Hit the Wall
Timothy MullaneyFiction / Number 100
When you arrive at the court, Colin is already there.
He’s stretching and chatting up Ricky and Drew, who are laughing. Of course they are, because Colin is so funny. That’s what everyone in the league always says. Colin? He’s so funny!
Most people would add that he’s a great player. And some of the guys say he’s attractive. True, he’s tall and toned, with a strong jaw and a mass of curly brown hair. Maybe you would consider him sexy, if you could stand to be around him.
Today, he greets you—as he always does—by saying, “How’s it going, Tiger?”
Ricky and Drew chime in, both of them saying, “Hey, Tiger.”
That’s short for “Crouching Tiger,” which is the nickname Colin bestowed on you three years ago, right after you joined the South Florida Pride Tennis League. After your first afternoon on the courts, you joined a bunch of the other players for drinks at Twist, and it was on the patio that Colin said he admired your stance when returning serve. He imitated you, drawing laughter from the group—he’s so funny!—and said, “Austin gets so low to the ground, he’s a crouching tiger.”
The other league players seem to think the nickname is complimentary, like being called a bad-ass kung-fu warrior. Probably, Colin did mean it as a compliment. Perhaps it is a compliment, you sometimes think. More often, you want to tell Colin that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is set in China, and you’re not Chinese. You’re Japanese. Half-Japanese actually. But, you keep your mouth shut and roll with the nickname, not wanting to seem humorless, or to imply that the nickname would be okay if you were Chinese.
You force a smile, greet Colin, then busy yourself with stowing your flip-flops in your tennis bag and putting on your Nikes. Ricky and Drew start warming up on the adjacent court.
Channel your dislike of Colin into your tennis, you tell yourself. Was it Jimmy Connors who always had to hate his opponent? Play like that, you urge yourself, play like Jimmy.
As always, your match with Colin is close, and as always, he beats you.
You leave the court quickly. Other players in the league are standing around the chain link fence, gossiping while watching the ongoing matches, but you make a beeline for the parking lot.
Berating yourself for your unreliable forehand, you imagine the satisfaction of hearing the crunch of your racquets, if you were to set them on the ground and back over them with your car.
Of course, you do not run over your racquets.
You think you will need them for next weekend, for the next league match.
The airline cancels your flight to Rio on the same day that the Paisley Palm Cafe lays off half its waitstaff, including Jared.
That night, you make a Japanese curry for dinner, and you and Jared eat it in the living room while watching TV. Jared says the food is “really good,” but he pecks listlessly at it.
You load your fork with rice and chicken; you’re determined to enjoy it, even if your plan to cheer up Jared with a good meal is failing. Even if you’re already starting to gain quarantine weight, exacerbating your insecurity about being less attractive than Jared, with his tight abs and broad shoulders, his face freckled and wide-eyed like a character from a Frank Capra movie. Look at him there on the couch, shirtless, idly scratching his pec. You’re sure that you’ve never been so alluring.
“I just remembered, I ordered a swimsuit for our trip,” he says. “Red, with some kind of contoured pocket for my junk. I guess it’ll arrive soon. That’ll be depressing.”
You tell Jared he should wear the suit around the house, for your personal enjoyment.
Jared nudges his plate away. Faye sniffs it, arches her back, leaps off the table, sashays to her bed in the corner.
“Come and cuddle,” Jared says, as if the cat ever follows a command.
For the next few hours, Jared stays on the couch, watching sitcom reruns. You go to the bedroom and send emails.
Around midnight, you return to the living room and tell Jared that you’re going to bed.
“K,” he says.
On the TV, a woman cradles a newborn while a voiceover intones, Now more than ever, planning for the future is Elemental. It’s a commercial for Elemental Financial Advisors.
Now more than ever is a phrase you’re hearing often. You’re starting to dislike it.
You tell Jared that you took some extra freelance work—blog posts for the American Hospital Association.
“Should be like $500,” you say.
“You don’t have to do that. I’ll get unemployment.”
“Can’t hurt to have a little extra coming in.”
Perhaps Jared nods in response, but the gesture is so subtle you can’t be sure. You say, “What?”
“What?” Jared says.
“What is it? You’re being weird.”
“I feel bad enough about losing my job, now I feel bad that you’re working extra.”
“I’m just trying to help.”
