Life in the Balance ~ Jim Dameron


“Show me something Joel.” My boss looked toward his boss’s office, then looked back at me. I had assumed a wrestling stance, feet side by side, arms bent but outstretched, hands up, palms toward him. To anyone crazy enough to think of us as wrestlers we might have appeared evenly matched since we were close in age and weight. But we were managers, not athletes. We had gray hair and paunches. We wore ties and jackets. We were on the 7th floor of an office building full of fuzzy-walled partitions and tube lighting.

Joel seemed hesitant, though the tic of his hands and the almost unconscious glide of his feet suggested that he might not hold back much longer. Maybe he was thinking that the office wasn’t the place for such bravado. Or maybe he was thinking the opposite, that a little sport between scotch-drinking buddies would be just the thing. But my goal wasn’t to analyze his state of mind. Instead I pushed him backwards with a forearm jammed into his chest.

My actions rattled him a little and in response he attempted a half-hearted single leg tackle. I sprawled out, he went to his knees, my chest on his back, my hands on the nape of his neck pushing his forehead into the slightly worn industrial grade carpet. I pressed harder than I meant to, but the feeling of the contest was coming back to me as I recognized that combustible mixture of will to win, physical release, and uncertain outcome.

All this had started in a meeting the day before. Someone mentioned high school, someone else sports, and before long we discovered that four of the five men in the room had been wrestlers. Each of us immediately assumed a half remembered swagger as we announced our weight class and our state. Jim Dameron, New York, 136. It felt good to preen, to inhabit a simple brag, to stretch into someone else’s space. It felt good, even if just for a moment, to set decorum aside, to remember a less gentle past.

I let him up and we faced off again though something had changed. We put aside our friendship. We didn’t think about our age, didn’t consider the words boss and employee. We forgot that we were wearing glasses and that a moment before we had been discussing a grant application. Neither of us said stop. Now I just wanted to dominate the guy facing me, take him down, reverse him, pin him. I wanted my arm raised in victory. He wanted no less.

I cuffed his neck with my hand; he tried to do the same over the top of my arm. As soon as he committed himself I shrugged my shoulders and pushed his body forward. I stepped to the side and was behind him. We had crossed over into almost forgotten territory. And without understanding, we reveled in it. I picked him up and threw him to the floor. I wrapped an arm around his waist, grabbed his opposite wrist and pulled tight. His banter was replaced by something more guttural. I accelerated the pace and went for the pin by turning him toward his back. In response, he tried to roll me. My wrestler’s mind clicked through the options, moves and countermoves still written into my muscles, those muscles still working. But he was stronger than I realized, and he made his move work in spite of its lack of surprise and lack of speed. As I toppled over I tried to recover by wrapping my legs around him.

Now I teetered between my back and my side. If I could slide my hips forward while holding him tight I could maintain control. If he could gain enough space between us, he could spin around and put me on my back. I had spent a lot of time in this very position as a high school wrestler—in control, but almost out of control, Coach Hunt screaming for something more clearly dominant.

My high school coach and I never got along. My older brother had been a star wrestler; I was rather less luminary and therefore disappointed Coach Hunt. He also had me pegged as a trouble maker; whatever I did at school came back to him. He never forgave me for such sins as ridiculing his friend the driver-education instructor with barbed comments about his driving ability. When I went off to college, Coach Hunt attended one of my matches only to root against me. He became red faced and apoplectic, jabbing stiffened fingers toward the mat as he screamed to the world that my hair had gotten too long. With such transgressions needing punishment he urged my opponent on.

He died of lung cancer not long after. When I think of his premature death I picture him in the stands cursing me, and I can’t help but smile at his fate. But here’s the thing—I am sure that if anyone could understand my harshness, it would have been Coach Hunt. Consider that he once bragged about beating a very good, but completely blind wrestler. When he and his opponent were on their feet in the neutral position, my coach got the upper hand by stamping his right foot, using this bit of acoustical trickery to fool his opponent into turning in the wrong direction. Whatever it takes, was always the punch line. Consider that on the rare occasion we lost a Friday evening meet he demanded that the team practice early Saturday morning. He would arrive hung over and bitter, then bait kids into wrestling him. I just need to sweat it out of me, he’d say. The gullible ones would imagine a few minutes of scrimmaging at practice tempo only to realize too late that their coach intended to grind them into the mat. The rest of us sat huddled as far from the slaughter as we could manage and as close together as high school boys dared. In some youthful way I got a thrill that my coach took things to such extremes.

