Anxious About Anxiety: Anxious About Making the Late-in-Life Pivot
So here is an excerpt of the YA novel I’ve been working on. Evidence of the pivot I mentioned even if this is obviously not as big a pivot as others have made. But for those curious, here is a partial (still in draft) result, and why I’ve been writing less here than usual.
OLIVIA WALLACE’S THEORY OF HAPPINESS by Chris Newbound
Part One: Secrets of the Pros
Receiving an e-mail from certain persons, after you’ve been out of touch, can be, well, especially disorienting. One minute this person is completely out of your life, as unreal to you as any other bit actor whose long since wandered from the movie of your life, and the next they are somehow there again. Alive. Real. As much a part of things in this particular moment as they ever were. And somehow thinking of you in some random moment, as if all that time when they’d been gone and silent and unreachable had never even happened. It’s almost like time traveling when someone from your past reaches into your present and grabs you by the collar and won’t let you look away. Disorienting, to say the least.
Maybe more surprising was that the message did seem to be coming from her directly. And why would she contact me herself? Why not have one of her coaches or agents or whomever else might still be hanging around get in touch? So much less embarrassing if the person you want to get a hold of wants to avoid you.
Perhaps most surprising of all, however—and certainly of more interest to others—was that this seemed to have something to do with Olivia considering making a comeback at all.
“I may not be over all this . . .” “I know it’s a bit of a long shot . . .” “ . . .making another run at it.” If anyone had seemed to be done, done, and more done with professional tennis, it had been Olivia Wallace when she’d announced her startling, but dry-eyed retirement over two years ago, now what felt like a lifetime ago—and arguably is when it comes to elite tennis.
I felt the need to reread the e-mail three times, in fact, just to make sure I’d read it correctly. Hey, funny thing happened to me on the way to the supermarket. I thought of you. Well, that’s not so funny. What’s funnier, maybe, is the idea popping into my head that I may not completely be over all of this and so was wondering if you’d ever consider letting me try and talk you into us joining forces again and making another run at it. I know it’s a real long shot, you even thinking about it, let alone me getting back into it again, but what the hell: I can always go get food later. Want to get together and hit a few and see if I can still be as persuasive as I once was? E-mail me back, if only for old times sake.
“Old times sake?” An understatement if ever there was one.
Because if there’s one thing I can say with any certainty about this whole complicated business: Olivia Wallace and I have a bit of a history.
As unlikely as this may sound, the first time we ever met, and therefore the first time I ever laid eyes on Olivia in person—as opposed to seeing her on TV or in a magazine—I didn’t really notice or think about how beautiful she was. Is. Whatever. Which isn’t quite completely true either. I mean obviously I noticed that she was a pretty girl. I mean who didn’t. And who wouldn’t, it being pretty much all people talked about when she first came on to the scene. That and how young she still was, although tennis prodigies are hardly unusual, especially when it comes to the women’s game. But mostly it was how she looked. Her tennis, the precocity of her game, its all-around, all-court-forcing-throwback nature as others have since come to characterize it . . . well, that all came later.
But back to her looks for a second. My not noticing. Or not noticing quite as much as maybe others would have. For starters, I expected her to look sort of the way she did look. I, like most of the world, knew, more or less, how Olivia Wallace looked. More or less flawless, with the scales tipping to the “more” side than the “less.” I’d seen her perform on TV at least a half-a-dozen times and had probably secretly checked out an interview or two on the internet, trolled around to find her on her Instagram where she looked a little less regal and composed and a bit more Coltishly girlish in the high heels she didn’t seem at all used to wearing, like someone caught in her parents upstairs bedroom trying on their mother’s clothes. Still, no real surprise there. Olivia Wallace was a looker. Not exactly news.
