The Boxer

            Yi held his keys in his hand, ready to leave, but Crystal was blocking his way.

            “You’re lying,” she said.

            “Sweetheart,” he said. “I’m on my way to meet Alberto. We can talk when I get back.”

            “I called the office yesterday. Alberto said you hadn’t been in all day.”

            Yi refrained from jangling his keys in frustration; Madeline despised tardiness. “He’s right, I wasn’t. I was on-site with the contractors, would you like to call them too?” 

            Crystal was silent now, a good sign. 

            “Look, this Oakland project is a big deal, and the next few weeks are going to be busy. I need you to understand.” He took a step closer and put an arm around her, brought her in. “We’re better than this, aren’t we?” he said. He tilted her head and gave her several light kisses; she relaxed then, and softened up against him. He gave her one final kiss, moved her to the side, and walked out to the garage. 

            They lived in a small house a few blocks north of Golden Gate Park; on a whim he decided to take a scenic route through the park. He would definitely be late now, but the clash with Crystal had left a bad taste in his mouth. 

            He rolled the windows down and felt the breeze on his face, the wash of cool eucalyptus; he had lived in the city for three years already but it still felt like a blessing every day. Yi took several deep breaths, trying to get himself into a good mood before seeing Madeline again. He coasted up and down the hills, marveling at the golf course and the bison paddock, the expansive meadows with Frisbee-flinging youths. 

            An ice cream truck lumbered ahead, slowing down traffic; Yi followed in the wake of its mechanical song. The children appeared in swarms and Yi pulled over to watch them. He searched the swirl of miniature limbs and painted faces for his own daughter, an instinct he could never quite shake, not even with the knowledge that Cordelia was an adult now, tall and willowy and hardened. The children negotiated, lined up, screamed. Yi smiled as he watched, feeling a great tenderness for their joy, a kinship to their exhilaration. 

            By the time he got to the airport, Madeline was waiting by the curb with her suitcase. He got out of the car to put it in the trunk. 

            “You’re late,” she said. Her flight from New York had landed earlier than expected. Madeline was dressed sensibly, in loafers, jeans, and a peach-colored blazer, but with an innate chicness that had always been her gift. Yi had not seen her since their last court date, and he had to admit, from the looks of it, that the divorce had been good for her.

            “Long time no see,” he said. Yi turned in the driver’s seat for a better look at her. “You look great. Really.” Her skin still stretched smoothly over her cheekbones and jaw, and the lines around her eyes and mouth were faint, just enough so that one took her seriously.

            Madeline buckled her seatbelt. “I’ve been waiting for over an hour. Just drive. No funny business.” 

            Yi grinned. He had missed her phrasebook English. “I brought you an ice cream.”

* * * * *

            “You brought your ex-wife here. To stay.” Crystal’s face was cold with rage. 

            “Just for a few nights. I need her to review some bids.”

            “And you didn’t tell me about it first.”

            “You’re making a big deal out of this.” Yi glanced at Madeline, who was watching the scene with a studied impassivity; it was not the impression that he had hoped to make.

            Crystal started to stutter. Yi went to comfort her, but she pushed past him and left, slamming the door.

            “You said you had an empty rental for me,” Madeline said.

            “It was booked this morning.” That much was true; Alberto managed his properties without him now, and by chance the apartment he was going to house Madeline in had been inconveniently booked for a week’s stay by tourists. He felt a surge of irritation at Crystal, that she had caused such a stir in front of Madeline, had forced him to plead with her. “Don’t worry about it. I have a spare bedroom. You have a ticket for the end of week. She’ll get over it.”

            Madeline sighed. “Go find the girl. I’m going to hit the hay.”

            Yi had a hunch where Crystal was; he drove down Balboa to her old neighborhood on the outskirts of UCSF. She had graduated the year before from the film program and she often bypassed the lawns of Golden Gate Park to hang out on the campus quads instead. He pulled up in front of an apartment building a few blocks away from the university and called her.

            “I don’t care,” Crystal said. 

            “Listen,” Yi said. “I didn’t want to upset you. I was going to give her one of the rentals but they were all booked. I just need her to go over some contracts for the Oakland project this week.”

            “Do whatever you want.” 

            “Come home. I need you.” This was true too; Yi had never felt it more than now. “Please.” Crystal hung up. Yi drove around the block, looking eagerly into the apartment where her former roommates still lived. On his third pass, the blind had been drawn shut and the lights turned off. 

