When my son was six, he and I moved to a small Northern California town, and he started first grade in a new school where he knew no one. I worked every day until four, and my son’s school let out at three, so he walked to a small city park each afternoon to wait for me to pick him up.
One day I got off work early, and when I arrived at the park, I saw a pack of young boys encircling my son. His cheeks were red, and his eyes were wide. My initial urge was to jump from the car, grab the little hellions by their necks, and give them a piece of my mind, but something held me back. This is life, I thought. He needs to learn to fight his own battles. I felt heartbroken as I sat in my car and watched the taunting escalate. It suddenly seemed as if parenting was just a drawn-out process of letting go, affording our children the right to experience life for themselves, win or lose, while we cheer them on from the sidelines.
Soon the inevitable pushing began — four boys against my one. Still I sat and watched. Then something surprising happened: my sweet little boy began kicking and punching wildly until the other boys backed down and walked away. Once they were gone, I stepped from the car and waved to my son. I never mentioned the fight.
Within days those boys had become his friends.
I stand at the edge of the wrestling mat while the opposing school’s trainer examines my injuries. I have a bloody nose stuffed with cotton, a severe mat burn over my left eye (which will later turn into a staph infection), and a bleeding lip where my braces have cut me. “I don’t think you should go on,” he says.
But I walk back to the center of the mat anyway — tired, angry, and ready for the match to be over. To end it quickly, I have to either pin my opponent, which I can’t do, or injure him, which might get me disqualified. The acrid smell of disinfecting alcohol fills my nostril, and I notice wet spots on the mat where my blood has been cleaned away.
The referee signals to begin round three, and I wait for my opponent to take his position over me. When the whistle blows, I attempt a reversal. The other boy leaves himself open, and I bend his left arm across his back, then relax the pressure enough to let him stand. Just when he thinks he’s about to break free, I drive his elbow into his ribs and lift him off the ground. He falls backward, twisting to the side. As he hits the mat, his elbow is pushed farther into his ribs, and I hear a crack.
When the match ends, the referee raises my opponent’s hand in victory. I see his face tighten in pain as his arm goes up. This makes the defeat easier to swallow. Later tonight we will meet again in the emergency room — me for three stitches in my lip, him to have his ribs X-rayed. What a beautiful sport.
In my thirties I fell in love with a Buddhist monk from Asia. The relationship was rough. His broken English made communication difficult, but more important, he’d never been emotionally involved with a woman — let alone a Western woman with raging PMS. His preferred mode of dealing with turmoil was to withdraw into silent contemplation until the waters were peaceful again. I, on the other hand, needed frequent reassurance that I was important to him. When I felt insecure, I wanted him to interact with me.
One day when we were struggling through an argument, he quietly assumed a lotus pose, closed his eyes, and began to meditate. How dare he ignore me! Infuriated, I slapped his serene face.
It was the first time I’d ever hit him. My blow triggered a terrifying response. He leapt to his feet, struck me, pushed me down, gave me a kick or two for good measure, then stalked out of the room.
When friends asked about my black eye, I told them it was my fault — I had hit him first.
I never hit him again, but I paid for that first slap each time we fought. His rage found its way out over and over until I was able to break free of him and stop accepting violence as the price of relationship.
When I was growing up, my dad and I each had a secret wish: I wished he would spend more time with me, and he wished I’d been a boy.
He was a typical 1950s dad, focused on his job and content to let his stay-at-home wife rear the children. But when I was seven, he and I began to watch the Gillette Friday Night Fights on TV together. We’d bet a nickel on the outcome, and he’d let me choose the guy in the black trunks or the guy in the white trunks. (After a while I learned always to put my money on Sugar Ray Robinson or Rocky Marciano.) I could identify the upper cut and the right jab and knew that when the boxers put their arms on each other’s shoulders, it meant they were tired. Dad and I held our faces close to the black-and-white screen and cheered on Floyd Patterson or Archie Moore.
If I didn’t have a nickel, Dad would spot me. At the end of ten or fifteen rounds, we crossed our fingers as the announcer stepped into the ring to proclaim the winner. No matter who won the nickel, my Dad and I each got a little bit of what we’d wished for.
