Creative Nonfiction Editor: “The Locker Room”
Greg Howard, the Spotlight contributor and Nonfiction Editor, offers the issue a descriptive piece about camaraderie that comes from a locker room. The locker room proves to be more than jocks and sports equipment in this piece, but a place where boys become men.
ATTN: In order to be as authentic as possible, I’ve included explicit content in this essay that may be offensive to readers. Although graphic language and descriptions are used throughout, I’ve decided to include this piece because, obscenity aside, it is representative of some of my best nonfiction writing to date. My apologies ahead of time, and I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing on the Loyola University Maryland men’s soccer team.- Gregory Howard
The Locker Room (completed on April 20, 2009)
I sit in my locker, head down, face contorted in a monstrous mockery of a grin, teeth gritted, long dreadlocks attempting valiantly, but vainly, to cover the tears rolling down my face. My breathing is harsh, coming out in hoarse, angry, irregular grunts as I wrestle with the pain. Dynamite is exploding in my left knee, an electric current shooting from my joint upward through my hamstring before heading north to my stomach, nauseating me before eventually moving to a broken heart. Yep, I’m fucked. This is the one, the speeding train that I’ve seen coming for a while now, but somehow still couldn’t avoid. In spite of the pain, the repulsive irony of my situation still fails to escape me. Three years ago, a collision of colossal proportions was the only thing able to halt my once whole and healthy body’s sure rise to prominence. I was athletically gifted then, and I knew it. I felt untouchable, even invincible at times, until a dirty opposing player tackled me from the side, tearing three ligaments in my left knee. Now, in the supposed physical prime of my career, my frail body has been reduced to barely a shell of its former powerful self due to a mere glancing blow from a teammate that left me writhing on the ground, knee once again ripped to shreds. With a sudden grim clarity, I realize that my season, and with it, my career, are over. The tears intensify, feeding on my anguish, rushing from my eyes in twin streams of frustration and despair. I look around the cramped locker room, my memory making clear the details that my teardrops distort. My locker is in the back of the room, closest to the door and between the two captains; all eyes are always on me. I can see the entire expanse of the faded, beaten-down green carpet, compressed mercilessly against the underlying concrete, but still refusing to rip, fray, or succumb to the elements; like an old, woozy boxer, outclassed but too proud to admit that he’s out on his feet.
The light pine lockers grow like hollowed trunks, extending far above the savannah of faded carpet on three walls, wooden sentinels that offer respite from the rain, snow, hail, cold, heat, fatigue, sweat and blood, defeat and despair that plague the twenty-seven soccer players. On the wall across the locker room, underneath the trophies that highlight our past, a flat-screen TV adorns the wall, probably high-definition but who knows or cares, for our playmaking entertainment should suffice. Beneath the television is the stereo, the beloved, blaring stereo that is almost always on, providing the soundtrack for our lives. To the right of the stereo is the in-swinging door to the showers. Although I smell rank, I’m too shy to undress and bathe. I have the whole locker room to myself, and therein lies the problem. The small, enclosed room suddenly seems huge and intimidating; I’d sooner shower in Central Park.
The brief, muffled thud of footsteps is all the warning I have to wipe my eyes before the door bursts open. A cacophony of sounds and smells confounds me as my comrades rush in, a riptide of Baltimorean accents mixed with British, French, Serbian, African, Latino and Texan as the Loyola Greyhounds crowd into the locker room, exhausted but relieved. As usual, Noisy walks straight to the stereo and cranks the volume. Obnoxiously loud, intoxicating, yet somehow unnoticed techno music blares through the room. Heads start bobbing unconsciously, even as conversations continue, grow and evolve.
“Whadup, bitch?” I hear in my right ear. I lift my head up and see Jamie Darvill, one of our fearless leaders, standing over me, a smug look on his face and no sympathy in his eyes. I finally smile, a real one this time.
“Suck a dick, you fat cunt.” Pleasantries aside, I start to undress. Finally, shower time.
