I don't belong here. That much I know to be true. Everything else is still up in the air.
There's maybe a baker's dozen or so of us arranged in a loose circle, in the center of which is our coach. All of us - except for the coach - are dressed alike in blue singlets trimmed in red. On some of us - namely the boy with olive skin and curly black hair a few boys down from me - the singlets fit well, molded to their well-muscled frames. On others of us - like me - the suits look ridiculous, serving only to highlight our thin arms and legs and wiry frames. My suit is a size or two too large for me - did they think I would grow into it in a week's time? - and shows a great deal more of me than I would like.
I look again at the boy with the olive skin and curly black hair, notice that he's looking back at me. Our looks seem to sizzle and crash into each other until by mutual agreement we look away … and look back, each thinking the other isn't looking. He smiles slightly; I smile back. I can assume only that he's maybe as nervous as I am and trying to hide it.
Our coach is dressed in some relative to our singlets, a warm-up/tracksuit kind of thing in the same blue and red, his body hidden away under the fabric … but enough of him telegraphs through to let us know that he is all muscle and sinew underneath the cloth, the archetypal wrestler. There's another coach, as well, an assistant, dressed in the same outfit, with a younger version of the same physique.
I'm not a wrestler. That's something else I know to be true.
I look down at myself and know that that will be impossible. I'm just not built that way.
And I'm just not wired that way.
The coach wants us to introduce ourselves and so we do. I say "Alex" when it's my turn. The boy with the olive skin and curly black hair is Sam.
I watch Sam when he's not looking because I can't help but watch him. Of all of us, he looks the best in this ridiculous outfit; his seems almost painted onto his skin. I try to be as careful as I can when I look at Sam because I don't want anybody else to know this about me.
None of us knows each other except for maybe this Sam kid and some other guy, strong but blubbery in his singlet. His name is Travis and he's obviously in the heavyweight class, strong - of course - but it's disguised by a layer of fat. Travis is all peachy-pink skin and freckles and red hair buzz-cut to his potato-shaped head.
Every so often Travis turns to me and gives me the stink-eye. I don't know why; I haven't said much of anything to him and I don't plan on it. He looks like an asshole. I've spent most of my fifteen years trying to avoid assholes.
The coach teams us up into pairs and we go at it under his direction, grabbing and slamming and pinning and half-nelsoning all over the rubber-matted gymnasium. The kid I'm paired with - Eric - is about my size but stronger-looking; I manage to hold my own until at one point during our match he tries to shove the end of his thumb up my ass. It shocks me enough that he gets the better of me and pins me beneath him. As we break, he looks at me and shrugs an apology, but I don't really think he's sorry.
I'd rather be wrestling Sam, but he's out of my league.
Instead, Sam is matched with Travis, but it's not really a fair fight. Even though Travis outweighs Sam by about thirty pounds, Sam is quicker and more agile and he easily subdues the chunky boy. Travis, when Sam helps him up off the mat, bats Sam's hand away and mutters something under his breath.
"What did you say?" Sam asks, quietly but clearly. Which gives all of us a fair idea what he did say.
Travis doesn't answer, starts to walk away.
"Hey, Travis!" Sam shouts, to the other boy's back. "I asked you a fucking question!"
Coach goes over, puts himself between the boys.
"There a problem here?"
Sam glowers at Travis, looks away. "No, sir," he mutters. Coach turns to Travis, whose face is an innocent blank.
"Why don't you go take a break, Travis?"
Travis takes the hint, saunters away.
We break for lunch, which is - strangely - pizza and soda. Not sure how healthy that is for all of us would-be wrestlers, but I'm not going to complain. In my house, pizza is the pinnacle of our cooking abilities.
We sit around a couple of church tables. I'm kinda by myself until - praise the Lord - Sam eases himself down into the seat next to me.
"Hey," he grunts, at me.
"Hey," I grunt back, trying to look cool. But my heart is hammering. Up close, Sam's … well, he's … distracting. His eyes are green-brown and a faint stripe of hair peppers the space between his nose and his upper lip. His lips are full and have just that certain bow shape to them, like a permanent half-smile. There's something exotic about him and I wonder what his parents are like.
"You were good out there," I comment. Stating the obvious.
Sam picks up a slice of pizza - there are four on his plate - folds it and tucks the end of it neatly into his mouth. He chews for a bit, swallows, then comes up for air. "Thanks. Plenty of practice, I guess. Been doing it since I was six."
Sam nods. "Yeah. Only thing I'm really any good at."
"So, why are you here at the camp?"
He looks strangely at me. "Really? Chance to work with Yuri Chernikov? You have to know who he is if you're here. Guy's a fucking legend."
