10 Dec 2017 – The hallway to the kitchens is thick with people and the smell of boxing oil. I’m not fighting tonight, but feel as anxious as I would at an art opening: I’m smiling too much, overly aware of being tall, and compensating for it (to whom?) by darting furtively along the walls, like a rat.
I hear my name, and see kru A.’s hand raised above the crowd in that familiar gesture when he calls me over to him to start training. He’s almost naked, except his hips, which are wrapped neatly in dark red cloth, secured with ropes running over the front and back. His hands and arms are armored in rope up to the elbow. He’s about to perform the ceremonial wai kru to open the event tonight. We both glance down at his body, shining with oil and sweat. ‘It’s hot!’ he says, laughing. ‘You look… you look… good!’ I stammer back, feeling like a rock star just said hello to me backstage. I wonder if I should hug him or ask for a selfie, instead I blurt out ‘Uhh, I’ll see you later!’ and scurry away, mouthing ‘Sharon, you idiot’ to myself like a dazzled 16 year-old.
I find the corner where my teammate V. is waiting to face her first fight. Fear and ebullience hits her in alternating waves, closer and closer together, like labour contractions. ‘Whooaahh, I feel alive!’ she whoops, followed immediately by ‘Oh shit. I need to pee. Why do I need to pee again? I just peed 2 minutes ago!’. I laugh and hold her hands and massage her shoulders, glad it’s her and not me, but envious too.
The familiar snake music drifts over, and I sneak into the ballroom where the stage is. It’s just starting. Kru A. is in the middle of the ring, hazy in the spotlight. When he moves he seems bound and unbound by the sinuous sound – now pulsing, now liquid – and above, or perhaps, below it all, stillness. His face is drawn inward, as if looking at a point far inside where the people watching can’t go.
After certain movements, he nods his head slightly, as if to himself. They’re enigmatic and weirdly articulate, those nods. Appraising. So the sun might nod to a mountain, or a wall, or a tomb, or the edge of a meadow, as it moved across them. A tiger might nod like that to a king, before it decided to eat him, or walk away.
His complete presence in his body makes me suddenly aware of my own. My back straightens; I take a breath. Another. My eyes come back into my face – I realize they’ve been floating about like holographic projections on the lam. My attention follows, sliding into focus, sweet and sure. The sense comes back into my sinews.
He raises his arms, fists outwards, and his torso arches like a tongue of light. I feel the beauty undoing me, the beginning of tears.
My whole being is suffused with hopeless longing, shot through with a sharp prick of joy: light glinting off the peak of a mountain I will never reach. The grace, the self-possession. The total ownership of body. More than winning fights, more than anything, I want that; to earn that.
All through the evening and night, through the ups and downs of the fights, the afterimage of my kru lingers. A quick ride home, a hasty dinner. At last, in the quiet hug of solitude, I tell myself, then text it to the people I love: I saw a mountain today, I saw a mountain.
I’ve been wanting to write about training muay thai since last year, but my mind has always come first, and this was something I wanted to just let my body do. Then I realized I was stockpiling notes, feeling the wave of words come, and letting them break into foam, lost. I’ve been gone, standing on the shore, listening to the roar. Now I have its rhythm, and write my way to the return.