I let the dusty parabola that separated the hard and sandy playground from the patches of coarse grass along its borders blur into a tired mess of yellowed greens and muddy reds.
It wasn’t an unusually warm day. The weather reports had predicted an overcast sky and possible rains. Yet, the sun shone defiantly overhead, melting the snow on the mountains in the distance into clear, cold streams of fresh water.
Watching from one end of the compact football ground as familiar people raced for the makeshift football, calling for passes, cheering, cursing, cold water sounded heavenly.
I was playing goalkeeper. Mind, I wasn’t spacing out. I was merely making idle observations of the most ordinary happenings in my vicinity while some players strived to retrieve the ball that had rolled a little downhill. Some others fought playfully about nothing important or specific.
All I really wanted to do was to go back to the little shed beside the ground and immerse myself in some quiet reading. It wasn’t like I particularly disliked football. I quite liked practicing passes when we weren’t playing a game. Without the guilty fear of holding the team back, solely because of my own liabilities, I could go all out and mess up as much as humanly possible while trying to learn how to better control the ball. It was fun. Saira would cheer a merry encouragement when the ball slipped way out of control while Ren amused anyone who would listen with a stream of mild, teasing insults. We all had a good laugh. I felt acknowledged if not cared for.
But this wasn’t the same. For the first few minutes of the game, I had played forward. Determined to do some minor good and eager for the light chill to break, I set out. I was teamed up with Saira, Jerin and a couple more of friendly folks.
I tried to get the ball off our side of the pitch and into theirs. I really did. The sky was so blue, it was blinding. I chased the ball around the field, trying to squeeze in edgeways, maybe get a pass, maybe not. I was prone to missing passes. In fact it was rare that I could get one right. Failing miserably at trying to reach the ball from any side, and reluctant, almost afraid, to call for a pass, I resorted to nervously circling the crowd.
I was struggling to figure out exactly what was going on with the game when Jerin called me out to “pass back”. Before I knew it, the ball was hurtling down the field towards me. Momentarily numbed by panic, I watched through the clouds of dry dust that rose in slow motion, the bewildered faces of my fellow players, both allies and rivals. His intention was quite clear. I wasn’t exactly their star player, and drew little attention from the other team. If, by some miracle, I managed to pass that well…
I had no such luck. I managed a direct hit to the air right beside the ball and nearly slipped on solid ground trying to chase it down. Being the exasperatingly prideful person I sometimes am, I took it upon myself to rescue the ball from where it looked perfectly smug with the other team. I hurried after it, making up my mind to get to the ball, even if I broke my nose trying.
Right in front of our team’s goalpost, Ren mocked our defense, winding his way through the attempted kicks, laughing effortlessly all through. Saira, goalkeeper and zealous, moved frantically. It was tense.
Thanks to the teams being greatly uncoordinated, most of the players turned into an overly passionate cheering squad. Harmless. I rushed quickly past. I made my way as fast as I could, which, of course, wasn’t fast enough, and tried to stand between the ball and the goalpost. I hadn’t considered that it meant that I’d be blocking Saira’s line of sight. Saira shouted for me to move, but in that split second, the ball got through.
A cheer broke out in the otherwise still air. The ball rolled downhill and stayed there, perhaps hoping to be forgotten for a while. I was back at square one. I stood awkwardly by the goalpost, silent, but only because Saira had forbidden me from apologising during the game.
“Hey,” said Saira gently. Was that pity in her voice? Disappointment? Sympathy? Exhaustion? It didn’t matter. I was disappointed and frustrated with myself.
“Do you want to switch for a while?” True, I was out of breath and would probably do better after a break. In any case, I wanted to get a drink of water before the game started again. “Sure!” I tried to sound grateful. And that’s how I had become goalkeeper.
Soon, we were back in the game. I remember neatly blocking a goal or two, hurting my wrist a little at some point. I remember letting in a goal. In my defence, there was some well coordinated back and forth passing; I couldn’t have blocked both sides at once.
Still, it was fun, watching intently for the ball through the dry, reddish dust that blew across the ground. The aftertaste chill in the wind preceded the blending of the partly cloudy skies in hues of fulfillment and quietude.
Then again, perhaps it was only me. Watching my friends, old, new, and possible, as they called for passes, struggling to be heard over the cheerful chaos, I felt this wistful urge to laugh.
Not a hearty, honest laugh. Nothing that simple. It was the laugh that arose from the pure joy in being an accepted part, however sidelined, of this game, of this team, a part of the thrill of striving to win; a laugh that veiled the envy I felt as I watched, fascinated by the confident control of the ball, the synchronised effort to bring it to the other side or holding it back, the pleasure of guiltless participation. It was a laugh to disguise the tears that threatened to fall when they complimented my goalkeeping, warm words I hadn’t earned, frustration because I would never be as good as them, or even comparable, mainly because wouldn’t ever passionately crave it enough to try. Laughter, because I missed the love for a game that I never cared for, and probably never would.
So I laughed. I laughed like I couldn’t care less, yet, couldn’t possibly risk caring any more. I almost missed another goal. Not almost, I missed it. The cheers of the other team overlapped with my own. Saira patted my shoulder, “You’re doing great!” I thought I heard an undertone of disbelief.
“Are you okay?” she asked. She sounded genuinely concerned about my mental well-being. That was comforting. I kept laughing when I felt a tear run down my cheek. Then another. And another. I saw my bag with precious books sagging, lonely against a tree. I saw the ground, blinking in the dust, the loud and cheery bantering echoed in my head like strange and distant music. I saw Saira still beside me, now waving her hand in front of my nose. She looked comical, wide eyes, head tilted all the way to the right, scrunched up nose in an effort to frown. That really was something.
“Thank you. I’m doing great!” I replied quietly.
T. E. Pyrus