"Right in his Belly!"

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


She adored arousing me, captivating me with my own erotic desires. She flirted with her hot eyes, her wiles, her smiles, her clothes. And she knew the way to get a straight grip on me was to flaunt her sensual bare belly.

And she did. She was my belly-button girl. Her bare navel entranced me. I knelt reverently and, arms thrown back, leaned my face toward her bare belly for a worshipful kiss on her belly-button. But the goddess pulled back, wagged a finger at me, and said, "If you want to kiss this belly-button, you're going to have to fight for me."

She exulted, holding me on my knees by the leash of my own desire. My lust for her sweet belly-button. Her lush hips. Her bare belly. Holding my leash, yanking me with a rude tug, to lure me and send me into places where I am sure to get my belly beat up. POW! WHOMP! THUD! Right in the belly! Then she'll watch me rolling on the floor, moaning like a slut, sucking air.

And she'll smile.

She dresses me for the fight. No shirt. Just my jeans. Low-waisted, too. My belly bare and vulnerable. She might as well have painted a bull's eye on my belly. I stuck my belly out; and I paid the price for it. Right in the belly! And that's how she wanted it.

I rushed at my rival. And the next thing I felt was a cannonball fist fired into my soft belly.

My mouth flew open. "OOUFF!!"

He had simply ducked out of the way and slammed his fist right smack into my belly. And I ran right into it. Right straight into a punch in the belly. He simply ducked down and slugged me right in my belly.

I felt his fist plunge in my belly, and my mouth flew open and I said OOUFF! and doubled up and grabbed my bare belly with both hands.

And I heard her rich-toned voice furl itself around me, with a hot-blooded, cold-hearted "oooooh, right in the belly!"

And now I'm standing there with my mouth hanging open, breathless, stunned, helpless, and he swings his hip and thuds another bellypunch full in my stummik. I let go another "OOOUFFFF!!" Then an uppercut thuds me right in the pit of my stomach.

My mouth flies open. OOUFF!! His fist pulls out, but my stomach is still crushed. I can't breathe. All I can do is groan out long, low belly-ache moans. ooouuuooooh! No self-control. Hands to my stomach and doubled over, I'm totally vulnerable.

And while I do that, my rival is posing for the girl who is watching this with a cruel, erotic smile. He knows he doesn't have to worry about me. I won't give him any trouble. I'm too absorbed in my belly-ache. I just stand there, trying to press my knees up against my punched stomach. I cann't help it. I just stand there and suffer like a wimp. Like a pot-bellied wimp.

He could have put me out right then, but instead he chose to show off for her and use my stomach for a punching bag.

And I'm owned, My rival is emptying all the male cool out of me, one punch at a time, all to my belly. Pumping me dry. And I'm giving it up. OOF! OOF! OOF! Right there in front of her. And she makes no effort to disguise the pure pleasure she takes in this. Seeing me like that and knowing my bellyache was her doing.

Making sure I see the pure pleasure she takes in watching me get my belly beat up.

He pushed me back and I fell into the wall. It hurt! I arched my back out. And of course that just made me stick out my bare belly.

Another punch pounded my stomach. My humiliated belly swallowed the whole thing, and it threw me back to the wall. He followed through with a spin move that jabbed his elbow back into the pit of my stomach.

UUUUUHH!! My poor belly. I clapped my hands over my belly and howled. Then I made empty noises with my wide-open mouth as I tried to breathe.

He turned and pulled me upright, then he gave me two judo punches right in the stomach, one-two, with his fists hard and slim as the edge of a board. They stunned my soft belly, and I folded forward.

Instant, devastating, humiliating agony. Publicly stripped of pride. Pot-bellied, beaten in the belly, punched in the stomach. Getting all the breath socked out of me.

Revealed as a breathless, bellyaching wimp. Something no woman ever would desire or accept. Just a soft-bellied oaf. Easy to beat. Wind him with a quick punch in his belly, and keep him that way till you have him belly-up on the floor.

I fell to my knees, in front of the rival who had just slugged me in the stomach. Kneeling and powerless to rise. The other man's fist in my belly hit the spring that held me together, and I fell apart. Just like that. Soft in the belly. While my rival stands over me.

