Through our VCR, my brother and I learn about love. We learn about violence. We learn that sometimes it’s easy to confuse the two. Chuck, Steven and our favorite, Jean-Claude, conflate romance and cruelty. Sometimes their fighting seems like fucking. And their fucking looks like fighting. Maybe vengeance feels as good as kissing. It’s hard to tell. No matter how much we rewind, we never gain clarity.
What we do know is that Chuck, Steven and Jean-Claude mete out justice between their beefy hands and calloused palms and hacksaw feet. They are greasy, sinewy, ass-kicking machines. They are armed, licensed, and out to kill. Their lives are a series of strong verbs that propel them toward their ultimate goal: a final showdown in which they murder, or if it’s PG-13, brutally clobber the Bad Dude.
Before the final showdown, Chuck, Steven and Jean-Claude are susceptible to the love of a good woman. This woman emerges with a name no one remembers. Her presence cued by a low-rent power ballad. The Good Woman falls naked into pristine hotel sheets under hazy lighting. Chuck, Steven and Jean-Claude spill the seeds of their lifelong trauma into the Good Woman. They wake up replenished and ready for combat. The Good Woman untangles herself from all those hotel sheets and showers away the stories of fathers and sons and dead army buddies and dead senseis and all those bad, bad dudes.
Good women are interchangeable, but each bad dude is distinctively iconic. Take the Bad Dude in my favorite Jean-Claude movie, Bloodsport. Chong Li is all possessed pectorals and eyes that bury you six feet deep. But he’s no match for Jean-Claude’s Frank Dux. In the final showdown, Dux defeats Chong Li out of love or justice or vengeance. Dux, a U.S. Army Captain, journeys to Hong Kong to fight in an underground martial arts tournament called the Kumite. He fights, he fucks, he strikes his fist against another man’s scrotum.
My brother and I create our own Kumite in the living room while our mother sleeps away another headache and our father plays golf. We hurt each other for real because that’s what they do in the movie. Bare feet on the carpet, we bow before we tussle. Then it’s a kick to the cheek here. A jab to the shin there. A bloody lip, a bruised knee. A groin put in peril. Whoever cries first, loses.
My brother hurts me for real even when we’re not reenacting our favorite Bloodsport scenes. I don’t think it’s love and know it’s not justice. But maybe it’s vengeance. I’m not sure what for. He shoves me repeatedly into my bookcase, the particle board slicing into my spine. He flings quarters at my legs, branding my thighs with the pink sting of George Washington. One time he slaps me across the face for leaving the bread out.
The beatings cease in high school when I take justice between my puny, glitter-polished fingers. I pin my brother to the dirty carpet and press my palms deep into the soft flesh of his throat until he turns the color of new bruise. And when he stops making sound, I reluctantly loosen my grip and flee the scene. I listen to him gasping and sputtering and then his knock at my locked bedroom door. My humbled opponent offers me a homemade chocolate milkshake, a Buffalo Chicken sandwich. I take both and slam the door in his wet, contrite face.
My Canadian college boyfriend never hurts me even though his father once boasts his son could kill me in his sleep. My Canadian college boyfriend is a professional Muy Thai fighter. He’s kicked literal ass in Budapest. I don’t ask much about it. He’s the strong and silent type. But his friends tell me he fought in a tournament similar to the Kumite. Awesome.
When we first meet, I’m in college and he’s a chain-smoking high school senior quoting Thich Nhat Hanh. He looks like the Coldplay dude in that one video where he’s emoting on the beach in painful closeup. After an hour, I know I’m in love with him. But I have a boyfriend, long-distance. He is not a Muy Thai fighter. He is Pre-Med at a nearby state school. He is calling while the Muy Thai fighter and I watch episodes of Mr. Show in a mutual friend’s dorm room. He is asking about the voices in the background, all those male ones laughing. His own voice raised like a fist. He also knows martial arts. He also digs Bloodsport, but prefers Kickboxer. He’d never hurt me. But I know at this moment he wishes he could. He dumps me a few weeks later.
On New Year’s Eve after a hot tub soak under the stars at a Tampa house party, while guzzling champagne and scarfing down cream puffs, the Muy Thai fighter officially becomes my Canadian college boyfriend. He starts veterinarian school in Ontario and I continue college in Florida.
I know our love is real when we rent Bloodsport. In a way, this is a more meaningful consummation of our relationship than screwing. After eating Taco Bell, we snuggle on the couch, marveling at Jean-Claude’s limber limbs, his stiff acting. On this viewing, I watch through a lovesick lens. I imagine my boyfriend as Frank Dux pulverizing men of various sizes, splitting their skin open like citrus. I imagine I am the Good Woman, watching from the stands, horny and horrified and blissfully unaware of the difference.
I’m wide awake when my Canadian college boyfriend kills me. It’s May and the sun is setting at a beachside Thai restaurant in St. Pete. The school year is over in Canada and he’s returned home before his summer trip to China. Between noodle slurps, he explains that his heart just can’t bear the pain of being apart so often, that it’s best to end this while we’re still in love. I play the Good Woman: accept, understand, say nothing. I smile through endless Pad Thai until the sky grows dark. And still, he keeps me in a chokehold, forcing us to walk along the moonlit beach and share our future hopes for one another. His final one-hit knockout move is to belt out “That’s Amore” while he holds my tiny hands between his beefy ones, kissing me gently. I drive the two hours back to campus smoking one tear-stained clove after another. Although he never lays a hand on me, I bleed for months.
My Canadian college boyfriend was not the last man to share my love of Bloodsport. Or the first. There have always been boys that perk up when they discover this common interest. Inevitably, these boys convince themselves some kind of destiny is at work, usually the kind that involves tangled sheets and hazy lighting. Some pursue me when I’m taken, when I’m married.
When my husband and I meet, he admits without shame that he’s never seen Bloodsport before. During his first viewing, he spends most of the 92 minutes watching me recite dialogue verbatim and dance feverishly to the montage songs. He isn’t as taken with the film as he is with me. His love appears to contain no violence. This takes some getting used to.