Nonfiction from Barrett Bowlin

Two people in a jiujitsu grapple.

Original Photo: Timothy Eberly

Out for Blood (or Air, or Whatever)

You stumble through the gym doors, away from the people and into the almost-snow cold, skin so hot to the touch that steam rises off you into the night air. You hop the Red Line to Porter Square, where there’s ten minutes before the commuter rail from North Station arrives, enough time to get water and a cheap bottle of ibuprofen from the CVS in the shopping plaza across the street. Your bones and fingers and wrists and skin ache when you touch hard surfaces: the railings, the doors, the stairs down to the platform.

You board the commuter rail and keep your eyes open just long enough to get your ticket scanned by the agent, and then you’re slumped and sleeping against the window for the rest of the ride. The cold glass against your cheek is a mercy.

The train pulls in late to Wachusett, the new terminus on this line that sits at the base of the ski mountain. It hurts to wake and stand and stretch your fingers, to scrape away the snow that’s fallen onto your car. The sedan’s been sitting in the lot since the early morning dark, and now it’s frosted in snow. Ice locks the doors tight. The engine rolls over just barely, but it starts up and putters out exhaust while you work on the windows and mirrors and lights, and then you’re chilled and aching again as you wait for the engine to warm up on your drive home, ten miles under the speed limit on the roads that curve around the mountain.

When you get home, it’s long after midnight. The children are asleep—your wife, too—but you rub their backs and kiss their heads goodnight as if they might remember this. And it’s not until late the next morning, as you stumble downstairs and into the kitchen where they’ve microwaved eggs and toasted frozen waffles, that they ask what’s happened to your face.


It’s called ‘petechiae.’

The tiny blotches and whorls of brown and red and purple-that-used-to-be-yellow that flood the skin after trauma.

It’s a bruise pattern—a hematoma—where blood bursts out of the vessels and pools just below the skin.

Decaying freckles all over your face, spread across your cheeks and forehead, but not quite freckles, too big. More like dried splatter marks, or red and brown spray paint that’s exploded out of the can rather than flowed, or a brown star map ancient sailors might have used once, the parchment made of human skin where a pirate once painted a route toward a buried cache of treasure.

“You look contagious,” says your son.

They come with you to the bathroom mirror, crowd in behind you like concertgoers, pushing and shoving each other, and now you see what they see.

“Huh,” you tell them. “That’s never happened before.”


You signed up for Brazilian jiujitsu at the age of 40 because of course you did. Because you missed the feel of rolling around on the mats like you did in judo. Because you missed having a certain discipline in your life, like what you got from karate. Because you wanted to feel less old.

“It’s super low-key,” your university coworker explained about the not-low-key-at-all franchise when she suggested you give it a try. Because this is Boston, where you work now and commute to, and you want to embrace it fully, like the act of bearhugging a musky and bearded best friend.

Except this time, everything creaks and kind of hurts—waking up, walking, standing for too long, not standing long enough—which you take as proof you need to get back into the piles of bodies. To get tough again—if not leaner or fitter or healthier in the slightest, possibly better at learning how to roll around on the ground and hold people in weird, uncomfortable positions—and if that’s not the soul of Brazilian jiujitsu, what is?

You tell your children, “I’m taking a special class downtown. There’s a good chance I’m going to come home sweaty.”

“You’re old, dad,” your daughter sometimes says.

“Yeah, dad, you’re old,” says her brother.

“I feel old,” you say.

After work one Friday, you grab your backpack and gym bag and dignity. You walk with your coworker to the tiny gym in the Financial District, where the coworker’s boyfriend is training for his next fight. The guy’s got a MMA fighter’s look—huge deltoids, an off-center nose that seems to have been broken at least once, a spirit animal tattoo that spans from his arm to his nipple; what is that? a tiger?—and there’s a hunger in his eyes that you’ve only ever seen in people who are cutting weight in preparation for their next big fight. He looks focused and centered and a little dehydrated.

While your colleague learns how to kick heavy bags from a man who teaches in Portuguese—”chute!” sounds like ‘shoot!’ and is easier to hear over and over again than the plain old “kick!”—you and her boyfriend stretch and roll and learn how to get under grips and out from holds, and, most importantly, practice the fine art of choking the hell out of your partner. The grips in BJJ are different from what you learned in judo and have more of a knife-edge to them. They are, you learn, meant to make your opponent submit as quickly as possible.

