The Pain of Becoming

Steven W. Flores

I keep wondering what will come first: a letter from the boy or one from the U.S. Army. I’d be a liar if I said that I wasn’t afraid of the mailbox, or that I didn’t have horrible nightmares some nights. There’s this one that recurs where I’m teaching class and all my normal students are there, but also Matthew’s charred body, staring wide-eyed at me from the middle of the room. His mouth is open, as if about to speak, but I’ll never know what he wants to tell me. That’s the point of a nightmare, I suppose: to bring forth your deepest fears and make them plain.

A few years ago, Gary down at the Pump ’N’ Munch caught word that Matthew had joined up, and there hasn’t been a day gone by that I haven’t wondered whether he’s alive or dead. He could be in iraq or Afghanistan, or he could be home here on R&R and I wouldn’t know the difference. The Army keeps a tight lid on that information, and Matthew no longer speaks to me.

I can tell you something about life, or at least my life: it happens slowly, slowly, then all at once. You’ll end up somewhere you never imagined, but you’ll still recognize it as your own doing. That’s just the way of things, I suppose. You make your bed. You lie in it. You drink yourself to sleep.

It was three a.m. when the boy came in, pissed-drunk. He had this girl with him who just couldn’t keep quiet. I poured a little Scotch, put Harvest on my headphones and paged through my midterms on Gatsby. I tried to relax, but the whole thing just ate at me. At five, I decided I might as well get up. I threw together a quick breakfast for the both of us—eggs for protein, Gatorade for electrolytes, black coffee. The kid was going to sweat all of that shit out of his system whether he liked it or not.

I set the steaming plates on the table and walked to his door. With all the noise I was making in the kitchen, I considered the girl fairly warned. I opened Matthew’s door and flicked the lights on and off. I could see the empty spot next to Matthew where the girl had been. I made a sound like a starting bell. “Ding! Ding! Ding! Get up Matthew. Get up. Time to put the gloves on.”

He reached absently for the girl beside him and started when he realized she wasn’t there. He looked like hell. His eyes were bloodshot and swollen, his blond hair matted by sweat to his face. He seemed not to know where he was for a second, and his head shot around the room before it stopped on me. “What the fuck?” he said. “It’s five o’clock. Get the hell out of my room!” There was a poster of Jack Kerouac on the wall behind him that said something about being “mad to live.” I remembered feeling that way once, so I tried not to be too hard on him. “Some night!” I said. “Now hurry up and get ready. Manny’s opens at eight, and we have to get there early if we want to get a few rounds in.”

Not another word passed between us about the girl. That’s what he liked about me: the don’t-ask-don’t-tell relationship. I asked him nothing and he told me nothing until there wasn’t much of a relationship. I was always terrified that the kid was going to mess his life up, but every time I tried to tell him, he’d pack up his stuff and head back to his mom’s. I had to reach him in bits and pieces. Boxing was one of those pieces.

But that morning, he hated me for waking him up. I could see the anger all over him. “These eggs taste like shit,” he said and spit them out on his plate. It was a defiance he wouldn’t try at his mother’s. Then again, his mother was a good cook with a proper kitchen now that she was remarried to an Air Force man, retired and double-dipping on his pension. I had to hand it to her. There he was with two salaries, while I was barely holding onto my one at the community college. The boy made no secret of the fact that things were much better at his mom’s house. When he got his license, he started showing up later and later, until most weekends I didn’t see him at all until Saturday morning.

The boy was spoiled. I still stand by that. He took what he wanted from life and left the rest. Would he grow to feel entitled? Was his mother raising him to be waited on hand and foot? Or was he putting me on? Maybe he was acting out to show me he hated me, rather than telling me straight out. Maybe I wasn’t listening to him. It was difficult to say. I only saw him every other weekend, and in the time between he was becoming a mystery to me. He was ashamed of me—I knew that much—and he was angry as hell.

It was cold out that February morning, and the air smelled like oatmeal from the Quaker Oats plant in the city. When we were young and Matthew was a baby, we bought our first house not far from the plant and would wake up to the smell of old oatmeal, no matter what Caroline was cooking. It was a little house with a yard and a flower patch and a picket fence I’d always meant to paint. Years later, when we passed the house on our trips to Manny’s, the boy never mentioned it. Soon enough, I learned that he didn’t want to remember, and when I learned that, I thought it was no use to keep mentioning it.

