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>Deathly Sick & Fight!

July 13, 2010


Deathly Sick
SNAPSHOT: Mom stands in the open doorway to our house, a look of fear on her face. I’m collapsed on the porch.
This was one of the two times I became violently, almost fatally, ill in Mexico, both times from eating or drinking something I’d purchased from a street vendor. Valerie, being much younger, had little money or opportunity for buying street foods and so she never got really sick. Neither did Mom. She didn’t have nearly as much contact with everyday Mexican life as I did and her food and drink were always sanitized. We had, for example, pasteurized bottled water delivered once a week in five-gallon bottles which we placed in the garafon, the swinging metal framework we had first encountered in the California Courts. If we didn’t get our scheduled delivery Mom would have Irene boil big pots of water which would be poured into an empty garafon bottle. Our food at home was equally safe. It was prepared by Irene from food she or we had purchased (and inspected) at the public market.
In contrast, I never hesitated to buy food and drink from street vendors and hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Mom was always warning me about the dangers but I never took them seriously. After all, none of my Mexican friends ever became ill and for two years I’d experienced no problems. What was there to worry about? Besides, I enjoyed the items I bought. Fruits, vegetables, agua fresca, tacos, hot dogs, candy, nuts, ice cream, I did it all. Of course, being a teenager just about anything edible was good. What proved to be my big mistake on this particular occasion was a paleta I’d bought after dinner one evening from the ice cream vendor.
My first inkling that something was wrong came late the next morning at school. I began to sweat profusely, my head pounding and my ears ringing. When the noon dismissal bell finally rang I made my way none too steadily to my bike. School was only three miles from home but they were uphill miles, a very slight grade but uphill nonetheless. It felt like Pike’s Peak. Every turn of the pedals was agony. My legs were rubbery, my head continued to pound and sweat poured into my eyes.
I made it home, letting the bike drop in the front yard and staggering to our door, falling against it. Mom opened the door, took a look at me and the blood drained from her face. “My God, David, what’s the matter?”
 “I’m sick, Mom,” was all I could manage, just before collapsing on the porch.
She sent Irene to get the doctor we occasionally used and who lived several blocks away. Somehow Mom got me upstairs, undressed and into bed. By this time I was delirious.
The doctor arrived and did all his doctor things. When he left he gave Mom several small glass ampoules with some kind of oral antibiotic in them.
“He’s to break open the ampoule and swallow the contents. Have him take them regularly until they’re gone,” he told her. “He’s not to miss even one!”
They were the most God-awful thing I’ve ever tasted in my life. They were so bad I almost preferred being sick. But they did the trick and I recovered. Mom told me later that the doctor had said my fever was so high I was close to dying. Any delay probably would have been fatal.
SNAPSHOT: There are several of us gathered in the glorieta and, in spite of the deepening twilight, you can still make out Richard lying on the ground, bleeding. I stand over him, fists clenched.
SNAPSHOT: Same scene, same time, only now I’m the one on the ground, pinned by another boy who’s in a rage.
I have two sets of friends: my Mexican friends from Colegio Cervantes and the neighborhood, and my American friends from my short time at the American School. They lived in different worlds, these two groups, and no one in either group had any desire to associate with anyone from the other group. The American kids lived insular, parochial lives, like the boy in the bubble, only this was a whole community in a bubble, determined not to be contaminated. They needn’t have worried: the Mexicans were hardly even aware of their existence. I was the only one making the trip between worlds, between cultures.
There was another American boy, my age, named Richard. His parents owned a restaurant in Chapalita and, like me, he attended a Mexican school, Instituto de Ciencias, a Jesuit institution and an archrival to Cervantes for the reputation as the best school and the best futbol team in the city. Unlike me, however, he appeared to have no American friends. He never hung out with any of the American crowd and I never saw him at any of the American parties. As a result, I knew him only casually.
SNAPSHOT: A small outdoor café. It sits on the corner of one of the blocks I pass every day on my way to school. Richard and three friends are sitting at one of the four tables watching me go by. The sneers on their faces, which we can see in the snapshot, reflect the jeers in their voices, which we can’t hear.
