I won a brand new car in a pool game in a bar in Huntington, Beach. In the middle of a game, we threw our car keys on the table to up the ante in an alcohol induced betting fever because we were out of cash.
His car was a brand new Ford Probe and shiny and black, and could hop lanes on the 405 with ease and grace. My car was an old Orange Ford Mustang with a rotting muffler. I had to negotiate with a homeless man in Philadelphia to move out of it so I could drive it across country to my new life in California.
I had driven that old Mustang from Baltimore to Southern California through tornados, buckets of tears from a broken heart and bad country music on AM radio. I travelled with my Siamese cat, a litter box and a stack of poetry books in the back seat.
The man who threw his keys down was by far the better player, but I knew when to stop drinking and when to keep filling his drink. That was my strategy, have one drink to get loose, invest in their consumption, pretend I was drunk too. I was a trickster, a coyote, or in the world of pool, a hustler.
I discovered by accident I had a knack for playing one night, which came as a surprise since I practically failed geometry and physics because I couldn’t put my books away long enough to pay attention. I was paying attention now.
But there was something outside of math and science that happened on the pool table. The magician inside me emerged, I fine tuned my Intuition, had a steady hand and a relationship to the other players, which is one of many reasons why the Queen’s Gambit held my attention so closely.
Pool, like chess, is tactical.
I didn’t know the rules or the language, but I was a quick study. I learned about angles and bank shots and how to rack the balls so they were tight, then break them like fireworks, like a woman screaming this world is mine too, can’t you hear it in the breaking?
I had a steady hand and laser eye and a strong, deliberate stroke. I learned to see my shot before I made it, to take my time.
I was addicted to the high of it, the sound of the plastic resin balls cracking through the night. I was addicted to the moment when it was just me and the eight ball, calling the pocket with a nod of my head.
I was also addicted to winning.
My boyfriend joined me often, and one night, at the bar in between games, he said he thought it was time for me to go professional with my game.
To leave the bar scene behind and get serious.
Sam heard him say it. Sam was a retired professional billiard player and now a heavy drinker who liked to sometimes step out and take on everyone just because he could. I went to the juke box for some Patsy Cline, and Sam slithered up beside me.
You know how you can tell how much of a person’s life they wasted?
How, Sam, I smirked.
By how good their pool game is, he said, and then he winked.
I heard him like thunder. Inside his wink was that truth that comes snorting and galloping across the field ready to crush you if you don’t pay attention.
I was twenty eight years old and I didn’t quit playing pool that night.
But those words and that wink changed everything. I knew I didn’t want to spend my time in smoky pool halls.
Soon after, I returned to poetry and went back to work into the corporate marketing world. I learned how to build a community for my clients long before social media, and I wrote a thousand poems. I came to understand pool was my grief, my bridge, my diversion from the man I loved I had left behind. In a city I could no longer breathe in.
But now I had the ocean. I had the seagulls. I had that box of poetry books in the back seat of my car and took all those books out and dusted them off.
I wanted to be a writer. Sam was my messenger who nudged me closer to my dreams.
And I’m telling you this story because no matter what age you are, you will run out of time. Whatever that thing is that you have always wanted to do, there are hundreds of fun ways to avoid doing it. But sometimes all those diversions – pool, animal rescue, human rescue, falling in and out of love, making more and more money….
Sometimes they are diversions from your truest gift, the one you came in with – the gift that you need to practice like a violin. That gift you need to give the same attention and time you give to other tasks that don’t sing to your soul.
You know how you can tell how much of someone’s life they wasted?
We are all inside the punch line.
And we hear you Sam, thank you.