Closed Fist, Open Heart by John R. Canter

I thought that she’d be just another tournament contestant: that I could knock her down with just three punches or so, let the ref announce that Choi Park was the winner yet again, and move on to my next guy. I am very glad I was wrong.

Her punch to the face woke me up. It wasn’t that I had never been hit before – I’d been punched in the face a lot in my career, especially early on. I learned to keep my guard up, though I must have slacked off. She had my attention then, and when I decked her back, I saw I had taken her by surprise too.

We looked at each other in the eye, then. I saw her, and saw myself. In her eye, and in mine, the question whispered out.

I came in with a punch, testing – she blocked. She came back with a kick – I sidestepped, footwork accelerating. We danced a spontaneous ad-lib shuffle, measuring the distances just so. Am I out of range of her hook? Is she out of range of my kick? I had gone long past just three hits, and I dared to dream, an old euphoria rushing back from the past, punctuated, confirmed, with a punch. The fight would last. This moment wasn’t fleeting, a blink from future challenge to past overcome, but the precious all-consuming now.

Most brawls or fights in real-life are painfully short, lasting only a few seconds, and usually one guy ends up on the ground. That’s because any incremental difference between two people’s fighting ability is more than enough that the more fragile, weaker person is forced to yield to the stronger one. Even in competitions like this one, all of my matches were unsatisfactorily brief from me. It’s not like in the movies, when two dudes fight for five minutes or more, in some big dramatic drawn-out battle. Only very, very rarely are two opponents ever so very closely matched in ability that the fight can last a long time. It’s almost never like that, I was taught.

But almost isn’t never.

This fight was my one-in-a-billion match.

Unless I lost. I was holding my own. Sweat was comin’ off me, I could feel my fingers in my fists lubricated by it. My heart was pounding – oh! I had missed the rush of adrenaline! I was finally getting a test of my limits –

I suddenly found myself on my back. I think she must have swept up my legs. I couldn’t afford to get distracted.

I got back up. Right hook – she blocked. Counter left jab – I sidestepped. Came in with a back-hand – she ducked, came back with an uppercut, hit me in the jaw. I reeled, used the distance, the movement, foot shifting, and swung for a kick – she moved to block, but I got her in the ribs, I pushed her back.

I recomposed, and so did she. Our eyes met, and I realized I’m smiling, because I see her smiling too. She and I … the rest of the universe might as well not exist right now.

We traded this way for I don’t know how long. I knew it was over when I opened my eyes, and saw her standing above me, offering to help me back up. The right side of my face hurt a lot, but I’m wasn’t mad.

I couldn’t remember the last time I was this happy.

Her name was Ayumi.

***

I waited for him. “You really mean it, Ayumi?” he asked me, as if either of us had any doubt. It had been one year since the Super Asia Martial Arts Tournament was held, the last one. How lucky I was to meet him then! I had spent the last twelve months recovering and then pushing myself to my limit. My sensei said he had never seen me train so hard before. But I had a reason to get stronger. I wanted a rematch, and I knew he did too.

I watched him get out of the taxi, and gave him a hug. I should say that I had forgotten how he looked from last year, but I had kept an eye on him, watched all his matches, quick as they were (some faster than my own!). I felt like such a stalker and a little ashamed, but he greeted me with a smile.

I can’t wait to get started,” Choi said, excitedly. “I’ve been training all year for this match.”

So have I,” I said, smiling. I walked him into the dojo where I trained, and between sensei, my students, and I, we gave him a grand tour of the training area. I think I embarrassed him a little with how everyone knew about him; he didn’t seem to mind that, as my brothers put it, I couldn’t think or talk about anything or anyone else in the past year but him.

I think he was in the same boat I was.

Neither of us could wait any longer, and we cleared out the training hall of all the gawking audience of students and family. Choi accepted my sensei as a referee, who gave his word to be impartial to each of us for this match. The field was clear now, and we each went to change into competitive clothes.

We spent a few seconds at the start of the rematch sizing each other up. This time my adrenaline was pumping from the start, and I could tell his was too. He started with a few experimental jabs – I kept up my footwork. I was blocking each slow strike, and I was beginning to worry.

Don’t be so coy,” I told him, with a smile.

He smiled and nodded.

A hard and fast punch (no, a feint!) and a swift roundhouse, connecting solid against my belly. I turned just in time, letting my abs catch some of it, but I was off-balance. He wasn’t expecting that, and didn’t pounce, but I wouldn’t let him get another chance. He came in again, another roundhouse kick, and I was ready, stepping into his space and coming to him with a flurry of jabs. I was on the offensive now, pushing him back. We circled around, him backwards, me driving.

When’s he going to push back? I thought, waiting. I let up on him, slacking just a bit, to bait his movement. He didn’t take it – smart. I throttled my advance a little more, feinting tiredness.

