Michael had just about had it. “Maybe you should go if you’re that miserable. I’m not holding a gun to your head here.” He had been genuinely worried, but now was more concerned with the distraction my adventure had caused. “You’re supposed to be supporting me, not undercutting me,” he sulked.
I felt bad; he seemed young and overburdened at that moment, and I went up to him. “I’m sorry.” I said it simply and meant it.
“You know, a lot of people would love to be in your position.”
“For good reason, honey.”
He pulled me to him, but even as I clung on for dear life and felt him tighten his grip in response, I couldn’t shake the chilly sense of imminent departure, a creepy future-déjà vu that hung in the air.
Despite the doctor’s marching orders, I wasn’t gone the next day and had the pleasure of sitting next to him in the friends box. Michael had drawn a difficult third round match-up, an up-and-comer who was a low-ranked but dangerous and clever opponent. Michael fought with everybody that day, I remember, linesmen, fans, his fragile focus fuzzed out and irretrievable. Battling the demons that descended upon him in chorus there on court, he scratched and screamed and banged his way to 5-3 in the second set, hypersensitive, furious, desperate, exhausted, out of sync. Serving to even it up, having given away the first set 2-6, he blew his lead and barely pulled the set out in a tie-breaker, then somehow managed to prevail in the third, a gut-twisting meaningless victory which re-aggravated his ankle. A low-level murmuring of concern became audible, the distant flapping of vultures’ wings.
Everyone in our camp blamed me, I knew, but strangely not much was said. During the following weeks everyone withdrew into themselves, keeping their own counsel, the atmosphere laid still by the spreading silence. Something was up. One evening in Charleston, Michael unexpectedly ordered room service for a late dinner, just for the two of us. We hadn’t been alone like this for some time. He had been moodier but gentler of tone of late, and I came to the conclusion that he had argued with his dad, had told him to lay off me, otherwise why was he being so sweet and quiet? Maybe he’d told him it would be better if he went back home. Several times I’d caught Michael looking at me queerly.
I came in from standing on the balcony of our room, seemingly suspended in time, suspended in uncertain emotion; it could’ve been anytime, anyplace. Both of us torn from all moorings with nothing to hold onto, nothing to follow, not even the turning of the seasons—here it was almost Thanksgiving and the air coming off the ocean was warm and muggy. There was a knock on the door and the hotel staff brought in our dinner. I tipped them (the star never had any cash). Michael hung up the phone. Again that indecipherable expression. ‘He wasn’t going to propose, was he?’ I thought, panicking, because I knew in my heart I was on my way out. ‘Oh, sweetie . . . if you want to start over, will I be honest?’ An intimate dinner with an ocean view. We sat down and looked at each other.
“This isn’t working,” he started. “I don’t think you’re happy.” He focused on the side wall, staring at the pale lavender-striped wallpaper, the generic print in its veneer frame. “It was wrong of me to ask you to come on tour with me . . . selfish. I have to concentrate on my tennis; you understand how it is . . . I can’t divide my focus.”
“Are you saying you want me to leave?” I asked, a different kind of panic causing my voice to break. A nasty thrill ran through me, a visceral understanding that the moment had I been honest with myself I would have known was coming was here. What was I gonna do now? My throat tightened; my hand trembled as I took a sip of ice water and my teeth clicked against the glass rim. Obviously things couldn’t go on as they were, but . . . to be kicked out? Humiliating. It hurt. I was planning to leave on my own terms. Just not so soon.
“Don’t worry. There’s no need . . . no need to . . . we’ve made arrangements for you. Of course we’d do that,” my college sweetheart said, resorting to an avalanche of assurances to cover his blow-off. “We wouldn’t just leave you high . . . I mean. Dad, uh . . . and, and . . . and I’m not ashamed to say this . . . I should give you some money, you know—God knows, I’m rakin’ it in now they tell me—that’s what it’s for, huh?—an amount of money so you can do whatever you want. Whatever you want. You should do what you want.”
“I know it sounds sort of, uh, tacky, whatever,” he pushed on, “but after all,” warming to the sell, “you gave up your job prospects, you know, to join us.” He said this with a straight face. We looked at each other, our food untouched and getting cold between us. This was it. My mind whirled round and round on the adrenaline rush. No, no, no . . . I could convince him differently, I knew I could. I was smart; I could get out of this. There was always enough wiggle-room if you had no pride. We’d get on solid ground again and I’d take this as a warning not to dawdle, to plan my leap. It was all going to end up all right. Thanks for the push, honey . . . I just need time to find a place to land.
“There’s no reason why you need to feel caught between me and your parents,” I began soothingly, patronizingly.
Nervous and annoyed, he cut me off. “This has nothing to do with Mom and Dad. It’s about us. It’s not working.” This was his escape mantra. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath while Michael asked exasperatedly, “Can you honestly say you’ve been happy these past months? I can’t.”
“No.” I paused. A thought darted through my head. “Have you been with other women?” I had just said that to say it, but I evidently hit the mark much closer than I had even dared think. I thought we loved each other, but I didn’t know him, didn’t understand the life I’d been living, didn’t even understand what was real.
