BY BRETT BERK
Toby stuffed the new singlet into his bag along with a thermal and two sweatshirts, then sat at his desk and logged onto the school’s home page. He needed to see the name again. Plus, he knew his mom would be waiting for him in the kitchen, and if he showed his face before leaving, she’d start nagging him about breakfast, and it would just spiral out from there: from not eating properly, to being too skinny, to the wrestling team, to his father. “You only wrestle to please him,” she’d say, wielding a box of Eggo’s. “Can’t you at least do one thing for me?” If he waited until the last minute, he could simply run by, placating her by grabbing one of her ZONE bars. They’d read Oedipus in his Psych class that October and the fact that he’d never longed for his mother that way had plagued him for weeks back then—though he wondered why they hadn’t named a syndrome for what Jocasta felt. But all that was nothing compared to what he was going through now. He glanced at his old singlet, lying limp on the floor, its lightning crack pattern running up the left leg to become a fireball on the chest. His dad had given it to him at the start of the season, and though buying himself the new black one felt like a betrayal, in trying it on the night before he’d found some relief; its matte fabric was far less revealing.
He heard his bus rounding the corner, and checked the site one last time. He didn’t know what else he expected to find; the weigh-in hadn’t yet happened, so there was no way for either team to post a lineup. Under Sports it still read Wrestling: District Quarter Finals, and it still listed out both teams’ rosters—theirs, as well as East’s. He touched the name on the screen. Jerry Haight. Toby hadn’t seen him in over two years. And while they’d been exactly the same size then, in every measurable dimension, many guys their age had since hit their growth spurt. Toby imagined that the boy could be two or three weight-classes past him by now. But even as he thought this, he sensed it was just wishful thinking. If Poetic Justice was as essential as the Greeks claimed it was, he knew exactly who he’d be wrestling that afternoon.
The jeering started almost as soon as he boarded the bus. With a last name like Cassis—with any last name really—teasing in high school was to be expected. But this was an order of magnitude removed from the norm: Feeling stiff, Asskiss? How’s it hanging, ‘mo? Having a hard day? Toby ignored them, and began to layer up. His teammates often used this trick for getting their weight down before a meet—dress warm, don’t eat, and let your body burn its fat—but he’d never had occasion to do so himself. The other squads rarely had anyone thin enough to match him, which was why the varsity team had recruited him in the first place: he collected defaults. But after last week’s events, he’d gone on a binge, eating nothing but Hot Pockets, Oreos, and milkshakes, falling into what his Psych text called a shame spiral. He’d only snapped out of it when their archrivals at Carthage lost, jumping his team into the semi-semis, and causing his dad to call and hint that he might come watch the meet. Now here he was, endowed with a chance for redemption, and stuck two pounds shy of his 112 cut-off.
Rochelle was standing in the turnaround when his bus arrived, and she stepped away from his teammates and their girlfriends to greet him with a big open-mouthed kiss. “Ew. Your breath reeks,” she stage-whispered as they separated. She chaired the drama club; practically everything she said was delivered in either off-stage, or stage whisper.
“Ketosis,” Toby said. “It’s my body self-digesting.”
“Gross. So…you’re really going to compete?” She squinted, as if confused. Rochelle had mastered the eleven emotive expressions she claimed were required of any actor, but confused was the one she used most often with him. He’d seen it the very first time they hooked up, when they’d gotten high at Rory’s party, made out on the coats, and started swapping intimate secrets. “I had an abortion last spring,” she said, wiping away a tear. “I think I’m kind of gay,” he confided in response. She did confused. “We were pressed together pretty close just now,” she said. “You didn’t feel very kind-of-gay to me.” He didn’t protest, and hadn’t since. But later that night, he’d had what he termed his first real epiphany, if an epiphany could take the form of a question. Everyone in their class had long known Rochelle’s secret—she’d gotten fat; she missed two days of school; then she got thinner—so he wondered: Did that mean they all knew his as well?
“The team needs me,” Toby said. “Plus, my dad said he might come.”
Rochelle brightened. “Can I meet him?”
Toby shrugged. “If he shows.” Since the divorce, Toby’s father had found his inner artist, and started drawing a comic strip series advertising his photocopier repair service. It ran in the local alternative weekly and was just dumb and risqué enough to make him a minor celebrity among high schoolers. Though he’d been tempted, Toby had thus far refrained from revealing that many of the plotlines in The Continuing Adventures of Copyman and Tonerboy were based on bedtime stories his dad used to tell him: this link seemed unlikely to raise his status.
Rochelle looped her arm into his. “I love that comic,” she said, but she must have noticed his face sink, because she added, “Of course, I love you more.”
