When Val stepped into the ring it felt like coming home. All at once she was thirteen again, the roar of the women who’d gathered for Lara and Sam’s bachelorette party the same as the roar of the first crowd she’d fought in front of.
Fighting was something that was in Val’s blood. It had been since before she’d even started training in martial arts. Fighting in an arena was different though. She could be a showman. She could play to the crowd and sell hits that hadn’t landed with anywhere near enough force to knock her down. Performing was an art however, one that distanced her from the honest clarity a good fight offered.
The trouble was, no one wanted to see an honest brawl. They wanted exciting moments. They wanted a good back and forth between the fighters. If it looked like an even contest, a good pair of performers could send the audiences’ emotions on a rollercoaster like no other. A one sided slaughter though was boring for everyone involved.
From her corner, Val watched as Nike, her opponent, entered the ring. Val tried to judge from how the woman carried herself and how she approached the fight whether she was going to play along with a more theatrical bout for the crowd’s sake.
Nike climbed through the ropes and locked eyes with Val, sizing her up with a fire in gaze that told Val Nike was taking the fight seriously.
They had a few moments to prepare in their corners before the bell rang, and Val breathed, settling her mind into the state of relaxed awareness that a really good battle required.
That turned out to be the right tact to take as Nike came out swinging the instant the bell sounded.
She was taller than Val, but for as furious as her initial flurry of blows was, Nike didn’t commit herself to any of them. They were questions, asked in a language Val spoke fluently.
How far can you reach? the first punch asked.
How fast can you react? the second punch inquired.
Val responded with the standard Muay Thai answer of attacking the attacks, meeting Nike’s punches with ones of her own.
I can’t reach as far as you, but I’m faster, Val said with well timed blows to Nike’s arms.
The two danced apart after the initial fray.
You think you’re good enough to hang with me? Val’s posture and footwork asked, playful and taunting.
Try me, Nike responded with a posture that was all business and focus.
Ok, I will, Val said by lunging forward with a low kick to Nike’s legs. Val didn’t want to cripple her or end the fight early, so she pulled the force from the blow. That was a mistake.
No respect? Nike caught Val with a hard knee to the midsection, anger driving it in deeper as an exclamation point.
Oh, you want to play for real? Val’s smirk asked, after she recovered from the blow.
Prove you’re in my league or I don’t have any time for you, Nike said by unleashing a hail of close in blows.
She wasn’t holding back or going for theatrics. She threw her shots with enough force that if they landed they would have put Val on the mat. Even being able to defend against them required having the a well honed fighting mindset.
Where the pain from the first punch to connect would have rattled a new fighter and left them wide open to be obliterated, Val knew the right answer without thinking. She turtled up catching two blows on her arms and leaned into the assault, reducing Nike’s range of motion and opening the taller women up for a series of counter attacks that pushed the two of them apart.
Ok, let’s do this then, Val said with a series of short, hard strikes, not committing herself fully to any of them but rather using each one to bait out a response from her foe.
Nike was too cagey of a fighter to fall for that trap. She ranged outside Val’s reach, wary and ready for their next engagement.
They’d agreed on the terms of the battle in their first few exchanges, and demonstrated a little of their prowess to convince the other they were serious. Despite that, Nike still looked unconvinced that Val was really much of a threat.
You’ve got nothing, Nike said with a series of hard punches that brought her in close enough to unleash a brutally fast knee strike to Val’s ribs. The hits weren’t taunts, they weren’t focused on making Val mad or humiliating her. They were an assertion. Nike didn’t feel like playing around more than she had to, so she threw her blows to end the fight immediately.
Val blocked each of the attacks with counterstrikes targeting the limbs Nike extended.
Punch. Counter to the forearm.
Punch. Counter to the wrist.
Kick. Counter to the knee.
Val had been playing before, but in the face of Nike’s attacks, she got serious. Not deadly serious, and certainly not “call on magical aid” serious. The fight wasn’t a joke though, and it wasn’t about pretending. Nike demanded a real battle, and so Val honored that desire.
You’re fast, she said with a series of rapid strike that flashed around Nike’s body, targeting head, groin, and ribs. They weren’t individually decisive but even with Nike blocking them, the cumulative effect was considerable.
Out of respect for Nike’s strength and speed each of Val’s attacks snapped back to a defensive guard the instant after landing. She was fighting with the caution that someone who was facing a skilled foe would employ, landing hits that drove towards victory while at the same time foregoing risky openings, even when they were ones Nike hadn’t intended to leave.
For her part, Nike answered in kind.
You’re stronger than you look, she said, dancing away from Val’s blows rather than muscling through them.
You’re not afraid to take hits, Val said by giving Nike an opening that Nike had to pay for by absorbing a shot right across her temple.
Neither are you, Nike said with a trio of knee strikes that Val was able to diminish the force of by moving into them rather than trying to get away.
Good form, Val said.
Good balance, Nike said.
You’re looser than I expected, Val said.
I’m always loose when I’m fighting, Nike said. I love this stuff.
It’s the only time everything drops away and things just feel right isn’t it? Val asked.
Exactly, Nike said.
That’s why you don’t like fooling around in a fight isn’t it? Val asked
Yeah, I hate when people don’t take it seriously.
Because they’re not taking you seriously?
