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Serve-and-Volley, Near Vichy

ISSUE:  Fall 2014

Olivia Mueller

I was thirty-four years old when I met Léon Descoteaux, the famous tennis player, and stayed for a few days at his home in France, where he lived with his wife and children. I was traveling with my girlfriend of the time, Vicky, and she was old friends with Léon’s wife, Marion, from when the two had been on the tour together. It’d been ages since Vicky had last seen Marion, and she convinced me to stop in on the Descoteauxes on our way to Rome, where the uptown magazine I was on assignment with wanted me to do a travel piece. “Rome to the Maxxi.” “Beyond Trastevere.” Something like that. I was toying with the idea of proposing to Vicky, and I thought that if I got up the nerve Rome was the place to do it.

It was an odd moment in my life. I no longer felt young, but I didn’t feel exactly old. I felt, I suppose, that I was running out of time into which to keep pushing back the expectation that my life would simply sort itself out and come to resemble the normal model. Vicky and I had been friends in college, one of those prestigious East Coast schools whose graduates are cagey about where they went, and we had reconnected two years before. That was five years after she’d given up pro tennis and fallen, in her blithe, chipper way, into a job at a consulting firm. We were not the most natural fit, Vicky and I, but I had scaled back my ideas of what romance looked like, and she must have, too.

The Descoteauxes had been living in the countryside of the Auvergne for several years, not far from Clermont-Ferrand but pretty far from everywhere else, and this was why Vicky hadn’t seen Marion for so long.

“Léo has her secreted away in middle-of-nowhere France,” Vicky said. “I can’t imagine how she can stand it. She was such a party girl on the tour.”

I hazarded that maybe it was glamorous living in exile with a tennis legend. “And maybe people change,” I said.

“Not from Liberace to Thoreau,” Vicky said, with her great mischievous smile. When she smiled that way I felt, just possibly, that I could spend my life with her.

“Léon Descoteaux.” I shook my head.

I was excited about this part of our detour, I admit—the Léon Descoteaux part. It was why I’d agreed to go with Vicky. I didn’t think of myself as a person fascinated by celebrity, but that hardly meant I wasn’t curious to meet the guy, whom I had watched on TV all those years ago, to peek in on his private life. It would be a story I could tell people, a casual, small-talk currency. Hey, did I tell you I spent a weekend at Léon Descoteaux’s place in France last month?a while back?when I was in my thirties?decades ago?

There was a more personal reason, too. I was no huge tennis fan, but I watched the Slams when I could, and once, about fifteen years before, I’d seen Léon play a gutsy five-set semifinal against some Scandinavian phenomenon. Léon was at the peak of his career, number six in the world, and although it was clear that his finesse game didn’t stand a chance against this freakish Nordic power baseliner, Léon, with his becalmed court presence and upright bearing, played the Viking to a fifth set and a tiebreak, too. I remember few tennis matches, but in the hours I spent watching this one I formed a bond with Léon Descoteaux and I rooted for him through the rest of his career. He had a slim body and moved lightly around the court, with a kind of magic poise—the sort, I suppose, that you need to return a 125 mph serve. It may have been no more than this: I saw someone who moved with particular beauty or grace and the animal part of me responded. But in the story I told in my head I admired his stoicism in the face of what seemed to me an occasion for despair. He was more skilled than his opponent, but unable to compete with him physically. This hard-fought loss would be the best Léon could do, perhaps the best tennis he would ever play. So what I was watching, I felt, was someone almost without peer confront exactly the limit of his ability. Most of us don’t ever get to be sixth-best in the world at anything, fair enough. But neither, then, do most of us have to face such an objective, historical accounting of the upper limit of our talent.

On the plane over to France, above the dark nothing of the Atlantic before dawn, with the wing light blinking to my left and Vicky dozing against my right shoulder, I imagined that Léon and I might strike up a friendship, that after a few days I would tell him about watching the US Open semifinal all those years before. I might say something like: “I fell in love with your game, Léon. I was living and dying with each of your points. And although you lost the match I thought you played with terrific guts and poise.” I had no illusion that I would actually say this, but I was in the habit of making these little speeches in my head. The vacant ocean passed beneath us. I was awake when the world began its too-early brightening.

We made our transfer in Paris, and I finally passed out on the domestic flight, only to be awoken what seemed minutes later by Vicky, saying, “We’re here,” with annoying cheerfulness.