“It’ll help if you chill the fuck out.”
The ensuing spat is quick and nasty. You belittle the bartending job Jared had at Paisley, and he retorts by saying, sarcastically, “We can’t all be super successful doctors like you.”
“Wow,” you say.
This is all familiar territory. Three years ago, you and Jared moved from Chicago to Florida, because you were starting medical school at the University of Miami. Last year, when you dropped out, Jared wanted to move back to Chicago. You did not. You were hatching plans to pursue your master’s in journalism and become a reporter focused on health and medicine. You said, “Do you really want to move back to Chicago, then move again in a year, if I get into grad school somewhere else?” The two of you did move, but not to Chicago—to save money, you left Miami and rented this powder-blue bungalow a few miles north, in Fort Lauderdale. You began to freelance to build up a portfolio for your grad school application. Jared started bartending at the Paisley Palm. For a while, the two of you were out at the Fort Lauderdale bars or the Miami clubs every weekend; free from the pressures of school, you were happy to put on tight pants and bright shirts and enjoy the scene. But then you lost interest; you began to stay at home while Jared hit the bars and clubs with his friends from Paisley. He came home late and slept in late, sweating out liquor (and occasionally drugs) in your shared sheets. He wasn’t picking up his camera much. You have a vision of writing stories for The Atlantic or Harper’s, with accompanying photos from him. He is not excited by this idea. You have asked him, What do you want to do? He has responded by saying, I want to move back to Chicago. There has been tension, there have been fights, like the one tonight, after which you go into the bedroom, put on your tennis gear, grab your racquet bag from the closet.
You expect Jared to question you as you walk back through the living room, dressed for the courts, but he says nothing.
You scream-sing to your “Bad Bitches” playlist during the twenty-minute drive through Wilton Manors, to Pierce Park. “Park” is a grandiose word for this patch of weedy grass, two picnic tables and a single tennis court tucked between a strip mall and a used car lot. But this is the best-kept secret in Fort Lauderdale tennis: The lights from the used car lot illuminate the court all night long. You’ve come out here a few times, late, to hit balls against an old, cracked, wooden bounding board attached to the fence behind the court.
It feels great to be moving, swinging, sweating in the humid night, becoming hypnotized by the repetition of the ball hitting your racquet, hitting the wall, hitting the ground, hitting your racquet.
There was some debate, but Pride Tennis has decided not to suspend the league; unsurprising, considering that most of the players are still going to the beaches and bars. You’ve taken a “leave of absence”—that’s how you phrased it in your email to the league organizer, saying that you would reactivate once you felt safer about playing. That day will come, eventually. And when it does, when you again face Colin, you will have put in hours of hitting against this wall. You will have fixed your forehand. You will win.
You wake at 9:00, make a pot of coffee big enough to last you the morning, and settle in to work. You’ve had more assignments than ever recently, and all of them—all the articles and blog posts and website copy—have related to the pandemic.
At 10:00, you’ve got to call Nando. He’s a friend of a friend. You’ve hung out with him on a handful of occasions, and he made a strong impression each time. He’s tall and thin, fond of wearing mesh tops and glittery eye makeup and neon nail polish, and his dark hair is buzzed short to accommodate the dramatic wigs he wears when he occasionally does drag.
He picks up after the first ring, addresses you as “honey,” and asks after Jared, as if the three of you go way back. You appreciate how friendly he is, but he also sounds tired. You know he’s not hospitalized anymore, that he’s speaking to you from his apartment, but you imagine him lying in a hospital bed, drawing on all his energy in order to make the most of this interaction with you, this break in the tedium and anxiety of his day.
“I’m sorry, I’ve got to ask some personal questions for my article,” you say.
“Girl, I’m an open book,” he says. “I want everyone to know this shit is no joke. I thought I was going to die.”
His symptoms began a week after attending the Winter Party. The chills were severe; he wrapped himself in five layers of clothing and still was shivering. Then his breathing problems worsened. He was soon in the hospital and eventually on a ventilator. He tells you about the process—sedation, intubation, et cetera. You already know the steps involved in putting someone on a ventilator, but you do not interrupt Nando, because the horror in his voice is so arresting.
“They have you in diapers, you know,” he says. “It’s horrible. Horrible.”
After the call with Nando, you’re unable to work, unable to focus. You binge on YouTube videos about how to hit forehands with more topspin.
