There was a step into Roy’s boxing gym. Just a small one, about four inches of pitted concrete before the dented metal door into the gym (which was clearly a repurposed industrial building, maybe a small warehouse) – but still, it was a step.
“I hope this isn’t symbolic,” I said, looking up at Roy.
He was sucking in his lower lip, thinking. His hand rested heavily on my shoulder. “I ccc – could probably lift you,” he said, “but I think there’s also a r-ramp in back, for equipment and stuff.”
“Uhh… let’s try that, please.” I trusted Roy, but I was also already more nervous than I would have liked to admit, and not in the mood to try something even slightly questionable.
“I’m ss-sorry,” he said, sounding suddenly miserable. “I thought I had thought this through, but obviously I didn’t. I just… I got ttt – too excited just thinking about you vvv – visiting.”
I couldn’t help smiling, even though my heart was already fluttering with anxiety. “We’ll figure it out.”
He led me down a narrow sidewalk to the left of the building – it was cracked and upheaved enough to jostle my chair and me. I winced when my chair lurched over a particularly bad crack, sending a painful jolt through my spine. Ahead of me, Roy walked fast, clearly a bit worked up, pushing aside encroaching branches of the dark, overgrown shrubs that lined the outer perimeter wall. I smiled again when he paused and stepped back to hold up a branch that would have been squarely at face level on me. “Thanks.” He gave me back an anxious smile.
I know we were both relieved when we made it past the gauntlet of shrubbery and into what turned out to be a small parking lot behind the building, and saw the long ramp leading up to the back entrance. Roy advanced, tested the door – “’S open,” he said with relief.
“Great, great –”
The ramp led into a storage room, thankfully not too cluttered, and from there into the main gym. Thankfully again, nobody noticed when we came in, which gave me a minute to get my bearings, and steel myself.
This was, I had realized in the days leading up to my planned visit, the first time we would go anywhere together that would entail one of us meeting the other person’s friends, and consequently the first time we might have to introduce ourselves as a couple. And we hadn’t talked about how we wanted to handle it. Roy was so endearingly, childishly excited that I was coming to check things out that I honestly couldn’t tell if he had thought that part through, either. The impression that I got, in this and other arenas, was that he was so used to operating solo, and mostly silently, that it was going to take him a while to update his sense of… not needing to explain anything to anyone. And for my part, I had been too sheepish and nervous to bring it up.
Compounding all of this was the fact that I regarded anything resembling a jock – with the obvious and still baffling exception of Roy – with something close to terror. Along every single axis, they might as well have existed in a separate reality from me: nerd, Jewish, gay, disabled. The singular sports event I’d attended in my life – a college football game – my friends and I had talked through almost continuously, only making a token attempt to focus on the field when the rest of the crowd got excited about something, at which point we’d wave and cheer and laugh at our largely unsullied ignorance of anything going on.
All told, I had done my best to coax myself into cultivating something resembling a breathless open-mindedness about how this visit would go. In practice, this meant that as Roy held the storage room’s door open for me to roll into the main gym, I was about one-third terrified, one-third ready to be ironic and defensive, and one-third ready to be artificially friendly.
Thankfully, no one noticed when we entered. Roy was resting his hand on my shoulder again as we advanced, and I tried to draw strength from the warmth of the now-familiar gesture as I gazed around the gym. While I thought I could still get away with it, I briefly leaned my cheek to touch against his hand, and he moved his thumb up to stroke gently.
The whole space had a distinctly chilly, dank smell, though caged metal fans overhead kept the air moving. I didn’t think I’d be taking my coat off. The floors were concrete, with long stretches of black rubber matting. The walls were painted white, often peeling near where they met the floor. Overhead hung long strips of fluorescent lighting, casting an even but harsh light on the two rows of punching bags that hung from chains a few feet away from us, like oversized fruit – some the long heavy kind, black and impossibly dense-looking, others the plump little colorful ones. A compact man with his back turned to us was working out with one of the little ones, creating a constant, light, drumming rhythm as he struck it again and again in rapid succession, occasionally punctuated by a squeak from the chain.
Beyond the punching bags, there was an open matted space, and then a roped-off square platform around which maybe ten men in loose shorts and t-shirts were chatting, stretching, jogging in place. A few looked like college kids; the rest I guessed were over 30. In the way they were moving, in the way they were talking to each other, there was a general sense of easy camaraderie, but also a kind of teasing watchfulness or wariness, a playfully competitive edge.
Despite my rapid heartbeat, I found myself smiling.
Roy was looking down at me, smiling anxiously but eagerly, his eyebrows lifted. He’d never been this excited to show me something before. “What do you think?”
“It’s just like in the movies. All-American.”
He laughed in an embarrassed way.
In front of us, the man punching the little bag slowed, delivered one last blow with a theatrical wind-up, then turned to face us. I guessed he’d heard Roy’s laugh. “There you are,” he said.
I immediately liked him. He looked somewhere between 50 and 60, with a weathered, narrow face accentuated by a hawkish nose and grey beard with a few black streaks in it. A short-brimmed black cap was pulled low over his dark eyes. He stood with a wide-legged stance, shifting from foot to foot with the same kind of restlessness that I’d grown accustomed to in Roy, though he had a light black brace on one knee, and seemed to be favoring it slightly. All things considered, he looked like the kind of guy who’d play guitar in bars on the weekend.
