The Bright Lights

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I’m fuckin’ thirsty.

 

Weigh-in is still two days away, and my throat already feels like sandpaper. When I try to swallow, I can’t. There’s nothing, and mid-swallow, I just start gagging. The noise interrupts my class, which I can’t pay attention to anyway. A couple people turn their heads to look at me, buried in my sweatshirt. I don’t know if they feel sorry for me but I do know what they’re thinking: he’s a wrestler.

I don’t know if it’s the hunger or the thirst that kills me more. It’s the hunger at first, at the beginning of the week, when the weigh-in looms in the distance. I look around the cafeteria, see everyone eating and wonder if just a bite of something I like will be okay, but I know at this point it’s just discipline discipline discipline. I keep repeating it in my head. I sit down with the wrestlers with a salad and don’t talk much, just feeling like I hate myself.

You’re not supposed to cut your water at first. That’s why the thirst creeps in slowly, right before the match, the practice before where all we do is sweat sweat sweat. But I have to start early. When you’re a 135 and you’re listed at 167 during football season…no that’s not a good way of putting it, everyone starts out big and cuts down. I’ll say it like this. When you’re a 135 the morning of weigh-in and 152 the next day, you know you’re gonna have to cut your water early for the next match. Unless you wanna lose it all at once, really just drain everything out of yourself the night before and risk the severe dehydration. I don’t know why I put myself through it, but doing it gradually like that just makes me feel better.

 

 

That’s what I think about as the bell rings and my class finally ends. How this is the norm in Pennsylvania, or as we call it, PA. This is life in PA. There is no room for complaining. You wake up, you go to work, you come home, and you sleep. You make a living. My family lives modestly, just like everyone else does here. My father works in the steel mill, just like the fathers of most of my best friends. I imagine I’ll work there one day, too, once I’m done with school, but I’m only a junior and Pitt-Johnstown has been sending me letters about wrestling in college, and my dad wants me to be the first member of our family to make it to college. I think it’s just because he doesn’t want me to give up wrestling.

No, Doctor, I don’t work in the steel mill like my dad did. I own a construction company, actually, and I’ve done real well with it. It doesn’t mean that I’m no longer attached to the community, because I am. I still go to all the Shaler Area home matches, the state tournament, everything. I know who the studs are and all that shit, from the newspaper or word of mouth in the stands. I know half of it is because my kid is on the team, but I also know that a lot of it has to do with me never wanting to let it go. Even my wife gets a little grumpy every now and then when I talk about it, I bet you know what that’s like. My “glory days,” she calls it, says they’re long gone. I know it’s true, but you never really let it go. And that’s why it’s so difficult to see my kid struggling right now.

We’re wrestling North Alleghany this weekend. It’s the biggest match of the year because we’re both undefeated and a loss could taint the perfect season. But it’s my biggest match ever because I have to wrestle Stetter. He’s their captain, and the returning state champ at 135. Last year, I qualified for states, which is a big deal in PA, but I didn’t even place. Stetter is a senior. I’m only a junior. He already committed to Iowa State and me, I’ll be lucky to get another letter from Johnstown.

 

I’ve only really heard about him. I didn’t stay long enough at states last year to really watch him. But I saw him. He was a scary-looking guy. I thought to myself, “Boy, I’m glad I don’t ever have to face that guy.” I was a 140-pounder then, and guys like Stetter, they never miss weight and move up a weight class, ‘cause they’re too tough. He had tattoos. I remember I saw him in this one match at states, and he had this huge dragon tattoo on his back. I was thinking how bad-ass it was, and before I knew it, the match was over. Stetter had pinned the guy in thirteen seconds.

I’ve been trying not to think about it, but everyone keeps reminding me. “Hey man, you’re gonna kill Stetter this weekend,” or, “You’re his first real test this year.” It’s constant, in the locker-room, outside of class, or from guys who aren’t even on the team, because somehow the whole school seems to know about the match, and how I drew their big horse. I know I’m a highly-touted wrestler in PA now, the expectation is I’ll place, and I know all eyes will be on me, whether you’re a Shaler guy or a NA guy. But I don’t feel like I have a shot. Stetter has never lost a match in PA in his life. He’s gunning to be one of six four-time state champs in PA history.

The more I think about it, the less trivial it seemed back then. It was supposed to be one of those things that really mattered at the time and made you scared shitless, but then you looked back several years later and laughed, but deep down you still really cared. I guess I can laugh about it sometimes, but it doesn’t change that it was the single most vivid memory I’ve ever had, and that somehow it had changed me. I’m frustrated. I can’t quite explain it to you because you’re an outsider, you wouldn’t really understand what I went through.

 

It’s the self-loathing. I feel it now as I get in bed. Tomorrow is Friday, the day before the big match Saturday night. It’s not quite hell-day. It will be brutal, I know it, but it will really get awful Friday night. But there’s this feeling I get as I get in bed that I just hate myself. I feel bad for myself, sucked out completely, unable to think straight. It’s putting myself through this daily grind. I don’t get what it is about being locked in this steaming room doing the most strenuous physical labor in the thick of winter. It’s just depressing. There’s no way around it. I know I’ll still be sweating once I put on my jacket and step out into the frigid air, and I’ll be scraped up but I’ll just be drained and feeling like shit. I’ll feel worthless. It’s like asking yourself every day why you put yourself through hell and then you sort of know the answer but no one ever really tells it to you straight, and then you get out into the cold and you feel alone. And that’s the feeling I get as I crawl into bed.

