I never wanted to study martial arts. In fact, my life’s plan was headed in an entirely different direction. That was until a fateful night in 1990.
“How many times have you been stabbed?”
The question from the EMT was jarring, and thankfully so, as it distracted me from the huddle of wide-eyed faces staring down at me, as I lay bleeding in the white-tiled and mauve-carpeted lobby of my friend's apartment building. There was a lot of blood, and it was still hard to admit that it was mine. Regardless, I didn’t know the answer to the question.
“Cut ‘em off,” the EMT ordered to his partner.
His partner, kneeling on one side of me, acknowledged the request by producing two pairs of scissors, and then they both began cutting off my clothes. Jesus, really? I was concerned as they were my best pair of jeans. Damn. Also, modest though I was, they cut away my clothes as the crowd looked on.
They rolled me over one time as one of them counted.
“One, two…three, four…five.”
“What are you counting?” I asked.
“Your stab wounds.”
The gurney busted through the doors of the trauma center just like they did on Emergency. The lights passed quickly overhead, and the nurses and doctors wore concerned faces as they ran alongside. There were shouts of medical acronyms and requests for CCs of this, and to start an IV of that. For a time, more than five people were attending to me. Bandages, stitches, the occasional needle. “You will feel this,” they said, and then I did.
After a time, the activity began to slow, and like my popularity in school, my attention in the ER was short-lived. More patients streamed into the trauma center, all exploding through the doors as I had, and going through the same process. Sometime later, the police arrived.
“These officers are going to ask you some questions,” the nurse stated and walked away.
The two officers, one male, and one female stood on either side of the gurney. One officer checked his watch, wrote something, and then went through the standard fare of name, address, age, etc., and wrote everything down on his clipboard.
“What?” I questioned.
“Are you in a gang?” he repeated.
“He’s not in a gang,” the female officer said, dismissively, but with a reassuring smile. Her partner ticked a box on the clipboard, then folded over a page and readied his pen.
“All right, can you tell us what happened?”
The door to my hospital room was left slightly open, and the amber light from the hall slouched through the crack just enough to keep the room from complete darkness. It was quiet, and at some point, I fell asleep. But then, suddenly, I was wide awake, sweating. It was like all the adrenaline in my body decided to show up at once. The night nurse came through soon after.
“Are you all right? Are you in pain?” Her lilting English accent was soothing to my ears. In the room’s soft glow, I could just make out her kind expression.
About one week later…
It was late at night. The traffic light turned red and our car came to a stop. I was a passenger in the front seat. My legs were weak, as the wounds were still healing, and it was too difficult for me to drive.
Three men sauntered into the street as if to cross while the light was red. They slowed and began staring menacingly at the cars. They made dramatic motions to demonstrate that they couldn’t be stopped. One of them locked eyes with me and slowly walked in front of our car. The other two followed. The light changed, but they stayed where they were. They blocked the lane so the car couldn’t move and continued to stare. It was unnerving. The driver tried to act like it wasn’t a big deal. “C’mon jerk, get out of the way,” they said, or something like that. I just remember that the three of them didn’t move and then tremendous fear.
My heart began to race, and I could feel the adrenaline dump hit my system and cascade through my body like a tidal wave of anxiety breaking over me. Perspiration came quickly, and my breath became hard to catch. No air.
There were three of them. Just like that night.
My back was against a cinder block wall a few steps from the lights of the street. Three men held me there. They were so close that I could smell their foul breath. The one in the middle had a knife under my chin, and I could feel the point of it. The other two were on either side of me. Close.
First, they removed my jacket. It was the best jacket I ever owned. My brother gave it to me. It was leather. I hated to see them take it. The other two went through my pockets. The knife stayed under my chin.
One of them gave my wallet to the guy with the knife and he opened it and looked in it.
“How much is in here?”
Why was he asking me? He had just looked in it. He knew there was only $2.00. I knew that was bad, and I suppose my body did too, as it became a shaking, quivering mass as it tried to metabolize the terror of the realization that I was in real danger. When I looked at their faces, it struck me that there was excitement in their eyes. The giggling from the one on my left, the bigger of the three, told me that they were enjoying this. It was some kind of cruel amusement.
I don’t know exactly what triggered it, but suddenly there was a rain of blows, and I could see a silhouette of a figure swinging the knife. Though I could see it, and I knew it was happening, it didn’t seem real. I don’t know how long it went on. Seconds, probably. The flurry of violence was interrupted by a car skidding to a stop. They all raced to get in. I was on the ground and tried to stand.
“He’s getting up!”
Suddenly, standing seemed like a profoundly bad idea, at that moment, and my body accommodated the situation. My leg collapsed, though I didn’t know why yet. Satisfied with me back on the ground, they sped off. What if they come back? My friends lived close by. I would try to make it to their building.
I struggled to my feet and stood, leaning on a parked car. The air was cool and the street was eerily quiet, except for one lone voice shouting into the night from somewhere nearby. I looked down. I saw blood. A dark crimson pool glistened in the pale gold streetlight.
My shirt stuck to me. I was still sweating from the test. I thought I did pretty well, but you never know. My teacher was tough. Tough but fair, as they say. It wasn’t just his decision though. They all had to agree.
Soon after, all of us kneeled in a line and everyone got a new black belt positioned in front of them, except for me. Mine was old. It was worn and faded. It looked more gray than black. It was familiar. I recognized the marks from where the patches had been. Then the penny dropped, and I realized that it was my teacher’s old black belt. It was the black belt he was wearing when I came in that first night, frightened and skeptical that anything would have helped me then, or could help me later. It was the belt he was wearing when he taught me my first lesson, and when I decided to take a chance on something completely out of my comfort zone. When instructed to, I picked it up. It felt good in my hands. I put it on.
I wasn’t afraid.