Kmart – to a ten-year old in 1983 – was about as good as it gets. Surrounded by a cornucopia of watches, bouncy balls, gold jewelry, and coloring books, my sister and I zig-zagged through the aisles with Pac-Man fever. I stroked stacks of Atari cartridges as if that might energize them to life and jaw-dropped stared at the dozens of television sets lined neatly along the far wall. I held my money in front of the snack bar and stared at the ICEE machines whirling like spaceships. We’d just come back to Florida after visiting my grandparents in Indiana, who gifted my sister and me a stack of two-dollar bills as if they were sending us to a casino. I was a shy little boy with golden blonde hair, but today I felt invincible, stretching to pay for my popcorn and colored ICEE. Until now I’d never seen hot cheese before, and I didn’t know that ICEEs came in specific flavors – I thought it was just “red.”
While my sister disappeared to look at books, my dad and I wandered the aisles with my strawberry ICEE until I approached dozens of baseball bats, cleats, soccer balls, and plastic skin guards. A few aisles over was my final destination, the tennis rackets I’d seen in the News-Press advertisements. Rows of them hung in front of me like pretzels.
“Go ahead,” said my dad, his strong hands forcing me forward, no doubt wary of his son’s usual indecisiveness. “We don’t have all day.”
But something didn’t feel right. I stared disapprovingly at the muddy brown and black handles looking nothing like the cool lime green or purple handgrips I’d seen at summer camp. I expected to feel like Dorothy in the land of Oz, salivating over a stripped lollipop as big as my face. Instead, I fixated on all the strange-shaped racket heads – some giant and circular, others like the oval of my mother’s bedroom mirror. Besides that, I’d only noticed the “P” and “W” of Prince and Wilson at the bottom of the handles during our Wednesday morning tennis lessons, but here were Dunlops, Spaldings, and something called a “Pro Kennex.” I stood in front of the rackets not sure what to do, as if I were being asked to turn my back on someone I hadn’t yet met.
“Just grab one,” my dad finally snapped, lifting a Jimmy Connors-style circular wooden model off the rack. I knew what I didn’t want and that was it, the old-time wooden rackets, which only worked if you hit the ball exactly in the center of the racket. All the cool kids had the graphite ones that looked like metal – and cool wristbands, too, which they slid over their hands like lotion to remind me of my oh-so-naked wrists. I knew their rackets cost more than 50 dollars at the Yacht Club pro shop where we played, but here I was at Kmart instead. Eventually I picked up a red Pro Kennex with a $9.95 sticker on the handle. Something this cheap probably weighed a ton, I figured, but as I mimicked a forehand in the middle of the aisle, I couldn’t believe how light it felt. I looped my arm around, as if drawing imaginary circles in the air. This was it! I’d use my last five bills on my first tennis racket, an aluminum cardinal-red Pro Kennex I’d take with me to Wimbledon.
With the racket in hand, I watched my father in the next aisle punching his fist into baseball mitts. He was a three-sport athlete at a Catholic university in Indiana that hadn’t much use for tennis. I’d seen old high school yearbook photos of him on the basketball court or in his football uniform, hardly believing that the skinny smiling kid was actually my dad. He’d aged into a curved belly and rarely exercised, but recently he’d been asking me to sit on his feet while he did sit-ups, his new fitness craze galvanized by the year-round warm weather. Cigarettes had dangled from his lips for as long as I could remember, but he’d quit smoking and traded his dark brown beer for tiny glasses of scotch he’d casually sip between bites of beef jerky. He had a mustache like all the other grumpy coaches, but he was surprisingly patient on the field during my soccer matches or baseball games, guiding me from that strange t-ball apparatus to the futuristic machine pitching baseballs automatically. I played shortstop, one of the premier positions, and I wasn’t bad at soccer either. But my athleticism was tainted by some lurking threat. I had virtually no competitive streak and liked to talk with the other little boys during my soccer games. I didn’t see what was so wrong, either, with having a girl, Jessica Long, as a best friend. She played basketball with me – we were always the “Purple Aces,” a campy name I recalled from my dad’s days in Indiana – and in return I sipped tea in her pink bedroom with the stuffed rabbits. Worse than that, however, was the way my sister (the eternal thespian) would dress me up like a fairy or angel for her impromptu living room Christmas or Easter pageants, where my skinny frame and golden blonde locks complemented the feminine illusion. Like all little boys, I wasn’t yet made into a man, something my father clearly resented as we approached the Kmart checkout counter, him and my older sister exchanging eye rolls as they examined my Culture Club cassette and new racket on the counter next to my sister’s jelly bracelets and books. But I didn’t care. I proudly handed my red racket to the cashier, a haggard-looking woman with thinning hair and rouge smeared all over her face. “Oh, that’s nice, honey,” she said, smiling at me through the haze. I handed her the last of my two-dollar bills and looked indignantly back at my father. See that, I wanted to say, even she knows I made the right choice. But I stayed quiet instead and returned the woman’s pleasant smile right back to her.