I smile, start chuckling. "Yeah, I guess …"
"You guess? Seriously? If you don't know who he is, then why are you here?"
"Well, I don't really have much choice, do I?"
Sam looks at me, frowning. "I don't understand."
"Well, uh … he's my dad."
Sam sits back in his chair, stunned into silence for a long moment. Then, "No shit."
"You're Yuri Chernikov's son," he echoes, the tone of his voice telling me that he thinks I'm pulling his leg.
"One of four. The youngest. And the assistant?" Sam nods; I go on. "That's my older brother Paul."
Sam kinda gives me the up-and-down, but doesn't say anything. I say it for him.
"Yeah, I know." I smile. "Not exactly wrestling material."
"Well, I … uh …" he starts, blushing and stammering. "I mean … well, that is … well, no, not exactly," he finishes.
"That's okay. I know it."
"So, why are you here?"
"Like I said - no choice."
"But …" Sam shrugs, stating the obvious once again.
In my family, we are fighters, grapplers, wrestlers. We celebrate our strength, our fierceness, our tenacity, our heritage. We live and breathe our maleness, all of us … my grandfather, and my father and his brothers, and my brothers; it seems as much a part of us as our fingers and toes, our arms and legs.
There are even pictures of my grandfather's father posing - preening, really - for the camera, taken in a studio whose name and location are there in a language I cannot read. His arms are clasped behind him; he is dressed only in a pair of trunks that cling to his stalwart and strong body. His hair is shorn to a stubble on the dome of his scalp, celebrates itself in a walrus mustache between nose and lip. His eyes are gimlet-sharp and shining. His smile is challenge and invitation: come fight me, if you dare! I will win!
And his maleness is there in the swell and curve of pectoral and bicep and abdomen, of forearm and thigh, and in the place I cannot stop my gaze going to, hummocked under the silk shorts, telegraphing another challenge to the future and to me. He is proud and beautiful.
Other pictures, too: my father and my uncles in trunks and singlets, crouched in fighting stance, arms held out like challenging bears, fingers twisted into claws, snarls contorting their blunt, Slavic features, straight from the steppes of the motherland. The best of them, my uncle Ivan, stood on the podium in Barcelona.
And the here and the now of my older brothers, willing to take up the challenge, willing to step into these outlandish costumes that only reveal that which they contrive to conceal. There is a swagger in this wanton display, one more element designed to intimidate, to strike fear into an opponent. Look at what I have here, they say. Look and be impressed. I am more a man than you'll ever be.
And men always look, even if they think they don't.
I am an outlier, here, among these rumbling Slavic bears with whom I live. I am more like the mother I barely remember, lithe and thin and wiry; I look like a runner more than anything else, which is what I prefer. I have her blonde hair and fair skin that is quick to tan to an amber color under the summer sun.
We are a household of men, now, with my mother's passing. We make our lives together with men's sensibilities and practicalities unchecked by the more subtle virtues of women. Of the four of us, only I and my brother Paul - a senior in high school - are at home. The other two - Max and Vic - are already off to college. On wrestling scholarships, of course.
Dad doesn't have to do what he's doing - the money isn't all that much - but he does it because he likes it. His regular job is the obvious one, at my high school.
"You know, you weren't half-bad out there," Sam volunteers, by way of an apology.
"Thanks. I guess something rubbed off here and there."
"Well, I mean … you almost had him. What happened?"
I blush. "Guy must have thought I was a bowling ball."
Sam shakes his head in confusion. I go on. "He … stuck his thumb up my … ass."
Sam nods, chuckles. "Got it. Yeah, some guys do that, if they think they're gonna get pinned. Throws the other guy off. Like it did you."
"You tell your dad?"
I shake my head. "Wouldn't do any good." Probably wouldn't believe me even if I did, I think.
Sam and I fall silent for a bit, nibble on our pizza, sip our sodas. We've got an afternoon session ahead of us, mostly strength training and conditioning.
Sam burps quietly. "So, Alex … what would you be doing if you weren't wrestling? I mean … well, are you any kind of athlete?"
I nod my head. "I run cross-country."
Sam nods in return. "Makes sense. You've got the build for a runner, those long legs, and all. You any good?"
I think about it. "Yeah, I think so. I've won a few races here and there." There's something in knowing that Sam has noticed my body, but I don't dare read too much into that. Not yet.
"So, I mean … why aren't you concentrating on that? Seems like you'd have more luck there than doing this."
"Go tell my dad that."
"Ah. He won't listen."
I shrug. "It's what all of us do. He thinks it's all that any of us can do. He can't see that I'm really not cut out for it."
Sam opens his mouth, shuts it, like he wants to ask a question that he thinks might hurt me. I wait. He tries again, spits it out.
