A Short Story by Benjamin Selesnick
Sol was home watching college football before he left for the club, the traces of branches bleeding in through his shuttered blinds. Saturday night, nearing eleven—he hadn’t left home since he got in around six. He gave eight lessons through the morning and into the afternoon, but the day still didn’t feel particularly long: He had enough time to get an hour on the bike, work on his glamour muscles, and pace around his office and murmur to himself, disgruntled, about the mess one of his pros had made.
He was left with energy: restless and unfocused.
There were some checks in his office that he’d planned on depositing the following day when more came in, but he decided to pick them up and deposit them that evening. It was something to do. Maybe he’d see someone he knew at the ATM.
~ ~ ~
Lion Tennis and Fitness Center is hidden at the end of an industrial park in Medford, New Jersey—one of the many forgotten towns in northern New Jersey, not known for anything outside of the county airport and Finnegan’s, a bar that’d been home to dozen brawls in the past year. Sol drives down the sleepy street that leads to Lion and experiences an incredible urge to blare his horn, to disturb the quiet and shock his agitated mind into submission.
Lion is supposed to close at ten on Saturday nights. There’s a woman’s league that takes up all six courts between seven and ten, but afterwards, nadda. The women play doubles, switching partners at the end of each set, and they bring platters of food that Sol likes to nibble on when they are on the courts. Usually, Sol isn’t at the club late enough to run into them. He leaves after his afternoon workout, telling whoever is working the front desk and anyone else that might listen that he has an event to get to: a gallery opening, a party, a concert. He talks it up, brash, waving his hands—but these events, they’re lies, plain and simple. He has nowhere to be, but the shame of admitting this to his employees is too much to bear. A fifty-eight-year old tennis instructor, barely five foot six, a frying pan-face with wiry gray hair, a longstanding bachelor—his social obligations have resolutely dwindled over the past two decades.
Sol pulls out his master key after parking in front of the club. When he looks under the wilted, ivy-colored awning that shrouds the entrance, he sees that the lights inside are still on. It’s well past closing. Who’s inside? Sol doesn’t have a knife, no weapon, so he grips his keys tightly between his pointer and thumb.
The door clicks open loudly, screeching as it always does. He hasn’t fixed up the place since he bought it back in the late eighties from Freddy, the mobster that used to run an Italian joint upstairs, closed since the raid in ninety-six. Now, a Pilates studio works out of there and a hair salon has opened in the room adjoined to the front foyer. Both of their lights are off.
Sol carefully enters the main hall, crouching behind a wall that rises up to his shoulder, dividing the gym from the front desk and the tennis courts. The televisions mounted above the treadmills are still on and the light before the men’s locker room is on as well. The room smells of stale coffee, dried sweat, and lint. The battering of the dryer knocks against the wall near the front desk.
Sol rises from his crouch and walks at a normal pace. His worry turns into anger, then rage: Sasha hasn’t closed yet.
Sasha was hired on six months ago near the start of February, an unusual time for someone so young (twenty-one-years old) to ask for work. Sol didn’t know why Sasha wanted the job, full-time, but he didn’t care to ask. It was hard enough to fill the position; it’s poorly compensated. Sol doesn’t give overtime pay or a set amount of vacation time to the people that work the front desk, primarily because he doesn’t feel like he has to. The front desk workers are mostly older than Sol is, some retired from their previous profession, some are new immigrants, and the others are college students that run the clinics for kids ten and under.
Sasha—a Russian boy with thick, matted chestnut hair atop a bulbous head, lanky arms, quiet—isn’t at the front desk. Considering Sasha’s history, this isn’t very surprising. He’s aloof. He absentmindedly says hello to Sol when Sol passes by and responds to Sol’s longwinded narratives, his ravings, with a stiff nod, saying things like, Wow or Very impressive. He’s always reading, sometimes letting the phone ring longer and longer, waiting to finish the page he’s on before answering.
If Sasha has people over, Sol thinks, drinking in the locker room or something, that’s it. He’ll call the cops. He’ll say that they were trespassing, committing petty theft, underage drinking. Whatever. It doesn’t matter.
Sol scours the locker rooms, male and female, trying to locate Sasha, but he can’t find him. He traipses back into the gym—an open space that connects to the front foyer and leads into the locker rooms—and shuts off all the TV’s that are blaring the same college football game he was watching at home. For an instant, seeing the players’ gold and maroon uniforms pulls him back into his living room. He thinks about the paintings of the Victorian countryside mounted on the walls (a woman he was once on a casual date with at an auction told him they looked tasteful so he bought two) and the table tops that lack family photos or mementoes of any genuine meaning.
