Nate and I wrestle in the pool, the blue of the water matching that of the deepening autumn twilight. He wraps his arms around me, and all 200-something pounds of his powerful body pull me into the dusky water while our college friends look on bemusedly. I don’t care what they think at this point.
I’m angry, but not at Nate. I haven’t let anyone know who I’m angry at. That person — Jordan — isn’t even watching. He won’t pay attention to me; he just wants to be alone with his guitar, picking out the same dumb John Mayer refrain over and over again.
Or rather than Jordan, am I actually more angry at myself for what I asked him and what I told him when I managed to get him alone?
For asking him to write me a song.
Seriously, Ryan? You asked him to write you a song?
For telling him I couldn’t stop thinking of him.
Are you kidding me?
He didn’t know what to say to me. Shame stole away my breath and peripheral vision.
Nate and I grapple underwater. The sounds of our struggles are distant alien echoes. Water threatens to intrude my nostrils, so I hold my top lip against them in a ridiculous, pouty, duck-faced grimace. The chlorine burns my eyes, but I keep them open even though there’s not much point.
All I can see is the spray of bubbles surrounding us, illuminated gold by the single underwater pool light. Nate is too close to see.
At this age of twenty, being angry is like throwing up. I do everything I can to avoid it. But sometimes there’s nothing I can do.
At first, I deny it’s going to happen. I tell myself I’m just imagining the bile rising. It’s all in my mind. But eventually I accept that it’s going to happen.
“Okay, we’re doing this,” a voice in my head says. “And it’s going to SUCK.”
And then it all comes out. The chess-playing part of my brain loses control, and the base of my brain and my gut takes matters into its own hands.
The base of my brain, possessed by some pent-up howl of my soul, doesn’t stop to wonder at or feel anxiety over this wet skin-on-skin contact with Nate.
I don’t wonder to myself: Have I, as an adult, ever embraced another man shirtless like this before?
This isn’t that kind of intimacy. I’m only focused on not letting Nate do whatever it is he’s trying to do to me, and if I get the chance, turning the tables to do it to him instead.
But it’s hopeless for me. He’s eight inches taller. He has broad shoulders and stretch marks where his muscles grew faster than his skin could contain upon his discovering of the university weight room. He has a brother, and they grew up wrestling.
I, on the other hand, have no idea what I’m doing. The breath left in my lungs has, expiring, turned to a craving emptiness as I think about the surface with increasing urgency.
I stop struggling. Nate lets me up.
We’re above the surface now, facing each other, catching our breath. I’m treading water away from him. Nate is tall and muscular, but I’m not attracted to Nate. He has a deeply unsexy goofiness steeped into him that one only gets from long years of marching band practice.
(Apologies to the band kids.)
He’s smiling at me quizzically, trying to read me to determine what effect his surprise tackle has achieved. Did it help?
Despite my anger, I laugh. A tackle is the last thing I was expecting. I tell him so. He somehow coaxed me into the pool amidst my ostensibly dark mood, and before I knew it we were underwater.
I’m still angry at Jordan (myself? the world? God? John Mayer?), but I’m also exhilarated.
Wrestling with Nate has given my anger some work to do. Pouring this anger into my muscles stopped it from wrapping itself around my heart and squeezing so tightly that I felt less human and more demon.
I’m taking the deep breaths I always seem to forget to take.
And maybe the skin-on-skin contact has helped diffuse the anger, too. Maybe Nate’s body has absorbed some of it, somehow.
Maybe Nate’s skin has soothed some primal part of me that’s had so little to hold onto these long years, and what it’s held has, expiring, turned into a craving emptiness so that I have started to think of other men’s bodies with increasing urgency.
I launch myself to struggle against him again. Nate receives me with open arms.
Again and again, we return to that weightless, wordless tumble. He lets me tackle him over and over, because he can tell it’s important.
Even though he bests me every time, I keep at it, because I can tell it’s important. The sky gets darker and the air gets colder. Our friends leave us to it.
Finally, it’s time for dinner, so we pull ourselves out of the water. My toes and heels are raw from scrabbling for purchase on the pool’s concrete bottom. My eyes and sinuses are burning from the chlorine. Water has burrowed deep into my ears, possibly permanently.
But I’m much lighter. I feel thankful for Nate — who knew what I needed when I didn’t and took responsibility to give it to me. I feel like I can face the rest of this beach weekend with my other college buddies. And with Jordan.
We dry ourselves off silently, because at this point in my life I’m not self-aware enough to recognize everything that has happened, and anyway, nobody’s taught us words to talk about it. If Nate wants to know what I was so angry about, he doesn’t ask.
We settle for a clouded silence, and Nate also absorbs this into his patient body.
How have you reckoned with anger toward another man? What effect, if any, has physical touch in the form of wrestling and horseplay had on your relationships with other men?