"He never comes to any of your races, does he?"
And, fuck, it does hurt. It always has. Not trusting myself to speak, I can only shake my head.
"Fuck, dude …" Sam mutters.
In the car, on the way home, I pretend to look out the window at the passing landscape, mostly boring Cincinnati suburb. I can see out of the corner of my eye that my dad looks at me every so often like he wants to ask me something. Finally, he clears his throat.
"You have any fun out there today?"
I turn to look at him. "It was okay."
"You almost had that boy, you know. Eric."
"Yeah, I know."
Do I tell him? It's embarrassing and I really don't want to go into it. "I don't know."
"You don't know."
That's what I said, I think. But I can't say that. "I guess I just didn't concentrate. I didn't focus."
Dad thumps the steering wheel. "No, you didn't. You let your guard down, and he saw that. He took his chance."
He had his thumb up my ass, Dad, I think. You try that, see how it feels.
"I guess he did."
I'm tired of these passive-aggressive statements, but I don't want a fight. Not now.
"I'll try harder tomorrow. I swear."
He says nothing; I've said this before and he's heard it before. He's quiet for a long time.
Then, "That boy you were talking to at lunch …"
"Sam," I supply.
"Yeah. You should watch him, this week. He's good, Alex. Really good. He knows what he's doing out there."
"Well," I counter. "He was up against that Travis guy." I don't add that I've already been watching Sam, for reasons best left unsaid.
My dad chuckles. "Yeah, I know. But guys like Travis, you gotta watch 'em. They might look like they're out of shape, but they're not. Just when you think you got 'em where you want 'em, they'll surprise you."
"He seems like kind of an asshole."
"Doesn't mean he's not good. Sometimes, that's what it takes."
I guess that's what Eric knew, too. He heard about it somewhere, thought he'd try it, just to get the win, and it worked. I wonder if my brothers ever used that trick, or my dad, or my Uncle Ivan. Or my grandfather, for that matter. Whole generations of men, sticking their fingers up other guys' assholes, just so they could be the best. I turn away and look out the window, trying not to smile at the thought of my grandfather rolling around on the mat with some stranger, groping for that certain orifice.
Whatever it takes.
I got a handle on what I was a couple of years ago.
Most kids like me claim that they knew what they were when they were five or six. I call bullshit … but maybe it's more obvious for some kids than others. It certainly wasn't obvious to me until I turned thirteen.
Max was away at college by this point, but Vic and Paul were still at home. I was stuck in middle school but I was still expected to go to all of my dad's wrestling matches if I didn't have anything else to do. It was free babysitting as far as he was concerned. I was free this evening, so I sat there with a certain amount of boredom, watching as they steadily worked their way up through the different weight classes. I knew that part of my dad's strategy for insisting that I come along was to convince me to join the team, knowing that he would be my coach soon enough, as he was for my brothers. So far, I'd resisted it, but it was getting harder and harder to justify the reason for it. I just wasn't interested.
By now, Vic was competing at 138 pounds, and he was good, nearly unbeaten, going into this match. When his name was called, he stood up, turned to us and gave us a big smile and a thumbs-up: I got this!
But when his opponent stood up, I wasn't so sure that he did. Next to me, Dad must have felt the same thing; I heard him mutter an oh, shit under his breath as the two boys met in the ring. The other boy was an African-American kid and - supposedly - in the same weight class as Vic … but that's as far as the comparison went. Vic was clearly outgunned.
Vic and this kid - Dad seemed to know who he was; I didn't - shook hands, and then the ref whistled the match to start. That was the only point at which Vic was in control.
It was over almost before it started, it was that quick. Vic never stood a chance. This kid was all muscle and speed and strength; he avoided any hold that Vic tried to execute, slipping out of them like he was coated in oil. The ref called an end to it soon enough; it was clear to everyone - except maybe Vic - that he was outgunned and outclassed. When they broke away from each other and stood up, Vic ignored the kid's outstretched hand and stalked out of the gym instead of coming back to the bench with the rest of us, tearing his ear guard off and throwing it hard on the ground.
I glanced at Dad; he was pissed, sure, but I didn't know if it was because of Vic's performance or his poor sportsmanship. That was one thing he always insisted on from his guys; even if you lost, you had to be a sport and acknowledge it.
"Should I …?" I started. "Should I go get him?"
Dad glanced at me, his face grim and unsmiling. "No. Let him think about it for a bit."
The rest of the matches went on without incident; Vic remained MIA for all of them.
As we were packing up to clear out, Dad finally turned to me.
"Go find your brother."
