I was not a pretty girl. Or thin. I was, according to Master Kim, head of the Kim Do Martial Arts Studio, the toughest young lady he had ever seen in his class. I was eight years old. My chubby cheeks and a nose the shape of a garlic bulb were infested by freckles and my red hair looked like a Brillo pad. But I could kick over my head and I delighted in tormenting the prettier, thinner girls and most of the boys in my Tae Kwan Do class.
The studio was crowded between a liquor store and Mr. Vashista’s 7-Eleven. It was winter, maybe late November. No snow yet but plenty of cold. I had a new coat, as I did every year since I outgrew clothes like the Incredible Hulk. I squeezed the puffy coat and my sneakers into a cubby and headed to the mats for class, breathing the perpetual smell of feet and perspiration.
I had seen Casey the week before. She came in with her father to sign up for my class. They watched from the waiting area by the door. Dressed in a gray, button down coat and matching gray beret, she reminded me of Madeline from those stupid books set in France, or one of those perky girls from my Mom’s magazines. My mom ordered stuff for me from those catalogs, but I didn’t look anything like those pictures. I looked like one of the monsters from Where the Wild Things Are had escaped and knocked over a Gymboree store.
Underneath her coat Casey was wearing her white uniform, her dobok and a yellow belt. She must have had some prior training. I allowed myself an inner grin. Yellow belts and higher were allowed to spar. Tuesday was sparring night.
Class started like normal. As the highest ranking student, a junior brown belt, I stood front right, behind Master Kim and his assistant Miss Clark, and led the exercises. Casey was in the back row with the other yellow belts and white belts so I couldn’t really watch her during warm ups.
After that we got into smaller groups and worked on our forms. I could hear Casey saying she also took dance and gymnastics. Whoopedy doo. She moved like a dancer; her actions flowed together like ballet instead of distinct kicks and blows. Yeah, it looked nice but I was dying to see how she handled going toe to toe.
“Very nice,” Miss Clark said to Casey.
Master Kim made a clicking noise with his tongue. “Pay attention, Amy. Double knife block.”
I did it and completed the rest of my form. Master Kim gave his highest praise, a slight nod.
Next was sparring. We grabbed the padding out of the closet. A mess of red and blue headgear, gloves and chest protectors, reeking of battles past, sweat and tears, victory and defeat. We suited up like miniature gladiators, buzzing, anxious to hurt each other. Then we lined the side of the mats, waiting for Master Kim to pair us up. There weren’t many kids who could make me break a sweat that night. That might be why Master Kim paired us up. Maybe he was curious, maybe it was just chance.
“Take it easy,” Miss Clark whispered to me. Fat chance.
I knew her first move would be something pretty, a kick. She tried an inside crescent kick. I almost laughed out loud as I quickly, too quickly, leaned back to dodge her toes (daisies painted on pink nails), and charged forward. I didn’t know she would immediately come back with a much faster outside crescent kick, and I realized this had been the point of the first kick, a set up. My head guard kept her foot from exploding my ear but I swear I saw stars as I landed on the mat.
She waited calmly while I got back up. “You okay?” said a shocked Miss Clark. I shoved her away, keeping my eyes on Casey. Her eyes were unreadable, almost bored. Instead of tucking her chin strap under her chin, Casey put it in her mouth and bit it, like a horse. I couldn’t tell if she was smiling.
Miss Clark put her hand down and up sharply, saying “Sijak!” restarting the action. I lunged at her but the ballerina danced a retreat. I could sense the class around the mats and feel the eyes of the parents watching from the side. My mother was engaged in a conversation with someone about where they had gotten a cheap pair of snow boots.
I was getting tired. Casey’s breathing was heavy through the nylon strap she was chewing. I cut off her path and moved in close, landed a few punches to the side of her head. She landed on the mat. Furious eyes squinted at me. Her breathing sped up. She crouched in the opposite corner, watching me, like a monkey. It looked like she was trying to bite the chin strap in half.
When we started again we circled each other like two boxers in the fifteenth round. Everyone listened to the sound of our breathing and the sticky noise our feet made on the canvas mats beneath us.
