“Man, I’m tired of this job,” Darla Quinn, one of my coworkers, grumbles, her fingers flying over her keyboard.
“Tell me about it,” I say, checking my lists to see what I need to tackle first. It’s too early in the morning for talking, but Darla is my favorite coworker, so I will give her the time of the day when I wouldn’t to other people. We are telemarketers who try to get people to buy shit they don’t need. We push a wide variety of products, but our best sellers are Groupon coupons.
“Jimmy says I should just quit. He makes enough for both of us.” Jimmy is Darla’s newest beefcake who is as smart as he is pretty. He’s an inventor of a gadget that makes it easier to tie your shoes, and he’s rolling in it. “The problem is, I don’t want to be a kept woman. He’s making noises about us moving in together, and I’m tired of finding reasons why we shouldn’t do it.”
“Girl, I feel you. Rembrandt has mentioned it already, and we’ve only been dating a month.” I sigh in sympathy. We look at each other and roll our eyes.
“I thought boys were supposed to be the commitment-phobes,” Darla says, pushing her bangs out of her eyes. She’s wearing a smartly-tailored pink blouse and a pale blue pencil skirt. Before she started dating Jimmy, she was a casual dresser. She’s certainly smartened up since she began banging Jimmy, I’ll give him that much.
“I haven’t found that to be true,” I reply, keeping an eye out for Cara O’Donnell, our supervisor. She’s pretty chill, but she doesn’t like us to waste too much of company time. “All my serious boyfriends wanted to move in together within six months of us dating. Some of my girlfriends were content to wait longer than that.”
“I would totally be into chicks if it weren’t for the cock,” Darla says, her grin wicked. “I can’t give up a good dicking.” We laugh heartily, then we return to our work. I have several lists I have to get through today, so I skip lunch to get it done.
When I get home, I have several texts from my sisters. The ones from Viv tell me that she’s unhappy about ‘that man’ coming to Thanksgiving dinner and that she’s staying in Minnesota for a week. I text her back and say that I’m not happy, either, but I don’t know what to do about it. We gripe about it for several texts before we call it quits. I also have a few texts from Jasmine. She talked to that man again today, and she’s more convinced than ever he’s our father. Speaking of him, he’s sent me an email saying he’d like to take me out to dinner tonight. I don’t remember giving him my email, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he weaseled it out of Jasmine. I ignore his email because I don’t want to go and because I have to leave for taiji in ten minutes. I feed the cats their treats, then rush upstairs to change. I grab my weapons bag, my iced bottle of water, and head to the studio. I make it there with two minutes to spare.
“Megan!” Betty Bowser, one of my classmates, bounces over to me, a big smile plastered on her face. Her dyed blond curls perfectly frame her face, and she has a full face of makeup, which makes her seem older than her thirty-eight years. She’s wearing a hot pink sweatshirt with matching yoga pants, and my teeth ache just looking at her. “It’s good to see you. Class is so much better when you’re here.” For some unfathomable reason, she has taken a shine to me. I wish it weren’t so because I don’t like her. I’m sorry to think it, but it’s true. In the year since she’s joined, she’s been the bane of my existence. Oh, for the six years before I knew of her existence.
“Betty.” I nod at her, but I don’t return her enthusiasm. Unlike most Minnesotans, I don’t believe in mouthing empty platitudes. I’m not going to be rude, but I don’t want her to think we’re friends. “How’re you doing?”
“I tweaked my shoulder the other night!” Betty says, opening her eyes wide. “It was the dumbest thing. I was lifting a box that was way too heavy. I should have waited for my husband to come home, but I just had to do it myself. That’s just the way I am.” She titters, and I fight the urge to slap the smirk off her face.
“That’s the problem when you rush,” Lydia says, walking up behind us. “You can hurt yourself before you even realize it.”
