Chapter Two

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It takes a while for me to talk my way out of dinner with Jessie's family. His mom's always trying to feed me, telling me that I don't have enough meat on my bones (the other girls in my class would beg to differ). The great thing about Jessie's house is that it's right across from a bus terminal, making it easy to go just about anywhere after I leave.

When I get to the terminal, both of the Queen Street busses are waiting. The southbound, I know, will take me home in ten stops, but something about the idea of waiting in the empty house for my mom to get off work seems sadder than it normally does. I think of the man from my dream, eating alone over the sink, and am for a moment reminded of myself.

I climb onto the eastbound, instead, swiping my bus pass and then stealing a seat in the back.

I feel weird, but not really. It's more that I feel weird because I don't feel weird. In movies, having sex is supposed to be this pivotal, life-changing thing, and yet I still feel like the exact same girl who sat in bio two hours ago taking notes on meiosis. I wonder how Jessie's doing.

I take the bus almost to the end of the route. From there, it's a ten minute walk to the old rec centre that houses the boxing gym. I'm the first person there, so I sit out on the bike racks waiting for one of the coaches to show up.

Reiner, the lifeblood of the place, shows up next. He must be pushing ninety now but he still shows up every day, same as he has since he started running this place in the seventies.

"Rowan," he says, nodding at me. His chin's permanently tucked down to his chest, muscle memory from his fighting days. He unlocks the door with shaking hands and I slide off the bike rack to go hold it open for him.

"How you doing, Reiner?"

"Still breathing. Unfortunately." He's got an accent that I might be able to describe as more than vaguely European if I hadn't slept through half of my geography classes freshman year. He pats me on the shoulder as I break away to the women's locker room.

The locker furthest from the door, with the hot pink lock, is mine. I spin in the combination so fast that I can hardly tell if I'm putting in the right numbers, but the lock open just the same. I step into my shiny boxing shoes, lacing them up tight to make sure my ankles won't twist mid-pivot. They're the smallest size I could find and still a size too big on me; the stores around me don't carry women's sizes.

Next I swap out my school uniform for a pair of shorts and a baggy t-shirt before grabbing my gloves, wraps, and mouth guard and heading back into the gym. The place reeks of sweat, but at least the floor is still dry. Some nights, it gets so packed in here that the floor becomes gets slick with sweat and God knows what other bodily fluids. I've slipped and fallen on my ass more times than I can count.

Boxing gym's, like cities, pretty much all look the same: some combination of rings, floor, and punching bags. This one's tiny compared to some of the others I've visited, but it does its job and it does it well.

Right when you walk in, there's a ring—our only one, but we don't have that many people here, anyway. Behind that's the equipment closet, a speedbag, and an old beam scale that's off by a kilogram or two.

To the left of the ring is a mirrored wall and, in front of that, a big square of open floor with punching bags around the perimeter. Pushed against the walls in various corners of the gym are a stationary bike, dumbbells, and a stack of mats.

I get a skipping rope from the equipment room and switch on the clock to sound off three-minute rounds with a thirty-second rest. On the floor, I stretch for a minute and then skip for four rounds, until my cheeks are tinged pink and my forehead glistens. I put my rope away and then sit on the edge of the ring in front of Reiner.

"What've you been up to?" I ask him, starting to wind my pink wraps—stiff and stinky—through my fingers. People start filing in, filling the room with a low buzz of conversation.

"Just making the most of retired life. Visiting the doctor, watching reruns on the television all day, wishing my children would come see me..." He reaches out and grabs my hand, thumbs feeling at the padding atop my knuckles. "Glove up, eh?"

Reiner hobbles over to the front of the gym, in front of the bags, and leans against the side of the ring. I put my gloves on and shadowbox on the floor for a minute, getting into my stance and loosening up. I stand in front of the mirror and practice slipping left and right, then bringing down my elbows to block my sides. I start throwing combos and gliding around the floor, battling an imaginary opponent.

"Enough," says Reiner after two rounds. "Show that bag what you're made of."

I go over to the heavy bag in the corner. It's one of the only bags that hang low enough for me to be able to practice body shots—it's mainly guys that come here, and tall ones at that. For the next hour, I alternate throwing busy combos on the bag, working abs on the floor, and doing speed punches.

The time melts away. I can lose myself in this. Here, I know exactly who I am, exactly what I'm doing. I can slip into the rhythm of the fight, let myself pretend that I'm in the ring kicking ass. I'm powerful here, more than I ever am outside the gym.

"Hit the showers, kid," Reiner says to me long after the world outside has gone dark.

I let my arms drop, suddenly feeling the ache in my shoulders. My shirt is absolutely soaked through, making me feel sticky and sluggish. When I catch sight of myself in the wall of mirrors, I cringe at my red, blotchy skin and baby hairs slicked to my forehead with sweat. I look disgusting, though I can't find it in me to care.

"I'm still good to spar," I tell him. The guys around me are already gearing up, lacing headgear tight and switching out their gloves.

"No one for you to spar with." He scoffs when I gesture at the crowd of guys behind him. "They're too heavy for you."

Some of them, maybe, but I'm pushing a hundred and sixty pounds. There are at least a half dozen people here that are in my weight class and a good handful that weigh less. "I can take it," I tell him.

"Another day," Reiner says. "You'll spar Tomorrow." Tomorrow night, like every Friday night, is when all the girls from the boxing clubs in the GTA get together to spar, because there are never enough girls at any one gym.

"That isn't fair."

"Neither is life. Now go shower; you reek."

I stick my tongue out at him and he laughs. This is the part that I hate—not the work out, not the fight, but after, when people go back to treating me like a little girl. I hate that I fill the part so well. In the ring, no one would think to call me little. Girl or boy, they'd be too busy trying to keep their faces in one piece. It's only out of the ring that people get taken in by my rosy cheeks and the twin braids running down my back.

Back in the locker room, I'm too impatient to let the shower run long enough to get warm and step straight under the icy water. It's a shock, at first, the kind that steals your breath away, but after a minute it isn't so bad. I wash myself quickly, trying my best to keep my hair dry, and after I wrap myself in a towel and comb it out in front of one of the mirrors.

It's long, which I love, but the ends are frizzy and dried out from an unfortunate dye job in the ninth grade. The bottle of red dye hadn't done too much damage, but the two bottles of black that Jessie and I'd used to cover it up left my hair stripped beyond repair. When I can run my fingers through it without any knots snagging, I braid it back into two loose plaits down the sides of my head.

The bus ride home feels longer than normal and a couple of people give me funny looks for still being in my school uniform this late at night, but I'd rather that than sit in my damp gym clothes. 

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