The synchronized punches against the bags are like a tribal drumbeat echoing into the alleyway. Thwack, thwack, boom, boom. The rhythm keeps its pace as the instructor calls out to his students, each stationed at his own heavy bag, “Jab, straight, hook, hook!” For three full minutes the four boys swing their gloved fists obediently, finding their groove with not one of them falling behind. Thwack, thwack, boom, boom. Lulled into a daze by the repetitious sound I don’t notice the instructor, who usually takes no notice of me, waving a five dollar bill in my face.
“Get us some water, will ya?” I jump at the sound of his voice, grab the five dollars without a word and run two doors down to the dark, shabby store with neon letters that spell “Convenience” hanging in the window. I make a beeline for the fridge in the back and hip check a stand of Hostess cupcakes because my eyes haven’t adjusted to the dark store. Good thing nothing falls because I probably wouldn’t have stopped to pick it up. Five waters loaded into my arms, I zoom past my favorite aisle, the magazines, and almost forget to pay the sleepy cashier before running out the door.
Panting, I return to the smell of dirty socks and beam when the instructor tells me to drop the waters on the floor. When he says nothing more I take my seat back on the wide windowsill next to a wobbling fan with a folded piece of cardboard underneath it failing to keep it stable. There’s a steady tap, tap, tap where the side of the fan grazes the wall. It’s annoying but it’s better than the sound that the air conditioner made just before it broke two weeks ago. Not that it worked well to begin with.
It’s a small group today. Sometimes there are almost a dozen boys lined up for the Thursday afternoon boxing class with their hands wrapped and headgear ready to go. On those days there aren’t enough heavy bags so they spar with each other or get stuck doing push ups and kickbacks while they wait their turn to step into the “ring” which is really just the middle of the floor. The four boys here now are the real talent. No one else would be here on such a hot day, especially the fat kid who kind of looks like a buck-toothed donkey and only shows up when his friends make him go. Or the senior who comes every other Tuesday who is so tall he doesn’t know what to do with his ridiculous limbs. No, this class is the real thing. They don’t mess around, they’re quick and twitchy like the boxers on TV and they’re never late. I know this because I’m never late either. Not that I get any credit for being here, seeing how I’m still three years too young to take the class. Oh and I’m a girl, there’s that too - the instructor doesn’t teach girls.
But Rob. He’s the one who is something special. He tries more, catches on just a touch faster and hits just a little harder than the others. Sometimes he stays late asking the instructor questions or practicing whatever they learned that day. He’s not even super tall or muscular like some of the boys who come in and think they’re already boxers. When those types of boys step into the ring for their first sparring match the instructor nods at Rob to be their partner. Not many come back when that happens. Best of all, he lives right next to me.
Bailey came here with me once and thought it was boring. I pointed out Rob to her, “Look there’s my neighbor. He’s the best in the class”.
“Is that the one you have a crush on?” She had asked.
“No. I don’t like him like that, he’s way older than me and he has a big nose.” I answered.
“So you like the skinny one?”
“The blond one? He’s cute.”
“Then why do you come here? Are you going to be a boxer or something?”
“No. I just like to watch.” She didn’t get it. Not that I was helping her get it. I didn’t want to tell her that the reason I come here is Danny and not because I like him. Actually I want to learn how to punch him. He’s the boy who told the whole neighborhood that my mom is on welfare, the boy that kept running over the poor dying mouse in my driveway with his bike until its guts were everywhere no matter how I cried for him to stop. He’s the jerk who threw his sandwich at the ground by my feet last Saturday and told me to pick up my food stamps.
The boys break for a drink of water and go through one more grueling round of combinations. Droplets of sweat bead at the end of Rob’s dark hair, dripping down his glowing red cheeks and fall onto his shirt, which is already soaked to the skin. Boom, boom, thwack. Tap, tap, tap the fan punctuates the rhythm like a hyper metronome. During the last minute two of the boys slow their pace and one stops to lean his gloves on his knees and catch his breath while Rob pushes on.
