I have a friend who once made a habit out of getting hit. It is not hard to find a fight after midnight in a dive bar, but he was especially skilled at it. We’d be out late, playing pool or drinking beer and messing around like people in their twenties do. He would get a little drunk and he’d find some agitated-looking guy to find fault with, and he’d start to pick and pick. Eventually, things would come to blows, and he’d get punched in the face.
I loved this man, who was as close to an older brother as I’d ever had. He was smart and handsome and sweet to me, darkly funny, and tender. He read people well—he read me well—and he had a habit of making jokes that were inappropriately bleak or inconveniently honest. His affection was comforting for its lack of subtext. He never wanted anything from me, which was so often an undertone of being touched, even platonically, by men during those years. He never seemed to want me to be anything other than I was, either—never found fault with the parts of myself I struggled to accept. Maybe what I am saying is that he made me feel safe.
But I had never been close to someone who made a habit of getting into physical fights, and I was baffled by it. Perhaps I should have been scared, and probably on some level I was scared, but his violence—what of it I saw—seemed blustery rather than dangerous, even boyish. Once, at a Halloween party, dressed like a pumpkin, he tried to start a fight. I put my body between him and the other man, trying to get him to hear my voice and look in my eyes, while another friend, dressed as Thoreau, tried to soothe the other guy. It worked for a while, but the night still ended with a black eye and blood on the pumpkin costume.
I understood that he was angry, and that the anger came out sideways. I understood that there were legitimate reasons for him to feel pissed off at the world—though none feel like mine to share—and I understood that sometimes dislocation or alienation feels like a kind of violence you want to meet with violence. I understood how good it can feel sometimes to just let it rip. Still, this quality in him confused me. Once, we were hanging out with friends he was fond of and who were fond of him. There were no strangers in the bar. We were simply happy. As the night wore on, he started asking us to hit him. “Punch me in the face,” he said to me, charming, cajoling. “Just punch me right here.”
“No,” I said, rolling my eyes, smiling. “I’m not going to hit you.”
“Come on.” He used my pet name. I was unnerved. He grabbed my hand and crumpled my fingers into a loose fist. “Just hit me once in the face.” I laughed, and then I stopped. I kept telling him no: I wasn’t going to hit him, I wasn’t going to hurt him, even as a joke, even once.
Eventually another friend, a poet, did it. She wound up and punched him right in the eye. I couldn’t watch. Afterward, he thanked her and kissed her on the forehead. He seemed relieved, and she seemed flushed and sort of proud: the punch she’d thrown was a serious one. The intimacy of it all unsettled me at the time: Why were they both pleased? What was this exchange? It occurred to me then that his habit of starting fights was not only about wanting to hit someone. Sometimes he just wanted to be hit.
I’ve been thinking of this moment because someone asked me recently what kind of care people owe each other at this stage of the pandemic. I have no idea, I thought. What stage of the pandemic is this, exactly? I’m exhausted even writing the question.
But as I thought about how we care for one another, this image of my friend pleading with me to hit him kept floating through my head. Why? I thought at first maybe the memory was about the chaos of pain—the way that sometimes when you’re suffering for reasons that feel hard to describe, you go looking for a more legible, straightforward kind of pain. But the part of the story that I return to isn’t the punch; it’s the fact that I covered my eyes.
It has been almost a decade since that night, and in the intervening years—particularly in the last three years—I’ve had more practice with the way that people sometimes want or need care in a form that seems illogical, surprising, or unnerving to others. I’ve loved more people moving through grief, illness, addiction, weird phases, and decision-making I don’t understand. I’ve gone through periods where I needed to be taken care of in ways I couldn’t explain or even articulate. During the summer of 2021, when much of the anxiety, rage, and fatigue I’d outrun since the start of the pandemic crashed down on me, I imagined that it might feel good to get punched. I felt so nebulously damaged, and I was impatient to externalize whatever this was. Knowing now what I didn’t know at twenty-five—having grown up, in other words—it strikes me as naive in retrospect that I was confused about why someone might want to experiment with injury precisely when there were no enemies around and no real fights to have.
I don’t regret refusing to hit my friend, but I have thought periodically that it might have been braver and more loving to have really considered it. The poet who eventually did granted him an intimacy that I withheld because I found the terms of the exchange frightening. She understood that in asking to be hit, he was asking, in his way, for a form of care. I walked away from him, and she moved closer. My friend would tell me I’m overthinking this, but he would also probably agree that one of my flaws at the time was a tendency to flee from people and situations that needed what I didn’t know how to give.
I’ve been working on that. More recently, I have been thinking about what it looks like for a community or society to stay engaged when people ask for a kind of care that is hard to understand, or hard to give. Not blows, but other forms of care that at first seem beyond the scope of the acceptable, or at least the accepted. I’m thinking of needle exchanges, restorative justice, or policies that protect the immunocompromised, for example, but also more abstractly what it would look like to build communities that embrace our needs even when they surface in unexpected, even disruptive ways. We could get better as a society at engaging the way suffering—and the care required to heal from suffering—is messy, resistant to delimitation, and frequently mystifying. We could flinch from each other’s pain and needs less.
The way he kissed her on the forehead! As if he were returning an embrace. They hugged and laughed, and then the night went on in the same glad spirit as before, him gingerly rubbing his eye from time to time. He looked like he felt sore and beloved.