Conjunctions:46 Selected Subversions: Essays on the World at Large

Give and Go
Rolling over Astroturf to his feet, the ball caught willowy Beckenbauer midstride. He corralled it with an instep and tapped it on the run, keeping it snug as a new moon in orbit as it skidded along on the leash of his momentum, and three victory-mad men in yellow raced after him, their faces tense and feet snatching. In they piled. Trapped, he quibbled with the ball for a moment, caged it in his legs as if it were a brussels sprout caught in a wire whisk, then waltzed it among the players as cheers poured from the open vat of the Giants Stadium crowd. Gyroscope faultless, he spun around to face each attacker in turn, bluffing and feinting, a grin on his face. Then he spotted a door jarred open in the maze of legs and fled through it, leaving them before they knew how he had gone. Running from a zone of sunlight into one of shadow, he seemed to grow more substantial over those few steps, and the ball he dandled at his toe moved less easily, as if resisting him.

     Then he stopped, quivered, recouping all the energy he’d just used, and, spreading his arms to balance on an invisible beam, he stroked the ball away from him and into the sunlight, paving the air with a long dusty arc. When it fell at the feet of a man who was just running into the open downfield, he smiled, put his hands on his hips, and seemed glad for once not to be running after it, to have this moment to himself. Hundreds of times I’d seen him do this regal, inconspicuously agile thing, pulling the ball to him for a few magnetic moments, in which his idiom was uniquely his own, a way of phrasing with the ball at high speed, or debating it through the legs of three frantic players, then releasing it charged with a new destiny that only he could have devised.

     When he turned, I saw his neck wet with sweat just under the hairline, where beads clung to the curls at his nape then dropped heavily to the grass. He had cropped his curly hair even shorter since the last game, as his only defense against the barbaric heat of American high summer. In the center of his white shorts, at the outside of his thigh, the characteristic notch in the fabric hung so still you could have laid a sextant’s course by it.

     Downfield the ball moved into play, but I kept my binoculars on him, watching, studying, searching his face. What could I find there? Under his bony forehead, his eyes looked sphinxlike, half in shadow. Overhead, the sun was an irregular wick in a desert sky, whose heat the metal stadium bowl just magnified. Rain would have been a mercy. He turned to look at the crowd. What was he thinking? Did he see them as individual faces or as an organic swarm? Under the hot, greenhouse sky, the crowd chanted Cosmos! Cosmos! as if to lidless creation. Did that form a pool of noise or an eerie, single instance in his memory? He turned his face back to the play, as if to another thought, another measure in the tempo of the game. Did he perceive the game’s rhythm as something uncontrollable he was part of, or could he change it by himself? Did he feel the possibility of that change like a switch he could throw, and wonder in the milliseconds when intuition became action which rhythm to choose, at last skying the ball downfield to the feet of a striker, gauging it so well that it spent its energy completely by the time it landed dead at the striker’s feet?

     Only yards away from him, the ball was still in play, and I watched his face follow the action like a gunman tracking a clay pigeon just before he fires. What was he tracking? The ball was no longer with him. It was the idea of the ball that hadn’t left him. In his mind, he was tracking it, sliding his boot under it so smoothly it was lifting into the sky, not straining into height like a rocket, but gingerly, as if to say, there are things on this earth that fly, there are nearly weightless things, there is something invisible life can produce.

     Not only things like itself that live, and not only bare, mute objects, serums, or art, but invisible things—forces, propulsion, motion, thought.

     I wondered: Could he be thinking any of this? Had he thought it even in the midst of play, when lulls were like unsealed envelopes collecting time? Suppose he stood still when the ball fell toward him, suppose he watched its path shorten in the air and then drop like a piece of fruit at his feet, a succulent apple off a Bavarian tree, suppose he watched it on the green turf here in New Jersey while the crowd roar blurred, suppose he stood over the ball, considered the crowd, considered the onrushing men, suppose his right leg didn’t cock back from the knee and kick the ball as it always had before, suppose he just looked at the tallow sky and the stubbly Astroturf beneath him and felt the sun as palpable as the hand of a blind girl spelling his name out on each leg?

