“I guess this is like log 42 or something I don’t know I’ve lost track anyway I don’t even know if this tape recorder still works but if it does I’m just going to play this back for Microsoft Sam and see if he can turn the talk to text so I can put it on a floppy disk for later Sanford’s asleep right now and I’m trying not to wake him so I’m walking my bike down the tunnel it’s kind of creepy the way the chain click echoes down the tunnel click click click like some sort of weird alien getting ready to jump me or something I mean I’ve seen crazier stuff I wouldn’t be that surprised Sanford still doesn’t believe me about the world out there about how I saw myself above ground as a little kid coming out of cryosleep he thinks it’s too far-fetched but I say living down in tunnels Underground with all sorts of weird ghoulies and all that jazz is pretty far-fetched too I’m trying to figure out a way to get back there back to that cold white room with the Weird Science e dude but I don’t know how I don’t know maybe it’s like a video game you know let’s say you get murked in like Pac-Man or something what happens game over right who’s to say that’s not the same thing here the simulations a lot more advanced but it’s still a Sim I don’t know maybe if I just find one of the outflow tunnels the tunnels that shoot down into the ground and extend for miles the ones I’ve heard stories about where people fall into them and you can never hear them hit the bottom sometimes I think that if I jump into one of those I might just wake back up in the real world and I want to try it I really do but I know that if I tell Sanford this ish he’s just going to make me about face and March on back home you know I’ve known Sanny B since we were both super little and I love the guy he’s my brother but he doesn’t always know what’s up and the wack thing is that I can’t tell him that it would crush him I don’t know if I’ll end up jumping into one of those tunnels or push on to climb out to the top into the above ground but I guess we’ll find out at the very least when I feed this thing into Microsoft Sam it’s going to sound freaking hilarious I can hear his voice now sounding like a cross between a robot and an alien trying to sound human but yeah that’s what’s up right now I guess I’ll go wake up Sanford so we can continue our Quest and sheez.”
“So here’s a dream: I’m in a wide open green field, and the sun is shining.”
“Like the actual sun?”
“The actual one. And I know I don’t know what the sun’s like, but in the dream I do. It’s warm, and bright, and it makes my skin feel good, and I just feel like smiling when I’m under it.”
“How bright is it?”
“Super bright. So bright it hurts to look directly at it. So I look at what it’s shining on instead: the grass, the trees, all that.”
“Grass and trees?”
“Yep. The grass is itchy when you lie on it, but it’s still super nice. There’s bugs in the grass, but mostly just ants and stuff, not the weird creepy crawlies you find here in the tunnels.”
“Yeah. And the trees are plants, but they’re crazy strong. Like you could karate chop one and not even leave a mark.”
“I’m telling you, Sanford. But in the dream, the green field doesn’t go on forever. There’s like clear borders and stuff. I’m boxed in, you know?”
“And right outside the border, everything is crazy messed up. Like exactly how you’ve said above ground probably looks like. Fire, destruction, all that jazz.”
“Brimstone confirmed. And if you get close to the border, it smells sour, like the air is burnt. There are people crying, only you can’t see them. You can hear them, but they’re out of sight.”
“Can you cross the border?”
“Yeah, but I’m scared to. In the dream, I’m not 20. I’m like 11 or 12. I’m freaked out, you know?”
“And the weird thing is that I can sense that nothing will ever change in this green field. I’ll stay the same age forever. I’ll never get sick, never die, but I can’t leave the field. If I leave it, I’ll suffer. But I want to leave it. I don’t want to get hurt, but I need to know what’s out there. I need to know who’s out there. Because I get the distinct impression in the dream that my parents are alive somewhere out there. I have no idea where they are, but I’ve got to find them. You dig?”
“I dig. So this is like your cryo dream? Where you saw your mom and pop getting blasted by some evil science dude?”
“Kind of. Like I’m the same person, same age, but this is for sure a dream. The cryo thing was real.”
“It was real.”
“Okay, User. So what else about the dream?”
“It keeps going on like that. On and on and on.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean everything keeps moving and changing outside of the green field. The sun above me stays right there, but a second sun outside the border rises and falls, rises and falls. Gnarly trees grow up, birds nest in them, plants sprout out of the broken concrete, and all of this happens in seconds.”
