Clearwater, Florida, and then Seattle — those had been my only homes. Now, I was in Boston, visiting Ann, my girlfriend, although the term doesn't do our relationship justice. Ann and I had been together since our last year of high school, introduced by a female friend who knew all about my complication. I was now between med school and an emergency-medicine residency, both in Seattle. Ann was participating in a summer institute on neuroscience at Tufts University, and I had managed to arrange a three-week visit. We wouldn't have a lot of time together, I knew, but I just couldn't be apart from her for a whole summer. Knowing we were in the same city would bring me some peace. She was staying in the vacant home of a friend of her mother's in the Bay Village neighborhood, close to the Medical Center campus.
Ann had made an authentic life for me possible. One of my best friends, Edward, had told me that no girl would ever be happy in a relationship with a man who loved men and women — and had sex with them. Ann defied almost every convention, finding my bisexuality lovable and helping us to define a relationship that allowed its expression; I had no desire to have sex with any other woman, and we were very selective about the men. I had arrived on a Saturday, and we had a warm, exhausting reunion. One of our male partners, John, who was at Columbia, would join us during the last week of my stay.
I couldn't abide absence from Ann, and neither could I abide a lack of jujutsu practice.
A martial-arts teacher had invested in me since I was nine years old. Now twenty-six, I had practiced an old method of jujutsu for seventeen years, attaining the status of Menkyo shortly before my teacher, Abe-sensei (pronounced Ah-bay), had died of cancer three years ago. The Old Man had also, I thought in a fit of Buddhist irony, awarded me the title, Renshi, meaning expert teacher. The joke was that my teacher knew I had never thought of myself as a teacher. Since the Old Man held the Menkyo Kaiden license (license of total transmission) and I had attained the Menkyo license in my twenties and was the only American that Abe-sensei had declared Renshi, I was something of a minor celebrity in the world of my art. My license meant that I was qualified to head my own dojo or hall, something I had no intention of doing.
I knew there was a dojo in Boston that practiced the method of the willow's true heart (tenjinshinyō ryū). Opened a few years ago, it was headed by an American teacher in his fifties who had been trained for a few years in Japan and had been recently awarded his Menkyo license by the only non-Japanese recognized by the heirs of the founder as Menkyo Kaiden. His pedigree in the art was considerably different from mine.
Monday afternoon, I took public transportation to the dojo. I hoped the head of the hall would agree to let me practice there during my three-week stay. I had no intention of trying to teach anyone anything and doubted that the man would have the slightest idea who I was. Nevertheless, I had bundled my licenses with their precious seals, and they were in my hands as I opened the door to the hall. Upon entering, I immediately bowed to the kamiza, the ceremonial center of the dojo. In my bag were my gi and hakama. I waited patiently until a man a little older than I left the embujo or practice area to greet me. I bowed and spoke in Japanese to the man, asking if the dojo Sensei might have time to see me.
"Sorry, I don't speak Japanese," the man said, and I repeated the request in English.
The senior student eyed me a little suspiciously but asked me to wait. The man disappeared into an office at the back of the hall for a few minutes before reappearing and motioning to me to come back to the office. After seeing me into the office the student returned to the embujo. A tall man sporting thinning hair and a reddish goatee and wearing a gi and hakama sat behind a desk. "How may I help you?" he asked.
His accent reminded me slightly of my mother's. She had been born in New Hampshire and lived there until she moved south, where she taught in the medical school at Tulane before relocating to the west coast of Florida.
I explained the reason for my visit and then did what would have been expected from a visitor at my home dojo when the Old Man had lived. I presented my licenses and certificates to the older man. He took them and began to look them over. As he read the licenses and saw the signature and seals of Abe-sensei on them, he immediately stood and bowed deeply to me. I returned the bow, trying unsuccessfully to get my head lower than that of the older man. I was now confused at his reaction until the man said, "North-renshi, we are honored by your presence."
Thinking of the unassuming man who had lovingly been my teacher and father, I often forgot that Abe-sensei was legendary in his generation of teachers and had been something of the living center of our art in the United States. Thinking that I shouldn't chance embarrassing the man by speaking Japanese, I replied, "I am honored that you would take me in." My teacher dead, I was in a sense an orphan now, and I was seeking a temporary home.
The older man smiled and said, "I am Mark Davis."
I bowed low this time. "Davis-sensei. I don't want to interrupt the life of your hall, but I can't manage a three-week stay in Boston without practice. The practice is…"
"…all we have," the man said smiling openly, and I began to think I had made a good choice.
"Feel free to join us at any time, and I would be honored if you would offer some instruction to us."
