The Honesty of Aggression

By

Raw aggression is thought to be the peculiar province of men, as nurturing is the peculiar province of women…

from On Boxing, by Joyce Carol Oates

The Morris Park gym stinks, its walls varnished with years of dried sweat. Even though the heavy metal door is propped open most days, the Bronx air, which seems crisp and clean in comparison, isn’t enough to cleanse the musty atmosphere. Inside, the small, windowless two-room gym exists on its own terms. Boxers wail on the leather heavy bags, their explosions in rhythm with one another. Two boys, about fifteen, skip rope in front of mirrors patched together by duct tape. Above the mirror a painted slogan reads: “It’s better to sweat in the gym than bleed in the streets.” All the words are black, with the exception of the word “Street,” which is colored by chunky horizontal stripes of red, white, and blue. But these kids aren’t on the street. They’re in the gym, a place where their aggression is welcome—and where, for one cathartic year, mine was, too.

***

I first discovered the satisfaction of throwing a punch at the age of twenty-five, when I stumbled into a boxing class at Healthworks, a fancy all-women’s gym in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There, the gym-goers were mostly white women in their forties and fifties, the sort I imagined bought herbal tinctures at Cambridge Naturals and went to see Noam Chomsky every time he spoke at the local Unitarian Church. When Teanna, the slight teacher with a flame tattoo emblazoned across her calf, first appraised my boxer’s stance, she said, “You look mean.” This was high praise.

Riddled by people-pleasing instincts, I had spent years using my sympathetic persona to mask an inner aggression. Growing up, I watched as my mother projected her own sense of herself on all the females in our household, including beloved Bonnie, our golden retriever. “She’s like me, a lover, not a fighter,” my mother would say approvingly. Though I wouldn’t be able to articulate this for years, deep down I understood my personal equation of love and combat was different: I am a lover because I am a fighter.

Three years after my first boxing class, I moved to New York for graduate school. In 2004, once I settled into my apartment in the Bronx, I opened up my phonebook and started calling gyms in the neighborhood, excited. I was not finished reinventing my feminine side. Painted fingernails or not, I was ready to fight.

***

Besides being less than ten minutes from my house, Morris Park seemed to be the only gym in the New York metropolitan area within my budget. The monthly fee was thirty-five dollars. When I asked the man on the phone about the possibility of getting a guest pass, he laughed and said, “Look, look, this ain’t no Jack LaLane. This a ghetto gym. This where the tough people work out.” His voice spiked when he said the word “tough.”

“Oh yeah?” I said, my voice lilting. “I’m tough.” He laughed. Though he could not see my dangly earrings or charcoal eye shadow, he knew. Even over the phone, he knew. I was not the kind of “tough” that he meant. Nevertheless, when I told him I’d come in on Friday, he said, “Good. I’ll be here. You ask for Dudley. My name is Dudley.”

The first day, I throw my 10-ounce gloves into my flowery pink bag and drive ten minutes to 644 Morris Park Avenue, just near the Bronx River Parkway. The façade of the building is crumbling and above the entrance hangs a sign with faded paint that reads simply: “Morris Park Boxing Gym.”  As I lift the heavy metal door, I can already tell: no windows.

At Morris Park, the mats are old, pieced together with silver duct tape, and the floor is covered in grime. In the back room, dried drops of blood cover the faded blue foam on the floor of the ring. If you don’t keep your eyes on your own equipment, I am told, it will disappear. Someone broke into a locker and stole the Golden Gloves pendant of last year’s heavyweight champ. (It was returned because “someone heard something” and made a few “phone calls”.) This sounds very illogical to me, stealing from a heavyweight champ. Victor, the gym’s kind, short Puerto Rican owner, tells me to leave anything of value at home and to come to the gym already in my workout clothes.

“Listen,” Victor says, cocking his head sideways, his wide brown eyes alert. “Ah, this is not a women’s gym.”

Standing in the entryway, taking in the dirty floors, the poor lighting, and male gym-goers, I see what he means. I am definitely not in Cambridge anymore.