Like the table tops, most of Sol’s house is bare. He was in his early forties when he bought it. He was dating Cheryl—a real estate agent that worked outside of Newark—and he figured that soon, maybe, they’d get married. She was a decade younger than him, so she could still have gotten pregnant. If they had kids, he’d finally have something to put on the table tops: wedding photos, photos from their kids’ birthday parties, signed paraphernalia that he and his kids would’ve gotten at sporting events. The room would then feel full and lived-in. He even bought a home with a big backyard so his kids would have space to run around.
But Cheryl left and the kids never came. In their wake, he cluttered the table tops with tennis trophies. Some from when he played at Seton Hall and some that his students have given him.
Sol turns back to the front desk and rounds the corner that leads to the courts’ viewing section. The lights for the first court are on, but he doesn’t see Sasha. He goes into the washer-dryer room and looks at the punch-clock: Sasha hasn’t clocked out yet.
Through the whir of the dryer, Sol hears the crack of a tennis ball: a serve. He juts out of the washer-dryer room and goes over to the viewing section. Another crack: a ball flies by, pounding against the curtain that guards the back of the court from its concrete enclosure. Sol looks down to the court’s far end. Sasha.
Furious, Sol storms onto the court.
A stark contrast against the court’s olive backdrop, Sasha is holding a blue and steel-grey Babolat, one of Sol’s demo racquets, by the baseline. He tosses a ball in the air and arches his back to garner some kick. Sasha doesn’t look very flexible, doesn’t arch his back far enough to get any serious torque on the ball, but he has pace—he’s tall, just over six feet. Probably clocking in around 75 mph, the ball hits the corner of the box and shoots upwards, smacking again against the curtain, releasing a thunderclap.
Sol’s used to the courts’ echo. He spends his days on court and he grew up playing tennis, too, indoors and out. A prodigy when he was younger, he learned how to play at the courts near Union High with his father, another tennis player, a lumbering oaf that somehow had tremendous grace on the court. With encouragement from his father, Sol signed up for a his first tournament, Level 1B age 12 and under, and blew everyone out of the water. This scrappy kid, he plays defense as good as the best, his future coaches said. His height would be his downfall, everyone knew this, but so be it.
Over the years, Sol became a mid-tier junior traveling the country for regionals then sectionals then nationals. He wound up at Seton Hall, a decent D-I school, and was near the top of their roster. Things turned out as well as they could’ve.
Sasha hits another serve. This one goes down the T with some mustard on it, as Sol likes to say. It’s faster than the last one.
“What are you doing?” Sol yells from across the court.
Sasha waves the racquet and sets up for another serve. A pile of dirty, used balls sit beside him. Balls that he found behind the curtains, long dead. They have a deeper sound than fresh ones; their deflation creates a grander echo.
“Get over here!”
“I have a few more left,” Sasha yells back. “Let me finish up this round and I’ll swing over.”
Sol marches over to the other side of the net. Wispy green hairs are spattered across the court, creating a slick surface.
Sasha keeps serving. One serve wings past Sol, landing just outside the box in the doubles alley. The next hits the tape on the top of the net, releasing a higher-pitch noise, much like when a ball hits the frame of a racquet.
“No,” Sasha says, but not loud enough for Sol to understand him.
Sidling up besides him, the folds in Sol’s face deepens. Years out in the sun yelling at kids like Bollettieri—not Sol’s idol but nonetheless someone he admires—has turned Sol’s skin into thin leather, toughened and dark. Alligator skin, other pros call it. Happens to a lot of them. Sol takes it as a sign of pride when others comment upon his skin, but whenever he notices his reflection, all he sees is a man that has aged long past his actual age. Bitter, gross.
“Let me know what you think,” Sasha says.
He flattens the ball down the center of the box. Maybe eighty, eighty-five.
“You’re supposed to have closed by now.”
Sasha picks up another ball and bounces it between his legs, mimicking Isner’s lackadaisical service prep. He elongates his service motion, sardonic, and kicks it out wide.
“Give me the racquet.”
Sasha pauses, thinking it over, and then turns around and grabs another ball. He steps out a few feet wider, away from Sol, and spins his serve out wide, more topspin than kick. The ball clips the line and bounces against the plate-glass window by the viewing section.
“You’re done. You know that, right? Ignoring me, staying open late to hit serves. Not at my club. Not while I’m around.”
Sasha picks up a ball and tosses it to Sol, then picks one up for himself. “Toss me that after I knock this one. I want to pretend like it’s a real match. First then second serve.”
