My mother and I hit people. We don’t like it, but we seem to find ourselves in situations where hitting is necessary, or at least totally understandable. The style of the hit varies, depending on the occasion. For the man who grabbed my ass in a hotel bar, a slap was required, but the kind of slap that you have to wind up and pitch: bold, but comedic, like Barbara Stanwyck in The Mad Miss Manton. I could tell he was some drunk Midwestern middle-management type, an eternal man-boy with a thick neck and denim shirt tucked into his khakis. I figured he was suffering enough. In a darkened parking lot, if we were alone, I would have hit him differently, but in this rather well-lit space that was filled with my graduate school professors and colleagues, a slap would do. Then I delivered an equally cinematic lecture about women not being objects, which he grinned all the way through, and when I finished and turned to leave, he grabbed me again.
So I punched him in the solar plexus.
Mom, on the other hand, she favors the shove. Her hits are sloppy and uncertain. Her hand neither fully opens nor closes into a fist, as if her body is totally committed to doing harm right up until the moment she must follow through. And then, perhaps frustrated by her ineffectual hitting, she flails and screams. It’s the verbal abuse where she really hits her stride. When I was thirteen, she was arrested for driving under the influence. The next day on the phone, she told a friend that she’d screamed at the cop, “You have any idea what my life is like? You should be lucky I’m only drinking, pal.” When she quit her job in campus security at the community college, she called her boss an “immoral asshole” and a “piece of crap.” Another time, a bouncer called the cops on her, and as she was stuffed into the back of the police car, she screamed, “I’m warning you! I’m a witch and you fuckers will pay!”
She never really got physical with my brother or me, except to yank us off of each other as we scratched, bit, and kicked like a couple of possessed hyenas. We were really committed, too: we threw books, a stapler, rollerskates—nothing was off-limits when we got into these rages. Nintendo controllers, we discovered, could be used effectively as flails against each other (or the TV, whenever it incurred our wrath). I still can remember the sensation of grabbing a fistful of his hair, and when I do remember, I quickly shut it off, reminding myself that this could not be helped. That it was another time, another place. Different rules applied; or, because we were left together alone and unsupervised every day, no rules. We had to make them up as we went, each claw and jab an exploration of the limits of our violence. One summer, when I was eleven and he was just nine, we had The Scissor Moment. I remember grabbing them, and then a hesitation that seized my body, wrapping it like invisible but ever durable cellophane. He stopped as well, an expression on his little face than I can only take for feral terror. Frustrated, I threw them down, and he picked them up, taking his turn to brandish them at me. His miniature features, wrinkled in absolute black-eyed hatred, stuttered, and froze. Reader, if I have absolute faith in my brother’s or my goodness, it is because I remember exactly the moment that we walked together, unsupervised and uninstructed, right up to the line and found it impassable.
Of course, it didn’t stop us from beating the shit out of each other.
When we were a bit older and living with Mom’s boyfriend, Scott, we watched her throw a knife at him, or at least in his general direction. It went through a window, landing safely in the turtle pond that he was forever working on. He was the project-oriented kind of speed freak that would stay out there until the wee hours of morning, cutting rocks with a diamond-blade saw and grinding his teeth, but that window stayed shattered until we eventually left, its duct-tape patch like an enduring German Expressionist statement about passion. I thought about this jagged display when, at eighteen, I backhanded my live-in boyfriend. To be fair, he was being a real pain in the ass, and I was stoned. The people who say marijuana doesn’t make you violent? They would change their tune if they knew this guy. He would sit around thinking of irritating things to say, a professional button-pusher. The Dalai Lama, Himself, would have kicked my boyfriend’s ass. Anyway, I paid the price for losing my cool: he threw his elbow up defensively, and the little bone that runs up the side of my hand snapped like a pole bean. The doctor declared it a clean break and wrapped it. No cast, no Tylenol with Codeine for the pain. Just a long dull ache and a little pop to my pinky knuckle whenever I make a fist.
