By Paul Stapleton
He first met her one night after the gym, after locking up for the old man, slamming shut the roll down gate graffitied over with the words El Boxeo and Boxing, then wandering up 149th Street with Edwin, up the long hill to the Grand Concourse. They stopped to talk to some girls outside the community college, then joined them in the pizzeria where all the cops and ambulance drivers ate. She was studying to be a dental hygienist. She was definitely older than Tommy, but their ages never came up. He told her he was a boxer, and when he walked her down into the subway, she agreed to meet him again.
She lived in El Barrio in the houses on 115th Street, a neighborhood familiar to Tommy because everybody knew where Hector Camacho came from, and the first time he took her on a date, they kissed the whole time, making out in the back row of a movie theater called The Cosmo.
One Saturday, he brought her to see the views from the Bronx Hall of Fame, a place he went for his roadwork every morning, running up the steep hills into Highbridge, then across to University Heights and the college campus where the colonnade circled around the library with all the statues of famous Americans that overlooked the city and the towers of the GW Bridge and the western skies beyond.
It was a place where a person could hope for something else.
After the long walk back, she offered that her feet were hurting, so he brought her to his empty house on McClellan Street; his mother was working her all-day Saturday shift, his brother out doing his thing. Tommy had never brought a girl inside the apartment before. It was July, and it was hot, and although the air conditioner was in his mother’s bedroom, he could not bring himself to bring her in there. Instead, he led her by the hand into his own room with the twin bed, the one he had slept in since he was a little boy, and turning on the fan full blast, they lay down together.
They were there for a while, their clothes piling up little by little on the floor, but after she told him, “Enough with the titties,” she rolled him on his back and placed herself over him. She was not at all like the women in the photos of the magazines that were in his brother’s closet or that the boys passed around at school—her skin tawny, dark hair on her arms and lower abdomen, fat bunching around her belly, and her hair cropped short, her face dominated by large almond eyes. She had little zippers of shiny scars across her hips that Tommy simply did not understand. Still, he was certain she was beautiful.
After she lay back down on the mattress, they talked for a while and he brought her a glass of water, and then they began again, their bodies cleaving, their sweat pooling, their limbs tangling and realigning, her legs above his shoulders, then pulled in against her chest. Repositioning to her knees, she guided him from behind with her teasing hand, her skin shimmering with perspiration, her flesh shaking, before the two of them turned again to face each other, smiling and relaxed, although somehow, someway, in the course of their movements on the little twin bed, her elbow clipped him on the cheekbone, and he said, “Ouch!” because it hurt, and she said, “Sorry,” and they both laughed.
“This is just like the gym,” he said without hesitation.
In response, she delivered a gentle knock to his chin.
“What am I,” she said, “your sparring partner?”
They both laughed again, but the comment lingered.
He took her back to Spanish Harlem that night on the 4 Train, and after asking her, hesitantly, she explained to him about her stretch marks and that she had a child and that she was older than nineteen or twenty.
Then she asked him, “Is that how you really saw it? Like a workout at the gym?”
When he returned home to McClellan Street, lying down where he had been with her, the sheets still moist, her scent still lush in his room, he felt betrayed, partly because he perceived it was going to be their one and only time together. The memories of the afternoon were all sweet to him, but his comment carried a sting, and he regretted it because it hurt her, yet that was not the whole of it because Tommy himself felt its sting, and in a way he could not name, and was afraid to name, he knew it was true.
In his trance, Tommy continued jumping straight through the bells, so many rounds that he lost count of how long he had been jumping rope.
“Hey, Tommy? You awake in there?”
It was Edwin. Tommy laughed, then gathered together his jump rope and stashed it away in his gym bag.
The two of them had already sparred.
They threw gloves nearly every day. Tommy knew the twitch of Edwin’s muscles, the pattern of color in his eyes, how Edwin smelled when he was relaxed and how his odor was different when he wasn’t, his own face having been smeared often with Edwin’s sweat. Once he had even tasted a droplet from a trickle of his blood.
When the bell rang again, the two of them began their calisthenics together, as always—rounds of sit-ups holding each other’s ankles, rounds of push-ups sitting astride each other’s backs, rounds of more sit-ups on the incline bench, jabbing into each other’s guts, and then came the medicine ball, tossing the heavy leather back and forth, slamming it into each other’s ribs over and over again until they were smiling at the pain.