I thought I’d put tennis behind me, hadn’t played much since San Joaquin Memorial High when I joined the tennis team at the behest of my father, the late Joe Riley of the Mutual of Omaha, who having paid for countless lessons, insisted on seeing them fructify, and my mother, Lupita of Chihuahua, a woman whose terror of my fructifications was superseded only by the nannied trust she put in her American husband’s judgement. But Linda called to tell me she’d reserved a court as a matter of a weight-loss initiative and I agreed, though not without reason for hesitation, to step in as her partner. Linda and I do liturgical dance at Holy Names, along with heavy-weights Latrina and Sheryl, and you can bet those two never set foot on a court. They’re likely to call a tennis racket a whole lot of privilege though they’re the better dancers. Fierce. Latrina twerks at the Body of Christ in a leotard while the rest of us pas chassé at the altar in tent dresses and not one soul has objected to her moves. Father John McKinney’s too embarrassed, or scared, or shit-faced— or all of the above — to stop her. That’s a kind of privilege too.
“Come on, Tina-Maria, it’ll be good for us to shake it on the court.”
“Oh, I don’t doubt that…it’s just my feet…” I’ve got corns from my facsimile Adidas, and tennis requires sprinting and twisting, hard on the feet. “You just want to hit some balls, right? No playing for points.” Tennis brings out the competitive instincts. A source of sin and suffering.
“Who said anything about that?”
“You implied it. You’re always competing with me.”
“With you?” She made it sound preposterous. I held the silence a bit. I wasn’t going to be the one to pull the plank out of her eye.
“Fine. A match it is.”
Linda humphed before she hung up.
That was on Tuesday. The court reservation being Saturday, this left me four days to get a racket. I didn’t want to pay top dollar, a second-hand would do, and really, I had no intention but to play occasionally, given my corns. There was also the question of attire. Was Linda, I wondered, going to wear a short tennis skirt? At her size? I’d estimate her at a European 48 (European for politeness; I am not indelicate in regard to my best friend). I don’t bother shaving my legs, so skirts were out. At this point in my life — my age being on parr with Linda’s European dress size, plus four —I prefer to keep it simple.
So I scoured Craig’s List for rackets till I found this: Billie Jean King racket and two pink balls, never been used: $10.
Billie Jean King and two balls? Ten dollars? Time to holler. I shot off a text and went on to other things like making a living, if you can call it such. The gig economy is unkind to a woman in the sweet bloom of middle-age. Particularly one with a Masters degree in sociology, squeezed into teaching English composition at City College where they pay me what I call a condescension, sans benefits. Few students know how to write in English at City C. which means I bleed a lot of red ink, and it’s all on my own dime. No gratuity pens or pensions at City C. I had my red Bic poised to lay into an essay entitled, “If a Lady on the Team, Man work Harder” when a text came back. It was Dan, the racket and ball vendor, and he wanted me to come by in an hour. Depends, I wrote back, on where your country club is. Turned out he wasn’t too far, a ten minute drive out in Richmond proper.
Country club it was not. Dan lived in a grey stucco apartment on stilts, or what we in the west call a carport. This one was porting a Taco-tone Pinto. There was a patch of trampled weeds out front and some shrubs on the side tinselled with beer cans. One look at this shady set up and I messaged him to meet me out front. Then I texted Linda my whereabouts just in case Dan turned out to be a rapist and popped out of the Budweiser bushes with his fly unzipped. It took him a while to get there. I waited, maybe ten minutes. Then he came down the stairs, kind of bandy legged, early thirties. He held a brown paper Safeway bag; the wood handle of the racket rubbernecked me.
“Hey. You Tina Maria?” He didn’t use vocals till he stood on his grassy knoll.
“So, you’re gonna play some tennis?”
“That’s what this is about, Dan. I wouldn’t be taking your time otherwise.”
“But I mean, you know how to play?”
“Yeah, I do.”
“You don’t look like it.”
“You don’t either.”
“This was my mom’s,” he returned, a snide spin on the ball. “She didn’t play, she just liked Billie Jean King.”
“Understandable,” I lobbed.
“She’s dead.” He attempted a put-away volley.
“Sorry to hear that, Dan.” My forehand slammed it back.
