Glenn, our marriage counselor, self-proclaimed relationship expert, repeated herself: "I said, have you two ever considered boxing?"
Tim and I exchanged glances. We were both thinking she'd lost her mind. It was the first thing we'd agreed on all day.
"No, I can't say that I have," Tim said, emphasizing the second I. He turned back to Glenn and added, "But I can only speak for myself, right?"
I shook my head no, both in response to Glenn's question and Tim's passive-aggressiveness.
Glenn tapped her pen on her clipboard, uncrossed her legs, glanced at her framed certificates on the wall. It was not the first time I'd questioned their validity. She said, "It's a perfectly healthy way of communicating with one another, I assure you. An outlet. Sometimes our problems can be solved just as easily through physical connection as through verbal."
This, even though we'd spent our previous session talking about how to "disagree healthily" and how Tim and I should make more of an effort to both "speak and listen to one another." And now she was asking us to beat the stuffing out of each other. Marriage counseling had been my idea, and I knew there'd be a big fat I told you so waiting for me at the end of all this if it didn't work out. I looked outside at the April sunshine and thought it was too nice of a day to be discussing something so ugly.
"It's just a thought. An option," she said. And when her cuckoo clock rang and signaled the end of our session, she left us with her usual mantra: "Thank you for your time, gentlemen, and remember to keep the door open."
Later, after Tim had made a show of signing Glenn's weekly check and tearing it from its book with an ostentatious rip, we piled into my Prius. He muttered to himself while I turned the key in the ignition, and as we backed out of the empty lot I could see him tapping his phone, searching the web for "Marriage Counselors Near Me." He was no doubt preparing to leave Glenn a nasty comment on Google Reviews.
We listened to NPR as we drove home, neither of us speaking. They were playing a news program called All Things Considered, discussing the implications of the pandemic. "Unfortunately," one of the talk show guests was saying, "things are going to get worse before they get better."
"Ain't that the truth?" Tim mumbled.
When we were five minutes from our house, waiting for a red light, I turned off the radio. Silence filled the car like helium to a balloon. We could hear each other breathing. I knew he was thinking about it too. "What do you make of Glenn's suggestion?"
Tim responded by turning the radio on. "Right," the talk show guest said. "Right, we just need to get everybody on the same page."
I twisted the dial halfway down, allowing the voices to become faraway whispers, still passengers in the vehicle with us but somewhere in the back seat or maybe the trunk. Glenn was always reminding us to "compromise."
Tim glanced my way. He had his sunglasses on so I couldn't tell where he was actually looking. I stared back at my reflection in the lenses, peered at the new flakes of gray peppering my beard, the dark circles lining my eyes. I felt old, though I was only thirty-four and he was two years my senior.
"Well? What do you make of it?"
"The light's green, Brad," he said, his first words to me since we'd left our counselor's office. But the way he'd said it, he could've just as easily been one of the NPR voices, somewhere distant and far-off, anywhere but right here.
That night I lay awake in bed. I could count on both hands the number of words Tim and I had spoken since we'd been home. And Glenn thought we could just whisk our troubles away by beating each other up? Yeah, right. I thought about leaving her an unkind Google Review too.
But I had to admit: I was curious.
So when Tim started snoring, I slinked out of bed, grabbed my laptop from the desk, and shuffled to the couch. Just one video, I told myself. Just to see what the fuss is about. I went first to YouTube, typed "boxing" noncommittally in the search bar. Images appeared of muscular men in shorts swinging at each other with oversized gloves. I tried to envision myself throwing a punch at Tim, and the whole thing made me chuckle.
It stopped being funny after the fifth video. By then I was viewing each clip with rapt attention, pausing only to take notes. I learned about jabs and hooks, crosses and uppercuts. I studied the way the men stood, how they held their arms out to throw or block a punch. I picked sides, chose favorites, quietly booed when the boxer I wanted to win got knocked out cold.
I'm not a sports guy, never have been. I couldn't tell you how many points a touchdown is worth, couldn't name a single Olympic Game. But something about the way these boxers moved was galvanizing. They poured everything into their bodies - their strength, their emotions - and it radiated through the arena. You could see it in the faces of the spectators, the way they longed to be in the ring, fighting that same good fight.
Two hours later, after I'd finally closed YouTube, I went to Amazon and decided to stop being a spectator.
What no one ever tells you is how easily love can shift. It's like the tide at the beach, one day so high up that you can't touch it without getting soaked, the next day so far in the distance that you need a telescope to see it.
I don't know exactly when I started needing that telescope, though I imagine it happened somewhere between my failed promotion and Tim's endless stream of work deadlines. We were both still on the beach, the love was still there, that much I knew, but it was like the tide kept taking one of us out to sea. When it was my turn to wait for Tim to come back to shore, I occupied my time by throwing myself into my new love of boxing.
So it came to pass that I would wait each night until Tim was asleep, then rummage through the coat closet for my hidden gloves. I grew accustomed to the hardwood floor, knew the places it creaked and moaned the least, and silently practiced my technique. I bobbed and weaved my imaginary rivals, crouched when they went high, delivered perfect TKO uppercuts. I made sure that when the time came, I would be ready.
