Billie Jean and Me
by Jesse Ludington
I don’t remember the name of the bar in Paris, or what time it was, although it had to be late. I remember that it was a Thursday. I remember that the air felt cool on my face when I walked outside. Ashley was inside the bar, getting to know her Tinder date, Carl, an almost impossibly tall and lanky Swedish boy with shoulder-length blond hair, so textbook Ashley’s type I found it hard to believe she hadn’t created him in a lab. Kayla was inside too, nursing what she’d described to me as the worst piña colada of her life. My unfinished jack and coke sat somewhere along the bar—it had been too strong, and overpriced.
Originally, our plan had been to go to a lesbian bar. It had only been about three months since I’d come out to my mother, sister, father, and close friends, and everyone else I knew was still in the dark about it. This would be my first chance to be completely out and around other gay people—Ashley and Kayla had been hyping me up about it all day. Ashley did my makeup in our room at the hostel while dancing around to indie pop in her white Doc Martens, looking like a full-fledged New York City cool girl. The end result was a reddish eyeshadow and a contour I never could’ve done myself. I caught a glimpse of my face in the mirror above the sink and for a moment I couldn’t help but stare. There I was, in full makeup, and for the first time I didn’t feel like I was going out to be looked at by men.
I’d escaped to the bathroom earlier in an attempt to collect myself—stared at my face in the mirror, flushed the toilet even though I hadn’t used it—but it wasn’t enough. When I came out of the bathroom and slid back onto my stool at the table with Ashley, Kayla, and Carl, the room still felt too narrow, the walls too dark and the neon strobe lights too bright. I sipped on my drink and swallowed hard. I smiled at Carl when he made a joke. But still my throat was tightening, my breath leaving me as soon as I sucked it in. I peeled myself from the stool and said, “I think I need to get some air,” which is a thing I didn’t think people said in real life, and, grabbing my sweater and sliding my glass onto the bar, walked outside.
Ashley invited Carl out with us, so she would have someone to flirt with at the lesbian bar—we were supposed to meet him there. But when we got there, we were instead met with papered-over windows and a sign that read “CLOSED FOR RENOVATIONS UNTIL APRIL 2018.” We were a month too early. Luckily, Carl was surprisingly generous for someone who had just met the three of us and had absolutely no stake in whether or not we ended up at a lesbian bar, so he suggested another place he knew in the area. I could feel my chest relaxing a bit as we approached the second bar; a neon sign hung in the window declaring the bar “OPEN” and I heard music pulsing inside. The four of us stood in the open doorway for a moment and I watched bright lights sweep uninterrupted across the floor. The bar was completely empty. I can’t remember who suggested we try a regular bar—it may have been me. I do remember being acutely aware that what we had originally set out for was not a “regular bar,” that I was not “regular.”
Standing outside the bar, I looked up and down the street in search of somewhere I could stop for a second, breathe. I ended up in front of the brick wall of the next building over. I leaned back against the wall and felt the edges of the bricks digging into my skin. For the first time, I noticed how narrow and loud the street was, packed with drunk pedestrians and the occasional cab. I closed my eyes. And suddenly it was like someone had whacked me in the stomach with a baseball bat. My breath was being vacuumed from my lungs. I laid a hand on my chest and felt my heart racing, the people on the street melted away, and it was just me and my heart and my lungs, aching.
Then Kayla was standing next to me. I had been gone a while, I guess, and she was asking me what was wrong. I’m not sure what exactly I said, but it went something like this: why is this so hard? Why can’t I just be straight? and my chest squeezed tighter still, almost as if to say it’s not getting any easier.
I was on a red-eye flight back to New York from Paris when I decided to watch the 2017 movie Battle of the Sexes for the first time. The movie follows the story of tennis player Billie Jean King and her widely publicized 1973 match against Bobby Riggs, a man who adamantly believed he had the ability to best any female player. The film doesn’t only focus on the tennis match, either—Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) struggles with gambling and his fear of fading into obscurity, and Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) privately tries to come to terms with her sexuality.
I was eighteen years old and hadn’t been on an airplane since I was four, and I certainly had never watched an in-flight movie. A week earlier on my way to Amsterdam I had watched the person in the seat in front of me watch The Shape of Water, but it was rather boring without audio and I felt like a creep when the human-fish man sex scene began.