It’s stupid to fight with a four-year-old about nap time, but I did it anyway. It wasn’t so much about his taking a nap as it was about my being the boss. Or maybe it was about my feeling desperate for some time to myself to think, read a magazine, or brood over my dying marriage.
Every day it was the same: I’d read my son a book, then tell him it was time for a nap. He’d say he didn’t want to take one, so I’d pick him up and carry him to his room while he kicked his little legs and pleaded. I’d plop him on his bed and tell him to stay there. Within seconds he’d be at his bedroom door, crying and wanting to come out. Each time we went through this routine, I’d get angrier. I yelled and sometimes even spanked him.
One day I was sitting on the floor outside his door and holding the handle tight so he couldn’t turn it. As he screamed and cried, I felt both enraged and ridiculous. I loved my little boy desperately, and here I was hurting him and myself in an absurd power struggle. I let go of the handle and began to cry. He came out, put his arms around my neck, and apologized. I told him I was sorry, too, and I stroked his fine blond curls. He rested his head on my chest. The sun shone through the faded pink curtains, which fluttered in the breeze.
My three grandfathers each presented me with different advice about fighting.
My mother’s father, whom we called Granddad, came from a dirt-poor household in the Missouri backwoods. He had boxed professionally as a young man and exuded an air of menace that intimidated even much larger men. When he found out I was being bullied at school in the fourth grade, Granddad bought me a heavy punching bag, strung it over a garage rafter, and taught me the rudiments of boxing. He was proud when I used what I’d learned to beat up the bully who’d been tormenting me.
Grandpa, the father of my absent father, was a charming rogue who had run away from his middle-class Iowa home at the age of fourteen to ride the rails. He fell in with a grifter and learned to run various con games as they traveled around the country, often needing to use his fists in a tight spot. But then he met my grandma, who demanded he settle down and get a real job before she would date him. So Grandpa worked the rest of his life as a salesman, relying on charm rather than pugnacity. He advised me to fight only after talking had failed.
Grandpa Bob, my stepdad’s father, had lost his family’s farm in the Depression. I didn’t really get to know him until I was nine. That’s when he came to stay with us after breaking his hip. (He’d slipped on a patch of ice while throwing bales of hay down to the calves.) He was the only adult around when I came home from my battle with the fourth-grade bully. I was feeling hollow inside, having drawn blood from another human being for the first time in my life. (I’m ashamed to say it wouldn’t be the last.) Grandpa Bob listened with Midwestern taciturnity to the story of my great victory, then said, in his Kansas twang, “Son, if you rassle with a pig, no matter who wins, you both end up covered in shit. And the pig don’t notice.”
What he said eventually served me far better than my other grandfathers’ advice.
John Edward Ruark
Portola Valley, California
My boyfriend would never admit to being wrong. It didn’t matter the topic or the circumstance: he was always right, especially when he was on his fourth beer. He’d argue with me over song lyrics, punch lines to jokes, and the daily crossword puzzle, even though English wasn’t his first language.
One morning we were in Taco Bell — we’d been living off their ninety-nine-cent tacos and brown-water coffee — when he read me the clue for 22 down: “ ‘Frozen tundra.’ Six letters.”
“Arctic,” I said through a mouthful of refried beans.
“That’s only five letters: A-R-T-I-C.”
I swallowed and said, “No, it’s six. A-R-C-T-I-C.”
He blew out his cheeks and made a sound that meant I was an idiot. The night before, he’d spent all but our last $3.50 at the corner bar. We had just enough for food for the day.
“There is no c,” he said, and he made another sound to remind me that I was ignorant and quarrelsome.
“There is a c. It’s ARCtic, as in arc.” I smiled, not caring that he stared back menacingly. After two years of beer and bars and being broke, of hitchhiking and panhandling and Salvation Army food lines, I knew this was one fight I could win. “We have a dictionary back in the room,” I said. “We’ll look it up.”
An hour later, stuffed with all the lousy coffee and lard we could digest, we walked back to our rented room in the basement of a musty old house near the university. I snatched up the paperback dictionary and found the entry.
“There it is. Arctic. With a c.” I held the dictionary out to him.
He looked at the page, then tossed the dictionary on our unmade bed. “That dictionary is wrong.”
A week later I was on a bus back home. I left the man I loved over the letter c.
