FROM SELF-DEFENSE CLASS TO MONTHLY BOOK CLUB, TWO WOMEN FORM A BOND THAT TRAVERSES DIFFERENT SOCIAL SPHERES.
The raviolis were enormous, their bulges gestational. Angie wanted to make a joke about them, but as far as she could tell, glancing around the living room at the other women, she was alone in her observation. Even Wallace was straight-faced, stuffing bites into her mouth. This evening they were at Wallace’s Stanford friend Chloe’s house. The hostess chooses the book, and Chloe had chosen an Elena Ferrante novel, The Days of Abandonment: hence the Italian-themed ravioli.
These private school mothers got so competitive about the food. Sunny, the last one to host, made Korean sushi from scratch. Tonight, woman after woman had arrived bearing extravagant desserts. One brought a chocolate flourless cake from Tartine, the expensive bakery in the Mission where lines always snake down the block.
“Do you have a gravy boat?” It was the kind of book club where people posed such questions. In other words, it was way too fancy for Angie, who, on her copyeditor’s salary would never blow $65 on a gluten-free cake.
Angie found many of the women annoying, particularly Meredith, the pregnant one, who, upon arrival, said, “I confess, I didn’t make it past page 40. But I wanted to see all of you!” laughed as though she’d said something clever, and popped melon wrapped in prosciutto into her mouth.
``Do you have a gravy boat?``
But Wallace she liked. Wallace, who was six feet tall and—unlike the rest of these women, who presented their lavish desserts and ate only a spoonful—had heft to her. Angie had met her in the self-defense class she’d started taking a few months back. It wasn’t a one-time, learn how to go-for-the-groin-then-run kind of class. She attended three evenings a week. One class they might practice defending against an attacker with a knife; the next class, an attacker with a bat; the next class, an attacker with a pistol. Their instructor, Kane, even took them out to his car once to practice going up against an attacker who pops up unexpectedly from the back seat.
When it was Wallace’s turn, even though she’d witnessed Kane pop up behind five women prior to her, she froze in place; her long, freckled hands clutched the steering wheel. She emerged from the front seat sweaty and shaking.
Angie had been intrigued by Wallace for weeks. She was so attentive, mirroring Kane’s self-defense moves as he demonstrated them, planting her feet, making T-crosses with her braced arms. And tough. Whenever they were paired together, Angie always went home with painful bruises, which Kane applauded. The techniques they were learning would be useless in real life if they were afraid of physical combat.
That night in the parking lot was the first time Angie saw Wallace rattled. It emboldened Angie to ask, afterwards, if Wallace wanted to get a quick drink.
As was typical for their book club, nearly an hour ticked by before any real discussion began. Chloe started by reading a short passage, the scene in which the protagonist is trying to have sex with her musician neighbor, who can’t get it up.
Sunny said after, “I’m just going to say it. This book disgusted me. The language is so vulgar. And the sex is just vile.”
Meredith said, “Damn. I stopped reading too soon!” and laughed again. Most of the other women laughed with her.
As the sun set, Chloe got up and lit several brown pillar candles, but Meredith said, “No offense, that scent is turning my stomach. You know how it goes. They make their demands before they’re even born.” She rubbed her hard belly and smiled.
This was Meredith’s fourth child, and all three of the others attended the same expensive private school as Wallace’s and the other women’s kids. Angie had looked the school up online, and when she saw the tuition, she was surprised by her anger. Meredith’s kids had made an appearance at the first book club Angie attended, the one Meredith hosted. The oldest one, a girl of about thirteen, took the wine bottle from Angie’s hands and said, sarcastically, “What a cute label.” In contrast, when Angie woke too depressed to get out of bed, much less make breakfast, her daughter, Alice, eight, made breakfast for herself and Angie both—strange concoctions like last weekend’s “salad” of yogurt, grapes, and spinach.
“I thought I was going to have a fucking heart attack,” Wallace said that night after the intruder in the car exercise, swirling her glass of straight-up rye.
Angie wondered. That class had been less traumatic than most, almost silly. Kane startled the way a jack-in-a-box does, cranked and then bursting through its lid. When it was her turn in the front seat, Angie fought the urge to giggle. (The night they practiced fending off an attacker with a knife, Angie had to drink two scotches to go to bed, and even then, stared at the ceiling, on high alert, hearing noises everywhere. That night she had crossed her battered arms over her chest in the way Kane demonstrated as safest for taking cuts: no arteries exposed). Angie wanted to ask what freaked Wallace out—what had “triggered” her, to use that awful group-therapy word. But she suppressed the question. Any woman motivated to learn self-defense three evenings a week, ninety minutes a session, had her reasons, and unless Wallace was a spiller, like Angie’s sniffly sister Lynette, she probably didn’t feel like sharing them.
