I know my room like the back of my hand. Better, even. My hand continues to grow and change with the rest of me, but my room remains the same. The headboard on the loft bed that I got for my fourth birthday still has stains from where I would wipe my snot so my stuffed animals wouldn’t get all sticky. My old butterfly collection sits in dust on top of the cabinet, looking more morbid than magical these days. The roll-out puppet theater window my brothers and I manhandled as kids somehow remains in perfect working order. The puppets are another story.
Digging up and sorting through these things before leaving for university was like taking an ice cream scoop and portioning out perfectly shaped balls of my own insides. Finding my old martial arts gear took a big round chunk right out of my stomach.
I had dissected and repurposed my karate gi into a Halloween costume years ago, and the multicolored belts I once wore with it were long lost. But I’d never found a use for the padded headgear and gloves. Turning the helmet over in my hands, it’s hard to believe my head used to be that tiny. The layers of sweat and grime stained into the white pleather make me wonder how my mother ever permitted it on my head. The gloves are fingerless and black, with thick pads from knuckle to wrist. I can still squeeze my bony spiderfingers inside, but the gloves prove too tight to close my hands into fists.
I was always much more interested in the aesthetics of kung fu than the combative aspect. I loved flowing through the katas and feeling powerful in a strong stance. I wanted to be just like my favorite instructor, whose name I can’t remember. She had beautiful long black hair that she tied up during demonstrations, until a spinning high kick or elbow twist would send it tumbling down like a panther slinking over her shoulder blades. I graduated through several different colors of belts before realizing I was being trained to fight.
Jackie Chan makes hitting people in the face look fun. But in my experience, landing a punch resulted in one of two things: your opponent hit you back or they cried. I could never figure out which I hated more. Punching someone in training earned me a pat on the back, but so did crying, with the added benefit of not having to hurt anyone else. Winning a match against my brother for the first time earned me weeks of freezing glares that knocked the wind out of me in a different way.
Pulling on those gloves again took a double scoop out of my gut. The first tasted like the sting in my eyes from sweat trapped behind the face cage, the ringing in my ears from a brother who’d finally found an outlet for his frustrations with me. The second tasted like my mom driving me backward through the kitchen, my bare feet sticking to the linoleum as adrenaline gripped my stomach.
“Why can’t you hit them?” she says and shoves me. Then she shoves me again. And again.
“Don’t like it? Make me stop, then.” Reflexively, my hands fly up to cover my face, but she just keeps pushing.
With each nudge, my breath quickens against my wrists, eyes stinging, vision blurring. My shoulder blades knock against the pantry with a hollow wooden sound like a tribal drum.
“Hit me! Come on!” The words echo from far away.
My arm twists itself outward, fist curled with the thumbs tucked properly underneath. It’s a clumsy blow, just skimming the top of her shoulder and grazing her cheek.
Then we all got dinner together as a family.
All my life I had been one of the smallest kids my age and insufferably clingy. I pinballed between random groups of kids on the playground, regardless of whether they liked me or even knew me at all. Snide comments went over my head, and I was always the guinea pig for cruel tricks like “open your mouth and close your eyes.”
But by the time I started middle school, I knew the distinct smells of at least three brands of rubber mats. I knew how to tie a gi so it wouldn’t get ripped off when someone twice my height threw me over their head. I knew to go for the eyes first, then the knees. I might have been small, gullible, and annoying, but bullies prey on fear, and they could do nothing to scare me.
I donated the gloves to Goodwill. They’re the smallest size available.
One day, another tiny, gullible kid may also come to dread slipping on those gloves and eventually bury them in the back of a closet, behind a dusty boombox under a sleeve of warped CDs.
But first, they’ll tuck their thumbs, relax their shoulders, and learn to let go of their fear.
Ben Wolf was born and raised in North Carolina and is finishing an undergraduate degree in English at NC State University in November 2020. He always uses two spaces after periods and hopes to one day own a cat. When not editing his friends' essays for class, he mainly writes fiction and poetry.