A Stun Gun is No Match for a Car
My first round submission for the NYC Midnight Short Story 2020 competition.
Note: I was given “romantic comedy” as my genre, which I do not believe I have any talent for writing in (I’m a sci-fi and psychological horror gal at heart), but somehow I came in fourth in this round and I’m moving on to round two! My apologies in advance; we were given a genre, subject, and character to use, a 2500 word max, and seven days to complete it, so as I review it now, there are several passages I would have liked to fix, but I wanted to post it “as submitted” here.
Julie paused on the sidewalk in front of the house, looked up at the house number, and searched for the same number on her clipboard. Bingo — she found the house. Her lips stretched into a wide smile, and she drew in a deep breath. It’s time to get this voter excited about her candidate, she thought, as she marched up to the front door and rang the doorbell.
She stood up straight, smiled, and silently rehearsed her opening line:
‘Hello! I’m a volunteer with the Gustafson campaign — ’
She heard the doorknob rattle, followed by the squeak of a door opening. But when she saw the man inside the doorway, her smile faded.
The words ‘Anger Management’ were handwritten on the whiteboard at the front of the classroom. At the back of the room was a wall covered with flyers. When Julie arrived, the rows of chairs were empty, and she carefully inspected each seat before settling for the one with the least number of questionable stains — several chairs appeared to be covered with specks of blood.
She wore a pair of fashionably casual khaki hiking pants (that had never seen a mountain), light pink, pressed t-shirt (wrinkles were always unacceptable), and a pink and brown pair of hiking shoes that had not one speck of dust on them. Waiting for the rest of the class to arrive, she twirled a lock of her carefully styled hair between two fingers and wondered what the other people would be like. Criminals? Abusers? She desperately hoped to see other women who were like her. Normal. Respectable. Good wives and devoted mothers.
But as the others arrived, not a single other female entered the room. Instead, one by one, an assortment of men arrived. The ‘soccer dad’ types wearing bright colored shirts and jeans or cargo pants, a few blue-collar types in their frayed jeans and worn-out white t-shirts. One man wore a business suit, complete with a jacket and tie. There was a very young man — Julie thought he looked the same age as her oldest son who was only 23. Another younger looking man was round in the face and belly, wore jeans, a white t-shirt, and an unbuttoned red flannel shirt. He had a curiously narrow mustache above his small lips; it looked like he’d accidentally shaved off both ends about a quarter of an inch inside the corners of his lips.
“Are you okay?” A faint, male voice spoke out from behind Julie. It was Lee, the instructor. He crouched down so that he was eye level with Julie, placing his hand on the back of her chair to stay balanced.
Julie turned toward him, nodded, then turned back to face forward, closing her eyes and taking an exaggerated deep breath, hoping he would go away.
“You’re doing great,” he said. “Now remember, you want to breathe slowly, and visualize your diaphragm filling with a deep, cleansing breath.”
Julie sighed. Is this really supposed to help?
“Remember, it is perfectly fine if your mind wanders from your breath,” Lee continued, addressing the entire class in a louder, albeit calm, voice. “When you find yourself lost in thought, gently set it aside so you can return your focus to your breath.”
But rather than clearing her mind, every breath Julie drew in caused her mind to fill with turbulent emotions; feelings of anger, sadness, and frustration. She’d given her ex-husband 26 years, 4 months and 3 days of the best years of her life. She’d sacrificed every dream, every interest, every hobby, so that her two sons would have happy childhood. She labored to ensure they were well educated, and immersed in meaningful activities.
Breathe in. You left me for some harlot.
Breathe out. I gave you the best years of my life.
Breathe in. I want to beat your head in with a stick.
Breathe out. This is all my fault…
Julie’s closed eyes rapidly filled with hot tears. It felt like a sharp knife had been thrust deep into her belly. A quiet sob escaped from her throat before she could stop it.
“Um, excuse me,” a different male voice spoke. Julie opened her eyes to see the man with the small mustache and plaid shirt staring at her. “Are you going to cry? Because it’s really messing up my Chi,” he said in an earnest voice.
“Give me a fucking break,” murmured one of the soccer dads
“Sorry,” Julie whispered, putting her head down.
“Okay, everyone, let’s stay focused on our breathing,” Lee chimed in, his arms raised as if he were conducting an out-of-tune orchestra. “We are all on different journeys. We all arrived here from different paths.