“It was a long time ago.” This one smacked the net, rally ended. I reached for the ten bucks in my pocket when Dan served up a new one. “You might want to get yourself some decent tennis shoes.” He pointed to my facsimiles like he was revealing a tragic flaw.
“Appreciate your concern, Dan, but I’ve got this.”
“Way too heavy, man, waffle stompers,” he persisted.
“L’Eggo my Eggo, OK Dan?”
“Whuut?” His interrogative sounded indecent, like he just plucked it from his crotch playing air guitar.
“Gotta go.” I held out my hand for the Billie Jean King and two balls set. He made me reach a little more. Whatever. I grabbed the Safeway bag all right and spun around, got into my little Honda fast.
Saturday came. A bit too early for my taste. My sweats, washed Friday afternoon, were still damp and I hadn’t practiced my strokes, hadn’t made acquaintance with Billie Jean King’s slightly sticky grip yet. I looked at the wooden racket in the Safeway bag and shook my head. “I should have taken you more seriously,” I told it, which is what Bobby Riggs said having lost the Battle of the Sexes in 1973. What I always liked about Billie Jean King was her lean, muscular body, her sculpted face; it was like her intelligence came from concentrating all her fat in her brain, not an ounce of it on her body which was no easy accomplishment. BJK not only beat The Playboy, she made a show down with gravity. And won. I felt myself tearing up looking at the racket, a badge of pure female grit and dignity. It hadn’t occurred to me to try out the balls. I pulled out two furry ones that could have been snipped from under the Pink Panther’s tail. Dan was true to his word: bouncy!
Our court reservation was at Chabot Park, right below the freeway. A thirty-five minute drive for me on account of traffic, like I needed that extra helping after a week of bumper-to-bumper, but I made the best of it by turning the heat up to blast my sweat pants dry, except that it didn’t. I cooked myself a little Honda sauna instead, got the Naugahyde sweaty, and by the time I met Linda on the court, my sweatpants expanded two sizes due to dampness.
“You’re falling out of your pants, you can’t play like that!” Linda yelled over the net. Her skirt and polo were as white as a peroxided tooth, her skin as pink as gums. “I’ve got an extra pair of shorts in my car. Here, take my keys. You can borrow them.”
“Seriously? We’re not exactly the same size,” I was loathe to remind her. “Anyway, I didn’t shave.”
“Oh, screw that. Didn’t you know young women aren’t shaving their legs these days? So why should an older woman?”
“An older one, huh?”
“Come on, Tina-Maria, get with it.”
“More with it than you know, mi amor,” I muttered, trudging to her hybrid. Linda’s got a gig with Alameda County, earns circles around my Honda Civic and never even went to college. Started working at 17 and rose up in the civil servant ranks back in the day when futility got you somewhere. I found her jumbo shorts on the back seat — the drawstring kind, thank goodness — and a red, fine point pen which I slipped into my sweatpants’ pocket. The backseat was no worse than the changing rooms at Ross Dress For Less and I was done in a jiffy, my cinnamon stick legs poking out of Linda’s kitchen Glad bags, proxying as shorts.
How do you stay so darn tan, Tina-Maria? was all she could say when I came back to the court and did I hear admiration in her voice?
“I’m not tan, I’m brown.” Seeing she forgot, I reminded: “I’m a brown person, born and bred in the San Joaquin Valley. Daughter of Lupita of Chihuahua and the late Joe Riley of the Mutual of Omaha. Masters degree from Fresno State. Boy crazy since birth. I’ve been married and divorced, married and divorced, and married and divorced…”
“You can just say you’ve been married three times, Tina-Maria,” she said, like she was speaking to a third-grader, which is basically how folks talk to a brown, middle age, thrice divorced woman paid a condescension.
“Well, it wasn’t that easy so why should I pretend otherwise? Why the hell should I abbreviate?” I turned on my facsimile heels and headed to the base line, my two pink balls in one hand, BJK racket in the other. “All right. I’ll serve first. You ready?” Linda nodded, bent at the waist looking like a Sumo wrestler dressed up in Hello Kitty. I pushed the extra pink ball through the Glad bag, up my panties and drop-hit the other one over the net. It landed square in no man’s land. Linda darted after it, swinging in time to make contact. The ball shot up like a geyser —a lob? So soon? —waiting for me to smack it, except it missed going over the net by a centipede.
