I didn’t make it into the city on 9/11. I was trapped in Queens. I’d had an unfortunate injury and was recovering— I also had very bad sunburn. I made it in the next day to see a dear friend. Ribbons of smoke were still visible from her apartment on West 10th Street. I gimped along with my cane, my left leg fastened in its protective boot. N couldn’t do anything, but laugh in her beautiful way when she saw me. She used to call me quasimoto, a little bit of everything, but I felt like that more infamous Quasimoto, the hunchback.
We strolled the old neighborhood: Tea & Sympathy where we relived London, Cowgirl on Hudson where washed down monster-thick steak sandwiches with Texas-sized Cokes, Bleecker Street Books, Magnolia Bakery, the brownstones on Jane and Charles Streets. We didn’t hold hands, but mulled over each other’s comments. If there was anybody in the world I could be perfectly still with and not have to say a word it was her, but I’m not sure how she felt nor did I want to ask.
People kept staring at me, at my beet red face peeling into something worse than a Halloween mask. I loped on cane-able, but was still woozy from seeing N.
“Why are they staring at us?” she asked.
“I don’t know.” And I didn’t. A guy passed by in a Kill Osama t-shirt. N and I both shook our heads. How the hell did somebody whip up a shirt like that— presto — in less than a day? It took 3 weeks to open up most of my mail.
When we stopped for a bite, I was helped to the table by the waiter. The manager came over, put his hand on my shoulder and asked if I wanted a pillow to prop my leg.
“Don’t go to the trouble,” I said.
“No trouble,” he said and snapped his finger. The waiter came back with a pillow and a bowl of M&Ms. N and I scooped a handful each and gobbled up before perusing the menus.
“Okay, what the hell,” N said, leaning forward. “This is so weird.”
She pinched her nose without her hands and breathed. She put her paper napkin on her lap as if it were fine linen then gingerly pulled a strand of hair behind her ear. And I munched on my M&Ms with my leg propped, feeling like an astronaut in basic training, my heart light as a balloon.
She raised her brows, giving me a clear view of her dark brown, polished eyes. I rustled in my seat. My knees locking at the joints and I had a terrible itch inside all that sweaty plastic covering my ankle. I wanted to leap up and shout it’s a miracle for no good reason. N saw my anxiousness uncoiling and tapped the table top with her lithe finger.
“Ohmygosh it’s you.”
“What about me?”
“They think you were there.”
“They think you slinked away.”
With that I crawled back in my seat. I would’ve ducked under the table, but the circumstances, the comportment of my body, and café’s roving curious eyes kept me in check. But, what I dreaded most I couldn’t avoid, what was on her mind. Even if we got up and left I’d know she would be thinking of it and sooner or later I’d have to come clean. She sipped her glass of water and put it down with a twist. She pressed her cherubic lips together and waited.
I didn’t have the answer why we’d split apart and wasn’t ready to go into it. I was barely able to share with her how I’d ended up fracturing my fibula, but I started mulling it over. She sat in delicate, unpretentious repose.
I flashed back a few weeks earlier to the day of pathetic accident. The circumstances surrounding it were terribly embarrassing. For years I’d been teaching tennis on and off, mainly on. I gave many private lessons, but I preferred group lessons. It gave me a small crowd with which to play for. I was still somewhat active in tournaments, but had pretty much resided myself to the fact that I’d never make it onto the tour. N was going to watch me play in Luxembourg the previous summer. I had to pull out, last minute, because of a stomach virus. We ended up going to Paris. Maybe it was a sign then. Who knows for sure? In any event, tennis clubs and the occasional member/guest round robin seemed the great stretch of my career. Still, I managed to be a popular pro with a big serve and a lively lesson plan. I raced my students around the court as if they were being groomed for Roland Garros and Wimbledon. Juniors respected my game, but I think I made a bigger connection with the adults. Although I was one of them, twenty-something at the time, I was at that nebulous crossroad where I looked both younger or older and spoke as a sage or a sophomore. I had that kind of split personality. I called it being limber. I played doubles games with my students. Rushed the net and dropped back together with them for lobs. Move your feet fix your eyes I’d tell them.
Balls were strewn all over my court. They sat by the net and trailed out to the sidelines and lay scattered inside and outside the service box. Each time I bumped one I gave it a good soccer kick out of play.
On this particular Sunday, during an MTL (Metropolitan Tennis League) Clinic we had a larger than expected following. Usually 5 or 6 enthusiasts were assigned to a court which wasn’t such a bad ratio of students to pros, but with 8 on a court things had to move swiftly. A lesson had to have verve, blood, sweet, tears. That was the bare minimum. I threw in charm, chutzpah, a pretty smile, and maybe too many wisecracks. I also couldn’t help blasting a few shots for demonstration. The curse of showmanship courses through my veins. Sometimes I had the screwy feeling that it was more important for me to dazzle than coach.
I made my suicide dashes to tap back drop shots, my knuckles scraping the dirt. I parked myself dead in my tracks then let a ball glide over my head and raced it down. This was the cat and mouse game I played with my students, letting them believe they’d win, but when I needed to I revved up, charged forward, and eventually eked out the point.
My overheads rocked. Quick racquet drop behind the ear, a few backpeddle steps them wham— winner. Okay, I didn’t smoke it past them. Not all the time. But, I took bigger swings or made scurrilous grunts. The ball’s pace seemed faster than it was, a whirr of fuzz.
The eight ladies on my court copied my mechanics. Liz got it. She’d been coming to classes on a regularly basis and had her pivot and weight-shift down pat. Her knee-bend was so-so, but her timing was impeccable. Truth be told, I think she was taking privates on the side. We locked into a mini rally. Some of the new women were getting the hang of my workout. I was jumping higher, exaggerating my arm extension. One lob drifted over my left shoulder before I could get in position for it. My partner, who had the better angle, should have made the return. Not to mention it was her lesson. Nonetheless I called her off, made a leap and connected with the ball. Then I took a spill. An errant ball caused my flub and I sat on the clay for a few seconds. When I tried to get up I couldn’t. The court spun before me and a sharp bolt of pain knifed through my leg. I smelled sawdust and cheap glue. I almost, but didn’t quite hurl.
One of my fellow pros came to my rescue, crutched me over to the bench and I slapped back paper cones of water. My head felt flushed, my leg cold, and a swarm of players gathered by me. It was humiliating. Mehdi, one of the newest pros, said he’d heard the snap from over on his court. A blown ligament, he assured. A lot of rehab went with it. Somebody else told me it was a fracture. Who the hell cared for the semantics? At the moment, I was done. I’d never broken a bone in my life. I’d never had the measles. I had this odd, unsettling feeling that my luck was changing.
N and I walked off our meal. We didn’t care if we caught the traffic lights. We let almost everybody drive on by. We let couples pass us too. We watched people skeet by to the concrete island, as the taxis and SUVs blazed by, our grins widening as their shoes caught onto the curb.
“Just you wait,” I told her. “The witching moment will come.”
She knew I wasn’t fomenting ill will, mine is more of a cautionary message, a foreboding.
We never got to the breakup that day. There was so much other turf we needed to catch up on. We shared a Mr. Goodbar. She handed me the smaller crack. We didn’t mention the drinks we had at Windows on World, six months earlier. I made soft deliberate steps missing the cracks in the pavement. Until we said goodbye. Then my heart skipped as if it were about to race through traffic.