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Authors: Angelina Mirabella

The Sweetheart (9 page)

BOOK: The Sweetheart
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There it is, Gwen. There's your answer. The next time you cruise down the aisle and climb through the ropes, apple and penny held firmly in their respective places, you will flip open the compact, pop the cap off the lipstick, and pretend to paint your lips with it. What could be more positively ice princess-y? The crowd will go wild.

•    •    •

Two nights later, when you and Mimi return to the ring for another battle, you chicken out. You'd gone so far as to tuck the lipstick into the pocket of your robe, felt the weight of it bouncing along beside you, but on your way to the ring, it was all you could do to keep the invisible penny balanced on your chin, to clutch the imaginary apple between your shoulder blades while the spectators taunted you. As soon as you are on the canvas and lock eyes with the same opponents who roughed you up last match, you let the apple drop, the penny slide, the lipstick lie idle. Tonight, you are slated to win—evil has to triumph over good occasionally, to keep things interesting—but still, you can't help worrying about what your opponents might have in store for you. At the last minute, you shove the lipstick into the top of your boot, hoping perhaps to draw power from its proximity.

What's worse, the girls, hard-core catfighters, resent having to lose to the likes of you. Tonight, they plan to make you earn it. Right after you are tagged in, short stuff takes a fistful of your hair, and, rather than simply pretend to sling you around the ring by your hair, she launches you into the ropes. After you land, dazed and panicked, she slaps you across the face with the back of her hand, hard.

So much for faking it.

Your first instinct is to tag out. Your jaw hurts and your confidence is nonexistent. But if you tag out, you can kiss your partnership and tenure good-bye; you can hang up your boots and scatter the ashes of Gorgeous Gwen. This is your last chance to prove that you are no fruit fly. After your boastful letter to your father, you can't very well go home. But more than that, you can't let Joe lose faith in you; you can't let Mimi be right.

It's now or never, Gwen.

You swallow your fear, roll onto your back, and steer every atom of your strength into firing the Green Goddesses into your opponent's stomach. And what do you know? It works! As your opponent flies backward into the ropes, her round eyes grow rounder—an immensely satisfying sight. This is just the mental turnaround you need, a victory of will over dread. By the time she returns, you are ready with one humdinger of a clothesline. As soon as she's down, there you are, pressing her shoulders into the mat. She struggles against you, but you have just enough juice to hold her while the ref counts.




You are on top again, at least for the time being. Better yet, you have shown Joe that there is a reason you are here, that you are a worthy investment of his time and resources. High on your own bravado, you stand, rest the sole of your boot on her chest, fish out the lipstick, and pretend to apply it to your lips.

The audience responds with howling disgust, but for now, you don't hear it. It is enough that you have won, that you have proven yourself. That you can stay.

But wait, there's more. There's one last and potent victory of the evening, and this is it: Mimi comes to the center of the ring and, while the referee raises both your arms, says out of the side of her mouth, without making eye contact, “That's more like it.”

This is as clear as it gets, Gwen. This is real triumph—as much as anyone can ask for. I only wish that it were enough for you.


t is just two months into your stay, and already, you have shown that you can do anything that is asked of you. You can deliver or take a bump; you can charm or rile a crowd. You have come a long way, but you still have a long way to go. “If you really want to be a champion,” Joe says, “you have to prove yourself out on the road.”

Now that your partner is sold and your story solidified, it is time to venture out of Florida and into the great nation. Getting to this stage has been a feat in its own right, but it remains to be seen how you will play in other arenas, whether you can convince and impress the die-hard fans in heartland states like Ohio, or, perhaps more treacherous for a girl from the urban Northeast, the Southern states: North Carolina, Tennessee.

“Just follow the rules, no matter what you think of them,” Joe warns you. “And, whatever else you do, don't forget to say ‘ma'am' and ‘sir.' ”

Your tour begins in a Tallahassee auditorium. After the match, you and Mimi creep through the dark parking lot, gear-laden suitcases thumping into your sides, until you arrive at the car—a Hudson Hornet—that will take you to the Carolinas for a spell before picking up the Great Lakes to Florida route and following it all the way to the Ohio territory, run by Joe's brother, Leo Pospisil, and the home base of the car's owner, Johnny Bordeaux.

There is something suspect about these travel arrangements. Earlier in the day, when Joe pulled up to the curb in front of the auditorium and opened his trunk to retrieve your suitcases, he handed yours right over but kept Mimi's, holding it against his chest with both arms.

“If you can't obey my wishes,” he said, “the least you can do is be discreet.”

“I don't know what you're talking about,” she said, and wrested her luggage out of his arms.

More details emerge when the stocky, pinch-faced wrestler who will be your chauffeur hustles through the parking lot toward you, his motions rushed and jumpy as if his actions were criminal, and Mimi straightens and smiles. He tosses his bag into the trunk, slides into his seat, and, before even acknowledging your presence, says, “Finally,” and covers Mimi's mouth with his own.

So that's it.

