Thursday, April 21, 2011

Soccer and Ethel

When I found her I was not really sure who I was. But that’s the beauty of other people. I never had to find myself to find her.

I wanted to join a sport, get out and see the world. I felt like there was a hole in how I was living. I had become a machine sitting at a desk, churning out numbers and words for a purpose I was unsure of. I joined the local soccer league to get back into my youth. I found out quickly that my body was not what it was in high school. My fingers were delicate; my brain was soft around the edges. Sitting at a desk had helped me grow a little around my waist; I barely fit into my old soccer shorts for the first practice.

But there was still a semblance of my former glory, on the field my body started to instinctively find its place again. I played defense, a tough position—no glory, just a constant barrage from people seeking it. My lungs burned and the first scrimmage reflected my lack of practice. The only thing that kept the score down was the moment that my body kicked in and attacked in anticipation of the opponent. It didn’t happen much, but by the end it was becoming more natural.

After that first practice my new team offered to take me to drinks to welcome me on. It was a nice gesture. It had been a long time since I felt connected to people in the world. It was a typical sports bar, covered in TVs and sports paraphernalia. It smelled like light beer and fried food. When we sat down at our table I finally was able to take in the people around me. What was once a blur of bodies on the field in the gray spring air was now replaced with faces and stories. I noticed the captain—an affable older lady that had been enthusiastic to have me join—banter rowdily with a man sitting near her. I soon found out they were married.

They had met in high school. They went to opposing schools and competed with each other in everything they did. Being on a team together didn’t stop them at all. They poked fun of each other, took occasional swipes at each other when one wasn’t looking.

“They’re just showing off, normally they are quite loving towards each other.” The face across from me spoke. I nearly choked on my beer; the face had a contorted expression. Something priceless, it was saying, “I know something you don’t, but if you ask I’ll tell.” The face returned to normal, I started laughing and noticed how stunning the face was. Her slightly curly dusky blond hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail. But that didn’t stop more than a few hairs from haphazardly falling into her eyes. She brushed a couple wisps behind her ear, a motion that drew attention to the three piercings in her ear.

“That was some decent defending today, nobody under the age of 12 is going to get past you.” She teased me.

“That’s a lie, I’m sure a few of them could kick my ass.” I hadn’t flirted in a while, I wondered if I was too obvious. I looked at her face, it was red from running around so much, but I could see she had a couple freckles and blue eyes with a green ring at the edges. I smiled after a slight pause—a moment where we both regarded each other—and turned to the captain who was picking a fry out of her water.

I soon found out about everyone at the table. The team was made up of about 14 people—give or take the drifters that would be around for only half a season because of their ‘real’ lives. Most had spouses, about half had children. The few exceptions were me, the spunky woman flirting across from me, a very loud and angry stick figured lesbian with a pixie cut, and the oldest man on the team. I learned that he was the pixie cut woman’s father. They had been playing soccer together for 10 years—a little after the death of the man’s wife.

“You are so young, don’t worry that I got a few by you today, you’ll get back in the swing of things—umm… I forgot your name again, what was it?” The old man grabbed my shoulder with his arm.

“Jake.”

“Right, Jake. You’ll be ok, just try not to get in my daughter’s way, she’ll kick more than just a soccerball.” He paused, chuckled to himself, “actually, she’s all hot air, I have learned that as long as you don’t compliment her hair you are fine.”

“Shut up old man, you couldn’t last five minutes in the ring with me.” The pixie cut girl—whose name was Riley—retorted.

“We play soccer for a reason; it’s the sport you are worse at than me.” The old man shut her down and went back to his drink.

I looked at the dusky blond, she gave me the same look, “I’m picking up on a theme here. I’m not sure I’m too good at this soccer business.” I said with the slightest tinge of truth.

“It’s not the sport, it’s the people, and you seem to fit in well.” She blushed; at least I thought she did.

“If you want me to stay you can just say so.” That might have been too obvious from me; Riley rolled her eyes and pretended to watch one of the TVs.

“We do need more benchwarmers, Jake.”

“I can red-shirt it. You say my name so forcefully. You know I don’t have ammo to shoot back at you. What is your name?” Her face contorted, this time saying, I know something you don’t and if you ask I won’t tell.

She gave a slight chuckle, “my name’s Erin.”

Riley slammed her glass on the table, “that’s a lie! For the 24 years we have known each other you have always been Ethel. Don’t lie to this poor boy, can’t you see he’s nervous about meeting new people! So stop trying to make Erin happen, it’s never going to happen.”