The boys start peeling off their clothes, and bare skin replaces forgotten practice gear and jockstraps, now strewn about the floor in once continuous, winding pile. I follow suit, eager to join in a conversation about religion, politics, why Africa is better than America, why England is better than America, why Serbia is better than all of the above, why Colombia is not merely an extension of Mexico, or whether or not that girl with the lazy eye should count as a legit hookup and not a mistake. The nudity doesn’t bother me, quite the opposite; I revel in the herd of sweaty, naked, smelly bodies. What’s strange is that I never used to shower here during my freshman year. I always thought it was because I was a product of the public school system in an ultra-homophobic, majority black county. Even the football players went home smelling like sewage. But none of the other freshmen on the soccer team with the exception of Tennant and Jamie, who were the only two starters in our class, showered either. I realize now that it was probably because the rest of us freshmen were intimidated by the thirteen seniors on the team, 22- and 23-year-old men who barely acknowledged our existence.
My locker neighbor freshman year was a senior named Omar Alfonso, a former soccer phenom who scored more goals his freshman year than the rest of his career combined, but still loved to live in the past. He demanded respect for being a great player. I was fourteen the last time he was a great player. He wasn’t going to get much respect from me. We didn’t talk much. The last time we spoke, he banged on my door at 7:30am the day of my World History final before Christmas break; I had gone to bed thirty-eight minutes prior. He wanted to screw the desk assistant at Newman, and needed alcohol to do so. He explained this to me briefly as he shoved past me and to the freezer, where he grabbed my roommate’s half-full handle of Smirnoff’s vodka, two UNC shot glasses and a quarter off the top of the microwave.
“Speed quarters,” Omar said, winking at me as he brushed by me in the doorway, my mouth still open from shock. “Gets them every time.” He never offered to pay me back.
Looking around the room, all you can really see is penis. Big penis, small penis, shaved metro-sexual penis, hairy afro penis (usually the Brits), circumcised penis, uncircumcised weasel penis (always the Brits), white penis, black penis, brown penis, yellow penis. No one hides, couldn’t if they wanted to. Athletics provides us with thirty-five hand towels to dry our fully-grown bodies; they barely reach around our waists. As a result, all you see, like it or not, is penis. Twice a day, six days a week, you get to see two dozen penises. As Mick Samaroo, a Trinidadian currently living in New Jersey by way of Canada (don’t ask), said, “We can pick our dicks out of a lineup.” Homophobia has no place in this locker room. Butt-sex jokes and grab-ass games, however, are a different story.
A high-pitched squeal in protest and a hiss are suddenly audible from the showers as the rusty faucets are turned on and lukewarm water rushes onto the first of the grateful, dirty bodies of the players. As a group, a majority of the players pile into the bathroom waiting in line for a turn in the open showers, urinal or stalls.
My first time showering, I had a date with Eve, a sprinter on the track team, and I didn’t have time to run back to my dorm after practice. I stayed after to do extra work with a few of the other freshmen. Most of us were injured, our bodies in shock from the brutality of “the gentleman’s game,” and stayed after to lift weights or hone our feeble arsenal of skills. There were a few of us: PJ (transferred), Poncho (team manager), Colombia (quitted), Witte (transferred), Joey (still here), Puccio (quit), and myself. We were pretty skittish around each other, because although we were all fairly knowledgeable of our own penis sizes, we didn’t know how they matched up with each other. There was kind of a chess match going on. Who would show first? Who had the biggest pecker?
We were all tired; felt dejected and rejected, and knew we were on the periphery of the team. We all tried too hard to act nonchalant, a clear sign that we were nervous. Everyone knew, even though we were all shower virgins. Suddenly, interrupting our ultra-cool, laidback, fully-clothed conversation, the locker room door cracked open, just a tad, and a tear-streaked face appeared in the gap. Anthony, or the affectionately dubbed Bosco, trudged in the room, and instead of collapsing in his locker, starts slowly packing his cleats into his backpack, silently weeping the entire time.
