By Meaghan Clohessy
I remember when Josh left.
I don’t remember the day, but days are insignificant. Students miss days, weeks. Nobody lives at the Forsythe Center of Martial Arts. Not even you. Moments are better. Moments account for patterns of absences. They provide subtext for shallow excuses. They answer your call for warm-ups when students are no longer there to answer for themselves.
Josh was going to college. Carroll College in Waukesha. It was close enough so he could continue coming to the studio. That was his excuse and you believed him. You would never admit it, but you knew Josh was never coming back. And it hurt.
I listened to your rationalizations:
“Josh will be back. He’s working hard at college. Mom said he’s also getting a job at Denny’s. He’s coming back though. He’ll teach, get paid. We’re working out details, but he’ll be back.”
In the meantime, I taught the younger belts in between my own training. You stayed in your office, working on ways to expand the studio. Parents of students started talking about Josh.
Their conclusion: “He took his black belt and left.”
I didn’t want to agree. They didn’t spend three hours a day watching you rush out of your office each time a stray wind pressed against the glass doors of the studio’s entrance.
Josh was your star student. You personally saw to his training since he was a white belt. Even though he could have been your younger brother, you had no problem calling him “son.” Josh represented the moments when the studio overflowed with students. Those moments when it echoed with the sound of feet kicking bags instead of silence.
In the end, there was just me. I had been at the studio two years. There were two more years to come. Two more years of encouraging winks. Two more years of sharing jokes to fill the somber spaces of class. Two more years of crying into your uniform whenever life became burdensome. Two more years of reminding me how proud you were.
Remember the night before my black belt test when I told you I wasn’t good enough to pass? You grabbed me by the arm and dragged me across the studio. I barely struggled. We stopped at the board that showed the different belt levels. You forced me to pick out my belt. I lifelessly pointed at the high red belt, close to the top.
“You tell me you’re not good enough again, I’m not only taking away your belt, but I’m making you a white belt. I will make you test for each belt, all over again. And I will not be nice about it.”
I passed my test the next day.
I became like Josh, a protégé. Though you never called me daughter, the winks you gave me after each class was the assurance I needed. I too came to represent passing moments: the moment when the younger students stopped coming to class, the moment when I was the only female student on your roster, the moment of stillborn business ventures.
In my third year came the moment when the adult students appeared and stole your attention. They had the advantage of being closer to you in age. Soon, you talked in hushed whispers. Jokes came at my expense of my perceived naïveté. You still winked, but they were rare. With every class, a lump metastasized in my throat.
I adopted excuses:
“I’m working on a movie, sir, my English class. I’ll be back in a few days. Promise.”
“Dad’s car is busted. When it’s fixed, I’ll come back. When? About a week, sir.”
Excuses evolved into actual commitments. By my fourth year, I was a senior in high school, spending my nights avoiding your studio and sitting in front of my computer, filling out college applications. All located on the east coast.
But I wasn’t planning to leave. I didn’t want to become Josh. Take my black belt and leave. Make you wait uneasily in your office for that stray wind, your only returning student. Somewhere in my college plans would fit the Forsythe Center of Martial Arts. That wasn’t going to be me. Not at that moment, anyway.
I remember our last conversation:
“I’ve been incredibly busy. I’m helping my teacher run a show for school.”
“Good for you. I’m proud.”
“Thank you sir.”
“Always have been.”
“Thank you sir.”
“When will you be back?”
“October it is! Make sure to practice.”
“Of course sir. Goodbye sir.”
I imagined you winking as you hung up.
One day, the summer after my freshman year, I was riding a bus through West Allis. It creaked to a red light. I out the dusty windows. The Forsythe Center of Martial Arts was gone. Taken over by a neighboring costume shop. I sobbed the rest of the way home.
Does Josh know?
There are nights when I contemplate calling. Nights when pools of insomnia collect in my bones and joints. I spend the dragging hours staring at my ceiling. The walls of my dorm are the same eggshell white as your studio. My limbs start to shake. I take my phone off the charger, holding it squarely in my hand. Your number is still in my contacts.
I want to explain myself. How I didn’t mean for the studio to close. Parents and friends will tell me business was bad. That this was a moment bound to happen. However, I cannot shed the sense of responsibility cramming its way into the base of my tight shoulders. After all, I took my black belt and left.
My clumsy fingers dial your number. With each number came another imagined moment: the studio’s final impregnated silence, the adult students leaving, the immovable stacks of overdue bills, the looming jealousy of expanding businesses, the decline of once-strong credit lines, the final signature of foreclosure—
His name appears in my mind, but it is my face I see.
My phone is returned to the charger. I close my eyes, avoiding the white walls of my dorm, waiting for the Ambien to take hold.