Before Amsterdam, the farthest I had ever traveled without my parents was to Montreal from our town in south-central Connecticut (about six and a half hours by car), so my mother was understandably worried. Save for a honeymoon cruise in 1999 my mother hasn’t traveled much, and neither have I. In fact, I never had a reason for a passport until I first went to Montreal with friends when I was eighteen. My mother’s anxiety manifests in the form of hypervigilance, so before I left for Amsterdam, she gave me a litany of instructions: to text her when I took off, when I landed, when I got to the hostel, and please, for the love of God, answer when she called. The trip was a somewhat sudden decision for Ashley, Kayla, and me, and was completely out of character for me.
I think it was Ashley who initially made the proposal. I went along with the idea, partially because it sounded exciting but mostly because this seemed like the sort of pipe dream plan I often concocted with my friends, only to abandon it once we had settled into reality again. I make a lot of plans—elaborate road trips I’ll never go on, décor ideas for apartments I’ll never have, lists of landmarks in countries I’ll likely never visit. So, I approached the spring break trip plan like any other: as a fun exercise in escapism that would ultimately fizzle out. The trip, I think, seemed more concrete to Ashley and Kayla than it did to me. They had both travelled much more and much farther than I had, so international travel wasn’t so much of a big deal to them. I, on the other hand, had never even purchased a plane ticket before.
For a while, I was comfortably in denial about the likelihood of my going overseas for spring break. But then, I realized I had the money—my high school stints at Panera Bread and as a car dealership receptionist were finally paying off. Then we were buying the plane tickets, one from JFK to Amsterdam and one from Paris to Newark. Then we were in the cab to the airport. Still, it wasn’t until I was carrying my shoes from the TSA checkpoint, until someone was scanning my boarding pass, until I found my seat and stuffed my coat in the overhead compartment that I realized the trip was actually happening.
I don’t usually watch movies outside of the theaters. I mostly find the idea of them hard to sit through, and the episodic nature of TV is far more attractive to me—I can control exactly how much of a show I digest, and how quickly. But the airplane either wasn’t equipped with TV shows or the selection was mediocre. Besides, I needed something that was sure to propel me at least two hours into the future, two hours closer to New York.
The cabin was quiet in the way that only long-haul transportation can be. I was on the end of a three-person row. My friends were on this flight too, but we had been assigned to different seats when we bought our tickets and I was almost certain the two of them were asleep. It was the middle of the night over the Atlantic and I was feeling profoundly alone.
When we landed at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam after six or so hours it was 6:55 AM. It had been 6:50 PM when we departed from JFK and I seemed to be the only one out of the three of us who was astounded by the feat of time travel we had just accomplished.
At the hostel, a place called the Flying Pig Uptown, the desk clerk seated behind the bar told us check-in wouldn’t begin for another two hours, but we were welcome to take a seat and enjoy the complimentary breakfast. As we ate, I surveyed our surroundings. The top half of a plaster pig protruded from the ceiling, which was painted to look like a cloudy sky. A cat wound its way around the tables, and people talked loudly over by the bar and in the glass-walled, foggy smoking room a few dozen feet away.
Upon check-in, we learned that I had been placed in a different room than Ashley and Kayla. My room would be the very first, just up two flights of narrow stairs, a narrow eight-bed room with bright orange walls. Ashley and Kayla were assigned to a room with many more beds, and many more flights up. A man working at the desk offered to carry their suitcases up for them.
For the rest of the day I was consumed by jetlag-induced nausea. I vomited in three different bathrooms at the hostel, then in the cramped restroom of a pancake restaurant, and fell asleep in my room at 10:30 PM while Ashley and Kayla sat at the hostel bar.
Kayla met two guys in Amsterdam. Ashley met someone, too, a boy named Graham with dark, chin-length hair and a beanie and a temporary job at the Flying Pig that made him nomadic and mysterious and cool. Knowing Ashley’s feelings for him, I approached the two of them at the hostel bar one night and point-blank told Graham he should come drink with all of us. On the morning of our check-out, Graham carried Ashley’s suitcase out to the car and gave her a long kiss at the door. We gossiped and laughed about the details over bad instant coffee, or Dutch pancakes, or creamy tomato soup and poached eggs. But at the end of every night it was just me in my top bunk in the orange room on the second floor, alone except for the music thumping from below.