“Why’d you lob?” I asked, panting from the sprint to the net.
“You call that a strategy?”
“We’re not playing for points. It’s a rally, OK?”
“Just getting me to scramble, are you? Before I’m even warmed up? Let’s learn to lob, Linda.”
“You should talk!”
“You haven’t even seen mine yet. I put a wicked spin on it.”
“A spin on a lob?” she cackled, high on incredulity.
“Best not to give me a chance to prove it,” I smirked. Then added: “Let’s play a set and get this over with.”
The next half hour involved a lot of huffing and grunting and haggling over points. Turns out Linda’s depth perception is remedial. I prefer to chalk her behaviour up to special needs rather than accuse her of downright cheating. I try to take the higher road. Which is what I more or less inferred to Dan when he knocked on our court.
Dan the tennis pro, not Dan the racket vendor.
“Excuse me ladies,” he said, smiling heat behind the chicken-wire gate to our court, the Sundance Kid of Guadalajara. “Would you have a moment?” Linda seemed none too happy but I know when opportunity knocks.
“Sure,” I said, clasping Billie Jean King under my arm for support. “We were just going to have a Gatorade break. Would you like some?” I offered the electrolyte syrup like we even had any. All we owned between us was Linda’s Big Gulp Coke from the 7-Eleven.
“That’s kind of you, but no thanks,” he said, pushing open the gate. “I’m Dan Durango, pleased to meet you…” He offered his hand. I slid mine into it, felt our sweat mingle. Linda wiggled her wilted one. I checked his left for a wedding ring. None in sight.
“I’m Tina-Maria and this is Linda, my bestie. You weren’t watching us, were you?” I batted my lashes, which was how I hooked husbands one and three; number two was declared blind by the Department of Motor Vehicles. We had a chauffeur-chauffee marriage.
“You bet I was watching you two, but I’m not a stalker… promise you ladies,” Dan Durango chuckled. “I’m a tennis coach. I work for the Parks and Recreation Department.” He pointed to the badge on his navy Lacoste; it was all there, credentials etc. “Just wanted to let you ladies to know I offer lessons here weekdays and on Saturdays. The rates are reasonable…”
“How might we get your details, Dan?” I inquired. “We ladies are most interested.” Meanwhile Linda cowered behind me, looking like she’d seen a snake on a horse trail. Dan pulled a card out of the pocket of his Prince racket cover.
“Everything you need is right here,” he handed it over. “Maybe I’ll see you ladies soon?”
“I believe you will, Dan,” I confirmed, and got a gander of his Navy-Seal-tight-ass when he turned. “Damn that man is beautiful,” I said to no one in particular, quivering with awe, wiping a tear from my eye as beauty doth affect me.
“Don’t tell me you’re going to take lessons from him!” Linda taunted, coming out from hiding behind her imaginary bushes, “Just because you’re infatuated,” she added.
“I most certainly am!”
“But you’re twice his age!” The disgust in her voice offended me.
“That’s inaccurate. Dan Durango is definitely not twenty-eight; I’d estimate him at thirty-three or thereabouts, a perfectly consenting adult.”
“He’s hardly consented, I’ll remind you. He’s just looking to make money off you. You’ll get poorer and he’ll get richer. That’s how it works.”
“How dare you squeeze my desire into a capitalist framework,” I shot back, indignant.
“In tennis, love means you’ve lost the point,” she returned. Well, I thought. No use explaining eros to Linda; she’s got the libido of a hunter-gatherer, solely concerned with mashing calories.
“Shall we get some lunch?” I spoke of the devil.
“Sure. Let’s go to Don Pépé. They won’t mind how we look.”
“How you look,” Linda clarified, primping her collar, then straightening her skirt, which could have been wreathed by invisible angels hiking it to heaven. Her frilled bum stuck out like a bassinet.
“Got me there, Linda,” I conceded. It was true; the guapos making tacos behind the counter adored her. Gave her extra guacamole, smuggled a plump shrimp into the neck of her Dos Equis. Linda had her special beauty, I’d give her that. She used it to her best advantage in taco shacks.
