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User’s Guide to Point Guards & Girlfriends by Marisa Crane


Marisa Crane bases their flash creative nonfiction piece “User’s Guide to Point Guards & Girlfriends” on a comparison between being a good point guard on a basketball team and a “good” girlfriend in an emotionally abusive relationship. The parallel unfolds like players running down the basketball court, passing the basketball back and forth, almost effortlessly. The writer’s expertise distracts the reader from the difficulty of a subject she’d been unable to address in a more traditional form. “How to summarize my time with this person?” they write in the author’s note. “How to get to the heart of the issue? I was too close to it.” Crane creates the necessary distance she needs to explore a painful past relationship by using second-person narrative point of view and a “hermit crab” form.

Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola coined the term “hermit crab essay” in 2003 in their craft book Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction. A hermit crab essay uses another form as the hermit crab appropriates the shell of another crustacean. Crane’s essay takes the form of second-person how-to instructions, a choice she explains in her author’s note: “I somehow instinctually knew that I needed the basketball element to get me to the intimate partner violence thread—I’d made the connection between the coaches of my life pulling the strings from the sideline and my abusive girlfriend acting as my puppet master.” Hermit crab essays have become increasingly popular. Sometimes they are playful. Sometimes they are serious, a craft choice that serves as armor. As Miller and Paola point out: “This kind of essay appropriates other forms as an outer covering to protect its soft, vulnerable underbelly. It’s an essay that deals with material that seems to have been born without its own carapace—material that’s soft, exposed, and tender and must look elsewhere to find the form that will best contain it.” See Crane’s author’s note on experimental form and vulnerability.  —CRAFT


Content Warning—intimate partner violence


 

When you’re the point guard, you’ve got to be an extension of the coach on the court, & when you’re the girlfriend, you’ve got to be an extension of your abuser in public. Be careful not to embarrass either one. This may be a difficult ask considering your poor depth perception. You’re always trying to pull off the impossible—threading the needle between two defenders, sliding your body between two lesbians at the bar. When you turn the ball over, when you accidentally touch a foreign body, your coach will likely forgive you as long as you get back on defense, which you do, you always do, but your abuser is a different story—she may accuse you of cheating, she may run away from the bar then break up with you via text message when you don’t chase after her. She may look you in the eye & say You have no idea how lucky you are to be with me. No one else will ever love you the way I love you. The problem is, it’s impossible to get back on defense when you aren’t sure who’s on offense & who’s on defense—all you see are bodies orbiting around you, the indelible stain of her eyes.

Elite point guards are known for their ballhandling, leadership, & superb communication. The best girlfriends are known for their grace, resilience, & ability to absorb insults designed to dismantle. Think: You must be crazy if you think I’d actually want to have children with you. Think: You’re crazy, you’re unstable, you’re a fucked-up person. Point guards are expected to have a high assist-to-turnover ratio—ideally, 2:1, if you’re any good at setting up your teammates, which you are, you know where they’ll be even before they do. Girlfriends of abusive women are expected to avoid mistakes, however small, at all costs. For example, do not order a beer at sushi; she will storm out of the restaurant & drive away, leaving you stranded outside under the cracked-open sky. You will order a Lyft home & make excuses for her that rattle & echo for months to come. You will dissociate on your bedroom floor & leave yourself lying around like the mess that you are.

Point guards are expected to make sacrifices for the good of the team—if you tear your ACL, your coach may ask you to play that season without getting it repaired, & you are expected to oblige. After all, you owe it to your teammates. Girlfriends are expected to make sacrifices for the good of the relationship—if you contemplate suicide, your girlfriend may demand you grow the fuck up, no one’s life is that bad, & you are expected to bounce back. After all, you owe it to your relationship. As a point guard, you must be skilled at dribbling without looking at the ball, or else you may miss an open teammate. Open teammates don’t like it when you miss them; they want to score as many points as possible. As a girlfriend of an abuser, you must be adept at holding your girlfriend’s hand while scanning the bar for exes—ex-girlfriends, ex-lovers, ex-one-night-stands—or else there may be a blowout. Abusers don’t like it when you have a history that doesn’t involve them; they want to possess every piece of you.

