Playing Tennis with My Girlfriend and David Foster Wallace
In Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace writes, “A tennis ball is the ultimate body….used well or poorly. It will reflect your character.”
I’m telling my girlfriend Ashley about the novel. “It’s 1,000 pages, and it’s about a tennis academy and addicts at a halfway house! And Wallace had long hair and wore a bandana…”
When I’m done, she says, “Is he the one who killed himself?”
“Yes. He battled depression. For many years.”
“Oh,” she says, like an apology, like a prayer, and we are both quiet for Wallace, and then we walk to opposite sides of the net and it’s the hollow pop of ball against racket, the whine of sneaker bottoms sliding on concrete, the sound of my own breath pushing through nostrils while awaiting serve.
Ashley and I play tennis at Derry, New Hampshire’s public courts, between the hospital and the gas station. We play after dinner because we’re out of shape and try to avoid the heat on our days off. I work twelve-hour shifts as a cook. At another restaurant, she serves ice cream and fried meals to families who barely tip. In this suburb my father bought me baseball cards and set up an extra TV for the playoffs, and I missed a game-winning shot and kissed a girl and when she said, “I love you,” I said it back because I wanted to feel it, too, and I watched my father move out and heard my mother cry and ran cross-country and kissed more girls so I wouldn’t feel alone.
Mosquitoes creep through the woods that separate the courts from Alexander Carr Park. The smell of stagnant water hangs in the air. Ashley thinks she sees a bat fly under the power lines, but the sun is waning and she can’t be sure. The town leaves the courts open at night but can’t afford to run the lights. We race the sunset to finish our games, squinting at the yellow ball moving between us.
Last fall, after a summer at home, I enrolled in a single-semester journalism program in Portland, Maine, and stayed with Ashley, who took a teaching job there to be near me. Then I returned home. This summer Ashley joined me in New Hampshire, but we decided not to live together. We spend our hours cracking sunflower seeds on my porch, walking to the dog park to name imaginary pets, and playing tennis.
At first we were teammates. At first the game was to see how long we could keep the ball bouncing from one side to the other. One bounce, two bounces, three bounces, it didn’t matter, kids creating their own game. “Count it!” I would yell, meaning to keep playing, as I scooped a rolling ball from the ground with my racket. I had never played tennis before and used one of Ashley’s, which used to belong to her twin sister. When Ashley was a child, her mother told her that she was too fragile to play sports. She became manager of the high school tennis team just to spend time with her sister, the one strong enough to play. Ashley stayed on the sidelines, even when she became skilled enough to beat the team’s number three player, her twin.
Now Ashley and I are opponents. Now the game is to hit the ball away from each other while keeping it within the lines. I lob returns at the edges to tire her short legs. She spikes the ball at my toes, negating my size with precision. Our games have rules. Our games make winners and losers.
The sky looks like a palette of watercolors burning over the tree line. I hear waves of cars behind me, parents driving kids home after baseball and piano and dance. On the other side of the court Ashley leans forward on her toes, feet almost touching, hands clutching her racket.
She yells, “What’s the score?” Her thin lips are invisible in the diminishing light.
“Are you sure?” She drops her racket to her side and stares into the woods, as if bird watching, trying to remember the previous points. We often spend minutes talking before service and lose track of the score.
“I’m sure,” I say. “First, you returned my serve right at my chest, and then the next point it went back and forth until I hit a drop shot barely over the net, and you were too slow to get it.”
“But are you sure?”
Again, I shout, “Fifteen all.”
Grass grows through the cracks in the court that snake from my side to hers. She swipes at the hairs that won’t stay in her headband. From here her arms look like paint stirrers. She wears an unraveling University of Maine Farmington t-shirt, exercise pants that fall below the knee, and a pair of Nikes whose bottoms have been smooth since we met two years ago.
I toss the ball above my head and hit it at her as hard as I can. She doesn’t flinch. It sails past her, out of bounds and into the fence. Not wanting to double fault, I drop the next ball and hit it underhand off the bounce. I know real players don’t serve like this, but it’s one of the house rules we’ve held on to.
Ashley and I started dating my last semester at Farmington. She’d graduated the year before and was teaching second grade in a nearby mill town. On our first date we talked for eight hours at a truck stop diner. I asked her questions about growing up in the County, the northern tip of Maine, and she talked and talked and laughed. Her love for her family reminded me of gathering with my mother and siblings and friends for holiday dinners, eating and drinking and sharing stories for hours, and then setting out coffee and dessert and listening some more.
