Why We Fight

Of the thirty fighters here tonight, only six of us are female. We arrive from all parts of the city, each harboring our reasons. We unfold the wings of our chest protectors and pull them around our sides. We turn to each other. “Little help?” We look like Victorian women getting dressed, our padding as corsets, laces crisscrossed and tightened in back, binding our breasts and waists into unyielding boxes.

By 7:30pm the air in the dojang is heavy with sweat. The full spectrum: from the salty tang of effort to the nasal clearing ammonia of fear. We can punch heads. We can kick the small of someone’s back. If we tumble to the floor, we grapple. On Friday nights we recognize no boundaries; we enter the ring, ready to spar. I would rather be here, throwing myself into the violence of Taekwondo, than at home facing a shifting enemy, my husband’s mental illness.

Who will be waiting for me at the end of the evening: My lover, who curls around me, wetting my back with his tears, or the stranger, his face a fist, hurling accusations across the kitchen? He can’t help it, I tell myself. He’s an addict without addiction, a victim of chemicals coursing around his brain, switching reality on and off. His mind has betrayed him. Sometimes, my familiar husband flickers through, his smile a warm slipstream.

“Hey, Babe,” he says.

“Hey,” I say, and love undoes my defenses.


Ten minutes to go. My heart beats hard enough to burst through my padding. I glance down the line of us, sitting cross-legged, leaning in, our faces a range of hues. Jess, Yihan, Christine, Akina, and Tammi. I have dubbed them Nurse, Research, Chaplain, I.T., and Artist. I out age these women by fifteen years. I am the only mother among us, which blankets me with guilt. I shouldn’t want to hit something.

If I told my friends what I was doing, they’d shake their heads. You can’t stand the sight of blood. True. I walked out of the theater during the two-hour death on Reservoir Dogs. I fainted at my root canal. Yet, the idea of a brawl both terrifies and lights a small fire in me. I can’t win an argument with my husband, but I will take a blow to my head.


The Grandmaster strides back and forth, judging our mettle. “Women. Who wants to fight?” I raise my hand, sweat rolling down my back, praying he will not choose me. It is the same every week. I want to fight. I want to hide. I am brave. I am scared. All of us raise our hands. He calls for Research and Nurse.

Research jumps up and squeezes her hair into a ponytail to tighten her resolve. She straps the helmet over her face and becomes anonymous. That is the meaning of uniforms — they turn I into We. Nurse, sitting nearest the guys, laughs at some comment, and pulls her helmet over her head. She saunters over to a plastic bin.

Several blackbelts jump up to push oversized gloves onto the women’s hands, swallowing their clenched fists. “On tight?” Yes, they nod. Nurse and Research bow to each other. This means “Thank you for the chance to improve myself.” Or, it could mean, “I’m here to kick your ass.”

Why do we fight? I piece together fragments the other women have shared. I spin tales around them. Around me. Research fights because it’s required to climb the blackbelt ranks, just as it takes hours in the lab to unlock cancer cells. Between classes Research lifts her foot to her hip and thrusts it out, over and over, to erase the slight bend in her knee. She has transformed her body into a tight machine of springs and muscles. She controls everything; except she does not like to get hit.

“If you don’t like to get hit, I’ve won,” says Nurse. Nurse seems eager to dominate. I imagine her in surgery, wielding jabs of humor with precision. Another female sparrer from the healing profession; surprising how many there are. She coaxes patients back to health or delivers bad news, no apology.

I fight because, at home, I do everything but fight. I plead for my husband to get help, I despair, I change the topic, I beg, equivocate, calibrate, and scheme, I drop dishes on the kitchen tiles, I make love robotically, I scream at our children, I ball up fists of tissue and cry on the toilet, I remain silent, clamping down my rage, lid rattling, about to spew.


Hie! The Grandmaster drops his hand. Nurse charges, Research backs up. Nurse is short and thick-bodied, Research, tall and lean. No matter. Nurse’s left leg shoots out from behind and hurtles toward Research’s stomach. We hear the thud of heel against vinyl. Research rocks back and regains her footing. She measures the distance, bouncing. Nurse advances. Research retreats, never attacking, until Nurse lands another side kick and knocks Research off balance. Intent beats hesitation, I notice.

There are others, I think, who should be here. They need to fight, but they can’t get themselves into the ring. They can lift their foot above their head and crash it down, they can spin and unleash their fists. I feel certain that combat will lift their moods, help them cope, make them strong. But in the locker room they confess they’re afraid or been abused or could never hurt anyone. They complain about bruises. They avoid Friday nights. They act like, I’m ashamed to admit this, girls.

I want them to fight. I want them to face their fears. If they fight, I believe, they will get better, the same before-and-after story I have promised myself.


The Grandmaster calls the next women. I.T. springs up. She carries the weight of her family into the dojang. She says her mom would not allow her to compete in sports, only academics, their path out of racism. I.T. works in computer security and fights for vigilance. She scales the stairs, two at a time.

She faces Chaplain, whose honey curls peek out under the rim of her helmet. Chaplain battles for goodness. She runs the Catholic offices for three universities. She co-founded a charity that aids the poor in Rwanda.

I know the shuffle of Chaplain’s feet, her ramrod sidekicks, how she advances and retreats like a well-worn argument. I recognize the sharp breaths of I.T., her trigger fast roundhouses, how she hesitates before a punch. Conflict, even through our pads, has intimacy. We learn each other’s language, the way our bodies claim space around us, our wafts of underarms and faded shampoo. We leave marks on each other’s necks and arms, like beloveds do.

