"Treat the lady gently and lovingly. But lead!"
Tony Evans, Promise Keeper
I pin her as far I dare to her right. Her forehand falls within pounce radius, and I hit a winner down the line.
An apparently routine game of tennis between friends. But it's a sea change event: for after years of patience-testing volleying, Sandra has transcended a lack of birth skill and the early discouragements of her gender (limits I had perceived as inviolate) to become the player I never thought possible. We are ready to face each other, now, and keep score.
I revert to safe, tentative shots. "Slap-'O-Matics," son Daniel calls them. My half-hearted attempt to replicate the previous point finds the net.
Did I tank that shot because I enjoyed the first point too much, or to avoid humiliating her? Gentle Man must remember to take her seriously, now, as an opponent. Game face.
Three juicy shots that build on momentum mutually stolen and returned. Backed to the baseline, I cannot catch up with her drop shot.
"Wow, good placement."
"I thought I'd let it come to a full stop before hitting it."
Ha, ha, panic. Pulsing through the polished mortar of my consciousness are unexpected aftershocks of an ancient and sour burden—gender shock. And in one sickening flash, I bond with the Privilege Keepers as we reassert that a man’s court is his castle. By any means necessary.
So, it comes to this: a malevolent, spiked hair of a spin shot. Gentle Sandra, however, matches my venom with a return I barely reach, setting her up for the kill, which she flubs.
Ah, the level playing field. Once you keep score, a good shot is no longer defined simply by the fluidity of isolated movements; a good shot is made in relation to your significant other. It is a complex, joint venture, yet we cannot be fully in it together. Our genial eye contact and comments remain unchanged, but now we play a form of adult keep away; face-to-face, non-contact boxing that violates countless layers of Sandra’s ladylike conditioning. I think of her unforced error and wonder how much the sour burden of gender shock stayed her hand.
I play this point with surprising abandon and am rewarded by the tennis gods, also surprising.
Sandra reaches deep, as well, and our volley reflects the new state of our art...
During our game, we share what all athletes share: a tantalizing whiff of death, rebirth, despair and conquest. We depend on each other (the paradoxical secret of athletic engagement and another ancient foundation of male bonding). We share the giddy absurdity of taking even a minute of this seriously, then plunge back into it, partners in opposition. And how dare the Promise Keepers--that benevolent face of lock-step, biological correctness--tell anyone, anywhere, who must control and who must acquiesce? How dare they--whose real message is, "Lord, we promise to be good--if you keep her off our turf," offer a few tears and clean diapers in exchange for a world of limits?
...Sandra returns what I’ll call a blistering shot with one of her own, though better placed. I run, but I can't get it!
The panic paralysis of a ball-too-far melts before the pure exhilaration of the chase, as I marvel both at her progress and at the point we have just created.