Patrick is lying on a hotel bed, shirtless in purple athletic shorts, belly button pointed at the ceiling. He is seventeen years old, six feet tall, black-haired, skin bleached by winter. This morning he weighed 181.7 pounds, but now it’s evening and he’s fed and hydrated and more like 186. His left hand is wrapped thickly in athletic tape and pressed against his thigh. His right grabs at the empty air above him. Tendons are visible through the skin of his forearm, sliding around like theater rigging.
Patrick’s eyes are closed, but he’s not sleeping. Parts of him push for sleep—bits of codeine and acetaminophen dissolving in his stomach, some post-adrenal drowsiness—but it’s only seven o’clock, and he’s not going to let a minor injury put him off his schedule.
He’s reviewing a match, not his most recent one. The semifinals of last year’s state tournament, when Derrick Severino beat him 5-3. Patrick had been winning 3-2 going into the final period. He’s thinking about that period, those last two minutes. It’s something he does often, more than once a day. He’s watched the video dozens of times, sitting on the floor at the foot of his bed, staring at a 15” screen a couple feet from his face. He knows every movement, knows precisely the moment he lost.
Severino took a shot, and Patrick didn’t get his feet back fast enough. That was it. He’d seen Severino’s hips drop, his shoulders angle forward, and had willed himself to respond—but his muscles lagged. If he had sprawled a quarter-second earlier, things would have been different.
The problem was conditioning: he’d gotten tired. It’s something he’s been working on. You can still work on it, he tells himself, you don’t need your thumb for that. After the ref had raised Severino’s hand, Patrick went to the lockers, found a shower and twisted the handle so hard it broke. Stepped under the scalding water. He kept his head down, occasionally smacking one or both palms against the beige tiles, or turning so the water hit the back of his neck. He stayed nearly twenty minutes.
“The fuck happened to you?” asked coach when he came out.
Patrick’s face and chest and arms were an ugly red during the third place match. The next day his skin started to flake.
He doesn’t focus on that part, just the loss to Severino. This year they’re ranked first and second at 182 pounds in 1A, Iowa’s small school division. They also live 250 miles apart, which means they won’t see each other until state. Their rematch is never far from Patrick’s thoughts. Not because he has anything against Severino, but because he needs to win state, and Severino is his only competition. Patrick needs to win because second place in Iowa 1A won’t get you a scholarship. There are a lot of high school state tournaments in the U.S., and not many collegiate wrestling programs. Fucking Title Nine, Patrick thinks in the rare moments he considers it. He needs a scholarship because it’s his way out of Northeastern Iowa. He needs to get out of Northeastern Iowa for a lot of different reasons that he doesn’t like to think about.
Unfortunately the codeine is screwing with the gating mechanisms in his brain, so the thoughts come regardless. Worries about his injured hand, about the state tournament, about being trapped in his hometown, he pushes them to the back of his mind but every few minutes they float frontward and spike his anxiety. Soon he loses track of the match with Severino, starts thinking instead of all the things that could go wrong in his life. His right hand stops moving and lies clenched beside him, same as the bandaged left. His jaw is tight. If it weren’t for the painkillers he’d have a headache.
There’s a beep and click from the hallway, the sound of the door sliding across the carpet. Patrick doesn’t move, just opens his eyes and looks at the picture hanging behind him, above the bed. A watercolor harbor viewed from shore. He has never seen the ocean.
“You jerking off?” asks Brett.
Patrick feels a sting of irritation. “Nah,” he says, raising his bandaged hand, waving it. “I wish.”
“What, you bat lefty? Weird. You’re a weird guy.”
Brett is smaller than him, average-sized, dark blonde and prone to smirking. They’ve practiced together since grade school and this year they’re captains, the best senior wrestlers at Lyssa HS. Because they’re captains they each get their own bed—everyone else on the team sleeps four to a room—other than that they don’t have much in common. Patrick is one of the best wrestlers in the state, while Brett is maybe the third best 145-pounder in the district, wrestling mostly to satisfy family expectations. Patrick spends the off-season training, going to regional freestyle and Greco tournaments, working construction to build muscle. Brett spends summers running deliveries for his dad’s farm supply and growing a belly that he runs off each October.