I moved in with a roundhouse kick, way too much for sparring, I could almost hear Master Kim cringe, but it didn’t have its usual mustard on it and Casey used a high block to knock my foot away and stepped into a beautiful, vicious forward kick, her right foot landed solid on my sternum. Even in pads, it knocked the wind out of me and I was on my back gasping for breath.
Casey was above me, still squinting. I kicked her legs out from under her. She leaped on top of me all elbows and knees, the sound of her breath hissed through her grinding teeth.
My mother screamed, “Somebody stop her!”
Somebody did. Chris Vashista, future heir to his father’s 7-Eleven. He tried to pull Casey away and paid for it with some scrapes on his arms, then Master Kim had us apart, each with one hand.
“Enough!” came his deep bellow.
“She tripped me!” Casey hollered.
“No care! Enough!”
Casey lunged at me again and when Master Kim stopped her she took a swing at him. He picked her up, restraining her, and carried her to the section where all the parents were watching. It was impossible to read Master Kim’s expression.
“You leave now,” he said almost gently as he put her in front of Casey’s father.
Her father looked sad but not surprised. When he tried to put her coat on, she punched at him. Still no surprise on his face. He held her wrists together and yanked her out of the studio.
Later I would find out about Casey’s problems, her dead mother, the incidents at her school. She lived in the next town over, the stuff of urban legends, the sort of girl you heard rumors about, crashing parties, stealing boyfriends. I never knew which tales were true, which were tall. But I pictured the girl from tae kwan do, the girl willing to take a swing at anyone, fearless. And I envied her. I imagined any nasty comments directed at her bouncing off. I couldn’t picture her crying or caring.
Master Kim returned to the mat and stood before me. “You leave now too.”
I realized then that there were already tears in my eyes. When my mother put her arms around me, I broke down completely. She soothed me as she put my coat and shoes on, a little gumdrop of a woman, sweet and soft and round. The white in her hair like sugar crystals. Humiliated, I left.
Outside the cold air licked my face, stinging the tears. White birches decorated the island in the middle of the parking lot. I had never noticed before how their bark looked like it contained eyes. They unnerved me. Beyond, across the street, cows slept in dark, wide pastures.
“You want to get a treat at the 7-Eleven?” Mom asked.
The smell of the place – stale hot dogs, fresh coffee, candy – relaxed me. Mr. Vashista asked if class was over. My mother explained that we needed to leave a little early. I bought a Chunky Bar and a thirty two ounce Mountain Dew Slushee.
I never went back to class. My parents were easy to convince, for reasons I didn’t understand. They were struggling to make ends meet and owed more on the house than it would ever be worth.
Fast forward. Twelve years. November again. Still not pretty. Or thin. Married now, to Chris Vashista, whose real first name, the name he was born with, is Krish; now it’s only my pet name for him, in bed. He is beautiful, with tan shadowy skin, longish jet black hair framing, I think, a noble, kind face.
For some reason he is nuts about me, always has been. In high school he pursued me, though I needed no pursuing. Rushed to ask me to proms and parties as if trying to beat an imaginary line of suitors. The way his breath caught after the Homecoming Dance, after squeezing me out of an aqua blue sequined mistake of a dress, when his dark fingers released my bra, white and pink flesh oozing between his digits, overflowing, spilling.
My parents were not thrilled with this match; this was rural Connecticut, farm country. East of Silk City you didn’t find a lot of Vashistas. We are not racists, they said, we’re just worried about your kids. Don’t make it harder on them. Not exactly country club material, my parents; the janitor and the school librarian. But Chris, as far as they knew, was always a gentleman, and treated me like a lady, and let’s face facts: what prospects did I have? Slim and none – Chris was slim.
Our wedding night. When Chris discovered my carpet matched my drapes it was like he had discovered plutonium. The effect of my ampleness on his ampleness was radioactive. His saber rattled my insides as I poured myself on top of him, trying to smother him, the noises we made (not the sounds of a gentleman or a lady) still echo in our bed.
And here we are. Not far from where we started, at the 7-Eleven; a wedding gift. Mr. Vashista has three others to mind. Master Kim is still teaching kids the finer points of hand to hand combat. His hair is now a beautiful, bright silver. He comes over most nights for a cup of joe. Always a pleasant smile for me and Chris.