I took a humiliation-beating. Right in the belly.

Once a man's given you a bellybeating, there's no going back to equality. Forever after, you are his inferior. Especially if beautiful girls see it.

And if you ever want a girl to respect you, never let her see you in a fight that ends with the other man's heel planted in your belly. Because she always will see you like that.

"You can't take it in the belly."

To be so beaten like that, helpless, suffering, defenseless, and all in my belly! And with that girl's gaze watching, rapt, focused on me in that state. Such a humiliating way to be beat up. To be taunted and mocked and called names. To end up flat out with him taking a victory stomp on my belly. No one who saw that would ever picture me in any other position.

She stood there, watching him use my belly for his personal punching bag. Clapping, laughing, encouraging him. She was the kind of girl who not only would tolerate a bully, she would egg him on.

"That's it! Hit him again! Right in the belly! Yeah! Can't take it in the belly. Give him another one. Right in his belly. Go on, hit him in the belly. That's his soft spot. Oh, yes. Right there. Look at him! He can't take it in the stomach. Can't take it in the belly!"

Through the whole fight.

In the end he made me perform for her.

"Go on, wimp. beg her for mercy. Beg her to make me stop punching your belly!"

"Please, make him stop punching me."

She waited, then smiled and purred, "Stop punching you where, darling?"

"In my belly."

"I can't hear you."

"In my belly! I can't take it in the belly!"

She sneered. "Beat his belly!" she ordered.

He beat me slow and hard for another half an hour, giving me plenty of time to suffer and beg between the punches.

He didn't even have to beat ME. He merely beat my belly. And the rest of me was nothing. He didn't have to think about my smarts or my strategy. All that brainpower means nothin to a man if he can't take it in the belly in a fistfight.

A judo chop to my belly. "UUMMMPPPPHHH." Again I drop to knees as my deflated lungs suck air and ache burns in my belly.

"Oh, right in his pot belly. Hey, wimp. You're gettin' your belly beat! Come on, hit the pot-bellied wimp! Hit his belly!"

He reaches down and pulls me to my feet by the arms. "Say 'I have a soft belly,' " he hisses. I hesitate. Out of the corner of my eyes I see her watching. He drops his right hand to waist-level, snaps it into a fist and drives it full force square into the center of my stomach. His fist disappears. My belly swallows it whole before bouncing it back out.

"H-OOOOOOOO!!" I wail as I fall and roll onto my side, clutching my knotted stomach with both arms. He looks down at me, grabs me and pulls me back up.

He winds up and delivers one last punch into the meat of my stomach. The soft bellyflesh absorbs his fist. He lets me drop and curl into a fetal position, sobbing.

He kicks me in the belly. With a sharp "UUH!" I take the boot to the belly and tighten up in my curl. The girls applaud and laugh.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


My first job out of college has nothing to do with what I studied. But that’s the way it works for most guys I know.

A friend says newspaper jobs are there to be had, for anyone willing to put up with high stress and low wages. His dad is a copy editor. I interview a few places and take a job with a small paper at the New Jersey shore. I want to be near the ocean and the girls. I rent an apartment over Treasures of the Sea, a shop where people buy flip-flops and inflatable sea horses. Two years later I’m not making as much as most of my buddies from college, but I seem to be having more fun. Especially in the summer season, when the girls from Philly come down.

My co-workers are a bunch of young guys like myself, some already tied down and miserable in marriage, all of them cynical, rammy, argumentative. The editor, Don, has worked at big city dailies since he dropped out of high school and has come here to decelerate from 60-hour work weeks so his heart lasts long enough so he can retire. He pretty much lets us run the ship, though he drills us in the rules and collars us when we get sloppy with attributions. The one thing he fears is that we’ll get him sued. The one thing we don’t like about him is that he brings in Ellen Sabatini twice a week to grind up our writing and spit it out.

Don and Ellen had worked together for years in D.C., and he says she knows writing style inside and out. She is divorced and lives with her kids, and Don found enough room in the budget to pay her to come in twice a week. He says he figures she needs the money. The reporters repeat a rumor that Ellen had worked as a stripper, maybe still does. Just something someone thought he had overheard. There are always rumors. Like that Don and Ellen had been lovers. You never believe them, but they sink in like tattoo ink and pretty soon you find yourself acting as if they were true.

