sleuth photo by Jaime Alexis Stathis
Exactly one week before I meet Ross Gay I’m standing outside the swimming pool talking to a friend of my son, who is ten years old. I say to her, Your earrings are so perfect. I say, If I had my ears pierced I’d wear ones just like that every day. She touches her ears. She smiles. I realize if she had lighter skin I wouldn’t be able to see them at all.
About the earrings: they are little roses, and I like so many flowers better than roses. Snapdragons, daffodils, and buttercups, to name three. But these earrings make roses look very simple, not fancy at all. if roses were a circle with lines dashed around in them. If roses didn’t try to be shiny, if they wanted to stay plain old matte. If roses liked pink and orange and white equally and so said, make us not one or the other. Make us all.
I have only sons but I know, from reading parenting articles that come my way despite trying to never ever see them, that you’re not supposed to complement girls on their looks. Or what they’re wearing. You’re supposed to complement them on their inner traits. I know this and yet I can’t stop looking at what they choose and saying Hey I like that, I really like that. Is it because I have no girls in my house, so when I move out among them I am spellbound by their fashions? Is it because I remember the clothes I chose as a child—the green Toughskins jeans, the cowboy shirt with flowers and pearl snaps—with wistful love? It is probably weird to have an old lady—am I this? Somehow I am this—telling you she would also wear those earrings, if only she had her ears pieced. But then too, as a kid I liked weird, wanted more weird, watched grownups desperately for signs of it. Weird is where the story is.
I used to have a really weird reason I’d give for not getting my ears pierced. I said, If everyone who has their ears pierced dies in a plague I’ll be left with….all these men! Imagine the ratio! I was in my early 20s, and it was fun to envision a long line of suitors tromping up my driveway, which would be paved with truckloads of unworn earrings. Studs and gem-stones and flowers and chandeliers and hoops all tossed in, beautiful and glittering, crushed together under tires.
My son is very interested in fashion and wants to discuss it, which is maybe also why I comment on what kids wear. He has gotten me used to talking about it. In pre-school he could tell me what all the parents who came to pick up their toddlers were wearing, right down to the socks. At age four he surprised me by slipping his thumbs into the slits of a long-sleeved shirt that previously had no thumb-holes in the cuffs. He had scissored them in the perfect places. He still tries to change his clothes to suit him, with paint and scissors and thread and safety pins and duct tape and sandpaper. He possibly wants the wrong things—to live in a city and have lots of money—only for the access it would gain him to certain designer looks. He wants to see, all day long, the cutting-edge clothes worn by fashion-savvy people. The sweat-pants and gaudy T-shirts running rampant on kids at his island school—on the body of his little brother—can bring him to heavy sighs.
So when my son hears me complementing his friend’s earrings he perks up, and steps in closer to study them. After a long beat he says, They look like they’re made out of frosting. And he’s exactly right. But what a taunt that would be on your tongue, that single dot of frosting. I turn from my son and say to the girl—it is tricky not betraying your kids of the opposite gender and also not betraying your own gender, which in this case I nod to—Watch out or he might eat your earlobes. Is it appropriate? Do I care? They look amused. They look away quickly in different directions.
Why does the decor in conference rooms always seem so menacing, so fancy-neutral, so devoid of nature or color? Everything is draped, as though naked lines and textures are too distracting. The mauve and grey curtains bury the outer edge of the views, and someone has flung this same heavy fabric over all the tables too. Even the chairs are carpeted.
Out of this decor steps Ross Gay, in his electric-red basketball shoes.
His limbs and even his fingers seem so much longer and stronger than an average human’s. One thinks of a tree. A tree growing right up through the floor. It has grown its way through cement and concrete and layers of densely-packed beige carpet. It has grown past thick tablecloths and carpeted chairs and percolator coffee pots and bags laden with notebooks and water bottles. And past, I should say—because this conference holds many strong and shining attendees—other trees too. It stretches and twists in the artificial backdrop, and you might feel bad for how obviously it doesn’t belong in the room. But he, the tree of a person, is smiling comfortably in the stifling conference room. Just like a tree would sway and bend and let the light (florescent in this case) bounce on its leaves and let the wind (air cooling system in this case) toss them around, whatever. Some people will say trees aren’t happy or even content, that they aren’t anything. But just look at them. The trees I mean.
