(This short story was the first runner-up for Austin Monthly's first short story contest. It was originally featured on www.austinmonthly.com.)
She had just half of a second to re-think, to regret, to repent, before her left hand made contact with the white girl's jawbone. The cracked leather of her glove connected with the smooth skin of the gringa's face with a hard and unforgivable crack too fast to stop. A young cameraman on the side of the ring caught the moment: Sandra Cavelli's neck is thrown back, an arc of sweat and spit and blood is curving up from her head turning her into an exotic crested bird; her body, soft with release, is bent backwards in mid-fall—on tip-toe, she is an open parenthesis. And to the left, Maria Vargas—her killer hook still extended—is a hard backslash; every muscle of her small frame is tight in a concentration of force that had already managed to take down 17 other women from Laredo to Dallas. Maria's teeth are clenched on her mouth-guard seemingly in a snarl, while Sandra's mouth is slack, her moan so stark it is almost audible. What would earn the photographer his first check was not the timing of the shot, but the strangeness of Maria's expression as she won by a knockout: fear. The caption that ran with the photo in the Beaumont Enterprise said “Vargas afraid of own strength as Cavelli falls hard in the first round.”
Maria was not afraid of her own strength. She was afraid of spiders and of small, dark spaces and of getting lost in a corn field, the stalks to tall to see over. She was afraid of her father's discipline and she was afraid of God's wrath. She was especially afraid of drowning. But none of those fears were the reason for her wide eyes and pinched grimace in the prize-winning photograph.
On this night, she was only afraid of Lalo. In the seconds after she knocked out the wiry-haired girl from Oklahoma City but before the small arena erupted into shouting winners and losers, she caught sight of him in the crowd. He was very still and his eyes were small and black and staring hard at her. Her mind searched the perimeter of the arena, the exits, and the faces of the crowd looking for help and escape. She didn't know how she would get there, but she knew she needed to get home.
The gringa should have won. Maria was supposed to let the white girl hit her for at least four rounds before falling down. Lalo had repeated it to her several times, talking to her like she was a child who caught on to such complex machinations slowly.
“It is too much for you to understand, but we will win more money this way, Bella. And you will get more fights if you lose sometimes.” Eduardo Esqueleto had been Maria's manager for the past two years ever since he saw her sparring at Beto's gym in Mexico City. She was not a real boxer then, she went to the gym for the same reason several girls in her neighborhood went, to learn to protect herself and get in shape. She was only 19 when a man followed her home from her waitressing job and scared her half to death with his intimate whispers and innuendos. Her mother sobbed as though she had been raped instead of just followed and her brother walked her to Beto's the next morning.
She started out in the women's beginner class--more of an aerobic workout than a training program. At Beto's, she enjoyed the simplicity of following the instructor's cues and losing herself in the motion of feinted jabs and kicks. Before long she had mastered all of the fitness routines and the gym manager suggested she work with a trainer on more advanced moves. He said she didn't have to want to be a professional boxer to become good at boxing, it was his praise that convinced her more than his reasoning.
Maria was a simple girl, but not simple-minded. She wore her long hair in a braid and never used eyeliner or mascara. Her large brown eyes were balanced by a bashful smile that she often hid behind her palm. Her parents had raised her to be a good girl, she had never had a steady boyfriend and didn't dress to “snag” one like some of the other girls at the restaurant where she worked. Whenever a man paid her a compliment, or tried to flirt, she looked down and found some important business in the kitchen to attend to. Some older customers found this endearing and would leave her an extra tip if she blushed for them. She daydreamed about the gentleman who would do all of the proper things to win her affection, but was surrounded by crude mechanics and warehouse workers.
