Brian M. Palmer in Long Beach

Kickboxing's Fine Print

Thinking over my years, there've been a few things that I regret doing. For instance, that night I drank 11 beers in one sitting -- it seemed like a good idea. I later threw up all over myself while walking across town in too-small cowboy boots (it was Halloween). But there is one mistake I made that eclipses almost all others. The irony is that I thought I was doing myself a favor at the time. I'm talking, of course, about the kickboxing classes that I signed up for. My dad was the one who lured me in. He had noted my interest in the weight-training class at high school and suggested I do something other than sit on the couch and watch movies. He employed my neighbor to accompany me to SLO Kickboxing. This was right around the peak of kickboxing's newfound popularity and Chuck Liddell -- a local wrestling star who became an ultimate fighting competitor -- had recently opened a gym.

The first session was promising. My neighbor and I kicked around a bag, passed a medicine ball back and forth, jumped rope, and generally got our heartbeats up, all while listening to Lauryn Hill sing about " that thing, that thing, that thiiiiiiiing ."

While I did enjoy the vigorous exercise, I was more interested in John, the 300-pound Hawaiian instructor of our class. He began the session with an impromptu demonstration of the best way to break an opponent's shin at the urging of a skinny man in a sleeveless "No Fear" shirt. Apparently "No Fear" had gotten into a drunken brawl the previous weekend and had exhibited some fear after being beaten up. John showed signs of trepidation as he dusted off the old chestnut "no one wins a fight," but after the guy said that he heard John had a mean kick, John got into particulars. To my surprise, John included the rest of the class in his explanation of the best way to end a fight before it starts. I figured walking away would be the best method, but SLO Kickboxing taught something altogether different.

The lesson left me tired but enthused. My interest in the people who hung out at a kickboxing gym, combined with my desire to be physically fit, somehow altered my brain chemicals. With nary a consideration for the future, I signed a contract agreeing to pay $50 a month for a year's use of the gym's facilities. After welcoming me to the fold, I was given a set of leather boxing gloves and a T-shirt with SLO Kickboxing's logo on the back.

My interest waned after the first session. The boxing gloves didn't move from their place in my closet, and as the months wore on, a large amount of dust began to envelop them.

One day, in a fit of inspiration, I decided to drive over to SLO Kickboxing and use their weight room. On the way there, I listened to the song "Me and the Major" by Belle and Sebastian. As I pulled into the parking lot, Stuart Murdoch's voice was drowned out by the sounds of POWER 106, the local R&B station, being blasted from inside the gym. I was out of my element.

After nodding hello to the instructor at the front door, I went to the weight room and started to use the leg press. After a few minutes, my muscles began to burn and tense up. As I watched the steel of the weights move up and down, I asked myself, "What am I doing here?" I didn't have an answer. The girl grunting like Monica Selles on every kick was only mildly entertaining, and the R&B that I had once found ironic was now plain annoying. I gathered up my dusty gloves and left.

But I was not free of SLO Kickboxing. Every month my bank statement showed a $50 deduction in their name. After telling my dad about the problem, we looked at the fine print of the contract I had signed. We entertained the idea of feigning a broken leg. The plan was that I would hobble into the gym on crutches, all apologies, and ask for the remainder of the time on my contract to be terminated. But it was futile. Further reading of the fine print foiled our plan. They may have been meatheads, but their contract was airtight.

A year passed. And then on the month that I was to finally break free of the financial shackles they had placed upon me, SLO Kickboxing showed up on my bank statement yet again. I went down to talk to them about it.

Appropriately enough, the person I aired my grievances to was John. He was incredibly personable at first. I began to feel bad for judging him, and myself, so harshly. John was making me believe that I had it in me to get fit, to lift weights three times a week, to listen to bad music, and, yes, break some shins if need be. But then his mood turned sour. I hit him with the question of how they could charge me dues after my yearlong agreement had expired. He pulled out a copy of the contract and, in lawyerly terms, directed me to the clause that said SLO would automatically roll over my membership if it was not cancelled.

I threw out the shirt but for some reason can't seem to part with the gloves. They sit in my darkened closet, a dusty reminder of one of the biggest mistake I ever made.

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