit, holding onto the sides, sweat running down my body even in the winter when the room is dead cold.
I never knew what would set him off. Perhaps I had cut the onions too thick in the meat sauce or I had eaten my apple too loudly or I had walked in front of him on the sidewalk—always walk beside a man or behind him as a sign of respect, never in front. Sometimes, we would be on our way out to a party so I would have an excuse to run into the bathroom to put on my make-up. But there was no excuse to lock the door against him. I would, though. I would lock the door. That was my sign of rebellion. And then, I would concentrate on the task before me, putting on my make-up just like a mechanical doll, while the demon rattled my cage.
Looking at myself in the mirror I would take my mascara and brush it lightly across my lashes, mouthing softly, “Fie, fie, unknit that unkind, threatening brow and dart not scornful glances from those eyes. To wound thy husband, thy lord.”
I would paint my mouth pale pink and repeat, “To wound thy husband and thy lord.”
Sometimes, I dreamed of doing him harm. Evil schemes flashed through my head, bringing immediate guilt, and I prayed, as I’d been taught as a child to ask for God’s forgiveness. I should submit to my husband, that’s what good Christian girls do.
Much as I tried to block it out, the banging of the demon broke into my thoughts, making me shiver with dread. I could only dream my unforgivable schemes. He had the power to act.
When I was finished fixing my face I knew I looked beautiful in the waif-like, vulnerable way that men loved. I was 6 feet tall and slim, too skinny I thought. I didn’t think I was beautiful. I hated my body. Men looked at me in an animal way that made their desire obvious. But I wasn’t fooled. I stared at my reflection and wondered how I could escape from what I was perceived to be—the fuckable airhead of a woman who had no right to speak, no right to even exist without the permission of her husband. Surely, if the men of this world thought those things about me, surely if the successful man who loved me and had taken me for his wife thought those things about me, then they must be true. How to fight against all that persuasion? How to insist that I was someone else? I was just one weak woman, inside my body, looking out, while they were many, seeing me from the outside looking in.
“I’m ready,” I would say at last to my reflection. For what? To walk out the bathroom door and meet my husband, to have him kiss me and say how lovely you look, darling, to be made to feel beautiful and desirable without being made to feel like a whore, to go to a party, dance and laugh and have fun?
Walking out the bathroom door should have been an everyday occurrence without any thought attached to it. Instead, it was like climbing Mount Everest without an oxygen tank. I had to prepare myself for the journey, sinking down to the edge of the bathtub and sitting there to gather my strength. To reach for the handle and turn it, to step from my prison of safety into the hands of my husband, all the more frightening because he was handsome and popular and well-connected; over and over I had done that, submitting myself because I knew no other way. The man of my dreams had become my living nightmare. On the night he broke the door down and dragged me out, he put his hands around my neck and squeezed until all I saw was black, then let me fall. I came to, coughing, choking and clawing at the ground, chest heaving painfully, trying to gulp in air where there didn’t seem to be any. On that night, I knew I had to get away or next time he would kill me.
My four-year-old daughter was my final salvation. Even if I deserved such treatment—because by that point I truly believed I did—she didn’t. With the mark of his hands still on my neck, I got on a plane carrying one small suitcase and my child and returned to Los Angeles.
It took years for me to grow out of what I once was. At the age of thirty, resolute at last, I walked into a boxing gym and asked what I had to do to sign up. I had never fought back, never stood my ground. I wanted to know how and I was determined to learn. A small, compact woman approached me. She looked strong and in control.
“Am I too old?” I asked fearfully.
She laughed. Her eyes were brown, her hair wild and curly and golden. “I’m forty-five.”
I signed up that day. I am forty-five now and still training. I am the one that younger women look up to. Every woman should train from a young age. I wonder how different my life would have been if I’d had that chance.
At the end of my sparring sessions I unwrap my hands, euphoric. Later, perhaps I will find evidence of the fight—a bruise or a cut on my arm. It doesn’t matter. They are the wounds of a warrior, and I wear them proudly, knowing my opponent wears them too. When we are finished, we always bow to one another with respect. In the London flat, I used to take off my make-up at the end of the night, not wanting to see what slowly began to appear, the bruised and swollen skin. In those days, I bowed to hide my shame.
Now I see my former husband as an insignificant creature, a fly that I can flick away with one minimal, swift movement. I have no fear, only disdain for such a coward.
At home, I open the folder where I keep the girls’ writing and I read Silvia’s piece:
Me, Jerry and Marisol were outside a friend’s house when my friend was talking, and Jerry got mad and was telling her to shut up but she was so dingy, she just kept on talking. So he took a knife, and Marisol was sitting on the sidewalk, and he threw the knife at her, and she screamed so he kept throwing the knife at her. Then he saw me standing by the tree, and he threw the knife at me, and I got scared but I didn’t say nothing.
There was this lady who sells corn passing by and she asked me what my boyfriend was doing, and I told her he was playing. She looked at me like I was crazy. But everyone thought I was. So she was just another person thinking I was crazy to be playing with a man who plays with knives.
Common sense should tell a girl to stay away from a man who uses her as a dartboard. Still, incredible as it may seem, it can happen to anyone if the circumstances are right. It’s easy when you’re on the outside looking in to say that a girl is crazy, that she should just get out. But when you’re the one in the middle of the maze you can’t imagine the possibility of escape. Once, on the streets of London, my husband kicked me repeatedly like I was a mangy dog and a man passing by reached out in distress, offering to help me. My husband turned on him in a near epileptic fury, and the man retreated. I stood in terror, shaking my head and mouthing no, no at the man, praying that he would just to go away. It never occurred to me to go with the man. The only result I could imagine from his effort was for me to suffer even worse abuse when I got home.
If I ever tried to argue with my husband he would say, “Don’t fight me.” The message was clear—you have no right. You are a woman, and I am a man. That is the way of this world. Don’t upset the balance. But even in those dark days I wondered, why? Why can’t a woman stand up the way a man does? Doesn’t she have just as much right to be tough and strong, to speak her mind freely?
At the end of another writing session, the girls still want fighting lessons, and I remind them again that it isn’t allowed.
“Every girl should be able to do that,” they say wistfully.
“Yes, every girl should,” I answer.
Elizabeth gives me a respectful nod. “Damn, woman, you’re dangerous.”
I hug each of them good-bye; these condemned young women whose tough facades have been stripped away, revealing fearful little girls who passively did what they were told because they never knew they could do otherwise. I understand exactly how they feel.
I used to walk the streets of London, skinny shoulders hunched inward as if protecting myself from the inevitable attack. But that’s not the way to do it. There is no protection by giving in. Now, I hold my head high and my shoulders back, muscles defined. I step light and sure on my feet, looking straight ahead without apology. Nobody masters me but myself.
Elizabeth is right. In a world where fear and repression are still the norm, I am a dangerous woman—and I take that as a compliment.