I think some of it has to do with dinner. Because my mom had poured me a glass of water and I told myself I’d allow half a pound for hydration, and the glass is a full pound. But once it hit my lips, I just couldn’t put it down. I just chugged the whole thing just like that in front of my dad, who gave me this look. You know the kind of look I’m talking about, this disappointed one but hidden from my mom, it lasted so short. He just kept eating his dinner, and then it sunk in to me as I looked down at my plate – and it was a small portion because of my upcoming match – that I would have nothing to drink with

it. I thought to myself about if I wanted to deal with my hunger and end up being even thirstier than I was, or just not eat dinner and be content with only having to lose the extra pound. I chose to take a few bites, but I could barely chew, I had none of those juices in my mouth really, and I wanted to break down and cry in front of my parents, but I knew what my dad would do. I excused myself and went to my room.

 

I had tried doing my homework, but I couldn’t help but feel guilty. I threw a pinch of tobacco on my gums. My mouth was so dry I could barely spit. If anything, I got a few ounces of water out of me. But I was just sitting there, you know at my desk, with the dip in my mouth, pinching it tight with my tongue against my gums, closing my eyes. It’s a weird feeling, doing that and just praying it will make you take a shit. I was willing to settle for anything tonight, even a small one, just so I could make up for the extra water and maybe go eat a little something. But it wouldn’t come. My body was too drained. And then I realized that until Saturday, I would get no help from pissing or shitting. Maybe I’d piss out a few ounces before weigh-in, sometime, but that was gonna be it. The only help I’d get would be from whatever weight I would lose naturally between then and Saturday. And I was still six or seven pounds over.

The thought made me gag as I tried to spit out the dip, which was too difficult because my mouth was too dry. I accidentally swallowed some of it and immediately rushed to the toilet. I threw up at first, just a little bit of liquid and the blackness of the tobacco. And then it was constant dry-heaving because there was nothing else left in me. My stomach burned with each heave until finally, it ended. I could hear a commotion downstairs but then I heard my dad telling my mom to be quiet and let me learn a lesson.

 

It was then I decided to go to bed. First, I brushed my teeth and took a shower. In the shower, I was tempted to drink the water. A friend of mine had done that once but couldn’t stop himself and missed weight, so I didn’t dare even start, but I gave it a good couple minutes of thought just standing there. And then I thought about how every night after I won a match, my dad and I would drink beers together and laugh and not worry about making weight. But if I lost, there was none of that, not even a “nice try.” So as I lie here in bed and think about going through hell to wrestle Stetter on Saturday, and my dad is pretending that it’s just another match but it isn’t, I just feel like crying, or living another life, anywhere. They say I’m lucky to be an American but I would trade to be anything else right now.

Yeah, I’d say so, that there was a sense of solitude because of my father. That’s why I try to take it easier on my kid. But I don’t let up completely because I haven’t really made up my mind whether my father was really a bad influence. I mean, sometimes I think I owe it all to him. I wouldn’t have been so committed if it weren’t for him. It was through him that I learned to do it for myself, ironically. There was this breaking point I reached, it had happened well before the match with NA, where I just decided that I couldn’t lose. I would still cry at night, I would still question myself, sure. But at one point, for some reason or other, it just all seemed right. It felt like this could be the one crowning achievement, where no one else would get in my way. It was the ultimate physical battle. I mean, I know they say swimming is tough, gymnastics takes a lot of skill, football is physical….but wrestling really combined everything, and it was one on one, all eyes on you, everything on you, really. And I don’t know how I realized it, but I did, and it didn’t make me any happier, but it made me feel like I was going somewhere. Like one day, I would be standing on a podium and this euphoric feeling would come that made everything seem worth it. I want my son to know that feeling.

 

I wake up after surprisingly falling asleep pretty quickly, but maybe it’s because I’ve been so damn tired, and I realize it’s still all the same. One more day of school before the match, and it will all be over for now. I’ve been hearing it all week and though I am ragged and worn, I do feel the excitement beginning to kick in. It’s the nervous energy. There will be a pep rally tonight, and though I know I’ll be too tired to have any fun, it will be nice to be in the spotlight, and it will motivate me to keep on going.

I walk down the stairs in my underwear and into the basement, holding myself and feeling goosebumps because of the intense cold. It’s dark, but I find the light at the bottom and at the end of the hall there is my scale. I step on. 139.6 pounds. Perfect. I go upstairs and measure out a few ounces of orange juice and toast half a bagel. I make sure to eat the bagel first, and then drink the orange juice, until I realize I haven’t peed yet. I race into the bathroom and pee, but only a little bit comes out, dark yellow, almost brown. Then, somewhat warmer now, I run down into the basement and weigh myself again. 140, right on the dot, right where I want to be with over a full day to go. I’m surprised at how good I’ve been this week. Usually I have six or seven pounds to cut right before the match, but right now I have over twenty-four hours and I am only five pounds over. Then again, I’ve cut my water early this time because I was irresponsible last week. I try to think to myself about what I can afford to do. I’ll float off about three pounds between now and the match, and if I work real hard in practice or do some extra

running on Saturday, that’s another 3-5 pounds of sweat, even though my body won’t want to sweat at all, it will go into that state of shock where sweating is real tough, but I know I can do it. So I reckon I can afford to eat and drink two pounds worth of food and water by Saturday.

