NOTE: If you click on a footnote, it will take you to the bottom of the screen, and if you click it again, it will take you back to your place in the essay. If you don't like footnotes, then disregard.
Trevor Linsky, you mountain-sized asshole douche bag. Damn you for using your pudgy knuckled fist to teach me a lesson in humility. Damn you for using your broken home and colloquial vocabulary to shake my duct tape-bandaged-home to its foundations and to talk some sense into me. And damn you for making my first day as a ninth grader even more awkward as fuck. And most importantly, thank you.
It was the summer before my 9th grade year at Edgewood Senior High School, the “preppy school” (see footnote 15). It was 1994 and I was heavily addicted to Sega Genesis and Sega CD. My parents worked, so summers were totally awesome. Ashtabula city, township, and county were all my playground(s). Sadly, this 666 square mile wonderland went largely unused. At the time, concerned parents and teachers would surely have likened me to a Morlock, hiding in the cave of my room eating Doritos and drinking Mountain Dew, and playing video games from dusk until dawn. Throw in a little Magic the Gathering, and I really was a subterranean dweller. That lifestyle was probably the largest contributor to my lack of any discernable fighting skill.
It was getting close to the end of summer break, late August, when my brother, Josh, made that fateful phone call. Joe! - Ya? - You gotta help me. - Dude, I’m busy. I’m playing Madden (really playing Ecco the Dolphin). – Trevor Pinsky said he’s gonna beat my face in. He’s been yelling at me all day and he pushed me earlier. He keeps knocking me off my bike and won’t let me get on it. – What did you do? – I didn’t do anything! He just started picking on me. A Napoleon Dynamite sigh burst forth from deep within my diaphragm. Ahhhhhuhhhhhh…Are you serious? I asked, followed by a dramatic pause. I’ll be there in a minute, sighing again to stress inconveniencing.
Of course, my brother’s claims of arbitrary assailment were dubious. My brother was a fascinating specimen at that time (not to say that he isn’t still). Part of his “shtick” was a severe disaffected antagonism toward, well, pretty much anyone. What always followed this unsavory behavior was a genuinely affronted victimology when someone would respond in kind to his overtures. This behavior colored nearly all of his interactions. Seeing this in action was a thing of beauty, like a peacock posturing with its ornately alien feathers during courtship, except my brother’s purpose was repulsion not attraction. All of this was but a glimmer of the idiosyncratic effluvium that followed him around as a preteen, sort of like Pig-Pen but with fucked up emotions swirling around him rather than dirt.
After hanging up the phone, I realized that I had no plan. I surprised myself in that I even offered to help my brother. At that age, I treated him as if I was Dr. Maximus and he was Taylor in Planet of the Apes. Even so, I knew that when it came down to it, I had a duty to fulfill in matters of threats and family (at least outside threats). When physical harm was threatened, I was required to make a protectional gesture in my brother’s defense, which would fulfill my societal and filial obligations and shield me from a grounding or worse.
Added to his particular nuances of temperament on that day was a tipping factor in the equation, which created the event horizon that I was approaching: he was riding around on our mother’s purple and slightly bedazzled ten-speed, and it didn’t have a seat. He was riding a bike with a metal bar poking into his ass. The image begged for ridicule from the both consciously and subconsciously emerging teen homophobia in males that is so commonplace in American life.
I saddled up my creaky blue ten-speed and began the rather short journey from our house on Homewood Avenue to Latimer Avenue. As Lady Fortuna would have it, I ended up living on that street a few years later. It was hot and humid on the shores of Lake Erie, the only time of the year it is truly warm. I was sweating more than usual when the air combined with my nervousness. Homewood was bright and open. It was a classic neighborhood street. Each house had its own front yard, so the homes were set back in interesting arrangements with different types of landscaping, reflecting a civic pride in the façades, a la David Lynch. The street was empty with most people at work. I remember a fleeting musing that I might never see that quaint avenue again. Rather than my usual route through backstreets, I took the main drag, Route 20, so that there would be witnesses. To the detriment of the formation of any pugilistic stratagems, I only had to travel a few blocks, making a few turns that if mapped out, forebodingly, happened to perfectly outline half of a swastika.
During my brief jaunt, I was not outwardly scared; I was angry with Josh for putting me in that situation. This anger was in reality a mask for my true feelings of fear concerning conflict and fighting, but I didn’t have much skill in the way of introspection back in 1994. I had only been on the receiving end of violence for my entire life, and I did not like how it felt, so this caused an instinctual emotional glaciation whenever I faced confrontation. This dissociation prevented my true desired response, Pavlovian by that point in my life: curling up fetal and protecting my head.
As I turned from Route 20 down Latimer Avenue, past the Dairy Queen that was such a positive symbol of my early adolescence, I attempted to straighten my back and flex my arms as I gripped the handlebars. I tried to hide the terror in my eyes through a steely demeanor. I was aware that I was very tall for my age at nearly six feet. Though I had the frame of Gumby, I imagined that I could at least look intimidating to some. I was also aware that this perceived psychological edge was my only hope for survival, and it nearly worked.