* * * * *

            The next morning, Yi woke up in the grip of déjà vu. Crystal had not come home, and from the stillness in the house, he knew that Madeline had not yet woken. He made himself choke down a glass of the chemical dye prescribed by his doctor, changed into workout clothes, and went quietly to the basement. 

            He had been a boxer many years ago, and on a whim, had recently installed a training space in his basement. Yi had taken down all the partitions, stripped off the wood paneling, and replaced it with floor mirrors that ran the length of the back wall. A professional-grade punching bag was suspended from the ceiling and he layered the floor with a thick, interlocking puzzle mat; along another wall, he had a rack built to store free weights, boxing gloves, and punching pads. He had it all done in about a week, hiring under the table some of the subcontractors that worked on his other properties, and he paid them overtime to finish the job quickly. Taken with a sudden impatience, one night he had even stripped off his suit and hung the rest of the drywall by himself after the contractors left for the night. Crystal had watched him with a mixture of admiration and amusement. 

            “What a man,” she had said. He had smacked her lightly on the butt, leaving behind a plaster-dust handprint. Now, as Yi sat down to lace up his sneakers, he wondered if the comment had been droller than he thought. In the mirror, he saw more than just an aging boxer, something worse—vanity. He felt the foreign liquid roil in his stomach as he started on a set with his jump rope; he bit down on his lip and forced himself to continue: It was not vanity if he put in the work.

            Yi had asked Crystal to move in three months ago and they were still searching for the right rhythm for living together. Crystal was a barista at the coffee shop next to his office and they had started seeing each other only a few months before she moved in. He scanned the newspaper over bowls of homemade granola and fresh fruit at the cafe next to his office every morning, and one day he nearly choked when he discovered a note tucked under his fork. “Are you rich?” the note said. “You look like you are.”

            He wrote back one word only—Very—and left a $50 bill as a tip. As he was leaving, she came over and asked him out for a drink. “My treat,” she said, waving the bill in his face. “Turns out I’m rich too.” When she insisted on paying the tab that night, Yi let her. With Crystal, Yi could remember when life had been one limitless horizon, beyond which laid nothing but the promise of more. 

            What he had not expected was to fall as hard as he did for her. She was too brash, too punk rock, too at ease with sex in a way that both aroused and offended him; she collected tattoos and dyed the ends of her hair, but underneath the outlandish hairstyles and humorless tattoos, Crystal had a delicate, intelligent face with bright, blue eyes and slender, well-shaped limbs. He had been afraid, at the start, that she would remind him of too much of Cordelia, but instead he found that Crystal opened up a new space inside of him, one in which he did not have to face Cordelia’s silent acrimony or the shame of his divorce. Crystal’s unpredictability veered more toward joy than chaos, and the only rule he had for their relationship was no drugs.

            Yi had not expected Crystal to react the way she had at the sight of Madeline, but it confirmed for him a hidden sensitivity and respect for tradition that she kept buried. He thought about it as he finished his workout and went upstairs to make breakfast.

Madeline came into the kitchen as he was dividing up a pan of scrambled eggs between two plates. “Is your girl back?” She had slipped back into their native Cantonese, so Yi did too.

            “Not yet. She’ll come around.” Yi set a plate and silverware in front of her, then a cup of coffee. Milk, no sugar, he remembered. 

            “Aren’t you eating?” 

            “No,” he said. He placed the other plate in the microwave, to keep warm in case Crystal came home. 

“You’ve done well out here,” Madeline said, taking in Yi’s house. It was markedly different from the home they had shared during their marriage. After years of dealing Chinese antiques in the importing business they started together, Yi felt relieved by the modern Californian aesthetic; in all his properties, he insisted on cool shades of gray and white, granite and stainless steel, and clean, geometric lines. He prized the same austerity in his own home, and when she moved in, there had been a polite but firm negotiation with Crystal, who, in her youth, still felt an endless need for expression.

            “California’s been good to me,” he said. “Did you sleep alright?” 

            “Surprisingly.” 

            “How’s Cordelia?” 

            “She’s a prickly little thing. But you don’t call her anymore.”

            “She doesn’t pick up.”

            “Well, that’s something you two are going to have to work out. But she’s well. She’s happy.” Madeline swirled the remaining coffee in her cup and helped herself to a banana from the bowl on the table. “I suppose it’s nice that we can sit here like this.” 

