Cheating at Tennis
He thought of her after a while as the Dark Woman. Her hair was dark brown, as were her eyes, which were surrounded by dark ovals; if you carried the effect just a bit farther, he thought when he first saw her, she’d look like a raccoon. They suggested fatigue, physical or perhaps mental—that she was world weary.
But she had smiled at him as they crossed the bridge over Fort Point Channel, going in opposite directions. He’d smiled back, then caught himself and restored his face to an impassive expression. He was a married man, he thought to himself; he couldn’t go around smiling at women when there was no reason to do so, in isolation. He made a mental list of the types of situations where it would be okay: If you opened a door for a woman and she smiled at you, sure. If you were both mutually exasperated over something, like the failure of the commuter train to arrive on time. If you saw a kid doing something cute at the same time--that sort of thing. But passing a woman walking by herself, no one else around either of you—it could only interpreted as flirting, by her or by anyone else.
And so he’d walked on, but now they had the history of that smile, and they’d be crossing that same bridge at about the same time every morning. For a while he’d crossed the street and walked over the other span of the bridge as a way of avoiding the wordless confrontations that he knew lay ahead. If he said “Hi” then he’d have to say the same thing every day, or else something equally inoffensive. “Have a nice day”? “Nice day”? That’s about all you could say when passing someone, so that’s the way things would stay unless he stopped, introduced himself and walked with her a ways, which would be awkward; she in business dress, he in workout clothes. He wouldn’t have showered or shaved yet—you had to keep that sort of thing in mind, he thought to himself.
Then he worked up the courage to go back to the side of the bridge where their paths had crossed. It was nothing, he thought, just a little smile. He’d just smile again, she’d smile, they’d pass on, that would be it. He must have been ahead of schedule, though, because he was over the bridge and at the corner of the new building that was going up down in the Seaport District before he saw her. He looked at her and saw her glare at him, then pass on; it was as if they’d broken up in a particularly bitter way, when all they’d done was smile at each other—once.
So he changed his course again, cutting across a drawbridge that was closer to his starting point. If she had her regular route he would simply take evasionary action. But he missed the Moakley Bridge, the one she walked over. It arched over the water and gave you a view of the ocean to the left, and of the channel to your right. It was a very pleasant way to start the day, very soothing; the water to your right was a deep green, and the ocean was glazed with the glow of the sun rising. He felt that he’d been barred by fate from his favorite spot—all because of a smile. He should have just stared straight ahead.
The timing of his walk across the drawbridge was such that he would sometimes see her crossing what was now her bridge just as he went under it. Her gait was determined, and she would look straight ahead as she strode overhead. One day, seeing she had already passed his line of direction and wouldn’t see him, he decided to follow her, just to see where she worked, to get a sense of what she did. Nothing wrong with that, he thought.
He had to wind around a circular path to get up to street level, and by then she was already across, walking down to the stoplight on Atlantic Avenue. He hung back to avoid detection but found he had to speed up from time to time to keep from losing sight of her. She walked quickly, and eventually disappeared around a corner before he could see which building she went into.
But he knew more or less where she worked now, and it wouldn’t be difficult to just skip his morning walk, shave and shower and hang out in a coffee shop until he saw her, then try to strike up a conversation. He’d made up his mind; he was going to talk to her, say he was sorry he’d looked at her—no, that wasn’t the right thing to say. He wasn’t sorry he’d looked at her, he’d say he was sorry he stared at her. That way it would sound like he was taking the blame for making her uncomfortable, when she had been just as much the perpetrator as the victim. It was her, not him, who’d smiled first.
He’d caught a glimpse of her left ring finger from a distance when they’d passed the second time. She didn’t wear a wedding ring, so he concluded she was unattached—that’s why she’d smiled. He was, he reminded himself with what he thought to be honorable modesty, nothing special to look at. He had all his hair, and he was in good shape, but his face was taking on that doughy character everyone’s did when they reached late middle age.
She was younger than he was, he thought, but he couldn’t tell how much. Those circles around the eyes led him to think she was—late thirties? Early forties? He couldn’t say, and he rehearsed a reaction in his mind for when the subject first came up. “Really? You’re kidding,” he would say. “I would have guessed you were about”—and then he’d subtract five or seven years from what she told him. That would make her feel good about herself, he figured.
* * *
When they finally talked to each other, it wasn’t at all as he’d planned it. He had been standing in line at a place that made sandwiches in pita pockets—always noisy and crowded. He’d been looking up at the menu and hadn’t realized it was her standing in front of him until she turned around to move off to the side to wait for her order. There was none of the drama that he was expecting, because it happened so quickly; the recognition, and then the almost involuntary “Hi.” It was less painful because quicker, like jumping into a pool instead of lowering yourself in gradually, or ripping off a bandage.
Once he’d placed his order he went over and stood beside her—there was no place else to go because of the crush of people coming and going.
“You’re the walker, right?” he said.
“Yes, over the bridge, right?”
“Right. My name’s Len,” he said as he extended his hand automatically, as if they were at a business meeting. He flinched a little at the sound of his name—it was so ordinary, he thought.
“I’m Rachel,” she said, and there was more chit-chat back and forth while she waited for her number to be called. It took a long time and, after she went to pick up her order, she came back to stand by him. It could have been for a reason—he was standing where the napkins were, but when she did she seemed to linger, so he said “Would you mind if I joined you?” and she said no, so they sat down together when his order was ready.
