How dare you keep this from me? Because she asked you to? Because you both knew how I’d react? Can you really see into my dreams, where I’m twenty-five again, back home where the octagonal cage surrounds me? I tackle Ryan to the mat. I cling to his back to keep him from standing. My arm folds and tenses around his jaw; his screams muzzled, but the cameraman zooms in on his eyes jumping out of his skull. My shoulder pulls my arm back slowly until I feel the pop, the dislocation. Justice for my Sarah.
Our Sarah. Because you were the wise one when you told me she needed a father, not a fighter. So I could be there to listen to her laughter as she rode her bike without training wheels for the first time, rolling so far away I had to sprint for the first time in years to catch up to her. So I could eventually walk her down the aisle without two sturdy legs and clarity of mind. When she took that rented limbo to prom with her friends, you shook your head when I suggested we follow her with binoculars, because it was okay for her to stop attending Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu classes at age fourteen, because she’s smart enough to learn from the bad times and didn’t need violence to make it in this world.
But I always advocated for self-defense. Hands up. Control the distance. Protect yourself at all times. For the sleepovers and the parties and the dates her calloused-knuckled dad couldn’t be there for. You countered by saying that self-defense was never on my mind. It wasn’t. I love round three. My lungs are on fire. My arms are heavy as boulders. My hands ache from hitting him too many times. If he punches me in the face again, will I fall this time? I want to taste the blood swimming in my mouth. I snap kick his solar plexus because his elbows are too high. I sprawl against his takedown attempt, and now I’m on top, and for ten more seconds I let out all the malice I can.
Which is what I will do to Ryan, now that I know. Now that I’ve pressured you into telling me her secret. Cheating bastard. Gaslighting fuck. The moment you told me he laid a hand on her was the moment he signed his death warrant. I’m not that guy anymore, you told me. I hated you for those words. That’s the only guy I want to be, don’t you understand? I need that animal to come out and save our daughter, but I starved it. I’ve been laughing and loving and getting fat while the animal inside the pit has starved into saggy skin and fur on top of bone, barely enough strength left for a lazy growl.
It’s not too late, I told myself. I told you I’d get rid of that old box in the garage with the gloves and the gi and the shin pads. The box is still there. I dug through the layer of cobwebs, past the mouthguard and headgear and other relics, to find a roll of tape that made its way to the bottom. I wrapped my knuckles, just to see if I still remember how to do it. I’m suddenly leaner, like before. My back pain vanishes. My articular fractures correct themselves. A fixed ACL. A repaired rotator cuff. I can see out of my left eye again!
But I can’t, not really. You were pregnant at the time. I told you my passion would provide for our new family. One bad night, you watched me lose forty percent of my vision. You begged me to stop after that, to be the father instead of the fighter. How could I? This was my identity. So, I took a fight with a rising amateur star. A young stud with a chest tattoo of scribbled font. I couldn’t follow his movement, and you watched as he brutalized me until the referee had to stop the fight four minutes in. I don’t remember much else from that night, except maybe the tears you shed by my hospital bed. Honestly, I would have never stopped for you or Sarah or anyone else. I never gave in to your reason or your cries—physically I couldn’t keep up with these hungry animals anymore. My identity was stolen from me! In my heart I chose the life of a warrior, someone destined to die with the sword in my hand instead of live with it sheathed. So, I hung up the gloves, but I didn’t get rid of them. A part of me waited for some justification for my selfishness. Or maybe I never stopped being selfish.
I understand now. Sarah didn’t want to keep what’s going on from me. You did. Not because of my reaction, but because the pain I’ve already put my body through is more than you can bare in this lifetime.
Will you understand? Will you defend me? Will you be disappointed in me? Will you forgive me if he reaches his gun before I reach his throat?
Please don’t be disappointed with me. You’re the one I respect most of all.
You wanted to jog with me. I worked for peanuts back then. Everything I earned went to either bills or Legacy Martial Arts at the time. You could have held out for someone with a little more disposable income to spoil you with, but you made the ballsy decision to hover around me, jogging while I worked out last night’s Pizza Hut and Miller Lite with the boys. You ran past me, not even breathing with your mouth yet. Since when did you have so much energy? For a moment, you ran backwards. Pulling back the auburn hair blowing across your face, you gave the ol’ one-two in my direction (the sun rose behind your head, like a halo over the divine). I laughed before promising to teach you a proper boxing stance. There are no coy smiles that make men nervous, either. No, you grind your teeth so hard you file down the enamel. Maybe you yell. Yeah, yell until you’ve convinced yourself you’re a raging tiger. The trick, you see, is that you make every movement with the sole intention of ripping a hole through the earth for never making sense. For bringing people into your life you cannot predict or control. For forcing believes onto you that you normally wouldn’t accept. For giving you a love you can neither deserve nor keep.