I knew this school as well as I knew my own, from years of nights just like this. I went down a couple of corridors until I came to the boys' locker room, which was the most obvious place to find my brother. None of the other guys I'd just watched would come down here; they all tended to put their warm-up suits on over their singlets and go home to do any cleaning up.
But, I did hear a shower running.
What the hell, I thought. It could be him.
I had to think for a bit to remember where the showers were, then I got it, slipped down a side hall. The splashing of water got louder and louder.
I rounded the corner, threaded through the locker room, peeked in.
It wasn't Vic.
It was Mike Dempsey, the junior varsity coach - Paul's coach at this point - whose matches had taken place earlier in the day. Mike was younger than my dad, just out of college … maybe ten years older than me.
He was facing away from me, standing under the blasting shower head, letting the water pummel his flesh. I watched it glitter and snake down his neck, over his shoulder, across the knotted cords of muscle in his back, along the compact but generous twin globes of his buttocks.
And I couldn't move. I couldn't.
Something rolled through me, powerful and heady; I thought I might faint with it, but I didn't. Something else rolled through me next, an uncomfortable something that nestled home high up between my thighs as I felt myself responding to Mike's body. I dropped a hand, slipped it under my waistband to adjust myself against the growing tightness in my groin.
I prayed that nobody else - especially not Vic - would be back here to catch me watching.
Mike bowed his head back, his eyes closed as he faced the oncoming torrent of water.
And - still with his eyes closed - he turned around.
I gasped, I think … not that anyone could hear it with the noise of the shower. Mike had a dusting of hair on his chest and belly, not as much as I knew my father to have. It was enough to highlight the massive chest and flat belly tapering down to a narrow waist.
And that … and that …
It came to me, then, in a ragged last vestige of rational thought, that I had never - until now - seen another person naked; hard to believe, I know, in a house of four boys, but we had all somehow managed never to do that. Sure, I'd seen my brothers without shirts on, mowing the yard or swimming or just trying to get a tan. I'd also seen pictures of guys on the Internet, but this was different. It was real in a way that those weren't.
And, that …
It seemed to have a mind of its own, dangling there, thick and full and arrogant. Men were defined by their ownership of this; I was becoming defined by my desire of it … something I had not understood until now.
Mike turned back away from me, reached out for the soap, started washing himself … face, chest, belly, under his arms … between his legs … an intimate dance performed rarely for anyone but oneself … and not for the likes of me.
Something - did I make a noise? - alerted him and he turned to look at me, his brow furrowed in confusion.
"… Alex …?"
I fell back into myself, stammered and stuttered. "Hi, Mike … I, uh … yeah, so I was … well, looking for …" For, for … for whom, exactly? "… uh, Vic, and I, uh …"
Mike suspected nothing, thought nothing of this, I could tell. I saw the glint of metal around a finger, knew that he was married, had one kid and another in the works. I'd met his wife Terri; she was an elfin creature, short and thin and sweet; the thought of what it must be like to have that inside you flickered through my brain.
"Haven't seen him," he answered. He looked again. "Everything okay, Alex?"
It wasn't, but … "Sure. Thanks. I'll just go and …"
I just went and …
Outside in the hall, I slumped against a wall, looked down at myself tented out underneath my jeans; one touch and I would be done for.
I went in search of Vic.
I had, it seemed, just found myself.
The next day is more of the same, but different. We pair off again; luckily, I don't get Eric. Maybe he'll find some other special someone to finger this time. Maybe he likes it, I think. I manage to win my match; I hope my dad notices.
Dad pulls Sam out of the crowd, uses him to demonstrate different holds and strategies. It's weird to see my Dad up there on top of Sam, touching him in places that I wouldn't mind touching … but at least I can watch Sam without feeling guilty, without worrying about getting caught.
Sam seems to enjoy the attention, even winks at me at some point … but soon enough he understands that my dad is really serious about all of this and the winks and smiles go away. To his credit, Sam is quick and manages to get himself out of situations, but eventually Dad just wears him down until he's done.
Lunch again - burgers and fries. Breakfast of champions, I guess.
In line for a tray, Travis comes up next to me.
I ignore him until he deliberately bumps me with one fat hip.
"Talkin' to you, faggot."
"What do you want, Travis?" I look around for Sam, but he's way back at the end of the line, talking to my dad.
"You like that, faggot?"
"Your boyfriend up there, with your daddy, all twisted together. You like watchin' 'em both hump each other? I saw you two makin' faces at each other."
He's not my boyfriend is almost off my lips until I catch myself. "In your dreams, Travis."
"Fuck that shit, faggot. Maybe your dreams."
"He was teaching us stuff, Travis. Sam is the best wrestler."
"Yeah, right. Fag stuff. Thought this was a fuckin' wrestling camp."