Nah, I don’t care what anybody thinks about me, Nike’s footwork and gaze said.
That’s tough to do, Val said.
I’m pretty tough.
Pretty and tough you mean, Val’s smile said.
You ain’t so bad either for a latina girl, Nike said with an answering smile.
Thanks, Val said, I’m not quite as tough as you, I guess. People can really bum me out.
Well, yeah, that can suck.
Whether it’s in and out of the ring right?
How are the folks here? You get many good matches? Val asked.
I got a good match going now, Nike said.
Folks here ain’t on your level though, are they? Val asked.
Nah, Nike said. I mean some are ok, but they ain’t really where I need to be.
You ever try teaching? Val asked.
I’m not a good teacher, Nike said.
Now that ain’t true, Val said. You’re showing me some nice footwork and that knee jab combo? I’m already stealing that.
Yeah, but you listen to me. You get it. The normal girls here, they just don’t.
I’ve had a lot of practice being a student, Val said.
Not me, Nike said. I just pick stuff up, you know?
I do, Val said. When you’re gifted, it’s hard to find any teachers that can keep up with you.
Yeah, I don’t want to play around and get sloppy, but when I take a fight seriously suddenly people get all mad at me, Nike said.
Because they think you’re mad at them, Val said.
Nah, I’m never mad when I get in the ring, Nike said. This is where the fun happens.
It’s the intensity, Val said. What you bring to the ring is so much more than what they’re used to that they think you’re holding back a ton of rage.
So what, I’m supposed to be nice and smile more?
Nah, you be you, and anybody tells you to smile more? That’s when you get mad, Val said. We just need to get you fighting with the right crowd.
You got some Warrior Princess friends? Nike asked.
Yeah and I think I’m making a new one now, Val said.
The wedding was a simple affair, with family and friends close enough to be family in attendance. There were only a few important seats empty and despite that Sam looked radiant, and Lara’s gown gave Val a brief thrill and regret that things hadn’t turned out differently between them.
The art gallery where they held the ceremony felt like both a distant land to Val and also the natural milieu where the two brides belonged.
Lara had always been a gym rat, more comfortable in sweats and a t-shirt than anything else. Seeing her in a formal gown, hand in hand with the woman she loved, though Val felt like she was at last seeing the complete picture of her oldest and dearest friend.
There’d always been an elegance and serenity inside Lara just biding its time, and with Sam she’d found someone who could draw that part of her out and allow her to be everything she could be.
A tear creased Val’s eye. Whether it was from knowing that she couldn’t have been that person for Lara, or happiness for her friend, or even the distant hope of finding someone like that for herself, Val couldn’t decide.
“You know, technically, you didn’t win that bet,” Lara said later as Val swept her onto the dance floor.
“And yet, here I am dancing with you, so I’d say technically I did,” Val said, spinning Lara out before pulling her back in for a deep dip.
“Tell me the truth,” Lara said. “You threw that fight didn’t you?”
“Throwing the fight would suggest that I Iost it, and I point out, that I did not lose,” Val said.
“Yeah, but a tie? Really? Come on, when have you ever tied before?” Lara asked.
“All the times I didn’t win or lose,” Val said, smiling. “Seriously though, Oyenike is that good. She’s a prodigy.”
“It’s nice what you’re doing for her,” Lara said.
“The Nationals trip?” Val said. “That’s only part of what she needs. I’m going to see if I can hook her up with some of the people I’ve trained under. She’s so damn gifted, but a lot of what she knows she’s had to pick up and work out for herself.”
“I thought that’s what all the great masters did?” Lara asked.
“To some extent, but it’s always nice to have someone who knows what they’re talking about there to provide another perspective.”
“To see the mistakes you’re making?” Lara asked.
“Or the things you’re doing right that you don’t want to lose,” Val said.
“So what kind of external perspective can you give me?” Lara asked.
“Today? You are doing everything right today,” Val said.
“I couldn’t believe I was going through with it this morning,” Lara said. “I never thought this day would ever really happen.”
“I’m glad it did,” Val said. “Sam’s put a smile on your face that I never could.”
“You put plenty of smiles on my face,” Lara said.
“Yeah, but not like this one,” Val said. “We had crazy, wild times, and I hope we’ll still have them again, but this? What I see today? You look…peaceful. Like your soul is in harmony with all of the rest of you. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen you looking like that.”
“I think that’s what scares me,” Lara said. “What I’ve got here is so good.”
“For what it’s worth, Sam looks exactly the same,” Val said.
“Thank you,” Lara said, tears sparkling in her eyes.
“For what?” Val asked. “I’m only saying what everyone here can see.”
“For more than that,” Lara said. “For being you. For this dance. Everyone knows it was supposed to be my Dad who had the first dance, but he…”
“He should have been here sooner,” her father said and asked, “may I cut in?”
Lara blinked back the tears as surprise and amazement stole over her features. Her father had been the last hold out, the last one resisting the idea of his daughter marrying another woman, but here he was, in a perfectly fitted tuxedo, looking as dapper and suave as he’d ever been.
Lara looked at Val, who nodded in confirmation. It had taken only a few words from Val and a small intervention on Jimmy B’s part to get the tuxedo, but her father wasn’t going to miss one of the best days in his daughter’s life.
Sometimes rifts are too deep to mend but sometimes all people need is a second chance to do the right thing.