When my career ends and some poor schmuck is forced to put together a retrospective on the nonsense I perpetrated across three decades, there’s one incident that I hope they pay special attention to, because it altered the trajectory of my time in PRIME – of my life. All it cost was thirty bucks, a trip to an Army surplus store, and a few fragments of any dignity or self-respect I still had kicking around.
The match in question was a four-way between Fighting For Nora, the Solid Gold boys, and some S-tier MENSA genius who thought that wrestling with a mannequin as his partner was a crackerjack idea. Oh, and the Hollywood Bruvs were there too, God rest their souls. I wonder what they’re up to now. Hopefully contributing to the community.
Regardless, I think it’s safe to say that Barry Delgado didn’t go into that match expecting to be tased, which is fine because I didn’t expect to tase him. I didn’t want to tase anyone, truth be told, but I was a different person then. I wasn’t ready to be back in a ring; didn’t know how to cope with the amount of scrutiny I once again found myself under. Pressure and I have an adversarial relationship.
The chain of events is, quite frankly, stupid on a cosmic scale. It breaks down like this: Jared has a bad idea; Jared has an even worse idea; Jared decides “the forces of electromagnetism are mine to command!”; everything goes to hell.
I zapped Barry Delgado, and whatever plan the universe had to fuck with me came unravelled, because an old friend and mentor had other ideas. You could argue that if I never cratered that hard to begin with, then Cal never shows up at my house to try and talk me off a cliff.
I could have made the smart decision and left the weapons where they belonged. What does that change?
Thank God I never have to find out.
“No matter what happens out there, win or lose, you and I get to live forever.”
That was the last thing I said before we went to the ring.
After the hardest fight in eleven years, I leaned hard in the corner for support, taking a minute to try and settle down while I processed what was happening around me. Jimmy Turnbull, the referee assigned to the match, attempted to hand me the pair of championships that Cal and I just won. I turned him away.
“Give them to her,” I said.
They weren’t meant for me. They were never meant for me. Besides, I had the best seat in the building to watch what was unfolding.
For the first time in her life Justine stood alone in the spotlight, bathing in the storm that comes when sixteen-thousand people try to hold you up with the power of their collective voice. It doesn’t matter how many times you see it happen to your friends, or your colleagues, when you’re handed ten pounds of leather and gold for the first time in your life everything goes blank. All of those moments that you rehearse in your head or practice alone in front of a mirror when you think no one is watching… it all goes right out the window.
Kings of Popsicles. Princes of the universe. Immortal as the goddamn Highlander.
To think I could have missed this.
She kept her head bowed, arms at her side, feeling the weight she carried in each hand. I imagine she wondered whether someone was about to come along and tell her they’d got it wrong, that this was just a dream, and it was time to give it all back.
A question played over and over in my mind. Months ago, around the time Survivor started, Cal and I had an argument. The shots we traded were cruel and deeply personal, because after twenty years we know where all the soft spots are. When we met to try and reconcile a week later, she asked when was the last time I was truly happy. I didn’t have an answer. Ten years of exile meant that the memories I clung to were desperately outdated, well past their expiration. Like the carton of milk that you don’t open before you throw it away, because whatever was inside Has Evolved.
She held those belts over her head for the first time, and all I could hear was her voice in my head.
“When was the last time you were happy?”
Ask me again, Cal.
For the first time since she first stepped foot inside the converted candy factory that was the Stracker family’s school for professional wrestling, Justine found herself watching someone else set about breaking down the ring she’d competed in that night. Old habits being what they were, she offered a hand. The crew had been polite enough, thanking her for offering, but they had some strong opinions about the last wrestler to mess with their equipment, and union rules were pretty rigid about this sort of thing.
She retreated to the entrance staging, and took a seat along the edge. The perch meant that she was close enough to watch, but still far enough that the experience felt alien. PRIME was the top of the mountain, but she’d come up on the New England circuit in gyms and armories, and in those buildings your night wasn’t over until you’d helped break everything down, store it away, and get it ready for the next town.