When my best friend Helen’s aunt asked her to baby-sit overnight on New Year’s Eve, she agreed, provided that I be allowed to help. We were both thirteen and eager to earn extra money.
I was surprised that Helen and I took the bus to the poorest section of Queens, New York, then walked in the bitter cold past derelict houses and tenements and empty lots filled with old furniture and abandoned cars. Finally we arrived at a decrepit four-family house with peeling paint, broken concrete steps, and a front door that didn’t quite close.
“This is it,” Helen said.
I followed her up the stairs and down a hallway that smelled of urine, mold, and garbage. As Helen knocked on a door, I could hear her small cousins, aged two and four, calling to their mother inside.
The apartment was shabby but clean, the tiny kitchen sparkling, the linoleum floors polished. In one corner was a small Christmas tree decorated with homemade ornaments. Helen’s aunt Jeanette looked tired and too thin. She was trying to take the rollers from her hair and get dressed while the children hung from her. Her husband, Tony, was working late. I brought out the puzzles I had packed and spread them on the floor while Helen helped Jeanette get ready. Soon we heard Jeanette’s older brother, Tom, calling from the front door downstairs, and she left.
The evening passed quietly. Helen and I put the children to bed, then curled up on the couch in our pajamas and listened to the radio, hoping to stay awake for the arrival of 1956. Finally we fell asleep.
At three in the morning we woke to loud screams in the hallway and the sound of someone being slammed over and over into a wall. We heard Jeanette begging Tony not to hit her again, saying that it had been “just a dance” and hadn’t meant anything, but Tony kept hitting her. Helen grabbed the phone and was on the line with the police dispatcher when the downstairs front door opened, and we heard Jeanette’s brother Tom shouting that he’d murder Tony if he ever laid a hand on his sister again. There were more sounds of fighting, and Jeanette was whimpering and begging them both to stop. Tom threw Tony out into the street. Helen told the dispatcher that help had arrived and hung up the phone.
I went to unchain the apartment door for Jeanette, but a rat ran across my bare feet, and I started screaming. Jeanette and her brother ran up the stairs and broke right through the flimsy chain. She had blood streaming from her nose, and one eye was already swelling. Tom gathered me into his arms and carried me to the couch, where he began to rock me as though I were a small child. Jeanette went into the bathroom to clean up before the children saw her, and Helen followed.
Tom tipped up my face to dry my tears with his handkerchief, and then he kissed me right on the mouth. I tasted cigarettes and alcohol, and I sensed an urgency that frightened me. I had been kissed before in party games and at my front door by tight-lipped boys with open eyes, but this was worlds apart from that.
“Tom, what are you doing?” Jeanette was standing there, holding a bloodstained washcloth to her nose. “Let her go!”
Tom mumbled an apology and hurried out of the apartment. Helen locked the door behind him and placed a chair against it.
The rest of the night I lay in bed listening for the sounds of someone coming up the stairs, of rodents scratching on the floor, of gunshots outside the window. It occurred to me then that the world wasn’t really safe and probably never had been. Anything could happen to anyone.
Many years later I would become a social worker and help women escape to safe houses. I’d often have to stand up to angry, cowardly men, but I always brought an armed officer with me. I had learned that lesson well.
Santa Rosa, California
My father was a New York City homicide detective and fiercely conservative in his politics. During the Vietnam War he reviled college-student protestors as “spoiled good-for-nothings,” even as he pressed me to go to college myself. I held tenuously to my father’s beliefs in high school, but my support for the war didn’t survive the My Lai Massacre, the bombing of Cambodia, and the deaths at Kent State. By my sophomore year in college I despised my father’s values and political views, and he mine.
My father had retired from the police department by then because of poor health, and he was depressed and angry. I had reached a low point in my college years and was searching for meaning and direction. One summer afternoon I was sitting at the kitchen table with a glass of iced tea. In front of me was a Bible I had been reading. My father took note of it as he came in from his latest failed attempt to find work and restore his pride. “What are you doing with that?” he asked.
“Reading it,” I replied.
“Don’t you have anything better to do than waste your time reading the Bible?”
I told him the Bible teaches about love and peace, which we could all have used a little more of. He accused me of becoming a hippie, and I accused him of wanting me to go overseas and die for nothing. (I had long believed that my father would have thought more of me if I had come home from Southeast Asia in a box.)
