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Authors: Greg Jackson

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BOOK: Prodigals
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The sun was setting and we were rising—me, Marta, Eli, and Lily—the four of us in a Prius, experiencing a transcendental glee and hoping that the other half of life was gone for good. It wasn't, of course. In time it would return. But first I would wander around the plein-air Palm Springs airport that night with a vague sense that I was at a golf tournament, and watch the yellowed planes above the Denver airport hover as bright and still as fireflies. And I would wonder what they did with the burnt glass in our fireplace, whether they threw it out, replacing it with fresh glass, or if they just raked it under. And before even that we had the long ride back through Twentynine Palms and the towns of Joshua Tree and Yucca Valley, the whole thing one unbroken span of luminous development, or so it seemed, more beautiful than you can imagine.

We were listening to a late Beatles album very loud, finding folds within the music that seemed never to have been there before and unlikely to be there again. I could not get over the fact that what we were hearing were the actual hands of these men falling on their instruments half a century ago. Lily, every few minutes, burst out laughing wildly, I don't know why. We petted each other a little, sensually, asexually, then we passed into the Coachella Valley, swept down, down into the vast grid of lights, so many colors, all communicating with one another in a lattice of shifting and persistent harmony. And as we came down from the risen pass and returned to the valley floor, where the windmills blinked red and the stars through our open windows were small rounded jewels in the great velvet scrim of night, Lily spoke.

“It's like … it was all
choreographed
for me,” she said, her voice hushed and marveling. “Like everything was arranged for
me.
To experience just like
this
.”

It took me a second to realize what she was saying and what it meant, to gather my thoughts and say the only thing there was to say.

“But that's what it is,” I said. “That's what being on drugs is.”

 

Serve-and-Volley, Near Vichy

I was thirty-four when I met Léon Descoteaux, the famous tennis player, and stayed for a few days at his home in France, where he lived with his wife and children. I was traveling with my girlfriend of the time, Vicky, and she was old friends with Léon's wife, Marion, from when the two had been on the tour together. It had been ages since Vicky had last seen Marion, and she convinced me to stop in on the Descoteaux on our way to Rome, where the uptown magazine I was on assignment with wanted me to do a travel piece. “Rome to the Maxxi.” “Beyond Trastevere.” Something like that. I was toying with the idea of proposing to Vicky and thought that if I got up the nerve Rome was the place to do it.

It was an odd moment in my life. I no longer felt young, but I didn't feel exactly old. I felt, I suppose, that I was running out of time into which to keep pushing back the expectation that my life would simply sort itself out and come to resemble the standard model. Vicky and I had known each other from college, one of those prestigious East Coast schools whose graduates are cagey about where they went, and we had reconnected two years before. That was five years after she'd given up pro tennis and fallen, in her blithe, chipper way, into a job at a consulting firm. We were not the most natural fit, Vicky and I, but I had scaled back my ideas of romance and she must have too.

The Descoteaux were living in the countryside of the Auvergne, not far from Clermont-Ferrand but pretty far from everywhere else. This was why Vicky hadn't seen Marion for so long.

“Léo has her secreted away in middle-of-nowhere France,” Vicky said. “I can't imagine how she can stand it. She was such a party girl on the tour.”

I said maybe it was glamorous living in exile with a tennis legend, maybe people change.

“Not from Liberace to Thoreau,” Vicky said with her great mischievous smile. When she smiled that way, I felt, just possibly, that I could spend a life with her.

“Léon Descoteaux,” I said and shook my head.

I was excited about this part of our detour, I admit, the Léon Descoteaux part. It was why I had agreed to go with Vicky. I didn't think of myself as a person especially fascinated by celebrity, but that didn't mean I wasn't curious to meet the guy and peek in on his private life. It would be a story I could tell people, a casual small-talk currency.
Hey, did I tell you I spent a weekend at Léon Descoteaux's place in France last month?… a while back?… when I was in my thirties?… decades ago?

