The day my mother hired a new housekeeper to replace the last one caught stealing was the same day Yaiza arrived on the tennis courts. It was almost summer. Our first official tournament was coming up, one hosted at the same tennis academy where we took lessons. From all over the neighborhood, we congregated at those courts after school. Our parents didn’t let us walk there, across a busy highway, but we all came from less than a mile away. It was a mostly Hispanic neighborhood—all different classes, some big houses, some small, except everyone who could afford the tennis lessons and the gear came from the big houses. Not Yaiza. She had only one racquet shoved in a ratty backpack, instead of the racquet bags with backup racquets, keychains, and USTA zipper pulls that we had. She looked eleven like the rest of us, but she was darker. She had a Miami accent when she said hello, those Spanish l’s that flicked from the back of the mouth instead of the front. No mother dropped her off; she had walked.
My friends and I were rewrapping our racquet handles with matching purple cushioned grips, the boys tossing tennis balls back and forth. When Yaiza arrived, throwing open the clubhouse door so hard that she nearly took it off its hinges, we flinched, took her in, and turned away.
I was used to being the favorite, and one of the women who coached us called me over to drive the golf cart before lessons. I was the hustler of the group. My form was less than beautiful, and I didn’t hit winners left and right, but I was the fastest. I could run down every shot and keep a rally going until the other person tired out. I had a strange grip too, a one-handed backhand with my left, which meant I had greater berth and could reach shots that with anyone else should have been winners. In school I behaved the same as on the tennis court. I did all my homework, chugged through the books at the library steadily. This doggedness was why the coaches always called me over to drive the golf cart, dragging the wide brush behind it that erased from the green clay the footprints and ball marks of the previous age-group’s lessons, and to brush clean the white tape of the lines—more hard work I was glad for. The thuds of the tennis balls, the soft, dusty smell, the way we were powdered green after hours of sliding and kicking up clay—I wanted to earn it all, to feel like those moments were my own, the dust mine.
I watched Yaiza out of the corner of my eye while I whipped the cart around. She was jumping rope by the entrance of the clubhouse, her dark braid flicking back and forth. The coach’s whistle blew. We lined up, keeping the new girl at the back. But from the first thwack of her racket, Yaiza’s shots flew farther than ours, faster than ours. Her volleys were examples of perfect form: no windup, just short, deft caresses that made the balls drop dead at your feet. It was the kind of thing we’d only seen older kids do, the ones who were state-ranked. When we touched the net and ran back for our overheads, most of us would throw our weight forward, spinning with our weak arms. Yaiza’s overheads were effortless, her arms crossing her body with grace instead of desperation. She grunted with each shot, and when she missed one she yelled. Clearly she had already been taking lessons, but so had we.
A girl that lived three streets down from me, a mean girl that didn’t like to lose, pegged Yaiza in the back of the head with an overhead while Yaiza was returning to the back of the line after one of her gorgeous shots. Yaiza turned, not knowing who had done it, her eyes wide and enraged. “What, so you want to play me?” she yelled.
But none of us said yes, and like that we had a respect for her. I did, anyway. She didn’t work hard, but she worked hard, if you know what I mean. I did things over and over, for longer than anyone else. I made people weary. Even my mother tired of me. But Yaiza didn’t do something twice at fifty percent if she could do it a hundred percent the first time. She didn’t waste her energy outlasting anyone. She didn’t need to. I could already see that a match between us, the natural against the hustler, was inevitable.
When the sun got low and our mothers came to pick us up, we heard them, leaning on their cars parked next to each other, whispering scholarship girl, along with Yaiza’s name. My mother said she’d just hired Yaiza’s grandmother as her new housekeeper. When we pulled away, I saw Yaiza running to cross that busy intersection, eight lanes of traffic whooshing by, her backpack lopsided and sagging across her strong back.
