On tennis, grief, and the emptiness of social striving
At the end of the nineteenth century, Spokane, Washington, was founded as a lumber town, where cowboys and mill laborers made a decent living on the weekdays and on the weekends merrily cavorted, drinking whiskey and brawling in downtown bars. Surrounded by pines and open range country, the city sits on a tiny lump of a hill, an almost-citadel. In the winter, it is achingly cold. In the summer, it is hot and dry, the air scented with Ponderosa bark.
Spokane has changed a good deal since its inception, and as is typical with cities whose central industry is no longer demanded, its quality of life began to slide precipitously downhill once the demand for mining and foresting fell in the 1920s. In the 1930s, aluminum plants became the central industry in light of the Second World War; but in the postwar period, when the rest of the country saw new tract housing and suburban developments popping up as men came home from war, Spokane experienced few newcomers; its job industry had dried up.
In 1974, there was a world expo that brought a trolley system and a kitschy gondola ride over the waterfalls to Spokane, but, socioeconomically, Spokane has stayed more or less the same since the mid-century. It is still poor; it is still dangerous. Today there are about ten murders, 1,100 violent crimes, and 12,000 property crimes each year. That means annually there are about ninety crimes per thousand residents. (You have roughly double the likelihood of being the victim of a crime in Spokane each year as you do of being audited by the IRS.) For the past two decades, Spokane has been named one of the thirty most dangerous cities in America. This year, it was ranked number twenty-two.
I don’t want it to sound like my hometown was desperately dodgy or that I felt in danger. Nor do I want it to seem as though growing up there I was perilously poor. It wasn’t and I wasn’t. My grandparents had money, but my parents—who were well-educated but never blessed with the talent of accruing wealth—refused it. Money was theoretically available, but I rarely saw it. For my entire adolescence, I sported an Arthur-Rimbaud-goes-to-Super-Cuts haircut and drove a 1990 Honda Civic. My father was proud of that car: “Got that new for 8K. Had the sucker throw in AC for free.” My friends were less kind: “Birth control on wheels.”
Growing up, I had the kind of condescending attitude towards my city that only the people who see themselves most closely reflected in it tend to have. With that insecurity deep in my mind, I suppose it was not a surprise that the sport that most interested me was—save for perhaps equestrian or fencing—the most elite, snobbish sport I could have possibly chosen.
I began playing tennis on the cracked courts of Comstock Park, nine blocks from my house, when I was fifteen years old, midway through high school during awkward, bad-skinned years. E.A. Shadle, a trustee of the Spokane Dry Goods Company and a noted real estate developer, funded and opened Comstock Park in 1938. At the time, it cost $150,000 and required twenty-one acres, making it, at the time, the most expensive privately-donated park in the state. Today, there are six standard hard courts at Comstock, but neighborhood troublemakers so often clip the nets, and the fissures in the westernmost court are so pronounced, that only one or two of the courts are realistically playable. There are few tennis players in Spokane.
After playing alone for a year—hitting serves into an empty court and rallying against a wooden board leaned up against a fence—I convinced my grandparents to get me proper lessons.
My first coach was Brian, a short, doughy man who played semi-professionally in his early-twenties, but later, in his early-thirties, had to make the majority of his money at an insurance firm in Spokane Valley while coaching tennis on the side. We practiced outside in the spring and the summer, and lessons were spent rallying and working on all aspects of my game: grip, form, volleying, split-step, backhand, forehand, service, speed, footwork, and endurance. Most often, we began with a cross-court drill in which Brian would hit the ball down my forehand line, whereupon I’d have to hit it crosscourt to his forehand; then he’d hit it down my backhand line, whereupon I’d have to hit it crosscourt to his backhand line. He would continually speed up the play, whipping the ball across the court faster and faster so that after two minutes I’d be nearly sprinting down the lines, reaching out my racquet to its fullest extension to return the ball.
When I first began, our rally record was something like three, but after six months we were able to maintain the drill for sequences of fifty or sixty rallies that would end only when he decided to do a kind of jumping forehand with his entire 5’6” frame behind the ball, hitting a crosscourt winner before I could fully pivot from my forehand corner.
Although I couldn’t get to all of the balls he hit, what I began to understand about myself was that I was surprisingly quick and if there was one thing I was particularly good at, it was my footwork. If I wanted to, I could avoid having to hit backhands (a particular weakness), and I could instead hit “inside-out forehands,” which requires running around to one’s forehand side before the ball arrived then, in a falling-back motion, directing a forehand shot back across the court.
Brian didn’t love this tactic—he knew I should’ve been practicing my backhand as much as possible—but he also thought it showed a psychological maturity. I knew my backhand was weaker than my forehand, and thus I used other, better parts of my game to make up for it. Brian said it showed that I “knew my limitations,” which is the kind of not-quite compliment tennis coaches so often like to give, like: “Great win; you’re lucky your opponent played so poorly.”