***

The first week, I’m jumping rope while Dudley is nearby, holding the pads for a stocky fighter, Dmitriy. Dmitriy is from the Ukraine and everyone calls him “the Russian”. Dudley backs up as the Russian moves across the ring, inching Dudley toward the blue ropes. Dudley is in his late thirties, with dark brown skin, a lean form, and well-shaved head. As I struggle for rhythm with the black plastic rope that he handed me, he looks back over his shoulder.

“Shit, she can jump,” he says to the Russian, but loud enough for me to hear. “Look out. She jump better than you.”

Later that day, when I am doing sit-ups with my feet tucked under the far side of the ring, a trainer runs up to me and whispers as I fold and unfold my body, “Hey, just had a thought. If you were the only guy in this place and the rest of us were women, you’d have a harem.”

Trying hard to focus, I turn to him after I have touched my chin to my knees. “Instead, you’re the only female with a bunch of eunuchs! Ha!” he says as I lower my head back to the dirty mat. I say nothing.

“Humor,” he says. “That’s, ah, supposed to be funny.”

The continual references to my sex are striking. On the one hand, they stand in stark contrast to the identity-digging that I am attempting. On the other, they resonate: trying on aggression for size is foreign territory. The experience of boxing has given me a deeper understanding of what it is to inhabit my own skin, even though I have also never in my life felt like such a “girl,” thanks to the constant reminders. Nevertheless, what I am experiencing in my body seems so different from this flat perception of women that I keep bumping up against.

Take Tony, for example. A handsome guy with dimples and long eyelashes, he said the first time we met: “How come you like to box?”

We were standing in the ring and I circled my arms, trying to keep warm for my rounds with Dudley.

“Because it’s fun.”

“Fun? Females aren’t supposed to be violent.”

I paused for a minute, thinking of the girl-led cliques in my junior high, the ones that passed mean notes and humiliated other girls. How is that not violent?

Tony continued, “You need to date a boxer, otherwise no guy could take you.”

Later in the week, I am standing in front of the heavy bag. My head is down and I am aiming for the bag’s center, which is marked by red duct tape. I take a deep breath and make sure that my feet are in the proper stance before taking aim with my gloved fist. After I strike, I hear murmurs behind me. A group of trainers have stopped to watch.

Victor says interestedly when the bell rings, “Yeah, I can tell you know something about hitting the bag. What was it you did now—martial arts? Kickboxing?”

I tell him that I don’t have the coordination for kickboxing and that I boxed before, just straight boxing.

The bell sounds again, a long ring to signal the start of the fresh three-minute round. As I circle the bag, pivoting on my left foot, I can hear the trainers talking behind me.

“She learning fast. She do this before?”

Victor whispers, “No, it was kickboxing or something.”

Above their heads there is a tiny close-up black and white photo—no more than two inches wide—of a woman with dark hair and fair skin. Under a sign that says “Golden Gloves Champs 2004,” the photo reads “Lisandra Velasquez.” Lisandra is a heavyweight and she is a woman and she works out here, at Morris Park. So why do the trainers find it so curious that I’ve boxed before? Maybe I’m too polite. Maybe they see shades of the selfless helper in me always ready—even if not entirely willing—to give her all. Or maybe, I realize after a few weeks in the gym, maybe, they’re just making conversation.

 ***

After a few weeks, Dudley starts telling me, “You can do anything that these guys can do. Anything. There been guys comin’ here for years who can’t hit the speed bag like you.”

Only once does he say, “Well you a girl. I can’t expect nothin’ more.”

I am doing sit-ups and he’s pushing me forward, with his hands below my shoulders. I was working hard (at my normal “Robo-cop” pace as one trainer has noted), but somehow I upset him. Sit-ups, however, signify the end of my workout, so by this time, I’m too exhausted for his comment to sting. Lifting my head off the mat one more time, struggling to bring my chin to my knees, I think, Keep moving.