 

I look above the scale and see the wrestling schedule I taped to the wall at the beginning of the season. I’ve been marking down the wins and losses throughout my high school career, but this year, there is nothing but wins. I’m undefeated, and I’m ranked fourth in the state. Still, Stetter is the best guy I’ll ever face, the best there is, in fact. As I look at the schedule, I wonder if he is somewhere nearby doing the same exact thing. But then I think to myself, he is out there to kill me, that asshole. I don’t care if it’s a common struggle. I punch the schedule with my fist, even though it hurts a bit.

“Fuck you Stetter. I’m coming for you,” I say to myself, suddenly energized and ready for school, feeling like I might be able to focus today.

It was definitely an up and down. Certainly, Doctor. The periods of self-loathing were followed by periods of faith, which were followed by more hatred or in the case of a win, like you were on top of the world. In the case of a loss, you questioned yourself, you had to tell yourself that this is what was going to make you stronger. No, it was never easy. Never. The emotional volatility, it gets to you, it’s like nothing else. I’d say it’s almost like being in love, when you wonder what the other person is thinking, how stable you are. I’d say it’s worse, because at least love was permanent, you always have the person there, if it works out. But the glory of winning, I thought, was always fleeting. I wasn’t sure. It was always the best feeling in the world, but then you had the next match,

and eventually it would all be over anyway, and so then what? This is what I thought, for awhile, at least. I didn’t know like my dad did then that I could become immortal.

At school, I am thirsty again. When I look at the vending machine or the people drinking their soda, I fantasize about it. I imagine myself as them. Or I fantasize about the moment after weigh-in where I will drink all the water in the water fountain, and then after the match where I will drink endless amounts of water and eat tons of pizza before I go home and drink some beers with my dad. And then I remember I have to wrestle Stetter, and that maybe I won’t live my fantasies completely. But I do dream of that time where I will binge, and then when the season ends where I will be fat and happy again.

All day people are wishing me luck, patting me on the shoulder, telling me they’ll be there. It makes me excited and makes me think less about my current pain. These are people who idolize me, my sacrifice. These are people who are proud to have me represent their school. I’m like one of their celebrities. Even the girls are saying things to me, like they don’t know all too much about wrestling but they saw me at the last meet, and hey, you looked good out there, we’ll see you tomorrow night. Maybe you’ll come to Lucy’s party afterward? ‘Yeah, sure’ I keep saying. Didn’t even realize there was a party but it makes me feel even better about all of this ending soon, it could be like a huge victory party for us. I just try to play it cool with them like I am focused on one thing and girls can wait, and feel lucky to even invite me. But I also know that that’s really all I have the energy for anyway. Maybe it’s a good thing the misery is making me distant, so they’ll chase me. Or maybe it’s making them think I’m an asshole. I also don’t have the energy to answer that question in my head.

 

I liked this one girl back then, Carly. She was a cheerleader, so I knew she would be at all the big matches. I wondered if she actually liked the matches at all or just came because she had to. She had a lot of school spirit, though, so I imagine she had to think I was something special. I mean, I was a good-looking kid. I know it’s hard to believe because look at me, I’m fat now. But back then, after sweating so much before the match and then ripping off everything and just wearing that singlet tight against your lean body…I was a well-oiled machine. I mean, I was big for a 135, when I came out there people couldn’t believe I made weight. I remember one guy even said on an opposing team, “Hey, Tyler Mariotti cut off his cock to make weight today.” Everyone laughed. The joke stuck. I was always cutting off my dick to make weight.

Practice rolls around, and I saunter into the locker room feeling like I might not make it. There is this terrible feeling in my legs, like they can’t move any more, yet somehow they know that they are going to be put through abuse for the next two hours and so they are just giving up now. I’m about six over now. I figure if I can lose four pounds in practice, I can go home, have a small dinner, and only have a couple of pounds to cut the next day right before the match. But it won’t be easy, because I have nothing left to give. My body doesn’t wanna move, and it sure as hell doesn’t wanna sweat. I’m already depleted of about 8-9 pounds worth of water that my body needs just to feel normal, and even then, I bet I’d still be pissing yellow. I put on layer after layer of t-shirts and shorts, and then sweatshirts and sweatpants. I’m about three to four layers deep when I pull the drawstrings on my sweatshirt and throw a pair of socks over my hands. The only part of my body that you can really see is my eyes.

 

The trick is to get the sweat going. Once you get it going, it doesn’t really stop, you just need to push it into another gear and make the most of it once you get it going, but don’t fuckin’ lose it or you’ll put yourself through hell. I’m sitting on the mat before practice just trying to milk the clock and hoping time will stop until I feel better, but I know it won’t. Then our coach comes up, Coach Thurston. He’s a small, muscly guy with lots of hair. He’s got a beard. He doesn’t yell a lot, only when he needs to, but he’s tough as a gun. He comes up and says, “Mariotti, get the fuck off your back and get your fat ass sweating. Let’s go! Everyone, weight-cutting day, do what you need to do.” We’re not supposed to lie down.

