I don’t remember what his face looked like, but I remember the feeling of his gloved fists snapping my head back and rattling my teeth. The gym was crowded that night, at least twenty people were on the mat, and I happened to be the only woman. The other two regulars were absent. It was a dark and cold Seattle winter night, but the gym was bright and hot with sweat. The gym owner, Ivan, was a former Ultimate Fighter Championship competitor, and he was teaching the boxing class.
At the end of every class we did three or four rounds of sparring. The rounds lasted three minutes, and we rotated to a new partner with each buzz of the electronic timer. Before every session, Ivan always said the same disclaimer. As partners lined up on the padded red mat and waited for the signal, Ivan’s voice would boom out across room: “Everyone is here to learn. Keep in mind that you might have a higher level of fitness than your partner. Or they might have a higher level of fitness than you. Adjust your style accordingly and keep it friendly.”
I’d been training at the gym for a year and usually knew most of the guys in the classes, but I’d just come back to Seattle after three months at sea with the Coast Guard. During that time, a whole new group of people had joined the gym. I always tried to partner with men that I knew would help me become a better fighter. I’d learned that the most skilled boxers would pull their punches and just tap me with their gloves, or they’d go completely defensive and block and dodge as I tried to hit them, not even attempting to touch me. The best partners would give me tips and encourage me as we boxed, saying things like “Use your hips,” “Work a combo in,” and “Gloves up!”
By the end of every boxing class, I was always exhausted. It was a challenge just to keep both of my gloved hands up by my face defensively for the entirety of each three-minute round. That night, when the second round of sparring ended, a new partner stepped right up to me. He was about a foot taller than I was, a young and thin muscular man, with probably a sixty-pound weight advantage. The buzzer sounded and we began.
I tried to land a few punches, but his reach was so much greater than mine. It reminded me of when I was a growing up and my brother, who was eight years older, would put his hand on my head while I swung at him, grabbing only air. Every time I threw a punch during the round, one of his arms would dart towards my open side and hit me in the head. I was wearing the gym’s headgear, bulky padded leather that wrapped around my forehead, open at the face but covering my ears and chin. It was too big for me, and the padding over my forehead kept sliding down over my eyebrows, obscuring my view. I was trying to hold the headgear in place with one glove while punching with the other.
A well-timed right cross from my opponent threw my head backward. My teeth clamped on the rubber piece that protected them, making my jaw ache. I said to my partner, the words slightly slurred through my mouth-guard, “Don’t hit me so hard!” Maybe he was inexperienced and he didn’t realize how much force he was using. That happened with the new guys. They were strong but didn’t know how to control their punches. Usually when I made that request, my sparring partner at the time would become apologetic and overly cautious.
I tried a combo on him and landed a glancing blow. I was rewarded with a hard hit to my right ear that stung even through the headgear. Maybe he hadn’t heard me. I said it again, louder this time and with anger coloring my voice: “Don’t hit me so hard!”
Before I even saw his arm move, his red glove shot out at my face. It slammed into the padded part over my forehead and my head snapped backwards. A flash of white and then black flickered across my field of vision. The sound of the other fighters around us was canceled out by roaring in my ears. A split-second thought of, so that’s what “seeing stars” means.
My vision narrowed to his face and fists. A predatory smirk on his lips. An understanding that he had chosen me. This guy is trying to fucking kill me, I thought. How much time left? Keep your hands up. There’s the one-minute buzzer. Just make it through this round. Almost over. Hands up. Make him hit your gloves, not your head. Block. Duck. Block. On your toes. Don’t try to hit him, that’s when nails you. Too fast, arms too long. Almost done. Take it. Hold out. The buzzer rang, and relief flooded me as I dropped my heavy arms and watched the man walk into the crowd of bodies, boxers and Ju Jitsu fighters waiting for the next class.
I wanted to talk to Ivan, to tell him what this man had just done, to tell him that he’d taken pleasure in hurting me, but Ivan was busy talking to a group of students, and I felt ashamed and confused. I thought I might start crying, and I would never do that in front of this group of men. My head was already pounding and I was pretty sure I’d gotten a concussion.
I had come to this gym to learn how to protect myself, and I couldn’t even do that for three minutes. I had started taking martial arts classes because I needed a way to feel like I was in control when every day I was outnumbered by men working in the engine room of a ship. I had never felt directly physically threatened by anyone in my unit, but I wanted to be confident that, if a drunken sailor at a port of call ever tried to overpower me, I could take care of myself. I wanted to be able to walk the eight blocks from the movie theater in my West Seattle neighborhood to my apartment at night without being scared. Instead of learning defensive skills at this boxing class, I’d become an easy target. I wondered if he waited for the last round at the end of class, knowing I’d be tired. As if he didn’t have enough of an advantage already. I wiped the headgear clean and threw it on the shelf.
Grabbing my bag and stepping outside of the gym, the quiet and chill air was welcome. I headed to my car, cursing myself for letting this happen. For not saying something. For just taking the punches. I didn’t know it then, but I’d never return to that gym, even though I had prepaid my membership for another two months. I didn’t feel safe there anymore. Sitting in the driver’s seat, I popped open a bottle of ibuprofen and swallowed four, hoping the nausea and pounding in my skull would go away. It wouldn’t. It would last for two days. The fear, anxiety, and frustration would last much longer.
If my muscles grew every time someone told me I was strong, I’d be able to lift 200-pound surgeons up over my head by now. But my arms don’t lift much more than grocery bags or laundry baskets. Some days they don’t lift much more than a cup of tea or a dog’s leash. Grief can make the world feel rather small. And make life’s minutia feel rather hefty.
I’ve learned over the years, though, that what people mean when they tell me how strong I am is “Better you than me.” I started hearing that in the days after my son was born in 2003. It’s not meant in a hurtful way, of course. But understandably they’re relieved that it was my son...