Matt de la Pena
It’s raining in Brooklyn today, and I’m at a coffee shop, writing.
Man, I always seem to be writing these days. I’m here at a coffee shop, or I’m at the Writers Space, or I’m solo in my room late at night, in the dark, writing inside undecorated white walls, writing under a Brooklyn-style skylight that’s more tar than starry sky.
Guess I’ve traveled a million miles from how I was as a kid. Used to be just me and basketball. Pick up games and talking head with the fellas. But these days hoop is a little smaller in the rearview mirror. The jumper isn’t quite so trustworthy. The first step doesn’t hurt as many feelings. Instead of hip hop and R&B, it’s Sufjan Stevens, M Ward, Iron & Wine. Elliott Smith. These days come a little more literary, a little more solitary.
But early this morning I went back in my head for a sec. Went back to the face of the first girl who told me she loved me. Jen. This was way back in San Diego. We were both 15 and fresh-faced, sitting on my buddy’s couch–his parents’ couch. We were so awkward, so overwhelmed by having just kissed for the first time. Man, I hadn’t seen her face in years. But there she was. In my mind. Every beautiful detail. Her eyes so big and brown and pure, dark hair so straight and long. And the look on her face . . . man, this girl actually dug me!
We were like that for a good 15 minutes. Silent. Unaware of how to act in our brand-new romantic skin. She circled a finger around my right kneecap, cleared her throat and brought her face up to mine. “Guess what,” she said.
She took the basketball out of my hands and set it in her lap. She spun it around and pointed at the “I” in “Spalding.” She looked up at me and smiled, then pointed at the “L.” She shifted the ball around to the word “Official,” pointed at the “O.” She searched and pointed, searched and pointed, until she had completely spelled out the phrase “I love you.”
I felt something move in my chest and asked her if she wanted to be my girl. She blushed, nodded. We grabbed a hold of each other and kissed again, this time a little less awkward.
This morning, when I woke up remembering this, it hit me how deeply rooted the game has been in my life. Here I was holding my basketball while I kissed my first girlfriend. She used it to spell out that she loved me.
No matter how far I move away from the game, into this new life as an author, no matter what strange direction my literary interests lead me in next, or where I go, or who I meet, I will always carry the game of basketball in my chest. This game was my best friend growing up. It was my confidant. My passion. My ticket to college, to education, to books and words, the rhythms of poetry.
Soon the day will come when I can no longer dunk, when I can no longer scoot around the skinny kid at the Y with the big head. Eventually my skills will deteriorate to the point that a basketball court stops feeling like a haven and starts feeling more like a prison cell. But I will never forget you, Basketball. You were with me every step of the way. You gave me the confidence to try and be somebody (an author!). You gave me this incredible life.