Make no mistake—this is not a tale about my success in tennis. I’m not good. My parents used to play, and they bought my brother Geoff and I racquets for Christmas one year, along with a tube of tennis balls. Immediately I opened the top, delighted that it opened like a can of pop. “No, Callie! Don’t open them!” is mixed with a fresh, florescent green fuzz smell. I love that smell, but it was too early for it. The courts were covered with ice and snow, and now that the can is open, the tennis balls might lose their bounce, their effervescence. I remember winter nights after that, reaching into my closet, past the Barbies and doll clothes I believed I was too old for, but still played with in secret, to the can of tennis balls. I sat on the wood floor, peeled back the lid, and took a deep inhale. The effervescence was still there.
When spring came, the four of us went to Rehm Park; a park across the Eisenhower with a pool, tennis courts, a giant field, and enough jungle gym equipment to last a kid hours. It was the park of my childhood, my adolescence, my young adulthood. I came to this park the morning after Kurt Cobain died and sat on a bench facing the slides and the swings and holding a book. I wasn’t a reader, but I’d had a fight with my mom that morning—I might’ve told her I wasn’t going to college—and I took a book, Joy in the Morning by Betty Smith, in the hopes I’d stay out of the house for a bit. I read the entire book on that bench, and hoped to be Annie in Ann Arbor, and meet a Carl who would believe I am a writer and would one day buy me a journal for all my stories.
I remember I was around 6th grade when I first played tennis. We were on a court with a backboard so Geoff and I could practice against that while my parents played a few rounds. I remember watching my mom and dad play. It was the rhythm of their volley—that hollow, springy thunk the ball made against their racquets—and the scratch of their shoes against the court that caught my attention. It was fun watching them play. They were fast and agile, crossing the court with effort, but the effort looked fun.
I remember wondering when it was they learned to do that. Was it as kids? College? Or did they learn tennis together while they were dating? I knocked the ball against the backboard a few times, and thought about this. I hoped tennis was a sport they picked up when they were older, and not my age, 11. I liked to think that concepts like grammar and historical dates and long division, skills like dribbling a basketball or volleying a tennis ball could be learned later, that there wasn’t a set time frame to learn something before it passed you by. I picked up the tennis ball I was using that spring afternoon and took a quick whiff. The smell had changed from being knocked around. It smelled like dirt and leaves and hands, but these were all mixed in with what I first smelled that Christmas morning. The effervescence had changed, but it was still there.
I was 18 and in my fourth quarter of my senior year of high school. I remember sitting in the bleachers of the field house, staring at a multitude of white signs with blue lettering: square dancing, gymnastics, weight lifting, baseball, tennis—our choices for physical education. I chose tennis, because I wanted to be outside in what would hopefully be a lovely spring in the Chicagoland area. Otherwise, I didn’t care. A slow growing weariness had gotten to me these last days of high school. Instead of the energy of Senioritis spring fever tends to bring, my ailment was more like walking pneumonia. College was looming, dark and dreary, in the near future. I had an on again/off again boyfriend I wasn’t sure what to do about. Drill Team was ending – the thing that probably brought me more happiness than anything else in my life. My attitude was at an all time snarkfest level. My grades, which rarely went any higher than a collective 2.8 GPA, were slipping.
It turned out to be a great spring, weather wise, and stepping out into the sunshine for an hour every day proved to lift my spirits. Holding a tennis racquet and bouncing a tennis ball was nostalgically delightful. I remember how strong my left arm felt when I swung. I would sort of sway my right arm in front of me when I prepped for a hit, and it felt like dancing. I loved rocking my feet from side to side, watching and ready for what came next.
Plus, my tennis partner was hilarious. He wasn’t hilarious in that, “Oh my gosh, you’re so funny let’s make out and go to PROM” sort of way. He was cute, but this isn’t a story about a boy making it all better. Playing tennis with him took me out of the funk I was in. He didn’t take it too seriously. He rooted for me, and made jokes, and together, we won a lot of our PE tennis games. Once, after a particularly tough game that we won, I screamed, “We’re gonna make it to the PGA Tour!”
“That’s golf, Callie,” he said.
“Is it?” I said, scratching my head.
I remember once, walking off the court with him bouncing a tennis ball. “I love the way these things smell,” I told him.
“Tennis balls?” he said, shoving my shoulder and laughing. “Seriously?”
“Yeah,” I said, throwing the ball in the air. Mine was old. The fuzz was matted and dull, the white lines grey. It still had bounce in it, though. And it smelled like spring. Like growth.
It is July 4, and I am standing on a tennis court with a racquet my brother gave me for Christmas a few years ago. He gave me a set of tennis balls, too, and I did the same thing with them—forgetting, in my excitement, about keeping them safe.
Jesse and I are hitting the ball back and forth, in a friendly volley. Contact with the ball feels good, as does running from one end of the court to another. I imagine my legs as tree trunks when I plant them to steady myself before I swing. My left arm feels strong, and my right remembers the dance. I wonder how close Jesse and I look to my parents when they played.
“I wanna play with Mom,” Hadley says, running onto the court.
As she runs, I notice my shadow and think about that 11 year old, and then the 18 year old I was. Who can tell the difference between an 11, 18, and 41-year-old shadow? She is in the throes of transition: a little unsure, a little afraid, but she is willing to play.
I bounce a tennis ball and walk to the end of the court to serve. At 41, I still feel those transition pains. They are not phantom. I’m figuring myself out again: what it is I’m good at, how to make friends, where in this place I fit in. It is not easy, and at times this year, I’ve wondered if it’s too late, if growth is no longer possible, if my effervescence is all gone.
I bounce the ball some more, this time with my racquet. I pop the ball up in the air and volley with myself for a minute.
“Did you play in high school?” Jesse yells across the court. I revel in his tone of bewilderment, delighted that in over 20 years of knowing each other, I still surprise him. I still surprise myself.
Or maybe what’s happening is I am remembering myself.
“I’m going to serve,” I say, and edge my toes to the white line. I bounce the ball a few more times. It makes a friendly pop before springing back perfectly into my palm. I toss the ball in the air and watch it against a bright blue sky.
I whack the ball and it sails like a line drive across the net to Jesse. It is in. He misses it. “You have an arm like iron,” he exclaims.
“It’s my writing arm,” I yell back.
“Can I try?” Hadley asks, running towards where I am standing.
“Sure,” I say, and move out of the way.
“I want to do it like you,” she says.
She lifts her arm, lets the ball fly, and takes a swing.