For eleven years I hid. At first it was alone in the house, only going out when I ran out of food, or for doctor visits. When I worked up the courage to dip my toes back into wrestling, I hid in high school gyms and National Guard armories. The level of competition there didn’t matter to me, because I told myself that at least I was still carrying on my brother’s dream – the one he lost when cancer took him after our twelfth birthday. Even then, hiding out among the has-beens and the hopeful, I did it under a mask.
When Justine and I went to the Roy Wilkins Auditorium, the mask stayed back at the hotel. I was born and raised in Massachusetts. Have lived there for as long as I’ve been alive. And despite all the years I spent working out of Vegas throughout my career, Minnesota is the closest thing I have to a second home. Home, no matter how long you’ve been away, always reveals the truth of you.
I’d been in the business barely a year by the time I landed in Minnesota State Wrestling, having fled there from another promotion under the umbrella of the National Wrestling Council. MSW is where I met Charlie Beckett and David McBride, better known to the world as Crash and Burn. They were “The Innovators of Tandem Offense”, the “high-flyin’est, death-defyin’est, chicken-pot-pie-in’est tag team in the world”, and no I don’t really know what that last part means. They’ve had my back for twenty-odd years through thick, thin, and a surprise ninja attack on a rented tour bus.
Through Charlie and Dave, I was introduced to their agent – a short, conniving prick named Wyatt Connors. My best friends, and my own personal devil, all born from the same company.
Most of our shows were filmed in buildings like the Roy – that’s what the locals call it, now serving as the home for the Milo Flynn Cup, an annual tag-team tournament held to honor the memory of “The Raging Hobo” Milo Flynn. He and I were friendly, never particularly close, but Charlie served on the board of directors for the Flynn, and after years of trying to get me to attend I’d run out of excuses to stay home. If anything, I had more reason than ever to be there.
Chuck Poundstone and Chris Ryerson, two kids in their early twenties from Boston, had been working with Cal for months trying to get ready for the tournament. For both it would be their biggest event to date, and this was the furthest that Chuck had ever been from home. They signed up thinking it would be like dipping their toes into the pool before diving in, not realizing that sharks were swimming just below the surface.
Cal and I slalomed our way through the crowd, dodging fans and vendors as we made our way up to the balcony where we were seated. I kept my hands dug deep into the pockets of my sweatshirt, fingers curled so I wouldn’t take her hand in mine. We have rules, she and I, created so that our relationship doesn’t get complicated. We’re partners, sure, but on the same night that partnership was galvanized with shiny gold belts under the lights of the MGM Grand, a very different partnership was born in a private moment in an employee access stairwell. When we’re working, everything stays professional. She had trainees wrestling, so that meant she was on the job.
While she was focused, my thoughts swirled. No mask meant no protection, and the surge of hyper-vigilance that comes with the onset of anxiety had kicked in. Attention scattered. Heart-rate elevated. A rabbit waiting for a wolf.
I tried to distract myself with conversation.
“Charlie will be here for sure, because he helps put this together every year. I think Dave might be coming as well, but I’m not one hundred percent sure. I can’t wait for you to meet them.”
“Cool.” She’d been quiet since we jumped in the car at the end of ReVival and headed for the airport. I assumed it was because she was nervous about how her students would perform. If that were the case, she’d have been right to feel that way.
“Should warn you now, Charlie can be a little intense. He’s awesome, don’t get me wrong, but there’s a reason why he and I are legally barred from being in the same room in three different venues between here and Hawaii. Now Dave, on the other hand, he’s the adu-“
My voice died in my throat. From the corner of my eye, I caught sight of a man with slicked-back black hair. He stood out because of his height, shorter than those around him, and he was the only person I’d seen in a suit. A chill shot the length of my spine. My mouth went stone dry. Someone called out, “Steve!” and the man turned. I let out the breath I didn’t know I was holding.
No one had seen or heard from Wyatt Connors in over eleven years, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t still haunted by his ghost.
