My Dad and the Soccer Ball

I’ll always remember the ball,
bouncing up and down on his foot
in the park behind our house.
Those days he danced to the beat of Copa Mundiales.

My brother and I squealed,
“Kick it up in the air, Dad!”
He’d bounce it two or three more times, then kick it high above his head,
maybe forty feet in the air.
With our eyes glued to the ball, we chased until it landed in front of our feet.
We grabbed it with our hands like American boys,
then brought it back to watch him do it again.

In school, I told everyone my dad would’ve played with Maradona
if he didn’t quit Newell’s Old Boys.
Eran otros tiempos, he told me when I asked why.
Small town boys near the campo wanted to go fishing after school,
not take two buses to Rosario.
They played because it was fun to bounce the ball.

I wanted to be like him.
The immigrant plumber who worked 14-hour shifts
in dusty Newark basements
for Portuguese men who didn’t know he looked like Maradona once.
Like Maradona in the old videos I watch on YouTube.
Smiling wide with the ball bouncing, bouncing.

For years he trained me between work shifts at 16th street,
playing with middle-aged Arabs and Mexicans.
Hours we spent in that park, where he bounced the ball,
and he’d say, “I want it right here, hit it here,” and we’d stay there
until I did it right.
I wanted to bounce the ball like he did,
con amor like a lover, not like the English do.
“You must treat the ball with respect,” he told me.
I didn’t know what it meant then.

I’ve heard it said: Argentineans are born with the ball at their feet.
I don’t know if that’s true.
But I know my earliest memories were of him with the ball at his feet.
And the picture that still sits 26 years later
on a shelf he built in my old bedroom,
is evidence that maybe my story was different:
Maybe I was born with the ball in my hands.
Maybe I brought it to him, pleading:
“Dad, dad—do it again. Kick it high for me.”


I’m not sure why I got the urge to write about my dad this week. I probably saw someone post a photo online of them with their parents and it made me think of this picture. He’s on my mind a lot these days as I coach a soccer team for the first time. The way I act on the sidelines, and the things I tell my girls, remind me of him when he was at my travel team practices as a kid.

For years, I thought my dad was probably the best soccer player in the world who wasn’t famous. In high school and college, when I played with the old immigrants guys at 16th street park they’d always tell me to invite my dad. He’d never come, though. He’s an old, rickety plumber with tendonitis who smokes way too much for his own good.

When I was younger, he’d throw himself into some of my practices and marvel the kids with his moves. There was a jerk on one of my teams who was the best player on the team—the coach’s son—and he’d often try to embarrass the younger players like me. My dad, noticing this, asked the coach if he could run his own drill: a 2v2 mini-tournament. He volunteered to play with me, and suggested coach and son play together. My dad made the poor fella look so foolish that he ripped off his jersey and complained how it wasn’t fair. I’ll never forget my dad telling him in broken English: “The way I just made you feel is the way you make these boys feel every practice. If you don’t like it, stop doing it to them or I’ll keep doing it to you.”

That’s the kind of man my dad is. He’s a hard-nosed guy, but he tries to be fair—to an excruciating extent, oftentimes, for me. He never gave me an inch as a soccer player or as a son. He worked ridiculous hours for not enough money. If I made a mistake or was lazy, it was disrespecting him and the time he dedicated to me. It’s no surprise, then, that I’m such a perfectionist now.

My dad and I have rarely seen eye-to-eye on anything throughout the years. But, I know I wouldn’t be the man I am without him in my life; without those times he’d wake me up at 6 a.m. to go and work plumbing jobs with him when I was 14, and really I just wanted to go out and play with my friends on Saturday. After work, we’d go to a Portuguese restaurant in Newark sometimes and have the best meals while watching soccer games. It was his way of telling me: “I know you hate this, but I need you. I’m trying my best to teach you something. You’ll appreciate this one day.”

I have many more stories about my dad, and lessons I’ve learned from him. But, it’s not even Father’s Day, and I’m rambling. I feel very fortunate to still have this picture of him, though. It’s almost crazy to think it’s been in the same spot for more than two decades. I’ll never forget it, or the hundreds of days we spent together at parks kicking around a soccer ball together.

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On Poetry (and a Poem, Too)

paterson-couple

Closing Credits

At the dinner table,
the brown one with the square floral tablecloth,
the dog sits at my feet, watching.
The pasta is badly cooked, with the cheap red sauce.
It’s so easy to make, you know.

