The sun would rise at 5:33 every morning, but I rose before it, lacing up my shoes and pulling my hair back into a tie. I brushed a few pieces away from my face in one of the long mirrors in the boxing ring. A moment later I was off, feet pounding down the narrow walkway and out the gate, listening for the sound of motorbikes over the soft sound my shoes on the white hot concrete.
The air was so humid, seconds after I started running I was drenched in sweat. Over the next few hours the temperature would rise to over 90 degrees— getting up early was the only time cool enough to run outside. I was staying the month at Sor Vorapin Muay Thai gym in Bangkok, Thailand, training 6 hours every day: 3 hours in the morning, and 3 hours every afternoon. After every training session, my clothes were so soaked with sweat I’d wring them out in the bathroom sink before hanging them to dry in the clothes rack in my room— salty white streaks running down the backs of my black shirts and pants.
I had been in Thailand for two weeks now, and every morning was the same. Wake up early and see the giant orange sun touch the tops of the palms in the distance. Hobble down the wooden staircase. Lace up my shoes in the boxing gym, and go for a run. One, two, three, four laps. Walk back. Box.
I was still recovering from a motorcycle accident 7 months earlier which had broken both bones in my right leg at the knee joint, and torn the flesh open. That I was there at all was insane— I couldn’t jump, or do squats. My running was more of a hobble run where I consciously tried to normalize the gait of my right leg every step. I couldn’t jump rope, or do jumping jacks or burpees or move quickly, but I was there— and I was determined.
Sometimes there were five of us in the ring in the morning, sometimes two. We’d warm up with footwork on the large tire in the hot morning sun, jumping up and down in front of the large mirrors on its black edges, or running laps around the punching bags hanging in the middle of the gym.
There was an official warmup afterwards, then 5 rounds of sparring. Afterwards, a cool down which consisted of five different types of laps around the gym— high knees, legs up, alternating left and right hooks, modified jumping jacks while running, and burpees.
“Mostly it is loss which teaches us about the worth of things.”
At first I didn’t realize the dog had a bird in its jaws. We had just finished up afternoon training, and I was sitting outside on a long brown bench icing my extended right leg, watching a sparring session in the ring. The pigeons had been flying over the gym all day, sometimes dipping low into the boxing area, sometimes flying so high I could barely make out their shapes against the sky. The dog was grappling with something to my right, growling and shaking its head from side to side. I didn’t realize what I was seeing— I didn’t understand the grey and white and red was another animal, and the dog was killing it.
After a few stunned moments— a bag of ice on my right knee— I leapt up and hobbled over to the dog, grabbing it by the back of the collar and wrapped my fingers around its open snout. The bird fluttered away to a nearby corner.
Other students gathered around as I slowly crept over to the injured bird. Its right wing was bent, and it looked reproachfully at the crowd in front of it. The gym was always loud, music pulsating in the background, people talking and hitting and wrapping their hands— but in that moment, the small area outside the boxing ring became absolutely still. It was as if my vision had greyed around the edges and there was only me, and the pigeon. Despite the pain in my right leg, I slowly crouch-walked over the where the bird stood on a small ledge.
My skin glowed in the evening light, sweat slowly running down my legs. It felt like everything that had happened over the past 7 months came together in a moment— the accident, the hospital, the wheelchair, feeling alone and crippled— this bird was also hurt. Its right wing was injured, and to me this felt like a sign. If I could help this bird, everything was going to be okay. I knew this bird had been sent to me like some sort of cosmic test, like the witch disguised as an old woman in fairy tales begging for bread on the street, and if I didn’t help this bird, I would never heal— my leg, my heart… my spirit.
I knew it was nonsensical, but in that moment, as I crept toward the bird, the deepest most desperate desires at the bottom of my heart came to life. I felt connected to the moment when I was on the side of the road after my accident. I was no longer a person softly approaching a small bird— I was approaching myself, lying there in the hot sun. I was lying there, waiting, waiting for what came next. Wondering what could come next. Hoping it would be met with kindness.
I reached out, and carefully wrapped my hands around the bird. It didn’t move, it only watched me with its round orange eyes, surrendering herself to her fate.
“It’s going to be okay,” I whispered.
“Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.”
― Ursula K. Le Guin
That night after training, every muscle in me ached. When I inhaled, I could feel every rib on either side of my chest aching all the way down my sides. I rolled over onto my stomach, groaning, leaving my right leg to dangle off the edge of my bed, slowly letting the weight of my foot straighten my leg. I desperately had to pee. It was a side effect of all the sweating in the intense heat— drinking gallons of water a day. I was constantly filling up my Nalgene from the water cooler. A boxing session for 7 minutes, an entire Nalgene of water. Dry off, repeat.
The thought of climbing out of my tiny bed, walking the length of the long hallway to the rickety staircase, down the stairs, across the boxing ring, and into the corridor where the bathrooms were, was almost unbearable to think about.
