They bow. Maya is in the red chest guard, the girl from Minnesota that stands two inches taller in blue. They bounce, they wait. A small flurry of kicks leaves one point on the board for Minnesota. They bounce, they wait. They fake, then another exchange. 2-0. Round one is already over. The second round is the same. They bounce. Maya scores weakly. 2-1. Maya aggravates a foot injury she got last week when she smashed her pinkie toe into a wall during a game of tag. She's limping and frustrated. End of round two. She's near tears in her chair. Her coach sends her in for round three. Bounce, wait, exchange. 2-2. A quick squab and the board suddenly reads 4-2 for Minnesota. I didn't really see how. 30 seconds are left, but Maya has not yet mastered a perfect sense of time in the ring. She doesn't chase the girl until ten seconds are left. Then the match is over. Maya has lost in the first round. Disappointment floats down on us like a shaken-out sheet. We don't accept that it’s over, or we prolong the announcement that it is. Four months of fundraising and training and build up for six teeny minutes that leave me scrambling for sincere words of consolation.
We walk down the middle of a long hall. Uniforms and warm ups and spar bags dotted with foreign flags are strewn near the walls of the hall. As we walk, Maya slides off her head gear leaving her bangs mat against her forehead. She pops out her mouth guard. To the right we see a man-sized boy laying on his bag, on his back; his hands are clasped and resting on his face. His eyes are open, wet. He doesn't believe it's over either. A girl passes us grimacing. She's carried by two of her teammates, ice bags atop both feet.
In the lobby, Maya's teammates stand huddling over her and they chatter encouragement. Her coach plays up the injured foot, and Maya kneels, slowly and methodically peeling off the rest of her gear. She starts to fold it. "See that bruise? That takes weeks to heal." "Next time, Maya." Maya wraps her shin guards together, then her arm guards. "This is a great experience. It's a huge international tournament." "That girl was tall." Maya looks up and nods. She places the smaller pads inside her chest guard and ties them tightly together. "Every experience matters. Every practice matters." This is when the world of an elite athlete and an eleven-year old girl clash. The closeness of the two, nearly converging and harmonizing, wash over her and slip away. Not this time. It all happened too fast.
We don't talk about it again until the next day. It was better to wait for sincerity. I told her I was proud. This was one tournament in her gradual road to where ever she wants to take this. Champs win and lose. I am most proud that she wants to keep going. That's the hardest part. I told her she inspires me. She said, "You're my hero, Mami" just like in the movies, and emotionally I was done for the night.
At Disneyworld, the ticket lady sat in her tiny, individual booth. We speak to her through circles in plexiglas. She says, "Are you vacationing?" Maya says, "We were here for the Taekwondo tournament." "How'd ya do?" The lady chirps. Maya unleashes her booming fake-announcer voice and says loudly, "Oh, I lost in the first round, thank you!"
My husband couldn't make the trip to Florida because of work. I have felt 100% homesick 100% of the time because of it. I have had no comfort or grounding for myself. In the shitty hotel room, I spent hours awake in the dark feeling lonely as one of my girls tossed beside me. They alternated who slept in my bed for the night. I wondered in the orange hotel shadows what the fuck I'm doing with my life. My fortieth year has so far been the hardest in which to stay buoyant even if it feels the furthest from the hardest times in my life. My mother stayed in a room that connected to ours. She has been nothing but sweet and giving, but I can't seem to kick the habit of feeling diminished around her. I feel invisible and unimportant. It's nothing that she does now. It's residual, I understand. Why didn't that vaporize? Why didn't that get stamped out in our years of healing? I feel a little lost right now because of it. I thought it was all ok now.
I've spent too many days out of the embrace of home. Four nights in an orange box room with bare-thread carpet burned in two places by an iron. Four nights in a square box bed with cardboard pillows and prison-starch sheets and an aqua ceramic lamp with a cigarette burn in the lamp shade. All those nights freefalling in my invisibility and my mediocrity. Four days straight I told my champ to fight on, dust off and fight on. And I'm lagging. I'm pushing her forward, but I'm losing steam for myself. I'm desperate for a word from home.
Post Script: I wrote the above on a plane within the twelve hours it took to get home. We got in at 2am , but I am home now. I am showered, I’ve been snuggled. My mood and sense of hope are nearly back to normal.