"Sensei, Abe-sensei's opinion to the contrary, I am not a very good teacher. What I really need is a partner to work with during free-practice. I would be happy if you could recommend one of your students." Then, thinking that my refusal to instruct might be seen as an affront, I added, "Of course, I would be happy to offer some teaching on basics."
"I have just the guy. Come out and take a look."
The older man indicated that I should precede him as we walked from the office. Davis-sensei walked slightly behind me as we came to the edge of the embujo where the sempai who had originally greeted me was working with a group of boys whom I thought might be fourteen through seventeen. I sensed that the Davis-sensei was about to introduce me to the class and shook my head slightly: "May I watch for a few minutes?"
The older man bowed, and I took in the scene. I noticed that the sempai seemed confused that his teacher was deferring to a younger stranger as much as he was.
The boys were all roughly the same size except one who was smaller than the others. I couldn't decide if the boy was younger or just smaller. I immediately recognized the class star in the boy who was working with the small one. The star was the tallest of the students, and he was rather mercilessly punishing the smaller boy. My teacher would never have allowed such a development. I was impressed that the smaller boy didn't complain, but kept coming back for more as if he was trying to discover the reason for his constant defeats at the hands of the larger boy who was being none too gentle.
I turned to Davis-sensei, who said, "That is Aiden, the best student in the dojo. He's been working here since I opened four years ago. I think you'd enjoy working with him." His comment disquieted me, because if someone in my home dojo had acted as this boy was acting, the Old Man would have persistently and lovingly redirected him.
I turned my back to the embujo and asked, "Who is the smaller boy?"
"Oh, that's Edward. He's not very good, and he's only been practicing for a couple of years."
I smiled at the name. Edward had been the name of my workout partner — and among my first male sex partners — almost from the time he and I had started studying. "With your permission, Davis-sensei, I'd like to work with Edward."
"Are you sure?"
"I am, Davis-sensei."
His disappointment obvious, Davis said, "As you wish. Class is almost over. If you want to work a little this afternoon, please change in the back and I'll introduce you."
While in the changing room, I wondered what the introduction would be. Ten minutes later I walked to the main area of the hall, bowing to the kamiza and then looking to Davis at the edge of the embujo for permission to enter the practice area. Instead of the usual brief nod, Davis bowed to me. I bowed to the embujo and walked out onto the practice surface. I was used to a traditional tatami surface, but here I found layers of batting covered by canvas or duck. Davis followed me onto the embujo and called out, "Seiza."
The students lined up against the far wall, the Shimoza or lower seat. I noted that the older boy recommended by Davis was at the right end of the line next to the sempai who had greeted me and that the smaller boy I had chosen was at the left end where less senior students sat. I suddenly realized that Davis was waiting for me to sit. I did so in the formal posture, and Davis sat to my left and slightly behind me, both of us facing the kamiza with our backs to the students, a development that left the senior students mystified.
The sempai called, "Shomen ni rei." All bowed to the kamiza.
Davis waited until I stood, turned, and sat facing the students; he then followed, again behind and to my left. The sempai called, "Sensei ni rei." The students commenced seated bows to the teachers; Davis and I returned the bows. Then what I had hoped to avoid began.
Davis announced, "This is North-renshi. He is the senior student of one of the great teachers of the last seventy years, Hanshi Abe. North-renshi is the first teacher holding the title Renshi who has entered this dojo. He is visiting for three weeks and has graciously offered to instruct occasionally. He also will need a workout partner for free practice."
I saw Aiden smile broadly until Davis announced, "Edward, please see North-renshi after free practice begins. Kiritsu!"
The students waited patiently until I rose, followed by Davis, who bowed to me and then left the embujo to resume the office work I had interrupted. Edward hesitantly approached me as Aiden glared at him. When Aiden noticed that I was watching him, his face assumed a smile. Edward waited, head down.
"We can't work if you won't look at me, Edward. Or, do you prefer Ed?"
"No, sir. Edward is fine, Sensei — I mean Renshi."
I cringed and said, "No, no, no. Usually, you don't address someone by that title. You may call me sensei, but you have a sensei. How about you call me sempai, and I'll call you kohai?"
The boy broke into a big smile. "Yes, North-sempai."
"Come sit with me by the shimoseki so I can get to know you a little." I walked to the left wall of the dojo as one faced the kamiza, and we sat so that I could do some stretching. "So, Edward, what should I know about you?"
He thought for a moment and finally said, "I'm fifteen and I never stop trying to learn."
"Good enough, kohai. We can work, then. What's Aiden's deal?"
Edward blushed, and said, "He's really good. He gives everyone a hard time, but me more than others."
"He thinks I'm gay."
"Why should he worry about that?"
"Boston is a Catholic town, and gay people aren't all that popular, at least not to the guys who come here."
