From the manuscript of the memoir “Renewed – The Rises and Falls of Jonathan Rhine” – to be released in Fall of 2027
Starting to open up to my new tag team partner had already paid dividends. We won our first match, a four-way tornado tag, with the help of a few hundred electric volts courtesy of my friend-turned-nemesis Jared Sykes, a.k.a. King Blueberry.
Let’s talk about him for a second.
Jared and I have had more arguments than I can count. He thought I’m a terrible person, and honestly if you’re reading this now and you agree with him, I don’t exactly blame you. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life. I hurt a lot of people. And I didn’t like him much at the time either.
But something about Jared that you can’t deny is how strong he is. Both he and I experienced tragic loss in our lives. Both of us had to process it and move on as the world kept turning. We just did it in different ways. Jared put on a mask, stole forklifts, and terrorized everyone around him to block out the pain. I just retreated inward. I don’t think either way is right, but I don’t think either way is wrong either. People process things differently, but deep down I know Jared was a strong and good person, and I’ll always respect him for it. Even though he always made fun of me for almost losing an eye, which is annoying as hell.
Anyway, at the time I was feeling more confident about coming back to wrestling, and I attributed that to showing my weaknesses to Paxton. To admitting how broken I was over the death of Katie. And after a few weeks, a funny thing started to happen.
I started thinking about moving on. But thinking about it and doing it are different things.
Las Vegas, NV
Jonathan Rhine growls in frustration, his eyes focused, his tongue darting slightly out of his mouth and he squints in concentration. His fingers wriggle with impatience as he watches, ready to strike.
No, he is not in a wrestling ring. He is sitting on a hotel bed, a laptop on his folded legs. Jonathan Rhine, multi-time champion and wrestler extraordinaire, cannot find the close parenthesis key.
“Where the hell is it!” he shouts, going from each row, his breath starting to spike. “Stupid computer…”
Rhine’s eyes finally find the curvy culprit and he smiles, then hits it with the enthusiasm of a child with a pinata. His eyes then widen in horror. “What? ZERO?”
“Ever heard of the shift key, you big dork?”
Jonathan looks up in surprise only to sigh when he sees her. Seated at the edge of the bed, wearing a white and blue pinstriped romper, her hair in a top bun with a few strands falling into her eyes, is Katie Malick, Rhine’s deceased girlfriend. Her smirk grows into a grin as she sees Rhine’s displeasure.
“Go away,” Rhine grumbles.
“I wish I could, Jon. Because if I went away, that would mean you’d be better. And trust me, no one wants that more than me.”
It took me years to admit this to anyone, but I used to hate being alone. Because when I was alone, Katie would visit me.
Yes, I know that ghosts don’t exist, and that what I thought I was seeing was really my own manifestation of guilt, longing, and an unwillingness to move on. At least I know that now based on my extensive conversations with Dr. Phillip England, an amazing therapist in the New Orleans area.
But for years after the accident, I would see her whenever I was alone, and we would talk. She would say the hard truths that I didn’t want to hear, and I would beg for her to leave me alone and let me move on.
But as I found out later, I didn’t actually mean it. I didn’t want to move on. I was petrified of moving on.
And so my dead girlfriend would sit by my bed and make fun of me while I did stupid things like learn how to type (I’m much better at it now) and create an internet dating profile.
“You’re such a failed millennial, Jon,” Katie giggles. “And I hear you joined PRIME’s online chat? Do you even know how to send messages?”
Jon sighs, moving the computer off of his lap and leaning backward. “I do, but the chat moves so fast. And it’s bombarded by in fighting and really bad photoshop and I can’t type quick enough to respond because I don’t know where any of the keys are, and every time I type anything Jared does that dumb two eyes emoji.”
“Then why join it if you can’t keep up? And why–” she stands up and moves to the computer, clicking around for a moment before looking up, her eyebrows raised. “And why make a dating profile?”
He sits forward suddenly, grabbing the computer from his dead girlfriend’s hands. “I joined it because I’m trying to be part of something after 12 years of sitting around not doing anything with anyone. And I’m making a dating profile because…” he looks down at his hands. “Don’t make me say it, Katie.”
