Tea in the Kitchen
She sat in her pickup truck in the driveway musing about the doctor. She was so nosy, so insistent on tests. What was she not saying? Maybe that’s just how doctors always behave. What would those tests show? Could they provide answers to her own questions? It probably hadn’t occurred to her beforehand that a routine doctor’s appointment might become an existential inquiry.
She needed to talk to her mother again. But Yuki and the Cardanos were still in New Zealand. She missed them all, and not least Anthony. He was definitely a boy’s boy, which suited her just fine since she was something of a tomboy herself. After the death of her father she was hungry for family connection. They couldn’t return soon enough. But she was perplexed about her friends. Should she bring them to meet her family, such as it was, when they got back? The prospect of introducing them to her mother was tantalizing. Then there would be no more secrets dividing them. They would know all there was to know about her. She so wanted to bring them close. And yet she wasn’t certain it could ever be safe. If the family was under surveillance, could a visit make her friends into targets? Did she still need to dissemble for their sakes?
There was a soft tap at the window.
“Are you okay, honey,” Mrs. Rincon asked. She had lost track of time.
“I’ve got the kettle on. Why don’t you come in for a cup?” Emily acquiesced. She had nothing else to do, and sitting in her landlady’s kitchen could be a relief.
It was an old wood frame house with a large front porch and a detached garage. The studio apartment was over the garage. As she walked across the driveway behind Emily Mrs. Rincon sighed. She couldn’t help but admire this pretty girl. She was a classmate of her son’s. They had been in school together since kindergarten, though they had only become friends since he joined the dojo. Danny was infatuated with her. How could he not be?
She had been reluctant to rent the studio to a teenager, even one as responsible as Emily looked to be. Of course, it seemed hardly likely to enhance her son’s ability to concentrate on schoolwork having the girl of his dreams so close. And yet, contrary to all expectations, his study habits had improved. In the end she let her have the apartment because she needed the money and the girl paid cash for several months in advance. Much was mysterious about her, and Laura didn’t care to inquire. She was good company. It was soothing to sit with her from time to time.
“You’re home early.”
“I had a doctor’s appointment.”
“Nothing’s wrong, I hope.”
“Just a physical. I needed one for the academy.”
“So you’re still thinking of going there?”
“Yeah. Mrs. Telford is gonna help me put together a packet for Congressman Harmon’s staff.” Emily couldn’t hold back a self-satisfied smile as she said this. Harmon was on the House Armed Services Committee, and would probably be able to get the Naval Academy to pay attention to her nomination even though it arrived a little late in the season. Michael contacted him on her behalf, and enlisted his support. Now she had a feeling it wouldn’t really be necessary. Her grades and scores were good. She had also made the acquaintance of an instructor at the Academy who had seen her spar at Norfolk—in fact he had experienced it first hand—and had encouraged her to apply.
These should have been good times for Emily Kane. She was officially Michiko, but she was happy for her friends to think of her as Emily. Both names resonated. Kane was her father’s name. Using it honored his memory. But Michiko was the safe identity her parents had contrived for her. It was an enduring symbol of their love. Her friends just called her “Em,” and she relished the ambiguity.
Danny was due home soon. They would probably go over to the dojo together later.
“Is it final? Is that where you want to go?”
“I also applied to Charlottesville. They have a pretty good History department, and I’d be close to family and friends.”
“I’ve been noodging Danny to go there. But he doesn’t think he’ll make the team.”
“It’d probably be better for his studies if he didn’t make the team. Football takes up a lot of time.” Laura sighed. Of course she was right. Danny was worried his parent’s couldn’t afford college without a scholarship.
“Where else have you applied?”
“A couple of schools up north, Harvard and Yale. I don’t think I’d like it up there, but my mom wants me to consider them. I also applied to Stanford and Berkeley. At least it’s warmer out there.” A pained look spread across Laura’s face. She seemed stunned to think Emily would have those sorts of ambitions, or the credentials to go along with them. Was her son even in her league? How would he feel if she left him behind for a better life? It was a painful reflection, Emily could hardly avoid noticing.
“But I’m mainly thinking about Annapolis or Charlottesville these days.”
Danny’s steps thumped up the front steps and across the porch. The front door slammed shut as he slung his backpack onto the couch.
“Hi, Mom. Hey, Em. Missed you today. You disappeared before lunch.”
“Yeah, I had an appointment this afternoon.”
“You goin’ to the dojo,” Danny grunted from behind the refrigerator door.
“Yeah. I’ll give you a lift. I’ve got a little homework. I’ll be down around six to get you. Thanks for tea, Mrs. Rincon.”
Upstairs Emily prepared a little dinner while reading through a history textbook. This was her favorite subject, especially Asian history. Her mother wished she would major in a science, maybe biology or chemistry. Emily would love to oblige her, but her heart just wasn’t in it. She lay down on the couch and thought about Dr. Tarleton. She dozed off for a bit. When she awoke up it was almost time to go. Danny was waiting downstairs in the driveway.
The dojo was a festive place these days despite Marty and Jeff’s mischief. Sensei had all the trophies his students had won at Norfolk on display in the front window along with assorted photos. The biggest one was Emily’s. It was huge. Almost five feet tall, with four little pillars forming the base and a little metallic figure on the top in a fighting pose. She thought it was silly, but her friends loved it, almost as much as they enjoyed teasing her about it. The little kids were constantly sneaking over to touch it during class.
