Fistfight in the Age of Love
(First published in Madison)
Punching a guy in the nose has got to be one of the grislier sensations. It's like slugging an orange: You can feel the pulp of the nose right through your knuckles. Yet punching can also do great things for a friendship – provided you let a little time pass to let things cool off. Thirty years after I punched a pal in the nose, I called him to pick up where we had left off.
"This is someone from the long ago," I began. "You have to dig way back. Ready?"
We had lost contact three decades earlier but I remembered him vividly. An overeducated grad student with an acerbic aura halfway between Frank Zappa's and Rasputin's, Gabe cut a flamboyant figure in those days. With his two-foot nimbus of strawberry-red frizz around bloodshot blue eyes that were filled with the world's pain, he was as brilliantly cruel as only a 22-year-old in 1975 could be, ruthlessly slicing through the phoniness he saw everywhere and did not yet know he was a part of. Unfortunately, these personality traits did not predispose him to be at all nice to his girlfriend Fiona; a situation which I, an overeducated grad student with problems of my own, chivalrously tried to rectify by sleeping with her on the side.
The trouble was that shortly after Fiona spilled the beans to Gabe about me, his grad school closed down, loosing one more scholar upon a world that was already overfull, in those days, with unemployed know-it-alls. Having nothing better to do, Gabe decided to make his cuckold's agony the center of his universe, and moved up to Providence to be proximate to the source of his pain. He took an apartment and got a suitably forlorn and heartrending job peddling carnations on Thayer street. Fiona found the picture of him proffering dyed carnations to an uncaring public more than a little tragic, and resumed sleeping with him while still sleeping with me.
To try and bring things to a boil, we all three took a vow of celibacy and moved in under the same roof for a week. It was an idealistic attempt to talk things out, to apply rational discourse to the situation and work it through like the overeducated people we were. To the upbeat inspirational chords of Grace Slick belting out "Why Can't We Go On As Three?" we cooked pea soup together, we played go together, we took long walks to gather strawberries together, picnicking together in lovely spots overlooking the foaming sea. In short, we spent the most miserable week of our lives to that point. None of us had any way of knowing that Gracie would evolve over time from a svelte and glamorous incendiary figure into an alcoholic hag who would be arrested in the 90's for kidnapping her milkman or whatever revolutionary thing she did. Nor did we have any way of foreseeing that the apartment where we conducted this brave experiment in free (non)love would metamorphose over the decades into a souvlaki joint, and the wall against which we all three passed our fitful unsleeping nights would become the wall of the men's room, upon which hairy drunken men would urinate several dozen times a night. Such were the tricks of time that we, being book-learned and pure-hearted without exposure to the hard knocks of the world, were not yet privy to.
Theoretically, the idea of bringing things to a boil was to thereafter have things stop boiling, but to our chagrin things got to a boil and stayed there.
"Why did we move in here? We should have had our heads shrank," said Gabe.
"+Shrunk,+" I corrected him.
"'Shrunk' is the past perfect of the infinitive 'to shrink.' 'Shrank' is merely the past tense."
"Really? I wasn't sure of that. Thanks."
One midnight it became clear as taffy to me that we had to duke it out. I summoned Gabe to the front porch to propose my thesis. He suggested it was a bad one. I pointed out that all our disquisition had not done the trick and that logic dictated it was time to assay physical violence, right now, right here, in the street. Still he tried to dissuade me.
"What if a car comes careening down the street?"
"+'Careering+,'" I said.
"Not 'careening.' '+Careering+.' According to the dictionary, 71 percent of the usage panel prefers 'career' to denote rapid forward movement."
"Oh. Thank you."
"Not at all."
Finally there was nothing to do but reluctantly grab him by the collar and persuade him down the wooden porch stairs onto the street, where we flailed. The tar was soft under our house slippers. Fiona was in the house screaming. With a look of soulful concern, Gabe's dog Godot was humping my leg. Apartment lights were going on up and down the street as voices shouted: "Are you crazy? It's the middle of the night!"
Then my hand connected. I had loosely balled it into a fist because that, I gathered, was the procedure for fisticuffs. Gabe had done likewise, but his hands were ineffectively disbursing the air. Mine hit something pulpy.
I was appalled. Never had my hand done anything remotely so conclusive before. My whole spirit seemed to dangle. Gabe, on the other hand, seemed energized by the punch. He was on the street beneath me threshing his arms wildly, his cries of rage purling in the soft night air.
"I'll kill you!" he was screaming.
"You and what army?" I riposted.
"You and '+which+' army,” he corrected me. “You need the relative pronoun when the reference is clear."
"Oh. OK. Thanks."
Eventually he tired. I tired. We dusted each other off and went for a cup of tea to talk things over. But like a satellite that remains circling the globe, throbbing and twinkling in the night sky long after its funding has dried up, that solitary nocturnal punch in the noggin remained the apogee of the affair. Within two months we had all gone our separate ways.
Thirty years later, it suddenly seemed fit to call him.
"How's it going?" I asked.
He was still an amazing person. He cut right to the chase. "I'm well adjusted now," he sighed.
"How in the world did that happen?"
"Little therapy, little medication. It's all a matter of attitude."
"I'm sorry," I said.
"It's not your fault."
"No, I mean, about the Fiona thing. Three decades years ago. I'm sorry."
"Yeah, well, we were young."
We chuckled indulgently, as if over the antics of eight-year-olds. He told me that he was a balding corporate lawyer but still prized his Frank Zappa collection. I told him that the sensation of hitting him had never left me. For years afterwards, I said, my fingertips always took notice of the cartilage of citrus fruits. In fact, when I went to cut the umbilical cord of the first of my four sons, my hands registered the spongy resistance, and that moment of joy and tenderness was married to the sensation of punching him.
"Life's funny," he observed.
He told me he had happened to visit the old college town two years ago, after avoiding it all those years since our fight. He was there to depose someone in a law suit, but found himself flooded with so many memories that he'd spent the night walking around, reminiscing.
"Next time you go back, I'll join you," I offered.
We pictured that for a minute, the two gray foes strolling among the magnolia petals through the sites of their rivalry.
"Maybe not," he said.
"Cmon, I'm not going to hit you. We'll have a picnic. Do you still make that old pea soup of yours that was so great?"
"I do. It is."
"Then it's a date. I'll bring the dictionary."
It was the start, I felt sure, of a beautiful friendship.