Before the days of Wii, Xbox, and Gameboy, there was kickball. At the apartment complex where I grew up, the rules for this game were simple. 1) Kick the ball. 2) Run the bases. 3) If someone tagged you out, you could contest it with threats of violence. We had a small patch of grass afforded us. It sat within the confines of a building’s L-shaped formation. It worked perfectly as long as people didn’t park their cars anywhere near the vicinity. Back then, no one at the complex had car alarms (would you buy one for a rust-bucket in which the only thing of value was a couple of bent cigarettes?), so if a ball struck a car, the owner was clueless until they came out to find their side view mirror hanging awkwardly off the door. By then, the game was finished, not a hint as to what had occurred. We played morning, noon, and night. Anyone was allowed to join: older kids, younger kids, athletic kids, pathetic kids. Even the occasional adult joined us, beer spilling from a can in his hand as he raced towards first base. Men made poor players, though. They ran as if they had bricks in their boxer shorts. Maybe because their jeans were so tight, their hairy bulging bellies hanging over their belts. Yes, guys often walked around shirtless back then. It was the 70s, after all.
One day Tina and Sharon begged me to play kickball with them. Tina and I used to hang out together before Sharon latched onto her. And Sharon and I had a tense friendship marred by a past transgression on my part. Still, deep in my heart I hoped to make amends, forge a closer friendship. “Come on,” Sharon said. “Let’s play. Two against one.” Meaning them against me. I had the reputation of being one of the best kickball players around. I could kick that ball clear into the red Ford Escort at the end of the playing field. And I zipped around those bases like Roadrunner on Steroids. The only way I was ever tagged was if I kicked a dud ball. Which was a rarity. Sharon and Tina also had a reputation. For being girly little cheats. So when they begged me to play, an uneasy feeling clambered into my gut. I wanted to think they were being nice to me. That Sharon was handing me an olive branch. But I couldn’t help wondering if the branch was secretly thorny. I turned down the offer. Thanks, but no thanks. I had much more interesting things to do. Like look for rocks. Or hang upside down on the monkey bars above asphalt. “Then you’ll have to fight us,” Sharon said. Two against one hardly sounded fair, but what choice did I have? I didn’t want to play against cheaters. We tussled a few minutes, but the only person I’d ever purposely injured was my sister, and I wanted to keep it that way. So I gave in and agreed to a kickball game. Right off the bat, er, foot, they began to cheat. I made it to base after my first kick, only to have them call foul ball. Anyone with a decent pair of eyes could tell it was in play. But I agreed to a do-over and kicked again. This time one of them jumped in my way so I couldn’t reach the base in time. “Not fair,” I shouted. “I’m not playing anymore.” I started to walk away, but Sharon grabbed me by the arm. “We told you, if you don’t play, you have to fight.” The events thereafter are hazy. I remember them sticking their long talons into my flesh. Their red faces as they pushed me, pulled me, yanked my hair. I didn’t want to fight back because, well, frankly, I knew I could pulverize them, and I didn’t want to get into trouble. So I used defense tactics, which included flinging their skinny little bodies off mine. Sharon’s cousin, a boy a few years our senior, walked by, watching us warily. “Help us,” Sharon called to him. “Help us beat up Kim.” He averted his eyes and strode away in the opposite direction. Sharon, Tina, and I continued to battle. I twisted around, sending Sharon flailing to the grass where she wrenched her ankle. She began to cry. Tina waved the proverbial white flag. She’d had enough. So I left, thinking the whole deal was over. How wrong I was. The next morning I was alone, lazily spinning on the playground’s metal merry-go-round. I spotted Sharon’s older sister, Theresa, headed my way, determination set into her face like chewed gum on a bedpost. I considered my options. Wait for her to catch up to me for a little tête-à-tête, or run like hell. In the end I decided there was too little space between us for escape. So I waited, pretending not to notice her bulging figure barreling toward me. She grabbed the merry-go-round by the bars and halted its slow circle. “Hey,” she hissed. As if she needed to get my attention. I glanced toward my apartment wayyyy over there. She stuck her face in mine. Her hot, Spearmint-spiked breath struck me like a slap. “You hurt my sister yesterday.” “She was making me play kickball, and I didn’t want to play.” Theresa stood above me, blocking out the sun. “I don’t care. You hurt her, and now you have to deal with me. How would you like it if I beat you up, huh? How’d you like if I twisted your ankle or scratched out your eyes?” I wouldn’t like it. Not at all. But she probably already knew this, so I kept my trap shut. “I could, you know. Beat you up. Easy. You think you’re so tough? I’ll show you tough.” She grabbed my arm. The only card I had left to play was the Authority Card. “If you hurt me, I’ll tell my mom,” I squeaked. “Yeah? So what?” “So she’ll tell your mom and you’ll get in trouble.” I could hardly imagine Theresa’s mother yelling at her. Her mother was a skinny, wrinkled woman with an artificial leg who could be found on the sunniest days in a bikini, reclining in the front yard. I rarely saw her talk to her daughters, much less yell at them. Still, somehow the trick worked. Theresa backed off. She narrowed her eyes at me. “Just don’t hurt my sister again.” She stomped off. I was still alive. A few days later, I was outside with my friends in a heated game of kickball. Sharon and Tina passed by and glanced briefly at our game. For a moment, I worried they’d want to join us. I hadn’t told anyone about the fight or about Theresa’s threat. One of my friends called out, “Hey, you guys playing?” and I sucked in a breath, waited for their response. Sharon didn’t even look at me. “Nah,” she said. She turned to Tina and whispered something. They giggled. As they strutted past, it occurred to me that somewhere a line had been crossed. There would be no friendship between us in the future. No kickball games. No hanging out during recess at school. I wasn’t sure where the fault lay—with their demand I play kickball or my subsequent refusal that ended in injury—but from that point on, we never spoke again. For some reason, that made me sad. But then I kicked a ball that arched over the cars in the parking lot, a sure-fire home run, and the sadness slipped from my mind. Kickball can do that to you. If neighborhood kids and a man spilling beer onto his naked belly have ever cheered you on as you raced the bases toward home plate, you’d understand.