The Gym Where I Belong

The gloved fist flies toward my face. I’ve been caught with my right hand down again, and I know it. So does my attacker; out of courtesy, he slows the speed of the oncoming punch, planting the glove firmly, yet without malice, against the side of my face. I can feel his knuckle against my cheekbone through the padding. A single star floats through the darkness behind my eyelid, squeezed shut as it is.

The leg sweep doesn’t take long in following, and I land on my back hard. I’m already thinking about getting back up, stepping back into the fray. The buzzer hasn’t released me yet, and so I can’t lie there and wallow in my defeat. For a split second, I look up at the cage walls rising around me, my opponent’s grin distorted by his mouth guard, and the bright light overhead. Then, I grab the proffered hand and get hauled back to my feet.

Before the limbs start flying again, as my back peels away from the mat, I wonder, briefly, how I got here.

***

It’s impossible to remember which love came first. Mythology? Comic books? Action movies? It doesn’t really matter; they’re all part of a single pantheon of heroes, gods, monsters, and villains in my mind. Some of my earliest memories involve trying to take flight from a swing at its apex, throwing Nerf darts as if they were Zeus’s lightning bolts, or forcing my parents to stop what they were doing and come watch me get riddled with imaginary bullets. I insisted that my mother overcome her horror and enroll me in acting classes, so that I could get better at pretending to be shot. “I don’t think they teach that,” she said, wide-eyed.

I was drawn to acting because I knew that fighting – real fighting – scared me. But, it nevertheless occupied a sizeable chunk of my imagination. It was so integral to the stories I loved, and I found myself writing, drawing, and acting as a means to engage with those tales directly. When I realized that these pretend people were sometimes fighting in real ways, I became fascinated with the martial arts.

The martial arts represented the pinnacle of beauty and danger to me, existing somewhere between dance and brawling. I could see that they required purpose and control to execute, and imagined that they demanded discipline to master. I thought that they might transform me from someone who played at heroics to someone who was the real deal. Filled with trepidation, I dipped my toe into the water.

My first gym was a taekwondo school in a strip mall, at the back of a long, dark parking lot. I was maybe six years old, and it seemed impossibly big. The walls bore mirrors and the floor was utterly empty, except for when it filled up with students clad in their traditional gis. People wore belts to denote their rank, broke boards to demonstrate their strength, and shouted “Hiya!” as they swung their limbs.

My parents, bless their hearts, took an extremely gentle hand in raising me. I lived a happy life as a child, and, due to some inborn desire for structure, followed all their rules. They hardly ever raised their voices to me, and I hardly ever gave them cause to. This blissful childhood failed to prepare me for the idea that you could yell at someone as a means of encouragement, and so I misinterpreted the culture of the gym. One night, in the middle of an intense bout of instructions, I burst into tears, stepped out of class, and never returned.

My passion for the martial arts cooled; I thought I didn’t have “the stuff.” The flame rekindled, though, years later at a 5th grade talent show. A classmate of mine, already a black belt, demonstrated her skills. She could pretty much fly. After I scraped my jaw off the floor, I discovered that a burning combination of admiration and envy had crept inside me through my gaping mouth. I resolved to seek lessons again.

This time, I tried kung fu. I researched schools a bit, deciding on one that sounded like fun; you could learn how to use spears or master a style called Eight Drunken Immortals! I began enthusiastically. I attended several times a week, acquired soreness, and felt good about myself. It was a gym of firsts. I got kicked for the first time, meditated for the first time, held a weapon for the first time. Then young adulthood struck, and I fell in love for the first time. A combination of romantic interests and rivals for their affections drove me to neglect my training.

The rest of my encounters with the martial arts were but flirtations: some stage combat classes, training with a college friend, and an endless stream of increasingly good movies. I retained my fascination. I tried new styles. But, ultimately, I considered my ship to have sailed.

***

Life after college moved fast. Harsh realities abounded. I worked jobs, quit jobs, got new jobs. I struggled to keep up with evolving relationships. I once or twice wondered where my next meal might come from. Very suddenly, I found myself on the far side of 25, and beginning to look unhealthy, instead of just living unhealthily.

I had a job writing for Groupon; something within my wheelhouse, for once. The company, already huge, had begun running martial arts deals by the dozens, and the brass wanted a wiki put together as a reference for us writers. They wanted us to stop talking about throwing punches in jiu-jitsu deals or wearing colored belts in muay thai classes. It turned out my meager background with martial arts qualified me to write and research such a wiki. I dove into the assignment with gusto, though I hardly expected to find myself where it left me.

With every line of research, I felt that almost-forgotten burn again. Curiosity, fear, ambition, and, yes, that admiration and envy I had once accidentally swallowed. Before the wiki was finished, I found myself looking for Chicago-land schools.

