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Authors: Angelina Mirabella

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BOOK: The Sweetheart
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That's right, Leonie. It's fake. It's not sport, it's story. The rivalries are manufactured, the outcomes predetermined. The athleticism is real—you've seen this with your own eyes—but the rest is scripted. From this moment on, your primary responsibility will be to protect wrestling's first and only tenet: never, ever break character. After all, that's what you've been admiring up there on the wall. Not women, characters. There are “faces,” the heroes, and “heels,” the villains. That's it. Women are too messy, too complicated, Joe explains. Characters are simple. And now, you're on your way to becoming one, too.

•    •    •

Last but not least, Joe lays out his strict code of conduct. The women he manages are, first and foremost, ladies, by which he means both “classy” and “feminine.” That means gloves, heels, and nylons to and from matches and no “loose behavior” on the premises or on the road. Relationships with men should be discreet; relationships with women should not exist. If he gets wind of any questionable behavior, you are out. Get married and congratulations but you are out. Get pregnant and you will be out before the door can hit you. Deviate from the script in any way and guess what. Out.

“But I won't have to worry about you, will I?” he asks. “You're a good girl, right?”

“Of course,” you say, shocked that anyone might assume otherwise.

“Good.” Joe slaps his desk. “I've got a promotion tonight, so I won't be able to start you on the program until tomorrow. See if Mimi will show you a few things. She knows up from down better than the rest of them. If she's stubborn about helping you, just do what she does.”

As he says this, Joe looks up at Mimi's publicity shot, the one he included in his first letter to you. It is just as ferocious as you remembered, her jaw set, her body poised for attack. Her ensemble is similar to all the others in every way except for one: instead of wearing heels, she wears wrestling boots. Black boots stitched in white, to be precise, just like her suit.

“So, go to it,” he says, waving you on. “Get to work.”

•    •    •

The gym is a swirl of activity: girls drop-kicking medicine balls, punching heavy bags, pushing each other back and forth into the ropes. You will discover that the number of residents here changes by the hour, but at the present moment there are eight others, all of whom are here, obediently heeding Joe's imperative. (In case it has been lost somewhere on the short journey from his office, there is a hand-stenciled banner on the wall to remind you:
get to work
). The cinder block walls echo the sounds of contact, human and otherwise, and the air smells of used towels, Hypnotique perfume, and boot-clad feet. Peggy and the sisters are there, as is Mimi, who's on a mat in the corner doing sit-ups. With more than a little trepidation, you walk over to her.

“Mind if I join you?”

“Yeah, actually, I do,” says Mimi, counting under her breath “seventy-two, seventy-three, seventy-four . . .” You look up to the ring, and Peggy, leaning against the ropes, waves at you. You should blow off Mimi—what was it that Bonnie called her? Oh, yes:
that cow
—and join your new friends, but Joe's advice rings in your head. You wave back, but then you get down on the mat beside Mimi and begin doing sit-ups yourself, trying your best to crunch in unison with her, finishing at Mimi's count of one hundred. You flop back on the mat, hoping to catch your breath before your real instruction begins, when Mimi flips onto her stomach and begins to do push-ups. Seeing no alternative, you turn over and start your own set—a slower, less graceful, and notably shorter set (you barely pump out half as many) but a series nonetheless.

“Fine,” says Mimi. “Over here.”

She picks up a medicine ball and throws it to you. You fold under its weight but retain your grip.

“Well?” says Mimi. “Throw it back.”

It takes an incredible amount of effort, but you manage to oblige her, and the two of you go back and forth like this a number of times. After the ball, you jump rope for what seems like an eternity. You try to keep up, but your arms begin to feel like molten lead, and you are forced to drop the rope and massage your shoulders. While you rest, you watch Bonnie ride Brenda's chest across the mat as Brenda struggles in vain to keep one shoulder up, groaning all the while.

“Come on, Brenda,” yells Peggy. “Dig deep!”

“Any chance I'll get in the ring today?” you ask Mimi, your eyes locked on the ring.

Mimi stops and wipes her brow with the crook of her arm. “Not if you have a lick of sense,” she says. “Wait for Joe. He'll start you off right, with falls.”

“Falls?”

Mimi takes a long drink from her Thermos. “Yeah, falls. You know. How to go down, hit the mat.”

“I have to learn how to fall down?”

“Well, no. You don't
have
to learn anything. You could just stay stupid.” She follows your gaze to the unfolding drama of the ring. It seems Brenda is finally succumbing to Bonnie's pressure, and they both grow louder and shriller as they realize the pin is inevitable. Mimi sighs. “I really don't have time for this,” she says. She takes the jump rope from you and throws it with hers into the corner. “I got to get in some bag work. Why don't you go up there with the fruit flies, since you know so much already.”

