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Coffee & Kung Fu

For Nicci Bradford, Kung Fu isn't a martial art, it's a philosophy. Now if she could only learn when to run and when to wade in kicking...

Excerpt from Chapter 1:

In the movie Magnificent Bodyguards, Jackie Chan sells the evil Mountain King his fists in order to protect his friends. Selling a body part which is still attached to your body. It’s a funny concept. I wonder if it’s possible to sell part of yourself and not your whole self?

I’m trying to smooth the grammatical errors out of an amusement park brochure when Carol brings two cups of coffee to my cubicle.

“I heard you had a date last night,” she says as she moves a stack of paper off my spare chair.

I take a sip from the cup of coffee she’s set on my desk. “Who’d you hear that from?” We both know she’s the one who set up the date, but she’s fishing. I don’t want to tell her that I didn’t show. It sounds like cowardice.

Or maybe I just don’t want to talk about my personal life at all. I give this office nine hours out of every day. Nine, not eight. The half-hour lunch break is a joke. You can’t even walk to the nearest coffee shop, eat, and be back in half an hour. Last spring, I sat outside the front door to eat my lunch. I wanted to be in the sunshine and fresh air. The boss called me into his office and asked me to use the lunchroom. Something about sanitation. Something about what the clients would think. I asked if I could skip the two fifteen-minute breaks. Take an hour for lunch. He said no. “The law is the law and the law says I have to give you a break every four hours. Sorry.” So now I stare out the lunchroom window while eating mustard and bologna on wheat, but it isn’t the same.

“Oh, c’mon, Nicci. How’d it go?” Carol asks, sitting down in the chair. She isn’t going to leave.

“I didn’t go.”

Her face turns pink. Not the little-girl blush, the blotchy, angry kind. “You just stood him up?”

“No. I called the number you gave me. We talked.”

“You just talked.” It’s not a question.

“It wouldn’t have worked, Carol.”

“Why not?”

I lean back in my chair and shrug. “I don’t know. It didn’t feel right.”

“You didn’t even meet him. How could you know if it felt right or not?”

I don’t think I should tell her that I asked him if he had ever watched a Kung Fu movie. He said he didn’t like foreign films.

“He’s a vegetarian,” Carol is saying. “He likes animals, movies, going out to eat. . . . In fact, he sounds exactly like you.”

“I’m not a vegetarian.”

“You know what I mean.”

I take my glasses off and set them on the desk, neatly crossing the ear pieces. In Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin, Jackie Chan slams crossed chopsticks onto the café table to indicate that the conversation is over. I doubt Carol will get the hint.

I rub my eyes. “Likes and dislikes aren’t everything,” I say. But I know that if he’d said he liked Kung Fu movies, I probably would have shown up. Just to see.

“His favorite movie is Die Hard,” Carol says. “You like action movies. He likes action movies. I just don’t understand how you can sit there and tell me likes and dislikes don’t matter. Every time I want to watch Pretty Woman I have to catch Bill and tie him to a chair.”

“You’d have to tie me to a chair,” I say without thinking.

“See? See? I wish you’d given it a chance.”

I sigh. “I’m happy, Carol. Really. I’m not all that interested in hooking up with anyone right now.”

This is an outright lie, of course. Everyone is always interested in hooking up with someone. Sure, we like to pretend that we aren’t really looking, but we’re all looking just the same. We’re not exempt from evolution. And evolution tends to produce animals whose main goal is perpetuation of the species. So, yeah, we’re all looking. It’s just whether or not the looking should turn into the hassle of mating and trying to get along with another human being for the rest of your life.

Carol sighs. “No one can really be happy when they’re on their own.”

“Why not?”

“How could you be, with no one to talk to? No one to share your life with?”

As if you could do this with any warm body. I’ve noticed that a lot of people seem to think any warm body who shares your hobbies is a good enough warm body to share your life with. In the lunchroom, the other women like to talk about soul mates, but I’m not sure they know the difference between soul mates and the early stages of being bed mates. That euphoric period when you don’t need to sleep, don’t need to eat, you just live on love. It lasts about two weeks. If you’re lucky, two months. From there on out, it all goes downhill. The guy who was “the one” becomes “the sonuvabitch who slept with my best friend.” But hey, you probably both liked mountain biking.

“You know?” Carol asks from the other side of my cubicle. She’s still waiting for an answer to her statement.