Back home I perused Dan Durango’s business card. No telephone number, just the link to a website and not even his own. It was the Parks and Recreation Department’s, but you could reserve lessons with him there, which I did. A lesson for Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday evenings plus Saturday afternoon. I beg to differ with Dan’s idea of reasonable rates; this tennixpenditure put me back 300 dollars, which, given my City C. condescension, meant I’d have to go without amenities. Reluctantly, I turned the boiler off. Why pay more for hot water when I wash up fine with cold? Dan Durango was testing my mettle; he was making me stronger off the court so that I could bring fuel and criminal intelligence to my game. So what if I had to take cold showers, eat lard-fried beans and splintered rice? If it fattened up my brain like Billie Jean King’s it was worth it. Thus I reasoned Sunday before my first cold shower and frijoles fried and refried.
Frozen and tasteless was my life until Tuesday evening at 6pm when I arrived at the court gate, legs waxed by candlelight on Monday, wearing navy shorts and white hoodie, my tan curls unfurled like a bag of Fritos bust open. I quickly tucked them behind a velvet headband before entering. May no stray lock impede my eye; I wanted to see every last inch of Dan Durango, down to his nest of chest hair where I envisioned myself chirping like life restored.
“So you’re Tina Maria?” he said, peering down at his clipboard.
“Don’t remember me?” I tried to wink it off, but really? Did Dan forget me? He glanced up from his paperwork, eyed me straight.
“Have we met?”
“Saturday, Dan. We met Saturday morning. I was playing here, you introduced yourself…” Maybe my attire threw him off; the first time we met I was swimming in Glad bags.
“Oh, yeah, hey, Tina Maria!” he shook my hand, put his other paw on my shoulder. Still, I saw no real recognition in his toffee-coloured eyes. “Fantastic to see you. Ready to up your game?”
“Up, up up!” I yodelled. Meanwhile I strategised: you could win a man over by attending to stomach and balls, keeping the former full, the latter empty. I reckoned I would start with Dan’s belly, use what was left of my condescension to buy ingredients for Tamales Tina Maria. Safeway was open late, I could pick up some pork loin, start the slow cooking before bed, do the masa in the morning… Nothing gallops like a woman’s mind when she’s on mission Man.
“All right, for a warm-up, Tina Maria, I’d like to see you run, get an idea of how you move on the court.
“Sure, Dan. Happy to help you out there,” I said like I was working retail, which in a sense I was. Next thing you know I was crab-jogging the base line, sprinting up the side line to the net.
“Get ready,” Dan prepped. His ball shot to my forehand; I popped it in time but it just sort of mizzled at my feet.
“Backward!” he drilled. The gentleman had no time to waste.
“Yes, Sir!” Nor did I for that matter.
I shifted into reverse without a rear-view mirror, terrified I’d land on my ass which I’ve been told is as flat as a tortilla but as round as one, too. Full concentration on my blind pas chassée and somehow I made it to baseline where Sergeant Dan ordered me to do the drill again. And again. And again. Three times as Linda would say.
The lesson that followed? Brutal. Dan had the soul of a conquistador, determined to extract gold from a brown lady in the bloom of middle-age. And gold did I excrete. I, Tina-Maria, returned every one of Dan’s balls, zigzagging across the court, high and low, to do so. Without fail. Meanwhile my corns were screaming like they passed through a harvester, yet I smiled saintly, baring my daisy-white teeth and catch me if you can, Dan.
When our time was up we convened at the net.
“Not bad, Tina-Maria,” he said, his brow cool, not a bead of sweat showing while mine was marshy. “You’re steady at getting the ball back but we need to make your game more efficient. Next time we’ll work on your form. Your timing could use improvement, too…”
“Sounds like a plan… Dan.”
“Hey, can I have a look at that racket?” I proudly handed over the BJK for his inspection. He plucked the strings, tapped the wooden throat, let out a guffaw that made my heart sink.
“It also came with two pink balls” I added. It suddenly seemed redeeming that there were two and that they were pink.
“Pink huh?” He sounded unimpressed.
“Yeah, pink! How unusual is that? Like Hostess Snowballs!” I glittered.
