I am reasonably certain that I sleep on my stomach because I am trying to stay off my back. It is a leftover instinct I carry with me from my wrestling days. When I reference my "wrestling days," I am calling to mind a period of three months in my eighth and ninth grade years. A total of six months. I carry these months with me as baggage, referring to them as "when I was a wrestler," or "when I was wrestling." I was on the team because I saw it as my escape from the big red Bandie stamp that was already affixed to me and my legacy. If I was ever going to be allowed into the dating pool, I had to find something that would break the stigma of playing Sousaphone in the back row. And memorizing Monty Python skits. And carrying a lunch box.
Could I have just up and quit band? That was not the prescribed course for my family. We tended then and now to continue to show up until we are asked not to. My older brother was in band. He was on the wrestling team. That seemed like the path to follow. The Monty Python and lunchbox would have to remain part of my enigmatic persona as I struggled to find my way through junior high.
Wrestling was not easy for me, as I had a limited amount of coordination and struggled to keep my own arms and legs out of a tangle, let alone with anyone else. But I understood that getting my shoulders pinned to the mat was the end. Getting stuck is not something a wrestler wanted to be. It was a defeat for you personally but for the team as well. Lose a match on points and you give the opponent's team three or four points. A pin would cost you six. I know this still because it happened to me more times that I care to remember. But I do. When the referee's hand came slapping down on the mat and the ignominy was doubled down by the whistle in my ear, my instincts told me to just keep sinking into the floor and disappear. No need to go back to the edge of the mat where my teammates were sitting. It guaranteed a very long week of practice with an unforgiving group of my peers who were ever more sure that I was just there to take up space, not to compete.
So I worked on the thing over which I had the most control: Not losing. Stay off your back. Flop around like a trout on a landing, but stay off your back. At the end of ninth grade, I went to the B Mat tournament, representing my team. It was a bright, late winter morning, and the sun coming in the gym windows was a stark contrast to the way I remember all those practices before in the dark, downstairs gym. I won my first match by forfeit when the kid from another school didn't show up. He probably slept in that day. In the second round, I was matched against a guy who was every bit as gangling as I was round. I wrestled him to a standstill, and in the third period, I was ahead on points. I won that match, and moved on to the finals.
It would be nice to finish this story with the underdog rising up to conquer his fear and winning the trophy. Nope. I got pinned. Fast. I got the second place ribbon and walked away. That was my last wrestling match. More time for Monty Python.