Past the long, monotonous rows of bleeping treadmills on the left and the synchronized whirl and hum of the rowing machines on the right sits the mirrored walls and shiny, lacquered floor of my gym’s main fitness studio. Every Wednesday at 12:10pm, a crowd of mostly coeds (myself included) of various shapes and sizes will haul our Lonsdale boxing gloves rotting in old sweat and squeeze our worn, coiled ribbons of cotton hand wraps under our bare arm pits, then shake, twitch and stretch in anxious anticipation for the start of Chitose’s boxing class.
Chitose is a short and lean powerhouse of a woman whose roundhouse kick is powerful and high enough to slice through the thick layers of muscles wrapped around Arnold Schwarzenegger’s neck. Her skin is the color of creamy coffee and her light, orange-brown hair is always pulled back in a messy ponytail that sticks to the skin on her neck. Her cheeks scrunch up and bounce under her eyes when she smiles and although I see her every week, she always says hello to me as if we were meeting for the first time. Out of curiosity, I Googled her name to see what it means in Japanese. It turns out that it literally means one thousand years, which further translates to mean a long life. I have no clue how old Chitose is but I’m fairly certain, given the immaculate shape that she’s in, that she will indeed be living a very long life.
I lean quite heavily on the endorphin-induced, analgesic power of intense exercise to deal with the ebb and flow of life, to pull me out of the dark and haunted caverns of depression and to manage the shit storm of other life-clotting emotions that shake out when I get sucked up in the undertow of my family’s addictions. There never seems to be a dull moment in my family—where alcohol-related deaths, arrests and drug relapses are more common than weddings, baby showers and reunions. The worst is when I’m rummaging through an old box of pictures and my brother’s face floats to the surface. In the picture I’m thinking of, he’s clean and present and his smile is bright, wide and alive. Thanks to years of drug abuse and alcoholism, he doesn’t look like that anymore. Now his teeth are rotted and his eyes are burnt, hallow and numb. This breaks my heart, which in turn makes me angry and then I feel guilty because I don’t know if I’ve done enough to help him. And then my blood turns to lead and I can’t pull myself up off the floor and that’s when I know it’s time to pack up my gloves and go pound on a punching bag with Chitose.
Her voice is raspy and jagged but it booms smoothly through the orange, spongy nub of the headset that rests across the top of her head. “Anyone new to me?” Chitose asks while she feeds a CD full of nothing but heavily syncopated drums beats and bass into the player.
At the start of every class, I’m nervous. I know that it’s going to hurt and that my muscles will be screaming in about five minutes but I also know that I need it.
“Okay, right hand stance. You are warming up with right jab.” The entire class is bobbing in time with the music, back and forth, and our bags begin to sway gently as each jab makes impact. My palms start to drip in my gloves and each time I pull my left hand back to protect my face, I get hit with a strong wiff of six months worth of sweat that smells worse than a dog’s hot biscuit breath. For a while, I’d been keeping my boxing gloves in a closet that my husband and I share. He pulled me into the bedroom one night, swung open the closet door and asked, “You smell that?”
“Yes,” I said.
“It’s nasty and I think it’s your gloves. Maybe you shouldn’t keep them in here.”I rolled my eyes, leaned in and scooped them into my chest like a football. I was simultaneously embarrassed and proud, “Okay fine, I’ll move them but I hope you know that that’s what hard work smells like. I earned that funk.” And the truth is I did.
We are just 15 minutes into class and I’m silently pleading with the clock, on the back wall of the studio, to move faster. My arms feel heavier than bedrock and my breathe is shallow, twisted up in a knot in the middle of my throat. I try to throw a right hook but my arm feels like it’s stuck in hot taffy. I try to lift my left leg and hinge on my hip to power through a round house kick and it feels like the bottom of my sneaker is tethered to the center of the earth. I want to give up and I see out of the corner of my eye that the people around me are fading to. Shit, I can’t do this I think and I give up, back away from my bag and opt to jog in place. Chitose senses that the energy in the room is dropping and swoops in, “You can do this. You all doing such wonderful job. No give up now. Give me more power!” Something in me snaps and I hear my voice, tailing Chitose’s, under the thumping of the music – it sounds solid and sure and I have no choice but to listen, Don’t give up now girl, It says, You can handle this. And that’s when it hits me. In one fleeting moment I know that I can handle it – the it for me being my family. I can handle living with the possibility that after 30 years of addiction my brothers may never get clean. I can handle living with the discomfort I feel as I try to figure out where my newly sober mother fits into my life, if at all. I can handle and sit with the guilt that I feel knowing that for whatever reason I never developed an addiction to drugs or alcohol like so many other people that I love did. I can grieve what was and I can move into what is and know that I’m not responsible for anyone else’s recovery, sobriety or happiness. And with that I throw my hands up in the air and start ripping into my bag. I keep my every move synchronized with Chitose’s voice as she counts down our last couple rounds of jabs, body shots and uppercuts, in Japanese, “ichi, ni, san, shi.” I feel unstoppable and, in that moment, ready to jump back into my life which probably won’t last a thousand years but will hopefully be a long, happy one.
I hobble to the locker room when class is over and deflate like a balloon on one of the plastic benches near my locker. As I’m packing up my bag and wiping the sweat off of my arms Chitose plops down next to me. I turn to her and her cheeks are bunched up under her eyes and she’s wearing a gigantic smile. She’s breathing heavy and strings of her orangey, brown hair are glued to her head with sweat. I want to lean over, hug her and thank her for something but I’m not exactly sure what. So instead I stand up, hoist my bag over my shoulder, smile back at her and say, “I love your class. I’ll see you next week.”