III; 1. The Alex Rodriguez lookalike stands near the door in our hotel room, fidgeting with the suit bags over his shoulder.
"How did you know I was here?" I cross my arms and try slitting his throat with a stare.
"Your dad told me why but your mother told me where. I figured you might need some help."
"Fuck your help. Alex Rodriguez has already helped me enough."
"I didn't want your dad to die. It just happened. You imagine being inside someone and..."
"Stop. Stop. Stop! I don't want to hear it."
"Fair enough, Reg."
"You don't get to call me that, fatherfucker. What's in the bags?"
"Something to help us out, but since you don't want my help, I'll just leave." Alex opens the door, and slips out. Leon slides off the bed and walks to the door, ice packs on his knee sloshing with each step. I spread myself across the door and the frame.
"Where do you think your going, Leon?"
"To talk to the guy. He's hurting, too."
"The asshole killed my father... with his dick." My face puckers after saying this.
"Your father's bad heart killed him. His dick just happened to be in your father when he died."
"Ahhhh fuck, I don't need that fucking image in my head."
"Grow up, Reg. Everyone has sex. Some people have sex with the same gender. Now, step aside so I can talk to the guy. He's hurting and he wants to help you."
"What if I don't get out of the way?"
"I'll make one of my wrestling moves really hurt instead of pretend hurt."
"You wouldn't dare." Leon darts behind me, straddles my legs, reaches over to my right arm and locks it behind my back. My stomach stretches in ways it shouldn’t stretch.
"Gonna let me talk to him, now?" Leon huffs onto my neck. "I can do this all night, or until you tear something." I wriggle back and forth but Leon's legs and arms don't budge.
"Ow. Fuck. Alright, I give." Leon lets me go and I collapse, my cheek swimming, body writhing, wallowing in the various smells and stains in the carpet. I watch Leon's feet slipping into his beaten black Converse hi-tops then shuffling through the open door.
"Stop being such a wuss. I didn't hurt you that bad. You better be up by the time I get back." The door slams. I bring myself up to my knees, then to my feet. I limp to the bathroom, leaving a trail of clothing behind. I'm hoping the hot water will help ease the pain, the humiliation of being manhandled by a man who used to be a woman.
2. "You're really gonna ask Leona to marry you like that, on a fucking swan boat? What kind of pussy does that?" Dad and his Marlboro smoke snarls.
"Lake Eola was our first date. Our first kiss was on a swan boat. It has major emotional significance to us."
"So you're gonna ask the love of your life to marry you among swan shit and pond scum? If I was Leona, I would dump you in the water and crack your head open with that fuckin' swan boat. A sympathetic jury would not convict her if she did that to you. You have to think like a winner, like a Yankee. How would a Yankee propose to her?"
"He wouldn't propose to her. He'd keep her in cars and furs so she never tells the wife what's really going on, to make sure he can keep fucking her in ways his wife would never, ever would." The chair and I fall to the floor. My dad gets up and crouches over me.
"Smart asses like you never end up with a happy-ever-after. It's guys like me that have to knock the dick out of your mouth and knock some common sense into here." He pokes my forehead. "When it comes to romance, your generation is cheap and lazy. How did you buy the ring?"
"What does that..."
"Answer my question, boy. How did you buy the ring?"
"I used a credit card." I don't see my father's right hand until it moves through my right cheek.
"You couldn't even scrimp and save for a ring, you little cheater. You have to sweat, bleed, sacrifice to show a woman that you mean business when you say 'forever'. Take it back."
"Take the thing back. As long as you live under my roof, rent free, chasing after whatever it is your chasing after in graduate school, you are gonna do what I tell you. Take the thing back, else I'm gonna throw you out on your ass."
"It's my life, dad" His left hand mows through my left cheek.
"I'm not gonna tell you again. I better see that receipt in a week or else you're gonna find your shit out on the lawn. Now go clean up." Dad walks out of the kitchen, the Marlboro smoke choking everything in his wake.
3. The Alex Rodriguez lookalike comes back in the hotel room with Leon as I'm sitting on the bed, drying off my hair and humiliation. Leon stands between us to make sure I don't do anything stupid.
"Should I call you 'Alex' or something?" I make the towel into a hood, hoping the glare intimidates him.