Mimi heads over to the heavy bag. You should join her there, but you just can't quite bring yourself to do it, not with more exciting possibilities available. And so, after Peggy slaps the mat three times, signaling the younger sister's victory over her sibling, you make your way over to them, eager to be where the action is.

•    •    •

Later in the evening, while you are in your room waiting for the girls to come for you, you keep yourself busy by straightening the clothes in your drawers. You haven't brought much with you, so this is about as much as you can do to make it feel more like home. At the appointed hour, three energetic raps arrive at your door: Peggy, just as she promised. “Hello again,” she says. “Long time no see.”

Yes, it's been all of an hour. You spent most of the day watching her practice hammerlocks and toeholds with Bonnie and Brenda. One by one, you retreated to your rooms to doll up for the evening, as you've been instructed—gloves, heels, the whole nine yards. When you climb into the back of Brenda's car, you are wearing your best dress, bright red and belted with a full skirt and darted bodice. The dress was an impulsive purchase, made only days ago when you spotted it in a department store window after your last day at the diner, your apron pocket unusually full from the generous farewell tips of the regulars. It seemed reckless at the time, but now, you're glad of it.

“You look darling!” says Brenda.

“Doesn't she?” says Peggy. “Here. I have just the thing to finish it off.” She pulls a lipstick from her clutch and offers it to you. After you lean over the seat and use the rearview mirror to guide yourself as you paint your lips in a matching red, you hand it back to Peggy, but she waves it off.

“Keep it. It's just one of those new plastic-cased ones. The color looks just smashing on you. I never could pull it off.”

The compliment makes you blush, but the gift makes your day. You've never made friends this quickly. You spend the hour-long drive hearing the girls bemoan the dearth of date-worthy boys in the area and share the gossip of your new world—the boss is cheap, and Lacey Bordeaux is dumb as dirt for not realizing Johnny is stepping out on her—but listening to little of it. The warm buzz of conversation is enough for you; its substance hardly matters.

The venue is nothing like the arena in Philadelphia. This is small-town, make-or-break wrestling, where a fruit fly like you will either hone her craft or pack her bags. It takes place anywhere and everywhere: a park, a high school gymnasium, a hotel lobby, an Elks lodge, or, in this case, a brick National Guard armory surrounded by browning palmetto trees. You and the girls file in with the rest of the crowd—locals mostly, men and women who work on the water, whose lives are routinely turned upside down by the elements, and who are likely glad for the chance to wear their best clothes, to forget about their own lives and lose themselves in a different story, one where justice is doled out with more frequency. Eventually, you reach the ring, where Joe stands on the apron, speaking directly into the ear of the ref. The three of you find seats near what will be Bonnie's corner, and you settle in for your first ladies' wrestling match, absorbing the enthusiasm of the audience. You feel your own sore hamstrings ache with possibility.

The women's match is the first on the card. The names come over the PA system, and the women run down their respective aisles. First is Bonnie, smiling and pumping her fists, waving to the three of you as she gallops along. She garners polite applause from the crowd merely for being pretty and representing the forces of good. As you're going to learn, an audience does not give up its heart lightly. Before any wrestler can expect a more enthusiastic response, she will have to earn it: she will have to entertain. If she can successfully accomplish that, they will cheer for her until the end of time. Tonight is Bonnie's chance to prove her worth.

Next is the heel, the scapegoat for their deepest rages and disappointments. She is draped in a fur-trimmed robe, her face a steely scowl despite the rising tide of insults. A few reach your ears. “Bulldog.” “Ugly-­ass bitch.” “Goddamn man with tits.” When she climbs into the ring, into her corner, and slides off her robe, she remains stone-faced, as if none of it has registered. Nonetheless, something inside you twangs with pity. I don't suppose it's easy being Screaming Mimi Hollander.

The bell rings. The wrestlers begin pacing panther-like in their suits, waiting for the other to blink. This will be a three-fall match, the first of which is over in a flash. Bonnie manages to get Mimi in a hammerlock, but Mimi gets out of it by ramming the amateur backward into the turnbuckle. The veteran spins out and deals an audible slap to the chest that knocks Bonnie to the ground and prompts you to flinch in sympathy. It is a real slap, not a staged one—you can tell from the sound and the color spreading across Bonnie's collarbone—which cancels out any compassion you might have felt for Mimi. This woman has no vulnerabilities; she hardly needs your pity.

“Come on, Bonnie!” you shout. “Look alive!”

