square ball


I read the first few lines of a MTA subway poem framed on the inside of the 1 train that’s taking me north: “Every leaf that falls never stops falling. I once thought that leaves were leaves. Now I think they are feeling, in search of a place—someone’s hair, a park bench, a finger . . . ” The poem resonates. It’s a fall Friday, early afternoon, and I’m going to the Bronx to watch a college soccer game. The NYT headline calls the game: “A ‘Landmark’ as Women Will Coach Against Each Other in Men’s Soccer.” UChicago is playing NYU in men’s soccer, making it the first time two women are going head to head in a men’s collegiate sports game. I read the headline feeling equal parts proud UChicago is my alma matter, equal parts trapped in a nightmare where only now have two women had access to spaces that believe men should be the only leaders. I think about how my college teammates responded to the news that Sitch, the current head coach for UChicago, got the job. How they said they wouldn’t have joined the team if she—a queer woman—was the coach then. How I sat there, remembering the moment when I heard the news. I called Kelsey to ask if Sitch was hiring an assistant, if Sitch would hire me. I called Grace to see if she wanted to be roommates if I moved to Chicago for the hypothetical assistance coaching gig. I told my Brooklyn roommates I may not resign the lease because of said hypo gig. I thought about how I would have come out with more ease if Sitch was the coach, maybe even acknowledged I wasn’t cis and challenged the binary of college sports with a coach that would affirm me and my queer agenda. A door opened to an Everything Everywhere All at Once sort of multiverse where college soccer is a beacon for queer people socialized as men to come together and build the bonds of community that have been so easily accessible to the misogynists sitting in front of me. I see it, and I want to stay there. I want to think that’s where we are going. I don’t say any of this, though. I tell the guys that I would have been glad they wouldn’t have been my teammates, laughing after as if to make them think I was kidding. They laugh, too. I can’t see how much this hurts me. — — — — — The last time I was in the world of men’s college soccer was around this time last year. It was early December, and UChicago had qualified for the national championship in Greensboro, North Carolina. They would play on the same field with the same stakes of a national championship where I lost my last college soccer game and where I flew back from Galicia in 2018 to cheer the team on as they qualified again the following year. We lost in 2017, and then again in 2018; so the team returning in 2021 to try for the third time felt worthy of my final participation in this culture I had grown so far away from. Especially since joining the Ramblers queer soccer league in the city, I’ve embraced the clarity that the environment of college soccer was not only a space that didn’t often nourish me but one that reinforced the harm that comes with having a queer body in a space that demands masculinity, discipline, rigidity from the body. In the Ramblers, as Kelsey noted when she visited our weekly practice, everything is “sexy.” Sexy shots, sexy tackles, sexy square balls (a soccer term for passes that don’t go forward nor backward, but sideways across the field). “The Ramblers is healing my past . . . ” I jotted into my Notes app on a high sunset stroll this summer. Playing soccer with queer people allows me to make space for the dripping presence of sex in soccer. The sexiness of my body, of the bodies of my teammates and opponents. It’s like finally naming the elephant in the room—this homoerotic thing we are out here doing is hot! And by naming that hotness, my body can move through time with a natural cadence, rather than like a leaf in search of a place. So when I return to Greensboro in December of 2021, I am not asking this world to nourish me. I am not asking it to see me how I am seen in the queer spaces I now inhabit. I return as a visitor to a performance I am no longer cast a role in. I write in my journal on this day: “It’s humbling how much self-love is thriving here for me—maybe because seeing how much my old teammates love me as I am is giving me more permission to love myself.” Rather than mourning my role in this world, I am celebrating a new one as a guest to it. A celebration I hope I will bring with me into the future, a future where this is my past. I lace up my soccer cleats to play pickup with the other alumni. Every step I take, the studs dig into the ground, rooting me, flattening the earth—the sensation of falling put to rest. — — — — Today, the 1 train is taking me to Gaelic (pronounced gay-lick) Park. Like Greensboro, I’ve been here twice before, as a sophomore and a senior, both times to play NYU. The experiences were charged visits, my body remembers as I arrive, feeling as if the train hurdles me into the depths of a stored memory. Reese, the protagonist in "Detransition, Baby," says that she “read that of our senses, only taste and smell pass directly to the hippocampus, where memory gets stored. Sights, sounds, and touches get converted into thoughts and symbols before they continue on to the memory in the hippocampus. But smell connects directly to memory.” I think about how my hippocampus stores my