Her Achilles heel was subservience, but she was a hard worker and eager to please. It was her desire to obey that made her a good fighter at the gym: whatever her trainer told her to do, she did. If she needed to get faster, she would jump rope and run the track until she was faster, if her stomach was too soft to take a punch, she would do hundreds of sit-ups until it was as solid as her mother's oak cutting board. After a few months, she was sparring in the ring with another young boxer named Isidra. Isidra was flashier than Maria, her skin was the color of burnt sugar and her black hair was shiny. She wore makeup and gold jewelry to the gym. She was fierce in the ring, but sloppy. Maria could usually outbox her through technical form, but she suspected that if Isidra cut loose Maria would be sent running to the ropes. It was one of those sessions that caught Eduardo's eye.
Eduardo only let his closest friends call him Lalo, and never in front of his business partners. His black hair was a little too long and greased back against his head. His grandmother had called him 'parradito growing up; he was still scrawny and long like a little beanpole, but no one dared call him that anymore. He had an explosive and unpredictable temper. When something went wrong, he tended to throw a chair against the wall hard enough to break it. It was said that once he had stabbed a man in Jalisco, a story he never confirmed or denied.
He wore expensive but ill-fitting suits and too much cologne and knew in his heart of hearts that he was destined for greatness. The universe was still pretty close-mouthed about how his greatness would be demonstrated, but he was sure it would be in some sort of promotional venture that involved a lot of talking and little actual work on his part. He couldn't wait to tell the papers that he was a “self-made” success.
And it was true, because Lalo wouldn't take advice or direction from anyone. He had tried to manage a couple of local bands but was disappointed with their laziness and willfulness. After a week or so of drinking his frustration into submission and cursing fate's disregard for his obvious talents, he saw Don King featured on “Las Vidas del Rico y Famoso.” He had been lurking around the local gyms ever since, looking for the right type of fighter to offer his management services to. He could see the hunger for approval in Maria's eyes while her trainer called direction from the ropes. While he watched her, he overheard the gym manager discussing her technique with one of the old-timers.
“You see that left hook's strong as Dallas Malloy's used to be, for half the weight.”
“I don't know, I think she moves more like Leona Brown. Or that Villanueva from California. You gonna fight her?”
“She's too timid in her heart. Does whatever Miguel tells her to do, if he said 'let her beat you to a pulp' she probably would. I couldn't put her in the ring and trust her to fight.”
“What if Miguel said 'tear her apart'?”
Eduardo didn't wait to hear the manager's answer; instead he walked boldly up to the ring and affected what he imagined to be a very admiring look.
“Bella, you look very strong today.” He was overly familiar with her, but lowered his eyes and tipped his head in a mock-bow to show his respect as well.
Maria looked away and busied herself with her gloves and hand wraps. While she was wary of men she didn't know, Eduardo seemed polite and well-dressed. She let him talk to her profile for a few minutes, the way the ladies in her neighborhood did. Looking a strange man in the eye was for streetwalkers or policía.
He was a good talker. He explained that he was a sports manager, and that she had a flicker of talent that he would like to grow in to a blaze. He said he could help her become the best boxer in Mexico. She snorted a little when he said this, the only participation she had made to the conversation so far. He jumped on it, and told her that everyone in the gym thought she was a great boxer, but it would take some wins to show them all that she was a good fighter too.
“I have to get home, Señor...”
“Good night, Señor Eduardo.”
She hadn't turned him down.
It only took three more days of visits to the gym, complimenting her and making promises, before she agreed to let him talk to her brother. Her brother was not nearly as wary of Eduardo as Maria had been. He was easily sold on the idea of riches and fame coming to their family, finally. He had seen the physical changes in Maria since she had been going to the boxing gym, and believed Lalo when he spoke of her greatness in the ring. Her brother gave his blessing, and Maria quit her waitressing job to train full time under Eduardo's direction.
He chose a trainer, a small but stout American named Dan Wilson. Dan had been a boxer of some notoriety in California in the 80s, but had let his meager fame go to his head. He drank and partied himself into near oblivion before running away to Mexico, where is small savings would last him several years. He had recently been asking around for work, since his savings balance—like his graying blond hairline—was starting to recede. Eduardo promised him a small stipend plus a cut of any winnings he could generate out of Maria. Once he saw how well she took direction and what a strong left hook she had, Dan was in. Tiny, dark Isidra, the perpetual gym rat, became her part-time sparring partner and full-time best friend.