Edward's situation became clear to me, and I remembered thinking many times that I would have benefited from good models who lived life as gay or bisexual when I was younger. I had no great internal debate before I told him, "Okay, but I should tell you that I'm bisexual, so if you're one of those guys, I'll find someone else to work with."
I had never seen a more startled expression. The boy seemed for a few moments incapable of responding to the revelation. I noticed that Edward's breathing was rapid and that his eyes were moist, and I thought that perhaps I had made a mistake.
"Aiden's right; I am gay," he whispered.
"Well then, kohai, I guess working with me won't be a problem for you."
After stretching, we worked on some basic techniques, and Edward was shocked that the Renshi played uke, the one who receives, rather than tori, the one who acts. He was tentative, but when I countered his techniques, I made sure to help him fall correctly, and Edward began to lose his fear that I would treat him as Aiden did. I noticed that the others on the embujo were mainly watching me and Edward work on a throwing technique. Finally, I stopped and told Edward to watch.
"Aiden, would you help me here, please?" I waited in the migi shizentai or natural posture with my right foot forward and my right arm slightly extended until Aiden came at me, accepting the invitation and reminding me of how I used to try to beat the Old Man when I was a new student and clumsy. What Aiden experienced next was new to him. When he thought he would make contact with the Renshi, he fell into emptiness; he wasn't so much thrown as launched by his own momentum, and I didn't let him down gently. After crashing onto the mat, he leapt up, angry, to meet the new teacher's steady gaze.
"Please excuse me, Aiden. It's very rude not to help a partner fall safely." I bowed to the older boy, who was forced to bow lower than the teacher.
As I was in the changing room preparing to leave the dojo, Aiden and a couple of the other boys apparently cornered Edward. I could hear their muffled conversation through the thin intervening wall. Edward asked them, "What?"
I recognized Aiden's voice. "Look, queer-boy, what do you figure the hotshot from out of town would think if he knew he was working with a little fairy?"
Although he knew the answer, Edward, emboldened by our afternoon work, said, "Maybe he wouldn't care even if it were true."
"Even if? Give us a break. I'll have to have a talk with him, I guess."
His anger welling to the surface, Edward almost shouted, "He's gay — well, bi; he told me so."
After a few moments of what must have been stunned silence, Aiden seemed to recover. "Wishful thinking, Queerward. No way someone that good is queer. Hell, his teacher was old school. You're full of shit, you faggot. He'll only be here for three weeks, and then it's back to you and us."
Edward then asked, "What was it like when you attacked him. You really fell hard — not what you're used to."
"He was lucky," Aiden fumed. "I'll get him before he leaves."
Oh well, I thought, touching the scar on my belly where surgeons had removed my spleen after three attackers had tried to club me with a baseball bat, I've been had before.
I left the changing room, bag in hand, and after quietly bidding farewell to and thanking Davis-sensei in his office, I walked by the practice area. The boys became quiet as I passed them. I stopped just a little beyond them and turned back, looking directly at Aiden. "Did you have something you needed to ask me?"
His face colored, and he replied quietly, "No, Renshi."
"Thank you for your help earlier." Then, I said to Edward, "Kohai, please tell Aiden how to address me. See you tomorrow, if you're free."
I bowed to the kamiza before I left the dojo.
The dojo was in South Boston, and I walked five minutes to West 6th and Dorchester where I caught the number 11 bus to the Tufts Medical Center stop, a trip of twenty minutes. From the station, the walk to the Sackler Center building where Ann was working was short, though warm, in the muggy Boston summer. On the way, I phoned Ann, who said she'd be tied up for another hour, so I told her I'd walk north across Kneeland Street and then a few blocks east to China Gate Park where she could meet me when she finished.
I watched a few people practice taijiquan in the park. My mind subsided to quiet until a felt a pair of forearms on my shoulders and a kiss under my right ear. I smiled and asked, "Raul?" The question earned me a whack on the shoulder followed by a kiss on the mouth after Ann settled on the bench beside me.
She watched the taiji players a bit, and then said, "If I thought he'd care, I'd tell John you're seeing some guy named Raul."
"That just might bother him, you know?"
"Let's get home. You can tell me how your afternoon went."
We walked back to the campus and picked up her car from the parking garage.
After a pleasant dinner of Thai food that we picked up on our way home, I sat with Ann and debriefed her day. The level of discourse here was as good as any she had experienced, and she was excited both about what she would learn before beginning her post-doctorate in Seattle in the fall and about the network she was establishing. At least I could ask fairly intelligent questions about her work. When she finished talking about her day, she asked, "Okay, did you find what you need?"
"I think so. But, it was really strange. The man who runs the place has the same license as I do, but he treated me as if I were the second coming. It was really uncomfortable."
