Read by Sabina Cameron
Dakota grew up with girls like this one – all crooked and uneven beneath the smooth. Like the ones who watched her at school while she made hand shapes at her desk – braiding her fingers together to make a cave, a church, a smiling cat. Later, they jumped her in the hall and Dakota got beat. All the kids whooping and shouting, same as this crowd now, only Dakota can’t hear. As soon as the bell rings, there’s only two people in the world. This girl and Dakota. Crooked vs. Smooth.
Dakota’s undefeated. There was an article in the city paper a few weeks ago. A reporter came by Manny’s gym, and Manny started blowing smoke, saying how Dakota was unstoppable. He’d said Olympics. He’d said gold. A few days later, as she left the gym one night, a man called out to her. He was wearing a heavy coat, leaning against the concrete wall. She thought he might be one of the bums who slept on cardboard over on Tremain, but then he said her name.
“Dakota!” And she had stopped.
She hadn’t seen him in almost seven years – not since she was ten years old – but she remembered his face. The rabbity mouth, the dark eyes like her sister’s. His hair flattened in black streaks across his forehead. He was skinny, nothing like the man she’d sometimes imagined coming back to lift her in his arms like he had when she was little. His shoulders were level with her own. They were the same height now. Dakota was actually a little bit bigger.
“You know who I am?” he asked. And when he laid his hand on her, she dropped her defenses. She didn’t step back. She nodded at her father.
She didn’t ask him where he’d been for so long, but he started trying to explain. He said he’d had cancer. Leukemia, he told her. He hadn’t wanted his kids seeing him that way.
“But I read about you,” he said. “I saw you in the paper and I couldn’t stay away.”
It was all too much. Dakota started to cry, out there on the street where anyone could see. Then he wanted to hug her. He opened up his arms, and she held on tight, the way she sometimes did in the ring to muffle the blows.
He’s here today, watching her for the first time. And she wants him to see who she is: her fastest moves, her most devastating combos. The first time Dakota won, it felt like sunlight pouring out of her skin, making everything bright and alive. She was more than she ever thought – her name announced over the mic, her arms swimming in the air. After that she needed to score so bad it felt like a craving. It was like chasing down a path to find herself at the end.
But today, with him watching, everything’s tilted, and the path she thought she knew has split into a fork. The Crooked girl finds her face and Dakota absorbs her punches, a flurry of fists that seems to have no end. Her coach is screaming and Dakota tries dancing: a slow screwed-up tango, stumbling forward and then back. But her body feels so clumsy it could be anybody else’s – a cracked and dry scarecrow she’s dragging along. Opportunities slip past on a river of sweat while the crooked girl beats mountains on Dakota’s bare skin.
The second time they met he brought her a present. A tiny pair of boxing gloves on a key ring that he offered with a sweeping bow. When he smiled she noticed that some of his teeth were rotten, and even though the sun was hot, he wore the same heavy coat. He was sweating, but she didn’t know if it was because of the coat or his illness.
He asked about her fights. She had twelve wins, three knockouts. He wanted to know how she trained, how many hours she spent in the gym each day. Then he asked her how much she got paid. And Dakota had to explain how amateur fights worked. She didn’t get paid, not even when she won. There wasn’t any money in it. Her father seemed surprised, as though he’d been misled in some way.
She felt his disappointment slam in her own gut. Then she was embarrassed, as if she’d been caught out in a lie she’d never meant to tell.
“So who pays for your gear, your training?”
She told him how her coach Manny covered most of it, and then she explained how they’d tried to find a sponsor. About a year ago, Manny had driven her around to different businesses downtown, introducing her to businessmen and women, hoping that someone would offer financial support. Dakota had been told to smile, to keep her chin up instead of down, and she did this the whole time while everybody said no. One guy told her right to her face that it was too freaky. Girls beating up girls. He didn’t get it. He didn’t understand how Dakota’s feet could dance gold shapes across the canvas. He couldn’t imagine her fists like hurricanes – when she was throwing heavy leather and beating down the past.
