This originally appeared in The Fiddlehead
When my shift at the hotel ends, instead of walking home down Bank Street, I head south down Kent. It’s a decidedly less busy street, apartment buildings, mostly, and old Victorian houses occupied by obscure ethnic restaurants (to the left, Ethiopian-Vegetarian, to the right, a Khmer-style curry house). One of those nights when the presence of other human beings feels claustrophobic; the silence between city blocks, rather than ominous, is actually sort of soothing. This whole winter evening, in the absence of anyone else to appreciate it, belongs exclusively to me.
For several blocks, Kent is empty of pedestrian traffic, and then these two guys are coming towards me: dirtbag-types, too old, by minute degrees of facial hair and eye-wrinkles, for the baggy jeans and bomber jackets and torn-brim baseball caps they’re wearing. They watch me, as I approach, with a little too much interest. I step off the curb, give them a wide berth. One of them says something and I turn around. The guy repeats himself:
“Got a quarter?”
His skin is flaked, sun-scorched and neon pink; his bare face, turned towards me, seems in itself to be a challenge of some kind. I mime a pocket search, pat myself down, come up empty.
“Sorry, nothing,” I say.
I’m taking backwards steps as I say this, and the other guy – who looks, I realize with a masochistic bit of amusement, like a bully who tormented me in junior high – comes towards me, matching each of my steps.
“Just need some change for the bus,” he says.
I do three things simultaneously, then: (1) shrug my shoulders in a dismissive sort of way, (2) turn my back and continue down the sidewalk, and (3) say under my breath, “I got nothing, pal.”
But the flake-faced guy is right behind me, and says, “What’d you say?” and I stupidly answer the question as if it weren’t rhetorical:
“I said, I got nothing.”
And then I’m shoved from behind. The last syllable of the word “nothing” comes out as a pathetic, surprised whimper.
I’m twenty-four, years removed from that time in my life when I followed the moral advice offered to weakling kids and turned a cheek to the bullies whose fascination with my public and private humiliation was a daily thing (and never sated). I’m twenty-four, and suddenly back on the playground, being shoved, being knocked to the ground, that bully’s mantra barked in my ear: “What’d you say? What’d you say? What’d you say?” When the flake-faced guy pushes me, though, I’m able to maintain my balance; a few corrective strides and I’m still going, still walking home at a leisurely pace. I might just have tripped, caught a patch of ice, briefly lost my feet; that’s how casual I am, how cool. How can these thugs bear down in the face of such coolness? And yet, the chant goes on: “What’d you say? What’d you fuckin’ say, bitch?!”
One of them (can’t tell which one because I refuse to look back, will instead keep my eyes on the ground, keep burrowing forward like a mole, blind and oblivious) grabs my arm, and in twisting free of his grip I knock him backwards into the street.
He seems sort of amused; he has that bully’s capacity for ironic detachment: “Oh really, motherfucker?!”
The flake-faced guy is coming towards me, and here – at night, in winter – the warmth of the summer sun touches my face, and in my nose there is the clean chlorophyll smell of grass; a heavy sound in my ears, blood rushing, like a deep synthesizer note playing on the soundtrack, like something elastic stretched taut and ready to snap.
We practiced in the afternoons, in the soccer field behind the old house where we shared an apartment. First the stretching: on our backs in the grass, testing the fragile links in our spines; standing with our arms outstretched, stirring the loose mass of our shoulders into something hard; fingers hooked in the chain-link fence that closed off the adjacent tennis courts, legs reaching, heels thrust, strumming our ligaments like guitar strings. Then we ran: long circuits around the perimeter of the field, at a pace too quick for my short legs to maintain; ran until my breath crystallized, sucked in and out like a column of sand. After that we did stances: front stance, close stance, parallel stance. Trent would adjust the angle of my toes by kicking my feet. He would grip my wrists and move my arms into the proper position. For those few sunny hours in the middle of the green field, he was my teacher, my master. I had no choice but to respect him.
It was all his idea. He said, one day: “I’m going to teach you Tae-Kwon-Do.” Not an entirely altruistic gesture: there was a tournament approaching, an amateur affair, and Trent was eager to scrub the rust from his rotating double-joints and rejoin the subculture to which the majority of his youth had been dedicated. According to his plan, we would train together as teacher and student. I would learn the five tenets of Korean fighting arts – I would become a champion of freedom and justice (tenet four), I would build a more peaceful world (tenet five) – and Trent, through practice, would regain the black belt form of his late teenage years. My participation, really, was secondary to the honing of his dormant skills; I would be a sparring partner, a punching bag (I would learn much, though, from those absorbed blows).