“Those soldiers are dying for their country, not for nothing!” he shouted.
Something broke in me then. I wanted to hurt him. “They were suckers,” I said, “suckers to die for couch warriors like you.”
He raised his fist at me, and I charged at him in a blind rage. For a moment we pummeled each other. Then our arms became entangled, and I pushed him backward. We faced one another, breathing heavily, astonished by our viciousness.
“Your eyes are filled with hatred!” my father said in shock.
“You should know,” I said. “You taught me well.”
Seeing what we had come to, I was suddenly exhausted and sad. We stood in silence for a moment and then both turned away.
Edward J. Colón
St. Paul, Minnesota
My husband has cancer. My husband’s brother also had cancer. Our thirty-five-year-old friend has been diagnosed with stage III breast cancer. Six months ago she ran her first marathon. Now her hair is gone. Her breasts will soon follow.
“You’ll beat this,” people tell her.
Beat what? Drinking water laced with carcinogens? A government more motivated by the pharmaceutical lobby than by prevention? Subsidized agribusiness crops requiring toxic pesticides and industrial fertilizers? Will she beat her Rust Belt community, still reeling from decades of irresponsible waste disposal — the community in which she’s raising two young children?
This past summer I completed a yoga-teacher training. Of the twelve health-minded, fresh-faced women in my class, three of them had survived thyroid cancer. One had two young sons with leukemia.
I can remember when not everyone knew someone with cancer. I can remember popping fresh-picked strawberries into my red-tinged mouth without concern for their origins. I can remember swimming at beaches that are now often closed. And I can remember when a fight was something adolescent farm boys had on too-hot summer afternoons when their hormones had knocked all the sense out of their heads.
Now we fight elusive adversaries using high-tech weapons to radiate insurgent cells.
I had my first mammogram last week, at age thirty-four. They saw something. It’s probably nothing. I go back this Thursday.
My parents’ yelling would routinely wake me after midnight. My room was just down the hall from the kitchen, where they’d stay up talking and drinking: Mom, vodka and Fresca; Dad, Olympia beer. Mom would be sitting next to the clock radio, smoking menthols and filling the dirty green ashtray with butts. Dad would be leaning against the yellow-tiled counter by the sink, sipping beer from a plastic cup meant for lemonade or iced tea.
At fourteen I started getting out of bed whenever the fight became physical. First drawers would be slammed shut. Then I’d hear utensils clanging and Mom screaming. Dad was generally the one who got injured, sometimes to the point of stitches. The next day Mom might lift her bathrobe to show me her purple bruises, but she never had to leave the house wearing an eye patch or with a hand wrapped in white gauze the way Dad did.
If the fight was bad enough, I called the police. I always felt embarrassed when the officers arrived. The clunky hardware of my back brace, which I tried so hard to hide during the day, was visible under my thin cotton nightgown, and if you really looked, you could see the outline of my developing breasts. As the fights became more regular, I started sleeping with my clothes on in anticipation of meeting the police at the door.
One night Dad’s shouts woke me. He was pleading with me to call the police. Mom was wielding a butcher knife, and he had her pinned to the kitchen floor. I ran to the neighbor’s house and called from there. When the police came, I went back home.
As always Mom turned into a pussycat for the cops, flirting like a schoolgirl, and Dad made jokes as if he were hosting a late-night comedy show. The officer asked me if either parent had ever hit me. “No,” I answered honestly. But after the police left, Mom cornered me in the hallway and proceeded to slap me, demanding to know which neighbor’s house I had gone to. Dad was right behind her, saying, “Tell her.” When I told them, they were irate: I had gone to the “good” neighbors. Why couldn’t I have gone instead to the house across the street?
One afternoon in the eighth grade my friends and I went to the vacant lot where we had built an underground fort only to find that it had been destroyed. We rebuilt it, and the next day it had been caved in again. We figured that Chuck and his little brothers, who lived nearby, were the saboteurs.
When the fort was demolished a third time, I marched to Chuck’s house with my friends behind me and called him out. I had never been in a fight before, and he was bigger than I was. But I was fueled by righteous anger and attacked him fiercely. The fight ended when Chuck’s mother had to pull me off him. I had won.
