He tells me something in the way his uniform fits better than mine.
Chest so wide it floods out on either side, soft pale cushions tucked in
sweaty armpit cracks. And greasy, dirty, blond hair. As if he has
actually been wrestling.
And that all makes sense when I see a bigger man behind him—maybe his
“Are they set? Have they met? We need these boys to fight.”
When I was 13, I learned how to wrestle.
Here, on a set just outside the Twin Cities, I am playing a younger
version of the lead role in The Naked Man by Ethan Cohen and J. Todd
Anderson. I am “Middle Eddie,” a boy who picks fights and gets in
trouble at school. He is, after all, the opposite of me—freckled,
And they must sense it. How out of place I am. Like this woman from the
crew, who’s job, I’m convinced, is to make sure I’m ready. But she
hesitates in how she responds to this coach-like guy, who I now remember
is the director.
“They met,” she says. “But he seems a bit nervous.”
“Eddie. I mean, Jonathan. I don’t think he’s ready. I’m not sure he can
I can sense I’ve let him down.
“What do you mean he can’t do this? We need it to happen today.”
Then: he looks at us boys.
“Ok, you two. I need you to try something. Jonathan, get behind him and
grab his belly.”
How does he want me to do it? The boy kneels on his hands and knees.
Behind him, I bend down and hug him, because I think I should.
And then: I touch his stomach, barely. Just my fingertips. But I can
feel the temperature of his skin, which is warm and moves up and down.
“Tighter,” the director says. “Grab him at the waist”
So, I do. My whole hand takes on the shape of his thick belly. Molds his
The director comes closer. Says,
“You need to not be afraid to hold him. Did you play football?”
“Have you ever wrestled with your brothers?”
“No.” And I mean it. Growing up, we never rolled around on the living
room floor, at least not for fun.
So now, as I’m pulled away from the mat and this director puts his arm
around my neck. Asks me to look at him. I am embarrassed.
“I want you to think about a time that you and your brothers got into a
fight. What started it?”
When I can’t respond, he turns to my mom, in the distance. I cannot
quite hear what he says to her. He might have said,
“What gets him going? What can you say to him that will set him off?”
With a grin, she might have replied, “Oh, he’s not a fighter.”
She would be right. I am her middle child. Her ultimate peacemaker. In
second grade, when everyone else told Brad Matthews his hair looked like
carpet, I didn’t. I am her son that rides along with her to clean houses
not just because I need to, but because of how her voice, mixed with
Pledge and Downey, tells me I’m okay.
But as a boy now on brink of puberty, her being here weirds me out, and
so I pretend they aren’t there. The director and my mother. And everyone
else. I imagine them as grownups uninvited.
With all of them gone, I look at this boy in a new way. In the same way,
it seems, I looked at my friend Ryan two years ago, in a cozy basement
on a stormy summer day in a little house south of Minneapolis. Imagine
the kind of day when 11-year-old boys watch movies, when their parents
are away, and rough house a bit when no one is watching. There, by a
brick fireplace, Ryan comes back from the bathroom and jumps on me.
His weight. His football-player build. It gets me going until we spill
testosterone everywhere, with WrestleMania moves.
And as I keep thinking of it—of that day—I begin to see this boy,
here in this gym now, for the ways in which he brings me back there
again, like a movie in itself, to Ryan—to rug burns and all, on dated
red shag carpet. To my parent’s basement. For what felt like
hours—dripping, by the end, with sticky B.O. that only running around,
shirts off, in heavy sheets of a blue summer rain will clear.
That sense of freedom in my skin—that summer day—tells me I can act
in ways my mother might never expect.
Because I don’t think she would expect that now, part of me wants to
walk toward this kid actor back here in this gym, while no one is
watching. I want to sneak up and take him down with all my weight.
Smother him. Make him feel my wrath.
But when my mother comes back, when she takes me outside to talk, these
“Jonathan,” she says, “I told them that you’re not the aggressive type.
But they want to make this look as real as possible, as if you were
actually beating up that kid back in the gym. I just don’t understand
“I know, Mom.” I reply. As quickly as I can, because I just want this
conversation to end, like the pain of a timer clicking down when sitting
in timeout. Her towering over me, making sure I don’t move a muscle.
And that’s how it feels now. Sitting on this bench. When she squats down
to lecture me. Until we walk inside, together.
Back in the gym, the director waits impatiently, like a father with one
and only one thing on his mind: to catch his sons misbehaving.
And he will. In front of me, the boy lays on his side. His ear rests on
his hand, as if holding a serving tray, showing new folds and creases in
his uniform. Revealing, even more so now, how well-fed he is. I know,
from hearing friends talk, that wrestlers cut weight. That they do so
almost religiously. But everything about him seems so, well, natural.
And I know I want to join him there, on one of those plush, light-weight
wrestling mats that fold up and slide when you put too much weight on
them. Clearly, it was bought for one purpose. Which reminds me: there is
a script to follow.
“Jonathan,” the director says. “You seem nervous, am I right?”
“Yes,” I reply, with bobble-head certainty.
“You see, this scene is crucial. I need you to act like you’re beating
him up. Don’t punch him in the face or anything like that but throw your
weight on him.”
“I can do it,” I say.
“That a boy.”
Then: I kneel behind this boy, who reeks. And my now lighter arms,
wrapped around his waist, work to get a better grip. Down there, I feel
an elastic band beneath his suit, one that must attach to tighty
“Action,” the director says.
And when he does, with that volcano-about-to-erupt feeling, this kid
pushes up. I expect, if he wanted, he could headlock me. Instead, he
waits for me to make my move. I rush him. Full tackle his waist.
Together, we fall.
Even though it’s all an act, he looks like he’s about to kick my ass
because I went too far. Clearing his throat, he grunts. Rolls on top of
me. Jams my face between dark, pressure-filled thighs. Then locked in
full body scissors, I sense I’m close to what he’s got down there, and I
don’t want to touch it.
When I escape, I climb on a back of firm muscles. Small medal mounds.
And his bottom, harder yet. A butt that looks like it should be on a
“Take that,” he could have said. “You’re not going anywhere.”
And then, when I’m on top, he rolls and smothers my face, which slips
into dirty, dirty pits that stink so bad—but warm me.
As a small child, a similar sort of comfort existed in the feel of
holding my mother’s or father’s hand, walking into our local magical
movie theater. Just four screens, no stadium seating. From the outside,
a single ticket office. Behind it, the most gradual sloping ramp, easing
us into earth-toned carpet—dark reds, rust oranges, lime greens. With
a small, incredibly dark hallway. For two hours on a Friday night, we
went to another world, one that made me feel less afraid.
And that is exactly how I feel here, locked in his thighs, feeling
around the corners of his singlet, his budding leg hairs. With heavy
air, so extremely hot.
And though my mind cannot not make sense of it then—back there, as a
thirteen-year-old, when I’m trapped by this mean kid. When he puts me in
my place in the most serious, aggressive way possible.
It feels good.
Jonathan Rylander is a writer and teacher at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He resides in St. Paul, Minnesota with his partner, Christopher, and Bernese Mountain Dog—Beauregard Lee.