Chaplain and I.T. seesaw across the dojang, they plot their chess moves, well matched, fueled by hope and faith. The Grandmaster calls a draw.


Pain is easier to bear than anguish, I’ve learned. I poke at the blossoms of purple that splatter my thighs and savor the pain. I’m not alone. We all show off our swollen fingers and compare scars. We reshape our muscles. We rewire our thinking. We’re turning from daughters and nurses and chaplains and wives into warriors.

I imagine the front door swinging open and I stride inside, swollen with confidence, transformed into someone who won’t take shit any longer. A mom who can shield her children from chaos and only let their father’s love filter through. Because he loves them, I know this to my core, as much as he can care for anyone. I don’t yet understand the bruises even love inflicts.


The Grandmaster calls my name. I press the helmet against my face, the grill frames my world into a small rectangle, blurry without my glasses and easier to take on. Then he calls Artist. Sweat soaks the seat of my pants, which I hope won’t show under my red chest protector, as if I peed myself.

Artist works in graphic design, the art in martial artist. She fights to defy her dainty ankles, pink hair, and lazy right eye. Maybe she holds, like a secret weapon, her power as she walks alone late at night, knowing she can crack the femur of anyone who attacks her. At first, she disarmed me with her petite size and the easy length of her Tennessee vowels. I remind myself: stay vigilant against Artist.

Punches are my advantage. Which means getting inside in a fight, and that means taking the hit, my superpower. At home I withstand the insults of my husband and mistake it for kindness. Maybe that’s why the Grandmaster chooses Artist for me, so I can learn how to retaliate; another story I tell myself.

The Grandmaster drops his hand. I barrel in. I don’t fear Artist’s strikes; I embrace them, like a thicket of branches that whack you as you plunge into a trail. I resemble the red coats we used to sneer at in American history class. Those boneheads, we thought, just marching into the fire. Now I am a red-chest-protector wearing idiot.

“Protect yourself!” The Grandmaster yells.

Artist twitches her hip and throws a fake. I fall for her deception. She whips around and hurls her foot at my unprotected lower back. Pain doesn’t announce itself right away, it wraps around my waist, blooms and fades quickly. It will reappear tomorrow, in shades of black and teal, a burning, tender place.

Artist slips into my blind spot. I spin with confusion and think of my husband’s disease, how I fail to track his elusive symptoms. She reappears and I chase her from the line of men watching us to the wall of mirrors on the other side. I step in and hook my arm toward her temple and complete an electric circuit. Her head jolts sideways. I know what she feels, the anger that flares from the bottom of her skull. She responds with a barrage of punches, and the room blinks in and out of blackness. Should I be frightened how much this assault grounds me, gives me something to hold onto?

The Grandmaster ends the fight. He does not call a winner, but he looks at me hard. “Get out of the way or you’ll get hurt!”

I gulp air. We remove our helmets. Water streams from my bangs into my eyes, stinging them. We bump our fists. She nods. “Good fight.” Her approval will bring me back next week. And every week I must learn the same lessons. Have a plan. Fight on my own turf. Protect myself.


Friday nights. We fight the lessons of growing up. We fight clichés. We fight submission. We defy assumptions and family and even ourselves. We fight the won’ts, the shouldn’ts, and the nevers. We learn when to take a hit and, hardest of all, when to flee. Because, when we fight, we are no longer women, we are will. We’re not always sure what victory is. Maybe it smells like survival.


In the locker room we peel off our uniforms and snake our legs into stockings or jeans. Jess joins the guys for beer, Yihan leaves to watch puppies on YouTube, Tammi and Akina tumble into the night, Christine adds chapters to her book on miracles. I return home.

The kids are in bed, the babysitter waiting, my husband out somewhere, and I sag with relief. I am still years away from learning the one lesson of sparring I have managed to ignore. For now, I fool myself that muscles translate into resolve, anger can be channeled into action, and that strength is bravery.

And so, every Friday, I show up to spar. And hide. And hope. I don’t know that it will take many years before I make the final, right moves. I don’t know the necessary fakes and dodges. I can’t predict how my husband will respond, how ugly the fight will get, or the damage our children will suffer in the crossfire. I will look back and wish I had remembered, earlier, the first lesson we were taught.

The Grandmaster had gathered us around to explain the simple principles of sparring. He explained the difference between what we do in the dojang and a street fight. I half listened, impatient to hit bags, eager to prove myself.

He held our gaze and said, simply, “If you can’t win, run away.”


Image: Taekwondo by Anthony Drugeon, licensed under CC 2.0.

Linda Button
Latest posts by Linda Button (see all)


  1. I love this essay! Overflows with wisdom and the stored energy of a tiger waiting to spring. Congrats.

  2. I am speechless. I am shaken. I am inspired. Your resolve, your strength, your vivid, heart-breaking, inspiring fight to save yourself. Told with such artistry and honesty and bravery and skill. Bravo.

  3. Another wonderful essay! The Grandmaster has taught us many lessons over the years. We are lucky to have been exposed to such a valuable resource for self-exploration.

  4. Amazing. It takes a warrior to write lines like “love undoes my defenses”. So few words. So much said. A barrage of perfect punches that strike the reader’s soul. I’m sorry for your pain. I shriek in communion, and I’m humbled by your mastery.


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