SIX WEEKS EARLIER
It is dawn when you decide to get in the ring and spar. There is no logic behind your decision. The urge arises as the beep of your alarm fades. You swing your feet over the edge of the bed and reach your arms overhead, trying to offset the soreness caused by too many push-ups, hammer throws, and awkward neck exercises.
But the pain you feel is the right kind. A dull ache hums along your tendons. The crackling of your joints ignites your system. You stare at the ceiling and your reasons for wanting to fight become clear as crystal.
Hopping into the ring with a stranger is the obvious next step in your evolution.
FOUR WEEKS EARLIER
“For real?” Coach asks when you tell him about your desire to enter the ring and get punched in the face. He’s trying, but failing, to keep his expression neutral—both his eyebrows are raised.
You shrug and nod in the affirmative. “All right then,” Coach starts cautiously, “But that’s not going to happen until you have a mouthguard and decent headgear.”
In the long silence that follows he looks at you intently, trying to get a better read, but your poker face is solid. You won’t give anything away, not today.
“I hear you. Headgear. I’m on it,” you say before making a move towards the stairs.
And by the time you board the subway, heading southbound, you have already forgotten about your declaration.
TWO WEEKS EARLIER
Mid-September. The end of the year looms. You have yet to take the plunge and get protection for your head. Coach, who is aware of this fact, starts to dig. He asks casually, “So, what’s happening? Have you bought headgear yet?”
“Tomorrow,” you say, gazing at the floor. Work has been busy. You haven’t had time to look at stuff online but the excuses sound shoddy, even to your ears. What you should say is, “Getting my face bashed in makes me queasy. It’s why I’ve held off on the purchase.”
But as you pat yourself dry after your shower, you resolve to get your house in order. Being scared is one thing. Quitting is another.
Tomorrow, you say to your reflection in the mirror, whispering it over and over until it becomes a mantra.
EIGHT DAYS EARLIER
There is a lot to sift through. Headgear comes in all shapes and sizes. The trimmings are endless. Open face. Velcro straps. Two-inch padding. Ties in the back. Chin protection. A thick nose bar. Some even come with plastic or wire caging.
The first link you click takes you to a page with, what looks like, a catcher’s mask. The item isn’t meant for baseball players, however. It is a medieval face shield for those who want to stop punches from making contact.
You stare at the picture. Your heart skips a beat. The air in the room thins out. Although you weren’t frightened five minutes ago, you are beyond terrified now.
It takes roughly 4,000 newtons of force to crack bone.
You shake your head. What the fuck have I gotten myself into?
FIVE DAYS EARLIER
Surrounded by gloves, hand wraps, gis, and boxing shorts, you claw at the contraption on your head. The lower part pushes against your neck, causing your carotid artery to throb. Your friend Jo, who is there to provide moral support, tugs the velcro strap. She pulls the gear off your head.
“So, that’s not for you. Why don’t give this a go?” She points to a plush brown and black item on the top shelf.
Far from pretty, it feels like a pillow. You’d probably be able to take several hits and not feel a thing. Yet, Jo points out things worth considering. This one is heavy and will weigh you down. Also, if you’re unable to see her as she talks it means your peripheral vision is limited.
“Nope. Take it off,” she says, looking at the shelves again. “That one might be better?” She points at something less bulky. The guy working the floor takes down the cherry red headpiece and hands it to you. Unlike the others, this one slips easily over your head.
Not bad, you think, moving from side to side. You don’t feel boxed in. It is just tight enough. Jo agrees. “You look more comfortable. And there’s less padding, but at least you can see your opponent.”
The guy from the store cuts into your conversation. “What do you know about headgear?” he asks. The question is directed to the one person, aside from Coach, you want in your corner.
Jo deadpans as she adjusts the straps, locking you in. “Absolutely nothing,” she says.
Although it is mildly ridiculous, you wear your headgear around the flat. Moving from room to room, you bob and weave, slip and roll. This is how you make peace with the torture device circling your skull. It is how you come to terms with getting hit.
It’s a way to get rid of that fresh, out-of-the-bag, novice smell.
And when not on your head, your gear lives in your gym bag with your gloves and electric blue shoes. Coach is aware you finally did the deed (mouthguard included). All that’s left to do now is wait. One day soon he will tell you to gear up.
Baby, it’s time to get down and dirty.
There’s a whole new level for you to try and power through.