“Like that dude we saw back there in the tunnel who kept going through life cycles and junk?”
“Yeah, only it wasn’t one guy getting born and dying again and again, it was everything. And the more time that passed, the less cries I could hear. Instead of cries, I just heard birds chirping and nice little rainstorms and sheez.”
“Sounds kinda nice.”
“Yeah, except in the dream, I know that with each cry that goes quiet, there’s one less person out there. I’m okay in this green field, but it’s only me in here. I’m alone.”
“So how does it end?”
“It doesn’t. Not really, anyway. I want to leave the field, but I’m afraid of suffering out there. I want to stay safe in the field, but I don’t want to be alone. So I don’t do anything. Then I wake up.”
“So, uh… What do you want to do now?”
“I want to find the green field.”
“Like stay safe and all that?”
“No, the actual green field.”
“User, it’s not gonna be there. It’s not real.”
“Right. Fire and brimstone. But the thing is, fire and brimstone doesn’t last forever. It can’t. There’s cycles. The world’s gonna be bad for a while, then it’ll get kind of good. Then it’ll get mondo sucky, but then it’ll get way better. The fire will die out, and the plants will sprout. How long have we been living in these tunnels? How long has it been since our ancestors came down here? We really have no idea what it’s like up there. And we’ll never know unless we try and find a way out.”
“Yeah. I’m in, bro. If it keeps you away from the cryo stuff and focused on the real world that’s right in front of you, I’m all gung ho about it, my dude.”
“The cryo stuff’s real, too. I have a family out there, and I’m going to train my brain to wake up and find them. But in the meantime, I want to see what above ground looks like.”
“Well then you know what I’ve gotta say?”
It’s summer, and I’m twenty-two years old. That puts us at 2012. I got my BA yesterday. I wanted to enjoy my graduation, and I did, but I couldn’t really focus. My brain was only half there, floating over story concepts and character sketches that I’d been hashing out up until the last day of the last semester. I don’t feel like I earned my degree. I mean, I fulfilled all the prerequisites, passed all my classes and all that, but I don’t feel like I wrote the story I needed to write before I could graduate. Maybe that should be put down as a requirement in the future.
I’ve written so many stories, created so many characters. I’ve written flash fiction, micro, short stories, novels, but I haven’t hit on that one thing yet. I don’t know, maybe I’m being too picky. All I know is that here I am one day after graduating college, and I hardly feel any different.
I want to be understood.
If there’s a point to all of this, I guess it’s to tell lies to get at the truth. Isn’t that what fiction is? But who determines what the truth is? Is it the thing that happened, or the feeling of it? If you come back to it in 20 years’ time, is it still the same truth you remembered?
I’m sitting on the beach, scribbling away in this notebook and trying to keep the sand off the pages. I’ve got to transfer this over to digital at some point, I just don’t know when. I’ve got to do a lot of things. I miss my friends and family, and not just the ones who have died. I miss my home. Maybe I’ll go back. Or maybe I’ll just write about it. Maybe both.
My mentor always got this smile on her face when she handed me her notes on one of my stories. At first I just ignored it because the notes were really good, but eventually I got curious. She told me she could tell I fictionalized things just enough where I could hide from the reader. She said she could see the fear beneath the words. I took it personally and started saying I wasn’t afraid and that she didn’t know what she was talking about, and she told me it’s okay to be afraid. It’s good, actually. Follow the fear, that’s where all the good stories come from. So I calmed down, and composed myself, and apologized, and thanked her, and then I kept turning in the stories that made her smile like that. She kept smiling like that all four years that I was there, kept smiling like that even during my last semester. When graduation was over and she gave me a hug, I looked and saw that same smile on her face. She said she knew I was going to be great, and I could tell she meant it. Even so, I felt like something inside of me had fallen from a great height.
I’m sitting on this beach with my toes in the sand, watching the New York sky shift from pink to purple. The night’s getting away from me, and I feel like I have to do something. I don’t know what, but I have to do something. I pull out another notebook that I have with me, one that’s labeled CNF for creative nonfiction. My mentor gave this to me as a gift years ago. She’s the one who scrawled “CNF” on its cover.