Their team captain Baaki, who everyone called Cocky, play-punched Toby in the shoulder, and then squoze at his letter jacket’s overstuffed sleeve. “Hey guys, check it. Our little Hard-On’s layered up. He’s layered up!” he repeated, seeking the attention of the crowd. “Say, Hard-On, you got a condom on under there as well?”
They all laughed. Toby ignored them. “Just tying to make weight, chief.”
“Good. Because I heard that East’s got a runt as well, and if you don’t match him in your class, we’ll have to default.”
“I’m on it.” Toby lifted his shirts to reveal his sweat-drenched ThermaSilks.
Cocky feigned shielding his eyes. “No need to get all naked.”
Toby blushed, and leaned in. “Hey, Cock, do you happen to know his name?”
“The runt? The one from East?”
“No. But don’t sweat it. You’ve got him. Or do sweat it, I should say.” Cocky put his arm around Toby’s shoulder, warming him in his camaraderie. But when some of the guys glanced over, he pulled back sharply. “What do you need their runt’s name for?” he announced. “You want to ask him out or something?” The boys all guffawed.
“Leave your gay romance out of it this week, okay Hard-On? Just focus on the win.”
Toby nodded. Protest was futile. He knew because he’d already attempted every conceivable method: denial, substitution, deference, self-deprecation. Even his clever verbal parries—I didn’t pop the question; He didn’t even get a rise out of me—usually a surefire defense, only succeeded in making him sound even faggier, like some quippy queer on a home-design show. He’d finally been forced to use logic: he’d been wearing a jock. Even with the biggest hard-on he could muster, his equipment would’ve remained invisible—painful, but invisible, as if this was a cup’s raison d’être. “I studied myself in the mirror,” he’d explained to his peers. “This lightning crack,” he’d said, pointing at the surge pattern on his thigh, “might suggest an erection, but it isn’t. It’s a shadow.”
They’d waved him off, cueing up another frenzy, and he’d laughed along. He always did; one had to. He felt like the jailer in his own prison. But more than this, he felt exposed. Because the truth was, for all his protests, for all the shielding his jock had offered, he actually had gotten hard while wrestling Marcus Dekk the prior week. He’d often felt the tingling threat before, but was unsure what finally made him go full-bloom. Oh cursed adolescence! He was like a gun with a hair trigger. Anything could’ve set it off: the good-luck kiss from Rochelle, the smell of Tiger Balm. Even Cocky’s uncanny mention of Camp Alpinot, events from the summer after 7th grade that Toby assumed everyone had forgotten; certainly Jerry Haight hadn’t ever seen fit to mention them again. Why such experiences tracked to him, he didn’t know. He felt like a magnet in a land made of steel.
The school day was made bearable only by the distance his fast provided: dizzy, and with a ringing in his ears, any provocations came at him as if shouted through a towel.
“It’s nachos day,” Rochelle chirped, as he walked her to third period. “Your favorite.” She smiled before adopting a pitying frown. “Oh, sorry. I forgot. Can’t you just weigh in now? Maybe you’re already past your cutoff.” Rochelle was one of those girls who loved to eat, but needed to share. She told him she’d never been happier than during the previous week, when they’d gone to her place every evening after practice, gotten high, fooled around, and gorged on junk. “You don’t even care about the team…” She looped her pinky around his. Toby felt only remotely connected to his arm.
“Projection,” he said, proudly laying in the term. The truth was she didn’t like him wrestling. She’d told him so. Though she loved the cachet it offered, she disapproved of his teammates’ teasing. It’s too close for comfort, she’d said, then refused to elaborate. She wanted him to join her in the Drama Club—hardly a reputation availing move. “I’m a chapter behind in Psych,” he said. “I should skip lunch and study.”
Rochelle nodded. “Just come. You can read at the table. Amber texted that she has something to show me, and I’m scared what it might be.”
Toby sighed. “I understand.”
Geology sucked. They were discussing the Rockies, which made him think again of the hiking trip at Camp Alpinot. They’d been stuck in a downpour, and forced to stay all day in their tiny two-man tents. Emboldened by the situation and their growing connection, it was the only time he and Jerry had ever tried something with others nearby. He wondered if someone had heard him moan, or seen him run his hand through the boy’s soft blonde hair? If everyone had? His thoughts spiraled out ruthlessly from here, and as an attempt to corral them, he snuck a look at his Psych book. The chapter he’d skipped was long and on a guy named Erikson. Luckily there was a diagram that explained his whole theory. It seemed he saw life as a climb up a pyramid, with both the gain and strain increasing as one made the ascent. Toby considered the top two sections—Generativity vs. Stagnation, and Ego Integrity vs. Despair; hardly something to look forward to—and then wondered where in this hike he was stuck. His eye caught on the step one up from the bottom: Identity vs. Role Confusion. That sounded about right.
