A STRONGER LOVE
I FELL IN LOVE WITH TENNIS WHEN I REALIZED THE RACKET SEEMED TO GIVE me amazing power. I could do things on the court that even those much younger than I could not. But that story will be for another chapter. Here, I want to tell you about another love: the love of a man.
I had not played tennis for about six months. A bad case of tennis elbow meant it was impossible to hit the ball with any kind of vigor. So I was like a school girl with her first crush: I craved tennis, but had to stay away.
Finally, though, I was healed enough to venture back to the court. Early one spring morning, my good tennis buddy Charles Miller called to see if I wanted to go play. I immediately agreed. “Yes, when?”
He was ready to go. I told him to give me a 20 minutes and I too would be ready to head over to the armory in Harlem. I waved my tennis arm in the air, back and forth, to be sure it was all right. It was. I was giddy. I was on my way to the court!
I went into my closet and chose the sexiest and prettiest tennis dress I could find. My mood was light and optimistic. And why wouldn’t it be? I was going to meet my love.
The car ride seemed longer than I remembered. I was so antsy with anticipation that the second Charles stopped the car, I bounced out. Charles could not keep up with me – he couldn’t even walk with me as I crossed the street, I was just that fast. It wasn’t until I paused to allow him time to pay for our use of the court that he caught up. I scanned the area, hoping to see familiar faces.
As I stepped behind the curtains, I had a full view of the Number One court. Two men were hitting the ball back and forth. The man who was farther away from - and facing - me seemed to grow larger, much larger than life, but I could see his body only from his neck down. I craned my neck to see his face; I had to see the face attached to that body.
I walked slowly to the middle of the bleachers and sat down, finally getting a glimpse of this man’s face. I studied him. Ordinarily, I would not be so bold, but there was something about this man that would not let me look away. At one point, he stopped his play and looked over at me. I did not look away.
When his time on the court was up, he gathered his belongings and walked off. I stood, and walked toward the court. When he passed me, we exchanged looks again and greetings: “Hello.”
He sat in the spot I had vacated only seconds before. He pulled out his earphones, stretched out his long, powerful legs, and began watching me, as if to say, “Let me see what this woman can do.”
I went about my warm-up, but I could feel him watching me. I was playing in a way that was unlike my usual effort: I was petting the ball, instead of slamming it with all my might. I pranced around the court.
As I realized I was allowing his presence to turn me into a timid player, I knew I had to regain my old form. I knew I had to show him the extent of my abilities, and that meant dumping this little petting action I had just adopted. Besides, I was thrilled to be back on the court and my arm felt great. I decided to impress my new observer. I knew to do that, though, I had to focus. So I shut him from my mind. I didn’t even glance at him in the stands. Instead, I raced across the court, took strong shots, and let the love of what I was doing speak for me.
I was showing off for this new man who intrigued me. I was slamming the ball against Charles, in hopes of holding the eye of the new guy: the fact that Charles was the one who drove me here, paid for the court, and urged me to play didn’t cross my mind.
When my hour was up, my new admirer returned to my mind. I wondered what would happen in the next few minutes. I wanted to get the usual after-game small-talk with Charles over, so I could have some time to at least exchange words with the stranger. I sprinted to the net, shook Charles’ hand and gave him a quick hug.
“You were looking good out there,” he said. “I think you must have been joking about not having played in six months.”
He heaped other praise on me, but I was only halfway listening. I smiled at him and sauntered off, my heart pounding as I started to walk toward the sexy stranger. As I strolled toward “The Man,” he stood and started walking toward me also.
“Hello,” he said. “My name is Ernest McCaleb.”
“Norma Boucher,” I responded briefly. I would be cool.
“I am impressed with your tennis game and your athletic ability. How long have you been at this game?”
“Long enough,” I shot back, a bit coyly. I told him I recognized his beautiful, classic strokes. He must have had a lot of lessons, and had to have been playing from childhood. He was an athletic person in excellent shape.
