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Fish out of Water
“Maryland’s got new uniforms,” she said.
It was in the woman’s locker room at the YMCA, a lounge area before you got to the actual lockers. I was doing sit-ups. The silver-haired woman seated behind me in her tracksuit was looking at the TV mounted on the wall.
There was nobody else in the room but me so I squinted at the TV. Tall glowing men where trotting around on a basketball court wearing two distinct color schemes. “Which one is Maryland?” I asked.
“Oh honey,” the woman drawled. “You aren’t from around here are you?”
She had that right.
I had moved three times in two years. I should have been better at this. But Raleigh was different. I didn’t know a soul. It was technically The South and I was the opposite of Southern. A friend had warned me they took their basketball seriously.
The paper in this town also took itself seriously. It was where Journalists came to launch their Careers. And here I was. Thinking it might be a good idea to launch one of my own.
But when I left the bunker-like newspaper building every night, I had nowhere to go but home to my shabby-chic Southern rental with the banging screen door and uneven wood floors. I watched classic movies, read Southern novels, stretched my legs out the full length of the couch and tried to revel in my solitude.
I was lonely.
Determined, I dug in. I joined the Y. I went to movies. I went to the same Harris Teeter every time I needed groceries. It was a small enough town, I reasoned, that if I just kept showing up, I would eventually belong.
The plan worked. I started recognizing people. I’d get a nod in the produce aisle. A group of blue-collar guys in their 50s even adopted me as their mascot at the Y. We worked out together and they regaled me with stories of their college glory days.
But, still lonely, I decided I needed a date.
I went on Match.com, interviewed three prospects and found a boyfriend. He was the good-time guy with the party house: disco ball in the living room, hot tub on the back deck. He had a huge circle of friends coming in and out at all hours and they were nice to me.
I was working as hard as ever but my attendance at the Y fell off in favor of happy hours, cookouts, parties and trips to the beach. It was a whirlwind that lasted almost a year.
But it was a play life, play friends. It was something so entirely separate from anything I had built on my own that it made me anxious and sometimes that anxiety seeped out and ate away at the edges. Eventually it dissolved the relationship.
Alone again, I panicked. I was back in my apartment, which had been all but abandoned for the last 10 months. The silence rang in my ears and the dust was everywhere.
I went back to the Y.
The guys were still there, every evening after work, and didn’t seem to mind that I’d been an absentee member of the group. Doug, Mike and Artie: they had once owned a contracting business under the name DMA Construction. Doug was outgoing and just showed up at the gym for the fun. Mike was now in the mortgage business and knew everyone in town. Artie was the quiet one of the trio, slight and silver haired.
They always left the Y and went to a bar. To watch the game, drink light beer, talk about their kids, wives and girlfriends and give each other a hard time. They invited me along and, faced with the option of my drafty, silent apartment, I started going.
I liked the way they didn’t ask questions. I enjoyed sitting silently or taking up the razzing, depending on my mood. I liked to hear their stories about growing up in the South: long car trips without air conditioning, school outings to Civil War battlefields, crazy uncles and sports, always sports.
One night, Doug showed up late and didn’t bother to change before finding us in the gym. His mom was sick, dying. He was flying out in the morning to see her. There was a quick discussion of where we were going to drink and I drove over to meet them, thinking on the way at how these guys had become my de facto best friends, worrying about Doug and what to say about his mom.
They were all there. They’d ordered my Coors Light. Their chairs were swung toward the TV screen. Basketball: NC State and Maryland.
I kept waiting. I had my comforting words all ready. But the conversation was no different than any other night. And as I watched them watch the game I knew this was all they needed.