Two weeks ago,
in Colorado Springs
or Los Angeles maybe,
you texted.
Later, laying on colorless hotel room bed sheets,
I played the song on repeat.
(I didn’t want to play it, I swear.)

The laptop speakers vibrated.
Tears in my eyelids spilled,
like heartbreak-sized waterfalls,
and dried on the skin of my cheeks.
She sang:
“I can’t erase it…
I just replay it…”
Over and over again.

In the best movies,
even the sad ones,
endings can be beautiful sometimes:
Bound by running time,
words on a screen
or notes in a song, fading,
like closing credits.

I still won’t look in the closet where you hung your dresses.


When I was in grammar school, I wrote a poem that was printed in a book of student poetry. It was probably one of those gimmick poetry books, the kind where you sent in a payment for the publisher to print the poem, and they accepted almost every poem that was submitted. I worked a plumbing job with my dad and used the money he paid me to buy the book. I read the poem while laying in my parent’s bed one morning. “Lost in a world of hate and confusion…” was one of the lines. It was a really, really bad poem.

Throughout high school and college, I was blessed with English professors who challenged me to read from our country’s great writers and poets. In 11th grade, Mr. Sweeney had our Honors English class give presentations on some of them. Mine was on the poet Robert Lowell (I was a little asshole then and probably didn’t read any of Lowell’s poems, just like I didn’t read The Old Man and the Sea, Winesburg, Ohio, The Grapes of Wrath, This Side of Paradise, and so many others, until years later). In his critique afterward, Mr. Sweeney told me I spoke with a “valley girl voice” and that my thick, black hair, swung over the left side of my face covering most of my forehead, made me look “like I was wearing a helmet.” I’m thankful he led me to great literature, but he was an asshole, too.

In my final year at William Paterson University, Dr. Hauser got a more interested version of me. He exposed me to more Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Frost, T.S. Eliot and I happily consumed it all. One of the poets I loved most was William Carlos Williams, who grew up a few miles away in Paterson and remains famous for his poem about the plums that you probably read in an English class before. Until this past week, the last time I thought about Williams was in Dr. Hauser’s class.

Last Tuesday, I watched the movie Paterson at Downtown West and it all came back. The movie focuses on a bus driver-poet and his life in the city with his artsy Persian wife, English bulldog, and the people who fill up his everyday routine. The bus driver-poet, played by Adam Driver, is very influenced by Williams (in a way, it reminded me of The End of the Tour about a writer and his relationship with David Foster Wallace). It was a beautiful movie that only lasted a week in Knoxville because “there were only like four people there the night it premiered,” the lady at the ticket counter told me Sunday night when I went back to watch Moonlight.

Most of this post has been a huge buildup to just say that poetry is hard, raw, and unsettling, in such a way that it’s impossible for me to walk away and be happy with any of the poetry I write. Since college, I’ve pretty much avoided poetry, sticking to sports, journalism, and short stories here and there. As I’ve explored fiction writing, I’ve begun experimenting with poetry again, too. The movie opened the door in a way to sharing those poems.

One of the things that makes poetry hard for me is that I’m not interested in poetry that doesn’t make sense to what I feel (or can feel). The movies, novels, art, and journalism I consume all touch me in some personal way; they mimic moments, conversations, images that I’ve to some extent experienced. There’s epic poetry out there that is beautiful, but I quickly lose interest in the fanciful stuff. I’m not knocking it at all, that’s just me.

So, inevitably, when I write poetry, it’s personal in an unsettling way. It’s not like short stories where I can hide behind so many words and scenes. And it’s scary to write this way because I worry what others might think of me:

Will you judge me because of the feelings I’ve taken from inside of me and put on a computer screen? Will you empathize with me? Will you be angry? Or pity me?

I do think it’s a beautiful thing when we can be real. Every work of art I say I love has that heavy dose of candor to it. Poetry is cathartic and therapeutic in that sense. And, I’m glad that Paterson and Williams have gotten me writing it again.

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Short Story: First Date, Part 1

bar-scene-story

He checked his watch: 7:57 p.m.

Edward stood at the front door of her apartment nervously combing his hand through his hair and fiddling with the lapels of his blue blazer. It was a seventh-floor apartment in one of the modern, brick-and-glass buildings downtown that he passed on his way home from work. He always wondered about who lived in these downtown buildings and now he knew: Abigail Da Rosa lived here.