"Ahh," she said, "the Abe effect. That Old Man loved you, and I don't think you appreciate what his name on your certificate means — not just that you're good, but that he knew you were good."
"Jesus, Ann. I was just trying to pay attention. He was a bottomless well, and I wanted to draw every drop."
"Why do you think he loved you? With him gone, you are now the world's best beginner." She kissed me.
"I'm going to end up teaching a little. I didn't want that."
"Are you going to work out with the Sensei?"
"No, that wouldn't do. I'm working with one of his students." I then related the story of how I chose Edward.
"Edward, huh? And, you told him?"
"You don't think I should have?"
"He already told that other kid, the bozo. What if he tells his parents or Davis?"
"Then, I guess I'm out of luck for three weeks."
"God, you are dense sometimes, Robby. What about Edward? What's going to happen to him if you just disappear?"
"Let's go to bed. You're giving me a headache. This was supposed to be simple."
As we made love before sleeping, while she took me in her mouth and her finger moved behind my perineum, tapping gently at the door, she whispered to me, "Think of the fun you'll have when John arrives." That was all it took, and she greedily swallowed my spend.
The next afternoon I took the bus back to South Boston. No classes were on when I arrived at the dojo, but the number of students present was much larger than on the previous day. I wondered if maybe word had gotten out and the curious were now in attendance. In addition to the senior students wearing the hakama over their gis, a lot of junior students wearing just the gi, held closed by the white obi, were on the embujo as well. After I had bowed to the kamiza, I began to walk to the changing room. Everyone on the practice area stopped and bowed to me. This is getting fucking ridiculous. I returned the bow and continued to the changing room.
I had noticed the group of boys, including Aiden and Edward, that I had met yesterday among the students on the crowded embujo. As I changed into my gi with the embroidered kanji characters for Abe-sensei's dojo on its collar and the old, dark blue hakama he had given me (as he had given me almost everything important in my youth), I decided to straighten this mess out. I walked purposefully out of the changing room and to the embujo, where I looked to the senior instructor for permission to enter. He didn't know what to do as I waited until I raised my eyebrows and then he bowed to me. I returned the bow and as I walked onto the practice area, he called out, "Seiza!"
The place was crowded enough that there were two rows of students facing me. Edward was in the back row, and Aiden was in the front near the beginning of the right side of the line. I turned to face the shomen, the front wall, into which the kamiza was recessed. I sat, and the senior instructor called, "Shomen ni rei!"
We bowed to the kamiza. I turned and sat in seiza facing them. Davis-sensei was nowhere to be seen. The instructor shouted, "Sensei ni rei!"
I bowed to the students, aware that I was both a person and a part of a ritual for them. I would have to be careful to avoid disrespect to the ritual, something the Old Man would have found inexcusable. When they had completed their bow, I sat quietly for a moment and then said, "You are a credit to your dojo and your teacher. I am a visitor seeking shelter, and you have treated me with respect and concern…" I looked at Aiden "…as you should treat all strangers and friends who enter under your roof. If you are uchi-deshi, please raise your hand."
None of them raised a hand. This dojo had no inner students, resident students who worked closely at all hours with the Sensei. I thought the fact sad, but not many dojos outside of Japan had inner students. "In a moment, I will be happy to show you some of what my teacher gave me, but since you don't know me, I would answer a few questions if you have any."
No one spoke for a few minutes until Edward, bless him, asked, "Would you tell us about your teacher?"
"Stand up, please."
Edward nervously stood, and everyone looked at him. I nodded, and he resumed his seat. "Abe-sensei was maybe two inches taller than you. He practiced Buddhism and cultivated the great quiet which made him almost invisible to those who tried to attack him. Until the day he left the embujo for good, shortly before he died, he was never where I expected him to be when I tried my best attacks on him. He was the world's best beginner, always hoping that I would find him when I attacked. Buddhism is about compassion, and he was the most compassionate human I have ever known to young students and even to those who tried to attack him.
"The forms and techniques of your practice are like a storehouse that shelters what's really important. Once, he gave me a haiku by the great poet Masahide that says, 'kura yakete sawaru mono naki tsukimi kana,' storehouse burnt down — now, I can see the moon. You should try to find out what the moon meant in Masahide's day and why the destruction of the storehouse can be good fortune."
I stopped because I thought I might be boring them, but they looked at me expectantly. "He was compassionate because he was fully human — curious and unconventional, though serious in his practice. He told me once that I irritated him as much as he had irritated his teachers, at least two of whose pictures are hung in your kamiza. I was fatherless, angry, and different; he showed me how to let the anger dissipate so that I could redirect those who tried to harm me, and he convinced me that my differences were less important than my similarities to everyone else. Above all, he was unafraid to make mistakes. He didn't much care what his practice looked like to others; he cared about the heart of his practice. It's why he translated the name of our koryū as the method of the willow's true heart." I looked at Aiden again. "Your heart is everything, and everything you do is a reflection of your heart." He quickly looked away from me.
