"Did you hear? Akemi confessed to Haru, and he told her the same thing; 'If you can knock me down then I'll go out with you.'"
My friends sigh upon hearing this news. Haru is the most popular guy at our high school, but he has been turning down every girl who's confessed to him since the beginning of school, always with the same reasoning.
"She's so pretty too. I guess he really means what he says," Izumi says.
"It's such a shame; the best looking guy in school and he asks the impossible of any girl who wants to date him," Tomoko adds.
"What about you Shun? I bet you could knock him down easily," Natsuki asks me. Before I can answer for myself, Izumi steps in to speak for me.
"Shun's not interested in that. She not a silly girl who would join the judo club just for some stupid boy," she says, and my three best friends all turn to grin at me, and all I can do is smile in return.
The truth is, I am a foolish girl, and I am joining the club because I heard about Haru's challenge. I know it's shallow and silly, but I've been a serious girl all my life, and I've never even been interested in a boy before, so I think I deserve to have this little bit of silliness in my life. In fact, if I hadn't been so serious before, I probably wouldn't be acting so foolishly now. But because I've never been interested in dating boys before, I have no experience with talking about it, or confessing, and I've recently realized that I can't really do it. Even when I imagine myself doing it in my head, it seems unbelievable. In all my seventeen years of life I've never confessed, or flirted, or even looked at a boy with ulterior motives, so to start now feels unnatural.
The reason everyone believes for my joining the judo club – and this is also probably why no one has ever confessed to me either – is because I grew up with martial arts. When I was five my family moved to Thailand for my dad's work, and while we were there I started Muay Thai training. I came back to Japan three years ago, and soon I became known as the freakishly strong Muay Thai girl. I don't mind that so much – I like to be strong, and agile, and it's fine if people know that. The only problem is that now that I do want a boyfriend (specifically Haru) it's hard for me to confess to him and be taken seriously. I'm more of a guy than a girl, and everyone treats me as such.
And so, out of this strange little situation, I hatch my plan to join the judo club, become strong enough to knock down Haru, thereby getting him to ask me out, and avoiding having to do any confessing, or talking about feelings along the way.
"You want to join the judo club?" The club's president fits his name, Daichi, perfectly. He's a giant, a broad, well-muscled Japanese giant. I'm taller than most of the girls in my class, but he makes me feel small. He just exudes strength, and solidness, and when I ask to join the club he doesn't look too happy to hear about it. Even his face is strong – a heavy brow, sharp cheekbones, a wide nose and full lips. It's almost comical, how perfectly he fits the strong guy look. No wonder half the girls who join the judo club for Haru are scared away before they even get to training.
"Yes I do," I answer levelly. He may be huge, but I'm not afraid of him.
"Hey, isn't that the Muay Thai girl?" a blond boy asks from behind us, in the clubroom.
Daichi looks back at him and then turns to face me again. I wish he would stop frowning. "You're a Muay Thai student? Why do you want to join the judo club?"
"Well, we don't have a Muay Thai club at school, and I want to try something different," I tell him my well rehearsed lie. "Knowing different schools of martial arts helps me to become a well balanced athlete."
Daichi glares at me for a moment longer, and then he smiles. It's incredible, how much that smile changes his appearance. "Then welcome to the club."
He shows me around and then hands me off to a girl names Yukino who sets me up with a uniform and explains the rules and moves of judo to me.
When club time is over I wait around for a while longer to talk to Daichi. When he comes out of the change room I approach him.
"So what do you think of judo so far?" he asks, smiling kindly.
"It's very different," I answer. "No jumping, which is too bad. But I think I'll grow to like it."
"I hope so. Did you have something you wanted to ask me about?"
"I was wondering how you train for judo?" I ask. This is part of my plan to become as good at judo as quickly as possible and then knock down Haru at last. "I know I'm behind the other club members and I was hoping to catch up. I'm guessing you do extra training? Would you mind if I joined you?"
"Special training hm?" Daichi asks, rubbing his head. He shaves his hair down to peach fuzz, and watching him rubbing it, I kind of want to do the same. For good luck or something. "I don't see why not," he says, nodding. "I go for a run most mornings; how about we start with that?"
