The Unbearable Lightness of the B List – Part 2

sky violet-blue
It was a lovely summer evening, sun down, sky violet-blue; the lights just coming on in the courtyard below. But up here on high, sitting staring out the window, one leg propped up on the sill too small to be a proper sill, leaning against the jamb, I was shut off from the enchantment. These windows did not open, and the air-conditioned air lacked everything the outside had to offer: humidity, scent, warmth. Inwardly I railed against this; I wanted to wander through the twilight that was slowly drawing down, the soft air a balm to the lungs as well as to the mind. I retreated once again to my private thoughts for the sensuality I was craving, closing my eyes, thinking random thoughts of a vague, unresolved someone else—an undetectable betrayal, an unnoticeable flight to freedom. How could one get more gratification out of these half-conscious fantasies than the reality of the hotel room, I thought, flipping through the pages of my book, stopping at the folded-down corner, and reading the paragraph I had read a hundred times before:

No prince charming is her beau ideal to lay a rare and wondrous love at her feet but rather a manly man with a strong quiet face who had not found his ideal . . . who would understand, take her in his sheltering arms, strain her to him in all the strength of his deep passionate nature and comfort her with a long long kiss. It would be like heaven. For such . . .

“Hey, get the door! Are you deaf?” Michael stuck his head around the corner, then resumed his pacing back and forth in the hallway outside the bathroom, still getting dressed, tucking his shirt into his unzipped pants. Startled out of my stupor, I jumped up and walked toward the banging, undoing the latches, turning the knob. The entourage poured in, loud, bruising, crushing the evocatively woven tendrils of my thoughts. The topic tonight was the deal Michael had just signed, casting him in a series of shoe commercials, his first such venture. The concept story-boarded: outrageous racket-swinging rock and roll. The amount of money dangled: staggering. We were all to be commended. I particularly should be happy; it raised my status sympathetically, like a military wife.

We had been together on tour for a little over a year now and it was not going well. At first Michael needed me as ballast; he was more scared than he was allowed to admit, so having someone from the old world reassured him. But he moved steadily forward into the brave new realm, creating a hotshot persona for himself to hide behind. That character eventually took over, though, and he found he could not step offstage without severe stripping of the emotional gears. Worse still, this persona was perceived as he rose through the ranks as that of a lesser Pete Bishop, the reigning master of the game. Not as brilliant certainly, nor as enraged or enraging. Michael was not the original star in that firmament and he knew he would never surpass its shining. He became fixated with his derivativeness and continually struggled with it even as he drew more and more fans to his side. If he couldn’t claim what he chose for himself, then what did he have? He lost sight of the fact that this image was a fabrication largely of his own making, lost sight of who he really was. He lived so much in this world, sucking in all the sycophancy it served up, that the old one, the one that treated him at face value, became strange and illogical, and ultimately not wanted.

I had come upon Michael too late. I often wondered about the young boy I hadn’t known, a boy whose fondest childhood memories were those of tagging along after his grandfather in the rectory garden; speculating on who he might have turned out to be had he not been so very molded by the desire to do right by his parents—an overbearing doctor father, a distant mother—for all the time and money spent on developing the talent of their only child. His father was the son of that avid gardener and Episcopalian minister; his mother one of four sisters whose own father died young, dropping dead without warning on the kitchen floor, their mother never allowing the girls to speak of him again. Michael’s father ruled the roost not with the patience of the gardener but with the authority of the physician. He loved his wife and he loved and was proud of his son, but Dr. Raynes believed only he knew how to play the game. He pulled the strings and everyone else was to fall behind in their place, including me. If I didn’t like it, I could get out.

I turned back to the window, on the edge of the hubbub, watching the dark flutter of birds on their evening flight. No escape here. We were back on the West Coast for only the third time since Michael turned pro, and his mom and dad were here with us tonight. Dr. Raynes had recently cut back his ophthalmology practice and planned to travel intermittently with his son to keep him on track, a depressing development surely; the doctor knew nothing about tennis at this level, often giving his son bad advice, and Michael already had more than adequate representation.

The group assembled in our hotel room was ready to break camp; the less coupled among us having decided to go out to a club. Michael and I were going out to dinner with his folks, Jim Meyer, a USC chum who just joined the tour, and a local tour administrator. The ride to the restaurant was short, and we were escorted out to a patio overhung with plants, dotted with flickering votives, and shown to our table. I was hungry and bored. The tour official got called away even before she sat down, not an unusual occurrence as these things go. Dr. Raynes launched into Michael shortly after our ordering, telling him what he should have and shouldn’t have done during the past two weeks in all manner of categories, ranking each decision made by how far it fell short from the glow of his approval, gazing down at the table as he talked, methodically taking apart and putting back together the pen removed from his jacket, sometimes drawing on the tablecloth. Michael, expression sullen but attentive, stared straight ahead as he listened. Player and coach seldom looked at each other during these sessions for fear of disrupting the delicate balance of power.

The waiter returned with a phone. It was for Jim; his wife was on the line. She had originally planned to join him on this inaugural leg, but was staying at home with their infant daughter. Sitting sideways in his chair, swinging his free leg crossed over the other, he fought his marriage long distance, repeating over and over, “I know, honey; I know.” That left only one other soul. I turned to Mrs. Raynes.

“The candlelight’s pretty, isn’t it?” she said.

“Yes it is,” I assured her.

Dr. Raynes broke his train of thought for a second, turning to his wife. “What the hell are you drinking?”

“Ginseng elixir . . . for mental clarity.”

He lowered his face to her glass and sniffed, making a face. “Christ almighty . . .”

I noticed the people at the next table staring at us. I detected motion behind my back and turned, eagerly expecting the waiter with our food. It was two teenage girls wanting autographs. Michael good-humoredly obliged, flirting with them, making them giggle. “Don’t you want his autograph, too?” he asked, pushing his foot against Jim’s chair. “While you’re here. He’s good, too. Not as good as me, though, uh, Jim?” Another push with the foot.

“Yeah, sure,” the girls shrugged.

“The only way they’d be interested in my signature was if it was on a large check,” Jim said after they left, and no one had the grace to protest otherwise. I broke into the ongoing lecture on my left, offering an opinion on Michael’s training, one I had stated many times before, and his dad raised his eyes toward me at the interruption looking as if he’d forgotten I was there, though of course I was in the count—my dinner would be added to the bill. Michael had inherited his father’s features, his mother’s coloring. The combination of the two was more striking than either one encountered separately. Ignoring me, Dr. Raynes went back at it with Michael. I opened my eyes wide at Michael, demanding backup, but he was fully engaged in his own battle. An acquaintance came by and captured Jim’s attention; Jim knew somebody no matter where we showed up. Mrs. Raynes was refreshing her lipstick. Our dinner was nowhere in sight. I pulled the candle from the center of the table over toward me and wrapped my hands around it; the warmth was comforting. Its flame flickered prettily against its glass container, throwing shadows on everyone’s face, the sun having set.


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