Carrie Soto Is Back by Taylor Jenkins Reid
My father moved to the United States from Buenos Aires at age twenty-seven. He had been an excellent tennis player back in Argentina, winning thirteen championships over his eleven-year career. They called him “Javier el Jaguar.” He was graceful but deadly.
But, as he would tell it, he went too hard on his knees. His jumps were too high, and he didn’t always land properly. As he approached thirty, he knew that they wouldn’t hold up for much longer. He retired in 1953—something he never talked to me about without tensing up and eventually leaving the room. Soon after that, he started making plans to come to the United States.
In Miami, he got a job at a fancy tennis club as a hitter, available all day to play with any member who wanted a game. It was a job normally reserved for college students home for the summer—but he did it with the same focus with which he competed. As he told many of the members at that first club, “I do not know how to play tennis without my full heart.”
It wasn’t long until people started asking him for private lessons. He was known for his commitment to proper form, his high expectations, and the fact that if you listened to el Jaguar, you’d probably start winning your matches.
By 1956, he had offers to work as a tennis instructor all over the country. That’s how he landed at the Palm Tennis Club in Los Angeles, where he met my mother, Alicia. She was a dancer, teaching the waltz and foxtrot to club members.
My mother was tall and stood taller, wearing four-inch heels wherever she went. She walked slowly, purposefully, and always looked people in the eye. And it was hard to make her laugh, but when she finally did, it was so loud you could hear it through the walls.
On their first date, she told my father that she thought he had tunnel vision when it came to tennis. “It is something you have to grow out of soon, Javier. Or else, how will you learn to be whole?”
My father told her she was out of her mind. Tennis was what made him whole.
She responded by saying, “Ah, so you’re stubborn too.”
Still, he showed up the next day at the end of one of her classes with a dozen red roses. She took them and said thank you, but he noticed she didn’t smell them before she set them down. My father got the sense that while he had given flowers to only a few women in his life, my mother had received flowers from dozens of hopeful men.
“Will you teach me the tango?” he said.
She looked at him sideways, not buying for one minute that this Argentine didn’t have at least a passing knowledge of the tango. But then she put one hand on his shoulder and another in the air, and said, “Come on, then.” He took her hand, and she taught him how to lead her across the dance floor.
My father says he couldn’t take his eyes off her; he says he marveled at how easy it was to glide with her across the room.
When they got to the end, my father dipped her and she smiled at him and then said, rather impatiently, “Javier, this is when you kiss me.”
Within a few months, he’d convinced her to elope. He told her that he had big dreams for them. And my mother told him his dreams were his own. She didn’t need much at all besides him.
The night my mother told him she was pregnant, she sat in his lap in their Santa Monica apartment and asked if he could feel that he held the weight of two people. He teared up as he smiled at her. And then he told her he could feel in his gut that I was a boy, and that I was going to be twice the tennis player he’d ever been.
When I was a baby, my father would bring a high chair to the courts so I could watch him play. He says I would dart my head back and forth, tracking the ball. According to him, my mother would sometimes come and try to take me out of the high chair to sit in the shade or have a snack, but I’d cry until she brought me back to the court.
My father loved to tell the story of the time when I was just barely a toddler and he first put a racket in my hand. He softly tossed the ball to me, and he swears that on that fateful day, I swung and made contact.
He ran back to the house, carrying me on his shoulders, to tell my mother. She smiled at him and continued making dinner.
“Do you understand what I’m telling you?” he said.
My mother laughed. “That our daughter likes tennis? Of course she likes tennis––it’s the only thing you’ve shown her.”
“That’s like saying Achilles was a great warrior simply because he lived during wartime. Achilles was a great warrior because it was his destiny to be one.”
“I see. So Carolina is Achilles?” my mother asked, smiling. “And what does that make you, a god?”
My father waved her away. “She’s destined,” he said. “It is plain as day. With your grace and my strength, she can be the greatest tennis player the world has ever seen. They will tell stories about her one day.”
My mother rolled her eyes at him as she began to put dinner on the table. “I would rather she was kind and happy.”
“Alicia,” my father said as he stood behind my mother and wrapped his arms around her. “No one ever tells stories about that.”
I do not remember being told my mother had died. Nor do I remember her funeral, though my father says I was there. As he tells it, my mother was making soup and realized we were out of tomato paste, so she put her shoes on and left me with him in the garage while he was changing the oil in the car.
When she didn’t come home, he knocked on our neighbors’ door and asked them to watch me while he searched through the streets.
He saw the ambulance a few blocks away and his stomach sank. My mother had been hit by a car when she was crossing the street on her way home.
After my mother’s body was buried, my father refused to go into their bedroom. He started sleeping in the living room; he kept his clothes in a hamper by the TV. It went on for months. Whenever I had a bad dream, I’d leave my own bed and walk right to the couch. He was always there, with the TV on, static hissing as he slept.
And then, one day, light flooded into the hallway. Their bedroom door was open, the dust that had long accumulated was off the handle, and everything of my mother’s was packed into cardboard boxes. Her dresses, her high heels, her necklaces, her rings. Even her bobby pins. Somebody came to the house and took them all out. And that was it.