"Sure! I prefer to run with a partner. Where should we go?"
"Let's meet here at six, and go from there."
He walks me to my house, a few minutes away. He's actually a talkative guy, and we chat along the way, mostly about judo and Muay Thai. He seems very interested to know how they compare.
"I don't know much about Muay Thai," he admits. "But it's never too late to learn right?"
"Hey, if I can learn judo, you can learn Muay Thai."
I wake up at five thirty the next morning. It's been a while since I've bothered getting up so early. I kind of gave up on training a couple years ago, and since then I've only practiced Muay Thai casually.
I eat a banana and head over to the school. Daichi is already waiting by the door of the clubhouse when I get there.
"I'm not late am I?" I ask.
Daichi looks at his watch. "No, you're just on time. I just ran from the train station – I guess I was faster than I expected."
"No fair! You've already started without me," I joke.
Daichi laughs – a great booming laugh that fills the quiet gray morning. "I guess you'll just have to run extra to catch up then!"
He chats as we jog around the neighborhood – running and jogging at intervals. He doesn't even break a sweat, while all I can do is listen and try to keep breathing. It's been too long since I've trained – my body has gotten weak.
He tells me about judo champions and legends and to my surprise, he also points out different birds and trees we pass on our run. He admits to being a nature lover. "Is that weird?" he asks.
I gasp and try to answer, but all I can manage is a head shake, and thankfully he doesn't ask any more questions that morning.
After the run I'm prepared to go home and take a shower, but Daichi makes me go with him back to the clubhouse, where he forces me to drink a litre of water as we go over my diet. "It's important to eat enough carbs and proteins while training," he tells me. When I tell him I already know all about it he looks sheepish, so I ask him to go over my diet anyway.
"There's still an hour before school starts, what will you do now?" I ask him when that's done to everyone's satisfaction.
He tells me he does a half hour of yoga before getting dressed for school, so I join him for that. After a half hour of yoga in silence, the opposite of the run, I have to run home to shower and change quickly before rushing back to school.
"You see, you'll catch up to me this way!" Daichi yells after me as I run away from the clubhouse after yoga.
I manage to get to my seat seconds before the bell rings, earning a sideways glance from Izumi. Usually we both get to class early, and we chat and compare our homework before class starts.
"Slept in today?" she asks at lunch when we're sitting on the lawn. "That's not like you."
I laugh because I did just the opposite, and I tell her about my new training regimen.
"That's brutal!" Natsuki exclaims with a grimace. "So Daichi really is the slave driver he's rumored to be then. I knew there had to be a good reason most girls don't last in the judo club."
"Actually, I asked him for help because I'm behind everyone else," I explain. They all stare at me blankly, uncomprehending. My friends aren't athletic like me. Of the three of them, Tomoko is the most athletic because she goes to dance lessons for two hours a week. All I can do is laugh and change the subject to something we can all understand.
I try not to stare at Haru during practice hours, but I can't help my wandering gaze. I'm still a beginner, so I'm just working on my stance and the steps, which doesn't really provide much mental stimulation.
Haru is doing practice bouts today. Everyone in the club pairs off and they practice together, switching every ten minutes. When I first look over at Haru he's facing off against a girl, and I feel a little worried. What if she knocks him down now, and he ends up going out with her before I even get a chance? To my relief he flips her on her back, and then helps her to her feet, laughing.
He has such a wonderful smile.
The next time I look over he's paired up against the president, and after a while Haru goes down, but he's still laughing. Daichi says something and Haru laughs even harder, rolling onto his side and slapping the mat.
"Are you and Haru good friends?" I ask Daichi the next morning during our run. I ask early on in the run, before I run out of breath for talking.
Daichi gives me a sideways, sly glance, and then he nods. "We've known each other since junior high, when we met in judo club. We've always been in the club together."
"And you've always beaten him?" I guess.
He laughs. Daichi never laughs quietly; maybe his lungs are too big for him to laugh quietly. "Yeah, pretty much."
