The first practice I went to a 40 year old woman shoved a ball into my stomach, "There, now you can say you've touched a rugby ball." I was 18. Her name was Critter.
My early rugby days are hazy, not because I drank too much or anything, but because I had just moved to a city of 4 million from my town of 85. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by lesbians. Older lesbians. Lesbians of a different generation. And for the first time in my life I was allowed, supposed to, tackle other humans. Since I could remember, football interested me. I wanted to tackle, to hunt people on a field and knock them down. I wanted to get beaten up.
I didn't make it to practice too often that I can remember. I wasn't good, but I was faster than some of the old people, so they let me play. I was especially weird about touching people. Rugby is an intimate sport, in order to tackle someone, you must grab them. Tightly. To learn how to tackle in practice you must face the other person, look them in the eye and say, "ready?"
I once traveled with a van load of coupled, older lesbians to Denver (from Houston) to play in the Mile High Tournament. I was dating (?) one of the girls at the time. I had never felt so adult and free than driving across the country in a van full of homosexuals. Now, for you younger people, this doesn't seem that exciting. But, as I've tried to tell some of you, even 10 years ago, things were still different in the world. I was still wearing rainbow clothes and necklaces and living in the gay part of the city. My family was still disgusted with me, and in some ways, I didn't quite understand it myself.
At one point, I napped with my head in my girlfriend's lap as the Indigo Girls sang through the speakers. I remember smiling in my half-consciousness. I was free from it all and almost comfortable.
My girlfriend broke her clavicle during the tournament (but managed to bust through two lineouts despite the pain). The only part of the games I remember is this: I had been tackled and knocked in the head. I was lying dazed on the ground, unable to cover my head in the ruck. It was 21 degrees outside and a light layer of snow on the pitch. I remember looking up as I lay there with the snow melting into my clothes (mind you, the jerseys were still very thick cotton and heavy). Above me were four women. Four huge women with huge breasts grunting and sweating and stinking, the snow falling down in slow motion around their massive bodies. At that moment I realized what it all meant. That rugby wasn't just a sport, that I wasn't alone in the world anymore.
* * *
If you're a lesbian, you meet a lot of girlfriends playing rugby. When I drove to New Orleans for the Mardi Gras tournament, I had no idea what I was in for.
A girl whored onto our team. She had nice, thick thighs and dark hair. I liked her immediately. I can't say I remember much of that weekend, and this time it was from drinking. I played a game in which I was tackled. No, not tackled, but just stopped in mid-air and somehow thrown backwards a few feet. I hit the ground and all the air rushed from my lungs. I heard the crowd go, "ow. ah" It was because I heard them that I jumped up to my feet and said, "I'm ok!" Later that night, as my teammates made sure my glass was never empty, we watched the video from the day. I remember seeing myself on the tv in the pub. I watched my tiny body's momentum stopped by another woman. Utterly stopped and then reversed. The pub cheered when they saw it and I made it a point to tell them, yes, it was me. And I was fine.
Anyway, this girl's name is Jennifer. And hours later, when we're on our way downtown for the parades, yes, mardi gras, and my head's spinning so badly I can't read the street signs, that's when Jennifer's hand finds my arm and strokes it, "are you ok?" I wasn't ok. It was the least ok I'd ever been.
So this is what I remember of my Mardi Gras experience: At one point I was in a large crowd holding someone's hand being guided through people. At another point I'm begging the driver to pull over. I throw up on Bourbon street while Jennifer asks if I'm ok. I feel like such an idiot. Then, I'm asking the driver to take me back to the hotel. When I say driver, I mean, some girl I don't know who happens to be hanging out with our team. Then, I'm throwing up all over her truck and apologizing. It's then I realize we're stuck in a parade route.
Later, Jennifer and I will sleep together during Nash Bash, with her husband upstairs. You see, they had an open relationship. And I was trying to be more open. A few months later I will drive to Nashville to retrieve Jen and we will drive to San Francisco, stopping to eat at A&W, listening to Alanis Morrissette's "Hands Clean", staying in a casino in Las Vegas and finally, finally fucking after so many hours in the car wanting and aching.
I will leave Jennifer at the airport and drive to the dude ranch. She will fly home to her husband.
"Ooooh, this could get messy, but oohh you don't seem to mind./We'll flash forward to a few years later, no one knows except the both of us. And I have honored your request for silence and you've washed your hands clean of this."
* * *
I started playing with Mizzou. I found the team members at Soco, the only gay bar in town. One girl was wearing her Mizzou rugby t-shirt. I said, "I play rugby." It was that easy.
In the next year I will sleep with and date two teammates, kiss one more on the katy trail after asking my girlfriend if it's ok, and have a crush on everyone else in the meantime.
This is where my narrator should come in and be over bearing, so here goes: This blog has taken a wrong turn. What I mean to write about is how rugby isn't just a sport, it's a family.
When I was a fresh-faced lesbian in a huge city, the older girls took care of me. Sneaked me beer, even. When I was drunk and puking out of cars in New Orleans, someone rubbed my arm and asked if I was alright, then someone else took me back to the hotel. And even when I was trying to sleep with the entire team, they still let me play. They may have not approved of me, but they understood I was family.
We drove to Wayne, Nebraska. We played rugby in balls cold weather and wore togas at a party while listening to a horrible 80s cover band. That night, after one beer too many, I found myself sleeping between two brunettes and neither of them was my wife. But it was beautiful, still.
And I drove back with Corrie, Chuelo, and Drea. You see, these are people I've known since 2003, since joining the team. I love them. But I still have this unyielding guilt that I need to prove to them I am a good person. I mean, they saw me at my worst back then, but somehow, even with that horrible self-hatred I feel, I know that they love me too. I know they accept me for who I am and understand who I was.
So, there I was, staring out at the fields, thinking about how many years I'd played rugby. Or maybe not that, but how many years I'd known rugby players, and how they've taken care of me.
And I'm thinking of the other cars traveling on the same highways, full of my teammates, and my players. I can see myself in all of them, in the ones who sleep with one another, in the others who watch quietly and fume, in the girls with forced bravado, in the ones who cry with anger at themselves, in the rookies who are not yet sure, in the vets who know everything. Even after all the drama I was part of years ago and the apologies I never quite gave, there is a place for me.
Rugby is our refuge.