Noon. Jared emerges, pours a heaping bowl of Apple Jacks, takes it back to the bedroom.
His friends from the Paisley Palm, like yours from the tennis league, are still going out to the bars and clubs. Jared is not going with them, but—as if to feel connected to them by being on the same schedule—he’s staying up late, drinking and smoking weed in front of the TV, then sleeping into the early afternoon. A few weeks ago, you criticized him for “liking” a photo of the Paisley gang out at a bar, not even in masks. Jared rolled his eyes.
“Do you want to go out with them?” you asked. “You know that’s crazy, right?”
He said, “If we’re going to live in this shithole of a state, shouldn’t we be able to act like every other dumb dickhead here?”
Seeing your face, he said, “I’m joking. You know my ass is at home every night. But it sucks. Let me like a goddamn picture on Instagram.”
Fair enough, you conceded. But you’ve been wondering how Jared would be acting if he were single; you suspect that he would be going out. The notion horrifies you. Do you really want to be with someone who would be acting that way, if not for your influence?
Maybe you do. After all, he’s the fun one, pulling you out of your shell, getting you on the literal and metaphorical dance floor; you’re the responsible one, providing the relationship with structure and safety. You balance each other out. Right?
You try to work but go back to watching YouTube videos about forehand technique, making mental notes about what to practice later, when you’re hitting against the wall in the humid nighttime air. Each night that passes, you’re improving.
You click on video after video, unable to stop yourself until you catch a whiff of a sharp, unpleasant, familiar scent. Cat piss.
Faye has peed on the living room carpet.
“That’s not good,” you mutter, as you get up to fetch the carpet cleaner from under the sink. Maybe you should ask Jared to come out and help. But, no. You want to make him feel guilty for lazing away in the bedroom while you’re working.
But will he feel guilty? Probably not. The thought makes you scrub the carpet harder.
Your mother is on the phone. She wants to know the distance between your ear and nose. “A normal distance?” you say. “You’ve seen my face.”
She wants the exact measurement, in inches. You don’t have a ruler or a tape measure, you tell her. She is incredulous.
“I’m putting a tape measure in the box, when I send the masks,” she says.
She is sewing you masks, because she has seen Facebook photos of you and Jared wearing disposable ones, which she does not believe provide sufficient protection. You do not want to argue with her about this.
She starts talking about the protests in Minneapolis, which is not a subject that you want to discuss with her, even though you are somewhat surprised and definitely relieved that she is criticizing the police. But no, here it is, now she is deploring the destruction of property, the harm done to small business owners. She is talking nostalgically about “the grocery store,” which is the Asian market that your grandparents ran for nearly fifty years and, yes, now she is talking about the giant supermarket where she currently shops, because of the low prices. In four out of five phone calls with her, she complains about this supermarket. You have conversational whiplash from how quickly she went from talking about police brutality to talking about the drawbacks of shopping at sprawling grocery stores. What if you’re at the deli counter, and you realize you forgot to put tinfoil in your cart? You have to traipse all the way back across the store!
You manage to interrupt, to ask whether she has been harassed while shopping.
“Harassed?” she says.
“Yeah, you know, Asian people are getting harassed. Because the pandemic started in China?”
“No,” she says, as if your question was silly. “Not here.”
Here being the town of Caldwell Heights, on the furthest northwestern edge of what might be considered Chicagoland—growing up, your mother frequently told you how lucky you were to live there. Low crime. Lots of parks. She seemed to think that racism was not much of a problem in Caldwell Heights, which you have come to see as some sort of coping mechanism that allows her to get by day to day.
She’s still talking, but you’re not really listening. You’re looking out the window. Jared is reclining in a beach chair in the driveway, wearing his new red swimsuit. Today would have been the first day of your Rio vacation.
He did a shot of vodka and ate a weed gummy before going outside, where he has now almost polished off a Gatorade bottle filled with Stoli and coconut water. He has one of his cameras. He appears to be taking photos of the sky.
“Mom, I’ve got to go,” you say.
You put on your swimsuit, fix yourself a vodka and Diet, grab another beach chair, join Jared outside.
“The sky is weird,” he says.
The sky does not look weird to you—a normal blue, wispy clouds—but you say, “Yeah.”
“Look at it through the camera.”