            “I didn’t get a chance to thank you for coming,” he said. Yi’s stomach churned again; he could smell the contrast agent lingering in the back of his throat. 

            “So what’s on the agenda today? Can we look at the property site?” 

            Madeline had a formidable head for business, and at the time of the divorce settlement, they had opted to retain a waterfront property they owned together rather than sell it. Their relationship had stayed amicable, if business-oriented, in the years since, and he continued to rely on her savvy—and her investments—to grow his budding development company on the west coast. 

            “Madeline,” Yi said. “I haven’t been honest.”

            “Of course not,” she said dryly.

            “There’s no rush on the property. I called you here because I need a friend.”

* * * * *

            Yi had only boxed for three years, but even now, decades later, he still thought of himself as a fighter. He was tall, stocky, and in shape, even in his early 50s. The years that he spent boxing in Macau, firing up the gamblers into fits of delirium and despair, still seemed to him to the noisiest, the most saturated times of his life. He felt his muscles tensing as he mentally ran through the combinations of hooks and jabs that had been his most lethal, the ones that had driven him into an animalistic fury. 

            “Mr. Chen, please stay still,” he heard the technician say over the intercom. Yi forced himself to relax, to stop toying with the humiliating open-backed hospital gown. The scan was making him feel warm, unnaturally warm, as if from the inside out. 

            Madeline had stepped in, just as he had hoped. She read every word of instruction for the CT scan preparations; she measured out the next dose of the disgusting chemical contrast and watched him as he finished it; she felt with her own fingers the series of lumps that had mysteriously appeared one day, like alien vertebrae that had taken root along both sides of his neck. Although he had come to despise her pragmatism by the end of their marriage, he was comforted to know that she was now waiting patiently outside. 

            They had met when he first learned how to box. Yi had taken a job on the docks after finishing secondary school, and he was introduced to the sport through some of the other stevedores. Boxing was not a popular sport in Hong Kong, and Madeline was the only child of one of the few coaches in the city. She was not the most beautiful girl he knew, but she was the steeliest; she worked with her father at the gym every day, cleaning equipment, signing students in, and sometimes even in the ring, where she held punching pads for beginners, her footwork better than most. Her father, Li Wei, got a kick out of seeing her in the ring, using her to taunt his students into working harder. 

            After the scan was over, Yi dressed slowly, sat down on the bed, placed his hands on his knees and breathed. The room was white and sterile, except for a small clear, plastic cube on the counter with an artificial rose and a pen stuck in it. Someone knocked on the door, and the technician, a woman wearing bright red lipstick, peeked in. “Are you ready yet?”

            “Yes, of course.” It was jarring to him how rarely people smiled in this hospital. He followed her into a small office and sat where she indicated. The technician left, and after a moment, the door opened and Madeline came in, followed by Crystal. 

            “What are you doing here?” he said. 

            “She kept calling your phone. I thought I should answer,” Madeline said.

            “Why didn’t you tell me?” Crystal asked.

            “I didn’t want you to worry.” He felt a strong need to do something with his hands, anything, before he became angry. He picked up several paper clips from a small bowl on the desk and bent them straight. Crystal and Madeline stared at him. The door opened again and Dr. Sutter walked in. 

            “Mr. Chen,” she said. She was an older woman, her strawberry-blond hair streaked with white. “It’s good to see you again. Your wife and daughter?” She extended her hand to Madeline and then to Crystal. 

            “No,” he said. He threw the straightened paper clips onto her desk. Now all three were staring at him. 

            “Please sit,” Dr. Sutter said. When they were settled, she opened his file and spoke briskly. “The radiologist won’t be able to review your scans for another day or two, but we should know the results by the end of the week at the latest. Generally, growths on the salivary gland tend to be benign, it’s very rare that they are cancerous. If, however, that is the case, we will schedule you for a surgery as soon as possible—probably within the next two weeks.”

            Her voice shifted register then and she spoke more gently. “There’s a chance that, if they are tumors, the cancer can spread to the lymph nodes. If that’s what they are, we’ll want to get that in check right away. Try not to worry about that yet, though.” He chose to focus on the small pittance of kindness she had let into her voice.

            “Where would the surgery be held?” He heard Madeline ask.