Over the years, I watched my mother slow down somewhat with age or drinking, or both. She took up with a guy named JR, an older and heavier version of Scott, also an alcoholic and also with an appetite for amphetamines. He moved into her condo, and I saw less and less of them. And then one day, I was in a courtroom in California, listening to her coworkers testify self-righteously about the “immoral asshole” bit. I heard the bouncer, with his ridiculous silver ponytail and Hawaiian shirt, recount the slings and arrows of my outrageous witch mother. I learned from her neighbors about the fights that they’d witnessed between my mother and JR: the bruises, the yelling, the chases after one another into the apartments of others. And finally, I heard her boyfriend, JR, looking gaunt and tired from his three years in prison, say, “I never meant for anything like that to happen,” hardly able to recall the moment when the knife left her hand and found its way into his, having long ago blocked the sensation of it driving into her neck again and again and again. They gave him murder in the second, which means he didn’t plan to kill her; he just couldn’t help himself. After all, she’d hit him in the head with a cutting board.
I came home from my mother’s murder trial and threw my keys at my fiancé. Not immediately—we’d been at a concert and the guy in front of me wouldn’t shut up. I kept glaring at him and muttering under my breath, which made my fiancé really nervous. “You’re from New York,” I reminded him, “when did you get so timid?”
“When I moved to Texas,” he said. “In New York, everyone’s annoyed with each other; in Texas, everyone has guns.”
It was a good point, but still, I felt like he was judging me. Then he dares to suggest I might have anger issues, and began listing off examples to support his case against me, so I threw my keys at him. But really hard. I didn’t hurt him or anything, but I may as well have, for how I was running away down the street all of a sudden, like someone who’d just killed the man she loved. Halfway down the block, I turned around to see why he hadn’t caught up to me yet and realized he wasn’t standing in front of the club anymore. That he’d walked away from me, too, in the opposite direction. Breathless and panicked, I ran, as fast as I’d run away, I ran to him, and when I caught up to him I cried, “Don’t you ever let me walk away! Don’t you ever.” What I meant was, don’t leave me on this path. I don’t want it, don’t you know that? He held me tight, and I curled my fist on his shoulder. Pop, went my little finger.
I didn’t sleep much that night, and when I did, I dreamed of knives.
Listen, the story about hitting that guy in the bar at grad school doesn’t really matter. What matters is that afterward, I cried in the arms of the nearest woman I could find. “It’s not fair,” I kept repeating. Not fair that we lived in a world where one out of three women would be raped or molested in her lifetime, where women are seen even in our modern, educated, and industrialized society as things to covet, overpower, terrify, and loathe, and that I had to walk at night with a constant awareness of where the lights were, who was around, and with my car keys at a taut ten and two around my middle finger in case I had to jab them into an attacker’s eyes. I honestly didn’t want to be violent, but it was a violent world, and I think I was right to hit him, but hitting him still felt like I was trying to stop the world from spinning the wrong way by hurling myself into a jet engine.
You might think from my mother’s general bad-assedness that she’d have been proud of me, but I’m not so sure. When I was 21, she and I drove a midsized rental truck up to South L.A. to help my grandparents empty out my great-grandma’s house. She’d recently passed away, and my grandmother hadn’t wanted to face alone the considerable task of emptying her mother’s house of its fifty years’ worth of Depression-era hoarding. Since a Realtor was showing it the next morning, it was now or never.
We started before sunset, but by ten o’clock, absolutely none of the dozen or so boxes my mother and I had brought had been filled, or even removed from the truck. My grandfather stood in the kitchen, ice tinkling in the vodka he constantly had in hand, while my grandmother held up ribbons, broken knobs, old newspapers, and scrutinized each against the light as if trying to recall its use. Sensing things were only going to degrade as the older folks got more tired, I clapped my hands together and barked what I thought were helpful orders. Let’s make three boxes for keeping, thinking about, and giving away, and just boom boom boom! My grandmother swatted the air around her and sputtered in frustration. Come on, I said, we can’t be here all night, I mean, can we? There’s so much still to do! Then the shouting started. My grandmother shouted at me to stop being insensitive; I shouted back that I would take Insensitive over Still Packing At 3 A.M.