On the second day of the conference, at breakfast, I work up the courage to talk to Ross Gay. This is harder than it seems because we are supposed to talk to the faculty members, who all three—aside from being magnificent, at writing and at talking about writing—might actually help us on down-the-line in our careers. But I’m terrible at schmoozing. I’m actually good at it when I don’t have to, when it’s someone like myself without any rank. When it’s conversing I guess, not schmoozing. I once tried valiantly to converse with Annie Dillard and she pretty much called for security guards. I suppose when you’re in awe of someone’s work it hinders your ability to say a plain hello followed by a plain goodbye. They have given you so much already—their written words have—that you feel a pressure not just to speak but to give something back in return. And why would I be writing if I could give anything of value with my voice?
I tell Ross Gay I really like the literary sports magazine, Some Call it Ballin’, that he helps edit and publish. I say that most people think of sports and literature as opposing, so it’s a treat to see the two combined so artfully. I make a point not to mention—not to think of—his poems, how when I read one it feels like I’m easing out of really tight shoes. He smiles. Maybe I’ve set this up well, because he doesn’t ask if my writing is fiction or non-fiction (tricky) or how far along I am on my book (no clue). The day before I just barely made it across the Canada/US border, because the security agent asked me in depth about—of all things!—my writing career, which made me twitch and sweat and stammer and finally lie. But Ross Gay just asks: What sport do you play?
His smile is….I want to say something here about wattage, but my understanding of electricity is so scant. Should I say light on water? A sheet on the line? Or: a spiral wobbling towards you from on high. When you’ve gone long, and you’re wide open.
Oh dear, this is sounding like I fall in love with Ross Gay. But I am so old that I don’t. By old I mean, I let things go. I can let beauty go. I let it roll on over me, away. I know I will find it—beauty, light, curiosity, kinship, imagination, joy—other places, in footballs and flowers for instance. I can find it in me. This is a gift from getting old, from being old. You can at last use and feel the word adore without feeling winded at the prospect of that adored thing or person disappearing.
I do, however, hear myself asking Ross Gay if he wants to play tennis.
I can only think I say this because he looks, standing in front of me, like he should be moving. He has a gigantic body which he carries very easily, and ordinarily I don’t write about body but in this conference the instructors speak frequently about The Body, and how The Body is crucial to writing, and how The Body itself is political. I try to understand but my hang-up is they don’t say whose body. The Body leaves me with a blank picture. The Body leaves me with windows displaying sunlight shining on mountain trails so beautifully I want to point at them and say, Can we perhaps take our The Bodies out there? (this is not a typo, though it looks like one).
As soon as I suggest tennis I notice Ross Gay’s wingspan, if you can use that word for a human. He has an enormous wingspan. Like, if he stretched out on his back on a twin bed you would think the bed was an ironing board. Maybe even a balance beam. When I later point out the unfair advantage between his wingspan and mine (more like drenched, folded wings), he will reply: So I should play with a ping-pong paddle?
But at the moment I only barely register his shoulders, because my eyes have landed on his ears. Blooming from each of his ear lobes is a frosting rose, of the sort I have recently proclaimed I would wear every day. That is, if I could bear to gather any more holes than the ones I was born with—plus the figurative ones I’ve gathered. One of his roses is very green and the other is very turquoise. And here—at breakfast on the first full day of a writing conference that I’ve won a fellowship to—I am quite ready to quit writing altogether in order to join this rose earring manufacturing company, in whatever capacity they’ll take me. Because every one of these earrings—the creamy pale-pink, the turquoise, the green—is the perfect color, the only color it should be. And in fact that’s the case with real roses too: the one you’re looking at is the best one. Probably when you’re enlightened that becomes true of people too.
I did play some tennis back in high school, but I sucked at it. Even at doubles I sucked. Some summer evenings my dad and I would go down to the community courts and play, but I always noted with apprehension—from a long way off—who was playing on the other courts. My dad sucked too. We both sucked. Winning was just a matter of who sucked less on that particular night. He wasn’t patient or parent-like and I never asked for tips or praise or condolences. We were just two people, two bad players, who wanted to win.
I did remember the tennis footwork though. I knew how to pick up a ball without my hands, by scooping it between the outside of my foot and the racquet. I knew to crouch low and hop from one foot to the other when waiting on a serve, to look like I was about to pounce on prey. I knew the prancing and bouncing once a ball was in play. Tennis is basically dancing, only with a racket in your hand. And towards something. Your shoes might squeak on the court and that is fun too, the sounds of it. The thumps and squeals, the panting and muttered curses. The whoosh of air through strings and ball through air. The clunk of a thrown racquet hitting the court. I remembered the dance and I remembered the chorus, so I figured I might be alright.