As I turned seventeen, my backhand steadily improved, but I maintained an essential defensiveness. Most high school tennis players, especially hormonal boys, instinctively want to whack the ball hard, either in order to hit a pure winner or to force an error. I had neither the skill nor the strength to do that, so I became expert at giving my opponents space and time to make errors of their own.
I could return a big forehand with a kindly slice at a pace so slow and with a spin so peculiar that it became nearly impossible for my opponent to nail the ball back with the speed he desired. Instead, my opponents were forced to race to the ball, stoop down, and try to hit the ball at an upward angle with a Rafael Nadal-esque topspin necessary to both hit the ball hard and keep it in the court. Naturally, they still tried to hit it hard without achieving that Nadal-esque topsin. I forced unforced errors. I thrived off of others’ offensive hubris.
I continued hitting with Brian five afternoons a week, and I began driving around the state for tournaments. Tennis became not just a passion but also a refuge, and my defensive strategy in tennis reached to the farthest corners of my life.
I had that cheap car, that cheap haircut, clothes I hated, a family with whom not a single interest overlapped. Life itself had become an exercise in defense. How could I get people to not pay too much attention to me? What was the best way to deflect from my drab lower-middle-class upbringing? I didn’t have the skillset to hit big winners in tennis, so I figured out how to defend. I didn’t have the money, the family, or the social prestige to feel comfortable in my own self, so I had to figure out how to still cope. How could I begin to create the person I wanted to be, rather than the person I was?
Leaving my hometown was step one. I was surprised how few of my peers pursued escape. Most were contented with community college, and a handful of the Advanced Placement students at my high school went to the University of Washington in Seattle or to Washington State University in a rural, wheat-encircled town in the center of the state. By all accounts, this should have been my next step as well. In most stories of this nature, the next occurrence would be that my tennis skill finally paid off: I got a scholarship; I was able to go pro—everything came full-circle. But then, some stories don’t always proceed so logically. Pip was told he had expectations from an anonymous benefactor. Charlotte Haze was killed in a freak car accident.
As for me: After walking home from the school bus one spring afternoon, I found a thin letter in the mail from a college, what my father later called, “a sure rejection”—and it was, in a way. Although I was rejected from the school I had applied to, the letter also asked if perhaps I’d like to try a different program, one in which I could spend my first year of university in Florence, London, or Paris. I went to my computer, typed in the provided URL, and selected “Paris” in the drop-down bar.
If leaving Spokane for Paris was both a vital and fortunate escape, there was another twist to balance out of my luck.
My mother came with me to Paris. She helped me move into a tiny studio in the outskirts of the city. She bought me a week of groceries. She found me a nearby laundromat, and searched for a “right on” Protestant church. And she did all of this while staying in a decrepit two-star hotel down the street. The hotel was then under construction, which proved so loud and so disruptive that the entire lobby was covered in white sheets and the staff wore white surgical masks as they milled awkwardly about. I promised myself I’d never let my future wife stay in a place like that.
But these empty desires of future love and finance dissipated when, on her last day in Paris, my mother discovered a lump beneath her armpit. I’ll spare you the agony of the waiting and of the phone call from the doctor in which we learned it wasn’t the harmless fat deposit we’d hoped for and expected. Although my complexion is Mediterranean (my father is Greek), my mother’s mélange of German and English heritage provided her with blond hair and pink skin that had been oft-singed in her childhood sun.
In the feast of Toxcatl, the grandest festival in the Aztec calendar, a boy is selected by the king and given total, god-like freedom for a year, decorated in white eagle feathers, and provided four wives; at the end of the year, the boy is forced to climb the steps of the temple to have his heart cut out of his body. Fortune implies its own misfortune; an apex only presages a decline. I had escaped far away; but now I would lose my mother. We had discussions of whether I should leave school and come home, but my path thus far had been too lucky, too unrepeatable to try to do-over in a future year; and besides, my mother’s prognosis wasn’t terrible; we thought she’d beat it. Not until the very end though do we ever allow illness to feel insurmountable.
From Paris, I Skyped with my mother at least twice a week, and tried to call her on the telephone every evening. There was almost a monthly cycle on which she was put on a different drug or clinical trial. First it was Ipilimumab then it was TIL therapy and then Dabrafenib and on and on; treatments and trials in Spokane, Seattle, and a particularly promising one in Washington, D.C. She was optimistic, continually certain the Lord would take care of her.
Feeling marooned at university, I went back to perhaps the one thing I was good at—where I felt both comfortable, and able to pretend that my past was not my past—and I began playing tennis at the Standard Athletic Club in the city of Meudon, a bourgeois club just outside Paris that I was admitted to after the daughter-of-a-friend-of-my-grandfather (who had moved to Paris and married a Frenchwoman after the Second World War) found out I enjoyed the sport.
