The deriding stares and subtle but audible curses hadn’t started immediately, which was a welcome change, though she felt perverse comfort when they finally did. They must have been getting used to her. She’d made a habit of coming early, before most of them arrived, making a point to wear sensible but sexy outfits, tonight perhaps her best, skinny jeans, tank top and short coat to protect her from the breeze off the bay, but her most expensive and daring shoes. Mesh topped Louboutons, red soles screaming her contempt with every step, a gift from her mother she wanted to refuse but couldn’t overcome her consumerism to deny.
Jong Yu kissed her and for the last time she reveled in their disdain. She touched her red nail to the hard line of his chest and over the solid lumps of his stomach. His flesh rose. She’d miss this part more than anything, his unabashed arrogance in the face of his peers, his boldness tugging her the same way it had when they first met and she’d skip classes to lay with him for hours.
“Khwām chokh dī,” she said to him in broken Thai.
“I miss you already,” he replied in broken English. He slapped his six-ounce gloves together and bounced away, steam rising from the heat of his body.
They closed around her and the betting began. Jong said to think nothing of it, closeness was a cultural difference and Americans overvalued personal space. Four months had done little to assuage her claustrophobia.
Once it began though, she became entranced by his skill. Watching someone perform perfection from muscle memory enthralled her. As a child, before her father died, she’d watch him draw, picture after picture, a house, a car, her sister, a hummingbird. It didn’t matter. His skill and his creased eyes melted the universe into clarity.
When Jong Yi’s opponent fell for the third time, blood and teeth stuck to his feet. He left a trail of red footprints to his corner at the park’s cage. The head of the 14K counted ten of the fifteen total words she knew in Mandarin. He raised Jong’s arm and money exchanged hands, and curses in two languages were uttered and she giggled the way she had when her father came home early from the mill with grime on his face and dinner in his hands.
Later In her dorm room, they showered together, and she helped him wash the gore from his knuckles. They lounged naked on the bed afterwards and she rubbed the coarse insoles of his feet. His eyes roamed her room, lingering on her faded posters of the Beatles and Che.
“I do not understand your people’s need for revolution,” he said.
“Are all Thai’s so loyal?”
“It is not loyalty.”
“I do not understand this word.”
She smiled. He did.
“You never lost a fight.”
He tried to return her smile but the corners of his eyes wilted.
“I do not want to leave.”
She looked past the ridge of his hips and the plane ticket beyond.
“I don’t want you to go.”
They embraced and his heart thumped as loud as always, no less or more because of the fight.
“What if you stay? And I’ll graduate and get a job my mother approves and you can open a dojo and we can live here, in Berkley, and the yuppies from across the bay would come and use Muai Thai as a substitute to yoga, and you’ll be successful and I’ll be successful and we’ll get married and have kids and I’ll get fat and you’ll always be strong,” her eyes welled, “You’ll always be strong.”
He petted her hair and let her cry on his bare shoulder.
She knew she couldn’t understand his life, couldn’t comprehend why a Thai boy, raised in Myanmar who immigrated to Hong Kong would never be allowed to leave the streets, indebted forever to triads and gangsters. But she thought she understood his joy, thought she’d done enough to force him to stay.
She wasn’t there when the plane lifted off, couldn’t bear saying goodbye again. She told him to leave in the night, when she was asleep. She wanted to wake with him gone, their four months like a lost dream of absconded reality and he’d fight no more. He’d fight no more.