The first thing you need to understand is that all this happened in 1973, before anybody in Europe could actually dribble a basketball. Really.
People in Europe liked basketball, but they hadn't been raised on it, as I, an American, had been since before I could remember. So you saw these incredible European athletes, guys who could leap over my head, scorch me with their contrails in a race, lift me and twirl me above their heads, dance and leap with perfection of line and control (while I danced like a white engineering student) — you saw these guys unable to bounce a ball without looking at it. I just barely could — but baby, sometimes barely is an advantage.
When I, stereotypical (sorry, but I was) engineering student from ordinary old SUNY Binghamton, first arrived at East Anglia University, England, my sports were humble running and humble swimming. Every day I’d do both when no one was looking. Sports was definitely recreation-only at East Anglia. Football and rugby players lolled in an indolence punctuated only by game-long spasms of heedless violence. No one ran. The pool was usually empty. Aware that I looked funny when I ran, I ran humble. I looked a little better when swimming (most of you is invisible), but still, I swam humble. These things I’d been doing since high school.
Was I an athlete? No. Everyone was better than me at everything. They always had been. America is a hard place to be when you want to be active; you see the best all the time. Yes, I had played basketball. The engineering dormitory at SUNY had drafted an intramural team, the T-Squares, and boy, were we terrible. Our first game was against the Black Students Union. We just barely broke double figures, while they nearly broke triple. My teammates always made me guard Byram Hills, the best intramural basketball player in the whole SUNY system. They didn’t want to have 38 points scored on their fleabitten hides.
The only game we won that year was against the Med School. They got off to a 10-2 start and began to taunt us. Oh, sure, we let the Black Student Union taunt us. On the same court with the BSU, we deserved to be taunted. We agreed: we were terrible. But not a bunch of doctors, no way, these freelance quacks who all they want is money and they could care less about your body. Even the way they shot told you they were in it only for the money and knew they’d make a lot of it. I hated them as, sure they’d lined up life just about right, they dribbled up the court toward me.
Well, we showed them. Our opening came when one of the refs went home sick. The remaining ref declared he would henceforth call fouls – but not add them up. With fouls now unlimited, we fouled like crazy. The poor, puny, stupid little doctors cried like idiot-ass babies as we hacked, pushed, tripped, and mauled. Fights broke out. Uncharacteristic for engineering students, we started them, kept them going, threw first punches, even landed a few. Several of us got thrown out. It was tied at 30 with seven seconds left when the ball bounced off my hands into the basket. We won; I was a hero. It was my first basket of the season. There would be only two more all season long. But I didn’t care. My life, for a second, was perfect.
Maybe I had come into a season of luck. I was nominated for a year abroad by an admiring professor, Mr. Crane. He taught the stochastic analysis course, and I suspected he wanted to sleep with me. I was not so much horrified at this as confused. Why would anyone want to do that? I tell you, looking in the mirror is one humbling experience. I mean, what is there? This bony guy. Pathetic bush of off-brown hair between the legs. Ribs and knees very prominent. Chest unappetizing. Lincolnesque head and hands.
Yes, I swam and I ran, but I’d always done that.
Imagine if I hadn’t.
Now imagine that, soon after my arrival at East Anglia, I get this reputation for being athletic. “The Yank” was seen humble-hauling his carcass every morning, or pawing his way across the pool each lunchtime. People were impressed: “Are all Yanks so bloody fit?” I didn’t know what to say.
Ahmed appeared at my door one afternoon. I knew Ahmed from our Principles of Engineering class, in which I was expecting to understand something any day now. I was hoping to be friends with him almost as hard as he was hoping to be friends with me. “Roger,” he said, “a few of us are going to have a shootaround. Care to join us?” He held a basketball, the first I’d seen in months.
Ahmed had come at the right time. I’d been humping books for three hours and looking out the window. Homesickness was a huge green wave, and the surfboard of my soul was wiping out. My beard was damp with self-pity. I wanted to talk to a girl.
Therefore, I nearly kissed him. “Sure!” I yelled, with a little more force than he was expecting. But all five foot three of him was good British cheer, and he recovered.
At the gym, I found the other four East Anglia guys who had ever played basketball: a huge rugby player named Brian, a Canadian named Carl who looked like he could play a little, an Israeli named Avron, and an Italian wildman named Giorgio who was in the process of exploring the genitals of every woman in England.
“I didn’t know you played basketball,” I said to Giorgio.
“I do everything great,” Giorgio said. He had evidence. He was a good painter, a very good photographer, a good singer, a skilled genital pioneer, an excellent student.
What I saw on that court that day told me training is everything. They were the worst basketball players I had ever seen. Admit it: we size everybody up as soon as we see them. We know how good we are at everything from thinking to sprinting, and we instantaneously measure the other people we meet. We don’t even know we do it, but men, women, and children, we triangulate others to a tenth of a segment. Humble as I was, I knew. Brian was good at standing in one place and looking threatening. He pulled down the odd rebound, but after that his problems began. Ahmed was a zippy little guy, but his shots hit the backboard only occasionally. Avron passed and shot with perfect form – but those passes and shots never arrived where he sent them. Carl was good: he could dribble and fastbreak, and he could pull up and hit a shot. But before he did, he almost always dribbled directly into the nearest available crowd of people, which much of the time just didn’t make any sense, or he tried to pass it to somebody else, which was not physically possible. I’m afraid Giorgio was positively dangerous. He thought he was great as he glided down the court. He was untroubled by the fact that he had to look at the ball as he dribbled, that he fell off-balance trying to shoot, that his shots invariably clanked off the iron. He didn’t care. He knew he was great.
We shot around for about five minutes, then ten. This was awkward, what with only one ball and perhaps the politest team of all time. One man shot. Another rebounded and looked around to see who should get the ball next, and the recipient would look embarrassed and ask if someone else wanted to shoot. You could go nuts.
I noticed that, after about sixty shots, we were still awaiting the first successful basket. (Of course, we made sure to compliment all the near misses: “Well done! Oh! Almost!”) I was missing on purpose because I didn’t want to show anyone up. Not so the rest, who were trying as hard as they could. I realized that they were all looking at me.
When would the Yank’s obvious superiority shine through?
Well, I would make the mistake, wouldn’t I? Giorgio took a mountainously ridiculous shot (smiling all the while), which, like all the others, clanged away at a nutty angle. In two strides, reflexively, I scooped up the ball, whirled, and shot. Swish.
“Well done, Roger! Well played!” Ahmed cried, admiration in his eyes. Avron nodded with appreciation. Carl’s face said he’d known I’d be great all along, and Brian sulked by way of compliment. Giorgio checked himself out in the window.
After that, all they wanted to do was watch me shoot.
Carl would shoot, and Ahmed would rebound and pass to me. Brian would shoot, if you wanted to call it that, and
Giorgio would fetch the ball and pass it to me.
I made shot after shot. I was happy to be touching a basketball, happy to be among happy men. They were the first guys I’d ever met who were so terrible that they were more terrible than I was. So I couldn’t miss.
By the end of this fatal shootaround we had made up a “side.” Meaning we were now officially the East Anglia University basketball team. “But who’s the varsity?” I wanted to know. The word had never been heard by anyone present. Lightning and thunder: we were the varsity.
Something about Ahmed’s full-hearted congratulations broke my heart. He knew almost nothing about basketball and wanted me to be very good. Now he was right-out-there happy that I was good. So now I had to keep being good so I wouldn’t let him down. And I also wanted to be better friends with him.
In those days, universities and polytechnics played one another in what would strike Americans as pretty informal leagues. Two teams would show up and play, and there might be no one in the stands or (more desolate still) five people there, clapping at all the wrong things, making sarcastic comments. I must say that the courts were beautiful, mostly brand-new, gleaming, well-lit, usually pretty damn cold. And deserted. My God, I thought, walking into a gym at Colchester Technical College or Arundel Polytechnic or the University of Sussex, if we’d had a court like this when I was in school . . .
The University had a vehicle that could seat all of us, and we went driving through the rain and snow (we’re in November now) to wherever we were meant to play. We never practiced: that was against the athletic code regnant in England at the time, which seemed to say, If you look like you’re working hard at being good, you care too much. There being no one else to play against, I worked on my shot alone. So I must say I was pretty nervous for our first game against West Lancaster Art College.
I needn’t have been. WLAC offered us five very tall persons. As soon as the whistle blew, these persons indeed attempted to behave as though they meant to move the ball toward their goal, but even without us on the court, I doubt they would ever have done so. Compassionately, I waited for them to make a pass, move into position, take a shot. They couldn’t. They didn’t know how. Their coach howled derision from the bench. Meanwhile, these poor persons (all very good art students, I’m sure) ran and jumped and called and waved to absolutely no purpose. It’s hard to describe.
For the first few minutes, our team passed to one another. As soon as I passed the ball to Ahmed, who was standing all alone and unguarded (his defender was making movements intended to be defensive, but since they were exactly the wrong things to do, he might as well not have been there), I gestured to the basket and said, “Go ahead – shoot!” That’s what you do in America. “Oh, no, I couldn’t,” said Ahmed, and he passed it to me.
Oh no. I couldn’t.
Hear this, now.
I passed the ball to Carl, who did a fancy dribble, backed in, and when he was a foot and a half from the basket, passed it to Giorgio, thirty feet out, who, being great at all he did, jumped into the air at a wild angle and pitched the ball into sheer nothing.
At certain moments, we become aware of being in a situation completely unlike anything that has ever come our way – or anyone else’s. No models, no guideposts, no way to know how to act. A surreal feeling descends. Incapable of knowing what to do or why, we float in a somewhere-else.
That was me, as we retired confusedly down the court. My main impulse after Giorgio's shot – somebody found the ball; it had rolled far down a hall somewhere – was to laugh as hard as I could. But I forgot that urge when a West Lancaster Art College person attempted to pass the ball to a fellow person and instead pressed it into my arms.
As you’re supposed to do, I bolted for our basket, with everyone else in the building in pursuit. “Oh, God, no!” cried their coach, who, I realized, really hated his team, as, to the appreciative glances of all present, I laid the ball in.
At that very moment, the scorekeeper blew the whistle. The half was over, with the score 2-0.
To be sporting, they should have sat me on the bench for the second half. But no. Ahmed insisted. I must play. I got a pass from Brian almost instantly, and I shot it instantly, hoping to miss. As though to mock me, the ball swished through.
“Three-point goal!” cried the referee, impressed.
“Did you see that shot?” said one of the opponent persons.
“Yes. Well played!” another said to me.
We were leading by 5-0. You could have put an exponent of 22 up by the 5 for all our opponents would score. They were now so afraid of me that all their passes went into my arms. Obligingly, I dribbled toward our goal, with everybody in the building in pursuit and the coach cursing his stupid players. When I got there, sometimes I would shoot it (it always went in) and sometimes pass it to a teammate to keep the score down.
At one point, for no earthly reason, Giorgio launched a shot from the half-court line and missed so badly that it banked in. He nodded at this confirmation of his essential greatness. But at that moment (as WLAC attempted to move the ball down the court the other way), Brian approached Giorgio and threw him to the ground.
“You’re supposed to pass it to him,” Brian said, pointing to me.
“No, really,” I said, “He can pass it to anyone he wants, or . . . not pass it . . . if he has a shot.”
“That was not a good shot,” Brian said to me. Realizing he would hurt me if I pressed the argument, I suggested we should all go down and see what the other team were doing.
When we got to their basket, they were puzzling over what to do with the ball and throwing it from various angles. Nothing worked. Then Brian helpfully blocked a shot in such a way that the ball went in. General amazement! Cries of approbation! I thought their coach would die with love and joy. He didn’t scream for the rest of the game. His goal, the goal of the entire team, was not to win so much as to score, actually to see this impossible thing, the ball penetrating the basket and being recorded as a successful attempt, actually happen. I was glad for the whole team and shook the hand of the man credited for the basket.
We won 27-2. I scored all but Giorgio’s 3 points for us. It got around.
Oh, I could recite our whole season. Usually, our opponents were like WLAC. I could do whatever I wanted. When I got a rebound, head fake: every single player, including my beloved teammates, would jump high in the air. I’d just turn the other way and lay it in. (Nobody but nobody went for head fakes any more in the United States. Nobody.) I began to experiment: reverse lay-ups, fade-aways, behind-the-back dribbles, no-look passes. Most of these efforts failed because I was terrible, but when they worked, everyone remembered, because nothing was working for anyone else. They went and told all their friends. Once, I went for a ball rolling out of bounds and cast it directly backward over my head – and into the basket. Ahmed approached me afterward.
“That shot was really a topper!” he cried.
The man nearly had tears in his eyes. He was proud of me. So I took him out for an Indian meal. He spoke to me of his home in Dubai and how much he was enjoying “this excellent game of basketball!”