            “That will depend on the urgency of the situation, but we have relationships with the top specialists in the city and we’ll get him taken care of right away.” They continued to talk about him as if he weren’t in the room but he no longer cared. His fingers were twitching again. He patted his pockets for his car keys before remembering that he had handed them over to Madeline while they kept him waiting for his scan, waddling around with his bare ass exposed.

            “Thank you, doctor.” Yi stood up. “I’ll wait for your call.” He turned and left, not bothering to shake the doctor’s hand. Madeline and Crystal followed him into the hallway.

            “Where are my keys?” Madeline gave them to him. He had not eaten in a day and a half and he was feeling woozy. “Crystal can give you a ride, since you two are so friendly now.” 

            In the car, Yi drove aimlessly for an hour before pulling into a fast-food drive-through. He usually ate well but now he no longer cared. He ordered a burger, fries, and a soda but the greasy, processed food on an empty stomach made him nauseous. Then he reclined his seat and laid back; rush hour was starting now, and he tried to block out the noise of city traffic. There was nowhere for him to be, nowhere for him to go. 

            He had not been ready to tell Crystal about it yet; it would have been embarrassing, and pointless. What did the young know about such things? How could she possibly talk to him about it? When they first started dating, she had shown up one night with a plastic baggie of desiccated vegetable matter—“shrooms,” she called them. He had refused to say such an undignified word, but he let himself be talked into eating them, his first time trying drugs of any sort. Within two hours, he was spooning Crystal from behind while she screamed I’ll never die, over and over again, as tears streamed silently down his face. Never again, he told her the next morning.  

            He felt the small bumps that had materialized on his neck. They were disturbingly solid, like ball bearings of various sizes that had somehow been slipped under his skin. When he could no longer ignore the queasiness in his stomach, he cracked the car door open and vomited onto the parking lot. 

* * * * *

            When Yi got home, he found Madeline and Crystal cleaning the kitchen together. They had cooked—or, more precisely, Madeline had cooked. The women looked up in surprise, as if he had come home earlier than expected and disrupted the flow of their conversation. 

            “We saved some dinner for you,” Madeline said. She took out several plates from the oven, still warm, and set a pot of rice on the table. Crystal had fallen silent, was not talking to him, not looking him in the eye. Madeline finished wiping the counter and left the room, saying that she was going to take a shower. 

            “You have a lot of explaining to do,” Crystal said. He was suddenly ravenous. 

            “Will you get me some chopsticks?” It had been years since he had eaten Madeline’s cooking. Crystal let out a sigh of irritation but went to the kitchen. They were simple dishes, what Madeline used to cook after coming home from work. Steamed egg with minced pork, spinach sauteed with garlic, poached shrimp with hot chili oil. They must have gone shopping, he realized; he and Crystal did not keep such food in the house. 

            “We need to talk,” Crystal tried again.

            “You heard the doctor,” Yi said. “There’s nothing to talk about until we hear the results.” He was devouring the food set before him. 

            “You lied to me. About so many things.”

            “I didn’t want you to be worried,” he said.

            “Is that why you brought her here without telling me?”

            “You two are getting along fine.”

            “That’s besides the point. I live here too.”`    

            “Listen. I take care of you. I take care of everything.” He slammed his bowl onto the table and stood up. “The way I see it, we have nothing to talk about.” He walked to the master bedroom and shut the door.

            In the attached bathroom, he drew a bath and locked the door. He heard the door to the guest room open, then murmurs. The front door opened and closed. The tinkling of china and silverware in the kitchen, followed by silence. He sank lower into his bath. He would have to check in with Alberto tomorrow morning; he hadn’t been to the office in almost a week. For now he just wanted to rest.

* * * * *

            Sleep, however, eluded him; he had dreamt about boxing again, as he often did now, and was unable to fall back asleep. After pitching about in bed for a few hours, alone for the second night in a row, he decided to head down to the basement. There was nothing to do but to work off the excess energy; he had never been one for loafing around, and time seemed especially precious now. 

            He was, for fun, working the bag in one-minute bursts. After the hot dinner and the long bath, he was almost back to feeling like himself again. Yi did not hear Madeline come down the stairs until she spoke. 

            “Crystal told me you started boxing again,” she said. She picked up the punching pads from the storage rack and slipped them on. “Let’s see if you’re still any good.”

            “Ha,” he said. “I think the question is, do you know what you’re doing?” 