"I'm Dan, nice to finally..." He extends his right hand.
"Is that the hand that you jacked my father off with?"
"Reg, that's uncalled for," the back of Leon's head yells.
"Leon, until someone fucks your father to death and you meet the man that fucked your father to death and deal with the fact that someone's cock killed your father, you can lecture me about what is and isn't called for. The only reason why he's even back in this hotel room because you put me in one of those wrestling holds. Put your hand away, Dan."
"I understand why you're angry. I lost my father tragically, too."
"You mean your father was also fucked to death?"
"No, but his death was just as sudden."
I take a deep breath. "What's in the bags?"
He throws the three suit bags down on the bed and unzips them, revealing two Yankees, one Red Sox uniforms, hats, and masks. Each mask looks like a frozen burn victim version of Joe Torre, Nomar Garciaparra, and Billy Martin. "Leon can be Billy, I'll be Joe, and you can be Nomar. It would be perfectly fitting for Nomar to dance on Steinbrenner's grave, don't you think?"
"And yet you're gonna be the guy that fucked Steinbrenner over? Wouldn't it make more sense for you to be Billy since Steinbrenner kept fucking him over with all that hiring and firing he did to him?"
"Reg..." Leon tries growling but it sounds more like the scolding of a 12-year-old girl. " Sorry, Leon. We've got a bit of a problem, Dan. It's not a grave, it's a crypt with a slanted roof. We break into the crypt and risk getting arrested or I dance on top of the crypt and risk breaking my neck."
"Which one have you decided?"
"The cons are equally bad: neck breaking or shower rape. None of those things sound appealing at all. Maybe you should do it instead." Leon turns and punches me in the stomach. I'm back wallowing among the smells and stains of the hotel room carpet.
"Are you going to start acting like a decent human being?" I nod. Dan and Leon help me up and place me on the bed.
4. I fumble with the ring box in my pocket. I practice in front of the bathroom mirror, first like a high noon gunfight, then like an endless rope of handkerchiefs. I make sure the hinge touches the bottom of the pocket so when I pull out the box and open it in front of her, she sees the ring.
"Don't over rehearse," My father growled. "When you propose to a woman, you keep the sentences you want to say and don't work too much around them." I ignored the last part about buying the ring in cash, though. I'd never get married if I had to wait for it. I look at the concealer hiding my black and blue monocle my father gave me earlier before walking back to Leona's and my table.
My father sits on the porch surrounded by boxes full of stuff and a six pack of Natty Ice at his feet. He hands me a can.
"She said no, didn't she?"
"Yeah, she did." I pull back the tab and take a swig. "How did you know she would say no?"
"When a woman's got a constant hesitant look around you, the smile she makes about your name is a polite lie. Leona had that look. That's why I kept barging in when you and her were fucking."
"You knew when we were fucking?"
"Sadly, yeah, and it wasn't all that great either. You couldn't have waited until I passed out or at least had the good fuckin' sense to get me shit faced or maybe fuck her at her place? The point is she didn't want to be with you, Reg. No need to waste time with a woman like that. I mean, you got her engagement ring on credit."
"But I didn't want to wait..."
"You never want to wait, want to sweat, want to earn your keep, earn your name. Now, here's your chance."
I almost spit out my beer when I see in all of the boxes on the porch have my stuff in it.
"What about grad school?"
"If you want it bad enough, you'll still finish your degree. When you finish that beer, get your shit and get out."
"Where am I gonna go?"
"Not my problem. Leave the keys when you're done. I don't want to see you for six months." My father walks off the porch, into the house, locking the door behind him. He watches as I carry each box to the back of the car, making sure I place the key on the doormat before driving off with what I could carry of my life.
5. Leon and I stand in the middle of the wrestling ring, the darkness swallows the empty folding chairs facing us.
"We're gonna practice balancing on uneven surfaces here. It's safer than trying for the first time on the roof where you could end up a quadriplegic."
"Um, I've watched enough wrestling to know that you can still become a cripple even in the ring."
"Climb on the turnbuckle before I hurt you. Again."
The ring wobbles as I stomp toward the turnbuckle on the far left side of the ring. I climb slowly, sitting on top; Leon walks over to the far right side of the ring and then back flips until stopping in front of me.