But I was also in high school myself back then. Co-captain of my tennis team. And so I don’t think I’m breaking any other news here to say that a lot of girls on the girls tennis team at my school were also quote, unquote pretty girls, not to mention that there was an abundance of exceptionally attractive girls who were always lounging around the public library where I sometimes worked behind the circulation desk, as well as the ones you might find on any day of the week squinting to find a good seat to sit at in the school cafeteria during lunch. Occasionally one of them even would sit next to me. After a pretty awkward, slow start in high school, by my junior year, I was around more than my fair share of pretty girls.
Only to say that it certainly wasn’t the first thing I would have noticed or thought about when meeting Olivia Wallace. The first thing I would have noticed or thought about, and therefore did notice and think about, was her game. Her fame. Her celebrity—the fact that she had an entourage around her on that day, a no doubt paired-down one, but still four or five folks who apparently all had the same job it seemed: that of making Olivia’s life even easier than it already was.
But as usual, I get ahead of myself. This all started with a phone call, what I was sure at the time was a crank phone call, much too early in the morning for my liking, crank call or not, asking me first off if I was indeed Jonathan O’Donnell. Was I, in fact, the Jonathan O’Donnell, as if I was the famous one, instead of just some random guy who played on my high school tennis team and had once had the same dreams as Olivia Wallace about somehow joining the pro circuit some day. And once I had mumbled that I was, in fact, him (he?), the woman also wanted to know if I played tennis, and if I played it with my left hand.
“As in, still play?” I wondered out loud.
“Sorry?” the caller said.
“With my left hand,” I said. “Like do I still play tennis with my left hand?” It suddenly struck me as a somewhat personal question, especially coming from some random caller, as if she’d just asked me which hand I preferred to use when I did, well, other even more private things.
“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” she said.
“Never mind,” I said. “Yes,” I told her. “I’m Jonathan O’Donnell.”
“Ah,” she said. “And you do play tennis?”
“Who is this again?” I finally thought to ask.
“I’m calling for Olivia Wallace.”
This time the woman repeated Olivia’s full name more slowly as if she’d finally figured out she was speaking with a very stupid person.
“Not the tennis player?” I said.
“Yes, the tennis player,” she said, somewhat confused, or perhaps not, now that she’d decided she really was dealing with one dumb jock.
But by now I’d sat up in bed, a bit more alert, more ready to make some sense of this odd phone call.
This had actually been in the summer, the summer before my senior year, when a few of the guys from the team were already starting to get together to play, workout, get a jump on the coming year. Wanting to claim my number one spot on the team, even if only unofficially this early on, I was eager to get out on the courts every day, also desperate to escape the confines of the claustrophobic house I’d grown up in and get in some late summer training and general hanging out and partying before it all began in a few more weeks. School. Classes. Tennis. And, with any luck, graduation in the spring. Senior year and all that this would entail. All to say that by mid-August and with very little on my plate at that particular moment, I was in a more carefree mood than usual. Up for a little adventure, you might even say, happy to entertain any and all offers, random or not.
But by now the silence on the other end of my cell was so thick and continuing that I began to wonder if the crank caller had changed her mind, maybe overwhelmed by an oncoming fit of laughter and so had maybe already hung up and I just hadn’t yet noticed? Perhaps, I thought for the first time, this was a friend of a girl who I’d been flirting around with the other night, or even the girl herself, her face coming back to me slowly now like some old Polaroid developing before my tired eyes. She’d been a freshman at the local college, or said she was about to be. And in the thick fog of my waking-up brain, it certainly seemed more possible that it was someone connected to her, to whatever her name was again, than anyone who had anything to do with Olivia Wallace calling me.
“Hello?” I said at last.
“Yes. Well. Ms. Wallace was wanting me to call to see about your availability to hit with her.”
“Tennis,” I said inanely.
“Yes,” the officious woman on the other end said, sounding as if she was maybe really beginning to lose patience with me at last. For the first time since I’d answered the phone, I was beginning to wonder if this was perhaps not a crank call. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m not doing a very good job of explaining all this, am I?”
No, I thought to myself, you really aren’t.
