donnybrook

If your best chance of securing a future is to fight in a “Donnybrook,” a three day fighting match where ponying up $1,000 gets you in, and your chances of getting out in one piece are slim, then maybe you need to reconsider the path you have chosen. Frank Bill’s gritty, violent, and grim debut novel, Donnybrook (FSG Originals) is not for the faint of heart, as the body count is high, and the actions desperate and brutal. But buried in the bruised flesh are the stories of Jarhead, a desperate fighter, Angus, a drug dealer, and Fu, a martial arts enforcer—men with a strange sense of honor that lurks beneath their questionable actions, doing what they have to do in order to survive, to protect their own, and to please their employers. Meth cookers and dealers, drunks and addicts, whores and hustlers, they all scrounge for a meager existence, one that inevitably leads them to the Donnybrook.

About A Bout

By JJ Keith

Memoir

“C’mon. Bare-knuckle brawl. I win, you break up with her. You win and I’ll never bring her up again.”

He put his hands on his slim hips in dramatic protest. “I’m not gonna fight you. How do you think it looks if a black guy beats up a prissy blonde?”

I wasn’t worried about how it looked. Ernie could talk himself out of anything. That boy had a candy-coated mouth and friends in every corner of our mostly white, middle-class high school. My white ass, however, had four to six friends depending on how much I had been running my mouth. Some may have called me unpopular, but the disdain was mutual. During high school I took a full load of courses at a nearby community college so that I only had to go to high school in the mornings. That summer, I had just claimed my diploma a year early and was about to leave Ernie behind to finish high school without me. Not that he minded.

“Fight me!” I jumped up and down on his bed, throwing punches into the air. “C’mon. Let’s go. I wanna be a pugilist.”

We fight like fighters
should, not to kill,

but to batter. With blunt
stumps of ourselves,

we ram into another.
We pull open overcoats

and expose failure,
knock books off shelves

and throw furniture.
Neighbors pound

the walls angry for peace.
This is how we come

together. Old flames
spark up. All grace

goes under. Long
hollow roots stretch

through our hearts,
on the surface, rotted

stumps without sensation.
Trees get yanked

and the stumps must
burn. Across the heart’s

meadow, smoke rises
from stumps’ center

the soil is rich with ash.
We fight to hurt.

We fight to become tender.

On The Locust’s next tour, we hit the East Coast and managed to get a show at a typical all-day festival featuring one crappy “play on the floor” band after another in the fine town of Who Really Cares, North Carolina. It was a clever mix of straightedge and white trash. We stuck out like a sore thumb—a beaner, a towelhead, and a couple throwbacks. Everyone thought we were total fags. And we were stuck there. We broke into a nearby church and stole a bunch of mics to ease the pain of that long, hot day. I slept in the baptismal tub for a few hours to avoid the blistering heat and humidity. But when it was time to play, it got a lot worse than we expected.

Our set was about four songs long. During the first three songs, the audience was as hostile as they could be. This shithead in front of me kept kicking the mic stand. When I went to sing, it would smack against my teeth and he’d laugh. After the third song, I told him if he did it again, I’d fuck him up. As the next song started, he kicked the mic stand and I headbutted him without missing a beat. When the song was over, I noticed blood on the floor in front of me. His girlfriend was yelling at us. Joey spat at her, Gabe gave us a four count, and we went into another song. But some people in the audience were trying to physically stop us from playing. We decided our set was over. Gabe ran outside to get some fresh air since the missing sound guy could not give us oxygen in the stage monitors. He came back to inform us our van had been vandalized. I threw off my mesh vest and started to charge outside, ready to fight, but Gabe stopped me. Apparently the brother of the guy I had headbutted punched our van’s headlight; his fist broke the glass, which slashed a major artery in his wrist. Blood spewed all over the front of the van, and the paramedics were called. It was probably good that I didn’t make it outside to fight the guy since I was only wearing hot pants and sneakers.

Our roadie went to the van to make sure it wasn’t getting completely destroyed. We packed up our gear, and tried load it into the van through the crowd. By the time we were loaded up—if you can call throwing everything in the back and hoping the doors would close “loading up”—the cops had showed up and started arresting people. There was a police helicopter in the air and police dogs on the ground. People were demanding money back for our merchandise they’d bought. Some even threw the stuff back at us. Everyone was yelling at us, but we weren’t taking their shit.

We managed to pull away from the parking lot without getting arrested or beaten up. On the drive out, a car followed us for a while, but we lost it by running a couple red lights. We ended up at some guy’s apartment in the next town over. We’d become friends with him earlier that day while trying to pass time as the plethora of crummy bands played. We woke up in the morning to find our van’s tire had been slashed. We just changed out the flat with our spare and were on our way. I never understood why someone would only slash one tire. If you really want to be a badass, you should slash all of the tires. But I suppose a badass would have just kicked our asses in person.

The tour was absurdity from there on out. Another show, somewhere upstate New York, was the same old run-of-the-mill mockery from a predictable audience. I knew that we were Jedis when some dickhead talked shit to us before we even played a note and got nowhere. Our lack of response resulted in him spitting on me for no apparent reason. As the spit dripped down my chest onto my mesh vest, I spat back without a thought. Now, this shot I took was without aim, concentration, or hesitation. It was exactly like the part in Star Wars: A New Hope when Luke blew up the Death Star. My spit went straight into this heckler’s mouth as he was leaning back, mouth open, cracking himself up after making a string of dumb comments about our band. I spun around toward my amp, amazed, tense, waiting to get socked in the head. I stood there, only a few feet from this guy, wearing my uniform, which consisted of a mesh vest with reflective stripping, hot pants, goggles, and sneakers. Nothing happened, and I then knew that the four of us Locusts had evolved.


Until I was eleven, I figured there was no reason why anybody would want pain.  I had no notion that pain, given the right light and the right smile, could be something extraordinary.  Not big pain no, just petty, action hero pain that looks good on camera.  Yes, that kind of pain can be instructive.

