The hits were satisfying to land, one after another, my gloves slamming into my opponent's jaw, cheek, and then I pulled back for another.
That was my mistake. My opponent's eyes focused on the opening, and he hooked me across the face, the force of it launching me back.
The dull, muted sounds from the beginning of the round were completely gone. Now I could hear the crowd, hisses, screams, cheers, gasps.
A referee was asking me something and impatiently I waved a hand. Fine. I tried to mumble it past my mouth guard, and the ref finally understood.
I forced myself to refocus, these were the final few minutes. Maybe even less. I breathed deeply in and out, and as the judge nodded for the round to start, I leapt at my opponent, pushing him back with a kick.
The sound of impact was loud, and for a second I was worried, until my opponent got back up, and waved the referee away.
I eyed the ticking clock. And didn't let up, pummelling my opponent with jabs and crosses, ending it off with a kick.
The crowd screamed again, I barely heard the match close, and finally I bowed to the judges, realizing dimly that it was over.
My scowling opponent and I bowed to each other and touched gloves. Briefly, I looked him over, worried there was actual damage.
But he moved away, and I knew it would be eighty times more embarrassing if I went after him to check up on him.
So I focused on the unravelling, loosening my gloves, pulling off the sparring headgear, and disentangling my hair from the velcro.
My mouth tasted awful, and as always, I tried to finesse my way out of it. It failed, and as always I looked like some drooling pitbull removing its dentures.
My father clapped a hand onto my back as I stepped off the mat, grinning like crazy.
"Nice one, Fatima. That was such a good match, your best one yet." My dad steered me by the shoulders, still beaming as he navigated the bustling crowd and unending stream of ambushers trying to congratulate me.
The pats on my back felt amplified, and I squirmed, resisting the urge to run.
I managed to get through it all with just a few nods, pressed smiles, and mumbles when people really, really pushed me.
My mother was waiting for us at the back, and I could see the worry and disapproval etched over her lined face.
She didn't approve of fighting, and on top of it, she hated Kung Fu's Co-ed matches.
Too bad, because my over-enthusiastic dad couldn't care less who I fought, as long as I showed what a strong, independent girl he had raised, and won occasionally.
And we all knew he really had the final say in this household.
When we finally got to the car, I felt so sweaty and gross that I wanted to jump out of my skin, not just my clothes, but if I stayed to change, more people would bug me.
The car's cool air was almost painfully refreshing against my warm, flushed skin.
I leaned back against the leather seats, and tried to source the hundreds of aches I felt. In martial arts, the pain was never just from the hits. It was from the tension coiled punishingly in your muscles as you waited, blocked. It was in the bruises from defense you didn't even feel during the fight.
It showed up the next day with awful consequences, in pulled leg muscles, or pain from punches that had doubled overnight.
I tried to trace the pain, analyzing what was damaged. After over six hours of matches, demonstrating forms, I would say the serious, notable pain was in my punched face, the bruised shin from two matches ago, and my entire left leg, which was on fire.
With a sinking feeling, I realized I probably wasn't about to make skating practice tomorrow. Ah shit. My skating competition was painfully close, only a couple weeks away, meaning that I really needed practice.
On the other hand, I could tell all my friends I was injured, and everybody would respect my need to be left alone.
I sighed heavily, realizing that I would have to make extra time here and there between kung fu practice to fit in the extra training.
"Fatima?" My mom was saying something and I reluctantly leaned forward to listen. "Are you listening to music again?"
"No, kya huwa?" I asked, switching seamlessly to Urdu.
My mother tapped something on her phone before replying. "I have already cancelled your skating practice tomorrow. You need to-"
"Fatima is fine. Why do you always jump the gun and make these choices? She's a strong girl, and she needs to keep training." My dad scoffed, turning into another lane, and my mother and I made eye contact in the rearview mirror.
I mouthed a thank you, grateful and too exhausted to deal with dad. I'd just miss it tomorrow and deal with his disappointment later.
My dad wasn't finished though. "What do you think, Fatima, should we have a party this weekend to celebrate your wins?"
Wins. I realized with a lurch that I had won today. Third place overall, out of a hundred student martial artists. My father was happy now, but in a weeks' time, or after I failed a test, he'd be calling me the 'second loser' (silver, according to my dad, was the first loser).