I couldn’t stop laughing, Riley was a little riled up. Ethel put her face in her right hand, shaking it. “You just won’t let me get away with a halfway decent name.”

And that became the ritual. Practice twice a week with a group of characters. I started getting better too. Not good mind you, but better. After, we might go get drinks, most people on the team had lives to attend to. Only Riley, the old man, Ethel, and I didn’t have much to do Tuesday and Thursday nights. I liked our time together. It was hard to go home; not just because staying out was fun, but being alone reminded me of my directionless existence.

I had stopped searching for meaning in the world and was restless. It’s so hard to find a cause that a celebrity hasn’t already taken up. I felt like a sell-out. Riley and the old-man ran a soccer camp in the summer. Ethel worked at a micro-finance NGO. I had missed the liberal altruistic bandwagon and was stuck in an accounting firm that consulted for companies that spent their time hiding money from my teammates’ passions. I was surely a bad guy in the most modern sense of the word.

At least the bulge around my stomach had started to subside. And I had real friends now.

I found out that Ethel lived quite close to me. Something I couldn’t believe given the fact that my apartment was in a largely abandoned neighborhood. When it was just a few of us, Ethel would suggest a place that was walking distance from both our houses. I think she was trying to get me drunk. One night she did. We were the last ones in the bar, and our captain made a shoddy excuse about berating her husband and left. We chatted while the bartender noisily closed up shop. We left her a generous tip and scuttled off to Ethel’s home. I walked her home to be a gentleman, even though she insisted she was fine.

By the time we got to her door, I realized that I had consumed a few more than I had meant to. We stood awkwardly at the door. The ritual goodnight kiss wasn’t my thing. She was giddy too, that calm moment before the kiss probably wasn’t going to work. I half tried anyway. I leaned in just a little too close. She wasn’t paying attention and knocked me in the ribs with her elbow.

“Come on in, I’ll make us a little tea, I have to show you my latest project.” She said it all as if it were one word. She grabbed my hand, started to walk in the door, stopped and turned to me, “you do have time right?”

I paused for effect, “yes.”

She smiled and practically dragged me in the door. Her apartment was absurdly warm. I immediately took off my sweatshirt and looked around. The walls were decorated with posters of art exhibits in the area. If she wasn’t an art collector, she certainly was an art poster collector. I heard her rummaging around in the kitchen. Something fell and crashed.

“Is everything all right?” I asked.

“Just fine, make yourself at home, there’s probably a magazine to read in the couch cushion.”

I laughed thinking she was being sarcastic. But when I sat down on the couch, I noticed a People jammed between the cushions. I picked it up and browsed a bit. She walked in with the tea, and we chatted for a while. She sat across from me in a rocking chair; she was so energetic the chair creaked nervously under her. I watched her tuck one leg under and I thought about how much I wanted her to sit next to me on the couch.

We got on the subject of our college days and she told me about a video project she did for fun. I insisted that we watch it. After a lot of hemming and hawing, something I could tell was a bit of a façade, she agreed and we started watching it. The light was bad, the audio was worse, but what I could make out about the film was actually quite hilarious. It had something to do with the characters you see walking around the city.

She came and sat next to me on the couch when we watched it. About a minute and a half in she was asleep on my shoulder. I smiled, finished watching the movie, and gently shook her awake.

“Huh? Wha?” she swung her arm wildly, grazing my nose.

“I’m going to go now, thank you for the tea and the movie.”

“Don’t go.” She said it with a childish finality.

I giggled, I felt a little childish too. “I have to get up and run off to work tomorrow. I’ll see you at practice.”

“Ok. Lemme…lemme…let me walk you to the door.”

As I walked home, I thought about quitting my job. After the next practice I pulled Ethel aside, “I like you a lot and—I’m not good at this—I forgot what I had to say. Umm...”

“Yes?” She looked at me imploringly.

“Do you want to umm…go…on Saturday…”

She laughed at me, “you are so traditional. Yeah, sure, let’s hang out, how about you pick me up at eight and we’ll do something.”

The old man and Riley were hanging back a little trying to hear the conversation. They weren’t very good at disguising their motives.

“I’m not that traditional, I don’t want us to have a chaperone, and I won’t pay for you if you really insist.”

She contorted her face, smiled, and gave me a kiss on the cheek. “c’mon, let’s go. Riley and the old man are conspicuously waiting for us.” She grabbed my hand. I squeezed it. She squeezed back, and we were off.