I flip open to the first page, and there’s nothing there. There’s nothing on any of the pages. I close my eyes and I see Des Plaines, IL in all its bittersweet glory, smell the growing spring and setting summer as the cicadas scream in the background. I see my old complex, our apartment in Bay Colony, and the pond at the center of it that I used to go down to when I was a kid. I feel a smooth stone in my hand before I skip it across the pond’s surface, watch the willows’ fronds dip down and reflect themselves over water too tired to move. I see a thousand reflections of myself in a thousand mirrors until I’m right here where I am. It seems like I’ve lived many lifetimes, but I’m still here.
That’s what I’ll write about. That’s what I can do. I take the CNF notebook and look at that blank first page. All I need is the title. Once I have the title, I have the story.
I already know what it is. I scribble it down and look at it, and even now I can tell that it’s right.
It says Here’s Waldo.
It’s summer, and I’m twenty years old. That puts us at 2010. I’m sitting in the bath, and it’s perfectly cold. The air above my head is different. It’s so hot that I can almost see the heat shimmer in this apartment that has no AC. Reb will go in after I’m done, because if the heat is bad for me it’ll only be worse for a dog. In the meantime, he sits next to the bathtub and smiles as he pants.
My roommate left abruptly about a month ago, breaking the lease and leaving me with no way to cover the rest of the rent. Student loan refunds can only help so much, and I learn quickly that New York City rent is on another planet compared to Des Plaines, IL rent.
I take to sipping cheap beer while sitting in the tub, convincing myself that I’m drinking to fill myself up while at the same time cooling myself down, trying to ignore the fact that my dad used to do the same thing with the same brand of beer. My empties form a mountain in the corner of the bathroom, and I amuse myself by thinking it’s an art installation.
A memory comes from an indeterminate age. All I know is that I was small enough for the bathroom’s door knob to be at eye level, the bathroom where my father called me over. He called me over, and I went, not knowing how drunk he was or even fully understanding the concept of being drunk. I just knew that sometimes Daddy fell over while he was trying to walk to the fridge, and you never knew if he would start laughing or yelling after he got back up. I knew beer bottles being hurled against the wall and my mom telling me that Mommy and Daddy were just kidding, just playing a game. I knew my dad driving us home from a little league game and stopping the car, opening the door to puke. I knew the effect, but the cause eluded me.
But in this memory where I am at door knob height, my father calls me into the bathroom, and I go, and when I open the door he’s soaking in the tub with an open can in his hand. His eyes are glassy, and there’s a vein visible on his forehead. In this memory, he tells me that he’s empty. He tells me that he needs another beer. He asks if I can be a good boy and do that for him. I nod my head and see that all around him there are bubbles like the bubble baths I always insist on having. My father notices and smiles. He tells me he’s having a bubble bath just like I always do. He smiles, and he looks at me, and he says that sometimes he likes the bubbles and sometimes he doesn’t. He puts his hand in the water between his legs and starts swishing the bubbles away, back and forth.
The memory stops.
I’m here in my own bathtub more than a decade removed, in another state, and my chest is tightening. It feels like I am being pulled outside of myself. My shoulders and back start to hurt, and it’s only when they do that I realize my entire body is tensed up. I feel like I’m beneath the surface of a great body of water, splashing and flailing. I don’t know what to do, but then I remember that I do.
I’ve been going to a Zen Buddhist temple for a few months now, and I watch and listen as the techniques and words come back to me. An image of a stream with leaves calmly floating down it. Understanding that thoughts will pass, that they don’t have any more of a hold over you than what you give them. That the breath regulates everything and not the other way around. That memories can’t kill you no matter how painful they might be. That you only need to sit and breathe and be.
I don’t know how long I stay there in that tub, but the pain leaves my shoulders and back, and eventually I can breathe again. I come back into my body and can feel and hear and see things normally again. I just breathe.
The day I saw my mom again, it was cloudy, and gray, and cold, and I got off the bus about a mile early to pick up kitty litter. I hadn’t planned the stop, wasn’t even sure I needed to, but I did it anyway. Maybe a part of me knew what would happen.
Lugging the 20 lb. box home wasn’t practical, but I was stubborn. On the way back, there was a rehab facility. Physical rehab, not drug. I always had to make the distinction later, when explaining to others where my mom was living. The thing was, at base, my mom was homeless. Sure, she was staying at this rehab facility and getting just enough surgeries to prolong her stay and keep herself off the street, but she was technically homeless. I don’t know, though. Saying that implies that she had a home to begin with. She had houses, apartments, and duplexes, but no home. I guess I never had one either.
