Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Brief Wonderless Soccer Career of Tonya

There were many names I could have given the perceived hole in my life: legitimate, excellent-sounding career, thrilling nighttime activity that made up for less-than-thrilling daytime cubicle job, group of friends who “got me” in new town in which I lived.  The hole was there and when reality tv couldn’t fill it, my solution was to join a 30 plus women’s soccer league, an ad for which I found on Craig’s list.  So what that I had never played soccer before and that the ad might have mentioned experience preferred.  I so met the woman and 30 plus qualifications, and I figured that my thick-ish thighs and love of knee-high striped socks would make up for the rest.

Despite my eagerness to start my new life as a soccer player, I learned that you couldn’t just sign up for one of the five existing women’s 30 plus teams – you had to be chosen.  And despite my Jewish ancestry, it took a fall and a spring season before one of the captains was desperate enough to take a player who had never before kicked a soccer ball.

Once I got the green light that I was on a team, I immediately went out and bought all the gear:  shin guards, socks, cleats, shorts and a $7 youth soccer ball from Target.  I googled tips and rules for playing soccer, rented highlights of the 2006 World Cup, and practiced dribbling in the parking lot near my house, wiping out and badly bruising my bottom only once.

No matter how many times I reviewed what the heck off-sides meant, I remained clueless and stressed before the first game.  I showed up an hour early and sat in my car in the empty parking lot, trying desperately to look nonchalant.  When a car finally pulled up, and a middle-aged, slightly overweight woman with a cigarette in her hand emerged, I breathed a sigh of relief.  Teammate or opponent, I might just be okay.

But the woman with the cigarette in her hand was neither friend nor foe; she was the parks and recreation woman, there to open the gates, set up the flags, and take down injury reports in case any one was tempted to sue.

After sitting on the bleachers in the blazing late afternoon sun for quite some time, grateful that no one had been around to see me fumble with my shin guards, other players finally began to arrive.  I knew my teammates by their red shirts, although each time I tried to catch someone’s eye or smile, I was either met by no acknowledgement or an expression that read, “Who the hell are you?”

These red shirts, however, were not even friendly with each other.  Here they were, having not seen each other for several months, and yet their interactions were mild and almost unfriendly – certainly no excitement or hugs or how-the-heck-have-you-been’s. 

The other team, on the other hand  -- the orange team -- was all smiles and hugs and oh-my-god-how-was-your-summer-how-are-the-kids.  I wondered how much of a faux-pas it would be to see if I could trade in my red shirt for an orange.

Friendly or not, most of the women looked the part: some had gray hair, many were stocky or athletic-looking with weathered faces.  Some were clearly out of shape and some looked like they could have been soccer stars in their time.  Either way, they all looked like badasses to me, me who had spent her prime soccer years in the orchestra pit. 

Before I knew what was happening, the captain called everyone out on to the field.   She looked at me and kind of pointed towards a general area and called out some position, but I couldn’t quite hear her, and even if I had, I wouldn’t have known what it meant.

“Tell her what to do,” the captain shouted at a player near me.  From the annoyed expression on her face, this player clearly did not want that responsibility. 

The whistle blew, the ball was in motion, and I said a quick prayer / cuss word under my breath.  I ran in the general direction of the ball – that way on offense, the other way on defense – and begged the ball to stay far away from me.

“Who are you marking?” the annoyed player near me yelled.

Marking?  Marking?  Shit, I didn’t’ remember reading about marking.  I had an immediate vision of peeing on another player but was pretty sure that was not what she was talking about.

“Mark your player!” she yelled again when I had no acceptable response for her.

Despite all my prayers, the ball inevitably came towards me.  I did my best to kick it –anywhere  -- and was just glad when I didn’t full out miss with my foot.  Never mind the fact that when I did manage to make contact, the ball went straight towards an orange shirt.

After what felt like eight hours but was probably more like eight minutes, I couldn’t breathe and felt like throwing up.

“How do you sub?” I yelled towards annoyed player.

“What, you’re tired?!”

For the rest of the first half, I was a mess.  My lack of ability to make any kind of positive contribution to my team continued, and it wasn’t just annoyed player who was annoyed at me; there seemed to be a whole chorus of coaches shouting things in my direction, except most of the time I couldn’t hear what they were saying.  So I’d just nod.  What I really heard in their shouts were, “What the fuck is wrong with you?” or some version of “Who the hell let her on the field?”

As the minutes dragged on, half of me felt like crying and half of me felt tougher because of it.  Despite my life-long effort of doing whatever was necessary to avoid people being mad at me or yelling at me, maybe there was something good about people letting you have it.  Since I had never before played organized sports (minus pick-up, friendly, non-competitive basketball), I had never experienced  -- for better or worse – the wrath of a coach or the anxiety of competitive athletic pressure.

