Neighbor Boys III
“That was right over the plate!” came a screech from right field, by a peach tree in scarlet blossom, and my hands lost their grip on the bat.
“She’s going to be out in a second - what’s the point of continuing?”
“Are you actually even trying, Sarah?”
“She couldn’t hit it if it was in slow motion!”
Hearing these words, I felt like a nightmare was beginning and suddenly not only were my hands jello but my head started to lose its grip on itself, too.
The pitcher, the youngest and most tender neighbor, gazed at me, serenely confident and without mercy.
“Give ’er a curve ball,” snarled Dale from the sidelines.
“Why?” asked Lane, winding up. “She can’t even hit an easy one.”
He pitched and my wide swing did not even come close. I didn’t understand how this was possible - and why it happened all the time. As soon as I stepped up to the plate I felt lost, drowning - helpless under swirling black water…just as I would feel years later standing in college presenting a Euclid proposition at the board, unprepared, in front of a classroom. Hitting a ball and configuring were both Greek to me.
My brother couldn’t resist and joined in the cannibalism. “Sarah, when God made you, He forgot to add the sport part of your brain!” he shouted across the field. He laughed, as did everyone else.
That’s when I felt that funny, prickling feeling that tears were creeping up behind my eyes. I tried to rally my spirits but, no matter how brave I was, I felt unequal to the task. There is no description for the stomach-weakness and shaky-ground feeling of incompetence in the pre-teen years. In the intensity of the moment, which childhood amplifies, there is no “Oh, this will pass soon,” modification: one is trapped in the present. And for me, nothing set the drama going like a game of baseball surrounded by boys whom one wanted so to impress, but who are crowding in on one like jackals. I wanted to run and pour my burning heart out to my diary - perhaps the only thing that came close to being feminine in fifteen square acres. But I never considered the actual possibility of running. It was not in our Code of Behavior Manual.
A voice came from behind me. “Elbows up; bend your knees,” it said. It was my teammate, Nole, and the oldest neighbor.
I felt a glimmer of hope. I brought my bat back and dipped my knees.
...If I ever hit a baseball, thunk was the dull sound it always made: no triumphant ding for me. The foul ball popped over first base, into a cedar tree, and dropped into the poison ivy.
Dale, the unfortunate first baseman, gave me a deprecating look before he went to rustle for it.
“One more strike and you’re out,” they jeered.
That’s when I turned around to where my own teammates sat in the cool, thick, shady grass - two younger slips plucking at blades, indifferent to the drama, and the impressive, athletic Nole who stood behind the plate.
“I can’t do this. Pinch hit for me.” The bat slid uselessly to the ground.
I expected him to rip the stick out of my hands, and jab me with a verbal barb. But he didn’t.
“You’re good,” he said. His voice was like an oasis in the desert... as cool and smooth as vanilla icecream. “You're alright. You’re okay.”
He shocked me by his lack of judgment. “No, I’m not,” I said.
He paused. “Hold on,” he said.
He walked over to the pitcher’s mound, as if to him the game were a summer picnic, and not the flaming, swirling, junior-high nightmare I was in.
“I want her to have seven outs,” he said, levelly, to the pitcher.
“No way!” Lane reeled.
I reeled, too, as if someone just threw me a lifeline…but I still wasn’t sure I could grab onto it.
“Yup; do it.” He walked back, with his usual swagger, dragging his flip-flopped feet through the grass as if he knew had to be agreed with - which he did have to be, by the evolutionary reason of his size.
This was not to the advantage of our team. He could have easily taken the bat from me, cracked the baseball into outer space, and let me run around the field twice if I wanted to before the boys could retrieve it from the distant woods.
But he came to me and said, “Now let me show you.” He took the bat and swung it once or twice in the empty air, doing that funny prancing thing with his back foot, putting his toes down and up again in the grass, in a way that seemed almost ballerina-ish to me. “Now you try.” He handed it back.
“That looks great!”
It was a soothing rescue in the middle of a scathing nightmare. It was not the words but his tone: Nole never spoke in a rushed way; he was calm, grounded, and he was being so nonjudgmental and believing in me. I could do this!
- Or not.
Dale started off. "I'm going in the house to get some lemonade."
My own brother plumped down in the grass at third base. “Might as well pick dandelions.”
Nole spoke up. “Come closer, Lane.”
Lane was the most gentle-souled of the neighbor boys, and he had melted at the sight of my failure by this time sooner than anyone. So he stepped closer and, as one would in Pop Warner, threw it under-handed in a benevolent toss.
It was so easy to hit, that it flew to the left towards the forsythia bushes.
(Well, “flew” is a dramatic word. What I won’t tell you is the bushes were only a few feet away.)
“Awesome!” cried Nole. I was conscious that there was patronizing going on, even though we were the same age, but his kindness was raining down on me. “Run!”
I got there before I could be tagged out and the chagrined Lane charged into the yellow, bee-infested flowers to retrieve the ball.
I was still going to unload my pain in my journal later on, but standing on the base, I felt safe for the time being. I was okay - at least until I had to bat again. Why did life always feel like a perilous, blind leap from one point to the next? I had hyper- tunnel vision, which could not see an hour or a day ahead. Because of this, children have the difficult task of facing challenges in life without the foresight, which comes only with experience, that situations can improve for the better in only a moment. Combine this with the fact that most play by a fierce rule of honor in their little kingdoms that does not even acknowledge backing-down as an option...and everything is permanent, desperate, and out-of-proportion, so that even a baseball game can feel lethal.
But standing under the shade of the cedar tree, a very unchild-like realization exploded deep down inside of me. I suddenly knew I would never drown. I could survive in this world, even at the times I was hanging by a frayed thread.
I would be okay. I was alright.
"Sarah, you're up!"