Mark always goes on second dates. After he gets home from the first date, guys his age, in their late 20s, and sometimes men in their early 40s, will text or call him to say hi, that they had a great night, can they do it again sometime, and then they do. There is a story that Mark tells on these first dates that he believes secures the second one, and this linchpin is only dropped when he is truly attracted to the person sitting across from him. It’s a story about a game he played as a child. From 1996 to 1999, Mark’s favorite game to play was called Kerri Strug.
In 1996, the Summer Olympics were held in Atlanta. The United States Women’s Gymnastics team, the Magnificent Seven, competed against Ukraine, Romania, and Russia. In the ’90s, women’s gymnastics was less about power and force and more about calculated, delicate grace on the mat. The Russians continued to dominate, as they had for decades. But on July 23, 1996, the U.S. team held a 0.897 lead. In the final rotation, the Russians went into floor routines and the U.S. went to vault. If the Magnificent Seven collapsed, the Russians could take the gold. At the time, Mark was six and a half years old.
Kerri Strug, a four-foot-eight gymnast from Tucson, Arizona, competed last. Her teammate, Dominique Moceanu, had just fallen twice, earning a poor score of 9.162. Kerri was the last to vault for the United States.
In her first vault, Kerri under-rotated the landing and fell to a seated position, injuring her left ankle. Her coach, Hungarian Béla Károlyi, was broadcast on national television yelling, “Kerri, we need you to go one more time. We need you one more time for the gold. You can do it. You better do it.” When Mark tells this story, he uses an accent for Coach Károlyi, which is subtle but quite good. This makes his dates laugh into their napkins.
On Kerri’s second vault, she stuck the landing. As soon as her arms were raised in completion and she turned to face the judges, she fell to her knees. The crowd exploded, and Mark spilled his mother’s club soda onto the carpet. Coach Károlyi lifted Kerri into his arms as she waved to the crowd. When she stood with the Magnificent Seven to hear the United States’ national anthem, Kerri Strug was the only one not wearing pants.
“I just love that she was like, ‘No,’ ” Mark says, “ ‘I’m not putting pants on over my broken-ass ankle.’ ”
After Mark explains the cultural relevance, he describes what became his favorite game to play: “Kerri Strug,” which consisted of Mark running to the long side of the L-shaped couch in his parents’ bedroom, doing a front handspring over the length of it, partially landing on his feet, and making his older sister Sheena carry him away. Sometimes he would take the flowers from his mother’s nightstand and announce his gold-medal win. Sometimes Sheena would play the national anthem on her recorder while Mark removed his pants, received his “medal” (a CD attached to some twine), and placed a hand to his chest. Mark played Kerri Strug so much that the couch cushion became discolored and limp on one side.
On a Friday night in October, Mark meets Ted. Mark works the front desk at the SoulCycle in Hoboken, New Jersey, and one of his coworkers—one of the two Black people working there besides him—invites him to a party, and that’s where he is introduced to Ted. Ted is 25 and he’s very cute and he looks like at least one of his parents is Black; Mark has a feeling it’s his mom. Ted doesn’t smile with his teeth, which is also cute, and he says he’s never been to a spin class. Mark offers to get him in whenever he wants, and then Ted says, “Do you want to go to dinner first?”
Ted takes Mark to a restaurant that requires a reservation. They sit upstairs, where they can see the rest of the restaurant over a steel-coated balcony. They order appetizers and salads, and they both eat bread from the basket. They are halfway into their entrees when Mark finds himself telling the Kerri Strug story. He can’t help it. Ted is really, really cute. Ted laughs and shakes his head at the story. “That’s incredible,” he says. “Do you want to share a dessert?”
As Mark dips into a flourless chocolate cake, he thinks, I have such a crush on you. He listens to Ted tell a story of the time his sister received a chastity ring from his parents, and how Ted was given what his father called “chastity rollerblades.” “They technically ended up working. I never slept with any girls,” Ted smiles. “And I’m a decent rollerblader, so it all evens out.”
“If you’re a decent rollerblader,” Mark says, “then you’ll probably be great at SoulCycle.”