            But of course she did; Madeline always knew, and it was something that he had depended on for survival, especially in those first few years after they immigrated to America. They had been married for less than a year then, and he quickly found out that where her heart should have been was nothing but a fine-grained grit. Despite knowing only enough English to realize when people were being unkind, she remained evenly keeled throughout multiple moves and several jobs, and even through the brief stint where they were living out of their car, a brand-new white Cadillac with leather interiors that Yi had foolishly purchased during a fit of pride and optimism. 

            And yet, they had done it, hadn’t they? They had purchased a house in a quaint, suburban town, built a solid business, and raised a beautiful, roaring daughter. True, there had been rough patches in those early days, back when life had been one long, frustrating ordeal and he had not yet learned to control his temper. But Madeline had stuck by him, and at the end of the day, no one could say that he had ever laid a finger on his daughter, not even once; as for his other transgressions, well, Madeline had long ago forgiven him for those. They had been through so much together, he and Madeline. Yi stopped swinging and she lowered the punching pads, her face flushed from the exercise. He pushed off his gloves, took a step closer to her, and placed a hand gently on her cheek. 

            “Why is it,” Madeline said, pulling away, “that you can never accept kindness for what it is? You just have to take everything you can.”

* * * * *

            Yi had once been a boxer with promise, and although he had started training too late, in a city that had no real interest in the sport, he had hoped, naively, that his career would one day take off. He trained religiously and sparred at every opportunity with visiting athletes from Britain or the Philippines, desperate to be discovered. Yi became the top fighter in his club, but to become a pro he needed a sponsor, someone who could help him leave Hong Kong. The best he could manage was to make a name for himself in Macau, fighting dirty in underground matches organized by mobsters. 

            It was through his training that he had gotten to know Madeline. She was the only woman ever at the gym; he saw her often but did not speak to her until he had already been training for quite some time. He was impressed by her coolness, had seen her in the corner casually wiping off the sweat and blood that flecked on to her. The first time she spoke to him was after a match; she handed him a towel and turned slightly so that she was not facing him.

            “You better quit the mob fights, Yi,” she said quietly. Her father didn’t allow his trainees to get involved with illegal matches. Yi knew that if he found out, he would be automatically banned from the club. 

            “How do you know about that?”

            “I’m here all day, I know what goes on. And you can imagine that if I know, it won’t be long until my father finds out.”

            “Well, what else would you have me do? There’s no opportunity here.”

            “Oh,” she said. “I don’t care what you do. I just thought I’d warn you.”

            It was the one thing that he had ever truly wanted in his life. And the mob fights, at the very least, were paying him handsome chunks of money. He would take the hour-long ferry from Kowloon to Macau on Friday evenings, stick out the fight, and accept his cash payout. Gamblers came for the savagery of boxing, not its elegance, but Yi had mastered both and he was their star. The other boxers were amateurs like him, of varying levels, and he could always tell by the looks in their eyes which ones stepped into the ring having already accepted a knockout as a foregone conclusion. With them, he was extra vicious; he had no sympathy for those without the courage to win.

            He reveled in the rush of celebrity and adrenaline, the rest of the weekend spent with friends in a hotel suite provided by the gangsters, gambling in the casinos and lavishing money on the dance girls in the bars. Yi became lulled by the constant flow of money, the charm of the crumbling Portuguese architecture; he had, at some point, started to consider himself immune to failure. He was the best, and he always came out on top in the fights. Madeline found another chance to speak to him again, a few months after the first.

            “Yi,” she said. “It’s time to quit.” 

            “Are you going to tell your father?”

            “No.”

            “Then leave me alone.”

            That week, he was matched with a retired heavyweight champion from Australia who outweighed him by twenty pounds. He knew he was in trouble by the end of the first round; the organizers wouldn’t pay anyone who didn’t last at least five, and he was already fighting purely to survive. Alone in his corner, Yi tried to think, but the crowd had been in a frenzy since the match started and he knew he had no choice but to get back into the ring. In the middle of the fourth, he was hit by a left hook that he saw coming but was too exhausted to dodge. He was knocked out cold and had to be revived by a doctor the mobsters kept on hand at the matches; he had barely made it out alive. 

            He hadn’t expected to be paid, but to his surprise, Chung, one of the organizers, stopped by his room afterwards. They had made a killing off the bets. 

            “Here’s your cut, Yi,” he said, throwing an envelope fat with cash on the table. “That was your last fight.” He was only 26 and already washed-up.  