Amber’s surprise was already being passed around the lunch table by the time he arrived at the caf. His teammates and their girlfriends, Rochelle included, all seemed to be laughing at it, but Amber hid it in her folder as she saw him approach. No one said a word—it was so quiet, he could hear them chewing—and though he wanted to be indignant, he hardly had a platform. Plus the smell of nachos overcame him. He felt ensnared by it, like a cartoon dog seduced by the waft of cooking meat. Finally, Cocky broke the silence, skating his lunch tray toward him. “You look like you’d kill for some chips, Hard-On.” He smirked. “Or, should I call you…Tonerboy?”
At this, everyone erupted, laughing at him, and though he wanted to ignore them, he knew it wouldn’t end unless he played along. He pasted on a grin, and though Rochelle clearly knew he was faking, she opened Amber’s notebook and slid the scrap of paper his way. She leaned in and kissed his cheek. “We all know it’s not you.”
Toby glanced down. It was the latest installment of his father’s stupid comic. Though the graphics were lackluster, the plot was clear. Copyman and Tonerboy are summoned to repair a machine that’s been rigged by their nemesis, The Scanner, to remain on an endless cycle of enlargements. Tonerboy stands behind the copier and tries to jam the motor, while Copyman attempts to defuse it like a superhero with a bomb. The punch line comes only after the copier’s been stopped. Copyman takes the credit, but the reader sees behind the scenes: all the vibrating back there has produced an embarrassing bulge in Tonerboy’s tights. In response, he’s yanked out the sparking power cord, using moves that could only be described as grappling.
Toby assumed that he was blushing, but he felt just the reverse: it was as if all of the blood had rushed from his face and gathered in his stomach. The world telescoped into a distant point. When his perception returned to normal, he was still staring at the comic. There were some drip stains on it, causing him to worry that he might have cried.
He pointed mechanically to Rochelle’s tray. “Can you pass me the rest of your nachos?” he said. “And that chocolate milk too?” Not even Cocky dared respond.
Despite his binging and his wet hair—not to mention his emotional burden—when the weigh-in arrived, Toby easily made his class. He was nearly a pound under. Sadly, so was his rival, Jerry Haight. As they stood on opposite sides of the cold medical scale, Toby did everything in his power to avoid the boy’s probing gray eyes, staring instead into the drop ceiling in Coach’s office. Why me? he asked whatever gods might live up amongst the drip stains. What bounds of hubris had he crossed in order to draw this fate? No answers came. But as the ref inscribed their names and weights into his roster, potential solutions mounted in Toby’s brain. He could fake an injury. He’d done that once, back in JV. But despite Rochelle’s protestations, he was no actor; his performance would seem wooden and obvious. He could throw the match. Everyone knew he sucked as a wrestler. Even Coach had ridiculed him for the beating he’d taken from Dekk. But that would do little to rescue his honor. He could simply leave the gym. Sure, it was a stopgap measure; but didn’t short-term solutions, when strung together, begin to constitute a long-term plan? He eyed the nearest door.
Almost as if reading his mind, Coach set a hand on his shoulder and steered him toward his locker. “Suit up, Cassis,” he said. And as Toby circled around Jerry Haight, he weighed his options. He wanted nothing more than to avoid this match. But, beneath this, he felt the heave of conviction. He thought of the pyramid in his Psych book. “Erikson believed,” the text read, “that to conquer defeat one must take virtuous action.” If he desired transcendence, he’d need to redeem himself.
In order to build excitement during meets, the team didn’t wrestle in straight weight order, but rather saved the most competitive classes for last, so his match was to come third, just after the heavies. Their first fat kid, Burlap, lost very quickly; East’s guy was like an orca to his manatee. Their other husky, Toker’s chances didn’t appear much better. But since Mackie, Kott, and Cocky were heavily favored, the pressure was on Toby for a shot at a 4:3 win.
While waiting on the bench, he tried to get centered, but found himself stuck between sizing up his opponent, and scanning the stands for his absent dad. These tactics only enhanced his anxiety, which gnashed emptily inside him, like a dog working at a chew toy. He’d gotten hard—he thought, attempting to talk himself down—whenever he and Rochelle fooled around, so maybe he wasn’t as gay as he used to think. Maybe it was just a phase: overcome, and now beneath him, like it was for so many other boys. Maybe his glands had finally serotonitized, and oxbowed out that neural pathway.
Just in case, he concentrated on thinking anti-sexual thoughts—of vultures, of canned mushrooms, of his mother’s silk robe—attempting to convert his concern into the kind of adrenaline that would fuel the right parts of his body. But his efforts shattered the moment the ref called his name. Cocky turned to him, setting a warm hand on his inner thigh. “It’s up to you, Ass-kiss,” he said, leaning in close. “But, win or lose, we’re going to drag you into the stalls after your match to check out what’s up, or not, in your shorts.” Everyone laughed greedily at this, except Coach, who feigned deafness. And though Toby wished this threat would’ve worked as intended—neutering, or at least repulsing him—the idea of his teammates taking him by force, encircling him and stripping him down gave him the first maddening stirrings of an erection.
