Play Ball

by: Marcia Eppich-Harris

“I was nothing, nobody, suspended in the darkness, until he lit a match and drew me to his light.” The intimate relationship between infidelity and baseball…

playball

There’s a reason baseball is the go-to metaphor for sex. Games can be slow and strategic – they can be exciting and full of errors. Some players are all stars and some are sloppy little leaguers. There are legendary games that you never forget and mid-season slumps that are completely unremarkable.

My relationship with Hans was a World Series that evolved out of the depths of rec-league monotony. We were both married with children. We had both, separately, asked ourselves the question, “Is this all there is?” We were both master game players. But there are no high-stakes games in the average marriage. It’s rec-league, not pro sports. I’d forgotten about strategy and home runs and curve balls, instead relying on the fat, slow pitch that I could knock out of the park once a week, year after year, with my husband.

But then, Hans offered a chance to play in the majors. Our families traveled in the same circles, spent holidays together, since everyone was Silicon Valley immigrants. One Halloween, our spouses took our kids trick-or-treating, and Hans and I stayed at his house to hand out candy and watch the Giants play the Rangers in game four of the World Series. We rooted for the home team, drank wine, and talked about Germany, where Hans was from. But I didn’t think anything of it. There are leagues, you know? Hans was major league, and I didn’t belong with that kind of guy. I considered myself to be a minor-league player, batting around .200. Major-league men had never been interested in me. But I was wrong about Hans. He watched every pitch of game four, sitting a bat’s length away from me on his couch, wondering if he’d ever work up the courage to try for first base.

A week after the Giants won the World Series, Hans called me, drunk.

“Did you see the final game?” he asked.

“Yes!” I said. “That three-run homer in the seventh nearly killed me. It was amazing.”

“Not as amazing as you,” he blurted.

“What?” I asked.

“I’ve wanted you since the day I met you,” he said. “Since Halloween, I haven’t been able to think of anything but you.”

I looked at the caller ID again to make sure it was Hans I was talking to.

“Me?” I asked, laughing nervously. “Hans, we’re not even in the same league.”

I thought back to that night and wondered what had been so special, if watching a baseball game with a woman meant something more symbolic than I knew.

“I don’t care,” he said. “Meet me. Meet me so I can show you.”

I looked down at my double-pregnancy ravaged body and sagging breasts and laughed.

“Talk to me when you’re sober,” I said and hung up on him, shocked, but secretly wondering if it could be true. The idea of Hans wanting me – it was thrilling. My whole body came alive, and I realized that this was the first time I’d had basically any feelings at all after my second child was born. I’d been walking around empty for five years, wondering if I’d ever matter as a human being again, apart from my functionality in my family. Suddenly, here was Hans, a rich, sexy, major-league player with all the right moves. And he wanted to play ball. With me.

I resisted for months, I swear. After the initial surge of excitement, I thought he was making fun of me. Hey batter, batter, batter, swa-ing batter. I was frumpy, not sexy. I was forty – retirement age from the majors. But he kept pursuing me – texting, emailing, chatting.

“Hans,” I wrote, halfheartedly one night, “I’m flattered, but I’m best friends with your wife.”

“She doesn’t care, and you know it,” he said. “She told me to have an affair.”

I’d never understood their relationship. She had complained about him so bitterly to me from day one of our friendship. She even said that Hans and I had more in common than the two of them.

“You’d actually laugh at his lame jokes,” she’d told me.

I did like his sense of humor – dry and sometimes adorably awkward. I also admired his work, instead of resenting it, like his wife. But I didn’t have to live with his intense hours or his propensity to solve problems with money instead of talking.

Hans didn’t treat me like his wife, though. He talked to me. He told me about his struggles and his hopes. He told me I was smart and beautiful. He asked about my life, why I’d given up my ambitions to be a stay-at-home mom. He could tell I was unhappy, and he worked on me like a pitcher throwing an hour a day in the off season. “We would have fun,” he said. “When was the last time you had fun?”

“I have plenty of sex,” I told him.

“Not with me,” he said.

His pitches were mouthwatering. I stood on deck, soaking him in for the longest time. He was graceful, dynamic, muscled, determined. And try as I might to resist, I still found myself inching toward the batter’s box. Once there, I stood and took pitches for the longest time.

I just want to feel you.

Your body is so perfect.

I’ve wanted you for so long.

