Cheerios. Ten or so of them floating in a bowl of milk. That’s my earliest memory. I don’t know how old I was at the time, but I was younger than two years old. I’m sure of it, because the next vivid recollection I have is of my second birthday. I don’t recall the gifts I received, but I’m sure I was two. Either that, or my father could only afford two candles. There was frosting. Lots of frosting. And wrapping paper.
Following my second birthday was loud music. Kisses. Fizzy drinks. The blue car with multi-color cloth interior. The smell of sweat. A mustache. Band-Aids. The house with no trees. Rain that lasted forever. A boxing ring. The house with nothing but trees. A bicycle. Macaroni and cheese. And bunkbeds. I never understood the bunkbeds, but then again, I never asked.
And then, nothing until I was seven. Second grade with Emily Barton. We got in a fight in the hallway over something so unimportant I couldn’t recall it a week later, and damned sure can’t remember now. I’ll never forget how much it hurt to have my hair pulled, though.
Elementary and middle school must have been uneventful, because I really don’t remember much between Emily pulling my hair and the first day of high school.
High school brought with it football, house parties, and boys. Bobby Breyton talked me into giving him head in the back of Toby Wilson’s truck when I was a freshman. He later told everyone what a slut I was. At first, I denied it. In time I learned admitting to it made me much more marketable, so I proudly laid claim to the house party truck bed blowjob. An overabundance of sexual opportunities soon followed. Hoping to find love, I took advantage of most of them.
Love, however, remained elusive.
My sophomore year, my life was disrupted. From that point through my senior year, life was a blur of boys, beer, blowjobs, and being backhanded by my father.
I left home the day after I graduated high school.
I was eighteen. Eighteen and angry.
It was 1,057 miles from my home in Omaha, Nebraska to Corpus Christi, Texas, and Corpus Christi was my final destination. I wanted to see the beach. I made it as far as Austin, Texas. It was a far cry from the Gulf of Mexico, but at the time I saw it as the beginning to what I was certain would end up being a perfect life.
I was getting coffee. He was leaving when I was going in. We collided. At that moment, I was 18 and he was 31. I was certain we were placed on the earth for one another. We both liked coffee.
And wild sex.
Preston was handsome, rich, treated me well, and fucked me hard. At least at first. Time passed quickly. Every day it seemed things got better. Not that they were ever bad. In fact, they were great.
From there things got better than great.
Yes. My life changed from a fairly miserable existence to being spectacular.
And then things went to shit. Not over a period of time, or after a sequence of events, but immediately. One day he simply decided he’d had enough. And just like that…
My life with him was over.
He kicked me to the curb. Not a metaphorical curb kicking. He actually kicked me to the curb. Love, I learned, was something glorified in story books and fairy tales.
In real life, it simply didn’t exist.
With a backpack filled with my personal items and a little money he gave me to get on my feet, I went from the comfort of his million-dollar home to living alone in a one-bedroom apartment.
I didn’t live there for long. In a short period of time, I had the world by the balls.
I beat the shit out of a guy for trying to steal my backpack at Starbucks. Before he had a chance to wipe the blood from his lips, I met a man who volunteered to train me as a professional fighter. And, through him, I met another man. The man who proved to me that love was real.
The trainer who noticed my raw talent?
His name’s Mike.
It’s short for Michael.
But no one ever calls him by his name.
They call him Ripp.
My name’s Beth, but no one ever calls me by my name, either.
They call me Jaz.
It’s short for Jasmine.
This is my story. It’s about fighting, fucking, and falling in love.
In that order.
Spring in Austin was a perfect time to sit at the coffee shop and people watch. It was one of the few social events I enjoyed doing, but the tattooed asshole holding my backpack had me wondering if I had chosen the wrong place to do it. I’d made the mistake of leaving it in the outside seating area while I went inside to pee. When I came out, it appeared he was preparing to leave with my stuff.
Dressed in a sleeveless black tee shirt, jeans, and biker boots, he was covered from his neck to his fingertips with tattoos. The stocking cap pulled down low on his head was well out of season, and told me he was either a dip-shit or a thug.
I snatched my backpack from his grasp. “You shouldn’t mess with other people’s shit.”
“I thought someone left it.”
Bullshit, you were going to steal it.
