‘Tomboyland’: Featured Nonfiction from Melissa Faliveno

August 5, 2020 | 1 book mentioned 5 min read

In today’s edition of featured nonfiction—curated by our own Carolyn Quimby—we present an excerpt from Melissa Faliveno’s Tomboyland, out now from TOPPLE Books.

The debut essay collection from the former senior editor of Poets & Writers earned praise from the likes of Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and Booklist, which described the book as “a full-dress portrait of a writer whom most readers will be intrigued to know.”

And in our most recent book preview, Quimby wrote:

BDSM. Gun culture. Gender identity. Motherhood (and non-motherhood). Tornadoes. Girlhood. These are just some of the topics that Faliveno explores in her wide-ranging, triumphant debut essay collection. With tenderness and honesty, Faliveno explores boundaries, intersections, and the overall blurriness of life. Melissa Febos says the book is “a gorgeously complex ode to the Midwest that is destined to be passed urgently from hand to hand, an anthem sung by all the misfits in those vast places who have not yet seen themselves written.” And I couldn’t agree more.

The summer after my senior year, I was invited to train at the home of the best softball coach in the state. My coach had arranged the visit, and we drove there together on a Saturday morning in June. The best coach in the state lived about an hour north of my hometown, in another small town just like it, where sports, and especially girls’ softball, carried a long and storied tradition. The coach lived out in the country and had built his own ball field and batting cage in his backyard in a clearing among a dense circle of tall pine trees. He invited only a few girls to train privately with him there.

In the fall, I was going to play softball at the University of Wisconsin, the top program in the state and one of the best in the country. This was the plan. I had interest from other schools, smaller programs in the state and across the Midwest, but I was holding out for UW. After national recruits were made, a handful of girls from throughout Wisconsin were formally invited to try out as walk-on freshmen. I was one of them. Only two or three players would get a spot.

In the backyard of the best coach in the state, I took swings. Cuts, they called them. The two men watched me from behind. I was calm in the cage, my fingers wrapped loosely around the black-tape grip of the bat. I dug my feet into the ground, pivoting into the pitch, finding the sweet spot, and connecting with the ball. I watched it fly up and away, then get swallowed in the black netting of the cage.

I felt their eyes on me. No matter how focused on the task at hand, I was always aware of my body, hoping my coach was watching. That he noticed the muscles in my arms as they twitched and flexed, my hips as they rotated left—as they drove forward, hard and quick, into the swing.

Each time I connected, the two men said, Atta girl. Or That’s it. Or There it is. Each time I missed, they said, You got this, kid. You got this. Or Follow through. Or Eyes on the ball, babe, eyes on the ball. On the infield, at shortstop, I crouched low, my glove just above the dirt. The best coach in the state stood at home plate with a five-gallon bucket of balls and a bat. He drove each ball up the middle, down the pipe, shot line drives at chest height. I stopped them all, scooping the balls from the dirt and firing them to first, where my coach stood to catch them. I launched each ball directly into the pocket of his glove with a loud snap that echoed through the trees around us.

“Thatta girl,” he shouted with each snap, grinning with pride, and I radiated with joy.

When they sent me to center field, the two men took turns taking hits from home plate. Bucket after bucket of balls, their big bodies grunting and sweating as they swung. I sprinted. I dove. I worked harder than I ever had. I caught every ball. I pushed my body to perform each task at the highest possible level. I was the strongest and the fastest and the best I’d ever been. From home plate, a hundred feet away, the men watched me. They shouted and yelled and cheered, their big deep voices like shots of adrenaline, filling up my throat and chest, keeping my body going.

Nothing about that day seemed strange to me then. I’m sure nothing about it seemed strange to my parents or my teammates or anyone else in the community. There’s nothing strange at all, particularly in a small town, about girl athletes and the men who coach them. It’s simply a way of life. I was simply an athlete, training with two coaches out in the country. I was a teenage girl, performing for two adult men in a circle of trees. I was a girl who would have done anything for their approval, to make them believe I was good. So that I might believe it too.

Afterward, soaked in sweat and slick with sand, my shirt and shorts stuck to my skin, my body hot from the high summer sun, I walked in from the field toward the men standing at home plate. The best coach in the state nodded and smiled.

“You’ll make it if you want it,” he said.

I didn’t make it. On the day of tryouts, a cool September morning on the University of Wisconsin field—where I’d arrived at sunrise, the huge silent beauty of the stadium like a chapel—I choked. The semester had yet to begin, but I’d moved into the dorms by then, continuing my training on campus—running the bike paths at dawn, sprinting up stadium stairs, lifting weights during the day, and hitting the cages at night. I was at the top of my game. But that morning, I missed balls in the outfield; I fumbled grounders in the dirt. At batting practice, I don’t remember if I hit a single ball. I ran the bases as hard as I could, but my legs felt like rubber, disconnected from my body. I didn’t make the cut. I still had an offer from a reputable Division III school a few hours north, but I turned it down. It was either the best or it was nothing at all.

For a long time, the words of the best high school coach in the state would haunt me: You’ll make it if you want it. I thought I had wanted nothing else. I couldn’t understand what could have possibly happened. I couldn’t believe what I had lost and couldn’t imagine my life without it. It took me years to understand that maybe, in the end, I hadn’t wanted it after all. So much of what I did—the training, the lifting, the practicing—had been about my coach. Maybe, I started to wonder, it had all been about him, more than it had ever been about the sport. This was the story I began to tell myself, and the one I eventually believed. At some point along the way, I forgot that I had once loved the game.

Excerpt from: Tomboyland. Copyright © 2020 by Melissa Faliveno. Published in August by TOPPLE Books.

Bonus Link:
Freedom in Telling the Truth: Melissa Faliveno Interviews Adrienne Brodeur

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