WE BEAT ALVAREZ BY EIGHT POINTS. Some of our JV wrestlers walk with their families towards the exit like they don’t have to help clean up.
“Yo,” I yell at them. “Grab the mops from the practice room.” They roll their eyes in unison but go get the cleaning supplies. When they come back I point out two of them, “You guys mop. The rest of you put away the tables and equipment.” They split into groups; the gym fills with their easy laughter and the smell of Fabuloso. We clean the mats, roll them up, and move them back to the practice room.
I stay behind to lock up. Only Coach Clark is waiting for me by the time I get to the front of the school.
“Can you give me a workout? I’m gonna go to Creekbridge Gym,” I say and hand him his keys.
“Let’s say… 30 wings: 10 Garlic Parm, 10 Lemon Pepper – ’cause I know you’re a little boring – and 10 up to you,” Coach says as he hands me $30. “Your team is already there and I’m paying, so no excuses.”
“None of them waited for me,” I say and try to give him back the money.
“Go celebrate with your team.” I try to argue, but he crosses his arms and flexes them. It’s silly, but their size makes him sound more serious when he says, “Or I’m not letting you into practice for a week.”
“Fine,” I whine.
The drive over is lonely. It’s late enough that the only cars seem to be coming from the fast-food spots near Food 4 Less. Most houses still have lights on though, and banda and reggaeton escape out of a few windows. Some of that life pours into Natividad Park from the East Side; but when I drive up onto the Creekbridge side it feels like I’m trespassing cause the neighborhoods have walls that face outwards. Ama says I gotta act like I belong when I’m here as if I don’t have to hide parts of myself in East Salinas.
Wingstop is packed. There’s a mix of green Alisal and blue Alvarez jackets together on the left side. I order 30 plain classic wings cause they have less carbs than boneless. My diet app says that these should hit my protein goal without going over calories.
Dante’s sitting with Jorge and my upperclassmen. I squeeze an extra chair into their table. “I didn’t know Alvarez was coming too,” I say to the whole table.
“Jorge invited us,” Dante says. He’s wearing the same bright-ass floral shirt that I bought last summer and never wore. He looks like a younger Frank Ocean in it, and – I’d look weird.
“Great,” I say and force a smile.
Everyone tries to talk at once.
“We were pretty even – ”
“Your lightweights are hella good – .”
“It came down to the last match.”
“Hell nah. You guys destroyed us,” Dante says. Then directly to me, “Maybe you can show me your secrets.”
Jorge blurts out, “Julian don’t let no one distract him.”
“I always invite you guys to workout with me,” I say and look to my teammates to back me up.
“You mean when you list every single thing we did wrong and how you woulda done it better?” Jorge says. I glare at him but he keeps going. “If we asked the JV team what they’re scared of it would go: their moms, death, and you at the top.”
“Can I work out with you?” Dante asks.
“Only if you take it seriously,” I respond before realizing my team might wonder about me working out with a gay guy. I sit upright and cross my arms just like Coach. Everyone laughs again. I drop my arms to my sides and smile weakly.
“Bet,” Dante says. He offers me his hand and we shake on it.
Both teams eat and yell across the room at each other. I try to joke and no one laughs, but when I say serious shit they think it’s hilarious. I don’t say much after that. I’ll mess up the mood if I keep talking.
Jorge and me end up waiting with a couple of freshmen after everyone else leaves. I catch the smallest one, Luis I think, staring at me. I smile at him but he looks away instantly like I might eat him. I glance at my reflection in the glass: I’m wearing the same jeans and wrestling shirt combo as always. It’s comfortable, and it’s also the furthest I could get from floral shirts. He’s scared of me for some other reason.
“How do you guys feel about the meet?” I ask so carefully that it’s almost a whisper.
They exchange looks and shrug.
“He’s a big teddy bear. Don’t be scared of him,” Jorge pushes my head down.
I’m about to shove him, but Luis says, “We didn’t get to wrestle.”
“You’ve got Overfelt JV Classic in two weeks,” I say. “Prove yourselves there and you can earn a spot on Varsity next year.”
They ask for advice and I promise to show them at practice on Monday. Their parents finally show up and then it’s just me and Jorge.
“Thanks,” I tell him as he starts walking to his car.
“For what?” he asks.
I don’t know how to tell him that none of the guys would even talk to me without him. “For being my friend,” I say.
“Yeah,” he says and shifts back and forth. “Listen. I think Dante’s gay.”
It feels like he’s expecting more, but all I manage is, “Okay?”
“I’m just warning you,” he says. “I’ll see you on Monday.”
I drive home and go straight to bed. I stay up wondering if Jorge would warn other people about me if he knew.