Rear-naked and cross-collar chokes that cut off circulation through the carotids, scarf holds or lapel chokes that strangle an opponent’s windpipe and squeeze the jugulars: there are a buffet of ways to turn off someone’s lights.

Rear-naked chokes aren’t actually meant to cut off the airway. Applied correctly, they work like a tourniquet on the blood coming into and out of the brain. One clamp of a forearm on the side of the neck, shoved against the jugular, stops the blood from getting from the head back to the heart. Everything keeps pumping, but there’s no place for the blood to go. Instead, it pools in the brain and neck and swells like water building up through a fire hose. The other clamp is applied on the opposite side of the neck, by the bicep against the opponent’s carotid artery. The oxygen supply from the heart gets dialed down to a trickle, and if the hold is locked in good and steady, loss of consciousness happens in about ten seconds.

Get the opponent on the ground and add in a couple of hooks from behind—where the attacker positions themselves like the world’s heaviest backpack, their heel stapling the opponent’s leg to the mat, making it hard as hell to buck or twist or roll out of the grip—and they’re trapped until the lights go dim and the sound fades away, or until they tap.

Everything slows and drops right up until that moment, down to that line of: Can I still get out of this? But everyone in class is courteous and careful and lets go the second they feel the slap of a desperate hand on open flesh.

“Keep going until you can get out of it,” the instructor says. “Keep reaching, keep pulling at the arm. Find that breakaway spot at the wrist.” And so you all do this one maneuver, over and over, switching out partners and roles each time you get it right.

By the end, you’re breathing like you’re down to one lung, your throat’s raw, and there’s a slice in your skin near the sternum from where someone’s thumbnail nicked you during a grip gone wrong. You won’t notice until later, but you’re bleeding onto the white lapel of your gi. You plan to tell the children this while slipping in the fact that at least you didn’t lose consciousness.


Here, rolling on the gym floor, it’s marvelous what your fingers want to do after long moments of gripping onto gi lapels and cuffs and sleeves. When you and your partners switch roles, the muscles in your fingers curl into arthritic claws, burning, talons reaching into the air for nothing. You want to relax your tendons but you can’t, no matter how hard you try.

This inability to let go reminds you of a game from when you were little.

Stand in the middle of a doorway and push your arms against the door jambs, hard as you can, backs of the palms flat against the wood. Hold it. Keep holding it. Give it at least 30 seconds for the trick to work. Keep going, keep going, keep going, and you’re there. Now step out of the doorway and release your arms. Feel them rise up and away from you on their own accord, a compulsion in the body you can’t control, wings waiting to take flight.


The deep circles of purple-red-yellow-brown-green under your eyes feel like they should hurt when the children poke at them in the morning.

“Does it hurt?” your son asks.

“No,” you tell him. “Stop it.”

“Poke,” says your daughter, touching the bruise under your left eye once more. “Poke.”

You remember judo classes from back when you and the family first landed in the Northeast and your daughter was an infant. You remember the care you and the other judoka gave to your opponents’ necks and trachea when applying chokeholds in the introductory lessons on strangulation: nami juji jime (the cross strangle), gyaku juji jime (the reverse cross strangle), kata juji jime (the half-cross strangle). Revered words in Japanese, memorized without context or syntax by gaijin and whispered in hot breaths across close inches. Inside the Lincoln Street gym, the grammar flooded back, a common tongue between judo and Brazilian jiujitsu. Everyone was as careful as lovers trying something new in the bedroom.

You wonder what made last night’s practice different from the rest, what made you look like you were beaten in a street fight. Age or applied pressure, or lack of technique or precision of technique? Or is this what happens to your body now?

“Your students are going to wonder why you’ve got two black eyes,” your wife says.

“I’ll tell them I got my ass kicked,” you say, which is true.

“You look like a raccoon,” she says.

But the dark bruising under your eyes, the purple pools of ecchymoses, will be gone by Monday morning, and so will the droplets of petechiae. What remains is the soreness under your skin and in your bones, and the stinging memory of almost losing consciousness over and over and over again.


The gym stays busy with activity, and you imagine it’s like this every hour it’s open. Small cells of work and practice and labor happening in each enclosed space. One of the younger instructors has his most recent MMA match playing on the flatscreen hung in the rafters of the entrance, which always threatens to fall on the display case of belts and silkscreened t-shirts available for purchase. The babyfaced instructor is tall with arms that reach out like cables and hang down from his sides, before he whips them up to begin what looks like the second round of his fight. An entourage, dressed in their own gi tops and gym shorts, watches with equal parts compliments and notes on what he should try to avoid in the next fight.