“Allan,” Roy said with obvious warmth as the man headed down the aisle between the punching bags toward us. He exchanged a handshake/clap-on-the-shoulder combo with Roy, smiling slightly, then switched hands without hesitation to shake with me. It only cemented how much I already thought I liked him: it took a lot of people a weirdly long amount of time to realize that I could only shake with my left hand.
“And your friend made it, too.” His handshake was warm and impressively strong, his fingers large and knuckly, even though he wasn’t all that much bigger than me.
I resisted the impulse to look up at Roy when Allan said “friend.” What kind of “friend” had I been described as?
“Hi,” I said automatically, “Asher.”
“Asher,” he repeated, with a slightly mysterious smile. What did it meeeeeeeean… Roy and I were going to have a talk after this, for my sanity’s sake.
I maintained the smile on my face, hoping I wasn’t as wide-eyed as I felt.
“Uh,” Roy said, “if you dd-don’t mind, Asher, I’m g-gonna go get started.” He nodded his head in the direction of the men congregated around the boxing ring.
“Oh, of course,” I said. “I’ll just…”
“Allan was great and ppp – p-promised me he’d hang with you. He’s really good at explaining stuff,” Roy said eagerly.
“Knee surgery,” Allan added in an explanatory tone, when I looked back to him. “Not allowed to do much for the next month, so I’m mostly here to get out of the house and give guys like Roy –” he reached up to slap Roy’s shoulder “– a hard time from the sidelines.”
Roy ducked his head and grinned, then turned to lead the way towards the other end of the gym.
I had to work to keep my face still when the gazes of most of the other guys came to bear on us. There was the expected assortment of raised eyebrows and ill-concealed double-takes when they saw me in my chair; I became aware that my heartbeat was pounding in my ears again. Of course, to complete the picture, my right leg started kicking repeatedly, and my arm contracted more tightly against my chest. Despite the chill, I was ready to break into a sweat as I rolled up toward that gathering of poised, athletic men. It didn’t help my nerves that I could feel that Roy’s attention was pretty definitively not on me. At the same time that I would have been mortified to have him worrying about me the whole time, I could, pathetically, have really used a hug then.
I took a deep breath.
With Allan at my side, I worked my way through a series of thankfully laconic introductions. I tried to feel reassured by the mixture of low-key friendliness and a general lack of overinquisitiveness. The question I’d been afraid of – some variation on “Why are you even here?” – didn’t make an appearance, even in subtext; people seemed genuinely happy, or at least satisfied, that I was just there to check out what “my friend” Roy got up to in so much of his time off. There were even a couple of not-that-awkward offers of help if I “wanted to try anything out…”, which I declined with an “oh, maybe next time...” that I hoped sounded genuine, but not too genuine.
Only one of the guys made zero effort not to stare at my body, especially, I thought, my arm, which was still clenched against my chest. The rest, I decided I was ready to try to like.
The men were dispersing now into smaller groups, some heading for the bags, others for the open matted area, listening to a stocky, intimidatingly muscular man with thinning sandy hair who seemed generally In Charge; we hadn’t been introduced, but I knew from previous conversation with Roy that that had to be Kemp, the gym’s owner. In the open area, some of the guys grabbed jump-ropes, others were pulling on small padded fingerless gloves, nothing like the bulbous red gloves I was used to seeing in cartoons.
I settled back in my chair to watch as they began drills or exercises, and allowed myself to entertain a slim sense of having survived the worst. (And my leg spasms, at least, were subsiding, although my right leg was still winched a good way out of the seat, tilting me in the opposite direction.) I let out a breath with a puff that I realized a moment later would have been pretty audible. Allan caught my eye, raised an eyebrow inquiringly. I looked away, embarrassed that my nervousness must have been so obvious to him, then looked back and said a quick “Sorry.”
“Hey, come on,” he said. The easy sense of humor – and the surprisingly, openly fond smile – with which he said it suggested that I was being too hard on myself.
I smiled back, broadly this time. “I’m surprised Roy hasn’t talked about you more to me,” I said; I liked him that much.
He let out a laugh, and crossed his arms as he stood next to me, looking out over the practice floor. “Roy? Talking?” Then he made a pfffff sound.
“Glad it’s not just me,” I said, giving him a knowing smile.
He rocked his head from side to side, smirking. Then he said, “No, we do get along, Roy and me. I’ve managed to get him to tell me a fair bit about himself, over the years.” My ears fairly perked up. “I’ve been here forever, even before Kemp owned this place, was certainly here when Roy first joined. Heard a lot since then. Still a surprise when I heard he managed to find you.”
"Um…” My face was hot. I lifted my hand from my joystick to press it against my mouth, and pretended to be intent on a man who was jump-roping ferociously, sweat beginning to glisten on his dark brown skin, whipping the cord with at least twice the speed as the college kid next to him. Off to one side, two men in padded helmets had squared off to spar under the watchful gaze of Kemp; appreciative shouts were coming up from the men watching them. Meanwhile, Roy was warming up with one of the long punching bags. He was, I realized now, almost a head taller than almost every other man here. I watched him with a kind of distracted appreciation; seeing him in a new context gave me another opportunity to recognize how handsome he was.
