Mark didn’t like how Ted and Thomas were sparring. It’s not that their technique was off. Ted was striking in neat, controlled combinations, his head bobbing and weaving to avoid Thomas’s counter punches. It was something else: the intensity needed to be cranked up. Mark wanted to see them hit with some gusto. But, he wasn’t overseeing their training. Itradit, another instructor at Morris’s MMA School, was. Itradit circled around the two students in his brightly colored shorts, barking criticisms.
Mark turned his attention back to his friend Chad Morris, who stood beside him talking to today’s guest speaker: a kind-faced, bull of a man named Chuck Thompson. Chad was welcoming Mr. Thompson. “It’s an honor to have you at our school, Mr. Thompson. I think self-defense will be a nice change of pace for the students.”
“Call me Chuck. And yeah, it’s a change of pace for me too. I usually don’t work with experienced martial artists—I mostly do civilian and law enforcement seminars.” He glanced over at the room full of training students. “They’ve got the hitting and choking stuff down, I see.”
Mark followed his gaze. Thomas and Ted were still going at it. All along one side of the room, students beat on heavy pads that hung from the ceiling. Two womenin sweat-stained Gi’s grappled in the corner in a tangle of hair and limbs. Mark smiled, feeling at home.
Chuck said, “Well, let’s get started then, eh?” Grinning, he and held up a little rubber knife, surprising Mark, who could have sworn that the man’s hands had been empty. The big stranger walked onto the mat.
Mark hated when Chad did this sort of shit–surprising him with random guest instructors. Last month it’d been a Kung Fu guy. Before that, it was a guy who taught cane fighting. Mark could honestly say that he was only truly happy when he was working, and to have his happy place intruded upon like this was annoying. “What the fuck is the knife for?” he muttered into Chad’s ear, watching Chuck shake hands with Itradit.
“A surprise,” Chad said, smiling like an asshole. “Don’t worry about that. Worry about dinner. Are you still down to go to Jim’s tonight?”
“I guess. I mean…” Mark wanted to go, but he was broke. He’d need to make up the cash elsewhere. Maybe he could walk to work tomorrow, and save a little gas money.
“C’mon, man, you said you’d go!”
“Yeah, yeah alright.”
Mark looked away, only to see Chuck actually whisper something into Itradit’s ear. Their Muay Thai instructor burst into laughter, nodding vigorously. Apparently everybody was in on Chuck’s plan.
Chad stopped everyone’s training, and announced that it was time for their monthly seminar. They gathered around. Mark, though wary, was still looking forward to this. He had heard that Chuck was pretty well known in the self-defense community, and didn’t doubt the man’s skill.
Chuck began by smiling, his face radiating approval. “You guys are all pretty damn good fighters,” he said. “I bet any one of you could beat me up.”
This was met with some chuckles, and a few earnest nods. This wasn’t some little McDojo. No, Morris was a champion fighter, and he hired the best instructors, all of whom had competitive experience. This included Mark, who was proud to train with so many talented fighters. He had always loved martial arts, eventually settling on MMA because of the full-contact, competiveness of it.
“But really,” Chuck continued, “It’s true! I’m not here to teach you how to fight.” He rolled his eyes. “This might sound dramatic, but I want to teach you how to survive. Not in the ring, but on a street, or in a bar, or—Hell—even on a bus.”
Ted, his shirt sweat-stained and disheveled, chuckled with the rest of the students.
Chuck looked at Ted as if he had just distracted him from something very important. “I’m sorry?” he said, sounding irate.
Ted looked around, not sure if Chuck was talking to him.
Chuck was definitely looking at Ted. “Did I make a joke, is that why you’re laughing?”
Mark wanted to say something, but hesitated, not sure if Chuck was joking. Ted still didn’t look sure that Chuck was talking to him. He shrugged after an awkward second.
“Oh, you’re a smart little shit. You’re fucking hilarious.” He jabbed a finger at Ted’s chest. “Lean some fucking respect!” He shoved Ted back, then stabbed him with the rubber knife, one hand grabbing his shirt and the other thrusting mercilessly. Ted, after a long deer-in-headlights moment, grabbed Chuck’s head and pulled it in towards him, trying to gain some semblance of control with a clinch. But Chuck just kept on stabbing, ignoring Ted’s grapple. After a few seconds Ted just led go, realizing his simulated murder.
Mark just stood there, staring. The rest of the student body sat or half-stood, ready to interfere, with open mouths and wide eyes. Apparently Chad was now paying people to stab their students.
