The ball is a face. Leathered and weathered and pockmarked and laugh lined. No, it’s not a face. It’s a big round world, with crevices and ravines slithering across tectonic plates. I bounce the world hard on the blacktop, and it comes back into my hand covered with a fine layer of New York City diamond dust—pavement shards, glass, crystallized exhaust from the West Side Highway—and it feels like a man’s stubble, or what I imagine stubble might feel like against my palm, and it’s a face again. I bounce the face, and it’s back in my hand and it’s something else. A sun. A red terrestrial planet. An equidimensional spheroid made of cowhide and filled with nitrogen and oxygen. Whatever it is, whatever I imagine it to be, I know it holds some kind of magical power.
There’s Percy on my periphery. Limbs like a wind chime in a hurricane. He’s open in the passing lane. Woo woos for the ball. But I got this. I’ve had the touch all game. I’m dribbling the sun nice and low by my ankles, like it’s bobbing over and under the horizon. No way am I passing it. Dude guarding me has the sometime goods of a former college baller. A powerful drive to the basket but knees that only work every other play. No match for the sky walker in me. I’m smaller but I’m way quicker, with a scary first step and lean, taut muscles I’ve got absolute faith in.
I take him on easy. Leave him flat-footed and salty as I blow by. I pull up and launch a rainbow from a spot in the low atmosphere where gravity is diluted. The red planet flies through the chainlink net without touching a thing. As though it’s been sucked into the perfect center of a black hole. Thwip. Bounces on the blacktop court nice and gentle. Puts a period on the pickup game win.
My man just stands there, hands on his hips, shaking his head, looking at me. Grinning goofy. Sweat, like, seriously pouring off his face. Inner me is hard-core gloating. But I’m keeping it cool on the outside. I love schooling geezers who mistake me for an easy mark.
“Girl,” he goes, “you the real thing, you the real thing,” and he takes my hand and pulls my whole body into his, smacks my back three times, giving me a genuine but sweaty bro hug.
There’s only one place in the whole universe where a pizza bagel—a Jewish and Italian mutt-girl—might get that exact compliment from a middle-aged black guy: 40 degrees latitude and -73 degrees longitude. Find it on your atlas.
“Ball hog,” Percy shouts as he ambles over. Making music as he moves. He dangles his lily-white arm with its random pale brown freckle clusters over my shoulders and whines, “I was open, man.”
So was I. But all I do is smirk at him as if to say, Tough shit. Jackass looks even better to me when he’s pissed. Even with his patchy, scraggly attempt at a beard and the greasy hair he’s growing out from the bowl cut he’s had since he was five. Something about that potent combo of sweat and Drakkar Noir and competitiveness just does it for me.
The old dudes leave, citing the obvious excuses: Gotta get home. It’s late. The wife. Yeah, whatever. I know the real reason. No fun getting your asses handed to you by a couple of high school kids, especially when one of them is a seventeen-year-old girl.
They take the red spheroid-face-star with them. I met that basketball for the first time only thirty minutes ago but I already know I love it unconditionally, and that it loves me back in a way that no carbon-based life-form ever will. I mourn it as I watch it leave, tucked under my man’s arm. I ought not to imbue a ball with so much magic, but when I’m holding one I go from Lucy Adler, invisible girl—lowercase i, lowercase g—to Lucy Adler, Warrior Goddess of Mannahatta, Island of Many Hills. The court is my phone booth. I am transformed.
Percy goes, “I’m up for a little one-on-one action.”
Yeah? Me too. But a different kind of action, friend. Sigh. Silly girl—he’s not interested.
I’ll play him, of course. I’ll play him even though the last time we got into it, he dropped his bony shoulder and nailed me in the chin and chipped my front tooth. I can still feel the crack when I run my tongue over it. I’ll play him even though he’s nearly a half foot taller than me and he’s got all the goods—a solid post player who can play the perimeter with as much finesse as a true two-spot. I’ll play him even though I’ll lose. Because if I play him, I get to touch him. And post him up and feel the weight of his chest on my back.
