Pivot. Blech. What a stupid word. No. Stop, Chris. There are no stupid words, only stupid people. No, Chris, that’s not what you mean. There are no stupid words, only stupid contexts. Pivot is a beautiful word, it gleams, sharp, like a tiny metal tee puncturing the tight turf on the links of a golf course.
It’s true, though, that pivot makes me think of sports. And I hate sports. No, that’s not exactly right, I don’t hate them. I hate the people who like sports. Wait, that’s not it either. It’s that sometimes sports and the people who love sports make me feel certain things, unpleasant things, like being in high school and feeling like sports were where the mean guys congregated, like a club I didn’t want to be in because the doors were slick and swung too fast. The games were sweaty and moved as fast and as dangerously as the doors. The commands, “Hey, hey, pass me the ball,” and, “hustle, man, hustle.” “Come on, big guy, get the lead out!’
The only sport I liked was tennis. Something about the clear rules, the court with its well drawn lines, its foundations as a gentleman’s sports, and, yeah, the shorts, the short sleeved shirts, the white terry cloth wristbands that so kindly collected sweat running down the arms but also, when wiped across the forehead, sucked up the emerging wet.
It was summer, I was, what, 12? Someone was offering a makeshift tennis camp for kids. I signed up.
In town was an old farm house which sat perpendicular to the road, meaning its front with porch and walkway, faced the yard and the side of the house faced the road. This placement, unlike all of the recent homes— built in tracts and all obeying the rules of facing the street, with the two garage out front, and stucco walls in various shades of beige—let you know it was from another time, before the town had transformed from agricultural to suburban, built well before the 70s when we moved to the area. Two story and large with gables over the second story windows, the house was made of wood which had gone unpainted for many years, it’s sides and trim faded to a uniform brown grey, a bit darker than the quail that lived in the dunes at the end of our street. And yet, the place retained an air of graciousness. The porch was deep and shaded the length of the ground floor. Elm trees towered over the lawn, which was hemmed in by a weathered picket fence. The land surrounding the yard was bald, still clear from whatever crops grew there in previous years, alfalfa most likely, the major crop of the Valley, before aerospace came along, growing planes and missiles and military supplies instead of almond trees and poppies.
Behind the house was a stand-alone garage with two wide doors and a row of small windows at the top of each, grey and dusty. Even if I could have reached them to peer in the dust and gloom wouldn’t have let me see in. What was in there, I wondered, an only manual lawnmower, a model T Ford? And then, next to the garage, the purpose of our visit: a tennis court, faintly lined cement with a gently sagging fabric net. A low chain link fence surrounded the place. This is where we would be playing tennis for the next several weeks, a group of boys I knew from school.
Up until then I had played tennis with my dad out at the college on weekends when the campus was empty. New courts with a high cement wall on two ends and double tall chain link fence on the side. Dad wasn’t much of an athlete but he was fit enough and strong. Like me. “Good forehand,” he’d call to me across the court. I loved those games, the sounds of our sneakers on the smooth cement—shuffle, squeak, flap.
This court looked like something out of a scary movie, a haunted tennis court where a bunch of boys go and one by one they disappear. Maybe they hit a ball over the fence and when they run to retrieve it they never come back, maybe they get tied up inside the old garage, maybe there’s an old lady peering out at us from behind the lace curtains of the second story window.
We piled out of the van, Skinny, wiry, athletic boys, in short white shorts, their slender hairless legs in new tennis shoes. Scott Embry squinted in the sun, Doug Scott, the astronaut's kid, had popped the collar of his white izod and carried a new and gleaming metal racket.
I was shy, or no, nervous. I think I felt the time we were living in, not the era but the specific place along our developmental line. it was that moment right before boys decide if they’re going to be this kind of boy or that kind of boy. Before they go their separate ways and begin doubling down on the choices they’ve made, each act, each friend, hobby and pastime, confirming who they were going to be.
The day was intense, loaded. Every choice, who’s going to play first, who’s going to work on their serve first, who’s going to show us their backhand first. It’s not that I couldn’t do these things—I was a fair player—but the eyes of the others made me self-conscious, it took the magic of play out of it for me. I didn’t want everyone watching how I did things. I wanted to be in the doing of the things, unobserved.
I had waited to get out there but finally I was out on the court. We were going to be playing doubles. Doug Scott was my partner. It was my first serve. On the old cement court, sun pounding down. I had two balls in my pocket the way I had learned from my dad. One on this side, one in the other. I reached into the right pocket to pull out the fluorescent yellow ball—a brand new idea then, before that tennis balls were white but suddenly they had became fluorescent, unmissable— and a searing pain hit my hand at the tender web of flesh that connects the thumb to the forefinger. I screamed.
Looking down I saw a bee stuck into my skin. I must have smashed it when I put my hand in in my pocket. It buzzed once, loudly, like a lamp going off, and moved slowly and then fell to the ground with a tiny bounce.
I held my hand in my other hand and felt it come, the thing I was known for at home but always tried to hide when out with others, especially boys—hot, massive tears, my face enflamed now, crying from—what? It did hurt but what came up was deeper than that.
The boys circled around me, and looking up I could see their confusion, for as the pain subsided and the shock of the sting lessened, the tears did not reflect those changes. Rather, they increased, I began to so . How could I just stand there and cry like that? Sure some of them probably cried, too, but at home, in private, into their pillows.
The shame, the pressure, the discomfort—all on display. I didn’t want to be there playing the game in that way. I didn’t want to be like them, for whatever reasons.
And so the division was made. Writing this story I see now that those boys didn’t leave me, I left them, and began the doubling down of my own choices, who I was going to be, the person I wanted to become. .
A pivot is a tight sudden turn—the titanic did not pivot. But we can, turn, swiftly, toward what we want to be.