7.20.2010

Run, Girl! Run!

Many thanks to Queer Memoir and First Person Arts for hosting the Salon for which this essay was written.

I've just barely made it to the mouth of East Passyunk Avenue, two minutes walk from my apartment, and these cutoff jean shorts already seem like a bad idea. And so much more ridiculous than they had all day as I tromped around the Gayborhood. By ridiculous, I should say, I mean gay. It's an unhealthy paradigm, I know, but one that I can't really deconstruct at the moment because I'm very busy trying to will myself invisible to the group of 16-year-old boys sitting up ahead. Fitting snugly in all the right places, the shorts fall a good 2 inches above my knee. I actually have the temerity to consider them a bit conservative; it's not like you're going to accidentally see my balls. I only wear those shorts at Halloween. And to the gym. And to softball practice. And once, curiously, to a casual dress wedding. Still, while the jean shorts don't push the limits of good taste they seem decidedly, conspicuous on this South Philadelphia block. And by conspicuous I mean gay. One of the 14-year-old boys is playing a guitar at a microphone in front of a store; two others sit on either side of him. A fourth stands on the curb across from the rest. I instantly decide that he is the sidekick to the musician. In my head I dub him Ponyboy. It's he who spies me. And I can see in his eyes that he makes an instant decision about me as well. He crosses to the musician and whispers in his ear and though I am half a block away and almost 20 years older I immediately feel adolescently awkward again. And by awkward I mean gay.

I had thought about changing clothes before I left the house but I’m in a rush. I need to get to the market to get peaches and baguettes for brunch tomorrow. And I have to go now because this evening is tied up with a meat-filled dinner party a friend is throwing while his vegan partner is away on a faerie retreat. I'm aware that these words, strung together make my life, or at least my Saturday night plans, sound a bit eccentric. And I assume one can discern what I mean by eccentric. But it's really rather ordinary—two meals with friends—nothing that's any more extravagant than my shorts had seemed this morning when I put them on one leg at a time. They're just words anyway, void of context. And words can never hurt me. Never. Almost. Usually. Sometimes.

The sidekick steps back from the musician and I allow myself the fantasy that he has forgotten about me. That’ s all I really want. I don’t want him to see me or my crotch-hugging shorts; I don’t want him to make instant decisions about me or my proclivities. I just want to get my peaches and be on my merry way. I hear a voice in my head and it’s telling me to run but my jeans are too tight. I am upon them and then I am in their midst. And then, just as I am past them, Ponyboy calls out, “You got some nice legs, girl. You use Nair on those legs?” And then all four boys break into song in unison: “Who wears short shorts!” And though I am scrambling to get away, to outrun the sound without breaking my stride, I am taken out of the moment briefly by wondering how a group of 12-year-olds ever came across a song from a commercial that came out before they were born.

Because the one is in front of a microphone, the words echo off the building faces around me as I rush down the street, wishing I had my earphones in. But it wouldn’t matter if they had whispered them as I passed. I knew what they would say, in a general sense, before they’d even spied me. It’s almost as if I had willed it. And it stings a little, for reasons I’m still not sure of, even as I am far beyond them, even as I am at the checkout counter and find myself grimacing at the memory, even as I take the long way home to avoid being once again chased by the amplified taunts of 10-year-old boys.

The words, the verbal recognition of my lack of masculinity, of my gayness as weakness, they hurt. They hurt. A little. The words hurt me. Which, I know, is gay.

That sort of thing doesn’t happen to me much. I live in self-constructed bubble of happy homosexuality. I spend a disproportionate amount of time relatively safe in the confines of the Gayborhood . The gym I go to has a large number of gay members. The coffee shop I frequent plays Lady Gaga; the barista does pirouettes. Even the aisles of the SuperFresh, where Sunday nights usually mean the Pointer Sisters and Tina Turner on the store stereo, usually seem to be teeming with queers. And I like it that way. I’m comfortable. I can walk down the street in my bubble in peace, never really worrying that I’m going to come across a group of boys who think that gay is ridiculous or conspicuous or awkward or weak and feel the need to let me know. The bubble is an illusion, I’m aware, and pretty limiting. And I like to believe that today, because of the choices I make, my world is limitless. Which, I suppose, is why I started playing softball. But I’m running ahead of myself.