As it happens, Johnny is returning home after having been loaned out to Joe and other Southern promoters for a few weeks. Arranging the schedule so he will be wrestling on the same cards—and therefore traveling with you and Mimi—has taken a good amount of strategizing, negotiating, and cajoling at several levels. Mimi worked hard for this deal, not only because Johnny lives far away, but also because he is married to someone else, someone he can't leave because she recently gave birth to his son. This trip is a rare opportunity for them to be together.

Are you staring? You might be staring. The shock of seeing Mimi in this light—smitten, almost girlish—is too mind-bending for you to even give the pretense of caring about anything else. Mimi in love! Who would have guessed? Perhaps the only thing that can capture your attention now is the thing that happens: someone slams the trunk closed, opens the car door, and pops his long face into the backseat.

“Got room for me back here?”

Spider McGee: a wrestler who gets his name from the extraordinary length of his limbs, which he must now attempt to fold into the backseat. “I think so,” you answer, sliding over. It only makes sense that Johnny's tag team partner would be joining you, but the thought hadn't crossed your mind. This trip has been full of surprises and you haven't even left the parking lot.

It takes a few awkward moments, but finally, there he is, beside you, his bent knees nearly level with his chest. He straps a bag of ice to one; the other grazes yours in the barest of ways. When he realizes this, he pulls it back, apologizes, but there is no need: already, you are hoping there will be occasion for it to drift back into your space.

Johnny manages to turn the ignition even though Mimi is practically in his lap, and the four of you are off, bouncing along through the still-alien Southeast, bound, ultimately, for Cleveland. There is no place you would rather be than in this seat, in this car, pointed in this direction. You are quite certain that from here, you are poised for all sorts of victories.

•    •    •

Shortly after you leave Point A, a debate breaks out over the location of Point B. Mimi and Johnny are eager to call it a night. Spider, however, is in no such rush, and neither are you. The two cents per mile you are supposed to pay Johnny for his services seems a reasonable fee for the pleasure of sharing a small space with Spider McGee.

Once a compromise is reached, Spider loosens his tie, pulls a loaf of sliced bread and a package of bologna from a paper bag, and sets about making sandwiches for all who are interested, which turns out to be only the two of you. (It seems Mimi is getting all the nourishment she needs from Johnny's collarbone, and Johnny, humming his approval, is too occupied with this activity to respond.) While you attempt to nibble and not wolf your sandwich, he opens a couple cans of beer—this time not bothering to extend his offer to the front seat—places one in your hand, and then brushes his against yours. “Cheers,” he says, and you watch the bob of his throat as he takes a long drink.

What is there to like about Spider? It can't be the crooked nose; it certainly isn't the too-big ears. Maybe it's his minor celebrity, and his age. Six or seven years your senior, you suppose, which gives him a certain cachet. Also working in his favor: proximity and novelty. You can't remember a time when you sat this close to a boy for so long, and never in a backseat. More likely, you are drawn to him for his mood (blue) and its cause (heartbreak), which he is surprisingly and endearingly eager to talk about. Not long into the trip, he is recounting for you The Story of Spider and Debbie, a girl who smells like almonds and walks with a slight polio-induced limp, who has not only left him for a soda jerk—a soda jerk!—but didn't even have the decency to wait until he got home so she could tell him in person even though he
treated that girl like she hung the moon
offered her a good life where she'd never have to worry about a thing.

“ ‘It's not you, it's me,' she says.” He rolls his eyes in exasperation. “Why do chicks always
that? A man can only hear it so many times.”

This is your cue; it is when you are supposed to explain why women operate the way they do. The problem is, you haven't a clue. But Spider is speaking to you as if you are a knowledgeable peer, and you are anxious to maintain this appearance, so you say the only thing you know to say, “Maybe it's true.”

Spider sighs. “No, it's me. It's got to be me.”

Before you can offer up the compliment he's fishing for, Johnny chimes in: “Yeah, you're right.” The sound of his voice startles you; you'd forgotten all about the world beyond the backseat. “It's probably you. Now, for the love of God, will you please talk about something else?”

Spider turns toward the rearview mirror, gives it a hard stare, as if preparing for a challenge, but Johnny's eyes are no longer there to meet it: he's already returned his attention to Mimi and, to a lesser degree, the road. The skin around Spider's eyes slackens; he looks away and exhales through his nose: a little puff of laughter. “Yeah,” he says to you. “I'm starting to bore myself on the subject. Let's talk about you.”

And then, another reason to fall for him: his round eyes, the way they open wide, their whites visible both above and below the dark irises, and, best of all, the way they look at you attentively while you answer his questions.
Where are you from?
When did you start wrestling?
This summer.
What inspired you?
Antonino Rocca.
How'd you learn about Joe's school?
Sal Costantini.
What's your real name?

You start to tell him. Your tongue is already on the roof of your mouth, ready to push out the first L. But you stop yourself. That is who you were, not who you are. And right now, you have no interest in being that girl. You want to be the kind of girl who might be given a chance to mend his wounded heart. So, you tell him the truth: “Gwen Davies is my real name.”

Spider raises an eyebrow. “Come on.”

. The
part is new, of course, but the rest is all me.”

