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I don't play tennis with Jessie anymore. Not since last summer, when she asked me to just hit it around, and I naively believed she meant we were simply going to volley the ball back and forth over the net, not that I'd get a forehand to the stomach and end up doubled over gasping to catch my breath. Jessie immediately ran over and apologized profusely (she jumped over the net, which, even though I was nearly suffocating, still impressed me), but that was the end of our match. So now the closest I get to Jessie on the court is the sidelines, not so much because she's so good, which she is, but because she is so much better than me. And as much as I hated getting hit with a ball going sixty miles per hour, I hated losing even more.
"Come on, just one game?" Jessie begged, bouncing the ball against alternating sides of her racquet head. She was between clinics, so we had an hour to kill before her afternoon program. Even after only a week of teaching junior clinics at the Community Center, Jessie was dark, her legs and arms a warm toffee color compared to my mid-June pallor. The thing was, no matter how dark Jessie's skin got, and by the end of the summer she was darker than even the girls who loyally fake-baked at the Sun Tropez, Jessie's hair was always the same color. Almost black. Not a single highlight, no streaks from the sun. Just a solid mass of black curls pulled back into a ponytail, so dark and shiny the color reminded me of licorice jelly beans, which I always thought looked out of place in my pastel-colored Easter basket and always traded with Shelby for the purple, grape-flavored ones. My hair, on the other hand, ended up pale honey blond by the end of the summer, which looked great with a tan. But when my regular old dirty blond started growing in around October and there was no sun and salt air to provide a little assistance from Mother Nature, I had to turn to a bottle to ease the transition to my winter shade of blah.
I shook my head even as Jessie gave me a look that pleaded pretty please. "I didn't bring my protective gear."
Jessie rolled her eyes at me. "Well, you'd better remember to bring some tomorrow. You're going to need it."
"I think I can handle a few kids on the beach. Besides, who are you to talk? You just spent three hours teaching a group of ten-year-olds how to rush the net."
"Yeah, but they get out of line, and whack." Jessie let the ball fall to the ground, bounce once, then smacked it away with a killer backhand. Even without her trying, it skimmed over the net and slid down the right side of the court, just inside the tape. She'd made the varsity tennis team our freshman year, all thanks to that backhand.
"If I need your disciplinary skills, I'll be sure to call," I said. Jessie had started teaching junior tennis clinics at the Chilmark Community Center last week, which is why every afternoon I'd come by before her afternoon session to hang out. My complete and total boredom. But today was my last day of unemployment, because tomorrow I started work at the Oceanview Inn, as a camp counselor for the chil- dren's program.
"Better you than me," Jessie sighed, looking around for another ball. She taught at the center because it gave her an excuse to hit the court every day, not because she relished explaining the concepts of love and deuce and topspin to a bunch of kids who'd rather be at the beach or at their summer homes playing their Xboxes. "You hear from Shelby?"
"Yeah," I said, then waited while she dug a faded yellow ball out from behind the chain-link fence and resumed bouncing. "She said she doubts there'll be enough time to come home this summer, but she'll try."
Shelby attended the Boston Culinary Institute, turning what had begun as a coping mechanism into an actual vocation. Shelby's obsession with baking had gone into overdrive the summer after her ill-fated and short-lived freshman year at UMass. It was also the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school, but I was babysitting for the Logans and spent more time at their house than I did my own, so I didn't see Shelby or my parents that much last summer. Which, looking back now, I wasn't sure was a good thing or a mistake. Because maybe if I'd been around more, I could have fixed what was going wrong. If I hadn't been teaching the Logan twins how to craft cardboard sunflowers out of paper-towel tubes and styrofoam plates, maybe I would have noticed how much things were changing.
But I didn't realize what was going on at home until Shelby had gone away to school and it was too late. By that point the silence had become so normal, the hush such a part of my family's daily life, I couldn't remember what it had been like before, and I didn't know how to make everything go back to the way it had been. All I could remember is that it had been different, even if I couldn't put my finger on the exact moment that transformed everything.
There was no grand fight, no battles over the dinner table or dramatic tossing of wedding china, which is why I guess I didn't notice right away. Those were the signs they prepared you for in the movies, the noise of crashing objects, shrill voices, slamming doors. Instead, our house just got quieter as my parents began avoiding eye contact during meals, silently acknowledging requests with a slowly nodding head or a polite smile, passing the salt and pepper without touching fingertips.
And the quieter the house got, the more Shelby baked, as if the sweet smell of blackberry cobbler and banana upside-down cake could fill in the empty space left by my parents' growing silence.
"That's too bad, I miss Shelby's lemon bars. Maybe we could go to Boston and visit her," Jessie suggested. "Like in August, when this place is packed and we can't take it anymore."
I shrugged. "Maybe. I don't know if I'll be able to get time off, but we can try."
"It will have to be after the road race. Nash and I are training together."