“Hey,” Brett says, kicking off his shoes, “Me and Chase are going to Hooters. You down?”
“Pass. Pills got me so I can barely think.”
“Yeah, what’d they give you? Got any extra?”
“T-3s. Weak shit, but I took four. And I’m not getting kicked off the team just so your dumb ass can get buzzed.”
“All right, fuck, I was joking.”
Patrick doesn’t respond. He hadn’t been serious either, but his voice doesn’t always carry intention. He hears the shower go as he sits on the edge of the bed, blinking at his knees. He can hear Brett moving, the plastic bathtub creaking under his weight. The image of this in his head startles him. He reaches for the remote, turns on the TV and stares at the motion, unable to follow. Singing starts from the bathroom and Patrick turns up the volume. Brett sings louder.
Brett likes Taylor Swift, not quite ironically. It began as a way to annoy their coach, who complains, “This sport is gay enough already,” whenever anyone on the team wears a scarf or bleaches their hair. For the last couple of months Brett has been blasting Swift once or twice a week from a speaker in his locker, just to get a rise, an avuncular shout from the office, “Turn it off, queers.” It’s only recently that Brett has decided he actually likes Swift’s music, and has learned the lyrics, mostly because he imagines girls will appreciate that he listens to it.
Patrick doesn’t have strong feelings about Swift, but he strongly does not want to listen to Brett’s singing. This is in part because his voice is terrible, a sort of permanently flat baritone, but mostly it’s that the sound is forcing the image of Brett showering into Patrick’s head. He’s seen him naked hundreds of times, but tonight it’s getting to him. Maybe it’s the drugs and the hotel room, the fact that they’re alone rather than surrounded by the rest of the team.
Patrick almost yells at him to shut up, but that would only make him sing louder. Instead he gets up, grabs a towel and heads for the hallway.
Brett’s voice follows him out of the room, until the door shuts and cuts off the sound. He’s still shirtless, but it doesn’t bother him. The idea of being seen. Patrick knows what he looks like, knows the reaction people have to his body. The awe in faces when he runs shirtless during the summer, like they’re looking at a moving sculpture.
Sadly the hallway is empty, but quiet is also nice, the gray-green carpet under his toes, hotel towel rough on his shoulder. The codeine continues to work on him, pleasantly now, soft-lit corridors reminding him of family vacations to Okoboji and the Ozarks, places they went to when his mom was still around.
As he approaches the door to the pool a babble of echoing voices disturbs him. He considers turning back and wandering through the hotel for a while, but that would be pointless, and Patrick doesn’t like pointless things.
Two water-winged children are splashing and laughing in the water, buoyed by inflatable clothes, their father theatrically grabbing at them. Patrick hopes they will leave soon. Luckily the hot tub and sauna are in a separate space, partitioned by a row of bushes. Blurry outlines of bodies are visible through the fogged glass of the sauna door— probably wrestlers. The podium matches will be held in the morning, which means new weigh-ins for those still in the tournament. That, in turn, means losing all the liquid they’ve drunk today, the liters of Gatorade and Pedialyte. They’ll be sitting with bottles of water, not for hydration but to toss on the hot rocks, each with a library card or driver’s license to scrape the sweat from their skin. Push-ups and situps on the hot wooden benches. Patrick has been there.
Not today, though. He turns on the jets and slips into the tub, water not as hot as he’d like but at least there’s no one else in it. He submerges himself entirely, except for the bandaged left hand, which sticks straight out of the water like a Halloween-themed buoy. Thirty seconds later his eyes rise out of the bubbles and glare at the athletic tape.
There are injuries you can fight through—Patrick has wrestled on a torn MCL, feigned wellness after a concussion in order to finish a match—but the thumb is different. You can’t wrestle if you can’t grip.
He knew it was going to be a problem the moment it happened, could feel it as he lay there on the mat, reeling not so much from pain as from fear that his season was over.
It’s only a month, he reminds himself, you’ll be back in time for districts. You’re fine.