Too late. Mimi flops Bonnie to the mat and quickly pins her for the three, and you join the chorus of hisses and boos as the women head back to their corners to catch their breath for what soon amounts to the last round of Bonnie's career.

After the signal, the two women lock into the ref's position and stay that way, neither making any headway until Mimi sweeps the girl's leg out from under her. Bonnie crashes, twisted and awkward, to the mat. Peggy gasps; Brenda turns her face and covers her eyes. You, on the other hand, can't tear yourself away. Mimi hasn't yet registered what has happened; she is locked and loaded, primed to pin the girl and take both the fall and the match, when Bonnie's scream stuns her to stillness.

The ref rushes in, followed by Joe and the ring doctor. You crane your neck but can see nothing but the three of them hovering over the girl's leg. After some debate, Joe climbs out of the ring and waits for the ref to slide the injured wrestler under the ropes and into his outstretched arms. He walks through the crowd, past you, with Bonnie's arms wrapped about his neck, the girl sobbing openly as he carries her up the aisle and behind the stairwell, away from the crowd, the history books, and your life forever.

When the ref declares Mimi the winner, the crowd erupts into venomous jeers. But she is impervious; she raises two defiant fists into the air and rotates around the ring, daring them to call her anything other than victor. Over all this noise, you hear Mimi's own voice rattling around in your head:
You don't
have
to learn anything. You could just stay stupid.
Eventually, Mimi turns in your direction and meets your gaze. You search her eyes for remorse, but there is none. Months from now, when you are at the height of your fame, you will be asked by a reporter to recall your initial impressions of Screaming Mimi Hollander. There will be many things you cannot say, but this question will provide one of the rare moments when you won't have to choose between the truth and the script. When you respond, you will describe this moment and conclude by saying, “It was clear to me that I was looking at the meanest bitch that ever walked the face of the earth.”

FOUR

T
he sun is up but the moon is still faint in the sky the next morning as you drag your aching body across the grounds to the gym. Being awake at this time usually gives you the feeling that you have a jump start on the rest of the world, but not today. Here at the Pospisil School for Lady Grappling, there have already been plenty of comings and goings—mostly goings. It was still dark when an unfamiliar car rolled up to Mimi's door, pausing only long enough to collect her and her suitcase before rolling back out. And at the first sign of light, Bonnie and Brenda, who had packed her bags along with her sister's, drove off the premises. Even the girls who are still here are a few steps ahead of you: Peggy, the only other rookie left, and a few of the vets are already pushing against the exterior walls—right legs bent in front, left legs extended straight behind. You hurry toward them and follow suit.

“What are we doing?” you whisper to Peggy.

“Stretching,” she says. “Today we do roadwork.”

“Today
they
do roadwork,” booms Joe, who strides toward you, a limp tangle of fabric dangling from his clutch. His presence is jarring enough, but seeing him dressed in the same gym attire as the rest of you—T-shirt and shorts—seems unreal. If it weren't for the mosquitoes, you might wonder if you weren't still in bed, dreaming all of this. “You and I are getting in the ring. You can join them next time.”

“I thought—”

“Don't think. Bad habit.” He turns to the line of girls. “
Well
?” he shouts, visibly startling them. “Go on! Get out of here!” And with that, the four young women shuffle toward the shell road that leads to the highway. Peggy turns her head just enough to shoot you a sad smile and a wave, and then she is gone with the rest of them, leaving you and Joe alone.

“Here,” says Joe. It is the bathing suit you handed over yesterday, the straps now reinforced with surgical tubing and the legs with strings of elastic, necessary measures, Joe explains, to ensure that all the kicking and clawing won't result in any riding up or falling out. The industry is walking a fine line between titillation and obscenity, one that shifts depending on the state. Some have gone so far as to ban women from the ring. To the degree he can, Joe intends on keeping his girls on the right side of that line. “What are you waiting for?” he asks. “Get dressed and meet me in the ring.”

It is quiet in the gym, not like yesterday. And while the dressing room is sufficiently private this morning, there is something uncomfortable about undressing with Joe just meters away. You shimmy into your suit as quickly as you can, pull the top up and the seat down, and, once you are as covered as possible, pad out in your bare feet, your arms crossed in front. There is a mirror before you reach the door, but you shy away from it. If you see how exposed you are, you won't be able to leave the dressing room.

“Come on, come on,” Joe calls from the ring. “I don't have all day.” Dutifully, you hurry across the gym, hop on the apron, and thread yourself through the ropes. After he leads you through a series of stretches, he jumps to his feet and claps his hands together. “Now. Last night you saw what can happen if you don't know how to take a bump. So we'll start there.”