There wasn’t much left of her. Barely any proof she’d ever lived. Just a few pictures I’d found in my father’s top drawer. I took my favorite one and stashed it under my pillow. I was afraid that if I didn’t, it would soon be gone too.
For a while after that, my dad would tell me stories about my mother. He’d talk about how she wanted me to be happy. That she was good and fair. But he cried when he told them, and pretty soon, he stopped telling them altogether.
To this day, the only significant memory I have of my mother is hazy. I can’t tell what is real and what are the gaps that I’ve filled in over time.
In my head, I can see her standing in the kitchen over the stove. She is in a maroon dress with a pattern on it, something like polka dots or tiny flowers. I know that her hair is curly and full. My father calls from across the house to me, using the name he had for me then, “Guerrerita.” But then my mother shakes her head and says, “Don’t let him call you a warrior––you are a queen.”
Most of the time, I’m absolutely positive that all of this actually happened. But sometimes, it feels so obvious that the entire thing must have been a dream.
What I actually remember most about her is the emptiness she left behind. There was this sense, within the house, that there used to be someone else here.
But now it was just my father and me.
In my first concrete memories, I am young but already annoyed. I am annoyed at all of the other girls’ questions: “Where is your mom?” “Why isn’t your hair ever brushed?” Annoyed at the teacher’s insistence that I speak English without any traces of my father’s accent. Annoyed at being told to play nicer during recess, when all I wanted to do was race the other kids across the field or see who could swing highest on the swing set.
I suspected the problem was that I was always the winner. But I could not for the life of me understand why that made people want to play with me less instead of more.
Those early memories of trying to make friends are all accompanied by the same twinge of confusion: I’m doing something wrong, and I don’t know what it is.
When school let out, I used to watch all the other students greet their mothers at pickup. My classmates told their moms about their days, bristled at the squeezes their moms gave them by the car, wiped their mothers’ kisses off their cheeks.
I could have watched them for hours. What else did they do with their moms after school? Did they go out for ice cream? Did they go shopping together for those pretty pencil cases some of them had? Where were they all getting those hair bows?
As they drove away, I would dutifully begin my walk two blocks over, to meet my father on the public tennis courts.
I grew up on the court. The public courts after school, the country club courts during the summers and on weekends. I grew up in tennis skirts and ponytails. I grew up sitting in the shade by the sidelines, waiting while my father finished a lesson.
He loomed over the net. His serves were always fluid, his groundstrokes smooth. His opponent, or whomever he was teaching, always looked so chaotic in comparison. My father was unfailingly in control of the court.
In hindsight, I can see that he must have been tense and lonely most days of my young life. He was a widowed single father in a country that was not his home, with no one else to rely on. It seems obvious to me now that my dad was likely stretched so tight he could nearly have snapped.
But if his days were hard, his nights restless, he grew very good at hiding it from me. The time I got to spend with him felt like a gift that other kids didn’t get. Unlike them, my time had purpose; my father and I were working toward something of meaning. I was going to be the best.
Every day after school, when my father was finally done with his paid lessons, he would turn and look at me. “Vamos,” he would say. “Los fundamentos.” At which point, I would pick up my racket and join him at the baseline.
“Game, set, match: Why do we say this?” my father would ask me.
“Because each time you play, it is a game. You must win the most games to win the set. And then you must win the most sets to win the match,” I’d recite.
“In a game, the first point is…”
“Fifteen. Then 30. Then 40. Then you win. But you have to win by two.”
“When the score is 40–all, what do we call that?”
“Deuce. And if you’re at deuce and win a point, that brings you to either advantage-in or advantage-out, depending on whether you’re serving or not.”
“So how do you win?”
“If you are serving at ad-in, you have to win the next point to win the game. You have to win six games to win the set, but, again, you have to win by two. You can’t just win a set 6–5.”
“And a match?”
“Women play three sets, men often play five.”
“And love? What does it mean?”
“It means nothing.”
“Well, it means zero.”
“Right, you have no points. Love means nothing.”
Having gotten all the answers right, I would get a pat on the shoulder. And then we would practice.
There are many coaches out there who innovate, but that was never my father’s style. He believed in the beauty and simplicity of doing something the way it has always been done but better than anyone else has ever done it. “If I had been as committed to proper form as you will be, hijita,” he would say, “I would still be playing professional tennis.” That was one of the only times he told me something that I suspected wasn’t true. I knew even then that not many people ever played tennis professionally past age thirty.
“Bueno, papá,” I would say as we began our drills.
My entire childhood was drills. Drill after drill after drill. Serves, groundstrokes, footwork, volleys. Serves, groundstrokes, footwork, volleys. Again and again. All summer long, after school, every weekend. My dad and I. Always together. Our little team of two. Proud coach and star student.
I loved that each element of the game had a wrong way and a right way to execute it. There was always something concrete to strive for.
“De nuevo,” my dad would say, as I tried for the fiftieth time that day to perfect my flat serve. “I want both arms coming up at the same speed at the same time.”
