Some people sneak out of their parents’ house to smoke a cigarette. I sneak out to play tennis against my cousin, Michelle. I’m 35.
Michelle is known for many things: Gourmet cooking, intensely curly dark brown hair, a fiery temper, and an almost religious devotion to tennis. She comes from the “competitive” wing of my family—my mother’s older sister’s side—whose house has always been abuzz with golf and tennis talk and the latest parlor games: Rummy Cub, Pictionary, Trivial Pursuit, and naturally, cards.
The Rubins had a pinball machine in their basement when we were growing up, and even found a way, sometime in the ‘70s, to turn their TV set into a sports arena with the cutting edge video game, Pong.
We went to their house fairly often and I loved it, even though it meant losing at the Rubin game du jour. Some losses didn’t bother me, like Othello and Trivial Pursuit.
But being whupped at Boggle really got under my skin.
Uncle Bruce, an OB-GYN, was untouchable. He was the kind of player who, shake after shake, would find obscenely long words—we’re talking seven, eight, nine letters—that would snake around the surface of the board. Aunt Lydia was no slouch, either.
They’d instituted all kinds of house rules, and made no concessions to eleven-year-olds who were brave enough to enter battle. Among these rules: No 3-letter words, and No plural nouns. Adding an ‘S’ or ‘ES’ to a word was only acceptable if the word was also a verb, as in ‘DRESSES.’ They also had a policy of turning over a letter or two, if they didn’t like the “look” of a board.
I didn’t stand a chance.
And that would have been fine, if my cousin Julie weren’t also a Boggle whiz. Julie and I had always been close; we both loved gymnastics and any game requiring speed—Jacks, Ping-Pong, the card game Spit, even Hungry Hungry Hippos. Our battles were fast and furious, and she tended to win, but that was okay, because Julie was two-and-a-half years older than me.
I didn’t even mind that her legs would always be longer and thinner than mine, and her stomach would always be flatter. That’s just the way it was meant to be. But the Boggle?
Deep down, I believed that Boggle should be My Game. I knew I wanted to be a writer when I grew up; Julie didn’t even know what she wanted to be. And yet, there she was, scribbling long lists of words, words that I’d never come close to seeing on the board. As she’d trace the trail of her words, they’d seem so obvious.
O-B-V-I-O-U-S! Of course! How could I have missed that?
For my twelfth birthday, I told my parents what I wanted: My very own Boggle game. Like all Philadelphians, I’d loved the movie Rocky, and I decided that if I trained hard enough, I could become the younger, female Rocky of Boggle. The Apollo Creeds in my life—Uncle Bruce, Aunt Lydia, and Julie—would never see it coming.
I’d show up one day, and suddenly be able to find the longest, most unexpected words on the board. Words they’d never even dream of looking for. The Rubins would be dazzled, and my reputation as the precocious future-writer in the family would be restored.
There was one problem with my Rocky of Boggle training plan: I had no Mickey, and no regular sparring partners. Day after day, I’d pad around the house after school, Boggle cube in hand. Like a sad little panhandler, I’d ask every member of my family—beg them!—to play Boggle with me.
The answer was always the same: No.
Eventually, I had to face the crushing fact that I’d been born into the other side of the family. The side who found games boring, and competition meaningless.
“I’m just not interested,” my Mom always says, whenever I’ve asked about her aversion to game-playing. “I don’t care enough about winning to enjoy them.” That’s when my dad, if he’s nearby, chimes in like a faithful backup singer: “It’s just not how we enjoy ourselves.”
No. It wasn’t how We, the Zuritskys, enjoyed ourselves. And that had a nice ring to it. How noble it was to care about other things, more important things, than winning and losing. We were above the fray of Pictionary games that ended in violence, or Celebrity games that ended in tears.
And I’d never have to worry that my parents would lose their temper on the sidelines at a field hockey or lacrosse game, because none of that stuff really mattered.
I took pride in my family’s non-compete clause, even though it left me in the unenviable position of playing Boggle in the corner of the living room, against myself. Of course I’d never develop any real chops in the game, but who cared? Our family philosophy made the whole pursuit seem, well, trivial. Eventually, I’d just stop trying.
Michelle stands on the other side of the net, not knowing what to expect. I’ve been telling her that I’ve started taking weekly tennis clinics, but she’s visibly nervous that she’s agreed to the tennis equivalent of Chinese Water Torture: Hitting the ball to someone who can’t hit it back.
The first time I hit it back to her, low, hard, direct, she’s amazed.
“Wow! Not bad.”
I run to hit a drop shot near the service line, and she praises my hustle.
“Lis! You can move!”
That’s when I realize that while my family was busy feeling superior to those competitive Rubins, her family was feeling superior to those lazy Zuritskys.
I’m hitting the ball back with a fair amount of consistency, and we’re starting to work up a sweat. The court has gotten quiet now. She’s stopped complimenting my good shots, and I’ve stopped apologizing for my lousy ones. I have a strong sense that Michelle’s both relieved and irritated by my level of play. We’re not playing for points, but that doesn’t mean we’re not competing.
Here’s what’s at stake for me: My family’s honor. I had no idea when I asked her to hit with me today that it would all come rushing back to me, those years of losing to her family at every game. Even though she wasn’t technically involved in the Boggle bloodbaths, her kin was. So she must pay. And by pay I mean, acknowledge that all those years of losing were not from lack of talent or innate skill, but perhaps from lack of encouragement.
I don’t know why such things matter, but they do.
All of this is happening behind my mother’s back. She doesn’t need to know that I’m fighting to restore dignity to our branch of the family tree; it would only upset her. Tennis is not “us.” It’s “them.” And besides, I’m not supposed to care enough about any game to wake up at the crack of dawn, drive forty minutes there and back, just to play at Michelle’s country club. A country club! It’s all so unnecessary. But I do care. I do, I’m sorry, I do.
“Next time I won’t go so easy on you,” Michelle says, as we head off the court after an hour’s workout. I want to say the same thing to her, but instead I just smile and thank her for hitting with me.
Next time, indeed. ❑
My cousin Michelle’s gluten free cooking site GFChow.com has really delicious recipes.