The threat of thunderstorms moved the singles tournament forward, from the evening to midafternoon. Winston even got to miss class for it. But the storm’s imminent arrival meant summer was already upon them, and heat settled heavy and oppressive over the shaded tennis courts of Grove Hill Racquet and Swim Club. Across town, the girls were playing for their championship at Winfield High.
Chuck sweated straight through his home whites by the midway point of the first set, clinging and translucent. His coach brought out an away t-shirt for him to change into and a beach towel for discretion; Chuck ignore the latter and whipped the white shirt into the bushes next to their seats, body languid and smooth, slick from sweat, shiny where his compression top wasn’t covering. He’d never been the shy sort.
Winston dropped his head between his knees and hid beneath his towel. His cheeks felt hot, but his neck was prickling from it. He’d protested his mother’s insistence of sun screen that morning (“We don’t even need it, Mummy.” “Boy, don’t kid yourself.”) but he was grateful for it then. One less way he needed to worry about his body betraying him. His coach lingered at the fence, trusting Winston to knock away the fizzling anxiety seeping in from the corners of his consciousness and focus in the dark shade of the towel.
He felt the same prickling from his neck in his arms, his legs, the small of his back. The last tiebreaker set went 7-6, Chuck. Both of their teams were spread out on the few benches up on the hill or tailgating out of a few of the seniors’ trucks, but the crowd didn’t hold much more past that. Tennis wasn’t exactly a big ticket sport around here, and they were only playing for a regional title.
Only. Winfield was supposed to be the top boys team in the city; Winston was their No. 1. Winston wanted it so bad he wasn’t even allowed to think about it.
Chuck had two state titles. Six, including doubles and team. Didn’t lose a high school match for years, after freshman year meet playing against the wind.
But that was for the other tournament.
“Hey,” Chuck said, leaning over the patio table separating them. His face shined with sweat, hair dark and curled against his forehead. “Are those balls in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?”
Winston sighed, fished the felt-covered balls out of his shorts, and handed them over to Chuck, who grinned widely. “Thanks, bud.”
“Time,” the umpire called, and Winston leveraged himself out the chair to take his place on the court, racquet in hand.
Winston had heard one coach or another harp about consistency through adversity that it became something like white noise; something he took for granted. But he knew something was seriously off almost immediately. Its consequences unfurled—or contracted sharply, as the case may be—in the second game, when Winston lunged for a ball just this side of the net. The return went out, and even more pressingly it felt as if every muscle down his left side had recoiled from the movement. He cried out and bent at the waist. His eyes squeezed shut automatically, even though he knew that he needed to make himself relax, stretch what needed to be stretched, get over himself.
On the opposite side of the court, Chuck was respectfully surveying the canopy above them.
Just once, Winston thought in a moment of bitter weakness, Just once I want this to happen to you instead.
By the next break, there was pickle juice and mustard packets waiting for him. He couldn’t tell if they helped; his side kept spasming, tugging and his back and his neck, too, but he was playing well, too. Even capped with underhanded serves, Winston kept up—could tell Chuck was feeling the strain, too, making plays he was usually too smart to fall into.
They ended up in another tiebreaker. It wasn’t out of Winston’s reach; he had no idea how he would get through another set, but he wanted to be able to fight for it. He knew he had a chance.
In the end, it didn’t really matter why Winston was too slow; Chuck got him out of position, and when a quick return landed in and near, there wasn’t anything he could do to counter. It was over. It was all over.
Winston stayed on his feet long enough to shake Charles’ hand, then limped off the court and collapsed into his chair. More white noise as the AD said his congratulations and presented medals, little plaques not unlike the ones Winston got for some local art competition.
His parents disappeared them into the car with a, “We’re so proud of you, sweetie.” Winston slouched over in his seat, feeling sick to his stomach. He didn’t have much time to get over himself—doubles started maybe an hour, probably less with how long his and Chuck’s match went.
At some point a TV crew had shown up; they were talking to Chuck now on the courts, too far away for Winston to really make out what he was saying.
Looking up was a mistake, though, because suddenly to his left was another journalist—one with the paper that he vaguely recognized from football sidelines. Usually they left losers alone, and Winston viciously wanted the same thing now, could barely look at her as she introduced herself.
But her voice was nice as she said, “That was really a fantastic game. Everyone could see how hard you were fighting.”
“Thanks,” Winston said, because he had to.
“You’ve known Kuhlen for a long time, right?” she asked, and when he only nodded, she prodded a little bit more, “Did that affect anything, going into today?”
Winston dropped his head and breathed through the next flood of annoyance, insecurity. Yes, it really extra special sucked to lose to Charles, he didn’t say, and, besides, it wasn’t what either of them meant. He could hear the opening in her question.
“Charles is the best tennis player in the state right now, maybe ever,” Winston said. “Obviously I wanted to win, but I knew coming in today that it was going to be a tough match, he’s been on fire all year, and he deserved to be champion today.”