“I’m such a ditz,” Betty laughs, covering her mouth as she does. “My husband says I’d leave my head at home if it weren’t attached to my shoulders!” I edge away from her so I can get ready for class in peace. She’s an emotional vampire, and she sucks the energy right out of me every time we talk. I probably should talk to Lydia about it, but what can she do? I study Lydia as she’s talking to Betty. She’s a nondescript woman with shoulder-length sandy blond hair and emerald green eyes framed by horned-rimmed glasses. When she talks about taiji, however, she has a glow within that is impossible to ignore. Taiji is her life, and while I can admire that, I don’t aspire to be the same. I just want to be able to use my taiji to beat the shit out of someone if need be—I have no desire to be a master.
Still, when Lydia presents a new concept, I can’t help but ask questions about it. There is so much to learn about taiji—it’s no wonder it’s called the scholar’s martial arts. It’s an internal practice, and it’s also been called the lazy martial arts because you want to expend as little energy as possible for the maximum output. I’ve had Twitter friends lamenting about not being able to exercise because of some kind ailment, and I always suggest taiji. I don’t push it, however, because it’s not for everyone. Some people find it too slow, and the results are incremental. You’re not going to notice a huge difference after a month or two, and you might not even see much improvement after a year, depending on your commitment to your personal practice. I started attending class three times a week after two years because I wasn’t practicing at home. It was a way to make sure I practiced at least three times a week. Now, I have a daily routine that I do every morning when I first get up. If I’m late to work, I put it off until I get home, but I can feel it during the day.
“OK, people. Let’s get started.” Lydia claps her hands, and we all take our places on the floor. She bows to us, and we bow in return. She takes us through our warmups, and I glance around the room. There are seven people, which is the most of any class Lydia teaches. I keep telling her she needs to advertise more, but she hasn’t done it so far. Her website is down as well, and I think it’s really hurting her chances to get new students. In addition, she’s pretty picky about the kind of person she wants to teach, which means she turns off half the people who come to try their free class. I push the thoughts out of my mind and concentrate on the warmups. It’s easy to do them by rote, which cheats you out of the full benefits. One of the things I like best about taiji is that it’s very chill. I hate the American mentality of no pain, no gain, and it’s what initially drew me to taiji.
“My shoulder hurts,” Betty complains, massaging her right shoulder.
“Don’t rotate it as vigorously,” Lydia says. “If that doesn’t help, then just skip this exercise.” I notice that she doesn’t give a long explanation as she normally would. I have a hunch she doesn’t care for Betty, either, but she would never be so unprofessional as to say it.
“I’ll try,” Betty says. She has a sour look on her face, and I think she was hoping for a more sympathetic response. We move on to waist rotations and hip rotations, and then it’s time for standing meditation. It’s a five-postures meditation, and it’s easily my least favorite part of class. I can’t quiet my mind enough, and I’m bored to tears whenever I meditate. I compensate by writing blog posts in my brain. Once we’re done with that, Lydia has us do the first section of the Solo Form. Her teacher is having a demo for Chinese New Year’s, and everyone is invited to participate in the first section. She informed me I was doing the Sword Form with the senior students from her home studio, and I didn’t argue because I love the Sword Form.
As we practice the first section with Lydia saying the posture names, I focus on keeping my back knee over my toes. It’s something I’ve been working on because I tend to collapse my knee without thinking about it. I’m not fond of the Solo Form, but I know it’s the basis for everything else we do. It doesn’t make me like it any better, but at least I don’t feel as if it’s a waste of time. Once we’re done with the first section, Lydia gives us a ten minute break. I sit in the corner and look at my phone, studiously ignoring my classmates. I like most of them, but I’m not in the mood to chat. I didn’t sleep well last night because I couldn’t stop thinking about the man who’s calling himself my father. The fact that Jasmine has accepted him so readily is really bumming me out. I have another email from that man, and it says he’d really like to talk to me again. I sigh out loud because I just want him to leave me alone. My way of dealing with unpleasant issues is to ignore them for as long as possible until I’m forced to face them. I have a text from Jasmine ordering me to call her as soon as possible. I ignore her, too, because I don’t respond well to commands. There’s a text from Rembrandt asking if I want him to come over tomorrow night or if want to go there for cooking festivities. I thought I had already decided that, but I guess I hadn’t told him about it. “I’ll go there because you have real cooking implements,” I reply. He sends back a smiley face, and I move on to other messages. I have a text from Liz, my other best friend, who now lives in Philly. She’s going to Los Angeles to visit her father the day after Thanksgiving, and she’ll be stopping in Minnesota for a few days on her way back. That will be Monday and Tuesday of next week. She asks if she can see me, and I say, “Of course! I would be salty if I didn’t get to see you while you were here.” After sending that text, I send her another informing her about my current situation. She replies, “Girl, what the hell? You’ve had your share of shit this last month, haven’t you?” “Yes, I have. I’m not a big fan.” “What do you plan on doing about it?” I tell her that Jasmine invited the man to Thanksgiving, and she’s aghast. It’s good to know she’s on my side.
