© 2010 David’s Harp and Pen
Most of my life, I have had, besides rampant insecurity, a terrible, looming feeling of helplessness. The two go hand in hand, I suppose. I still remember vividly when that awful sense of powerlessness became my life-long companion.
It was the first day of first grade. Rocco Campizi, the school bully, saw me in the schoolyard. When he walked up to me, he knocked my lunch box on the ground, looked deep into my eyes, and said, “I knew from the moment I saw you, that I wanted to kill you.” (He always knew how to talk to the ladies.) That afternoon, we had gym class. Our gym teacher, Mr. Patillo, always on the lookout to enhance the elementary school physical education experience, got the brilliant idea to let us play dodge ball using a brand new volleyball. That thing was hard as a rock and must have been filled with lead. For reasons I don’t remember, I was picked to be “it.” I was placed in the center of an imaginary circle, not unlike gladiators in the Roman coliseums on their way to be slaughtered, while my fellow classmates threw the volleyball at me. Rocco decided I had not suffered enough, so he grabbed the volleyball, ran up to me, and slammed the volleyball into the right side of my head over my ear. For the next month, I alternated between hearing a terrible ringing nonstop to not being able to hear anything at all. The ringing eventually went away, but I never got all my hearing back. Of course, Mr. Patillo wasn’t paying attention, and all the other kids thought it was funny, so when I told the principal, it was Rocco’s word against mine. In other words, nothing happened.
Thus began a pattern that repeated itself throughout my entire school career. Each year, some new kid would be elected student body bully, proceed to torture me, I would report him or her, and for whatever reason, nothing would be done about it. As I endured this, I would, from time to time, seek the advice of some adult I trusted, hoping for an intervention, but what I always heard in response was something like this: “Kids wouldn’t bother you if you just (fill in the blank). Speak your mind, don’t speak your mind, stand up to them, ignore them, show them you’re the bigger person. Those bullies wouldn’t treat you like that if you didn’t invite it.” I don’t remember saying to any of those little thugs in elementary school, “Oh, please, please, beat the snot out of me and tease me as harshly and often as you like. I do so love a good flagellation!” I would’ve liked it if, just once, instead of an adult telling me the proper way to react to being ritualistically sacrificed, they would rather have gone to the mass-murderers-in-the-making like Rocco and said, firmly yet lovingly, “You better leave Margaret Ann alone or I’ll push you in front of the school bus and make it look like an accident.” No one ever stood up for me but me, and as it can already be gathered, I did a terrible job of it.
I tried a few times to tell the members of the power trio about the bullying as a kid, but it always fell on deaf ears. Bruno would say, “No one respects a door mat. You should’ve fought back. You have to learn to stick up for yourself.” Of course, that didn’t apply if the person with whom I had to stick up for myself WAS Bruno. Shane said it was because I am shy, and to un-shy people, shyness is seen as snobbery, which according to Shane is a capital offense. My favorite explanation, however, came from Larry, who said it was God’s good pleasure that I endured hardship so that God’s character could be perfected in me. As I’ve said before, I know Larry always means the best, but the way he said it, I might have taken it better if he had merely said God enjoys seeing me suffer, because when He squashes me like a grape, it makes me a better person.
I started out in life being pushed around by bullies. That constant fear made it hard to focus, which probably explains my propensity for accidents. Although I’m sure the people in my life only meant to encourage me, I took their encouragement to mean that somehow, all that torture from the other kids was somehow my fault. As I grew older, the bullies I faced changed from mean classmates to life itself. I know that a good part of what we face in life is out of our control, but I always felt I was getting the message that not only was it in my control, but when painful stuff happened, I somehow brought it on myself. I didn’t want to be a klutz any more. I didn’t want to be fearful. I didn’t want to feel powerless. Like I said before about fighting temptation, sometimes it’s not about trying the same ineffective things harder but trying something different.
It didn’t dawn on me until well into my early 30s that growing up, I was always one of the biggest kids in my class. However, I always saw myself as the smallest and weakest. I desperately wanted that perspective to change, to really know deep down that I was the head and not the tail, above and not beneath, seated in Heavenly places with Christ, and all that other stuff we Charismatics quote when we’re afraid or when we’re vying against some random Baptist for that last parking space at the mall. I didn’t want to feel victimized and helpless any longer. It turned out, like so many other things in my relationship with God, that I needed a major paradigm shift to change the perspective.