I get up and grab my partner, Terry. Black kid, tried out for basketball two years ago but didn’t make it, but has lots of natural ability in wrestling. He’s my back-up. He’s a freshman and he’s been intimidated by me all year, but slowly he has been starting to assert himself. I still always beat him. He knows the drill. We just are going to wrestle each other for awhile. Not too hard because I feel like I might die, but just hard enough that I’ll start sweating, and we’ll just roll around for awhile ‘til I get that sweat, and then I’ll run with it.

There was always this feeling like you wouldn’t make it through on the weight- cutting day, and I remember that time was particularly tough. I don’t know why I had been so irresponsible the week before such a big match, but I definitely paid for it by the amount of weight I had to cut. I’d heard that Stetter was a big cutter too, so I didn’t think I’d lose anything because of it, we’d both feel awful out there on the mat, have short wind, but boy did I feel like I might lose it then. Sometimes, it’s sort of depressing to feel like you’ve lost that kind of discipline. I mean, I know it’s not normal, I know it’s insane, fine. But it’s tough to feel like you’ve reached the peak of your physical condition, the epitome of discipline. What if you could carry that over into other things? What if you refused to relax at your career? I think about that a lot. It’s really sad. I really think this is why I have been depressed. I never feel like I am doing enough. I can’t even get my own kid to see the good in it. Anyway, I don’t know what it was that pushed me through those practices, and sometimes I don’t even feel like me and that kid are the same person, but I sure as hell know I admire that guy for what he did. I admire my kid, too, even though I can see the struggle in his eyes, because he reminds me of myself. I’m just not quite sure how to handle it, and thinking about that whole ordeal is bringing back these memories that I haven’t really ever sorted out in my mind.

 

It’s the end of practice, and I am soaking wet. I feel like I must have exceeded my expectations but I am still really nervous when I get to the scale. It had taken me thirty minutes to even feel moisture on my face, but as soon as I got the sweat going, I hit the treadmill until I couldn’t feel my legs any more. Then, when I felt like I had nothing left to give and that I might pass out, I grabbed Terry and made him stay after practice with me to keep drilling until I actually collapsed. Literally, I fell, and Terry was scared shitless. I told him I was okay, and to just bring me a little bit of water, but only a little bit. He came right back with a few ounces, I eyed it carefully and drank it quickly,

sighing and panting heavily. He helped me up and I had him help walk me down to the locker room.

 

I strip naked at the scale with Terry watching. My teammates were showering, but some of them are getting dressed and peeking at me through the corner of their eyes, seeing if I’ll be okay. Moments ago, we’d all been sitting after practice, listening to our two captains give us our final pep talk, and then how to conduct ourselves at the upcoming pep rally. I could barely focus, then. I was thinking that I needed to get my sweat back, and I was wondering if I’d be able to eat or drink something at the pep rally. The one thing I did get was when one of them said something like, “You will remember this night for the rest of your lives.” I fucking believed it.

137.3. I’ve only lost three pounds. Not even. The body plays tricks on you when it’s sucked out. You feel like you just lost ten pounds, and your body says no, only 2.7 pounds, this is what you get for treating me like shit all week. Still, only 2.3 pounds to go…if I could eat and drink about .7 and lose a pound between now and the match naturally, I’d only have to sweat off a couple more. I usually float off more weight naturally, but when you’re so sucked out like I am, it doesn’t work so effectively like you want it to, like you need it to. I feel like shit knowing that I can’t really reward myself, that there is still a lot of suffering ahead, but still, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and after a night of sleep, maybe I will feel better. I know what I’ll do. I’ll eat some granola bars, maybe even some candy bars. At this point, the calories don’t matter, it’s the size of the food. I just need the energy, the sugar, anything. I’ll flood myself with candy and granola and then give myself a decent bit of water, and it will be just enough to shave off the last few pounds. And then I’ll fuck Stetter up.

 

I don’t know if it was really just the weight. The sport instills an element of fear in you, too. It’s scary to go out there. Not even when everyone is watching, but even just when you’re one-on-one, alone. It’s not a fear of getting hurt, really. It’s a fear of losing your dignity, or pride, or something. I can’t really put my finger on it. It’s scary to wonder if you’ll get too tired to function, if you’ll reach that pivotal moment between giving up and fighting through. No one wants to get there, because giving up in a sport like that has gotta be the worst feeling in the world. But then you add on top of that that everyone is watching you, that you’re alone out there with no one to lean on, that at any time you could falter or be too tired to go on and everyone is out there watching you, judging you…that you have put so much personal sacrifice into this one, six-minute frame and that you could lose and fuck it all up and then where do you go from there? Was it worth it? It’s scary. There’s an element of fear, but no, it wasn’t just because of the weight.

Yeah, I really did think I’d remember it forever. I mean, I still do. The matches were always big, but this was exceptional. The whole town talked about it, forget my school. There were pictures of us in the local coffee shops, in the newspapers they wrote about us. We were a big deal. My father’s friends would talk about it with him during their weekly poker games, or in the steel mill. It was life. And this was the biggest match of the year, and the biggest match of my life, and the most anticipated by everyone else, so why wouldn’t I remember it? Why don’t you understand this?

