lek 1

Lek was exhausted. Bloodied, aching, and swollen too, but it was every fiber in his body screaming, “Enough!” busily taking center stage at the moment. It was a shame he didn’t have enough strength left to pay his body’s warning heed. Lek took a deep, cleansing breath. And then tried another. This is not the life for me, he thought. I’m a lover. Not a fighter.

A video clip of Lek running across the ring and planting a big sloppy kiss on his opponent’s lips played in his mind. He laughed. And his face quickly reminded him that laughing hurt. A lot. But his high-pitched giggle, as inappropriate as an erection during evening prayers, drew his opponent’s attention from across the ring; Lek’s swollen face smeared in bright daubs of red from the unsuccessful pass of a towel by his trainer’s hand, a bruise around his blackening eye opening across his cheek like a deep-purple lotus blossom, and that giggle that had escaped past his bruised and bleeding lips colluded to form a maniacal visage of a demented bull elephant in rut, doing more damage to his opponent’s will than the flying knee Lek had landed at the end of the last round. Maybe I can just laugh him to death, Lek thought.

Muay Thai, at the village level, was less about the sport’s history, athleticism, artistry, and pageantry and more about the thrill of watching two, young, strapping lads attempt to beat each other into a bloody pulp. It was survival of the fittest at its most basic level, the dog-eat-dog nature of human beings at their worst, their animal instincts taking over the rational mind. Lek thought that humans, having figured out the brutal laws of nature, could perhaps transcend some of them. But not here. Not now. Muay Thai was entertainment were little entertainment existed. And it was an excuse for gambling and drinking too. All of which helped stave off the monotony of village life. None of which appealed to Lek in the least. Not for the last time he wondered how his life had taken such a right-angled turn without any warning. He winced slightly, but otherwise hid his displeasure manfully.

lek 2

Three years ago when his papa had suggested Lek train in Muay Thai he’d been inconsolable. Noi, his older sister had tried to comfort him, pointing out that at that age, when Lek was all knees and elbows with a scrawny frame unsuitable for anything other than scaring the white-headed munia out of his family’s rice field, he needed to learn how to defend himself. Lek suspected his papa had identified another area of Lek’s psyche that would benefit from learning how to protect himself too. Or at least he might mitigate the damage he was sure to receive by learning how to fight back. But then, maybe it was just the money to be made. Right now papa was busy circulating through the crowd, offering higher and higher odds to squeeze every last satang out of the drunk, boisterous crowd.

Lek’s friend Ait was out there too, placing bets where he could. Lek had given him the kingly sum of 300 baht to wager on his behalf. Ait’s only question was whether that was for him to win or lose the match. Remembering Ait’s straight-faced delivery of that line made Lek giggle again. And started sending fresh waves of pain coruscating through his young face again. Lek wanted to cry.

His mind – like his heart – not really in the fight, Lek looked out over the village. In every direction the horizon melted into haze and heat mirages. Nut-brown children wrestled lackadaisically on a water buffalo, surrounded by a landscape of rickety houses moss-grown and semi fallen. There wasn’t even a gust of wind to rearrange the heat. If Lek knew what a metaphor was, the village would have served as a perfect one for his life. Instead, a mind-numbing sense of despondency prevailed. His atavistic sense urged him to either fight or flee the circumstances of his life. And here he was fighting. When all his soul wanted was to flee.

lek 3

You can’t swallow it, you can’t spit it out, Lek thought. It wasn’t like he had many options to choose from anyway. Besides, the purse from this fight, and the money he’d already put away, along with the winnings Ait would soon be collecting for him should be just enough to fatten his wallet with the precious funds required to make it to Bangkok where he could stay with Noi, who hadn’t yet said yes to his plan, but then hadn’t said no either. The roar of the crowd, the thrill of a win wasn’t what kept Lek entering ring after ring, it wasn’t what pushed him to fight round after round. Bangkok, and its promise of a different life was the siren’s call that made him answer that bell. Besides, Lek thought, his legs looked pretty damn good in Muay Thai trunks.

