When I was eight, as is his way, my dad signed me up for little league baseball without my knowledge or consent. One moment, I’m playing with Star Wars toys, making laser gun noises with my mouth, and the next, I’m inexplicably standing in a field alongside a couple dozen other boys. Already, I felt a simmering aversion due to the game’s primary characteristics: it’s outside, it involves other children, it requires physical activity, and it’s competitive (even a board game could reduce me to a shrieking teary blob, such was my emotional fragility). I preferred, and still do, to be ensconced in dark crevices, to live as a Gollum, alone, silent, mmm.
At the start of the first practice, the coach tossed the ball to me, fast and smooth like a professional, and it rolled out of my mitt onto the ground with a thunk. “You want to close the mitt when you get the ball,” he said helpfully. “To keep it from rolling out, you see?”
He tossed it again, and, once more, it hit the mitt and rolled onto the ground. “You have to close the mitt,” he said. “Close the mitt when the ball touches the mitt.” I nodded confidently, like someone who has full control over his physiology.
Once more, he tossed the ball, it hit the mitt, and it rolled onto the ground. This time, he grew concerned and told me to flex the mitt shut. I couldn’t. The mitt was too new and stiff to flex, which the coach, my dad, and my teammates interpreted as: he’s too weak to close the mitt! My god, it’s a miracle he can open doors or hold a fork! Has this child only recently awoken from a decade-long coma, his muscles atrophied to dust? Did he grow up on a space station?
In high school, my dad was a pull-up champion, a diver, and a swimmer. As he got older, he went to Bally Total Fitness regularly, pushing himself until his face turned purple and contorted like a monster. He watched football religiously and believed in the character building power of athletic pursuits. I, however, was an astonishingly small creature, built from twigs and flower petals, and when placed in any physically taxing situation, crumpled like papier-mâché. Maybe when my brother was born, he thought, ‘At last, an heir,’ because he has the same dark hair and sturdy muscular physique, but my brother has severe autism, so he operates on a different level. At his special-needs baseball games, he prefers to wander the field in a daze, to hum to himself while staring into the distance, a finger pressed thoughtfully to the corner of his eye, rather than run or hit the ball. So I was the only viable candidate for athletic achievement.
He signed me up for baseball, soccer, hockey, karate — anything to wake me out of my reverie. But in each sport, I proved equally terrible. In soccer, I rarely scored a goal and even passing seemed difficult. In baseball, I could never hit the ball, and it seemed to constantly be rolling out of my mitt. That propulsive animus that animates living things, that drives them to overcome obstacles to succeed, I didn’t have it, and so my performance suffered. In past centuries, children like me would’ve quickly perished, starved or murdered, cleansing the gene pool of their sloth, but instead I’m preserved as an affront to natural selection. Nature has been perverted. All the teammates I met over the course of my sports career, the countless nameless faces — their rejection was a manifestation of nature’s fury: “You’re too pitiful to live, tiny child! Your existence is a violation!”
In middle school, my dad signed me up for hockey, the sport of wealthy white children who can afford the outrageously expensive equipment and ice time. When asked what position I wanted to play, I chose goalie. From what I could tell, the position entailed long periods of inactivity and emphasized passive skills like geometry and depth perception. If there’d been a “sleeper,” a player whose role was to nap in the locker room, I would’ve chosen that one, but goalie seemed like the next best thing. I wore special pads, stood in a special area of the ice, had a special function, and the game hinged on my performance. This, I felt, would raise my self-esteem.
It didn’t occur to me I might be a terrible goalie, nor did I consider garnering my teammates’ white-hot hatred should I lose every game over and over forever due to slow reflexes and a tiny body. With the huge investment in equipment and ice time, there was an obligation to produce at least a few wins, and so I often heard dark whispers among the parents and even between the coach and my teammates (“Maybe we’d do better with a different goalie, but, oh well…”), but still I continued losing games by margins like 15-3. As the score steadily rose, I would bawl like a baby, the teary, sweaty, snotty mixture pouring down my face into my mouth.
“I don’t want to go,” I’d say before every game. “I feel sick.”
“You have to go!” my dad would shout. “You’re the goalie! The game can’t happen without you!”
“I’d rather be dead! I’d rather cut open my chest cavity and pull out each organ one by one until my brain activity ceases!”
“That’s not true!”
“I swear to God it is!”
“Well, after the game, we can, uh, get ice cream?”
“Okay, fine, I’ll put on my pads.”
At my parents’ home, in the main hallway, hangs a picture my dad took of a goal scored on me, the opposing players’ arms raised in triumph, and I’m flopped on the ice next to the shooter, staring sadly up at him, surrounded by players celebrating my despair. Whenever I go home for Christmas, I always see this photo and wonder why my dad chose to hang it so prominently. Then I’m filled with a deep horror. I look at it and think: is this my whole life represented in a single image? The answer is yes.