“I’m not making you say anything, Jonno. You’re making me say things. And that means you called yourself Jonno, so don’t get mad at me. I never called you that when I was alive and I don’t think I ever would have. It makes you sound like a low rate mobster.”
Despite the ludicrous direction this fake conversation is taking, Jon can’t help but smile. “Yeah, you called me Jon. Only Jonathan when you were serious. And only J when you were really mad at me.”
“Lot of Js towards the end,” she says, laughing.
“But a lot of Jons too. Things weren’t all bad.”
She smiles. “They weren’t.” Then she grabs the computer again. “You picked an awful profile picture, though.”
“You picked a wrestling photo!”
Jon frowns. “I’m a wrestler. Anyone who dates me is going to know that.”
“Yes, but you could’ve picked one that wasn’t immediately post match. No shirt, buckets of sweat…what woman is going to look at that and say ‘oh yes, please, pin me next’?”
“It worked on you,” he says, laughing.
“No, you were wearing a shirt in the grocery store when you asked me out. And you weren’t a wrestler then, you were a wrestling student. I’m just saying, if you want to get back out there, you’re going to need to show another side of yourself than the thing you’re semi-famous for.”
Jon grabs the computer back and starts to slowly click through pictures. After a minute, he scowls. “Ugh, I can’t find any good pictures of me. Maybe this is a mistake.”
Katie leans forward and touches Jon’s hand. He closes his eyes even though there’s no real contact. “Jon, this is going to sound counterintuitive coming from me. But you need to make this dating profile. You need to move on. It’s been forever. What are you so afraid of?”
Why was I so afraid?
I was afraid of being hurt again, of course. Not that my next girlfriend would die in a house fire, but the normal pains of relationships. I was worried I’d cheat again. I was worried I’d be cheated on again. So on a surface level, experiencing that pain felt scarier than feeling the nothing I had felt up to that point.
But deeper than that, I had spent the years since Katie’s death convincing myself that everything that happened was karma. That the way it ended and the way it made me feel was deserved because I was not worthy of having a love story that ended well. It wasn’t a happy feeling, or a comforting feeling, but it felt right.
And as I met Paxton Ray, and got back into wrestling again, I got the courage to open myself up more, and face the world that I had cut off for so long. And with that came the idea that I could try and find love, that I was worthy of love again.
But what if I wasn’t?
What if despite my best efforts to move on, despite my efforts to do the right things, I still didn’t deserve a happy ending? What if I put myself out there, meet a woman, fall in love, and crash again? What if I prove myself right?
At the beginning of our partnership, Paxton Ray showed me the strength of fighting through tragedy. He showed me that you can’t hole yourself away when things go wrong.
But he also showed me that even all that fighting might not matter when it comes to love.
He and Melissa Ray showed me that together.
Paxton Ray cringes as the front door to his former home slams behind him. “Shit,” he mumbles, dropping the envelope he was holding.
“Daddy!” he hears, and smiles as he ignores the envelope to turn and meet his daughter, who is running at him with enough force to bring him to the floor as he wraps her up.
“Hey Nora,” he says, smiling as he pulls her close. “I wanted t’ surprise you.”
“Then you shouldn’t have slammed the door, you big silly!” she says, her eyes closed as she squeezes him with all the strength a seven-year old body allows.
“I didn’t slam it.” He looks up at the window in the foyer, half open with a 2×4 nailed haphazardly across the frame. “I always forget about the window.”
“You probably wouldn’t forget if you were here more often,” a voice rings from the staircase. Breathing in and closing his eyes, Paxton tries to focus only on his daughter’s hug.
Melissa Ray won’t let him. “Hey, Nora, mommy and daddy need to talk. Can you watch a little bit of Wild Kratts?”
The girl’s eyes light up as she finally releases her dad. “Okay! And dad, when you’re done you gotta come and watch it with me, yeah?”
He smiles down at her. “ ‘Course, sweetie. Go ‘long.” He gently nudges her as she runs past her mom up the stairs.