 

The pep rally sucks because I feel like fainting. I have nothing to give. Even when Carly comes up to me and looks gorgeous with her red hair and her locks and her cheerleading uniform, and even flirts with me for once, I can only say I am excited about the match and maybe I’ll see her at the party afterward, but I’m not feeling well, so who knows if I’m going? She frowns and I feel like a jerk, but I have nothing to say, and even though I care, I don’t care right now. I just want it to end, and even when they start talking about my match-up with Stetter as one of the biggest match-ups in PA all year, I am just sorta surprised because I don’t think it’s really that big. I mean the kid is an animal. I don’t belong in that category with him quite yet, but I do think I can beat him if everything somehow goes right.

I finally leave, right after they light the bonfire. My dad pulls his pick-up around and tells me to hop in.

“I know what you feel like,” he says bluntly, “so we’re getting the fuck out of here. Champ needs his sleep.”

Somehow, hearing him call me a champ makes everything better. I remain quiet and as I look out the window, I know I am smiling just a little bit as the snow falls down outside.

It’s still snowing as I try to sleep at night, but I can’t right now. It’s always like this right before. I had a few candy bars and half a pound of water, and by the time I got in bed, I was just three over but I could barely talk I was so dehydrated. I am lying in bed, just thinking. I am more tired than I have ever been in my life, but I can’t fall asleep because I just want to run out of bed and run the shower and drink until I vomit. It’s the weirdest feeling ever, being so tired and being so incapable of sleep. I want to punch something. I know it’s getting late and I need to wake up and make sure I sweat and so that just adds to the frustration and makes it harder. I hate myself. I don’t know why it is I’m putting myself through it. I guess this is going to make it all even more worth it, but enough is enough. I don’t get it. I simply don’t know what it is. I feel bad for me.

 

I’m thinking about tomorrow night and I am twirling my hair because I am nervous as all hell and wondering how it will go. I don’t know what to expect from Stetter. He was scary. I only hear stories about him. He’s broken arms and even legs. Someone told me that Stetter has no soul; he sold it away and doesn’t believe in God any more. I don’t know what to think. I know I’m good, but I don’t really know just how good Stetter is. Eventually, thinking about nothing but the following night, after tossing and turning and thinking and trying to be able to swallow just once, I fall asleep.

The sleepless nights were the worst, especially the times that you had to get up in the morning and keep running and your legs already felt like jell-o. That day was hell. Not just because I felt like hell, but because it was hell to wait until 6 PM for a weigh-in, and 7 PM for the match to start, and god knows when for all of this shit to be over for me. But yes, it did affect my high-school experience because I barely slept. I was always worried, anxious, self-deprecating. I don’t know how I ever slept. I don’t know how I was ever social. My mood went down the chute with everything else.

When I wake up, I don’t wanna talk to anybody. I get down to the basement, and as I expect, I am two over. I don’t need to lose exactly two pounds, just a little less because I’ll lose a little bit naturally before the match. But if I want any sort of sustenance, I’ll need to lose at least two.

 

I put on my sweat gear. I want to get this over with. It’s only 10 A.M., but the sooner I am at 135, the better I’ll feel. I sit in the corner of my basement and just think for awhile. I wonder if my dad will take me to the sauna today. Probably not. He says it’s the cheap way out. And besides, he won’t wanna stay to watch me to make sure I don’t pass out.

I get the jump rope. The first few skips I can’t even complete and finally I trip and fall. I’m lying on the floor, crying. I can’t handle it. I’m so close but I feel like I’m only getting farther away. I hear the door open at the top of the stairs and my dad yells down, “C’mon boy, you’re almost there, get up and get it.” I get up and start jump-roping, and it’s not for awhile that the sweat gets going, but it does.

I can barely feel my extremities now. The sweat has come, albeit slower than ever, but it’s here, and I know I will have a while to go before I’m done. I keep my eyes closed and keep skipping, tired as hell, wondering if I might actually just fall asleep. Actually, a few times, I do lose consciousness of what I’m doing and trip, but I have to hop back up every time. I’ve never hurt this much in my life. I want to run away. For a split-second, I think about getting out of here. I wonder if I could make it on my own.

I stop at noon. I’d taken a few breaks, but now I feel good. I’ve been sweating for such a long time and frankly I don’t give a fuck if I am over 135 because this is it. I won’t eat or drink anything if I have to. I towel myself off and wait a bit before stepping on the scale, making sure every ounce of fluid leaves my body. When I am completely dry, I take a deep breath and step ever so lightly on the scale.

 

135.2. I’m good. With six hours to go before weigh-in, all I have to do now is just wait for that last fifth of a pound to go on its own. I can’t eat or drink anything, it’s too risky. But I’ve come this far. If I could, I’d spit, but I have nothing left. I need to sleep.

As I walk up the stairs I tell my dad the news. He shrugs his shoulders at me as if he’s disappointed.

“If that’s how you wanna do it, then that’s how you’re gonna do it.”

As if on cue, the phone rings. I slump in a chair by the kitchen table to wait for my dad so we can wrap up this miserable conversation, and I feel myself falling asleep, until I hear my dad say Coach Thurston’s name. I perk up immediately. “No, I think he’s okay,” my dad says over and over again, and then I know they’re talking about weight. This has never happened before. Suddenly, my dad sighs and says, “Yes, justa second,” covers the mouthpiece on the phone, gives me that same look he gave me at dinner, and mouths with a little whisper to go along, “Be a man.” I nod my head and take the phone.