Every day, on my way to and from school I passed a small outdoor café. Richard and his friends were often there. For some reason there was bad blood between us. Maybe it was because we attended rival schools or maybe because we were both trying to impress our Mexican friends. In any case, we often exchanged words in Spanish as I walked or biked by the café where he and his friends hung out. The exchanges were not friendly and grew more heated and bellicose over time. Elvis Presley finally drove me to challenge Richard to a fight.
One Sunday afternoon Perico and I had gone to the movies to see Elvis in Jailhouse Rock. I loved listening to Elvis, dancing to his music and watching his movies. He embodied a raw, good-guy toughness that I wanted to emulate. I watched the movie’s fight scenes intently, identifying myself with the virtuous, underdog Elvis. All of a sudden I felt like a virtuous underdog in the situation with Richard and decided to do something about it. I’d beat the shit out of him, just like I was watching Elvis do to his tormentors.
The next day, walking to the bus after school, I passed the café and there was Richard. “Mira,” he smirked to his friends, “ahi va el gringuito.” Look, there goes the little gringo.
I didn’t hesitate. I assumed my Elvis identity and challenged him to fight or shut up.
He was obviously surprised but picked up the gauntlet. “We’ll fight.”
One of his friends jumped to his feet and pointed at me, grinning maliciously. “¡Vas a ver, cabron!” , “You’ll get yours, asshole!”
We cooled our machismo long enough to set the details: the coming Saturday evening at the glorieta in Chapalita, seven o’clock.
As I walked away I began to experience mixed feelings about what I’d just done. The challenge to a fight wasn’t the problem. The taunts and the verbal exchanges had gone on long enough. Besides, I had Elvis on my side didn’t I? (I wonder if Richard also believed he had Elvis on his side.) No, what I regretted was agreeing to fight next Saturday evening and this was only Monday afternoon. I had six long days to think about it.
Realizing I’d been in only three fights in my life, none amounting to much, I began to have doubts. I kicked at a rock on the sidewalk and watched it bounce off a wall into the gutter. I wished the rock were Richard. The walk to the bus took a long time.
Of course I had to tell Perico and Alejo and Ramon about the fight. Perico was ecstatic and immediately assumed responsibility for being my trainer. “Those hijos de puta at Ciencias are all morons,” he proclaimed, “and you’re going to prove it. Here’s what you have to do. Wear blue jeans, a long-sleeve shirt and tennis shoes. Keep your pockets empty. As soon as you’re toe-to-toe with him, haul off and slug him in the stomach, hard, then hit him in the face. Put him away fast, with two punches. Don’t give the asshole a chance!” That didn’t sound very sporting to me but then I had no real fighting experience and Perico did. Or claimed he did. (“Yeah, I’ve been in lots of fights. Just do what I say.”) I did.
Every day the four of us biked or bussed to school together and every day I was reminded by Perico of Saturday evening’s strategy. And every day it was Perico who brought it up. In the morning: “Remember, blue jeans, a long-sleeve shirt, tennis shoes.” At lunch: “Remember, nothing in your pockets.” I really puzzled over that one. I wanted to ask why but at the same time I didn’t want to talk about the fight any more than I had to. After school: “Remember, hit first, hit twice, hit hard.” To make matters worse, we had to pass the café  every day and Richard and his friends were usually there, smirking, taunting, reminding me of what was to come. Perico didn’t help matters any with his own verbal jabs and the shadow boxing he did as we passed by, looking at Richard.
Saturday slowly (so slowly!) drew nearer and my apprehension grew as my confidence waned. I was tired of Perico’s relentless enthusiasm for the upcoming fight. I was tired of his constant exhortation to “Hit him first, hit him hard, hit him twice.” Truth is, I was beginning to regret the challenge. I really didn’t like to fight and now I wasn’t sure I could even acquit myself respectably come Saturday evening, let alone beat Richard. The vision of the fight that played so frequently in my mind (whether I wanted it to or not) was no longer a heroic one. I was no longer Elvis conquering Richard, walking away triumphantly (and unscarred) from the fight. That vision was replaced with a more sobering one: me on the ground in pain, bleeding, pride punctured by humiliation. Richard, the Lion-Hearted, walking away triumphantly. And unscarred. Elvis was quickly fading.
The week unhurriedly gave up Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and grudgingly delivered Saturday. Now I didn’t want Saturday; what I wanted was Sunday, Sunday morning. Unfortunately, Saturday evening still stood between me and Sunday morning.
