It’s a gay league if that calms my twelve-year-old self a bit.
All through my years of school gym classes whenever we had that annual three-week volleyball unit, I became physically inactive. I sat on the bench. I remained on the bench. I practiced acts of chivalry, allowing all the girls—and well, yes, the guys—to go ahead of me into the rotation. It worked well for all. People who actually wanted to play got more time on court and I gave myself a primitive manicure, gnawing on cuticles and biting off hangnails. (Okay, it didn’t work out well at all for my hands, but I couldn’t just sit on them. What if a stray ball came my way and I suffered a Marcia Brady moment? I looked bad enough, fearful and scrawny, without suffering a broken nose from some unfortunate bench incident.)
On rare occasions, a teacher would make me start on the court or would shoo me off the bench. On the gym floor, I did my best to step out of the way of any approaching ball. (Why couldn’t I transfer this skill to dodgeball games?!) Stephen Kreshni said “Mine”, didn’t he? Gymnasiums have terrible acoustics. It didn’t take long for teachers to see the hopelessness of the situation. Or maybe they saw the pained look on my face as I slouched on the gym floor and stared at my still bright white running shoes. (As a kid, I don’t think I ever wore out a pair.) I went back to warming the bench. Less agony for all involved.
I’m not listening to twelve-year-old self these days. There’s plenty of distance between us. I have ten normal length fingernails and I’m not so scrawny, thank god. I’ve even done this gay volleyball league thing before, twenty years ago.
Admittedly, the first season didn’t go so well. Old insecurities resurfaced on the third night as I bumbled bump after bump and it became clear that my teammates opted for a game of Keep Away. Nothing was “mine” even when I surprised myself by calling it. I headed home that night, walking with my trademark slouch and I didn’t return for the rest of the season. Weirdly, I signed up again the next season and played a couple seasons after that. I think I was that desperate to find a date and I hated gay bars that much.
Four weeks ago, on my first night back in the same high school gym in Vancouver’s West End, I struggled with my nerves. My stomach ached, my legs wobbled and my arms tensed. My bumps soared in unanticipated directions, my blocks were mistimed pogo jumps and my sets lacked oomph. I said, “Sorry.” Over and over again. I worked up a sweat, not from physical activity, but from an outpouring of angst.
But I played on. There were no benches. There was no time off the court. I forced myself to smile after every point. And somehow I improved. Nothing miraculous, but I wasn’t the worst player in the gym. Probably not even second worst. This was a beginner league, after all, my niche in the larger gay league. I joined this year as part of my efforts to reconnect with people in Vancouver. I needed to take an active role in rebuilding some semblance of a social life. And so I have returned, attending three of the first four sessions, only missing one occasion due to a trip to Texas.
This past Friday, I was tempted to bail. It had been a stressful day of work and I had to race to complete urgent tasks before making the ferry back to Vancouver. I forced myself to go and I faked that smile again, walking into the gym late, knowing I hadn’t made any connections with the other players. I got changed and found my place on the court. On the previous week, my skills seemed to regress, but I was back to playing better, surprising my teammates who clearly had low expectations of me.
Midway through the night, I made a play that really got me noticed. It wasn’t my spiking. I didn’t suddenly switch to a dazzling overhand serve. Nor did I dive for a play and keep it in play. Someone on the other side of the net hit a wild ball—Yay! Not me!—that sailed out of bounds and looked to interrupt play on the neighboring court. I ran to retrieve the ball and I got it on time. (If only there were more running in volleyball.) Unfortunately, my left hand met the ball on the rise after it took its first bounce on the gym floor and I felt a surge of pain in my pinky finger. I’d jammed it, I thought. Game over for me for the night. Only when I glanced down, it was more than a jam; my finger was a stunted, bent-up version of its former self. Broken? Dislocated?
I held up my hand as I raced off-court to a chorus of gasps. Yeah, it looked gnarly. This was my moment to stand out. A mangled finger was not as bad as a Marcia moment, but as I gathered up my belongings in order to dash to Emergency, a crowd gathered. I started to panic. I offered full disclosure: “I faint easily. Anything medical can do it.” Now the sheen of sweat on my brow was far more troubling than anything arising from athletic ineptitude. A kind colleague called a cab and waited with me outside. A true gentleman. In my state of anxiety, I don’t know if I thanked him enough, but he embodies everything I’ve sought in trying to connect with gay men—a kinder, more compassionate soul. In those minutes, I felt a little less lonely. Through the awkwardness and the pain, I became a little more hopeful.
It only took three appearances for everyone in the beginner league to know my name. Or my nickname, at least. I’m the Finger Guy. Maybe this is the start to making some connections. But who knows when I’ll be back on court again. I am fortunate to have only dislocated it. Nothing broken. I fought back tears of gratitude when the ER doctor pulled it back into shape. Routine to him perhaps, but miraculous to me. I have to see a hand doctor tomorrow. (Is that a specialty?! Dr. Madge?) Yes, I shall return to volleyball. I am determined.
I’m thinking my twelve-year-old self, while far more timid, might have been a whole lot smarter.