by Teresa Milbrodt
When I come home from school the five-hundred-pound man is sitting in the kitchen with my parents having cookies and coffee. I haven’t seen Mr. Yamoto since I was six, the year he and my dad both quit sumo in Japan and moved to the states. He nods to me but doesn’t stand up. I smile and shake his hand that is large and thick and disturbingly soft. He squints at the fat around my hips and abdomen, my muscular arms and legs. I’m five foot eight and two hundred twenty-five pounds and most people kind of peer at me like that.
My father clears his throat. “You remember Mr. Yamoto,” he says, more of a statement than a question.
Mr. Yamoto and I nod. He owns a restaurant in L.A. and Dad goes to visit him from time to time, but Mr. Yamoto doesn’t drive up the coast much. I don’t think he likes maneuvering himself behind a steering wheel. He and my father were in the same sumo stable when my father started training. My father was born in America to Samoan parents but moved to Japan when he was ten. That’s where he was recruited to be a wrestler. Mr. Yamoto was my father’s mentor, but since we came back to the states he’s been something of an adversary. I’ve overheard my parents’ conversations, how he’s mad at my father for trying to start his own stable and train wrestlers for the American amateur leagues that have weight classes and allow wrestlers to wear shorts, things that are forbidden in traditional sumo.
“These foreign sumo associations are not stringent enough,” says Mr. Yamoto.
“But my students aren’t real wrestlers yet,” says my father. “They’re just raw material. Give them time and they’ll be ready for the pros.”
They both stare hard at me because they can tell what I’m doing. I’m training myself. Traditionally, women aren’t supposed to be sumo wrestlers, which is why Dad won’t coach me even though I’ve asked him to. If a woman touches the dohyo, the ring, it can’t be used anymore. Women are considered impure because we have a menstrual cycle. I’ve walked around the dohyo Dad has set up in the backyard but I’ve never stood inside. Amateur women’s sumo leagues have started in Japan and the United States, but we can’t go professional because the sport is still controlled by men who cling to tradition and custom. Dad and Mr. Yamoto are both pretty strong traditionalists, though Dad believes in bending rules when it suits him.
At dinner Dad and Mr. Yamoto and I each eat four times as much as my mother. “You shouldn’t have thirds,” she says, but passes me the platter of chicken breasts anyway.
“So what do you plan to do in the future?” Mr. Yamoto asks me.
“College,” I say because it’s mostly true.
“And what do you wish to study?”
“I don’t know,” I say.
“She’s a really excellent dancer,” says my mother. “She even has a few students, little girls. I’m telling her to study business so she could open her own studio someday.”
“That would be nice,” says Mr. Yamoto. His remarkably thin lips stretch into a smile.
That evening he and my father do flexibility exercises in the backyard. Dad weighs three hundred fifty pounds, lost over a hundred after he came to the states, but he and Mr. Yamoto can still do the splits. They raise and lower their limbs with slow grace, like their bodies are suspended in water, but I know both of them have bad ankles and knees. All athletes work their bodies hard, and in sumo it’s worse because of the extra weight wrestlers carry around for years. It’s murder on joints.
I peek at the two men from my bedroom window while I choreograph a new ballet routine for my elementary school dance students. I rest my toe on the edge of my desk, bend all the way down so my fingertips touch my foot. Nights like this it’s kind of hard not to think that if I were a boy they’d let me stretch with them. I want to be a wrestler after I graduate, but sometimes I feel conflicted about it—women’s sumo is often more spectacle than serious sport. I have watched women’s sumo on television, though, the annual California Sumo Association competition in the Los Angles Convention Center. Female wrestlers wear the long mawashi belt wrapped around their waist and groin like men do, but under it they wear a leotard. Most of the women wrestlers are lighter than me, maybe one-sixty to one-eighty, but I’m fast and limber. I know I could compete well.
In the morning I skip breakfast and tiptoe out of the house, glancing over my shoulder at Mr. Yamoto’s boulder of a body reclining on our hide-a-bed. I jog to school and arrive an hour early to run a few laps around the gym and lift weights before first period. I have weightlifting right before lunch, too, the only girl in the class, so by the time the bell rings I’m ravenous.
I eat with Hilda who’s been in my dance classes since we were little kids. She’s built like a typical dancer, thin as a ballet barre, and usually just has a yogurt and a diet pop at lunch. My food covers the rest of our table—two peanut butter sandwiches, three ham and cheese sandwiches, two roast beef sandwiches, a bag of carrot and celery sticks and fresh broccoli, an apple and a banana and two cartons of milk. Eating is part of the training. I have two meals a day, but eat a lot of food at once so my body will gain fat. Hilda and I don’t converse so much as I eat while she talks to me about her classes and her boyfriend and her parents and how she wants to audition for the American Ballet in New York after graduation. This is fine since I don’t have much to say about any of those topics.
