During the year in which my girlfriend was brutally attacked and almost killed, I took up boxing. I wandered the streets of Manhattan. Dared cars to run me over. Stared down 6ft tall men hoping one would take offense and knock my lights out. I wanted to feel the shock and react to something outside of myself for a change. My friend, Matt, whom I have known since college, and who had been boxing since he was a child, suggested I take up the sport. I don’t know if he could see the state I was in but my eyes barely stayed in my head anymore and I would drink three cups of black coffee whenever I met him.
Boxing has long been the place you go to figure out your shit. I saw the way Matt folded unrest into his routine, fighting down some shadow of hegemonic impulse that I could not see. I was not very good. My first time in the ring, Matt saw my fevered rage coming a mile away and, forgetting I was new to this, ducked my obvious right hook by swiveling his head under his left shoulder, twisting his back foot, and in the clean methodic motion of a rake that springs up when you step on it, popped his right fist quickly into my rib. I bent over gasping for air that wasn’t there. It was incredible. For the first time in months, my body fought to live. To take up space, to hold gravity, and positions on current events, and make love, and maybe kill, and I breathed so deeply I thought I swallowed the whole ring when air finally came.
It didn’t feel like the other collection of violences in my life. Like the night I got jumped at a frat party and they broke my jaw while my friends swiped all their booze and drugs amidst the chaos. The hole in the stucco wall that I covered up with a small painting of, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” as my knuckles throbbed. No, this felt different. This felt of rapture. This felt of earth. This felt like waking up.
I’m sorry I wasn’t there.
I’m sorry I couldn’t hurt him or find him or watch him be taken away in handcuffs.
I’m sorry I turned inward and lashed out and shook and cried and held it together for a little while only to have it all mix badly inside and spill out black and blue onto our studio apartment floor.
I’m sorry I punched the wall; my god that was such a fucking sad, John Wayne, male thing to do and I didn’t even go through it. You did.
So why am I having such a hard time holding it together? You are so strong, but please be weak for a second.
Maybe I’ll be strong if you melt.
Maybe I’ll take your place and carry us both for a little while.
I just want to go back in time and never take that flight to LA. I was witness to the worst moments in your life and it destroyed me. Why do I wake up in the middle of the night from your nightmares? From events I never lived but that just keep recutting in my mind like film in an editing room, spooling and splicing together, forming new angles and soundtracks and alternate endings.
Maybe if your phone was charged/
what if he hadn’t let you leave/
what if I had been there/
maybe if he hadn’t had the ketamine on him/
what if I’d never seen you again and your phone just kept ringing and ringing and ringing.
I’m shaking again.
If I could look ahead I’d know it calms.
I’d know the things in the front eventually move to the back, like back burners on a stove.
And you just try not to use them too often.
And you try to regulate the heat, and take it off when it boils over and gets close to consuming you again.
I wish I had known about that during this year. But this year it has me fully in its grip.
It’s hard to sleep.
It’s even harder to wake up.
But thinking about that bag at the gym, the one with duct tape all over it, that looks like him, helps me get up. Wrapping my fingers in boxing tape is the most soothing feeling.
I know what I’m doing.
I know how to protect my wrists now.
They call it the sweet science; the way you train your body to box. You have to retrain your whole body to react differently than how it wants to. You have to redirect your impulses. You lean in, instead of back when someone is going to get a shot in on you, so it deflects off the top of your head. You punch with your legs and your hips, bringing the force and the movement from there so that you can return to form when the swing is over, instead of getting knocked off balance. You’re always dancing, always moving, never still, finding that rhythm where the punches are coming before your brain, and your thoughts can’t get a hold. It’s thousands of hours of repetition to turn you into an instrument that just reacts to every force that comes its way that throws a
jab, jab, hook, under, jab, under, under
without thinking just hearing your breathing and the air moving from your opponent’s fists. And how close that one came to your ear. And you know you’re going to get hit. But that’s ok because getting hit is part of it. And sometimes getting hit creates an opening to hit back harder and turn the whole thing around. And the pace, 12 rounds at 3 minutes each is an eternity and you have to keep breathing and hold on and not tire out too fast and just keep dancing till they make a mistake or you see an opening then go in like a savage with no mercy till they fall. There’s an instant, just one heartbeat, when you see their eyes flicker after that last punch and you know they left, just for a second, and that is your opening.
I wanted to be able to tell you that life is like boxing but it’s not. It’s not even close. But there is a moment when all the noise goes away. All the doubt, and the fear, and the guilt, and your head is lowered, and your shoulders are swaying in perfect rhythm, and you feel your breath, and that spring in your hip starts to coil and you think, “got you.”
For just that moment in time, you control the air, you control the gravity, you control the room, you control how the story is told. And then you let that arm extend, giving it everything and you
let it go
you let it all go
you give it up
you let it all go
you just let go
Michael Aurelio is an actor and writer living in Brooklyn. His collections of works include The Smokers published by Paradise MC & The Crocodile, a short film currently in post-production. He has appeared on “Wu-Tang: An American Saga”, “Murder in The First” & “We Are Men”. He has performed at The Old Globe Theater, Boston Court & Manhattan Theater Club. He can be found on Instagram and Twitter @aurelioacts.
image: Lindsay Hargrave