Page 32 of The Singles Game

‘That may as well be my mother’s mantra. Nothing I haven’t heard from the cradle.’ Piper wrapped a cashmere infinity scarf around her neck, and for the thousandth time Charlie wondered how her friend was so effortlessly chic. ‘And don’t forget to buy yourself something nice for Valentine’s Day, okay? I would suggest chocolate, but since you’re on a starvation diet, maybe jewelry. No tennis crap!’

They waved good-bye and Charlie handed the valet her ticket. She found herself wishing again she could stay the night and party with the rest of their college friends, but she needed to be back in LA by four. She eased her rented Audi convertible onto the 405 and turned the music up. It was that perfect kind of winter day that only Californians understood: high sixties, warm sun, cool breeze. Literally the kind of day for which they invented convertibles. Near Malibu, she calculated that she was fine with time and moved over to the PCH: it would take longer, but it was worth it to drive along the water. Charlie switched the XM station to the Blend and sang along with Rachel Platten and Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran until her throat felt raw and her eyes were tearing from the wind. How many times had she driven the PCH her freshman year? She and Brian would go for drives on Sunday afternoons and bicker over the radio: she always wanted top forty; he always wanted anything else. She had even told him she was leaving school – and him – to turn pro at the Fish Shack in Malibu.

Brian knew with a wisdom exceeding his nineteen years that a long-distance relationship with someone who’d be traveling three hundred days a year was unrealistic. The breakup was miserable. It took only a few months on tour for Charlie to see that maintaining a relationship was actually impossible only for the women. For the men it was a totally different world: they had girlfriends who traveled with them, dressed in designer jeans and high heels with perfect hair and makeup each and every day so they could stretch out like kittens in various players’ lounges all over the world, waiting for their hot, sweaty men to walk off the court. Four out of the top five ranked men in the world were married. With children. It had taken Charlie’s breath away when Marcy had once pointed that out, followed quickly by the number of women married in the top twenty: one. And the number in the top twenty with children? Zero. Men weren’t exactly lining up to follow their player girlfriends all over the world, keeping their hotel beds warm at night and breakfasting with them at six a.m. in cafeterias from Dublin to Dubai, waiting to hug those sweaty, exhausted women when they finally left the court, alternately elated or enraged, depending on the day. The couple of men who did give it a go for a little while didn’t last long: coaches and male players and even other female players whispered about their lack of jobs and their abundant free time, calling them pussy-whipped and losers and mooches. But the various models and actresses and anonymous pretty things who traveled all over to support their boyfriends? Everyone seemed to understand they were just doing what the men needed.

The car in front of her came to a screeching halt and it was all Charlie could do not to rear-end the massive black Suburban. She had mindlessly followed the nav through Malibu and Santa Monica and across Brentwood and the leafy streets of Beverly Hills to the Peninsula, where the Suburban pulled in right ahead of her.

A text pinged on her phone. Todd. Thirty minutes, Ivy, Robertson. Don’t be late.

She tapped back a single letter, k, and handed her keys to the valet. Two porters were busily unloading trunk after trunk of coordinated Goyard luggage from the depths of the Suburban, and Charlie couldn’t help but linger on the sidewalk to see which celebrity would emerge. From the looks of the bags, it was likely a Kardashian. Possibly a Rihanna- or Katy Perry-type pop star. Definitely not an A-list actor, judging by the sheer amount of baggage. This person had packed the whole house and was here to stay. Just as she was about to give up and walk inside, the driver removed a Wilson racket bag the size of a Great Dane from its perch atop the passenger-side front seat. Hanging from it was a soda-can-sized ‘charm,’ a diamond-encrusted owl with emerald eyes and a lipstick-lined beak and long eyelashes that Charlie knew were made from actual rabbit whiskers. She would recognize that gaudy owl anywhere.

‘Look who it is!’ Natalya crowed to Charlie from the backseat of the Suburban. Every single man, woman, and child who either worked the valet line or was waiting in the parking area of the Peninsula Beverly Hills stopped reading their texts and looking for their keys and wrangling their children and turned to watch the six-foot-tall blonde, in shorts so minuscule everyone could make out the neon pink underwear, languidly slide down the side of the car. Charlie swore she could hear a collective sigh when Natalya’s sandal landed safely on the pavement.

‘You’re sweet to wait for me. Here, grab this.’ Natalya thrust a Goyard-logo-covered train bag into Charlie’s arms. ‘Thanks, darling.’

Shocked to see Natalya in Los Angeles a full four days before they were both set to play Indian Wells in Palm Springs, Charlie unthinkingly followed her into the lobby.

‘What are you doing here?’ Charlie asked as Natalya showed her ID to the front desk person. It occurred to Charlie that she, too, should be checking in, but she couldn’t remember if she’d left her purse in the car or if it was on the valet cart.

Natalya leaned in close enough for Charlie to catch a pleasant whiff of vanilla-scented perfume. ‘Benjy just played in the Pro Bowl in Hawaii. He’s meeting me here tonight for a little … R and R. What about you, Charlie? Another night hunkered down with your team? It must get lonely with only your coach and your brother for company.’

Charlie’s pulse quickened.

‘You really should think about getting yourself a man,’ Natalya said, pulling her phone out. ‘What about that new kid on the men’s tour, the one from Philly? He’d probably sleep with you.’

A picture flashed in her head: Brett or Brent or something, nearly six five, with gangly limbs and acne. Sixteen, maybe seventeen years old at the most. It was followed quickly by a visual of Marco soaked in sweat after a match, the Dri-FIT of his T-shirt literally sticking to his muscles, headband holding back his thick black hair. Then his smile, the one she’d only seen him flash for her privately …

Natalya’s laugh snapped her back. ‘Oh, wait, I think he already has a girlfriend. Don’t worry, I’ll keep thinking.’

Usually it was her mother’s voice she heard, reminding her to take the high road, be polite, rise above the conflict. Charlie tried hard to follow the advice, she really did, but today it was Todd’s voice that reverberated in her head. Mental toughness. No more sweet girl. Stop being a doormat. Do you think Natalya sits around every day wondering how to make more people like her? You shouldn’t either!