***

The daily routine looks something like this: I get to the gym by 4:30pm, walk inside, say hello to everyone. I leave my bag in a corner after taking out the tangle of cloth hand wraps. If Dudley isn’t free to wrap my hands, another trainer helps. I then skip rope for fifteen or so minutes, lulled by the click-click-click of the rope hitting the linoleum floor. What happens next depends on which facilities are free. Sometimes, I head straight to the heavy bag, following Dudley’s instruction as he calls out punch combinations. I stop when the red buzzer sounds, putting my sweaty, gloved hands on my hips and throwing my head back when Dudley lifts my water bottle to my mouth. After, Dudley holds pads up for me to punch, as we dance across the ring. This goes on. (And on. And on.) Occasionally, Dudley and I will throw the medicine ball around. Despite our difference in size, he uses his full strength, which sometimes prompts other trainers to call out, “Go easy on her, man.” Then, I work out on the speed bag, followed by pull-ups, then push-ups, then sit-ups. By the time I stagger out, the clock above the door reads 7:30pm, sometimes 8:00pm. My clothes soaked, I drive home, shower, eat a bowl of pasta, and fall asleep. And then I dream. Boy, do I dream.

***

Children and youth fill the gym, especially in the after-school hours. Dudley is always yelling out to the younger guys, “Hey, you sizing her up? You think you can take her, don’t you?” It is an icebreaker that never gets old. The younger the kid, the surer he is that he can beat me up.

One day, a young boy with brown eyes and a dominating smile walks in. He can’t be older than eleven years old. Al tells the kid to stand at the front room, where Al watches him jump rope. I stand next to the kid, towering over him by at least one and a half feet. Dudley has stepped out of the room with the other trainers. It’s just Al, the kid and me when Al starts yelling at the kid, for no discernable reason: “This is bullshit. Why you looking around? Who you looking at?”

The kid says, “Jump roping is hard. I can’t do it.”

“Well you can’t stop either! Keep going!”

Suddenly, I find both my aggressive and nurturing instincts kicking in. I want to snap at Al. I want to pull the kid away and sit with him until his mother can come pick him up. But when Al yells “Bullshit!” one or two more times, I do nothing.

The other trainers come in from outside. Rubbing his eyes, the kid stops Wendell, a trainer. He is crying and Wendell leans in closer to listen. Just then, Victor comes in and asks what the problem is. Through his tears, the kid says, “He was cussing at me.”

Victor stands upright and turns to Al. “Were you cussing at this kid? He’s just a little kid.”

Just then, Dudley walks in and stands in front of me: “Keep going. Don’t pay any attention to this bullshit.”

When Al denies it, Victor says, “He said you were.”

“No. I wasn’t. I wasn’t fucking cussing at him!”

“Come on. I want to see you in the office,” Victor motions for Al to follow him.

As Al goes to follow Victor, he suddenly turns around and shouts, “You know what, kid? You’re a piece of shit!”

This is too much for my heart to bear, but I force myself to let someone else handle it. Dudley sees my brow and says, “You just keep working.”

Wendell takes care of the kid, telling him that Al didn’t mean it. Dudley looks over at the kid and says, “You know, I known him since I was your age…He ain’t a bad guy. He just drink too much.”

The kid is silent.

The commotion from the office quiets and Dudley sends me back to the speed bag. I am getting into my rhythm, moving side to side, and pumping my shoulders every time my fist hits the worn leather. Dudley assumes his usual position, with his arms overhead. He watches to make sure I don’t drop my hands and that I don’t go too fast, rushing my progress. In between, he says things like, “That’s what I’m talking about” or “I gotta force your ass to do this”. Usually with the latter phrase, his lower jaw is tight. Forcing me into new and uncomfortable positions is a core ethic of Dudley’s coaching style.

***

Two months into my experience at Morris Park, I am part of the team. The fighters are generally referred to by their ethnicity. There’s the Russian, the Mexican, the Italian, the Cuban, and the list goes on. I’m The White Girl. Sometimes, after a particularly tough session working the pads with Dudley, other fighters will comment on my progress. When I hear, “Oooh! Soon you’ll be knocking all those white girls out!” I take it as a sign of acceptance.

