"Hello Phoebe," she said, smiling in a rather wan manner.
"Hi..." I said, "Um, so how are you?"
"Okay, I'm okay," Munkhtsetseg replied and looked down at her coffee again. She wasn't really avoiding my gaze. She just looked too tired to have her eyes settle on anything that wasn't warm and milky.
"You look really spent..." I said. She looked back up at me. "I mean," I said, "You look great. You always do (I love that blouse) but you also look maybe a little tired...."
"I am very tired," Munkhtsetseg replied, "I.... haven't slept well. I've been thinking."
"Oh, what have you been thinking about?"
"My character. My morals.... If I am a good person or not...."
I made a "pish" sound. "Oh Munkhtsetseg, what on Earth are you talking about? Of course you're a good person."
"Last night I beat up my boyfriend."
Munkhtsetseg sighed. "It's awful.... I can always make excuses for myself. Late for work? Well, I was tired. Didn't respond to a few texts? I've been preoccupied. It's not the end of the world. But last night.... I can't make an excuse for myself."
"You beat up your boyfriend?" There is a rich history of violence between men and women... but usually the violence comes from men. A whole network of hotlines, shelters, laws and community aid has been built to protect women. So what happens when women beat up men?
The only precedents I could think of came from vaudeville and the funny pages. Andy Capp, The Lockhorns, Life with Father where Maggie would chase after her boozy pupil-less husband with an especially lethal-looking rolling pin. My grandmother had a whole rack of wooden, slightly floury rolling pins stacked up in her kitchen. They were wonderful but they were also solid and heavy. I do not exaggerate when I say that one good blow from a rolling pin would kill most men. It was a little difficult to comprehend how being threatened by one would be funny.
"What happened?" I asked Munkhtsetseg. She sighed. Her boyfriend had invited her out to a club a couple of nights ago. She had been tired but agreed to go anyway. Munkhtsetseg's boyfriend was an amiable Russian engineer not named Boris. Boris workd on mining projects in the northern provinces of Mongolia. When not visiting mining operations he liked to drink at clubs in UB with Munkhtsetseg. Despite being well into his forties Boris was quite a party animal. He spoke only Russian. There was a sizeable language barrier between him and Munkhtsetseg, who spoke only Mongolian and English. Still, judging from the two times I had met him, Boris seemed like an amiable fellow. What on earth had he done to drive my quiet friend Munkhtsetseg to violence?
Apparently it was the usual slime. While at the club, Munkhtsetseg developed a pounding headache from the music and wanted to go home. "One more hour," Boris told her. Munkhtsetseg wandered about, chatting with a few other friends. When she found Boris again he was talking to a very pretty Russian woman. There was nothing untoward about their conversation, but it was immediately clear from their expressions and body language that they had once been lovers.
"Ooo," I said, "Is that when you hit him?"
"No," she replied. Instead Munkhtsetseg approached them. Boris, seeing her, laughed and said to the Russian woman in English "This my wife!"
"Oh really?" the Russian woman responded. She laughed but Munkhtsetseg could see that she was visibly taken aback. "I see you have two wives, Russian and Mongolian."
Boris laughed and told Munkhtsetseg to go talk to her friends at the next table. "No thanks," she replied. Then Boris turned back to the Russian woman and continued his conversation. The Russian woman was now quite reticent, frequently glancing at Munkhtsetseg and at one point gesturing towards her. Munkhtsetseg, like most Mongolians, studied Russian in grade school and could make out a few words. "I caught enough to know," Munkhtsetseg later told me, "That she was saying 'Why are you asking for my number? Your girlfriend is right there.'"
"Is that when you hit him?" I asked Munkhtsetseg.
"No," Munkhtsetseg said, "I just stood there." Boris turned back to Munkhtsetseg and once again asked her to go talk to her friends.Munkhtsetseg said nothing. Then the Russian woman turned to Munktsetseg and smiled quietly. "Two," she said, holding up two fingers, "Two nights."
"Two?...." Munkhtsetseg asked.
