Suicidal Headache

broken_skull

My parents died young, I hoped that was my turn. When the first sting stroke, sharp and deep through my temple and into my soul, I knew what was coming. The ghost stingers, the venom. Piercing through the side of my skull, pouring the poison inside. The dismaying pain, the stab and squeeze, stab and squeeze, for hours, until no wish remains. After that, it would come multiple times per day, for weeks, before it goes to sleep. I can’t see myself through that. Not again.

It comes. Stabs, then squeezes and stabs again. I wait. It’s been a year of peace, but I had that before, peace, before the pain returned. Maybe this will be a short one. I scream: help! Body shakes. Fear or symptom, don’t know. Nobody answers.

Squeeze. Between the ear and the eye, five nails dig into my flesh. Would rip the skin and everything behind if I could. Stabs escalate. Stronger. Faster. Hurting so much they can be heard: Tween! Tween! Tween! My left eyelid falls lifeless, and the ball rolls inside. It always starts like that. Always gets much worse too.

Wish the world could disappear into nothing. Will this be the time I do it?

Squeeze. The head grows from the inside and tries to thrust my eye out its hole. I push it back in with the fist, the palm, knee, everything I find, any position I can arrange. Another stab. The face curls, bone and everything, twitching in agony. In the darkness of myself, it’s just the shrieking and the heart racing. Outside, the sweat pours, cold. I beg the immortals for an end. Stab, stab, stab. Crush me, please. Stab, stab, stab. Engulf me whole. There is no time anymore, no future possible from here.

Squeeeeeeze.

Open my eyes again. Barely. World still there. Why? Carry me, mother. Pain still throbs, but light changed. How long has it been? Has the sun gone down already? Or it’s the pain blinding me again? “Too much yang.” – Shifu said once. That didn’t soften the stab. Never stopped the squeeze.

Breathe, Yinyin, breathe.

The torment persists. The stingers, invisible, poisonous, giant. Now in swarms. Relentless. Attacking the side of my head, eye, jaw; and everything I have inside shoots through my mouth. I moan the cry of a dying moose. Scream and curl. Flat on the floor, my body twists over my spills and all I can think about is how soothing that is. Not for long.

Please, let the curse take me, this time!

Give me the fate of my ancestors.

I have no kids, no family to leave in grief. My death has no teeth.

The Dao doesn’t listen, and there’s nothing I can do. Head is squished again. From the inside. Had Shifu left any swords around, I would have sliced my face. Dropped my aching part and run to the mountains. Disfigured, yet in peace. Had he left a spear or a dart, they would be through my right eye by now, all the way to the back of the skull. Probably I’d be dead. Don’t care.

Instead, I bang the side of my head on the floor. Foot of a table. A hard edged stool. The inferior pain dulls me for an instant. Irony: my fists have knocked out so many people. But one cannot punch herself to sleep. That’s it. Need something hard.

Squeeze, stab. Fuck! A rock, a hammer, any heavy tool will do. Please?! None came.

The wall!

I find the strongest edge. Before the next stab, I run. Jump.

Hit my head as hard as I can.

Dragon’s Gate

dragon's gate

Almost midnight and the bell rings. A giant cold steak on my face, an ice pack on the shoulder and I wish there was something for the crushed pride. Not because of the fight I lost, only athletes care about stupid records. I’m no athlete, I am a fighter. Broken because I tried to call George. Shouldn’t have. Now he thinks I want to… I won’t. This is my life. If he wants to get back together, he needs to… The bell, yes, the bell. At fucking midnight.

Who is that?—I shout.

Silence.

Damn. If those two nerds followed me here, I’m going to kill them.

It isn’t. In fact, it’s nobody. Just a hard paper box. Red with golden details, Chinese pattern. Couldn’t they have left it there for tomorrow? I rush to the window. A red fishtailed car, golden wheels, drives away and turns right on the first corner. Doesn’t seem rushed.

Back to the box. Whoever sent this took the time to make a very traditional wrap, with layers and layers of paper until I get to… The gift: a green stone. Sculpted and carved in the shape of a leaf.

