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.
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 I 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.
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 I 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?”
“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.