I knew Dave when he was a deputy-black belt. He was tall and lean, and when you are separated by weight classes, when for most of us this was our first experience with fighting of any kind, height and length mattered. Taller and skinnier meant reaching, punching, and kicking where the smaller and rounder could not. Your body was as important as the skills it had awkwardly learned.
We were students at Strantz Tae Kwon Do in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. Our school was formerly “Highlands Ranch Tae Kwon Do” until that name ran afoul of our master Kevin Strantz’s former dojang housed on the upper floor of the community recreation center. In the late nineties, Highlands Ranch was one of the fastest growing sprawls in the country, and the fact that there was any kind of turf war between Korean martial arts studios in the suburbs was almost too Karate Kid to believe. Around the corner from an Albertson’s grocery, Strantz TKD was in a strip mall with broad windows that faced the Rocky Mountains. Our neighbor was a dance studio, and we punctuated their pop music and clapping with terrible call-and-response Korean and kihaps, shouts to focus power and strength.
Dave was always a belt or two ahead of me, always better at everything. At the beginning of each class, we’d line up by rank, and most of the time, I would watch him warm up in front of me. Higher kicks, sharper technique, better muscle memory, better—maybe—Korean vocabulary. We were twelve or thirteen years old, and true to the age, I admired him, feared him, and was jealous of him in equal measure.
We were frequent sparring partners. Drills—kicks and punches and counterattacks; “breaks” for pushups and sit-ups; the dreaded “circle of death,” which required fighters chosen for the middle of a circle to counter the attacks of ten others encircling them, fighting all the way around—led to practice matches. Full pads and “controlled contact.” We fought two two-minute rounds, and in four minutes, Dave regularly kicked my ass. He found dozens of ways to pummel me. When we were in close, he’d somehow get an axe kick up over my shoulder and crash it down on my head. When I pursued him, he’d leap backward for a hook-kick that would catch me on the ear. Side-kicks and back-kicks knocked the wind out of me. I had a foam helmet on my head and pads across my ribs, but those did nothing to protect against the knowledge that I was getting demolished every week in full view of family and friends.
Most of the students in the dojang were kids of privilege in the suburbs. We did not need tae kwon do to save our lives from a neighborhood gang or defend against bullying at school. For most of us, this was one of many activities—I filled my days playing terrible third base and thinking up ways to avoid practicing piano. But sparring class wasn’t a team sport, wasn’t art. If you didn’t practice, you got hit, and when you were fighting other teenagers who could exercise little control over any aspect of their bodies or lives, sometimes it hurt. There were bruises and dislocated shoulders and the occasional blackout—which, before we cared about concussions, was just the relief of not remembering a bad match—but it also hurt in ways that are as true and painful now: in a fight, you are responsible for yourself. If you want to win, you first have to find a way to stop losing.
After one sound drubbing, on the drive home, I told my dad that Dave had it out for me, that he was deliberately beating me up.
“Of course he’s not,” my dad said, laughing, eye-rolling. “He’s a deputy-black belt. You’re just a red belt. He’s trying to be better.”
“I am too!”
“Exactly,” he said. “It’s perfect.”
What made the embarrassment worse was knowing that my dad was right. Dave was nice, kind, generous. He helped teach me before and after our matches and always checked in to see if I was all right, standing over me as I lay on the ground. He fudged the points in my favor when older students asked our score. But he never took it easy on me. He fought me as hard as he could. Eventually, as I got better, as we were more evenly matched, we were matched less often. He advanced to fight black belts and struggled before he got better. I won a bronze medal at the junior Olympics and it was mostly because of Dave.
Once, when I’d invited Dave over to my house, we were walking along the fence that separated my backyard from a corridor of sage prairie, spared from development, called the greenbelt. Fence-walking was, I suppose, what kids did before phones in hand made the balance impossible. The fence was maybe four feet off the ground with a flat, broad beam at the top. We were almost through with our first circuit when Dave lost his balance and fell into the greenbelt—ants, cacti, the occasional bullsnake. He was hurt, he cried. He called his mother to pick him up, and he left. For weeks afterward I was upset. I thought Dave was faking it, that he just didn’t want to be at my house. A fall of four feet, I thought, after all the times he’d deposited me on the ground? At school, we didn’t talk about it. My perfect line went unused. You’re a deputy-black belt and you got hurt by a greenbelt?
Months later, I was in the backyard explaining to another friend what had happened, and he laughed and called Dave a sissy. Or queer or a fag, whatever term was most transgressionally toxic at thirteen. I knew Dave wasn’t a sissy: he was a fighter, he was tough, he hadn’t tried to kiss me, he was—or had been—a friend, and none of this squared with what I knew about A Gay. In suburban Colorado in the twilight nineties, I’d known no gay people. I’d learned of their existence first through name-calling, and I knew more counting and kicking in Korean than I knew names to call. I said nothing to my friend, because the only thing I did know was the elasticity of the accusation—any deflection would snap back on me.
The friend asked me to demonstrate the fall; hoping, I’m sure, for some failing and wailing. I tried for the recreation and, of course, fell for real. That my dad regularly mowed the first few feet of the prairie growth and exposed the squat cacti close to the earth was my immediate discovery. I got an armful of bruises, spines in my legs, and a similarly spiky pain down my back. My friend laughed, walked an effortless circuit himself, and took none of my cues to go home. I sat in agony the rest of the afternoon as he beat me in every round in Mortal Kombat.
I wanted to tell Dave, to use the moment as an easy way of apologizing or explaining or rejoining. It would have been easy to patch whatever small tear we had made. But I didn’t do that either, and soon I moved to a different school. We sold the house and that fence. I grew up and moved away from Colorado. Dave stayed.
Dave went to school, grew up, got engaged. Five years ago, he went with his fiancé to get a wedding cake. The storeowner refused to create a cake for them, saying he did not believe in same-sex marriage and would not use his cakery to affirm the union. Dave and Charlie sued, and last Tuesday their case was heard at the Supreme Court. It’s been called the biggest case of the term, which is in part because it all started with a cake. A simple, accessible, tangible moment. A cake, a moment in question, upon which future life and law will turn, that was in all accounts brief, no more than a few minutes. The oral arguments went a half an hour longer than normal—15 sparring rounds—which was the highest court’s way of saying there was now a lot to fight about. Is making a cake art? Is this a civil rights issue, a matter of fairness for all, or a question of individual creative expression? (Dave, as a poet wanting a cake, would know something about both.) This simple moment, this little story, was asked to hold the weight of what will be true for our country for years or forever.
I remembered Dave as a fighter, and he is today. He’s still got reach. Both of our little stories are about fighting, but they are also about that increasingly acute triangle of perspective and experience and understanding. It’s easy to belittle falling off a fence until you fall off a fence. It’s always easier to stay silent than to speak up. It’s easy to think that a fight can only have a winner and a loser.
It’s truer to say my story is about sparring, where an opponent’s victory doesn’t have to come entirely at your expense. Where the process, the practice, can make both sides better. Twenty years ago, we had pads and protection and breaks for water, but I’m pretty sure Dave also learned what fights are worth fighting.
But it’s truest to say that I got married this summer, and despite everything else in this little-story-turned-big-case, I got in touch with Dave after all these years because wedding cake shopping beat us. My fiancée and I surrendered to prepackaged ice cream sandwiches instead. Dave went for the cake, and that’s real courage.