Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Love. And Basketball.

Chapter 19, The Long-Awaited Time of Joy (unpublished)


Your friends will know you better in the first
minute you meet than your acquaintances will
know you in a thousand years.—Richard Bach


Twenty months and one week ago, I turned up at my friend Steven’s annual Bastille Day party. He had forgotten to invite me until just one hour before it began. Perhaps I should have recognized it as an “unvitation,” or perhaps it was an honest mistake. Whatever it was, I felt the sting of it—so I decided to go. I don’t know if it was denial or determination, but two hours later, I arrived fashionably late to celebrate the storming of the Bastille.

I knew no one there, except the host. The mood was quiet, little pockets of people standing in the grass or on the deck drinking Canadian beer and eating off blue, white, and red paper plates. A foursome played boules in the shade. It was one of those stale inbred parties where everyone has known everyone else forever, and the challenge of striking up a conversation with someone new requires way too much initiative to be bothered with.

Steven kissed my cheek when I arrived. His beard scratched my cheek and I remembered how much I hated that feeling. His new girlfriend wrapped her free arm around his waist and thanked me for coming. Steven offered to get me a drink and they walked away.

I took a deep breath, smiled like a maniac, and searched the crowd for someone I knew. As I stood there, lamely, waiting for Steven to return with my drink, a deep chill crawled up my legs, turning my flesh into goosebumps and my feet to stone. I blushed and stiffened. I tried to appear calm as my shoulders rose slowly toward my ears. After a while, I felt the rush of heat in my cheeks seep down into my neck, and I felt the cold climbing up from my ankles to my knees. Finally, hot and cold had collided in my stomach, waking butterflies, birds, and giant bats. It became clear that Steven was not coming back.

There were bodies all around me, with talking heads attached, heads which now and again would turn to smile at me, standing there, alone. But the expression in their eyes never matched the one across their lips. And no one ever spoke to me. My urge to flee, to run crying from the scene, was almost too much to fight. I was a kid being picked last for teams. I was an uninvited guest. But then a cooler in the corner caught my eye, and I stopped waiting for Steven. I slithered through the small crowd and grabbed the slippery brown neck of a Molson.

My beer kept me company. It was my escort, holding my hand, kissing my mouth, reassuring me when I felt I’d be consumed by social terror. It gave me a small sense of purpose, enough to anchor me at the party until it was gone. I moved about the lawn, sipping, smiling, trying to be social. But each pocket of people I tried to join left me feeling that same mix of icy hot discomfort I’d felt when I was abandoned on the deck.

In the end, I gave up trying to join a group. I felt dizzy from the battle, so I decided to sit down until it was time for me to go. I opted for a cheap, white plastic lawn chair next to a surly-looking man who was sitting alone, squinting against the sun. He looked to be in his mid-30s, with very long hair, a pair of retro, mutton chop sideburns, some sort of disheveled t-shirt combination, and no visible interest in me, which I liked. There was no faux friendly smile with him, and when I spoke to him, he spoke back.

I can’t tell you much else about that day that would be honest. I know that we talked about art and writing, about the stagnation that’s so inherent in the town where we live. I know that he took an interest in my work, that he offered to share some of his expertise, and that he gave me his card. I remember that I stayed later than I meant to, that I arrived home just in time to change and be picked up for another party. That’s all I can tell you because everything else is colored now by my tremendous love for this man. I have to be fierce with myself¾vigilant¾to get even these few details about our first meeting right. Because it is almost impossible for me to remember how I saw him before I knew how beautiful he was. My appreciation of him grows with every day, and also flows backward, like sunrise-colored dyes dropped into the waters of my memory, tinting everything that came before.

***

I am a strange and skittish creature. I am full of contradictions and complications. A social butterfly frightened of people. An isolationist with open arms. A confident speaker who apologizes for speaking. A radical lover with traditional desires. I’m difficult to manage, even if you know how. It takes a dedication and comprehension that even I don’t often possess. And when I met Jon, I was an especially tangled-up mess, like knots drowned in buckets and dumped out at sea.

I plunked myself down next to him that day. I took his card home and I wrote him an e-mail. But then I lost my nerve. I got frightened and squeamish. I was afraid of who I was. I didn’t want to see him again. But Jon was not dissuaded. He saw in me a greatness and he was not disturbed. He hung in with me for months, gently reading my anxious ways for what they were. He knew somehow, the struggle I endured. And patiently, bravely, he taught me I could trust his giving heart, and learn to trust my own. He shared with me, by degrees, the exact amount of grace that would not frighten me away or burn me up too fast. He is like a horse whisperer for raw and brilliant girls, and we became good friends.

