So I have this idea to go on this double-date with my sparring partner Michel and his girlfriend Mara. I ask Flora if she likes double dates.
“Not really,” she says. “I’m mean it’s kinda for little girls.” I spend the next hour poking her in the belly with her looking at me like, “What did I say?”
After I convince Flora to come and a few conversations with Michel about what we should do, he finally tells us to meet them at the beach. Flora and I show up an hour late, in typical Brazilian fashion, and Michel greets me with a wide grin while pointing to the watch on his wrist. I smile and hang my head low in a bit of shame, but he touches my shoulder to tell me it’s alright and we make our way to the beach.
There are two towels they’ve laid out for sitting and once we arrive, both Michel and Mara go through this meticulous process of brushing what seems to be every grain of sand off of them and go about organizing their belongings in neat, geometric shapes. I pull out my flimsy quick-dry towel that I bough from REI, but before I can set it down, Michel pats one side of the fabric he just cleaned and tells us to sit down. We do and go through formal introductions, and I’m suddenly struck by how good of a choice this was as one of the last things I do in Rio.
Michel and I go into the water first. It’s freezing. It’s like going into a metal bathtub filled with ice cubes. Michel asks me if the water is cold and splashes some onto my face when I say “yes”. We talk about life, about what we plan to do in the future. He tells me once again about his plans to stay in Brazil for at least another year running the amateur circuit, gets a bit worried when he starts thinking about his professional career. Brazil doesn’t exactly have the most vibrant boxing scene.
I try to give him my best advice about the career pitfalls most boxers find themselves in. I’m basically reciting all the Thomas Hauser articles that I’ve read over the last few years. I tell him that I’ve always flirted with the idea of getting into the business side of the sport, becoming an agent, a manager, financial planner for athletes, just some role that protects professional fighters since I know I’m never going to be one.
“What about Brazil?” he asks.
“Well, I’m here for the next year, going to keep doing what I’m doing," I say. "After that, who knows.” He looks back at the beach towards Flora and Mara.
“Flora, you like her, don’t you?” he says. I look back halfway nervously with these kind of juvenile day-dream sort of eyes.
“Yeah, she’s pretty cool.” I say. “What about you and Mara? You plan to stay together?”
“Yeah. I want to be with her for a long time.”
It’s nice to hear him say that, reassuring even. I guess it helps to have someone as tough as Michel feel the same way when it came to matters of the heart. We’re kind of similar in this way, both just trying to live decently, and I suddenly really appreciate his company. I guess some part of me just enjoys spending time with someone I can call a friend, and when I think about it, Michel was one of the first friends I made when I came to Brazil.
We go back to the girls and I immediately want to take a group picture. Call it corny or whatever, but I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a chance to have a time like this with a sparring partner. I ask this chubby guy sitting alone on the beach to snap a photo of us. I set the aperture and shutter speed right, and to his credit, he snapped a damn good photo.
He starts asking me some questions, about who I am, where I’m from, what languages I speak, but something about it felt very insincere, like he was going through formalities to get somewhere else. He keeps asking if Flora is my girlfriend, as in asks me three more times after I say "yes" the first time. He starts talking to Flora in such a way that leaves me immediately disinterested so I leave them to have a conversation. She comes back after five minutes and sits down next to me in the sand.
“I don’t really like that guy,” she says. “His intentions.” I already know what she means.
“Yeah, he was weird,” I say, the curtest thing I can say amidst the brewing jealously.
We watch him scowl in anger at some little kids kicking up sand as they run past his towel. He grabs one kid by the arm and starts saying something to him that I can’t decipher, but the way his face scrunches, I can tell it isn’t pleasant. The small black kid kinda stares at him not understanding what the problem is. I’m kinda giving him the same look. How the hell can you be angry at a little kid running on a beach? I guess you can really tell how a person decided to be during their youth by how they are in their age. How they treat children really shows those choices.
Flora gets up to leave a few minutes later. She has an appointment with her sister and a friend to busk on the subway playing music, something she does about three times a week. The old man chases after her. He tries desperately for one last conversation.
