When yearning is a pleasure

Sarah Manguso
An old photo of baseball players
Charlie Bastian and Denny Lyons. Courtesy New York Public Library.

Longing is itself a pleasure. Sometimes it’s the greater pleasure. I once yearned for a stuffed rabbit, embraced and adored it every time I went to The Moon and Sixpence, the gift store in Newton Upper Falls that lay on the route of my family’s weekend errand run. The rabbit cost about fifteen dollars, which was a lot for an eleven-year-old in 1985. It had a pink silk ribbon around its neck and movable limbs and fuzzy white fur resembling the poufs of the angora rabbit, Precious, that hopped around the grounds of my summer camp in Maine. Part of the appeal of the rabbit, both the real one and the one in the shop, was that I had to go to it; that I did not, could not, possess it. Then one day at camp I got a package. My parents had bought me the rabbit. They might as well have boosted a religious icon from a church and shipped it to Camp Three Pines in a cardboard box. Off the altar, out of context, the icon was just a picture, and the rabbit was just a toy. I didn’t play with it. I’d never wanted to play with it, I understood as soon as I lifted it out of its tissue-paper bed. I’d wanted only to want it.

Perhaps I was hungry for religious experience; what I had then was Sunday school at a Reform Jewish synagogue, where we were taught to read and sing Hebrew phonetically and assured that Jews didn’t need to believe in God. But I wanted to believe in magic, hence the pewter crescent moon I pinned on my jean jacket, hence the silver bell that quietly gonged when it bounced on my chest as I walked. Hence all the little sacred things I bought at The Moon and Sixpence, the tarot cards and the woven mandalas. I didn’t want to erase the distance between me and the great mysteries. I wanted to maintain them, and to wear and possess the things that reminded me that I was surrounded by powerful forces I couldn’t change. I wanted the great mysteries to swirl around me more than I wanted success, or possessions, or boys to kiss. I wanted to write a love letter and never send it; I wanted to keep my feelings to myself and never tell anyone, never relieve any of their thrilling pressure. I didn’t need to try to psychologize my yearning or eliminate it or hide it. I wanted to harbor it for myself.

In the Boston of my childhood, where everyone seemed to be at least a little bit Italian and a little bit Irish, the Pats and Celtics and Bruins and Sox, especially the Sox, were revered as gods. It was impossible to live in my corner of the world without gaining some understanding of its dominant culture, of what it is to follow a team with unwavering attention. Even if I didn’t understand it, I saw the effect of it on the faces and lives of the true believers like my father and the flocks depicted in the stands, on television, in the rain. The Sox symbolized all that could yet couldn’t be. Believing the Sox could win a World Series was an irrational choice made deliberately.

I asked my friend Jimmy, who was from Boston and was the sort of sports fan who wore team jerseys and endured a baseball season as a spiritual voyage, about the Soxes’ six pennants and subsequent failures to win the Series. Why did they always lose? “Let’s take ’em in order,” he said in his radio voice, perfectly calm. And over the next several minutes, without stopping, he recited the litany from Johnny Pesky’s slow throw home in 1946 to Bill Buckner’s losing the ball between his legs during Game 6 in 1986. I sensed his comfort in the certainty that the Sox were the team that could play well but would always lose.

The Boston papers all ran stories about the Sox flags and pennants dotting Boston’s graveyards that fall and winter, little gifts for those who did not live to see the great victory.

And then it was October 2004, and Jimmy and I were watching Game 4 of the American League pennant series on my sofa in front of my little TV. Were we holding hands? I can’t remember. The Sox were down by three games, and they were about to do the thing they always did, but in the ninth inning, David Roberts stole second and then scored off Bill Mueller’s single, and before I knew it, we were making out desperately. We kept at it, and there were three more innings, and then David Ortiz hit a two-run homer and the Sox suddenly won. We watched Game 5 in the same way, and when the Sox won that game, too, we kept at it. We were contained in a fever of desire and flopsweat. We barely got dressed for the time that the Sox won Game 6 and, in a kind of alternate universe, went on to win Game 7 and then sweep the World Series—to win the very four games that Boston had spent the past eighty-six fruitless years believing in.

Jimmy went back to Boston to watch Game 7 of the ALCS and Game 4 of the Series. Sharing those two moments, when the Sox won the pennant and then the Series, would have been too intimate. Still, I will never dissever our mysterious instinct from the set of circumstances that led the Sox, after so long, to win. We felt partly responsible.

The Boston papers all ran stories about the Sox flags and pennants dotting Boston’s graveyards that fall and winter, little gifts for those who did not live to see the great victory. Finally the dead could rest. The living had to get their shit together and figure out how to continue.

Some of our problems are so vast that they define our personalities; without them we’d be different people. People stay in bad relationships or leave decent ones because they believe they are meant to be in bad relationships. Angry people suffer from their anger but still don’t want to stop being angry. It would have been easier to pretend we’d never won the Series. Boston knew how to deal with losing, but it didn’t know how to be the town whose team won it all, won eight consecutive games straight from pennant to championship.

Neither Jimmy nor I was equipped to deal with whatever was happening between us, either, but I think he had the heavier burden. He had to find a way to go on living as a Sox fan now that the lived experience of being a Sox fan had instantly, utterly, permanently changed.

The Sox had become a team to reckon with, and they won another Series in 2007 and a third in 2013. After the third time there was no longer any irrational faith involved in being a Sox fan. The Sox had become just another team, another team to beat. What did Boston do to fill the gaping loss of its eighty-six-year necessary faith?

After 2013, Jimmy wrote to me, “Boston has lost something essential about itself. It’s now just another nice city. New England is just another nice area. Without the curse, we weren’t connected to anything, or to each other. We were people watching a very good baseball team, each of us alone.”

During the 2016 Series, when the Cubs were trying to break a more than century-long losing streak, I flew to Chicago on the night of Game 6 to give a reading. The Cubs won, and by the next morning everyone was buzzing. I hadn’t thought about baseball since 2004.

After my reading, the night of Game 7, I sat across the dinner table from the patron who had endowed the foundation that had just hosted me. He was a big guy with a nervous laugh and a wife and a stepdaughter who lived in their Miami house. I’d been at this sort of dinner before; I smiled across the table, absorbing everything. But this time I had an added distraction; I was checking my phone every twenty seconds, keeping score like some sports fan. The check came during the fifth inning, and I went back to the hotel and turned on the TV. If the Cubs won the Series, I wanted to feel it completely, all alone.

I yelled and swore at every hit, every strike. The Cubs were up and then tied, and then it rained and then there were extra innings and then someone caught a pop fly and then, after 108 years of losing, they beat the Indians, 8 to 6. Even from my hermetically sealed, gray-tinted eighth-floor hotel room window I could see uniformed cops fanning out across Hyde Park, could hear them laughing in the rain, truck horns blaring and people hooting. Fireworks. More horns.

Of course choirs of angels sang when the underdogs won. But sometimes, after the match finally strikes, the fire roars, no matter what you do afterward, it’s cold. After he got what he’d thought he’d wanted, Jimmy just couldn’t get warm. I bought him a Yao Ming shirt once basketball season started, as a farewell gift.

Sarah Manguso is the author of seven books of poetry and prose, including 300 Arguments and The Two Kinds of Decay.
Originally published:
January 1, 2020


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