Nash. Last year, when Jessie first started helping out at the center, she decided she wanted Nash, a sailing coordinator who was spending the summer on the island before heading off for his freshman year at the University of Vermont. Nash's father was once an economic adviser for the mayor of New York City, and now he taught at Columbia. It was rare for a summer guy to have a job, but I guess as far as jobs go hanging out on a sailboat all day was about as close as you could get to not working while still collecting a paycheck.
For two months last summer Jessie learned everything there was to know about nautical knots (practiced on her sneaker laces), steering (starboard on your right, port on your left), and rigging (especially the halyard, after she mistakenly wrapped one around her wrist and ended up with a wicked case of rope burn). She played it cool those months, approaching the situation just as she'd approach one of her matches equal parts strategy, perseverance, and patience. While the rest of the center's staff was fawning over Nash, Jessie hung back, piquing his interest with her disinterest ("They were tossing him lobs," she once told me, "nobody ever wins with a lob."). Finally, with three weeks left to go before he headed off to school, Nash made his move on Jessie. And for the next three weeks they were together, and then he left for college. Now he was back for a second summer and things were on again.
"Want one?" I asked Jessie, holding up the bag of chocolate chip cookies in my hand. Chips Ahoy! not homemade, which I knew would annoy Shelby to no end. But without my sister around, we had to resort to the baked-goods aisle at Stop & Shop like everyone else.
Jessie reached for the cookie with her right hand while continuing to hold the racquet and bounce the ball with her left. Coordination came so easily for Jessie. She was one of those people who could tap the top of her head with one hand while rubbing circles on her stomach with the other. I knew this because she'd demonstrated the skill to me shortly after we first met. I showed her how I could touch the tip of my tongue to my nose. Somehow I thought that made us even.
I knew Jessie wouldn't be able to eat the cookie while bouncing the ball, though. Jessie eats her food in pieces. It was the first thing I noticed when we met, in the cafeteria, our freshman year. Jessie lives up-island, in Chilmark, which meant that even though we've both lived on the island our entire lives, we didn't actually go to the same school until ninth grade. And on the first day, during lunch period, there she was, tearing off bite-size pieces of her ham-on-wheat sandwich and placing them in her mouth one at a time. I remember thinking how weird that was why didn't she just bite into the sandwich like a normal person? But then I noticed she did it with everything. An apple couldn't be eaten unless she had a knife to slice it into chunks. Muffins had to be broken apart, each bite-size piece resulting in an equal amount of crumbs that Jessie would press down on with the tip of her finger and lick. I'd even seen her dismantle a slice of pizza, which was messy and not all that appetizing to watch.
So now, to actually eat the cookie she'd taken, Jessie had to lean the racquet against her leg before using one hand to hold the cookie and the other to break off a corner piece.
"What are you going to do with your afternoons?" Jessie asked, her mouth full of cookie.
"I don't know yet. But I can tell you what I won't be doing, and that's sitting around at home."
Jessie knew all about my parents. In the beginning she thought I was nuts. After all, she'd told me, most people complain when their parents fight, not when they don't fight. Not that Jess would have any idea what I was talking about. Her parents owned an organic landscaping company and were practically together 24-7 in the summer and even in the winter, when the business closed for the season and the Harrisons plowed through the latest crop of books with titles like Sow What You Grow and Composting: It's Not All Crap. But then Jess thought I was nuts about a lot of things, my parental situation being just one of many. The others included my summer job corralling kids at the Oceanview, my inability to grasp the significance of wearing a UVM SAILING TEAM T-shirt to bed every night, and my genuine interest in the contrapositive form of proofs which is why in our geometry class last year Jessie said that, in addition to proving the logical equivalence "P implies Q," I also proved that I needed to get a life.
"What time is it?" she asked now, tossing the last piece of cookie in her mouth. She never wore a watch, which was one of the things about Jessie that drove me nuts.
"Almost one o'clock."
"Ugh." She picked up her racquet and laid it over her shoulder. "I'd better go get my students."
I stood up and brushed the loose blades of grass off my legs.
"You know, if you wanted, I could ask Kelsey if they need some extra help at the snack bar in the afternoons," Jessie offered. "It's kind of a cruddy job, but at least you get to snag some free food."
Jessie's sister Kelsey was a year younger than us, but she was already following in Jessie's footsteps as a loyal Community Center staff member. I knew Jess meant well, but she didn't exactly do a terrific job selling me on Kelsey's summer occupation, probably because she didn't know how to sugarcoat anything.
"Thanks, but I think I'll take a pass, even with the free food."
"Okay, well, enjoy your last day of freedom," she said. "And good luck tomorrow."
As if on cue a pack of eight-year-olds burst through the back door of the Community Center, their tennis sneakers kicking up dirt as they ran toward us.
"Looks like you're the one who needs the luck," I told her, wondering how Jessie would survive when up against a pack of eight-year-olds.
"Who needs luck," Jessie replied, showing no fear. "I have a racquet."
Copyright © 2008 by Jennifer O'Connell