“Yeah.” I really wish she’d leave.

“I know this other guy--”

“Maybe some other time.”

“He’s cute. He works in Bill’s office. Something to do with computers, you know?”

You know? It actually means, “Are you listening?”. I’m listening, but I want to finish this brochure, leave early, and go to the grocery store. I’m out of TP at home and I need something other than refried beans for supper. And maybe Shaolin Wooden Men will be in my mailbox. I finally found a subtitled version on-line last week.

“Some other time,” I say out loud. “Not right now.”

Carol purses her lips. You can see the little wrinkle lines she’s going to have when she gets old and her lips move into permanent pucker mode. The corners of her mouth are going to hang down in soft rolls of parchmenty flesh. I hope she and Bill are still fighting about movies. But I doubt it. Bill put his hand on my knee the first night I met him. He didn’t pat it. He squeezed it. I don’t know about Carol, but I wouldn’t want to spend the rest of my life mating and trying to get along with a man who squeezes other women’s knees.

“You’re being deliberately difficult, you know?” she says. “I’m just trying to set you up on a date, you know?”

“I know. Thank you, Carol.” Maybe I should tell her that I’m in the Witness Protection program. Or that my last boyfriend was a stunt man who died in a fiery balloon crash and I’m still in mourning. I doubt either excuse would work.

Carol stands up and twitches her pantyhose. “I hate these things,” she says as she smooths her skirt back into place.

“Try knee-highs,” I say, already thinking about that dangling modifier in the third paragraph of the brochure.

“I need the control top or I wouldn’t fit into this skirt.”

“Oh.” I glance up. She’s looking at me. Her lips are pursed again.

“Are you sure?” she asks. “About the guy in Bill’s office? He’s recently divorced. No kids. Cute, too.”

And used to be some other woman’s soul mate before he started squeezing her friends’ knees.

“No thanks.”

* * * * *

I moved to Boston after the president of the limestone and ivy buildings that passed for a college handed me a piece of paper with “Nicole Bradford” printed on it. It was a fancy piece of paper. Cream heavyweight. My name in loopy Old English Bookplate. But all the calligraphy in the world couldn’t help me turn an English lit BA into a job. After floundering around as a temp in my college town, I moved here. Of all the cold, gray cities in North America, I moved to Boston.

I didn’t just stab my finger at a map, I chose this city. Because of all the cold, gray cities I could have chosen, this one has people on the streets. Not as many as I’m used to, but a lot. Considering that I’m living in one of the largest cities in the country that sounds funny. But there’s something about cold cities that keeps people and businesses from spilling out into the streets, setting up boxes of shoes, cabbages, fish, cigarettes. . . .

Okay, I’m not making any sense. I grew up in the Philippines and lived in Manila while I went to high school. Manila is giant, humid, filthy, neon, and so damn alive you take in the life with every breath. With every breath you catch a whiff of the charred corn from a cookfire, a passing jeepney’s exhaust, the odor of the person’s body next to you on the bus, fresh flowers from the corner shop, burning rubber, new shoes, and the hot, smokey scent of squid cooking. . . . The smells might not be pleasant, but if you could plant them, they would grow. And every possible inch of the city is covered with people. Sitting on the curbs, setting up shop on the corner, passing out sweepstakes tickets on the steps of a department store, milling around a TV playing the latest soccer game.

Manila is not cold or gray or dark.

So why am I here? I’m a coward, I guess. Clutching my calligraphied diploma, I picked a cold, gray city where I could disappear into the crowd and no one would ever notice.

When I was eighteen, I moved back to the United States with my parents. They were retiring after twenty-some years of living in various cities throughout Asia, and they decided to retire when their last bird--me--left home to go to college in the US. My parents were missionaries, but I always said they taught English (which was true) because I didn’t want to say the word “missionary.” Aside from the connotation of the Great White Father going out into the world to bring the White Light of God to the brown or black masses, I didn’t want to be a missionary kid. I didn’t want to be from another country. I wanted nothing more than to be exactly like all the other college freshmen who had spent their lives in the heartland of the USA. The proudest moment of my eighteen-year-old life was when another student at my college said, “You’re a missionary kid? I didn’t know that. You’re nothing like the other MKs. You act just like someone from around here.”

“Got a light?”

The voice wakes me up from my memory daydream. I’m on the bus which will drop me off within walking distance of my Watertown apartment, and the woman next to me is holding a cigarette in front of a toothless smile.