“You should think of investing in a new one, Tina Maria,” he concluded, handing BJK back. “Vintage looks cool on a wall but improving your game is going to require a better racket.”
“Oh, well, I’ll think about it…” I lied. It was me and BJK or nothing. How to get Dan to understand?
“Good. See you tomorrow then. Form and timing, remember that.”
“Oh yes, Dan,” I said imagining him with arms around me to demonstrate proper forehand follow-through while I backed into his crotch to estimate his Danhood. Though I was dog tired, the prospect gave me some elation, enough to storm Safeway singing the Hallelujah and I even found some discounted pork loin, minus thirty percent. Must be a sign, I told myself.
Tamales Tina-Maria weren’t ready until Thursday; making them is long, a labor of love. And love attracts love as the saying goes but I can’t remember who said it. Wednesday’s lesson disappointed. Dan did not spoon me from behind. He drilled me, he used a ball machine, he made his demonstrations on the opposite side of the net. None of this was to my liking but I knew better than to pout. Billie Jean King won through steadfastness and determination, aided by obesity of the brain. This was how I’d have to win Dan, abetted by Tamales Tina-Maria.
“That was a huge help, Dan,” I commended him at the end of Wednesday’s lesson. “But I still think there are some micro-adjustments to make on my strokes. Could we look at that next time? You know, like in close detail?” I figured he’d get my gist. I figured once he tasted Tamales Tina-Maria, he’d be eager to magnify real close.
“Actually, your ground strokes are pretty good. Better than yesterday. You’re full of surprises, Tina-Maria,” he winked. He winked! “What we could work on now is timing and control…”
“Really? Well, whatever you say, Dan. You’re the pro,” I conceded, batting my Bambi-eyed lashes.
There was one thing I wasn’t going to do: play petite to get his affection. No, I would not dumb down my game just to rub up against his jockeys, rather I would strong-woman my way to him. Dan set the bar high and I was making leaps and bounds to surpass his expectations. Meanwhile Tamales Tina-Maria would become, through the transubstantiation of digestion, the proteins of his own flesh, the minerals of his blood. Cooking is not for fools even if eating often is. Not that I expected any Dan-foolery here; I was inclined to believe that in gormandizing the corn husked dish, he’d be ingesting my desire in equal measure. Once my hook was in, he’d have trouble extracting it. Who says women aren’t the penetrating sort?
Thursday morning I rose at 5 a.m. to give my tamales a two-hour-steam before class at eight o’clock. What if I gave myself a bikini wax while I waited? Prune the shag carpet down to a bath mat? When the time came, and I had no doubt it’d be soon, I wanted Dan to experience me in the best light possible, preferably dimmed.
It had been ages since I’d de-fuzzed down there, and for lack of an aesthetician, I would have to inflict the pain on myself, smooth the hot wax on the tender surround of my lady glade, then endure the final torture of ripping it off. I uttered a Hail Mary, took my courage in both hands and went to it, my ass on the cold kitchen linoleum. And oh, the lacerating affliction! The misery! I was screeching like an Amazonian parrot above a bulldozer. But through this excruciating deforestation a revelation must have shouldered in, for without intending, I groomed my bush into a crucifix, a crooked one, no better than a Sunday schooler’s. My next blushing thought: time to get Dan Durango to church.
I arrived that evening for the lesson with my tamales at room temp, wrapped in a red and white checkered tea-towel. As Dan was finishing a prior lesson with a cute little doubles team coiffed like Betty Crocker, I stood behind the chicken coop gate espying the court intrigue. Dan’s twin-set popped and hopped at the base line while he fed them balls. At one point Dan positioned himself behind Betty Crocker I, clutched her like they were spoons stuck together. He gave her multiple forehands while she squealed with piglet joy, and this went on a tad too long for Betty Crocker II but thankfully Dan swooped behind her to accommodate in like proportions. He was an equal opportunity provider and this presaged well. I didn’t want Dan to myself; I just wanted Dan.
I slunk black to the Honda, put the Tamales Tina-Maria in the car. I had another idea, a better one. Dan was quenching his thirst at a tin water bottle emblazoned with Our Lady of Guadalupe when I entered court.
