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Mamma Said Knock You Out


For Marcus, Senior Year of college was gonna be the bomb. At least, that’s how he would have described it in the early 2000s. He’d been at Florida State for his entire undergrad career and had rocked the experience in the gades department but was hovering just slightly over a “C” in Confidence. He would have never described himself as a dude with low self-esteem, he quite simply couldn’t keep up with the testosterone fueling his jock-filled learning institution. It wasn’t a school for business nerds, it was a place for football players. But, still, Marcus was determined to make the best of his four years there.

He grew up in Mount Dora which was a seemingly out-of-place town for the Sunshine State. It felt like New England with brightly colored hotels, pristine lakes, and even a working lighthouse. Marcus’s grandparents had first bought Sorels after WWII. It was a quaint bed and breakfast with nineteen guest rooms with a view of the water. He’d basically grown up in the place, spending the majority of his after-school hours helping out at the small hotel. This meant that his social calendar was not exactly, well, full. But his spreadsheets were. Marcus loved his spreadsheets. This was the personality of our hero, now trying to make it at a huge university where tanning and drinking were official sports.

He’d been torn about going off to school. He’d become an integral part of running the business. He maintained the website, and the reservation system, and was always on-call to assure guests that there would never be an alligator in their toilets, despite the persistent internet rumors. Growing up at Sorels, Marcus learned all kinds of random skills. He, of course, knew how to unclog a drain, make eggs for forty guests when the chef was too hungover, and bartend a wedding at the last minute. He knew how to rescue septuagenarians from a row boat over by the rocks, how to make a bed with military corners and run all over town for candles when the power went out. His skill set was vast, and impressive, and excluded speaking to members of the opposite sex. So when he went off to college, he was determined to get both his degree in business and meet a girl. The degree part was coming along just fine.

Here was the problem: his major had a reputation for being, well, not exactly that hard. He was in hospitality. His classes were popular among the more sports-inclined set who were exerting just enough effort to keep their grades high enough to play their sports. For Marcus, who envisioned taking Sorels to the next level and opening up a second location after graduation, his studying was a serious endeavor. He was certainly the outlier.

The entire volleyball team appeared to share his major. Oftentimes, poor Marcus couldn’t even see the blackboard over the sun-soaked, six-foot-tall women who populated the first three rows of class. While the jocks would scroll Instagram and do something with their ankles (he learned Sophomore year that these were exercises called “calf raises,”) he would take notes and work on a never-ending business plan to expand the B &B  and that, he hoped, would allow his hardworking parents to retire earlier and enjoy the fruits living by the water.

This all brings us to senior year when his classmates were tanner, stronger, blonder, and no more interested in joining him at Landis Green to sit on a picnic blanket and do whatever the hundreds of students seemed to always be doing there. But, Marcus had a new secret weapon. 

The weapon could be considered dangerous and loaded at any given time. It was concealed in broad daylight. It was being built slowly, methodically, with the utmost intention following generations of perfecting every gear. The weapon was Marcus. Because Marcus had taken up Karate.

Karate found him, not the other way around. He was at the library when a group of seemingly very happy and social and average-sized students were walking around and passing out flyers for the new Dojo. The first class was free. Marcus went on a Tuesday and was hooked into a monthly pass by Friday. 

Everything that Karate promises to do for a person, it did for Marcus. He learned to focus - a focus so deep that his body soon found an almost trance-like state when he stepped onto the mat. He learned self-control on a level that he hadn’t previously even known existed. He got stronger, his back straighter, and he made a small group of friends. Shotokan Martial Arts Studio, in the strip mall sandwiched between the Chick-fil-A and the Pay Day Loans, became his second home. And it felt good, really good, so good in fact, that Marcus toyed with the idea of opening up his own studio when he got back to Mount Dora. 

On the first day of classes back at Florida State, in mid-August of 2009, Marcus felt the best he’d probably ever felt. His T-shirt collection fit just the right amount of snug in his arms and chest, he’d worked tirelessly on his business plan all summer and was kind of, well, feeling himself.

He made sure to get to his Leadership class early, to ensure a front-row seat, and wasn’t mad about the extra glances he felt lingered on him as he walked through the quad. Was he getting them because he was now an official green belt? Probably not. It was most likely the newfound confidence and excellent posture but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that Marcus felt different.  He strutted into his classroom, took his laptop out of his backpack, and was already reviewing the syllabus by the time the teacher walked in with his TA. That’s when Marcus stopped breathing.

He wasn’t suffering from a medical condition, he was feeling what he could only assume was Love At First Sight. She was bright-eyed with a look that screamed both cool and determination, with thick black hair that fell down her back to her waist. She carried both Dale Carnegie’s and Malcolm Gladwell’s books in her strong arms and could have been Marcus’ dream come true if he’d ever dared to dream of such a woman. His snug t-shirt immediately felt too tight and he tugged at the collar, searching for air.

