There would be no boys in the 106-pound weight class at the tournament, so they told Mei that she would fight an exhibition match against her teammate, Jude, the girl with no arms. Jude weighed 120 pounds. She was two weight classes above Mei, but this was preferable to the alternative: Matched against the 120-pound boy from Juanita High, Jude would be sure to lose. The 120-pound boy had gone to State last year.
At practice before the tournament, Coach Murphy handed all the wrestlers a printout with their current weight and body fat percentage and the maximum amount of weight they could cut. That was a strange thing about wrestling, Mei thought, that you never “lost” weight but “cut” it, as though you could grasp the heft of a belly or a forearm between your fingers and go snip-snip the way kids do playing doctor. With their papers in hand, the wrestlers gathered around Coach Murphy to pepper him with questions.
Coach Murphy was a jovial man with a graying ring of hair, like a monk’s tonsure, and the towering flabbiness of a college football player gone to seed. His lumbering gait transformed into an unpredictable quickness, a dangerous grace, when he demonstrated single-leg takedowns and fireman carries on the boys. He only demonstrated on the boys, which was good, Mei supposed. In fact he had never done anything that made her uncomfortable; she thought of him in the most paternal of terms. She couldn’t do a pull-up very well because the bar was much too high up the wall for her to reach, so to get to it, she had to do a sort of Spider-Man run-up-the-wall act. Once, she tried this and fell down dejectedly and Coach Murphy had hoisted her up onto his shoulders.
“Here, we’ll get you to ten pull-ups one day,” he said, and she did the pull-up off of his shoulders before jumping down.
Now she looked at Coach Murphy with her weight sheet clutched in her hand so tightly, it began to wrinkle.
“Should I try to cut down to ninety?” she asked, pointing at the number some mysterious algorithm had decided. “It says I can get there in three weeks.”
“No, Mei. You’re fine in 106. You saw last week’s tournament. None of the KingCo schools have a 106 boy.” She had won three tournaments now by forfeit. When the other schools couldn’t produce a boy light enough to fight her, she got to step on the mat and have her hand raised in the air. “Anyway, you’re so small as it is. Where’d all of you go if you tried to cut any weight?” He laughed heartily at this.
The other wrestlers were heavy enough to have opponents. Before their tournament matches they had serious talks with Coach Murphy and the other wrestlers, discussing takedowns and mental fortitude. Mei sat by the plastic gallon containers of water and played games on her phone. Winning by forfeit was better than losing, but it felt like a cheat. Especially when the team gathered around her afterwards and shouted her name as a chant, “Mei! Mei! Mei!”, a strange sort of display of love she had done nothing to deserve.
“Mei, you’re like our mascot,” Berto said at the last tournament.
Because it was Berto, Mei beamed outwardly, though she thought there was also something undesirable about being a mascot. Mascots were always oddities, animals, big-headed costumes, spectacles. It was an affectionate kind of exclusion. There were worse kinds.
“Get your Kenshield on!” shouted Coach Tara from the other side of the gym. She was really just a track and field coach. After Jude and Mei joined, Coach Murphy had asked Coach Tara to learn something about wrestling and join as an assistant coach. Coach Tara was tall and had a no-nonsense manner during practice. Afterwards, though, if she saw Jude or Mei on their way out of the girls’ locker room, she asked them how they were feeling. Mei was surprised the first time she asked, less by the question and more by her voice—how it had transmogrified into something soft and gentle. A voice that wore padding, like she was worried the girls might break. Or maybe that was how Coach Tara normally talked, and it was her voice in practice that was different. Wearing brass knuckles.
There was an easy meanness between the boys as they exchanged jabs about each other’s weight and passed around the canister of Kenshield Skin Créme for Athletes. Mei thought the antibacterial foam smelled like melted plastic. She folded her sheet into a small square and lined up for Kenshield behind the boys. They had formed a semicircle around Coach Tara, so it was less standing in line than standing on a periphery. She listened to them talk but did not join in.
“Brock’s a fucking fatty.”
“When you go too hard at Old Country Buffet, am I right?”
“Not like you been sticking to your diet, bruh.”
“Yeah, what’s Jase’s motto? ‘Every day’s a cheat day’?”
“Yo, did you see how much Coach wanted Berto to cut?”