I grab the ball I brought to the court, which has been sitting by the rusted metal fence this whole time, waiting for its chance. It’s a little older than the last one we played with, no longer has goose bumps on its flesh. It’s not a star or a planet or a face. It feels heavier, less ethereal. I’ve lost games with this ball. The ball I played with earlier will always be perfect to me. I know this one’s cruelty too well.
“I’m down,” I go. “You get the usual handicap.”
“Fine, I won’t go in the paint. Imagine how fast I’d kill you if I did.”
There was a time when I could beat Percy on the regular. All through middle school I was taller than him, and he hadn’t yet figured out how to defend a crossover. I racked up enough Ws in those years that it took him a while to finally get to the other side of the lifetime win-loss record. But times have been tough for me throughout most of high school. Beating me has never been routine, but it’s rare I can get in a win now without a forced impediment.
He checks me the ball.
I take my time. Stalk the perimeter like a wolf. He doesn’t know how hard I’ve worked on my outside shot all summer, so he hangs off me, waiting to defend a drive. I dribble slow to the left side of the basket, just inside the arc, my newly discovered sweet spot.
Thwip. Perfection. The chain-link net jangles just quietly enough to sound like someone counting rosary beads.
“Luck,” Percy says as he catches the ball dropping from the basket.
If there is some profession, some thing I can do in life as a job, as a way to earn a paycheck, that feels as good as swishing a long-range jumper, I want to do that. I want to get paid to do just that. I’ve tried to explain this to my college counselor, but she just laughs and says, “That’s cute,” and tells me to focus on AP physics. Listen, if I shoot a ball from ten feet from the basket and I’ve got about a six-inch vertical on my shot, I can calculate the delta on the parabolic arc, no problem. What does that mean exactly? Nothing. That’s what. All I’m interested in right now is feeling. Feeling heat. Feeling touch. Feeling thoughts. Feeling body. And nothing feels as good as swishing a basketball in the face of your one-on-one opponent. Nada.
Because Percy is a pure Darwinist, he plays by strict playground rules, which means it’s winner’s ball: my ball. In the gym at school it’s always loser’s ball, because your opponent should have a chance to get back in the game. You might learn all you need to know about a person when you find out whether they believe pickup basketball should be winner’s or loser’s ball.
This time I switch it up. Use my speed. Percy stops me middrive with his ungodly wingspan. His feet quick, mirroring my every move. I turn and push all my weight into his chest, pounding the ball and pushing him backward toward the basket dribble by dribble. He pushes back, but not as hard as he would against an opponent closer to his size. Fuck him for taking it easy on me. I punish him for it. Duck under his arm and lay it up.
“You wanna throw down? Let’s throw down,” he goes.
I’m in full possession of my powers right now. Like lightning is shooting out of my fingertips. Like I’m channeling the soul of a Lucy Adler in an alternate dimension. One where beauty and sex drip off me all smooth and careless.
I squint and purr back at him, “Let’s see whatchya got.”
Why did I tempt him? His arms are long and his hands are quick, so I put my right arm up to ward him off and dribble with my left. Lean into him with my elbow. He reaches across my chest, grazing my breasts. What little I got is bound against my ribs by a sports bra, so I doubt he feels anything that moves him. He swipes at the ball from under my forearm, and I heave up a Hail Mary.
“Reach-in!” I yell as the ball sails overhead and lands with a high bounce right behind him.
“You can’t be serious. You are not calling a reach-in on me. No blood, no foul. Don’t be a pussy.”
“I’m tryna help you with the little problem you have with self-control. In a game, a ref ’s gonna call that on you.”
Percy doesn’t believe in stifling one’s id. He’s a creature governed by the pleasure principle, and because of that he can’t resist the reach-in. It feels too good when he gets away with it, so it’s always worth the risk.
“Whatever. You just wanna win.”
I smile. “Maybe.” I walk to the line. “So, you gonna honor it?”
“Such bullshit. Sure, go ahead. Take your fucken’ free throw. It’ll make beating you more fun.” He bullets me the ball. I catch it and don’t flinch.