When I got home, my bed was made. I never saw our housekeepers; they were always gone by the time I returned from school. My laundry was folded in a basket at the foot of my bed by unknown hands. I was perpetually embarrassed, my underwear folded into little squares, strange hands passing over my most precious things. I imagined a grandmother who looked just like Yaiza, old and hunched, scrubbing our toilets and mopping our floors. I felt ashamed, like they could see some dark part of me even I couldn’t by the trash I left scattered on the floor, the books I left discarded under the covers, the drawings I penciled at night, and having to move them.
When I got to the courts the next day, it was Yaiza who was already riding the golf cart, swinging those brushes around, breathing the clay as it powdered up behind her. Yaiza, who called something out to the coach’s sun-ruined face with its million brown, benevolent wrinkles. Yaiza, who turned the cart away as we pulled up, who flicked her sweat in our direction.
“That scholarship girl is certainly earning her lessons,” my mother said.
The coaches were tightening nets and pulling out the shopping carts full of yellow balls. When Yaiza jumped down from the golf cart and pulled out the wheel that would excavate the white taped lines from under the smooth clay she had just brushed over them, I walked beside her. My plan was the same as all my plans; I would wear that girl down.
“So, where’d you play tennis before this?” I said, the first words I had spoken to her.
Yaiza shrugged. “I was in Miami.”
“That’s great,” I said. “I’m sure if I’d had lessons in Miami, I’d be hitting like you.”
“Never took no lessons,” she said. “I found a racquet in a park, and I played against the wall.”
“Oh,” I said. “No net?”
She laughed. “Drew a line on the wall. Nets just give you an excuse to stop when you miss.”
I hated her. I’d told myself people earn what they get, and I wanted to believe that if I just kept running down the world, I’d emerge on top. “Well, why doesn’t your mom drop you off?”
“It’s my grandma,” she said. “Why, you afraid of crossing the street?”
“Not afraid,” I said, “I just don’t need to.” By then the other kids were arriving, and I left her to her tape lines.
After that, I watched her closely. I copied her form. I even started putting two hands on my backhand like the other kids and felt how hard you could hit that way. The tournament was coming up in a few weeks, the last weekend before summer. We were all hitting our hardest and ignoring Yaiza, because we were still naïve enough to think we might still win, and even if we didn’t, there was always second place. We ran suicides, sprinting from doubles line to doubles line, a competition I shone at, sliding into each tape-touch like my feet were skates in the clay. After lessons, I saw Yaiza crossing the street, her form bisected by the court fences as she dodged cars, her backpack threatening to jump over her head with every running bounce.
A week before the tournament, while we were racking up balls between drills, one of the boys said, “You’re bleeding.” I looked down at my knees and my shins, which often got scuffed without my realizing, but another of the boys said, “Gross!” and pointed my white tennis skirt, where bright red had sprouted.
I ran into the clubhouse with my racquet behind me, even though the strings would cover nothing. I slammed into the bathroom stall and pulled down my bloomers and my underwear, which were soaked with blood. I knew what a period was; my mother had told me about it, but she hadn’t told me to prepare for it so soon. I had nothing with me, and the clubhouse bathroom was not the kind of place with pad dispensers. I locked the door and tried scrubbing the cotton in the sink, but that made it worse, and instead I had only wet red bloomers and a stained skirt. I texted my mother, but she must not have been looking at her phone.
On the next break between drills, the boys pounded on the door, calling me bloody vag, but none of my friends came to rescue me. I knew none of them had gotten their period yet. Then a softer knock on the door, and my name in that Miami accent.
“Go away,” I said.
“I have some pads at my house across the street and some shorts if you want to come with me,” she said. “Everyone else is drilling.”
“I’m not walking out in front of everyone,” I said.
“I’m not your maid,” she said. “If I’m going, you’re going.”
I took a deep breath and weighed my options. I had never crossed the highway on foot, but I wasn’t going to give her the satisfaction of seeing me afraid. I stuffed a wad of toilet paper in my underwear and unlocked the door.
