– Fierce Fiction by Andrew Calderone –
I was an outsider within the ropes. The Kru called me white boy. He said true Muay Thai fighters were born in Thailand. I was grateful for the motivation and said as much with ardent kicks to the pads he held. Every dime I earned by way of combat back home afforded me the chance to study at Kru Chaiya’s gym. His discouragement let me know he saw my potential.
The belts I won across North America meant nothing compared to victory at Lumpinee Boxing Stadium in Bangkok. Realizing that dream was a few short weeks away. To win on such hallowed ground would give meaning to my many sacrifices. Chaiya was kept in the dark about who I was scheduled to fight. The boxing commission was yet to draw names for the undercard. Kru Chaiya pushed the uncertainty from my mind, saying my greatest opponent lied within.
“Harder,” the Kru yelled in thunderous cadence.
My legs were numb from driving flesh and bone into the worn-out equipment my teacher wore. Each kick aimed at Kru Chaiya’s ear was met by tired protective gear. Mirrors lined the long gym wall and I watched the dance my teacher led around the ring. Kru Chaiya guided my movements, coaxing out a rhythm in the combination of knees and elbows I threw at his padded targets. The three-minute buzzer sounded to simulate the end of a round. I dropped my guard in exhaustion, only to be hit hard across the head by my teacher’s heavy pad. A high-pitched ring filled one ear, a reminder to leave my hands up until long after the bell.
Sound returned on my way back to the corner of the ring. I heard the quick ticking of skipping ropes nicking the floor. Other fighters whined and breathed heavy as they trained all around me. Infamous fights were immortalized on posters hanging from low rafters. Being on the undercard of the main event, there were no advertisements around Bangkok with my face on them. Anonymity waited to play ally or enemy in the ring. The suspense made me sweat all the more.
I rest my gloves on the ropes and dropped my head. Instinct heightened my senses in a state of fight or flight. The odour of a dozen other sweaty pupils hung thick like the shoulder season humidity awaiting outside the gym. Equipment used over decades gave off an acidic smell, not unlike the poorly maintained urinals in the locker room. I retreated within myself until a profound thud made my eyes go wide. The boxers throughout the gym were likewise stunned by the source of reverberating power. On one of the heavy bags suspended from the ceiling, a fighter drove a foot into the stuffed leather with a force to be aspired to. Her form was perfect, delivering a wealth of harnessed energy with a precision to be envied by any martial artist. Her hair was pulled back from her face in a ponytail. She wore a powder-blue sports bra and matching boxer shorts. Her bruised and bronze legs went on forever.
“Who is that?” I asked my Kru before he removed his pads to pour water into my mouth.
“My daughter,” Chaiya replied. My enthusiasm was too unfettered. He dumped the rest of the bottle out on my head and I thought he might give me another cuff on the ear.
Fighting demands an intimate relationship with fear. Some boxers convert their trepidations into fuel. Others find terror too corrosive to let in. I was without doubt whenever I stepped into the ring, but waiting outside Kru Chaiya’s gym for his daughter to appear had me jittery.
The wraps we all wore beneath our gloves were still on her hands when she stepped onto the street. There was no locker room for women in the gym. Sweat soaked through her sports bra. My sleeveless shirt was damp too. I touched her moist arm to stop her from walking right past me. She turned as if ready to throw a punch at my jaw.
“Sorry. I’m Nate,” I said, wincing in case she followed through with her cocked fist.
“Are you the Canadian?” She dropped her guard and tucked a strand of black hair behind her ear.
“What gave me away?”
“You opened with an apology and none of the Americans talk to me.”
“A few reasons, but mostly they’re just afraid of my dad.”
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t.” I peeked my head through the open gym door to see if the Kru was coming out. “I had to talk to you though.”
“I’ve never seen someone do that to a heavy bag before, not to mention how you looked doing it. What’s your name?”
“Tida,” she said. In the heat, I couldn’t decipher if her cheeks were flushed from the workout or if I’d managed to make her blush. Tida batted her long eyelashes and glanced over my shoulder into the gym. “My dad’s coming. He’ll kill me too if he sees us. He doesn’t like me talking to his fighters outside the gym.”
“How about texting?” I asked, pulling my phone from my duffle bag.
Without a word, Tida snatched the phone, tapped away on the screen, and tossed it back at me. Before I could say one thing more, she shoved me in the chest to send me on my way.
I sent her a message the moment I got back to the dorm where the other international fighters lived. Part of my training fees paid for a bunk in a shitty hostel in the shadow of Lumpinee Stadium. The guys wrestled around, drank, and talked shit until late at night. I laid on my bunk with the blue glow of my phone suspended over my face, anticipating Tida’s replies like trying to foresee where another fighter’s swing might land.
We exchanged messages every night after training. Boxing was the constant topic of conversation, the strategy, respect, and philosophy behind the blood sport that encompassed our shared nature. I told her the small town I hailed from in rural Ontario never truly felt like home. Tida had to type the name into Google and zoom in repeatedly to find it on a map. I had to do the same with the village where Tida was born. Bangkok welcomed what was undesirable elsewhere, but we both felt most comfortable in the ring, enclosed in protective rope.
The night before my fight, I experienced a peace I’d only known in the endorphin drunk of the later rounds, when pure instinct takes hold. Tida was finally able to escape from beneath her father’s thumb when Kru Chaiya left their house to help his brother move to an apartment on the outskirts of the city. Chaiya wouldn’t allow his daughter to risk fatigue with her fight coming up. Tida snagged the keys to the gym and told me to meet her there.