I definitely knew that she was staying there, but the part of me that knew that wasn’t conscious at the time. I was just lugging the kitty litter home, already breaking a sweat even in the chilly November air. By the time I got to the rehab facility, I was swimming in my thoughts.
I saw her standing there, smoking a cig outside the place, talking with a fellow resident. She was about a block away and hadn’t seen me. She hadn’t seen me in years.
I actually froze. I remember that. I stood there, totally still, kitty litter in hand, and had no idea what I was going to do. I looked across the street, considered jaywalking and moving briskly past, hiding my face until I was out of view. I thought of turning back, no destination planned. I thought of doing many things, but what I actually did was walk right up to her. What I actually did was greet her, and set the kitty litter down, and tell her that we needed to talk.
She didn’t know what to do.
The person she was talking to gave me a knowing look and walked away, cigarette cherry glowing in the wind. And there was my mom standing in front of me. Her face was bloated, scarred, and worn from all that the elements had done to her, all of the rage that her body had inflicted. Her eyes were hazy skies threatening rain, foggy like antique marbles. Her mouth was a straight line.
Historically, her thing was to initiate a hug in the hopes that it would make me forget about how she’d treated me. But she didn’t do that this time. What she did was stand there with her arms at her sides, awkward and tense. She was never contemplative, not one to ever stay silent, but no words would come to her. She’d look like she was on the verge of saying something, but then she’d falter.
Looking at her there, standing in her tattered shawl draped over hunched shoulders, face wrecked and body worn out, all of my anger went away. It wasn’t replaced by love, but by a mournfulness. It was like I was looking at a dead person who hadn’t been put in the ground yet.
I hadn’t seen her in years.
It looked like she’d only anticipated being outside for a quick smoke, her shawl insufficient against the cold Chicago air. Or maybe that’s all she had. I remembered hearing that she’d had all her things stolen from her one night while she slept at a homeless shelter in the city. And there I was, standing in my nice jacket, wearing my nice jeans and nice shoes. Everything was nice.
We talked for hours. I led the conversation at first, updating her on everything that was going on in my life. For a time, we were able to set aside the past, all those hurled insults and slammed doors and broken homes. We were old friends maybe, catching up over a cup of coffee.
She told me all about how she’d regularly walk over to the Vineyard Church in Evanston, detail the services and the people and the conversations. We were just C&E parishioners growing up: Christmas and Easter. But now she was going to church once a week, if not more. I could tell she needed it, and that was fine.
I remember feeling the heat escape my body, noticing the cold as it seeped into my bones. Me, with my nice jacket, half-frozen. But it didn’t seem to bother her. I figured all those months of homelessness probably got her used to it.
We both knew when it was time to go. I’d realize when I got home, after I fought past the preliminary tears, then the cries, then the sobs on my walk back that we’d been talking for four hours. But I wouldn’t know then. All I knew was that I had to hug her, and to hug her for real. Like it mattered, because it did. And when I turned to go, she called out to me in a worried voice I’d never quite heard before:
“Don’t forget the kitty litter.”
It’s amazing the lengths you’ll go to to connect two homes in your head. You’ll take a walk next to a razor-wire-fence-protected golf course and remember a similar one back home, the only difference being that here there’s North Carolina red dirt in place of the rich black kind you’ll find in Chicagoland. You’ll pass by the hole that’s been cut into the fence and see yourself as a weed-grazing adolescent, sneaking into a defunct fisherman’s lagoon to get covertly high while your parents fought back home.
You’ll walk an hour or more in this land that isn’t yours and transpose old haunts from where you used to live. You’ll find an open, empty field in the middle of nowhere and pretend it’s the one just off Western Ave. back in Chicago, the one that was so wide and so vast that you could actually find something like quiet, right there, in the busyness of the city. The cars that streamed past in the distance were so far away that they might as well have been lightning bugs dancing in the summer sky. But there are no lightning bugs circling this North Carolina field. Nothing but land and air, sweat and earth.
