The Boys Playing Basketball

It was the first warm day of the year. So early and unexpected was it, there were still patches of dirty snow on the ground. In my bedroom, the window over the garage was cracked open for the first time. A few splinters of old paint fluttered to the ground below as I broke the winter seal. I breathed in the spring air, even if it wasn’t technically spring yet. It was coming, and after a winter of confinement it was more than welcome.

Lying on my bed and daydreaming, I envisioned summer days, pool romps, and the freedom from cold and ice. I happily thought of the freedom from school. Summer vacation felt like an eternity then – but also an eternity away. It was a Saturday or Sunday, and the weekend was small solace when juxtaposed with the idea of summer – indomitable, endless, sun-swaddled summer. Still, the sun was shining, the day was young, and I luxuriated in the solitude of a ‘Crazy For You’ moment – those brushes with the sublime that you can only ever have when you’re by yourself. Wishing… for something. Hoping for more. Finding a way.

In the distance, the sound of something approaching. I heard the dull thuds of rubber on cement, of footsteps, of voices and shouts and laughter. Even then, my senses pricked up in agitated fashion; the possibility of a social encounter left me instantly on guard. I didn’t like my solitary revelries to be interrupted or intruded upon. Safe in my bedroom, however, I felt relatively removed from any forced interactions. It was the closest thing I had to an ivory tower, and I embraced the notion of being a captive as much as I embraced the isolation. We didn’t have terms for social anxiety then, not for twelve-year-old boys at least.

I saw a flash of rust out of the corner of my eye. Unsure of whether a squirrel was crossing the garage roof, or a robin alighting on the barren hawthorne outside the window, I moved closer and suddenly a basketball rose in the air right below my vantage point. Word had already gotten out, in one short day, that my brother had a basketball hoop. Not only that, but also the tantalizing fact that it was substantially shorter than the regulation basketball hoops, allowing the older boys of the neighborhood to slam dunk a shot if they had enough momentum and height going. For this reason, it was an instant hit, and a dangerous magnet according to my parents. The boys had but a few hours before my Dad came home from work and put it to a fast, and loud, end. But for now they were there, in my driveway, drawn by my brother and the possibility of acting out basketball slam dunk glory.

I was separate and apart, but still connected by proximity and secrecy. It was characteristic of so many of my childhood encounters. (The first sentence I ever uttered according to a baby book kept by my Mom was, “I like to watch.” There is a telling lack of participation in that, the first shy steps of a boy who felt safer standing on the outside than venturing in.) Still, it was a thrill to hear it all happening right below me, particularly when the only noise the house typically heard was my brother and myself, and the occasional shouts of our parents having to quiet us down. The boys playing basketball were suddenly a welcome diversion.

I listened to their screams and exultations, how they supported one another and sparred, and the way they grunted and exhaled from all their exertions. It wasn’t a sexual attraction, I wasn’t quite old enough for that yet, but it was close. It was the first spark of realizing I liked boys better than girls. Yes, I liked to watch. Yes, I liked to watch men.

I moved surreptitiously to the only other spot affording a broader view: the attic. It was a storage space back then – unheated and dusty, with corners of cobwebs and only two small windows on each end letting the light in. Yet one of the windows looked out over a wider swath of the driveway, and my watching eyes could observe without danger of being discovered.

I saw my brother sitting on the side of the driveway and talking to someone, I saw a boy (and a friend) I knew from school, and I saw a couple of neighbors I knew by sight but not name. I watched the way they came together in the common goal of sport, and the way they seemed to shirk off any social uneasiness. How I envied them their easy camaraderie, how I longed for it as much as its simple nature confounded and repelled me.

In the dust of the space, as the afternoon sun slanted through from the other side of the room, where childhood stuffed animals roamed and Christmas decorations smelled faintly of pine, I felt an ache and a wish to belong – to anything… to anyone. Somehow I felt destined to do this for the rest of my life – to systematically move myself further and further away from human connection, from the possibility of being hurt or embraced – whether by a carelessly-shot basketball or something more probing like the heart-piercing pricks of love.

Slowly and carefully, I opened the window. I wanted to hear them. It was no longer enough to watch. Though part of me had moved further away from the boys, part of me was reaching out to get closer. It was the beginning of a lifelong battle.

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