He doesn't look convinced, but he doesn't press. “What about your parents?” he asks. “What do they think of all this?”

“My father's not crazy about it.”

“And your mom?”

“Dead,” you say. There is a moment of dread; strangers never know how to respond to this news, and you often get some kind of awkward sympathetic gesture that seems ill timed. But it's too late to say anything else; you're committed to the truth.

“Geez, doll, that's awful.”

When you look up at his expression, you see those crush-inspiring eyes shine with earnest sympathy. Even the
sounds comforting coming out of his mouth, not the slightest smack of condescension to it. This leads you to produce a sad little smile, which encourages him to lay his arm over your leg, soft side up as if he's offering you a vein to tap. Go ahead, Gwen: slip your hand into his. Revel in the sensation as he grips it once, too firmly; marvel at the way it lingers long after he releases. Sure, accepting this compassionate squeeze feels a bit fraudulent—after all this time, you are hardly in need of consolation—but this time together has made you want precisely the thing he is offering, so who are you to refuse?

Before you know it, Johnny pulls off the highway and into a novelty auto court outside of Jacksonville, rolling past the welcome sign and down the semicircle of wood-and-stucco teepees, darkness mercifully disguising their precise degree of wear and tear, to a larger teepee advertising vacancies. He puts the car in park and hurries off to acquire a room for him and Mimi. Know what that means, Gwen? You won't be able to count on her for a roommate this evening or, for that matter, the entire trip to Cleveland. Consequently, travel costs are about to take a ravenous bite out of your meager profits.

Just as this realization is beginning to dawn, Spider, suffering the same dilemma, asks, “Care to split a wigwam?”

This sounds exactly like the high jinks Joe's warned you against. Not that any of your fellow passengers would make this situation known to him, but the thought of his knowing is enough to strike you with fear. And what about the other disapproving man in your life? You don't even want to
about what your father would say.

Either your hesitation is apparent or Spider means to alleviate it before it appears, because he quickly follows with “Two beds, of course,” and then holds up a hand in pledge. “I'll be the perfect gentleman.” This is not the kind of thing a good girl like you does, even with such assurances, but it sure beats ponying up for your own room. Besides, you are weary from the Tallahassee match and a little drunk to boot, conditions that sand the edges off of your reservations, so you nod in agreement. After a series of complicated maneuvers, he extracts his reedy frame from the backseat and heads into the office to make the arrangements.

Soon, there you both are: standing, suitcases in hand, in a cloud of dust, Johnny and Mimi having sped off, anxious to rattle the poles of their own teepee.

Spider sets his suitcase down, fits a key into the door. “Hope you don't mind,” he says, “but I told the desk clerk you were my wife. Didn't want him to get the wrong idea.”

“No. Of course not,” you say, letting yourself get a bit swept up in the romance of this, wondering if someday these words will seem prophetic.

“So, the good news is”—he pauses while he plays with the uncooperative key, eventually managing to pop the lock—“Johnny and I got the last two rooms.”

You realized from Spider's awkwardness in the car that he was a tall man, but it's only now, as he stands upright, looking down at you with that sad, moony countenance of his, that you realize just how tall he actually is. Not Monster tall, of course, but tall enough that if you were to embrace him just now, you could comfortably place your cheek against the open collar of his shirt. Eventually, you force yourself to stop picturing this and think to ask, “And the bad news?”

He flings the door open, revealing not the two promised beds but one large one. “But don't go getting any ideas. If you think you're going to use this to take advantage of me, you are sadly mistaken.” Perhaps he sees the color draining out of your face, because he quickly follows with “Sorry. Bad joke.” He points to the head of the bed. “Look. There's lots of pillows. We'll build a wall between us.” And then, when that clearly hasn't diminished your alarm, “Or I could sleep on the floor.”

Spider plops his suitcase down, takes a seat at the foot of the bed, and toes the heel of one shoe off, then the other, making himself at home while you remain in the door frame, frozen in place. In the backseat of a car with two other passengers, where there were limited possibilities and low expectations, Spider seemed innocent enough. Here, with him seated in a private room on a freshly made bed—one you are expected to share, no less—you aren't so sure. Perhaps you should be reassured by his status as the recently jilted, but this only makes you all the more anxious.

Spider wrinkles his face; a curious smile spreads over it. “Would you like me to carry you over the threshold?”

This time, the marriage reference has an altogether different effect. “You know,” you say, grabbing the handle of your suitcase, “I think I'll just go stay in the car.”

“Gwen, don't be silly.”

But you don't respond: you are already on your way.

•    •    •

An hour later, stretched out as much as the backseat of the Hornet will allow, you give up on sleep. There is too little room and too much on your mind for that. You rifle around in the glove compartment until you find a flashlight and try to concentrate on
The Price of Salt,
a last-­minute addition to your suitcase—a girl needs something to distract and entertain herself, doesn't she?—but you are not really taking much of it in. Mostly, you are absorbing the strangeness of your situation. You are so far from any experience you can recognize. Earlier this evening, you would have happily driven all night; now, you wonder if you aren't beginning to drift off course.

BOOK: The Sweetheart
2.84Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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