The eternity of Joe Alvarez

When I played football as a child, there was this guy on the team named Joe Alvarez. You could go to every practice, read all the names on the team-sheet and play countless matches together, and of all the kids there, Joe was the one you’d notice the least.

He was quiet, sure, but lots of kids were quiet. (I, alas, was not one of them.) Joe just happened to look like every youngster. He was normal height, normal build; his cap sat too far down over his eyes like every other guy that age. Absolutely nothing exceptional existed about Joe. He wasn’t cuter than anyone else, he wasn’t fatter, he wasn’t any more talented, he wasn’t any more anything. No one really hung out with Joe, but no one ever made fun of him either. Joe was the type of guy who would play in every game and never score a goal. Joe was just simply there.

Joe was a year older than me, so when he moved up to the next level, any thoughts I might have happened to have of him vanished. He had rarely entered my mind in the first place, and once he was out of my severely limited circle of awareness, he might as well have never existed in the first place.

Which is why it was strange when my mother took me aside after dinner one night, when I was 10.

“David… you remember Joe, the boy from your team?” Mum had an odd look on her face. She wasn’t sad or anything, or at least it didn’t seem like it, but her eyes were pinched, narrowed, serious. It was almost comical the way she looked. I hadn’t seen her look that way before; it must have made an effect, because I remember it all these years later.

I told Mum I kind of remembered him. “He played on the wing, right?” But Mum wasn’t thinking of Joe’s position in the field. “Listen, David… Joe had an accident. He wasn’t feeling well, and it turned out, something inside of him burst, like a balloon. They took him to the hospital, but it was too late.” I asked her what it was too late for. “David, Joe…  Joe died. He died.” She didn’t cry. She just stared at me, as if I were about to make a vital decision about something. It seemed as if I was being tested.

Here is where my memory fails me. I have no idea what I did next. Did I cry? Probably. I would cry if I got benched back then. But I wouldn’t have been crying out of grief. I think I would have been crying because that’s what I assumed I was supposed to do. The next part, I do remember. I went to bed early that night and stayed awake for hours, trying to think. I wasn’t thinking about death, or if I could die, or if Mum or Dad or one of my siblings could die. I was thinking of what I remembered about Joe. I didn’t come up with much.

But Joe suddenly became a centerpiece of my life. I found myself scouring my brain for little details, a certain hat he wore, his place in the team, the number on the back of his shirt. In life, he was one of many; in death, he rose up, a singular entity, worthy of studious remembrance and commemoration. Joe was no longer an anonymous face in the crowd; he had become the crowd.

It occurred to me that if I had known him better… it would have been unbearable. But that didn’t stop me from trying to make friends with every single teammate I had, from then on.

As I have grown older, I have faced more death, and more loss, and more suffering. Each and every time, it seems impossible to grasp. They were here a moment ago, and they’re not now. What left? Where did they go? I should have been nicer to them, I should have sent them a Christmas card, I should have not been so busy all the time. I should have known a day like this would come, sometime.

I’m not sure why I suddenly thought about Joe again today.  But the thing about sudden tragedies, you see, is that whoever has been lost has a tendency to spring from the depths of your brain to the forefront. Every interaction with them, every second you spent with them, whether it was to tell them you loved them, to fight with them over the last chip, or simply to provide them, a passing acquaintance, the woman you see on the train once a week, with a “bless you” when they sneezed, the memories seem to gather the gravity of scripture. It all takes on a glow, like they were followed by this white gleam shining beneath them, a pale, endless spotlight. You don’t even need to have met the person; when they’re gone, even passing conversations about them seem etched in time. It was like they were the most significant part in your life, though you never could have known it.

If there is a better reason to celebrate life while we have it, and everyone we come into contact with in our cluttered tunnels, I haven’t found it.

The first kiss

Like any red-blooded boy of the age of 13, when I was growing up, I imagined nothing the Almighty had created could compare with kissing a girl. I did the whole deal: making out with pillows, feeling up two slightly deflated footballs… When I started to become comfortable with the fact that my parents knew puberty was beginning to rear its hairy head — well, I’m still not entirely comfortable with it, to be honest — I would cut out all the models from Sports Illustrated swimsuit editions, put them on my walls and give them little comic-strip thought balloons, saying stuff like, “David, you’re hot!” and “David, James Bond has nothing on you.”

