Blood Brothers

by Robert Anasi '89

The first fight that I remember happened before I was five. My mother had called from work and I grabbed the phone. As we talked, my younger brother Marc hopped up and down shouting, "Give me the phone! Give me the phone!" After some minutes of this, my grandmother had heard enough. "Give him the phone," she said. So I did, by smashing the handset into his mouth. Dark blotted his white teeth and blood flowed down his chin.

Marc and I were always together and we always fought. Childhood development theories provide a serviceable explanation: my mother was the sun and my brother and I both wanted all of her light. A practical young animal, I tried to get rid of the problem by murdering Marc. When he was an infant, my parents would find me next to his crib, dragging whatever limb I could catch toward my open mouth. "It was terrible," my mother says. "He was always covered with bite marks."

In school, I dramatized my parents' unhappy marriage by attacking other children, and I spent as much time in the principal's office as I did in the classroom. Fortunately for the other kids, I didn't grow very big. Since I was also loud and hyperactive, I got picked on (the difference between a bully and his victim is only inches and pounds). At 15 I transferred to a new high school and became the favorite target of a hockey player named Jeff Lewis. Lewis enjoyed punching me, kicking me, and sticking gum in my hair. Eight months into our relationship, I ran into him outside of a bar (large and hairy, Jeff had no need for a fake ID). For some reason, I decided to confront him. The next thing I remember, I was getting up off the sidewalk. "I told you not to do that," a friend said. I didn't remember what had happened but my jaw ached. Lewis had left the scene.

That year, my brother and I fought for the last time. His terrier was shredding the mail and I smacked it. "Don't hit my dog," Marc said, and I flew at him on that same old blast of rage. But my brother wasn't the same skinny, chattering kid whom we'd nicknamed Motor Mouth. Marc had gotten quiet and he'd gotten big. At 15 he started lifting weights, and his equipment turned the basement into a medieval dungeon. For hours every day, we'd hear clanks and grunting over the sounds of classic rock. Marc had turned into his own Frankenstein's monster—a mute tower of muscle. When I jumped at him in the living room, he wrapped me under a bicep as big around as my thigh. The room got dark and I flailed at his hands. Just before I passed out, he shoved me to the floor. "It's over," he said, and walked into the kitchen. I didn't understand why he'd let me go. The next time I saw him, he was wearing a cast on his right forearm. I wouldn't have made the connection, but my mother wasn't happy. "You know you broke your brother's thumb," she said. I glowed with pleasure; through luck, I'd won. It was never mentioned again. Shouting followed by silence was the way my family handled conflict.

Growing up, Marc and I were forced to share a room, but we barely spoke, trying to make each other invisible. If one of us did something, the other one did the opposite. He became an Eagle Scout; I got kicked out of the same Boy Scout troop. I was an atheist; he had a Catholic cross and an American flag over his bed. I went to Sarah Lawrence; Marc joined the Reserve Officers' Training Corps. We received notices about each other from different corners of the universe. He served in the first Gulf War, where, as an artillery scout, he was one of the first soldiers on the "Highway of Death" out of Kuwait City. After the war, he resigned his commission, but a law degree didn't make him any happier than he had been as a first lieutenant. Then at age 32 he found his dream job as an agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. He quickly graduated to the ATF SWAT team. Much of his work involves traveling the country on task forces, serving warrants on Mexican cartel enforcers, a gun smuggling ring in Guam, or bike gangs dealing meth.

Although two people couldn't seem more different, I was also finding a way to deal with violence. At 24, I walked into a boxing gym in San Francisco's Tenderloin District. The immediate reason was that my college girlfriend had broken up with me. Punching other men (and sometimes women) gave me a legal target for assault and battery. In the ring, your parents won't punish you for hurting someone—you are supposed to hurt them. The better you get at hurting, the more praise you receive. At the same time, you also have to have a tolerance for pain. Before my first sparring session, my trainer said, "This is the real test. Most people, when they get hit in the head, they think, ‘What the hell!' and run through those ropes. But a real fighter is a masochist as well as a sadist. When he gets hit, he kind of likes it." I don't think of myself as a masochist, but the first time I got hit hard enough to see stars, I thought, "This isn't so bad."

I'm a slow learner, and mistakes in boxing have immediate consequences. Lose your temper when someone hits you with a cross and you'll get hit again. Control in the ring gave me control in daily life. When a girlfriend pointed out a flaw, I didn't start yelling; when someone bumped into me at a club, I no longer said, "What's your fucking problem?" Three years ago, I left boxing for MMA (mixed martial arts). The sport is a potpourri of various fighting styles: freestyle wrestling and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Muay Thai, and judo. After 20 years of getting punched in the head, I concentrate on grappling. You can get injured but you won't get brain damage. I leave the gym at peace with the universe.

Violence goes beyond the physical. In literary and academic scenes, I see as much anger and aggression as I do at Gleason's Gym. The world is filled with angry men and women who have no connection to their emotions. As a graduate student and teacher, I watch professors abuse students, sorority girls tear each other apart, and artists mock each other's work. A poetry reading can turn into a bigger pissing contest than Friday Night Fights. I watch people rigid with anger or twisted with shame, and I think, "After six months in the gym, you would be so much happier." Anger is an unavoidable aspect of being human, but we're taught to choke it down. When I moved to California, my brother lived a half hour away, and we started hanging out. Surfing is his Zen, and he took me with him to the water. I'm a terrible surfer and he generally takes me places where I can't handle the surf. He doesn't say anything, but I think it's his version of payback—he rides waves and I get pounded. Marc is gruff, but when we drink he talks as fast as he did when he was 11. We're both childless bachelors with a mess of failed relationships behind us. Yet our encounters with violence have made us calmer men.

Robert Anasi's new book, The Last Bohemia: Scenes from Life in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, will be published in August. He is currently writing about crime and violence on the US-Mexico border with photojournalist Andrew Lichtenstein '88. Marc and his law-enforcement contacts have made the project possible.