So I found myself walking behind Yaiza, my drenched bloomers seeping into my skirt, hoping everyone was too busy hitting to watch me down in the parking lot. I tried walking with my legs slightly crossed, but then I couldn’t keep up with her. The soft thuds of balls, the noises that seemed to me clean and pure, receded, and the ruckus of the highway loomed in front of us.
At the curb, cars rushing by, she crouched a little, like a runner at a starting block. “Go,” she said when she saw an opening. But I hesitated, and then my window was gone, cars like spaceships zooming across. Yaiza was at the median, waiting for her next break, balancing her sneakers on the log of concrete. “Come on,” she yelled.
A wall of cars barreled down. There seemed no way I could make it, but I tensed my body, leaned into the pavement. She said, Now, run! and this time I didn’t hesitate, feet pounding across the blacktop, the air that smacked me in the back as I reached the median, and the cars whooshed past. The next half of the street we ran together, me outdistancing her as we ran into the ditch and used it to slow ourselves down.
When I looked, she was laughing. She said, “Yeah, yeah,” like she was answering a question I had already asked.
We walked past the wall that separated our subdivision from the highway, past the small houses and the big houses, past the trees I had climbed all my life, until I’d reached the top. A few cars passed down that green road and I kept my head down, embarrassed in case they noticed the stain on my skirt and recognized me.
Yaiza’s house was the smallest on the block, a prefab flimsy square, no bushes or palm trees, only a brown, dried-out lawn that crunched under our feet. We were ten streets away from my own, but I had never felt farther. The people who lived on this street, had they not climbed high enough, had they not run fast enough?
Inside, Telemundo yelled from the TV in the kitchen, and a gnarled woman I assumed was Yaiza’s grandmother sat at the table, a fist under her chin. This woman had folded my underwear, had seen the porcelain figurines of children I still kept on my dresser, had probably even sat on my bed and passed her hands over my pillow. She possibly knew me better than my mother did, who seemed not even to see me for who I was and kept wanting me to quit tennis for dance. Yaiza’s grandmother didn’t turn around. I stood there, not wanting to interrupt Telemundo, not wanting to be caught trying to disappear before announcing myself. I wanted her to see me, not the random leavings of my life, but me, and I wanted her to tell me I could do anything. I clasped my hands in front of my ruined skirt.
“What are you doing?” Yaiza said. She pulled me into her room, where two sets of bunk beds were pushed up against opposite walls. A soccer ball and dirty clothes littered the floor, and the room smelled like onions and metal, like unshowered boys. She pulled a box of pads from a black trash bag deep in the closet.
“Got to hide it from my brothers,” she said. She pulled out a pair of jean shorts and handed me both. I didn’t have extra underwear and mine were soaked, so I pasted the sticker of the pad to the crotch fold of the jean shorts.
“Yeah, you’re fine,” she said, when I walked out.
We didn’t say good-bye, and I never saw her grandmother’s face, that invisible woman who would always be gone although her presence was everywhere in my room, her sweat on my sheets.
On the walk back I still kept my head down and clutched my bloomers and skirt rolled up in a trash bag. We crossed the highway again, cars honking, and my feet leaving her behind when we lunged toward the other side. I looked back at this girl, her dark braid bouncing, her biceps and shoulders lean and sinewed. The sun blazed, pinpricks of sweat on our skin glimmering, like the sun washing us in gold could make us the same— two girls made from hot metal.
Her kindness would be my consolation prize, and my gratitude burned. I would never thank her. Who can explain why we feel it necessary to be cruel when we do? I felt a hot fire in me to win, to beat her for her kindness.
A car honking broke the moment. My mother’s car, and her pounding the horn in the fury that rolled over whenever her rules were broken. She had gotten my text and come to rescue me, too late but not late enough to miss me and Yaiza running across the street. My mother slammed on her brakes before U-turning at the median so that she wouldn’t hit Yaiza.
Of course my mother started with the Spanish What were you doing what were you thinking? She rolled down her window and told me to get in. Yaiza had crossed and kept her head down as she walked past.