In my imagination, I was a torrid lover, a machine, a manly cat the kittens couldn’t keep their paws off… well, let’s face it, guys, I was Shaft. Unfortunately, I was a most private dick; even though a few of my friends had tales of heavy petting debauchery, usually with an older girl, typically in a dark room somewhere and often involving zippers, rubber gloves and mayonnaise, I, at 13, had still never properly kissed a girl (I’m talking about real snogging here, not the quick, stolen pecks on the cheek with Stacy behind the primary school washrooms when I was 11, although, at the time, they were meaningful). The closest I came was taking a girl in to the school bazaar; she ended up leaving with another guy when I told her, no, sorry, I can’t go to hang out the mall afterwards because my Dad is picking me up bang on 6 o’clock, can’t be late. (Emily, I haven’t forgotten you… contact me, if you ever want to talk.)

I thought it was never going to happen. Then, my childhood friend Andy started dating the local football coach’s daughter, and I was lucky (so lucky) enough to accompany him on a few of their dates. Mostly, they would sneak off to a dark corner, and he would touch her breasts (He touched her breasts! He even grabbed them!) and kiss her cheek, and I was off trolling around, hoping neither of them noticed that I was watching.

I mean, what must it be like? You’ve got a girl there… and you can do anything with her! Sure, one time Andy sneaked his hands a little too low, and she let out a shriek and told him to stop it, but I suspect that’s just because they were out in public. When they were alone, who knew what kind of insanity went on? I bet he even kissed her with his tongue.

Imagination was all I had. I was helpless with women, and rather than face the embarrassment of being rejected, I just avoided them. It wasn’t until I joined a local youth club that I finally met a girl who would talk to me.

Her name was Michelle, and I was the first person she’d ever kissed, too. She was a shy, bookish girl, with big glasses that I think also helped the sight of anyone who happened to be standing behind her (within 10 feet). She was a year below me in school and wanted nothing more than to get straight A’s, be a bridesmaid in her best friend Julianne’s wedding, meet David Hasselhoff (believe it or not, there was a time when The Hoff was considered sexy) and not be late to Sunday school. She was a proper sweet straight-laced schoolgirl, and sex was something that would be not be even thought of until her wedding night, and even then only if you’re lucky.

I liked her because she was nice and funny and a good decent girl — this was during a period of my life in which I wanted to be a minister; that might be surprising to you, and probably strikes you as something I should delve into deeper, but I won’t, because it’s not really all that interesting, and besides, it was a very long time ago, and I’m such a sinner now I’d feel guilty even thinking about it — but mostly I liked her because she had enormous breasts and I thought maybe if I was really, really nice and gave her flowers and told her I loved her and took her to movies and made nice with her friends and held her hand, she might let me touch them.

I was willing to wait. Once I finally dug up the nerve to ask her out, we had three dates. The first was to a movie, Teen Wolf with Michael J. Fox. Mum wouldn’t let me go unless I had a chaperone, so Andy, who was a year older, also came along… if only Mum knew the stuff I’d seen Andy do! The second was also to a movie, the name of which I have forgotten.

The third night, I knew it was time to make my move. It must have been a particularly ribald weekend in Hollywood, because all the films at the cinema were rated R, save for one. So Andy and Michelle and her friend Julianne and I marched up to the ticket window, plunked down our cash and headed in to see Back To The Future.

The scene was toward the end, when the band is playing “Earth Angel” and Marty McFly is starting to fade from existence because his parents-to-be aren’t getting together on the dancefloor as they were destined to in 1955. The tension was high; would this be the end of our hero? Michelle gripped my arm. I touched her hand. She looked at me. I leaned in. She leaned in. Closer. Closer. I puckered up (this was fucking it! Oh man oh man oh man!) and planted my lips on hers, where they remained for about, oh, half a second. We were in a cinema, but I could still see her blush. As did I, when Andy, sitting right behind us, began to giggle.

And that was my first kiss. Years later, at Julianne’s wedding, I gave a toast. I saluted Jules and her husband, and made a joke about initially spending time with her to get closer to Michelle, my first kiss, someone I’d never forget. Michelle blushed then, too, though I think she might have been drunk. She ended up marrying a grocer or something, and I think they have a couple of children, both shy and bookish with enormous glasses. Curious to see how their breasts turn out.

