My favorite Karate Kid movie in the series was The Karate Kid Part II, where Daniel-san accompanies Mr. Miyagi to Okinawa to see his father who is “veddy sick.” While there, Daniel-san falls in love with the beautiful local girl named Kumiko who has long, gorgeous, flowing black hair (of course). After being taken hostage during her dance routine by the evil Chozen who was all, “You betrayed my honor,” Daniel-san has no choice but to fight him to the death. In true Karate Kid fashion, Daniel-san is able to dig deep and utilize a fancy move, winning him both the match and the girl.
But, my most favorite part of the Karate Kid II movie itself is when Kumiko invites Daniel-san to take part in the customary tea ceremony to signify that she had fallen in love with him. Unsure and nervous, Daniel-san loves and respects Kumiko so much he doesn’t want to mess up the special ceremony, turning the bowl nervously and looking to her for guidance. Finally, in the end, after she’s taken her cascading hair out of her bun and it falls all around her, he gently and lovingly kisses her from across the table, as romance is only romantic when the woman has long hair.
I would not have considered myself a romantic at the age of almost-ten, but boy oh boy, that scene sure did make me have butterflies, especially with Peter Cetera setting the tone in the background. I would go to bed and play “The Glory of Love” over and over, praying to God to send me someone like Daniel-san who would respect and honor me as much as he did Kumiko, and to declare his love for me.
But alas, God does indeed work in mysterious ways and chose, instead, to send over Jean-Guy.
It was the summer after the third grade and finally, my hair had grown out to an acceptable length; no one was calling me “Michael” or ditching me for candy bars anymore. I could put it up into a ponytail with the help of four or five barrettes (to reign in the shorter hairs), but it most certainly did not fall all around my shoulders when I took it out. Being summer time, my Swanton neighborhood was swarming with kids looking for fun. Mostly boys. So many boys. I had no choice but to constantly play sports all day long. It was the kind of neighborhood where kids would simply walk up and down the sidewalks or run across the street looking for each other. You knew who lived where, who had a decent backyard, whose parents were strict or not, and where everyone was (based on how many bicycles lay on the front lawn). I had a decent backyard that was surrounded by fence on all sides, and my parents were pretty laid back so we usually had a few bikes strewn around.
The boys who frequented my house the most were Travis, Tommy, Michael, Chris, and Eric. We would always start a game of soccer, baseball, hide-and-seek, tag, or dodgeball. I had everything we needed in the clubhouse that sat off of our garage, and we would play until dusk—until we could barely make out each other’s silhouettes running through the yard. In 1986, no one seemed worried about where their kids were, or getting West Nile Virus from mosquitoes, or getting poisoned by DEET in order to prevent West Nile Virus. Milling around my backyard trying to figure out teams, my little sister and her rat’s nest would sometimes come out and try to get in on the action. She would be giddy around all the boys, more interested in flirting with Michael or Chris than actually playing the game.
My mom and dad were always milling around the house on the weekends, raking or cleaning gutters, or vacuuming their cars. They weren’t really talking to each other today, but sometimes they did. Sometimes I would see them pass each other without so much as a glance, or I would come in from outside and feel their mutual silence meandering through the house—a stubborn silence. They would each talk to me or Erin, but not one another. Sometimes I’d hear them talking loudly and angrily inside, saying things like, “I’m just trying to make you happy!” or, “Nothing’s ever good enough!” and then they’d stop when I came in, and just not talk at all. I guess that was the best thing they could do when we were around. You can’t always pick and choose when to fight. So the tension was the same, just quieter, and I was glad to be busy outside.
Today, the game of choice was dodgeball, and Travis, Michael, and Eric were all here. They each made their way to my backyard from either next door or across the street, tossing their bikes to the grass as they jogged by my dad, hollering, ‘Hey Mr. Goodman’, or waving to my mom through the porch window. They didn’t see her slamming things around in there, or notice my father spend 45 minutes ferociously trying to fix the nozzle on the garden hose, but I did.
“Where’s Chris?” Michael asked, and Eric shrugged his shoulder.
“Not sure. I think he had to visit his aunt or something.”
Michael was the tallest of the three, with light hair, and he always had on an Adidas soccer shirt. Travis had a swath of thick, black hair, and was much shorter than Michael in addition to having one leg shorter than the other, which caused him to walk with a very slight limp. I thought it was kind of endearing. And Eric wore glasses and had auburn hair, but was still the most attractive of the three—maybe because he was the most polite and considerate to me. The three boys formed a small circle under our gigantic pine tree, assessing who was present and what should be our team formations. Sometimes, I felt less like one of the guys and more like the platform for which they could hang out. I was fine with either possibility.