     As I watched through binoculars, my eyes groped to focus, the stadium noise disappeared, and I became private, in the visual turrets as if in another room, the way a child, hiding its head, believes no one can see it. I felt spellbound and all alone in the grandstand, watching dark eyes below the visor of his bony brow. How long I had been obsessed with soccer I couldn’t say, time vanished so swiftly into the well of my obsession. First the present stole along with all its delicate upheavals, in which a minute was a multitude, and I could count the separate rugged beatings of my heart. And then suddenly a year had vanished, not passed slowly as a caravan or been preserved frame by frame in the memory, but vanished, as if canceled, had never been. This shimmy in time’s fabric puzzled me about life; that though one could give oneself with diabolical precision or voluptuous revelry or emotional daring to a moment that seemed wide and limitless as the tundra, soon enough it would race away and be unrepeatable, erasing itself as it fled.

     I had been obsessed with soccer for nearly a year, ever since I saw a match on television at a department cocktail party of the sort I went to out of boredom, only to find a greater boredom awaiting me. Roaming through the house, I heard loud, antic voices from the den and, opening the door gently lest I interrupt some clandestine meeting, I was amazed to find three men energetically watching a broadcast of the European Cup Finals, Czechoslovakia versus West Germany. Without understanding exactly what I was watching, nonetheless I became enraptured by the elegance, sheer power, and changing patterns of the game. The field was a single green moment in August, on which beautiful men ran like ancient hunters, wild eyed, with quarry at their feet, hazing it, coasting, punching it toward the net. Without taking his eyes off the screen, a man made room for me on the sofa; laughing, I took a handful of popcorn from a bowl on the end table and settled down for a look-see, and what I saw possessed me. The ball passed from one foot to another among the maze of players, leaping like an electron from shell to shell, tactic to tactic, in the larger unknowable strategy of the game. I was not aware of the men as merely lissome beings caught up in only another tournament. I was smitten by the ceremonial violence I saw unfolding, the long drawl of a single run, the cutting-horse swivels and quick starts, the rhythmic eddies of clustered players, the organized alarm: all apropos of the white ball and all within the unimpeachable white lines of the field. I got up and sat closer to the screen, looking through its glass as I might into an exposed brain. When I watched Hans Beckenbauer gathering the urgent rhythms of the field with his acute, threshing legs, a mental depth charge went off inside me. I couldn’t name what it was, but that silent wonderful concussion happened every time I watched a top-flight game from then on. Something about the rhythm of the mind, I thought, but that was as far as I could focus it. The main thing was the unexpected tonic of the spectacle. It was like falling into the well of a profound attention. That was it. How else could I explain parties and meetings foreshortened so I could run home to catch an important game on television? How else explain my sudden passion for soccer books and my subscribing to three juvenile soccer magazines? Somehow, without warning or my planning it, it extracted from me my complete attention; I had fallen ill with a gorgeous disease, which I didn’t know about until the symptoms were full-blown.

     My friends and colleagues found my soccer mania inexplicably strange, a whim that, if chosen to shock, merely showed how much of a grandstander I was, and, if serious, proved I was even odder than they imagined. So had my oceanic phase, my flying phase, and that perhaps least understandable phase, during which I spent one winter hooking rya rugs in biological patterns seen through a scanning electron microscope: amino acids, bladder, prostate, brain cells. For me, there was nothing to explain; it was all so simple. Each part of life willy-nilly suggested the rest, revealed so much about the large, unknowable texture. Just as you could peek through any keyhole on any of the many doors leading to a grand ballroom and see the same interior, but from different angles—the brocade chair cushions, the resiny floor varnish, the chandeliers cut to look like crystal crowns, the wrought-iron plant stand from which Swedish ivy cascaded—I sensed that the passionate study of any moment of Creation would teach me more and more about what it meant to have once been alive on the planet, to have been mortal, to have had a probing, contrary, stubborn, exhilarating, nomadic, treacherous, self-amazing mind. Soccer could tell me all of that, I thought, as ballet could, or physics, or horse trading, or stamp collecting, provided I gave it my rapt, undiluted attention, provided I fell in love with it so deeply I became aware of all its subtleties. Those I would add to what through thought and sense I already knew, other views through other keyholes, and somehow it would homestead another corner in the limitless estate of my curiosity about what it meant to know something, to want something, to be