Slowly, over the months she got better and better. Dan and Eduardo started her out easy, with a fight against a local woman she had seen often at the gym. It was a daytime match and, to Maria, felt like an extended practice. The crowd was mostly regulars at the gym, the boxers and the hangers-on that seemed to have no where better to be on a Saturday afternoon.
Maria did everything Dan told her to do, and she won by a technical knockout in the fourth round. Eduardo and Dan and the few spectators cheered and she felt ten—no twelve—feet tall. Isidra called her la Reina that night over celebratory beers. Maria never felt better, she was so happy to be doing the right thing. Doing the right thing well.
After her first win, Eduardo tried to schedule a bout for Maria every weekend. She started fighting women from different gyms and then women from neighboring towns. Nearly every bout, she won, usually by a technical knockout, less often, by decision. She was still afraid to use the full force of her left; her matches were a delicate balance between pleasing the men in her corner and pleasing the other woman. Maria knew of the boxeadoras who didn't fight fair, putting river stones or small sections of metal pipes in their gloves in the final round. Some even put them under their wraps! The other girl would have to kneel down within a round to be saved from the skin splitting hardness of those gloves. She wanted her opponent to know, that while she would win, she wouldn't stoop to breaking cheekbones or cracking ribs to do it. In her heart, Maria wanted to be a good boxer and a good girl.
The night she beat Ella “La Luz” Morales from Querétaro, Eduardo surprised her after the bout with a dozen red roses. Isidra was helping her unwrap her hands when he knocked on the locker room door.
“Just a minute, Lalo. She's not ready!” Isidra bustled around the small space, hanging up the gloves and grabbing Maria's cotton robe for her. She helped her into it one arm at a time, and smoothed her hair away from her face. “You did really good today, Chica. Really good. We made some decent money tonight, too. I think Eduardo was really impressed with you.” She smiled at Maria conspiratorially and batted her lashes. “OK, you can come in!” Isidra brushed past Eduardo and out into the hall as he ducked into the room with the flowers. She yelled down the hallway to Dan as she pulled the door shut. The heady perfume of the roses thickened the air. Maria didn't know where to look while Eduardo seemed to be waiting.
“You wanna put these in water or something?” His tone was careful.
“Oh yeah, I guess so.” She jumped up and took the flowers from him; he relaxed against the door frame and lit a cigarette. Maria looked around the tiny room as though a vase or urn might suddenly materialize in one of the corners and be just the thing she needed. They heard the bell ring out in the arena for the first round of the next fight. Women's fights were almost always the opening act for the bigger men's bouts. Maria continued to turn slowly around the room trying to figure out what to do with the flowers. She finally laid them down on a bench next to her street coat. “I will take them home and put them in something nice. They are too beautiful for this room. Thank you, Eduardo.”
“You were really amazing tonight. Do you know that? You had that dumb cow running for her life!” His crude epithet made her wince, but she turned her face away so he wouldn't see her disapproval. “I mean it, Maria, you were great. You were so good, I have a surprise.” He let his praise sink into the room for a moment. Let her soak it up like a sponge before he went on, “We are going to take our little ragtag band on the road, Señorita Vargas! No more Saturday afternoon fights or Wednesday night pickups. Now the real fame begins! I want you to be the Featherweight Champion of North America... and I know you can do it.” He said the last more softly and took a step toward her. Eduardo was not a stranger—she didn't lower her eyes even though her cheeks felt as hot as if she had gone a round against stone gloves.
He knew her well enough to take his time. If he had walked into the room and placed his hand on her hair, she would have turned away and shut down. Instead he stepped forward, and then past her, turning to sit down on the bench next to the roses. She stood over him now, and wasn't sure if she should be afraid or not. He held her gaze, imagining that he looked like a movie star Romeo. She was a clueless Juliet, and stood mute, hoping he would tell her what to do next. The silence stretched uncomfortably, and just as he started to say something, the bell sounded again outside as the first round ended.