And so it was all true. As it turned out this was about Olivia Wallace, as in the Olivia Wallace, the number six or something player in the world back then despite her being a mere fifteen years of age, and her somehow wanting to hit with me. Would I be willing? Was I available for say a two-hour “session” tomorrow and possibly the following day as well? I would be well-compensated, of course, for my time and effort. Would a hundred dollars an hour suffice? And they would also, naturally, provide transportation and meals as needed. As one might say to a friend, as I soon did say to friends when retelling this tale more than a few times over the next few weeks, raising my right hand up near my right ear each and every time as if I was an actual Boy Scout: “Scout’s Honor.” Olivia Wallace wanted to hit tennis balls with me. I kid you not.
There was, of course, a rather simple and straight-forward explanation for all this. She was desperate or rather someone on her “team” was desperate. Scheduled to play in New Haven the following week, one of the many smaller, hard court warm up tournaments that precedes the U.S. Open, someone had obviously messed up bigtime and failed to secure a lefty-hitting partner for “Ms. Wallace.” After a first-round bye she was more than likely going to be playing the most definitely left-handed Maria Netsky (how about that for a tennis name?) and her usual hitting partner, the one who traveled with her at the time, was, of course, a right-hander. This shouldn’t have been a problem for someone of Olivia’s stature, to bring along a spare lefty partner as well, just in case, but like I said, someone had definitely effed up, somehow having fallen through the cracks. Someone had dropped the (tennis) ball, and they’d only just realized it now.
And so one of the tournament organizers who knew a pro I’d worked with long ago somehow remembered that I lived somewhere around here, or, in other words, knew of a top male high school player in the area and who had once made a bit of a splash in a few prestigious junior tournaments in the area, and had actually briefly gone out on tour himself (don’t ask) and who also, as it turns out, was most conveniently left-handed. And Olivia, or most likely the person who had messed up on her “team” understanding that beggars could not be choosers, especially when they’re at risk of being fired, had chosen me. Had called on me. A bird in the hand, especially if he’s a southpaw, worth two in the bush, despite my now low-status of really being just another high school tennis player.
I’m sure they were still out looking around for a few more serious tennis-playing lefties in the bush, but in the meantime, now just two days before her likely match-up with this unknown lefty Czech (not to be confused with “lefty chick?”), they had to at least secure a live body, even if it was only yours truly. Of course this would have all had very little to do with Olivia, who would much rather have slept in and gotten some extra beauty sleep (not that she needed any) than hit with some unknown high school player, lefty or not, and everything to do with her obsessive and over-controlling coach, who definitely would be fired within the year, and so shall remain nameless because you would most likely not remember who he was. (But who am I kidding? If you really want to know, just google him.)
“We could arrange for a car to come and get you tomorrow at say, ten a.m.,” the nervous woman continued on the other line. “And then have you back to your house by two pm. at the latest, if that would be suitable?”
“Sure,” I told her. “That would suit.”
“And would cash be okay?”
“Could we pay you in cash rather than a check?”
“Cash works for me.”
“Wonderful,” the woman said.
And so the rest of that day I had waited for the canceling phone call or text that never came, unable to decide if I wanted it to come or not. Probably not come, I had decided at last. Not that it really mattered what I particularly did or did not decide.
But then the next morning, a car actually had come and picked me up at the agreed time. And drove me to a private court—another favor called in, no doubt. Even then, Olivia Wallace could be dogged by photographers and fans and potential stalkers so better to practice at some secluded court at some secluded house. And so instead of meeting at one of the Yale side courts, I’d been driven through a crazy maze of typical suburban Connecticut roads before we’d finally pulled up, me feeling more than just a little car sick—into a long Dowton Abbey type driveway at this undisclosed destination that even if I’d been paying attention I could have never found my way back to in a million years.
I was a little surprised to find her already there, Olivia I mean, waiting for me. I then scrambled out of the car as if I was somehow responsible for having kept her waiting. And so it was only after I’d taken about ten or so steps toward her that I remembered I’d left my tennis bag with all my stuff in the back of the car. When I turned around, however, the driver was, of course, already walking it toward me, holding the bag out in front of him as if it were a tray and some Grey Poupon was resting on top.