     Those who knew me thought my heart a pushover; surely it was fickle to be swept away by any panaching fancy. But my obsessions were poignant and solemn, so much so that it embarrassed me to admit it; thus I went along with the smirks and banter. Who would believe a summer spent in men’s locker rooms was a mystical obbligato? As for the fancies, they might lose my attention at some point by passing, but the questions they tantalized me with would never pass, not even when I did. But it was true, at some point the fever would break, and control of my life would return to me again. New planets would be found and cataloged, and that would excite my imagination, but never with the soul-drenching attention I gave to astronomy when I was in that well of attention, during which the drabbest morsel of information could hone my sense of wonder to a needle edge. I had done my tour of duty there, and it had taught me all I was able to learn from it about mortality. And when I had distilled what I could from it, I let it drop, walking away, people thought, because I had accomplished my immodest goal and collected another field of experts and expertise. In truth, I had merely come to the end of that hamlet; when a subject ceased to teach me, it released me. Nor was it enough to behold a subject, I needed to touch and be touched by it, to make love to it, to become its life, to take it into my body and create something dysgenic and beautiful from it that would illuminate us both. Maybe it’s this simple: my need to transform life both trapped and freed me, made me weak and vulnerable as an avalanche.

     Time out. Beckenbauer disappeared behind another player, a fullback who was built like a draft horse and yet always ran with his hands hanging limply from his wrists, as if they’d been broken or were marcescent leaves. Beckenbauer never did; his hands poised at different attitudes like a tightrope walker’s, and when he outdribbled players, feinting this way and that, he seemed to be casting spells. His balance had a complex choreography. The Bulgarian had a coarser and rougher technique, and so it was doubly strange to see his hands hanging limp when he crashed into someone, and almost sickly, delicate, as he stole the ball away and raced downfield.

     I set my binoculars on the table in front of me, the white formica that curved around the press-box window. A player was down at the other end of the field, one of the visiting team’s young defenders who had been tripped from behind. The referee stopped play, even though half time was only seconds away, and signaled the team’s physiotherapist onto the field. In the press box, three tiers of journalists relaxed. Some lit cigarettes, and others got up to stretch. Though they couldn’t risk sharing their night’s copy, they found things to talk about. Chitchat in several languages filled the smoky enclosures. Occasionally, they watched the TV monitors suspended above them for close-ups of the boy’s writhing and the physio’s laying on of hands, over which ran a repetitive account by the play-by-play and color commentators hired by the team.

     I noticed that my reflection, warped by the curved glass, split into a ghoulish blend of primary colors so vibrant it was like looking at my exposed circulatory system. When, finally, patterns began to form behind it—the game resuming—I was glad to dive through the apparition, back into the swirling, perfect flow. I lifted my binoculars, and pulled Beckenbauer nearer and nearer, until I held him in a clear tight focus once again.

Diane Ackerman is the author of many works of nonfiction and poetry, including The Zookeeper’s Wife (W. W. Norton), A Natural History of the Senses (Random House), and The Human Age (W. W. Norton). She has received the John Burroughs Nature Award, the Orion Book Award, and the PEN/Henry David Thoreau Prize, among other honors. A film version of The Zookeeper’s Wife appeared in 2017.