Karen Alpha ~ Kung Fu Love

My moth­er got me start­ed on t’ai chi when I was a lit­tle kid, no more than five or six, I think.  We used to go togeth­er to her class on Thursday nights at the ele­men­tary school gym.  She sort of dragged me along.

The man who taught us was grace­ful, because of his bal­ance, but it wasn’t a dancer’s grace, it was ani­mal-like, con­trolled.  When he put his foot down some­where, you felt noth­ing on earth would move him until he lift­ed it him­self.  A truck would hit him but he’d still be stand­ing there.  “Rootedness” he called it, and we tried to learn that.  His name was Lee, but I remem­ber that nobody then called him Master, or even Mister; he was sim­ply Lee, and we didn’t know if that was his first name or his last.

He told us won­der­ful sto­ries that, being a child, I thought were meant to enter­tain me.  He told us that a bird could alight in the palm of a t’ai chi mas­ter and be for­ev­er impris­oned in his open hand, because he could sense its begin­ning move­ment of flight and low­er his hand just so, to compensate.

We went to his class­es for years, my moth­er and I.  She prob­a­bly still would be.  But Lee flew away to Ann Arbor to address a sem­i­nar on Chinese heal­ing and nev­er came back.  We heard that he deliv­ered his last lec­ture, then dropped dead rather peace­ful­ly at the clos­ing ban­quet.  He was among friends.  He had a cer­tain knack for completion.

My hus­band Robert, when he moved out, said to me, “That which fails must first be strong.”  I am for­ev­er quot­ing proverbs at every­one.  I under­stand that this must be a real­ly annoy­ing habit, but how else can you say so much, so total­ly ambigu­ous­ly, with such econ­o­my?  Still, Robert didn’t need to throw it in my face like that.  We were at the front door at the time.  He had his arm around me.  I watched him go, and for the first time I felt the breath fly right out of me.


So any­way, one way or anoth­er I had kept up the t’ai chi, even through col­lege where I had a pret­ty weird pony-tailed, bald­ing guy for an instruc­tor.  (People in col­lege towns must feel they have to look weird for no rea­son.)  And now I’m teach­ing it myself, odd­ly enough, with no fur­ther cre­den­tials than longevi­ty, and aptitude.


Last night they showed the orig­i­nal Breathless at the for­eign film club.  The one with Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo.  This morn­ing, before I could change my mind, I went to the bar­ber and had my hair clipped short like that.  Now I can’t stop rub­bing the top of my head.  It feels won­der­ful, like a ted­dy bear I used to sleep with.  They both looked so ter­rif­ic in the movie, you know, so young and stupid.

I think some­thing is hap­pen­ing to me.  My moth­er says she was a beat­nik when she was my age, and I’m feel­ing some­thing sim­i­lar myself.  My wardrobe is slow­ly turn­ing black.  This hair.  I nev­er could have done this when Robert was around, he would have freaked.  If I even pulled my hair back into a braid I would see a look begin to wash over his face, an expres­sion of slight pain.

Robert is a bio­chemist.  He is work­ing on those enzymes that eat oil slicks and turn cheese whey into plas­tic.  He lives down the road in Winnock Falls now, and I’m stay­ing here in the house.

Phil, my lover, says I should sell the house, but he is rich and in real estate and must not know me very well if that is his best advice.  I will keep the house as long as Robert lives near­by.  Phil is a lot old­er than I am, and I don’t think he is going to be my lover much longer.  I knew it last night watch­ing Breathless.  I sud­den­ly remem­bered what it was like to be loved by some­one dan­ger­ous and inap­pro­pri­ate.  Oh, a high school motor­cy­cle gang hero once, and a steely-eyed PTSD war vet lat­er on.  Probably what Phil would refer to as two eco­nom­ic casu­al­ties.  Phil is way too cyn­i­cal for me.  There is a big dif­fer­ence between the noth­ing­ness­es of cyn­i­cism and exis­ten­tial­ism, I guess. At least in attrac­tive­ness to me.

I saw the new­er Breathless when it came out, too, and it was almost as charm­ing.  Not that I’m hold­ing out for Jean-Paul Belmondo, you under­stand, or Richard Gere either, but I hope nobody tests me on that one.

