When her fist connected with my chest, it knocked the wind out of me. I wasn’t expecting her glove to come with so much force. Nor could make sense of how quickly she was able to close the distance.
But I didn’t have time to think about these things. She was already following up with a kick. It came low, or so I thought. Before connecting, she pulled it back and aimed high. Though with her lack of height, her foot smashed into my upper arm.
The time it took her to bring her leg back down was all I needed to step forward with a counter. I planted a jab into her abdomen, then struck her with an uppercut as she bent over slightly. Before I could land a third strike, she nudged my arm and parried to the side.
“Time!” Sensei yelled. Jwala froze with her leg in the air, her foot cocked back, her toes pointed and ready to strike. In the next instant, she had regained her normal stance and bowed towards me. I did the same, our heads in sync. Then we stood back up, and in the moment before our teacher told us to switch partners, she flashed a smile.
This was how we spent our evenings, and while it may not have taken the form most people would expect, our flirting was obvious. We had spent years practicing together, and every time she extended a hand to help me up after sweeping the back of my leg, I found myself heels over head in love.
We couldn’t date like most high school couples. Jwala’s parents expected her to marry a good Hindu boy someday, preferably vegetarian. They would even pick him out if need be. But that was an decision for another day. Another year. Another decade. She was to go to college first. Then college again. Then become a doctor. And then, only then, would they talk about her relations with someone of the opposite sex.
An American like me was not in the cards, and I didn’t push the issue. Her parents hardly spoke English at home. What would I even say when she’d bring me home for dinner, her parents standing tense and judgingly on the other side of the table, waiting to meet this fellow their daughter insisted on “dating” like those other American girls.
So we settled on a different approach.
“I can’t believe you two are both going to VCU,” Nina said just as the waitress came back with our shakes.
“Why?” I said.
“You two are really that committed, huh. That you would go to the same college just to be together.”
“VCU is a good school,” Jwala said.
“What, it is!”
“I know it is. I also know that has precisely zero to do with why the both of you are going there.”
“It’s a good arts school,” I said. “And it’s a good med school. It has exactly what we both need.”
“I saw that, you know.”
“The way you looked at Jwala when you said need. You two are obsessed.”
Jwala and I locked eyes, but only briefly. We both knew Nina was right.
“It’s not going to get easier,” Nina said. “I mean, sure, you’ll have more freedom and you won’t have to go back to your parents at night, but you’re only like ten minutes away. Your parents are going to expect you to do crap, and you’re not exactly going to be able to say you rather spend that time with the boyfriend you don’t have.”
“Why are you bringing this up now?” Jwala asked.
“Because this is the last time we’ll be here together.”
“Aw, don’t get sentimental on us,” I said.
“I’m not. This is the last chance I have to be a pain in your butts.”
“And we wouldn’t have you any other way,” Jwala said.
Nina’s words stuck with me. I wasn’t aware of it at first, but it showed in my punches the next time we were in class. After we started sparring, one of my jabs came out too quickly and cut close to Jwala’s face. When I reached across with my other hand, it was sloppy. The strike didn’t land anywhere near where I intended, instead landing sharply on Jwala’s shoulder. This changed her demeaner entirely, and when I came in for another punch, she counter with a kick to my chest. Then, without putting down her foot, she drove her foot into the same spot a second time.
“Time!” Sensei barked.
Jwala didn’t bow at first. She looked at me with wide eyes. She didn’t say anything, but I could tell what was on her mind. What gives?
But this was not the place to talk. She bowed, and I did the same. Then we switched partners. And we switched again. Then, after severage bouts, we found ourselves facing each other a second time. Jwala’s eyes hadn’t calmed since I last saw them. They were wild. She came at me like a girl on fire.
“Talk,” she said as soon as classed ended. “What’s your problem?”
“What Nina said is true,” I said. “Isn’t it?”
“Nina says a lot of things.”
“About your parents.”
Jwala grew silent.
“I don’t want to go through four years of that,” I continued.
“It’s better than what we’ve had until now,” Jwala said, frustration in her voice. I can’t give you what other girls can. I’m trying here.
“Yeah, it is.”
I didn’t say anything for a while.
Then she pushed me. When I looked up, her fist was flying in my direction. I parried and went for a round kick. She caught my foot, then stepped forward and swept me to the ground. I held on to her as I fell, pulling her down with me. I tried to roll on top of her, but she was too well positioned. We stayed that way for a while, piercing each other’s eyes, our chests heavy with breath.
“What’s going on here!?” Sensei asked as he stepped back into the room.
“Sir!” we said in unison as we jumped to our feet and bowed.
As we exited the building, I knew what I needed from Jwala.
“This,” I said. “We’ll always have this, right?”
Jwala looked back and smirked. “When I become a doctor, you’ll be my first patient. And you will be there because of me.”
Hearing this, I took her cheeks in my hands and pulled her into a kiss. It was our first. How we had gone through all of high school without ever taking that step was baffling, but so was most of our relationship.
Jwala was shocked at first, but then she dropped her bag and put her hands around the back of my neck.
At that moment, her mom pulled into the parking lot. Her honking the horn scared us apart. Jwala looked toward her mother with terror in her eyes.
I didn’t know what to do in that moment, but I did know one thing: the next four years wouldn’t be anything like the last.