Easy does it, Marv. Start slow. Like we practiced. Grapple, arm drag to chicken wing, snapmare reverse, follow up rear choke, side headlock into Miss Patel’s fence, clothesline duck on one, hip toss, clothesline duck on two, surprise elbow, double clothesline on three, double kick up, pose and wait. Always wait. This is where the crowd goes wild, two perfectly matched technicians inside the squared circle, an opening exchange hinting at a classic match just getting started.
Baby face makes me the face, beard, however sparse, makes Marv the heel. Good guy, bad guy. There’s no crowd of course, but the psychology of the match is just as important. What separates real wrestling from a bunch of idiots slamming each other on a pile of mats in a backyard. Bird and Jerome’s hardcore match today will get the most views on YouTube, but our match will get the most likes.
“There’s the cheap shot!” shouts Stick, our announcer, referee and cameraman, kneeling feebly by the tripod. “That mean streak we’ve been waiting for all day from Marvelous Marv!”
I pop my jaw. Marv is off the mark and his European uppercut catches. He’s excited, agitated even, and that’s a good thing. Wrestling is like theatre acting, you feed off one another.
“Great one,” I whisper, away from camera. “Now the ribs.”
Heels cheat. They’re the bad guys, don’t forget. Illegal holds, closed fists, isolating a single body part with extreme nastiness. As planned, Marv is targeting my ribs today. Hard knees, then a textbook gutwrench powerbomb, more juice than expected. I grunt.
Pin fall. Kick out. One count.
This is the last “pay-per-view” we’re ever going to film. After summer, I’ll go away to college and Marv will start driving for his dad’s bread company. Morning deliveries, weekend shifts, yeast. Poor bastard. He should’ve paid more attention in class, I always told him. Not giving a damn only gets you points in high school, not the real world.
I rise gingerly, holding my side. My finishing move is the Pedigree, the double underhook facebuster popularized by Triple H, and I cannot perform this with busted ribs. It is impossible. And without a finisher, even the most casual fan knows, a wrestler is good as dead.
Marv, his finisher is the Gory Special, the standing backbreaker submission invented by famed lucha libre luchador Gory Guerrero. Marv never liked the mainstream guys like me. Sell outs, he calls them. He never had cable anyway to watch WWE or WCW. Once in middle school he made us go to an indie show at some crummy high school gym the next town over. Tickets were only ten bucks. My parents paid.
“Solid work, Marv,” I whisper. “Now with the—”
“I know what the hell I’m doing,” says Marv.
Marv elbows me in the ribs, hooks my arm and lifts me high for a fallaway belly-to-back suplex. I hit the mat with a thud, like a pack of ground meat dropped on the kitchen floor.
“What are you crazy fools doing over there?” shouts Miss Patel, suddenly peering over the fence. “Lucas! Where is your mother? At the wine bar again?”
Stick improvises with usual deftness. “You never know what to expect here at Intense Championship Wrestling, fans! Our show is raw, live and uncut!”
I tumble onto my knees and crawl to the fence. “Sorry, Miss Patel, we’re just shooting a school project.” My neighbor’s eyes roll. She used to babysit me when I was younger, but that was a long time ago.
When I stand and turn, Marv gives me a Nature Boy Ric Flair chop, loud and open handed, right across the chest. Even with a shirt on, it stings like hell.
One time freshman year, Marv’s dad was really pissed at Marv for leaving the dog off the leash in the yard. He came and got Marv after baseball practice and smacked him around in front of the whole team. Marv has some of his dad in him. When he gets going, no one can tell him anything. But people respect that about him. I’m going to miss these small town stories when I’m at Berkeley. Maybe they’ll get a kick out of them up there.
Marv grabs me by the mane. The scripted attack continues as choreographed. Tilt-the-world gut buster followed by an elbow drop. Pin fall. Kick out. Two count. Sidewalk slam followed by a guillotine leg drop. Pin fall. Kick out. Two count again.
“You told Angela Darasouk I was a loser,” says Marv. “Going to live and die in this town baking bagels?”
“Angela Darasouk?” I whisper, out of breath.
Once, in the eighth grade, Marv didn’t talk to me for a week because I danced with Gloria Gardner at our Spring Formal. One lousy dance. To a Boyz II Men song. You’d think a guy Marv’s size would be less sensitive about these sorts of things. Girls always liked him anyway. He never had to work for it. Did Angela Darasouk really say something? I always told Marv to his face that he was an under achiever. He could do anything he wanted. Just because his family never went to college and rotted in this town, it didn’t mean he had to too.