Instead of pride, I felt shame. I’d hurt Chuck pretty badly. I had also broken three knuckles on my right hand, and I wore a cast for six weeks. When adults asked me what had happened to my hand, I told them I’d been in a fight.
“A fight, huh?” the adult would say. “Well, did you win? What’s the other guy look like?” Wink-wink.
I found their approval utterly confusing. I had been in trouble many times for minor offenses: talking out of turn, running on the walkways, doing chin-ups in the bathroom, teasing girls, getting out of my seat without permission, not eating all of my lunch, and getting grass stains on my school clothes. Now I had done something I actually felt bad about, and they thought it was cute?
My mom was the only one who told me it had been wrong to hurt that boy.
Great Barrington, Massachusetts
Bill Clinton had just been elected to his first term as president, and my dad had not yet returned from the Gulf War. I was a poor sixteen-year-old who rode a skateboard, shaved his head, and listened to hard-core punk.
Racial tensions were high in Los Angeles. My black friends were still angry that four white police officers had been acquitted of police brutality after beating a black motorist. My white friends remembered how, in the violence that had erupted after the acquittal, a white truck driver had been assaulted by several black men. Neo-Nazi skinheads were growing in number. You could scarcely go anywhere without seeing white boot laces and razor-nicked scalps. “Boneheads” — racist skins — were on TV calling Oprah a “monkey” and breaking Geraldo Rivera’s nose. I hated the neo-Nazi punks.
One spring morning I climbed into an old Cadillac Eldorado with five friends: two black skateboarders and three white antiracist skinheads. The floorboards were full of baseball bats. The KKK was having a rally downtown, and we were going to fight back.
We drove around the alleys and back streets of the city playing Jimmy Cliff on the stereo. It took us only twenty minutes to stumble on four swaggering neo-Nazis. They were easy to identify: Thick suspenders and flight jackets. Overweight or poverty-lean frames. Swastikas or Odin’s crosses on their clothes. When they saw us get out of the car, they tried to run, but we caught up to them, swinging.
My friends laid into the three biggest ones with glee. I struck the smallest, no older than fourteen, across the neck with a Louisville Slugger. He crumpled beneath the first blow and stopped moving after the third. As I kicked him with my steel-capped toes, I noticed his bad teeth, acne, and cheap vinyl boots. I was stomping out a mirror image of myself.
This only made me kick harder.
I have not been able to erase the image from my mind’s eye since the age of nine: My mother is lying on the floor, a small pool of blood next to her head. Her face is smeared with red, her eyes are tightly shut, and she is crying. My father is not home but clearly has been; his jacket, briefcase, and newspapers are scattered on the floor.
My parents fought a lot. Being a strong-minded career woman, my mother argued with my father, who responded with physical violence. On occasion my father beat me, too, for reasons he rarely explained. I remember awaiting the first blow, holding my breath and tightening all my muscles.
This was considered normal then in China: beating represented endearment; cursing, closeness. The police and the courts, while harshly punishing theft and robbery, wouldn’t even bother with “domestic matters.” Husbands were entitled to discipline their wives with fists behind closed doors. Most of my female relatives endured beatings; several were frequent visitors to the emergency room. Domestic violence against women was portrayed on TV for laughs.
The incident when I was nine left my mother with a broken tooth and a scar at the corner of her mouth. She never mentioned it afterward, and I waited nearly twenty years to talk to her about it.
In my last year of dental school I brought my mother to the student clinic to fix her fractured tooth. When I’d finished, my professor praised my work. Delighted, my mother smiled, a rare sight. “It’s been a long time,” she said.
On the way home I brought up my dreadful memory of the beating. It was a great relief to finally speak of it out loud.
The corner of my mother’s mouth twitched, but she maintained an expressionless face. “You dreamed up too many things,” she said.
I knew Lucy was going to be a good friend as soon as we met. What I did not know was how volatile our friendship would become. The first time we fought was after she stole a bottle of my cologne. It wasn’t the theft that hurt me; I would have given it to her. It was the betrayal of trust. We yelled at each other in the hallway of our building until the neighbors poked their heads out. When it was over, we returned to our apartments like boxers going back to their corners.
