Image Credit: Jaclyn Robyn
Men swagger from one weight machine to the next. They cloud the air with sweat and testosterone as they flex their biceps, lumpy as nylon stockings stuffed with socks. Raspy, rhythmic huffing marks their reps as they dominate the iron.
I settle my feet onto the plate of the leg press machine, slip the pin into the stack, squeeze the hand-holds and slowly raise 80 pounds a few inches. Next to these I’m a light-weight. But I’m not here to impress anyone. I’m here because once, a long time ago, I fought off a rapist.
Back when Patti Hearst was still Tania and I was a tomboy in a mini-skirt riding her ten-speed bike all over campus, a 150-pound man straddled me and pinned my arms to a bed covered by a hand-stitched quilt. Instinct, from a childhood of rough-housing with my brothers, kicked in. I pulled my right knee up between our chests, extended my leg and stood both of us up on our feet. With what was left of my adrenaline surge I shoved him out the open door of my one room apartment.
I can allow myself to think of it now because the voices of women calling out rape culture finally convinced me I wasn’t just a careless girl with a lot to learn. I can see the look of amazement in his eyes to find us on our feet facing each other in my barely furnished room next to my desk piled with textbooks, his fists gripping my wrists, his breath coming fast and heat radiating from his chest.
With his weight off me I twisted my arms loose and shoved until he was out the door. I can see the glare from the bare bulb in the hallway just before he reached back in, his fingers extended like a drowning man grasping for a rope. His wrist protruded from the elastic cuff of his light blue jacket like he was wearing an out-grown coat, the sleeves too short.
I braced my feet on the scuffed wooden floor, threw my hip and shoulder against the door and trapped his arm just below the elbow. That’s gotta hurt, I thought just before I let up, grabbed his hand, pushed it out and shut the door. The automatic deadbolt clicked into place. Embarrassed I’d let him in my room, I didn’t tell anyone.
I thought I provoked the attack by necking with a guy I met in a bar and letting him walk me home. Even after four decades I still believed I was in control that night, and even if I wasn’t asking for it, I’d made a dumb choice. Maybe I wasn’t to blame but, after all, I was responsible for my actions. No wonder I never felt safe telling my story. I still felt complicit in his violence.
Until early one morning in the fall of 2018 I read the black and white closed captions on the screen on the wall of the gym locker room.
“ . . . I was too afraid and ashamed to tell anyone the details . . . I tried to convince myself that because Brett did not rape me, I should be able to move on and just pretend that it had never happened. “
I turned away from the TV, crossed to the counter in front of the mirrors and set down my make-up bag with shaky hands. Sweat prickled my underarms, even though I had just showered. Twin currents shot from my wrists, up my arms, into my chest and ended in an ache behind my eyes.
The woman next to me, her wet hair wrapped in a blue towel, a white terry cloth robe cinched around her waist, smiled at my reflection.
“Did you have a good work out this morning, Victoria?”
There, in the locker room, in the peaceful company of bare breasts and naked thighs, the words I’d silently practiced for years flowed out simple and swift.
“You see that?” I said, looking back at the TV, “A guy attacked me in college and out of nowhere I got hella strong, you know, that adrenaline thing that happens. I lifted him off me and shoved him out the door.”
The rush of hairdryer static went still. The hiss of water from the tap fell silent. I could feel my heartbeat in my ears. The hot bell of a flat-iron rang.
Was she going to ask me, “What were you wearing? Had you been drinking? Did you know this guy?”
“Good for you,” she said.
I never imagined telling my two-sentence story would be so liberating. I work out to stay strong, not out of fear of men’s bodies, but out of love for the body that passionately defended me all those years ago. If I were attacked again I trust myself to fight back as hard as I did the first time.
At the end of a long set of bicep curls, in the moment I finally set down the weights, my empty hands hold the memory of the iron, my breath fills my chest, my arms flex like wings and I feel so light I swear I could fly.