memory of physical places, places like Gaelic Park. How when I return to somewhere that holds a charge, I return to a museum of memory, curated to be digested as quickly as a sense’s journey straight to the hippocampus. The nomenclature of Gaelic fits this particular exhibition quite well. My body remembers I was called a faggot here. In preparing to ask my supervisor at the straight bar I’m working at if I can leave work to go to the ‘landmark’ game, I try to articulate to myself why I am wanting to go to the game. My body knows, but does my brain? Option 1: "My friend is the coach. I told her I’d came to watch and do not want to break that commitment." This is partially true. Sitch is (loosely) my friend, but I did not tell her I would be there. I am bad at lying. I scrap this one. Option 2: "The soccer team I played for made it into the NYT for being feminist as fuck. If you don’t let me go, doesn’t that make you a bad feminist? Even worse, do you hate the NYT?" My supervisor at the straight bar is a straight man who doesn’t even pretend to be a feminist. Wrong audience. Option 3: "I am exhausted. I walk around this world like Flat Stanley, a girlboy flattened by the people who have put them in a tiny space and told to “hold still, this is what it feels like to be you.” I am a leaf that never stops falling, in search of a place. And in that search, returns to the places that flattened them, returns to say, “look at me, I’m not flat anymore, and whatever you do, you can’t flatten me anymore. I am not a leaf, I am a tree.” I want to return to Gaelic Park and feel grounded in this place. If I can do that here, like I did in Greensboro, I can do that everywhere else I go. So much has also changed. There are two women calling the shots. People like me must be safe now. Even the harassed ghost of myself here can feel safe. I want a flattened faggot soccer player to look up into the stands and see a faggot who gets it, cheering them on." When I ask my supervisor if I can leave at 3pm and promise to be back by 7pm, he says sure. He doesn’t even ask where I’m going. — — — In 2017, I am the captain of the team my senior season, and to my knowledge, the only out queer ‘men’s’ soccer captain in the country. I guess no ‘landmark’ NYT headline when you’re the only one. We arrive to NYC on a Saturday after being in Boston Thursday and Friday to play Brandeis College. I talk to my coach about how this two-game weekend trip to play Brandeis and NYU is a revenge tour. Two years earlier on the same trip, we lost to both teams on their fields. Now two years later, our team has a chance to beat them both and win our “conference,” qualifying us for the NCAA national tournament. I don’t tell my coach part of the revenge tour for me is that when I was a sophomore, I was called a faggot by fans on both of these fields. As a sophomore, I was closeted. Before I was comfortable calling myself a faggot, being called a faggot by someone else felt like someone tightening the bolt to the door keeping my sexuality boarded up. It would push back my ability to come out by weeks, maybe even months, every time someone threw the slur my way. Two years later, though, I wanted to go back to these fields and show them I’d fetched the bolt cutters like Fiona Apple and busted my faggot ass out. We win the Friday game at Brandeis, a game ending with my coach of four years telling me he’d never seen me play better. “Whatever you did to prepare for this, do that again on Sunday for NYU.” What I did to prepare? I gained 15 pounds since being called a faggot here. I was the captain and yelled in a deep voice. I was the most manly version of my queer self, gripped by a masculinity I wore on my sleeve in the shape of a captain’s band. I hadn’t become comfortable with being a faggot. I had just become less of a faggot. That Saturday we travel south to NYC via coach bus, and I’m listening to my Spotify playlist, “Something Like This Can Happen.” Flume’s “Tiny Cities” song comes on: “can I / should I / find my way home?” I have been imagining I’ll move to NYC after this season, after graduating. My boyfriend, Marco, lives there. Queerness lives there. There’s a queer soccer league with hundreds of members. So when we have are told we have Saturday free to explore, I meet up with my Marco in Central Park. We kiss in public, on a park bench. Leaves fall around us, and the feeling is a park bench. At the field the next day, the coach bus pulls underneath an above-ground subway track and parks outside the field. Unlike my first time here, I am noticing all the details, something I think I do because I am now “moving here,” finding my way home to this city. The details I hold onto are how beautifully fall it is in NYC, and that the stadium is playing “Empire State of Mind” as we walk in. And when I enter the stadium, I remember that the last stop on the subway track is directly above the far side of field. From the stands, the crowd can see the scoreboard and behind it, train cars come and go every five minutes. NYU is coached by the same woman who will be coaching them when Sitch is hired. Their team is not very competitive, something my teammates attribute to their coach being a woman. We win 3-0, and qualify for the NCAA tournament. I again, play noticeably well. I go to shake the head coach’s hand. I am in the minority of players who do, as I see teammates