How I Learned to Fight


At the Jackson Arms shooting range in South San Francisco, we were issued earmuffs so tight I felt the beginnings of a headache forming immediately. Despite this, they did very little to drown out the loud. When the men in the next stall fired a shotgun, I felt it in waves throughout my whole body. My heart beat prematurely, trying to steel my insides from the deafening noise. The men were jovial, short, dark-skinned, with pockmarked faces. When they reeled the target back in, which was a picture of a woman being mugged at gunpoint, I noticed a hole right between her eyes. I pointed to her terrified face. I poked my finger through the hole made into what would have been her brain, and the men looked at each other, then at me. “That was him!” one of them said. Then they both started laughing.

I used to get in fights regularly when I was younger. I learned in elementary school that being tormented either made you shut down completely or become cruel. I chose the latter. I wish I could say I only picked on boys who provoked me, but that wasn’t true. One of them, Donald, ended up getting held back a grade. They said he was mentally disturbed. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but his absence hit me years later and I wished to god I knew what became of him.

Another boy, Brad, rubbed pickle juice on the slide right before I went down it. I chased him down, and we got into it pretty good. I bloodied his nose and he kicked me in the crotch so hard I thought I wouldn’t be able to sit right again. I never got in trouble for fighting with boys though. They were probably too embarrassed to admit losing to a girl to turn me in to the principal, who loved me and wouldn’t have believed them anyway. I remember riding in his car to the Jr. High spelling bee—I was the only 5th grader to qualify for the competition, so Eric drove me instead of ordering a bus. He was lean and handsome, with wispy black hair and Jesus eyes. He was one of the few people whose eyes matched his kindness. I don’t even remember his last name. Possibly because we were all obsessed with The Little Mermaid, and Prince Eric quickly morphed into Principal Eric. He drove a 1970s pinto, just like the one my dad had, and I remember being appalled at how dirty it was. Papers strewn everywhere, Cheetos bags, bits of detritus I couldn’t identify. I expected people of authority to have their lives more together.

Fifth grade was also the year I became a pacifist. It was after watching a horrifically cheesy movie from the early 90s, Airborne. The main character is a surfer/roller blader who refuses to fight the hockey jocks who pick on him. I watched that movie so many times, in my mom’s apartment by the Yaqui reservation, taking intermittent breaks to roller blade around the smooth sidewalks that crisscrossed the apartment complex. After my mom had a brain aneurism and moved back in with my step-dad, Airborne got lost in the shuffle, and I never knew what happened to it. But it didn’t matter because I had internalized its message. I would never get in another fight again.

Kids continued to pick on me. They’d knock off my too-big UofA Wildcats baseball cap, and I would just smile, pick it up, and put it back on my head. One time, two girls chased after me. At first I thought maybe they were flirting, but that proved pretty quickly not to be the case. They yelled out to Arthur, the resident fat kid, and told him I’d called him names. He caught me on the tether ball court, pinned me down, forcing all his weight on my chest until I hyperventilated. Still, I did not fight back.

How I ended up at Jackson Arms was due the same shrewd, calculated life philosophy that’d guided me through most of my life: “Sure, why not?” We formed a motley crew of liberals, most of us women, teachers, and artists, bucking the trend of America’s well-known and fraught cultural symbolism. I don’t know that I wanted to prove anything exactly, though I did wonder if the lurid mythology of firing a weapon lived up to its own ideals, power, eroticism. I also wondered, briefly, if I was (still?) capable of violence.

We started with the .22 Beretta, which was like a slightly heavier version of a laser tag gun. Shooting it felt like nothing had happened. Not even a flinch. All but one of us quickly tired of the .22, and graduated to the Glock. A real gun. “Once you go Glock, you won’t want to go back,” said Tracy, the only one of us who had ever shot a gun before. The first night I met Tracy she mentioned her love of shooting ranges, which both surprised and startled me. She said this right after we nearly witnessed a brawl at Sutter Station bar, or Sutter Gutter as it is sometimes fondly referred to. The bartender, a Polish woman in her 50s grabbed a club from behind the bar and gave the countertop a good thwack. “Get the fuck out of my bar,” she said to the man causing trouble. And he did.

“If you’re not terrified right now, then you’re not human,” Tracy said, trying to calm the nerves of the girls in our group. Someone uttered the phrase Feminists With Firearms, so we started calling each other that. It helped, somehow.

In high school, the boys left me alone. It was girls who started giving me trouble. At a football game, I looked at two drunk girls the wrong way when they passed by. They careened back toward me, hurling expletives like bullets, prodding my chest with their acrylic nails. “I don’t want any trouble,” I said, trying to seem as tough as the stories I used to tell. One of them, whom I can only recall as a flame of bleach blonde light, hocked a loogie right in my face. I stood there frozen, feeling her saliva drip slowly down my nose and lips. A fleck or two landed in my mouth, and I could taste the cheap vodka she’d probably stowed away in a flask in her black Fila jacket. I turned from them and started walking in the opposite direction. After five paces, I burst into tears.