For a minute I had no idea what “here” she meant. A pall of exhaustion and physical misery cloaked my mood, and I thought suddenly that the trip had been a mistake, my fantasy of a warm friendship with Léon Descoteaux close to lunacy, and, most troubling of all, that I was following around a woman I barely knew and to whom, in the stark sobriety of daily life, I had almost made the insane mistake of proposing. I had these feelings about Vicky from time to time, and I think she must have had them about me, too, because there were points at which we so thoroughly baffled each other that we were forced to countenance the origin of our intimacy in college, when we were so young and drunk and hopeful that it was easy simply to adore other people as the mirror images of our own bright futures. This was how I saw it, at least. There was more to me and Vicky than that, surely. But there was also a sense in which what held us together was having come to know each other before we knew ourselves, and before, as a consequence, we knew how impossible it was going to be to know anybody else.

I can be a bit moody, and I certainly have that male thing where my bad mood is the world’s problem. So a lot of what I was feeling just then, as I waited for my bags to not-arrive in Clermont-Ferrand Auvergne International, was dubious and melodramatic. I still was trying to convince myself that new luggage was being added to the carousel fifteen minutes later when Marion showed up.

“Victoria!” she said, spotting us and raising a hand. She was an impossibly pretty woman of some wonderful, indefinite European age, and she gave off an assertive public comfort in her body that I took to be distinctly French.

“Marion, this is Daniel,” Vicky said, after they’d embraced. Marion looked me over like I was a rental billed a notch or two above its class.

“A pleasure,” she said.

Enchanté,” I said and felt immediately like the sort of seamy flirt who says “enchanté.”

“Poor Daniel,” Vicky said. “He didn’t sleep on the flight over, and now his bags haven’t shown up.” She rearranged my hair.

Mais non,” Marion said. She swept a hand across the scene. “They are all idiots here. Consanguin, you know? C’mon, we’ll give you Léo’s clothes.”

My mood lifted as we drove beyond the outskirts of Clermont-Ferrand. Marion turned onto a rural highway, and in a matter of minutes the land opened out into gorgeous, hilly country. It may have been this beauty, or catching a second wind, realizing that I was okay and not teetering on the brink of inward collapse, or it may just have been one of those moments when, like a flipped switch, you go from thinking the world is conspiring against you to seeing that the world doesn’t care and that you are free to find your own happiness or sorrow.

“So what will we do while you’re here?” Marion said. “You’ll want to tour around, I suppose.” She sighed. “It’s funny, we live such isolated existences. I hardly know this place.”

“That’s impossible,” Vicky said, and laughed. “You’ve been here, what, five years? What about the kids, what do you guys do?”

“Yes, the poor kids,” Marion said. “They are too young to care. And we have a woman, Madame Lévesque. I play tennis in the city some days, and Léo—who knows what Léo does.”

We were passing fields cleared for crops, wild slivers of uncleared fields within the forests and hills. Fields with rocky outcroppings and stone farmhouses, quaint and picturesque, with linens and dresses sailing from clotheslines. It was a windy day, and at points the sun would find a hole in the clouds and unload its cache of warmth on the champagne hood of Marion’s BMW.

“What do you mean?” Vicky said, her voice as light and delicate as wind chimes.

“Léo,” Marion said, “… is peculiar these days. He spends ages in his workshop. He’s always taking long walks in the forest. Maybe he’s crazy.”

She laughed, so we laughed, too.

“Does he still play?” I said.

“No,” Marion said. She looked out the window and added softly, mostly to herself, “No, no, no.”

We pulled up to their house not long after, a large but not immodest country home, tidy on the outside and nicely fixed up, built in the French farmhouse style with peach-colored terra-cotta roof tiles, small casement windows, stone masonry. An elegant and unpretentious house, set back a half-mile from the road. To the right was a fenced-in tennis court with mounted lights for night play. The net wasn’t strung, but the clay surface was neatly rolled and swept.

Marion left us in the front room with Vicky’s bags while she went to find the others. I drifted over to a desk with a visitor log, and Vicky peered over my shoulder as I flipped through.

“Is this what you expected?” I said. I didn’t mean the guestbook, but I might as well have. The last entry was from five months before, in late January, and the entries from the last few years were sparse. Before that, the Descoteauxes had had regular visitors. I even recognized a few names as those of tennis players famous a decade ago and a French soccer star from the good national teams at the end of the century.

