He turned his head and cupped both hands to shield the all-important sound of the cell-phone call against the harsh wind of a San Francisco afternoon. The agonizing wait for each repeated ring was nothing compared to the disorienting falling sensation he felt for a moment with the long beep and soulless operator voice droning on about “the party you have dialed…”
Ran had to fight the urge to blurt out his message at fast-forward speed. He tried to sound soothing and casual as he said, “Hello, Samantha? It’s me, Randy. I don’t want to miss meeting you, so I’m rushing back to the Cafe. My friend and I talked longer than I planned. You’ve got to call me back – you’re unforgettable, so please call me – otherwise, I’ll…”
“Buenos tar-rdes, R-randy,” she slightly trilled the R’s, musical ear-candy for him, “and call me Sam. I heard it ring – I just let you talk to hear your voice.” She spoke low and smooth as if confiding a juicy secret.
“Sorry, Sam – you must be hungry and tired – you were on your feet all day. I’m excited to see you, but be honest – if you need it, I’ll take a rain-check for another night’s dinner – then I’ll go home and cry all night.”
“Ai, pobrecito! I’m already home – come work out with me or I can’t afford the Irish Coffee calories later. The gym’s not far from mi tia – my aunt’s place. Is it okay if we stop in and see her after? I mean, if you don’t mind…”
“Stop it – I’d love to meet your aunt; how else will I learn all about you? What’s your work-out routine? Are you on your cell – good. Text me the gym’s address, I’ll pick up some sweats and meet you there.”
Clicking keys, he ducked into a Walgreens, and equipped himself on a brisk walk up and down the aisles. Finding an open check-out line, he charged his work-out wear, bottled waters and a gym bag to a barely-ever used platinum card, thanked the cashier, and ran to a littered bus-stop.
Eighteen minutes later, the MUNI hybrid-electric had wound its way from Market Street to the no-man’s land between Balboa Park, Excelsior and the Mission. Ran got off at a graffitti-stained corner and saw across Geneva a gaudy banner showing a pair of boxing gloves floating before and after the graphic of a pugilist’s title belt, over which read the name STANDING 8 FIGHT TRAINING. He double-checked the address, then ventured inside the dingey brick façade.
Down a sticky half-flight of stairs, he entered a stifling, dimly lit tunnel with overhead piping, locked grey doors and every twenty feet, a worn-out, flickering, fluorescent bulb. These lights signaled U-turns onto further downward tunnels. Twice during the subterranean descent, he passed sweat-soaked, winded boxers, a bantam and a middle-heavy weight.
Ran counted the turns, one-two-three ’til he emerged into a seedy, dilapidated lobby of sorts. Boxers, trainers and assorted other hustling creatures of the amateur boxing underbelly milled about in small groups. They whispered or sat in broken-down folding chairs across from ‘Customer Service’ (a bullet-proof fiberglass window as in a high security bank, complete with microphone and pneumatic drawers for exchange of paperwork). Ran nervously wondered whether Sam would ever really enter such an establishment.
The fat, bearded attendant spoke into the staticky speaker: “Hey – Pony Tail! What are you doing here? Did you come in to get pounded or are you lost, brother?”
For a moment, every eye in the dank place turned to him, then back to its own secretive concerns. Ran hurried through the assembled groups, signed the registration book Randy Stapleton and spoke into the microphone on his side of the glass, “Uh, I’m a guest, I guess – first time – is Samantha Orsua here?”
The man looked incredulous. “Sam – you sure? She comes in with the ladies Tuesday-Thursday for Tae-bo and kick-boxing. Buddy, you can wait here, but she’s not scheduled -“
An equally heavy-set woman behind the counter whispered something, showed him a clipboard and returned to her desk.
“Oh – you’re Randy – right; sorry, I didn’t know – She-” (he jammed the thumb over his shoulder at his co-worker) “-rented the gym to you guys. Sam should be in about now. Here’s your guest pass.”
He shoved a laminated clip-card through the pneumatic chamber (GUEST OF Samantha Orsua), and said “Men’s locker t’yer right. Change up. Wait here. Sam’s comin’.”