Even though the club billed itself as an “English Club” and the employees were obliged to greet all customers in English in a way redolent of Abercrombie & Fitch employees at a small-town mall (“Hey, what’s up?” “Cool, how’s it goin’?”), its courts were not the Wimbledon grass one might expect but rather the French clay of Roland Garros. On that chalky red clay, I played both with the son-of-the-family-friend and with strangers—doubles with seventy-year-old Frenchmen and just-graduated Centraliensand Anciennes Roséans. Even though I believed that I was moving up the social ladder in some fundamental way—from cracked Spokane public courts to impeccably-maintained Parisian clubs—I continued to play defensively: lobs and slices and runaround forehands. And it continued to work, both in tennis and in conversation.
To nearly everyone I met, I lied about where I was from. To Europeans, I said I was from New York; to Americans, who might ask for more specifics, I said, “a tiny, rural city on the Idaho border,” which I hoped would conjure charming, Old West fantasies. If they asked for even more detail, I would say Gig Harbor—an upper-middle-class outpost of Seattle, where my grandparents had been living for the past three decades. This was usually enough to satisfy my questioner, but once, when I said I was from Gig Harbor during a French composition course, a girl on the other side of the room became ecstatic. “No way. Me too! Which high school did you go to?” She began listing off schools. “GHS? Were you a Ram? Oh no, were you at Harbor Place High? You were a Roosevelt guy? Oh gosh you were, weren’t you? We played you so many times!” Never before called out for my untruth, I sputtered and managed to say, “Homeschooled. I was homeschooled.” She surely didn’t believe me, but she was kind enough to ask nothing further.
I returned to New York to study at NYU’s main campus, and that summer I took an internship in Redmond, Washington, so I could be closer to my mother. Still, it felt like my ascent matched my mother’s descent. As I was trying to run away from Spokane, getting respectable internships, and making interesting friends, she was trying to stay alive just one more day.
It was summertime in Paris, where I was back for another internship, when I received the most urgent call from my father I’ll likely ever get. The cancer had spread to her brain, and she hadn’t much time. I needed to come home immediately. I called Delta and told them I needed a flight out of Charles de Gaulle airport the next morning. When the woman asked if I had a medical reason for making an itinerary change, I lost it. It was the first time I had a proper cry over my mother; her end was real.
My father and I took turns staying in the hospital with her, sleeping on a cot in the corner, watching the lights of Spokane go dark as the tubes and IVs attached to my mother beeped to life. I could never sleep during those evenings, and I spent most of them messaging with a friend in New York. We had a game in which we’d send one another themes—e.g. “aestheticism”—or perspectives—“third-person limited”—and gave each other an hour to write short stories matching the requirements, sending them to one another to compare. I spent those evenings trying to escape the hospital room with fictional worlds of my own creation, just as, when I’m truly honest with myself, I still do—only now it is with grief for her actual death, not with the expectation of her likely death.
Briefly, my mother rallied. The doctors said they had removed all of the cancer from her brain, a task they hadn’t thought they’d be able to achieve; her swaggering surgeon provided us a proud wink as he strolled down the corridor after his temporary success. Able to breathe somewhat easier now, I matriculated at Oxford in the autumn to read European history, and began playing for the tennis team there. It was perhaps the best I had ever been at tennis (and, looking back on it, surely the best I will ever be).
But it was also here that my defensiveness stopped being an effective tool. Defensive tennis is essentially a psychological tactic in which you size up how willing your opponent will be to go for an unlikely winner and where his weak points are. But the fact that defense is principally a psychological strategy means that if you are being outsmarted, you cannot succeed.
The cleverest players won’t go for big winners off of those slow-moving slices; they won’t force themselves to hit with improbable topspin. Instead, they will wear you out; they will defend against your defense until they can properly attack, until they get the ball they want, and then they will destroy you. Where in high school and in Paris and at NYU, my defensive tennis and runaround, inside-out forehands worked, this tactic began to fail at Oxford: Players outsmarted me; they had identified my weaknesses and began pummeling balls to my backhand, waiting on slices, and smacking balls I’d let sit in “no man’s land”—generally defined as the area near the top of the service box—with a conviction I’d not before seen.
The following springtime, the cancer in my mother’s brain came back, and a series of medical terrors befell her: Fluid built up in her lungs, and she began having to go to the hospital every second day to have a needle stuck through her back to remove the liquid; she lost vision in one eye; her face began to droop as though she’d had a stroke, the cancer pressing on various motor functions in her brain; her breathing became labored; walking became almost impossible; and the prognosis changed from “it’s a miracle we removed it all” to “the hospice nurse will be coming over this afternoon to discuss next steps.” It was such a quick, jarring transition that we only had a few weeks to say goodbye. As family arrived from all over the country, I went home again. Friends, whom my mother had not seen in years, came bearing letters and flowers and tears that spilled just as they turned and left the room.
