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Karate Camp

 

It’s five in the morning and I’m running full tilt down an unpaved road surrounded by lunatics. Our cotton uniforms glow in the moonlight. Paul jogs by me grinning and Ian, a step behind, shakes his head like a mournful dog. Jillian shoots me a long-suffering look as she lopes past. 
 
“Bastards,” she mutters. “Don’t they have watches?”
 
I’m starting to wheeze. My ancestors were farmers and accountants; I’m not built for speed. I’ll break an ankle. I’ll fall behind and be lost in the wilderness. Antipodean creatures with shiny teeth and stomach pouches will gnaw on my delicate expatriate American bones.
 
I am, in fact, bringing up the rear, the only adult in a small pack of huffing children. Gradually, they too gain on me. The last to pull away is an asthmatic 10-year-old who takes a puff from his inhaler and puts on a burst of speed. When he rounds the bend I’m alone in the dark.
 
For a moment I’m terrified. Then, I realize, if I can’t see them they can’t see me and I slow to a walk, a standstill and, finally, in a show of defiance, I lie flat on the ground. The stars are shockingly bright. It’s peaceful. I would fall asleep if I wasn’t freezing. I struggle to my feet and limp into the darkness.
 
Around the next curve the road spills onto the beach. A hundred karate students are kneeling in the sand meditating, huddled like gulls against the wind. Their eyes are closed and they are missing a beautiful sunrise. I have no hope of making my way to the front line of black belts without stepping on someone so I drop where I am. I’m supposed to be emptying my mind but I’m thinking that if someone makes me go into the ocean I’ll die of  hypothermia. Also, I am praying for a minivan to appear out of nowhere and take me back to the camp. I’ve had it with running.
 
Two hours later we’re lined up in the cafeteria waiting for Sensei to show up so we can eat. I have a sore knee but I’ve made it through the morning otherwise unscathed. My uniform is almost dry. Being slow to the beach had an unforeseen advantage: the black belts in the front had to train in the deepest water. I am a small woman and it’s no small gift to be in the shallows.
 
Sensei walks in with his senior students and the din dies down. They fill their plates and make their way to the head table. When Sensei reaches his chair he motions that we should start eating. We’re on the food like wild dogs. Ian rests his mouth on the lip of  the plate and shovels. Paul softens a roll in his coffee and pushes it whole into his mouth. Jillian is on her third fried egg and I’m not far behind.
 
“What’s next?” I manage between bites.
 
“An hour of basics, an hour of syllabus work,” Ian says, still shoveling.
 
“Lunch after?”
 
“Lunch, teambuilding exercises and a lecture.” He mock snores with a full mouth. It’s not pretty.
 
“Take off your long johns and pee while you can,” Jillian says.
 
“I peed in the woods,” I admit.
 
“Well done,” Ian says with a note of admiration. He elbows Paul who’s eyeing a dark-eyed green belt at the next table. “Seconds?” Ian asks, rising.
 
“And thirds, mate.”
 
The lecture is endless. We kneel in meditation for so long that a brown belt falls asleep and tips over. He hits the floor with a thud, wakes up and turns an astonishing shade of red. Sensei is so annoyed he has us kneel for another 20 minutes before telling us to “sit and relax.” My feet are asleep and my right knee is locked out.
 
“At least Ian didn’t fart,” Jillian whispers. His gas is legendary.
 
Dinner is festive with a sort of gallows gaiety. Sparring will start before sunup. The black belts will warm up on one another then wake the junior ranks and fight them.
 
Dawn is a blur. Some bastard 250-pound second-degree sweeps me to the floor, offers me a hand up and drops me again. I give him a low bow and a mental “fuck you.” Paul is on my right in the sparring line. He wipes the floor with the guy for the next three minutes. When the round ends Paul leans over to me and spits his mouthpiece into his glove.
 
“You softened him up for me, mate,” he says, grinning. I fall deeply and permanently in love.
 
The bus takes us into a flat brown city outside Melbourne. Sensei’s dojo is the biggest game in town and everyone knows him. Jillian and I keep a few steps back while Ian and Paul, our seniors, do the requisite fawning. Then we pile into a rented van and head for the airport. We’ve flown several hours for the privilege of being pummeled.
 
“Did he say anything?” I ask nervously. I’m waiting for Sensei to say I can test for my next belt.
 
Ian grins. “Start running now.”
 
I sink lower in the seat. I’ll be back in a few months. I’m pleased and appalled at the prospect, a sore and satisfied masochist.
 
“She’ll be right, mate,” Paul says. “It’s all good.”



Lisa Starr is a writer, mother and karate student from Northern California.

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