It shouldn’t have happened. Some kid from Altoona with a body like a loaf of bread, patchy stubble, acne on the lower part of his face running down a dewlapped neck. Not a wrestler, just a guy on a wrestling team.
Through some combination of luck on his part and indifference on Patrick’s, the boy made it through the first period unpinned. Down 2-11, but still in the match. He won the coin flip and chose referee’s position, top. An act of desperation, of hoping against impossible odds that he’d be able to turn his opponent and pin him. Patrick sneered as he got onto his hands and knees, felt the kid’s weight settle on him, his arm curl around his waist.
The whistle blew and Patrick stood instantly, almost simultaneous with the sound, shrugging the kid off like he wasn’t there. Patrick is dedicated to the sport, and these movements are innate. But the kid wasn’t a real wrestler, so instead of standing to grapple, he dove for Patrick’s feet, trying to keep him on the ground—as though Patrick wouldn’t just stand up again. Another act of desperation, which was fine, or should have been. The problem was in the way Patrick landed: on his thumb rather than the heel of his palm. The digit stretched further than it was made to, toward his wrist, and Patrick shrieked and curled up and clutched his hand.
The kid didn’t realize what had happened and kept going, grabbing at Patrick’s shoulders till the ref saw and stopped the action. Patrick stayed down, wondering how bad it was.
When he opened his eyes coach was coming toward him. He took a breath, rolled to his knees. Took another and stood up, pushing off the ground with his right hand, keeping the left close to his chest.
“You good?” asked coach, putting a hand on his shoulder.
“Sure,” Patrick said, looking at his thumb, trying to move it. Wincing. “Sure.”
“You gonna lose to this pud?”
“No,” he said, wiping his eyes with his good hand. Coach nodded and turned back to his corner.
The ref came up to Patrick. “Good to go?”
Patrick jumped up and down a few times, shaking his head, moving his thumb a bit. It hurt a lot. This pud, he thought. He got back down on his hands and knees, another shock of pain as his left hand touched the mat. This fucking pud, he whispered through clenched teeth, breath hissing in and out. His jaw was so tight that his cheeks twitched.
The kid from Altoona, still not quite sure what had happened, looked to the ref before settling back on top, putting his arm again around Patrick’s stomach—he could feel him shivering. The whistle blew.
This time Patrick exploded upward with so much force that when he turned around the kid was still stumbling backwards. Patrick closed the distance and punched his arms under his opponent’s armpits, pulled him over his hip and spun him through the air before hurling him onto the mat, hard enough that there were shouts from the bleachers.
When the kid came to a few seconds later a trainer was jogging toward him and Patrick was heading for the locker rooms.
Patrick didn’t mind getting disqualified—the injury had ended the tournament for him anyway—and it doesn’t bother him that he gave the kid a concussion. Not that he feels it was justified, he doesn’t think of it in those terms. To him it was an act of devotion, of dedication to the sport. This interpretation is supported by assistant coaches and teammates who’ve been talking about it all day, telling him “You fucked that guy up,” or “Remind me never to make you angry.” Coach was the only one who had anything bad to say about it.
“If you’d done that in the first period you wouldn’t be here,” he’d told Patrick while driving him to the medical center. “That’s what you get for playing with your food.”
Patrick nodded but said nothing. Lesson learned.
But has he learned in time? This is what’s worrying him as he sits in the hot tub, staring at his thumb, resisting the urge to test it. Four to six weeks for the ligaments to heal. A month and a half of lost practices, of Derrick Severino getting further and further ahead of him. Patrick will run, spin, lift, work with dummies, drill as much as the trainer lets him. But it’s not the same.
Visions of losing state, of missing the finals, of not even placing run through his head. And what if it takes longer to heal, or doesn’t heal right? What if there’s no scholarship and he has to stay in Lyssa, go to juco? It’s a horrible thought. Horrible because he’d have to live with his father. Horrible because of the people in Lyssa. Horrible because the nearest LGBT community of any size is in Des Moines, 90 miles away.