“So this is a bit more bizarre than I was anticipating,” Vicky said. She looked at me with one closed eye. “But I promise they’re sweet.” She kissed my cheek and then, unable to resist, took a racket hanging on the coatrack out of its case and tested its swing.

I looked over to see a small boy peeking at us around a corner. I grinned at him.

Maman!” he shouted.

A moment later two slightly larger boys appeared, and then Marion and an older woman.

Ta gueule, Fabien,” one of the older boys said.

They were all, these boys, very good-looking. They might have been dressed for a catalog shoot: white cotton tennis shorts, matching boat shoes, differently colored but otherwise interchangeable Lacoste pullovers with little neck zippers.

“You shouldn’t play with it in front of them,” Marion told Vicky. “Léo has forbidden tennis and, predictably, they desire to do nothing else.”

Qu’est que t’a dit?” Fabien demanded, pulling at his mother’s skirt.

Arrêtes,” Marion said sharply. “The older two, Michel and Antoine, speak English, but Fabien is a beginner. N’est-ce pas, Fabien? Tu parles anglais ou quoi?

“Oui,” Fabien shouted. “Pussy!”

The older boys laughed, and Marion slapped Fabien very hard on the back of the head. “Mais vraiment. They watch too many movies.”

Madame Lévesque appeared serenely oblivious to this exchange and herded the children out after we’d said our hellos.

“I can’t find Léo,” Marion said, “but I’ll show you your room.”

By the time we settled in, I had lost any faith in my imaginary friendship with Léon Descoteaux and had begun to imagine a prickly recluse liable to resent our being there. Marion and Vicky were off drinking wine and chatting on the garden terrace, and I had excused myself, setting up around back in a wood chaise with my books and notepads. It was a brisk day. I was wearing a thick cable-knit sweater Marion had given me from Léo’s dresser, and I’d found coffee in the kitchen and was finally feeling like myself again, looking out over lush grounds behind the Descoteauxes’ house, which sloped down prettily to a pond and an orchard. The garden, where I could hear Vicky and Marion laughing, continued on around the side of the house.

I had decided to read up on Rome. A year before, I’d written a long piece on Mexican wrestling, and I’d found it easier to pick up assignments since then. This was my sixth year of freelance work, stringing together long-form nonfiction, travelogues, the occasional trend piece. I was making just enough to get by, which meant dressing respectably, going out to dinner a few times a week, and paying (nearly) half the rent on our one-bedroom in Tribeca. Keeping up appearances, really. I had no savings and no prospect of any. And yet I still felt a small thrill when I opened up a newsstand issue and saw my name in the table of contents, the words I had composed on my old, battered laptop dignified by top-notch production. Friends and relatives sometimes sent me notes when they had read an article of mine, and it satisfied that old feeling, I suppose, that I was, in all my particularity, significant. I had no illusion at thirty-four that I really was, but I existed at the edge of the known world, and if I was afraid that I might get lost in my own head, which was always a fear, this public existence retrieved me, it located me in an objective terrain.

The anecdote with which I closed the wrestling piece came from an interview I’d conducted with an old wrestler, a man who only agreed to talk to me on terms of strict anonymity. He told me that when he gave up wrestling, he had thrown away his costume and never spoken of his career again. He was a paunchy man in his fifties when I met him, who chain-smoked and made a sibilant noise when he breathed. “The mask,” he said, “is everything. Without the mask, you never leave the ring.”

My Spanish was only conversational and the man had forbidden a translator, so I only realized what I had when I got back to New York and hired someone to translate the tapes. I remember feeling shivers run down my spine as I read the transcript.

It was as I was reading up on Rome and the Colosseum in the backyard that I saw a figure emerge from a patch of forest near the pond. It was a man, a little above average height, wearing shorts and a cable-knit sweater like the one I had on. He had a beard and neat, close-cropped hair, and he looked at the ground as he walked. I knew at once that it was Léon Descoteaux. His gait had the same overarticulated precision as his tennis game. I put down my book and stood.

He smiled when he got close. “You must be Daniel,” he said, surprising me. “We have been looking forward to your visit. I am Léon Descoteaux, but please call me Léo.” We shook hands.

“Pleasure to meet you,” I said. “I was a big fan of yours on the court.” He didn’t respond, but I saw his jaw clench once, and I followed his gaze as he looked off at the pond, the orchard, the hills behind them. “It’s a magnificent place you have here,” I said.