She kept her arms crossed over her lap, and her newest accessory rested just beneath her hands. With the exception of a shower the belt had yet to leave her grasp.
Soft footsteps resonated on the steel beneath her, and she turned to see her partner moving in her direction. Of the pair, the match left most of its mark on Jared. The cut that had opened beneath his left eye gave his cheek the appearance of a potato that had exploded in the microwave, then was hastily reconstructed by someone working with their feet.
Over the course of the night she’d cursed his name for dragging her into this, swore to kill him once it was over, and then in a moment of exultant joy, tackled him to the mat in front of the world. She smiled as he approached and let her eyes wander back to the ring. Two ropes down, and one to go.
“Figured I’d find you out here,” he said. He eased into a spot on the steel beside her.
“They won’t let me help. I offered to, even started taking one of the buckles off, but I guess I need to join the union before they’d let me finish. Nice guys, though.”
“Remind me to bring you the next time I feel like stealing a forklift. That’s the same bunch I managed to piss-off in my third week here.”
“Then maybe you should find somewhere else to sit.” She turned, still smiling. “Don’t want to ruin my pristine reputation so soon.”
“Too late for that, I think. You’re hanging around me, so you’re already pretty much fucked.” His eyes fell to the gold she carried. “You know, everyone who’s ever wrestled as a berry has been a champion, but I think you’re the only one of us to do it in their first match. Would you kill me if I said, ‘I told you so’?”
“Hmm, that’s tough. I feel like you’ve already been punched enough for one night, so probably not.”
“So I’d just wait, and do it tomorrow instead.”
“Fair enough. In that case I’ll just say that it looks good on you. Like it belongs there.”
A lump formed in her throat, one she tried to will away. Focus on the ring, Cal. Just focus on the ring. Two buckles had been removed from the last rope, and the third was on its way towards freedom.
“Have you thought about what name you’re engraving on there?” he continued. The question surprised her, and for a moment her focus shifted.
“What do you mean? Aren’t we doing the berry thing?”
“You can if you want to, but while the medical staff was checking me over I started to think.”
“That’s never a good sign.”
“Started thinking about something you said in Darren’s office, when you asked if we could do this tonight as just you and I. No costumes.”
“Did you change your mind?” she said. She thought back to the match, when the Vegas faithful had chanted his name. Not the one he hid behind, but the one he was born with; the one he assumed was buried in the mud with the rest of his sins. “Is that what you want to do – just be us?”
“I do, but I still don’t think I’m ready just yet. Tonight was… There are some things I still need to sort out.”
“So then what did you mean? I’m still confused.”
“What if instead of having them engrave your nameplate as ‘R Raspberry’, or whatever, maybe they put your name on there. And I was thinking,” his voice trailed off for a moment. “Maybe I’d do the same thing. Anyway, it’s just a thought.”
She snapped her eyes back towards the ring
“Yeah,” she said. “Yeah, that would be… yeah.”
They sat in silence as the ring crew worked their magic. First the skirt around the ring was removed, then the canvas and padding, until nothing was left but the steel frame.
“Hey, Jared?” she said. “I just realized that I never thanked you for all of this.”
“Well, here’s the thing about that, Cal. You never have to.”
We made our way through the Grand, moving slower than usual. I have something of a reputation for being able to take a beating, but it had been a long time since I’d actually been tossed around that hard. The building was still buzzing, but the majority of foot traffic felt more “casino” than “wrestling”. Still, there’s a feeling that you get when you’re out in public and can sense that someone has recognized you.
There was a family a short distance away – two young girls and their parents. The father, who I guessed was about my age, looked in our direction and whispered to his kids. This is the sort of thing I used to find normal, but actively tried to avoid since coming back into the fold in January. Still, given the way the night had gone, I nodded a quiet affirmation and watched the guy’s eyes immediately go wide.
“I think we’re about to have company,” I whispered to Cal.