Today I draw a crowd, six sophomore boys who sit with paper plates of pizza on their laps and watch me eat. They don’t laugh, just stare because they know I can bench press more than any of them. I am a quiet eater, a neat eater, and a fast eater. When I started bringing gargantuan lunches to school a couple years ago I had quite an audience, but the novelty of me wore off since then. After lunch Hilda and I have math together, trudge through the hall side by side. Other kids either wave cheerily at me or pay me no mind, like Hilda is walking next to this big patch of empty space. Nobody’s mean to my face, and if people make fun of me behind my back, I don’t care. It’s kind of like that gorilla joke. Where does a 500-pound gorilla sit? Anywhere she wants to. But sometimes gorillahood is lonely.
Hilda and I go our separate ways after school, me to jog two miles and Hilda to practice ballet in her basement. We understand each other in terms of commitment.
On my jog I think about Mr. Yamoto again, feel like he’s following me. It makes me queasy. Even though Dad has refused to train me, he has never stopped me from eating, from exercising, from mimicking the training so I can gain muscle and fat on my abdomen and hips. That’s the point in sumo, to have a good center of balance so it’s hard for your opponent to push you out of the dohyo.
When I get home my dad and Mr. Yamoto are in the kitchen having coffee and looking at each other across the table. I wonder if they were talking before I came in. Probably not. They usually fight in silences. I’ve heard them on the phone arguing. My dad will say a few sentences and then it’s quiet for several minutes. There’s not even Mr. Yamoto’s voice on the other end of the line. Something must be happening, but I’m just never sure what.
My students come over at four. I introduce the girls to Mr. Yamoto and he bobs his head at them as they toe the floor. We retreat to the basement where Dad installed a ballet barre. I was a chunky little kid and my mom enrolled me in dance so that I’d lose weight and become more graceful. I was like my students at age eight, about four feet tall and a hundred and fifty pounds. Besides Hilda, the teacher was the only person in the class who’d talk to me. She was an older lady who thumped time on the wooden floor with her cane and told me I had presence. She was the reason I kept with the class even though the other girls told me I looked like an eight ball in my black leotard and white tights. I stayed plump but got some dance trophies on the way.
The three little girls I teach are in third grade. Mothers seek me out because they don’t want their daughters to be in classes with the skinny minnies. In the basement each little girl has her own purple mat for stretching exercises. We stretch and then practice plies, toe positions, grand jetes, and arabesques. I teach them that tiny people can be as clunky and awkward as anyone else, and big people can float. It’s all in how you carry yourself.
Like sumo, ballet can take a toll on the body but in the opposite direction since you are trying to leave the ground rather than stick tight to it. In either case you can only do it professionally for so long before your body wears out.
My dad wore out after twenty years, after he reached champion status and became one of seventy wrestlers in Japan to get a salary. He was a celebrity, followed by the media, and had his own fan club. I’ve always been around sumo, always taught to respect sumo, and when I was little I wanted to go to work with my dad. He left early in the morning after having tea with me and my mom, and didn’t return until late. Professional wrestlers spent the day training at their stable and answering fan mail. I remember him coming home at night wearing the traditional silk robes with his long hair tied in a topknot. He’d grab me and twirl me around in the air until I was nearly sick, then he’d give me a little treat, a piece of jellied red bean candy or a pink sugary sweet shaped like a butterfly. Every night we ate a stew of vegetables and fish and rice. Dad shoveled down bowl after bowl, and went to sleep right after that. When we went out to eat people were always asking for his autograph.
When I was five years old, my dad took me to a little village where we watched women compete in sumo wrestling as part of a local festival. They wore blouses and knee-length shorts, clothing that covered their muscle and bulk. The displays were not considered a real sport, but that didn’t stop me from deciding that someday I would wrestle, too, and make my dad proud. I would be so good he’d train me. My dreams haven’t changed. Dad’s haven’t, either.
