By ERIN FITZGERALD
I saw you last night, driving north on I-65, and I punched you square in the mouth.
It felt good, as I hadn’t punched you in a few months—the last time being at that breakfast joint when you waltzed in on the face of a quiet man accompanied by a brassy blonde who hogged the booth and the air all around it.
Last night’s jab was pretty solid, but nothing like that time I socked you in the teeth after you popped up on my friend’s wide-screen TV in the form of that god-awful character who talked too fast and didn’t move his eyes when he spoke. Boy, you really pissed me off when you were that guy. Something about that stare went right through me, and hitting you had never been so easy or so rewarding.
I wonder if you wonder why I punch you every time I see you, or if you even know. (Can a ghost see a ghost-punch in the first place?) Either way, I’m glad no one else can see, because it’s kind of embarrassing. I’m not generally a violent person. My friends would be a bit jolted to see this side of me. But it is real. I can’t deny it.
I have sometimes wondered if I ghost-punch people because I hate them. I have more often worried that I ghost-punch people because I love them. Not being a huge fan of the extremes of love or hate, either thought perplexes me. I want the reason to be more badass, I guess.
I punch you because you don’t scare me.
I punch you because I win.
Back in the day, when we used to hang out in real life, we both got some good jabs in—usually when we were drunk. Remember that time we wrestled in your backyard, eventually spilling out into the street, in the wee hours of the morning? What the hell was that about, anyway? I have never laughed so hard or felt so strong or so weak.
I see that impish grin on your face, and you can go ahead and wipe it off, because you’ve got it all wrong. I know you want to make this about sex—or at least sexual tension—and I’m sorry to disappoint you, but it is not and never has been about that. Of course you know that, which is why you are still grinning, and maybe also why I still get such an urge to punch you in the mouth. You always did like to egg me on, and I never could resist an invitation to strike back. But that night in the street, we were both drunk on more than booze. That night, we were wrestling with concurrent demons of love and hate and regret and nervous energy, and all the booze in the world would not have been enough to hold us.
Now this ghost-punching thing, to be clear, is not the same as a friendly punch in the arm, although that has certainly caused its fair share of confusion over the years as well. The standard arm punch—most often demonstrated by teenage boys in particular, though also by a select few of us who fall outside its typical parameters of gender and age—is a sort of sign of approval, initiation, or welcoming into a pack. Punch—hey—you’re one of my people. That kind of thing. Innocuous, really, in and of itself, though it can act as a gateway maneuver to stronger bonding, under certain circumstances. But the ghost-punch is different. It is no little love tap, and no arm punch either; rather, it is the imagined action of hauling off and slugging someone square in the face. And that person (the punchee, if you will) can be any person, living or dead. I must admit, I have never been sure what was behind the phenomenon—that is, until last night. Last night, when I saw you (on the back of the head of that driver of a sedan on I-65, northbound), it all made perfect, chaotic sense.
See, just as I reared my Popeye arm back and started the cartoonish ghost-slug toward your face, I thought about this kid I went to grade school with. His name was Scott B., and I fairly terrorized the poor guy back when we were kids, though I could never understand why I chose him as a target. Don’t get me wrong—I was not terrible to him. But I teased him mercilessly at times, and even though he generally gave a backward sort of approval to the shenanigans, I still hold some regret for some of my actions, decades later. These thoughts flooded into my brain just as my imagined fist was about to plow into your imagined face like a Bill Plympton cartoon. And then that punch stalled out for a millisecond, suspended in mid-air above the pavement between my car and the sedan on I-65, as I thought of poor Scott B. and my lifelong awkward relationship with people and extremes and guilt and nervousness. And in that millisecond, I wrote a letter to Scott B., and that letter went something like this:
Dear Scott B.,
I’m sorry about that time in first grade when I started a rumor that you kissed me. Truth be told, I did not start it, but I did fail to correct the big-mouth who misinterpreted what I had said and proceeded to tell the whole class what he thought he heard.
I am also sorry about the time in third grade (or was it fourth?) when I threw you into a garbage can during recess. Yes, you played along and laughed and made funny scared faces and let me do it, but I’m sorry I got such a kick out of something that even looked at the surface like bullying or meanness.
I’m sorry, too, for that time in a friend’s basement a couple of years later—the same week I got my ears pierced—when I kicked you in the nuts on a dare. And while we’re at it, I’m sorry I made up that dare in the first place, only taking the direction from someone else who parroted it back to me after no one in my group would take it on themselves. And yes, I know you knew it was coming, and kept yourself well protected, and I doubt I did any real damage, and you had that same funny-scared expression as you had with the garbage can incident. But it likely did hurt somewhat (or was embarrassing), and for that, I am truly sorry.
And I’m sorry about that time—some months later, in another friend’s basement—when we made out in a beanbag, fumbling into each other’s clothes. I’m not sorry we kissed, exactly … just sorry we found ourselves in the awkward position of having to navigate social situations and pressures we weren’t particularly ready for. (Although I must admit that I do appreciate, all these years later, that your interest in such activity seemed as feigned as mine.)
More than any of this, I am sorry you lost your mother (what grade was that?), and that I never said that out loud during all those years we went to school together. When the announcement was made, I felt a wave of sorrow for you and your family. The day you returned to school, I could not find words to convey that without it sounding like pity, so I said nothing. Years later I would realize that our shared experience of losing a parent at a young age, though never openly discussed between us, likely led to our strange push-pull peripheral friendship.
I’m sorry that we were never truly close friends (despite a handful of strangely intimate experiences), that it has been decades since I have seen you, and that I have no idea what turns your life has taken between then and now. I just hope that wherever you are and whatever you are doing, you are still the kind, funny, honest, gentle soul you were back in grade school. The world could certainly use a few more souls like that.
Once the letter (and that millisecond it took to write it) was finished, my ghost-punch resumed, knocking imagined-you all the way into next week. And while I was at it, I punched Scott B. just as hard. I got solid jabs in on both of you, and it felt good. In fact, it felt better than ever. Why? Because this time, it came from a place no longer bogged down with worry over love, hate, regret, or nervous energy. This time, it came from a place of resolution.
I punch you because we are fighters.
I punch you because you get me.
I punch you because it puts you right here, within reach.
This time, I was laughing and strong and weak, just like that night we wrestled in drunkenness in your yard, spilling into the street.
Except this time, there was no booze.
This time, I was drunk on punches alone, and that was enough to hold me.
Erin Fitzgerald is a community arts enthusiast and writer of stories, songs, and snapshots. Her creative work has been included in various journals, compilations, and anthologies. Her first book for young readers, Smart Butt: Scenes from a Bold-Faced Life (starring Earlene), was published in 2014 by MotesBooks. She lives in Louisville, Kentucky, with her brilliant children, who inspire her every day.