Five dribbles. Bend the knees. Squat. Square my body. Release. Damn. Just missed. Percy snatches the rebound before I can even make it a contest.
For a second, I glance over at the guys playing full-court five-on-five next to us. They’re mainly black and Hispanic kids, but there are a couple of white guys and an Asian kid playing. They all look to be somewhere close to our age, maybe a little older. They’re playing shirts and skins. The guys on skins for the most part deserve it—sleek six-packs and taut outtie belly buttons abound. They’re swimming in their worn-out Nike shorts, the waistbands of their Hanes peeking out. They’re shouting, Watch him. Watch him. Me. Me. Me. Pass it. Pass it. Shoot the ball, pussy. They’re clapping, they’re smacking each other’s backs, they’re laughing. Their boom box has been blasting some random mix of hip-hop—some Beastie Boys and Das EFX and now Slam! Duh-dun-uh, duh-dun-uh, Let the boys be boys! The speakers can’t handle the bass. The music pours over the courts, tinny and harsh. Doesn’t matter, though. It’s the beat they’re after.
The shirts asked Percy to join their team as soon as we walked onto the courts in Riverside Park. Why wouldn’t they? Just look at him: six-foot-three rangy beast. He glanced at me first for approval and said, “Sure, we’ll play.” They said, “Just you, not the girl.” Percy spit on the court near them, a nice fat loogie. “Your loss. She can kick all your asses.” Melt my little girlie heart. What those kids on shirts don’t know is that Percy is better with me as a pickup game teammate. Do they know how many hours we’ve spent on his alley-oop? Do they know that no one can put it in the exact right spot for him like I can? Do they know that we’ve been playing together on these courts since we were fucking embryos? That we are basketball telepaths at this point? They don’t know shit.
I walked away from them feeling both triumphant and tiny as a pinprick. Screw them, anyway. We played the middle-aged fatties instead and won. I’ll take it.
I get into the beat of the hip-hop they’re blasting. My temporary metronome. I perch myself on the balls of my feet, try to get ready to play D, but my concentration slips for a bit, and that’s all it takes. Percy’s on the board.
“So it’s like that,” I say.
“If you play crap defense, I’ll drop bombs on you all day.”
“Shuddup and check it back already.”
This time I play the dirty defense I know he likes. Force him weak side, his right. He drops his left shoulder and pushes it into my collarbone. I use all my strength and body up. Play whatever weight I’ve got. Try to knock him off balance. He bangs back into me, but he’s delusional if he thinks he can move me that easy. Contact like this is what I live for. I try to outmuscle him. Push back at him hard, so hard I find that I’m basically growling, like the effort it takes to defend him requires the help of every muscle in my body, including my solar plexus. Every time we collide back together, the crash of our bodies is harder and harder. He’s banging into me with a force I know is going to leave me with tender surface bruises. It feels good. But I can’t keep it up. It’s getting more difficult to push him off me. The electromagnetic pull between us too strong. Each time I grunt, Percy’s smile gets bigger and bigger and . . . Wait. Shit. He’s . . . toying with me. He could easily just shoot the ball, but he wants to see me work. Nuh-uh. Lucy. Adler. Does. Not. Get. Played. So I stop. I lay off him. He pulls back and dribbles the ball a couple times and shoots. His shirt lifts up, and I get a brief, teasing glimpse at his happy trail, which is dirty blond and sweaty. Damn. I shouldn’t have looked. Hopefully he didn’t notice.
The ball drops through the net behind me, and Percy jogs to grab it. I put my hands on my hips and look up to the sky while I catch my breath. “You’re an asshole, you know that?”
“Please. You love it. You lurve it.” He bounces the ball softly off my back, in the tough spot between the shoulder blades.
I wish it weren’t so true.
The game unravels fast for me. Two all quickly turns into 4–2, then 6–2. We’re playing first to seven, and whatever shot I had to show him I’m still a worthy opponent, still close to being equal with him, is vanishing.
