An excerpt from Gabe Habash's debut novel Stephen Florida.
Steele looks like Sterling looks like Richardton looks like Dickinson looks like Belfield looks like Wibaux looks like Glendive looks like shut in the van for six hours with a lot to think about, looks like a big straight line with a million fence posts, looks like something stuck in your teeth. And when you want out of your skin so you can rush somebody and just get your match started already, and when you get out of the van six hours later, the same things are still there to think about because you haven’t made any headway into finishing them off — that won’t happen until the referee lets you go with his fucking whistle. I walk into the gym faster than the rest of them, I’m the first one to the locker room and pick the one in the corner.
I do my weigh-in. Fiddle-fit.
Pedialyte. Yogurt and half a bagel.
What will make my thoughts less ugly while I wait for my turn? I live in these little chambers of dissatisfaction like a frustrated prince. I’m constantly reminded that I’m not owed anything.
Look at the ceiling. Stands 10 rows high, half empty, half the people in them other wrestlers from the three other schools waiting for their turn. Twelve, thirteen ... fourteen total women. Two black mats, two matches going at once. A man in a sweatshirt with a camera. Two boys with ammonia spray and a towel. No windows. Subduing your gross need to gag. Forgetting the human body has bleed and tear and break functions, never mind that there are small squares of your head designed just to inform you about fear and misgivings. Forgetting all that and replacing it with What You Have Convinced Yourself Is True. There. That’s what it looks like. Now you can take a test where they ask you what a match in Miles City, Montana, looks like and pass that shit.
Some of the famous wrestlers throughout history include George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin. In seventh grade, to get you interested they tell you this, but I didn’t need any extra interest and I would’ve stuck any of those assholes.
Take notes, here comes the routine. Fifteen minutes before the first match I walk out of the spectating area and exit the gym altogether. A parking lot, a basement, a bathroom, any of them will do — the only thing that matters is that no one is around. I am by myself. For a full 12 minutes, what happens is brainstorm time. This looks like my warm-ups coming off, taking shots at an imaginary opponent, jumping rope quick enough that it whistles. In my private corner, I spit on the ground. I tell myself I will come back to that thing I’ve left — that spit — in fewer than 10 minutes, and I will have won. I’ve done this so many times that I know when 12 minutes are up, I’m on a schedule, I’m a creature of habit, and something clicks, and then I go from privacy into the gym and to the edge of the mat and wait for my opponent, I’m skin and gristle and little water, Stephen Florida without end Amen.
As a rule, I study up on the first opponent, which I know beforehand, and then take things as they come and do my scouting on the rest between matches. For the last three days, I have reserved lurid visions of my match with Brett Espino, a junior from McNaire College who likes to bait. This is an apprentice tactic, I’ve spent the span of time in which I slide into night sleep thinking about Brett’s visage in sharp discomfort, his teammates forced to watch, the purple that comes to his cheeks as the inevitability mounts, shame, purple shame for everyone, and in my dorm bed the thoughts of all these things give me a clenched nutsack and a moderate boner. I am ready for you, Mr. Espino.
Spit on the ground. Cue the villain music.
On the place where the floor changes to mat, Coach Hargraves smacks my headgear. Good-luck tug. I stand in the middle of the circle and wait as he comes up to me. I look right into Brett Espino’s face. If there was a Nobel Prize for wrestling I’d win that shit every year.
Before the referee can speak, I say, “I’m going to have fun eating you, Brett.”
“Cut that out, red,” the ref says, “or I’m killing this before it starts.”
Tasks of repetition. Times of perfect fulfillment. You’re only who you really are when you’re doing what you really want. I am so much myself, I could never be anyone else. I keep up the task of finding out how the world works, locating its pulley systems, and placing myself in the center. Facts: A human thighbone is stronger than concrete. The stuff in a camel’s hump comes out green. I didn’t learn these things without falling off the horse. Get back on the horse. That’s a fucking saying you’ll have to get used to if you’re going to find your center. Inherent in it is how fucking repetitive getting back on the fucking horse is. Get back on it. Get back on it. Tell yourself you’re not a wastrel, you’re not carrying on for nothing. Drink your green camel-hump juice and say to yourself you’re not a wastrel. Find your center and fuck it until it’s pregnant with your little babies so they can come out and find more centers to fuck.
