The Soccer Banner
She paced the soccer field, wringing her hands, her eyes following her child. She kept yelling, “Go Blue Flames!” I dislike sports parents transferring their ambitions to their kids, but she was different. She had this nervous gait, and her eyes were scrambled and frantic.
There were four soccer games going, the first games of the season, and our field was in the farthest corner from the bathrooms and snack stand, void of shade. The opponents wore red uniforms. From the occasional restrained yells from the other team’s parents, I understood their name to be The Red Beasts. Their legs mixed with our teams’ legs creating a labyrinth of socks and cleats following the ball.
It was noon and the sun was glaring down on the grass, causing the illusion of a green halo, and all the colors, the reds, blues, and yellows of the soccer uniforms, throbbed in the sun.
I was trying to detach from the spectacle, but be present for my only son, the six-year-old standing idly next to the goalie, pushing his bangs from his face and swatting at gnats.
I won’t deny that some days I’m better at being a father then others. This particular day the kids seemed like midget freaks. I couldn’t bear their open faces and giant personalities and I was nostalgic for the infant days, somehow more contained and less fearsome.
The woman tried to sit on a wood bench, but she was up again in no time, hands in the air, “Go Flames!” — her voice despondent and tweaked with fright.
It wasn’t the typical parental show of enthusiasm masking an underlying deep and competitive spirit. I saw her wince. I got the feeling, if all the people weren’t around, she would be weeping. Her hands were red from the wringing of them. She played with her wedding band, screwing it around her finger.
The other parents lounged in their fold out chairs, underneath an oasis of umbrellas, including me: Professional types — doctors, lawyers, and financial advisors. We seemed like a reserved lot, sophisticated and just a touch cynical, but not enough to damage the kids. We were there for the kids. We had our coolers filled with water, Gatorade, and frozen orange slices.
I couldn’t help but wonder. Didn’t we all watch ourselves brushing our teeth in the morning, foam at mouth, and think, When will I die? Will my children be safe? How will I get through this day?
That’s what got to me. She wasn’t even trying to hide it. She was out there, pacing like a maniac, eyes scanning the field, turning every now and then a nervous, splotchy face to the parents at the sidelines. Her hair was tied in a ponytail and I could tell she had died it an auburn shade, but there was gray in it, as if she was tired of hiding her age and had neglected dying it for some time.
She was wearing shorts, nothing special, and a tank top with a shirt tied at her waist. She had on Birkenstocks. Her toes were painted red. She had a pear shape body, small breasts and waist, wide at the hips and legs. Her gait was clumsy and nervous. She reminded me of a giraffe although she wasn’t tall.
There were small trails of veins down her thighs and some firecracker capillaries in the hollows of her kneecaps. Don’t get me wrong. It didn’t bother me. On the contrary, my interest and attraction piqued. I don’t find a woman attractive unless she’s done some damage to her body. Britney Spears and the like, replicas of youthful beauty, spread out on magazine covers like candy, they bore me. I want the mystery of a woman who has lived. I want it to show on her.
A woman isn’t even interesting until she’s had a couple of kids. Of course, this is a secret. I don’t go telling people. I keep it to myself and I watch. I’m a bit of a coward, but I console myself with the knowledge that most of us are.
My wife was sitting next to me in the forest green fold out chair, a Diet Coke in her cup holder. She reached her hand over her chair and squeezed my hand. To a bystander, the gesture might have appeared affectionate, but I thought of it only as some kind of cue, and my body tensed in response.
“That’s Karen,” she said.
I snapped back to life — my children — my wife — the reasons I was spending a hot Saturday at the edge of the soccer field in the first place. My twin four-year-old daughters were fighting over a coloring book, snot visible at their nostrils. Sheila pulled the coloring book away, intoning the familiar rule, “You fight over it — I take it.”
They lost interest, their cries of protest giving way, and sauntered past me to investigate a soccer ball. They were wearing shorts and their legs, vulnerable, cream-colored, and wrinkled with baby fat, bowled me over. What is it about little girls?
“I told you about her,” Sheila continued. “They’re coming over. The Smiths. For the barbeque.” I looked at Sheila with a bewildered expression, a fearsome worry flaming that she had seen into my secret world by naming Karen as the object of my desire. I soon realized she was simply annoyed at the idea of her husband neglecting his weekend duties.
“The soccer banner,” she said, irritably. “We volunteered for the soccer banner. We’re going to finish it this afternoon while the kids play.”
Sheila likes other people’s kids. At least that’s what she claims. I have trouble simulating interest and affection for other parents’ children, whereas my own captivate me.
That’s why when Karen introduced her son Jake, tall for his age, already eying my son’s pack of Yu Gi Oh cards on the patio table, I smiled wide, shook his hand, and said, “Glad to meet you,” but I felt bad doing it.
I was more interested in his mother’s knees. They were chubby knees, expressive and wrinkled. Her black nylon shorts made her look as if she was going for a jog, and her thighs were large enough to touch even when she stood with her feet apart.
There was some upset over our golden retriever Lucy, due to Jake’s recent phobia of dogs, acquired after an unfortunate episode, never fully explained, with a neighboring terrier. Lucy is half-blind, half-deaf, and her bark is hoarse and unmotivated. I locked Lucy in an upstairs bedroom.
We have a nice house, with a kid-friendly back yard overlooking an arroyo. I enjoy showing it to visitors. This took some time and it broke the ice.
Bob, Karen’s husband, was mild mannered and shy. I could tell that he didn’t like barbeques and it made me fond of him in a sort of paternalistic way. He had a beard and mustache, and I was told that he was an economics professor. After a brief monologue about his job and the traffic to and from his college, he retreated to a chair near the blow up pool to supervise the kids as they splashed. I could tell he was more at home with the children then with the adults, and I left him sitting there, his hairy feet crossed at the ankles, flip-flops abandoned next to the pool.
