On Being Tough

By

The path down to the riflery range was steep and winding, littered with roots. I’d have to go slow or I’d trip. But I always ran. I followed the path every afternoon that summer.

The range was a wooden shack. Fifty feet away, a row of targets. In between, a grassy ditch, sliced by a thin path. The rifles, .22s, were locked in a closet. Carol, the owner of the camp, slept with the bullets underneath her pillow.

The rule was you had to be eleven to take riflery lessons. I had braces and was too scared to use a tampon.

We learned lying down.

To shoot the rifle, lie belly-down on a dusty cot mattress, leg jackknifed, with the end of the rifle butted up against your shoulder and your cheek pressed against its body. Use your left hand to hold the barrel and your right hand to grip the trigger. Line up the sights and aim for the center. Take a deep breath. Hold it. Squeeze.

Watch the bullet hurtle through the air, pierce the paper target, then get buried in the dirt behind.

Five bullets per round. To get a perfect score, I would need to shoot five bullseyes: the center of the target torn open like a wound.

It was easy to get addicted: the sweet smell of gunpowder, the seduction of smoke, the kick of the gun, sending vibrations through my body. I’d spend all day in the range hoping for a bullseye.

After a round, we had to wait until everyone was done shooting before we could run down and check our targets. Otherwise, they warned us, someone could get shot. I always rushed down the path as soon as we were given the okay to see how close I got to center.

***

On our fourth date, which wasn’t so much a date as much as it was drinking two beers together as an excuse to fuck, Reese asked me what I thought about gun control.

Um, it’s a good thing, I said. They were straddling me on my bed and pulling their long hair into a bun. They boasted on their online dating profile: I’m a long-haired butch. The first lesbian whose hair I could run my fingers through.

They shook their head. Gun control is racist, they said. Laws are always selectively applied in favor of the ruling class. Police use it as an excuse to take weapons from poor black people, leaving them without the ability to defend themselves from state violence.

I froze. This was a test, and I had said the wrong thing.

No, I get it, I said quickly. It’s more complicated than people think. I’ve shot a gun before, you know.

They threw their arms into the air and whooped like a bull rider. I was the bull. They leaned over, and when their skin grazed mine, I shivered.

Then they kissed me, hard.

***

Take this, all of you, and eat it.

***

Riflery lessons were on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I made pinch pots in pottery. I sat across from Josie and found myself mesmerized by the way she worked the clay. She lived in the cabin next to mine. One day we walked home together after pottery. I didn’t know what to say to her. I remembered a quote from somewhere, something about how when you have a special connection with someone, you don’t need to talk constantly. You can comfortably share silence. I told myself this as we walked home, not exchanging words, sure this was the start of something special. I thought about her as I fell asleep that night. Later I would remember that quote was from Pulp Fiction.

Every Friday, there was a campfire, and counselors announced our achievements of the week. The girl in cabin five made a perfect god’s eye. The tie-dye lover mastered the lay-up. I got a bullseye. Josie punched me in the arm. That’s so cool, she said. I smiled and puffed out my chest. Anyone could weave yarn around two sticks. But not everyone had what it took to shoot a gun.

***

In between my fourth and fifth date with Reese, I looked up the history of gun control. In 1967, members of the Black Panthers stood on the steps of the California statehouse with guns, to say the time had come for Black people to arm themselves. Politicians were so frightened by the demonstration that they passed an act that prohibited the open carrying of loaded firearms in California. This led to increased gun regulation in California and started a trend of stricter gun control nationwide.

They were right.

***

We went on a date to the Bass Pro Shop in the Chicago suburbs. We had each spent our adolescence rejecting our roots—mine in Texas, Reese’s in Oklahoma—and were embracing our Southern origins with new enthusiasm. In the aisles of the store, we played characters. We spoke in accents. I pretended to lasso them from across the aisle. We laughed at a bumper sticker that said, Touch my fishin’ stuff and I’ll show you my huntin’ stuff, then put it in our basket. We looked at the guns, and they called me their little b.b.

The next day I texted them a photo of a gun holster with a dildo in it with the caption, Is a strap-on harness just a holster? They responded immediately. Oh my god I’m so hot for you. I touched myself while I thought of them inside me until I was vibrating. It was easy to get addicted to the way they unlocked me.

***

This is my body which will be given up for you.

***

On our eighth or ninth date, Reese told me about how, when catching up with an ex-girlfriend recently, they said something that made their ex cry. And about how their other ex-girlfriend had recently called them abusive in an Instagram post.

