My brother, five years my senior, and his friends started playing dodgeball in the summers together to keep in touch when they went their separate ways at the end of their adolescence to respective colleges, and managed to keep the game alive for a few summers as they made their way towards separate majors, separate apartments, separate significant others and separate lives. Somewhere in the mix, I was invited to tag along.
I remember following my brother’s big blue Camaro in my somehow less cool Hyundai Sonata as a 16 year old with a six-week old license. I remember how grossly overdressed I was, black fleece and straight legged blue jeans. I remember meeting in the center of the court and reminiscing about middle school capers and current events and really just being a fly on the wall to this strange, at least in my mind, adult world of such far off concerns as “rent” and “real jobs” and “relationships that didn’t start in homeroom.”
Someone brought a boom box and someone else brought a ludicrous mix CD sporting such fan favorites as “Tunak Tunak Tun,” a ridiculous Indian pop song, “Build Me Up Buttercup,” random sprinklings of hardcore gangster rap, and what felt like every bad anthemic single that came out from 1998 to 2003. Two people were picked as captains and the captains picked two teams. We lined up against the wall, and a friend of my brother’s from childhood wearing a day-glow green t-shirt with the sleeves cut off and shorts so short they’d make Daisy Duke blush (who is now married with a kid on the way) takes a deep breath and screams over some Third Eye Blind song: “3…2…1…DODGEBALL!”
Some five years later I stand holding the same chain link fence staring at the faces of the next generation, my friends with their younger brothers in toe, and this time I’m fighting for sonic dominance with “Semi-Charmed Life.” I had become the de facto leader wearing obnoxiously loud clothing and singing along to every worn out anthem of our youth. I was no longer Dan’s little brother. Somewhere along the foggy road of time I had shed that skin and blossomed into this weird symbol for innocent adolescent debauchery, rebelling against the oppressive authorities of small town decency with silly outfits, annoyingly loud and obscure music, and bags upon bags of flamboyantly colored kick balls in varying states of disrepair. Somewhere along the line, I was promoted. Somewhere I became Sarge. And I loved every second of it.
Then I moved. I left my Americana hometown behind in a cloud of dust as my Sonata pulled out of my parents’ gravel driveway with “Born to Run” blasting from my dilapidating speakers, middle finger pointed straight up as I intentionally doubled the speed limit as I left the town limits for the last time. I fulfilled the adolescent cliché of running away from your deadbeat small town life and heading out into the big bad world with nothing but a deck of smokes in your pocket and a story to tell. It felt great.
Except it didn’t.
I should have been ecstatic. I mean, for the first time since I graduated from the crib, I would not have to sleep in bunk beds. I was not living with my parents. I was a senior in college and it was the middle of July, with the summer spilling out in front of me like water from a garden hose. And I was happy, for a while.
Then the first Monday came and went, the day where I would finish patching popped balls and speed to the court to set up before kids started to trickle in, and I didn’t think about it that much. Another Monday came, and I restlessly paced the house, being plagued by a feeling that I was forgetting something so outrageously obvious that I better well find it now before someone calls me on it. Another week went by and I took the balls I had saved out of my trunk and stared at them, running my fingers over the rough raised rubber, dribbling them and listening to the soft “doink, doink” as it bounced off the pavement, wishing there was someone around so I could ask them to throw it at me, so I could feel that horrible visceral sting, look down at my skin and see the subtlest imprints of the rubber in my flesh as blood rushed to the wounded spot, making my skin blush, like it was embarrassed that it got hit. I was alone in a big house, lying down on my brand-new queen size mattress, and wishing to God that it was a bunk.
I went back later to see the parents and pick up some home cooked leftovers. It wasn’t the first time I walked these hallowed grounds after a period of absence with a sense of solemn reflection. Whole semesters used to fly by without me fighting the makeshift lock to enter the court. But still, the air was different because it was now officially a memory. I had moved; next summer would be spent scouring the Earth for a writing job, not assaulting high schoolers and old classmates with playground balls. As a man who is as allergic to maturity as I am, this was a tough pill to swallow.
The asphalt was the same. I walked to the court and stared at it; the glare from the sun made it sparkle. The amount of DNA embedded in that asphalt from all of us, the sweat, spit, blood and skin cells from an ill advised, but oh-so-badass dive to get Mike out and send half of your team sprinting back in as the tides turn and the Dodge-Gods smile in your favor. It wasn’t just the physical traces we left behind, we left years there. All of the weird social drama that infects all of us at that age was filtered through the lens of a chain link fence. Friendships were cemented, relationships blossomed, relationships went horribly wrong, relationships started again, there were bitter fights and bursts of laughter, all with a Wu-Tang Clan soundtrack.
It was quiet, though, and I was wearing jeans instead of short shorts, and there was no Indian pop rock to annoy the neighbors. I stood in the center and watched the wind blow, watched leaves twinkle down from their perches. The fall was here, winter was on its way, a hard rain was a-gonna fall, and the clock kept ticking. I walked to the gate, locked it behind me, and turned around to see six years of kids trying not to grow up, trying to find Never Never Land together in a cage behind an ice cream shop.