He twists in his chair and holds the camera out so that you can peer through the viewfinder. The sky appears the same to you. Blue. Wispy clouds. But this is nice, for you and Jared to be leaning toward each other.
“Weird,” you say.
The two of you laze for maybe half an hour, then Jared gets up to refill his drink. You watch him walk into the house. His new suit accentuates his ass. You follow him inside.
He’s standing at the kitchen counter, eating Pringles from the can. You stand behind him. You press your palm against his shoulder blade and feel his body tense at your touch. But, he does not move away when you begin to run your index finger down his spine. He sets the Pringles can on the counter. You hook your finger into the waistband of his suit. He turns around and wraps his arms around you.
For the rest of the afternoon, the two beach chairs sit empty on the driveway, because you and Jared are in the bedroom.
As evening approaches, the room grows dimmer and cooler, and you start talking.
You will not be applying for grad school within the next year, you say. Whatever hope you had that things would return to normal have faded, and you are not interested in doing a whole year—or more—of online classes.
“The world is shit,” Jared murmurs.
“It was good to see you with your camera today,” you say.
“I’m thinking of going to a protest, to get some pictures,” he says.
The two of you have already argued about protesting. You think it’s too dangerous. But now, you feel a tenderness toward Jared that has been absent for weeks, for months, maybe longer, and you tell him, okay. Go to the protest. Take the pictures. And then you find yourself saying, “I guess we should move back to Chicago.”
“Are you sure?” he asks.
“If I’m not applying to school for next year, we might as well be back there.”
He throws his arm across your chest, nuzzles his face into your neck, and says, “It’ll be better there. You’ll see.”
You drift to sleep feeling content in Jared’s arms, but wake alarmed. You sit up. The room is now dark. Jared has rolled away from you and is facing the wall.
Why are you rattled? Jared’s words come back to you: It’ll be better there. If he meant that your relationship would be better, then he has acknowledged that “it” has not been going well—a fact that neither of you has overtly stated.
Despite the tenderness you felt toward him in the afternoon, you find that you do not want to lie back down next to him.
You need space. You need air. You need something that you will not find in the bedroom. So, you slide out of bed and grab your tennis gear from the closet.
A few minutes later, you’re tossing the beach chairs aside so that you can back the car down the driveway, when your phone vibrates in your pocket. You’re surprised to see a text from Nando.
Good 2 talk! Hope i wasn’t boring?
On the drive to the courts, you contemplate. It’s been a month since you interviewed Nando. So, he might be looking for a status update on the article, which is in editorial limbo.
Yet, there was something playful—flirtatious?—in his message.
And to text at this hour—the dashboard clock says 11:53—is suggestive.
He’s not your type, although there was a time when you were out dancing and he was shirtless, sweating, smiling—his teeth looked electric in the strobe light, and the thick hair on his chest was at least a little sexy.
And what is your type, after all? Lately, you’ve been wondering what it says that you’ve only dated white guys. This fact has never bothered you in the past. But as you’ve sat at the kitchen table working while Jared has slept away the morning, you’ve caught yourself thinking: He would have a stronger work ethic, if his immigrant grandparents had run a small grocery store for fifty years. As soon as that thought has popped up, you’ve hammered it back down. The tension with Jared is not because he is white. You’re becoming delusional from all the recent coverage of race on the news, on the podcasts you listen to, in the magazines that are delivered to the house, on the websites you have bookmarked. And, anyway, being Dominican does not make Nando a hard worker. He’s a scene queen who surely must have struggled to hold down daytime jobs after ending so many nights wasted.
When you get to the courts, you text him: Yea, great to talk! Not boring at all lol. Article out soon I hope.
Then, deciding that it can’t hurt to invite a conversation, you pull the trigger on another message: How are you doing?
Nando is at the protest. Well, he’s on the periphery, underneath a palm tree, standing next to a plastic tub of water bottles.
You’ve only ever seen him dressed for clubbing, so you find it jarring that he’s wearing simple black shorts and a black tee-shirt with “BLM” scrawled across the chest in white paint. But, he’s still Nando: His mask features an elaborate embroidered rose, and his eyelashes are thick with mascara.
People holding protest signs are streaming past, into the park that is the epicenter of the event. You hear chanting coming from the park, but can’t quite make out what everyone is shouting due to the incessant honking of passing cars, the buzz of news choppers overhead, the child crying somewhere nearby.