I was on a team with Michael, so things were even—except when my sister would frolic over and sheepishly stare at the boys. Then we’d have to stop and tell her to get out of the way, although I noticed Eric would always lob the ball a lot less hard when she was around, which I thought was nice. After a good twenty minutes of us getting into our groove with the game, a kid from across the street came sauntering over. Jean-Guy. He wasn’t a regular at my house and didn’t really live in my neighborhood, but his grandmother did, and so we only ever really saw Jean-Guy when he was both visiting at his grandmother’s house and we were all home on the weekend.
A year or two older than me and most of my friends, Jean-Guy was around 12 or 13, which was a big difference in adolescence. He had an older brother, which made him privy to even more mature things, like cars and cigarettes and swear words. I saw him coming through the fence on the other side of my house (not the way everyone else came over), and I had a suspicious feeling that things would be a bit more interesting today. As his name suggests, he was a husky almost chubby kid, who seemed always to be clammy and perspiring, which was made worse considering we were in mid-July. He had a weird tooth in the front of his mouth that (only slightly) stuck out from all the others. He wore a gold chain around his neck that never moved because it seemed to always be stuck in his sweaty neck-crease.
“Hey,” he called to us from a few feet away. “Whatcha doin?”
Travis, the friendlier one of our bunch took the reins. “Dodge Ball. Wanna play?” He walked nearer to him, the ball resting on one of his hips. Jean-Guy was at least four or five inches taller than the other boys and eagerly took the ball from him.
Pointing to me and Travis, he declared, “You two can be on a team and I’ll be with Michael.” The dynamic had shifted quickly, with Jean-Guy calling the shots and the rest of us obeying. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. Travis jogged over to me and we immediately took our dodgeball stances, ready for anything.
For some unknown reason, Jean-Guy thought he was The Man. He had a conceited strut about him that I can only deduce he got from having an older brother around. We never actually met his older brother, but he talked about him a lot, and from the sounds of it, I’m glad he didn’t come around because he sounded scary. He was old enough to drive and get into fights, and Jean-Guy told us all about those things with great pride, so I guess it was Conceit by Association.
Mid-way through our now lackluster game of dodgeball, Jean-Guy the Stud whispered something to Michael, who looked visibly put out and came jogging over to Travis and me, ball in hand.
“Jean-Guy wants to know if you wanna be girlfriend-boyfriend,” he spit out quickly, probably hoping this intermission would soon be over. He rested the ball on his hip again and looked at me sideways, waiting. Standing there impatiently waiting for an answer so that we might more quickly resume playing, I felt pressured to answer. Throwing the ball up and catching it back in my hands I pondered for several seconds. Jean-Guy stood fifty feet away, legs spread, hands on his knees, staring in my direction, and waiting. Why did I feel like everyone was annoyed with me? I wasn’t the one who stopped the game to court another player!
Folding under the pressure to hurry up and make everyone happy, I replied, “Sure,” but felt annoyed with myself. I wasn’t even remotely interested in Jean-Guy, barely knew him and certainly didn’t find him attractive. I guess I also figured that our relationship would be like any other elementary school relationship I had been in: The boy sends his buddy over to ask me to be his girlfriend, I tell them yes, he goes back and tells him my answer, and then we don’t ever speak to each other again. The End. I think I mostly said yes because everybody seemed irritated with me and also so we could continue playing our game without any trouble. How had I become responsible for that?
But Jean-Guy had something else up his sleeve. Immediately upon entering into our covenant, Jean-Guy decided that I could no longer play dodge ball, but now had to be protected from the ball. He beckoned me—no, he ordered me—over to his side and explained that he would block all the shots himself, and I wouldn’t have to do a thing. I stood against the back of my garage while Eric, Michael, and Travis all took their positions midway through the backyard, ready to fire. In an instant, my role had shifted. Jean-Guy proceeded to wrap his sticky arms around me and deflect any and all balls that were aimed our way by the other boys. Standing stiff and oppressed in him, they took turns chucking the balls. Erin had somehow made her way back out to our game and was retrieving the deflected balls and throwing them back to Michael or Travis or Eric so they could pelt us again. My hero would block them with his arm, and then quickly place it back around me so as not to leave me unattended for even a minute. Or, he would deflect them with his foot, sticking it out just in time so it wouldn’t hurt me. Sometimes it was a close call, which worried me.
Having never been this physically close to a boy in my life, I could smell his dirty pubescent mid-July aroma, feel his clammy arms around me, and hear his breathing as he worked hard to protect his Delicate Little Flower from getting hurt. But most of all, I could feel his vainglory at playing the role of protector. It seemed as though this is what he thought a good boyfriend did: put his girlfriend in the role of invalid and himself in the role of protector. A mere twenty minutes ago I was in the game, hurling balls right at his stray tooth, but upon accepting this role of “girlfriend,” I was not only placed into the role of damsel in distress, but I was expected to play my role perfectly. The worst part was I tried to play it to the best of my abilities. I shrank from the oncoming ball, feigning fear. I winced as his hand narrowly intercepted it, and I stood perfectly still in his sweaty, clammy, chubby arms, while he reveled in his machismo, which I’m pretty sure began to make the other boys hurl the balls our way even harder. So really, he was making things worse.
