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Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Fight Lesson

I’m not a fighter.

"Fighter" seems to be a label many people enjoy applying to themselves as a sort of shorthand for toughness and resilience. But neither of those things have ever really applied to me; at least, not in the way that people who take up such labels hope to capture and reflect.

Ugh. That’s messy.

I’ll say it another way.

I cook but wouldn’t call myself a chef. There’s a measure of intention and professionalism imbued in that designation. That is, not only do chefs cook and enjoy cooking, they are, in large part, defined by cooking. Chefs cook, then, because it is purposefully and intentionally both what they do and who they are.

Fighters fight for the very same reasons. It’s not only something they do, but something they do intentionally, something they seek out as a matter of purpose and, something they are largely defined by and, ostensibly, something they enjoy. The designation describes not just a particular trajectory, but a trajectory paired with an eagerness to perform the deed to which one is especially suited.

I fall short of all of those standards.

I have, at best, mid-length arms ending in thin fragile wrists with reedy pre-arthritic fingers sprouting from the ends of them. I’m not just skinny, but skinny in the way that suggests that I’ll always be skinny (or, at least, very likely injure myself should I ever attempt anything more taxing than a treadmill).

Also I talk. I talk a great deal. I talk my way both into and out of trouble, sometimes at the same time. And, while an argument can be made that trash talking is a prominent (if not absolutely necessary) aspect of being a fighter, my trash talking lacks the confidence and implied threat of brute force. Instead, I talk smack in the same way that your hipster uncle might comment on your ironic t-shirt. It’s a snide sort of humor willfully obfuscated and isolated by condescension. My quirky jabs are roundabout word exercises meant to satisfy my weird ego. It’s masturbation, really. But like… brain masturbation. With words. Speaky-self wordness. For myself.

I think I’ve made my point.

All of this meandering serves as a sort of preemptive apology for the story that follows - “sort of” because I’m only partly sorry for what I did. It was wrong – very wrong – but I’ve both forgiven myself and reconciled the whole affair as a learning experience. And if I learned from it, if it ultimately served to make me a better person, could it really have been all that bad?

No, right? Right!

Right.

Ok. Anyway.

One time I hit a girl in the head with a brick.

We had just moved into the neighborhood into a brand new condo – so new, in fact, that it was still somewhat under construction when we moved in. The banister and front screen door had yet to be mounted, and the laundry room was still somewhat incomplete. It was the first place we lived in that wasn’t an apartment. That felt important, but I couldn’t describe exactly why. Yet the look I saw on my mother’s face when she talked about owning it seemed as close to an explanation as I’d ever get.

Apart from a used car, we hadn’t ever owned anything of significant value before, and here we were, in a new place - in our new place. Mom’s pride was contagious, and set off adjacent feelings of hope and progress. We wouldn’t always be poor. We were becoming less poor all the time! Nothing was perfect, but everything was going to be alright. The evidence of upward mobility was literally all around us.

But the new neighborhood was strange and noisy, configured in an unfamiliar way, a way that didn’t feel at all like home. It was a jumble of familiar things; cars, yellow brick apartments, bodegas with colorful canopies, cars with duct-taped bumpers, girls playing double-dutch, boys on the stoop with boom boxes. But they were all made foreign in their arrangement. “Here” wasn’t “there”, and while that was as apparent as a thing can be, it was nonetheless disconcerting.

Nevertheless, the first night in the new place – in our new place – felt more like home than the old apartment ever had. Mom, who had always worked multiple jobs to keep our family above water, still devoted a large part of her time to work. But when she got home, she wasn’t tired, certainly not tired in the same way she’d been in the old place.

It used to be that she’d come in from the day, frazzled and somehow still focused, asking each of us about our day at school, our homework, all while making dinner. In the new place, she’d come in and sit on the couch, exhausted but satisfied. We, too, responded differently; making less demands of her time, becoming more understanding, more accommodating, “Do you want some ice tea, Ma?”, hushing one another from taxing her with bad news or permission slip begs before she got a chance to decompress.

