“Jason, you need to hold on tightly to the baton and rest your entire weight on your left foot. That’s how you play. That’s how you frigging hit the ball!”
I could still remember the words fifteen years later. I was fourteen then and David, my father, wouldn’t stop yelling from a distance as I failed for the umpteenth time at my tennis training. I was supposed to be better. I was supposed to have improved since the last time I trained on the field but the truth was that, unlike the rest of the kids, I wasn’t strong or big for my age. I was lanky. The baton felt too heavy in my hands and I often felt as if my weight was being pushed off the ground by the evening breeze.
“I am trying, Dad.” I said. “I am.”
The ball flew towards me again and I shoved my hands, trying to hit it only to have my body fully twirl and flip to the floor. My face hit the solid ground a second later while the baton flew from my hands.
“Oh, Jason! Not again!” David roared across the field.
I couldn’t stand. I tried to hide my shame by staying unmoving on the floor but eventually, as footsteps hurried towards me, I pushed myself to my knees and turned to the first person who stopped in front of me. It was Coach Kirkman, and he didn’t look pleased either.
“You have got to get them to give up now I reckon?” he said and then blew his whistle in resignation.
Dad stepped towards me then and surprisingly brushed my long hair with his fingers.
“Well, at least this time you didn’t hurt yourself.” He said.
I tried to smile at him, always liking his positivity, but I could still note the disappointment in his voice. He wasn’t happy, and this was already obvious in the way he yelled my name after my face hit the floor.
“I will try again, Dad,” I said. “Maybe I will be better if I—-I—-practiced more at home?”
“You did that all week,” Dad whispered. He opened his mouth to say something else but then Hilary and Ryan suddenly appeared behind him. They were my older siblings, and I couldn’t hide the anger that I felt when I noticed the mocking look on their faces.
“You fell flat on your face again, Jason!” Hilary said, grinning. “I saw that far across the field where I sat.”
“Hilary,” Dad said before I could yell at her. It didn’t stop me though. I grumbled under my breath and began to walk away.
“Where you going, lil’ bro?” Ryan muttered behind me, but I paid him no attention.
“You really should tell him to give up. Not everyone in the family would know how to play the game, Dad.”
That came from Ryan, and I almost tore deep into the flesh of my lips as I bit into them angrily. I wasn’t a failure, I told myself. If Hilary could do it, I could too. Heck, if any of the kids on the field could have swung the baton for once and hit a ball, so could I.
I only needed to find a way to stop falling every time I swing my arms first.
I was sixteen before I finally could hit a single tennis ball. Coach Kirkman was gone and had been replaced by an African-American, Donald Alleymann. Donald didn’t want any of the kids to call him by the name Coach. He simply wanted the name “Donald” echoing in his ears whenever we needed him – those were his words anyway.
I could remember listening to Donald’s instructions along with dad’s before stepping onto the field. I was tired of listening to them anyway, but I listened nonetheless. I felt my gaze shifting from Dad’s face to Donald’s face, and when I finally was on the field, it seemed I had forgotten everything they had both said. I just wanted to hit the ball. It was what I had wanted to do my entire life.
“It is the fifth time this year, Jason! You can do it!” I heard Dad yell behind me.
I didn’t look at him. I didn’t look at Donald either. I only stared at the machine in front of me. It seemed the same way. I sometimes considered it to be the scariest thing to me in the world since it always threw the ball at me when I least expected it.
“You can throw it all you want today,” I told it. “I would swing however way I can, and if I am still flat on the face, you have won again.”
I didn’t mean those words, or perhaps I did. I only knew I couldn’t get my eyes off the machine and when the first ball shoved out of it, I was ready. I held the baton tightly – or perhaps too tight than I had been taught – and closed my eyes. I swung my hands in my mind. I wanted to hit something by all means, and finally, when I felt that baton in my hands had caught something, I fluttered my eyes open to notice the ball speeding to the other side of the field.
There was absolute silence around me.
“I hit it?” I said as if I was convincing myself of the reality of what I had just seen. “I hit it!” I said again.
There were loud cheers around me now, followed by Donald’s loud whistle. I didn’t know why he blew it, but I turned to him, unable to hide the happiness in my eyes. Dad was beside him in a jiffy too and was waving his hands in the air as if he had just won the lottery.
“You did it, son!” He yelled. “I told you; you would!”
He was saying something else and was pointing to something behind me, but it was too late. I turned just in time to notice another ball being shoved towards me and hitting me squarely on the face.
My face fell flat to the floor before I knew it.