by Kathleen Harris
I’ve never punched anyone in my life. Nor have I slapped anyone. I don’t believe in spanking children. I’ve defended myself with a quick mind and a sharp tongue. My family moved out of Queens before I reached the requisite age of teenage girl hair-pulling fights on the Q29 Express bus. I’ve almost never had to use my hands to get out of trouble.
Just once, actually. Twenty years ago, I’d been fêted by colleagues with drinks on the last day of my job. A lot of drinks. Lost-count-of-how-many-drinks kind-of drinks, at the kind of goodbye party where your colleagues are no longer your colleagues, and feel comfortable telling you the dirtiest details of their lives, now that everyone’s guard is down and you’re a few bottles into the evening.
By fête’s end, it was just my newly-ex-boss and me, sitting on padded stools in a bar in Chelsea. We’d just ordered another God-awful round of drinks. He had a drinking problem. I knew that from Monday morning meetings. I just didn’t know how bad his drinking problem actually was.
I lit a cigarette and waited for our order. He looked at me, and asked why I was leaving him, in a mock-sad voice with a pouty face. I smirked. What the hell was he talking about? I had explained all of this when I resigned. My husband had a job opportunity in San Francisco. I had to go with him. There was a ring on my finger. I loved the man.
He stared at me. He repeated himself, this time in a colder, more serious tone. Why are you leaving me? And then he slapped me across the face. Hard.
I was stunned. Literally stunned, as every person in the bar moved before me in psychotic slow-motion ballet. I’d been hit across the face. A man hit me. That had never happened before. That had just happened. The mind registers such events out of sequence.
I turned back to him, my face frozen in the open-mouthed position it had assumed when his palm struck my cheek. He was sneering at me, and he actually raised his hand to me again. He actually had it held up in the air to strike me a second time.
I caught his wrist with my left hand as it came down — my good hand. The one still holding the cigarette. High school softball drills surfaced to defend me. I held his wrist between my thumb and first two fingers in a vice-like grip that I didn’t know I was capable of. I felt surges of blood pulsing in the veins between his weak wrist bones. Maybe it was from my own fingertips. I couldn’t tell. My heart was erupting out of my blouse.
I held his arm on the bar. I didn’t cry from the sting. The alcohol must have numbed the pain somewhat. Instead, I told him, quietly and plainly, that if he ever did anything like that again, to me or any other woman, I’d leave a cigarette burn so deep in his hand that he’d never forget me. Ever. I’d do it right then and there if he thought he couldn’t keep that promise. I stared at him until I watched tears form in his eyes. I was bluffing. But I had to seem as if I meant every word. I had to make him stop.
Our drinks arrived just then. Somehow, the bartender had missed the slap. I let his arm go, walked out of the bar, propelled by a tsunami of adrenaline, and hailed a cab.
About the author
Kathleen Harris is a writer, native New Yorker, wife and mother living in northern New Jersey with her husband and two children. Some of her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Creative Nonfiction, The Rumpus, Full Grown People, Huffington Post, McSweeney’s, Literary Mama, and Family Fun Magazine. I’ve also been named as a Glimmer Train Press short story finalist, and as a three-time finalist at the Woodstock Writers’ Festival Story Slam.