I was so afraid. I was afraid that if I swung, I’d strike out and lose everything in the process. But I was equally afraid that if I watched every pitch fly by that I’d never, ever feel anything again. Not the thrill of having swung. Not the pouring sweat of stealing bases. Not the clamor toward home plate. I might as well have been a cardboard cut-out of my former self. That’s how much I felt like I related to the world.

Late at night on Opening Day of baseball season the following spring, Hans texted me and said, “You know this is going to happen eventually.”

“Why is that?” I asked.

“One day, I’m just going to show up at your door if I have to,” he wrote.

“What if my husband is here?” I asked.

“I’ll bring a six pack and we can watch the Giants game.”

It was like he was threatening to throw a pitch into my ribs, force me onto first base. My entire body tensed with anticipation and euphoria.

Fuck it, I said to myself. Swing away.

“Okay,” I wrote. “Where should we meet?”

“I know a hotel,” he said. “I’ll pay.”

The affair was a seven game series over the course of nine months – sometimes in hotels, sometimes on home turf. Playing away games was easier. We just had to shower to cover our tracks. No explaining the sheets or the smell or the body fluids everywhere. Just a generous tip and a prayer that the spouses wouldn’t see the credit card bills.

They didn’t.

We would have gotten away with it, if I hadn’t been so amateur and let my feelings get out of control.

There’s no crying in baseball. And I didn’t cry until it was over. My husband’s job transferred him across the country, like a midseason trade, and I had to decide whether to stay with him and the kids or not. It wasn’t much of a decision. I didn’t even consider staying with Hans and he didn’t offer. And I wasn’t ready to give up my family. All of a sudden, having woken up from what seemed like the deepest, deadest sleep, aroused by the fury of playing in the majors, I realized that the possibility of just losing them actually made them seem precious. In a new situation, new surroundings, new ball park, maybe I could be alive for them again.

But Hans was like a drug to me, a combination of cocaine and steroids: exhilaration, intense focus, frenzied energy, and a building of inner strength that I hadn’t felt for ages. No wonder baseball players love their drugs. I thrived on his self-confidence. I loved our games. What an incredible fuck Hans was. But more than anything, I had a chance to be something more than a rec-league player. Together, Hans and I were all stars. We answered each other’s question, “Is this all there is?” with an emphatic clink of ball to bat and an echoing roar that sounded like “absolutely not.”

I cried because we were friends. Hans was the only person who knew my secret: that I’d bet my family on a game instead of getting therapy or prescriptions or a hobby – anything to cope with my absolute and total depression. He knew that, and he liked me anyway. I cried because I was losing that – that subtle reassurance that I was still likable, even if I was a cliché, even if I couldn’t handle riding the pine, benched, while my husband made all the money.

I told my husband about the affair after we moved away. He was devastated, and only agreed to stay with me if we both went to therapy. I said I’d go, separately. I didn’t need a couple’s therapist judging me for being a fallen woman. The first thing my new therapist asked me was if I was thinking about harming myself or others.

“Not anymore,” I said. “I thought about dying a lot for the last few years. My family would probably be better off without me. But they’re stuck with me, I guess.”

I explained how I felt like I was a minor leaguer, doomed to mediocrity, no matter what station in life I was talking about. I said that when I started my affair with Hans that I had become so convinced of the meaninglessness of everything that there was no reason to be moral. No incentive to say no to a major leaguer who wanted to pull me up to his level. I was nothing, nobody, suspended in the darkness, until Hans lit a match and drew me to his light.

“‘So shines a good deed in a naughty world,'” I said.

“Do you think of your affair as a good deed?” my therapist asked.

I sighed and stared at the clock on her wall.

“I think it was like baseball,” I said.

When Hans and I met for the last time, we were not on our game. When you know it’s your retirement game, you can’t help but feel the pep going out of your stride. When the game was over, we held hands in the hotel parking lot and said goodbye. I told him I loved him, but those weren’t really the right words. Nor were, “I had fun,” which is what he said, his voice shaking.

We stood there for a moment, and he finally said, “If anything ever changes for me, I’ll let you know.”

I nodded, unable to speak.

“But no promises,” he added, with a laugh.

He hugged me more tightly than he ever had before, then kissed me goodbye.