I know I should shut up, and for one brief, noble second, I do. Long enough to grab my tray from the server. I open my mouth to say something, but I stop myself.
Then I start myself again.
"Then why are you here, Travis?"
"I mean, if you think this is all fag stuff, why don't you just fuck off and go home? If you stay, must mean you like it, too."
Travis opens his mouth, stops when Sam walks by him and glares at him.
I go to the table we all share, pick a place at the end, but I know that Travis isn't done with this, or me.
We end up back outside at the end of the day, circled around my father.
Dad has decided, at this point, to embrace the day's warmth and is parading around dressed only in a pair of shorts and wrestling shoes. The shorts are the same blue and red as our singlets and are cut so short that every so often I can see the thin white band of a jock peeking out from under the red trim that encircles his tree-trunk thigh. The rest of him is acres and acres of slab-like muscle and sinew and brown hair. He reminds me of a bear. Paul's dressed - well, undressed, I guess - the same way, a younger version of our father.
Dad doesn't seem to mind his near-nudity; it's almost like he's telling us that if we listen to him and do what he tells us to do that this will be us some day, and we should want that very much. I look at the shorts and what they conceal - although not very well - and I think of the photograph of my great-grandfather in much the same clothing, and what it had revealed of him. There is a certain shame in looking at my father this way and I feel it in a rush of blood to my face.
Travis, I see, wants what my father has to offer. So does Sam, and some of the others.
I wish I did. I wish I wanted that, because it would be easy. It would make a lot of things a lot simpler.
"Boys," my father starts. "I want to try something different this afternoon. One thing you may or may not understand is that when you're a part of a team - which I hope you will be someday, if you aren't already - is that you have to learn to trust the other members on your team. Or you aren't really a team, if you think about it."
We all just stare back at my father, not sure where he's going with this. I feel sorry for him, in a way; he's never been the best speaker in front of a crowd. He tends to limp his way through anything like this, a better athlete than a performer.
"Anyway," he continues. "I want to set up a … well, I think they're called 'trust exercises.' You've probably seen 'em in other places, maybe on TV or whatever … you know what I'm talking about, like catching somebody when they fall backwards, or walking on hot coals or stuff like that."
Now we just stare at each other, wondering about the hot coals thing. My father chuckles.
"I promise you we're not gonna walk on hot coals, but … well, let's just start."
He lines us up in two rows of six boys each and tells the last boy - the thirteenth, Eric with the wandering thumb - to stand between the two rows.
"Okay, now - I want you two on the end to lift Eric up and pass him along overhead."
We all look at each other, eyes wide; somebody sniggers.
"C'mon, guys, do it! I'm serious!"
The two guys on the end manage to pick Eric up and over their heads, start handing him along to the next pair and the next … until at the end he is gently - well, maybe not so - deposited back on the ground. I resist the urge to shove my finger up his ass.
We shuffle back and forth after each boy is put back down to keep the rows even. At one point, it's Sam's turn and - my heart hammering - I get to touch him as he passes overhead. His flesh is warm and supple under my hand; that other bit of flesh is there, as well, inches from my face … and I blush to stare at it and what it does to me in turn.
I pay for that special treat soon enough, when it's Travis' turn to be passed along. I don't know how we managed to get him up in the air but we do and stagger each in our turn as we gratefully hand him off to the next pair of boys. As soon as he passes by me, he lets one rip with a wet-sounding br-r-rap! of sound and the air almost turns green with the odor of it.
"Jesus Christ, Travis!" Eric says, next to me. I roll my eyes, catch Sam's eye, shake my head. Travis giggles.
And then it's my turn. I am lifted up and shuffled along, boy to boy … Sam is there as I was for him and my body feels like it's been shocked as he touches me, hand lingering from chest to hip to thigh … and then I'm gone on to the next and the next. I can see why this would require a certain amount of trust.
And then Travis and the boy he's paired with take me.
And, quicker than quick, I'm on the ground, my arm bent underneath me with a searing jolt of pain. My breath is knocked out of me as I sprawl on the mat, not quite understanding what's just happened to me and then my father is there, lifting me up - stupidly - by the straps of my singlet, and there I am in front of God and everybody with my ass on full view because - after all - I'm not wearing anything but me underneath this fucking thing and I can hear everyone laughing at me.
Dad and Paul manage to get me up and the first thing I do is turn to Travis.
"You dropped me, asshole!" My voice comes out thick and choked with tears of pain and embarrassment and anger.
Travis is all innocence. "I'm sorry!" He looks around and I can tell that not everybody believes him. "It was an accident!"
Dad looks to me, not smiling; is he angry at me?
"I told you! He dropped me!" I wince and cradle my arm against my belly. "Fuck! Fuck, it hurts!"