I continue learning the basics of judo, and training with Daichi goes pretty well. We are on a very strict regimen; running every morning except Saturdays, followed by a half hour of yoga, on top of judo practice after school every day. Twice a week we stay later after club hours are over, to continue training. On Saturdays we do weight training, and on Sundays after yoga Daichi shows me movies of old judo matches, pointing out strategies and styles, and demonstrating how the moves were done.
After a couple of weeks I get to practice matches with the others, but it is a few days before I'm paired up with Haru. My heart is pounding as I face him, and during the match I can hardly concentrate on what his body is doing because his dark eyes are staring straight at me.
Needless to say, I fail miserably on my first attempt.
"Not much like Muay Thai is it?" he asks, offering me a hand up. I shake my head and he flashes me a grin. "Lucky for me."
When I get home Dad is wearing his Mong Kon and Pra Jiads, and he's made a huge supper. "Big fight tonight! You ready?" he asks.
I grin. "Of course I am!" is my answer.
Dad orders this channel specially from Thailand, so that we can watch the boxing matches. We get very excited about our Thai boxing, and I wear my Muay Thai uniform to watch the matches too, and we sit on the couch, right on the edge, yelling at the screen and the athletes miles and miles away.
I go to bed that night with my muscles twitching, envisioning the moves in the match, and thinking about what I would have done had I been in the ring.
The clubhouse is empty when I get there the next morning. I check my watch – I'm right on time, as usual. Daichi is never late. I sit down to wait for him, wondering what could have happened.
Last night's match is still playing in my head, and after a few minutes I get up and into a fighting stance.
I start slowly, letting my body warm up and become accustomed to the old style again, remembering the moves as I go along. Gradually I speed up, giving in to the rush of adrenaline that accompanies Muay Thai. I can imagine myself in the ring again, and my body eases into the old routines.
It's the movement of Muay Thai that I really love. The spinning, jumping, whirling vortex that I feel like as I go through the motions. It's so unlike judo, which is strong and solid and close to the ground. Muay Thai is about flying, I sometimes think, but it's about being sturdy too. It's about strength, but also about speed, and it's the speed that I love the best.
At some point I notice that I have an audience, and I slow down out of the routine. Daichi watches in silence as I wind down to a stop and then he smiles.
"I really love judo," he says, "but I think Muay Thai is probably more beautiful."
For some reason I find myself blushing. "I've always thought that it's beautiful," I agree. "It's more vicious than judo though."
He laughs and nods. "I just hope you're not too mad that I'm so late."
I look up at the clock and just now notice that I've been shadowboxing for over half and hour. "What happened?" I ask him. "You're never late."
"The train hit a cyclist. I was stuck on board for a long time before I could get off, and then I ran, but… well."
"That's terrible!" I say, moving towards him, thinking to offer some comfort. "Are you alright?"
He nods and scratches his head. "I'm fine yes. Actually, the cyclist is okay too, amazingly enough. The train just caught the back wheel of his bike, so he escaped with only minor injuries." I notice that his hand is shaking a little.
"Still, that's scary," I say.
"Yeah. Yeah it is," he agrees. "It's incredible to think; if he had been just a little slower…"
I pat his shoulder and shake my head at that line of thinking. "I guess we'll just have to thank fate everything turned out okay."
He nods, and then he smiles at me. "I think you might be a little happy with this turn of events; you looked very happy when you were shadowboxing."
"Did I? I guess… I guess I was," I reply, and we laugh again. Almost a nervous laugh; a laugh that is thankful to be alive.
After that day Daichi works Muay Thai into our training regime. I tell him I don't need it, but he insists that he wants to learn Muay Thai too. "And the most important part of martial arts, like life, is to enjoy yourself, and so experience inner peace. If you're unhappy then that isn't possible."
I'm happier with the way things are now. I hadn't noticed it before, but my life had been feeling sort of flat. It was fun, doing judo and training with Daichi and getting to be near Haru every day, but there had been something missing. It was me. There wasn't enough of me in that life.