From the whistle, like I knew he would, he tries to bait me. He won’t let me tie him up. He keeps moving away. I keep trying. He’s watching my belly button. I’m watching his face. What is so strange about this is that I’m on a road I’m going to be on exactly once, I’m never going to be here again. I’m never coming back. He smacks my hands away. He wants me to go low. Half the period’s passed with me trying to cuff him. A surge of impatience goes up my back and into my hair, and I try to go low, which is a mistake because it turns out he’s one of those extra physical types and he clubs his hands down on the back of my head, and after I’m on the ground his right knee bangs the side of my head, and then he’s on top and gets control just long enough for the two points, but the thing about the extra physical types is it’s usually a cover for a lack of skill, and you learn how to deal with it just like anything else, so I push, shoulders against his thighs for leverage, and my knees are off the ground while he digs his hard parts into my soft spots. He’s scrambling to get behind me, but I’m standing by now and batting his hand away from my stomach. I’m away from him for my one point. Whistle.
And then I have one of those sudden bad little moments when I’m not being challenged, which is when I question the whole thing. Why did I latch on to this? When did the future become as unfaithful as the past? When I was a kid, I was always afraid of how heaven never ended, and one night trying to fall asleep, I just couldn’t take it, it really got into me, I threw off the covers and ran down the hallway hyperventilating, and my mom found me gagging into the toilet. After I die, no one’s going to be there to check my tombstone for typos.
Some of these saplings I can sedate with one-third of my mind, but because I have nothing else I put my whole self into it, which is why I sometimes get away from myself.
The referee flips the disc and I pick top. There’s not going to be a third period.
Brett Espino’s mentality is simple: He doesn’t like to be bottom. Because one cannot bait from the bottom, he does not like the bottom, even if he’s up 2–1. When I kneel down beside him, through my fingers I can sense in his skin his anxiousness to get out so he can ride a 3–1 lead and resume the fishing game we just spent a period playing. There’s something like sympathy in taking my position behind him, placing my right hand on his right elbow and my left hand seatbelting his stomach while he looks straight ahead, letting me. I place my ear on Brett’s back and hear his heart. “Oh, Brett, I told you I was going to eat you,” I whisper to him. Something like sympathy, I could fall asleep if we stayed here long enough.
But the universe shakes its rainstick, and the course of history follows the only path it was ever going to, and I imagine there is a sadness in seeing, from the bleachers, the exact steps Brett takes in the exact spots he’s supposed to, exposing himself to the conclusion, which is my forearm against his nose and his weak, frenzied exhales before he stops struggling and I push him down like a planting root, like burying a secret, and pin him. There are a few handclaps when my arm is lifted, and I walk back to my corner of spit down the hall and spout nonsense I’ll never remember. This feeling, which lasts about one minute and then it’s gone, is completely round and full and soggy, and it lifts me out of everything bad. I’m completely mad with it.
I go to the bathroom, roll my singlet all the way down my body so I’m shitting naked, except for the banded red wad on my knees. A lot of people will tell you the middle part of a quad or a bigger tournament is the worst: when there are still more matches to wrestle than have been wrestled. Erasmus first posited the idea, which everyone now knows, that the worst enemy of the utopia is boredom. But I like the challenge of getting through it, of cutting through the boredom fat, I like the part where you’re stewing in your juices because it opens up new causeways of thought, strange new ones you never saw coming.
I count two smallish stools, a good number. The timing is also fortunate: a clean colon can sometimes give you a little boost, the impression that you’re as fresh as you were before your first match.
In the top corner of the stands, I eat a banana. I watch the next opponent, a person named Damon Kennedy, scratch out an 11–5 decision.
And then it’s 12 minutes until curtain, so the pattern repeats itself.
Spit. Walk. Crowd. Stable as a table. Headgear smack. Tug. Hello.
A middle-aged woman on her hands and knees is patting around the rim of the mat. She touches my shoe and my organ flutters.
“Can you help me locate my contact lens?” She squints up at me.
“I can’t help you right now.”
