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?

  • Wow. Amazing writing. Thank you for your vulnerability and openness. This was a beautiful piece and spoke to me deeply. Keep sharing.

  • Ryan, as always, your story is so honest. You are a terrific writer; great ability to put emotions into pictures, pictures into words. And, for what its worth, as a 14 year old I played “underwater tackle football’ with two of my male peer friends – hoping to experience something in feeling their body – and I attained about the same net result that you did. 🙂 Back then, I thought I was alone in doing such a secret, “innocent,” playful activity. Your confession reminded me that I was not the only male to experience such an event. And, you and I are not the only men to “wrestle” with being gay, wanting to be with another guy, and all along being fully loved by Jesus. Bless you for your honest writing, friend. Mike.

    • Thanks so much, Mike! I’m glad you can relate. As an adolescent I never let myself do stuff like that, for various reasons, and keeping it dignified and straightlaced is a nasty and difficult habit to break : )

  • That’s definitely a way healthier way of handling anger at another guy than my normal tactic — let it stew forever and then take it out on every cookie left in the house.
    I’m reminded that physical exertion is indeed an important part of processing anger, grief, sadness, etc. Normally, my physical activity is none — but there are occasions where I will take a walk to vent myself physically.
    The interesting aspect is, of course, the skin-on-skin contact in a non-sexual manner. Studies have shown that skin-to-skin contact has great power. I think, in that moment, your anger needed something powerful. As well, I think it helped defuse sensual energy you had stored up as well.
    Great post, Ryan. Thank you for sharing this story.

    • Thanks Dean. Yeah, my default approach is to not deal with it, which was one reason this experience was so unusual and profound, I think.

  • Reading this felt like a huge sigh of relief for me. Anger is one of my deepest struggles (even deeper than SSA) and I spent years holding it in or training myself to isolate before my anger showed itself. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I felt how much physical touch, particularly horse-playing, quelled that uncomfortable feeling of disappointed rage.
    I grew up with a brother and cousin with whom it wasn’t unusual for me to wrestle with, but we life really got difficult I started to develop emotional scars so the desire to wrestle and be touched got suppressed. I don’t think I messed around like that with anyone from 12 until post college. Having a former roommate tackle me and tangle under we couldn’t any more reminded me of what it felt like to be a kid; those times that I didn’t have to worry about perception, or self-worth, or the fear of what might happen should my body react to a masculine touch. The freedom associated with something like wrestling pulled me back from the edge of isolation and freed my brain to deal with my feelings.
    I know that’s rambling but I’m thankful to see another brother who has had an experience like that and is willing to share it here.

    • Thanks so much for reading, Joseph, and thanks for sharing! Reading about your reconnecting with that part of you as an adult made me really happy. I know as an adult it’s a lot rarer to have opportunities like that, but know you’re not alone!

  • Ryan,
    As I have told you personally, I agree with these other comments that you are a great writer. You express emotion in writing in a way that I get so well.
    Unlike you, I rarely get angry with a guy who hurts me like Jordan did to you, being less of a friend than I want. I think it is just a difference between your personality type and mine. I tend more towards fear than anger.
    If I had feelings like you did for Jordan I would be too afraid to tell him to write a song for me and I definitely wouldn’t let him know that I couldn’t stop thinking about him. You are a braver man than I am! … or maybe just more impulsive. ..
    Anyway, I would have just given Jordan a few appropriate gestures of friendship and seen how he responded. If he ignored me I would have just been thankful that I was not publicly shamed.
    What can make me actually angry is when someone who is already my close friend mistreats me or ignores me. Usually I am mature enough to forgive him, pray for him, and move on with no bad feelings. Sometimes I find myself slamming doors and hitting things, then I know I need to take my anger to God and cry out for help.
    I have never tried wrestling with another guy to deal with my anger, but I actually think I have friends who would let me do that like Nate did for you. Haha maybe I should try it some time!
    The only time I remember embracing another guy shirtless was when we were at the beach or in a similar situation. It was just a normal expression of friendly affection and did not provoke or relieve anger or lust.

    • If I recall correctly this was two years into knowing Jordan–plenty of time for emotions I didn’t know how to deal with to build up! I think Jordan was the withdrawing type when he didn’t know how to deal with a situation, which was hard for me to process.

  • SO POETIC. And while I’ve never experienced something quite like this while feeling quite like you felt, I totally get it. A healthy conduit for pent up emotions. A tangible expression of male connection. I love this story. So many great layers here.

  • This came up on my news feed and I thought I’d take a look. I like how it is written. It feels like a real thought/emotional process I can relate to in my relating with other guys. Wrestling and physical contact has always been a big part of my relating with other guys to the point that if I don’t get it, I have to spend the energy somewhere else. Its not a sexual thing but quite the opposite. Its fun. Bravado and ego, but in a loving way. Horseplay is a big deal. Its a necessary nutrient. But I don’t wrestle much these days because of the environment I’m in.
    When it comes to anger towards other guys, If I get angry, I’m more likely to blow it off and just forget about whatever happened. I’m not convinced the average guy cares. Quick release and forgive, and move on kinda thing. I used to care a lot but I think being in Florida for 4 years has thickened my skin some lol. Great post.

    • Pierre,
      As long as you forgive, that is what matters most. Still, sometimes it is good to talk to the other guy whether he cares or not. Consider it before God and say something if it will help him in some way.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Pierre! I didn’t grow up with horseplay–on one hand I wasn’t comfortable with it, but on the other hand I longed for someone to drag me out of my comfort zone. And now I’m an adult and it’s a tough thing to know how to ask your friends for at this age haha

  • I appreciate your perspective on this. I had recognized the benefit of play-fighting and wrestling, but not really taken the time to process it as deeply as you.
    I have a stepbrother a year older than me, and he used to pick on me a lot. I was the fat kid, and I was not very athletic. He would make fun of me and call me a sissy. If we fought he would usually get me in some sort of hold where he cut off my air, or twisted an appendage to the point I had to give up. One of the proudest days of my life was when I got my brother in an arm hold in front of one of my friends and buried his face in the couch. He couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe, and I had his arm wrenched far enough that he couldn’t pull in any direction without hurting himself. For the record, my friend and I were watching TV, and he walked in the room and tried to take the remote away from me. When I refused, he lunged for it and put me in a hold first.
    He had to give up. That was the day he stopped picking on me in front of other people. Winning made me feel like I wasn’t a weak and powerless little boy anymore and did make me feel more masculine. Between wrestling with him and a few other guy friends in my early teens, I learned some release from anger. I usually didn’t win. And sometimes that made me feel more anger. But sometimes, I just needed to get the tension out. I got better with time. It also helped me to bond with other guys. I was one of them.
    Fast forward to college, and I got comfortable wrestling in the dorms. As an adult, I still have a couple of friends I wrestle with on a semi-regular basis. There is something therapeutic about it, and it still seems like a good bonding experience. And yes, wrestling in the water is pretty fun too.

  • I have reached a point where no man is worth my anger and no man lives rent free in my head. Wrestling is fun in or out of the water, but I never cared if I won
    The story is excellent. I felt like I was watching it happen.

  • Ryan Burger

    Reporting LIVE from the tension between hope and reality, between longing and obedience: inveterate single, complete cheeseball, total nerd, bewildered homeowner, serial relaxer, and long-time Jesus-needer. I live in Raleigh, North Carolina, and I am a software developer by trade. My passion is helping non-straight followers of Jesus discover their place in the body of Christ. All my "comfort music" is about being far from home and/or returning home. I'm an Enneagram 9 if you're into that sort of thing. I have recently started reading poetry for fun; please send me your recommendations!

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