I don’t play tennis. I’ve never been brave enough. It’s such an angry and cathartic sport, turning Nike clad youths into violent, primal screaming machines. Misery is inevitable and aggression abounds on the clay court because the stakes are so high. After all, there’s no team upon which to drop the blame when the chair ump blows his whistle and the game is called for your opponent. In tennis, when you lose, you lose alone.
Even so, as a child, my mother urged me to pick up the racket. For God’s sake, it’s one of the businessman’s sports. Indeed, to my mother, the tennis court was just another hoop to jump through on my way to a corner office at Goldman Sachs. Of course — just like my reign at Flushing Meadows—that indulgence never happened.
The closest I’ve ever gotten is a rent stabilized studio with partial views of the Yorkville Tennis Club. For some parents, this white pustule bulging from Manhattan’s Upper East Side is a sanctuary — an escape from their own tawdry childhoods in New Jersey, from the seemingly endless piano recitals starring the spawns of their social rivals. If they can infiltrate this temple’s membrane, their child’s athletic triumphs are theirs to gloat upon.
More importantly, by paying the registration fees, parents earn a license to rant. We’re terribly sorry but we won’t be able to attend. We’ve got to shuffle little Serena Williams here to a tournament up in Scarsdale. Uh! Back when I played, I had to beg for Lacoste. And now, you see this little girl right here? She won’t even step on the court unless she’s covered in crocodiles.
These parents have truly tapped the g-spot of frivolity. Transcending simple vanity, they have learned to discount their triumphs through nonchalance. What’s more arrogant — more fashionable — than living an ideal? Finding fastidious faults in it, of course. And so they relish this mock despair while their kids don’t say a word. They just smack balls against the ground beneath the temple of tennis’s inflatable dome.
I have one of these preordered prodigies in my building. I’ll call him Benjamin Lime. He and his mother live in the apartment above me, and I see them in the lobby, where the WiFi is free and the air-conditioning is oh so sweet. Mrs. Lime always storms in first, announcing their evening appointments for everyone to hear. Benjamin, I want you to jump in the shower right away. We’ve got to be at Le Cirque in forty-five minutes.
Benjamin, himself, always hangs a few beats behind, silent and ghostly in his bleached player’s ensemble. Doesn’t he look like Roger Federer, I mean the way he carries himself? No, no! Benjamin, push your shoulders back like I told you before. Like this.
Yesterday Benjamin slit his wrists in the bathroom sink one floor above my own. From my velvet armchair in the lobby, I heard Mrs. Lime’s scream. The blaring sirens. The bang of the gurney against the elevator walls. Finally, from a crowd of medics, there was Mrs. Lime again: Oh, Benjamin! Why? Why did you do this to me? To me? Oh God, it’s all over your shirt! Oh God! What about your lessons? I paid for all of those Goddamn lessons for this? Why did you do this to me? Why? Why to me?
I sat there, less stunned by his act of self-mutilation than by the belligerence of his mother’s narcissism. The unending fervor of her vanity. To me? To me? Lady, are you out of your fucking mind? I hoped that she was simply deferring the pain. That in a moment as frightening and wrenching as this, she couldn’t possibly contemplate anything beyond the anesthetized domestic instinct to clean a shirt. I hoped that as her shock descended into shame, she’d be able to seriously contemplate what drove her fifteen-year-old son to butcher his forearms with a stray X-Acto Knife.
But I don’t think Mrs. Lime will ever surrender her delusions. After all, she’s already paid the registration fees.