Finding the Game

Three Years, Twenty-five Countries, and the Search for Pickup Soccer

Gwendolyn Oxenham

St. Martin's Press

AWAY FROM THE BRIGHT LIGHTS
 
 
1.
FIVE YEARS EARLIER Luke and I had set up life in a downtown loft in Asheville, North Carolina. It was one large room with wooden floors, high ceilings, and a big old window that faced the morning sun. We bought a table for thirty dollars from a thrift store down the street and carried it over our heads on the walk home. We slept on a blow-up mattress on the floor. Below us, there was a French restaurant and a wine shop with a five-dollar discount table. We could walk to the two-screen theater, Izzy’s Coffee Den, and Malaprop’s Bookstore. Two tuba players, brothers simultaneously divorced by their wives, owned the loft across the hall; when they came up on weekends, we sat on their window ledge and drank single-malt scotch.
Luke worked an office job selling billboards. He woke up at seven, took a shower, and kissed me on the forehead as I slid deeper under the sheets. I woke up around nine and sat down at the desk Luke and I made together. I was on a writing grant to finish my first book. I had all the time in the world, all day long. I spent the mornings thinking. I tried to focus on my first-grade teacher, who told my mother on Parent-Teacher Conference Day, “Whatever you do, keep her away from sports.… She has the soul of an artist.” We thought that teacher was an idiot for a long time. Now I hoped she wasn’t.
At night we played in the parking lot of the social services building. Luke could only score by hitting the silver pole of the light post. I could score between the white lines of a parking space. We tried tricks. Luke did rainbows, shin juggles, snazzy things you see on YouTube videos. One side of the parking lot was bookended by a large mural painted by kids. We banged the ball off pastel handprints, trees, and outlined clouds. Bums occasionally stopped to watch, dangling their arms over the wall and whistling. When one of us kicked it over the wall, they didn’t retrieve it for us; instead they watched as we sprinted to catch the ball that rolled faster and faster down the sloping street.
After our game was over, we sat along the curb, tired, nostalgic. Luke had been a Notre Dame center midfielder who scored big goals in big games. I’d been the youngest Division I athlete in NCAA history, a starter and leading scorer for Duke at sixteen. Now we made jokes about being twenty-four-year-old has-beens.
*   *   *
DURING THE DAY there was too much time. I tried to kill the hours: I read books, great books, but I felt guilty just laying there reading page after page while the rest of the world complained about a lack of time.
The writing wasn’t going well. My book was about my brother, and the effect one kid has on the other, but it was hard to squeeze our lives into pages. He has a way of saying things that land—like the time after the hurricane, when twenty-two trees fell down in our backyard, and he said, “Damn, sis, looks like somebody used the sun as a wrecking ball.” Or the time he described prison as “a lot like middle school, people trying to be cool.” The story was important to me and I wanted to say it right. I spent all day sitting there, running my hand along the wood of the desk. Luke and I didn’t know how to make a desk: we’d nailed down four planks of raw wood atop four skinny logs we’d found laying alongside a vacant lot. The wood was starting to warp and the trunks were splintering, but I loved that desk.
I kept a short stack of books on the left corner—my current favorites, books I could pick up and flip open, reading sentences and voices I hoped would influence my own. One of them was a planner my best friend, Leah, gave me when we were fourteen; in it there was a photograph and a quote from a famous author every month, and even though the dates were all wrong, I still read the quotes and stared at the photos.
On the tenth month of my yearlong writing grant, I was sitting at the desk once again looking through the planner. I thumbed past June, July, and August until I reached the black-and-white photo of Truman Capote and stared into his round eyes. Right beneath his portrait there were these words: “The test of whether or not a writer has divined the natural shape of his story is just this: After reading it, can you imagine it differently, or does it silence your imagination and seem to you absolute and final? As an orange is final. As an orange is something nature has made just right.” When I sat and read my 240-page draft, I knew it wasn’t an orange, and I had no idea how to make it one.