“Everything okay?” Cal said.
“I… yeah. Just thought I saw someone I knew.”
“Did you? Know them, I mean.”
We were a few matches in when Cal got up from her seat.
“Going to check on Chris and Chuck,” she said. “Make sure they’re okay.”
I stood and followed her into the aisle.
“You want me to come with you?”
“No, it’s cool. They’re under a lot of pressure already. I don’t want to add to it.”
Her comment prickled, but given the circumstances I wasn’t about to press the issue. I’d only met Chuck and Chris a handful of times. In total we’d maybe spent thirty minutes together. We were casual acquaintances at best, but theirs was a bond of student and teacher; not something I would encroach on without permission.
I started down the stairs.
“Jared,” she said over her shoulder, “I said I’ve got this.”
“I know. Want to see if I can find Jake Colton.”
“What do you need him for?”
“We’ve been going back and forth recently. He’s been helping me out with something. I know he’s here, so I just want to check-in and say hi.”
She didn’t push, she didn’t prod, and that set my already-frayed nerves on edge.
The second rule of our arrangement is that any personal issues between us should be handled before we gear up for a match or set foot inside an arena. This way the only baggage we carry into a fight is with our opponents and not each other. So, by extension, this means we don’t keep secrets. I hadn’t mentioned communicating with Jake before, even though he and I had been talking on and off for a few weeks. I knew he had contacts in the Midwest, promoters and bookers and the like, and I was hoping one of them would be able to point me towards something that, if I was able to find it, would make for one hell of a gift.
I was keeping a secret, which meant I was breaking the rules. At least as far as birthday presents for your girlfriend could be considered secrets. But she didn’t react, and that meant I wasn’t the only one hiding something.
Moving through what passed for the backstage area was terrifying. Like I said, I’d spent the last decade in hiding, and this was the first time I’d been at a wrestling event without my disguise since I effectively drove SCCW out of business eleven years earlier.
I kept my head down, my hood up, and tried to avoid eye contact with everyone. That’s how I almost plowed head-long into Mushigihara as he and David Fox were making their way back from the ring. I hit the brakes just in time to keep from crashing into a sweaty wall of sumo.
“Osu!” he said, and I took a reflexive step back.
“Oh, hey. Sorry about that. You guys killed it out there.”
“Osu,” he said again. I nodded once to Fox and kept moving, now with a little more sense to at least watch where I was going. Plenty of wrestlers backstage were big enough to toss me across the building. Didn’t want to accidentally trample one of the folks I didn’t know.
Part of me wanted to wait for Fox to say something – he’s always spot-on about reading and conveying Mushi’s intent, but I had somewhere to be, and the longer I stayed in any one spot the higher the chance I might find myself in an uncomfortable situation featuring people asking questions that I didn’t want to answer. I wished I had my mask; ached for it. My private moment of panic earlier in the night made me regret not hiding it in a pocket, just in case. Recent weeks had seen it start to show some wear and tear, but it was still functionally a safety blanket – a way for me to pretend that just because people couldn’t see my face meant that they didn’t know who I was.
It didn’t take long before I found Jake. The whole Colton clan had gathered after their match, and from where I stood it looked like Jake was giving Benny and Denny a little advice and some well-deserved praise. He was proud of what they’d done, that much was obvious, but had some very strong opinions about Benny’s constant flirting with their first-round opponents.
Peach Backshots, man. What a fuckin’ name.
The scene I watched play out felt foreign to me, alien. The Coltons were a wrestling family. It was in their blood, part of their DNA. From what little I picked up around Nate, it made them closer, a tighter unit. My own father told me I was throwing my life away when I dropped-out of college to do this, and his opinion never once wavered until the day he passed. My mom and her husband were more supportive, but still took plenty of convincing. None of them ever came to a show, even when I toured close to home.
I never spoke to Jake that night. Standing in the hall, watching a family moment unfold, I couldn’t help but feel that somehow my presence was profane; like being nearby had cheapened it.