Chuck pat Ted’s shoulder good naturedly. “Sorry,” he said, out of breath. “Just making a point.”
Ted nodded and went to sit down with the other students, though he still looked a little pissed. But, after a few seconds, Mark noticed him whispering, joking, and laughing with the students around him. Ted was a good egg–a diligent student with a good sense of humor. Itradit must have told Chuck to go after him, rather than, say, Mark, who probably wouldn’t have taken things so lightly.
Chuck went on speaking. “Alright, alright. I think you get the point: People don’t always squre off and declare their wish to duel you honorably in single-combat. There are assholes out there, like myself, who like to fucking yell at people and stab them without warning. So, we’re going to learn how to deal with those sorts of assholes…”
The next hour was spent learning everything but fighting. The one point that Chuck kept coming back to was that violence must be avoided at all costs. “Violence is nasty, and brutal,” he said. “People die because of it. I’ve lost friends because of it. And, frankly, you don’t fucking need it. You can stay in control without even touching the other guy.”
Mark found this ironic, coming from Chuck, who had just stabbed Ted to death.
On the drive back to his girlfriend’s apartment that afternoon, Mark reflected on Chuck’s lesson. It was true that he got into a lot of fights—situations that Chuck would have termed “mutually aggressive” because Mark could have avoided them. But Chuck’s standards were high; Mark wasn’t about to just run away from somebody who wanted to fight, especially if winning the fight was the simplest way to solve the problem. Plus, the other guy was usually a huge asshole.
For example, a few weeks ago he was at Jim’s Bar and Grill when a kid wearing shorts two sizes too big for him and a baseball hat facing the wrong way sauntered up. Mark hadn’t said two words to the kid—hadn’t even looked at him. But apparently he’d been “Starin’ at him funny” while he was eating his dinner. He had also apparently been “A pansy ass bitch, Mr. Tough Guy with his fuckin’ MMA shirt.” Mark should have changed after work—MMA themed clothing had gotten him into situations like this before–but who was he to let other people’s need to be big, strong tough guys dictate what he wore? Mark wasn’t one to start fights, but this guy honestly needed an ass-beating. He kept shouting slurred curses, and even spat on him. Finally, after, ignoring the bartender’s threat to call the cops, he’d shoved Mark, which was exactly what Mark wanted. He’d jumped off his bar stool and tackled Mr. Drunk Asshole to the ground, then scrambled for a secure mount and punched him in the face until the kid rolled over into a little, ball underneath him.
In retrospect, Mark guessed that he might have failed to live up to Chuck’s standards, but what else could he have done? Besides, the face that the guy made while his friends were helping him stand up was priceless. It was a lovely cocktail of surprise, disbelief, and anger, with a little spritz of blood. Mark couldn’t help but laugh when the guy, staggering out of the bar, past a little crowd of surprised patrons, shouted “You’ll be sorry you fucked with me!”
Mark walked into Jess’s apartment pleasantly sore from the day’s activities. He never really liked leaving work, but it felt nice to come back home feeling a little sore.
“I’m back!” he announced, hoping that Jessica wasn’t home. He wanted to have a beer and stare at the TV for a little bit; to just relax. Jess didn’t like it when he drank, and out of respect for her he didn’t do it when she was around. She had told him that her mother had had an alcohol problem. The last thing he would have wanted to do was bring those memories back, though he did want a beer.
Jessica shouted from the bedroom, “In here!”
He felt a pang of disappointment. What he saw when he walked into the bedroom didn’t give him cause for joy, either. Jessica was sitting on the bed, frowning. A laptop absorbed all of her attention, her fingers pecking angrily at the keyboard.
“Hey, how was Kung Fu today?” she asked. Her narrowed eyes were attracted to the screen like mosquitoes to a bug zapper.
“Good,” he replied, bracing himself. He crossed to the dresser to change out of his work clothes. Maybe she was just doing some left-over work. She was a recently hired lawyer for a well-to-do law firm, which meant lots of work.
She closed the laptop, giving him her attention. “Honey, Mark, I love you…”
“But, I just finished paying a shit-load of bills, and I’ve got a lot of extra money in the bank.”
“Well, yeah,” she hesitated, much like Ted had done when he first saw Chuck’s knife. “But it’s not enough, Mark. Not enough for a house, or a kid. You remember what we talked about, right?”