Isabelle of the dark brown fists, the smartest girl in seventh grade, was my first punch.  She let me have it and I deserved it.  Why her fists were so dark is a question my memory will never answer. Is it because they rose up in the shattering light of desert asphalt?  She was part Chinese and part Mexican, blue-black hair pulled back taut like a crossbow, glasses slightly askew on her angular face, skinny and fierce and smarter than any one of us.

I was a bad kid at a Catholic school run by nuns, some of them ex-military, others working second jobs in hospices and drop-in centers and clinics.  To them, we were loathsome suburban shit unfit to drink God’s blood. But in our own eyes we were holy outlaws looking for cheap thrills.

It was a vanilla white stucco school tucked away in a scorching valley of inland San Diego. There was a rose garden in front of the church and a little alcove behind it where you could hide in the shade cast by a stone statue of the school’s namesake, St. Theresa, the patron saint of O-faces.

Past arcades of pink tiles inlaid with blue stars and silver crosses, a line of palm trees trembled in the light, their tops promising parrots but never delivering. They reminded me, and still do, of props in a video game landscape. Nothing in that light looked real.

Most of my school consisted of an asphalt parking lot divided into spots by shimmering white lines.  This was where morning recess was held.  Everything at my school was laid on thick and bright, from the stucco to the asphalt to the paint so that every inch of space reflected light.  The effect was torturous but you got used to it if you were in motion.  The breezes from other bodies would cool you down too.

Morning recess was a time to play but often we ran out of ideas about how to amuse ourselves on this sweltering black field that lacked playground equipment and shade. Not to mention that all we had was a paltry twenty minutes to get our nerves shaken out before heading back in to the wall-to-wall carpeted classrooms.

Parking lots were a hard nut to crack if you wanted to play. They’re fit less for schoolchildren than for convicts who walk in circles and mull over their crimes.  I had crimes too, minor ones, like untucking my shirt at lunch, burning toilet paper, writing poetry about shit and Satan and deliberately getting grass stains in the most unlikely places.  Like any strong-willed convict, I wanted to embrace the parking lot and tap its hidden potential.

We devised various forms of tag that would attempt to exploit the smooth space at hand. There was TV tag, freeze tag, squeeze tag, ball tag, etc.  (The act of touching and becoming “it” forecast more dangerous petting as the years wore on.)  Most of these games wore thin rather quickly so we racked our brains for better variations.

And so we considered the brilliant white lines on the asphalt, how they connected and marked off territory, how that basic geometry was something we could relate to and thus line tag was born.

It turned out to be the most exciting version yet, as well as the most physically demanding in that it necessitated pushing, shoving, clothes lining and grappling, even if these were against the rules.  It also became, as I would discover, the game that gave the most vent to female aggression in an arena once dominated by Huck Finnish boys with their skinned knees and bony little asses.

The idea was that you were supposed to stay on the white lines by any means necessary short of choking or crotch kicking. The moment you were cast overboard into the oceanic blackness of asphalt you had thirty seconds to get back on board the white line before you were declared “OUT!”  People could physically prevent this from happening and you could equally prevent them. In short, the game was violent but within acceptable bounds.

It soon developed into a riotous and heavily attended event for those precious twenty minutes of morning recess. In the afternoons, our much longer lunch break was in the upper playground, where there was grass and swings and things you’d expect to entertain barely pubescent children, like tetherball mock executions.

Line tag marked a true turn of events, from our harmless, nun-approved playfulness to a ritualized game as serious as any Aztec sacrifice.

I think the heat bouncing off the pavement turned us into temporary lunatics who had just discovered that touching was indeed only the iceberg’s teasing tip.

And that sometimes hurting was as neat as kissing, especially if you looked tough when it happened.

The girls loped along in their short plaid skirts, their flimsy white shirts, their hair tied back in buns and pigtails.  There was nothing eye-catching about the plaid: it was brown and yellow, our scatological school colors but, in the frenzy of line tag, we gazed more wildly at those skirts and the strong legs that shot out of them and carried those overheated bodies along shining white lines.

We boy-men gallivanted around in short beige shorts and white golf shirts.  Truly they were short shorts and our skinny legs looked like they were dangling helpless and pathetic off a tar paper roof.

In the heat of the game, people would make alliances and fortify certain rectangles of lines and lay in wait for some bold adventurer to stumble into their territory.  The best team-builders were the girls who would all count to three and come charging at some unsuspecting boy and push him flailing into the asphalt out-zone. The sight of three or four girls, arms interlocked, faces dead set in rancor, about to charge you and thus disqualify you was both supremely annoying and unspeakably tantalizing.  Many a boy braver than me surrendered just at the sight of that unified display of long, damp, peach fuzz arms.

I, however, was determined on outwitting and out leaping my competitors, whether they were girls or boys, nuns or teachers.  One word on my mind: glory. I wanted it, if just for twenty minutes and even if it wasn’t glory at all.  I shimmied from line to line, veering and hip thrusting and pirouetting just out of reach of lunging hands and many a recess proved me the smarmy victor.

But one day, I got sloppy or she got determined, I can’t remember which but Isabelle of the dark brown fists was out for blood.

I had heard she had had a “crush” on me but I wasn’t interested because she was clearly a quiet, academic show-off who cared more about homework than new rock music. She was no Kate McGalliger, a nectarine blond of Irish extraction who had failed both math and science. Regardless, Isabelle’s feelings had been hurt by something I had said or not said and she apparently had vowed revenge.  Perhaps also the fact I attributed so much importance to forever winning at line tag set me up as a preemptive loser in her mind. She would oust me from my petty throne and show me just how little I was.

I never saw it coming. Rather surprising for her, and with only four minutes left of recess, she spontaneously leaped into pursuit of me down a trapezoidal boulevard of lines (you could go for a long time on the lines without stopping, mostly because the school wanted to accommodate as many cars as possible for the weekend fish fries and social events) and chased me down some winding side-lines until we closed in on the frosting of the chapel doors.