The last thing I heard as I turned to leave was Jake’s voice.
“How many times do I have to tell you,” he said to Benny. “Coral is married.”
Chuck and Chris – or Chaz Maximum and Drake Justice, as they were billed – barely lasted four minutes against their opponents, a veritable murder squad called “No Quarter.” The kids never once had the upper hand, and fell easily to Bracken Krueger and Daryn Thompson. A recap of the match was published on RingDispatch.com the next day, summarizing it in a single word.
Talk about your all-time understatements.
When the show ended, Cal went to meet up with the pair again. This time I didn’t ask if she wanted me to go with her, and just hung back and waited. There was a conversation we were going to need to have, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that it had potential to turn into an argument. Better to do that around people, I thought. If only because it would mean there would be witnesses when she tried to murder me.
“How are they holding up?”
Cal wore the expression of someone who just had their pet put down as she walked to where I was standing against the wall.
“Chuck is okay. Honestly, I think at this point he’s just looking forward to getting back home to check on his grandmother.” Her shoulders fell, and her eyes fell with them. “Chris is taking it pretty hard.”
“Are you okay?”
She shrugged once.
“Did I just watch those kids’ dreams die, Jared? They worked so hard for this. It’s all Chris has been able to talk about for months. This is the farthest that Chuck has ever been from his responsibilities at home. And for what? To die in four minutes?”
“This sorta thing happens to everyone, Cal. I once got crushed by Alex Pierce on pay-per-view because I refused to fight back. A year or two later? Brandon Youngblood spent what I assume was an utterly forgettable thirty seconds of his life throwing me around the ring like a dog who just discovered his first tennis ball.”
“This is different, and you know it.” There was an edge to her voice that I didn’t expect. “You were already somebody when that shit happened. Your name had value. These kids don’t have that yet.”
I resisted the incredibly overwhelming urge to challenge her on whether or not my name ever actually meant anything. It was a pretty hill, one that I was used to spending time on. Lots of sun. Soft grass. I had no desire to die on it that night.
“That loss… getting beat that bad so early in their career could completely derail them.” She paused for a moment, like she was drawing energy from the universe to work up to the next thought. “I don’t want them to have to wait until they’re forty before they get a shot.”
“Worked out okay for you, didn’t it?”
“Yes, Jared. We won. And then we won again a few weeks later.” I thought from her tone that my question had pissed her off, and I wouldn’t have blamed her if that were the case. No. The truth of it was that I’d given her permission to ask the question that she’d been holding onto; the secret she’d been keeping all weekend. “But what happens when we lose?”
“I don’t follow.”
“You’ve got a match in two weeks, Jared. I don’t.”
“It’s just a match,” I said. This is what it looks like when I lie to myself.
“If you actually believe that, then you’re an idiot.” Hey, at least she added the qualifier. “It’s the main event, Jared. It’s the main event of the last show before a supercard. Against a man who’s only lost to the former champion since being here. And Knox is still hovering around the Universal Title picture. Top billing at Rev’ fifteen over the last man to hold that championship. Holy shit, I can’t believe I have to spell this out. What do you think that says about your standing? What do you think that says about your future?”
“Do you want me to answer that logically, or am I allowed to self-deprecate here?”
She punched me in the arm. Then she did it again.
“Alright! Jesus. Point made.”
“And what do you think that says about mine?” There was the slightest quiver in her bottom lip. She cut me off before I could respond. “My boyfriend is a superstar in the business I dedicated my life to. Do you have any idea what that’s like?”
Yes, I did.
Amy Campbell was the longest-reigning Universal Champion in the history of the FUSE-SCCW lineage at four hundred and twenty-one days. Untouchable, unassailable for over a goddamn year. The runner-up, Clinton Sage, didn’t last half that long. And that company is long-dead, so that record’s never going away. Hand of God. Cast in stone. Immutable.