"Uh," I started, wondering how best to phrase hell no politely. "Maybe-uh-"
"We could even invite your friends over. The kids from kung fu? Some school friends?" My dad was already planning it seemed.
"I have a lot of homework." I said tentatively, knowing it wasn't going to work. I already knew his next four arguments.
"You need to get out more! Finish the homework between now and then, there's so much time if you aren't on Netflix all the time." My dad replied, and once again, I knew, this debate was effectively over.
I decided that if I answered, I would definitely lose it and either yell things I couldn't take back, or cry.
Such a funny thing, I was in two sports that involved me being on display: kung fu and skating.
Both of them were in front of crowds, a test of technical mastery, stability under pressure, and enormously physically demanding. One would assume that I would be an extrovert.
Wait no, not one would assume, everybody assumed. Everyone assumed that I was just dying to be on stage, just dying to show off my skills, dying to have a loud, obnoxious and demanding party to celebrate me getting my ass kicked for an entire afternoon.
Nobody ever caught on to me not answering questions, pushing myself into corners of rooms, hiding from literally everyone, all the time.
Everybody actually saw it as another form of self-centredness. Nobody viewed it as honest introversion, but instead as me thinking I was too good, too cool to hang out with them.
On personality tests, my friends cackled when I entered in 'introverted', not believing that someone like me, could ever want to be away from people.
Anybody who skated or was a martial artist would know how much these 'on display' sports actually required you to be buried in your head. Strategizing, preparing, controlling yourself.
So I strategized, get out of the car and run. Then I prepared mentally, inhaling to chase away the simmering anger that my father's lack of understanding had conjured. Then I controlled myself up to the final moment.
The minute the car pulled into the driveway I leapt out of it, barely hearing my dad say something about taking the night off, and ran into the house.
Limped really, but the point is I was out of the uncomfortably tense environment of my car.
There was only one person who would understand this, and she was currently upstairs, no doubt texting her friends.
I entered Zehra's room, smiling at the music that greeted me. Zehra's newest love was rock music, and I thoroughly enjoyed the raw sound, fun lyrics. If I said I liked it though, Zehra would probably drop rock like an uncool hot potato.
"And the conquering hero returns!" Zehra gasped theatrically and jumped up. "Ew, you smell." Her perfect, small nose wrinkled, and a little self consciously I was reminded of the beak that shot out of my face.
"Thanks, Zee. Definitely what everyone wants to hear after getting their ass kicked." I replied, and sat down on her floor.
"Let's hear it, more details!" Zee dropped herself back into the wheeled chair in front of her desk.
"Tomorrow, please?" I pleaded, really just wanting to vent to the one person who actually listened to me.
"Fine." Zee smiled at me, but only really grinned when her phone beeped.
"Your new girlfriend?" I teased, smirking knowingly.
"Would you please shut up?" Zee snarked. "So what's up?"
"How's physics?" I asked, remembering that my sister had only stayed back to cram for a test.
"Can you please focus, God, I swear you have ADHD." Zee flapped a hand, vigorously prompting me.
"Dad wants a party. I want a girlfriend, but I literally don't have the guts to ask out anyone, and honestly, I'm embarrassed because this morning when I was leaving the grocery store, I said bye and 'I love you' to a cashier. Also, the tournament went like shit." I said it all in one breath, sprawled out on the carpet.
Zee burst into laughter, and despite my desire to yell at her, I had to start laughing too. And listening to her bona fide, laughing-so-hard-I'm-red-in-the-face-and-choking laugh made mine grow into a loud, crazy one too.
Somedays, I felt like I knew why Zee and I were so different. I was eldest, burdened with a nonstop train of expectations. She was used to getting her own way, succeeding on her own terms.
This was why, despite me coming out first, Zee had a girlfriend already. Why she dressed on her own terms, listened to music my parents disapproved of.
And, if Zee was as introverted as I was, there was no way on heaven or earth that she would have allowed for a party to be thrown.
"God, you are such a loser. Fine, I think I can pencil you in today, my young grasshopper. Lay it all on me." Zee finally got out of it, and magnanimously patted the side of her bed.
"Okay, so the first thing," I grinned and relocated, and spilled all the tea to the one person who saw me as who I was.