Eight months earlier
Jodi pressed the phone to her ear with a shaky hand. Please be home, she thought as she listened to it ring, once, twice. Please be home.
“Hello?” The sound of her sister’s voice filled Jodi with relief.
“Jodi? What’s wrong?” Ally’s voice was concerned. “What’s happened?”
“Tara’s left me.” Jodi choked out. “It’s over.”
“Oh sis, I’m so sorry.” Ally genuinely did sound sorry. “I’ll be there as soon as I can. Two hours, tops.”
“Can you bring the van?” Jodi asked, “I’ve got some stuff.”
Ally was there in an hour and a half, having battled the I-80 traffic from Sacramento to San Francisco with Goliath-like determination. She ran up the stairs to give her sister a long tight hug.
Together they loaded Jodi’s bags into the back of the van and Jodi had left a note for Tara on the kitchen bench: You keep the rest. Jodi.
Jodi stayed with Ally and her husband for a few weeks, holed up in the spare room in their spacious home in Sacramento. She was comforted by the old feeling of being tucked under her big sister’s wing, hiding out from the world as she licked her wounds. Jodi couldn’t face house hunting and decided she wouldn’t look for a new place until she was ready to buy. She decided instead to find a hotel and set herself up somewhere totally new, somewhere that held no memories of Tara.
Thankfully, Sacramento had a wealth of comfortable, nondescript hotels to choose from. Jodi picked a place that looked architecturally interesting on the outside, while still subscribing to the classic hotel formula of white walls and beige bedspreads. The hotel was right in the city center, a place where she had spent little time since her teen years. She and Ally had grown up on the outskirts of Sacramento, but in her twenties she had always preferred the allure of San Francisco’s night life when she got a rare night off from her grueling tennis schedule. And now, it felt somehow easier to be staying in a hotel, like she was just visiting, as if the reason she was lost and confused was because she was a tourist, not because she was suffering from a broken heart.
Settling into her temporary new home, Jodi allowed herself to drift, freewheeling through the pain and the shock, wandering through the fog inside her as she tried to remember who she was. She couldn’t quite touch it. She had spent so many years denying herself, pushing away what she really wanted in order to fit in with Tara.
One morning as Jodi sat on the floor by the window, pressing her head against the glass, she watched the people pass by on the street below. She felt aimless and indecisive, not really knowing what to do with herself. For the last five years her free time had been filled with Tara, with doing the things that Tara wanted to do. Watching a man with a tennis racket step out onto the curb and into a waiting taxi, she suddenly realized she was free to choose to be or do anything she wanted. She could be like any of those people. More to the point, she could be herself. Deep down, a little piece of her abruptly buzzed with excitement.
Jason, she thought. I need to call Jason.
With trembling fingers, Jodi punched in the numbers she still knew by heart, hoping Jason hadn’t changed his number, hoping he’d be receptive to her call. When she had left the game five years earlier, she had left abruptly. Jason could be forgiven for being angry with her: he had been an amazingly supportive coach and had been patiently persistent with her when she had started to withdraw, yet she had turned her back on him and left him in the dark. He hadn’t deserved that. He had been much more than just her coach. He had been her friend.
Things had gotten tough back then. She had been at the top of her game but injuries had been plaguing her, petty strains and tears causing havoc with her body and mindset, leaving her irritable, unconfident and unfocused.
Jason had tried to help her, gently steering her in the right direction and counseling her to stay calm, but Jodi felt she was slipping and the feeling made her crazy. She pushed herself to practice harder and longer, exacerbating her injuries and ultimately undermining her game.
Jason had protested and tried to intervene. “Jodi,” he began. His frustration had been clear. “You’re an amazing tennis player. But you need to cut yourself some slack or you’re going to run yourself into the ground.”
Jodi hadn’t listened to him.
And then Tara. Tara with all the right curves in all the right places. Tara with her distractingly long, honey-colored locks and piercing green eyes. Tara with the perfectly tanned skin and neverending legs that seemed designed to be wrapped around Jodi. Tara who wanted to comfort Jodi and who had effortlessly extracted her from the game Jodi had found herself at war with, plucking her from the struggle as if she were a child to be picked up and tucked under her arm.
