IT WAS BE­ING EIGHT OR NINE and walk­ing into my par­ents’ bed­room, my fa­ther on top of my mother, a sheet over them, the way my young fa­ther looked up at me: plea­sure in­ter­rupted. It was the shock of cru­elty, of be­ing the new boy in school, get­ting called “Four Eyes” and “Fag­got.” It was the burning sting of a slap to my face, then the punch, a flash of green be­tween my ears, the frozen ground rush­ing up to meet me. It was the kicks to my back and ribs and legs. It was the yelling and laugh­ter of the other kids, and it was the stand­ing up and brush­ing blades of grass off my clothes and pick­ing up my glasses and re­fus­ing to wear them ever again. It was play­ing with toy sol­diers on the floor and watch­ing my fa­ther on the couch cry­ing. His hair was thin­ning but still dark, and he had a thick mus­tache and his eyes shone in the light of our black-and-white TV. A news­man held a mi­cro­phone and be­hind him dead sol­diers, 18, 19 years old, were be­ing zipped into black bags and loaded into a he­li­copter, its blades whirring, this news­man’s slick hair com­ing un­done. “They’re just boys,” my fa­ther cried. “God­damn it, they’re just boys.”

It was hear­ing about na­palm. It was see­ing that Life mag­a­zine pho­to­graph when I was nine years old of a pretty Viet­namese girl run­ning naked down a dirt road, cry­ing, her clothes burned off her, her vil­lage lost in black smoke be­hind her.

It was see­ing a girl who looked like her on the bus, though all she had was the same dark hair and pretty face. It was want­ing to kiss that girl, then one day kiss­ing her up against the porch be­hind the house our mother had moved us to af­ter our fa­ther drove away. It was see­ing my mother sleep alone. It was watch­ing her put on makeup then leave the house and climb into the cars of men we did not know. Once the back of a mo­tor­cy­cle.

It was ly­ing in bed, 10, 11, 12 years old, and hear­ing her make love with those men. One boyfriend at a time, though the moan­ing sounded painful to me, and I felt I should do some­thing about it. It was be­ing younger than that and walk­ing through the woods with my Daisy BB ri­fle. It was aim­ing at a small bird on a limb and squeez­ing the trig­ger and watch­ing that bird fall. It was the sick feel­ing af­ter, the pump­ing joy­ful ter­ror and never want­ing to do it again but do­ing it again and again.

It was com­ing back to their bod­ies days later, the squirm of mag­gots in the feath­ers.

It was watch­ing my lit­tle brother beaten up in front of me by a grown man. It was look­ing into the mir­ror and telling my 14-year-old face he would never not fight again. It was get­ting only six push-ups. It was get­ting only 10 sit-ups. It was chang­ing my body from soft to hard. It was the way that gym owner looked at me, 147 pounds and no whiskers or mus­cles, when I shot a right cross into the Ever­last la­bel on the heavy bag, and it jolted and swayed back­ward. It was how he told me if I do that in the street, he’s go­ing down. It was do­ing that in the street for years and years. It was the mem­brane break­ing around each and ev­ery face, the soft thud of my fists on flesh and bone and car­ti­lage giv­ing way.

It was the lit­tle voice in my blood telling me I was only adding to the dark­ness of this world, that I would die do­ing this. Or the one squared off against me would die or I would go to pri­son or all three.

It was be­ing locked in a cell with nine men. It was the smell of vodka-sweat and blood and piss on denim.

It was try­ing to stop all this by boxing in the ring. It was the strange in­ti­macy of be­ing shirt­less, a mouth guard over my teeth, my fists wrapped with tape and tied into leather gloves. It was how your eyes never leave your op­po­nent’s eyes. Even as you shoot one into his face.

It was get­ting hit so hard in the side of my head, for days af­ter I saw the world through a brown haze.

It was work­ing con­struc­tion all day with my only brother, then train­ing for the Golden Gloves at night.

It was the night I did not run over icy side­walks to the gym to train. It was how I brewed tea and sat at my small kitchen ta­ble in my small walk-up apart­ment and took pa­per and a sharp­ened pen­cil and wrote a scene.

It was how ev­ery­thing slowed down and then stopped then be­gan to move so clearly.

It was the slip­ping in­side a living per­son who was not me and ask­ing what’s it like to be you?

It was do­ing that ev­ery morn­ing be­fore grab­bing my car­pen­try belt and tools and driv­ing to the job site to mea­sure and cut and fas­ten and sweat.

It was the sweet­ness of find­ing the words that bur­rowed in­side and toss­ing out those that did not.

It was sit­ting in a dark theater and see­ing on­stage a dancer mov­ing with fire through a furl­ing fun­nel of other dancers. It was meet­ing that dancer months later and mar­ry­ing her only months af­ter that. It was mak­ing love with this woman I wanted to die along­side.

It was how she car­ried our three chil­dren in­side her, danc­ing to the very end and be­gin­ning, each one com­ing through an in­ci­sion in her ab­domen while she lay there look­ing up at me, her eyes dark with trust that ev­ery­thing would be all right.

It was watch­ing our son rise from the womb, his tiny, hand­some face rag­ing. Our daugh­ter’s, too, her eyes wide open. Our youngest son a sweet gi­ant. It was the sweet­ness of life now. It was build­ing my fa­ther’s cof­fin out of pine with my brother. It was dig­ging our fa­ther’s grave with pick and shovel. It was ly­ing in the bot­tom of my fa­ther’s grave.

It was hold­ing my three chil­dren. It was smelling their hair as I read to them, as we fed them, as we held them. As we held them. It was build­ing the house I write in now. My brother and me. With our hands.

It’s ly­ing in this room I built in this bed I bought be­side this woman I mar­ried. It’s 25 years later and all the love I feel. The grat­i­tude. Yes, even for what was hard. Even for that. Be­cause what is raw is al­ways what lies un­der­neath. It’s what comes first and what lasts. It’s the heart of each breath. It’s the truth.

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