Outside the conference rooms and the mountains and the shining trails the political situation is dire, dire, and there’s this feeling even here—here where we revere and hone our craft—that being a writer isn’t enough. We must be activists (But I grow still among people, wanting to hear who they are). We must choose our words more carefully (But as it is, with this fierce internal editor, I can hardly write a thing). We must be born into a different skin.
In a panel called “How the Personal Becomes Political,” Ross Gay suggests that hollering about what we love is radical politics. He also repeats something his friend Patrick Rosal said to him on the phone the night before: We seem incapable of expressing the nuances of our sorrow.
I relax, just a little bit. Hollering love and expressing the nuances of my sorrow. Now that is something I can do.
The day of our tennis game is hot and bright. It’s the day, too, of the 50k and 50 mile run through Sun Mountain, where I happen to be staying.
Three years ago I was training for this very run on Sun Mountain. My kids were home from school for a province-wide holiday called Family Day. I was reaching for something in the garage when a coffee table slipped off a low shelf (maybe someone was climbing it), and landed on my big toe. I heard the crack before I felt anything. Nine curse words wanted to fly out my mouth, but for the sake of my sons I edited them to one very loud one.
The Doctor’s office was closed for Family Day, so I dragged my sons to the ER and we waited in the bucket seats playing Old Maid. My youngest son had on the Batman costume, without the mask, and he kept proudly swishing his cape over one shoulder or the other, as one would a long pony tail. Both boys became quiet and wide-eyed, staring shamelessly at the gathered sick in that way I can never correct, because I want them to be curious about people. Neither of them threw down the Old Maid card in whiny defeat when they were stuck at the end with it, like they might have at home. I decided I should come to the ER more often, for no medical reason—just to sit and play games with these polite and wide-eyed stranger-children.
The doctor said the toe looked fractured. She said they could x-ray it to make sure, but there was really no point, as there was nothing they could do for a broken big toe.
Well I’m training for this 50k run in May, I said.
Not anymore you’re not, she said.
I went home and deleted my screen-saver of a trail snaking through Sun Mountain. It looked photoshopped anyway—a mountain marketed to people like me who love trails and light and a big sky. It would look even better with some yellow, the marketer probably thought. And blipped those wild flowers into the foreground.
But now here it is, Sun Mountain. And the pictures didn’t even do it justice. They couldn’t touch the space, the light, the peace. Yellow wildflowers dapple entire hillsides. Their pedals ripple in the slightest breezes, making their black centres seem darker, more still. As I walk towards the courts with Ross Gay a parade of tall, thin, sweaty people wearing hydration packs staggers by. It is late in their race, for some a fifty miler. I could be one of them. And I’m so far from being one of them. It is a curious feeling, when the longing to be who you once were meets the gladness of not being her. Because on one hand, how far I’ve slipped. And yet, how terrible I’d feel right now—and how shut-down my senses, on this, the sensory heaven of Sun Mountain—if I were that runner.
Ross Gay and I swing our racquets a little as we walk, spinning them in our palms to show each other how easily we handle them. On one of these intimidation spins I almost drop mine. I ask him about teaching, and how it feels for someone like him—who seems so curious and steadfast on wondering—to be in a position of authority. He laughs and says, Well I tend to teach…by asking a lot of questions. Then he asks about my writing, about the piece I read, and I stutter, my shoulders tensing up to my ears. Is this a ploy to weaken my game? But no, like me he’d rather learn (collect material) than impart what he’s learned (spout material). I can tell by how quickly he answers this or that question in order to fire one back. I persist. I find out he used to play college football. Then he played basketball. He still plays basketball, but not as seriously. Now he grows gardens. Now he finds the perfect words for his questions, his wonder and delight. Now he teaches. Now he swings kettlebells. They even have kettlebell competitions, and I think this sounds pretty cool until he tells me they’re held indoors, usually in the poor decor of hotel lobbies.
We reach the slope to the tennis courts and Ross Gay says, Where are the nets?
The courts look undressed, two naked slabs of lines. I stop short, staring at them, dismayed. How will we know who wins?
But Ross Gay doesn’t stop walking at all, not even a step. If anything he speeds up. He’s laughing. He’s not most an athlete? He’s must be most a poet.