The chapel had the thickest possible coating of stucco on it, forming wave formations at its edges.  This is where she cornered me and there were no more lines and no more asphalt but a whole other territory that was forbidden to us kids.

But I was stubborn, ridiculously so.  I figured if I could distract her, do a pump-fake like in basketball, then I could somehow angle my way around her on the line we were both standing on and trot back in the opposite direction to a safe harbor where the bell would ring and the game would be over.

But her pursuit was twisting up my insides with fear and excitement.  Nobody had closed in on me like this before.  No girl for that matter.  I was thinking only in game-terms but something deeper was thinking way past that to the overly complicated man I am today.

In the raw light, I saw her sweat-fogged glasses, her clumsily buttoned shirt and the damp strands of hair breaking out of the bun. Everyone was idling on their lines, awaiting my defeat. She snaked forward, grinning with unbearable delight. I swayed left, then right, thinking I might just make a break for it but knowing also this was it. I was cornered and I felt very small and baby-like and unreal.

Her hand made a dark brown fist.

She smiled with clenched teeth and breathed through flaring nostrils.  And in a second she was as close as a kiss, while letting fly that brown fist into my ribs.  Another fist, all wet knuckles, just grazed my jaw and she cursed something in Spanish.  I was stunned into submission.  I fell back against the stucco, appalled and momentarily winded. Falling, the sharp wave of stucco ripped a piece of my elbow skin off.  Blood oozed forth, almost black in the light.  Immediately I wiped it on my white golf shirt while tears welled in my eyes.  Her face was overheated and satisfied while it inched slowly away from me. Her fists retracted, she wiped sweat from her glasses.

And then she ran back as the bell rang.  People laughed but they also didn’t.  Nothing like that had ever happened.

Isabelle knew she’d be in trouble but it didn’t matter.  She had broken through an unspoken barrier and done to a boy exactly what should have been done. I was satisfied but couldn’t say why. I was convinced it wouldn’t matter who hit me once the stories started circulating.  I had blood on my pristine white shirt and that wouldn’t come off no matter how much bleach was spilled.  It was a true mark of glory. And I would get in even more glorious trouble with all the Homeric poems I would write about that bloodstain.

But I was wrong. For weeks afterward, all that was jeered at recess, shouted at lunch or intoned in church was: Michael got beat up by a girl.

Yes I did.

But I liked Isabelle a lot more now, so much so that it disturbed me to no end. For her part, after the furor of line tag died down, she was too interested in violin lessons and high school application to give a second’s thought to what she had done.

Yet towards the end of eighth grade, right before we all graduated, her friend Theresa, after a hasty whispering session with Isabelle, went up to me in the parking lot when I was bragging about something or other and slapped me in the face for no reason at all.

Isabelle laughed and laughed and a few weeks later we all graduated and went our separate ways.

Sometime before I left the comfort of my parents’ home, the safety of my childhood church, and the sanity of an era before piercings, I believed that old people were good. There was nothing a person could say to convince me otherwise. They were pure, holy. I believed, among other things, that the old person should be protected, much like a child. To offer anything other than a smile and a hand was negligent. To cuss in front of an old person was a reprehensible act. Playing rock music within earshot was downright disrespectful. It was as if the very existence of white down upon that wrinkly crown gave them wings.

At some point in my 20s, I began to realize, of course, that old people aren’t necessarily so pure or fragile. Most of my dealings with the older set had been through my church, so once I started to get out into the world a bit, I was sort of jolted into reality. Literally.

It all started when I came back from Hong Kong. While living on a small backpacker island for a couple of years while I finished my grad work, I had become a student of wing chun kung fu. Wanting to continue my practice, I joined up with the closest thing I could find in Denver at the time – a school that called itself “Progressive Martial Arts”. It wasn’t pure wing chun, but the school did boast that it taught jeet kune do, Bruce Lee’s contribution to the martial arts world. Since Bruce Lee got his start with wing chun and since my teacher in Hong Kong was Bruce Lee’s teacher’s son’s student, I reasoned that jeet kune do was a natural progression for me.

For the uninitiated, jeet kune do basically comes down to one thing: street fighting. Sure, we practiced all manner of arts ranging from jiu jitsu to eskrima to kenpo, but the thing our school taught best was a little thing they liked to call “Two-Rule Fighting”.

Two-Rule Fighting: The first rule was that there were no rules. The second rule was that you could not change the first rule.

And in case you’re still not catching on, yes. I belonged to a fight club.

In this class, we were groomed as fighters. We ran endless laps. We were made to lie on our backs with our hands pinned under our butts so that we could have medicine balls thrown at our stomachs. We would line up against a wall to be punched repeatedly in the face until we learned to tuck under our chins instinctively. Sometimes, we would lie down on the floor in a circle while the children’s class played stepping stones on us, jumping from stomach to stomach as fast and as recklessly as they could.

It was awesome.

When it was time to begin our Two-Rule Fighting part of the class, we were already drenched in sweat. First blood had usually already been drawn. We sucked on our mouthguards – the only gear we were allowed – and waited to be called out into the center.

The first time I did it, I was thoroughly and intentionally humiliated. My opponent was a teacher who had heard whom I had studied under and took it upon himself to put me in my place. He had at least six inches and close to 50 pounds on me and didn’t give a crap that I was new to jeet kune do or to the school. I held my own for a while, able to parry most of his advances. I believed I was playing a game of tag, so I did not hit him full force when I was able to get through to his face or neck. Not long into the fight, however, he found my weakness: I hadn’t learned how to fight with my legs yet. Twice, he dropped me to the floor gasping for air with a knee to the solar plexus. When I got back up the third time, he finished me off neatly with a hit to the mouth and ended by slamming me to the ground landing full force on top of me with his arms around my neck. I barely had the strength to tap out before I lost consciousness from his strangle hold.

I went back.

After almost a year and a half of studying there, I was nearly at the top of my game. I wasn’t the best fighter in the class, but I wasn’t the worst. I could hold my own in the ring or on the ground with men or women of assorted size. Until one day, she walked in.