We won usually. Every once in a while we'd run into a team that knew how to play, like Lincolnshire Electrical Polytechnic, whose team was entirely Japanese. They whipped us, as did East Leeds Poly, whose team was Israeli. One of them had played on the Israeli national team. He took me personally and humiliated me pretty thoroughly, scoring 53 to my mere 27, all the while making various observations detrimental to my skill, courage, neural synapses, ability to attract women, seminal arc, and probable career opportunities. Nobody noticed.
“You were the best thing we had out there tonight!”
Ahmed cried. “Good thing we had you.”
Right. I was nursing the anger and regret occasioned by being completely belittled by a superior male. I wanted to say, “How could it be a good thing when the whole thing was hopeless?” But Ahmed, chipper squirrel, really had meant what he said. I mean, how much could you learn about basketball growing up in the British school system in Dubai?
So I thanked him. And I figured that deserved another Indian meal.
I’ve said nothing about my studies. To tell the truth, I never figured out the English system. We had countless tests, countless tutorials, exams, and labs, none of which I understood. My results were dismal. There being no grades, I looked forward to terrible written reviews from my teachers. When he saw me, however, my head tutor handed me a sheaf of reports and said, “Well, it seems you’re settling in very well, Mr. Loomis.” I read phrases such as “extremely hard-working” and “conscientious,” all teacher talk for stupid. I was just passing through, and my tutors seemed to like me well enough. But . . . but . . . I couldn’t get the first sense of how I was doing. Later, all my grades were converted back at SUNY Binghamton . . . to A’s. I haven’t the faintest idea why.
I had a few non-basketball friends. One of them, named Gwyn, was a woman from Aberystwyth. I can even spell the place, thanks to her. She was my partner in a practical lab we had to take. One night, as we puzzled over a problem set, we came to different answers, bringing out sobs and tears:
“I am such a stupid cow.”
When I disagreed, she said, in that Welsh sing-song, “Well, I can’t bloody do the work. And this place isn’t exactly Cambridge, now is it?”
I took her to the Coffee House. It was a grotty affair, and the coffee was instant, and the creamer was this steer-fat stuff, but it was a place kids could come to feel as though they were adults.
Gwyn asked me whether I thought she was fat. She asked me whether she should drop out for a while. She asked me what about God? What did I think about that?
I said my thoughts were in flux, but that I was still hopeful about most things.
“You know,” I said, trying to think of something bright, "this won’t be forever. Someday you’ll be on the other side, you’ll have a career, you’ll look back, and all this will seem a long way away.”
And then I added, “And I don’t think you’re fat.” She stopped weeping, which was the object, and we went over the problem and found her error. I told her tales of basketball to make us both laugh.
Bounce Bounce Bounce Bounce Bounce
Since the topic is sports, perhaps I should discuss
sex. I arrived in England uninitiated. In those days I believed in God, heaven, reward, and punishment, all of which are concepts that in the ensuing years have expanded, changed, and put on funny hats. I assumed – and why are we taught this way, I'd like to know? – that extramaritality was the quickest path to perpetual cremation. These days I wonder why so many religions draw that particular lesson. Why should it be that, rather than, say, demagoguery in politics, or cruelty in bosses, or manufacturing napalm, or passing gossip, or cooking the books, or trafficking in human beings, or punching people in the nose and liking it? If hell there be, true, it may well be full of the deceitful and cruel in intercourse – but also the deceitful in appropriation of funds, the cruel, heck, in parking lot design.
Anyway, I just assumed sex would turn me to a smoking heap of excreta in a foul corner of Heck. Meaning I was painfully curious. And shocked one night, in my dorm about a week after arriving in England, when I realized two people
were inserting themselves into each other next door to my left. They wanted everybody to hear them, too. The woman, spotlight-hogger, screamed rhythmically at the moment of crisis. The neighbor nextdoor to my right sniggered. I was drenched in sweat, my heart punching me in the chest. Listening had dirtied me. I was depressed for days.
East Anglia was a true sump. It was, after all, 1973. You could go into the Student Health Center and walk out with a fistful of condoms or birth control pills. No worries. Treatment of all disease was free, and none of it would kill you. All that would change in another decade, but for a few tremulously evanescent years there, people were free to be pigs. We’re talking barnyard material. Routinely I witnessed public copulation. Routinely I walked nudes on LSD back to their beds. Routinely I was hit with and cleaned up everything the human body can produce. Very, very often, I opened the door to my own room to discover two acquaintances face to lap.
Terrific pressure surged from all sides: be bisexual. There probably were neon banners all over campus proclaiming it, but I first became aware when a fellow told me over a beer that he was pansexual. Was I interested in, as he charmingly put it, “a quick screw”? He assured me I wasn’t attractive (heard with relief), but, hell, it was a good way to get started, if that’s what I was looking for.
Pansexuality (the notion was) was more authentic than, uh, monosexuality because pansexuals were just being honest about what we all really are when you got down to it. Seldom discussed was the notion that in most cases sleeping with all comers wrecks one’s life. I might add that even among the crowd at East Anglia, some were much better pansexuals than others. Some were along because it was politically and fashionably cool. You could sort of tell that it took an effort for them to be as offhand about it as culture required. But boy, they were giving it a shot. Others were along because it was their authentic nature. They seemed triumphantly comfortable. Come on in, the water’s fine.
Pansexuality never crossed my conscious mind. Maybe, like a black cat across a midnight highway, it did cross my unconscious mind. No way for me to know. If it did, it never came scratching. I did admire the hearty band of true bisexuals on campus. We all looked up to them as the pioneers they believed themselves to be. They claimed their way was superior because “there’s no ownership in it – we don’t try to change anyone. We love everyone and everything.” I wish I could report this muscular theory made them happier people, but, well, we all were miserable from time to time, and so were they, except their triangles, quadrangles, and triskaidekahedrons were a lot more complicated than ours who were not so pan.
I got used to what I referred to as “Duelling Buttholes,” a sight available only to those who enter a bedroom and behold a certain situation from a certain angle.
My neighbor Gemma had a boyfriend named Terrance. She and he were beautiful all ways and everywhere, and they knew it. Often such couples are irritating to the nonperfect world (where I am resident), but these two had perfected a goofiness, an ability to take themselves totally not seriously, that drew me to them. I liked seeing them together, and I often was the third wheel at films and dinners.
I got to be Gemma’s permanent pal when I spent an entire night explaining Four Quartets to her. She responded by showing me some issues of Gent, a men’s weekly for which she wrote a column. “I worked my way through school with this,” she said, proud especially of the column in which she went to the stables and rode the horses and then rode the jockeys. And after servicing the jockeys got the idea of servicing their steeds. Or at least the steed I was seeing in the photograph.
“Here’s another,” Gem said to her astounded American pal. He beheld about ten happy men in tuxedos, each man holding a straightedge razor. Gemma lay prone and lissome on a table. One of the tuxedo’d gents had a whirl of shaving cream in his hand.
Gem turned the page, and now the shaving cream was on Gem.
“They had to dye me for this one.”
“They must have,” I said. We busted up to realize how I knew that. I’d walked Gem to her room so often, Gem resplendent and bare and authentically blonde, that, well, it seemed odd that in the photo they’d, well, changed her hue.
But no matter. Those ten tuxedo’d guys (great party idea) made short work of the pelissage, and the final photo showed the smooth result.
One night, Terrance came in to ask me to come next door for a minute. “Sure,” I said, wondering why he was naked and deployed. Not wondering, actually, since his deployment, too, was a familiar sight, but wondering why he was anywhere but within Gem.
Oh, I see: They’re making the bed and need some help.
“We’ve just taken two tabs each and freebased some extra-special coke,” said Gem, baby-naked.
They had removed all the lampshades, and all surfaces glared. The three of us fluffed the sheet, which billowed burning white, hallucinatory even for a sleep-deprived engineering student on no drug at all. It pitched Terrance and Gem into an amorous atomic cataclysm. As the sheet settled to the bed, the two collapsed on each other somewhere near the sink. I looked over and, yes, cue the little guy with the banjo for the “Duelling Buttholes” theme.
If I ever write a book, one chapter will be on the way your estimate of a person is modified by your knowledge of certain aspects of them. I’ve known Terrance and Gem my whole life now and probably always will. I love them – and I know them in a way I wish I could forget. They are wonderful people, and I’m lucky to know them still. And when I think of either of them, I think of that duel in the merciless truth of unshaded 100-watts.
I went to a party late one night, hoping the free beer wasn’t all gone, and when I opened the door, an unmistakable air, not at all unpleasant, wafted to me. I followed this scent down a hall, and it grew stronger, fermy, tidal, rich, but familiar and comforting. I couldn’t quite place it. Then my vision glanced off an active, multiperson scrimmage in the living room, and I fled.
People knocked on my door asking whether I had any drugs or doobs (then the current term for condoms). I never did.
People did, as mentioned, break into my room for congress. The locks were easy to jigger, and people knew I wouldn’t put up much objection. Sometimes I would not find out for many days. This would dismay me, since it meant I had been sleeping in disarrayed sheets unbeknownst to myself.
One pal named Barnsley came by one fine evening to say, “Listen, mate, remember that knees-up two Saturdays ago?”
Knees-up was his parlance for dance. There had been a dance downstairs. Quite a dance indeed. People had discovered that dancing is really sex. Or could easily become. One couple danced naked and connected, their feet bloody among the smashed bottles of Newcastle Brown.
“Well, listen, Roger, and please don’t be annoyed, but while you were at the party, I shagged Debbie Gordon in your room here.”
Debby Gordon was a hairdresser acquaintance of ours in Norwich. She didn’t even attend East Anglia. Was I pal or pandar?
“So listen, mate, you better tell her to see her doctor, right? Cheers.”
He headed down the hall, walking, I now noticed, with a certain delicacy.
“Why don’t you tell her?” I asked.
“Cheers, mate,” Barnsley explained.
I looked at my bed and considered burning it.
Barnsley was not going to tell her. She might have no symptoms of what she had passed on to him, some bug that meanwhile might be rendering her sick or sterile. I saw Barnsley at the pub each night, and before I could speak he always said, “Sod off, mate. You know what to do.”
I knew I had to take the stupid bus to baleful Norwich and enter the woebegone woman’s hair salon and locate Debbie. She was fooling with the permanent-cooker, or whatever that stainless steel thing is called. She was very glad to see me, also concerned that I’d learned something she was hoping I hadn’t. In fact, I had learned that, plus something she hadn’t known was to be learned. I hereby record how I told her:
“Debbie, I was talking to Barnsley, and he says you’d better go along to see your doctor.”
Debbie kept fooling with the cooker. Did I mention it smelled nasty in that place? Burnt protein. Life-savaging chemicals. Paints, crusts, and foams of impious origin and purpose. Debbie didn’t look up. I thought she hadn’t heard, so I said it again.
No one was around. Debbie did not register.
I was about to try a third time when Debbie said, and it was the last time we ever spoke, “Tell Barnsley hello, will you?”
But Harriett Gleeson, sexual collector, decided it was my time. She liked everything and expected everyone else to like it, too. It was the key to personal liberation. “Get past all that rot,” she said, hot-eyed, evangelical, by “all that rot” referring to all conceivable postures, scents, and flavors, and preconceptions about how many people and what kind, “and you’ll get rid of all your hangups, and you’ll break through into a world in which you can be yourself.” She then proceeded to show me what she meant.
The next paragraphs may be somewhat too informative, but they make a point that I have borne with me, like human papilloma virus (just a metaphor; I’m clean), my whole life. It was during our second interview. At one point, Harriett poised to begin a certain procedure. Suddenly, I was flooded by the sense that I wasn’t ready. And that means emotionally. It was too early in my life for this. It wasn’t the right time. I couldn’t say those words. Instead, I said, “Listen, are you sure? I didn’t know we were going to do this, could I at least splash a little – ”
Well, that was dumb, and Harriett’s face let me know it.
“You hopeless thing,” she said. “You haven’t a clue, do you? This is what is going to happen, and you will lie back, relax, and bloody fucking enjoy it. I’m going to keep doing it until either my lips fall off or you do your part.”
Half an hour later, she turned round and said, “Look, you aren’t man enough to realize you’re a man, so watch this.” With that, she really put her back into it. In less than a minute, her legs gave way, and she began to moan. Smiling a big smile.
A while later, she said, “Now you can go through life remembering the day your dirty prick made Harriett Gleeson come. Speaking of come, I love yours, and you will now give it to me.”
Moral of this story: whenever you speak of sex, speak for yourself. I have heard people say things about coition, say them in complete confidence, that – and here I’m peering through my tiny windows of opportunity – are just nonsense. Or, at least, I can think of exceptions. I myself have decided never to hold any theories. The next person down the line (a short line for me, alas) may throw them all into a hat. Yes, a cocked hat. Everyone is way different. Take hopeless me and Harriett G, who not only was given what I had to give but gave a second performance at the time of donation.