Dad sighs. "C'mon, Alex … really?"
I can't believe it. He thinks it's my fault.
"You saw it!" I turn to my brother. "You did, too! He's been this way all week! He -"
Dad cuts me off. "How's your wrist?" He takes it gingerly into his hands, turns it. I let out a yelp of pain.
"It hurts! I bet he broke it!"
Dad squeezes it here and there, has me wiggle my fingers, stuff like that.
"I don't think it's broken, but …" He turns to Paul. "You manage these guys. I'll take Alex to the hospital."
We're silent in the car. My wrist is throbbing steadily and I can see that already it's swollen, even under the ice pack that Paul handed me before we got in the car.
I can hear Dad breathing steadily in and out over the noise of the traffic; he always acts that way when he's angry. He turns to me.
"I told you," I answer, quietly. "He dropped me."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, I'm sure! He's been trying to find a way to get at me all week. He finally found it, I guess."
"Alex …" He clears his throat. "Why would he do that?"
"I told you before, Dad. He's an asshole."
"Well, what did you say to him to make him so upset?"
I turn to face my father. "What?"
"Well, you must have said something …"
"You can't be serious," I muttered, turning back to look out the window. "You do think it's my fault."
"Alex … I'm not saying that, but … well, stuff like this is going to happen in any sport. You're going to get hurt. You have to learn how to deal with it."
"Jesus Christ!" I toss my good arm up in the air in a gesture of futility. "I give up."
"Alex. Don't be dramatic."
I turn back. "Well, I do! I'm done with all this, Dad. All this … bullshit." It feels weird to say that in front of my dad … but it also feels good to say it.
I ignore him.
"Alex! I won't ask you again!" he warns.
Well, you didn't ask me anything, Dad … but I turn.
"It's not bullshit, son."
I sigh. "I'm sorry, Dad. It's just that … well, whatever it is, I'm done with it."
"You're quitting." His voice is flat and distant.
"Yeah. I am."
"Because of this?"
"No, not just because of this," I answer. "I've dealt with injury before, in running. You just never seemed to care enough to get involved in it. I ended up asking Paul for help because you just never had the time."
"That's not fair, son. You could have asked me for help." When I don't answer, he goes on. "Why are you quitting?"
"It's … a lot of things."
"Yeah? What kind of things?"
"It doesn't matter," I mutter.
"It does matter, son. It matters to me."
"Well, it doesn't have to, Dad. Don't worry about it."
We fall silent again for a couple of miles.
Then, from Dad, "Help me out here, son. I'm … well, I guess I'm a little confused."
I look at him, shrug. He goes on.
"You're the one who wanted this, I thought. You're the one who came to me two years ago and said you wanted to do this. You seemed so … eager to do it. And now …"
I blush, remembering. I went home that night after I saw Mike Dempsey naked in the shower. I lay there in bed, thinking, remembering what I'd seen that day, what it had seemed to mean. My body remembered as well; I stared down at myself, naked as well on top of the bed, moonlight striped across my body, looking at myself there pointing back up at me, rigid and hard and twitching with this new understanding.
The next day, I went to my dad and told him that I wanted to start wrestling. He was startled, I remembered, but pleased as well that all four of his sons wanted to follow in his footsteps.
And, now … I can't tell him the real reason behind that decision. Not yet.
"I know …" I started. "I just … well, I've changed my mind." Hoping he'll leave it at that.
I can tell he's disappointed.
"I've spent a lot of time with you, you know, trying to teach you what I know."
"I know, Dad. I'm sorry. I thought I wanted to do it, but I … I guess I want to do something else. I … well, you know I run cross-country."
"I like it."
"More than you like wrestling?"
He sighs. "Are you any good at it?"
"I … I think I am. You could talk to my coach. I've won a few races." You could have come to a few matches, I think. At least one.
"Well, I might just do that. I just might."
An opening, maybe. A small one, but it's something.
At the hospital, we wait in the waiting room. I stare at the television mounted high on the wall; it's tuned to some crappy national news station. Dad sits beside me, arms crossed, staring into nothing.
They call my name and I go in, alone.
The doctor does this and that, takes an x-ray. We wait until it comes back.
Turns out Dad was right; it's only a sprain. The doctor wraps my arm, tells me to be careful with it for a week or so, don't get the bandage wet, come back if it doesn't seem to get any better.
I go back out, brandishing my bandaged arm, smile at my dad. He gets up from his chair and meets me at the admissions desk, signs a few things.
He's not smiling.
In the car, I stare out again at the passing cityscape. It's getting on towards dusk.
There's something I have to know. I turn to my dad, clear my throat.
"Are you mad at me?"
He's lost in thought, doesn't hear me at first, then turns.