The one I love

I’ve been chatting online with a friend of mine who’s been quite distraught at the prospect of her cat being put down. Listening to my friend mourn her pet brought memories flooding back of my own experience a few decades ago and inspired this piece I wrote for a writing challenge on the theme of “Love & Loss”.

 

He was there when she was alone and needed a friend. Now her pet is dying, and she feels helpless.

When I was a child, probably about eight or nine, my family was visiting some neighbour friends for a late-night barbeque. As tended to be the case, the adults would sit around the grill and bitch about their marriages, or their jobs, or their children, whatever came to mind after a six-pack or two. We kids were relegated to the garden, free to roam around as long as we were within eyesight and able to stop, drop and roll at a moment’s notice. I was running around stupidly, freely, as children are wont to do, when I came across a small kitten, likely a stray. He was gray and dirty and had the cutest little nose. Unlike most cats I’d come across at the time, he didn’t seem to mind when I picked him up and roughed him up a bit. He was sweet and funny and even jumped up on my lap when I was lying in the grass, daydreaming. He was the friendliest cat I’d ever come across.

A cat seemed like the ideal pet for her. Cats are easy. All you really have to do is feed them and change their litter box. Cats aren’t like dogs; they don’t need attention. They just go about their own thing, eating, sleeping, shitting, licking themselves. The world of a cat is a blissful one, and it is decidedly solitary. They just go about their merry way, living their content, spoiled little lives, and if you end up playing with them, it’s because they have allowed you to.

She loved that concept. As nice as dogs are, you could pretty much smack them upside their head with a two-by-four, and after the cobwebs cleared and the blood was wiped out of their eyes, they’d happily come drooling back for more. Not cats. They don’t need you. They’re just fine without you, thank you very much. You have to earn the respect of a cat. They figure out whether or not they like you, and then they conclude if you’re worth hanging out with.

Her brother has the best way with cats. He has little interest in pets and he’s particularly not a fan of cats. So he just completely ignores them, not even implying any interest in their activities, a difficult task, since there are four of them roaming around his house. What happens? The cats, appreciative of not being picked up and snuggled when they just want to sleep, can’t get enough of the guy. He has to peel them off of him anytime he’s just trying to watch the telly. He often tells me that this is also how you’re supposed to deal with women, which, well, is a notion that might be of some value.

We were just fooling around. I would grab a leaf, rub it against his nose, then throw it so he could chase it around. He’d grab it in his teeth, bat at it with his paws, knock it across the grass and then scamper after it again. Playing along, I’d swipe it from him, dangle it around his ears and giggle as he twirled wildly trying to find it. I even did that trick where you pretend to throw the leaf and keep it in your hand instead, tittering madly as he searched furiously for it. At last, I did wad the leaf up and throw it toward a fence that surrounded the garden and shared a boundary with the neighbour’s. Out of nowhere, I heard a chain rattling, a growl, a crunch, a shriek and, ultimately, a whimper.

So she decided she wanted a cat. She wouldn’t even rent a flat that wouldn’t let her have one. She didn’t care what type of cat; as long as she had a kitten, something whose mind she could shape and warp in her own image. Her brother and I, just happy that she’d moved the 300-odd miles north, went on the hunt and found a woman he’d worked with whose cat just shot out a litter. The middle one will be perfect for her, she said; he’s sprightly and energetic and very affectionate. She’ll be living alone. She’ll need all the affection she can get… I mean… when you guys are not around, of course!

Thus, on one Sunday afternoon, about two weeks after she’d arrived in New York, a city in which she knew hardly anyone, a furry little tiger runt showed up at her new flat, announcing his presence by crying and sprinting under the bed. At first, inexperienced in having her own pet, she rushed after him, trying to calm him and instantly make him her friend. She learned quickly enough… just leave him alone. After a few hours, he peeked his head out from under the covers, looked left, looked right, and slowly, slowly, slowly crawled tentatively toward the living room. She tossed him a play toy she’d bought for the occasion. He hopped back, frightened, and bolted out of the room. Within 30 seconds, he was back, gnawing on the toy. She just watched, quietly. A half hour later, he was attacking her feet. An hour after that, he was on her lap, sleeping, and she knew he was hers. Or, more accurately, she was his. She named him Simba.