Fuming, I left on a five-minute protest march around the block. When I returned, all three of them were standing in the front yard, shouting at each other. My mother had her purse and mine: either we’d been fired or she’d quit for both of us. Grandma stomped toward me, calling me names and moving as if she were going to strangle me. That’s when Mom jumped between us and said, Don’t you fucking touch her! I could tell from the tone in her voice this had nothing to do with me anymore.
Grandpa charged Mom, like he’d been waiting to for years, and that’s when I round-housed the old man, finishing it with a left cross just like I learned in cardio kickboxing.
My grandfather stood about 5’10 or 5’11—not a tall man, but a solidly built one. He had the skinny limbs of an aged drinker, but he had the torso of an elk. He was in the Navy long ago. As I smelled the lime and stale smoke that he blew out when my punch connected, I thought, Fuck me, I just hit Grandpa. He’s going to kill me. I scuttled to the driver’s side of the truck and yelled for my mother to get in. She stood on the step of the cab, holding on to the passenger door and screaming at them, You never loved me, as if for the first time.
We drove in silence, rattled, breathing heavily and maybe even crying. But as soon as we got to the freeway on-ramp, we began to laugh. It started with a bit of a low giggle, and then we were just looking at each other with our mouths wide open, coughing with laughter. Absolute weeping hysterical laughter. I hit him, did you see that? I really hit him! My mother put a cigarette in her mouth and scolded me with her lighter: I thought I taught you to respect your elders. I drove down the freeway, leaving the orange lights of L.A. behind us, and gloating. I can’t believe he was going to go after you, that bastard. It’s about time someone stood up to him. But I stopped when I noticed she was looking at me in this way that was neither proud nor amused. I didn’t understand it at the time, the look on her face, but I would come to know it later as grief.
Erin McReynolds has an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina. Excerpts from her in-progress memoir have also appeared in The North American Review and r.kv.r.y. She writes and edits for the Fearless Critic restaurant guides, and lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and dog. She has not hit anyone in about four years.
Q: What was the most challenging aspect of getting this material on the page?
A: I’m a pleaser, so I’ve never been comfortable eliciting pity. But my family is tragic, so there’s no escaping it. I have to find the comedy in that; Chekhov’s my beau ideal for illustrating the comedy of watching people fail at being happy. Striking a balance between the horror and the beauty and the wackiness of our family challenges me throughout this entire book as I write it.
Q: Besides being a writer, you’re also a food critic. What one dish, or food, most sums up your writing life? Why?
A: Oof, good question. Pringles. Seriously. My desire to eat them, like my desire to work on this traumatizing memoir after a day of work, is sporadic—but if I eat one chip, I go into a kind of trance, emerging only after I’ve blown through the tube and gotten my greasy fist stuck in the bottom of it. I might write twenty pages in one sitting, and then do nothing but revisions for another two weeks. But I’m always thinking about my writing, and certain associations will start the process all over again.
Q: What advice would you give aspiring writers who want to cross over from fiction to memoir?
A: During the writing process, don’t worry about the James Frey mess or how to market your book: the best memoirs are the ones that blur the line between fiction and non-fiction anyway, because you can bet your experience and how you remember it will be terribly blurred. Use the sense of freedom that fiction gives you to express the essence of what happened—no one’s interested in reading or writing a colorless but totally true recounting of what happened (except judges). Read Tim O’Brien’s writing manifesto/Vietnam War memoir The Things They Carried.
Q: As a child, what was your favorite book? Why?
A: Kurt Vonnegut’s Slapstick. I was nine or ten, so the references to farting and butts and such grabbed my attention, but I became obsessed with the voice of the book and read parts of it over and over. Although a lot of it went over my head, that sardonic, dry-sighing “hi ho” seeped in; I often felt alienated and left out because I changed schools frequently, but I was able to keep this sort of bemused-observer perspective that got me through. It still gets me through.