Close your eyes. None of this, indeed very little of life at all, comes from divine inspiration, but what little makes it through, never more than an instant, shows itself in wrestling.
When Kennedy ties me up, he smells like what I figure my brother would’ve smelled like, if I ever had one. He fidgets with me like how we would’ve messed around in the yard, knocking each other into a pile of leaves and smashing them on each other’s heads. His arm is inside my arm. At one point, I bite his hair. I need to stop pretending people are people who should care about me. He keeps pushing me back but I stay lower than him. We go outside the circle and return to the middle. We rub our heads together.
I’m holding on to all this for later, I’m cataloging to remember. He keeps pulling on my neck, trying to open me up. I’m not going to let him open me up. He keeps putting his right hand on my forehead. It’s not unpleasant. Kennedy has a 3.89 in criminology at Wright College, where he goes, it says so in the program. He’s a good wrestler. You start to lose track of time, to forget. The whistle blows. I move down to the bottom for the second period and Kennedy gets on top. He gets a caution. We reset. The good stuff won’t come until later in the season, but I’ll remember beating these cheesecakes anyway, I’ll remember all of it. He pushes and we tip forward and my face hits the mat, I don’t know how bad, but his right arm is off my right elbow, and so he’s trying to hug me now around my neck. But just then, the whistle blows. The match is stopped because of the blood coming out of my nose.
I go over to where my team is. Someone jams paper up the slot. Fingers dig in my nostrils, pulling the skin. This is fun.
Hargraves is in my face. “Stop fucking smiling, Florida. Put your fucking Manson face on and go snap that fucker’s dick off like the fucking chimp you are!”
I return to the center and crouch down for bottom. On the whistle, I turn with my knees on the mat, but he has me in a tight hold so we just end up face-to-face. I can’t get my arm up, and where my hand ends up is trapped right against his crotch, palm out, and I’m unable to release it. The opportunity presents itself to give the nuts a squeeze, to give Kennedy the five-on-two. A brief and sharp squeeze, which no one sees, but causes Kennedy to pop off me and let go before immediately trying to punch my face and choke me. They’ve got him off me in no time flat, he’s disqualified, and I lie there cowering like a butterball for dramatic effect.
“Is it over?” I whimper. The referee helps me up and raises my hand while Kennedy’s pained cries of “Fucker! You fucker!” fade away and he’s dragged out of the gym. I haven’t given anyone the five-on-two since seventh grade. I got caught that time.
They stop me to cut the nosebleeding, which has started back up again. “Goddamnit, Florida, goddamnit,” Hargraves gleefully barks, hitting my scalp like he’s nailing down a railroad spike, which feels good. There’s a copper taste in my head.
I walk down the length of the hallway outside the gym, step my shoe in the spit I’ve left under the water fountain. From now on, the people I face should be given whatever the opposite of the benefit of the doubt is. Unmindful of time, I reach the end of the hallway, lean for a second against the frosted window plates that twinkle with streetlights, not real sunlight, and for a moment I remember that there is something outside of this going on. Sometimes I get so close that I forget.
I sit in the bleachers. Two matches won. I keep my foot down on Miles City, I won’t let up until I’m asleep tonight in my locked room with the lights off. I eat an apple.
I saw Poynter wrestle earlier. I always used to remember their first names, but my focus is tightening and something has to go. He beat a good wrestler named Pike in the quarters and then the four-seed Osse in the semis because you can tell it matters to Poynter — it’s why he’s won two matches today. Like a pious pilgrim, walking around the New World rattling the less devout, staying up late and gazing into his hut’s fire, blasting away more wild turkeys than the other pilgrims — that’s what I think of when I see him bring down Osse in November like it’s March. Osse is only a sophomore, Poynter is a senior, like me, and he is aware of his own dependency on every match. Every match will put you one iota closer to proper, safe seeding at postseason tournaments, and proper, safe seeding can be the difference between losing and winning. He’s not scared of anyone, and he will not be scared of me, but he’s scared of himself if he loses.
I wait on the side for the last matches to wrap up. By then, Poynter is on the other side of the mat. He’s tired with worry, you can see it from 40 feet away. I rub the sore spot on my ribs that I got from practice this week. Hopping in place, maintaining his heart rate, Poynter is a weary totem, and I tell myself I won’t be like him.
