by Leah Baer
“Run! You son of a bitch!”
The rage in her voice jarred me awake.
When I got to the lower level of the apartment by the pool, I saw the wrought iron gates slamming behind Toni while she ran half naked into the night and onto the street. It wasn’t those words that got me out of bed moving so fast out of my apartment and down the stairs to Toni’s place by the pool still in my baby doll nightgown. It was the tone of her voice screaming “Fuck you!” that woke me.
Toni comes from a vast, Catholic, Italian family full of brothers in New York, and she’s tough and strong and can curse like you wouldn’t believe from a body so small and wiry and slim. At first, everybody in this California apartment complex was put off by it. And by her. After a while, nobody paid much attention. Her husband, Sean, is a policeman and he’s Italian and he sings, and he has a boisterous laugh and they have noisy twin boys. People here finally figured that’s the way noisy Italian families are. Maybe that’s why nobody paid any attention when Toni was screaming after midnight.
But I know Toni. We trained together. Running. Swimming. I know her voice. I know the difference between the laughter in her “Fuck you” when she’s being funny, and the growl in her throat when she yells “Fuck you” to somebody who cuts her off on the LA freeway. And I know the rage and the break in her voice whenever she told me stories about things her father did to her when she was a kid. Stories she only told when we sometimes got drunk together and our husbands and kids weren’t around. It was that last voice that got me running barefoot to her rescue.
* * *
Toni and I were runners. She had wild speed and I had endurance for the long haul. Girls weren’t allowed on any track team when we were in high school. But Toni and I were a team. We could run a half marathon. Fast. Faster and farther than any guy we ever knew. We did it lots of times. The first time we finished those thirteen miles, breathless with our blood singing because we were so alive, we hugged our bodies salty and slippery with stinking sweat, and we laughed. And Toni said, “Fuck yeah! We can do twice that. Easy!”
We felt like we were flying when we ran, and like we could go on forever. And we liked to pretend we were this mythological warrior goddess named Camilla who was so fast she could run over the ocean without ever getting her feet wet.
Five years ago, we both had babies we weren’t ready for. I had one boy; she had two. We were nineteen when we got pregnant. Girls who didn’t want to become mothers. Not then anyway. Girls who didn’t have a choice.
“I am never letting Sean near me again without a condom.” Toni said. “I love him, but fuck him.”
“Aren’t they arguing the Roe case now?” I asked.
“Never gonna be legal,” Toni said. “And I couldn’t anyway, I guess. You know, the Catholic shit.”
We had this pact about no more babies now. See, we had this crazy idea that we’d enter the Boston Marathon in 1973. Four months before we decided that, eight women officially ran it. First time in history. Women weren’t allowed before that.
In 1967, Kathy Switzer ran the Boston Marathon. She was twenty years old and she ran with her boyfriend and some guys who were friends of hers at college. When some race official, a guy named Jock, figured out she was a woman, he tried to stop her and to tear off her racing bib. Kathy’s boyfriend knocked the guy to the ground. She finished the race. The next day the papers had photos of Jock trying to shove Kathy out of the race and of her boyfriend pushing Jock away. And that changed everything. And that’s when we started thinking maybe one day we could do it.
When we heard it was finally permitted, to be a woman competing in the Boston Marathon, Toni and I started seriously training. Training ourselves and each other while our husbands drank beer and stayed with the kids.
The neighborhood women told us we were lucky. They all told us some version of, “Your husbands are so sweet to babysit while you girls go running. You’re very lucky girls.”
Toni and I smiled at them. What fucking good would it have done to tell them fathers don’t babysit their own kids?
* * *
“I can’t believe I chased him! I was so crazy, I chased that bastard down the street! And then he ran away! And then I stopped and I said to myself, ‘What the hell are you doing, Toni?’” She was coming back through the gate. Wearing only the top of her bikini. She laughed and her voice was light and high—the voice she used when she played with her boys. I wondered what happened to the bottom of her bathing suit.
On the nights when Sean works, Toni puts the kids to bed, puts on her bathing suit, locks the sliding glass front door, goes to the apartment complex laundry room to do the washing, and between cycles, she swims laps. Whenever I can, I join her in the pool. After the night we found the light switch for the pool, we started swimming naked. Water kissing our skin in new places. Swimming underwater. No noisy diving. Just silent slipping into the dark blue. We shape-shifted, became water, like beings born from sea-foam. Nereids of the night.
But I never went to the laundry room at night. Not alone. I was always afraid to. I didn’t know why. I just was. And I don’t know why, if it scared me, I let her do it alone all the time.
She didn’t hear him above the rattle of the old washing machine and dryer. She didn’t know he was there until she felt his body against her back and his hands were on her throat and then the weight of him forcing her to her knees, slamming her face to the concrete floor.
He didn’t expect a woman who knew how to fight. Martial arts moves she’d learned from Sean. She moved fast, pushing herself up from the ground, slamming the back of her head against his nose, turning and kicking when he staggered back, and she roared like an Amazon, and screamed at him. He turned and ran. And in fury, she chased him.
