Tough Love

Dan wanted to become a boxer. I wanted to take care of a boxer. Or so I thought.

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Let me just say that I am not Annie. Annie is not me. We actually have nothing in common. Well, except for two things: Dan, who is my husband, and Sylvester Stallone.

For me, it all started in bed. I spend a lot of time in bed — working on my laptop, reading, talking on the phone, eating all sorts of crumbly foods. We recently bought a cheap television for the bedroom, so that we can watch The Simpsons and Seinfeld while we eat dinner in bed. I find this heavenly.

Again, it all started in bed…

Dan and I are laying in bed, curled up on a cold Saturday morning, watching Ali Raps, the Muhammad Ali special on ESPN. Chuck D from Public Enemy stands in a boxing ring and talks to the camera, forcefully narrating the course of Ali’s career. The program is interspersed with notable people reciting Ali quotes.

That’s when Dan says it: “I’ve always wanted to box.” He’s staring almost desirously at a young Ali pummeling some British boxer. The British boxer, now a stately old gentleman, describes the pummeling in a nostalgic and good-humored voiceover. Ali swings at his jaw and it cracks wide like an earthquake. When the Brit is back on the screen, leaning back in a wide easy-chair in a library, I check to see if he has any horrible scars. No, he’s very handsome.

“You really want to box?” I ask.

“Well, people always tell me that I look like a boxer,” Dan replies, and takes a bite of his grilled cheese sandwich. He scatters greasy crumbs along the ribboned edge of the quilt.

Now, Annie knew Dan before he was my husband. Dan and I were “just friends” in a sort of test-phase friendship that we knew would lead to apathy, post-affair disappointment, or love. This is not something that you talk about; it’s an intuited relationship vibe. One day you are friends, and the next day you are grim acquaintances or dating. I was betting on the latter, but I was playing it slowly. I considered myself a fairly suave relationship strategist. Looking back, I can see I was relying on good looks and dumb luck.

Dan lived in an apartment across a parking lot from a gym. He was a literature grad student and had a lot of free time while he put off writing his dissertation, so he spent three hours working out, six days a week. He had a beautifully sculpted body and would walk around his apartment naked most the time. He would just walk in the door and, within seconds, he’d be naked.

Annie worked as a receptionist at the gym. Dan would be there every afternoon at two, after the lunch rush but before the after-work crowds. His headphones on, listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Dan would quietly stride through the gym, moving from bench to bench in his shorts and muscle shirt. He is very shy, so he would keep the headphones on even when he forgot his Chili Peppers tape.

After weightlifting, Dan would ride a stationary bike and read Foucault or William Carlos Williams or, perhaps, the collected Calvin and Hobbes. Whatever he read, I am sure that he was remarkable among the hordes of elderly women who were bused in every afternoon from the nearby retirement community.

Annie noticed. She began commenting on his dependability, barstool jokes about setting her watch by him and “old reliable.” She also asked the pick-up-line of all pick-up-lines, “So, how much can you bench?”

Dan remembers looking up from bicep curls and seeing her smiling at him like a waitress waiting to hear an order — an expectant, austere smile.

He insists now that it wasn’t sexual. Or even romantic. She was married with two kids, and she was a blonde. “You know I don’t find blondes attractive,” he declares categorically.

But then one night as he was walking naked around his apartment, eating take-out Chinese and talking on the phone to me (his reliable “just friend” who happens to be a brunette), he spotted something outside. A woman was sitting in a beat-up Ford Taurus underneath his second-floor window. By the spotty light of the parking lot lamppost, he saw a halo of blond hair and well-defined shoulder muscles.

“Christ, is Annie stalking me?” Dan was raised Catholic, so sometimes his rhetorical questions are directed at Jesus and/or God. Neither answered, but I told him to hide behind the curtains so that he wouldn’t appear to be encouraging her by his Full Monty display.

As Dan peered out from behind the curtains, the Taurus backed up and left the parking lot; it was on the main road before the headlights came on.

Ironically, this episode catapulted our relationship from “just friends” to something more official. It gave us something to talk about — shared speculation about what Annie wanted and whether or not she was Fatal Attraction crazy.

Early one morning, as we sat in Dan’s breakfast nook drinking coffee, Annie knocked on the door. She was clearly bothered that I was there, wearing a bathrobe and a pair of Dan’s jeans with the legs and waist rolled. She handed an envelope to Dan and said “Well, I guess that I’ll see you at two…same time, same place.” She laughed tentatively and the skin around her eyes quivered slightly. She looked tired and wary.