Danny was already wearing his gi when they arrived. Emily wore black tights and a black sports bra under a loose black tank top. No belt. She cut an odd figure in the dojo. Students were required to wear a gi to class, except her. She used to train in street clothes, “training for real life” she called it. Her street clothes used to be camo cargo pants, work boots and a sweat shirt. It was the standard high school invisibility outfit. But recently she had developed an interest in a finer style of dress. Her friends noticed. So did everyone else at school. But her new clothes were unsuitable for training. Now she came to class in a variety of form fitting running suits, dance outfits, etc.
Sensei didn’t seem to mind. Emily was his best student, and her father was his oldest friend. He let her do whatever she wanted. She was in a sense the unsurpassed martial personality in the dojo, deferred to sometimes even by him. To the other students she was a dominating figure, an intimidating sparring opponent, even a little scary. Of course, she was always kind to them, even compassionate. But when they sparred with her they couldn’t help but focus on the other side of her personality.
She and Sensei tried to help the other students see past their fears, to approach sparring in terms of their own inner forces and those of their opponent. But they still tended to see sparring exclusively in terms of fear and aggression. They charged in recklessly, hoping to intimidate an opponent, or they were overly cautious, ceding the initiative to the opponent and hoping to be able to counter effectively. In neither case did they control the fight. It controlled them.
As Sensei would say, they had no access to sen, the initiative. Without sen, one could only be passive, even when charging in aggressively. In order genuinely to take the initiative in a fight, one first needed to find one’s own qi, the inner force of one’s own personality. Sensei tried to show them how to find their qi through meditation, through listening to their own breathing. But this was a hard lesson. In forty years, only three had truly understood Sensei’s most important lesson. Emily was the last, and perhaps the best one.
This evening, class began with basic drills: step forward and punch from a back stance, step forward and block, then punch, and so on, working one’s way across the floor in each exercise. Sensei emphasized little details: shift the hips with each punch, keep both heels on the floor, retract the block on one side to initiate the punch on the other. For Emily focusing on basic mechanics was deeply satisfying. It was another way to connect with her body, with a profound musculo-skeletal logic.
The class was learning a traditional form of karate called shotokan, a flamboyant style, very forceful with an emphasis on decisive action. Each block is also a strike. The goal in any encounter is typically to create an opening through a sharp block, to step inside the opponent’s defenses and deliver a quick, devastating blow, often a short reverse punch delivered from a backstance.
Sensei’s knowledge was much broader than shotokan, as was Emily’s. Her first training was in aikido, which focused on grappling and joint manipulation. A gentler art, it teaches control and resolution: deflect and defuse the force of an attack, instead of delivering a decisive blow. Much later, he taught her what he sometimes called kung fu. For the most part, this emphasized fluid, circular motions. She learned to spin away from an attack, to block strikes across an opponent’s body, tangle him up in himself, and then strike from an unexpected direction.
There was another dimension to Sensei’s kung fu, an ancient form called wing chun. This compact style operates almost entirely within the space of her opponent’s shoulders. It could be sharp and jagged, or circular and deceptive. Although in her heart Emily favored the gentleness of aikido and the fluidity of Sensei’s kung fu, her mind seemed much more attuned to the patterns of wing chun. It is sometimes said to be a woman’s style because of the legend of its origin. To escape the attentions of a bandit chief, a young woman sought refuge in the Shaolin temple where a monk taught her to defend herself. She returned to her home, defeated the bandit and lived to pass on her style. Sensei teased her about this story from time to time, implying that it explained something about her abilities. She took him more seriously than he intended.
The rest of the class was spent practicing katas. These are elaborate sequences of moves designed to simulate a pattern of defense and attack against multiple attackers. The katas preserve in a stylized form the traditional wisdom of shotokan, full of ambiguities and alternative interpretations. They are an exercise for the imagination as well as the body. Done correctly they are physically strenuous and at the same time encourage a form of meditative self-awareness.
Sensei and Emily circulated among the students giving pointers, making corrections, demonstrating bits of one or another kata as they went. Finally, Sensei demonstrated an obscure kata that even Emily didn’t know. They all worked through it step by step, straining to make some of the moves, struggling to remember the entire sequence. Class was over. Some of the students, the dedicated ones, would practice at home. A few even had heavy kicking bags. Since the dojo was practically a second home for Emily, she didn’t have any special equipment of her own, other than a few pairs of nunchaku, a heavy bo staff, a pair of sai and an old katana her dad had given her a few years ago.
It wasn’t very sharp, despite his having taken the time to teach her how to sharpen and polish it. It had wavy markings along the broad side of the blade, alternating rough and smooth patches, even though it felt completely smooth to the touch. The pattern seemed to be a shadow deep in the metal of the blade. She knew a few sword katas, and Sensei kept meaning to teach her more sword techniques. He liked to say that the art of taking the sword out of its scabbard was more important than learning to swing it. But this was not where her training had been focused so far. She thought of it more as a memento of her father than as a working weapon.Emily took Danny home and went up to bed.