Saturday morning. I dress just the way Perico has directed and go downstairs. Unaware of the fight, Mom can’t understand why I’m so irritable all day, although she doesn’t puzzle over it much, chalking it up to adolescent moodiness. I’m at loose ends all day. I don’t want to go out and have to hear Perico’s three-fold advice one more time. I don’t feel like being with anybody, I don’t feel like doing anything. The only thing I can think about is Sunday morning. I spend most of the day up in my bedroom, lying on my unmade bed reading or dwelling compulsively on the fight. I speak no more than a few desultory words to anybody.
At dinner I eat a tortilla, take a few spoonfuls of Irene’s wonderful sopa de elote (corn soup), and then announce that I’m going over to Perico’s house.
“David,” Mom begins, annoyance and concern both touching her voice. But I’m already up and moving to the door. I don’t look back as it closes behind me.
It’s 6:30 when I get to Perico’s house and whistle the familiar seven notes. Within a couple of minutes, my three friends are out and we head for the glorieta, or, as Perico has taken to calling it, the arena. His attitude toward this whole thing really pisses me off. He’s not going to fight, he didn’t have to spend the whole week (and another whole week on Saturday) in anxious anticipation, he doesn’t have to face the possibility of having the shit beat out of him. Perico’s response is always the same: “You worry too much. Just hit first, hit hard, hit twice, it’ll be over before you know it.”
We arrive at the glorieta and find it deserted except for Richard and his friends, who are already there. It’s too late for the little kids and too early for the older crowd. Just as I have three friends with me, he has three friends with him. We agree on some ground rules: no fighting dirty (it never occurs to me that a sucker punch could be considered fighting dirty; Perico never mentioned that); it’s just me and Richard, nobody else is to interfere; no knives, no feet; fists only.
Richard and I square off and I’m only vaguely aware of the other six boys. My attention is focused on Richard, his raised fists making slow rotations, his confident smile draining what little confidence I still had.
I don’t remember actually hitting him. I know I followed Perico’s instructions: I hit first, I hit hard and I hit twice. I remember Richard lying on the ground bleeding from the nose. I remember staring at my fist, wondering why it hurt so much. I just can’t remember the actual blows. Nor do I remember exactly how I wound up on the ground with one of Richard’s friends on top of me, pinning down my arms with his legs, screaming at me that I was a fucking coward, that I had agreed not to fight dirty and that he was going to beat the shit out of me.
Perico and Ramon rushed in, pulled him from on top of me and Alejo helped me to my feet. And that was it; the fight was over. There was no follow-up, no face-off between them and us. It was just over. Richard’s friends helped him to his feet. One of them glared at me, snarling, “This ain’t over cabron!” and flipped me off as they left.
We returned to Perico’s house, Perico dancing around and air-boxing the whole way, throwing jabs and hooks at an imaginary opponent. “You did it!” he says, “it was perfect! You did just what I told you and you won! Did you see that fucker lying there on the ground?” My jubilation didn’t come close to matching his. Yeah, I’d taken out Richard but in a way that left me feeling sick. My “victory” such as it was, was tarnished. And add to that the still-fresh and mortifying image of Richard’s friend sitting on my chest, pinning me down and I had little reason to celebrate. Ramon and Alejo were quiet also, probably with the same thoughts that were troubling me. Only Perico was satisfied with the outcome.
In the days following there were reminders of what happened. First, I decided to change my route to school, going several blocks out of my way to avoid passing the little café. And it turned out that I broke the knuckle of the little finger on my right hand when I “hit him hard, hit him twice.” It was swollen and hurt like the dickens. I tried hard to keep Mom from noticing. Another reminder came a couple of weeks later when Mom casually mentioned having talked with Richard’s parent. She waited to see my response. “Oh?” I said, in my best off-hand voice.
“Yes,” Mom went on. “They mentioned something about you and Richard being in a fight and that he came home all bloodied. Is that why your hand was all swollen?”
Not knowing how safe the waters were, I tried to change the direction and intent of the questioning. “Look,” I said, holding up my hand, “it’s fine.”
She looked at me funny. “OK.” Some things are better left unknown.
One Comment leave one →
  1. July 14, 2010 6:33 am

    >Guess there's a sucker punch born every minute somewhere in the world. Good that you found yours early in life and came out better for the experience. Winning can sometimes feel like losing when its over, and as such we learn…Katzenjammeron

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