Take a long casual drink out of your water bottle. Although you frantically rooted through the cabinets this morning and found no fewer than thirteen water bottles — a lineup of hard and flexible plastics, aluminum and stainless steel — you could only find one with a lid that fit. You are not proud of how you berated the three kids for this. Act as if drinking out of your five-year-old’s Dora the Explorer bottle is no big deal. Slowly push down the black plastic spout, rough with her teeth marks.
You wipe the sweat from your face and survey the tennis courts from one of the metal chairs and table set up beneath one essentially worthless umbrella. It is early June but already you feel a hint of the scorching summer to come. You did not think to bring sunscreen or sunglasses. You did, however, wear a black athletic skort and a plain aqua blue shirt, both from Target. You did not want to over promise with a “real” tennis outfit. You should not in any way look as if you know what you are doing.
You still have five minutes before the beginning tennis class starts. You have dropped the two younger children at swim team practice at the adjacent pool. The oldest — your teen-ager — is still at home, having refused to go. He informed you this morning that swim team is no longer cool. You do not know what this means. You only know that you have paid hundreds of dollars for year-round swim team the last four years because he said he loved it. You have, in fact, taken a three-month trial membership at this tennis club for the sole reason that it has a summer swim summer team. You are not, you told him, done with this discussion.
You strain to see the eight-year-old and the five-year-old in their respective lanes, resigned to their fate. Swim team is fun, you reassured them as you left. Both were close to tears, the little girl with peanut butter ringing her mouth from eating her breakfast in the car; your son with his swim trunks inside out. Being five minutes early has its consequences. You will not feel bad about this.
You decided that if you are paying for the club anyway, you should learn to play tennis. Your husband thinks this is a good idea, too. But then, he likes all your ideas. Except the one that involved two long-haired kittens. Anyway, you told him tennis will do you good. Take your mind off of things. Like your fortieth birthday looming in September, for example. Or the fact that your daughter goes to kindergarten this year and you have been a stay-at-home mom for thirteen years and have no marketable skills. Unless you call what you have been doing “Logistics” or “Waste Management” or “Food Services,” like some homemakers you know do. Which strikes you as pathetic. Your angst is also be intensified because you are beginning to worry about things like leaking pee when you laugh.
Watch as the twenty-something tennis pro wheels the metal basket of tennis balls your way. You take in his lean tanned body in the bright tennis whites and the head full of greasy blonde curls spilling over a curved visor. You do the math and realize you could have a son his age. This does not make you feel better. In fact, you could really use a drink. You settle for another pull at Dora. While you are drinking, he parks his basket and introduces himself in a charming Australian accent as “Treat.” You promptly blow water out of your nose. You did not think to bring a towel, either.
Treat does not register irony. He is not the ironic type. But you are the ironic type and look where it has gotten you. You hope the water spots on your shirt will dry quickly. You shake his hand. Your family is new at the club, you say. He gives you a dazzling smile and asks if you have ever played tennis. You have never picked up a racquet, you say, feeling strangely embarrassed, in his beatific tennis-y presence, that you hadn’t considered the sport before now.
Three other women are making their way loudly down the sidewalk. You take it all in: the tan skin, the preponderance of pink, the sleek headbands and crisp visors, at least one stylish zebra-print racquet bag, the rich tone of their laughter. Slump down in your chair. Wonder if it is too late to run.
It is too late.
The three stop their chatter and size you up. Not in a good way. Hands are extended, chemically whitened smiles open up beneath pairs of large-framed sunglasses that give them all — especially the two thin ones — an insect-like look. Bliss and Bobbie are tall; Bliss is blonde. Of course she’s blonde. Samantha is the shorter, stockier one.
“All right, ladies,” Treat says, setting himself and his basket behind the net on the court. “Are we ready?”
Everyone unzips her racquet bag. You do not have a racquet bag. You have only the $17 racquet from — again — Target. Roger Federer was on sale, whoever he is. You are practical. You did not want to invest a hundred and fifty dollars into a sport you may not even like. But still, you wish you had splurged for the $13 racquet cover. Your racquet seems naked, exposed.
“Let’s line up. One ball each. A forehand and then a backhand.”