Half-time lasted about thirty seconds, and the second half didn’t go any better than the first.  At one point, one of my teammates kept yelling at a player named Tonya to do this or do that.  Geez, I thought, after the eighth or ninth time, they’re really letting this Tonya girl have it.  Sucks to be her.  And then somehow, I caught on that the woman yelling was yelling at me.  I was Tonya.   A little later in the game, I realized that my new moniker was a blessing; the other rookie on the team had been dubbed “New Girl.”

Although there was not much time left in the game – a ref had told a player near me that there were three minutes left – there was still plenty of time for me to screw up.  And screw up I did: while playing defense, I kicked the ball as hard as I could – towards the center of the field and straight towards an orange shirt, who kicked it straight into the goal.  My first assist. 

We lost 0-2. Afterwards I watched as my teammates packed up and the players for the next game did their twisty knee/torso exercises.  I felt like crap.

I sat on the bleachers wondering how I had gotten myself into this mess.  I made it to the car without crying but couldn’t hold it any longer.  The tears only made me feel more pathetic.  There was, I knew, no crying in soccer.  At least not above the age of seven.

The worst part was that I knew I had to go back. That I couldn’t end my soccer career in a puddle of tears.  I needed to give it one more chance – to make sure that it was the worst idea I had ever had – before officially calling it quits.

The six glorious days of not having to play soccer went way too quickly, and before I knew it, I was back sitting in the blazing late afternoon sun watching the parks and recreation chain smoker set up the flags. This time, however, I had nothing to lose: it couldn’t really go any worse than the first game, and the worse it was, the more it would confirm that this game would be my last.

But a terrible thing happened: this game went much better than the first.  I got called by my actual name.  I had more of a clue as to what was going on and where I should be on the field.  I had learned to kick the ball towards the outside on defense.  Most miraculously, I got a “good job” from annoyed player at half-time.  She also told me that I looked like a chicken when I tried to avoid touching the ball with my arms, but still.  The team was in a good mood and the other players didn’t seem to hate me.  We ended up winning 2-0.

And at first, it felt so good.  The game was over, I had survived, and I hadn’t caused my team another loss.

The euphoria, however, didn’t last.  “Shit,” I realized on the drive home.  “This means I have to go back.”  This development messed up everything.

And now, the pressure was on.  Now, what if they thought that maybe I didn’t completely and utterly suck?  What if they actually passed me the ball?  What if I had to play every game this season and every season for the rest of my life?  This was a disaster, that’s what this was.

Despite my wish for the world to come to a fiery crashing end so that I wouldn’t have to play the next game, game three, in fact, arrived.  My nerves were even worse than before: I was seriously nauseated, considered throwing myself in front of a bus, and felt a bitter sense of jealousy towards my cat.  She didn’t have to go play in a soccer game that night.  No fair.  Why couldn’t I be her?

Game three, wouldn’t you know it, was somewhere in between.  Not as bad as the first, not as good as the second, and yet, so not just right.

Sometime early in the first half, however, when the nauseated feeling in my stomach still hadn’t gone away, and while I was busy praying for the ball to stay on the other side of the field, I realized that maybe, in fact, this women’s 30 plus soccer league wasn’t for me.  After all, I had survived middle school PE the first time -- why tempt fate?

I knew that if I didn’t go to the next game, that would be it – I wouldn’t go back ever.

So I tried to quiet the voice in my head for the rest of the game and then pretend like I needed to think about it.  I had a week and a half to decide.  But I knew.

True, there were things I liked about soccer – running around and sprinting, for one.  There is so little reason to run really fast in normal life – save for maybe trying to catch a bus or a plane --  and soccer provided that adrenaline and urgency. And, like too many other things in my life, I was still attached to the way women’s 30 plus soccer league sounded and to what it could have been. 

But, I knew that Tonya’s career was over.

And so, there I was on game four: dead smack in the middle of my couch in front of the television trying not to think about the soccer game that I was not at.  I returned to my old ways -- it was the season premiere of “America’s Next Top Model” – and the new crop of contestants was 5’ 7” or under.  Seriously good bad tv.

 I crossed out all of the soccer games I had written down in my planner at work.  I took down the highlighted schedule from both my fridge and my bulletin board in my cubicle.  Soccer would be one of the only things I quit, and I hated the idea that I was a quitter.  But, I figured that the over thirty part came with some kind of wisdom, even if it was the small pea that continuing to play wouldn’t prove anything to anybody.

So, I’m back to wondering what my career should be and when my new calling in life will call.  I sometimes think about New Girl during the commercials of “America’s Next Top Model.”  But, at least for the moment, I’m no longer jealous of my cat.