June 20, 2000
The weather is damp and grey here, the waters filled with toxins. Celine Dion is lying prostrate after a turkey-baster insemination; Mamma Mia! is still going strong; and the New Jersey Devils and the Dallas Stars are vying for the Stanley Cup.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, of course, have been out of the playoffs since a humiliating loss, in six games, to the Devils (whose offensive prowess and neutral-zone trap made the Leafs look like Thorazine-addled mental patients).
I was surprised to receive your email after your abrupt departure from Saturday Night, as I never heard from you again after our meeting in February in which I made my fervent plea to interview the Maple Leafs' goalie, Curtis Joseph. I assumed that by wearing a poncho to our meeting I had offended your unyielding good taste. I imagine that it is homesick amnesia that has prompted you to ask me why I came to see you in the first place, or maybe my request has germinated in some dark, recessive quarter of your mind. At any rate, I am very pleased, in response to your inquiry, to explain this fleur du mal.
The bloom, I am afraid, has gone off the rose that was once my searing ardour for CuJo (his nickname, derived from the eponymous Steven King lunatic dog whose face is reproduced, in the manner of van art, on Joseph's mask), but I will attempt to remember what it was like when I was an intrepid idolater, hunting Big Game.
It has been years since I first developed an attachment to CuJo, ever since he was photographed arriving, from St. Louis, at Pearson Airport in the summer of 1998, with his blonde wife and three children in tow. On this occasion he made an impertinent remark about the then-Leafs goalie Felix "The Cat" Potvin, something to the effect of "This town isn't big enough for the both of us."
Joseph had been acquired for the Bionic sum of six million dollars a year by Leafs President and administrative mastermind Ken Dryden. (I tried to read Drydens book The Game this year to prepare to write about goalies, but his training as a lawyer makes his prose tediously argumentative, e.g., "Bowman is tough. Not simple. A tough coach. Tough but fair. It's not simple, working with Bowman, it's fair and tough, simply.") I was just starting to watch hockey in earnest. I fixated on Joseph immediately, with the kind of wary fascination that attends the arrival of any new sheriff in town.
I need to explain, immediately, that any affective relationship with a hockey player is necessarily divided into the binary positions of passion and contempt. (Like the paradox encoded in the Marilyn Manson mantra "love to hate hate to love," unrequited adoration is both exhilarating and humiliating. A star's brightness, physicists and the lovelorn maintain, depends on two things: "how much light it radiates" and "how far it is [from you].")
Although I had been watching hockey, every single Leafs game in fact, I had yet, at this point, to feel a close or urgent link to the game. As a female, in the past, I would always enter a dulling, hierarchic, or traditionally male-dominated sphere (graduate school, literary events, trips to Canadian Tire) by forming an erotic attachment with one of its constituents. (Have you ever gone to a party that is filled with horribly ugly people, and found yourself drawn to the least repellent woman there, seeing her, in this context, as Olympia herself? If so, then you understand my first principle: attachment in context is both tenuous and powerful.)
Hockey players are, for the most part, very young, acneic and stricken with accelerated male pattern balding; their finest assets, their athletic bodies, are concealed by inflated pads and bulky, tasteless costumes. You can imagine my conundrum.
Curtis Joseph, however, is moderately handsome, and approximately my own age: he is, more importantly, possessed of beautiful blue eyes.
I want to pause at this point and restate the paradox and emphasize the precise point of my fixation.
Curtis Joseph the man is a golf-playing, charity-surfing, utterly ordinary married man with a hockey wife named Nancy and children, whose initials are emblazoned in a shamrock on his helmet, that bear these unforgivable names: Madison (the mermaid in Splash), Taylor (the kid on Home Improvement) and Tristen ("Iselte" will no doubt follow). His favourite food, according to the official Maple Leafs website, is "chicken wings."
CuJo the goalie is, in the position of the team's protector and great hope, a preternaturally skilled player, one whose athleticism takes the form of variations on the Kama Sutra, and whose eyes, framed by the bars of his cage, are
Skies over great lakes, roiling,
Cezanne cobalt, Van Gogh navy
Byron's eyes that Coleridge described as open portals of the sun
Blue moons, shining on and so on and so on.
Staring in to these eyes courtesy of a CBC crease camera, I felt just like Milos Forman's Salieri (played by scenery-chewing F. Murray Abraham) enraged into humility by the sight of beauty, unreachable, behind bands of steel.
I remember telling you in your office (after I showed you one of my orisons to CuJo, beginning "O Stalwart! Thy pads are the womanly shields of the Bee, stinging my heart with manly venom") that desire, it seems to me, is an engine that moves improbable machinery.
A simple analogy would be choosing to live in, say, Calgary, because you have fallen in love with a cowgirl, effectively forsaking all sense and reason.
The improbable machinery, in my case, was my capacity to be a genuine hockey fan: a hard-core, stone-cold, "Whack that fucking Barnaby!" fan whose Saturday nights are spent contemplating, in feverish reverence, a Canadian game.