All good point guards & abuse victims learn to anticipate, they learn to read the kinetic bodies & faces all around them—they learn to lose themselves in the process. Point guards lacking anticipation run the risk of getting benched, or even cut from the team. In some cases, if they are a sharpshooter, their coach may move them to the shooting guard position, although most point guards are point guards for a reason—they crave the responsibility that comes with this particular role. Girlfriends unable to predict the future risk their abuser shoving them on the dance floor, even siccing a crowd on them. In some cases, if they are a smooth talker, their abuser may choose to filter her anger through broken chairs & smashed bottles instead, & most girlfriends are girlfriends for this reason—they long for the responsibility of loving someone even when they are grossly unlovable.

Every time you leave the house together—a vigilant search for your exes, a retreating further & further into yourself. Imagine the moment you are double-teamed in the backcourt & you realize you don’t have any time-outs left, your coach waving wildly from the bench. Imagine a feral heat taking shape beside you, slipping her arm around your waist & digging her nails into your soft body.

Did you spot the CrossFitter from Tinder sitting around the fire with her friends?

What about the woman you met at Trader Joe’s? She keeps stealing glances in your direction.

Don’t forget the surfer chick with a trust fund. She’s occupied, but not for long.

Seems like everyone has come out tonight. Don’t they know what their presence could do to you? How it could flatten & disappear you?

During a foul shot, you dribble the ball once, twice, then spin it back to you. Great point guards don’t get distracted by the crowd, but you look into the stands anyway, marveling at all the face-painted fans holding signs with your name on them, & it is beautiful. You can almost imagine making it to the pros. While your abuser is in the bathroom, you take one shot, two shots, then suck on a lime. Girlfriends of abusers don’t get distracted by the door, but you look at the exit anyway, marveling at the streetlights calling your name, & it is beautiful. You can almost imagine breaking free. But most victims of abuse do not leave until long after they’ve wanted to, & most point guards don’t make it to the WNBA.

 


MARISA CRANE is a queer, nonbinary writer whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in Passages North, Catapult, F(r)iction, TriQuarterly, Lit Hub, The Florida Review, and elsewhere. A graduate of the Tin House Summer and Winter Workshops, Marisa is also a prose reader for The Adroit Journal. Her debut novel, Exoskeletons, is forthcoming in 2023 from Catapult. She currently lives in San Diego with her wife.

 

Featured image by Marcel Schreiber courtesy of Unsplash

 

Author’s Note

This essay was born from my desire to write about my emotionally abusive relationship in an experimental way, a way that gave me a window into an otherwise traumatic topic. I’d been trying, and failing, for years to write about this relationship, but for whatever reason, I couldn’t do it using a traditional style or form. Every time I tried, I froze. How to summarize my time with this person? How to get to the heart of the issue? I was too close to it.

In facing the blank page of a traditional essay, I was so worried about transitions, dialogue, story, etc. that everything came out forced or stale. The luxury of using an existing form to outline story is that you no longer have to worry about structural elements. With a hermit crab essay, the structure is already laid out for you; all you have to do is focus on the story, then fill it in. So, I read the WikiHow page for “How to Be a Point Guard” and used it as a guide to write this piece. I read this article because I somehow instinctually knew that I needed the basketball element to get me to the intimate partner violence thread—I’d made the connection between the coaches of my life pulling the strings from the sideline and my abusive girlfriend acting as my puppet master. I don’t mean to say that my coaches were controlling or abusive, because they weren’t, but there was something about my lack of agency in both situations that created a powerful parallelism. For most of my life, I identified as a basketball player, a point guard. I wanted so badly to make all my coaches happy, to do exactly as they said, to perform all of their instructions to perfection. And there came a point, I think, during my abusive relationship in which I stopped thinking about who I was as a person and just who I was to this person—both relationships, in a way, mirrored one another in my desire to please someone else, in the losing myself in service of another.

I also found it easier to be vulnerable when using an experimental form. The form created some distance between, firstly, myself and the piece so that I could manage to write it, but also a distance between the piece and the reader so that the reader can (hopefully) absorb a narrative that can otherwise be draining and hard to sit with. And, in speaking to the specific form of a user’s guide or a WikiHow article, this format, in my eyes, created a sort of trapped feeling—as in, this is the only way to do something. The only way to be a point guard or be a girlfriend to an abuser. And what could possibly be worse than believing that you have no out?

 


MARISA CRANE is a queer, nonbinary writer whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in Passages North, Catapult, F(r)iction, TriQuarterly, Lit Hub, The Florida Review, and elsewhere. A graduate of the Tin House Summer and Winter Workshops, Marisa is also a prose reader for The Adroit Journal. Her debut novel, Exoskeletons, is forthcoming in 2023 from Catapult. She currently lives in San Diego with her wife.