I lay down on our fake-suede couch and thought about my dad, who for the last several months had said things like, “You should join the FBI—fantastic benefits.” He was worried because I had no health insurance. I told him I’d be the world’s worst spy, but he took that as evidence I’d be a good one: “See, no one would ever guess.” I started taking suggestions like this into consideration. I entertained the possibility of anything—law school, business school—things I’d ruled out from the very beginning. Suddenly I wondered about wearing pencil skirts and high heels, carrying a briefcase and spreading papers across a long conference table. Anything but writing.
Because of a large hole in our Camry’s muffler, I could hear Luke get home from work. I’d pull on the chain that angled our window up and wave to him, grateful that my time to write was up. Watching him walk across the parking lot, wearing button-downs, tan slacks, and brown dress shoes, it looked like he was playing grown-up. He had wild blond curls that he wore in a big fro in college (opposing teams called him Brillo Pad), but now he had me cut the curls off so that he’d look “professional.”
In the beginning he enjoyed having a pattern—brewing coffee and ironing down the collar of his shirt in the mornings. He liked trying on a profession. During his job interview, he’d taken an aptitude test. He lied through most of it, picking whatever answer he thought a true salesman would pick. If the question asked, “At a party, would you be in the center of the crowd or along the wall?” he of course said he’d be the guy in the center. Then when he failed the test and the results said he’d make a terrible salesman, he didn’t know what to make of it. As they debated whether or not to hire him, he thought about telling them he lied, but that admission seemed worse than just failing. They ended up hiring him, and he was left to wonder in private what the test would have said if he’d answered honestly. Maybe, he thought, I’m meant for sales.
Six months in, one of the maintenance guys quit, so they started sending Luke—the most limber guy with a desk job—up to repair the billboards. He did not like going up there. He wouldn’t admit he was unhappy, but I could tell from the way he curled up on the bed when the alarm went off, his whole body sweating. I guess up there, 150 feet above the highway, standing on a see-through iron grate, wind howling, vinyls flapping, he came to two realizations: one, he didn’t like being up on billboards, and two, he didn’t like selling billboards. His plan was to make it through the end of the year. After that, he didn’t know. Neither of us did.
*   *   *
ON A SUNDAY afternoon, I drove to Durham to watch ninety minutes of my old life. I sat on the far side of the bleachers, away from everyone else. It embarrassed me to come back. I felt like the loser who graduates from high school but still hangs around the benches in the mornings before school.
I came primarily to watch Rebekah Fergusson, a freshman on the team when I was senior. In college, I’d made a twenty-minute documentary centered on identity through sports. Ferg was one of four characters. While the other three were standouts on the field who said things like, “I would do anything to win,” she was the bench-warming counterpart who said, “You think you’ll get here and run sprints and work hard and then one day you’ll play and then one day you’ll start—you know, Rudy and all that crap—but, well, it’s not always that easy.” When a professor watched footage of her green puppy-dog eyes looking earnestly at the camera, he said, “It’s almost like you can see it—she’s too nice to be good.” But that Sunday she got her first start against Florida State, and in the rain, in the mess, she was playing with the effort of someone who’d spent three years pent up on the bench: she beat the FSU forward to the ball, stripped it off her when she tried to dribble, and won everything in the air. “That kid’s playing her heart out,” a gravelly voice said from behind me, mostly to himself. The man had bushy white hair and chewed on a cigar as he paced back and forth in the aisle. Most likely he was somebody’s dad: dads always sought space by themselves, never wanting to risk anyone trying to engage them in conversation while they were trying to watch.
“Playing your heart out”—when I was a kid, it was my favorite expression. Even now, guiltily, I love it. “Heart” lost its power as we got older; too many coaches said it in too many pregame speeches. You stopped really hearing them. But you still knew what it meant when it happened, when nothing could touch you. It was the main thing I missed.
When my senior season ended, they handed us plaques that showed our span: 2000–2004. One of the underclassmen said, “It looks like you guys died.” I would have tried out for the women’s professional league, but it folded the year I graduated. Your whole life you’re a soccer player, then suddenly you’re not.
