by Jared Roehrig
Last night I got into a fistfight with a friend. Three of us were in a movie theatre on E. 10th Street, drinking a bottle of Tanqueray I’d snuck through in my underwear. Every now and then one of them would nudge me and I’d mix them a new drink in a transparent plastic cup.
We were watching the new horror film Don’t Breathe, and the killer was a blind man. Before the credits were rolling, and even before the main character could experience the shock of the final twist, my friend felt the imperative to voice his belligerent opinion to all: “Horrible! Just horrible!” he cried.
I hate when people do this. Nevertheless, we listened. His theory was trash. It was two against one. We argued. It happened in quick succession. He had broken one of the unspoken laws of cinema, and he was about to break a law of friendship– he resorted to name-calling. I warned him, to no avail. I tried to put on the brakes, and used our other friend as a buffer “You know,” I told him “If he weren’t here right now, I’d beat your ass.” I could hardly believe I said it. But by the time we were under the marquee with yellow taxis whizzing by, I was pushing him backwards into the glass doors, and lurching forward. It was my last night in New York.
Another fight I once had turned out badly too. It was the night before Halloween and I was dressed as the Hamburglar. I wore a top hat with a hamburger sitting inside on my head. My little sister and her boyfriend were there too. She was a hockey player and he was a zombie. It was an unlikely stroll through the collective unconscious.
We came upon Polk and Sutter. Polk on a Saturday night is San Francisco’s closest thing to the Bridge and Tunnel crowd. My favorite bar, Hemlock, gets swamped and culturally Etch-a-Sketched. If I know better, I stay away.
We were walking and we came upon a bro-fight, mid ethnic slur. We rushed over. A crowd was there. A pretty, blond white boy on the ground, shirtless, with his boxers poofed out of his jeans. His friend’s knee pinned against his chest, plastering him to the dirty pavement for his own good, his adversary towering above, fists balled. It was like being at the zoo, what I would imagine being back-stage at the zoo must be like. We were close, but not too close. We could smell the Axe Body Spray.
We took pictures, posed with the downed white boy, getting as close as possible to sabotage the enflamed spectacle of masculinity and homoeroticism. It was funny because it was over. Everyone would presumably disperse. The racist white boy had been toppled. The Confederacy had lost.
But things took a turn: The kid wouldn’t clamp his lip. His adversary, a muscular Asian kid, showed him how to do it. He lifted one leg in the air and dropped it down onto the blond kid’s head. It was a head stomp. A real head stomp. And this was no longer funny. I remember feeling that he was dead; that it was inexplicable how any one could survive this, that his head, as my imagination dictated, would explode like one of Gallagher’s watermelons all over Polk Street.
Ask yourself this: WWHD? What Would the Hamburglar Do?
Well, the Hamburglar jumped in… to defend the white boy. Ugh. I know. But I did this not because of race, but because of symmetry. A head stomp was a violation of humanity, of rules and ethics of street fighting. I never made a choice. It was made for me.
I threw myself into the fray. I threw a punch. My fist cracked into bone and flesh. My sister’s boyfriend elbowed someone in the face, and then apologized. My top hat went suddenly flying, as did the burger I had hidden inside it, and when I saw it later, it appeared that someone had taken a bite from it. My sister joined the fight too, and then she herself was in the street, getting her glasses punched off her face, and finally stomping the head of the white kid. Nothing made sense. The Hamburglar is not supposed to be a peacemaker. All he’s supposed to do is steal burgers and tiptoe away on floppy shoes. The police came and we escaped, rattled, breathless, fairly scathed.
I abhor violence. Pulling my sister from a fistfight was not worth anything. I will gladly sacrifice having a story to tell if it means the safety of someone I love. Still, at what point do fights become necessity and not the ego dance we willfully involved ourselves in?
Chances are, last night’s fistfight will end that friendship. And yet I needed to have it in order to see. It was a vital fight, an instructive one even– not because of my rage, but because of how easy it was to shift my rage into defense of my enemy…
At the moment I was to lay a fist into him, something miraculous happened: Someone took a picture. A young couple stood ten feet away, pointing an expensive camera at two grown men shoving one another outside a movie theatre.
“Are you taking video of me?!” My friend charged. His attention was no longer on me. The guy didn’t flinch. My friend went after him. The guy’s girlfriend poured a battle of water on him. And then it was me who was coming to his aid, pulling him off of them, retracting his behavior, cleaning up what is the closest physical manifestation of chaos, or of the feeling of having one’s power threatened.
Here’s the thing about fights: They’re stupid. Logic goes out the door, and with it, civility, language and by virtue, a chunk of our identity. One feels himself either a victim or about to become one, and these roles are constantly shifting beneath them, and in most cases, without warning. In this strange, completely human space, the psychology of desiring to become victim, avenger and/or victor comes to the fore, and so lengthening our bodies on a therapist’s couch suddenly appears more feasible than doing so on an anonymous pavement. In violence we trust in the animalistic. In the absurd and the inconsequential. We become puddles of ex-humanity, and so make our bodies hard, as the elemental forces within us vie for some fixedness. Maybe we say things like “It happened so quickly” or “I didn’t feel myself,” after a fight because there is really no more accurate a description for such a fluid state of reality. What a shame that such moments, peripheral and incensed, have the power to undo everyone we know ourselves to be, or else confirm the suspicion that we were probably right before the fight started. Maybe there is only one way to walk through the flames.
Jared Roehrig holds an MFA in Fiction and an MA in English from SF State. His work has appeared in Transfer Magazine, Fourteen Hills, Sparkle and Blink, and Cargo. In 2014 he received the Mark Linenthal Award for Poetry. He has two unfinished manuscripts that cause him grief, and on Saturday nights, he writes poetry on an Escort 550 typewriter for strangers in a bar.