Nobody had ever imagined cheerleaders for a wrestling team before. Certainly, nobody had imagined cute cheerleaders for a wrestling team, girls with hair styled neatly and sweet-smelling shampoo. Girls who floated through the stench and chill of the gym like a magical fog, an alien mist in saddle-shoes. Confused, my teammates and I watched them, and smelled them, and were stunned by them. Nobody understood how to act because, yeah, we knew about girls—sort of—but girls who would surrender an entire Saturday to clap their hands and stomp their feet at a wrestling tournament? Nobody had ever heard of something like that.
Our coaches had never heard of mouth-guards either, though now it seems obvious. Clearly they should have known where to get a kid some molded plastic to protect his lips and gums from the braces girding his teeth. But they didn’t know that.
They knew about top seeds though, how to pluck spindly anonymous boys from the high school hallways and sculpt them through three hours a day of grueling practice into the thick-muscled names Magic-Markered onto the first line of tournament brackets. The moment we slouched their whistles screeched in our ears, shrill and continuous, like the high-pitched cries of colicky babies. So we didn’t slouch. Ever. From whistle to whistle we feinted and spun and pushed and grabbed, and our coaches made damn sure we learned the holds that hurt. They worked their knotted forearms into the backs of our necks so we’d remember the kind of pain we were supposed to instill.
They knew how to fight for top seeds too. How to speak up in pre-tourney meetings, grim and certain—“My guy’s gonna roll through this weight-class,” they’d say. “Trust me, he’s tough.”
So I was. Tough. Able to snap back the head of a kid who stole from my locker the forty dollars I’d saved to buy a birthday present for a girl I wanted to like, and to bounce his skull off an aluminum doorframe. Tough enough to stare down a different kid in a parking-garage with a tire-iron gripped in his meaty palm, saying only, “That’s not a good choice for you now, is it?”
Tough enough, too, to be named top seed at 138 lbs. in the Peru Tournament in Plattsburgh NY, a farmtown with a locker room so cold we could see our breath when we stripped to our boxers and weighed in on an enormous cattle scale. Our eight-hour bus-ride had carried us so far upstate we’d stepped into the parking lot with our sweatshirt hoods pulled tight around our faces like a team of polar conquerors, our limbs restless, itching, hungry to mark that territory ours.
We were a handful of miles from the Canadian border and we were freezing and we wanted to get shit done as fast as we could. We wanted to hurt people and get back on the bus and get the fuck home, and I took that responsibility seriously. With two quick pins engraved on the bracket chart I did my job efficiently, easily reaching the semifinals against the 4th seed. He looked tough too. Shoulders thick like turkeys. More unshaven stubble on his face than I’d be able to grow for another decade. And stroking that stubble as she tongue-kissed him minutes before our match was set to begin, her fingers crawling across his cheeks like insects, was one of their cute cheerleaders. Maybe the cutest cheerleader, legs somehow tan in the middle of winter, and firm too. No jiggle. A head of dark hair thick and curly, like a soft cloud on her back.
That was some bullshit.
You don’t make out with your girlfriend, no matter how cute, when you’re seeded 4th and you’re about to face the top-ranked wrestler in your weight-class. Not when he can see you making out and he’s not making out. Not when he’s warming up in that arctic drafty gym, bouncing from one foot to the other, shaking his arms loose, seething. Because what he’s thinking—while you suck face and are not warming up—is that you don’t respect him. He’s the top seed and you’re treating him like he’s some guppy you’re gonna flop onto his back. What he’s thinking is he’d like nothing better than not only to beat you, but to humiliate you in front of your hot cheerleader girlfriend. He wants you on your back, his breath stinking and thick on your neck, in your face, you squirming, hoping you’re still gonna get some—unlikely—after your girl sees you weak, pathetic, beaten.
It’s difficult to measure rage. There’s no scale that says you were 7.7 pissed off when your father grounded you for wearing your new basketball sneakers in a snowstorm and you missed the party where Cara—the saucy girl who sold them to you—said she’d meet you; 8.2 pissed off when you failed your first driving test after parallel-parking your rear bumper into a fire hydrant; 9.5 the Monday after the party when you saw Cara in the hallway holding hands with your teammate. There’s no scale. No weight-class. No chart.
