Over the course of the New Year, Archer was spending more time in the gym, as the Elite Eight now seemed right around the corner. Earl had taken to venturing into the gym more too, though he avoided another match with Archer. When Zoe some free time, she would come watch Archer workout. Archer spent a great deal of time sparring with Javon, or going through combos with Tom. However, when Archer saw Daeron in the gym, he stopped everything to watch him workout. Archer and Daeron had no beef, but the two did not engage besides nodding at one another as a way of greeting. Daeron got to work with his trainer immediately.
“Gonna fight him or just stare at him?” asked Earl from a punching bag nearby.
“You should pay attention to your bag, Earl,” said Archer. “Otherwise you’ll get KO’ed when it swings your way. You know you fall asleep faster than a newborn.”
Earl grimaced at Archer and mouthed “fuck you” to him. Archer smiled and then turned back to watch Daeron.
Tom tapped Archer on the shoulder. “Earl has a point. Either fight him or get back to work.”
Archer glowered at Tom. “I want to fight him. I just need to know how he moves. I know he’ll be in the Elite Eight. If it comes down to us two, I want to beat him this time.”
“You’ve been in the ring with him three times,” said Tom. You should know him by now. Watching him go through basic routines isn’t going to help you learn anything you don’t already know. Let’s get back to work.”
Archer didn’t immediately obey. It took every ounce of effort in him to turn away from the silent Daeron, who was focused on his workouts. Archer got back in the ring with Javon and continued to spar. However, he took a few more lumps than usual, and even got knocked down once. Everyone stared. Archer had a cut beneath his left eye. He turned to Daeron, who was paying him no mind. He growled and got back to his feet, but Tom called an end to the spar.
“You’re heads not into this and that’s getting it beat in. We’re done for the night,” Tom said.
Archer growled again, took off his gloves, threw them at Tom, and left the ring. He silently stalked into the locker room, glancing over at Daeron as he passed. Archer thought he saw Daeron’s green eyes flash his way as he passed, and yet Daeron still didn’t miss a beat in his training. Archer entered the locker room, bitter. Archer didn’t notice Earl smiling behind his back nor Zoe’s look of concern.
Archer was sitting on the new couch he purchased. His mind had been on Daeron again, only his frequent bathroom trips had finally distracted him enough to google “frequent urination.” He was reading the top results.
“Hm,” he hummed, “could be overactive bladder syndrome from too many ab workouts. Could be bladder cancer.” He contemplated that for a while. It made him think of his grandfather. “Guess I better take Tom’s advice and lay off the abs for a while.”
When he heard the keys jingling in the door, he quickly locked his phone and stuffed it in his pocket, and pretended he was watching the television.
“Hey,” he said as Zoe entered. “How did the exam go?”
“I don’t know.”
She looked morose. Archer rose and walked into the kitchen to meet her, placing his hands on her shoulders. “I’m sure you did fine. You always do. Here, do you want a drink-”
“I don’t know what we are.”
Archer froze where he stood. He was simply looked at her. “Do you want a drink?” he asked again. “I made you a Screwdriver this morning, but you didn’t drink it.”
“What are we Archer?”
Archer stood paralyzed. There was a tingle in his extremities. “We’re…” he paused. “Roommates, right?”
“We share the same bed.”
“Is this about the sex?”
“Why is everything about sex with guys!”
“I don’t mind having sex if you want to have sex.”
“No normal guy says he ‘doesn’t mind having sex’ when he wants sex. He says, ‘let’s fuck.’”
“Yeah, I’ll just be like the rest of those assholes you’ve dated because that seemed to work out so well for you.”
“At least I don’t take out my anger for my exes on punching bags like hitting things will make everything better.”
“No, you just think that by being stuck up and creating a wall between you and men, that you’re protecting yourself from more heartbreak. News flash, you’re just creating an illusion that you’re in control and can’t be hurt if you don’t let anyone in.”
“Don’t let anyone in? You show your sparring buddies more passion than you’ve ever shown me.”