The Monday after the infamous baby shower, I drove to a martial arts school where Bruno had been taking lessons for a long time. That night was his promotion to purple belt, and he had invited all of us to watch. While my experience with martial arts was limited to poorly dubbed movies I watched as a kid, I was always impressed with martial artists’ physical discipline and what seemed to be their total lack of fear. When I pulled into the parking lot, I got an itch on the scar I’d received from the bear trap. I looked at that scar as I scratched it and started to feel that awful helpless feeling again. Three trips to the emergency room in six weeks was a record, even by my standards. It was terribly embarrassing. The staff at the Davidson County Memorial emergency room had such a hard time believing me when I said I was really that clumsy that I had to make up a story about an abusive boyfriend just to save face!
I gingerly peaked my head into the classroom where Bruno said he would be. I was immediately taken aback by what I saw. There were guys wall to wall, dressed in gis (martial arts uniforms), all impressive physical specimens, executing their respective maneuvers with expediency, precision, and all-around awesomeness, like well-oiled machines. I was so absorbed in watching the martial artists I didn’t notice Ryan standing to the right of me.
“Are you okay?” He asked, concerned.
“Yeah. Why?” I answered.
“I said hello to you a few times, and you didn’t respond.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I can’t hear very well out of my right ear.”
“Really? Is that why you’re always screaming at me?”
“Eh, come again?”
“Are you jealous because I have perfect hearing, or is it more of a ‘misery loves company’ thing?”
Before I could answer him, Bruno walked up to us, soaked in sweat.
“What are you two doing here so early?” Bruno asked.
“You said to be here at 8,” I answered.
“No, I didn’t. I said 9,” Bruno replied.
“No, Bru. You said 8,” Ryan interjected.
“Oh, wait a minute! You’re right,” Bruno said. “I told Shane to be here at eight instead of nine so he’d really be here by nine. I must’ve told you two eight, too. Why don’t you come in and watch the class?”
I started to say, “Oh, that’s alright. I’ll just come back la…”
“Sure, we’d love to stay,” Ryan interrupted. He then grabbed my wrist and pulled me in behind him as we walked. As we made our way to a row of chairs at the side of the classroom, my eyes scoped the room back and forth and back again. Everyone there looked so in shape, so confident, so in control. I didn’t remember a time, even at the baby shower, when I felt more out of place. I sat down, my gaze still locked on all the martial artistry in front of me. Ryan sat in the seat to the left of me.
“So, what happened to your hearing in your right ear? Were you born that way?” Ryan asked.
“No,” I answered. “It was Rocco Campizi.”
“What’s a Rocco Campizi?”
“He was the school bully. He slammed a volleyball into my ear because he thought it was funny and I lost part of my hearing.”
“Omeegosh! That’s horrible! What happened to him?”
“Nothing? Nothing at all? He cost you your hearing!”
“It was his word against mine. It’s no big deal, really. He did a lot worse to me through elementary school. Nothing ever happened to him.”
“What about your parents? Your teachers? They all just stood by and didn’t do anything?”
“It’s really nothing. I mean, I shouldn’t have been such a wimp. Maybe if I had tried a little harder to be friendlier, or something, the other kids wouldn’t have bothered me like they did.”
I turned and looked at Ryan. His face had turned dark red. He looked at me, then got up, walked away, walked back to me, walked away, and walked back, pacing like a madman. Most of the time, when I told people about Rocco, which wasn’t very often, they usually responded by saying something like God had a plan, or Rocco was just being a typical boy at that age, or I should’ve tried harder to make friends with the kids in school when I was younger. No one had ever reacted like Ryan did at that moment. It really threw me for a loop, and I didn’t know how to respond to him. I became very nervous, and as I normally do when I think someone might be even minutely angry with me, I stood and went to Ryan to apologize.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you,” I said nervously.
“What are you apologizing for?” Ryan asked angrily.
“I don’t know. You just seemed to get really upset all of a sudden. You probably didn’t want to hear that whole sob story about my ear. I should just be a man about the whole thing and…”
Ryan shushed me as he put his index finger over my lips and said, “Don’t ever let me hear you talk about being a man about anything! Like you had any control over what that little monster did to you?”
As he moved his finger away from my mouth, I looked deep into his eyes. I couldn’t think of anything to say to him, and I felt a few isolated tears run down my face.
