THE BOY FROM BRAZIL
I’d been taking tennis lessons from Marcos Santos for about a year when he said, “Wouldn’t it be awesome if you played in tournaments on the weekends and we could discuss it on Mondays?” He had a way of saying things in his Brazilian accent that made everything seem appealing. That and his dark eyes and really white teeth. He was all torso and lacked the leg length to be tall, but no one noticed it because he was dripping with charisma. I realize he was a walking cliché—handsome tennis pro, shocker. He was twelve years younger than I, but there was something about him that made me get him a cake on his birthday.
Before he was a tennis coach, he’d been a valet on Ocean Avenue. He bought a BMW after he broke up with his girlfriend back in Brazil and asked me for $500 to fix it after a repair estimate threatened to “break his Christmas.” I said “no” to the money but gave him a ride when he needed it. He always laid his car keys on the table when we were on the tennis court, and I couldn’t help but notice (OK, I looked) there was also a Mercedes key on there. I thought it might have belonged to the mother of one of the juniors with whom he traveled to tournaments on the weekends, but when I asked, he said, “People have extra sets of keys, you know? This is one that was left behind.”
I took lessons from him on Mondays and Fridays—he’d easily talked me into the twice-a-week indulgence, but he didn’t have to sell me on the weekend tournaments, and yes, I would like to discuss them on Mondays. I joined the United States Tennis Association and obsessed over the list of adult tournaments in Southern California.
Marcos was playing in these tournaments too, and he said he was impressed when he saw my name on the list of competitors. He would be at my first match. I’d already lost the first set by the time he showed up and asked me who won the first set. I went on to lose the second.
“You were the same,” Marcos said after the match.
“Really? I’m as good as her?”
“You could have beat her,” he said.
I loved him. It wasn’t romantic, but he did something for me and my tennis. He’d told me to call him and not text from the next tournament because my first match was scheduled before he would be there. I liked the accountability. I beat the girl in a tiebreaker.
“I had a feeling about this,” Marcos said when I called him. “Congratulations. You deserve it.”
Marcos played on a court right next to mine as I played my second match. He made the rhythmic grunting noise that he did during my lessons, and it relaxed me: It was familiar. When my opponent was taking an extended break between games, Marcos came over to my court to ask me for a gel, which I gave him even though I’d only brought one for myself. When his match concluded he sat near my court with his friend who’d won seventeen tournaments. The hot wind whipped through the gray courts and carried their voices. I couldn’t believe that such good players were watching my match. My hand shook as I took a sip from my water.
“Your serve,” my opponent said as she shot a ball over the net in my direction. I’d forgotten where we were in the match.
Being watched was not something I was used to, and I felt self-conscious even though he saw me play all the time in our lessons. I’d been a triathlete for many years, and I was used to competing alone. Isolating myself had been a goal of mine, and generally my family ignored me, making it easier. Now I didn’t know what to do with all the attention.
I’d won the first set, but I lost the second and was faced with a tiebreaker, which I lost. I looked up to the stands, and Marcos was gone. He’d texted that he was cramping and had to get something to eat. He’d lost his match too.
“That was your match to win,” he’d told me later.
I looked forward to the next tournament because Marcos would not be there.
“Show her you are ready to stay out there all day,” he’d said. So I ran down every ball. It was 100 degrees in Calabasas, but I was good in the heat from years of suffering in triathlons.
Two women approached the court and sat on a bench with the sun behind them. I felt like I’d gone out of my body and into their minds, and I had a hard time concentrating. I kept wondering who they were, what they were doing there, what they thought of my playing style. Then I hit the ball short, which is exactly what Marcos said not to do. He wasn’t there, but his voice was inside my head. And now I couldn’t just blame him for making me play badly.
I was used to just showing up at a finish line for a moment of glory, but tennis was a spectator sport, and I was being spectated. I dropped the second set but managed to pull it out in the tiebreaker after the ladies left.
The next weekend I played a doubles final and won before Marcos got there.
“How did I do?” I said, giving him a hug with my trophy in hand.
I went on to lose my singles match.
“That guy was watching you,” my opponent said after the match, pointing at Marcos, who was now playing on another court. I shrugged like I could care less and was used to having stalkers, but inside I was pleased that he cared enough about me and my tennis to watch and not let me know that he was watching.
The next weekend we drove together in my car to a tournament where Marcos was the number one seed. I watched him play and win, and the next day I watched him lose his first set, and then I went to warm up and begin my match. I was playing a girl who looked like a tank but who knew what she was doing. I got the first three games. Then she won a few games. It was tied at 4-4 and going in and out of deuces, when Marcos showed up at the court just as I played an outstanding point.
Then I lost the next two games and the set and had a hard time remembering that it was my serve after the first game of the second set. I double-faulted when I noticed that Marcos was texting on his phone. A couple points later I said the score wrong, and he looked up and corrected me.
I loved that he was there, but I wanted him to leave so I could play better tennis. At the changeover I begged him to take my keys and go to my car or to take my car somewhere. I was pretty sure he had another match that afternoon and didn’t want him to feel trapped or hungry. But he remained, and I lost the match.
“Have I won a game since you’ve been here?” I said at the end, but he’d lost too and was surprised it was only in the second round. No one ever asked him if he won or lost. They only asked if he’d played, assuming he’d won. We got in the car—me in my sweaty clothes and Marcos having showered.
Marcos was about to leave for Brazil. He would be gone for a month, and I would take lessons from Jon, who ran the court where Marcos worked. I would also hit with a kid named Colin.
“Don’t make me jealous,” he said in his flirtatious way. But he said it just right, like he wasn’t “going to be a bitch about it,” a phrase he’d learned from me. It was enough to let me know that he cared, but it wasn’t too much like he owned me. I played three tournaments while he was away, and I couldn’t wait to tell him all about them when he got back.
I let him park his BMW in my driveway while he was gone, and when the date of his return arrived, he sent an e-mail saying that he got a job in his hometown and was not coming back. It was as if I’d had something removed without anesthesia. I wailed for forty-five minutes. His brother retrieved the car.
Before he left I saw Marcos at the beach. He walked right by where I sat but was looking back at the ocean. The breath of inspiration had gone, but I knew I would push through even though this time I was the one left behind.