I saw some of the younger students beginning to fidget a bit and switched from seiza to the informal cross-legged posture. They all followed my lead, and we spent five more minutes talking about my attitude in practice and whether I had ever had to defend myself. What seemed to impress them most was that I spoke Japanese. "Now, let's work."
I demonstrated a few basic techniques with the senior instructor present, trying to show the students that everything depended on their state of mind during an attack; they should feel the attacker's approach, and if they were worrying about what they should do, they were lost. The instructor knew the techniques in his skin, but not deep in his bones. I suggested that we are never alone in combat but are in a dance and should never ignore our partners. We don't so much commit jujutsu on others as work with them to find a good way for both of us — or sometimes several of us. Then with a junior instructor, I demonstrated a kata or pre-arranged form of advanced techniques including atemi-waza or striking techniques and shime-waza or strangulation techniques.
Finally, looking at Aiden, I asked for the three senior students to have randori or free practice with me in front of the others. As the Old Man had taught me by example, I watched quietly and subtly provided places that seemed vulnerable. I pretty much had them running into each other because they couldn't find me. At the end, they were shaking their heads as we bowed to each other.
We closed the ninety-minute class with the usual formalities, and I had discharged my responsibility as a visiting teacher. Before free practice ended, as I prepared to leave the embujo, Aiden approached me. "I'm sorry, North-sensei."
"Thank you, but you don't need to apologize to me." I looked at Edward, standing at my side. Remembering that my teacher had never shirked his responsibility to point to the truth, I quietly told Aiden, "Your apology should be as public as your error. You are a senior student." Gesturing to the others on the embujo, I continued, "They look to you as an example. What kind of heart are you showing them?" The experience was like hearing the wisdom my mother spoke to me in my youth falling out of my own mouth — in a word, uncomfortable. Renshi, indeed.
Aiden bowed to me without saying anything to Edward.
The days were burning up in Ann's work and my practice and our passion, and John would join us in a couple of days. I had asked Edward if there were times we could practice when Aiden and his crew weren't at the dojo. We started working in the morning shortly after the hall opened. Apparently, Aiden wasn't a morning person. Mornings were nice because the place wasn't very crowded, and in addition to working with Edward, I was able to talk a little with Davis-sensei. In fact, he asked if he could work with me one night after the dojo officially closed, and I told him I'd be honored to stay one night.
One morning when we were the only ones on the embujo and as Edward and I stretched before starting, I sensed that he wanted to talk but was reluctant. "So, kohai, what's on your mind?"
"I hope you won't get mad at me, but the day you first came, I sort of told Aiden that you were — you know."
"I think I do. Why would I be angry? I didn't ask you to keep it a secret."
We were seated on the embujo with our legs straight out before us, reaching with our hands toward our feet grasping our ankles and trying to get our heads to touch our knees. "No, but I should have asked you. I haven't told anyone else. Anyway, he didn't believe me."
"Do you usually tell him the truth?"
"Well, I told him he was an asshole once. That didn't work out too well," my younger brother said with a smirk.
I laughed, and said, "You know what I mean."
"No, you're the only one I've ever told I'm gay."
"When I was your age, I didn't think it was anyone else's business that I liked guys as well as girls that way. I never wore a sign or anything, but if someone asked me, I was honest because Abe-sensei helped me understand that my sexuality wasn't a defect. It was a part of my basic nature that I didn't choose and couldn't change. He wasn't interested in who I loved or had sex with; he was interested only in my heart."
"Yeah, but I suppose you were going out with girls, and nothing about you would make people suspect."
"And you think you do make people suspect?"
"I must. A lot of guys give me grief."
"First of all, these guys don't have any idea of whether or not you're gay. They see a target, and calling you gay is a way to try to embarrass you. You have no reason to be embarrassed about your nature. If you hadn't told me, I wouldn't have known for sure. You're right, though. I had it easier than you do, because guys like Aiden saw me with girls a lot."
"I haven't told my parents. If I tell Aiden, they'll find out. You think I should tell him?"
"I think you should have a good reason for anything you do. One good reason might be that telling him would make you feel better; another might be that you want to let him know you're not afraid of him. But, you have to be prepared for the consequences. When I told Ann, my girlfriend, I thought she'd be disgusted and dump me. It turned out that she had just been waiting for me to tell her. What do you think your parents would do if they knew?"
"I don't know. They're pretty liberal, I guess, and I've never heard them say anything bad about gay people."
"Maybe they're waiting, as Ann was. How important is learning the method of the willow's true heart to you?"