"Love doing that. Give me your hand." I hold Leon's hand tightly. "Now, stand up." My feet wobble. "Follow me." The rope sags and sways with each baby step. Leon keeps me upright. "You have to consider things like wind, rain, birds, while you're up on the roof. You'll only need to be up there for a minute or two but it's gonna feel like the longest of your life."
"How long have I been up here now?"
"Twenty five seconds. We're gonna stop once we get to the middle."
"A rope is nothing like a roof, though. How am I supposed to practice balance on the middle of a top rope?"
"You're not. This is just the beginning, Reg." Leon lets go of my hand for a moment. "Now, focus on maintaining your center of balance. Don't worry about standing perfectly still. Worry about not breaking your neck." My arms flail frantically. The pull of the floor mats lure my back closer. Leon jumps on the rope, twists, gently grabs the back of my head and brings us back to the ring. I feel my nose crack, the trickle of blood on my lips.
"Maybe this wasn't a good idea."
"Let me help you to the back. There's a first aid kit in the locker room."
"No. Enough. Between that guy showing up and you hurting me three times now, I've had enough. We're done. I'm done. Fuck my dad and his stupid fucking will. Fuck dancing on Steinbrenner’s grave. Fuck everything. I'm taking the first Greyhound out in the morning back to Orlando and getting back on the road where I belong."
"Just because you got a little bloodied and beaten up, you're just gonna give up and walk away?"
"No, because you're the one who bloodied and beat me up. Again."
"What are you... oh."
"Yeah, oh. It's because of you, my life became fucked. My dad kicked me out because of you. I couldn't finish graduate school because of you. I had to take a job I hate, to survive, because of you."
"Because I wouldn't marry you you made poor life decisions? Reginald Whitey Lownd, Somehow, I’m not surprised you said that. You never could take accountability for your own actions."
"My actions? You apparently wanted to be a man. How do you think that made me feel to see the love of my life no longer look like the love of my life? I thought you said no because I wasn't good enough for you but it turns out, it's because you were confused about your gender identity."
"I'm sorry that I wasn't honest about who I was a person to you. I'm not sorry for saying 'no'. You still aren't good enough for me." Leon crouches under the bottom rope and lands on the floor. "When you're ready to stop wallowing in your own pity and blood, come to the locker room and I'll fix your nose."
6. Even though I sit on the outside row, the guy sitting next to me manages to spread to the point my right shoulder and leg fight to climb inside my body.
"What happened to you," he asks.
"I accidentally got hit in the face at a wrestling match."
"Really, I didn't know there was any wrestling shows going on at one of these parts."
"It was one of those crazy backyard shows. It was a friend's debut. Came up to see it now coming back home to recover."
"Shit, man, that's awesome." My pocket hums. "Aren't you gonna answer that?"
"Nah. He can wait." I lean back in my seat and watch the desolation of Lakeland in the dark streak by the window as I ry to sleep.
"How could you leave Leon like that?" My mother stands outside of my old bedroom door wearing a bathrobe. I dive under the covers and hold my breath. I peek slightly over them and she's still standing, toe tapping.
"All he kept doing was hurting me. The fact you told 'Alex' where we were didn't help, either. I'm still wrapping my head around that little revelation."
"Your father loved me very much, just... not quite like a man and a woman would love each other. It was a different time back then. He could do what he wanted as long as he took care of us, and he never did, but that doesn't matter now. What matters is that yet again, you are running away."
"What are you talking about?"
"I know why you were in Tampa, Reggie."
"But he told me not to..."
"He told you not to tell me but he never said anything about him not telling me."
"What about the 'secret portfolio'? Was that a lie, too, something to entice me into doing something so stupid?"
"The only way you'll ever find out is if you actually go through with this. You need to do this more for the money. You need to do this for you. Be a man once in your life."
"I am going to be a man. I'm going to book the first flight to Indianapolis and finish what I started out there."
"You need to finish what you started out here, Reg. That's more important."
I throw the covers off of my body and sit up. "And what if I don't finish what I started?"
"Then once you leave here, you never come back. You'll be just as dead to me as your father."
J. Bradley is the author of Bodies Made of Smoke (HOUSEFIRE, 2012). He lives at iheartfailure.net.