These comparisons are unavoidable. Every slice of pizza you have will be compared against what you’re accustomed to, every Carolinian hill will remind you of the flatness of the Illinois earth. But still, this is your adopted land. Your transplanted town. So you walk. You remember the failed relationship, failed job, failed lifestyle that got you here. All of these failures that led you to where you are now, scarred and battle-worn but otherwise okay. Otherwise thriving. You watch as pounds are shed from your body, pounds you put on back home when it seemed like you were in a hole that went down for miles without even a glimpse of sun. You walk and fight, train and run. You go from proving yourself to others to proving yourself to yourself. You stay hungry.
In a matter of months, you go from barely getting out of bed to make a package of ramen before falling asleep again to working for yourself, doing MMA training, and working on getting your master’s. You realize the absurdity of this transformation as you go on another one of your walks, passing this razor wire that’s meant to protect the golf course from the denizens of your neighborhood. You laugh at the concept of it.
You write some more, like you did in the old days, simply putting yourself on the page. It’s fiction, sure, but it’s real enough that you’re basically in there. You’re basically contained in that little box, waiting for someone else to read you. You read Wallace and Tolstoy and Beatty and Murakami and Hoban. You write like a fucking madman. You stay hungry.
It seems as though anything you decide to do simply happens. You’ll come to realize that this is actually a more involved process, that it requires a mental toughness you’ve honed over years of putting up with unbelievably crazy shit. You’ll remember the story you heard over and over again at the Zen temple you used to go to back home. The one about the ambitious monk who wanted to reach enlightenment, who desperately asked his teacher what he had to do to reach it. And the way your own teacher’s eyes would light up when he’d relate what the story’s teacher had said, that the ambitious monk had to chop wood and carry water.
You didn’t understand it then, but you think you might have an idea now. The thing was all that mattered. If you wanted to be a writer, you had to write. If you wanted to be a fighter, you had to train. If you wanted to be a student, you had to study. It was as simple and difficult as that.
People will ask you how you keep up with all of it, how you stay so active, always looking for a new challenge, always trying to beat yourself at whatever you’re doing. You’ll laugh and shrug it off, but there will be an answer, an answer you’ll never give but will always think. The answer is that the alternative is worse than death. It’s an alternative you watched your parents go through, with crumbling marriage and lost jobs and addictions and homelessness. It’s an alternative you saw the beginnings of in yourself back home, toward the end, working a job you hated, engaged and stuck in a relationship that was breaking you down into tiny tiny parts, confronting your past traumas in bits and pieces, here and there, only remembering scattered details but never seeing the whole picture, like an ant unaware of the human world that surrounds it.
You’re a little more achey, a little more creaky, but you’re stronger. You’re smarter. Nothing can really bring you down the way things used to before. It’s funny. There aren’t any Zen temples for you to visit where you live now, but you understand the teachings better now than you did back then. You don’t try to win the approval of others, you just do the thing. You don’t chase enlightenment, you just chop wood and carry water. You stay hungry.
As we sat on the yellowed grass next to the crumbling remains of your childhood home, you with your fishnets and Converse, me with my combat boots and rolled-up jeans, both of us with our shades on against the setting sun, we both took in this time we had together, this one last night before you’d move several states away to go off to art school.
They’d fenced off the house to keep mischievous kids from getting in and having the place collapse on them. They’d been planning on knocking down the house and building an apartment complex in its place, but they’d run out of money during the demolition, and so there it sat, half-crumbled, waiting for someone to put it out of its misery. We made so many memories in that house–hide and seek in the dark, laser tag with flashlights, sledding down the stairs on pillows–and here we were now, watching the light go out from the sky like a campfire that’d reached the end of its life, knowing that soon I’d have to go home and you’d have to go out on the road.
I couldn’t afford art school, not even with financial aid, but you could. I tried to stay cool about it, but I knew you could tell I was at least a little jealous. I tried to be happy for you, tried to smile and get excited in all the right places, but it was more than a little forced.
Our art grew along with us, everything from doodles and comics to portraits and landscapes. You always said I was better than you, and I always disagreed. Now, just to make myself feel better, I let myself agree in my head.
“So you’re all packed to go and everything?”
“Yep. Roscoe totally knows something is up. He keeps whining and pawing at the boxes. It’s funny.”
I pictured Roscoe fussing like that, your big orange tabby perennially looking to me like a kitten even though he was thirteen years old.
“Is your mom still giving you shit?”