When the kids rushed over I might as well have been invisible, because it wasn’t me they wanted to see.
“Excuse me,” said the first, “are you really the Raspberry?”
Cal was blindsided. This was something that I’d come to take for granted, the only part of the job that never stops. Twenty-odd years – even with a decade away – dulls the experience, and don’t believe anyone that tells you otherwise. Eventually it all becomes rote, like checking email or bitching about meetings. But if you’ve never before experienced the rush of an eager fan, then it’s a wild-hair-across-your-ass moment as you struggle to keep your composure, and hope you come across as the kind of person they expect.
“We know who he is,” the second one added. “So we thought you might be the other berry.”
“Whoa, are you really?” the first girl said.
My job here was simple: engage just long enough for Cal’s brain to reset after the hard crash, then stand back and let her take over the show. Maybe help guide things if the situation called for it.
“Yeah, that’s her,” I said. The next step was to crack a joke, and help ease everyone’s tension a little bit. “I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t take your advice, Cal. They’d never have known it was us with a bag on my head.”
A laugh from the girls, a polite chuckle from their father, and Cal snapped back into reality just in time to field a barrage of comments from the kids. Good thing too, because in retrospect that joke sucked.
“Oh my god it is SO COOL to-”
“My name is Annie and this is my sister, ‘V’, we’re-”
“-and then you picked him up like BOOM, and-”
“-TACKLED that guy Jon at the end!”
I took a few steps back to watch it play out, and the girls’ father saddled up alongside me.
“Thank you so much for doing this,” he said. “I didn’t want to bother you, but the girls were so excited when they realized who you guys were. They wanted a T-shirt, but we checked all of those merch-PRIME-porium places and couldn’t find any.”
“Yeah, this all came together pretty quick,” I said. “We didn’t have anything made in time.”
Or designed. Or concepted. I made a mental note to call my agent the next morning and see what we could do about fixing that.
An ache had started to form along the top of my jawline. Damn, Paxton really did hit like a truck.
“Congratulations, by the way. And, if you don’t mind me saying so…” Uh oh. The warning bells went off in my head, and I was suddenly very much aware of why I usually made it a point to find my way back through the thankfully-minotaur-free labyrinth of corridors the MGM Grand offered. “It’s great to have you back, too.”
“I’ve been following the sport since I was a kid. My family and I are from Henderson, so I used to come to shows in the area.”
Didn’t see that one coming, did you, dipshit?
“Yeah, it’s… I’m still getting used to it. Thank you.”
I made a decision to process this later. Much later. Whatever the eventual mental and emotional fall-out from this conversation was to be, it would be a problem for Future Jared to deal with, and Future Jared is already pissed at Past Jared, so what’s one more thing. Present Jared was too occupied with watching one of his oldest friends answer questions and sign her first autographs as a champion.
Cal shot a glance my way, wide-eyed and smiling, the same expression I imagine someone would make upon learning that they got to spend the afternoon being trampled by a dozen puppies. She mouthed the words, “this is crazy” at me, then was pulled right back into entertaining her new-found entourage.
That damn ache in my jaw was getting worse. If I didn’t get ice on it soon, then talking tomorrow would be a pain in the ass.
“Is it cool if we get a picture?” the man next to me said. Like a schmuck, I was too preoccupied with everything else happening that I never got his name, or even introduced myself properly. If I ever told my mother this story, I’d be sure to leave that part out, or else there’d be a lecture about how I was raised better than that.
And now it was my turn to join the party. I slid the bag from my shoulder and set it down on the floor, taking a minute to remove my spangly new belt from inside. When she saw what I was doing, Cal followed suit. I handed mine to Annie, and the girl who’d been identified as ‘V’ took Cal’s eagerly, as if she’d just won the damn thing herself.
“Now, everybody smile,” their father said. “And Annie, I really need you to look at the camera this time.”
