At 11 years old I developed an attitude problem. I started fighting. Getting hit in the nose was frightening, but slugging someone’s face was exhilarating. Eventually, I got good with my hands. Play-fighting in the playground became slap-fighting in the boy’s bathroom, became street-fighting. But at home, I never fought. I was the sweetest thing.
At home I smiled. At stepbrothers, stepsisters, and especially at my stepfather, a successful attorney.
I was a street fighter, but I never started a fight.
Except once–with Mitch.
After school, hiding behind a tree, I waited for him. I could see him wearing his madras shirt. When I stepped from behind the tree, he smiled.
That’s when I began punching.
The police arrived. A pedestrian said the boy wearing the madras shirt was the troublemaker. The cop sat us in his squad car and told Mitch, “Son, what’s wrong with you?” We were both wearing madras shirts, but Mitch’s shirt was newer.
In high school I was suspended for hitting a bully stealing kids’ lunch money. I hate aggressive people.
My mother was called in and the principal confided that he was happy I had hit the trouble-maker. Nevertheless, I received a three-day suspension at home.
Home was my stepfather’s house. I never wanted to be contaminated by it. Nevertheless, I was perfectly polite and always smiled.
In October, another fight; another suspension.
My artistic mother and soft-spoken father were puzzled by my deep-seated anger. But not my stepfather. As a lawyer he understood violence. He bought me my first set of boxing gloves and brought me to the fights. We sat ringside.
It was brutal, grotesque, and bloody. At the night’s end, a boy was presented with “The Best Boxer Award”. A beautiful girl handed him a trophy and kissed his cheek. The crowd cheered. That’s exactly what I wanted: trophies, pretty girls kissing me and a cheering crowd.
In my senior year I entered the Golden Gloves and reached the finals. Three busloads of friends came to watch me fight in Madison Square Garden. Before every bout, I had one strict rule: Never throw the first punch. I didn’t want to be the instigator.
I lost in the finals.
After The Gloves I desperately reinvented myself in college. I started hitting books instead of people. For the first time I studied. I studied myself.
I discovered that debating in a classroom was as terrifying as fighting in a ring. Sitting in a class, nervously chewing the inside of my cheek, I realized I hated fighting; by becoming a fighter, I had become what I had feared: my stepfather.
But I also realized that boxing was my sick way of remaining healthy.
I’m older and haven’t punched anyone in years. However, when jogging in the park, I recently thought of Mitch and finally understood why I picked that fight. He was me. I could wipe Mitch’s smile off his face, but never my own. I hid behind my smile the same way I hid behind that tree.
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