The reporters hate Ellen. She is harsh, sour, brusque—they call her the Blue Pencil Bitch. It gets to be a joke: Steve or someone will walk by my desk Tuesday morning and say, “Watch your ass; BPB’s here. Just saw her pull up.” But you have to be quiet about it because Don won’t stand for gripes about her. I tell the jokes and make wisecracks, too, but secretly I like what Ellen does. She takes my half-thought-out stories and lazy language and slaps them into shape, makes them stand up straight and pay attention. “Say it like you mean it,” she’ll say.

Ellen is about 42. A few strong gray hairs curl in her mane like dolphins. Ellen’s face makes me think of a wolf. It pushes toward a point. Above sharp brown eyes, her brows angle toward the bridge of her long nose. Her mouth is small and puckered to a purse by crowded teeth. It works more easily into sneers than smiles. Her small shoulders are girl-slender, though she has weight in her hips. She wears black dresses and silver bracelets. Her gestures are swan-smooth. Her walk, in flats, is erect, perfect. I can imagine a big atlas balanced on her head.

The reporters are usually relentlessly rational, but they let their loathing of Ellen lead them down crazy paths. Beer talk after work always finds its way to Ellen, before rock ‘n’ roll trivia but after ice hockey. Steve, who can pick apart the cover-ups in a police chief’s report, paints Ellen in the same conversation as a man-hungry slut and a man-hating dyke. Another time two of the guys try to convince me that, because Ellen never wears make-up, it proves she’s a tease trying to turn us on. It’s so nutty I can’t resist arguing.

I have a buzz on by then, I guess. Finally I say, “Well, I don’t care what she is; I think she’s sexy.”

Faces wrinkle around the table. “Why don’t you go for it, then,” Steve says and he punches my arm. Then the debate begins again about whether she is a lesbian or a slut and what kind of chance I’d have with her. But I stay out of it because I really am going to take a stab at seducing her.

She’s in again on Thursday. Ellen doesn’t have an office, of course, so she works us over in the lunchroom, amid the quiet gurgle of coffee pots and the clicks and hums of snack machines. It’s the only room in the building that has plants. People assume they’re plastic because they never grow or change, but they are real; I know because I touched them one day.

We sit on aluminum chairs with yellow plastic seats, at a round table of faded, scratched orange formica. I sit squared, my feet wrapped around the chair legs, hunched over a photocopy of one of my stories, which Ellen has scarred with small red handwriting. Ellen leans back in her chair, sitting side-saddle, legs crossed, her head turned to me but her body facing the window.

I try to divert her into flirtation. I’ve always chased girls a year or two younger than me. They seem easier to talk to, easier to impress. Ellen recognizes each attempt to manipulate the conversation, and she plays chess to my checkers. She keeps steering me back onto work.

She explains a word I had misused—gregarious—by refering to its Greek origin.

“You know Greek?” I say.

“I am Greek,” she smiles. I notch a point for me: I got her to smile.

“I thought you were Italian,” I say. “But that would be your married name, right?” I know I’m blowing it even as the words are coming out of me.

She waves me back to the clip.

“Never start a sentence with ‘it,’ “ she says. “You have here, ‘It looks like taxes will have to be raised.’ Just say, ‘Taxes may have to be raised.’"

“What’s wrong with the first way?”

“It sounds too passive.” As she says it she twists her wrist and her fingernails curl across the air like a flight of shore birds.

“Never start a sentence with ‘it,’ “ I tell her.

She tosses her head back and laughs, a deep, rich laugh.

I’m her fourth victim that morning and I take a chance that she’s ready for a break. “Wanna smoke?” I ask.

“Sure,” she says. She and I are the only two in the newsroom who smoke, though lots of advertising people do and the guys in the pressroom. You can’t smoke in the building because of the federal regulations, so smokers all wander out to the back entrance and stand around by the bushes, puffing. It looks like high school. Except no one has to keep an eye out for assistant principals.

We leave the clips on the table and walk past the roaring printing press and out the back door. The sun is bright and warm now. It’s one of those shore days where the weather changes every five minutes and you can forget about having the right clothes and just resign yourself to being hot or wet or cold much of the time.

