1. The girl tries to focus. To hold still. The more she concentrates, however, the more she drowns in tactile sensations, all the things that chafe.
2. Now, all she can think of are the self-defense instructor’s arm muscles. So many veins standing at rapt attention. The girl wishes she could run her fingers over them, trace the paths of those green-blue rivers, see where they lead.
3. The instructor tells the class about the man who once stopped her on the street and offered instructions. You look lost. Where are you going? He was wearing a navy business suit, the creases in his pants so stiff they stood along their own axis. Right hand clasping a briefcase. Kind face, kind smile, kind eyes. So why did she run? Why, after crossing three streets, putting a hot dog vendor, a FedEx deliveryman, and a cluster of nannies between them, did she finally stop to catch her breath?
4. Everyone, stand up. The girl complies. She feels unsteady on her feet. All she does is cardio. Treadmill belt unspooling under her feet. Pedaling, in a dark room, to the thunder of club music, so loud and dark she could sob without anyone hearing. She should incorporate more strength training. Swing a kettlebell over her head. Build muscles, enough to open a jar without needing to ask. Root herself to the ground. But all she can think of is how to gain distance.
5. The instructor teaches them a series of easy to remember moves. The girl forgets immediately. Was she supposed to jab the windpipe or the eyes? What is her other arm supposed to be doing? She flails. She stomps down to disable an imaginary foot and almost laughs. Who is she kidding? She is as weak as a child.
6. Come on, the instructor snaps, squaring those magnificent shoulders. You can hit harder than that. Can I? the girl thinks and winds up again.
7. As if on cue, a man drifts over. His eyes rove and then fixate, like a dog locating the scent. He pauses at the perimeter and watches them, licking his lips.
9. Sir, hello. Hi. How are you doing? the instructor chirps. The girl and the others do what they should never ever do in these sorts of situations – freeze.
9. What you should actually do. Defuse – hi, how are ya. Divert – Hey, what’s that. Deflect – I got to go, can’t miss this appointment. The three Ds, the instructor explained. But all the girl hears is run, run, run.
10. The instructor keeps up a steady thrum of chatter. Underneath it, the girl can hear trembling. It reminds her of that time across a table, the boy had gripped her wrist so hard, he left plummy half-moons studding her skin, and still she couldn’t stop talking, hey, what’s worse than finding a worm in your apple, I don’t know, what, half a worm.
12. Bored, the man eventually leaves. For the rest of class, the instructor speaks a little too breathlessly, as though her voice has sprouted legs and a ponytail switch-flicking in the wind.
13. After class, the girl buys a black plastic baton, half the length of a forearm, to attach to her key ring. She whaps it against her own arm, again and again, testing its heft and sting, until finally, the welt grows big enough to satisfy.
14. As she is about to leave, the girl thinks to ask, why did you run?
15. The instructor blinks, then remembers. A scabbing gash along his left hand. From a cat, maybe, or a girl trying to get away.
Joy Guo currently lives in Manhattan with her husband. She is a white collar and regulatory defense attorney. Her work is published or forthcoming in Passages North, Pithead Chapel, CRAFT, Atticus Review, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among others. You can find her on Twitter at gojiberryandtea and www.joyguowrites.com.