Most week days, at twelve twenty-five, I clump down the wooden stairs from my office to the gym floors where there is a big, main room for classes and the smaller Tall Room. Lunchtime is my workout time. The majority of the week, I play with other coaches and members in the midday class in the main room, but on Tuesdays and often Thursdays, I stay in the Tall Room to workout alone. Those days I concentrate on isolated lifting, and though my programming and super sets have purpose within the context of preparing for another bodybuilding contest, this alone time is more than that. It feels familiar and important. It’s a sacred, lost habit I began purely through instinct when I was a lonely and rough kid looking for escape.
As I started to train alone like this again, it felt like a return to a cocooned kingdom where I am – have always been — protected and thrilled. This insulated movement was the exact means in which I repaired my younger self. It was how I had discovered a glimmer of potential, not as an athlete, but as a girl of worth. Before, I was unsure, untold – told otherwise. And even when being a profoundly introspective athlete had rescued me as a kid, it was a feeling – a habit – I had almost forgotten as a thriving adult. I had forgotten that working out while lost so deeply inside myself had once been my lifeline. I had forgotten it like amnesia after an escape. What I’ve recently remembered is that in this space I am everything I ever wanted to be. No one tells me otherwise. Even now as I work out in a parallel, connected room to the midday class where their energy is kidlike and fun, once I put my headphones on and pull my ball cap low, I dive into the grind, my meditation; I’m back deep in my house of discovery. I enter that place that I had consecrated and deemed untouchable and holy a lifetime ago.
As a child, I didn’t believe that the turmoil surrounding me was meant to drag me in and suck me dry, though there were times when I tittered on the cusp of destruction. Giving in to violence, drugs, complete rage-filled despair sometimes felt an easier option. But I was a child universally protected within the eye of a storm. Somehow I knew not to move much, or create waves or protest or fight too hard. Too much of that would have sucked me in, and I would have drowned in self ruin once I was swirling with the storm. Mainly, as a kid – and what was inescapable — was that I worried. I worried so much. I worried before I knew that it was worry. I worried about her. I worried about her around me. I worried about her leaving me alone, which was a lot. I worried if I was strong enough to survive the chaos and the crushing loneliness of the storm’s eye. Eventually I quietly found safety in sports. I was labeled the athlete, which meant the label was meant only for me. No one else in my family was an athlete. And being an athlete became my world, my encapsulated refuge. Alone, with a basketball, I saved myself.
The raggedy basketball courts of Lincoln Middle School looked like they were at the bottom of a basin. There was a steep incline from the shitty, gravel track down to the courts. The skateboarders regularly bombed down that hill and then swerved to avoid gapping cracks and buckled asphalt and the basketball games in progress. The backside of the courts was surrounded by buildings, buildings I wove in and out of miserably during the week. On the weekends I didn’t pay them any attention – only the courts mattered. But after hours of play, the late-day sun ducked down behind the Science Building, and shadows were cast. It was an instant reminder to get home soon.
When I saw the sudden, dark rectangles appear, my shoulders slouched. I had next. I had been waiting to play this last game for thirty minutes. I was willing the teams to stop arguing and finish the game already, but because we had all been there since the sun was directly above, everyone was getting chippy. No graze went uncalled. Routine defense became too rough. I knew the guys would call it a day soon. Still, I gripped my knees tightly and gritted my teeth every time I heard, “Foul!” “No way, man …” And on. I looked at the sky. Blue, but the track was now doused in an orange haze.
I got up and limped over to my ball. My hips had locked up from sitting too long and from playing too many hours. I wiped the imbedded pebbles off my shorts and went to an empty court. My rubber ball was lopsided. It had been declared unusable for any of the pick ups games, which was fine by me. The ball was a joke, but with the day waning, I needed it. It was all I had. The guys started to slunk off the court, shuffling their feet from exhaustion, mumbling about the last plays. A singular bounce of a ball now reverberated off the basin of the courts. I stood near the basket and looked up at the rim with only part of a broken metal net. I shot the ball off the square so it would drop directly into the hoop. It wasn’t the same full chime like when the steel net was complete, but it still sounded like all-encompassing, tinny satisfaction. I caught with my left, shot with my right. Over and over. Each soft ching of the chain pumped air in my sails.
I wonder if she’s home.
That thought crept in, but I continued. I caught and shot, ching. If I didn’t stop the motion, I had a chance to sort out the worry – the endless, breath-taking worry — with the rhythm of my shooting metronome. I could at least hold it at bay. Just shoot. I’m ok here. My shoulders relaxed. I felt automatic. Unbeatable, untouchable. Me and the ball and this shooting. No one hurts me here, not during my thousand shots. The ball was on an oval orbit and I was an unbreakable piece – important even — kept in place by triumphant force, revitalized with each turn.
I switched sides. The first shot I took with my left hand rolled off the rim and the ball took an errant bounce because of the lopsidedness, and the fellas laughed as I chased the ball bouncing this way and that. “Girl, that ball is the worst!” “Chuck it in the trash!” I waved them off and laughed, too. The fellas doled out fair amounts of shit to every regular, and when they started capping on me, I felt like one of them. I had beat back their skepticism early with a few fifteen-footers in their face, and a few stolen balls when they were being lazy and underestimating a fourteen-year-old girl who balls all day, every Saturday (and Sunday mornings and skips school on Monday or Wednesday to make the runs at Lincoln Park); recognizing that my constant presence could have been to keep something in check or release something or escape dangers we never shared, like maybe some of them were also doing, and within our unspoken desperation these games meant something more than we wanted to express. All of this made these guys unwilling champions for me. They gave me space and some respect. Not an overwhelming amount, but I felt a distant comradery with this scraggly pack of mediocre ballers who wandered into the basin from all corners for a myriad of reasons.
I shot left, caught right – ching. The rhythm returned and I shot over and over again until the rim darkened and the basket lost its focus in the fading light. I stopped the ball with both hands and pumped the peeling, overly-orange ball with my palms. I looked beyond the track to the street, my route back. Head down, ball in the crook of my arm, I got my backpack and trudged out of the basin.
When I train alone now, I am simply paying homage to an early rescue. It’s a return to where I had felt most cared for even if, as a child, I was the source of that care. When I put my headphones on and pull my hat low in the Tall Room now, it is still so welcoming and safe, I feel I am visiting my childhood home, my safe and loving version of home.