Back near the far windows, two tanned women stretch and pull squats in the Smith cages, a guy with a linebacker’s build runs knee-lifts over a rope ladder, and a 4th-grader with brown, shoulder-length curls shadowboxes with his private trainer. The five of them dance around each other in the confined spaces, sometimes spilling out to block the walkways into the locker rooms, where your work clothes perch somewhere next to discarded sandals and brogues and steel-toed boots.

In the largest padded area, the older grappling instructor lowers his voice, gathers his charges in close, and tells you all how to get out of a rear-naked choke:

Your opponent has you from behind, one arm around your neck like a garrote, their other hand on the back of your head to apply pressure.

Dig your chin down into the crook of their forearm and pump your shoulders up as high as you can. Get some leverage in there.

Now reach back and grab the arm that’s cinched in behind your head with both hands and pull it over your head. This will break the lock.

As fast as you can, seize the arm around your neck and pull at the wrist. It’s the weakest point in the hold. Keep that chin pointed down to the crook and your shoulders up and pull like your life depends on it because it just might.

The fun part happens if you’re able to catch their wrist and hold onto it. And the really fun part is when you can put this thing into reverse.

The mass of you roll on the mats and pull tight on each other’s wrists and necks and arms. You twist and move and sprawl away. You bury heels in the meat of each other’s thighs to spread them apart like spatchcocked meat. You slide forearms around necks like thick, ropey scarves, and you pull and constrict, and you wait patiently for the sound or feel of a tap-tap-tap, and you do this again and again and again so you won’t forget.

You feel the pressure of those arms and elbows as they tighten like slip knots around your neck, over and over, and you’d think there’d be a countdown in your head, 10-9-8, but there never is, 7-6-5, because you’re too damn worried about passing out and failing at this, 4-3-2, or working too hard to pull away from that palm on the back of your head, grabbing and ripping at sleeves or wrists and yanking hard because if you don’t, your opponent will win.


At the end of your first night at the gym, you slide home on the 10:40 train out from North Station—the second-to-last ride of the night, before the stacked silver cars stop altogether—bruised, sore and sweating and stinking of rubber mats and feet and coffee breath and strange cologne and other feet. Of rough toes and elbows and knees and heels used for leverage. Of the runoff from bodies that made the plastic and rubber below them slick to the touch. Of other men and women on the mats and locker rooms, where clients come dressed in one uniform—dresses, loafers, or slacks and belts, or bespoke suits of broadcloth, or hoodies and sweats—and then roll and kick and punch and pull in another (thick gi tops and durable pants, obi strapped tight around the waist, lycra sports bras and tights that wick away sweat), before shaking hands, dressing, and slipping from the tiny gym on Lincoln Street out into the night.

You get in late. You warm up with a hot shower that drains the tank, and then you pad through the nighttime to check on the children, your daughter first because she’s older. There’s a photo of her in your phone, taken the night she earned her junior black belt in karate, the toothy smile on her face caught in the flash. You’re there, too, sweating and dripping and red-cheeked, tired and somewhere near the end of your training as a purple belt.

There were the bruises she would collect from every practice, concentrated near her wrists and forearms, black-brown swirls born out of defensive postures. There were dark splotches on her shin, too. She was getting taller faster than you could keep up with, and the sessions at karate sculpted her shoulders and arms and legs. Tonight, she sleeps with her mouth open, dreaming, the crease in her worried brow smooth until morning.

In the room across the hall, your son sleeps on his side with his back to the door. The covers rise and fall with each breath. You rub his back. His skin, too, is a patchwork of scrapes and nicks and bruises. His teachers say he likes to slide on the waxed floors of the school gym. He comes home with constellations of hematoma, each of them a story he can’t remember.

This is what it means to play: to wrestle with the other children, to collect and return their punches and kicks. To thump against walls and floors, to slam into immovable fields and dig into the flesh of pliable objects. To feel pressure on the body and have blood vessels burst at the skin, to come home with black-purple-yellow evidence.

Exhausted and dehydrated and bruised, you wonder: how much longer do you have this in you?

Barrett Bowlin‘s essays and stories appear in places like Ninth Letter, The Rumpus, Salt Hill, Bayou, and War, Literature, and the Arts. He lives and works and rides trains in Massachusetts. (

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