1. I am disdainful of fewer things since my wife and I separated. Professional wrestling, self-help books. While we were married, and for most of my adult life before then, I was either indifferent to or (more often) scornful of many of the manifestations of popular culture.
Like most people I dismissed professional wrestling because I realized it was fake. It became unworthy of further attention. A couple of my uncles have been fans at one time or another. The redneck one used to quickly gloss over any comment on the fakeness of it—”Why do they have to stamp one foot in order to kick with the other?”—and then discourse on the athleticism of the wrestlers. This was indisputable of course: the spectacle of a 300-pound muscle-bound man doing back flips would instantly silence the most persistent of doubters. The question of the fakeness, however, would never be addressed.
Another uncle, with whom I still keep in touch, had an attitude toward professional wrestling which was closer to what mine became. He liked the bickering that goes on, the ploys by managers and tag-team members to get referees to turn their backs, the theater of the whole thing.
2. I was also quite the supercilious snob regarding self-help books. A couple of months after separating, however, I bought two about the break-up of relationships.
One was a true self-help book in all the negative connotations of the term. The title was catchy and contrived, flippant and superficially creative: Loveshock. And the subtitle, to specify that this wasn’t a book about the misfortune of static electricity during sexual intercourse: How to Recover from a Broken Heart and Love Again. The co-authors are pictured on the jacket. Dr. Stephen Gullo has an open-faced but shallowly sincere look about him. Connie Church looks as though she’s survived many of these shocks. Her jaw is angular and distinct, perhaps from months of loss of appetite, whereas Dr. Gullo’s face is tending toward chubbiness, no doubt the unfortunate result of a cushy counseling practice.
The other book is more a popular psychological treatise than a self-help book. The author is Diane Vaughan and the title is Uncoupling: How Relationships Come Apart. I found some of the passages in this book positively poetic, though I suspect now that my agitated mind was probably reacting more to familiarity of content rather than to poetry of expression.
I read Loveshock during the blackest of nights. Supper was pasta and potato chips and Diet Coke. The TV was on, engaging my mind in something easy and undemanding. I read, skimmed and skipped. Hated the book really, but needed something to break me out.
I read Uncoupling in the relative ease of my new apartment. I had lost weight (like Connie) and I pampered the body with hot bubble-gum-scented bubble baths. The pores opened, the bubbles popped, and I read about loss and the possibility of reconciliation.
3. It had happened both suddenly and in the most gradual manner possible. One Friday night she suggested that we should separate, and the next morning she took the dog and a few necessities and drove to meet her father for breakfast. I waved good-bye to her in the most ridiculous of circumstances: on the verandah as she got into the car, the dog excited about the early-morning activity, me wearing only a pair of silly green-and-white striped shorts that hung on me like dumpy underwear. She drove off. It had been a long night during which I had slept fitfully. I closed the door and went back to bed.
4. Most people’s disillusionment with professional wrestling, as with marriage, is a simple result of expecting it to be something it isn’t. They think that wrestling is a sport and so are disappointed when it does not display the hallmarks of other sports: skill, genuine competition, victory based on merit. The truth is, of course, that wrestling is not a sport at all but rather an elaborate soap opera. The wrestlers can no more be accused of bad sportsmanship than a doctor on General Hospital can be taken to task for lack of surgical knowledge.
The thing about wrestling which appealed to me was the exaggerated simplicity of the whole thing: there were no bad guys whose skill you had to concede, there were no good guys with character flaws. These facts were very attractive to a mind which was still reeling in confused emotion: rejected, erratic, lonely, and always contriving the most irrational and unlikely means of reconciliation.
5. The Loveshock writers made me angry sometimes. I remember that their advice to the heartbroken for avoiding futile attempts at reconciliation was to pin notes on the phone such as: STOP! DON’T CALL! It struck me as the ultimate in bathos, relegating the coping with extreme emotional trauma to the level of the techniques used by dieters to discourage them from opening the fridge door: DO YOU NEED THOSE CALORIES? or A MOMENT ON THE LIPS, A LIFETIME ON THE HIPS.