Archer took a step forward and got right in her face. She doesn’t back down, staring coolly back into his eyes.
“So, you want passion?” He asked. His voice had changed. It was low and soft, barely more than a whisper. So had his demeanor.
“Just shut up Archer!” screamed Zoe. “Shut up! This isn’t some boxing match! I’m not Earl or Javon or Daeron. Don’t talk to me like I’m one of the guys beating your head in everyday, just so you can take out your anger!”
Archer stepped back away from her, out of the kitchen. “I don’t fight because I’m angry.”
“I don’t give a damn why you fight! You can be fighting for world peace, I don’t care! Just don’t kill yourself doing it!”
“You don’t understand. I don’t fight because I’m angry. I fight…” he broke off and looked around the tiny apartment for a moment. She didn’t understand. She couldn’t understand. She didn’t even notice the anime in the background painting the crimson picture of his desires. To fight a glorious battle. One he could be proud of. To a worthy opponent like Daeron. Not losing some trivial battle to cancer like so many people these days. He recalled his grandfather, a legend in the city. His greatest battle was fighting to breathe, as the cancer had eaten away at his lungs. He just wanted that one fleeting instant. Whether it was victory or defeat. The first and last thing anyone could say about him. But he couldn’t tell her that.
“I fight to feel,” he said
“Feel what, exactly?”
“I don’t know. Something.”
“And me? What do you feel about me?”
Archer stared at her across the room. The only light was from the TV. She was half a silhouette, half an illuminated angel.
“I don’t know.”
Zoe picked up the glass of forgotten orange juice and vodka and threw it at him. He dodges it at the very last second and it crashes against a wall. The glass shattered against the wall and the drink splashed everywhere, painting the wall, the couch, the back of the man standing dumbfounded in the living room.
“Tell me how you feel!” Zoe said.
“I…Zoe, I –!” Archer began but he couldn’t finish his words. But it didn’t matter. Zoe had turned on her heels and left the apartment without another word, although Archer was sure he’d heard a sob as the door closed.
On Valentine’s day, Archer waited in the bathroom for Zoe that morning, who was shocked to find him there.
“What are you doing in here?” she demanded.
“It’s the bathroom,” he said smiling.
“You’re never up this early.”
“I’m always up before you. I simply pretend to be asleep to give you your privacy while you get dolled up.”
“I just wanted to see you without your makeup.”
She simply stared at him. “And?”
He smiled. Admittedly, her golden skin was a little pale, almost gray-tinged under the bathroom lights, but she didn’t look any different than how she usually looked with makeup. He smiled and walked out of the bathroom to make her morning Screwdriver. Zoe looked at it after she finished her makeup, then set it back down and left without a word. Archer watched the phenomena with a blank expression. He noticed a weight in his chest he didn’t usually feel when dealing with Zoe. He opened his vial of pills on the table and took one.
Not long after Zoe left, Archer received a call from Tom.
“What up doe,” Archer said.
“We have a problem,” Tom said. “Can you come to the gym right now?”
“What’s going on?” Archer asked.
“Just come to the gym. I’ll explain everything there.”
Archer was worried again. It wasn’t like Tom to sound so stressed.
“I’ll be there in fifteen,” Archer replied and hung up. He threw on his gym clothes and rushed out of the apartment, but not before taking another pill.
“They can’t do this!” said Archer.
He was reading over the paperwork Tom had given him, his face incredulous.
“They just did,” Tom said, shaking his head.
“This is bull!” Archer said. “I already have my hands licensed! But now I have to pay for promotion and health benefits and all this other crap just to fight in the regular circuit! That’s not even getting into the Elite Eight! This is going to take all of the money I have saved up and then some!”
“I know, I know,” said Tom, placing a hand on Archer’s shoulder. “How much have you got?”
Archer thought for a moment, “about twenty-five hundred, give or take.”
Tom nodded. “That’s not too bad. I take it the bills aren’t a big issue.”