“If you had been my daughter, my sister…no, if you had just been some girl in my class, and I saw you get tortured day in and day out, and no one did anything, I would’ve taken Rocco out into the woods, ripped his still-beating heart from his chest, and then eaten it, just like Magua did to Colonel Munro in The Last of the Mohicans.”
I was so taken aback by not only what he said but also how he said it. The only way I can describe the look in his eyes at that moment was undefiled rage. I was afraid. I was very afraid.
“Hey O,” Bruno called to him from the other side of the room. “Come check this out.”
Ryan turned and walked away to Bruno, not saying a word to me. When he got to Bruno, Bruno showed him something called a crab throw. The two of them started to work on it together. I stood by my seat, thinking and staring. Who was this guy I had been crushing on for weeks? I didn’t think I’d ever seen anyone that angry, not even Bruno! I turned away and looked at the wall for a moment.
Holy… I thought. What if he’s criminally insane? What if he’s one of those guys who turns out to be really jealous and possessive? What if one day I come home and find Bernie boiling in my bathtub because Ryan thought I liked my dog more than him? Oh, no! I think I’ve done it again and gone and fallen for a lunatic!
I turned back just in time to see Ryan triumphantly throw Bruno flat on his back. As Bruno got back to his feet, Ryan turned to look at me, winked, clicked his tongue, and flashed that million-dollar smile I had grown to love.
Well, God, I prayed silently, he may be a lunatic, but he’s a handsome, godly, charming, protective, and attentive lunatic!
“You come to try class?” Said a voice from behind me in broken English and a heavy Oriental accent. I turned to see a Chinese man in his 60s about five feet, ten inches tall, with short, spiky jet black hair, slightly gray around the temples, clothed in a black gi with a black belt. His name was Chi Wai Kwong. He had a black belt in several different martial arts. He had been a missionary all over the Orient in his younger days, and he often went on expeditions to smuggle Bibles into China. He came to America 15 years ago to avoid capture by the Communist government in China and opened his own dojo. I was pretty sure he never had a nervous or fearful day in his life.
“Oh, no. I’m just here to see Bruno get his purple belt,” I answered, a little in awe of the man who stood next to me.
“I show you few basic things. All women should know how to defend self.”
“Ah, you don’t understand, though. I’m a career klutz! Besides, centrifugal force and I have been at odds for so long, if we started to cooperate, I’d lose my whole identity!” I joked nervously.
Sensei Chi looked at me oddly, then said, “No idea what you say, but I repeat: all women should know how to defend self. I show you basic defense and counter strike. Try and punch my face.”
I slowly made a fist with my right hand and aimed it at his nose. He leaned slightly to his left, pushed my wrist away with his left hand, made what’s called an “iron palm” with his right hand, and lunged it towards my face.
“See?” He asked. “Is very easy. Now you try.”
He aimed his right fist straight at me, and I proceeded to freeze, like I normally do when I feel under attack.
“What is wrong?” Sensei Chi inquired.
“I’m sorry. I…ah…try it again,” I answered apologetically.
He aimed his fist at me again, and again I froze. I realized at that moment that I was conditioned to react to confrontation with fear and helplessness, and I didn’t see any way of breaking it.
“Your eyes say fear is your master,” Sensei Chi commented matter-of-factly. Tell me something I didn’t know.
“I…you know what? I’ll just sit this out. I appreciate the effort, but, I just don’t have it in me, nor do I have the coordination.”
Sensei Chi pointed to my head and said, “If can change here,” then pointed to my heart and said, “and here,” then made circles with his index finger in front of my body, “can change here.”
I looked at him and shuddered in shame as I heard myself say out loud to him, “I can’t change.”
“No, she means she won’t change,” said Ryan, who had snuck up beside me with Bruno, as was his usual fashion.
Surprised, I turned to look at him and asked, “What do you mean?”
“You like being a klutz. You like people feeling sorry for ya. You like the attention.”
“That’s not true!” I shot back nervously. Ryan once again got in my face and moved forward, causing me to have to move backwards. Then he raised his hand to me and gave me a good hard shove, which caused me to almost fall backwards.
“Yes it is. You love being surrounded by drama and everyone looking at you saying, ‘Poor little Mags! Can’t win for losin’!’” he said mockingly, still moving forward as he shoved me harder a second time. I grew increasingly scared, but I felt a new sensation, too, as he tooled me around the mat: anger.
So he’s one of those, I thought. He acts really sweet in the beginning, but then he turns out to be a demon.