On top of all of this, we made new friends almost immediately. Mom had moved us to the new place right after school ended in the summer, so we landed in a neighborhood of kids buzzing with the bright and infinite newness of summer vacation. After we’d loaded all the boxes and things into the house, mom sent us outside. “Go make friends,” she said, in the same way that she said “Go to bed” or “Go do your homework”. There was no joy in it, only insistence – “Get out and leave me alone for a while.” Though we had no real idea how exactly to make friends (who does?), we did as we were told and walked out into the strangeness.

We made it half a block before, out of nowhere, a kid called out, “YA’LL WANNA PLAY HELPING TAG?”

“Yeah!”

“OK! ONE OF YOU IS IT! COUNT TO TEN!”

Ten minutes later, my new friend David was using my bald head as a scrying orb to find the other kids. “The Head!” he cried. “The Head sees all! Oh yes! No one escapes The Head!”

And, just like that, we had friends.

We learned from them that our condo had once been an open field where the kids would all play football. “Now you live there” was an accusation leveled only once, but the message was clear: As the newcomers who’d robbed them of their playground, we had a debt to pay.

In recompense for our trespass, we offered an adjacent neighbor’s yard as a substitute football field. Granted, it wasn’t ours to offer – we would most likely be shooed off the property – but we took the chance anyway. We were kids. And it was grass. Grass is nature. And as far as we were concerned, nature didn’t “belong” to anyone.

Thankfully, the first time we tried to play a game there, the property owners simply admonished, “Don’t ya’ll mess up this lawn” before sitting down on their porch to watch us play.

It went like that for weeks. We’d meet up at the field midmorning and play through the afternoon, sometimes into the evening long after the sun had set. We kept score but it didn’t matter much once the game was over. The next time, there’d be new teams, new trick plays, new bodies arriving from different neighborhoods, new injuries to work on and around and so on.

It was a ritual in that way, though it never felt repetitive. And, while we hardly ever distinguished one game from another in conversation, each iteration had its own charm, its own unique excitement. Football was a reason to come together, even (especially!) in the rain and snow, even our bodies suggested that we might need a day off to recover. Staying home meant not being a part of that special thing that defined “us” apart from “not us”. So we played, even when not playing made more sense. It was who we were.

One afternoon, we were beating the hell out of one another in an especially brutal game of backyard football, filling the air with the sharp electric stink of blood and pre-teen testosterone. For hours, we thundered and snorted across the field, tearing up the ground with our knees and elbows, covered in mud, issuing blood and snotty projectiles. Not one of us was smart enough to know when to quit, and that was half the fun. The game seemed like it might last forever. And it very well could have, had we not been interrupted.

He couldn’t have been more than nine or ten years old, roughly our same age. He appeared out of nowhere, strutting across our field dressed in mustard stains and baby fat. He wandered through all our hot skin and hatred, singing songs and digging his toes into the grass. At first, we figured he was sent by his parents to kick us off the lawn. We had long since abandoned any thought of being careful with the lawn. Over the course of the game, had stomp-trudge-slammed a muddy runway from one end of the green grass to the other. But he didn’t seem interested in the damage we’d done. After it became apparent that he posed no threat, we continued our game, plowing past him, occasionally warning him to stay out of our way lest he get hurt.

He seemed only to be watching at first, strolling through unoccupied territory, picking at the grass and humming to himself. And, even though it was his lawn (certainly more his than ours), his presence there felt like an invasion. It wasn’t long before we stopped warning him and starting bumping him here and there, hoping he’d get the point and steer clear. Not only did he stay, after a while, he started mocking us, barking harmless insults while sitting in the middle of our man-child war.

We gave up on bumping him and decided to ignore him entirely. When he realized that we weren’t going to pay him much attention, he walked off the field, frustrated, ambling toward his house mumbling to himself. Relieved to be rid of him, we played on as if nothing had ever happened.