“Don’t know what you’re talking about, Marv,” I say, lips like a ventriloquist.
Marv pulls me up by the collar. He winds up and unloads a big right hand.
I block it.
There’s a point in every match where the good guy attempts a comeback, unsuccessfully. You see, it’s too early. You must tease the crowd, delay what they want. So as I show signs of life, blocking another right hand then countering with a jab, I go for an epic, momentum-shifting, crowd-exciting suplex. But Marv kicks me in the groin, stopping me cold. I scrunch my face. Marv reverses and executes a big German suplex. We both bounce off the mat and remain on our backs, the signal for our mid-match breather.
We stare at the clouds, panting.
“Not that you’d understand, but I want to work for my dad,” says Marv. “While you’re up there drinking lattes and studying French poetry, I’ll be doing something real, running a business.”
“I’m sure you’ll be calculating a lot of figures inside that crusty truck,” I say.
Marv elbows me in the forehead.
“Ten, nine, eight…” hollers Stick as both men remain down.
“I didn’t say anything to Angela Darasouk,” I say. “Don’t be stupid, you know you’re like my brother.”
“You’re too small to be my brother,” says Marv.
“Three, two…” continues Stick.
“Up, Marv,” I say. “Time for your cobra clutch.”
Marv stands right as Stick calls out “one.” He flips me over and locks me into the cobra clutch submission, a raised Boston crab, pulling my midsection, squeezing my throat. We both face the camera wonderfully. He growls, a wickedly good heel. I grimace, blood filling my neck, no acting required.
In college, I bet the girls will be different. They won’t be petty gossip girls like Angela Darasouk. They will be sophisticated and progressive and worldly. They will probably be hot too. There are plenty of fish in the sea, my dad always says. Marv can have Angela Darasouk, the loud mouth. She liked Marv more anyway.
My ribs begin to really hurt as Stick runs over for his first onscreen duties as referee. He lifts my hand to see if I’m still conscious. He delicately drops it. The thing hits the mat.
“One!” calls Stick. He lifts my hand a second time and releases. Thud. “Two!” Slowly, he lifts my hand a third time. If it falls again, the crowd well knows, this match is over.
Stick lets go. My hand falls. Like a dumbbell. But an inch from the mat, it stops. It forms a fist. It begins to shake violently.
This, people, is what they call a turning point.
“I don’t believe it!” cries Stick. “Cool Hand Luke is not out of this match yet! The kid’s got heart!”
I shake both of my arms like a madman and stand, Marv still hanging off my back. This is where the crowd erupts. They want the face to overcome the heel. Wrestling is about reaffirming basic beliefs, not questioning them. And good guys win over bad guys.
Once upright, I spring backwards and drop Marv flat on his back. He gets up. I clothesline him. He gets up again. I drop kick him. He gets up once more, this time I wrap my arms around his neck and leap forward with a Diamond Cutter. We both land with a smack on the mat, limp, as planned, Marv from the attack, me from the exertion of my last-ditch offensive flurry. The crowd is on pins and needles. They don’t know who has the edge now.
I wheeze. “Besides, you can’t listen to a girl like Angela Darasouk.”
Marv turns. “What?”
“You shouldn’t listen to a girl like her, I’m saying.”
Marv was always dramatic. You have to be cool, I always said. Girls don’t like emotional guys. Girls don’t like wrestling either, but this isn’t about girls. We do this for us. Wrestling is about brotherhood, an intimate partnership possible only through trust. There is no luck or chance. Did you know that wrestling is the only sport without an off season? It airs every week, rain or shine, no matter what. It’s a snapshot in history, a moment between two men. Two warriors. It can never be recreated. It’s something special.
And our match will be legendary. What all other backyard wrestling matches on YouTube are measured against. No missed spots. No over selling. No botches. Today’s match has been perfect so far. A riveting yarn spun through bumps and holds. This will be our masterpiece. And this closing exchange will seal it.
I lock Marv into a classic collar and elbow tie up, our foreheads pressed, facing south. “Focus, Marv. We’re almost there. We can talk later.”
“Tell me what happened with you and Angela.”
“Finish strong. This is our moment. In ten years, when I’m at some big firm in New York and you’re stuck in traffic on some bagel delivery, we’ll think about this day and smile.”