So I applied for graduate school in creative writing. I came up with my forty-page writing sample during a two-week tear in the athletes’ computer cluster, drinking Mountain Dews and writing all night. I thought it could work: I’d just replace soccer with writing. I applied to two schools, Florida and Notre Dame. The Florida rejection came startlingly fast, like they emphatically didn’t want me. It made me feel foolish for applying in the first place. It took me fifteen years to get good at soccer; what made me think I could just try something else? Several months went by and I assumed Notre Dame got so many applications they didn’t have time to notify everyone who’d been rejected. But in March, I came home from a run and was standing in the doorway panting when Thora, my Icelandic roommate, said, “Some man named Villiam called.” I had no idea who William was or why he was calling, but I called back and he said it was William O’Rourke, the director of the University of Notre Dame’s creative writing program, and that he’d like to invite me to South Bend. I got off the phone as quickly as I could, afraid of saying something that would let him know they’d made a mistake. I looked at Thora, who was watching me. “Thora, Thora, THORA,” I said. “They want me! Somebody wants me!”
There was an easiness for a while: I knew what I was going to do, who I was going to be. The end of the school year glided by, and I spent the summer before I left for South Bend working as a deckhand on a fifteen-million-dollar yacht in Mexico. I Windexed toilets, turned down high-thread-count sheets, and placed chocolates on pillows. I went bonefishing in the mangroves, kayaked through small inlets, and tried different tequilas in straw-hut bars on the tips of islands. During my shifts of night watch, I listened to the crew. Gary spent a few years in Alaska ice-fishing, got his degree in chemical engineering, studied astronomy in grad school, then became a boat captain. Alfredo owned a Mexican resort that went bankrupt; he gave me one of the teak rocking chairs he’d made by hand. Jody, a former pastry chef, told stories of working on boats across the world; she’d opened wine bottles for Jimmy Buffett, Mariah Carey, and Forbes’s second-richest man. They saw my devotion to soccer as unnatural and odd. For the first time, single-mindedness—dedication—was presented as limitation. As I sat in the swiveled captain’s chair, bobbing softly with the waves while scanning the water for the lights of other boats, I too wanted to try everything and anything. I wanted to move past soccer.
This, I soon discovered, was a lie. We anchored far out in Ascension Bay, close to an island that served as an outpost for the Mexican army. It was a remote, buggy location, and as Alfredo and I skinned grouper on the back of the yacht, he pointed with his knife toward the island: “That’s where the bad soldiers get sent.” We could see them in uniform, sitting on the dock, machine guns strapped across their chests, machetes in hand. But right along the shoreline was a makeshift soccer field, and after weeks without ball or field, all I wanted was to play.
I dinghied over to the uniformed men and made kicking gestures until my intentions were clear. A half-hour later, in monsoonlike rain, I shared goal celebrations, drank beer, ate ceviche, and took Fun Shot photos in which I am sandwiched between Mexican soldiers, holding on to their guns.
I thought, Who am I kidding? I want to play soccer until I die. Well-roundedness seems disloyal: How can you move to a new world without betraying the first? How can you drop it if you love it?
As I scrubbed toilets all the next day, and then later, as I went to classes in the cold of South Bend and then wrote in the stillness of our apartment in Asheville, I kept thinking about that game. Now, sitting here in the bleachers, with my hands beneath my thighs, I thought about it again. I looked out at the field, at Ferg running up the sideline, at the dad violently combing his hands through his hair, but I was seeing Ascension Bay and the soldiers, and daydreaming about pickup.
*   *   *
THAT NIGHT I met Ferg on West Campus. Like me, Ferg had gone on to spend all her time in Documentary Studies. We were both the overthinker sort who spent as much time wondering what the game meant as we did playing it. I wanted to go to the library, to sit at a table with an old-fashioned lamp while people all around us bent their heads over books. I wanted to hash out some sketch for the future, to sit there with coffee and a legal pad and spend two hours thinking about what we would do if we could do anything. I wanted that game in Mexico to be the start of something.
2.
BOTH MY PARENTS had adventure in them. My mom had worked as a secretary in downtown Los Angeles and saved up enough for a semester at West Liberty State College in West Virginia, a place she picked because she wanted to go somewhere with green rolling hills. She got there and discovered the school was in the middle of a coal-mining town. She thought if she made straight As, they’d give her a scholarship. She made the As but nothing happened, so she drove her Vega back to L.A., where she met my dad.
