Holly Morse-Ellington

Counting Time in a Welterweight Waltz

The sun is not quick on its feet. It holds position over the boxing ring. Corrugated sheets of metal, the only roof-like structure of the open air gym, tent the arena of the ring in a square of shade. I sit on a wooden bleacher in the open air of the Gimnasio Boxeo Rafael Trejo in the cobblestoned district of Old Havana. A tourist snapping photos. Tapping index finger to camera in spurts that mirror the boxer’s shuffle. Eduardo pivots his torso and jabs the air. Sweat rolls down his bare chest and dots the graveled concrete around his feet.

“Hey, hey, hey,” he shouts, punctuating each one-two-three thrust combination. His trainer looks up and down from his stopwatch, blasting his whistle and commands.

“Giro, giro, giro,” he yells, instructing Eduardo to turn, turn, turn.

Eduardo pivots left, right, left. He strikes the air again and again, faster and harder. I study the intensity in his eyes, in his jaw, in his veins. He’s punching at air with conviction. He strikes at what can’t be touched or seen as if he’s making contact with it.

“Hey, hey, hey.” His shouts are warming up with his body, coming less from the throat and more from the gut.

He’s trying to drop five pounds from his already lean frame. Five less pounds will give him an advantage in a lower welterweight division where he’ll have height on his competition. He is six-feet tall, not counting the Mohawk mop of black hair that bounces like a rooster comb with each jab.

“Hey, hey, hey,” he shouts, all gut.

He shifts his stance and leads one-two-three jabs with his left instead of his right. Sweat shimmers against his skin like the sheen of his blue trunks. The tattoo emblazoned in cursive script across his forearm pulses overtop flexing muscle. It reads Melania, the name of his twelve-year-old sister.

Eduardo squirts water in his mouth and over his head. I move from the bleacher to come ringside, curious. “She’s like a daughter to me,” he says in Spanish as he laces up his gloves. “I want to provide for her.” He looks down at Melania’s name before climbing in the ring to spar with Cuba’s Olympic champion. This is the contact he makes punching at air. He’s striking out for a title, money, a better life. He fights for her.

I stand outside the ring. I watch their one-two-three welterweight waltz. My brother’s middle name is Edward. He is six-feet tall. He has a thick mop of dark hair. The similarities end there. My brother has no tattoos. My brother and I stopped fighting for each other. We haven’t spoken in five or six years. I lose count. One-two-three jabs.

Threads of memories thin and tattered as the ring’s ropes come at me. Giro, giro, giro. Every turn, away. They come at me out of step and off balance. A Huey Lewis and the News cassette for Christmas, two copies bought by accident and wrapped for my brother. One of which mom made him give to me. “That’s not fair,” he’d said, feeling slighted and down a present by his count of mine. Turn, turn, turn.

A senior prom on the night of a college graduation with distinction. “That’s not fair,” I’d said, staying behind to zip myself up in blue sequins while my brother walked across the stage with gold honor cords around his collar. Turn, turn, turn. Another college graduation with distinction, the gold cords draped around my collar. My brother sat this one out.

Through my boyfriends and breakups, his fiancé and a wedding called off. Through his trips to the ER and my multiple failed attempts at becoming a lawyer. We weren’t there. Not by phone, not by tattoo, not a trace of thought pulsed overtop flexing muscles of pride. We dealt each other hits by being as invisible to each other as air. Turn for turn for turn.

With everything in front of us and with no need to fight. Still, we punched and punched to avoid contact. A request one December for my brother to become ordained online and officiate my wedding. An attempt at contact to turn us in a new direction, one that gave us a reason to talk and to show up. A response that brought us together in the same room for the longest conversation we’d ever had. He laced his fingers together as he leaned forward and spoke of marriage requiring three relationships: one with your spouse, one with yourself, and one with God. “I don’t feel I can officiate your wedding, you don’t have a relationship with God,” he’d said. I hadn’t seen that one coming. A one-two-three jab while the sunshine of walking down the aisle glistened in my eyes.

I tugged off my glove the following December to answer a phone call. My hands were swollen from the cold and the margarita salt. I stood outside the windows of storefronts in Georgetown, D.C. Snow collected in my hair, falling thick and holding its white form long enough to pulse and fade and pulse like twinkling strands of lights. I’d told my husband I wanted one outfit and one dinner in the upscale neighborhood. It was my birthday. A federal inmate was calling from the U. S. Department of Corrections, would I accept the charges? Yes. It was my brother. It was the first time he’d called since he began serving his sentence for an assault he’d pled guilty to instead of putting up a fight in court.

“I read the paperwork you sent,” my brother said as soon as he was patched through. Time is not quick on its feet in prison. It holds its position inside the walls like the sun on the longest day of the year. I imagine he stayed awake with regrets. The one that led him to reach out to me was that he’d pled guilty, believing he’d receive probation instead of a five-year sentence. He’d written me a letter, asking if there was anything that could be done.

“Look,” I told him, “your only option at this point is attorney malpractice.”

“What if he retaliates?” he’d asked me, anticipating the fast punches he’d learned the system could pull like being moved from minimum to maximum security or time added to his sentence. I’d offered to help before it got this far. Maybe I hadn’t pushed hard enough. Maybe there was too much resistance to push through.

I struggled to remain patient, to keep from yelling, “Hey! What do you want from me?”

I didn’t know if his timing was off and he’d forgotten that it was my birthday. Or if the timing of the call was his way of offering me a gift, a way to carry on as brother and sister. I didn’t know how to tell him I’d heard that a fellow inmate had given him a gift, an empty peanut butter jar he could use as a shower caddy. And that I was glad someone had shown him kindness. I didn’t know what to say or where to start over. I didn’t know how to connect when we couldn’t even say hello to begin the conversation. We’d turned and turned and turned, wearing down the gravel beneath our steps.

“It’s not fair,” I said, “but I don’t know what else to do for you.” My fingers, numb with cold, couldn’t feel the phone as I pushed to end the call.

The sun is not quick on its feet. It holds its position, unmoved by the commands giro, giro, giro. In Spanish, the word is pronounced hero. A word that draws a surge – a cry, hey! – from the gut. I hear Eduardo and the Champ connect glove against flesh. Every toe to toe, jab for jab moment comes until it comes to blows. Eduardo’s back is up against the ropes. He shifts his stance to find new momentum. One shift to get off the ropes, to get back in the fight.

© Holly Morse-Ellington

Holly Morse-Ellington is a recipient of the 2018 Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Playwriting. Her one act play, Free To Go, debuts at Manhattan Repertory Theatre in 2018. Holly’s creative nonfiction has appeared in Broad River Review and Matador Network, among others.

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