Playing Pool

I had never been there before. The one time I ventured to go to the recreational center in school it was with a friend. I had just seen Instagram photos of people who worked out and my goodness they looked good. So I thought, we have a gym here in school, why not check it out? Nyiri wanted to be more flexible, to be able to do splits… stuff like that. So we went.

We never went back.

I don’t know why she didn’t go back. I didn’t because I didn’t like look in the gym instructor’s eye. And also because the place was really tiny; you couldn’t look down to tie your laces without your ass being in some burly guy’s face. No way.

Now here I was. In the pool room next to the gym.

The room smelled of testosterone. It hung in the air thick and uncomfortably warm. There were two tables.  The one near the door, and near where I sat, had two people on its sides: a guy and a girl. They played quietly, saying little to each other. There was no crowd to cheer or jeer. There was only the sound of balls knocking against each other and the occasional exasperated sigh.

At the other table, men screamed and howled.  No, really, they did. They surrounded the table, yelling at the balls, yelling at whoever was bent over the table aiming, yelling at each other, yelling at nobody in particular and everybody all at once. They shouted for the sake of shouting. And the screaming. Did you ever hear a bunch of twenty-something year old guys screaming? It’s a harrowing sound. It annoys you at first but then you start to feel kinda bad for them. Because when men scream, it’s not piercing. It’s gritty. And it’s only under exceptional circumstances that they manage a proper scream. Otherwise, it’s this over-ambitious sound that makes you think of gravel being ground. You feel it in your throat. You wince. You wonder whether it hurts them because it sounds painful. You feel sorry for them because when you look at them doing it-a guy never screams when he’s by himself, only when flanked by other screaming men- you get the feeling that they don’t get to do it nearly as much as they would like to. So you bear the feeling and sound of scratching throats because it looks like they really need it, and are just using whatever they are screaming at as an excuse to, well, scream.

And of course they are not speaking English as they do this. Sheng all the way. Makes the screaming sound more ‘manly’, I guess.

Later, KK and Bob told me that that at that table, guys were playing for money. I suppose the stakes justified the screaming. Bob said that a guy went home that day with 3000 bob (haha…bob). Meaning also, that another guy went home with 3000 bob less. Later, also, when Bob wondered why the guys always swaggered around the table after taking a shot, I hypothesized that it was probably something they found other guys doing when they were just beginning to learn how play, and so they do it too; it was simply how things were done. You took a shot and you swaggered around the table, chest out and making a weird bellow-like sound. You know, like the way football players score and then break into a sprint with their t-shirts pulled over their heads?

At the other table, things remained calm and quiet and for this reason, my attention stayed there.

I read the same vibe in the girl that I had in myself. A little tense, a little timid. She was the only other girl in the room; the only girl playing. I wondered if she felt intimidated. I watched. She, unlike the guys in the room, moved slow and unsure, hesitating even when taking the stick from her male opponent. Her eyes flitted about as she aimed, acutely aware of her audience, and it seemed to me that her focus was incomplete, less concentrated, unconvincing. Her hand quivered a little just as she took her shot, like she was nervous, or like she wished she was the only one there. When she didn’t get a ball in, she slumped away towards the wall, trying to put on an air of okay-ness: she knew she wouldn’t get it in anyway and so this does not bother her. But you could tell she had hoped the balls would go in. She just chose to keep this hope a secret lest it proved futile. It was self-protection. An attempt to preserve herself from jeers that follow one who crashes down soon after taking off in confidence. It was better, she seemed to think, to hold her inadequacy close to her chest right from the beginning rather than risk something greater only to have the inadequacy thrown in her face by other people. When she didn’t get a ball in she would withdraw quickly and say things to avert attention from the fact that she was withdrawing quickly.  She would say things to the guy she was playing against, things meant to help her brush the failure off her shoulder…or maybe to help her show that she didn’t expect much to begin with. The equivalent of guys in movies falling off a low cliff and then saying, from down there, “I’m okay!” even though they broke their leg. Si you play, she would say. Si tunajua zako zitaingia. You’re going to win anyway. She said these things even when she did get a ball in. She downplayed her achievement, she hid her smile, and constantly shifted attention from herself to him even though the audience was all of two and a half people: A guy next to me who looked rather dazed, and myself. The half a person was a guy from the other table who kept glancing our way even though the game at the table of screaming men was way more interesting.

The guy she was playing against had disturbingly long nails. On all the fingers, not just the pinky. I judged him. Of course I judged him. His shirt was clean and tucked in and looked new. Checked. Apart from his nails and his smile, everything else about him was put together. He smiled in a kind of wobbly way. It was the only unsure thing about him. He had this walk- the same swagger all the guys in that room had- after his balls (completely unintended aki) got in: a little bounce and step, a burst of pride that seemed to say ‘hivyo ndio pool huchezwa’. He looked like he would have done a little jig if he were playing with another guy, one of his friends. Not a girl. Her presence made it hard to behave like the screaming men at the other table. He gave her a patronizing ‘umejaribu’ whenever she slumped away (which she seemed not to want, as though she were hoping that nobody would mention her mediocre achievement) and when he took the stick from her, his eyes-the way he looked at her- gave her a pat on the head. He rubbed, with great flair, like one who knew exactly what he was doing and wanted everybody to be sure of it, the shooting end of the stick with some green thing.

Later, I googled it and found that it’s called a cue stick or a pool cue. I also found on Wikipedia a diagram showing that that stick has like 15 different parts, with fancy sounding names like ‘shaft collar’ and ‘ferrule’. And later, when I asked Bob what the green stuff was called, and what it was for, he said that he had no idea, and hypothesized that if we asked one of the guys who played pool, he would probably give some complex tech-like explanation. They think there’s some kind of physics involved, he said. And when we asked KK, he said that it provided friction. Bob and I laughed. I didn’t google what the green stuff is called.

So that guy at the pool room. He bent over the table and strategized his shot like an architect going over design plans for a skyscraper. Precise, serious, quick. He didn’t bother to confirm whether the girl was watching. He knew she was. Gleaning from the master. Never mind that there was probably a reason why he wasn’t at the other table with the louder, more competent male players…or the louder male players whose loudness made them seem more competent. When he focused, he really did. He didn’t care that we were watching. Once in a while he flicked his long nails together and I imagined taking the stick (sorry, cue) from him and thrusting it into his eye. He did the bounce and step even when none of his balls got in. He still walked around the table with his wobbly smile and his chest a little puffed. Like, he was saying, zitaingia tu.

They played this way until I left. Most of both their balls were still on the table. The guy still rubbed the green stuff on the stick (cue) like he knew exactly what he was doing.  The girl still shrunk away after taking her shots. I wondered if she would feel more confident if there was no audience. If her hand would still quiver were she playing against another girl… or if there were other girls playing. If she would allow herself to smile and do the bounce and step, whether the balls got in or not, if she had been taught as a child that mwanamke ni effort; that all it meant when the balls didn’t get in was that she had to try again until they did.

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