We were in bed. When they told these stories, they laughed and looked at me expectantly, waiting for me to agree and say lesbians are so over-dramatic. With their eyes on me, my skin felt hot. Surely, those girls just weren’t thick-skinned enough for their rough sense of humor. I knew men could be abusive, but queers couldn’t really, not in the same way. Maybe their ex called them abusive out of spite, to hurt their reputation. In bed, as they waited for my response, I couldn’t escape the feeling this was another challenge. But this time, I wanted to pass.

I puffed up my chest and said, Don’t ever make me cry, but yeah, your exes sound intense.

In the morning, up before them for my early shift at the bakery, I got dressed quietly. Before I left, I kissed them on the forehead. Half asleep, their hands formed the shape of guns and they aimed at the ceiling. I laughed. What are you doing? I asked. Shooting the sky, they said, and rolled over.

***

I was nineteen the first time I felt afraid of someone who promised to love me.

My boyfriend had gotten mad at me that night at the punk house on Fairview St. for taking a hit after I had already had a few drinks and didn’t I remember how his childhood friend almost died from getting crossfaded because if you drink too much and then get stoned you can’t throw up and you’ll get alcohol poisoning and didn’t I realize that getting crossfaded would remind him of that and trigger him? The screech of his tires pierced through the quiet night as he left me stranded in downtown Houston. I walked the unfamiliar streets, trying to sober up, trying to understand what I had done wrong, what had made him so angry. Eventually I got a ride.

Why did you leave me there? I texted him when I got home.

You’re a smart cookie, he replied. Figure it out. Also, figure out your drinking problem.

Replaying the night’s events, I felt confused. I had a few drinks, too many to drive. But I didn’t think I had a problem. I only ever drank at parties once every few weeks. But he knew me better than anyone. Maybe I did have a problem. That would explain why he was so angry with me.

I texted a friend for advice. Her reply: Leave him. The abuse is only going to get worse.

I decided to stop drinking for a few weeks instead.

The arguments didn’t stop. One night he followed me to a party after I told him I wanted space. We fought in front of my friends and on the walk home and fell asleep halfway through an argument, still in our clothes. In the morning, I told him it was over.

I didn’t hesitate to call him abusive afterwards. Finding the words to name what he put me through gave me strength. I resolved to never be afraid again, because I could finally see the root of my suffering: men, and how I tried to love them.

***

The camp was nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. My mother and her sister attended the camp as kids, and my sister and I followed suit. The camp’s mission statement says that girls need a place to be mischievous, but reverent; sloppy, but clean; tired, but happy, to be sophisticated, but to love a good puddle-stomp; and to frolic in the moonlight. It was a Christian camp, and I think my mom hoped it would turn me into a believer.

One night Josie and I pulled our mattresses out onto the athletic field so we could sleep underneath the stars and she told me about how she loved Jesus. Listening to her talk made me want to believe in something, too. She fell asleep first. I kept my body turned towards hers all night, even when my leg started to cramp, even when the stars begged for my attention. When the sun came up, I wasn’t sure if I had slept or not. But I didn’t care. We dragged our mattresses back inside and walked to breakfast, joking and laughing and together.

***

The first time I had sex with a woman, I wrote in my journal: I saw god so many times tonight.

In Catholic school, I learned that when the priest blesses the Eucharist, the wafer transforms into the body of Christ through the process of transubstantiation.

That’s how it felt: all my atoms replaced with something holy.

***

The first time I felt afraid of Reese, it was Halloween and we were preparing to go to their friend’s party. I was dressed in my ghost pepper costume and perched on the end of their bed. They were putting the finishing touches on their costume, a butterfly. We were running late.

Why are you just sitting there? they asked, irate. I looked around, trying to figure out what caused their sudden mood shift.

I’m just letting you do your thing, I said. Do you want help?

No, they said, then the strap on their wings snapped.

It’s okay, I said. We can fix it.

Don’t talk to me, they said, voice loud and sharp.

I went into the other room and waited for them to finish getting ready. My heart was pounding, and I felt disappointed for letting their bad mood get to me. They’re just stressed, I told myself, and resolved to be tougher, thicker-skinned, to make the most of the night.

The next day, my roommate asked me about my evening. I told her about our costumes, the parties, the plastic skull we stole from someone’s lawn. It had been a fun night. Almost as an afterthought, I told her, I’m still figuring out how to be around someone who gets mad easily.