No, a feather!

I rush to my side table, open the drawer. At that point, the pain is gone. I know it’s there. The i Ching book, no. My coins, no. A little blob wrapped in old Chinese newspaper. That’s it. I haven’t looked or even thought about that thing since I left landed here.

I flash back in time. A few years. In my memory, I am at the airport. Beijing. The air is so thick, I cannot tell if the orb in the sky is the sun or the moon. Going there soon, the sky. But now I want to feel the arms around me a little longer. It’s awkward. Sifu isn’t a hugger. “Do you want me to stay?” He seems so weak. The embrace is gone, and gives me a little jade sculpture over a piece of newspaper. A badly carved… leaf?

“A phoenix’ feather”—he says. I wrap it and shove into my pocket.

“When you arrive, look for my friends. In Chinatown.”

Wake up next day with the plane hitting the floor in San Francisco. Face swollen like a jujube from all the crying. My phone, Sifu doesn’t use one, but there are a few other students I can reach to let him know I am ok. He worries about me. And doesn’t trust planes, either. I turn it on and the screen shows two messages. I swipe the little window. “Sifu is gone.” The note says.

The Earth went so dark I could hide in there forever. Felt my skin melting, my head dissolving into the air I can’t breathe. In my head I was screaming at the pilot a mile forward. “Turn this shit back!”

“Don’t come,”—read the other message—“He said you should stick with the plan.”

Nobody ever answered my replies. None, ever. Like I didn’t exist.

Flash. Back to my apartment, the day I lost the fight. I look at the jade feathers. They aren’t a perfect match. Carved by different hands, that’s for sure. But the drawings, the shapes… seems as if they had both been copied from the same source. I was being summoned. By the folks I didn’t have the guts to contact, then felt too embarrassed to do, then finally forgot.

The problem was, all I learned about Sifu’s friends was that they were in Chinatown. I wonder if master knew that neighborhood is nothing like our little village near Wudang.

Next morning, I take the first BART from Oakland and drop out on Montgomery Station. From there to Dragon’s Gate, just a few blocks. The smell of dumplings, roast duck, incense. Hadn’t been here for a while. Almost forgot how hectic it is. Tiny shops everywhere. Harsh screams the whites misinterpret as fights, cars honking and the soothing notes of an Ehru somewhere afar. From all corners, a different cat waves, always that stupid happy face. I have a problem with smiles.

I walk, seeking some sort of sign. But everything is red and gold, like the box, the fishtailed car.

I walk more. So many people. So rushed. What kind of life is that?

I keep going. At times, I stop, show the jade feather to a street vendor, a shopper that seems local, ask if they know… they all titter and disappear inside. “Hey, what’s funny?” The old lady scorns, hits her head with a palm, calling me dumb. Then rushes in, locking the door behind her. I’m left outside, no answer. That’s when I see it, and it all makes sense. On the corner of Sacramento and Hang Ah, a tea house like every other. Except this one is called Fèngmáo. The Feather of the Phoenix. It has to be that.

“Nihao.” The old man serving a guest greats me and show him the jade feathers. He chain bows, “Yin Sifu, Yin Sifu. Xuéxiào.” and points at the little martial arts school across the street. Right behind the tailfish car, camouflaged among all that gold and red.

Dragon Scale Kung Fu School, says the window decorated with red curtains and carved wooden trims. Bodies overflow through the door. Tourists, locals, white people with cauliflower ears. I push myself through them. The place buzzes like a bee hive.

Inside, an old man does some clown shit. He moves his hands in circles as a bunch of idiots wave their heads in the same rhythm. Then he palm-strikes the air and they all fall on cue. The old fart defeats all his fake enemies without placing a single finger on them. The Chinese part of the audience applauds. This has to be in some sort of touristic parallel universe.

All on the floor, in fake pain, someone hits the gong. A young kid that behaves too serious for his age. The circus disbands in fear. Before the sound is over, there’s only the old man standing on the mats. Glorious, superior, fake. In Mandarin, he talks to the crowd.  The gong boy translates.

