by Robert Anthony Siegel
When I was sixteen, I accidentally choked out Brian Herskowitz. One second he was trying to pull down on my sleeve and reduce the pressure on his neck, and the next he was very quiet, face down on the mat. I let go and sat back, not sure what to do.
It was the middle of practice, the big mat covered with groups of two, all intently grappling for advantage, chokes, armbars, turnovers, hold-downs. But a moment after I sat down, the action around us stopped, as if by telepathic signal. People disentangled from each other and looked over as they did when someone got hurt in a particularly gruesome way. Sensei came over and turned Brian onto his back. Brian’s eyes were closed but he seemed to be—not sleeping, exactly—weirder. My memory is that there was some drool. His eyelids twitched.
“Ii shime-waza na,” Sensei said. Good choke. But his face, usually bemused, was serious.
“He didn’t tap,” I answered back in English, too shaken to use Japanese.
“He’ll be fine.”
I was incredibly grateful for those words, even though I believed Sensei was lying. I was already having a bit of an anxiety attack—a spacey unreal feeling, as if it were all happening in a waking dream. I watched the twitching of Brian’s eyelids: he was having seizures, I believed, little neurological explosions in his brain, and he was going to wake up impaired. And though this was an accident, I knew that I had secretly wished it on him, which made it almost not an accident, something I had done on purpose. Which was impossible, because I hero-worshipped him. He was my sempai.
In the judo world, Sempai, seniors, help train kohai, juniors. It is a very Japanese idea, layered with notions of tradition, obedience, self-sacrifice, caring, connection. In Japan, I’d read, sempai and kohai remain friends their entire lives; I’d seen Sensei’s sempai come through the dojo when they visited America, seen the natural ease they all had with each other, the intimacy and trust. At times, I would visualize the arrangement as a sort of geometric pattern in which everyone in the judo world was connected: everybody was somebody’s sempai, and everybody was somebody’s kohai, and nobody was alone.
Traditionally, sempai push kohai past their physical limits—that’s how they show they care. When Brian came in for a throw, he would punch me in the neck or smash me in the ear. If he got the throw, he would follow me down to the mat, pressing his knee into my stomach. Once on the mat, he would drill his knuckles into my neck to force my chin up so he could get the choke in, and then he would saw back and forth over my windpipe for maximum hurt, till he got bored and let me go. I loved it. The sempai-kohai thing was mostly pretty disappointing in our dojo—Americans seemed constitutionally incapable of thinking about anyone but themselves—but in Brian I had a real Japanese-style sempai, someone who cared. Why else would he punch me in the mouth when coming in for a throw? As his loyal kohai, I was going to get up and smash him flat to the mat so he would be proud of me. I wanted to destroy him so Sensei would see that I was superior. Because deep down I really hated Brian: hated his fist in my ear and his knee in my stomach, hated his knuckles digging into my jaw.
So really, you could argue that choking him out was just on-gaeshi, the grateful return of the caring sempai’s obligation.
Brian woke, sat up.
“Do you want a rest?” I asked, thinking I’d help him off the mat. There was a bench by the windows up at the front, where Sensei kept some of the odd things he found on the street and saved for his sculptures: a dressmaker’s mannequin; a foot-high plaster cupid.
“No, I’m good,” said Brian, his expression blank. “Keep going.” We had been practicing matwork, on the ground, but he stood up and gripped my collar and sleeve as if we had been doing standwork. Only then did he seem to make sense of what had happened a minute before: his eyes grew small and dark, and he smiled in a sort of humiliated, wolfish way. “I’m going to get you,” he said.
I blinked, momentarily confused. “It was an accident,” I told him. The look on his face was terrifying.
“Get ready for your nap,” he said.
Standing beside us, Sensei laughed; he loved it when things got dramatic. “Better massage your neck,” he said to me in Japanese. “This may hurt.” Then he called out the start of sparring in a loud voice.
Brian was a lot stronger than me, with the physical power of a grown man; just his grip on my collar made my head sag. But he was still too groggy to put a real attack together, and we shuffled around in a defensive crouch till practice was over.
I skipped the cool-down and hurried off the mat, back through the changing room to Sensei’s art studio. Inside, his canvases were stacked everywhere: huge, drippy black abstractions that looked something like Chinese characters written at lightning speed, six feet high. He was standing by the table where he ate his meals, a glass of whiskey in one hand. On his head was a big fur hat from the Soviet Union, the gift of some Russian judo players.
