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LAST WALTZ

By Kevin Michaels

I leaned into the Cubanís chest, grabbed his shoulders, and tried pulling him into a tight embrace before he could dance away. He was tall, hard, and lean - the sweat on his body glistened under the overhead lights. I wrapped my arms around him, but he needed space and distance - room to move without me hanging all over him. The Cuban banged a right into my ribs that backed me up a step and then he shoved me away.

Two more minutes.

Two minutes didnít mean that much, I thought. Be lucky to last that long.

Especially with the Cuban banging that fucking right into my ribs all night.

The night had started with promise and hope, but it was gone now.

Everything hurt. I could taste blood in my mouth Ė thick and acrid. Itís a taste you never forget; the bitterness hangs in your throat like stale coffee then hits your stomach with a nasty kick. More blood streamed down my face, mixing with sweat that stung my eyes. I couldnít blink away the pain burning one eye and it was impossible to see out of the other eye. The skin on my face felt tender and raw, throbbing no matter how often my corner had pressed the cold steel bar against it between rounds to control the swelling. But worse, something inside was definitely broken - when I sucked in a deep breath the pain squeezed the air from my lungs like a vice. The noise from the crowd engulfed us but all I could hear was my own labored breathing as I rasped for air and moved around the ring, trying to find safety in the distance.

I shook the sweat from my eyes and sprayed the Cuban with blood. Popped two jabs towards him to create room between us, hoping to stay out of reach and fool the crowd into thinking I was still in this fight. The Cuban easily blocked my jabs and circled, cutting off the ring. He was fast - nine rounds into the fight and he hadnít slowed down or lost a step, and I couldnít keep up with him.

We danced around each other; cautious and careful yet opportunistic for any kind of opening. Nothing about his movements betrayed his intentions. His eyes were focused and determined. Not a hint of fear or doubt in his expression. There was a look in his eyes that I recognized as something that had once belonged to me when I was younger; before time had worn away everything I owned. Now I wondered what the Cuban saw when he looked into my eyes Ė was it something soft and weak, or even less than that? I offered a left-right combination but he slipped the punches and worked his way closer with sharp left hooks. He found that same soft spot in my ribs and dug each punch into my body so hard that at first there was nothing, then all air rushed from my lungs as my insides imploded. All I could do was hold on to his arms to keep from dropping to one knee.

Ninety seconds.

Ninety seconds could feel like an eternity. Especially when my legs were gone and I had nothing left. There were no lucky punches and no miracles waiting to happen Ė just ninety painful seconds taking forever to fall way from the clock.

He was relentless in his assault and all I had were instincts and memories, and neither offered much help. I waved a jab and moved away, then tried hiding behind my gloves as the Cuban backed me towards the ropes.

It was that right hand that was killing me. I couldnít do anything to stop it from crashing into my body over and over again.

Whatever will I had left to fight disappeared, and in each shot I felt every punch I had ever taken. There was no place to run, nowhere to hide, and nothing else I could do. In that instant I saw myself for what I was Ė a tired, beaten fighter suddenly too many bouts past his prime. Holding on to a dream, and holding on to something from the past, that was no longer mine to own. All that potential of youth was gone - if it had ever really been there the way I had fooled myself into believing it was. I should have realized the truth before I ever got into the ring - I was just a stepping stone on somebody elseís path.

Two quick jabs came at me then a right over the top. The Cuban whacked my arms and brought an uppercut underneath that slammed into my chin. By then I had lost the ability to connect thoughts with actions, and in a dozen different ways I felt helpless against each punch he threw.

I remember thinking that I didnít want to look foolish. There were too many people watching Ė too much shame and indignity to go out that way. I had known for a long time that I would never get that title shot, no matter how many hours spent sweating in the gym, pushing my body past limits I never knew existed, and struggling through meaningless fights under the harsh stares of apathetic crowds. I would never go out on top as champion. But I didnít want to be one of those guys you would see grabbing for the ropes in desperation, legs splayed in different directions, trying to find something solid underfoot to remain upright no matter what it took. Lurching and staggering from side to side, arms flailing like windmills. Eyes glazed and watery. Sad, beaten, and pathetic.

I didnít want to be exposed like that.

Sixty seconds left in the round.

I just wanted to hang on that long.

(C)opyright 2009 Kevin Michaels All Rights Reserved

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