I light my smoke and light hers as she cups her hand around my match. It’s smoker etiquette, but our hands touch. I lean back against one brace of the door, and she stands at the other. A sea fog washes silently over the building and shrouds us. It will be gone soon. We say nothing. I watch her dark features through the wet mist. Her hair is like a cowl.

I know a few things about Ellen the others don’t know because she and I have found ourselves alone out there a few times before and I’ve made conversation then, asking her about her kids, her career. Her kids are 11 and 13. She has a degree in classical mythology from Bryn Mawr. She edits book manuscripts. She rattled off a few authors’ names once: I recognized some of them. So she doesn’t need the money she gets from editing our clips. When I told her Don thinks he’s doing her a favor she laughed because she thought she was doing one for him.

I recall all this while we’re smoking. And I also remember a robin’s nest that no one else has noticed, even though it’s right where they all smoke. “Here, let me show you something.” I reach into a bush and part its stiff twigs and little white flowers.

We both lean. “Oh, look at that,” Ellen says. Two nests sit one inside the other, dirty teacups. I tell her how the robin built one last summer and hatched two eggs in it. Then one day they were all gone, the babies, the mother. I figured a snake or something ate them. But the next year she came back and built a new nest inside the old one. She hatched there again, but again they all vanished. While Ellen studies the cups of mud and grass I let my cheek brush against her hair.

All morning I’ve been pressing my fingers to the bruise on my sternum, which is where Tina beat on me the night before. We had met at a bar, and we seemed to hit it off. It was just a lot of fun walking the beach at night, just letting our ankles get wet, but once we got intimate she wanted to cling like glue and everything melted. Like I was suddenly not dealing with the same woman, like she turned into a space alien or started speaking another language. I tried to get her to recognize that it was just a fling, a shore thing that we’d both outgrown. She insisted on driving down all the way from Philly, just to go crazy and beat on my chest with her fists, then leave. As I press on the sore spots the sound of Tina’s sobs echoes in me, like a talking doll.

“What happened there?” Ellen asks.

I realize what I’ve been doing, and that this is the first time she’s ever asked me anything about myself. I wish she had started with a different topic. “Ah, this girl,” I say. “Real nut-case.” We both stand up straight but when I tell her the story it comes out wrong, like I’m the bad guy. I keep trying to tell it over until it sounds the way I want it to. I concentrate on the part where Tina’s hitting me, because at least I’m the victim there.

“Maybe she was trying to give you a ritual wound,” Ellen says, and she smiles.


“The ritual wound makes a man out of a shy child,” she says. She speaks slowly and crisply. “In the ancient cultures the village fathers, the old men and the hunters, would chant and mark the boy with something painful, like a scar, a burn to the flesh, a knocked-out tooth.”

She isn’t smiling. I want to say something clever.

“Yeah, well thank God she didn’t go for my teeth,” is the best I can do.

Ellen takes a long drag, turning her head a bit to the side, but keeping her narrow eyes on me. “You want to know what’s wrong, why she hit you?” she asks, smoking out the words. She doesn’t wait for an answer. “She’s angry because you fooled her. And not about that. You fooled her because you’re not a man yet.”

I feel hair on my head bristle. Who is she?

“Ah, whaddya mean,” I say. “I was president of my frat, I played three sports in high school, I’ve been hunting with my dad a million times. What, because I don’t send flowers after every date that makes me not a man? That’s bullshit.”

“You do the easy part,” she says. “You probably fool a lot of girls down here. But you’re not finished. Some things about being a man women know better than men do.”

I don’t say anything and I look at my shoes, because I’m trying to stack up her words again and figure out how to prove she’s wrong.

“Do you know I dance?” she says.

What’s the right answer? I think about the strip tease rumors. “I guess I do I say. “No. What do you mean?”

She laughs a little. “Belly-dance.” “Belly” comes lush and warm out of her mouth, like hot honey. She lets it flow, lets her tongue linger and turn on the double “L” I feel a shudder in my shoulders.

I nod. “You like it?”

