My Dad tried to teach me how to box once.
He had my best interests at heart. You see, I know some of you might not believe this, given how cool I’ve become as an adult, but as a child I was kind of a nerd.
(Brief pause while I reorganize my Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVDs.)
But this was a long time ago. I was five. We had just moved to a really poor section of Vermont, and I was going to school with kids who lived in trailers and shot their breakfast every morning and only had one pair of clothes. My nerdiness — while deep and profound and involving culottes, OCD and a preternaturally advanced vocabulary — was probably less of an issue than the fact that I was the second richest kid in school. The first richest kid, my best friend Emily, was the scion (scioness?) of a granite empire. Her father owned every granite quarry in the state of Vermont. My Dad? Had a job.
Anyway, every morning, I’d walk down to the end of our street with my Mom and sister and catch the bus. Meg was pretty much an adorable bundle of clothes at that point. She was shy even as a baby. The bus would pull up, and the doors would open, and Ward, the two thousand year old farmer who drove the bus would say, to Meg, “And how’s my little girlfriend this morning?” And Meg would blink at him. For some reason, he found this extra charming. Fifteen years later, she would have the same effect on men with the same minimum of effort, and I would remain perplexed by the whole thing.
I’d get on the bus, and lean forward until my forehead was pressing right against the seat in front of me. I didn’t get car sickness. I just liked to sit that way. I also liked to wash my hands forty times a day whether I needed to or not, and to rearrange the seams on my knee socks so that they lined up perfectly under my toenails. I had some issues, okay?
A few stops later, we’d hit the trailer park, and my arch nemesis Gretchen would get on. She hated me so much, it was like she was in love. She’d make a beeline for my seat, and take the one right in front, and lean over and start addressing the top of my head.
“Hey, freak farm,” she’d say. “Why don’t you sit up?”
“I don’t like to.” I’d explain.
“Well, I’d like you to. Sit up.”
“No, thank you.”
“Hey!” Sock, sock, sock. Right in the arm. Later, I’d have a bruise like someone had been giving me shots. “I said, sit up.”
“Are you retarded?”
I craned my neck a bit, so I could look her in the eye, but kept the top of my head against the seat. “I’d rather not, but thanks. That really hurts, you know. Would you stop doing that?”
“I’m sorry, freak farm.” She often, for some reason, had a box of cereal with her on the bus, something sugary that my Mom never would have bought, except for a snack. “Want some cocoa puffs?” She reached into the bag and stuffed a big handful into her mouth.
I eyed her warily. “Well … I don’t know. Did you wash your hands?”
Sock, sock, sock.
It wasn’t long before my father discovered my bruises. He was horrified.
“Doesn’t Ward notice this?” He asked.
“Don’t you tell him?”
I shrugged again. All this shrugging was making my bruises hurt.
“Well, if you won’t tell him, I’m going to teach you to defend yourself.”
In the background, from which she’d been letting my father ‘handle this’, my Mother raised her eyebrows.
So Dad and I had boxing lessons. He taught me how to make a fist that wouldn’t break my thumb and how to hit from the shoulder and plow straight through a person without pulling up at the last second. We worked the heavy bag. (It didn’t move when I punched it.) We worked the speed bag. (I couldn’t seem to find it, once it was in motion.) Finally, he declared me ready to meet my enemy.
The next day, I got on the bus with a renewed sense of dread. Today, I would be picked on, and I’d have to hit someone. This seemed worse than just being picked on.
I took my usual seat, and sat straight up. I waved to my Mom and sister at the curb. My Mom looked a little worried. Meg grinned toothlessly at me from the depths of her hood. I was clearly already her hero.
A few stops later, Gretchen got on.
“Hi, freak farm.” She said. “Why aren’t sitting funny?”
“I’m probably going to hit you,” I told her. “I know how to box now.”
“You know how to box now? You know how to box now?”
“You’re repeating yourself and you sound really stupid. My Dad taught me how to box and now I’m going to…” I struggled to remember the words “…knock your block off.”
Gretchen dissolved in hysterics.
I looked at the window. “Well, I am.”
She sat down next to me. Held out her box of cereal. “Want some Froot Loops?”
I looked back at her. She was smiling. I decided, hey, a tough girl who knows how to box doesn’t have to be afraid of trailer park germs. I reached into the box defiantly and took a big handful of cereal, and stuffed it in my mouth. Gretchen reached out, fast as lighting, and punched me in the face while my mouth was full. It was a really beautiful jab and my Dad would have been proud. I choked a bit on my cereal, but I didn’t hit her back.
Later, at home, my Mom wrote me a note to give to Ward. He read it gravely, and then told me to sit up front behind him. Which I did, for the rest of the year. The front seat on the bus has no seat-back in front of it, just a bar you can put your feet up on. But I got used to it soon enough.