He wants huge crowds to be protesting, Nando says, and yet seeing so many people gathering makes him dizzy with anxiety. That’s why he can’t bring himself to go any closer to the action. Whenever he hands a water bottle to a protester, he wants to warn them about how sick the virus made him. He wants to grab a megaphone and implore everyone to be careful, to not take their masks off even for an instant. And seeing all the people not wearing masks?
“It’s torture,” he says.
You can tell that Jared is impatient to be on the move, taking photos.
“Go ahead, I’ll just slow you down, anyway,” you tell him. “I’ll hang out here for a bit and we can meet up.”
“Okay,” he says, frowning slightly. He appears dubious of your suggestion.
On the drive over, when you mentioned that Nando would be at the protest, you could hear the falseness in your voice. The strained casualness of someone telling a lie, even though you were not lying. You have not lied to Jared. You just have not told him how frequently you and Nando have been texting. Jared barely acknowledged your remark in the car—he was fiddling with his camera—but now you can tell that he is picking up some static in your connection with each other. Some static caused by Nando.
“I’ll text in a bit,” you say.
This seems acceptable to Jared, and he takes off.
There’s a moment when you are nervous; maybe you and Nando will not be able to converse in person as easily as you have via text.
“Is that a placemat?” he asks, referring to your mask.
You laugh and explain that you should have sent your mother the measurements of your face, as she requested. The mask she sewed for you is far too large—it keeps slipping down, exposing your nose.
Nando offers a disposable mask from a box in his backpack, and you swap out your mother’s.
“You look good,” he says. “All that tennis practice is paying off.”
“You look good, too. Porking up.”
During one of your text exchanges, he was complaining about losing weight in the hospital and not being able to gain it back. You texted a pig emoji and wrote, “You can do it.” He replied, “LOL gotta pork up.”
Receiving that LOL had been satisfying, but being able to now hear Nando’s warbly, sing-song laugh is much better.
He seems somehow different than you remember him, and not just because he is skinnier. He seems less flighty. Perhaps his illness changed him. Maybe you’ve just never spent time with him sober. Maybe you’ve just forgotten what it’s like to talk to anyone in person, other than Jared.
“So how long have you played tennis, anyway?” he asks.
You find yourself telling him the whole long story of how your older brother, Lewis, was inspired by seeing Michael Chang on TV. Lewis made you go to the public courts with him. He was always making you do all sorts of athletic activities that you hated—kicking the soccer ball around, shooting hoops, “tossing the pigskin.” Often, he ended up frustrated, because you were so inept. But for some reason, you were good at tennis. At least, you were better than Lewis, and that inspired you to keep at it; you incessantly hit balls against your garage door, until your parents signed you up for lessons.
You joke that Lewis finally introduced you to a gay sport.
“What makes tennis gay?” Nando asks.
You’re not sure, actually. It’s sort of like dancing, you say, the feeling you have when you’re moving well on court. And you don’t have to interact with any teammates, if you’re playing singles. Don’t have to hear them making jokes about fags, or talking about what girls they want to bang.
You’re feeling silly, talking like this. You ask Nando if he plays any sports.
“Water ski,” he says, and you think he’s joking—but, no. When he was growing up, his family lived near Orlando, close to a lake. His dad worked at a marina and had Nando on water skis practically as soon as he could walk. He had just started entering competitions when his parents split up. His mom got full custody, they moved to Fort Lauderdale, and Nando stopped skiing.
“Don’t you miss it?” you ask him.
He crinkles his nose, adjusts his mask, says, “Not really.”
He’s been passing out water bottles this whole time, and now his tub is empty, but the two of you keep talking. He wants to know more about your mom and her sewing, about what Chicago is like in the winter, about your time in med school, about how the cat is doing, all the topics you’ve been texting about. Then he asks how things are going with Jared. You don’t want to discuss that. You don’t want to think about Jared right now—but, of course, now you are thinking about him. You’re realizing how much time has passed since he went off on his own.
You check your phone.
Seven missed texts. Did your phone not vibrate? Or was something in your subconscious preventing you from feeling those vibrations from Jared?
“Shit,” you say. “I’ve got to go.”
“Something wrong?” Nando asks.