For the next half hour or so, Joe shows you how to go down in a way that is supposed to lessen your chances of injury. He models a dozen or so falls, his figure seemingly suspended in the air before he hits the mat with a loud clap, and then, in testament to the effectiveness of his technique, quickly rolls on his side and jumps to his feet. The trick, he says, is to “level out”—to distribute your weight over your whole body, to flatten yourself into a plane rather than attempt to break the fall with a limb. “Pretend the mat is a bed of nails,” he tells you. “You got to hit 'em all at once, or it's going to hurt like hell.” On top of that, you have to “work loose” to keep your muscles from tensing.

“Go ahead,” he instructs. “You try it.”

As you soon discover, falling is more difficult than one might imagine. The first time isn't bad; the lesson is fresh and you are in your prime. But as soon as your body hits the mat, it begins to have the real experience of pain. Even with all of this working loose and leveling out, you are still a falling body crashing into a solid surface, and every subsequent fall is preceded by less capability and more fear. You fall again and again, but rather than get better, you get clumsier and fall harder. It probably doesn't help that you can't quite shake the self-consciousness of wearing so little. Every time you hit the mat, Joe kneels down beside you to offer his critique, pointing to the places where you hit (the small of your back) and where you should have hit (the whole of your back), or, even worse, physically moving your body into the correct position (feet flat, palms up). Work loose? Fat chance. Whenever he makes contact, you turn to stone. On your final attempt, the back of your head ricochets into the canvas hard enough for you to cry out.

“You're thinking too much,” Joe says, standing over you, hands on his hips, elbows cocked. “You can't think it; you have to feel it.”

You might have managed one good fall if he had just given you an inch of space. You remain flat on your back with your hands fisted and your neck throbbing. You would stay like this for the rest of the day if you could, but after a while, it becomes clear that Joe is not going to budge until you respond, so you roll onto your side, push yourself up—this much of the drill, you can manage—and say, “I'll work on it.”

When you are upright again, Joe grabs you by the bicep and jerks you to attention. This time, his grip is more than intrusive—it's downright menacing. His face is close enough for you to see the hairs missed during his morning shave, just under his nose. You understand that he means for you to meet his eyes, but that is asking too much, so you stare instead at the hairs.

“Was that sass?” he spits.

“No.”

“Because it sounded suspiciously like sass. And I will not tolerate sass. Is that clear?”

“Yes.”

Joe throws down your arm and nods toward the locker room. “Go on. I think we could both stand to take five.” He climbs out of the ring, grabs a clean towel from the top of a stack, and dries his hands while you silently rub your arm, your feet glued to the canvas, your eyes on the exit.

•    •    •

Here is the sad truth about lady wrestlers, Leonie. Their careers are roughly the same length of time as the average life span of a fruit fly: four weeks. Will this be your fate as well? You have been here less than two days, and already, two friends are gone, the prospect of injury has become frighteningly real, and your boss is just plain frightening. So far, all signs point to yes. You could just cut your losses and follow Brenda's skid marks out of here, but for that, you will need to enlist Joe's help. That would mean initiating a conversation with him, and you will have to summon a lot more courage before you will feel ready for that.

The next week is the most physically grueling of your life. Joe's program includes hours and hours of weight training, calisthenics, and roadwork. But it is the time in the ring that is truly punishing. Joe works with you for an hour every day. During a typical session, he might show you how to work the ropes safely, or he might teach you a simple hold or two—a hammerlock, a wristlock—and make you practice on Peggy or Mildred, a spring-loaded wooden dummy with stubby, offset arms. But mostly, you fall. On your back, on your front, after a flip. For the next several days, you practice falling over and over again, attempting to disconnect your brain not only from your muscles but from everything around you: the remoteness of this place, the nakedness of your body, the fear that grips you every time Joe wrenches your arm behind your back or easily breaks free from your hold. These sessions burn off all of the physical and emotional fuel you possess and then some. As a result, you eat ravenously. Each morning, you drink a glass of milk with two eggs stirred in along with your breakfast, and at night, you have an extra scoop of potatoes with your dinner, and then you head back to your room to soak your sore muscles in the tub before falling into bed, having neither time nor energy for anything else. On Friday, when you climb into the ring and Joe asks, “Ready?” it is all you can do to nod your head.

“Good,” he says. “Let's see what you got.”

