Earnest Words

Trials of Sport

Written in


Based on my most recent post, I realized that I should just try to post all the things that I’ve got stored up on my computer. Here’s one of my better short stories. I wrote it leading into my creative writing workshop at UCLA and, reading it again, it’s definitely one of the better things I’ve written.

It’s fiction — although I did go to a Tae Kwon Do class when I was about 7 and witnessed something similar to what’s described below. And I did do Tae Kwon Do in college. You can read about it, complete with terrible headlines here (Club offers ample kicks) and here (Martial arts learning experience continues).

When I turned eleven, my father gave up his dreams of me and sports and success.  It took shock therapy to transfer some of his zeal to me.

“Son, what do you think of the martial arts?” my father had asked me during a mysterious twilight car ride. “You know, like Karate,” he added, when he sensed I hadn’t understood.

“Ooh! Karate would be awesome, Dad!”

He slapped the steering wheel and smiled widely.  “Well, I’m taking you to Taekwondo!”

“Oh.” I wondered what Taekwondo was.  Maybe it was super Karate.  I imagined me balancing on rocks in twenty-foot surf, me crushing steel blocks to powder, me catching flies with chopsticks, me beating up hordes of bad guys while my father looked on proudly.

In reality, my father frowned at me because I wasn’t responding enthusiastically.  I don’t know what he expected.  I was benched in soccer for growling at the other team, but he said I was too young to understand.  During baseball, a pitch got away from him and broke my right hand, but he said that was just bad luck and he was really sorry.  I forgave him.  The football coach put me as kicker, which would have been fine, but we never scored.  My ears got infected swimming and wrestling, and I couldn’t clear the net in tennis.  Taekwondo was probably next on the list.  But I don’t think I knew this at the time.

“Well, son?” he asked. “Will you give it a try?”

I did want to give it a try, but I shrugged.  He always asked if I would give something a try.  But I didn’t want to crush him, so I said, “Yeah, Dad. This’ll be fun.”

He smiled thankfully and turned right.  We were surrounded by a business park. Six cars congregated around a fluorescent sign that read “Taekwondo” and a lighted panel window.  My father parked and made it seven.  Before we went inside, he grabbed both my shoulders and squeezed in the way that good fathers do.  Then he grabbed the door handle and we entered a wood-paneled room.

A large man to our left was kicking a hanging bag and coating himself in ceiling dust.  There were other kids around, doing martial-artsy things, but I had eyes only for the big man. He looked like a statue with his white robe and black belt and bronze skin and oiled muscles.

“Here for Taekwondo?” he asked after a final, tremendous kick.  His voice could break boards.  I was disappointed with his lack of accent.

My father nodded, too awed to speak.

“You can’t come on the floor tonight.” He waved an arm to his students, replicas with technicolor belts. “They’re testing to move up a belt.  You can’t start today. You can watch.  Sign here.”  The big man conjured a wavier–maybe he had one up his sleeve–and gave it to my father, who signed it for both of us.  Before he finished, the black belt snatched it back.

The big man trotted onto the wood floor and yelled. The twenty kids jumped to attention. My father looked at me again, asking, “Well?”

“This will be great, Dad.”  I think he knew something was wrong at this point.  I did not.

Twenty minutes later, I watched saucer-eyed as a boy with a blue belt kicked another boy with a green belt in the face.  Then in the groin.

My father grabbed my hand. Two more to the face.  One to the chest.

My father grabbed my other wrist.  Another to the groin.

My father picked me up.  The green belt finally started to cry.

My father reached the door when the master reached the abused boy on the ground.

“What do you do when you are hurt?” the big man screamed an inch from the boy’s face.  What do you do when you are hurt?

I couldn’t hear the boy’s answer through his sobs.

Next thing I knew, we were driving home.  My father’s face was very pale.

“Dad?” I asked quietly. “Are you okay?”

He kneaded his lip with his thumb and forefinger and ignored me.

“Dad, does that usually happen?”  The engine punctuated the silence with a shift.

“Mark, sometimes I think I want you to do too much.”  My father only calls me by my name when he’s upset.  I should have realized this, but I wanted him to answer my question.

“Yeah, but–”

“I love you, Mark, and I only want the best for you.  You know that, don’t you?”  The last time he said that to me, he had just finished telling the nurse how I broke my hand.  I stuck my nose to the window glass and depression set in.  Here it comes.

“I’m sorry, Mark.  I’m really sorry.  You should have never seen that; I should have never let you see that.” He stopped for long enough for my hope to rejuvenate.  Maybe he would take me back.  He might have been sorry, but I had never seen anything so incredible in my life.  I was eleven and saw another boy get yelled at for being beaten up.  And that made me want to take a punch in the gut and deal one right back.  This may have been my father’s objection.

