Isabelle of the Dark Brown FistsBy Michael Berger
June 03, 2010
Until I was eleven, I figured there was no reason why anybody would want pain. I had no notion that pain, given the right light and the right smile, could be something extraordinary. Not big pain no, just petty, action hero pain that looks good on camera. Yes, that kind of pain can be instructive.
Isabelle of the dark brown fists, the smartest girl in seventh grade, was my first punch. She let me have it and I deserved it. Why her fists were so dark is a question my memory will never answer. Is it because they rose up in the shattering light of desert asphalt? She was part Chinese and part Mexican, blue-black hair pulled back taut like a crossbow, glasses slightly askew on her angular face, skinny and fierce and smarter than any one of us.
I was a bad kid at a Catholic school run by nuns, some of them ex-military, others working second jobs in hospices and drop-in centers and clinics. To them, we were loathsome suburban shit unfit to drink God’s blood. But in our own eyes we were holy outlaws looking for cheap thrills.
It was a vanilla white stucco school tucked away in a scorching valley of inland San Diego. There was a rose garden in front of the church and a little alcove behind it where you could hide in the shade cast by a stone statue of the school’s namesake, St. Theresa, the patron saint of O-faces.
Past arcades of pink tiles inlaid with blue stars and silver crosses, a line of palm trees trembled in the light, their tops promising parrots but never delivering. They reminded me, and still do, of props in a video game landscape. Nothing in that light looked real.
Most of my school consisted of an asphalt parking lot divided into spots by shimmering white lines. This was where morning recess was held. Everything at my school was laid on thick and bright, from the stucco to the asphalt to the paint so that every inch of space reflected light. The effect was torturous but you got used to it if you were in motion. The breezes from other bodies would cool you down too.
Morning recess was a time to play but often we ran out of ideas about how to amuse ourselves on this sweltering black field that lacked playground equipment and shade. Not to mention that all we had was a paltry twenty minutes to get our nerves shaken out before heading back in to the wall-to-wall carpeted classrooms.
Parking lots were a hard nut to crack if you wanted to play. They’re fit less for schoolchildren than for convicts who walk in circles and mull over their crimes. I had crimes too, minor ones, like untucking my shirt at lunch, burning toilet paper, writing poetry about shit and Satan and deliberately getting grass stains in the most unlikely places. Like any strong-willed convict, I wanted to embrace the parking lot and tap its hidden potential.
We devised various forms of tag that would attempt to exploit the smooth space at hand. There was TV tag, freeze tag, squeeze tag, ball tag, etc. (The act of touching and becoming “it” forecast more dangerous petting as the years wore on.) Most of these games wore thin rather quickly so we racked our brains for better variations.
And so we considered the brilliant white lines on the asphalt, how they connected and marked off territory, how that basic geometry was something we could relate to and thus line tag was born.
It turned out to be the most exciting version yet, as well as the most physically demanding in that it necessitated pushing, shoving, clothes lining and grappling, even if these were against the rules. It also became, as I would discover, the game that gave the most vent to female aggression in an arena once dominated by Huck Finnish boys with their skinned knees and bony little asses.
The idea was that you were supposed to stay on the white lines by any means necessary short of choking or crotch kicking. The moment you were cast overboard into the oceanic blackness of asphalt you had thirty seconds to get back on board the white line before you were declared “OUT!” People could physically prevent this from happening and you could equally prevent them. In short, the game was violent but within acceptable bounds.
It soon developed into a riotous and heavily attended event for those precious twenty minutes of morning recess. In the afternoons, our much longer lunch break was in the upper playground, where there was grass and swings and things you’d expect to entertain barely pubescent children, like tetherball mock executions.
Line tag marked a true turn of events, from our harmless, nun-approved playfulness to a ritualized game as serious as any Aztec sacrifice.
I think the heat bouncing off the pavement turned us into temporary lunatics who had just discovered that touching was indeed only the iceberg’s teasing tip.
And that sometimes hurting was as neat as kissing, especially if you looked tough when it happened.
The girls loped along in their short plaid skirts, their flimsy white shirts, their hair tied back in buns and pigtails. There was nothing eye-catching about the plaid: it was brown and yellow, our scatological school colors but, in the frenzy of line tag, we gazed more wildly at those skirts and the strong legs that shot out of them and carried those overheated bodies along shining white lines.
We boy-men gallivanted around in short beige shorts and white golf shirts. Truly they were short shorts and our skinny legs looked like they were dangling helpless and pathetic off a tar paper roof.
In the heat of the game, people would make alliances and fortify certain rectangles of lines and lay in wait for some bold adventurer to stumble into their territory. The best team-builders were the girls who would all count to three and come charging at some unsuspecting boy and push him flailing into the asphalt out-zone. The sight of three or four girls, arms interlocked, faces dead set in rancor, about to charge you and thus disqualify you was both supremely annoying and unspeakably tantalizing. Many a boy braver than me surrendered just at the sight of that unified display of long, damp, peach fuzz arms.
I, however, was determined on outwitting and out leaping my competitors, whether they were girls or boys, nuns or teachers. One word on my mind: glory. I wanted it, if just for twenty minutes and even if it wasn’t glory at all. I shimmied from line to line, veering and hip thrusting and pirouetting just out of reach of lunging hands and many a recess proved me the smarmy victor.
But one day, I got sloppy or she got determined, I can’t remember which but Isabelle of the dark brown fists was out for blood.