I began to worry that maybe he had asthma, because all of the physical strain he was putting himself under was really making him start to wheeze, and I was beginning to lose faith in his ability to hold up his end of the bargain. What had I gotten myself into? I wanted to play, not stand here and be treated like some kind of tulip. Besides, I’m pretty sure I could have taken Jean-Guy if I’d really needed to.
Eventually, after yet another very close call that would have probably bruised my face, I could take it no more and pried myself from his grasp. I was tired of this charade. I didn’t need to be protected, so I didn’t know why I pretended that I did. I was doing a lot of things today and didn’t know why. I got back into the game and felt better, but Jean-Guy seemed miffed.
He decided that it would be fun for me and him to go into the clubhouse that was attached to our garage. He said he wanted to try a different kind of game, “kind of like dodge ball, but not really.” He told the other boys to stand near the window while we went inside.
My club house used to be a horse stable way back when, which was so much cooler than what it was used for now—holding things like the croquet set, the Shop-Vac, my dad’s golf clubs, the push mower, and all of the sports stuff we used when we played outside. Additionally, I had hung a handful of posters of Ralph Macchio that I had ripped out of the last few issues of Teen Beat. Like every other girl my age, I was in love with Daniel-san. No adolescent, boy or girl, was free from getting caught up in the romance of Daniel-san and Kumiko. Boys were in their bedrooms practicing their karate moves behind closed doors, and as for myself, I bought hand-held Asian fans and practiced dancing behind them in front of my full-length mirror. With Peter Cetera’s voice emanating from my boom box speakers, I was convinced I could be the American version of Kumiko if I could just catch the fan gracefully when I threw it up in the air. Unfortunately, it rarely happened.
Taking my hand, Jean-Guy led me into the tiny room with just one window. The other three boys were dangerously close to taking off and playing somewhere else, and loitered near the window throwing a ball up and down, weighing their options. What are we doing in here?” I asked, annoyed and wanting to get back outside. I started to make a move toward the door, but Jean-Guy blocked my path and pleaded with me.
“Just wait a minute.”
“No, let me out,” I said. He was being weird and I didn’t like it. I was trapped in my own club-house, shuffling my feet and trying to understand just what the hell we were doing in here. He moved me a little past the window so the boys were out of our view. I was not even ten yet, and was confused as to why he wanted to stay hidden from the other boys. Then all at once, he leaned forward, grabbed both my shoulders in his hands, and put his mouth on mine, trying to shove his tongue down my throat. I could feel it trying to pry my lips apart and I immediately felt like I wanted to vomit.
In an act of pure intuition and self-defense, I cocked my right arm, pulled my head back and punch him in the left cheek, my fist smacking against his flabby and sweaty skin as he fell backward into the corner of the clubhouse against Ralph Macchio, who was staring back at me with his hands clasped in prayer. I was scared, but also very furious. Jean-Guy let out a grunt, wheezed a bit, and had to catch himself against the wall, knocking over the croquet set in the process. Colored balls clanked to the ground, ambling in all directions while the wooden mallets knocked against one another under his weight. I stood there for a few seconds, watching him try to clamor back to his feet, but then quickly pushed open the door of the clubhouse and stormed back outside to where the other boys had gathered. They seemed to have no idea what just took place. I heard Jean-Guy come out a few seconds later, but didn’t pay any attention to what he was saying, as I quickly rounded up the boys and asked if they wanted to play soccer instead. I didn’t want them to leave. I wanted to quickly forget what had just taken place. I wanted things to go back the way they had been before Jean-Guy came and ruined it all.
. At almost-ten-years-old, I’d had my first “relationship” that had lasted a whole 45 minutes. My most confusing and angering 45-minute relationship to date. Just because I was a girl didn’t mean I had to do what boys told me to. Sometimes being “nice” for someone else’s sake, or trying to make them happy and agreeing to do things you didn’t really want to do was the fastest way to misery, and the slowest way to self-respect. I learned that, for the most part, boys are decent enough and are much more interested in knocking your face off with a ball than trying to kiss it, but that once in a while there’s a bad weed. Most of all, I learned that it’s good to give someone the benefit of the doubt and to try to be cordial, but that when they’ve crossed a line with you, there is no room to worry about hurting their feelings or being “mean.” That, sometimes, a right hook is really the only way to get your point across.