My dad had been transferred five years earlier from Atkins Best Insurance in Chicago to start a new office on the shores of the Caloosahatchee River. From the plane, my father had leaned over to show me how all the canals in Cape Coral eventually led to the wide Caloosahatchee River and then to the Gulf of Mexico, which according to my father was filled with manatees and frolicking dolphins. I leaned my head against the window, captivated by row upon row of ruler-straight canals as if someone had run a giant, comb-tooth brush over the entire peninsula. My father’s arm resting against my own, my world became one of vast possibilities framed in every direction by masses of water.
The reality, naturally, was different. My mother concisely appraised the situation as she stepped off the plane and looked around the black tarmac: “It’s so damn hot.” We lived on a canal thirty minutes from the airport in the new city of Cape Coral, where 15 years earlier investors had cleared the vast mangroves and dumped mountains of dirt to fill in the swampland underneath. Then they dug wide canals – miles and miles of them – until Cape Coral became the city with the most miles of navigable waterways in the world, each canal about 30 yards wide; it was a process, however, that ravished the estuaries and left the city vulnerable to hurricanes. Not a manatee or dolphin in sight! This, of course, the brochures omitted as investors swarmed the Midwest like mosquitos, advertising to wide-eyed middle Americans a “Waterfront Wonderland” and “Legendary Lazy Living” next to sandy-white beaches and perpetual sunsets. No one mentioned the mosquito-infested barrier island, Pine Island, which prevented Cape Coral from having anything like the beaches in the photos, an island inhabited for decades by thick-skinned fishermen and their leathery wives, neither of whom had ever held a tennis racket and who always smelled like fish. But at least we kids could dig holes in the empty lots until the alligators came out of the water to sunbathe. Or wear shorts and flip-flops – even in December!
My mother’s lack of enthusiasm continued, not surprising when a twenty-nine-year-old woman is expected to abandon her life in northwest Indiana for an in-ground pool and boat rides to the beach. She had preferred to buy a two-story house in a wooded area of nearby Fort Myers, a historic city with younger families and indoor shopping malls. Cape Coral had only recently built its first high school, and so many plots of land were zoned residential and sold separately that no large sectors remained for either strip malls or Spanish bricked plazas. And where was the Catholic Church?
Only two of the fourteen houses on our dead-end block were headed by adults under 60 years old, which meant the evenings were quiet (“Cape Coma” was our town’s nickname), and our morning walk to the bus stop was shared with seventy-year-old couples biking to the river’s edge or groups of women in their late 50s powerwalking in neon headbands resembling electric shock treatments. My sister and I would curve our Wonder Woman and Ultraman lunchboxes over our heads, mimicking the old women’s arm swings and elongated gaits as we walked the crushed shell roads to the larger streets nearby. With so few kids in the neighborhood, we must have appeared disproportionately precious and therefore worthy of all the chocolate bars and trinkets foisted upon us at the local library or impromptu visits from Dewey and Alma next door, armed with gooey Werther’s hard caramel candy and piles of change for us to help them stack into rolls. The two of them were happy here – glaucoma be damned! – where pink and purple hibiscus replaced cold Midwestern winters, and palm trees outnumbered inhabitants.
It was a comfortable life nailing boards to mangroves for overwater forts or exaggerating alligator stories. “I swear,” a kid would say. “I saw one in my pool this morning.” We had gerbils and lost gerbils, not to the alligators but to a recurring loose lid. Our dog Holly got fleas, and soon after my older sister developed a flea allergy, which sent Holly away. Caloosa Elementary was small and not too far up the road, most of the teachers too new for burn out. I was pronounced “gifted” when I read a few pages of Hands Hands Fingers Thumbs on my principal’s lap in kindergarten. The rest, it seemed, would be easy, especially with my new tennis racquet.
