The wind isn’t really knocked out of you. When you fall, you panic, hold your breath, tense every muscle. When you land the impact travels through you in a chain reaction. The air trapped in your rigid body hammers into the diaphragm and ricochets into the phrenic nerve, the two-pronged cord that rises up from deep within the chest into the vertebrae of your neck. The phrenic nerve is concussed. The chain of command is suspended, all communications turned off. The diaphragm stops.
You open your mouth but no breath comes. Your lungs won’t inflate. Your brain starts screaming orders—FUCKING BREATHE!—and igniting adrenaline throughout your system. But the only response is your heart echoing ever faster, demanding oxygen that isn’t coming.
Faces look down at you, but you can’t speak. Your mouth opens and closes soundlessly. Then the phrenic nerve wakes up, and the diaphragm jump starts. You want to gasp at the air, to inflate your empty lungs, but the truth is the wind never left you, and there’s no room for new air. Despite all the instincts raging through your body, you have to let the air go one more time before you can finally breathe.
I know this is the fate that awaits me as the Sensei pads across the mat and halts near me in wordless invitation. He appears motionless, arms raised, priest-like still, ready to hear my confession and dole out my penance of pain. In reality he’s motionless because he can’t see me. He’s blind, and has been since age six, not that that should be any encouragement, because he is a former world judo champion and I’m a former would-be-weekend-warrior. He moves with such command it’s easy to forget he’s blind, but it’s when you watch him fall that you really marvel.
In judo you spend hours practicing falling, or ukemi. You learn to utter a kiai when you land—a shout that empties your lungs of air, giving your diaphragm a soft vacuum to fold into. Watching the Sensei fall is like watching a cat jump from a wall. In demonstrations he’ll allow himself to be thrown in all manner of techniques or dive headfirst over multiple prone fighters, and each time, he lands in a silence that belies the anticipated impact of form into mat. Try closing your eyes and falling into the bed you know so well. Every instinct in your body fights the fall into darkness. The Sensei leaps into the black every time he falls. The key, he says, is letting go, although in typical blind sensei fashion, he doesn’t specify letting go of what.
For the first few seconds we circle each other, our hands skirmishing for the best grip. As soon as I’ve got a hold of him, I feel my body suddenly cantilevered to his. We are two masses locked in a doomed orbit. Sweat is pouring from me already as adrenaline floods my body. I attack with leg sweeps, which have won me plenty of other fights but today are futile tokens of resistance. Good! Good! yells the Sensei, which just reinforces the fact that I have no chance of staying on my feet. He can literally feel my attacks before I throw them, before I even think to throw them. I try to step back and keep him at arms’ length, but my elbows are suddenly jerked inward then ripped back outward. In a moment an arm’s length is gone, and the Sensei and I are chest to chest, clasped together like lovers. I’m tripping precipitously, trying to regain range, but I know what’s coming and I know there’s no stopping it. The Sensei sweeps first one leg then the other, and just as I skip out of both attacks his hips twist, his leg sweeps back, he explodes out of a half squat, and I’m launched off my feet into the air. If you could slow it down it would appear to be almost graceful. The unfolding of human origami.
For a beat, I’m circling the globe.
For a beat, the globe stops.
And I remember her. She’s waiting for me in the kitchen. I hide the Ferrero Rocher—those individually wrapped chocolates that come in a three-pack at the gas station. She loves these chocolates. I leave them in places I know she’ll find them. Her handbag, her nightstand, the dash of our car. Mementos of my love for the times I can’t tell her in person. It’s kind of a game by now. I must have hidden more than 5,000 since I first met her. I’ve personally kept that Italian chocolate company in business for more than a decade.
But when I see her I know there’s no point hiding the chocolate. She’s sitting at the counter with a glass of wine. It could be any other night. But it’s not.
Suddenly, she flips me with Uchi Mata—the inner thigh throw, the most spectacular of all judo throws—and I soar across the room and slam into the faux hardwood floor, letting out a great KIAI as I land.
Except of course, she doesn’t really throw me. She says simply, “I’ve been leaving you incrementally,” and I start falling.
For everyone else around the mat, time doesn’t slow down. All they see are detonated limbs and a brief snapshot of my body upside down and heading to earth unnaturally fast.
The mat punches out all memories but not the air. I did not kiai. My phrenic nerve is concussed, my diaphragm has stopped, I cannot breathe. The Sensei hears the silence, and says, “Are you ok?” I look up at him, but no sound comes out of my mouth. My nociceptors—the nerves assigned to signal pain—begin lobbying my brain with their stories. My ribs and hips reverberate from the impact. Broken capillaries are already beginning to bloom into tomorrow’s contusions. I feel it all in a breathless silence. And then I let go. I let the trapped air out and gasp at new air, and as I do I start to choke out a laugh, grateful for a language of pain I can understand.