BY QUEERTIME SHE grew restless and could not see what was in front of her. She felt rootless and lived alone; her friends were not family. Through this depression, she bought a new duck-feather pillow and ten-kilogram weights, and did what she had done since she was young: structured her life through football.
She lived through games: played and watched. Off-season, pre-season and on-season. There was the meal at the pub while watching the game, always the wedges, always the Stone & Wood.
The A-League season came to a head fast. Soon her team, Brisbane Roar, were playing Western Sydney Wanderers in a knock-out semi. She had been feeling nervous all day.
The viewing was with other dykes at the pub on Melbourne Street, just up a bit from Musgrave Park. The most dykes ever seen in Brisbane. The two girls in front of her she only saw at the games, a young Gold Coast couple, kissing and dancing at every chance of celebration.
Up 3-0 within twenty minutes and it was looking good. She even allowed herself to smile and laugh with the others. She was to punish herself for it, this ease, as another twenty minutes gone and the scores were level. She had another Stone & Wood as the game went to extra time. Western Sydney got the goal they needed to put them in the lead. She leaned in to the girls in front of her. She saw it in them too, the defeatism. Nothing now to believe in. None of it will be there for them next week. She felt her heart ache as she watched them leave before her, no longer holding hands. They did not play the game as she did, only watched. She still had her own football; the year had something for her yet.
IT WAS FOUR minutes on the ferry, her new club. And another couple of minutes walk down Oxford Street, past the bars and cafés. She resigned herself to playing there because it was four minutes on the ferry.
She still got nervous joining a new club, meeting the girls, learning the unspoken rules. It was still challenging, no matter how many times she did it, or how old she was.
She scanned the girls for signs of familiarity. Creatives? Older women? Lesbians or bisexuals? It had become something of self-preservation. Was it safe? The pack would strangle those not in with the crowd. Each time she took her gear off in the changing room she would be aware of this. Every time she smelt the start of a wounding joke she would run faster and leave the words in the wind.
The girls put on their boots. It started here – appearance. Coded in how they dressed. How short were the shorts? How high was the hair? So much straightness and so much time. A season of this.
Passing drills, technique-based exercises. Volleying, heading, bringing it down on the knee. These things came back to her after a while; it was a rhythm. Feet right and it volleyed off the foot into the hands of the receiver. Of course, the throw helped as well, as she told the girl she was paired with. ‘Perfect,’ she said to Kath, also new to the club, in colourful shorts.
When they entered a passing game, she saw Kath was a fit player with a good work rate and a positive distribution rate. She knew before Kath told her that she was a box-to-box midfielder. It was comforting to know there was a decent player in the squad but it also brought on feelings of jealousy.
In the break, she sat by herself on the wet grass. Kath called her back to the group, coach called a possession game.
She was picked to be on a team with less players and fought to get the ball, a bit too aggressively. She rushed at Kath and accidentally stood on her toe.
‘Sorry,’ already running to where Kath had put the ball, boxed Kath’s teammate in.
When she looked back Kath was frowning, clutching her toe. Then she was grabbing her shirt, pushing her shoulder into hers as she was muscled off the ball. ‘Well done, Kath,’ the coach yelled out and she fumed.
She was scared to get to know the field. Shy of it. The entrances and exits. The grass. All seemed uncertain.
They took another drink break, silent and out of breath. Some of the girls took the opportunity to sit down and stretch. She looked at Kath’s shaped legs. Her hands. Short fingernails, thick fingers, shiny skin. They were both covered in sweat. She was tired in the legs but wanted to show more in the next round of play.
When they got back to the game it was set up with two small goals. She was primed for this situation, scoring four straight up. Kath only got one late in the game. She didn’t know why she had created this personal score.
As they jogged doggedly across the field as a last physical commitment she tried not to notice those calves of Kath’s again. She said she went to the gym with her boyfriend. She wished she had come more prepared for this; her body was hurting.
WALKING INTO A half-circle of seated straight girls in the changing room, she held her breath. She felt a repulsion for the expression of femininity she could not endorse. Kath with fake tan and mascara to play in and straightened hair, white teeth.
The girls did not take their shirts off in front of each other, hiding their stomachs and breasts as if they didn’t have them. One by one they went to the closed toilet cubicle to change. When all the numbers had been taken and worn, the coach entered. He held up a white board and began to put names to dots.
She looked at Kath across the room. They had been fighting for the same number, and the same position. Luckily, the team required two central midfielders so they could play side-by-side. They did need to learn how to pass the ball to each other. The coach, the other girls noticed the bruising they gave each other in the training games. The coach put Kath’s and her name next together on the whiteboard. This felt unstable, easily altered.
The pre-game warm-up went like this: running in lines, lifting knees, opening and shutting the gate, shuffling sideways. Passing in lines, passing straight and running straight, passing diagonally and running straight and passing straight and running diagonally.
She felt the need to beat Kath here but also to keep reserves for the game.
THEY HAD ONLY one official for the match. Typical women’s game. They paid the same but got nothing for it. When the ball went close to the sidelines the teams had to rely on the ref’s approximation and their own honesty.
Kath and her killed it in the midfield. One assist and one goal each. They could be playing for fun but neither of them knew what that meant.
Her goal: running deep from midfield, turning a player to get into the 18-yard box, hitting it with the laces across her body. Top right corner, goalkeeper no chance.
Kath’s goal: a quick one two with the winger, a sprint to get in front, dummying the keeper and slotting it in from close range.