“Nice to see you guys,” Professor Talbot began, tapping on the board with his knuckles, “I hope y’all had a good summer. I’d like to introduce you to our new TA, Fernanda. Fernanda will do most of the grading and will email you her office hours.” Fernanda waved and smiled.

Marcus accidentally locked eyes with this econ goddess. He couldn’t help himself, he physically could not look away. Thus, Marcus’ newfound confidence didn’t last long. Fernanda rendered him paralyzed. 

The schoolyear steam-rolled forward with Marcus focusing the majority of his attention on winning over his Leadership TA. He burned the midnight oil studying and perfecting his writing strategies. He racked his brain for questions to ask her and for reasons to show up in the little closet that the university provided for her office hours. By mid-December, two days before school let out for winter break, he managed to work up the courage to ask her out. But not without some legit preparation. Marcus had learned a lot that semester about leadership and planning for the most optimal outcome. He got an A on his final. So, of course, first, he made a spreadsheet.

He listed potential dates, the skill set involved, the probability of the evening ending with physical contact, and the situations where he could be his best. He only got to line C in Excel. Because that’s when he thought of taking her to the Dojo. And that’s when he stopped. 

Of course, he would invite Fernanda to Shotokan. There were so many positives: he’d be able to show off his skill set, he knew people and looked social, he had a green belt, and there was a Chick-fil-A right next door in case they worked up an appetite. It was a no-brainer.  That night, he could barely sleep. So, at 4 am, he emailed her FSU account, asking if she was holding office hours so close to the end of the semester. At 6:15 am, she emailed him back.

Marcus, no, I’m done with office hours until January. But let me know if you’d like to grab a coffee. I’m leaving to go home on Friday.

Marcus heard the notification on his phone, pulled up her email, and for the second time that semester, he stopped breathing. Was she asking him on a date? What did “coffee” mean? Or was she just thirsty and in need of caffeine? Maybe that’s what she was thinking about at 6:15? Marcus didn’t drink coffee. His head spun. His t-shirt felt tight, again. He started at the small screen, clutching it with all ten fingers. Before he could consult any Microsoft-branded program, he replied:

I don’t drink coffee but would you like to come to my Dojo tonight? They’re having a holiday open gym.

Two minutes later his phone dinged. And for the third time, his respiratory system failed him. 

Sure, is that the one on Kings Highway?

This time, Marcus consulted the dating experts on the internet which told him to be able to laugh at himself, be chivalrous, and not to respond right away so he emailed her back 43 minutes later and offered to pick her up. Good call, Marcus.

Fernanda and Marcus arrived early for the open gym. She looked so cute in her sweatpants and hair pulled back into a high ponytail. Marcus willed his breath to cooperate. There was no way he was going to be able to impress her with his katas if he passed out. As he tied his belt around his Doji, he watched Fernanda chat up his friends. He couldn’t hear their conversation above the buzz of the gym but it looked like everyone had a lot in common. He couldn’t bring himself to smile, he was too nervous, but he knew that he loved the feeling of bringing his crush into his sacred space. His stomach felt like a race car track with all the engines revving, waiting for the starting gun to sound.

“Hey, Marcus!” Marcus turned to Sensai Laura, his favorite teacher, a double black belt in her own right, calling him over with a whale of a smile, “Introduce me to your friend.”

Marcus tried to not sprint to Fernanda.

“Hi!” Sensai Laura bowed respectfully to the college students standing awkwardly next to each other, “Have you ever practiced Karate before?”

“Yes, years ago,” Fernanda answered. Huh? It was at this moment that Marcus realized that he hadn’t asked his stunning and brilliant and absolutely perfect TA if she knew anything about his beloved sport.

“Fun,” exclaimed Laura, “let’s see you warm up.” It sounded innocent enough, right? Two twenty-two-year-olds at a strip mall in Florida surrounded by friends and punch and Christmas cookies warming up for a friendly Kumite doesn’t seem like a recipe for disaster. 

Marcus stretched each arm across his chest, sensing Fernanda watching him. She balanced on one foot, pulling her other ankle up behind her to warm up her quads. Marcus noticed now how graceful she appeared on the martial arts mat, how perfect and steady her body was, and how strong and agile she appeared in her sweats.

“One line!” Sensei Laura called to the class who found their way into two straight lines, facing each other. Marcus froze at the sight of Fernanda standing directly across from him. He tried to will his breath to mimic and ocean waves, flowing in and out upon the shore. His breath had other ideas. He tried to will his heart rate to something more peaceful, and steady, but his cardiovascular system wasn’t cooperating. He felt his palms warm with sweat.

“Seiza!” Sensei Laura called and all the students dropped to their knees. Marcus noticed how Fernanda followed direction without a second of hesitation and he momentarily wondered what her karate training had been. 

