The ball comes screaming over the net to my backhand. I can’t remember her ever hitting it so well. I labor over to it and slice it weakly towards her forehand. The sun is in my eyes, glaring mercilessly from just over my brow like a lightbulb at the end of my hat brim. Or am I wearing a hat? No. No hat.
Now here comes the ball again, an audible hiss as it whips through the air. Another desperate lunge. Soon I will not keep up and she will win. When has she ever beaten me? Never.
There are people here, watching. Damn this sun. Too bright. I can’t make out their faces in the glare. Daytime silhouettes perched just beyond the lines, leaning against the fence, ringing the court. Watching? Spectators? Why? Who? Another thudding forehand, furious topspin. Got to get it on her backhand somehow. Dead sprint. Wristed reaching one-handed backhand, full extension. Hopeless. Almost a drop shot. Center cut. Game over. I know it.
Somehow, there’s no return.
Let’s take a break. Merciful. A reprieve. Thank God.
Too tired. Downright woozy. Stumble towards the bench, barely make it. Damn this sun. So bright. Sweating. Sick. Exhausted. Eyes closing. Feel faint. Concentrate on breathing. So sick. Why? What’s happened? Spiraling down. Down and out. Receding. Blacking out.
Let’s play tennis.
Racket in hand, I set up on the baseline, feeling rested and ready, even strong. The sun has retreated behind a welcome cloud and I can see her, smiling from the opposite baseline. My beautiful partner. How wonderful, how absolutely wonderful, to be with her like this, smiling and sharing time. I smile back and she tosses the ball high above her and gently serves it to my forehand side, a happy looping practice-ground serve that I return with reciprocal generosity. The crowd around the court shifts in my peripheral vision as people come and go. She steps uncertainly into a stiff-looking forehand and sends a knuckleball over the net in an adorably nonthreatening parabola. A sheepish grin.
I pretend to load up on it and then slice it back gently. She laughs, that perfect ringing laugh, and the sound catches in my throat. God how I have missed that laugh. The sun bursts from behind the cloud and I recoil as it overwhelms my vision. Immediately I can feel it squeezing the sweat from my pores. There is the unmistakable thump of a ripped ground shot and an accompanying sizzle as the ball tears through the air in an aggressive line, suddenly upon me to my backhand. Playing tough now. Playing with the sun. Not fair. I practically throw my racket to the left and just manage to get the strings to it. A grapefruit, laying up in the air for her to crush. God damn it.
You see what’s happening? He’s really playing.
A voice from the peanut gallery. No shit I’m playing. A dispiriting pop as she blasts the ball, not into the open court, but virtually right at me. Getting cocky now. A wild, flinging, defensive volley, can’t even see where the hell I hit it. Fucking sun. Gulping air now. Retreating behind the baseline. Another thundering pop and the ball roars into view, to my forehand side and deep, sending me scurrying in retreat. Will have to lob this one back. Probably hit it into another court. Full stretch. Pop fly. No point looking for it with that goddamn sun. Gasping for air. Why can’t I do this?
Take a break. I must really be showing it. This is pathetic.
Don’t even try to get to the bench. Sit right here.
He seems to get off track pretty quickly.
Yeah, sometimes they’re like that.
Who is “they”, asshole? Almost say it aloud. Too tired for conflict. Seriously worn out. Rest here. Let my eyes fall shut. Sensation of falling. Rushing noise. Just breathe. Breathe. Blackness.
Alright, let’s play tennis.
I position myself along the baseline and watch her bounce the ball in front of her, preparing to serve. The ball deflects off the side of her hand and bounces away and she laughs aloud and chases it. So adorable. This is what makes it all worth it. But the best part is later. Later I will tell her how much fun this was, how adorable she was out here, smiling and laughing and chasing after the ball like a kid. She will smile so sincerely and be so grateful and my heart will leap and sing. The game is fun and I’m happy to play but it’s what comes after and before and everything other than the game that makes the game special. It’s the context that makes the game worthwhile.
He’s not playing. Why isn’t he playing?
Play tennis. Peter, play tennis.
What? How do they know my name? Can’t they see I’m waiting for her to serve? I want to look around and freeze the asshole with a look but suddenly she’s serving, a sharp, flat serve that gets on me in a hurry. I turn my hips and get off a solid return and slide my way over towards the middle of the baseline. When has she ever hit it that well? I’ll need to be on my toes.
He’s playing now. I guess that’s a relief.
I roll my eyes and her shot whistles over the net and I race to my backhand and plant and uncork a strong flat shot towards her backhand. The sun springs out from behind a cloud like a spotlight and obliterates my field of view. I start to curse and shield my eyes but there’s a startling report and the ball is on me instantly. It’s all I can do to get my racket to it before it passes through me like a bullet. My return arcs harmlessly through the air before vanishing into the sunlight. I retreat behind the baseline more from the sun than in any hope of sustaining the exchange.
