THE DROP SHOT
by Shola Olowu-Asante
The thing to remember was that nothing had really changed. That was what her father was telling her. Yes, he and Mum were no longer together but that was only a small detail in the grand scheme of things. More important was that he loved her, Mum loved her, and Imee loved her, too.
Stella nodded but her gaze drifted out the window, to where the sunlight draped over the Angsana trees. It was hard to concentrate on what he was saying with the many cries flying up from the condo swimming pool now that it was an after-school peak hour. Hard because she was looking forward to seeing her friends, maybe even going out to Ion Mall like they used to on Friday afternoons when she still lived here, in Singapore. Hard because her father had been staring at her ever since she got off the plane, making her feel that despite what he said, nothing would ever be the same again.
“Stella, are you listening?”
Stella wrapped her arms around the new Babolat racquet he’d just given her. A tennis prodigy, that’s what her parents and coaches had called her from the minute she first picked up a racquet. She had played every day since, but after the divorce and the move back to London with her mother, she had lost her touch. Everything that had once been easy became a struggle. She couldn’t hit her favored drop shot, because it needed finesse, soft hands, while hers felt about as sensitive as meat cleavers. And when, during a match against a girl she should have beaten with her eyes closed, Stella watched as ball after ball dived to the bottom of the net or else sailed over the baseline, the emotions that had been simmering away boiled over. She smashed her racquet on the court, screaming over and over, “I’m done with this stupid game. I’m done.” She’d had enough of all the rules, the hours of practice, the fitness training. It was the scaffold around which the rest of her life had been built and she wanted to tear it down. Her mother had been patient at first, but when after a month, and then another Stella refused to play, she panicked. “I don’t know what else to do,” Stella overheard her saying on the phone. “She’s your bloody daughter too.”
So here she was six months later, back with her father in Singapore, because if anyone could get through to her he could. On the plane, a latch slid into place in her mind. She’d never wanted to leave the warm cocoon of her life in the tropics—fresh watermelon juice every morning, black pepper crabs at Long Beach, hiking past monkeys at MacRitchie Reservoir, or just hanging out by the condo pool with Imee. The only reason they moved was so Stella could take her tennis to the next level, but London was cold, miserable, and lonely. Giving it up had been a fair trade.
“Stella, do you understand what I’m saying?” her father asked.
“Yes,” she said, and her voice sounded strange to her, as if it were someone else speaking.
“Because you’re a big girl now and this is important,” he said and waited for her to nod again. “I really want this to work out. For all of us.”
Later, after an afternoon spent poolside with Valerie, Akiko, and Saya, amid a flurry of phone calls and text messages—LOL, LOLPMP, Dude are you serious?—Stella and Imee set the dinner table. Her father ordered a diavola pizza, and when it arrived she looked up in surprise at the extra flakes of chili because he wouldn’t have been able to handle that much heat last year.
He poured himself a glass of wine and sat back in his chair. “So what’s this about you wanting to give up tennis?”
Stella shrugged. “It’s different in London. The girls are bigger and taller. They hit the ball harder. I can’t compete.”
“Of course you can,” he said brightly. “You just need to be positive. Try harder.”
Stella rolled her eyes. When it came to pep talks, her father had once been a magician with a bag full of tricks, but his words had lost their old magic. Something about his frothy tone hardened her. She was twelve years old and he was treating her like she was still five. She did not like it.
“You don’t get it, Dad. It’s got nothing to do with not trying.”
“I disagree,” her father said. He looked as if he were about to say more, but was stilled by Imee’s palm on the back of his hand. They exchanged a look. Imee picked up a remote control, switched on the sound system. The music, some house inflected pop, pierced the quiet of the room, like a knife ripping through canvas, leaving an ugly hole that couldn’t be ignored. Stella felt her throat tighten, and emptied her glass of water in noisy gulps.
“Can I go to my room?’’
“Sweetheart! I thought we were going to hang out a little,” her father said.
‘Three’s a crowd.”
He looked at Stella slack-jawed. And there it was again, Imee’s hand on her father’s arm, a blanket dousing a flame.
“It’s okay,” Imee said. “She’s probably just tired.”
Stella pushed her seat back with more force than intended, making the chair legs scrape against the marble floor.
“Young lady. Your plate’s not going to walk to the kitchen by itself.”
Her father’s face had that scrunched-up look he got when trying to control his anger. Imee’s expression was placid. They were sitting so close to one another, almost knocking knees, and now it was his hand on Imee’s shoulder.
“Can’t she do it?” Stella asked.
Her father sucked in some air before he spoke. “Imee is not your helper.”
“Yeah. Not anymore.”
Stella was six years old when she first saw Imee. She’d been lying on a sofa half asleep and her eyes had tracked the woman, walking with head bent low behind her mother. Doll-like, with big brown eyes, a moon face, and gleaming, waist-length black hair, she’d thought that only a magical creature could be that pretty. For years Imee had been as much of a maternal figure as Stella’s own mother, more in some ways, because it was Imee who cooked her chicken rice and mee goreng, Imee who picked her up from school and took her on playdates, Imee who never complained about being forced to wait outside for hours while Stella played tennis, because helpers were not allowed in the clubhouse. And even though she knew her mother didn’t approve, it was into Imee’s bed she climbed on those stormy nights when the air crackled and thunder shook the very ground beneath them. She would wake up on those cool mornings and play with Imee’s hair, marveling at the silken feel of it, so different to her own tight afro curls. Seeing her father’s hands in Imee’s hair had changed it somehow, like a river that once flowed now turned to sludge.