My dad had been a lifeguard in Laguna Beach and a Green Beret in Vietnam. Before he was shipped to the front lines, he flew to Hawaii and spent three months surfing, putting toilet seats on toilets, and sleeping on the beach. Even after kids and a job, he still seemed unquenched: when a dog bit my sister’s face, he used the insurance money to buy his first sailboat. He studied a How-to-Sail pocket manual, and he and my mom spent the next ten years weekend racing. When we moved to Pensacola, Florida, the Catalina 38 wouldn’t fit beneath the bridges, so we sold it, but he’d still watch the masts as we drove over the three-mile bridge. He kept his longboards, but eventually they got moved to the attic. When he needed the money, he sold one of them for $245 to a man named Ron. I remember him standing in the driveway with his arms folded across his chest, watching that guy walk away with his surfboard. He never sold another one.
Every year we watched Endless Summer, the documentary about two surfers who trekked around the world. As a teenager, I didn’t want to watch a documentary, I didn’t want to watch something from 1966, I didn’t want to watch something I’d already seen before. “This is cool,” my dad said matter-of-factly. “You don’t know how cool this is.” (He always tried to educate me: when I’d asked for the New Kids on the Block album, he gave me the Rolling Stones and told me I could thank him later.) So I sat there with my legs beneath the coffee table and I watched.
Now I called and told him the plan Ferg and I came up with in the library: we’d move from country to country and, instead of looking for waves, we’d go in search of pickup games. He was silent longer than I expected him to be. “Well, honey,” he said, “where are you going to get the money? How are you going to do it?”
“We’re going to apply for a grant.”
“For how much?”
“Five thousand dollars.”
He snorted. “That’s not going to get you very far.”
My dad is an interesting paradox of confidence and negativity; he believed each of his kids could do anything and constantly told us so, but as soon as you picked whatever that thing was, he nagged at you with all of the exhausting details you were going to have to think about in order to make it happen. And, of course, he was right. Five thousand dollars wouldn’t get us far.
Luke was similarly negative. I told him the idea after he’d come home from the billboards and was sitting at our thrift-store table, loose with the release of being away from work. I hung my arm around his neck and told him. My excitement pounced on him. He didn’t respond.
Luke was the only person I knew who loved the game more than I did. We’d walk down to the abandoned field in front of the projects and play for hours, and then I’d want to leave but he’d still be juggling the ball up and down while I sat in the grass and said, “I want to go home.” Because now, there was nothing to train for, nothing to get better for. Luke loved it anyway.
So I didn’t understand his blank face. I didn’t get how I could say “want to go around the world playing in game after game” and get zero response. “So you don’t want to do it?” I said, my voice accusing.
“I didn’t say that,” he said.
I sighed. Once, Luke told me a parable he liked: There were two sons, one who said he’d help his father in the field but then never did, and one who acted resistant but then did go to work in the field. As the girl trying to analyze the guy, I viewed the story as a clue. Now, whenever he acted unenthusiastic, I realized this was somehow linked in his mind to virtue: he was unwilling to promise anything. He didn’t want to be the guy who talked and didn’t do. Which—it dawned on me as I sat across from him at the kitchen table—might also mean he thought of me as son number one. The one who came up short on the follow-through. And maybe it was true. As a kid, I thought I was going to be the best player in the world. I made bets with boys who didn’t think I could do it. I shook their hands and thought, What fools! But, of course, it never happened. And when I was older, I said I wanted to be a writer, that I wanted to write books, but the 240-page draft sitting on my desk said that wasn’t looking too likely either.
Ferg and I were both afraid a decade from now we’d talk about the great idea we once had. Sometime that year her roommate had said to her, “You’re just not a finisher.” That bothered her. Now, like me, she had anxiety. After three weeks calling each other and saying, “Are you serious? I’m serious,” we filled out the application for the Benenson Award in the Arts. A professor suggested we leave out the around-the-world part. It sounded too big, too impossible. So we wrote about South America and won the grant. When I told Luke, his face finally furrowed up with what looked like hope. “We’re going to do this?” he asked, still afraid to let himself see it—billboards ending, game beginning. “We’re really going to do it?” he said, voice rising, smile forming.
