It’s like a disease. It gets in your blood. Something clicks in your head and you can’t get away from it, and you don’t want to either. —Astrid Coil
Almost all of them, at some point in the game, told me to kiss it. One said it with respect, holding eye contact with me and speaking in a low, steady voice. This made me feel as if we were collaborating on something important.
There were two men who put their arms around me from behind—their hands gently moving my right elbow backward under the pretense that I was being given a lesson—and hiss the ss into my ear. If the ball went in during that tutorial? It was thanks to their help. And if not? It was the result of my lack of skill, of course.
My least favorite way to hear those two words was when they were said in a bored tone, as if the speaker was playing a video game.
I heard kiss it many times, and only from men. My performance depended on my rapport with my opponent, the music in the background, my buzz level, the quality of equipment, the table, the style of mansplaining. But sometimes it worked—a light kiss with my cue, and the cue ball would glide across the table and tap another ball, miraculously, into a pocket.
When billiards began, the game was played outdoors by European nobility. Later, it became an indoor spectacle of colors and bouncing light. The sound of a good break or a good shot became a sonic addiction passed down through the generations—father to son to grandson. Eventually, the game came to be enjoyed by people “of all walks of life.” Me? I started playing pool because it was -20 degrees in a Minnesota winter and the green cloth reminded me of leaves and grass from my warmer days living in the South.
I had previously looked at pool the same way I looked at hunting: a competitive, leisurely, masculine activity. And because literary and photographic representations of billiard rooms included animal heads mounted on walls, and, historically, a majority of pool balls were made from elephant tusks, I associated the game with a degree of prideful cruelty. But the energy I found surrounding the tables was surprisingly welcoming—even to someone with intense social anxiety, like me. I was not exactly drawn to the strangers playing pool, but I was never scared of them either. Maybe because they were so focused on the game, they seemed harmless. It was this focus I craved; I wanted something that would matter that much to me.
Pool was the education I chose during the three years I lived in the Twin Cities, when I was supposed to be writing a thesis for a graduate program. I spent roughly 60 percent of that time doing normal human things (sleeping, eating, etc.), 20 percent reading, 10 percent writing, and 10 percent playing pool at dive bars. How did a thirty-two-year-old Nashville woman who knew nothing about a game—one that seemed to be run by men, no less—end up caught in its clutches? This question was pressed upon me when, in year three, my thesis was due and all I had to show was a collection of notes on learning how to play pool in my coat pockets.
I didn’t have an answer—not then, at least. I kept playing to understand why I kept playing.
I played at CC’s, Grumpy’s, Pat’s Tap, Cardinal Tavern, and, when in the area, at the lonely hearts club of Minneapolis known as Hexagon. I walked in and set a quarter on the table (the nonverbal communication indicating I wanted to play the winner). Whoever won, no matter how badass a player, had to play whoever was next, no matter how terrible. In my three years playing, no one dishonored this code. The winner of the previous game would ask if I wanted to play ball-in-hand—placing the cue ball anywhere prior to shooting—or in the kitchen—restricting placement to the area behind the head string when breaking the balls. There were people who played by strict rules while others were more lax. I started lax but learned that men were lax with me because they thought I had no idea what I was doing (because I didn’t).
I learned the language of pool—the majority of which I disliked—by way of immersion. Early on, I gathered the table’s wet meant the game was moving too slow as a result of humidity on the cloth—or, pejoratively, because of a novice player. One night, on the cusp of winning, I lost because the eight ball bounced twice within the same pocket and didn’t sink. “Caught between the tits!” my opponent said. When I asked him what he meant, he explained it was when the ball bounced between the two pointy protrusions cradling the perimeter of a pocket. On the night I won three games in a row, one man told me I “had the nuts.” Another guy tried to teach me how to do a “squirt shot.”