“How you doing Tyler?” Coach asks, kinda more concerned sounding than usual.

I tell him I’m fine, trying to sound fine when I do it. He says I’ve been cutting a lot of weight this week, huh? Yeah, you know how it is. Any nosebleeds? Nah.

“Interesting,” he says, then a silence. I don’t say a word. Don’t know what he’s driving at, but then he comes out with it.

“Listen buddy, was thinking of bumping you up to 140…I don’t think you’ll have the wind to go with Stetter with this cut. What do you think?”

My mind goes blank. All week I’ve been thinking about two things: Stetter, and 135. Some other NA guy and 140 are foreign to me, but I also feel like shit, and I could end my suffering now if I wanted to, and as much as I want to beat Stetter, there’s that little part of me that’s scared.

 

“Who would go 135?” My dad grimaces when I say this, and I remember what’s gotta be done.

“We throw it to the dogs. You take over for Allen at 140.”

“No can do, coach,” I muster, and then I realize I gotta convince him, so I tell him what I’ve been convincing myself all week, “I have every intention to dethrone the king tonight.”

“Attaboy!” Coach Thurston yells. He had just wanted me to convince him, I thought. He didn’t wanna move me. I’m still good. I give my dad the phone, he laughs with Coach Thurston, hangs up the phone, and slaps me on the back, but I know he hasn’t forgotten that I’m two tenths over.

I tell him I’m taking a nap. He says he’ll wake me up at 3 PM.

Somehow, this time, I am able to fall asleep almost immediately, and I actually dream about the bright lights.

Of course, like I said, waiting was the most painful part, especially when you had made it down. It’s almost like you’d be better off getting down right before the weigh-in. I just never wanted to take that chance. But I think waiting is even more painful than the cutting. I was anxious. So I don’t know if that anxiety carried over into my everyday life. Sometimes I get jittery when I wait for people or even at work when I am awaiting something important. I’ve been really anxious lately. My kid’s got a big match coming

up, and he can barely keep it together now, but I don’t know if that’s it. It’s gotta be something. Or maybe it’s nothing at all.

 

When my dad wakes me up, I can’t move. He is standing there above me, telling me to get up and get ready to go. I tell him I can’t and then correct myself when I see his face.

“Help me up. I can barely move.”
He reaches down to help me to my feet.
“It’s okay. You’re almost there. Be tough, Tyler. Be tough.”
I get up, and we trudge downstairs together to the scale very slowly. I strip naked in front of my father. It’s nothing weird. I’m used to it. I step on the scale and it flits back and forth between 135 and 135.1.

“Good,” he says, “You’ll be okay. You’ve got a few more hours.”

I breathe a sigh of relief. He helps me put my stuff together in a bag and we go out to the pick-up to go over to the gym. I can’t help but notice how cold it is. It gives you this empty feeling. Like you’re doing this brutal thing to yourself and even when you go to step outside for a moment, you’re still taken over by this cold, empty sensation. It puts this fear in you. Like everyone will all be crowded into the warm, gym to see you because it’s cold outside, so all the attention is on you. I can’t quite explain it. It makes me feel weird inside.

When we get to the gym, there are a few cars there and I can see the North Alleghany bus. It reminds me of what is ahead. Stetter. I wonder if he is nervous as hell, too, or if this is just another walk in the park. I try to swallow but I obviously still can’t. I say goodbye to my dad when we get into the gym and he goes to sit in the stands and read the program or the newspaper. All he ever says is, “Good luck,” and this time isn’t different. I had been expecting something, like hey this guy is beatable, or just wrestle your match, but there was none of that. I am on my own.

 

I’d heard that Stetter was a killer. That’s the word you use for someone who doesn’t take his time. Stetter goes right for the jugular. He is all about humiliation, the quick pin, the embarrassing, fancy moves en route to earning it. He inflicts pain. He goes the extra mile to make the match painful for his opponent, whether it be emotionally or physically or both, he doesn’t really care. I’d remembered Coach Thurston making me relax before when facing good opponents by saying, “Don’t worry Tyler, he’s not a killer. He’ll give you a shot.” I wonder if Stetter will even ‘give me a shot.’

I walk down into the locker room feeling like I want to shit my pants. It would be a welcome occurrence because then I’d be able to eat, but it’s like I feel like shitting my pants but I know it won’t actually happen. Not my favorite feeling. My teammates can see the look on my face and they know to leave me alone. I don’t want to talk to them either. Weigh-in is in a couple hours, so in the meantime, people are going into the wrestling room, which is next to the gym, to cut off last-minute weight. Either that or they are hanging out in the locker room, or checking their weight. I decide that if I need to cut weight, I’ll wait until 5 PM and if I still need to lose a tenth, I’ll go suck it up and build a sweat. I sit at my locker and wait, feeling worse than I ever have in my life, thinking about Stetter, until 5 PM when Coach Thurston comes in with a bunch of the guys who have been up in the wrestling room. They are drenched in sweat.

“All the guys in the lineup tonight, let’s go check weight right now.”

 

No one says a word. We all get up and line up according to our weight class, from 103 to 285. Being 135 puts me toward the front. I pray to god that the scale will just say 135 so I don’t have to worry any more. Losing a tenth of a pound is the worst when you’re sucked out. It doesn’t just happen magically. You need to work hard to build a sweat, and it’s all for a tenth of a pound. After our 130-pounder steps off the scale, Coach Thurston gives me a hard look.