"Two nights,..." the Russian woman repeated, "Three months ago, two nights. Only two nights." She had a very sweet face and kind smile. She was skinny too... skinnier than Munkhtsetseg. Munkhtsetseg could easily see why Boris was attracted-
"Wait a moment," I said, interrupting her story, "Leaving aside the fact that you're gorgeous- cuz you totally are- but you and Boris have only been together for five weeks or so, right? Like, so he slept with this girl before he met you. So what? You know what I mean? Like, I think you were also seeing a guy three months ago, right? That Mongolian guy with the blue hair? What was his name...?"
"Yes," said Munkhtsetseg, "Yes, I know. I - don't know why I became upset. I ran out of the club. He ran after me. He grabbed my arm and hailed a taxi cab. He kept on saying how sorry he was, laughing at first and then becoming more serious when he saw how upset I was. 'Why you think I want sex her?' he asked, 'If I want sex her, I not call you and say "Come to club."'"
"Logical argument," I said. "Is that when you hit him?"
"No, I was just very quiet," said Munkhtsetseg. Boris spent the cab ride apologizing, the walk up the stairs to her apartment defending himself and the rest of the evening telling her how much he loved her. He tried to initiate sex but-
"You hit him?" I asked.
"No, I just said I was very tired." Still, every time Boris told her he loved her or how happy she made him she felt a little better. The next day was spent with Boris being very affectionate to her. He cooked her meals and cuddled her and told her how beautiful she was. "Etc., etc." Munkhtsetseg said, waving her hand casually above her coffee cup."It was stupid because I knew what he was trying to do... but I felt better anyway."
"Nah, nah..." I said, "Nothing wrong with being beautiful and loved."
That evening however, things became very bad. Boris and Munkhtsetseg fell asleep together while watching a movie, and when Munkhtsetseg woke up again Boris was gone. It was nine o'clock. She called him and he said he was out with some friends. He'd be back at her place in one hour at the latest. Three hours later he had still not called. She called him twice and he did not answer. His words from last night, when he told her that if he had really wanted to sleep with another girl he would not have called her, had suddenly become horribly applicable. She walked outside to relieve her stress. Another hour passed. It was one in the morning and he still was not answering his phone. Munkhtsetseg was beside herself.
She took a cab back to the club they had visited the day before. She walked inside and saw Boris at the bar.
Munkhtsetseg at this point stopped the story and looked down at her coffee cup. I maintained a careful silence. When I was an adolescent I liked to read movie reviews and spoilers online before going to see a movie with my parents. I wanted to know all the nasty surprises beforehand, to know when to cover my eyes and cringe. If there was a sex scene, some nudity scene that I might have to sit through with my parents, I needed to know. On the other hand, it often meant that I could not sit comfortably sit through most movies before the offensive scene had passed. I would too often be anticipating the coming storm. For the past hour I had been anticipating Munkhtsetseg's storm as she told her story. I was beginning to feel some exhaustion. Hit him already!
"You know," Munkhtsetseg said, "The thing is that he hadn't done anything wrong. Like he told me, he was with his friends. There were no girls, just him and his pals at the bar. The music was thunderingly loud so no wonder he hadn't heard his cell phone when I called him. He was completely exonnerated. When I saw the back of him, his head and shoulders, I was so happy. There he was! Everything was okay.
"Boris' friend Mikhail (nothisrealname) saw me and tapped Boris on the shoulder. Boris turned around and... there was my fist. My mind was so glad to see him... and my fist just punched him. He threw his arm over his face to protect himself from my blows. I punched him four times, once on his shoulder and three times down his back as he turned away from me."
It took four punches before Munkhtsetseg got ahold of herself. She ran out of the club, her mind in numb fear. Two things were now beyond a doubt: the relationship was over and, unless she was very lucky, Munkhtsetseg was now in danger of being arrested. Not knowing what else to do, Munkhtsetseg hopped in a taxi and asked the driver to take her home.
Five blocks later her cell phone rang. Not recognizing the number Munkhtsetseg answered the phone and heard Mikhail's voice on the other end. Mikhail spoke very good English and his first words were "Okay, calm down."
Munkhtsetseg burst into floods of tears. "Oh Mikhail I'm so sorry! Tell Boris I'm so sorry!"