Jodi and Tara had met at a house party in the hills of Berkeley, where Jodi knew only a few people and felt out of her depth. She had won her match that day by the skin of her teeth and felt uneasy and awkward at the party. Admiring the view through the huge open French windows, Jodi had responded to the magic by sneaking off to a dark corner of the deck to enjoy the sparkle of San Francisco’s lights against the blackness of the Pacific Ocean. Out of the darkness, she had heard a sigh next to her.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Jodi had said, startled. “I didn’t realize there was anybody else here.”
“That’s okay.” A woman stepped out of the shadows. “I’m just enjoying this incredible view.”
Jodi had stared at the woman, her pupils captivated by her sudden appearance. The darkness of the night smoothed off lines and softened edges and Jodi felt she was looking at possibly the most beautiful woman she had ever met.
“I’m Jodi.” She offered her hand to shake.
“Tara.” The woman took Jodi’s hand in both of hers and held it. “I know who you are. You’re the tennis player.” Tara turned Jodi’s hand over in hers, tracing the rough calluses that ran across the palm of Jodi’s hand with her thumbs.
“From my racket,” Jodi stammered, suddenly nervous.
“It’s too noisy around here for me tonight,” Tara said, still rubbing her thumbs across Jodi’s palm.
Jodi tried to suppress a shiver.
“Are you cold?” Tara asked.
“No, I…you…” Jodi felt slightly out of her body.
Turning her hand over, Tara linked her fingers through Jodi’s and pulled her closer. “It’s noisy here,” she said again. “Would you like to go and get a drink somewhere quieter? I know a pretty little place right on the bay.”
And they left, just like that.
Jodi hadn’t been an unwilling participant. Tara had gradually pulled her away from tennis, and Jodi let herself be pulled, as if their hands were still intertwined at the party. In the end, Jodi’s state of turmoil made it quite easy for her to let go of tennis. And Tara had been subtle but determined to have Jodi all to herself.
Before long, Jodi found herself living in Tara’s luxury townhouse overlooking the bay. Tara’s taste for the finer things in life was evident in all that adorned the space, from the Wedgwood crystal glassware they filled with champagne and clinked together in the evenings, to the modern contemporary art that lined the crisp white walls. A highly successful and driven real estate agent, Tara worked long hours, moonlighting with clients and scouting for high-finance opportunities. She didn’t have time to travel with Jodi to out-of-town tournaments, which were too long and too far away. Jodi’s practice interfered in their weekend plans: boating with prospective clients or entertaining other industry bigwigs. Jodi’s strict athlete’s diet and eating regimens were awkward for dinners out and socializing, and most of all, it was hard to make love when her body was aching and exhausted from grueling four-hour matches and week-long tournaments.
It had just seemed easier to focus on Tara and the life they were planning together than to fight her demons on the tennis court. Jodi made ridiculous last-minute excuses to Jason for pulling out of matches; she became unreliable and her ranking plummeted. Finally, she stopped returning his calls and allowed herself to fade out of his life.
She knew she had hurt him. They had been through so much together, training hard at all hours of the day, working on her game through the depths of searing pain to the soaring heights of glorious successes that were as much his as hers. Jason had invested in her, believed in her, and made her his number one player. Yet she had left him wondering what the hell was going on, without so much as a thank you or a good-bye. Jodi had never told him she was gay. Never told him about Tara. Never told him she was suffering. She just stopped turning up.
And now, as she sat on the floor of her hotel room, listening to the phone ring on the other end, she wondered if he would ever accept her apology, if her explanations would be too little, too late. It had been far too long and Jodi was ashamed and embarrassed.
She was just about to hang up when a voice on the other end breathlessly answered “Hello?”
“Jase,” she stumbled, not sure how to go on. “Uh, it’s me. Jodi.”