Bruno began to move towards us and said, “O, knock it off!” but Sensei, sensing something big and important was going on, held Bruno back.
“No,” Ryan said defiantly. “I’m just calling this spineless little Yankee like I see her.” He shoved me yet again and increasingly harder.
“How dare you say that when you know so little about me!” I said, trembling with a mixture of fear, disappointment, and growing ire.
“I know enough to know I don’t want to know any more,” he said so coldly, in a manner reminiscent to me of so many of the bullies I’d cowered under in school. I was hurt, I was disappointed, and I was angry. Somehow in the short time we had been at the dojo that night, Ryan’s respect for me had completely tanked and now he thought he could bully me, too. We were almost to the wall when he raised that massive right hand of his, which was attached to his colossally strong right arm, to shove me again. I was certain at that moment that he would succeed in shoving me clear through the wall. Although I’m sure it all happened quickly, everything seemed to pass in triple slow motion. As his right hand approached my left shoulder to knock me down, I tilted to my left, knocked his hand away with my left hand, and iron-palmed him square in the nose with my right hand. The force of my actions were so strong that he fell straight backwards and landed on his back on the mat with a bloody nose. I gasped when I realized what I did. Sensei and Bruno ran up to us as I kneeled on the mat next to Ryan.
“Great, Margaret! You killed him! We’ll have to send him back to Ireland in a body bag!” Bruno chided.
“Oh, I am so sorry! I…oh crap!” I cried as I helped him Ryan sit up. I thought for sure he would then try to kill me, but as he turned his face to me, he wiped the blood away and flashed his famous, mischievous grin.
“That’s me girl! I knew you had it in ya!” he said, chuckling. Bruno helped Ryan to his feet while one of the other students handed Ryan a roll of paper towels.
“You can do it,” Sensei said to me. “You come here and I train you.”
“Eh, I don’t mean to throw cold water on your enthusiasm, Sensei,” Bruno interjected, “but Margaret here doesn’t…I mean, she has trouble walking and breathing at the same time without falling down.”
I looked at Bruno with disappointment and asked, “You don’t think I can do this, do you?”
Bruno hesitated for a second, then without looking at me, answered, “No, I don’t.”
Sensei declared, “I train man born blind and deaf. Man I teach get black belt with no arms and one leg six inch shorter than other. If can train them, can train puffy American woman.”
I got a little miffed and asked, “Did you just call me ‘puffy’?”
Bruno leaned into my left ear and whispered, “Don’t talk back to him, Mags. He’s a grand master in seven different fighting disciplines and can kill you just by thinking about you.”
Sensei continued, “We work together and I turn puff into power. I give first month lesson free.”
My first month free definitely appealed to my coupon-clipping sensibilities. I wondered what would be left of me after that first month, if I survived it. I had a flashback of every accident I ever had, every confrontation from kindergarten to the present when terror came to call, and I would cower, petrified, and sit back helplessly. I wondered if there was anything that could break that 35-year-old cycle, but then I remembered that sometimes, desperate times called for desperate measures. Maybe something this radical and so far out of my comfort zone was just what God wanted to do the job. I didn’t understand, either, why Sensei, this total stranger, had such confidence I could do it, while someone who had been my friend for five years was so quick to pooh-pooh the whole idea. I then remembered all the previous times I tried to toughen up and stick up for myself, and how I failed each time, and how so very tired I was of being the only one to stick up for me. As my brain churned to decide what to tell Sensei, I felt an arm around my shoulder. I looked up to see it was Ryan’s.
“First month free for both of us, or she walks,” Ryan said with all the swagger of one of those high-powered sports agents. I turned to look at him and wondered if he had any idea what he was getting himself into.
“Very well. Free month for puffy American woman and her boyfriend,” Sensei conceded.
“Oh, she’s not my girlfriend,” Ryan exclaimed. That dose of reality stung me more painfully than all the devil bugs in the world, but before I could read into it any further, Ryan turned to me, winked, squeezed my shoulders really hard, and continued, “she’s my inspiration.”
Knowing the proper way to react to gorgeous men when they spoke to me was always a struggle, and I was always self-conscious about appearing too goofy, but when he said that, I lost all self-control and lit up like the giant Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center.
“Very good. Class Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday 7:30 to 9. On table information for get uniform. Must return to other students,” Sensei remarked. He then bowed to Ryan and me and walked away. Bruno stared at the two of us, scratched his head, and walked back to the rest of the class.
