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A People's History of the Punch Illustration by Peter Mitchell.

A People's History of the Punch

Plays have fights in them because lives have fights in them.

There is a pattern. This pattern exists for your safety, and for your partner’s. In stage fighting, as in life, it’s safest to stick to what you know. The instructor is a slim redhead with a dancer’s posture, who follows every direction with a self-confirming “yeah?” that makes it sound like she’s spent time teaching in Australia, or Britain. Her partner is a hunky recent acting-school grad, who, as my mother points out, has beautiful stage hair; it moves just right. Moments later, on demonstrating a slap, the instructor says, “Doesn’t he have beautiful stage hair?” She says it to me, my mother and the rest of the audience sitting along the back wall. My mom winks. She’s always been good at finding hunks. This is what makes her good at casting high-school musicals. And because it seems like a crime that she’s loved musical theatre for so long but has never gone to its primordial ooze, Broadway, here we finally are. A bunch of moms and me all watching a group of teenagers from my hometown learn stage fighting in New York City. I feel a bit like I should be watching my own child up there, except I don’t have one. My mom watches me make notes.   

There is a pattern, and it goes like this. Plant yourself, squared to your partner. Look him in the eye. Test the distance between the two of you with an outstretched hand. If you can reach the other person, you are too close. Step back. Now, set the slap: raise your hand, palm flat, your arm at a 90 degree angle. Your partner will take this as a cue. The slap is precise and sudden: you swing your hand swiftly. Remember, you are not close enough to actually hit the other person. Your hand does not touch your partner’s face, but he reacts, his face following the arc of the slap with what looks like the appropriate amount of follow-through. Your partner will also bring his hands together sharply, right in front of his body, making the ideal sound effect. Put all together, it looks very real.

A slap is not a punch, the instructor reminds us. It is swift, sudden and sharp. It smacks rather than thuds. It stings but does not hurt. A punch, on the other hand, lands. A punch, she says, is oh-so-different from a slap. A slap is untapped emotion, the continuation of electricity from the heart through the palm to the face. The slapper reacts; the puncher plots. “A punch is calculated,” says the instructor in a bright voice. Her feet are in a perfect first position, like a ballerina’s. “A punch says, ‘I’ve given this some thought. I’ve curled my fingers into a fist. I’m either so mad in the moment that a slap is not enough, or I’ve digested your wrongdoing and realize that only a punch will do.’” A punch, in other words, is a decision.

I look at my mother. She is watching her students learn to fake-slap and fake-punch each other. Her face is impassive. Beyond her, through two sets of external windows that allow us to see into the adjacent room, a dance is being choreographed. Based on the languid neck movements and the jazz hands, I judge it to be Fosse, or a Fosse derivative. This is something I know how to recognize because of the woman next to me. I poke my mom in the leg and point. She mouths the word “Fosse” and winks before turning back to the chorus of thuds and claps around us.

When she was a teenager, my mother wanted to be an actress. She and her high-school classmate Brent Carver were both groomed to take the acting world by storm. Theatre, film, why not? It was the late sixties and early seventies. They were both good-looking and talented.

That she got diverted is not a regret. She says she didn’t want it bad enough, hated auditions and couldn’t see herself devoting her life to “the craft.” Upon graduation, she floated off to study history. Carver floated off to Broadway, and his Wikipedia page details his many roles and his Tony award, won in 1993 for Kiss of the Spider Woman. A birthplace—Cranbrook, British Columbia—is now all he and my mother share.

If my mother had a Wikipedia page, it might say something about how, in 1981, she married my father in Fort Steele, BC, under a gazebo built to match the gold-rush town’s surrounding buildings—most of which were unoccupied facades, long since abandoned. If it was a well-researched entry, it might also say that she almost didn’t go to her own wedding, that she asked my grandfather to keep driving when he reached the turnoff. But she decided to go through with it.