Sasha doesn’t have pockets that can carry a ball; he’s wearing jeans.
“That demo’s gonna cost you three dollars,” Sol adds.
Sasha misses the mark of his first serve by over a foot. Up the T without any slice, it’s a waste of a serve, Sol thinks, especially considering how wide he’s standing. Sometimes you can slip one up the T when standing that far out but only if you set up a pattern of beating down on your opponent’s return out wide.
“Are you listening? Get off the court. Lock up and go.”
“Once I’m done,” Sasha says. “I’m in a rhythm.”
“Can I have the ball?”
Without thinking, Sol does what is asked of him, tossing Sasha the ball. Sasha takes it and kicks up the middle. Why? Sol thinks. The ball will just bounce into your opponent, setting them up for an easy inside-out forehand.
“I’m going back to my office and when I get out, you better be in there locking up. I’ll call the cops if you stay any longer.”
Sasha nods and goes over to snag another ball, pulling it to the inside of his shoe, flicking it upwards. He holds it in his hand, gripping it loosely. After a breath, he flips the ball in the air and watches it fall. Sol steps away from Sasha, hoping that the gesture will get Sasha to hurry up, but it doesn’t. Time after time, over and over, Sasha flips the ball up and traces its flight with his eyes. An effortless motion. He looks devout, lost in concentration. His flipping becomes an unwavering preoccupation, and it’s almost like he forgot that Sol is even there.
Musing, as if speaking to himself, Sasha gently asks, “Did I ever tell you how I wound up here?”
Sol remains impassive, his silence signaling a cross indifference.
Sasha places the ball on the floor and pulls his hair back, removing it from his forehead. He props the racquet against his leg, takes a hair tie off his wrist, and puts his hair into a little bun. “It wasn’t much at first,” he replies. “The quiet hours, the video games. It hardly felt like a problem.”
Sol thinks of the video games he played as a kid. Atari was big. So was Pong. He didn’t have a console in his house, but David—a neighborhood kid—did. Through their earliest years, Sol and David would sit in David’s damp basement late into the evening and play for hours, hiding from the world. The two Jews in a largely Domincan neighborhood, they sought refuge in one another.
David got into baseball soon after his evenings of gaming with Sol began. Quickly, he became an all-star in Union County’s Little League: pitcher or 1st base. Really, he could do anything. Long-legged, a strong shoulder, great hand-eye coordination—he was a natural. His future was bright and both he and Sol knew it.
Once, in an effort to support his friend, Sol went to one of David’s game near the end of fourth grade before an afternoon of training with his Dad began. He sat alone in the bleachers among parents and family friends. He was squeezed between a set of grandparents of an Armenian boy. Cotton candy vendors called from behind the dugout. Balmy hours passed.
By the end of the game, David had four strike-outs, two singles, and an RBI—they won handily. Playoffs started the next game and a few weeks later they moved onto the championships, which they won too. David was named MVP.
In the following spring, David moved up to a higher level, joining the boys a few years older than him. He got bullied his first practice, returning home with welts on his forearms and a bruise just above his kneecap, but that didn’t last long. David became fast friends with his teammates: they lived in the same neighborhood and shared the same schedule. It was inevitable.
During this time, as David spent more and more of his days with his baseball buds, he slowly stopped sharing his evenings with Sol. Instead, he went down the block to Xavier’s house, eating the dinner Xavier’s mother cooked up. When David entered middle school, he started drinking with Xavier and the rest of his teammates, too. They were riotous during that year’s block party, drunkenly miming the greatest moments from their winning season for everyone to see.
Most nights, Sol watched their camaraderie from his bedroom window. Joyless, he did his best to hide his disappointment. He moved through his days—school, practice, dinner, homework—without complaint.
Sol no longer had access to video games, so he had to fill his evenings in new ways: watching tapes of Rod Laver and Arthur Ashe, extending his practices later and later despite his exhaustion, and reading Raymond Chandler novels; he really dug the pulpy stuff. But by the start of seventh grade, Sol was fed up with his exclusion. He wanted to rebuild his friendship with David, so he decided to march over to Xavier’s late on a tepid spring day in hopes of finding his lost friend.
Sol was welcomed at the door by a sinewy boy a few years older than Sol and was handed his first beer by another one of Xavier’s friends—he was wary of calling him David’s friend, even though that was clearly the case. It would’ve been too overwhelming, too solidifying, to think of it otherwise. After brief introductions, they all went to Xavier’s basement under the guise of finding more privacy for their drinking.
