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Black Belts & Bruises

“Rub it!” Jacob yelled every time I’d take a hit during sparring. While we held back most of the power in our punches and blocks, none of us left martial arts club without bruises. And every wince triggered our black belt instructor’s solution for every minor injury, belted out in an overly cheerful voice. “Rub iiiiiit!”

In high school I’d been the ballerina with hair in a bun and piles of pointe shoes. I spent weekends at Nutcracker rehearsals and stretched on our kitchen counters. Now my appetite for martial arts was insatiable. Awkward as all get out, I bobbed around with my too-thick, frizzy, blah-brown hair in a ponytail and tugged up my baggy sweatpants.

As an eighteen-year-old freshman at college, I knew taekwondo practice wasn’t on my spreadsheet of graduation requirements, but I had perfect attendance for our evenings in the gym. A dozen of us commandeered the cardio room with its wall of full-length mirrors, gleaming wood floor, and concrete block walls painted an indiscriminate shade of blue-green. Jacob and his twin brother, Justin, were both black belts in taekwondo and funneled a tsunami of enthusiasm into teaching us.

“Relax before each punch. If your muscles are totally relaxed before you begin the movement, you can strike with more power.” After hearing this dozens of times, I began feeling the edge of that satisfying snap during drills. We’d practice straight punches until our arms burned. Then blocks. Then sparring. Jacob and Justin would walk down the line yelling for us to kihap.

One night Jacob taught me a few blocks and strikes with his samurai sword, showing me the reverse hand grip and how to sweep the blade in a wide figure eight. We commandeered the central square between the dorms to practice defensive maneuvers. Armed with the sword I easily kept three guys at bay using sharp strikes across my body and having a blast—until we were firmly told to stop playing with weapons in the public.

I enjoyed learning to spar, even though I rarely held my ground against any of the guys. The twins played a rolling commentary of reminders as they evaded my every attempt to score a point. “Keep your guard up.” “Move your feet.” “I said, keep your guard up!”

“Don’t fall on the floor!” Justin’s voice held a ripple of laugher while demanding I obey. Frustrated at once again being knocked on my back during sparring, I rolled up and attacked him with all my (apparently miniscule) fierceness. Almost every punch I threw he blocked with enough power to bruise my arms. I was a kitten attacking a moose.

But I kept rubbing the bruises and showing up to receive more, determined to learn how to defend myself and not be the weak target I appeared on the outside.


“I’ve almost got it memorized.” Pulling the dog-eared Morse Code key from my wallet, I unfolded it on the table in front of Justin. I tapped out a series of dots and dashes with my pencil and he replied with his own halting percussion.

Most of the martial arts club was relaxing in the student lounge after practice, pretending to study but goofing off too much to concentrate. Justin and I were squeezed into one end of a booth practicing our latest game. He’d begun sending me notes in Morse code several weeks ago and been surprised how quickly I memorized the alphabet. Tonight we upped the ante from paper messages to pencil telegraph.

“What about this?” I tapped a few words on his napkin, snorting at the ridiculous face Jacob sent me from the other side of the booth. Dipping fingertips in my water glass, I flicked droplets his way.

Eyebrows furrowed, Justin leaned closer. “Do it one more time, slowly.”

I studied the code, too distracted by an idea to hear him. “I wonder if you could pick up the signal if someone tapped it in your hand or something.”

“Why’d you flick water on me?” Jacob pitched a wadded-up napkin in my direction. His innocent expression was nullified by his next assault of napkin projectiles.

Justin distracted me from a full-fledged war by sliding his arm around me and murmuring, “I know what!” Suddenly our friends’ bantering faded into the background. Justin tapped a message on my shoulder while I tried to focus, despite the distraction of being nestled against his side under his arm.

“H. O. W. How . . . how are you?” Leaning away to keep my face from being awkwardly close to his, I tried not to show that he made my insides twist.

The chemistry between Justin and me added spice to a close friendship that had grown through the year. And I learned just as much about how a man should treat a woman from what Justin didn’t say and do.

One evening we were leaving dinner when he asked me on our first date in his usual no-nonsense way: “I need you to cut my hair. Then I’ll take you to get coffee.”

Nervous but excited I agreed, though I wonder now if he regrets letting me near him with the clippers. We set up our temporary barbershop in the men’s dorm laundry room. Justin bravely–and foolishly–put his appearance for the next few weeks in my incompetent hands.

I remember his calm, patient guidance as I tried not to ruin his hair. And his firm “Stop!” when I accidentally shaved off one of his sideburns. 

Justin didn’t show a hint of frustration. His facial hair was ruined for however long it takes sideburns to regrow, but he didn’t take it out on me. While he never asked me to cut his hair again (smart man–he learned quickly), he still took me out that night and many nights after. We talked over coffee and I absorbed a few truths about how safe, quality men treat women.

Innocent accidents don’t deserve anger. Sometimes small injuries (bruises and sore muscles) can prevent or lessen serious injuries in the future (self defense against an assault). And there’s nothing wrong with rubbing the small bruises, then shrugging and moving on. If only I could rub that missing sideburn and make it regrow faster.