The only disruption was the intensity in which my parent’s fights had escalated. One thing about water is that it carries sound like stretchy grilled cheese sandwiches: an insult in the master bedroom on one side of the house spread over open patio doors and across the pool directly to my sister and me in the living room. At the dinner table my father coded his insults, knocking hard slices of rye bread onto his plate or chewing his beef with the exaggerated gestures of a French mime. “Oh, deviled eggs,” he’d repeat multiple times before finally picking one up, taking a small bit, then smearing creamy yoke over the hard rye bread. A better child would have picked up an egg and eaten it, or perhaps squashed one into my father’s face, but instead I sat there, my eye taking in the entire feast of stuffed peppers or meatloaf, the tension around the table like a cord about to snap. At first my mother would bend her fingers like a claw and run them down her hair before retreating after dessert to heave exaggerated tears in her bedroom. As time passed, though, she’d patiently remain at the table with a sinister look on her face, then wait until us kids went to bed before unleashing a flurry of screaming so loud the sound carried across the canals to the neighbors, who’d eventually shout at us to “SHUT THE HELL UP!” One time I awoke to my father’s scratched face above the kitchen sink, his body hunched over in a position so exasperated I didn’t know what to think: perhaps this marriage was taking its toll on them both. My escape was to watch television loudly in the living room, where I’d sit next to the television to change the channels (yes, it eventually destroyed my eyes) while picking fleas off Holly’s belly before she’d been ousted from the house.
Soon I began to “rock” myself in bed to avoid the noise. I’d support my body on my elbows and knees in my bed, hands beneath the pillow, and turn my head back and forth to loud music from my tape player nearby. That summer between 5th and 6th grade, I played the song “Crush on You” by The Jets dozens of times a day, anything to suppress my parents’ voices, but also a song aligned with my giant crush, Chad Donaldson, an older boy who lived two streets over who’d I’d met briefly at summer camp.
When the music could no longer drown out the noise, I’d take my red Pro Kennex out to the driveway and hit a racquetball against the garage door. I hit it so hard and so often that it covered the grey door in circular blue marks. I’d often play barefoot, the stubs of my toes dragging over cement until the nails broke and my toes bled. But I couldn’t go back inside. My avoidance soon morphed into a peculiar obsessive-compulsive disorder, and within a few weeks I could hit each of the eight, 2x4 foot flat panels of grey-painted wood with precision, avoiding the raised sections that sent the ball flying out to the grass. “That’s 200 in a row,” Dewey shouted from his front porch early one evening, balancing his highball of bourbon on the rail. “Can’t you give it a rest?”
But I couldn’t.
I’d loop top-spin forehands like Gabriella Sabatini on the French Open clay and experiment with a Steffi Graf-esque sliced backhand. My favorite, though, was Chris Evert Lloyd, whose poise was like what I imagined for my mother, calmly setting the table before double bouncing back to the baseline for another perfectly placed, two-handed backhand. The result of all this practice was a meteoric rise in my tennis abilities, and soon I was beating boys older than me at day camp. I imagined the day I’d be paired with Chad Donaldson, that blonde high school Adonis, on the same doubles team! Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that all of this was temporary, some place within me sensing a dramatic shift to come. It couldn’t go on like this forever, I realized, and soon enough I’d have to deal with the feelings I was developing toward older boys like Chad and male athletes I’d see on television. Perhaps none of us were as we seemed. I wasn’t sure, either, how much more the garage door could take.
By the next summer I’d convinced my father to spring for full-time lessons at the Yacht Club. Tennis became my life. I woke up each summer morning to pack my boxed fruit punch and Little Debbie snacks in my special insulated lunch pouch. I didn’t even mind the bologna sandwiches anymore. We’d spend our mornings on a series of “drills” that isolated specific shots. Over and over I’d hit the targets, and my newfound confidence made it easier to make friends. Soon I was learning how to hit a serve at the “apex” of the toss with my new best friends John and Hannah, and how to adjust my hands to get more topspin bounce on the ball. In between the drills, we played games like bouncing tennis balls on our racket as many times as we could or seeing how many tennis balls we could hold onto our racket at once. If what I’d sought was a bunch of kids having fun in the sun, I’d certainly found it. The two coaching pros, the first adults I’d ever called by their first names, looked like two of Barbie’s boyfriends, one a blonde-haired Ken replica, the other a darker-skinned Hawaiian version she must have met on holiday. The latter’s name was Bill Hannigan, and I loved him like a cool young uncle. He called me “Gerber-da,” a name similar to my last name, something his infant son had learned to say after eating so much Gerber baby food. I remember the day Bill told my father that I might be “really, really good someday,” my dad pausing to look at me next to court number one as if he was seeing me for the first time. I noticed, too, as Bill nudged me over to grab my stuff off the table, that my father looked at me the same way he’d inspect a used car.