Without much premeditation, what followed was mostly improvised machismo. I saw Trevor walking along the right side of the street. He was wearing torn up jeans with dirt-caked sneakers and a stained white tee. He had a strange Far East look to his face. He had crude oil black hair, both in color and composition. His features were faintly pudgy with big cheeks and ever-so-slightly-slanted eyes. In a land of whitewashed Caucasians, I suppose this look passed as vaguely exotic, augmented by his freckles. I came to a confident halt on my rickety bike. What issued from my mouth was astonishing.
Hey Trevor, leave my brother alone! I shouted in a squeaky stentorian, betrayed by my mutating larynx. Shockingly, he looked slightly intimidated. Sup, Joe. I wasn’t doing anything to him. – He told me you’ve been threatening him all day. – He’s been riding by on his bike calling me names. So I told him I was going to hurt him. But I wasn’t gonna really do nuthin. My brother, not a surprise, appeared to have been dramatic and deceitful during our earlier phone conversation. Well, I just wanted to make sure he was okay. I didn’t know he was being annoying. It appeared that my presence there was a bit reactionary. I didn’t know what else to say, so I stammered, Are we cool? – Ya, we’re cool. An awkward handshake followed this exchange. This handshake may have tipped him off to my absolute terror during our interaction, as my wet noodle met his steel paw.
I was hoping Trevor didn’t smell my fear. I quasi-confidently turned around and picked up my bike. I glared at my brother, who I saw was looking on from a safe distance, holding our mother’s jacked up bike like he was propping up a wounded animal. As I was coldly mouthing, When we get home, I’m going to kill… suddenly I heard a loud crash, which in reality was a post-mutated-larynx, manly voice bellowing, Hey, where do you think yer going, bitch?! Though at that age and stage of development I didn’t use “swears”, I definitely thought to myself, Fuckmother.
With his poignant epithet, I realized that my cover was blown. My improvised machismo melted away like the evil Nazi’s face in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Any discernable advantage that I once possessed had turned into an avalanche of disadvantages. I was stunned and exposed as an out of place ac-tor, like Glenn Beck in a college classroom.
Trevor was perfectly amicable when we were alone there on Latimer Avenue. Sadly, our meeting had attracted an audience of neighborhood kids, mostly my brother’s friends: Fod, Scotty, Kyle, Chins, and maybe others. Like all great bullies, Trevor now had himself a muse and he couldn’t disappoint.
W..w…what? my voice audibly trembled. You heard me. I’m gonna beat your ass. – I thought, I thought we were cool? Like a dipshit version of Gandhi in a waking nightmare, I walked towards him with my hands absolutely glued inside my pants pockets. I was attempting to show that I was nonviolent, but my Potemkin exterior was mere cellophane exposing my unequivocal panic.
Dude, I don’t want any trouble. It was just a misunderstanding.
I attempted to extract my hands from my pockets, but that neural pathway was under heavy construction. Still, I walked closer, a docile Angus moping towards the slaughterhouse.
Okay, a misunderstanding he said diplomatically. With my hands still fixed to my thighs, the rest of my body eased. As I groped for something to say in response, other than flailing on my knees and singing Trevor’s praises like I mimed every Sunday morning, it was obvious I’d been fooled.
A clenched meat hook was quickly bearing down on me. Trevor rocked the left side of my skull with a direct hit haymaker. Unprepared, I lost my breath and was seized by a penetrating and clamoring Big Ben inside my head. My vision briefly went out of focus. The noodle in my right hand suddenly sprang up in my right leg. Nearly losing my balance, I stumbled backwards.
Just as quickly, my vision returned and my legs became steady. I shot my hands out of my pockets and they automatically landed in front of my face, fists curled. With my mind in some primitive brain cruise control, I fired a right-handed jab that met only air. My fist recoiled and I assumed the stance of a Gumby Joe Louis.
The small group of onlookers let out oohs and ahs in a vulterine fervor. Like all circles of young boys watching two peers floundering with awkward fists, they instinctively chanted Fight! Fight! Fight! Trevor came back at me with a clumsy two-punch combo. I effortlessly dodged this, undoubtedly the result of watching countless hours of Bruce Lee movies. All of this occurred within a span of ten seconds.
I made two more attempts to land flailing punches, my resolve already evaporating. Then, I snapped.
I’ll kill you! I shrieked.
Dropping any pretense of defending myself, I lunged at him with my hands before me, zombie-like, going for his throat. I may have acted with level fifteen dexterity and beaten his defenses, but it’s more likely that I simply surprised him. Regardless, I hungrily enclosed my gangly hands around his throat.
And I squeezed as hard as I could.
