by josef lemoine.
When my wife and I were girlfriend and boyfriend, we watched a UFC match at Hooters with some close friends. We waited outside in line for an hour, maybe an hour and a half, for a table. We finally got one of those tall circular ones you can stand at, close to the register. The place was packed with people in line crowding the entryway right behind my back.
My girlfriend and our friends settled into our tall bar stools, ordered food and drinks, and watched men kick each other’s asses on a huge TV.
It wasn’t long before some large dude rested his foaming glass mug on our table and stood next to me. His arm brushed against my shoulder, his leg against my hip. There they remained. He set his palms wide on the tabletop and stared at the same TV we were watching. Not once in that moment did he acknowledge me or anyone else at our table.
I stole glances at his black goatee, the name of a city tattooed on the side of his neck, and his group of friends clustered behind my back with their shaved heads, oversized white T-shirts, and arms sleeved with faded ink.
My girlfriend started to rise from her seat, jutted her jaw, and said, “Oh, hell no.”
I grabbed her wrist and told her to calm down, to let me figure this out. “I got this,” I whispered.
I’d taken Tae Kwon Do as a child. My mom insisted I learn self-defense like she did from my lolo, her father in the Philippines. I’d gotten really good at all the forms and the contact-free sparring, but I never committed myself to fighting. During matches, I never kicked or punched anyone as hard as I could’ve, afraid that the harder I hit, the harder I’d get struck back.
So, I never got hurt in class.
And the only time I hurt a classmate was when my master asked me to pick an opponent. I chose a doughy kid my age; I think we were ten or eleven at the time. He’d invited me over to his house once. He was sweet and generous, welcoming me to play with any of his toys. I remember his home was super quiet and his parents only let him watch PBS, which was unthinkable to me.
During our Friday afternoon match, on the padded floors in front of our class, he approached, throwing light kicks and soft jabs that never quite reached me. Moments later, I threw a roundhouse kick that sent his sparring helmet flying. He bent over and cried. His dad put an arm around his shoulders and guided him away. I never saw either of them again.
When my dad congratulated me, I quietly smiled, even though I knew I was a coward, even though I’d picked on someone I was sure I could beat.
I never wanted to fight again.
Yet, I hung in there a while, just long enough to fake a bad cold and chicken out of the test that would’ve earned me my black belt.
Life after Tae Kwon Do wasn’t much different: I avoided confrontation when I could. And when threatened, I ended after-school face-offs with swift, perfectly placed kicks to the gut.
But by the age of twenty-nine, I still hadn’t been punched and had no idea how I’d react to a black eye, a bloody nose, a knockout. My growing fear was that I wouldn’t survive either of those. That’s why I started studying mixed martial arts. I found an ex-bouncer/ex-college football star who taught an eclectic array of fighting styles out of a storage unit by the Pasadena freeway. I began classes just a week before that night at Hooters. Right away, I learned a series of chokes and brand new strikes that excited the hell out of me, that made me feel invincible.
So when I looked up at this guy with the tattooed neck, standing at our table at Hooters, I devised a plan: I would politely ask him to step away. If he tried anything, I’d maneuver behind him, wrap my legs around his body, and clamp my arm around his neck until he lost consciousness. I imagined pulling him down on top of me, as if his weight and the force of the fall would have no effect on my thin frame. I imagined using his body to shield me from the kicks and blows and possible knife thrusts I expected his friends to make. That was the plan.
My nerves oddly calmed, but I remained afraid—not so much of getting beat up as being seen as less then a man by my girlfriend, my friends, by groups of perfect strangers. I secretly believed tales of my cowardice could travel from Hooters and across the state, maybe the country. I was sure that would ruin far more than a broken rib or mangled face.
So, I inched my chair closer to the guy and increasingly pressed my elbow against his arm, my knee against his thigh. We were really close to each other.
The guy finally turned to me and said, “Hey, me and my friends ordered some drinks and food. Is it cool if we set our stuff here?”
I mustered the courage to look him dead in the eye and told him that my friends and I had ordered food and drinks as well. “You can keep your stuff here until ours arrives,” I said, “but once our food and drinks get here, you’re going to have to take yours elsewhere.”
Then he said something that took me back. He said, “Just so you know, I’m not trying to invade your territory or anything.” And in my mind, that was exactly what he was trying to do.
But I continued to look him in the eye and said, “Then you and I don’t have a problem.”
He went on to tell me how everyone at this Hooters knew him because he and his boys came here all the time, so if we wanted anything all we’d have to do is ask and he’d hook us up.
I thanked him but told him my friends and I were fine.
Then he asked me my name. I told him it was Joe.
He nodded and said, “That’s my son’s name.”
Then I asked him his name and he said it was Louis.
I said, “Crazy. That’s my dad’s name.”
We both nodded and turned away to face the fighting on the big screen. I thought about my dad and this man’s son. I thought about how this man might be the type of person I could hang out with. I saw us sharing a few beers on a back porch, sometime after midnight, trading tales about being a father and being sons, sharing stories about fighting and retreating, maybe figuring out along the course of countless conversations what it truly means to be a man.
I caught my girlfriend staring at me. I closed my eyes and raised a hand off the table to signal that everything was cool.
And by the time I glanced back to where Louis had stood, then over my shoulder for his friends, they were gone.