Every night I went to the bar, I saw her, and I didn’t like it. She was the antithesis of me. Her messy black hair was cropped short, above the ears, and streaked with red dye. A beer bottle was always in her hand, the slight condensation settling on her fingers. On the bar stool she was threatening enough, a rigid statue laced with muscles and tattoos. On the ground? A furious ferret, running in with her fists up and teeth bared. I was of average height and she was still a head shorter than me. She was an irritation, hijacking my favorite place to relax.
You’d think that after a while she’d run out of people to fight or get bored. Yet each time I came in, my heart plummeted at the sight of her perched in the same place, laughing at a stranger’s words. Eventually someone who’d heard of the miniature legend would come in to challenge her, assured that she wasn’t nearly as tough as they said. Sometimes she just took care of a harassing drunk who was too strong for his own good. Either way, she was there for a brawl and she nearly always got one.
I’d asked the owner to kick her out already and be done with it.
“She’s a menace! Please, just tell her to go!” I begged through gritted teeth. All he did was look up at me idly from behind a table.
“She’s taking care of troublemakers. I wouldn’t call that a menace.”
“She is a troublemaker! And—and what about all those random guys that come in here just for fun and to stare?”
He shrugged idly, eyes glinting with amusement. “Free entertainment.”
“More like free lawsuits!”
He sighed, rolling his eyes and getting up. “Listen, Tasha, if you have an issue, just leave! Find a new place!”
I huffed, crossing my arms and muttering, “You know this is really the only place in town.”
That was the first and last time I bothered him about the subject. Then I settled for sulking in the back and glaring angrily in her general direction.
Only once did she notice. Sauntering over, she approached, her eyes notleaving me even after I’d lowered mine in embarrassment. If I didn’t know better, I would have assumed that she was drunk. Yet she was anything but a lightweight and could down more bottles in one sitting than I could in three days.
“What’s up with you?” she said, quietly yet somehow completely audible in all the noise.
“N-nothing,” I stuttered, my gaze resting on the swirling patterns of the small, circular table. She planted her palms on the table and lowered her head so that I was all but forced to look up. Amusement and mischief glinted in her eyes and a small smile was threatening to break past her tight lips.
“You know,” she said, sliding into a seat with a beer in hand, “anyone else I would’ve just ignored. But you? You come here every night just to give me a shit look from the back. Most people who hate me try and at least take a swing. Now, what the hell have I done to piss you off?”
“You’re a disturbance,” I snapped, surprising myself. “What kind of person actively seeks out fights like some kind of—some kind of Neanderthal! You solve every problem through some means of—of fists and elbows. It’s primitive!” I took a deep breath and nervously awaited her response, already eyeing the door and mentally mapping out escape routes.
Yet she shocked me by letting loose a great bellowing laugh and tossing her head back. “You...you’re something, I’ll, tell ‘ya that much,” she chuckled.
I froze for a second, then scoffed indignantly. “Why are you laughing? Stop!” I could feel the heat rushing up to my face and found myself looking away again.
“Because,” she met my eyes, “for some reason you keep coming back.” Then she rose from the table and lazily strolled off.
“You left your drink behind,” I called after her. She waved her hand dismissively.
It was only a couple of weeks after that when our paths crossed again. I’d had a particularly sour day and only stopped at the bar to get a quick drink. I could feel her eyes at the back of my neck. I glanced briefly over my shoulder at the door. Oddly, she gave me an almost nervous smile and a wave. Any other day, I might have acknowledged it with more than a blank stare. However, as I would come to know, she had a ridiculous amount of determination, and it was that determination that possibly saved my life that night.
I bunched my coat closer to myself as I gingerly stepped through the snowy sidewalk. The lampposts cast a bleak light on the street. I turned the corner into a somewhat more deserted street. I used this route daily and barely gave it a thought until I spotted a suspicious-looking man approaching. I smiled, nervously, politely. As we passed each other he suddenly whipped around and slammed me against the wall, a gun I had not noticed up against my jaw.
In that moment I could barely hear anything, let alone speak. A kind of fear I’d never felt before wracked my body and I thought I might die from this sensation alone. He shook me and only then did I realize my mouth was hanging ajar. I snapped back into the world.
“I said, give me your money!” he hissed. Numbly, I nodded and reached into my purse, digging through. A sudden, rising panic made me stop in my tracks. The bag fell limply from my numb fingers, its contents spilling on the icy ground.
“I can’t find my wallet,” I said hoarsely. “Please don’t kill me.”
