By Matt Gordon
A week ago, we celebrated my son turning three. He asked for soccer cleats. In addition to those, he got a full Lionel Messi Argentina kit—shorts, socks, shirt. He wears them like his skin. Today marks day six.
He has taken these items off a few times. Like on night two, when he refused to take them off for bed, and then proceeded to somehow pee on all of them—shorts, shirt, even the socks were sullied by the streams of excitement. Or there was earlier this week when he got coffee spilled down his back. He did not cry about the potential of burns, rather the only thing provoking tears was the removal of the jersey to be washed.
It is actually pretty remarkable how durable the little jersey set is since it is a knock-off version from China or some faraway place. Adidas claims to be the “brand with the three stripes;” Joey’s outfit showcases only two such stripes—maybe that is where the price reduction lies? We are facing a recession, after all, and stripes ain’t free.
When he wears the gear—which is, if you recall, pretty much any time it isn’t covered in pee or other liquids—Joey is no longer Joey. He goes by the name “Messi.” We must call him Messi. He will correct, sometimes violently, if we mess this up. He totally transforms into a man he has witnessed once, on a video I pulled up on my phone, of which he made it about a minute into before declaring it to be too boring. As such, like so many of us, Joey has become a man he doesn’t know.
While he looks the part, this obsession hasn’t really translated to on-the-field performance. Little Messi dashes around the backyard, more chasing the soccer ball than controlling it. We see him crawling into the woods to retrieve it, running into the house in failed attempts at corralling it, colliding with trees pursing the blue orb. “You okay, Messi?” has become the crowd’s constant chant.
In the evening, Messi has taken to joining his mother for the last lap of her nightly jog. He wears his new cleats for this. Cleats we bought used that are no less than three sizes too big. There he is, the vibrant number 10, skiing alongside the comparably gargantuan strides of his mother. I watch from the porch, willing myself to remember the tiny, comical figure and hoping he won’t need stitches in the immediate future.
What is it to be a child? To have immediate, innocent infatuation? I once dreamed of being a great soccer player. I trained at it, hoped for it, sprinted after the elusive goal. My son doesn’t have time for all that—he merely needs to remove Clark Kent to fully become Superman, and one doesn’t ever find Superman in the gym. Little Messi may lack the discernable skill and deft touch of his bigger-than-life hero, but he outscores even that legendary icon in terms of belief. My boy may not make the team, but he is all-in regardless. In some weird way, this child is more Messi than Messi could ever be, for in our adulthood we seem to lose the ability to lose ourselves the way a kid can–to give ourselves completely. To go on kicking without skill or audience, fully committed—the act of being, reward enough in itself.
Today, when I left for work, Little Messi asked if I wouldn’t mind putting his shin guards on over his sky-blue Argentina socks. I told him that isn’t how soccer players do it. He didn’t mind that—he wanted to make sure he could see the shin guards. Might I be just as unwilling to tuck beautiful things away.
Soon I’ll head home. I never know what I’ll find waiting for me there. The house will be in disarray despite my wife’s most noble efforts. Makeshift tents will be erected, toys scattershot. A child or three may be in tears or sick or asleep or on the roof. I’ll pull up to that familiar environment of unfamiliarity, and I’ll be sure of one thing. At least today. At least for a few more precious moments—precious years. Little Messi will run out to greet me. He’ll give me a hug and kiss and show me his newish soccer gear for the 18,000th time. He’ll demand I call him Messi, and then he’ll stride off to attempt to capture the runaway ball at his feet. He’ll chase and chase and chase, falling along the way. I hope he will someday catch what he is truly after—whatever it ends up being.
Looking on at him, I realize that I have.
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