“I’m giving a performance tonight, at the Art Center in Somers Point,” she says. “Come and see me. My kids are with their father. I want you to come up. I know a place we can go afterward.” My mind jumps. I’m thinking I’ve lost her, and then she turns around and practically pulls me into her bed. I swear that from now on I’m only ever going to seduce older women, divorcees. Why hadn’t I seen it before? They’re still desirable, and so much more worldly, and they’ll be so grateful.

“OK, great,” I say, trying to sound like it had been my idea. “It’s a date.”

* * *

Ellen’s performance is part of the annual open house at the Cape May County Art Center. Ellen, it turns out, is one of the directors as well as a dance instructor there. The art center is an old seaside mansion that was willed to the county. Its huge rooms have been cut up by poorly erected drywall into gallery space and recital halls. The dance studio is the former master bedroom, at the front of the second floor. It bows out in bay windows with a view of the sea. The crowd is mature, well-dressed, witty. They walk through the galleries, nodding at the watercolors and pastels, pausing just long enough at each one. Then they mount the wide oak staircase to the dance hall. Steel chairs are arranged in rows, facing the window. I sit off to one side.

Soon the lights dim. A spot focuses on a small parquet stage in front of the windows. Ellen runs in, on balls of her feet, trailing veils of pale blue that match the gauzy silken dress that snuggles down on her hips. Her top is a shapley band of gold sequins and coins. She stands still in the spotlight and as Middle Eastern music jitters from speakers, she begins to dance.

As she does, I discover the source of Ellen’s daily grace in gestures. But here there’s more. There are tides in her dance, and sunshine, and ancient wild places. Her wrists twine like vines in Eden. Some part of me feels awkward, like I’m seeing something secret or private and I ought to turn away. Like I’m hiding in ferns, watching a young girl swim nude in a pond. I can’t understand that because Ellen is more decently clothes than girls I see on the beach or in Ocean City Mall on summer evenings. So why is it scary?

I’m struck by her familiar face, hard, creased by lines at the lips and eyes, above a supple, smooth olive-brown body that plays hide-and-seek in the veils.

The veined hands that scribbled on my copy now make veils float away like living flames. Ellen, I think, is dancing for me: bare and heaving, belly-soft, deftly displaying her quivering landscape. It arouses me to think that. But I also know it isn’t for me and she doesn’t even know I’m in the place because all the lights are on her. She doesn’t seem to notice anyone. She’d be doing this if I wasn’t there or maybe if no one was there.

The music slows. Ellen stands still and wreathes her hands over her head and concentrates on flourishes of her oval belly. Ellen’s belly has a firm curve, and she lets it ripple and roll and undulate like wind over ripe wheat—I think pf the line from the Song of Solomon, the sexual part of the Bible, about how thy belly is like a hill of wheat and it makes sense for the first time.

The music stops, and I clap hard as I look at my wrist. I realize she has been dancing, and I’ve been motionless, for almost an hour. Ellen bows deeply forward, her hair sweeping the floor, and stands upright, tossing her head back. She smiles, and prances out of the room before the applause ends.

The crowd sifts out of the room, flows back downstairs for a wine and cheese reception. I sip a plastic cup of red wine and chat with county officials I recognize. My eyes flicker from their faces, eager for a glimpse of Ellen. Then she’s standing beside me. “Hi,” she says.

She wears a dull gray outfit, cashmere sweater and a skirt, but they don’t meet. The skirt is slung low on her hips, like the one she danced in, a few inches below her navel, and the top is cropped short above it.

“That was beautiful,” I say, but then some people crowd around Ellen and start gushing. I watch as Ellen stands, smiling, and lets the crowd spiral to her. I expect some man to make a move, but most of them, even the unattached ones, stay back, though they look and look. It’s the women who seem to be in love with her.

So I pretend to be interested in the paintings, and use the trick I learned earlier in the gallery: how many seconds to stare at something to seem like you’re actually looking at it. But as the room starts to clear, Ellen comes up to me and says, “Are you ready to go?” We walk across the street to a restaurant and go in through the tavern door. It’s dark, paneled, and plush. She slides into her chair. We order glasses of wine. I ask her where she learned to dance like that. She tells me her aunts taught her, and their aunts taught them, on back to Eve and Lilith for all she knows.

“Americans don’t understand belly-dance,” she says.