Once I’d confessed to my husband, that was when the guilt started, and when missing Hans truly became real. Ending our affair meant fostering shame where once there was elation. It felt like the world was putting cigarettes out on my guts. The affair ended – the burn didn’t.  It became clear that I had to do something with my life if I wanted to stay alive. Hans was a life-saving distraction for a moment in time. I needed something else that wasn’t going to make things worse. So I got a job. I made friends. I stopped watching baseball.

Four years went by, and in spite of myself, I thought about Hans every day. Most of the time, I was grateful that Hans had shaken me awake and forced me to recognize that there were other answers to the question, “Is this all there is?” Sometimes I resented that the answer had started with him. But my marriage got better once I came back to life. My husband, not a sore loser, understood that there had been something wrong, and he hadn’t known how to fix it. He cared enough to be a friend, and he let go of the affair. But for me, it was always in my head, the sad glory days of a player well past her prime.

One day, I got an email from Hans. Seeing his name in my inbox set off a macabre chorus of “Take Me out to the Ballgame” in my mind. My stomach clenched with a mixture of the old excitement and the overwhelming pain of addiction.

Part of me couldn’t believe that a major leaguer like Hans even remembered me. I had convinced myself that for him, it had all just been a ballgame, and he couldn’t possibly have been addicted to me in the same way I had been to him. I was just a pinch hitter for a man whose wife openly loathed him. He was sure to stay in the majors, even if I quit playing.

Holding my breath, I read the email.   

“Single? I am. Feel free to ignore me. No promises.”

No promises. It was a refrain with him, I thought, recalling our last conversation. Yet, he had lived up to the dark promise to let me know if his situation ever changed. And here he was. Divorced. Four years later.

His face flashed before my eyes, and the regret was instant. I thought about how much better my life had been since I moved away and hung up my cleats, retiring from games. I thought about how much energy I’d given to Hans, at the expense of everything else in my life. I thought about old players who should never pick up a bat again, no matter how much they miss the adrenaline rush from the bat hitting ball and the sprint around the bases.

I wrote back that, actually, things were great with me and that I’d stayed with my husband, or rather, he had stayed with me. I said that I was happier than I had been – thanks to you, I didn’t add, I think I’d be dead if it hadn’t been for you.

He wrote back and said that he was alone – a little happier, but it sucked being alone.

I wrote, “I wish we could be friends.” I swallowed hard and added, “But it would not be a good idea.”

“That’s too bad,” he wrote. “I had hopes.”

He said he wanted to visit, check in, see how I was doing. But I could hear in his tone that what he really wanted was to see if he still had it. Play the game again and throw perfect fast balls to the perfect batter, maybe score a three-run homer in the top of the seventh, like the Giants, years ago. Maybe he was feeling a little vulnerable, like his divorce meant that he wasn’t really a major league player after all. Maybe he needed a pinch hitter to show him that he still had talent and that, in fact, wisdom, not folly, had come with the passage of time. Baseball was half physical, half mental, after all.

Nostalgia consumed me, and it was easy to forget the stress and emptiness that made me swing, swing, swing away again and again until it really hurt, until I was ready to be done, but never said so – or admitted as much to myself. Or Hans. Ex-players get a look in their eyes when they talk about their old games, and I’m sure that look was in my eyes as I chewed over his words, “I had hopes.”

I replied, “I would have loved to see you. But I can’t.”

I said goodbye, and it was the right thing to do. But it didn’t feel good, and all the positive feelings I’d previously had suddenly disappeared. When I told Hans I was happier than I’d ever been, it turned out to be a lie, because since he wrote to me, I’ve been more miserable than ever. More miserable than the absence of feeling that drove me into swinging at Hans’s perfect pitches in the first place.

Hans haunts me. His specter is still throwing pitches, still beckoning, “Come play, come play.” In spring, the rest of the world pulls out their mitts and bats and works on their accuracy and endurance. Me? I think of Hans. I dream about him. I wake up thinking that I blew it – that I’d given in to the addiction and gone back for just one more game. Then I look around and remember I’m in the rec-league, and for the life of me, I can’t figure out what I’m swinging at. In my mind, I strike out over and over again, swinging, missing, feeling like I should be better than these games. But I’m afraid I’m not. I’m not sure any of us is.

 

Marcia Eppich-Harris has published fiction in a number of journals, including Johnny America and The Avenue, and has a forthcoming story in the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library’s publication, So It Goes. She teaches Shakespeare and dramatic literature at Marian University.

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