“I don’t know...” Ted says. “Don’t you have to be...locked into the bike? I don’t like the idea of not being able to just hop off.”
“Clipping in and out isn’t scary at all, I promise,” Mark says. “It’s just like skiing. Don’t worry, I’ll help you.”
Ted takes a second before he looks up and says, “Okay. That sounds good.”
Mark looks over the balcony and thinks, We will definitely kiss tonight. But then, Mark’s eyes land on a booth at the back of the restaurant, and in this booth, next to her husband, is Kerri Strug, of the Magnificent Seven, eating salmon and bok choy. Her hair is in a long bob and her feet barely touch the floor. She’s in a black shift dress, and her shoulders are muscular in a way that makes her head look quite small from the aerial angle. Mark finds himself breathing hard and blinking eight times. He grips both sides of the table and says, “Holy fucking shit, goddammit.”
“Are you okay?” Ted leans forward and touches his hand.
“I don’t ... ummm ...” A buzzing starts behind Mark’s ears, and he can’t seem to close his lips. “Because...Kerri Strug...”
Mark places his elbows on the table, looks at his plate, and frames his face with his hands. “Kerri Strug is eating salmon. Right there. She’s in here. She’s right there.”
“You’re kidding,” Ted says. “You were literally just talking about her.” He sits up and glances over the railing. “Which one is she?”
“Shh shh shh shh!” Mark grabs at his heart and takes another breath. “I don’t want to make it a thing.”
Ted laughs a little. “You should definitely go down there and tell her that you vaulted over a stool for most of your childhood.”
“It wasn’t a stool.” Mark peeks over the railing, his fingers at both sides of his face. “It was the couch in my parents’ bedroom.”
“Your parents had a couch in their bedroom?”
“Wow.” Ted sips his water. “How big was their bedroom?”
“Like ... I don’t know, standard size?” Mark hisses. He catches himself and turns back to Ted. “I’m sorry. I’m being awful,” he says. “My heart is just pounding right now.”
Ted asks if Mark wants to meet Kerri Strug or wait ’til she’s gone, that he would completely understand either way. Mark considers it for a full 30 seconds, and he chooses not to try to meet her. The last thing he wants is to be annoying to Kerri Strug, and the whole thing is just too much pressure. Ted says, “Good choice. Never meet your heroes.” Then he orders two more glasses of wine.
Four minutes after Kerri Strug leaves, Mark and Ted stand up to leave too. Downstairs, Ted uses the bathroom and Mark waits for him. When Ted comes out, Mark holds up a box of matches from a small white box at the hostess stand and says, “I love this font,” and Ted says, “Let me see.” And as Mark hands him the box of matches, Kerri Strug opens the adjacent door to the women’s bathroom. She’s right there, maybe five feet away, pulling her coat onto her shoulders. Mark gasps and says, “Ohmygod.”
Kerri’s eyes light up in intrigue. A man joins her, and his stare follows Kerri’s to Mark’s fierce focus on his wife. The couple stands in the heat of Mark’s attention until Kerri moves her face an inch to the left. She says, “Can I help you?”
“I...” Mark can’t look at her. He speaks into his chest. “I...Ohmygod.”
Ted steps forward and places a hand on Mark’s shoulder. “Hi, this is Mark,” he says to Kerri Strug. “He’s a huge fan of yours. He has been since he was a kid.”
“Oh, no way.” Kerri smiles. “That’s really nice. Hi, Mark.” Mark inhales and says, “Jesus Christ.”
Mark is fairly certain that his visceral reaction is coming out in the way it should, like he’s a starstruck fan who’s nervous and amazed. But that isn’t how it feels. Meeting Kerri Strug doesn’t feel good. It feels...awful? It feels like that sick realization that you’ve been overheard talking shit by the person you were talking shit about. Standing in front of her, Mark feels like he’s been caught. Like he’s been using Kerri Strug for years, and now he has to answer for it. All in front of Ted. He moves his hands to his pockets, then on his hips, then back in his pockets as he tries to speak. “I just...wow, I’m sorry...”