It continued like this until one night when Tim came home early from work. I got the itch, and I knew he wouldn't be home for another hour. There I was in the living room, laying into his favorite throw pillow - I mean, really giving it the business - when I looked up and saw him standing in the doorway. He tilted his head to the side like he does when he's trying to process something. He nodded once and shut the door behind him. I stood there with my fist still buried in the pillow, listening to the sound of his wheels on the asphalt as he sped off. I tried calling his phone but he wouldn't pick up.
Forty minutes later, as I was chopping vegetables for dinner, I heard the front door close and there was Tim with a plastic bag from Big 5 Sporting Goods in his hand. It felt like someone had hit me with a haymaker. My breath caught in my throat.
"This is what you wanted, isn't it?" he said, reaching into the bag and pulling out a pair of spotless white boxing gloves. He never took his eyes off me. "Let's go, then."
If there's one thing you should know, it's that Tim can't resist a challenge, even an unspoken one. If he's deadset on something, there's no talking him out of it. He once got laryngitis because his friend dared him to yell at the Cleveland Browns coach every time the team fumbled the ball. So I put down the knife, tucked the vegetables in the fridge, and grabbed my gloves from the closet. Truth be told, I'd wanted a real sparring partner, and my fingers were trembling as I fiddled with the glove laces.
Still, despite my weeks of moonlit shadowboxing, I knew Tim had the advantage. In addition to being almost half a foot taller than me, he grew up with two older brothers in a family where both sports and roughhousing were encouraged as a means of toughening up. As we donned our boxing gloves, he confessed he'd once sent his older brother Drew to the emergency room with a single rabbit punch, simply because his other brother Gavin dared him to.
"You can always back out if you want," he said, smirking. He gave the air a few test jabs. Seeing him with those gloves on, it wasn't hard to imagine him as a boy, ready and willing to fight the world, ashamed at what he'd done to Drew, but secretly a little proud too.
"You'd like that, wouldn't you?"
I wouldn't step down. I told myself that this was what Glenn had been asking us to do all along - to disagree healthily with our actions, not our words; to speak to one another with our fists and listen with our bodies.
The TV, the coffee table, the couch and pillows, the ottoman, the Persian rug, the lamps, the bookshelf - we pushed all of them to the side, made them watch from the corners of the room like spectators. Nothing stood between the two of us except the cold hardwood floor.
We gave ourselves rules: No hitting below the belt, for obvious reasons. Punching above the neck was also off-limits because Tim, in his haste, forgot to buy a mouthguard. Which limited us solely to body blows. Not that I minded; that's what I'd been practicing the whole time.
We circled around each other for a bit, sizing one another up, wondering if this was really happening. But then I willed myself forward, pulled back my arm and threw a right jab at Tim's chest. He stepped to the side, and as I stumbled forward, he gave me a sharp counterpunch to the stomach. I doubled over, knees bashing against the floor. I cursed my shadowboxing opponents, none of whom had prepared me for this pain.
"Hey, let's just stop," Tim offered. I could hear the guilt in his voice but I didn't want it. I wanted answers. I told him I was fine, took a deep breath, then steadied myself. "You sure?" he asked, and I replied by throwing a right hook. He tried to move but was a second too slow. My fist connected and he fell flat on his butt, yelping from the sting.
After a few seconds he wobbled to his feet and tilted his head to the side. "Alright, you wanna play like that, huh?"
We continued like that for a while, trading blows with one another. But here's the second craziest part of that night: With each hit it really did feel like we were communicating. When I landed that right hook, I was apologizing for blaming him for my unsuccessful promotion. When my bolo punch struck his gut, I was saying sorry for missing our anniversary. When I cheated and struck him with an uppercut to the chin (what can I say, he was beating me pretty badly), I promised to be a better husband. And every time I fell, I could feel him apologizing too.
We kept score of each time we knocked the other down. Tim won in the end, 15-11.
It happened when I scored my eleventh point. Tim went down and landed on his side and instead of coming back up like he'd been doing, he lay there, body shaking wildly. It took me a second to realize he was laughing. He sat up, wiping his forehead with the back of his arm. "I think I'm done for the night," he said through his laughter. His body was bright red with glove imprints and his chin was a little puffy. "Man, who would've thought Glenn would be right?"
I walked over and took a spot on the floor next to him, resting my head on his shoulder. The evening sun poured in through the window, and I could see the faint beginning of a bruise forming on my arm, the casualty of love.
Tim leaned his head on mine. His body felt like sand, hot to the touch, the best tide. "Hey, what do you say we do this again next week, same time same place? You know where to find me." He smiled and closed his eyes. I nodded my head yes, scratching his arm with my stubble. I didn't talk.
We were sweating, both of us taking in as much air as we could before we had to let it go. Our breathing was the only sound around us. We didn't need words. Our fists had spoken for us, told us all we needed to hear.
You wanna know what the craziest part of that night was?
The clarity when it was all over. My head was so clear, it was unlike anything I've ever felt. Thoughts came to me in calm, rolling waves. I was wishing I could go back and tell my younger self not to worry about the other kids teasing him for not playing sports, that he would be strong someday. I was grateful for not writing that scathing Google Review about Glenn, and I reminded myself to tell Tim that he should think about revising his. I thought about telling him "I told you so," just as a joke, just to let him know that we'd be okay, but in the end I didn't say a word. Some things are better left unspoken.