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“Even when he made it harder and harder for me to see my friends, I thought it was normal. People didn’t see their friends that much after they got married, right? He said people who loved each other shouldn’t have anything to hide from each other, so he should be able to read all of my emails and texts. So I stopped texting my friends very much. I didn’t really see them much, either. Sometimes I would sneak out and get coffee with my best friend, Kiki. But I just thought he was acting like that because he loved me so much.”

How could anyone ever trust someone again after someone they loved had made them feel so isolated and doubt their own instincts?

She certainly never had. Well, she’d started to trust Carlos, but that had been a mistake.

“I’ve had a lot of therapy since that time, and now I know there is such a thing as ‘emotional abuse.’ But I’d never heard that term then. So when my friends and family told me there was something wrong, it would just make me frustrated and mad at them. He never hit me; everything was fine! How could they think I was one of those poor, beaten-down, abused women? That wasn’t me. Didn’t they know me?”

Tears poured down Natalie’s face.

Nik pulled a packet of tissues out of her bag—she always came prepared with them for interviews, just in case—and handed a stack to Natalie. Natalie took a deep breath and started again.

“I wasn’t abused. It was just that my husband loved me more than anyone had ever loved me, and he wanted all of me. And if he got mad at me sometimes because he wanted fish for dinner and I’d made chicken, or if I went to the wrong gas station to fill up gas for his car, or when I miscarried but didn’t lose the pregnancy weight right away, it was only because he wanted me to be perfect. He wanted me to be the best I could be; that was all.”

Now Nik wasn’t sure if she wanted to cry or if she wanted to take her new punching skills on the road and knock this man into oblivion. Maybe both.

“How did you realize what was going on? How did you decide to get out?”

Natalie looked down at her desk for a long moment.

“I wish I could say it was one thing, but it wasn’t. The first time I remember consciously thinking ‘This is not the life I want’ was when I went running one day soon after he’d told me to lose weight after the miscarriage. All I wanted was to stay home under the covers, but I knew he would know if I didn’t exercise—we both had those fitness bracelet things, and he could see my activity all day. It made me feel like I was constantly being spied on.” She looked down at her bare wrist. “I guess I was. So I went running because I had to, and I hated every second. I hadn’t talked to my family or any of my friends in months, so I didn’t know where to turn.”

Nik hated Natalie’s husband, all men, and all of society for making Natalie feel like a relationship like the one she’d been in was normal.

“About a month after the miscarriage, I went to my doctor. The whole point of the visit was to see when I could start trying to get pregnant again. But when I was sitting there waiting for her, I realized that the idea of getting pregnant and having his baby and that baby tying me to him and that life forever made me feel panicky. I got up and left, and I told him the doctor said we shouldn’t try for a few more months. A few days later, I logged in to an old email account that I’d had from before I got married, one that he didn’t know I had. And that day I emailed Kiki and my mom. I didn’t say anything, really, just hi, and asked how they were doing, stuff like that. They both responded right away, and I started emailing them more and more. And one day, I went for a run with Kiki. I didn’t quite tell her everything, but I told her a lot.”

God bless Kiki. She had to remember to give Courtney and Dana extra-big hugs the next time she saw them.

“How did you get out?”

Natalie pulled another tissue out of the packet.

“After weeks of emails, Mom ended one of hers with something like ‘What do you think about coming home to visit? I have to drive down that way for work next week, and I can pick you up?’ I said yes right away, and I told her that I’d meet her at Kiki’s office. I spent the next six days terrified he’d see that email somehow or suspect something, but he didn’t. That morning, I left my phone at home under the couch cushions and I took a taxi to Kiki’s office. I took that fucking fitness bracelet off in the taxi and left it deep in the back seat, and I’ve never worn one since. When I got there and saw Kiki and my mom, that’s when I really broke down for the first time.”

Nik wished Kiki and Natalie’s mom were there so she could hug them, too.

Natalie opened a drawer and pulled out two bottles of water.

“Want one? I’m thirsty after all of this crying.” Nik took one and took a long sip. After that story, she would have even taken green juice.

“I guess that got kind of far away from why I started this gym. Except that I can’t really tell one part of it without telling the whole of it. I lived with my parents for a while afterward—working at a local gym, getting more comfortable with myself, and going to lots of therapy. I let all of the money from my divorce settlement sit in the bank. Luckily for me, my mom is a lawyer and called in a favor with one of her divorce lawyer friends who took my case.”

Nik smiled.

“Good job, Mom. Okay, let’s go back to my initial question: where did you get the idea to start this gym?”

Natalie grinned at her.

“One day, I had an appointment with a client, and she came in spitting mad. She’d been on the treadmill before meeting me, and the guy next to her started lecturing her about her form. She was a marathon runner, mind you. And I thought of how great it could be if we had a gym for women of all shapes and sizes, where we could learn about our bodies and how strong we are without having to be on display to men while we did it. A place for all women: black and white; gay and straight; Latina and Asian; cis and trans; athletes and couch potatoes; and everything in between. And then I thought about the money I had in the bank. And after about a year of research and planning, Natalie’s Gym was born.”

This story was going to be so good. Her editor at O magazine was going to love it.

“What about the boxing classes? Did you teach those before? Did you always know you wanted them when you decided to start the gym?”

Natalie nodded.

“I never taught them before coming here, but I took them at a few different gyms after the breakup and really loved them. They were one of the first things I knew I wanted at this place.”

“What was your goal in teaching these classes? Why were they important to you?”

Natalie made a fist, flexed her hand, and made a fist again.

“Women who know how to fight hold themselves differently. I’ve seen that in the women who’ve taught me, in the women who’ve taken my classes, and especially in myself. You walk into any situation with an attitude that you’ve got this, you can defend yourself, you are strong. My marriage sapped me of a lot of my strength, and what made it worse were the constant messages I got from society that women are weak, women should be afraid, women should settle for whatever they can get. And I want the women who walk into this gym to know that women have power and agency and deserve great things in life.”

“Amen,” Nik said.

Natalie high-fived her.

“And it starts so young!” she said. “I really want to do a program for teenage girls. They need more things to counteract the messages that they get that there’s something wrong with being a girl, that they should hide the things about themselves that make them unique and fun and strong.” She grinned. “That’s why I called the class ‘Punch Like a Girl’—there’s this constant message that to do anything like a girl is weak. I wanted to turn that on its head.”

Carlos’s teen clinic would probably be really into the idea of partnering with Natalie’s Gym on a program like that, especially after things he’d told her about some of his patients and the abuse that they’d suffered.

She tried to shake off thoughts of him, but it was impossible. She had to ask Natalie the question she’d been wondering the entire time they’d been talking.


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