“Does that even make sense?” Stella said to her friends. They were sitting in Saya’s dusky pink bedroom, painting their nails.
“Ewww,” Valerie said. “Is he like always touching her?”
“No! He’s not a perv. It’s just. . . I don’t know. . . it’s like even when they’re not touching, I feel as if they want to.”
“Well, I’ve never seen them out together in public,” said Valerie. “So maybe not that many people know?”
“Yeah, but all the helpers do. Josephine says Imee doesn’t even go to Lucky Plaza on Sundays anymore,” Saya said. “They barely talk now. I don’t think she’s got any friends.”
Stella looked down at the indigo polish on her toenails. “It’s just weird.”
She thought back to that first night. That had been weird too. Imee knocked on her door before going to bed, looking as fragile as she had been all those years ago and said, with a hopeful smile, that it would take some getting used to for all of them. And something about the way she spoke, the way she sat on the bed and held Stella’s hand had been like stepping into an old photograph or a memory, as if there was no distance between them and nothing had changed.
Imee said, “I love you.”
“I love you too,” Stella replied and when she said the words, she really meant them.
Stella’s father agreed to speak to her mother about tennis. If she had no interest in becoming a pro, then there was no point taking it so seriously. But she would still have to return to London and she was not happy about that. Neither was she happy about spending her last Sunday in Singapore at some boring barbecue at the British club. Stella glanced at her father as Imee came out of the bedroom wearing a too-short skirt, a too-shiny top, and a necklace with an amber gemstone just like the one her mother used to wear. She had obviously made an effort but, in her high heels, the overall effect was like a tinsel-laden Christmas tree about to topple over. He didn’t seem to notice.
The only people that Stella recognized in the club’s orange-hued function room were Mark and Melissa, one of the few couples still friends with her father after the split. Stella slouched in her chair, chewing the straw in her virgin colada while Imee struck up a conversation with Colin, a red-faced man with a swollen belly and an Asian girlfriend. Her father settled in the seat beside her.
“Why don’t you go see if some of your friends are here,” he said.
“None of my friends come here.”
“You could make some new ones,” he said cheerfully.
Stella glared at him. He was doing it again, talking down to her. “I’m not a baby.”
“Uh-oh, you’re in trouble there, Dad,” Melissa said with a throaty laugh.
“Tell me about it,” her father said. “It’s a minefield.”
He turned away and she could hear the three of them talking, laughing at her, not even trying to hide it. She moved to a seat slightly away from the group and watched them all. Mark and Melissa, professional expats, their skin all folds and creases. Her father’s stomach straining against his blue cotton shirt and the sweat patches pooling under his armpits. She was embarrassed for him because chest hairs were creeping out through the button holes of his shirt, because despite being many shades darker, he looked as if he had been kneaded from the same dough as Colin, whose girlfriend was now standing up with Imee. The two women were holding hands, animated because they just loved the song that was playing. And then they were dancing, back to back, faster and faster, shaking their shoulders, rotating their hips, their long black hair like tangled weeds whipping across their faces. Colin whooped in encouragement, and they replied with arched backs and pelvic thrusts, bumping and grinding, laughing like they didn’t have a care in the world.
Melissa put a hand over her mouth to suppress a snigger and Stella’s father didn’t seem to know where to look. “Oh God, make it stop,” Stella said, but nobody heard. She felt a familiar sensation, the same creeping helplessness as that day on the tennis court. But this time she remembered that she could deflect the power of her opponents, even if she couldn’t hit the ball as hard. She knew it was possible to neutralize their strength if she was nimble and quick. That’s why the drop shot was her favorite, because her opponents, so sure of their strength, always underestimated her. They never saw it coming.
So Stella walked across the room, through the hallway and out to reception where the turbaned security guard waited and explained the situation to him because somebody had to. And in her mind a racquet had connected with a ball and she was certain that she had done the right thing, of applying enough backspin to make it land just on the other side of the net. And she was still certain as she walked a step behind the security guard, through the double doors of the function room. Except Imee was no longer gyrating on the makeshift dance floor. She was standing quietly at the bar and Stella sensed the ball losing momentum, dropping into the net.
The security guard marched up to Imee and pulled at her arm. “You must wait outside.”
Imee was confused at first and then red blotches stained her cheeks. Stella’s father stood up in outrage, demanding to know what was going on, but the security guard was equally indignant. “We received a complaint, sir. Helper disturbing guests. We have a strict policy here, sir. Family only. No helpers allowed.”
Other guests turned to stare and Stella shrank into the wall behind her.
“Who made the complaint?” her father spat.
The room went silent. Imee shook her head in disbelief, turned towards Stella, who so wanted to lift up her chin, but couldn’t look Imee in the eye.
Shola Olowu-Asante’s fiction has been published in The Linnet’s Wings, Everyday Fiction, The African Writer, and Pangea, an anthology of stories from around the globe. She’s a broadcast journalist with an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University. She lives in Singapore with her husband and children, but calls both London and Lagos home.
Image credit: alex yosifov on Flickr