"I love it. I'm still scared of a lot of things, but not as many as I used to be. Sometimes, when I just let things happen, the movements feel perfect. I want to be able to feel that all the time."
"My teacher would have admired you, kohai. You're a good man. Today, we're going to work on a sutemi-waza. If you use it against Aiden, you will surprise him deeply."
Sutemi-waza is sometimes translated as sacrifice technique. Voluntarily going to the ground during a fight is dangerous, but if done properly the technique can confuse and startle an opponent. You just have to be sure that he is imbalanced before you make the move. I asked Edward to make a head-on attack and as he did I slid down toward him on my back. He pitched forward over me, and I used one of my legs to block his, sending him ass over tea kettle onto his back. I then rolled over my shoulder and onto him placing him in a choke hold. He slapped the mat signaling his submission, and I let go.
He had seen the technique before and had it used on him. He jumped up and said, "You disappeared, and you didn't try to force me over. That was so cool." I loved his excitement.
"We'll work on it, and perhaps it will come in handy when you work with Aiden."
As we bowed to each other to end our session, he told me, "I think I'll tell him."
I shrugged, as the Old Man had often shrugged at my pronouncements.
I took the bus back to the Medical Center and had lunch and then dinner with Ann. I had agreed to work with Davis-sensei that evening, so instead of driving home with Ann, we had arranged that she would pick me up at the dojo later. I arrived in the dark just as the last students were leaving. Davis welcomed me, locking the door behind us. I walked back to the changing area while he remained in the hall. I knew this exercise would be delicate and hoped that he was more skillful than I was, but from the way his senior students worked I feared not. I remembered the Old Man saying that after he died, I and the others would be all that was left to show that he had lived. Want to know about the teacher? Look at the students — not their proficiency, but at their hearts.
When I came onto the embujo, Davis-sensei was seated in seiza facing the shomen and the kamiza. I joined him and we sat in silence for a few minutes. This was a good sign. He broke the silence, asking, "Well, what do you think of the place?"
We were equals, and I would treat him as an equal. "I find your hall well-run, and your students have been uniformly polite to a stranger."
"That doesn't really answer the question, does it?"
"No. I suppose not."
"Look. I'm older than you, but you've been doing this as long, or longer, than I have. When I told my teacher that you were here, he told me that it was an opportunity that I would never see again. Be honest with me."
From somewhere in the marrow of my bones where he would always reside, I felt the Old Man leap up. He wasn't as much speaking through me as standing aside laughing a contented laugh, almost as if this circumstance was the one for which he had invested in me. "Every dojo reflects its master. Your students are technically pretty good, but they could be much better if someone were paying attention to their hearts."
"I've heard a lot from my students about heart over the last few days. Go on."
"If I had behaved toward younger and newer students the way some of your senior students do, Abe-sensei would have put me through the grinder of his loving correction." I smiled.
"I think that the boys need to learn how to take good-natured joking. They can't be strong if they take every comment to heart."
"Well, good-natured joking doesn't seek to humiliate and frighten a brother, younger or older. I find the homophobic comments used by some of the older boys distasteful."
He shook his head in obvious disagreement. "Are you saying that you don't have a problem with…gays in the dojo?"
At least he hadn't said fags or queers. "If my teacher had such a problem, I'd never have been able to practice."
He was genuinely startled. "I thought you said you were visiting your girlfriend."
"I am. Sexuality has a lot of flavors. Our art is not a religion, at least not as I learned it. If people have great hearts, their sexuality shouldn't be an issue. Bullying is not a sign of a good heart, and behavior like bullying is inexcusable toward one's brothers or anyone for that matter. If a teacher doesn't tend to his students' hearts, what's the point? Abe-sensei would have been appalled, and I am appalled.
"If you allow that kind of behavior, you encourage the older ones to put the younger or weaker at risk. Aiden is polite to my face because you told him to be. If I hadn't come in with a bunch of paper in my hands, I'd have met the real Aiden, who's been told how good he is so often that he can't see how much he has yet to learn. He's not a bad kid, but someone needs to sit his ass down; that someone should be you." All the while, I was looking at Davis and could see the tension increase in his shoulders and neck.
He frowned and then said, "Well, I asked for honesty."
He rose and bowed to signal the beginning of our practice. In my youth, anger about our discussion would have colored my practice with Davis, but now there was only the abiding silence that the Old Man had helped make mine. Perhaps our discussion had disturbed him or perhaps he sought to see whether a queer could be as good as he had been told I was both by his teacher and his students; whatever the reason, he was not very subtle in his work with me. Davis-sensei was taken to school for ninety minutes.
