“Are you out of your goddamn mind?”
Kevin Sykes vaulted out of his chair, his face now a deep shade of crimson. His partner, Steven, reached out with a calming hand, but Kevin pulled away. He moved to the window without a word, took a deep breath, and then stormed back towards the spot on the couch where his son sat.
“I’m serious, Jared,” he continued. “What the hell are you thinking, just throwing everything away like that?”
“Throwing it away?” Jared said. “Don’t act like I haven’t given this any thought.”
“Haven’t given it any thought? Haven’t…” Kevin shook his head. Conversations with Jared were like tempting raw oxygen with a lit match. A subtle shift of the wind, the slightest change in tone, and an eruption would follow that would burn and blacken the relationship between father and son even further. That the exchange was turning venomous was nothing new – it had been this way since Jared was a teenager – but the older each man got, the less feelings mattered. “Jared, I’m not sure you’re even capable of thinking at this point.”
“Kevin, this isn’t helping.” Steven tried to interject, but Kevin waved him away. He hated these fights, and more so his de facto role as reluctant peacemaker.
For his part, Jared didn’t move from his seat on the edge of the sofa, though Steven could see the fingers on his right hand starting to flex. If a punch was thrown it wouldn’t be the first time things between Jared and his father escalated to that point. It had happened once before, in the immediate aftermath of Andrew’s passing. If Kevin hadn’t come home that night with a bruise under his eye, he was pretty sure Kevin would have hid the incident from him forever.
“So, what? I’m stupid now?” Jared said. “Is that what you’re saying?”
“I’m starting to think that’s the case,” Kevin spat back. “It was one thing when you decided you were going to ignore a partial scholarship to play hockey at Northeastern so you could run off to art school and paint your little pictures, or whatever it is you do, but I made my peace with it because at least it was a degree. At least it was something. But this? Giving that up so you can be one of those weirdos on television?” He turned to Steven, who stood against the wall in somber silence. “My son wants to be a wrestler, Steve. He’s going to put on flash tights and fight people for money. Isn’t that nice?”
“Will you shut the fuck up already?” Jared was on his feet now. He had three inches in height on his father, and all the energy of an angsty twenty-something coiled like a spring ready to explode. Where Kevin’s features had rounded over the years from a lack of exercise and a desk job that kept him sedentary for fifty hours a week, Jared was an avatar of lean muscle and resentment. If a fight started today, there was only one way it would end.
Kevin took a step back.
“You watch your damn mouth,” he said. He jabbed an accusatory finger at his son. “And I’m your father, it’s my job to look out for what’s best for you.”
“What’s best for me? You don’t even know me.”
“I know that every decision you make is apparently designed to ruin your life. You had a chance to go to a real school, get a real degree, but no. You decided that learning how to color was more important. Now you’re throwing that away, and for what? For what? What’s the future in getting dropped on your head for a living? What kind of example do you think this sets for your sister?”
As he was shouting, Kevin found that he had inched closer to his son, as if daring him to react. Jared snorted, and then sidestepped away from the conversation. His hand was no longer balled, instead the fingers had started twitching.
“Alright,” he said. “Fine.” He slid past Steven and headed towards the hall. “You want to know about bad decisions? It was a bad decision to think there might be a chance you’d understand. It was a bad decision to tell myself that you were worth this conversation in the first place. But I’m glad I came over here, really, I am. Because at least now I know exactly where we stand.”
Kevin bristled, and took a step towards the threshold. Jared was already out of the living room and close to the front door.
“You listen to me,” he started.
“No, you listen to me,” Jared shot back in return. “You think I make bad decisions? Well how’s this one… Fuck off, Kevin. And stay the hell away from me.”
The house shuddered as the door slammed shut.
It’s a conversation I think about a lot, maybe the closest my dad and I ever got to actually expressing what we thought of each other.
What we really thought.
My brother wasn’t the only thing that the leukemia took. The relationship with my father was the second casualty. I never forgave him for the promises he made when my brother was still alive, when he was sick and fighting like hell to hold on. And, if I’m being honest with myself, I don’t think he ever forgave me for living. Like he resented the fact that I was still around because it reminded him of what he lost. I guess neither of us ever learned how to process grief in a healthy way, but at least it’s something I can still work on.
My dad and I never had the chance to reconcile, or even figure our shit out. When he got his own diagnosis, I had to learn it second-hand from my sister. I dunno, maybe he thought I’d say he deserved it; that it was his penance for the promises he broke, for the lies that he told. As if I could gloat over that, over my own father.
He passed not long after Sin City closed, when the specter of Wyatt Connors was still something I saw in every reflection. It started in his pancreas and spread from there. Cancer takes everything in the end. Because of it I buried my father. I said goodbye to my brother and with him the plan for my own life. My hopes, my dreams. All buried because of it.
And one day, I know that it’ll come to claim me as well.
I wasn’t at the hospital when he passed.
Because sometimes I make bad decisions.
