Break

Chantal pushed up from the padded gym floor and sucked deeply against her mouth guard. She ran her tongue against the front of it. The plastic device was smooth, but bulky. It pushed on her upper lip and forced it into a pout. No you can’t pout with your top lip. This was an overbite. Chantal sucked at it again, swallowing the excess saliva it was so great at provoking.

I am never going to get used to wearing this thing… any of this stuff.

Chantal tilted her head back and rolled, shoulder to shoulder. The helmet wasn’t heavy, but the extra weight was enough that she could feel the shift in balance. The thick foam pads squashed her cheeks and turned her into a puffed up, sweaty mess. Chantal shook out her gloved hands and thickly padded shins and feet, took a deep breath, and steadied herself. She raised her gloves to head height, one slightly in front of the other, and looked toward her opponent. He was watching her, hands always at the ready, his stance steady. Getting used to the gear was hardly her biggest worry.

Chantal gave a short nod. Her muscles tensed.

Devon moved in. He closed the gap and struck, one fiery punch after the next. Chantal barely managed to block the first few, but she quickly recovered and was soon moving in a familiar rhythm, blocking and ducking and shifting away from danger. And that was a problem. As long as Chantal didn’t counter, didn’t land any blows of her own, Devon had the advantage. All he had to do was keep coming, keep moving with her, and eventually her guard would falter, eventually he would find ribs or stomach or one of a thousand other soft spots the body housed. And when he did, Chantal would find the floor. Again.

It happened quickly this time. Chantal misstepped, putting herself off balance. Devon saw it the moment it happened. He swept low, aiming his kick at Chantal’s faltering foot. Her leg buckled, and there was nothing she could do but tuck into the fall and brace for impact. Chantal’s forearm hit the ground first, swiftly followed by the rest of her. The contact reverberated through her bones.

“Bleh!”

Chantal rolled over onto her back and stared at the ceiling. Devon stood in the blurry periphery of her view. A giant from where she lay. A testosterone filled, muscly giant who had no issues with hitting anybody. It wasn’t fair. Why couldn’t she hit anybody? Why couldn’t she hit him?

“Do you need a break?”

Chantal shook her head. No. She didn’t need a break. She needed to break. That was the whole damn point of this exercise. They had tried the gentle approach. They had tried to ease into it, but that hadn’t worked. Chantal had learned the techniques: how to move, how to block, how to punch. But she still couldn’t hit people. Every time it came to actually striking another living, breathing human being, Chantal faltered. She seized up and held back. That’s why they were doing this. If Devon pushed her, she would push back. That was theory.

In practice, it wasn’t working.

Chantal let her frustration out in a low growl. She should want to hurt Devon, but the only aggression she felt was to herself. Why could she not break past this barrier? Had generations of patriarchal rule lodged so firmly in her mind that nothing could shake it? She was a feminist. She didn’t believe all that bullshit about women being passive and soft and needing men for protection. Hell, women needed protection from men. That was why she was here. That was why she had picked up that martial arts flier and called the number. She had had enough of girls’ night being interrupted by over entitle- jerks. Enough of smiling at them for fear that outright rejection would make them aggressive.

And then there was that Tinder date… why had she ever thought to go on a Tinder date?

Men were horrible. In so many different ways, and yet, there was this wall telling her that hitting someone was wrong, regardless of what that person was doing to her.

Turn the other cheek.

That was her church upbringing talking, but the church wouldn’t serve her here. It was as entangled with the patriarchy as any other institution. Chantal didn’t need the church. She needed a new God.

“Oh praise be to the feminine power,” she muttered under her breath.

“What was that?”

Chantal stood up and settled into her fighting stance, “I said, fuck the patriarchy.”

“That’s the spirit!”

Chantal didn’t wait for Devon to attack. She stepped in, feinted and landed a low jab to his side. The punch wasn’t hard, and she had hesitated slightly before impact, but it was a start.

Devon laughed as he countered her cross.

“Better!”

And then they were caught up in the dance once more. Devon pushed faster and Chantal kept up, this time adding her own attacks through the onslaught. Chantal lost herself to the rhythm. Lost herself to the idea that Devon would block any punch she threw at him. Her mind switched to autopilot and in one swift motion, she swept Devon’s attack aside and countered with a punch to the gut.

Devon’s stomach folded in as air rushed from his lungs. Chantal froze. She stared, wide eyed, as the “oomph” left Devon’s lips. Her mind screamed at her.

What have I done?

The punch came from nowhere. Chantal felt it like a distant echo in her ear, and she staggered back. Her brain fogged over, and she forgot to keep her guard up, forgot, for a moment what she was supposed to be doing. Devon came in fast, three shots to the abdomen and then a sneaky sweep that knocked her off her feet and back down to the floor once more.

Chantal blinked back the shock.

“Why did you stop?”

“What?”

“Why did you stop? That was good. But if you want to land my ass on the floor you can’t hes-”

Chantal lunged toward Devon’s ankle. She had his toes, for just a brief moment, and then he bounced out of harm’s way. He was smiling when Chantal got to her feet. She wasn’t. His last attack had been sneaky, low. It had quivered through her body and snagged against something important. Somewhere in the aftershock a part of her had come undone. Before, it had just been training. It had just been Devon doing his job, but the punch felt dirty. Chantal raised her gloves and began to circle. Devon mirrored her actions. He was grinning like an idiot. Chantal wanted to wipe that smirk off of his stupid, dirty face. She moved in.

“Yes! Playtime!” Devon cheered.

Chantal narrowed her eyes at him. “No,” she said. “Playtime is over.”

The blows came thick and fast. Each grunt a promise of the bruise to come. Chantal found her moment. She struck. Devon’s excited “Whoop!” echoed through the room as his body crashed to the floor.

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