He stumbled toward the mat, glancing back at the stands, relieved that he’d at least been spared the humbling burden of his father’s presence. But when he arrived at his station, and turned to meet his opponent, all vestiges of hope and salvation collapsed. Though obscured by the padding of his East Wildcats’ headgear, and the molded plastic of spit laden his mouth-guard, Jerry Haight’s lustrous smile was somehow undimmed. The boy literally beamed at him. “Ey Do-Beegh,” he slurred.
Toby felt his vision strobing—as it did when he smoked too much weed—with each blink causing his sightline to recede sharply, then snap back. In one flash he caught Rochelle cheering, but looking anguished. In another he saw his teammates catcalling and grabbing their crotches. Finally, he forced his eyes to focus on his opponent. Jerry Haight had been a failure as a swimmer and an archer. He’d borrowed treats from Toby’s care packages, and never replenished them. He had allergies, and talked in a nasal tone that made him sound retarded. He mis-delivered the punch line to every joke he told. But whenever Toby had been with him, and particularly when they’d experimented—during Capture the Flag; in the pool shed; in the tent during their trip—Toby had felt a charge like pressing a nine-volt battery to his wet balls (a torture he and Jerry had once enacted on each other): it ached, but in a good way. Sure, it made Toby feel filthy, like he wanted to microwave his brain. And it drove him to do idiotic things, like wood-burn a plaque bearing Jerry’s name, bake him an angel food cake, or write him a note on their last day saying how much he liked doing stuff with him, a note which Jerry had absentmindedly left where their bunkmates could see it, and about which they taunted Toby even long after he’d renounced it, and the friendship.
Toby tried to harness all this contempt, narrowing his eyes and staring the boy down, attempting to conjure a menacing Scanner-like sneer. But Jerry just shrugged, and smiled affably, as if bemused by the odd coincidence of their rivalry. That was the worst thing about him, Toby thought. His love was clean; he meant no harm.
Toby was on him almost before the ref’s whistle blew. He wanted only one thing: to publicly destroy Jerry Haight. He tried to deploy his best grips and lunges, while attempting to limit his attack to regions covered by the boy’s uniform. But while Jerry was a horrid wrestler, truly without tactic or skill, Toby was left with little choice but to touch his rival’s skin. And once he did, he found a good portion of his wrath subsumed, taken over by a pull, a physical tug, that felt like someone had threaded a thick rubber cable through his body—from his cerebrum, down his spine, and then deep inside his groin—and was strumming it in an exhilarating and crescendoing solo. He was rock hard, harder than he’d ever been; hard enough, it seemed, to stretch the straps of his cup.
Entwined and enraged Toby redoubled his efforts. But just as he sensed himself beginning to prevail, he felt his body locking in on its path toward climax. He was finally winning the battle against Jerry Haight, and with his girlfriend and teammates watching, with his coach looking on, with the cruel gods above unable to command him, he could feel the boy’s will crumple and his shoulders begin their ruinous journey. Their faces nearly touching, Toby saw deep into Jerry’s expression. It was gracious, almost beatific in its resignation to defeat, and he recognized in it emotions with which he was all too familiar. He wanted nothing more than to lie down and comfort his old friend. But with his knees clenched tightly astride the boy’s chest, his forearms piercing his biceps, and Jerry’s breath—sweet and grassy, like a horse—clouding his intake, Toby had no choice but to succumb to the will of his own body; his grip tightened, he pressed down, and he came what felt like buckets inside of his jock.
In the muffled silence of his post-climactic reverie, it seemed possible that he might avoid detection. He’d truly struggled in the match—his singlet was camouflaged with sweat—and for all their avowals, his teammates faced more pressing challenges than inspecting his briefs. Toby avoided Jerry’s handshake and quiet supplications, and walked away, head down, as if conserving his pride, like anyone who’d just gone all out against a feeble opponent yet barely prevailed. And he’d almost made it to the relative safety of the bench and his sweats when Rochelle somehow managed to commandeer his glance. The Siren! She was pointing in horror at a spot on his inner thigh, and since the material of his new singlet was breathable, he felt the evidence there as it began to cool. Word spread virally through the crowd—visibly, as in any panic—and in seconds his humiliation became their complete objective. Jeering. Name-calling. Toby walked toward it all dutifully. But with each step, he felt the gym floor quake and then surrender, like the ablation of his own life’s steep pyramid: crumbling, and entombing what lay behind.