Sheila and Karen were already cutting felt letters at the dining room table. When I entered the dining room, Karen set her scissors down and looked me in the eyes and it was as startling as a slap to the face. Her eyes were hazel but in the light of the dining room they looked dark green. She was nervous. A kind of hopeful longing radiated from her. Her eyes were keen and I felt them eating at me. She seemed to have this great desire for me to be at ease but it only made things worse.
It was hard for me to retain my nonchalant attitude with that kind of eagerness blaring at me, and I wanted to take her, right in front of my wife, and lay her down on the shiny oak of the dining room table, and feel her heartbeat against my chest.
Sheila was cutting an intricate flame pattern, and without looking up from the fabric, she said, “Honey, can you get Karen a drink?”
“What would you like?” I asked. My voice sounded creaky and unfamiliar. I felt like a fake. Karen was still looking at me. She was smiling a heartbreak smile, full of tenderness and needs. It was a smile that wanted peace of mind, but would never quite manage it.
Sheila piped in, still cutting her flame, in that married way of finishing what the other starts: “We have water, soda, juice, and beer.”
It wasn’t until the kids were dropping their hot dogs and corn on the grass, paper plates buckling, that I decided I must talk to Karen, alone, cowardice be damned. It was getting late. Tantrums were flaring, the sun was casting its last light, the banner was complete, and my chances were diminishing. I could hear Lucy’s faint cries from the upstairs bedroom.
Sheila and Bob were passing out ice cream sandwiches, hoping to postpone meltdowns, but ultimately adding to the inevitability with the explosive addition of sugar. Sheila held the box above her head and the kids leapt around her, chanting, “Ice cream! Ice cream! Ice Cream!”
Bob was trying to calm them with his professor voice, “Easy now. Calm down, everyone.”
Karen began picking up trash. She scanned the back yard for the garbage cans. I watched the flesh under her arm jiggle while she disposed of the plates, forks, and soda cans. Sheila shot me a severe look, full of directions. I began to help.
Karen gathered the condiments off the patio table. She was taking the items to the kitchen and I followed her.
Her back was to me, and she was washing the ketchup from its plastic bottle. The bottle had been enthusiastically squeezed at dinner by one of the twins, causing an eruption across the table.
I stood at her side and watched her arms move up and down the length of the bottle with a sponge. When she spoke, her voice was calm.
She said, “Sometimes, I can’t believe that this is my life. That I’m married. That I’m like everyone else. I look at my kid, and it’s like I’m waiting for his real mother to show up, but then I remember that it’s me. I’m his mom. On days like this, it takes everything for me not to just explode. Bob is used to it by now, but it can’t be easy for him. I don’t know how to live. That’s the problem. I pretend like I’m living, but is this the way a person lives? I see the way you look at me and I wonder. The only thing that helps is knowing that it will end, that I will come back to the living. I have to wait it out.”
I had assumed the reason she had only one child was infertility-related, but it struck me that it might be due to her nervous nature, or possibly a combination. I could hear the kids outside; animated voices chattering and peels of laughter. I opened my mouth to speak, but then thought the better of it. I wanted to pretend I hadn’t heard her, fade back in to the back yard. To tell the truth, she scared me.
Instead, I placed a hand on her shoulder, in a comforting gesture. She was wearing a tank top, so my fingers were on her skin. Her shoulder was soft and warm to the touch.
Her body hunched forward, as if she couldn’t bear the weight of my hand, and her breath come out all at once, like she had been holding it in. She didn’t try to shake me off; rather it felt like she was relieved.
I moved closer. I let my hand fall off her shoulder and slide down her arm until my fingers rested between the groove of her bent elbow. I was a head taller. She was still holding the ketchup bottle. Her hair smelled like Johnson’s Baby Shampoo and it excited me that she didn’t use the fancy products like my own wife. I could see the grays, wiry and springing from her scalp. Her part was pinker then the rest of her, parted in a slant and disappearing into her ponytail. Her earlobes were not pierced. She was wearing a thin gold chain with a heart locket. Her bra straps were thin. I could see the outline of her bra at her back and the area the bra could not contain, a curve of flesh.
Just then, there was a loud shriek. I didn’t want to leave Karen, but I had no choice. As I was rushing out the sliding glass door, I looked back at her.
It was this image of Karen that I came to later that night, when the kids were finally asleep, and Sheila had left me in bed to watch an over due rental on the TV in the living room. The image troubled me, but I kept coming back to it with something like the morbid interest of a spectator to a car crash.
It was a bee and the shriek had come from Jake. The bee stung him, attracted to the sticky, sweet ice cream coating his fist, and reacting to Jake’s overexcited and frightful swinging of his hand.
Karen had comforted him, a ball of mommy and son, rocking back and forth, smoothing his hair with her hand, while Sheila administered a miracle ointment to his sting. Something she got from the pediatrician. I was glad for Karen because I could see that along with her blaze of maternal instinct, she had found her way back and she was once again with the living.
In that flash, as I was rushing out the sliding glass door, adrenaline racing, Karen’s hand was covering her mouth and her eyes were blended together into the bizarre illusion of one. Her face and body were blurred, as if in a dream, or as if she was underwater, away from me, unreachable, and I couldn’t quite make sense of what I saw. Each time I came back to the image, I felt a tingle of recognition at the incomprehensibility of Karen, her troubles and desires, and every one of us, including my own small and unknowable life.
The soccer banner came out great. Although we didn’t win the coveted first, second, or third place in the annual soccer banner contest, we have a yellow participatory ribbon hanging from the bamboo pole, just for trying.