When we left the embujo, he said, "You called us equals. That was a lie. I've never felt a touch like yours. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, what a man your teacher must have been." I smiled because he understood that I was a dim reflection of my teacher, and he understood that the opportunity to work with Abe-sensei had vanished. When the student is ready, the teacher will appear, even if the teacher is a visitor dimly reflecting true greatness.
"I hope I'm still welcome here. If you'd rather not have someone like me in your dojo, I won't return."
"No. I'll think about what you've said. Thanks for the work; I learned a lot. I hope we see you tomorrow."
"Oh, deshi, I'm not at all sure. He didn't kick me out. Maybe he'll put a stop to the crap his star is dishing out, maybe not."
"Let's get you home to bed. We have to get John late tomorrow morning."
I sighed at the mention of his name. I badly wanted to see him and to more than see him. John had decided to fly from NYC into Logan. He had offered to take the T from the airport, but we had insisted on picking him up; we wanted to see him as quickly as possible. The rest of the drive home was quiet. In our bedroom Ann put on "Vissi D'arte" from Tosca, sung by Montserrat Caballé, and stroked my back, and as sleep took me, I was surprised at how tense I was.
In the morning, I worked with Edward again. He now had a nice repertoire of sutemi-waza. He commented at how paying attention to his state of mind as we practiced was helping him. As we finished our shortened session, Aiden and his little coterie came in, and I was pleased that Edward didn't seem anxious at their arrival. I changed into street clothes and by the time I emerged from the changing area, Ann was waiting and, I was surprised to see, conversing with Aiden. Ann is blond and blue-eyed, an exemplar of her Danish ancestry; she's very attractive, and, as I watched Aiden, I became aware that the twerp was trying to flirt with her. Oh, you poor little man. You have no idea how bad an idea that is.
As I approached them, I saw Ann touch Aiden's chest with her index finger and heard her say, "Sorry, your heart is small and doesn't really interest me." Then she looked beyond Aiden to the embujo and, pointing to Edward, said, "Now, his heart I find interesting. Could you introduce us?"
I interrupted their exchange, "I'll introduce you, sweetness." Aiden looked at me as if I had confirmed his belief that I was straight. I said to Aiden, "We can't stay long; we have to pick up my boyfriend." His face fell, and he looked from Ann's face to mine.
Ann told him, nodding to me, "He has the best heart I've ever known."
Edward had been quietly watching Aiden and Ann from across the hall, and I motioned to him to join us. When he walked up, I put my hand on his shoulder. "Ann, this is Edward, my kohai in this dojo. He's been helping me."
She bowed to Edward. "I am honored to meet you, Edward. Robert doesn't call many men kohai. You're in a small and select company."
Edward blushed and looked at his feet.
"We need to get to Logan, Robert. Nice to meet you, Edward. You, too…" She looked at Aiden apologetically.
"Aiden," the older boy said in a defeated tone.
Ann put her arm around my waist, and we both bowed to the kamiza before we headed to the airport. I asked her about her conversation with Aiden. "I think he expected me to lie down and spread my legs," she laughed. "What a tool! He really back-pedaled when I told him I was looking for you. Unlike you, he's a pack animal. He's Davis's star? Pathetic."
"I think you reacted perfectly."
We took Summer Street to the Turnpike and through the Ted Williams Tunnel to the airport, a trip of twenty minutes at this time of day. After circling the terminal a couple of times, we spotted John. I thought it odd that another guy was standing very close to him. As Ann pulled to a stop curbside, she looked at me and shrugged.
I jumped out and opened the hatch on the little blue Prius. John wheeled his carry-on over, and the other guy did the same. John grabbed me in tight embrace and then kissed me on the mouth as he usually did when meeting after an absence. "Damn, Robby, it's good to see you."
He stepped back and grabbed the other guy by the hand. "Robby, this is John." He searched for disappointment in my expression, but found only joy. My friend and lover John was the sweetest boy I had ever known — and a fine athlete. We had become friends and intimate in junior high school, long before he came out. I had been outed by someone I thought my best friend, and John and I had forged a tentative relationship over the years as he struggled to overcome his Catholic religious training and his parents' disapproval. It wasn't until he went away to college that he blossomed. He loved Ann, and he loved me. He told Ann that she was the only woman he had ever enjoyed sex with — just not as much as he did with men. He played with us because he knew I loved being with the two of them and because he knew we loved him.
Now, it was clear that he had found what he long wanted — someone to share his life as Ann shared mine. I was so happy, I almost cried as I gave the new John in our lives a hug. "I'm so happy for you both, and I don't even have to learn a new name. Come on and meet Ann."
On the way back to the house, we heard their story, and it became clear to me that they loved each other deeply. Ann looked across at me as we were stopped at a traffic signal, and I could see her concern for me. Our relationship with our John was changed, but I think she saw that I was unreservedly happy for our boy. By the time we were at the house, we were already captivated by the new John. We got them squared away in the guest room and then went out to dinner.
