She stood at the base line, a Prince racket held casually in her hand. She squeezed tightly as the ball made contact and whipped it back with something more than a tennis wish on it. Her face held its look. Behind the glasses, worn to see and not be seen, the eyes said nothing. At the net, casual again, she sprang to life at the service return, found the sweet spot, heard the indoor echo of the round sound, the perfect connection. A flicker of a smile, for it was the kind of game where your opponents sang your praises. Five-foot-four, neither thin nor fat, a scrubbed pleasant face, athletic, thirtyish, a fine job, a nice car, an empty apartment. Her husband had abruptly left her two weeks before. She walked quickly as they changed sides, betrayal heavy on her shoulders only in repose. Let the game go on.
He concentrated. Up went the ball, down came the racket, menacing, only to die at the net. And again. And again. They moved as dancers in a De Mille dream, grateful to have been spared contact with that yellow bullet, uneasy at the insistence of the firer. He double-faulted twice and finally found his target, and in that instant of relaxation borne of an ace hard-won, the sudden, inexplicable return caught him flat-footed. He threw his racket against the wall, angry, it was understood, not at them but at himself. His marriage was over and it should be over and he knew that, but failure was a bile in his throat still unwilling to be ejected. It was almost easier to swallow it back down, and take knowledge with it. Winners don't fail. He double-faulted again, and the game went on.
Among six white-dotted courts, ornamented by men and women in varieties of shorts and shirts, she alone wore a tennis dress. It was appropriate. Her serve was awkward, her ground strokes low and true, her net game tentative but of value in the unexpected flash of its occasional waylaying whip. The cross-court volley was long, developing a rhythm of its own; she was steady, hitting her stride, awash in the newness of predictability, secure in a stance behind the base line that warded off the tingling of her small frame as the man-powered returns kept coming.
When the rhythm broke and the drop shot came over the net she willed her body forward in a race with gravity, a familiar course for a working mother. Divorced, the only parent among them, intimate with birth and death, her skirt fluttered like a flag celebrating life even as she knew gravity would win.
His face was unmarked, as a child's, with just the barest trace of disappointment visible under the harsh lights. He played with studied grace, form over substance, each stroke a measured motion, as if a picture might be snapped. It was not vanity but an embrace of safety, as if it were to be found in structure and design. For it was he who lived dangerously in a literal sense, his job putting his life on the line in faraway countries, the scent of it already having followed him here. He lay in wait for it, but the only explosion that had already come was neither a letter bomb nor a silenced gun, merely a plebeian divorce. He won the game that took the set.
For another hour they prodded their muscles, risking more now, work tensions easing, wounds slowly, unconsciously binding, a temporary peace and with it, a joy in the game. Laughter rang out more often now, bodies provoked to impossible feats, glistening with sweat, its salt familiar, comforting. They aced each other, finessed each other with childlike glee, shedding the skin of adult pain for a more porous cover, their masks finally relaxed.
An extraordinary volley was in play as the buzzer sounded, its impatient whine sassily ignored as the yellow ball flew, its provocateurs giddy, sneaky, brazen, awesome, one closing shot after another miraculously returned, a stillness on the courts as those coming on and those going off caught the elation of it, paused to watch the wonder of it, thwack, pop, sneakers charging, hearts pounding, this and only this, the game, the game!
Suddenly the ball hit the top of the net, wavered flirtatiously, and fell backward. It was over, to painful shouts of "ohhh" and then applause and laughter: most enthusiastically, most hopefully, from those about to play, about to be transformed.