The first time I accidentally hit a ball in—but in such an impressive way—my opponent said, “Slop!”and prepared to take his turn. When I protested, he asked, “Did you mean for that ball to go in that pocket?”
“Well . . . no.”
“Then it’s slop.”
I thought he had made up the word on the spot, but when I learned it was the widely accepted term, I thought it was perfect. I would even call it on myself before the other player could. It felt satisfying to make a terrific shot inadvertently and then dismiss it.
• • •
During my first Minnesotan summer, when I had the option to swim in lakes and go to barbecues and take long walks along Minnehaha Creek and read and write inside my screened-in porch, I spent more time playing pool in bars.
By then, I knew I only wanted to play in the kitchen and how to put spin on my shots. The table was less wet. Men who had been strangers knew my name when I set a quarter on the table. Men who had once consistently beat me or let me win now played more aggressively. Some of them even lost. Other women played pool, but they were scarce and often on dates. But on one occasion, I walked into Grumpy’s to see a woman playing pool with confidence and style. I nursed a beer and watched her win one game after another. I didn’t fish a quarter out of my purse. I just watched. When I asked her how she learned to play, she told me she grew up playing the game. That night, she taught me how to rack the balls efficiently (the one ball at the point, the eight ball in the center, a stripe in one corner, a solid in the other). We played two games, and she won them both.
In my second winter in Minneapolis, a boyfriend took me to Jimmy’s Pro Billiards—a place with twenty or so pool tables of all different sizes. Each cue had a specific weight. More women were present. Some people played alone and practiced their shots while others played one another in preparation for tournaments, and everyone knew the rules. No quarters were put on the tables—one paid by the hour—and there was no random camaraderie. No one was drunk, and no one knew my name. At Jimmy’s, I was just an amateur amongst people who played fairly well, some of them professionally. I felt as if I had jumped out of the kiddie pool and into the deep end. And I didn’t hear a single man say the words kiss it to anyone.
Another boyfriend gave me my own cue for my thirty-fourth birthday. It unscrewed and came with a sleek case. The handle was wrapped in Irish linen to absorb moisture. When I took it to bars, people looked at me as if I was a shark in sheep’s clothing. When they learned I was a sheep in sheep’s clothing, I felt embarrassed for bringing my own cue only to get beat by people who played with the lousy bar cues, which were too long or too light or too banged up. Eventually, I left the gift at home. I wanted to be seen as nothing other than who I was: an amateur, and a lover of the game.
During the final semester of my graduate program, I went from playing twice a week to twice a month to almost never. I had a few months to write a book I should’ve spent three years writing. The cue moved with me to Pittsburgh for eight months and then back to Nashville, where it currently sits in the back of a closet. I haven’t taken it out of its case in over a year.
Now that I’m beyond the confines of the MFA bubble, I berate myself for all the time I wasted in dive bars learning how to play pool. But pool allowed me to be seen in a way I wanted to be seen during that uncertain, self-conscious period of my life: dedicated, playful, a good sport, nearly fluent in some male-dominated realm, and, sometimes, as a worthwhile competitor. When I wandered those snowy streets of the Twin Cities, existing as a person-writing-a-book, there was relief in realizing I could be something beyond that, dependent on the interaction of others, immediately measurable within a social space.
• • •
In Nashville, there’s a bar called Melrose Billiard Parlor. I play pool there sometimes—using the bar cues and, so far, only with women. On the walls of this underground dive hang 1960s newspaper headlines about women learning to play pool and women starting their own leagues—J. Vester, New Melrose Cue Lounge Manager, Plans Billiards Lessons for Ladies! On another wall near a bathroom, there is a grid of headshots featuring professional female pool players from the 1980s. There’s no photographic representation after that.
But, well, here we are—real, live women playing pool in front of those photographs from decades ago. Some friends and I are coming up with terms to replace between the tits and squirt shot in hopes that Melrose will add the new dictionary to their wall. However, I still call slop and, sometimes, I call it a beautiful one.