She was a tall, solid structured woman with cheekbones like a pair of loosely veiled Nike swooshes. Her short hair was curled into gentle waves the color of modeling clay. Having recently undergone open-heart surgery, she wore protective chest armor, a black square-shaped athletic breastplate. She was 74.

I didn’t want to hit her. I never ever wanted to hit her. She had that gray old lady hair and armor over her chest where they had tinkered under the hood and she even had an old lady smell: talcum powder mixed with lilacs or lavender, I’m not sure which. Feeble she was not, but there were enough sensory cues to turn me into an upright citizen. I wanted to help her across the street, not practice my elbow strikes and roundhouse kicks on her.

When we were working out, the gym often played some loud kind of driving bloodlust music along the lines of Rob Zombie. I wanted to make them shut it off. Surely it was giving her a headache. I cringed for her every time they made us run laps. What if she was incontinent? Or worse – what if somebody jostled her too hard and her chest split back open? What if her heart popped out like in the game Operation? It was too much to bear.

I was hopelessly distracted. I would be on the floor in the middle of practicing a jiu jitsu side sweep when I would accidentally look over and see some young man she was practicing with on top of her and ready to choke her out and all I could think was that I wanted to grab her purse and beat the living crap out of him with it.

On the day they paired us up for two-rule fighting, I wanted to cry. I already decided that I would let her win. She was bigger than me anyway, so it would look legitimate. I just couldn’t do it – actually fight her. It’s wrong to hit old ladies, isn’t it? There’s some kind of special circle of hell for that. I’m sure of it. It is kept even warmer than the rest of hell and smells like ammonia and mothballs. They serve liver and onions there. Every night.

We bowed to each other, and began a slow circling. I didn’t want to look like I was throwing the fight, but where was I supposed to hit her? Her face? Her arm? Her Milton Bradley chest? From the corner of my eye, I could see my teacher watching me with his arms crossed over his chest. I loved my teacher. I wanted to make him proud. He was the US kickboxing champion in 1976 and I had a great deal of respect for him. Sensing his disapproval, I knew I had to make a move. I flicked her. She threw a punch. I parried.

“Come on, Erika, you’re not afraid of an old woman,” he taunted from the sidelines over Cradle of Filth playing in the background.

She smiled—an undeniable evil glint to it. Suddenly, without warning, she charged me with a jab-left-right combo. Only she didn’t stop there. She followed with another, which was in turn followed by some full on chain punches. Taken off guard and without the safety of a breastplate, I was getting pummeled. Something inside of me clicked and I began to defend myself. And then it all fell into place. I crossed over from “I’m beating up an old woman” to “I’m being beaten up by an old woman” and when that happened, well.

I’m not proud of what happened next, but it was an important transition for how I would feel about the elderly for the rest of my life. Once I worked out that I couldn’t aim for her center line, I went for her legs, her arms, her old lady waddle. I had been forced to confront my bias. And that’s when it hit me. Old people aren’t children who need protecting. Old people are just young people with loose skin…that jiggles when hit.

My parents married because of music.

They met at a mah-jongg party in Berkeley in 1967. Having come from Taiwan to study, my father was pursuing a PhD in molecular biology while my mother had just finished her Master’s in accounting.

At the mah-jongg party, they chatted and felt a spark, my mother’s liveliness a good contrast to my father’s more serious nature. But he didn’t ask her out. Nor at the next mah-jongg party, nor the next. Nor at a barbecue on campus.

“Are you sure he’s interested?” my mother asked the friend who hosted the original mah-jongg party.

“Yes!” her friend insisted. “My husband says he talks about you all the time. It’s Ai Li this, and Ai Li that. He’s just shy.”

Sometimes at get-togethers my father played the guitar. Finally, one time my mother asked, “How does that thing work anyway?”

My father brightened. “I can show you,” he said. He had been waiting for an excuse to spend more time with her. But, one thing: “Do you have your own guitar?”

She shook her head.

“You’ll have to get one,” he said. His, apparently, was too high quality for a novice.

She took out a precious $50 and bought a used acoustic. After they got married, she gave the instrument away.

To say they fell in love is a stretch. Maybe my father did. “The first time I met your mom,” he’d tell us, “I knew right away she was my match.” My mother would shrug.

While she was in grad school, she knew a young man interested in dating her. He was from Taiwan and nice enough, but he was studying to be a social worker.

“A social worker!” my mother cried, appalled. “What kind of money could he make doing that?” She hadn’t come to the States to be poor like they were in Taiwan, a family of seven surviving on her father’s meager teaching salary.

My father’s career choice seemed stable, if not highly lucrative. Plus he was tall. Surely they’d have a lanky kid or two.

They married in 1969, two days after Christmas. To save money my mother borrowed her friend’s dress and they held the reception in a church basement. There was no music, but there was lots of food.

* * *

When I was a kid in New Jersey, my father would still play his guitar once in a while. It was the same one from California, only now with the edges held together with masking tape.

“I left it in the window during a hurricane,” he’d tell us woefully. “So stupid.”

He always played the same song, “Spanish Romance.” To this day whenever I hear it, I think of my dad.

My brother and I learned the piano. For years we banged our way through Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, till our parents were positively sick of whatever we were playing. They liked to watch musical variety shows: Lawrence Welk, Sonny and Cher, Donny and Marie, The Barbara Mandrell Show. I admired the Mandrell sisters because they could sing and play so many instruments – acoustic and electric guitar, lap slide guitar, the fiddle – except for the youngest who could only play drums.

None of us could carry a tune. I wasn’t bad in music class, but failed as a soloist, despite my wanting more than anything to be able to sing like the girls in Annie. My parents sometimes warbled Chinese songs as they did housework, but mostly kept their operatic pursuits to themselves.

* * *

The first fight I ever witnessed between my parents was when I was four. Hearing yelling, I came into the kitchen and found my father eating alone, every dish of food upended on the floor.

“Where’s Mommy?” I asked.

“In the bathroom,” my father said, continuing to eat. (Why was he so insistent on finishing his meal? Was he that hungry, or just a creature of habit?) “Be good and watch TV.”