Mei watched Berto scowl, a brief expression that passed as quickly as it came. Berto was Mei’s favorite of the boys. They’d gone to church together as kids. He had messy hair and a dimpled, caramel grin. Sometimes, midway through lunch period, Mei made up an excuse to leave the girls she sat with—they were friendly but also terrifying, pretty and grown-up-seeming—and she would go on an aimless walk by herself around school. On those walks people who didn’t know her didn’t glance at her and neither did most of the people who did, but whenever she passed by Berto, he’d shout, “Hey, sis!” A small reversal of anonymity: an easy kindness. She saw how he and the wrestling boys seemed so unguarded, stupid even, with one another—lolling on the concrete steps, roughhousing, slinging themselves carelessly over chairs and tables and railings and over each other with baggy sweats and letterman jackets on their bodies. They were always loud, laughing, colliding with one another.
She had been this way with her friend Chase, when they both looked like little boys. Flat-chested and short-haired, they play-fought each other in her backyard until their clothes were covered in grass stains. It was more like hugging than sparring, sliding and rolling and open-mouthed laughing, baring their teeth like baby lions. The first week of high school, they’d ended up tussling over the last Cheeto in a bag until the bag was forgotten underfoot, and his hands were on her shoulders, pushing her up against the soft wall of clothes on hangers in his mother’s closet. He was strong, much stronger than she’d remembered, and maybe it was her widened eyes then that made him say, “Oh shit,” and quickly drop his hands, adding, “I can’t fight a girl. That’s kinda fucked up, my bad.”
Mei laughed, not the good kind, just the noise you make when you don’t know what to say, and bent down to snatch the Cheetos bag up from the ground. “Suit yourself.”
Berto had never seen Mei fight Chase or anyone else. Even still, when wrestling preconditioning and team recruiting started in November, he leaned over in health class and said to her with a wink, “You know, I bet you could kick ass if you learned how to wrestle.”
“ALL GENDERS WELCOME,” said the wrestling interest sheet taped on the classroom window. Mei scribbled her name and strode away. It wasn’t a big deal, she thought. She could always quit later.
That was how she had ended up here, standing in Nike shorts and an old T-shirt, trying futilely to insert herself in this circle of boys. She tried to lean into a gap next to Berto, but Jason’s arm snaked out in front of her, his thumb and index making calipers on Berto’s arm.
“Berto, this thick and you think you can cut that much?”
“Easy, fool.” Berto swatted him away.
“If you stop eating all the gay shit they’re tryna sell for the Sadie Hawkins fundraiser.”
Mei winced. Once in junior high, Chase was over and pointed derisively at something on TV with the comment, “That’s so gay.” Her dad overheard and said solemnly, “We don’t say that in this house, Chase,” and delivered a three-minute history of homophobia in the United States, while Mei shrank into the couch and prayed silently for death.
“You been eating those nasty Safeway cupcakes?”
“Yeah, they taste like ass.”
“Oh damn, that’s why he’s saying it’s some gay shit, get it?”
The boys guffawed and high-fived. Jude walked up to Mei. They nodded to each other.
“I had a bad day,” Jude said to Mei, her back to the boys. Mei didn’t understand how she could so easily ignore their animated conversation, not feel the magnetic draw toward their semicircle. “I almost got lunch detention for being late to first period.”
“Oh no,” Mei said absently. She was trying to see why some of the guys were crowded around Jason Beecroft’s phone, pointing at something.
“Yeah, but then Ms. Garcia said it was okay. Do you have her?”
“Oh, honors? Damn, girl,” Jude said. “Smarty-pants.”
Mei shrugged. The boys were still looking at the phone. Jude fidgeted, her torso wiggling and her toes curling under. Wrestling shoe soles were bendy like that. “What’re you looking at?”
Mei gestured toward the boys.
“Drew texted me. He’s almost here,” Jason yelled. There was a cacophony of responses: “Better lock up your shit.” “Dude, you too? That fucker.” “Yeah, I’m missing like twenty bucks after he prowled yesterday—”
“Wait,” Mei interjected. The boys turned to look at her, and the semicircle parted slightly to let her in. She exhaled quietly. “He stole from you guys?”
“Yeah. Broke-ass,” Jason Beecroft said. “We’re smarter now, got our shit locked up.”
Jude looked unimpressed. “Uh, or you could, like, tell Coach Murphy?”
Mei shrunk away from Jude as the boys howled with laughter.
