At this point, I’m going to go ahead and interrupt my tidy narrative timeline for a second. Basically, I need to address something I haven’t really talked about, but which is indisputably happening. And that is soccer.
I started playing soccer when I was five, and for the next, oh, six years maybe, I was really, really bad at it.
I was tiny and shy and way too timid to function. I would bound along beside the ball, skipping like a baby deer, never getting close enough to actually touch it.
But then something happened. I hit eleven or twelve and realized that despite all evidence to the contrary, I actually understood the game a little. Or maybe what happened is just that they started playing us in permanent positions instead of all over the field, and it turned out that I was kind of good at defense, because what I was really good at was following instructions.
For whatever reason, the next few years quickly evolve into a flurry of summer camps, try-out teams, pick-up games, jerseys with my number on the back. I get home from practice … and then go running. By fourteen, my goal is very simple. My one earthly desire is to be as good or better than any boy my age.
Let’s be clear—during all this time, I never consciously think of myself as a Soccer Player. Not even when I’m playing for three hours every day. Not even when I’m playing for the crazy German guy who spent eight years in the semi-pros. Not even when he makes the strikers practice taking free kicks at our faces so we’ll be conditioned never to duck. Not even when I run my arches flat. Not even when the day-camp boys start picking me first whenever it’s time to choose up teams.
Because even when it’s exhausting and demanding and kind of brutal, it’s still just something I do.
During sophomore year, I don’t spend a lot of time writing about soccer. Or thinking about it. I play sweeper for the JV team. I spend the season in a comfortable state of suspended animation. The practices are easy (remember, I’ve just spent the previous year playing for the German guy), I start every game, we have an undefeated season, and I round out the spring with a pulled quad, a broken nose, and an MVP certificate to prove it.
JV is fun. It’s low-key and something interesting to do, and two days a week, I get to leave Spanish III early for away games.
Three times over the course of the season, the head coach pulls me aside to talk about varsity. Each time, she sounds tender and sympathetic, like she’s apologizing to me.
The things she says are nothing I haven’t heard before:
It’s not a question of your skill-level.
And, I just don’t want you getting hurt.
And finally, Well, you’ll be bigger next year.
All this is irrelevant, however, and here is why:
My build is not going to change.*
On an intellectual level, I get what she’s saying. Despite the MVP certificate and the travel teams and the camps, I am exactly the kind of person you look at off the field and assume will be useless. I’m exactly the kind of person you look at ON the field and assume will be useless. I drift aimlessly. I shamble. I drag my feet when I walk and even when we’re all lining up and the game’s about to start, I have a tendency to look vague and kind of tentative. Exactly the kind of person who gets hurt.
But I am not tentative.
I’m aggressive and territorial and stupidly indifferent to any sort of physical peril. On the soccer field, I am the exact opposite of real-life-me.
And now it’s next year and tryouts are looming and I’m not bigger. I’m exactly the same size I was in 10th grade. And 9th grade. And … you get the picture.
If I cared more about sports as status symbols, I might worry about spending another year on JV. But because I am both ill-motivated and prone to ignoring anything I don’t want to think about, the possibility doesn’t really register.
There are girls who get nervous before tryouts. They shake and fidget and pace back and forth, wringing their hands. I’m not one of those girls. I sit on the grass and read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and wait for someone to pin a paper number on my back.
This isn’t because I’m particularly confident. In the realm of competitive soccer, I’m content to rest squarely in the middle, capable but not a stand-out, skilled but not spectacular. My intention of being as good as a boy was satisfied years ago, and now I don’t really care anymore. This is just one more example of that disturbing characteristic that defines high-school Brenna. It’s not that I’m lazy, exactly. I’m just completely indifferent.**
As far as tryouts are concerned, I have one saving grace. I’m not very big or very strong, or even especially good at showcasing my own abilities, but I can run.
I can run for miles.
For as long as I have to.
I can run until someone tells me it’s time to stop.
The coach starts conditioning us in February—50 or 60 girls with paper numbers on their backs, lumbering around the track or the practice fields while she stands on the sidelines and marks things down on her clipboard.
And when she takes me for varsity three weeks later, it’s not like I wasn’t expecting it. But it’s not like I was expecting it, either.
Immediately, I am gripped by a ferocious ambivalence. I like that I’m on the team. On the other hand, I don’t really feel like doing any of the actual work involved and in fact, I’m not even sure that soccer is my thing anymore. I kind of just want to curl up in my room and write short stories.
My ambivalence at being picked for varsity is just the beginning. Junior year will prove to be the weirdest, most in-between season I’ve ever had. The thing is, I’m not any bigger than I was. I’m not any better. But the varsity team graduated some forwards last year, and the coach just thinks what everyone thinks—that all short, twiggy girls with bony ankles and decent footwork have to play striker. She informs me that with my speed, I should be carrying the ball more, putting together plays and scoring goals.
It’s weird to play in the front. I know all the defensive tricks—how, in order to distract you, they’ll kick your heels, just lightly. How when an air-ball comes, they’ll wait til the last second, then shove you forward right as it drops so that it lands behind you.
I wait for them to tap my heels, then lift my foot just in time to step on their toes. I let them push into my shoulder blades as the ball comes towards us, and then, when it’s about to drop, I shove myself backwards as hard as I can and trap it on my chest.
I know the tricks, but I don’t actually know how to play forward. Even when I’m ten feet from from the goal, dead-center, I never remember to shoot. In the back, it’s easy: recover the ball, protect the ball, then feed a pass to the line or clear it as hard as you can to the corner.
In the front, I recover the ball, protect it, then can’t think what to do next. [My coach] keeps yelling at me to quit dicking around and put it in the net.
I literally do not know what to do. Which, since I’ve been playing this sport since I was five, is a very weird sensation. I mean, I understand the general principle of playing striker, but it’s not something that makes any sort of sense on an intuitive level. I’ve spent the last six years in the backfield, drifting surreptitiously into someone else’s space, reading their body language, standing on their heels. It’s the only place I want to be.
During the course of the season, I’ll score zero times. On the plus side, our coach doesn’t seem to mind much, because I make up for it with assists. Which is to say, I suck, but according to the stats, I’m sucking at a competitive level. On the minus side, she just keeps playing me there.
When I look at my numbers, it’s disorienting. They’re okay, nothing great. But they exist, and that’s the thing that confuses me, because I can’t remember any of these crucial plays. Some part of me still thinks I’m just clearing the ball out of the back. Only, I’m not in the back, and the place I’m clearing the ball to is a girl named Emily, who happens to be standing right in front of the other team’s goal. When she buries it in the net, I think oh, that’s good, and then trot back to the center circle to line up for the kick-off.
All I want, all season, is to not be doing this. All I want is to be in the back where I belong.
So, I’m really interested in people’s hobbies and extracurriculars. I think they can tell you a lot about a person, and not always in the most obvious ways. With that in mind, talk to me about sports, about projects and volunteer work and clubs, but especially music, because that’s something I have not the faintest clue about.
I’m curious to hear how you feel about these things. Are you passionate? Dispassionate? Do you identify strongly with your chosen interests, or are you only going through the motions? And if you are going through the motions, is there still some value in that?
*Actually, I wound up growing almost two inches after I hit 21. Regardless, I’m still short.
**And kind of lazy.