I had never heard of Billie Jean King before watching Battle of the Sexes. All I knew was that I liked Emma Stone and Steve Carell, that I had a penchant for 70’s fashion, and that I had participated in a tennis clinic when I was ten years old. On Norwegian Air Flight 7191 I was introduced to the driven, smart, extremely buff Billie Jean (Stone gained 15 lbs of muscle for the role). I was also introduced to Bobby Riggs, a greasy self-proclaimed “male chauvinist,” and the gender politics of professional tennis. At the movie’s titular “Battle,” Billie Jean gifts Riggs a piglet as a taunt, and Riggs gives her an oversized Sugar Daddy lollipop in return. Bobby Riggs auctions himself off for a Sugar Daddy sponsorship to the tune of fifty thousand dollars, which leads to him wearing a bright yellow Sugar Daddy jacket during the match. King, on the other hand, plays in a polyester double-knit blue-and-white tennis dress embellished with rhinestones, which is designed by openly gay stylist Ted Tinling (played by Alan Cumming). The replica dress they used for the movie was so accurate that when the real Billie Jean visited the set and saw it, she reportedly said, “How did you get the dress?”
Whenever Ashley, Kayla, and I walked down the street in Paris, random men on the sidewalk were almost cartoonishly transparent in their leering. Sometimes it was a vaguer action, a wolf whistle or a “hey, baby” tossed in our direction, but other times the men were so blunt and forward it was impossible to deflect. One afternoon, we passed a man smoking a cigarette on a street corner and, with no introduction, he loudly asked, “Do you want to have sex with me?”
One night in Paris I decided that I wanted to go back to the hostel for no particular reason, except maybe that it was 3 AM and I was tired. There was also the unfortunate fact that a bottle-blonde from Las Vegas named Stacey and her sad-looking German boyfriend Daniel had been hanging around me and my friends all night. Ashley and Kayla were still very much awake, so getting back would be a solo mission. I wandered out into the night and in the general direction of the hostel. When I reached a large plaza, I crouched down in front of a large recycling bin and called a friend back in New York, and eventually I was sitting on the ground, watching the pavers snag and slowly unravel my black tights. After a while I finally pulled myself back to my feet and began following the arrow on my phone’s navigation. I had only been walking for a few seconds when I saw a man. He was maybe in his twenties, and he looked me up and down conspicuously as I passed—we were the only people on the street. The man yelled after me, something I couldn’t hear, and when I looked back moments later, I saw that he was following me. He was less than one block behind me. I walked briskly for a few more blocks until the man gave up and turned around. Still, I hurried back to the hostel, all but holding my breath until I locked the door to our room behind me.
In Amsterdam we made friends with a man named Chris, a fellow guest at the Flying Pig who didn’t leer or follow us down the street. Chris was in his mid-twenties, liked to ski, and had studied political science in Colorado but was from Vermont, where he had interned for Bernie Sanders.
One night, Ashley, Kayla, Chris, and I made our way to a place called the Sugar Factory, where there was a smoking room upstairs. In the smoking room, a man around Chris’s age struck up a conversation with me. He had heard that I lived in New York City, and wanted to hear more. Chris was sitting beside me. The man motioned towards Chris, told him to get up so he could sit next to me instead. I glanced at Chris, then looked at the stranger standing above me and said, “Go away.” And he did.
In the movie, Billie Jean and the rest of her team visit a salon to get their hair done to kick off their Virginia Slims tour. This is where she meets hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), who has long, strawberry blonde hair and a soft voice and smells like lavender and gives Billie Jean the haircut she didn’t even know she wanted. Marilyn ends up coming on tour with the girls to be their team hairdresser. Returning to Billie Jean’s hotel room after a night out clubbing in San Diego, Billie Jean and Marilyn finally kiss, and have sex. The airplane version omits much of this scene.
