On Losing Control
creative nonfiction by Jeremy B. Jones

I’ve never been in a fight. Not really. I’ve been bloodied by cousins and teammates, had five concussions, two knee surgeries, but I’ve never stood, fists raised, across from someone with fire in his eyes. I tried once, in a snapshot of the frantic insecurity that is middle school.

I had in my mind—planted there by someone or by everyone—this notion that I needed to fight someone to be the right sort of 12-year-old boy who’d forever have friends and girls and fast cars and money. Who would become a man. 

I was wearing short purple shorts at the time. 

The locker room had cleared out mostly, and I still sported my gym clothes, Apple Valley PE across my chest, those purple cotton shorts hiding only half my thighs. I can’t reach back to find the triggering event, to some conversation that urged me to create a fight from thin air. I had no enemies, no grievances. I knew to hate bullies, knew to hate the kids who stoked tension with their I heard you said something about me volleys in the hall, their crew fanned out behind them. And yet I came into the locker room and aimed myself at Nate Kinney. 

During PE, I had been thinking about how to create this fight, about the best sparring partner. I settled on Nate. He was solid, square-shouldered, a little tubby. He was bigger than me, but he wasn’t especially athletic or brazen, and I spent Friday nights watching Walker, Texas Ranger and perfecting my roundhouse kick in my bedroom. I knew I should fight someone who wasn’t so small that I’d be an obvious bully. It should look fair, if not a little skewed against me. This was, after all, a performance. So I went at him. 

In the memory, I can feel another boy or two behind me, smell the sour sweat soaked into the tiles. I push Nate, say something too literal as he stumbles backward: Let’s fight. He lands in a squat by his locker, looking up at me. 

No, he says. 

C’mon, from one of the boys behind me. 

C’mon, Nate. Another one. Don’t be a pussy. 

I can’t push him again while he squats. It’s too easy, too ridiculous. I try to tower over him. I wonder if he can see up my shorts. Get up, pussy

No, he says. What the hell, Jeremy?

I don’t like you. Let’s fight.

He wouldn’t stand back up; he just squatted there by his locker and said he didn’t want to fight. I tried to muster up something to launch at him—anger? greed?—but nothing workable would come. I finally gave up and left the locker room. On the way out, I turned back to see him hunkered down, pulling clothes from the locker. 

I’d forgotten this until we moved back to North Carolina. Sarah was at work and Abe, our two-year-old, was napping—a rare, touchy affair—when the man showed up at the door to install our internet. We tiptoed around, scouting for suitable spots for a modem, before landing in the basement to look for a power source. 

“Hey,” he said in the dim light before I made to go back up the stairs. “I think we went to high school together.”

It’d been fifteen years since high school, and I’d been mostly gone since then. I had no Facebook account, had been to no high school reunions, and I hadn’t seen most of the people I threw graduation caps into the air with since the end of the twentieth century. I smiled and said maybe so, but I couldn’t place the face in front of me. I was sure, suddenly, I’d be stuck in this same awkward exchange over and over at grocery stores and gas pumps now that we’d moved back to our hometown after a lifetime away. Your face looks so familiar.

“Nate,” he said. “Nate Kinney.”

Then, I saw him there, behind the goatee and years. In truth, I don’t think he’d recognized me at first either—I’d lost my hair, gained some weight—but he had the advantage of my name on the service ticket, and so it must have clicked somewhere between the front door and the basement steps. Before long, we were standing around in the kitchen, talking about marriage and old teachers and where everyone had gone. He was thinking of moving to Chicago. I had just moved back home. Once the modem was up and running again, he left, and then I remembered the locker room.

I wondered if he remembered it, too. I hoped it had been a throwaway moment, one of a hundred strange middle-school-locker-room moments to forget, but I worried that it might have been the first scene he recalled when he saw me there in the basement, under the harsh light of a bare bulb—maybe he’d recognized me and then seen me towering over him in my purple shorts. 

We’d gone to school together for years, had hundreds of non-threatening interactions in our small, rural high school, but for all I knew, that one middle school scene sat at the top of the pile. 

He’d left a card, and when the memory came back to me, I had half a mind to call the number and ask him if he remembered, too—to apologize for picking a fight over nothing after playing volleyball in Coach King’s class. But I didn’t. Abe woke up crying not long after the door had closed, and I went to get him.

I wondered if I’d ever tell Abe this story, if it might prove some teachable parenting moment to discuss power and peace later in his life. In college, studying theology and reading poetry, I’d decided I was a pacifist, but after becoming a parent, I found that position harder to hold. Climbing the stairs to Abe crying, I considered what I’d do if someone came for my son, if someone made him cry like he was crying then. 

I felt in my chest, at the mere thought of this possibility, the power to kill. I’d not had to work hard to live out that classroom pacifism in my real life—I didn’t need violence to eat or survive. I’d not been called to war or threatened. I lived a comfortable, middle-class life with a literal white fence out front of our new house. But I tested my brain in moments like those, wondering how I’d react if confronted, if my blood boiled or my muscles twitched—if I stared into the face of hatred. I asked myself how I would stand down then, how I would live out that belief that I don’t deserve to live any more than anyone else.

All I knew that afternoon was that I wanted Abe to know he didn’t need to fight Nate Kinney in a locker room in middle school to become a man. So much of life, I was learning, was deciding when to let the body lead and when to slow it down. When to lose control and when to take it. 

photo by Byron Collins

Jeremy B. Jones is the author of the memoir Bearwallow, which was named the 2014 Appalachian Book of the Year and awarded gold in the 2015 Independent Publishers Awards. His essays appear in Garden & Gun, Oxford American, The Bitter Southerner, and elsewhere, and he serves as series co-editor of the book series In Place (WVU Press). He teaches creative writing at Western Carolina University, where he also directs the annual Spring Literary Festival. “On Losing Control” comes from a larger book manuscript.