“Sorry,” I tell her. “I don’t smoke.”

“I didn’t ask ya if you smoked. I asked if you had a light.”

I shake my head. She sidles across the aisle to a man in pinstripes and shiny shoes. He slaps his paper against the No Smoking sign, then goes back to reading the business news.

Leaning my head against the clammy window, I watch the buildings crawl by. All that effort to be just like everyone else and now I find out homogeneity is only skin deep. Because I’m not sure where I want to be from. I’m not sure where I fit.

No big surprises here. Nicci’s confused again.

What brought this little problem to my attention was an on-line shopping expedition for a classic Jackie Chan movie. During the last five minutes of my half-hour lunch, I finally tracked down Fearless Hyena in Cantonese. The voluntary buyer reviews all said the same thing: Amazing fights, but a lot of cheesy humor that has nothing to do with the plot.

Cheesy humor. The stuff that makes living fun. But I guess even movies have to be goal oriented.

Outside the bus, a horn blares. Everyone is hurrying to get somewhere they don’t really want to go. Rushing toward today’s goal. Furious if another human being gets in their way. On a bad day, the guy who has to put his foot on the brakes might even pull out a gun. And he was only going home to watch a sitcom on TV.

* * * * *

Shanghai Noon isn’t really a Kung Fu movie, but it has this marvelous horse which sits down, stays, and gives Jackie a horse laugh at the appropriately-funny moment. As a kid, I spent hours in my room writing stories about horses. Race horses, cow ponies, horses with ridiculous names like Queen and Golden Cloud. I never named the horses in my books Bob, Freddy, or Peaches. But if you were a horse, would you rather be called Bob or King of the Wind?

Even though I wasn’t able to have my own horse, I did take riding lessons when I was a junior in college. The instructor thought it was hilarious when I fell off. She nearly doubled over laughing. I thought it was funny too, until I realized that she got more enjoyment over my falling off than when I finally mastered the up and down sway of the dressage trot. I didn’t go back.

Carol eventually talked me into going out with a guy from the bigger cubicles down the hall. I’m not sure how she knows so many men, and I wonder if she’d be able to set me up with a woman if I were a lesbian. Maybe Carol is the matchmaker from Dragon Lord. Helping young boys land potential mates. Lucky for Jackie, the matchmaker liked to hang out in odd places and had nothing better to do than follow young boys around to see what girls they were interested in. Maybe that’s what Carol is doing when she comes into my cubicle with a cup of coffee. Maybe she’s following me around.

Kevyn (with a ‘y’) is about six feet tall and looks like Russell Crowe. That is, he looks like a young Richard Nixon. He’s about ten years older than I am--somewhere in his late thirties.

“So you’re. . . .” he trails off.

“I guess so.” Maybe he forgot my name.

“Wow! That’s so tight.” He grins.

“What is?” I keep a straight face. The only people I know who use the word “tight” are my nephews. Maybe Kevyn with a y doesn’t know how old I am.

He looks confused. “It’s nice to meet you, I mean.”

“Same here.” I look around the coffee shop.

“So do you want to see a movie or something?”

“Okay.” I spot the grinning guy behind the counter. He obviously finds all this amusing, because he’s watching Kevyn and me as he scoops coffee beans for a customer. And he’s listening to our conversation. Eavesdropping without shame. I try not to smile.

“Any movie you’d like to see?” Kevyn asks. “There’s a new movie out with Julia Roberts and Richard Gere.”

“Another one?” I ask, still looking at Grinning Boy. He’s looking back at me.

“Yes. I liked Pretty Woman, didn’t you? It was tight.”

“What was?” I ask again. When Kevyn’s mouth opens and closes several times, I realize I’m acting like my riding instructor. It’s not Kevyn with a y’s fault. He’s just trying to fit in with what he thinks I am. He’s trying. And I’m laughing.

“Look, I’m sorry,” I say. “You probably came all the way down here--”

“No problem. I work in the same place as you.”

“I know. But something’s come up. I’m not going to be able to go out tonight. I tried to call Carol--”

“You can’t go out tonight?” Kevyn asks. He almost lets a genuine look of relief slip, then he pastes something bland and concerned over the crack.

“No, something’s come up--”

“No problem. To tell you the truth. . . .” He trails off again, but I know what he didn’t say. I’m not what he was expecting. Too odd, too brusk, not girlie enough.