All I know is this—when the whistle blew and the referee spread his hands to signal we could go at each other, I flew at that 4th seed like a rabid raccoon. Sucked his leg to my chest as if I were prepared to eat it for dinner, tripped his other leg and plummeted him onto his back. The whole thing could have been over in thirty seconds, but that would have been too easy for him. He could have told his girlfriend it was just one move, a fluke, I got lucky. But fuck luck. Luck was not part of this equation. So I punished him on his back for a while, let him squirm and breathe my hot stink, then let him up so he could scramble to his knees. Let him think maybe he had a chance.
There’s no way I could have distinguished any specific voices in the loud gulf of that moment, but I like to imagine I did hear one. The cheerleader with the dark curls. Like to imagine I heard her yelling, “C’mon Sweetheart! You can do it!” All the while, of course, I’m thinking, no, Sweetheart, you can’t do it, and I’m grinding my forearm into the back of his head, trying to crush his face into the mat so he’s inhaling all the sweat and shoe-bottom dirt of the previous matches. And there are easier ways to turn some arrogant fish with turkey shoulders onto his back, quicker, more efficient ways, but this situation called only for the most painful way—the double arm-bar.
Here’s how to think of the double arm-bar: imagine you’re lying face-down in the street and some roid-ripped police officer’s got his knee jammed between your shoulder-blades. Then he takes his nightstick and hooks it underneath one of your arms so it’s nestled in the crook on the inside of your elbow, and pulls backward so it feels like your rotator cuff is being yanked through your skin. Then, while you’re dealing with that blast of pain, he threads the other end of the nightstick under your other arm, so he can now wrench both your shoulders out of their sockets. Now, imagine he twists the nightstick, walking out to the side of your body so his entire weight leverages your torso, and your neck spins your head until you’re driven onto your back, both your arms knotted beneath you, your shoulders digging into the concrete.
That’s the double arm-bar, and the kid deserved it. His half-swallowed yelps as I walked around the side of his body and wrenched him onto his back only made me lock his arms up more tightly, only made me extend myself fully so the maximum amount of pressure could be applied to his shoulders and neck. Then, too fast—putting someone away with an arm-bar was not only painful, but slow—I heard the slap of palm on mat that signaled the match was over. But it wasn’t the referee’s palm slapping the mat. It was his palm—the stubble-faced kid—signaling he wanted the match stopped because he was injured.
That was some more bullshit.
I’d hurt him, sure, he deserved to be hurt, but no bones had snapped. No ligaments had popped. He wasn’t injured. He was faking, pretending he was really damaged so he could spare himself the indignity of being pinned; so he could tell his girlfriend his shoulder had been hurt before the match and that’s why he lost.
Bullshit, I remember thinking as I tried to stay loose, bouncing from foot to foot, shaking my arms as the referee waited the requisite two minutes to see if the so-called injured wrestler could continue. This turkey-shouldered kid knew the unspoken rules. He had to know them. He was 4th seed after all, out of sixteen in the bracket. He’d rolled a bunch of kids over their necks too, no doubt, to earn that ranking. He knew where the line of truly injuring someone was, and he also knew we both knew we hadn’t crossed it. Yet here he was, looking for a way out of the match that didn’t include battling his ass off the mat and trying to roll me on my neck. It was the weakest thing he’d done yet.
I thought then about strength. How it tastes in the mouth.
I first understood I was strong in third grade. On a steel-grey day when Daniel Meyers cut in front of Susie London in the four-square line. That was against the unspoken rules too, cutting the four-square line, sneaking in when other kids had been waiting ten minutes for the chance to star on the asphalt stage, to batter the ball from one chalked box to another until someone missed. There was a rhythm to that anticipation—a sacred rhythm—running from the lunchroom to claim a spot toward the front of the line, the waiting as the ball bounced from square to square, searching out which kid to send hangdog to the rear. It was wrong to mess with that rhythm, to cut into the line as if assuming your hands battering the ball were somehow more important than anyone else’s.
I don’t really remember moving, but I remember what happened when my hand gripped the hood of Daniel’s sweatshirt and pulled. He careened backward as if a swooping pterodactyl had snatched him from the ground and carried him nearly a dozen feet before thrusting him, with a smash, into the school’s brick wall. The four-square line, quiet, watched Daniel stumble to his feet and rub the back of his head, licking the blood from his fingers where he’d scraped his knuckles. I wasn’t surprised I’d tossed him like that, that he’d flown into the wall, only that it had been the slight against the dignity of Susie London that had provoked me. What was it about this shy girl—this original girl with dark hair like a cloud on her back—that had sparked this reaction, this quick stretch of hand to sweatshirt hood, this ferocious grip and pull?
