My butt dropped on the hard seat of a metal chair, beside the camping table that served as a desk. There was hardly anything else in the coach’s office, apart from that grotesque poster of Aaron and a vintage display cabinet whose glass was tinted with dust, the origin of my incessant sneezing. I was allergic to grime.
Billy poured two cups of coffee out of a dented thermos, commenting on how much he depended on it. His welcoming speech kept me silent; I was still in shock and perhaps too disgusted to focus on anything other than his singed teeth, burned and eroded by a lifetime of drinking coffee. When my other senses finally awoke, I refused his beverage and urged my tongue over my teeth by pure protective instinct, under Aaron’s domineering and animalistic celebration of some past victory. His gaze was so intense on that poster that I turned around twice to check if somebody else in the room had done anything to warrant such defiance.
“I can’t do it,” I blurted, cutting off whatever story Billy was so passionately recounting about the place. I was ready to face his coach’s wrath; he didn’t scare me as much as Sheridan, but anybody could tell by his stiff posture that my stubbornness was bugging him. Instead, he just leant back and threw his hands up to rest behind his head, “Why is that?” he asked, his voice the sound of kindness. I nodded at the poster, “Not for him.” For a second, I thought he could read my mind: He scrutinized my face like it was an object of curiosity, and his eyes traveled back and forth between me and the poster until he manifested his embarrassment, clearing his throat. By then, the little voice inside my head was begging me to leave.
He stood up, capping his knees with his palms throughout the laborious movement, and dragged his feet to the curtains that acted as a wall, “Were you any of them,” he started, pulling them open to reveal a large sliding window, “I’d tell you to suck it up.”
My brows raised in surprise as I moved to join him, arms bracing for comfort. I hadn’t thought his granddaddy’s mouth capable of swearing, which I found amusing. Luckily for him, his sudden disregard for social conventions spurred enough interest in me to change my mind about hearing him out.
In the bustling gym behind the glass, women and men were lifting weights, cycling, running, boxing, and wrestling everywhere, all pushing their muscular body past their limits; all wearing the mask of physical pain. I watched them in admiration, noticing the high-end contraptions of torture I wished would bend under my strength, too. My old gym and I couldn’t measure up.
Billy sipped on his drink, which nauseously smelt of burnt coffee beans, and took the opportunity of my amazement to remind me I wasn’t in a position to negotiate, “I have no other option than to have you do it, Avery. The federation won’t send us another filmmaker from Ottawa, and if they don’t have their documentary by the end of June, they’ll cut Aaron out. His attitude’s pissing them off.”
The first thought that struck me was, “What goes around comes around,” but I pursed my lips so as not to voice it; Billy didn’t need to know the nature of my feelings towards Aaron. He could be removed from the team for all I cared, no doubt that girlfriend of his would find a way to console his cheater’s heart. What a fraud, I thought, for someone who was to represent the friendliest country in the world and had the privilege of competing in the Olympic Games.
Looking at him scratch his chin, Coach Billy came across as loyal, yet a collateral damage of Aaron’s rash decisions, who by all means would protect his stupid mentee. The old man had no hard truths to hide about his athletes, however unpleasant they might be to one’s ears. Honesty was something I respected in people, and his straightforwardness reminded me of Professor Sheridan, a quality I’d grown quite fond of in time.
I was almost sympathizing with his cause when he trampled my new-born esteem for him, “Aaron’s a good man. You’ll soon come to find that he doesn’t have a lot of friends around here; that’s mainly his fault, but he deserves his spot in the Games. He’s gifted, gold-medal material,” he tried to persuade me. How could I know? I’d skipped all my PE classes in high school, back when exercise was my pet peeve and food my consolation prize. Freestyle wrestling was a language I didn’t speak.
“The world’s full of gifted, good guys,” I retorted. Billy didn’t answer right away. It was clear on his face he was running out of arguments to make me submit to the whole arranged thesis project, and his needing me on board with it only wound me up; it wasn’t like I had a choice now, was it?
He wiped the exhaustion off his face and pulled the last ace out of his sleeve, “You’re holding grudge. That’s fine, I’m sure you have your reasons but…if you don’t want to do it for Aaron, then do it for Isaac. He spoke well of you last night; you mean a lot to him. I’m certain he didn’t mean to hurt you.”
I sighed, conceding that Isaac couldn’t have come up with this awful scenario by himself, and the stroke he’d nearly had in the car should have alerted me of his goodwill. He still deserved that punch, though, for going behind my back and pairing me up with his brother. The thought of it made me seethe. Stuck. With Aaron James. For six freaking weeks. This was a nightmare, and there was no easy way out of it. I’d have to suck it up.