“What’s wrong, son?” Colombia enquired, the self-appointed team psychologist for the day.
“I don’t understand him. I asked if he could give me more of a look at right mid, and Mettrick just started yelling at me. ‘This is my job, they don’t pay you to coach because you don’t know shit about the game, how dare you question me, be careful with what you say.’ I just want to play, man, one game.” Everyone nodded in sympathy. It was a group therapy session of sorts, because we all felt shunned, forgotten, and in a way molested by the sport that we loved, our life’s passion. Was it worth it? Suddenly my phone vibrated in my locker, the buzz jarring the sad silence. Eve. I had a choice: take a shower alone and leave Bosco in his time of need or stay here and blow off my first real date in two years. Had to think quickly.
“C’mon son, let’s talk about it more in the shower. Don’t you have class soon?” Did it matter? We always went to class dirty, smelling like fat pigs. Slowly at first, shyly, I started to undress, until I thought “fuck it” and ripped off my jock. Arrogantly, I walked in the shower, like I had done this my entire life, no big deal. Puccio, then Colombia, then the rest followed. We stood in silence underneath the cold, over-chlorinated water, wiping ourselves with scentless antibacterial soap.
“Wait, so what were you saying?” Witte broke the silence. Finally, we were a team. None of us were starters, or even played for that matter, yet we formed a lasting bond. Former high school studs and athletic prodigies, we suddenly found ourselves physically naked and emotionally vulnerable. At a time of helplessness, we leaned on each other for support. What more do you need from a teammate?
The shower is a zoo. Smells of poop, urine and body wash saturate the steamy atmosphere, choking all who dare to breathe. Both stalls are open to the left of the bathroom. In the left stall, closest to the door, Charlie is sitting with the door open, reading an English porn magazine he got back in the summer. In the right, Cooper has the door open, trying to simultaneously poop, close his legs and force the door closed as Dinesy teases him incessantly about his fire-orange pubic hair that mirrors the short, straight ginger buzz cut on his head, known simply as “the firecrotch.” Directly across from the door, MJ stands before the wall-length mirror, grabbing his newly-acquired flab from his first semester of hard drinking, as if pulling it will somehow make it come off. Next to him, Jamie is flexing at his reflection, almost suffocating from sucking in so hard. I catch his eye in the mirror and shake my head in dismay. With a twinkle in his eye, he says, “Don’t be jealous, son, it’s a process,” in a strained, smothered sort of way that betrays his supposed fitness. Everyone else is milling about, leaning against some kind of support, whether it be a wall or another person, still tired from the three-hour practice. Girls are the topic of the conversation, specifically a particularly gorgeous sophomore lacrosse player who has a fantasy for bad boys that we pretty soccer players seem unable to fulfill. Still, it never hurts to dream.
“I would definitely eat my own shit to have a week alone with her,” someone says, sadly voicing what everyone is probably thinking. The bold claims steadily get worse and worse until someone shouts “I would necrophile the cold corpse of Mother Theresa to slay her.” Oops, that was I. Of course the atheist would take it too far.
Suddenly a loud commotion and what sounds like shouting erupts from somewhere in the showers, halts all our conversation. Are people fighting? Everyone flocks to the showers, anxious to break things up, but not quick enough to end it before the show gets good.
“WOT DEH FUCK, BRO?” Milos screams, his accent thick and hilarious as ever, even in the 6’3 brute’s intense and obvious anger. His victim is Daniel, all sixty-three inches of his ebony, nude body doubled over in a fit of laughter.
“Son, I didn’t mean it. I’m sorry, I swear!” the African gets out between irrepressible gasps of laughter.
“Joo peessed on my leg!”
“I was aiming for the drain!”
“Why don’t joo peess een deh fucking toilet?”