You have only a vague idea of what he is talking about. You allow the others to line up in front of you in the center of the baseline. You watch as Bliss peels off to the right and hits a ball with her racquet in her right hand. The ball sails far beyond the boundaries of the court; in fact, it goes over the fifteen-foot fence and lands in the plush green grass. In another sport which you do understand, that hit would have been a home run. Samantha is next; she heads left holding the racquet with two hands and hits the ball squarely into the net. Bobbie misses the ball altogether. You resist the urge to call a strike. This seems pretty straightforward, you think. When it is your turn, you step to the right and swing your racquet smoothly with your right arm. The sudden jolt when the ball hits the center of the strings sends a thrill down your arm and into the very core of your being. You like that. You like that a lot.
Treat calls you to the net. He takes your hands and adjusts them on the handle of the racquet. First the forehand grip and then the backhand. His hands are warm and dry, like a puppy nose. You nod. You’ve got it, you say.
And you do. Soon you are hitting almost every ball in bounds. You learn what is meant by “crosscourt” and “down the line.” By this time, you are sweating through your light blue shirt. You do not care. You love tennis. You feel an upwelling of tenderness for the basket of fuzzy neon balls. You are made for this game.
Afterwards, the ladies gather around the table piled with their bags and cell phones and BPA-free water bottles and interrogate you.
“Did you play in high school or college?” Samantha wants to know, her head tilted to the side, as if she is trying to fit you into a category she can understand.
You reassure her that you have not, that this is your first time to play.
You can tell she does not believe you. None of them do.
“You sure are making us look bad,” says Bliss, who had earlier told you in a confident tone that she has been playing for two years. You can’t help but wonder if that was a judicious use of her time and money. Decide that it was probably not her money.
Treat says you are a “natural.” You shrug and pshaw. But inside, you are pleased.
“See you tomorrow,” you say. You pick up your racquet and rest it on your shoulder as you head to the swimming pool. You feel the women watching. Just for fun, you give your racquet a little twirl, like a parasol.
After several weeks of beginner tennis, Treat pulls you aside. “You’ve been kicked upstairs. To the intermediates, yeah?”
Secretly, you are thrilled: you’ve been noticed. You blush like a schoolgirl.
Later that week, Bliss, Samantha and Bobbie will nod coolly as you pass by the beginner class. You do not miss them. You spent class time hanging on Treat’s every word, learning to keep score: love-love. Fifteen-love. Forty-thirty. Deuce. You’ve adjusted your grip, learned to hit with topspin. You rushed the net. You volleyed. You sliced.
They, on the other hand, chatted through drills, half-heartedly hitting and not paying the slightest attention to Treat, except as a sexual object. Samantha was the worst, constantly talking about Treat’s balls — profound gems like “I’ve heard they’re really bouncy” — and how she preferred the “long game” over the short. Not that you minded Treat’s blond good looks or his cheery, Aussie style of speaking. You think his “Have it again” is infinitely more lovely than “Do that over” or “That was terrible” or some other means of indicating that you’ve screwed up. But unlike these other women, you are here for the tennis. You are not, God help you, a cougar.
But now you are with Raül, and what you lost in Treat is made up for by Raul’s deep, sultry voice and soulful black eyes. And his professional expertise, of course. He teaches you the finer points of serving. He tells you that this is all you need to be a “complete player.” You realize with a pang that this lack, this insufficiency of yours, has possibly been the source of all your deep longing. That perhaps it is nothing to do with your fortieth birthday at all, or the way you have frittered away the best years of your life on child-rearing. If you can only develop a red-hot serve, you will be complete, whole. You simply did not have the language or the experience to name this void in your life.
You feel a gratefulness that nearly brings you to tears.
It is early July. You sit on the couch and watch the Wimbledon tournament finals on TV. You are not casual about this. You have DVR-ed the early-round matches that are played while regular people in the United States sleep. You forego bathing and grocery shopping.
You now know who Roger Federer is; you cannot help but admire his Colin Firth-like good looks. You know all the players: their countries, rankings, personalities and habits. Like the ice maidenly Maria Sharapova and the shockingly orgasmic grunts she releases with every serve or return. You love Rafael Nadal for his hustle — but also for that gorgeous olive skin and sturdy Spanish build. In fact, your favorite camera angle is the one that shows him sticking out his extremely muscular ass toward the viewer while awaiting his opponent’s serve. Your husband — who, through no fault of his own, does not have an ass — walks by and sighs loudly, clearly put upon. Your children take turns asking you what is for breakfast, lunch and/or dinner. The cats meow around your feet. You shoo them all away, the four-legged and two-legged creatures alike, as if they were bothersome flies. Laundry piles up. Dishes cover the counters.
You remain unmoved.