“That’s cute,” Jason said. “You ever heard this ancient Chinese proverb?” He winked at Mei. “It goes—” He composed his face into a deeply pensive expression. For a moment Mei thought he might say something thoughtful. “‘Snitches get stitches—’”
“For being punk-ass bitches,” the boys shouted together.
She laughed weakly as Drew, newly arrived, loped up to the group. He smelled like cigarette smoke. It made her queasy. Technically you weren’t allowed to participate in high school athletics if you used alcohol or tobacco. Coach Murphy looked the other way though. She was grateful that she rarely wrestled Drew in practice; most of the time, he was two weight classes above her. Drew wasn’t the kind of guy you wanted to look at the wrong way. His anger lived palpably under his skin in the quick twitch of his eyebrows, the way he always stood like he was hungering for a fight. He’d gotten in a lot of them. It was better for Drew not to notice you. She didn’t think he knew her name, or if he did, he didn’t care to use it; Drew called her and Jude “the girl” interchangeably.
Drew took a small amount of Kenshield before handing it to Mei. She squeezed a dollop of the foam into her hand and rubbed it into Jude’s skin. Jude was wearing a shirt with sleeves and leggings, so Mei only covered Jude’s forehead and the back of her neck. They checked each other to cover blind spots, like beach-goers putting on sunscreen.
“Fast feet!” Coach Murphy roared.
They jumped into formation, knees slightly bent, butt back, arms forward, all panting furiously as they pumped their arms and legs, then—
Their feet tapped out a crescendo.
They flung themselves to the ground, hearts sliding out of their chests and meeting them on the freshly bleached green mats. They turned onto their backs and did sit-ups and crunches, then push-ups. In the searing heat spreading from her abdomen to her flushed face, Mei thought of Chase timing her with a stopwatch as she ran breathlessly around the school track, her father driving her to Saturday morning practice, and Coach Murphy—a motley pantheon of faces she did not want to disappoint. They were holding planks now. Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, nine, and a collective groan from the wrestlers prone on the mat—Coach Murphy liked doing that, counting down and then restarting the count from the top without warning, so that they would have to grit their teeth and hold their positions. Kowtowing on their elbows. One person succumbing would mean twenty push-ups from everyone. Nobody wanted to be responsible for that.
Mei’s favorite part was bridging. There, the top of her head on the mat, her legs thrust out and her hips thrust up, the blood rushed to her head and made her feel the whole world was upside down. The boys and her, flying on a dark green sky.
Jude could bridge using only her legs and her head.
When they wrestled each other in practice, Mei marveled at the strength of Jude’s legs. Jude did modified picks with them, intertwining her limbs around yours the way a boa constrictor might wrap around a neck. Mei knew when Jude was about to do this, and Coach Murphy could see that she knew.
“Make the first move, Mei,” he said, watching them circle each other. “You’ve got to be aggressive, got to get on the offense, OK?” He jokingly snarled. “Show some teeth.”
Mei smiled weakly and dove in for a single leg takedown, seizing Jude’s thick pillar of a leg. It didn’t budge. Mei tugged fiercely. Peeking out from her black, Lycra leggings were ugly, red lines on Jude’s legs. A criss-cross railway junction of cuts.
Mei’s breath caught. Jude slammed her to the mat.
“Bravo, Jude,” Coach Murphy said. “You gonna do that tomorrow?”
Jude smiled. She looked childlike when she smiled. She had a soft, round face, and the smile folded into the pudge, like a crease in dough. She took off her headgear, two green pieces that went over the ears connected by black straps, and put it in the giant bag where they threw all their headgear after practice. Mei watched her walk away and then turned to Coach Murphy.
“Coach, how do you think I could improve? For tomorrow?”
He looked thoughtful. “You’re good at that single-leg takedown, but you need to get out of your comfort zone and try other things too. Fireman’s carry, two-leg—but you know what, it’s really more like I said, you gotta be aggressive. Not just ‘I don’t want to lose.’”
“That is what I think though,” Mei said. “I don’t want to lose.”
“That’s not enough. You’ve gotta think more, more—think like, this person’s your enemy. Hey, what do you do to your enemies?”
“I don’t really have enemies, Coach.”
“You’re a nice girl, Mei,” he sighed.