Archer shook his head. “A bit. Buying the new couch was a minor setback, and Zoe cut back on her shifts to study more for the bar exam, so I’ve been paying more than usual on the rent. But I also cut back on shifts so that I could train more for the Elite Eight — that I now have to pay for qualifying rounds and medical expenses just to participate in.”
Archer hung his head. Tom grabbed him by the back of the neck.
“You can still do it. We’ll take off training on weekends so that you can pick up those shifts and make more money. You only need to win two more fights to qualify for the Elite Eight. You just have to make sure you save every dollar and you’ll be fine.”
Archer nodded. “I’m supposed to be surprising Zoe with dinner tonight.”
Tom looked at him seriously. “Are you two official yet?”
“I…I don’t know.”
“Well what’s more important, a dinner you can do any time, or winning a tournament you’ve been training your whole life for?”
Archer looked up and stared into Tom’s eyes. It was easy for Tom to say. Boxing was his life. And at the end of the day, all Tom had was Javon and Archer. But Archer had Zoe, and that held promise.
“Yeah,” said Archer, nodding. Over Tom’s shoulder, he noticed Daeron reading the same paper he was with his trainer. The mahogany eyes met the green. Would their fists meet too?
Zoe’s wore a smile as she sat across from Archer in a restaurant they’d never visited before. It was more upscale than the quaint cafe they usually frequented, with private booths so that patrons couldn’t be disturbed, save for by their server. Archer was happy that she was happy, but his smile was wan.
“Thank you for bringing me here, Archie!” Zoe said.
“No problem, Zoe.”
“What kind of drinks do they have here?” Zoe asked.
“Nothing hard. I was going to order a Pinot Noir.”
“Ooh, fancy!” Zoe said.
Archer smiled again. This time, Zoe noticed that there was something off about it.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“Fine,” Archer said, looking around.
“You know you’ve never been good at lying to me,” Zoe said.
“Guess it’s a good thing I never lie to you,” Archer said, he smiled a bit more genuine now.
Zoe smiled back. “I’m sorry, about the argument about ‘us’ the other day. I was just –”
“It’s fine,” Archer cut across. He paused for a moment. “It’s not that I don’t feel anything for you. It’s just that I don’t know how to tell you.”
“The truth is usually the best option,” said Zoe.
Archer smiled again at that. “Then you should know how I feel.”
Zoe’s head tilted to the side as she regarded Archer. “I suppose so.”
They ate and drank in relative silence until Zoe suddenly exclaimed, “Oh yeah! I got the internship!”
Archer looked up with wide eyes. Then he smiled. “I expected no less.”
He called for another bottle of wine. They were all smiles and laughs. Until the bill came. Archer’s face fell at the damage.
“Is something wrong?” Zoe asked.
“No,” Archer said.
“Is it too much? I can pay my half.”
Archer reached into his pocket and pulled out a couple hundred-dollar bills. He placed them under the wine bottle. Zoe looked concerned but Archer raised his glass in a toast. “Happy Valentine’s Day, Zoe.”
“Happy Valentine’s Day, Archie.”
Their glasses kissed.
“You haven’t been to the bathroom once this entire dinner,” Zoe said after downing her drink.
Archer smiled. “I laid off the ab workouts.”
“Good,” said Zoe. We can’t afford to get a bigger place if you’re paying hospital bills.”
Archer smiled wanly again.
Over the next couple months Archer was out of the apartment more often than not. Zoe noticed that he didn’t go to the gym on weekends, but was picking up shifts at the bar, sometimes working doubles. He barely spoke to her, generally being asleep whenever he was actually home. He was so worn out that he nearly overslept for the second of his scheduled qualifying fight. Archer muttered “wassappenin?” when Zoe roused him.
“You’re about to be late for your fight!” Zoe said.
“Dammit!” Archer said, pushing himself off of the couch and going to the bedroom to get dressed. Archer returned with his shorts on backwards and a t-shirt thrown over his torso to see Zoe reading some crumbled papers he’d been using as a pillow. Her brow is furrowed.
“What is this?” Zoe asked.
“Just some paperwork I have to turn in for my fight.”