“Today is another chance for ancient art of Chinese Kung Fu to be seen by America. May the challenger say his name?”

“Mark Landers”—says the redhead. He doesn’t look very smart. A white Japanese grappling kimono covers his torso and hangs over the orange board shorts and open fingers gloves. No dignity either. Hard to say who is the bigger joke at that point.

The old man and his translator continue: “Mr. Landers answered the challenge to anyone who dared to face Master Yin’s chi. In victory, the school will pay him five thousand dollars. In loss, Mr. Landers agrees to tell the world about the superiority of the Chinese arts.”

The American nods. They shake hands. Bow. Shake hands again. Bow. So awkward. The two build distance, then another gong.  I can hear the kid’s feet brushing through the matt, slow, cautious. There is no buzz anymore. Like a crippled boxing, he faints a silly attack. Too far to be of any threat. Yet, the old master stumbles back, throwing one of those “vicious” magical hand moves. Unimpressed, the young man winks at his friends on the first row. They bark, the idiots. An island of amusement among a sea of insulted Chinese kids, all wearing the school’s uniform. Embarrassment everywhere..

One more faint and Landers attacks for real. The owner tries another hocus-pocus monkey crap, but instead of throwing his foe back, like he did with his zealous students minutes before, he gets hit with a punch, square on the face. “Oooooh!”—exclaims the crowd, in fear and shame.

A few in uniform rush to attend the master. They surround him, frenetic, loud, speaking an odd mix of tongues and throwing accusing looks at the challenger. The American walks in circles, chest up in a brag, the eyes skipping between his friends and the angry gathering around the host.

Gong! The master is raised back to his feet. Nose bleeding, inner tips of the eyebrows almost touching his frown. He signs and the students give him a pass, no chi needed for that. “Again.” Says the sifu, pointing at the gong boy. Reluctant, the kid thumps it one more time.

This turn, it was the Sifu’s initiative. A kick in the air, and a double hand strike onto nothing. Lander widens his arms and trades glances with his peers. They can barely stay up, so much they laugh. The master pauses, jerks his chin. The kid twists his neck back at where I am. We make eye contact. For only a second. He charges again at the owner of the Dragon Scale and throws a sloppy roundhouse kick on the ribs of the old man. He bends. Then a knee on his face. The kid was diving, fist up, body falling to finish the fight, when a startled crowd leap between the fighters. The white guys on the corner no longer laugh. They push, scream, point their fingers. But there are too many students there. A brawl, ugly in blood and honor, is about to break. Oh, the bravery of the fools. Unless the jocks are much better than their friend on the mat, they are about to get killed. A voice interrupts them all: “Stop!”, commands the Sifu.

We Chinese are good on respecting authority. A river of silent emptyness widens between the fighters. The host now stands ahead of the winner and his friends. Chin high, head tall, eyes wondering to the sides in uncontrollable betrayal. Behind, the eldest student shakes his head in disgust. He raises three overstuffed red envelopes, hands them to the winner. The ultimate humiliation.

With defiance and scorn, the outsiders accept the prize. I would have slapped them right there. Honor and manners you test in victory. But I am not there, have nothing to do with them, so I watch the brawlers depart, pushing the crowd with their vulgarities. So toxic, their path remained empty even after they were gone.

“Leave.”—begs the master—“All of you.”

His eyes are distant, the voice unsure. Nonetheless, the audience abides. I follow. Sad to witness an elder face his end. I think of Sifu, how heartbroken he would be the day he couldn’t defend himself anymore. In a certain way, I’m glad he departed before the fall. Someone holds my forearm. A short, bald Chinese man. He has the dark and rugged skin of a fisherman, the hands feel like stone. His rich silk robe says something else though: a man of possessions. So confusing. Behind him another elder also in silk, long white hair pulled into a pony tail, aristocratic moves.

They close the door. The window. It’s only the four of us there now. The bleeding host, the men in expensive robes and myself.

I say nothing. If anyone is to talk, it must be them.

“You have something that belongs to me.”—says the owner of the school.

I’m not ready to respond yet.