Mei cringed reflexively. This was the same thing Chase had said, in almost the exact same tone. She’d had an intractable crush on him since the early summer. She finally told him one night, three weeks before homecoming, sitting on his dark, front stoop while his parents were out of town. His back stiffened. “You’re just—you’re a nice girl, Mei,” he finally said. “I’d feel like I’d be, I dunno, corrupting you.” She’d wanted to protest, but she had no recourse for him simply not liking her back. “Nice girl.” It still stung.
Coach Murphy looked at her gently. “You’ve gotta forget that niceness on the mat. OK? The second you’re standing facing someone—Good Athletic Stance!—you want to destroy them. You wrestle like that, you win.”
She nodded and walked away, toward the gym doors which were open to the cold night air. The wind cooled her skin. She crossed her arms in front of her chest, conscious that her sports bra didn’t have enough padding, and looked for her dad’s car in the line of vehicles that crawled around the curb. There was Jude, getting into her family’s minivan. Jude, who would be her enemy tomorrow.
Mei found this difficult to imagine. “Enemy” was a word she associated with marauding soldiers in AP World History and Huns in Mulan, people who razed your village and burned your house. There was Hanna Goldman, who had gone to homecoming with Chase, but Mei smiled at Hanna when they passed in the halls. Once, she saw Hanna’s gym duffel sitting half-open on a cafeteria table when school was almost empty, the silent wasteland of four p.m., and she thought about stealing it and throwing it in the dumpster outside, where it would get soaked through with foul-smelling trash juice. She gave the tempting duffel bag wide berth as she crossed the cafeteria to the gym, avoiding even looking in its direction. That night she’d gone to their high school’s anonymous compliments page on Facebook and sent in a compliment about Hanna. “Hanna is really sweet and pretty and smart!”
“Mei!” her dad called, rolling down the window.
She hurriedly clambered into the back seat.
“You thinking about something?” he asked, after two minutes of silent driving.
“Just my match tomorrow.”
“You have to really fight someone this time? It won’t just be a forfeit?”
“I’ll win a forfeit too, but Coach wants me to get more experience, so they’re having me do an exhibition match. Against the other girl on the team.”
“Well that’s nice, isn’t it? Since you know each other?”
“No, it’s worse,” Mei exclaimed. “At least if it was some boy I’d never met, it wouldn’t be embarrassing if I lost, but I don’t want to be worse than her.”
“You know that Mom and I don’t care at all who wins or loses, right? We just want you to have fun and feel like you’re learning something.”
“I’m not doing it for you guys.”
“It’s just you get hung up on these things, Mei. We want you to know the second this stops being fun for you—”
“Dad, I know.” They drove past the brightly lit Subway that occupied a lonely spit of sidewalk in the middle of two roads, past the watershed preserve where Mei and her dad hiked sometimes on the weekends, before she started wrestling and had nine a.m. practices on Saturdays. Mei imagined what her Saturday would be if not for the tournament. Maybe she and her dad would go hiking and sit on the bench that was always soggy and take pictures of frogs. In the afternoon when it had gotten dark, winter announcing itself at four p.m., they would go home and put on a movie, and her dad would cover his eyes whenever anyone got hurt.
“She has no arms,” Mei found herself saying, her lips moving before her mind caught up. “Jude. The girl I’m wrestling tomorrow. She was born with some kind of problem, I think.”
“Is that fair? How does she wrestle?” her dad asked.
“She uses her legs.”
“She’s really strong. She’s on the swim team too. Anyway, she’s heavier than me. She always beats me in practice. She’ll probably win.”
“Guess we’ll see tomorrow,” her dad said. “We’ll be rooting for you!” He said it in a tone so light-hearted that Mei thought it bordered on sarcasm. She knew that when her dad said “we,” it really meant just him, because her mother was out of town until Monday for a conference. She rarely asked about the outcomes of Mei’s wrestling tournaments—at least, not before inquiring about her GPA.
After dinner Mei went to her room and lay on top of her butterfly-print covers on her stomach, scrolling through Jude’s Instagram. The pictures were all innocuous: a hot chocolate, a swim meet, a dog. It didn’t make sense, Mei thought. She realized that she was looking for something to explain the cuts. It was a compulsion for corrective knowledge, the way she had to know which answers she got wrong on every test. She scrolled all the way down. Jude looked smiley and good-natured, the kind of kid someone’s parents would call “well-adjusted.” She’d captioned her one picture in a wrestling singlet with the last lines of the poem “Invictus”: “I am the master of my fate, / I am the captain of my soul.” Their singlets didn’t cover any skin past the knee. Jude’s picture was square and high-ceilinged, cropped at her thighs.