When she and I fell in love, I was still just some schmuck trying to claw his way out of mediocrity, and then after two years of trying I finally scored a shot. Lane Stevens left that match with his title intact. He beat both of us to do it. Two months later I watched on a monitor in the back as Amy – this time taking it to Stevens one-on-one – turned him aside like it was nothing. Like it was easy. What was the difference between those two matches?
And when she came through the curtain to the locker room that night I had to swallow every bit of jealousy, every bit of insecurity I felt thinking I would never know what it was like to be in that position. Ever.
I said none of this, but what came out instead wasn’t much better.
“Do I know him? Can you introduce me? I could really use some point-“
A third punch hit me in the arm. Same spot as before.
“I’m fucking serious, Jared.”
To an extent, so was I.
“I’m sorry, Justine. Forty years of bad habits, I guess. You and I have very different opinions about what I am or what I’m worth.”
“Yeah, well, you’re wrong a lot.”
Here’s a thought experiment. A man has formed an opinion of his self-worth since birth. He believes this without question, treats it as fact. The people who care about him the most have their own truth, one that says he’s wrong, and is worth more than he believes. They see this as incontrovertible. As fact.
Which one of them is right?
I stepped away from the wall, and wrapped my arms around her, pulling her in close. She started to protest. We were in public, after all, and rules were rules.
“Justine, I need you to understand something. I don’t know what’s going to happen against Impulse. The only other time I’ve been in the ring with this guy he kicked me in the head. Dropped me cold. Maybe that happens again, maybe it doesn’t. What I do know is that you and I are a team. I’m in this until you tell me otherwise, because my first commitment – the only one I care about – is to you.”
Fuck the rules.
Things settled over the rest of the weekend, and by Sunday night we were back on a plane headed home. Tensions had eased around my scheduled match, helped in no small part by a few drinks Cal had knocked back at the airport bar before we boarded our flight.
“Do you want me to second you for that match?”
“Why? Do you think I need to worry about Cally getting involved?”
“No, but I’d definitely like to have a word with whatever fairy princess floated down off her rainbow and farted that girl into existence. Maybe she’ll show up, because I have questions.”
“I thought you guys went out to a girls thing recently, no? She gets along with pretty much everyone. Seems sweet enough.”
“That’s my point. That woman’s just like the shit she bakes: all sugar, no substance. When I was in seventh grade we had to read some sci-fi story about a family that goes to the fair with their neighbors, only the neighbors keep looking at the sky and asking if it’s going to rain. Everything’s sunny and clear, right up until they get home and the clouds burst.”
“Okay. And the moral here is what exactly?”
“They were made out of sugar. The point is one day it’s going to rain, and that girl’s going to turn into a diabetes puddle on the sidewalk.”
“Just so I know, how many drinks did you have before we took off?”
Without a word she lifted my arm and scooted in closer, draping it over her shoulder. This was our new travel routine. Her job was to get as comfortable as possible, and my job was to serve as a posable human pillow. Not mad about it.
There’s a story that I remembered, though thinking about it while thirty-thousand feet in the air probably wasn’t the smartest decision. It’s about John Lithgow losing his shit on a plane because he’s the only person who can see a gremlin tearing the wing apart. He does everything in his power to alert the other passengers that something is catastrophically wrong, that something needs to be done, but he’s written off as a madman. Super relatable, if I’m being honest.
I made a mental note to ask Timo how he deals with gremlins on his jet.
Cal was starting to nod off. We’d be on the ground in Boston in a few hours.
I thought about how it had only been a few months since she and I finally became “us” after twenty-plus years of dancing around it, and how much time we had left.
The relationships in my life have always been like catching a live grenade. Once they start and that pin is pulled, then I’m holding on as tight as I can, grateful for every second I have, until I slip and it all turns to ash. How long until she’s another casualty?
“They wouldn’t eat anything except cotton candy.” Again with the damn sugar people. “Even refused a burger. Who does that?”
“Monsters,” was the last thing she said before sleep took her.
“Yeah,” I said, then caught my reflection in the window. “Lot of those out there”
I drew the shade.