I go out there when I need to celebrate. When I want to feel a rush. I also go out there when something’s nagging at me, pulling at my subconscious. I was on that court a lot. It’s left a mark. That’s where I went the morning after I put her toothbrush in a plastic bag, folded her sleepwear, and left both in a tote bag just inside my building entrance. I know the court well.
The rubber of your soles would melt if you pushed too hard against the scorching summer concrete. Triangles, diamonds, circles—it didn’t matter what was on the bottom of your shoes. Gone in two pivots and a jump. There are pairs in my closet where the bottoms are smooth now, like you could slide down your hallway with them.
I don’t mind having to buy shoes every six or so months. It was worth it. Every time I dribbled the ball and it hit the ground, I felt a bit lighter. Like the ball transferred my stress to the world. There was something about setting your own rhythm for once, hearing your own beat.
It’s not just shoes that end up in the closet or tossed in a bin. Every ball sees the end eventually. They come hard and grippy from the factory. Over time, slick dark brown gives way to a matte beige. A bit of leather scraped off every time it comes down on the court. I’d hold the ball and see the pockmarks in its skin. Gone like the rubber on my shoes. I leave a little more of me on that court each time.
It was after I returned from one of my sessions, from meditating the only way I know how, that she decides. Emma’s sitting at the kitchen table and I’m pouring myself a cold glass of water. I take it with me to the table and notice she’s playing with her pen, rolling it between her fingertips. There’s a sheet in front of her, and I see numbers, a couple of them underlined. We’ve fought about that type of stuff before. She grew up in a different type of household.
I can’t remember what exactly she points out. It’s stupid, right. You’d think the crack in the dam would haunt you. But all that comes to mind is Emma murmuring, “I’m only saying this because I love you.” I might have said something to her before that. It had been a hot day at the park. Then she says, “I just want you to succeed.”
I’m so tired at that point. It’s been a month since my last paycheck. My reward for wiping the detritus of meals from polished wood, seeing glimpses of my face in the reflection. I’m happy with what I have—all I really need is a ball and net. But she wants more. We didn’t have these talks back when we were in college, when we’d stay up late into the night together, talking giddily about what would come next.
I look into the deep, brown eyes that often gaze at me from the other side of the pillow.
“Are you going to leave me if I don’t?”, I say.
Something comes into her eyes. They blink. They become two overflowing ponds, and I’m standing by her side, my lips pressing against the streams.
I liked going early so I could have that sweet concrete all to myself. The echo of the bounce reserved for my ears. At the start, my dribbling would follow a slow, steady beat. If you put your head to the ground, you’d be listening to a resting heart. Then it’d get fast, even erratic. My hand would become a blur moving up and down, until the ball was rolling away and I was sitting down against the fence.
Next to the court there was a playground, and in the middle there were painted dolphins, jets of water spraying from their mouths. Underneath, neighborhood kids would jump and play. They couldn’t get enough. Where the water made a puddle, they’d sit and roll around. You’d watch this, and you’d know the water kept a secret. If you danced in the drizzle, it would be revealed. When I was out of sweat I’d walk by the dolphins, but only enough to feel a light mist.
It’s a nice park overall, by New York standards. To have the dolphins, a playground, and the court. There’s also a taco truck next to it, and every now and then a piquant scent drifts down to the court, full of cilantro, lime, and seared steak. I catch a whiff of it now—it’s the morning crowd ordering, probably off to construction—when I’m walking over, passing by the resting dolphins.
As I enter through the court’s wire entrance, I recognize a man outside on the sidewalk. He’s a neighborhood regular I’ve called Pleats. He’s a bit off, but friendly. He doesn’t beg and whine like the others. I still remember the first thing he said to me when I first moved here: “Suh, ain’t it nice out? Don’t mind me, I work fifty-fo years here. Juss enjoyin the sunshine now. Aintcha happy?” He’d wear a loose camp shirt and pleated corduroy slacks that always looked freshly ironed. His pants always stood out, not the usual flowing athletic shorts or sagging denim.
