Every night after jiu-jitsu, as I stagger into the tiny curtained room that two dozen men change in, I play the where-am-I-bleeding game. We practice at a kids gymnasium; our practice space is four inches of foam rubber, atop flexible plywood, atop another four inches of foam rubber, the whole affair covered by a thousand square feet of cheap blue shag. As a workspace for advanced judo (tomoe nage, hane goshi, harai goshi), it’s almost decadent, a far cry from the thin mats on the basketball court of our BC days or the packed dirt of Nagoya rice paddies. But you have to deal with rug burn. So, as I strip off the heavy cotton gi, I check the backs of my hands to see where I’m bleeding.
It’s never bad, of course: a scratch, a few light scrapes. But after I have a few drinks with the other students, I go home, wash my hands and then apply bandages. A gangly adolescence taught me to ignore scrapes on my hands – which live something like a mile away from my head and thus my brain – on the presumption they’d eventually go away. But they no longer go away. And while no one dies of a scrape to the knuckles anymore (in the First World at least), it hurts. Every time I reach into my pocket it hurts. But there’s no good way to bandage the knuckles or the inside of your finger so you’re left with beige tape crossing your hands at jagged angles: your drunk uncle Ben taping up your Christmas presents.
And these aren’t rough, intimidating scars either. If you’re looking for someone who’s been in a lot of fights, look at their knuckles: they’re flattened and misshapen, broken from repeated forty mile-an-hour impacts against other people’s jaws. Mine are still whole knobs rising toward the front of my hand like cliffs, dotted with pinpoint scars. There’s the one from the sharp tip of a fake wooden knife. There’s the friction burn from the sleeve of my own gi. The two newest ones – which will become scars no matter how long I bandage them or how much bacitracin I apply – on my left major ring knuckle and the middle of my left pinkie, from when I stopped grappling for position with a man who has sixty pounds on me and just lay atop him, dead weight and sprawling limbs, breathing like a furnace with my left hand pinned to the blue shag, shifting from half guard to full mount an inch at a time. Not resting, but advancing with care (UPDATE: that entire last sentence sounds unwittingly pornographic; not at all what I intended; leaving it as written because, hey, what is a blog if not a history of first drafts)