In Farmington, Western Maine, winter lasts through April, and Ashley and I hibernated in my apartment, in my childhood bed, reading books to each other. I picked poems. “Dog days. A passing shower. Two grackles/Scattering the birdbath birds.” (From The City of Women by Sherrod Santos.) She chose picture books. “That very night in Max’s room a forest grew/ and grew— / and grew.” (Where the Wild Things Are.) Wind rattled the plastic siding. She said she liked my voice. I was better at reading than talking. I read until the nocturnal snowplows returned to scrape the frozen streets, until my voice sounded like sandpaper against the room’s sky, her skin. She told me about sleeping on her sister’s bedroom floor every night as a teenager, scared of being alone. I took a deep breath and told her everything I could remember about my father, how at bedtime we took turns reading aloud from the Illustrated Classics, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Oliver Twist, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, passing the hardcover every few pages, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, a nighttime game of catch, my cheek resting on his chest, his Old Spice vibrating with our voices. Ashley and I held each other in that tiny bed and I felt strong, pictured words flying between us like birds.
This summer I’ve been reading David Foster Wallace’s nonfiction. I’ve studied most of his essays, three of which focus on tennis. Hundreds of pages. I’ve spent as much time reading about tennis as I have playing it.
As a teenager in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, surrounded by farms, a landscape of flat planes and grids, Wallace fell for tennis and its math, becoming a regional champion. From his essay, “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley:” “The sharply precise divisions and boundaries, together with the fact that—wind and your more exotic-type spins aside—balls can be made to travel in straight lines only, make textbook tennis plane geometry.”
Wallace made me see tennis as a game of lines. The court is a rectangle composed of rectangles. Ashley and I own equal halves, separated by the horizontal net. We are an equation that keeps the ball moving. Even the faces of our rackets are composed of grids. Before this summer, I believed sports were anti-math. Sports were art, cloudy Monet brushstrokes, violent Picasso emotion.
Ashley enjoys sports but in a detached way I don’t understand. She likes watching football on TV but doesn’t care to know most of the rules. In high school she attended basketball games by herself and would knit in the stands. I take any chance to share sports with her, with tennis the only game we can play against each other competitively.
All the sunset hour humidity feels like it’s settled on my forearms. Ashley serves, overhand. I can’t tell if I should return the ball in the air or let it bounce. I decide I must stroke right away, but it’s too late. The ball smacks my shins.
I exhale and toss the ball back to Ashley. She calls out the score, “Fifteen-Love!”
Tennis scholars haven’t resolved the origin of using “love” for zero. It might derive from the French word for egg (l’œuf) or the idea of playing for love, no wager on the match, or, a rarely mentioned theory, the mutual respect and affection between players at the start of a game, when the scores are at zero.
She serves again.
I let the ball bounce before returning it successfully. I jog to the middle of the court and she hits the ball back to where I was just standing. I shuffle but can’t switch my grip in time and angle the ball into the net.
“Thirty-Love!” She serves.
I return, move to center court. I bounce on my toes. She will forehand to my previous corner. I lunge back before she even strokes. I return the ball crosscourt, as far away from her as I can. She does the same to me. Playing tennis in the after light, the last shards of sun hover over the court and the ball becomes a force which we feel and hear moving through the air before its color appears, suddenly a real object requiring action. I anticipate her shots and she anticipates mine. It’s the only way we can see the ball in time. The volley continues. We move side to side, two marionettes, strings being pulled in opposite directions. Comfortable in our rhythm, we return harder, no longer conscious of the lines we must obey. She’s running me, knowing I have no endurance. I feel my heart pumping and sucking. The pulse is in my ears. She thinks I’m going to return crosscourt again. Instead I angle a forehand down the line. Already moving the other way, she can’t slow down her momentum.
I lean over, butt out, palms on knees. The hot air I breathe feels like a burden.
She holds up her racket to serve. “Thirty-fifteen. Ready?”
“Yes. Serve.” The sky is the inside of a plum and the night is almost real.
She serves. We volley. I know I can’t keep up these long points, so when she offers a weak backhand, I gather myself and hit a drop shot just over the net. The ball bounces twice before she smacks it with her racket.
“Thirty all.” She serves and I waste no time with my new strategy. I tap the ball to her frontcourt. I almost feel guilty. She’s not fast enough to sprint in from the service line. There’s no way.
She grabs at the knees of her pants.
“Do you need a break?” I say and try not to smile. One more point and I win.
She shakes her head. “Thirty-forty.”
She serves the ball twice as fast as I have ever seen her; it’s a fluorescent highlighter stroke, a video game laser.
In “Roger Federer as Religious Experience,” Wallace writes, “Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty.” He’s referring to the joy of watching sculpted limbs move in symmetry, of a moving body flicking a faster moving ball with a racket, spiritual in how rare a skill.
The essay reminds me of the happiness Wallace felt playing the sport. According to an online McSweeney’s memorial, as a teenager Wallace once tried to extend a match against a weaker player by saying his opponent hit the ball in bounds, when the final shot was clearly out. He wanted to keep playing.
