In a mostly male boxing gym, Carley Pesente finds a kinship that has often eluded her
by MATT PEIKEN
St. Paul Pioneer Press, Dec. 27, 2001©
Carley Pesente keeps her wedding picture framed in glass on the ledge of her living-room window, next to a picture of her son, Derek.
The marriage ended years ago and Carley barely speaks to her son, who’s now 13. Carley knows the lapses of both relationships are mostly her fault. After all, she knew she was a lesbian when she got married. She just wanted to please her parents and do something that, in their eyes, marks the life of every normal woman. As for her son, she just isn’t willing right now to invest the time in motherhood.
Derek lives with Carley’s parents in her hometown of Bethel, Conn.
“I never hear from him. Never calls, never sends me a card,” says the 38-year-old Carley. “I’ll get the pictures out sometimes and get my crying going on. But I’ve focused on my sports career, and I’ve moved on, really.”
When Carley says things like that, it’s easy to hear the voice of a cold heart. But Carley’s the sort of person who lets it all hang out — she holds no shame or regret about herself or her life — and she’s used to people thinking the worst.
Her toughness is easy to see. Carley is 6 feet tall and, at more than 200 pounds, has the build of a powerlifter. Tattoos dot her thighs and calves — Bart Simpson, Calvin and Hobbes, Snoopy with a hockey stick, a devil on one breast and a space on her left breast reserved for an angel. Carley tattooed her beefy upper arms with the front and rear views of a buxom blonde cowgirl.
“My tat artist says every time I have stress, or something’s wrong in my life, I get a tattoo,” Carley says. “That’s probably true. I think it gives me something to remember.”
Carley’s sentimentality coats her downtown St. Paul apartment. She has framed Derek’s birth certificate and displayed it near pictures of her son — one of him in hockey garb, another of him wearing a suit, and a collage with about a dozen other photos. Carley displays pictures of her parents, despite a strained relationship with them, and even ex-girlfriends.
It’s an odd attachment to history, particularly in contrast with Carley’s emotional detachment from those who’ve been closest to her. She’s quick to write off people, even immediate family, who don’t accept and embrace her. Yet Carley sees almost every relationship, past and present, as spiritual tattoos.
“I had a real nasty falling-out with my last partner, but she was still part of my life,” she says. “I’ve burned and torn up zillions and zillions of photos, but you can’t change the past, so I try to remember the good that comes out of everything.”
THE MOTHER IN CARLEY
Carley is at B.T. Bombers in St. Paul, whacking away at a punching bag suspended from the ceiling, grunting with every left and right. There isn’t a trace of finesse in her delivery — it’s all brawl.
Clem Tucker, the owner of the Frogtown gym, watches and puts a hand on her shoulder.
“You want to spar with Martis today?” Clem says. “Been a long time since you got to hit anybody.”
Martis is a big, tall, timid 14-year-old who came to the gym about once or twice a week throughout the summer. Clem calls Martis over and asks him to face Carley, who stands about 3 or 4 inches taller.
“Look at Carley and tell her, “Today, you’re mine,’ ” Clem says. Carley smiles and leans into Martis with a cartoonish glare. Martis looks down and away and whispers, “Today, you mine.”
“Look her in the eye and tell her like you mean it,” Clem says.
Martis tilts his head up, lifts his gaze to Carley and repeats his scripted threat in the same hush. Carley barks a chuckle, wraps both arms around Martis and hugs him. Martis turns his head away with a bashful grimace, but Carley’s brimming with happiness.
Sports have always been at the center of Carley’s life. Along with her fledgling pro boxing career, she plays hockey and women’s pro football. At Bombers, she’s one of the guys, part of the family in a family of outcasts, outsiders and, in Carley’s case, those who are just plain out.
Carley sometimes wears a T-shirt that reads “Nobody knows I’m a lesbian,” and at Bombers, nobody cares. People don’t ask about her personal life or even know about the teen-age son in Connecticut. All they know is what they see — Carley trains hard, hits hard and cares about everyone here with the same unexpressed brotherhood that seems to bond all the regulars.
“She brings a lot of flavor to this gym. She has more cojones than any man — she’ll fight anybody, any time,” Clem says. “Despite her age, and maybe because of her age, she gives it everything she has, and I admire her more for it. I just wish I met her 15 years sooner.”