            After he had healed, he went back to the club and cornered Madeline. “Did you know?” he asked her. 

            “Know what?”

            “You know what I’m talking about.” 

            “Are you stupid?” Madeline hissed. “How did you not know? Did you think those people were your friends?”

            Yi continued training, but he lost whatever hope he used to have; gone was the certainty in his steps and the hunger in his swings. He was distracted in the ring. Coach Wei noticed but never spoke to him about it; he was a kind man. Instead, he turned his attention to the younger members, who were still agile and ambitious. To soothe the sting, Yi turned his focus to Madeline and started going to the gym, more and more, to see her; if Coach Wei noticed, he chose not to say anything about that, either. A year later, he asked Coach Wei for Madeline’s hand in marriage; Madeline, who was tired of the gym, agreed.

* * * * *

            Dr. Sutter called earlier than expected; the radiologist had confirmed the worst: The lumps were tumors, ranging from three-eighths of an inch to one-inch long. Yi was to come in for a consultation immediately, with the surgery already scheduled for the following week. 

            Yi went to the consultation by himself; Crystal had been staying at her brother’s apartment in the days since their argument, and she remained vague whenever he asked her to come home. 

            “I just need some space right now,” she said.

            “Come back,” he said. “Madeline loves you. There’s nothing going on between us.”

            “It’s not that.”

            “Then what?”

            “Have you heard from the doctor yet?”

            Yi clenched his teeth. “No,” he lied. She would come home if Yi told her, he knew, but he was a man and he would not barter his body that way. 

            Madeline did not go with him either; she had already extended her plane ticket so that she could stay with him after the surgery and she needed the time to manage her own business, an insurance brokerage that she had acquired since the divorce. On the morning of the consultation, she received a phone call that she took in the guest room; she would be needed for a client call later that afternoon, it turned out, and Yi insisted that she stay home to take it. 

            He was kept waiting in the surgeon’s office for two hours before he was called in for his appointment; trying to keep himself entertained, he spent the time watching an older couple, in their seventies, bicker playfully.

            “Yolanda would make you fat,” the woman said.

            “That’s ok,” her husband said, patting his round belly. “I’m tired of unrealistic beauty standards.”

            “No husband of mine is going to marry a fat slob. Even if I am dead.”

            “Let’s put her on the shortlist.”

            “No, I’ll pick the shortlist and you can choose from there. Those are my conditions.” 

            “Alright, honey. You’re the boss.” He kissed her hand. “For now.” Yi envied how content they were just to wait together, for the surgeon and for whatever came after. 

            The consultation, once he was called in, was brief. The surgeon, Dr. Hinojosa, spent most of it murmuring at the backlit scans. 

            “Mr. Chen, this will be a sensitive surgery,” Dr. Hinojosa said. “The tumors lie directly on top of a facial nerve.” Yi nodded. 

            “Any damage to this nerve could result in facial paralysis.” Yi noticed how deftly he avoided attribution. “However, I am confident that there is a high chance of success. 

            “Before we finalize the surgery, I just want to make sure that you understand the risks.” What choice was there but to nod again? There was nothing he could do but bob his head, up and down, and keep watch for whatever blows life had coming for him. 

* * * * *

            When Yi came home, Madeline was reading on the couch, waiting for him. She got up and went to the kitchen to start dinner when she saw him. “How did it go?” she asked. 

            Yi put his keys down and took off his coat. “It was fine,” he said. He was tired of talking, tired of his body. These days it had a weight, it seemed, that dragged on everything he did.

            “Just fine?” Madeline asked from the kitchen. “What did the doctor say?”

            Yi settled himself into an armchair and leaned down to take off his shoes. Although he knew that the cancer was still in its early stages, his body frightened him; he moved slowly, not wanting to upset it. “He said it should be fine. Easy procedure. No expected complications.”

            “Well, that’s a relief.” Madeline came back into the living room with a glass of water for him. “You look peaked. Why don’t you rest while I make dinner?”

            He was touched by the gesture, but ill at ease; he felt again the sense of déjà vu that been haunting him since that first doctor’s visit. “How was your client call?” he asked, sipping the water slowly. There was something not quite right about the house.

            “What client call?” Madeline seemed confused.