My roommate grimaced.

Don’t worry, I quickly reassured, I can stand up for myself.

I don’t like that you feel you have to stand up for yourself at all, she said.

After that night, I could never be sure what would trigger one of Reese’s moods. It could be talking too much. Talking too little. Helping them make dinner. Not helping them make dinner. Mentioning the name of my friend who they didn’t like. Not responding to their text right away. Texting them too much. The look on my face. Then they’d be storming around, yelling at me, slamming their fist into the walls, into furniture, on the dashboard of my car. You just make me so mad, they’d say. I’d cry and ask them to stop, and it would always be the same response: Oh great, now you’re crying again.

I told my therapist, I feel so sensitive lately. I just keep crying for no reason.

***

Take this, all of you, and drink it.

***

I was good at shooting. Good enough to earn a sharpshooter badge from the National Rifle Association.

At home in Texas, I was shy. So shy that if someone asked me a question, I would be silent, hoping that if enough time passed, they would forget they asked me anything at all, and move on. I could survive high school this way, being forgotten, being nothing.

But the badge told me: You aren’t nothing. You’re a sharpshooter.

***

Whenever I talked to my friends about Reese, my friends would always say the same thing: You don’t have to put up with that, you know.

Eventually, I stopped bringing them up at all. I couldn’t handle the looks of pity on their faces, the ones that so plainly told me I was weak, that it would be so easy to walk away, wouldn’t it?

***

On the first day of speech class during my senior year of high school, we played two truths and a lie. I was born in Florida, I’m a sharpshooter, I’ve never broken a bone. It was a bad pick for the game, too specific. No one would toss around a term like “sharpshooter” besides someone acquainted with guns. But my classmates looked at my floral dress and winged eyeliner and guessed that was the lie. I flipped my long hair and corrected them. Don’t get it twisted. I can be bad. The Radiohead fan’s eyes lit up, and the boy with the drawl said, Nice.

I spent the rest of the day in a glow.

***

Five months after that Halloween party, Reese and I were sitting in my car at a gas station in Wisconsin while everyone else went inside a restaurant. It was the end of a cabin weekend with my friends, and earlier that morning, Reese had played a prank on Harper and grown angry when they didn’t think it was funny. In a rage, they said, I fucking hate your friends, the ones who had invited them on vacation. Up until now, I had tried to handle these situations with grace. When they upset me, I wrote them a letter, then read it to them. I used “I” statements and proposed new boundaries.

But measured careful statements weren’t their language. Their language was that of fire. So I slipped into their tongue: What is wrong with you? Do you know how fucking selfish you are being? You ruined my weekend and made me feel like shit, how could you–

I floated outside of my body, watching myself play the role of someone mad, pointing her finger and raising her voice. I yelled and yelled until I fizzled out, and when I returned to my body, Reese looked small in their seat. They had heard me. But at what cost? Yelling like that, I sounded like them. I promised myself I’d break up with them by the end of the day. But then we went to brunch and we laughed about the watery tofu, and on the drive home we passed a field with two wild palominos and they pulled over immediately, and as we drove into Chicago the sun looked so pretty on the monument in Logan Square, and they held my hand, and they said they would be better, and we bathed in the afterglow, and my promise drifted away like smoke into wind. Honestly, you can get used to almost anything. Feel them, all my little callouses.

***

This is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant.

***

When I was learning to drive, my mother warned me never to cut anyone off in traffic or flick anyone off. There are a lot of nut jobs on the road, she told me. You never know who keeps a gun in their glove box.

The speed limit by our house was 35. On the way home from school, I regularly drove 80. I weaved in between cars and cut off pickup trucks and SUVS to find a stretch of open road where I could slam the accelerator in my pale gold sedan. There was a hill on Commonwealth Boulevard. If I was going fast enough, I could get airborne. Soaring, even for half a second, was the best part of driving home.

In the air, I felt invincible. I ignored what my mother told me. In the suburbs, no one keeps a gun in their glove box. I was safe.

***

You can have someone nice, or fun, but not both, a friend told me. Guess I picked fun, I said, laughing. He didn’t laugh back.

***

Is it worth it? Why stay? my therapist asked me, not for the first time.

They understand me more than anyone, I replied, and they’re going through a hard time and I can’t leave them right now. My therapist nodded and took notes while she ate a salad. We both knew I was reciting a script, that this wasn’t the truth. But I didn’t even have the words for the truth.

