Lisa Levchuk ~ No Man’s Land

The first group of women who invit­ed me into their reg­u­lar game were from the B team. The club had two com­pet­i­tive teams, but they stayed very sep­a­rate. The B team play­ers were nev­er includ­ed in the games of the bet­ter play­ers. Sure, some of them were quite weak, but, in my opin­ion, the line between A and B was murki­er than any­one liked to think. I played with them because I knew that, soon­er or lat­er, the A’s would dis­cov­er me. I’ve played ten­nis since child­hood. And even though it had been sev­er­al years since I’d picked up a rack­et, the skills were com­ing back quick­ly. Strangely enough, in some respects, I was play­ing the best ten­nis of my life. Without the pres­sure of expec­ta­tions I held when I was younger I was thriv­ing. My serve was crisp, my back­hand more reli­able than ever, and my fore­hand as good a weapon as it had been back in col­lege. I enjoyed play­ing with women who didn’t take the game too seri­ous­ly. The B play­ers brought a lev­el of real­ism to the court that often dis­ap­pears with more expe­ri­enced play­ers. Each one of us felt delight­ed to hit a win­ner and no one took it too hard when we made unforced errors.

What even­tu­al­ly drove me to the A team was not the lev­el of ten­nis. It was Eve, a woman who, the oth­ers told me, had once been the top woman play­er in the club. She had won club cham­pi­onships on both grass and Har Tru. The B ladies revealed to me that Eve had recent­ly been diag­nosed with ear­ly onset demen­tia and had been dropped by the A’s. Tall and slen­der, Eve had the rem­nants of a great game. Her swing­ing back­hand vol­ley was a legit­i­mate weapon. And, with the pos­si­ble excep­tion of my own, her ground­strokes were more pol­ished than any­one out there. Watching her swing the rack­et, you would nev­er have known she had demen­tia. The prob­lems only became appar­ent when the point was over, when she had to know where to be on the court for the next point, or know the score when she was serv­ing. We all made mis­takes – and we all end­ed up stand­ing in the ad court when we were sup­posed to be in the deuce, and all of us were guilty of occa­sion­al­ly yelling out a ridicu­lous­ly wrong score. But the dif­fer­ence was that Eve was nev­er in the right place and nev­er called out the cor­rect score. And, even when told where to go, her posi­tion­ing was all off. If you real­ly, des­per­ate­ly, want­ed to win a point, you could pass her every time.

During match­es, after near­ly every point, some­one would have to say, “Eve, you’re on the oth­er side.” Or “Eve, you are serv­ing this game.” Most often, she seemed to believe the score was five-all. But it could be any­thing, real­ly. Oddly, she nev­er got it right. You would have thought that once in a while, like a bro­ken clock, she’d acci­den­tal­ly yell out the right answer. The last time I’d played with her, she’d walked over in the mid­dle of a game and stood on the oth­er side of the court with our oppo­nents, as though she was going to play with two oth­ers against me.

I left the B team play­ers because being around Eve made me wor­ry. Every time I for­got the score or found myself stand­ing around in no-man’s land, I felt a stab of pan­ic. Was I los­ing it? I mean, Eve was only few years old­er than I was. And so, when final­ly invit­ed, I seized the oppor­tu­ni­ty to defect to the A’s. When I saw Eve and the oth­er B play­ers, I was friend­ly. But it wasn’t my fault that I was good enough to leave them behind, was it?

 

The thing about the A team was that they were wild­ly curi­ous about me. It may have been dri­ven by jeal­ousy; even hav­ing tak­en five full years off from ten­nis, I was bet­ter than all but one or two of them. When asked about myself, I revealed that I was a teacher and that I’d returned to New Jersey after almost twen­ty years at a board­ing school in Massachusetts to take care of my moth­er while she was dying from can­cer. But I’d left them in the dark about every­thing else. From what I could gath­er, many of the A ladies did lit­tle else with their lives beside play ten­nis and canas­ta. While many of the B ladies were doc­tors or busi­ness women, the A ladies were strict­ly leisure class. They played on teams all win­ter. And I think they were very god damned sick of each oth­er. I was the new girl in town and every­one want­ed to know where I’d learned to play. But they espe­cial­ly want­ed to know why I wasn’t mar­ried.