She told me all of this while I walked her back to her apartment. I didn’t see the bruises on her arms, and torso and legs, or the scrapes on her face, until we were inside and I started putting hydrogen peroxide on her bloody knees. Where her olive skin peeled away, the wounds were pink and bleeding. The cuts were deep.
“I should call Sean? Yeah? What do you think?” Toni asked.
“Yeah, and call the police.” I said.
“Why? The guy’s gone. Besides, Sean is the police. What can they do that he can’t do?”
“Since he’s not working this area” I said, “they’ll get here faster. They can take a report while we wait for Sean.”
“Nah, I’m fine.” Toni leaned forward and hugged herself.
“Toni, your bathing suit. Did he …?”
She shook her head and shivered like a chill was running through her body. And, for just a minute, she looked at me like she didn’t know who I was. The light left her hazel eyes.
“Oh! Hell no! I’m fine. I fought him off. He didn’t. Nah. He just yanked the bottom of the suit off. We don’t need the police.”
“He tried to rape you. Maybe he’s still out there.”
I didn’t want to push her into doing anything. I figured the best thing was for me to shut up and let her be for a few minutes. She looked at the water in the pool and dug her bare toes into the harvest gold shag carpeting. And then tilted her head and looked at it wide-eyed like she’d never seen it before. I brought her a pair of shorts, a shirt, and a bag of ice for her swelling face. I checked on her boys who were still deep asleep. And I went for the phone.
“No. Bring me the Jack Daniel’s, some ice, and two glasses. We need a drink.”
I brought everything she asked for to the coffee table and poured our drinks.
She lifted her glass and said, “Here’s to…?”
“What a tough broad you are, Toni. And to calling the police.”
Toni put her hand on mine. She was shaking.
“No. Not yet.”
She finished her drink and poured another. She never drank like this.
“Let’s toast… Helen Reddy. You know, the ‘I am woman, hear me roar’ song?” Toni said.
“My husband hates that song,” I said. “He keeps telling me, ‘You are woman, hear me snore’!”
Toni poured another drink, and said, “Yeah, men. How does that go? Can’t live with them, can’t live without them? Or whatever the fuck.”
She finished her drink, poured another, and said, “Okay. I’ll call. But before we call the cops, you put on some clothes, missy. They’re gonna think you’re trying to seduce them in that thing.”
While she called Sean and the police, I slipped out of my nightgown and into a pair of her jeans and a shirt. Both were a little tight, but I didn’t want to leave her alone by going back to my apartment to change. And I didn’t want to wake my husband and explain anything.
The police must have been close. They arrived a few minutes after her call. No sirens. I guess they didn’t think it was urgent business. They were older than us. By a lot. The youngest one was the notetaker. The bigger, beer-bellied one asked the questions and kept staring at my breasts. He asked if Toni knew the guy, and when she said she didn’t, he asked if she was sure she’d never seen him before. After Toni explained the whole experience, and he looked at her bruised face and body, and he asked for our names twice, he frowned.
“Explain to me again, ma’am, why you were wearing a bikini at midnight? Why you left your children alone?”
I felt all the Furies inside Toni rising. The rage that saved her would hurt her with these guys.Whatever she wanted to say wouldn’t help.
We were sitting close together on the sofa. I moved closer, put my hand on Toni’s thigh, leaned forward, and said, “She swims. We swim. At night after the kids are in bed. We’re training. For the Boston Marathon next year.”
He smirked. And looked at the bottle and the two glasses.
“Have you girls been drinking?”
“What the h—? You think I did this to myself?”
“Toni,” I said and patted her thigh gently. Warning. She breathed deep, put her hand over mine, and held it tight.
He noticed. Smirked again.
“Sometimes, when women drink, they get clumsy. They fall,” he said.
Toni stood up. Wincing. And walked toward the fat cop.
The note-taking cop stepped forward and offered, “Sometimes, women get mad at their husbands, boyfriends… and they… fabricate stories. We see it all the time.”
If Toni hadn’t had four stiff drinks in her, and if Sean hadn’t walked in just then, she might have tried to kill both of them.
“Baby,” Sean said while he opened the sliding glass door. “Are you okay?”
He took her in his arms and kissed the top of her head. “Oh, baby, who did this to you?”
He was in uniform. His six-foot-tall muscled body heavy with authority. He turned to the cops, one arm still around Toni, and said nothing. Toni already told them her husband was in the force, and that he was on his way, but having him beside her changed everything. They spoke to Sean respectfully, in quiet tones, called him “sir” and shook his hand and nodded to us, “Thank you, ladies. We’ll file a report. And you all have a good night. Umm, morning.”