Ryan, with one hand on my shoulder and the other holding paper towels to his nose, looked in my eyes and said, “What happened to you in school wasn’t your fault. You couldn’t stop it, but you’re not that helpless little girl any more.”
I didn’t know what to say. I just stared at him as I bit down hard my lower lip. I had, for the first time, gotten a taste of power, and I really, really liked it!
When I got home that night, my brain was overloaded with the magnitude of what just happened and the revelations about how I’d lived my life and why I reacted to things the way I did. As I processed all of it, I got on my computer Bible to do my “Bible-in-a-Year” reading. The passage for that day included 1 Corinthians 9:25-27, which says, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”
I wondered at what point I had decided that my life was a pass/fail course instead of a letter grade event, and why I had settled for merely completing the race instead of winning? Perhaps I had always seen my life as something merely to be passed instead of something that could truly be excellent, praiseworthy, or A+. All I knew at that point was I didn’t want to beat the air any longer. Ryan was right. I wasn’t a defenseless kid any longer, and maybe with a little help, I could overcome all that helplessness and klutziness and attain greatness.
I went to the dojo every time the doors opened over the following two weeks, and Ryan was right there with me. Although I felt empowered by new resolve and outlook, the reality of 35 years of walking with two left feet began to dampen my enthusiasm. I racked up so many bruises and cuts that I named them all and made them my pets.
The Thursday night of my second week of training, I decided to go to the dojo early to talk to Sensei. I’d told my editor Brian about him, and Brian thought his story might make an interesting article in Worship and Warfare. As we sat down to talk, I found him very charming and engaging. He had so many stories of smuggling Bibles into closed sections of the Orient, and as hard and fast as the various Communist regimes would pursue him, he always remained one step ahead of them. With each successive tale of heroism and courage under fire, I found myself increasingly awestruck and jealous. I couldn’t take it any more, and so I finally asked him the obvious.
“So, how do you do it? How do you live your life and do what you did with no fear whatsoever?” I asked him, trying so very hard not to gush all over him.
He looked at me with a slight grin and answered, “No fear is myth. Trick is keep fear always at respectable distance, and make to miss God’s promise greatest fear.”
He then got up to meet some students as they began to arrive to class. While he spoke with them, my eyes wandered to the various banners and signs that graced the walls of the main room inside of the dojo. One banner in particular caught my eye. It was white with red lettering. There was a caricature drawing of a small man scaling a very high wall, along with writing in what I found out later was Traditional Chinese.
When Sensei returned with the visitors, I asked him what the writing was, and he said it was Hebrews 4:1. He left again briefly with the visitors, and I looked up the passage on my Smartphone, and the verse said, “THEREFORE, WHILE the promise of entering His rest still holds and is offered [today], let us be afraid [to distrust it], lest any of you should think he has come too late and has come short of [reaching] it.”
By the time Sensei had finished with the visitors, the rest of the class had arrived, and so I couldn’t finish my conversation with him. I watched silently as all those brave and athletic-looking guys filed into room. I decided then and there that there was no reason I couldn’t do what they were doing.
Fast forward to the end of the first 60 minutes of class. I had collected a new colony of contusions so purple they almost appeared regal. The last two classes we had been working on Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and ground fighting, and I was having an awful time keeping all the moves straight in my head. Bruno and Ryan were as patient as they could be; well, Ryan was patient, but each grappling session concluded with me getting beaten, usually within about 30 seconds.
“Ugh!” I moaned as I once again picked myself up from the mat and headed for my sports drink. “I’m never going to get this!”
Ryan walked after me as I chugged what must’ve been my tenth bottle of super sweet electrolyte replacement juice.
“It’ll come to you eventually. You just have to keep at it,” Ryan said in an encouraging fashion.
“Are you finally ready to call it quits? I’ll admit, I didn’t think you’d last one class, let alone six,” Bruno said condescendingly as he walked up to the two of us.
I stared at Bruno angrily, wanting to tell him just what I thought, but I soon realized that, as much as I hated to admit it, maybe Bruno was right. Maybe I just didn’t have what it took. Maybe I would always be a wimp and powerless to stop the literal and figurative bullies that had plagued me for so long. I let out a big sigh, shrugged my shoulders, and headed with my drink to the chairs on the side of the mats. Ryan followed me.
“Don’t listen to him. He’s a cop. It’s his job to always look for the worst case scenario,” he said with a bit of a chuckle in his voice.
