I swear on my father's grave that water has never tasted so good.
I gulp it down until there's a subtle sloshing sickness filling my stomach. Piter watches me bemusedly, leaning against his Jetta and dragging on his Newport like if he pulls hard enough he can achieve enlightenment, world peace, a free meal at Arby's, something.
"Thanks for the water," I say, tossing the plastic bottle into a nearby trash can. Two points.
"You earned it, kid. Most people would've quit on me." I try to say something self-deprecating in reply, but he cuts me off. "That's a fact. You're the first guy I've found who has what it takes to learn what I have to teach. You proved that while you were running. You've got IT."
It? What sort of mystical quality do I have? What could make me special, different from the others he's found? It must be something basic, something I'm just overlooking. It's probably not that big a thing at all. "I have what? Stamina?"
"Nah, you were dead on your feet after the first six or seven miles." He takes another drag, one of the medium ones that means you're pacing this cigarette.
"Okay, uh, athletic talent?"
He grins like a shark. "Not quite. Don't get me wrong, you've got a lot of potential, but it's hardly been realized, yet."
Piter finishes his cigarette and flicks it to be taken by the breeze. "IT is something that's hard to describe, but I'll do my best, okay?" I nod. "You're determined, right, that's obvious. But it's more than just that. I could tell from the moment I first saw you that you're one of the stubbornest sons-of-bitches I've ever laid eyes on. You drove how many hours to get to that signing? Don't answer that, it's a rhetorical question. You've got something to prove, that's also obvious, and I don't think you're going to rest until the whole fucking world gets off its fat ass and says, 'Oh, quod erat demonstrandum!' You're an idealist in a less than ideal world, and I admire that. Put all that together and add a pinch of je ne sais quoi, and there you go. You've got IT."
After the initial embarrassment of being complimented wears off, I get a little hot under my collar. "That's all? How the fuck is this self-help, I'm okay, you're okay bullshit supposed to help me win my match? Am I gonna club Eddie Williams over the head with IT, or blind him with a pinch of je ne sais quoi?" He just stares passively at me as I glower at him. "When are we gonna start training? Because last I checked, I'm not facing Eddie in a road race."
"Are you done?" he asks, and if looks could kill, my hero would be dead right now. But no, he keeps right on breathing. "You think that whole business was about running? Teaching you stamina, breath control, some other shit like that?"
"No," I mutter. "I think it was some kind of lameass test."
"Well, yeah," he admits. "That was part of it. See, I needed you to run until you were tired enough to listen, tired enough that your body and mind separated and I could get to the rich caramel center of that thick skull of yours."
"Listen to what?" I ask, and maybe I sound a little sulky but I'm tired, just exhausted with fatigue, and I don't think I have the energy to get the training I need so badly. "That I have IT?"
"Wrestling," he begins, "is about two people stepping into a ring, and one of them wins, and one of them loses, and in the interim they put on the best show they can. When you step through those ropes, you're entering another world, and you have to leave Peter Griffith behind, because that's the Freedom Kid's world. Now, what do you think determines who wins and who loses?"
The question is so simple that it has to be a trick. Stronguy Mike beat me with his strength, but Piter isn't exactly a powerhouse. Jayson Child beat me with his toughness, but Piter isn't the type to soak up punishment, either. Fishboy, on the other hand... "Speed and wrestling skill?" I offer.
"Bzzt! Wrong." He taps his temple. "You can run circles around your opponent, if you want. You can cradle him like a baby, roll him up like a crepe, whatever. You can drop him on his head until his brain has the consistency of yogurt, or take it on the chin until he's worn himself out. I don't care. These are all a means to an end. I'm not going to teach you any of those things. You seem like a bright kid; you can learn them on your own. What I'm going to teach you is how to win... and," he adds, seemingly as an afterthought, "how to lose."
"I think I've got the whole losing thing figured out, thanks."
Piter shrugs. "Think what you want, kid. I'm not getting paid for my time, so take from me what you will. I just think it would be wrong of me to let somebody like you go on wrestling without knowing some important things."
"Like what? The Laws of C Plus?"
"Nah, I think everybody who could give a damn what Bryan had to say knows those by now. What I'm talking about is a mindset you need to develop. Mind you, this isn't going to come overnight. You'll have to work at it."
"Right, okay, but work at what, exactly?"
"Preparation You need to be ready to fight at the drop of a hat, no matter the circumstances. Drunk off your ass, high as a Boeing, tired as a narcoleptic third-shift worker. Rain, sleet, hail, snow, it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter if your opponent is Martin or Darkstar, your archnemesis or your best friend, you have to be ready."
"Sure, dude, I'm always up for a fight. Don't go looking for them or anything, they just seem to find me."
He nods. "But the thing is, you also have to be ready to NOT fight. What I'm saying is, you must be always ready to go to war, but pick your battles nonetheless."
"Pick my battles. Right. Gotcha. And you said something about how to lose?"
"Sometimes the real battle isn't fighting in that ring. Sometimes, there are more important things at stake. What would you say if I told you you can't beat Eddie Williams?"
"Fuck you! The guy is a Pansyass. He's the losingest wrestler in this promotion! If I can't beat him..." I can feel my Adam's apple starting to bob of its own free will.
"Well, it's just that, I mean, if I can't beat HIM..." My mind is going blank and my chest is getting tight enough to play a drumroll on. I feel my mouth moving, the breath coming out, all without trying to speak. "I'm a loser. Just like everybody said."
"I think you just found the real battle, kid. C'mon. I'll give you a ride back to your car."