I was the first of us to notice that he’d come back. I got my first clue when he came up behind me and whacked me in the back of the head with a lawn sprinkler. The others noticed that something was awry when I didn’t lineup for the next play and quickly congregated around us.

I was trapped, then. I had no intention of fighting but I had been struck and now, surrounded by friends, a fight was inevitable. A fight was, in fact, happening. All that remained to be seen was what part I’d play in it.

I tried to make light of it, standing in front of the doofy kid, clenching my fists and grinding my teeth, rubbing my head, hoping he’d apologize and claim it was an accident. Instead, he laughed and pointed (pointed!) at me, singing “NAH NAH NANAH NAAAAAH”. Normally, despite his transgression, I would have walked away and let him be. But my friends were watching. And judging. And I was an angry and embarrassed ten year old boy. So I socked him one.

I connected somewhere between his left eye and his nose with the inside of my clenched fist. Immediately, my friends began to whoop and cheer, shouting insults and encouragements at the top of their lungs. He reeled and came back like a teeter-totter, swinging and screaming with idiot determination. I dodged his swing easily and hit him again, harder, this time nailing him on the temple. He stumbled back and set himself into some sort of chubby battle stance. I doubled my fists and glared at him, hoping even now that he’d just go away. When he hollered and began to charge, I braced myself for impact, giving up on any hope of a peaceful resolution.

He charged at me, ducking his head and howling. I waited until he was almost upon me before dipping to the right and tripping him with an outstretched leg. He landed face first and slid across the mud/grass. After a second, he got up covered in dirt, looking mean as hell. My friends began making pig noises, shouting at him to go home. It was all very confusing and frustrating. I didn’t want to hurt him – I just wanted him to go away. But the fight was on. And, as easy as it had been to start, I had no idea how to stop it.

The next time he swung at me, I wasn’t quick enough to get out of the way. The punch landed uselessly on my shoulder. He may as well have bought me flowers. The next swing missed completely, sending him spinning 180 degrees in the process. I kicked him as hard as I could, knocking him to the ground for a second time. “Go home, man”, I said. It came out sounding more like a plea than a demand. I was angry and scared and I was done fighting. My hands were shaking and I felt myself on the verge of tears. I prayed he would just stay down.

By now, the kid was down on all fours, snotting and crying all over himself. “Go home”, I said again, this time with a bit more force. Eventually, he picked himself up still gasping and snorting through his tears. I doubled my fists again, preparing for the inevitable charge. Instead, he turned and ran towards home, wailing like a siren. I let my hands relax. The fight was over.

I endured the ensuing high fives and hurrahs without much pride. I hadn’t wanted to whip the kid but he all but asked for it. At least, that’s what I told myself. I couldn’t tell if I did the right thing by defending myself, or if I had just been a bully. It felt like both things at once. The cheers and such only made it that much worse. I decided then that I had been wrong, because it had felt wrong, and that seemed closer to the truth than any justification I could conjure. Nevertheless, I was just glad he was gone. My friends were already inflating the fight to much more than it had been, and I was just glad that it was over. They returned to our game, energized by the violence but I decided to sit out the next couple plays to gather myself. Normally, sitting out would draw insults, but I got a pass. In fact, for the next 15 minutes or so, wanted or not, I had the highest respect from my friends.

Then she showed up.

As it turned out, the kid had gone inside, wailing his fool head off to summon his big sister – a large sasquatchian woman with linebacker shoulders and legs like redwood trees. She threw open her door shouting, descending the steps of her front porch growling and panting with rage. The Amazon wanted blood.

What she yelled was, “Who hit my little brother?”. What I heard was “Fee, Fie, Foe, Fum!”.

Suddenly, I had to pee.

“I was playing football!”

“We didn’t do nothin’!”

“Don’t be mad ‘cause Drew knocked yo’ lil’ brotha out!”