Sensei’s eccentricity only heightened his air of warrior nobility. A friend of my mother had said to me once that he was the most handsome man she had ever seen: high cheekbones, tall forehead, dark eyes that seemed to see and understand everything and always know the right thing to do. The fighter’s body, muscled but sleek, was a kind of claim on the world, a form of ownership. Sensei was the only adult I knew who wasn't frightened, or sad, or broken, or afraid of being broken.
“What should I do?” I asked in Japanese.
“Use that choke again.”
I nodded blankly, unable to imagine catching Brian now that he was on his guard. But it wasn’t just that: what I was really asking was how to turn back the clock so he wouldn’t hurt me—so I could go back to thinking of him as my sempai. “What if he gets me and I tap out?” I asked, hoping the rules might save me.
Sensei took a thoughtful sip of his drink. “You can’t always tap out, Robaato-kun.”
“Tapping out is weak. No one will respect you.” He looked at me delicately, almost apologetically. “In Japan, they won’t always let you go, either.”
We’d been talking for a while about me going to train at Sensei’s old university in Tokyo. In my mind, going to Japan had become a sort of imaginary return to a place I’d never actually been. In Japan, I would become my real self, my Japanese self. That Japanese me would be completely different from the actual me. In Japan, I would join my true tribe, the one I had heard about from Sensei and seen in the photographs in judo books: gigantic thugs with shaved heads who would include me and care about me.
“When I was a kid, we would choke somebody out and wake him up with a kick,” Sensei said, sounding nostalgic. “We would choke him out and then when he was still groggy, choke him out again.”
“Have you gotten choked out?” I asked.
“Of course. My big brother would choke me out at home. And when I learned a new choke, I would try it out on my little brother.”
“You don’t think it can hurt your brain?”
“Am I drooling?”
“Maybe your brain’s stronger than mine,” I said.
He laughed. “The good thing about getting choked out a lot is that you see it’s no big deal. You lose your fear. Fear is what gets in the way.”
Even on ordinary nights, the trip home from the dojo was melancholy, a long, cold return from the heroism and beauty of the mat. But this night, Prince street was empty and dark, and I walked to the subway alone, past shuttered loft buildings and parked trucks. On the train, I swayed along with everyone else, all the weak, frightened denizens of New York, hugging their briefcases and pocketbooks in their laps. When I walked into the apartment, my father was on the couch in his underwear, eating a bowl of ice cream and watching my mother argue with my brother about his grades. None of them knew that I was about to get brain damaged. I went to my room without a word and lay down on my bed, trying to think and not think at the same time.
A judo choke isn’t really a choke choke: it doesn’t close the airway and stop you from breathing, which means that it won’t kill you. It uses the collar of the judo jacket, wrapping it around the neck to apply pressure to the artery and cut off blood flow to the brain. Depending on how deep in the choke goes, and how sharply it’s applied, blackout can happen almost instantly, or it can require a long-drawn-out struggle, a progressive slipping toward darkness. That process is not painful, exactly, not in the way you expect it to be. Your head feels like a balloon filling with air; your vision breaks up and goes black. The defensive moves that might block the choke are simple enough, but you can’t remember them.
That’s what happened to Brian: he struggled too long, and then slipped into unconsciousness. Nobody could blame me for that, not even him.
Exhausted, I finally fell asleep.
The next day, at school, I pulled out pen and paper and tried to come up with a plan. Brian actually lived in Houston and came through New York periodically to train, usually for a couple of weeks at a time. If I could hold him off till he went home, I would be safe. The question was how. He tended to lean forward, arms stiff, so he was weaker to the front. I would come in low for the shoulder throw, first to the right, then to the left, where his balance wasn’t as good.
The one thing that never occurred to me was simply not going to the dojo. I had never missed a day in six years. Going was what I did. The rhythm of the subway, the run up the five flights of stairs in the old loft building, the changing room, the big mat with its red vinyl covering, the thwump, thwump of people getting thrown—to me, that was being alive.
At the dojo that evening, Sensei pulled me over to Brian. “Your partner is waiting,” he said.
“You know I’m going to choke you out tonight, right?” Brian gripped my jacket tight.
I was suddenly filled with a bleak giddiness. “Actually, I’m going to choke you out,” I said. “Just like yesterday.”
Sensei laughed; Brian smiled. “Don’t bother tapping,” he said.
Even the throwing drills felt different that night, with Brian banging his chest against mine as he came in, punching his fist against my ear. When it was time for matwork, he smiled, drew his finger across his neck like a knife, and then went straight for the choke. And when sparring started, he didn’t even bother trying to throw, just grabbed my lapels and yanked me down onto all fours, into a standing choke—wrapping my jacket around my neck while pinning my head between his knees. I got out of that, got out of everything, but every time Sensei called out a switch of partners, Brian grabbed my sleeve again, refusing to let me go—until suddenly practice was over, and I was sitting on a bench in the changing room, trying to breathe, so deeply tired that I couldn’t hold up my head.