“And we shall explore it. But please, come with me to the garden. I need to pick lettuce and herbs for dinner.”

Léo was on his hands and knees in the dirt when Vicky spotted us and came running over.

“Léo!” she said.

“Victoria,” he said, rising and kissing her cheeks. “We’re delighted you came. You look even more beautiful than I remembered.”

“So you two have met,” Vicky said, blushing.

“Daniel and I are in the early stages of a promising friendship,” Léo said. I gave Vicky a baffled look.

“I’m so glad.” Her cheeks were flushed, and I guessed they’d opened a second bottle. “Marion told me not to bring up tennis, but I hope you’ll at least hit around with us while we’re here.”

“No,” Léo said, pleasantly enough. “No, I won’t.” He smiled. “Smell these herbs. They’re for our dinner.”

Then Vicky, then I, smelled the sharp, earthy thyme Léo had bunched in his hand.

I helped Léo with dinner while the women laid out the table. We roasted a chicken with potatoes and leeks, and I assembled a salad from the garden foraging. Léo put on a Joaquín Rodrigo album, and we busied ourselves in near silence. Occasionally he would ask a question or show me how he wanted something cut.

“Where were you born, Daniel?” he said at one point.

Kentucky, I told him.

“Kentucky,” he said, and laughed. “This is a real place, where people come from?”

“A few,” I said, “not many.” I told him about the rugged, green country of eastern Kentucky, the low, choppy mountains, the oak and hickory forests. I told him it was a bit like here.

“Like the Auvergne?” he said. “The Auvergne, you know, is a mystical place. Very strange. Full of old, secretive societies.” He cut into the chicken to see whether it was cooked through. “It was the center of the Resistance, did you know? They would hide in the mountains and hills.”

I asked if that was why he’d chosen to live here. “Of course,” he said and winked.

That night Vicky and I turned in early after dinner. We had a second-floor bedroom that looked out on the tennis court and the moonlit hills beyond. Fresh wildflowers sprouted from a vase beside our bed.

“I’m worried about Marion,” Vicky said. I was reading next to her. She lay looking up at the ceiling.

“In what sense?” I put my book down, keeping a finger in it to mark my place. “Your friends couldn’t be more wonderful.”

Vicky was quiet for a minute, then she said, “Marion told me some disturbing things. Léo refuses to touch her, she says. They haven’t slept together in almost a year.”

“That is disturbing,” I said. “Marion’s very attractive.”

“Don’t make a joke of it. She thinks Léo’s turning into an … an ascetic or something.” Vicky toyed with my arm hair—self-consciously, I thought, as though to confirm we still had this. 

“That’s not all,” she said after a minute. Her voice had grown soft, so soft I could barely hear her. I leaned over and felt her damp breath in my ear. “Léo has a workshop he keeps locked. But Marion found the key when he was out on a walk.”

Vicky stopped speaking. The moon fell through the sky and through our window to pool on the tile below. I didn’t want to betray my curiosity, but this excited me. My heart beat with a hollow, winey depth.

“And?” I whispered. I wasn’t sure I’d even spoken.

“There was an old video camera on a tripod. A chair. A bunch of old-looking electronic equipment she doesn’t understand. Maybe a VCR or something.”

I laughed. “What does she think? He’s some sort of abductor?”

“It’s not funny,” Vicky said. “She doesn’t know what to think. She’s afraid to ask him.”

I told Vicky not to worry, but despite my jet lag and my fatigue I found it difficult to sleep. I had the impression of being awake the entire night, turning from side to side. I must have fallen asleep, though, because in the middle of the night I awoke to find Vicky gone from the bed. I hadn’t heard her stir, so I got up to check our little bathroom, which was empty. A sudden fear gripped me. I saw a grisly scene: Vicky tied to a chair, gagged, camera rolling. I was not in my right mind and was struggling into a pair of athletic shorts when I glanced out the window and saw Vicky on the tennis court, hitting imaginary ground strokes by herself in the moonlight. She moved as I had seen her move on tennis courts for many years, with the litheness of a cat, with a shot that snapped so hard it looked like it could dislocate her lovely shoulders.

My heart was heaving. First with fear, then relief, and then with a second fear that what I was witnessing was madness. I lay down for a minute to calm myself and awoke in the early morning with Vicky sleeping next to me. She was in a good mood when I nudged her awake and laughed when I told her what I’d seen.

