Women were being raped in your inner ring suburb of Cleveland, where you and your husband had purchased your first home. It was a long time ago, 1981 or 1982; you were in your late twenties.
Your parents always seemed nervous when they visited, even before the rapes. Your mom seldom sat down. She went from window to window, twisting the rods to shut the blinds. But you loved everything about your neighborhood: the old houses, the older trees, the retail strip mere steps from your front door.
Someone organized a self-defense session with the Rape Crisis Center. You avoided evening classes, because they reminded you of graduate school, when starting classes at 4 p.m. four days each week disturbed your sleep cycle. But you decided you should probably go, just in case. One warm spring evening, or maybe it was fall, you met some friends at the corner and walked a block to the elementary school gym.
First, the group leader, a short, solid woman, showed you how to hold your keys between your fingers so you could use them as a weapon. Next, she asked someone to hold a board for her and she broke it with the side of her hand. Your stomach clenched when she said each of you would do the same. “You’re stronger than you think,” she said, as though she’d read your mind.
One by one, each woman stood in the middle of a circle, cheered on by the others, and broke a board. The first time you tried, nothing happened, and it reminded you of all your years of failures in gym class, but then the leader said, “Imagine you are being grabbed from behind and pulled into an alley.” You slammed that board and broke it in two.
One woman, older than the rest of you, said she had two teenage daughters. She stared at her board and said, “I don’t think I can get that angry.” She didn’t even try. Quietly, she moved back into the circle of women. After everyone else had finished, the leader walked up to her and held out a board. “Do it for your daughters!” someone chanted, and everyone joined in. The woman gave it a couple of tries, but could not break the board. She turned away and hurried out of the gym.
The unspoken truth was that you didn’t know whether you’d be able to get angry enough in real time. You didn’t even know if anger was what you’d need in order to defend yourself. You were quiet as you gathered your belongings and walked home with your friends.
You placed the two halves of your board on top of a row of books in the leaded glass bookcase by the fireplace. You could see them when you sat on the couch. After you moved to another house, you tucked them into a trunk you used as a coffee table. When you moved again, you repacked the trunk, and wrapped your boards in an old quilt, before placing the bundle in the bottom of the trunk.
When your daughter was pregnant with her daughter, you remembered you had stored a few of her baby outfits in that trunk, and thought maybe you would pass them on. You lifted the heavy lid and peered in. As you rummaged through its contents, looking for the tiny flannel shirt and the matching corduroy pants, you felt the hardness of the boards beneath their soft wrapping.
Over time, you’ve thought about that woman at the self-defense class, the one who walked away. You’ve wondered how she and her two daughters, now adults, maybe with daughters of their own, are doing.
You’ve never had to use the skills you learned that night in the elementary school gym, so you still don’t know if you could defend yourself. But you sometimes carry your keys between your fingers, feeling their weight and the roughness of their edges.
You think of the last time you held those boards. You lined up the two halves. You traced the thin line that marks both the place where they were broken, and the evidence that they can still be put back together.
You remember going through your mom’s possessions after she died, trying to make sense of what to keep and what to discard or donate. Who will find your broken board, the one you carry with you each time you move? How does it fit in the story of your life? Maybe you should leave a note.
Just in case.
Melissa Ballard has written essays for Belt, Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, Under the Sun and other publications. You can read more of her work here.