            And then it struck him—Crystal had left, had taken her things. There was not much to miss in the living room—just some DVDs and decorative pillows, a calf-hair ottoman—but now he felt the absence of her as keenly as if the house has been ripped in half. 

            “Finish your water,” Madeline said quietly.

            “Crystal,” he said. “Where is she? Did you see her?” He took out his phone and tried, with shaking fingers, to pull up her number. 

            “She’s not going to pick up.” 

            An idea seeped into his brain. “You,” he said. “You did this.”

            Madeline watched him. “She came to me. She was unhappy. We had a long talk.”

            “Are you crazy? Is this your way of getting back at me?” A rage boiled up, but in his exhaustion, it evaporated before it could spill over. 

            “How could you make a child go through this? Cancer, surgery? Would you want this for Cordelia?”

            “I loved her,” he said limply.

            “No, you didn’t, Yi. You were just being selfish.”

            “She has nowhere to go.”

            “Don’t worry about it. I helped her out.”

            Yi looked at his ex-wife in admiration; she had really won this round. “You bitch.”

            She smiled wryly. “If there’s anyone who could understand how miserable you’ve made her, it would be me.”

* * * * *

            In the weeks after his last match in Macau, Yi struck up a tentative friendship with Madeline. Although she was surrounded by men, none of them paid much attention to her—partly out of deference to her father, and partly because she was not the type to attract their notice. Yi himself seldom had trouble with women—he had an athlete’s physique and the face of a general—and he, too, had never given her much thought up until then. She had a quietness that seemed to erase her, but what he had once thought of as mildness he now recognized as a mute ferocity, like nothing he had ever seen before, inside of the ring or out. 

            He had taken up the habit of chatting with Madeline after he was finished for the day, listening to her dissect the progress of the other boxers who trained there. He had grown to look forward to their talks; he found that she steadied him. That day, she was giving him notes on his latest match. 

            “You got soft after that last mob fight,” she admonished him. “You’re protecting yourself too much. No one ever became great by being careful, you know.” 

            “Madeline,” he said. “What if I want to be careful? What if there’s someone I want to take care of?”

            She stopped folding towels and looked up at him, unsure of what to say. Fighting she knew; flirting she did not. 

            “Will you be here tomorrow?” he asked. She nodded. “Then so will I.” 

            Yi called upon those early days of courtship often now, as if they were prayers. They were sitting in the parking garage of the hospital; Madeline had insisted on leaving the house with extra time to spare and the sun had not yet come up. They were watching the sky brighten by imperceptible degrees, and he placed a hand on hers. 

            “Do you remember?” he asked. They had passed the last few days in a fragile, bittersweet tranquility, taking long walks during the day and sitting together quietly in the evenings; Yi had never felt so tender in his life. 

            “Yes,” Madeline said. “I do.” 

            Yi now understood that the bulk of his life had already passed; along with the realization came a sense of wonder at how marvelous it had all been.

            “Listen,” she said. “I need you to be more aggressive right now. No more reminiscing. We’ll have plenty of time for that for later.” 

            Underneath the feather soft skin of her hand, Yi felt the angles and hardness of bone. Cordelia, their shared wonder, had the same delicate wrist and elongated fingers, and he knew that as long as Madeline was around, he would never have to worry about her.

            “You’ll be there when I wake up?” he asked. 

            “Of course I will.”      

            “You’ve always been there.” 

            She entwined her fingers with his and gave him a hard squeeze. “No funny business, Yi.”

            The feel of her touch lingered as he was prepped and wheeled into the operating room. Yes, for her, he would be a fighter; he would not be afraid. But as he stared up at the bright, surgical lights and waited for sleep to take him, he found himself slipping back into the dream he had so often now, where he was young again, a boxer in his prime. He was in the ring, surrounded by flashing lights, swinging again and again at an opponent whose face he could not see. And although the crowd roared and swelled for him, he knew that it was only a matter of time before the inevitable, finishing blow came, and that when it did, there would be nothing he could do but watch it coming. 

About the author

Joyce Li received a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Brooklyn College in 2018. She has been awarded scholarships, prizes, and residencies from Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts, Tin House Summer Workshop, the Norton Island Residency Program, the New York State Summer Writers Institute, and Brooklyn College. Her work has been published in Brooklyn Review, Exposition Review, and named a finalist for the 2019 Salamander Magazine Fiction Contest. She is currently working on a draft of her first novel, set in the Kowloon Walled City.

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