by Heidi Turner
“What’s your problem?” She said. I was too close, close enough to feel the heat of her eyes, of her torso, of the tattoo on her foot that would get her suspended if the wrong person caught her with her socks off. “Yeah, you!” And I was too close to the wall. No exit to the hallway. Can I go onto the balcony? Is the door unlocked?
A trap is not a trap until the locks are solid in your mind.
White walls. Gray lockers. Gray shirts. Gray rage, reawakened. After four years together and (so we thought) four years left, wounds lived in the fireplaces of our hearts, coals banked with in ashes.
“Problem?” I turned. Suddenly, she was too close to me. Too close to my eyes, green from the rage, shifting in the fluorescents.
She hesitated. “If you need to talk, let me know,” she said. She turned slower than most, so that her braided, knee-length hair wouldn’t hit anyone.
When my cousin told me that he and his friends would fight each other, I might have told him that story. I thought that I had won that fight. I hadn’t gotten hit. She tapped out. “Damn,” pronounced like “amen.” My friends were fighters. No matter how many times I got put on my back by another girl with a bad home life, I would offer her a hug in the morning. If she got scared and needed to feel stronger than someone, I was willing to let her lay me down, hands crossing around my body, dancing.
He didn’t mean it like that. I learned all a fight needed was a ghost, a reason to hit your target. A father figure, especially the outline of one, would do nicely. He explained the fights to me while he tied six hair ties into his ponytail, to make it smooth and sleek all the way down, not like his mother’s, that hung loose, or in a single braid. His friends didn’t touch it. When he talked about the future, he would take out each hair tie, one at a time, produce a folding brush from the depths of his pants pockets, and comb it out, letting it shine. Briefly, on occasion, he would leave his hair down, and I would see the family jawline jutting out from under his beard. One hair tie at a time, he would restore the whip, bending down in his silk shirts with screen-printed dragons, exposing the tear in the armpit, to hit a pool cue, to tie a shoelace, to change out the DVD for an anime no one else seemed to care for. I was told I didn’t understand it, the poetry of the way the cartoon bodies collided.
Perhaps that is one of the smaller and more important reasons I became a poet: there are some stories that are couched in language that disguises their horror, the grayscale of the concentration camp, the pinks and reds and purples that line a victim’s thighs in the minutes after the rape.
The boys loved to fight, to make contact. They were terrified of being boys: they wanted to be men, and they believed they could beat out their boyhood the old-fashioned way, by punching. My cousin used to tell me the problem with wrestling is that you have to give up or be seriously injured; you have to fall apart, tap out, and lose. In boxing, he said, there’s no moment of surrender: you are defeated but never lose. They kept score two ways: you could count points, or you could fight until someone was knocked out. They wanted their independence, and that meant, ultimately, losing on someone else’s terms, in my aunt’s backyard. She let my cousin, her son, live with her well into adulthood, and her house hosted his friends and his fights. In return, they kept the blood off her carpet, and made her house smell perpetually like a combination of boy-sweat and steaming vegetables. She cooked for them, let them hang their anime banners in the living room. It was both immaculate and littered with threads fallen from his torn shirts, from her sweaters she’d bought in the early eighties, from the sofa, from gauze. The carpet was packed down to the density of a wrestling mat. When I would visit, I would stand between the door and the living room window, watching the fairy dust floating through the smell.
“So it was a fight club,” I asked my father, when I was twenty-two, long after it disbanded. He didn’t answer.
What I know: they attacked each other, they didn’t wear shoes. They talked about it incessantly. There were no girls there. What I do not know: if they wore shirts.
Fighting in the backyard wasn’t enough. My cousin was never a small man, fluctuating between 250 and 350 pounds, cursing to himself from six feet up between calls at the gas company, which he explained as a job at which he worked directly against survival of the fittest. He wanted to save the world, by making a lot of money as a private practice lawyer in Los Angeles. We attended the same university for our undergraduate degrees, years apart. He went on to a good, big, smart grad school, one that promised a job and pussy and a debt-free middle age, all for a little over one hundred grand. And he took it, for a little over one hundred grand, and married a makeup artist, one who didn’t know how to match her foundation to her face. He moved her into the house that used to host the fight clubs, had a daughter, and he cut his hair. His mother, my aunt, grew more nervous, paranoid, less able to see the world outside the walls, and she loved her granddaughter with the same unconditional anxious love that would make her wash her hands one too many times. Less than two years in, my cousin lost sense of the plot with regard to the law, pursuing lost causes and not invoices, losing paperwork, losing clients, and losing his grip. In all the years of plotting world domination, he didn’t master the use of paper files, and his clients’ suits disappeared into the wind. He spent hours trapped in front of the computer, unwilling to call his failure by its name.
My father hired him to paint and repair the family rental houses. He struggled with the weight of unadrenalined pain, with blisters and scrapes and tired shoulders. He worked in the reform sense: he complained at my father about the difficulties of manual labor and tied theological knots during their conversations. A year or so in, he was fired for a combination of complaints and incompetence. History was as erased as it gets. Project Mayhem could begin.
Once he began to sense that the realities of the world were bigger than his plans, my cousin started to look for ways to live without paying for it: he begged his mom to buy him a minivan, a super-duper safe one for the grandkids, which she did, and asked her to move out of the house she owned and into her own mother’s house so he could live (rent-free) in the house he’d infected with his smell, an offer she seriously considered. He himself couldn’t return there, not upstairs. His legal practice was born and died in my grandfather’s study.
