With squinting eyes that hinted malice, the ostentatious young man cocked his head to one side. “Are you actually challenging me, old man?”
“Absolutely, amigo,” I chimed. “I want my rematch. Now put on those gloves and get in that ring, and let me show you how a real man fights.”
Standing next to the disrespectful aggressor and wearing a Sons of Anarchy shirt, the athletic girl with black hair and eyes cooed at my assertion and smirked towards her male companion. “Oooo…he’s talkin’ shit at you, Octavio.”
Looking to her and then back at me, Octavio flashed a devilish grin in my direction. “Look at this cocky old motherfucker, Ana. He’s too old and stupid to know when to quit. Why do we even put up with this guy?”
I reached out my hand, and laughing, Octavio hooked my thumb with his and shook my hand vigorously. “I love you too, Octavio,” I joked with a chuckle.
After only living in Little Peru for a few months, Rhonda had discovered the firehouse on one of her excursions. She had a particular knack for exploration that made me give more credence to reincarnation, in that she must have been David Livingstone in another lifetime. On this particular sortie to attack her ignorance of our immediate area, she had discovered the gym while talking to the hunky firemen (which seems to be a perpetual aphrodisiac for heterosexual women), and she had reported such news back to me. (Consequently, she had likely disappointed the firemen, who had hoped that her sweaty ass would make an appearance instead of mine.) So, not knowing what to expect, I had arrived at the gym one weekend in late spring and found a gym entirely to myself…except for one young man who was hitting a heavy bag in the corner, next to a small boxing ring.
Without being prompted and with the optimistic confidence that bridles the gallivanting trot of youth, the tanned rapscallion who sported a small mohawk walked over to me and introduced himself as Octavio Salgado. After only conversing for a few minutes, I learned that he was still in high school and that he was stuck between two options for his life: being a drummer for a punk band and being a MMA fighter. As I came to know him more in the coming weeks, I learned that these weren’t simply childish notions of fancy. He had actually formed a modestly successful punk band that had opened for popular local acts, and he had won two teenage tournaments for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. (I would have addressed him as the modern-day Lloyd Dobler, but as I’ve learned with the quickening advance of time, your humorous analogies become less funny and only more anachronistic with each passing year.) Eager to display his skills, he introduced me to various martial arts, and having a natural propensity for teaching (since he also trained his cousin Ana in the ways of BJJ), it became a weekly ritual for all three of us to rendezvous at this gym, where he would train his cousin in grappling and where he would train me in striking (i.e., boxing).
With an endurance that seemed limitless, I came to appreciate his punishing training and sparring that had left me in a physical condition only matched perhaps by my teenage years. On top of being physically fit, he had a certain wit about him, and weal or woe, he seemed to face each moment with a certain amount of zealous determination. He was unapologetic and tenacious, and unwavering in the slightest, he expected the same from you. Much like the other kids of Little Peru who I had met and come to admire (and unlike my encounters with wealthy spoiled children found along the riverbanks), such dreamers were determined to make something of themselves with their own bare hands, despite the impoverished predicament beset by their parents. He had the stance of a young man determined to protect a spark that the world seemed bent on huffing out in one dreadful breath. He loved listening to 80s hair bands and metal music, and he could care less what his peers thought of his tastes. It’d be safe to say that I liked him immediately from the very start, and when around him, I couldn’t resist that particular avuncular compulsion to strangle anything or anyone who would threaten such pristine hope (or, perhaps in some subconscious way, a memory of my younger self).
“So, old man,” Octavio began, “Did you just want to do some conditioning and some weights? Or did you want to do more drills so that we can get to some sparring?”
I considered my options for a few moments. “What about you and Ana? I thought that she had a match next week that you were helping to train her for?”
Ana made a pfff sound while rolling her eyes. “We already trained, but it’s not necessary. Since when does a Dominican bitch outmatch a Cuban one?”
“I can’t argue with that one,” Octavio agreed, obviously also proud of his Cuban heritage. “I’ve heard her talk smack about Ana. If only her mouth matched her hands. She’d probably win if there was some free food involved. Stupido negro.” He gave a quick wink. “Hey, you’re from the South. You know what I mean.”
As I had come to learn in my travels, there’s always the need for class systems, so that one group could look down on another. Little Peru was no exception. After talking to more than a few people around town, I had become aware that the general consensus placed Cubans close to the top (giving themselves the surname Jews of the Carribbean) while Dominicans were placed somewhere close to the bottom. (In somewhat of a departure from the rest of their families, Octavio and Ana also seemed to more strongly identify themselves as white.) It wasn’t the correct stance to take…but if different races adopted different cultures as their modus operandi, perhaps it was the intermediary step to an eventual post-racial world. Baby steps are better than nothing. More importantly, though, they were young. I couldn’t hold such ignorant opinions against such children, for I could remember a time when I had made such poor decisions. They were smart enough to eventually figure such things out, through the same mental stumbling that we all must endure in order to assess the general truth of things. Eventually, they would learn.
“Woah, woah, woah,” I emphasized, using my hands to mimic the application of a brake. “Don’t look at me that way. Not everyone south of the Mason-Dixon line is a racist pig like you two degenerate bastards.” I motioned my head towards the boxing ring. “How about we warm up and get to some sparring?”
Octavio clapped his hands excitedly. “Your funeral, old man! Let’s have some fun!”
As they walked in tandem with me towards the boxing ring, I spoke to both of them in confidence. “Hey…can I ask you guys something?” They both voiced their consent. “You guys grew up here, and you’d know better than anyone. So…is there anything about Little Peru that’s a little off? Any dark secrets that somebody like me wouldn’t know about it?”
Octavio looked past me and at Ana inquiringly before answering. “What do you think? Should we tell him?”
Peter Bolton is the author of Blowing the Bridge: A Software Story and has also been known to be a grumpy bastard on occasion.