Hard Forms

Champion Martial Arts occupied a small storefront on the northern border of Park Slope, where the celluloid-perfect brownstones bent and withered in their exposure to Flatbush Avenue. This was before the basketball arena went up, when I counted as my neighbors both a vinyl-booth diner and a methadone clinic. I passed Champion Martial Arts on my walk to the subway; weekend mornings it played host to a clutch of parents shepherding their children onto the sidewalk, hyperactive seven-year-olds in uniform still punching the air.

I’d lately rented an apartment down the block, a space that the broker referred to as a ‘junior one bedroom’ when he accepted my certified check for first, last, and security. The implication was that my life at twenty-five required such a space, a starter home with room for aspirations. My last girlfriend was a year gone, the straggling remainder of my college friends had finally moved away. I’d trundled in the bulk of my furniture on one of those optimistic late spring days where the streets smelled of chlorophyll and ozone. I promptly installed a spice-rack, hung the communist propaganda poster I’d saved from a semester in the Czech Republic, and aligned my magazines with the corner of the coffee table. I wrote my name on the buzzer by the front door; a fresh ballpoint interloper amidst the sun-faded veterans of rent control.

And then I waited. For what I wasn’t totally sure. New friends to emerge? A serious love-interest? There was room in the fridge, my French-press made more than enough for two. At work, a startup perpetually on the verge of bankruptcy, I ate lunch alone at my desk. Saturdays I walked to the coffeeshop to order my half-pound of Yirgacheffe and sit by the window, reading the newspaper and eyeing other tables. Watching the art-school couples and the families with their thousand-dollar strollers and the middle-aged poet-types, I had the nagging suspicion that I was meant to talk to someone, to casually remark on the weather or the politics of the moment. I lived here now; I’d arrived in some regard. This — the weekend arts section and the half-eaten muffin, the apprehensive glances at anyone within conversational distance — was what it meant to be on my own. This was life after college, a gradual lowering of expectations that stretched off into the foreseeable future.

And so to the extent that I can provide a rationale for taking a trial class at Champion Martial Arts, it was that sense of unbroken hours in my own company, of having failed to make good on the basic Sesame Street fantasy of belonging. I couldn’t bring myself to join the Food Co-op or one of those idiotic softball leagues with the matching t-shirts. But a neighborhood karate place? That was just peculiar enough to mask the fact that I chose it out of mounting loneliness.

A young man named Vijay ran the studio, who I believe was Indian by way of Trinidad. He was short and squat, calm in his heavy cotton Gi. I signed a waiver and then took my place with maybe eight other people in a loose military arrangement by belt color. What I remember from that first class was the sense of fumbling continuously for an hour. There was a warm-up of wind-sprints for which the studio was much too small, and then a series of instructions called in phonetic Japanese — jodan-uke, chudan-uke, geidan-uke — resulting in coordinated movements from everyone except me. When the time came to pair off for drills, Vijay took me aside for an explanation of fundamentals: stance, foot-position, and the mechanics of a punch. The fist is chambered at the hip, palm up. The arm extends to shoulder-height, rotating as it lengthens. The first two knuckles strike and, as they do, the lungs expel a blast of air shaped by the mouth into a multi-syllabic shout — ki-ah. I heard one every few seconds, the smack of a pad, the vicious pre-verbal report, and the impression that someone had settled a bit of unresolved tension in his or her life.

This was how I came to be a regular at Champion Martial Arts for the better part of two years. At the end of the session, soaking and exhausted, I purchased a monthly pass. It may have been a consequence of exercise-induced suggestibility, but more likely it had to do with the gratified feeling I got from swinging various body-parts into a shaped block of foam. With each count Vijay offered a word of encouragement. Nice, he said between strikes. Again, pivot, extend, nice. You’re a natural.

Martial arts, if you’ll forgive the oversimplification, come in two flavors: soft forms and hard forms. Soft forms, like Kung Fu and Judo, are so-called because they rely on the use of indirect force. They employ leverage, momentum, and flowing motions to create power, often turning an opponent’s strength or weight against him. For this reason they are considered both elegant and practical, the theoretical basis for many self-defense methods.