There was a more personal reason too. I was no huge tennis fan, but I watched the Slams when I could, and once, about fifteen years before, I'd seen Léon play a gutsy five-set semifinal against some Scandinavian phenomenon. Léon was at the peak of his career, number six in the world, and though it was clear that his finesse game didn't stand a chance against this freakish Nordic power baseliner, Léon, with his becalmed court presence and upright bearing, played the Viking to a fifth set and a tiebreak too. I remember few tennis matches, but in the hours I spent watching this one I formed a bond with Léon Descoteaux and I rooted for him throughout the rest of his career. He had a slim body and moved lightly around the court with a kind of magic poise—the sort, I suppose, that you need to return a 125-mph serve. It may have been no more than this: I saw someone who moved with particular beauty or grace and the animal part of me responded. But in the story I told in my head, I admired his stoicism in the face of what seemed to me an occasion for despair. He was more skilled than his opponent but unable to compete with him physically. This hard-fought loss would be the best Léon could do, perhaps the best tennis he would ever play. So what I was watching, I felt, was someone
almost without peer
confront exactly the limit of his ability. Most of us don't ever get to be sixth best in the world at anything, fair enough. But then neither do most of us have to face such an objective, historical accounting of the upper limit of our talent.

On the plane over to France, above the dark nothing of the Atlantic before dawn, with the wing light blinking to my left and Vicky dozing against my right shoulder, I imagined that Léon and I might strike up a friendship, that after a few days I would tell him about watching the U.S. Open semifinal all those years before. I might say something like, “I fell in love with your game, Léon. I was living and dying with each of your points. And although you lost the match, I thought you played with terrific guts and poise.” I had no illusion that I would actually say this, but I was in the habit of making these little speeches in my head. The vacant ocean passed beneath us. I was awake when the world began its too-early brightening.

*   *   *

We made our transfer in Paris and I finally sacked out on the domestic flight, only to be awoken what seemed minutes later by Vicky saying, “We're here,” with annoying cheerfulness.

For a minute I had no idea what “here” she meant. A pall of exhaustion and physical misery enveloped my mood, and I thought suddenly that the trip had been a mistake, my fantasy of a warm friendship with Léon Descoteaux close to lunacy, and, most troubling of all, that I was following around a woman I barely knew and to whom, in the stark sobriety of daily life, I had almost made the mistake of proposing. I had these feelings about Vicky from time to time, and I think she must have had them about me too, because there were points at which we so thoroughly baffled each other that we were forced to confront the origin of our intimacy in college, when we were so young and drunk and hopeful that it was easy simply to adore other people as the mirror images of our own bright futures. There was more to me and Vicky than that, surely. But there was also a sense in which what held us together was having come to know each other before we knew ourselves and before, as a consequence, we knew how impossible it was going to be to know anybody else.

I can be a bit moody, and I certainly have that male thing where my bad mood is the world's problem. So a lot of what I was feeling just then, as I waited for my bags to not-arrive in Clermont-Ferrand Auvergne International, was dubious and melodramatic. I was trying to convince myself that new luggage was still being added to the carousel fifteen minutes later, when Marion showed up.

“Victoria!” she said, spotting us and raising a hand. She was an impossibly pretty woman of some wonderful, indefinite European age, who gave off an aggressive public comfort in her body that I took to be distinctly French.

“Marion, this is Daniel,” Vicky said once they'd embraced. Marion looked me over like a rental billed a notch or two above its class.

“A pleasure,” she said.

“Enchanté,” I said and felt immediately like the sort of seamy flirt who says “enchanté
.

“Poor Daniel,” Vicky said. “He didn't sleep on the flight over and now his bags are lost.” She rearranged my hair.

“Mais non,” Marion said. She swept a hand across the scene. “They are all idiots here.
Consanguin
, you know? C'mon, we'll give you Léo's clothes.”

My mood lifted as we drove beyond the outskirts of Clermont-Ferrand. Marion turned onto a rural highway and in a matter of minutes the land opened out into gorgeous hilly country. It may have been this beauty, or catching a second wind, realizing that I was okay and not teetering on the brink of inward collapse, or it may just have been one of those moments when, like a flipped switch, you go from thinking the world is conspiring against you to seeing that the world doesn't care and you are free to find your own happiness or sorrow.