Back at the house, after burning through a couple of bottles of wine, we gave up the fight to stay awake. John and John were in their room, and Ann and I were hanging on to consciousness. "Are you okay?"
I turned my head to her and answered, "I'm great. He's so happy."
"Yeah, but our bed's emptier than we thought it'd be."
"Contrary to popular opinion, I find the present occupancy of our bed perfectly satisfactory."
"Good answer, Sensei." She cuddled me and we drifted off.
Before we went out for a day of wandering around Boston, I asked the Johns if they would come to the dojo in the morning. John, the old friend, had filled the head of John, the new friend, with all manner of bullshit about my practice and my teacher, and he was anxious to see what jujutsu was all about. We dropped Ann off at the Medical Center and used the car to get to the hall. Parking wasn't a problem this early, and I ushered them into the dojo, bowing to the kamiza as I crossed the threshold. Davis-sensei was watching the few students there as we entered. I bowed to him, and when he came over, I introduced him to the Johns. He was assiduously polite, although I was certain that he thought them a gay couple. They were my guests, however. I left Davis and my friends talking and changed into my gi and hakama. When I emerged from the changing area, Davis was gone, probably in his office. Before stepping onto the embujo, I checked with the Johns to see how their chat with Davis went.
"He was very polite, but I don't think he sees many gay couples here."
I smiled. "You didn't start making out in front of him, did you?"
"You asshole. Of course not," John answered, "although sometimes when I look at John, it's hard to resist."
I got them seated in a couple of metal chairs so that they could watch. Edward was patiently waiting for me. He and I worked for forty-five minutes before he finally asked, "Are they a couple?"
"Hard to tell isn't it?"
"No — I mean, not really."
"They're in love. I hope you will be one day."
We went back to work. I had been teaching Edward some rudimentary Japanese, trying to give him a feel for the plasticity of the language. He was a quick study. As we worked, Aiden and his friends came in and went to the changing area, passing the Johns on their way. They looked at them, and they could see what Edward saw but didn't have anything negative to say. When they returned to the embujo, waiting until I gave them permission to enter, they began to work with each other. Edward had told me that they had pretty much stopped torturing him. In fact, they weren't having much to do with him. I looked at Edward and moved my head toward Aiden.
Edward bowed to me and walked up to Aiden. Aiden stopped what he was doing and stared at the smaller boy. Edward said, "Onegai itashimasu." Aiden stared at him with puzzlement.
I told Aiden, "He's just asked, in a very polite way, if you would practice with him."
Aiden, with a smile, said, "Sure."
"That's not the right response when someone uses that phrase. He's really suggesting the hope that your practice together will be fruitful and that it will produce a lasting benefit. The form Edward has used is the form a younger brother would use to an older, more experienced brother. The correct response is to bow."
A startled Aiden turned to Edward and bowed. After returning the bow, Edward said quietly, "You've been right all along. I'm gay. I just want to be clear before we begin."
Edward let Aiden toss him around a bit, but now he could take the falls without much punishment, a fact not lost on Aiden. He cheerfully accepted Aiden's aggression. Finally Aiden made a frontal attack and found himself catapulting over a supine Edward who blocked Aiden's leg and then rolled onto Aiden and applied the proper choke hold. At first Aiden struggled but ultimately had to surrender by slapping the mat. Aiden's friends stood by goggle-eyed. Edward released Aiden and the taller boy tried again, expecting the same technique from Edward, but instead found himself propelled by Edward's foot over the supine smaller boy. Again the technique was quickly followed by a choke hold. Aiden was mortified that the little queer had taken him down decisively not once but twice.
I prepared to intervene, but to my utter surprise, Aiden bowed to Edward. "You'll have to teach me how to do that. I couldn't feel where you were."
I told Aiden, "Occasionally our younger brothers teach us something of value." I bowed to Aiden, and said, "I thought I caught a glimpse of a worthy heart there. Abe-sensei might actually have given you some time. I have only a couple of days remaining with you, but I would be happy for you to work with Edward and me."
Aiden bowed to me and then said to Edward in a voice audible to everyone on the embujo, "I apologize for treating you badly and for calling you names. I'll do better."
After the morning practice, I changed and walked to the Johns. I indicated that Edward should join me and nodded to include Aiden in the invitation. Both of the boys left the embujo and joined us. "Kohai and Aiden, this is one of my dearest friends, John, and his partner, also John." Then, I kissed both men on the cheek. Edward smiled and Aiden didn't flinch. Both boys bowed to the men, and almost at the same time, said, "Thank you, North-sensei."