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What Goes Around

It was a lazy left cross, a slow arc with no real follow-through, no force behind it. It caught me on the chin, wrenching my jaw out of place.

Shouldn’t have thrown it from up on his toes like that, I thought. Should have planted his feet, punched up from the legs, should have gotten his body weight behind it. He threw it out way too wide.

He doesn’t know what he’s doing, I thought.

He hits like a girl, I thought.

I’m going to beat him till he twitches, I thought.

I took two or three steps toward him as he hopped backwards, still up on his toes, bobbing. Punk thinks you can learn to fight by watching TV, I thought, fists clenched. But he’s going to find differently.

He backpedaled in a showy way, wheeling loose fists in small circles, elbows still too far out and too low. Abdomen, throat and face all open and unprotected: a soft, slow, smug target. For long seconds I could feel all my mundane frustrations focusing into a fine hot point, a point I was training—like a young sociopath frying ants with a magnifying glass—directly on his retreating Adam’s apple.

One punch, I thought. Every line I’ve ever stood in, every late fee I’ve ever paid, every obstacle I’ve failed to gracefully negotiate, every project I’ve left half-done, every opportunity I’ve ever shortsightedly squandered, every indignity, disappointment, gaffe, faux pas and blunder will be balanced by one punch into the unguarded throat of the thug who wordlessly and without warning assaulted me on the sidewalk near the tennis courts on a beautiful spring evening.

This blot, this blemish, this boil on the face of a day graced with almost Whitmanesque beauty would allow me—whether he willed it or not—the chance to literally and symbolically settle the score. My jaw had not yet begun to ache; I wasn’t hurt—I was gloriously vengeful. I felt for those seconds that all the petty brutishness of life had coalesced into this one unprovoked outbreak of violence. And I was going to put things right; I was going to fight back. I was going to stand my ground against randomness and fright. Before me was the representative, the very personification of pointless aggression and free-floating hostility, of insensitivity, of man’s inhumanity to man, and I was going to beat him into the dirt.

And I was going to enjoy it. I was licking my chops.

But in the seconds it took to get to him, as he bounced back closer to the crowd of teenage onlookers, I noticed how much of a piece he—in his red hoodie and baseball hat—seemed with them.

He’s a child, the thought came. Not more than 15 years old. You’re about to beat a child, not an abstract or poetic assemblage of socioeconomic tensions, not the malevolent spirit of an antagonistic age in corporeal form, not a juvenile golem animated by antisocial rap lyrics, A.D.D. and necrophilic video games, not an externalized embodiment of internal schisms. Nothing so literary. Just a kid.

An angry, screwed-up kid.

A kid so angry and screwed-up that he took a swing at a guy twice his age, twice his size, completely randomly, without a word or meaningful look exchanged.

What makes a kid that angry, that reckless, by 15?

What makes someone crave an excuse to lash out at a stranger, without a thought for consequence? What makes someone long for the opportunity to cause pain simply for the sake of feeling some sense of personal efficacy, influence or agency?

Why would someone think that frustrations and disappointments can be compensated for by violence?

I stopped advancing and let the kid walk. I made some empty and half- hearted threats about punitive legal retribution. He was absorbed into the crowd of children and they—as a churning, undifferentiated mass of designer sweatshirts and expensive sneakers—bubbled down the sidewalk away from me.

I walked two blocks to the nearest pay phone, and called the cops. The adrenalin was leaching out of my system and I felt weak and trembly. My jaw was starting to throb, and I couldn’t close my teeth together without a hot pain sparking down my neck and up into my left eye. I began to feel foolish, standing on the corner waiting for the police to arrive. I argued silently with myself that I had done the wise and humane thing—the right thing—but the prospect of standing up for myself with a Bic and clipboard made me feel somehow small and ineffectual. I thought of insults I could have hurled, verbal assaults on his masculinity (“Is that the best you can do, Suzy? You afraid you’re going to break a nail, sweetie?” and so forth), but suspected that this tack would only provoke him to use more extreme violence on someone else in the future.

So, I had, in fact, done the right thing, the prudent thing, the peaceful thing.

The cop arrived, asked whether I was seriously injured, and took a description of the kid. He said he’d keep an eye out, but that the chances of there being any real resolution were slim. Even if he found my assailant, by some fluke, the kid would be back on the street within hours.

“I’ll drag him to juvie,” the cop said, “and they’ll just release him to his mom.”

Release him, in all likelihood unpunished, back into the world that bred such resentment and impotent anger in him that he swings on strangers. Release him back into a world where displaced anger is the rule, rather than the exception.

I shook the officer’s hand and thanked him for his help; as he was preparing to get back in his cruiser he said, “You know, you should have beat his ass.”

“Yeah, I thought about it,” I said. “But he was just a kid, like 15.”

“I don’t care if he was 8,” he rejoined, climbing back into his cruiser. “Next time, kick his ass, otherwise they never learn.”

—John Rodat

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