“If something distracts you,” Lee continued, “use it as an opportunity to explore how that distraction makes you feel.”
After a few more excruciating minutes of breathing, the class was finally over. Julie grabbed her purse and jumped to her feet, eager to leave the entire experience behind her.
“Julie,” Lee called out. Julie froze and spun around. “Do you have a minute?” He motioned her to come back to the front row and sit down.
“I really need to get going,” Julie lied, turning back toward the door.
“I just had a quick question, but I understand if you have another obligation,” Lee spoke with a mawkish tone that made Julie’s lip sneer with suspicion. But she turned around; she had a bad habit of never being able to say no.
“I only have a few minutes, but then I really need to get going,” she said, walking to the front of the room. She examined the chair directly in front of Lee, saw the stains, and said, “I’ll just stand.”
“Listen,” Lee spoke in a hushed voice as the classroom dwindled down to just Julie and Chi man, who was shuffling through his handouts in the back row. “I see that you are only signed up for one class, and I wondered how you ended up here to begin with?” His lips formed an amused smile. “I mean, well to be honest, I don’t see many women in my anger management classes, and, uh,” he paused to reconsider his next words. “What I’m trying to get at, is that most people are ordered to attend at least three sessions. I was curious how you only had the one? But of course, you don’t need to explain anything, I just wanted to make sure I had my information right. Just one class then?”
Julie held her breath, trying to search for a way to explain her situation that didn’t make her sound like she’d come undone.
“Right there,” Lee observed, pointing at Julie. “You are feeling something. What is it? Remember, this is what we were practicing, back when we were meditating. What emotions are you feeling right this very second?”
“I uh, I don’t,” Julie stammered. “Embarrassed? I don’t know, maybe a little defensive? Maybe a little ashamed for what I did?” Julie paused, startled by the clarity of that moment. It was as if she were watching all of those emotions floating in the air around her, while feeling momentarily detached from all of them.
“That’s good Julie, that’s really good,” Lee answered. “And you don’t have to tell me, it’s really none of my business. I’m sorry if my question caused you to feel all of those negative emotions.”
Julie looked at Lee; he wasn’t what she’d expected an anger management teacher to be like, not that she had any idea. He wore a light-blue, untucked, button-up shirt with an open collar, white pants that were rolled up at his ankles, and a pair of brown leather loafers with no socks. His clothing, tan skin, and bright blue eyes made him seem youthful, but the lines near his mouth and eyes, and those small flecks of grey in his hair suggested he might be closer to her age. Whatever his age, there was no denying that he was an attractive man. Julie returned his smile with a grin of her own.
“And if you think this class was helpful, I offer a guided meditation session at — ”
“Of course you do,” Julie interrupted, barely stifling a snicker. The revelation jolted her out of her temporary stupor. The phrase ‘guided meditation’ invoked thoughts of over-educated, politically correct, conceited, vegan, gun-hating, tree-hugging snowflakes. Everything she wasn’t.
Lee’s smile faded.
“I’m sorry, that was rude,” she apologized, and she meant it.
“Listen,” she sighed, feeling obligated to answer his question. “I’m here because I vandalized a car, okay?” She hoped that was enough.
“You were ordered to attend anger management class because you vandalized a car?” Lee asked, looking confused. “It seems like that would be more like a citation or something.”
“No, no that’s not what happened. I wasn’t ordered by a judge.” Julie drew in a breath, trying to stay calm. “The person whose car I vandalized said she wouldn’t press charges if I agreed to go to this ridiculous class, okay?”
Lee looked confused but said nothing.
“Okay, so here’s the story,” Julie shifted nervously from one hip to another, afraid that saying it out loud would sound worse than it already sounded in her head. “I went for a run. And I always run with my stun gun, you know, for protection?”
“It was just after my husband asked me for a divorce. He’d just moved out of the house, and I knew he left me for another woman, but I didn’t know who,” Julie paused, drawing in a deep breath.
“So,” she continued, “I ran past a house where this person I know, Susan, lives. Let’s just say we’ve had our disagreements over the years, okay? Anyways, when I got to her house, I saw my ex-husband’s car parked in her driveway. Now, it was 4:30 in the morning, so there was really only one explanation of why his car would be there right?”