I was six when he hurt his ankle and couldn’t wrestle professionally anymore. Mr. Yamoto had retired six months earlier following a similar injury. He was five years older than Dad and near the end of his career, but I guess it’s hard to leave the limelight. They both sank into depression, drank a lot of sake, and watched television in our living room. Sumo matches. Dad took walks outside around our garden, as much as his ankle could manage, and spent a lot of time sitting on our garden bench, sometimes crying. I sat beside him because he didn’t have enough of a lap for me to sit on, and Dad put his big hand around my small one and squeezed so hard it hurt. I wanted to make him happy, wanted to show him how much I loved him by doing what he had done. My resolve to become a sumo wrestler grew stronger.
My mother was the one who forced us to move back to the states. It saved both Dad and Mr. Yamoto. They needed to be somewhere different, find a new life. They both loved cooking and decided to make a profession of it. Mr. Yamoto had friends in L.A. and set up his business there, but we moved farther up the coast to be near Dad’s parents. Dad worked as a full-time chef for a while. Mom got a job when I started school, so he began working four days a week at the restaurant and spent his extra hours training wrestlers.
When I was ten, eleven, twelve, we’d drive to the park together and sit on a bench pretending to be sumo scouts. We hunted for boys around my age, ones who were muscular but looked like they could put on weight, enough weight for sumo. Dad and I watched them play basketball, throw footballs and Frisbees and baseballs, trying to figure out which ones would be agile and flexible and sturdy enough to be good wrestlers. That was how I learned about the sort of build a wrestler needed, the training young men had to endure in the stables after they were recruited from Japanese villages. I guess Dad thought of it as spending quality time with his kid talking about something he loved. It was what he could share, and maybe he figured that taking me on pretend scouting ventures would be educational. But I knew it was more than that. Dad wanted to find a young man to train. He wanted to discover a sumo star.
Before dinner I watch Dad and Mr. Yamoto in the backyard with Dad’s students, two hopelessly doughy guys in their mid-twenties who have less muscle mass than me. They can’t run a quarter mile without passing out, and they’re spending their parents’ money to live as part-time sumo wrestlers and endure mild abuse.
“Come on,” Dad says, “more toe-touches.”
The two wrestlers sit on the ground with their legs spread far apart as they can manage, try to lean over and touch their toes with their fingers.
“This stinks,” mutters one of the guys as he strains his arms toward his feet.
“We’ve stretched enough today,” grumbles the other wrestler.
They aren’t nearly as well behaved as my ballet students. I think they just want to put on the mawashi belt and pose in front of the mirror as imposing fat men with angry expressions. In Japan, sumo trainees wear traditional robes and wooden sandals, even in the winter, and they have extra chores like cleaning the house and cooking. Dad doesn’t make his students do any of that. He tried once and they complained that they were paying him to become sumo wrestlers, not to make dinner or mop the kitchen floor.
Mr. Yamoto stands in front of the two young men, his arms crossed. He won’t even lower himself to tell them how badly they stink.
It doesn’t make sense. Dad spends his days off with his pitiful students while I’m moving my bureau from one side of my bedroom to the other and pretending it’s another wrestler. I know it would be better for him to work with me. I have a shot at the amateur leagues, which is more than his students can say.
“Why don’t you let them get into the ring?” I tell Dad.
Dad turns to me, bites his lip. I don’t think he wanted to have them actually perform in front of Mr. Yamoto, but Mr. Yamoto nods, the barest hint of a smile on his face.
“Yeah,” says the larger of the two guys. “Let’s get at it.”
Of course neither of Dad’s students has the ability to concentrate or the stamina required to become a sumo wrestler. In a sumo match some-times the wrestlers will stand across from each other for long moments, trying to make their opponent lose focus before the first strike. These two tackle each other right away, look like two fat guys trying to waltz. They aren’t centered, and lose balance quickly.
Mr. Yamoto and I cross our arms and for a moment he’s on my side.
“Okay,” says my dad after three minutes of painful wrangling in which neither student manages to push the other out of the ring. “That was a good try.”
“I was gonna win that one,” grumbles the fatter student.
Mr. Yamoto grunts, turns around, plods back inside.
I know I could kick both of Dad’s students’ asses if given the chance.
At dinner Dad still tries to defend them. “It’s America and everyone can have their dream.”
“They’re not sumo wrestlers,” I say because Mr. Yamoto won’t. “You said so yourself.”
“Remember that Gerald kid?” says my dad. “Now he was good. He was gonna make it before his knee gave out.” Gerald is the guy my father brings up when he wants to defend himself. He keeps teaching in the hopes of finding more Geralds, students who have the potential to compete in Japan. But Dad couldn’t return there if he worked with me, a girl, in the amateur leagues. At least I think that’s what he’s afraid of. Being shut out.