Jodi felt a trickle of warm sweat run slowly down between her shoulder blades. The weather gods had said today was going to be a scorcher, and they weren’t wrong. The heat swam up off the court in waves, burning through the soles of her shoes and baking her feet. She licked her parched lips and squinted her eyes against the harsh sun, focusing all of her energy across the court on her opponent, Kerry Jefferson, who was preparing her stance for service. C’mon, Jodi thought, let’s do this, Jefferson.
Jodi danced gently from side to side on the balls of her feet, feeling a tiny breath of hot wind lift the edge of her shirt. She watched and waited, poised to leap into action. The ball flew wildly toward her and over the baseline.
“Out!” the umpire called.
Her opponent grimaced in frustration. Jodi felt a flicker of commiseration. So close, she thought. We’re almost there. She released the breath she didn’t realize she had been holding and checked her grip on the racket. The heat was making Jodi’s hands slippery and she wiped them on her shorts. Her muscles were tired and crying out for this game to be over. One more point and this match is mine. Just hold on, hold on, she told herself.
Hearing the thump of the ball on Kerry’s racket, Jodi threw her body across the court, stretching her arm out wide and whipping the ball back across the net with huge force. Kerry lunged for it and scooped it up high, sending Jodi to the back of the court to catch the bounce and smash it back over the net.
“Game! Set! Match: Richards!” the umpire cried.
Relief flooded through Jodi and she dropped her racket, victoriously shaking her fist in the air. She looked up into the crowds and waved, feeling a surge of elation course through her. Catching the eye of Jason, her coach and her longtime friend, she pumped her fist again and blew him a kiss. He gave her the thumbs-up. Walking to the net to shake hands with Kerry, Jodi realized she was utterly exhausted.
“Great match,” Jodi said, hugging her friend over the net. “It was a close one.”
“Thanks,” Kerry mumbled, returning the hug, clearly disappointed and tired. “You did great.”
They’d known each other on the tennis circuit for many years and Jodi could see the frustration and pain etched across Kerry’s face. She didn’t want to think about the number of times she had looked like that in the past.
“You might need to give yourself some more time to heal that ankle.” Jodi gave her friend a sympathetic squeeze before they both headed off the court to grab their bags and greet their fans.
The match had been a long one and Jodi could feel a wobble in her legs as she sat on her bench for a moment, putting her rackets back into their cases and draping a towel around her neck. Thanks Nan, she thought, taking a moment to send up her ritualistic, post-match gratitude to the woman she felt was always watching over her. We did it. She gulped down some water and rubbed her face with the towel, then looked up into the crowds again with a rush of joy as she noted the banners, the people still clapping and calling out her name. She had missed this. She waved at them again and grinned, holding up her towel like a trophy. Slinging her racket bag across her shoulder, Jodi stood up and gave the crowd one last wave. Heading off the court, she stopped to sign tennis balls and shake hands with the people she passed in the corridor on the way.
At the locker rooms, Jason picked Jodi up and spun her around. “Jodi! You little champ!” he said.
“Whoa,” Jodi replied with a laugh as her rackets banged against the locker room wall. “Easy, tiger!”
Jason slapped her on the shoulder and handed her an energy bar.
“Great match!” he enthused. “You smashed it out of the park today, Jodes. I was a bit worried about you at the end of the first set when you double-faulted, but you pulled it back like a pro and cleaned up. It was 105 degrees on court today. Did you feel it?” His blue eyes sparkled with excitement and Jodi had a sudden picture of what he must have looked like as a little boy. His sandy hair flopped endearingly across his forehead, just shading the top of his eyebrows, a bristly five o’clock shadow somewhat at odds with his youthful face. “You looked amazingly cool,” he said.
Jodi shook her head, swallowing her mouthful. “I felt the heat but I didn’t, if you know what I mean?” She sat down on the bench, pulling off her shoes as she spoke. “I knew I was sweating and my feet were hot but I just went with it, you know? Actually I sort of liked it that hot. I felt like I could really feel my whole body,” she trailed off. “I think I’m a bit dehydrated though, I need more fluids.”