“Jared,” is all you say, waving your phone.
His last text was Ummm are you fucking alive
You’ve been to this park several times before, but you’re disoriented by the swirling crowd, the noise of chanting and horns and the droning of the helicopters. You’re stunned to be among so many people after so much time isolated with Jared—you feel like a child again, on a trip into downtown Chicago, when you were excited and fearful at the cacophony of traffic and street musicians and homeless people and rattling El trains.
You find yourself walking across a softball diamond and realize you’ve been heading east when you thought you were heading west. Not that it matters, because you have no idea where Jared is, and he has not replied to your texts. You are swept along in a current of people out of the park and onto the street, where a petite Black woman in wire-rim glasses, holding a bullhorn, is standing on the hood of a car. At her command, everyone around you kneels on the asphalt to observe a moment of silence, and you follow suit. You are surprised to be in this tranquil bubble amidst the surrounding clamor, surprised to find yourself actually participating in the protest. Which of course is what the day was supposed to be all about, and yet you have been wrapped up in yourself.
And up until this moment, the police have been just part of the scene, their presence unremarkable to you, as if you were at a concert or sporting event and they were patrolling as a matter of course. But now uniformed officers are gathering near the car where the organizer is perched, and you are aware of the people around you holding DEFUND THE POLICE signs, and you are afraid of what will happen next, and of what might already have happened to Jared.
Your phone buzzes in your hand, but checking your texts in this somber, reflective moment would be terribly disrespectful. You resist the impulse to glance at your phone, until the woman with the bullhorn calls everyone back to their feet.
The text is not from Jared, but from your mother: Are you wearing the mask I sent?
Does she know that you are not?
Is Jared spying on you, taking photos and sending them to her?
Is she somehow seeing you on TV? The roar of a news chopper seems suddenly louder. You start walking, quickly, away from the protest. You throw your sign in a Dumpster, check your phone again. Jared has texted.
Meet you at home.
It’s twilight when you get back to the bungalow. You know as soon as you step inside that Jared is not there, and something is wrong. There is a moment of general alarm before you register the foul smell.
Faye has pissed on the living room carpet again.
She is dying. You are sure of it. She has a fatal illness that has been causing her accidents, and you and Jared have just let her grow sicker, not taking her to the vet.
You’re out of carpet cleaner, so you mix various chemicals you find under the sink, and even though you’re worried about ruining the carpet, you dunk a cloth in the concoction and set about scrubbing. And while you get a little light-headed from the piney, lemony fumes, you picture Jared out at a bar. Probably, he ran into some of the gang from Paisley at the protest—or, more likely, he reached out to them, because he was angry that you were ignoring his texts. And now he’s getting drunk and complaining about you. He’s saying that something is up between you and Nando, and his friends are egging him on, bringing him more drinks, saying that they’ve missed hanging out with him, telling him that you’re too uptight and he needs to relax, to have a fun time with them, to do all those things that he used to do on those nights when they partied and you stayed home; things that you never asked Jared much about, as long as he came back to sweat out the toxins in your shared bed. He needs to do those things again, his friends must be telling him. He deserves to. Now more than ever.
Your phone vibrates on the kitchen table.
The message is from Ricky, from the tennis league.
Hey Tiger, you ready to come back and play?!?! We won’t breathe on you, PROMISE.
Just as it took you a moment to register the smell of Faye’s piss when you got home, it takes you a moment to process your reaction to this text. That reaction is disappointment, because you were hoping that the message would be from Nando.
Disturbed at how carried away your crush has gotten, distraught over Faye, fuming over the possibile whereabouts of Jared, you respond: Fuck it. Count me in.
You bounce the ball once, twice, three times.
You’re about to play an important point. If Colin wins it, he will be just one point away from tying up the match. If you win the point, you will be just one point away from winning the match. Beating Colin.
Knowing you must calm yourself, you listen to the sounds from the surrounding courts. Squeaky shoes. Grunts. Tennis balls pinging off racquets. You feel the late afternoon sun on your skin. The heat radiating off the court.
You look across the net, to see where Colin is positioned to receive serve—and your gaze drifts past him and rests on Jared, standing behind the fence. He pumps his fist. You nod to him, trying to project a calm confidence despite your hammering heart.