After she left, Dan opened the envelope and read the paper inside. “Rambo?” he said, and quizzically pulled something from the envelope. It was a Rambo pin, with Sylvester Stallone standing in a jungle, holding a spiky machine gun. He was oiled up and covered in black soot, a red tie looped around his forehead. Dan handed me the letter and kept looking at the pin. The letter was short, written in a neat, sharp hand.

“Dear Dan,” the letter read. “I have always needed a hero. I was sexually abused as a child and didn’t trust anyone. I’ve been betrayed my parents, family, even my husband. No one was dependable. That’s when I saw Rambo. He is so strong and brave. I saw all the Rambo movies again and again. He saved me from drugs and led me to The Lord. I recognized Rambo in you when I first met you…you look so much like him. Do you watch the movies? I would like to watch them with you and teach you all about him. Thank you for being there, Annie.”

She didn’t mean “being there” figuratively. She meant being there, just physically there. A symbol in her life. Being a lone Rambo. What is the tag-line from Rambo: First Blood? “A one man war.”

Not much happened after the letter. Dan never brought it up with her and went to the gym less and less frequently, instead going hiking or playing tennis with me. She probably stopped expecting him at two, because some days he would go to the gym in the morning or the evening or not at all. In other words, he stopped being there.

That was five years ago. We now live across the country, in Philadelphia. It’s a new and different life. Or at least I thought so, until that moment in bed when Dan said “I’ve always wanted to box.”

See, Dan does look like a boxer. Not the Mike Tyson falsettoed Godzilla type, but a middle-weight type with Lamborghini lines. Dan is heavy-thighed but strangely delicate looking. When he lies under a blanket, he is mountains of shoulders and thighs that taper like the limbs of the Barberini Fawn. His grandfather was a boxer in Detroit, and Dan has inherited his build, his thick dark hair, his two-pack-a-day habit.

Dan takes me to see Rocky Balboa the night we watched the Ali documentary and suddenly I see it — Dan does look like Sylvester Stallone. When Stallone-as-Rocky is fighting the new heavyweight champion in the Las Vegas Pay Per View fight, I am fantasizing about Dan in the ring, beating the bejesus out of the punk upstart. Hell, we live in Philadelphia, home of Rocky, home of Smokin’ Joe Frazier. How can Dan not box?

I will play Adrienne to his Rocky (I look amazing in glasses), and pick him up from his training sessions, pulling up outside of Frazier’s Gym on Broad Street. Dan is tousled and bruised. He will get sweat all over my car seats, and I’ll scold him lovingly to put a towel down first. His torso will become chiseled in the perfect-V look that boxers get from twisting their oblique muscles to swing their arms. He will start with a few practice fights, wearing head gear, and then maybe some local bouts. I know he is never going to box professionally — he’s a 30-something literature professor — but there are plenty of lawyers and ad-men who box on the weekends. He can kick their asses.

Dan quickly loses enthusiasm. For him, the boxing comment was a cast-off. He would like to box but would never be motivated enough to buy gloves and silky shorts. It was a nice daydream. But for me, it’s a compulsive fantasy. I start researching gyms at work and imagining Dan in all the scenes from Rocky Balboa. I rent all the earlier movies and watch them while Dan works late at the college.

I ask my friend Monica if I am objectifying Dan — reducing him to a Sylvester Stallone action figure. Am I Annie? “No, Dan’s yours to objectify. Some women want their men to dress up as the Pizza Boy, you just want him to be Rocky. It’s not that creepy.”

Monica is right about the sexual fantasy behind my obsession. The Brute and the Lover are closely aligned in our mythology. Odysseus returns to his faithful and chaste wife and proceeds to slaughter her suitors and the servants who stood by. Sir George slays the dragon for the Fairy Queen and then collapses, slick with beastly blood. Even Popeye can change from Olive Oil’s wimpy devotee to a spinach-chomping bad ass. Sex as violence, violence as sex. We live and die by those twin urges.

But while watching Rocky II late at night, I realize that my obsession is about more than sex and brutality. If Dan was hyper-masculanized, if he played out the roles of his look-alike Stallone characters, that would allow me to be pliant and feminine. That’s what Annie wanted. She wanted someone to attack all of her worries, to fix her past, so she didn’t have to deal with the pain. She wanted a savior. A savior who would allow her to be passive and not confront the horrors of her childhood.

With that realization, I turn off the movie. The next day I sign up for judo lessons. My instructor, Karen, says that my years of ballet training have prepared my body to kick some major ass. If I ever see Annie again, I think I’ll give her Karen’s card. After all, every woman should have a chance to be Sylvester Stallone. •