It was fitting, because the summer that we lived together, Trent and I punched each other a lot. All confrontations were settled with fists. To the shoulder, the leg, the stomach. Like an abused wife, my arms were perpetually tattooed with yellow and brown knuckle-prints. Trent punched much harder than I did. All those years of studying Tae-Kwon-Do, striking planks of plywood, running rolling-pins up and down his shins; all that leftover teenage frustration held tight in his fist, concentrated like lead in his knuckles. He would laugh when my fists settled on him (a line from a high school English class occurs to me: “A sparrow gently alit, the branch hardly swayed…”), and when his fists settled on me I would try to mimic that cocksure grin, thought it felt as if something inside of my bones had been jarred loose.
So, there we were, two grown men (almost) who settled debates with charley-horses and choke-holds, who communicated, like identical twins raised in isolation, in a secret language of movie references and slow-motion howls. We got along, but not because we especially liked one another. In fact, we seemed to coexist in a constant state of mutual annoyance. And yet, we were best friends, we were suspected gay lovers (prancing through grassy fields in white undershirts, gripping each other’s ankles during abdominal exercises; impossible that no one made that assumption). We were inseparable, and it had much to do, we decided, with growing up as only-children. Something about those lonely afternoons playing with dinky-cars in your bedroom; something about bearing the burden of disobedience and its consequences all alone; something about not having anyone to torment, and not having anyone to torment you.
It’s easy to see how we dealt differently with the onus of growing up alone. My formative childhood years were spent retreating inward, tending with painstaking care and attention to a vivid fantasy life. In quiet hours behind my desk at school, or in the dark hours before falling asleep, I wooed pretty girls and thwarted terrorist takeovers. Trent, instead, grew outwards, his personality swelling into a monstrous thing, devoid of shame or restraint or fear. He could say anything to anyone, cared less what others thought of him, was terrifyingly ambitious.
He collected friends like an eager kid collects baseball cards: kept them catalogued in his head, memorized statistics, carefully maintained their mint condition; the best of them he was proud to display, never ashamed to drop a name, to share the amazing breadth and depth of his social circle. Still, conditioned by our youth, we knew the subtle joy of spending a weekend afternoon alone in a dark basement, watching videos. We were comfortable with the invasive introspection that accompanies solitude. We knew how to be alone.
But, sharing an apartment that summer, we were no longer alone, and it may have been our unfamiliarity with Not Being Alone that compelled us, as grown men, to deal with it in such a childish way. Far away, now, from the vast and flexible testing-grounds of childhood, we were teaching ourselves how not to be only-children.
Trent tells one of my favorite stories:
In his second year of school, long removed from his fighting days, he joined, on a whim, a beginner’s Tae-Kwon-Do class offered by the university athletics department. It was taught by a former Canadian Champion, who, unlike Trent, had continued his physical studies through the tumultuous introductory years of post-secondary education. In the time that the Canadian Champion had been perfecting the clockwork stir of muscles and tendons in his legs, Trent had become a binge drinker, a smoker: a heavier, stiff-limbed version of his former svelte self. At the end of the class, the Canadian Champion sparred with some of the advanced students, all of whom he dispatched with relative ease (in Trent’s telling, with an arrogant and dismissive ease). He then fought Trent, and despite the years of practice that separated them, despite the hundreds of cigarettes and hundreds of beers that together conspired to destabilize his circulatory system, despite the ten pounds he had gained and the immeasurable degree of flexibility he had lost, the battle was epic. A crowd gathered. Disbelief, from the other students: Trent, loose and puffy and soft and slow, manhandled the Canadian Champion. It ceased to be a simple matter of maintaining his dignity. It ceased to be a simple matter of fighting to a draw to prove some ephemeral point about the psychology of martial arts. The Canadian Champion, faithful to the meticulous cardiovascular and dietary requirements of his training, to the regimen of self-denying hard work that had brought him this far, could not match the experience Trent had acquired, years and decades ago, in stale-smelling school gymnasiums and community centers; that he had honed in private moments on lonely high-school weekends; that he had learned, by study, by osmosis, in all the dark corners of his body. Trent destroyed the Canadian Champion. With a kind and deferential ease (and though the standing ovation that followed was likely added for dramatic effect, I like to imagine it happening that way).