In the morning Mei woke up and remembered that she had to destroy Jude. This colored her routine with a grimness matched by the weather outside. The skylight in the bathroom let in paltry gray light. Mei glanced up as she brushed her teeth, jabbing the vibrating electric toothbrush too hard into the corners of her mouth, and saw rain streaking down the slanted glass.
“Ready to go, Mei?” her dad called from the front door.
“Almost,” she said, spitting toothpaste into the sink. She’d made one of her gums bleed with the rough brushing. There was a swirl of red in the mess of paste trickling toward the drain. In her bedroom, she took off her pajamas, leaving them pooled around her feet, and pulled on her sports bra. She unfolded her sleek wrestling singlet and stepped into it, stretching it over her thighs and tugging the straps up over her shoulders. It was so tight she knew the straps would leave marks. She felt that her legs were a pair of sausages, newly encased.
“Mei?” her dad called again.
“Coming!” She slung her gym bag with her knee pads and wrestling shoes over her shoulder and ran out to the car.
When she got out at school, she noticed Coach Murphy and Coach Tara standing under their umbrellas talking with grave expressions on their faces. She listened closely to them as she walked toward the gym, walking slowly to hear more of their conversation.
“I don’t know what else Jude’s mom thinks we’re supposed to do,” Coach Murphy said.
“Yeah. I don’t know. Do you think we’re putting Jude under too much pressure?”
“Pressure? From us? Same expectations on all the kids, and they’re not all walking in looking like The Shining—”
“No, but we should say something.”
“Like what? ‘We’re concerned’—”
“I mean. That might make it worse.”
“This isn’t our—this is something a school psychologist should handle. If we had enough budget for a goddamn full-time school psychologist. I could have sworn we had a full-time one. Five years back maybe.” He shook his head.
In an almost whisper, Coach Tara: “Do you think someone’s—you know?”
They were both silent for a moment.
“Christ. She’d tell someone, right? Her mom said they already send her to counseling.”
“She hates asking for help,” Coach Tara said. “Remember how she tried to do that pick for weeks even when we hadn’t modified it well enough to—”
“Yeah. But these family counseling folks, they’re good at getting that stuff out. I dunno. You know what kills me? How does she do it. I know she has legs and all but…”
“Her feet, probably. Her mouth? I’d—uh.” Coach Tara noticed Mei standing by the doorway and fell silent.
“Run along, Mei,” Coach Murphy said lightly. “You should check in with Jason Beecroft’s mom, and get a snack from her for eating after weigh-in.”
Mei nodded and went into the gym. She would have to wrestle Jude in an hour. She said hello to Jason Beecroft’s mom, a mousy woman who wore floral cardigans and pastel-colored capris in all weather. She picked a sandwich in a Ziploc bag out of the Beecrofts’ cooler. Mrs. Beecroft had cut the crusts off, so the sandwich looked like a pressed white square. Mei took two bites before she remembered that she wasn’t supposed to eat before weigh-in. Embarrassed, she threw it away when no one was looking.
Before meets, the wrestlers gathered in the tiny physical therapy room, flattening themselves against the oval, metal tub and the stack of foam leg rollers and blasting music on Drew’s portable speaker. The speaker was fancy and waterproof and the size of Mei’s palm. When she peeked her head into the PT room, the boys were playing the rap song “Rack City” so loudly she could feel the sound against the walls.
“Rack city, bitch, rack rack city, bitch,” Jason and Drew were singing along. “Ten, ten, ten, twenty on yo titties, bitch.”
Mei wavered in the doorway.
“Mei!” Berto said. “C’mon in!”
“The girl wrestling someone today?” Drew drawled, jerking his head toward Mei without looking at her. “Rack City” continued in the background.
“Yeah. Jude,” Jason Beecroft said, swiping disinterestedly on his phone.
The responses were instantaneous.
“Is that fair? Jude’s bigger—”
“Yeah, but arms, so…”
“Yo, a catfight?” snickered one of the bigger guys Mei didn’t know well. “Time to film that shit and put it on PornHub.”
“Man, fuck you,” Berto said, shoving him.
“Yeah, that’s nasty,” Jason added. “If you’re trying to make their match sound like it’s a sex thing or whatever, you’re making all of us look gay.”
There was an outburst of incoherent protest for a moment at this suggestion, and then the song changed from “Rack City” to “Shots,” and they fell quiet until Drew spoke up.