We chatted for several minutes, and then I went to excuse myself. “Well, I should be going,” I said. “I’m going to look in on the homeless people right behind the courts.”
“Really?” he said. “I was planning to do the same thing. Why don’t we go over together?”
I realized there were now two things in which we were interested, tennis and the homeless.
As we peeped through the holes in the dividers at the homeless shelter, I could clearly see from his demeanor that he wanted to make the world a better place for everyone. He spoke with such compassion, and I could tell he knew much about homelessness. I was quite impressed.
We walked back to Charles, who was waiting patiently and watching the other tennis players. Ernest, looking me straight in the face, said, “Norma, you have a spiritual beauty.”
My heart fluttered. I could barely respond, saying, “You have touched my soul. That is such a big compliment.”
He walked me to the front desk and we exchanged numbers. When we took leave of each other, a bit of reality began to seep back into focus. I climbed back into the car of the man who drove me to the tennis club, knowing I had eyes for another.
Charles sort of knew what was happening. Both of us were quiet on the way back. I had nothing to say; no word could come from my mouth, and my body felt weak.
Ernest and I started seeing each other regularly. He often came to Rochdale Village, where I live, to play tennis with me. I looked forward to seeing him. I would prepare my tennis bag and a light lunch. I would go to the bus stop, sit on the rail and wait for his bus to come. I felt like an innocent little girl waiting for her prince. This was not the silly infatuation I had with Honey nearly 30 years earlier in Jamaica. This was something deeper, more mature, but still with a feeling of youth.
On one particular occasion I was feeling truly special. I was waiting for his bus to arrive. When it at last drove up and passengers got off, I had eyes only for Ernest. He emerged from the bus and started walking toward me with a quick stride, his head high and his shoulders back. He had a powerful charisma. He had a full awareness of his surroundings – and he knew his effect on those around him. He always wore a distinguished felt and a big smile. This was a special and unusual morning. It was the middle of spring and it was the warmest day of the year so far. That was one of the reasons why Ernest was here to see me.
He took my hands. “Beautiful day, isn’t it Norma? Damn! Girl, you look good,” he flashed that smile of his. Then he challenged me. “Are you ready for me to kick your butt? Come, let’s go, baby. Show me your best game today. I am ready for you.”
We walked, hand in hand, to the tennis court. They say love is blind, and that we lose the ability to think clearly when we are in love. That was the way it was with me. All I could see was this big, beautiful man with shoulders so broad they seemed to take up all the space.
On this day, we played a competitive game. I won the last point. I was proud. You see, one of the things I adored about Ernest was the fact that he was such an all-around athlete. He swam. He loved to walk or jog. He dabbled in boxing. And, of course, you know he liked tennis. Despite his great athletic prowess, we were strong competitors on the court. I liked that he challenged me. And I gave him a challenge right back. Tennis is my game, and I don’t let up for anyone, not even for someone I found so compelling. So my win felt sweet.
We were both a little out of breath and sweating from our heads and necks; our clothes were soaked. In spite of the regulation limit of three balls to a match we preferred to play with more than three to reduce the running up and down for balls. He had about three on his side and I, two.
Before turning away to go for the balls he said to me, “You are such a beautiful lady. You need to go out in the world and explore it. Find someone that can give you more of what you deserve.”
As I walked away from him to collect the balls on my side of the court, I felt such a connection between us. “If only he knew I would live in a telephone booth with him and be the happiest woman in the world,” I said to myself.
I glanced back at him and stopped in my tracks. My breath seemed to be trapped in my chest as I found myself standing, looking up at this ray of light that was everlastingly long, as if it were traversing millions of miles through space from the heavens toward me into my breast. This ray of light was so strong that it should have knocked me out. But it was peaceful, like a beautiful song. I could feel its warmth as it moved slowly down to the bottom of my stomach. Then all of a sudden, I felt something, an energy, leave my body and float, feather-light, across the net to Ernest. He was standing there, unaware of what I was experiencing.