Hard forms, like Karate and Tai Kwan Do, work by opposite means. They create power through direct force, stiff and linear sequences of jabbing, thrusting, snapping. They are considered to be more ceremonial than effective, closer in spirit to a sport like fencing. This is debatable, since the martial arts world is afflicted by an obsession with combat hierarchy — a sort of perpetual shark-versus-bear match-up. But on the totem of usefulness, Karate ranks somewhere near the bottom. And within the subset of Karate, Shotokan, the variety taught at Champion Martial Arts, is among the worst offenders, lambasted on martial arts message boards as “bull-shido.”

Of course, I had no knowledge of this at the time. What I did know was that Karate differed from most other aspects of my daily life in that it was concrete. It suffered none of the ambivalence of meeting people or grocery shopping for one or muddling through a dead-end job to make rent. In Karate there was only a single method of instruction, a straightforward right and wrong. Whatever I might feel about this was irrelevant. It was simply there, available for anyone who attended Vijay’s adult class night after night.

For example, there was Gabi, a middle-aged psychiatrist forever looking over her shoulder as though she’d been followed. There was Manny, a teenager whose mother had enrolled him to help with his autism. There was Bill, a drone in the city health department who’d tuned his body to perfection; Carl, a friendly overweight man who wheezed through kicking exercises and then lit a smoke right outside the studio. And I suppose there was me, the young professional bashing away at the pads like a homework assignment.

What emerged between us was an unlikely camaraderie. We held each other’s bare feet for sit-ups, we locked arms and legs and hoisted each other onto our backs for hip-throws, we thought nothing of sweat, of spit, of the variegated smells of exertion. And along with this came an investment in each other’s success, in whatever unspoken reasons we had for being there. I corrected Manny’s form, adjusting his hand position even as he flinched at the touch. Bill took easy swipes at my chin when I failed to keep my guard up. We swept the floor and helped Vijay lock the roll-down gate at the end of the night. Referring to a grown man as Sensei or wearing a uniform that essentially constituted pajamas held no embarrassment — it was rather part of the deal. In return, I became dexterous and quick, able to fall correctly. I called out the count for drills in a full-throated voice. I knew where my hands belonged and how to twist my hips, my body anticipating each movement as part of a larger choreography. Between seven and eight on weeknights and noon on Saturdays, I turned off my cellphone, cinched my Gi, and took my place among a line of people whose lives I knew with the kind of perfect intimacy that only limited contact can provide. They weren’t whom I’d expected to find, but I liked that.

For this reason I made an effort to ignore the fact that Champion Martial Arts was haunted by the specter of financial trouble. Occasionally I’d arrive early and catch Vijay tallying the rolls of children’s membership with uncomfortable concentration. When Charles, an adult-class regular and father of two, disappeared, the shock was immediate. Vijay asked if he had said anything to us, which, of course, he had not. Then we listened to Vijay make a phone-call, exchange a few short words, and announce, after placing the receiver down a bit too calmly, that Charles wouldn’t be coming anymore. So my decision to purchase the school t-shirt and duffel bag with the red-and-black jump-kicking logo wasn’t because I especially liked them. It was because I could guess how much they cost to print.

By the time winter arrived that year, I’d stopped socializing. I went to work, went to class, went home and slept. Karate was what I had as I rode the subway hidden in my headphones or sat through aimless meetings with stale bagels and the squeak of whiteboard markers. I dreamt it sometimes, in motions fluid and perfect. I’d progressed through my yellow-belt to my orange in small promotion ceremonies that caused me, both times, to return to my apartment and cry with a sense of relief — it was difficult, I had struggled, and in this lay a painful rectitude that left me reeling. Once I took an eye-watering inhale from my duffel bag for no other reason than knowing that the stink of it was a thing I’d accomplished.

Around Christmas, Vijay organized a dojo holiday party. We strung a line of colored lights around the floor and set up a fake tree, under which we placed our padded headgear. Then for two hours I found myself staring into the clouded faces of Bill’s wife, Vijay’s teenage niece with her press-on nails, Manny’s mom, and wondering how this could possibly be more awkward than someone’s sweat dripping onto my forehead during leg-pushdowns. The abrupt appearance of our outside lives seemed wrong; these strangers with whom I had nothing in common, who were too loud and too overdressed for the studio. Worse, it struck me that my classmates actually had outside lives, whereas I’d brought only myself and a box of cupcakes. I padded around in my socks, sipping from a cup of diet soda for what felt like a polite length of time, and then left without saying goodbye.

