There was a strange ritual Lucy relied on before a match: one quick heave to momentarily release the tension and anxiety that built up for weeks at a time. At first she thought she’d just try it, pulling the trigger before a playoff match when the nerves were especially unbearable—like she’d heard a teammate doing once—but when she won, the ritual became part of her success. She couldn’t stop doing it. It was her chosen method of nerve management. Tennis created a need for one: the sport was everything in her life, certainly in her home life. She lived alone with her father, her official coach since freshman year of high school, her unofficial one since kindergarten. The demands of her sport and the demands of her father merged to create this unnamable, suffocating presence. She desperately wanted to escape from it. 

Her father didn’t discover her ritual until a year after she’d started, before the first match of the season her junior year. She knew that was the year college coaches could start recruiting her—if she played well enough. It was close to match time, and he’d been wondering where she went until he searched the locker room bathroom and found her bent over a toilet. He told her it was okay to be nervous, she was nervous because she cared.

“No pressure, no diamonds,” he told her as he wiped a fleck of vomit from her cheek with a handful of paper towels, somehow thinking it was appropriate in this moment to remind her of the state championship rings he’d won as a coach, proudly displayed in a glass case on the mantel in their living room.   

He always praised her for her intensity. He said she cared about a tennis match like the mortgage on their house was on the line. Somehow he hadn’t tried to lecture her on how unhealthy this ritual of hers might be. Might’ve expected him to, considering he was her coach, and by nature of the job was responsible for making sure she and the rest of the team stayed as healthy as the sport allowed. But that was her father: tennis was always the first thing, oftentimes the only thing. If she hadn’t lost her mother to cancer before she had the opportunity to really know her, Lucy would have asked her this: how did she stand it? Living with someone who showed all his passion for a sport and nothing else?

He was still the same father he was when she was five, when he started her with tennis. At the neighborhood court, he’d bark directions at her as she sent the ball flying back toward him every now and then but most of the time off to the sides of the court. Keep your knees bent, he’d tell her. You’ve got to keep your eye on the ball, Lucy. More than a decade had passed since then, and she could have sworn he said both those things in practice the day before.

* * *

Sitting in the locker room after the last match of her senior year, her father was still trying to lecture her on fundamentals.

            “Like I said earlier,” he told her, “you were dipping your shoulder, you were missing the ball, not hitting it like you should.”

            What else could he talk about? She’d lost. Nothing was going to change that. And, honestly, she was surprised at how unbothered she was by the loss. She took defeats more harshly as a kid, shutting herself in her room for several hours after losing. Now she had the opposite impulse. She had no interest in dwelling on the loss. She was done with tennis, her father, the whole school. Not that she cared much for the school anyway. She spent more time preparing for matches than exams, she always went to bed early on the weekends. She was anxious about the fact that, without her father knowing, she’d packed all of her belongings into her truck the night before. Everything she owned, ready to fly down the highway with her, destination to be determined. She had a friend at a university two hours west of Kansas City, figured she could stay with her until she figured out a plan. She needed time to think. She could never think when she was around her father.

            “I told you, I was concentrating on it,” Lucy said. “She was just too quick.” It was true: her opponent moved faster side to side than anyone she’d faced all year, and she had a powerful cross-court finisher that kept Lucy honest, kept her from playing as aggressively as she normally did. “There wasn’t time to think about my shoulder or hardly anything else.”

“I don’t wanna hear it,” he replied. “You know this game is about you against you and no one else.”

            “Was,” she said, resisting the urge to raise her voice at him. “The game was. Not is. It’s over now. I’m done.”

            “The hell do you mean done? You had a great season, now it’s time to rest a bit before we get back to work.”

            She wanted to tell him about how the court where they ran countless drills found its way into her dreams, the fear of anticipating what might happen out there on match day keeping her up almost every night. She’d lie there in her bed, covered in sweat, her heart pounding as if she were running sprints. In the recurring dream she places a water bottle and towel on the bench, cranes her neck toward the linesman’s stand for a glimpse at her opponent. She knows everything there is to know about her, because the opponent is herself, except stronger in every way. The other version of herself puts her serve where she wants to put it, every single time. She never hits her forehand into the net. Even when she does make an error, she shows no frustration. The match ends quickly, a victory in straight sets for Dream Lucy. They meet at the net to shake hands, then Lucy looks off into the crowd for her father. Every time, he’s gone, disappeared. Why does she always look for him?

