The only person David Bersell ever wanted to fight was his brother.
My older brother Kevin is the only person who I have ever punched in the face.
I felt his eye socket cup my knuckles. He did not flinch. It was only a half-punch, in reaction to a teenage argument that I cannot place. We both smiled at the audible pop of bone smacking bone and the near-instant purple crescent that followed.
Then Kevin pinned my shoulders against our staircase and said, “You know I could fucking kill you if I wanted, right?” His hot breath pushed against my face.
Even though we were the same height, at three years older, Kevin outweighed me by 50 pounds. A senior in high school, he was state-ranked in the breaststroke. His torso looked like the letter V. I was a freshman, all limbs, skinny as a cigarette.
He said, “Are you calmed down? Are you going to stop?”
I hissed, “Yes.”
He pinned me again.
The next fight: I tackled him off the back porch. I’m not sure how we wrestled back up the three steps and inside the screen door.
I heard skin being pulled against the kitchen’s linoleum, then my mom bawling. My head pinned upside-down, she looked tiny, only five-feet tall. At the same time, Kevin and I let go of each other, wordless.
I realized that if we wanted to, Kevin and I were finally strong enough to really hurt each other. It only took me a few hours to forgive my brother.
Last summer, at the wedding reception of Kevin’s best friend, I sat on the edge of the dance floor, weeping into my girlfriend’s neck, trying to explain how much my brother had done for me.
As teenagers, before I had my own friends, he invited me to join his. For years, before I was old enough to start working, he paid for my movies and burgers and camping trips—thousands of dollars.
When I couldn’t figure out how to ride a bike, Kevin set me up on top of a hill and said, “All you have to do is steer.” He pressed a palm against my back and shoved me forward.
I’m not embarrassed by what I whispered to my girlfriend or the tears, but because wedding-drunk, talking to someone other than Kevin, was the only way I could vocalize how I felt about him.
Now that we are old enough to call ourselves men, when I think about Kevin, I almost feel like I am picturing myself. It’s like a dream. It takes a few moments to recognize my own slightly distorted reflection.
Growing up, my family moved every few years because of my dad’s business career, and with our older sister, Kevin and I played from sunup to sundown. We shared bunk beds, Catholic alter server schedules, soccer and track teams, first jobs.
Together, we learned to ignore pain.
The summer before Kevin started college, we boxed. We fought in the basement after school, like when we were boys, in a different house, in a different state, or at night, awake after watching another cable movie.
“Do you want to box?”
I hesitated, but always said “yes.”
We slipped hand puppets over uncalloused hands, unlocked the back door, and walked to the neighborhood’s only streetlight in silence. We puffed sour 7-11 cigars until my throat felt like paper.
We only owned two “gloves,” one for each of our dominant hands. I swung with right, Kevin hooked with left. Under the ring of light, we punched like drunks, pushed, and sweat.
The hand puppets were childhood relics of the 90s. “B-ball Alf” thumped kidney. “Chef Alf” slapped belly button. No face shots.
I felt Kevin’s fist through cotton, through synthetic nylon and plastic buttons, hitting me somewhere nearly inside myself. His punches kept time on my chest, and I jabbed back before retreating, circling the halo.
We directed our anger, for girls who didn’t love us and parents who did, at the only other person who could take it. No violence.
My brother gave me all I could handle, because he loved me. And after, we laid our bodies down in darkness, in dew-growing grass, and listened to our hearts trying to slow down.