``Any woman motivated to learn self-defense three evenings a week, ninety minutes a session, had her reasons. . .``
Chloe blew out the candles: the yellow spots of their reflection disappeared from the eighteen-foot glass pocket door behind her. When Angie had arrived, Chloe demonstrated how the door slid all the way into the wall. They’d stood on her redwood deck, admiring Chloe’s succulents. One flower bed was full of herbs, labels indicating mint, parsley, French thyme, Italian thyme. Chloe snipped stalks of basil for her tomato and mozzarella salad. The hot tub, also redwood, was sheathed by silver vinyl. Chloe was friendly—not a bossy narcissist like Meredith—but nonetheless Angie had wanted to snatch her kitchen shears and puncture that vinyl covering. Stab, stab, stab, like Kane with his plastic knife.
Sometimes Angie fantasized about which book she would assign the club, should she ever host: something post-Apocalyptic and violent, where the capitalists are rounded up and cower, wringing their hands.
Wallace said now what Angie had privately thought. “To me, it seemed true to life.”
“Which part?” Chloe asked.
“All of it,” Wallace said. “Her husband cheating on her with a much younger woman. His abandoning her for the much younger woman. Her anger. Her fear. Her paranoia. The grim sex, too.”
A couple of the women, including Meredith, looked at Wallace with pity.
Meredith said, “I felt embarrassed for her. I mean, pick yourself back up and move on.”
Angie spoke then. “What do you know about that?”
Meredith shifted uncomfortably. Her hand went to her belly again, like checking a pocket to make sure what was deposited there hadn’t been lost.
Angie said, “I thought you said you didn’t read it.”
Meredith cleared her throat. “I read enough.”
When Wallace had invited her to the book club, Angie had initially declined.
They’d been having a drink again after class. A new woman had come to that night’s class, and when she’d been paired with Wallace during an exercise, she’d asked Wallace to “go easy” on her. The woman had been wearing expensive-looking yoga pants and a burgundy velvet leotard. Wallace had not gone easy on her. The woman screamed when Wallace struck her in the forearm with the hard edge of her hand. When she complained that she was going to have bruises, Wallace laughed at her, and Kane, who normally preached that they needed to face their worst fears, took the leotard-woman gently by the arm and told her that perhaps the Saturday morning class would be more her pace.
When Angie had said, “I’d feel like a party crasher,” Wallace ignored her, too. She’d written down the month’s title and the hostess’s address, put her hand on Angie’s and said, “One tip: cover your bruises. Those bitches are not going to understand.”
Now, Angie pulled at the cuffs of her long-sleeved shirt, studying Meredith. Narrowing one’s eyes, Kane told them once, improves focus. He wanted to equip them not merely to fend off blows, but to spot the attack coming in advance. “Forewarned is forearmed,” he’d said, as if he’d invented the phrase.
Meredith’s face—pretty but squashed, with bulbous, light blue eyes—reminded Angie of the Himalayan cat Jim had bought her as a wedding present. She used to comb its silky fur with a special brush.
From the therapy sessions she’d done at the university, discounted because conducted by a PhD student fulfilling her required hours to get her license, and from the PTSD recovery group she’d attended before switching to self-defense, Angie knew this truth: part of the reason she disliked Meredith was because she reminded Angie of her former self. Smug, presenting her failings (not having read the month’s book pick) as if they were charming, Meredith imagined herself to be safe. Angie wanted to get in Meredith’s face the way Kane sometimes did in class, and snarl, “Prepare yourself.” She wanted to present her forearms to Meredith, and watch her eyes widen as she read all they had to say.
Michelle Ross is the author of There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You (2017), which won the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. Her fiction has recently appeared in Hobart, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, Superstition Review, Threadcount, TriQuarterly, and other venues. She is the fiction editor of Atticus Review and lives in Tucson, Arizona.
Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her short story collection Undoing won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award and is forthcoming in 2018. Her novel The Light Source is forthcoming from 7.13 Books. Her fiction has been published in Bird’s Thumb, Cleaver, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, New World Writing, Sixfold, Word Riot, and many other journals.
Elizabeth Dejure Wood is an illustrator and artist living in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.