Many friends of hers in Pennsylvania had cats, and she thought they treated them too much like, well, too much like cats. They would end up either hiding under the bed anytime company would come over, or they would be the fat blob of hair taking up half the couch, a piece of furniture that needs to be fed. Her cat wouldn’t be like that, she vowed. He was just her flatmate, and he could do whatever he wanted just like any other flatmate. Want to sit on the kitchen counter? Dude, go ahead; it’s your place too. Want to eat the leftover pizza? Want to scratch up the wooden sofa legs? Want to bite my arm? Hey, it’s your prerogative. Who am I to tell you what to do? I have no business telling you how to live your life; like I know what I’m doing.

And he was awesome, the most personable animal this side of a car salesman. He would welcome any visitor with a hop up on the lap and a nibble on the wrist. He was just another guy — having him fixed was an ordeal she lamented for days — and he became more a pal than an inferior household pet. He would fall asleep wherever she ended up at night — whether it was the bed, the sofa or, on those particularly rough nights, the floor — and he ran the place however he saw fit. He even helped her out by charming what few guys she could coerce to come over to the flat. (Sometimes being a girl living alone with a cat does have its advantages.)

It has always seemed to me that, in a way, we’re closer to our pets than we could ever be to another human being. You can pick your nose, fart, masturbate, whatever, the types of things you could only otherwise do alone, with your pet in the room and not even think twice, not even hesitate. It’s a natural closeness. That’s the type of relationship she had with Simba.

She talked whimsically about how insane it would be for Simba, who as a cat was likely to live for close to 20 years, to go through changes with her, to move to new places, to meet the man she’d love, to play with her children. You have a cat for a long time, and, sometimes, they’re actually a bit of work. With Simba, it was a commitment she didn’t think twice about making.

Immediately, it was obvious something was wrong. I hurried guiltily over to the fence and saw an enormous dog, blood dripping from its jaws, scurry away. And on the ground, eyes wide wide wide open, was my little kitten. There were two puncture wounds, one just below his neck and one just below his ribcage. The cat was feeling no pain, not yet; it just lay there, in shock, lacking understanding. I was vaguely aware that I might have caused this… if I just hadn’t have thrown the leaf near the fence. And then came the gasps. Later that evening, my mother explained that the dog’s bite, its horrific CHOMP!, likely broke the kitten’s ribs and collapsed its lungs. But all I remember are the gasps. The desperate thrusts for air, a wheeze, a cough, another wheeze. There was simply no air to be found. He wearily lifted his eyes up to me, what happened, oh God I can’t breathe, what is going on? I found myself eerily calm. He is going to die. I ran to the bathroom, grabbed a wet rag and ran back out to him. And for the next two hours, until my parents made me leave, I lay there with my gasping kitten, wiping his brow, trying to ease his suffering, making sure he was not alone.

Her cat is dying. It started about four months ago, when her flatmate complained that Simba, entirely out of character, had urinated on her bed. After changing the sheets and apologising profusely, she watched as Simba promptly hopped on her own bed and pissed there too. She took him to the vet, who told her he had a urinary infection, common for male cats. He gave her some pills (he gave the cat some too) and told her to make sure he drank plenty of water.

Simba was better for about a week, but then he was right back at it again, this time not urinating, but instead depositing little droplets of blood across the flat. It was almost cute; he was conditioned to the litter box, so he would only go on places that weren’t the floor, like the bed, or rugs, or pieces of clothing lying around. She rushed him back to the vet, who said his bladder was blocked, or his tract was swelling, or something, she didn’t really understand what. He said Simba would need surgery, and that it would cost her about several hundred dollars. This was money she didn’t have just sitting around, but there was no way she was letting her cat suffer. Plus, the place was starting to smell. Simba had the surgery and was fine for about three months.

And then last week when she found a dark red spot on the rug. She called the vet, bitching up a storm about paying all that money for a surgery that would only help for three months.

“Yeah, we were afraid that was going to happen. Listen, we weren’t sure at the time, but this is a chronic thing. This isn’t going away. We can perform another surgery on him, but this is likely going to happen again in three months, or two, or one. And it’s just going to get worse.”

“So what do I do?”

“Well, he’s going to be in a lot of pain. I don’t think it’s right to let him suffer.”

“Yeah, but how do I fix him?”

“We’re not sure we can.”

“Wait, you’re not saying… ?”

That’s what he was saying.