“I need to get changed, Eduardo. Are we all going to have dinner tonight?”
“Yes, at Pujol.”
“Pujol! No! It's too expensive.”
“You are the star, you deserve the best.” He stood up and took a step closer. “Tonight dinner is just you and me, Maria. I can't share you.” She turned toward her locker, her head down. He might have gone too far. “Pretty soon it will Pujol for all of us, every night!” he was louder, jovial, as he stepped toward the door and out into the hall. The bell rang to start the next round. “Get dressed, mi reina, tonight you live like the queen you are.”
The four of them headed north. Eduardo began to slowly and traditionally woo Maria. They were never completely alone again, like the night in the locker room. Always Dan or Isidra or a full restaurant or arena was between them. Isidra busied after Maria like she was already the Maid of Honor: brushing her hair out after fights and rubbing lemon cream into her hands to cut the stale smell from the wraps and gloves that seemed to linger no matter how much washed.
As Eduardo wooed Maria, Maria began to knock women out. She became stronger under the mantel of his affection. Her fists flew fast and steady in the ring, and her wins began to add up. By summer she was fighting former pros in Laredo. Dan began to give her more specific direction, he would tell her to stretch a fight out for 6 rounds (“I know her, she will get weak.”) or tell her to end it quickly in only 3 (“They say she hits harder the longer she's in there, take her down in three, Maria”). She had no idea that these prompts were coming from Eduardo, from his bets on the side. She wouldn't have believed it if she heard it. Eduardo was her novio. He was a little rude and sometimes too flashy, but he was respectful of her and wanted what was best. She never even had to fear his rumored temper, since she was only able to do as he asked.
In July and August, they moved up through Texas, stacking up pro wins. Maria was still relatively unknown and considered a newcomer, but the local papers were starting to take her picture for their sports pages. Once a girl ran up to Maria after a fight, she was fat and forward, raised on supermarket food in some nice American suburb. She asked for her autograph. Maria was flustered and instead of signing anything told the girl to go to a gym and learn to take better care of herself. Later she told Isidra the story, clucking her teeth at the problem of spoiled Americanos, while Isidra undressed her and readied her for dinner with Eduardo.
In San Antonio, she knocked out Ada Velez, a former belt holder in 7 rounds. After the final bell rang, and the referee held up her glove, Eduardo jumped the ropes, grabbed Maria, and kissed her for the first time. She still had her mouth-guard in.
That night, Maria called her mother back in Mexico and told her that she wanted to marry Eduardo. Her mother said only, “Come home.”
The next week, in Austin, Maria beat the local hero, Linda Tenberg. Dan yelled at her over the crowd while she was in the corner after the first round that Linda had an old scar on her eyebrow, from a bad cut in a fight she lost and that it was her glass chin. Dan's hungry eyes and shaky hands pleaded along with his hoarse voice for her to take Linda out in the fourth round with a hard hit to that eyebrow.
After the second round, she looked for Lalo in the crowd, and he was there, with Isidra sitting next to him. This was like every other fight, but this time, neither saw her look over. They weren't cheering, they were just both sitting staring straight into the ring. Maria saw the edge of Isidra's hand as it slipped back into her lap. She couldn't see Eduardo's hand, were it must have cradled Isidra's, but she knew it was there. When the bell rang she leapt up, ran at Linda and knocked her out with one swift left hook to the jaw. She waved her hand dismissively at Dan as he admonished her later.
“Lo siento, Capitán. I forgot which round you said. Anyway, I won, right?” Eduardo threw a coffee cup through a window in the locker room and stormed out to the parking lot.
She told Dan to let Lalo know that she felt a fever coming on and wouldn't make dinner. He assumed that it was his show of force had set her straight. Isidra came to their shared motel room with cool towels, but she turned her down as well.