Scott Fitzgerald once said that it is invariably saddening to look through new eyes at things upon which you have expended your own powers of adjustment, and if Spokane seemed rather desperate and battered before, it now seemed an utterly abysmal place, uninhabitable to all but the entirely broken. I’d hardly told a soul about my mother and my entire past had been, if not fabricated, at least heavily massaged to imply a significantly more rarefied upbringing than the one I was now forced to confront. When I arrived in Spokane from Oxford, the past and its dirty truth came back into focus. And yet, when I stepped from the tarmac at Geiger International Airport and sat next to my father as he drove the long, flat roads back to my childhood home, I was reminded of a line from Graham Greene’s Travels with My Aunt, where Greene writes, “it is well to have a few memories of extravagance in store for hard times.” And while this is certainly true, those memories now also conspired to make my current situation feel even more devastating—the gap between the once known and the currently lived expanding into an increasingly painful distance.
During what would be her last two days, I interviewed my mother with a tape recorder. I wanted my future children to know their grandmother in some form, and so I asked her about favorite memories and trips and foods and finally more devastating questions about what she had most wanted from life and what she most regretted and who and what she will most miss. She said she would miss the taste of ice cream; she would miss not being at my wedding; she would regret not having time with me and my brother and my father, and many other comments that I will no doubt cherish forever.
I was awake in the dark of my childhood bed when she died in her bedroom, next to my father. I knew what had happened when I heard my father walk to the kitchen and dial the telephone. Putting on my glasses, I went to look at her lifeless body on her bed. My brother came in and sat to my left, my father to my right.
One of the things no one ever tells you is how immediately the life disappears from a human being. Her body had turned from a quiet yellow to an ashy white. Her mobile mouth remained open. My father closed her eyes.
I retired to my room when I heard a man with a body bag walking through the front door.
I couldn’t sleep that night, and my mind went back to what my mother had told me just the day before. I had been looking through old photographs with her, getting in our final words, listening to the last stories she would ever tell, final tidbits of wisdom that I could harbor and pass along my children.
We were on her bed. Her breathing was labored from the fluid in her lungs, but she had managed to whisper something to me that has stayed with me ever since. She knew how much I detested my home life, the lack in Spokane of just about everything I desired; but she also knew that running away from how I was raised would make me feel only more fraudulent. “You will never be lovelier than you are right now,” she’d said. “Remember that.”
It was the most inspiring thing she ever told me, and oddly—devastatingly—poetic for a woman who had almost exclusively read the Bible, and in fact, was resonantly Homeric in its paraphrase. Over the following days, as I grieved my mother, I thought about her words, and I began to realize that Spokane had never been the cesspool of sadness I’d once thought it to be. I had been obligated to think of it as such in order to leave—but objectively, it was only a place; I could see it however I wanted.
Now that she was gone, I lamented not having stayed at home with her all along. Every time I came home and expressed this desire, both my mother and my father had said no, I should finish school. But I could have gone to school closer to home. I could have done a lot of things differently. I suppose I didn’t really press them too hard. Spokane with a sick mother? Or faraway places with interesting, beautiful people my own age? It hardly seemed a choice. But it was a choice, and I had spent so much time trying to escape when I should have been by her bedside through and through. All the deception, the massaging of my past—it had made me feel better, but now it made me only feel like a fraud.
Two months later, I returned to Oxford to complete my degree. I had an intramural match with an Old Etonian, who was then at Balliol. Where once I would’ve hated this kind of opponent—so deeply had I desired to be him—now I blankly stared at him across the court. I had nothing to lose, and I began playing aggressively, hitting big forehands, whipping my backhand around the ball so as to place the ball just over the net and down the line. It was cathartic. All of my energy, all of my aggression and grief, pushed into a flying green ball. I played cleverly, combatively; I effectively used my backhand; I fundamentally shifted my strategy, and I beat someone who before I could never have dreamed of beating.
I would feel empty for many months to come—indeed, I still feel empty—but perhaps it was walking home from that match, down along Parks Road in Oxford, that my machinations to escape, to be someone who I was not, if not ceased, at least began to subside. For four years my strategy had been deflecting and defending from my past—running away from my hometown just as I ran around a forehand. But I realized there are no rules that must be kept; you can stay the same or you can change. You’ll never be lovelier than you are now. Strategies need only be temporary.
This story first appeared at Catapult.
Photo courtesy: http://www.celesteprize.com/artwork/ido:15049/