Tuesday, March 6, 2012


d. BOJANA JOVANOVSKI (top): 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5)

A piece I wrote years ago and that was never published:

"Only a century ago did scientists discover that no two fingerprints are alike. In recent decades, science has learned that the rest of the human body is equally unique--the scattered specks of color in the eye, the timbre and tenor of a voice, the gradations of heat rising from a face."
--From "Not all See Eye to Eye on Biometrics," by Eric Slater, page 1, Los Angeles Times, April 29, 1998

One of the many paradoxes of life in L.A. is the way you often find yourself doing intimate things with complete strangers. Every Wednesday night, for example, I put on a T-shirt and a pair of shorts and show up at Court 12 of the La Cienaga Tennis Center to sweat and swear and expose the deepest cracks of my psyche to a group of men and women about whom, after a year and a half, I know virtually nothing.

I know some of the externals, of course, but I'm talking about the interesting things: the quirks, the failures. I know Phil is a personal injury lawyer in Century City but, lining up for a topspin drill, I wonder how he treats his secretary. I know Elise wears a flashy diamond but, as she smashes an overhead, I wonder if her mother pushed her too hard to succeed. I know Raoul is gay but, as we pile balls on our rackets like pyramids of eggs and chat about throw rugs, I wonder if he’s ever slept with a girl.

As for me, much as I love tennis, one part fills me with dread: serving. There's so much to remember my mind short-circuits: the right grip, the right stance, relaxing, bending, snapping. Sari, the coach, is patient and calm, a foil for my overanxious craving to get it right. "Let go of the ball as if your hand were a tulip," she tells me. "Pretend there's a refrigerator in front of you and try to hit the ball over the top of it," she suggests.

This is where I always have to squelch the urge to get down on my knees, grab Sari around the ankles and beg her to tell me everything will be all right even if my serve is forever lame. I want her to understand it's not for lack of trying--if anything, I’m trying too hard--that it’s not any better. I want her to know that by some quirk of genes or temperament I was born with overwrought nerves; that I so closely equate performance with love that my body and brain are in an almost constant state of emergency; that every time I am introduced to a new acquaintance or show my writing to somebody or toss a tennis ball up in the air, my nervous system tells me that the whole world is watching me, that I am going to fail and be judged for failing.

I want to tell Sari that I am devoting my whole life to overcoming this bondage of self. I meditate, I pray, I read Eugen Herrigel's Zen in the Art of Archery, longing for that moment when the racket, the ball, my opponent and I all merge into formless unity, when, as Herrigel puts it, "art becomes `artless,' shooting becomes not-shooting, a shooting without bow and arrow; the teacher becomes a pupil again, the Master a beginner, the end a beginning, and the beginning perfection." I am not just practicing a tennis serve; I am trying to annihilate my ego and find God.

I want to tell Sari all this, but of course I don't. I let go of the ball as if my hand were a tulip, pretend there's a refrigerator in front of me and, with my usual palsied windup and signature mulekick, swat one over to Phil.

"Just wide," he calls.

"You're all scrunched up," Sari says gently. "One fluid movement--and then pretend you're going to throw your racket right over the net."


L.A.'s anonymity seemed cold to me when I first moved here. I felt uncomfortable around so many people who did not know my life story, my wounds, all the things that coalesced to give me, so I thought, a unique stamp. Perhaps it is simply that I am getting older, or perhaps in the midst of L.A.'s tsunami of life, I’ve finally figured out I’m really not the center of the universe. Whatever the case, some Wednesday nights I am tight and tense, some nights I do so well I surprise myself, and every once in awhile I descend so deeply into the game that I stop thinking about how I’m doing and start thinking instead about the wonder of the fact that I’m here at all: that of all the billions of years, I am alive in this one; that of all the places in the universe, I am on this little patch of green clay in Beverly Hills, California; that I am hitting a ball back and forth with Elise and Raoul and Phil, who are fighting their own demons, who are driven by their own dreams, whose longings and beliefs and nervous systems have been formed by stories I will never know.

A hummingbird, its emerald wings a blur, hovers over the net before flashing into the next court. Night begins its descent: the sky a drape of purple velvet hung with stars, the moon a silver crescent. From an adjacent residential street, the scent of barbecued meat drifts over the court. "Mmmm, somebody's cooking," we say, our mouths watering, our eyes closed, our faces turned to the tantalizing fragrance like flowers turned toward the last rays of the dying sun.

Sari calls us back to the game. "Good get!" she yells, and "Tough!" and "Almost!" and there is something ageless about the corny, reassuring things coaches yell, about our flushed faces and pumping hearts, about the wind moving through the tops of the sycamores and the darkening silhouette of the mountains to the north. Except for the sound of the traffic rushing by, and the Flynt Publications building looming above--porno churning silently off its hot presses--we could be playing a game of pelota in the pre-Columbian twilight of Mexico's Monte Alban.

We play a mixed doubles round robin, best out of four, then rotate, changing partners in some ancient dance. "That was a smoker," we say about a good serve and, after a lively rally, "Everyone got a piece of that one!"--the same things people have been saying on ball courts for centuries. The cool air kisses our damp necks. I fan the front of my T-shirt and wipe my palm on the back of my shorts and some nights, in that time-suspended moment when I am waiting to receive a serve, I think, How many more years will I be able to run? How many violet skies do you get to see in one life? How many people can you love?

"So long," we say when it's all over, "see you next week." Packing up our rackets and water bottles, our skin glows phosphorescent under the lights, like the wings of moths. We trail away in twos and threes, some of us limping a little on our middle-aged legs, murmuring, "Great match" and "So much fun" and "Gotta work on that backhand."

Afterwards, we get into our cars and emerge from the parking structure, our headlights blinking, the sweat cooling along our temples. I head south on La Cienaga, then east on Olympic, one tiny speck in a shimmering river of traffic. I picture the others spreading out across the city, some toward the mountains, some toward the ocean: the whorls of our fingertips pressed to our steering wheels, our irises burning into the night, the heat rising like flames from our secret faces.


d. EVA BIRNEROVA: 6-1, 7-5


  1. I read your post outloud to my husband and he wept. Especially the phrase about 'living in a constant state of emergency'. I wonder if sometimes the anxiety is not so much approval we seek; but safety from scorn. I love, Heather, how you are able to put into grace-filled words what is so quietly, and universally, true.

  2. Thanks so much :) Piece is beautiful and the pictures!

  3. Fascinating, isn't it, how people move in and out of our lives, and what we share even with strangers in various contexts? :)

  4. That was a really great post, thank you for sharing.

  5. That was a wonderful post, thank you for sharing it.

  6. The mere fact that you have the courage to do this, well- you're a
    champion to me.

    Life's been more than a bit off lately and so have I.


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