My birthday breakfast, at 8pm. Since George started his medical residency, we’ve been in the Chinese time zone. He serves me eggs with a candle and sings a happy birthday that could use an auto tune. Our anniversary too, but I have nothing prepared. After our first time together, we never had a night apart. Unless he’s traveling. He does voluntary work for Doctors Without Borders, sometimes. His boss promised to give him a few days if he had to go again. Nice being surrounded by good people.
Not bad, the eggs. Still, I put the tray aside. He protests. “Wait,” I say, “I have my rituals.” Then I grab my i-Ching.
Sifu used to do it for me. A tradition of ours I carried with me, now I’m on my own. I toss the coin and make mark on a piece of paper. Then again, one, two, three, four, five more times. I look on the book. Hexagram 55. I open it on the right page and ask him to read.
Thunder and lightning culminate as one.
A noble one decides legal proceedings and brings about punishment.
Do not mourn. A fitting sacrifice at noon.
What decisions must you take now?
“Kind of somber, no?” he says. “You really believe that?”
Americans. They can buy into their own witchcraft so quickly, but make it foreign and it’s silly. I nod and explain. At the very least, it’s a good philosophical ritual to perform, sometimes. If you don’t trust the divination part, the results still get you thinking. In my case, the Dao says I am approaching zenith, with all its glory and triumph, and need to think abandonment, cause decline comes next. I glance around and it doesn’t seem like zenith or triumph. Except for George. He makes me happy, despite having to live in his bizarre schedule. He’s worth it.
I tell him, “Master taught me resisting reality is a waste of chi. So the Book of Transmutations is reminding me things may change. But I’ll be fine.”
“Will you stop resisting me, then?”
I may be spoiling my boyfriend. Was about to protest but as I open my mouth, he shoves a fork full of a cold runny egg. “Don’t resist”, he says.
He walks out the door. I stay in bed. Been thinking about it for a while. The urges. The need. Don’t resist. I catch a gym bag and throw a few items in, dress my one-number-too-large sweat pants over the lycra shorts, and an old t-shirt over a sports top. A last peek outside the window, he is gone.
So I leave.
9:30pm and the Uber drops me at a dark street in Oakland, right in front of an abandoned school. Driver looks worried. “You sure, lady?” It always happens.
I jump out and give him five stars before I stroll towards the little metal entrance covered in the ugliest graffiti you’ve ever seen. I don’t bother knocking. There is a security camera, I know they are watching.
The gate moves and with the harsh music comes a giant jumping my way. I drop the bag but it all happened too fast. A bear hug. I wheeze, begging for air ultil he drops me.
“Hey there, kitty cat!”, says the man they call Buffalo.
The large man with muscles up his cauliflower ears opens a wide proud grin and points at the t-shirt with the symbol we can’t see from the outside. The Fight School, an old abandoned high school turned into a secret joint only the meanest fighters and the true knuckleheads know. He says the Boss gave him a job. “Pretty cool huh?” I fought this beast before. Kind heart, murderous hands. Poor troublemakers.
A screechy voice with a thick Italian accent comes from the inside. The man himself, the owner, the one everyone calls Boss, has both arms open so wide he can almost fly. “So I hear the Tigress is back?”
“It’s my birthday. Want to fight.”
More hugs, a few kisses. I wonder if he pulled me that close to feel my boobs against his body or if that’s just an Italian thing. He tells Buffalo to bring me to the locker room while he arranges the details. No need, I say. I can find my way to the sad and molded place with lockers that barely shut, which is ok cause no one messes with the fighters’ stuff.
Ten minutes pass and Buffalo sticks in his cuddly giant head. “It’s time, kitty cat.” He could be made into one of those anime characters in Asia. Cute and deadly. I’d call him Niu Niu.
I follow him. There is no big song or harsh light acts like the fancy fights on TV I loathe. There aren’t so many rules either. No rounds, no gloves, no forbidden moves other than no eye gauging or hitting the spine. I miss it so much.
The ring is an old-school cage in the center of an old basketball court. A big square, surrounded by chicken wire 10 feet up, so nobody can escape other than in a stretcher. The announcer is new. Gross – his gummed back hair looks like everything I hate in a man. Not that the folks outside the wire are much better. And I don’t like the dude they got to fight me either. Manolo, the Boss, always picked the big and slow, for contrast, like Niu Niu. This time, he chose a skinny dude with a blond mullet and psychopath eyes. Whatever. The choice to come back was mine.
Now, the consequences.