Patrick’s not sure if he’s gay, but he’s lost interest in the girls at his school. These days when he thinks of sex he thinks about a boy from the University of Nebraska’s summer wrestling camp. They hadn’t done anything: some lingering contact after whistles were blown, repeated touching of shoulders and knees as they sat against the padded walls, sweating and hydrating. It could have been incidental—some days Patrick is sure that’s what it was—but it doesn’t matter, the experience has enlarged in his mind, grown to the point where it’s all that he thinks of when he is aroused. But there is no outlet, so Patrick avoids arousal. He has blocked the boy on Facebook. He focuses on wrestling.
That doesn’t mean he’s going to wait another year to figure out what he wants. He sure as hell isn’t going to figure it out while living with his father in a town of 300 people. But if he doesn’t get a scholarship…
The thought of another year in Lyssa, of farm work and odd jobs, is enough to push him out of the hot tub and through the halls, back to his now-empty hotel room. He changes into clean shorts and a shirt, pulls on his running shoes, then he’s back out and jogging down the hallway, no dawdling this time. His thoughts are a minute or two ahead of him, already in the fitness center.
It’s empty when he arrives, and he stretches briefly before getting on the treadmill. He might not be able to wrestle but he can train. Starts off at 8 mph and works from there, running sprints and simulated hills. He wants to run every thought out of his head and replace them with his determination to win state and get the fuck out of Lyssa. His steps and breathing are heavy and even, and together they throw him into a sort of hypnotic state. In the eight months since his loss to Severino, eight months of daily workouts, Patrick has found a comfortable space right at the edge of overexertion. A place that knocks distractions right out of his head. That’s where he’s going.
Thirty minutes on the treadmill, twenty on the bike. He tries some Nautilus but his thumb is too painful so instead he just works on his core, crunches and bicycle kicks and squat jumps. Then another mile on the treadmill, fast as he can. By the time it’s over his mind is almost blank. There is a door to a drained outdoor pool and he goes out, still breathing hard. His shirt and shorts are soaked, as though he’s been swimming, and when the twenty-degree air hits he starts billowing steam like an open pot. He is encased in a little cloud as he catches his breath, almost smiling and looking over the white metal fence at the parking lot, the few cars and piles of dirty snow.
It takes three or four minutes for the air around him to clear. He waits until he starts to feel the cold before heading back inside.
Walking back to the room he thinks about calling his dad and telling him about the hand, but his old man won’t be in any state to understand. Not on a Saturday night with his son out of town. Patrick wonders if the drinking is getting worse or if he’s just noticing it more. Either way, it makes his father hard to talk to.
It’s especially hard to talk to him about leaving Lyssa, because he’ll want to know why. Not that Patrick is afraid of his father’s reaction—he probably wouldn’t be too bothered by a queer son, but even if he was, so what—he just doesn’t think the old man would be able to keep his mouth shut. And if his dad talked about it at the bar, then the whole town would know, which would mean the wrestling team would know. That would be fine too, but if word got out on the message boards— and that’s just the sort of shit that gets posted there—then the colleges would know too.
This is Patrick’s real fear. It’s easy for him to imagine a chain of events whereby talking to his father about this, talking to anybody, leads to him losing a chance at a scholarship. That isn’t something he can risk. He needs to get out of Lyssa.
Back in his room he showers, throws on the only clean pants he has left, pulls the overstuffed comforter off his mattress and gets into bed. Turns on the TV and this time pays some attention, trying to follow the squabbles of a wealthy family in Connecticut. At some point he attempts to measure the lives of the show’s children against his own, but can’t find any points of comparison. Still he goes on watching.
Eventually he is almost but not quite sleeping, thoughts weird but still tangentially related to his surroundings and the action on the TV. The reality stars are surrounding him, chattering, drawing him in, when he hears voices in the hallway. The door beeps. Patrick takes a breath and pretends to sleep. Brett’s coming in, laughing. And there’s other laughter too, higher-pitched. This strangeness surges through Patrick like an alarm, but his eyes stay closed.
“This time I know you’re jacking it,” Brett says with a laugh. “Don’t even front.”
Patrick considers throwing the blanket off, showing his jeans. Instead he blinks and sits up, waits for an explanation as to what the fuck is going on. He leans back on his arms, or tries to: a shock of pain brings his injured hand up across his stomach.