We sat opposite each other in the ring. It was the first time I’d seen her with her hair down, wearing something other than fight gear. She wore a tank top, denim shorts, and flipflops. Without the other dank bodies in the gym, I could smell the coconut-lime moisturizer that glistened on her skin in the bright light above us.
“Your mom didn’t notice you left?” I said, trying to find a seated position that made me look confident and attractive.
“She teaches night classes at the university.” Tida sat cross-legged, her posture perfect, like a painter’s depiction of a martial artist. “I can’t stay long. My dad will be home soon.”
“I had to talk to you in person before my fight.”
“Do you know who you drew in the tournament?”
I shook my head, embarrassed that the commission didn’t think my fight worth promoting.
“My dad feed you that line about your greatest opponent living within?” Tida smiled, which made me more nervous than the sound of the starting bell.
I nodded, resisting the urge to find humour in the Kru’s teachings.
“What do you weigh?”
“One-forty-six and a half. I had my weigh-in today.”
“Me too. We’re in the same class. We could wind up fighting each other.”
“But you’ll be fighting another girl.”
“Kathoeys have to fight men.”
“What’s a kathoey?” I tripped over the word as I spoke. Silence followed.
“A trans woman before reassignment surgery.” Tida lowered her chin, her eyes focused and steady as if she were meeting me at the middle of the ring to start a bout. “That’s what they call us in Thailand.”
I was quiet a moment, unsure how to veil my ignorance.
“Just go if you want to.” Tida put her hand to the mat, about to stand. I held her wrist to keep her seated.
“We have a little more time before your dad comes back, don’t we?” Desperation rose to the surface of my voice. Whatever she was, I wanted to be close to her. Tida nodded and settled back into her warrior’s posture. She gazed at the mirror lining the wall, studying her reflection. I kept my eyes on her, trying to read her movements in attempt to memorize her every feature.
“I want to be a fighter like Nong Toom. Most of the men fight for money, or glory, or just because they like hitting people. Nong Toom fought for more.” Tida hardly moved, staring into her own eyes as if telling herself a story. Her resolve was infectious, her concentration was intoxicating. “Rajadamnern Stadium is the oldest in Bangkok. They wouldn’t even let women touch the ring before her. Then Nong Toom became a champion, with a top and make-up on.”
I lunged forward. Tida could see me coming in the reflection of the mirror. She turned, but not fast enough to shirk the kiss I planted with precision on her mouth. Recoiling slightly, caution filled Tida’s eyes and hot breaths passed in the narrow space between our lips. She grabbed my shirt and pulled my welterweight frame closer as her back touched the mat.
Years of experience taught me that trying to sleep the night before a fight was futile. Imagine the wakefulness that seized me after the bliss of Tida’s kiss. My eyes were wide open in the dark hostel dorm. The room was full of other fighters tossing and turning with visions of triumph pulsing through their finely tuned bodies. A buzz lingered in the room, my heart, and groin. I listened to the ceiling fan whir. The constant spinning served as a metronome for the combinations I threw at the faceless opponent awaiting behind my slowly closing eyes. I dreamed of fighting. I dreamed of Tida.
The boxers migrated to the stadium together on fight night. We were a herd of young men, lured to the stadium by the invented legends of our own abilities. I was among the few without fear, until I passed through the athlete’s entrance and saw Tida warming up with Kru Chaiya in the tunnel leading to the change rooms and arena. That’s when the conjured fantasy of my greatness began to dissipate. She humbled me with one look and I savoured the vulnerability I felt under her gaze. We bowed slightly to each other before I joined the other young men to wrap our hands in preparation for the evening of battle ahead. Tida was alone in getting ready, isolated from the rest of us.
Bouts proceeded throughout the night. Winners and losers returned to the same holding room. Doctors examined bloody faces and vacant eyes while the rest of us waited for our names to be called. I remained warm and ready, bouncing on my toes until Kru Chaiya finally approached me. His expression was grave. There was no worse fate than not getting the chance to compete. I was worried that was the news he carried.
“I can’t be in your corner,” my Kru said. He wouldn’t look me in the eye. He ran his fingers through his thinning hair. I’d travelled halfway round the world for his voice to be in my ear while I fought.
“Why not?” I was still bouncing on my toes, shaking out my limbs.
“You drew Tida.” His shifty eyes stopped once he spoke his daughter’s name. “I’ll get another Kru for your corners. I’ll be watching though.” We shared a knowing glance, an understanding spoken in silence. He searched my stare to find my affection for his daughter. “Will you fight her?”
I stopped bouncing, pounded my gloves together, filled my lungs with air, and nodded.
“Good man.” Chaiya put his hand on the back of my neck, pulling our foreheads together. I could smell the tobacco on his breath. “It’s her dream.”
We entered the arena at opposite ends. Tida wore a purple top on her walk to the ring. My chest was bare as I approached. The crowd was rowdy, shouting Thai cheers and insults I could only comprehend in tone. I wanted to talk to Tida, but I knew losing focus was the greatest insult I could pay my fellow fighter. She bent down beneath the ropes and stepped on the mat to a chorus of whistles and hollering. I stood in my corner, loosening my shoulders and hips for the dance we were about to perform. Our names were announced over the booming horde hailing the local girl making history. The bell tolled, we stepped to the middle of the ring, touched gloves, and the first round was underway.
About the Author – Andrew Calderone
Andrew Calderone is an author and filmmaker from Toronto, Canada. His latest novel, Fault Lines, is forthcoming in 2022 with AOS Publishing. Andrew wrote and directed the award-winning films Cold Is My Brother and Exit Interview (CBC). He has studied literature at University College Cork in Ireland, the University of the West Indies in Barbados, York University in Toronto, and is completing his MFA at the University of British Columbia’s school of Creative Writing.
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