“What if he’s not?” I shot back. “Nothing’s clicking! I’ve learned all these different maneuvers and techniques, but when it comes to using them, they all melt together in my brain, and I’m no better off than when I started. Maybe he’s right. Maybe once a klutz, always a klutz! This is more than me just trying to learn some moves and get in shape. Maybe I don’t have what it takes even mentally. I mean, everyone here is so sure of themselves, and physically in control, and I never, ever feel in control…except…”
“Except?” Ryan inquired. At this point, Bruno had joined us on the sidelines.
“Oh, you’ll think I’m nuts when I tell you this,” I answered, dejected.
“You say that an awful lot, Margaret. You should get that on a button or a tattoo. It would save you a lot of time,” he said mischievously. I looked at him intently as I bit my lower lip.
Continuing his inquest, he asked, “You were saying? You only feel in control when…?”
“When I’m shopping! I go into the store, armed with my coupons and store circulars, and I’m out for the killer bargains, and no cashier or sales person is going to trick me into paying full retail, because the money I save is going to support all the world’s missionaries, so no matter how they protest, or try to convince me the coupons or specials are expired when they’re not, I never back down, because I’m on a mission from God!”
Ryan got very quiet, and a deeply pensive look appeared on his face.
“I’ve got to hand it to her there, O. She is the Coupon Queen,” Bruno interjected. “You think what she does when we got out to eat is impressive! You should see her when she goes grocery shopping. I’ve seen times when the store’s paid her, instead of the other way around. If I didn’t know better, I’d say it was illegal.”
All of a sudden, Ryan got an inspired look on his face. He jumped to his feet, pulled me up with him, and said excitedly, “That’s it! Margaret, you have to look at grappling like you do shopping!”
“I don’t follow,” both Bruno and I managed to say simultaneously.
“What did you tell me were the three pillars of shopping? Store sales, manufacturer’s coupons, and mail-in rebates. And what did you say the trick was to unlock all the savings? Only buy things that are on sale at the store that you also have a manufacturer’s coupon for.”
“So? How does that relate to this?” I asked, dying of curiosity.
“Okay. When you’re grappling, the first thing you want to do is get your opponent off balance. Your sweeps are your store sales. Once you’ve got him on the ground and unsettled, depending on how he lands, you then go for mount or some kind of guard to subdue him. That’s your manufacturer coupon. And finally, depending on the advantage you have, you go for a lock or a bar: arm, knee, whatever, and you submit him. That’s your mail-in rebate, when you go in for the kill!”
I stared at Ryan for a second, and then turned my head to stare straight into the wall. I tried in a very short period of time to take the vastness of what Ryan just said and chop it up into bite size morsels I could easily digest. Because my brain was working so hard, I temporarily lost my powers of speech.
“O, I think you may be on to something,” Bruno said, obviously impressed, which doesn’t happen with him very often.
“What do you think, Margaret? Want to give it another go?” Ryan asked excitedly.
I turned to look at him and nodded my head. Although everything he said made sense, I still wondered if, in the heat of battle, I could remember all that and pull it off successfully. As we walked back to the mat, I had another revelation, and I turned to Ryan for confirmation.
“Wait a minute,” I said to Ryan timidly. “You mean, you actually paid attention when I explained my coupon thing to you?”
With a gleam in his eyes, Ryan answered, “Oh, Darlin’, don’t you know I hang on your every word?”
With all the goofiness of a love-struck school girl, I looked at him with a goofy smile and asked, “Really?!”
“No, not really!” he answered, unable to say it without laughing. Bruno walked up to Ryan and gave him two high fives.
“That was brutal, O! I knew I liked you for some reason,” Bruno chuckled.
I stopped in my tracks on the mat, bit my lower lip again, and stared at the floor.
“Whatcha starin’ at down there?” Ryan asked, obviously quite amused with himself.
“Tha-, tha-, that was mean,” I mustered the courage to say.
Ryan walked up to me, stuck the index finger of his right hand under my chin, lifted my face up, and said, “Look at a man when you talk to him, Woman!”
Still embarrassed, but getting slightly miffed, I shot back, “Th-that was mean!”
He then got right in my face and said forcefully, although almost in a whisper, “You’re right! It was mean, it was rotten, and it was dastardly. Now make me pay!”