“You must have dreamed it,” she said and turned over to doze some more. But I didn’t think I’d dreamed it, I was sure I hadn’t, and as Vicky fell back asleep I dressed and went out to look for scuff marks in the clay. I walked the lines of the court. I could scarcely find a stray crumble of brick. When I looked up, Léo was walking toward me with a pair of mugs.

Tiens,” he said, handing me a coffee. “I saw you out here, sniffing around the cage.”

He stood at the gate. I sipped the coffee. “We say ‘court’ in English.”

“Shall we go exploring?” he said. I thought he meant around the property and said sure, but Léo climbed into a Range Rover, coffee in hand, and motioned me up. We drove off without a word. The roads were empty in the early morning, the sun above us burning into a screen of cloud.

“I thought you would like to see the Temple of Mercury,” Léo said. “Because of Rome.”

I had mentioned the article at dinner and now said “Great,” as though I had any idea what he was talking about. It turned out to be a Gallo-Roman temple at the top of an old, dormant volcano called Puy de Dôme, close to Clermont-Ferrand. The mountaintop had a distinctive hump shape that I found familiar, and I said as much.

“It is the end of a Tour de France stage,” Léo said. “Maybe you have seen it before on TV.”

This seemed plausible, and I said—stupidly, I later thought—that it was always a bit uncanny to see things in real life that you have only ever seen on TV.

“Uncanny,” Léo said. “This mean what?”

“What does it mean?” I said. “Familiar—or almost familiar—but in an unsettling way.”

“Ah,” said Léo.

We were at the top of the mountain. The cool air whipped at the fabric of our shirts. The ruins of the temple lay before us, the long stone walls terracing the grade of the lava dome. Above the dark scattered rocks of the temple, a broadcasting station with a tall antenna rose into the sky.

“This is maybe how it is when people look at me,” Léo said. “Even Marion. Like instead of me she sees Léon Descoteaux. And who is that?”

We gazed out at the Chaîne des Puys, a string of ancient volcanoes leading off into the clouds that gathered above the mountains in the distance. It felt like a moment to say something generous and true, and the story of watching Léo in the US Open semifinal tumbled out of me before I could stop myself. I told him I felt I had seen something special that day, something personal, perhaps even him. I said it was like watching what the beauty of movement could do against power, that it made me hopeful that beauty had a chance. I had a vague idea that you could talk to French people this way.

Léo frowned and gestured toward the temple. “You know, they used to think that Mercury, he carries the dreams from the god of dreams to the dreamer. I sometimes wonder if he ever switches the dreams along the way.”

“Like a prank?” I said.

“Maybe like a prank,” Léo said. “Like say you’re Oedipus and you’re supposed to dream you fuck your mother and kill your father. But Mercury switches them and instead you kill your mother and fuck your father. Maybe you spend your life worrying you’re gay.”

“Or you’re supposed to dream you’re the journalist. And I’m supposed to be the tennis star.”

“Or maybe,” Léo said, “you dream you’re naked in front of the class. Except instead of being embarrassed, you like it.”

We drove home through a small village and stopped at a market in the town square. Léo picked out supplies for lunch and asked me about Vicky, how long we’d known each other, when we’d met, and so on. The story of our meeting, which I told him, was one I had repeated so often that it now had more to do with prior tellings than anything else. I’d worked for the paper in college and was writing a piece on classmates of particular and narrow excellence when I met Vicky. I had interviewed a cellist with perfect pitch, a math genius who wrote equations in the fog of bathroom mirrors, a poet anthologized in his teens. Vicky was my last interview. Compared with the others she was marvelously sane. To judge by the first three, superlative talent came with a form of insanity. They all admitted to me in one way or another that part of them hated the distorting influence of their abilities, part of them longed for normalcy, because what struck everyone else as incredible came so naturally to them it seemed unremarkable. Vicky said this herself.

“It doesn’t feel to me like I’m ‘great’ at tennis,” she said. “It feels like I’m good, and like most of the time other people are worse. Sometimes I play someone and I’m worse, and I feel in awe of what they can do. But you rarely feel in awe of what you can do yourself.” I asked if this came as a disappointment. She thought about it and shrugged. “If I was someone who was going to feel awe all the time, I’d probably be going to div school, not playing tennis.”