“Do you guys want a picture?” Kerri Strug’s husband steps in. He’s got a big face and lots of hair, and he looks nice, like the kind of person who originally didn’t want to own a dog but, upon getting one for his family, has become fairly obsessed with it.
Ted says, “That would be awesome, thank you,” and hands Mr. Kerri Strug his cell phone.
Kerri switches places with Ted and stands next to Mark. She winks up at him and links her arm into his as her husband holds up the phone. Mark inhales and tries to smile naturally, but his face looks as if he’s heard an off-color joke and he’s not sure if he should laugh.
After a few taps on Ted’s phone, Kerri’s husband says, “I think we got a few good ones in there.”
Kerri says, “I may have blinked on that last one,” but as she says this, Mark’s face flushes with heat. Mark hiccups once—he swallows politely into a fist—and then he proceeds to vomit onto the floor and Kerri Strug.
Kerri and her husband gasp together, and Ted covers his mouth with the back of his hand. The vomit is clear in some parts and a burnt-orange color in others. It’s mostly on her left wrist, the one she’d slipped into Mark’s elbow, and she holds it out in front of her as it drips. Mark grips his mouth as his eyes fill with mortification. Kerri stares at her hand—as if she’d been getting a tattoo, and upon completion, she’d discovered that the artist had taken too many creative freedoms without discussing them first. She blinks and says, “Oh, wow. Okay, hi.”
Mark remembers the hostesses bringing towels and hand sanitizer. He remembers Kerri Strug’s husband making at least three bad jokes to make him feel better while Kerri went to the bathroom. He remembers apologizing ’til his voice cracked and shutting up so he wouldn’t cry. He remembers Kerri coming out of the bathroom and saying, “Hey, seriously? Not a big deal. I promise.”
Outside, down the street, Ted says, “I’d ask if you want to get another drink but...”
“Yeah no, sorry,” Mark says. “I have to go home and kill myself, so...”
Ted says, “Let’s get you a cab.”
At home, Mark takes a 40 minute shower, and at one point, he sits down in the tub. Mark texts approximately 12 people and tells them all what happened. Four of those 12 call him, and when he answers, they say, “Excuse me?” With his phone at 4 percent, he stands in a towel, across from the mirror, and texts Ted. “Is it weird if I want to see the photos?” Ted sends them. There are three. Kerri looks kind and normal. In one of them, she’s doing a little wave. Mark looks scared and sickly, like a pre-schooler who has yet to fully understand what smiling means other than displaying one’s teeth. Mark texts back: “Wow. He’s beauty and he’s grace. He’s Miss United States.”
Ted writes back, “lol hope you feel better!”
Mark makes a face. He thinks this is kind of a weird text to send and the kind of thing you say when you don’t feel like texting. But Mark tells himself to just go to bed. He has to be at SoulCycle in seven hours. Ted will surely check on him in a few days. He should really just call it a night.
But Ted doesn’t check on him. Three days later, Mark texts Ted and says, “So how about we try that again?” But Ted doesn’t respond. And a week later, after Mark drinks too much at a bottomless brunch, Mark texts Ted again. This time he says, “You’re Mean.” Ted doesn’t respond.
And one week after that, in one of the most embarrassing moves of his life, Mark accidentally thumbs-ups his own previous text, the one saying “You’re Mean,” at one in the morning on Halloween night. He immediately unlikes it, and then he throws his phone to the other side of the bed. Ted never texts Mark back, and he’s the only guy Mark has wanted a second date from who hasn’t wanted the same in return.
TWO YEARS LATER, Mark is no longer working the front desk. He’s a SoulCycle instructor. His classes fill up within the first seven minutes of sign-ups, he has more than 8,000 followers on Instagram, and one time, after two rounds of auditions, he was chosen to appear on The View. You could see him smiling and pedaling behind Whoopi Goldberg, and at the end, they high-fived.
It’s April, and Mark is invited to a dinner party. In his room, he puts on a tank top, and as he stands in front of his mirror, he thinks, This is probably inappropriate. He texts his friend Elizabeth, the one hosting the dinner party, and asks her if a tank top is inappropriate. She says, “For you, it’s not,” and Mark says, “Okay, good.”