“Even some dancers don’t get it. I worked with one girl who told me, ‘I don’t like to call it belly dancing, because it’s not just about that,’ “ she imitates a flat nasal drawl. “So these dancers advertise classes in Middle Eastern folk dance or ethnic dance and they wonder who no women sign up. It’s not about folks; it’s not about ethnics. It’s about bellies; big, beautiful, bare, brazen bellies. I don’t know why everyone’s afraid of that word.” In Ellen’s mouth it sounds like the most sensuous word in the language.

I don’t even plot my conversation strategy. I just dive in. I tell her that when men talk about a woman’s body and its sexual qualities they skip right over the center: “Lips, tits, ass, legs, thighs, whatever. The only compliment they pay a girl’s stomach is if it’s flat. That always bothers me.” Actually, I’ve just now thought of it. “It’s like everybody’s missing a mid-section. Except you.”

She passes over the compliment. “I hate that look; women with muscle there, defined flat stomachs. They look like little boys.”

We have more wine. My eyes keep slipping from her face to her belly. It pulses when she laughs, or lolls on the lip of her tight skirt, the navel puckered and beckoning like a buxom courtesan from a Spanish balcony, like a lazy, wise Juliet. I keep imagining our bodies fitting together. Cool arms and hot breasts, slide into her, crush against her, thrust and reach up into her belly to just touch with the tip of me that glow, that quivering secret heart in her center.

“Time to go,” she says suddenly, standing.


“You drive. I’ll tell you how to get there.”

She directs me back over the marshes, then we drive five miles inland up among the stiff red pines. At last, she steers me into the sandy parking lot of a low roadhouse with one red Budweiser sign in the window and a row of Harleys by the door.

“This is your place,” she says.

“Doesn’t look like my place,” I say.

She follows me in. The bar stretches along the wall to our left, and before it, where I expect a dance floor, is a boxing ring. The banner above it reads “Thursday night tough man contest.” Then I remember I’ve heard about this place from one of the ad reps. It’s primitive. Any tough can claim the ring and take all challenges from all comers. Rivals brawl with knuckles, without rules. Well, if this is what turns Ellen on, I’m willing to watch, I think, but I don’t even believe myself. It’s not going to be that simple. I’m lightheaded, from the drinks, from dreams of swimming into the body I had seen dance, and now from the sense of having stepped into a space from a very different, older dream.

“Him,” Ellen says.

I follow her eyes to the ring. He’s bald, well-muscled, broad-shouldered, pale; he has handlebar mustaches like the tusks of a wild boar.

“What about him?”

“You’re going to fight him now,” she says, she begins to unbutton my shirt.

My heart goes cold. “Whoa, wait a minute,” I try to take her hands off me.

“Shut up and do it,” she commands. She peels the shirt off my shoulders and bunches it up under her arm.

“But I don’t ...”

Her eyes blaze and she stands up straight and squares her shoulders to face me with a small rippling of her whole body that makes her seem a foot taller. Was that a move from her dance? It’s like she reached in my head and grabbed something and threw it into a cage. I can see it clanging the bars and straining its mouth, but I can’t hear it.

“Here’s what you do,” she says. “Are you listening?” I nod yes. Just then the jukebox kicks up and she had to put her face to my ear and yell. I feel the warmth of her breath tickling my neck and her small hands grip my houlders. “Protect your face and your head. Keep your hands up, and keep them close. Give him your body. Give it to him. He won’t kill you, but if he gets to your head he might. Don’t even try to throw a punch. Just stand in there and take it.”

“I don’t know if I can,” I say quietly. Dreams of the imminent lasciviousness of her body have drained out of me. Instead my mind is full of the mountain I have to leap over before I meet Ellen face to face in passion.

She is trying to teach me this. She is trying to teach me to become someone who can find her.

“You’ll do it. Give me your glasses. And your keys. Now go.”

I climb into the ring, so weak my wrists can hardly part the ropes. My mind has sheared away from my body, like it does in fevers. I’m hot but I’m shivering.

Stripped of my shirt, in just jeans, I feel lights glare against my bare chest, and hear the biker women hiss. The man facing me looks like a fist, his whole body seems to be a huge disembodied fist and my hands move to mask him from my face. I offer him my bare belly, the pale un-muscled meat in the center of me.