“Mosuku!” was the next direction projected from the sensei. This is when all the students bowed their heads for a moment of meditation. This was usually a meaningful step for Marcus. He has become so good at shutting out all noises and lights and any other usual distractions. Today was different. Today he noticed a tear in the mat, a flickering bulb, the smell of french fries, the tag on his robe and a hangnail on his left foot. He tried to focus.

“Mosuku yame!” Sensei Laura instructed. This meant it was time for the students to stop meditating and look up. Marcus hadn’t managed to meditate at all and raised his chin already feeling off of his game.

“Shoumen ni rei!” On a dime, with his fellow students and friends, the class turned to the front of the room to face Sensai Laura like a row of perfectly spaced dominoes. 

“Sensei ni rei!” And, in unison, they bowed. Fernanda included.

“Onegashimasu,” the students echoed to their teacher. This was how every class started. It was timed and reverent and always transported Marcus to a place of peace and order, two things he loved. But, tonight, his head felt chaotic. Perhaps it was the punch or the cookies or the perfect specimen of a human standing twenty-four inches in front of him, but whatever it was, he felt light-headed. 

“Marcus, Fernanda, please start us off to welcome your friend to our dojo.”

Marcus bowed like Sensai Laura had taught him. Fernanda bowed too, from a karate education that was an utter mystery to our hero.

Because Fernanda was good, like, really, really good. She was strong, agile, flexible, and focused. Marcus was floored watching her. He’d never seen a more beautiful creature executing the katas in his life. All he wanted to do was observe her perfect movements. It was as if the dojo became silent, the light focused only on her, and his heart and breath refused to cooperate. Her movements were sharp and calculated, controlled and elegant. Her turns and flexibility looked like they belonged in a training video. Marcus couldn’t think straight, he couldn’t force his limbs to cooperate. His spreadsheet-decided date, the perfect setting for him to flaunt his newly acquired skill set was failing him by the second. He wondered if he should just stop, run out of the room, and hide in the kitchen of the Chik-Fil-A until closing time. But he didn’t have a chance to finish that thought. Because everything went dark. Luckily, he doesn’t remember how. Marcus woke up, on his back, staring up at the ceiling, with his right eye throbbing.

“MARCUS! Oh my God are you ok? I’m so sorry!” A frantic Fernanda called to Sensai Laura, “I was expecting him to raise his arms but he just stopped moving!”

Now the entire Shotokan community hovered around Marcus, helping him to his feet, brushing off his doji, and asking him if he felt bruised. He tried to find some air and willed it into his lungs. Bruised? He was shattered. Marcus rushed off to the bathroom where he inspected an already purple and soon-to-be black eye. His face would be fine. But, in that moment, he sincerely doubted whether or not his ego would ever recover.

He splashed cold water on his face and dried it off with a rough brown paper towel. His brain wanted to cry. He choked back the first wave of tears. Then he looked in the mirror with his one good eye. Something made him finally breathe. He looked at himself again. Maybe it was the dark grey mirror or the fluorescent lights or the sweat in his hair - whatever it was, Marcus looked different than he usually thought of himself. 

 If you took away the right side of his face, he looked… good. Great, even. Marcus blinked and rubbed his good eye. His white robe fit perfectly over his newly broad shoulders. His hair was wavy with just the right amount of body. And if you overlooked the deep hurt in his heart, his confidence was almost tangible. Marcus closed his one good eye. He focused on his breath. He went into the almost trance-like state that he’d been practicing with Sensai Laura for the past eight months. He imagined the waves on the beach, being pulled in and out, slowly, methodically by the tide. He thought of his heartbeat like a metronome and focused on the rhythm. He doesn’t know how long he was in the bathroom or when finally clicked, but, hey, it worked. He slowed his heart rate. He calmed his breath. He remembered his Google search on dating: girls liked guys who could laugh about themselves.

So that’s exactly what Marcus did. He wiped his nose, tossed his hair, and exited the men’s room with the look of a man who did not just get a black eye from the woman he was trying to date.  He laughed at himself over cookies and punch while watching his classmates practice their katas. He laughed when Fernanda apologized profusely and when she jokingly invited him to a re-match.

And he even got to laugh over a chicken sandwich and fries when the dojo party was over and the two had, in fact, worked up an appetite.

Marcus and Fernanda dated for the rest of the school year until she moved to New York and Marcus went back to re-vamp the family business, which he did very well. Over the next seven years, he managed to open up two more locations in Florida. The investors were always impressed with his business plans. Marcus had a spreadsheet for every decision down to the brand of toilet paper purchased for the hotels. 

The one part of his extensive document that he scrapped? Marcus didn’t even try to open up a karate studio. The memory of the embarrassment was still enough to make him physically cringe in shame. He got into jogging instead. Those are his people.  And he’s yet to suffer a black eye through that. He has gotten a girlfriend from it, though. 

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