After they finished their tennis matches, the girls sat in the bright green June grass and watched the boys play. This was 1980, before Reagan, when love still fragranced the air. The Spokane weather was divine, a slight breeze like a fan turned on low, an ideal 75 degrees—only one transient puffy cloud in the powder blue sky–so one could forgive the girls for wanting it to always be this way. Five girls, young women, really, ages fifteen and sixteen, but this story is only about one of them.
They were waiting for Golden Boy. That’s what they called him, though not to his face, and they said it with only the slightest bit of sarcasm, which colored their every word. Susanna was imitating Jimmy Halder on court #1, the way he tossed his head to the right, flinging his jet black hair off his forehead after each shot, like the flap of a crow wing. Susanna, the loudest and boldest, had gone the farthest with a boy. Nell, in mirror sunglasses and a University of Washington sun visor, had made it to third base with Franco, but now she hated him. Brenda, had won her match, 6-4, 6-4, a stupendous upset of the #2 seated player, 16 and under. She was still in shock. She was tired and wanted to lie down, but she didn’t want to miss Golden Boy.
From the snack shack, Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” wafted on the warm, liquidy summer air. Chocolate-dipped ice cream cones and Coca-cola. Hamburgers on the grill, French fries, sunlight, and turquoise blue pools. Summer, with all the right accessories. In the distance, beyond the ugly brick houses with the untidy front yards of long grass, a rusted old pick-up with a smashed window, stretched an emerald green golf course, with men in offensive plaid shorts. This was America, shaped by the girls’ mothers, those women libbers who burned their bras—for their daughter’s sake—so now the girls could wear short, white tennis skirts—a flash of silky, soft inner thigh—sleeveless, white tops, revealing sun-hungry, strong, shapely shoulders. Snapping gum, spouting profanity–the thrill, the titillation! They had appetites and were determined to satisfy them. An hour ago, they were smacking the tennis ball, grunting and huffing, sweat dripping off their face, trickling down their strong backs. (How happy they made their mothers–the hard-won right to sweat!) When they’d finished, the girls had flung off their shoes—the bottoms of their feet burned from the steady stops and starts–and their sweat-soaked ankle socks, which were now balled up at the bottom of their tennis bags, next to glossy women’s fashion magazines, showing off the latest styles.
Honestly, who could blame them, wanting to expose all that skin? Those long, sad months of Seattle rain. Raincoats, wet wool sweaters, sniffling noses. Now it was all warm buttery light and buds on the maple trees. Neon green needles on the Douglas Fir, and birds busting out songs, ecstatic from the sun stroking their feathers.
At 1:55, the air held its breath and tensed. The girls, who’d been laughing and tossing tennis balls in the air, sat up. Tall, lanky, his shock of bright, blonde hair, Golden Boy stepped out of the boy’s locker room, four rackets tucked under his arm, and, with his loping stride like a wolf sniffing out prey, headed straight for Court #3, center court. Charisma, charm, he radiated both and something else, something more otherworldly, as if he was spun out of gold as if we’d sent down one of our own to remind humans what was possible. With Golden Boy walking around on earth, people could believe in the goodness of the world again. Forget the hostage crisis, the 52 Americans trapped in the US embassy in Iran, forget the failure of Operation Eagle Claw and the race riots in Miami, Golden Boy was here, making the air shimmer with his gold dust.
Before he stepped on the court, before he went over and sat on the bench to double-knot his shoes, bright white and brand new, he flashed his shiny white teeth at the girls. Like Hercules, winking at mortals. That’s all it took: the girls slid into a rich fantasy that involved lips and hands and the unbuttoning of a blouse.
His tennis whites, his blonde hair, and his white teeth were intensified by his tan face. Two weeks ago, he’d played in a tournament in Northern California—he was that good, taking on the hip California boys—and had come back, smothered in kisses from the sun gods. He could have been a model for Rodin. Such a beautiful bone structure and white and perfect teeth.
“Is he still with Janine?” Nell said.
“No,” said Susanna. “They broke up.”
