My eyes are pointed at the mat because a large man has his hands cupped behind my head. His forearms form a kind of cage around my neck and tilt my head down. His cheek is resting on the back of my skull. I don’t know much about him—his name is Jonathan—but we are locked in an intimate embrace. Both of our T-shirts are dark with sweat. We’re the tallest two people in the room of about fifteen, which is why we’ve been drill partners for the past five weeks of a six-week Muay Thai course.
Muay Thai, or Thai boxing, is a combat sport known as the art of eight limbs. Practitioners strike and block with combinations of fists, elbows, shins, and knees. Tonight we are practicing clinching. It’s like a headlock meant to keep an opponent close enough to be in knee or elbow range.
Jonathan gently brings my head to the same side of his body that’s throwing an up-knee. The hair on his right leg makes contact with my nose first, soft and slow. This is how we learn, soft and slow. The sweat from Jonathan’s forehead and the saliva of his exaggerated exhale rain down upon the back of my head. The question comes again, as it always does in these moments: why am I doing this?
My first answer is that I’m trying to get back into running. This is what I tell people. I tell myself that Muay Thai will strengthen my legs enough to recover from a knee injury that has kept me off the road for nearly two years. I am thirty-four years old now. I say that Muay Thai is a total body workout, a substitution for the triathlons I did for eight years, that I can’t do anymore. I say I looked for a boxing gym and this is the closest thing I could find. Even though I haven’t touched my gloves in ten years. I don’t think too hard about what’s changed, what’s made me want to get back in the ring. I don’t tell anyone the simple answer, that I’m trying to make a baby.
“Weight lifting is supposed to help,” Megan said over the phone. We are on a lunch break phone call.
“Help with what?” I asked.
“Testosterone levels. That and zinc supplements.”
I never saw the results of my sperm test. They went to Megan. She said the fertility doctor said the count looked OK but that other parts of the test had come back inconclusive. This wasn’t much of a surprise. I got the same result on an MRI of my knee when I couldn’t keep still. I doubt my sperm are much better at medical exams than I am. So even though it’s not what “inconclusive” means, Megan and I both assumed it was probably my fault we were having trouble getting pregnant again after the miscarriage.
I am what is politely called “sensitive.” So, I would guess my T levels are lower than, say, Tony Soprano’s or Beowulf’s. My eyes are generally well-lubricated, and totally out of my control in the face of all kinds of mild sentimental stimuli including: when my mother sings about her mother, during Modern Family voiceovers, speeches at milestone birthday parties, and movie trailers that emphasize family, underdogs, social justice, and/or hardship overcome through cooperation. I even teared up when Tony Stark dubbed Spider-Man an Avenger in Infinity War.
“We’ll need to schedule a blood test,” Meg said, “to test your testosterone levels.” Weight lifting, zinc supplements—like prepping for the SAT.
“Can you picture yourself as an old man?” I ask my brother-in-law Davis. We are in a hardwood booth in a Boston tapas restaurant. I am visiting him and my sister Bridget to celebrate her graduation from medical school. It is May 2017, seven months before I will start my Muay Thai training.
“Of course,” Davis says. His eyes squint a bit as his cheeks pull his thick beard up and out with a smile. He sees himself sitting on a porch in the country somewhere with his imagined future sons and their children buzzing about him, alive with movement. I knew his answer before he even gave it. He’s a big fan of cross-fit exercise, the show Vikings, the paleo diet—anything that portrays human existence as a hard-scrabble act of physicality. At the time, Davis was practicing the Russian martial art of Sombo. It would be another year before he got into Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu grappling. I get the sense that the children he plans to have are part of his legacy, the legacy of struggle. His way of staying in the fight, even from the comfort of a rocking chair or the stillness of the grave.
Davis recommended to me a book called King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine, by Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette, and talked to me about the interdependence of these four pillars of manliness. This was, by the way, apropos of nothing. He did not know about my T-level concerns. This is just the kind of book he likes to read and talk about.
At the time of the conversation, I thought to myself, Man, I bet I’ve only got one, maybe one and a half of those four boxes checked. But it’s the title of that book I think of when I ask myself why, after ten years, I’ve gotten back into combat sports. Am I trying to become more of a warrior?
A 2015 University of Michigan study found that merely acting aggressive (through a scripted role play experiment) raised testosterone levels in both male and female participants. If that’s the case, then Muay Thai would help. The class might best be described as aggressive play-acting. When the instructor of my class explains that one throws elbows not to knock someone out, but to cut open their face to blind them with their own blood, it’s clear that I’m not in a boxercise class. New techniques are framed in terms of the damage they deal or the points they earn in competition, not the calories they burn.
But when we practice these techniques, we do so gently. Jonathan, my partner in the class, moves slowly enough for me to put up my guard before he throws his elbow at my forehead like a blade. When he has my head in a clinch, he only pretends to knee all my teeth out. We are only playing. I am here to play, I tell myself. Let the zinc supplements do their work; let Muay Thai do something different.
When the six-week course is finished I am allowed to start sparring. It is light—still pretend fighting—but Jonathan stops coming to the gym. It’s a different kind of learning.
Emily is a frequent participant at these sparring sessions. She has a buzzcut, and a tattoo on her arm that says Not That Hardcore around the picture of a skull. She is a more advanced practitioner than I; she is my gold standard of technique. Emily is compact, moves in calculated increments, and is never caught off balance. Her fists and legs strike and snap back to her body with mechanical efficiency. When I see her smile it is like a miracle of technology because when I watch her fight I forget that she is human. This is what I’m after, I tell myself. Some transcendence of the quagmire of human emotion.
