I’d never really considered what throwing and catching meant — the unsimple significance of a simple arc — until I tossed a small box of nails to my freshman year roommate, who’s panicked hands swatted it into the ground, spilling aluminum spikes across a serape rug. There was a long silence as we watched the nails and then as I watched his face contort into an accusation. We’d exchanged pleasantries and spent a night in adjacent twin beds. Now I’d gone and fragged a burgeoning brotherhood with a $1.99 Home Depot hand grenade. Being 18, very stupid, and deeply insecure, I didn’t think to apologize. Precisely one thought ran through my goateed head: “He should have caught that.”
That incident played out with different roommates (the freshman relationship never recovered) and friends maybe a half a dozen times over the ensuing years before I learned to stop throwing stuff at people. That might sound like a basic lesson and it is, but re-education takes time and I’d spent my entire childhood tossing stuff: salt shakers, apples, cans, flashlights, packages. It was a learned behavior. My parents threw things at each other and at their children with the expectation that those things would be caught. When they weren’t, the problem was diagnosed as either “bad throw” or “bad hands.” Sometimes, “good hands” made up for “bad throw.” But receptions were the rule — so much so that I didn’t consider the familial completion percentage for the unusual achievement it was until I was in my mid-twenties.
My father did. He’d masterminded our training, helping my mom break in a glove years before my sister and I were in Little League. They played catch in the front yard before I could participate and by the time I was hitting off a tee, the four of us were throwing the ball around at a velocity that probably unnerved the neighbors. When I got a bit older, we would all shag flies. Do I think that my father arranged this so he wouldn’t have to walk across the living room to give my sister the remote? I do not. I think that my father and mother played catch because it was fun and because my mom couldn’t hit a jump shot. I think they only found out later that catch goes deeper than that.
A good game of catch is based on an implied understanding that the participants are:
1) Capable of throwing and catching.
2) Willing to make an effort to throw catchable balls and to catch even uncatchable balls.
The first understanding represents the difference between bonding and assault. The second is where things get interesting. It requires that participants have an understanding of what “catchable” means. And catchable means different things for different people with their different arms, reflexes, and levels of awareness. For that reason, it’s impossible to play catch without considering how someone else’s body works and how they move through space. It is also impossible to play catch with someone many times over the course of many years and not come to sympathize with their motion and, in so doing, anticipate them. A husband and wife that play catch together know something about each other that a husband and wife that don’t play catch never will.
Did my father understand that going in? Almost certainly not. He’s not that smart. But I know he figured it out over the years because of an exchange we had the better part of a decade ago. My future wife was helping him prepare steaks and he threw a bottle of Worcestershire sauce at her from the top of a set of stairs maybe 20 feet from the grill. After she caught it and twisted off the top without comment, he turned to me and asked a rhetorical question that young men with girlfriends don’t generally want to hear from their fathers: “You know what I like about her?”
I did not and I wasn’t ready to hazard a guess.
“She catches,” he declared.
I’ve thought about this more than is strictly reasonable in the years since because I like that my wife catches. In point of fact, it’s extremely important to me that my wife catches — so much so that when my wife unexpectedly drops something I very, very briefly question the foundation of our relationship. This sounds absurd, but it isn’t. Our relationship is largely about how we anticipate each other — and not just our opinions or emotions. When I fail to anticipate her or she fails to anticipate me, I wonder if we’ll make it. What’s a partner if not a cut-off man for life?
There’s also this: Like dancing or sex, throwing is about having a physical relationship with someone. It’s special because it’s a casual, asexual, and universal version of that, but it’s still that. This is why people in beer and soda commercials so rarely hand each other beverages. They toss each other frosty cans because they love each other. Those commercials are about selling the one thing no one can buy.
So, yes, I play catch with my wife and, yes, I’ve thrown both beers and boxes of nails at her. Sometimes there’s a bad throw and sometimes there are bad hands, but I’m not sure either or us has ever apologized for an unforced error. We don’t have to. We weren’t assigned to live together. We’re a team.