Later, unable to keep away, I tiptoed up to my parents’ room. It was dark and the bathroom door was shut. I heard my mother crying and my father whispering to her.

I don’t even know what the fight was about. My mother could be overly sensitive and prone to silent grudges, followed by explosive rants. My father could be stubborn and impatient.

Another fight is known as the Chicken Argument because my mother threw, in anger, a whole raw chicken at my father. Horrified, I promptly burst into tears.

Inevitably they fought at the mah-jongg table. Back then it was their main activity. They’d play almost every Saturday, well into the night. My mother was one of those annoyingly skillful players who didn’t care about winning, while my father played nervous and lost hand after hand. Needless to say, Mom liked mah-jongg while Dad didn’t.

Again, what they fought about, they only know. I only remember how embarrassed and uncomfortable I was, overhearing them and their playing partners trying to get my mother to calm down and my father to stop baiting her.

At that time, a commercial for a divorce lawyer often played on TV. At the end, the gray-haired man would say, “Isn’t it time for a change?”

“Maybe it’s time for a change,” my mother would intone darkly.

“No!” I’d cry. I had read It’s Not the End of the World and The Divorce Express. I didn’t want to be like those kids.

My father would remain silent, either having not heard, or choosing not to.

Much of his frustration was silent then. Once during an argument with my mother, he punched at the air three times, he who’d never raised a hand to anyone.

* * *

This isn’t to say my parents never got along. Sometimes they did, too well. Once I was woken in the middle of the night by a high piercing call. I was only twelve, but I’d seen enough Cinemax movies to know what it was, and lay there trying to fall back asleep as wave after wave of horror washed over me.

But it wasn’t over. At dinner the next day, my brother, who was nine, asked, “What was the matter with you last night, Mom? Did you have a stomach ache or something?”

Faces burning, my parents stared down into their rice bowls. I held my head in fresh dismay while my brother (the poor kid) pinked, realizing his mistake.

* * *

The worst fight my parents ever had was after a mah-jongg party. I was in college and had a friend over. We were sleeping when my mother started screaming.

I couldn’t understand her, except for curses like asshole (si pi yan) and prick (hun dan). She shrieked them over and over.

“What is that?” my friend asked from her sleeping bag.

“My parents are fighting,” I said hollowly. I was eight years old again, and my mother was throwing a raw chicken.

“Oh, that’s all,” my friend said, and went back to sleep.

To her it wasn’t a big deal, but to me it was like the end of the world.

The next morning I found out why they had been fighting. While they were playing, my mother began to sing along with the stereo. Soon, one of the other players, a man, joined her. Together they sang, his better voice masking hers. As they finished, my father said, in front of everyone, “Ai Li, you really shouldn’t flirt with him.”

Dead silence. Even the music on the stereo had stopped playing. Thankfully, the round ended and they had to mix the tiles, the roar drowning out everyone’s embarrassment.

For the rest of the evening, my mother didn’t speak to my father. He tried to joke with her, but she’d only murmur a response.

Afterward, in car rides home or that very morning, I’m sure people gossiped about what happened, the way they, and my parents, did whenever any drama ensued. Like the time a woman threw her chips at my mother, after losing yet another hand, or when another woman, rumored to have mental illness, accused someone of making eyes at her husband, then called her a cunt.

“He was just jealous,” I told my mother.

“That’s what he said,” she said, red-eyed. “He still shouldn’t have said that.”

Things seemed to worsen after my brother and I left for college. I couldn’t put my finger on it – an air of unhappiness, of tension. My father began staying home while my mother went to play. He’d mow the lawn, work on his paintings, or read. He’d play his guitar, “Spanish Romance,” again and again.

* * *

My last year in college, my parents started singing karaoke. “Give it a try,” their friends said one weekend. They had their own machine.

My mother did, badly yet unembarrassed. Then my father, more hesitant but better.

“You’re pretty good!” the friends said. “And you didn’t even practice.”

My father was pleased, gaining confidence as each person gave the mike a whirl, some not bad but most just awful.

“I still say you were the best,” the friend told my dad.

After the evening was over and my parents were driving home, my father turned to my mother and said, “Maybe we should get our own machine.”

“Maybe,” she said. She had seen him brimming with confidence, had noticed he was more open and talkative afterward. “I’m sure we can find an inexpensive one.”

After they had their own set-up, my father became a karaoke aficionado. They joined two clubs, and he took his practicing seriously. He sang a little every day while my mother waited till the last minute and rehearsed just hours before the get-together. My father liked both Chinese and American singers. His favorites were Bette Midler (“The Wind Beneath My Wings,” “The Rose”), The Carpenters (“Close to You,” “We’ve Only Just Begun”), and Sarah MacLachlan (“Angel”). Occasionally he sang a duet with my mother (“Endless Love”).

“I know I’m not the best,” he liked to say. “But I work hard.”

He was indeed one of the better singers. He didn’t overdo it with impossible-to-reach Celine Dion notes, or undero it by mumbling into the mike. He stayed within his range, sang modestly, and with feeling.

“Who’s that?” a childhood friend asked during a Christmas party at my parents’. “He’s pretty good.”

“That’s my dad!” I cried, beet-red, more embarrassed than proud.

How good, or bad, you were didn’t matter, only that you had tried. People would always cheer, and in that way, everyone was a winner.

* * *

My parents aren’t perfect. They still bicker occasionally; once in a while, my mother still explodes at some invisible slight.

But they’re better. They’re balanced. They both have something they’re good at.

Sometimes my father still sits out of mah-jongg, but often the parties have both mah-jongg and karaoke. He likes being the DJ, changing discs and adjusting volume and frequency as people take their turns. Sometimes they ask his advice.

He discusses voice techniques with my mother, who mostly nods, the way she did when he was teaching her guitar. Maybe she’s only pretending to listen, but it doesn’t matter. The music is still holding them together.

