This chair's for you, my imaginary friend.
Billie Jean King came to town, but this is really the story of a friendship that began in the mid '70s, right around the time that the legendary tennis player was showing herself to be a force to be reckoned with on many fronts.
An unlikely pair (and both Geminis, at that) who met during college, she was sporty and I was girly. She was athletically talented and I uncoordinated. She was a lifelong California girl, me, pure east coast. She hated me on sight.
Once we got past her youthful mis-perceptions, we became the yin to each other's yang, with sufficient shared enthusiasms to always make for a good ride. It was so comfortable that we knew early on we'd be lifelong friends.
Yet, somehow, we've lived in the same state for exactly two years. Or, more precisely, only two years.
We met, we had two wonderful years together and ever since, there have been multiple states in between us. Letters flew back and forth pre-Internet. Years would pass between visits, but we always reverted to instant familiarity.
Back when we met, she was an avid tennis player, even attempting fruitlessly to coach me in playing (I had no interest in the game, but coveted a cute strapless tennis dress) and naturally, BJK was a role model for what a woman could accomplish.
So when I walked over to the Seigel Center tonight to hear Billie Jean King speak as part of VCU's celebration of 40 years of LGBTQ activism, I knew my friend would have enthusiastically accompanied me if she weren't living in some far away Republican state.
Which is why when I chose a seat, I put my bag on the next seat as if I were saving it for someone, which I was, but more in spirit than reality. She'd have blended right in, too, because as the redhead in front of me observed looking around, "I expected it to be all middle-aged women."
My guess would be about 70%, but we're talking about an iconic '70s role model and women's rights activist, so that's hardly surprising. It would've been embarrassing if we hadn't represented.
After introductory remarks, we saw a video of photos, clips and sound bites (inexplicably set to the Rolling Stones and Dandy Warhols, and while the latter stole plenty of guitar riffs from the former, it's still an unlikely combination to soundtrack a tennis hero's bio), my main takeaway being how incredibly lithe, agile, fluid and altogether air-born she looked in so many of the old photographs.
Just as the video was ending, the woman who needed no introduction strode out smiling, looking 73-year old fabulous in sassy red glasses and a fuchsia jacket over black pants with her brown hair stylishly short.
Instant standing ovation. Just as instant, a fervent wish that my friend was here to experience it with me.
Taking to the stage, she began with a history of significant events in LGBTQ history, sort of a primer for those unaware, reminding us of the importance of history in our lives today.
She shared stories from her childhood about how her parents never pressured her or her brother about sports, yet both grew up to be professional athletes. "I think that's why my brother and I liked the pressure so much."
In fifth grade, Susan Williams asked her to play tennis and BJK had no idea what it was. After her second tennis lesson, she decided she wanted to be the best tennis player in the world.
In 1970, she and 8 other women signed $1 contracts to create the women's professional tennis league, with the vision that any girl who was good enough had a place to compete and could make a living playing tennis.
That's when the whole male chauvinist Bobby Riggs battle of the sexes nonsense started up and he wound up playing one of the nine women, trouncing her. BJK was next in his sites.
Here she paused in her talk to give some context to the time for the students in the audience.
"This was 1973. The war in Vietnam was winding down, but it never really did" - and here she deservedly scolded us as a nation for our treatment of returning Vietnam vets - "Watergate was just cranking up and a woman couldn't get a credit card in her own name, only her husband's!"
Audible millennial gasp from the crowd. Zinger from the star: "And why would they do that when they know how much we love to shop?"
And here's where she set their brains ablaze. "The first portable phone came out that year, just as most of us were switching from rotary to touch-tone phones, and it weighed 2 1/2 pounds, you could only talk on it for 30 minutes and in order to do so, you had to charge it for ten hours!"
There were two reactions from the younger set: either their eyes glazed over or they laughed out loud. The middle-aged women nodded.
"I told the others I had to play him! The match was about social justice, not a paycheck!" Can't you just see her getting all riled up, raising her tennis racket over her head like the Arthur Ashe statue on Monument Avenue?
Perched behind the podium was a racket and BJK wasn't ten minutes in before she picked it up and never put it back down, her security blanket, moving from hand to hand.