After that, my father agreed to let me play in local 12 & under tournaments in nearby towns. Most of them I won. It was the first time I’d spent any sustained individual time with my father, and it was the car rides in the front seat with him – talk radio always in the background – that I looked forward to the most. Until then he seemed to have more in common with my older sister’s no-nonsense personality, the two of them shutting the sliding door between the dining room and kitchen and deciding which middle school classes or after-school programs she should choose. But now I felt we were in this together. From the court I’d watch my father laugh with the tennis moms on the covered verandas. Then, between matches, he’d buy me McDonald’s if I promised not to tell my older sister.
“It’ll piss her off,” he’d say, stabbing at his teeth with a toothpick.
At home I’d line my trophies on the windowsill, impressed at the silver and gold athletes sparkling like precious gems. I’d wake up early Saturday morning for the live broadcast of the French Open and Wimbledon women’s finals, which eventually became a battle between Chris Evert Lloyd and Martina Navratilova, whose aggression unnerved me much like my parent’s fighting. I imagined hoisting the winner’s cup or loser’s plate above my head – either would do, really – and soon I’d abandoned baseball and soccer as the other boys surpassed my skills. At school I hung out with a group of seven nerd-adjacent friends, overachievers like me, with a range of talents from the artistic to the mathematical, and who would later become drum majors, doctors, lawyers, college deans, and a professional model. But for now, I slept over at my best friend Jeffrey Gold’s house almost every weekend, and the seven of us contented ourselves mimicking Counselor Drake’s lisp or telling “So did Nikky…” jokes about the rumored eighth-grade slut, Nicky Kearns.
The next year my dad forked up just enough money to send me to the state tournament three hours away in Lakeland with the rest of the Yacht Club tennis team to represent Cape Coral. On the bigger stage, however, my talent was more than matched. Here on the massive thirty-six court complex swung a slew of real yacht club kids who’d apparently been born with a racket in hand. Most had fathers in fancy Polo shirts – the actual capital “P” Polo – who handed their protégé chilled bottles of Gatorade. I was overwhelmed with looping forehands that practically bounced over my head and boys with birdlike wingspans who punched overheads at me like machine bullets. I’d barely have time to regain my footing after my serve before the ball would bounce past me towards the fence. The other kids from my team didn’t seem bothered by the slaughter – after all, they’d been here before, and it’s not like we were the worst team there – but I’d come back to the hotel after matches barely able to hold up my head, my newfound confidence shattered. At dinner I’d count my money sullenly under the table, so worried it might run out that I feigned a stomachache at Dairy Queen afterwards. The buoyancy in which I’d arrived succumbed to something like shame. Did I even deserve to be here?
Shortly after, I made a tennis date with Kristy Dotsen, our top 16-and-under player who’d made it to the regional state semifinals and was a rising star on the high school team. We’d bonded over our mutual love for sausage pizza, and I’d heard her mother was sick. I didn’t know at the time that “sick” meant dying, and I thought instead it might be like whatever was happening to my own mother. It felt good to have that in common. Kristy wasn’t flashy on the court, but she rarely missed a shot: the rice cooker of tennis. We’d made the date on a Tuesday for a Saturday match, but in the intervening days her mother passed away. I assumed I should cancel, but I didn’t know how. I called her on the phone waiting for her to say something, but instead she just confirmed the location of her uncle’s condominium complex. I didn’t want to cancel either, as I’d been looking forward to playing her for days. I wondered how I’d match up against the “steady” Kristy, as Bill Hannigan had called her all-tournament weekend.