And with that, he fires his forearm into your chest hard enough to knock you straight down to the mat. Joe hits you, you hit the canvas—there is no time for thought between these acts. You are pained and dazed, but still in one piece, still able to roll over and jump to your feet, so you must have done something right. But just as you begin congratulating yourself, you are promptly thumped again. This time, you go wheeling backward, gasping for breath. You manage to grab hold of the ropes and bounce back, a maneuver that you might be able to put to good use if you knew what you were doing. Since you don't, you catapult yourself straight into Joe's awaiting clothesline and go down like a brick. You are still seeing stars when his shadow crosses your face.

“Not bad,” he says. “Now that I know you can take it, I'll teach you how to deal it.”

In the tub that evening, you press the fingers of one hand into the darkening bruise on your chest while the other holds aloft the first letter from your father, a brief note that amounts to little more than a few jagged lines, hastily dashed off on a sheet of browning stationery.
You are missed,
it says, not
I miss you,
but coming from such a reserved, stolid man, it feels like a substantial outpouring of love. It's enough to make you want to lace up your Keds and run straight up the East Coast and into his arms. For all his faults, he has never laid a hand on you. Never. Not once. You read his letter over and over, until you are pruned. When you are ready for bed, you tuck it into your pillowcase, pull up the covers, and turn the radio knob until you settle on a familiar crooner. You close your eyes and wish that you were back at home, listening as the song drifted into your bedroom from the other side of the closed door.

•    •    •

At least you are not the only one in this foxhole. Every day you thank your lucky stars for Peggy. This whole enterprise would be intolerable if she weren't there to crack wise during roadwork, moan and groan over the day's extra reps and additional weights, and swap complaints over cold shakes and hot fries. And when Sunday, the day of rest, finally rolls around, and all the girls who aren't off to paying gigs have been rescued by their dates, she is there to keep you company. In the afternoon, you smear each other in Coppertone and lounge on the dock, your ankles cooling in the river as you flip through last month's
Confidential,
Peggy arguing that Marilyn should ignore her boss and marry Joe.

“That's what I'd do, at least,” she says.

“You mean you'd give up all this?” you say, waving an arm. “For a ballplayer?”

“Oh, no, not this. A studio contract, sure, but not this glamorous life.” Peggy laughs, and then combs your hair with her fingers, begins working it into a loose braid. “I'm telling you, Leonie, for all that Joe's put us through, we better end up with fur coats and rings on every finger.”

“And ragtops,” you say, one eye toward the unpaved road.

The next day is Monday, a roadwork day, and since all but you and Peggy are on the road, Joe decides he will go along, joining you for stretches before leading you both off of the grounds. This is the only part of the program you genuinely enjoy. Running allows you to pull deep inside yourself, your most familiar and comfortable environs. You would be happy to wear down the rubber on your Keds (
The Shoes of Champions!
) on the endless highway, but Joe says, “Let's change the scenery,” and turns right, toward town, where you usually turn left. Before long, you are on the waterfront, running past the seafood houses, the pier, and the marina, where there is decidedly more to pull you out of yourself: the ripe, salty air; the pelicans standing sentinel on pylons from a long-destroyed pier; the glares and whistles from the shrimpers and oystermen. At the public dock, a couple of boys around your age load an ice chest into a boat. One takes notice, slaps his buddy in the chest with the back of his hand, points at the two of you.

“Hey, you!” he shouts. “You with the curls! What's your name, sugar?”

The smile on Peggy's face makes it clear she'd like to tell him, but she looks ahead anxiously, gauging the distance to determine whether Joe is in earshot. Even though he is well ahead, she seems reluctant to test his hearing, or his temper, so you do it for her, cupping your hands around your mouth and shouting, “Her name's Peggy!” She gives you a playful shove, and you shrug in mock innocence:
What did I do?

“Peggy!” he calls, his voice growing more distant with each syllable. “Where ya going, Peggy?”

An emboldened Peggy opens her mouth to shout her answer, but she clamps it shut again when Joe spins around and shoots her a look that chastens you both. Reflexively, your head snaps down, your eyes fix on the asphalt in front of your toes. When the boy yells, “You can't run from me, Peggy Lee! I know where to find you!” you risk only the quickest of glances, which is just enough to see her reddened cheek, an upturn at the corner of her mouth.

Peggy normally grumbles through roadwork, but for this last mile, she is jubilant, occasionally jarring you out of your thoughts and braving a question. “He was cute, right?” “Do you really think he'll try to find me?” Even back at the gym, when Joe tells you both to clean up and meet him in the ring, she is still bobbing around on another plane: humming a tune while she showers and dresses in the locker room, checking and rechecking her hair in the mirror before she walks out. Only when you're all in the ring and Joe says, “Okay, ladies, let's see what you got,” does she plummet back to earth.

BOOK: The Sweetheart
10.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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