Come for Harriett was political. She would pit her orgasms against those of all the males in the world. Nothing and no one would best her. She was doing this for her own enlightenment and that of her gender. She would not be a woman who said, “I hate this.” She would not be trapped in the cage of conventional repugnances – she would rise above them, make them her own, learn to bloody well love them. As far as I can tell, she did. Like many people, she could make herself climax at will, and sometimes, just to make a point, would arrive before her man was quite ready, to turn the tables, burn the fables, prove herself the more selfish. The whole thing made her ecstatic. Know what she does now? She works for a nonprofit NGO that lines up housing for the indigent in Africa. Politics first and last.
What strikes me these days is that, for our short acquaintance, we were frequent and comprehensive – but never once with her was I anything close to at ease.
I told myself I was in love, and, sadly, it took me until 1989 to realize that I had capitulated exclusively out of curiosity and vanity, curiosity as said before, vanity because I was overjoyed to think someone could be interested in me that way. Harriett took me in and made me do everything we – check that; she – could think of. At first I was very depressed (smoking heap of excreta), then I affected cynicism (if I had fallen, everything was excreta), then I became an atheist for a week (nothing, after all, having any meaning), then I was just confused (what was happening, anyway?), and then, when she told me, “No more,” merely sad.
No more. Here’s how she did it. First, she said she was going to do it. Dazed, I went away. Then dazed, I came back. Then she took up with Dash, perhaps East Anglia’s most accomplished homosexual, sort of on a dare: “I bet I can turn him.” Money was actually exchanged on this bet, and the two went at it like a Wankle Rotary Engine. One day I objected to Harriett, who, making sure there was a crowd, compared me to Dash in technique, build, taste, and lineage, very few comparisons coming to my side of the ledger. Dash came by my room later to say, yes, it was true, and please, stop being stupid: “She and I are together now. You just didn’t measure up. Sorry, mate.”
They lived together for seven years, sleeping with absolutely anyone else at all also. I don’t know whether that counts as turning.
I assumed the “No more” was a reflection of my not being beautiful. It took me until 1993 to realize that, no, that wasn’t it. I’m not Schwarzenegger, but that wasn’t it. Harriett had just wanted to know what I was like, and having found out, had moved on, and I had to grow up and take it like a man. I didn’t.
That is when basketball came along, and good thing, too, because it helped fill the cavernous zilch that opened when sex came, saw, conquered, and discarded. It gave me some friends, something to look forward to, and some occasional triumph. Also something to laugh at.
Loving Your Team
How much easier I was with my teammates. You know your mates’ bodies, the very things about them that enable them to do some good things and prevent them from doing others. Brian was strong and fearless, all right, but he had a beer gut and legs that appeared to be made of stone. Giorgio was well-proportioned and actually loose-limbed; only problem was, he didn’t care if he knew how to play or not. He was great and that was the point. Ahmed was short but slow, and Avron actually was pretty quick and creative. And Carl was, well, energetic.
The more you know them, the more you want them to do well. You want plays to work. Brian gets the rebound, passes to Giorgio, gives it to Avron, passes it to me, I pass it to Carl, and after 27 minutes of argument, he shoots, and – two points! It did really happen sometimes.
We came to know one another pretty well. No, not just the showers, but also the reactions to good and ill fortune, the questions about how university was going, stories of Italy from Giorgio (“I am even greater there than here”), Israel from Avron, Dubai from Ahmed, Montreal from Carl. This and their ways of running and jumping and wanting the ball to go in. The ways their arms and legs worked. What they could do and could not. We’d all gotten addicted to the sport and to one another. We sweated together, cursed when it was bad (not infrequently) and laughed when it was better.
At the Student Union Pub, our side would sometimes have a beer together. Guess what the topic was. Avron spoke of his girlfriend Aviva, a lieutenant in the army back home; he wanted to speak of their intimate life but was too loyal. Brian had a girlfriend too, by compulsion apparently. Her name was Shelly. She matched him in build and temperament. She abused him back. Ahmed and Carl asked questions and laughed but made few contributions: virgins obviously. For the opposite reason (Harriett Gleeson), I too was mum.
Giorgio was king at this table. I had never heard anyone speak of human beings the way he spoke of women: “She wanted me to suck her breasts so she would come, but I refused because I knew her orgasm would be bigger if I held out on her.” Or “She didn’t want to put her tongue underneath the sensitive part, but I made her do it and she found it quite pleasant eventually.” It was like a computer printout. “She pretended that she had never done that to a second woman in the bed, but I made her. She is crying a lot now, but I don’t believe her. She liked it well enough at the time, as I informed her. Many women want a man to do this but are too afraid to tell them for very stupid reasons.”
To give Giorgio credit, if credit applies here, he did not pick women up. Instead, he did the work of romance: dinner, dancing, conversation, all the better to get them to give all up, to be sampled with style. Giorgio did have style: perhaps the best wardrobe on campus. (All I had was my dad’s bomber jacket from the Korean War.) He sure was powerful. Women could not and did not resist him. I watched them wander into his penumbra and seize up in the headlights of attraction. They were not very good at dissembling; he was too adroit not to notice. Women told me he was “wonderful later.” And if he left these women soon after sampling, who (he wondered) could complain? They’d had Giorgio, which in Giorgio's book was reward enough. Hearing him, I was glad I wasn’t him but wrenched with envy anyway.
(And Ahmed once asked me, when he thought he could: “Aren’t you a bit taken aback by Giorgio? I would never say anything, but it seems ungodly.” A word I would never have thought of. “Oh, it is,” I said. Ahmed looked as if he was about to learn that the entire human race is bad, so I spooned some more chicken tikka masala on his plate and said, “Don’t pay him any attention. He’s an extreme case.” Which did seem to comfort him a little. Ahmed, I could see, was finding East Anglia even more of a jolt and a despond than I was. I sometimes felt obligated to be his comforter.)
Now Giorgio was saying: “Gwyn, that fat Welsh girl, does not know her body very well.” We had learned that this sentence meant two things. First, it was the worst comment Giorgio could make about a woman. Second, it meant he had gone for Gwyn and missed. Unencumbered by self-doubt, Giorgio knew that any woman who rejected him could not be listening to what her body really wanted.
“Normally, I would not spend so much time on a girl who is that large and awkward, but she does have a beautiful face in certain lights, despite this unhealthy white of many Welsh girls. And her lips are very thick and almost purple. I could see them applied to certain uses.”
I hadn’t thought of Gwyn as Giorgio had. He had a point about her: not about her being fat, but about her being at odds about herself. More and more open as the weeks went by, she had told me a lot in our study sessions, and I felt disloyal hearing him.
Next day in class, she came up to me: “Giorgio said he had a beer with you last night. Did he say anything about me? He did, didn’t he? I was an idiot to even let him take me out. Don’t listen to anything he says.”
“You bet,” I said. “He didn’t say anything.”
“We didn’t do a thing,” she said, a little Welsh fire in her eyes. “I wouldn’t let him. The beast. You believe me, don’t you?”
Gwen evidently was to be my female counterweight to Ahmed. I assumed my role: “Of course I do.”
Intermittent omnipotence, I’ll tell you, can make up for a lot of shortcomings. Some games I felt godlike, graceful, able to vault long stretches of air, make split-second cuts (I did split a couple of sneakers, something I hereby note with pride), rebound, pirouette, sink any shot I pleased. I just knew I could. Confidence is all, especially in basketball: If you believe you can, much of the time you can.
Believe me, I’m glad there are no videotapes of our games, because they would show ten dogmeat basketball players, one of whom – gangly, bulb-kneed, crazed – knew what he was doing just a little more. I was better than almost anyone else, and I loved it, partly because I knew it was all a wacky illusion. Nothing in my life had ever been like that.
Take engineering. My father was and is a tremendously successful and influential engineer. I will never be his equal in theory or practice. He’ll be the dean of three engineering schools while I’ll be designing parking lots for waste treatment plants. But via my magic year, at least I got to know how it feels to be without flaw, powerful, and worthy. I tried (and occasionally made) shots I would never have dared before. And the team got better, too. We started liking each other and hoping our mates did well. Giorgio occasionally sank a 40-footer. Avron had ten points in one game; he really could play a little. Carl could no way be convinced actually to take an easy shot himself. He had to dribble right under the basket, shooting only when he had ten hands in his face and two feet on his windpipe. Brian was putting in a few more rebounds. He also did not hesitate to insult and threaten everyone. Strange for a major in French Literature, but there it was. And I nearly wept the night our team, down by a single point to a doughty squad from Dinsmore Engineering School, was raised to victory by a desperation shot from the top of the key.
Ahmed had shot it, not knowing there were only five seconds left. In fact, he was looking around in confusion when I screamed at him to shoot. When it went in, I gave a whoop and hoisted him roofward. You weren’t supposed to do such things in that culture. Brian growled, “Stupid fucking Yank.” But I couldn't help it. Grateful joy shone in Ahmed’s eyes, and I bought him dinner afterward.
I was well shot of Harriett by that time, but buttholes of East Anglia kept duelling. A man I was getting to be quite good friends with, Christopher from Hexham, came to my door one very late, abandoned night. He was holding something, and I was too slow to realize what it was until I finally realized I had been too slow to realize.
“Do you think,” Christopher said, “you could just help me a little? Really, I’m almost there. It doesn’t mean a thing, you know. It isn’t, like you Yanks say, a big deal. Just a stroke, mate.”
These short sentences were in response to my own: “I can’t. I just can’t. Please, Chris. I’m just, I’m just – ”
“Well, if you won’t fucking help a bloke, can you at least, for the love of Christ, just watch, just for a second? It’ll help ever so much.”
He was working as he spoke, and I looked away. I knew my looking would help, but I said, “I just can’t. Sorry, man.”
I was a soulless bastard, he told me, and he returned to his room down the hall. Everyone was out, it was silent, and I could hear his sobs, rising to a pitch in only a couple of moments. He had been very near, and it happened alone, as he had not wanted, and I couldn’t help. Although his drives and mine differed, he and I belonged to the same confederacy, men crucified on themselves, nowhere to take it, working, working, sealed in unwanted solitude.
Naked people, as mentioned, were not a special sight at East Anglia, but Anastasia was. German and swarthy, she was at one point Giorgioing every night, just a few doors down. She and Giorgio existed in a solar system to which I never expected admission.
Ah, but here she was at my door, 4 a.m., starkers, with thick, raven hair splayed about. She looked in my direction with unseeing eyes and said: “Denken Sie uns werden einen Atomkrieg haben?”
Actually, at the moment I did not think we were going to have an atomic war. (For reasons that elude me now, all engineers at SUNY in those days all had to take German. I guess so you would have no respite from the intolerable.) I told her nein, and led this sleepwalking beauty – perfect, bed-warm, reeking – through Giorgio’s open door and tucked her back in bed with him. He looked at me as I ministered and said: “Would you like to come in with us?”
“No,” I replied, “I don’t think we are going to have an atomic war.”
Actually, I did, and I did. But I wouldn’t.
By now you may have noticed a pattern: Other people do things, and I just stand and watch. Well, that is how it went pretty much. As reliable designated noncombatant, I could drive people home, walk the overdosed round and round the block, hold the upchucking, clean up after whatever, spin the records at the dance, keep secrets. After Harriett, I did try to have other adventures, but my attempts were half-hearted and humiliating.
What really happened was this: I learned I was never, as a person, going to have much to do with the activity known as fucking. Fucking, at least fucking East Anglia-style, seemed mean. People had to go through a lot of denial (that they would hurt or be hurt) prefucking, and even more denial (that they had hurt or had been hurt) postfucking. I didn’t believe the promise of joy purveyed by the panfuckers. They were miserable at least as frequently as I was. They were trying too damn hard. A few of them kept it up well into the 1980s. They died.
Besides, when I spoke to Gwyn or Ahmed or Terrance or Gemma, I enjoyed myself. When I spoke to Giorgio or Harriett, I enjoyed myself less.
I really liked what Terrance and Gem had. I knew all about it. Many were the times these two neighborly neighbors would jigger my lock and use my bed, just for a change of scene. Many were the times I would come in the door and behold – cue the banjo player. Once Gem said, mid-duel, “John, could you please clean your room more often? It smells of dirty socks. Just a suggestion.”
I’d seen them do so many things in so many places – looked sideways into so many doorways, stepped over them so often to get at my toothbrush – I had ceased thinking of their lovemaking as a private act. I liked watching their first moments of settling in. They couldn’t wait to get there. In particular (so I thought) they couldn’t wait for the moment he was on his elbows looking down at her (“I have to have him on top”) and handsome gazed into lovely’s eyes.