In late February, an older man stopped by the studio, explaining that he had trained as a black belt and wondered if he could join for a class. Vijay welcomed him with a loaner Gi and told us we’d been given a fantastic opportunity to spar with a high-ranked practitioner. Sparring ran in two-minute rotations, and when my turn came I circled the man for several seconds, weighing my options, before he slid forward in a single cool motion and struck me in the chest. As much as this hurt, it also contained a startling realization: in eighteen months I’d never really been hit before. By the end of the night, the man had swept the leg of another student and generally demonstrated a proficiency that was both inspiring and demoralizing. Before leaving, he handed us business cards; he was an insurance broker and promised good rates on renters’ policies.

Had I been more cynical, I might’ve taken this as cause to question the efficacy of my training. Instead I forced myself forward. I memorized the elaborate Japanese names, the mind-numbing kata routines, the call-and-response that ended each class, kneeling forward so that my nose brushed the floor. I did sparring drills in my padded foot-guards and headgear, pushing past the point of fatigue where lights exploded at the edges of my vision. I stayed late to punch a bag full of gravel in the hopes that my knuckles would one day be seasoned enough to endure it. I did so partially out of my own stubbornness, and partially because stubbornness seemed the essential tenant of the style. A hard form meets adversity with repetition, impassibility with blinkered persistence, and by this measure I considered that any deficiency I found was my own.

Several weeks later, in an attempt to treat the insurance broker’s visit constructively, Vijay invited his own Sensei’s black belt class for a clinic. Sensei Jon arrived with a beatific smile and a retinue of enormous men in tow. After warm-up, Jon’s students instructed us in a handful of hopelessly advanced techniques: punch-slipping and kick-catching, and a wrist-lock escape that involved flipping into a forward-roll. The black belts had a supernatural quality, an economy of action that made them appear sharp around their edges, the rest of us spastic by comparison. Attempting to replicate their poise only yielded awkward posturing in the mirror. I thought of my first night in the studio, that sense of continuous fumbling. Eventually my partner clapped a hand on my shoulder and told me to stick with it. Then Vijay and Jon hugged, and the men filed out the front door. I wanted to feel elated; I was sure I should have. But my thoughts were only of the extra space in the studio, the tang in the air, and the uncertainty of having misjudged the distance to a destination.

Time became fuzzy in the way of a long winter’s end, and at some point I started skipping classes. I only missed a few at first, opting instead for a movie or the narcotic mandate of seasonal exhaustion. There were changes in the schedule anyway — the kids’ instructor had quit, forcing Vijay to pick up the extra sessions. Some classes were cancelled, others moved around. Starting Sundays there was a mixed martial arts group, seemingly added to replace lost customers. I went once, just me and another guy in a spandex rash-guard, and we did so many squat-thrusts that I thought I might throw up on the mat.

But more than anything else, I remember the night Vijay’s teenage niece and her two girlfriends appeared. I’d never seen them in class. They didn’t bother removing their earrings, and they intermittently skipped out of drills to check their phones. For some reason Vijay put them into our sparring rotation. This effectively gave me a round to catch my breath, which I was preoccupied by doing when I heard a scuffle and a squeal from the far end of the studio. Vijay had his niece gripped around the head and was yelling that she knew better than to fight with press-on nails, that she could’ve raked his eye, and what was she thinking, bringing that shit around his house? I looked at Gabi and at Bill, but none of us said anything. There was nothing to say; the violence was at once too real and too alien. To see Vijay shaking with the effort of restraint, torn between whatever he felt and the leaden hush of our shock, I wanted to yell, I wanted to leave, I wanted accuse them both of ruining something sacred. Instead I remained silent. The girls left the studio shortly thereafter, muttering at each other as though it was not they who had offended, but rather that all of us were to blame for looking like padded-up fools to the neighborhood outside.