After the locker room, Ran struck up a conversation with Omar, a wounded welter-weight boxer standing off to one side on a pair of crutches. The kid was waiting for his physical therapy for rehabilitation from a work injury. All Omar wanted was to return to fighting shape for Golden Gloves.
Amidst Omar’s narrative, Samantha rushed in wearing blue jeans over a black unitard, hair pulled back in a mid-length pony tail. “Omar, you botherin’ my man?” She laughed. Omar, who’d begun bemoaning the local job market, laughed and shook Ran’s hand enthusiastically. “Smooth, Randy. Just don’t make home girl cry – enough of that already, know what I’m sayin’?”
Sam gave Omar a light fist-pump and took Ran by the arm, saying “Mister, you’re nuts hanging out for me here – let’s get sweaty, okay?” She led him through a door to the left. It opened onto a converted wrestling ring with a circle printed on the floor mat, a bell mounted on the wall and a wall-climbing peg-board. Depending from the lowest peg was a reeking fishnet bag full of sweaty, unwashed wrestling uniforms.
Ran spotted the bag, grimaced and muttered, “Sam, let’s stay away from that. I don’t care if you beat me down, but that bag scares me.”
“Funny man,” she smiled. She unbuckled her belt, kicked off her shoes and slid from the jeans. Then she stooped in the unitard to hit the ‘PLAY’ button on a small black boom-box. She retrieved her shoes, saying, “We start like this.”
She showed Ran a footwork sequence as a pounding, repetitive yet danceable rhythm shook the mat with drums and bass. “Okay, Randy – you ever do any fighting?”
“Only in bars. I was a bouncer all across Arizona – Tempe, Tucson, Phoenix, Scottsdale -“
She’d laced up a pair of boxing gloves while he talked and effortlessly laid a light, harmless glove-slap across his eyebrows. “Gotta be quick, big man,” she teased, “if we’re fighting for real, you’re lights out right now, muchacho. Just sparrin’,” she tossed him his own pair of gloves, “I’ll play nice, but in a fight,” he eased the gloves on (right, then left), eyes now trailing her, unblinking as she circled to his left, never breaking the footwork sequence, “in a fight,” she jabbed right, “I cheat.”
She pounced forward, feinted a right cross, then rained jabs left-right-left at his head. She was surprised when he leaned back only slightly, avoiding all her punches and, gloves still unlaced, pulled her arm across him with both gloved hands. She flipped on his extended hip, falling prone on the mat before him. Rounding out the flip-motion, he dropped his other leg over her waist and pinned her, falling to his knees across her navel.
“Only fought in bars,” he repeated, “but I like Aikido better. That way, Sam, you can’t get hurt.” He smiled down at her where she struggled against his weight, raging. He finished lacing the gloves while she growled into a rising shout of frustration, and strained her muscular arms to force him off. Ran began to laugh and said, “Hmm… beautiful girl trapped under me – what ever will I do?”
She scissored her legs around his neck from behind, knocking him flat on his face. “Eat rubber, tough guy, that’s what.”
He scrambled away. They rose and faced each other, easing into the footing as they gave each other several feints and then she cart-wheeled to his right, planting a vicious foot in his lower back that drove him to the floor beneath her.
“You seem nice and all, Randy, but ‘this’,” she indicated her lithe frame, “is too much for you. Do you have any idea how often I was beat up before I started fighting?”
He rose, held his glove out like a police officer signaling oncoming drivers to yield, and walked deliberately to the boom-box. He stooped, hit ‘STOP’ and unbound his gloves. Then he looked her in the eyes where she stood, pumping, juking, jiving.
“Oh, Sam. I’m so sorry. Look, my gloves are off. I’m not gonna move anymore. If you want to take my head off, go ahead. I will never lay a hand on you or hurt you, I swear on everything I believe in. Go ahead. Put me in the hospital, if it helps. I won’t move. I won’t block a punch. I’m right here.”
She was now staring hard back at him, a distrustful grimace of pain as she still circled and feinted. Tears began to streak her face and he faced her, motionless but for rubbing his stiffening lumbar with a hand behind his back. She closed, breath heaving, furious memory blazing in her eyes, and landed blow after blow on his chest.
