I was six and getting ready for a soccer game when my father threw his car keys at the wall, angry that I was running late. They hit my head instead, hard enough to draw blood. My mom bandaged the wound with her grandmother’s scarf, which stopped the bleeding long enough for me to play. As we walked back to the car after the match, I asked my mom the meaning of a word I’d overheard her use. “Compromise,” she explained, means to meet someone in the middle.
A lack of compromise both ended my past relationship and put me where I am now: bleeding out from the impact, yet still ready to play. This time, it’s my first-ever game with Ladies Village Soccer (LVS), one of NYC’s only pickup leagues exclusively for queer women. I still feel the wound everywhere, I can’t stop thinking about what went wrong with my ex, and I can’t eat. Most days, I survive on juice and smoothies. Today, I choked down half a bagel with iced coffee, but I get winded walking from the subway to the athletic field. I still feel the wound everywhere.
I see women stretching against a chain-link fence and on asphalt-pebbled turf in the dazzling summer heat. I pull on cleats scavenged from the little boy’s section at Modell’s before gathering in a circle to share my name and pronouns. The league’s organizer explains the rules: no slide tackling, shoot goals inside the box, and if you date a player and break up with them, you’re responsible for recruiting two more.
The game begins. I chase the ball instead of my thoughts. I sweat the way I’ve started to at night, my body washing all of its parts that used to hold her. The plate of my chest, the crook of my arm, and the crevice of my thighs all weep as I sleep.
I run as hard as I can, exorcizing the memories. Somehow, I don’t pass out. I even score a goal.
Afterward, we grab drinks at a nearby dive bar. I munch potato chips while learning about the other players and the league. Someone jokes about how LVS clobbered a rival team in a tournament; a friendly elbow finds its way to my shoulder mid-telling. The gesture–casual, unassuming–makes me feel fainter than any hunger can. It says I belong, contrary to the rejection that’s played in my head post-breakup. I feel nourished for the first time in months.
I show up every Sunday. The harder I play, the more relief I find, so I throw myself into each game until I’m called out for having “Terminator Eyes.” So I tone it down and observe the sidelines’ sights. Teenagers perch on a storage shed roof, smoking Juuls and texting. Day drinkers stumble by and offer their unsolicited advice. When they don’t leave after being asked to, a player kicks a well-aimed ball that ricochets off the fence instead of their heads. Post-game, I learn where to buy a nice blazer without shopping in the men’s section, laugh at double entendres about being thirsty, and feel fed: both inside and out.
The routine continues until one Sunday, over Dyke Beers at the queer bar Henrietta Hudson, when someone asks me about my love life. “My ex just emailed me,” I say, then clarify: “For the first time in six months.”
“Email?” she asks, her tone implying, why so formal?
“It was a bad breakup.” I share the barebone essentials of the split and her message’s proposal: that we have the conversation our abrupt separation didn’t allow for, one which acknowledges how much we cared–and still care–for each other.
I reply yes to her email, suggest a vegan crepe place in South Williamsburg, and go shopping. At Beacon’s Closet, I find a soft, dark summer dress with a corset waist and romantic swan print. I cry as it slips over my shoulders and onto my filling-out frame. Like my grandmother’s scarf, the dress returns me to something I’d believed lost.
Our Wednesday night date happens to intersect with a mass soccer outing to a nearby queer hangout, The Woods. I plan for both by opting for low-slung purple trousers and a white blouse instead of the dress. I’m ready hours ahead of time but still manage to arrive late. She’s seated on a bench, lips pursed and neck craned away from me. Her hands hold a rose bouquet and an envelope that turns out to hold the same card I found for our one-year anniversary. Its message is clear: that she wants to get back together, to make it work by being two healthy adults who care about themselves as much as each other.
We talk over rose tea and violet-topped crepes. Later that night, one of my teammates will summarize the experience for me when she asks, Did it feel like no time had gone by? Then smile and shrug when I ask her how she knew. But before then, it’s just the two of us, catching up on each other’s lives. She says she’s found the self-love that was lacking before, and that she’s happy with her new apartment and recent friendships. I tell her I’m also doing well, and to my surprise, it doesn’t sound like a lie. I’m bringing my new self to the table: a stronger, more resilient woman who can be receptive to someone else’s needs while also holding a boundary. Which is why, as the date winds down, I escort her no further than the front door of her place, which is conveniently located around the corner from The Woods.
“Want to know something funny?” she calls as I turn to go. “I’m locked out.”
In the past, I would have invited her to come with me. Now, after making sure that help is on the way, I say, “I’m a block away. Come find me if you can’t get back in.”
At the bar, people see the flowers and ask questions. They offer sage advice alongside a lavender-laced joint. The league’s organizer sits me down and shares her two cents. “Treat yourself like a teenager,” she says. “Take all of your emotions with a grain of salt.”
I nod, understanding.
As we talk, a drunk girl locates the bouquet I’d stashed behind my back. She pulls the petals from the stems, littering the floor with them. I don’t notice until we stand up, but when I do, I imagine a new voice, rising above all the other conversations had that night. It says that regardless of who I date, it’s the relationship with myself that counts. That tonight I’m my bride, that this is my bouquet toss, and that all I’m leaving behind are flowers.