She stuck her fingers through the criss-cross pattern as she spoke about being publicly outed by an ex-lover in '81, causing her to lose all her endorsements overnight. Theirs was the first "galimony" lawsuit, yet her husband wouldn't give her a divorce. Her parents were homophobic and she hated the shame-based life she was leading.
I tell you what, this would have made a highly successful nighttime soap opera at the time.
Our shero ended with advice to millennials, which would probably serve all of us well:
Be a problem solver
Relationships are everything
Stay informed and keep learning
Be your authentic self
Fascinating as her talk was, it got even better afterward when she dismounted the stage and walked in front of the seats answering questions submitted by the audience.
Did she ever think she'd lose to Bobby Riggs? Every day, all day.
Asked about diversity, she said she prefers the term equality ("It's like the '70s, we used to talk about equality. It's back!") because it doesn't focus on our differences.
Her advice to women was to use their body by harnessing its abilities.
When my question (Why do you think so many college students today resist being labeled a feminist?), she answered, "I do not know why that is, but if you believe in equality, you are a feminist whether you're male or female."
I felt equal parts pleasure that my question was asked and satisfaction at her succinct rebuttal.
The last question was from the English-born director of VCU's humanities resource center, asking in his clipped accent about how she and Elton John met up. Turns out it was two weeks before the Riggs match at a party for the singer who, she learned, wanted to write a song for her.
It was with obvious pride that she mentioned that "Philadelphia Freedom" made it to #1 on the charts, but she said Elton's greatest pride was that it made it to #1 on the R & B charts.
Sensing only a vague reaction from the students, BJK suggested, "Look it up on your little Spotify!"
And then, like a video director's dream, the music for "Philadelphia Freedom" started playing overhead and two VCU students with baskets of tennis balls appeared behind her and Billie Jean King began hitting autographed tennis balls into the frenzied crowd as scores of middle-aged women tried their creaky best to snatch a flying green ball out of mid-air.
Since I have zero hand/eye coordination, trying to snag a ball was never a consideration, so instead I stood among the flailing arms and watched the effortless motion of this woman's arm where the racket was nothing more than an extension of her hand as she hit 4 or 5 dozen balls into the stands while Elton John blared all around me.
I soaked it in as completely as I could and then walked a half mile home to call my friend and tell her what I'd just experienced for both of us. Like me, BJK represents a very specific era of our lives for her, so before long, we were going down the rabbit hole to those days.
What's curious is that each of us has become the repository for different aspects of our shared history.
She recalls visiting my tiny Dupont Circle apartment on 21st Street, where I showed her the window that looked out on the cute gay couple's bathroom, in case we wanted to ogle a nice male form. Until she mentioned it, this bonus feature of that place had long since left my head.
I can still conjure up the disdain on her face, the hand on her hip, the complete condescension in her voice when she first laid eyes on me.
Long complimented for her exceptional listening skills, she tells me she only acquired them after we met because I was always telling her one story or another. In my head, she'd arrived from the west coast fully loaded with a sympathetic ear.
Not so, she assures me.
An hour into the conversation, she shares that she envies me my connection to a place, something she hasn't had in a couple decades now. "Your heart is in Richmond, Kare" she tells me about my conversion to being a Virginian. "You've always had a sense of place."
Have I? I point out that this has become my place only because I took a chance on moving here when I knew no one other than my mate. That I stayed because of the pace of life here, the cost of living, the quality of life. The old houses and the green spaces. The ability to craft the life you want without being a slave to it.
I sing Richmond's praises with abandon now that she has admitted she has no reason to remain where she is.
Then I play dirty, reminding her all my city has to offer. I just came from a free event seeing one of her idols talk (and even answer my own question) mere blocks from my house. Outstanding as such an evening might seem to someone languishing in an uninspired outpost, it's hardly out of the ordinary.
The campaign to get her here has begun, essential given that we can't go our entire lives waiting for the right time to live in the same state. It's not like we're going to live forever, despite what some people say about me. Fact is, you've got to choose where you want to live your life.
And as Billie Jean came to Richmond to remind us, relationships are everything.