“Ladies and gentlemen, we are beginning our descent. We ask that you please turn off and stow all electronics. We will be in San Francisco shortly.”
The stewardess’ announcement over the intercom caused Lint’s eyes to open. He had tried to sleep on the long flight over. Perhaps there was an hour or two snagged while inflight. But for the most part, he couldn’t rest. His mind wouldn’t let him. Apprehension. Uncertainty. He had not been to the Bay area since 2002. But more so than that, things had changed dramatically for him since that time. Since seeing her. This was a new turn of events that had him arriving.
He pulled the photograph out of his pocket. Soon, this new world would become the reality for him. Apprehension and joy mixed together.
“Please place all trays in the seatbacks and return your chairs to their upright positions.”
He looked out of the window to the city skyline in the distance. This was a foreign world to him. Would he even recognize it?
He sat back and closed his eyes until he felt the wheels touch down on the runway.
Walking through the terminal, he turned his cellphone back on. He had a text message and a voice mail. He looked at the text message first. “R U here?” it asked. He replied that he was. He walked outside to the vehicular pickup zone and waited for her arrival. Would she still recognize him? He had not forgotten her.
While waiting for her to arrive, he looked back to his phone at the voice message. It was a 407 area code. He dialed in to his phone to retrieve the voice message, but hung up before listening to the content. She had arrived.
Opening the door, there was a moment of silence between the two. He looked at her. She, at him. He extended a smile. Hers was slow in response, but immediately followed with a “hop in.” Throwing his duffle into the backseat, he got into the passenger seat and they were off to the 101, northern bound for San Francisco.
“Hi,” he said. First words after so many years have so many possibilities. But in this instance, the simplest form of acknowledgment was never planned and the instinctual first offering.
“How was your flight?” she asked. She kept her eyes forward to the road.
“Fine. Turbulent over Colorado, but…” He paused. He wasn’t interested in discussing his travels. There was a reason why he had arrived. “Is he here?”
“No,” she said.
Lint turned to look at her. She looked just as he remembered her. The long brown hair, pulled back into a ponytail. The blue eyes. The last time they had seen each other, he was packing few of his belongings in Oregon and setting off to Maine. It had been a conflicted moment for both of them. Probably not the best of goodbyes, but given the circumstances, the decision was something he felt needed to be done.
“How long did you suffer last night? You know, because of…” She looked over to him, and motioned with her eyes to his chest.
His hand instinctively moved over his chest. “It was a good recovery.” His breathing pattern had worked itself out while sitting at the terminal the night before. “I’ve learned to adjust.” It was a daily struggle. His body wasn’t up for what he was embarking on.
She glanced over to him and to his chest. “You really shouldn’t be doing this. It’s not safe.”
“I’ve done lots of things that weren’t safe.” He looked ahead to the highway in front of them.
She didn’t respond.
“So how are we?” He asked. This was not the welcome he was expecting. But in all honestly, should he have expected anything different? “Let’s take the next turnoff and stop. Anywhere. I want to actually talk to you and not play this driving game.”
“What are you even doing here?” She glanced over at him as she merged into the exit lane and proceeded down into South San Francisco. The first place she came to was a small diner. Pulling in, she stopped the car and they went inside.
He looked across the table to her as she sat down. Was this a mistake in coming? She hadn’t invited him. This was his own idea. Years separated the sparse times they spoke since he left. His exile had ensured it. But ever since the recent letter he received from her, they were back in contact.
He pushed the menu away from in front of him. “Why didn’t you ever tell me?” Seeing her brought back memories. The good moments. Their experiences together. Moments he had suppressed for years.
A waiter approached but Lint waved the worker away from a moment. He looked across to the woman from his past life.
She took a deep breath and calculated her words. Tenderly, she reached out and took hold of one of his hands. Looking into his eyes, she said, “I knew you wouldn’t want this.” As the words came out, she recoiled her hand from his and waited.
He didn’t react to her hand gesture. He sat, still, looking back into her eyes. His eyebrows furrowed slightly. A range of emotions swirled inside of him, but he calculated the best way to respond. “Why would you think that?” It was the compromise of remarks. His mind raced back to how well his life had changed during those brief glimpses when life was more than just about him. Years ago. The last time things could be considered perfect. How could she think that? How could she forgot those times he told her?
She sat back against her seat and looked down. She remembered that time before quite vividly. They both did, she was sure. “Because of the panic,” she said. Slowly, she raised her eyes up to meet his unwavering expression back to her. “You left. You left me. You left everything.