Then began the purling brook of their patter: endearments, conspiratorial whispers, news, gossip, genial insults, jokes, chuckles. Melody, compassion, it came to me through the walls. Gem would hitch up in midsentence, and I’d know that Terrance had given her an expert stir. They were glad to see each other. This was where they’d been dying to be all day, and through the wall, their rhythms and tones declared relief that after this long longing day apart, they’d finally returned, were finally there. I was glad for them. Whenever I saw them so engaged, whispering and giggling, I thought to myself, “God, I want that.”
On another night when the residence hall was abandoned, I was drifting in bed, when it was as if the walls between us fell:
“What shall we do about our John, then?”
“You didn’t hear? Harriett has turfed him out.”
“Our John with Harriett? Oh, dear.”
“Yes, alas, the normal Harriett procedure.”
“Thank you and get out?”
“Quite. He’s not saying much, but I think she broke his heart.”
“It’s brutal, you know. And she is your friend.”
“Yes, she is, and I have a mind to be quite irritated with her.”
“But what was John doing under her influence? Poor boy, he had no business being anywhere near her.”
“Such people ought to have a sign on them, don’t you think? ‘Beware of sex with this person.’ A sad tale but true.”
“Do you think our John has been abused?”
“Haven’t we all, darling?”
“Do I abuse you, my darling?”
“Yes you do, darling, and if you ever stop I shall be greatly annoyed.”
That seemed to be a signal, for their talk stretched out, like a cat on awakening; the tone lowered, diving into a shadowed place. Now their words became murmurs, infrequent, stray punctuation. When words did arise, they carried a new pitch. At length Gem thanked Terrance in advance for leading her to a place so long anticipated, a place both of them visited often and dreamed of oftener, a place both knew was real yet neither could really believe in yet always tried to revisit, a place she soon would enter, but could Terrance delay joining her until she had reached the right point of her long response? Terrance chuckled and said he would be delighted to await her call. And she did call, but not to him: she called out to everything, to announce her arrival, her last steps to the peak and the tapestried landscape she could see from there. I had moved aside my covers. And then, it was almost an order, she called to Terrance to join her, and as he approached he was the one with thanks, and I could tell from their calls that he was now with her, and each was glad, both thankful, and I was glad for them, too, thankful, too, for I, too, had joined them.
One weekend in February 1974, all the major universities in the United Kingdom agreed to send teams to a little basketball tournament in Birmingham. I happened to have a pal who played on the Birmingham team, Alex Forrest, a black physicist. He and I had studied together for many a final at SUNY. I wrote him a letter imploring him, if our teams should face each other, not to kick my butt too badly.
Strangely enough, we won our first five games. Oxford was miserable, Durham hopeless, Trinity College the blind leading the dead, Stirling a new way to laugh, and St. Andrews a drunken chorus line tottering in a gale. That brought us to that game of games against the University of Leicester.
At some point in any game, but especially in those involving intense exertion, you forget it’s a game and start thinking it’s life. I mean, it is life . . . it’s what you’re doing at the moment . . . but you forget it’s all gratuitous and for the sake of nothing; you forget you can walk away. All you can think of is the consequences, the chances, the next thing.
You want the reward, or if no reward, the feeling, of winning, especially if you aren’t supposed to win. You want it for more than yourself. You want it for your mates, whom you know so well you can imagine how much they want it, too. And I wanted it for them because they and I were so hopeless, and I wanted us, together, to strike a blow for hopeless players everywhere. I knew these men very closely by now, and I was fighting for us all. At a certain point in the tournament, I started to want, very hard, to win.
I hadn’t been taking basketball very seriously – what was there to take seriously? – and, in fact, being serious about sports was really against my standards. Games were just games; I wasn’t one to gouge eyes at cards or tear out limbs on the putting green.
But, going into the semifinal with Leicester, we still hadn’t lost, and I realized I wanted more than the world to win the whole thing. True, if we won, nobody would know. It would appear in no newspaper, earn no trophy. We might have a triumphal beer afterward, but that would be it. So why did I want it so?
Especially in light of its unlikelihood. The host team, Birmingham, had my pal Alex on it, and they would whip us prone; their entire team consisted of year-abroad students from UCLA, all lithe and lightning players. So would the team we met tonight, Leicester.
Oh, but I wanted both games. I knew, even if I was the lone human who really cared, that I would grieve for weeks if we lost.
So I was sitting in the stands, watching Leicester warm up and hoping I could find a way to beat them. It was going to be I; that I assumed. Murderous thoughts of Harriett Gleeson elbowed in. (So that’s why they say you’ll go to hell if you hump: because you really do. Harriet had been blunt trauma.) (I was learning to recognize and deflect surges of unmanageable passion. Disastrous sex makes you good at that.)
Next to me was a truncated, compressed man with a permanently stubbly face. My pal Alex was introducing him to me as Neil Lemon.
“I manage Norwich. You know, semipro league,” Mr. Lemon said.
I sort of knew who they were. Ahmed and I had planned to see them play, but the prospect of seeing semipro basketball in Norwich seemed too depressing, I don’t know why. Some of the players came to campus for an occasional scrimmage. They could beat us, but they had to work very hard at it. That will tell you how good they were. I thought of Bengt Ivarsson, their German-Icelandic center, seven feet and blond. He usually tried to guard me. It was humorous. Even funnier was getting Bengt drunk, which was easy and very productive. He would fornicate with a potted plant. You think I’m joking.
Neil and Alex went off after a bit, and I refocused on Leicester. They had two good shooters – a pudgy guy and an Indian kid – and a fair supporting cast. No way – but I thought of Ahmed’s shining eyes, Carl’s crazy plunges into groups of snarled men, Avron’s real talent – and I wanted and wanted.
As soon as the game started, I saw why Leicester had gotten this far: they knew what fast breaks were. They had a tall African kid who rebounded and slung the ball downcourt; the two shooters broke as soon as they saw the ball near his hands. Cherry-picking: sneaky and snivelling and legal.
It was also 15-5 in a jiff. I told Ahmed I was switching from forward to guard, putting Giorgio down next to Brian (never a comfortable place).
Growing up, my brothers and I had rooted for our dad’s team, the Boston Celtics. I loved John Havlicek. Gawky, geeky, like the son of a Polish miner, he also was fearless, possessed of quick reflexes – and committed to running. Not fast but constant. Always. Head down, that white-boy knee knee knee, baseline to baseline. He ran everywhere all the time, grinding superior athletes down.
Against Leicester, I became Havlicek. When I saw the African kid anticipating the rebound, I was running already. I intercepted passes, mucked up the fast break, blocked a few shots. Brian, a real, old-time bigot, was enjoying the chance to fight with a black person; he tore down rebounds, sneering at the African kid. Ahmed, Carl, and I ran Brian’s passes down. I dribbled coast to coast again and again, passing to my guys at the last moment, forcing them to shoot. And they liked it.
Ahmed even sneaked a look at the score at halftime. “What!” he cried. “I have eight points? I have more than Roger?”
No one on the court was really an athlete (possibly the Indian kid, who had balance and class the Lord had not given me – on the other hand, could the Indian kid design a parking lot?), and so halfway through the final period, score tied, it was as though someone pulled the plug. No one had any strength left. Except for me: my running and swimming had given me an edge. Ahmed had to sit for weariness, so Avron came in, and I ran him cross-eyed. He had three fastbreak lay-ups before he knew it. Brian was hauling in deep breaths, in grim-faced race riot against the African kid, also exhausted. Giorgio (I don’t know how) seemed pickled in perfection, perfectly kempt, smiling with greatness. His single basket of the game – a stumbling downward spiral, or maybe he tripped – put us ahead for the first time.
I kept running and running and running, disrupting, motivating. I must have had thirty assists, twenty rebounds. In danger of becoming a raging screamer, I sent teammates here and there on the court, told them when to shoot. Ahmed missed a crucial lay-up and I howled in disgust. He said back to me: “You needn’t make such a demonstration. I know how to play, you know.”
Maybe the others had started to want it, too, or maybe I had simply infected them. We were shouting at one another, casting blame. Self-conscious and scared, we had lost our rhythm and all our shots were in vain.
Carl pulled up, all alone about fifteen feet out. I Screamed “Shoot!” before the intention of passing could flick across his mind. He released the ball into the air – and so on into the basket. We had our biggest lead (three points). Sprinting down the court, I was starting to think maybe it could be done.
At the other end, I collided with the Indian kid. A whistle from the ref pierced my brain, made me whirl around, ready to argue the foul call.
The refs were running away from me, however – they were running to the other end of the court, where we’d just been. Bystanders were vaulting down off the bleachers. Brian stood over a fallen Carl, the former unsorry, the latter unconscious, his face in blood.
“I was standing under the basket,” Brian said. “He should have bloody passed it to me.”
I wondered whether psychopathology was a shooting foul. I also knew the game and tournament were over. Carl was off to hospital, and the refs had just kicked Brian out of town. Only four men left. Forfeit.
Broken jaw. When I called Carl at the hospital (pressing ten-penny bits into the phone machine at my residence hall), he told me through an interpreter that he would never play with us again.
A dark, rainy drive it was back to Norwich, the other side of England from Birmingham. We had to circle around the tentacled metastasis of London. In those days, the North Circular, a tense, confused mistake of a road, was the only way to do that. Ahmed was angry, Giorgio great, Brian in a Birmingham jail, Avron pining for his Israeli squeeze, Carl in hospital, and I was I, realizing we would play no more games ever again.
My year at East Anglia was ending. I made about twenty last swims and runs. Carl finally healed enough in jaw and mind to come round and tell me what a great time it had been, up to a point. Ahmed came by repeatedly to say he wasn’t saying goodbye just yet and to express his hope I could visit him and his family in Gloucester during the summer. I could see he mourned the basketball season. Poor guy. How great that one game-saving shot had been for him.
Giorgio had already left for his summer job as photographer for an haute-couture fashion mag in France. Anastasia (no memory whatsoever of our atomic interview) had left with him. The day they departed, they were in color and the rest of the campus was in black and white.
Gwyn caught me by the Coffee Shop and led me inside for a farewell cuppa.
“I was afraid I wouldn’t get the chance to say goodbye,” she said.
“Yeah, I’m sorry. I’ve been so focused on mailing stuff home, making sure my grades get transferred, and so on and so on.”
“Are you depressed?” she asked, and inclined her head. Her invitation to say something.
“Well, it’s been quite a year,” I said. “It’s hard to leave.”
“Will I not see you again?” she asked.
“You’ve always got an invitation . . . to Binghamton,” I said. Oh, that sounded good. Why couldn’t I have Los Angeles or New Orleans or Chicago to say, instead of obscure, flattened Binghamton?
We sat at the table, cups empty. She moved her books together.
“Hold it,” I said. “Let me buy you another. Come on.”
When I returned, the coffee made dirty swirls in the water, and we made swirly conversation until becoming aware of the time.
I walked the hills in back of campus and meditated. England hurt me, it was so beautiful: the way the oaks followed the slopeline of the hills. I expected no parties and got none, aside from a few farewell drinks. So I sat on a hill in back of campus and pondered this odd suspicion that in this long, eventful year I had somehow missed some opportunity or other. I was startled at how sad I was on the second-to-last weekend. But not a tenth as startled as I was about to be.
In Which We Meet the Van
I had made reservations back to New York. It had been a tough scrape financially all year (I was in battle with my dad, and insisted, fool, that I do all finances myself – therefore I starved for nine months), and I collected my ticket with some relief: it seemed I’d make it through after all. I had many memories and a few regrets, chief among them Harriett Gleeson and the premature death of the basketball team. We’d had potential, at least as a group of guys with some improbable contests in common.
Speaking of the improbable, Neil Lemon came to my door one evening and invited me out for a drink. He drove me into Norwich, to a pub so smoky that everyone seemed under water. He bought me a pint of their best and chatted before turning the high-power hose on me:
“So, Roger, I’m assembling a traveling team for the summer. I asked your friend Alex would he play, but he’s traveling apparently. He recommended you, and from what I saw at Birmingham, I think you’d fit in.”
My mind was on many things and nothing, and I needed another beer to understand that Neil wanted to pay me to play basketball for the summer.
A shimmering white light descended in the pub and illuminated Neil's head as he spoke. He’d pay me five hundred pounds, half up front, plus air fare home. True, this would ruin my amateur standing with the NCAA . . . but seriously, folks . . . We’d play twenty games – “first one in England, then hop across to Europe for a couple” – in the
span of eight weeks. So I would be making (I did a quick figure) about fifty-five dollars per game, more than a
dollar a minute to play the game that was giving me reason
to carry on. I was laughing a pleased and delighted kind of
“Bengt Ivarsson, I believe you know Bengt, he’s on the
team, and a few of the lads from Norwich, too.”
I asked where I’d be sleeping.