Jared rarely watches your matches—no matter how you explain it, he can’t grasp tennis scoring—but he insisted on coming today. He knows how badly you want to beat Colin. He knows because, after he accused you of screwing around with Nando, saying that you were really meeting up for trysts, not going to the courts late at night to hit against the wall, you said: I’ve been texting with Nando. That’s all. I’ve been hitting against the wall so much because I want to beat Colin. Then, you became too choked up to speak, until you managed to say, Everything seems to be getting worse every day. Except my forehand. That’s getting better.
You must have looked and sounded truly pitiable, because Jared’s expression softened, and he put a hand on your shoulder.
We can get better too, you and me, he said, a little later. We’ve got to try, right?
You have been trying. Both of you. You’ve stopped texting Nando. Jared is working on a new portfolio of photos and scoping out potential jobs in Chicago. He’s here today, supporting you.
The moment has come to serve. As you initiate your motion, your arm feels heavy. You try to launch yourself up at the ball, but your legs are too weak to overcome the suddenly oppressive force of gravity. The ball ends up in the net.
Before attempting your second serve, you observe Colin. He’s bent over, red in the face—he’s out of shape. During the first set, he kept up a steady stream of frustrated chatter, swearing at himself after botched shots, groaning when your winners zipped past him, swiping his racquet against the ground after losing key points. Now, he seems too exhausted to berate himself.
Just get this serve in the box, then make him move, you think.
You manage a serve to his backhand and engage him in a rally—you move him from side to side along his baseline and then work an angled slice that throws him off balance. He misses wide.
And so you’ve arrived at match point.
You quickly return to the baseline and prepare to serve, wanting to move expeditiously, to keep your nerves at bay. You already know what serve to play. A changeup. Something slower than usual, with more spin. Something that will give him time to think, to get jittery, before he swings.
You spin your serve to his forehand. He loops a high return to your backhand. So, his tactics mirror yours. He’s going to keep the ball in the court at all costs and wants you to make a nervous error.
The two of you engage in a cross-court rally, backhand to backhand, that extends for five, six, seven shots—you’re in a game of chicken, waiting to see who will take the risk and hit the ball down the line.
He starts putting a lot of air under the ball, practically lobbing it, which gives you more time to prepare for each shot but also more time to think. To overthink.
All those nights on the practice court next to the used car lot, the night sky vast and dark above, you were able to silence all the voices in your head. The voices that otherwise seemed to be frantically chattering over each other, saying, hey there Tiger and they put you in diapers and the sky is weird. Asking are you wearing the mask I made you? Saying hope I wasn’t boring and pork up and it’ll be better there. On the practice court, it didn’t matter that you will not be a doctor, that your mother does not know the dimensions of your face, that you did not go to Rio this year and will not go to journalism school next year, that your cat is sick, that your relationship is deteriorating, that racism is rampant, that the police are killers, that people across the globe are suffering, are dying. Hitting against the wall, you learned how to take off your mask and sweat away your paranoia and doubts and fears, learned how to exhaust yourself until you no longer heard the wails of grief and protest filling the airwaves, filling your mind.
So now, in this pressure-filled moment, you are practiced in how to zero in on the ball and find a place of calmness.
Colin mistimes his swing, and the ball falls short on your side of the court, giving you a chance to crack a forehand. You sprint forward and set up for the shot, your body torqued, your wrist laid back, your head still, your eyes on the ball. Just as you have practiced.
But there always must be a flickering instant of hesitation on the verge of a longed-for victory, because these wins are also losses, and no one wants to lose, right? No one wants to lose the sense of purpose that the quest for victory brings. No one wants to lose the single-minded focus on a goal that can allow you—at least for a precious hour here and there—to defer or ignore every other problem, all the complications and confusions and disappointments of your life, all the darkness and despair of the world.
And so it is natural that doubts crowd your swing, and rather than moving with confidence and commitment, you have the sensation of being oddly disconnected from your body as you make contact with the ball, and you have no sense of whether you’ve hit a winner or made an error. You can only hold your breath and look, to see where the ball lands.
Timothy Mullaney’s writing has appeared in publications including Salamander, The Advocate, and Washington Square. He was a Van Lier Fellow at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in New York City and received the Salamander short fiction prize. Mullaney received his MFA from Washington University in St. Louis. He resides in Chicago with his partner in life and on the tennis court.Image by Ryan Searle