This is perfect, he says,
About our tennis game: we suck. We both suck. He sucks a little less than me. It’s fun. When my hit doesn’t make it over the invisible net, Ross Gay dashes right through, over to my side, to return it. Sometimes he dashes so far across the net he is within touching distance, and just taps the ball at me. It’s so wrong it feels awesome. Tennis generates a certain grace in the air, even when the players stumble around. Ross Gay has told me he wants to win like a motherfucker, and I can tell he does, because sometimes when he misses a point he curses. But also, he keeps laughing. It’s a joy to play a sport you don’t play.
When a runner staggers up to the drinking fountain I feel pulled back momentarily, towards the sport more mine, and I call out: How many kilometres to go? This sounds pesky but I remember what a relief it is to get outside yourself, late in the race, when you’re all twisted with the constant wavering between body awareness and tuning out your body’s pain. I stand with a ball in one hand, a racquet in another, waiting on an answer. But when the runner turns I notice the circle of his ear, above where the earring would go, is white plastic earphone. He didn’t even hear me. And so, maybe I’ve become one of those people. I talk to people who don’t talk to me. Or they give flat, short answers, as has happened some at this conference. Saying nothing is considered rude, but a flat, short answer is considered okay. When I turn back to the game I can’t tell if Ross Gay is laughing at me. Or maybe, hopefully, he’s smiling affectionately at me– because I’m one of those people who tries to shoot the shit with strangers, even when they don’t respond. Maybe I could own that. Because really, how can you complain about human rights, about the state of human politics, if you’re not going to treat the human right in front of you with interest, with kindness?
Our play improves a little when we start keeping score. I get embarrassed when I sing out Love-Love! What an optimistic way to say: I’ve got zero, you’ve got zero. I have to remind Ross Gay of how it goes, from deuce to ad-in or ad-out, then possibly back to deuce. We each have many advantages, but we keep coming back to deuce.
We have a can of three balls, and when they go over the fence we have to look for them in the bushes. This is part of the tennis I remember too, watching the body of your opponent bend and half-disappear into branches. After Ross Gay wins the game (he would want me to add bold exclamation points here !!!!!) he transforms back to a poet—always shaking things up—and suggests we try a rally with two tennis balls in play at the same time. And boy, are we good then. We can’t miss! We look like professional tennis players. If professionals hit two balls back and forth at the same time, higgledy-piggledy, keeping no score.
That night after the conference dinner (it makes you want to go vegan or gluten free, when you see the sorbet those specialty people get) Ross Gay shuffles up to the podium in his giant sneakers. He reads from the book he’s working on, his Book of Delights. He’s been writing a delight every day for almost a year, and at his August birthday he’ll have accumulated 365 of these essayettes (as he calls them). What can I say about them? They illuminate the magnificence (beauty, sorrow, absurdity) of the most ordinary things and moments. That the essays are most particular to him and his days, and yet they read like a field guide to being human. A lot of them are really funny. In one of the day’s delights he is doing errands in town and needs to pee pretty badly, but at both the hardware store and at the coffee shop he finds a reason not to. On the drive home he realizes he can’t hold it anymore. He pees as he drives, soaking the car-seat. He writes it so poetically, though. So by the time he pulls up to his house, all soaked, you feel it—this human filling and emptying of the bladder, the warm car seat—is not a disaster but something worth celebrating, delighting in.
After the reading he sits at a table signing books for people. He makes the table look like a toddler bike. He’s the elephant. Every time Ross Gay signs a book for someone he leans in, asking questions. If he and I had a curiosity contest, how we would go about it? They would probably have to cut our heads open. I bet I would win. I hear him saying, Which part of Kansas? And I think: Alright, maybe we would tie.
The next day everyone in the conference scatters away, into cars. Many of the cars are bound for airplanes. When writers say, Promise me you’ll write—they don’t mean to each other. I have to scatter too. This is part of the deal. You have to leave wherever you got to go and and not cry about it. You have to wave goodbye with the hand that’s not holding the giant cookie, and step away as lightly as you stepped towards her and her and him days ago, when she and she and he was a stranger. I linger, though, buying two more 25 cent tampons from the bathroom vending machine with American quarters. They are crazy thin and won’t last the drive, but once I bleed into the seat it’ll shift quickly in my head from catastrophe to near delight. That beautiful rose with the ragged edges, blooming on the drab grey carseat. But now here’s the deal, you have to leave one-of-a-kind people and kindred people, you have to drive away. You don’t have to be good at it, though. You don’t have to be agile or athletic or speedy about it. It’s okay to coast away like you’re just learning. It’s fine to drift past the perfect tennis courts, down the perfect mountain, with your foot hovering clumsily above the pedals.