The next day I slipped a note of apology under Lucy’s door, but I got no response. For two months, anytime we met at the front door or in the hall, we wouldn’t speak. Then one day she left a note asking if I wanted the big bag of cat food she had. (Before the fight she’d left her cat with me temporarily, and she hadn’t reclaimed him.) I wrote a note back and slipped it under her door at two in the morning, figuring she was asleep.
As I walked away, I heard her door open. “What? You ain’t man enough to knock?” she shouted. I went back to tell her off, and she hugged me. We each apologized for our part in the fight, and she never again took anything from me without asking.
For years this was how it went: we would have an argument, not talk for a while, and then a month or two later be friends again. It got to the point that I thought of our times apart as sabbaticals.
Once, Lucy asked me to drive her to pick up some meat she’d ordered. When I got to her house (we’d both moved by then), she refused to leave right away because she wasn’t done eating her lunch. I told her I needed to get to work, and she would have to follow my schedule. Soon enough we were outside yelling and pointing fingers at each other. Finally Lucy’s girlfriend, Brenda, said she’d go with me. I drove Brenda to pick up the meat order, then went home.
The next day Brenda called and asked me to come over.
“Is Lucy out?” I asked.
“Just come over.”
“I’ll bet she’s there right now holding a kitchen knife with my name on it,” I said with a chuckle.
“Just get over here, OK?”
When I arrived at their house, Brenda told me Lucy was in the back. I went down the hall and saw her coming out of the laundry room.
“I am still pissed at you!” she said. Then she rushed over and gripped me in a hug. “But you’re the only friend I’ve ever had who keeps coming back.”
St. Petersburg, Florida
I was raised not to talk back, argue, or express my feelings. My mother passed this teaching down from my granny, who would misquote the Bible: “Be silent and obey; rebel not against the commandment of the Lord.”
By the age of nine I had the family method for dealing with emotion down pat: Squelch it. Stuff it. Don’t speak up. Anger festered deep in my innards.
Sixteen years later my new husband and I occupied a fifth-floor walk-up in a down-and-out Manhattan neighborhood. He was supportive, generous, and loving, but he had one flaw: when it was his turn to wash the dishes, the dirty plates, pots, and pans would sit in the sink until the roaches crawled on them and mold began to grow.
After he’d failed once too often to wash them, I expressed my dissatisfaction the strongest way I knew how: the cold shoulder. I refused to speak to him for seven days, the same amount of time it took God to make the world. For a week I formed a hateful image of my husband, blew life into it, and nurtured it, all the while refusing to answer his question: “Is something bothering you?”
When he couldn’t take my silence any longer, he put his huge arms gently around my hundred-pound frame, lifted me up, and plopped me down in the middle of our bed. “Let’s talk,” he said. “When something is bothering you, please get it out. It’s OK to be angry with me. Really. I love you, and we need to express what’s upsetting us.”
I tried to speak, but I just couldn’t.
About a month later I was getting dressed for work while my husband, already late, ran down the stairs to catch the 7:01 train. The night before it had been his turn to do the dishes, and they still sat in the sink.
Half dressed, I stepped out onto the landing and yelled down five floors at him, “Fuck you!” The words echoed in the hallway. I screamed louder, “Fuck you!” Neighbors opened their doors as I screamed again and again, “Fuck, fuck, fuck you!”
My husband bounded back up five flights, arriving at our door breathless. Then he kissed me hard, thrust his fist into the air, and shouted, “Yes!”
I looked up at his face above me. He was yelling. His face was red, and his blue eyes were watery. Maybe he was crying. I told myself that he was handsome when he was angry. I couldn’t hear what he was screaming, because I was not in my body. I was above us, watching, separate from the world. A woman pushing a pram on the other side of the canal was staring at us. This canal on the south side of Dublin, Ireland, was usually so pretty. A soft rain was in the air — so soft it barely fell but drifted around until it happened to hit the ground.
The cottages along the path were made of stone. Workmen were tearing the insides out of one. I could see the pile of old wood and moldy sheetrock in the yard. I could smell it. It smelled like a tomb.