“No,” I said. I kept pace with Yaiza, and we walked down the driveway to the clubhouse like that, my mother doubling down on her authority, yelling out the window, rolling slowly to keep pace with us, Yaiza saying nothing, even when my mother turned her famous rage on her.
That night, my mother informed me she would start me in dance classes next year instead. I raged, yelling, inconsolable, and I knew I would win if I just kept at it. “Why?” I yelled, and my mother exploded back, “That girl is trouble.” Finally my father came into the living room to mediate. Tennis camp somewhere far for the summer was the negotiation settlement, which seemed to me more like a reward than a punishment, but I made sure to still look angry and slammed the door to my room.
My mother began staying in the lot until the lesson was done: car turned on, air conditioner blowing, a magazine flipped on the steering wheel, or talking on the phone, her mouth flapping open with gossip. I didn’t dare talk to Yaiza with my mother watching, and she didn’t talk to me. She shrugged when we caught each other’s eye. But when a boy mentioned blood to me, she pegged him in the foot with an overhead he could never return. I still had her shorts, which I’d hidden in the corner of my closet, too embarrassed to give them back or have her grandmother find them.
Meanwhile, Yaiza kept trouncing us, graceful topspin arching the balls over the net, the balls lunging away from us before we had even taken a backswing. I was the only one who could run them down, by staying near the back fence and sprinting for my life when she delivered a drop shot by the net. Those last two weeks were scored by the grace of her swing and the sliding and thudding of my feet. I went home powdered green and smelling of must. A few nights I refused to shower because I wanted that dust to be mine, to color me permanently, to claim me back. Years later, I would ask myself what it was all for, and my eleven-year-old dirty self would point at her own skin and say, “This.”
The day of the tournament came. I was convinced I would finish second to Yaiza’s first, not that I had seen anyone from outside our academy play. None of us had played in a tournament before, which meant none of us was seeded. We’d be paired with opponents at random. I envisioned myself outlasting several players and even some seeds before facing Yaiza in a final match. The bracket sheet was taped to the clubhouse windows.
When I saw my bracket, my stomach dropped. I’d been paired with Yaiza in the first round. I could see her in the parking lot with her scuffed racket, the grip rubbed raw, jumping from foot to foot to warm up. I splashed water on my face, pulled down my new tennis dress my mother had bought me as an apology, and walked out to our court. I shook her hand like I’d never met her before. No one came to watch her. My mother parked right behind the court fence and pantomimed clapping.
The match went almost like I dreamed. She slammed killer shots with perfect form and force, a terrifying angel, and I ran them down. Every once in a while she’d miss when I wore her down in a rally. I got some points like that, and I wasn’t that far behind, though she was winning. Tongue coated with dust, I felt like I had almost ground her down.
Then we were almost even in the second set, 4-3 Yaiza, and she threw the ball up to serve. Arm cocked, racquet behind her head, hand pointing up to the ball, body leaning into the court and coiled. The beginning of the swing, her explosion, it was like I could see it in slow motion, the ratty grip slipping out of her hand, the racquet slamming down with all the force of the ball on the ground, a sound like a stick breaking.
She picked it up, examined a seam through the fiberglass frame. I knew she didn’t have another. I waited for her to approach the net. Instead, she shrugged it off and got ready to serve again. I walked back to receive. Same swing, same explosion, but this time the racquet made such a dull thwack when it made contact, I knew the ball wouldn’t make it over the net.
For a moment I felt relief, a wash of happiness. She would have to forfeit; she couldn’t keep playing. But then I remembered going to her house, her toughness in the face of our mocking, that racquet the only thing she seemed to have. I looked back at my mother, who was midway through a phone conversation and not paying attention. I had three racquets, and I pulled one of my backups from my bag and held it over the net to her. I wanted to say I had beaten her fair. She didn’t thank me. She didn’t even hesitate. She took the racquet like it was her due and walked back to serve, calling out the score like nothing had happened and I better get ready.
