“DO YOU want to roll?” Will asked the new guy as soon as class officially ended. Generally, Will tried to make the new students feel welcome, because then they tended to get into Brazilian jiu-jitsu and stick around, rather than try it out, get overwhelmed, and leave, never to be seen again. Will figured it was enough that each one had overcome the hurdle and come to class in the first place; there didn’t need to be any standoffish hazing behavior before accepting them into the fold. He wanted to develop the interest, not discourage them.

“Uh, sure?” the new guy said, clearly uncertain what his agreement meant. “Roll?”

“Spar,” Will supplied. “After class, there’s usually ten to twenty minutes free mat time when we can pair up and practice. It’s called rolling.” Will smiled. “And I’m Will, by the way.”

“Spence.” They shook hands, and Spence’s expression became focused. “So what do I do? I just started. I took the four introductory classes, but this is my first real class.”

“Let’s just go over the things from class again, then,” Will said with a nod of understanding. The school ran a continuous introduction special of four classes, designed to ease beginners into the school. They learned the very basics about what the martial art consisted of, including stance, how to fall, some terminology, and general concepts about movement and protecting oneself. Will hadn’t watched Spence during class. He’d been too busy acting as a demonstration practice dummy for Bennie, the school’s owner and head instructor, as well as being paired up with a black belt who had kept him on his toes all night.

“That’d be great.”

“Let’s start with me in your guard,” Will said, and he lowered himself into a wide kneeling position. Spence put his back flat to the ground and wrapped his legs around Will’s torso, hooking his feet together behind Will’s back. A faint flush crept into Spence’s cheeks, even though his expression remained one of intense concentration.

Will had been learning Brazilian jiu-jitsu for years now, and he’d grown comfortable with the close physical contact the martial art presented. But whenever he worked with a beginner, he was reminded again of how difficult it was to mentally get over the breakdown of social norms against such touching, and of starting positions that resembled more intimate relationships. BJJ was a grappling sport, similar in a lot of ways to wrestling, and it required being up close and personal. Sometimes Will would find himself working moves where his hands were in all sorts of inappropriate places, with his head pressed in close under and behind. Generally, the closeness didn’t even cross his mind because he focused on not letting his opponent get the better of him. Every once in a while, the thought flickered through his brain that, under any other circumstance, there’d be a lot of explaining to do about the positions and touching. The position called North-south mimicked a gratifying sexual position so closely, with faces and groins aligned, that Will still occasionally broke out in laughter.

He’d learned a long time ago, for the most part, to set that aside and focus on his actions. There wasn’t time to have idle thoughts, lest someone catch you in an arm bar or a choke hold.

If Spence stayed in the sport, he’d eventually get over the discomfort of breaking that societal taboo, although for now Will enjoyed the flush that had come to his skin. Being honest with himself, he had to admit he’d asked Spence to roll after class not only because Will liked to be kind to newcomers but also because Spence was highly attractive.

Distinguishing people on the mat was difficult since everyone wore a gi that consisted of loose fitting drawstring pants, a thick jacket with wrap-around lapels, and a knotted belt. The belt color indicated rank, of which white was the lowest level. Under the gi, Will could tell that Spence was well built and proportioned. He stood a few inches shorter than Will’s own six-foot-one, but he was trim-waisted and broad-shouldered. He had a slightly round face, with a dimple in one cheek but not the other, and the unevenness of it gave him a mischievous air. His hair was sandy-brown, and he had wide-set eyes the color of a turbulent ocean. Will was close enough to catch the scent of citrus, clean and more like the lingering smell of soap than the cloyingness of cologne.

“You ready?” Will asked. “Remember how to get into the choke hold Bennie showed first?”

“Yeah, I remember,” Spence said.

“Okay,” Will said and held out his hand.

Spence stared at it for a moment in bewilderment.

Will grinned. “To start rolling, you slap and then fist bump. Like this.” He slapped Spence’s hand and held out his fist. Spence gave him a definitive reciprocal fist bump. “Good,” Will said. “Now we both know we’re ready to start. Remember to release me when I tap out.”

Spence performed the move slowly and stiffly, ending up with his forearm across Will’s neck. He moved jerkily, sectioning the movements into individual steps, without the flow Will associated with more seasoned practitioners. Will let him get the move and double tapped against Spence’s thigh when the pressure across his neck grew tight. Spence instantly released the choke hold.

