Last weekend when my mom and sister visited, we all went to a bar and ate hamburgers with quasi-sexually explicit names and drank martinis with normal names. And watched early nineties music videos while trying to list off each of the Spice Girls.
And by the time our waiter–outfitted in naughty lederhosen–sidled up to deliver our deep-fried Snickers and bill tucked into a large red sequinned slipper, I’d finished imagining how many times Sporty Spice has criticized herself for not orchestrating a stage accident for Posh Spice, just so she could’ve had David Beckham to dandle for the rest of her life.
That, and I wondered if she’s since become a field hockey star.
All spice-centric synaptic misfires aside, our whole interchange got me thinking about sports, and how I’d always do whatever I could to avoid them.
Now, plenty of people have prattled on about how it seems that many gays want to swing a bat about as much as a cat wants to take a flea dip. But with so many sporty gays coming out these days, and allies alike showing their support, it’s clear that there’s plenty of room in sports arenas for fabulousness. And for limited notions of masculinity to be relegated to the proverbial dustbin.
Still, I’m about as likely to attend a sporting event as Bill O’Reilly is to snuggle with Rachel Maddow. But hey, it’s not like I’m knocking something I haven’t tried before. I’ve been there, done that, and nursed all of the associated wounds.
Maybe it was because the soccer ball always curved just enough to make contact with my face, but Opelika’s Pee Wee Soccer became my own personal bloodbath. I know what you’re thinking. Why is a gay complaining about balls to the face? Well, toward the end of that five year-long sportsy era, it got a little ridiculous. Because every single time any player would kick the ball, it’d ricochet off my face with a cringe-worthy bwalp.
The final blow to the ego was dealt by a kid named Costa–the most hulking guy on our team, whose leg power bordered on ridiculous.
I still remember everything slowing down: Costa’s kick; the ball flying, then curving slightly; running toward it, then suddenly realizing its trajectory; the bwalp; flipping backward from my forward momentum combined with the ball’s speed; seeing the grass-caked bottoms of my cleats while rounding out the flip; my massive wire rim glasses slowly falling in front of me; the hard, slightly moist ground as I landed on my stomach; and sudden stillness, followed by blood gushing out of my nose.
Then, the referee’s whistle. And me skittering to the sidelines–my battered nose swaddled in paper towels–no doubt lisping through the blood to facepalming team members, “Ay’em okahay, guhys!”
Softball wasn’t much better, mostly because I’d try my damndest to get it right–listen to the crew cut coach, follow her step-by-step instructions. Which was probably my problem. Instead of making it a fluid mental process, I insisted on deconstructing every step in robotic, punctuated fashion. Like the one time I hit the ball: I hit the ball; Wow, I hit the ball!; Okay, now, throw the bat; Run to first base. Suffice it to say I rarely made it to first base. And the umpire almost always got beaned by the bat.
“NO! How many times do I have to tell you? You don’t throw the bat behind you. Off to the side. Off. To. The. Side!”
“Next time you do that, you’re getting marked down! Take a seat.”
I’d sulked away to the sidelines, past the umpire rubbing his head.
Flag football was worse, mostly because the fledgling jocks always “forgot” the flag part, transforming it into pummel-the-bejesus-out-of-the-twiggy-kid ball. And while I did catch the ball one time–flinching as I did–I ran to the wrong end zone, thinking all the while my teammates were screaming for me, not at me.
But even when I’d be dragged to college football games and take my bulky Game Boy along, I’d still get nosebleeds from the altitude.
To this day, I’m convinced dodgeball is the realm of nascent sadists. Like Luhtha–the scariest failed sixth grader ever.
Since he’d failed a few times, he’d already gone through puberty and was a horrifying mass of a kid. So much so that fellow twigs and I would visibly shake as we’d hear him emerge from the basement locker room–his terrifying cackle reverberating off of the stairwell’s tiled wall.
And if his beady eyes narrowed on you–even if he didn’t have a ball in hand–it was best to just go limp and fake a seizure. Even still, you’d probably get hit in the nuts.
Years after my involvement in band shielded me from experiencing other sports-related foibles–and gifted me a front row seat to afternoon shirtless cross-country team runs–I still had to subject myself to certain rites of passage. Like hunting.
Now, my father is an avid hunter, and is probably the most considerate hunter ever. There’s no cowardly spot-lighting, or use of four wheelers to load and drag the kills; he hauls them out of the woods himself–by hand–after a clean bow or gunshot. Unfortunately for him, I never really took up hunting. I’d been sort of okay with fishing, even though I still sucked at it.
But there comes a time in many southern gay boys’ lives where you can’t side-sashay that age old rite of harvesting your first deer.
So there I was, sitting in the tree stand with my dad, praying to any deity that’d hear me that a deer wouldn’t come out. Mostly because I was worried I’d screw it up and disappoint my dad. Or worse, mortally wound the deer in some ghastly fashion and have to use more than one shot. And for a while, I thought I was in the clear. The sun was setting, and the most we’d seen was an armadillo rooting through ant beds.
But then, off to my left, I heard branches crack under hooves. And the four-point rack emerge from the bramble. The conditions were perfect: no wind, good angle, clear shot. Still, I’d hoped to squeeze out some gas or suddenly sneeze. But before I could act on either, Dad saw the buck too. So I waited, and waited, and waited until I could tell Dad was wondering if I was ever going to act.
And then I did, lining up the shot the way I was taught. The blast ripped through my consciousness and the deer jumped, ran, and fell dead. Dad was pleased. I was nauseated, my face bleached of all color.
After Dad thanked the deer for its sacrifice, and offered up a quick prayer that it didn’t suffer, I realized how important the whole process was to him. And tolerated the last bit of the ritual: the smearing of blood across the face. Macabre, yes. But it pleased him about as much as announcing, weeks later, that we were eating the deer I’d harvested. And while that was the first and last deer I ever shot, I felt like I’d succeeded. Like I was part of the manly crowd.
Now, though, Dad knows where I stand on that and sports and other conditioned, hyper-masculine behaviors that I really don’t feel necessary to embody and perform, and he’s fine with it.
But, more importantly, so am I.