A couple of months ago, my friend EJ implored me to join the City of Brotherly Love Softball League with him. A gay softball league. And by gay, I really do mean gay. Full of homosexuals. Indeed, each team is allowed a maximum of two players who identify as heterosexual. Any more and the team loses league funding. This was real gay. Official gay. Corporately gay.

The idea was intriguing to me but only in the way that the television is intriguing to a cat. I was pretty sure I didn’t give a shit about it, but because it was so foreign and yet so close to me, it piqued my interest. Softball? Full of gays? Every Sunday all summer long? Surely, you’re misinformed. On Sundays, gays go to brunch and then do some shopping at Crate & Barrel. If it’s a gay couple, they then return home and one puts together IKEA furniture while the other naps. In the evening they watch Desperate Housewives and write checks to charity. That’s what gays do on Sundays. Softball? False. Someone’s been punking you, EJ.

Against my better judgment, and the strong suspicion that this was a vast right-wing conspiracy, I signed up. In retrospect, I have no idea how EJ successfully lobbied my involvement. There was nothing in me that believed a fun Sunday morning would be primarily comprised of an activity I neither knew how to do nor was prepared for in the least. I might as well have said, “Tomorrow let’s go to space on the Hubble Telescope. And while we’re up there we’ll do long division!”

After paying my dues and getting assigned to a team, it did occur to me that there might be some benefits to participating in this farce. It seemed possible to me that this vast unknowable thing called sports might not be so impenetrable to my gay ass. That’s what she said. Perhaps spending a summer knocking some balls around and such might allow me to reclaim some of the masculinity I’d felt steadily ebb away in the decade since I came out and became radically more comfortable with myself. Perhaps it wasn’t too late to become a little Sporty Spice.

Physical activity had never been my bag. Gym class was abhorrent in my nascent gay youth. Sweating, competing, keeping score, knowing what a first down was, moving: there were all atrocities to me. You can imagine my horror when I became an adult, came out of the closet and found out that one of the central tenets of homosexuality is that all gays have gym memberships. I protested to the governing board, of course, noting that I’d seen Steel Magnolias 20 times and I owned one of those blue HRC bumper stickers with the yellow equal sign even though I didn’t own a car. Unfortunately, rules are rules and so I had to join a gym or turn straight. And so I can only assume that I was on some Spinning class-related endorphin high when EJ said, “Join that softball team with me” and I said, “Sure!” when I really meant to say, “That’s gay.”

As the first practice approached and I dutifully lotioned my glove every night (not a euphemism) I began to panic. I really didn’t know how to play softball. I really didn’t believe that I possessed some hitherto unknown prowess like that kid in Angels in the Outfield or Ralph Macchio. I really was going to look like a big gay idiot out there. It was going to be gym class all over again. So, I did what I always do when I don’t know something: I got on Wikipedia. After reading all night—or for a good 20 minutes between commercial breaks during Desperate Housewives—I had learned the following about this thing they call softball: (a) you throw underhand, (b) the balls are bigger (c) that's what she said. 

Here's what I still didn't know: how to throw a ball, how to hit a ball, how to catch a ball without screaming, how to get a home run (although I'm a pro at getting to third base).

They made me the catcher. Probably because when they asked what position I preferred I replied, “Seated.” And it was there that I discovered my true gift. See, when you’re the catcher in slow pitch softball, you’re only marginally in the game. Like Waldorf and Statler on The Muppet Show, my comfy perch behind home plate gave me the perfect vantage point for watching the field and making snarky comments about the game in an attempt to mask the fact that I had no idea what the hell was going on. Occasionally, I would be required to catch a ball or something—which I invariably failed to do—but for the most part I was free to make all the puns I wanted out of the comic gold that is 9 gays, a big stick and a ball.

And as the practices continued, I started to get laughs and people started to like me, even though I sucked. Maybe it was because I was actually witty or maybe it was because half the team always showed up still drunk from the night before. It didn’t make much difference to me. All I knew was that as long as they were laughing at what I said, they weren’t laughing at me, which freed me to strike out at every at bat and drop every ball with impunity.