She seemed a little thrilled too, that someone would send someone else sprawling on her behalf, and from that moment on, she became less shy around me, even agreed to wear my velour sweat-jacket during lunch hours, to let it swallow her when she was cold.
Four years later, in junior high, the taste of strength was different. Susie London had grown less timid around a lot of people and, to stay warm, was currently wrapping herself in the St. Bernard’s football jacket of a brutish kid named Christian Morris. At 13, he had a hedge of hair above his top lip and a square and sizable head, like a small microwave oven. I was still enamored with Susie and angry, in the way junior high kids get angry, that she’d forsaken me—especially for a square-headed kid—and on the day report cards came out, with my piss-poor behavioral grade in Mechanical Drawing sure to provoke a month-long grounding from my parents, I funneled all my bitterness into an arrow of threat—You’d better stay away from Susie London—and challenged Christian to a fight.
He took the invitation and we trooped out of the cafeteria and down the stairs to the blacktop, a river of raucous classmates cheering behind. They hooted and circled around Christian and me as we circled each other, wondering who would charge first. In the midst of one shuffle-step, I caught Susie’s eye. She didn’t look thrilled, or even scared, more like she was annoyed she’d been interrupted from finishing the half-eaten brownie wrapped in cellophane that she held between her hands like a prayer-book.
You don’t want me to do this? I stage-whispered, like a moron, as if anyone would want me to commit an act of violence against Christian’s boxy noggin. She nodded her head slowly, which I took to mean she was answering, yes, I agree, I don’t want you to do this, I just want to finish my brownie. Briefly, I considered taking the advice of the After-School Special preachers and walking away, being the bigger person, or some similar nonsense. But then Christian made the decision to rush me, to initiate a kind of clumsy tackle by winding his arms around my legs. I shoved him away easily, my hands sliding aside the flat top of his head like closing the drawer of a file cabinet. Somehow, I was still thinking maybe this travesty didn’t really have to happen. Maybe in front of all these people yelling and pumping their fists in the air, I could pick Christian up, shake his hand and tell him sorry, you don’t actually have to stay away from Susie London. I was just kidding, I have a bad grade in Mechanical Drawing. My parents are going to ground me. She’s all yours.
It was too late though. I may even have half-extended my hand to help Christian from the ground, but he grabbed it, tried to twist my arm—what did they teach these football players?—and at that point there was really no stopping. The momentum of the fight had claimed us: me, Christian, our cheering fans, even Susie, who dropped her brownie to the ground and put one hand over her mouth as if someone had just shocked her with a graphic description of her handsome pre-algebra teacher’s genitals. Christian’s grip on my arm was weak, his hands sweaty, and even though he probably outweighed me by forty pounds—half of it in that cinderblock skull—I knew if I wanted to repeat the toss of Daniel Meyers and flip Christian face-first into the brick wall about a dozen feet behind us, his nose splattering blood like a perfect strike into the middle of the painted rectangle we used to play stickball—I could do it.
But Susie’s half-ambiguous nod had sucked the venom out of my desire to hurt Christian. What was the point of fighting if she didn’t want me to? Christian wasn’t a bad kid. Chunky, hairy, a little slow, but otherwise all right. We’d once killed an hour together throwing rocks at a stop sign waiting for our mothers to pick us up when we’d missed the bus because of an after-school detention. We hadn’t really spoken much, but had established a measure of comradeship, our rocks arcing toward the stop sign, sometimes bouncing off it with a metallic clang as we grew colder, and older, waiting for our mothers.
Now all I wanted was for the fight to be over, for everyone to go away and forget about it, for Susie not to hate me, for Christian not to break a cheekbone or a clavicle bumping into something. So I let him headlock me. Perhaps he derived some satisfaction discovering not all heads were as large and square as his own—it was possible to circle an arm around most of them. For whatever reason, he seemed happy enough just to hold me there and halfheartedly take a few swings at my ears, all of them missing. We stayed like that for maybe a minute, the crowd growing bored, he gripping my head and sort of punching it, I more or less hanging out, wondering when an assistant principal would show up so Susie could at last recover her brownie and unwrap it.
When one did show up, he marched Christian and me down to the office, where I promptly advised him to send Christian back to the cafeteria. It was my fault, after all. I’d challenged him; he’d just been stupid enough to accept. The principal, bewildered I think, by my willingness to take the blame, sent both of us back to the cafeteria, adding only that he intended to talk to the wrestling coach about recruiting us for the coming season.