One thing was certain; I wouldn’t let him—or anybody else, for that matter—stand in the way of my master’s degree and career. If I was to endure his presence at all, then I’d do it on my own terms, and I’d have to come up with some rules, like keeping a professional distance from him at all times, physically and emotionally.
Yet, I was still riled up about the previous night, and a sense of unfulfilled business had comfortably settled inside my head. I’d lamentably fled, blinded by my feelings. Now, I wanted to teach him a lesson. Besides, it couldn’t hurt to show him what I was made of and who his boss would be for our allotted time together; I loved a good challenge, now and then. He’d better watch out, because I had no intention of playing fair, and from what I understood, he wouldn’t let me do my job so easily; but I was confident that I could outsmart him, starting today.
“On a scale of one to ten, how much of a pain is Aaron on a daily basis?” I asked, so I could gauge my opponent and scheme consequently.
“Five…” Billy sounded hesitant.
“Coach, If I’m going to do this, then there’ll be no lies between us,”
“Ten,” he spilled. “An angel on his good days, but the majority of the time, he barely listens to what I say. Just don’t let him get into your head. He likes to strike all the wrong chords. I can’t begin to count how many people have yield—Don’t yield.” This was all the information and advice I needed, and Aaron’s type was one I knew too well, having been raised on a ranch, surrounded by a handful of proud bull riders, cowboys, and ranchers. These guys thrived on a win, and would trade anything for the feel of it, whatever the cost. That was what Aaron would get, then. A fake win and the bitter taste of my revenge. Except he couldn’t afford to ditch me and the documentary altogether: I was the only one who could make that film on which his career depended, wasn’t I?
“It’s a good thing he doesn’t know me well, then. I have a plan. Do you trust me?”
It came out of my mouth as quickly as I spotted Aaron in the jungle, training alone in a corner. He was flipping and pinning a large, heavy cushion into the mat, over and over like a mad man, with the same strength he’d used to shove me against his file cabinet. The muscles of his back and butt contracted as he moved with speed and precision, and the thin layer of his dark blue singlet molded his body to perfection, sending shivers down my spine and into my panties. If the sight of him still had that effect on me, then I’d need to bubble-wrap my heart; there was no certainty as to how he’d react. I didn’t know a lot about the beast, after all. Billy nodded, repositioning his cap on his grayish short hair, “I do, Miss—Avery,” implying he was giving me carte blanche.
We both watched Isaac join his brother in a determined walk, his lean body coated with a red singlet. I thought they’d be training together, but the both of them launched in a wrestling match instead. As soon as they bent their knees, everybody quit their station to gather about the mat, whistling and cheering for one or the other of the Jameses.
Hands pulling each other’s head down, the brothers’ feet slowly began to dance in the red circle. It didn’t last long. Isaac aimed at Aaron’s leg for a tackle, in vain. Aaron riposted, swinging him over his shoulder, and decked him down, stomach flat onto the mat. Isaac’s face turned a vivid red as he struggled to free himself from his brother’s hold, investing everything he had in his swift and irritated moves as though venting his spleen.
Aaron didn’t break a sweat. Wrestling his brother seemed like a healthy walk in the morning sun. Billy muttered, “Not again,” and angrily slid the window open, “Aaron! Let him go!”
The two men split, and Aaron jumped back on his feet to shoot a reproving glance at his coach. When his eyes landed on me, his whole body froze, and my breathing instantly accelerated to mirror the frenetic ups and downs of his rib cage. None of us seemed willing to break the connection; I took it as a daring invitation to submit, and expressly held my gaze on his heaven-sent face, trying to convince myself it was the right thing to do, that I’d use it to my advantage later. Fortunately, his image blurred as fast as the chilly window before me covered in steam, and I mentally thanked it for saving my shaking ass as I fanned the sweat off my neck.
Aaron blinked back to his brother, but it was too late. Isaac had taken advantage of his elder’s moment of weakness to pounce. His arms girdled Aaron’s waist, and using his whole bodyweight, he grounded the pair of blue shoulder blades firmly into the mat. Aaron barely defended himself, knowing damn well he was done. Their audience scattered around the gym wearing their most satisfied smiles, some of them addressed to me, and I didn’t bother to conceal the strand of pride that curled in the corner of my mouth, thinking that maybe Aaron wasn’t insensitive to my presence, and I’d get what I wanted.
When I thought it was over, Isaac went for his brother’s forearm—tightly wrapped in a bandage—and punched it with all his might. Aaron growled out of pain, but Isaac wouldn’t let go of him, hollering “How does it feel, huh?” stuck in the same craze as earlier in the car.