When I told people our meeting story, I would tell them that it was this down-to-earth quality that drew me to Vicky, this mature wisdom about the limits of genius and her levelheaded rejection of the romanticism people tried to attach to her talent. But although this is what I told people, and what I was telling Léo now, it wasn’t true. I had already known Vicky when I interviewed her, not well but casually, and I had conceived the piece at least in part to get closer to her. I was attracted to her, and although I am ashamed to say it, I was attracted to her excellence.

I was rambling a bit by the time Léo turned up the drive. He stopped the vehicle before we came into sight of the house and turned to me.

“What if I told you I slept with Victoria
years ago?”

I tensed and fingered the pebbled leather on the Rover’s door. “Are you telling me that?”

Léo looked bored, or tired. “Maybe,” he said. “If yes, what do you say?”

I tried to follow the eddy of my feelings, to still and look at them, but all I could see was Léo, handsome and lean, looking out through the windshield, awaiting my reply. We wore the same collared tennis shirt, mine white, his red, and it felt ridiculous, the two of us sitting there, discussing this like a hypothetical. And yet that was how it seemed—hypothetical—because I could sense a gulf between what I should feel and what I did. Because how could I begrudge Vicky this handsome man, his athlete’s body, his perfect way of moving, all those years ago? Maybe she should have told me, but I couldn’t be angry with her. What I felt, when Léo smiled at me, what I honestly felt was that this brought us closer, Léo and me.

“I don’t care,” I said. “I fucked Marion last night.”

Léo looked at me. Then he laughed. Then we both laughed and drove the rest of the way to the house.

Over lunch Fabien told an interminable story in French that I couldn’t understand. Nobody translated. Everyone’s air around the table was preoccupied. I was anxious to ask Vicky about her and Léo, so when lunch ended I insisted that she and I do the washing-up. Only then and gently, because I wasn’t mad—I really wasn’t—did I ask why she hadn’t told me about her and Léo.

“What about us?” she said, plopping a grape in her mouth.

“That you had a thing.”

Vicky laughed and set down the dish she was drying. “Me and Léo? A thing?” Her mouth twisted up in genuine amusement. “I think I’d know.”

My relief was followed closely by annoyance and then, maybe, something like regret. I thought for a crazy moment of asking Vicky whether she would have, had Léo wanted to, but I could hardly ask her that. It wasn’t jealousy that I felt, after all, but the opposite of jealousy. I felt—spurned.

Vicky and Marion went into the city that afternoon to play tennis at Marion’s club, and I was once more left alone with my books and notepads on the back lawn. I tried to think about Rome, but all I could think about was Léo. What had happened to him? Was he crazy? Just as I was thinking, Screw Rome, this is what I should write about: the madness of Léon Descoteaux, his son Antoine appeared at my side. He announced his presence by putting his hand on my shoulder and looking down at my notes.

“Hello there,” I said.

He breathed on my face for a few seconds before turning away from my papers. “You must think we’re very weird,” he said.

I looked at him appraisingly. He couldn’t have been more than eleven.

“Everyone’s weird,” I said.

“Are people in America this weird?”

I laughed. Lots of them were, I said, and lots of them even weirder. Antoine sighed. We looked off at the hills together.

“Nobody understands my father,” he said. “But I do.”

I asked what he understood, and his voice grew soft. He moved his hand to my neck so he could whisper in my ear, and I felt the clamminess of his fingers on my skin.

“He doesn’t believe he exists,” Antoine whispered.

“What do you mean?” I said.

He looked at me with wide, dramatic eyes. “How do you know you exist?” 

I said I didn’t really worry about it, and he laughed. “Maybe you’re crazy,” he said.

“Do you think I’m crazy?”

He shrugged. “You’re still here.”

Léo emerged on the lawn not long after. He had a video camera on his right shoulder, the old boxy sort that a videocassette slides into, and a tennis racket in his left hand.

“I have figured out what we need to do,” he said.

“Need to do …” I repeated.

“Come,” he said.

He led me around the house to the tennis court and, though it was only afternoon and still bright out, flipped the breakers on the overhead lights. They glowed to life, bathing the already-lit surface in a further saturation of light.

“Help me put up the net,” Léo said. He hesitated at the gate, then strode purposefully onto the court. We strung and cranked the net until it was taut. Léo handed me the racket. He looked into the rubber viewfinder on the video camera.

“What am I doing?” I asked.

“Playing,” Léo said. He had the camera pointed at me and was adjusting lens settings as he spoke.

“Against whom?”