go directly to their bags instead, something that has never happened when the opposing teams’ coaches are men. I want to tell her that even though I’m going to go on to play in the tournament and her team isn’t, I want her as my coach. I want to weigh fifteen pounds less, to run around in a purple jersey with her on my side. Our hands touch and I say, “good game,” in a voice that sounds so deep it can’t be mine. — — As I’m commuting to the game from Brooklyn where I’ve been living for two years, I can’t decide if this is a reverse pilgrimage—leaving the city to come back to this field, or if this is the pilgrimage. The sun is setting on the museum that is Gaelic Park. I am greeted by the UChicago women’s head coach who has a gay son and has always liked me. I talk to her assistant coach, who is an alumni of the women’s team. She graduated in 2021 and tells me about what I missed in the few seasons after I graduated in 2018. She says she feels sad about the culture of the men’s team. How they don’t even stay to support the women’s games, yet they are pretty obsessively trying to sleep with the women, even though most of them are lesbos. While listening to her, I also overhear a conversation between a group of women soccer alumni that I vaguely recognize but do not end up talking to. “Remember how our team safety word was ‘Square Ball,’ what we would say when boys were bad to us at parties, and we needed someone to help?” The group of women laugh, in a way that sounds more nostalgic than horrified. I sit there in a puddle of something that feels like disillusionment. If during my time at UChicago, the women needed a safe word to protect themselves from the men, and that pursuit has only gotten more predatory, why is the word ‘landmark’ even being thrown around now? Faggots, are you even out there? I want to yell “faggot” at the top of my lungs, hoping some girlboy with fifteen too many pounds hears me. And then what? I think about how I recently quit the Ramblers competitive queer soccer team largely because it felt like a near enemy to the safe space I was looking for. When it recreated the same flattening masculinity of straight soccer, it held not only the pain of that experience but then also the pain of betrayal, the pain of calling out “square ball” and no one responding. It does not take long to realize my body is tense. There is so much yelling coming from the field. Men are playing against men in a way that feels both confusingly foreign and deeply familiar. I think about a passage from "Nevada," a marvel of recent trans fiction by Imogen Binnie. How the trans femme narrator gets annoyed with her trans masc coworker for embracing masculinity so effortlessly, while her two-hour morning make-up routine drips down her sharp cheek bones from the smokey haze of a NYC summer subway ride. I think of how queer the UChicago women’s team has gotten and how an increased closeness to masculinity actually makes their athleticism celebrated. I feel like I can hear, faggot, reverberate through the fall winds like a schizophrenic echo of the penis game, moving from memory to the present: faggot faggoT faggOT fagGOT faGGOT fAGGOT FAGGOT I think about how grounding Greensboro felt and how triggering this has become. Is the difference all about hope? I came today hoping two women coaching soccer would mean that femininity has it’s place in the world of soccer, and then by some sort of transitive property, that I have a place in the world of soccer again, too. Maybe I never wanted to leave this world but actually felt forced out, and the promise of Sitch felt like an invitation back. I wonder why I want to see something that isn’t for my people be accessible to us. I wonder why I do this with so many things. I want to stop trying to reclaim what isn’t supposed to be for me. I want to be like smell, connecting directly to memory, rather than getting lost in the detour of thought. I see the two women coaches, each respectively next to their teams on the opposite side of the field under the scoreboard, under the 1 train coming and going. It is halftime. As I walk to the bathroom, I think my memory is playing tricks on me. Empire State of Mind blasts through the stadium speakers: “These streets will make you feel brand new / these lights will inspire you.” I remember this time at Gaelic Park, I am not visiting NYC. I live here now, in the kind of queer life I imagined for myself. Like Alicia Keys promises, I feel brand new, yet I’m looking at a scene so familiar I start to feel flattened again, as if my nail polish chips off with every train that pulls out towards to the city, leaving me behind to fall into the shadows of the setting sun. In soccer, a square ball, tactically, is largely avoided. It’s a pass that leaves the team vulnerable. In the act of protecting ourselves from what we know is out there, we still open ourselves up to vulnerability. Should we know better? “Square ball,” I hear yelled as I leave the field. — On the trip back to Brooklyn, I calculate how much I lost in tips at the bar since I left my shift to come to to the game. At least two months of Nuuly rentals. I snuggle into my seat, listening to Tiny Cities. “Can I / should I / find my way home?” I look over at the MTA poem staring back at me. I finish reading where I left off: “… Isn’t that like us, going from place to place, looking to be alive?”