LETTER FROM CAMBRIDGE
A couple of years ago I joined one of those clubs where they teach you how to knock the shit out of other people. The first lesson is how to get the shit knocked out of yourself. The first lesson is all there is. It lasts between eighty and a hundred years, depending on your initial shit content.
• • •
There is no diamond as precious as a tooth, so I shoved a boil-and-bite mouthpiece into my backpack with my cup and jockstrap before I headed for Allston to begin studying Brazilian jiu-jitsu. It was 5:00 a.m. on a January morning in 2008.
The gym was under a laundromat and it smelled like a sweat sock. I looked around and saw an octagonal cage with its door hanging open, a boxing ring, four heavy bags, kettle bells, medicine balls, a rowing machine, interlocking mats on the floor, and a sign in the bathroom that said HEY GENIUS, DO NOT PUT PAPER TOWELS IN THE TOILET.
I signed a standard waiver promising not to sue the management in the extremely probable event of my incurring an injury. I was thirty-three years old, five-ten, one-sixty.
We ran laps and did five hundred sit-ups, a hundred of this, a hundred of that. Then Big Tony knocked me down and sat on my neck for two hours.
Tony had been fighting on the ground for three years, he said. He’d gone to college to be a high-school social-studies teacher, but the job market was unforgiving and he’d adjusted his plan. He was now owner of a successful dog-walking business, not a bad way to spend your days, plenty of sunshine and fresh air.
“Everyone I work with is always happy to see me,” he said. “How many people can say that?”
Tony talked about walking dogs while he pinned me and strangled me, until I tapped him to signal I’d had enough. Choke, tap, release, resume.
“Good grief,” I said, coughing and snorting.
“Three years,” he said.
My neck felt funny and I took a week off to recover. The next Tuesday morning, as I waited in the snow while he searched for his key to the front door, Cristiano said, “Where you been? You standing up today.” He threw me in the cage with Brian, who dragged me by my arm into a side headlock. I slipped his hold as I started to see the twinkling lights, and I cranked his bent arm up behind his back in what my friend Russ used to call a chicken wing. The cops call that a hammerlock. The Brazilians call it a kimura. “Nice one, man,” Brian said, surprised. Then he stomped on me for a little while.
• • •
Ten years ago, after we’d been shooting nine-ball and drinking all day, my old friend Jay insisted on getting into a scuffle with half a defensive line in an empty lot outside the bar where my grandmother used to work at Third and Gaulbert. This was in Louisville.
“You’re all right,” one kid said to me, “but if your friend keeps asking for it, he’s going to get it.”
We’d already made it to my car, safe. Then Jay opened his door and charged at them. He got knocked flat, and the big boy he was tangling with crawled on top of him into what the Brazilians call the mount: sitting on Jay’s chest with his knees up under Jay’s armpits, Donkey Kong–ing on Jay’s face while his confrères egged him on.
All right, I thought, what kind of friend am I, anyway, and I pushed my way into their circle and grabbed the kid on top of Jay by one of his shoulders.
“That’s enough,” I said.
“Tell him to say uncle,” the kid said.
“Say uncle,” I told Jay, and Jay said, “Uncle?”
“Are we straight now?” I said to the kid.
“Yeah. Okay,” he said, and he got up and lumbered back into the bar.
“Open your mouth,” I said to Jay. Two of his teeth were chipped. I put him back in the car and drove him to María’s. I never did know what her story was. I think she loved him and she wanted to marry a U.S. citizen, both of those things.
“Oh God. What you do?” María said, while I stood there propping her boyfriend up on her porch, his bloody face print on my shoulder and chest. “Give him to me. I take care of him.”
Jay called the next morning. “I don’t know what happened, and I don’t want to remember,” he said. “Just tell me one thing. Do you look like me?”
I had to admit that I didn’t. He hung up. I put the phone down and poured half a can of beer into half a glass of tomato juice as the back door opened.
“There’s blood all over the inside of the Pontiac,” my wife said.
And it was more or less in this manner that my wife became, as the years passed, my ex-wife. She moved to Nigeria and took an Islamic name, Djamila. It means beautiful.
• • •
Brazilian jiu-jitsu comes in two flavors. There’s the gi, that heavy cotton jacket you may have seen competitors wearing in judo, and there’s no-gi, which is just what it sounds like. You use the gi’s collar to choke your opponent, and you hold his pants or sleeves to control his movement. It’s hard to escape from the grips and the friction. I wanted to learn about that, too, so I went to a Friday-night gi class.