“No one,” he said. “We’ll use our imaginations. I’ll tell you what to do.”

And he did. This was how it began, Léo calling out shots and movements. It seemed ages we were on the court, Léo directing me—
“To the centerline!” “Back-peddle four steps!” “Deuce court!” “Backhand slice!”—I, floating across the surface, hitting imaginary shot after imaginary shot, and sometimes missing, too, heaving my body after a return with too much pace on it, a too-perfect location. My initial self-consciousness fell away as I played. The exertion thrilled me. My body moved naturally and fluidly, responding to Léo’s instructions as its own. I served and drifted to the center of the baseline, found myself pulled left into the ad court, barely able to get the racket on a crosscourt forehand, lofting it for my opponent to put away with an overhead. At first Léo made me repeat strokes until I got them just so, but over time these repetitions became less frequent. I had to put more topspin on the ball than I was used to, and Léo wanted a shorter service toss and a more open-faced stance. My body, surprising me, adjusted quickly, gave itself to him as a puppet, and when Léo called out an instruction I felt a thrill of sense pleasure run through me, like when a doctor puts a cool stethoscope to your chest.

The only times Léo stopped were to change batteries and VHS tapes. This alone marked the passage of time. My body had ceased to register it, and I inhabited the moment in a way I never had before, as though a dancer in the pliant liquid of each second’s unfolding. I felt alive. It is a silly phrase, we are always alive, but this is how I felt. It had to do with Léo’s joy, I think, his excitement, his watching me. I had never been watched like this, and it was drug-like. Each movement attended so closely. I was bathed in sweat when I saw Marion’s BMW kicking up dust in the driveway, and I felt purer and happier than I could remember ever having felt.

Marion parked and went quickly inside. Vicky approached the court with an odd look on her face.

“What are you doing?” she said.

“What are we doing?” I said to Léo, laughing. I felt grand. That was actually the word that came into my head.

“Making the level playing field,” Léo said and grinned. “This is an expression in English, no?”

“Daniel, can you come in and talk to me for a minute?” Vicky said.

I looked at Léo and we shrugged at one another. He handed me a white towel, and I wiped my face and arms, and handed it back to him. I gave him the racket and went in with Vicky.

“What is it?” I said, when we were in our room. I peeled off my shirt and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, strong and lean, glistening. I had the urge to throw Vicky down on the bed and fuck her.

“We have to leave,” Vicky said. “Marion broke down on the drive back. She pulled off the road and almost crashed us. She said she’s going crazy. She couldn’t tell if she was crazy, or Léo, or both of them.” Vicky was shaking, and I held her with reluctant tenderness. “And then I saw you doing”—she fluttered her hands in incomprehension—“whatever the fuck you were doing when we got home.”

“We were just horsing around,” I said.

Vicky didn’t seem to hear me. “Marion was so normal before. It’s Léo that made her like this. This place. It’s haunted or something. Please, we have to go.”

“Léo?” I said. “He’s an eccentric, sure, but he’s harmless, he’s sweet. Isn’t Marion maybe exaggerating a little?” I didn’t know what I believed. The truth was I didn’t care. I hoped Léo and I might continue our filming the next day, and I wanted to stay on, no matter the cost. “I think Léo feels that Marion never really tried to know him,” I said.

Vicky looked at me strangely. “What do you know about it?” I was on the verge of saying I thought I understood Léo on a pretty deep level when Vicky added, “You know what Marion told me? She said she doesn’t even know if she exists anymore. She’s losing her mind.”

I couldn’t help smiling. A whisper of excitement tickled my throat, and without quite meaning to I said, “How do you know you exist?” I said it softly, and Vicky lurched in my arms, looking up at me with terror or revulsion.

“What do you mean? I exist because I exist. Because I’m here, having this conversation with you. What the fuck are you talking about? Oh, fuck. Oh, fuck.” She rocked back and forth, hugging herself.

“Easy,” I said. “I didn’t mean anything. It was a bad joke is all.”

But who was I, and who was Vicky, and what were we doing holding each other in this terrible house in France?

Léo didn’t come to dinner that night. He had locked himself in his workshop, Michel reported. Antoine grinned at me. Marion and Vicky drank wine and pushed the dinner around on their plates. No one besides me seemed to have much appetite.