I had heard she had had a “crush” on me but I wasn’t interested because she was clearly a quiet, academic show-off who cared more about homework than new rock music. She was no Kate McGalliger, a nectarine blond of Irish extraction who had failed both math and science. Regardless, Isabelle’s feelings had been hurt by something I had said or not said and she apparently had vowed revenge. Perhaps also the fact I attributed so much importance to forever winning at line tag set me up as a preemptive loser in her mind. She would oust me from my petty throne and show me just how little I was.
I never saw it coming. Rather surprising for her, and with only four minutes left of recess, she spontaneously leaped into pursuit of me down a trapezoidal boulevard of lines (you could go for a long time on the lines without stopping, mostly because the school wanted to accommodate as many cars as possible for the weekend fish fries and social events) and chased me down some winding side-lines until we closed in on the frosting of the chapel doors.
The chapel had the thickest possible coating of stucco on it, forming wave formations at its edges. This is where she cornered me and there were no more lines and no more asphalt but a whole other territory that was forbidden to us kids.
But I was stubborn, ridiculously so. I figured if I could distract her, do a pump-fake like in basketball, then I could somehow angle my way around her on the line we were both standing on and trot back in the opposite direction to a safe harbor where the bell would ring and the game would be over.
But her pursuit was twisting up my insides with fear and excitement. Nobody had closed in on me like this before. No girl for that matter. I was thinking only in game-terms but something deeper was thinking way past that to the overly complicated man I am today.
In the raw light, I saw her sweat-fogged glasses, her clumsily buttoned shirt and the damp strands of hair breaking out of the bun. Everyone was idling on their lines, awaiting my defeat. She snaked forward, grinning with unbearable delight. I swayed left, then right, thinking I might just make a break for it but knowing also this was it. I was cornered and I felt very small and baby-like and unreal.
Her hand made a dark brown fist.
She smiled with clenched teeth and breathed through flaring nostrils. And in a second she was as close as a kiss, while letting fly that brown fist into my ribs. Another fist, all wet knuckles, just grazed my jaw and she cursed something in Spanish. I was stunned into submission. I fell back against the stucco, appalled and momentarily winded. Falling, the sharp wave of stucco ripped a piece of my elbow skin off. Blood oozed forth, almost black in the light. Immediately I wiped it on my white golf shirt while tears welled in my eyes. Her face was overheated and satisfied while it inched slowly away from me. Her fists retracted, she wiped sweat from her glasses.
And then she ran back as the bell rang. People laughed but they also didn’t. Nothing like that had ever happened.
Isabelle knew she’d be in trouble but it didn’t matter. She had broken through an unspoken barrier and done to a boy exactly what should have been done. I was satisfied but couldn’t say why. I was convinced it wouldn’t matter who hit me once the stories started circulating. I had blood on my pristine white shirt and that wouldn’t come off no matter how much bleach was spilled. It was a true mark of glory. And I would get in even more glorious trouble with all the Homeric poems I would write about that bloodstain.
But I was wrong. For weeks afterward, all that was jeered at recess, shouted at lunch or intoned in church was: Michael got beat up by a girl.
Yes I did.
But I liked Isabelle a lot more now, so much so that it disturbed me to no end. For her part, after the furor of line tag died down, she was too interested in violin lessons and high school application to give a second’s thought to what she had done.
Yet towards the end of eighth grade, right before we all graduated, her friend Theresa, after a hasty whispering session with Isabelle, went up to me in the parking lot when I was bragging about something or other and slapped me in the face for no reason at all.
Isabelle laughed and laughed and a few weeks later we all graduated and went our separate ways.
My bully’s name was Freddie. He punched me in the stomach in kindergarten. Damn him.
Great tale. Isabelle was quite a character….
I was sure there was a happy ending buried in there at the end. But the addition of insult to injury made for a very funny closing.
Thanks! Yeah, I’m not so big on happy endings mostly although I do appreciate bittersweet, ambiguous endings. I also appreciate finding humor in unexpected places, like fighting.
What was it about you that made both Isabelle and Theresa want to hurt you publicly?
I find it very curious.
Did they at least get a reprimand?
Why do you think you liked Isabelle better after she punched you out?
I find that curious, too.
Well, I think it had a lot to with machismo, and also with the fact that we were under such strict rules by the nuns that we felt like we had to commit irrational acts just for a taste of freedom. The young women at my school were treated pretty terribly by the nuns who believed that they would all turn out crooked and evil no matter what they did. The boys had it a little easier I think and could coast along on a smile. And yes she did get in trouble and was no doubt smacked on the fingers with a metal ruler as was the punishment of the day.
The fact I liked her better after she attacked me is a fact I’m still pondering myself.
I think it’s quite common for people to show a new respect for someone in a “weaker” position to then dominate them.
There are often stories of kids who get bullied, then fight back, only to later become friends with the bully. I saw it happen a lot when I was a kid.
This is good stuff — the boy-girl kid stuff, yes, but also the fine depiction of a hot-dry place. I never spent much time in hot-dry, so I really liked getting the feel of it.
I think this is my favorite: “line of palm trees trembled in the light, their tops promising parrots but never delivering. They reminded me, and still do, of props in a video game landscape. Nothing in that light looked real.” Yeah.
And the part about your being wrong about how it would be taken — I liked that very much. I’m trying to remember if I ever made that error as a kid. Not sure. It was too long ago.
I’m glad you’re here on TNB.
Thank you Don for the oh so kind words! I’m honored to be here, and look forward to sharing more tales of awkwardness, joy, despair and exaltation with one and all. And reading, as usual, all the other terrific works to be found at TNB.