***

Extreme Kung Fu Martial Arts. It was the first school I found, and the closest to my residence. My first instinct is always to email a business when I have questions, but the martial arts are a little old-fashioned, and so are many of the teachers. The right answer turned out to be a call.

I spoke with Tony Marquez, owner and head coach of the gym. He seemed a little distracted; I could hear shouts, explosive impacts, and loud music in the background. I peppered him with questions, dancing around the one on the tip of my tongue. “Can I actually do this?” I asked in a million different ways.

“Come in and find out,” Tony told me through his answers.

***

At Tony’s invitation, I walked into the gym to observe some classes the following Monday. I was immediately struck by three things.

The simplicity stood out. The gym was packed with students. I saw at least three different classes happening, front to back. But, through the bodies, I could see the no-frills appeal of the place. Here were heavy bags, there a boxing ring. Wrestling mats slid up against a big, carpeted kung fu floor. A weightlifting area sat slightly separated from the rest of the space, beside a vending machine with only water and Gatorade inside. The space had everything you could need, and not one thing extra. It screamed seriousness.

But the seriousness didn’t dampen the attitude. People smiled, laughed, shouted, and, most of all, worked hard. They moved fast, shining with hard-earned sweats. And in front, in the boxing ring, working hardest of all, Tony perfected Muay Thai moves with one of his fellow instructors.

It was an incredible diversity of people and styles. A lone boxer pounded away at the speed bag as nearby co-ed pairs of jiu-jitsu wrestlers tussled about. Spears – those old, siren weapons that had led me to my second school – flashed in the back as people jumped and twirled higher than I’d ever been off the ground in my life.

I stood there, eyes shining. Tony stepped out of the raised ring, looking like he’d just taken a swim. He sat down on the steps, breathing hard, and caught my eye. “Can I help you?” he asked.

“Yeah, I called earlier,” I said. What I meant was, “Where do I sign up?”

***

My first class was harder than I ever could have imagined. The opening six minutes of jump roping took pretty much everything I had, and then I swung my arms and legs feebly at my partner’s pads for the next hour. I shook off years of immobility, stretched out a decade of slouching over keyboards and drafting tables. It was excruciating.

My first roundhouse kick in years appalled me. I couldn’t have hit a poodle in the head. Tony told me it was fine. I would start with a poodle, graduate to a child, and eventually to a very small adult. I didn’t believe him, but I followed his instructions. “I’m not lyin’ to you guys,” he said often.

I feared slowing down the other students. I imagined my ineptitude sandbagging a fighter’s training as he or she prepared for a match, or preventing a more experienced martial artist from getting the most out of the workout. But, I slowly realized that teaching a beginner challenged a person’s skills in a different way than matching an opponent. And each and every one of my fellow students was glad to do it; that’s the culture that Tony and his teaching staff encouraged. They taught us, we taught each other.

I would never call it easy. I threw up once. Bled. I suffered rib contusions and knee sprains.

Had I been at another gym, I probably would have quit. But, I connected with the people there. It was okay to tell a joke in the midst of training, as long as you got right back to moving as fast and hard as possible. Tony encouraged my habit of referencing obscure superheroes or comic books. I fondly recall pounding away on a punching bag as he and I discussed the finer points of Captain America’s adventures in the 70’s.

My comfort level invited me to invest. I started with kickboxing, but expanded into the gym’s other offerings as time passed. I studied Wu Shu Kung Fu, Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Sanshou, Western boxing, and more general forms of fitness. Time ultimately proved Tony correct; a year in, I could land a roundhouse solidly, if slowly, on the head of a six-foot opponent.

I began to feel something that utterly changed my self-image. I felt I belonged to a gym.

***

The sparring match is over. I ate a few punches, but I kept my chin down. I pulled off a takedown, landed a couple sidekicks. I missed with the Superman punch, but the ensuing spinning back kick connected. I didn’t give quite as good as I got, but I didn’t lie down, either. I feel good.

Now comes my favorite part of martial etiquette. “Thank you,” my opponent says.

“Thank you,” I echo. Every three minutes in the ring warrants sincere gratitude.

My partner steps out of the cage door, and a new challenger, fresh off the bags, steps in. An hour ticks away one punch at a time as we rotate through rounds.

I always feel strangely sore and loose after a class, as if my legs might walk off in separate directions in search of a hot tub. I lace up my winter boots for the trudge home through the snow, pack my belongings into my bag, and chat with Tony about the latest trailer for Captain America 2.

As I stand up to leave, Tony asks the same question he asks to every single student every time they walk out the door. “When?”

“Tomorrow,” I say. I fully intend to return the following day. Usually I do. Sometimes life gets in the way, and a week or two slips by. But, over two years I’ve proved something to both of us. Something I feared I couldn’t do until I found EKF. I’ll always be back.