“I had to,” he said. His own memory flashed back to their final moments together back then. The love. The fear. The uncertainty of what their future meant to each other. And those split second moments when a snap decision had to be made. He did the best he could. But the doubt he left Portland with haunted him some nights in his dreams. He questioned if it really was the best choice. But there was no other alternative. He had made his decision, and the years spent on the Atlantic were the output of such a choice.
She was conflicted. A hint of outrage bellowed up inside of her, but she pushed it away. Too many years had been spent angry over his choices. They had a life together and he threw it away. She understood his reasoning. She could maybe even agree with it. But that didn’t mean she enjoyed how things turned out. It made the consequences that much trickier. “Are you past it now?” she asked. This was their moment, if there was to be one.
Inside of his pocket, Lint’s cellphone began to ring. He pulled hit out to see the caller. Again, the 407 number was calling. “I’m back here now,” he said, pushing the phone away to send it to voicemail. Someone was obviously trying to reach him, but his life was before him right now. His past. His future. “The last time I was here,” he told her, “you and I were driving out over the Bay Bridge, leaving this life behind.”
“Things change,” she said. Unconsciously, she felt the diamond ring on her left hand. They were younger, brazen, and daring. Back then. And more importantly, they were unknowing.
Lint lowered his head. This was not the returning trip he expected. The brief phone conversations before led him to believe otherwise. “You never told me about this,” he said. Slowly, he lifted his head. He didn’t reach out to her. He sat still and alone on his side of the booth. Fearing the answer, he asked, “Did you tell him about me?”
“No,” she said. Her voiced lowered upon saying it.
He didn’t flinch. It was what he expected. He breathed in and slowly exhaled. “But I asked…” he said. The pain in his shoulder from the previous night slowly trickled back to him as a form of stress.
She turned away from him. There had been no argument. They had never had a conflict against each other. They were not enemies. Which made it even harder. “And I said no,” she whispered.
This time, he reached out to touch her hand. Years of solitude, disrupted by a new understanding of what his life meant. This new meaning was out of his control. He looked at her until she finally turned back to face him.
She reached out with her other hand and placed it atop his. She wasn’t against him, but the pain of the past years wouldn’t let her. The truth prevented her. “Lint,” she said.
Lint checked the voice message earlier. A wrestling radio show out of Orlando contacted him for a guest interview in light of his return to the Ultratitle tournament. His initial instinct was to pass, given his present circumstances, but ultimately he decided to accept. He was in the tournament to advance for a specific cause. Apparently, people had noticed the return. In his sole track mission for being involved, it hadn’t occurred to him that there was an audience curious about him as well. Blame it on the nerves. Blame it on the fact that he was so out of the game, this was a new beginning for him. His personal reasons were of no ones business, but the drive that pushed Zero would be made known. This was the beginning of reshaping the persona.
The call would come at 5:30 PM. He looked down to his watch. It was 5:23 PM.
He had checked into a hostel near Grant Avenue in San Francisco. Strip clubs and sex shops appeared outside of his window. Down the street, a bar frequented by Jack Kerouac years ago already had the seedy regulars mingling outside.
Inside the hostel, Carenthia had walked up with him. It wasn’t that she didn’t want him back in the Bay. Interacting with her again. She did. But she did not encourage it. Her initial reconnection with him had only been informative. The ramifications of that were only beginning to take place.
“Where are you staying,” she had asked earlier.
“I don’t know,” had been his response.
He couldn’t stay with her. This was a friendly reencounter, but not the beginning of a new friendship like before. Not the reemergence of a relationship. They wouldn’t retrieve that. They couldn’t. The hostel was the best choice. Tomorrow would be a new set of circumstances and decisions.
“Did the second opinion agree?” asked Lint, as he tossed his duffle to the floor and looked around at his residence for the night.
Carenthia laid her purse down on the bed and leaned against the single piece of furniture in the room, a desk that resembled a salvaged strip of wood sanded down to eliminate the majority of splinters before it was used as décor in this budget-conscious housing.
“They can perform the surgery,” she said, looking away. “They have a 95% chance of correcting it.” She looked over to Lint as she shared this piece of information. In the past six months, repeated trips to various optometrists had discovered the cause her child’s educational impairments, and the solution was in play.
Lint stood still in a moment of thought.
She didn’t want him to meet his child. He knew the reasons why. In addition, he hadn’t been there to help raise him. Carenthia was right, he had no merit in this connection. Could he even be justified in serving a role in the child’s life now? He leaned against the window frame and looked over to her. “This is all our fault,” he said.
“We didn’t know,” she said. The physical separation between the two mimicked their emotional reluctance to get closer to each other.
“Robert…” she said.
“Your fiancé,” stated Lint. His gaze wandered to the ceiling, as he didn’t want to directly address the advancement she had made in life.