But on that Saturday Kristy was anything but steady. She catapulted balls all over the courts as if she was launching them from a melon baller. Her graceful steps became aggressively squeaky, and she rushed between points back up to the service line. It didn’t make sense to me. Shouldn’t she be, like, crying or something? Or maybe not be here at all? On the changeover she pinched her strings with her fingertips and threw her shock absorber across the grass when she couldn’t squeeze it inside. Then she went back on the court and smacked balls harder than I’d ever seen before, especially from a girl, and some of them even went in the court. But when she missed it was like a vast breeze had collected her emotions and scattered them all over the earth. She even launched a brand-new ball over two sets of fences into the river! Another ended up on the opposite road. All match she remained agitated and jumpy, and I wasn’t sure what to do or say. I don’t even know who won. I remember thinking that it might have been easier if she just lay down and cry, but all I could do was retrieve her tiny shock absorber after the match and hand it to her with a wan smile – I hadn’t been taught much else.
Over time the city cemented over more mangroves to make room for new docks, so the coconuts that once enchanted us looked more like dive bombs. The blue crabs disappeared quickly and soon we went a year between shrimp sightings. It’s as if the lies of the original settlement had begun to expose themselves. Other things happened, too. I stopped getting better at tennis because we couldn’t afford lessons anymore. A child disappeared from the nearby baseball fields and was later found dead. We weren’t allowed to play along the wooden nature trail in Echo Park for no specific reason, although I’d later learn that’s where the gay men went “to play,” as one high school teacher called it. I had no idea what this meant, and I’d imagined two grown men throwing a football back and forth like me and my friend Mikey. One by one the neighbors on my block died. First there was Norman down the street, who had a stroke while walking his dog. After him was Susan, whose heart gave out one night in bed. I’d begun to fear the sound of ambulances in the night, as that seemed to be the riskiest time for blood clots and heart attacks. My mother gossiped about which widows might start dating each other first, more common than I’d realized, but mostly it all just saddened me. At my 13th birthday pool party, I looked out our back patio screens and wondered what Alma would do now that Dewey was gone. I imagined the old woman pulling up the crab trap herself, then breaking down in tears when she realized it was empty.
My father was gone, too. He’d moved out to a small apartment of his own. Sarah would join him when she turned 16, a loss of $333 a month in child support, leaving us with no money for tennis lessons and barely enough for our house payment. My mother took a job as a phone operator across the river in Ft. Myers at the glitzy new Sheraton Hotel, leaving my little sister and me to fend for ourselves. Amanda missed our older sister, crying alone in her room or throwing tantrums in front of the television after school. I did my best to comfort her, but I was a selfish 15-year-old like all the others. All I wanted to do was watch Alf and The A-Team from my new bedroom waterbed inherited from my parents. Besides that, my friendship group had begun to fracture. Jeremy Gold had joined the band, which snatched all his time and surrounded him with a cult of flute-players, flag-throwers, and glittery dancing “Sea-Stars” we’d nicknamed the “Sea-Sluts.” Kerry spent much of her time taking care of her sick Peruvian father, while Sarah Holt and Emily Harding had become such beautiful teenage girls that all the older boys demanded their attention. Everyone had a group or purpose, it seemed, except for me. I’d grown taller so fast that the rest of my body had little time to catch up, and my dentist pulled out the wires between my braces because we hadn’t paid in six months. One afternoon I saw my refection in a Winn-Dixie window, shocked at how my legs snapped at the knees as I walked, a stork prancing through the mud. My long hair, too, had become a plume of discombobulation. I suppose I looked like many of the other awkward or average boys in my class, but I still hadn’t acquired any masculine attributes, like muscles or attraction to women, which might confirm my masculinity. Worse, at a co-ed sleepover ostensibly for a science project about morning breath, I couldn’t get my penis to rise (no matter how much I thought of Patrick Swayze) when Jenny Taylor invited me into the closet.
Although I was excited at finally being on the same high school tennis team as Chad Donaldson – now a senior – no one else in my family seemed to care, so I was surprised when my older sister invited me to the Cape Coral Yacht Club pro shop one afternoon my freshman year to help me pick out tennis clothes with money from my father. She urged me to buy yellow and white flashy shorts and a matching collared shirt with a turned-up collar. I hadn’t seen her in several weeks despite attending the same high school, and I would have bought bright pink tennis tights had she recommended it. I was so excited I wore the clothes to school the next day, which unleashed an onslaught of “tennis nerd” jokes, which sent me scurrying into the nearest bathroom. It was the first time anyone had made fun of me in high school, but by sixth period I’d been forgotten. Such dismissal, I realized, was far better than the alternative, and I spent the next few months trying to be ignored. My biggest fear was that some lingering femininity might reveal my attraction to men.
