Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Quiet Storm

Several years ago I had a regular weekly evening game with a guy I'll call, for the purposes of this blog, Carlos. Carlos is a great guy, and big, about 6 feet 2 inches, and quite stocky for a squash player. I'm nearly 2 inches taller than that, but a bit more wiry, so the two of us on one court could get mighty crowded mighty quickly.

We liked to play physically, trash talking was encouraged, bumping around the T was considered normal, and every other match or so someone would end up on the ground as the other guy would go flying across the diagonal to reach a shot and crash into the unsuspecting lout.

I'd normally beat Carlos, often just barely, but about 10% of the time he'd find some inner mental strength to play a very tactical game that would beat me and leave me wondering if this were the same Carlos I had been successfully playing.

One day, years ago, Carlos and I began our weekly match, and from the start there was something unusual about his focus. He liked to take shots early and hit hard, very much the type of player who played to the back walls nearly all of the time, but that day he was holding most of his shots, hitting unusual drop shots, and hitting them well. He took an early lead in the first game and won it, eventually, after a long battle.

The second game was more of the same, but I stepped up my own game to meet the challenge and became inexorably focused on his slightly weaker backhand. My legs got warmed up so that I was getting to his frequent drop shots, which were still hitting their mark, and I won the game.

The third game was such a long drawn-out torture session that it seemed like it went on forever, and it was in this game that Carlos, running to get a nicely played drop by me, ran straight into me and landed hard on the floor. I was rocked and my neck felt like it had whiplash. Carlos weighed a little more than 200 lbs, and I a little under, so the collision was significant.

Carlos just smiled, asked if I were OK, and on hearing yes, said 'let's go.' I could tell the focus was still there, as was his joy in the game that, while always under the surface, seemed to have effervesced and was seeping through his pores. The guy was loving every second of this, even when he lost the third game in overtime.

We were already nearly an hour into this match, and were both drenched with sweat. I changed my shirt before the 4th game started but Carlos seemed to love the fact that his shirt was completely drenched. You know you are in a good match when while steadying your hands to serve you see sweat dripping onto the court from your arms....

The fourth game was his, as my strength and focus seemed to fail me and he seemed unusually energized. There was a bit of manic zeal to the guy that defeated me from the start.

The fifth and deciding game was very psychological, as I decided to hold my shots a long time and place them in diametrically opposed positions to get him to run twice for the same ball. I'd position my body for a soft drop up front, hold, and pop it to the back, and he with his high energy would run up, stop short, then run back. He in turn had upped his shot-making, hitting a high percentage of low-percentage shots. I remember winning the final game in overtime, and thinking that god himself had blessed me with a special favor for which I would have to do years of penance.

Carlos shook my hand, smiled, and left the court. On the benches outside we were both breathing heavily for a few minutes, dripping sweat on the floor, and quiet, unwilling to speak.

Carlos put his head in a towel and rubbed it all around, then fully enshrouded himself in it, staying still for several minutes. I tried to catch my breath and stretched, albeit feebly.

"Nice match," Carlos whispered.

"I'll say, you played great."

"Thanks. It's great to...."

His voice trailed off, and a moment passed, and his attitude seemed to change. I sensed there was something more than squash on his mind.

He rubbed his enshrouded head with the towel. "You know," he said, "the fact is I'm beat right now."

"What do you mean by that?" I asked.

"My business is in a freaking tailspin, which has caused a lot of financial worries, and my wife is completely unhappy and lets me know it -- mostly because I'm always at work. Plus I have an odd blood test
result that my doctor told me needs to be explored."

I stared at him. His face was still sweaty, but he had removed the towel and, although looking down, I could tell that his eyes had filled with tears. He was despondent, his face grim.

I didn't know what to say at first. I sat there as Carlos' tears welled up, though he hid it by lowering his head and taking his towel and covering his face. I saw his upper body shake once or twice, realizing he was on the verge of sobbing.

I felt panicked. "Well," I ventured, "that's a lot to worry about." I told some quick, feeble story about how financial distress had hit my family and how we cut back to the bone and managed to get through it.

"Yeah," he said, "I'm doing that now. It should be okay. But I tell you, this match today was the best thing that has happened to me in months, it was great. My squash is the one thing in my life that is working for me right now. It's an escape. More than you know.... I can rely on it, on you, and on this game."

He pulled himself together, we talked a while longer, and off we went, agreeing to meet again at the usual time next week.

And next week came, and he told me that the medical concern had been proved unremarkable, and that the company he worked for had just hit on a big contract. And a few weeks later, he mentioned in passing that he and his wife were 'good,' and going off on a vacation together.

A quiet storm had passed, right there on the squash court. 

Yet another quiet storm....

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