Does your hub­by play?” Brianna asked.

Don’t have a hub­by,” I answered.

Oh.”

I chose not to elab­o­rate. Because I real­ly didn’t know myself why I didn’t have a hub­by. Was I a les­bian? Didn’t think so. Did I fear inti­ma­cy? Not so much. If I’d been pressed to give an answer, I would have had to say that my lack of a hus­band was due to a com­bi­na­tion of poor judg­ment and lazi­ness. Normally, I wasn’t self-con­scious. I’d had three long-term rela­tion­ships. Yes, each one of them end­ed mis­er­ably, but I had made my peace with being sin­gle.

So, I’m not sure what led to what I’ll now refer to as the cat­a­stroph­ic lie. I was play­ing in a very com­pet­i­tive dou­bles match with three of the best play­ers in the club. It was excru­ci­at­ing­ly hot out – 100% humid­i­ty to boot. We were tak­ing a rather long break on the changeover, hud­dled togeth­er in a small stripe of shade. I was run­ning water into my hat, hop­ing the icy dous­ing would low­er my body tem­per­a­ture. Dede was talk­ing about the ongo­ing prepa­ra­tions for her daughter’s wed­ding.

Do you have chil­dren?”

Even though I was used to their inces­sant pry­ing and nosi­ness, I wasn’t expect­ing that ques­tion. It came from Laurie, the weak­est play­er in our group of four.

I’m sor­ry,” I answered. “I don’t real­ly like to talk about it.”

Oh,” she said. “Forgive me. I’m so sor­ry I asked. I’m such a busy body.”

No. no.” I said. “It’s OK. I just wasn’t expect­ing to talk about it.”

Are you alright?”

Compassion was sud­den­ly win­ning out over curios­i­ty. But I knew that would be short lived. Even was becom­ing curi­ous about what had hap­pened to me.

I had a daugh­ter,” I announced.

I’m so sor­ry,” said Laurie. “I shouldn’t have brought it up. I’m so sor­ry. You don’t have to talk about it.”

But the three women moved clos­er now, their faces exhibit­ing a strange inter­play of pity and fear and won­der.

She died,” I tell them. “On September 11.”

Not that day,” says Laurie.

I won­dered why in the world I picked September 11th as the date my fic­tion­al daugh­ter died. I should have said the 15th or the 28th. Any day would have made more sense.

Was she in one of the tow­ers?”

This was the first ques­tion from Brianna. I could tell she was skep­ti­cal. As a young woman, Brianna had been a pro­fes­sion­al dancer. She’d been a lead in some famous dance com­pa­ny. Now, all she did was brag about all the vaca­tions she went on. Between games, on changeovers, she might take ten full min­utes to recount some long wind­ed tale of how her hus­band got lost in an air­port in Kenya. The sto­ries she told always took place in inter­est­ing set­tings, but the sto­ries them­selves were dead bor­ing. If they weren’t about her sur­geon hus­band, they were about her son who was also a doc­tor. The only thing I had over her was that I was the bet­ter ten­nis play­er. It drove her crazy. Because I knew it would be easy to find out who died in the attacks on September 11th, I decid­ed that my daugh­ter had been mur­dered by a stranger.

No,” I said. “She was mur­dered in Massachusetts.”

I placed the soak­ing wet hat on my head. Cold water trick­led down the back of my neck. I won­dered how like­ly it was to be mur­dered. I had no idea how fre­quent­ly it hap­pened. I only knew that a friend from high school, a girl who played on the ten­nis team with me a mil­lion years ago – she was mur­dered. It was still hard to believe that it had hap­pened.

That’s so hor­ri­ble,” said Laurie. “That is every par­ents’ worst night­mare.”

My hus­band left. It was too hard to stay togeth­er.”

So you were mar­ried?” Laurie asked.

I nod­ded.

         Now the A ladies were back­ing away. I won­dered if it was too late. Could I blurt out Just Kidding! LOL! I nev­er had a daugh­ter! Or a hus­band! HAHAHA

I shouldn’t have told you about it out here,” I said. “This isn’t the right place. I’m so sor­ry. I feel like I ruined our game.”

Oh my God,” Laurie said. “Of course you didn’t.”

We can keep play­ing” I said. “I think I’d like to con­tin­ue.”