“All arranged, all arranged. No worries there. Food,
shelter, all included.” Neil Lemon, hero and savior, smiled
and fetched ten ten pound notes and five twenties out of a
wallet and pushed them across the table at me. Two hundred pounds, when I’d rarely held more than ten at a time all year.
“Actually, that’s not quite half, but I'll get it to you by
next week, all right?” Neil said. I asked about signing a
contract. “As for accommodations,” he replied, “you can stay at the house for now. We get started next week.”
I dragged my bags out of my room seconds before university closed. I stood on a campus that had no Ahmed (he was home now, hoping I’d drop by), no Giorgio (photographing some girl in Paris, no doubt; had I been nearby, he would have said, “Please get out of the way of my photograph. It will be great”), no Gwyn (already back in Wales), no Avron (now in the fervid, military arms of his Aviva), no Brian (now out of jail), no Carl. By the way, I forgot to mention my new situation to anyone – I took a bus across town to the address Neil had given me, and I kipped at the Lemon home.
Margaret, Neil's wife, was Irish, black-haired, with a
vague yet unmistakable Asian aspect, result, Neil told me,
of a mésalliance generations ago in the merchant marine. The Lemon house smelled of cats, dogs, and babies, with a dash of the rising damp. Margaret did not work, and Neil was a teacher and athletic director at a local polytechnic.
Coaching basketball was a sideline he was trying to expand.
In the meantime, there didn’t seem to be much money about. I left a few pound notes to cover my board. I ate baked beans on toast every morning in the kitchen with the three Lemon kids: Dennis, four and a half, who sported across his face a ream of green permamucus; Susan, two, red-haired with pigtails pulled so tight they slanted her eyes; and Rufus, one, also fire-headed, with an apparently boundless ability to ingest nourishment and manufacture poop.
Our steed for this international barnstorming tour (I had trouble explaining what “barnstorming” was, because people in the States didn’t really barnstorm any more, there being few barns to storm these days, but the lads got it, I think) was a huge, beat-up van. English vehicles always struck me as frail, thrown-together affairs, but this was a sturdy minibus that could seat ten adults if need be. I suspected Neil of filching it for an indefinite period from his polytechnic. Despite his constant assurances that “the thing runs like a horse,” its engine avoided health. It – stammered is the word – it stammered at all stops and traffic lights. It required constant water and oil breaks. Day and night you could find us at roadside, with Neil's body growing out from under the bonnet. Many interesting features, our van, many internal dents and holes, signs of long use and abuse in a government institution. Handles all over the place, as though the van was liable to buck like a bronc at any moment. The internal climate was always either English clammy or Swedish sauna, there being no temperate zone. Margaret didn't like to run the heater, anyway, because it always gave off a thin odor of mouse, legacy of a former resident of the heating vents, evidently cooked by an unaware driver. Since the defrost didn’t work, we were always wiping and wiping the windscreen so the driver could see out. All the other windows always fogged up, making the van a claustrophobic’s hell.
A word about the van fog. There were seven guys on the team, all of us larger gentlemen. Add Neil and Margaret and you had nine adults, seven of them very large. That's nine heat generators, and it got mighty toasty in there after a while – not to mention ripe, since anything that could begin to smell (towels, socks, sneakers, jock straps) did. This, too, created fog, which would coalesce and, I do not lie, condense, dripping down on us from the ceiling. As Bill, one of the more morose members of the Anglia Kings, put it, “Bloody fucking rain.” We designated a towel to mop up the ceiling at intervals, but it would start raining again presently.
My favorite feature was a bed of soft, green, healthy moss growing on the inside door on the driver’s side. Margaret showed it to me with gardener’s pride. I stroked it as she said, “Soft, uzzn’t it? In summer you can take your shoes off and run your toes through.”
I soon learned that accommodation was indeed included,
and that the van would very often be it. This was one low-budget tour. We’d spend the day driving, often the night as
well, and if we got in early, we caught what winks we could
in the rainy indoors. Neil had not scheduled games to be
near one another, so we went, sometimes on four wheels,
sometimes on two, from Crewe to Oban, Portsmouth to Hull,
Bexhill-on-Sea to Whitby, zig to zag across the map of
Britain. We played many of our games lurching in sleep
deprivation. Neil was a master psychologist in at least this
regard: just when we were sick unto mutiny of smelling one
another and being rained on inside a tin can, a hotel with seedy beds and sprouting food and florid bathrooms (all of them down the hall or up a flight or three) would materialize. That was the only way we could have stood this mobile, organized misery.
I shouldn’t mention the food, but I will. Mostly it was
Wimpy’s. American-style fast food was still a decade away
from England – as I write, McDonaldses sprout like warts in
an armpit all over the world – but in those days, if you were
eating on the run and didn’t fancy take-out Chinese or
Indian or fish and chips, the one choice, and therefore not
a choice, was Wimpy’s. Wimpy’s in 1973 was hard to describe. It said it served hamburgers, but that might just have been a rumor. What I received was a grey, oily disk of charred meat, soaking drab bread in rank grease. Really: when I first received one, I looked around for further
instructions. I developed a steely stomach while abroad – I
got to love Cornish pasties, and even got into pickled eggs – but Wimpy’s I could not do. I became an addict of fish and
chips and even convinced myself, despite what I knew them to be cooked in, that they were good for me.
Let me introduce the rest of the Anglia Kings. You’ve
met me and Bengt. Bill was an unemployed carpenter from
Norwich. With more than twenty percent unemployment, it was easy to find unworking blokes. (Some mates at East Anglia once convinced me to go out to the docks to pick up some extra working cash; we were literally swept aside by the crush of desperate men.) Bill, pretty good at forward, had a permanently irritated disposition, giving him lots of energy
on the court. We also had Jean-Henri, from French Guiana.
I’d known him at East Anglia, where he was trying to
complete a civil engineering course. He wouldn’t play on the
team – too serious a student. Now, called back to Guiana for
mandatory army duty, he was furiously preparing for an entry examination into the officers’ academy there. (“That way I can be an engineer and not have to train in the swamps for four years,” he said. “Four fucking years of my life!”) He took every opportunity to needle me about Richard Nixon, about to resign the Presidency. “You Americans love this crook,” he laughed. When I mentioned that my family’d voted for McGovern, Jean-Henri snorted, “Another loser.” I asked him about his country. "My mom and dad are from France and are dying to go back," he said, "but my stupid dad is too good at his job and they want him to stay. It is a stupid idiotic little country."
We had a Nigerian named Victor Odumkubwe on our team. He was a perfect human being: religious, utterly handsome, polite, quick to laugh, well-read. He could turn his eyelids inside out, which looked pretty horrifying, pink eyelid against black skin. He and I had monumental battles on the Ping-Pong table. Very occasionally, I won. I could beat him at Fussball, but he could beat me at one-on-one soccer. I could massacre him in basketball. So we got along. He had
trouble sleeping, result, he told me, of his experience as a
soldier in the Biafran war, in which he had been obliged to
commit atrocities. He never told me what these had been. "I
am not sure," he said one day, gazing through a fogged
window, "that God forgives things such as I did."
Our roster was filled out with Ian, a stout fellow from Newcastle who could shoot a little and had an endless store of smutty jokes and songs, and Callum, a Scotsman who liked basketball almost as much as he liked drinking. He insisted on finding Woodpecker Cider every night, "To put wood in me pecker," as he said, and he informed me that Highland Park was the best of all Scotch whiskies: "A drink of that is like kissing another man's wife." I thought of Bengt, Ian, and Callum as the bright side of the team, with Bill and Jean-Henri in the darkness and Victor and myself in the middle somewhere. Basketball-wise, I could avoid acute humiliation if I worked hard, and I worked as hard as I could.
Only Neil and Margaret were insured to drive, and since
Neil was often planning strategy (i.e., sleeping), Margaret
drove most of the time, from Crewe to Dover, from Ostend to
Aalst, from Aalst to Strasbourg, from Strasbourg to Bern.
Dennis, Susan, and Rufus came along, bringing with them the cats, dogs, and babies smell. Mostly the babies smell. At
four and a half, Dennis was in control, but not so the other
two. Stink exploded like a depth charge in the van, occasioning groans from seven ill-washed gargantuans. Margaret and Neil urged us to share “nappie duty,” but
Bengt’s fingers were too big, Jean-Henri was too busy
studying for his exam, and Bill cheerily sang, “I fucking won’t do it; it makes me want to fucking puke.”
Guess who turned out to have a real talent in this
direction? Guess who did the quickest, gentlest job, as
though to the craft born? And guess, further, whom the kids
wanted to be with every second, Susan and Dennis begging to be read to every second, Rufus kicking and gesticulating in his baby chair and building up new complexities and textures of poopie? I spent the hours reading aloud of courageous mice and optimistic locomotives while the van fog heated and condensed into rain. Susan and Dennis gazed up as I negotiated William's Special Birthday for the seventh time, their being concentrated in every word, asking the same questions at the same junctures, very excited at the end. Then they’d beg to hear it again.
I had discovered my peer group. Sidewise (she was a
careful driver), Margaret looked on with admiration as I
read Stuart Little or The Little Engine That Could.
Midafternoon, only a couple hundred miles to go, rainsoaked
highway before us, I'd be drifting along half-comatose,
Susan drooling asleep on one arm, Dennis in mucilaginous
slumber on the other (doing my bomber jacket a lot of good).
“You're pretty good at this,” Margaret said. This to
jar me awake so she could ask questions. Being Irish, she
had no reserve whatever and wanted to know everything:
family (brothers? sisters? class? religion?), friends (any
girlfriends?), what it was like back in the States. We’d
been doing this for two weeks by the time our traveling
began. She spoke happily of Ireland (she would never go
back), her friends, her children, what Neil should do with
his life, what job she’d like to have if she worked. She
probably talked this way among her housewife friends and babies in Norwich: learning about life while the teapot
steamed. I tried to answer in a whisper so the kids could
get their nap, but one inevitably would wake up and demand
to be read to. I’d pick up Stuart Little again, read the
first word, and Bill would cry out, “Oh, fucking Jesus wept,
no, not the fucking stupid little mouse. Oh, God, it’s
Wife, babes, and I became known as “the family.” I’m
sure the others would have liked the front seat occasionally
(not that you could see anything through the windshield),
but they were more than pleased to let me show how good I
was at husbandhood. I usually accompanied Neil’s family
(sans Neil, engrossed in strategy) to market. Nappies!
Formula! Baby food! Sometimes I took the kids while Margaret napped in van or hotel. More often she came along, joking at all the people who thought we were a family. After shopping, we’d go find a park and unleash the kids to fall about and get filthy. In Europe, Margaret would breastfeed Rufus, chatting, chatting, asking uncomfortable me to fetch
napkins, towels, a Coke.
I got the impression Neil was giving me kids and wife,
Here, have them if you want them, my blessing. Yet real affection existed between husband and wife, I was thankful to find: they had a joking, conspiratorial way closed to anyone else. Still, it was odd how, one night in Strasbourg, Neil brought me a beer and said, "So Roger, what do you think of Margaret?"
You’ve been with me now for a while, so it’s not news
to you that at that moment, I could have been a platypus on ice skates.
"She’s the best," I said. "You're a lucky guy."
"Here's to lucky guys," Neil said, raising a glass. We
clinked, drained, and got another round.
"You're good with the little ones," he said (starting
over, it seemed to me), "and she thinks the world of you.
'Oh, Roger's so great,' she's saying, all the time."
"I'm sure the novelty'll wear off." I must comment on
Margaret's liking of me, so I said, "It's pretty clear she's
in love with you, so that's good."
"So it is," he said, looking at a point about a hundred
Our first game was in Crewe, an ugly town where there
was no God. Recession gripped Europe in those years, worst
of all in England. The British Isles had broken off from the
rest of Europe and were tumbling in space. Quadrophenia by
the Who was the rock album of the moment, full of
frustration, pickled eels and hotel lobbies. In
a few years English kids would walk around with safety pins
stuck through their cheeks and wearing buttons reading NO
The team from Crewe heard my accent during practice and got on me from the start. As an American, I was used to
rough treatment. In all the papers, Nixon elbowed Patti Hearst against the backdrop of the CIA overthrow of
Nicaragua (reported as fact everywhere but in the United
States). These guys played with real hatred: one fellow
slapped me in the face and laughed, and another threw me
down with a vicious foul. The ref didn't want to know. Each
time I went down, the dozen in the stands yelled with joy.
We got ahead and stayed ahead, and the Crewe team got
angrier and rougher. I'm a humble-runner, not a fighter. I
was tired and bloody by the end of the game.
Neil got us a hotel for the night, but I couldn't sleep. The crew from Crewe hated me because I saw a future and they didn't. My American walk and talk told them I assumed a bright, free time coming my way, choice, work, enough money to live and be satisfied. They looked at me as I had looked at the Med School team back at Binghamton.