“So what will we do while you're here?” Marion said. “You'll want to tour around, I suppose.” She sighed. “It's funny, we live such isolated existences. I hardly know this place.”

“That's not possible,” Vicky said. “You've been here, what, five years? What about the kids, what do you guys
do
?”

“Yes, the poor kids,” Marion said. “They are too young to care. And we have a woman, Madame Lévesque. I play tennis in the city some days and Léo—who knows what Léo does.”

We were passing fields cleared for crops, wild slivers of uncleared fields within the forests and hills. Fields with rocky outcroppings and stone farmhouses, quaint and picturesque, with linens and dresses sailing from clotheslines. It was a windy day and at points the sun would find a hole in the clouds and unload its cache of warmth on the champagne hood of Marion's BMW.

“What do you mean?” Vicky said, her voice as light and delicate as wind chimes.

“Léo…,” Marion said, “is peculiar these days. He spends ages in his workshop. He's always taking long walks in the forest. Maybe he's crazy.”

She laughed, so we laughed too.

“Does he still play?” I asked.

“No,” Marion said. She looked out the window and added softly, mostly to herself, “No, no, no.”

We pulled up to their house not long after, a large but not immodest country home, tidy on the outside and nicely fixed up, built in the French farmhouse style, with peach-colored terra-cotta roof tiles, small casement windows, stone masonry. An elegant and unpretentious house set back a half mile from the road. To the right was a fenced-in tennis court with mounted lights for night play. The net wasn't strung, but the clay surface was neatly rolled and swept.

Marion left us in the front room with Vicky's bags while she went to find the others. I drifted over to a desk with a visitor log and Vicky peered over my shoulder as I flipped through.

“Is this what you expected?” I said. I didn't mean the guestbook, but I might as well have. The last entry was from five months before, late January, and the entries from the last few years were sparse. Before that, the Descoteaux had had regular visitors. I even recognized a few names as those of tennis players famous a decade ago and a French soccer star from the good national teams at the end of the century.

“So this is a
bit
more bizarre than I was anticipating,” Vicky said. She looked at me with one eye closed. “But I promise they're sweet.” She kissed my cheek and then, unable to resist, took down a racket hanging with the coats to test its swing.

I looked over to see a small boy peeking at us around a corner. I grinned at him.

“Maman!” he shouted.

A moment later two slightly larger versions of the same boy appeared, and then Marion and an older woman.

“Ta gueule, Fabien,” one of the older boys said.

The boys were all very handsome and might have been dressed for a photo shoot: white cotton tennis shorts, matching boat shoes, different colored but otherwise interchangeable Lacoste pullovers with little neck zippers.

“You shouldn't play with it in front of them,” Marion told Vicky. “Léo has forbidden tennis and predictably they desire to do nothing else.”

“Qu'est que t'a dit?” Fabien demanded, pulling his mother's skirt.

“Arrête,” Marion said sharply. “The older two, Michel and Antoine, speak English, but Fabien is a beginner. N'est-ce pas, Fabien? Tu parles anglais ou quoi?”

“Oui,” Fabien shouted. “Pussy!”

The older boys laughed and Marion slapped Fabien awfully hard on the back of the head. “Mais vraiment. They watch too many movies,” she said.

Madame Lévesque appeared serenely oblivious to this exchange and herded the children out after we'd said our hellos.

“I can't find Léo,” Marion said, “but c'mon, I'll show you your room.”

*   *   *

By the time we settled in I'd lost any faith in my imaginary friendship with Léon Descoteaux and begun instead to imagine a prickly recluse liable to resent our being there. Marion and Vicky were off drinking wine and chatting on the garden terrace, and I had excused myself, setting up around back in a wooden chaise with my books and notepads. It was a brisk day. I was wearing a cable-knit sweater Marion had given me from Léo's dresser. I'd found coffee in the kitchen and was finally feeling like myself again, gazing out over the lush grounds behind the Descoteaux's house, which sloped down prettily to a pond and an orchard.

BOOK: Prodigals
12.54Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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