Images by Stable Diffusion.

“Do you even know how to play?!” this guy, this teammate, barks at me. I’d given enjoying myself at the soccer meetup a 25% chance, but this is my worst nightmare come true. “Do you even know how to not be a jerk?” I retort… hours later, in my head. In real time, my eyes fill with tears, and I plead: “Can you not say that?”

The last time I’d played soccer had been ten years ago – as an adult volunteer at a children’s match. The last time I’d regularly played with peers, I’d been a child myself. I’d hoped to regain the exhilaration, the delighted velocity, of childhood. Instead, five minutes in, I’d helped our opponents score two goals.

My teammates catch the expression on my face. “What did he say?” William asks, Dennis following close behind. “Ignore him! Some people are mean!” they dismiss JerkFace in unison. [All names are made up to protect privacy. Except for JerkFace, that’s totally his real name.]

I want to freeze this frame, zoom in on all the micro-dynamics of that moment: my gratitude for my teammates’ support and my indignation that they never directly confronted Mr Asshole, the two dozen feelings bubbling inside me, guilt, shame, anger, sadness, fear, defiance, rage – but that’s not how it went. The game went on. I didn’t stomp off or dissolve into tears, I didn’t miraculously turn my fury into stellar gameplay; I mostly just got out of people’s way, but I kept going until our 10 minutes were up. 

Nothing in the meetup description had said “all men,” but it was me and 14 guys. Nothing had said “advanced,” but apparently this was the best group in Cambridge.

Jackass and I clashed the moment I entered the gym, late after using the bathroom, when he demanded I tell him what team I was on. No part of the meetup description had mentioned team pre-assignment. “Black,” he said, looking it up on his phone. “Where’s your black T-shirt?” No part of the meetup description had mentioned custom-colored shirts – I’d explicitly chosen this group for that reason, because what sort of person just happens to own black and white T-shirts? I look down at my own shirt – an intricate psychedelic pattern in red-cyan-yellow-white-black-orange, then at my black-and-pink yoga pants, down to my rainbow shoes, and feel equal parts ashamed and proud. He huffs and hands me a pink jersey for the red team, his. I don’t have the guts to tell me that my own multi-colored shirt is already 75% red.

Then William makes small talk and I’m more standoffish than I’d like. He took a bet on this girl and it had been a mistake, I think later. But then this is pickup soccer, the rules of the meetup say “be nice,” and I’m the one who’s out of place? 

“Ignore him,” Dennis repeats at the water fountain after our first match. “Some people are mean. You’re doing great. These guys are really fast up there by the goal, but if you stay near the middle and keep the ball up front for us, you’ll really help me out.”

He’s essentially telling me that I’m not good enough to be trusted near either goal, but he’s right – and he says this with enough tact, warmth, and conviction to make me believe his compliment.

do help them, us, out. I have the skills of a brick wall, but a wall placed down the middle of the field when you’re playing offence isn’t half bad. “Eve, I need you here!” Dennis yells periodically, always remembering to thank me when I oblige, no matter the result. I get out of the way when it’s time to score, shifting into reverse right after barreling after the ball. I tackle a burly dude so hard I fall down – a chihuahua snapping at the ankles of a wolfhound – and I feel more pride than shame. I pass to an opponent, curse, then keep going. There’s no doubt I’m the worst player on the team, but with his hopeless shots in the vague direction of the goal, Buffoon isn’t far ahead.

Between games, the guys discuss their favorite moves and players. There’s an ease to their bond, a primal broship, that I’m violating with my female presence, that I yearn for and envy without fully grasping. That’s what I’d been trying to win back in elementary school, the year I picked fights with boys who never asked for it with a battle cry of “girls can fight too!”  Not belonging makes me sad, but there’s a comfort to being so obviously out of place too, my pink yoga pants an excuse for foreignness they wouldn’t have been at a Zumba class.

Telling Stable Diffusion “no extra limbs, no extra soccer balls” didn’t quite work.

Dennis, William, and Tom’s goals are works of art. I emit shrieks of encouragement whenever they approach the goal, more vocal than any of them, like a freaking girly cheerleader – but then it’s helping too, and I’ll be damned if I give up kindness because it’s too feminine. Dumb-Dumb flailingly aims at the goal. “You got this!” I yell, before I can stop myself.

I’d given enjoying myself a 25% chance, but suddenly it’s happening: the rush of speed, instinct, camaraderie. In an inspired moment, I kick the ball between an opponent’s legs. The chaos of the field coalesces into patterns, then dissolves again. It may be unrequited, all gumption and no skill, but I love soccer. This is why I was heartbroken when I came back to Poland for high school, where gym class meant girls playing foolish volleyball while the boys scored goals.

I never stop being a handicap, we never do better than a draw, and Silly never apologizes, but when I see the ball fly from his feet to mine in a purposeful arc, I know I have won. I know we have won.

This is part of a series of posts from “Smorgasbord January,” where I write about an eclectic set of meetups and experiences. Part 1. You can subscribe to my mailing list to get future posts delivered to your inbox.

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