I couldn't blame them. They knew they couldn't play
basketball. Neither I nor they deserved our lots. And Gwyn:
she'd often said she'd end up "deep in some obscure Welsh
town, working for nothing." She was scared. Options were
few. She was actually afraid to take a year off: she might
never be seen again.
Since coming to England in September, I'd been getting
daily shocks to the system, forcing me to see myself and my
country from afar. Jean-Henri lately was rising to an insane
pitch of anti-American spite: "Bloody stupid American, try
to steal everything in the whole world! Even in my country
we treat the black people better." All of it came to rest in my chest that night. Although I loved my country in the
general, patriotic way, I loved humanity even more, meaning
I'd have to face facts: I came from an ignorant, greedy
place, an unfair, bigoted place, which had its way in the
world because it was big, strong, and rich. Would it change
my life to admit all that? Time would tell. As for now, I
was ashamed. I had dreams and the lads from Crewe didn't.
They couldn't take mine away and I couldn't give them mine,
so they rammed and punched me. I put a wet washcloth on my forehead and waited for sunrise.
. . . We were in Bern, Switzerland. I'd just had one of the
most elevating days of my whole life, walking and walking
around the world's most beautiful town, loving the medieval
arcades, loving the bear gardens (source of the town's name,
I think), loving the streetcars, loving the garlic braids
for sale in the market stalls, loving most of all a moment I
hope I never forget, midway across the bridge over the river
Aare. I was beat-up, alone, accepting this bruising world,
so bright it hurt the eye – and laughing because I was a
professional international basketball player.
Later, we were on our way to the game, to get our butts
chorus-line kicked by the local club on local TV. The van
was stammering at a traffic light when Margaret turned to me and said, “That girl you mentioned? Gwyn? I was thinking about her today. She’s in love with you.”
What a game I played that night. Our cause was hopeless
from the start, and my defender was much better than I was.
So what? I missed only one shot out of thirteen, and made
all four of my foul shots. I write it down only because,
well, when you have something that close to perfect, it
ought to go on record. My guy scored fourteen points, but he
had to work harder than he expected. At the end of the game
he shook my hand, smiling: “We beat you pretty bad, but you kicked my ass.” He was glad for me because he saw the clod-hopping bozo I really was.
That is the miraculous aspect of basketball – when
you're in the flow of the game and you know where all your
teammates are – you're in a moving net of relations, and all
the options are clear – you're flying down the court – Jean-Henri is here, Callum there – I can pass here, there, wait – the relations change, you change, but you know where you
are, where everyone is – will be – can be – you hold the flow – pass, stop, switch, shoot – you are the flow – meditation – ambient proprioception, hypnotic paraconsciousness. Everything I tried that night worked. We got skillet-slammed, but my small, luminous miracle happened anyway. God, am I grateful.
En route to the Hutteldorf, a no-star place Neil had
scrounged for the night, he announced he'd added two games to our schedule – in East Germany.
There still was an Iron Curtain in those days, and the
world had much to be tense about. Neil said, "They're paying
us only two hundred quid per game, but it's extra money, am
I right? Only problem, lads, is this. Well, two problems,
actually. A) these are unauthorized games, and B) we're
playing an army team at an army base."
Margaret was quite charming to the soldiers at the
border. I watched her put the last touches to her hair and
face before driving up to the checkpoint. She winked at me
(watch this) as she pulled up. The soldiers stood in black-and-white, and her color washed over them. Of course, they
made us all get out, even the sleeping Rufus, and made a
mess of our wallets and gear. I knew my passport was OK for a one-day visit (scheduled for two days), but still I
sweated. One of the guards, apparently auditioning for a
role as a movie Nazi, said, "You are several large and ugly
people." Rufus grunted and filled up his pants at that
moment. I waited until the warmth was evenly distributed
before standing close to the mean guard as punishment.
Out the window I saw grey towns and industrial cancer. Sure, the same sun and sky as before we crossed. And yes, there were gardens, stores, people reading newspapers while waiting for the bus, traffic, kids on motorbikes, signs that life was, after all, lived. Maybe it was my internal barometer. Or maybe it was that you knew someone could take everything away from you at one missed step. Since we were about to take a whole bunch of missed steps, I was pretty terrified.
At dusk, Margaret pulled over to the side of the road
at a place Neil pointed out.
"We're getting an escort into the base," he whispered.
Why he was whispering I don't know.
"What the bloody fuck are we doing here, mate?" Bill
"They're taking us the back way," Neil said. "It's got
to be dark."
"Well, I don't fucking want to end up in a fuck-all
communist jail, and if I do, I'll have your sweet ass before
I'm done" was Bill's comment.
Neil lined up his games by word of mouth. There was an
informal network of basketball teams across Europe and the
UK, and he knew most of the coaches and many of the players on the local clubs. There'd be notes at his hotel, guys
who'd come up to us after games. We'd add about five extra
games on our tour; once or twice we played more than one game in a day, not a happy prospect. (Ian said, "It's like
coming the second time for a bloke – fun in theory, but you
don't really want to.")
Sometimes it seemed everyone in
Europe wanted to play. Here we were about to face two teams getting ready for the East German Army league and wanting some practice. How Neil had stumbled onto them we weren't told.
As we waited in the Communist darkness, I calculated.
Four hundred pounds, or about a thousand dollars. Half the
normal take per game, but also a wad of cash behind the Iron Curtain. Was it worth, for example, our freedom? We trembled in the van. Susan took a tremendous fudge-grunt.
At one point while we waited, Margaret got her lips right next to my ear and said, “You’re not stupid, you know, Roger. You just don’t have much confidence.” I was afraid she could taste my ear. And startled by the strange echoes of Harriett Gleeson in Margaret’s gentler words.
Hours after dark, two military vehicles (you could tell
by the loud engines and black smoke stinking up the air) (in
the face of nuclear conflict, what was a little air
pollution?) arranged themselves before and behind, and,
parking lights only, we were led through spaghettine roads,
unlit and poorly banked. I rubbed a hole in the windshield
and saw miles of chain-link fence, vast runways, ominous
outbuildings, somnolent transport planes, ranks of parked tanks.
Our leader turned off the road. We followed. Now we
were on the base. I was officially spy and traitor.
We stopped at to an enormous, square building next to a
generator house, pumping power with a defeaning churn. In
blackness, we were led down a hall and into a place I knew
by the mold and sweat smell. We dressed in the glow of blue
emergency exit lights and were led to the court.
Our opponents were already running practice drills.
Someone had taped brown paper over all the windows, quite a trouble to go to for such as us, but OK. The generator
next door was shaking walls and floor. Lights were on half-
strength, giving everything a twilight aspect.
"Ground rules, gentlemen," Neil said. "If at any time
you hear that generator switch off, stop playing
immediately. Though absolute silence is a bit much to ask, try not to shout, for bleeding Christ's sake. And they won't
be turning up the lights, so don't ask."
I don't even have to think about it: that was the most
bizarre of all the bizarre games I played that year. Flitting in the semidark, casting the ball at an indistinct basket, teammates and coaches whispering and muttering. You would have thought it a polite little ballet – unless you
were there, in a furious, suppressed battle between free
world and un-. We'd joked to that effect on the way there,
but halfway into the game, both teams got serious. I caught
an elbow in the eye and a nice forearm to the nose. It was
too dark to see who.
Late in the game, the issue uncertain (we couldn't see
the scorer – in fact, how could he see us?), the air suddenly
stopped rumbling. We froze in the half-dark – now all-dark, as terrified men ran to cut the lights. I sweated as I heard
Bill whisper, "Bloody fucking stupid sons of bitches." I
heard clankings as from the center of the earth--movement of great machines in the darkness outside – calls and assurances in rapid, official German from without – whispers from within. Would jackbooted shock troops deploy into center court? Would I ever see Binghamton again?
Click: the rumble resumed.
It was as if the
engine driving the earth's rotation had switched back on. We
went back to our leaping and contending, arms and legs,
squeaking sneakers, muffled grunts and gallops in the
darkness. Weird: the rhythm of contention halted every ten
seconds – when someone shot. We all had to wait a second or
so to see what the ball did. You could close your eyes and
hear the game: gallop full-strength down one way; hard work
and struggle for a few seconds; then that suspension; then
either struggle for the rebound and gallop, or, when the
shot went in, a more relaxed canter back. I never saw my
opposite number’s face. Since we could not even see numbers, we played sort of a zone defense, taking any man who came into our quadrant. All sorts of people came into mine, and I never really knew what they were doing or what resulted.
Near the end of the game, a keening wail resounded
through the gym. It froze us all and rose even above the
surround-sound of the generator. It was Rufus, awaking disoriented in the darkness and very hungry.
"Shut him up!"
Neil shouted under his breath.
I could hear Margaret's shirt
rustle as she hooked Rufus up. He smacked his lips, moaned, rutched, fed with much smacking and sucking.
Soon after, the ref gave a light tweet on his whistle.
The scorekeeper reported the score as 31-27, their
side. To this day, I am very skeptical, but on that night I
was not about to argue.
We were to sleep on the gym floor. Communists arranged
our cots and blankets, and they smuggled in a not-too-terrible dinner. Then they sat with us in a tight circle
and passed around a bottle of quite outstanding Russian
vodka. I can’t read Cyrillic, so I can’t tell you the brand.
Their English was, as usual, better than ours.
“So this Nixon, what do you think?” one asked me.
“Crook,” I said.
“You are right. You are the first American who tells
A second bottle went round, this one of pepper vodka,
which created a Chicago fire in the esophagus and a very
nice glow in the gut.
“So what’s it like to be slaves to the fucking godawful Communist system?” Bill inquired. Our quiet communal laughter cut short. Only the stupid are fearless.
"We are not aware of any lack of freedom," said a
voice, that of the highest-ranking. Whenever a question came
up that was the least bit delicate (and this happened more
and more frequently as the bottle passed), he replied for
all present, in pre-scripted answers.
"Perhaps your wife would like to come join us," one
said to Neil. "We are not offended if she wishes to feed the
"Sod off, mate," Neil said.
(I have to say I felt a twinge of guilt here. Margaret
breastfed Rufus all the time in my presence, and no matter
how I trained them, my eyes wouldn't stay away.)
On it went like that, friendly and tense. These guys
were about our age, a little harder, competitive yet starved
for goodwill. One of them, a kid who had hidden his
drunkenness very well until that moment, began to hum a
Oh, execrable tune. Bobby Sherman. “Julie, Do You Love
Yoolie, Yoolie, Yoolie, do you love me?
Yoolie, Yoolie, Yoolie, do you care?
Yoolie, Yoolie, are you thinking of me?
Yoolie, Yoolie, will you still be there?
A sentimental, feel-good tune by a baby-faced TV moron.
These days I feel kindly toward it. Big brass band in back.
All the Germans knew all the parts. Bengt picked it up – as an Icelandic person, he couldn’t say the j in Julie either. Ian and Callum belted it out until told to be quiet. "Fucking bubblegum hell," whined Bill the appreciator. But we all started foolishly singing it together, and as we did, melancholy, lonely boy melancholy, hit us like a brick wave. We were all far from home, all tired, all backed up, and we linked arms and weaved to the unsteady beat. Being American, I was pushed into the middle of the circle and forced to gyrate with all my saggy-assed engineering-student soul, singing the verses into an imaginary microphone:
I know you cried the day I left you,
Even though we knew I couldn't stay.
But BAY-beh, re-MEM-bah,
I'll BE back, Sep-TEM-bah,
And till then, I'll write you every day.
They loved how I did the reMEMbah SepTEMbah part and kept me doing it again and again, laughing again and again. We ended up on our backs, laughing helplessly. After a while we quieted down. Quiet. Quiet. Quiet. Then a very soft “Yoolie, Yoolie,” and we’d snort in hilarity.
They got us into our cots, and from time to time – who knew how late it was? — one of us – often me – would “Yoolie, Yoolie,” and either Bill or Neil would hiss, "Can you give it a fucking rest for Jesus Christ's bloody fucking sake?" I couldn't feel my lips, and the black auditorium was spinning in space.
I awoke in darkness. Something terrible, terrible had
happened. My heart was fibrillating off the walls of the
gym, and I was sweating. An unspeakable softness, odor of woman and baby, was pressing against me, and I knew I was where I really wanted to be.
"Roger, Roger," Margaret was saying. She was holding my
head and stroking my hair. "Poor baby, you were crying in
I stayed still. That way, maybe she'd keep stroking. Humiliated, idiot-exultant, drunk, confused, I couldn't remember what – homesickness, Gwyn, Harriett, the
shock of the new and strange, Bobby Sherman, the oaks on the hills at East Anglia? – but something terrible had crossed my soul.
"Did I wake anybody?"
"I think I got you in time," she said. Time came out
toim in her Irish English, with that ineffable, feathery t at the end of got. Very stupid things to say were lining up on my tongue when I heard Neil:
"Why don't you just get in bed with him and make it official?"
