I keep trying to think of how to start, and no matter what I come up with it all seems dumb. In all honesty I’ve never been very good at this sort of thing, so that’s one hurdle I have to deal with. The second is that anything I say here – any of the traditional “how are you, I hope all is well, I’m fine, blah blah blah” bullshit just feels different, like it has its own gravity. It’s heavier.
Every day we get further and further away from it all, and I don’t think about it the way I used to, but sometimes those memories find their way to creep in. “Time heals all wounds” is garbage, because the more time that passes just means more time spent dwelling on things we can’t change.
I’m GREAT at not internalizing things, if you can’t tell.
But all that’s to say, I hope you’re well, Frank. Or if you’re not, that you’re at least on the road to getting there.
For years the loading docks served as my backstage respite. It’s where I went when I needed to get my head right before a big match, to deal with the come down of the adrenaline rush after a victory, or to figure out where the hell it had all gone wrong.
Justine had spent the days around ReVival in California for her cousin’s wedding. She wouldn’t normally travel on show days, but Avery had given Cal a place to crash when she tried her hand at getting booked on the west coast not long after we graduated. I was supposed to be her plus one, but because of tournament obligations she’d taken her dad instead.
My dad keeps asking me if I’ll stream the match.
I had to explain to Avery what we were doing
I think she’s pissed at us
And for the last hour they decided to ignore the wedding in favor of blowing up my phone.
When the last bell rang my dad shouted so loud that he scared the DJ
That one came with a photo of Justine and her father attached. They both looked like they’d just spent the last few minutes screaming. Barrett, Cal’s dad, had both arms in the air and it looked like he’d just come very close to concussing a terrified usher. They were one overturned car away from being a two-person riot.
I know you’re probably crazy busy right now but call me as soon as you can
I wish I was there
My phone chimed. A new message.
We’re so proud of you
The night wasn’t just about the Golden Ticket. Winning meant tournament advancement and an appointment with someone I had a deep history with. Jonathan-Christopher Hall. Did he ever get notes like this from Vickie? Sentiments that were sincere, not just a cruel new form of manipulation. The thought brought with it an unexpected emotion.
And then my thoughts shifted, and became something darker. I dreamed of wrought iron and barbed wire, of chocolate and a rag.
Of my own failure, and who else had been made to suffer.
The voice didn’t register. Distracted, I didn’t see that the nearby crew had all withdrawn, split like the tide to let Moses pass. I looked up from the phone and met the eyes of another old enemy.
“Paxton,” I said. I set the phone down on a crate next to me and sat up a little straighter. He and I were no stranger to violence, having beaten each other bloody at Colossus a year ago. A man like that commands your full attention. “What’s going on?”
“I dunno how t’say this.” His eyes darted around the space, a man desperate to look anywhere but in front of him. “I, uh… I kinda need ya t’forgive me.”
I’d been caught off guard by Paxton before, but those encounters all ended with someone taking a ride in the back of an ambulance. This was the first time he surprised me with his words.
“Yeah. I know it’s a shitty thing t’demand. An’ maybe it fits ‘cause I been such a shitty person. But lemme explain.” He took a few steps back and rubbed his neck. “A monster truck needs gas, right?”
“Yeah.” I drew the syllable out, turning it into more of a question.
“Yeah, or else how’s it gonna go? But if ya give it gas, sometimes it can do a lotta damage. Crush cars… break glass. Hurt people.” He sighed, and I noticed he’d balled his fists. I braced for a punch that didn’t come. “But if it ain’t got gas, what’s the point? It just sits there, lookin’ scary but not able to do a goddamn thing.”
“So you’re telling me you want my permission to run people over? Do I have that right?”
“Nah, not like that. I been livin’ my whole life burnin’ gas ‘cause I’m afraid if I ever stop I won’t have a reason t’go on again. An’ recently my gas has been all but gone. But I feel like finally I might have a reason to go, an’ this time go without hurtin’ people.” He shrugged. “The point is I hurt a lot of people because it’s all I know. But now I know some people I wanna be good for. An’ if I can start t’close the books on the terrible shit I did, maybe I can move forward as somethin’ other than a monster truck.” He smiled in a way that I hadn’t seen since the fundraiser for his daughter, when they were together and the world was still sane. “Maybe jus’ like a Ford F150 or somethin’.”
I let his words hang in the air, and spent a long minute trying to get a read on whether or not he was being sincere.
The truth is, I already knew what I was going to do. It was a conversation with Nate Colton and Rich Patterson that helped make up my mind.
The ones who deserve it the least, are the ones who need it the most.
Smart kid, that Colton.
“Let me ask you something,” I said. “What’s it like when the engine is quiet? When there’s no gas and you’re just left idling.”
He let his eyes wander to the ceiling.
“I hear two voices. One is Nora’s, sayin’ I can quit wrestlin’ now that she’s in remission. The other is Jon’s.”
“And what does that one say?”
He closed his eyes. This was a side of the man I’d never seen before, one that a year ago I didn’t believe existed.
“We’re doing amazing things together,” he said. “I’m so proud of you.”
