Sarge came back from The War a Changed Man. Changed, as in all he wants to do these days is play racquetball. Hours and hours of the stuff. Sometimes I think he’s completely forgotten about The War and Being Over There and, yes, even Little Old Me. It’s just him and his racket and the Briggs Street YMCA anymore. Oh, and a guy named Joe Sobek, who I guess invented the sport. There’s a framed picture of him on our nightstand.
It’s not like I don’t try to get to the bottom of it. Sarge and I will be in the kitchen and we’ll be doing Assembly Line Dishes, where I wash and he dries and then struggles to find the right space in the cabinet for things like casserole dishes and colanders, and I’ll ask him about It. It = The War. Or, specifically, Sarge + It (The War) = Racquetball Obsession. How did it happen, exactly? But he never answers beyond a Mmmph and I just end up crying and covered in Palmolive because the faucet’s still running and the sink’s bubbling up because I’m crying and can’t focus on water conservation right then.
I remember picking him up at the airport That Day, the day The War ended (for Sarge, that is). How happy I was to see him, how handsome he looked in his Flat-Front Khakis. I even remember his smell. China Wok, from the food court. It’s like somebody took That Day and stuck it on the end of a branding iron and pressed it against my brain. Sssssssssssss…
At the time, I didn’t find it strange that he was clutching his brand-new Wilson Slammer racket during our First Hug. I was more concerned that he’d be put off by all my lower-back sweat. (It was August.) He wasn’t, thank goodness, and he embraced my rear end with those Great-Big Bear Paws of his like it wasn’t no thang.
Looking back, the whole episode was a real harbinger, which is a word I don’t care to use much but one that seems germane to this story, which was the seven-letter word for Relevant, Important that I couldn’t think of this morning while trying to finish the crossword in the Red Eye.
One night, Sarge and I were making love and he yelled out Hinder! I climbed off of him and asked him what was wrong, did he want some chamomile tea? Turns out Hinder! is a racquetball term. You yell it when your opponent is in your way and prevents you from returning his/her shot. I guess you can also call Hinder! when you want your wife to get on all fours.
As Sarge finished up back there, I thought: Am I Sarge’s opponent? Am I preventing him from returning a shot? And those two thoughts made me very, very sad.
I thought watching a show called Army Wives might help me understand Sarge better, really put my mind at ease and let me know that I’m not alone, that there are other spouses like me whose husbands came back from The War so totally consumed with racquetball that they can’t even remember to sign up for our bank’s Keep the Change® program, even though their wives have told them, like, infinity times to do so.
But the show didn’t do that. It just made me feel not-very-pretty because these Army Wives were very pretty. So pretty, in fact, that you could tell they’d never been kept up all night by the sound a small blue ball makes when it’s getting slammed up against a garage door. Otherwise, they’d be like me and they’d have dark eyes that droop like the ears of a basset hound.
Meredith next door says I can talk to her about Anything, Anytime, but when I bring up Sarge and The War and racquetball she always has Delicates in the wash that demand her immediate attention. We’ll be on the couch, snacking on Triscuits and halibut leftovers from one of her many Social Events (the ones she always invites me to the morning of, instead of days or weeks in advance), and I’ll start talking about how Sarge overdrew our account by three-hundred dollars last week buying pair after pair of white, paper-thin shorts for the upcoming Tournament of Champions in Channahon, and she’ll just stand and smile and excuse herself and that’ll be it. I’ll hear the garage door go up and the sound of her Toyota Tercel’s engine turning over and the squealing of tires on asphalt and she’ll be gone, sometimes for weeks. And I’ll be left to clean up and write her husband Roger a little note, something like Looks like old Merry’s at it again! Will call if I hear anything! Just so that he doesn’t worry. Then I’ll imagine Someone, Anyone, writing me a note about Sarge. Nothing major, just a little somethin’ somethin’ so that I don’t worry. So much.
Once, I imagined it was Jay-Z. The writer of the note about Sarge, that is. His penmanship was terrible, though, and I couldn’t make out what he wrote. But it was sweet of him, whatever it was.
I snuck into the YMCA once, just to watch Sarge play. He had a five forty-five a.m. match against a guy named Da Extinguisha and while I hate waking up that early, my curiosity was eating me alive. Sarge had only been back from The War for two weeks but he was playing racquetball everyday and coming home drenched in sweat, the scent of which he tried to cloak with Jōvan Musk but still smelled like fresh-cut onions. I had to see for myself what all the fuss was about.
I showed up to the Y in sweatpants and an oversized denim shirt, spoke Polish to the Desk Clerk so she’d think I was a Cleaning Lady. She told me she didn’t speak Russian but that she’d be happy to show me where the Janitor’s Closet was, unlocked the door and handed me some Pine Sol and everything. I thanked her and as soon as she was out of sight, I made a beeline for The Courts, which I used to clean when I actually was a Cleaning Lady, just not a Polish one.
I found Sarge and D.E. written on the Sign-In Sheet outside of Court H and climbed the stairs to the Observation Deck. Sarge and Da Extinguisha were warming up, smashing the tiny ball against the walls and leaving freckles of blue rubber all over them. When Da Extinguisha suggested that they quit dicking around and get they game on, Sarge agreed and took his position a few paces back and to the left of him.
Da Extinguisha served first and while his shot had some heat to it, Sarge returned it easily, angled it such that Da Extinguisha couldn’t get his two-hundred-and-fifty-plus-pound frame in front of it in time. And it just got worse from there. Everything Da Extinguisha served up, Sarge either demolished or handled with such precision and delicacy that you’d think he traded Fabergé Eggs for a living. It was like watching ballet, really. My eyes stung with tears and my cheeks felt like they’d been sanded down to the bone, I was so proud.
Ten points into the match, Da Extinguisha cooked up some excuse about his prostate and hightailed it out of there, cursing about this and that as he went into the locker room. I expected Sarge to leave too, treat himself to a Grand Slam Breakfast or something. But he just kept smashing that blue ball against the wall, again and again and again and again, until finally the rubber split and the dead ball wobbled to a stop on the parquet.
Sarge just stood there in the middle of the court, waiting. For what, only Sarge knows. Then he screamed. Loud. The glass is pretty thick up on the Observation Deck but I still had to plug my ears, like when the neighbor kids set off Works Bombs in mailboxes.
I haven’t watched him play since.
I try not to think about racquetball these days. When I see Sarge loading towels and deodorant and Skittles into his gym bag, I step out onto the patio and pretend to smoke cigarettes. Kools is my brand. My pretend brand, that is. I suck the fake smoke down into my lungs, really let it pool down there and soak into my capillaries nice and good. I instantly calm down and wonder if smoking real cigarettes is just as good. Must be, if people are still killing themselves to do it.
Sarge will stick his head through the sliding-glass door, tell me loves me and will be back in one-to-two hours. Depending upon the skill level of his opponent. But he’s always gone at least three hours, every time.
I figure it’s like The Day I Saw Him at the Y, and he just ends up hitting balls alone for awhile once he’s vanquished another punk. That’s fine. I’ve come to accept that Some People, even People You Love, have racquetball in their lives and you’ll never know why, exactly. They’ll never tell you, no matter how many times you ask, because even they don’t know why. It’s just there.
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