Jon, left, celebrates another victory.

My friend Jon is a gracious winner, as well he should be. He has had a lot of practice. During the months we have been playing racquetball together, I have never won a game. Not one.

I hate Jon so much.

I like to play games I can win, which is why I have a ping-pong table in the basement and will invite anyone who visits to play a game. I’m a great ping-pong player. If you say you haven’t played in years or that you aren’t very good, I will talk you into a friendly game anyway and yes, we will be keeping score. I will beat you, badly, and then I will smile and tell you what a good player you are.

Jon won’t play ping-pong with me. But he’s oh-so-eager with a text to invite me to the racquetball court. We began this misery because I’m now in my late 50s – closer to 70 than to 40, as occurred to me late one night just prior to a full-on existential meltdown – and I’ve been forced to the conclusion that cardio exercise is more appropriate for a man of my age than lifting weights.

I mistakenly called it “aerobic” exercise once, to Jon, and he laughed and asked if I was enrolled in jazzercise classes. Jon is very annoying. He’s in his early 40s, so time is about to have its way with him, by God.

I came late to the gym scene, in my 30s. Once it had become clear that the HIV I have lived with since I was 24 wasn’t going to kill me as quickly as I had feared, I hired a trainer and, with a questionable helping of steroids and testosterone injections, became the muscled gay ideal, dancing the night away at circuit parties. The muscles and the nightlife were my ruin, in time, but that’s another story.

Anyway, Jon wins every game, and I am left gasping and furious at my own decrepitude and failure to make this shot or that, often pausing a game to smash my racquet against the cement walls of the court.

These angry outbursts don’t bother Jon. He waits patiently until I’ve calmed down or tried to reassemble my bent racquet, and then he serves again, just as hard as the last time, in a smug matter-of-fact way that reeks of victor privilege and forty-somethingness.

Jon doesn’t say much, not ever, really. I suppose, then, that I should appreciate his few words of support, telling me after a game that “we had some good volleys,” before he coaxes me to the water fountain because he insists I need to stay hydrated. It’s nice of him to watch out for me. He says he knows CPR, when the time comes.

I don’t want Jon to let me win. That would infuriate me even more. So, I play, again and again, and measure my spiritual fitness against my response to another crushing defeat. Sometimes I am philosophical about it. It’s all good. Calories are burned.

My friend Doug gave me two racquets for Christmas this year, knowing the tragic end of my equipment in the past. Very funny of him. Doug doesn’t even play. I think he believes that, if there is an activity that is actually teaching me humility, it should be supported at all costs.

I might argue that the ego of this aging queen is already being cut down to size, thanks, but life lessons go beyond simply getting older, even if they are discreet. There is something to learn from losing a game, not just once but always, and from an opponent whom you claim to hate but who has actually become a close friend, in spite of it and because of so many things. It’s possible to love the friend who has a competitive nature equal to yours, who exercises it with ruthless consistency.

Jon wants to play racquetball today. I am going to take a deep breath, and I am going to show up.

Mark

p.s. My Fabulous Disease was just nominated for a third GLAAD Media Award in the category of Outstanding Blog. Speaking of losing, I have never won a GLAAD award, either (although the adage is true: it’s an honor to be nominated). But GLAAD judges, if you are reading this, there are lessons to be learned from actually winning something after a few losses, too. Don’t you think? Winners will be announced this spring.

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