The three of us let ourselves sink into the idea. We got a big map, spread it out on the table, and stuck pushpins in all the places we wanted to go. We started tracking down places to stay, looking for couches and floors of friends of friends. We piled up all relevant books—Travels with Charley, Fever Pitch, Soccer in Sun and Shadow, Among the Thugs, How Soccer Explains the World, On the Road, The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, Simon Kuper’s Perfect Pitch series—and combed through the pages for hints. We walked to Malaprop’s and bought the Lonely Planet guide, South America on a Shoestring. Listening to loud music, we made long lists on legal pads. At night, Luke and I lay there on our half-deflated mattress. There were the fun things to think about—where we would go, all that we would do—and the unfun thing: how we’d raise the money for the rest of it.
*   *   *
THE CENTER FOR Documentary Studies is an old Victorian house on the edge of Duke’s East Campus. You have to walk up a small hill past the graffitied trestle in order to know it’s there. Every year there were only a dozen or so students in the program, which meant you got as much time with your professors as you wanted. They had stories they cared about: Gary Hawkins made films about great southern authors; John Biewen recorded audio narratives of immigrant families; Charlie Thompson wrote ethnographies about Appalachian moonshine runners. If you had an idea, CDS was the place to take it.
On a Friday, Ferg and I went to see Tom Rankin, the director of the program and our favorite professor. Tom, a photographer who took black-and-white shots of rural southern churches, usually wore cowboy boots, faded Levis, and button-down shirts with the sleeves rolled up. His farm was thirty miles out of town, and his slow smile made it look like some part of him was still out there.
We knocked on his door. We hovered around his desk. We told him, “We have an idea.”
“Going around the world,” we said, “looking for pickup games.”
He brushed his lip where his mustache used to be. You could tell he liked it—both our idea and our excitement.
“Have you called Ryan?” he asked, leaning back in his chair.
“I e-mailed him,” I said.
“You need a fourth. He’d be good.”
Ryan White was my camera partner in college, a guy with a great eye and strong instincts. He made three school documentaries: one about a lady who was a bank teller by day and a stripper by night, another about the Triangle Ferret Lovers club, and a third about the city mortician, a man who decorated his apartment with lava lamps and horror-film posters. Since school, Ryan had worked as a production assistant in D.C. for an Emmy-winning filmmaker. But I knew he’d just quit his job, and I hoped my e-mail would catch him during a gap. I hoped he’d be unable to turn down a chance to make a film while traveling around the world.
Tom tapped a pen against the top of his desk. “Draft out a proposal,” he said. “Make it good. I’ll take you to the provost.”
*   *   *
SOCCER: IT’S INTERNATIONAL stars signing multimillion-dollar contracts. It’s World Cup finals and Barcelona against AC Milan in the Champions League. But away from the professional stadiums, bright lights, and manicured fields, there’s another side of the game.
This, we wrote in our proposal, is a story that hasn’t been told: no one has focused on pickup soccer, the global phenomenon spanning gender, race, religion, and class. We found striking pictures on the Internet and clustered them together on our proposal cover page—old men playing on a beach in Tel Aviv, Afghan women playing in burkas, teenagers playing in front of what looked like a giant crumbling sand castle. We gleaned inspiration from Sean Wilsey’s introduction to The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup: “The joy of being one of the couple of billion people watching thirty-two nations abide by seventeen rules fills me with the conviction, perhaps ignorant, but like many ignorant convictions, fiercely held, that soccer can unite the world.” Like Wilsey, we believed in the reach of the game. And pickup, the world at play, was the strand we thought had the most to offer, able to create intimacy between strangers.
In June, the four of us—Ryan, Ferg, Luke, and I—met Tom on West Campus, walking past gothic stone. In the Allen Building, a receptionist sat us down in a room that smelled like ancient books and tradition. We looked out two turret windows and waited for the provost.
“You’ve got fifteen minutes,” a voice boomed out from the doorway.
Peter Lange, a short Jewish man with a big, intimidating presence, set our proposal down on the table in front of him, pushed the center of his horn-rimmed glasses, and glanced at his watch.
Our shaky voices regurgitated what we’d already written: “Away from the bright lights…”
He cut us off. “I know all that. For twenty years I played in pickup games with surgeons, drug smugglers, Mexicans, Nigerians. I get it,” he said. “Tell me what you need from me.”
