Open: An Autobiography (cont.)
My father has deliberately made the dragon fearsome. He's given it an extra-long neck of aluminum tubing, and a narrow aluminum head, which recoils like a whip every time the dragon fires. He's also set the dragon on a base several feet high and moved it flush against the net, so the dragon towers above me. I'm small for my age, but when standing before the dragon, I look tiny. Feel tiny. Helpless.
My father wants the dragon to tower over me not simply to command my attention and respect. He wants balls that shoot from the dragon's mouth to land at my feet as if dropped from an airplane. The trajectory makes the balls nearly impossible to return in a conventional way: I need to hit every ball on the rise, or else it will bounce over my head. But even that's not enough for my father. Hit earlier, he yells. Hit earlier.
My father yells everything twice, sometimes three times, sometimes 10. Harder, he says, harder. But what's the use? No matter how hard I hit a ball, no matter how early, another ball comes back. Every ball I send across the net joins the thousands that already cover the court. Not hundreds. Thousands. They roll toward me in perpetual waves. I have no room to turn, to step, to pivot. I can't move without stepping on a ball -- yet I can't step on a ball, because my father won't bear it. Step on one of my father's tennis balls and he'll howl as if you stepped on his eyeball.
Every third ball fired by the dragon hits a ball already on the ground, causing a crazy sideways hop. I adjust at the last second, catch the ball early, and hit it smartly across the net. I know this is no ordinary reflex. I know there are few children in the world who could have seen that ball, let alone hit it. But I take no pride in my reflexes, and I get no credit. It's what I'm supposed to do. Every hit is expected, every miss a crisis.
My father says that if I hit 2,500 balls each day, I'll hit 17,500 balls each week, and at the end of one year I'll have hit nearly one million balls. He believes in math. Numbers, he says, don't lie. A child who hits one million balls each year will be unbeatable.
Hit earlier, my father yells. Damn it, Andre, hit earlier. Crowd the ball, crowd the ball.
Now he's crowding me. He's yelling in my ear. It's not enough to hit what the dragon fires at me; my father wants me to hit it harder and faster than the dragon. He wants me to beat the dragon. The thought makes me panicky. How can you beat something that never stops? Come to think of it, the dragon is a lot like my father. Except my father is worse. At least the dragon stands before me, where I can see it. My father stays behind me. I rarely see him, only hear him, day and night, yelling in my ear.
More topspin! Hit harder. Hit harder. Not in the net! Damn it, Andre! Never in the net!
Nothing sends my father into a rage like hitting a ball into the net. Over and over my father says: The net is your biggest enemy.
My father has raised the enemy six inches higher than regulation. If I can clear my father's high net, he figures, I'll have no trouble clearing the net one day at Wimbledon. Never mind that I don't want to play Wimbledon. What I want isn't relevant.
Hit harder, my father yells. Hit harder. Now backhands. Backhands. My arm feels like it's going to fall off. On one swing I surprise myself by how hard I hit, how cleanly. Though I hate tennis, I like the feeling of hitting a ball dead perfect. When I do something perfect, I enjoy a split second of sanity and calm.
Work your volleys, my father yells, or tries to. An Armenian born in Iran, my father speaks five languages, none of them well, and his English is heavily accented. He mixes his v's and w's, so it sounds like this: Vork your wolleys. Of all his instructions, this is his favorite. He yells it until I hear it in my dreams. Vork your wolleys, vork your wolleys.
I get an idea. Accidentally on purpose, I hit a ball high over the fence. I catch it on the wooden rim of the racket, so it sounds like a misfire. I do this when I need a break, and it crosses my mind that I must be pretty good if I can hit a ball wrong at will.
My father hears the ball hit wood and looks up. He sees the ball leave the court. He curses. But he heard the ball hit wood, so he knows it was an accident. He stomps out of the yard, to the desert. I now have 4 1/ 2 minutes to catch my breath and watch the hawks circling lazily overhead.
My father likes to shoot hawks with his rifle. Our house is blanketed with his victims, dead birds that cover the roof as thickly as tennis balls cover the court. My father says he doesn't like hawks because they swoop down on mice and other defenseless desert creatures. He can't stand the thought of something strong preying on something weak. (This also holds true when he goes fishing: Whatever he catches, he kisses its scaly head and throws it back.) Of course he has no qualms about preying on me, no trouble watching me gasp for air on his hook.
Violent by nature, my father is forever preparing for battle. He shadowboxes constantly. He keeps an ax handle in his car. He leaves the house with a handful of salt and pepper in each pocket, in case he's in a street fight and needs to blind someone. Of course some of his most vicious battles are with himself. He has chronic stiffness in his neck, and he's perpetually loosening the neck bones by angrily twisting and yanking his head. When this doesn't work he shakes himself like a dog, whipping his head from side to side until the neck gives and makes a sound like popcorn popping. When even this doesn't work, he resorts to the heavy punching bag that hangs from a harness outside our house. My father stands on a chair, removes the punching bag and places his neck in the harness. He then kicks away the chair and drops a foot through the air, his momentum abruptly halted by the harness. The first time I saw him do this, I had no doubt he'd killed himself. I ran to him, hysterical. Seeing the stricken look on my face, he barked: What the f--- is the matter with you?
Most of his battles, however, are against others, and they typically begin without warning, at the most unexpected times. In his sleep, for instance. He boxes in his dreams and frequently punches my dozing mother. In the car too. If another driver crosses him, if another driver cuts him off or objects to being cut off by my father, everything goes dark.
I'm riding with my father one day, and he gets into a shouting match with another driver. My father stops his car, steps out, orders the man out of his. Because my father is wielding his ax handle, the man refuses. My father whips the ax handle into the man's headlights and taillights, sending sprays of glass everywhere.