Proficiency Lucy Zhang
Tian says tennis is beyond human comprehension, which is why he likes it: the spin, the warmup suicides, the fact that nobody makes a tennis ball that doesn’t fluff up and die after thirty minutes. Pro players switch for new balls every seven or so games, but Tian and everyone else only open a new can for each match. They have a finite number of brand-new balls. Tian claims real pros are skilled enough so that the ball dying doesn’t affect them as much. None of them are pros though, and I can’t tell when the ball needs to be replaced beyond when its yellow felt dulls although Tian insists there’s a huge difference—he has to swing much harder to hit winners with the used balls. It’s because I’m whacking all the pressure out, Tian says although it looks exhausting to me regardless of ball pressurization.
They’ve been replacing the balls less and less frequently because the Penn stock is nearly empty and the only place to get more is from the sporting store half an hour away. We don’t bother with our chances since nearly all the stores have been looted empty.
I suck at tennis. When I’m trying my hardest, my forehand sends the ball into the opposing side’s service court and no further, and my backhand is a crapshoot. Tian insists I can do better, but I prefer watching from the sideline. The one time I manage to hit the ball to the other side’s baseline is because I’m high off adrenaline, running to the courts to confirm with the others that their houses had also been swallowed up by the sinkhole, my pent-up anxiety released through the racket.
Tian and I played tennis together growing up, but he was always better because, according to my parents, he worked smarter while I needed dumbed down, repetitive movements. Even so, I insisted we play although the more we played, the more our skills diverged until I was just wasting his time fetching missed balls on my side of the court. Now we don’t play together, but I sit on the bench outside of the courts, listening to the whir of the racket and the thumps of the ball hitting surfaces. We’d normally walk home together, but now the courts are the only places untouched by the sinkhole and it’s too risky trying to walk out. I ask why they insist on playing since it’s not like we have unlimited snack packs of almonds and dried tofu, and they’re getting sweaty and wasting energy that could be spent finding a way out. Tian tells me there’s no point.
My parents think Tian is a role model child, but I think Tian is blockheaded. He once nearly jumped off the stair railing to prove he could fly and I had to bribe him down with a free pint of strawberry Haagen-Dazs. He insists I’m the blockheaded one after I walked a mile to 7-Eleven at 2 am alone, without pepper spray. I had been proud of myself, managing to leave my room without triggering the infrared sensor my parents had installed outside of my door. I covered my body with a cardboard moving box wrapped in foil, a trick I considered ingenious until Tian berated me for leaving in the first place.
I sleep on the bench and the others sleep in the courts with their jackets draped over their stomachs. They doze off quickly, but I stay awake to watch the bugs buzz around the light posts. Tian sits beside me on the bench and I nearly kick him in the thigh when I hear the bench squeak under his weight. From here, with all the light posts in sight, we can see the cracks in the ground, marginally spreading to the areas around the court, like earth is ready to implode quietly, gently, before we’re awake enough to register that we’ve never used up all the new tennis balls.
I ask who won the match but Tian doesn’t know. He says they’ve stopped keeping track of points. Tian has never cared much about points. I’ve always been the numbers person: eyeballing receipts for mischarged produce, computing minimum grades required to not affect cumulative GPA, tracking nutrient density per dollar for the different brands of Shin ramen Tian loves. He believes in the whole best-effort thing which must be easy for him to say, with all his natural intelligence.
We manage to stay awake, watching cracks in the pavement creep closer. We turn it into a game: who can notice where and when the cracks encroach around us. It’s like watching cilantro grow.
Does it matter? I ask. But Tian stares at the cracks and then tugs my sleeve, pointing to a crevasse that had, a moment ago, only made it to the oak tree and now had crept up to the light post. I saw it! He whispers, one hand thrumming against his thigh, leg bouncing up and down like he’s made a life-changing discovery, which, I suppose he has.