The thing of it is that there's no accepted universal feeling you can tap into or prepare yourself for before punching someone in the face for real, the way there is when watching someone get punched in the face on T.V., or in the movies. Watching someone else do it you get the vicarious thrill of telling apart the good guy - who you know is a good guy because he's used his agile mind and super strength to tip the glue factory on its side, and keep the train from going off the freshly-demolished tracks - from the bad guy; and you know he's bad because he has a sly grin, and a moustache, and hostages. So when good punches bad, you cheer; and when bad punches good, your fists ball up and you clench your teeth. And because you do these things, you know which side that you yourself are on, on your side of the screen, dying to jump through what you think of as but don't yet know to call a membrane and join the fight - reinforcing as you've just been reinforced.
But when it's, say, the kid from across the street. Whose mother you suspect still has a strong hand in dressing him. Who laughs so wholeheartedly at your every joke - even the ones you know before you've finished just aren't very funny at all - that your mother has taken to leaving a second box of Kleenex on the coffee table, for the snot that streams over his upper lip and into his mouth unchecked. Who waits, fork poised, for you to take the first bite, and then eats what you eat, in order that you eat it. Whose underwear you know has his last name bubbled in on the tag with permanent marker because you see it every time he comes over to play, the kid gets so wound up and excited to try and get back the ball, the Frisbee, the action figure you hold over his head, that he twists and turns and squirms practically in circus knots to take it from you, and his shirt billows all and around with his high delighted cackling joyous laughter, and his shorts get tangled up, and at the base of his back's expanse you can see the tag, and even though your view's inverted it can only be one thing, and you know.
Who never suspects that you will jump out of the closet at him when he comes back from the bathroom, no matter how many times in a row you do it.
When that happens, then it's not at all clear, what you're feeling. It was good for maybe an instant, before you did it, but that instant was seconds earlier and ages ago. Then the goodness became an unbearable surge of bitter heartbeats and general uncontrollability that in your experience was simply what confusion felt like. It was in that shaky state that you'd struggled him into a headlock and whipped him in a half-circle from the neck, sort of knowing someplace that what you were doing might be a dangerous thing, but knowing more that you needed to do something moving and strong. You yanked him around and threw him to the ground and he bounced, his cape soaring in an impossible arc that caught the light like starched sheets over a clothesline and brilliant in their painful reflection of the piercing midday sun. The cape landed just as beautifully, as effortlessly, behind him, with a gentle cascading whump. And then came the tense lull, the quiet pregnant moment that in your own head and maddening heartbeat could have been your whole life's duration to that point.
You had known in the middle of your mind what your intention had been in pushing him harder, slapping his ears rougher, taunting him in a louder voice. In being brash. You knew it before that. You felt it when out of the corner of your eye you saw his empty fork hanging between plate and mouth. His harmless laughter aroused it in you - the total absolute thoughtlessness of it, of any inhibition in it. The way it sounded like.
And so it was always a matter of when. So in that instant, after time returned and your fist shook with use, and the bright red welt just below the eye hummed on the same frequency as the echo in your fingers, you were not well at all. You felt satisfaction somewhere - a grim complacency that stood out as a tiny point of light in the sea of deeper confusion welling up to surround it within you. You recognized without knowing it that it was the relief of having done something, and passed it by, but not the actual satisfaction of knowing that the thing's outcome would favour you. Your mouth clotted as you left that moment to return to a spelling bee in front of the whole school's assembly, where even as you won your tongue remained dried in place, and you couldn't speak even after all the small hopeful faces looking up towards you smiled in unison and the faces' voices cheered out of blind hopeful respect, and someone found and raised your hand over your head.
Then the silence was broken by tears and wailing: an infant's wailing because something had happened and it couldn't be understood and no amount of spoken language could explain it. The confusion surged. You lost the ability to keep fists as your heartbeat accelerated and your breathing trembled as something invisible and all around you crushed itself to you, and having found you defenseless was trying very hard to crush you again. You were afraid, in that moment when time returned, of getting caught. Very much afraid of having grown ups run outside at the sound of uninhibited wailing and finding you standing over him, a red bed sheet tied all of a sudden very tightly around your neck, one sandal in the grass ten or a thousand miles across the lawn, cheeks flushed to match your cape and an expression on your face. And this little boy, who you know not well at all, this kid who knows you, splayed across the yard like a creature, crying as much and as loud and as far as his little lungs will push and his twisted up frowny face will project. And everything else is simply present. The bushes; the street; the mailbox, its flag proud; the trees, their rustle now too gentle to be heard over your ears' pulse; the houses, lined very plainly in opposing rows. Everything that you have always looked at but never seen and that is now too vivid. You turn to these things, not aware of your breathing, the pace of it, outside yourself just far enough to marvel at the literal crispness of this vision, at how it could be that you've never really seen these objects before, really.
But no one is right away coming. Nobody rushes outside, no one attuned to the soothing warmth and vicious punishment that full-breasted unchecked wailing entails comes swirling into all this midst to make it right. There is only the afternoon, and the street, you and this kid who knows you. So that you think, for the very first time, and without trying you do it, about how they never show what happens after this moment after you want to jump through to join in, not this way. In the same way that you knew what you were going to do to this figure prone on the grass in front of you, his cheek swelling purple with his own pumping heart and the passage of time, you know that there's a moment you've arrived at that has nothing to do with capes or superpowers or any kind of pretend, but that is very real, just as necessary, and that it couldn't be harder to feel if you had to go back in time to that other age and take back the thoughtless thing that happened. It's this moment's pregnancy, its terrible overwhelming sour sweetness, that has your own eyes filling and swelling, and your own lips curling and inverting in spite of your best efforts to keep them dry and flat. And you realize maybe for the first time your first real thing, in the instant that you feel you instead would very much like for an authority figure to rush between you and set a definition, that sometimes it isn't what you do but what you do next and how you do it, whether and how you say the agonizingly deathly thing that because of what you've done you know you need to say.
John Spiers is a student in The University of Georgia's creative writing MFA program. He enjoys contemporary American fiction, histories and autobiographies that run < 1000 pages, and domestic animals of any size. His work has been published in Lamination Colony and Monkeybicycle and is forthcoming in the Mad Hatters Review.