“Of course. You know her. She and dad are still trying to get me to reconsider. Stay home, go to community college, go into business, something. They keep telling me there’s no money in art, as if I was doing this for money in the first place.”
“Yeah, I know. Whatever. It is what it is. And I don’t give a shit, I’m going.”
We both shared a laugh, and it got sad at the end of it when we both remembered that this was our one last night, when we realized this could be one of the last laughs we’d share together.
“Have you gotten your schedule already?”
“Yeah. I’m taking mostly gen eds to get them out of the way, but I’ve got a couple of figure drawing and art theory classes, and I’m taking a class on sexuality.”
We looked at each other and shared an awkward smile. There was a silence that was midway between comfortable and uncomfortable.
“I bet your mom loves that.”
“She doesn’t know, and she’s not going to find out.”
“I could just imagine her turning red and telling you that the Lord is watching.”
You laughed again.
“Yeah, she’d have to do a dozen Hail Marys just to get the impure thoughts out of her head.”
We shared another awkward smile, made eye contact that went on a little too long. I broke the silence:
“Do you remember when we used to play spin the bottle out here at night when your parents were asleep?”
“Yeah, and that one time I had to kiss Robbie Stevenson. Dude was all tongue and mouth, I thought he was gonna eat my face. Freaking gross.”
“Yeah, I remember. I like to think I was the best kisser. No big deal.”
You laughed. I thought I saw your cheeks get red, but it could’ve just been the rosy sunset.
“Yeah. You totally were.”
It got quiet again. The sun was past the trees now, nearly below the horizon.
There was no way of knowing who initiated the kiss. It just sort of happened. When it was over, you scooted over and rested your head on my shoulder. I reached over and started stroking your hair. The neighborhood looked to me like it was coming through a fishbowl on account of the tears that were forming. I closed my eyes and smiled.
He hadn’t done this in years. He thought he was done, actually. He’d let time take its course, let the creaking in his body set in. He settled into the years that passed. Then the call came.
He didn’t want to do it, but his wife insisted. His retirement hadn’t been official, but it was definitive. An embarrassing defeat given to him by a young up-and-comer. He’d been caught in a triangle choke. Disbelief, or pride, or maybe both, stopped him from tapping. Surely he’d get out. Surely he’d escape. But he didn’t. The choke tightened, and he watched as consciousness left him. When he came to, he was lying on the mat, staring at lights that were like miniature suns, listening to the crowd going wild, the ref and a doctor over him, concern on both of their faces. His body was beaten and bloody, and he was barely able to catch his breath. That’s how it’d happened.
This could be his chance to end on his own terms, she said. His shot at going out on top just like he always wanted to. He could argue some with her points, though he chose not to. What he couldn’t argue with was that this could keep their bank account afloat. That old residual cash wouldn’t last forever, and this could be his way of securing their financial future.
He said yes.
He started training immediately–intensive cardio, sparring, grappling. It hit him all at once just how old he’d gotten. Sure, he was technically only middle-aged, but that was practically ancient for a fighter. Almost unheard of. But he was a big enough name where people wanted to see him fight one last time.
His legs ached from hundreds of takedowns and blows over the years, arms gave him problems if he extended them too far. Still though, he could spar.
He was always a slugger, always preferred standing toe to toe with a guy and putting his strength to the test. He’d come out swinging with such ferocity–a true berserker. Long after most guys would tire and clinch with their opponent to catch their breath, he’d be throwing hooks and uppercuts. It was what he was born to do.
He trained tirelessly, day after day, pushing his body to the absolute limit and then beyond it, having to take some days off when he flirted with injury, feeling like he needed to have an advantage over his younger opponent. But eventually, he could train no more. Eventually, fight night came.
The response he got when his name was announced would sound enthusiastic to the casual observer. He knew that there were plenty of old fans out there, plenty of people paying their respects to a guy like him, a guy who’d help define the sport, but there was pity mixed in there too. They’d seen his career end before, and they expected it to end in similar fashion again. But that was okay. He was used to being the underdog.
Round one. His opponent didn’t touch gloves, so he gave him a jab to the nose to teach him a lesson in manners. He delivered tightly-packed combinations as he was wont to do, alternating between striking the body and the head, not allowing his opponent to adjust. The younger fighter clinched several times to stop the punches, which elicited boos from the crowd. When the clinching didn’t work, the younger guy tried takedowns. But the old man had been training his takedown defense. He sprawled in textbook fashion when the kid tried to come in for his leg, put all his weight on the younger fighter’s back, pushed him down, and got back to his feet.