Three years of fighting hadn’t impacted his physique much; puberty had done more. Lek was still gangly, possibly sporting a few more muscles, although a few of those he wasn’t sure just how happy he should be about. As his training progressed, and his skills improved, the other kids in his village picked on him less and less. His long silky black hair, which had once been a constant source of teasing he now wore tied up in a knot – at least in public – harkening back to a style favored by Muay Boran fighters of old. But all elbows and knees still described Lek best, even though their mention these days was more often about how savagely they flew in the ring. If only they knew, Lek thought.

His trainer, the old sadistic bastard, liked to brag about Lek’s focus in the ring. But then he had to say something positive, had to in some way lay claim for Lek’s success. His trainer’s legacy as a Muay Thai fighter was a bit murky; no one could quite remember just when it was that he was supposed to have reigned supreme at Bangkok’s Lumpinee Stadium. There were no old, faded handbills to attest to his history, no word-of-mouth to spread his fame beyond his own insistent bragging. Lek thought the old man spent a lot of his time painting stripes on a cat. He suspected his true claim to fame was the obvious enjoyment he derived from watching little kids get punched in the face, occasionally getting a blow or two in himself under the guise of practice. What Lek did know was that the style that had seen him through a steady rise in the local rankings had nothing to do with the old man’s instructions. For that he had video games to thank.

lek 4

In his village, everyone he knew around his age lived to play video games. And fighting games ruled. Lek wasn’t a fan. But the games were better than when the other boys decided to start letting fists fly of their own. So he faked it. His friends spent hours perfecting their moves, learning secret commands, mastering maneuvers on their controllers. Lek’s approach was more basic. He just hit as many buttons as he could, as fast as his fingers would move. He won. Often. And when he stumbled upon some impressive striking combination no one else knew how to do, he just smiled sagely like the grand master that he wasn’t.

That strategy seemed to work in the ring too. With eight points of his body that he could use to strike an opponent with in Muay Thai, Lek cycled through all of them. As quickly and as often as possible. And he usually won his bouts. Lek’s style as a nak muay was more about a battle of attrition than of knock-down blows. Skill took practice, his brand of fighting relied more on luck. And on the stubborn streak within him that said if he had to fight then he had to win. Because winning meant money and money meant the only purse that really mattered: the road that led to Bangkok. And to his dream.

His papa thought that if he kept fighting, eventually a promoter from Bangkok would see him and take Lek to Krung Thep to battle at one of the major stadiums. Lek knew better. He could beat village oafs through determination and speed. Actual, well-trained nak muay, not so much. In any case, Lek’s dream wasn’t to become a Muay Thai fighter famous across the country. That dream his papa voiced often was so distant, so intermittent, so thready, that it was like aural smoke – a noise on the edge of nothingness. The life he’d be able to live in Bangkok was less surreal, more certain. And more fabulous. If only Noi would agree to her and So’s part in his plan.

lek 5

Noi had always been there for him before, or as much as an older sister could be. And So . . . well, Lek thought about So often. He was a good man. And movie star handsome. Lek wasn’t sure what it was So did for work in Bangkok, it sounded like he worked in a hotel. Or maybe at a restaurant. Lek knew he worked around farang. And that he made good money in tips. After that, the subject always seemed to change. But he knew that if was up to So, his future in Bangkok would be assured. It was Noi and her need to balance every pro and con that still needed convincing. Lek knew that Noi would go along with his wishes once she had everything perfectly arranged in her mind. He just hoped she’d text soon.

Hearing the loud smack of a hand on the canvass brought Lek’s mind back to the present, back to his opponent who stood across the ring, panting heavily, his expression as blank as a dead man’s soul. With a low moan that reverberated throughout his body, Lek pushed himself off his stool, took another deep breath, and flew across the ring toward his future.

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