Yet you scream out in agony — alone, since your family has left you for dead and gone to the park — when your handsome Rafa loses match point and Novak Djokovich falls to the grass court in victory, taking a bite of the dirt and turf. You feel the urge to eat dirt, too. You emerge slack-jawed from your lonely den, open the door to the backyard and blink in the white hot light of day. Your flowerbeds are overrun with weeds. The marigolds have shriveled into small brown tumbleweeds. The geraniums are scorched and accusatory. You kneel in a patch of greenish grass and dig a tentative finger into the soil. You put your dirty digit to your lips. Not bad, you decide. It registers briefly that there may be something deeply wrong with you. Do not follow that train of thought.
Instead, stand up, brush off your hands and head back inside to the phone. You need to schedule additional tennis lessons. Two days a week are no longer enough.
You sign up for a group doubles class that meets Mondays and Wednesdays. Now you have tennis four mornings a week, concurrent with the swim team schedule.
This would be excellent, you think, if your kids were still on the swim team. They both quit weeks ago, whining about how “you never watch us anyway.” There was that one awkward incident when you drove home, giddy from a masterful morning on the court, and realized you had forgotten to pick them up. Their reproachful looks were tough medicine. But honestly, like you said, it could happen to anyone.
Now the two youngest are condemned to watch you from the hot metal bleachers outside the courts or stay inside the air-conditioned clubhouse and watch SpongeBob. Of course, they choose SpongeBob. You, who would not allow your children to watch television at all when they were preschoolers, who monitored screen time down to the minute: you simply do not care. You just want to whack a tennis ball. Is that so wrong?
In the meantime, you leave your teen-ager to his own devices. You try not to think about his forays into Facebook or an Internet without parental controls or a physical parental presence. He is a responsible boy. Well, fairly responsible. You look the other way when you find Cheez-Its in his bed and overdue library books under the cushions. And you hope someone will tell you if his Facebook status changes to “in a relationship.” You do not have time for Facebook. You have a real life. You play tennis now.
You begin to take private lessons from Raul at $85 an hour, right after your intermediate group lesson. Your children, bored with SpongeBob, clutch the chain link fence behind you with the hopeless look of refugees. You ignore them.
Until the little one cries. These are real tears, big salty drops that would ordinarily cause you to drop everything to embrace her. But instead, you furtively shove dollar bills through one of the fence holes and tell your eight-year-old to buy her something from the snack bar. He looks at you darkly. You shove several more dollars through the fence. “Get something for yourself, too.” You never let your kids buy things from the snack bar. They look at you as if they do not know you. Until finally, they trudge off, likely feeling as if the Apocalypse is at hand.
You do not tell your husband about the private lessons. Just as you fail to mention the purchase of the $200 Prince racquet and the $125 Adidas tennis shoes. He is a kind, generous, patient man. But even he has his limits.
At first, you feel unsure about the doubles class. There are lots of regulars there, some graceful older women who do not move fast, but are able to place the ball anywhere they like. Plus the “hot shots.” These are slightly younger women — around your own age, give or take — whose lives revolve around tennis doubles, their tennis doubles rating and their tennis luncheons. You imagine they have housekeepers and nannies and nail appointments. As you pull into the parking lot, you can’t help but notice the profusion of new vehicles: BMW, Mercedes, Lexus. You are clearly out of your league.
And yet, you keep coming back.
In the class, players divide into two groups and each starts with two players on their side of the court. A ball is fed in by the pro, and the point is played out and a new player rotates in on each side. You partner with many different women through the course of the hour. You had considered yourself a tennis “loner,” someone who preferred the individual accountability of the singles game. But after a while, you begin to appreciate the “team” angle. You like how the women “high five” with their racquets after a good point. They say “give me some strings.” In any other setting, this display and that phrase would ignite an outpouring of your snarkiest, most biting ridicule.
But this is here. This is now.
You want some strings.
Because let’s face it: you cannot resist the opportunity to shine. Your ego has grown fat and sleek on praise from Treat and Raül, like a lioness after a fresh kill and gluttonous feed. You have stoked the insatiable fires of your self-esteem on the envious glances of the beginners. And here is another venue to garner positive feedback for your prowess.
You love introducing yourself self-deprecatingly as a “beginner.” “I just started playing in June,” you like to say, right before smashing the bejesus out of a wobbly return. You can almost feel their collective eyebrows raise.
You ingest these nuggets greedily, savoring each morsel as you return reluctantly to the back of the line until your next turn. You tuck your hair behind your ears, wipe your forehead. Lick the delicious rime of salt from the edges of your cracked lips. You cannot wait to hit the ball. Nothing else matters.