It was not even Trevor who I was choking, but something more. For the first time in my short life, I was fighting back.
Rational thought was replaced by a murderous mania.
Sounding very distant at first, I recognized that I heard shouting. I looked to my left and saw a man in his early thirties with black balding hair and wearing shorts and a tee shirt running toward me. His wife was on his heels. He wedged himself between Trevor and myself.
That’s enough! Get the hell out of here! he yelled.
The tension was gone and I felt like I’d just awoken from a somnambulant stupor. Trevor still looked angry, but he backed off without a word. For him, it was just another day, another fight.
Go on, go home he ordered us.
And we were kids again. I walked and got on my bike. I didn’t look at anyone. I began to ride home. My brother, perched precariously on his seatless bicycle, followed behind.
Hey, wait up!
He struggled to pull up next to me as we reached Route 20. I turned left on the sidewalk, being careful not to acknowledge him. I didn’t quite outrun him. I was frightened. I did not want to be alone. He again pulled astride me.
Thanks for sticking up for me my brother panted. It was really cool of you.
Staring ahead catatonically, I said Shut up.
Are you mad at me? he asked, wounded by my obtuse response.
I could feel the shame and self-hate fill his body. We didn’t speak for the rest of the ride home.
In a span of thirty seconds, Trevor had taught me limits and realistic expectations of my machismo. He forever altered the trajectory of my semi-burbian upbringing. When I was thirteen, I thought that I was Ice Man and that the world was Maverick: the world thought it knew what it was doing, but my job was to teach it a lesson. Only in the end, Ice Man would be humbled.
I knew that for Trevor our fight was just another day in the neighborhood because I saw him in our ghost town mall a few months later. I had not run across him before then because he didn’t start the 9th grade with me. When he saw me he approached me. I wasn’t tense, because I knew I wasn’t afraid of him. He was just another boy.
Sup Joey Carr he had said to me. He reached for my hand to do one of those awkward faux urban handshakes of the early nineties. I searched his eyes and it was obvious that he had no memory of our encounter on Latimer Avenue.
Going into the 7th grade, my brother learned an important lesson, aside from the fact that he should probably call someone else when he was physically threatened; that when it came down to it, I could be a big brother. But my father learned the most important lesson of all.
After we got to the house, I dropped my bike down in the yard and headed straight for my room. I couldn’t see out of my left eye. I lay in my bed. I didn’t think about Trevor, or what I could have done differently, or how I was going to make Josh pay. I could only think of my dad’s tank-like Suburban pulling up the driveway, home from another day at the chemical plant.
I thought of different ways I could avoid him: I could sleep for three days; I could run away; I could say that I felt sick; I could put on the eye patch from my old pirate costume and say I was searching for booty.
It didn’t matter.
When I heard the rusted giant pull up beside the house, sounding as if it was pulverizing the gravel in the driveway, my chest filled with ice water. My stomach became a vacuum. My body stiffened. When pushed to the edge, I found that I was not afraid of Trevor in the heat of the moment. Something changed inside of me, pouring out rage and perhaps even bravery.
This change didn’t happen when it came to my father.
There was no bravery.
 This is one of my few misfires in regard to anticipating new technology. This delayed my acquisition of the original Play Station because its release and the demise of Sega CD were too close for me to raise the requisite funds for an upgrade.
 This number speaks volumes.
 Not my parents. This is a hypothetical. My parents weren’t around in the summer and really had no idea what I chose to do with my free time. I don’t know that they cared either.
 As a teacher now, I can see that I am a harsh critic of myself. Compared to today’s video game addicts and the amount of time they spend indoors, I was Teddy Roosevelt with a gun strapped over my shoulder astride a rearing stallion.
 And Alp-like acne.
 My brother, Josh, really was a late bloomer. So never give up on your siblings. He evolved from my emotional punching bag (his behavior was largely a result of family dynamics; remember, shit rolls downhill) into my friend, confidant, and best man.
 According to Google Maps, this .7 mile journey took three minutes. Man, that ride seemed much longer and contemplative than three minutes.
 It was also quicker.
 Identified later on in my twenties as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
 Say what you like, you should never strike a child.
 More like Steely Dan.
 This holds true also for Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. Unless you count having a degree in White Assholeology as “education”, then they’re geniuses.
 WWJD, right?
 When telling this story to my friends, I omitted the fact that I was imbecilely shoving my hands into my pockets. I called it a “cheap shot”, but I surely got what I deserved.
 Growing up in Ashtabula, OH, I find it difficult to characterize something as “suburban” when the requisite luxuries associated with suburban life just weren’t very prevalent in a town where the median household income is $27,000. Comparatively, I lived a suburban life when contrasted with the more direly poor in my town, but compared to the suburbs of big cities, some would think I was raised in squalor.
 To take it even further, the entire life I was leading, that I thought was so utterly cool, was much like the beach volleyball scene in Top Gun.