Carley cites a road trip in May as one of her fondest memories. A teen-age fighter named Cerresso and another boxer accompanied Clem and Carley to Kansas City for a fight pitting Carley against Vonda Ward, one of the world’s top women’s heavyweights. To Carley, it felt like a family outing.
“It was like Clem was our dad, and the other guys treated me like their big sister,” she says.
Carley is the youngest of five children in her family, 13 years younger than the next-oldest sibling. She has had spotty and strained relationships with her family since coming out as a lesbian nearly 10 years ago, ending the marriage that brought her son into the world and setting her on a path of solo living.
She first came to Minnesota fresh out of high school to study criminology and earn a degree in education. She moved back to Connecticut in 1997, but it was painful living so close to a son who wanted nothing to do with her. She returned to Minnesota at the start of this year for the sports scene, to escape the homophobia she felt back home, and to try finding a quality job in law enforcement.
Carley believes her family has poisoned Derek to the way she lives. Citing her divorce and her move, Carley says, “He thinks I abandoned him twice.”
SOMETHING TO BRAG ABOUT
It’s a Wednesday night at Club Metro, a dark but clean and spacious gay-lesbian nightspot in St. Paul. It’s one of Carley’s favorite hangouts, especially on karaoke night, and Carley is particularly excited tonight.
She has brought a newspaper clipping of a recent boxing match she fought in Massachusetts and photos of her in action with the Syracuse Sting, a women’s pro football team that flies Carley in to play weekend games.
A lot of people in the club seem partnered or at least sitting among friends. Carley knows most of them, but she’s alone on a barstool, waiting for the karaoke host to call her name. She can’t wait to show people the article and pictures.
“When you talk about family atmosphere — not my family — this is what I think of,” she says, looking around the club.
The karaoke host asks for Carley, who has chosen to sing “Lost in Her Eyes” by former teen pop girl Debbie Gibson.
“It reminds me of someone I used to know, an old flame,” Carley later says of the song. “I had good times with that person, so why forget those times?”
Carley doesn’t have much of an audience — everyone’s lost in chatter — but it’s probably for the best. Carley’s speaking voice is about an octave deeper than the song’s register, and her pitch falls a half-step flat. Still, she walks offstage smiling.
Carley strolls around the bar, showing people her photos. She taps the shoulder of a friend in a baseball cap and holds the article in front of her face.
“Front page, girl!” Carley says. “I knocked her out.”
Carley goes to the end of the bar and shows the photos to two guys she seems to know.
“You look like you’re ready to kill somebody,” one of them says. In one photo, Carley is about to make a tackle on the football field.
“I did kill somebody,” Carley says. “I flattened that girl.”
GOING HOME, GROWING UP
Carley hasn’t felt at home since moving back to Minnesota. She’s not boxing as often as she’d like, and she has only been able to find work as an overnight public-safety officer for business and residential complexes.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Carley has tried to lighten up on her family and reach out to them. With nothing holding her in Minnesota, she packed up her photos, sports mementos and a bedroom full of stuffed animals and turned a trip home for Thanksgiving into a permanent move.
One of Carley’s final goodbyes in Minnesota was to Clem. She drove to his house because she thought saying goodbye to everybody at the gym would be too sad. At Clem’s, she cried just the same.
“I don’t want to leave you guys,” Carley told him through tears.
“I know, girl, I know,” Clem said. “I feel the same way.”
Carley now lives in Waterbury, Conn., with a new German shepherd, Ramsey. She has invited her nieces over for spaghetti dinner, been welcomed with enthusiasm from her old gay and lesbian friends, and landed a steady job with good benefits.
As for Derek, Carley hopes that by living close to him again, she can begin bandaging his emotional wounds and rebuilding their relationship.
“I want to start living a more mature adult life instead of the kid life, which I’ve been doing most of my life,” she says. “I want to stay in one place a good long time and get to know my family more and stop being so grudgeful.”
She’s also found a good boxing gym with a lot of modern equipment and a larger stable of fighters and trainers. Her ultimate goal is coaching a women’s sports team on the collegiate or professional level. Clem is still co-managing Carley’s career and looking to set up fights for her, and Carley says she will always hold a soft spot for Bombers.
“It was one of the things I looked forward to every day — even if I was sick or grumpy, I’d get myself in there,” she says. “They were family to me in every way a family should be important to somebody. I’ll never forget that.”