I suck at tennis. I always have (unless it’s on the Wi, in which case I kick some serious ass). But I love to watch it. In fact, it’s one of the few sports that I would rather watch than play. There’s something so fast about it, so inherently primal and sexy. Not to mention that, unlike most other sports, there is a lot of room for flexibility in sportswear. No bulky padding, no look-alike uniforms, no knee pads. I think tennis is second only to beach volleyball on my list of gorgeous sports to watch.
It isn’t just the outfits and the players that makes me lust after tennis so much. It’s also the language. Keeping score involves saying the word love over and over again. Even “Hail Mary,” the title of my story, comes from the language of the game; a hail mary is a very high lob, used for defense.
I created Mary, my narrator’s love interest out of a combination of Maria Sharapova and Anna Kournikova. She’s blonde, beautiful and spunky as hell. But she’s also much older now. She’s changed and grown. She no longer plays tennis, she no longer loves the narrator, she has a different life and a different look.
In “Hail Mary,” I was hoping to explore the way that sports bring us together, how they change us and force us to grow, to become our true selves. But I also wanted to touch on the ways that the world forces us from the things and people that we love.
I know it’s her by the back of her neck. Something so simple — the curved pale length of her neck as she shifts her head — and I know without a doubt that it’s Mary. Her hair is darker now, more gold and less pale blonde, and shorter too, cut in tight curls that stick close to her head. She’s writing on something behind the counter, her back to us. As thin as she always was, boyish with just a swell of hips inside her dark jeans. My heart lobs its aching beat into my throat. At the same time, the pulse between my legs beats so hard and fast I can feel it all the way up my stomach.
I stand, frozen. For a moment, I think I can turn and walk away. I can pretend I never saw her. I can pretend I was never here.
“Mom…” My daughter, Elsie, tugs my sleeve, her voice full of awe, and pulls me toward the wall of racquets. She’s fifteen and just made the school tennis team. All week she’s talked of nothing but getting her own racquet, her own set of neon green balls, to practice and play with.
The woman behind the counter, the one that I know is Mary, turns at the sound of my daughter’s voice, her smile the kind that’s for customers, especially ones that have been accidentally ignored. Her v-necked t-shirt is icy blue; the color makes her eyes glow in the pale heart of her face. She sees me and opens her mouth, her softly pink lips parted slightly, but she doesn’t speak. There is a silence, one of those ones that feels like forever, and then as soon as it’s over, you know it was only a second, half a second, tops. Heat slides up through my face. I can feel the prickle in my cheeks and my forehead.
“Mom,” Elsie says again, her voice reminding me: fifteen, tennis team, new racquet; the rules of decorum and polite society can hardly be expected to apply to her at this moment.
“Go ahead and look.” I try to pretend my mouth hasn’t lost all its feeling, all its ability to do the work of talking my daughter. “See which ones you like.”
Elsie bounds off. Endless energy, long legs, her blonde ponytail flipping behind her. Mary and I both watch her go.
“Well. Maggie-May,” Mary says, once Elsie is fondling racquets and racquet strings off in the corner. Mary leans her elbows on the counter, cants her body toward me, her smile big and a little off-center. The years have carved small wrinkles at the corner of her mouth, more on one side than the other. There’s a black design inked along the inside of her wrist. It looks like a word. “Holy fucking shit,” she says.
I laugh, even though that’s the last thing I expect to do. No one’s called me Maggie-May since Mary. No one says holy fucking shit like she does, either, like it’s all one word. Probably no one ever will.
“Yeah, holy fucking shit.” I can’t remember the last time I had those kinds of swear words in my mouth, and it feels good to say them. I push my hair back off my shoulder — it’s long now, darkened even more by time and a good colorist — but now it feels too long for my age. Too wild and needy.
“And a daughter?” Mary asks.
“Yeah.” I wish I could find another word, or another rhythm for my words, but this is all that I can find around the small bits of breath my lungs are giving me.
“Looks just like you,” she says.
We both turn our heads again to watch Elsie move, the way she steps sideways on the balls of her feet as she practice swings with one racquet, then swaps it out for another.
“She play like you?” Mary asks.
“She does,” I say, and my heart does this big swell thing that it does when I talk about Elsie and know that what I’m saying is true and right.
Mary nods, turns her hand upward to touch the side of her mouth. The word in black ink on her wrist is truth, all lowercase, in a script of letters that touch each other at the curves. “She’ll do fine, then.”
I stand in the middle of the tennis store, between the two loves of my life, watching my child move the way I used to, and I wish I believed that was true.
Hail Mary is a story of love and tennis, of passions and drive. But it’s also a story of losing, of returning back to zero, of starting again. It is a story in which the women lob their dream high into the sky, and hope against hope that it will come back to them.
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