from Prairie Schooner, Winter 2015
He hands me his wire-framed glasses before turning, bowing, and stepping onto the mats. Today's tournament is one of the days my husband fights his visible enemies. Earlier I packed his gi, mouth guard, one-pound gloves, groin cup, bananas, bottled water, and gummy bears, the duffle crinkling with old granola bar wrappers. We spend our Saturdays in old gymnasiums and church basements that smell like weak chili and wet socks. My husband fights new strangers. A curious but easily bored spectator, I watch and read Ovid's Amores. The day full of pleasured and damaged bodies. There are no weight classes, and today the man who bows to my husband has twenty pounds on him and is four inches taller. Later I find out he plays football, loves his girlfriend, and wishes his grades in college were better. Hajime! the judge shouts, and they begin.
Brown belts are the worst fighters for me to watch. The green and yellow belts jab tentatively, making light contact to the body—chudan. The young fighters' heads are wrapped in giant foam to protect against any ambitious attempt to strike jodan. Purple belts grow more aggressive, and the rounds of their fights stretch from adorable to brave to tedious. Brown belts have the force and skill to hurt each other without the restraint and practice of a black belt. The man who bows to my husband feints too quickly, charges, and attempts to throw a right cross before landing heavily and crushing my husband's foot. Good enough for lesser verse—laughed Cupid / so they say, and stole the foot away. I find out later the fractures to my husband's first metatarsal and medial cuneiform will never heal correctly, and he'll ache when the weather turns.
Yame! the judge calls. Zero points. They go to their sides of the mat.
My husband's gi is stiff as sailcloth folded over the softness of his body. He turns around to the crowd and adjusts his belt and gi, closing the gap that opens over the dark and downy hairs of his chest. It shows respect for his opponent not to step onto the mat in disarray. I admire the gestures of respect, but what I love is the vulnerability of it. Still all this I can see, but what the cloth may well hide / that's the cause of my secret fears, Ovid wrote. I'll make it clear I'm your lover, / and say 'they're mine!', and take possession. My husband shields his body from one set of eyes to show dozens that he's starting to come undone. When I used to model at an art school, I never felt exposed when I was naked. It was only the moment I reached for a robe that made me uncomfortable. The act of switching states from undressed to dressed felt private, more unguarded than the still, reclining nude pose. Even with others watching him, he still feels entirely mine, smoothing his gi, shaking the sting out of his cheeks.
Above the door to his dojo a sign reads: "The ultimate aim of karate lies not in victory or defeat, but in the perfection of the character of the participant." The impossible goals are always the most appealing. Like writing a great poem, a goal worthy of my failure. Chudan, judan, knowing you'll lose but trying to score those hits on the head and body before time runs out.
My husband winces and limps back onto his line. He's fond of saying it's important to get hit in the face because it makes anything else seem less scary by comparison. This face punch, the judan-tzuke, works only if the ball of his rear foot stays in contact with the mat, but it always happens too fast for me to watch where someone's foot is placed. I'm too busy looking at my husband's face going soft, boyish, almost confused. My husband attempts the impossible but loses twice—to his opponent and his anger.
Finished with his fight with the visible in kumite, my husband waits for his round of kata, his bout with the invisible. Each kata is full of rapid turns and jumps, strikes against the air and sometimes his own body, his instincts training for when the fight is real. His kiai is louder than anyone else's. His intention knifes through the air, his focus singular on something I can't see. He often practices around the house, breaking invisible holds in the kitchen, his kiai softer in the apartment, like an arrow in flight that never finds the target. He is better at this than kumite, though I don't tell him that.
I wonder if it's because he can see the invisible more clearly. Even with his glasses off, he can feel in his body where the invisible enemy is waiting in a way he can't when his enemy is two feet away and more power than mastery. His body is all line and swiftness and control. But, I think, if love were attacking me I'd feel it, Ovid claims. Surely he's crept in and hurt me with secret art. In public my husband always positions himself toward the doors of restaurants or stands between me and strangers. He sees the potential in those moments that I don't see, but in these moments when he stands over the invisible enemies whom he's defeated I love him in the way I love God—foreign, inscrutable, and full of the power to harm but holding back.
I love to watch kata at any skill level. It makes the body more clear to me than the violence. That practice with intent. I understand both ways of fighting but appreciate the technical aspects without the fear in kata. I know this practice. I rehearse line breaks, playing with sound, working on endings as if they are the ikken hisatsu—the killing blow. But in that practice, I'm more fearless because the stakes seem low. All the judan and chudan hypothetical.
My husband and I watch our friend dance through her round of kata. She is precise, even delicate. She is excellent but incomplete, he says. I want to know how he knows, what he sees that my eyes haven't been trained for. Because you always know, watching her, that she doesn't feel threatened, he says. She isn't losing to anything. That's what I learn to see, the enemy that isn't there but could be. The threat of air. The fear necessary to really practice for a fight. Before she leaves the mat, she turns and bows to the enemy she never saw.
Though he lost to his visible enemy, my husband wins his round of kata. His sensei talks to him afterward about his performance, and they quietly rush through a hundred details I may or may not have seen. How comforting to have a master in the room. I've always preferred to fail privately. I keep those lessons discreet, my shortcomings not much of a spectacle. His losses live in home videos and people's minds, though they live in his own thoughts longest. He is weeks away from his black belt test, so he goes over each missed step, each imperfect strike, each missed opportunity. His sensei has told him that the black belt is not a symbol of mastery. It is the beginning of the practice, not its culmination. Once he has fought his way through the visible and the invisible, he is not a master but a prepared beginner.
We spoon our watery chili out of Styrofoam bowls and pack up to leave. He is quiet, still living in the fight and trying to understand it. When we get home, he unpacks his bag, throws his gi in the washing machine, and puts his medals in a drawer. The first time I went over to his apartment and made out with him on his broken blue couch, the only form of decoration were those medals. Gold, silver, muted bronzes dangling from the undusted bookcase. He told me later he'd been hoping they would impress me, his own pride becoming mine. Shall I give in: to go down fighting might bank the fires? / I give in! Ovid cries, surrendering, sublimed. I kiss him and go to my office to write. What are you doing? he asks, and I say, Losing to something.
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About the Author
Traci Brimhall is the author of two collections of poetry: Our Lady of the Ruins (Norton), selected by Carolyn Forche for the Barnard Women Poets Prize, and Rookery (Southern Illinois UP), winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. Her poems have appeared in the New Yorker, Poetry, Slate, Believer, New Republic, Ploughshares, and Best American Poetry. She's received fellowships from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and the National Endowment for the Arts. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at Kansas State University.
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