I don’t think I cried over his death for a long time. I wondered if something was wrong with me. I hadn’t realized that we have to learn how to cry.
This isa column by Gabrielle Bellot about books, the body, memory, and more.
One day, when our teacher was out of the classroom, a boy got up out of his seat and picked up one of the coffee-brown folding chairs that was leaning against the back wall. The chairs were thick, heavy metal. The boy folded it up, held it aloft by its legs like a cricket bat, and began to tiptoe to the front of the classroom, where another boy was standing with his back to the room, chatting with someone. The boy with the chair put a finger to his mouth as people began to gesture and gasp. A moment later, he swung the chair hard into the back of the standing boy, the impact resounding through the room.
Dominica Extreme Wrestling
Because, to some boy’s eyes, the marks on Rezi’s neck vaguely resembled the famous stitches on Frankenstein’s monster, he was branded with a moniker meant to evoke a horror series’ frightening zombies and mutants. Most of our sobriquets were humorous, while some were heartless. One boy was called Labasse, a term we used as a synonym for a vast garbage dump; Seka, an impish girl I was friends with, was Seks, a suggestive nickname she delighted in using in suggestive sentences; perhaps worst of all, someone christened our chemistry teacher Burnbakes, because most of his dark skin was mottled from chemical burns, and someone decided that he looked like charred johnnycakes.
Like many kids trying desperately to fit in, I used the nicknames everyone else did, whether or not they were hurtful. Later in life, I wondered if the nickname forced upon Rezi had secretly hurt him, making him feel even more like the Other. His nickname had an element of cruelty to it that made me uncomfortable, and so when I used his moniker, I sometimes felt like I was insulting him, even if he showed no sign that I was. When he spoke, he mumbled; he once asked me, another chronic soft-voiced mumbler, to yell something for him because he claimed he couldn’t shout. He seemed most at home in his own house, a quiet building up the road from a hospital; a few houses away lived a man with a raucous parrot who gleefully cursed anyone who walked by.
The person most likely to be at our side was Kirby, a tall, rail-thin boy with a wild afro and the curious smile of a lizard, who was best-known by his nickname, Mad Scientist; he had gained his moniker, supposedly, for his love of chemistry and his tonsorial resemblance to an eccentric scientist. When he laughed, head tilting back, he made almost no sound. He downloaded anime on demand, burning vast quantities of CDs with the newest shows on them—in their original Japanese with English subtitles, rather than dubbed in English, of course, because he was a purist. In one of his most remarkable moves before a test, he translated the answers he would need into a series of arcane symbols that he drew, with a pen, on his palm and scraped with a geometry compass into the wood of his desk, so that the woman invigilating our exam would not realize he was cheating. Like Rezi, Kirby was beautiful in his idiosyncrasies. Kirby, perhaps, was the freest of all of us; he never seemed to want to be one of the boring popular kids, unlike Rezi and me.
You might have thought Rezi would want to wrestle with the DEW crew. He playfully grappled with us once in a while, so I considered him a vague member of the group. But if you asked him, he would cross his arms and suck his teeth and shake his head. To be like them would be to put oneself in the limelight. Rezi rejected that. He didn’t want to exist in the center of attention, in part because he, like me, was someone who didn’t seem to belong in the center. We were nerds, weirdos on the margins of our society, and it was in those margins that we were able to be ourselves. He was lonely, but he liked his privacy, all the same.
It felt special to find another person in my school who seemed to exist in a quiet blue castle of their solitude.
But there was something else keeping him back. He seemed terrified of touching his body to another man’s, lest someone think he was queer. He seemed most upset when someone called him gay, and so he, like so many people I grew up with, caged himself in casual homophobia. When one wrestler put another’s head near his crotch, he would laugh and say check him, de man how gay! It was a defense mechanism, almost Pavlovian in its predictability. I remember wondering once, abstractly, if he was queer himself, like me; if he carried a secret he, too, would never tell anyone around him. Either way, I knew we were united in our loneliness, in the way we lived such tightly corseted lives to fit into the narrowness of our society’s norms.
I loved him as a friend. I wanted to hug him, sometimes, but I knew he would push me away in alarm, and I knew that I, too, was terrified to show affection in that way, too afraid of being beaten into a bloody pulp—really beaten, not like in the ring—by the homophobes all around me.