“Someone did leave it,” I said, my tone angry and bitter. “Me. I walked inside and went to the bathroom. It doesn’t make it public fucking property.”
I tossed it onto the table beside me and shot him a glare.
He shrugged. “You shouldn’t leave your shit laying around.”
I had zero interest in listening to his reasoning. “If something’s not yours, don’t fuck with it.”
A fire engine red old-school muscle car pulled into the lot. With exhaust so loud it shook the ground and music blaring from the open windows, it caused both of us to shift our attention toward the sound.
The car came to a stop. An over-sized gym rat with a shaved head and tattoos got out of the driver’s door. Another man – who looked like he belonged on the cover of a men’s fitness magazine – got out the other side.
I reluctantly tore my eyes from the handsome passenger and focused on the idiot I was arguing with. “Are we done?”
“If you’re done being a bitch.”
I cocked my hip. “Excuse me?”
“You heard me.”
“I wasn’t being a bitch. It’s my stuff, and you were fucking with it.”
Still deep in my personal space, and only a few feet from the table where my pack was lying, he chuckled a shitty little laugh. “You’re a mouthy little bitch.”
Regardless of what his tattoo artist might have told him, having the tattoos didn’t make him any tougher. When a douchebag gets tattoos, he becomes a tattooed douchebag, and as far as I was concerned, that’s all he was.
I dropped my gaze to his feet and slowly took every inch of his lanky frame into view. As my eyes met his, I let him know how much I respected his opinion. “Fuck you,” I hissed.
His eyes shot to the bag and his hand quickly followed. My instinct was right. He was nothing more than a common thief, and he was trying to take my shit. As he turned to run with the pack, I balled my fists, clenched my jaw, and did what seemed natural.
I fought for what was mine.
I swung a fading left jab just to see how he reacted, and followed it up with a right uppercut. The second punch connected perfectly with his chin, and stopped him from taking even one more step. His eyes went glassy, his hands dropped, and my backpack fell to the ground.
As easy as it would have been to leave it at that, I didn’t. While he stumbled and tried to regain his footing, I planted my feet and looked for an opening. He didn’t make me wait long. His right hand raised instinctively to try and protect himself.
As soon as his elbow cleared his ribcage, I swung another hard punch.
What do you think of this, motherfucker?
The breath shot from his lungs in one loud burst. Now teetering with his head at the height of my chest and his eyes glassy and unfocused, I knew one more punch would end it for him. I had every intention of doing just that – ending it. I swung a ferocious right hook. The punch connected perfectly with his left eye, knocking him into a stumbling series of steps.
Rocked hard by the barrage of quick punches, his brain was no longer able to control his muscular functions. He and his tattoos fell in a pile on the sidewalk.
I shook my aching hands and glared down at the wad of human waste. “Got your ass kicked by a fucking girl, didn’t you?”
“What the fuck happened?” someone from behind me asked.
The voice was thick with a Texas accent, something I didn’t have – or want. I picked up my backpack and spun around. Baldy stood a few feet away, shaking his head. He was massive, but now that he was close enough to touch, he seemed like a big teddy bear.
I raised my pack. “He was trying to take my stuff.”
He rested his hands on his hips and stared down at the tattooed idiot. “Tryin’ is about right. Jesus, you kicked that poor dude’s ass six ways from fuckin’ Sunday.”
Wearing cargo shorts and a wife beater, he looked like a typical meathead – shaved head, goatee, tattoos, and muscles on top of muscles. The only thing about him I liked was that he was wearing a pair of Ed Hardy Chuck’s. I admired them for a moment, glanced down at my worn out shoes and wished I could afford a new pair.
“Your hands are quick as a motherfucker, girl,” he said, the tone of his voice matching the excitement in his eyes. “Where the fuck’d you learn to fight like that?” he asked.
“In a boxing ring.”
The human tattoo managed to stand up. He spoke his mind, but only after he stepped well beyond my reach. “Fucking bitch.”
Baldy folded his arms in front of his massive chest and stepped between us. “Kick rocks, motherfucker. Or I’ll start beatin’ on ya.”
Dip-shit picked up his stocking cap, pulled it down low on his head, and mumbled to himself as he turned away.
I tossed my backpack over my shoulders and glanced toward where I expected my coffee to be. Overturned on the sidewalk, the cup was empty.
