by Brently Johnson

Just outside the dwarfed door to the racquetball court he asks me, “Do you have protective eye gear?”

Adam, chesty and Bavarian in build, a colleague at the small university where we both teach, keeps his hair buzzed short and clean, and is in top physical shape. He sets down his bag designed specifically for the game: a pocket for athletic gloves, a space for his court-only shoes, and a cozy little fleece-lined pouch for his safety goggles. He unzips the long side compartment which holds at least five different racquets.

The question catches me off-guard, as if I’ve been asked by another grown man whether I’ve applied sunscreen before stepping outside.

“The front desk has them, you know. They’re free. No charge.”

I’m pulling at my racquet’s woefully loose strings with the tips of my fingernails, trying to align them back into their original shape from a year ago, the last time I played.

“That’s ok,” I say. “I’m good.”

He’s a nice guy, Adam, and we’ve talked about playing racquetball for over a year now. You know how it goes though: you get busy, you get lazy, you get intimidated by the physical stature of your opponent and by the fact that he casually disclosed winning the amateur’s tournament at his athletic club a few months back.

We crawl through the tiny square door and onto the court. Adam hops in the air several times to get the blood loose and moving. Then he’s squatting, stretching out the hams, and I pretend to do the same, bending over and fussing with my laces, pulling my socks up tight.

After a few minutes of trading warm up hits, working the ball over and lengthening our arms, things turn serious: Adam insists I serve. I step up and spit into my palm, wiping the bottom of my shoes for that extra stick and tack. I glance over my shoulder. Adam’s bent slightly at the knees, racquet out in front, textbook pose. I pull back, swing away, and send it ridiculously long, where it smacks off the back wall.

“Sorry,” I say. “It’s been a while.”

The second serve lands true, rattles the corner, and I brace for a muscled return. Instead, he nudges the ball toward the high right corner where it ricochets off the ceiling and falls back to earth in the dead zone. By the time I’m there, I find myself pinned against the wall, my racquet flailing in the air. I whiff and feel the ball kick off my shin. A conspicuous way to begin.

I check my strings for a hole, a little embarrassed.

Adam shows no reaction, and I wonder: Was that a miss hit that spun lucky or did he mean to do that?

Regardless, it’s his serve. I bend at the knees, swaying side to side, Edberg-style, waiting for the crusher off the front wall. Again his hit is more pansy than power as it caresses the sidewall before falling madly, hopelessly in love with the corner. I track it, wail on it, and send it back so Adam can lob it toward the ceiling again, where it finds a second wall, and a third, then lands, making a small squeak the way a mouse would after the metal hinge has slammed down on its head—the sound, to be exact, of impending doom. The ball takes a wicked spin, and I watch it go off and die on its own.

“That’s called a Z shot.” Adam, like a racquetball Zorro, carves an imaginary Z in the air, explaining how the friction created by the three walls ensures backspin and, in my case, serious befuddlement.

“One up,” he says and I see the soft serve was no accident, no premature pity party but a strategy of some sort that I’ve never seen employed. He serves another that floats down like snow into the back corner. I manage to get a piece of it and he’s working the ceiling again. I grab it out of the air with the tip of my racquet, trying to drive the ball down hard. We work high and low like this for about three rallies until I hit one right into his breadbasket, which he puts easily, irrefutably away.

It goes on like this for twelve more points: his granny-ass serves, my meat-headed hacks, his patient placements in the corner, my eventual bombing out. It’s slow, and methodical, and actually, quite cruel what he’s doing to me. Think Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran. Think soft jabs that keep you from landing your best punch, then think “no mas.”

When you’re getting your ass handed to you on a plate, it’s a dizzying affair, and it takes one good drubbing, 15-5, before I begin to understand what I am chewing on. It isn’t the shock of losing as much as how I am losing. If I were being shredded by Adam’s physique and ability to commit violence against the ball, I’d recognize my fate and commit myself to pounding the ball harder, to diving after anything within reach, to flogging my will until it repented and bowed to the game. But this, this is much more civilized, clinical, and clean. Some sort of surgery is taking place and I feel myself being carefully, exactly, gutted and the game I knew how to play being put on ice.

“That’s a ‘shield,’” Adams says politely. “Go ahead and serve again.”

When I hear this, I’m still crouched like a tiger facing the front wall, awaiting a return that never comes.

“What’s that?”

“When you hit that last ball, you used your body to hide it. That’s a shield.”

He bounces the ball my way. “Take a second serve.”

Interesting. I never knew that was a thing. In fact, the fellas I’ve played with over the years have apparently been treating “the shield” as a powerful technique of the game, how a pitcher secrets the ball in his glove, the magician’s rabbit in a hat.

“Yeah, you can’t shield the ball. It’s just one of those sportsmanship rules.”

Adam is blessed with a strong coastline of a jaw, his chin like the Rock of Gibraltar. I don’t say it, but wonder how a man with a chin like that could abide by such a wuss rule. Looking at the score, who am I to argue? He obviously knows the game more intimately than I. Keeping quiet, I just vow to hit the ball harder, to murder that little blue ball into motion. Of course, I soon learn that this strategy is ill-advised as well.