I never told him what I really wanted to look like in our makeshift rings. He never knew that I wanted to sparkle as I flew from the top rope: my lipstick, my tights, my boots. Many years later, when I saw Netflix’s Glow, a series loosely based on the older Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (1986–1990), I knew, immediately, that I would have wanted to channel the vampy makeup and voltaic mane of Zoya the Destroyer, who was at once beautiful, bold, and gleefully baroque in her absurdity. I wouldn’t have wanted to be a caricature of a character, like Zoya, however; instead, I wished to be gorgeous and grand on my own terms. Of course, it never happened, because I, too, lived in a cage of my fears.
I wonder what Rezi would think if he saw the wrestler I had wanted to be, the woman I had wanted all the world to know. I wonder what he would think if he could see me now, not as some sparkling femme of the ring, but simply as the woman who walks to the subway in Queens to commute to work: curls long, lips fuschia or fiery or fairy-blue. I wonder if he would have jumped back, shocked, then muttered gruffly to keep my distance, what de hell wrong with you, saying he would hit me if I came closer—the defenses of anti-queerness he had worn for so long like everyone else I grew up with—or if, instead, he would have taken my hand, after a pause, and let me hug him, because secretly he knew she was in me all along.
I want him to take my hand. I want him to put down the cruel defenses we grew up with. I want him to feel loved and to love right back, no matter what I look like, no matter what names we’re called.
I wonder why I wonder, and then I remember why: I am still mourning him, in part because I am mourning all the relationships I never got to have with the people who never knew me as a woman. I know, of course, our friendship might have been different, if it had happened at all, if I had grown up as a cis girl; we conceivably would never have even met, and I might have struggled more to be accepted as someone who enjoyed the “masculine” world of wrestling. But I still wish, so badly, that I could have said hello to Rezi, one final time, as Gabrielle, rather than what I was called back then, even if it meant the risk of him recoiling from me.
I wrestled as a way to dream.
Dreams, like Scheherazade’s stories, keep us alive, keep our ships from crashing too soon, keep our candles in those ocean vessel’s rooms aglow.
I am still mourning him, in part because I am mourning all the relationships I never got to have with the people who never knew me as a woman.
When you feel small, it’s easy to dream big, big, big, and so that was what we did. We dreamed in the way that people in a small place dream, dreams in which you walk onto the glittering stage of the world and see a cheering crowd and get to smile and wave and say, Yes, you know my name now, blissfully stunned by the fact that foreigners actually know the name of our country. We dreamed of validation rather than the value we already had, because we were still convinced that we could only be successful if white people in America and Europe said we were, because the maelstrom logic of colonialism is that it leaves us despising our colonizing countries and seeking their approval all the same.We dreamed as Coleridge did of Xanadu, grand visions that slipped away at the last moment.
We searched wrestling for meaning the way certain wide-eyed men who lived by the sea claimed that the spirits of pirates long dead still searched the waves for islets of gold and sea-girls who combed their hair on our rocks, searched and searched, hit without hitting.
Of course, it would never go anywhere. Almost as quickly as DEW appeared, it quietly disbanded. None of our grand plans to be famous happened. Just as the potholes in our roads were never really fixed, we never went anywhere.
But that desire wasn’t the only reason I was there. I wrestled, in part, because it allowed me to imagine being someone else. It was a shield of stereotypical masculinity that allowed me to tell both others and myself hey, there’s nothing to see here. Under that shield, people would stop bullying me for my androgyny, for the lip gloss I tried to wear surreptitiously to school, for my small build.I was trying to deceive myself, too, that my desires to be seen as a girl were somehow just as false, as illusory as (some of) our wrestling moves. It was a way to hide—but even under that shield, I kept imagining myself as I always had, as a girl who did things both marvelous and mundane, a girl who wanted to kiss other girls and boys alike. I couldn’t escape her.
It made no sense for me, who hid away from all social events, to put myself out there in so public a domain as our wrestling matches. Yet, somehow, I did. Wrestling allowed me to romanticize, to dream of what could be, to dream beyond the surface of the real. I couldn’t be the woman I wanted to wrestle as, live as, full-time, but it relieved the pressure of living in so restrictive a world—at least for a little.
