The first time I saw him, he was kicking some serious ass in a fighting competition.
I was just a green sprout in the martial arts community, trying to absorb all the magic around me. I was not naive to the environment of martial arts, but having a background in bad kung fu movies and poorly dubbed anime hardly makes anyone an expert. I at least came prepared to idolize the masters and had a very healthy respect for a black belt.
My best friend at the time was a black belt and a very well-known and well-respected member of our small martial arts community. After many months of coercing – more me harassing my parents to please let me go – I finally was able to tag along with her at a martial arts competition.
Humbling was the only way to describe the day. Humbling with a taste of sensory overload. My mind felt like an internet browser with too many tabs open. She introduced me to everyone and I watched her compete in the adult women’s division. The noise, the focus, the community, I could taste it in my future. I wanted it the way a fangirl wants to meet her biggest idols, the way the underclassmen want to talk to senpai in the hallways at school.
“Do you see that guy right there?” she asked me, pointing towards a ring where the men’s black belt division was commencing. We were in a high school gym, the space rented out for the event, standing up on the second floor, overlooking the gym floor, “The guy with the shaved head, black top, white pants? He’s talking to the darker skinned master.”
I spotted him and nodded. He had black sparring gear on, his helmet in his hands, chewing on a mouth guard. His face… so focused, so intense, so handsome, nodding in response to whatever the master was saying. A little furrow between his dark brows, his scowling mouth framed by a dark, trim goatee.
“That’s Mr. Ben Bachberg,” she told me, “He’s the best fighter in the organization. Hasn’t lost a match in years. Wins Grand Champion in sparring every tournament, every year. Blitz Ben, they call him. Just watch.”
Just watch I did. I watched him wipe the floor with opponent after opponent, right through his division and into the Grand Championships. I had no idea what I was watching – kicks and punches, fast blitzes, lots of stopping, calls, flags – all I knew is that it was scary good. Mr. Bachberg was not a guy I’d ever want to mess with in a dark alley.
“He’s a super nice guy,” my friend told me, “I’ve known him for years. All the girls want to go out with him.”
I thought about his handsome, but intense and scowling face, “How old is he?”
She shrugged, “Twenty? Just a couple years older than us, I think,” she sighed dreamily, “His martial arts is just so beautiful. He’s the best. Bar none.”
My novice mind didn’t quite understand all that; I thought he was scary. Good, but fucking scary. I took her word for it though, how could I not? She was the black belt expert, my guide, my mentor, my captain. I trusted her judgment.
It wasn’t long following this competition that I finally wore my parents down with my teenage harassment. They let me sign up for martial arts and I joined the studio that all my friends were in. I was a teenage white belt in a sea of teenage black belts. My master was a short, stocky, unassuming man, but with a very intimidating ponytail and that intense facade that everyone seemed to adopt. He beat us teenagers into the floor every day and every day, we came back for more.
I was still a young white belt when none other than the great Mr. Bachberg walked into the studio one day, followed by two or three other young black belts. They were visiting from their studio, a sister school to ours, and they were there to take class and pay homage to my master.
I lined up with everyone else, taking my preassigned novice place in the back. My nerves were jangling. Mr. Bachberg was here. I tried not to stare too much while we did a customary warm up of jogging and jumping jacks and push ups. I don’t remember what I was staring at him for; perhaps up close, he was more attractive than I remembered, perhaps now, with a small taste of the art, I understood a percentage of his talent. Perhaps, more simply, I was slightly scared and in awe of him. He was like a tiger – serious, beautiful, dangerous. I wanted to reach out and touch him, get closer to him, but I was terrified of being bit. He gave me a strange shot of adrenaline.
After a time, my master said, “I’d like to work on a little sparring tonight, since we have visitors.”
Sparring? As in, fighting? I hadn’t done any sparring yet; this would be my first time. How did I feel about fighting?
Naturally, there was no time to assess my feelings on the subject. We were hustled away to grab our gear. I had all the pieces I needed – head, hands, feet – all shiny, new, with that slight chemical smell that came with fresh pressed vinyl. Sonja – my guide, my mentor – helped me get it all on and once I was suited up, I reclaimed my spot in line. I flexed my hands in my new gloves, listening to the sound of stiff plastic crunching and molding, like the sound of a book’s spine breaking in for the first time.
I stretched the strap for my helmet under my chin just as my instructor said, “Alright, front row, turn around and face the back row.”
Being in the back row myself, I didn’t have to move. Which was a damned good thing, because my insides froze to jittering ice when I realized who was spinning around to face me.
The best fighter in our organization.
The Grand Champion of Grand Champions.
The beginner who’d never been in a fight in her life.
I was gonna die.
That’s all I could think as my eyes took him in, the white top with the black trim, the black pants, the matching black gear. My eyes traveled up, up, up… he cleared me by a good six inches and seventy five pounds. His expression was so intense, the slight scowl between his brows and goatee wrapped around his equally intense mouth. I could almost see him roughing up some thugs in the alley, or brushing the flapper girls off his arm, Film Noir style. He’d look sharp in a suit.
Hell, he looked sharp in his uniform.
Didn’t change the fact that I was gonna die.
My alarmingly short martial arts career was over.
He gave me a once-over with that intense face of his, flashing from my face to my still-sparkling white belt, to my face once more.
He smiled. I died a little. My heart plunged into the pit of my stomach, where it proceeded to be digested until nothing but butterfly wings remained.
“Hi,” he said.
“Hi,” I replied.