My left eye throbbed. The fact that I’d been training at the gym for just such an attack when Doug, an 8th grader with a fat fist, tackled me was more than ironic, it was discouraging. It was a Saturday, which meant Dad would be home, which did and didn’t matter. I walked slowly, kicking the earth with each step; I was almost to the front door when I heard her.
She was laughing at sparrows, calling them idiots; the birds didn’t seem to notice or care. The fatigues she wore were faded and oversized, loose on the concrete around her bony hips; a tight, white tank showed the outline of her chilled nipples as she waved her slender arms, motioning to the birds as though to get their attention and insult them more directly. I’d seen her before, near the carryout and around the way. She was enigmatic, always appearing when I was feeling at my worst.
Her eyes were brown, light, and when she looked at me I felt I’d been caught. Instead of yelling, she offered me a mysterious smile and waved with a stiff, small hand that remained in front of her as though she were stopping traffic. She was sitting near the top of a small hill that led down to a dried-up creek by Dad’s condo. When I waved back, she placed the hand in her roomy pocket and refocused on the birds and the sky beyond them. She shook her head, pointed her finger at them. Two flew away. I reached for my key.
It wasn’t just me. A lot of kids got bullied at South Benton. We were the sixth graders, too nervous to congregate and fight back. We were not a group, but randomly placed—some of us were in band, some were bussed in, and all of us were rather skinny or otherwise perceptibly fragile. I longed to be the kind of guy who would fight only when necessary and, when necessary, pummel any want-to-be bullies in a way that would show them, really, how balanced life can be.
Paul was like this—he had to be because his mouth got him in trouble. Paul was my brother’s friend. He had stories and theories. He said that he had taken beatings just like I did, until the day that changed his life forever. “I looked deep inside myself and found something like dynamite. It exploded, and I felt the greatest peace of my entire life as I pummeled that bully. It was like I was watching myself do it,” he’d said. I believed him because I needed to believe this could happen to me.
Paul was on the couch, elbows to knees, watching a football game with my older brother and father when I got home. They all said hi, hey, hello, but no one looked at me as I walked past with my head down and made my way to the freezer. I grabbed a bag of frozen corn and placed it on my eye. Holding it there, I walked past them again and took a seat on the floor near Paul. Our dog, Wilson, ambled up to me and nudged my hand.
At halftime, Dad cheered and Paul gave a double thumbs-down. Dad was second place in a fantasy league, but he said this game might get him the win. He looked tired, so when Paul started joking with him about the game, his patience began to wane. “Hey, Dr. Greg,” Paul asked. “This loss is going to be painful for me. Think I could score a bottle of Oxy, for the road?” With that, Dad said he’d had it. I always saw the vein on Dad’s neck swell when Jimmy spoke, but when Paul spoke it would pulsate. This day, it looked like it was going to burst. Dad stood quickly, his eyes pausing only briefly on my swollen face, and approached Paul. He grabbed Paul’s bony neck and walked him to the door. I followed, watching as Paul yelled an apology from the parking lot, and Dad yelled back that Paul shouldn’t yell—this is a nice neighborhood. My brother chuckled and waved. Jimmy was four years older than me, a sophomore in high school.
“Come with me, kid,” Jimmy said as Dad sat back down in his chair with his beer and rested his tired eyes on the TV. He hadn’t so much as looked my way, but I didn’t care. When we got outside, I realized the bag of corn was leaking, so I rested it on our front step. Jimmy walked slowly, laughed a little as he saw Paul drive off, and told me Paul had a theory about doctors—that they were all drug dealers with pensions—and that he’d shared with our father shortly before I came home. I laughed a little too, before a familiar deep silence settled between us.
I searched for something to say. I always felt like a dork around my brother, so I wanted to say something the might interest him. “I saw that woman over there,” I said, pointing toward the curve in the road, where the creek began. “The blonde.”
“Yeah,” he said. “She’s pretty hot for a crazy chic. Paul was talking to her the other day.”
“Do you think she’s on drugs?” I asked.
“These are all doctors in these condos. Doctors and med students. Do you think one of them is supplying her?”