“Equipment, cameras,” Tom said, our representative of cool and calm.
Dr. Lange patted down his red silk tie and peered at Tom over the top of his glasses. “And you think they can do it?”
Tom nodded.
Dr. Lange leaned over a legal pad while he asked about the cost of a camera, a tripod, a lavalier microphone. He scribbled figures onto paper and flipped the notepad toward us. “Here’s what I can do. Through the Duke Arts Initiative Fund, I’m granting the Center for Documentary Studies twenty-five-thousand-dollars’ worth of equipment. You guys may use it.”
He stood up, shook our hands, and walked out of the office.
Pickup around the world—it had been a farfetched idea. Now, incredibly, it was happening.
*   *   *
WE SPENT FOUR more months raising money, writing fund-raising letters to anyone from my grandma’s eye doctor to friends of distant relatives. “So let me get this straight,” Mr. Davis, my dad’s friend, said into the phone. “You want me to give you money. So that you can travel around the world. Playing soccer.”
Um, well … yeah. I tried to explain what the game had to offer: the connective quality, its ability to provide a window into the spectrum of culture. I told him about the Mennonites who play in the Bolivian jungle and the Peruvian women who play in traditional skirts way up in the mountains, but my heart pounded and I stuttered and mumbled and paced, until I just said bye and hung up the phone, sinking down into the couch. But some of those sweaty-palmed phone calls went a little better; people liked the idea of helping kids chase down a long shot.
“You’re a con artist,” my dad said, his voice disbelieving and proud as I gave him financial updates.
My brother, a short-order chef, also marveled. “I sweat my balls off every day. Ain’t nobody giving me a thousand dollars,” he said. “And, sis, soccer’s no fun to watch—it’s fun to play. Nobody in this country’s going to watch a documentary about soccer.”
Luke’s aunt, who was waiting for him to get a “real” job, said, “Why you’re going around the world to make a home video, I have no idea.”
We moved out of our apartment during the Bele Chere music festival, carrying our desk above our heads as we stepped over beer cans and wove around bodies swaying to folk music. We scattered our belongings among our Asheville friends: Scotty took our desk, Pfister took our chair, Jarret took our kitchen table.
We pinged the soccer ball across the empty wood floor.
*   *   *
GROWING UP, MY club coach was a six-feet-two Trinidadian who once trained dogs for the Port of Spain police force. We revered him. He started with a team of eight-year-olds and got us scholarships to Division I programs across the country. Having spent ten years eating island-style roti and listening to Coach say at winter practices, “One day I’m going to buy myself a plot of Tobago land—me and Debi going to retire beneath a palm tree,” T&T is the first country I think of when we make our list.
Coach had that combo of toughness and jokes; he never smiled until he was making fun of you. In the decade he taught me how to play, he delivered only one outright compliment. We were riding the elevator after a team camp all-star game. As he got off on the sixth floor, he hitched the bag of balls up on his shoulder, turning back toward me. “Child, you were smooth like butter tonight,” he said, running one hand through the air as if he were spreading Land O’Lakes on bread. He turned and walked down the hall, elevator doors closing behind his praise. From the sixth floor to the tenth floor, I leaned against the handrail, looking for some kind of internal nook to lodge his words so that I’d be able to put his yelling and grimacing into context. For the next four years, whenever he jumped up from the bag of balls he sat on, addressing me in a tone that dropped toward the ground, I knew he thought I could be great.
He made sure we loved the game, but he also made sure we knew we played in order to get somewhere. “Use the ability to kick a ball to open the world for you,” he’d said. At first that meant college. Now it meant Trinidad.
*   *   *
ON SEPTEMBER 7, 2007, in Ryan’s mother’s living room in Atlanta, we folded up maps, made lists of phone numbers, Xeroxed passports, assembled camera bags, and mashed our clothes into space-maximizing Ziplocks. At 3:30 the next morning, we finished packing, I lost my passport, and Ryan thought he went blind. By 4:15 I found my passport, Ryan discovered he’d stuck two sets of contacts in his eyes, and Luke and Ferg waited by the car, worried about time. At 6:30 we took off, watching Atlanta retreat from our plane window.


 
Copyright © 2012 by Gwendolyn Oxenham