Tennis Lessons


I really hated tennis lessons. The tennis bubbles at our town’s rec center were always filled with a damp, cold air that felt uncomfortable against my chubby, nine-year-old thighs. The lighting was terrible too—giant fluorescent lamps hung from the top of the tent and glowed in a way that made my hands look sickly when I held them out in front of me, made me too sleepy to practice, and attracted all of the world’s worst bugs to the crown of the tent.

But mostly, I hated tennis lessons because I really fucking hated being told what to do.

Which is why, on one rainy Sunday that summer, I was surprised that I didn’t give my mother a harder time about going.

Sitting on the counter in our kitchen, I watched in horror as the digital clock on our oven clicked past the time of the lesson, affirmatively deciding that the only thing worse than tennis lessons was being late for tennis lessons. And as my heart began to race and my stomach began to churn, the ants that lived inside of me began to crawl out of their caves, dance their way up my legs, over my arms, and I fought to keep them back with the tapping of my feet.

“You ready?” my mother asked, breezing past me in the kitchen. She was on edge, I could tell. Her heels clacked louder than they needed to on the kitchen floor, her thick, black curls fell over her face as she tried to finish buttoning her blouse—I wished she would go back upstairs and put on a bra—and as she looked up at me, her eyebrows were furrowed.

“Well? What are you waiting for? Get in the car.” She was annoyed with me, but I didn’t understand why. Wordlessly, I grabbed my racket and left through the side door.

The rain was coming down harsh and warm. The type of rain that threatened to bury you if you got caught in it for too long. The kind that hid you from the world with a wall of distorted light and sound. As I got into her old Volvo, I wished I could stay out in the rain a little bit longer. I would walk across the street to Leily’s house, wait for her mom—permanently stationed by the sink at the kitchen window—to give me the wave to come on inside. Decked out in bright red rain-slicks and knee-high boots, Leily and I would play in the lake that formed at the end of her driveway during a storm like this. We’d wade in as far as we’d dare before the water began to fill our boots, gluing our feet to the drunken concrete beneath us.

My mother got into the driver’s seat and slammed the door, throwing her purse behind her, nearly hitting me with it. “Shit!” She looked at the clock on her dashboard. My lesson started three minutes ago.

As we raced down East Shore Road, I counted the stop signs my mother rolled through (seven), and watched nervously for cops, gripping the door handle tightly.

The clock continued to tick forward, my mother continued to shout, and as she continued to drive way too fast in our tiny neighborhood, I began to scratch at the ants that I could feel crawling all over my arms and legs.

“Stop scratching!” She shouted at me through the rearview mirror, “you’re going to make yourself bleed.” But I couldn’t help myself! The ants were driving me insane, marching faster now, and scratching was the only way to get rid of them. I looked up at her nervously—she drove with her eyes wide open, her hands gripping the steering wheel so tightly that her knuckles turned white.

Things had been different lately, but I wasn’t sure why. More often than not I found my heart racing as I came home from school, the beating refusing to slow down until I heard that satisfying click of the lock on my bedroom door. Falling asleep took longer than usual—I had been having these scary dreams lately, of loud, harsh sounds that woke me up in the middle of the night, my mother crawling into bed with me, telling me it was going to be okay. Twice in the last week, I had taken to hiding under the bed after hearing her car crawl up the driveway, for no reason other than that I just didn’t want her to find me.

I looked at her now and tried to imagine what she would look like through the rain, a constantly moving picture, words spoken through gritted teeth, laughter that borderlined on manic, sobs that emerged from nonexistent events.

There was a time when I was not afraid to get in the car with my mother. There was a time before I was kept like a dog, locked in her car on a hot summer’s day, in a tow-away zone while construction workers stared at me through the window and tried to figure out what the fuck to do with me, and there was a time before her car smelled of cigarette smoke clinging to cashmere sweaters, a time before her car jingled with hollow Christmas bells at every time of year. There was a time before these things, but as I sat in that car, curious about how she could see so well through the rain, ants crawling all over me as I flip back and forth between the clock and the speedometer, I honestly could not recall it.

“I said stop scratching!” She yelled, reaching her arm behind her to swat at my hand, “Do you want to be a girl covered with scabs? Is that what you want?” she spat at me, checking her watch again, “God damn it!”

We were pulling into the parking lot, and I could feel my stomach sink as I thought of the fighting to come. This would be my third tennis coach this summer, all the other coaches quit on me after seeing I would never show up to a lesson on time—and then feeling the wrath my mother brought to the court when they denied me my full hour.