"Be quiet, you," Margaret said. "You're the one who told me to wake him. Poor boy’s had a bad dream.”
"Sorry," I said, perhaps to Neil. "Go to bed. I be fine."
In fact, I was still sobbing. It was all I could do to
master the spasms in my chest, the anguish of mouth, eyes,
nose, the worst of all my life, or so my emotions read.
Did we whip them next morning or not? Oh, yes, we did. The paper was still over the windows, but we could see a little bit, and I was our secreting weapon. We had wakened to learn that the best vodka leaves very little hangover. And I was mad. Oh no, they were NOT going to bury us AND sing Bobby Sherman, reveal my inmost weaknesses AND destroy my native form of government, oh, no they were NOT. We mutilated and flattened them. After the previous night's bonhomie, they looked a little startled. But we had a great
lunch with them and resumed laughing. Yes, and more Bobby Sherman. I made sure not to speak to either Neil or Margaret. That night, when it was time to smuggle us back
over the border, I got in the back seat. Let Neil do the
Rufus and Susan duty like a man.
We Were Short But Slow
Several other things of note occurred on the European
side of our trip. Bengt was thrown in jail in Innsbruck one night for leaving the hotel door open while he got fresh with himself. In his honor, Ian taught us the following ditty, sung to the tune of “Funiculi, Funicula”:
I stayed at home and pulled me plunker;
It did me good.
I knew it would.
I stayed at home and pulled me plunker;
It did me good.
I knew it would.
First the short strokes
To tickle the crown,
To tickle the crown,
Then the long strokes,
Straight up and down,
Straight up and down, oh,
Tease it, squeeze it,
Wipe it off the floor,
Tease it, squeeze it,
Wipe it off the floor:
Some people say that sexuality and intercourse are
I would rather pull me plunker any old time.
That got us across Switzerland. We were in Lausanne, walking across the ancient wooden-roofed walkway there, when Callum announced, “It’s my birthday and I’ve just taken LSD!” tore off his clothes, and ran naked across town.
“The berk,” Neil said. “He always does that.”
Since the topic is sex, perhaps I should discuss
sports. I mean, the other guys were free agents when we
weren't playing. Neil once sanctimoniously intoned to me
that "I will NOT stand in loco parentis – whatever the fuck
that means." We were all adults. "I expect my lads to
comport themselves in a manner that does not tarnish our
welcome," he said. "And to wear a doob."
Back in Munich, after getting our faces pleated by an
excellent town squad, I was walking back toward the hotel
with Ian and Callum. They led me on purpose down a
particular thoroughfare, where they knew of a particular
picture window. We were alone on that well-lit street, which
is, I suppose, why the six-foot African goddess there threw
off her robe and displayed herself to us in all her magnificence. That’s too pale a word. My face, I think, fell off. She brought a microphone over to her lips and said,
very liquid, very German, "So, American man, what do you
The sexual market is a feral place. Something about the
loudspeaker, something about how she knew I was American, just by looking at me, rendered me instant third-grader.
I got out of it, but Ian and Callum got in. I went back
alone to the hotel.
On many nights, Neil, Victor, and I wandered through Geneva, Salzburg, and Milan in search of missing Kings. Often Neil was the absent monarch, and Victor and I being the clean-living members of the troupe, and with Margaret glum with babies at the hotel, it fell to us to ransack wine halls, bars, and intimate entertainment venues. Many were the drunken basketball players we had to lug through the streets. On our swing through Basel, Ian, who’d had a gallon or two too much, had to be collected – but in mid-lug, he broke away from us and went staggering down the thoroughfare. Victor collapsed with laughter, so it took me a minute to collect him and give lukewarm pursuit. Ian was slow when sober, doubly so when soused, and we had no fear of being outdistanced.
Nor need we have. When we found him, he was on the pavement. Well, not quite on. Between him and the pavement was a friendly person speaking niceties in French. My question was not, Why are these people fornicating on the ground on a winter’s night? My question was how the thing had been managed so quickly.
Many were the hostels, Herberge, and pensions in which I had to hold giants over the bowl while they shouted Ralph. It had its sweetly nostalgic side. Once or twice, I opened the door to my room – to discover that Duelling Buttholes had been imported to the continent.
When we were all about to board the hydrofoil home, Margaret and I were shoved together for a moment on the gangplank.
“So what are you going to do about it?" she wanted to know, leaving the referent of it up in the air, like a star only I could pull down.
When we got back to England, freedom intact, we played
a sulking game against eight corpses from Nottingham—nearly losing – and were returning to our hotel when Bill suggested we all see The Exorcist together. Bill had read about it in the Daily Telegraph. Reports from America – far-off place – had it that people's hearts burst while watching it. Showings were interrupted. House lights went up. Paramedics came and took the dead people away.
"People bloody die when they see this film, evidently,"
Bill was saying.
"Sounds great," said Bengt.
Neil volunteered to stay at the hotel with the three
babes, giving a surprised Margaret a night out with the
giants. As we walked to the cinema, past the twisted spire
that rose over Nottingham, I kept on the opposite side of
the group from her.
We got our tickets and sat in one row together. Was
it my imagination, or did Margaret try to sit next to me? I made sure Victor and Callum were between us.
We waited for the movie to start. And waited. And
waited. Gradually, I realized why. Three rows in front of
us, a large man was slumped in his seat. I'd noticed him
when we'd come in, but from behind you can't tell whether a
person is conscious or not. By now it was clear he was left
over from the previous screening and hadn't moved. Margaret looked across Bengt and Callum to me. Everyone around us was being very British – terribly concerned, but hesitant to step forward. As soon as I neared the man, about fourteen other people exploded forward. It was ascertained that he needed medical attention. Within the hour, some medics came and bent over him. Then he woke up and stumbled sleepily out of the theater.
Bill was disappointed.
The Exorcist was the stupidest movie I ever saw. The special effects were fake and dreary, and, in my current state of transitional religious anxiety, I didn't like movies telling me that there was no essential difference between religion and cultism. No one in the theater was reacting at all. Such was often the case with American films – people did not
know when to laugh or scream. All the cues and codes were
different. One night I had gone to see Hellzapoppin', a wacky musical comedy from the 1940s, and I was the only person laughing in the entire hall. Not that that restrained me. Idiot Yank. But here we were, tomblike theater, with this roaring, moaning movie, heads revolving in their sockets, horizontal vomit, happy greetings such as “your mother sucks cocks in hell!” and so forth. Otherworldly.
Something else was going on. I became aware of it by
degrees, and at first denied it was happening, but eventually I had to give in and face it. We all know that when one travels, it often happens that one throws up. One throws up because one eats weird grub, climbs hills and descends valleys, floats in ecstasy and plummets to depression, inhales all manner of unfamiliar microbes, and because one feels not at home. One throws up, and by God, I was about to. I had the aisle seat and told Callum I was going. Margaret looked over her shoulder, but I was already in mid-trot.
Out in the fresh air, I lurched greenly back to our hotel, elbowing through crowds of kids out for a pub crawl. For a medium smallish town, Nottingham was one hard-partying place. These people were out to get ripped and laid. The whole idea nauseated me. Any idea nauseated me. Good thing our hotel was so close.
I stumbled quietly up the stairs, not to wake Rufus,
Dennis, and Susan. I even slipped off my shoes.
I passed by Neil’s room. His door was ajar, and the
three kids were laid out asleep on one of the beds. I felt
like a daddy, looking in on them. Other feelings pushed
paternality aside, and I moved on down the hall. Then,
despite that urgent call of “Everybody Out!” coming from my
stomach, I went back to Neil’s room. Where was Neil?
Neil was inside a large brunette woman from Nottingham on the bed next to the kids. His behind was hairy, in symmetrical feathered patterns around the cleft. At that point, I felt so bad I had to sprint very noisily to the john. Boy, it was loud and splashy and incapable of being covered up. I thought I heard Dennis moan. Then I threw up again, feeling that old I-wanna-die-right-now feeling, grateful for the cool of porcelain.
"What the hell are you doing back?"
Neil was standing behind me. He looked silly in the
Superman underwear then popular in Britain. Some men,
including me and Neil, should never try to wear those,
especially when tumescent.
I threw up by way of answer.
"Well, shit, it isn't THAT bad, is it?" he said.
I just kept throwing up. It was useless, as well as impossible, to explain.
"Half the married men in the British Isles do it, lad, so don't you feel too bad," he said. "It ain't like the rest of the lads don't know."
I was not yet to the dry heaves and so could not reply.
"Let me finish with Barbara and I'll come give you a
hand," he said.
While Neil finished with Barbara, I crawled into bed,
feeling as bad as I could and praying for sleep. Instead, I
got Neil, who nearly yelled at me:
"Well, it's not so bloody different from you having it
off with my wife, is it?"
I had just enough energy to say, "I would never do a thing like that."
Neil, stunned, had obviously not seriously considered the possibility that Margaret and I were not having it off, but the truth of it went ting like a pinkie nail on crystal.
"Fuck," he said on exiting. "It's hell being married to a good person."
The Anglia Kings went on without me to their next game
at the London School of Economics, whose international team subjected us to cruelest taxidermy. Victor, usually my roomie (when we roomed), offered to stay with me, sweet guy,
but Neil said he needed "at least one substitute, for pity's
I tell you, this was one intricate bug I'd gotten. The
whole world was wormy, fishy, cheesy. Because they would make me want to cast my interior, I tried not to think of objects or ideas. That didn't leave much to think about. Our hotelier was nice about it, making only one remark, when I checked out, about his establishment being "a hotel, not a hospital."
I felt well enough that second night to take a walk
around Nottingham. Some sicknesses cause you to see all
others as ugly. On the other hand, it may be that Nottingham is home to some awfully ugly people. I mentioned the twisted spire earlier. It belongs to St. Mary's Church, whose misguided fifteenth-century builders had used unseasoned green wood in the spire. Result: Let's Do the Twist. Kids in search of beer and venery coursed the streets. Tired of the gigantic Nottingham pubs, I finally found a family place, where a piano man was playing every old-time song he could think of, and kindly, ugly Nottingham geezers were grinning loudly and singing even louder. I drank fizzy water and listened.
Closing time, and I went home, my legs regaining strength. I sat in front of St. Mary’s and felt as crooked as a spire. Sickness was passing, leaving in its place the real problem. Was Margaret driving our van, sometimes on two wheels, sometimes on four – was she slipping off her shoes and toeing the mold on the inside door – was she talking to me about Gwyn, to the kids about Curious George and Basil Brush – all the while knowing about Neil, knowing the rest of the lads knew?
No right to ask her. None. To ask her was to ask her something else. Where I had even less right.
And something else. Gemma and Terrance had wondered whether I was abused. Folks didn’t use the word abused as much back then. I didn’t like the sound of it. Right there and then, I took responsibility for everything that had happened to me this year. I’d walked into it under my own power and eyes wide open. I’d played a role, and years from now, I’d look back and laugh. In fact, that’s what I’m doing right this moment. You should see me.
Sitting in front of St. Mary’s, feeling the vacuum after sickness goes but wellness isn’t quite there yet, I resisted the urge to ask Margaret. Or tell her. But I was her friend. But she ought to know. So, American man, what do you say?
Neil left a message for me to meet the Anglia Kings in
Gloucester. That was a town I knew. Ahmed's parents lived
near there, and he’d taken me home one weekend for a tour. Or a Tor: there is a neolithic mound in Gloucester, topped with a hollow fourteenth-century tower, affording a spectacular view of the surrounding plain. It's also the center for a lot of fringies, occultists, and lunatics. At the ruined
Abbey, they claim to have the graves of Arthur and
Guinivere. You have to love it.
I had to take quite a combination of trains and busses
to get to Gloucester, hours and hours of traveling, thinking, testing my jumpy gut on road food. Suffering is what they call it. I told myself that I did not hate Neil (true) and was not in love with Margaret (we were almost to Gloucester) but was friends with them both and wanted to see their marriage work out (I did; give me some credit). During some hours, I blazed with righteousness . . . but no, that was stupid – what an ass I was. Her poor kids: Dennis, his ream of permamucus; Susan and her braids; Rufus and his range of talents. Nah, that was foolishness too. I was no protector, no knight of truth, man, and I knew it. When I got to Gloucester, I climbed the Tor and sat there alone, miles of plain laid out below me, a distant virga unfolding rain.
Our hotel was near the appropriately named King’s Arms, a pretty great little pub that served excellent shepherd’s pie (it can be good) served by excellent local women. The Anglia Kings had not arrived yet from London – “Mr. Lemon left a message for you to the effect that he and the team will be quite late,” the concierge said. So I called up Ahmed and met him at the King’s Arms, where we got fed and I got blasted.
