The year before I received a black belt in Tae Kwon Do at Indiana University, I spent time studying La Boxe Française in Strasbourg, France. Classes were held in an odoriferous university gymnasium. The instructors did not have mustaches nor wear tights, but it is hard to keep mustaches and tights away from my memory of them. In Jules et Jim by François Truffaut, Jules and Jim practice La Boxe Française. They go after it, frequently, with playful gusto. Jim has a big mustache in this part of the movie. Later, after the War, Jim shaves off his mustache and becomes a serious writer. I cannot remember if Jules had a mustache at the beginning of the film when they were practicing La Boxe Française, but the fact remains that when I studied La Boxe Française in 1988 in Strasbourg, France, I fell into company with a small blond man named J. who looked a good deal, my memory assures me, like Jules. When you consider that I am relatively tall, and that I later (albeit without fighting in a war, what war, Desert Storm?) became a so- called serious writer, and that when I took my black belt test in Tae Kwon Do at Indiana University I had a rather large mustache, you might well forgive me for thinking of myself, in this context, as Jim.
I am under no illusions, of course, that in 1988, while I was doing a study abroad year in the Alsacien capital of Strasbourg, which twice during the last century fell into German hands, I thought of myself as Jim. I had almost certainly never, during that period, heard of Jim or of Jules or of Truffaut or even of the French New Wave. Likely, during that period, I still held out some meager length of candlestick to the notion that I might eventually, when I grew up, become a sort of action figure, someone who would use his physical gifts to striking and remarkable ends. The following year, during the time I was studying, with a hurt knee as it turned out, for my black belt exam, I was undergoing the endless recruitment process for the CIA. I discuss that process elsewhere, but bring it up here because it points to the really quite significantly different sense of myself I possessed in those days.
I had brought my then bicycle (a green Fuji “Cadenza”) with me to Strasbourg and soon after arriving took to zipping across town on it and to taking long rides out in the surrounding country. As I rode around on my bike, through the charming streets of Strasbourg, or over to the Rhine, or along the Route de Vin, or over to the gym to practice La Boxe Française with J., I did not, how could I, think of the long years to come when I would travel to Japan, study reading and cultivated otherness at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, live in New York, work ghastly hours in interesting company at the United Nations, try to write, try to write, try to write. I thought of running the high hurdles at breathtaking speed, of fighting other young men, of dunking basketballs, of being, physically (I still believed in the future then), slightly better than me. And it is certainly the case that when I practiced the kicks and punches I no longer remember how to throw that are associated with French martial arts in the company of the admiring J. at that stinky University gym in that barely French city, I was aided and abetted in this line of belief.
Once when J. and I were following the program and doing a bit of La Boxe Anglaise, more or less straight boxing, he failed to dodge one of my punches and got laid out. I probably outweighed J. by fifty pounds, and he may well have been flopping, for reasons all his own, but I went away from that session feeling like I was slugging my way into that brighter, better future I had in mind for myself. I don’t mean I went out that night and bragged to my study abroad friends that I had just knocked out some French monster, or even thought all that much of it myself, but this little piece of evidence of my general invincibility got added to the pile and comes to me, all these years later, as a kind of tipping point: one could be strong enough to confront the world; one could go towards it rather than having it hurtle toward one; one could swing, rather than duck; one could be good enough and cultivate that prowess. Blah, blah. Etc. I think that’s what I mean.
I said that J. was admiring. He was. He liked to dress and undress for La Boxe Française practice very close to me. He did not want to train with anyone else. He looked into my eyes a lot. He looked at my dick a lot. J. had a crush on me. Does Jules have a crush on Jim in Jules et Jim? Of course he does. What is so lovely about the movie is how this crush is allowed to evolve–to mean different things at different times. It is reciprocated and ignored, it is fierce and soft. There is a woman in the movie, played by Jeanne Moreau, but the movie is not about the woman. Jules and Jim. The years drift by.
J.’s crush on me, I mean on Jim, me, was at first just barely felt. We met for dinner at the University dining hall once or twice. We trained together. We undressed. I thought about hurdling. About how hard I could punch. I got scolded by a trainer for hitting too hard when I laid J. out. J. smiled and forgave me. I apologized. I meant my apology but also I was secretly, terribly impressed by myself. How idiotic, of course.
As a boy, in a ski resort in the alps, I turned on a heat lamp in the bathroom, a device I quickly decided could convey special powers, and was able, under its influence, to rip a towel rack off the wall. I knew nothing of damp drywall in those days. I had, very simply, ripped something made of metal out of something made of wall: extraordinary. Later, but still before Strasbourg, under the influence of the Jonathan Livingston Seagull guy, I more than believed that if I could just focus hard enough I could make my head pass though a door. I remember trying this during a typhoon. A door in my father and stepmother’s apartment. I was not locked in or anything. The door was wide open. It wasn’t a special door. It was just the door I had chosen for this test. Which I failed.
The years did not drift by for me and J. He made his play one night at his apartment. He had invited me for dinner and we were joined by a slim young man from Madagascar. The young man had brought some sort of encyclopedia to dinner, one that described his native country. We all looked at the encyclopedia together as we sipped postprandial coffee. As we looked, J. and the young man from Madagascar closed in on me. I didn’t do anything foolish, nothing regrettable, but when their shoulders began to move against my upper arms I stood up, made my apologies, and left.
Where did I go? Back to that door in Hong Kong? Did I press my forehead against it and feel it slip through? Linda Rondstat might have been playing in the background. Her version of “The Tracks of My Tears.” Did I melt through the door? Where would I have been had I done so? Madagascar? It rained a lot in Strasbourg that year. Probably I just went home. I had a small apartment in the old part of town. A slip of the river actually ran beneath my building, beneath my floor. Once my father came to visit. I had many adventures. I never went back to La Boxe Française, but I did get my black belt the next year.
(“J. and Me (Jim)” originally appeared in our Fall 2011 issue).