He’d smile too, unlike the others that drifted by you in the park or bodega. Always seeking something. They wore clothes that were tight, and their skin was too, stretched over muscle and bone, all of it jutting out from beneath like something was trying to get out. They weren’t afraid of getting close, and you didn’t want to touch them, knew their skin was moments away from splitting, and were afraid they’d infect you and make you unclean. When they were close you could see their stained teeth and rosy eyes like two angry suns.
As I begin to dribble, Pleats turns to watch. He grins at me but doesn’t say a word. I don’t mind it when he watches. I don’t know what he sees, but he’s quiet. In the afternoon there’d be rubbernecks clinging to the outside of the fence, ooh-ing and aah-ing at games. Save the applause for the actors.
I don’t know how Pleats stays out here all the time. I saw a boy, maybe seven or eight, bring him a bottle of water once. Neither of them said a word. Pleats looked at him for a moment, like he was searching for something. Then his gaze left, and that loose grin of his returned. I watched the boy walk back to a waiting woman on the corner. She hugged him.
Pleats glances to the right, and I realized I missed someone as I entered. He’s curled up on a bench under the shade, facing away from me. He’s wearing a bright blue shirt with black sneakers. I can see a piece of gum smeared against one of his soles like a pat of butter.
As my next shot hits the rim, he turns around to look at me and sits up. I know what’s coming next and already resent him for it. This was my time. My release. I hated sharing the ball with others, like they were owed one at this court. The only time I didn’t mind it was when kids from the nearby playground wanted to shoot. They’d have to use every part of their body to get the ball high enough. Everything would be out of proportion, their knees, elbows, and necks winding back to launch the ball. They’d use every ounce of themselves to make it happen.
The man on the bench stares at me as I dash around the court, passing invisible opponents. He shakes his leg. One of my shots is completely off, and the ball rolls near his bench. He walks over to pick it up. It’s so clear he wants to join, that despite the urge to continue shooting, I feel tempted to offer him a few shots. It seems like the nice thing to do.
I’m about to tell him when I start to think about something that happened at the bodega across the street. A woman had opened the door for me and bowed. Her eyes were a hazy red, like fire glowing behind smoke. There was something like hope in them. I went in and ordered the smoothie I wanted. I told the man behind the counter to fill a small cup along with my own. As I walked out, I gave the cup to the woman standing outside. She smiled, and I strolled away feeling light and airy. I was sipping on the icy blend when I heard something bounce off the sidewalk. I tried not to look back, but my eyes went on their own. A carpet of liquid strawberry and banana covered her slippers. The cup was rolling away. She was cursing. Her face was sour and her eyes were ablaze.
I motion for the ball.
“Thanks”, I say, before he’s passed it back. He throws the ball to me and returns to the bench. I keep on shooting, and he continues to watch. My eyes stay on the basket. The ball hits the back of the rim and flys out. I wonder how long he’d been laying there before I came.
“Want to play ones?”, he calls out.
“No, I’m just here to shoot,” I say.
He stands up and gives me a confused look, complete with a sham of a smile. The next shot misses the rim completely, hitting the backboard. I wince.
“One game?” He runs to grab the ball before it starts to roll.
“Nah,” I say, shaking my head. He stares at me and passes the ball back—a little too hard, a little too off center. The man looks at Pleats, who’s been watching.
“Can you believe these folk?”, he says. “Coming here, not sharing the court?” I don’t think Pleats understood any of that, but he raises his shoulders and hands. His shirt comes up for a moment and I catch a glimpse of a stomach dotted with hairs.
I straighten my own shirt. “Alright, we’ll play. Just three points.”
I let him start out with the ball. Guests first. He drives toward the basket and I’m able to keep up with each step, easily. He stops abruptly near the backboard, with myself still stuck to him like super glue. He pivots once and I stay wrapped around him. There’s no way he’s getting a shot off. He suddenly thrusts into my chest with his shoulder. I’m pushed back and he tosses the ball into the net.
“That’s a foul,” I exclaim, trying to regain my breath.