In May at our district tennis tournament, Chad Donaldson walked into our adjoining hotel room in just a pair of grey Jockey underwear. Then Coach Nelson walked in and sat on the bed talking to us like nothing was out of the ordinary. I remember how developed Chad was in his shoulders and chest, trickles of hair leading down his tan abdomen to the secret regions below. The rest of his body was so smooth, too, not like the spools of hair that had appeared seemingly overnight over most of my legs and from my elbows to my wrists, a source of constant embarrassment.
That summer I began my first job as a busser at the Cape Coral Elks Lodge, where 20-something waitresses with shaved or dyed hair cussed with the bald cook Escobar like I’d never heard before. Old women flirted, pinched my buttocks, and dragged me out to the dance floor. Coming to work gave me an excuse to miss high school social events without having to address my depression or lingering anxiety, and $20 in tips was a lot for kids like me. Here was a world I never knew existed, and it made me hopeful that one day better things might arrive. Tennis, if I had time for any, took a backseat to my other responsibilities. Besides work, I babysat Amanda all the time and struggled to keep up with all my advanced and AP classes.
I vacillated between number two and number five on our five-person high school tennis roster. While I was still a steady player, I was often overpowered on the court. Yet I still looked forward to our afterschool matches long enough away from school so the district paid for dinner. I remember one Tuesday my junior year as we neared the home courts of the boys from Lely High School. They were rich kids from Naples who perpetually kicked our asses and who played at an exclusive country club with grass so green it must have been spray-painted. In the rented van I felt a strange feeling of contentment, as for once I wasn’t working or preparing for the three advanced placement exams coming up at the end of the month. Next to me was Jesús, our Spanish exchange student who took the place of the recently-departed Chad Donaldson as my tennis idol. He was a dark Andalusian from Barcelona, with muscular thighs and a Spanish accent sounding nothing like our Cuban Spanish teacher, Mr. Labordette. That day, though, Jesús wore a bandage around his meaty right groin and was too injured to play. Instead of moving us all up one position, where we would surely be destroyed, coach placed me into the number one spot, where I’d be positioned as the sacrificial slaughter so the rest of my teammates might have a chance. When I pointed this out on our arrival through the English iron gates of the Lely Country Club, Coach Nelson reminded me that I’d played as a #2 seed my sophomore year, and I’d once taken a set off this guy’s brother, a college freshman now on scholarship at some Division I university. I didn’t remember any brother, but I admired my coach for trying, and I was looking forward to Golden Corral on the way home. I’d politely lose and get on with things.
My opponent was curly-haired and perpetually smirking. Everything around him – his fancy collared shirt, shoes, wristbands, tennis bag – was emblazoned with an Adidas logo, a company that had sponsored him on the junior circuit. I watched him pull out three rackets, body tape, car keys, a Walkman, socks, and a box of Runts candy from his enormous red tennis bag, while I slouched over my faded tennis bag with just enough room for extra grip tape. He was cute, too, so it hurt even more when he barely looked at me. I walked on to the court with my basic grey shorts and our blue and orange CCHS t-shirt stained in the armpits expecting the worst. Then something peculiar happened. The nervousness I usually felt in warm-ups, particularly against better opponents, was replaced by a curious resolve. I suddenly couldn’t miss. I returned each warm-up ball with an exaggerated version of what I’d received – double the top-spin of his top-spin or a slice so low it kissed the net. I imagined myself in front of the garage door, barefoot and bleeding, but quite simply possessed. That feeling continued through the first few games. I returned his hard first serves with forehand winners so flat the ball flew past him before he could regain his balance. I no longer dinked my second serves over the net, but instead leaped to the apex of the ball with no abandon as Bill Hannigan had tried to teach me all those years earlier. I was Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi rolled up into one.
Before long, my opponent was slamming balls behind him into the backstop and shooting me dirty looks across the net. “This guy’s not even good,” he yelled at his coach after I’d cracked another forehand down the line as I’d practiced all those years ago. I looped balls in the air to neutralize his power, and soon I’d won the first set 6-3. I sat by myself at the changeover staring at the score on the placards attached to the netting pole. Here was a moment I’d been waiting for, when I’d finally figured out how to neutralize all the things stacked against me. A crowd lingered on the deck above the court.