He remembered. Jess had let him know that she wanted to take everything further. She’d been mentioning a house, getting married, kids, a puppy, and a generally happy, settled life with increasing frequency over the past few months. And Mark had to admit that those things were starting to sound appealing. He said, “Chad gave me some more classes. That’s a little more money.” He saw Jess roll her eyes, and realized how pitiful that sounded. “I know, it’s not enough.”
But it had never been enough. His parents had been poor, barely making enough to pay for the trailer he’d grown up in. That life hadn’t been the best, but it was bearable. Things became unbearable after his dad lost an arm in a freak factory accident, which meant that it was up to him and his mother to pay for everything. And they just couldn’t, no matter how hard they worked, or how many jobs they had, they were always one or two bills behind. His parents had died, both from cancer at around the same time, and Mark hadn’t been able to do a thing about it.
He swallowed. Sitting in front of him was the person he most loved in the world, and here he was unable to give her what she wanted. He remembered the helplessness that he had felt while growing up. It was like stumbling into the ocean’s shallows and being pulled away by the current. All your flailing around was for nothing.
He said he would work on it. Maybe save up some money to go to school and study something.
He met Chad and Itradit at the bar later that evening. He was surprised to see Itradit there. The man, who they had literally imported from Thailand so their students could have an authentic Muay Thai instructor, wasn’t a big fan of alcohol. Itradit shook Mark’s hand. “Chad say the food here good,” he explained, his accent very thick. “I no drink, just eat. You, though drink?”
“Only occasionally,” Mark replied, ordering a beer and a sampler platter. “And not so much tonight. I’ve got to teach the morning class tomorrow.” He grimaced at Chad.
Chad reached across Itradit to poke him in the chest with a fry. “You should thank me for that! You wanted more money, so I gave you more teaching time.”
“Yeah, yeah I know. I’m grateful, too. Jess’s been nagging me about money.”
“Well, your lady’s been nagging you with good reason,” Chad said. “I mean, you’re not making much, despite the generous salary I provide.” He sat there in silence, mulling something over. “You know,” he said, “there’s really not much that you can do with MMA as far as money goes.”
Itradit chimed in. “You fight,” he declared. “You teach maybe too, after fighting.”
Mark was well aware of this. “I’ve considered competing professionally,” he admitted, “but I’m not good enough. Not enough to do it and make good money, anyway.”
Itradit shook his head. “No, you good fighter.”
Chad agreed, sipping a beer. “You’re pretty damn good, Mark. And ruthless, too. That’ll get you far in the cage, man—that kind of aggression and determination. Trust me. I was too careful when I was competing. I was always afraid of getting hurt, or hurting the other guy. I didn’t get as far competitively as I should have because I lacked the aggression that you are lucky enough to have”
“Mark, have careful of aggression,” Itradit warned,. “It not always fix you problems. Cannot hit everything that is problem. I once make mistake of not separate fight and living. I living like I fight,” he frowned and stared down at his plate. “I hurt myself.” Itradit considered his fries and hotdog for a while. Suddenly he looked up, grinning. “Oh, and I break hand! I hit too hard! It happen, what, three time? Shit!”
They laughed and ate.
Chad excused himself to go to the bathroom, leaving Itradit and Mark alone. They paid for their meals, and Mark finished his second and last beer. Itradit poked Mark. “Hey,” he said, “you know guys there? Corner table?”
Mark glanced towards the back of the bar. Three men in shorts and t-shirts sat around a little table, laughing. One of them saw Mark looking and glared back, his smile gone. Mark held his gaze. Well what do you know; it was the drunken asshole that he’d beaten up not too long ago. The kid mouthed “What?” from across the room.
Mark shrugged in response, turning away. “I got into a fight with one of them a while ago.”
Itradit frowned. “He not looking happy.”
No, he did not look happy. Mark didn’t want to have to deal with the kid again—he’d already won that fight. He didn’t think the guy would start anything, not here, and not after what happened last time. What was the kid going to do, get hit in the face again?
He could have a weapon, though. Mark remembered how Chuck had stabbed Ted, easily overwhelming him. He’d poked him, what, fifteen times before stopping? Ted hadn’t even known the knife was there until it was out, and by then it was too late. “Well, we were gonna leave anyway,” Mark said, standing up to put his coat on. Chad returned from the bathroom.
“Leaving without me?”
Itradit laughed. “Yes. There angry man here. Over in corner, so we run away now.”
“You mean those guys? The ones that are walking out?”
Mark didn’t like the sound of that. He looked over to see the kid leaving. They made eye contact again, though now the kid’s face was unreadable. “Yeah. Fuck. I got into a fight with one of ‘em not too long ago and he still seems upset.”
