Eileen fakes right with the ball and takes off, abandoning position. Fleet and agile, she veers toward our goal. My job is to cover her. I do my best, badgering and blocking. As a pair, we create a kind of dance: One leads, the other irritates, a tangle of intention. Then, a break in our focus: We stop short, suddenly self-aware. We double over in laughter. Who do we think we are? A couple of teenagers? Our doggedness defies our age and surroundings, making it both satisfying and ridiculous.
We play indoor soccer, or futsal to be exact. Our group of women has been meeting at 9:20 a.m. on Sundays at the Arlington Boys & Girls Club for more than 15 years (minus pregnancies and injuries) to boot around a small ball and skid across a gym floor sugared in dirt. We play December through April. We arrive, divide into teams, and every 10 minutes rotate through the positions clockwise. We don’t keep score (except Donene, but she keeps it to herself). We know each other in a very specific way: We know each other’s moves.
Pam infiltrates the defense and snipes from intricate angles. Sarah is all footwork, rolling the ball toward you and away. Susan is a feisty defender but also ready with an unexpected left-footed fire. Justine mixes cheer with cunning, smiling while she sidesteps by you. Julie keeps pace and never goes slack.
Do I make us sound good? It feels that way, sometimes. We play happily immersed, having stowed our cares like our street shoes under the bleachers. But to an observer? Chasing down a pass, we flag and fold over, puffing. On a breakaway, at the mouth of an open goal, we can completely whiff. We wear knee braces that resemble the armored plates of an ankylosaurus; we crack ice packs, pop ibuprofen.
Most of us live in this small town so we are bound to cross paths. We see each other at the grocery store or back to school nights or charity events. I overdo it when I spot a soccer friend in her civilian wear. “You look amazing,” I murmur, because it’s my soccer friend somehow transformed by the tiniest bit of mascara and dry clothes. But truly I gush because of the affection I feel, an attachment I find hard to name. What is it exactly?
I wonder if this feeling is the fulfillment of a wish my mother made for me long ago. In 1972 with the passage of Title IX, the federal law that opened the door for girls’ participation in sports, she danced around me in our lime-green paneled playroom. She was giddy that I would not be sidelined, nearly singing: You will get to play. (I was 4 years old and baffled by what she meant, but the memory sticks.)
As teenagers, my soccer friends and I were among the first girls to play competitive soccer — or any high school sports. Is this what makes our game especially sweet? Or maybe it is something simpler: a form of sweat equity, the reward for a long-term investment of exertion and effort.
Certainly we’ve shared a lot through the years. After games, we talk kids, books, politics, contractors — and, most recently, colonoscopy experiences. We’ve celebrated graduations and job promotions. And we’ve marked our losses.
Not long ago, Julie watched her mother die from ALS. She alternated caretaking shifts with her sisters, flying from Massachusetts to Alabama, witnessing her mother’s body atrophy and betray her good mind. She returned to us, bruised by grief. We can’t imagine what she’s been through. What can we say? Not much. We sign a card, our hearts in our throats.
Instead we offer our game, unremarkable, sweaty, earthbound, floor-bound. I want that for her. I want that for each of us. We are here for an hour and half every Sunday. We are here to play.
Margaret Muirhead is a children’s book author and librarian. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.