When your opponent is going to strike, and you are also going to strike, your body is on the offensive, and your mind is also on the offensive; your hands come spontaneously from space, striking with added speed and force. This is called Striking without Thought or Form, and it is the most important stroke. Learn it well.

-Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings

 

I don’t go to Las Vegas looking for a fight but I end up with three of them anyhow. I win the first two, but the final one, the most important one, is giving me trouble.

My opponent is older than me by at least fifteen years and built like a bear, thick in the torso with stout, strong limbs, but surprisingly fast. Twice now I’ve underestimated his quickness and paid the price for it. He’s good, cautious, refusing to commit to an attack that won’t succeed and maintaining a solid defense. Trying to go toe-to-toe with him is foolish, so I keep my feet moving, waiting for an opening to present itself. The score stands 2-1, his favor.

This is final match of the Black Belt Men’s Heavyweight division. Championship bout. My first competition in twelve years.

As a teenager I did well enough on the tournament circuit to be ranked 5th nationally in my weight class, but I “retired” after my first year of college, unable to maintain the rigorous training schedule necessary for regular competition. I came out to Vegas because the promoters are friends who offered to comp my hotel room if I served as a judge. Competition anywhere other than the gaming tables was not in my plans. But that was before I turned five bucks into two hundred playing blackjack, and on a whim I signed up in the morning, galvanized by a sense of good fortune. I expected to lose in the first round, and I’m surprised–and more than a little proud–to have made it this far, and I know that I’ve already scored a victory regardless of how the match turns out.

But that doesn’t mean I’m just going to let this guy roll over me. Oh, hell no.

If he wants that trophy, he’s damn well going to have to fight for it.

He is, however, giving as good as he’s getting, and maybe a little more on top of that. Though I’m the more flexible of the two of us, faster with my feet, I have to keep surrendering ground to maintain kicking distance, and every time I do he presses the attack. I block a flurry of punches but I’m trapped up against the edge of the ring, and he scores with a lunging thrust kick to my belt. 3-1.

Despite what may be shown in movies and in the UFC, sparring in a karate tournament is less about brute force and more about skill, finesse, and technique, and even open tournaments like this one have lately been cracking down on excessive contact violations. Lower division competitors win by being the first to reach three points, but for black belts it’s either the first to five or a three-point spread: 3-0, 4-1, 5-2. It’s one point for a shot to the body, torso or groin, two points for a more difficult headshot. There are five judges in the ring, and at least three of them must confirm a point for it to be valid.

My opponent retreats a bit, trying to lure me in the appearance of an easy point, but I hold back, controlling my breathing and waiting for a real opening. Most of his previous attacks have come over the top, taking advantage of his greater size and longer reach, but this time when he lunges in I switch-step into a right stance and pivot on my right leg, launching a spinning back kick with my left. It’s a risky move, one that leaves me largely defenseless, and if I’ve fudged the timing I’m going to get clobbered. But my foot slips right on up under his elbow to land solidly in against his rib cage, and the judges give me the point. 3-2.

One way or another, we’re going for five.

I’ve never felt more physically sure that I’m out of my twenties than I do now. The previous matches have taken their toll on me and I’m bone weary. My limbs ache in a way they never did when I was a regular competitor, and I’m sharply aware of the heaviness of my arms and the dull ache in my left thigh that will most certainly turn into a cramp tomorrow, of the nasty silicone taste of the mouthpiece enrobing my teeth and the way the sweat gathering on the bottom of my feet is costing me traction on the ring floor.

We both attack when the center judge gives the command to start, clashing together in a flurry of mish-mashed punches and chops, close enough to taste each other’s sweat, to hear each other gasping for breath and grunting with effort. It’s a clumsy, awkward hit, and neither of us scores any points.

When the judges start us again, I get too aggressive, too cocky, very nearly giving him a free headshot and ending the match. I get my block up just in time, but he still manages to land couple of shots to my solar plexus as I do. 4-2.

My opponent thinks he’s found a weakness. He throws a roundhouse kick to my groin, but it’s just an easily-blocked feint, a cover as he tries to come in with a backfist-punch combination to my head. Instead of raising my block again I sidestep forward and under his attack, landing a couple of quick jabs to his ribs while he strikes the air where my head used to be. 4-3.

I’m starting to feel like I might actually have a chance of winning this thing, but I clamp that feeling down. Fights are lost by indulging it.

We circle each other warily, throwing a couple of feints, trying to feel each other out, but not committing to an attack. My opponent doesn’t need to score anymore to win; he just needs that two-minute clock to run down and the match is his. I know there are only a handful of seconds left, and my energy reserves are reaching a critical low.

Heck with it, I think. You had your fun. Give ‘em a good show on the way out.

My opponent’s strategy has been solidly based on linear backwards/forwards progression, so I for my last attack I play the angles, feinting sideways into hard right stance, intending to transition to the left oblique across his line of attack and deliver a roundhouse kick to his undefended head as he takes the feint and tries to counter attack.

But as I make the switch my sweat-soaked right foot slips forward as though it’s just come down on a stray skateboard, hard enough to make the muscles attached to my hip groan and throwing my weight forward instead of at the angle. I stumble, completely open and undefended, and my opponent moves to take advantage.

I’m screwed. My balance is shot and there’s no way to regain it in time to get my defenses up. And with out any traction available on the ring floor there’s no way to resist as my own center of gravity carries me forwards.

So I go with it. With all my weight balanced precariously on my right, I kick up and out with my left, aiming for the one target zone available.

It’s beautiful. Practically a moment of Zen.

My foot curves up and around like an inverted smile, whipping back into a perfect hook kick to my opponent’s unguarded head. It’s the kind of shot that gets the slow motion treatment in a movie, the physical equivalent of tossing my last five dollars down on a blackjack table and walking away with two hundred. It stops him in his tracks.

The judges’ decision is unanimous: two points to me for the win. 4-5

My left shoulder hurts, my ribs ache, I’ve pulled a calf muscle and wrenched both my right foot and right knee when I scored that final kick.

Damn it feels good.

When the police arrive at my Bat Mitzvah, I know the whole special day thing is kind of a wash.