I guess the Kings rolled in while I slept. The delay was caused by Neil, who had picked up another extra game, squeezed in after lunch at some gym in the heart of Brixton. "White on black race war," Neil told me later.
I rose early and went running, out to the Tor, up the
Tor and down, around the Tor. I was pretty spent when I
again neared the King's Arms. You run that way when you have problems to solve. In the shower, I had an attack, if not of the heart, at least of the truth. Grateful not to encounter a single King or Lemon, I sneaked out of the hotel.
I am an expert at walking the streets of cities alone.
It's both love and suffering: you're right in the middle of
life and far on the outside. You watch people do their
shopping, chatting at the store or the corner. Some smile
and nod at you as though they know you.
I'd gone off on a bus across the Rivers Severn and Wye,
over the Cambrian Mountains – beautiful, stark, and difficult
to cross. Someone in the back of the bus was speaking Welsh. I'd heard its cadences before.
I walked and walked around and around Aberystwyth,
seeing myself in a hundred shop windows. I didn't slump as
much as I used to. I was in the best physical condition of
my life, possibly the best I would ever achieve. My face:
could anyone read what was going on? Town was sleepy this
overcast morning, where no one knew me or knew I was here. Sadnesses of shopping, of doing the same things again and again.
I made the same circuit again and again, crowded with
colliding worlds. What I was doing, unknown to myself, was
bouncing the ball before taking the foul shot. I had made no phone calls, given no warnings. I did things like that in those days. I was just a boy, given to dramatic gestures.
Few more dramatic than this, taking the road out of the
center of town (it was a town, smaller and quieter than I'd
imagined). I saw what Gwyn had been talking about, her fear
of getting stuck in this one place forever. There was a
university here; she applied far away. There were men here
to marry, jobs to settle into – or no jobs at all. Opportunity to disappear without a trace. Rejecting the horizons her parents had accepted, she had become afraid of the constant mending and economizing, the tidy, private houses. Aberystwyth has its charms, but I saw what she was afraid of, and I was afraid for her, a good woman, better than her future, who discounted herself, who told the metallic joke that “my one talent is I speak a dead language called Welsh.”
I had come to tell her that she was not ordinary, if by
ordinary she meant unworthy. I mean, I know that now. I
figured it out around 1991. Standing at her door, I hadn't a
single idea in my skull; everything was racketing around in
there. I knocked the weakest knock possible, and guess who opened it – and clasped me with her strong arms and said, “Oh my God, Roger”? I looked into the house for parents – turned out they were at work. I smelled soup.
Gwyn spoke my name a few more times. Then she held me out to look at me – it had been two months – then tugged my mouth to hers and held me there. Second after second after second, moist softness with soup overtones. I peeked up and down the street. What would the Welsh do if they spotted us?
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, Roger, please, I don't, you know, you know me, I," she said.
I smiled at her. Boy, I was happy and blinking hard.
"You could have said something," I said. "It would've
"I didn't think it was right. I saw you almost every day. We were always working. I didn't want to interfere in your life."
At first we just lay next to each other and talked. She
held my hand and told me how depressed the local economy
was. She couldn't find a summer job. She thought there might be one for a typist at a local agricultural goods office, opening up in a week or two. It was going to be more than a summer job. She was going to take that year off, after all. She planned to work for half of it and then travel. She was scared to death. She said she was glad I was there.
I don’t think I said much. I wanted to hear that music of her Welsh. I asked her to teach me some things. "Oh, please," she laughed: "It's something you use with your grandparents. The language of a defeated people." But finally she spoke me a phrase.
After a while she rose and said, “A little music?” She
went to a homely, ancient radio and tuned it to the BBC.
This was her manner.
I can tell you every song that played. First was
"Friends," a superb Beach Boys tune all but unknown in
America but a big hit in Britain:
We've been friends now for so many years,
We've been together through the good times and the
Then there was this nutty number called "Forever" by Roy
This movie ends tomorrow.
I need a new movie queen
And I wonder
Who she'll be
Next was an oldie, "Sally Go Round the Roses" by the
Finally, there came “Love Is Like an Itchin’ in My Heart” by the Supremes.
“Oh, I love this one,” Gwyn said, hair in her eyes.
With a lot of songs, you hear them all the time without taking in their real meaning. This time, we got it loud and clear. After an inexpert start, we had found our way. Credit Diana Ross, not me, for bringing Gwynneth Davies to the pitch. Whoever it was, by the end of the song Gwyn was holding me tight and calling my name, as musical a refrain of Roger as you could wish.
Harriett Gleeson notwithstanding, I count that lunchtime as my first such moment. It was an act of teaching, of mercy. It was overcast Welsh light falling over Gwyn in her grateful, unguarded splendor.
“Damn I’m glad you didn’t let Giorgio touch you,” I said.
I never got it quite said that afternoon. I can say now what it is, with the crystalline memory of Gwyn’s unwitting magnificence in my head: I didn’t want her to feel about herself the way I felt about myself. If only she could know how I saw her that moment – so lovely I could have wept – she would have thrown all that away and begun the next moment, and the rest of her life, strong and clear.
“You remember all those questions about religion?" she said. "I don't think I'll be worrying about that so much any more."
Actually, I knew damn well that both of us would worry about it for the rest of our lives – also that she believed what she said full force, and so I smiled.
It being time to speak in poetry, I said to Gwyn, "For your sake, I'm going to make sure I stay interested in everything." That wasn't bad, was it? It's what I felt, anyway.
We held each other for a long while. We did so to cement the message that had passed from each to the other. We did so to make up for a shy year, to say the wait was no waste. Beyond everything else, we held each other against the probability that we would never see each other again.
I boarded the bus, but as it struggled through the middle of Wales, among the cloudy shoulders of mountains, I struggled to get used to the spectacle of total and temporary devotion.
I must have gotten to the gym about seven minutes
before game time. Outside, Margaret was sitting in the open
door of the van; she was holding Susan holding a bottle.
Dennis was inspecting the moss, which, having discovered it
was summer, was flowering.
Margaret took one look at my face and cried, "You've been to Wales! Did you do it? Come on now. Did you? You did! You did! You did it, did it, did it," she sang to Susan, dancing in a little circle.
Susan echoed "Did it, did it, did it."
"Oh, God, Roger, you made that Welsh girl happy. Did
you get her to come? You'd better have."
"Coming isn't everything," I repeated. I had learned this line by heart and was assured by everyone that it was true.
"Sometimes it's bloody everything," she told me. "Ah,
but you did! I knew it."
She was really startled by something. Perhaps it was
the fact that at that last line my face sort of caved in.
"Don't worry, Roger,” she said. “The whole thing was real.”
"Listen," I said, "can we talk a minute?"
"You have to go in."
The weather sure can change quickly in England. Five
minutes ago it was late July; now it felt like winter.
"God, I can't," I said.
"Well, if you've got something to tell me," she said,
"don't. Whatever it is, I'll be fine. Everything will be." Her face – grown so familiar I could read her undercurrents – was uncertain, fearful, and determined.
I went in, directly on to the court. Many athletes feel
that one should refrain from – well – just refrain in order to
keep one's "edge" in competition. I used to think this was a
superstition, but maybe they're right. If I have played a
more wretched game of basketball in my life, I hope no one
ever tells me. It would be a comfort to know all witnesses
to that game have died. I traveled. I stepped out of bounds.
I tripped and fell. I fouled and fouled. I rifled the ball
all over Gloucestershire. Forget about shots. They bounced
here, there, anywhere. Any time I shot, the circumference of
the basket shrank instantly to about three inches. I believe
I scored two points total.
The climax of the whole night, maybe the whole season,
oh, all right, the whole year, was when I came up behind a
Gloucestershire guy dribbling up court, reached around and
tapped the ball forward out of his hands. The ball was going
to Victor, so I sprinted down court. Victor threw the ball
in my direction – but very high, so that I had to jump hard
to keep it from going out of bounds. At the top of my leap,
I grabbed the ball and tossed it back in – but my inertia
tilted me to the horizontal, and I fell six feet, landing
smack on my back and butt.
"Ohhhhh," cried the crowd, for
they knew it hurt. Cruel snickers flickered like chickadees
around a feeder.
I came back to the bench. Neil was staring at me as
though he had unwittingly put a stranger into the game.
quiet, you," I said to the laughing Margaret.
We finished thirteen and six – sparkling, if not
stellar. We probably could have won one or two of the ones
we lost, but with the rest, there simply was no way this
side of a suspension of all known laws of physics. From time
to time, I'd run into an American kid on the other team who
was living the same dream – former hopeless case turned into
a, well, not star exactly, but, well, a player. "We can
always tell our kids," we said.
Basketball has changed in Europe now. Everyone plays,
and the American style of practicing hard, playing to win,
wearing your game face, being all you can capitalistically
be, is now the global style. Last time I was abroad I caught
a game between the national teams of France and Spain. What I saw told me that the world now has the techniques, if not yet the tradition. Basketball doesn't mean the same thing over there. There are some great players – there always were, except they didn't know how to dribble – and they have
skills. Guys from Ghana, Mexico, Latvia, Ukraine, and
Germany are playing in the NBA, most as sixth men. My day of gentleman ineptitude has gently faded.
I would be returning to a place where everybody was
better than me, and I knew it. I'd miss this charmed, shabby
year, a bit more than other years.
At Heathrow about a half hour before departure, I was
staring at my ticket and realizing that in fact Neil would
not be paying me the rest of my money. "Ran into some cash
flow difficulties," he'd said three days before, when I'd
last seen him, "but give me your particulars and I'll put it
in your hands if I have to go to the airport to do it." With
twenty-six minutes to go, no Neil. I thought of Bengt, Victor, and the rest.
I stared at the queue shuffling to file onto the plane, and it took a few seconds to realize that I was staring at Margaret. I hadn't recognized her at first because normally her hair had that Mum's-been-with-the-bairns-all-day look.
"I came to apologize for my husband," she said. "I'm
afraid he has nothing to pay you with."
"How about the others?"
"They got their money," she said.
"So that's good."
"I feel terrible," she said, with the e in terrible getting the spacious Irish treatment. "Neil is forever doing things like this, and then he wonders why people are disappointed in him."
I wasn't really hearing her. I was noting that a dress
and lipstick transformed her.
"Disappointed," I said.
"Mmmm," she said.
"Where are the kids?"
"Oh. They say goodbye. They're with Neil. He was mad at
me for going, so I told him just to stay with them. 'I simply must apologize to that poor boy you've done out of his money,' I said."
"I'll be OK," I said.
"You will," she stated. "Me too, Roger.”
She let the airport roar a few seconds before she followed with: “When I make a promise, I mean to keep it, even if keeping it hurts. Even if it means years of hurting. Even if the promise was the wrong thing. Know what I
"Yes," I said.
"Even when things aren't the best, you find other things. To
balance them out. Compensations."
Nothing I had heard, nothing that had happened to me
all that year, hollowed me out more than those words. I realized what woman I had in front of me. So I got up and clutched my bag to go.
She'd gone already. Heathrow is an endless place. Many,
many people. Shuffling along with the queue, I was already
picturing the guards at customs, my neighbor in the seats,
my first glimpse of the East Coast.
And there she was again. Margaret, I mean, who said,
"Wait, you," and shocked me before becoming again part of
the hushed roar of the airport. Her fresh mouth had
pressed against mine and had said, "That's what it's like.
Now you know."
Five last things. Gwyn and I wrote to each other for
the next years. She finished her degree at East Anglia
and got a job. Her letters became occasional, marking a
marriage, births, christenings, and holidays. After a while,
a long while, I became aware that we did not write any more.
On the day I realized it, I got a pencil and some paper and
started writing this tale.
Margaret still writes, letters designed to keep me at ocean's length.
And I am still great friends with Ahmed. He has asked me to be present at the christening of his baby, and soon I will fly to some sandy, hot country to be there. I can’t wait.
A man on the plane came up to my seat and produced a card announcing him as Jesse Younger. "I saw you play a little this summer," he said, "and your style of play is perfect for the Washington All-Stars."
"What?" I said. "Those guys who always lose to the
"Yep," Jesse Younger said. "And hey, they've actually
won twice in all history. Anyway, if you want a tryout, call
I put his card in my wallet. Then I lost the wallet.
Back at SUNY Binghamton, I rejoined the Engineering Department intramural team, and a few guys remarked that I had improved a little. The team was as dreadful as ever. Here we were again, playing the Black Students Union. We were on a hot streak: they led by only 43-19. My man was Byram Hills, who had been named Best Intramural Player last year (no mean accomplishment). He had the ball, and I tensed to defend him.
Dribbling his high, disdainful dribble, Byram looked at me with those heavy eyelids, whose message was he would do whatever he pleased. Nothing I could do about it: he was about to end the dream. In his slow, soft voice he welcomed me on behalf of all America, with a truth that reminded me how it felt to be home again:
“God,” he said, “you suck.”