He rolls his eyes, and I’m back in the restaurant during my last day, looking at a middle-aged woman who’s put on a little too much makeup, the ends of her eyebrows sharp enough to pierce skin. I’m looking at the underbelly of her eyes, a tangle of small veins trickling upwards.
“Are you kidding me? My chicken was terrible. Honestly, I think it went bad,” the man next to her says. I look at his plate in my hand, which is nearly empty except for half gnawed-upon chicken wings.
“I’m sorry to hear that, sir. I’ll tell the kitchen,” I say. I move to take his wife’s plate. She rolls her eyes again.
“That’s it? You’re sorry?”, the wife says.
“I’m not paying for this,” the man adds.
“You ate all the food. You should have told us before you ate everything,” I say, holding out his plate. The man’s nose crinkles.
He says, “You’re going to make me pay for this?” Louder this time. I look at his face closely, inspecting his aquiline nose and beady eyes. I hear his wife mutter something. I show him the plate again, this time right under his nose. The plate is up in the air, followed by wings, knife, and fork—and I am too.
There is a moment of suspension as they float upwards, seeming to resist gravity. It is quiet. I glance at the wife, her immaculate eyebrows stretching into her forehead, and back at the man’s contorted face, seething with anger and something that could have been surprise. Then, the noise returns. There is the shatter of porcelain breaking into small pieces, the tinny clatter of cutlery hitting the floor. There is yelling behind me. I am still gazing into the twisted visage, wondering if everything will be the same.
The ball is gently tossed by my feet, spinning away. “This is street ball, nobody’s calling fouls,” he says, and as I look up, I see he is smirking.
He squats deeply and slaps the ground twice with both hands, raising his outstretched arms wide. He stares at me intensely. I see the white of his eyes. I’m sick of it. Holding the ball tightly, I feint right and immediately shift my weight into stepping left. He leaps to my right and with one hard dribble I pass him in the other direction. I fly toward the basket. I jump and my left arm extends to lift the ball up and against the backboard. I’m floating. Then something wide and flat lands across my eyes. My neck is bending backward. I feel fingernails on the side of my face, and then hot concrete underneath my back and legs.
“Run it back,” says a voice from the clouds. I can hear the ball bouncing away from me. There are footsteps coming closer. I lunge. We’re on the ground and I’m using my head to pin his chest down. I feel my fists strike deeply into the sides of his stomach, the fat around his belly seeming to cushion each blow. I lift my head for a breath and see Pleats sitting on the bench looking at us. Searching. I squirm upstream until I feel his stomach firmly under mine.
My knees dig into his sides, and I can’t believe it, but I’m thinking of Emma. I’d be in this position, draped over her, except against a bed instead of the unforgiving ground. I’d lean a bit back on my knees so she could comfortably breathe. She liked it when I used my legs to lightly squeeze her torso. I’d lean forward, tilting my head to press my face against her neck. She’d be still. I’d breathe deeply, and it’d sound like waves crashing against the beach.
My legs tighten their hold, trying to crush him, yet all I can hear is myself gasping for air. I put all my weight onto his chest. His blue shirt has rolled up so I can feel skin slick with sweat, his limbs flailing beneath me, like a giant fish trying to get back to water. Then there’s a hand gripping my shoulder, and another wrapped around my wrist. I’m frozen and I struggle. A hard, heavy shape from below connects with my chin and I’m thrown back. My hands grab at something, anything. I feel thick corduroy cloth, and my fingers squeeze the coarse ridges.
I realize I left my ball behind when I reach the dolphins, but I don’t feel like going back. The dolphins continue to spout as I walk past them. I keep my distance. My knees ache with every step, and I can feel the tears in my skin that will sting soon in the shower, the bruises that won’t appear until tomorrow morning. I am in my building, slowly ascending, looking for my apartment door each time I turn the corner. Once inside, I walk to the bathroom.
I take the bottom of my shirt and pull it above my head, and the cotton, damp with my sweat and his, clings to my skin. For a moment I’m wrapped in darkness, trapped, feeling myself pull and being pulled, and then I’m out.