***

Just about a year after our first Bastille Day meeting, Jon and I discovered that we both liked basketball. Neither of us had played in years, but we decided to play one day last summer, on a steamy August afternoon, on the hoop in my back yard. Now, when people ask if I am any good, Jon tells them that I am the first and only girl to ever beat him in basketball. We take an equal pleasure in this fact.

Our casual games quickly evolved into a ritual. Every Wednesday and Sunday, from 6 to 8 p.m., Jon and I play basketball. We are virtually unstoppable in our pursuit. Blizzards, illnesses, injuries, work, or social commitments¾all of these things get second billing to basketball on Wednesday and Sunday nights. We have been known to play in darkness and in sweltering heat; we have played after rain storms, dodging puddles like defenders; we have played on days when together we have achieved a combined total of only eight hours of sleep. We have each risen, delirious from naps, which followed all-night work sessions, and laced up our sneakers, ready to go to the gym.

Neither Jon nor I practice an organized, widely recognized form of spiritual faith. Jon’s mother is a Christian minister, but he rejects that practice in a fairly wholesale fashion and has devised his own personal method of finding and expressing truth, faith, and guidance. My mother is a Spiritualist, and I accept, honor, and practice daily the metaphysics on which I was raised. I have added to it my own witchy ways of seeking enlightenment, joy, direction, and connection with the power of the Universe.

For Jon and I, basketball is more than a pastime; for us, it is a sacred mission. It is a way to test our bodies and our minds, to engage in battle without launching missiles at foreign civilians, or punching out strangers—or ex-lovers¾in bars. It’s a test of willpower, stamina, intellect, skill, and most of all, devotion. By honoring our commitment to these four hours together each week¾no matter how tired, no matter how busy¾we honor our friendship, we honor ourselves, and we honor our love for the game. Basketball has become our temple, a place where we find our best and truest selves, and put them to the test. It is a place of struggle, and of triumph; a place of ugly exhaustion and beautiful perseverance; a place where, when you fail, you pick yourself up and move on¾and a place where your fiercest opponent is also your strongest supporter.

I’ve had a hard time with my body these last six or seven years. I gained a lot of weight, injured my knee and never fully rehabbed from the surgery. I struggled with depression, a hard New England climate, and with insomnia that left me drained and never well-rested. So over these last eight and a half months of playing basketball with Jon, I have struggled to find my strength and my wind. Jon can play twice as hard for twice as long as me. And on almost every occasion, I find that I am seeing spots, struggling to stand just minutes into our games.

Jon is always patient. He shoots around while I catch my breath. He never harasses or criticizes me. And no matter how weak or how tired I seem, he brings his full strength to our game. He respects me by giving his all every time he faces me on the court. I both love him and hate him for this. I want him to ease off, to cut me some slack sometimes, but he won’t. If I step onto that court and say “let’s play,” I have to be ready to face everything he brings.

Through the process of reconnecting with my athlete-self, my warrior self, I have found what I call, The Love. In those moments when the world is sprinkled with exploding black dots, when my heart is pounding and my chest is heaving, when my muscles have been worked into jelly, I reach down inside myself, way, way, down, and I find in there The Love. It is a power that stands me upright, clears my vision, and marches me back toward him where I will say again, “let’s play.”

He watched me do this once, obviously exhausted, unwilling to cave.

“You have the heart of a champion,” he said.

And he is right. Through our Wednesday and Sunday ritual, I have come to understand how it is that I can fight. When I am tired in the world and in my work, when I am overmatched in my relationships, when fatigue and weakness have drained me, when my vision is no longer clear, I am able now, off the court, to reach inside myself, way, way down, and find The Love that sustains me, The Love that keeps me here.

Jon and I play basketball in the same gymnasium where women’s basketball was invented. The legacy of that gift lives on in me, not just in my persistent jump shot or in my tenacious D, but also in the thrust and lust and willpower that I bring to everything I do. In the contest that wages on that court every Wednesday and Sunday night, Jon and I carry on a tradition of excellence and desire, and it makes us indomitable, both on the court and off.

When Dorothy Ainsworth hung up peach baskets and became the first to put balls into the hands of young women in that gym, she gave them not only a new opportunity for sport, she gave them a way to find Love. When I plunked myself down next to Jon Reed at that Bastille Day party, I opened the way for the arrival of something I had been longing for all my life. I opened the way for true love. And basketball.

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