There were so many matches in real life when she wished he wasn’t anywhere near the court. On the courtand off itshe could never keep his voice out of her head. Maybe it wasn’t him she wanted to run from, but only his voice. Maybe she didn’t want to run away from him forever, just long enough to get his voice out of her head, or at least long enough for her to find the difference between his voice and her own.

            “I don’t want to play anymore, Dad. I’m tired,” she said. “I’m eighteen years old and I’m already tired of life! How is that okay?”

            He was silent for a while, longer than she could ever remember him pausing in a conversation. He was always filling the gaps in their conversations, always with something tennis-related. She wondered if he did this because he couldn’t stand silence, and if that silence reminded him of the absence of her mother. Her mother had been gone for so long now but Lucy knew her father still felt the loss of her, knew he always would. It was different for him, though. It wasn’t that Lucy didn’t feel her absence. It was the opposite: the lack of her was the only thing about her mother that she could feel. How could she tell this to her father?

            “I didn’t know you felt that way, Luce. I never wanted that. It’s just… you know I’ve never been one for big picture thinking. Certainly not around the court.” He cleared his throat. “All I know is there’s college tennis in your future if you just keep working at it. We’ve come so far. We’re not gonna give it all up now, are we?”

            “I don’t want to talk about that now, Dad. I don’t want to talk about that until I’m ready,” she said. “I don’t care if that means I waste the opportunity. And if that were only true around the court, what you said about big picture thinking, that would be one thing. But we never talk about anything else! What else do we talk about besides this stupid game?”

            She didn’t realize she was shouting at him until she heard her voice echo through the locker room. His eyes widened, blood drained from his face. It was strange to see him that way, frozen in fear. Suddenly she felt she was punishing him for something he didn’t do. As her coach he could give her nearly everything. As her father he seemed to have reached his limit, maybe he’d reached it a long time ago.

            “I need to leave for a while, Dad,” she said. “I don’t know for how long.”

            She braced herself for his yelling, but instead he paused, took in a breath. “You had her in the second set, Marissa,” he said. Her mother’s name. All these years since she died, and he still had a habit of slipping up. “You just have to keep your eye on the ball. What did I tell you? We’re almost there. We’ve gotta keep going.” The blood had returned to his face, and the veins in his neck were bulging. “And your shoulder, you have to keep it up. Careless! Eye on the ball, that’s all you have to do. Just keep it there. Keep it there.”

            “Dad?” she said, and put her hand on his shoulder. “Dad, are you okay?”

            “We’re almost there,” he said, his voice reduced to a whisper. “We’re so close, Lucy.”

            “Dad, I’m leaving.” It took all of her will to say this. But she had to be firm.

            “C’mon, Luce.” He was pleading with her––she could see it so clearly now. “We’re almost there.”

            “Dad,” she said. “Let me go. Okay? I have to do this for myself. Please.”

            He was choked up. It looked like he was trying to tell her something, but the words were caught in his throat. She stared at him for what seemed like a long time, but he didn’t say anything. Didn’t even meet her gaze.

            “Okay,” she said, unsure of what else to say. She put her hand on his shoulder, and he looked up at her and nodded. She picked up her racquet bag and made her way to the locker room door.

As she walked toward the exit, she could hear him repeating something. She could have sworn he said “the shoulder” or “the ball.” She stepped outside into the parking lot, and felt the sun burning her neck and ears. She thought she heard her father behind her, but she kept walking. When she got into her truck, she realized her hands were shaking. She looked back toward the front door of the locker room, some part of her hoping to see her father emerge from it. He didn’t. She drove slowly out of the parking lot, rolling down the windows, waiting to hear his voice shouting after her. But she only heard the rumble of her truck’s engine. The last thing she saw as she pulled away from the school was her father’s truck. It was the only remaining vehicle in the lot.

# # #

Richard Moriarty
is originally from Kansas City, MO, and currently lives in Greensboro, NC, where he teaches at UNC Greensboro and NC A&T State University. When his dreams of playing pro baseball didn’t work out, he began writing fiction. This is his first published story.