Sweeeeeeeenk! The mic feedback screams loud and silences the mob. Sleazy MC raises his hand, “Gentlemen and Gentlemen, tonight we have a surprise fight for you! On my right, the man who sent his last three rivals to the ER, the invictus champion of the house and meanest fighter on the planet, make some noise to The… Crusher!”
I choke in disdain. We aren’t allowed to use our real names because the whole thing there is illegal. Still, they could have done much better than a WWE villain wannabe.
“And on my left, our long time no see sexy sensation and crowd favorite, the one and only, also undefeated in this cage, Tigress Lee!”
No idea where this “Lee” came from. But no time to whine. The bell would ring anytime and we jump at each other’s necks. Except…
“But before we start”—says slimy—“I understand it’s babe’s birthday today. So why don’t we all sing…”
Oh, no, he didn’t.
“Happy birthday to her?”
They do. In complete scorn, like a mock Irish pub from a B movie, they raise their hands, hug each other and chant and laugh at the same time. I cringe till the end, ready to kill the man, or Manolo, whoever I see first after the fight.
The bell rings.
The Crusher and I move around, flipping legs and poking the air to gauge each other. He shoots me a kiss I ignore. He pounces. Fake jab high, take down low. I get out ok, but damn… so rusty!
We trade punches. Both hit some, dodge some. It hurts a fucking lot. This guy is dangerous. Now I know why the Boss chose him. Punishment. For disappearing for a year.
A high kick close to my head. I bend back to escape and he uses the other leg to hit me hard above the knee. Noise, pain, then a flash.
Dark alley. A woman shouts while I move around a drunk with a stupid pocket knife. He charges at me and tries to stab me. The blade ends four inches into his thigh. In agonizing pain, he screams. And I scream back, so close to his face we can feel the wind beneath our shouts. “Aaaaaaaaaargh!!” The lady behind me hits me with her purse, one of those strikes should make people embarrassed of breathing. “Shut up, bitch!” If it wasn’t for me that prick would be sticking his dirty flaccid dick into her. Thankfully I gave him his own slit so now he can fuck himself. I’ll call him hermaphrodite. The girl smaks me again. Enough. I turn at her, my back hand fully loaded but something strikes my cheek. Slap!
I’m back. Did the Crusher just slap me? In my friggin’ face? He holds his groin and does an asshole giggle. Now I remember why I hate men so much.
The fight is messy and ugly. No fancy moves, no style. I can’t afford that today. He attempts another double leg take down right when a flash blinds me again.
I’m in China. Sixteen. Fench was a little rich brat Sifu agreed to train. We are sparring in the woods and he tries to take me down from the legs. A few attempts in, and he gets one. Now we are on the floor. His body over mine, between my legs. That’s when he tries to kiss me. I push him out and stand up again. Next time, he tries again. And as he comes for my legs, I go for his face.
Flash. I jump, throw my knee forward and enjoy the crunchy feel of his nose being smashed. My landing on the other side isn’t very elegant, but his was worse. The crowd exploded so loud, I got a little aroused.
Nice birthday. Everyone screaming. Except for two men. I notice them with the corner of my eyes. Their shape, collor, enthusiasm… everything is different. I let myself get thrown their way. Want to take a better look. Those collar shirts, clean glasses and impeccable hair… not fans of illegal fights.
Mother fucker has a broken nose and blood pouring everywhere. He still smiles. In China we say red makes us happy. Maybe he is Chinese.
Here comes another swing, not taking risks here. I cover my head with a full arm and pull his face straight into my elbow.
The man is being pummeled, but doesn’t seem to care.
“Fuck her in the ass, Crusher”– someone screams from behind the outsiders. Not them. Nerds can’t scream shit like that. I wish I had seen who though.
I give him this: the Crusher has a heart, for after all that, he still stands tough. His fists return in a combo: jab, cross. Does anyone get hit by that dumb setup still? I dodge, switch angle and chain-punch his ill-fated face all the way to the fence. Bam bam bam bam bam! The wire throws him back at me, his chin straight into my uppercut. A mouth guard flies through the ring. His knees fail.
Just finish this and go home, Tigress.
Flash. The world is flat and everything has sharp corners. Like a video game, except it was all quiet and peaceful. The Crusher is nowhere. There are mountains and water, nothing else. What is going on? That’s when I noticed the fence. Got close.
Pigs. Thousands. Millions of them, trapped behind the little brown wall. Stuck to each other, they oink and try to move, but there isn’t enough space. Filling the land, up the hills and beyond the horizon. Who would do that? I open the gate and the stampede throws me on the ground. Their hooves hit my chest, limbs and face with way more weight than I expected.