Abigail was elegant but cool in a way that made her easily approachable. Edward wasn’t nervous when he flirted with her last Saturday night. They were both out dancing with friends when Adam introduced them. Later that night, she followed him to the bar and they chatted for half an hour, Edward leaning coolly on the bar with drink in hand as she sat on a stool beside him. She told him about how she had moved to the city as a teenager, graduated from a local state university, and worked nearby for an architecture firm. She mentioned a renovation at an old church outside the city, how it was her favorite project. It brought him back to a moment he stood inside the ruins of an old church in the Scottish town of Lanark where they say William Wallace was married. He felt strange and warm inside as she told him.

“Abigail, you’re fascinating,” Edward said to her. “This week let me take you out for a proper dinner, far away from this rowdy crowd, and I promise you won’t regret it.” She tilted her head to the side and smirked the way young women do. “Well, you’re smooth,” she told him. He tried hard to hide his tell, keeping his facial expression blank.  She checked the calendar on her iPhone and suggested Wednesday evening. In that moment, he looked up toward a corner of the bar and murmured pointlessly under his breathe; he knew he had no plans. “I have a few meetings that may run into the early evening, but for you I would happily clear my schedule, chéri.” Abigail smirked again. “I’ll meet you at Ste. Ellie’s at 8 p.m.” He paused trying to read her reaction.

“Actually, I’d much rather pick you up and walk over,” Edward said. “It’ll be a nice night for a walk.” It was October and the air coming down from the mountains was cool and pleasant. Abigail said okay. She grabbed his phone, asked him to unlock it, and put in her phone number. “What a fitting last name,” he said, smirking as she handed it back. She smiled.

Now it was Wednesday night and Edward was there outside the door trying to control his anxious breathing. She texted him her address that morning with a smiling face emoji at the end of the text. He left so early from his place 15 minutes on the opposite side of the city that he sat in his car trying to prep himself, opening and closing website tabs on his iPhone: “15 questions for the perfect first date”; “Keys to a romantic night out on the town”; “How to show her you’re a real gentleman.” He had chosen an outfit two nights prior, but decided he didn’t like it at the last minute and ironed another outfit for the night: his favorite blue blazer, brown checkered button-down, brown wool tie, tie bar, olive pants, and brown dress shoes. “You look like an idiot,” he told himself in the mirror when he tried it all on.

Edward’s iPhone, still in the back pocket of his pants, vibrated. He checked it. “Go get ’em tiger. You got this.” It was from Adam. That night when Edward asked Abigail out they giggled about it in Adam’s car for 15 minutes. On Tuesday, they met at Adam’s place to talk about what he should do. “Just try to act like a normal human being,” Adam told him.

“People don’t like me when I’m normal, Adam,” Edward said. Adam rolled his eyes. “Do it your way, but she’ll figure you out eventually, Sinatra.”

Edward tucked the phone into the right pocket of his blazer. Then, he checked the inside pockets to make sure he had remembered everything: a roll of spearmints on the left side with a freshly-washed handkerchief, plastic black hair comb on the right. He hardly used the comb, but his grandfather always tucked it into his own coats when Edward was a boy and he liked the habit.

Pacing in front of the door, Edward whispered to himself. It was 8:00 p.m. now. “Hey, darling, all well tonight?” No, no, that wouldn’t work. “Well, you look dazzling this evening, chéri.” He couldn’t figure out his opening line. Frustrated, he hit himself on the forehead with his closed fist and scrunched his face. Further down the hallway, an older woman passed by with a young boy and stared briefly at him. He smiled at her, she didn’t smile back, then she and the boy went inside their apartment. “You’re an idiot, Edward,” he muttered to himself.

Finally, Edward knocked on the door.

He didn’t hear anything inside, but he didn’t want to text or call her. He waited for another moment. “Oh shit,” he groaned, suddenly anxious and with a strange feeling in his gut. He closed his eyes and sighed.

Inside he could hear her moving around now.

“One second, Eddie,” Abigail said in a strong, steady voice. He loved her voice. “I’m coming.”

She opened the door, fiddling with the strap of her left heel. “I’m sorry, I can’t get this. Is it late?” It was 8:03 p.m. “You’re perfect, Abigail,” Edward said smoothly, half grinning. “Absolutely perfect.”

“Well, you know just the thing to say to a lady,” Abigail responded, smiling. She grabbed his hand and kissed him on the right cheek. Edward smiled.