"No, no.... I'm sorry," Mikhail said, "I asked Boris to stay out late drinking. This is all my fault. Don't worry, Boris is going to your apartment now so calm down."
"Wait a second," I said, interrupting Munkhtsetseg again, "MIKHAIL apologized??"
"Yes, he said it was all his fault," Munkhtsetseg said. I didn't reply to this but I thought that that had been strange. Imagine if a man had walked into a club, punched his girlfriend four times in front of her friends and then left? Nobody would be apologizing to him. Instead the police would be receiving a phone call... and possibly a lawyer would be receiving one too.
The story became stranger.
Munkhtsetseg's cab driver, an amiable old man who didn't understand her conversation over the phone but could recognize romantic trouble regardless of language, asked the weeping young woman in the back seat what the trouble was.
"My boyfriend," Munkhtsetseg said, struck by the driver's kindness, "I was very angry with him so I punched him."
"Aw..." the driver replied, barely pausing over this news, "Please don't cry. You know, you remind me of my daughter. She's twenty-two."
"It was nice that he thought I was twenty-two," Munkhtsetseg told me. Munkhtsetseg is thirty-one.
"Well, why not? You could totally pass for twenty-wo," I said. It's a bit fatiguing to constantly reassure your friend for over two hours when all you really want to do is hear her story. I felt like Beorn in "The Hobbit," brushing away distractions in an irritated manner while trying to get Gandalf to continue with his story. Munkhtsetseg, who is certainly far younger than Gandalf, continued.
"So he kept on talking about his daughter, of whom he was obviously proud. She had just been accepted at a university in Kyoto. She and her husband and daughter were going to move to Japan next year. Her daughter was just a baby and was probably going to end up speaking fluent Japanese and did I have any children? I said no and he said 'Oh, why not?' and it was peculiar because there was more disapproval in his voice over my being childless than my having punched my boyfriend twenty minutes ago."
"Lucky break for you," I said. My pretense of sympathy was beginning to slip a bit. Unlike beating your romantic partner, there's no law against being childless at thirty-one. Fortunately Munkhtsetseg didn't take offense.
"Anyway, Boris was already at my place by the time I got home. He must have paid the taxi driver to go fast or something. I remember that he was laughing. He called me 'Muhammed Ali' and said that I was crazy... but in this oddly affectionate way. He said he was sorry he didn't call. He said I needed to control myself better but that was the only bit of criticism he had for me. The rest of the evening he just laughed and said I was nuts and that he loved me. He also said that everybody else at the club who saw us- and EVERYBODY saw me punch him!- was laughing. Mikhail was laughing and his Mongolian friends were laughing. Even the women laughed. Mikhail told him that I had done a service for girlfriends everywhere and that now maybe men would not ignore calls when they decided to drink late."
"Laughter?" I asked. But I felt a bit dead inside. As a feminist I am a strong believer that anti-men humor should be as stigmitized as anti-women humor. Applauding the mainstream embrace of anti-male humor seems like a feminist act. In actual fact anti-men humor hurts feminism. Female rage against men is seen as less dangerous than male rage against women so anti-men humor is not stigmitized. When women are seen as less dangerous than men when angry, then feminism will never advance. Anti-men humor, and of course anti-men violence, must be punished to the same extent that anti-women humor and violence are punished. My friend Munkhtsetseg may have caught a break, but in a wider sense the laughter of Boris was a symptom of how far women have yet to go.
"It's so strange," I said, "If a man had punched his girlfriend in front of her friends and she forgave at him and returned to his apartment the same evening she would have been seen as weak. Funny how Boris' behavior was an example of good character and not weakness."
"Yes," said Munkhtsetseg, "But maybe there is a reason for that."
"You're just saying that because you're not in jail and still have a boyfriend," I thought but instead asked "What do you mean?"
"Well, I mean, when Boris removed his shirt later that night to go to bed... I saw his back. There were no bruises at all.. not even the slightest mark." Munkhtsetseg laughed, "Guess I punch like a girl."
I left the cafe that afternoon feeling very depressed.