It may not have seemed like much, but to someone on an extremely fixed budget, the cup of coffee was pretty big deal. A luxury.
“What’s your name?” Baldy asked.
“I’m Ripp,” he said excitedly. “Don’t go anywhere.”
I stood filled with wonder while he ran to his car. He quickly returned with a business card. “I train boxers. You ever fight pro?”
I chuckled. “Nope. Just when people piss me off.”
“Wanna consider it?”
I glanced at the card. Fighting pro seemed like something the professionals should be doing, not me. I acted interested nonetheless. “Does it pay?”
“Depends on how good you are.”
I clenched my fists and raised them. “How good am I?”
He grinned a cheesy grin. “Good enough you’ve got my interest, that’s for fuckin’ sure.”
His free use of the f-word and the excitement in his voice made me feel comfortable. At least he wasn’t trying to sugar coat who he was. I bent down and picked up my empty coffee cup. “Buy me a cup of coffee, and I’ll listen to what you have to say.”
He tossed his head toward the entrance. “Come on.”
Dressed in sweat pants and a Kidd’s Gym tee shirt, his handsome friend stood quietly by the door. I snuck a quick look. He had an early summer tan, dark hair and the muscular structure of a boxer. He was so perfectly good-looking that his mere existence was sure to intimidate women, me included.
Ripp slapped him on the shoulder. “Ethan, this is Jaz.”
I glanced at Ethan. It was the biggest mistake I’d made in a year. He met my gaze. His blue eyes sucked me in like a vacuum. I stood there, frozen. Lust leeched from my pores.
I tried to look away, but didn’t totally succeed. “Nice to meet you,” I murmured.
He grinned and pulled the door open. “Nice hands.”
You’ve got nice eyes.
And a terrific ass.
I walked past him, but my eyes stayed locked on his. I broke his gaze immediately before I walked into the edge of the cashier’s counter. I felt like a love drunk teen. I probably looked like one, too. I realized I had yet to acknowledge his comment about my quick hands, so I did.
Feeling slightly self-conscious about my chipped fingernail polish, and wishing I had taken time to fix them before I went out, I shoved my hands into the pockets of my shorts. “Thanks.”
If being trained by Ripp included anything to do with Ethan, I was all for it. We got our drinks, went back outside, and sat in the sun. I tried to focus on what Ripp was saying and not gawk at Ethan. Not looking at him entirely was impossible, so I took an awkward glance each chance I got.
“So what do you think?” Ripp asked.
Ethan was gazing into the street, obviously in deep thought. I was making note of how his shirt clung to his chest, in deeper thought. I tore my eyes away and met Ripp’s gaze. “About?”
He took a drink of his coffee and winced in disgust. “Were you listenin’ to what I was sayin?”
“I think I faded off for a second,” I said. “Lack of sleep.”
“I said we ain’t got enough girls in the sport, and if you come to the gym and let me see you spar with one, I’ll let you know what I think.”
“And then what?”
Ethan shifted his focus to the conversation. I did my best to act like I didn’t care. For some reason, though, I did.
“If you’re as good as I think you might be I’ll train ya.”
“I don’t have any money,” I said.
It sounded like I was destitute. I was pretty close, but I didn’t want them to know it. Before he responded, I corrected myself. “I meant I don’t have any money that I want to spend on lessons or whatever.”
He tossed his cup of coffee high into the air and pointed toward the trash can twenty feet away.
“Five bucks,” Ethan shouted as soon as the cup left his grasp.
Ripp grinned. “Bet.”
The cup fell directly into the trash can. A one in a million shot.
Ripp slapped his hand down on the table. “Pay up.”
While Ethan dug for his wallet, Ripp grinned his cheesy grin. “Won’t cost you a cent. If you’re as good as I’m hopin’, I’ll train ya for free. I’ll get some fights set up, and who knows? Maybe you’ll fight for the title one day.”
“And if I’m good, it’ll pay?”
He nodded. “If you’re good enough.”
For a long moment, I sat and struggled with the thought of going back to a gym and wondered how I’d feel once I was inside the ring. I stole another glance at Ethan and decided all that mattered was that I got another chance to see him – hopefully one with his shirt off, covered in sweat, and in a fight with someone.
I had an excuse to take another glance. So I did. “Do you train there?”
