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A Championship Season

Juliet Eastland

Second-prize winner of the I Found it in My Attic writing contest.

I've always hoped to stumble on magic in dark places a mad (but lovable) aunt locked away in the attic, or a beast with a heart of gold lurking in the basement. The flames were fanned, no doubt, by my youthful surfeit of gothic romance novels, and my fantasies bore no relationship to reality: my aunt lived quite sanely in her own apartment, the only beast in the basement was the ancient washing machine moldering away in the corner, and, in fact, I have not lived in a home with an attic since leaving my parents' house for college almost twenty years ago. I'm an urban creature, a New York City apartment dweller who fancies herself one tough cookie. I share street space with the crazy preacher-man on the corner and building space with loud neighbors and living space with several large cockroaches; there's no magic here.

Until I unpacked my closet. I was newly pregnant, and in full nesting mode. Cleaning the closet seemed the perfect ritual, both emotionally and practically, as if clearing the dark spaces without would help to cleanse the psychic realm within. I parked myself on a low stool and set to work excavating, digging through strata of books and magazines and old clothes.

At the back of the closet, wedged in behind a crate of dusty cassette tapes, was a ragged Thom McAn shoebox. It was my "special stuff" box that I had toted with me through the years, and I opened it with anticipation; I hadn't looked inside in years. I found an olio of my life: photographs of me and my best friend in high school, a ticket stub from a Little Feat concert, a woven leather keychain I'd bought on a college trip to Mexico, more photographs.

At the bottom of the box was a baggie. So that's where I'd hidden that pot! But no -- I unzipped the baggie and extracted what looked like an ancient strand of fettuccine, encrusted with brown and age and curled in on itself in rigor mortis. What geologic era had spawned this creature? I looked at it blankly, willing it to divulge its identity. No go; the noodle lay, inert and silent, offering up no information. At a loss, I unbent one of the ends; it had a tiny plastic sheath on it, covered in dried mud. I wet my finger and rubbed, and a smudge of color emerged like the under layer of a palimpsest. I unfolded the noodle and rubbed further. More colors. I was holding a shoelace: a late-1970s model, (formerly) white and emblazoned with tiny rainbows.

An unreasonable joy flooded me. I knew the lace as surely as I would have recognized, after a few confused moments, a childhood friend encountered on the street. It was the shoelace from my Tretorn tennis sneakers, the sneakers I wore when I became, for one glorious summer, an athlete: it was the shoelace of the unofficial Camp Golden Arrow Tetherball Champion, aka me.

Staring at the shoelace, I could practically smell the grassy field where the tetherball post had been set up. I was eleven. I had a small fan base -- about forty campers. My sport was not about to attain Olympic status any time soon. Nonetheless, I loved the game. I loved its simplicity: a basketball-sized ball, tethered to a rope, tethered to a wooden post. I loved its physicality -- the pummeling and bunting of the ball, the dramatic dives into the sand around the post. And I loved that finally, after years of being class klutz, I was good at something. More than good; I was graceful, ferocious. I would hit the winning shot, the ball would sneak past my foe's fingers, and the rope would entwine the post like a garland around a maypole. I would whoop in triumph. I was not a gracious winner.

This was the summer I wandered through the woods behind my cabin and encountered, for the first time, a raspberry bush. The summer my best friend taught me how to make macramé bracelets. And the summer Paul Solomon approached me at the Friday night square dance on the tennis courts and asked me to go out with him. I was wearing a peasant skirt, a tie-dye tank top, and, of course, my Tretorns with the rainbow laces; I felt radiant, and I was grateful to Paul for appreciating my beauty. I wasn't sure what "going out" entailed, especially at camp, but I liked Paul and respected his request. I said yes and he planted a timid kiss on my cheek. Later that night, after much agonizing and discussion with my bunkmates, I decided I had to listen to my heart: I wasn't ready for that kind of commitment. And so at seven the next morning, at the dining hall, we broke up. We had gone out for ten hours, eight of them spent in separate cabins. He was disappointed, and I was sorrowful and relieved. I had done the right thing. Nothing has ever felt as of a piece as that summer. The prevarications and evasions and tangled motives that choke the life out of mature relationships had not yet begun to ripen. Nor had ambivalence about competition, about winning, about getting down in the dirt and taking 'em on. These began to sprout that autumn, when I entered a girls' school. In place of the ungainly abandon of tetherball, girls rode horses and played field hockey on manicured lawns. What had seemed so pure -- sport for the joyful sake of inhabiting one's body, of mastering a skill -- was not so simple after all; issues of popularity and class muddied the green as thoroughly as the mud itself. Anxiously, I watched my body change, and as boys morphed into BOYS!, I slipped down the rabbit-hole of confusion. What was a girl, anyway? In my effort to fulfill that impossible mission, Fitting In, I corked the fizz of that summer and shoved the bottle to the back of a shelf.

And here was the bottle -- or, rather, baggie. I rolled the shoelace back and forth between my fingers and dithered. Stay or go? I was getting rid of so much other junk, and it seemed silly, saving this muddy relic. Be ruthless, I told myself. Out with the old! I placed the shoelace in the "get-rid-of" pile and went to bed.

Where I slept soundly until two a.m., when I sat bold upright, my heart pounding. What was I thinking? Of course I had to keep the shoelace. I tiptoed out of bed and retrieved the baggie. Life was marked by such an accumulation of unhappy mementoes – angst-filled diaries, photographs of former friends, mixed tapes made by boyfriends who subsequently dumped you. It was a gift, finding a talisman from a truly happy time. I replaced the baggie in the shoebox, where, undoubtedly, it would live for the next umpteen years until I cleaned out the closet again. No matter; I would be just as excited to see it the next time around. I tiptoed back to bed and lay, massaging my belly and thinking about the tiny creature growing inside me. I prayed that she would feel as I had that summer: so rich, blessed with a body that worked and a sense of joy in the bounteous world around me. I prayed that she would have the foresight to save a memento from that time, so that she, too, would be ambushed by joy when she stumbled on it years later.

Poof! My belly pooched outward. My baby had let loose a tiny karate chop from within. I took it as a sign that my message had been transmitted and received. I closed my eyes and slept.