Though our training lacked such cinematic verve, we nonetheless culled motivation from the shelves of the local video store, renting and watching, obsessively, the finest martial-arts films of the 80s: Breathing Fire, Hostile Witness, King of the Kickboxers II, Bloodfight, Best of the Best, No Retreat No Surrender, Challenger. As we kicked holes in the heavy summer air, we imagined ourselves in a montage set to the frenetic beat of Taiko drums and the wails of an electric guitar: we have just seen our best friend murdered – neck broken in an underground fighting tournament – and now we must train, we must enter the tournament ourselves; we must face Bolo Yeung in the championship match, must block his deadly flying kick (the same deadly flying kick that snapped our best friend’s spine), and then, in slow-motion, we will strike him down, stand wild-eyed and slick with sweat over his lifeless body. Revenge, finally. Roll credits.
In the evening, behind the desk at the hotel where I worked, I practiced the downward block, the forward punch, and stretched my legs on the counter. Trent taught me the pattern that would earn me my first belt; Chon-Ji, heaven and earth, nineteen movements, blocks and strikes and footwork. We sparred, on occasion, towards the end of a session, though it was impossible for me to land a blow. Trent was quicker, his limbs seemed twice as long as mine, and he would dance around my flailing feet, sometimes slap them away like they were mosquitoes or floating specks of dust (such was the potential force of these blows). Every wild kick left me open to attack, and Trent would sometimes fake a side-kick or half-moon-kick to my exposed flank.
“See,” he would say: “Don’t turn so much.”
Funny, I think, that within the confines of this graceful violence we finally found some measure of gentility
Our ambition, in the thick maritime heat, swelled into a colossal, clumsy thing. That first afternoon, jogging around the field, stretching our hamstrings until they played high notes, it seemed utterly plausible – inevitable, almost – that after five years of inertia Trent would win a national Tae Kwon-Do tournament, and that I, under his tutelage, would become an unstoppable fighting machine. Even as our lessons progressed and the left side of my body proved itself to be partially palsied – unable to repeat, even at the slowest speeds, the movement my right side was beginning to master – we continued to believe. Even as we began to cancel and postpone our lessons, our faith belied logic; it was going to happen: we would be Masters Of Kung-Fu.
Instead, we would once again be only-children.
Trent would move West, to the Left Coast, Hollywood North, where he would attend film school and later make a living on the sets of big-budget movies doing some technical thing with lighting rigs. I would stay behind for a while, then follow a girl to this big city, where I remain and she does not. Trent never entered the Tae-Kwon-Do tournament. I never mastered Chon-Ji, the first pattern. Our dedication to training, like the summer, naturally ebbed. In all, it lasted perhaps a month, ten or eleven sessions. Whatever flexibility I had gained in those furtive moments when the hotel lobby was empty – when I put my heel up on the edge of the counter and leaned towards my toes, felt the muscles in the back of my leg hum – was quickly lost. Whatever force had accumulated in my punches, whatever balance I had learned in the soles of my feet, whatever elegance had developed in the arc of my swinging legs, evaporated in the lazy months that followed.
My hamstring, now, is loose and light as yarn. I still work in a hotel, though no longer make use of the convenient architecture of the front desk for any callisthenic purposes. My shift ends at eleven, and I walk home on Bank Street because it’s a little busier, a little brighter, and I like looking through the dark windows of locked up stores; the sense of suspended consumerism is somehow comforting. Along the way I will pass small coteries of smokers huddled on the sidewalk, half-drunk and shivering and exhaling identical swirls of smoke and breath; I will pass transients who, having given up begging for the night, shuffle in circuits around city blocks to keep warm; I will pass flocks of college kids migrating north towards the downtown bars, ghosts of past selves, ghosts of lost friends. I am going home to an empty apartment. The girl I followed has left pheromonal residue everywhere – in the soapy streaks on the bathroom faucet, in the bits of singed rice trapped beneath oven burners, in the lingering scent of lotion or perfume or hairspray that clings to the sheer bedroom drapes – but it’s all beginning to fade, and the place is seeming more mine. I will arrive home, I will watch a bit of television, I will read a few pages of a book and, in the middle of some labyrinthine, Updikean sentence, I will fall asleep. Then morning, and work.
Don’t feel bad, though. I’m well prepared for this solitary sort of life: I’ve been training for it all my life.
Still chanting, this guy, like a monk on the cusp of some profound karmic discovery: “What’d you say? What’d you say? What’d you say?”