It is lots of fun, too, teaching Daichi Muay Thai. He expresses regret at his inexperience, saying that I would prefer being able to do more advanced techniques with a partner, but I tell him not to worry about it. "It's always good to work on the basics – it's in the basics that you learn to be a master, not in showy moves."
He puts his hands together and bows to me then, and I laugh and punch his shoulder. Punching Daichi's shoulder is like punching a brick wall.
I'm getting stronger as the days pass, enough that I notice it now. When we go for our run in the morning Daichi no longer has to keep up a one sided conversation – I can finally respond and put in my own two cents. Daichi seems relieved by this development, and he asks me questions, about Muay Thai, about my life in Thailand. I tell him about the kindness of people, about green islands rising from clear blue seas, and the junker we used to own. I tell him about the days we'd stay inside because of the mists outside – mists so thick that men went missing in them, eaten up by the jungle, or the sea, or the otherworldly creatures that live in the mists.
He tells me about his family; he has two sisters and a younger brother, and he tells me what I missed, not growing up in Japan. He tells me about the lake his family drives to in the summers, where he spent his childhood exploring with his siblings. "Of course, it's nothing compared to your Thai junkers and man-eating mists…" he says, almost apologetically.
I admit that I'm a little jealous of him. "The junker was lots of fun, but being cooped up in a house all day would have been more bearable if I'd had siblings to play with."
One day when I look up from practice I see that there's a new girl at the door, talking to Daichi. I can understand the nervous look in her eyes when she explains that she wants to join the club. Daichi can be intimidating, if you don't know him at all.
"Please do not try to join the club if you are not serious about judo," Daichi says solemnly, and the girl turns away. She doesn't come back, and everyone carries on as if nothing had happened.
"Why do you do that?" I ask during our Friday run. "Why do you try to send away new recruits; don't you want new members for the club?"
Daichi is silent, frowning. Finally he says, "I do want new members, but… That guy, ever since he declared he would date the girl who could knock him down, there have been lots of girls joining the club. At first I was really happy, really excited that everyone wanted to do judo. But you know, after a few weeks all those girls would give up on it – some lasted only days. Of all the girls who joined the club for Haru, none of them have ever stayed. I think when he first made that announcement, he really was hoping more people would try judo, but I wish he'd never said anything. All these girls are just wasting their time, and I think it must be such a disappointment for him, to see how shallow their affection for him really is."
"You're a very good friend to Haru," I tell Daichi. I wonder if Haru really deserves it; I doubt his intentions were really as noble as Daichi makes them out to be.
Daichi turns his head and smiles down at me. "I'm a good friend to you too," he says. "If you ever need anything, you just have to ask me – you know that right?"
I turn away so he can't see me blushing. Though, knowing Daichi, he would attribute it to strenuous activity on my part. I think, at heart, he's really an innocent. "Sure I know that. I've come to realize that you're just a big teddy bear," I tell him.
He chuckles, and I imagine for a moment that I can feel it rumbling through the pavement. The morning is clear, and the air feels nice and cool as we run. I feel good this morning, as though I could run for miles, right out of the city into the countryside, and just keep on running. We are silent for a while, and I can hear the sounds of traffic in the distance, and a bird chirps in a tree above our heads. I can hear my own heart beating, and Daichi's steady breathing.
"You can always count on me too," I say quietly, embarrassed.
Daichi laughs. "I just might hold you to that."
A few weeks later I'm facing Haru again, but I don't feel self-conscious like I did the first time. I can hear the blood rushing past my ears, but I feel calm and focused. As he moves, I can see what he will do, before he even knows it. It's wonderful, the clarity of everything. It's not like slow motion, like you see in the movies, but my body is moving without asking permission from my brain, so my thoughts feel slow. But I feel fast, and strong, and I am.
Before I even realize it, Haru is on his back, and I'm standing at his feet looking down at him. It takes half a second for my brain to catch up, and from the look on his face he's shocked too. Everyone is watching us.
He laughs and props himself up on his elbows. He's so smooth, even after being knocked on his ass. "Wow Shun, you're a tank!" he says, grinning. "Do you want to go out with me?"