Poynter is standing lower than me in the circle’s center. If I believe I am Stephen Florida I am Stephen Florida and he will keep breathing. I hear an air-raid siren somewhere far away. I have broken a human arm. I am going to win this match.
Right before the whistle goes, Poynter says, “If you try to squeeze my shit, I’ll kill you in the parking lot.” The match starts and Poynter crawls around on his hands and knees. I crawl with him. Poynter’s fingertips touch the mat. I dive forward at his right leg. After a few seconds, I have his ankles. Like a small livestock, a slimy thing you’re tasked with bludgeoning for the sake of the farm, because you have two sisters and your dad says you’re the oldest, I have his ankles. He falls and I scramble up his body and hold on, unsure whether I’ve been rewarded for the takedown. I am lost for a moment while trying to turn him and my hands lock around his torso and the whistle blows. “Locked hands, one point, green,” the ref says, just as we’re stumbling out of bounds.
I check the board and see I got my takedown points. We return to the center. I get on top of him. The whistle blows and he struggles. He keeps rebuilding his base. I keep tearing it down. Poynter hasn’t lost this season, but I’m going to change that. It’s my job to make other people upset and sad. I squat on him. He shows his shell to me, I’m trying to turn him over and get to that sweet underbelly, where the meat is. Two minutes into the first I have 1:33 riding time. I keep trying to pry him open. Every now and then he brings an arm up near my shoulders, and I bend his fingers back. At the end of the first I have 2:33 riding time.
I choose bottom and get out. He lets me go but is after me as soon as I get the point. He quickly pushes my arms to where I can’t use them, and it’s my fault, he gets behind me, and all the losses I’ve taken over the years, all the way back to when my mom and dad were still here and I was not fully grown or sure of myself, they put on the stirrups and ride through my mind. But I’m not weak willed anymore, I have little respect for doubt, and I always do what I tell myself I’m going to do. I’m better now. Look at all the holes in this cage, I can escape through any of them.
From the side I dimly hear Hargraves yelling, “Kill him! Kill!”
Granby roll. I put the textbook and all the rest in my head. I do it and just like that he’s under me, I’m his overweight father and he doesn’t want to play anymore. For many seconds, I crank on his neck, staring at his scalp. He’s blessed with a small head. His head skin crinkles on my arm, and I wonder how thankful his mother was when she pushed out a baby that had such a small head. The whistle blows.
He picks bottom. And the reality is that he’s a good wrestler, good enough that I can’t pin him, but not as good as I am, and this becomes a fact. Wrestling is unprejudiced and open-minded, and it’s impossible to argue with. It always tells the truth, and that’s why so many men love it. The truth is I’ve been the one ridden for a period straight. I’ve been the one who’s good enough to not be pinned but not good enough to get the guy off my back. When someone is riding you for two whole minutes it’s enough to turn you back into yourself as a baby, as your most frustrated self, running into things all the time that aren’t what you want them to be. Poynter is a medium-level wrestler, a minor talent, good enough to get a takedown on me, but not good enough to be remembered after his last match. Men made of mesh, men made of tinsel, paper, dust. I was one for the seasons before this one. I was an infant with no good pictures, with an asymmetrical face, but now I am squatting on Poynter’s body, turning off his water, riding him until the end of the match. How many things in the world must get worse before they get better? My grandma said I should have choices so I own two nice pairs of pants, two button-down shirts, and two ties. I put my shit in the Miles City toilet and my spit is dry in the hall by now. Fewer and fewer questions need to be asked about what’s going to happen. I’m answering them. Look. There are things that can be expressed only by wrestling. I’m showing you. This is what it’s like to stick your whole hand in the nest.
A little boy is standing in the bleachers with a sign that says stevin florda for the mayor. Men with cauliflower ears are clapping for me.
We head out to the vans in the dark. I’m going to study meteorology, I have my flashlight. In the parking lot, Coach Hargraves sneezes 10 feet away at the same time a breeze comes through, and I get wet spackle in my mouth. ●
Gabe Habash is the fiction reviews editor for Publishers Weekly. He holds an MFA from New York University and lives in New York.
To learn more about Stephen Florida, click here.