Flash. Back in the cage. The Savage is over me, half-guard in, my arms pinned against my body. How did I end up there? He raises an elbow. Fuck, this is gonna hurt. “Happy birthday, baby”, he says. Then the elbow drops. One, two, multiple times. Vicious, bloody, unstopable. The world, now distant, sounds like inside of a womb. Everything was slow and nice. The pain was a vague memory. Crusher was still there, among the ballet of flying red droplets. His teeth are so much whiter than I thought. A shadow grows from behind my eyes. No, please, no! Lights dim up again. His jaw, clinched in anger. A giant fist falls fast. Closer and closer. Until it eclipses his head. Then dark.
I wake up in silence. The locker room. A doctor checks my pupils. “They shouldn’t allow this ground and pound shit against the girls, you know?”
I grunt. No special treatment. Is there a mirror somewhere?
“You don’t want to see it.”—he says.
I get my phone and turn the camera at myself. Fuck! Never seen my eye so swollen in my entire life. I call an Uber.
I walk outside, my brain grappling with a single thought: how I’ll explain this to George. This face.
“Tigress?”—someone calls from my back.
The two dorks.
I say, “I don’t give autographs.”
They wave their soft hands, meaning “no.”
“Are you cops?”
The older man, who is enormous in person and avoids eye contact at any cost, somehow falls for that. “No, we are not cops. We just want to…”
“You are nerds.”
“Professional nerds.”—says the younger of the two. “We would like to offer you a job.”
Pause. Is that really happening? I point at my mushroom face. “Shouldn’t you go after… the Crusher?”
The old weirdo responds: “No, Mrs…”
“Yang. I mean, Claudia.”
“I like Tigress better.”—says the young nerd. He’s kind of cocky.
“Mrs. Yang, we want to hire you to teach us to fight.”
Are Internet trolls materializing now? Except those two… they don’t seem to be joking. Not even sure they’re capable of humor. I bet they don’t even get sarcasm.
Phone beeps. My ride is close. “I don’t teach men”, I finish.
“Please, just consider. We can pay well, Mrs. Yang.”
The big old dork hands me a card, which I shove it in my handbag without even looking.
“Fifty grand.”—says the young one. He’s so certain I would accept, I don’t bother to answer.
My Uber arrives. “Mrs. Yang?” I nod and try to get in, when the stupid dude grabs my arm. Dumb asshole. I twist his hand and throw him on the ground, pinning his face against the concrete. The weirdo laughs: “Awesome!”
“Fuck off!” I say and get in the car. It’s one am. Oakland is dark and empty. Maybe if I put ice and a big steak over the swell, it will be better in the morning when George… Damn. His car! He’s already there? This cannot be good.
I walk in, head down. He’s sitting on a bench in the kitchen, which sounds way further than it actually is. Through my hair I can see his betrayed boyfriend’s look.
“Where were you!? Are you…”
I raise my head and in one beat he flips to doctor mode.
“What was that? Are you ok?”
He makes me lay on my back. Puts ice on my face and goes grab a few pain killers, a glass of water. “I am ok, don’t worry.”
Then he remembers. “Don’t worry!?” He came home early, the day he got hired, just to spend my birthday with me and I not only wasn’t there but I come back like that! What happened?
Nothing, I say. He picks up his phone. “Calling the police.”
I beg him to wait. And tell him everything. The fight, this one and the ones before we met. Everything but the flashes. That’s too crazy. I explain the eye is not that bad, I was just knocked out.
“Why don’t you let a doctor decide what is bad?” he argues.
The kitchen counter. Candles and flowers. “Did you make dinner?” George waves his hands and straddles in circles through the living room. He’s not hungry anymore.
“This is not acceptable, Claudia.”
What does he mean by not acceptable? I seat up so fast he knows what I am thinking.
“You heard it. I see patients with life changing concussions every day. Can’t let you do it to yourself. Besides, I’m sworn to taking care of people, not watch them destroy… their face.”
“George, this is my life. I am a fighter since way before you.”
“That was in China”, he says. Now I am in America and bla bla bla. He screams at me and I try to stay calm. He won’t bulge. And finally, it came: the ultimatum. “If you want us to be together, you have to…”
I didn’t let him finish the sentence. No man will tell me what to do. I never said that, just faced him, in silence. My skin pounded again, but I held my stance. Like a melancholic statue, I watched him pack all he could fit into his two gym bags and a backpack.
One hour later, he was out. That’s when I broke everything I could grab. Fucking zenith was nowhere to be found.