Well, that’s not entirely true. There is the small matter of money. It is the last day of August, the day before you need to convert your trial membership to full — requiring a small fortune and a commitment of at least eighteen months. You have been putting off this discussion with your husband and kids, two of whom are still raw from the swim team experience. If there was a vote, you would lose in a landslide. But you cannot think about that right now.
You also don’t want to think about the fact that tomorrow is your birthday. The dreaded “forty.” The big four-zero. The beginning of the end.
So instead, you play tennis. You have just put your kids back in school and discovered that you can now play tennis for hours without the guilt pangs associated with them hanging around like disheartened panhandlers. You have other guilt, of course. Mainly from the money that you are paying for all of these lessons and classes. You have engaged in shenanigans to hide the full amount from your husband. You regularly approaching the front desk with a wad of cash from the ATM to make the club’s monthly bank draft appear smaller. This makes you feel like a drug dealer, but you learn to live with that shame. In fact, you feel a rush from this dishonesty. Do not dwell on it. You might start to believe you are a bad person. This is decidedly untrue. You are just a person dealing with a mid-life crisis in a healthy, harmless way.
But you digress.
On this particular humid August morning, you feel invincible. Today, your team and the opposing one have an equal number of players — so you keep meeting up with the same woman every time through the rotation: Bernadette. Bernie.
Bernie is heavy-set with a big, brassy voice and matching curls. She is different from the other women, who you believe secretly wear Spanx under their lycra rather than sport any unsightly bulges on their anorexic frames. Bernie wears her bulk loud and proud, with what on a man would be called a “beer belly.” She has a powerful forehand that burns low and hard, yet leaves the impression that she could hit it even harder if she felt like it. She is a monster at the net, seeming to be everywhere at once, with a wicked overhead put-away and angled volleys that are simply murderous. The other women laugh at her jokes, but you can tell they are afraid of her.
At first, there is nothing special about the points you and your partner play against Bernie and hers. Someone hits one long; someone else places a nice ball in the alley.
But next point, your partner lobs one to the baseline and you rush the net. Bernie is a bit back on her heels, so she doesn’t get enough on her own lob, which is short. It is as though she has served you up a gorgeous neon green gift that appears as big as a basketball. You put your left arm up to follow the ball’s arc like Treat taught you while bringing down the racquet for the kill. The shot is aimed perfectly at Bernie’s feet and she lunges but gets nothing but air. Winner.
Your racquet strings still seem to be vibrating when you take your place at the end of the line. But it is your heart, beating crazy fast with adrenaline. You smoked Bernie. And it felt freaking terrific. The other ladies give you a nod or a “nice one.” Yet you sense they feel you just got lucky. You are not content to bask in their lukewarm praise. You’ve got more where that came from.
On your next point, Bernie blasts a hard forehand return to your backhand, which you place neatly in the alley as she runs, racquet outstretched. Again she whiffs. Thirty-love, you think. The following point her partner hits a soft return and you poach it, a neat slice that barely hits the line. Bernie berates herself loudly, swings her racquet in a fit of pique. Your teammates flash you admiring smiles. One exuberantly “gives you some strings.” Inside your head, you and Bernie are forty-love.
Now the court contracts down to just the two of you, the others were merely extras in your play. Your duel to the death. The next point, she takes a hard-hit return out of the air and fires it down the center. But incredibly, unbelievably, you are there. You stick out your racquet and manage to return the ball just over the net. She slices it to the left. But you are there, too, stretching impossibly to knock the ball back. Bernie swings away, the ball a yellow-green blur as it whizzes down the middle again. You once again get a racquet on it and the ball, reflecting all the force with which she hit it, zooms back across the net and smashes her in the groin. The sound is a squishy thud, like a sharp bite into the flesh of an overripe peach. There is a sharp intake of breath on both sides of the court. Bernie is hobbled, holding herself up with her racquet.
“Sorry!” you say, horrified. Because you are sorry. You were caught up in the spirit of the game. You would never hit someone on purpose. Yet you have inadvertently crossed a line. You feel the fickle, reluctant love of the women on your side receding, these women who — just minutes ago — loved you, wanted to be you. These women who gave you some strings.
You are alone. Crickets.
After a long moment, Bernie shakes off any assistance and limps her way off the court. She gets back in line. You do, too. The game continues because no one knows what else to do. The boisterous mood is gone; the women murmur in line, balls are returned somberly, almost poignantly. There is no competitive banter or flashy play.