Somewhere along the line it began to turn on me. I think, maybe, it was the day I was assigned to centerfield during a practice. The outfield can be a real bore and it’s hard for people to hear you yelling “That’s what she said!” from all the way out there so I decided to stay entertained by doing a split and singing quietly to myself. I had barely registered the crack of the back when I looked up to find the ball sailing straight toward me. I cringed and prayed Not the face! as it landed just behind me. As I was still in the split, I didn’t know what they expected me to do, so I just shrugged and then whistled at a passing jogger.

It was in that moment that I realized I’d become the gayest member of a gay softball team in a gay softball league. I had to ask myself: is this what I signed up to do? How is this reclaiming my masculinity? As I’ve gotten older, I stopped asking myself “Who do I want to be” and started asking myself “Who am I?” The answer, in this case, wasn’t one that I enjoyed. True, most of the jokes were ones I found funny; most of the shenanigans were what I would do just about anywhere. This sassy artifice was not an act. But what about the game? Wasn’t that what I was there for? Didn’t I join to be part of a team, and—beyond that—part of this vast, unknowable thing called masculinity that heretofore had been the private domain of brothers and fathers and the bemused husbands of my girlfriends?

I thought about the other guys on my team, guy who were actually playing and must, in some way, have assumed that’s what I was going to do too. Though they laughed and kidded with me about how much I sucked, I started to see another look behind their eyes—a look I wasn’t sure was actually there but recognized and feared nonetheless—it was the same look I would later see in the eyes of the guitar-playing boy and his friends that stood between me and my peaches. It was a look that told me I didn’t belong.

Prancing, cartwheeling, finger-snapping, ball-dropping, curtsying, and constantly doubling my entendres, I was—in my mind—acting like a real faggot. And hadn’t I joined the team so I wouldn’t be a guy people called a faggot? This is true, I thought, but who was calling me a faggot anyway? No one besides myself, actually. In fact, to honest, I don’t think anyone has ever called me a faggot. I’m lucky. Once a kid threw a rock at my head as he yelled out a slur I don’t remember but in terms of words, words alone, faggot has never been uttered. Sometimes people yell “gay”. Teenagers or whatever. Which I think is ridiculous. Even as I speed up my step to try to run from the sound. It’s a little bit of violence, a muted fury that I still cringe at like the rock to the back of my head. But in and of itself it doesn’t make much sense. It’s an absurdly uninsulting insult. “Gay!” they shout, always out of context and dangling dangerously without the anchor of a pronoun. “Gay!” It’s like, duh. I’m wearing a hot pink spandex shirt with cap sleeves and a silk-screened image of Debbie Harry with word “Blondie” spelled out in sequins. No, I’m not gay.

I decided, while splitting glumly in the outfield, that I needed to actually make an effort to play the game, to improve and contribute to the team. I recommitted myself to my mission: to find the man inside and to make him play softball. I would try to channel Geena Davis in A League of Their Own. Unfortunately, that train of thought led me on a tangent about the odd friendship between Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell and how Geena Davis, like Sarah Jessica Parker and Jessica Lange, sometimes looks about 90 years old and sometimes looks 30 and I’d forgotten all about getting better at sports.

After practice, our team manager announced that every player in the league was given a rating based on their demonstrated skill level and that anyone with a rating under 7 would be invited to play in a special exhibition game the following Saturday. Knowing that I was clearly going to be included in that motley crew and feeling a bit self-conscious about it, I released that old reliable sass to deflect any attention.

“A game for all the players that suck?!” I exclaimed, “That sounds awful! A field full of old queens and nerdy faggots all scrambling desperately to get away from the ball? No, thank you. And I presume that since we all suck some, if not most, of us are going to have to actually play in this game? I mean, they can't put us all in right field and forget about us. Count me out, ladies.”

They even had an acronym for this game, which I suppose made it more official. They called it SAUSE, which as far as acronyms go, is pretty adorable. It stood for Seven And Under Softball Event. Or maybe the last word was Exhibition. I could never remember. But I chose to use Event because it sounded far more fabulous and far more likely to involve a red carpet. Also, I thought the chances of press coverage were much greater for an event than for an exhibition. I could just see the spread in the Philadelphia Gay News, a photo of a bunch of dejected-looking gays picking buttercups in the outfield and running the wrong way around the bases. The headline would, perhaps, read “Men Learn Sports A Quarter Century Too Late.”. Or, succinctly, “Girl, What A Trife Ass Mess”. Or maybe the paper would go for the easy laugh with the banner, “Keep These Boys Away From Your Balls”. No matter the words the message was the same in my head: ostracize these losers.