“Guadalupe, huh?” I greeted him. He gave me the deer-in-headlights look. “Your water bottle…” I pointed out.
“Oh, yeah…” He muttered, faintly embarrassed. “Forgot about that…”
“Never forget Nuestra Senora, Dan,” I admonished him as I pulled out my own water bottle for a salute.
“Cheers!” The meeting of metals percussed. Now that our DNA connection was outed — I wagered Dan Durango the fruit of a brown-skin padre and a trophy white mother — I took the liberty to impress him. “I bet you didn’t know César Chavez was a cousin of mine. I even have a picture of me, still in red-ribboned pig-tails, sitting on his lap.” But Dan didn’t look impressed. He looked dazed.
“I think you need to drink more water, Dan.”
Of course not everyone has family feeling. Dan had other shining attributes and I knew the pedagogical wisdom in burnishing potential rather than flagellating weakness. So I spent a good deal of the lesson dishing out encouragements to prepare the terrain, and when I made a Bambi-eyed request that he help me with my serve, he finally deigned to come around the net and plant himself behind me at the baseline. Here’s your moment, Tina-Maria. Be ready. Oh I was ready, but so was my mid-life blow torch. It flushed my brown skin to burgundy, it evergladed my armpits. I wanted to ninja strip out of my clothes, out of my own proper skin but had the good sense to crab-shuffle the base line to blow off the heat instead. Meanwhile Dan sentineled, neither bemused nor perplexed. He had an infallible sense of equilibrium, it would seem, the ability to remain impassive in the face of biological misadventure, albeit one he would never have the courtesy to visit himself.
“So let’s see that serve…” He moved to get a profile view of me. I duly demonstrated the pulleys and pistons of the move. I tossed the ball a bit too high, that’s always been my weakness, but BJK scratched my back waiting to pounce. The ball landed smack in service court then spun off like a spooked cat.
“Not bad, Dan. What do you think?” I allowed myself some pride. Oddly, he looked unimpressed, but then Dan had the impassive gene.
“I think you gotta practice that toss. First of all hold the ball with your fingertips. Remember, you’ve got to place the ball on the spot. You don’t want that long pause between toss and hit…” On he went with such technicalities. I listened carefully, decoding any double entendres and reassembling them into a road map to Dan’s private court, the invitation to which I was endeavouring to receive. Then Dan did what I’d been hoping for; he shadowed me. We weren’t spooning necessarily — the mechanics of the serve failing to oblige — but for a moment he had his arms around me, his strong, sun-licked hands pinned mine down on BJK’s grip. And I felt a heat of hormonal intent. Testosterone: the go-get-her fluid that guarantees our species’ continuance. It spidered up my spine, tickling me until I shuddered.
“I got it! I got it, Dan!” I enthused. He stepped back so I could try again. This time I placed the ball on the spot like he said and whoosh! It powered over, landing outside service court.
“That’s better,” Dan contradicted me. “Did you feel the power behind that? You’re not used to it yet, but you will be. What you have to learn now is how to calibrate. It’s going to take some practice.”
“You’ve never had a student more willing to work for you, Dan.”
“We have a class tomorrow, right?” he asked before walking over to the bench to his clipboard.
“We do,” I confirmed.
“All right. In the meantime, toss!” He demonstrated what he meant by holding his hand like he was displaying a delicate fig, fattened in a San Joaquin orchard. Dan, I saw, had tenderness. At least in the matter of balls, and I pledged in my heart to foster the feeling.
Friday I woke with trepidation even though I’d pitched the pink ones until midnight, practicing my precision and fig-hold in the privacy of my boudoir until I got it right. Everything hinged on Friday’s lesson. Not that mastering my serve mattered in any ostensible way, but I knew that Dan appreciated it when I did my homework. I’m a teacher, too, familiar with that satisfaction. I wanted Dan satisfied and hungering for more. Tamales Tina Maria were chilling in the fridge but would soon enough be warmed on a plate ready to be gormandised. By soon enough, I meant that evening when I would invite Dan over for a tamale supper. To think I almost handed them over after the lesson when it was of essence he come and fetch them chez moi! Then Linda called on my lunch break, attempting to throw a brick at my plans.