This is great.  My friend Ellen told me this.  You know Richard Gere is from North Syracuse?  Well, he was home for a cou­ple of weeks cam­paign­ing for Rosemary Pooler’s November elec­tion.  So Ellen’s friend walks into the Friendly’s in North Syracuse and there sits Richard Gere eat­ing ice cream.  She thinks she will die.  You know how Friendly’s are laid out: the take-out, the cash reg­is­ter, the lunch counter?  Well, Richard Gere is right there next to the cash reg­is­ter in the first seat.  I am not going to make a fool of myself, she thinks, I am going to get my ice cream and leave. So she orders her ice cream cone, pays for it, and walks out and gets into her car. Sitting in her car she real­izes she has for­got­ten to pick up the ice cream cone. So she walks back in and says to the take-out man, “Can I have my cone please?”  “I gave it to you,” he says.  “Well, I don’t have it,” she says, “I left it.”  “It’s not here,” he says.  “I don’t under­stand,” she whis­pers, try­ing to be unob­tru­sive, “I ordered it, I paid for it, where is it?”  The counter man is look­ing at her as if she is nuts.  Just then Richard Gere leans over to her.  “It’s in your purse,” he says.


Tonight we do kung fu wushu,” I say to my class, “kung fu t’ai chi.”  I find this helps them with the kicks, although I have explained that the term kung fu means an inner mas­tery of any dis­ci­pline or skill: kung fu gym­nas­tics, kung fu cal­lig­ra­phy, kung fu open heart surgery.  Still, the thought of Bruce Lee gets those heels up in the air, gets the ch’i flow­ing. “The force comes from your tan tien,” I say, indi­cat­ing the abdomen, “and flows out­ward through your hands and feet like rush­ing water.”  They are a good class, full of life, and I am hap­py to teach them; but then the gift of t’ai chi ch’uan is that just prac­tic­ing the exer­cise makes you happy.

One guy in the class, an archi­tect, seems to be explor­ing this facet.  “I feel so full,” he declares hap­pi­ly after one of the ear­ly class­es, “I can’t go on.”  Another time he tells us that dur­ing the med­i­ta­tion every­thing out­side the cir­cle of his arms “recedes and blurs, and the cir­cle feels like an aura of ener­gy.”  This is good.  I think they are begin­ning to get it.

For me, there are ben­e­fits like the ten thou­sand things, but most­ly, after an hour of class, there is an enor­mous sense of well-being, as if my body has been bal­anced, adjust­ed to its cen­ter, aligned.  And there is a clar­i­ty of mind, this sounds fun­ny, but an orig­i­nal­i­ty, a blast of puri­ty, as if I haven’t felt this good before.  Sometimes when I think about it, I real­ize it feels like it felt being mar­ried to Robert, you know, the first time you are all-out hap­py, and it is a good thing, and the right thing to be.  I guess I miss that. I guess it’s prob­a­bly only chem­i­cal, like eat­ing chocolate.

We are prac­tic­ing the Lotus Sweeping Kick, a high, loop­ing kick with three weight changes, and their feet come down hard on the wood floor, uneven­ly, one after the oth­er, like an exchange of shots.  “Once again,” I say, “Lotus Sweeping Kick, then Bend Bow to Shoot Tiger.”  Their arms sweep the air and their feet rise to meet them with a sharp slap at the height of the parabo­la.  We exhale as one body.


Ruling the coun­try is like cook­ing a small fish,” I say to Phil.  “The Tao of Reagan and Bush.”  Phil gives me a fun­ny look.  “It just means if you are cook­ing a small fish you should tend it care­ful­ly but not flip it over all the time and poke at it.  Or you’ll end up with a lit­tle pile of mush in your pan instead of a whole, per­fect fish.  Really a bril­liant metaphor for gov­ern­ment.”  I don’t remem­ber hav­ing to explain the Tao to Robert.

We are watch­ing the ten o’clock news.  It’s the Watergate and Iran-Contra and Halliburton things, crop­ping up yet again.  Phil gives a hard, deri­sive laugh.  “What a joke.  You just know they nev­er even asked,” he says, squirt­ing hot sauce on a taco and hand­ing it to me.  “Manipulating mon­ey is so easy.  Nobody asks.”  He pops open two beers and hands me one.

Uh-huh,” I say, rub­bing the top of my head—I feel this becom­ing anoth­er annoy­ing man­ner­ism.  I see I have drib­bled taco sauce down the front of my t‑shirt.  “Then I guess it’s time I asked.  Are you a crook?”

There is a short silence while Phil turns a lit­tle white.  “Of course not,” he says unconvincingly.


Driving home I see the lights are still on at Jim Dandy, so I pull in to get some­thing cold to drink.  It’s still crowd­ed, even at this time of night.  Truck dri­vers, kids, cops on cof­fee break.  When I look down from the menu board I get a jolt: Robert is sit­ting there at the end of the counter.  He doesn’t notice me, or rec­og­nize me, maybe.  He is with the girl next to him.  I stare at him for a long time, will­ing him to turn around.


Karen Alpha’s short sto­ries are wide­ly pub­lished in lit­er­ary mag­a­zines: North American Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Epoch, New World Writing, and else­where. Currently she is work­ing on gath­er­ing them into a col­lec­tion and on a mem­oir of childhood.