The stairway leading to the basement was foreboding: loud, morphed wooden planks with a splintery guardrail and a low ceiling. When they got downstairs, Sol did some brief exploring. He found nothing: no TV, no couch, no books. Just piles of old clothes and other materials Xavier’s family wasn’t ready to throw out. When he turned back to ask about seating arrangements, about what they were going to do in this empty room, David and his friends rushed Sol and grabbed him by the collar. Sol struggled: he threw helpless fists and flailed his legs. It was no use. They hoisted him up, hung him on a hook, and left him on his own. Their laughter echoed through the basement and into the stairwell, finally dissipating after they rounded the corner into the kitchen.
Sol writhed about, his feet unable to touch the ground. Angered tears dripped down his cheeks. For a wary minute, he feared that he’d have to wait for them to help him down, and the thought of that embarrassment spurred on more tears.
Finally, the snippet of cloth that’d been keeping him suspended tore in half. He fell to the ground, smacking his knees on the white tile. There, reorienting himself with the room, he curled into a ball and rested, waiting for his mind to clear and for his body to regain its strength. The room changed shapes: expanding and shrinking. The clanging from the pipes and the faint rumbling of the furnace kept Sol’s weakened sobs private.
“But when your life becomes a single room,” Sasha says, pulling Sol away from his memories and back into the moment, “it feels like everything that ever was is gone. The outside world becomes more abrasive, and you feel like it doesn’t want you to be there anymore.”
Sasha stops his reminiscence and sets up for another serve. His stance is a few inches broader than Sol likes, but because he has lanky limbs he can maintain his balance. Sasha tosses the ball, revealing a sliver of pale, pudgy skin at the bottom of his stomach, and braces his abs, whacking the ball, flat, way out wide. His form is breaking down.
“The world was always small for me,” Sol counters. “I didn’t have vacations. Couldn’t leave my neighborhood even if I wanted to.”
Sasha waits, nonplussed.
“If I had half the advantages you had, I’d own this county.”
“I don’t doubt that.”
Whimsically, Sasha drops the ball below his waist and hits an underhand serve with heavy slice. It barely crosses the net and bounces sharply to the right.
“Anywho,” Sasha says, bending over to pluck one of the few remaining balls from the ground, “I didn’t think I could keep up for much longer. I dropped out of school without telling my parents. I didn’t have an alternate plan, and I didn’t think they would’ve have been happy about that. After I stopped going to classes, I spent two weeks alone in my room with a mountain of Cheetos and Frosted Flakes by my bedside and a twenty-eight inch screen standing on my desk. It didn’t feel like there was much to be done: I had no energy and nowhere to go. I was waiting out the clock, sort of.”
Sasha quickly, lazily, whacks a serve into the middle of the box. Fifty, maybe. He watches the ball as it dribbles to a corner of the court. His gaze is unfocused, distant.
“I must’ve been hoping for an intervention. Those two weeks passed and by the time the third had come and gone, the clock struck midnight, so to speak. I gained a boatload of weight and I even started worrying about getting bedsores. Can you imagine?”
Sol walks around Sasha, stopping at the baseline a few yards away from Sasha as he would if he were studying a student’s serve. It feels natural. He’s safer here. Objective, indifferent.
“The fourth week was my first attempt. Pills, but it didn’t take. I fell asleep like it was any other night. I guess the dose was too small. A week later I tried again and it almost worked. Pills—it was the only method I had to courage to use. They put me out for a little, but then the lights turned on and I had rolled off the bed and was retching all over the floor onto a pile of empty Cheetos bags. My roommate, this twitchy computer science student, heard the commotion and came in. I didn’t want an ambulance, they cost so much money, so he drove me to the hospital. When I got there, they sectioned me for six days before letting me into my parents’ care.”
Sol picks up a stray ball and mulls it within the palm of his hand, squeezing it as one squeezes a stress ball. It pushes back weakly. With enough effort, he can get the opposite sides of the ball to press up against one another in the middle.
“D’you know what I learned from all of it?” Sasha asks.
Sol is losing himself in Sasha’s story-telling. His preoccupations with the ball, with space, are dwindling. But the facts remain: Sasha stayed open late and disobeyed him. That behavior must be punished. But Sol’s empathy, a buried beansprout that’d been neglected for who knows how long, is burgeoning, overtaking his conscious whims. The tale of Sasha’s reclusion reminds Sol of his own solitary stretches. Sol imagines the many winter snowstorms he spent cooped up in his too-big empty home. In the stillness that was only punctured by the whipping wind, he paced the bottom floor of his house, mumbling his misgivings to the ceiling and to the two renditions of the Victorian countryside. The needling bud in his stomach, a deep-seeded discomfort—despair, really—dances around fervently, often, rarely receding. It makes him nauseous, delusional, maniacal. He wants to leave, regardless of where he is, but he has nowhere to go.
