Carol Guess and Kelly Magee
I kissed my girls and Dan goodbye and drove to my girlfriend’s house to fight. I did it for the money. I did it because I was good at it. I did it because I wanted to know how to take care of myself, in case the what if always playing in my head came to pass. I did it because there was something in me that cried out to strike, and I was against spanking.
I don’t know why I did it.
I couldn’t stand to be in my house, so I got in the car and drove, and when I drove, I didn’t have anywhere else to go but Cat’s house across town. Nothing was open that late but all-night groceries and bars, and there are only so many groceries a person can buy.
Cat’s door was always unlocked because she lost the key and didn’t want to pay the landlord to get a new one, so I let myself in. She was asleep in the tub, cell phone still attached to some call. I put the phone to my ear. “Hello?”
“Who is this?”
A man’s voice; a client. I felt sorry for the guy, waiting on her to return like Dan waited on me. He thought I was going through something. He thought that I would eventually stop going through it and return to him. He didn’t realize that this was a new way of life for me, had been since shortly after my second was born. That I couldn’t come home to him in the morning if I didn’t fight at night. Sometimes he watched me like I was a wild animal he didn’t exactly want to tame. Sometimes he touched my bruises, and asked if I was okay. I said yes and believed it.”
I wished the guy on the line good luck and hung up the phone.
“Wake up,” I said to Cat, but she didn’t budge. I tried to imagine her as a child, or a fetus sleeping in water. It was hard to imagine because of her tattoos, these animals chasing each other around her body. Blackbirds and hyenas and fish with teeth. It was important for me to picture her as a child so that I didn’t forget empathy. I could tell I was forgetting because of how hard it was to see her as someone’s daughter, especially because she had no family. No parents, no siblings. Hard to picture someone loving her as a kid when maybe no one had.
But important for me to try.
I splashed water in her face. “Cathy. Get up.”
She sputtered, breasts bobbing in the water. Her phone buzzed. The air conditioner kicked on, and she shivered violently. “Cold tub. Cold tub.”
At home, nets full of plastic toys hung from the showerhead and toothbrush holders were suction-cupped to the mirror. Cat’s counter was crammed with open-capped muscle creams and gauze packages and painkillers and spilled butterfly bandages. Everything covered in a thick coat of old hairspray. Beer bottles in the sink.
“You ever clean in here?” I reached for a towel balled against the wall, sniffed it, grimaced.
She rolled herself over the side of the tub and groaned. Paused on hands and knees, water streaming off her and running into the floor vents. “A hello would be nice.”
“I told the dude on the phone hello.”
“That’s a work phone.”
“Was he paying to hear you sleep?”
She took the towel from me and wrapped herself in it, sat back on her heels. “He said it relaxes him. You should try it; it’s the cure for what ails you.”
“That’s not how I relax.”
She went into the bedroom and put on yoga pants and a sports shirt. We looked like two mid-thirties women about to go jogging around a lake or something. I’d never been much into jogging. All that effort with no payoff. The thing about fighting was the release. Afterward Cat and I always fucked. By the time I brewed coffee for Dan in the morning, I’d returned to my role as a good wife and mother of two darling girls, Sid and Fig, ages two and four. Sid obsessed with mermaids, Fig a budding veterinarian. The lights of my life, as long as my life included nights at Cat’s house.
We called it Fight Club for Moms.
We called it Survival Training.
We called it Game Night.
We called it Therapy.
We called it Damage Control because, although we didn’t have statistics, we were sure that these meetings made us kinder to our husbands and children. When you see some woman at the co-op with a baby strapped to her chest, gently reminding her toddler that screaming is not a choice, and you think she is the picture of calm and peaceful motherhood, check her arms for bruises. She’s probably one of us.
From the bedroom, I heard the front door open, and a voice call, “Anybody home?”
“Megan’s here,” I said. “Show time.”
Megan sauntered into the bathroom, knee and elbow pads strapped into position, halter top duct-taped in place.
“You fighting tonight, Cat?”
“When’s the last time I said no?”
“How about you, Lanie?”
“Ready for more.”
“That’s what Cat tells me.” Megan slapped my ass.
“Still trying to convince Johnny she walked into a door.”
We called it Girl Time.
We called it Time Out.
Cat’s clients called her slow voice sleep. I thought of Cat’s fist balled up to strike, then coiled tighter until it opened inside me. We didn’t call it love, just violence. Nothing I needed to fess up to Dan. He’d say sex with a girl didn’t count. He’d say What’s for dinner and Where’s the remote?
Cat opened a beer and tossed me her car keys. I covered my sports bra with a fake fur coat. My mom would say Don’t leave the house like that, Lanie.