He came at me with a strait – I slipped past it and behind him, and my leg in front of his, and rammed my elbow into his back. He fell forward – too late I saw his other leg coming up at my face, driving me back, and the distance between us grew. Now I was on the defensive as he mixed up punches and kicks. I tried to hop to the side, but that only changed the direction of his advance, not stop it. I set up for a leg sweep – he dodged and went to counter, blocking.

So he learned from the last match. Good.

Another pause, sizing up. Neither of us were breathing heavy, yet, but I was sweaty and each of us were getting nice big bruises. I’m earning this match, I thought, and so is he.

I came at him with a solid punch, and we each hit each other in the face. His hit hurt, as it should. Another pause.

Time for another approach, I thought.

I baited his next punch, and grabbed his arm, but went to twist it around, rotating my torso to put my body behind it. He didn’t break free, exactly, but fought the grapple – he knew what’s up! He tried to grab me, and I moved my hands out of the way in circular arcs to keep his grip off me. His footwork surprised me, and he had me on my back, and tried to pin me. It was a furious spin, slamming the other arm onto the mat hard, but I got out of the pin. That could have ended the match.

I don’t want the match to end!

I realized that I’m starting to breathe heavy. So was he. I’d lost all track of time, but I didn’t care. He and I … right now, nothing else in the world matters.

We went back and forth for some time, trading hit and feints. I grappled him and he escaped; I got in some kicks; then he grappled me and I escaped; he got in some punches.

His punches started to hurt a lot.

I spat out some blood.

One of his eyes became swollen.

I realized that I’m on the ground on my butt. I remembered a jab coming at my face, but it must have been a feint … my ribs hurt from what must have been a kick I didn’t see. And then I had to admit:

I can’t get up anymore.

He offered to help me back up. I’d lost, but I wasn’t mad.

I was happy, and I couldn’t wait for next year.

***

Ayumi and Choi continued this annual tradition through their careers and beyond. They became the closest of friends, though if through a strange kind of friendship that involved beating the life out of each other, after spending each following year recovering and then training hard to push themselves to, and then past, their limits. They grew as people. They became close. They attended each other’s weddings: Ayumi marrying a Japanese businessman, and Choi marrying a Korean painter. They even became good friends with each other’s spouses; Choi often getting financial consultation from Ayumi’s husband, and Ayumi being a regular patron of Choi’s wife. They all celebrated together the birth of Ayumi’s first child, Ichiko.

And each year, the rematches. Sometimes at Ayumi’s dojo in Japan, other times at Choi’s gym in South Korea, alternating annually; they continued having this one private competition even after otherwise quitting from all other circuits, retiring to run gyms and teach. In total Choi had four victories, and Ayumi had four victories. One afternoon, two months before their ninth match, Ayumi left the dojo to answer a phone call from Choi.

He said somewhat hollowly, “Ayumi. How are you?”

Hi Choi,” she replied; she heard that his inflection was wrong. Something was wrong. Hopefully, she said, “I’m fine, how are you?”

A pause. “I’m in the hospital. I just woke up last night. I was in a car crash three days ago.”

She stopped breathing. She heard him say that the accident wasn’t his fault, that the car was totaled, and that the insurance would cover most everything.

What about you?” she asked, catching her breath.

A pause. “My right arm’s broken, badly. Very badly. The doctors told me I will never be able to fight again.”

She nodded, understanding. As the conversation continued, he said, “But maybe it’s one of those things, like, when they tell paralyzed people that they’ll never walk again, and then they go through all the physical therapy, and really try, and in five years they’re walking again?”

Perhaps it’s too soon to tell,” Ayumi agreed, nodding, hopeful.

I still want the rematch,” he told her. “Of course, I think we should reset the clock, so to speak. Twelve months recovery time.”

Ayumi said, “Will you be able to fight in just twelve months?”

A pause. “Like you said, maybe it’s too soon to tell. But I wanted to give you a heads-up. I wanted you to know. Besides, twelve months recovery time is kind of typical for us.”

They talked for some time more. “You know, if we wait twelve months on this, I’ll have had twenty months to your twelve, and you’ll still be recovering.”

Then wait ten months, and get back into it. Or alternate days. Remember when we worked things out when you were pregnant with Ichiko?”

Yeah,” she nodded. They both agreed: they would wait and see.

The following twelve months were agonizing. Choi’s recovery, through grueling physical therapy, was remarkably fast, but was too slow for him. Ayumi worried herself with his progress, as well as tracking her own to match; she instead tried to distract herself with helping young Ichiko, and being a mother, and talked often with Choi’s wife, who gave her support. Ayumi even visited him a few times in Korea during his recovery.