In the stall next to us at the shooting range was a solitary girl with jet-black hair, firing what looked like a .45 Magnum. Her target was all the way downrange, 75 feet away. At that distance, I could barely see the silhouette of the target, let alone its bull’s eye. It was hard not to have a crush on her, though she looked terribly young, her push-up bra giving her non-existent breasts a shape and futility they wouldn’t have had otherwise. She did not smile. Her skin was dark and steely, as if her body were in fact an extension of the weapon she held without an ounce of tenderness. Occasionally, a man would come over and coach her, examining the holes in the target, whispering loudly while she nodded.

On the other side, there was a group of flannel-clad men in faded jeans. They were there for a bachelor party. “Who has a bachelor party at a gun range?” one of us asked, and a brief, uncomfortable discussion of domestic violence ensued.

The first shot I took, the bullet shell ricocheted off the stall and landed squarely on my head. Like a fool, I reached for it with my right hand, my left hand still firmly on the trigger of the .22 that pointed god knows where. The shell burned my hand as I brushed it off, which was the only harm I inflicted that day.

In college, I learned about sadomasochism. I learned it theoretically, from books and academic articles that were pretentiously cryptic, as if the text itself were muzzled by a ball gag. I thought I was so clever then. I wrote pages and pages about women who glued hair to their faces and lip-synced to David Bowie. I wrote about “isms” and “coevalness” and words that meant the opposite of hope. It was then that I began to associate words with power. The right turn of phrase could mean everything, it could mean that I no longer had to justify my existence. I graduated Summa Cum Laude, “with highest honors” even though I was more depressed than I’d ever been.

Post-college, I learned that even sadists cry sometimes. A girl I was seeing in Chicago, Shana, introduced me to Daniel, a 42-year-old Professor of Queer Studies in Philadelphia. His face was both bright and colorless, the bulk of his immense Buddha belly seeming to hang off him like the worst possible burden. His eyes were ruddy, anxious, analytical. He was not a handsome man, but he could write. He wrote me every day for months, some of them love letters, some erotica, some updates about his 4-year-old daughter. Daniel set up elaborate sexual scenarios, he would write in excruciating detail all the dirty and violent things he would do to me when we met. Sometimes he wrote in the third person. I never knew exactly what was meant to be fiction.

I played along for a time, trusting the distance between us as a viable safety net. I might even say that our correspondences presumed an intense sexual intimacy, but one that also somehow never involved trust. When he came to Chicago, he brought two suitcases full of “toys” with him. Whips, floggers, paddles, something he referred to as a “prison strap,” canes. I remember being so proud that I could withstand the blows of this large man, whose hands were capable, if not tender. I didn’t make a sound, not even after he turned my backside into one gigantic bruise, the color of blue-steel. “You have an incredibly high tolerance for pain,” he said, and I smiled a perverse, selfish smile.

The next night, on a quiet street in Logan Square, Shana left us for a few moments to buy pot. Daniel emerged from the backseat of the car, opened my door, and said icily, “Get out.” I should have been afraid. He’d been trying to top me all weekend, to make his email fantasies become reality despite my verbal and physical reluctance. When he admonished me, I could feel nothing except cocky, stubborn. He grabbed me by the lapels of my coat and shoved me against the car door. I winced when the frame made contact with my spine, despite the padding of my winter coat. He muttered things under his breath, called me names. He tried to force me onto my knees, but I resisted with all my might. I would not go down. He shoved me against the car again, reached back with his arm, and slapped me squarely across the face. My glasses hadn’t moved an inch. Before the stun set in, the salt-sting, I briefly admired his dexterity—It’s hard to slap a person with glasses. Then he kissed me, his mouth hard against mine, dark red and pulsing. Shana came toward us then, and without any words, we both resumed our places in the car, and drove home.

He called me the next day crying. “I love you,” he sobbed. “Don’t do this to me.” I told him I didn’t want to see him anymore. He left me presents, tarot cards, an eight-inch leather strap, for “beginners.” I was appalled by his vulgarity, his rawness. After all that he had put me through that weekend, I was supposed to comfort him? “Goodbye, Daniel,” I said. “Goodnight.” Outside, snow began to fall softly outside my window.

“Boys will be boys,” someone said, when Paul stuck two bullet shells up his nose and posed for a picture. Paul teaches first graders. After we left the gun range, he refused to wash the oil and gunpowder off his hands. The girls in our group tried to figure out what we should do next. We didn’t want to go home, and pondered what a stereotypically feminine act would be, something to counter the masculine drawl of Jackson Arms. A mani-pedi was suggested and just as quickly scrapped. So we walked, haphazardly, around the Mission, ducking into bars for a moment, then moving on. We ended up, almost as if by accident, splitting a bottle of white wine and talking about relationships on Tracy’s back porch. It was stereotypical and it was perfect. We threw our heads back and laughed. We asked questions we weren’t supposed to ask of near-strangers. We got drunk on power, yes, but also camaraderie.

Anna is a Twitter Jockey and blogger for Mother Jones. She also writes a social media etiquette column for SF Weekly and a relationship column for After Ellen, as well as attempting to lead a haiku revival on her personal blog: More from this author →