You can always tell the men who want a woman who acts like they think a woman should act. They want Miss Melanie Jones from the third grade. She smiles, she laughs, she listens, she scrapbooks, she wants one-point-eight kids, maybe even two-point-four, a minivan, a nearby Baptist church, and a three-bedroom house. And she likes movies with Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, and loves the man who will go to them with her.

Kevyn looks uncomfortable, like he doesn’t know if he should shake my hand, give me a hug, or just leave. He swallows. I watch his Adam’s apple bob up and down, and take pity on the poor man.

“Maybe I’ll see you at work sometime,” I say, tucking my hands in the back pockets of my jeans. I’ve found that it always makes people more comfortable if you don’t have any loose appendages hanging out there, requiring some form of etiquette. And putting your hands in your back pockets rather than your front ones causes your elbows to stick out and solves the problem of whether or not you need a hug.

“Sure. Maybe. Take care.” Kevyn starts to leave, then turns back to me. “I’m sorry.”

I raise my eyebrows. “For what?”

He waves a hand. “For this. For wasting your time.”

“And yours. At least we’ll be able to tell Carol to bug off, right?” I grin, but his return smile wobbles off to one side.

“Right. Take care.”

“You too.” I watch him push through the glass door with the steaming cup of coffee painted on the inside. A twinge of guilt surfaces at how relieved and happy I am to hear the shop bell ring in his wake.

“You two have a fight?”

I turn around to find Grinning Boy talking to me. Stepping up to the glass counter, I pretend to look at the endless varieties of coffee. He’s about my age. Has brown eyes. And the name tag on his green apron reads: Michael.

“No fight,” I say, still looking at the coffee beans in their faux burlap bags. “Someone at work set us up. Thought we’d hit it off.”

“Guess you didn’t.”

“Guess we didn’t.” I look up at him and smile. His head is tilted slightly to one side. I’m expecting faux concern.

“Want a cup of coffee?” he asks instead.


“Customers rave about my cappuccino,” he says, leaning his elbows on the top of the glass case. Below his rolled-up sleeves, his arms are roped with tendons, veins, and muscle. Not a weight-lifter’s arms. A working man’s arms. Like you might see on the docks.

For years, I lived with my parents in the belly of the prehistoric animal created by the Philippine Islands. Surrounded by a distant reef, the possible ports on our island weren’t deep enough for the big ferry boats, so the government built a dock. Like a finger, a mile-long pier stretched out from the island until it found the deeper water the ferries needed. Every morning, just as the sun broke free of the ocean, a line of shallow-bottomed fishing boats pulled up alongside the pier, bumping barnacle-encrusted mahogany pilings with their prows. “Hup!” someone would yell and narrow, wooden gangplanks would slide up from each boat to the pier. Then the impromptu market would begin as box after slatted box of fish, crabs, mussels, and even the occasional shark would be hand-carried up the plank to the eager buyers above.

The men who carried those boxes could have picked up the world. And they had never seen a set of weights in their lives.

I stop staring at Grinning Boy’s arms.

“Just plain coffee with cream,” I say out loud. He might make the best cappuccino in the planet, but it would still be a six-dollar cup of coffee. Besides, with the money I saved by avoiding the latest Julie and Rich movie, I can buy another Jackie Chan DVD.

He doesn’t even blink. “What blend?”


“Of beans.”

I blink. Blend? I buy my coffee in a can. Already ground. If I want to have a ceremony, I make tea. “You pick,” I say, but I feel . . . what’s the word? Gauche.

“Coming right up.” He twirls around on the balls of his feet. The move is so graceful, I forget my embarrassment and just watch. He doesn’t waste an atom of energy. Every twitch is pure music. An acrobat in a green apron.

He sets the coffee on the glass counter. I start to hand him some money, but he closes my hand over the bills. His fingers are long and warm, and he has a dusting of powdered coffee bean on his knuckles.

“My treat. If you’ll sit with me on my break.”

I look up from his knuckles to his brown eyes. The irises are so dark, I can see my reflection. For one heartbeat, I watch myself, then I turn our clasped hands over and let the money go. “Thanks. But I can’t. I’m sorry.”

He smiles and my reflection disappears. “Another time,” he says, taking the money and stepping over to the cash register.

“Yes. Another time.” I snap a plastic lid over the top of the coffee and push open the glass door. The bell rings.