When I was 19 I saw two women fistfight on the street in Athens, Greece. The first thing I saw was the big one reach out and smack the little one across the face. She was hideous, the big one. Her face looked like a rusty shovel.
The little one, pretty and blond and slender, shrieked and tried to run. But the big one caught her by the blouse and jerked her back like a fish. The blond turned and swung ineptly, swung, as we used to like to say on the playground, like a girl, and the big one hit her, a blow which made her nose bleed. The big one smiled and cocked her arm and the blond, appearing to weep blood, shook her head and raised one arm, and the big one hit her again and all of us, the men inside the cafe and on the sidewalk, turned from our backgammon boards and dishes of pasty chicken. We heard that damp solid sound and saw the blond fall in a heap and the big one bent to strike again.
But panic evinced some essential guile in the blond. She yanked her tormentor’s hair with a fury that seemed momentous and musical. The big one shrieked. Her great ungainly head went down first, followed by her body and her thick voice. The blond climbed to her feet. We assumed now that she would turn and run. But we had underestimated her. She was determined to exact revenge, not just of the hair-pulling variety, but with sudden sharp kicks to the face; an effort to harp blood from the place where blood is most easily had.
Can I tell you there was something delicate in it all? Or that we men saw nothing of our own role? Or stepped in put an end to the violence? No. Only that no one laughed, not the drunks pleading the doorways for sleep, nor the shop merchants clenching drachmae, nor the toothless backgammon king whose hand cupped the dice abstemiously. (And certainly not me. I merely stood trying to make sense of the damp buzz in my knuckles, the clench around my groin.)
The blond was wearing high-heeled boots. This seemed an absurd thing to wear in the midst of a streetfight. But she was a beautiful girl, after all. She was not, presumably, a street fighter by trade. She kicked gracefully, but her balance was poor and the big one soon toppled her and clamped onto her, their movements close and ardent, and this intimacy we watched too, drawn to the hot puffs of air, the raked skin and grime taken up from the pavement.
A young policeman happened by and set his hand gently on the butt of his club. It pained him, I think, to imagine taking some central role in the drama. But then the man at the center of it appeared suddenly, a meager man it must be said, with an oily toupee and cheap vinyl shoes, chopping his hands like a conductor, shouting uselessly and turning to us. He bent down and attempted to pry the big woman loose. He took hold under her arms and whispered in her ear. After a minute or so, she released her grip and allowed herself to be borne up. In a gesture of chivalry abjectly unsuited to the moment, the man threw his coat over her tattered dress and hustled her from the scene.
There lay the blond after all this, her shirt torn off, her face a hideously tender swirl. The young policeman, rising to his duty reluctantly, helped her to her feet and led her slowly away, while we men in the crowd took in the flagrant unintended sway of her body, her pale lovely breasts streaked in blood, her legs showing nasty welts. We watched her in silence, watched her for as long as we could see her, sorely disappointed in ourselves, savoring this disappointment, waiting as shame forever waits to feel desire again.
“Pornography” was originally published in Boulevard Magazine and appears here by permission of Steve Almond.