The chief advantage of living alone is that there are no witnesses. Nobody’s privy to my kitchen dance parties, or my wobbly push ups, or my naked breakfasts. I’m enjoying the latter at my laptop, when a dull throbbing pulls my attention from the screen. There’s a thin, savage welt branding my haunch: two inches, a jag to the right, and another before it trails off. Half a honeycomb marks the spot where my leg meets my ass – the meaty shield I’d turned towards the ball at the very last second.
Sharp kitchen knives, winter boots, my mother tongue. These were all things I knew I’d have to live without when I made the decision to move to Mexico. But soccer? This is the country that produced Hugo Sanchez, and El Zorro de Desierto, Jared Borgetti. Yet somehow seven months have passed, and not once have I laced up my cleats.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. I’d mooned around the edge of the estadio looking restless, but the players – fit teenage boys, sinewy as racehorses – had failed to take the hint. A teacher friend suggested I sub in with his girl’s team on Wednesdays after class, but if high school was hard the first time around, I couldn’t imagine going back at 40. And before I knew it, twenty-eight weeks had gone by and I hadn’t gotten a foot on the ball – until last night.
For many weeks, the main street in downtown Puerto Vallarta had been in flux. Early crews had cut out the cobblestones, punching fissures into the binding cement with jackhammers and pulling the stones free with their fingers. They left the road naked – a barren dirt strip – while they set the guides for wider, pedestrian-friendly sidewalks. Finally, only days ago, the crew returned to lay the fresh cement. With the addition of planters and a few painted benches, Basilio Badillo had been transformed into a boulevard. Or a soccer pitch.
The dusty ball slammed against the door of a street-level apartment and ricocheted through the narrow space between the building and the light post. The goalie stretched his body long, but his fingertips only grazed the stitches. He was all of 5 years old, unharmed, and smiling. I stared for a long moment, weighing my inhibitions against a two hundred and ten day soccer itch. The game always wins; I had to play.
A natural defender, I slid into my standard spot on the wing. The other team’s strikers – so alike they had to be brothers, maybe 7 and 9 - made a run up the side of the building. I jockeyed, looking to cut down the angle on this unfamiliar pitch. Tricky feet won out, and the kid easily shot the ball past my far side. For the next twenty minutes we battled in the street – me, my forward, and our tiny goalie against los hermanos and their keeper. These guys didn’t play defense. It was all in our half and almost all in their favour.
“Uno mas!” I shouted, indicating that the next goal would be my last. Los hermanos made a now-familiar run up my left side, effortlessly switching the ball between them. I’d seen this play from them before and I adjusted my position. When the strike came I was there. The ball shuttled off the kid’s foot and I turned, intercepting the shot backside in. It was an epic save – as epic as it can get when you’re scrimmaging three on three – and my grinning goalie ran off his line to share a ‘five (high for him; medium for me).
Our victory was short-lived; not another minute passed before they scored the final goal of the game. Breathless and sweaty, I’d run into the group for handshakes and stilted introductions. “Me llamo Keph,” I said, poking at my chest. Then, “Mañana?”
I press my fingers against the blister until it blanches. When I release the pressure, dark blood rushes to the surface revealing a pattern of discolouration on my skin. It’s going to bruise. “Awesome,” I say out loud, grinning. I open my work file, but I’m having a hard time concentrating. My stomach’s fluttery and I realize that for the first time since I arrived I’ve got game day jitters.
Día del Juego