It is not easy for me to breathe after someone has punched me in the face. It is a problem of the blood, not the lungs. Something boils and feels like it needs to be released, and the only pressure relief valve in sight is labelled retaliation. It is a simple, closed system of action and reaction. Primitive in its lack of imagination. I am looking for something more from myself. I think it is good work to make a man less violent. If lower levels of testosterone are what help me be more sensitive, it strikes me as a fair trade.
But as Megan and I tried to conceive for about a year with only an early miscarriage to show for it, I felt I was being biologically punished for my efforts in de-escalation. I pictured my sperm sitting in a circle, cross-legged and still, focusing on their breathing and non-striving ways of being. If any of them did make it to the egg, I saw one holding the door open for the next, both insisting the other go first, a whole line building up, thousands of nervous sperm waiting patiently, paralyzed by politeness. I was ashamed of them, and the judgment made me feel like a bully. Does a man need to be an aggressive member of the species to procreate? This seems unfair and, if we’re looking to populate a more peaceful world, counterproductive.
“I want to work on technique,” I tell a classmate when he asks if I want to spar. “I am looking to move my body in concert with itself.”
He nods in the way people nod when they are confronted with unexpected honesty. I am in this to dance, I tell myself. I rock my weight back and forth over my feet and prepare to throw my shins at his ribs like an unhinged Rockette.
This classmate is roughly my height, with probably fifty pounds on me. The bell dings. We bounce on our feet and glide around the mat. I throw my combinations in slow-motion, making sure to rotate my hips and shoulders, making sure to rob the movement of any power even as I move with strength. I am trying to learn. I am trying to communicate with myself.
My partner takes advantage. With every slow, telegraphed move of my hand away from my face, he throws a counter into one of the openings that leave me vulnerable. He boxes my ears and stings my nose. I throw a kick so slow it is practically a pantomime; he catches my leg at the ankle and wrenches my groin apart. He is not playing the same game I am.
I start sending punches a little faster, but still with no power. He walks into a couple, and even the slow force of my fist snaps his skull back a bit. I see some switch inside him flip. He starts to move faster.
As things speed up, though, my technique fades. I find my hands and limbs in places I’d never seen them during the previous two months of classes. I do what I have to do to cover up, protect myself. It is pure instinct. I feel myself losing whatever young skills I had spent weeks developing. He draws me back into some survival thing that feels old and played out. I start to hate him for it.
I hate his stupid sweaty hair and his hairy neck and his thick meaty back and his trunkish legs. I hate that he thinks he is better than I am; I hate that he is. I feel the drop of berserker poison hit my bloodstream. I no longer care that he is a pretty nice guy, or that he is one of the only people at the gym who says hi to me, or that his thin hair and round face make him look like an old baby. I want to hurt him.
I almost manage to breathe through the urge. I almost see something in myself that transcends retaliation. But instead I yank the lever on that familiar valve and throw a rear foot push kick into his gut. It has more force behind it than I intend. It wasn’t meant to hurt him, really, but as soon as I let it go I know that it is coming from my bruised ego.
I can’t honestly say that when I stand face to face with someone looking to do me some consensual, regulated harm that I’m thinking much about increased T levels or future children. At best these consequences would be beneficial byproducts. I have to acknowledge that I’m in this for me. I want to make me better. I want to be a better fighter, a better dancer. And ego makes me sloppy.
So when I threw that kick I could tell I was flailing, off-balance, throwing any move I remembered from the previous six weeks of classes. I had abandoned the slow and mechanical technique because I was tired of my classmate’s cheap shots. And when I threw the push kick, my right foot’s ring-finger toe was the first to hit the flabby part of his belly, and the soft tissue snagged my toe and bent it out of place. I limped for two weeks; it did not heal straight. I still tape that toe when I spar.
When I see the white, waterproof athletic tape wrapped around that toe and its neighbor, it’s a reminder to me that when I lose my temper, I’m the one who pays, one way or another. Maybe I’ll jam my toe, or break it. Maybe I’ll see a version of myself I don’t want anyone else to see. Maybe I’ll see a burden of personality I don’t wish upon a daughter or son.
I do not recognize my thighs in the full-length mirror of the basement guest room that doubles as a workout space.
“Nice jamones,” Meg says when she pops her head in the door, “we could string those up raw and hang ‘em in a Spanish tavern.”
I ask Meg if she wants to see my kicks on the heavy bag. She says yes like always and then says “wow” like I am a child showing off (which I am, like always). I recover from the kick and get back into my Thai cadence. I perch on the balls of my bare feet, shoulder width apart, offset as if standing on opposite corners of a square, and rock my weight from foot to foot. My body is upright and still as can be in the center of my feet, each leg taking on the quick burden of my whole frame for half of the one-two count, the other leg free to be raised as a block or thrown as a kick. My fists, wrapped in cloth, hover near my chin, ready to cover my face, my ear, my lower jaw. My upper arms are tight against my rib cage. I move to the beat of unheard music. I am dancing.
I ask Meg what kind of animal I look like.
“A giraffe,” she says, “the way you kick your leg out like that.”
“Not because of your neck,” she adds quickly, “because giraffes have strong legs.”
“What about a bird?” I ask.
“Oh yeah,” she says, “I can see that. Like a bird doing a mating dance. A bird of paradise.”
I’ll take it.
Devin Donovan’s writing has appeared in The Windsor Review, Badlands Literary Journal, Mantis and elsewhere. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, USA where he teaches Writing & Critical Inquiry at The University of Virginia.