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Playing in Fields with Boys

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 PERSONAL ESSAYS















When
I decided to spend last summer in New York, I searched for an apartment
and a soccer team with equal need and voracity. I’m not sure why. Maybe
it’s because I’ve always associated soccer with moving, and team sports
with the feeling of belonging. I searched for a game online and ultimately
tracked down a guy from Brooklyn. He wrote that a bunch of guys played soccer
in Prospect Park and that I’d be welcome to join. I asked if other girls
played. Sure, sometimes, he wrote. It’s open to all. But in
the three months I played, I can count on one hand the girls who hit the
field with me. Mostly, they watched from the sidelines. Too bad.

    It’s an embarrassment of riches midfield. Besides burning calories and getting
a farmer’s tan, I’ve finally figured out the secret bullshit that keeps
the sexes segregated, fucked-up and uncommunicative: Women have never
been taught how to hang out. We suck at simply being with men.

    This is my excuse. Despite my family’s borderline
poverty — attributable to four children born in quick succession and
the recession that constantly loomed over our blue-collar town — my
parents somehow managed to keep my sister and I dressed like tiny, expensive
whores for the better part of nine years. My mother treated those JonBenet
Saturdays at the Zimmerman Bondy Dance Academy like ad hoc day-care breaks.
She’d drop us at the curb in our stiff tutus and threadbare tights, then
turn the station wagon around and head for a nearby arena, where she watched
my lucky, armored brothers play a game of hockey.

    Between tap and ballet, my sister and I would eat
wonton soup on the fire escape and watch the sleek Renaissance
Center in downtown Detroit rise and engulf the gothic skyline. We wanted
to play hockey, not strut like baby sluts, but this was the ’70s, a decade
when girls still sat on the sidelines and danced for the boys who watched.
When my family left the city, we were (thankfully) too far from the dance
school to commute, and finally too poor to justify economic commitment to
something my sister and I completely sucked at. I was not a bad ballerina,
just a rotten chorus girl. I hated being herded by Miss Kerr into those
neat, smiling lines. I hated wearing my mom’s Avon makeup and hair shellac.
I hated the shards of sequins that would abrade my underarms and thighs
like tiny paper cuts. I hated the phony awe of parental audiences that would
gather for recitals, their cigarette smoke curling around the cheap chandeliers
of Massey Hall. I hated how cute I looked. I hated being looked at, because
I knew what I looked like: a tarty freak, too young to fuck, but old enough
to know that some pervs wanted to.

    I wasn’t a tomboy; I was simply not that kind
of a girl
. I didn’t want to be told where to stand, what to do with
my body, how to grow, how to become something which was posed, spun around,
and adorned for the sake of a passive audience.

    When we moved out to the country, my mother still
wanted us out of her hair for those long blessed Saturdays. I didn’t make
cheerleader, though I tried, with the kind of wilted enthusiasm used when
prompted to show my nana new steps I’d learned in tap. So when my Italian
dad suggested soccer, my sister and I begged my mother to let us play. The
problem was that no girls’ leagues
existed. Shortly thereafter, a flyer left on our front door indicated that
a boy’s league was starting in Belle River. I scanned it for typos.

    My dad, who grew up in a war-torn, impoverished
country, told us they had made soccer balls out of plaster, spit and poo.
In my mind, he was a sporty MacGyver, fashioning shit out of nothing while
the Nazis were pounding Italy. I pictured him kicking around a severed head.
The sport was in his blood.

    When my father wanted
to blow off steam, he’d pull the good ball out of the carport and kick it around. My
sister and I would join him and my brothers. There was never any conversation,
never any point to what we were doing. No moods were monitored, no issues
were discussed, it was just us and the ball.

    My sister and I accidentally became prolific players.
We never knew how good we were until my mother picked up the phone and asked
the organizer to let her girls play in this so-called boys’ league. Chances
are they’ll hold their own, she told him. And we did. We played on a boys’
team for two years; once, in the finals, we beat a team whose star player was Tie Domi, a
kid who’d go on to NHL glory when he could have easily chosen professional
soccer instead.

    Our female friends soon joined the league.
When there was enough interest, organizers started a girls’ league.
This was initially thrilling, then super-dull, as my sister and I soon realized
there were few players as good as we were. There were no more guys to silently eat orange
slices with, no more shy slaps on the back thanking us for the passes, congratulating
us on the goals. We had never hung around boys we weren’t related to (unless you counted the boys who accompanied our dance routines;
most of them were secretly or unknowingly gay and much bitchier than the
rest of us). We had never developed that kind of camaraderie with our dance
“team.” The goal in tap lineups and ballet recital was to ensure top spot
in front, to outshine the other girls, to be prettier, more lithe and haughty
than the next.

    Team sports function similarly in that status is designated
to the best. Earning a spot through teamwork and enthusiasm, as opposed
to style and silhouette, was something my sister and I adjusted to easily.
This was key to my disappointment when we played with girls. Instantly,
they formed teams within teams, cliques that didn’t want to be separated.
Some didn’t want to play positions less glamorous than forward or
goal. Boys didn’t give a shit about that, so why did girls? Were it not
for the baby lesbians and those like my sister and I who took it all (too?)
seriously, a flaky kind of anarchy would have crippled our league. Containing the infighting earned you the title of
“bossy” — never “organized” or “leader” — but my sister and I
stuck it out. We played soccer all through high school, and the girls’ league
improved. Even after we both started smoking cigarettes, then pot; even
after we started necking with, then fucking, the guys from the travel team,
soccer remained
a passion. Then, after university, where I enjoyed an unremarkable career
among players infinitely better than me, I stopped playing for fifteen years.

    Since then, I’ve gained a closet full of heels,
one good suit and several of the coolest female friends on the planet.
But lately, sometimes, I don’t want to talk all that much. I don’t want to frustrate
over the Rubik’s Cube of a fascinating but ridiculously dysfunctional relationship. Shopping is trite; crying is boring. Sometimes I only want to sweat. When I’m chasing a ball, I feel
neither masculine or feminine. I just feel great.

    I wish more girls had played with me last summer. But the season’s over. Not that I was there for anything other than the love of the game. I barely noticed Tony, the British journalist, formidable forward and bad sport whose pouting was sexy and entirely mitigated by the way he’d slap you on the back. Or the cute Brooklyn teen with the shin pads who was hoping to meet a “new set of people” because his neighborhood wasn’t that great. I developed a crush on a guy from the South. He didn’t make it to a few games, and I sent him an email to find out where he’d been. We met for drinks, and there was nothing team-spirited about what we did afterward in the hallway of my apartment. Despite my best intentions, he turned me into a girl again. After we said goodnight, I adjusted my shirt in the bathroom mirror and found myself thinking, Let the games begin . . .

©2002 Lisa Gabriele and Nerve.com, Inc.