Mark kisses Elizabeth as he enters and puts a bottle of wine in her hand. She says she’s been missing him, and he says she looks cute. She says no, that she isn’t cute at all tonight, and she leads him to the dining room. Sitting and standing are girlfriends of Elizabeth’s that Mark has met many times. As he hugs one of them, he sees a man standing in the kitchen nearby. The man turns around, and Mark locks eyes with Ted.
“Ummm...” Mark purses his lips. “Hi.”
Ted’s face looks like a song in his headphones has just come on too loud. He says hello back.
“So, Mark...” Elizabeth says, “The only people you don’t know are Savannah and Ted.”
Mark says, “Hi, Savannah and Ted.” He’s proud of his voice, which is confident and irked. He keeps Ted’s stare easily and grins twice as hard as when he entered.
“I have to pee,” Mark announces, and he pulls Elizabeth into the bathroom in the hallway. “That’s him,” he tells her.
“Who’s him?” she asks. Then, she unbuttons her pants as she says, “Are you not peeing? Because I actually have to go.”
Mark shakes his head. “That’s the Kerri Strug guy,” he says. “Ted is the Kerri Strug guy.”
Elizabeth sits on the toilet, and Mark watches her face make the connection. “No,” she says. “Ohmygod, you are lying.”
Mark has checked Ted’s Instagram at least once a month for the past two years. It was annoying, and he hardly posted, and when he did, the pictures were boring and poorly shot with dumb captions: a pie on a kitchen counter (Giving Thanks), a family of deer eating grass (Spotted). The fact that Ted was still very attractive and yet not posting it seemed somehow offensive. Mark crosses his arms and says, “That little shit. I’m not kidding. Whenever I’m at the gym and I want to stop, I think of ‘lol hope you feel better!’ and it makes me keep going. Elizabeth, I’m like sweating right now. I hate him so much.”
“Okay, first of all,” Elizabeth flushes the toilet and stands up, “I also do that at the gym with people I hate. And second...” She starts to wash her hands. “You’re allowed to hate him but ... he might have like ... helped you, a little bit? I mean ... people love that story.”
Since his date with Ted, Mark’s Kerri Strug story has morphed and elevated right along with his career. He starts it the same way, with Kerri Strug in 1996, and then the game he would playin his parents’ bedroom, but then the arc moves on to his date with Ted. When he tells the new version, Mark says, “Cut to 20 years later. I’m on a date with a very attractive guy at a super fancy restaurant.” He omits the part about seeing Kerri from the balcony, and he goes straight to seeing her by the hostess stand. The climax comes with the subsequent photo and puking. Listeners cover their mouths. Sometimes they say, “No you did not.”
Mark tells the new version of the story on dates, but he also tells the story in his SoulCycle classes, typically during the song after the arm workout.
Everyone dies for it, every time. And his new linchpin story concludes with this: “So...my advice to you all today is don’t meet your heroes, but if you do, make sure they’ll remember you.”
Mark looks at Elizabeth through the mirror. “No,” he says. “Ted did not ‘help me.’ ”
That night, Mark drinks two glasses of red wine and one vodka soda. He doesn’t talk to Ted, but his body knows where Ted is standing or sitting at every moment. At one point, Mark plugs his phone into the speakers. He offers free rides at SoulCycle and tells everyone about Whoopi Goldberg and how at one point during the show, he witnessed someone putting on and tying her shoes for her.
Around midnight, Mark vomits out of Elizabeth’s window into the alleyway behind her building. He lies on the floor in her bedroom and tries to stop his vision from twisting. He keeps the lights off and places his hands on top of his chest. He breathes intentionally for what feels like a long time.
Then he hears Elizabeth’s voice in the hallway. She’s talking about some true-crime documentary on HBO, and he hears her say, “No, it’s insane. He only got like two years probation.” He listens to her go on, and a few minutes later, he hears her say this:
“Okay wait ... you know Mark, don’t you?”