He didn’t talk much, but when he did, he didn’t have the Texas thing going on with his voice. I wondered where he was from. I decided Los Angeles. An actor turned boxer. The more I studied his handsome face, the more I was sure of it. A displaced actor.
I’d made my decision. I glanced at Ripp. “When do we start?”
He shrugged. “Be there tomorrow at noon?”
The thought of seeing Ethan again caused me to smile. I let Ripp believe it was him training me that caused my expression of delight.
“Sounds good,” I said.
And it did.
It sounded really good.
As soon as I walked in, I was met by the smell of sweat, adrenaline, broken noses and broken dreams. Memories of my old gym came rushing back, sending a tingling sensation the length of my spine. What little reservation I had about training instantly vanished, and I quickly filled with a desire to once again enter the ring.
My eyes darted around the massive room. There were at least a dozen rings, all filled with boxers and surrounded by on-lookers. I stood quietly by the entrance and surveyed the entire area. Disappointed that I didn’t immediately see Ethan, my eyes soon found a familiar face. As he approached, I couldn’t help but smile.
“This place is huge.”
“Biggest in Austin,” Ripp said. He nodded toward my empty hands. “Where’s your gear?”
“Well, that’s something I was going to talk to you about. I don’t really have any.”
“What have you been using?”
“I uhhm. I haven’t been to a gym since I was sixteen.”
He looked confused. “You ain’t been to a gym since you were sixteen? That uppercut you swung looked pretty polished. So did that hook into his ribs.”
“So you need some gear?” he asked.
Dressed in a sports bra, a sleeveless tee, and a pair of shorts, all I really needed was some shoes and a pair of training gloves to get into the ring. I had neither. I felt embarrassed. My eyes feel to the floor.
“Follow me,” he said.
In what was probably a walking pace for him, but a shallow jog for me, he took off across the gym. I fought to catch up, but eventually did. I followed him outside of the gym, down a hallway, and into a small sporting goods store inside the far end of the building.
He pressed his hands against his hips and turned toward me. “Can you afford to buy gear right now?”
I pursed my lips and inhaled a shallow breath. I had a job as a waitress, but it wasn’t a good one. While I prepared to respond, he reached down and gripped my wrist lightly in his hand. He dragged me through the store to the back corner, where the shoes were on display.
“Got some of the new Nike HyperKO’s in a bunch of different colors. What color you like?” he asked.
“I uhhm. I like purple, but I can’t really…”
He released my wrist, did the hands on the hips thing again, and cocked an eyebrow. “Grab some shoes and training gloves. I wanna see you in the ring.”
“But I can’t…”
He shook his head. “Let’s just say I’m in tight with the owner. Grab what you want, and we’ll work it out later. You know who owns this gym?”
I shrugged. “Who?”
He grinned his cheesy grin. “Good friend of mine.” He chuckled. “Now pick out some fuckin’ shoes.”
Maybe he did, and maybe he didn’t, but for some reason, I felt like he believed in me. I wasn’t the type of person that lacked self-esteem or needed praise to feel like I was accomplishing my goals in life, but feeling like he had faith in my ability to box was reassuring.
I did as he asked and picked out some new shoes, a pair of training gloves, and some glove wraps. After jumping rope and spending some time on the speed bag, we climbed into an empty ring. I felt guilty for thinking Ripp was a big meathead when we met. Dressed in shorts, a wife beater, boxing shoes, and with the mitts on his hands, he looked like a trainer, not a gym rat.
“I just want to see your form. No need to try and impress me, just react to what I tell ya. Ready?”
He held the mitts in front of his chest. It had been years since I’d trained, but when I was sixteen, I had more talent than most of the people at the gym, regardless of their age, sex, or experience. No one needed to tell me, I could see it for myself. My trainer reminded me of it daily, nonetheless.
I thrust my right hand into the mitt.
I hit it again.
I jabbed again, twice.
He grinned and nodded.
“Right. Again. Left hook.”
I jabbed the mitt twice, and swung a left into Ripp’s left mitt. With each command he gave, I followed with the instructed punch. His commands came quicker. So did my reaction.
“Left, right, left, left. Left, left. Right.”
“Hook to the body.”
“Hook to the head.”
“Left. Again. Again. Two more. Again. Again,” he barked. “Right hand. Another. Left, Right. Left. Left. Hook the body. Hook the head.”