About a year later, I was riding my bike by the very same house we visited that night. It was the middle of the afternoon. No one was home. I noticed the dog, a big nasty mean ugly dog, sleeping in the neighbour’s front garden. Stealthily, I hopped off the bike and jumped the fence. I stood there watching that dog for a while, trying to will myself into kicking it right in the stomach, but I couldn’t do that. So I just leapt over the fence again and pedalled away, feeling empty.

She is taking Simba to the vet tomorrow. She’s not certain what the vet will say, but she has a good idea. So now her cat is lying there, on the sofa, silent, motionless, in agony. Occasionally he’ll move his head, look up, eyes wide wide wide open, and let out an anguished yet muted rowwrghhhhhhhhhh, then put his head back down. Christ, is there anything worse than an animal in pain? The poor fucking thing… just lying there, crying, screaming, wondering what in the world is happening to it… incapable of adequately communicating how much this fucking hurts.

As “owners,” we have little control over our pets’ lives. We feed them, clean their litter boxes, make sure they’re not living in total filth. That’s about all we do. Yet she keeps thinking that she’s done something wrong, that she fed him the wrong food, or didn’t pay enough attention to him, or didn’t change the litter often enough. She could have done something. This is her fault. It isn’t, or so I keep telling her, but to her, it sure feels that way.

Oh God, she says. He just jumped up here, on my desk, next to my computer. He’s looking at you on the screen. Did he know we were talking about him? How did he have the strength to make the leap? He’s staring at me now. Does he know? Is he aware? Can he understand? Is he angry? Does he know how much he’s meant to me? Has he ever known?

And then the anguished cry: Oh, Simba, I am so sorry. Please forgive me. We have been through so much. I don’t know what to do without you…

Headbangers ball

I can hit my head against solid surfaces and objects really, really hard.

That might be perceived as a flippant statement, maybe a little in-joke you don’t get, or a philosophical metaphor for the struggle of the human brain to fathom the weight of existence. It is neither. I’m simply telling you: I can bash my forehead into things, and it doesn’t really hurt.

I first noticed this ability in primary school, where such God-given talents are usually discovered. This might come as a shock to you but, in primary school, I attempted to make up for my inadequacies and insecurities about girls by brazenly attempting to attract attention to myself. My early, crude attempts involved armpit noises, blotches of ketchup smeared dribbled down my chin to simulate blood and, until puberty hit, impersonations of Mickey Mouse’s voice. None of these seemed to go over well.

Then, one day, when I was trying to make Suzie Johnson laugh on a bus ride home from school, I took my spelling book and bashed it against my face. Suzie had been telling me she was having trouble with spelling, how she just couldn’t get the letters in right order, how she just couldn’t make the words fit right in her head, no matter how hard she studied. I had a word-a-day calendar at home, and I’d recently learned osmosis. I told her she should just try to put the book to her head, or maybe sleep on top of it, and perhaps it would all just seep in. “Check it out,” I said. And then…WHAP!

The reaction was immediate. The eyes of the entire bus locked on me. Joy, the bus driver who had known me since kindergarten, mistakenly thought I’d hit Suzie with the book and made me do the walk of shame to the front of the bus, sitting directly behind her, like all the troublemakers. I told her I didn’t hit Suzie; it was my own head I’d hit. To prove it, I smacked myself with it again. “David!” she exclaimed. “Why on earth are you doing that?” Everyone on the bus was still staring at me. I had their rapt attention. It was exhilarating. Their looks answered Joy’s question, easily.

After that, I honed my talent into an art form. During lunch, I’d gather friends around and let them take shots at me with the cafeteria trays. It became rote to walk into doors face-first and then fall back dramatically, pretending I was in agony before breaking a smile to let them know that, no, I was fine. At parties, I would ask a girl to dance, and if she said no, I would ram my face into the wall. Sure, they were horrified at first, but after a while, they were simply repulsed. It never failed to get a laugh from my friends, and it got everyone talking about me, and, really, that’s all I wanted.

Eventually I even trained myself to take repeated shots, usually against some sort of table, a woodpecker-type motion: WHUP-WHUP-WHUP-WHUP-WHUPWHUPWHUP! My all-time high was 16 in a row. Even I started to get dizzy at about 14, though that was more because of the quick downward thrusts than anything else.