“Lookin’ good Mariotti. Lookin’ lean.”

It’s the only good thing that comes out of this. Sucking all the weight and the water, it makes you real lean. It makes you look good.

I close my eyes and step on the scale. I wait for Coach Thurston to say something. When he doesn’t, I peak one eye open and my heart starts fluttering like a butterfly in my stomach.

It says 135. I breathe a sigh of relief. Coach Thurston gives me a nod, and I go back into the locker room to put my head in my hands and think. I just do that for the next hour until the real weigh-in occurs.

The realization that changed everything…well, I thought it had already occurred. There had come a time that I thought it would all be worth it if I just made it my life. That it was the most important thing that could ever matter to me, and that eventually I would find the reason why. At the time, I knew I would question it, but I just stuck it in the back of my mind that the time would come that I’d say, okay, this is why it was worth it. This is the moment that will make wrestling useful to my life somehow, outside of the arena. Yeah, I thought I had it. I thought that’s why I was killing myself every day. But I still

want to go back. I want to change things, or even just re-live them. My life is so ordinary now, there’s no thrill. I want the glory I had. I never feel like I am doing enough. I think it’s that same mentality I had, you know, how you gotta keep pushing yourself. Yeah, I’ve made some money but what’s that? I feel useless now. I’d give a ton of it back just to be 18 again. And I want my kid to realize that, but right now, not later. Then again, that was my experience, so I don’t really know if pushing him is right for him. So the problem is two-fold…I remember me and my dad, and now I don’t know what to do with me and my kid. So do you think that’s why I am going nuts?

 

Here I am, thinking, tapping my toes because any second now we will weigh-in and my suffering will be over. I have three bottles of water in front of me and two bagels. I am ready to devour it all. Right now I feel like I’d be able to do that and some. But Coach Thurston says we can’t get bloated, we’ll get cramps, you gotta stay disciplined. Plus I know you get big eyes when you’re sucked out. I don’t know if I’m more anxious to drink some water or see Stetter.

Finally, Coach Thurston tells us to get up and we all follow him to the end of the locker room where the scales are. There are two scales lined opposite of each other because weigh-ins happen face-to-face. I try to figure out which one is Stetter because they’re all taking off their clothes, and eventually I spot him. One of my teammates nudges me in the arm.

“He’s big, dude.”

I ignore him and look away. I had seen Stetter for an instant. There was not a shred of fat on the guy and his muscles were enormous. He didn’t look sucked out at all. He just looked like a monster. He had this narrow face with a crew cut, all these sharp features. He just looked mean and he had this passage tattooed across his stomach. It looked like a Bible passage, and I wondered what kind of Bible passage a mean guy would have across his stomach. The only impression I got from Stetter was that he was unforgiving.

I avoid looking at him for as long as I can, but eventually they call my name and I take off my underwear and cup my hands over my genitals and strut over to the scale. I can feel his gaze on me as I step on, and as I do get on the scale, I look up to see him. He is staring me squarely in the eyes. It feels like he is staring right through me and telling me he will murder me. I’ve never seen so much hatred in my life. I stare right back, not for one second looking at the scale as their coach slides the knobs to the 135 part and watches the lever to see if I’ve made my weight. It’s ironic to me that as I step on the scale, after killing myself in my head all week, that I am actually starting to think about the wrestling side of things a little bit.

“Good,” he says, and I step down, keeping my eyes on Stetter. For a second, I wonder if he will miss weight, and I pray he does. But then Coach Thurston says, “Good,” and Stetter steps down, turns away and rushes to grab water. I’ve almost forgotten myself, and I rush back to get mine.

The first water slides down my throat in under three seconds, and I never feel as refreshed as when it happens. I eat one bagel ravenously after smothering it with cream cheese, and then shift my attention back to another water, which I also chug quickly. Our assistant coach, Coach Hudson, a younger guy, is eyeing me carefully as I do this.

 

“I know you had a tough time this week Mariotti, but take it easy. One more water will do it.”

I nod my head, and though I have to pause halfway through drinking the third water, I know I could go for more. But it will have to wait. I try to put it out of my mind that I’ve gained over three pounds in 60 seconds and that soon the process will start all over again. But it will have to wait as well. I am feeling better. Suddenly, I forget how horrible I’ve felt all week.

I put on my things excitedly and when I finish, I wait for the rest of my teammates. Our two captains get up to give us a final talk. This time, I am listening intently. Next year, I know, that will be me up there giving those talks, though I don’t know if I could ever be as good as our current captains, Randy and Travis. Randy is our 130, right below me, so I face him a lot. It’s weird because he used to win but this year I have been dominating. I think it’s demoralizing for him to lose as a captain. Travis is our 152, and he is the most popular kid in school. He is a three-time All-Stater in PA, and that’s a big deal, even though he’s never won it all.

