During my sixteenth year, on the appointed day, in the appointed place and at the appointed hour, I met up with Sandra and Maria, my best friends at the time. Geared up for a fight, I wore jeans, sneakers, a baggy long sleeved t-shirt and my hair in a ponytail. As I stretched my legs near a park bench, Maria offered some Vaseline from a jar from which I scooped out a handful, slathering it over every area of my body that was exposed, paying particular attention to my face.
In a few minutes I was to come face to face with my nemesis and opponent, Claudette Newland. We were going to "throw down" in front of a large crowd that had heard about the fight and was beginning to gather in anticipation of what promised to be an easy win for Claudette. She was, after all, at least fifty pounds heavier than me, and definitely stronger and tougher.
All of my friends, however, had every expectation that it was Claudette who would be getting her ass kicked. No doubt I would win this fight, and from now on Claudette would have to honor my posse and me. The truth was that this fight wasn't just about me. Although no one said it, it was understood that I was representing my crew in its claim for respect.
As I made sure that my face was slippery, that my shoelaces were tied, that I was agile and limber, I secretly hoped and prayed that no one would notice my knees shaking or detect the giant knots forming in my stomach. What the hell was I thinking, I thought to myself as I sparred with the air. Then I remembered the prank phone calls Claudette had repeatedly made to my house, and it all made sense.
Her taunts were always the same: "I'm gonna kick your ass, you little bitch."
Finally I'd had enough of her shit and blurted out, "Oh yeah, come and get me then."
That had been enough for her to show up in my building with a gang of about twenty people armed with bats and God knows what else in search of my skinny ass to make mincemeat of. When the downstairs buzzer rang that day, instinct told me that it would be for me and that it wasn't exactly going to be the Girl Scouts.
Very matter-of-factly, I'd instructed my father to go downstairs and say that I wasn't home. He returned flabbergasted and extremely concerned, and demanded to know what mess I'd gotten myself into this time. Somehow, I managed to retain my composure and keep the whole thing under wraps as Claudette and her gang proceeded a few blocks to Sandra and Maria's house. Fortunately, their mother had enough sense to sic Maxi the Rottweiler on them, forcing them to retreat, albeit temporarily. But by then, I had become angry and when Claudette called to threaten me again that night, I blurted out that I'd be happy to kick her ass on such and such day, and in such and such place. Now that day had arrived, and as I prepared to fight her, I wondered how in the world I was really going to kick her ass.
She was a big, fat, ugly, ghetto homegirl who was used to fighting. I was no match for her, for I wasn't really a tough girl. It was all just a facade. I was just a wannabe. In truth, I was more of a rebellious bookworm whose shyness was often mistaken for snottyness. I'd had fights in the past, usually a result of having to defend myself against bullies. I was always trying to prove myself because I needed to feel that I belonged somewhere, even if it was with the tough crowd. This was one of those times. I had opened my big mouth and now I would have to back up my words with action.
Except that now I was terrified. I had no confidence that I was going to win anything, except maybe a black eye or a bloody lip and plenty of humiliation for sure. Claudette was really tough and she was related to or connected to really tough people and I wasn't. Although my friends all rallied around me, I felt like a pathetic fraud and wondered how they would ever respect me or want to be my friends after the fight.
Soon the park was packed with spectators and suddenly there was hushing and whispering among the crowd. Claudette and her people had arrived. I wanted to run away as fast as I could, but could not at that moment come up with a justifiable excuse. There was no way out. So, instead, I took a deep breath and slogged along behind my friends towards what was by now a massive and expectant crowd. Claudette stood in the center with her arms crossed, waiting. She looked me up and down with hate and superiority. Pride and adrenaline must have kicked in, because I found myself looking at her directly in the eye.
"Well?" I said, "you said you were gonna kick my ass. I'm here now, so come and get me, bitch."
"Oh, yeah?" she countered, and with that, she lunged at me like a tiger.
Somehow I found myself still standing after a few seconds. I remember fighting hard to keep my balance and struggling to keep her hands away from my face as we grappled. I heard catcalls and taunts from distant, unfamiliar voices but they were muffled by the sounds of my own heavy breathing. I knew that if I went down it would be all over for me, so I concentrated on keeping Claudette at arm's length, all the while trying to get a decent right hook in. Surprisingly, I managed to get Claudette in a headlock and, once she was bent over, her balance was compromised and I was able to trip her, flip her over and throw her to the ground. When she landed on her back, the crowd started cheering. I heard familiar voices calling out words of encouragement:
"Go, Karen, that's it. Fuck her up."
"Yo, Karen, you got her, man!"
"Oh, shit! Claudette's getting her ass kicked."
"Let's hear you talk shit now, bitch."
The fervor was contagious. I was bursting with adrenaline, and a rush of confidence took over. Claudette lay on the ground writhing as I straddled her, pinning her arms down with my knees. With all my might, I punched her in the face several times before she regained strength and threw me off. There were plenty of supporters getting close to us on the ground, egging me on as I tried to bang her head on the concrete.
Then, suddenly, everything went in slow motion. I saw a flash of light as my head jerked back. I began to feel weak, and the next thing I knew there was a big commotion in front of me as someone helped me up. People were yelling as I was being pulled away. I saw Claudette being pulled away, too, but she seemed upset and was shouting something in my direction. Slowly I realized that her huge older brother Louie, a/k/a Bubba, was being restrained from attacking me! Apparently he had seen his sister getting beat up and saw fit to intervene by kicking me in the head.
As I regained my composure, I was led away to safety, away from the park and away from the fight. I was tired and sore, but relieved to learn I only had some minor scrapes, the biggest one on my knee. The worst part was over. Sandra's mother was cursing at Bubba in Spanish, and, judging from what everyone else was saying, it hadn't been a fair fight. I didn't care. I had faced my fears, hadn't I? All I wanted now was to go home. I wasn't interested in proving anything to anyone anymore.
My mother, however, had different ideas. Upon seeing me walk into our home with torn jeans and a knot on my forehead, she sat me down and demanded an explanation. I could see that she was very angry and that I wasn't going to be able to simply brush her away this time. So I told her everything, as my sister listened in with awe. When I was done, my mother informed me that we would be going to the local precinct right then and there.
Clearly, she was on a mission now and, despite my best efforts to stop her, her mind was made up. I was forced to tell the cops what happened.
Still angry the following day, my mother went to the Newland residence to serve Bubba a summons to appear in court for assault. How she handled that situation with her bad English, I'll never know, for I was too embarrassed to accompany her. I was not about to show up at Claudette's house looking like a Mama's girl after I had fought so hard for my reputation. Better to leave my new-found tough girl status intact, I thought.
And so it came to pass that on the appointed day, Bubba's eyes met mine as he apologized to me for having kicked me in the head. We were in front of a mediator, my mother and I, along with the entire Newland clan and a few of their friends. What I had expected was plenty of attitude and fresh hostility from my enemies. Instead, I was shocked by their cooperation and apparent regret of their actions. I accepted the apology and was relieved when Bubba was instructed not to come near me for a specified length of time.
As I walked out of that room, I felt ashamed for having participated in what had become a big mess and for disappointing my mother. She was a good mother; she didn't deserved this. In that instant, I made a promise to myself that I would try harder to be a good daughter and to stay out of trouble, no matter how un-cool that made me. Come to think of it, being a tough girl didn't make me feel so cool after all!
Copyright © 2007 by Karen Contreras