Then he took his great, big hands, which were attached to his powerful, ripped arms, which were attached to his muscular, military-grade chest, and once again, he gave me a good, hard shove, which knocked me flat on my butt. Something inside me snapped, and when I looked up at him, I didn’t see the cute Irishman who carried me up a flight of a thousand stairs when my foot was busted or through mile-high foliage when I got stung by the devil bugs. I saw Rocco. I saw every bully that had owned me or made me look foolish. Not only that, I saw every store cashier who had ever told me I had too many coupons, even though the store had no printed policy that restricted me to a set number. I was incensed. I was determined. And for a brief, fleeting moment, I was fearless. I got up, let out a primal scream, rushed for Ryan, and knocked him down. As we both fell, he turned slightly so that he landed on his side. I got him in triangle hold for a split second, then I rolled his left arm into an arm bar. He tapped on the mat with his right hand, which signaled defeat. He then turned towards me, pain written all over his face as he clutched his left arm to his chest. Once again, I found myself feeling guilty.
“Are you okay? Oh, I’m so sorry!” I cried out as I leaned towards him. The look of anguish on his face turned to anger. He pulled me down, put me in mount, and braced my wrists to the mat with his hands.
“For Pete’s sake, will you stop apologizing, already?” he screamed angrily. “Are you going to apologize to a man for beating him up after he’s broken into your house, shot your dog, and tried to rape, pillage, and murder you?”
I broke loose of his grip, knocked his legs out from under him, rolled him, put him in mount, braced his wrists to the mat with my hands, then looked in his eyes and answered sheepishly, “Uh…yeah! Probably!”
I looked to my left to see Sensei as he watched us from the side of the mat. He raised his head slightly and rubbed the tip of his chin with his index finger. Then, with a slight smile, he said, “Look here! Puffy American Woman not so puffy anymore.”
I leapt to my feet, and my gaze immediately turned to the white and red banner with Hebrews 4:1. This was a major milestone I would not soon forget. I turned back around to find Bruno as he shook Ryan’s hand ferociously.
“Brilliant! Absolutely brilliant! O, I can’t tell you the debt all the law enforcement, fire, and medical personnel of Metro Nashville owe you! I’m going to call the mayor tomorrow morning and demand you be given a key to the city!” Bruno said enthusiastically.
I looked at Ryan and realized, for the first time, what he had done for me since I first stepped inside the dojo. I ran towards him and wrapped my arms around his neck. He curled his arms around my waist, picked me up, and twirled me around several times.
“This is cause for celebration,” Ryan exclaimed. “Let’s go to Wednesday’s! My treat!”
Lots of other people in the class came up to me to shake my hand and tell me what a good job I did. It was some long overdue validation. While I went through the motions of showering and changing into my street clothes, I pondered the significance of the events of the last two weeks and wondered how what I’d gained would translate into the rest of my life. As usual, it wouldn’t take me long to find out.
I was the first one to arrive at Wednesday’s Sports Grille. Bruno and Ryan had stayed behind at class to grapple some more and would be arriving in ten minutes. Larry and Shane had agreed to meet the three of us there, too. When I walked in the front door, the first thing I noticed was the frightened look on the hostess’s face. She was staring into the bar area, tapping her foot hastily as she let out a series of small whimpers. I turned to the bar and immediately saw the object of her concern: Kyle, one of the bartenders, was being suffocated in a rear naked choke by a drunken man much larger than Kyle. The drunk, dressed in ripped jeans and a white-with-yellow-stains wife beater repeatedly chuckled in a low, gravelly voice as he pulled Kyle around like he was a rag doll in that chokehold. Some of the patrons appeared concerned, while others laughed as if the whole thing were a big joke. I wanted to do something, but that old familiar fear and helplessness came over me again as they sought to erase all the progress I’d just made. As terror tried to master me another time, for a split second, I had a massive perspective change. When I looked at the drunk and Kyle, I suddenly saw Rocco and me. Although I remembered well the sense of powerlessness and futility of never being able to stand up to those schoolyard bullied, I recalled more vividly the embarrassment of being gawked at by the other kids and the desperate desire for someone, anyone to come to my aid. I knew what I needed to do.
I waited until the drunk had his back to me. I snuck behind him, ready to take action, but at that moment, all my recently acquired martial arts knowledge fled out of my brain and straight out the front door of the restaurant! There I stood behind the biggest, scariest, creepiest bully I’d seen since high school, and I couldn’t think of anything to do. As the drunk’s chokehold on Kyle tightened, however, I knew some kind of action, any kind of action, was better than nothing, so I did the only thing any sane person would do in my situation: I reached my hands under each of the drunk’s arms and I tickled him! His grasp on Kyle loosened immediately, which allowed Kyle to run behind the bar. The drunk turned around, stared straight into my soul, and began to move towards me. I tried not to look scared as I moved backwards along the side of the bar.