“Jeez, I guess you should have hit him harder.”
Chad was bad at resolving conflict. “Guess so. Let’s get out of here; I’ve got to wake up early tomorrow.”
They were half way to their cars when a voice behind them shouted “Hey!”
Mark turned to face the kid, who didn’t have a hat this time, though he still looked like a jerk. Mark couldn’t just ignore him. “I’m sorry?”
“Fuck you, man. Don’t pretend like you don’t remember me.” He stood with his hands in his pockets. They were bunched into angry, little fists.
Mark hadn’t meant to pretend to not know the guy. He just couldn’t think of anything to say to someone who was so clearly a belligerent drunk. Mark really did not want to fight this person again, though he could easily take him. It would be a massacre, between him, Chad, and Itradit. But violence was chaotic and deadly—Chuck had said so earlier today, and Mark had agreed. People could fall and get their heads stomped on. The small, fragile bones of a person’s hand could shatter on impact with the hard skull. Ankles can twist, or people could get kicked hard enough in the balls that they smash. Weapons could appear out of pockets, or be picked up; and weapons could kill. The thought of one of his friends getting hurt scared him. What if he got hurt and couldn’t work anymore? He thought of Jess. He noticed that his hands were trembling slightly, and that his chest was tight with anxiety. Christ, what was he supposed to say? Why were this guy’s hands still in his pockets?
“What, not so fucking tough now? You fucking pussy.”
“Chill out, man.” Chad said. “What the fuck’s your problem?”
“Fuck off, your friend’s my problem,” the kid shot back.
Mark’s throat was dry. He remembered what Chuck had said earlier about posturing and creating loopholes. He knew he couldn’t scare this guy away by talking tough, but maybe he could give him an out. He swallowed, and then put his hands up, but this time it was a peaceful gesture, his palms facing out. “Hey man I’m not looking to start shit. I’m just going home.”
“Really? Was that what you were thinking last time? I guess you thought you’d take a pit-stop between here and your house to kick my ass, huh?” He pulled his left hand out of his pocket, unsheathing a middle finger. “Fuck you!” He turned his finger on Itradit “And fuck your spic friend!” He hesitated, now glaring at Chad. “And fuck Giggles over there!”
Chad had started giggling when the kid called Itradit a spic. Mark did not appreciate his friend’s sense of humor. “Listen, I’m sorry about last time, all right?” He was earnest, too. Hitting this guy hadn’t been worth it. “All right?”
The kid had been expecting another fight, not this. He hesitated, and Mark thought that they’d be able to avoid violence. But no, he wasn’t getting off that easily. “Go fuck yourself, with your ‘sorry’.” He spat on mark’s chest, then took a menacing step forward.
Mark took two steps back. It felt like hours passed between each footfall. Mark wasn’t going to give the kit the luxury of another step. “Seriously dude. I don’t wanna fight.”
The kid stared death at Mark, and they locked eyes. He thought he saw Chad’s mouth move, but he didn’t hear anything. He was trying desperately to give the little fucker a loophole—a chance to avoid fighting. Then he realized that the kid didn’t want to fight, either. He would have just fucking hit him if that was the case.
He threw the staring contest, and felt his assailant’s gaze burn into his forehead.
He could hear the kid’s teeth grinding together. “Fuck you then. Walk away you pussy. Run away like a little bitch.”
And the kid just stood there, with his head held high and a little sneer of triumph on his face. Mark had a change of heart, then. He wanted to hit him. It’d be so easy. He could just take a few steps forward and kick the little shit right off his fucking feet. Maybe he’d even let the guy stand up again, but it’d just be so that he could throw him right back down—right into the pavement. He could be the one standing there like he owned the whole fucking world. Instead, he was slinking off like a kicked dog, helpless and whining.
He glanced at Itradit and Chad, who had backed off with him. Chad looked like he wanted to fight; he was smiling, like this was all a joke and the punch line was just a few seconds away. Itradit, however, was calmly looking at Mark, waiting.
“Alright, I’m going,” he said, backing towards his car.
Chad shrugged, his smile fading, and walked to his car without looking back. Itradit walked with him, glancing over his shoulder at Mark to give him an approving look. Mark got into his car, and watched as the assholes stalked off, the kid’s lackeys patting him on the shoulder and grinning like idiots. They disappeared into a bright red convertible and sped off.
Mark sat in his car, resting his head on the steering wheel. This ‘conflict-avoidance’ shit was stressful, but it felt good to have pulled it off. It felt good to be in control.