Time gets slippery about a minute and a half in. The seconds drunkenly drift into each other until the only moment that matters is the continuous present. All background noise, the music and the grunting, the thudding and the yelling, decreases. It turns into a faint buzz that sits in the middle of my ear, crackling and chronic. Fluorescent bulbs flare, burning shadows on the inner part of my eyelid. My heart flutters as I desperately swivel my head in search of the device that will tell me how much time is left.
Three minutes, in the context of an average day, is barely perceptible. In the course of eternity, it is an infinitesimal blip in time. The length of two Super Bowl commercials, three minutes is how long it takes to ride the 2 train between Park Place and Wall Street. It is roughly the amount of time I require to comb the knots out of my hair each morning.
It is also how long a boxing round lasts, for men at least. (Women get in the ring for two.) But as most gyms have one central timer three-minute intervals are usually the norm. At least we’re all in the shit-storm together. One hundred and twenty seconds jumping rope is the same for all, as is one hundred and twenty seconds on the speed bag, or one hundred and twenty inglorious seconds moving between sit-ups, bunny hops, mountain climbers, and all other shameful torture a particular trainer dreams up.
In the end, time doesn’t discriminate against anyone.
Regardless of the activity, those three minutes skirt the edge of hell. And stepping into the ring seems to change their composition. In the heart of purgatory there are only two choices: sink to the bottom of the river Styx, or take a deep breath and turn the dog paddle into your primary mission.
Now and then I spend time in the ring—feeling it out and getting a sense for its size. It’s where Coach and I work on technique. He calls out combinations, punch mitts hovering in the air awaiting impact. Most times I respond, slowly but surely, moving from offence to defence and back again. But on the rare occasion, trouble finds me. Today, Coach puts in his mouthpiece and straps on his headgear. He waves for me to join him in the ring.
“Come on!” he shouts, shadowboxing in the corner, moving like water across the canvas. His movements flow with a grace mine cannot match.
I roll my eyes and mutter, Fucking hell. Out loud I say, “I’m coming, just give me a bloody second.” I step through the ropes and tighten the velcro straps of my gloves.
The bell rings and we circle each other. There’s no doubt: I’m not the one doing the hunting. Coach’s head moves so quickly mine starts to spin. I pop a jab that cruises through the air. The cross that follows throws me off balance. Coach taps me lightly on my chin. The flurry I put together glances off his arms—his defence is so tight, prudently contained, I am short of breath trying to break through it.
Before long I’m out of gas. How long has it been? Surely, the bell is about to ring. Coach pushes me around, and I do what I can to steer clear of him. I pivot and try to catch sight of the timer. The middle light burns yellow. What the hell does that mean?
At one point he corrals me against the ropes, delivering soft blows that jog my memory about the basics of defence. Chin down. Hands up. Don’t blink. My ribs get clipped with a couple hooks. I catch an opening but wind up closing my eyes in the face the coming onslaught, leaning against the ropes for a rest. Eventually, I shuffle out of Coach’s line of fire all the way to the other side of the ring. I keep my distance as I wait for the sound that will mark the end of this self-inflicted torture.
And there it is. Right on time but still two and half minutes too late. Coach pats my back. I stumble out of the ring. The smoothie I had for lunch threatens to make an appearance. I sit on the floor and inhale deeply. Sweat rolls into my eyes, clouding my vision. Blood throbs against my temples with the force of a percussive grenade.
“You good?” Coach asks in his characteristic way where there’s a statement housed within the question. It’s as if he is letting you know certain facts you have yet to acknowledge. You are fine. You got through it. You’re not going to puke. The idea that you’re stronger than you imagined is always the undertone.
“Yeah, I’m good,” I wheeze. The urge to vomit has passed but my face is still as red as an overripe tomato.
Out of the corner of my eye, I catch a devilish grin cross the far side of Coach’s face. “That’s right, you are.”
The bell blares above our heads. Another three minutes begins.