We all crack up, laughing. False alarm, back to business as usual. The quick thinker I am, I use the surrounding hoopla as a diversion, and quickly limp my way underneath an abandoned faucet in the back right corner of the chamber, stealing a showerhead from its unlucky and likely still-soapy owner. I silently brace myself, waiting for the punch to be delivered from the offended party, but none comes. Instead, Milos returns to his overhead to my left, gives me one look, then begins to scrub the back of his left calf with a soap-soaked hand. There are definitely benefits to being an upperclassman.
Everyone is a little nervous around Milos, and for good reason. The 23-year-old Serbian is an absolute tank of a man, more brick wall than human. Weighing in at about 200 pounds, the goalkeeper looks to many of us smaller, fleet-footed soccer players like a middle linebacker. His unnaturally impressive physique, when combined with his quick, explosive temper, makes him a proverbial ticking time bomb.
Luckily, humans are cowards by nature. There’s an unwritten rule that if a boy is big, he’ll most likely be able to go his whole life without being in a serious fight, since he’ll look as if he can do serious damage. And the bigger the guy, the fewer fights he’ll likely be in. So according to my reasoning, someone like Milos should be nothing but a large teddy bear. The key word in the last sentence, of course, being “should.
I was almost killed by Milos in the spring of freshman year. It was after practice, and the subs had just taken part in a heated scrimmage. I love talking shit, can’t live without it. So of course, I had a target picked out on the losing team as soon as I heard the final whistle blow—Milos. In his anger, he punted a ball over the fence and into the street. Big mistake; he showed me too much emotion. Like any predator, I had picked out the weakest in the group; now it was time to pounce.
In the locker room after practice I kept egging him on, saying things like “Big son, you gotta catch the fucking thing” and “You can’t even finish the run at the end, you ain’t nothing but a biggity bitch.” His face was getting red; I had a small crowd of onlookers; I was in my element. My boy Colombia even joined in. Classic locker room banter bully techniques. Then White Shaq turned around, danger in his eyes and pain on his agenda.
“Joo don’t know me, man, I’ll fucking keell joo, I swear to God.”
I took this to mean, ‘tease me some more, Greg.’ The seriousness of Milos’ threat was lost in translation, I guess. I kept goading him, winning one back for all the little guys in the world. Suddenly, the man snapped. He jumped at me, had to get held back by no fewer than four teammates.
“Don’t worry about it son, I got you,” Colombia bravely stood to my left side in front of my locker, ready to defend me just in case a fight broke out. Bless his heart, Colombia is 5’4. Apparently, he also was aware of the unwritten rule.
“JOO DON’T KNOW ME, I’LL FUCKING KEELL JOO SON.”
I laughed. I turned my back to him, disdainfully shaking my head as I put my boxers on. “You’re not even worth it…bitch.”
Over the next two years, I would both see and hear Milos knock scores of full grown men unconscious. During summer school before my junior year, Milos had to spend one night in jail. He and two other Serbian soccer imports (both even bigger than he, what the hell do they feed them?) got into it with another group of guys. Eight of them, to be exact. Milos, other Milos and Josko were the last ones standing, unscarred and not even breathing that hard. Apparently the unwritten rule doesn’t apply in Serbia.
Milos was right about one thing: I didn’t know him at all. The Serbian grew up during the Kosovo War. He saw firsthand the genocide of men, women and children from the region of Kosovo. In fact, the Serbian military themselves were responsible for the genocide. He was 14 when NATO decided to launch an airstrike on his native soil. He once told me that he can remember filming missiles flying over his neighborhood, camcorder in one hand while hanging onto his older brother with the other as his brother expertly maneuvered their tiny red motorbike through debris-fill streets. Milos has seen terror in its most refined and perfectly horrible form. He’s seen death. He’s lived it. So no, I didn’t know him. Didn’t know him at all.
