No Man’s Land

The border was like an inner impediment

Mikhail Joey, Untitled. 2023, Oil on cotton. 10 2/3 × 12 2/3". Courtesy of the artist.

In the spring of my first year in New Orleans I began to play soccer again. I’d played constantly as a child, had later captained my high school team, but of the many casualties of college, soccer was one. After graduating, I moved overseas, where I dabbled in the sport, playing keep-away or the occasional pickup game, enough to get my touch back, if not also my lungs. So it was with some trepidation that I joined a men’s league that first spring in New Orleans. The league was competitive, with the scale of play ranging from proficient to fluent, and my first several games, in which I was at once too timid and too assertive, were highly unpleasant. But slowly I played myself back into form, to the point that Wednesday nights, when our games were held, became the pinnacle of my week.

I came to enjoy every aspect of the routine that developed from soccer. Prior to the game, as the sun was setting through my western-facing windows, I would stretch for a long time in my studio apartment, narrowing my thoughts until they consisted of a single idea. Soccer was, in part, an experiment, an outlet — it had occurred to me that what I’d long taken in myself as misanthropy could be translated differently, that it could be termed, say, competitiveness, and that this might lead to healthier forms of behavior — and in stretching beforehand, I hoped to funnel my mind into nothing but distilled ambition. Once properly focused, I would walk to the café across the street to purchase a medium cappuccino; then I would return to my apartment and sip the cappuccino in silence, watching the last of the light. After some time, I would feed the small black cat I’d adopted while living in Italy, and set off on my bicycle for City Park.

The bicycle ride en route to the game was an important part of my ritual. Gliding through the dark streets, I would try to dissolve the kernel of determination that had formed in my mind, coaxing myself into a kind of unconsciousness. I trusted that the mind would retain the traces of that earlier determination, but that athletics, like any performance, was best done unaware. The repetitive motion of cycling helped bring about this thoughtlessness, and by the time I’d entered the park, I’d be thinking only of my body, which would be limber and sweating.

The field where we played was nestled deep within the park; in order to reach it, I would wind through various paths, past the museum, beneath the elevated railroad, beyond a thicket of trees, until I arrived at a gravel parking lot next to two baseball diamonds. Behind the diamonds, hemmed in on three sides by unkempt greenery, was our field, which was in a state of semi-neglect: the grass was only ever half-cut, and the nets seemed to hang like cobwebs off the goalposts. But the floodlights gave the field and its environs a brilliant sheen, and in the subtropical humidity, I was often taken with the dense, paint-like thickness of the surrounding colors: black sky, green grass.

Because the field was mostly out of sight (and because the games occurred well after dark), there were few to no spectators on the sidelines, lending the league an almost-secret quality that oddly increased the intensity of play. No one was watching; the rules of daylight didn’t apply; and the players thus approached each match with an unusual physicality. Not just this, though: there were emotional stakes of which I was only dimly aware, emotional stakes that would have been suppressed were it not for the privacy of the field.

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