“I heard the other girl cuts herself whenever she loses.”
“What?” Mei exclaimed.
“You’ve seen her cuts, right?” Jason said.
“Yeah, but—how do you know losing’s why?”
Jason shrugged. “That’s what I would do if I were pulling that kinda thing. It’s badass, you know? Punishing yourself for anything less than a win.”
“Don’t be that emo,” someone said contemptuously.
“You already done with weigh-in, Mei?” Berto asked.
“Oh. No, I have to go,” Mei said. “See you guys.”
Walking into the girls’ locker room, Mei could hear Jude before she saw her—singing along to “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls. The song was playing loudly out of a small speaker plugged into an iPhone sitting on one of the room’s wooden benches. Mei realized that Jude had been here for a while, avoiding the PT room entirely.
“Step on the scale,” Coach Tara said to Mei, then shook her head. “Point-four over.”
“You could try it without your clothes on,” Jude piped up. “Worked for me one time.”
Mei peeled off the singlet and her sports bra and underwear and stood again on the scale.
“Point-two,” Coach Tara sighed. “Try running a couple laps around the lockers.”
Mei stood aghast for a moment.
“We don’t have too much time, Mei,” Coach Tara said, tapping her watch. Mei started jogging, conscious of her small nipples forming sharp points as she ran. Her bare feet slapped against the floor. She heard someone else’s footsteps coming up behind her and turned. Jude was running with her singlet half pulled off. She looked like Liberty Leading the People, the painting they’d looked at in AP World History, Mei thought, if Liberty had had no arms. The cuts all across Jude’s legs were more visible now that she was in her singlet.
I don’t care, Mei thought.
She heard Jason Beecroft’s voice: that’s what I would do, it’s badass.
She tried to look away.
“Thought you shouldn’t go it alone,” Jude said in a singsong voice, catching up.
“Thanks,” Mei managed.
They ran the same pace around the lockers until they were both sweating. Mei started laughing, and then Jude was laughing too, the peals of their laughter filling the locker room until they slumped against the tiled wall.
“Try to pee too,” Jude said. “And spit. If you think you’ll be in a pinch next time, dehydrate yourself by visiting a sauna—I think they have one at Gold’s—wearing full sweats and synthetics, like a rain jacket that doesn’t let you breathe. You’ll sweat out most of your water weight.” More conspiratorially, she added, “I heard some people even try soaking cotton balls in OJ to fool their bodies into thinking they’re eating food. But I don’t think you need to do that.”
“Jesus. I don’t think I could ever do that.”
“Yeah, that’s okay,” Jude said lightly.
“How do you know all this stuff?”
“Instagram,” Jude said. “It’s kind of fun to read about how, like, actors and models lose weight or whatever. Like cutting thirty pounds in a month to play a role—”
“You can do that?”
“Yeah. Anyway, can you pee more to make weight?”
“I can’t anymore, swear to God.” She tried spitting. The saliva that dribbled out clung obstinately to her lip. She could taste the dryness of the roof of her mouth.
“There’s always a little more,” Jude said. She leaned closer to Mei to pat her on the back with the stump of her shoulder. It was a flailing motion, but Mei, looking up in the mirror as Jude did it, thought its endearing nature made up for the lack of grace. “Get it all out.”
“You sound like a farmer milking a cow,” Mei laughed.
“That’d help with cutting weight too, but I didn’t realize you were lactating…”
It took Mei a second to recognize Jude’s deadpan comment as sarcasm. It was utterly unexpected coming from Jude’s wide, innocent face. “God,” Mei said. “Can you imagine?”
“You saw during practice when Jase grabbed Berto’s moobs, right? It’d be, like, weaponized if you had milk shooting out. Wham, wham, wham!” Jude ducked and pointed her head each time she said, “wham,” gesturing with her head the way someone else might with an outstretched arm.
Mei laughed. “Now I just want to look up ‘pregnant wrestling’ on YouTube—”
“That sounds sketch,” Jude said.
“Oh my god,” Mei said again. “I didn’t mean it that way.”
“‘Pregnant wrestling,’” Jude snickered. “Definitely porn.”
“You sound like you know from experience,” Mei said slyly. “I mean—” She almost put her hand over her mouth as an apology gesture for being so crude, but Jude winked.
When Mei stepped on the scale again, she was 105.9.