“That’s not what we’re talking about,” Michael snapped, evidently guilty as randomly charged. He wanted to make the cut so clean it wouldn’t bleed. Lately his ticks and mannerisms, his temper, his pre-match superstitions, even his looks—that arrogant face—had become increasingly annoying to me in my darker moments. And wouldn’t it be nice if he were just a little taller? But now I couldn’t bear the thought of giving him up, that honey-colored hair I’d sink my hands into, those strong shoulders I’d put my arms around, those sorcerer’s eyes, his warm body. All that sensuality ripped right out of my hands.
“I don’t want the money. Why are you doing this to me? Why are you doing this?”
“For once in your life, stop whining about how you’re not doing what you want; take this money, Amy. Take it with some modicum of good grace. I gotta do this; you gotta do it; this is your chance.” He gestured with his hand. “Your chance to be independent, paint, save all the little animals. Isn’t that what you want?” He shrugged, “You deserve it, really . . . it’s yours . . .”
‘How did I deserve it?’ I thought, blinking at the ceiling. ‘Because I spent my time with you, because we used to make love? Michael, why do you feel . . . why do you need to compensate me in order to make it an honest transaction?’
Michael’s face softened when he saw my eyes filling with tears. “I want you to be happy, honey; you may not believe it, but it’s true. I’m sorry I couldn’t do it.” He reached for me across the table, the surgical strike successfully launched, mopping up operations begun, but my hands remained clenched around my napkin in my lap. “We all need to live our own lives . . .” he continued, waxing philosophic. No response. His expression hardened at my recalcitrance, “Why do you always dwell on the negatives in life—it’s a downer, Amy.”
No room for maneuvering here. It felt very matter-of-fact and anticlimactic. “Okay, sure,” I shrugged. “Whatever you think . . .”
* * *
Within the week I was in his father’s hotel suite signing several documents stating I had no pending and would make no future legal claims against the absent Michael or his family. (Just a formality, you understand. We have to protect what’s ours.) The family lawyer handed me an envelope. Standing up from the table, bending the envelope back and forth in my fingers, looking down at the still seated doctor, I narrowed my gaze to the shiny patch of skin on the top of Dr. Raynes’ head, meticulously covered but easily seen from on high. Melodramatic thoughts roamed through my mind; you would have thought you could see them lumbering like herds on the savannah across my visage, but I remained still and silent in my humiliation. They thought I was glad for the money. ‘You’ll get yours someday, you bastard,’ I silently seethed. ‘You’re not fooling anyone with this crap. When you know I’m in a position where I have to accept . . . I have to, I have to . . . .’
My anger circled round and round within me; it could find no place to go, no place to land. I aimed all my fury at the father, afraid and unable for some unexamined reason to train it on the son. I really hated him. Business finished, we nodded at each other, neither one of us caring for the hypocrisy of shaking hands, the victor and the vanquished. I continued on with my twisted silent soliloquy. Mrs. Raynes was there, too, sitting on the couch a little apart from the transaction, appearing particularly well put together and unruffable in her turquoise linen suit, her honey hair swept up in a French twist. She looked at me not unkindly as I left, but said nothing. The doctor looked like he wished he’d never laid eyes on me.
When I saw Lawrence for the last time I gave him a mock salute. “I’m off to fight the good fight, sir.” He shook his head, but gave me a hand shake and a pat on the shoulder. He graciously carried my bags out to the waiting cab.
“Try to stay out of trouble, lady,” was his parting shot.
I went to the airport, went to the gate to board the plane to Cleveland. I was recognized and handed a letter to give to Michael, the paper hastily folded and printed with instructions that it be read ‘by addressee only’—a love note or some unsolicited advice. What were these people thinking? Signed my autograph on a boarding pass for whatever reason, somebody wanted it. Other people waiting for the flight pretended not to, but stared at me after this; even if they didn’t, I thought they did. I flopped down thankfully, exhaling deeply when I finally got to my window seat. It’s over. Really over. An emptiness flooded my soul, an acute bleakness, but I was at peace. I looked out the window as the plane barreled down the runway, the tarmac flying by at a faster and faster pace. The plane lifted up into the air.
* * *
Michael was hitting with Bohmer on a far outside court. The second semifinal would be played later in the afternoon. A prop plane circled above them, dragging its banner across the sky—“NORINGER’S CHEVOLET! WE’RE NEVER UNDERSOLD!”—droning in the late season heat, masking the sound of the ball coming off the strings. Intricate, shimmering insects, untouched by frost, flew about their heads on the lower spiral of air, attracted to the glistening beads of sweat. Chris—out of the singles draw and lacking motivation—could not find his rhythm, convulsively swatting at the bugs, but Michael was in a stroking groove, in a zone of his own. He only broke his concentration, looked up once, as a jet roared overhead high in the sky. He dropped the ball and hit it on the rebound as hard as he could with a looping underhand stroke as if he were trying to strike the belly of the aircraft. The ball rose high in the air heading straight for the jet, but the plane was flying high and fast and was soon out of sight.