The Federer essay was the last piece Wallace published before hanging himself in 2006. Like so many young writers, I admire Wallace for his work, the balance of wit and morality, literary maximalism as realism, but I’m also drawn to his personal story, his darkness, the obvious question. How can something so wonderful be so troubling? Or, does it have to be?
I add all the words together but am left without a solution.
I don’t know why I want to beat Ashley so much in tennis. As a child I was taught that it was okay to lose, as long as you tried your hardest. But winning was the point of all games.
Playing is my rawest self, my family, how we bonded, tie scores stretching nights another hour. I want to believe Ashley and I grow closer through competing. I want the game to be simple. The beautiful repetition, observe and react, when the mind is silent and the body knows what to do.
After Ashley’s speed serve, I yell over the net, “Have you been taking it easy on me?”
She holds out her racket. “What?”
“I just wanted to keep the game going. At least until you get more practice.”
“Are you kidding me?” Sweat splatters beneath me.
“I didn’t want you to get mad. It’s not fun if you can’t hit the ball back.”
I’ve won one of three games today, but now the thought of my victory makes me feel hollow. “But I thought we were playing for real. I want it to be real. I want to see if I can actually beat you.”
“Okay,” she says, even though I know she doesn’t care about the rules. She just likes playing.
“We’re starting over,” I say. “One more game. Zero-zero.”
In Portland we lived on the top floor of a duplex that had been split three ways. Our bedroom had a slanted ceiling, making much of the long rectangle space useless. We ducked into bed and slid into the desk chair. The neighborhood: Catherine McAuley girls school, The Frosty Pint, Evergreen Cemetery, St. Joseph’s ringing its bells every hour to remind us we no longer felt young.
We ate whatever we agreed on and could also afford, ham sandwiches with pickles, hand cut fries, boxed macaroni and cheese, fajitas, chocolate. We bought white fish, dipped each side in Cajun seasoning and blackened the spices, smoke alarm ringing, eyes watering, window open to the cold. We babysat her nephew and set him in a lobster pot on top of the stove. We took photos as if he was delicious, as if he was something our bodies needed.
Weekends, we walked downtown and drank pitchers in the basement of a sports bar, feeding quarters into the air hockey and pool tables. Then we walked back holding hands and I would grow quiet or her breaths would lengthen and shudder, so the other would ask what was wrong because we knew our moves. We couldn’t hide. We couldn’t lie. By the time we made it back to our room, our swelling voices bounced off each other, reflected off the walls. From Infinite Jest: “Nets and fences can be mirrors. And between nets and fences, opponents are also mirrors. This is why the whole thing is scary…. See yourself in your opponents. They will bring you to understand the Game.”
Argument rising and falling, Ashley and I crawled into bed, in a place that didn’t feel like home to either of us.
She wailed, “I have no friends here.”
“Neither do I,” I said, even though it wasn’t true.
After teaching children all day, she desired adult conversation. I was worn out from interviewing strangers, pretending not to be an introvert.
“You’re on the computer all night, and I’m not mad,” she said, “I just didn’t realize what your life was really like.”
“That’s not my fault.”
She needed company to be content. I valued alone time. In Portland we didn’t know each other as well as we used to.
She asked what we had each been thinking for months. “Was this a mistake, living together?”
Next to me, she called, “Dave. Talk to me.”
A minute passed as I listened to her cry.
I told her the truth. I told her I didn’t know. I told her I was tired from working and arguing and feeling like a guest here, but it wasn’t an excuse. I told her I loved her. She was the only one who saw all my versions. I told her I wanted to take care of her, to be better. I told her sometimes I wanted to be selfish. All I wanted to do was write. I told her I would balance. She supported me. I didn’t appreciate how much she compromised. I told her thank you.
When the words no longer came, I flicked on the bedside lamp and read aloud from the first book I found as the birds began to wake.
One more game. Our shirts gray with sweat, darker and darker until the sun disappears. We look like shadows. The bats return to the woods, but the mosquitoes stay with us. My mouth tastes like I just woke up. The snap of the ball against tightly strung strings is a song in my dreams, the steady smack of concrete, a neighbor hammering next door. I think about the gift Ashley has given me, moving farther away from her family so I can be near mine. It’s so dark I can’t see the ball until it’s upon me and return with short half-strokes. I wonder if I will ever be able to love her the way she loves me. I look harder and see lines connecting us, reflected and equal. I see lines extending off every movement, lines that break free of the court and fly over the fence and roll into the bushes. Lines we keep talking as we walk towards the middle. Our game ends with a kiss, necks straining over the net. I wish they could all end this way.
DAVID BERSELL’s essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Soundings Review, Stymie, Volume 1 Brooklyn, and The Good Men Project, among other publications. Keep up with his writing life @davidbersell.