On and on went the innocent ones. She glared around at our number, chewing her bottom lip and scanning for a guilty face. It was only a matter of time before her eyes finally locked on to mine and, when they did I knew I had had it.

Distantly, I hoped that I would wet myself.

I stood there, my sense of fight or flight completely short circuited as she came on like a steam engine, swearing and screaming. I blinked. She pushed me with all her might and sent me flying. I coasted through the air before landing on my shoulders and rolling over, coming to rest on my stomach. It had hurt. It had hurt badly. And she was far from being done with me.

The wind had been knocked out of me and I was scraped up in a few places. I lay there, trying to catch my breath, somewhat afraid to move. By this time, my friends had retreated to a safe distance and were cheering me on. She stomped towards me, yelling threats and swearing. I started scrambling backwards on my hands and knees when I saw that she was coming closer but I wasn’t fast enough. She kicked dirt and rocks in my face, grunting with each snap of her leg.

“Go home, lil’ boy” she growled, staring at me with horrible eyes.

I choked on dirt, spitting out grit and a few small rocks. My friends began heckling her mercilessly. She drew towards them, screaming and threatening them with similar violence. The boys scattered. Her chest heaving, she looked around, daring someone else to challenge her. After a few moments, seemingly satisfied, she spun her considerable bulk around and started home with her head held high.

All the respect I had earned moments before vanished in an instant. Now, my friends laughed at me. It hadn’t mattered that she had been much bigger and stronger than I. She was a girl and I should have won. Case closed. I lay on the ground bruised and humiliated. The boys were incensed. “Are you really gonna let her do that to you and walk away?”

I got up from the rocks and dirt, brushing myself off. She was still walking away pausing here and there to bark at my friends who hadn’t quit heckling her (albeit from a great distance). I hadn’t wanted to be a part of any of this to begin with. The kid had chosen to hit me, I had chosen to let myself be roped into a fight, and now, I was being humiliated. I spat out even more dirt and narrowed my eyes, my mind now made up. This girl was going to pay. I reached down and closed my fingers around a hunk of brick laying beside my sneaker. My friends went bananas. I hefted the brick in my hand before taking careful aim and throwing it as hard as I could.

I never once thought about the consequences of throwing the brick. I can’t even say that I ever thought specifically of picking of the brick and throwing it at her. It all happened in a moment of idiot rage and the minute the brick my hand, I felt my stomach drop. It hit her directly in the back of the head with a sick thud. She immediately went down without so much as a whimper and my friends exploded all around me.

I had killed her. I could tell by the sound the brick had made when it smashed into her skull. I could tell by the way she dropped like an overstuffed rag doll. I’d won. Goliath was dead. But, instead of feeling victorious, I felt nauseas and guilty. I stood motionless, staring blankly at the heap on the ground, praying that she’d move.

It didn’t take long for God to answer.

She rose from the dead, maneuvering herself to her feet, her eyes alight with demonic rage. I could only blink, speechless. She had been dead – had to have been. I’d killed her – murdered her, even – and watched her fall down dead. Yet here she as, rising from the ground, very much alive, and very much displeased. She fixed her flat dead eyes on me and let out a low growl.

I ran.

She barreled after me, screeching at the top of her lungs. I sprinted toward my house at top speed, barely aware that I was also screaming. Yet, in spite of my above average speed, she closed the distance with ease. By the time I was ten yards from my front door, she was almost on top of me. One of her hand flew out and made a grab for my shirt, missing by just a fraction of an inch. The effort sent the top heavy behemoth stumbling forward, arms pinwheeling, but still very much after me.

I burst through my front door, not daring to look back, slamming the screen door once inside. My mother was sitting on the couch, reading. She looked up when I charged in, curious but otherwise undisturbed. I started to open my mouth to tell her that I wasn’t insane, that I was only trying to escape the clutches of a bloodthirsty hippo with braids. And, had I not paused at that moment to explain myself, had I not hesitated, I might have gotten the door closed. But I did pause. I paused… and I paid for it.