The years passed, but this skill never waned. As I got older, alcohol entered the equation, upping the ante. Oftentimes, toward the end of the night, everyone would gather around, making sure their glasses were off the table, and then watch Daring David’s display. Alcohol made me somewhat cocky, though, and a couple of times I would come up with rather large cuts in my forehead. It still never hurt, though.

It even comes in handy at work. When I’m having a particularly bad day, or just had another conversation with on of the resident idiots, I can quietly retreat to my office, close the door and use my head to perform a slow, rhythmic beat on the desk.

We all have a little talent like this. One friend can say words backwards as easily as he can forwards. (Palindromes make his nose bleed.) Another can rattle off the names of every ’80s rock band member, with instruments. One can bend his fingers the wrong direction so that they touch his wrist. I’m sure you have one too. Mine just happens to be a resilient forehead. My talent’s advantage is that it makes a loud noise, and sometimes leaves a rather frightening welt. Maybe it all started at the age of three, when I fell and busted my head against a stair, receiving a permanent scar on my forehead, but I feel like kind of a tough guy; sure, I can’t lift a pair of dumbbells without busting a blood vessel, but I can take as many head shots with a flat object that you can muster. There should be some sort of Strongman competition for this. Or maybe I should go on Britain’s Got Talent… or Jackass.

Of course, um, I’m in my late 30s now, which means I rarely perform anymore — or at least I try to limit my performances to the right moments. I usually don’t call people over anymore. I’ve found more subtle, quiet ways to make sure everyone around pays attention to me now. But when the right moment comes, almost always at a bar, I’ll pick my spot and just lay one down. The trick now relies more on the element of the unexpected; maybe we’ll be discussing politics or something, and someone will make a point I hadn’t thought of and have no instant response or comeback to. The debate has been lost. What better time? WHAP! WHAP! WHAP-WHAP-WHAP! After that, people tend to forget whatever it is we were talking about. I know I do.

Look! I can even do it against a keyboard! Fgo iftp uit eca etrffvm,frf4vrfvk gjuhhuyyhuddyt dytduy7y8t7t6t67.

All right. I’m done here. I think something just haemorrhaged.

My fight with Mike Tyson

We all have our demons. Some of us have been so hurt by past relationships that we can’t open ourselves up to other people anymore. Some have been stricken by family tragedy and have trouble seeing a reason for anything. Some of us can’t handle heights, some of us are mortified by snakes, some of us are freaked out by clowns. Whichever. There’s always something.

My demon lay dormant for over two decades, but he returned last week, unrelenting as ever.

My parents, different, I suspect, than many today, never had a problem with their children watching too much television. We were always encouraged to go out and play, sports, hide-and-seek, hell, even doctor, anything to get us out of the house and away from the brain rot of popular entertainment. In the long run, this might have been beneficial for me, but at the time, it made me the lamest kid in the neighbourhood. Not only did I have no idea what was happening on any of the hot cartoons, but I was also so nerdy that (get this) I didn’t even have a Nintendo. That’s right; while the other kids were mastering Pac Man, Frogger, Excitebike and Metroid, I was plopped in the driveway with my siblings with a football, a book and an admonition to “stay outside and enjoy the fresh air.”

I’m not sure these restrictions had the desired effect. Rather than roll in the weeds and become one with nature, I instead found friends who had cooler parents, and I’d play their Nintendo. Poor bastards. I’d show up at their door, they’d sigh, let me in and hand me the controller. Occasionally, we’d find a two-player game like Contra or Tecmo Bowl, but usually, I had only one game in mind, a game that could only be played solo.

I had an obsession, recklessly unhealthy, with Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out. It was all I wanted to play and all I wanted to think about. I’ll never forget the first time. I was visiting my cousin Sheldon, and he told me about this awesome new game. “At the end, you get to fight Mike Tyson. But I can’t get that far.” He handed me the controller and I battled Glass Joe, notoriously the worst video boxer since the advent of sound. In a three-round slobber-knocker, I defeated him with a TKO at 2:54, and I was hooked. I wanted Tyson, and I would do whatever it took to take him out. I am certain that there are friends’ parents, if I suddenly became a serial killer and they were interviewed as a “concerned neighbour,” would have little more to say than, “He was a quiet sort. All I remember is him playing Nintendo. That boxing game. Actually, it did seem like he was screaming a lot at the television. Had violent outbursts.”