I had wanted to get out of the house and go for a walk. I’d wanted to get away from the fight. I’d thought that if I could just stay gone for a little while, then maybe he wouldn’t be so mad, and everything would be OK again. But he’d followed me. I heard him first, running down the street. I tried to hurry and duck around the corner, but he saw me. That’s when he started screaming. Then I was outside myself, thinking: I don’t know who this person is who just stands there and lets this man yell at her.
I was leaning against a lamppost, my arms wrapped around it. The day was nearly over. The sky was the same slate gray as the wet pavement. The canal was dark and shiny and deep. I knew it flowed down to the sea, through Ringsend, where more cottages were lined up in red-brick rows. Farther south was Sandymount, with its wide, flat beach. When the tide was out, you could walk for miles. The tiny shells scattered in the sand sparkled. I wanted to be there, alone and free, with the sea air cleansing my blood and my brain. The only brightness here by the canal was the blue of his eyes. I guess this is what love looks like, I thought.
A pack of Marlboro reds was sticking from the pocket of his worn denim jacket. His collar was standing up on one side. I reached up to fix it. He slapped my hand away.
When I was a girl in the 1960s, I became the tough guy of our suburban Cincinnati neighborhood. My younger brother provided the excuse for me to beat boys up: whenever kids picked on him, they soon found me in their face.
My father would chide me, saying it wasn’t “ladylike” for me to fight. I wanted my dad’s approval, but I was not about to give up fighting. There was nothing more satisfying than winning, even if you were sore, sweaty, and spent.
Most of my opponents were good boys who would not bite or scratch or hit below the belt. Then Buddy moved to our street. He was stocky, and he had an attitude. Plus his parents were divorced, which was unheard of in our neighborhood. Before long he had beaten up almost every boy on the block. Luckily he got along with my brother.
Then one hot summer day I was playing hopscotch at the end of my driveway while my brother and Buddy played loudly in the street. I told them to shut up. My brother did, but Buddy kept on making noise. So I went over and belted him one. He stood for a moment and gaped at me. Then he ducked his head and charged.
I had never felt a force like that before. I had no breath left in me. Once I got my bearings back, I began punching anywhere and everywhere at once. I was dimly aware of my dad’s voice calling to me from our house. Still I fought on. I knew if Buddy whipped me, I would be finished in the neighborhood. But I had never come up against a fighter with his expertise before. I was about to give up when I heard my dad’s voice again, closer this time, shouting, “Go, Andrea! Give him another one! You got him!”
Just then Buddy’s mother called to him from across the street. Reflexively he turned his head, and thwack! my fist found his fat, freckled face.
To my surprise Buddy started crying. He rubbed his eyes and ran home. My dad put his hand on my shoulder and walked me to our house, my brother looking up at me as if he had never seen me before.
But Buddy wasn’t afraid to fight me again, and the next time, I lost.
My best friend, Erik, had no plans after high school, so he followed me to Santa Cruz, California, where I was going to college. I loved everything about school, except that I couldn’t figure out why I was there. Without a clear vision for my future, I felt guilty about the money my parents were spending on my tuition.
Erik and I decided to take a year off to travel. I dropped out, and we moved back to Southern California to work for my father’s electrical-contracting company. We wanted to earn enough to buy tickets to Israel, hoping to work on a kibbutz there. Then the Israeli war with Lebanon broke out. As we waited for things to settle down in the Middle East, I took on more responsibility at work, but Erik grew restless. He didn’t like construction and still wanted to see the world. So he joined the army.
This was the Reagan era: big-stick politics made a future conflict somewhere seem inevitable, and, in the aftermath of Vietnam, few of us trusted the government to do the right thing. Enlisting in the military seemed like signing up to kill or be killed for a cause that would probably turn out to be reprehensible.
Erik broke the news to me while he and I were walking down the dirt road past some avocado groves behind my family’s home. I stopped in my tracks and accused him of abdicating responsibility for his own life, depending on the military to give him purpose and direction; all he seemed to care about was room and board and a free ride around the world. Then I really lost my temper and said some things I wish I could forget, my words more painful than physical blows. I meant to hurt Erik. I, who had never fired a gun and was opposed to the war machine, let the bombs fly at my dearest friend. I left him standing alone in the middle of the road, devastated.
By the time I got home, the shame of what I had done had caught up with me. Erik had the right to make his own decisions and had his own conscience to reckon with. Clearly I owed him an apology. I went back to find him and told him I was sorry. He forgave me and made light of it.