“Keep your elbow down, don’t lift it. Here, let me show you. And relax. This isn’t about strength but technique. Don’t be too tense.” Will flipped over onto his back and wrapped his legs around Spence, putting him into his own guard. He performed the maneuver and paused at the point where he wanted to highlight the elbow element. “Like this,” he said. “If my elbow is too high, there’s not enough pressure. If it is lower, then you’re in tight.” He demonstrated both.

“Yeah, it’s really uncomfortable with your elbow in, even before you start putting pressure.” Spence’s attention was on Will’s arm. “Can I try again?”

“Sure.” Will released Spence and moved to his knees so Spence could wrap his legs around his waist. This time Spence performed the move more smoothly, with the elbow properly placed, although the intensity of his focus hadn’t abated, and Will tapped out more quickly. “That’s it,” he said.

Spence looked deeply thoughtful as he practiced the motion again in the space in front of himself. “That’s a good move,” he said.

“Definitely,” Will said. “Don’t forget to relax. You’re really tense. BJJ teaches that you don’t have to be the strongest guy to win the fight.” Will glanced to the rest of the large workout room. The other members had all finished and were drinking water off to the side. “Looks like we’re out of time for tonight. Find me after class next time you’re here and we can roll some more.”

“Thanks. I will.” Spence held out his hand and Will shook it, then Spence left for the changing room.

Will spent thirty seconds stretching out his hamstrings, which always seemed to be tight. He really should look into some yoga or stretching classes to supplement his time learning Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Squeezing it into his schedule would be tough, since he was committed to strength conditioning in the mornings before he went to work as a pharmacist, and in the evenings, he attended BJJ classes. He’d get sidelined if he became injured, so he’d have to find some time to do it.

“Will,” Bennie called him over with a wave. “What do you think?” He shook Will’s hand and clapped him on the shoulder.

“Good class,” Will said. “Especially for the white belts. Easy stuff to remember.”

“Excellent,” Bennie said. “Four new white belts. Thank you for rolling with one at the end. He looks like he’ll learn quickly.” Bennie grinned, which was the usual expression on the man’s face. It was clear he loved the sport and loved teaching. His slightly crooked nose and close-pinned cauliflower ears also gave away that he’d spent a lot of time developing his skills over many years. Prior to learning BJJ, Will knew that Bennie had been ranked fourth in the state overall as a college wrestler. He had a breadth and depth of knowledge about grappling Will envied.

Will thought of how well Spence had picked up on the elbow correction, and he nodded. “Yeah, he seems like he’s got some natural talent. He just needs to relax a little more.”

“Everyone starts out too tight.” Bennie held up both forearms, with his elbows tight to his body and his hands clenched into fists. He shook his hands to show the intensity. “They always try to force the move, rather than learn the leverage. You did too.”

Will had been the exact same way when he’d first started, but training over time taught him the value of being calm and practicing with intent rather than brute force. “I know.” If anything, Will prided himself on how he’d incorporated purposefulness into his form. BJJ was a mental game as much as a physical one.

“Are you going to compete at the Open?” Bennie asked, changing the topic.

“Maybe,” Will said. He put his hand on the knot of his belt. He was a purple belt, which was the third level up. He’d been getting close to brown belt, the level below black belt, and doing well at the upcoming Open BJJ Competition would be a good way of showing he was ready to advance. Will, however, wasn’t fond of competing. He enjoyed going to watch and seeing how the other members of his school did, but Will had never felt the urge to compete. Looking into the future, Will saw himself practicing jiu-jitsu for a long time, without the glitz and flash, but because knowing the martial art meant knowing a part of his own soul. With BJJ, there would never be a time to stop learning. He had no inclination to jump up the ranks and liked being a purple belt. It showed his skill levels were solid without becoming a focus of attention, as brown and black belts often did. The expectations were lower, and Will liked that. He didn’t want BJJ to become stressful.

“You think about it,” Bennie said, with that ever-present grin. He liked to have his students compete and do well. It reflected on his school and brought in more practitioners, and Bennie enjoyed having full classes.

“I’ll consider it,” Will said. Though he was disinclined to compete, he figured he would wait and see how he felt as the event grew closer. He made his own way to the men’s dressing room. He exchanged a few hand slaps with friends on his way, but found the room empty when he got there. Spence was already gone, and Will felt a keen disappointment. Off the mat, he’d have liked to find out more about Spence. Next time, he promised himself.