Allan wasn’t going to let me go, though; he looked down at me until he forced me to catch his eye again. “Well, you know. He’s put himself through some rough shit. I’d been waiting for him to find someone nice for a while.”
I looked up at him and was too nervous to even force a smile; my bad hand was pressing hard against my chest, the fingers twitching in and out convulsively, sometimes just one or two, sometimes all at once. Allan continued, unperturbed: “And I do mean it when I say ‘put himself through.’ Roy is a good guy, but he overdoes shit.”
At that, I had to laugh. “I think,” I said, “I’d been trying to admit that to myself for a while. It feels good to hear someone else say it. It’s… it’s hard not to see him as, like, this incredibly noble person. And he has been through rough shit. But…” I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say.
“You guys are both young,” he said, without condescension. “And Roy is noble. It’s a rare quality. So I feel confident calling it when I see it. But sometimes – not all the time! – he goes out of his way to make things hard for himself. I think he has a Puritanical streak. ‘Our pilgrim forefathers…’”
I was nodding, slowly. The sparring match had ended in some kind of embarrassing upset: one of the guys was bent over with his hands on his knees, shaking his head, while Kemp shook his shoulder chastisingly. Roy had joined the circle of onlookers now, though he stood slightly to one side, occasionally turning away to shift into an active stance and practice a series of punches.
“Can I tell you something else?” I asked Allan. I was conscious of the weirdly immediate intimacy of our conversation, the fact that I didn’t even know anything, really, about Allan. I would have felt bad if I didn’t get the sense that Allan, himself, was enjoying getting to discuss Roy, and holding forth while doing it; the way he savored some of his phrases as he said them suggested that he’d been formulating them for some time.
“Shoot,” he said. He was drumming his fingers against his upper arms, looking amused.
“I’m just… I’m gonna be really straightforward, if you don’t mind. I’ve never had someone to actually talk about Roy with, someone who actually knows him.”
He gave an encouraging, almost impatient nod.
“I don’t… Sometimes I feel confused by the fact that in most people’s eyes, probably, I’m worse off –” I nodded my chin down at my body, my wheelchair “–but it feels like Roy actually has a lot more shit to work through. It’s like my brain wants to reconcile those two pieces of information, and it can’t. Is that stupid?”
I still wasn’t quite sure I’d said what I was really chewing on, but that seemed to at least be in the neighborhood. I looked up, watched as Allan made a considering expression, pulling the corners of his mouth down. After another moment, he said, “Do you feel like you’re worse off?”
I paused, then said, “No. I worry too much, but… really I’m happy most of the time. I like where I am in life. I feel lucky to be where I am in life.” Another sparring match was beginning: a round of encouraging shouts, scattered applause, was going up from the onlooking men.
Allan waggled a hand through the air in a dismissing kind of way. “Then don’t think about it the way you think other people would think about you. That’s some kind of crazy mathematics you’re trying to do. It doesn’t work out. Like, I’m sure you deal with things I can’t imagine – although, maybe I will soon, if I keep doing things to my knees that make my doctor yell at me – but don’t feel like you have to act like your life has all kind of strife in it that it doesn’t, just because Roy’s does, or did.”
I was nodding again. We were both talking circuitously, but it was all touching on things I had been worrying about without being able to quite articulate it to myself. I watched as one of the sparring men – the black guy I’d been watching jump-rope earlier – lunged forward, delivered a series of three incredibly quick blows that had the onlookers cheering. The match ended, and Roy was stepping forward now, putting on a padded helmet of his own, shaking out his shoulders as he bounced from foot to foot on bent knees and grinned, squaring off with the second-biggest guy there.
“Also,” Allan said, with a smile in his voice, “don’t let Roy get more wrapped up –” he made a furious circling gesture with one hand “–with his own strife than, you know, he really needs to.” I grinned, myself. Then he continued, more seriously, “Although you should ask him about high school sometime, if you haven’t already.”
“Oh!” I said, surprised. “I will.” And, “Thank you. We – we should all go out for drinks sometime, or something.”
He gave me a big grin in response, the weathered channels in his face deepening.
“Is this kind of a hobby for you?” I had to ask, with a touch of irony.
He gave a short laugh. “I used to think I’d be a novelist. Now I’m just a geezer with a mouth.”
We grinned for another few moments, then fell into silence, and watched Roy fight. Again, as when I’d watched him shadowboxing in the early morning, I was amazed at how quickly he could move, the way he seemed to be able to float his big body through space; again I became aware of everything that was small, awry, off-kilter about my body. But this time, it just seemed like a fact, the way I preferred it to – not a failure.
Later, when Roy escorted me out, breathing fast, still smiling ear to ear, he asked, “So, what’d you think?”
I said, “I’ll be honest, I don’t know how much of what you were doing really sunk in that time. But you’re right: Allan is really good at explaining things.”