Chloë Mattingly

Contest Winner - 2nd Place

Chloë Mattingly was born in the south and raised in the north, and she’s been confused ever since. Presently, she is based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her work has been anthologized in Creative Nonfiction’s Show Me All Your Scars. She writes essays, and stories, and sometimes emails.


A Tangle of Lines

It’s the way he touches her arm. With a gentleness, an authority. The way he directs her feet, corrects her stance. It’s the look on her face, the concentration, the drip of sweat down the crook of her nose. It’s one of these things, or possibly nothing at all.

From my perch on the grooved-wood bleachers of the Gimnasio Boxeo Rafael Trejo, I watch as the coach, an older man with a dust of gray hair and mustached lip, marches before the line of trainees, shrill whistle in hand. They range in age and size, these four men, but they move with confidence and familiarity, bouncing on the balls of their feet, accenting each staccato jab of their fist with a guttural “HEY!” And then there’s the girl: pale-faced with dark hair and a pink headband tucked behind her ears, struggling at times to keep up, but doing so with an expressive determination.

I’m here at this boxing lesson in Havana, Cuba for a writing lab, a workshop that was originally meant for photographers but is experimenting now with writers. Jorge, a cuban photographer and our guide for the day, led our group through the streets of Havana Vieja, where sidewalks are more of a suggestion, to this gimnasio. It’s a great place for photographers, he tells us. The movement, the muscles.

Little more than an amateur photographer myself, I took a few tentative shots, then settled myself on the bleachers to observe. This is where I sit as I obsess over the girl. I know nothing about her, and for some reason I don’t want to ask. Instead, I watch. I watch as she fusses with the red wrap spun tightly around her hands. I watch as she leans back against the ring, the stretch of rope, the warp of its lines. I try to ignore my fascination with her, try to explain it as a simple case of “one of these things is not like the other,” but I know that’s not it.

I allow my eyes to drift upwards to the scud of clouds above the stands. The gym itself lies low between its neighbors, the highest point the vault of corrugated metal that hovers over the boxing ring. On either end the red bars of bleachers rise up into the open air. The effect is a complicated mess of geometry, a tangle of lines.

What walls the gym has are made up by neighboring buildings, which appear to be apartments. Linens hang from clothes lines wedged under windows; a worn blue towel festooned with snowflakes flutters in the hot Havana breeze. This is Cuba, where the idea of snow is no more than an ornamentation. I think of the snowdust that swept across my Tennessee lawn in the days before I left for this island. Of icy air and dry knuckles and sandpaper lips. I close my eyes for a moment, indulging in the blaze of the sun, and not for the first time I find myself marveling over the simple fact of my presence. That I am actually here. In Cuba. Hunched on the bleachers of an old gym in Havana on a Saturday afternoon, watching a boxing lesson. Alive.

I open my eyes, and this moment of contentment has softened my uneasiness about the girl. “Giro, giro, giro!” shouts the couch. Turn, turn, turn. He moves to the front to demonstrate, his fists raised before his face. The ring on his finger flickers in the sunlight. Jorge moves to the side of the gym, camera in hand, crouching down to get a better angle as he frames his shot. My gaze returns to the girl: She raises her fists in imitation, eyes flitting to the man before her. He’s a serious-faced man, strongly-built, clearly an experienced boxer, and yet, there is a softness to him, something kind about the eyes.

And then he touches her arm. With a gentleness, an authority. Then he directs her feet, corrects her stance. And suddenly I have left Cuba, flown far away from the Gimnasio Boxeo Rafael Trejo with its peeling paint and plank-wood bleachers, and I am in Thailand, years before, in a Muay Thai gym, my sweat-soaked hands slipping inside a pair of boxing gloves too big for me as the instructor touches my arm, directs my feet, corrects my stance. The dim room reverberates with the thud—thud—thud of the punching bag. My tongue tastes of salt and sweat as I try not to think about the calamitous year that led me to this gym in Thailand, I try not to think about all the things I did and didn’t do. I try not think about that stupid sign that used to hang on the bulletin board at my old university, the one that was offensively pink with big black letters announcing: SELF DEFENSE FOR WOMEN. The class I never got around to taking. Endlessly I obsess: Would it have changed things? Could I have changed things? And if I could, wasn’t what happened my fault?

I try not to think about Pittsburgh, the home I left behind, thinking somewhere so far away as Thailand might save me from this perpetual tide of memory. I try not to think about the apartment I abandoned, boxed-up and lease broken. I try not to think—I try not to think—but once the memories start they are nearly impossible to contain—all it takes is one trigger, one image, one touch of the arm—and I try not to think about the way he touched my arm, I try not to think about his fingers around my throat—

A slight movement below the red bar of the bleachers pulls me back from the convoluted line of memory, back to Havana; I hear the click of a camera shutter. I glance down and see Jorge cradling the camera in his hands, its lens pointed at my face. I jolt, then offer a startled smile. He winks and vanishes under the bleachers.

He reappears a few moments later, climbing over the planks of wood, and perches next to me. He holds his camera so I can see the screen. “Here is a picture that shows how much you care about boxing,” he says with a grin.

I look at the photo and feel the familiar shock of seeing my own face. I am sitting with my hands under my chin, fingers curled into punching fists. My mouth is set, my gaze indistinct. I look either profoundly bored or profoundly miserable. I feel a sense of frustration with the girl I see in the image. I hate how quickly it all comes back, even now, those deep, meaty bruises on my memory.

“See?” Jorge jokes. “Nothing.”

I look again at the photo, my empty face framed between the red bars of bleachers, pressed between two parallel lines, and for a moment I see what Jorge sees. No evidence of mental time travel, the way my brain sometimes shakes me around. Just a bored girl at a boxing match.

I smile.