“Tomorrow,” said Brian, walking over to his bag.
Writing is my way of remembering. The physical act of putting words down on paper forces me to create a meaningful sequence, a narrative that can arc through time. In the process, I remember all sorts of unpleasantly weird stuff that I had previously pruned from the official record, the version I tell myself in bed at night while falling asleep. This is a way of saying that Brian wasn’t really the first person I ever choked out, that the first was a guy by the name of Angel, and that I choked him out not once but twice. On purpose.
To tell this part of the story, I need to jump back to when I was fourteen. I’d moved from the kids class, where choking wasn’t allowed, to the adults, where it was constant, a killjoy. As I tugged on my opponent’s collar, trying and failing to find the point of maximum torque, choking seemed like a long hot dirty slog, boring and stupid. And getting choked—there was nothing good about getting choked. It was like being at the bottom of a pit and watching someone fill in the dirt, a thing of horror. It was better not to even think about it, just tap out right away.
And then one night I was partnered with Sensei during matwork practice; he kept getting the choke, and I kept tapping out. “You need to protect your neck better,” he said to me in Japanese. “It’s about time you learned.”
“I’m trying,” I said.
“You need to try harder.”
He went straight for the choke again, maneuvering himself on top of me so we were face to face, our noses just an inch apart. “It’s sleepy time,” he said, sawing his wrist over my windpipe. “Time to go to sleep.” I whimpered a little and he snapped the choke closed; then I sputtered and flailed like I was drowning, pounding the mat with my hand. “Pull down on my sleeve, make space,” he said, but a part of me refused to listen and just kept slapping the mat, demanding to be let go. He released his hold—I gasped, as if coming up for air—and then he pulled the choke closed again. “Say nighty-night,” he cooed. We went back and forth like that, as if opening and closing a spigot of despair. Finally, he let me go; I kneeled and started to retie my belt, which had come loose. Tears were in my eyes. I stood up, legs shaky. Gratitude, I told myself. Kansha. Sensei was going to make me stronger.
I started paying attention when the class lined up in pairs on the mat to practice chokes, experimenting on each other’s necks. A year or so later, I went to a competition and choked six kids into submission with the exact same technique, one after the other. I would see the opening, slip in the choke, snick, wait for the kid to tap out. After the last time, I glanced over to see Sensei standing on the sidelines, laughing. “Well done,” he said in Japanese, the words sounding so beautiful in that harshly lit public space.
“Thanks for all your help,” I said, bowing. This is the feeling that winners have, I thought to myself, though it seemed to be happening not so much inside as near me: a momentary total absence of fear, as startling and strange as those rare moments in New York when the street noise suddenly stops.
I rode back with Sensei and the other kids from the dojo, packed into his ancient little car, which used a length of clothesline as a pull-rope to operate the window wipers. The trophy was at my feet, a sort of miniature war monument, if war monuments were made out of oddly shaped bits of wood and plastic, one layer piled on top of the other. At the top was a golden judo man, standing at attention. I treated it with ironic disdain, secretly in love with it.
When I got home, the lights were all off; I could feel the emotion hanging in the shadows, a deep hopeless sorrow. My father was the only one there, on the couch with the radio on and a glassy look on his face, the expression he got when he felt depressed—one of the periodic negatives of being a brilliant criminal defense lawyer, we all believed. I put the trophy in my room and then came back out and sat down. “What’s the matter?” I asked. There was no point in mentioning the competition; nothing about that part of my life interested my parents.
“It used to be all marijuana dealers,” he said. “They were peaceful and fun. If you lost, the jail time wasn’t too bad. But now it’s cocaine, and they can get twenty years to life.”
“That’s their fault, not yours.”
“The clients are different, too, violent people. They’d kill you as soon as look at you.”
The clients had always been a little scary, it seemed to me—bikers, self-destructive daredevils, the kind of counter-culture types who liked guns. My father had been blithely unaware up till now, perhaps a little bit in love. “Did something happen?” I asked.
“I think I might lose this case.”
We went out to get something to eat. He wasn’t wearing a shirt, just a windbreaker zipped to the top. Shoes with no socks, the laces trailing. I hadn’t had time to shower after the competition, so my hair was matted with sweat. Yet it didn’t surprise me that he drove us to Peter Luger’s in Brooklyn—at times like these, he wanted steak, and he wanted it to be big and expensive. Walking inside, I knew we would stick out and they would treat us badly in all the ways that restaurants in New York can. My father ordered the steak for two—an obscenely large slab—and then pretty much ate it himself in a kind of accelerating frenzy, forgetting fork and knife and picking it up with his hands. And then he put the bone down and with glistening fingers pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket.