I didn’t grow up to become a bully, but I am more than a bit competitive. I still remember what it feels like to control a space, to hold nothing back. I still retain a lingering joy in physical domination, and its corollary assertion that no one is the boss of me. I still remember that amoral glee in winning.

As Joel and I continued our struggle, I looked up and saw the faces of my colleagues peeking from behind entryways. I imagined them gathering evidence, acting as human resource detectives, looking for violations of policies and orders and procedures and rules. In response, I felt myself grow stubborn and bristly and mad. I dug in. I fought harder.

Then I imagined them all as cheer leaders and parents and students caught up in the drama, faces gawking, bodies flinching in nervous sympathy half-a-beat behind the wrestling action. But this wasn’t meant as public theater. This script was written in a private language and these people had no rightful access to its vocabulary. Had they ever wrung their own sweat from a tee shirt? Lost 25 pounds in a week? Drilled three hours a day for months and months and months? At best they would misinterpret, reduce, feign understanding.

But then they seemed to round me to life. I was no longer the quiet fellow in the gray cube. I was no longer the diligent worker who wore headphones so he could concentrate better—He likes Bach right? By their witness I grew more complex. Now I was the wrestler, dangerous, unpredictable even as I came into better focus.

Then the real reason for those gaping looks struck me. These people thought we were really fighting. Joel and I weren’t smiling; we weren’t talking. We were sweating and grunting and pushing each other around. My colleagues saw a boss and an employee, mad at one another and intent on physical harm. They were scared and a little thrilled.

For a long moment I now embraced Joel, ear against shoulder, belly against back, thigh against thigh. In that instant the wrestling spell was broken. I lost the combatant’s desire to prevail; now I just hung on. I felt tenderness I think, or maybe just an animal pleasure in our proximity. He felt good in my arms. Our hearts pounded to the same tune. Our lungs furiously sucked the same air.

As I held fast, Joel, on a different tack, renewed his efforts and continued his roll. Our momentum carried us into a nearby office and the back of my head hit the edge of the door as we crossed the threshold. A hot pain shot down my neck. I let go; he continued for an instant longer, then we both sat up. Ouch, I said, drawing out the word, trying to make it sound funny, though the pain still throbbed along my spine. I wanted to elaborate on my one word sentence, but I couldn’t catch my breath. Joel started to laugh, which didn’t help a bit, and I rubbed the back of my head. As I did so, I remembered something Coach Hunt used to say about not letting an opponent see any weakness. I massaged the hurt anyway.

We had lasted two minutes. Probably less. I had taken him down; he’d KO’ed me with a door-aided chop to the back of the head. But we didn’t argue over who had won. Instead we savored the almost forgotten impulse to chaos that trails across a lifetime. I can count the decades—from breaking bud vases in the living room as I jumped from couch to chair even as my mother yells for me to stop, to crashing my bike and flying over the handlebars, to ‘I’ll see you in the parking lot’ fights after school, to driving a taxi along Manhattan avenues at two in the morning going sixty miles an hour, to skidding the car in the snow while accelerating across an empty parking lot, to thinking about getting in shape and climbing the rock wall at the gym. At some point the efforts become meeker, less risky, more self-conscious. At some point the full moon stops pulling toward lunacy and instead offers a soft light for sipping wine on the back patio.

Although Joel and I didn’t imagine ourselves young as we grappled on the office rug we did manage to set aside time for those few minutes. Our muscles didn’t immediately fail, our hearts and lungs pumped away. We contemplated nothing but the move, the grasp, the weight, the lift. We were equally matched, though we desired nothing more than to prove that statement false. Of course two minutes is a short interval, and the contest ended as it inevitably had to, with panting, and fear of pulled muscles, and a pain—literally—in the neck.

Soon, but not too soon, we untangled ourselves, caught our breath, and helped each other up. We must have looked like a couple of old men as we wobbled to our feet reluctant to let go of each other. But soon enough we steadied ourselves and stood apart. As we did so I imagined all the matches I had ever wrestled and could picture the sky-rocketing, low orbit arc of my life. Not so different from others, but unshareable, mine alone, and gone in an instant. Then I righted my glasses, reached out to Joel, shook his hand, and went back to work.