12 minute read

Paula Sophia Schonauer, LCSW, continues a serial memoir. If you haven’t read the earlier parts of this series, follow the links at the bottom of this page.


“I was in a no-win situation, so I’m glad that I won rather than lost.” 

— Frank Bruno on his win against Oliver McCall


A kid rode a bicycle by my house one day, short hair for a girl, long hair for a boy, wearing blue jeans, an orange t-shirt, and a faded orange and black ball cap. I had heard about this kid: Boo Colburn, a real tomboy. 

“You’re gonna get your ass kicked! You’re gonna get your ass kicked!” 

Boo continued riding down the street, turned toward Tommy’s house and laid the bike in the front yard. 

It was hard to tell if Boo was a boy or a girl, but I had heard people using female pronouns when talking about Boo. I had also heard people referring to Boo as “one of the guys” in a laughing, dismissive way. It seemed they didn’t take Boo seriously, but it also seemed like Boo had escaped the persecution I had endured over the previous months. Additionally, Boo had been known to play on a boy’s baseball team, a new development in Little League sports. 

I must admit I envied Boo. She was able to dress like a boy, ride a boy’s bike, play in a boy’s baseball league, and behave like a boy, and nobody seemed to care that much about it. I had decided that the world really hated girls and girly things, especially boys who didn’t act the way boys were expected to act. It was a double standard that vexed me for years to come. 

However, the more pressing concern of “getting my ass kicked” was at the forefront of my mind. The previous weeks had been a respite from the threats and taunts from Tommy and his friends, and though I had not been told, I had assumed it was because Michael Doughty was teaching me how to box, that he had put his protective wing around me. 

Boo’s taunts were an ominous sign that things were getting ready to return to normal, which had been intolerable, a no-win situation, a virtual hell. I felt the stirring of a familiar insecurity and the cloud of fear that had dictated my behavior. It occurred to me that Michael had decided to stop training me because I had bloodied his lip, that he had told somebody, and, thus, implied I was subject to hunting season once again. 

I rushed across the street, hoping to find Michael in his garage, and there he was, opening the garage doors, bringing out two pairs of boxing gloves. He smiled at me as I trotted up his driveway. I felt immediate relief to see I was welcome. 

“Hey there, sport,” he said. “Ready to lace them on?”

I nodded. 

“I got something new in mind for this evening,” he explained, a little tentative. “I think you’re ready for a real fight. What do you think about that?”

I didn’t know what to say. Perplexed and suspicious, I started to back away from him. 
“Paul, if you weren’t ready, I wouldn’t ask. I think you need to do this.”

Paula Sophia
Paula Sophia (provided)

His tone of voice was careful but insistent. He offered a pair of boxing gloves, gesturing for me to accept them. Up to this moment, Michael had never done anything to make me afraid of him, but I had such mixed feelings, my love and admiration for a guy who had gone out of his way to spend time with me, someone powerful and handsome, the kind of guy I wanted to be if I had to be a guy. Then, there was this request to have a “real fight.” With whom? I couldn’t imagine slugging it out with Michael or his buddy, Jeff. They were so much bigger than me. 

As I started to ask who I would be fighting, I heard Boo yell, “You’re gonna get your ass kicked.” 

Behind Boo was a crowd of neighborhood boys, Tommy foremost among them, and with him was his big brother, Tim, as well as some of Tim’s friends, 8th and 9th graders from Bolich Junior High School. They march up Michael’s driveway jostling and laughing, pointing at me. 

“Hey, Donut!” Tim yelled. 

“Hey there, Tim. Glad you could make it.”

Michael’s words made me wonder if he had been expecting Tim to come over, like there had been an appointment, some prior arrangement. 

At this point, I felt betrayed. My cheeks swelled with heat, and I started blinking to hold back tears. I was so afraid. 

“Michael…?”

Michael stepped toward me. I wanted to run but doing so would have me running into the crowd that was gathering in the driveway. They’d beat me up for sure. It was a no-win situation. I had to trust Michael. It was my only hope. 

“Come on, lace on the gloves.”

I turned my back to the crowd, held out my hands while Michael thrust the gloves over my hands and forearm, the wristbands almost reaching my elbows. He did not hesitate to yank the laces, knotting them down so the wristbands felt snug against my flesh. 

“You’re going to be fighting Tommy,” Michael said. 

I whimpered. How could this be? My mind screamed. I saw myself getting beat down right there and then and continuously over the next year or two, maybe for the rest of my life. Tommy wasn’t going to let me get away with this. He and his friends would stalk me forever. 

“Michael…?”

“I know. You don’t think you’re ready, but I think, in fact, I know you are. Remember that day with the bicycles? You were kicking his ass then. And that was before we started training.”

“What about his…his friends? They hurt me, too.” 

I spoke with hesitation, trembling with fear, but also trying to keep myself from lisping. The speech lessons had made an impact, and I could feel this persona growing within me, fueled by anger and betrayal. I was mad at Michael, mad at Tommy, mad at the whole damn world, at God for creating me, for making this moment possible. 

“If any of those guys even touch you, I’m going to kick their asses myself.”

That made me feel a little better. 

“S-s-so, just me and Tommy?”

“Yes, just you and Tommy.”

Tim was already lacing Tommy’s gloves while Tommy glared at me, sneering. He was saying something, but his words got lost in the cacophony of voices that surrounded him. More kids had come up to the driveway, curious to see what was going to happen. Jeff came over from next door. 