It seems the “Marks,” as in Feingold and Lubell, had taken the personalized soda glasses filled with jellybeans, that my mother and I had so diligently prepared, and decided it was a good idea to sneak out onto an unused balcony at the hotel with said jellybeans and pummel arriving guests. I stand there with the gnawing knowledge this could not be good for me socially and watch as the boys in blue saunter into the Sheraton’s banquet parlor. This is my first adult life lesson as a newly anointed woman. Just when you think things can’t get any worse…

It starts out promising enough. Young girl on the brink of womanhood embarks on a religious tradition that will educate her about her culture and past, energize and bond her family, and set a path for a monumental and well-prepared future. It had all the makings of special.

Hebrew school isn’t anything my mother ever pushed. It is just the two of us, us two girls, since my father died. We are independent, worldly, and quite sophisticated, most recently having returned from a whirlwind trip through the Greek Isles, from Knossos to Santorini. Demanding I have a knowledge of Ashkenazi versus Sephardic is a little too traditional for my mother at the time. We are the reformed of the Reform, which means we live on the Upper West Side and enjoy Annie Hall.

My mother grew up in quite an observant home, lighting candles every Shabbat, being married in a synagogue, eating brisket weekly. But when it came time for her daughter’s religious upbringing, choice was what mattered most. And what matters most to me is I think lighting Hanukah candles with pot holders on our heads is a little silly. Not my thing.

But then Laura Silverstone had to go and sign up at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue. I know we can walk to and from Hebrew school every Monday and Wednesday. I like Laura a lot, ever since we were at Seder together and I stumbled across a word I did not know while reading aloud from the Haggadah and we conferred and together decided it was pronounced syn-o-goo-gy. She is cool, so it must be cool, and besides, she said, at our Bat Mitzvahs, we’d probably get a lot of money.

So I am in. I learn a whole new alphabet and pretty soon don’t need vowels. Our rabbi goes on Live at Five and debates with Mayor Koch or Al Sharpton. Our teacher was in the Israeli army. She would wax poetic about the art of holding an Uzi. And wouldn’t you know it, Hebrew school turns out to be cool.

I find myself wandering through the halls of the temple, awed by its beauty, feeling a sense of belonging and a strange pride. As I do, I smile, knowing I carry a biblical name. Rachel. Sister of Leah. Wife of Jacob. Mother of Joseph. Died in childbirth. Tragedy. That should have been a clue.

It is decided that following my Bat Mitzvah ceremony, immediate family will be invited to traipse across the street from the temple to lunch at Tavern on the Green, followed by a big party for kids with a D.J. and all the fixings later that night. This requires two outfits. I decide on a cream-colored Esprit sweater dress for day and a bright, white lace dress with a little swish to it for the night. It is to be a very simple affair, despite Tavern on the Green on the roster.

But throughout all of it, we try not to let the celebration take center stage over the serious reasons for the ritual. At our temple we are encouraged to participate in twinning, a process where we are jointly Bat or Bar Mitzvahed for a Russian Jew, since, in those days, they weren’t allowed to practice their religion. I write my twin Maria often, chronicling the planning of the party, the classes to prepare, and the rowdy Spin-the-Bottle parties that are taking place. But my letters are always returned to me. No matter. I know and God knows.

And then the invitations are sent. This is where the trouble begins.

My Aunt Debbie and Uncle David are at the top of the guest list. Debbie works at Bloomingdale’s as a buyer. Because of her I got to model in some of their fashion shows. Under flashing lights and pounding music I made my way down the runway in a blue blazer and matching kilt, a red beret, and Mary Janes. I hit my mark, all eyes on me, held my head up high and turned perfectly on cue. Rumor had it Bette Davis was in the audience that night, though I didn’t know who she was, but I heard she was famous, so that’s cool. The whole thing had been a blast and that shining moment up on stage – “All About Rachel” – was how I always felt when Debbie was around.

Her husband, David, my mother’s brother, is also all neon and highlighted for me. David plays the guitar and is really good at it, and is driving a cab until he gets to be a rock star. Each November the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving he wakes me up at two in the morning and drags me all groggy and sleepy to 77th and Columbus where they prepare the balloons for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. This is our annual ritual. He manages in those wee hours to make me feel as if we are the only two people in all of New York City to have ever seen such a thing. The night, the holiday, Central Park, the Museum of Natural History, even the Big Bird balloon – it is all ours. Our little secret.

Debbie and David, I adore them both. Problem is, they don’t adore each other anymore. They decide to divorce right before my Bat Mitzvah, and my mother and I make the unwise decision of inviting Debbie without clearing it with David.

Oy.

Somewhere in here aliens must snatch my mother and uncle’s appropriate genes and the flood gates open for a battle. All sibling issues never dealt with for many decades come pouring out and vomit all over my Bat Mitzvah. They stomp their feet. They whisper behind each other’s backs. They shout in each other’s faces. They rehash old wounds and carve out new ones. All conversations deal with how wretched the other is and my mother must only see little David heads everywhere she looks for how often even the simplest activity turns into a diatribe against ungrateful, not-as-accomplished, must-be-crazy-with-jealousy-younger-brothers!

When I dare to inquire about something else, say a photographer for my special day, my mother mumbles something about, “Why don’t we ask David?” Defeated with the weight of all unhappy thirteen-year-olds on my shoulders, I answer a simple, “Never mind.” Subsequently, I have no photographs of my Bat Mitzvah other than a few pictures of me in my sweater and lace dresses standing against a bare wall in my living room.

My grandmother sits at our dining room table too sad to control her battling children. My mother “loses” her glasses, which are actually on her head, for the third time that day. She is also about to accuse someone, anyone, of eating her bagel, which she herself has just finished. I sit there across from my grandmother as if I am watching a show – in cahoots with her as the only normal people left in the world.

How I wish I were my Russian twin! Standing in the snow barefoot, wearing a babushka, waiting hours for bread would probably be easier than this. I wonder then if I could ship my family off to Siberia as opposed to listening to them squabble over who gets to lunch at Tavern on the Green.