To my surprise there was no red carpet at this “event”. Just a bunch of players of varying skill levels being given positive, sound advice by more skilled coaches. What a letdown. As I did some yoga poses and ran lines from Damn Yankees in the dugout to warm up, I also discovered a conspicuous lack of ostracism. Indeed, the only person lobbing unkind words at me was, well, me.

After every mistake I would instinctually scold myself under my breath. And the words came out so naturally and with such vehement, muted fury that I was taken aback more than once. Who was this angry ball player and why did he hate me so much? After a missed catch, “fuck!”. After every swing and miss, “Idiot!”. And by idiot, I meant gay.

Midway through the event, I stepped up to the plate to bat. There was a very nice lesbian stationed there to coach players on their stances, their positioning and whatever else one does when one hits a ball with a bat. Although why one would hit a ball with a bat I still don’t know.

After a couple of misses, she advised me stick my butt out, to back it up, to wait a little longer until I tried to hit it. The jokes were coming to mind so quickly that I had to literally bite my tongue to keep from cracking wise. I really wanted to get this right. It was me holding a bat going up against the behemoth that was a flying slow pitch softball. All puns aside, in that moment I desperately wanted to connect. I wanted to be part of this thing. I wanted to find something in me that wasn’t so silly, so fabulous, so gay. I could wrap a birthday present in less than a minute and make buttercream icing from scratch, but all I wanted in the world right then was to hit a ball.

I took a breath, raised my bat and concentrated. The ball came sailing toward me; I could tell it was a good pitch, right over the plate. I swung, hard. And missed. Hard. I swung so hard that my foot popped up like when they kiss in the movies and I did a little pirouette. I came to a stop dizzy and chagrinned. The short stop looked bored; the boys in the outfield were braiding each others’ hair. The very nice lesbian approached me again. “Okay,” she said. “That swing was a little gay. You need to butch it up.”

And as many times as I’d told myself the exact same thing, as many times as I’d cursed it under my breath as I struck out, it didn’t mean the same thing when she said it. It meant something completely different. It wasn’t the derision bored teenagers casually toss at jean shorts for sport. The one word, a simple, meaningless word, dropped into context in her comment. I knew she could say it, she could use it, because she was it. And it was safe. And if she was it and I was it, then she and I were us. And I was on the inside. She was it and I was it and my swing was it. And it didn’t matter. And we all it, that’s why were we on this team. And it was fine and dandy and didn’t have a thing to do with me hitting the ball. And my objective was clear. So when the pitcher threw again, I followed her advice, I backed up, I waited to swing, and I hit the ball. Because that’s what I was actually there to do. And I watched it for a second, like a cat watching television, until I heard her yelling, “Don’t just stand there. Run!”

Which is not to say that I’ve improved in any way on the softball field, nor that I refrain from cartwheels and splits. But every once in a while when I ask myself the question, “Who am I?”, I don’t see such a dichotomy between being a prancing nancy and a man who plays softball.

Sometimes when I ask myself, “Who am I?” the answer is simple. I’m a guy who does stuff, all kinds of stuff, who can’t throw a ball, who can do the Single Ladies dance, who runs a 9 minute mile, who tears up while watching Oprah, who is attracted to other men, who is part of team. A guy who is okay with how gay he is—whatever that means—how flamboyant he can be. And, by that same token, how sporty. To think that I can create masculinity by putting on a jersey and performing this act is tantamount to thinking I can create femininity by putting on a dress and lip-synching. It’s all a drag. Masculinity isn’t something I can claim or reclaim, it just is. It exists solely in perception, mainly others’ perception of me. This experience became less about putting on a drag performance of machismo and sportsmanship and more about making a real connection, building a real skill and putting away the list of words that my inner homophobe uses to keep me locked up, isolated, and fleeing.

And I found that no one was particularly concerned with how light in the loafers I was anyway. They only wanted me to play. They didn’t even care that I was wearing loafers. When I stopped listening to myself, the message I began to hear was clear: “Just hit the ball and run, girl! Run!”

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