“Advanced students, grab your swords. Megan, will you lead the Sword Form?” Lydia asks once the ten minutes are up.
“Sure!” I say, grabbing my steel sword from my bag. I go to the front of the room, and three of my advanced classmates take their spots behind me. One of them know the whole form, and the other two are about halfway through. They know to be in the middle so they can see the other classmate who knows the form (and stands in the back) or me no matter which way they face. I feel my body relaxing as we do the Sword Form. When Lydia first mentioned weapons, I didn’t think I’d ever be interested in them. I kept resisting when she suggested I should start learning the Sword Form because it didn’t appeal to me at all. Lydia forced the issue by placing a wooden sword in my hand, and the minute she did, I was hooked. It felt like an extension of my hand, and I was eager to learn the Sword Form as quickly as possible. It’s funny, but I had less problems learning the Sword Form than I did the Solo Form. I never got bored or frustrated, which was an unusual experience for me. A year after I learned the Sword Form, I started teaching myself the left side. To my surprise, I had no problem with that, either. Now, I can do the left side almost as easily as I can do the right side, while I still can’t do the complete left side of the Solo Form. I’m taking sporadic privates from Lydia, and she’s teaching me the Sabre Form. I expected it to be like the Sword Form and for it to be easy for me, but it’s not. I’m struggling with it, and I’m not as eager to learn it as I was with the Sword Form.
I come back to myself and find that I’ve managed not to fuck up in leading the Sword Form. We’re close to the end, and no one is looking at me as if I have two heads, so I’m pretty sure I was able to do the form on autopilot. It’s not the best way to practice, but it happens to everyone now and again. My classmates are looking pleased as we finish the Sword Form. Donny McGill, one of my classmates who knows half the Sword Form raises his hand when he notices I’m looking at him. He’s only twenty and has yet to break out of the habit of raising his hand to be called on. I nod at him without reminding him he doesn’t have to raise his hand because I don’t want to embarrass him.
“I’m having trouble with one of the postures,” Donny says, his eyes on the ground. He’s shy, and it’s difficult for him to speak up. He’s short and stocky with bright red curls and hazel eyes, and I’ve seen Betty try to chat him up before, which Lydia put a quick stop to. He’s barely twenty, and he doesn’t need a lamia sucking up all his energy. “It’s the one that has you drawing your sword horizontally twice before turning it perpendicular to the ground.” I go through the first half of the form in my head, but I can’t figure out which posture he means.
“Can you show me the posture before it?” I suggest. “That might make it easier for me to figure out which one it is.” I’m not supposed to tutor in the Sword Form yet, but I know Lydia won’t mind if I break down the posture for him.
“I can try.” Donny flushes red, but he gamely lifts his sword and executes The Vigilant Cat Catches the Rat and The Dragonfly Sips at the Dew. “It’s the one after this.”
“Oh, OK! It’s The Wasp Enters the Hive. That’s a complicated posture.” I pick up my sword and get into position. “Let me break it down by sections. Watch my feet the first time.” I go through the posture slowly, and Donny’s eyes are glued to my feet. Because he’s already learned the posture, I don’t make him follow me right away. “Next, watch my waist.” I do the posture again, making sure to get the waist turns right. “Finally, watch my sword.” I go through the posture for the third time, concentrating on my sword. “Now, everyone, follow me, and we’ll do this posture three times.” Once we’re done, I ask Donny if he has any questions.
