-for Marie Howe

It was a good excuse to hurt someone
or try. By another name: Kill the Guy.
One kid lofts the ball and we shove

each other under that pebbled oval
falling end over end. When the cone
hits wet grass, the ball careens. The boy

who picks it up gets drilled, we say,
or nailed; finding himself lost, smothered
and breathless in a sweaty tangle.

If the ball doesn’t squirt out of his arms,
you pummel him until it does. If you can’t
jar it loose, he tosses it up again. And so

it goes, no rules, no teams, just you against
the rest and you against yourself: sucking
it up. A ball of bodies. A roiling coil

of elbows and shins on patchy lawns,
in snow or mud, our dirty rumpus rolled.
Coming out of every game, grass in our hair.

I never wanted to quit. In secret, I feared pain
but hoped each hit might knock more pink
out of my gut, stain me truer blue. It was better

than crying, the ache afterward. Because
we were so many arms and hips, so many
knees, no one knew when one boy’s hand

found me there. At first, he wanted it to be
or to seem accidental: a glance of his wrist
under my waist, mid-tackle, then my knuckle

rubbing against him. But under each pile-up,
deep in the grunting mound, it got worse.
It got better. A touch became a rough squeeze,

then a caress over what we’d found in each
other: both our hands out of bounds,
with goals all their own.

Robert Fanning