The twirling cloud of peaceful energy went straight into Ernest’s belly button, and I could see it glow as it entered his belly. I could see the glow as it moved up slowly to his chest and as it ascended, I could see beautiful, glowing sunset colors appear in his chest.
I did nothing. I did not say a single word. Ernest apparently did not see or hear anything. He did not seem to feel any different. He was oblivious to the miracle that had just taken place. Nothing about me had changed physically. I did not know what to say, so I said nothing.
Love is like that. It feels magical and light. It changes you.
After a light lunch, we rode the bus together and went to an adult education center on Hillside Avenue where I was studying for my G.E.D. When we got off the bus, Ernest decided to treat me, the schoolgirl, to candy and a soft drink. He walked me to my classroom, kissed me goodbye, and then went and spoke with my teacher.
There were times when Ernest would invite me to his apartment on a hill in Harlem. We would have wine and cheese, and look out and watch the beautiful colors of the setting sun. It was all so beautiful.
My days with Ernest were idyllic, and precious. There was none of that anger and jealousy of Honey all those years ago. There was no derision or uncertainty. We just enjoyed each other. Eventually, though, Ernest had to go to Africa on a business mission. But he was already carrying something of mine with him - my energy. I was a bit sad to see him go, but I knew we had a deep connection. After all, what can be stronger than the energy drawn from one to another?
I didn’t mind that he sometimes disappeared and this time would be gone for quite a while. I had experienced our energy connecting on the court that day, and nothing could diminish what I knew we shared. We would be together.
But life moves in unplanned directions, and the physical distance took its toll. When he returned, he was involved with someone else. I don’t blame him. And in truth, I was involved with someone else, too. But I knew we still had something special. Because of the closeness of our souls, there was no depreciation of our mutual love. Over the years we continued to be close friends with each other. He would invite me to his affairs, and I would invite him to mine.
Today, whenever he introduces me to his friends, I am like a sister or mother, or more - a soul mate. Even now, after many moons, Ernest has remained my best and closest spiritual friend. Yes, he is truly my soul’s mate.
I share this story for several reasons. One, it illustrates the point that sometimes we feel so connected to another human being that the tie transcends what we consider to be the “normal” or “traditional” definitions. In the case of Ernest and me, I truly believe we had something that was beyond that of a normal “dating” arrangement. When he returned from Africa and we each had gone on with our lives, there was no animosity. There was no rancor. We still had a deep regard for each other, and that allowed us to continue to play important parts in each other’s lives. Sometimes we must define our own relationships. We can’t let society dictate to us what our emotions should be or what labels we should have. What relationship are you engaged in right now that does not fit the “traditional” definition? Perhaps you are a young adult who has befriended an older person. You share a bond because, though you may be years apart on the calendar, you feel close in your souls. Or perhaps you are a person of one race or social group who has a particular bond with a friend of another race or group, yet some parts of society would frown on this. I believe we are all connected on a deep and human level. And when those connections are awakened in us, we form strong bonds. My connection to Ernest was awakened because of the things we had in common and because of our willingness to define our own relationship. The other reason I share this story of my relationship with Ernest is to point out something I mentioned early on: love is blind. When I felt I was in love with him, I ignored many things. When we are in love – or feel that we are – we don’t pay attention to things that undermine that. In my case, when Ernest told me I should find someone who could give me certain things, I did not consider that he was giving me a clue that he was not committed to me. When he would disappear, I did not consider that he had priorities other than me. In that regard, perhaps my love was akin to what I experienced with Honey. Critical analysis had no place where emotions took up residence. The blindness of love is a natural thing, but as I’ve grown older, I’ve realized it should be tempered with judgment. Now, as I engage in life, I allow myself the freedom to enjoy love or infatuation, but I also let my mind process all the clues around me so I don’t make decisions that result in hurt. What about you? Do you allow infatuation or love to cloud your judgment beyond all else? If so, what will you do about that?