After the last punch, he lowered the mitts and stood up straight. “You ain’t been in a gym since you was sixteen?”
I shook my head.
His eyes narrowed. “Bullshit.”
“It’s not, I swear. I mean, I’ve always worked out, but I haven’t been to a gym and trained.”
“Who trained you when you were a kid?”
“An old man at the gym. Freddy Lewis,” I said. “He died right after my sixteenth birthday.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, his tone of voice convincing me he meant every word he said. “That’s when you quit trainin’?”
That was when everything in my life changed, but all of that didn’t matter much. I didn’t really want to talk about it, so I simply shrugged.
He straightened his stance and locked eyes with me. “I ain’t here for the fame or the money,” he said. “I’m here because fightin’ is part of who I am. I’ve tried to walk away from it more than once, but I can’t. As far as bein’ a trainer goes, I sure ain’t the best, but I can train you to be your best. You ain’t no amateur, Jaz. Not even close. I can see that already. So, you gonna let me train ya?”
I nodded eagerly.
“You wanna spar with someone? Just some light stuff? I’d like to see your form.”
I raised my gloves and tapped them together. “I’m ready.”
“Loosen up,” he said. “Lemme see what I can come up with.”
He ducked under the ropes, stomped across the gym, and disappeared into the crowd of people. A few minutes later, he returned. Fitted with gloves and carrying headgear, he grinned his cheesy grin and stepped into the ring.
“Ain’t got a girl for you to spar with and none of the men want to step in with ya.” He said. “Let’s get this headgear on ya and you can spar with me.”
I seemed foolish for him not to wear headgear. But, like everyone else, he believed a girl couldn’t threaten a man.
He was wrong.
“You’re not going to wear head gear?”
He shook his head. “Don’t worry. You ain’t gonna hurt me. Only been down once, and that came from the heavyweight Champion of the World.”
He pressed the headgear over my head. “No shit.”
Easily standing eight inches taller than me, he bent his knees, lowered his shoulders, and raised his gloves. We made eye contact.
He nodded. “Bring it.”
He threw a few slow jabs in my direction, pulling his punches before they made contact. With my chin tucked and my gloves protecting my face, I bobbed from side-to-side, easily avoiding each punch.
His speed and intensity increased.
I continued to escape most of his attempts with head movements alone, blocking a few of the more powerful punches with my gloves. His efforts were slight and short, and I had yet to even throw a single punch at him.
He leaned back slightly. “I want all you got, okay?”
I tapped my gloves against his. “Tell me when.”
From what I had seen, he typically held his left hand a few inches lower than his right. I lowered my right glove, giving him a reason to extend his left arm. When he did, I threw a right jab past his lowered left glove and toward his chin.
The punch connected well. I knew it didn’t hurt him, but he was clearly shocked. When he reacted to being hit, I threw a quick – but powerless – left hook to his ribs. As he lowered his right elbow in reaction to the punch, I threw a right-left combo at his head, connecting both punches.
Didn’t think I had it in me, did you?
He said he wanted it all, and I intended to give it to him.
He pushed me off and raised his gloves. I unleashed a barrage of punches into his exposed ribs, causing him to lower his hands again. When they came down, I pounded him with a hard right cross.
The punch made him stumble.
I tucked my elbows to my sides, lowered my chin, and stepped toward him, bringing a left hook followed by a right uppercut with me. Both punches connected hard, and in response, he signaled for me to stop. A gravelly voice from beside us caused me to shift my focus to the side of the ring.
“What in the name of God almighty is going on here?”
“Light sparrin’,” Ripp responded.
An older man – roughly seventy by my guess – stood outside the ring with his arms folded in front of his chest. He glanced at me, looked at Ripp, and shook his head. “Don’t look light to me,” he growled. “Looks to me like she was whippin’ your ass.”
“This is Jaz, Old Man. I’m thinkin’ I’m gonna train her,” Ripp said.
I raised my gloves and nodded my head toward the old man. He made eye contact and held my gaze for a moment. Then, he turned toward Ripp and glared. Ripp tossed his hands in the air, and the old man walked away without speaking.
“Is he mad?” I asked.
“He ain’t mad, he’s just old.”
“Is he the one who owns the place?”