Neither was better but she couldn’t help the comparisons. Not a team sport with Kath on the team, always there, always fierce, always pushing her.
They finished the game with a solid 4-0 victory and everyone was happy. Pats on the back for the performance. They ran out their tired legs, skipped the last few metres, stretched out their hamstrings and groins.
The one official had gone so the coach asked for a few to stay back to help pack up the equipment. There were two needed to take one goal back, and two to take the other. She put herself on Kath’s goal. They lifted it together. She was exhausted but determined to keep up her end.
‘Go to mine.’ Kath said it quickly. She followed her to her car.
Kath’s house behind the club, as if staking territory. Radio and lights on inside. Midway through a nervous thought-sentence, Kath’s lips, wet. They pulled off their sweaty clothes and left them in a heap in the corner of the bathroom. She found herself thinking she hadn’t been with a woman whose breasts were smaller than her own; Kath hadn’t needed to wear a proper sports bra. She saw her with her back to her in the shower, the red lines the socks had made into her calves. The few pieces of grass in the cave of her back. Her own thighs protested as she bent down to soap Kath’s legs, feeling the muscles there, wondering if they were also feeling the pressure of the running, the movement.
THE SUPERSTITIONS YOU keep when you’re winning and doing well. An eight-hour sleep. No coffee that day. Noodle salad three hours before the game. Left boot on first. Laces tied twice. Before taking to the field she joined the circle, the team putting their hands together to chant the team song.
Kath and her continued to level their performance against each other. Every game counted.
Have you had penetration after football? Four fingers inside Kath, her sweat in her face.
She was bleeding, hated bleeding when she had to play. Kath had run much better where she had felt heavy at times during the game, the pad had filled up. Kath had been quick to take it off of her as if she’d known she had been wearing it.
Sometimes at training games Kath would bump knees with her, stick a leg on her leg, or press against her backside, knowing the way she liked to come, teasing her about it. If all that was needed was this friction, then Kath may be saying she could make her come standing on the football pitch, fighting for the ball.
She was less interested in the ball then she was beating Kath, getting in front, holding strong. She felt better when she muscled Kath off the ball without cheating, without her elbows up.
They have been playing their positions their whole lives. Centre. Kath centred straight and she centred queer. They were not about to give it up.
THERE WAS A potential problem. A disruption to the rhythm. She had a cousin’s wedding to go to in Cairns. She missed training twice. While away she tried to make up fitness by running on the beach. The night she got home she hit the weights, pressing them closer and closer to her head.
She arrived at the game ready to go in her head, not so in body. She sat in the changing room and watched the coach name positions. Her name was on the bench. Kath was starting with another teammate, Jill.
She stood by the bench, not used to this role. She did lunges and squats while watching the action, keeping herself close to the sideline to let the coach know she was ready at any time to make her way into the game.
Like usual, Kath had a lot of ball. When Kath tore down that left-hand side, and the bench was vocal, her own cries of encouragement got caught in her throat.
She was watching Kath having an intense on-field battle with her opponent, a sturdy player. Kath kept trying to round her but more often she got tangled.
Then Jill played another long ball; Kath ran on. Somehow she got there before the defender, smashed into the keeper. The ball dripped out of their collide, all held their breath, all thought it was going in the goal. She noticed she was the only one on the bench who was silent in that long moment. The ball hit the post, the game continued but something was different. The coach realised Kath hadn’t got up.
Play was stopped and the coach rushed on the field to see how Kath was. Seconds dragged on, players in groups, she on the sideline wondering if it meant it was her time to come on.
Seeing Kath in pain, she felt safe. Must be something in her blood to feel this way.
When she took to the park, it wasn’t the same. Her goals were not as crucial. She missed the pleasure.
‘You right?’ she had said to Kath. Her face constricted with anger, her voice a growl. ‘My knee’s not right at all.’
She had touched Kath’s tears as she lay confined by pain, perhaps that pain had been willed by her.
KATH’S INJURY WAS worse than the coach and her teammates had thought at the time. Kath’s boyfriend had rushed her to emergency late that night. The results of the MRI came: she had done her ACL. She wouldn’t be back that season. ACL injuries were so common in their sport but it hadn’t seemed a possibility with Kath. She had spent weeks hunting Kath’s weakness and hadn’t gotten close to it.
She went to the next training session slightly stunned. She didn’t have the desperation to catch up on the fitness she lost.
As she may have guessed, there was no off-field curiosity between them. She no longer had a desire to visit Kath’s house without the football. She did scroll through photo updates of Kath’s knee, swollen and strange looking.
She ventured back to the pub but all the screens showed rugby league and AFL and she had no narratives to place on these sports. There were no queers at the pub; it was out of season. She had no other hobbies.
She tried to create another rivalry but Jill wouldn’t take her up. Jill fell when she pushed. Jill yelled when she kicked. Jill told the others she was rough, and dirty. She sat by herself and looked at what she had destroyed. The pitch held the rhythms and the dents of her desire.
Somewhere along the line, she had stopped recognising land as history. She longed to feel the stories of the old cross-river time, feel the land’s occupation.
She started reading at home instead of lifting weights. She got heavy on her history of the place. As part of this, she took to walking along the river late at night. It was softer at that time. The bay breeze pushed through the river’s heart. Though the small marsupials had been hunted out, she had once seen dolphins, and hoped she would again.
She was on track to finish the season as her team’s best player, and her team’s highest scorer, and these things would have meant something when Kath had been around.
She only had the river, the wet smell of the ground, the queertime breaths, the lust.