Sofia Ross leaned forward on the small conference table and clasped her hands together as she smiled. In the same instant, a light went on in the hallway outside our room, and for a moment I wondered if she wasn’t my fairy godmother, sent to Earth to make a wish come true.
You could tell she enjoyed these sessions by the way she carried herself. And while I could never be sure if she knew any spells or owned a wand, the manner by which she could ease a room full of terrified people was a magic all its own. We all had our story to tell, the chain of events that brought us to Adoptions Of Hope on a crisp fall night, and Sofia made sure that everyone knew it was a safe space to share.
Eileen, a single woman in her late thirties, had always dreamed of starting a family, but after years of dragging his feet her ex-husband finally confessed that he didn’t want children.
David and Paul, both of whom were sitting opposite us at the table, had considered surrogacy, but found it wasn’t a good fit. For them, adoption had become the only option.
Claire and Kenny struggled through years of fertility treatments to no avail, all ending in a last-shot procedure before the pandemic. Six months of IUI offered some hope, but the emotional toll involved had become too much.
Then there was Cal and I, two people who were in good health, but were starting very late in life. Both of our doctors had told us that it was possible we still might be able to conceive, but the odds were more in favor if we tried to build our family some other way.
When it was our turn to share, Cal did most of the talking. She didn’t like to let on, but she was struggling with all of this, and what it meant for us. I was the only one who knew what she was going through. None of our families had any idea what we were doing, because if we started telling people and then things went sideways, well, those weren’t conversations we wanted to have. Getting to hear other people tell their stories was good for her, I think. It meant she wasn’t alone in having these feelings.
After everyone got a chance to talk, Sofia addressed the room.
“My absolute favorite thing to tell people in these sessions,” she said, “is that everyone who has their home study approved is placed with a child. Every single one.”
She smiled as she spoke. I imagine it was hard not to. Most of the people who came through these doors probably walked through Hell to get here. The sense of relief that settled over everyone was palpable. It was like pulling the stopper from the drain, and watching all the tension and fear bleed from the room.
Maybe it was right to call her our fairy godmother, because everyone in that room had just been given the keys to our happily ever after.
Justine had brought a notebook with her, and the first thing she wrote was a short phrase in all caps, double-underlined and surrounded by stars. She slid it towards me like we were passing notes in class.
And when I saw it…
“YOU’RE GOING TO BE A DAD!”
Over the next hour Sofia explained what a home study was, what documents we’d need to provide, and how often we would need to meet with the social worker as part of the interview process.
And then things changed, at least for me, and some of that fear started to slither its way back up my spine.
“It’s honestly one of my favorite parts of the process,” Sofia said. She was talking about a photo book that prospective parents need to put together, one that told stories about their life, what they enjoyed, who they are. “I love learning about the families who I get to work with. Everyone has such a unique story.”
A madman with a stun gun. One hundred feet of freefall in a crowded Las Vegas arena. Bleaching tomato stains out of a mask. A lonely man watching the party from the sidelines, the only loser in a cross-company war.
The worst moments of my career now found themselves competing to see which would make me shudder first.
The clock struck twelve. The spell was broken.
I sat in that room surrounded by strangers feeling every day of my age.
Ever since coming back, the problem has always been time. I’d wasted so much of it, and there simply isn’t enough left. As the days slip away, so do the opportunities.
You might be too old to conceive, so try this instead.
Your life will be on display, so good luck trying to reconcile the last twenty years of mistakes with a total stranger.
Are you still trying to convince yourself that without your partner you’re anything more than a body on a roster? That’s cute.
Some people hide themselves in their work when the stress of life gets to be too much, but I didn’t have the luxury.
I’d been so close at Culture Shock, outlasting thirty-six other people. I’d won my way into the Tropical Turmoil match, and came up just short at the hands of the eventual winner, a moment I counted not just as a professional failure but a personal one as well. And then there was the Almasy, and the looming promise of a Golden Ticket.
I’d spent my entire time as tag champion with an homage to Jason – to Seymour – stuck to the side plate on the title I carried. The berry nonsense was my brainchild from the jump, but it was his idea to form the Kings. It was his name that got me back into Sin City, and gave me another chance when everything else had gone to hell. I wondered what he’d think of what I’d done since, whether it was a worthy tribute.
Who am I kidding…
There would be no more chances after this, no more carrots to chase. It was either win at ReVival and be allowed into the factory, or resign myself to the fact that this part of the journey had come to an end.
It could all die at the hands of a man I barely knew, but one I hated nonetheless.
Right before the Turmoil match, Justine had said to me, “You talk about everyone else, even the people I know you can’t stand – guys like Ivan and Alexei – but I’ve never heard you say his name. Not once. Why is that?”
So I told her.
“Cancer took half of my family from me,” I said. “I watched it take a little boy, strip away all his joy and happiness, and turn him into an empty shell of what he used to be. By the time it was done, I barely recognized him. It took my father before we could find our peace. So if HE wants to run around and call himself that, then fine, but don’t expect me to give him the honor of saying it out loud.”