The screen door burst apart as she flew into it (through it, really) superman style. She slid across our floor dragging parts of the screen with her. I knew at that moment that I was as good as dead. And, worse, before I died, I was going to crap my pants.

My mother didn’t move an inch.

The girl looked up at me from the ground with a horrible alligator grin, all teeth and no soul. But, as she started to pick herself up (presumably to kill me), she noticed that my mother was eying her with cool predatory confidence, still having not moved from her seat on the couch. There was a silent exchange between the two that seemed to last an eternity. Then, as quickly as she’d come in, the girl was up and running full tilt out the door, leaping through the hole she’d made in our screen door. My mother simply went back to her newspaper.

I heard the girl start to cry at some point on her way home and it made me feel even worse. I closed the front door against the shattered screen, cheering friends, and crying girl, leaning against it and breathing a huge sigh of relief. It was finally over.

My mom didn’t even have to send me to my room. I ascended the stairs, glad to be done with all the excitement. I rounded the corner to my room and sat on my bed near the window with a book, hoping to watch the rest of the game from a safe distance.

Instead of playing the game, my friends were standing in a loose group about fifteen yards from my front door. The girl had returned. She stood outside my front door wielding two large kitchen knives, her mascara streaked comically down to her collarbone. She paced back and forth weeping and shouting, “Send him out here, Miss! I’m gonna kill yo’ son!”

My bowels loosened considerably.

I sat there watching her get angrier and angrier, absolutely certain that it was only a matter of time before she burst through the window and climbed the stairs to claim my life. I hoped out of bed and looked around the room for a weapon of some kind, returning to the window with a boxing glove and a Sunday school trophy. It was the best I could do.

The girl was so focused, she never saw the police pull up behind her. By the time they arrived, she’d spotted me shivering with my tools of war in the upstairs window. She broke down completely then, chucking rocks at my window, braying and shrieking incoherently. “Come outside!” she demanded. “Come outside and I’ll kill you!”

Naturally, I declined.

The cops descended upon her, disarming her with the greatest of ease. Within seconds, they had her cuffed and on the ground, filthy and defeated. I thought that if she was able to pop her cuffs and overcome two armed police officers from a prone position (which I didn’t put past her), my life was as good as gone. But that didn’t happen. Instead, she sat there and cried. It was awful, and gross, and all my fault. Nevertheless, at long last, it was finally, truly, over.

In short order, the girl’s grandmother came by to speak with us. Turns out the police had called her to let her know what happened, and she’d left work to come home and deal with her granddaughter. Shortly after she arrived, the cops left, and the grandmother sent the girl home to await her wrath.

The grandmother was exceedingly polite and soft spoken. She and my mother spoke for a few minutes before they invited me to tell them my side of the story. I told the whole story, even the less than flattering parts. I knew I had done wrong and was prepared to pay for it – for me, punishment is nowhere near as bad a guilt. To my surprise, the grandmother thanked me.

“It’s about time somebody taught him a lesson,” she said with a perfectly straight face. I looked to my mother and saw she was wearing the same indecipherable expression as the grandmother. I thought to ask what was happening but dared not. Instead, I replied with a quiet, “Yes ma’am.”

“Thank you both for your time,” she said as she rose to leave. I’d love to stay but I’ve got to go home. I’ve got an ass to kick.” She shook both our hands (which somehow made me feel even more guilty), and left.

I would see the girl that tried to kill me only twice more before we moved out of the neighborhood – both times, she crossed the street to avoid me averting her eyes as we passed on opposite sides of the street. I was reminded of her grandmother’s parting words and thought maybe grandma had done exactly as she had said she would. I thought then that, maybe, the fight wasn’t over. Maybe grandma had made sure that it couldn’t ever be.

Much later, after hearing this story, a friend asked if I’d learned anything. “Sure”, I said. “After slaying the giant, always check for a pulse. What doesn’t kill you might come back later with knives to finish the job.”

He didn’t laugh.