This piece was inspired by the time I spent coaching tennis in Southern Florida. I worked with many talented athletes; but the kind of environment these players have to live in was hard for me to be a part of.
And I hear him talking through the tennis balls. She sits so still, staring at the wall. Her eyes are blank, but not empty. They are full of tears—that were spilled or yet to be—I’m not sure. And when she sits on the chair studying, her feet don’t yet reach the ground. They don’t swing, they just hang. When she hears her name she doesn’t turn around. And he talks to me. Margin and mistakes. How could she lose when she was up in the game? And the door opens and it shuts. I know that she can hear us. The father doesn’t know. Or doesn’t care. I’m sure he’s already told her all of this before.
She sips her gatorade. Her legs are tired, her arms are stiffening. She rubs her eyes and she sucks up the sniffling. And I look passed her father, to her. I see those almond eyes. I know those almond eyes. She hears me in my head. She looks up. I tell her in my head—because I can’t say this out loud—I see your eyes. I know your eyes. Those are my eyes too. And she blinks. And I blink. And the father asks me a question. And I agree with him because I don’t know what to say. Because I’ve seen his eyes too. I’ve seen those eyes. I remember them too. He shakes his head. She looks up. He says, “Don’t you have some school work to do?”
And her head drops down. Back into her book. Back into her world. Her own. I remember my own world. I wonder if our worlds are the same. I wonder if ours are different. I know one thing, her father isn’t where her head is. She’s somewhere far away—maybe there are still tennis balls bouncing around. Maybe not. But she is alone and every motion is correct. There’s no inch where she is off or nerve too tight. Everything she does is never coached, it’s just always right. And if she makes a mistake, it is okay. She’ll still get to eat and sleep and laugh that day. That’s her world, maybe. After her school work is done. I hope she has an imagination like me. It saved me. Raised me. Kept me from breaking.
And then he laughs—he must have made a joke. I bring my eyes back up to him, my almond eyes. I laugh with him. Then I look back at her. Your dad thinks he’s funny. She nods and smiles.
I see that allayed smile. I know that allayed smile. I smile back and show her: That is my smile too.
And then to work we go. On the green concrete field. Chain linked fences cage us in. A webbed net stands between us, divides us, but sometimes I reach over and visit your side. Our lives are lived and lost by thin white painted lines. And we fill a basket with balls and we empty it and we do it again. And I know it hurts on your right side, so I favor your left. I’m not making you weak, don’t worry, I’m letting you heal. You have to let yourself heal while you still can.
And we’re sweating – breathing – heaving – tired and sore. We go till it hurts, and then until we can’t feel it anymore. And I see your knees and I know they are knotting up inside. You must protect them with ice, I say. I see your weary knees. I know those weary knees. I squat beside you so you can see mine. Those are my knees too.
And you ask me where I come from while we gather the balls. Where are you staying? How long will you stay? I look down at you. I don’t know. I say. But don’t worry about that. Then you step forward and look up at me with your almond eyes. Don’t leave me you say. Don’t leave. I start. I look up. He is there watching us from outside the fence. She stands in front of me. She knows he is there. She feels it. So much to block out on one little court. There is so much out there for you. I think. You don’t even know. He doesn’t even know…
And this world around us – this world of ours – turn and bend, swing through, stay with it, don’t pull off, go forward… This world. I see this world. I know this world.
I see this world. I know this world.