Anika’s hands shift and squeeze around the base of the racquet, kneading the grip like kittens’ paws. She tries to relax, to “open up her stance”, to lean into a feeling of comfort and readiness.
But she’s not ready. And she’s not comfortable. Not here.
The ball machine spits a fast ball down the line. Anika steps forward and …
… sends it back hard, on a low arc between the two clothespins clipped to the net. It’s stiff and forced, but it’s on target and something to tell Mom about after class.
“No, no, no”.
Coach Simon throws up his hands in mock despair, saying something about her grip. Anika’s knuckle isn’t on the bevel which means her returns are pulling to the right.
He walks over, pot belly softly bobbing with each step. He’s unshaven and the white bristles on his turkey neck make his face seem longer, drawing his chin into the drooping collar of his polo shirt. Inside, she can see his old man chest, pecs slowly morphing into breasts, dusted with white hairs and liver spots.
Simon moves behind her, enveloping her. And she feels the stickiness in her gut, tension twining through her back as her shoulders knit together in defence.
“Relax”, he says. “Open yourself and relax”.
The coach pries her fingers off the racquet and twists them into a claw. “Grip the shaft”, he says, snickering at a joke she’s too young to understand.
His arms dwarf hers. She can feel his hips and belly pushing into her, lips brushing her ear, wet breath, the smell of stale tobacco seeping into her clothes.
Then, puppeteering her racquet arm by the wrist, he walks her forward, prompting her steps with another hand under her thigh.
“There, you see?”
“Open and relaxed”.
But she won’t relax.
Coach Simon steps back, wiping a fleck of saliva from the corner of his mouth as Anika retakes her position. He stalks up and down the sideline, a hoary pot-bellied tiger.
A dropshot slice. Anika surges forward to drive it over the net.
The ball pulls to the left, brushing a clothespin and sending it spiralling off into space.
The next ball fails to make it over the net, skittering across to the side of the court in shame.
With a grunt, Anika sends the next ball directly into the fence, where it hangs, wedged into the chainwire, frozen in place.
This is her fault. This is all her fault.
They take five.
Anika sucks glumly at her water-bottle. Coach Simon takes a cigarette break behind the equipment shed. There are some rules even he won’t break.
All week, Anika pleads with Mom not to send her back to tennis class. But Mom won’t budge.
“You’re good at tennis, Anika. You’re better than I ever was. Don’t you want to be good at something?”
Sometimes she’ll point to Coach Simon’s sterling reputation, or his championship career, or (worse) his fees, adding, “I’ve already paid for these lessons”.
For Anika, high school is hard. She’s always out of place and out of time. She never understands where the classrooms are, or when she’s supposed to be where. As her mom chases work across the country, she’s perpetually a new kid in a new town. A strange name. A strange colour. A stranger.
But on the tennis court, everything flows. Anika’s knees and elbows move the way they’re supposed to, her body surging and rolling like the old Chinese women doing their balletic stretches in the park.
And now the chainwire fence is a prison. And her limbs are all wrong and clumsy. And at night she dreams of a ball machine with hot, wet lips and a grasping tongue.
All week, Anika begs and pleads to no avail. The lessons are paid for. She has to commit. They can reconsider at the end of the term.
And then, between the drop off and the start of class, Anika slips away.
Coach Simon calls her Mom to ask where she is. Her mom calls the police, who spend an hour combing the streets for an “Indian kid in a tennis skirt”. They eventually find her, two blocks away decapitating flowers with her racquet.
Anika is grounded. She has never been grounded.
“What is with you, Anika? Talk to me”.
But Anika can’t talk. She’s not ready. And she’s not comfortable. Not here.
That week Anika only eats when she’s starving, only sleeps when she’s exhausted. And when Saturday rolls around, Anika’s mother won’t even trust her to walk in by herself.
They park across the street, near the cafes and head across together to the courts.
It’s locked, the chain still in place around the gate. There’s no ball machine, no Coach Simon.
Mom tries his number, but no response.
And Anika smiles for the first time that week.
They head back to the cafes, to grab a hot chocolate. They talk about school. About Mom’s new job. It’s nice. It’s a reminder of how things used to be.
And then halfway through a sentence, Anika’s mom stops talking. There’s a newspaper on the next table. And there, on the front page is Coach Simon.
And Anika’s mom sees Anika clearly.
And hugs her.