“Yes,” said Carenthia. She paused, realizing how this must have felt for Lint. “He wants to do what he can. But freelance in San Francisco is slow right now. He is trying.”
“It’s not his position to do that,” said Lint. He looked back to Carenthia and began to walk closer to her. He had a responsibility unknown to him before. And with this responsibility came a desire to put others before him.
Carenthia took a step toward Lint. “He accepted me knowing what all that entailed. This is a task he has taken on for himself.” But not even Robert knew the ultimate truth.
“I just wish you had let me know sooner,” said Lint, inching closer to Carenthia. “I would have been there.”
“You left. Your panic said otherwise.” She took another step toward him and stopped. “He isn’t your responsibility.” Her mind flashed back to the time when she first learned of the pregnancy. Lint was gone at that point. They had abruptly ended their relationship and he slipped out of contact with the world.
Coming closer to Lint, she reached out with her hand.
Accepting her hand in his, the words came slowly out of his mouth. “You may not want me in his life, and I can understand that.” He paused. This was a new emotion for him “But regardless of the past,” he said, “he’s my son. And I want to help in any way I can.”
“He may be your son,” said Carenthia, “but I was his parent.”
Lint’s cellphone began to ring. He didn’t want to lose this moment. He looked into Carenthia’s eyes. Memories of the expressions the two shared years ago flooded back into his memory. If only things had been different. If only they had known. If only… if only he had not ran from the truth.
“Wait,” he said. The phone was still ringing. He looked at her. He didn’t want to ask her again. The phone rang once more. He looked at her.
She looked at him, and to her watch. She hated this. She hated this whole situation. But she didn’t hate him. “Lint…” She paused. “Ten minutes. And then I have to go.”
He nodded a thank you, and quickly clicked the phone to answer.
On the other end of the line, a radio voice bellowed out. “On the line right now, we have a returning wrestling superstar, folks! You saw him most recently compete in the first round to crown the new Ultratitle Champion. Zero! Zero, are you there?”
“Hey guys,” he said. He let go of Carenthia’s hand and slowly began to distance himself from her as the radio interview kicked off. “Thanks for having me.” The internal struggle to block out the hostel conversation battled within his head.
“This is Mark Rider and DJ Sloan at Inside the Ropes, W102.7, speaking with returning wrestling superstar Zero. Man! Let’s jump right to it! So you disappear for ten years, what’s up with that? And then suddenly you’re announced for the Ultratitle tournament. Tell me this, how does it feel to be back?”
Their voices ran together. Lint couldn’t make out who was asking which question. They were a single voice of unison, trading off the conclusions to each other’s statements.
Carenthia could only hear one side to this conversation. It was an odd phenomenon, knowing this reference to him. He was a wrestler to the public eye, but she had never witnessed it before. She only knew him during the times of his hiatus’ in history past. She watched as Lint forced himself away from their immediate conversation, and into the phone conversation to be the performer others knew him as.
“It’s like I never left. My home is that ring. I’m focused on winning this tournament, one opponent at a time.” He winced as he said it. He hadn’t spoken to an audience in so long about wrestling, the words felt flat. “It’s the pinnacle of the wrestling world. But no matter who they put me against, you’ll see my name continue to rise.” He glanced over to her, but quickly averted eye contact as he walked closer to the door of the hostel. His mind was on her, but the conversation had to stay focused.
“So people counted you out early on. The Internet topic was about how much ring rust you would have. That you would be out of shape, or worse, a shadow of your former self. Some thought you were dead. Gotta tell you, you brought it with a new look. Are we looking at the next stage of Zero?”
People were seeing the emergence of Lint Douglas, who shed the signs of Zero long ago. The blacked out tattoos were the first step in his personal decision to make himself anew, just a man working to continue his existence. It had nothing to do with a wrestling persona.
“I’ve always been the person you see,” said Zero. “I refuse to be typecast or generalized.”
“And then going up against Blaine Hollywood. It was like the clash of two worlds. Wrestling royalty versus the anti-hero. Looking back, were people right?”
Of course people were right. Lint was lucky to survive that competition. He was out of breath by the half way mark and relying only on ancient muscle memory to remember the rest of the spots and do the moves without hurting someone, himself included. But that wasn’t Zero. That wasn’t who he was. The Hardcore Icon lived those moments every day.
“Blaine put up a great match,” said Lint. It was his genuine reflection of the match. “But,” said Zero, “I was ready. I’ve been ready. And I shown who wanted it more. That match was just the beginning. I’ve never felt more ready to compete.”
“So what’s next for you? You’ve made it to round two, and El Gordo Grande is your opponent. He comes heralded from Mexico, and has you outsized by a considerable amount. According to the history, you two have never squared off. How do you approach the lucha assault?”