In person she was taller and also sturdier than I had pictured her. While TV is supposed to add ten pounds to someone, somehow Olivia looked less lithe and more solidly three-dimensional in person. But then, I thought, this might be less about TV appearance versus a live one and more about how at fifteen some girl’s bodies can still be changing. Fast. I had to keep reminding myself that she was only fifteen years old, something about her physical stature and early success made me keep forgetting. She could look, especially at a little bit of a distance, more like someone in her her late teens or even early twenties.
While that group of four or five officious people were there alongside her when I first arrived, she must have ordered them away with a secret hand signal because soon enough they all retreated, scattering who knows where, and it was soon just me and her and, of course, her coach, a Belgian transplant with bad skin who had come to Florida a few years back and was in the process of changing citizenships so that he could prey on more Juniors just like Olivia for years to come.
After first giving me more than a few very specific instructions on what he did and did not want me to do (mainly nothing that would make Olivia look bad or make her lose her confidence in anyway, not that I would have been capable of doing this even had I wanted to), he quickly fell back out of sight as well, off, for all I knew, to go secretly check his phone and secure a plan B (another prospect other than Olivia Wallace) just in case this A-plus one didn’t pan out.
Olivia gave me a restrained but reassuring smile, which I tried to return, before we both turned away from one another and like reluctant enemies about to engage in a duel at dawn paced our separate ways back to our respective baselines. Along with looking a little different to me in person, Olivia also wasn’t at all like I expected her to be, personality wise I mean. She was much shyer and pleasant, I guess you could say than I had expected. She almost seemed, to her credit, somewhat embarrassed by all the fuss that was being made around her and yet was also so used to it that she’d seemed to have adopted a sort of what-can-you-do-comes-with-the-territory-attitude about it all.
She was serious about her tennis, of course, but not overly serious it felt to me. Along with some short, shorts she had on, she was wearing a very non-tennis-looking long-sleeve shirt with Homer Simpson pasted colorfully on the front, an article of clothing that she probably had slept in the night before and had owned, I’m guessing, since the age of eleven.
I had some initial nerves, of course (I hit my first three shots into the middle of the net and the next two way long), but then managed to cut the tension by making a pretty lame joke. As we both converged at net to pick up balls that were all, of course, on my side of the court, I said: “What? No ball boys to pick up our balls for us?” To which she actually gave a polite smile, as if she might at least be a little amused by this, or maybe just to say, Very funny but I’m not that much of Diva. And somehow after that I actually settled in a bit and started to enjoy the tennis, something I didn’t always manage to do, play with any pleasure these days, tennis being so wrapped up for me with the disappointment and ego and self flagellation.
She hit hard, of course. Hard for a girl, which I know might rub some people the wrong way, but it’s simply true that girls/women on tour don’t hit quite as hard as the men do. But Olivia’s shots were pretty darn close to the way the top men hit, or at least my memory of how they hit. But more than her pace, what impressed me most was maybe the variety of shots she could play as well as her movement. She could hit all of the shots, even back then. As comfortable slicing a chip and charge forehand approach or hitting a backhand lob as she was the usual grip-it-and-rip-it forehand or double-fisted backhand that every top junior could now hit in his or her sleep.
Full disclosure: before coming, the main draw to agreeing to all this (aside from the easy money and curiosity about meeting someone as famous as Olivia, of course) had been the secret hope that I might actually learn a few things from hitting with her: top secrets of the pros or something along those lines. Training tips that somehow no one else knew about and that I could slyly slip into my tennis bag and bring back home to my coach and my high school team and even my own game. Something I might actually be able to use.
But it was basically the same old, same old. Cross-court forehands (well forehands for her, backhands for me). Then her backhand to my forehand. Down the line shots for ten more minutes. Then some approach stuff. Half-volleys, volleys, overheads. I could have been going through a practice with my team if it weren’t Olivia Wallace playing in those pretty short, shorts and Homer Simpson T-shirt, that would ride up and expose just a little bit of her middle whenever she really went for a forehand, there on some lonely court set among this Connecticut Estate.