“Archer,” began Zoe slowly, “there are expenses on here. Charges for medical care. Charges to even fight. Is this why you’ve been overworking yourself?”
“It’s nothing, I really have to go,” Archer said.
“Archer,” Zoe said. “You barely have enough money to pay for food these days. Why do you need this so bad?”
“Zoe, I really don’t have time to talk about this. I have to go. We can talk after –”
“Here,” said Zoe, throwing the papers at him. “have fun killing yourself in the ring.”
“You’re not coming?”
“No. I can’t watch this anymore.”
There was an anime playing in the background of the room. Archer nodded, turned and left the apartment.
Archer barely won his last qualifying fight. Despite his performance, he was still ranked second to win the tournament overall. Javon was fourth, Earl third, and Daeron the favorite to take it all. After the fight, Archer and Daeron locked eyes. Archer had bags beneath his. Daeron’s were full of determination. Archer left the ring, Tom rubbing his shoulders and encouraging him that he’d win everything in the end. Archer nodded, told Tom to take care of his paperwork, taking his gloves off and dropping them in his bag, which he slung over his shoulders and walked out of the gym. He didn’t even get in his car. He simply began walking.
Archer got back to his apartment after midnight. It was dark and empty. He checked the bedroom. No Zoe. He into the living room and sat on the couch. On the table was an envelope. He picked it up and found a note inside:
Here’s the money you need for admittance into the Elite Eight. Good luck. I’ll be at Gwen’s.
Archer pulled out a piece of paper. It was a check. Archer looked at the amount on it. He crumbled it in his fist and threw his head back on the couch. He didn’t sleep, the silence was beating his head in too bad like a gloved foe.
Archer had taken two weeks off before the start at the tournament, at Tom’s behest, though Archer didn’t need much urging. At the tournament, his body was well rested, but his mind was on the fact that he didn’t spot a red head in the crowd. The tournament was designed so that each fighter would have three fights, with the winners advancing into the Finals, and there were two consolation rounds for those that won at least one or two fights.
Archer’s penultimate match was against Earl. Daeron awaited in the Finals. He didn’t have to fight third match as his would-be opponent was injured in his prior fight. Earl was smirking at Archer.
“Hey Archie, where’s Zoe?”
Archer ignored him.
“Dumped ya, did she?”
Archer ignored him.
They walked forward to the center of the ring. Earl was still smirking. “Who knows, maybe Zoe will date a real guy like me now, and you can have Daeron, who you’re so obsessed with –”
The mention of Zoe got Archer’s blood boiling. He didn’t touch gloves with Earl when the ref called for it. When the bell rang, a brawl began. Archer didn’t seem to be thinking about strategy or even dodging. He was purely on offense. He and Earl were simply throwing flurry of punches at one another. This went on for five rounds. In the sixth and final round, both men, worn out, bruised and bloody, staggered into the center of the ring and began swinging again. In the final twenty seconds, both men threw punches. Archer, recalling his training of dodging and sticking, as well as a glass of vodka and orange flying at him, ducked one of Earl’s punches at the last second.
Only he dodged the wrong way and got caught by a hook.
Archer’s punch landed flush against Earl’s face. Both men stumbled back and dropped to the mat. Archer was vaguely aware of the referee counting as he lay on his back. Why am I getting back up? He thought as he began to push himself to his feet. It would be so much easier to stay down. Why am I even fighting at this point? For what? For a medal? For pride? He’s using the ropes to pull himself up. The ref is in front of him, asking him if he can continue. Archer nods automatically. Why did I nod? Why am I fighting. Before they told me, I needed an outlet for my anger. Then hitting that bag became my passion. Then I got this dream of going to the Olympics to be a champion. But for what? I remember wanting to impress, but I can’t remember who I wanted to impress to begin with. Was it you, Gramps? I always envisioned my end would be in the ring. Not in a hospital bed, fighting for air. But after so many fights and wins, came the boredom. Where was the challenge? I want that rush back. That thrill that I only get when I’m throwing hands with someone, I call my equal or better.
