Finding the Words for Love, Part One

A view of the rooftops of the city of Seoul, from the window of the taekwondojang where I study, at sunset.

We trained together for eight months before I finally worked up the nerve to invite him out. It’s not that I was afraid- but I was asleep to men, still untying the knots in my heart from recent heartbreaks. Taekwondo was my boyfriend, now, and the perfect offering to the gods of rage that seemed to loom over me these days. In the spring I stopped training for a while, and those gods punished me with all sorts of bad luck- another story for another time. But Henri’s black belt test was coming up, and I would not miss that for anything.

I showed up at the dojang at 8am in a dress and blazer- the Grandmaster always wore a suit and tie outside of teaching, so I was following his lead. Henri showed up a little later, and we- him, me, the Grandmaster and his wife, Master Ko- headed to Kukkiwon, the Taekwondo world headquarters where Korean martial artists (and those studying in Korea) went to test for black belt- first degree and beyond. Henri had more than earned it, studying in France for years in competitive sparring. His muscles were hard as rocks- I knew because simple blocks hurt like hell and left black and blue welts on my arms and legs.

But Henri was incredibly humble, always gentle towards me and restrained, and his grace and control meant I could trust him. There were never ego games, there was never an arrogant comment, there was never a word directed at me as a lower-rank, or as woman- always as a human, and even his superior. He always bowed when he saw me, and whenever we said goodbye.

And that attitude slowly started to haunt me- and the slow change over the months, as gaze and touch became more prolonged, but more importantly, as it became clear: the consistency, the discipline, the devotion he showed towards martial arts. His complete singularity of focus. I admired that, I wanted that for myself. He walked me to my bus stop every night after practice and we talked more and more. He was a traveler, too. He’d spend a year here, in Korea- then a year in Japan, then Taiwan, then Hong Kong, then mainland China. Working odd jobs and studying Taekwondo, Karate, Shaolin, Jeet Kune Do. The idea thrilled me. Could do something like that? I didn’t know people could do that. I thought that was a fantasy I wasn’t allowed to have anymore once I turned fourteen.

At some point, I noticed the line of his brow, the little wrinkles on his cheeks when he smiled. Hazel eyes.

At the black belt test, we paced and agonized. Sweat drenched my clothes from heat and anxiousness. It was late June. The Grandmaster sat in a section for Grandmaster judges only. He sat there alone on that early Sunday morning. Parents and photographers shuffled for the best views as candidates came to the mats in groups of nine and ten to perform the complicated forms and techniques they had practiced for months. My heart was in my throat, watching him when it was finally his turn.

Later, we ate cold noodles, watched the videos Master Ko took, laughed at the awkward sparring between him and a ill-matched partner. Dissected the forms, responded encouragingly to small mistakes, admired kicks, stances. Long into the afternoon, we decompressed together, over dessert, over coffee.

Only on the subway, right before we were all about to part ways, did I finally have the courage to invite him out.

“Let’s go to the river,” I said, a little embarrassed to ask in front of the Grandmaster and his wife, but he said yes, and it was simple as that.

There’s a place on the Han under a bridge where the concrete slopes down in a square tile pattern and the sound of the water lapping up at it seems to wash away the traffic noise and the talk of passersby. The Han is wide and deep, too wide for its length from the headwaters. It dominates the city; it looks like if it catches the mood, it might one of these days just reach out at all sides and swallow the city with a yawn. We arrived late in the afternoon, when the sky and the river competed for more stunning shades of blue.

And we talked for hours, about travel, about why we travel- about martial arts, the different styles and our different experiences, which is our favorite (we both agree: taekwondo, although for different reasons). Where we’ve been, where we’re going. We talked about France, where he is from and where I lived years ago. And we talked about China, at which point I found out how, for way cheaper and more possible than I ever imagined, I could study Shaolin full-time.

I wrote in an earlier post about how this one new piece of information caused a complete paradigm shift for me. Perhaps I would have found out about this at some point, but I hadn’t been looking, because I thought it was a fantasy. And the timing of this information was perfect. In just a few months, my contract was up, and by then I would have just enough money saved to do it.

I went home that evening and looked at everything around my little apartment that I had accumulated in the past two years, and started to make give-away piles. Once again, I’d have to pare down my life to two suitcases.

Among my childhood things I found an old necklace- a yin yang, red and black, that a teacher at my martial arts dojo had given me over twenty years ago. He said, “I understand that you need to quit, for the time being, but Laurie, life is long. Don’t quit forever.”

Henri’s black belt test was on a Sunday and the day after, I came back to the dojang, ready to start again.

***

The thing about falling in love with your sparring partner is that it’s tricky. Are my feelings returned? A smile, a gaze, a lingering touch- are these signs of deep feeling? Am I seeing this accurately? Is there something between us, or is it just our shared passion for martial arts?

And there were more practical matters: I was working overtime, and Henri worked weekends, so the only time that either of us had to spare that overlapped was, of course, taekwondo. And why go out on a date when you could be practicing taekwondo? And most importantly, I knew it was doomed anyway. He was leaving in two months for Japan. And though we were both bumming around Asia studying martial arts, it’d be years before we might see each other again, if ever.

But if there was one thing I learned about love, it’s this: never let your feelings go unsaid. Maybe that was the wrong thing to learn- maybe it had never done me any good at all- but I knew if I wasn’t honest with him about how I felt, I’d regret it. Not because anything could happen, but because people should know these things. People should know, when they’re loved- when they’ve inspired someone, when they’ve changed someone

The opportunity came during a national holiday in August. My work was closed, the dojang was closed. It was a Wednesday. On Tuesday during training, I said to Henri, “There’s no taekwondo tomorrow! Let’s hang out.” And he said, sure. And because we would meet at sunset, and because I lack  imagination, I took him back to the river.

And what happened next, I’ll never, ever, ever forget, because I’ve learned to sniff out death and so these days, when death is hiding near, it can never hide long.

***

Part Two coming tomorrow <3

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