Now I was the mom and I left all the time.
We fought in an abandoned concrete factory on the edge of town, train tracks competing for a view of the bay. In fading light I recognized Bruiser’s van. Megan took off around the back of the factory. We could’ve pried open the front door, but everyone used a broken window instead.
Cat jumped off the dusty sill, then reached a hand to pull me over. Together we raced toward voices and light. Our fights took place in the storeroom, illegally rigged for electricity courtesy of Bayview Electric. Beyond us, women pressed against a stage cordoned off with rope. We couldn’t see who was in the ring, but the noise told us the fighting was ugly.
Megan and Bruiser stood kissing by the beer cooler, legs intertwined. Bruiser’s real name was Tiffany Williams. She worked part-time as a dental hygienist.
“Does it bother Bruiser to see teeth knocked out?”
“Does it bother you?”
“Someone could die.”
Cat shrugged. “If someone goes down, she deserves to go down. We brought her here because of what she did.”
“What if she’s sorry?”
“Just because she got punched?”
Cat was right. Sorry didn’t mean the same thing when you were punched in the face as it did when you were reading a letter. And they always got a letter first. A letter, a phone call, and a meeting in person.
The buzzer sounded. Our girl Janine swaggered out of the ring, arms raised, bleeding from the mouth. The room erupted while the other girl stumbled, fell to her knees, and clung to the rope.
Sometimes someone took care of the ones who fell, but sometimes we just let them bleed. The referee dragged the girl out of the ring and dropped her on a chair by the cooler.
Janine cracked a beer and wiped her bloody mouth on her bicep.
Later the girl would crawl to her car. Drive halfway home, catch a cab to the hospital. She’d describe the accident exactly as scripted. The script was simple. The script was key.
“What if someone tells the truth?”
Cat had been fighting much longer than me. “She fights again, but not in the ring. When she least expects it. And no referee.”
Sometimes they had to be coaxed or dragged. Sometimes they cried and curled up in a corner. The best fighters were raging mad, too angry and arrogant to believe they might lose.
The loudspeaker crackled. “Next match coming up. Home court advantage: Megan!”
We cheered until our throats went raw.
“Tonight’s opponent comes to us from Ferndale. Please welcome Cindi!”
The lights flickered and the back door opened. Time for someone to walk in blind. Misled thinking it was a bridal shower for a friend of a friend of a very bad friend.
A tall blonde woman strode into the room like she was expecting a party. Her heels ricocheted against the concrete floor. She stopped dead in front of the ring. “Billy? Billy, is this a joke?”
She scanned the room, pacing. It was the only sound and it echoed strangely. We watched while Cindi lost her cool, while the referee dragged her into the ring.
The panicky moments were always Cat’s favorite. “Like hunting,” she said, “but I don’t even eat meat.”
“Where am I?” Cindi veered off balance, dizzy. Dropped her pocketbook. A lipstick rolled between the ropes. Megan stared and flexed and waited for Cindi’s heels to come off. No shoes, no jewelry. No scarves up our sleeves.
The referee pushed Cindi toward the center of the ring. Megan jogged in place, punching at nothing.
“You?” Cindi shook her head. “You’re Andrew’s mom. You wrote that letter.”
“Your kid’s a bully.”
“Your kid’s a sissy.”
“My kid tried to hang himself from a tree out back. Thank god the branch broke. But your kid pushed him to it.”
Cindi brushed her hair over her shoulder. “Maybe if your kid had a father he’d know how to take a joke.”
Megan ran at her. Cindi flailed, slapping and snarling like she’d bite.
Megan locked her wrists around Cindi’s neck, pulled her head into her chest, and kneed her in the chin so hard we heard the snap.
“One!” yelled the ref.
We counted out loud.
Cindi pounded the mat.
We called it a tap out.
Back home Sid and Fig were sleeping, dreaming of fish with teeth, dreaming of animals chasing each other in circles around a room lit by burning ropes.
They’d never know why, or what I’d done to protect them.
Bruiser picked Megan up and twirled her around.
“Your turn,” Cat whispered, wrapping me in her blackbird arms.
“I’m ready,” I said, and stepped into the ring.
Carol Guess is the author of thirteen books of poetry and prose, including Doll Studies: Forensics and Darling Endangered. She is Professor of English at Western Washington University. Follow her here: www.carolguess.blogspot.com
Kelly Magee’s first collection of stories, Body Language (University of North Texas Press), won the Katherine Ann Porter Prize for Short Fiction. Her writing has appeared in The Kenyon Review, The Tampa Review, Diagram, Ninth Letter, Black Warrior Review, Colorado Review, and others. She is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Western Washington University.