Even as a kid, I wasn't much for Valentine's Day. It just seemed awfully convenient for candy stores and Hallmark to have a holiday where the sole purpose of the holiday was purchasing expressions of love, and I wasn't much interested in being used like that. Since then, my cynicism has faded into apathy; last week my roommate asked me if I had plans on Monday, and I replied, "Uh ... cook dinner and relax like I always do? Why, what's Monday?"
The one Valentine's Day I did have a significant other to celebrate it with, I was sick with a cold so he came to visit me in my apartment. Not content to just buy me chocolates, he informed me, he wanted to make me chocolates instead ... because anybody could buy chocolates. And he made not one but two batches of truffles, so that he could pick out only the best ones to give me. (the rest sat in a Tupperware in his apartment; he planned to bring them to his mother) He was a real sweetheart and the best first boyfriend I could've ever asked for, but as with so many things in life, the timing must be right, and so we only had one Valentine's together.
Where is this going? Last year I wrote up this short piece, and it's always bothered me that I couldn't quite get it right. Part of it had to do with the fact that I didn't have enough distance from the material yet. Mostly, I'm still growing as a writer, so what follows represents Draft #4 of a piece titled Coin Toss. I expect it will see a couple more iterations before I consider it finished, but somehow I don't mind sharing it here on the blogosphere, even though I'm still not a fan of Valentine's Day. I usually don't share much about my personal life on this blog, but I guess I trust this space and the people who visit it, trust it enough to put a bit of my soul out there.
Among my more brilliant ideas in graduate school was convincing classmates I barely knew that we should form an indoor soccer team. I happily ignored the fact that I had not played since I was 12. That first game, we filed awkwardly into the gym and promised each other not to expect too much. Experienced and novice alike were soon running around, taking wild shots, high fiving one another. We took turns in goal, playing offense, hanging back on defense, or panting on the sidelines. Some of us quite liked the sidelines. Sometimes it seemed like there was nobody on the court but Mike, tall and broad-shouldered, pulling stunts like launching the ball off the walls of the indoor soccer court to confuse the opposing team, then chasing the ricocheted “pass” all the way to the other end of the court as the rest of us watched, dumbfounded.
Where to run, who to guard, how to pass, how to dribble; I didn’t know where to start. Frozen with uncertainty, I hung at the fringes and tried to disguise the fact that I actually knew embarrassingly little of the sport. In middle school, our ragtag school team had practiced on a field that sloped downwards so that winning depended more on the coin toss than on actual skill. But here, with only five on court at a time, there just was not a whole lot of room to hide. Why can’t you be like them, I’d whispered to myself. I hated this timid girl, this youngest and most primitive version of myself. Just try. Surprise yourself. You would have so much more fun. So would they.
* * *
For someone who looks like Clark Kent or Tom Cruise, Mike is remarkably down to earth. I usually position myself as listener with people I don’t know, but he deftly usurps me from the very start of the bus ride home from soccer. After years of training in active listening, I immediately recognize the mirroring posture, watchfulness, and probing questions. He’s good. Twenty minutes into it we have skipped the awkward small talk and gone straight to discussing the greatest social justice problem facing our country. He picks unequal immigration access. “Really? Not any of the injustices that already exist in society?” This stops him for a few seconds before he turns the question back on me to name my pick, which makes me laugh because this is payback for when I turned his probing questions back on him, and we both know it.
When he talks about eliminating childhood mortality and its multiplicative impact on improving poverty and health in developing countries, it’s his smile that kills me most. Not just the Superman dreaminess, although that’s part of it, but mostly because he is so willing to be real with me even though he barely knows me. He could have told me he wanted to work at the WHO and I would have believed him, because that’s what people at school want to do with their lives. Instead, he shares his dream job of starting an organization for youth in Africa to do art and farming.
I wonder if the gaggle of girls who flock to him know this side of Mike. I had played with him for over a year, yet all I knew before this conversation was his energy on the court. As a general rule I avoid men who look like Mike because I can’t stand the ego that usually goes with the smile.
