I found my first superhero just two years ago in a surge of green uniforms on green field, soccer players rushing toward the goal. I’d never had a superhero of my own before, someone who made me think, “Wow, she could do anything! He could do anything!” I’d had role models and mentors but never a superhero—someone so awe-inspiring I knew I could never be him or her, someone who could save me. (Hand-written, those words get three forceful underscores from my red pen. Hyperbole seems to go hand-in-hand with superheroes.)
I’d like to claim that I found my first superhero in a powerful woman, perhaps in my artist-activist mother or in my union forming-peace marching grandmother who traveled to New York from Minsk—alone—when she was twelve, but the truth is that I knew them too well. They guided me and impressed me and loved me, but they scared me a bit too, and if they ever saved me—like the time my mother pulled me from the deep end of the pool I didn’t yet know how to swim in—they were only doing what was expected of them.
I’d like to say that I found my first superhero in Wonder Woman or Batgirl or Catwoman, but Wonder Woman’s image was too all-American for this child of the 1960’s, Batgirl was clearly an afterthought, and Catwoman was only out to save herself. In her mask, and high-heeled boots, and shiny skin-tight suit, she was sort of scary too. I don’t think you can be scared of your own superhero. You need to feel that it will all be ok when he or she lifts you into the air.
So, no superhero until I’m an adult and—weirdly, unexpectedly, for this Manhattan-raised kid with an aversion to sports—it turned out to be a soccer player, or should I say several soccer players, with their costumes and crests and rogue’s gallery of rivals, and each with his or her own superpower. I’m not drawn to the multi-million dollar stars—they’d damn well better perform those superhuman tricks—but to the guy in his mid-thirties, making league minimum, deemed too old to really play the game, who nevertheless keeps throwing his body straight up in the air; the tiny woman who spins and dances between nine defenders with the ball at her feet before placing it neatly in the back of the net; the player who found solace in soccer when his parents divorced and now, like a cat, bursts from stillness to speed, sprung by a long pass; the kid who spent hours alone in his room juggling a ball and now cuts space and time in half, racing to catch a runner with a ten-yard head start; the defender who turns to block a shot with his back; the keeper who dives and just barely parries the ball aside. I know that these feats aren’t technically superhuman, that other athletes can run faster and dancers can jump higher, but my body cannot do any of these things and never could. As I watch them though, mirror neurons rush breath and blood and adrenalin through me. My eyes follow, and my muscles move in tiny imitation of the players on the field.
In that surge of players who seem to be running endlessly back and forth, a pattern emerges fleetingly, from scrum, from chaos, and then, as swiftly, is swallowed again. Out of water, a wave; out of noise, birdsong. A moment of crystalline beauty flashes and cracks. What was that? Brevity and brightness and the sheer fluidity of the game make these moments precious.
Maybe there will be a goal, and I can learn to analyze one team’s tactics and the other team’s failures, the build-up, the passes and uncalled fouls, which led to its success. I’ve never thought this way before. Maybe there will be no goals at all, but still I can learn to see the pattern in play as it emerges. I can learn to see the formation the coach has chosen, with its neat lines of defenders, mid-fielders and forwards—or maybe a pyramid or diamond, and also the how the formation shifts, regroups, falls apart when the outside backs sprint up the touchlines to receive a pass, the center-mids play box-to-box distributing the ball, and the outside-mids suddenly tuck inside. I can learn to see the ball in the air and then the player with the ball at his feet, the player who placed the ball in the air and then continues an over-lapping run, the player running to meet the ball, the players rushing to meet that player, one sliding on the turf to toe the ball away and one coming straight on to block his path, the player hoping to draw defenders away from the striker, the player who’s open, her arm in the air to call the ball her way, the defenders creeping to keep the high line and then jogging backwards into their own third of the field, the patience with which they force the other team to play the ball out of bounds, the goalie guarding the net. I can learn to see the ball itself—and a new vocabulary for all the ways a player may dance with the ball, the delicate rakes, the juggling, the nutmeg pass between another player’s legs, the side volley, the slide tackle, the step-over, the thigh trap, the Cruyff turn, the flick-on, the handball, the offside trap, the rabona, the backheel pass, the chest volley. On the page, these things come one after another, but on the field they all happen at once, just before the play collapses into a bundle of bodies or a ball gets kicked out of bounds, or most rarely into the goal.
When I read, my eye tracks linearly. When I look at a painting, I have all the time in the world—or at least until the museum closes. When I watch a dance performance, the choreographer guides my eyes through all the moving parts. Watching soccer, I’m lifted out of these routines, away from the dark wood of my everyday self, taught to think and see and speak in a new way. This may be a kind of saving.
-Maya Sonenberg’s story collections are Cartographies (winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize) and Voices from the Blue Hotel. More recent fiction and nonfiction appear in Web Conjunctions, DIAGRAM, Hotel Amerika, and elsewhere. She teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Washington, and she and her family have season tickets to both the Seattle Sounders and the Seattle Reign. You can follow her on Twitter @MzzS36019. She says many thanks to Levy Films’ American Football, In the 18, Reign On, and Inside Reign for helping her to see soccer, and to Eduardo Galleano, Christopher Merrill, and Nick Hornby for helping figure out how to write about it.