“This is no business for little girls!” the drunk said in a slurred fashion as he moved towards me and clenched his fists.
“I…I…I’m not afraid of you,” I sputtered back. I don’t think he heard me, because the level of fear I felt at that moment forced my voice to a decibel that could only be heard by dogs. He made his way closer to me. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a pitcher of ice water sitting on the bar. Just as he raised his right arm to strike me, I grabbed the pitcher and threw all the ice water in his face. When he took his next step towards me, he slipped on the ice that had landed on the floor, fell backwards, and hit his head first on the top bar rail, then on a bar stool, followed by the bottom bar rail, and finally the hard wood floor. I ran up to him as he lay on the floor and discovered the hits on the head on his way down had left him completely unconscious.
“Whoa!” yelled Kyle as he leaned over the bar to assess the damage. I was in such shock and disbelief that the preceding events had actually happened, I didn’t notice the arrival of Ryan and the Power Trio. As soon as Bruno saw the drunken guy out cold on the floor, he immediately went into full cop mode, dropped to the floor next to the guy, and took his vitals.
“What happened?” Bruno asked authoritatively as he reached for his cell phone.
Kyle answered, “This dude was plastered, Man! I told him he was cut off, and he wasn’t cool with that. He started pushing and shoving me, and then starts choking me from the back. Margaret comes in, gets him off me, and lays him out flat! It was totally righteous!”
All eyes shot straight to me.
“Margaret?” Bruno said in doubt.
“Mags?” Shane exclaimed in shock.
“Jesus…” Larry said. Bruno, Ryan, Shane, and I all turned our heads to Larry at once.
“…is Lord,” Larry quickly—and awkwardly—added on. Although I couldn’t say where it says in the Bible, I was pretty sure Larry using God’s Name in vain was a precursor to Armageddon.
“How did you do it, Mags?” Shane asked with all the pride of a dad whose son’s team, against all odds, won the Little League World Series.
“Eh, well, I’d like to say I knocked him out using my newfound martial arts prowess, but the truth is…I tickled him,” I answered, slightly ashamed.
All the boys burst out laughing.
“You tickled him? Margaret, Sensei doesn’t even get into tickling techniques until you start training for your green belt,” Bruno chided, feeling very pleased with himself. “So you tickled him into unconsciousness, huh? Sensei will be happy to find out what you’ve done with your free lessons.”
A little annoyed, I protested, “Ha! Ha! Very funny! Okay, tickling him wasn’t the most sophisticated thing, and I guess it was just dumb luck that he tripped on the ice I threw at him. But the important thing is Kyle’s safe, I’m safe, everyone in the bar is safe, and…well…I did it my way! So there!”
Expressing a mixture of being perturbed and amused, Bruno looked at me and said, “Whatever you say, Danielle LaRusso. Well, if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna call this in.”
After Bruno got up and walked away, Kyle walked around the bar to where I stood, took my hand, shook my arm off, and said, “You the man, Mags! You the man!”
“Hey!” Ryan interrupted. He got between Kyle and me and said to him, “She’s a lady and don’t you forget it!”
Timidly, Kyle backed away from me towards the bar and said, “It’s just an expression, Dude!”
When Kyle got back behind the bar, Ryan looked at me and brushed the hair on the right side of my face behind my right ear.
My voice starting to break with emotion, I said to him, “I did it! You said I could do it and I did it! Omigosh! This is huge first milestone in my own personal evolution! Oh, if Rocco could see me now!”
I was so excited that I didn’t pay attention to where I was about to walk. I put my right foot down on a patch of ice next to the sleeping drunk, slipped, and began to fall backwards. I thought I was a goner for sure, but Ryan, with his cat-like reflexes, caught me before I had a chance to go completely horizontal. I stared at him in embarrassment, but he just smiled as usual, let out a quiet chuckle, and said, “Baby steps, Margaret! Baby steps!”
He then lifted me above the ice on the floor and set me back down on dry ground. We began to walk away when I turned to take one last look at the silent bully as he lay on the ground. One of many Goliaths had finally been felled, and when the next giant menace came out to the Valley of Elah to defy me, I would be ready…or at least I hoped.