“So you live down in that new part of town?” he asked, referring to the area of the waterfront where new apartment buildings had sprung up over the last two years.
“Yes, it’s not much of a neighborhood yet. There’s just one grocery store, but a lot of fancy restaurants for the people at the conventions.”
He found her easy to talk to although a bit circumspect—she didn’t volunteer much about herself. She had the look of a pool shark or a poker player—the whites of her eyes would look at him, look away, then dart back into focus on him from the middle of the dark pools from whence they’d come, like frogs hopping on and off a lily pad. He was wearing his wedding ring but that didn’t seem to phase her. Maybe she was single and looking and didn’t care about the competition on the particular playground she’d chosen.
“Well, I’m sorry for staring at you,” he said finally when it became apparent they were both done and leave-taking was upon them.
“No, it’s not polite. Your eyes have a way of sucking in one’s gaze.”
“I was looking too,” she said, twisting her lips up into a little dishrag of embarrassment.
He smiled back, and thanked her mentally for putting him at ease. “So-o,” he began, drawling the word out, “would you like to have lunch again sometime, a little less impromptu?”
“Sure,” she said, still smiling. It was the smile he’d seen the first time—a noncommittal thing, a straight line across her face that nonetheless revealed a modulated happiness, a restrained greeting. He took his phone out and gave her two business cards. “Write your email on one and whoever gets the impulse first, just shoot . . .”
She interrupted: “I’ll give you my email, but I think it should be you who makes the next move. You have your conscience to deal with,” she said as she cast her eyes down at his ring finger. “I’m a free agent.”
He blushed. “You’re right. Again, not very gentlemanly of me. Okay—I’ll think about it.”
“But don’t be surprised if . . . when you hear from me.”
That seemed to please her. She smiled, he smiled back, and they got up and left, she turning to the left, back towards the street that the bridge was on, he to the right.
Back in his office he turned to look out at the Atlantic, down at the neighborhood where she lived. He felt a tightness in his chest—it might have been the food, the spicy chicken in the wrap, but it seemed to him a warning. He brought his right hand up to his heart and pounded it a few times, like a mass-goer saying mea culpas. He was gulping for breath a bit when his secretary came in to ask him about a file she was supposed to make.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
“Yes, just had some hot food for lunch.”
“Do you want some water?”
“I’ll get it—standing up always helps me.”
“Here’s that file, they don’t have a number for it yet.”
“Okay, thanks,” he said, then laid it on his desk and went for a walk around the floor, the long way, to the office kitchen where he filled a plastic cup with water. All over a little smile, he thought to himself.
* * *
When it came time to tell his kids about the divorce, he worked hard to keep both anger and guilt out of what he said, but they were all in their twenties and had seen much worse breakups before they ever left home; the dentist who started screwing his hygienist, the currency trader who hired prostitutes when his wife was traveling on business. This was, their silence and quiet demeanor seemed to say, the way things ought to be resolved in families like theirs, thoughtfully, methodically. Their parents were simply moving on the next chapter in their lives, they’d stay friends, there might even be holidays together--who knew?
The two boys pursed their lips in resigned acceptance. His daughter, the youngest—the “accident” of the three—was quiet at first, then turned her head and he could see a tear at the corner of her eye. “What’s the point, you’re already old,” she said.
“We’re not old.”
“You’re too old to be chasing another woman.”
“We . . . just hit it off,” he said with a shrug, which infuriated her even more.
“What did mom ever do to you to make you do this to her?” his daughter said.
He took a deep breath, and exhaled. “Nothing. Some things.”
“Like what?” the girl asked, challenging him to produce an act so wrong that he would leave her mother.
“Lots of . . . little things.” He paused and seemed to think for a minute. “Once I caught her cheating. At tennis.”
“Mom?” the older of the two boys asked, incredulous.
“Yes. When we were first dating, we played on a windy day. She served into the net, then tossed up the ball for her second serve. The wind blew it, so she asked for another serve.”
“And you gave it to her, right?” the girl asked, when he paused.
“She said ‘First serve.’ I stopped her and said ‘This is your second serve. You don’t get two more.’”
“And what did she say?” the older boy asked.
“She said she thought it was her first serve.”
“I’ve never heard of a rule either way on that,” the younger of the boys said.
“Right, it was a courtesy,” he said. “So I could give her one or two, but it’s up to me. One’s fair. The wind didn’t make her miss the first serve.”
The conversation ended on that note without definite punctuation, as if at the end of the prayer without an “Amen.” The children waited for him to say something, but he had nothing more to add.
“So that’s it?” his daughter asked.
“That’s a for-instance. Not everything.”
The waiter came back and asked them if they wanted coffee, and they all demurred. He went away and returned with the check, which the father picked up without resistance from any of the children, just murmured thank yous.
“Where are you going to live?” his elder son asked.
“At her place,” he said, turning around to point out the window towards the ocean. “She lives down there, across that bridge.”
Con Chapman is a Boston-area writer. He is the author of two novels, Making Partner and CannaCorn, and a history of the 1978 Red Sox-Yankees pennant race, The Year of the Gerbil. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Christian Science Monitor, The Boston Globe and The Boston Herald, and various literary magazines. He is currently writing a biography of Johnny Hodges, Duke Ellington's long-time alto sax player, for Oxford University Press.