I began bartending a few months before I began Muay Thai. I’m not an outgoing, talkative, or extroverted person so bartending was a big jump for me. The purpose was to have a job, to make money, to learn a skill that I became very adroit in and ultimately enjoyed greatly, and at the onset to teach me a skill I lacked: setting boundaries.
That last one was the big obstacle for me. As a new hire I was given only day shifts, which suck for a number of reasons: the first being that there’s not a lot of money to be made and you’re basically a waiter who makes drinks because very few people order cocktails at lunch; and the second being that the kind of folks who come to eat at a bar for lunch are generally lonely businessmen (sometimes women) seeking company. More often than not these fellas wanted to talk about me and I really didn’t, so I’d try my best to keep the conversation cycling back toward the customer as much as possible.
One time a large, older man with a gait that betrayed his years of physicality stopped in and saddled up at the bar. He ordered a burger and a cola and we started chatting and quickly I learned that he was a Corrections Officer (C.O.) up at a jail where I used to teach creative writing to the inmates. I found this fellow very sympathetic and eventually I admitted to him that I’d been training in something called Muay Thai for about half a year at that point. He looked at me with a bit of suspicion, the same response I got from most customers who became privy to this information and a response that usually was followed by some horrible verbal addition about being a girl or attractive or, “what, like foxy boxing?” to discredit my passion for the art. But this guy kept looking at me for a much longer period of silence than most and then told me to hold out my hand. I put my hands above the bar, palms up and he specified that he wanted to see my knuckles. I turned them over and made a fist and he inspected my hands for a moment before smiling and nodding in approval. “I see you got some wear on those,” he offered and took a sip from his glass. “Someone tells you they’re a boxer,” he continued, “you look at their hands to know what’s what.”
This guy was a former boxer and still liked to hit the bag. His knuckles looked like a catcher’s mitt. I’ve always focused on hands – I find them beautiful and very individual; I can tell you exactly the details of the hands of every person in my immediate family and even if I can’t remember someone’s name I will almost always remember their hands. From this experience with him I started always looking at knuckles – Master K’s look like they’re covered in ash from his relentless training and the trainers at the gym often have an enlarged knuckle on their dominant hand if they’re good punchers. Over my years of Muay Thai I’ve had phases when my knuckles bruise or even lose skin from the friction and moisture inside the glove. Early on the bruises were in the wrong place on my knuckles, over on the pinky and ring fingers – now they are always and only on the knuckles of my index and middle finger and on both hands. I still lose skin, get callouses, and have dry and darkened skin over enlarged knuckles permanently.
My hands are a perfect amalgam of my parents’ hands – nail shape, finger length, palm shape and visibility of veins on the back. I gesticulate without intending to when I am thinking or speaking, so my hands are integrated into my communication in a strong way. And now, when I look down and see the marks of color, shape and distortion on the skin covering my knuckles I think of this man who taught me to identify the extent of my practice, the evidence of my persistence, with the distortion of my hands. And I love them. I’m proud of them in a way that if ever I saw that man again I would ask him to hold out his hands and then happily show him mine.