My body is still acting faster than my brain, and I laugh before I can stop myself. He laughs with me, and I hold out my hand to help him up. "…No," I answer, and we guffaw together, laughing until tears squeeze out of our eyes.
Then the others are clapping, and patting me on the back. "Good job Shun! Taking down this cocky bastard," they joke. "Next you'll have to knock down the president."
I look up and meet Daichi's gaze, and my body stills long enough for my brain to catch up at last. "Somehow, I wonder if I'll ever be able to knock down the president," I say. "I wonder if anyone will ever do it."
After practice I start to wonder at myself. Why did I come to this place, if I no longer have any interest in dating Haru? Why did I stay so long, and dedicate so much of my time to this?
It isn't until the next day after practice, when Daichi and I are practicing Muay Thai that I can put my finger on the reason. It's because it's martial arts, because it's fun. Because I love to do it, but also because I love to do it with other people.
"I think I'm going to try to start a Muay Thai club," I tell Daichi.
"Good," he says, and that's it.
I talk to the teacher, and the student council, and I get enough people to agree to become club members, and I get to start a club. I'm a little surprised at how easy it is to start a new club.
When I'm ready to start the new club I let Daichi know. He nods and wishes me luck with my club. I stand for a minute, staring at his back. I don't want it to end this way, with a simple 'goodbye', and 'good luck'. I spent a lot of time with judo; I feel like there should be something more to my farewell.
"Before I leave, I'd like a match with you," I say. "For old time's sake."
Daichi smiles. "I'm not sure I'd call them old times just yet, but sure, let's have a match. Actually, ever since you knocked down Haru, I've been itching to face you myself."
Somehow word gets out that the Muay Thai girl is going to fight the judo giant. Tomoko and Natsuki cry for me, thinking that Daichi is going to beat me up for leaving the club. I hear stories of betting, and none of it is in my favor. I consider asking Izumi to place a bet for me, but decide against it. I don't want to feel that I might have lost the match on purpose, just to make some money.
Standing on the mat across from Daichi, he seems even bigger than I thought. I can hear people talking, saying, "Even Shun looks tiny next to him." It doesn't matter. I didn't come here today to get beaten up, or to be knocked down.
We bow and the match begins. Daichi is big, and he takes up a lot of space in the ring, and he is surprisingly fast, but I'm faster still. I try to use that to my advantage. Even being small can be an advantage, if used properly.
Daichi doesn't speak when he spars. He is intensely concentrated. I find myself hard pressed to avoid his grasp. I know that once he gets a hand on me I'm done for.
I try some moves to unbalance him, to surprise him, but he's as solid as he looks – I know that already. I start to realize the hopelessness of my situation when he lunges. I skip to the left, but he's seen through me and he gets a hold of my shirt and the next thing I know I'm on my back on the mat, staring at the ceiling.
Daichi holds out a hand and pulls me to my feet. "I admit defeat," I say, mostly for the benefit of our audience. Daichi and I both know that I could never beat him – not at judo anyway.
"Someday we'll try playing by different rules," he says quietly. "That will be fun, don't you think?" I grin in reply.
"That's it?" Tomoko asks as we walk away from the clubhouse together. "I thought he'd be angrier."
"He's not angry at all," I explain. "He never was."
I wake up the next morning at five thirty and eat a banana and a hard boiled egg before putting on my running shoes and heading out. Daichi is already at the clubhouse our clubs now have to share. I was sorry to intrude on the judo club space when I first learned we'd have to share the clubhouse, but I think Daichi was the only one who was really disappointed that they can't practice every day anymore. Even he got over it quickly enough when I invited him to join the Muay Thai club. It has ended up working well – since the clubs share the same space we can both be members of the Muay Thai and the judo club. They call us the martial arts pair, and say we're crazy, but I don't mind.
"You ready to go?" I ask as I jog up to the clubhouse.
He stands and smiles as he says, "Always."
Someday we've promised, when he's better at Muay Thai and I'm better at judo, we're going to have a rematch, with new rules – maybe a mix of Muay Thai and judo. Next time, I'll definitely knock him down.