Her dad seemed confused too. He’d thought she was a real champion, not just a scrounger who had to go asking for handouts.
“It’s too bad,” he said darkly. “They really should pay you.”
He brought her to a bodega. On the way, he told her about how he’d hoped to play professional baseball when he was a kid. But he’d wasted his talents, never took himself seriously enough. He didn’t want her to make the same mistakes. The man behind the counter of the bodega didn’t even glance up at them; he was watching a small screen. Dakota followed her dad to the back of the store, and then they went down a dark set of steps to a large underground room, thick with red noise. The man at the bottom of the steps eyed them, sneered, and then let them pass after money changed hands. The room had a stench. Smoke and something else – some combination. Beer, vomit, blood, piss. The kind of place that lingered in your hair, stuck to the bottoms of your shoes. Dakota noticed the bar before she even saw the ring. Two men were in the midst of a brutal fight. They didn’t wear headgear, and as her father pulled her to an open space, Dakota saw one get punched in the back of the head.
She’d never watched an unlicensed fight before. The men seemed mismatched, and the smaller one was getting destroyed. Blood streamed from his mouth, but the referee didn’t stop them, not even after the nasty crack of an obvious head butt. It was sick. There was no strategy, no rules – just men baying for blood. Her dad must’ve imagined that Dakota would enjoy this. He must’ve thought this was something like what she did. He leaned over to her.
“What do you think?” he asked.
She hated to disappoint him, so she forced a queasy smile.
“You could do this,” he said. “I could get you three hundred bucks for it. I already told my guy about you.”
A hard fist had started clenching in her belly. Her dad eyed her, hopeful, and it leapt up in her throat. She covered her mouth, holding in her nausea, and turned away before bolting from the embrace of the crowd. Then she was stumbling up the stairs toward the lights of the bodega which seemed alien bright as she gasped for breath.
“Dakota? What’s wrong?” He found her crouched on the street, holding her stomach.
She told him she couldn’t. She’d be disqualified from her competitions if anybody found out.
“Who’s gonna find out? I thought you needed money. I’m trying to help you.” His voice broke with a rough edge of need.
Years spent in Manny’s gym had taught Dakota how to push herself beyond fear and pain and exhaustion and doubt. She could lift and spar and run and push until she retched from a place that felt close to her soul. But she told him no.
No, she couldn’t do it.
She braced herself, expecting him to walk away. She tried to inhale his scent one last time, to memorize the creases in his face, the slant of his body. He would become smaller and smaller as he shuffled away in his heavy coat, and she knew she’d want to call out to him after he turned the corner, but it would be too late by then. He would be gone for good.
But he didn’t storm away. Her father stayed. His hands found her face, and she drooped with relief. “You’re still my girl,” he said, cupping her chin.
Then he told her about his other idea.
Dakota is learning the rhythm of losing. It comes easier now – it feels like her own.
She’s not able to stand.
She’s buckling under.
Love, hope, belief.
Her father had explained it in a warm slow drawl. There were his medical bills and the cost of his chemo, and there were ways to win money when the odds were so good. Winning could mean losing, and weakness could be strength. If Dakota could lose, he’d win for them both. He wiped his nose on his sleeve and his hair dribbled sweat, and Dakota had nodded. She thought she understood.
Now she trembles with the rhythm of losing, and it feels like it’s always been there. A shape in her past, a body to cling to, a shadow that hid beneath the glitter of light. When her knees start to buckle, when she loses her balance, when she rests against the ropes it feels natural and smooth. She wants to turn around and see if he’s still watching – and if he knows how much further she’s ready to fall.
© Lauren Frankel, 2012
Lauren Frankel grew up in Connecticut and lives in England. Her writing has been featured on Radio 4 and in other publications. She looks forward to seeing female boxers win gold for the first time in history at this summer’s Olympics.