“You girls have to get out there,” Coach Tara said, tugging Jude’s singlet back up. “You’re up.”
“Go ahead without me,” Jude said to Mei. “I have to take care of something real quick.” Mei walked out, hearing Jude and Coach Tara begin to discuss something in hushed tones. She didn’t turn around to look.
Berto gave Mei a fist bump as she emerged, walking alongside her. “The boys have a bet going,” he said.
“What kind of bet?” Mei asked.
“On you and Jude. They think you’ll let her win.”
Mei narrowed her eyes at Berto. “Why?”
He shrugged. “She doesn’t have arms. They think girls are like—you know, don’t want to win if it’ll make them look like a bitch. And you’re, like, a good person.”
“What did you bet?”
“I bet on you.”
Mei stopped. “You think I’m not a good person?”
Berto laughed. “You here to make friends, or you here to be a badass?”
Jude came out a moment late. In the middle of the buffed wooden floor of the basketball court were some rubber wrestling mats. There would be two matches going on simultaneously. Jason Beecroft had already finished his; he was bleeding from the nose profusely, and Mei stared with a morbid fascination as the blood dyed the faint hairs on his chest that peeked up over the low U of the singlet. Mrs. Beecroft looked hysterical. Her husband, a beefy man with fearsome eyebrows, patted her on the arm and issued gruff assurances. Jason’s a strong boy, he’ll be OK, no need to worry. Mei looked up at the bleachers to where her own father sat. He looked very pale. He was dressed so professorially compared to the other fathers, Mei thought; his grey slacks and woolen cardigan and spectacles made him seem a different species altogether from the other men—the Beecroft patriarch in his oversized Seahawks jersey, Jude’s big brother obnoxiously displaying his biceps in a silver-colored Under Armour tank top. She felt the urge to apologize to her father, to say, I’m sorry for making you come here where you don’t belong. He never watched sports for fun except maybe ice skating in the Olympics.
The balding referee came and stood on the mat. Mei and Jude stood at the starting lines. Mei tried to hate Jude. She tried to hate the oblivious way Jude didn’t even try to talk to the boys at practice, didn’t try to be one of them. The sloppy way her singlet straps were all twisted up on her shoulders. The girls’ singlets were cut higher than the boys’, so Mei guessed it didn’t matter, but she tried to hate that Jude wasn’t even wearing a sports bra underneath—did she not know any better, or did she not care? She had dark dinner-plate areolas. Mei fixated on hating these too.
She remembered Chase calling her a “nice girl” and stood with her feet a little further apart. Then she glowered at Jude’s neck. The referee blew his whistle.
Mei could hear the crowd cheering, but it felt far away, and maybe it was for the boys on the other mat anyway. She and Jude circled each other, dancing gingerly in the white ring. Be aggressive, Mei thought. She cut into Jude’s space and put her hands on the back of Jude’s head. When Jude ducked out, Mei grabbed her back, feeling the fleshiness under the singlet. Jude writhed away like an eel, throwing Mei off balance. She almost fell to her knees, and a cheer went up from some of their teammates—“Yeah, Jude!” “Go, Jude!” That sounded like Jason Beecroft—but she sprung back to her feet. You have arms, Mei told herself, you have no fucking excuse. She dove in for a double-leg takedown. There was something humorous in it, that to a spectator that second would have looked like she was bowing down to hug Jude’s legs, but the moment she gripped behind Jude’s knees and jerked her legs forward, any pretense of affection was gone. Jude fell back hard. She quickly turned over, crawling on her knees—almost out of Mei’s grasp, but then Mei threw herself forward, her shoulder at Jude’s rear, her head on Jude’s hip, her hand clutching Jude’s knee. Under her palm, Mei could feel the scabby, raised tracks of Jude’s cuts. She grimaced and loosened her grip. Jude sprang up explosively. Mei stumbled back to her feet just as Jude butted into her, knocking her to the outer edge of the ring. Mei seized one of Jude’s legs and held onto it, forcing Jude to hop around on one leg while frantically kicking the other. Mei looked at the angry, red lines of Jude’s cuts and thought of meat thawing out on a counter, an image that made her throat hot, her eyes narrow. She shook Jude’s leg back and forth with renewed energy until the referee blew his whistle.
They returned to neutral positions for the second period, watching each other warily.