An enormous silence descended upon the girls. The world blossomed like a flower. Even Brenda, the most innocent of the five, who’d only been kissed—a peck, a brush of lips on the cheek–by Alex Blugman in eighth grade at the school dance, a silver disco ball sending splashes of light on the walls, “Stairway to Heaven” going on and on, Alex Blugman, a boy she didn’t even like, (his hair smelled strange, like soy sauce), even her heart thrummed with the possibility. Golden Boy was free, available.
He set down his rackets, unzipped the vinyl cover of the top one, plucked each string like a guitar player, putting it near his ear to hear the high-pitched ring, ensuring it was strung right. He was holding his lucky racket–midnight blue, bright white strings, an oval face for a bigger sweet spot –and headed onto the court.
The reach of his long arms, the tremendous power, and precision of his one-handed backhand, his razor-sharp, crosscourt shot that sent his opponent, a scrawny boy from Bellingham, skidding into the other court, it was a magnificent show of mastery. Spellbound, the girls were. Perfect form. Not once did Golden Boy look over at the girls, not even when he served three aces in a row, because we were murmuring praises in his ear.
It was never a question whether he would win. He embodied triumph. Besides, the story lies elsewhere.
Afterward, he went over to the snack shack, where the other boys were laughing and punching each other’s shoulders. The girls were nearly 300 miles from home, staying in the homes of host families, who’d offered up their guest bedrooms. No curfew, no mother watching their every move, the sweet taste of freedom in their mouths, coating their bodies—they wanted something new to happen, something that involved lips.
The girls watched him disappear into the boy’s locker room and because they knew he’d change his clothes in there, in their minds, they got busy undressing him. Took off his sweaty white shirt, his shorts, his socks and shoes, a dramatic build-up to the big moment when they pulled off his Fruit-of-the-Loom underwear. His butt white as an Easter lily. His privates, too. (None of them had the nerve—not even in their minds—to call it something cruder.)
The other boys were flinging lids from tennis ball cans at each other’s heads. Two little kids in the pool splashing, screaming. A man, as dark as a piece of wood, lay belly down on a colorful beach towel. The sun turned the green leaves white. Birds fluttered from branch to branch, a crow picked at leftover French fries, and the smell of lilac wafted by.
With Golden Boy gone, the day sagged. The girls got up, went to the pool. They hadn’t packed a bathing suit, not even a one-piece. They’d just come out of the rain, and who wanted to show off pale winter skin. They lay in their tennis clothes on the concrete, on their stomachs, knees bent, bare feet waving in the air, and leafed through the fashion magazines they’d tucked in their tennis bags and stared at the pictures of the perfect women with pearly tips of white teeth showing between lips, and dark sultry eyes that said, “I’ll see you in bed.” The girls couldn’t wait to be 20, 21, in college, and look at a man like that. Brenda said, “None of these women look real,” but she, too, was mentally measuring how far off she was from the glossy women. And they were all thinking, if only they could change the faulty parts, then Golden Boy would surely love them.
The hum of cicadas, the steady strokes of an older man swimming. A mutt was sniffing around the garbage can. In the clubhouse, CNN broadcasted the news, over and over, an endless loop, as if time was not moving at all, a dial stuck at all the awful news 24 hours a day–the Pennsylvania lottery scandal, the boycott of the summer Olympics in Moscow, the endless recession–it made you want to bury your head because the world was terrible and would never survive.
From the pool, the girls kept glancing at the boys’ locker room as if waiting for a lover. If their mothers saw them pining for Golden Boy, they would have sharp words—you’d have sex with him? What about self-respect, for heaven’s sake. We didn’t go to all that trouble for this. Well, these were modern girls who had some things to teach their mothers, how sex and love didn’t have to be in the same sentence–not anymore. Birth control, those little pink pills neatly arranged in a row, tucked in a plastic bubble, one for each day of the month. And passion. Fiery flesh. (Passion, their mothers remembered it, sort of, the heart beating, singular obsession. It was a long time ago.)
The heat and the steady whack of a tennis ball lulled Brenda to sleep. A boy shouting “Cannonball!” woke her with a start. Splash! Water droplets on her arm. Sweaty, dazed–where was she? What time? Day? The other girls were gone. She sat up. Then remembered the other girls had matches, but she didn’t play until the next day. She should go watch them play, she should get out of the sun, she should find a glass of water, some part of her felt deeply parched.
