To borrow an opening line from Langston Hughes, I’ve known bruises. I’ve seen their muddy bosoms turn all golden in the sunset. My soul has grown deep like the bruises.
I’ve said I loved my years of martial arts training. I never said I was good at it. My greatest strength as a martial artist was patience, and because I was patient I eventually mastered even the most complicated kicks. But I had no talent at all for sparring. I had a tendency to block with my arms. The teachers assumed a few full-force kicks to the side of the forearm would fix this problem; they were wrong. With my brain I am a quick learner. With my body I am slow. Bruises swelled up on me like all varieties of fruits, the colors of cherries, plums, grapes, nectarines. Bruises upon bruises. I cupped them in my palms and felt their layers. I started saying things like ‘the color is from last week, but the swelling is from this week.’ I cringed when the cats stepped on me in bed. I carried tubes of arnica pellets and popped them in my mouth like Tic-Tacs.
The people I sparred with blocked with their knees. The first night I sparred, every kick I threw encountered a knee. Knee to shin. Between rounds I stood stunned by the wall. I thought if I pulled up the legs of my uniform to see the damage to my shins I might faint. Or throw up, or turn around and walk out. Kicks were knocking me to the floor. The instructor was kicking my stomach, my ears, my neck. I learned that I could get kicked to the ground – kicked in the head – and still stand up. I learned later that the teacher thought there was something wrong with me. He kicked and blocked me even harder, knee to shin, to knock the wrongness out. But there was nothing wrong with me – just that I was a slow learner with my body.
One teacher liked to stomp on our feet with his heels. Six years later, my right foot is still mottled with purple. My insteps swelled up until I could barely wear shoes. I wore Birkenstocks with socks. Another woman quit the class when he broke three bones in her foot. I kept going back. I learned to charge this teacher with fast forward movement. I threw punches at his face and moved forward. I weighed a lot. I learned that there are ways to overwhelm any opponent. But before I learned this, there were so many bruises.
My shins swelled into twin heads of cauliflower. That night in a hot bath, I propped both shins on the rims of the tub and crowned them with ice packs. I considered their gradations of color: first, a bloodless white, the skin stretched taut over enlarged flesh. A sickly green palimpsest, as if the cauliflower were not ripe yet, as if the outer white were hiding something underneath that was intimate and shameful. Then tiny lines of purple and blue, like veins – perhaps they were veins – began to appear on the greenish surface like the script of an unknown language. And finally pink from contact with the ice pack, the colors all hurled onto my canvas shin like paint on a work of modern and experimental art that might cause its artist to commit suicide.
My soul has grown deep like the bruises.
It’s true what they say about women and bruises. Strangers really do pull their shopping carts just a bit too close when they pass you in the coffee aisle and whisper Leave him. Co-workers really do invent spurious reasons to get you in their cars for interventions. Women, if you want a reminder that society still thinks of you as vulnerable, walk around with bruises. After a while, I learned to enjoy the public’s reaction; once, in a crowded Macy’s, the week before I was scheduled to chaperone the prom in a sleeveless dress, I approached a makeup counter and asked for some foundation. “What’s it for?” the saleswoman asked. “Oh, to cover up THIS,” I said, pulling up the sleeve of my T-shirt to reveal the purple mountains majesty beneath. Because the bruises didn’t make me feel vulnerable. They made me feel strong. That’s why my body was a slow learner. My teachers were counting on the pain to teach me how to evade punches and kicks. But I couldn’t convince my body that enduring the pain with a smile wasn’t the point.
I learned how to walk without wincing. I learned not to wear fear on my face. I learned to stockpile arnica, popping into bathrooms throughout the day to apply ointment, swallowing two pellets every hour. I learned the word ‘hematoma.’
What I didn’t learn until later is that most people – most sane, rational people – would take themselves straight to the ER with even one hematoma of the size, color, and texture of the ones I routinely carried around in sets of two, three, four, five, and more. I watched my teacher lead us on a sixteen-mile hike in the mountains with two broken toes and two broken ribs. He admitted that they hurt but never let the pain invade his face or his voice. I assumed my pain was small potatoes. And I was so glad, after thirty years of politeness, to be able to point to a bruise and say, “My pain is HERE.” My pain wasn’t in my brain. It wasn’t in my ego – for ONCE in my life it wasn’t in my ego. It was visible and ugly. And every time I nursed a bruise I felt as if my life finally made sense.