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For the Love of... Pool?

I learned to play the game of pool when I was around ten years old. My stepdad bought an antique slate table that weighed so much it took half a football team to lug it into our house. For several years, I wasn't even allowed to play the game unattended. It was that nice of a table.


Years later, in my early 20s, I was a single mom in San Jose, living in a decrepit one-bedroom apartment a few blocks away from downtown. I shared custody with my ex, and when I didn't have my daughter with me, I felt unmoored, lonely. After noticing a pool hall called 'Toons, I gathered my courage and went there one night.


I got lucky. A couple befriended me, and eventually I connected with a handful of others as I slowly built my skills at pool. It was a welcome distraction from a stressful life. $1 well drinks, live music, and plenty of rounds of pool. I quickly became rather popular there. A core group of guys would play singles until I arrived and immediately declare doubles, adding me as partner. If we got lucky, and we often did, I could play all night on just a few dollars in drinks and then totter on home to collapse in bed. I loved it. It was one warm spot of happiness in an otherwise truly miserable, dark chapter of my life. I was poor, working in a job I hated, with people I couldn't understand or relate to, and those nights at 'Toons let me feel sexy, fun, and capable. I can't tell you how much I needed that.


I was able to do what so many young people my age did at the time, and it was wonderful. When I moved here to Missouri, I tried to recapture it, but I didn't know where to start. The bars felt seedy, and there wasn't the same close camaraderie I had found there. I just didn't know where to look, and my life was full of full-time motherhood. Later, through marriage and divorce and new marriage and new kiddos, I found myself dreaming of having my own pool table and playing regularly with family and friends.


And a couple of years ago, Facebook Marketplace had a listing for a small pool table that would actually fit in my living room and I jumped at it. Finally, a pool table of my own!


But pool isn't a solo game. And my teen kiddo wasn't interested, and the hubs was only interested every once in a while, and so it has sat, and sat, and sat. It's a great place to unbox deliveries, to organize things, and, let's face it, it became a catch all. Until a few weeks ago when a FB friend mentioned they were in a league.


Why had I never thought of this?


I know why I hadn't. I never took my capabilities seriously. Not competition-wise, that is. Sure, I loved to play and I played to win, but who was I to say whether I was good or not?


It has been half of my life since I played regularly. But I couldn't stop thinking about the idea. Join a league? Play competitively? It seemed outrageous until I thought about it for a hot minute. And then it sounded absolutely delightful.


I reached out to a friend on FB. Joined the APA website, paid the $25 in dues. I saw that they were looking for a couple of entry-level players for Thursday nights at Side Pockets in Blue Springs. I reached out and the guy running the league there told me to come on by on Thursday after 7 p.m.


I cleared off the catch-all heap of stuff the pool table had become. Took the large canvas cover out and shook the cat hair off. The cats do love sleeping on the pool table!


I brushed the felt, racked the balls and chalked my stick. It felt good to practice breaking again. I've never been good at it, but practice will get me there, make me better. I played five games of 8-ball against myself, alternating trying for stripes or solids. Got to try a jump shot twice. One failed, but only just. The other sailed in. I'd missed this feeling. Of fair to middling competency, of moving around the table, sorting through the possibilities, combining shots, banking shots.


Thursday felt like a long time off. And I had to smile at that. That meant it was important. Something I wanted. Something that would make me happy. I do a lot of things every day that are "because they need doing." It's part of being an adult, I guess. But lately, the last handful of years, it has become harder to tell what is what. Do I do it because it needs doing? Or because I enjoy it? I think that, mostly, I do the things that need doing and tell myself to find a way to enjoy it. Whether that is taking pride in a clean house, or a great review from my latest Airbnb guest. There's a lot to do and life is too short to be miserable or bummed about having to do work. Perhaps that's how I get so much done. I just tell myself how happy I'll be when it is done, or how good it will look.


Existential crisis, anyone?


On Thursday evening, I pulled into the large parking lot and heard my phone ding. It was the team leader, asking me to let him know when I arrived.


