It’s not every day you get a box of tennis racquets in the mail. I ripped it open and immediately shook hands with each one.
“Now guys, shake hands with the racquet.” If I’d said that once I’d said it, I don’t know, maybe twenty-five times. Once for each tennis clinic I’d taught for little kids over high school summers. Kids who’d devised a game called Hit the Ball at the Teacher, which they’d passed on to their younger brothers and sisters, the little buggers.
There was a Yonex in the box that felt cold and distant—the shake of a bureaucrat. There was another I’ve since given away that felt insubstantial—the absent shake of someone scanning the room for more important hands. And then there was the Prince. I swear to you, the Prince’s handle still felt warm.
The grip was slightly sticky—as a good grip should be—and worn where my right index finger curled up the beveled edge of the shaft. It filled my palm easily and comfortably: the racquet’s way of looking me straight in the eye as our hands met. This was Emma’s racquet.
The frame was a little slick for my tastes. Shiny black, with an aqua-blue and pink blaze up both sides of the head that looked like rain blotches on a Doppler weather map. And it was called ThunderStick. There was a lightning bolt through the diagonal slash of the n “Thunder.”
“Lord, did Emma know that?” I wondered. Not her style. And there was another message from the manufacturer along the inside rim: “Sweet Spot Suspension.” If that were true, I figured it was okay that it looked a little cheesy and was called ThunderStick.
I fingered the strings and saw they were worn, with little bits of neon-yellow fuzz stuck at the junctions where the vertical and horizontal rows overlapped. Evidence that this racquet was not new. Evidence that Emma had hit with it.
“ … and I’m from New Jersey and I want to go to France my junior year and maybe I’ll major in international relations and I play tennis and anyone who wants to hit, just let me know!”
Emma quoted that back to me for twenty-five years in a Valley-girl accent, finding it hilariously funny each time. She’d grab my arm and double over laughing. I don’t know why. Was I overeager? I guess. Maybe so. We were introducing ourselves to our hallmates on the first day of freshman year at Brown, and I wanted to play tennis. What’s so funny about that? Heck, she’d permed her otherwise straight, thick, black, half-Asian hair (the other half was Pennsylvania Dutch, but that showed up more in her cheekbones), and she looked like a Chia Pet.
We hit for the first time a couple days later. My lack of a reliable backhand kept me off the team, but she made it, though she only played freshman year. Eventually, through her brother, who was a sophomore and hit singles on varsity, we began to hang out at men’s matches to ogle a handsome transfer from the West Coast, a junior named Sam who also played singles.
Emma was always more consistent than I was. She didn’t hit as hard, but her balls stayed in the lines.
“The word on you is giant forehand, no backhand. Seems about right.” That was Sam’s assessment of me the first time the three of us played. We hit two on one, as we’d do for years into the future. Sam played singles court lines, Emma and I played double, and still he beat us. Like everything else, we found this hilariously funny.
Emma came from a tennis family. Her dad was tennis-crazed and had a lighted court built in their backyard. She and her two sisters and two brothers all played, though she was more off-handed about it than the others: skillful, but less obsessed. She didn’t “play,” she “hit,” with casual grace laced through with outbursts of goofiness. Both her vocabulary and her game carried the message: “You may live and breathe tennis, but you know what? I’m not taking this too seriously.”
I was obsessed, and loved tennis too possessively to ever be a good doubles player, so we didn’t make much of a team. On and off the court, though, Emma and I recognized something half-hidden and thrilling in one another—something unspoken and nearly unknowable, even to ourselves. We were both good girls from the ’burbs, but we had a desire to know difference and otherness. Call it a yearning for freedom, maybe. While that yearning often took us physically away from each other, sharing the impulse to untie strings, to do things differently, kept us together.
By the time I took my first stroke with Emma’s racquet—a forehand crosscourt—her life had been over for two years. She’d gone to inspect refugee camps in the Middle East and came back with what she thought was a stomach bug; it was actually pancreatic cancer, and she died a year after she’d first heard the news. She and Sam had been together since college; he nursed her every step of the way.