“De nuevo,” he’d say, a grown man crouching down low to get eye-to-eye with me when I was no taller than his hip. “In a pinpoint stance, you must bring your back foot in before you connect.”
“De nuevo,” he’d say, smiling. “Save that spin for a second serve, hijita. ¿Entendido?”
And each time, at the ages of five, six, seven, eight, he’d be met with the same response. “Sí, papá.” Sí, papá. Sí, papá. Sí, papá.
Over time, my father started peppering his “De nuevo” with “Excelente.”
I reached every day for those “excelentes.” I dreamed about them. I lay in bed at night on my Linus and Lucy sheets, staring at the framed Rod Laver press photo I’d begged my father for, going over my form in my head.
Soon enough, my groundstrokes were strong, my volleys were sharp, my serves were deadly. I was an eight-year-old able to serve from the baseline and hit the small target of a milk carton one hundred times in a row.
People walking by the courts would think they were clever when they called me “Little Billie Jean King,” as if I didn’t hear it ten times a day.
Soon, my father introduced the idea of strategy.
“A lot of players can win the games they serve,” my father would say. “Decime por qué.”
“Because a serve is the only time a player can control the ball.”
“¿Y qué más?”
“If you serve it right, you control the serve and then the return. And even the rally.”
“Exacto. Holding your game when you serve is the basis of your strategy.”
“But most people, they focus all their energy on their serve. They perfect their serve so much, and they forget the most important part.”
“Exacto. Your serve is your defense, but you can win games with a good return. If you hold all the games you serve, and your opponent holds all their games, who is going to win the set?”
“The first person to break the other one’s service game.”
“Exacto. If you break their serve in just one game—just one—and you hold all of your own, you will win the set.”
“So I have to be a good server and a good returner.”
“You have to be what we call an ‘all-court player,’ ” he said. “Great at serving, volleying, groundstrokes, and your return. Okay, let’s play.”
He always won, day after day. But I kept trying. Match after match, every evening after school, sometimes twice on weekends.
Until one cloudy January afternoon, when the air was just a bit too crisp. All day it had been threatening to do the very thing the Southern California sky had promised to almost never do.
We were tied in the first set when I returned two serves in a row with cross-court forehands that were so fast, my father couldn’t get to them.
And for the first time in my young life, I broke his serve.
“¡Excelente!” he said with his arms in the air, running over to my side of the court. He spun me in the air.
“I did it!” I said. “I broke your serve!”
“Yes, you did,” he told me. “Yes, you did.”
About two minutes after I won the set, the sky cracked open and the rain started pouring down. My father put his jacket over my head as we raced to the car.
After we got in and shut the doors, I looked over at him. His face was all lit up even as he shivered from the cold. “Excelente, pichoncita,” he said as he grabbed my hand and squeezed. “Muy pero muy bien.” He was still smiling as he turned the key in the ignition and backed out of the parking lot.
From that moment on, though I still couldn’t beat him in a match, I set my mind to breaking his serve at least once every day. And I did it.
At the end of every session, my father and I would drive home with two doggie bags of food from the dining room at the club staying warm in my lap. I’d watch the big houses go by as we made our way back to our apartment.
My father would park, and then, before we got out, he’d say, “We did well today. But what are we going to do better tomorrow?”
I’d give him the list I’d been working on the entire way home.
“Get my feet up faster,” I’d say. “And keep my wrist down.” Or “Make sure I don’t pull back too far before I hit the drop volley.”
Each night, he would add one more thing I didn’t think of. “And keep your eye on the ball, not on your racket.” “Follow through on the forehand groundstroke.”
Each night, I would nod. Of course. How could I forget?
Then we would go inside and eat dinner together in front of the TV. Most of the time it was just the evening news, but I always loved those rare nights when he’d let us watch The Lucy Show. Him in his recliner, me on the couch, a pair of TV trays. He would laugh so hard. And so I laughed too.
Later, after I brushed my teeth and put on my pajamas, my father would give me a kiss on the forehead and say, “Good night, my Achilles, the greatest warrior tennis has ever seen.”
When the light was off, I would put my hand under my pillow, searching for the photo of my mother that I had taken from my father’s dresser.
In it, my mother is lying in a hammock in our backyard, holding me and smiling at the camera. There is an orange tree above us. I am asleep in her arms, her chin is resting on my head, her hand is on my back. Her hair is long and her curls soft. I used to run my finger over the photo, the length of her dress, from her shoulders to her feet.
I would hold the photo to my chest and then tuck it back under my pillow and go to sleep.
One night when I was about eight years old, I went to find the photo and it was gone.
I threw my pillow onto the ground. I jumped off my bed and lifted the mattress onto its side. How could I have lost it, something so important? I started screaming, tears falling down my cheeks.
My father came in and saw me sitting there, red-faced, my eyes wet, my room torn apart. He calmly put my mattress back on the frame and took me in his arms.
“Pichoncita,” he said. “No te preocupés. The photo is fine. I put it back in my dresser. It’s time to stop looking at it every night.”
“Pero I want to look at it every night.”
He shook his head and held me tight. “Cariño, put it out of your mind. It is too heavy of a weight for you to bear.”
|September 1, 2022
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