My brother laughed for a long time—he was always laughing, but this time he laughed so hard that he doubled over and asked me to hold his joint. I thought about taking a puff because I knew Jimmy wouldn’t mind, might even be impressed, but I thought again. A real fighter wouldn’t smoke to escape his mind, a real fighter embraces his pain—this much I knew.
“Don’t listen to Paul’s theories. Geez, kid.” He said, reaching out. “You got pretty messed up today.” Jimmy was looking out toward the dried-up creek past his long, brown hair that was forever falling around his face and framing his nose like curtains; sometimes he wore a bandana or a headband that would make me look like a girl but made him look tough. He stared as though the large-breasted Barbie soldier would materialize, and I waited. At last, he said, “Thought you were training.”
“I am. I was at the rec center when they caught me, grabbed my weights. They were 15lbs each! I couldn’t fight back. I was lucky he didn’t swing them at me.”
“You should read up on how to deal with that. Bruce Lee, remember? I gave you Hagakure, right? The Art of War?”
I nodded. I’d read, but not everything.
“You need to stick with it,” he said, pretending to shoot a deer between the eyes with his finger and thumb. Deer were all over our neighborhood and peeked out at us from a wooded area behind the condos.
We stood, quiet, as crisp air colored our cheeks. We stood there till his joint was too short for his lips to touch without being singed. As we moved back toward the condo though, I saw her again. I almost said something but stopped. A couple rows of townhomes separated us. She held up her hand as she walked but didn’t smile. She was wearing a jacket—not fatigues—and jeans now. Her hair was pulled back. But it was her, and she waved at me, so I waved back.
That night, I resolved to take my training more seriously. I started reading a book about Bushido, the way of morality till death, the way of the samurai. I read a short e-book book entirely on counterpunching and, since no one was around to make fun of me, I practiced in front of the mirror.
I watched the way fighters would lean into their opponents, not become rigid and back away. Dive into what scares you, a book suggested. Be flexible, adaptable; become like water—able to take any form—Bruce Lee’s teachings advised. I fought air until I became it, but I knew philosophy and air punches wouldn’t be enough.
Jimmy never played rough with me. He probably thought I’d break. But, I asked him anyway, “Will you fight me? Teach me?” My eye was almost back to normal, and before anyone had the chance to color anything else on my body, I wanted to be sure I was ready.
“No,” he said, matter of fact.
We waited for Paul to come over and play video games and whatever. I wasn’t really invited to hang out, but I was going to until they kicked me out, which they usually did when they started talking about people they knew or girls or whatever. Before Paul arrived, Dad called, as usual.
“Go to school today, kiddo?” he asked.
“Of course, Dad. I go to school every day.”
“Good boy. Do your homework?”
“It was math. I did it all on the bus. Super easy.”
“Leave it out for me. I want to double-check.” I rolled my eyes because I didn’t like that Dad thought he needed to check my math. He never found anything wrong. Math is everywhere. It makes more sense to me than anything else; it gives rhythm to the world. With math, when you’re wrong, it means you’re that much closer to the answer. I helped Jimmy with his math, but Dad wouldn’t have known this.
“Anything else I need to know?”
Just as he asked, Paul’s three knocks and a clap sounded on the front door. I hoped Dad wouldn’t hear because he’d asked us not to ever let Paul in his house again. I cupped my hand over the phone, but Dad just told me to expect him a few hours late. There was an emergency, he said. When I asked what, he hung up. I ran to the door and opened it.
“Jimmy Lite! How’s it going, kid?” he said, patting me on the head and walking past toward Jimmy’s room.
“Hey, um, can I talk to you for a sec?” I asked, kind of loud but not loud enough that Jimmy could hear over the video game he was playing.
He turned around and eyed me. “You got a girl problem, kid? I know everything about girls.”
“I have a no-girl problem,” I said.
“Good one. Out with it.”
“Will you spar with me sometime?”
Jimmy would have laughed at me if I’d asked him like that, but Paul walked up to me, leaving almost no space between us, and looked down. All I could see was his nose hair, his dark eyelashes. “Why the fuck not? Let’s go.” He pushed me back, and I stumbled into the kitchen, catching myself before I hit the floor. It dawned on me that I really didn’t think, deep down, that he would say yes.