In my head I am a hysterical mess equaling my mother’s antics of screaming and shouting. Hello! Thirteen-year-old girl here! Brink of womanhood, not just there yet. Still a child. No breasts, nothing! Here we are planning my becoming-an-adult event and there’s not one among us! You’re my role models? You’re my blueprint for the future? I’ve searched far and wide and the answer to all of this mishigas is for you all to keep it from me. Keep me sheltered! I know it’s not very cosmopolitan, but LIE!!!!

And they do.

On the day of the Bat-Mitzvah they are all happy faces and smiles for everyone else’s benefit. This is the day everyone acts all gracious and friendly. This is the day they protect me from the ills of family battles. This is the day, but not the six months leading up to it.

David and Debbie are even late to lunch, since they’d run off giggling after the ceremony to get me a gift together. So now I am monumentally confused, momentarily thrilled, and most likely permanently scarred.

So I try to go with it and enjoy the day. Maybe this is my gift from God for being such a good girl through the whole ordeal. But then the D.J. at the party that night has to go and play some “dance games.” He instructs us all that “the Bat Mitzvah girl” (that’s me) will dance solo with the guy/guys of her choice. Every time the music stops I have to pick someone new to dance with. Has the D.J. no concept of 13? Can he not see the this-is-my-side, that-is-their-side dynamics of the room?

I start off easily enough with my stepfather, and, when the music stops, and all eyes are on my next choice, I miraculously find myself next to Laura’s dad, Mr. Silverstone. He and I cut a rug as I worry about the dwindling adult male population I have to choose from. Then, like the parting of the seas, I spot my grandmother’s boyfriend, who is literally named Moses, and I feel safe, for I know David is out there somewhere, too.

There is no way I am asking a boy from my school to dance. Not after I followed Mark Lubell around at last month’s Friday night school fling reminding him that he said he’d dance with me, only to hear another song start and end and only to see him continue to duck me. I grow worried for I am about to reenter stepfather territory and the D.J. is making waves about the rules of the game and all eyes are on me and then there seems to be a hubbub on the other side of the room. And that’s when the heat shows up.

I close my eyes in the middle of the dance floor to escape from the mess of the hall. I take a deep breath, not wanting to watch the police scold my mother for the jellybean hail making its debut in midtown, and quietly pray to myself that everyone will just go home and we can start all over again tomorrow.

Dear God,

If by chance a freak time zone accident shall occur and the early-to-mid part of 1985 needs to be rewound and therefore redone, please know this is what I would like to happen. Take notes and pay careful attention.

There will be no fighting; in fact no such word even exists. I will sing my haftorah portion with a voice that is a combination of Barbra Streisand, Marni Nixon and Madonna. Maria and her family in Russia can worship as they please. Everyone at school, camp, and the neighborhood will want to come, for I am the most popular girl for miles, and they will all want to dance with me. The New York Times will start a new Bat Mitzvah announcement section due to my popularity and I will be the first to grace its pages. McDonald’s fries and Burger King burgers, cotton candy, and Lucky Charms will be served and my mother will not complain about it. There will be pictures taken. Lots of them. The D.J. will not speak, not once. He will only spin records.

And God, if none of that is quite doable or requires too much planning, I’ll just take that my mom and uncle still like each other and also that my uncle and aunt like each other, too. And if that’s not possible and I can only ask for one thing, I’ll take that my father is there. (I know that requires rewinding all the way back to 1975, but I’m up for it.)

Anyway, thank you God for listening. Looking forward to getting to know you better. All the best, newly adulted and hoping to do you proud, Rachel. Sister of no one. Daughter of Jeff and Eileen. Wife and mother of as yet to be determined.

P.S. No jellybeans.

Lately, I’ve been having this urge: I want to start a fight.

I want to step inside the ring, look into the liquid abyss of my opponent’s eye, and kick some butt.

I want to approach her as if I’m going to tell her a secret, and then hit her with a roundhouse elbow.

I want to insult her mother.

I want her to hit me back for real.

I want to call out my demons one by one and see her face contort as they come forth.

I want to work up a lather.

I want to start a fight club.

I want to pull her hair and call her a cheater. A lowlife. A yellow bellied marmot.

The first rule of fight club is you do not talk about fight club.

I would break that rule.

I want her to act all huffy with me, like she has no idea what I’m talking about. But she does. She knows all about it. The pussy.

I want to run up the front of her body and do a back flip off her chest.

I want to observe spittle as it flies through the air, catching the light into a rainbow of death from the one uncovered florescent bulb above us.

I want to feel the satisfaction of watching her struggle to get up, and flop back down like a fish.

I want her friends to come running to her defense. I would take them all one by one. Two at a time. Three for three.

I want to send them flying like they did in ancient China.

I want to strain a muscle.

I want to be able to feel it the next day.

I want to make strange noises at the back of my throat and have my speech come out at a different pace than my lips.

I want to wax on wax off and paint the fence simultaneously.

I want to bust out of the ring and out through the doors. Head on down the street. Rough up an evil punk dressed up as a businessman talking on his cell phone. And an elderly woman. But the elderly woman would be an accident. I would help her back up.

I want to feel the horrified gaze of strangers as they watch the bodies hit the sidewalk all around me.

I want to be surrounded by a team of professionally trained men in black at gunpoint. I would level them all with a single, all-encompassing chi bomb.

I want to then run down an alley, where I would take on a posse of Shaolin monks-gone-bad, who jump me from behind a dumpster. The last one standing would beg me to teach him my arcane arts. I would refuse.

I want to sleep with one eye open and sense anyone approaching within a two-mile radius.

I want to sew up a wound on my shoulder using a rusty needle and thread in the privacy of my sparsely decorated studio apartment.

I want to drink milk from the carton and harbor a runaway.

I want to give birth while running for the train.

I want to taste blood in the back of my throat; feel the sting of scratches at my neck.

I want to face Death and make him beg for mercy.

…Or I could eat some dark chocolate and call it good.