It wasn’t quite déjà vu or nostalgia, but as we sat there watching as Everton Ladies defeated Liverpool 1–0 in the Merseyside Derby this past November—Alba in her high chair beside the TV tossing Cheerios casually to the floor for the dog, me nearby working from the couch on my laptop—I remembered a similar afternoon more than a decade ago.
I was in New Jersey at the kitchen table in my parent’s second-floor apartment watching as Everton lost 3–0 to Sporting Lisbon to tumble out of the 2009–10 Europa League. Like a boy newly in love, I was in my first full season as an Everton supporter. The optimism of youth had not yet been trampled by the cruelty of the world. Naively, I wished that God might indulge the virtuosity of my decision to support the Toffees with a championship trophy I could shove in the faces of my friends who had raised disbelieving eyebrows when I swore allegiance to a Premier League side not named Manchester United, Chelsea, or Arsenal.
I was in eighth grade at PS 14. In Mrs. Squittieri’s history class we had been reading excerpts from The Odyssey and talking about heroes. I remember where I sat and the cover of the book of Greek mythologies we read from, which would become one of my childhood favorites. One day, in the way of all great teachers, she had connected the heroes of literature to the real-life heroes in our 13-year-old lives. I knew exactly who she was talking about.
Seated on hot aluminum bleachers, I watch them on green-yellow grass.
Sweat soaked Sunday warriors, their heads craning toward the blue sky, panting like race horses, chasing a once-white ball, kicking, colliding, falling to the ground, and rising again; a pattern stitched in ninety minutes.
Jacob picked up the ball and walked it twelve paces to the spot in the dirt he had marked off with his foot. He dug the toe of his boot into the dirt and beat it down enough to fit the old ball so it wouldn’t move. He set it down and then lifted it a foot off the ground, spinning it carefully in his hands, before placing it firmly in the spot again. Jacob’s dad had taught him to always set the ball down this way: “Never let the referee do it for you. It’s your penalty kick—not theirs,” he had told him.
It was mid-July and the summer heat was stifling. For three weeks, Jacob had spent hours in the little park behind his parents’ house in New Jersey. During the day, he would take his old ball and hop the yellow brick wall at the end of their street, shortcutting his way to the soccer fields. He kicked the ball around until the floodlights came on. That was his sign for when the adults would come out to play and he knew he had to head home for dinner. After dinner, he’d sit on porch with his ball. He watched the older men walk down the dead-end street and hop the wall on their way to play soccer with their friends. They were mostly laborers from Mexico and Central America, and sometimes they wore jerseys familiar to Jacob from the television broadcasts of the professionals: the dark green of Mexico, luminescent yellow of Brazil, orange-red of Spain.