“You’re perfect,” he says to me. “Small, agile, athletic, and hard to get a hold of. You’re tiny. Lower center of gravity which means you’ll be harder to pin, because you’re so small.” He smiles a toothy grin at me, his silver hair shoots backwards like a tidal wave flowing away from his aging face. The front of his shirt says Lion’s Pride; the back: Pain is Weakness Leaving the Body. His legs are hardly covered; short-shorts no longer than six inches hang from his waist and uselessly cover the upper-upper part of his thighs. I can see where his leg hair ends, and where that creepy midsection baldness begins. Perhaps he has no desire to cover his legs because they are already covered by a thick matt of sasquatch-esque hair. Despite the short’s length, he constantly pulls them up as if suffering from a nervous tic.
“And you’re small. Only 4’1”. Too small, but by the time high school hits you’ll be the perfect height for wrestling.” And getting your ass kicked, but he leaves that part out of the story. Mr. Stone, the part-time PE teacher and full time Coach in masculinity, invites me to check out wrestling.
I silently nod my head in approval and smile as if this man had just told me I won the lottery.
“Wow!” I say to him, “Really? You think so? Gee, I could be a wrestler!” I’ve never been good with letting people down. I have a hard time saying no. It’s always been “I don’t think so,” and “Probably not,” and “I’d say yes but I can’t.” I still avoid the word as if I’ve only been allotted a specific amount, meaning someday I might overdue it and I’ll never be able to say “No” and all its passive-noncommittal forms all together. I tell him it sounds great, which is my ways of saying, “I’m in band for god sakes. I play trumpet. Garbage cans and toilet bowls fit me like a glove. There’s no hope for me or my physique.”
But he’s relentless. He got other teachers in on it.
“Yes,” I overheard him saying to Mr. Stamrin, “Once Nick Blakeslee hits the appropriate age, he’ll be unstoppable. We’ll get that title this decade.” Mr. Stamrin agreed, nodding his head and shooting a finger gun at me when he saw me, clearly an act of friendliness, but it felt like an execution all the same. I skulked in the shadows, avoiding eye contact and conversation with the two teachers. They talked about it as if it was decided, without even asking me if I wanted to. I was being carted and sold off like some medieval adolescent. Married off to bring peace or buy a bridge or get a cow or whatever. My future had been decided before I could decide it for myself.
I did my best to stay below the radar, my size and demeanor made me easily forgettable: unseen, unheard. I changed PE with Mr. Stone to Mr. Greye. He had a passion for basketball and an eye for tall, loud, outgoing students with skill at basketball. That made me completely safe.
“Johhny?” he yells during role call in the 8th grade.
“…ummm, Nicholas? Is there a Nicholas Black-ass-lee here?”
“Yes, right here,” I say, arm raised. I never correct him on his incorrect pronunciation of my last name.
“Are you new?”
“Something like that, yeah.” I answer.
I was able to move through Wellness I, II and III without Mr. Greye knowing I existed beyond the brief seconds of role call every morning.
I graduated 8th grade in the clear. Not a word or mention of me and my supposed wrestling skills. Then, on our way out of the pseudo graduation, Mr. Stone catches my eye and moves towards us. He walks the only speed he can: as if chasing down some disrespecting student. The man didn’t know the use of the word meander other than as an insult. His walking gait is faster than most professional sprinters, legs marching, arms pumping, his eyes always dead set on his destination. I half expected him to grab me by the ear and cart me off to detention.
He catches up to our family and reaches out a hand to shake my fathers, who smiles in return and grabs his hand. They exchange a few words, a joke here and there when my parents indicate it’s time to go. I think I’m in the clear, I think I’ve made it when Mr. Stone rests his hand on my shoulder. A passive move, there’s no strength in his grip or weight in his arm, but the implication is damning. Oh no, you don’t, it says.
“You know, Nick is the perfect size for wrestling.” He says. You know, they make kid sized coffins Nick’s size, I hear. I see a toothy grin appear on my father’s face, he crosses his arms and nods, as if he suspected the same all along.
“Is that so?” he asks.
Mr. Stone grins and nods again, “We’d love to have him on the high school team. The practice season starts next month.”
Since I was a child, my parents picked up the unfortunate habit of scheduling my time off. I was, and always have been, someone who really relishes in their ability to do nothing. I don’t always take advantage of it, but just knowing I have the next 72 hours free of any obligations provides a certain comfort. I like waking up at 10:30am, free from guilt. I keep a calendar just so I can witness three blocks of empty time, and congratulate myself for working hard four days of the week so I wont have to work the next three. White space brings me comfort and options, if I want to fill it up, great, I will.
This event is no exception to my parent’s rule. With summer just starting and no vacation planned, they solidified my indentured servitude to the West Linn Lions team for half of a summer. Yes, my plans for computer gaming, soda drinking and late night snack eating was now nothing more than a lost dream. I had just been volunteered, carted off, married to a sport I had no desire to play. I felt a sudden pang of regret, self-pity and understanding for women like Marie Antoinette: a bride married for political gain, only to be beheaded by the very people she learned to call her own.
He handed my father paperwork and a flier containing information that would serve as the precursor to my serfdom. We went our separate ways, and my father handed me the papers, asking why I never brought up wrestling in the past. I bowed my head and followed my parents out, dreading the weeks ahead of me. In my hand I held the required papers and eyed them for what they really were: a death warrant.