It was only after we’d said our goodbyes with Annie, ‘V’, and Nameless Dad that I finally tried to rub away the ache. That’s when I realized it didn’t come from the match. I’d been smiling the entire time.
Twenty-plus years, and I’d taken it all for granted. Accepted it as part of the gig. The last few minutes had put it all in a new light, because it was brand-new to Cal, and I was blessed to see it through her eyes. For the first time in decades – maybe the first time ever – it made me love what I do. And as a guy who never planned to do this at all to begin with, that’s no minor miracle.
“Okay, that might be the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.” I slung the bag back over my shoulder and turned towards Cal. “Seriously, I don’t know if you realize it, but you just made fans for life back there.”
She didn’t answer. Her hands had set about the busywork of getting her gear back in order, but I knew the expression she wore all too well. The day had been taxing on her, maybe more than I anticipated. First she had to fight off the nerves that came with wrestling in front of thousands of people, plus the pressure of doing it against a two-time Universal champion. Then the surge that came with actually winning. Now this.
“Hey, you okay?”
“Yeah,” she said. She slung the bag over her shoulder and scanned the area for the closest exit. “I just… I need a minute.”
I reached out, but she was already gone. Cal had spotted an access door marked ‘Employees Only’ and darted towards it with her head down. I tried to follow, but had to dodge a collection of tourists coming back from a late dinner. As soon as they passed I moved at a full sprint to catch up. I pulled the door open and ducked into the stairwell, but could barely get out her name before she hit me in the chest like a cannonball.
I held her as she cried, days upon days of emotion finally bleeding itself dry. I cried with her, because she had arrived.
“It’s so much,” she said between the tears. “It’s just so much.”
“I know,” I whispered. “And you’ve been incredible. Beyond that, even.”
A lifetime ago, on that first night as a pro in Cyber Championship Wrestling, I had to reconcile these same feelings. Even after spending the time before that first match looking for different places backstage to throw up, the crush of emotion after was almost as bad. I didn’t have anyone there. No net. Just me, the weird kid with the garden gnome that nobody wanted to be around. Some undercard schmuck used to fill a roster spot. I didn’t get thrown right into the main event, wasn’t asked to prove myself against a prodigy who won his first world championship when he was barely old enough to drink.
How could I tell her that winning is the easy part? Those belts we carried would never be as light as they were when Jimmy ‘Turnbuckles’ handed them over. Day by day, week by week, they’d get heavier as challengers lined up take their shot.
I was an idiot, a complete fucking moron. I told myself that I was opening a door, but it led out to the firing squad.
“I’m sorry, Cal,” It was all I could think to say. “I’ve asked for too much.”
“No,” she said. “Don’t.”
She tightened her arms around me.
“Don’t apologize for this. Don’t you dare. This is amazing, it’s just-”
“It’s just a lot right now.”
Things got quiet after that. However long it took for her to process this, to come back down and find an equilibrium, I would stay. She’d kept me afloat for months, so I would stand here forever if necessary.
The minutes ticked by. Her breathing settled. I could feel the tension start to drain away from her. So, naturally, I did something dumb, and opened my damn fool mouth.
“I’m so proud of you, Justine.”
To most people, using her actual first name probably wouldn’t mean anything, but we have a kind of code. For all twenty-three years I’ve known her, she’s been Cal. If she pisses me off, then it’s Calvin. When I call her Justine, what I really mean is, “I’m being dead serious right now.”
I could feel her start to shake again, so I held on tighter.
“Can I tell you something? A few months back you asked how long it’d been since I was happy. Do you remember?” I could feel her nod ‘yes’. “I can answer that now.”
“Winning will do that, I guess.” She sniffed once, and wiped at her eyes before leaning her head back on my chest.
“Winning has nothing to do with it.”
She loosened her grip and eased away, just slightly. But she didn’t let go. And neither, for that matter, did I.
Our eyes met, both of our faces tear-stained, and she smiled. Then she closed the distance of a few inches and stole my breath.
Ask me again, Cal.
Ask me right now.