On the other side of the pool, Golden Boy sat alone. No girls around, smiling, laughing, flirting; no boys, hoping some of his gold dust rubbed off on them. He looked different. His chest was caved in, his broad shoulders folded inward, minimizing them. He was staring at his new shoes. Defeat smudged his extraordinary glow. Which made no sense at all. He’d pummeled his opponent. Brenda’s pulse picked up, and she pressed her water bottle to her forehead to cool herself down.
Though Brenda isn’t the stunning beauty of a magazine cover, her gaze has an intelligence, and the pause before she speaks is the act of a brain thinking. Confidence hums beneath her insecurity, an insecurity that comes with being 16 and innocent, that very soon will slip off her, like an exoskeleton that no longer fits.
Gathering up her beach towel, rackets, and courage, she headed over to him, not sure what she was going to say or do. “Hey,” she said. When he murmured, “Hey,” she sat on the edge of the lounge chair next to him.
Now that she was this close, his brilliant white shorts and shirt against his tan, his blonde hair sparkling, the little beads of sweat on his upper lip, the feeling she’d had earlier–him sitting as if he’d washed ashore, waterlogged and lost –that feeling vanished, because he straightened up, pushed his chest out, and he became, once again, as if he’d never been otherwise, Golden Boy. He was so close to her, she could see the small brown birthmark on his right pointer finger. Everything she was going to say—what was she going to say?—flew out of her big brain, that brain that held trigonometry and molecular biology, that loved to read and calculate numbers, that this morning had read Jane Eyre, and when Jane realized she loved Mr. Rochester, she did not shout it to the heavens, didn’t open her window and sing a love song, but rather tossed around on an inner buoyant but unquiet sea, where billows of trouble rolled under surges of joy.
“You did great out there, that guy didn’t stand a chance,” said Brenda, breathlessly, rolling on her own surge of joy and trouble. “I mean, you had him flying around that court, chasing down everything like a madman. You could go pro, you really could.”
“Thanks,” he said.
“The way you sent that overhead smash right on the baseline, and your serve, I lost track of how many aces you had.” She swished the hair of her ponytail from shoulder to shoulder.
He stretched his long arms overhead, then lay down on the lawn chair, his hands under his head, his elbows flared out on either side of his head like two points of a star.
“It’s not that much fun, you know,” he said. “Beating someone like that.” He stared at the sky, his bright blue eyes a mirror of the bright blue sky.
He wanted a challenge; she wasn’t a challenge. One word, one look, the right look, she’d hand herself over and cover him with kisses. Fluttering through Brenda’s mind were the bold words, ‘summer romance.’ It was startling and exciting and frightening, this thought, and she surprised herself, even more, when she scooted back and lay down on the lounge chair right next to his, a foot away from him, so close if she stretched her hand out, she’d touch his wrist. She’d shaved her legs this morning, and they were sleek and shiny and smooth, like something that beckoned to be touched. She didn’t know what to do with her hands. She put them by her sides, but that felt too stiff, then crossed them on top of her stomach, but that felt too composed. So she put them behind her head, like him, and gave her charged attention to the sky.
Music from the snack shack’s radio fluttered over in snatches. He was so beautiful.
“When’s your next match?” she said.
The warm air, sounds of splashing from the pool, and beyond that, the steady smack of tennis balls. The summer sounds blotted out CNN, which droned on. The girls were on the court, but she was here, of all places. She almost laughed out loud. In that very instant, the elation vanished. Because, she thought, he could get up and leave. He could remember he had something else to do. Don’t go, she almost said out loud. His tan arm with delicate golden hair. His long slender fingers, fingernails, little white ovals. So easy to hold his hand, so easy and so impossible to hold his hand. If they were boyfriend and girlfriend, they’d lie together like this. On lounge chairs, on the green grass, in bed. That last thought made her face burn, and she yanked her mind back to the here and now. Blue sky, the sun so crystal, tan legs, their stack of rackets on the ground beside them. He had a dirt streak on the left side of his white cotton shorts. She didn’t know which she loved more, his tan arms or the golden hairs on his legs.
“An hour,” he said. “Just chilling.”
