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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
The Rings, Part One
Being a fan of the sweet science, it was a joy to see female boxing take center stage (for the first time!) at the Olympics over the weekend. With this in mind, author Suzanne Guillette remembers her time inside a Prague gymnasium in the first of her two-part Web Extra.
I stare at his tender scar, a crooked line running from his lush, full upper lip to just beneath the opening of his left nostril. He tells me to look into his eyes. And I do, afraid. Both his eyes are green, but the left one has three brown dots swimming just outside the pupil. I’m not usually attracted to men with light eyes, but these are different, more deep than light. I am in love again, all synapses firing. Yes, I think, I am ready. Breaking through my distraction, Ondra bears down on my gaze and gently says again, “Look into my eyes when you hit me.”
I am at the Zizkov Boxing Gym, in the northeast corner of Prague. When I learned that I was going to be in Prague to take a four-week writing workshop, I started researching boxing gyms on the Internet. My goal for the month was to clarify my ideas for the non-fiction thesis that I would begin to write in the fall. I had already told myself that I was not coming to Prague for a European vacation. And as the plane landed, I acknowledged once more that all the things in which one might indulge when visiting Prague—hearty pilsners, strong, jitter-inducing coffee, and slow-burning cigarettes—were not things that would help me work on my thesis. Touring the castle district and going out to late night discos were also on my list of things not to do. Instead, I would box, a physical activity and outlet for stress. Besides, getting in good physical shape would help me with my intellectual pursuits, I reasoned. Half the website for the Zizkov gym was written in English: “This is a family gym. Bring your son, your daughter. All are welcome.” I hoped to box with both men and women and this sounded perfect to me.
Zizkov is a thirty-minute tram ride from Dejvice, the neighborhood of my dorm. Before the revolution, the Masarykova dorm was the KGB headquarters for Czechoslovakia and had been used as an interrogation space; its chaotic layout was intentional, to confuse detainees. Like many of the other upscale buildings in Dejvice, the bright cream façade of the dorm is stately, orderly, with windows spaced evenly on each of its five floors. But the interior is different, remaining confusing even after being refurbished in 1999. There is a main entryway and staircase from which many corridors wind and bend. I find my way to the main steps through the maze of the halls, turning four corners and passing through three doorways. Once outside, the tram stops right in front of the dorm and I board, with my workout clothes balled up in my backpack. Throughout the ride, I find myself unable to read my book. My gaze alternates between the Czechs crammed on the train and the busy neighborhoods—with cafes, pharmacies, shops—through which we are quickly passing. When I arrive in Zizkov, a working-class community, its contrast to Devicje is marked. There are faded pubs, strip clubs, and empty buildings.
The first day that I arrive at the gym, I walk through the green door with “BOX” written in block letters overhead. Inside, there is a waiting room; the walls are decorated with photos of boxers in the ring, boxers in the gym, and yellowed newspaper clippings. The room is small and musty. At the far end is a bar with three stools, behind which an old ceramic sink spouts water in uneven bursts. Turning into the workout room, I see no children or women, as the website had suggested. There are just a few men here. One, dressed in all black, grunts as he does endless push-ups outside the ring. Stanislav Tiser—the owner of the gym and former lightweight champion of the Czech Republic as I have learned from the website—comes to the doorway. He is a short, dark-skinned man with a bushy brown moustache and loose shoulders. Stanley, as he says when he points to himself, starts talking in Czech. It is only my third day in Prague and I have barely learned dobry den and dekuji, let alone “I would like to box here.”
He looks at me after a minute, realizing that I don’t understand him. As he turns away and yells something to the young man doing push-ups, I look around the workout room. Six black leather heavy bags hang from the ceiling in the middle of the room. A long black mat is placed on the wall against the far left corner, next to a wall-to-wall mirror. At the other end of the room is a ring, with frayed gray Styrofoam covering the ropes. Black and white photocopies of famous fighters—Mike Tyson, Layla Ali, and Oscar de la Hoya—are placed around the room. One that catches my eyes immediately is a picture of Muhammad Ali, assuming the boxer’s stance, with his fists up, chin tucked, and jaw guarded. Imposed on the other side is a photo of Stanley, assuming the same position from the other direction. When he comes back over with the young man in black, I point to that picture and say, “Funny.” Stanley nods.
The young man is intense and Stanley fades into the background, even as he points to the young man and says, “Ondra. English.” Stanley leans forward as he stretches out “English”, emphasis on the “eeng” sound. Ondra smiles awkwardly, his eyes alternately look down and then straight into mine. Ondra nods hello, and says, “This is not kickboxing, like in gym.”
“Yeah, I know. I know…Can I start today?”
Ondra says something to Stanley in rapid-fire Czech. Stanley responds, his hands folded over his chest. Ondra turns to me and says, “Yes.”
Moments later, I have changed into my workout clothes and we are on the floor of the gym. Ondra is holding up his hands, which are wrapped in thick brown leather pads. He is testing my punches. My body is upright, ready, and eager to twist with each jab. Stanley comes over occasionally to show me a punch-combination. Each time he throws a fist forward, he says, “Bah.” He starts slow, working his way up to, “Bah-bah-bah-bah!” Then, he steps back, straightens out his body and looks at me. When I look confused, he turns to Ondra, to have him translate.