"Are you mad at me?"
He frowns. "Why would I be mad at you?"
I gesture with my arm. "For this. And for the other thing. Quitting."
He sighs again; there seems to be a lot of sighing going on between us. "It's not that, Alex. I mean, yeah, I'm disappointed that you want to drop out … but I understand. It's … well I was surprised that you wanted to try it in the first place, honestly. Why did you?"
What do I say? I'm not ready to go into that.
"Well, I … I guess I just wanted to make you happy. I mean, Max … and Vic, and then Paul. How could I not do it?"
"But you seemed to want it so much!"
"I did, at first. But, really, Dad … do I look like a wrestler?"
He chuckles, which is good. "No, not really." He looks at me. "You remind me so much of your mother, sometimes …" He clears his throat. "You look so much like her, you know. You have her personality, her way of just … being."
I hear a little catch in his voice, and feel a little sting in my eyes.
"I wish I'd known her more."
"She was a good person, Alex. She really was."
Nothing more to say about that without opening up another conversation, so I shut up. We go on for another mile or so, stoplights and evening traffic punctuating our trip home.
Then, "I'll never be angry at you, Alex … as long as you talk to me. That's all I really ever want. I just want to know what's going on with you - with all of you. It hasn't been easy since your mom went away - I know that - but I'm trying. We all have to try. And I know it's hard to say some things sometimes … but you have to meet me halfway." He looks at me out of the corner of his eye. "Is there anything else you need to tell me?"
Gulp. Maybe someday, Dad.
I smile. "No, I'm good. And … thanks, Dad."
That seems to satisfy him, at least for now. I don't know what he knows, if anything, about me and what I'm only beginning to understand about myself, but I don't want to fight that battle now.
I'm at home, in my room, the pain in my wrist there but dulled by ibuprofen and some kind of muscle rub my dad swears by. I smell like menthol and camphor.
I'm not doing much, just goofing off with my tablet, surfing the web, feeling sorry for myself.
The doorbell rings downstairs. I hear somebody's steps thump down the stairs and then voices.
Somebody's steps thump back up the stairs and then my door opens. It's Paul.
"Hey, princess - somebody here to see you."
I have no idea who it could be. It's probably Travis, come to finish the job he started this afternoon.
I get up and go downstairs to the door; Paul didn't bother to invite whoever it is inside. I pull the door open.
We stare at each other for a long moment.
"Hey," he says, finally.
"Hey," I answer, a little confused. "Did … you want my dad?"
Sam shakes his head. "No. I wanted to see you."
Sam jerks his head towards the sidewalk: come on. I step out, pull the door shut behind me, follow him away from the house.
It's strange to see Sam not in his singlet; he's wearing a wife-beater kind of undershirt and some silky basketball shorts and battered Nikes. I let out a nervous breath as we go through the gate separating our yard from the street. We walk over to Sam's bike, parked at the curb. Side by side, we sit on the curb in the darkness, our legs stretched out into the street.
"I just wanted to see how you were doing," he starts. He reaches out, trails a finger over the bandages wrapped around my wrist. The sensation is weird; I can feel him touching me, but, like, from a distance. I don't think to ask him why he's doing it. I don't mind it. "Looks bad," he continues.
"Oh. I'm okay. Doctor gave me morphine for the pain, so I'm good. Everything looks like rainbows."
Sam looks a strange look at me. "Really?"
I shake my head. "No. Turns out it's just a sprain, so all I get is Advil."
"I'm glad you're okay."
"Thanks. By the way, how did you find out where I lived?"
"Duh … I'm stalking you."
"Well, of course. Why wouldn't you?"
Sam chuckles. "Your address is on the website for the camp," he explains. He taps the side of his head. "See? Not as stupid as you might think. Turns out we're not all that far from each other."
"I never said you were stupid. At least not to your face."
Sam nudges my arm with his. "Asshole."
"If I had a nickel for every time somebody called me that this week …"
"Yeah, but when I say it, it's a compliment."
"Oh, okay. I feel so much better."
I have not noticed until now how close we're sitting to each other, even though we have room enough to spread out. Calf rests against calf, thigh against thigh. Sam doesn't seem to mind it. Neither do I. He has a scent, a combination of soap and sweat from his bike ride over here … and something else, something dark and musky. I wonder what I smell like to him. Probably like menthol and camphor.
Sam sighs. "I'm sorry, by the way."
"Today. Travis. I should have …"
I sniff out a laugh. "Why? You didn't do it." I'm too afraid to ask him what I should have … might mean.
"I know, but …" He doesn't finish the thought, picks another one. "I can't believe that asshole actually dropped you. He could have … well, it could have been a lot worse."