I am shoved again, and this time the guy (whichever one) grabs my jacket in his fists and jerks me backwards, shoves me, jerk, shove, jerk, shake. I am still trying to walk; I am still unwilling to break the routine of my journey home. I will not acknowledge that this is happening. I will instead consider matters of syntax and vocabulary; when I tell Trent this story, what noun will I use to describe what is happening to me? Mugging doesn’t seem appropriate; it lacks the lightness that I’m sure, in hindsight, I will mine from this. Robbery is too wooden a term, biased towards the unlawful acquisition of property, not enough towards my inescapable (and colossal) personal shame. My long ago bully’s twin has skipped around in front of me and halts my progress. I should be struggling now, fighting to break free of the fingers that are curled into the fabric of my coat. I should convert this overflow of adrenaline into some furious burst of momentum, throw a punch, or lunge like a running back between them. Only ten or eleven training sessions, but there remains a certain reflexive knowledge; my knees remember vaguely the whip-crack motion of a kick; my heels remember to rotate; my feet remember to stay at a ninety-degree angle. Here, finally, is the dividend paid to those abandoned hours of practice.
But it’s too late. The automatic processes of my body seize, my instinct for flight has, itself, fled. The hot feeling in my face is wasted adrenaline trying to escape. I stand there, limp, and the flake-faced guy reaches around and puts me in a gentle – and completely unnecessary – choke hold. The familiar guy searches my jacket pockets and finds nothing, then unzips my jacket and reaches inside, touches the lump on the inside breast pocket (what a stupid place to keep a wallet, so obvious). “Fuck sakes,” I say, and those two words comprise the total sum of my resistance.
As I’m being relieved of what little cash I carry, I think of Trent: for all the frightening weight that he carried in his balled-up fists, he rarely threw a punch. Even that time at the bar, when that guy said that thing (another thuggish standard: “You got a problem, faggot?”), he didn’t throw a punch, he didn’t lose his cool; only afterwards, after they’d thrown the guy out of the bar, did Trent let that elastic thing inside him, stretched taut in those tense seconds as they stood face to face, snap back. He picked up a chair, threw it against the wall, and he did that only because he was frustrated, because he knew that he could have knocked the guy out (ridge-hand blow to the clavicle, cracking it; reverse turning kick to the side of the head, sending him flailing through the air in slow-motion, possibly into a stack of cardboard boxes, possibly through a plate-glass window). Even at the peak of his rage, which was mighty, Trent was able to suppress that instinctual release, the mouse-trap snap of his better sense. For all his recklessness, he had that much control.
But here, finally, an exception to those rules of restraint! Here, finally, are punches worth throwing! What I wouldn’t give for Trent to be here right now! Take these assholes down! Don’t wait until I’m dead! Don’t wait until you face them in the final round of the underground fighting championship! Appear now, from the shadows, cued by a swell of music! I’d fight if he was here. I’d become – suddenly, inexplicably – the fighting machine I was training to be. I’d fight like he fought against the Canadian Champion; there is deadly skill, too, hidden beneath this soft, sloppy exterior. Together we could beat these bastards, these dirty street-urchin motherfuckers, beat them like our fists were rock, soft meat smashed against the unbreakable geological surface of a mountain. Be here now! Fracture faces with the bony points of your knuckles. Fracture ribs with the bridge of your foot. You tried to teach me how, but I forgot.
I must admit, it is quite a tender mugging (I have settled on that word, finally). I am released with care, a fish caught over the limit and, for legal purposes, unwanted. My attackers are kind enough to leave my wallet. At least I won’t have to go through the hassle of replacing my driver’s license and library card.
They stroll away at the same lazy pace with which they approached, denying me even the satisfaction of a cautionary look back. I am left standing alone on the sidewalk, clutching my empty wallet. Down thirty dollars in cash, but worried only about the massive withdrawal taken on my pride. I have this one last chance to get it back, to chase the two guys down, surprise them from behind and get in a lucky shot, struggle mindlessly as they beat me bloody. At least I will have the physical scars to match these others.
But I’m afraid to do it. I’m afraid of being punched in the face, or choked, or kicked while I’m curled up on the ground. If there is something to be learned from those blows, surely I will forget it, just like I have forgotten the pattern Chon-Ji, just like I have forgotten the downward block and the forward punch. I have become an expert at forgetting things. A master of something, finally.
As I walk home, I find that my claustrophobia is cured; the silence between city blocks, rather than soothing, is actually sort of ominous. No, I don’t think I will tell Trent about this; instead, I will break this memory into pieces and hide it in faraway places: in jungles, in deserts, in icebergs, in mountains. Over time, like ancient hieroglyphs, the meaning of it will be lost. I will forget. I will forget it like I have forgotten our secret twin language, like I have forgotten all the things we used to think were so funny.