I learn a lot of things, in fact. Down five points, I learn that, properly, I’m not supposed to squat in the middle of the court when it puts me in Adam’s zone of fire. Down eight points, I learn that when I go to retrieve a ball where Adam is pinned to the wall that, again, it’s proper to call the point “dead.” Down thirteen to three, I learn that I’m playing a game I barely recognize and wonder how I’ve failed to know the sheer vastness of good conduct rules.

In between sets, we step outside into the hallway, grab some water, cool down.

I ask, “How long you been playing?”

“Oh, for a while. But, I didn’t get serious about it until five years ago.” He takes a perfunctory swig, a kind gesture as I doubt I’ve caused him great dehydration.

He brings the bottle down to his side. “You sure you don’t want to get those goggles? They’ve got pictures on the wall at my club. The ball, if it were to strike your eye socket just right, could literally suck your eyeball out.”

I can’t help but imagine one of those fake Halloween eyes glued to a slinky that springs from your face, a childish thought, I know, perhaps my way of resisting his parental urging.

“Really?” I feign. At this point, the goggles are a contest themselves, one between his style of play and mine, and perhaps the only one that I have a chance of winning. “Maybe I’ll grab a pair next time.”

“Alright. Your call,” he says as he walks over to the wall and holds it up, lengthening his calves. “Yeah, something like 40,000 eye injuries a year. 95% caused by a ball. It’s a matter of compression and depression.”

And physics and velocity and whatnot. What I call Halloween eye is apparently very technical. Very grave.

“You ever hear of hyphema? That’s when there’s bleeding in the anterior chamber. They call it orbital blowout.”

“Cool, like when a star collapses in on itself?”

“No.” He bounces his racquet off his palm three times. “More like when the eye socket is literally fractured.”

I didn’t know any of this before walking onto the court today, but it goes against the one thing I did know: that the game of racquetball is about banging away, hounding after balls and into walls where I smack and smear down them like mayonnaise. It is quick as a Camaro, and filled with the narrative of long rallies—the tragedy of a miscue on the twelfth exchange, the comedy of slipping in a puddle of your own sweat. I know it like a windmill knows a good wind, swinging my arms at rapid speeds to generate energy. Small welts on the back of the legs, in the soft spot between the shoulder blades from an opponent’s ball are just part of the game, the purple tattoos of a couple sharing an intimate space. That’s the game I’ve known and loved. Comparing that to the game Adam is teaching me, I see how immaturely I’ve performed thus far, how I paid seven dollars an hour at the rec center to play like a teenager in love, chasing after a little ball and seeing that the more elusive it was, the more seductive it became, and wondering if I could ever make it kiss that back glass wall hard enough to shatter it into a zillion little bits.

I never considered how much racquetball could be a game of loft and touch, of tapping into the soft tissues of the brain. I never considered it could be so well played, mechanically strategic, patient, considerate, and so, well, boring.

It’s the third set, I’ve lost fifteen to five, fifteen to one, and it’s now game point. I’ve managed to scrap together six points before he sends a butterfly my way and my racquet becomes a net with a huge, freaking hole in it and that’s that.

I’m relieved it’s over, worried like anyone who hasn’t the skills to give his opponent a fair game, that I was dulling the designer socks off him. We shake hands. He’s got a good run of sweat down his back, visible through his t-shirt, and I, at least, take pride in that.

Adam begins his post-game stretching, flexing the toes of his shoes forward, pulling on the back of his arms. Our voices echo on the court as we continue to talk. He’s into squash now, its warp-speed pace, how, compared to racquetball, the game differs from strategy to keeping score to sheer, ass-burning exertion.

“The racquetball pros might rally three, four times tops. They might carry little paunches. They might be kinda’ old. But in squash, no way. No squash player is worth a damn if he’s not absolutely, positively, rocket fit.” He adjusts his strings until he seems satisfied.

We step outside the court. He takes off his gloves. He removes his goggles, cleans them with a special cloth. He slips off his court shoes and steps into his street shoes. I stand there with not much to do other than acknowledge the blisters burning hot at the back of my heels.

We exchange the usual post-game pleasantries. That was fun. Oh yeah, thanks, you’ve got a solid backhand. Sorry, I couldn’t have given you a better run for your money. Oh, hey, I got in a good sweat.

Then, I’m guessing because he feels bad or maybe because he knows I’ll say no, he adds, “Let’s do it again sometime.”

I wipe sweat from my eye with the back of my sleeve. I stare down the corridor where I’ve seen undergrads, boyfriends and girlfriends, giggling and pushing one another through the small door of court number one. I recognize the Wal-Mart specials in their hands. I know why their shoes are untied. They rush headlong onto the court without protective eye gear but with the prospect that to love something is to know it may hurt you, that it will require you to put yourself in the other’s firing zone. I hear the little door close behind them with a clang, holding them accountable to all the little things in life that come at you hard and fast.

Adam zips his bag shut and stands up. “Or, if you can’t, I could go down to the club and play squash. Your call.”

I tell him I’ll let him know.