On the interstate that morning, the boy was still answering my questions with one-word replies. How’s school? Fine. How’s your mother? Good. Have you found a job anywhere? No. Was she anyone special? Silence. I could see the embarrassment wash over his face. “Listen,” I said, “I hope she was at least good-looking. Maybe even someone you cared about. Because it only takes one time.” The way he looked at me, I knew I should shut up. One more word and there would be a fight.

Manny’s was a little space on the second floor of a brick building in the Czech Village. There was a small deli underneath and empty commercial space above. The gym itself had two rings in the center with heavy bags and speed bags around the side. It was cold when we got there. I fired up the heater, and the place filled with the familiar smell of sweat and ammonia within minutes.

The boy finished skipping rope and wrapped his hands over and over again, taking water each time. I sat with my elbows on my knees, resting my forehead on my hands. Before the boy was born, I used to box every morning. Then Caroline drank more and I drank more, and I took up smoking between classes and boxed less and less. I took up life in a chair. I lived as an adjunct. Before I knew it, I was thirty-eight and light of wind with a full gut. I tried to tell the boy to discipline himself. I told him that he was lucky to learn so young.

“Every great talent unfolds itself in fighting,” I used to say. “The truth comes when you’re hit yet still standing. You discover that you haven’t fallen to pieces. More than that, you refuse to fall to pieces. Boxing is a form of self-creation. In boxing lies the pain of becoming.”

I believed every word of it then. I told myself that the great tragedy of my youth was that I never learned to box; that somehow things would have been different had I learned. My mother used to always ask why someone with my brains would volunteer to get hit in the head, and Caroline used to give me shit all the time about my face being too classically handsome to be “rearranged.” After the boy was born, boxing got me out of the house. And in those days, Caroline preferred me getting out to me being home. Well, that and the fact that she didn’t really mind my face being a little rearranged, now that we had the kid.

It wasn’t long after Matthew was born that we bought the house and I started teaching full time at the community college. Most days, I’d go straight to the gym after class. Sometimes, when it got dark, I turned out all the lights except for the little generator and boxed with my shadow looming on the wall.

When Matthew was nine, Caroline picked him up from school and drove him to Illinois where they stayed with her mother. That was after one of our fights at Sullivan’s. Caroline sprayed beer in my face and I returned the favor, and then a buddy of mine dragged me out to his car and made me sleep on his couch. I remember how it felt to be dragged away from her, and it feels like that’s where my life started to turn into what it is now. The pain of becoming, and the pain of what we’ve become. Eight years later, my son and I spent our last car ride together in silence. The kid was disgusted with me to be sure, but mostly I think he was just tired. Had I known we would never talk again, I would have let up on him. I would have tried to make peace.

“You ready?” I said. The boy rolled his eyes and hawked spit into the trash can. “One minute on each bag,” I said and hit the speakers. His favorite band, Nirvana. The boy took off around the bags and I followed. I was winded by the time I reached the third bag and pushed through each of my punches to make it sound like I was doing more than I was. The boy’s punches were crisp and clean, each one delivered with a pneumatic hiss. When he got to the speed bags, though, he was missing quite a bit. I wondered if he was just hung over or if he’d been getting high as well. I didn’t say anything, though. I just kept pulling through my punches, hoping that the boy would be too concentrated on his own misses to notice.

We’d only run the bags once and the boy was already dripping sweat. “Now you’re doing all right,” I said. “Sweatin’ like a whore in church!” He wiped the sweat from his forehead on the back of his bag gloves and gave me a fuck-you sneer. “It’s the coffee,” I said. “It’s thermogenic. Cus D’Amato gave it to Tyson and made him run in a goddamned snowsuit.”

“That’s great,” the kid said. “How soon until I start raping women and biting people’s ears off?”

“That’s not the point,” I said, but the kid just shrugged. He went to doing footwork around the bags for a while, and I turned the music up and took coffee and water. When I felt composed enough, I put the striking pads on and got into the ring. I smacked them together loudly three times and said, “All right, pretty boy. You might do okay on that bag, but let’s see what you got in the ring.”


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STEVEN W. FLORES is a first-year MFA candidate at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is currently working on a novel.