“Go have some dinner with Señor Dan and Eduardo, Chila. They need a woman to take care of them, no? I will stay here and rest up.” Isidra didn't come back to the room until very late that night.
That week, the thing in Maria that had kept her obedient broke. It didn't snap like a rubber band that night in the ring. It broke slowly, the way a boot heel becomes looser and looser, making your one footfall a bit wobbly until the moment you take one more regular step and just leave it behind. She suddenly saw the heavy looks between the Isidra and Eduarado, and even began to notice the way Eduardo would talk to Dan each time he got off the phone, with paper and pencil in hand. Before she assumed it was to discuss her training and how to make her a winner, but now their hunched shoulders and waggling eyebrows in her direction were sinister, controlling.
She had been made strong by love, but became even stronger in her silent, secret heartbreak. In her bed each night, while she was alone with her grief and pain, Maria learned how much a woman gives, and how little of it is returned. And she decided that she wasn't going to be that kind of woman anymore.
Dan was the only one to suspect that something in her had changed. He asked her if everything was OK several times during her Tuesday workout. The fight with Cavelli was scheduled for Friday and there were going to be TV cameras there. Dan shook his head, his lank yellow hair brushing his eyes like windshield wipers, when she told him she was fine.
“Don't go gettin' worried about the cameras, it'll be just like any other fight.”
“That is very good advice, Capitán, gracias.”
Later that afternoon, when she knocked Isidra to the mats during a sparring session, Dan held Eduardo back off the ropes by telling him that she was nervous about the publicity. Maria wondered briefly whether he would have run to her or to Isidra if Dan had let him through.
Thursday morning, Eduardo came to her room, alone. She was calm and dispassionate, but he was too wrapped up in his plan to notice her firm gaze. He needed her to lose the fight. It was hard to understand, and he knew it would be even harder for her to do. But she needed to do it, he explained, for him, for them.
“For us, Carina.”
She objected perfunctorily and then nodded at his vague explanations as though they made it all clear. The idea of not throwing the fight didn't even occur to her; she nodded because he expected her to. Just like she would lose as he expected. She felt like she was floating above the two of them, watching her old, weak self. A quiet and still small part of her wanted to punch Eduardo, to knock him down and punch his pretty face until it was nothing but blood and bone chips. She had the strength to do it, surely, but too many years of tradition to allow it. Like an elephant tied with a small rope to a little peg, she had no idea what limits had been placed on her as a child, had no idea what strength could really be. The idea of disobeying him was still scary to her. She had no idea what his knuckles might feel like under her eye, across her nose. Nor was she in any mood to find out; while her mind was changing about some things she wasn't getting dumber—testing Lalo's temper was nothing she needed to do. Better would be to sneak away, once she had a plan.
That night, as Maria fell asleep she dreamed about flying lizards and whips and hummingbirds. She slept deep but woke up troubled. The whole day, she moved in a trance while some secret instinctive voice whispered words to her she had never heard before. She didn't even get a knot in her stomach when Isidra—thinking Maria was too busy jumping rope to notice—grabbed at Eduardo's arm, pressing her body to his for just a moment. Eduardo sneered at Dan over her head. Maria could see all of it now: he didn't love either of them, only himself. Isidra was just as desperate as Eduardo, both of them after the riches he felt he deserved. Only Dan, a victim of his overindulgence and weakness was spared by her insight. He was just a poor husk, doing as he was told to get his next fix. Just like me, she thought. He might have known how to box, but the fighter had left him a long time ago.
Later that night, as she stepped into the ring, she looked out into the crowd, out of habit, and saw Eduardo's hard gaze on her, willing her to obey. He was smiling, but his eyes were so sharp she could feel his thin fingers pressing into her shoulder, impressing upon her the importance of the next 20 minutes. She wanted to do as he asked, wanted him to love her as he said he would. And then the bell rang, and her last coherent thought before instinct took over, was simply: Box? Or Fight?