When it is your turn, you do not look directly at Bernie, who is catty-corner from you. You send the ball sailing toward her partner instead. A crosscourt lob from her to your partner should result in another lob, and you half-heartedly come to net. But, instead, your partner sends over a soft, high marshmallow. Bernie lifts her racquet. In slow motion, you see her upper arm flesh quiver.
There is nowhere to hide.
You are a dead woman.
The ball hangs high in the air like a brilliant green sun for an impossible moment, and then that sun is hurtling towards you. Towards your face. It is coming at over a hundred miles an hour. You can’t even get your racquet up to shield yourself.
You close your eyes.
When you open them, you are flat on the court, the sun directly overhead. There is a searing pain in your right eye socket. You can feel tears — or is it blood? — running down the side of your face. A circle of skinny women in white lycra shirts and skirts form a penumbra in your field of vision. They might be angels.
You may be dead.
You writhe with the burning, screaming pain that is your right eyeball. You have the awful realization that your view of the angels is only from one eye. This is alarming. But even more alarming are the looks on the faces of the lycra angels. Some have well-manicured hands over their mouths. One appears to be praying. Another is screaming. One of the white-haired ones is crying.
Someone calls 911.
You give yourself up to the pain. You black out.
The next morning finds you at home in your darkened bedroom, shades pulled against the late summer sun. You are propped up on pillows in your bed across from the darkened eye of the small television on your dresser. The painkillers make you feel floaty. You catch a glimpse of yourself in the vanity mirror. Shudder. The entire right side of your head is bandaged. You are wearing an eye patch. You are a pirate. No, wait: those are the drugs talking. You are not a pirate at all, but a beat-up forty-year-old woman whose overdeveloped sense of hubris has brought you here, to this dark place, alone, with a detached retina and an overwhelming sense of shame. You have been a bit out of control. Okay, way out of control. You lost perspective. You may have lost your mind. You are a loser.
A tear seeps out of your good eye. You deserve everything you’ve gotten, eyepatch included. But still, you feel sorry for yourself. You close your eye. You need more shuteye. As you begin to doze, try to enjoy the bitter irony of the fact that the word “shuteye” is not plural. Decide it is probably a pirate word.
Just as you are about to drift off, you hear the creak of a door. Your door. And whispers. Someone is shushing someone else. There is the shuffle of sock feet on the hardwood floor. You pretend to be asleep. You do not want to engage with anyone or anything. You are in no mood to put on a “game face.” Although, now that you think of it, you are wearing your game face. And it is not pretty.
You are just about to turn onto your side when you glimpse a slight flicker of light through your eye. And while you can’t actually see anything, you feel a presence. You feel surrounded. There is someone — or a group of someones — around your bed.
“Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you. Happy birthday, dear Mommy. Happy birthday to you… and many more. Cha-cha-cha!”
Your eye snaps open. It is your beautiful family. The middle son holds a chocolate cake with forty flaming, dripping candles sticking out of the top and sides so that it appears more like a burning porcupine than something to eat. Your daughter is holding out a bunch of scraggly daisies picked from the wasteland of your flower garden. The teen-ager hangs back by the door, holding a stack of gifts wrapped with an abundance of scotch tape, but he is grinning. Your husband offers you a mug of fresh coffee. He leans over to kiss the cheek that is not swathed in bandages.
“Ahoy, there, Matey.”
You cannot help it. You smile. Even though it hurts like hell.
“Ahoy,” you say weakly. You open your arms for hugs.
So you’re forty. You are also a mother. You are a wife. And you are forgiven. Above all, you are loved. And shouldn’t this love be more than enough? It’s not love-love. Or love-forty. This is forty love. And it feels strangely akin to winning.
But not quite.
You reach an arm out toward your bedside table, nearly knocking over your mug of coffee as you grasp for the remote. You wave away the gifts, the flowers, the cake in all its flaming, dripping glory. Ignoring the confused, hurt faces of your children, you punch frantically at the buttons that will give you real relief. Real love.
“What is it?” your husband asks, stepping closer, his voice full of concern.
“Back off,” you say, pushing him away, perhaps a little more roughly than you had intended. “Can you move over?” you ask your daughter. “You’re blocking the TV.”
Suddenly, the screen fills with deep blues and greens outlined with crisp, white lines. Flushing Meadows, New York. The camera pulls back into an amazing aerial view of Arthur Ashe Stadium. You squint your good eye and relax back into the pillows.
“Shhhhh,” you whisper. “It’s the U.S. Open.”