But Ondra and I, we are already in rhythm. Ondra moves forward. I move back. He moves to the side. I follow.
My arms are swinging, and I cannot help but stare—hard. The muscles of his upper body are cut like diamonds. His legs are solid. And his Slav nose is broad, even proud. This month is going to be so much better than the last, I think, looking down at the new engagement ring on my finger.
God, this is a face I want to be mad at me, I think as Ondra’s heavy punches land on the loose hand pads I am holding carefully in front of my body. Later that week, we are standing in the ring again and I just want him—anytime, any place, any mood. With each of Ondra’s clean punch combinations—right hook, left hook, duck, right hook, left hook, duck—vibrations travel through me and I stumble. I asked to wear these pads, asked to have him aim his jabs in my direction. Principle of equality, I think. If he were always letting me hit him, then what would he get out of this deal? When I told him that I wanted to wear the pads, he nodded solemnly, put on his blue 12-ounce gloves and wrapped the Velcro straps around each of his wrists. He then proceeded to swing with full force.
I am not used to this. I usually work out on my own, alongside a group of women. There, we turn the lights down to remind us that no one is looking. I never take a partner, if I can help it. Time spent boxing is usually time cleansing myself of daily stress, practicing a healthy aggression. When I stand in front of the rattling speed bag, deadlines disappear. In front of the heavy bag, I think about my estranged older brother and his mean-spirited letters. I throw that into my power punches. And when my drenched shirt is sticking to the purple mat on the polished hardwood floors and I am ready for sit-ups, sometimes I cry.
In Boston, I train alone—and like it that way. In Prague, Ondra coaches me. Some days, he steps in close when I am wrapping my hands and asks if he can show me another way. Of course, of course you can, I think. When I stub my toe, he crouches at my feet, wrapping it for me. He covers my toe with the antibacterial spray that he has in his car while I soak in his careful attention, my head thrown back in secret glory. When the trainer calls out drills on the heavy bag, Ondra turns to me and translates, even though I have seen the trainer miming the punches. When we lift free weights, he stands across from me, looking into my eyes as he counts. One, two, three, four…I turn my back to the mirror, so I can avoid that dumb smile on my face. When he is not at the gym, I am lonely.
We plan to meet in the afternoons at the boxing club. The second week, we eat dinner after a workout at a candlelit restaurant he has chosen. When he first asked me if I was hungry after I’d taken off my sweaty wraps and thrown them into my backpack, only a small part of me thought to say “No.” Later, at the Louis Armstrong Café, we listen to jazz in a corner table, where we are nestled in close to the exposed brick walls. I order steak because I am tired of goulash. In his broken but steady English, Ondra talks a lot: about visiting the Ukraine as a child, about his tenure as a civil servant working in a kindergarten classroom, about how Americans have it easy, only needing to learn a few hundred years of our country’s history. I am leaning in closer to him, though I cover my left ring finger with my left thumb. When I get up to walk to the bathroom in my sweaty Adidas track pants, it occurs to me to bring a change of clothes to the gym next time.
When I return, I break the news of my fiancée, Ben, mentioning casually how the month before I left for Prague was a very difficult one, because when Ben proposed that we marry after six years of dating, a bolt of fear swept through me and had not yet gone away. Ondra looks down for only a minute and then says earnestly, “Well, you are Catholic? This means the priest can help you.”
He is going to be a good friend, I think.
When Ondra drives me home that night, we take the long route back to Devijce, the neighborhood of my dorm, through Malo Strana. Once we cross the dark Vltava and climb a cobblestone street, Ondra points out the school of Economics, where he will begin his Master’s in the fall. But I don’t see a school. I see a sex shop, with S-E-X blazing in big neon red letters. At first, I think to say, “Why is the word ‘sex’ always written in English, no matter where you are?” But instead, I say coyly, “What school? I thought you were pointing to the sex shop.”
There is no response, other than confusion. “No, no, my school is over here, on this block,” he says, embarrassed.
When the car pulls up in front of my dorm, Ondra parks his small station wagon on an angle near the park that runs the length of my street. When the engine is off, I jump out, afraid of the energy contained in his small car and afraid of myself, mostly. Outside, the trees are in bloom with delicate white flowers and their fragrance makes me dizzy. When I lean back in and squeeze his shoulder in a lame goodnight gesture, he sits up with attention, his eyes brightening. There is a long moment of silence and I wonder: what will happen with this man? I feel drunk, giddy, even though I ordered water all night. Ondra feels the same, I know. After a moment, he says with his usual air of business, “So…will you go to gym tomorrow?” Yes, yes, yes. “What time?” Whenever you will be there. And so it goes.
Read Part Two here.
A writer and occasional storyteller, Suzanne Guillette’s work has appeared in Tin House, Self, O Magazine, Publisher’s Weekly, Time Out New York and elsewhere. She’s the author of Much to Your Chagrin: A Memoir of Embarrassment , a non-fiction account of the year she spent collecting embarrassing stories from strangers on the streets of Manhattan. Suzanne holds a Bachelor’s of Arts in Philosophy from George Washington University and a Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Non-fiction writing from Sarah Lawrence College.