I was wrestling with an angel, with all the angels of the conservative church I was raised in. It took another decade to finally let go of its burning hands by coming out as the queer trans girl I had always known myself to be. I’ve never wrestled again as I did back then, but I still dream, sometimes, of being that absurd sparkly woman in the ring, as sidereal in her brilliance as any religion’s seraph.
I kept imagining myself as I always had, as a girl who did things both marvelous and mundane, a girl who wanted to kiss other girls and boys alike.
One day, when DEW was on its deathbed, a friend told me that Rezi had been flown away for surgery. His brain had swelled, I think. I didn’t understand what this meant.
The next time I saw him, he was back in Dominica, in the hospital. My mother took me to visit him; in his room, she let me go in alone. When I saw him swaddled in those white sheets, staring at me, I didn’t know what to say. I went up to him and mumbled that I hoped he would feel better. He didn’t hear what I said at first and asked me to repeat it. His voice sounded a little hoarse, but normal overall.
We looked at each other for a few seconds before I started to back out, awkwardly walking backwards. Before I left his side, he put out his hand in the shape of a fist. Like old times, we knoxed, as we called bumping fists. Later, he said in that gruff voice. I knew he wasn’t well, knew the story of the helicopter that had taken him for critical brain surgery to Martinique, but I didn’t get it, really.
I just assumed, as you do when you’re young and have only seen people die once in a while, that death is rare and unlikely. I would make up for my first short, sinfully awkward hospital visit the next time I saw him. We would play wrestling games again, chat with the gang about anime and the incomprehensible people who lived in the neighborhood and the parrot with the mouth of a drunken sailor. We would laugh and be happy, as normal.
I never saw him again.
I don’t remember exactly how I reacted when I heard that he was dead. All I can recall is confusion. I didn’t cry right then and there. I just sort of stared at things without seeing them. I didn’t know how I was supposed to react. I couldn’t cry. I just took the knowledge that he was dead and tried to absorb it. It didn’t make sense. He was a part of the fabric of my life; how could he not be there anymore?
I don’t think I cried over his death for a long time. I wondered if something was wrong with me.
I hadn’t realized that we have to learn how to cry.
Now, I cry very easily. I cry when I upset someone I love; I cry when I remember my mother saying I was no longer her child after I came out; I cry when I am extremely happy; I cry, even, rewatching a scene in the American version of The Office where Michael proposes, at long last, to the love of his life.
We dreamed in the way that people in a small place dream.
Why do the tears come easier now? Is it all the pain I’ve lived through? Is it some side effect of hormone replacement therapy? Is it just a part of growing up, learning to cry? Do I cry so much because I am broken, like an old dam, from all that old hurt, all that restrictiveness of upbringing?
Grief is a curious language, a lamp of dust and dawn blues. Grief is the figurehead of a ship in a desert, staring at the inexplicable frozen waves of sand. Grief is the quiet heaviness, the grey roar of a waterfall when you stand under it. Grief is the wake of love.
In the end, I don’t think it matters if we cry; what matters is that we feel, however that feeling expresses itself. I know I loved the friend who helped me survive just by his presence, his dumb jokes, his eremite quietness, the way I could tell he felt constricted by the world just as I did, in one way or another. Even now, I’m beginning to cry as I write this. I wish I could hug him, so much, and get to know him again, old and anew, as the luminous girl I hid in my dreams when I was around him, and let him meet my wondrous partner and the beautiful people in my life, and let it all be real, like our old matches never fully were.
Gabrielle Bellot is a staff writer for Literary Hub and the Head Instructor at Catapult. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, The Atlantic, The Cut, Gay Magazine, Tin House, Guernica, The Paris Review Daily, them, and many other places. Her essays have been anthologized in Indelible in the Hippocampus (2019), Can We All Be Feminists? (2018), and elsewhere. She holds both an MFA and PhD in Creative Writing from Florida State University. She lives in Queens.
There is hope in the size and power of our protests, hope that our message will truly, finally be heard—but whether it will be understood in the hearts that need it most is a much harder, scarier question.