After another fifteen minutes of this she seemed a little bored with it all, as well.
“You can hit full out with me, you know,” she said. “I mean please don’t feel like you have to hold back.”
“Okay,” I said. “You sure?”
She gave me another one of her half-smiles. Yes. She was sure.
“I mean I don’t want to upset your confidence or anything.”
This, she seemed to feel didn’t even deserve a response, deciding instead only to pivot around on her brand-new Adidas tennis shoes (she already had a lucrative shoe deal and probably played in a new pair each and every time she stepped out on to the court) in order to then return quickly, almost with a girlish skip, back to the baseline.
The only problem with this was that I had been hitting full out, or hitting the way I usually did when trying to get more than two balls back in a row. I tried to pick up the pace, and somehow, by some miracle, managed to still find the court with swings so hard that I would have no doubt acquired tennis elbow if I’d had to keep it up for any length of time. Fortunately, I didn’t. Just another twenty minutes or so, me breathing very hard, she hardly breathing at all, before Olivia had looked back over her shoulder to spy her coach, still lurking somewhere in the shadows I could only presume. She then gestured for me to once again come to the net for another impromptu meeting.
For the first time, I felt really nervous, my legs even a bit wobbly, more from the situation than the workout. It was as if I was suddenly waking up and realizing where I was. What I was, in fact, doing: Olivia Wallace, the nation’s latest “tennis darling” there in the flesh and gesturing for me to come forward for one more secret meeting at the net. We were even now sharing conspiratorial smiles, or rather she was. More likely, I was merely grimacing.
“Still not hard enough for you?” I asked, continuing to try and catch my breath.
“Oh no. You’re doing fine. I was just wondering . . .” She stopped in mid-sentence again, having to check back over her shoulder to once more make sure her coach still wasn’t watching. She then must have felt that she was being too conspicuous because she instead mouthed to me, “Can you see him?”
I squinted past her, scanning beyond the court. “Nope,” I mouthed back to her. “Not at the moment.”
“Want to just play a set?” she asked now whispering.
“Ah. Okay,” I whispered back. “Are we allowed to?”
She shrugged. “Probably not. But better to ask for forgiveness than permission.”
I nodded, intrigued and maybe even a little impressed by her small act of rebellion.
“But you have to promise,” she said.
I just waited. The word anything sprang to mind but thankfully didn’t come out of my mouth.
“No holding back.”
“Right,” I said. “Of course.” But then I think I must have looked away, avoiding eye contact.
“What?” she said.
“Nothing,” I said, in that way people say when it’s clearly not nothing.
“Come on. What?” she said again.
“So that means I can now play right-handed?”
She sort of frowned at me. A frown that didn’t immediately go away. And
I decided that uncertainty wasn’t a bad look on the young Olivia Wallace though not one you were likely to see too often on a tennis court.
“You thought I always played left-handed?”
“Very funny,” she said, the uncertainty vanishing from her face as fast as it had appeared. “Serve ‘em up,” she instructed, tossing me the balls.
One of the rules of being a hitting partner is that a hitting partner never hits and tells. And so I’ll only go so far as to say that I didn’t embarrass myself out there. Whether there was another bird or two in the bushes, I would never know for sure, but I had played well enough it would seem to at least get invited back the next day. Not by Olivia herself, of course, who merely thanked me in this suddenly overly polite way as we both toweled off. Me hoping as I did so that this might somehow be prolonged a little longer, not the toweling off per se, but the day itself, that there might be that “meal included if necessary,” and that it might also mean Olivia Wallace included, too. As in, we might both grab some lunch together on some nearby leaf-strewn patio or deck, being served by one of her many “peeps,” or fed in whatever other way Olivia received her correct caloric intake.
But no such luck. Lunch, I would learn, was to be served lukewarm and in a Tupperware dish in the back seat of that same town car that was now awaiting me with its wide and overly eager open doors, all ready to mosey me back to my house. A shared meal, let alone an imagined dip in some nearby pool together, was not exactly in the cards as they say, at least not on this day.