Mr. Yamoto leaves the next morning after breakfast. He nods at Dad, nods at my mother, nods at me, slides into his Lincoln Towncar and is gone. Then Dad gets angry.
“You embarrassed me,” he says. “I didn’t want them to have a match in front of Mr. Yamoto.”
“Why not?” I say.
“They’re not…I mean…” Dad shakes his head. “They just shouldn’t perform in front of people yet.”
“Yet,” I say.
“They could get better,” says Dad.
“They’re tragic,” I say.
“Well what the hell do you think you’re doing?” says my father. “They can’t compete and neither can you. Not where it counts.”
“I’m sure I’d be less of an embarrassment to you than your damn students,” I say. “I could beat either of those doughboys any day.”
“Amateur leagues,” says my father. “They don’t matter in the end.”
“Then why the hell do you keep teaching them?” I say.
“They pay me, dammit,” says my father. “They buy your lunches and sweatshirts.”
And they keep him in the world of sumo wrestling. They keep him dreaming.
Dad and I are quiet for the rest of the day. We both feel like Mr. Yamoto is still around. There is an invisible weight in the kitchen, a creak to the floorboards that wasn’t there before. We feel him in the living room behind potted plants, in the backyard next to the dohyo ring.
Dad’s right, though. It’s not like California Sumo Association tournaments get broadcast nationally on ESPN. The one news program I saw on women sumo wrestlers consisted of two women sitting in front of piles of cheeseburgers and stuffing their faces. They were laughable, didn’t have balance, didn’t have muscle, looked about as serious as dad’s students. They might as well have been circus freaks. Sometimes I wonder why I bother. Other times I picture myself in the center of a dohyo in the Los Angles Convention Center, wearing my black leotard and purple mawashi belt, facing an opponent. I have to hold on to that image, with or without Dad beside me.
At school on Monday I’m still upset about Mr. Yamoto, about my dad, about the fat wrestler wannabes on television. I try to bench more than I should, one hundred eighty pounds, even though I usually do one-sixty. On my eighth repetition I almost drop the weight. Eric is spotting me and grabs for the bar, but he almost drops it right on my neck.
“Dammit,” I say, “you want to decapitate me? You said you could handle one-eighty.”
“Usually I can,” he says, stepping back, but I’m already off the bench and grabbing his shoulder. I swing my free arm back, ready to punch, and his face goes white and his eyes get big and I stop because he looks so terrified. No one has ever looked at me like that before and it makes me feel so damn powerful. I pause long enough for J.P., who’s on the football team and not that bad a guy, to grab my wrist.
“Okay,” he says, “no one got hurt and we should probably keep it that way.”
“The asshole told me he could handle one-eighty,” I say.
“Guess that’s not the case,” says J.P., still holding tight to my free arm.
Eric looks like he’s ready to piss his pants. I let go. My arms are still aching with bravado at lunch. Mom told me that’s what got Dad, too. Bravado. Ego. He didn’t get injured in the ring but when he was carrying too heavy a load, six fifty-pound bags of rice. He tripped and twisted his ankle.
Because Dad and I are snippy and depressed, Mom suggests we go out to eat for dinner. Normally this would be a good idea, normally we don’t pay any attention to the staring eyes, but tonight it makes everything worse. Dad needs two chairs at the restaurant. We both order the all-you-care-to-eat pasta special. Dad is a very neat eater, but this doesn’t matter because the other diners think he’s a fat slob, stare mercilessly as they pass our table. There is too much shame in the world outside our backyard. It makes me lose my appetite. Even Dad doesn’t eat as much as usual. Back in Japan, when people stared it was a mark of pride. Now the eyes are chiding us.
In the car on the way home my mother lectures on how she is worried about our health, our blood pressure, our cholesterol. Sumo wrestlers only live to be about sixty-five, but that’s the price to be in the limelight. That’s the price even if you never make it to the limelight.
My father does his stretching exercises in the backyard before bed. I stretch in my bedroom for a few minutes but stop, slide on my plastic thongs, and pad outside. Dad pauses when he sees me, standing on the far end of the dohyo across from him. I walk up to the ring, place my toes at the very edge. We look at each other, both utterly still, our heads tilted identically.
Teresa Milbrodt received her MFA in Creative Writing from Bowling Green State University. Her short story collection, Bearded Women: Stories, will be published by Chizine Publications in Fall 2011. Milbrodt’s stories have appeared in Nimrod, North American Review, Crazyhorse, Natural Bridge, Indiana Review, The Cream City Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and New Orleans Review, among other literary journals. Several of her stories have also been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Western State College in Gunnison, Colorado.