You told me you didn't know much about hockey (though Im sure like most men, you know enough to keep you safely in the small-talk zone, e.g., "I dont know, Balfours looking pretty good"). I must tell you, it's a lot more complicated than it seems, and in order to want to learn what constitutes icing, offside, or interference, for example; to learn anything beyond pure shop talk (useful in the company of strange if barbarous men), you need a strong motivator.
Growing up male in the same city your whole life is usually enough (and really, this is too boring to explain, but men, generally, are bigger sports fans than women, likely because any one of them, in the putative democracy that is pro sports, could grow up to play in the major leagues). Female sports fans tend to fall into four categories: the actual jock/fan, or player; the Hatpin Mary, a loveable elderly butch figure with leather lungs and foam fingers; the demi-fan, who claims to love the game "because my dad used to watch it with me when I was a little girl"; and the actual or dissembling "puck slut," whom the cameras pick out often, due to her penchant for blonde bouffants and tight pink sweaters.
When I decided, nobly, that CuJo had beautiful eyes (as opposed to a hot ass), I moved deeper into the mechanics of the game, stone-skipping every category of female and male affiliation.
I read a local bishop discussing Jesus in the paper a few months ago, and he said that when He beholds you, you are utterly beheld, or something like that. Critical theorists love to rattle on about "the gaze," but in this case, I think I was transfixed in the way of the Wedding Guest, the eyes of the Mariner drawing and suspending me into his Rime.
CuJo once said in a Saturday Night puff piece that he was a shy child who learned to express himself through sports. If I had had a chance to interview him, I would have asked (after insisting he was looking at me, right at me, every time the camera picked him out) exactly what he was expressing of himself through his butterfly bends, flying leaps, and two-pad rollovers. Because it certainly was not the articulation of semi-literate golfing; rather, he expresses nuclear heat and energy, a persona his person cannot contain, off-ice or offstage.
In September of 1999, I was invited to a Leafs practice by a sports journalist friend. I had no legitimate reason to be there, so I clung to the sidelines, staring shyly at the disrobed players' shower shoes and smelling the perfume of their rank uniforms.
When I was in the changing room, CuJo appeared, dressed exactly like me, all in black, and looking attractive and composed. I felt nothing, seeing him, other than a slight chill when he sat down and began signing photographs like an automaton. Prior to that, however, while cruising the corridors, I had glanced down the rink aisle and saw him crab-walking toward me in full uniform. I fairly swooned. It was on that day that I realized the superhero element of my fetish: I recalled that as a child I had had a painful crush on Spiderman but found Peter Parker repulsively bland and straight. Uniforms or costumes, particularly to women (or gay men), are erotic because they both conceal and reveal something intangible, even epicene, about their wearer. They signal power, and how fluid power is; in my own converse case, by dying my hair and dressing in tight sweaters, for example, I could perform the kind of sexuality that might get me a pass to the deeper recesses of the changing room (the showers).
Once I loved him, I was just like any fan, no matter how much theory I expended, no matter that I felt that our eyes, when locked through the television monitor, could produce a syncretic energy capable of winning games and wrapping the goal posts in psychic plexiglas.
I contacted his management; I called in every favour I could think of, trying to bring myself closer to something I now realize is better and brighter, like a genuine star, at a vast distance.
I logged onto his website and read innumerable wan letters from fans who believed he would write back: many of these fans were children wanting to learn how to better use their blockers or gloves: it seemed unlikely he ever read a single word. He does, however, use this site to sell what you called "Beanie Babies," authorized, cheap little plush dogs bearing his signature for the low low price of $65.00.
Looking back, like Frederick Exley, I never wanted merely to be a woman "among many, a fan": I wanted something that is quintessentially teenage, and is not; to look at someone and see him looking back.
Teenage girls need the torturous factor of distance in their longings: it is a better and safer way to view the train wreck of their own molten feelings. As an adult, I decided to walk through the wreckage, and attempt to wrest something away.
I was never able to reach him, as you well know, which had surprisingly few consequences regarding my love of the game: I had already been safely ferried to the ice and once there, the game, as true fans know, is bigger than the sum of its parts.
So, Paul, this is a circuitous answer to your question: now that CuJo is out of the playoffs, I still love him, but with the kind of maternal love I feel for men I have outgrown, who have outgrown me.
I logged onto the website today, and saw that he had finally answered his fans' letters, with sweet little bromides about enjoying the game and having fun. I felt a little teary-eyed, I confess, with pride. And not the pride that once raged in my eyes, after he squashed my perverse hopes and lateral dreams (CuJo carving my initials on his helmet after a night drinking scorpions in a dark Tiki bar; reading my poems with trembling hands and heart; smiting his eyes in a fit of passion and handing them to me, transmogrified: two azure doves).
I was once, like the boy in the throes of simony in Joyces "Araby," "a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger."
Yet, as the Devils pounded him, and each Leaf into submission, I wished for better things, as one does, after falling stars.
All the best,