He’s got a cushiony lead, so the smug asshole tries his hand at a huge three-pointer from so far downtown he’s practically at the Bowery. It clangs off the rim like a church bell, sending sinusoidal reverberations throughout the court.
We race to chase it down, but he’s got the adrenaline of a winner. He grabs the ball, pivots, and faces me and the basket.
Here it is, kids. A defining moment. I dig in and get low. Scrunch up my Champion mesh shorts. Get ready for what’s coming.
He palms the ball with his giant left hand and just holds it out behind him, like he’s Jordan, tapping the toe of his pivot foot in front of me. Taunting me. Begging me to try to steal it. I’m no fool on the basketball court. Maybe I’m a fool in other parts of my life, but not here. He’s pulled this sick move on me before, so I know to just stay poised on D and wait this motherfucker out. But then the kid starts staring at me. Right in the eye. Challenging me to a fourth-grade staring contest in the middle of a one-on-one battle royal. I’m not afraid of a little eye contact. I hold his gaze and I don’t blink. He’s got green eyes, rimmed with deep, dark blue on the outer edge of his pupils, and a freckle in his left iris that looks like a moon in orbit across the face of Jupiter. It couldn’t be more beautiful if it was painted in by hand. What an imperfection. Girls have fallen in love with boys for less. A miniature river of sweat swims down the middle of his brow and drops off his nose. I’d suck the sweat off his face if I could. What would it taste like? Orange Crush? He makes a move, finally. Puts the ball down and starts dribbling toward the basket. Then he palms it again and gets all the way around me by wrapping his right arm behind his back and around my waist. I feel the size of his hand on my body. My pupils dilate. My capillaries pop. He jumps up and rolls the ball in from the front of the rim.
I should be pissed. He removed his handicap and drove the lane. But I stay quiet about it. Warrior Goddess has left the court. I’m back to being what I always am. My heart melts right out of my rib cage, oozes out of my skin, and splats on the hot blacktop court.
Percy can feel my disappointment. “Sorry, Loose. It was right there. I couldn’t help myself.” As though the thing I’m upset about is losing.
“It’s cool.” I shrug and laugh it off. It’s always cool. It’s never a big deal. It’s just a game.
I jog to get the basketball, which has wandered onto the court next door. I pause for a moment to watch the sun. Not the ball, the real sun. The star that gives us life. It’s setting behind the New Jersey piers, taking all the color in the world with it. I recently found out that the sunset today is not like the sunset in prehistoric or pre-industrial times. It’s a man-made thing. It’s the pollution that gives it its colors, because of all the aerosols in the air. My cousin Violet, who is twenty-five and an artist, told me that was the inspiration for The Scream. A huge volcano erupted in Indonesia and made sunsets around the world a deep, searing red. If you’d never seen a red sunset before, it would be easy to imagine it was a signifier of the end of days. But we see red sunsets all the time now, especially this time of year, when the air is somehow thicker. I look up at the prewar buildings flanking Riverside Park and admire the way the light reflects off the stone and glass.
“Look at that sunset,” I say to Percy, who’s standing there sweating, looking all tawny and unwashed and golden. “It’s . . . perfection.” Maybe the only thing I’ve been missing this whole time is just some good lighting.
“Quit being a girl.”
I punch him in the arm as hard as I can—“Fuck you, prick”—and I laugh the way a dude would laugh.
He grimaces and rubs the spot where I nailed him. But he doesn’t hit me back. We walk off the courts into Riverside Park and head east toward the streets. Percy puts his arm over my shoulder like I’m his personal moving armrest, and I look up at his face. If I were someone else, how easy it might be to kiss him. If I could trade in my athleticism for beauty, just for a little bit, just to see what it’s like.
He starts telling me about the new book he’s reading by some French nihilist he’s just discovered. With my arm around his waist, I can feel his lungs expand and contract with the rhythm of his voice. We’ve been through a variation of this routine before. He will want me to read it so he can have someone to talk with about it. And I’ll read it, partially because I’m genuinely interested but mostly because I like talking to him. Because the world rains arrows and honey whenever he’s near me. Painful and sweet.