I break the boy’s nose with a single punch. My father taught me to rotate my entire arm as I threw a jab, to tighten my fist as it landed. My hand sings like a tuning fork. The boy’s blood on my knuckles excites me—far more than his limp kisses ever could.
He is the new boy next door (quite literally), and he gets too handsy after a homecoming dance. An elbow to the sternum finally makes him ease up. “Jesus,” he huffs, his tone betraying his incredulity that I (the fat chick, the weirdo) refused the favor of his advances. That’s when I hit him.
I expect my mother to be up and waiting, but the sight of my father nursing black coffee at the kitchen table surprises me. Perhaps he notices my knuckles, still flushed from the force of impact. Perhaps all our nights of slammed doors and dodged fists leaves him uniquely attuned to my mood. Either way, he is up and at the door before my mother can ask how my date went, before the boy next door’s father can finish knocking.
My father had been an amateur boxer, a college lineman, and though the boy’s father isn’t a particularly small man, he has to crane his neck up to look in my father’s eyes and explain that your girl got, well, she got a little rough out there, that he’d have to take his boy to the Patient Care to get his nose fixed, and I’m sure we can work something out regarding the bill for that. The boy stands with his head tilted back, hands cupped over his nose. Anyone who can take a punch knows that you have to lean forward with a broken nose. Otherwise, you gag on blood. You taste it for days.
“No,” my father says. “And you tell your boy that if he so much as looks at her again, I’ll finish what she started.”
Other fathers boast of their daughters’ academic accolades or job titles. They take pride when their little girls start families of their own. My father waxes ecstatic about the night I broke that boy’s nose. His girl can handle herself. He hasn’t raised a victim.
He is not the type to get close to other men, but the few co-workers he brings home for dinner are thick-necked men who call my mother “ma’am” and me “miss;” who only laugh once they were drinking beer with my father in the den.
“One punch,” my father says. His friend says he should be proud. His girl doesn’t take shit. “Just like you.”
From our porch, my father stares down the boy next door. The skies open inside that look. Icebergs crack inside that look. It is a warning: No time to run. It is a promise: You are only as safe as my regard for you.
For every action, he has an extreme—though still opposite—reaction. If you honk at him as he makes a left, he’ll swing a U-turn and follow you for blocks. If you absentmindedly shovel snow on his car, he’ll wait for the night to dip below freezing and spray cold water on your driveway. If you clog the toilet and ruin his tile floor, he’ll break your nose. Even if it is an accident. Even if you are eight years old.
The boy next door doesn’t so much as look at me again. When we catch each other on opposite escalators at the mall, he averts his eyes. If we cross paths coming out of our houses, he goes lunar pale, rushes to his car.
At first, I think he is simply afraid of my father. Then I see him flinch. I remember sinking into corners, arms thrown over my face: helpless gestures that never stop the punch. That’s when I get it. He is haunted by what I’ve done to him. He fears me. This is what rage can do. This is power.
For years, I would say that my father gifted me with rage. This may sound like “I tripped into the door again” dressed up in riot grrl bravado. But I am never sugar and spice and everything nice. I am piss and vinegar and what the fuck do you think you’re looking at?
When a friend needs to get stuff out of her asshole ex’s apartment, she calls me. When a landlord suggests that, instead of asking him to expend “money and energy” on fixing my toilet, I simply turn off the water pressure when I’m not using it, I photograph every code violation (however minor) and call the board of housing. I bankrupt him. When the resident creep in my building mails me a letter saying that he’d like to be my “friend” (quotation marks his), I don’t just knock on his door, I throw my shoulder against it. I tell him it doesn’t scare me that he knows where I live. I know where he lives, too. He doesn’t so much as look at me again.
Anger is an arrow: a sharp point with a clear path. Once it has struck, there’s a victor. A victim. My mother’s arsenal is stocked with fluttering laughs, “Oh honey” and “please, don’t.” Just be quiet, she says. He’s had a bad day. Don’t bother him. Don’t bang the cabinet. Don’t chew with your mouth open. Don’t look at him the wrong way—but don’t not look at him. That will make him feel bad. Don’t walk too hard. Don’t breathe too loud.