I wish I could say that I gave in to Vicky and agreed to leave early the next morning, but I badgered her into staying another day, as we’d planned. Vicky wouldn’t turn toward me in bed that night, and when I awoke we were both outside on the tennis court, under the burning metal-halide lights, rallying back and forth. There was no ball between us, but I was keeping up with Vicky, which was how I knew it wasn’t real, and at one point I called out to her, “You look so happy!” and she said, “You look so happy!” and we laughed at ourselves and played on ecstatically to the flash of cameras, which caught the spindrifts of clay our feet sent up, the beads of sweat we let go into the air.

Everything was a little better in the morning. Marion was up before us and seemed fine, though Léo had yet to emerge from the workshop. The three of us, Vicky, Marion, and I, went on a drive by ourselves. Marion took us to a small restaurant up in the hills, where we sat on a terrace shaded by apple trees that looked out on the rolling country below. We ate lunch and drank too much wine, and Vicky and Marion told stories from the tour. I listened vaguely. The stories all had a similar cast. A wild point in some ancient match. Drunk evenings lost to a glittering world. How dim and dickish world-class athletes could be. Mostly the last—how complacent, how spiritually lazy, you became under the habitual glare of the world’s attention. I said as much, and Marion said, “Ah, but sometimes don’t I wish I was more like that.”

“I don’t,” Vicky said, and I squeezed her arm.

When we got back in the early evening Léo had already started on dinner. He kissed Marion when she came in, and Vicky and I raised our eyebrows at each other. Marion blushed and played affectionately with his hair. The look in her eyes, however, is not one I have forgotten. It was the look you might give the ghost of a child you knew to be dead.

“I have watched your tape,” Léo told me, when Vicky and Marion had left us to the dishes. He dried his hands on a dishrag and hugged me. He gave me a kiss on each cheek. “It was beautiful,” he said. “Now we can be friends.”

When we awoke the next morning, Vicky and I were surprised to hear the sounds of heavy machinery in the yard. It was early, and we looked out the window to see a construction crew dismantling the Descoteauxes’ tennis court. Marion was in the kitchen preparing breakfast and humming to herself brightly. “I can’t take you to the airport,” she said, “but we have it all arranged, a car service. Oh, and they called to say they have your bags, finally.”

We ate. We said our goodbyes, to the children, to Madame Lévesque, to Marion, to Léo. No one mentioned the demolition, which crashed on around us. As we went out the door Léo handed me a padded manila envelope with something rattly inside it.

“For you,” he said. “A surprise.”

I took it, but didn’t open it until Vicky and I were in the hired car on the way to the airport. Inside was an unlabeled black videocassette.

“What is it?” Vicky asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.

But I did know! I did.

After driving awhile through the hills Vicky turned to me and said quietly, “You have to do something for me. You have to throw away that tape without watching it. I promise you, you’ll be happier if you do.”

I didn’t say anything. We arrived in Rome. I began my explorations, my sightseeing, my note-taking. Vicky came with me some days and went off on her own others. I moved around the city. I moved this way and that. I felt my legs move, my arms swing through the Roman air. I ran my fingers along the stones. No one saw any of it. Did I exist?

Even in those days it was hard to track down a VHS player, but I finally found an outfit that transferred video to DVD, and I gave the proprietor my credit card to leave me alone in the room with his equipment. When I got back to the hotel, I threw myself on Vicky, and we had torrid sex, and I half expected her to look at me with gratitude when we were done, but she wouldn’t meet my eye.

“You watched it,” she said.


I couldn’t lie. I could still see myself in triumph, walking onto the court, clapping my racket with my hand, getting down in a crouch, waiting for the first serve. I only thought later how remarkable that Léon Descoteaux, after all those years, had remembered every shot, every twist and lurch, with such precision. His memory of the match was perfect. By the time I thought this Vicky had flown home and our relationship had begun the rapid crumbling that would leave it scattered at our feet. I’d like to say that I didn’t watch the video again, or many times after. That others didn’t have to intervene. That I didn’t have to burn the damn thing and spend years finding different ways of describing what it meant to feel “hollowed out.” And even then, when I had burned the tape and moved on—even now—I wake up at night with the image of camera flashes hot on my retina, the tidal roar of the crowd in my ear, shifting weight lightly from side to side, gazing placidly into the eyes of my tall opponent, listening for the chair umpire to come through, over the speakers high above.

That’s how it begins.



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Tom Paine's picture
Tom Paine · 9 years ago

Incroyable. Nominating for a Puschart.


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