It was being eight or nine and walking into my parents’ bedroom, my father on top of my mother, a sheet over them, the way my young father looked up at me: pleasure interrupted. It was the shock of cruelty, of being the new boy in school, getting called “Four Eyes” and “Faggot.” It was the burning sting of a slap to my face, then the punch, a flash of green between my ears, the frozen ground rushing up to meet me. It was the kicks to my back and ribs and legs. It was the yelling and laughter of the other kids, and it was the standing up and brushing blades of grass off my clothes and picking up my glasses and refusing to wear them ever again.
It was playing with toy soldiers on the floor and watching my father on the couch crying. His hair was thinning but still dark, and he had a thick mustache and his eyes shone in the light of our black-and-white TV. A newsman held a microphone and behind him dead soldiers, 18, 19 years old, were being zipped into black bags and loaded into a helicopter, its blades whirring, this newsman’s slick hair coming undone. “They’re just boys,” my father cried. “Goddamn it, they’re just boys.”
It was hearing about napalm. It was seeing that Life magazine photograph when I was nine years old of a pretty Vietnamese girl running naked down a dirt road, crying, her clothes burned off her, her village lost in black smoke behind her.
It was seeing a girl who looked like her on the bus, though all she had was the same dark hair and pretty face. It was wanting to kiss that girl, then one day kissing her up against the porch behind the house our mother had moved us to after our father drove away.
It was seeing my mother sleep alone.
It was watching her put on makeup then leave the house and climb into the cars of men we did not know. Once the back of a motorcycle.
It was lying in bed, 10, 11, 12 years old, and hearing her make love with those men. One boyfriend at a time, though the moaning sounded painful to me, and I felt I should do something about it. It was being younger than that and walking through the woods with my Daisy BB rifle. It was aiming at a small bird on a limb and squeezing the trigger and watching that bird fall. It was the sick feeling after, the pumping joyful terror and never wanting to do it again but doing it again and again.
It was coming back to their bodies days later, the squirm of maggots in the feathers.
It was watching my little brother beaten up in front of me by a grown man. It was looking into the mirror and telling my 14-year-old face he would never not fight again. It was getting only six push-ups. It was getting only 10 sit-ups.
It was changing my body from soft to hard.
It was the way that gym owner looked at me, 147 pounds and no whiskers or muscles, when I shot a right cross into the Everlast label on the heavy bag, and it jolted and swayed backward. It was how he told me if I do that in the street, he’s going down.
It was doing that in the street for years and years.
It was the membrane breaking around each and every face, the soft thud of my fists on flesh and bone and cartilage giving way.
It was the little voice in my blood telling me I was only adding to the darkness of this world, that I would die doing this. Or the one squared off against me would die or I would go to prison or all three.
It was being locked in a cell with nine men. It was the smell of vodka-sweat and blood and piss on denim.
It was trying to stop all this by boxing in the ring. It was the strange intimacy of being shirtless, a mouth guard over my teeth, my fists wrapped with tape and tied into leather gloves. It was how your eyes never leave your opponent’s eyes. Even as you shoot one into his face.
It was getting hit so hard in the side of my head, for days after I saw the world through a brown haze.
It was working construction all day with my only brother, then training for the Golden Gloves at night.
It was the night I did not run over icy sidewalks to the gym to train. It was how I brewed tea and sat at my small kitchen table in my small walk-up apartment and took paper and a sharpened pencil and wrote a scene.
It was how everything slowed down and then stopped then began to move so clearly.
It was the slipping inside a living person who was not me and asking what’s it like to be you?
It was doing that every morning before grabbing my carpentry
belt and tools and driving to the job site to measure and cut and
fasten and sweat.
It was the sweetness of finding the words that burrowed inside and tossing out those that did not.It was sitting in a dark theater and seeing onstage a dancer moving with fire through a furling funnel of other dancers.
It was meeting that dancer months later and marrying her only months after that.
It was making love with this woman I wanted to die alongside.
It was how she carried our three children inside her, dancing to the very end and beginning, each one coming through an incision in her abdomen while she lay there looking up at me, her eyes dark with trust that everything would be all right.
It was watching our son rise from the womb, his tiny, handsome face raging. Our daughter’s, too, her eyes wide open. Our youngest son a sweet giant.
It was the sweetness of life now.
It was building my father’s coffin out of pine with my brother.
It was digging our father’s grave with pick and shovel. It was lying in the bottom of my father’s grave.
It was holding my three children. It was smelling their hair as I read to them, as we fed them, as we held them.
As we held them.
It was building the house I write in now. My brother and me. With our hands.
It’s lying in this room I built in this bed I bought beside this woman I married.
It’s 25 years later and all the love I feel.
Yes, even for what was hard. Even for that.
Because what is raw is always what lies underneath.
It’s what comes first and what lasts.
It’s the heart of each breath.
It’s the truth.