He jokes now and then that we should thank him for saving us security costs. One former student would be plenty, but two? ‘Clobber any criminal,’ he says. We chuckle and nod and absentmindedly make sure the .38 special is safely tucked beneath the front counter, never used, rarely touched. This is rural Connecticut after all.
The stranger looks like trouble, it’s written all over his face, my mother would say. Handsome, with sandy hair and a pronounced jaw, but seedy, with druggy eyes. I figure him for a shoplifter and keep an eye on him and the surveillance monitor when he slips out of sight. Chris is throwing the trash away outside and I know he will linger, even in this cold, for a cigarette before coming back inside. He’ll smoke it underneath the surveillance camera, where I can’t see him.
A few students come in in their white uniforms, little kids, yellow, green, white belts. As they browse I munch on a 100 Grand bar. They buy Snickers bars, Pixie Stix, M&M’s and Cokes. The stranger hangs back, pretending to look at the ice cream, pretending to think about a cup of coffee. I look for Chris on the back door monitor. Nothing. I look outside. The white birches look back.
When the kids leave, the sandy haired stranger comes up to the register and asks for a pack of Camel Lights, says, “May I have -” I reach above my head and grab one, relieved. I’m about to ask if he needs matches when I see the gun, just like the one under our counter and for a second I think he’s taken ours. My heart competes with my lungs for control of my chest.
“Don’t put your hands up,” he says.
I didn’t know I had. I put them down. Don’t know what to do with them.
“The money in the register. All of it.”
I am emptying the drawer, three or four hundred, when the door swings open.
“What is taking so long!”
I don’t recognize her at first. Casey. Still pretty. Still thin. But this person doesn’t remind me of Madeline, isn’t dressed out of a catalog. She looks like a scandal, like she just stepped off the cover of the National Enquirer or Star Weekly, the headline would read “Girls Behaving Badly” or “Girl Gone Wild.” She’s got those junky eyes too, nervous, looking everywhere and nowhere, never landing. Nothing registers until she looks at me, she cocks her head, just like she did when she crouched on the mat after knocking me on my ass.
Maxed out on adrenalin and Mountain Dew Slurpees, I go Dukes of Hazard style over the counter. Her scumbag boyfriend doesn’t know what’s going on, doesn’t notice Chris until after he pulls the pistol out of its hiding spot and aims it.
Two shaky hands. Nether wants to shoot. The stakes have changed in a heartbeat. We don’t notice. Don’t notice when both guns fire, both missing by a mile from point blank range. Don’t notice Master Kim, come for his nightly cup of mud, disarm Casey’s weepy beau and break his collarbone with a perfectly executed axe kick. His foot rises over his head then swings down, the heel shattering the flimsy clavicle.
We stare at each other, the samurai and the sumo, settling unfinished business like two gunslingers waiting to draw. I make the first move, get her in a bear hug, skinny bitch, trying to rob my store. Not today. We tumble, knock over the magazine rack, it’s raining Us Weekly, Car & Driver, Men’s Health.
An animal noise escapes her throat as she smashes her forehead against my nose. It bursts like a tomato. Pain. Instant and excruciating. I let go. As Casey’s teeth tear into the side of my face I realize the stakes are higher than I thought too. She isn’t, like me, trying to beat someone up, to wound, to maim; she’s trying to kill me. The noises she is making are terrifying and I am truly scared. I would rather have a rabid dog loose in the store.
Master Kim intercedes. A familiar bellow as he pulls us apart, “Enough!” He pulls Casey by her nostrils off of me. When she goes for him, he’s expecting it.
Carefully, he releases her from a headlock. “You leave now.” The same gentle tone.
She’s gone when the police arrive.
You can see it all if you like. We’ve been on the YouTube top ten for six months now. Just type in ‘7-Eleven Showdown.’ Someone set it to Kung Fu Fighting, another person dubbed in some Bruce Lee lines and martial arts sound effects. We watch it at home, Chris and I, as foreplay sometimes. Nothing gets the blood flowing like a near death experience. I’m pregnant. Knocked up. Huge. Huger. I’m like a planet and Chris is a moon in orbit around me. I touch the smooth, tight skin of my belly, crooning to my unborn baby. I want it to be fearless. Sometimes I wonder if Casey, like a comet, will arrive in another twelve years. I whisper softly the name, the name, boy or girl, of my child, my little warrior. Casey Vashista.