6. I went through her dresser drawer a few days after she left. My heart was literally wrenched at each item I picked up. The drawer was her: cluttered, simple, sentimental. I was (and remain) a paragon of minimalist order. A friend of mine whom I have known since kindergarten—the stereotypical messy male—often discusses the relative merits of neatness with me, and proudly informs everyone that I am in a class by myself.
In her unburdened departure my wife had left the contents of her top dresser drawer behind. I read a note I had jotted to her months before thanking her for some small kindness. She had saved it, whereas I used to read letters from my poor mother and then tear them up and flush them down the toilet.
7. Ravishing Rick Rude became my favorite wrestler. His schtick was comfortingly predictable, the same scenario repeated with only the bit players changed. His performance involved spectators and commentators, the actual wrestling being merely incidental. He would make an excessively grand entrance wearing a floor-length cape which temporarily covered a magnificently sculpted body. The body would be revealed and Rude would mock the unmuscular wimps in the audience, who he imagined were shrinking at the sight of a “real man”. A commentator would point out how vain Rude was.
The major appeal was to the women though. “Lovely ladies” Rude called them. He would always win his fight (no Tysonesque upsets in this sport) and he would always invite a young woman to the ring afterwards to participate in the Rude Awakening: a kiss which would make her swoon and fall to the floor. Rude, buttocks and biceps flexing, would then dance over her. A commentator would point out how disgusting this was.
8. It happened gradually, too, the result of some inexorable force of which I was simultaneously keenly aware and completely ignorant. In the last few months I was making an unconscious effort to be self-sufficient and self-contained. I spurned the trivial and the fundamental. Reduced my sexual pleasure to solitary late-night explorations on the couch when I was supposed to be reading. Became irritable at advice on a badly tucked-in shirt tail.
I had gained about fifty pounds, and imagined myself even more unattractive and unapproachable than I actually was, a kind of huge round object which it is technically impossible to scale. I made half-hearted attempts at diets and exercise regimens, but always ended up wallowing in the lean-to sunroom off the back yard. Furious at something, fuming.
9. I watched Rick Rude add to his routine one night, a variation on the immutable. A woman was called to the ring for the kiss but was refused by Rude because he didn’t consider her attractive enough. The word “dog” may have been used, I can’t remember. Can’t remember either what the commentators said, whether they considered Rude to have reached a new level of disgust and tastelessness and general insensitivity.
I pitied the woman, of course, but could not help admiring the skill with which Rude was delineating his caricature. Vain rude hunk. He was complete and whole and could be summed up in three words. I, however, was a recently revived zombie, still wandering about dazed with my arms outstretched in front of me like a character from a bad horror movie.
I imagine now that a wrestling match between Rude and me would have been quite interesting. Ravishing Rick Rude vs The Zombie. Rude as brash as ever with that beautiful physique and those Lycra tights with the woman’s face at the crotch. Me tubby and depressive, vulnerable, wearing a loose-fitting shirt and pants with pleats that strained with the load.
10. I subjected Uncoupling to a textual scrutiny that only the most organically composed of fictional works could endure. I read about the possibility of reconciliation at the various stages of separation. Or I analyzed the tone or even the adverbs on each of the pages mentioned at “Reconciliation” in the index, trying in vain to discover if this separation was just a temporary silliness. I discovered few answers, and eventually stopped looking altogether.
11. I wrote down what I knew about professional wrestling and had it published in a newspaper. A curious thing happened some time after: I could no longer bear to watch it on TV. The predictability of the whole thing now provided more boredom than solace. The redneck audience, cheering as if it made a difference, provoked no smile. Even Rick Rude failed to excite.
I consciously adopted an affectation among friends. When they asked me why I didn’t watch it anymore, I replied: “I know too much about it”.
12. I met my ex-wife by chance one Saturday at a mall. I was charging upstairs and she was at the top. I looked up, noticing that a dark blue coat had replaced her former affection for pastels. She blushed.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you,” she said.
“Oh, hi, how are you?” I said automatically.
We mounted the next flight of stairs together, she chattering nervously about the mundane, me tight-lipped and barely civil.
I reached the top of the stairs without volunteering a word. She swallowed a farewell, pursed her lips and turned left after I turned right, heart pounding, gait even more exaggerated, eyes fixed straight ahead.
13. I shelved the books, filed away my article, and started to understand professional football.
published in Shift, fall 1993