He fell back in search of breath. At the climbing wall, three feet from the uniform bag, he grappled her into a clinch. His lungs burned and his knees wobbled, threatening to collapse if he couldn’t find oxygen. Somehow he stood and pulled her, sobbing uncontrollably, to him. “Shhh… it’s okay, Sam. I’m not them. I’m not them. It’s okay, darlin’.”
He helplessly stroked her thick chestnut hair, stopping the futile, now ineffectual pump and push of her gloves by holding her hard and close. Finally she was still, and he silently wiped tears and spattered mascara from her face as she looked up at him from an abyss of suffering. At last she sighed, visibly shrinking as the power of anger drained out of her.
“I’m sorry, Randy. I fight so I won’t get hurt, not to attack people.” she sobbed, trying to stifle her tears.
“‘sall good, Sam. I hope I can help you forget all that. That must be what I’m here for.”
She shoved him against the wall, all of her embracing all of him. Still shaking, she kissed his cheeks and lips, softly. “You better mean it, mister,” she whispered. “Don’t ever hit me – I will kill you, no matter how hot you are. Got it straight?”
He held her hands together and kissed them back, trying to pierce the storm in her eyes with his direct gaze. “Damn straight, darlin’.”
“I like that – I’m so over ‘chica’ and ‘baby.’ Are you just saying ‘darlin’? What does it even mean to you?” She asked, searching his eyes.
“You captivate me. You’re fearless. You took a chance on me. I sleepwalk with my eyes open for years. Then I find myself dreaming this adventure with a beautiful woman. I don’t want to wake up. That’s how ‘darling’ you are to me.” Ran’s dirt-road rumble was the only sound in her world. He continued, “One thing about this dream: you’re in control of it. If it’s not right for you, send me away. I’d rather walk. Promise you’ll tell me to go if it’s better for you.”
She stared at him for the longest time, then shrugged against him and slid to a squat against the wall beside him. “I don’t get you, Randy. You seem loco to me, but I just stopped thinking and heard what you said. Loco is sounding pretty good about now – how ’bout I give you a try, big man?”
Ran gently put his arm around her and pulled her hot, sweaty head against his shoulder. As her sweeping neck bent forward, he noticed the intricate red, green and orange ink burned on her back between the unitard straps. “What’s that inked on you?” He asked.
“Quetzalcoatl, of course – por la raza – who I am, where I’m from – like the earrings I was wearing when you met me – Kokopellis. All about the native people, before the conquistadores came.”
Ran pulled off his sleeved T-shirt to show the green ink design on his pectoral muscle – a long, sleek lamnoid fish with perversely outsize jaws jutting forward like the cow catcher of a locomotive.
“That’s not a real fish!” She said scornfully.
“Not anymore,” he corrected. “Edestus, the scissor-toothed shark. 300 million years ago, this was the Great White, only bigger.
“Geek,” she laughed. “Why’s a dinosaur fish on your arm, Randy?”
“That’s geek-vocalist to you, darlin’. I sing with a band called Scissorfish.”
“Shut up! I’m going out with a rock star! Sing me something, Randy.”
He said, “The band’s not here to carry me, but will you sing with me? I love your Spanish – it’s completely charming. Do you remember, when you were only up to my knee – did you ever sing this?
Yo solo se
Solo se, nina hermosa
Solo se una cosa
Una cosa que yo solo se –
“Cafe’!” They finished together, laughing. “I thought, when I first saw you, ‘a special little secret hidden in a Cafe’,” he explained. They sang again, repeating the nursery ditty, with hammed-up folk song stylings. At the last, shouted word, she clapped and laughed like a little girl. ‘Yeah!! I love that – Randy, you got a voice – true that – wish I did.”
“Sam, sing with me anytime.” Ran smiled.
The nursery song lyrics have been altered, but are similar to several popular traditional versions, which are entitled ‘Yo te dare.’ Many thanks to Élodie Chebat for contributing one version, and to Monique Palomares of Mamá Lisa’s World en español for posting it as a representative lyric at http://www.mamalisa.com/. The version my characters sing above is what I remember from High School Spanish class.