We do not really understand each other, my mother and I. She often reminds me that I was the weirdest kid she’d ever met, which, when you’re talking to someone who’s been a teacher for more than thirty years, is something indeed. She did not understand why I was so long as a baby, when she and my father were both fairly short. She did not understand why I seemed to sleep through the night at an uncommonly young age, but that when she went into my room in the morning and turned on the light, I would be standing up, eyes open, in my crib in the dark. I did not smile. I peered up at goo-gaa-ing strangers and gave them fuck-you looks. I was thin and didn’t grow much hair, and I rubbed my little fist in my eye socket until I gave myself the baby approximation of a black eye. As I grew a bit older it continued: I didn’t like hugs, I refused to lie. I read and read. I turned off the TV by myself, after an appropriate amount of time. Made my own lunches. Tucked myself in. Wished myself goodnight.

Research into child behaviour in households where domestic abuse or alcoholism is present reveals common extremes: children either regress or become instant adults. The latter seems to me to be a survival-of-the-species kind of thing. If there were hundreds of thousands of us walking around with our thumbs in our mouths, society would grind to a halt. Instead, it makes perfect sense that children who have to fill that gap will often do so with the missing adult pieces. And yet I never liked playing house. If it came down to it, I’d play the cool aunt visiting from out of town.

I look like her, my mother, but more like my father. My sister is closer, but neither of us is really that close. At various points, my father broke my mother’s nose, shifted her jaw off its hinge, damaged a cheekbone. The face she had at twenty-five and the face she has at fifty-eight are similar, but different. Like her younger self and her older self are sisters. I’d like to picture her as a young woman; I’ve seen pictures. But I can’t.

Stage fighting started because plays have fights in them. Plays have fights in them because lives have fights in them. The first role my mother loved to play more than anything was Lucy in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, which she performed in high school. Her Lucy was a bruiser, one who went around hitting and pushing the boys, yelling at them. “These five fingers. Individually, they are nothing,” Lucy says at one point, splaying out her hand. “But when I curl them together into a single unit, they become a fighting force terrible to behold.” My mother still loves that line. Playing Lucy like a hard-living tomboy with sensitivity issues gave the character’s psychiatric-advice-stand scenes more weight: she is an adult-like little girl who wants to be treated with respect, to break through the elementary-school glass ceiling. She picks on Charlie because she wants him to like her. She falls for the sensitive, unthreatening Schroeder, but he ignores her because he loves music. The play got rave reviews, and my mom signed her fellow cast members’ programs “Love, Lucy.”

Once, while she was helping me get apartment insurance, my mom and I sat in the waiting area of a bank on Hastings Street in Vancouver. A man, smelling like booze, body odour and cigarettes, dragged a woman in by the arm. He left her there while he went to see a teller. She was beautiful, her head shaved bald around a nasty, freshly sewn-up scalp laceration. One eye was black, the other tearing up. She bit a split bottom lip. I looked at her once, covertly, then looked down and away in embarrassment. My mother, on the other hand, looked directly at the woman. Stared, in fact, until the woman returned her gaze. “It hurts, doesn’t it,” my mother said. “Being hit.” The woman squirmed a bit in her seat, then let out a strangled “yes.” There was nothing more—the man returned and hauled her away—but my mother had reached across that gap. Other waiting customers now looked quizzically at the woman who’d spoken up. I blushed and wished she’d kept her mouth shut.

In high school, I starred in a play in which I played a bossy and bitchy but ultimately loveable teenage girl who stops her peers from doing drugs. The pivotal scene was one in which I confronted a friend and slapped him in the face for falling prey to bad influence. My fellow thespian and I couldn’t figure out how to fake a believable slap, so I just hit him outright. I told him I’d do it softly, but I did it hard when we actually performed, and he ended up with a big bruise, and I with stinging fingers. My method acting earned me an award. Later, when my co-star expressed his annoyance with me, I told him he could slap me back. I closed my eyes and breathed out in preparation, but he chose not to. It would be the closest I’d ever come to being hit.

On our second-to-last night in New York, we see a production of West Side Story. My mother and I, side by side, are rapt; the kids and other moms around us prefer the bombast and comedy of other shows we’ve seen. The fighting in West Side Story is more like dance, but it’s still muscular, masculine stuff, Gene Kelly-esque. At the beginning of the song “Somewhere,” my mother and I begin crying simultaneously, as if on cue. Afterward, as we weave our way through Times Square, one of the kids recalls what the fight choreographer taught them about distance. He wonders how close the actors were to one another. He knows they weren’t, probably, but maybe they were actually punching each other? We know the truth, my mom and I. But we don’t say anything.