I knew for sure that I was a loser by the third time my sensei told me that I wasn’t ready for the advanced class. Failing was a given the first time I took the exam. I was still new and my kata was sloppy. I’d misplaced a foot during “Hidden Hand,” and forgot where I was in the middle of “Inverted Mercy,” having to start over from the beginning in front of everyone. Sensei Tom didn’t say anything when I made the mistakes. He kept his hands on his knees and watched from the side of the mat, his bird-like eyes taking in every detail. I knew I was boned before it was over, so I was actually excited when he told me to practice more and try again.
I wasn’t interested in karate when I started. My parents were in the process of getting a divorce and the dojo was right next to their lawyer’s office. They made me sign up as a way to keep me occupied while they argued over who would get what, and where I was going to live. I decided I liked it though. Getting to hit something every week was pretty therapeutic, so I started going to all of the classes.
I spent hours running through the forms after my first failure, every morning before I went to school and every night in class. I ate, shit and breathed Kenpo. During my second exam, I glided through our most complex form, the Bokanku, like it was the Macarena.
Why be modest? I knew I was going to pass. I was better than the other students. I knocked most of them on their asses. Jordan scored higher than me on the sparing round, but he was three times my size. It didn’t seem fair to expect anything else.
But somehow I didn’t pass. Sensei Tom watched my demonstrations in silence, then gave his judgment and repeated his earlier advice. I was surprised, but I didn’t let it show. My mom didn’t take Sensei Tom very seriously. She laughed about how silly it was for a white man living in Santa Fe to keep his hair in a topknot, like he was some kind of samurai warrior. I’d heard her call him a hipster douche-bag to her new boyfriend, but she didn’t know what she was talking about. I’d seen him spar. Sensei Tom fought like a lion.
“You’ve made a lot of progress,” he said. “Keep practicing and try again.”
The third time, I didn’t hold back an inch. I went through the kata, my body a metronome, each punch and kick struck out with methodical precision. There were no flaws to be picked apart by prying eyes. Then we moved on to the sparing round and I crushed everyone brave enough to put on a set of pads. I gave Jordan a quick punch to the solar plexus, and then kicked him in the nose while he was gasping. I could feel the cartilage crunch against my heel, before he hit the mat like a wet towel.
I felt kind of bad for dropping him that way, but taking him by surprise was the only way to win. It was quick, clean and efficient. I waited for Sensei Tom to announce that I was moving forward, but he just gave me that same impassive stare, like a cat, lazily watching something out the window.
He had to move me forward this time, didn’t he? My form was perfect and I’d beaten everyone. I’d practiced every day for weeks. No one could touch me. He had to.
“Well,” I asked when I couldn’t hold the anticipation in any longer.
“Well what?” he retorted.
“Am I moving to the advanced class?”
He didn’t answer right away, glancing at a crimson smear against the white vinyl floor and back to me. He raised his eyebrows, as if to ask what I thought about it.
“He was too big,” I said. “I had to hit pressure points, hard and fast. He’d have killed me if I didn’t.”
“I don’t think Jordan was planning to kill you in front of this many witnesses,” he said, smirking a little.
“You know what I mean. I would have lost.”
“Is losing all you think about?”
“Am I in the class or not?” I asked, this time with a little less patience. It felt like he was toying with me and I couldn’t figure out why. The tip of my tongue pushed hard into the gap between my teeth and the hard rubber of my mouth guard.
“Keep practicing and try again.”
I felt my stomach drop into my sparing pads. He said it in the same way he’d said it the first time, like it was an invitation. But my performance tonight was perfect. How was I supposed to do better than that?
“What are you expecting from me?” I asked, not bothering to hide my frustration. “What specifically do you want me to improve? Do you have any advice, or should I just keep coming back here for you to say no over and over?”
There was some indignant murmuring from the back of the room where the other kids were kneeling, but more than a few of them sounded like they agreed. It was as hard on them as it was on me for us to stay in the same group. It didn’t make sense. I deserved to be in the advanced class, and they all knew it.
Sensei Tom got up from the floor. His gi was starched into clean folds that crossed his chest in even lines. It looked crisp and new, contrasting the faded black cotton belt that held it together. You could still see that it was black at the tips, but the knot and the waist were worn to a pale grey from years of sweat and friction. Anyone can grow a topknot, but a belt like that has to be earned.
I watched his bare feet skim the surface of the mat as he stalked across the dojo. His face was framed with dark hair and a beard that made his cobalt eyes seem all the more intense. He was a head and a half taller than me and had a lean build that wasn’t common in adults. He didn’t stop until he was towering over me. If he were a girl at a school dance, Mrs. Feldman would have pushed us apart, telling us to “leave room for Jesus.”