Maybe my quickness finally left me. But more probably, my racquet just suited her better than her old one did. Suddenly my feet weren’t enough. She was hitting winners past me, drop shots so delicate and close to the net it was like she was placing an egg without breaking it, like she was a witch enchanting the ball in the cradle of her strings. All she had to do was stare a ball down and it would go where she wanted it and bounce away from me. I had to play the whole match trudging from lost point to lost point. I had to shake her hand at the end, tell her, Good match, and know she deserved it. She didn’t pump her fist or yell out Yes! like some of the other kids did. She shook my hand in seriousness, like it held no joy for her that she’d trounced me.
I told her to keep the racquet, out of spite for my mother. She shrugged and twirled it in her hand.
“You know your problem?” she said. “You don’t keep your eye on the ball. You look away at the last second. You flinch.”
I made my mother take me home instead of staying to watch anyone else. Yaiza did win, a neighbor boy told me, out-smacked a girl who was state-ranked, first seed. A golden trophy the size of her arm.
That week, my mother packed me off to a tennis summer camp in Sarasota, where I had my first kiss. The instructors made me watch the ball until it hit my strings, until I hit it harder than I remembered Yaiza having hit. By the end of the summer, I was ready to go back and beg for a rematch, show Yaiza the new person I’d become, flaunt my new boobs which had come in just in time for the boys to notice, boys I kissed, sweaty in the darkness of the tennis courts, perfumed with that same clay, musty smell of home I was convinced would always be mine.
But at the end of the summer when I returned, I rollerbladed past a For Rent sign in front of her house. When I mentioned Yaiza, my mother said, “Just goes to show what you get instead of gratitude. I caught her grandmother stealing.”
Dread filled me. “What did she steal?”
My mother could hear the tremor in my voice, my temper coming on. “Your things. I saw Yaiza with one of your racquets, with that ugly purple grip you always use. And I was willing to admit I could be wrong, maybe it just looked like yours and she had gotten the same grip. But then I caught her leaving the house with your clothes. And you know, I would have given her all of your discards for her granddaughter, but since she stole it . . . no. They all went back to Hialeah.”
I tried to explain about the shorts and the racquet. If I just tried hard enough, I could bring them all back.
“What’s done is done,” my mother said. “She didn’t even leave a number.”
I raged, but for the first time in my life, there was no way out, and I was trapped by my guilt. When I walked back onto the courts, it was clear I could outplay the rest of the kids my age, and they moved me up to the older group, but this just left a bitterness in my mouth. I would never know if I could have beaten Yaiza, or why I needed to. I should have forgotten her. Instead, I kept looking for her name in the rankings, but I never saw it.
My senior year of high school, I went to a football game against a rival school. I was number two in the state and getting a scholarship to UF. The nighttime haze of fall and the stadium lights seemed to hide all of us in plain sight, those of us who were here holding hands and trying to make out, those of us who were coming into our own and didn’t want to look at what we were becoming. We seniors had our sights set on the future, and we had already been sorted.
My friends chatted around me. In the opposite bleachers, I saw Yaiza, or a girl that looked like her, dressed chola, with her lips outlined dark in pencil and giant gold hoops. A boy from the rival school had his arm around her. I ran up to her, calling her name.
“Yeah?” she said.
“Tennis,” I said, “remember? How’s your tennis going?”
Her shoulders tensed, like she was curling up to swing, but then her lips stiffened into a straight line.
“Naw,” she said. “I don’t play no tennis. It’s a rich-people sport.”
Her legs were as strong and thick as ever, her shoulders wide through her jacket. I never got the chance to ask if she was playing something else, soccer maybe, before the boy put his arm around her and led her away. She laughed at something he said and then punched him in the arm.
I wanted to lob a ball at her back, a taunt. I wanted her to turn around and face me. But what was it I wanted her to see? What could I beg her to see?
She walked toward the opposing bleachers, holding her head high, projecting that nothing could wear her down, not me, not life. Just like when she used to carve her way to the net among the soft thuds and pats of sneakers, a sun forging the myth that we were equals and our joy was our own, a rain that cratered grains of clay and made us close our eyes when it came.