Naked before the mirror, Cortland considered his perfect body. Five-foot-ten, two-hundred-thirty pounds, the striations in his muscles rippling even at rest; decades invested in the gym had paid out full dividends. He shifted from side-chest pose into side-triceps, his favorite. He turned further to view the horseshoe pattern the triceps formed, a horseshoe big enough for a Clydesdale.
Flexing to full size, he remembered the cheers of the arena. Was he ready to let it go?
“Who’re you kidding, bro?” he said out loud. He hadn’t placed first in over two years, and at his age wasn’t likely to again, except in embarrassing “Over-whatever” leagues. He’d never do that. But he was already sick of the “When you getting back to it?” jibes, the “old man” jokes, or—worst of all—the sly hints that his continued training was delusional, vainglory, or anything besides him simply being who he was. His body was an aging champion’s prison, with no easy way out.
He picked up the business card from his dresser and thumbed the edge as he read it: “Transitions Body Art: Tattoos, Piercings, Specialty Work.”
He remembered when his old coach had dictated the terms of his own retirement. He’d only been thirty-five, but, being busy training up-and-comers, raising a family, and operating his own gym, he’d known his time was up.
“It’s like circumcision,” Coach said. “It’s an outward declaration that can’t be changed. But it’s a choice, God-damn it—a chance to grab old age by the balls and wring them dry!” Coach had certainly done that. After his visit to the parlor, no one expected him to compete again, but nobody gave him shit about aging out.
Cortland stood before the mirror and pushed his left arm onto his massive thigh as he slowly guided his right hand across his midriff, simultaneously flexing every muscle in his body. He held the pose until he started shaking, then caught his breath and called the studio.
# # #
After Cortland stripped to his underwear, the attendant led him into the dressing room. “How much padding you want?” she asked.
“Bullshit. How much?” she repeated. He shrugged. The woman held a pair of quilted lederhosen at arm’s length until he took them. “Wear them. It’ll cover your femoral arteries and your family jewels, your midriff, too. Muscle tears easier than you think.” He put them on. The woman was completely covered in padding.
“Anything for your neck and face?” she asked.
“It’s your love life.” She picked up her tool and opened the door to a dimly lit room. “In here.”
“I want a full minute,” he said. “No matter what happens. Give me sixty seconds and I’ll double your tip.”
“And if you die?”
Cortland shrugged and walked into the high-ceilinged room. The door clicked shut, a panel opened in the far wall, and the leopard stepped out and pounced. Stunned by the beauty of its muscles, the animal had nearly landed before his arms flashed out to grab it by the throat. The cat’s head twisted and plonked teeth deep into his hand, clawing and shredding the skin of his forearms. It kicked his abs and he realized he’d have been gutted without the padding. Yellow eyes boring into him, the leopard released its bite and leaned in to swat his head with a perfect roundhouse, claws digging into his ducking forehead and dragging through the flesh of his face. Nearly blinded by his own blood, he kneed the animal in the sternum and kicked it to the far wall. The cat rebounded like a racquetball, hitting him as he turned, digging its claws into his chest and back and biting his shoulder again and again as he scrunched to protect his neck. Dragged to the floor, the animal’s hot breath moistened Cortland’s face as he threw his right arm across his throat to save it. Teeth sank into his elbow with a crunch and then the gong sounded and the leopard released him.
“Back!” the attendant shouted, brandishing a cattle prod. She tossed a steak through the leopard’s doorway. It ran after the meat and the door closed.
“Bloody hell,” said the woman looking down at him.
“How long did I last?” he said.
“Twenty seconds,” she said, then bent down to examine him. “Nothing fatal. That perfect bod’s gone though. Pity.”
“Is it?” he asked.
With his good arm, he pushed into a seating position to examine his punctures and tears, his retirement body now a battle flag flying over a defiant fortress that had never surrendered, forever free.