* * *
News traveled fast in our little apartment complex that was a village. The deck surrounding the pool belonged to everybody, but the women always gathered in the area, far from the diving board, in front of Toni’s apartment. In the hours reserved for adults, women sunbathed, talked about diets, sometimes dipped into the pool, and almost always sneaked alcohol into Tupperware thermoses. (The guy who was the manager posted large signs on the iron gates leading to the pool forbidding glass containers and alcohol. The women faithfully obeyed one of those rules.) They listened to music, and they read. And they gossiped. And they couldn’t leave Toni’s story alone.
Toni and I pretty much ignored them. We still dreamed of Boston and we still ran. And we still swam at night.
But Toni was tired a lot of the time. She had no appetite and she was losing weight. Sean and I kept encouraging her to see the doctor.
“I’m fine” she kept insisting.
Toni and I read Ms. magazine—it just came out in 1972 and we both got subscriptions. We’d never seen anything like it. Our husbands said it was a silly expense, but since it made us happy, they didn’t mind too much. On days when we watched our kids play together, Toni and I liked to read the articles and essays aloud to each other in television announcer voices.
“Billie Jean King got named the first Sports Illustrated Sportswoman of the Year!” Toni said.
“Yeah, and the Roe case…”
“Who gives a fuck?” Toni said. And she walked away.
Toni wasn’t fine.
She finally went to the doctor. Sean took the boys out for a movie and ice cream. The guys in the apartment teased him about it. They said that if a husband worked all day, all week he shouldn’t have to watch the kids on his time off. If he kept this up, their wives would want the same thing from them.
While I waited for Toni to come back from her appointment, I lay in a chaise lounge by the pool and tried to look like I was sunbathing and reading and drinking ice water. A flimsy excuse to be right there the minute Toni came through the gate.
Doris, the woman on the chaise lounge beside me, was the queen of poolside gossip. I always tried to ignore her. She was probably in her forties. But she seemed old. The kind of old that’s just mean. When she smiled, it looked like it hurt her face. And even when she had something nice to say about women, especially the younger ones, it had barbs in it.
On Doris’s transistor radio, Carole King was singing “Where you lead, I will follow” about following some guy anywhere he tells her to. The gossip queen lavished Coppertone suntan lotion on her body and said, “I was so sorry to hear about what happened to Toni.”
“Oh, she’s fine now,” I lied.
Doris reached over and put one oiled hand on my shoulder. Her dragon lady red nails rested like claws on my skin.
“I have to say this,” she said.
No, you don’t, I thought, and I rolled my shoulder away from her hand.
“It’s just that … Toni shouldn’t have been wearing a bathing suit like that. Not alone. At night.”
I got up so quickly I knocked over my plastic glass, and my gin and tonic sloshed over the edge and into the pool. “You think that would have made any damn difference?!”
“Sweetie, don’t get mad. I know you girls think the world is changing. And maybe it is, honey. But men don’t change. Don’t tempt them. Don’t make it easy for them to hurt you.”
Toni was behind me. I sensed her even before her shadow showed on the deck. I turned to hug her. She didn’t hug me. She wore pink ballet flats, white shorts, and a loose white tank top. She dropped her purse on the deck, and slipped out of her shoes.
“What did the doctor say?” I asked quietly.
“He said, ‘Congratulations’!”
It knocked the breath out of me.
“Yeah. That’s what he fucking said.” She shook her head. “I said, ‘Fuck,’ and the nice doctor looked at me like I was crazy.”
I tried again to hug Toni, but she stepped back and put her arms out, palms facing me, like she was going to push me away.
“I lied when you asked me if…” She whispered the words, and tipped her head back to keep tears from falling. She turned away from me and walked to the diving board. Still dressed, she dived.
There wasn’t a damn thing I could do to make anything better for her. To change a thing.
I watched her swim for a while. Admired those graceful strokes of hers that I could never do as well. And then I followed her.
We sliced into the water. Diving. Again and again. Deep into the bright blue heart of it, touching the bottom, and holding hands and coming up for air. Like mermaids from the deep.
Leah Baer is a seventy-four-year-old writer and lover of life. She has read and done storytelling at Burnt Tongue, Booklover’s Burlesque, Unchaste Readers, Grief Rites, The Poe Show, Songbook PDX, and ROAR Fierce Female Storytelling. Leah has been filmed for two documentaries: What I Couldn’t Say Then about surviving childhood abuse and ROAR about female voices finally being heard in the twenty-first century. Leah recently read an essay by Catherine Conroy called “Are we all difficult women now?” about brave women who fought for decades for women’s freedom in Ireland. The essay ended with these words: “The future has an ancient heart.” Leah thinks this just might be her first tattoo.
Leah took her first Corporeal Writing class with Lidia Yuknavitch in 2015. And it—and the community she found there—changed her life. She is now writing her memoir and studying at the Corporeal Writing center. The last time Leah dared to submit a short story was in 1973; she submitted to a brand new publication called Ms. magazine. The second time she had the courage to submit was in 2018 when she submitted to VoiceCatcher. “What Our Bodies Were Then” is Leah’s first published story.