“Oh you’re leaving?” he asks.
“Yeah I have to go play,” she says.
“Where do you live?” he follows. Flora kinda gives this look saying, "Well that wasn't a smooth transition". I'm giving him the same, just much more menacingly.
“Dude, I live in Volta Redonda,” Flora fibs. She says it kindly, but also with a tone indicating the end of her patience.
“Where do you play?” he continues, not picking up on the social cue.
“Man, I play all over the city. Bars, parties, different places, in fact, I have to go play now.”
She gives a friendly wave and dashes off. He stands there looking defeated, almost embarrassed. I’m ready to rip his throat out but I give a polite smile instead. I recognize those words. It’s how I used to be five years ago when I would meet a pretty girl and had nothing to say. You try desperately to elongate a conversation that you don’t want to end, hoping that maybe they’ll offer some space for an invitation, a phone number, a clue to where they’ll be later, just some way to see that other person again, and when it doesn’t come, you just keep asking questions, senseless, asinine questions, because you figure, it’s better than nothing. For a moment, I actually feel bad for him.
Flora tells me later about their conversation:
“He said he comes to Rio every year and I was telling him how nice it must be to be able to travel, to bring your family, or that feeling you have when you go back to them. ‘What family?’ he said to me. ‘My parents are gone and I never married, or had children. I've been alone for most of my life.’” She pauses for a moment and there’s this look of strain on her face. “People like that are desperate,” she tells me. “They’ll take anything, do anything. It’s kinda sad, to see someone like that.”
I remember seeing him waddle away from a couple of slightly unattractive older women. It seemed like he managed to get a number or something from one of them and trots back with a look of delight. Putting together that memory with what Flora told, and it’s starting to make more sense.
Michel and Mara go for a run on the beach and I’m sitting on the beach really enjoying “Daytripper”, a great graphic novel about life, and I start thinking about the day, about the people I’ve met since I first arrived. Most people probably wouldn’t guess that Michel and I came to know each other by punching each other in the face, or that it’s what we do the majority of the time we spend together, but it would be ignorant to think that it hindered our friendship. If anything, it was the basis of it. To know someone in battle, by witnessing their vulnerability and their capacity to be kind to yours, you are able to see both their violence and compassion, an honest picture of who they are. He was my sparring partner, and when you think about the purpose of that role, it is that they are there to help prepare you for battle. They are a partner, in every sense of the word, to help you find victory. I guess to sum it up, I just really cared for the guy.
Out of nowhere the fat guy starts talking to me again, interrupting my thoughts and my reading, and I’m beginning to become annoyed. We get into the basics again, what do I do, where do I live, a typical ice-breaker conversation, just once over since I have a suspicion he wasn't listening to anything I said the first time. I tell him I live in Centro, by Uruguaiana. I tell him this because I know that place is semi-dangerous for foreigners that look like him, in case he tries to drop by looking for Flora. I know it probably wasn’t the nicest thing to do, but when it comes to love, fuck that guy.
He asks me what I do. I tell him I’m a writer. He asks me what I write about, almost in a forceful manner. I think about it for a moment.
“Well, I pretty much write about boxing,” I tell him.
“Boxing,” he scrunches his face like he just ate his own shit. “I don’t like it. So violent. Sport of brutes.” I bite my tongue at the irony of some fat piece of shit who is trying to hit on someone’s girlfriend in front of the person calling a fighter, a “brute”. Or just his entire character, really, is just kinda offensive to me, and by no means holds the right to call anyone a “brute", let alone a fighter.
The most polite thing I can say is, “Yeah, it’s violent for people who don’t know anything about it.” His face has a slight look of insult.
“Why do you like boxing?” he demands. "Huh? How can you like such a sport?" I think about how I should put it to him.
“Well, I guess it’s because of the relationships, the communities you build. I’m friends with my opponents. I have more respect for them after I fight them.”
“Like punches of love?” he condescendingly jests.
“Actually,” I say, “that’s exactly what it is.”