You won’t hear any ringing alarms in Heinrichstraße 11, Apartment 4, because neither of its two residents has any obligations to attend to this morning. So when an incessant buzzing, like a swarm of bees, prods me from my sleep, it takes a couple of seconds for me to realize it’s my phone, and it’s vibrating.
I feel around my bedside table, eyes still closed, and knock over a few books in the process. When I happen on my phone, I take a quick peek at the time—9: 23 a.m.—and slide the “Answer” button across the screen, hit the speakerphone and lie back down.
“voooon Jagow,” the voice booms through the room. It’s Shazzon, my quarterback.
“How you feeling?”
“Like shit… you?”
“’Bout the same. You want to go to the gym?” he asks.
It’s a little game we play. No one ever really wants to go to the gym, but since today’s Sunday—no games or practices—it’s mandatory that we show our faces, and it’s best to do so early.
“I’ll pick you up in 20,” Shazzon says.
I listen to the beep that signals the end of the call, and wrestle with the idea of going back to sleep for a few more minutes. Too risky. I need to get up.
I roll over too quickly and pain shoots through my body. A variety of bruised and swollen ligaments compete for my attention, but the most pressing seems to be a swollen hand the size of a catcher’s mitt. The injury, along with a few others, came from yesterday’s game against the Dresden Monarchs. Sundays, the day after a game, are always the most pressing on the body.
I inspect my hand, not without interest, and turn it back and forth as though I were screwing in a lightbulb. It’s blue, the hand, with hints of purple, and is so swollen that my knuckle cavities are now gone. I look like I’m wearing Mickey Mouse gloves, which would be comical if it wasn’t so painful.
I text Claudia, our physiotherapist, to ask for an appointment, then spring out of bed. And that’s when I scream.
I look down to see blood trickling down my leg. The scab on my knee, a cut from the first game that refuses to heal, is clinging tentatively to the sheets. Every night, I go through the same process. The cut attempts to heal. The blood coagulates and coalesces with the sheet. Come morning, the bond is pretty much solid. The sheets are part of my kneecap. Then, in my sleep-deprived state, I hop out of bed and pull the scab clean off. The effect is tantamount to a couple of espressos, as far as adrenaline is concerned.
“You good?” the voice comes, muffled, through my roommate’s closed door.
“Yep,” I say as I fight back a whimper. “I’m good, Jeff.”
Jeff is our free safety. He’s from the Netherlands, and like me, he’s an import player for the Hildesheim Invaders of the German Football League.
We have 16 imports on our team. The majority are from the United States, but we have players from Canada, France, Holland, Lithuania, Great Britain, Hungary and of course, Germany. All 16 of us have been flown to Hildesheim, Germany, where we’ve been given an apartment, a salary, a car and a handful of other services, in exchange for playing for the Hildesheim Invaders. Our only obligations are football-related, which is why Jeff is still asleep, and will likely spend the entire morning in bed, recovering from yesterday’s game.
I tiptoe to the kitchen, which is in its usual state of dereliction. Dishes overflow from the sink and have been stacked precariously along the counter’s edge. Empty cereal boxes are strewn about the floor, and an army of fruit flies patrols and hovers through the area, feasting on wilted fruit and stale bread crusts.
I scour the scene for food and find, under an empty pizza box, a loaf of bread. I rotate and inspect the loaf from all angles. It passes the visual check—no egregious signs of mold. I open the bag and waft a bit of the air towards my nose.
The term “fresh” is far removed, but it does pass the olfactory check. Good enough. I smear some leberwurst on the stale bread—which has the texture of toast—and barely finish eating when I hear honking coming from outside. I peer out the window and see Shazzon in his team-issued Mercedes.
I shove the rest of the bread into my mouth, throw some gym clothes into a bag, and then beeline out the apartment. I open up the car door to an argument, which is no surprise.
I catch the end of what Robin, our tight end from France, is saying.
“So unorganized. Every goddamn time.” He shakes his head and looks out the window.
“Me? Who were we waiting on today?” Shazzon is indignant and fighting back. He might have just cause, but Robin is too stubborn to accept defeat.
The argument has reached a standstill. New facts are unlikely to surface at this point, and both parties are more concerned with salvaging pride than reaching a solution. It’s a perfect time for me to butt in.
“Yo,” I say.
“Sup, von Jagow?”
I slap hands with both of them, and then quickly try to steer the conversation into more genial territory.
“NFL Sunday is back.”
“Colts, baby!” Shazzon yells.
“Colts are trash,” Robin says.
Please, Shazzon, I think, don’t engage. Don’t engage. Don’t engage.