When I look around the locker room, it fills me with pride to know that I don’t really know any of the boys. We’re not the cookie-cutter private school types that everyone knows so well. We’re not all from Long Island, or New Jersey, or “Outside Philly.” We’re from England and Northern Ireland (not to be confused with the north of Ireland), from El Salvador and Ghana, from Colombia and Cote d’Ivoire. No one man’s journey is the same. One player on the team is Palestinian by birth but lives in North Carolina. He speaks with an exaggeratedly slow southern drawl. It’s captivating in that it makes you want to lean in, both to pay attention and so that you’re louder when you yell at him to hurry the hell up with his story, we got class in ten minutes. His family moved to America from his homeland in the early nineties to escape persecution from the Israeli Mossad. Jamie knows a man named Lee Murray, who originally lived in London but now lives in Morocco to escape prosecution of his suspected involvement in a £53 million bank robbery, the biggest cash heist in English history. Looking around the room, it’s not our past that makes us friends. We can’t label and stereotype because all we know of each other is a culmination of the wars and struggles, both on and off the field, that we’ve had together over the last two and a half years. We trek through life together on a day-to-day basis, and this garners a necessary respect between us comrades-in-arms.
Fetching my towel, finally out of the shower, I walk back through the locker room, the smell of sweat now mixing with various Axe and Old Spice products; the nearly noxious fumes make me heady. I reach down, grabbing my simple, black Adidas practice boots and place them on top of my locker, between a pair of white cleats and an offensively flashy yellow pair. I sigh. Deep in my heart, I know that this is the last time I’ll ever have to reach the top of my locker to retrieve any of the three pair. I quickly balance on my left leg, out of habit, then slam my right foot back down on the ground. The agony is excruciating as my knee protests underneath my weight. The pain subsides quickly, as if in warning, but I choke on my despair once again as tears like needles sting my eyes. I growl once, punch the wooden locker and clutch my knee, feigning a continuing spasm of pain. The guys don’t buy it, and I wouldn’t expect them to. A few come up to me, asking me if I’m alright, lending me support, but I shrug them off. They can’t give me what I really need—the chance to play again.
Due to the arrangement of the lockers in the locker room, the team’s bags and discarded dirty clothes form the rough outline of a circle on the carpet. At first, none takes notice, but then “World Hold On” starts blaring through the speakers. Head nodding and toe-tapping soon turn into torso movement and soon, full-on dancing. Whereas most boisterous, mischievous athletic teams may look at a rough ring in the middle of a locker room as a potential fighting or sumo arena, we look at it as a dance floor, no different from our beloved Den, Bourbon Street or Reefers. We jump in the circle in ones and twos, no one fully-clothed, most naked and still wet from the shower, nipples hard, goose bumps visible and scrotums retracted to preserve our future sons until the next time we fornicate or masturbate. The boldest go first, naturally all of the black and Latino kids who compete daily for the title of Best Dancer. Karl does a tribal sort of dance that must be from his days living in the Ivory Coast, a smile on his face as he resembles an extra out of a Sean Paul Video. Not to be outdone, B-Hanson enters and beats his feet, arms swaying in time to the bass line, somehow still looking thuggish even while dancing to techno music. Finally it’s my turn to do my thing. I look around, and the twenty-seven players are already smiling in knowing anticipation of my dance number: the Greg Howard Special. I do a revised rendition of the Crip Walk, my trademark dance since the sixth grade. Everyone laughs, mocking my moves, but fuck ‘em, I know I look good and I’m in the zone now. Pain leaves my body, pushed to the dusty corners of my consciousness as joy takes over. I’m an entertainer, performing and competing is what I love to do; it’s what all athletes love to do. It’s my crown, and injured or not, I’m keeping it.
Daniel, the self-proclaimed “King,” is on next, walking with a bravado that hints at the fact that his title may be accurate. A new energy fills the air, the tension is tangible. He wastes no time, jumping into an exact imitation of Michael Jackson, thrusting and grabbing his nuts like the King of Pop himself. Everyone goes wild. He looks at me, silent, a slight smirk the only hint emotion on his face. Fuck off Daniel; I didn’t want the crown anyway. Instead of dancing all the damn time, maybe you should go get yourself a girlfriend or something, dick.
