We always walk there near dusk, when the sun is low on the horizon. I tote the water bottle; Christopher carries the rackets and balls.
The tennis courts are a tiny green oasis in our urban neighborhood. We walk up Thirty-eighth Avenue, past houses with neatly planted rose- bushes and flowering jacaranda, and houses with peeling paint and old couches set out on the sidewalk, stuffing coming out of their cushions. We pass kids on bikes; teenagers hanging out by the corner store, buying their fried pork rinds and sodas; and abandoned apartment buildings with boarded-up windows and broken glass in the driveways.
The courts are locked, so we have to get the key from Rich, the guy who runs a science center for neighborhood children in the same small sanctuary (Brookdale Park, it’s called). There’s a field adjacent to the courts where Latino guys play huge games of soccer, dozens of players on each team. There’s a baseball diamond where Christopher and I glimpse Little Leaguers up at bat, and a couple of basketball courts. But hardly anyone seems to play tennis except us.
Rich opens the padlock and wishes us a good game. Gray-haired, kind-eyed and perpetually weary, he has given his life to the kids in this neighborhood, begging and borrowing to get them computers to work on, bringing in Hula-hoops and guinea pigs, tools and wood and paint and art teachers. He helps them with projects like decorating the spokes of their bikes with foil or learning about physics by making a miniature tornado in an old bleach bottle, and he provides a safe space where they can do their homework. It’s not easy. There’s a lot of drug traffic on the aptly named High Street, which borders the park, and a lot of parents missing in action.
Despite Rich’s efforts to keep things clean and safe, enterprising partyers scale the high fence around the tennis courts after dark; we’ve found broken bottles and soda cans and some-times a spent condom. Once we’ve cleared these away, though, the place is semi-private and wild and ours.
I spent my childhood with my nose in a book. I was one of those kids who read while they walked, which meant I occasionally banged my head, hard, against the call boxes on telephone poles. I was the last picked for teams in gym class (now almost everyone I have met as an adult claims they also were picked last, which just cannot be true), and for good reason: I had an unfortunate tendency to duck whenever balls came my way, and during our Presidential Fitness Tests, I walked the quarter mile instead of running it.
So I’ve come late to the game, in more ways than one. No matter. One of the little-discussed advantages of not being athletic earlier in life is that now, at age 50, I haven’t accrued any injuries. I have become somewhat cocky and insufferable, however. I flex my biceps and talk trash with Christopher as part of our ritual pregame warm-up.
“I am the Dominatrix of Doom,” I boast. “Prepare to meet your maker.”
“I am the Perpetrator of Pain,” he retorts, swinging his racket to stretch out his shoulders. “And this is your last chance to walk out of here alive.”
In reality, Christopher is a lanky special ed teacher at Juvenile Hall, noted for his patience and kindness. And I am a round-hipped poet, famous for dreaminess and distractibility. But on the court we shed those personas the way Clark Kent shucks his mild-mannered office clothing to become Superman. On the court we revert to our animal selves; we are rabid and ferocious and bonkers, yowling in triumph when we score a hit, shrieking in despair when we miss. It’s a good thing we are usually the only ones out there. This is not pretty. But it’s a lot cheaper than therapy.
Christopher and I met late, on either side of 50. Too late to be college sweethearts, young parents or striving thirty-somethings together.
I mourn this at the same time I know that had we met any earlier, we would not have been ready for each other. We would not have thrown ourselves into this adventure as wholeheartedly as we have. But when we play together, I see him as a young man. I see him as a gangly teenager, all long arms and legs and sardonic humor. I see him as a little boy, eager and mischievous and dying for someone to play with him.