I couldn’t suppress a small cringe. My foot slid subconsciously into a defensive stance, the same easy footing I’d stepped through hundreds of times during my kata, till now it was as natural as fear under the eye of a predator. His eyebrows creased together as he looked down at my posture.
“Are you planning to fight me?” he asked, like it was a joke, like he was talking to a puppy, baring it’s little teeth when it still had trouble finding the coordination to walk, but there was the barest hint of alarm under the sarcasm. He wasn’t afraid to fight me, was he?
No, that would be ridiculous. Even if he weren’t a grown ass man, with all the muscles and bulk my scrawny limbs were still struggling to grow, Sensei Tom was an eighth-degree black belt. He’d been immersed in Kenpo for so long that you could see it in his step, even when he wore jeans. So why did he look nervous?
“No sensei, I don’t want to fight.”
He watched me for a moment longer. I could feel him looking me over, searching for something. I forced myself to look into his eyes, but I didn’t know how to show him what he wanted to see.
“Try again next time,” he said. “You’ve almost got it. Forget about the sparing matches. I want you to really focus on the kata.”
“Did I make a mistake?” I asked, knowing full well that I didn’t.
“You’ve got the motions down,” he conceded, clapping me on the shoulder and shaking me out of my ridged stance. “You just aren’t feeling them yet. Focus on “Tranquil Force.” That’s the one that helps me.”
My mom drove me home when the test ended.
“How’d it go?” she asked. “Are you going to be starting the late class now?”
“No, Tom says I have to take the test again. He wants me to keep practicing my kata.”
“Wasn’t this the second time already?”
“Really? Why won’t he just pass you then? It’s only karate.”
Mom complained about him for a while, venting that he always seemed like the kind of guy who’d hold other people back just to make himself seem important. I think she was trying to cheer me up, but I knew she wasn’t really talking about Tom because she didn’t mention the topknot.
It was a relief when we pulled into the driveway. I grabbed my duffle from the backseat and kicked my heels all the way to the front door.
“Hey buddy, how’d it go?” came Jack’s voice from the living room.
“He didn’t get in,” my mom said, taking off her coat and hanging it behind the door. “Tom told him to try again.”
“Bummer,” he said, his voice floating through the doorway on waves of thick sincerity. “Wasn’t this your second try already?”
“Third,” my mom said.
“Wow, that’s rough. But hey, you just keep getting back on that horse, you know? You only lose when you give up. I know you’ll get it.”
My mom’s heels clicked as she walked into the living room to give Jack his hello kiss, to sit with him in my dad’s chair as he ate his reheated lasagna and watched reruns of Punky Brewster. My stomach grumbled, but I didn’t think I could bring myself to eat.
Instead, I headed up to my room to practice my kata in front of the mirror bolted to the back of my door. I started with “Tranquil Force,” like Sensei Tom suggested.
I didn’t know what he meant when he told me to feel it, but I tried it anyway. At first I was focusing on the form, the placement of my feet, the even force and motion of my fists. I watched in the yellow reflection as my body moved methodically through the steps, with each strike identical to the last and every kick a metronome of flawless motion.
Practicing didn’t help. It was perfect, even easy. There was nothing in the form to improve. Why was he wasting my time? Why did he insist on keeping me stranded in the beginner’s class when I was obviously ready for more?
I took a deep breath and moved through it again. When that was over, I did it a third time, then a fourth. I’d stopped keeping count when something strange started to happen. My arms were tired, so my punches lost some of their luster. My knees started to make weird popping sounds from the strain of the low steps and snapping kicks. The mirror showed me all of the mistakes I was making as my arms drew heavily from block, to strike and back.
It was infuriating. I wanted to get it right. It needed to be perfect. I was sick of everything in my life spinning further and further out of my control, but even as I started to slip, I could feel a change in the way I was transitioning through the kata.
Instead of a rhythmic march from one step to the next, I was dancing through them. Dancing like a drunk man, with arms made of lead, who could barely keep his feet, but still, not falling. I felt the breath in my lungs traveling to my aching muscles and pushing them to strike, then block, and then strike again.
I was just spinning after a while, turning through, and through each motion without fighting. It wasn’t pretty, if it was anything, but I think I felt what Sensei Tom meant. Letting go was hard. Letting yourself go is even harder, but it’s the only way to move forward. Otherwise you’re just a loser.
I took a deep breath and finally allowed myself to collapse on the bed. I felt raw, like a heavy suit of lacquered samurai armor had been stripped away, leaving baby-pink skin to scream in the open air. I wanted water, but couldn’t summon the strength to get up. Thoughts drifted through my mind, light as summer clouds.
Maybe I’ll grow a topknot? Mom would hate that.