“Can you run from here?” My mother asked, and I looked up at her, unsure of what she expected. “It’s fine,” she sighed, “let’s just go.” The walk from the parking lot to the tennis bubbles was a long, curved path around a swamp. At night, this swamp scared the living shit out of me—I could only imagine the crocodiles and mutant bugs and swamp monsters that lurked behind the shadows, beneath the muddy surface. And yet, today, as my mother and I ran from her car along the path, the rain pelting us with hard drops, I cringed as my shoes began to fill with water, and I yearned for the trees overlooking the swamp to turn their heads, shield me instead. My mother ran ahead of me, her long, spidery legs taking up most of her body, as she ran with her purse over her head, and I fought to keep up with her, the fear of being left alone in the rain by the swamp keeping my feet moving.

Once through the sliding doors, I shivered against the air conditioning, imagining all the ants on my skin freezing into teeny, tiny icicles, and burning me all over. The tennis coach—a young, Egyptian guy who looked too young to be a dad, but too old to be in school—was talking to my mother, his eyebrows furrowed and his gaze unamused.

“This is the third time Lisa, she’s never on time!”

“What does it even matter? She’s here now, isn’t she?” My mother yelled, pointing at me.

“I have other students, I cannot spend all this time waiting for her to—”

“Will you relax? She’s here now, just take her!”

“Please don’t tell me to relax—”

“Hey, watch your tone!”

“Watch my tone?”

“Yeah, I’m the one paying you to teach her, she’s here now, so go do your job and coach her!”

“You know what? Fine. Let’s go, er—” he paused, looking at me, “umm.”

“You don’t even know her fucking name, do you?” my mother asked, bony hands on bony hips.

“Yes, of course I do, and watch your language!” he snapped at her.

“Oh yeah? Then what is it?” She made an exaggerated jaw-dropping face when he came up blank, her curls stuck out like Medusa’s snakes.

He looked at me with a face that felt like pity and genuine sorrow, “What’s your name, sweetheart?” he asked me, his voice calm.

“Don’t call her sweetheart!” she yelled before I could answer. “C’mon, we’re leaving,” she said, taking my wrist too tightly. Her hand was frigid against mine—I never understood why she was always so cold. All the other parents looked over at us, all the other kids who were waiting for their lesson to start or just getting picked up. I felt the ants unfreeze and return to their march on my skin, a familiar wave of red rose to my cheeks as I closed my eyes and desperately wished I was at the bottom of Leily’s lake.

“Oh come on,” the coach said, “you can’t be serious?” I looked back at him as she dragged me out of the bubble, standing there with his arms up and to the side, forming a human “W.” When he saw that she was, in fact, serious, he put his arms down and began to laugh, shaking his head. He’s laughing at us, I thought, he’s laughing at me.

Back in the rain, my mother let go of me, walking beyond me, continuing to throw a slew of curses at no one in particular, “who the fuck does he think he is?” and “ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous,” and “what a fucking waste of my time,” all the while I let the guilt rise inside of me, biting back the tears of humiliation, wondering why I couldn’t have just gotten into the car a little faster, why I couldn’t have just reminded her a little earlier, wondering all the things I would have given to be in that fucking tennis lesson, but most of all, wondering why I wasn’t important enough to have my name remembered.

No longer running, allowing ourselves to get completely soaked as we made our way across the mostly-empty parking lot to her car, a black SUV drove towards us, eventually slowing to a stop right next to my mother. I couldn’t see who was inside, a woman, I think, someone I didn’t recognize, and my mother seemed scared, taken aback even.

“What do you want?” my mother asked through the open window, both of us still standing in the rain. The woman laughed, said something I couldn’t hear. My mother got angry, saying, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, what do you want?” The woman spoke to her in a voice saying words I couldn’t hear through the rain—I could only make out her smile. As her mouth moved, my mother’s voice became louder and louder, she began to shout at the woman.

“I don’t know you!” She finally said, “I don’t know you! I don’t know you!” Repeating these words until she was shrieking them, and the woman inside the car continued to laugh, driving away from us, as my mother stumbled after the car shrieking, “I don’t know you! I don’t know you!” Until she broke down in the middle of the parking lot, sobbing from a pain that I could not see, and I walked to her then, sat next to her on the asphalt, held her hand in mine, let the rain bury us.

About the Author

Jacqueline Rosenbaum is currently living in Boston and pursuing her MFA in Fiction at UMass Boston. She is originally from New York—Long Island, NYC, and the Hudson Valley—and is celebrating her first published piece.


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