“The first two sword movements—are they like this?” He demonstrates by tilting his sword up and pulling the sword down.
“No, it’s more like this.” I keep my hands horizontal and pull the sword straight across. “It’s a filing motion.” I demonstrate a few more times, and then he tries it as I watch. I give him a few suggestions, and then suddenly, it clicks. He does it correctly, and he beams at me once I tell him he’s got it.
“OK, class. Let’s do the third section of the Solo Form silently and smoothly,” Lydia says. She’s been teaching the newbies new postures in the Solo Form, and now they’re done as are we. We do the third section of the Solo Form with the people who don’t know the whole thing in the middle. It’s the hardest section as it’s the last, and the masters assume you’ve learned all the hard lessons of the first and second section. Lydia’s teacher has made several changes to the Solo Form, and I’m not handling it very well. I like some of the changes quite a bit, but I don’t adapt well to change. As we do the third section, I concentrate on moving my hands with my waist. I like the third section better than the first section and the first half of the second section, so I don’t mind when we do it. I’m tired after class, but pleasantly so. I wait for the rest of my classmates to leave so I can talk to Lydia for a few minutes.
“That was a good class,” I say, smiling at Lydia. “I like it when we push it a little.”
“It’s good to stretch your muscles,” Lydia says in agreement. “How’s Bob doing?” I had taken Lydia with me when I went to rescue Bob because of her taiji prowess, and it came in handy when the abductor showed up unexpectedly.
“He’s doing better, but it’s still rough-going,” I say. “Jasmine says he’s mostly over the PTSD, but he’s still having nightmares and panic attacks.”
“It’s probably going to be that way for quite some time.” Lydia says, her voice sympathetic. She pauses and adds, “What’s new with you?” She goes behind the partition to change into her street clothes. I raise my voice so she can hear me and drop the bombshell that I’ve been dealing with for the past day.
“A man claiming to be my father showed up at my front door last night.”
“What?” Lydia’s head pokes out from behind the partition, and her mouth is open.
“Weird, right? I don’t hear from him in forty-plus years, and, suddenly, he’s at my house.” I laugh, but there’s no warmth to it. “He claims to be dying and wanted to reconnect before that happened. Jasmine invited him to Thanksgiving dinner.”
“You’re kidding me!” Lydia says, opening her eyes wide. “That’s gonna be awkward.”
“Right?? I am not looking forward to it.” I pull down the corners of my mouth as Lydia disappears behind the partition again. Just as I’m thinking about it, I get another email from that man. He wants to meet before Thanksgiving dinner, which isn’t going to happen. I have work tomorrow, and then I’m going over to Rembrandt’s at five so we can make a shit-ton of pies for Thanksgiving. He’s buying all the ingredients and getting the recipes because he works for himself and will have more time than I will. I could have taken tomorrow off, but I get time-and-a-half for working, so I don’t mind going in. It’s only a half day, anyway, and I should be home by three. I’ve worked Thanksgiving in the past, and I like it because we have a skeleton crew and there’s no one to bother me.
“Viv is going to be here, and she’s not pleased, either. It’s two against one.” I don’t need to explain my family history to Lydia because we’ve talked about it ad nauseam before. She was raised by fundamentalist parents who are convinced she’s going to hell because she renounced the church when she left Racine for Minneapolis. We know much of each other’s dirty familial laundry.
“Make sure to keep breathing,” Lydia counsels. “When things get tough, that’s the best thing you can do.” She emerges from behind the partition in jeans and a red turtleneck. “I know it sounds stupid, but tension makes it difficult to breathe.”
“True. That’s how panic attacks happen, and I’d like to avoid that if possible.” We chat a few more minutes, then leave. I’m contemplative on my drive home because I can’t stop thinking about that man. That’s what I call him in my mind. That man. There’s no way I’m going to call him Dad or, god forbid, Daddy, and I don’t feel comfortable calling him Henry, either.