That was all. She was inconsequential. Nothing. She could be a chair, a glass of water, a fly. Not beautiful, no flash and pizzazz like Susanna–the way she pursed her lips as if she had a secret rolling around in her mouth like a marble, and you better come close to hear it. Closer. Brenda had none of that guile. Her hair was her main asset. (Not true!) But she couldn’t claim that today, the sweat had dried her hair in clumps. She sat up and looked down at her bare feet. Even her feet were ugly, she thought. Stubby, fat big toes.
My dear Golden Boy, if only you’d ask her something and take your mind off what’s troubling you, like a throb of a headache in your right temple; if only you’d ask her the smallest of questions, you’d swim in her rich depths, she has a mind that has traveled, that could take you to Hamlet or Macbeth or to 1920s jazz scene, which she’d written about for history; or even that convoluted, tangled subject, philosophy–she’d been reading Kierkegaard and Nietzsche (for the fun of it). In two years, she’ll leave soggy Seattle and go to Columbia for college and law school. She’ll end up a high-powered lawyer on Wall Street, helping the Fortune 500 spin, buy, sell, fend off hostile takeovers. She’ll purchase a brownstone on West 85th and Central Park and an apartment in Florida, for when she needs to hear the ocean roar. When she turns 37, she’ll realize she’s terribly lonely, and when was the last time Shakespeare strummed in her ear?
And what about our Golden Boy? When he turns 20, he’ll put his rackets away and head to Aspen. (A buddy moved there and said he had to visit). He’ll plan on spending a week but stay for seven years, a ski instructor. He’ll put up with bratty, red-cheeked kids, snot running from their noses, so he can expertly ski among the trees, swish through virgin snow. White icing with his signature. A ski bum, barely earning enough, but who cares–dating hot young girls in tight ski outfits, mostly one-night stands, steamy windows, snow piled up outside, the smell of ski wax, until his knees hurt so badly, he can’t ski without inhaling ibuprofen. A leather stretch to his skin, his hair no longer bright, but dirty blonde, he’ll end up a real estate agent, smiling hard, and sit in open houses on the weekends, holding out a plate of chocolate chip cookies to the suburban women, who are attracted like bees to the honeyed remains of his bewitching charm.
He was still stretched out on the lounge chair beside Brenda, his arms still behind his head, and he was telling her about his next match, against Matt, Matt with his vicious backhand, but it was nothing he couldn’t handle. But shit, last night he stayed up way too late partying.
“Hey, you and the other girls should meet up with us tonight,” he said.
Excitement zinged through her. He’d like to see her tonight? But if they were boyfriend and girlfriend—the pressure! She could never have an ugly-looking day. Not ever again.
“We got so drunk. Franco’s hosts have a wine cellar. He scored three bottles. We climbed the fence and sat out here by the pool and got hammered. You and the girls should come tonight.”
Night. Silver gray in the moonlight. The swoop and swing of bats. She’d once snuck a sip of her mother’s red wine, while her mother was cooking hamburgers outside on the grill. It was awful. Bitter, pucker-mouth. There was the idea of getting drunk by the pool with him and then there was the thing itself—sneaking out, passing a bottle back and forth, lips kissing the opening, the burn of alcohol at the back of her throat.
Somewhere in the middle of America, in a dark, dusty office, the shelves lined with thick, old-smelling books, an academic was doing mental gymnastics over the very issue that Brenda’s mind was grappling with. Was she in love with Golden Boy or the idea of him? Could you ever escape the idea of something and experience the thing itself? Was that even possible? If you thought in words, and words were the representation of things, weren’t you always thinking of the idea and not the thing itself? Was there such thing as a pure experience of a thing? Or must she, and everyone else for that matter, be confined to experience life two, three steps removed? But these thoughts vanished when he sat up. His back bowed again, his chest glued to his spine. He sighed.
“Do you know my dad has never seen me play?” he said, laughing, but it was a laugh blotted with sadness. “Not once.” All the laughter leached out, and his tone was unadulterated bitterness.