He gives me just enough to internet stalk him properly, which turns up creative writing awards and a blog from his Fulbright year in Kenya. Just enough for me to better appreciate this creative soul with his strong devotion to social justice. We never talk about any of this. Once, I include him on a mass email invitation to a pie-making volunteer event filled with, quite possibly, too many exclamation points for those uninitiated to my great enthusiasm for food. He has a friend in town that weekend and can’t make it.
We share none of the same classes and I can’t seem to invent plausible excuses to run into Mike. There’s nothing like absence to fuel an obsession, and I start writing long emails to my best friend in California about how I wish that I knew what he was up to, that I wish I could just sit and watch him, that I wish I had more ways to Internet stalk him. How, the last time I felt this irrational, I was about 10. She writes back full of laughter and hugs. She remembers long, rambling phone calls about other crushes, ones where she punctuated my monologues with phrase like, “You are too cute!” and “I would totally have fallen for you!” If she notices that the irrationality is growing exponentially, she says nothing.
* * *
Another Wednesday night, another game of soccer. A year into it we have grown so large we are forced to split into two teams, but somehow Mike and I wind up on the same team. Most nights I am a magnet for the ball, though usually it is my face, and not my foot, that finds contact, and as I blink through the starburst of tiny white pinpricks that explode in front of my eyes I hear the referee shout, “She’s fine! She’s laughing! I’ve seen her take worse.” It’s amazing the kind of trouble that comes from running around like crazy to disguise the fact that I still feel like I have very little clue what I am doing. I keep telling myself that things work best when I run straight at my fears, even if it is this odd, fumbling, zig zagged approach where I can’t figure out what to do with the ball once I’ve got it, so half the time I only pretend to try to get open, when actually I’m trying to avoid getting any passes.
Tonight, we compare battle scars and ro-sham-bo for who will play “up.” In an ideal world we would all play both “up” and “back” and then substitute like mad; in tonight’s world, none of us feel very peppy but I’ve lost so up I go to the offensive half of the court, figuring that maybe if I bound around like crazy then at least I can get brownie points for effort.
A desperation shot at the goal is easily blocked. Groans of disappointment from the dark shirts; that’s us. The opposition juggles the ball with his feet, and dawdles in his corner as he decides what to do next. I run straight at him, there is some bodily contact, I am sure of it but never seem to feel these things until I look down in the shower an hour later and notice bruises up and down my legs. A flash of elbows, the ball knocks loose. A dark shirt chases it down. Passes it back to me. I’m too off balance to do more than deflect it with my foot. I scored? I scored. I scored!
* * *
One day I run into Mike on the bus to campus. As we cross the courtyard towards the main building, we pass one of our teammates, a postdoc we don’t usually see around campus, dressed up in a black suit and standing around with some colleagues.
“Yo, did you see David all dressed up?” Mike asks suddenly. “We should’ve given him a hard time.” He mimics striking up a conversation with the others who had been standing around. “You should see this guy play soccer!”
“Check him out!” he says.
Already did, I think to myself, then look up and realize that Mike is still checking him out, twisting around and walking backwards to take him in.
* * *
If we had not waited until the very last day of signups to cobble together an indoor soccer team in the passing period between classes, I’m pretty sure common sense would have convinced me to drop this whim, instead of talking six others into joining in. There’s something about not knowing how each game will end, whether I’ll score a goal or trip over my own feet. It is the exhilaration of just slipping on another pair of shoes and setting aside all else for 60 minutes. I can tell from the collective glimmer in our eyes after each game that the entire team feels this way. It’s what keeps us coming back, in spite of exams, papers, qualifying exams, and dissertations. This is what that unabashedly optimistic inner child was thinking about when she first hatched the plan for an indoor soccer team a year and a half ago, and I think she might secretly prefer that things never quite work out the way we think they will when we close our eyes and dive straight for our fears. She would probably say that life is more worthwhile when lived this way.