Shadowboxing | Kirsti MacKenzie



When I started I was romantic about it. Everyone here is a fighter, kind of thing. But romance in boxing is artifice. Big fucking hero til you drop to the mats for pushups. Arms shaking between rounds. Try not to puke. Come up covered in sweat and skin flakes and pubes. Fifty heaving bodies crammed into a basement. The stench.

The idea is beautiful, maybe. Not the doing.

Real fighters—not moonlighters, like me—focus on the doing. Head down. Feet moving. Count the blows like: One. One Two. One Two Three. One Two Three Four.

I wanted to see myself in them. But I’m amateur as they come, in love with the idea. If I’m honest, I’m mostly a fighter in how I keep people at arm’s length. I trust boxers for this reason. They get it. You weave and dodge and slip. When someone comes too close, you swing.

Problem is, I also have to swing to know someone’s still there.


Physical exam

While I wrap my hands I imagine him pinning me. His sweat and mine. Boxers on one side of the gym, BJJ fighters on the other. His hair sweeps into his eyes while he rolls and wrestles. Blue-eyed, bearded even in the August heat. Nods at me between rounds.

First class back after the world ground to a halt. Bad health makes me cautious. This year I’ve been sick more weeks than not. But I got divorced in April. New to the city, working from home. I’m lonely. Best way to make friends now is at the end of my fist.

The BJJ fighter smiles at me. Catches my eye while he does push ups, which is how I know he imagines pinning me, too. I skip rope in my sports bra and his grin grows dopey. When he finally says hi, my reflexes kick in. Weave, dodge, slip. Too stubborn, too scared to open up.

After a couple weeks of classes, my lungs get swampy again. Doctor tells me I should stay home for a while.

How long? I ask.

Long enough, she says. Get a boxing bag.


Round One

Tell my friend about being sick, about being lonely. Physical risks versus mental ones. Somehow we start sparring about masks. About bad ethics when I leave the house. About bad health being my fault. Neither of us is right. None of it is simple.

This is about others, she says. Not just about you.

I’ve had four vaccines, three years masked, two bouts with the virus. She is my closest friend in the new city. She lives blocks away, but never comes by. Look around my empty apartment and wonder what others.

I’m all I have left, I say. If being sick doesn’t kill me, being alone might.

I’m only trying to explain; she doesn’t want to hear it. She tells me not to make it her problem. Furious, I come out of my corner and swing. She stops responding for good.

On my hospital forms, I strike her name from the emergency contact.


Round Two

Join dating apps. If I can’t meet people at the end of my fist, I’ll meet them at the end of my fingertips. All the men I swipe right on look the same. Like the BJJ fighter, like someone I’m trying to forget. They want to go on dates. But they’re never quite right, or I’m never quite ready.

It’s not you, I explain. It’s me.

Bitch, one says, kys.

Have to look it up to know what it means. Voice in my head says, not for the first time, yeah maybe you should.

Glass jaws, every last one of them. They can’t bear hearing no. Too tired to fight back, I block and block and block.


Round Three

Start seeing a therapist. I’ve kept people at arms’ length my whole life. He makes a face when I count the reasons and says he understands why. He asks about the last person to get close. Tell him about a man who I don’t talk to anymore, who lives far away. Tell him about whiskey, tell him about late-night texts. Tell him about ten years lost between you.

I think I love the idea of him, I explain.

Don’t you want a real connection? he asks.

I do. I want it more than anything. But when someone leans in, they may swing for a kiss, or for the kill. Kiss kys kiss kys kiss kys. Somehow it’s safer to be in love with an idea. His jaw is beautiful, too far away to withstand my bullshit.


Split Decision

Stay home for six months. Health gets better. Head gets worse.

I miss swinging, just to know someone’s there. The only person I fight at home is myself. Rounds in the mirror, in the shower, in my head. Shadowboxing my worst impulses.

I can’t buy a boxing bag because I live in an apartment. No noise, no sand, no water. Just my fists striking empty air.

In a movie there would be a training montage. But this is life. No swelling music, only silence. My breath and heartbeats. Count them to know something still lands, to know I’m still here. One. One two. One two three. One two three four.



Doctor clears me to return. Start slow, during quiet hours. When I show there are only real fighters there, young guys with hunched shoulders and proud chins. They smile big and shout hello.

Two of them are roughhousing, a fighter and his coach. Shoving and feeding soft fists to each others’ laughing sides. When I pass, the fighter grabs my waist, hides behind me. He knows his coach won’t hurt me. Coach advances and I put my fists up in jest but he knocks them away. Folds me into a big hug. It’s the most touch I’ve had in months. Joy beats the breath clean out of me.

Where have you been? he asks.

Open my mouth. Choke on six months of being sick, six months of suicidal thoughts.

It’s okay, he says. You don’t have to explain.

Go to a corner, wrap my shaking hands. Greet the heavy bag, something new to swing at. Something solid. Something other than my shadow.

I’m not counting breaths or heartbeats anymore. I know it’s getting better because I count days. When there’s a bad one, I start over. One. One two. One two three. One two three four. One.

Kirsti MacKenzie

Kirsti MacKenzie (@KeersteeMack) is a writer and editor in chief of Major 7th Magazine. Her work has been published in HAD, Rejection Letters, trampset, Autofocus, Maudlin House, Identity Theory and elsewhere.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to top