Erik was stationed in Germany as a chaplain’s assistant. While on leave he traveled all over Europe. The following year I bought a plane ticket and traveled with him for a month. Shortly after I’d returned to the States, Erik was diagnosed with leukemia and discharged from the army. I was still living at home and working for my father, and Erik came to stay with us while he received treatment. His medical expenses were fully covered by the army. They also paid him a monthly stipend, which he saved and left to me when he died.
Out of his morphine haze Erik said to my father, “Tell Steve he can do whatever he wants to do.”
I still haven’t figured out what that is. I am nearly fifty years old, still an electrician, still working with my father.
No one in my family actually fought: not my mom, whose tears slid onto her dinner plate when my dad hurled his bowl of chili against the wall; not my little brother, who was thrown across the kitchen for talking back; not my older brother, who left home at sixteen to escape our father’s wrath. Really, except for my father’s unexpected explosions, no one even raised his or her voice.
Then my father had an affair with a younger woman who worked in his office. Dad eventually left Mom, married Barbara, and moved in with her and her two children.
After the divorce my mother became prone to bouts of rage much like my father’s, and I became her target. If I didn’t want to wear a sweater she’d bought me, for example, I might get a pummeling. If I disagreed with her about something, she’d fall to the floor and grasp her throat, saying I’d caused her windpipe to spasm and she couldn’t breathe. (To this day part of me thinks that I might kill my mother if I contradict her.)
The home life my father had with Barbara and her kids was no more peaceful. Barbara would chase her youngest — a delicate, effeminate boy — around the house with a belt, and when she caught him, she’d sit on him to hold him down while she beat him. My dad escaped into his hobby: flying. Whenever he came home from the airport, he and Barbara would argue endlessly. She would deliver a cutting remark, then run up the stairs to their bedroom and lock the door. I once saw Dad catch her and pull her down the stairs by her ankles. She hated me and called me names I’d never even heard before. My brother, only eleven, turned to petty crime — and then not-so-petty crime. At fourteen I moved to a Catholic boarding school.
These days my older brother has a serious paranoid personality disorder. My younger brother took his life a few years back. I live alone, and although I’ve tried marriage (and counseling), the slightest sign of anger in a spouse causes me indescribable terror. Sometimes I wish I’d learned how to fight.
I lived for a long time in a predominantly black neighborhood in Oakland, California. (I’m a white woman.) Although Oakland has a reputation for violence, I witnessed only two fistfights during my many years there.
The fights I remember best are the water fights. The first one happened because it was D’Andre’s fifteenth birthday, and all I could afford to get him was a pack of balloons. I bought an extra pack for the younger children, and we filled them with water. Pretty soon the kids were hiding in bushes and behind cars, tossing water balloons at each other. Even the nineteen- and twenty-year-olds got in on the action, sloshing a bucket of water over the younger ones.
The second fight was while Marcel, whom I’d known since he was a boy, was staying at my house for the duration of his parole. (He couldn’t stay at home because the daily goings-on at his family’s house violated the conditions of his parole.)
Marcel’s cousin Tay came over a lot. He had dropped out of school in the eighth grade and been kicked out of his mother’s house soon after that. He supported himself by pimping and selling drugs.
One slow Sunday afternoon I found a pack of balloons in the junk drawer. I filled them with water by the back door, loaded them into plastic grocery bags, and snuck around to the front porch, where the guys were talking and smoking. I hit them with one or two before they figured out what was going on. Then they rushed me and grabbed the bag of balloons.
I had stashed another bag by the back stairs and raced to get it. We ran around the house shouting and lobbing until the ammunition started to run out. I had the last balloon, and I advanced on Tay. “Here,” he said, pointing to his head. Puzzled, I smashed the balloon over his crown. Then he scooped me up in his arms and carried me to Marcel, who doused me with the hose while I laughed and screamed.
I always wished that I could solve the problems in my neighborhood. I wished that I could stop the police from pulling their guns on my teenage friends. I wished that I could stop the drug use. I wished that there were more jobs for the adults, and that the schools were engaging for the kids. But the best I was able to do, it seems, was to make some fun that didn’t involve anyone getting hurt or arrested.