I had expected my gi to be plain white, but it looked like a cross between subway graffiti and a full-page ad in Cigar Aficionado. On its back was a picture of a pit bull encircled by these words: Gameness means that neither fatigue nor pain will cause the fighter to lose his enthusiasm for fighting contact. I put it on and got to work. We did calisthenics and drilled chokes and armbars for an hour, then we sparred with one another.
At the end of the second hour, the head coach came by with a clipboard and a sign-up sheet. He had gray in his Afro and braces on his teeth.
“How long you practice?”
“This is my third day.”
“You fight at tournament? End of February.”
“If you think it’s all right.”
“Listen,” he said. “After three days, is not like you try to kick nobody in ass or nothing. We go. Fight all day. Then big party. Okay?”
• • •
I chose the gym because the fittest guy I knew—boxer, former NCAA gymnast, marathon runner—had gone to check it out and had gotten a couple of ribs broken for his trouble. That must be the real thing, I thought, that’s the place for me.
It was on my fifth day of training that I realized how high the attrition rate was: many people do not like to get beaten up. I’d expected to be unremittingly dominated for at least six months, but there was a steady supply of beginners each weekend, and a mere eleven hours of experience was enough to provide a slight edge.
I rolled with a big kid and was surprised to find myself in control of the situation. “Come on, mate, get him. What did we just talk about?” his friend yelled from the sidelines.
“But he’s a spider monkey,” the kid said, gasping.
That was me: I was the spider monkey in question. I wrecked him. Then we changed partners and I got crushed by Noah and Courtney and Darryl—rear naked choke, armbar, arm triangle—as if I weren’t even there. I went home and showered and searched for pictures of spider monkeys on the Internet.
• • •
At or around this time I began to become David. I don’t know why. It’s my middle name, but that seemed to be a coincidence.
A lot of people turned around if you said David: David the software designer, Lebanese David, Speedy Dave the ex-boxer, Big David with his big smile and his shaved head, also the other big David with his own shaved head.
There were a lot of bald guys named David, and a preponderance of people named Big—Big Jim, Big John, Big Tony—not in order to differentiate them from, say, Minor Jim or Small Tony, it was just that they were so gigantic it was difficult not to mention it.
I wasn’t big or bald. I was skinny and hairy. People said, “Hey, David,” and I didn’t look up—I didn’t know who I was supposed to be, I didn’t know who they were talking to.
I saw Cristiano again. “So you David now?” he said. “When this happen? Okay, David. Why you don’t training in morning, David? Miss you in morning.”
“Sleep is bad habit, man.”
“Just wait for the summer.”
“Is summer now, already. Come see me in morning, David.”
I had often wondered, filling out government forms that required me to disclose other names by which I might have been known, how a man acquired an alias. We began to get calls at the house from my new friends, wanting to train, looking for Dave.
“How long do you expect to be involved with this crap?” my girlfriend said.
“Go ask Jacob why he wrestled with the angel,” I said. She rolled her eyes.
• • •
At the tournament I fought no-gi, novice class, at 154 pounds. My opponent was five inches shorter than I was, thick and stone-jawed with a silver flat-top.
I scored a smashing single-leg takedown but dropped inside his closed guard and fell victim to his guillotine choke: he looped an arm around what one coach had called my giraffey neck and began to uproot my spine the way you pull a weed out of your garden. It was quick and painful, and I tapped out. I had been training for two months. The forearm I wiped under my nose came away slick with blood.
“You all right, David?” my coach said.
“I’m fine,” I said. And it was true. I mean, I wasn’t David, but I was all right.
Medic to mat four, medic to mat eleven: I had already seen a kid get choked unconscious. I had seen a guy pull on his foot to tighten a figure-four leg choke until he’d sprained his own ankle. I had seen a dislocated shoulder—maybe it wasn’t technically dislocated, but I can promise you that is not where it’s supposed to be located. I had seen a kid go out on a stretcher, his neck strapped to a board. I had seen a broken arm and some broken ribs and plenty of broken toes.
I shook my opponent’s meaty hand. “Good luck,” I said. “Now beat them all. I want to tell my friends I lost to the guy who won this whole division.”
He blinked. “Hey, thanks, man,” he said. Then he beat them all.
I decided not to fight in the next tournament.
J. D. Daniels is the recipient of a 2016 Whiting Writers’ Award and The Paris Review’s 2013 Terry Southern Prize. His “Letter from Majorca” was selected for The Best American Essays 2013. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
YOU MAY ALSO LIKE: