Here’s an odd thing: I don’t remember a single image from this match. Nothing. Like it never happened. In a way, it never did. The world moved in such a way that night that certain events were crystalized and others erased. I know that John Cena enters the challenger and leaves WWE Champion. I know that he exits the steel cage and climbs atop the announcer’s table. He asks for his music to stop. He takes up a microphone. It is 10:55pm. “We have caught and compromised to a permanent end Osama bin Laden,” he says. The crowd, 10,000 strong in Tampa Bay, roars. The WWE’s battery of cameras take stock of the audience, many of them reacting in shock at this news, which they are hearing for the first time. Then, in that most time-honored tradition of wrestling crowds, a rousing chant of “U-S-A” sweeps the St. Pete Times Forum. “This is something tonight,” Cena says, clutching his WWE Championship. “I feel damn proud to be an American.” John Philip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever” plays. Cena exits, high-fiving the fans in the front row. At the top of the ramp, he salutes the crowd.
For four years now, I’ve had the phrase “compromised to a permanent end” looping like a Vine kept running in an otherwise forgotten tab. Where was I that night? At a Buffalo Wild Wings, then at home, awake for two days and watching CNN because I wanted to feel the usually quieted pulse of America. President Obama said something that night, but I can’t recall what it was. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson appeared on Raw the next night and said something, but I can’t recall that, either. There is only John Cena, compromising bin Laden, our mutual enemy, to a permanent end. A wall of big screen televisions. The CNN logo. A reporter, live at the site where the World Trade Center towers once stood, microphone thrust out to a group of two, maybe three young women. What I remember about them was that they were drunk, that they were celebrating. Like we accomplished something. I am thinking about this moment because it is easy, linking American professional wrestling to America’s sense of self. If the WWE is proud of anything, it is proud to be that quieted pulse of America, occasionally roused. An episode of SmackDown! was the first public gathering of its size after the events of September 11. Its heroes—Hulk Hogan, The Rock, Steve Austin, The Undertaker, John Cena—have metaphorically battled every evil America has ever faced: Communism, the Japanese auto industry, corporate culture, Canada. But wrestling, like the United States itself, has always held the Middle East in special regard. Consider the fireball-throwing Sheik of Detroit, the Iron Sheik from Tehran, Iran, the “homicidal, suicidal, genocidal” Sabu. Consider Muhammed Hassan, whose heel gimmick was that he was justifiably tired of being seen as a terrorist because of the color of his skin. How they eventually made him a terrorist whose attack on the Undertaker was as close an approximation to a terror cell’s snuff film as wrestling would allow. How, at the bequest of UPN, the network which aired SmackDown!, The Undertaker literally chokeslammed Hassan to Hell and never mentioned him again. How, in its portrayal of race, professional wrestling is often at its ugliest. It gathers us all to the site of this or that weeping eye and revels in our wincing at its willingness to jab a thumb in it.
I am thinking about this moment because it is 3:30 in the morning on November 14, 2015, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to sleep. I’m thinking about John Cena and how freakishly connected the world is. I am thinking of John Cena and how we often only know about major world events through proxy, how those events are put into words by people who’ve never experienced them, and how those words stand for the event regardless. I am thinking of John Cena in conjunction with events that took place this week at the University of Missouri. I am thinking of John Cena in conjunction with the events that took place yesterday in Paris. I don’t know what it means that I am thinking of John Cena at a time like this, that the phrase “compromised to a permanent end” is ringing out, right now, and that I can’t get it to stop. I only know that I can’t sleep. Right now I only know the reality of this keyboard and the “reality” of the Internet and the fallibility of memory and the certainty that, months from now, I will have forgotten the number of times I searched twitter for The Eagles of Death Metal or watched video from the friendly between France and Germany or flinched as the usual racist invective that follows an event like this became more and more prevalent on my various timelines. Over a friend’s shoulder and the heads of a group of arguing, drunk undergraduates at a bar, a headline reads that those responsible for the attacks in France were “neutralized.” Compromised. Permanent. Like a memory, only this is someone else’s memory and it is being told to me. Tomorrow it will be retold. A month from now it will be retold again. In a year. In five years. In ten. Twenty. Until the day I die. Which fragments of this day survive will depend entirely on who does the telling and who does the listening.
On May 1, 2011, John Cena told me that bin Laden died, and he told me how to feel. In the parking lot of that Buffalo Wild Wings, I felt hollow. Yesterday, the story in Paris unfolded over social media. In Columbia, days prior, it was the same. I stayed up late both nights, refreshing feeds and watching videos. I did this for Ferguson. I did this for Boston. I did this on September 11, up for two days watching tower one fall, then tower two. Over and over. This angle. That angle. I was thirteen. I was twenty-three. Twenty-five. Twenty-seven. I wonder why I do this to myself. Why I am awake right now, writing this. I want to remember, I suppose. To have something more on my ledger than I was watching wrestling when I heard about bin Laden. I want to tell my story about today, even if it is the least essential one, because I think it is becoming increasingly important to examine how one is exposed to trauma by proxy, how a day ebbs and flows in rhythm to the information one is able to accrue at a distance of 4,317 miles.
I was transcribing a recording of a focus group for work or I wasn’t. I was checking Twitter every five minutes for updates, the death toll rising and descriptions of various scenes growing more apocalyptic. A friend of mine posted a lengthy message to her Facebook wall about how her father had been in Paris but wasn’t anymore, how he was safe but she didn’t know that at first, how she called him praying for a response. I cried. I remembered texting my sister’s ex-boyfriend earlier this year while a gunman stalked the campus of the Philadelphia school he taught at. Safe. I remembered texting my best friend from high school while Boston was locked down. Safe. My friend texted me and said she was drunk and asked if I wanted to get a burrito, and I did. I wanted to escape. I wanted nothing more than to hug her. On the TV in the burrito place, CNN and the word “neutralized” among several other screens showing college football. Think about Missouri. Think about sports. Think about escape, the impossibility of that action. We go to a bar. I drink a coffee. Neither of us talk about France or Missouri, but we speak to other fears. I’ve been having panic attacks lately. I’m broke. I look happy in all of my pictures, but that reality and the reality of my anxiety can exist at the same time. We leave the bar for a cookie. There is a preacher on the corner, shouting verse into a megaphone. Curiously, there is a police barricade surrounding the preacher. We’re eating our cookies. A man walks past the preacher and yells “Fuck Jesus!” a few times because he is drunk, and this is what drunken people do to street preachers. The drunk kid continues walking, but an officer chases after him, yelling “Hey! Hey! Hey!” and it is clear, immediately, that he will be arresting the kid, that 4,317 miles from Paris, it is Christianity that must be defended. Five officers converge on the kid. It looks like he is going to resist, but he thinks better of it and is white, so he is placed in cuffs quietly. We approach an officer who is left behind by the others as they move the kid towards a waiting cruiser, and he is saying something about how, in this climate, a person saying “the f-word about Jesus” can be construed as picking a fight or worse. The preacher continues shouting verse into his megaphone. One of the cruisers’ lights is turned on. We beat it to my car because what can we do, a drunk lesbian and an anxious trans woman? When I make it home, all I can do for awhile is sit in my car and breathe. Fear permeates everything. I still can’t sleep.
I have the match, the actual match, open in a tab, but I won’t be watching it. I need only my memory of Cena and his words. Compromised to a permanent end. He means that everything is going to be okay, but he can’t be sure. There’s a moment, on the announce table, where it looks like John Cena is going to cry. Real tears. When he says he’s proud to be an American, he means it. It’s easier that way, to think of life in terms of Hustle, Loyalty, and Respect. The only thing missing from this moment is a balloon drop. The only thing missing is confetti. The only thing missing is a clean-up crew, push-brooming that shit under the ring, under the rug, under a warzone erected for our entertainment and distraction for three hours at a time. Compromised to a permanent end. How reality punctures the screen. How it brings us together, even across oceans. How we are united by several impulses at once: Solidarity, bereavement, fear. I still can’t sleep. Today is bleeding into yesterday. The fragments that I’ve left out will be compromised, perhaps to a permanent end, but if I stay awake I can let them linger a little longer and take what pleasure I’m able. Elation, attraction, hope. The day has a kind of music to it, the way a championship match does. Even if I can’t remember the match. Even if I don’t like the music.