Abigail walked out into the hallway and closed the door. “Can you hold my bag for a second?” she asked him. “For you, Abigail, anything,” he responded. Again, she smirked. He was so nervous he could feel sweat beads forming on his neck and moistening his shirt collar.

Abigail wrapped her arm around his and they walked toward the elevator.

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Short Story: The Boy in the Sand

The Sea and Sand Cover Photo

A local beach near the town of Juan Dolio in the Dominican Republic

In the sand nearby, the dark-skinned boy in tattered shorts sat looking out at the crashing blue waves of the Caribbean Sea. I sat close to the boy; only a few feet away (though he either didn’t notice me or was indifferent to my intrusion). I watched him as the rain fell on us and dripped down our clothes. I wondered if what we saw in that water was the same; if we were both daydreaming about the future or reminiscing about something from the past. I wondered about his dreams or maybe his heartbreak. The clouds overhead were dark and the rain kept falling on us, but the boy didn’t move. He leaned forward stoically, with his left arm resting on his raised knee, and kept his gaze on the empty distance in front of us.

To the left of us other boys were playing shirtless in the rain as the wooden boats of the local fishermen headed back to shore. One of the boats sped forward, crashed with the waves onto the beach, then settled. The fisherman jumped out to push the boat deeper onto the beach. The shirtless boys ran over, joined by other young men who were drinking rum under the palm trees, to see the catch and make offers before the older men from the stores bought up all the fish. The dark-skinned boy still didn’t move.

I thought about saying hello to the boy, but I resisted. There was some kind of peace in him that I didn’t know. I fidgeted, trying to soak in a moment of solitude away from the city, but ultimately failing to soak in much at all aside from the salty Caribbean water.

The other young boys ran over to me showing off the fish. “It’s loro,” they told me. “Parrot?” I asked them. “No, it’s a fish, it just looks like a parrot. Can’t you see that it’s a fish?” they laughed. The fish was a turquoise color with pink and yellow lines running along its mouth and body. It was a beautiful fish.

“Enrique, come play with us!” they yelled at the boy nearby. He turned to shrug them away, but one of them jumped on him and the others started dancing around in the sand trying to distract him and break his stoicism. I giggled at how happy the boys were. Enrique didn’t giggle; he got up.

Vamos,” he said. “Nunca me dejan en paz.” You never leave me alone.

The boys were still laughing and dancing. One of the boys held the dead fish the entire time as he shook his body and stuck his tongue out. They ran off and Enrique followed, walking slowly behind them and not turning back to look at the ocean again as they disappeared from sight.

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The Phantom Punch

The punch came from an angle he had never expected. The boxer didn’t actually see it as it landed just above his left cheek. Immediately the thin bone inside the thin layer of his flesh, bruised and cut from a hundred other punches, shattered.

The punch sent off a flash in the boxer’s mind. His mind went blank for a moment, like a big cinema screen before the start of a movie. “This must be what being ‘out on your feet’ feels like,” he thought. But then, vividly, a memory from his past began to play.

The boxer wasn’t a boxer then. He was 17 years old, and he stood in the backyard with her. Golden waves of hair gently splashed the dress straps clinging loosely to the girl’s shoulders. He caught her eyes. They were big, brown eyes and they were fixed on his, too. She smiled a bright, golden smile. The sun was high above the girl and the leafy branches on the tree behind her swayed. She was in the midst of whispering something to him.

Flash.

The boxer was back in the ring, bent over against the ropes, and deafened by the sound of the nearby spectators who cheered and shouted for the knockout. He looked up and caught the eyes of the man in front of him. Sweat poured from his own bruised face as the lights above enveloped him, blacking out everything behind him. Another punch was inches from colliding with the boxer’s chin. He was there, present in mind and body, and at the same time he wasn’t. Because it didn’t make sense. “Why her? Why now?”

The punch landed, the boxer’s knees buckled, and he let the force of his own weight take him down to the canvas. He rolled over onto his back and looked up at the lights above, blinking. He hoped for another flash.

“Goddammit. Come back. Please come back,” he thought.

Part of the motivation behind my blogging again is to share fragments of the short stories I’ve been working on. I don’t get the chance to write fiction as often as I once did. But, there’s something beautiful about it to me. Hemingway was quoted, saying, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Except the blood, once it coagulates, can’t always be traced back exactly to you. There’s fragments there; pieces of you that you’ve poured out into your fiction. But, you borrow, create, and imagine, too.

