I am ever the anthropologist. The night before last, I went with my roommates to a bar on Young Circle to catch the Eagles game. I am not by any stretch a football fan. The closest I can come is to say that my family are Pats fans, because if they weren’t our Massachusetts birth certificates would be taken away, and that’s all the mileage I can get out of that.
They are dear to me, my roommates. Family. Dee makes friends anywhere. Sunny gold smile, tall, he knows his beer as a connoisseur. Football is his life, but he sits up late with me playing shesh besh, talking philosophy, and getting tipsy. His girlfriend, Liana, is sharp after work, tired, but her Colombian voice uncoils with art in her fingers and play in her laugh. An allergic lover of cats.
So after a perfect job of parallel parking, Dee took off down the street to reserve us some seats while his girlfriend fed the parking meter. I was left to trail after, passing darkened store fronts and empty restaurants, the dusky smell of a cigar shop, still open, pouring gold and glow out over the pavement.
I walked unsurely, was this the place? Empty cavern with glowing screens, and there at the bar proper was my roommate, steaming that he’d missed the kickoff and already surrounded by his kin, teal-jerseyed drinkers already embedded in Yuengling and Jäger shots. They welcomed warmly, another body to cheer their team, and I was a friend of a friend, which made us all friends here. Odd one out, I ordered a Newcastle. Some not-hot-enough wings. And I watched.
Not the game. The game was a picture on a monitor, nothing immediate, nothing moving. But my roommate and his fellow fans? Now, I yell at the TV. I admit to this. I tell advertisers they’re stupid through the picture-framed screen all the time. It’s why I avoid television. But I’ve never seen anyone scream at a set so heartily as Dee. A pigskin passed and fumbled, I had no idea how any of it work. That’s the peril of watching a game you don’t understand: you get lost. At least I could grasp a play handled poorly, an elite bit of athleticism, but only because I was guided by Dee’s screams, his triumphant yells and string of profanity like a bunting hung from the TV to his lips.
There, I was the alien, an intruder, until I paid my tab and left for the Circle itself. They weren’t unfriendly. I was cheering for the Eagles, and therefore welcomed open-armedly. Culture shock is a funny thing, though. Out at the Circle, I found them, my freaks and fire performers, old friends I knew from across the state flinging flames about their bodies, hoops and staves, whips and fans, poi stalling, isolating, three-beating through the air, alight, bright, all spark and sex. Drums electric thrummed the night; the throb and fuzz caught my hips in the sway.
This, then, was where I belonged. Except… where do we ever belong? I mingled among old faces and new. When the fiery pinwheels were all snuffed and the flame-flingers dispersed, I crept back to the bar. The last fifteen seconds and a pass was missed in the end zone– I don’t know which side threw it. I could tell by Dee’s face who’d won. His fist slammed the tabletop, and I felt a blush of shame that I’d not stayed to see him through. But his friends invited me out next time. But he shared his misery like a glass of stout.
Welcoming and belonging—what is the difference? What makes a welcome easy? I will never wear a teal jersey, will never invest the effort to understand the game, and yet, open arms greeted me. I do not manipulate heat and light, and yet my heart is easy among those who do. What is the difference? I could talk with either. Why did one feel like home and the other like a window into an unknown world? My family was with me, in either space.
Belonging, then, is where you feel unguarded. It’s where the light peeks through. It’s where you can stand as most of your whole self, shielding fewer bits. Otherwise, it’s just Christmas with the relatives, hackles high, and you hang out with the cool ones cracking jokes. I was glad to have the cool ones with me in the bar.