Kids today must wonder about society’s fascination with Mike Tyson. He’s now (justifiably) considered bit of a caricature, and before that, a monster who bit people in the ring and threatened to eat other boxers’ children. He was feared in the same way we fear the wild-eyed, unshaven man screaming at nobody in the street. He was unpredictable, unhinged and pathetic, a circus sideshow, a car wreck we couldn’t take our eyes off. He was a disintegrated man.

But it’s important to remember, in the late ’80s, when Tyson was the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, a 250-pound, tightly wound, ready-to-snap mound of endless muscle, no man was considered more indestructible than Kid Dynamite. Grown men who were paid millions of dollars to punch other men in the face, men nearly a foot taller and a decade older than Tyson, would cower at the mere mention of his name. Michael Spinks, considered one of the best boxers in the world at the time, faced Tyson in a match hyped as an impending classic. But when the bell rang, you could see Spinks’ legs quivering from outer space. Ninety seconds later, Spinks was flat on his back, spasming, humiliated, and Tyson was forever a chiseled god, the physical incarnation of the power of intimidation. He was 21 years old, and he was the baddest man who ever lived.

And he was mine. I worked myself up through the ranks, compiling the Minor, Major and World Titles with nary a second thought. My eyes never wavered. Tyson was toast. After easily dispatching the pectoral-gyrating Super Macho Man, I faced Tyson for the first time. Now, any of you familiar with the game (anyone?) will know that in the first 90 seconds of a match with Iron Mike, any punch he hits you with will knock you down. It took 30 seconds for me to be floored three times. But I practiced and practiced, even discovering the code you can plug in to skip all other fighter and battle Tyson directly. I eventually figured out how to avoid all those 90-second punches, and how to knock him down, and when to dodge, and when to sneak in a quick uppercut. But I couldn’t beat him. I would be far ahead on points, needing only to survive the third round. I would always choke. Somehow, someway, I would blow it, and he’d beat me, and he’d flex his deltoid and wink at me. I hated that fucker. Nothing I tried worked. All my friends, they could take him. Some could even knock him out. Not me. He haunted my dreams. I played so much I started to think my father looked a little like Piston Honda. But when it came to Tyson, I was always pushing that rock up the hill.

Then came February 10, 1990, in Tokyo, against Buster Douglas. My father and I were watching an English football game that night and would occasionally flip channels to make sure we didn’t miss the inevitable Tyson knockout. Every time we flipped back, however, we were amazed to find the fight was still going. In fact, Tyson appeared to be, what?, losing. No matter: He’ll find that one punch and he’ll drop this chump. And he did, almost. He flattened Douglas with a quick uppercut, but the big dude didn’t stay down. And then, in the 10th round, the unthinkable happened, and Tyson went down, and he didn’t get back up, and someone had solved the Riddle of the Sphinx, slaughtered Jabba the Hut’s underground pet, penetrated the impenetrable fortress.

That night, I stayed up late and fought Tyson. I beat him on points. But I played him again the next day, and he destroyed me as he always had before. As the mysteries of pubic hair began to reveal their true purpose, my enthusiasm for the game wavered, and eventually I gave away my Nintendo to a younger cousin and went to college, and grownup land, and all that fucked-up shit that never allows you to win on points. And I never beat Tyson again.

Then, the other night: a couple mates and I were helping a friend clear out his garage and lo and behold, there sitting on a shelf was that parental replacement, the Nintendo. And sitting next to it, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out. I was helpless against its charms. Work had to stop. I grabbed the cartridge, blowing the dust off it started up against Glass Joe. It was amazing how quickly it all came back to me. I remembered how to beat each guy. I withstood Bald Bull’s charge, Glass Tiger’s weird magic circle thing, Mr. Sandman’s devastating super uppercut. I beat everyone, including Super Macho Man, setting up a rematch that was years in the making.

And I got scared. I told my friends the whole story, about how I always choked against Iron Mike, how much pain and misery and self-doubt this stupid game, and that stupid guy, had caused me. One of the guys, the one who owned the Nintendo, scoffed, saying that beating Tyson was second nature to him at this point. I begged him to take over for me. I can’t stand the disappointment. I can’t come this far, this many years removed, just to lose again. You can beat him. I want to see him beat. I can’t handle another loss.

Another mate spoke up: “For Christ’s sake, David… If you keep thinking you’re a loser, you’ll always be one. You’ve earned this match. You’re good at this. You can beat him. Don’t walk away now because you’re afraid to lose. You can’t live life trying not to lose. You have to play to win. Now go beat him.”