April eleventh will mark thirty-four years since I said goodbye to my brother and took the first steps on this path.
I can’t let HIM be the one to end it.
I wanted to be happy, and by all rights I should have been. Even if we were still far from the finish line, everything that Sofia said meant that we would get there. One less carrot to chase.
In contrast, Cal never stopped smiling. It started the moment Sofia started talking, when she told us all that everyone in that room was going to get to be a parent one day. She held my hand was we walked to the car, our fingers laced together as she swung my arm back and forth. I hadn’t seen her this happy since we made the decision to try and start a family. Any minute now I figured she might let go and skip the rest of the way to the car.
“So how are you feeling after all of that?” she said.
Busy convincing myself this won’t somehow blow up in my face?
“I’m still trying to process it all.” This at least was true, there was a lot of information to take in that night. “It almost doesn’t feel real, if that makes any sense.”
“Absolutely. I know compared to some people we haven’t really been trying all that long, but it’s crazy to think that this could actually be happening.”
We finished the walk to the car. And while no skipping was involved, there was definitely a spring in her step. She leaned against the driver side door and took my other hand so that we were now facing each other. Everyone has their relationship tells, and this was one of hers. It meant that the conversation was about to take on a different tone, because something was weighing on her mind.
“You’re okay with this, right?” she said. “Like, I know this isn’t how either of us planned it, or thought it would happen, so I just… I just want to make sure before we take the next step that you’re good with it.”
“A hundred percent,” I said, and then our gaze met. I could see the reflection of the street light in her. They sparkled in the dark like emeralds, and I knew I was screwed. I’ve always described them as tractor beams, and once they had me there was no escape. “I’m just, I dunno, kind of scared.”
“That’s okay. I’m nervous, too. This is a really big step.”
“That’s not what I mean.” I tried to look away, found that I couldn’t, and caved. “I’m afraid that I’m going to fuck this up. Because of who I am.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Sofia said we had to put a book together, right? Something that shows people who we are, and what we’re like as people.”
“So which pictures should I use? The one where I’m chasing Jon around with a taser? Maybe the one where I’m drowning in chocolate.”
No, how about we go back even further, and find one from the night when Frank – back when he was still terrorizing people as Wyatt Connors – decided he had some very important things to get off his chest, and the best place to deliver his message was standing on my face. Hell, while we’re at it, let’s include links to all of the Savannah Scandal articles about how Frank fell in Vegas because I was trying to kill him. I bet that would play well.
I thought of that conversation with my dad, from the day that I told him I was leaving school to start training. I could see the “told you so” grin on his face as if he was standing right in front of me. And the worst part, it wasn’t me that a lifetime of stupidity had jeopardized. Justine had been caught in the wake.
“Or what about one of the many nights where I thought it would be the funniest thing in the world to dress up like another man’s dick?” I continued. “And then we can fill the inside with the really violent stuff, like when Paxton went crazy with the mannequin and the chain.”
Maybe we could add a shot from the next ReVival where I’m out cold on the mat with egg in my eyes and a footprint on my jaw.
“Do I really need to tell you that we’re not putting any of that stuff in there?”
“We don’t need to,” I said. “And that’s kind of the point. Like, let’s assume they put our book in front of someone who has no idea who we are. All they need to do is lookup one of the photos, and a reverse image search will tell them everything they need to know about the dumb shit I’ve spent my life doing. Just imagine it, Cal – a mother about to make the biggest, hardest decision of her life and we’re one of the couples she’s considering. You think she’s going to take one look at anything in my history and say, ‘You know, I think this moron on the forklift who keeps hitting people with the garden gnome would be the perfect person to raise my child?'”
She wouldn’t let me look away. I could feel her thumbs tracing slow patterns on my wrists.
“Do you remember what you said before the match with Gamble?” she said. “About how you weren’t going to waste any more time? How you finally realized you didn’t need to suffer? Jared, I don’t even know how to describe how happy that made me feel.”
I had no response to this. I wasn’t even sure one existed.
“I know you don’t have the best opinion of yourself, but you have come so far these last two years. So far. And you don’t get to give up this close to the end. Because you and I deserve better than that.”
She let go of my hands, wrapped her arms around my neck, and drew me into an embrace so tight I thought she might crack a rib.
“And because I won’t let you.”
My father never once saw me wrestle. He never came to any matches, even when I toured close to home. After the first few years I stopped leaving tickets at the will-call office. If the company I worked for had a television deal, he never watched that either. Saying he was ashamed is being polite.
He didn’t want to see his son throw his life away in front of a few thousand people. After all, every decision I made was designed to ruin my future, and drag down the people who cared about me the most.
It took me a while, but I’ve been able to make my peace with this. He might have never been proud of my choices, but that’s fine. In the end he gave me the best lesson a parent could. He showed me the kind of person that I will never become.
And he’ll never know how wrong he was.