I just pulled into the parking lot and I'm heading in now. Short hair, and a shirt that reads, "A wise woman once said, 'Oh hell no' and lived happily ever after."


I walked into an ENORMOUS building that was filled with people. Pool tables everywhere. So many people. And I had zero idea what the guy I was meeting looked like. I walked in slowly, checked my phone, and then asked a server, "Could you possibly tell me which group is the APA group?"


She laughed. "Uh...pretty much everyone here?"


A moment later he found me. Thank goodness. My introvert side was screaming in terror. But silently, because that's what we do, we scream silently inside. You can only tell we are freaked out by looking at the whites of our eyes.


I had dreams of how I wanted this to go. I'd been practicing my break. Jump shots. Bank shots. Long shots. Combo shots. I was going to walk in there and even if they started us at a ranking of 3, he was going to see I could do better. His eyes were going to light up as dreams of returning to Vegas for the championship at the end of the 16 weeks occurred. Yes, that would be us. VEGAS.


I think of Vegas as a glittery cesspool that has overpriced, underwhelming food and reeks of weed wherever you go, but whatever. It's where the tournaments are and I freaking want to go. I've got dreams, damn it!


All those dreams were riding on how well I did playing a round. I was sure of it. We talked for a bit about expectations, commitment, et cetera. "Well, why don't we see what you can do?" He said, pulling out some quarters. My stomach flipped. Here was my chance to show him I was better than the standard 3. I wasn't entry-level, hell no!


He racked them. We talked APA regulations and rules. Which are surprisingly simple, really. Much of what I would consider slop is totally acceptable. Like say you are playing 8-ball, shooting stripes, and you are going for the 9 ball and instead get a 15 ball in accidentally. You get to go again. That's SLOP! Crazy!


He handed me one of the pool hall sticks to break with. I completely flubbed it. Crack of the stick, cue ball piddles off in one sad lonely direction hitting nothing. And I, I want to dissolve into the floor. Seriously.


"It's okay," he says, "It happens to everyone. Try again."


I take a breath, try to focus. I'm feeling like a hummingbird on crack. I manage to hit the effing cue ball this time and it hits the racked balls unimaginatively and lackluster. Oh...my...God. My suckage has no bounds.


"It's okay. Really." He points to the balls. "Just hit them. Take your time."


"No order?" I ask. He shakes his head.


I hit a few in. I'm feeling better. I miss one. My confidence drops again. I see a possible bank shot. It's long, but if I can hit it, it will be a nice, impressive shot. I do it. It goes in.


"Nice shot." he says, just as the cue ball drops into a pocket. Well...shit.


"One of the nice things about being on a team is that we want everyone to succeed and improve their game. So this would be a perfect opportunity, when seeing you line up that shot, for the team leader to step in and point out that the cue ball has the potential to go down."


I agree, my cheeks warming, and continue to play. Downing shots. Keeping it simple so I don't end up looking like a complete idiot. We get to the 8-ball and I question him about the APA rules on marking the shot and what that entails. I've already told him that I've read all the rules and he knows I'm hopeless at 9-ball (the league plays a mix of 8-ball and 9-ball games) but that I'm eager to learn. I look at the shot. I want to bank it, take it all the way down the table. He wants me to cut it. I don't argue. I'm willing to try. I do point at the other corner and ask if the cue ball isn't in danger of going there, but he can predict the angles better than I. I take the shot. If I had eyeballed it better, it likely would have gone in, but he is right, the cue ball doesn't hit the corner. Instead, it bounces off of the sides harmlessly.


I have a lot to learn and re-learn. I think of Ramon. A guy who played at 'Toons and took me under his wing. "Try to think three shots ahead." A good guy. Sweet. Kind. He taught me a lot.


I had dreams of wowing the team leader. But I'll settle for the simple invitation I got. "I'd like to invite you to join us. We start next Thursday. Be here at 6:30."


Oh, hell yes. I'll be there. With bells on, swear to God. Now I'm off to buy a pool stick.

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