The playground appears as though colored by children: the sky an unbroken blue, the trees scribbled green, the ground a sunburned shade of yellow. The heat swirls and leaps, biting my calves above my sneakers and white cotton socks. From beneath the ancient, storm-tarnished basketball hoop I take twelve careful paces and draw a line in the sand with my heel. I turn, and allow the basketball to fall from my fingers and strike the ground, leaving a whisper of dust behind. Flanking me are a dozen concrete obelisks, fifteen stories tall, each housing a half-thousand people. Flanking them are the rest of the four million people who live in this strange city. Here, now, the echo of the ball returns to me alone. It is Saturday; the children are all in school.
I close my eyes for a moment and fill my lungs with hot, clean air. Then it begins, the familiar muscular repetition. The knees bend, the head bows, the arms raise all at once and in exclamation the wrist snaps. The ball strikes the chain of the net, hangs for a moment in triumph before releasing to the earth. This is a motion I have performed a million times in a hundred different places. I am at the park in my hometown, skipping math class; I am on vacation in Bend, Oregon, traveling with my family for the last time. I am in the empty carport of my childhood home, wasting away another summer vacation. And I am here, three thousand miles away from everywhere. I am misunderstood and peaceful and boyish and lonely. I retrieve the ball, walk patiently back behind my line, and begin again. And again.
A soft flutter, and then one arrives, a small boy, perhaps seven years of age, dressed by his mother in corduroy shorts and a short-sleeved shirt. As he notices me through his thick, square glasses he blanches, just as they all do. I pretend not to notice. He studies me from behind a cut of chain link fence as I wipe the sweat from my forehead with my shirt. Soon, a few more appear, and it’s not long before the call goes out, first in a dry whisper and then with emotion: “Migugiya! Migugiya!”
Within minutes the field is cluttered with young boys and girls, flailing and chirping at one another. Most have come to play soccer, but a fair amount of them have huddled in an audience around my forgotten basketball court. I release my connection with my old life and begin to perform, a series of lunging, spinning maneuvers, long-range shots and reverse layups. I share with them the crafts earned in my adolescence, a time when I had to be somewhere. Eventually one boy approaches with his hands extended. I fail to recognize the words but not the gesture; smiling, I pass him the ball. He collects it in both hands as though afraid to bruise it, and then uncoils, his body forming a straight line from sandaled feet to outstretched fingers. The ball meets with the underside of the rim and rolls harmlessly away.
I retrieve the ball and turn to find that the lone boy has been reinforced with a dozen comrades. Their competitive spirit surfaces and soon we are playing for the glory of our respective countries. Several of the older boys act as generals, barking orders to their underlings. Immediately they form an effective strategy: half their forces stand near the basket like soccer goalies, pikeman on the hill, while the others emulate skirmishers. They chase after me, shrieking with nationalistic frenzy, swiping occasionally at the ball but mostly at my knees. The energy is limitless, and as I sprint and spin to avoid them the sun beats down on me like a gavel.
I find that I can regain my breath at the cost of my pride, by standing still and holding the ball up in the air. The boys laugh and chatter with me in cheerful, birdlike tones. I shrug and smile, recite “Hangumal mulayo” apologetically, unable to offer any glimpse of comprehension or repartee. They simply continue unabated, in chorus. It’s likely that I am the first person they have ever met who doesn’t know their language. They revel in the idea of not being understood. I do understand, a little.
The game continues, and soon it is the parents who emerge to watch from the concourse. Perhaps they wonder what a grown man is doing in the center of a playground; perhaps simply to discern why everyone is laughing so much. I hurl a final shot that dances on the rusty metal circle before the chain net rings once more. Dehydration tugs at my tendons and clouds the corners of my vision. “OK,” I pant, as my legs give and I crash down into the hot dust. “Kamsa Hamnida. Kamsa. Oh, god.” The laugh catches in my ragged throat, and my skin itches with the first signs of a long, mournful sunburn. I lay there, covering my eyes with the back of a salt-encrusted arm as the shrieks of children fill my ears; and for a few moments, I forget about home.