“I told you. She doesn’t know.”—says the short one. “Do you?”

In silence, I say no.

They take my backpack. So sure of themselves I don’t know how to react. Before I could, he is already pulling his thick fingers back out. The bag drop on the matt and his hands expose the two jade feathers I brought.

“My name is Chee Yue.”—says the tall one. He reaches his pocket and opens his hand. A green feather.

“Mine is Ho. Sam Ho.”—says the dark skinned fisherman. With the other hand, he shows his own feather too. “The ones you carry belong to Master Yin and… your father, I believe.”

“My Sifu.”—I respond.

They all bow in respect, and the host points to the back of the room, where a small octagonal table surrounded by richly adorned Chinese chairs await us.

“So you must be Yinyin.”—Says Master Ho—“Your father…”

This time it’s master Yue who corrects him: “Sifu.”

They all grin, I am not sure why. Sifu Ho continues: “So you came here to finish your training?”, then waves his hand in a circle towards my face, his expression lost between pain and disgust.

Having been raised to respect the elders, I avoid voicing my thoughts. I had just watched an unimpressive MMA thug defeat the so called master and they are mocking my bruised face? Saying they would train me? Sifu must had been senile at that point he ordered me here.

“I came to…” I give the host his stone feather. And you know what the mother fucker does? He grins again. Then he claps twice, above his forehead. Like a drunk rich monkey.

It didn’t take a second, and a blur rushes from behind a curtain. A pale young man, carrying a tray with tea for four. He bows to the masters, then me. That red hair… he rises. The MMA dude?!

“Sifu?”—says the flaming headed servant, still wearing the top of his Brazilian Jiu Jitsu gi. The impostor fighter leaves and Master Ying asks: “What? Do you think that was real?”

From grins, they evolve into a loud, obnoxious laughter. The clown seems to be me. I stand up, trying to save face, just to be sat back by their kind hands and gestures again. “Wait, young girl. You are one of us now. But you have to complete your training.”

“Us?”

“Us, the Phoenix Society”—says Master Ho.

“I never liked the name”—interrupts Master Yue.

“Sounds like Harry Potter shit!”—continues the short one.

More loud drunken laughs, even I am disarmed. What do they have on that tea?

He proceeded: “There used to be more, but so much got lost after the bomb. Hiroshima. Something changed, lots of things our parents could do… wouldn’t work anymore. We were the only ones left. The Shadow Leap, you haven’t been able to do it yet, have you?”

“Me? I… I did… I mean…”

No deep wisdom needed to see through my stutter, yet I double down on my stance.

“No way. Too much yang.”—says Hue, and points at my face again. “And… this.”

Master Yin agrees. He turns my way: “No need to worry. You are young. And a woman. Women learn slower.” I must have gone red as a pepper cause the bald one had to jump in “But then become very good. Better than men.”

I try to stand up again. The pony tailed master holds me. This time more serious. “Listen, we all hold secret and traditions.” He points, first at himself—“his Iron body can hold almost any hit”. At the short one — “Water hits back allows him to absorb any blow and redirect back at the opponent”. At Master Yin — “his Storm hands let him project chi beyond his body”. 

Then he pointed at me: “And then there’s your family Shadow Leap.”

So I say, “If my Shadow Leap is like your crazy magic spells I think I’m better off with my own training.”

“Not magic. Pure physics. Otherwise the bomb wouldn’t have disturbed us.” — he insists.

“You really want me to believe there is any science behind that shit?”—Yes, I actually said that, on their faces. And immediately regret. They are now quiet, somber. Trading looks, communicating in a silent language I can’t comprehend. I close my fists waiting for darts to come flying into my head, or a giant with a machine gun to turn me into a noddle drain. Too many mobstesmovies? Maybe. Nothing happened. I calculate my chances. These three old hacks, barehanded, I can take them down. My jade leaf is still on the table though. I reach, as slow as I can. Maybe they won’t see it.

PAK! The tall one slaps my hand. They are laughing again. Three deranged, senile kung fu frauds. No time for dotards.