On and on he slugged with the kid, past round two and into the third and final round. And here was something new: the old man was actually gassed. Sure, the kid was gassed too, but this was still alarming. He threw his trademark combinations, but they were slower, sloppier. The younger fighter noticed and capitalized. He clinched up with the old man and fell backward so that the older fighter would fall on top of him. The kid pulled one arm and pushed the other against the older fighter’s chest, got one leg over his head and the other over that leg. A triangle choke. The old man breathed in slow and deep as the kid worked at the hold. The younger fighter grabbed his own ankle and pulled down, cinching it tighter, squeezing till the old man’s face turned red. He could see himself fade again, feel his strength seep out of his body.
And then he did what had to be done. He got his legs underneath him and stood up. The crowd collectively gasped as he picked the younger fighter up like he was nothing. Then everything went silent. Everyone waited.
The old man slammed the younger fighter down with so much force that the kid was knocked out instantly. The ref came in and got between the two of them before any more damage could be done. And that was it. He’d won.
The entire crowd was on its feet, cheering and applauding as if he were a hero back from war. The kid came over to offer his congratulations and thanks, and the old man shook his hand.
As he walked out of the cage and past the cheering crowd, harsh bright lights like miniature suns up above him, the old man knew what true happiness felt like.
The way the fighter’s coach put it to him as they sat in the gym’s back alley long past midnight was to let the fire do what it needs to do. You could spend your whole life tensing up. Tensing up for a word, for a punch, for a fight. Or you could come loose and strike first.
It was a kind of controlled chaos, the same way the combustion engine harnesses miniature explosions to propel a vehicle forward. The fire, though, must be controlled. He’d been out of control long enough, as a boy, getting in fight after fight, fighting just to survive, fighting because that’s all he knew how to do. No form, no technique, just using whatever would work to stop the pain and inflict that pain onto the other person. So much destruction. So much hurt.
But even hurt can be harnessed.
It felt unnatural at first, having to adapt his wild punches to something more controlled, more precise. Drilling footwork, and takedown defense, and grappling. Practicing the same punch over and over and over, exasperated, asking his coach if he could move on, learn something else. He was hungry. And his coach would bring up the old Bruce Lee quote about not fearing the man who’s practiced 10,000 kicks once but instead fearing the man who’s practiced one kick 10,000 times. And the fighter would laugh and say yeah yeah yeah, get back into position and hit the pads again. Jab, jab, right hook, dodge and roll, right hook again.
He remembered the first time he landed a right hook. Some asshole kid was following him home after he got off the school bus. Making fun of him for having to get school lunch assistance, saying his mother worked the streets but even that wasn’t enough. The bully was getting in his face and shouting insults till his left eardrum felt like it’d burst, till his shoulders tightened and his head got hot and his vision focused. That first time he landed a right hook, it was textbook. He pulled it across with the precision of a conductor, his arm his baton. And when it landed on the bully’s chin, sending him down, unconscious before he even hit the ground, it was like his own symphony had started to play. It continued to play the whole walk home, and it never quite stopped.
He had dreams of making it big, starting a gym in his old neighborhood, and coaching the kids looking for a way out, giving them the discipline and structure he himself didn’t find till he was already an adult and had made his mistakes. He was going to fight for every kid out there who didn’t see a way out of the black hole that was poverty. He knew what it was like having no concept of the future, not being able to think past where the next meal might come from. He was hungry, and he’d stayed hungry. Hunger comes in many forms.
But his coach would come in and tell him the quote about the journey of a thousand miles beginning with a single step. Always with the quotes, his coach. But he was right.
The fighter trained. He practiced punches, kicks, sprawls, submissions. He practiced, but more important than that, he listened. If his coach told him to do something, he did it. Even if it seemed pointless, even if he couldn’t see the immediate purpose, he did it.
Months passed. The fighter shed fat and put on muscle. He found that he could go an entire session without getting gassed. He’d sweat, and he’d feel sore after, but he could keep fighting for as long as he needed to.
