August 2, 2010

Fighting Family

by Nancy Agabian

It was always an impossible match, but I fought anyway. Sometimes in self defense but many times on the offensive if I found something so unfair I could express it only by shoving someone. The anger would churn inside till I would punch and kick like lightning bolts. There was a certain freedom to it, but physical anger was limiting, the way real lightning always touches ground. I could thrash away for so long before my brother, five years older and much bigger, would sit on top of me. He always won.

I never fought with anyone else until the fourth grade, when I was playing “boys against the girls” and hit a boy “square in the jaw”. I had read that term in a book and tried what I thought it would be, aiming the edge of my knuckled fist at his jaw line. To my surprise, my punch staggered him and some drool slobbered from his mouth. I was excited it worked at the same time that I felt sorry for hurting him at the same time that I sensed his shame for being clobbered by a girl.

As a child, I wasn't hit by anyone else, except by a neighbor boy, “a big kid” from across the street. I was teasing him and suddenly he went beserk, slapping and clawing at me. Shocked, I just stood there and took it till he stopped just as suddenly as he had started, and then I wailed, my mouth open wide and my messed up hair tangling with tears and saliva. My brother, standing by in our driveway, asked our neighbor why he would go so mental on a little kid. “Hey,” he replied with a guffaw, “she was pissing me off, you know?” and he nudged my brother knowingly with his elbow. My brother shrugged and privately deemed our neighbor off his rocker. We did not lose our shit like this in public.

I'm not sure when he first picked me up. Off the ground. It was a playful gesture, but I was aghast. We were in the apartment near the university in Yerevan. We moved in together after knowing each other eight weeks which didn't seem strange at the time since we spent practically every day together anyway. Uhm, no, I thought. Put me down. That's not right. I was a grown woman, and this lifting was being done without my consent. Does anyone in the modern world actually do stuff like this? I had to laugh.

I don't think I had been physically picked up off the ground since I was a child. I never thought it was much fun. When I meet little kids, I never grab them or swing them or tickle them or flagellate my lips and tongue over their bellies with a farting noise like other people do. Hi, how are you, I say soberly to the child. They seem to appreciate me for this.

However, I thought maybe it wasn't a bad idea to lose a sense of control every once in a while, even if I were a girl; when he wrestled with his friend I saw how he liked to be picked up off the ground, so I stopped protesting so much. We would even play airplane, when he would lie on his back with his feet in the air and I would lay my belly atop the soles of his feet. At first it jolted me, since my insides weren't normally squished like this, between someone's feet and my own ribs. But soon I learned how to relax, suspended across his big toes with my arms spread like a flailing bird as he giggled.

I don't remember when I first hit him, but it happened in New York.

We weren't getting along. He was very unhappy in this new world and we were personally and financially stressed. He would pick me up, like he did in Yerevan, but it became less playful and more controlling in the middle of arguments. Then he sat on top of me or pinned down my hands so that I could not move. One time he sat on my face and I suffocated against his underwear. I was really losing control.

I never had a boyfriend or girlfriend hit me or vice versa. A Lithuanian boyfriend broke up with me after I yelled at him once; he couldn't take that sort of violence. I was incredulous: Are you kidding me? You're not going to put up with a little yelling? He said I was treating him like my family. This was true as my family did yell all the time, but the way he said it was so insulting.

The first time I screamed at him in Yerevan, he just laughed. I had asked him to go to the corner store to get some lemons because I was in the middle of cooking something for guests, and he said, Go and get them yourself. When I asked him why he couldn't be as sweet to me as he was to others, he told me to Fuck off. So I screamed. Not words, just one long shriek from the most narrow part of my throat. He looked at me with his head to one side, and then he laughed. “It was so strong!” he said. I was glad he wasn't going to leave me like the Lithuanian. Instead, he thought I had been holding in my anger for too long and it simply exploded. He went to the corner store and got me the lemons. We had been living together eight months, married for two, but the lemon screaming incident marked a significant shift in our relationship. My insides had been upended.

He never hit me but I hit him. I had some experience with it from childhood, a behavior lying dormant all these years. Maybe I lashed out at him with my body because he had picked me up and whirled me around and sat on top of me; a physical vocabulary was already part of our language. This was no excuse; I hated when I couldn't control my emotions and worried about the results. Sometimes to avoid punching him, I would rush into the bedroom and scream into a pillow and pound the mattress with my fists. He would follow me and jump on the bed and laugh like he'd won a prize on a game show, which would make me scream even more till my throat was raw. Even though I wasn't harming him, he called me crazy. But I thought I had been doing a pretty good job at anger management.

He has scars on his arms and face and I am not sure where they came from. When we were first getting to know each other, I asked him, and I half-remember his stories about an apple knife slipping to explain the shiny, hairless gash in his forearm, and roughousing with his brother for the deep narrow marks on his face. In New York, he got an eye piercing by the one near his eyebrow, covering it up.

I am visiting his family in Yerevan, three years after we moved to New York. His father has a knife and he is pretending to throw it at his mother. Then there is the playful head push or the grabbing of the ear. She pushes him away, but not too hard, and says he must have been drinking.

My father never hit me and he never hit my mother or sister. He never playfully picked my mother up, though sometimes he would grab her and kiss her. If he got angry, he would explode, yelling and cursing. He would hit only my brother because he wanted to “make a man” out of him, so I always figured my father had been beaten like this by his own father. This made me wonder if my grandfather hit my grandmother, too, but I know now that he was too aware of what she had been through in her childhood to put her through more abuse. She'd seen enough violence for one lifetime, or maybe twenty. This violence she spewed upon her family; yelling, screaming, saying cruel things. Like me, she was a small woman whom no one would expect such behavior. Perhaps I should have been wondering all this time if she had hit him.

Like my grandparents there is a considerable age difference between us. But I am like my grandfather, the older one who gives more freedom, and like my grandmother, he takes away loneliness. An arrangement, like the one their families set up for them. But we chose this, and our gender roles are reversed, and I'm an American, so I don't know up from down.

Now we have stopped hitting and sitting on each other, because of improvements in our living conditions and self-reflective practices such as yoga and psychotherapy; I very rarely scream anymore and everyone is happier. It's true that he sometimes slaps my ass in public or asks me to do the same to him. On my last birthday, he picked me up and turned me upside down in the middle of karaoke with everyone watching. People thought he was crazy, but by now my body was not surprised nor frightened though he could have dropped my head on the concrete floor. I was holding a beer and managed to keep it upright; but my sister took it out of my hand so it wouldn't spill, and my brother scoffed out loud. We were losing our shit like this in public.

When we got married, we said that we would still think of ourselves as before, that nothing would change. But society is a heaving, seething organism that presses people together into formalized couples. I was surprised by the number of individuals who projected their ideas about marriage onto us, wanting us to be some sort of mythical bride and groom. This started to affect our thinking, too. If we hadn't been married, hadn't been granted the public status of a couple, I wouldn't need to tell this story, I don't think. Against my will, I have made a family.

When he pinned my hands down, I summoned all the strength in my body to escape. When he picked me up in the middle of an argument, I kicked at his knees. I always fought back.

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