The door to the showers explodes inward and a tiny brown rocket hurtles into the locker room. It’s Colombia, of course. He’s butt naked, still wet, a towel around his neck. With one hand he’s pointing to the other, with which he is performing “the Helicopter.” He’s swinging his penis around like the rotor of the dance’s namesake, practically kicking up dust with his penis’ blinding speed. As he’s performing the Helicopter, he’s turning in the opposite direction to the rotation of his penis, adding an extra element of difficulty. Everyone cheers. Say what you want, the boy’s got talent.
With the heavyweights out of the way, the rest of the team jumps into the fray, showcasing marginal talent from around the world. Gill does a modified version of the cabbage patch, and finally after much coaxing/threatening from the boys, Wade succumbs to peer pressure and performs a halfhearted Irish jig in the middle of the circle. Andres shows off his Salsa skills before Deasel finishes Soul Train with the Showstopper: a hopping, pterodactyl-like dance that carries him around the entire border of the makeshift circle while flapping his arms like some kind of retarded ostrich. If the crowd went wild to Daniel, now it’s going absolutely nuts. Noisy’s on the ground laughing and Gleitch and Bants are holding onto each other for support, respective internal organs threatening to burst from the intensity of the boys’ laughter.
Unannounced, the Grinch, also known simply as Mettrick, walks into the locker room, disapproval in his eyes and acid on his tongue. Everyone freezes momentarily, realizing the fun is over. The locker room is a place of business, not a place of play where young men wave their dicks around like sissies. The locker room is the fortress before battle, where you put on your war paint and make your last peace with the gods before doing the dreadful deed that is soccer and life and death. This isn’t Six Flags.
I guess we missed the memo.
Most of the team is fully clothed now, and everyone starts filing out of the locker room in groups of four or five, many still poorly masking smirks on faces and twinkles in eyes. See, in the “real world” our questionable behavior and tight companionship is frowned upon. Who do those cocky assholes think they are, walking around campus like some kind of entourage, cursing and roughhousing and carrying on? There are students here trying to learn, and the jocks are fucking up the whole atmosphere. They’re all the same, that group. Every last one of them.
The boys with meal scholarships and/or lack of experience in the kitchen head left out of athletics toward Boulder. The Engineering majors jog across campus toward Donnelly, unable to catch their breath before journeying off to class again. The rest scatter in all directions, to Maryland Hall, to the West Side, to places unknown, all wishing to be together in the locker room again. Daniel flicks off the stereo and walks out the door, patting me on my right shoulder as he passes. Finally, I’m all alone in the locker room, silence piercing my ears. I put my head down, but no tears come this time; the memory of last twenty minutes in the locker room is still too fresh to allow sadness. In its place, a feeling of calm acceptance, that I’ve turned the final page of this chapter in my life. Surely this couldn’t have lasted forever, this fantasy world of mine, of penises and hand towels and alien languages and male camaraderie. Suddenly, the pain hits, and the tears finally come. It’s not that I’m leaving soccer; the sport and I have had a love/hate relationship for a while now, and I’ve grown tired of combating the unreliability of my body on the field. It’s that I’m leaving my family, abandoning them as my health abandoned me. We laugh, we dance, we joke, and yes, we fight, we bicker, we bitch. But beneath our curses and threats lies an unconditional love for one another, for we recognize in each other fellow soldiers who survive a war, day in and day out.
I turn out of my locker and trudge to the door. I wipe my eyes and look back one more time, to see the locker room one more time in all its splendor. Then, quickly, I turn the light switches off, my hand sweeping over both of them at once. The locker room sinks into darkness, and after a few seconds, I slowly push the locker room door open and depart.
“Fuck took you so long?” one of my teammates calls. “We’ve been waiting for you! Let’s go…bitch.”
I look up and smile, as the others laugh. As if we have all the time in the world, we walk slowly down the hall, chatting lightheartedly as we merge into the throng of rushed students darting off to class.
And softly, barely audible over the hum of our casual conversation, I hear the chapter close behind me.