It’s the premotor cortex.
An unexpectedly light brushing sound. A drop shot. Devious. A full sprint to the net. Damn this sun. Sweat soaks my shirt, laying heavy on my shoulders, clinging to my chest. The ball bounces feebly. I dive for it. Pop it over the net. Too much force. Setup for an easy volley winner. Laid out in front of the net. Resources tapped. Desperate for air. No sense even getting up.
He needs a break. He’s breaking down. He can’t keep going like this.
Alright. Let’s take a break.
Roll over onto my back. Hot sun. Just lay here. Breathe. Rest. Breathe. Fall. Blackness.
Peter, play tennis.
From my return position along the baseline I watch her across the court and smile and fight the urge to toss my racket aside and leap the net and grab her and hug her and just stand there hugging her. The two of us, out here, being bad at tennis together and not caring, everything right in our world inside the purity of this activity. No bullshit, no baggage, no manipulation, no simmering frustration. Just smiles and laughter and a mild and meaningless challenge, shared together.
She serves it confidently and I step into a solid forehand return.
You know he never even played tennis. His brother said.
She glides to her backhand and pops a heavy topspin shot into the open court. I step quickly along the baseline and steady my midsection and swing through a one-handed backhand, sending the ball deep diagonally across the court, keeping her on her backhand.
Then why tennis?
I watch her eyes track the ball as her body coils itself for a two-handed return while I slide along the baseline toward the middle.
It’s how the mind handles it. It triggers the supplementary motor area.
Her return cuts through the air with impressive topspin and bounces high, pinning me deep on my backhand side. Serious business. I smile at the challenge and close my stance for what will need to be a fairly strong backhand return.
And that tells you what, exactly?
I let the ball descend from its highest point and catch it flush and there’s a satisfying pop and it leaps forward in a low line and clears the net with room to spare, but to her forehand side. Oh boy.
Well, there’s not a lot of agreement about that, to be honest. But it does mean something.
The sun explodes from behind a cloud and is blindingly bright. I can’t help but recoil. She is loading up a set forehand and I can’t see a goddamn thing.
Who is he playing with, do you think? Roger Federer?
There’s a tremendous thump and too late I see the ball streaking into the open court. I’m on the run, tearing ass in retreat hoping to just get my racket to it.
There’s no way of knowing. Could be anyone. One guy who came out of it said it was his longtime buddy. Could be anyone.
I swipe at it madly and manage to muscle it in the right general direction. In big trouble now. Off balance and out of breath. Damn this sun. Damn it.
Maybe it’s his wife.
Just gain balance and see her vague outline behind the ball, swinging through another violent forehand. On the run again.
Could be. It could be.
Jesus. I wish I hadn’t asked.
Full stretch. Nearly topple over. A pop up. Here comes a smash. Nothing left to do.
It’s falling apart again. Poor guy needs a break.
Take a break, Peter. We’re almost done here.
Need the break. Woozy. Sick. So sick. Collapse here. Breathe. Breathe. Just breathe. Slipping away. Receding. Receding.
Play tennis, Peter. Last time.
She smiles happily from the other court and bounces the ball off her racket once, twice, and on the third time it catches the frame and bounces away. How can I not smile at this? I love her so much, always, but especially now. She laughs and wrinkles her face and shrugs and is embarrassed and adorable and I love her so much.
So what happens when he takes a break?
No one can say, but there’s no activity whatsoever.
I watch her jog after the ball and she’s still giggling. I wish it had bounced this way. I would meet her at the net and smile at her and squeeze her arm and we’d kiss.
And what if there’s no activity in the whats-it-called, the premotor area, when you have someone play?
She retrieves the ball in the far corner and walks back to her service position. I want to catch her eye and smile and let her know I’m amused by her clumsiness and not annoyed at all. I hope she looks up before she serves.
Not much is known about that either, but I’m inclined to call that brain-death. If even his premotor cortex hasn’t survived the accident.
And you ran this test on her, too?
She does look up, and I smile, and she smiles, and my heart dances in my chest. In that exchange of those exact smiles is all of our history, all of our uncovered vulnerabilities, all our accrued trust, all our singular and singularly embarrassing baby-talk, all our safety in each other. Everything. Everything right.
Yes. Of course.
Did she play tennis?
She looks down and bounces the ball and tosses it high in the air and swings her racket and the game is on.
She did not.
It’s a happy looping practice-ground serve and I pivot and swing smoothly and return it gently but firmly. A fluffy grey cloud covers the sun and I watch her bounce on her toes and pivot and glide towards her backhand. Her stroke is assertive and I smile and chase it. Later I’ll tell her how good she’s gotten and that will make her proud. That will be a nice moment to share together once the game is over.