Her best defense, her only offense, is looking so swollen and pathetic that he regrets hitting her. For a day. A week at best. My mother is a water bug in a downpour. She skitters along a glossy surface until the torrent smacks her down.
I come to hate the sound of her voice. She always has a hostess’s tone: sugar-spun and breathless. Talking, talking, talking, just to pump the water from her lungs.
I have two choices: inherit his hair-trigger, or drown.
I wake up punching the air, screaming into pillows. I sock my lover in the kidneys, the gut. I do it so many times that we can no longer joke that next time, I should just roll him over to stop his snoring. I do it so many times that he leaves.
He says I take everything as a personal affront. When the car ahead of me doesn’t move fast enough in a merge lane. When I get fewer fries with my burger than anyone else at the table. When he opens a cabinet too loudly. When he looks at me the wrong way. Some days, he says, there is no right way to look at you.
Weeks later, I throw hot coffee in a stranger’s face.
The stranger is one of those natty D.C. alpha types, high-school lacrosse starter turned media buyer. He is his business card. He is his Dupont condo and his ModLoft furniture. He is his white cashmere peacoat and he is the beetle-black BMW that rounds the corner just as I’ve put my battered Saturn into park. I don’t hear what he’s saying. Something about his fucking spot. Something about his time. I feel his spittle on my cheek and that iceberg in my father’s eyes halves itself inside my blood. I become the sonic boom.
Anger rushes me with the torrential intensity of the moment before an orgasm. The man is down, hands in his face. I stomp on his foot. I bring my knee up, aim for his groin. Then I hear him crying. The smallness of the sound brings me back to being cornered, with only my hands, my tiny, pitiful hands, to defend me.
When I am thirteen years old, I tell my father that if he lifts his hands to me again, I will kill him. I haven’t had my first period, but I have a plan. I stand in his kitchen, hot and loose from his whiskey. Even if he calls my bluff, it’s still all over. He says nothing, just nods.
Maybe he thinks of his father, a man who heated his belt buckle over a flame. Maybe he remembers standing in his father’s den, still a high school lineman, still fifty pounds smaller than the man he threatened with death if he lifted his hands again.
Either way, my father never hits me (or my mother) again.
This is what rage can do. This is power.
As we age, my father and I are like enemy combatants who’ve found themselves in a neutral country after a long war, stumbled into the same shabby hotel. We’ll never share a native tongue, just the language of violence. We take breakfasts together, but train our eyes on the butter knives.
He takes pills to quell his moods. That’s what my mother calls them: his moods. But there has always been only one. It is an animal’s gnashing maw. It spares nothing. Not even bone.
He cycles through Librium and lithium, Klonopin and Cymbalta. All of those syllables can’t save him. He becomes a knife blade dulled on a brick.
He sits on the sofa, a dish of ice cream propped on his belly. Vanilla pools into soup as my mother talks at him. She asks him which real housewife has had the most plastic surgery. She waits for his half-grunt, tells him she agrees. She can pass it off as a normal life, and that’s good enough for her.
My mother leaves me voicemails. He’d like to see you. He misses you.
I start deleting her messages right after “This is Mommy.”
The skies cloud over inside his eyes. Glaciers form inside his eyes. It is a promise: You can get close now. It is a plea: Please.
But the heart is a fist, and he taught me to make mine hard.
I tattoo over the most stubborn scars, the ones that will not yield to cocoa butter and time. At eighteen, the year that night terrors start, I ink the kanji for death on my right shoulder. I console myself with the promise that everything ends.
When I turn thirty, I get a pair of black and white boxing gloves on my left arm.
This is what rage can do. This is power.
This is also grief.
Featured image is of Laura Bogart’s boxing tattoo, done by Emily Sloman at Have Fun Be Lucky Tattoos.