“Latrina and Sheryl can’t make rehearsal Saturday, they just landed a bar mitzvah gig, we’re thinking of changing it to this evening, can you make it?” She compressed it all into one sentence, a breathless brick.
“Why not?” she sounded both surprised and offended, or what I call surfended.
“Cuz I got plans.”
“Like it’s none of your business. I’ve got a life, Linda. And it’s a good one.”
“Don’t play games with me, Tina-Maria. You’re my best friend, you tell me everything.”
“I’m entitled to my privacy.”
“Well, when are we going to rehearse then?” Her voice got shrill, really surfended.
“Hell, we can improvise. No one can tell what we’re doing anyways beneath the tents,” I said, alluding to Linda’s rudimentary taste. She was the one who insisted we dress up as wigwams.
“Parishioners can see our feet,” she returned, her tone all saccharin and righteous, making like we shoved our feet into Air Wick diffusers.
“Anyone who cares to stare at my corns is a downright pervert,” I said. “Count me out.”
I spent the rest of my lunch hour in the faculty ladies’ room, tossing. At six pm, ready as I’d ever be, I met Dan Durango on the court, night time still an hour away. Dan stood alone, studying his clipboard, emblazoned in white tennis gear that set off his rich, mole sauce skin, delicious enough to lick off a drumstick. This was his last lesson of the evening and I was determined to make it a tasty preface to our love story. Dan had me do the warm-up routine — what I referred to as the bestiary — running up, down, and across the white lines like a crab, a monkey, a Texas roadrunner with a Hummer at her ass. Then we got down to business.
“OK, let’s see that serve,” he announced, judging me game by the sweat rosary at my temples.
“You got it, Dan!” I sprinted to my bag for a towel wipe and retrieved my two bubble gum balls. Back at base line, I concentrated on their fuzzy posy-ness while conjuring Billie-Jean’s hand-eye coordination, and when I felt her laser focus taxi to my brain, I practiced my toss, making sure I hadn’t unlearned what I mastered in the night. Three perfect tosses in a row!
“Here goes, Dan!” I leaned forward, I leaned back, I coiled, I uncoiled. My wooly pink meteorite landed square in service court, less with a spin than with a curtsey. Perfect. Elegant. Dan frowned.
“Toss it higher.”
“Really?” I couldn’t help expressing my disbelief. Hadn’t I placed the ball at the spot? I was sure I had. “Well, OK,” I conceded, giving him the benefit of the doubt though it pained me. I tried to calculate the added height Dan required but was beginning to sense a conflict of interest between my eye and my hand, one my brain was not managing to settle. All my practicing had cemented a hand-eye pattern pattern that worked — at least as far as I was concerned. But Dan now decried it and I wanted to do well by him. Still, the gut feeling he was wrong got stubborn on me.
“Here goes…” I said, ignoring my gut talk to prove I was true to Dan.
What happened next left me speechless. As my racket sprung to hit the ball on the spot, it slipped out of my hand, literally fled my grip. I stood there, mouth agape, watching it fly several yards to doubles alley and smack the asphalt like God spanking the G7. The awful, splintering sound of it reverberated across the courts. A chill shot up my spine as I registered the damage: Billie Jean King guillotined on impact. Court kill.
Suddenly I was aware of the neighbouring players who stopped to stare at me and BJK’s severed neck. Until then I hadn’t even known these people existed. It was just me and Dan, me and Dan forever, but suddenly, we were surrounded by eyes and it was quiet enough to hear them blinking. Then a strange cawing broke the silence. It could have come from a bird, but I knew with a dread feeling its source was across the court. Dan stood there, an “it wasn’t me” grin jerking his lips and he coughed that pathetic, cowardly laugh.
I got his gist all right: he was embarrassed on account of my throwing the racket when, of course, I didn’t; the grip lost its stick, his counsel disrupted my serve. Now Billie Jean King was rent in half and he could think of nothing better than to send me the shame signal? As in Tina-Maria you’re making a public spectacle of yourself at my expense? You, woman, are are making me the laughing stock of Department of Recreation pros?
But this isn’t about you, Dan, I wanted to shout. This isn’t about your mole tone cojones, about your man orgullo. This is about Billie Jean King. Broken. A regicide unwittingly committed because you threw a wrench at my hand-eye cooperation.
