Here is what I am thinking as the ball barrels through the air spinning so fast it looks like a little wisp of color: I can’t watch. No I have to watch. Quicker. Get there faster. If that were me I would have fallen on my face. Who am I kidding? That ball would have hit me in the face. That’s not going to be fast enough. Go! Go! Go!
Let’s travel back in time (this is Traveling with the Travelers: Spring Break Edition) about 1.5 hours
This is a narrative feature my husband despises – describe or show something happening and then jump back in time and lead up to it. He thinks it’s overused. But I’m going to use it anyway.
I’m back in the car after grabbing some bagels and now headed down the turnpike to a place just outside Princeton called Mercer County Park. My husband is forcing his sister to apologize to the GPS because she doubted its detour to a lovely town called Carteret filled with large cisterns and muddy pools of water, which we all agreed would be a great place to vacation if were some sort of chemical-waste monster. It did shave a few minutes off our time.
We’re headed to a college sporting event. Officially not something I’ve ever done that I can recall in NJ. I like to try new things. This should also be interesting because sports and I, we’re not close friends…
Pre-Game Identity Crisis
We finally pull onto the winding roads of the park. My sister-in-law turns down the radio so she can read the signs. I think to myself that this is an endearing quirk of hers. We spot the large white domed building, our cue of where to go, and park in front. But, we won’t go inside. This is an outdoor sporting event day.
In the deceptive sun the blue courts look like a newly chlorinated pools. In the distance I hear hollow pops, as if a small percussion instrument is being played at a slow, uneven rhythm. It has already started. We hurry forward, searching behind the high and low chained link fences for her face.
“Oh there she is,” my daughter says.
“Wow, she looks a lot like her sister,” my husband says.
“That’s not her!” my sister-in-law says.
What kind of family are we? We can’t spot our own niece? I blame the sun and the abundance of girls in matching blue uniforms and long brown ponytails. Plus, I have terrible vision, even with my sunglasses. I’m not sure what the rest of the family’s excuse is though.
In the shadow of a twisted tree that hasn’t yet acknowledged Spring, a girl with an apparently team-issued ponytail, holds a racket as she digs through a bag and withdraws a water bottle.
“That’s not her.”
We lay down our pink and orange beach towels and settle on top of the bright, green grass. The brisk air ripples down the sloping hill. I pull my coat tight and wrap my scarf a third time around my neck.
Serving Up Confusion
My niece throws up the ball high and swings her racket. The ball rockets across the court in a straight line landing just over the net on the other side. At that moment I feel a thrill of excitement tickle my spine. The only problem: I have no idea what is going on.
Have I mentioned my sports knowledge and participation is rather limited? As a kid, I attempted to play softball and much to, I think, my father’s chagrin, I was never very good. Plus, I have a medical condition that makes me overly sensitive to the heat. In those days, recycled polyester pants bleached from season to season but still striped with green stains and matching shirts were en vogue. They didn’t exactly make for a breezy uniform in August.
One time I ran from second to third base, started hyperventilating, and got a visit from the paramedics. That likely put an end to my softball career. Although if it hadn’t, something else probably would have. I wasn’t ever particularly interested in sports – watching or playing.
Back in NJ, I watch the green ball volley (a new word I’d just learned), feeling perplexed and confused.
My niece, game face on, hurls a ball back across the court. Her opponent returns. My heart lurches with fear as my niece lunges for the ball. She stops mid stride, pulls back and watches the ball hit the ground outside of what I’ve termed the “white-lined rectangle border thingy.” Why did she do that? Everyone claps, so I clap too, even though I don’t know why.
I want to ask questions, but the people around me have on very serious faces that make me hesitate. I decide to hold them all and ask at once. When I do they come spilling out. Why do they keep talking about love? Why is that girl hitting the ball so high? What’s the difference between a game and a match? How do I know who won?
As the people around me respond, looking inconvenienced by my ignorance, I feel like I am walking a mile in my question-prone daughter’s tennis shoes. We do wear the same size. (Sort of ironically, I always use the term “tennis shoes” and not “sneakers” much to the annoyance of my husband who often reminds me I don’t even watch tennis so why do I call them tennis shoes? It’s a good question.)
I get the hint and eventually just stop asking. Instead, I swing my head back and forth, feeling like one of those fans you have in your room in the summer set to rotate on high to keep you cool. (This has a pleasant double meaning in that I am a fan in the spectator sense and I feel like a mechanical fan.)
A “Rally” Good Time
Eventually, it starts to make sense. Love means zero. If the ball hits a certain spot it is out of bounds. I manage to keep up with the score or at least know who is in the lead.
We’re nearing what I think is the end of the game (match? I’m still unclear on the terminology). And we’ve reached the point in the story where I’ve started.
Once again, my muscles tense as my niece tosses the ball up for another serve. I think the game is close, at least according to the little scoring flip cards. Her face is unreadable, while around her people on other courts grunt, growl, mutter to themselves and slam their hands against their rackets either in triumph or dismay. Not my niece. “Cool as a cucumber” is the saying to describe her.
It may be hard to tell how she is feeling, but my emotions are on full display. Stress. Anxiety. Excitement. Thrill. Worry. And, repeat. My fists clench around the sweater I’m sitting on because we don’t have enough beach towels.
The ball speeds across the court so many times my fanning neck gets a kink. Every time it swings back across I think – this is it. I can’t watch. No I have to watch.
My niece runs across the court to catch a ball that is seconds from hitting the ground. Quicker. Get there faster. If that were me I would have fallen on my face. Who am I kidding? That ball would have hit me in the face. That’s not going to be fast enough. Go! Go! Go! My niece slams the ball back. Her opponent lets out a sound indicating she is upset and stops playing. I think that means my niece won the point.
I want to clap loudly, jump up and down, squeal with excitement. Instead, I clap softly like the other people watching. Wait? Am I enjoying this? A sports event? This can’t be. Occasionally, I’ll watch a basketball or baseball game and am mildly entertained. As some background, I was a cheerleader and still have no idea about the rules of football. That’s how little I paid attention. I even went to Virginia Tech, a football school, and only attended one game.
But this is fun and I am thoroughly enjoying watching my niece, who’s really good, in action. When it is all over (which I can tell because they’ve stopped playing and shaken hands) I have to ask someone confirm who has won. Although, honestly, it doesn’t really matter to me other than I know it matters to my niece. The thrill of the game is more fun for me than the outcome.
Of course when I say something like this, the response from my fellow onlookers: “That’s what losers say.” Nice. Clearly, I’m never going to be a sports person. But, I think I’ll always enjoy watching my niece play tennis.