“No. Just kind of runs it. His name’s Kelsey. He’s always in a bad fuckin’ mood. But, he trained the current Heavyweight Champion, so I guess he can be however he wants.”
I’d been out of the sport so long, I didn’t even know who the champion was. I raised my gloves as if I were ready to box. “So, what did you think?”
“I ain’t tryin’ to inflate your ego, but you got skills.”
He looked at me like I had three eyes. “What the fuck does that mean?”
“Am I a bad ass?” I asked jokingly.
“You’re pretty close,” he said.
I swelled with pride.
He cocked an eyebrow. “What do you want out of this?”
I didn’t have to think long to give my response. “On the sign outside, it says ‘we train champions’. That’s what I want. I want to be the champion.”
“Never made it myself. So you’re my only fuckin’ hope at a title.” He swung his glove against my shoulder, knocking me off balance with the punch.
I regained my footing and grinned. “I’ll try not to let you down.”
“Let me down?” He shook his head. “You’re too fuckin’ good, Jaz.”
“You really think so?”
It had been almost ten years since I stepped foot in a ring, and equally as long since I’d fought anyone. At that moment, however, I felt like I could have defeated anyone, regardless of their size, ability, experience, or training.
And only time would tell if I was right or wrong.
While working out on the heavy bag, I noticed him come through the door. He looked no differently than he did the day we met.
Like a disciplined athlete.
He walked right past me. Either he didn’t notice me or he didn’t care. Whichever it was, I wasn’t willing to accept it.
I turned toward him and admired his cute ass for a few strides before I spoke. “Are you always such a dick?” I asked as he walked past.
He continued to walk away without so much as acknowledging what I had said.
“Ethan,” I shouted.
He paused and glanced over his shoulder. “Yes?”
“Are you always such a dick?”
“No,” he responded.
And he walked away.
What the fuck?
I had been training for a week, and hadn’t seen Ethan once. After learning he worked out in the late afternoons, I decided to extend my schedule in hope of seeing him. As I watched him begin to jump rope, I couldn’t help but wonder if he was just an asshole.
A really hot asshole.
As much as I wanted to get to know him, I wasn’t about to let his attitude have an effect on my training. I pounded two and three-punch combinations into the bag, glancing toward him every chance I got. The thirty-minute workout was over before I knew it. He didn’t look in my direction once. I didn’t want to be disappointed that he paid no attention to me, but I was.
I couldn’t help but wonder if he was in a relationship, gay, or just not interested. I hoped he wasn’t interested, because it was something I felt I could at least attempt to resolve. If he was gay or in a relationship, I realized I’d simply have to accept him as being off-limits.
I finished my workout and put up my gloves. No matter how desperately I wanted to get to know Ethan, I wasn’t about to make him feel like I was chasing him. Encouraging him, however, was a different story. I pulled my sleeveless tee off and stuffed it in the bag. Now dressed in nothing but shorts and a sports bra, I shouldered my bag and walked toward the locker room.
I’d never been a pretentious or conceited woman, but I was well aware that I was attractive. I was in great physical shape, my ass was cute, and my tits were fantastic. I wouldn’t argue that my hair needed to be cut, but pulled into a ponytail, it looked as good as anyone else’s.
And I had it in a ponytail.
I strutted past Ethan and toward the far end of the gym, doing my best to look irresistible. Fighting the urge not to turn around, I walked into the locker room, looked in the mirror, and exhaled. I looked great. How could he not see it? I got undressed and took a shower, wondering the entire time if he’d noticed me, and if he did, what he was thinking.
Being fascinated by someone and having them show no interest in return isn’t an easy thing for a woman to accept, and I wasn’t much different than anyone else in that respect. Wondering what it was about me that he didn’t like, I got dressed and left the locker room.
I walked past him again, poking my earbuds in my ears as I passed by. When I was almost to the door, I could see his reflection in the glass.
“I wasn’t trying to be an asshole,” he said.
I didn’t even have my iPod turned on and had heard him just fine, but I didn’t want him to know it. I pulled my right earbud out, turned around, and shot him a false look of surprise. “Did you say something?”
He was so attractive it made me nervous to stand there looking at him. Turning away wasn’t really an option, though.
“I said I wasn’t trying to be an asshole.”
I draped the earbud over my shoulder. “Just comes natural for you?”