“Training’s over! Everybody, shower! Isaac, outside, now!” Billy yelled his orders and aggressively closed the window, just as Isaac stormed out, tearing off the straps of his singlet.
Bewildered, I sat back in my chair, trying to make sense of what had just happened. I’d never seen Isaac so furious. He never talked about his brother, nor his family. The reserve I’d thought as a trait of his personality actually went by the name of grudge, and it was obvious during that fight that wrestling was the Jameses’ preferred—if not only—way to communicate. That would explain why he hadn’t shared any information about Aaron, willingly omitting the fact that he was a goddamn wrestler. They didn’t get on at all.
I went to the door, meaning to find Isaac, but Billy had other plans for me, “I’ll take care of him,” he said, his face deprived of any worry, “he needs some air, that’s all.” He picked up his keys, “I’ll tell Aaron to find you after his shower. Don’t forget to lock the door on your way out if I’m not here. And keep me posted on your…plan.”
“How do I lo—Achoo!”
As I stole a tissue from the box on his desk, Billy kneeled down—not without effort—to open the drawer at the base of his display cabinet, and turned to me, “You’re a sporty woman. Surely, you’d like to work out in a fully equipped gym,” scanning me from head to toe.
“Here, take this,” he brandished the golden key at me, “It opens the back door. That way, you can come whenever you want to break a sweat.”
I quickly stretched my arm out to the holy grail that would free me from my crumbling old gym, but he clutched it to his chest before I could put as much as a finger on it, “provided that you make that film, of course.” His smile widened, showing all of his blazing teeth. He finally shook my hand while I nodded and left the key inside it when our hands parted.
Inside, the empty wrestling club was a bleak cave. The natural light came in dull through the high, narrow windows, and never seemed to find the colorful mats. Billy had switched the lights off, leaving me waiting for Aaron in a semi-darkness, alone with the soothing hum of the circuit breaker. I didn’t mind the loneliness, but I wasn’t of a patient kind, and after repeating all the steps of my upcoming performance a hundred times, I found myself wondering if Aaron had left, too. What was he doing?
I was roaming around the countless machines—even trying some of them—when all of a sudden, a niggling sensation built up in my calves. The muscles in my legs broke their ties to my interior commands and started convulsing in a million torturous spasms, earning them a grunt. Shit. I’d left my water bottle, along with my workout bag in Isaac’s car. Quickly, I widened my feet and bent over until my forearms were on the mat. The stretching sensation was so relieving that I closed my eyes and let my head hang between my feet, begging my body to relax.
“Cramps?” a grave voice asked from behind, and my eyes blinked open to Aaron’s face, upside-down between my legs. He was leaning against the door frame and taking in the view on my ass. Fuck. How long had he been here? I abruptly stood up to face him and gulp my fears down. It was time.
He casually walked up to me in a large pair of sweatpants that hung low on his hips. The V-shape of his external oblique muscles paved the way down to his exquisite unknown, his lower belly dotted with just the right amount of blond hairs from his navel down. I melted right on sight, wishing for an instant that I was at The Love Shack with 666 all over again so I could ride out my desire.
He dropped his tote bag on the floor, “Drink that,” and tossed a bottle at me. I eyed it suspiciously, not yet certain that I could trust him with offering me a drink of his reddish liquid. He crossed his arms with an expressionless face, showing off his taut pectorals and the cephalic veins that popped out of his biceps. Although he probably knew that I couldn’t speak wrestling, he had no idea that I was fluent in body language, and I could tell he wasn’t comfortable around me. Now was the perfect time for the first step of my plan: destabilization.
I uncapped the bottle and sipped on it, willingly letting some of the cherry-flavored water run down my neck and chest. The cool, rosy liquid made my nipples perk up like peaks through the light fabric of my workout shirt and sports bra, and when I looked down, goosebumps blanketed the skin in between my breast. Damn, I didn’t know I could actually turn myself on like that. I threw him his bottle—and a satisfied grin—as his eyes turned intensely dark, framed by his furrowed brows. First step, check. Step two: confusion.
Untying my ponytail, I walked in his direction with my most innocent face, “Hi, I’m Avery—” but he crouched at my feet—again—to shove his bottle into his bag, and snapped, “I believe we’ve met already,” not even bothering to look at me. Good point. Think, Avery, think. I scanned his body, hair, bag, and my gaze dropped on the large bandage around his arm.
“And I believe you’re hurt,” I said, gathering the whole of my hair on a shoulder.
He stood back up, wincing, and put a shirt on, rolling all the muscles of his chest in, one after the other. Shit. I was wet, now, inside and out. He sneered, “I’m not hurt. You’re a grown-assed woman, you can decide for yourself.” Glad the furrow of his brows still hadn’t left his face, I struck, “I was talking about your arm,” and chuckled loudly enough to let him know he’d misunderstood me. What better way to confuse somebody than with a good old quid pro quo? Now, on to step three: the fight.