One day, Carlos, the Italian immigrant with gray hair, brings in a hip hop CD to play. “Hey, Dudley listen to this. This guy looks just like you.”

The music starts, I don’t know what you heard about me, but if you can’t get a dolla out of me…

I am sitting in front of the speed bag, standing on a small plywood lift. Dudley is standing next to me in that familiar place, his bare arms straight above his head as he holds on to the wooden platform from which the speed bag hangs. We are waiting for the bell to ring when Carlos, who has been shadowboxing in the ring, says, “Eh, you surprised? You surprised that I listen to this music?”

Dudley and I laugh while Carlos continues, “My wife, she says I am very deceiving. I may look white, but I have a black heart.”

Dudley shakes his head and says, “Look man, you ain’t from the crib. I know. You look at a guy you know whether or not he from the crib. Look at that little boy over there. He from the crib and he already look like a thug.”

Carlos doesn’t seem to get it. He bops off toward the other side of the ring, bouncing with slack shoulders.

The bell rings. I look to concentrate just below the hinge of where the bag hangs.

As I continue to giggle, Dudley snaps, “And you, what are you laughing at? You ain’t from the crib either.”

With sweat dripping down my face, I have to smile. This is one of the sweetest things I’ve ever heard. No, I’m definitely not from the crib, but somehow, I still belong.

***

Six-year-old Anna Marie snaps big bubbles with her pink chewing gum as she rocks from side-to-side. As the bubbles come dangerously close to popping in her silky blonde hair, her weight shifts, first on the sole of her left mary jane, then her right. Anna Marie is the daughter of a girlfriend of one of the trainers. Although she has been out of school for at least three hours, she still wears her uniform: a navy blue jumper dress with a white short sleeve collared shirt. With one decisive chomp of her jaw, her latest bubble deflates. Snap! Her mouth stretches into a grin, revealing a large gap in her upper teeth.

I am standing tall on a small plywood lift in front of the worn two-toned speed bag. The buzzer rings. As I take my sixty-second break, I watch Anna Marie across the ring. Now she’s sitting on the ropes, rocking back and forth. She has massive blue eyes and her two front teeth are missing. I look at her outfit and think, She could be anywhere. But she is not anywhere. She is standing by the ropes in the middle of a particularly vicious sparring match-up. Her mother and her mother’s boyfriend watch from seats just a few feet behind her. When one boxer’s left hook makes his opponent’s mouth drip with bright blood, Anna is transfixed.

Blood from the mouth of one of the fighters continues to spill out onto the dirty faded blue mat on the floor of the ring. Drops of red stain his sweat-soaked yellow shirt. Anna Marie sways and dances, though her eyes are fixed on the fighter and his blood.

The other fighter aims again for his opponent’s injury: his left jab is blocked and then his right jab lands. More blood starts to gush. Anna Marie steps in closer to the ring. Her eyes grow wider and Dudley notices her.

“Whose baby is that? Someone get the baby out of here! Too violent for her,” he yells. Her mother doesn’t do anything.

“I ain’t jokin’,” Dudley says again. “Get the baby out of here.” This time, he waves his arms and leans over the top rope, as if to say, “I mean it.” No one responds.

The injured fighter spits watery blood into a plastic bucket in the corner of the ring. Some misses and falls onto the floor. The voices outside the ring get louder. Boxers are cheering, “Go! Go!” Sometimes a boxer outside the ring covers his lower lip with the collar of his t-shirt and says, “Man” or “Shit” when one of the fighter’s takes an exceptionally strong punch.

When the fight ends, the other fighters begin to move away from the edge of the ropes, moving back toward their workouts, but Anna Marie stays still. Her lips are glued together and her eyes look worried. They are fixed on a fresh pool of blood that is seeping into the foamy floor of the ring.