He opened his mouth to say something, but what I’d thankfully never know. The woman from the bar flew out of the darkness like some sort of frenzied rat. She yanked his arm back violently, causing the gun to go off in the air. I sunk to the ground and wrapped my arms around my legs as I watched the conflict.
Without a weapon he was much less threatening, at least against her. The smirk on his face was quickly replaced with an expression of pain as his lousy punch was punished by a knee in the gut, an elbow across the face that toppled him over, and then a prompt and efficient stomp on the groin. The following kick to the back of the skull robbed him of his consciousness.
“Hey, you erm, you forgot your wallet at the bar. I was trying to show it to you as you left, but....” She crouched down to my level and slipped the small leather thing into my hands. I stared at her, unsure of how I could possibly express the absolute gratitude and adoration I felt for her that very moment. Instead, I broke into hectic sobs that caused my body to convulse wildly. She said nothing more and held me in a warm embrace I would have previously thought her incapable of.
When I finally did get up and wipe the remaining tears of my face, she spoke.
“What’s your name, anyways?”
“Tasha,” I muttered. “Tasha Levine.”
“Carol Rice.” She smiled at me and took my hand. “Come, I’ll walk you home.”
She didn’t leave me at the door and I didn’t ask her to. We came up to my tiny apartment and I made us both a cup of tea. She sipped it slowly, thoughtfully, swirling the liquid around. There was a time of silent contemplation for the sudden turn of events that had led us both to this moment.
Then I laughed, slightly hysterically, and she laughed, and we were both sitting there howling like lunatics. That began a conversation that would last nearly through the night. We were like children, enjoying ourselves and vehemently denying that sleep was an important necessity.
“Where did you even learn how to fight, anyways?” I asked, intrigued to the story behind her incredible capability to beat other people senseless. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you lose.”
She shrugged, looking down at her mug. “I used to get bullied a fair bit as a kid. I wasn’t too bad at holding my own but I got sick and tired of people messing with me. So I started taking a bunch of classes. I found I really liked what I was learning and I was damn good at it, too. Hurt a boy so bad that no one ever touched me again. After that I kept going with the classes because I was having fun with it.”
“Wow. What kind of classes?”
“Oh, Krav Maga, Mui Tai, some boxing type things.” She grinned.
“Did you ever go professional?”
“Yeah, actually. It didn’t work out. Anyways, I work at an art gallery now.” I blinked in surprise and then shrugged and took a sip of my drink. What did I expect? She couldn’t exactly be a bar fighter as a career.
“You know, today had been a really sucky day,” I said
“No, but really, it wasn’t exactly decent before that whole mess. God, my coworker is such a jerk.”
“Everyone has at least one coworker who’s an ass.” I gave her an exasperated look and she smiled and gestured for me to go on.
“She keeps on imposing herself on my class and trying to change the way I teach. I mean, I get that I’m relatively new, but I’ve taught at other schools before! I know what I’m doing! She has her own class to contend with and yet she keeps on coming into mine.”
“Wait, you’re a teacher? That makes so much goddamn sense,” she said with a snicker.
“What is that supposed to mean?” I crossed my arms and raised an eyebrow slightly. She leaned forward, her eyes glinting with mischief.
“That’s the same look you use with your students, isn’t it?” I quickly dropped my stance and she let out another guffaw as I glared indignantly. “What grade d’you teach, anyways?”
“Oh, that’s easy.”
“Yeah, sure. Tell me that after you’ve had to deal with them for at least a day.”
“Why don’t you just tell your little friend to piss off?” she asked, returning to the previous subject.
“That seems like an excellent way to get reported.”
“Well, obviously you’d do it politely and respectfully and whatever. But if you did just walk up and yell, ‘Yo, fuck the hell off,’ I would find that hilarious.”
“Yeah, maybe.” I ran my finger along the edges of the now-empty mug.
“I know you’re a ‘pacifist’ or something like that but that doesn’t mean you can’t stand up for yourself.” I looked up and saw she was being surprisingly earnest. Her brows were slightly furrowed in concern and her hand slid out to grip mine as she spoke.
“Ok,” I said, meaning it. “I will.”
We only stayed up a little longer before we found ourselves too tired to continue. I set up a makeshift bed on the couch for Carol, deciding that at this late hour it wouldn’t be the best idea to send her driving home half asleep.
After this, we were nearly inseparable. Every day after work, we’d find a way to meet up. I quickly learned there were a lot of things about her that went beyond my assumption of her as a savage. I hadn’t exactly thought that I’d known her before, but I wasn’t quite aware of how much I didn’t know her. Her sense of humor was not sophisticated, per se, but it was effective. She was loyal and caring and the closeness we shared in our friendship was like nothing I’d felt before.
