The man across from me slumped back into his chair, sighed. "You're joking," he started. "Only, I know you're not."
I shook my head, offered a tired, apologetic smile. "I'm not, Coach. Not about this. Sorry."
He said nothing for a long moment; we stared at each other across the space of his desk. Then,"Why? Why are you doing this? At least tell me that. You owe me that much."
I blew out a nervous breath. "I'm … well, it's … it's not what I want to do, any more. It's not what I want to be."
"You're just … look, maybe you just need a break, Omer. Ever think about that? I mean, summer's coming up, take some time, think about it, just … just clear your head and give it some time."
"Well, you're right. I do need a break. But it's more than that. It feels different, this time."
He snapped his fingers. "Just like that? You're just going to walk away from it? Go cold turkey?"
"I don't know how else to do it, Coach. I don't. If there's a procedure for this, let me know, I'll follow it to the letter, whatever. But it's going to happen one way or another."
"After everything we've done for you? Me? The team? The university?"
I said nothing for a long moment; I think Coach understood that he might have said too much. I gathered myself. "I'd like to think that I gave you everything I had in return, Coach." He certainly didn't need me to remind me of how the team had done over the past four years, and how much I had contributed to that success.
"And you have, Omer. I'm not saying that you haven't. You're one of my best; you have to know that. I mean, your record is going to stand for years. I just don't understand why you want to give it up. I mean … I mean … well, what is your dad going to say about it? Have you told him yet?"
"I have. I did that a few weeks ago. He's fine with it. He wants me to do what feels right."
"But you've got so much more in you, Omer. Anyone can see that. At least … just a few more years, Omer. Just until you get through graduate school. After that, you can do anything you want. I promise."
"And then what?"
He frowned. "I'm not sure what you mean."
"What do I do after that?"
"Well, I don't know … the Olympics, maybe? I think you're that good. Wouldn't you want to compete in that?"
"And then what?"
He looked surprised, maybe a little shocked. "After the Olympics, you mean?" He gestured. "I mean, the sky's the limit, Omer. Anything you want."
"What, exactly, does that mean?"
"Anything, Omer. I mean -"
I shook my head, cut him off. "The way I look at it, I have three choices. Say I go to the Olympics … say I even medal. That's fine, that's good … yay, me. But, after that?" I held up my hand, started counting. "One, I go on to MMA, run around in my underwear, talking trash, beating the shit out of some other poor ex-wrestler. Two, I go pro, run around in my underwear, talking trash, pretending to beat the shit out of some other poor ex-wrestler. Three - and no offense intended - I start coaching, either high school or college. What you need to understand is that I don't want to do any of those things. I'm not sure I ever did, but I know it for certain now."
"Coaching isn't such a bad life …" Coach muttered.
"I know it's not. It's the best of those choices. I might even enjoy it. And you've been an excellent coach. But that's not what I want. I've spent the past four years figuring out what that is, and it's somewhere else, not here."
"Engineering, as I recall." I imagined that I heard a dismissive kind of tone in his voice, ignored it.
I nodded. "Yes. I'm good at it, Coach. It may not sound like much, but I'm good at it, and I think I'll do well." I sighed. "Look, Coach, I … I want to start using my brain and not just my body. I'm tired of beating the shit out of people, either literally or metaphorically, and I really don't want to join the clown show and go pro." I tapped myself on the temple. "I've fought hard to get through the engineering program, and I don't want to put it on hold, not for you or anyone else."
"Just two more years, Omer. Two more years. That's all I'm asking for. Tell me what I have to say to you to make you stay. Help me out."
The thing was, I was still tempted to say yes to him. It would be easy - well, no more difficult than it had been so far - but it wouldn't be what I wanted, what I knew to be true.
And, there was another thing for me to say, a thing that might put all of Coach's pleas and entreaties to rest. "There's something else you should know, Coach."
He closed his eyes, shook his head, sighed. "Seriously? What else can you possibly have to say that's worse than that?"
"Well, how about this: I'm gay."
It took him a second. "You're … what?"
"You heard me, but I'll say it again. I'm gay."
"Since I was a kid, I think. But I knew it for certain when I was … oh, twelve or so."
"You've been gay, this whole time? And you still …?"
I nodded my head. "Yep."
"Have you … have you told anyone else this?"
"No. Not yet. Just my dad. But, if I do come back to the team - and I'm not saying that I am - I'm going to tell everyone. I'm tired of hiding it."
"Well, I'm not sure if -"
And I could see it, could see it in his face, could hear it in his voice. He wanted me back on his terms, not mine … and his terms meant keeping this a secret. "It's that or nothing, Coach. I mean it."
"Well, let's not be hasty, Omer … I mean, sure, we'd find a way to … well, ease everybody into it. Give 'em time to get used to it, slowly …"
I shook my head. "Nope. Day one, the whole team gets together, along with all the staff, I tell everyone straight out. No clever word play, no trying to game it, no trying to soft pedal it."
"Omer, c'mon … I mean, it's not that easy, right? I mean, it's never easy, the way I understand it."
"It can be. I just told you, right? I can do the same thing again. It gets easier every time. And, Coach …" I hesitated before I said this next bit; I'd debated over saying it ever since I found out, and ever since I knew that I had to come out.
"I … well, I wouldn't be the only one." I thought about that day, when I'd come back to the locker room, having forgotten my backpack, seeing them there, in one of the shower stalls: Donnie - a big Polish boy from Pittsburgh, who usually wrestled at 183, naked and on his knees in front of a tall, skinny, handsome black kid who I vaguely remembered as being on the soccer team … the black kid's hands on the back of Donnie's meaty head, guiding him as Donnie's head shuttled back and forth, doing the obvious … they had not seen me standing there, but I made sure to make some noise when I left so that nobody else - who might care more than I did - would catch them in the act.
I watched as understanding came over him, watched as his face changed. He slumped back into his seat again. "What?" he said, his voice weak. "What?"
"You heard me."
"Who? Who is it?"
I shook my head. "I'm not going to tell you. It's not my business. If he wants to come out, he'll do it. But I don't think he will. He'd be afraid to. He'd be a fool to come out and still try to stay on the team." And I could see that Coach understood, knew that he, too, was remembering how it had been, the things he had said to us, the casual cruelties tossed out in the guise of making us more competitive, of making us into men by playing to our fear of weakness, our homophobia. It had torn me apart every time he had used such language - did he know about me? I always feared - but I had managed to hide it, to store the pain inside. I could tell that Coach also understood how most people who didn't wrestle felt about wrestling: that it already seemed like a pretty gay thing … sweaty, muscular guys in skintight uniforms rolling around on the mat with each other… and if one of his wrestlers actually came out, then that would make the whole thing nothing more than a laughingstock.
Not any more, I thought. I can't do it. I stood up. "Look … you've … you've given me some wonderful opportunities, ones that I'll never forget. I'm glad that I did it, that I decided to come here and be on your team. I will always be grateful to you, to everyone, for turning me into a better athlete and a better person. I wouldn't have changed anything. But one of the things you told us, over and over, is that we had - above all - to be true to ourselves, and that's what I'm doing now, by telling you this." I fought back a lump in my throat and the threat of tears. "That's why this has to be my offer, Coach. That's where I stand. If you can agree to my conditions, then maybe - just maybe - I'll consider coming back. But, I'm not sure that you can, honestly … and I hate saying that as much as you hate hearing it. My guess is that you won't be able to, because you don't want to have to put up with it."
And I walked out.
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