My family is growing louder. I limp out to the living room of our suite. My son, Jaden, and my daughter, Jaz, see me and scream. Daddy, Daddy! They jump up and down and want to leap on me. I stop and brace myself, stand before them like a mime imitating a tree in winter. They stop just before leaping, because they know Daddy is delicate these days, Daddy will shatter if they touch him too hard. I pat their faces and kiss their cheeks and join them at the breakfast table.
Jaden asks if today is the day.
And then after today are you retire?
A new word he and his younger sister have learned. Retired. When they say it, they always leave off the last letter. For them it's retire, forever ongoing, permanently in the present tense. Maybe they know something I don't.
Not if I win, son. If I win tonight, I keep playing.
But if you lose—we can have a dog?
To the children, retire equals puppy. Stefanie and I have promised them that when I stop training, when we stop traveling the world, we can buy a puppy. Maybe we'll name him Cortisone.
Yes, buddy, when I lose, we will buy a dog.
He smiles. He hopes Daddy loses, hopes Daddy experiences the disappointment that surpasses all others. He doesn't understand—and how will I ever be able to explain it to him?—the pain of losing, the pain of playing. It's taken me nearly thirty years to understand it myself, to solve the calculus of my own psyche.
I ask Jaden what he's doing today.
Going to see the bones.
I look at Stefanie. She reminds me she's taking them to the Museum of Natural History. Dinosaurs. I think of my twisted vertebrae. I think of my skeleton on display at the museum with all the other dinosaurs. Tennis-aurus Rex.
Jaz interrupts my thoughts. She hands me her muffin. She needs me to pick out the blueberries before she eats it. Our morning ritual. Each blueberry must be surgically removed, which requires precision, concentration. Stick the knife in, move it around, get it right up to the blueberry without touching. I focus on her muffin and it's a relief to think about something other than tennis. But as I hand her the muffin, I can't pretend that it doesn't feel like a tennis ball, which makes the muscles in my back twitch with anticipation. The time is drawing near.