He looked at Earl who was also back on his feet. He is not my equal. The ten second clappers sounded somewhere from far away. Archer and Earl advanced on one another one last time. The thrill I seek is through him, Archer thought, thinking of those green eyes. But as he threw a punch that rocked Earl, he saw a vision of red and recalled another thrill he had that he got from only one person. One he might have lost forever because he was here.
Earl had been rocked but didn’t fall. He stood back up and seeing Archer preparing for one last punch, retaliated with his best counter.
He spit in Archer’s face.
The bell sounded but Archer didn’t hear it. All he heard was raging red current in his head. He threw a barrage of punches at Earl, who retreated into the ropes. Archer was beating every inch of him he could and had to be restrained by several officials. He vaguely heard the ref disqualify him. He was beside himself. Tom was holding him back in his corner, yelling, “calm down! It’s over! It’s over!” Archer watched as the ref raised Earl’s hand, who looked his way, smiling. Archer felt cheated. Robbed. How had the ref not seen the spit?
While Tom argued with the ref, Archer left the ring with blood still rushing in his head. As he made his way to the door, he locked eyes with Daeron again. A meaningful look passed between the mahogany and the green. Daeron nodded and Archer returned it. Archer then turned away. He made his way straight for the door and disappeared through them into a blazing sunlit world.
Archer was on a beach far removed from his tiny apartment. He was wearing a pair of tropical colored swim trunks as he lay back on the sand on a towel under an umbrella. The accessories that adorned his upper body were his sunglasses and a watch, which he had checked frequently for the first couple of hours he’d been there until he dozed off. A book was beside him: Moby Dick. The laughter of children running across the beach roused him. He looked at his watch again. It was already after six in the evening, yet the sun was still blazing. Late he thought. He’d been on the beach for several hours.
He rose from his spot under the towel and walked to the water’s edge. He stuck his hand in his pocket and pulled out a medal. It was bronze. Third place. He stared at it as if trying to vaporize it in his hands. The waves lapped against his feet, cooling them. The sound was pacifying. He looked up at the sun on the horizon. He then wrapped the ribbon around the medal, took aim at the sun and tossed it as far as he could into the ocean. It landed with a soft plop in the water, several yards away.
“Well that was stupid.”
Archer did not turn as he heard the voice behind him, but his mouth did twitch a bit as its soft tone played on his ears.
“Yeah, well, I’ve done a lot of stupid things lately,” he said.
Zoe stepped beside him and looked out at the water. “Well, I always was the brains of the operation.”
“True. I’ve been completely lost without you.”
The waves crashed one over the other at their feet.
“You were following your passion,” she said after a moment.
“I was obsessed.”
“Everyone needs a hobby.”
“With the wrong thing. It almost cost me what means the most to me.”
“Well if you have the brains, I have to have something.”
The waves were singing a soft tune and the children’s laughter rang was like a melody.
Archer rummaged in his swim trunk pockets and pulled out a crumbled piece of paper. He handed it to her. She took it and looked at it with her brow furrowed. She then looked up at him.
“You shouldn’t have to pay for my obsessions. And won’t anymore.” Archer said. “I’m sorry.”
Zoe stared at him as if meeting him for the first time. “I know.”
The world seemed quieter as their eyes locked.
“I found out who stole our couch,” Zoe said.
“Should’ve brought it here so that we could sit on it and watch the sunset,” Archer said.
“Fine, you’re the brawn of the team too. Is that what you want to hear?”
“Or did someone have the sex on it?”
“There were a couple of stains on it.”
“Damn, we can’t use it when we get a bigger place then.”
“Third place pays out that much?” Zoe asked.
“More motivation to do better.”
They both turned back to the horizon.
“Ya know, I don’t think it went that far out,” Zoe said after a moment.
“What?” Archer began, but before he could finish, Zoe had stripped and had begun to walk into the water in her bikini. When she got deep enough, she dived under the waves. Archer watched and waited for what felt like an eternity but soon he saw fire dancing on the waves of the ocean against the sunset. It was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.