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Self Defense for Girls photo

Sarah squeezed into a bathroom stall with Ralph. Outside her boyfriend sat at the bar, nursing yet another domestic beer.

Ralph was suspicious, rightly so. “How do I know you won’t call the cops?”

“Because I won’t,” Sarah said. “It was my idea.”

“What if I really hurt you?”

She scanned his physique. Ralph was shorter than her; that was part of the reason she’d chosen him. He didn’t seem like he could do her any real damage—compact little man. And yet, she noticed now that his upper arms filled out the short sleeves of his black t-shirt; his shoulders stretched wider than his hips, suggesting perhaps a man who pressed or benched, whatever it was that men did with weights.

“Don’t try to hurt me,” she said.

“Then what should I do? Fake it?”

She hesitated, shook her head. “No. It has to be real. He has to hear it.”

“Which one is he again? The baseball cap?”


“And he won’t do nothing fucked up, like shoot me?”

“No.” Sarah looked down at the tile. It was flecked with yellow, where people had missed. 

“I don’t know, baby. This sounds screwy. What would you think if you were me?”

“I could pay more,” she said. “One hundred, even.”

Ralph made a face like the smell of the toilets was getting to him, then shrugged. “What the hell.”

“Thank you.” She hadn’t realized she’d been holding her breath until, in a rush, she let it out.


Back at the bar, Sarah settled in next to her boyfriend Paul. If he noticed she’d been gone a little while, he didn’t seem concerned. A few minutes later, Ralph rejoined his buddies at the dartboard, where he’d been when Sarah first noticed him, before she’d tracked him on his way to the restroom. She wondered if he ever wound up peeing. One of his friends asked a question muffled by the bar music, and the other laughed loudly.

Sarah smiled at Paul. “’Nother?”

“You having another?”

“Oh yes.”

“Two more, please.” The bartender set down Paul’s beer next to Sarah’s neat bourbon. Sarah drank quickly and watched the back of Ralph’s smooth head as he took aim.

“What’s wrong?” Paul asked, a protective hand snaking around her back.

“Oh,” She spun her stool towards Paul. “That guy is looking at me.”

“Which one? With the shaved head?”

“Mm-hmm.” She focused on Paul, his sharp, fine features made even more boyish by his faded cap. She knew he wouldn’t get angry. Paul didn’t get angry. Paul was kind.

As if on cue, Paul winked. “I’ve got the hottest girl in the bar, that’s why.”

Normally, his dearisms would make Sarah want to brush her lips against his neck; they still did, a little. It was fine to react to vague threats with composure. It was Paul’s way. That was part of what made her love him—his outer calm in the face of her inner chaos. He was sturdy as an old kitchen table. She considered taking his arm and dragging him from the bar, before anything could play out.

But that was why she was out a hundred dollars, that was the whole point: she wanted to see what would happen if the threat went from vague to real. She swallowed the last of the bourbon.

“In your dreams,” she called over Paul’s shoulder.

Ralph’s friends reacted with amused chagrin, but Ralph’s own jaw was set. Sarah feared he’d cop out.

“I’m way out of your league,” she added, signaling the bartender.

“Sarah,” Paul, ever cautious, braced her hand against her back.

“I think you’ve had enough to drink, lady,” Ralph said. His friends pretended to try to hide their laughter behind closed fists.

“Excuse me?” Sarah summoned her city voice: the voice of indignation at subway gropers, the voice of someone who’d been cut in line, or had their cab snatched by another commuter. She had let that voice lie dormant in the south; Paul was always telling her, half joking, that it could get her shot. Hearing it made her feel tall, twice Ralph’s height. “You think what?”

“Switch to a Shirley Temple, sweetheart.”

Good—a sarcastic term of endearment. Honey, baby, sweetheart—the first encroachment, the first real threat. Sarah’s heart pounded.

“Why don’t you switch to this?” Sarah called to Ralph, flashing him a choice finger.

“Sarah.” Paul’s voice went urgent, stern. A shocked and disappointed dad. He grabbed her finger and lowered her hand. “You’re drunk.”

I’m drunk? Do you hear this guy?”

“Come on.” Paul got up from his stool and took her hand to lead her away, like an unruly poodle. “Let’s go.”

“Control your girl, man,” Ralph said.

Paul turned. “I’m sorry,” he said, “she’s had a little too much.”

He was sorry? He was sorry? Crying had not been part of Sarah’s plan. She pushed back tears, back with any anxiety and lingering doubt.

“Shut up, shithead.” Her voice came out strangled. “Go back and play with your boyfriends.”

“Sarah!” Paul grabbed her arm but wasn’t quick or decisive enough to hold on as Sarah lunged towards Ralph. He crossed the room to meet her, his eyes hard, but not hateful. Maybe more than a little bit sad.

“Bitch,” he said loudly, followed by a long, almost tender pause, “what’s your problem?”

“You’re my problem,” Sarah said, and spat, just like they’d planned. She missed Ralph’s face, got his sleeve. She threw herself into his arms. Ralph shoved her away, rough, and she threw herself at him again, her limbs flailing in unpracticed, impotent arcs.           

Ralph cupped his hand, began to raise it as if asking a question in school, then brought it around to Sarah’s face, connecting. Just as they’d discussed.

Like the second after skin hits the sidewalk. Like the second after saying something you can’t take back—the drop in the stomach and the grip on the heart. Like the second after missing the step, feeling the fall is longer than it should be.

Sarah gripped her cheek: a reflex. The next hand she felt lain on her was Paul’s.

“Jesus, are you okay?” Only after she’d assured him, hopes shot, that she was fine, did he turn towards Ralph. “What was that, Sarah?” he asked, the disappointed dad. I’m not angry, he might as well have added, just disappointed. He wasn’t alone.


It was unclear how Ralph had gotten her number; when she asked, he said I have my ways.

“I know it’s fucked up,” he said, “but I can’t stop thinking about you. You got balls, what you did. Brave. I can’t believe your man didn’t defend you. You want a real man—”


They met at another bar, a different bar, far from Paul. This time, Ralph put his hands on her sooner. Not as rough this time—neck, shoulder, waist, thigh—but this sting felt worse than a slap. It was a touch that lingered, but left no mark.

Ralph leaned towards Sarah, his thumb on her lower lip. “You tell me, baby—what do you want?" He asked like he already knew her answer.

Heel of his hand on the back of her neck, he pulls Sarah towards him. When her hand connects with his face, his eyes are still half closed.

image: Aaron Burch