Gut Instinct: Punch Drunk

My first taste of fisticuffs, much like my first Taco Bell–breath kiss, was a titanic disaster.

The way I recall, a string-bean wiseacre named Eric told a ponytailed classmate that I loved her.

“No way. You’re a liar,” I replied, an endlessly erudite 15-year-old. That blonde had me crushed out, but saying so breached the etiquette of juvenile infatuation—speak its name, it ceases to exist.

“You’re the liar, lover boy,” came his ripping riposte. “Want to fight?”

“In the park,” I said, testosterone running roughshod. “After school.” At the 3 p.m. bell, we biked to a playground crammed with creaky swings. Eric and I stepped onto a dirt patch and puffed up like poisonous fish. He was a 6-foot Goliath. I was, as now, a scrawny 5-foot-4 David.

“Hi-yaaaa!” I roared, charging with kamikaze-pilot abandon. I bowling-balled into his belly, and we tumbled to the dirt, wrestling and yanking hair. “Liar!” I bellowed, walloping his bony chest with all my hormonal might—and my thumb tucked inside my fist, a style guaranteed to snap digits like a toothpick.

Lightning bolts of pain blazed. Eric socked my stomach, sending air rushing out like a deflating balloon. I went fetal, gasping for breath and pride.

“Pussy,” Eric said. At that, my first and only fight was finished.

Since that breathtaking afternoon, I’ve shunned violence. For a man my size, braggadocio will only lead to my ass on a plate. But when I ingest the devil sauce, I grow 7 inches. I’m 50 pounds heavier. I’m as ferocious as Mike Tyson in his tiger-owning prime.

“You won’t fight anyone,” my girlfriend often reminds me.

“Why not?”

“Look at you.”

“These guns are killers,” I say. I flex my arms, as muscular as penned calves’ limbs.

“Sure, baby,” she says. “Just have another beer and go to bed.”

Ah, sweet emasculation. My girlfriend’s enfeebling words slice me to my normal size and short-circuit my rage. But subtract female oversight, and my drunken little-man anger becomes disaster fuel.

“Be safe,” my girlfriend warned me several weeks ago.

“What could go wrong?”

“You’re going to an all-you-can-drink event featuring 300 beers.”

“All in moderation,” I added.

“Do you even know that word’s definition?”

“Don’t wait up,” I said, hurrying to meet my comrade Aaron at the South Street Seaport’s New York Brewfest. The Seaport is charming on a sunny day. However, today the heavens were opened wide, reenacting Noah’s deadly flood. After several hours of sampling treats, such as Green Flash’s bitter, Belgian-style Le Freak to Southern Tier’s dessert-y Crème Brûlée Stout, we were soaked to our underwear.

“Everything is prune-y,” Aaron said. We cut our losses and sloshed toward the F train at East Broadway, conveniently located beside 169 Bar (169 East Broadway at Rutgers St., 212-473-8866).

“Nightcap?” I asked Aaron.

“One more couldn’t hurt, right?”

Wrong, we discover, inside the former Bloody Bucket. This was once a bottle-breaking boozitorium. Now, it’s wall-to-wall with clean-shaven gents and bubbly ladies sucking light beer—not my heaven. But there is a Pabst-and-whiskey deal. We ordered two and shuffled toward a ledge, where a Brillo-haired ogre rested his paws. I caught his eyes and shooed his hands away, like a pesky fly.

“Why didn’t you ask?” he queried, quite reasonably.

I stayed silent. Perhaps he’d think I was mute. Who accosts a mute?

“You show me respect,” he said, like a two-bit gangster.

I slugged my whiskey—courage, coming right up—and cradled the glass. My fight-scarred pal Steve long ago taught me the importance of easy-access weaponry.

Ogre stepped closer. I stood my ground. “Respect me,” he demanded, close enough for me to smell his hot and boozy breath. “What’s your problem?”

How do I explain my mule stubbornness, antipathy to authority or the suds sloshing around my stomach? His question had too many answers, so I provided none. I clenched my glass tighter. In the 15 years following the playground incident, I hadn’t learned to throw a punch. This fight would be like Switzerland attacking America with spoons and feather pillows.

“Have all the respect you want,” Aaron said, leaping in like a referee and saving me from sprinting toward the subway. “Take our respect.” He mimed handing Ogre a lump of respect about the size of a newborn infant.

“That’s all I wanted,” he said venomously, glaring at me. “Was that so tough?”

I nodded, long and slow, and took another sip of canned trouble.