Of course, it couldn’t last. I wasn’t that good anymore, was I? At first I missed an easy backhand volley into the net, chastising myself on the way back to the service line for not taking my left hand off the racket. Then I began spraying forehands into the fence behind my opponent. Soon the smirks returned as my opponent passed by me on the changeover. I threw the ball up to serve, but it was no longer straight. Afraid to miss a second serve, I bopped the ball over the net, which my opponent crushed back at me. I had lost the second set 6-1 when I saw my coach from the corner of my eye shake his head and smile, then walk away. What is he smiling at? Doesn’t he notice how hard this is? How hard everything is? I changed my grip and adjusted my strings, but nothing seemed to work. The concerned Lely supporters had left the deck by the end of the second set, deeming me not only an unworthy opponent, but an unworthy person. And why not? I was still skinny and wore braces. I’d grown out of my fancy tennis clothes and now wore my high school scrubs. “And did you see his little bag?” I imagined my opponent’s teammates saying to him across the fence. “I can barely fit my wrist in there.”
By the time I was down 3-0 in the final set, I yearned to leave the court. Everything felt futile. I could see the mistakes I was making, but I didn’t know how to fix them. I’d left lessons long ago and our coach had never played the sport before. Instead, I functioned on instinct and desire. But I didn’t know how all the pieces fit together, how this shoulder rotation leads to that result. I looked out at the rich parents grinning in their fancy country club patio chairs and noticed expensive graphite rackets leaning every which way. Before that, I’d been proud of my $75 new Pro Kennex, but now I felt the same way I did at high school, like everyone knew something except for me – had something I didn’t. Or that I’d acquired some set of deficiencies and didn’t know how to get rid of them. Not even the Golden Corral mattered anymore.
I’d accepted the inevitable as the match ended and I valiantly shook my opponent’s hand, who instead of making eye contact with me laughed along with his parents waiting for him by the fence. I walked as far away from the court as I could toward a maintenance shed in the distance, where I felt my eyes water and mucus loosening in my nose. I struggled to catch my breath as I reached for the door. The door was locked, but I felt my way along the wall to a sprawling pink bougainvillea tree, behind which was an empty space where I could finally be alone. I was halfway up a mound of dirt when the tears released, and I slammed my red thermos into the ground. It bounced back into my face, but I didn’t care. “Why?” I screamed, raising the thermos above my head and slamming it to the ground again. “Why? Why? Why?” I repeated, almost rhythmic as I thudded my thermos into the dirt, my tears replaced with rage. I finally understood what Kristy Dotsen felt that day on that tennis court, how the incomprehensible leaks not through steady streams, but frantic outbursts. I saw my own mother’s fury as urgent and wild – necessary, even. We convulse ourselves to feel the wounds.
I raged at the world because I knew something wasn’t fair. What looked so easy to others, living, had become exhausting. I’d inherited my mother’s sadness, and I didn’t know what to do with it. I’d isolated myself for fear of being made fun of or found out, and now I had no one with whom to commiserate. I crawled farther up the mound of dirt, and when I’d made it to the top I stood up and looked out on the horizon. It wasn’t quite sunset, but the sky was a magnificent pink and ochre, calming colors even to the furious like me. My coach was waving me over, presumably for my doubles match, and I wondered how much he’d seen. But when I’d wiped the dirt from my knees and passed by him on my way to the court, he merely wrapped his arm around my shoulder and silently squeezed. It was a gesture that made me want to cry all over again: not the angry wails from the hill of dirt behind the shed, but quiet, forgiving ones right out in the open.
By the beginning of my senior year six months later, I’d scored a 1350 on my SAT test, and an essay I’d written on electricity (yes, electricity!) won me a trip to Washington DC as part of the “Rural Electric Youth Tour.” There I fell in love with The George Washington University and applied for a scholarship I was certain I’d never earn. Yet all the plate-scraping, studying, and bench-pressing off a chair on the floor of my garage were merely an effort to distract myself. The things I couldn’t control – young Amanda’s outbursts, my mother’s sadness, Sarah’s absence, my father’s ambivalence, and my own sexual attractions – left a hole in me like a kitchen sink. I wasn’t hell-bent on escape, like Sarah, who was already into her second year at the University of Florida, but fully committed to tennis courts and mangrove swamps instead. It’s all I knew. I applied to the University of Florida as well, expecting more of the same but still anxious to begin a life of my own.