“Dad, you can’t smoke here,” I said.
He arched his eyebrows and lit a cigarette, inhaling deeply and then blowing the smoke out of his nose. “I’m not bothering anyone.”
“They’re going to come over.”
“I’m a paying customer.”
The waiter was at our table a moment later. “You can’t smoke here,” he said, blunt. “You know that.”
In moments like these, there was always an anxiety that we would end up being utterly humiliated. It was a low-level fear that never quite went away. I braced myself as my father glanced up at the waiter, but he just stubbed out the cigarette and went back to his inwardness, a kind of bleary trance. Our cheesecakes came and we ate them in about two seconds, paid the check, and got up to go, stumbling for the door. It was as if there were a hole in my chest and the blackness was pouring in and I was choking on it.
Afterward, at home, I lay on my bed, unable to remember the way it felt to make those kids tap out—the way choking them into submission seemed to make me levitate above the rest of the world. I glanced over at the trophy that sat on the floor by my bed, and it didn’t even look like cheerful, ironic junk anymore, just ordinary junk.
And yet I really had won. At the dojo a few weeks later, Sensei called me over to show me a letter from the U.S. judo federation: my first-place finish had gotten me into the regionals in Chicago. “Six chokes in a row,” he said, laughing with pleasure. “And now you can go and choke another six, and nobody will see it coming.”
Normally, I would have wanted nothing more than to celebrate with glasses of whiskey in the studio, to sit and talk about which throws to use and when to apply the choke, and to draw comfort from his certainty that the world was safe, that I was like him, a wolf, not a sheep. But what I felt now was an anxious churning deep in my stomach, so painful that I couldn’t pretend. I knew that if I went to Chicago I would lose.
“I don’t know, it’s really far,” I said. “Plus, right now, I’ve got lots of schoolwork.”
He looked genuinely puzzled at this. “You don’t want to go?”
“No, I want to go,” I said, reversing. “I’m going to go.”
I traveled with my mother, who on the day of the tournament disappeared into the stands gripping a novel by Collette, looking slightly shaken by her surroundings. The competition space was vast, bigger and scarier than anything I’d seen up to that point. The endless gymnasium covered in mats, ten or twelve matches going on at the same time, the noise, the people, the bleachers, the fluorescent lights, the waiting: it gave me a pulsing, sick, headachy feeling that seemed to expand and contract with my breathing. Suited up and ready to go, I paced back and forth on shaky legs, trembling; then, as my first match finally drew near, my opponent walked up to me with his coach. “Look,” the coach said to him, putting a hand on his shoulder. “He’s afraid of you, he can’t even look you in the eye.” I was just two feet away but he talked as if I couldn’t hear him, and so it felt as if I were eavesdropping on some essential knowledge about myself. Instantly, I averted my eyes, terrified. Just then, our names were called; we stepped onto the mat and bowed, and a moment later he had me in a choke: I felt the familiar pressure in my head, the flash of panic. I tapped out.
Back in New York a few days later, I pounded up the stairs to the dojo, opened the door and saw the red mat glowing in the darkened space; the throwing dummy slumped against the wall; the big vertical pipe in one corner, wrapped in an old mat for protection. The electric lights were off, but sunlight slanted through the big windows at the front. It was a Tuesday, which meant that there was no kids class, and it was still way too early for the adults to arrive. Sensei was out. An in-between time. I changed and lay on the mat in my judo suit, staring at the piece of calligraphy that hung on the wall, four Chinese characters rendered in strong black strokes like judo players tangled in combat: Use All Your Power for Righteousness.
I would have to train much harder, I believed, to make up for what had happened in Chicago.
And then the door to the stairway opened and Angel entered. I hated working out with him. He was big, fat, awkward, immovable, always kicking me in the shins and stomping on my toes. I had no idea how old he was: he seemed like a gigantic kid, but there was heavy stubble on his cheeks. He wore his hair in a bowl cut, and when he took off his glasses, you could see that one of his eyes was a little bit droopy. I couldn’t think of him as either sempai or kohai, senior or junior.
We ended up practicing chokes, one sitting and the other applying the technique till the first one tapped out. He started and then it was my turn. “Right spot?” I asked.
“Almost. Yeah, that’s it.”
I released him and he sat up, rubbing his neck. The dojo was dark, still, and empty. There was a long pause, and I had that feeling that I sometimes couldn’t avoid—loneliness like a draft through a crack in the wall, even here—the feeling that would always drive me to practice harder.