“Get a life asshole, this isn’t that serious.” Marv grunts and breaks the tie up, as heels should do. He Irish whips me into the fence. I return with a classic Lou Thesz press. Once on top, I start with the left hands, large and high. Ten of them. The crowd chants along during this, of course. I climb the top turnbuckle, our sharp metal ladder, and jump off with a frog splash. He rolls out of the way, barely clearing it. I crash into the mat. We lie there again. It’s getting hard to breathe.
“You don’t even like her,” I say.
“Tell me what happened, you shit,” says Marv.
“Remember when you were obsessed with starting a band and Mr. Dumas finally let us use the music room for practice and you didn’t show up once.”
“And you showed up every day and still suck.”
“You only like the idea of things.”
“You just care about yourself.”
Marv stands and yanks me up with him.
“Did you guys screw?” he asks.
“No,” I say.
Marv shoves me in the chest, far above my ribs. “Tell the truth for once in your life.” He pulls me back in close with a tight clinch.
“Fine.” I squeeze my forearms. “You want to know?”
“We made out last week at the lake. After Bob’s birthday party.”
Marv flexes, then lifts me sideways and releases me with a superb Samoan drop.
We both slap the mat loudly, our bodies getting heavier.
“The hatred between these two wrestlers is palpable!” shouts Stick. “It’s hard to believe that these men were once tag team partners, once friends! This is a grudge match!”
Bird and Jerome come out of the garage to catch the end of our match. Their hardcore match is next.
“Things happen,” I say, gasping. “Don’t be mad at me.”
Marv spits into the dirt. “Know what? You’re right,” he whispers. “Let’s finish strong. But not for you. For this, for the boys.” He snarls ruthlessly for Bird and Jerome to see, then roars directly into the camera.
Bird and Jerome cheer and whistle and holler.
We both pop up.
“I don’t believe it,” cries Stick. “These men are tougher than a two-dollar steak!”
Easy does it, Marv. Here we go.
It starts. Grapple, half nelson to full nelson, belly to back throw, back flip reversal, left kick miss, right kick miss, sit down jaw breaker, running clothesline duck on one, running clothesline duck on two, gut kick, double underhook into the Pedigree set up, pause, back body drop reversal, full flip reversal, turn, gut kick, inverted double underhook hold, spin, right into the Gory Special set up.
This is where I will tap. I will resist with all my heart and soul, but the brutal assault on my ribs earlier will prove too much. The heel, in an absolutely astonishing upset, will defeat the face and become the new Intense Championship Wrestling World Champion.
Marv launches me onto his back, arms still hooked, hamstrings slung over his shoulders like a rollercoaster harness. He locks his wrists around my ankles and tightens, stretching out my torso. It is perfect. I am a human ribbon, tied to the back of a wild boar.
The Gory Special is glorious.
“I can’t believe my eyes!” shouts Stick. “The Gory Special is applied, it’s only a matter of time before this match is over, folks!”
As I stare at the world upside down, I wonder if this will really be the last time we wrestle. I wonder how things will be after summer. I think about Marv and how much we’ve changed since third grade with Miss Guzman. I wonder if our friendship is something real, or just the byproduct of two kids liking similar things living in close proximity of one another.
Perhaps now is simply a crossroads between two men meant to exist one way for the first seventeen years of their lives and another way for the next fifty years. I wonder if Marv will be happier than me in life.
“I’m sorry, Marv,” I whisper. “About Angela. I don’t know why I did it.”
As my spine bends, I wonder if I should tap.
Then Marv lets go.
I plunge down to the mat, nearly falling on my neck.
What the hell are you doing, Marv.
This isn’t what we practiced.
I roll over and struggle to one knee, confused and angry.
Marv picks up a folded steel chair from the corner. It’s for Bird and Jerome’s hardcore match, a camera prop that looks good ringside but will never actually be used.
“Don’t worry,” says Marv. “Guys like us, we’ll always be friends. That’s just how it goes.”
He swings. The crack of my skull wakes up the neighborhood. Bird and Jerome drop their pads and run on screen. Stick turns silent for the first time in his life. Miss Patel starts making noise as she bursts through the fence, screaming at an unimaginable pitch, asking what happened, threatening to call the police or ambulance or both. This is an even better ending than we planned, Marv. You bastard. What a last match, I think to myself, as the sun flickers and the earth tips.