If I had, what I would have said was queer people aren’t supposed to hurt me. They were supposed to be my salvation. I wasn’t supposed to be a victim again. I wasn’t supposed to be afraid anymore. So please: Let this be something I can fix. Let this be my weakness rather than their cruelty. Teach me how to be tough again. Take me back to the range, where I wasn’t scared of the sound of a gun, and I loved nothing more than lining up the sights, squeezing the trigger, and watching the bullet pierce the air.

***

Reese and I took a trip to Gary, Indiana, and considered going to a shooting range called Deb’s. I would love to shoot a gun again, I said, and in truth, I wanted them to see how I looked with a gun in my hands, to show them how steady my grip could be.

We looked into it. But Deb’s only had pistols, which I had never shot before. And you had to buy your own ammo. I had gotten too old for camp before I could learn to shoot standing up. I thought of the bullets under Carol’s pillow, and the old rifle they had thrust into my hands. That seemed like a game compared to Deb’s.

We didn’t go. We had too many other things planned for the trip anyway.

***

Which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.

***

A friend from college came to visit me in Chicago. People used to get us mixed up, but that was before I cut my hair. We hadn’t seen each other in two years. She asked if I was still acting. I said, No, I’ve been writing for a few years now. That weekend, there were mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso. There had already been nineteen mass shootings this year. We ate granola in our underwear and discussed gun control.

By this point, Reese and I had finally broken up, but we were still talking, still telling each other we loved each other, and they were still yelling at me every time we hung out. Even though they weren’t there in my kitchen with us, I felt the urge to defend their point. Hannah talked about banning guns, and with a shaky voice, I regurgitated Reese’s argument: If we banned guns, how would people of color and women in domestic violence situations defend themselves?

Hannah replied with something eloquent, something about cutting off violence at the root.

I couldn’t remember exactly what Reese had said, and I couldn’t think of a counter, so I acquiesced: Okay, we should ban guns. Reese’s voice appeared in my head: Gun control is a white-washed, neoliberal fantasy. I changed the subject, disappointed in myself for getting it wrong, disappointed in myself for wanting their approval when they’d never even know the difference.

***

After the trip to Gary, Reese told me they were getting their gun license.

What? Why? I asked.

Why not? they said. I want to have a way to protect myself. And I learned about this cool group of white activists who will buy firearms for black people, and I want to—

I let them talk while my thoughts swarmed. What if instead of punching the wall, they grabbed a gun?

They’d never even shot a gun before. I always had that over them. Even if I was lying down, the gun was in my hand. Even if my grip was shaky, I squeezed the trigger. Suddenly my hands were empty. They’d always been empty.

***

Instead of a real gun, Reese got a b.b. from Wal-Mart. Look, they said, pulling it out of their glovebox. I instinctively pushed their hands down and said, don’t wave that thing around. They asked if I wanted to play, to be bad. I didn’t.

Later, I listened to them tell stories of how much fun they and their neighbor had shooting cans in their backyard. I felt my palms. They were soft.

***

Do this in memory of me.

***

I can remember all the nasty things my ex-boyfriend had said to me, and after I finally left him, I didn’t hesitate to call him what he was. But with Reese, there was too much to remember it all, so I stopped trying.

And now I hesitate to call them what they were. If I call them what they were, I’d be no different than the girls who couldn’t handle their fire. If I call them what they were, everyone will see how I’m not tough after all. And if I call them what they were, I’d have to admit that men aren’t the only ones who can be cruel. That love between queers isn’t always something holy.

Where is the key? Where is the door?

***

My last year at camp, I forgot how to shoot. I’d pick up the gun and my arms would shake. I’d hold my breath to shoot but get dizzy before I could pull the trigger. The gun was heavier; suddenly I was feeling its weight, even though I was bigger, stronger. I’d run down to check my target, head spinning, and instead of my perfect ring of bullseyes, the shots would be scattered. A constellation of misses.

I took the targets back to my cabin and hung them on the wall by my bed, and at night, I looked for shapes between the holes. I stole yarn from the craft room and used it to connect the dots, to understand why I was losing my aim. Stepping back, it looked like a detective’s office wall, clues strung together, or a god’s eye, yarn going around and around and around.

 

***

Rumpus original art by Han Olliver.


Kathleen Gullion is a writer from Houston whose work has appeared in X-R-A-Y, The Boiler, The Coachella Review, and others. She received an MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and currently serves as an assistant editor at Sundress Publications. More from this author →