The moment they began again, Mei put one hand on the side of Jude’s head. She could feel Jude’s hot breath tickle the sweat on her upper lip. Exhale. Mei pounced downward. She struck Jude’s ankle, and Jude fell. There was no one cheering now. Mei crouched on top of Jude to keep her from getting up. Jude was on her knees. Mei used her planted leg to twist herself around on top of Jude like a compass. She crouched over Jude’s straining back, arm crooked around the stump of Jude’s shoulder and across her clavicle, her other arm wrapped around Jude’s waist and digging between her legs, yanking and yanking—turn over, bitch, she thought, fucking turn over, she would split Jude apart. Jude was still keeping herself up on one shoulder. Mei knocked Jude off her shoulder, and Jude collapsed onto her side, Mei’s arm around her back. Mei shot her other elbow forward to the back of Jude’s head. She had Jude cradled in her arms now, Jude’s face full of her singlet. Jude grunted with exertion, trying to bridge, but Mei had her head raised too high off the mat. All she needed to do was pin Jude down. Mei bent over Jude, leg sticking out, arms around her. Jude wiggled frantically, thrusting her hips up. Stay down, Mei thought, stay fucking down, and she felt a creeping drumbeat in her blood, a shuddering slick with sweat she barely recognized as her own.
Mei smashed her chest into Jude’s.
Jude’s shoulder blades met the mat. Mei’s body quivered. The referee blew his whistle. Mei released and fell away from Jude, who lay prostrate on the mat. As Mei stumbled up, she felt naked suddenly in the singlet that hiked up her thighs, and she crossed her arms in front of her chest. She looked up at the bleachers to where her father was sitting. He had the same bemused expression he’d worn seeing Jason Beecroft bleeding on the mat. He did not seem to be looking quite at her but at something distant. When he saw her looking at him, he nodded and gave a small smile. Mei could hear Jude breathing raggedly next to her and became conscious of her own breathing and the noises of the crowd.
“Good match,” Jude murmured, standing up.
“Good match,” Mei echoed hollowly. She could not look at Jude, so she looked over her shoulder at the boys, sitting in their phalanx on the bleachers. They all looked unsure, like they’d seen something they didn’t know how to interpret. Except for Drew. His face was drawn into a sly smile. He looked directly at Mei and raised his fist, turned vertically as if gripping something. She was confused for a moment, but then he flipped up his thumb. She flinched.
“Great job,” Coach Murphy shouted from the other side of the gym. “You brought the fire this time!”
The fire carved bloody lines in her throat. Mei glanced at Jude, who looked wide-eyed with befuddlement, like a puppy submerged in its first bath. It was a more devastating expression than if she had looked angry. Mei blinked her eyes shut. She imagined telling Coach Murphy that there would not be a next time.
Yesterday she had been in Honors Lit, reading out loud the part of Lady Macbeth: “Come, you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, / And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full / Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood.” She was a good reader, didn’t stumble over words, projected her voice—but still, there was Ms. Sharma, asking her with a half-smile and eyebrows knotted together, Can you put more violence in your voice? Try to really feel it, Mei? And Mei had no words to explain that violence wasn’t a distant friend that required her to call it into being, a genie from a bottle. No, she was biting it back the way you swallow your thickened saliva when you’re trying not to vomit. If she read it as she felt it, the walls of the room would crumble and take her with them.
Coach Murphy had been wrong. All those flailing practices—it wasn’t that she was a nice girl. It was that they gave her the wrong enemy. Mei tongued her sandpaper throat, tasting iron. Her body on top of Jude’s. She had been trying to destroy her. Could the spectators see that?
Drew had. That look he’d given her, the thumbs-up. It was a horrible intimacy.
She looked down at her hand and realized there was a light beige-colored stain on her fingers, slightly sticky. She sniffed it and looked at Jude’s legs. That had been what Jude was doing with Coach Tara in the locker room all that time, Mei realized—putting concealer on the cuts. Now rivulets of sweat cut channels through the concealer, revealing the red underneath. One looked fresh, Mei realized. She shivered, feeling a phantom pain in her own leg, the uncomfortable sensation of burning barbs dancing on her own skin.
The adrenaline she’d been riding on was gone, ripped out from underneath her. Mei felt her expression slacken into blank-stared relief, as though she had escaped through the jaws of a tiger’s teeth. When she blinked she saw Jude’s legs, swiping at them in practice, trying to take her down. The referee stepped between them. He took Mei’s wet hand and raised it high in the air.