His eyes fell to the floor for a few seconds. After a light sigh, he looked up. “You’re intimidating.”
I was shocked. And this time it wasn’t a show. “Me? How would I be intimidating to you?”
“Don’t act like you don’t know you’re gorgeous,” he said. “And. Well. After seeing what you did to that guy at Starbucks, it’s pretty obvious you’re a much better fighter than I’ll ever be.”
I stood and gawked at him, partially because he was so fucking handsome, and in part because of the compliments he had just given me. I was flattered. “I don’t know about all that, but thank you” I said. “And don’t worry, I won’t bite. I mean, not unless you want me to.”
He looked embarrassed. As always, I came off a little too strong. It was one of my strengths – or weaknesses – depending on how one looked at it. He grinned nonetheless. “So, Ripp said he’s going to train you.”
“Yeah. Looks that way. Does he train you?”
He shook his head. “No. One of the other guys here does.”
“Oh,” I said.
I wondered where Ripp ranked in comparison to the other trainers, and hoped I made the right choice regarding having him train me. “So, how does Ripp compare to the other guys as far as training goes?”
He widened his eyes and chuckled. “As far as the other guys go, there’s no comparison. Kelsey’s first and Ripp’s second. But Kelsey doesn’t train anyone but Dekk.”
“Yeah.” I shrugged. “I don’t know anyone yet.”
He waved his arms toward the open facility. “Dekk. He owns the place. He’s the Heavyweight Champion of the World. Shane Dekkar’s his real name. Kelsey trains him. He’s best friends with Ripp.”
“Ripp said he was friends with the owner. I guess that explains it.”
“I can’t believe you didn’t know who he was.”
“I haven’t followed the sport since I was sixteen,” I said, feeling slightly foolish for not knowing. “I know now, though.”
He grinned and nodded. “I’ll point him out when he comes in.”
At that moment, I really didn’t care who the champion was, who owned the gym, or how well-connected Ripp was with him. I wanted to get to know Ethan. “So, are you done for the night?”
I doubted he was, because he hadn’t done much in the thirty minutes since he’d arrived – at least not as far as I was concerned. Prepared for him to explain how he needed to spend another hour and a half at the gym, and for him to give a lengthy excuse on why he couldn’t take time to see me more, I waited for his response.
“Yeah,” he said, looking toward the station where he’d been working out “I think I’m done.”
So, you wanna fuck?
I fought the urge to be myself and stuck with something a little less invasive to his seemingly shy personality. “So, you want to go get a coffee or something?”
Wow. That was easy.
“You need to shower?”
He looked like he considered it for a nanosecond, then shook his head. “Didn’t really sweat.”
“Grab your stuff. We can go talk or whatever.”
I was hoping for some whatever, but was prepared to settle for getting to know him a little better. In a moment he returned with his bag and we walked to the parking lot together.
“You want to ride with me?” he asked.
He opened the passenger door to a truck that was parked right beside the door. I had been on several dates, and I couldn’t recall anyone ever opening the door for me, regardless of who they were. As I hoisted myself into the truck, I couldn’t help but feel like we were going out for the evening.
He carefully closed the door and then climbed in the other side.
“So, where are you from?” I asked.
“Born and raised in Texas. Grew up in Lubbock.”
Most born and raised southern boys were extremely polite. My belief that he was shy and reserved was probably nothing but him being mannerly.
“You don’t sound like you’re from here.”
“What do you mean?”
“You don’t have the southern accent thing going on.”
“My parents were originally from Chicago. They didn’t speak with an accent, and they thought if we did it would make us sound uneducated. We had to take speech classes when we were kids so we didn’t sound like idiots.”
“Dead serious.” He chuckled. “My father’s a hard ass.”
I knew all there was to know about having a father who was difficult but wasn’t prepared to discuss it. At least not yet.
“What about you?” he asked.
“Omaha, Nebraska. I was on my way to the beach and ended up here. Been here ever since.”
He steered the truck into the other lane, and then looked at me. One of his eyebrows raised slightly. Not much, but just enough to express his interest. “You were on your way to the beach?”
It still thrilled me to think that one day I would see it. Feel the wet sand between my toes. Feel the waves against my skin. “Yeah. I’ve never been. So, after high school I headed that direction. But, I only got this far.”