“Hey there, bud,” Jeff said. He tousled my hair. “I’m going to miss Happy Days for this, so you better make this worth my while.”   

“O–okay…”

Michael massaged my shoulders. “Relax, dude. This is going to be a cake walk. Mark my words.”

Before long, I was standing in Michael’s back yard surrounded by at least two dozen neighborhood kids, and there were still some kids arriving. It was like the event had been advertised. Then, I remembered how Boo had taunted me earlier. She had known. It seems everybody knew but me, that tonight was the night for a showdown.

Had I known ahead of time, I probably wouldn’t have shown up, and I think Michael understood this, too. 

There wasn’t a boxing ring, just a circle of kids. Michael was my coach, and Tim was Tommy’s coach. Boo was Tommy’s cheerleader yelling taunts and obscenities at me, all the usual slurs: queer, fag, sissy, queeny, and some I had never heard before. It seemed unfair that she would harangue me when she herself was just as queer as I was. 

I couldn’t win. It was a no-win situation. 

The next few moments went by in a blur: Michael’s arm around my shoulders, his other arm around Tommy’s, the discussion of rules, the words of encouragement, and Tommy’s grinning face, his gloves bumping back and forth repeatedly like he couldn’t wait to start the fight.

I was frozen. I couldn’t have moved to save my life, and the world felt hazy, voices and sounds muffled, everything squeezing down to a kind of silence, or maybe it was deafness, a retreat to that moment of suspension when I was drowning. I so much wanted to go there, to leave my body, to be anywhere or doing anything but what I was doing at that very moment. 

Michael nudged me backward, pushing Tommy away as well, and then he raised his arm and brought it down between us to mark the start of the fight. I stood there, gloves at my waist, forgetting everything Michael had taught me about how to cover up and protect my head and face from being pummeled, one blow after another. 

I saw a blur of movement, Tommy dancing in front of me, throwing punches at the air, Tim yelling for him to close the gap, but it was all so distant, like a long, lost echo. This couldn’t be happening right now, could it?

I didn’t see the punch, but I saw something in front of my face right before it pressed against my nose, creating a chain reaction: drool leaking out the side of my mouth, my head snapping back, my nose cracking, my eyes watering… and then the pain. 

The pain blinded me, or maybe it was the blood. I saw red splash into my eyes. I heard the crowd… oooo, ahhh… laughter, yelling, Michael’s voice saying… something.

And then everything sped up, but most of all, the pain. The pain swelled through my head, making me dizzy, and I dropped to my knees, fell forward, and cradled my face in my boxing gloves. I started to cry, not just tears, but deep, despairing sobs. I was down, and I did not intend to get back up. As far as I was concerned, this fight was over. 

I was aware of the voices next, a chorus of jeers, all of them laughing and taunting, the loudest belonging to Boo.

“Oh, God, Tommy! You destroyed him, a one-punch knockout.”

“What a fairy! What a woman! What a queer! What a little queen!” 

The crowd’s derision, at first a collusion of separate voices, became more united, and they started chanting. “No queers allowed out here! No queers here. No queers here!”

Michael was counting: three, four… 

“No queers here!”

Five, six…

I wanted to die right there. To disappear forever, but I felt a stirring of shame that grew to encompass my entire life like a wet blanket falling from the sky, enveloping me, smothering me, squeezing me down to nothing. 

I began thrashing, and without realizing it, I stood up, blood dripping from my nose, running down my face onto my belly, staining my cutoff jean shorts, the very ones that had once been a pair of hand-me-downs from a girl. The peace sign that had been painted upon the pants leg, cut off, gone to the trash.   

Tommy stood there, the triumphant look on his face turning into a question mark. I didn’t waste any time. I closed in upon him, right hand reeled back to throw a haymaker – not one of the punches Michael had taught me. When I unwound, the punch connected on his face, splattering his nose. I swear I could feel it crunch with the impact, through the leather and padding, right down to my knuckles. I thought I felt a slight twinge of pain, but it didn’t stop me from slamming my left glove against the side of his head.

The crowd got quiet. Tommy started to cry, enraged and humiliated. He ran at me, but I stepped aside as Michael had taught me, slammed my gloves into his abdomen and kidneys. He flung his gloves to the ground, grabbed me around the neck, and tried to wrestle me.

I tried to remove my gloves, but Michael had tied them right. I could not grab Tommy to do any good as a wrestler, so I tried to twist away from him. His headlock tightened around my neck, causing me to gag, and I started to panic, thrashing, kicking, and, finally, kneeing him in the groin. Tommy collapsed and curled into a ball, moaning and crying. 

Michael pulled me away from Tommy as I moved close, raising my foot for a kick. I had so much rage in me, and all I wanted to do was hurt him again and again. Tim grabbed Tommy, pulled him out of the circle, yelling at me, accusing me of cheating. Tim’s twisted face, his square jaw, and the sneer on his lips reminded me of Tommy, but he was more mature, his arms sinewy, waist trim. He was athletic, bigger than me by a lot, but I wasn’t afraid of him, not in that moment.

I was ready to take on the world. I wanted to inflict pain upon everyone there to avenge every humiliation, every beating, every tear. It felt so righteous.


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Last Updated September 4, 2021, 5:53 PM by Brett Dickerson – Editor