I stood tall, walked near him again, but not too near. There was enough distance for me to duck, to strike, to see his blows coming and lean into them. The counterpunch was about balancing, using the momentum of a strike against the opponent. He didn’t curl his fist though, and I reminded myself to be fluid, to move with the motion, not react and stiffen against it, I couldn’t anticipate the bear hug, the hands on both side and how his long arms would work together to pick me up and spin me around, making me feel as helpless as I thought imaginable.-
“Enough. Another day,” I said.
He laughed. I read all that night, looked online for more advice. I began understanding what I was reading in a different way. Real fighters had a way, and their way made mathematical sense, but their way couldn’t be predictable. There were too many variables. I forgot to leave my homework out that night, but Dad never brought it up.
Water runs, and that’s what I did the next day at school when confronted. The same old gang was waiting by the old tennis courts behind school. Someone said something I didn’t hear, and I saw them pick up their pace as they came toward me. Whenever I was being bullied, I felt like I was on video or in a cartoon—the protagonist of a sad movie about a boy who was bullied and eventually killed but inspired a community to stand up in his honor. This day, I thought about strategy, sized them up, and after doing a few quick deductions, I ran. I ran until I was almost home, and my lungs burned from the large gulps of air I’d taken in. I gasped and began to laugh, feeling oddly victorious. I just outran an entire group of boys who were all older than me. Water runs, so I was like water.
The woman was by the creek again, her blonde hair falling forward as she buried her face in her hands. She was convulsing, and I almost went to her aid, but what would I do? I kept my distance.
Just as I reached the door, Paul ran from his F-150, past me and toward the crying woman. He threw an arm around her, waved at me. My brother, who also got out of the truck, walked slowly to the door and told me to go inside. I nodded, went inside and woke up Wilson by scratching behind his ears. He rolled over and wiggled his paws. Time hummed as I scratched his belly.
“Come on, Wilson,” I said. “Let’s go see what’s going on. Scooby time.”
I went to the window and peeked through the venetian blinds. My brother was there, holding the woman by her forearms, almost violently, as Paul reached behind her, pulling a small baggie out of her jeans pocket. They left her then, laughing. She was unhurt, it seemed, but shaken. She looked up to where the birds had been. The sky was clear. I felt suddenly hollow.
“This is going to be a fun night,” Jimmy said. I could hear him on the other side of the door. As I went to open it, Wilson barked. “Dad said he’s late tonight, right?” he asked me. Wilson, seeming as though he was about to bark again, saw it was Jimmy and yawned instead. I nodded. As my brother started back, the door swung hard and struck the wall, leaving a knob-shaped indent.
“What the—” I started.
A mess of blonde hair was bunched in Paul’s bony fist. I rushed toward them before thinking; the three of them were now in a pile outside the door. The woman had jumped on Paul’s back, and Jimmy pushed her head into the concrete as Paul pinned her down. Her body was like a fish, flopping. My brother sat on her legs, and the baggie of pills with a variety of numbers on them slipped out of his pocket.
“Let’s spar,” I yelled. I used a backfist to sting him in the forearm, releasing his grip. The unexpectedness of it caused everyone to pause long enough for the blonde to run. She must have grabbed the bag before she left. Paul smiled, leaned toward me with both arms out as though to lift me up again, only this time I leaned back into him, reaching beneath his arms, hitting a trigger point on his ribs that made him fold in half.
“That’s it, kid! You got it,” my brother said. Jimmy was laughing, as always. Before he’d have the chance to tell me what happened—that she’d taken the pills from Paul and he’d only been trying to get them back, before my father called the police on Paul and filed for a restraining order, and before Paul got arrested some months later for possession, I became a warrior.
The blonde woman ran. I could see the bag in her grip, and I willed it to fall. Like magic, it did. She looked back, not to the ground but to me, and I waved. I wished with everything I had that she’d continue to run. Like a warrior, she did. I kept my hand up until she vanished in the distance.