The dingy room’s aroma is how I envisioned the pit from Silence of the Lambs smells. I can’t help but feel claustrophobic: the wrestling room is placed below the gym, making windows and a high ceiling impossible; I half expect to see a forgotten prisoner, hanging from rattling chains bolted to the wall. Artificial colors flood the boxed in space, florescent light drops from the ceiling giving the wrestling cave an eerie and unsettling glow. Mats are rolled up on either side of the long room, shoulder high padding is on all four walls, undoubtedly there to protect the wrestlers, but I can’t help but feel like I’ve walked into an asylum.
I felt a sudden and instant disdain for my parents. They spouted some speech about, “being active,” and “building character,” and “not playing that damn computer for twelve hours a day and for god’s sake, are you going to die from vitamin D deficiency?” Looking at my first driver’s license, my skin is the color of a recent blood donor who has gone well over their donation limit. At the time I thought it was more of a healthy, ashen, skin-cancer-free shade of white but it was closer to translucency than actual pigmentation. My parents probably feared another few months inside in front of the computer screen would turn me into one of Stephen Bietsy’s Incredible Cross-section books.
I had obliged my parent’s wishes and gone to a middle school summer wrestling practice. It took place at in my middle school gym, a handful of equally, yet uniquely, awkward pre-teens wrestled upon gymnastic mats. They weren’t competing; simply practicing. There was no league at that level, but there were enthusiasts who wanted to be extra prepared for wrestling once they hit the competitive age. When I watched them wrestle, I couldn’t help but feel pity. They were wasting their time: who would want to wrestle? Who, in this day-in-age, would rather wrestle than watch TV? They would have no competition as there would be no others vying for starting wrestling positions. When I looked out into the crowd of lanky, oversized and undersized middle schoolers, I saw a whole lot of people wasting their time. I saw the same type of people that would wear a tuxedo for an interview with McDonald’s.
But when I walked into the high school wrestling room, I saw my love for TV and video games was obviously not share by all.
The room was filled with teenagers –-filled. They fought in pairs as if part of some shotty, choreographed brawl. I stood in the doorway, in my no-quite-white Asics – now colored with a tinge of green from mowing the lawn – and oversized basketball shorts I was promised I’d “grow into.” Completing the image of unpreparedness was my pair of faded dress socks. The rest of the students had wrestling shoes, wrestling shirts, wrestling headgear, wrestling mouth-pieces and wrestling socks. I looked like I had taken a wrong turn on my way from playing touch football with my friends.
Mr. Stamrin eyed me from across the room and jogged over. A smile is on his face as he reaches his hand out to find my mom’s.
“Great to see you guys!” he shouts over the noise of the room. A freshman is flipped over a senior’s shoulder, I hear a thud and a breath as the wind is knocked from the freshman’s lungs.
“We’re glad to be here,” my mom says for both of us. “Nick wouldn’t stop talking about coming here today.” I hadn’t stopped talking about it, that much was true, but it probably wasn’t in the capacity that Mr. Stamrin would appreciate.
“We’re happy to see him, too. We’ve already gotten started.” He shoots a glance at his clipboard, “It looks like this was meant to be, Nick: we had an odd number before you showed up. Go ahead and pair up with Liz, on the other side of the room there.”
I bowed my head and walked in the direction Mr. Stamrin poined. Liz was an odd nickname, especially for a boy, but then again stripping down to your shorts and wrestling with a bunch of other dudes was odd to me as well. I only hoped my nickname wasn’t something like “Nicole,” or “Nicolette,” or “Little Bitch.” Perhaps Mr. Stamrin changed his mind, and that’s why he was putting me together with someone so bad, so inherently terrible at the game of wrestling, that he was named after a girl.
And yet, on the flip side, a man who was already ostracized would mean that it couldn’t be me. Or if it was, I wouldn’t at least be alone. I decided that the former was the better and did my best to think up of as many insults for the poor boy as possible. It’s not something I’m particularly proud of. I know when judgment day comes it’ll near the top of my list, somewhere near kicking Adam Wolf in the back of the head or that time a group of friends and I pretended to be special needs children while riding a short bus. But I accepted it. I knew school was a battle for survival, a perfect demonstration of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. The strong would survive and enjoy copious amounts of lunch money, while the weak died head-first in the bottom of a trashcan. While I would never be at the top of the food chain, at least in this instance I would be one above the bottom. I wouldn’t be the boy named “Liz.”
“I’m looking for Liz,” I said to a group in the corner. I hadn’t quite figured out what insult I was going to throw, something rhyming with jizz probably, but I knew I do better when I was put on the spot.
“Right here,” A girlish voice responds. I felt my resolve harden – the poor boy hasn’t even started puberty. I had grown three hairs under my armpit in the summer before school and I brandished them like an Olympic gold medal. I always raised my right hand, hoping someone would spy my coming of age through the sleeve of my T-shirt. My list over this boy was growing: I wasn’t named Liz, I didn’t have a girlish voice, AND I probably had at least two or three spindly hairs on this dude.
I smiled and tried to look around the group of barn-sized seniors around me. They shifted and parted as a bob of brilliant blond hair moved through the crowd. They eased to the left and the right, making way like the Red Sea had for Moses.
When Liz stood in front of me, I instantly understood where the nickname came from.
“You must be Elizabeth.” I ventured.
“I prefer Liz.” She responded.
I gulped hard and shook her hand, eyeing the thing that could completely destroy what little reputation I had. I just hoped my mind would black out the traumatic memory if it did, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to let go and forgive myself if I were to lose. She pulled her hair up into a small, tight pony tail and crouched into a wrestler’s stance.
“Shall we get started?”