“You’re trash,” Shazzon says.
I tune out. It’s best to let the fight run its course. Shazzon and Robin are roommates and best friends. They’ve lived and played together for the last two years, so it isn’t uncommon for their egos to clash. They’re both proud, competitive individuals, so little things—who turns out the lights, for example—can magnify and blow up into something bigger entirely. So I’m happy to be in the backseat.
I’m also grateful to be in the back, because the back is safer. Shazzon is still learning how to operate his new manual-shift car, and the ride is bumpy, sporadic and fraught with cries of “Jeeeeesus,” and “Watch out!”
By the time we pull into the parking lot at the gym, Shazzon is more comfortable with the stick shift. He’ll have to be. He has three more months with it.
We check in at the front desk and try to impress the staff with some of the new German phrases we’ve learned.
“Wie geht’s?” Shazzon asks the girl at the counter.
“Mir geht es gut, danke. Wie geht es dir?”
We look at each other helplessly. Then everyone breaks out into a cathartic laugh. Our grasp on the German language is tenuous on the best of days, but gradually, we’re picking up words.
The sacrifice of physical comfort
After changing, we hop on the exercise bikes. I slide the seat level up to 11, mount the bike and slip my feet into the pedals, and then press “TRAINING STARTEN.” I look over to Shazzon, who’s biking on level 12. I click up all the way to 12; then, when I know he’s looking, click up to 13.
“Get out of here, von Jagow.”
The biking—10 minutes, 100 calories—is mostly mental. It’s a sample of what football entails: perseverance, determination and the sacrifice of physical comfort. The same can be said for what we’re about to undergo next.
The spa’s only entry requirement, besides a membership, is that you be stark naked. This rule is strictly enforced.
Sunday is maintenance at the gym, which means no lifting. Just biking, a quick stretch, and then we head to the spa where there are saunas, hot tubs, showers, lawn chairs and a couple of pools. The spa’s only entry requirement, besides a membership, is that you be stark naked.
This rule is gravely enforced. One of our teammates, Botond from Hungary, tried to enter the hot tub while wearing compression shorts, and was accosted by an older member, telling him to “Get naked or get out.” The constant nudity was unnerving at first, but we’ve long become inured to it.
We walk past the sauna and the pool, past the lawn chairs where a handful of naked individuals are spread-eagled, reading books written by German authors, and past the sauna where some ceremony involving a tree branch is taking place.
We enter the communal showers and start rinsing off, while dreading what’s about to come. A young, nubile girl takes the stall next to mine, and I give her a cordial “Hallo.” She smiles back.
The showers aren’t exactly necessary. They’re simply us postponing the inevitable. We let the warm water run down our bodies while we chat about various topics. It’s one of the reasons I like Shazzon; he has an opinion on everything in this world, and he loves to argue. Our timed showers go off, almost ominously, and we know it’s time.
“You ready, von Jagow?”
“Yeah, let’s go.”
We leave the showers, hang our towels and stare down at the portentous-looking tub. It doesn’t look like much, just a small pool the size of a phone booth, but to us, it’s a portal to hell. Instead of heat, however, we’ll find cold, frigid water.
This is the cold tub, and it’s the bane of every athlete’s existence. The tiny pool serves as a whole-body ice pack, and though I can’t explain the science behind it, I can corroborate the effect. It is beneficial. The only problem is that it’s cold, or as Shazzon likes to say, “Brick dick.”
Like jumping off the high dive at my local pool, I learned that the anticipation is more stultifying than the actual process. I say, “To hell with it,” and plunge in.
It’s frigid. Beyond frigid. A shock to the system. Pins and needles stabbing every inch of my body, cold seeping through the muscle, the sinew, down the marrow; then suddenly, it’s manageable, almost tolerable. It only takes a few seconds to inure to the cold tub. It’s the initial plunge that’s the hard part. Like ripping off a Band-Aid, it’s often easier to get it done quickly.
Shazzon takes a different approach. He eases himself down the ladder, mumbling profanities the entire way. This has caused a few spectators to shake their head in disgust, and perhaps amazement, at the two “Americans.”
We don’t talk for three minutes, we just endure. Then we’re out and feeling fantastic. As I walk back to the dressing room, I spot the same nubile girl, my former shower buddy. I take great care to shield my penis, as it has shrunken to the size of a budding raspberry.
After the gym, we spend some of our monthly stipend on doners. The man behind the counter explains to us—quite passionately, I might add—that the inventor of the kebab, whom he refers to as the kebab king, moved to Germany from Turkey to set up a shop and the Germans have been going crazy for doner kebabs ever since.