I took a step forward, praying I wouldn’t regret it.
“Look, I can’t speak for anyone but me. If you really wanna get right, then there are some hard conversations in your future. But I’m making the decision to take you at your word.” I extended my hand, thinking I might lose a few fingers for it. “We’re good.”
He didn’t take my hand, and instead he surprised me yet again by pulling me into a hug. All activity in the loading docks came to a screeching halt.
“Thanks,” he said, and then quickly let go. “Sorry, that was weird.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said, but the gears in my head were grinding fast trying to process the last few minutes. “Those voices you mentioned, I know how loud they can get. I’ve got a few of my own that I have to deal with, and some of them, well… they’re not kind. For what it’s worth, I hope you’re able to find your peace.”
“Me too. But even if they don’t… nobody can say I ain’t tried.”
“Then you’ve already done the hardest part.”
My life is in a place I never thought I’d get to see. I’m not bragging, that would be gross, but it’s a marvel to me that I’m even in this position. Ten years ago the idea that I would be getting married would have been so alien; an impossible dream. If someone had told me I’d be back inside the ring I would have laughed in their face, and then probably broke down in shambled.
I’m going to confess something. Justine and I are trying to start a family. We’ve been trying to get pregnant since the summer, but so far things aren’t going in our favor. We’re not letting that get in our way, it just means that we might have to open ourselves up to some other avenues to parenthood.
I’m sorry for whatever mental image this has painted.
Not counting the doctors or the adoption agency we met with recently, the only people who know about this are Justine and I. Nobody else. Holding this in is starting to drive me crazy, because all the secrecy is just so goddamn isolating, but it’s also like trying to dance your way through a minefield. As soon as people knew that we were engaged, the questions started about when we were going to have kids. It’s inescapable.
I’m telling you this because I know that you’ve always treated secrets as sacrosanct. I know that you’d take care of information like this, that it wouldn’t get out. And I’m telling you because I desperately need to get this off my chest, before the weight of it collapses me.
The scariest part is what happens if we’re successful. The thing that keeps me awake at night isn’t wondering about whether or not it will happen, but about whether it should. I look at the things I’ve done, a collection of fuck-ups big enough to fill a warehouse, and worry about what that kid’s future would look like.
Can I be the person I needed when I was young? I don’t know.
My second Thanksgiving with the Calvin family was a far different experience than the first, if only because this time I didn’t have to pretend that Justine and I were together. The event last year had been a charade, perpetrated because she never told her parents that we’d split. At the time, and if I was any smarter, I could have taken that as a positive sign.
Her father and I stood on the back porch looking out into the yard. He’d invited me out here after the rest of the family had retired to the living room to relax, bringing a bottle of brown liquor and two glasses with him.
I’d always known Barrett to be direct, so I wasn’t surprised he was so blunt.
“Tina says that you talked to that Piston Ray guy. The one who tried to mess you up last year.”
It always surprised me how much Barrett knew about what happened in PRIME, though only because it was so radically different from what I experienced with my own family. A father who never once saw me wrestle. A mother who got most of her news from the group of Rhinestones she chatted with. A whole side of the family that banned the sport from their house, and a nephew who snuck viewings despite his mother’s best efforts.
“Ah, right. I keep getting confused. Used to know a guy on the circuit named Ray Becker. We used to call him ‘Piston’ because of the way he threw a jab.” He handed me a glass, and then added a heavy pour. “Tina says that he apologized for all that shit.”
“He did. Surprised the hell out of me when it happened, too.”
“This sorta thing happen a lot? The apologizing? From what I’ve seen that places gets crazy sometimes.”
“I think I can count on one hand the number of times it’s happened in my lifetime,” I said. “Some people – most of them, actually – they don’t really give a damn how they get to where they are, so long as they get there. That it came from someone who took things that far…”
I didn’t finish the thought, suddenly very aware that if I was being honest with myself I should have probably offered Paxton the same kindness in return.
“You think he was serious?”
“I don’t know, but I want to believe that he is.”
“Tina says you accepted.”
It felt like an accusation, and one that I didn’t have any defense for. Either I tell the truth and forever paint this man’s perception of me, or I lie in the face of my future father-in-law. I said nothing. After a moment of watching me squirm in silence, he gestured towards the house with his glass.
“Junie goes to church every Sunday,” he said. “Hates to miss it. She’s big on forgiveness and all that. If you were to ask her, she’d say that the people who don’t deserve it are the ones who really need it. Or something.”
“Friend of mine said the same thing a few weeks back.”
“It’s a nice idea, you know? I’m sure the world would be a much better place if everyone could make nice and kumbaya their way through life. But still,” he shrugged. “Some people.”
I wondered what he’d say if he knew the extent of what happened between Frank and I, and what that relationship had become in the years since. “Wyatt Connors” sat alone atop a mountain of sins, watching people like Paxton Ray and Vickie Hall scramble to see who could score second place.
“Can I ask you something? This Hall guy you’ve gotta fight next week, the one with the wife who’s all-” He made a vague swirling motion near his head with his finger. “What if they suddenly grew a conscience and tried to make things right? You accepting that apology, too?”