“What are you all looking at?” I yelled at the nearby rubber-neckers. “If you’ve got nothing better to do, go get me some duck tape, will you?” I knelt down before Billie Jean King, gently scooped up her head, held it to my chest. Her lonely, splintered neck on the green asphalt plucked my heart. I gathered it, too. No duck tape or glue would bring her back; all I could do was pieta her lacquered corpse, sad and honorific. Meanwhile Dan came forward, popped the net with his Prince racket.
“What did I tell you about that racket?” he pontificated above me.
“What you told me,” I returned, giving each word weight, “caused this ruination.” I emphasised ruination like I held a red Bic in my hand ready to mark him down. He looked surprised. His shoulders dropped their hauteur.
“Uh… want me to loan you a spare for the rest of the lesson?” he mumbled lamely. I could not believe the extent of his cowardice, this feckless offer for a replacement racket. My stomach roiled.
“You fail to understand, Dan…” Condemnation seethed in my voice. Antartica would melt before Dan would fathom a woman’s heart and this obtuseness cemented the net between us. I stood up, went to the bench where I’d put my effects. “It’s game over.” My gaze drilled into his and found no resistance; his energy toppled backward, his pallor yellowed. Gone was the bronzed god of six p.m.
“But…you’re not going to stay? We have a half hour left…” A slight tremolo wavered his voice. Was Dan pleading? What happened to impassive Dan?
“We do,” I acknowledged. “And class tomorrow, which I’m cancelling.” Billie Jean King was not just a racket. She was my desire’s shuttle, without her my projects lost locomotion. Something cracked in me, too, the moment she splintered and Dan’s embarrassment buried the mortal remains of my longing for him.
“Farewell,” I said, readying to leave. Dan neglected to respond but clutched his racket under his arm while his toffee eyes ballooned like a boil that needed a nurse’s help.
“Wait! Don’t go…” he croaked.
I escorted Billie Jean’s shattered body back to the Honda, content in the knowledge I held Dan, as did the Lord, in the palm of my hand.
The rectory at Holy Names had an oven and a microwave; I insisted on warming them in the oven but Latrina and Linda wanted theirs fast.
“You do make the best pork tamales north of Fresno,” Linda conceded, having gormandised two with a fork and a knife. Latrina used her hands like me.
“What’s the occasion?” asked Sheryl who poked hers with chopsticks. She had a Vietnamese maternal grandmother and honoured the ancestral cutlery, claimed she applied it to her mom’s hominy grits, too.
“Hunger,” I replied.
“No shame in that!” Linda spoke with her mouth full, sputtering masa snowflakes.
“No shame, no pain,” Latrina chimed in.
“Meaning?” Sheryl challenged her. Her micro-bladed eyebrows stamped her brow with postal significance.
“It means you should eat all you like but stop before your tummy hurts,” Latrina said.
“It’s like…” I interjected, reaching for the tabasco; I felt clarification was needed. “It’s like the pains and aches Billie Jean King endured to win the Battle of the Sexes. She did it to lift herself from shame that never was hers in the first place.”
“She did it to win,” Linda said.
“She was hungry,” added Latrina.
“Aren’t we all?” I looked hard at these heavy-set dancers of the altar. They were stoic of ass and light of foot, long of heart and short of judgment; they polished their pride like a cat licks its pelt after an awkwardness.
“Provecho,” I said, nodding as they gormandised in silence but for the smacking of lips. There was satisfaction in feeding women who got such enjoyment from it. We had appetites in which dignity dwelled even if few suspected we did.
Anne Marsella is the author of three novels — Remedy, The Baby of Belleville (Portobello/Granta Books), Patsy Boone (Editions de la Difference)— and an award-winning collection of stories The Lost and Found and Other Stories (New York University Press, laureate of the Elmer Holmes Bobst Award). She hosted the Salon Mme du Châtelet in Paris, a performance space bringing together women artists, philosophers and writers to collaborate around the theme of pleasure. Past guests included Julia Kristeva and Marina Warner. She currently lives in Céret, France near the Spanish border. She is writing a novel and teaching creative writing at ESSEC Business School.