Trudging to Melissa, Paxton holds the envelope out. “Here ya go, Mel. There’s a lot more than we thought. It was a good week.”
Melissa grabs the envelope from Paxton’s hand. It isn’t quite a snatch, but it’s quick enough that Paxton notices and grunts, turning around. “So what we fightin’ ‘bout today?”
I asked Paxton early on what happened between him and Melissa, and he shrugged off the question. Said they met in high school and drifted apart. But a few months later he gave a deeper answer, unprompted.
“There was no trust,” he said. We were having a drink and talking about my relationship with Katie, among other things. He caught me by surprise so I asked what he meant.
“When Nora got sick, I trusted myself to make decisions for her. I trusted I could find a way to support her. But I didn’t trust Mel. I thought she would hide Nora from the truth, keep her sheltered.”
“And she didn’t trust you?” I asked.
“Nope,” he said. “She trusted herself to know what was best for her daughter, and she didn’t trust me to make decisions that would help the family. And you know what I realized much later?”
“We both had Nora’s best interest at heart. But we thought the other didn’t, because we both thought we knew best, and that our way was the only way. Of course that isn’t right, and it’s natural for people to have different opinions about doing things. But you can get past it if you trust the other person. And that is why everything broke down.”
“Don’t put it that way,” Melissa said.
“Because it diminishes my right to be angry. It makes it sound like I’m picking fights for no reason.”
Paxton strides across the room to the couch, plopping down on it. It gives a large creak in protest. “Lemme rephrase then – what are you angry at today?”
Melissa’s scowl implies she doesn’t like that phrasing either, but she ignores it and moves on. “I’m angry because someone from Acadiana High School came over this week.”
Paxton looks up suddenly. “What?”
“Yeah, some assistant wrestling coach or whatever. He wanted to come by and tell us how good you’re doing, and how Nora should be proud of her dad.”
He nods, his gaze drifting to his feet. “What did you tell her?”
“Nothing. Just that you were working hard to keep her healthy. The normal stuff. She’s just seven, you know she isn’t asking that many questions.” Melissa slaps the envelope against her hand. “Besides where her daddy is, of course.”
“We could just tell ‘er.”
“We could,” he says, standing up. “We’re on TV now. The foundation has articles written about it. She’s gonna find out eventually.”
“Not yet,” Melissa says, sitting down on the bottom step of the stairs. “I want to figure out how to tell her.”
“‘Hey baby, daddy wrestles for a living.’ How’s that sound?”
Melissa rolls her eyes. “It’s not just that, Pax. It’s the whole foundation. The publicity, the weird Brad Garrett partnership…it’s a lot to expect of a girl, finding out that people around the country know who she is and what she’s been through.”
“She can handle it, Mel.” Paxton walks to the broken window, looking out of it. “She’s stronger than you think she is.”
“I know my daughter,” Melissa answers flatly.
“An’ I don’t?” Paxton shouts, pounding his hand against the 2×4, which splinters under the force. He turns around and sees Melissa flinching. “You gotta trust me. You gotta trust her.”
Sighing, Melissa looks down. “Soon. Not yet.” Then, transferring the envelope from one hand to another, she says, “Thanks.”
Without answering, Paxton moves past her on the steps, noticing how quickly Melissa curves her body to give him room. He bounds up the steps, stepping over the ones he knows make too much noise, as he creeps into his daughter’s room.
She doesn’t notice him, a technicolor zombie as two animated brothers pretend to be animals on the screen. “How’s this for a surprise!” he yells, grabbing her from behind and tickling her, relishing in her peals of laughter as they roll around the bed.
That is why I was so terrified to move on. Because it’s easy enough to say you need to trust yourself. That you need to trust your significant other, all while knowing there’s a good chance it won’t matter anyway. It’s another thing entirely to do it.
I wrote earlier that caring is a muscle, and that if you don’t use it, it will atrophy and rot away. Trust is also a muscle. And if you don’t have experience putting trust in yourself and others, it can be a horrifying prospect. And of course the only way to get over it is to trust yourself, and here we are in a feedback loop.