“This is Rachel. Sorry, Rachelle,” says Brett, stepping aside to let her through. “She’s a waitress.”
Rachelle laughs again as Patrick looks at her. Chinless with pinpricks of acne running from her mouth to her chest, she reminds him of the kid from Altoona, only instead of translucent-pale skin she has a spray tan and heavy makeup around her eyes, and is thin rather than blockish. But their faces are the same. She can’t be more than a year or two out of high school.
“She told me she likes big guys,” Brett explains in a stage whisper, “so I told her about you. See?” he says, turning to Rachelle. “Paddy here’s a fucking beast.”
“Yeah, you weren’t lying.” Her voice is raspy and nasal at the same time. “What happened to your hand?”
“I fell on it wrong.”
Patrick watches as she and Brett sit down on the bed across from him. He realizes he should say something more, and shakes his head to wake himself up.
“Sorry,” he says to the girl, “I’m a little doped.”
“Yeah? Anything good?” she asks. “Got any left?”
He stares, resisting an urge to grab her and shake.
Brett changes the subject, starts talking about the match. Patrick breathes, tries to get away from anger, fades out, back in, again, again.
“…but he finished the match. He took that kid apart. This guy’s scary when he’s angry. You are, bro,” he adds, looking at Patrick, who nods.
“I could never do anything like that,” says Rachelle, looking from one boy to the other. And Patrick understands that she wants something from him and that Brett wants something from her, and these cross-purposes are generating a playful sort of friction.
Meanwhile Rachelle is talking about how she used to be a cheerleader, and Brett’s arm has moved around her lower back, and she’s still looking at Patrick, who looks from her to Brett, trying to understand what’s happening, what’s going to happen. He is imagining Brett again, not in the shower this time, with the girl, and with him. Patrick doesn’t particularly like Brett, but he’s looking at him and thinking, trying to think, as Rachelle reaches across the bed and puts her hand on Patrick’s knee, and his features spasm, just a little, as he looks at her.
She keeps talking like nothing has happened, but after a few seconds she withdraws her hand, stands and says she needs to pee.
Patrick feels some nausea at the thought of doing anything with her. The idea of Brett doing anything with her. That she is in his hotel room is no longer tolerable. Her hand on his knee has driven uncertainty out of his head, but it takes a minute to put this into words. He looks at Brett’s mattress, then looks at Brett, who is smiling stupidly.
“Listen,” he says quietly, waving Brett closer, “I’m tired. I’m really fucking tired. You need to get her out of our room. You wanna do something with her, do it somewhere else.”
Brett’s face shows surprise, as though this were unbelievable. “Seriously, Patrick,” he whispers. “This girl’s down for whatever. What’s the point of being captains if we don’t enjoy it? Don’t be such a fag.”
Patrick raises his eyebrows and stands. “What did you say?” he asks.
It’s odd that Brett would invite violence in this way. Odd, but not worrying. Patrick doesn’t need two thumbs to beat the shit out of a 145-pounder.
Brett stands as well, but only to retreat, almost walking backward into Rachelle as she returns from the bathroom. She waits behind him.
“Hey dude, easy. It was a joke, I know you’re tired.” Brett takes a step forward and claps Patrick on his bare shoulder. “We’ll go hang with Chase and Ty. They got beer.”
Patrick nods, waits for them to leave.
“Get some rest, Paddy,” Brett says as he steps into the hallway. “Be well.”
“Bye, Paddy,” says Rachelle. Her voice sounds much more normal now.
Something runs through him as the door closes, similar to what he felt earlier in the day, after he pasted the kid from Altoona. A sort of satisfaction. Which is nice but it’s also woken him, and he doesn’t want to be awake anymore. He gets the sleeve of Tylenol 3s from his bag and pops a couple tablets from their sheath, swallows them dry. It’s funny, he thinks, the way everyone around him makes him feel worse, and yet he still doesn’t want to be alone.
He lies in bed with his eyes half open, waiting for the pills to kick in.
A.W. Moreno teaches English at a community college in Virginia. He is originally from Iowa.