I spent about half of the Amsterdam pub crawl dancing away from several very persistent men, men who couldn’t or wouldn’t see the hint in a girl turning on her heel and walking across the room the second they approached her. The other half I spent with Rafaela. She was from Portugal, skinny and dressed in all black with dark, curly hair. I kept finding her by my side on the walks between bars, and later, inside the club. In the club I walked around the room in meandering circles, evading most drunk men except for one who always seemed to know where I was. He was much taller than me and would lean in real close, accusing me of being shy and saying my name over and over: “Jesse, Jesse, Jesse.” He reminded me of a man in Montreal a year earlier who had repeatedly pushed me back against a wall and said we should go somewhere to be alone, or another who shoved his hand up my skirt on the dance floor. When Rafaela appeared beside me, though, I didn’t run. She danced with me, and as the night wore on, we found ourselves leaning against a small table in a quiet corner. I asked her if she liked girls; she laughed. If she wanted to feel boobs, Rafaela said, grabbing her chest, she had her own.
When the club was closing, I leaned against the wall in the hallway to the coat check and waited for Ashley and Kayla to find me. Instead, Rafaela found me. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere!” she said, grinning, and handed me her phone. “Add me on Facebook.” Bewildered, I did, then pressed myself back against the black wall, wishing I could melt into it.
When she finally defeats Bobby Riggs, Emma Stone’s Billie Jean King shakes her opponent’s hand and claims her trophy. Then, she retreats to the empty, silent locker room. She sits down on a wooden bench and the camera captures her in profile as she begins to cry. Suddenly, Billie Jean is folding into herself, wracked by sobs. She doesn’t speak in this scene. The movie doesn’t definitively lay out Billie Jean King’s emotions here—they can be interpreted as happy tears, sure, or tears of relief, but on that tiny airplane screen I see pain too, raw and rough. It only lasts a few seconds, but no one else interrupts the scene. For a moment, I’m alone with Billie Jean.
That Thursday night outside the bar in Paris I leaned against the brick wall next to Kayla and blinked my wet eyes up at the sky, felt my lungs contract and release, contract and release, felt the rest of Paris buzzing around us. I don’t remember much of what Kayla said to me next. I think she said something about life being harder for some than it is for others, how it’s not fair and it sucks and that I just have to keep trying no matter what. I remember thinking she might be a little tipsy. And maybe it wasn’t the best advice I’d ever gotten but I felt myself breathing again, and I laughed in that way that feels so good because you’ve just been crying.
Kayla asked me if I wanted to get out of there and after stopping at a corner store, we were climbing the crooked stairs at our hostel, the Woodstock Montmartre, an establishment that was by all appearances run by two middle-aged French men and a cat with anxiety named Jesus (a sign on the stairwell door explained and apologized for Jesus’s constant screaming) and collapsing onto her metal-frame twin bed. Then somehow it was 2 AM and we were watching Mamma Mia on Kayla’s laptop, our backs pressed to the wall behind the bed. Then, Ashley texted us to give us two crucial pieces of information: that she wanted to bring Carl back to the hostel and that she was going to need the room. When they got back to the hostel, arms wrapped around each other, Kayla and I made our not-so-discreet exit into the stairwell with the laptop. It was 2:30 AM and the lobby was closed, so we tucked ourselves into the curve of the spiral staircase. ABBA serenaded us through the pair of earphones we shared, plugging our uncovered ears when the creaking on the other side of the wall got too loud. Afterwards Ashley came out into the hall wrapped in a green towel and gave us a thumbs-up. “Is that my towel?” Kayla asked, and we collapsed onto the stairs in a fit of laughter.
My favorite line of Battle of the Sexes comes at the very end. Billie Jean is leaving the locker room to face the press after her victory and on her way out, she passes Ted Tinling. Tinling stops her. He hugs her, and as the two separate, he whispers, “Someday, we will be free to be who we are and love who we love.” An announcer comes over the loudspeaker and, still wiping her face dry, Billie Jean jogs towards a cheering crowd.
There’s a science behind why people cry on planes, I know—the tear ducts are more sensitive, an increased oxygen flow makes us more emotional—but I don’t think that’s why I felt hot, wet tears rolling down my face as the camera zoomed out from the crowd. My earphones dropped into my lap and I tapped the map on my seat’s touch screen. There it was, the oversized airplane, inching pixel by pixel along its trail over the LED-blue Atlantic.
Jesse Ludington writes nonfiction and poetry and is a fourth-year undergraduate student at The New School. Originally from East Haven, CT, she lives in Brooklyn. Her work appears in Blacktop Passages, Ricochet Review, and Parkaman Magazine, and is forthcoming in Eleven and a Half Journal.
Photo source: Cristina Anne Costello