I truly wanted to move on. I wanted Katie to stop visiting me. I wanted my students to stop looking at me with sad smiles anytime they saw her picture in my office. I wanted to go to a Foundation fundraising dinner with a beautiful woman on my arm, so that everyone knew that I was back in the land of the living. But more than any of that, part of me didn’t want it. Part of me wanted me to feel guilty for even thinking about those things.
When this happens, it feels impossible to move on. So you don’t. You sit on a hotel bed and imagine conversations with your girlfriend who has been dead for over twelve years. And you sit there and pray for an inciting incident, for someone or something to get you off your ass and make you finally live your goddamn life.
Back in the hotel room, Jonathan nods. “You’re right, Katie. I need to do this. Here, I’ll use my headshot from the PRIME website.”
“Oh God that’s even worse,” she says, stifling a giggle.
“Jon, I want you to turn off your ‘everyone in the world has good intentions because I do’ brain. What do you think will happen when a woman sees a dating profile with a professional wrestler name and a professional wrestler headshot that anyone could get off the internet?”
He closes his eyes and shakes his head.
“She’ll think someone is pretending to be Jonathan Rhine.”
“Ding ding ding!” Katie says, clapping her hands. “And they said you were stupid.”
“Who said that?”
“Anyone who went to high school with us,” she says, grinning.
“I got into Rice!” he shouts, though he’s grinning too.
“When, just now?” a voice calls on the other side of the door.
Bolting upright, Jonathan grabs the computer and closes it. “Who’s there?”
The door opens and in walks Shweta Kallemullah, the Fighting For Nora Foundation Chairperson. Wearing four inch heels, charcoal slacks and a white button-up blouse, she stops before the bed and surveys the room quizzically. “Were you talking to someone?”
“I–” Jon struggles to think of an excuse as he looks at the foot of the bed where Katie had been before the interruption. Naturally she is gone.
“Just an old memory. What’s up, Shway?”
Shweta doesn’t immediately answer, scanning Jonathan with a gaze that he’s become too familiar with over the past few years. Then she snaps to attention. “Just want to go over the next few months. The Foundation has been incredibly successful over the past month, which is mostly good news, but it means we have even more attention on us and even more pressure to do great things. So I’m thinking we need a Fundraiser Dinner soon, maybe in May. We also need to do some tours in your off weeks. New York for the daily news shows, maybe a GMA midday spot. One of the channels I talked to wants to do a profile at the Wrestling Academy, so we’ll have to meet them down in New Orleans to…Jon?”
She stops because Jon has been staring at the spot he had just seen his ex-girlfriend sitting, unaware that a single tear had formed at the corner of his eye. “What?”
Nodding, Shweta sits on the bed and puts a hand on Jonathan’s knee. “Hey. I know this is a lot. I know wrestling comes easier to you than the rest of this does. But this foundation needs you. I need you. I know it’s Paxton’s daughter, but he isn’t built to be the face of this. You are. And so I need you to work with me.” She takes one finger to gently guide Jon’s face to look at her, as he had been staring at her hand. “You’re doing a good thing. And that’s why you called me, because you knew I could help. But I can’t do any of it without you.”
She releases his leg and face and stands up. “So if we’re going to keep this foundation strong, you need to trust me.”
“What?” Rhine asks, looking up.
“Confide in me. Let me know what’s bothering you, and how I can help. We can do this together. You just have to let me in.” She looks at her watch. “The reporter from GQ is going to be by in a few minutes for the first leg of the interview. So finish up whatever you were doing on that computer and head on down when you’re ready.”
Shweta opens the door and lingers for a second, sending one last look Rhine’s way before leaving. Rhine looks from the door to the edge of the bed, waiting for Katie to appear and make a snarky comment.
She does not.
After a moment, Rhine opens the computer and stares at his dating profile. He moves the mouse over the “save” button, then frowns. Finally, he clicks the “cancel” button and closes his laptop, standing and walking out of the room.
I didn’t realize the inciting incident would happen so soon.