“Thanks for the game,” Olivia said for maybe the third or fourth time, only this time offering up her pale hand for me to shake and growing even more remote and formal now that the others were crowding in around us, her silent and perennially frowning coach being just one of them.
“Of course,” I said. “And while I’m thinking about it, it’s Netsky you’ll probably have to play, right?” And then waited for Olivia, or anyone else to confirm or deny this for me. And it was finally Olivia who gave me a quick affirmative nod.
“Well, she’s much less comfortable with short, down-the-middle approach shots as opposed to ones that are deep and to the corners. She actually prefers teeing off from one of the corners where the angles are easier. Just something to consider,” I said, finishing abruptly, or maybe not, as I continued with, “I mean if I were you, that’s how I’d play her. Approach every chance I get and dare her to try and pass me. If you stay back and get into a baseline game with her, you’re in for a long, long day.”
Given the thunderous silence I was greeted with, I might as well have suggested she play her naked, a sure fire way to also unsettle her opponent.
“Tomorrow then?” one of her people other than her coach finally said, the town car now having started its engine. The driver, I couldn’t help noticing, was now standing outside the car and most definitely waiting for me with an awkward eagerness. Meanwhile, another one of Olivia’s people, a woman in her late twenties and wearing a skirt and jacket and therefore resembling a stewardess, was already handing me my lunch. Call me crazy, but I think they wanted me to be on my way.
Still, I decided to take another moment to peek in at what was inside my little to-go lunch box. Some warm chicken it would seem and some already mushy mashed potatoes.
“Chicken,” I said, inhaling deeply. “Yum, my favorite.”
Which made Olivia laugh for some reason. But then when no one else had even cracked a smile, she quickly caught herself, and frowned down at her new new sneakers instead.
And it struck me then, ever so fleetingly, but also memorably, that Olivia Wallace might be a little lonely surrounded by such humorless drones.
And that, had pretty much been that.
For some reason I never would learn until much later, our next practice session had been abruptly canceled. My services, such as they were, had no longer been required. Had I pushed Olivia too hard, or maybe not hard enough? Had her coach or someone else somehow figured out that we’d played a forbidden set and that had been the deal breaker, despite it being Olivia’s suggestion, not to mention that I’d ended up letting her win the set. Which then had led to even more worried thoughts that I’d maybe been too obvious with my tanking and that had somehow bothered her? Or had it been because of one of the hundred of other reasons I would come up with over the next few weeks (bad breath or hygiene or just not “hot enough”), spending far too much time speculating and worrying about what exactly I’d done or not done that had changed somebody’s mind.
Meanwhile, I watched, very much from afar, Olivia go all the way to the semi-finals at that year’s U.S. Open, only to lose to her usual fellow American nemesis in a match that hadn’t, despite all the hype, really been very close. She had, however, satisfyingly crushed Netsky in the previous tournament in less than an hour (“2” and “1”), having seemed to have taken my tip with good results—approaching short, down the middle and often.
The caller had certainly given me no real reason for the sudden change of plans, or none that I could quite believe that is. The call had come the following morning from yet another female person (not the one who had contacted me originally), offering up some lame reason for the cancellation: a tweaked hamstring; Olivia having woken up with a slight sniffle; or perhaps it had been that she’d simply wanted to mostly focus on her serve and she didn’t need me or any other person to do her tossing for her. I can’t really even remember what it was exactly. More than likely, I’d never even heard the excuse at all, too busy feeling the sting of the news itself and less interested in the reasons. Why Olivia Wallace was canceling had hardly mattered at the time. Just that she was.
But maybe even more surprising had been how long this would all sort of bum me out for. How the emotional rollercoaster of being invited in and just as abruptly dropped out of Olivia Wallace’s life left me far more hungover and, well, deprived (or maybe bereft is a better word for it?) than I would have ever thought possible after so brief an encounter as ours.