Eventually I got the voicemail asking where I was; I hadn’t been by in three weeks. I declined the call because I had no idea how to have the conversation. Vijay’s message said he looked forward to seeing me soon, that I’d have my green belt in just another few months, and by the way, he was switching everyone onto a recurring payment system, so if I wanted to leave a credit card he’d make sure I avoided an interruption in membership.

For a while I maintained that I was taking a break. I practiced drills alone in my apartment without the benefit of a partner or window shades. I wondered what my across-the-courtyard neighbor thought. Probably I didn’t even register. I was just another weirdo in city full of weirdos, like the guy upstairs who screamed at Monday night football games. Standing there, chopping and swinging at the air with such urgency, I considered that Karate did teach you something, though not exactly the thing it was meant to. Do it long enough, and you might discover the part of yourself truly in need of improvement.

That spring I told my landlord I’d be moving out. A friend of a friend had a spare room several subway stops north, and she was only asking a month up-front. I’d gone to a party there full of psych grad students from CUNY drunkenly debating Heidegger and smoking on the fire escape, including a pretty girl who suggested I call her. Fun — it occurred to me — they were having fun. And what good was all my furniture in the face of fun: the Ikea shelves with the slight bow, the desk I never wrote at? What good was it to live alone if all you did was be alone?

My landlord seemed both annoyed by my departure and impatient for me to leave. I’d never find another rent-controlled place, he said. I explained that I felt I needed to make a change in my life. He asked why I was telling him this, and I didn’t have an answer.

On a humid June morning, three men humped my mattress and dresser up four flights of stairs to the apartment where my new roommate had left a welcome-note on the back of a Delia’s catalog. She’d emptied a space in the medicine cabinet and a drawer in the kitchen; neither of which was big enough for my things, but both had the worn-in texture of permanent residence. I hung my communist propaganda poster over the head of my bed, bought a rhododendron for the windowsill, and stuffed everything else under the couch.

I believe Champion Martial Arts closed a year later, though I’m unsure of the exact timing. I rarely visited the old neighborhood, and then only did so at the remove of a brunch date or other passing errand. On one such occasion, I crossed Flatbush Avenue to find a store called Shoe Addiction occupying the location. The sprung floor had been removed, as had the gravel conditioning bag and the shrine in the corner to which we bowed — replaced by racks of leopard-print pumps, boots with fake buckles, tasseled boudoir slippers. There was nothing to suggest that a shoe store hadn’t always been there, hawking its discount footwear. I suddenly felt ashamed that I couldn’t say when Champion Martial Arts closed. At the very least I was at fault for this lack of information, but I also had the sense that my ignorance contributed in some way to the studio’s disappearance. Certainly my lost membership revenue had. I no longer sang the praises of karate to friends; I no longer bragged about my spinning back-kick. I’d never bothered to learn if Vijay had reopened his practice in another location. I joined a gym instead.

For several years afterward I saved my duffel bag with my Gi, belts, and sparring gear inside. I kept it in the closet, stacked neatly on one side and out of sight. This seemed like the most compassionate thing to do, but at the same time I noticed a dull pang of apprehension whenever I went to get a coat. The distinction between a thing saved and a thing lost is sometimes a difficult one. Where was the line between preservation and guilt? My uncertainty seemed like its own answer. And so late one Sunday, mumbling an apology, I deposited the bag outside by the trashcans. The next morning when I left for work, it was gone.

I held onto the t-shirt though, which I still have even now after nearly ten years of apartment-moves and new jobs and the kind of settling self-awareness that has reduced my twenties to the size of a postcard. The logo flakes off a bit each time I put it through the wash and for this reason I wear it infrequently. The address and phone number are still legible on the back, the only evidence I have that Champion Martial Arts existed at all. Occasionally I think I should just get rid of it, but for one reason or another, I never do. Call it a lingering commitment or call it an excuse. Sometimes, it turns out, these things are one and the same.

Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit

“When we get to the Dallas airport, the televisions are showing a headline about a hunter who paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to kill an endangered rhinoceros.”

Fantastic Tales

“As I listened, the dust of the steamer trunk was still on my fingers.”