I fractured my wrist while learning how to roller blade and missed much of my final year on the tennis team. We lost our house on the canal. But my braces came off, and I scored a 5 on my American History and English Literature AP exams. I was on my way to becoming Salutatorian of my graduating class and a National Merit Scholar out of Florida to a scholarship in Washington DC. I’d done it! The local Kiwanis Club and Elks Lodge even pitched in a little more money. It felt good to finally be recognized for my hard work, and I’ll never forget my mother’s excitement in her new flowered dress as she accompanied me and the other parents to the Elks Lodge Recognition Dinner, where we danced until midnight with each other and my waitress friends, my award check pressed safely in my mother’s hand. I introduced her to my Elks Lodge co-workers and other parents by her name, Jane, and for the first time I saw her as something other than my mother or my father’s broken wife. It felt, too, like we were in this together, as if I wasn’t the only one who’d finally made it.
I was still injured at one of our last tennis matches of the year when a familiar old man came up to me at the Cape Coral Country Club, a pedestrian version of Lely’s ritzy home courts, and asked if I wanted to hit with him. Today he wore a striped horizontal shirt and a beige visor, his skin a blotchy brown from years in the sun. He’d asked several times and several years before, but I’d always found an excuse to decline. Who wants to hit with an old man? I’d think to myself, staring unkindly at his skinny, hunched-over frame and bandages bundled over half his body. But that day I longed to hit some balls again, and I followed the old man onto the far courts reserved for club members on high school match days. My team had already won, and I was simply waiting for the final doubles match to end.
The man barely missed any balls, his soft and looping shots perfect for my healing wrist. It had been several weeks since I’d hit more than a few balls, and the rush of open air reminded me how much I missed sliding on the clay and the hop-step recalibrations between each shot. It had been my anchor when the rest of the world alarmed me. A few minutes into our warm-ups the man raised his hand and waved at two other men in the distance. “A little doubles, eh?” he said to me as the four of us congregated around the net, where I recognized Father Trellor from St. Andrew’s Church, where I’d previously been an altar boy for less than a year. His white tube socks were pulled up to his knees, and I realized he was probably pushing 80 years old. He’d been so kind when I told him that I no longer wanted to hoist the giant Lectionary before him nor was I sure if I was the right person to hold the golden communion-plate beneath the parishioners’ mouths. “As you wish, child,” he softly uttered not-so-many years earlier, his long and wrinkled hands tapping over my hair. I hoped this kind man remembered me.
The four of us played doubles together until dusk. I stood at the net as the two deep men traded forehands while Love Bugs congregated around the overhead lights and Palmetto bugs hooked and dove between our legs. The old men had gotten to know their bodies well, preserving energy for balls they could reach and shortening their backswings to protect their joints. I wondered about the ravages of their long lives. Where had they lived? How had they loved? Had they lost any children? When did they stop fighting and learn to let it go? Would Father Trellor forgive me for my future sins?
I eventually missed an easy backhand volley and felt my partner’s racket tap me on the butt. I could sense his smile behind me, his gesture like that of Coach Nelson the year before. Did he already know what I didn’t? That I would soon grow muscles and shave off the hair on my legs and arms? That one day I would look in the mirror and feel proud of the young man I’d become? That my mom would happily remarry, and I’d come to love my father again? That I’d find my way – and love – along the shores of the Caribbean Sea, or that my younger sister would lose herself to drugs?
For the moment I savored the palm trees and oaks of the country club, rubbing hibiscus petals between my fingers during the changeover and quietly listening to the old men discuss old men things. These men had arrived in Cape Coral later in life, but as I looked out at the green clay courts, I realized I’d always be tethered to this world: the bugs, the moonlight, this lazy coastal heat. The miles and miles of murky canals. The city might be sinking, but it’s mine. My history here is like salt water through my veins – it’s who I’d become and how I’d maneuver through life no matter where I ended up. For now, though, I’d have to become strategic like these old men, deciding when to fully exert myself and when to let things go. I watched a squirrel climb up the trunk of a giant oak tree and for once believed that anything was possible. In the distance my father waved me towards the car, his presence always in the periphery of my tennis life. I couldn’t live like this forever, and for a moment I discerned that I might not have to. These men had learned to live within themselves, as would I, but first I needed to hit out on the ball, to trust myself in this uncertain world.