It took me a while to finally take her advice about my fellow teacher. I was tolerating it for the time being, seeing as it seemed to be ceasing and I was beginning to assume that it would end completely soon. Then one day she came in and began hovering in the back, as she did in the beginning. I endured her presence as one would a mosquito, continuing to teach my class as if nothing were amiss. But when she tried to discipline one of my own students in front of me, it crossed the line. I dragged her outside, trying to control a deep anger that was forming in my gut. She looked at me warily, waiting as I took a deep breath in and organized my thoughts.
Once I had finished, she nodded, her expression becoming somewhat sheepish. She apologized and promised to leave me to my own devices before retreating back into her room. I blinked. That was easy. I could’ve dealt with this ages ago. I felt a little wiggling worm of joy beginning to grow in my stomach. With a grin, I returned to my own room, far more pleased than I should’ve been.
First thing after work I called Carol, determined to celebrate my basic achievement in human interaction with her.
“Carol! I did the thing!”
“You did the thing!” Immediately, she knew what I meant and her voice seemed to leap in excitement for me.
“I confronted another person on the simplest level!”
“It’s all uphill from here. Before you know it, you’ll be socking random people on the street because they looked at you funny.”
“Yeah, right. Wanna go to the bar tonight and celebrate?”
“We always go to the bar. C’mon, let’s find a nice restaurant or something like that.” I tried to stifle the strange fluttery feelings in my stomach.
“Sure.” We settled on a good Italian place nearby and left it at that.
Carol had arrived first and was waiting for me in the little table at the back. This isn’t a date, I thought to myself. It doesn’t matter anyway. There was already a bottle of wine and two glasses ready. She grinned at the sight of me and I reserved a small smile for her.
“You look absolutely stunning,” she said, enveloping me in a hug.
“Yeah, you too.” I found myself blushing and quickly sat down, wondering why I was suddenly so nervous. It didn’t take long for me to grow comfortable again as we began talking and bantering with each other as usual. Everything was fine, the same. It was just Carol. Except whenever she touched me I could hardly breathe. Completely and utterly normal.
As we were discussing whether zodiac signs were, as she put it, “bullshit” or not, a guy came up to us. He seemed tipsy yet not to the point where he could be considered drunk. He began harassing us, throwing out homophobic slurs as he condemned what he perceived to be our romantic relationship. I couldn’t decide whether to feel embarrassed or furious, so instead I settled on a look of lost confusion, like that of a puppy that can’t figure out why there is so much yelling. Meanwhile, Carol stood straight up and looked him in the eye. She began arguing with him. Her face was completely red and I figured it was only a matter of time before she slammed him into a table.
“You wanna fight me?” Those words were enough to snap me into attention. I glanced around the restaurant nervously at all the people staring wordlessly at the scene we were making.
“Carol, no, stop—”
“I can take you in my sleep. Take a swing, I dare you!”
“Carol, for God’s sake—” I took a step in between them. “It’s not worth it. Besides, we’re in a nice place and I don’t want to be kicked out.”
“Yeah, control your bitch.” I froze, slowly turning to the man, my fists clenching at my sides.
“What did you say?” Despite just facing Carol’s terrifying barrage of insults, I could see a fleck of trepidation in his eyes.
“Who do you think you are, mister, to be harassing two women who were not bothering you in any way, shape or form? Were you raised in a damn barn? What kind of person goes out of their way to intrude on other peoples’ meals?” He opened his mouth to speak but I cut in again.
“You see my little friend here? She gets into a fight nearly every day. Every goddamn friggin’ day. You know what that means? She has a ludicrous amount of practice. I’ve seen her reduce giants into crying little girls. And guess what, buddy? You’re not that big. You’re a tiny, petty man who’s ruining my damn date and if you don’t back off on the count of three I’m going to let her at you. And then I’ll be kicked out of a pretty damn good restaurant andI’ll have to call an ambulance. So for all our sakes, go.”
“One.” He met my steely glare and realized that under no circumstances was I kidding.
“Two.” I began to shift out from in front of Carol. His eyes widened and he scurried off, leaving the restaurant completely. I let out a sigh of relief and noticed I was shaking slightly. I turned to Carol, smiling timidly. It took her a second to regain her composure as she stared at me in a state of stunned awe. Then a smirk broke on her face and she raised an inquisitive eyebrow.
“I, erm....” My voice trailed off as she pulled me in close and slipped her hand behind my head. My heart was pounding in my chest and I could hardly speak. Her lips closed over mine.
I wasn’t the most courageous person in the world. Conflict scared me. People scared me. And I loathed violence. But in that moment, I knew none of that mattered.