In boxing, there was famous fight—the hugely anticipated rematch between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston, who Ali had beaten to become the World Heavyweight Champion at the age of 22. Many people were still shocked from Ali’s first win and expected the heavily-muscled, knockout artist that was Liston to pummel the brash Kentuckian. But, that isn’t what happened. Instead, Ali scored a first-round knockout from a punch still debated more than 50 years later. Because much of the audience and television viewership didn’t see it land, it was called “the phantom punch.” After it knocked Liston on his butt, the bigger man rolled around for a few moments and didn’t get up. When the referee called off the fight the crowd immediately booed and yelled “Fix!”

Liston was known for his prior mob connections so naturally many commentators argued he took the fall on purpose to repay debts by losing at almost impossible odds. Others, like former heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano and Hall of Fame commentator Larry Merchant, reviewed the video of the fight and said the punch, albeit impossible to see for most of the audience, connected perfectly. I’ve watched the video in slow motion and it does look like the punch snapped into Liston’s chin and reverberated through the back of his neck—the typical makings of a knockout blow.

Life has a tendency of smacking a lot of us on the chin unexpectedly. There’s punches you see coming. And then there’s the ones that catch you surprise. The people around you—friends, family, colleagues, teammates, mortal enemies—might say, “Well, that wasn’t so bad. Pick yourself up, pal,” or “Don’t make a big deal out of it.”  They don’t always say it, but there’s always the ones who just can’t help themselves.

But, human pain doesn’t work that way. Healing doesn’t work that way. Imagine what was going on in Liston’s mind on that canvas. Imagine the days after when all the newspapers and television channels and people on the street were in shock and hurled criticism and abuse his way. Imagine what he thought the ones he loved might think–his children, his wife, his mother.

Our lives are made up of flashes and moments. They coalesce in the end to create the story of our years on this earth. Some of those flashes are heart-shattering. Others joyful. They all have their significance in the end. I want to say we should watch out better for those phantom punches. But, I don’t know we can. Maybe we shouldn’t. I just know that eventually we do get back up again. And we’re different. Different because of how we handled it all.

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The Inconspicuous Return

“I’m starting to get the feeling, more and more, to come back…It’s like a knife that I have to keep sharp just in case I ever decide to jump back in the mix…”

Georges St-Pierre

Most comebacks in professional sports are met with terrific fervor. In boxing, the return of Muhammad Ali and later Mike Tyson attracted global attention. When Fedor Emelianenko — The Last Emperor, as he is known in the world of mixed martial arts — declared his comeback for New Years Eve 2015 after a three-year retirement, there was a frenzy over who he would face and if the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) might sign him. For the past two years, there have been murmurs that another sensation, former UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre, might finally return to order to make a second run inside the Octagon and regain his belt.

Despite the passion and excitement generated on most of these occasions, the comebacks have been either short-lived or disappointing. Ali was badly beaten by former training partner Larry Holmes and then lost again to Trevor Berbick before finally hanging up the gloves a few months before his 40th birthday. Tyson was knocked out in his final two fights, looking like a shell of himself and admitting after his loss to Kevin McBride that he didn’t have the guts to stay in boxing anymore. Fedor surprised everyone in his choice to fight an MMA nobody in former professional kickboxer Singh Jaideep and beat him up in an expectedly lopsided win. In his second fight since his un-retirement, he was almost knocked out in the first round by faded Brazilian Fabio Maldonado and won a contested majority decision for a Russian promotion for which Fedor himself picked the judges. Fight fans (and ladies) everywhere are still awaiting the comeback of St-Pierre, with his camp and rivals in search of a big paycheck insinuating he might return for Conor McGregor, Nate Diaz, or Michael Bisping.

Some returns are less heralded and go almost unnoticed by the rest of the world. After being knocked out for a second time by Chuck Liddell in 2006, Randy Couture retired only to return a year later and challenge Tim Sylvia for the heavyweight title. Couture was 46 years old, six inches shorter and more than 40 pounds lighter than Sylvia. But, he dominated the giant man across five rounds to become the oldest UFC champion in history.

With the creation of Dope on the Ropes, I’ve made my fourth or fifth semi-serious run at blogging. The others were as unheralded as it gets. The most popular post on my last blog had 300 reads if I was lucky. But, like a hopeless fighter throwing back wild, blind hooks from the ropes, I’m a relentless one. Join me for the ride. Here goes!

  • Brian Gabriel
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