A wave of panic hit me as I tried to process what he was asking, what he was really asking.
I was looking at the house, through the glass door that separated the deck from the living room. Justine sat on the floor with her brother’s youngest on her lap. The boy, Dominic, was only eight months old, and he smiled as he happily slapped at the pages of the storybook that Cal was trying to read him. Our eyes met, and then she took the baby’s hand and waved it at her dad and I.
When would it be our turn?
“As a parent, what happened to you kids was hard to watch,” Barrett said. “Bet your mom feels the same way.”
I braved a look in his direction, but he’d been watching the same thing I had.
“My nephew Ryan took it the worst. I had to fly up to Canada to calm him down.” I downed my drink in one gulp. I was going to need the courage. “I’m sorry. For what happened, for all of it. The Halls were pissed because of me. Justine… She was in that position because of me. I take full responsibility, and I know-“
It wasn’t a request. There was an authority to his voice that I’d never heard before, and one I wasn’t keen on hearing again.
I held my breath, a patient waiting for a terminal diagnosis. The space between seconds felt eternal. Barrett leaned forward and added a fair amount of liquid – bourbon, I think – to my glass.
“That was not your fault.”
I didn’t know what to say. What could I say? Twice now he’d left me speechless, waiting just long enough for his words to sink in before he speaking again.
“I know my daughter was hiding things from me last fall after all that. Things she didn’t want to talk about. But a father knows when things ain’t okay with one of his kids,” he said. “So she comes over here to help me with the lights, and she finally opens up. I told her, I says, some people you can’t win against, because the things they take you don’t never get back.”
He took a sip from his glass, then set it down on the railing.
“I know Tina told you I made her put that last match of yours on, because I try to keep up with you kids as much as I can. That Hall guy’s wife, Vickie or whatever, she’s… man.”
“A little much, yeah,” I said.
“Eh.” Barrett shrugged. “I was gonna go with ‘a bitch.'”
I choked on my drink.
“There’s something I think you should know,” he continued. “Last summer you and Tina won those belts, she comes over to the house after comin’ home from Vegas. Biggest smile on her face, like I’ve never seen before. You know what she says to Junie and me? ‘I made it. I finally did it.’” Barrett cleared his throat and took a quick drink to get his composure back. It’s not that he didn’t want to show emotion, it’s that men of his generation weren’t allowed. “She said it was everything she ever dreamed of.”
“She said that?”
“I understand you being upset with those Love Weirdos. Be as mad at them as you want, because they’re the ones who deserve it.” He reached out and put a hand on my shoulder. Over the course of Barrett’s career, a few dozen men had their night end early as a result of that hand. And now here it was to offer me grace. “But don’t you ever blame yourself for this, you understand me? I know that probably ain’t gonna be easy, but you remember this the next time you start blaming yourself. I get to watch my only daughter… my little girl…”
He trailed off, and I could feel his grip on my shoulder tighten just a bit. I think it was more for his benefit than mine, like he needed something to hold on to. To give him strength.
“I get to see her livin’ out her dream, because you made it happen. You remember that instead, okay?”
He made me promise, made me swear to it. The best I could do was say that I would try.
Because forgiveness is a virtue reserved for other people.
Here’s where we get to the awkward part.
May 24 is the day that Justine and I are getting married, and I’m pretty sure you already know where this is going. Just so we’re both clear, I’m going to say it anyway. Consider this a “save the date.”
When you and I ran into each other last year we made a deal, one where I would keep your secret of being alive and well to myself in exchange for something down the road. I’m not calling that favor in, not for this.
I’m just letting you know that you can expect Jake to bring you another envelope in a month or so.
You’re under no obligation here. I’m not going to demand anything of you. If you want to come – or more accurately, if you think you can stomach a room full of people that willingly tolerate me – then we would love to have you there.
I know what I’m asking, which is why I won’t press. You have absolute freedom here. I know there are hurdles involved. Charlie and Dave are coming, and despite the years I’m pretty sure they’d recognize you on sight. Jon will be there. So will Coral. Amy, too. Maybe.
They won’t be a problem. I give you my word.
But that deal is something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about recently. For a long time I had put it out of my head completely, content in the knowledge that I never planned on cashing in that favor. There are things going on in my life right now that I know you would have the capacity to help with, or at least I think you might know the right people to pull the right strings, but that’s not what I want.
I had a conversation recently with someone who I respect a great deal, someone who willingly took me in and made me a part of his family, and it got me thinking, which is never a good sign.
So that said, here’s what I’m asking. This is the favor that I’m calling in.
I want you to be kind to yourself.
Again, I’m sorry. Of all the things I could have chosen, I think this one might be the most difficult. I say that because I struggle with it every day, and have for most of my life. I don’t know whether I’ll ever win that battle with myself, but I’m trying, and I know I wouldn’t have a chance at all if there weren’t people in my life to help cheer me on, even if they don’t know they’re doing it. I want that for you, too.
I want you to give yourself some grace.
After this long, it’s what I think you deserve most.
I hope you’re well.
All the best,