For a short while Sol tried making the club his second home when he needed a reprieve from his house. He found refuge in its familiarity. He spent his Sunday afternoons there on the couch watching football with whoever was working the desk, but quickly that felt even sadder than staying at home. He was clearly unwanted—he made all his employees nervous and the customers weren’t interested in him—so he gave it up.
“I learned,” Sasha concludes, “that even though self-destruction is painful, it sure is easy.”
Sasha gets into position and blares a kick serve out wide. The hardened thwock of the ball hitting the curtain booms through the six courts.
Sasha’s vulnerability, his story-telling, makes Sol nervous. Not because of its weight, but because of what it demands: reciprocity. Sol doesn’t want to admit his weaknesses; he never has. Being vulnerable isn’t how Sol became so successful. It doesn’t benefit a business man, a property owner. Vulnerability is how you get strung up on a coat hanger by your best friend, left to struggle until your jacket rips. It’s how you get hurt. How you get betrayed.
“What’re you going to do now?” Sol asks.
Sasha fiddles with his shirt, repositioning it.
“Well,” Sasha starts, “the semester begins in a few weeks and my outpatient program is about to end—that’s where I spend my time off. I’ll be going to Montclair State at the start of September. I was just about to put in my two-weeks anyways. I don’t want to have too much on my plate when I go back, is all. I’m only taking four classes, not five, to see if I can hack it. Hopefully,” he steadily bounces a ball before him, “I can.”
Sasha crosses to the deuce court and slices one out wide. The ball cleans the line and gets caught in the webbing that divides this court from its neighbor.
“Next time keep the toss a little further to the left so that it won’t be so obvious that you’re serving out wide.”
“You sound just like my Dad,” Sasha laughs. “He said that I expose all my shots before I hit them. It’s especially bad on my backhand. You’d see it right away.”
“You could work on that.”
Sasha shrugs. “If I wanted to. But tennis isn’t what does it for me anymore. It hasn’t for awhile. After competing in all those tournaments as a kid, playing now doesn’t compare. It feels like I’m trying to relive something that’s long gone.”
“There’re adult leagues.”
“Eh,” Sasha mutters. “Not the same.”
Sol stands silently, thinking of a way to undo their intimacy, to bring them back to a comfortable distance.
Saving him, Sasha picks up the last ball and turns to Sol. “Where do you want it?”
Sol gestures with his chin to the middle of the court. “Up the T. Flat. Don’t blow out your shoulder, but try to put some extra heat on it.”
Sasha takes an extra second to make sure his form is as he likes it: one leg stacked on top of the other, an inch of his back facing the court, racquet head below his waist, pushing the ball against the strings, like Raonic. After two bounces, he throws the ball up, letting it hang a little higher than he usually does. He bends his knees, drops the racquet behind his head, and leaps towards the ball. This ball is dead too, and its hollowed crack is deafening. It narrowly crosses the net and lands on the outside of the center line. It has a low bounce and rails against the curtain. It isn’t his strongest serve of the day, but it would’ve been an ace had he been playing someone.
“Pretty good,” Sol says.
“I’ll lock up in sec. Just let me gather the balls and I’ll be out of your hair.”
Sasha heads to the other end of the court, going around the left side of the net, away from the plate-glass window, away from where Sol is going. Sol watches Sasha for his first few steps before he leaves the courts. A demurred figure, Sol can’t help seeing himself in Sasha: by himself, lonely in an inexpressible way. He wants to be with Sasha. To hold him, to be beside him. But he can’t. He’s trapped within his own emotional constraints; he’s a slave to himself, to his self-image.
He wants out, but he doesn’t know how.
Sol walks into the waiting room, through the gym, and into his office to pick up the checks he’d originally come for. They lay on his desk: still and forlorn. Money. He wishes they weren’t there so that he’d have an excuse to putter, to delay his trip home. He powers up his laptop: no new emails.
When he comes back through the waiting room, Sol sees Sasha back at the baseline on the opposite end of the court with the balls piled beside him, winding up for another serve. Sol recognizes that his initial urge is to yell—he’s still not in the process of closing—but decides to ignore it. He’ll let the kid have a little bit more time on the court. It’s only right, he figures.