Surely not everybody was kung fu fighting, but we were.
Rained in on a Saturday afternoon in late summer, we have nowhere to go. It’s a cleaning day—our beds are stripped. Our mother sweeps us from our rooms, down the hall, and into the living room where she cordons us off and mops us in.
What is a boy, what is a girl?—we are simply siblings.
We settle on the couch in front of the floor model TV just in time for Kung-Fu Theatre. Today’s feature is Mortal Combat aka The Return of the 5 Deadly Venoms aka Crippled Avengers. Rapt, we watch the Tian Nan Tigers kill Tao Tien-tu’s wife and chop off his young son’s arms. Riveted, we watch him avenge his family by crippling everyone he meets, blinding a peddler, rendering a blacksmith deaf and mute, and cutting off the legs of an innocent bystander.
Our mother returns to check on us, sees the screen and warns us not to fight.
She says, “Remember your age.”
Says, “Remember your strength.”
She says, “She’s not as old as you, or as big.”
Says, “No roughhousing.”
But what else is there for us to do?
We play all the parts. We wander the living room pretending to be deaf, dumb, and blind. Holding broomsticks out before us, we feel our way, toppling furniture as we go. We want to be crippled. We want a teacher to take us in, train us, and make us strong. We want iron fists, iron legs. We want to be avenged.
We size each other up, circling for our attacks, looking for openings. We limit ourselves to tiger style only. We chop and kick and push and claw. We evade and sidestep and duck and block.
We knock something over and our mother runs in and scruffs us, grabbing us by the necks like we’re kittens, shaking us until we rattle.
“She’s not a boy,” she says. “I told you not to play so rough!”
We blink, uncomprehending.
“Do you hear me? She’s not your brother!”
We hear her loud and clear, but, the words, they make no sense. What is a boy, what is a girl?—we are simply siblings. I’m his brother; he is my sister. He is my brother; I’m his sister. When I bite into his arm hard enough to break the skin, the blood that surfaces is my own; I taste my bloodmetal and we are the same.
With my head locked under his arm he tells me, ‘I’m really going to miss this.’
She looks me over as she scolds, turning my face this way and that. “You don’t know your own strength,” she tells him. But I do and it is no bother. Brotherlove only makes a girl stronger.
We’re back at it again as soon as she leaves. “I’ll go easier on you,” he promises.
“I won’t,” I say.
Heedless of our mother’s warning we fight. We fight because it’s Saturday afternoon and our tiger style is weak and we have to make it better. We fight because this is how we love and our time together is running out. At summer’s end, he’s heading off to a boarding school in New England. He’ll take the Amtrak at Penn Station and go to a place where I can’t follow. What’s worse than any pain is being without him and what’s worse even still is that it’s his idea to go. He’s studied for this place, taken tests to get in. I am never scared that he’ll hurt me but his leaving is another thing.
With my head locked under his arm he tells me, “I’m really going to miss this,” but I know that’s not true, and knowing how ready, how eager he is to leave me behind lends fury to my fists, making it easy to break his hold and topple him down onto the couch, to throw myself across him and brace my forearm against his throat. “You’ll go and forget me there,” I say. “You won’t ever come back.”
Pinned beneath me, he stares up at me and says, “You never have to be scared of that.” He says, “You worry over nothing,” but in fact, it is a little bit frightening.