Eventually, finally, the year passed, and the time for the ninth match came. Choi would host the match in his gym, and when Ayumi saw him he didn’t look any different: still muscular, still fit, still Choi. She told herself that he wasn’t looking any slower or weaker.

They entered the gym’s sparing space as they had done before. On the surface, everything seemed as normal as could be expected. If she ignored the medic on standby in the corner, she could almost convince herself that nothing was wrong. Shortly, Choi’s trainer, acting as referee, signaled the start of the match.

The annual prologue began: sizing each other up, making exploratory strikes to see where they now were after a year of training. Ayumi took some hits, focusing her own strikes on his legs, and on Choi’s left side, naturally hoping to avoid his bad arm.

Choi wasn’t smiling. Neither was she.

Not you too, Ayumi!” Choi suddenly yelled; it startled her. “I get that from everyone, now! My trainers, my sparing partners. They go easy on me. They don’t push me anymore. That’s what this was all about! You push me to my limit, you challenge me; and I know I push you too. For years, out of everyone in the world, we’ve been a match for each other: don’t take that away! So please, I’m asking you, challenging you: give me everything you’ve got, and I’ll do the same!”

She listened to him, and feeling ashamed for a moment, turned to look him in the eye. Yes, he’s different, she realized, but he’s still Choi. Her stance shifted, focusing; and she came in with a barrage of kicks. Choi countered – she parried and re-positioned him with a hop across the floor. She came in with a feint, followed by a leg sweep – he dodge both moves. He jumped up with a flying kick, knocking her solidly in the hip and sent her back a distance. She charged back in, feinting with a gut punch that dropped his guard and then striking him in the face with a headbutt. As he recovered he grabbed her by her clothes and threw her over his hip around him through the air – she rolled with the throw, got up with a spin and charged back from across the ring. He came down at her with an ax kick, powerful and from high, but slow, and easily dodged – she grappled him this time, and pinned him to the ground. He positioned his leg against her throat, and knocked her head into the floor; after a few seconds struggling and neither finding advantage, they each broke off and returned to standing.

Both were panting now from the groundwork, pausing to scan for an opening. Choi came in with a series of kicks – Ayumi returned in kind, and they went across the ring back and forth, punching and kicking, advancing and retreating.

Choi landed a solid kick to Ayumi’s face with his right leg. Ayumi responded with a full-body punch, and Choi had his arms up to guard; because his right side was facing her at that moment, his right arm took nearly all of the impact of this strike.

Oh no, Ayumi realized while feeling his arm bones crack against her knuckles.

She withdrew, and since Choi was not focused on an immediate, incoming attack, his mind was forced to recognize the pain. It was unbearable, and he tried to suppress the scream.

Ayumi didn’t know what to do. She was frozen, while her best friend in the whole world was in pain that she never meant to cause. She looked him in the face, hoping to read some indication, one way or the other, seeing agony as he gripped his arm.

Their eyes met. Ayumi saw his visceral pain, and Choi saw her palpable fear. In an instant he knew her intentions, and of the only only course of action that could stop her. But he wasn’t fast enough to go first.

They both turned to Choi’s trainer, acting as referee, and shouted in perfect unison, “I forfeit the match!” For a moment, each was confused.

Acting fast, the referee declared, “Both combatants forfeit: this match is a draw!” Pointing, he quickly commanded: “Medic!” and the doctor sprung into action from the corner of the room.

Choi’s injury was not too severe; although his arm had re-broken, of course, it would heal back, and even stronger than it was before. While the doctor worked, Ayumi was beside herself with worry.

When the doctor was done patching up both of them, and they, as two families together, discussed it all, Choi and Ayumi talked alone with each other. After a long silence, he shared his thoughts with her.

It’s about time I retired fully anyway,” Choi said matter-of-fact. Ayumi said nothing at first. She – they – had always wanted to know who was stronger. They naively thought that maybe they could keep going on like this forever, until they were both two old masters, like in some kung-fu martial arts movie. The score was Ayumi 4 and Choi 4, with one draw that would never be concluded. She nodded.

It’s time I retired fully too,” Ayumi admitted. “You were what kept me going,” to which he nodded in agreement. “But I think I should have stopped training so hard after Ichiko was born. With the dojo, I should focus more on the business, and my family.”

Her eyes had grown red as she started to sob. Choi scowled a bit. “Why are you crying?” he asked her, as he began to tear up too, already understanding completely.

I’m crying because … I’m sad that I hurt you, and I’m sorry. But I’m also glad that we got to compete against each other, for the years that we did have. Even if those days are gone or maybe different now, I’m forever grateful to have met you.”

 

I would like to hear from you! Do you like short story posts? Do you have critiques or suggestions for future stories? I would love to read your feedback and criticisms – just enter your comment in the Leave a Reply section, and I’ll gladly consider them for future posts.
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