Jason dug into his bag and pulled out a cold bottle of coconut-flavored sports drink. “Here you go.”
“Ooh, my favorite, thanks.” Jodi took the bottle gratefully, twisting it open and tipping her head back to let the cool sweet liquid run down her throat. She sighed, leaning against Jason a little. “Can we go home now?” she asked.
“Sure,” he said, “as soon as you’ve dealt with the thirty reporters, ten tennis officials and five hundred fans waiting for you outside this door, you can go home straightaway!” Jason chuckled. “You don’t make it in to the finals of a tournament like this, after five years off the courts, and get to slink away like the loser, Jodes. Especially to an at home crowd!”
“I’ll go get decent.” She cracked him a lopsided smile and ambled toward the shower.
Jodi was tired, but she was excited. Jase was right, she thought, as she turned the shower taps on hard, reveling under the strong stream of cool water. She shook out her braid, working shampoo through the length of her long dark hair, enjoying the ache of tiredness in her arms. Today had been a huge occasion and she was glad people had shown up to support her and were waiting to talk to her, to celebrate with her after the match. It was her chance to show she was still finals material and thankfully, she had nailed it. A small thrill fluttered through her. I won! she thought. The months of training and preparation had paid off and the ball was rolling.
Entering the tournament just last week, Jodi had not been immune to the murmurs of surprise and questioning looks. After five years off the court, no one had expected her to come back, let alone come back as a winner. She almost didn’t really expect it herself. And yet, here she was, four wins into her first US Open wild card qualifying tournament, lining up for the finals in two days’ time. Jodi didn’t dare think about what would come next, strangely superstitious about jinxing her future by imagining it too vividly. If I picture it in my mind, it might not happen, she thought. She knew she was at odds with the current self-help trend of positive thinking, but it was a quirky little habit she had picked up as a child and found she couldn’t shake.
She had first discovered this “power” when she was waiting for letters from her father, after they had gone to live with Nan. Jodi had no recollection of her mother becoming sick. At four years old, she had been too young to really understand what was happening when the cancer had set in. Her father had been so grief-stricken by their mother’s illness that he sent Jodi and Ally to Nan’s, unable to look after both his daughters and his increasingly ill wife.
After her mom’s death, her father had seemed to fade away. Burying himself in work, he took on more travel assignments, leaving the girls for longer and longer with Nan until it had made sense for them to move in permanently.
Nan had been everything to both girls: grandmother, mother, and father, too, really. She had done her best to fill all the holes in their lives while everything had fallen down around them. She had sung the girls to sleep, driven them to school, helped with their homework, baked and cooked and cleaned, and sewn without a word of complaint; even though this was, Jodi realized much later, the second time she was raising children. Looking back, Jodi realized that Nan had always put their grief before her own, their needs at the forefront of everything, even when she must have been aching with the loss of her own daughter.
Jodi and Ally’s father had occasionally sent postcards and even small letters from the various exotic places he visited for conferences and workshops, and Jodi would wait for them anxiously. Walking up the hill from school in the afternoons, she would tell herself not to imagine the letterbox with a letter in it, just to clear her mind and let it be, annoying herself when a picture of a postcard would suddenly appear, unbidden in her mind. She found that the days when she hadn’t been thinking of her father at all were usually the ones when a letter would appear. Jodi had hung on to this strange theory ever since.
One step at a time, she told herself as she turned off the taps and wrapped herself in a towel. Just focus on each moment as it comes. She had felt guilty when she had abandoned her tennis career to be with Tara, like she had been somehow disloyal to Nan, and all the time and effort she had put in over the years to support Jodi in her burgeoning tennis career. “If you want this, my girl, then let’s go get it,” Nan used to say, as they had all packed up the car to drive to an out-of-town tournament. Jodi couldn’t quite think about Nan when she lived with Tara. The memories had been too painful and she had felt like the life she was living was somehow at odds with the values Nan had raised her with. Nan would have wanted to know what her plans were, what she wanted to do with her life now that she was done with tennis, but Jodi had shut out those thoughts and allowed herself to be steered along by Tara.
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