“Why are you here, Avery?” he asked, clenching his teeth, and scoured around the gym for any sign of prying eyes. How predictable. I smiled cheekily, “You didn’t get a heads up?” He took a step closer, eyes drilling down on me, chest puffed with bravado. I backed into the CrossFit cage and clenched a barbell for balance. Now he was done playing nice and would certainly fire everything he could to get back at me and dominate our conversation.
“I did. Just didn’t think you’d show up,” he said, bending over me, “You’ve been scared of me for years.” He backed away, giving me just enough space to react. I couldn’t believe him. Whether he was bluffing, or he knew more about me than I’d thought, and if the latter turned out to be true, then my whole plan was jeopardized; I hadn’t foreseen this, nor expected the tables to turn.
My heart was bouncing up and down in fear. I couldn’t lose control right now, but my blood was already pulsing down my wet pussy to the rhythm of his gum around his tongue. Think, Avery, think, for fuck’s sake! His flaunting fingers grazed down my arm, inviting me to touch his smooth skin. I wanted it so bad I almost gave in, but then felt his hand on my waist, and that was enough to fire me up. I grabbed his wounded forearm and twisted it in one sudden movement around his back as I stepped out of the cage, panting in anger.
“Don’t touch me,” I warned, pushing him against a post. He laughed, “You’re strong. How much can you lift, a hundred pounds? Not bad.”
I didn’t reply. The mere vision of his contempt made me sick.
“I wonder,” he added, and briskly placed his foot behind my heel all the while spinning on his, grabbed me by the hips, and pinned me down into the mat.
“That’s called wrestling,” he said as I gasped, unable to move. Yet, I’d dreamt of this moment so many times that my primal brain wanted him to go on and see where it would lead. As I struggled out of his grasp, his eyes went to my dripping shirt through which any of us could see my belly, a forbidden part of my body—even to me—in broad daylight, for obvious reasons: It was striated with red and white stretch marks. How stupid of me to play with water.
“Right, your stomach’s weak,” he satisfactorily concluded, eyes fixed on it. I couldn’t tell his reaction, mainly because my eyes were pooling with tears. He was probably too busy thinking about his next stab, his breath heavy against my chest. I needed to get the heck out of here. What the hell was I doing? I’d underestimated him and allowed him to go this far.
When he finally let go of me, in the most disturbing gentleness, I slapped his hands off and stood up. Before he could realize he was weak at my feet, I stamped on his bandaged wound, “And don’t fucking talk about my stomach,” rage boiling in my belly. He winced in pain, and red spread through the white fabric. Good, because I wanted him to hurt as bad as I did, I needed to make him pay for thinking one hell of a second he could comment on that part of my body or even lay eyes on my scars; but the jerk still refused to surrender, showing me his dimples and teeth, “Maybe your problem’s in your head, it controls you too much. Any wild night dreams lately?”
Oh, my god. He couldn’t know. How could he know? My eyes narrowed and I stepped off him, “What, is it a secret?” He asked. When he noticed the flood of tears on each side of my baring teeth, he almost looked sorry. I could get over the belly ogling, but this was pure humiliation, and I wouldn’t waste another second of my time playing this sick game. As a last resort, I grabbed the key from my pocket and dropped it onto the mat next to him, “I’m done here,” hoping it would at least save my plan, if not my heart.
“I thought you had a documentary to shoot,” he said, his tone less confident all of a sudden. I forced a poker face and wiped my tears, “You win. I quit. You’re a cruel son of a bitch, Aaron James, that’s your problem.”
His knees cracked behind me, a sign he was moving, “I believe you’re hurt!” he shouted as I left, proudly waving my middle finger at him, “Go fuck yourself, Aaron!”
I’d brilliantly done it. Jogging back home through numerous rain showers, I congratulated myself for pushing past my limits and playing along right until the end.
Those cinema tears had been a game changer and would hopefully be the reason of his crawling back to me in the next few days.
Yet, the sour taste of my being exposed and humiliated lingered in my mouth, and I couldn’t help wondering how he knew all these things about me or my intimacy, starting with my name.
To celebrate my partial victory, I jumped in the shower first thing when I got home and aimed the hot shower head at the ball of nerves he’d aroused in my nub, savoring every second of its unwinding. It took me at least two orgasms, wading through blurred lines—between acting and reality—before I could come to the pathetic conclusion that it didn’t matter. Aaron had meant to hurt me, period. Ugh, I couldn’t wait for next Friday.