And I was fired up. My revenge against Tyson was delayed, it would not be denied. I grabbed the controller out of his hand, to the cheers of the crowd. I pressed start, and we were off. I avoided the first 90 seconds of punches and went on the attack. The first round ended with neither of us being knocked down. I had his power low, however, and I took him down early in the second. He got up and peppered me with some nasty jabs, and I was down. But Little Mac popped back up, and we were into the third round. Down he went again. I now had enough points (6,000, if memory serves me correctly) to win, if only I could survive. The room was silent. One minute to go. One poorly timed jab. Down I went. I did not get back up. With six seconds left, Iron Mike flexed his muscle and winked at me.

I looked at my friend who had delivered the rousing speech. I eyed him closely.

“I think I’ve proven my point.” I then flipped him the controller and went back to the garage, more certain than ever that playing not to lose in life is the safest, most self-preserving option I’ve come up with so far.

Anything is possible

After my post of March 13 (Making magic), a friend reminded me of this piece I wrote about a year ago, before the inception of the Journeys Into The Night blog. Thought I’d post it here as a sort of companion piece.

 

The lanky teenager takes a step to the right, fakes left, pivots, swings his leg and kicks the ball.

It makes a long, slow arc through the air, its sweep so beautiful, so graceful, a mathematician might take pleasure in graphing it.

His track suit bottoms slung low on his hips, the boy stands frozen for an instant, arms slightly raised, his head bending forward as if to will the ball on to its target.

For a split second, he looks almost like a worshipper in the act of obeisance.

And still the ball flies.

A lone car passes by as the dusk of the evening deepens. Across the street, a woman pushes a pram. Somewhere in the distance a siren wails.

The football hits the inside of the post, drops, and rolls along the goal line. The teen holds his breath. With almost a sigh, the ball kisses the net on the other side as it goes over the line.

“Yesssss!” the boy says quietly, punching the air. He runs forward, grabs the ball and dribbles it back to the half-line.

Suddenly he is not just this boy, but several dozen others in various neighborhoods pulled to football pitches all over the country for a kickabout. They watch their idols on television, then slink silently off, a ball under one arm, to mimic them. It’s their own version of footie fever.

I watch from a distance as he continues playing, whirling and feinting and dribbling around players only he can see, practicing free kicks from outside the box. He’s quick on his feet. A row of houses behind him watches, but silently.

Only later do I learn that he’s a ninth-year student who also likes bikes, dance music and Sprite. He plays for his school team. He’s crazy about football, a fact that goes without saying.

His parents want him to be an engineer or computer programmer, but he wants to play football professionally, and why not? he asks. “I’m already quite good at my age,” he adds matter-of-factly. Well, sort of.

Nothing wrong with dreaming, though. Dream on. At 14, your whole life is ahead of you.

Sadly, of course, the odds are against him, which is a shame to even think, because he looks so earnest. Unless he’s a Beckham or a Rooney or Gerrard, chances are he’ll awaken someday and it won’t have happened. That’s the experience most have.

I remember how the obvious struck around my 30th birthday. Wow, I thought, or something like that. A lot of options are now closed to me.

Where anything once was possible, I knew I’d never be a professional athlete or play for Manchester United or be a famous actor. I had never pursued any of those things, you understand. Yet up until a certain age, anything seems possible. Anything.

Right now, out on a vacant playground, this kid is a football star. He plays for his team, Tottenham Hotspurs. He goes on runs down the wing just like Aaron Lennon.

He sweats a lot. His biceps bulge. He has tattoos all over his body. In his mind, I mean.

And so he spins and shoots and scores, visions of Tottenham fresh in his memory. England is next. Like any decent Spurs fan, he despises Arsenal and Chelsea and wishes he could be at White Hart Lane on Wednesday cheering on his team and waving two fingers at the opposing Gunners – but he doesn’t have tickets.

And so he plays. He misses a cross, attempts a back-heel pass. Takes a few throws. His legs are as skinny as Q-tips, but out here they are powerful. He goes up against players like John Terry and Rio Ferdinand.

Yeah! A hattrick! The World Cup beckons!

Anything is possible. Anything.

 

Dreams do come true if you keep believing in yourself. Anything is possible. – Jennifer Capriati