It came to a head while I was in graduate school, over nothing and everything. He left with his wife and daughter, in their old and unsafe car, and moved to the desert. He got away: from our mean family, my mean father who expected him to show up to work on time, to work hard, to not whine; my mean aunt, who wasn’t sold on the idea of moving out of her home and back in with her own mother to leave her son with her house (rent-free); his mean grandma, who wouldn’t side against her kids; the mean office, with its paperwork and the smell of failure. But the money was running out.
He made offers: “give us the house/send the van money/give me my comics and I might someday let you see the grandkids again.” Everything hung on that, that his mother, who had spent countless hours caring for his daughters during the dying days of the legal practice and the time he spent escaping from it, would get to see them again. When I came for Christmas, he was taking everything he could from our family, from his mother, who was still looking for the promise of a resurrected past. She sold the van, gave him ten grand she didn’t owe him, and when he requested money from the sales of his items, she sent it, whether or not the items sold. The things he said he didn’t want she saved anyway, “he doesn’t know what he wants,” and they gathered dust.
I woke up on December 29th to stomping, my Dad’s voice between bass and tenor, rising and falling up the stairs, repeating, “I won’t give away my own stuff.” The night before, my cousin had emailed my aunt to ask her to prepare his things so he could pick them up, and my aunt had read and re-read the email over dinner. His email voice was razor-like in its revenge: “let me get my stuff,” but not the stuff that he didn’t want but in fact needed—like legal papers—and only over the New Year weekend, when everyone had a high chance of being in a good mood. She read them aloud, and to herself, over and over, the words that couldn’t be unsaid, timestamped, with the promise of an impossible possibility. After I went to bed, he’d emailed Dad with a demand that the comics my cousin had traded him be returned. They had exchanged comics for valuable and rare books, and my cousin decided to test the limits of Dad’s patience by asking for them back during the one week of the year I was visiting, the variable he wasn’. Dad asked if I wanted to come along. I dressed in a cute jacket: my big kid costume, my fighting clothes.
The conversation I had with Dad started at 10:30. I had four hours, give or take, before his sister would get off work and would call. If Dad hadn’t solved his problem, the hole would go deeper, and the stakes might rise, back the way they came: anime, car, cash, house, in a cycle, and always with the promise of nothing hanging in the balance. During the law practice era, my cousin was the family lawyer. He had seen the wills.
Hour one: Establish that my cousin, in his thirties, is a grown and responsible man, one who can be held accountable for his actions. I phrased it delicately for my father: there is a difference between a boy behaving like a dragon and a man who is a sociopath. Given that he’d started a fight club, I leaned toward sociopath. The correct response to a grown man playing Indian giver felt simple: “are you out of your fucking mind?”. That response was far away. The hour passed. Finally: “He’s a man, Heidi. He has to be held responsible.” Dad is the family grown-up, the youngest son. He’d determined, conclusively, that there were no more children in the family.
Hour two: End the game.That my cousin needed money was not a question. However, it was not a question Dad had actually asked outright, because he wouldn’t give him any, didn’t have any to give, and grappled with the feeling of empty hands. The conclusion: A grown-up man was certainly in financial trouble and was leveraging his children against their grandmother’s money.
Hour three: When a grown-up teases the privilege of seeing grandchildren in exchange for a free house, or car, or comic book, with absolutely no intention of following through on grandchildren and every intention of changing the locks, you’re being extorted. It doesn’t matter if he is bruised, battered, damaged goods. He’s a grown-up. The air went out of the car. After fifty years, Dad knew who he was in the family, and who everyone else was.
Hour four: Time was running out, my throat was hurting, and there was the final straw: there is no hope of reconciliation with the extorter during the extortion.Dad, at one time, held the thought of murder/suicide in his back pocket as the Plan B (as opposed to Plan G, where us normal people keep it), and this revelation of how emotional extortion works was mind-numbing news. I walked away when the phone rang, dragging the sentence, “there is no hope as long as she’s being extorted” up the stairs, like Linus from Peanuts. I heard my words echoing up the stairs in a tenor-bass alternate, rising and falling across the line, across the town, with my aunt. My words clung to the sides of my mouth, drying like blood. My words reached out, past me. I am too close.
The fight club was still meeting when I showed my cousin how much I’d learned in tae kwon do. I lost interest in fighting ever again. Inside, Grandma thought we were a blessing that she should be counting. It was Thanksgiving Day. On the croquet lawn, my cousin let me demonstrate: I twisted around, grounded and released, fast and light and rooted to the earth, watching the fights unravel beneath his forearms, in the feathery contact of my bare feet against his ribs. He told me where the organs are, how much more lethal I could become, that I was on my way.
My Dad was proud; he had once asked my cousin to analyze his own fighting style, and after some jabs and punches, my cousin recommended a shotgun. They share a name, the two of them. They share a look in their eyes. There is a look in my eyes too, and once my best friend saw it. My sister saw it from the side, never straight-on. Her breath escaped, gasped at the knife in my voice. I held my rage by the throat, until the room grew silent.
I have always been the dangerous one.
Heidi Turner is a writer and musician from Maui, Hawaii. She holds a Master’s in English from Azusa Pacific University and has been published here in Linden Avenue Literary Journal as well as Abstract Magazine, Cirque, and others. You can follow her work at www.hidturner.com.