I move over to the blue mat, readying myself for sit-ups. My feet are nestled into the space between the bottom of the ring and the concrete of the floor and I begin. One, two, three. Anna Marie walks around the ring, ducking now and then for no reason. As I touch my chin to my knees, she stands at my side.

“You have blue eyes like me,” she says.

“And your mom, right?” I say, in a winded tone.

“Nope. Hers are green.”

“Oh.”

“Did you see the blood?” Anna Marie asks. “And the spit?”

I stop my sit-ups and look at her: “I did.” Pause. “Have you seen fights before?”

From the far corner of the ring, Anna Marie’s mother calls out, “Leave her alone, Anna.”

Anna Marie looks down at me, ignoring her mother’s gaze. She wants something from me, and turns her back to her mother, who walks away.

In a softer tone, I say, “It’s okay. You’re not bothering me.”

“I’ve only seen blood like that on tv. My mom watches it all night.”

I just want to do my sit-ups and get on with my workout. But her eyes hang with melancholy. Their look feels familiar.

In a flash I am Anna’s age standing over my mother as she sleeps on the couch. She closed her eyes immediately after dinner and hasn’t woken up yet. My father is sending me to bed and so I lean down to kiss her—and as I do I pause with my lips on hers. I’m waiting. She wakes up, startled and pushes me off of her. “My god,” she says. “What? What do you want?”

There is something in Anna Marie that I think I understand. And there is something in her that knows this.

Continuing with another set of sit-ups, I say, “Blood’s different in real life, huh?”

“Yeah. I don’t like it. I never want to go in that ring—scared me.”

“I’m sorry you had to see that today,” I say, though my words ring hollow. Anna Marie’s eyes are still pleading with me, “Tell me something good, please.”

Dudley was right when he said, “In the gym, you work out. Then get the f- out of here. Your problems, your life at home, they don’t come here.” The gym is a sanctuary, and when I am faced with interactions that would normally prompt me to act, like Al yelling at the kid or Anna Marie asking about the blood, I realize that I don’t have to do anything. And this realization has been an incredibly long journey—from my mother’s house to the all-female health club, to here, at this Bronx gym—of proving to myself that I don’t have to take care of anyone else.

But in this moment, I want to. I really do.

I rise and start doing jumping jacks. Anna imitates me. We count aloud together. When she says, “One,” her voice falls into a giggle. A boxer walks by and asks me if this is my daughter.

Dudley, who normally looks down on distractions, says nothing. He takes a noticeable step back and watches us from the other side of the room. He has that look on his face that I have come to recognize. The forehead is unwrinkled, though there is still something to say; I can guess what it is and he knows this. This look surfaces only after I’ve made a million mistakes and finally get a piece of the puzzle to fit. Usually it’s when I’m on the heavy bag and he is coaxing me to relax. “Just relax,” he says. “Everything better when you relax.” With this direction, the rules disappear. Gone are the hard and fast ideas about where my hands and feet need to be. I’m operating on another level, one that forces me to have some faith that all my practice and arduous training will have amounted to something. The confidence is mysterious and inexplicable, reaching through to the place where there is no difference between the girl who throws a good punch or the daughter who waits for a kiss from her mother. There is no distinction between the lady who grits her teeth in the ring and the woman who hopes that everyone around her will be okay. In this air, we are one and the same.

Every time I feel this freedom in my body, Dudley notices too, almost immediately, and he never fails to add his commentary, just to let me know that he sees. “Beautiful,” he says. “There she is. There’s the real Suzie.”

***

Below is an audio track of Suzanne Guilette reading “The Honesty of Aggression.”

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A writer and occasional storyteller, Suzanne Guillette’s work has appeared in Tin House, Self, O Magazine, Publisher’s Weekly, Time Out New York and elsewhere. She’s the author of Much to Your Chagrin: A Memoir of Embarrassment , a non-fiction account of the year she spent collecting embarrassing stories from strangers on the streets of Manhattan. Suzanne holds a Bachelor’s of Arts in Philosophy from George Washington University and a Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Non-fiction writing from Sarah Lawrence College. More from this author →