“Nice work Red, finish strong!” The instructor calls no one by their first name. He has a nickname for everyone and if he has a new student he just calls him New Guy. The other boys see they’re being showed up by Rob yet again and throw some half hearted hits to the bag for the rest of the round. “Keep going, keep going. Ten seconds left.” Rob’s bag jerks back and forth with every punch. “Don’t lose it, that’s it. And…done!”
The boys drop to the floor, arms and legs splayed, making sweat angels on the mat.
“Your face is as red as a cherry.” one of the boys needles Rob between gasps.
I slip from the windowsill back into the alley and retrieve my bike from where I hid it behind a dumpster. Taking a quick glance around and confirming the alley is empty, I throw a few punches at the air and hear the sounds in my mind as I hit the imaginary bag. I pause to check my stance and posture and throw more straight rights toward the wall, sure to turn my hand just so before my arm is fully extended and tucking my left hand by my chin. I could do it, I think. I could hit him. Next time he thinks he can—
Clunk. Something small hits me in the head. No sooner do I see a pebble bouncing onto the ground when a larger one pelts me again. It must be Danny and he’s not alone. He never bothers me when he’s alone.
His laugh bounces along the concrete of the alley as he leans down to grab at another piece of gravel. “Let’s see some of those moves again, Marie.” He throws the gravel at my bike.
“Come on, you were really good.” His friend chimes in behind him, the left side of his mouth curling up when he speaks.
I know better than to think they’ll let me get away but I turn my back to them and start toward the street.
“What’s wrong, don’t you want to show off your moves? You can try them on me if you want.” Danny catches up and walks along my right, his friend on my left.
Do it, I urge myself. I know how, all I have to do is punch him like I’ve seen the boys do a million times. I imagine his surprise if I actually popped him in the eye. He would leave me alone after that, I’m sure. His face is so close, there’s nothing to stop me from swinging at him. I hadn’t expected to be caught off guard like this though; I thought I could prepare myself a little more. Before I have a chance to work up my courage, he grabs at my handlebars and yanks the bike out of my grasp.
“Give it back!” I demand.
“What are you gonna do, punch me?” He gets on my bike and rides slow circles around me while the other boy cracks up.
My heart pounds and my mouth goes dry. “Give it back.” I say again but my voice catches in my throat and cracks.
“Ok, ok, I can see you’re getting upset. I’ll stop.” Danny slows and swings his leg from around the seat. It doesn’t feel right when he leans the bike toward me and invites me to take the handlebars. It’s a good thing I don’t bother to reach for them because he retracts them right away and says “Joey, you want a turn?”
“Sure!” The black haired boy hops onto the seat and rides toward the other end of the alley.
Dread twists in my stomach as Danny steps closer to me and with a mocking tone once again invites me to hit him. I eye the freckle below his left eye and form my hands into sweaty fists but they remain locked by my sides. This is not how fights are supposed to go. They don’t begin with one person practicing by themselves and the opponent they were imagining suddenly stepping in. No, this isn’t right at all. I know I look stupid. I know my reaction, which is to stand and stare at him and try not to cry, is only going make him pick on me more. It’s hard to stop the tears forming in my eyes when he starts laughing and putting his fists up, making fun of my stance. I blink them back, tighten my fists and steady my shaking legs. He dances back and forth in front of me like a drunken boxer.
“Hit me!” He taunts and steps forward.
For every step he takes forward I back up until I can feel the wall of the gym behind me.
He whoops and laughs, dodging the punches I haven’t thrown while his friend still sits on my bike urging him on. “Hit me!” He yells again.
The fist comes from my left and lands so hard against that freckle that Danny is on the ground before he figures out that his legs aren't underneath him anymore. It happens so fast that for a fraction of a second I wonder if I hit him myself. He cups his eye and rolls around squinting up into the sun until Rob's shadow falls across him.