The name of the field is forgotton, though it was somewhere in the San Gabriel Valley. The August sun pounded the heat-baked pitch as I jogged from line to line, warming up for my first soccer game in eight years.
It was Steeno who had invited me, poking his head over the top of a bookshelf in my office and saying, "Hey (Speaker), you play soccer don't ya?" He went on to tell me a group of sportswriters had formed a team in the aftermath of the recently ended World Cup (1994) and were looking for players. I agreed to show up and as I settled in the shade to stretch, I waited for the others to arrive.
Steeno showed and introduced me around, winding up with the man in charge of this motley bunch. His name was Mike Penner, a name I recognized from his years as the Angels beat writer at the Los Angeles Times. He carried a disheveled gym bag, bursting with light blue t-shirts and assorted papers. He shook my hand, asked me what position I played and sent me out into the center of midfield.
I lasted about 10 minutes. With virtually my first touch, I took a diagonal ball from Steeno, split the defense and scored. I promptly pulled myself out, years of inactivity and smoking had rendered me heaving and spitting shit up after a single run. Mike laughed, but the goal cinched another chance. "What are you doing on Friday?" he asked.
Playing soccer in Long Beach, as it turned out. We quickly went from those weekly kick-arounds to a proper league. Scribes FC we were called, owing to the bulk of the roster making their living as writers. Thus began my nearly 13 year association with the team and its leader.
Over the years, our results were up and down, but the easy camaraderie was always constant. Mike looked for good players, sure, but most important to him was to lead a good group of guys. In that aspect, he rarely erred. We all became more than just teammates. We became friends, formented over pitchers after the final whistle, cemented by early morning wake-up calls to watch EPL games together. Soon, some of us were playing together three nights a week and going out drinking the other four.
Mike's was a thankless task. Getting a bunch of drunkards to the pitch on time is no easy feat. Cat herders have an easier time. He ponied up the league fees which were sometimes, regrettably, sunk cost. He wrote long and hilarious newsletters about our games, kept track of stats and hosted celebrations when we won trophies. In and out of every season, he was there, lugging supplies in ever-larger bags until settling on what amounted to a suitcase packed with spare equipment, documents and refreshments. There were frequent phone calls to devise strategy for that weekend's opponent. Road trips to Santa Barbara and Vegas for tournaments that were more social than competitive. Frantic drafting of players to fill out a roster.
The names of people who have played for Scribes FC number over 100 at this point. But there was always a core, a group of us who loved the club for all the joy it had brought us over the years. Unbreakable bonds, career opportunities, even weddings.
I remember Mike at my own nuptials, standing around with other teammates, sharing and laughing. He told me later that was what Scribes were about. Trophies were fine, he said. But friends are forever.
We'd seen a lot less of each other these past couple years. I semi-retired from the club after moving way the fuck out here. Some health problems and work issues kept Mike from attending games. Of the core, only a few of us remained. But when we did get together, nothing had changed.
Mike called me a couple months ago, saying he had something important to tell me. It was a Saturday morning and I sat out on the balcony. He asked me, "Do you know what transgender means?"
I did. Do. But that didn't help me speak any words. I was stunned, to put it lightly. He went on to explain the emotional difficulties he had been going through for a while and I listened intently as he told me he had made the heart-wrenching decision to begin living life as a woman. As Christine.
I'd like to say I was immediately and totally supportive. That wouldn't be the whole truth, however. Because, while I voiced assurances that this would not change our friendship, I was unable to, at that point, wrap my head around what he had told me. For a few days afterward, the news would again pop into my head and I'd utter an incredulous curse.
Which is not to say I didn't feel for my friend. I can't imagine the amount of courage involved in making this type of decision. I talked to other friends who knew, each of us going through a similar acceptance process.
For me, despite my hesitation, there was no other option than acceptance. Mike was someone who enriched my life in ways that can't be quantified. During the pain of my divorce, he was there for me, even while he was suffering his own inner turmoil, exhibiting the same selflessness with which he led Scribes. So, though I couldn't claim comfort with this news, it was easy for me to agree to his next request. He wanted me to meet Christine.
In the days leading up to that meeting, I talked with a friend about my discomfort. She said there was nothing wrong with feeling that way. In fact, a little discomfort is good, keeps us from becoming intellectually lazy. That made sense, but I still powered down two pints of Stella (in about 8 minutes) while I waited for Christine to arrive at the restaurant where we'd agreed to meet.
She was a few minutes late and I tried to diffuse my internal tension with a joke, "You really are a woman. You're late." She laughed and said, "It takes me longer to get ready now!"
It wasn't long after being seated that my nervousness melted away. I was simply sitting across from and old and trusted friend. She explained her plans and answered the questions I had with typical candor. We ate, drank, talked sports. Nothing in the world seemed more natural. On the outside, the green dress and suede jacket was certainly an improvement over Mike's wardrobe. More importantly, there was no dimming of that kind heart and generous spirit I'd always admired in my friend.
In an e-mail she sent me later, she said that meeting was "just like old times, except I was better dressed." I agreed. I'm lucky to know Christine and I'm not alone. As I said, Mike always recruited good guys to the Scribes cause and this change has seen the club band together as if holding a one-goal lead in the waning minutes. The support has been complete. It makes me proud to have worn the colors. To call these people my friends.
Christine's road has not been an easy one. She says she's beeen overwhelmed by the mostly positive reaction to her decision. I can say the same.
Good luck, Christine. Call anytime.
To read Christine's first person account, go here.