"I heard about what happened. Is there anything I can do?"
"Wanna play tennis?"
That's how it started. My husband had just announced he was leaving me. I was in shock, and my 2-year-old son was withdrawn. I live in a small town, and everyone knew what was going on, but most didn't know what to say. Ellen did.
I didn't know her well; we had chatted occasionally at play dates or holiday parties. I'd seen her hitting forehands against a backboard. Ellen got me through my divorce by becoming my adversary across the court.
Then, neither of us was very good, and we giggled at our mis-hits and met at the net between points to exchange pointers: Where should your feet be before hitting a forehand? How high should you throw the ball when serving?
We played once a week -- Wednesdays at noon. That phrase, "Wednesday, noon," took on a talismanic quality. My life had lost any rhythm or sense, and after I put my son to bed, nights were endless and brutal. But as Monday became Tuesday, the weight lifted because I was that much closer to Wednesday, and noon, and tennis.
Tennis is all about technique, and it requires great mental discipline. What a relief to get onto the court. What a relief to be freed from the loop tape of personal confusion inside my head. Behind the baseline, lost inside the game, I entered a world of declarative commands: eye on the ball, don't overrun the ball, follow through.
To aid my focus, Ellen prohibited discussion of familial turmoil -- the fights over who should get the pickup truck, how to handle day-care transitions -- until a set was complete. Otherwise, she knew, I'd be out of control, hitting balls out of bounds, into the net, double-faulting.
We both got better. She usually won. She's a tougher competitor than I -- she's a trained musician, used to performing. I, on the other hand, have a long history of choking under pressure. When I'm down I throw my racket in frustration and curse loudly. When she's down she gets a steely look in her eyes, refuses to look at me when we switch sides and, inevitably, catches up. I make unforced errors. Ellen is steady. Maybe that's one reason why I am now divorced and Ellen is still happily married.
After our set, while stretching, showering and changing, she asked all the right questions, and I expelled to her the detritus of my life, the small indignities and the overwhelming anxiety. I would keep talking, and talking, until my emotional exhaustion matched my physical fatigue. Ellen listened.
As the crazy time of separation turned into a new era of independence and loneliness, our postgame analyses shifted in tone. I would tell her all the saucy details of my adventures in Internet dating, and Ellen joined me in girlfriend intimacies, and she's spent quite a bit of time lately touching her toes and telling me how hard it is be the mother of a pre-pubescent girl.
It's been 31/2 years since Ellen asked how she might help me get through a tough time. We still play once a week, and I still go to bed happier the nights before -- and after -- our matches. She still usually wins. I tell her often that I'm the better tennis player, tally be damned. After all, I run down more balls and serve more aces. She looks at me sweetly and smiles.
Ellen knows that I'll always make more unforced errors, and I'll follow a winner with a lob into the next court. Even if I beat her some weeks, and even if, now that I'm just living life and some weeks go by without a single emotional crisis, she knows my backhand is erratic and that I will take up more than my half of the girl talk. Ellen knows that consistency, patience and mental toughness win out in the end.
They say that when you have one partner for too long, you level off: The weaker one gets better and the stronger one gets weaker. Ellen knows this, and she probably should find a new partner.
But she knows I still need our games. Plus, I suspect part of her wishes she could serve aces like me, and maybe, just once, smash her racket.
So we keep playing. And because we do, I've gained more power, more control and the mental toughness to come from behind. For that, I owe Ellen something like $10,000 in unspent therapy bills. Or at least a new racket.