The staircase was my nemesis. I hobbled up and down it several times a day, mostly using my arms and my one good leg. I couldn’t do it. I eyed the two large, empty plastic water bottles sitting in the corner of the room. I had been meaning to take them downstairs to recycle. I slowly pulled myself up from the bed moaning, and hobbled over to the tiny fridge in the corner where my duffel sat perched on a small stand. Digging around in the bag, I finally found the small, silver nail scissors and sat on the floor with both legs extended in front of me. I slowly cut the tops off the two water bottles, one small snip at a time, their flimsy plastic giving way to the tiny scissors.
I peed in both the bottles under the bright, halogen light of my small room above the boxing ring, the frigid air of the AC unit blowing across the tops of my exposed legs. I filled one enormous water bottle then another, switching out the bottles like a champ, like I peed in bottles inside all the time for sport. There’s nothing— nothing— more freeing than peeing into a bottle in the middle of an open room, soft cool air caressing your thighs. I felt feral. I may have been contained in that room, unable to descend the staircase, unable to walk properly or squat or step down off a curb without wincing— but could pee wherever and whenever I wanted.
I carefully— carefully— placed both full plastic bottles next to one another in the corner under the AC unit. I gleefully hobbled back to bed and fell instantly asleep.
The pigeon barely struggled in my hands, my fingers wrapped around it’s tiny soft body. I could feel the shape of its wings under my fingers, the smoothness of its feathers. I softly whispered to it, over and over and over.
“It’s fine, it’s fine, it’s fine.”
I didn’t know what to do. I knew the pigeon was hurt, but I wasn’t sure to what extent. My hope was that if I found somewhere safe outside the compound, away from the dogs, she would be able to fly away on her own. So I walked. I walked down the tiny concrete road in Bangkok, no wider than a sidewalk, like a long bridge— the waterways lining the streets three feet below. The tall, lush palms surrounded us on either side in the evening light, and every so often I’d stand as close to the edge as possible while a motorbike roared past.
As the road made a turn, a small section of pines lined the edge of the street. It was here the pigeon started to struggle. “Just a little longer,” I whispered, wanting to take her to the open field at the edge of the road where kids would play soccer during the day.
She struggled out of my grasp and in a moment, had wriggled inside a small gap in the pine trees, and was now barricaded by dense, prickly branches. We stared at each other for a few moments, then I went back to my room and cried.
“Words have power.”
― Mira Grant
When I woke in the morning, I had almost forgotten about the bottles of urine I had stashed in the corner of the room. I could barely get myself downstairs, how was I going to balance two full bottles of urine down the rickety staircase, across the boxing ring, and into the toilets unnoticed? I looked around the room for a solution. Sometimes the manager of the boxing gym would come into the rooms during the day, and the last thing I wanted to explain was why I had two mutilated plastic bottles in my room full of urine.
My empty Nalgene water bottle lay on my bed. I thought carefully for a fraction of a second, then, carefully, slowly, poured the contents of the water bottles into my empty Nalgene. The bottles were ice cold from having spent the night under the AC unit. Thinking of what anyone would say if they walked in and saw me pouring my own urine into my Nalgene, I let out a loud cackle.
I screwed the top back onto my Nalgene, now dewy with cold, and slowly crept out of my room and down the long hallway to the stairs. Holding my Nalgene in one hand, I lowered myself down each step as quietly as possible, as if I were removing a dead body instead of a bottle of pee. I reached the boxing ring without encountering a soul. I set my Nalgene down on the end of a bench, and ran to the bathroom corridor to make sure it was empty. There was no one. While I’m here, I thought, I’ll quickly use the bathroom, wash my hands, then go back and empty the water bottle into the toilet.
Two minutes later, I walked out of the bathroom corridor, the sun’s rays already streaming into the gym. The heat was overwhelming. I walked to the bench to grab my Nalgene to take a swig of ice cold water before I headed out for a run. I stared into the distance thinking about training that day as I unscrewed the cap of my Nalgene, and took a swig.
It wasn’t water. I ran to the bathroom.
I stopped by the section of pine trees, clutching a small bag of potato chips in my hands, peering low under the branches. There she was, the white of her feathers glowing slightly in the gloom. I opened the bag of potato chips, broke them into tiny pieces with my hands, and reached as far as I could into the dense branches to leave a small pile in the clearing. She immediately started pecking at the crumbs.
I crouched at the edge of the trees for awhile, watching her eat.
“I’ll be back soon,” I promised.
Less disgusted with myself than I should have been, and giggling madly, I scrubbed the inside of my mouth with soap. The water couldn’t have been any hotter, I winced as I held my Nalgene under the tap, filling it and scrubbing it, again and again and again, until it was clean.
“Upper. Cross. Jab.”
I hit as hard as I could every time, my legs and fists and elbows striking the pads. I’d think about all the muscles and tendons in my leg, and my patella, and how it felt to feel the pads on my shins, the sound of my skin on the thin, black plastic. I thought about the thin protective padding around my fists— how delicate they were really, my boxing gloves. I felt the slow drip of sweat off the tip of my nose.
Later that day, I stopped by the pine trees again. The pigeon was gone.