His father, a bigwig state senator. At this very moment, he was on a plane, on his way to Singapore to meet with government officials about forming a sister city partnership. Then to Shanghai, Beijing, Tokyo, soaring over the top of the globe, far above the cumulus clouds, to Berlin for more talks, a man who loved to talk and shake hands and lap up the love of millions. A very charming man. An ideal politician. He won’t see his son for another three weeks, and when he does, it will be for five minutes at dinner, he doesn’t have time to eat anything but a pickle and finish a bottle of dark beer, then off to a fundraiser at the Elks Lodge. The next time Golden Boy sees his father will be on CNN, talking about the need for more homeless shelters. And when he sees his father kiss the top of a baby’s head, he’ll throw his bowl of popcorn at the TV screen.
“He’s never seen you play?” said Brenda.
He picked up his favorite racket, opened the cover, plucked the strings. The sound was low-pitched, mournful, gloomy, an ache to the ear. Brenda noticed a smattering of small red pimples along his hairline, and the beginning of a new one on his chin, a red, inflamed circle. She felt unsettled, uneasy, though she wasn’t sure why.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
Her stomach clenched.
“I’m sorry,” she said again.
Because what else could she say? Why didn’t he straighten up? A dull flatness to his eyes.
“Yeah, it sucks.” His voice barely audible. He rubbed his hand over his face.
A sob threatened to erupt from her. It was as if the light inside Clayton Curr was flickering, extinguishing, even his bright blonde hair looked darker, his halo burning out.
All you lovers hoping for an embrace, a passionate kiss, a slip of a hand under a shirt, the frenzy of flesh against flesh (confession: me, this was me! I’m a romantic at heart) the story has taken an unexpected twist. I was so confident where this was going: it was building, building so beautifully, it seemed certain to happen, with Golden Boy peeling off his shimmer, showing her that he was earthbound, too, a mere mortal–dust to dust and all that, the distance between them nothing at all—zilch. Hand in hand, a walk to comfort him, console him, and over to quiet by the sycamore trees with fat green leaves and marigolds dancing around their feet. A slippery slope to a spot alone, the two of them, somewhere in fresh cotton sheets, the door closed. Me outside, serenading them with a love song.
Who knew she wanted nothing to do with a complicated, imperfect human, splotched with dark spots? She felt she was losing something she didn’t even know she wanted. If he was ordinary, who else was there to long for? (The celestial as an aphrodisiac?) Who would leave her awe-struck, tongue-tied? Who else would be out of reach? What would she believe in? The world tilting, things falling off their shelves, crashing, shattering. Who would she fantasize about if he was nothing but a boy, sad and angry at his father who never showed up for his tennis matches?
She stood up, uncertain what she was doing.
He looked at her, curiously, then pain distorted his beautiful face— like a photo ruined by rain.
“You did so well today,” she said, gushing. “You’re going to win this whole tournament.”
He gave her a little smile.
“You could go pro. The U.S. Open.”
His smile widened.
“No, you could. You really could. Wimbledon.”
She said more, slathering on more gloss and shine, adding shimmer and glitter, and as she talked, he began to glow again, his golden skin shimmery, illuminated. He sat up, broadening his shoulders, expanding his chest. He flashed his white teeth smile.
“I should get going,”’ he said, picking up his rackets.
“You’re going to win, for sure,” she said.
“Yeah,” he said. “A piece of cake.”
She watched him lope away, his blonde hair gleaming. She headed over to the courts. The girls had finished their matches and were sitting on the green grass in the sun, their faces sweaty. Only Michelle had won. Oh, well, there was next weekend’s tournament in Canada. They stretched out their sunburned legs and watched the boys play. Every now and then, Brenda found herself looking for Golden Boy, then a fleeting thought–maybe his father would show up. But soon, she was laughing with the others, and someone tossed her a stick of bubblegum, and they were blowing bubbles, laughing, when Golden Boy appeared, his stack of rackets under his arm, his hair, sunlit color, with a little curl. He smiled at them, a smile a little bigger, a little more urgent, and Brenda looked at the girls who were watching him and seeing their adoration of him, their lust, he became in her eyes more beautiful than ever.
Nina Schuyler’s novel, The Translator, won the 2014 Next Generation Indie Book Award for General Fiction and was shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Writing Prize. Her first novel, The Painting, was nominated for the Northern California Book Award and her nonfiction book, How to Write Stunning Sentences, is a bestseller. She teaches creative writing at the University of San Francisco.