Yes,” said Brianna. “Let’s get back out there.”

 

After the set, as I was leav­ing the court, I passed Eve com­ing toward the deck. Her shirt was always a bit less white than every­one else’s. The A ladies rarely men­tioned Eve – if they did, it was only to express pity. But the B’s talked about her more fre­quent­ly – that’s how I knew her hus­band was con­sid­ered a kind and com­pas­sion­ate care­tak­er. Why did he let her wear dingy, yel­low­ing shirts, I won­dered? Was he a real­ly a good care­tak­er? Would Eve die from demen­tia? Did you die from it? Or would she just die of old age?

Hi Eve,” I said.

Hi Lisa,” she said.

I was a bit tak­en aback that she remem­bered my name.

Beautiful day,” I said.

Yes,” she said. “It cer­tain­ly is.”

Eve’s shirt was both­er­ing me. The club had a pol­i­cy that your ten­nis clothes had to be white. Why didn’t Eve’s hus­band buy her a god­damned white shirt? I start­ed to think about my moth­er, about how dif­fi­cult it had been to care for her once she couldn’t take care of her­self.  Eve remind­ed me of my moth­er. There were days after I moved in that I hat­ed being respon­si­ble for her. There were nights when I wished she were dead so that I could be free. I’d hear the wheels of her walk­er from my bed and know that if I didn’t jump up and run to her, the next sound would be her falling to the ground. There were nights when she didn’t know who I was, and she spoke to me with anger for treat­ing her like a child. Eventually, she was so thin and frail that there was almost noth­ing left of her. I would try to con­jure up an image from before the can­cer, from the time in my life when she was beau­ti­ful and healthy and there to take care of me when­ev­er need­ed. I felt over­whelm­ing much self-pity.

No one asked me about my daugh­ter again for some time. I tried to for­get as well. I played in the club dou­bles tour­na­ment with Laurie and we won. We sailed through to the finals where we defeat­ed Brianna and her part­ner Carol in a gru­el­ing three-set­ter. Brianna accused me of mak­ing a bad call dur­ing the final tiebreak­er, and I stormed off the court for a good three min­utes before return­ing and serv­ing two aces for the match.

My game kept improv­ing – I was now eas­i­ly the best play­er, and I was sad to see my first sum­mer as a mem­ber at Orange Brook Country Club com­ing to a close. I had not met any viable men or made any close friends, but I had real­ly enjoyed the ten­nis more than I thought I would. And I’d even got my name on a plaque as a tour­na­ment cham­pi­on.

 

The first time the sub­ject of my dead daugh­ter came up again was on a Saturday in September very near the end of the sea­son. It was a beau­ti­ful, clear day. The day before the anniver­sary of both the ter­ror­ist attack on the World Trade Center and my own fic­tion­al tragedy. Laurie was my part­ner and we were hav­ing a close match against our rivals, Dede and Brianna.

I can’t believe how much worse this week­end must be for you than for the rest of us,” Laurie said. We were all drink­ing lit­tle cups of ice cold water from the cool­er, filled and car­ried out that morn­ing by a black man named Isiah who wore a tur­ban.

It nev­er gets any eas­i­er,” I said.

I walked over to the fence and looked out over the grass courts, hop­ing that Laurie would drop the sub­ject.

Did it hap­pen at the board­ing school where you were teach­ing?”

This was the first logis­ti­cal ques­tion I’d faced, and I was not sur­prised that it came from Brianna. She was the only woman in the club I didn’t trust. She was the one, I’d dis­cov­ered, who had exiled Eve into the B group. She wasn’t a nice per­son.

Yes,” I said.

That, the mur­der, must have been ter­ri­ble for the entire com­mu­ni­ty.”

I’ve nev­er tak­en an act­ing class in my life, but, with the skill of Meryl Streep, I quite sud­den­ly burst into tears. I pic­tured Brianna doing some aggres­sive Google search of me and dis­cov­er­ing my lack of a daugh­ter. It occurred to me how easy it would be to dis­prove my claim. The fact that any­one had ever believed me had been the most sur­pris­ing thing of all. I con­sid­ered blurt­ing out that I was lying about the entire thing, that it was actu­al­ly my friend from high school who had been mur­dered, and beg­ging for their for­give­ness. I want­ed to explain how hard it was to be a sin­gle woman with­out chil­dren sur­round­ed by women with beau­ti­ful and accom­plished sons and daugh­ters who seemed to nev­er tire of achiev­ing unheard of lev­els of suc­cess and hap­pi­ness. Since my moth­er died, all I had was my lit­tle dachs­hund Scout, who had begun to col­lapse on almost a dai­ly basis due to con­ges­tive heart fail­ure. Why couldn’t I have one, lousy, mur­dered daugh­ter?