I shrug, not that Sam can see it. Nothing about Travis surprises me at this point.
"One good thing, though …" I say. "At least I don't have to go back anymore."
"Well, because of my wrist and … I had a … talk … with my dad."
Sam turns to me, grins. "Talk?"
I grin back. "Well, fight."
"So … you are gonna switch over to MMA …"
"Oh, yeah, of course. Obviously."
We fall silent, then, sitting side by side on the curb. A car passes. We can hear the various sounds of a summer evening in the suburbs: whispering air conditioners, crickets, the noise of someone's television turned up too high. A jet lumbers overhead, low, on its final approach to the airport.
Then, from Sam, "So, running …"
"What's that like?"
A stupid question that isn't all that stupid. Running, of course … anyone can do that. But to have the will to do it for mile after mile, in all kinds of weather … that's different.
"I don't know," I respond. "It's just me and Mother Nature, I guess. It's … well, lonely isn't the right word. I don't mind it. Gives me time to think about things. Time to be by myself."
"That's just about the exact opposite of wrestling."
I smile. "I know."
I shrug. "I don't know," I repeat. "I … well, maybe I just wanted to make Dad happy. All of my brothers do it, so … maybe I thought I had to do it, too." The rest of it, I don't feel like going into.
Sam looks away and down to the street under our feet, picks at the edge of the asphalt.
"You need to be yourself, Alex. You don't have to be like your brothers."
"Well, I guess …"
He looks back at me. "No. No guessing. You know you're not meant to be a wrestler, but you do it because you think you have to. That's stupid. You're never gonna be happy if you keep trying. You know that."
Do I? Maybe.
"Do you like wrestling?" I ask, if only to take the spotlight off of me. Sam gives me a look like he knows what I'm doing.
"I do," he answers.
"Well, I told you. I'm good at it. I mean, look … guys like me, and your dad, and your brothers … that's how we're built, you know? I know I could have gone into football, maybe, but I didn't want to. Maybe I like it the way you like running. It's just you and the other guy, not a whole team. It's you versus him … your skill, your talent, your strength, matched against his. Football is just a bunch of idiots fighting over a ball, and then, twenty years later, they get brain damage. What's the point in that?"
"I … guess I see that."
"Ask your dad," Sam suggests. "He'll probably say the same thing." He pauses; I wait. "I don't know … maybe it's also because whether you win or lose depends only on your decisions and your skill. Nobody else's. I guess maybe it makes me feel like I'm … smart, or something."
I grin. "Well, plus the odd finger or two every so often."
He grins, rolls his eyes. "Haven't had to do it. Yet."
We fall silent again, but I don't mind it. But there's something working at the back of my mind. I'm afraid to ask him, but I have to. I have to know.
"Why … why are you here? Tonight?"
He turns to me. "Seriously?"
He sighs, looks away. "Jesus, dude … I mean, c'mon …"
He turns back, and then there's something else. He leans towards me, inclines his head … there's something in his eyes, in the set of his mouth … and then the glare of an oncoming car - I see enough to know that it's Grace Patterson's ancient Pontiac - sends a wash of yellow-white light over the two of us, and he backs away.
Fuck, I think. My heart is beating like crazy in my chest. My palms are sweaty and I feel itchy in my clothes … and that something is back for another visit between my legs.
I work at the bandage around my wrist; it's flesh-colored, almost like a kind of skin, but not. I think of Sam in his singlet on that first day, and the impossible perfection of his body underneath the thin sheath of cloth. Another kind of skin.
I think of how I've felt all this time, since I understood that thing about myself in the locker room, watching Mike and his outrageous and magnificent maleness. I think what it must be to possess a body like that, in every sense of the word. Up until tonight I see that I've moved around inside another skin - a second skin - one that reflects some lesser version of myself to the world like a mask to be hidden behind, beneath.
I think finally that I am ready to slip out of that skin like a snake, leave it behind to dry out under the hot summer sun. I think that Sam wants that, as well.
In the darkness, Sam smiles at me and I smile back. We stare at each other for a too-long moment; I imagine invisible things crossing the space between us, small messengers of desire.
And of all things he could say to me then, he says this:
"You … do have a nice butt, by the way. I'm just saying."
I smile again. I snigger. I chuckle. I laugh.
"So …" he starts, as he leans towards me again in the darkness.
And now I think that maybe - just maybe - I can get through this week.
And the next.
And the next …
This story is part of the 2017 story challenge "Inspired by a Picture: Just Hangin'". The other stories may be found at the challenge home page. Please read them, too. The voting period of 30 November to 21 December 2017 is when the voting is open. This story may be rated, below, against a set of criteria, and may be rated in an overall category on the challenge home page.
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