Yeah, I relied on others. We all did. Maybe that’s why I am relying on you now. But you just wanted this sense of security, you know? Like we’re all in this together. I wanted that from my dad. That’s why the victories were sweet, I’d earn his affection back. He stayed like that forever for everything, and it always drove me to work hard and be successful. Kinda sad, huh? I was surprised but he never held it against me that I quit wrestling in college. I ended up at Pittsburgh, not Johnstown. He was so proud of my other successes. And then he had a grandson to watch. He got to see some of his varsity matches and the three of us have had some beers together, but my dad died last year right before the state tournament. I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t another reason I’m here, and I think his death is keeping my son invested. So then there’s me. But is that enough for my son? I don’t want to get in the way, really. And what could be going on with me? I just feel so unsatisfied all of a sudden, like nothing adds up any more. Like nothing is worthwhile. Kinda like I miss that part where everything else goes away and it’s just you and the you in your head, you know, with everything blocked out. The you versus you that really shows you how you are, gets things done. It’s just a feeling you never have. You can’t try to make it, man, it just happens. So I’m feeling like maybe that’s what’s making me feel so worthless now. I mean, I’m sure you have others just like me. Don’t you, doc?

 

Randy gives a short talk, but it’s Travis who really lights us up. He is up there telling us how everyone is upstairs and how you can’t leave nothing behind because you’ve put too much on the line. He keeps saying that anything is possible so go and make it happen. And then he says the same thing he said yesterday, that we will remember this night for the rest of our lives, so we have to make it a good memory. We just have to because you don’t wanna live the rest of your life scarred by a bad one. We’re all fired up when we get in to give a cheer and go up, and then the feeling overcomes me.

As we’re walking in unison up the stairs, there is an electric feeling. It’s the combination of being all torn up inside with nerves and being anxious about whatever is about to happen. It’s like you are in control of this amazing thing. And everything all seems to make sense. The noise our shoes make against the metal staircase together somehow puts this energy in me. The way we are marching like soldiers going into battle, silent and scared, it makes me feel like I’m entitled to something. Now, all of a sudden, I am sweating without even trying. And as we run into the gym as a team to warm-up, I can feel the excitement chill my bones as hundreds of people scream. There is not a single empty place in the gym; it is even difficult to weave through the crowd for us to do our warm-up. Soon, the lights dim and a special light turns on and hovers on top of the mat so that it is the only thing being lit up. Suddenly, the surreal feeling of the whole thing goes away because I am in the dark and I can’t see the crowd. I’m no longer dizzy with thought and feeling, because everyone goes quiet as they do the national anthem. As soon as it ends, we shake hands with our opponents. I don’t look at Stetter. He was an asshole during the weigh-in, and now, with everyone cheering, and Carly sitting in the front row with her pom-poms, I just want to kick his ass. Fuck his accomplishments, I say to myself. Tonight is its own night. The past does not matter. It’s something Randy had said in the locker room, because NA was favored to beat us.

 

My match is third, so I immediately go into the wrestling room as the match begins. Randy comes with me because he is on deck. We don’t speak to each other. In the darkness, we shadow wrestle, as if we are wrestling an actual opponent, but really just going through the motions. We jumprope, we skip, we do anything to build the sweat. It’s so when the match comes, that you get that first big sweat out of you, so you won’t be shocked when you get tired in the match. I hear a lot of cheering and a loud thud and I know we’ve won the first match. As they call Randy’s name, I don’t say a word, I just feel the butterflies creeping in my stomach.

 

This is the time when the fear kicks in. The fear of losing it. Not of losing, per se, but losing it altogether. It’s the time when you feel like you might just be too tired to go on, and then lose and feel like it was all in your control to push through and then you live with that for the rest of your life. And everyone sees it, and they think you’re soft. It’s the most frightening thing. It’s the fear of second-guessing yourself, or that the six minutes will somehow be too long. I keep telling myself, when the match starts, six minutes later, it will be over. And that’s that. I’ll just have to give it my all. I mean, I’ll remember it forever.

I’m sweating bullets and Randy’s match is still going on, but I know it must be over soon because I can barely stand straight. I can’t help but start to take off my outer warm-ups now. Finally, I hear a lot of applause and though I don’t know if Randy has won or last, I know the match is over. I hear the PA announcer begin to speak. As soon as he says Stetter’s name, I take off my shirt and shorts so it is just me in my singlet with my headgear and my mouthpiece. This is it. When he says my name, I come through the door.

When they see me, they go crazy. I can barely see them because they are dimly lit by the light shining over the mat. I can see my father in the middle of it all just looking plain but cheering for me. I am just running now and I’m not thinking about anything else except that I have just torn off my clothes and everyone can see me in this almost naked state of mine, but I am not ashamed. I feel this pride in feeling like the warrior, that they are all looking at my body in awe, which is shiny because of the way my skin glistens when I sweat. I feel like a superhero, and I revel in the fact that people are watching me,

my every move, envious of my rippling body because I am so sucked out and strong- looking.

 

I could think about how winning would be the ultimate victory, or how losing would be the ultimate defeat, but I am locked in. I am the warrior. Even though I have done nothing but think leading up to this match, this is the moment of no thought, as I slap Coach Thurston’s hand and run out to the center of the mat and hear the noise. Then comes the time when everything stops and I can no longer hear any one but my own self in this very moment, standing here, ready to go for six minutes on pure instinct. I stop to notice Stetter and feel a bit intimidated, but only for a moment, because the ref is about to blow the whistle and I am tantalized by the bright lights.

Yes, I do think that night was the time everything changed, where everything else just faded away, and somehow – I’ll never forget it – it was all just worth it.

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