Julie looked at Lee for a response, but he just sat expressionless as he listened.
“I was furious. I mean, we’d been married for 25 years, we have two grown kids, and I had no idea he was cheating on me, and it’s just been…” Julie paused, fighting back against the wave emotions that were beginning to erupt.
“Take a breath,” Lee said quietly.
“I went to his car, and I took out my stun gun, and I — ”
A sudden, loud outburst of laughter erupted from the back of the classroom. Julie and Lee turned to see Chi man standing there laughing.
“You tried to electrocute the car?” Chi man cracked up. “How did that work out for you?”
Julie gritted her teeth and shook her head.
“Could you please excuse us,” Lee said to Chi man, waving him toward the door. “I’m sorry Julie. Please continue.”
“Of course he’s right,” Julie shrugged. “The stun gun didn’t do anything except almost shock the hell out of me. So I smashed the stun gun into the side of the door, again and again, until the stun gun shattered into little pieces. And suddenly Susan was there, telling me she recorded the entire thing on her doorbell camera, and she’s called the police. Then I see a man walk up behind her,” she paused, starting to cry.
“I’m so sorry you had to learn about your husband’s affair that way,” Lee whispered.
“But that’s just it,” Julie sobbed. “It wasn’t my husband’s car after all. Turns out her new boyfriend has the same car. But it was still dark, and I hadn’t noticed the license plate. I just saw the car and lost my mind.”
“I’m so sorry,” Lee said again.
“So anyways,” Julie said, regaining her composure, “Susan said she wouldn’t press charges if I went to an anger management class. She’s always acted like she’s so much better than me, so much smarter than me, more educated, and whatever,” Julie shrugged, frowning. “Maybe she’s right,”
“So, what’s next for you,” Lee asked. “Have you thought about what your life looks like moving forward?”
Julie shook her head.
“Well, I know you said you needed to leave,” Lee said, standing up. “The flyer for my guided meditation class is back there,” he pointed to the back of the classroom. “I believe you might find a meditation practice to be helpful as you navigate the rest of your life.”
Julie nodded and stood up. “Thanks,” she mumbled. She thought to herself, ‘he isn’t interested in my problems; he is only trying to sell his meditation classes.’ She walked toward the back and looked for the flyer. The bottom was lined with tabs containing his web address and phone number. She grabbed one and waved it at Lee.
“Take care,” he called out, then returned his attention to gathering up his class supplies.
As Julie turned to leave, another flyer caught her eye. A local politician, someone Julie supported, was looking for volunteers to help with his campaign. Volunteering for a political campaign was something Julie had daydreamed about for years. She enjoyed reading about politics, and in college she’d dabbled a bit in political activism by volunteering to gather signatures for petitions and making signs for a couple of protests. It had been so long ago that she couldn’t remember exactly what she’d protested, only that at the time it felt important and meaningful to her.
She grabbed a tab from the flyer, dropping Lee’s in the trash as she left the building.
“Wait,” Julie looked back at her clipboard to double-check the address. “I’m only supposed to be talking to registered Republi — ”
“Julie, it’s so good to see you,” the man smiled, standing in his doorway wearing white pants rolled up at his ankles, and the same leather loafers with no socks. “How have you been?”
“No, you don’t understand,” Julie said, shaking her head. “This says,” she pointed at her clipboard, “that I need to talk to Leonard Ingledon.”
“Yes, that’s me,” he said.
“No, that’s not you. You’re Lee,” Julie insisted.
“Yes, I go by my initials: L I, which I pronounce as ‘Lee,’ but my name is Leonard,” he assured her.
“What? Oh good heavens,” she exclaimed, throwing her arms in the air. “You expect me to believe that you, this — ” she waved her hands at Lee, “ — this touchy, feely, ‘namaste’ meditation guru person, that you’re a Republican?”
“Well, I mean, I guess I did register as a Republican years ago,” he shrugged, “but I don’t pay much attention to politics, you know? Anyways, it’s so good to see you Julie. What a strange but happy coincidence,” he smiled, and his kind blue eyes sparkled as he gazed at her.
She momentarily found herself lost in a swirl of unfamiliar emotions.
“Right there,” Lee pointed at Julie. “What emotions are you feeling right now?”
Julie paused, explored her feelings, and smiled.