I grab Sifu’s gift and storm to the door. Why would he send me to these people?

“Yinyin.”—says the owner of the school.

Not sure why, I turn. He has his palms facing each other, ahead of his protuberant belly, as if holding an invisible sphere. His weight shifts back to one leg, rather elegantly, I must say. Then the hands move to the side of his waist and I can swear the walls bent three or four inches. It can’t be. Did they put something in the tea? He shoots the imaginary ball of chi my direction, with so much poise I have to leap not to get hit. Immediatelly regret such foolishness. But then I feel it, crossing the air. Hot and cold, straight and fast. And BANG! The door busts open right behind me.

They stayed where they were. Staring with their friendly yet challenging smile. “If the bomb couldn’t destroy our secrets, attitude won’t do it either.” They bow, but I keep hearing them in my head: “Women learn slower.”

I storm through the exit, determined to never come back until I have mastered the fucking Shadow Leap. They will see.

The Wooden Man

wooden dummy

In my mind, it’s always present. One flash inside the other, never past, never future, forever happening. Right “now,” I am twelve. A sound: water nearby. The scent of leaves, bamboo, China. Among the woods, a broad, clear circle on the floor invites me in. The sacred ground where we train. Although this time, there’s more.

He watches us. Two arms point out; a third, a foot lower, aims at me; a single leg bends forward, like a cat stance. I return the look, in respect. The wooden man, icon of all Kung Fu, from the North of Shaolin to the South of Wudang, is ready for battle. Mine, at last.

Sifu’s robes make him seem made of wind. He floats towards my new training partner and stands before it. Clat! He tests the stems with an upward slap and we exchange looks of excitement. Sight back to the enemy, he drops on his knees down and inwards, bring his wrists against the ribs, and begins. Double tan sau between the sturdy fists. Clat clat! A head-grab and a wing hand rolling underneath the arm. Clat! Master’s legs move swiftly around the opponent; their hands never disconnect. Sifu recoils around his back leg. On one side, elbows heavy and wrists soft; the other, a waiting hand near his chest. Then explodes. Bang! His whole body hits the dummy, through the small area of his palm.

It was splendid! The attack pierces through the dummy’s centerline and the trunk shakes in delight. The wood cackles. With the noise, birds fly in fear. Critters peek. Even the  bamboo seems to bow. And right there, I learn to love those sounds more than anything. More than George, I think. Clat clat clat! Baaaang!

I check the data. In my trips to present and past, no other memory has been visited more times. I guess that makes it an all-time favorite. In my case, a title so full of irony.

It was also among the trees I met George. In a park, ten years later. Berkeley.

Butt on the grass, I recover from a fall. My students run around like squirrels. “Water! Give her some water!”, one says. “I have green tea, she must like it?” says another one. I am fine. Got distracted with the flashes, lost balance, just that.

Can’t reveal the flashes, though. They must believe I can stay focused myself.

Across from us, a little gathering. There always are. People eyeing the exotic young ladies performing geriatric slow moves. Nothing too bothersome. Sometimes they laugh and point and a single stare sends them away. Americans can’t handle a good, cold look back. There are four of them today. All men, nerds. They laugh and elbow each other and I am about to stand up to send them off, when they spit one of them in our direction.

The dude stumbles and looks back in protest, but the friends point at us. Too late, I have noticed. George, I would learn his name later, wears a scarf but his face still sports teenage acne. He carries a big thick book he uses to distract his eyes from me. A few steps, a reassurance look back and forward again, the chopped stride followed pathetic for a miserable eternity. After a long wait, he’s in front of me. Mrs. Lee drops a “hoooo” and pushes the girls to the side. Is all that a setup?

“Is… is it possible to… can I… are you still taking students?”, he stutters.

I say, “I don’t teach men.

Why I am always so angry?

My words strike him so hard, he falters. Almost falls on the green. Such a snowflake. It wasn’t my intention, but they were out, the words. Couldn’t take back. His eyebrows get closer together and he shakes his shoulders. I’ve seen that before. Same thing fighters do when get hit on the face, and have to decide if they will continue or tap out. A look of heart. It’s cute.