It wasn’t good,” I said.

I’m sor­ry,” said Bryanna. She con­tin­ued. “But I’m not sor­ry for you; I’m sor­ry because you’re lying. And I don’t know what to make of that.”

I sucked in some air.

My niece went to the board­ing school where you taught. She was there and she remem­bers you being a teacher when you say this crime occurred, but nei­ther she nor any of her friends have any rec­ol­lec­tion of any­thing like what you described ever hap­pen­ing.” Laurie took a step back­wards. Dede stared off toward the club­house.

Well,” I said. “Maybe it didn’t hap­pen exact­ly the way I said.

I’m so sor­ry,” Laurie said.

Why are you sor­ry for her?” Brynna asked? “What about her telling us a hor­ri­ble lie makes you sor­ry for her?”

She paused.

After you cheat­ed dur­ing the tour­na­ment,” she said. “After you made the call that tipped the match in your favor, that’s when I did a bit of research. I had my sus­pi­cions about your hon­esty from the begin­ning. But I have to say that I didn’t expect this.”

I walked off the court and did not stop to clean the clay off my sneak­ers. Sitting alone at one of the court­side tables was Eve. She smiled and I smiled back.

It’s okay,” she said.

I spun my rack­et in my hand.

No,” I said. “It’s actu­al­ly not.”

It’s a hard day for all of us,” she said.

Eve’s shirt had a small brown stain up near the col­lar. I thought about my moth­er, who went from being metic­u­lous about the way she looked to being so rid­dled with can­cer that she couldn’t bring a fork to her mouth with­out falling asleep and drop­ping the food into her lap. As I gath­ered my things to leave, I looked back at Brianna and Laurie and Dede. They were hud­dled togeth­er in the mid­dle of the court, like­ly dis­cussing how nor­mal I had seemed at the begin­ning.

Look at them,” Eve said. She took a small sip from a plas­tic cup filled with orange juice. “Just look at them.”

I stood up and looked.

All of them stand­ing there in no man’s land,” she said. “That’s no way to play the game.”

This is the anniver­sary of the day my moth­er died,” I said. “She died at home. I was with her.”

Oh,” Eve replied.

She placed her large, cool hand over mine. Then she squeezed it very gen­tly.

You are an inter­est­ing per­son,” she said.

Thank you,” I told her.

Don’t come back here,” she added. “It’s not where you belong.”

I put my rack­et and sneak­ers into my bag and changed into my san­dals.

I’ll come with you,” she added. She start­ed to stand up.

She was still hold­ing my hand. We took a few steps toward the park­ing lot.

Where do I belong?” I asked her.

Well, she said, “not in no-man’s land.” She laughed.

Steve, Eve’s hus­band, was jog­ging toward us.

I’m going with her. She’s inter­est­ing,” Eve told him.

I’m sor­ry,” he said.

He pulled Eve away and walked her back toward the club­house. Before he’d come, I think part of me was actu­al­ly ready to bring Eve home and try to be a bet­ter care­giv­er to her than I’d been to my moth­er. Back then, with my moth­er, even know­ing it would end, I wished for that end to come soon­er. But there was some­thing about end­ings that I didn’t know, some­thing I didn’t fore­see while I was wish­ing for release from respon­si­bil­i­ty and for what I thought was free­dom — I wasn’t aware that the end only came once. And then you had noth­ing to wish for.

You know,” Eve called to me. “I was very good once.”

I know you were,” I called back. “I wish I could have known you then.”

But she and Steve were all the way back to the table and I don’t think she heard me.

~

Lisa Levchuk is author of Everything Beautiful in the World, 2008 FSG BYR. Her short fic­tion has appeared in New World Writing, The Crescent Review and in the online pub­li­ca­tion 2para­graphs.