Back in the lunchroom, I tried to make it up with Susie by buying her another brownie, which she could eat later. She seemed touched by the gift and broke up with Christian that evening over the phone. We dated for a week-and-a-half, after which she began to wear Michael Slauson’s hockey jacket. Christian and I went out for wrestling. He quit in high school to work on cars and spend more time with Susie’s younger sister Hannah, who had larger breasts. I got braces on my teeth in 10th grade to correct an overbite, didn’t smile or kiss anybody for two years, and became a top seed.
The referee blew his whistle to signal the injury time was over and then bent to ask the stubble-faced kid if he could continue. Kid shook his head with a bottomless sadness as if there were truly nothing more tragic than the way his body had refused to allow itself to be tortured for an additional four-and-a-half minutes. The referee raised my hand in victory and stubble-face leaned into his coach as he limped off the mat, as if he couldn’t carry his own weight, as if the double arm-bar had somehow wrecked not only his arms, but also his legs. Such bullshit.
There are few more blissful states of being than the moments immediately following winning a wrestling match. Having proven yourself stronger than some other kid who weighs the exact same amount as you do, there’s nothing left but to kick back, your muscles bulging in triumph, and spread yourself out in the bleachers as if you own them, while you imagine how shitty your opponent feels as he hurriedly pulls his sweats back on to hide his naked loser skin.
But winning in the semifinal round of a tournament is even better. The bonus is that if you win in the semis, then you can lounge in the bleachers for the whole afternoon, even nap in them while just about everyone else in your weight-class beats each other up with the hopes of, at best, earning 3rd place. You are not part of that consolation quagmire. You’re final-bound. Your name will be announced later, at night, after the whole gym has been cleared, and the National Anthem has been played, and people have paid additional admission to watch the house-lights dim and a spotlight shine while you battle to win the title. In fact, at your leisure, after you’ve sufficiently owned the bleachers for a while, you can head into the locker room and shower and then change into street clothes just so everyone in the gym knows you’re in the finals. Your wedding day, or maybe some really good sex, or maybe the birth of your child might rival that.
But stubble-face fuckboy with his fake injury ruined the whole experience. Not only did he not slip hurriedly back into his loser sweats, not only would he not have to wrestle all afternoon to earn his way onto the podium (his injury disqualification knocked him out of the tournament), but his adorable girlfriend was gently wrapping an Ace bandage around an ice-pack on his shoulder and, with her other golden hand, tenderly rubbing his thigh.
It was a ghastly sight, horrid, really, and unjust. Yet part of me remained hopeful. I had just destroyed her boyfriend after all, clearly illustrating what a dishrag he was, so maybe she was just taping his shoulder and rubbing his thigh out of obligation. Maybe, as she helped him limp off to the locker room, she was going to whisper to me as she passed, meet me in five minutes in the parking lot. Maybe we were going to brave the swirling winds and heat the frozen tundra with our own tongue-kissing, her fingers crawling like insects on my cheeks, and I’d be able to brag to my teammates on the bus that I’d gotten her phone number.
It almost happened like that. As she helped her boyfriend limp off—or I should say, fake limp off—she did turn to me and whisper. Angled her thick brown eyes and gorgeous sweet mouth to me and hissed, “You’re mean. You’re a mean person. You cocksucker.”
All right, so I was mean. That’s what made me the top seed. Some girls had to dig that. After all, the dark-haired girl wasn’t the only cheerleader who’d been there to root on the 4th seed. She’d just been the only one kissing him. In fact, three other girls were approaching me, smiling, a giggling gaggle sashaying toward the area of bleachers now under my jurisdiction. They weren’t as cute as the one who’d called me a cocksucker, but they weren’t nothing. They were girls. In cheerleader skirts. With long clean hair and chewing gum and legs and breasts and eyelashes. One of them stuck out her hand as if to shake mine and said, “Hi.”
For the first time in two years, I smiled. Maybe all three of them would meet me in the parking lot. Maybe I’d have a trio of phone numbers to brag about on the bus. I opened my mouth to talk, and blood from where my braces had butchered the inside of my lips streamed down my chin and dripped onto my chest. The girl who’d said hi covered her mouth with her hand in shock, just like Susie London had in junior high. She grabbed the wrists of her friends and they ran as if I were some vampire, some horrible ghoul.
I was some ghoul. Some ghoul going to the finals.
My coach handed me a towel, and a lime-flavored sports drink in a squeeze-bottle. I guzzled.