“You can choke me out if you want,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s okay, I like it,” said Angel. “I get choked out all the time at my other club in Brooklyn.”
For the first time, I wondered if he might be simple. “It kills brain cells,” I said.
“Who cares? It feels good.”
It seemed totally illicit and creepy and wrong, but I already knew I was going to do it, could already see myself doing it, as if there were really no other choice. I put him into a choke and instead of increasing the pressure slowly, as I normally did, snapped it tight. I felt him go limp, and then I got up and rolled him to his back.
Angel looked asleep in a sort of untidy way, eyes half open, showing the whites, mouth slack. He gave out a couple of alarming snores and I shook him and then his body fluttered a little bit, his legs began to kick. I started to panic. But just as I was about to run and knock on the studio door, his eyes opened up. I helped him sit up. His head hung loose.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Don’t worry, I like getting choked out.”
“What’s it like?”
“A little like you’re drunk.” He shook his head to clear it. “You can do it again if you want.”
I did, as if doing it again might erase the first time.
Brian was serious about choking me out; he kept at it, day after day, through full-out battles that seemed to last the whole class. But we were reasonably chummy in the changing room afterward. “I can’t believe you got away again,” he said, pulling on his jeans.
“Yeah,” I said, hands so dead I had trouble untying the drawstring of my judo pants. “That was a good one.”
“But I’m going to get you tomorrow. You know that, right?”
“Yeah, well, we’ll see.”
At home, I would lay in bed, so tired I couldn’t keep my eyes open, yet unable to fall asleep—body aching on what felt like the deep cellular level, feet twitching from excess tension. Floating in the dark on the edge of consciousness, I would imagine myself getting choked out, as if I were watching a film clip: Brian letting go of my collar, standing up to take a look; me spread out on the mat, legs kicking ever so slightly in reaction to the little seizures taking place in my brain. The thought was so deeply, poignantly sad that it brought tears to my eyes.
During the day, I did everything with an intense nostalgia, as if for the last time. This might be the last time I hung out with my father at the diner on the corner, listening to his stories about the clients and their violent drugged-out antics, the two of us laughing away our unease. The last time I sat in a restaurant with my mother as she catalogued my father’s failings: how he’d let a client talk him into investing money in a nightclub (“He’s ridiculously trusting, like a child”), how he wouldn’t take any time off work (“He’d rather spend his time with them than with us”). Always in the back of my mind was the knowledge that I’d have to be at the dojo later, that I’d have to fight harder than I knew how, and that if Brian got me I would never learn Japanese or go to Japan. I would wake up and be Angel.
“I don’t think he’s ever leaving,” Sensei said to me in Japanese that night, laughing. It was the middle of practice and we were standing on the mat with Brian, all three of us dripping with sweat, retying the belts that held our jackets closed. Sensei had a point: I’d lost count, but it seemed way past when Brian normally left for Houston.
“I’m not afraid of him,” I said, though in fact I was more afraid every day, certain that I was dwindling.
“That’s good,” said Sensei. “Fear is the tallest barrier.”
“He better watch out,” I said.
Sensei called out the beginning of sparring, and Brian snagged his iron grip on my jacket. I managed to snap it off and knock him down with a foot sweep, and he fell to his butt and got up slowly. “That’s it,” he said, with that lupine smile of his. “You’ve made me mad.” We danced around for a while, I took a step back, he followed, and I came in for the shoulder throw and flipped him cleanly up and over. We both rolled through in a kind of somersault, and then he was clinging to my back and I was trying to protect my neck as he dug into my throat with his knuckles.
I was lying on the mat when I opened my eyes. The action in the room had stopped and people were staring. Sensei was looking down at me without his usual bemusement, a little concerned. For a moment, I had the confused sense that I had somehow fallen asleep in the middle of practice, and I started to berate myself: such a lazy and feckless thing to do, so completely unforgiveable, so stupid. And yet it was hard to even imagine moving; all I wanted was to stay right there, to sleep a little longer before I got back to the action. There was saliva around my chin; I wiped it with my hand, and then it occurred to me that there was something odd about that, the saliva. I got to my feet, unsteady. “What happened?” I asked, scanning all the sweat-drenched faces around me. Nobody said a word. “What happened?” My voice sounded strange in my ears, and my heart started to smash against my chest. I knew what had happened, of course, but I wanted to deny it. That somebody could hurt me. That I was the kind of person somebody could hurt. “What happened?” I asked again. “What happened?”
Criminals: My Family's Life on Both Sides of the Law by Robert Anthony Siegel will be published July 17, 2018 by Counterpoint Press.