He quick-steps toward me, unbends his elbow, and sinks a solid fist plump into my stomach. He slings his flat fist like a hammer, and drives the punch deep into me.

I hear my mouth utter a guttural “OOUFF!,” a sound out of my core, more loud and deep than any I ever made. First I feel the shock and pain of being violated, then something swells rapidly inside me like a balloon, an ache that crowds out everything. Every second of my life, waking and sleeping, from the cutting of the cord, I had drawn breath without thinking. Now breath will not come to replace the one smacked from me.

He whomps me with another belly-slammer. His knuckles grind like granite against my belly. No breath is left to lose, so the voice that comes out of me makes an empty sound like “illll.” The next thing I know my eyes are trying to focus on my fingers, which are splayed on the white canvas. I’m down on my knees, head hanging, mouth limp and wet, sucking air. My belly is a heavy, cold knot.

I know there’s noise around me, but I hear only silence. Then a girl’s harsh laugh from the floor blows faintly through me. “Uh, right in the gut,” she says, and her voice rings in tones of sympathy but the words have the shape of a mouth that is smiling. The sound makes my heart damp with shame. My consciousness of posture rushes back and it wants to do something, to be something to make that girl stop laughing at me. But just as quickly something bigger whelms up over the shame and tells me to get up and take it again. I’ve been struck like a match. I felt the glow, then lost it.

Now it is my choice. I moan and shake my buckled knees out straight and I stand. I catch my rival’s sneer that says, ‘You haven’t learned your lesson yet, punk?’ I am calm, though cramped with pain. I dare him on to finish. I can’t speak, but I can gesture. He seems to hesitate.

I throw myself on the man, not to topple him but to seek impalement. I clutch his shoulders, leaving my body unprotected and his arms and hands free to work.

He scythes punches up into my stomach with both fists, thudding my belly like a drum, convulsing it in violent ripples. The shock of the blows shatters walls in me. He is beating me like clay, breaking brittleness, yes, but leavening jelly into sinew, making stiff into supple. My jerking writhe is a true dance, which Ellen knows because she has danced it long ago and now she shadows it in her perfumed performance.

He shoves my back against a corner, I catch the top ropes, steadying myself, but that grip poses my body arched and open, and just as I’m at my most vulnerable he torques a shoulder and pitches a punch that belts me full in the belly.

I clutch my gut and bend far forward. My knees cave and I plunge down. My shoulder takes the fall, and I roll onto my back and lie prone, knuckles to the canvas above my head in the speechless gesture of full submission known of every beast that hunts in packs.

That ends the affair. He strolls to his corner to take the glory of the boast and accept the hot caressing smiles of rifle-hipped redneck girls. But I have my own prize; an aching empty gut, hollow like a womb, that no joy will ever wholly fill.

Soon I can draw a full breath and the ceiling stops spinning. Then, as my diaphragm works in deeper and deeper draughts, I find I’m gulping sobs. Not from pain, the pain is over. I crawl to the edge of the ring and drop out of it, finding the floor with my feet.

“Ellen!” I shout, heedless of the crowd of shadows, the large music. “Ellen!” I throw my arms over her shoulders and she lets me and I cling about her and weep in her hair. She drapes my shirt over me.

Then she pulls away and says, “We have to get out of here.” She grabs my wrist and quickly she pulls me through the door as I push my arms through the sleeves.

She opens the car door for me, on the passenger side. I sink down into the seat and the movement shoots little knives into my body. She gets behind the wheel and sees me wince.

“Any pain in the ribs?” she asks.

“No,” I say. “He didn’t hit ribs. Just guts.”

She drives back to the art center. We don’t speak. I feel all the red and black things come surging back into my chest. I feel humiliated, opened, violated, stripped. Yet where they once would have filled me, now these things crouch in one closet of a mansion that seems much larger than I had known. I search for anger toward Ellen but I can’t find any. Instead I catch a sob in my throat. I don’t know where it comes from; somewhere down deep.

* * *

She parks my car next to hers, turns off the engine, and gets out, leaving the keys in the ignition. She walks around to my side. I can’t see her face, just her belly framed in the open window. She tells me, “In a few days you’ll feel like yourself and I’ll have you over to my place for a big feast.”