“The bad thing about seeing the ocean is that it’s hard to leave,” he said, his voice trailing off as if his mind was searching for fading memories. “There’s something about it…”
My eyes went wide. “You’ve been?”
He nodded. “When I was a kid. And then on spring break. It’s…it’s awesome.”
“I’m going,” I said. “As soon as I can afford it.”
I felt more comfortable with him now that we were just talking like two old friends. He was still extremely good-looking – and intimidatingly so – but his demeanor made me feel like he had no idea how handsome he really was. As he pulled into the parking lot of the coffee shop, my curiosity got the best of me.
“So, are you single?”
He parked the truck and then his eyes searched my face. After a moment, he seemed to find whatever he was searching for. “Yeah.”
His hesitation made me feel like he was either lying or hiding something. I pressed a little further. “Are you sure?”
“Positive. It’s just…”
“My last relationship ended kind of…I don’t know…it just. It was kind of,” he stammered. “I wasn’t ready for it to, and it just ended.”
He couldn’t say something like that and not expect me to pry a little further. So, pry I did. “What happened? I mean, if I can ask. I had a pretty bad one too, and believe me, that fucker just ended. From great to gone in one day. It sucks, but life just kind of sucks sometimes.”
“I don’t think life sucks. I think things happen. Things that are out of our control.”
Now he had my complete interest. “So are you going to tell me what happened?”
He gripped the steering wheel and stared straight ahead, out into the street. I waited for him to drop the bomb, expecting something totally insane. Expecting a story of how he caught his girlfriend with one of his friends, or that she gave him some weird STD, I sat quietly and waited. While I formulated my response in advance for whatever it was he was going to tell me, he closed his eyes and let out a sigh.
He opened his eyes but didn’t look at me. “She uhhm. She was getting gas. And some guy came out of the gas station and just started shooting. He’d robbed the place. They said the bullet ricocheted off the pavement. It. It uhhm. It hit…”
He tapped his temple with the tip of his finger.
Openmouthed and speechless, I sat and stared. My stomach turned. I felt sick, and I wished I hadn’t pried. I wondered if she was paralyzed or had died, but there was no way I could ask, even if I felt I wanted to.
“We’d uhhm. I used to smoke, and she hated it. We’d been in a fight about it. She told me to quit, or else.” He coughed out a dry laugh that quickly got emotional. “I uhhm. I never cared much for someone giving me an ultimatum, so I told her I’d quit when I was ready. She left, and it was the last time I saw her alive.”
I stared down at my bag, not really knowing what to say. I tried to swallow, but my dry mouth prevented it. A long silence followed. It wasn’t a tremendous amount of time, but it was enough that I grew uncomfortable and filled with guilt.
“You know,” he said. “I wonder about things. Like if I would have agreed to quit, she never would have got mad and left. If that would have happened, she’d be alive, you know.”
His thoughts must have weighed heavily on him, because he paused for what seemed like an eternity before he continued. “If I wouldn’t have been so stubborn, I wonder if things might have been different. Eventually, I always seem to remember what the pastor said in church when I was a kid about this world being God’s world, and not ours. And then I think that for whatever reason, God decided it was just her time.”
He looked right at me. “Either way, it sucks.”
Sometimes I wished I could just haul off and kick life right in the balls. He was right, it sucked. I was glad he told me the story, but felt terrible for all but forcing him to do so.
“You’re right,” I managed to say. “It does suck. And, I’m sorry.”
Saying I was sorry seemed shallow and simple, but I didn’t know what else to say. I wanted to console him, but knew there was really nothing I could do or say to provide him with any degree of comfort beyond what he already felt.
I decided to try anyway. His eyes seemed distant and sad, which didn’t surprise me at all.
“You quit smoking, right?”
He held my gaze. “Yeah.”
“I bet wherever she is, she’s proud of you.”
It wasn’t much, but it was all I could come up with.
His eyes narrowed. He appeared to be considering what I said. After a moment he shifted his focus to the street. Then, he chuckled. It seemed strange to hear him laugh, but I accepted it as being better than a lot of things he could have done.
“I never looked at it that way,” he said. “I like that. Thank you.”
I decided at least for the time being that silence ruled, so I simply smiled and chose not to speak.
He smiled in return.
On that night, his laughter and his smile satisfied me so deeply that I believed moving to Austin was for that reason and that reason alone.
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