When I swung her racquet and the strings found the ball, it felt like a warm knife greeting butter. As if the ThunderStick were lightning instead of its namesake, turning a hard object into a jolt of electricity. It made the old Head I’d been hitting with feel like a brick by comparison.
It was the ideal tennis tool. And of course, it was Emma’s. About a year before he sent the racquets Sam had posted another box that also arrived unexpectedly. This one was filled with Emma’s scarves, perfume—she and I wore the same brand, Ivoire, by Balmain—and a magnificent outfit she’d once worn to a fundraising event on Broadway. A black dress and matching coat, the latter lined in sumptuous, dark red satin.
It was a treasure box. I’d instinctively reached for one of the scarves, still tied in a knot from the days she’d worn it over her head, after she’d lost her hair from chemotherapy treatments, and held it to my nose: it smelled human. It smelled of Emma.
Over time, as we wore her scarves—Emma didn’t care much for things, but she loved accessories, so there were a lot of them—they ceased to smell of her and began to smell of us. Just as her scent was about to fade entirely the ThunderStick arrived, with its sticky handle and worn bevel. More evidence that Emma had been here on earth. But here’s the amazing thing: my backhand got better.
My backhand has sucked since I first hit a ball at age eleven. Someone said on that first day, “Now this is the hard shot,” and something in me clenched in fear, rushing to set up neuro-barriers between my brain and body. I trusted leading with my palm, but not with the back of my hand. When I began playing tennis everyone had one-hand backhands, so I used one hand too, and masochistically refused to add my left hand to the shaft until 1990, or thereabouts.
It didn’t help. I still sprayed backhands over the fence or lamely plopped them at my opponents’ feet. Every time—and I’m talking millions of times—I saw the ball heading toward the lefthand side of the court, an alarm went off in my chest and I prepared for the worst. Which usually came to pass. But with Emma’s racquet in hand, something changed. Maybe it was the Sweet Spot Suspension. Or my preparation, or my footwork, or my follow-through. For a time I thought it was the one lesson I’d had with a local pro a few years ago—the ThunderStick had prompted a new resolve for improvement—during which we’d worked on an arcing, over-the-shoulder follow-through. I’m not sure what happened, but the result was that I began to trust my left hand. For the first time in my life I trusted the second hand on my racquet, and eventually came to let it do the steering through the shot. Within months I was playing like a normal person who could hit off both sides of the court. I experienced the new sensation of nailing the sweet spot on a backhand.
After I’d had the ThunderStick for almost eight years Sam looked at it one day and sniffed. “You’re playing with an antique,” he said, bluntly. He had a brand new Babolat. That’s what I needed: Raphael Nadal’s black, white, and yellow Babolat. Or people would laugh at me. He was laughing already. In fact, Sam had just bought another Babolat for his new partner, a good friend of ours we’d introduced him to a few years ago. He taught her to play—she got good fast—and now they hit together as their baby naps in a basinet alongside the court.
So we go “Babolatting” instead of hitting now. I’m playing with Nadal’s racquet—it’s called an Aero Pro Drive. Emma’s old ThunderStick sits in my tennis bag in case I break a string. And none of that matters. I still have my backhand. It’ll never be as good as my forehand, but it’s pretty sweet. Sometimes I want to believe that Emma’s backhand passed into her racquet through osmosis, and then slipped through the flesh of my hands into my body’s memory. That can’t be true (can it?). But what she did with the racquet, the grace she achieved, the coordinated symphony of firing neurons and responding muscles that allowed her to summon power and accuracy off the blind side of the court, is something my body finally understands, too.
I’ve always got a team of two hands on my Aero Pro Drive, now—as there will be on whatever racquet I use—and I trust the one I can’t see to lead.
Pamela Petro is the author of Travels in an Old Tongue: Touring the World in Welsh. She is still struggling to master the language.