He trained on pads, bags, and dummies. He sparred, first with headgear, then without. He fixed his diet, drank plenty of water, and got good sleep. He didn’t realize it then, but he’d worked himself into the best shape of his life.
And then he got his first amateur fight.
He didn’t know what the outcome would be as he stood across from his opponent. Didn’t know then that his right hook would land him a win in the first round by knockout. All he knew was that the tightness he was feeling, that instinct to tense up, was less than useless. So he breathed. He let go. He came loose.
Life is on the other side of death. I’d learn this years later, living in another state, at a different job, with another person, in a different headspace, but I’d learn it all the same. Before I learned it, I found myself coming home just in time for the setting December sun, coming home from a hangout after Krav Maga after a writing session after work after a morning run. In those days, I’d fill up every waking minute of my day till nothing was left, coming home at 9, sometimes 10, not realizing then that I was doing anything I could to get away from you. I didn’t know it then, but these were my Lost Days.
The thing about toxic relationships is that when you’re in one, you hardly ever realize it. My head was in a fog, soul a million miles away, and I was dodging cars on Chicago streets with my bike, sometimes missing them by inches and not really caring what the outcome might be. When the idea of leaving you would cross my mind, I’d remember the years we’d already put into this thing and reconsider, as if recommitting to a years-long mistake would suddenly make it not a mistake.
I sat at this desk I’d been given day in and day out, performing mindless tasks, only to come home to arguing, or the cold shoulder if I was lucky. My writing was arguably the best it’s ever been in this period, and I know now that it’s because it was the perfect escape. I’d dealt with addiction before, but this one had none of the side effects I was used to. There was no writing hangover, no accompanying feeling of guilt and emptiness after I finished. There was just me exploring me and putting it on the page. And when I’d share my stories with you, make sure you were the first to know about a publication, you’d shrug it off. I remember you once told me to get back to you when I got published in a big magazine, but not until then.
You kept telling me to be something or stop being another thing. You said I wasn’t funny like I used to be. That I was too serious all the time, and quiet, and that I’d space out a lot. I know now that that’s because I was depressed and felt stuck, but I buried that idea deep down. I went to my Zen service, I went to Krav Maga, I went running, I had writing sessions, I hung out with old friends, and I went on bike rides. After a particularly nasty argument, I ran 18 miles–9 miles away from you and 9 miles back. I hadn’t planned it, it just sort of happened.
I think I published so I could remind myself that I was a writer, that I didn’t have to be trapped at that office job and in that toxic relationship forever. You started coming home late too, but not for the same reasons. You’d go out drinking with your work friends, come home at 2, 3 in the morning or sometimes not at all. When you wouldn’t come home, you were “staying with a friend.” And then there was the time you were tagged in a Facebook picture, your body right up against another guy at a party. How you laughed when I brought it up, how you said that you weren’t even touching him when there was literal photo evidence that you were. I didn’t know the term gaslighting then, didn’t know that that’s what you were doing. But I’d come to learn.
All the while, I put together my novel. It was framed as nonfiction, the main character telling his story, but I fictionalized it just enough for me to be comfortable sharing my own story with the world. I sent out excerpts from it and got a few published. It hit me that there were several places out there in the literary world that liked this story. That maybe I could get the book published too, as long as I tried hard and put myself out there. So I wrote, and I didn’t stop writing. I wrote long after I broke up with you, long after I moved to another state and started working for myself and found someone new, someone who actually valued who I was as a person. But let’s go back to the setting December sun.
I was on my way back home, sun disappearing behind Chicago skyline, crossing through Warren Park on my way back to our apartment, pedaling my bike through the light dusting of snow that was just then starting to cling to the ground. I was about halfway through the park when the handlebars came loose. My tools were at home, so I pedaled through it, the handlebars getting progressively more wobbly, until it was hard to steer at all. Then the chain fell off. I stopped the bike, got off, flipped it upside down, and worked on this chain that had never given me problems before. I worked for an hour or more in the biting cold, my hands covered in grease and so cold I could barely feel them. I toiled at this thing, trying to fix what I gradually realized was unfixable.
After enough time had passed, I just left it behind. I tipped the bike over till it fell on its side, and I walked away. I dialed the friend I’d just hung out with and asked him if I could crash at his place for the night. He said I could. Of course I could. So I turned around, and I walked through the gathering snow, and I never looked back.