The woman smiled again, still kindly neutral, thanked him and offered a misplaced congratulations on his season, then excused herself to wait for the TV channel to finish with Chuck.
Winston forced himself to breath and dragged his towel back over his head.
His body still hurt by the weekend, when he next saw Chuck. Winston wasn’t exactly avoiding him—he was mooching off Ramziya’s family’s pool membership, and he knew the two lived in the same neighborhood, were former teammates, but he didn’t expect her to wave the other guy down, either.
“I didn’t know you invited Chuck, too,” Winston said. He probably deserved the sharp look Ramziya shot his way.
“Are you two, like, not cool now?” she asked with a tone that heavily implied what the answer should be.
Winston obliged, saying, “Nah, not like that, just—I don’t know. It’s just been a little awkward.”
“Well, nothing like a nice relaxing day by the pool to work things out,” Ramziya said as she stood and hugged Chuck and the few other LaGrange tennis players he came with. They were all friendly with each other, either from middle school or various meets or tournaments, and despite Winston’s jolt of anxiety when he first saw Chuck round the corner, it was easy enough to settle into the collection of chairs Ramziya’d claimed.
Chuck settled in next to Winston, arms and legs long from where they stuck out from board shorts and a rolled-up t-shirt. He held out his phone and demanded, “Look.”
Winston squinted at the screen. It was hard to make out through his sunglasses and the glare of the sun, but eventually he parsed it as the front page of the newspaper: a big photo of Chuck cheering beneath a headline celebrating his return to championship form.
“Hey, I was there for that,” Winston said.
“I read what you said,” Chuck said, dropping the phone back in his lap. “Thanks.”
Winston shrugged, very ready to forget his middling high school tennis career for what it was. “I meant it.”
“Didn’t have to, though.”
He’d also read the article Friday morning, in homeroom. Charles had called himself lucky, blessed by a body that would not succumb to simple dehydration, and then, “I’m just so happy I ended up competing, because I really didn’t know if I was going to be able to. Everyone’s been so supportive. I’m just so happy.”
Winston said, “I did,” and then, “I’m gonna get in.”
He didn’t wait for a response, but Chuck followed close behind him. Even while dodging little kids and observant parents, the water made it easier to move around him, splashing, dunking, racing away from each other—Chuck was taller but not much of a swimmer, so it was easy for Winston to catch him how he wanted, pull him under for awhile, both of them reemerging laughing.
The pool was crowded; they were close. Winston seemed to notice this at the same time Chuck did, his squawks settling down, smile still wide but eyes assessing.
Winston looked away first, again. “Did you see the ice cream truck up front?”
“Uh,” Chuck said, arm dropping from Winston’s shoulders. “Yup. Looks good.”
“Do you want some?”
“You know I do.”
They climb back out. Chuck trailed Winston into line. Winston whispered in Chuck’s ear about the mom hooking up with her children’s rec soccer coach, whose wife was also at the pool today, then made him choose from the menu. They end up with an oversized strawberry shortcake sundae, scoops of ice cream and pound cake and the sweetest strawberries.
Back at the Ramziya cluster, they sit on opposite sides of the same chair, each with a spoon in hand, eating at a rate that could be called “defensive” if they were Winston’s dogs.
“So,” Winston said, “Morillo for state qualies?”
Chuck’s spoon hovered for only a second before he said, “I do not want to talk tennis.”
“What do you want to talk about then?”
He grinned. “Did you watch the Hawks game?”
Somehow, giving Winston a play-by-play did nothing to slow Chuck’s attack on the sundae. If anything, Winston’s obvious attempt to distract him only made Chuck more daring, spooned massive chunks then taking his time deconstructing them with his mouth.
I dare you. Double dare, his expression said. Triple dog dare.
Winston’s foot jittered. He waited until the sundae was nothing more that melted ice cream and crumbs—again licked up by Chuck—before he said, “You wanna see something?”
Chuck eyed him. “Always.”
They properly disposed of the boat, then Winston led them towards the back entrance. Grove Hill was, appropriately, tucked into the back of the neighborhood, surrounded by more trees than flattened suburban yards.
Chuck was pressed up close behind him. They were far enough away that he didn’t really need to whisper, was never really his style generally, but he did that afternoon, right up against Winston’s neck, “Are you taking me somewhere exciting?”
“Yeah,” Winston said, stopping randomly, turning, grabbing Chuck by the shoulders, then crashing his mouth forward. It’s inelegant, awkward, and they both reek of chlorine, but Chuck made a very agreeable noise and surged forward himself, grabbing Winston back, hands strong on his ribs.
Winston’s head is swimming by the time they have to break apart. For once, Chuck looked equally affected. He said, “Oh,” then smiled, “Cool.”
“Yeah?” Winston said, laughing in disbelief.
“Absolutely,” Chuck confirmed, before pulling Winston down for another kiss.