The tulle was the last to go.
I was standing before my emptied out car, staring in disbelief at the vacant seats that had, for the first time in four years, actually been cleared-off enough to serve their purported purpose of seating human beings. Everything was gone—field hockey balls rolling under the seats and making noises that for years I had assumed were caused by the engine but had never done anything about, barely-read textbooks with a few feeble attempts at highlighting the night before the midterm, and even long-lost cans of Diet Coke that I had secretly relished before practice and even run tests. Everything, that is, except for the conspicuous dent on either side of the rear bumper; on the left, from the time during preseason when I had been backing out of the Wilson parking lot with more teammates in the backseat than the number of fingers on one hand and suddenly felt the jolt of having been confronted with the front bumper of a Ford Expedition, and on the right, the off-color stain from the time when I was on the verge of being late to lift and was so scared of facing Jason that I scraped my car against a fire hydrant and parked illegally rather than endure his wrath. (In the ensuing hours of panic before alerting my parents to this latter incident, it had seemed like a good idea at the time to purchase a tube of paint from the U-Store that was vaguely similar to the color of my car and perform my own “touch-up” operation. It was, in fact, not such a good idea.)
Yes, other than that, everything was gone. Or so I thought. “Hey, did you want this pink stuff in the back of the car?” the car salesman blurted out, interrupting my nostalgic flashbacks. Pink stuff? I thought to myself. I don’t think I own too much “pink stuff,” save Pepto Bismol from pre-finals anxiety. What could he be possibly be referring to?
I walked curiously toward the car. Oh, that pink stuff. The tulle. A mere fraction of the nearly football field-sized scraps of tulle my classmates and I had purchased sophomore year in preparation for our pre-season costume party in which the seniors annually assigned the freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and even themselves the craziest costumes they could think of before convening together to celebrate the end of boot camp…I mean preseason. Instantly, I was flooded with memories of that day at Wal-Mart, when Maren, Hillary, Liz, Ali and I were running around the Textile Department like maniacs, searching for the perfect fabric to dress up as “Sprites” (the nature of which were revealed only by a Google search on the Internet before we left). As the clock ticked down, Ali had pulled out the tulle and decided we could buy acres of white cotton padding, wrap ourselves in it, and then add a couple of layers of tulle to complete the outfit. We looked like giant pink Q-tips.
I climbed into the backseat of my car, realizing that the left-over tulle that Maren had tied onto each side of the handles above the inside of the door a few days after our Sophomore Class debut as Sprites had become so much a part of the vehicle as to not appear at all noticeable or out of place to me. It had endured years of smirks and questions and demands of “What is that stuff?”, whether from parents, siblings, or any other non-Princeton field hockey players who entered my car, including, eventually, my own players on the Deerfield Academy field hockey team. Somehow, the explanation never seemed sufficient to either myself or to those who asked. It was just there. It always had been. It needed to be.
The salesman offered to cut it out for me, already wielding a Swiss Army knife he had whipped out of his back pocket. But I declined his offer, asking him to let me untie it myself. Somehow, it seemed so important that the fabric stayed perfectly intact. True, it would have to be transplanted from its home to some new place, wherever it might be, but it needed to remain whole and unaltered. It was clear that the salesman did not understand this, particularly in light of the 20 minutes he had to stand outside in the freezing cold as I painstakingly untied years-old knots, but I needed this moment to let go. Or at least try to.
It had been more than a year since my college field hockey career had ended, and yet it still seemed that “real life” was in fact a prolonged vacation from which I would return at any time back to brutal conditioning on the track and sleepless nights in the Friend Center. Real life…which had begun in a rather grueling manner with the introduction to my thesis after three months of submersion in field hockey that culminated in the most powerful and painful of ways possible, continued with a summer filled with completing pre-med requirements and taking the dreaded MCAT, and now currently presented itself as a year of teaching Spanish and coaching field hockey and ice hockey at Deerfield. Even as it grew frigid this past autumn, I had been able to convince myself that this field hockey coaching I was doing was still at Kristen’s summer camps, and not just one of the responsibilities that my “adult job” required of me. Soon, I told myself, I would be back on 1952’s turf, hitting balls against the brick wall even after I was told not to, joking with the goalkeepers about how many goals I would score against them that day in practice (okay, only half-joking…those “jokes” got pretty competitive), and perfecting the World’s Most Intense Warm-Up with Paige.
The thing is, in spite of what my birth certificate may say, I grew up in 1952. In that stadium. With those coaches and those teammates. I came alive there. And it certainly wasn’t always a ball. It was as hard as anything I’ve ever done in my life. But, like the training packet Jason sent out to our team in the summer before my freshman year said, when you find ways to succeed day in and day out, it becomes harder and harder to let yourself fail. I’ve figured out in subsequent days that he wasn’t just talking about field hockey.
I see everything these days through the gaze of a Princeton Field Hockey player. It’s not just in obvious ways, like when I go on medical school interviews and the very first question I’m asked, always, invariably, is, “So tell me about this field hockey thing.” Nor is it in the fact that I continue to wear my Princeton field hockey gear on a daily basis, whether in the gym or on a run, or sometimes at oddly inappropriate moments like when I am coaching my high school team and should probably be wearing their own attire. It’s not even just in the competitiveness that makes me go all-out against 9th graders in dorm dodgeball games or try to catch up to anonymous joggers ahead of me on long runs. It’s in calling up my teammates, whether the ones I talk to every week or the ones I talk to every few months, and becoming overjoyed to hear how they are doing and share a laugh with them about some not-too-distant memory. It’s in looking down at the Ivy League Championship ring I wear on my right finger every single day (my one and only piece of jewelry) and being so proud that my heart becomes overwhelmed with emotion. It’s in the fact that I called my coaches right after I called my parents to let them know I had gotten into medical school. Of course I did. They’re my family, too.
This decision I made, to become a Tiger…it was the best one I’ve ever made in my life. It’s like the gift that keeps on giving. (A gift that is humbling, rewarding, demanding and always sharp and well-attired in black and orange, all at the same time.) And it’s an educational gift, too. It tells you that it’s not where you start that matters, but where you end up. I played approximately fourteen minutes—total—my freshman year. Seriously, you can check the books. But during my senior year, I got to be a part of both bringing the Ivy League Championship trophy back to Princeton after a yearlong hiatus (I am told that it preferred our campus to that of our neighbors in Cambridge and had been anxiously awaiting this homecoming) and traveling to Chile with the US Junior National team that earned a best-ever 7th place finish at the Junior World Cup. It was pretty thrilling, especially since I had been trying out for the Under-21 team throughout my college career before making the team my senior year. Anyone else’s coaches probably would have encouraged their athlete to throw in the towel at that point. My coaches gave me extra training sessions and made me believe it was worth it to give it just one more shot.
The tulle is safe with me now. It’s probably still the only pink thing I own. I only need to glance at it to be taken back to afternoons at Wal-mart, breathless pre-breakfast workouts at Jadwin (where Hillary would beg someone to please “poke a hole in the ceiling to let some air in!”), individual training sessions at Dillon, “trash-talking” with the goalies at 1952, post-goal celebrations, long bus rides with 20 of my closest friends, and learning to play with, live with, and love each of my teammates after seeing them at their best and at their worst, day after day, season after season, year after year.
I ache to be back on that field, back with my team, every day. You really don’t know what you have until it’s gone, whatever “it” may be…but even then, it’s not really gone. It’s in me every day, this amalgamation of everything that is Princeton Field Hockey. It will make me a better person, a better athlete, a better friend, a better family member, a better doctor…and, if I’m dared to wear it at a reunion someday, maybe even a better dresser.