He apologized to me on the ride home, but I was lost in my dreams.  He interpreted this as emotional scarring–he must have– because the following summer, he got me marimba lessons.

Seven years later and it was testing day, again.

I had told my dad the truth twelve weeks earlier, over the phone.  I told him that I really wanted to try martial arts and it was through the college and it was Taekwondo and that he shouldn’t be afraid because I was going to make him proud like I hadn’t before. He didn’t respond well. Now I wasn’t sure if he was to show up for the examination–I hadn’t seen him in the crowd bordering the mats.  That might have been all I really wanted.

I was in my own white robe with a white belt securely around my waist and I was staring my sparring partner in the eye.  His red beanie wasn’t part of the uniform but I wasn’t going to say anything.  I didn’t want to open my mouth; I might dry-heave or say something similarly vacuous.


Jake stepped to our side after shouting and I stood to attention.  My partner slouched straighter.  Jake was the captain of the university’s Taekwondo team, and the opposite of my childhood instructor:  Jake was lithe, caring, and inclusive.  Maybe too much so.

I hadn’t sparred with Gus before, the man across from me.  I had avoided him since the first class.  He smelled like old, fried socks and could put his legs behind his head.  Gus might have been courteous, knowledgeable, and a friend in other circumstances.  But I knew him from Taekwondo.

“Are you okay, Mark?” Jake asked quietly.  I had done well on the other parts of the exam.  But I was swaying, I was so nervous.  I may have felt like I couldn’t sweat, but the room was a sauna so I was dripping.  Regret and fear, too?

I nodded away my doubts.  Jake shrugged told Gus and I to bow.

We did so and stared each other down.  You were supposed to glare at your opponenteven if he was your best friendin order to intimidate him.  Usually, this made me giggle, but now I imagined Gus talking to my father in the hospital: “Honestly, sir, I don’t know what happened.  We bowed and he fainted.”

Choon-bi!” I straightened up and stepped my right foot back.  Gus was left-footed, which made him look off-balance.  I had to be careful.

Shijak!” The duel began.

I bounced back immediately.  Gus also had more reach than I did, so I’d have to fool him to score a point, to get inside and slap my foot on his chest protector.  Jake told us scoring wouldn’t matter for our belts, but he said a lot of things he thought were reassuring.

“Point!” the audience screamed when I popped one off Gus’s chest.  I’d drawn a kick and scooted under his follow-through with a roundhouse.  I continued to close the distance; if you touched chest protectors, the referee would allow you to separate. That was what had happened before.

But Gus punched me four times in the chest, then pushed me away and tried to kick me in the head.  I dodged it but was shocked.  I wanted to yell, “He hit me! He tried to kick me!”

Instead, we circled again, making mock charges, yelling wordless threats, aiming a kick or two.  I suspected that real world fights weren’t this deliberate, but I had no experience.  My marimba playing limited me severely.

A few minutes passed with incidental contact.  We traded two solid kicks.

“Ten seconds left,” Jake said.

Hai!” Gus stepped forward into a mock charge.  I stood my ground and missed with a roundhouse.  I stepped down and began stepping back.  Then I saw Gus’s haymaker whistling toward my open right side and tried to block it.


“You punched me in the hand!” I whined, hopping away and holding my right fist. “You punched me in the hand!”

Also unlike the real world, or previous Taekwondo lessons, fights stop when someone gets hurt.  As Jake says, “We’re trying to hurt each other, but not trying to hurt each other.”  It’s another of those things he says.

Gus had a look on his face that said, “I didn’t mean to,” which was stupid. Of course he had meant to; he just didn’t mean to hit me in the hand.

I stuck my hand between my legs and hopped in circles, cursing.  What was Gus doing punching, anyway?  Was he absent the class Jake explained the scoring system? Punches weren’t thrown because they didn’t score points.  Punching was for the Japanese or losers.

“Here.  Let me see it,” Jake said quietly, and touched my hand.  I yelped in protest.

“It’s probably broken, then.  Might want to get it checked out.” He paused before yelling to the crowd. “That does it!  We’re done!”  We were the last pair to fight.

Gus and I bowed at each other, Gus apologetic and me grimacing.

“No hard feelings?” he asked with genuine concern.

“Depends on how bad it is,” I said and he when he looked alarmed, I added, “Relax, I’m kidding.  I’ve broken it … before.…”

I trailed off because I saw my father standing in the doorway.  It felt like the world stopped and my hand fell off.  I pushed my way through the crowd until we were face-to-face.  Then I saw his shirt close-up as he hugged me harder than he ever had in his life.

“You never asked me to do too much, Dad,” I told his heart.  “I just didn’t know what to do.”

All he could do was cry.


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