Grey’s Anatomy, the book he carries.

“She almost fainted. I think she needs a doctor”, says Miranda, the one who I should never trust with men. Her last boyfriend was a bully. He and I had to have “a talk.”

George doesn’t fall for Miranda’s cue. Too easy, I respect that. We have a stare down instead. A few seconds. Then he turns around and leaves. I win. Americans…

Mrs. Lee, my oldest and naughtiest student, pokes me with her bare toe and makes a “what the fuck?” face. She’s right.

Not so fast, sir. I run after him, now I am the pathetic one, rushing through the uneven lawn while watched by both my students and his friends. I grab him by the arm and he turns back with a victorious grin. Well played, nerd.

“Hey, sorry. It’s not about you. I don’t teach guys. One of my rules.”

He stretches the neck and checks my students again, all ladies indeed. They wave. He asks why.

“Not sure. It just is.”

He squints, raises one cheek up to the left eye, then smiles. Suddenly, it’s like if the light has shifted around us. Despite the red face and the neck curtain, the stuttering, the pathetic initial stride, that little facial twist somehow got me melted. Who would have guessed?

George doesn’t look strong. More of a nerdy meets hipster dude. We go for coffee and I can hear the girls behind making sounds. We order some iced drinks, grab a seat and we talk. And talk. And talk. Then we get up. My hot twin students work at the shop, and they are already back, all bathed and everything. We must have been there forever. They giggle and wink. We leave, but first I make him ditch the muffler there.

Night falls, as we are entering my building. Three minutes and two floors later, we pass the door amidst a sloppy hard kiss, and I take his shirt off. Hang it over the hand of the old dummy on the wall. “My boyfriend,” I say, tapping the wood man’s third arm, which sticks out a few inches higher than my belly button, like a giant Kung Fu erection. It reacts with a whisper: “Clat!”

So wide are George’s eyes, they may drop. Should I say it’s a joke? Up to the end, he was still unsure if that was serious. No, let him wonder.

We kiss again. I mean, I kiss him and push him through the open loft, where I sleep, study and train. On the other side, a thin mattress laid straight on the floor pretends to be a bed. Never learned to sleep in a real one, too far from the ground, messes up with my chi. We stumble towards it and as soon as we get there, I swipe his leg. He falls on his back, mute.

My turn to undress.

Then, I finish the job. Still not sure I know what I do in the bed department, and nerds don’t get too much action. But his mouth hanging to the side as he fell asleep is still quite flattering. 

I wake up later. It’s pass midnight, my birthday. Everything’s quiet, and the apartment smells like sex. Plus flowers and my fighting gloves. Couldn’t have had a better start for the new year. He’s asleep and the only light comes from the neon sign from the restaurant across the street, which is enough. I roll towards the edge of the bed and reach to the drawer of the side table. Grab the little book, and a square-holed coin I flip in the air.

In my recursive memories, the i-Ching is the only thing that changes.

I watch the golden disk spin up and down, then fall quiet on the white cotton of my bed. Five to go. Except at that point he had his fingers back on me. So soft it sent a cool wave down towards my ass and my entire skin bursts up in chills. He says, “What’s this mountain?”

“Wudang. Where I was born.”

He watched for a while, browsing the tip of his fingers through the blue lines of my tattoos. The mountain, the fog, the tigress standing fierce, ready to attack.

“Is it really this foggy?”

“Those are clouds. That’s where I picked my name from. Claudia.”

Anyone else would have asked about the Tigress, always the tigress. Not George. He has no hostility, no anger, no scars. He’s only curiosity are for his brain things, his medicine books and how to make people feel better. In our lives together, he never once tried to compete. To protect. To be the prince. Once a dude tried to fight us in traffic. George didn’t mind I stepped up to defend us. Not beyond his usual disdain for physicalities, at least.

A true man of yin, for a girl of yang. Interesting how the Dao is. You spend your entire life preparing, then out of nowhere, a messenger comes to remind you your training isn’t done yet.

He gives me a gentle, wet kiss. And we fuck again.