Lint could feel his nerves begin to sneak up on him. His chest began to hurt. Was he really ready for yet another round of competition? “Everyone stops moving when they go through a table,” he said, digging into rhetoric of historic matches. Pulling from his past memories of who he once was, he continued further into his theory of how it might go. He had no idea who this new opponent was. Perhaps he had seen him at the past event. Maybe they crossed paths while reading the over/under board. But he was unaware if so. He was sidetracked, but he had to keep pushing.
Across the room, Carenthia grabbed her purse.
Lint saw this, but tried to focus back on the phone call. “He can bring whatever style he wants to the ring. I can adapt. I’ve already shown that against Blaine. If Gordo thinks he has what it takes to win the Ultratitle, he’s unfortunately facing me.”
“I’m sure the world will be watching to see how this one plays out! A lucha libre assault against the man who knows no pain.”
Lint felt his shoulder and grimaced. He knew pain. His body wouldn’t last in a match similar to ones performed years ago.
Carenthia began to walk towards the door. “I have to go,” she whispered.
Lint saw this and quickly put up a finger asking her to wait. “Hey gu…” said Lint, but he was cut off by the hosts.
“We have a caller on the line. Sid, from Fort Payne, Alabama, you’re on the line. ‘Zero, first off, great getting to talk to you. I was just wondering about the rumors we’ve heard about you over the years.’ “
“I…” began Lint.
“ ‘I saw a photo on one of the wrestling rumor sites, that someone claimed was you. Looked like a mountain man up thar’ in Montana. What have you been doing since we saw you last?’ “
Carenthia walked to the door and grabbed the handle.
Lint paced to the door and placed his hand over hers on the handle. He didn’t speak to her, but with his eyes, asked her to wait just a moment longer.
“You can’t trust the internet. I don’t know what you saw, but that wasn’t me,” he said. Was it me, he thought to himself?
“Thank you for the call, Sid. And Zero, what are your plans after the Ultratitle? Are we going to see you back competing fulltime?”
Carenthia moved his hand from the handle and opened it. “Goodbye,” she mouthed to him, and began walking out of the door.
“Time will tell,” said Lint. He looked to see Carenthia walking down the hallway and away from him. The personal struggles of who he was, and the man he was becoming, were converging into conflict. And at the core, they both existed out of the same cause. “Hey guys, thanks for having me on,” he said in a rush. “Be sure to check out the Round Two event…” And then he hung up.
Carenthia was near the stairwell exit of the hallway.
“Wait,” said Lint, calling after her. He ran up to her, careful not to move too fast in order to conserve his energy. This was a tactic he encountered occasionally. Ever since the surgery.
She stopped and looked back at him. “Lint, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I made you think I wanted you to come out here. I’m sorry you did. And I’m sorry I ever told you.” She collected herself. “I only told you because I felt like it was time you needed to know. But I didn’t ask for more.”
“But he needs me now,” rebutted Lint. “A son you won’t even introduce me to.” More than anything, he wanted to meet this child. “All I have of him is this photograph. An introduction and constant reminder.” He pulled the photograph from his pocket. It was the only context for the child he never knew he had.
“I’m sorry,” said Carenthia. “I only thought you should know. But you are involved in this life,” she said, nodding back to the hostel room. “You’re on radio shows and being someone I don’t know.”
“This is someone I have to be,” he said, putting the photograph back into his pocket.
“For who, yourself?” She took a deep breath. “Why are you even back competing? Long ago, you vowed never to return.”
“Because it’s my fault. And I have to correct the problem that we…” He paused, considerate of each word he spoke. “…That I created.” He slowly looked into her eyes. “This is all I have.” He could be whoever in the real world. He could attempt to assimilate. But he knew, deep down, that beyond everything else, he would always be a wrestler. He could not always hide from it.
She shook her head but wouldn’t look him in the eyes. “We have it covered.”
He took her hand in his. “Let me be a parent.” He moved in closer to her, a space of intimacy they hadn’t shared in a long time.
Softly, she spoke. “And your idea of being a parent is becoming a wrestler again?” Her eyes gazed up to his.
Not letting go of their eye contact, he spoke slowly, softly, but with conviction. “For ten years, I lived for myself. My memories were pushed away for the solitude I forced upon myself each day, until eventually, no one else in the world existed.” He took a slow, deep breath, throwing it all in to reason his stance with her. “This is my fault. But I don’t have the money he needs. Not right now. But if I win this tournament, I will.”
She looked at him but did not speak.
Standing in front of each other, in a voice barely audible but with conviction, he asked her. “Give me this chance.”
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