Ugly is everywhere. Some of it is visual. Most of it is internal. None of it is ever hidden.
A lot of it used to be punished via Ugly Laws. Some of the best Ugly Advice I was ever given came to me as a youngster in the form of punches to my face from a crew-cut boy two years older than me — but in my same fifth grade class. His name was Alex.
He was a bully. He wore a perpetual scowl.
He outweighed most of us in class by 75 pounds.
Everyone hated him.
Everyone admired his giant fists and punching power.
He was a brute in a boy’s body.
He was a boulder that gathered moss.
While the rest of us wore mop-top bowl haircuts, Alex waxed the ends of his crew cut and shaved the base of his neck every morning.
Alex imparted his reality to me in a flurry of blows to my face after I had taken the advice of my mother’s boyfriend to “stand up to a bully and fight him on your own turf!”
One day after Alex had been bullying all of us with taunts and provocative arm punches during recess soccer practice, I told him to knock it off and to leave us alone.
As Alex approached me with cocked fists, I told him I wasn’t scared of him and that if he wanted to fight, we should do it off school grounds and in my backyard. I stood up to the bully; and the bully stood me down by accepting my offer with glee, a handshake a jumping up and down with a joy I had never seen before. I felt sick as I realized I had invited him to my own pummeling with my permission and blessing.
That was not how the episode was supposed to play out: He was supposed to back down from the direct challenge and run away forever. News of our impending fight spread throughout school and by the time I arrived at my backyard, Alex was surrounded with 50 other students who quickly encompassed us by forming a circle of bodies around us.
Before I could say anything, Alex was on me and punching me in the face. I fell.
Through a curtain of my own blood I saw I was being picked up like a bride and carried over to our garbage cans as the circle of bodies moved with us without ever breaking stride or form. The crowd roared their approval.
Alex folded me in half and stuffed me into a half-empty can. Alex looked down at me, his blue eyes buzzing with electricity, and said to me so quietly that only I could hear it above the din of cheers and applause, “Remember. There are always people who don’t mind being uglier than they already are.”
Alex smiled at me with pity, booger-spit in my face, and took the aluminum lid of the trash can and slammed it down with all of his body weight with a booming thud on my feet. My knees collapsed into my chest.
There I was, alone, sealed in darkness, numb, ears ringing, stinking of day-old leftovers and I realized — through the unfamiliar taste of my own blood mixing with foreign spit — that Alex had taught me one of the most valuable lessons of my brief life.