At the sound of his name, Elizabeth’s voice becomes clearer. Mark hears her ask this question, and he hears the silence that follows it. The string of light under the bedroom door is now bold and crisp in the dark. Then Ted’s voice says, “Did he tell you we went out once?”
“No, no, I just put two and two together.” Elizabeth is a weak liar, but Mark grows sober with gratitude for her nondisclosure. “It was like two years ago or something, right?” Elizabeth guesstimates. “And throwing up on an Olympian is kind of hard to forget.”
“Yeah,” Ted laughs. “That was nuts. But honestly, she was really cool about it. I feel like she’s just a normal person and mom now, and she actually found it kind of funny.”
Mark listens to Ted take a sip of whatever he is drinking.
“You know what, though?” Ted goes on, “It was actually super endearing that he saw his like childhood idol and then threw up on her. But he was also like ... I don’t know. Can I even tell you this? I know you guys are close. I just...” Ted sounds controlled but definitely drunk. Mark holds onto the carpet beneath him and waits. Ted takes another big swallow and continues.
“Before the whole Kerri Strug thing happened, I remember thinking, Yeah, I’m not doing this again. He’s obviously really good looking, and I’m not like numb to that. But there were these tiny things that he said that made me go, nuh-uh. Like, when he was talking about SoulCycle, he was like, ‘Oh, clipping in is easy! It’s just like skiing!’ Like ... oh ... gee, is it? Like, sorry, but I don’t think it’s weird that I’ve never been skiing. I think it’s weird that you’re using that as a universal reference, but okay. And I remember he mentioned he used to like play on the couch in his parents’ bedroom? And I asked him about it, and he blew it off like it was nothing, like that was just a standard thing. And I remember thinking, Wait, your parents have a bedroom that’s so big that you can run and do a flip onto their couch? Like, what? And it’s not like I’m coming from a hard-knocks background. I wore uniforms in high school, and my parents paid off my student loans; I get it. But I remember I’d just been promoted, and it was the first time I was making real money ever. And I was just like, No ... I can’t just start making money and then proceed to date guys like this.”
Mark’s feet fall into first position. His tongue touches the roof of his mouth, and he interlocks his fingers across his sternum.
“I’m...okay.” Ted laughs out in the hallway. “You’re like his best friend, and I shouldn’t have told you any of that. I’m so sorry.”
“No no no, you’re totally fine,” Elizabeth says. Mark can tell she’s touching him. “That’s ... hmm, that’s really interesting. And ... okay, how do I say this...?” Elizabeth laughs. “I’ve known Mark along time, and honestly, nothing you’ve just said surprises me.”
When Ted and Elizabeth go back into the kitchen, Mark crawls into Elizabeth’s bed. He sleeps there until he feels her crawl in next to him, and then he opens his eyes. Mark leaves Elizabeth’s apartment and takes a 35-minute Uber to his parents’ home in Short Hills, New Jersey.
The next night, Mark sits in his parents’ kitchen as his mother tries to take blood from his father. Mark’s parents are doing the keto diet to help with their migraines, and his mother holds his father’s pricked index finger. “No,” she says. “That’s not enough. And you’re not supposed to squeeze. It’s just supposed to come out.”
Mark looks up from his phone and says, “Hey, Mom?”
“Yes, hi, honey. Sorry.” She keeps her eyes down. “I’m done in two minutes. 10 Things I Hate About You? Let’s do it.”
“Wait ...” Mark kinks his lips into a curl before he asks, “Do you guys think it’s weird that you have a couch in your bedroom?”
Atop a stool, Mark’s dad’s top lip goes up beneath his nose. Mark’s mom frowns thoughtfully, and she looks up at the ceiling; her face is as if she’s trying to remember what Mark’s favorite food was as a baby. She takes a different one of her husband’s fingers and holds it to the side. “Why would that be weird?” she says. Then she laughs. “I mean, honey ... where else would we sit?”
Editor’s note: The descriptions of the events of the 1996 Olympics are historically accurate. The rest of the piece is a work of fiction.
This story appears in the Spring 2021 issue of Marie Claire.