The applause was thunderous. It sounded like it began in the sections closest to Charlie’s entrance and rolled from box to box, section to section, and side to side with the strength of a hurricane. There wasn’t a person seated in the entire stadium: it seemed as though each and every one of the twenty-three thousand people who had come out that gorgeous August evening was on his or her feet, whooping and clapping. When she raised her hand and waved to them, they roared their response. Charlie could feel the reverberations in her chest, the sounds of excitement that almost bordered on hysteria.
As Charlie lined her rackets up against her chair and cracked open the first of her Gatorade bottles, she glanced toward her player box. In the very front row were Jake and Benjy, sitting side by side. No doubt the stadium cameras were having a field day with those two: Sports Illustrated had just released their new issue, the first time in history they featured an openly gay athlete on the cover. Benjy was pictured in his Dolphins uniform and helmet, war paint under his eyes, staring straight at the camera with his bulging arms crossed over his massive chest. The headline above the photo read ‘DEAL WITH IT’ in a massive white font and just underneath, in smaller lettering: ‘Football’s Favorite Quarterback Comes Out and Couldn’t Care Less What You Have to Say About It.’ As expected, the media had gone crazy when Benjy first made the announcement earlier in the summer, but after a few weeks of nonstop coverage and carefully scripted statements of support from the NFL, the story was beginning to fade. Charlie had never seen Jake happier. Next to them sat her father and Eileen. A small, family-only wedding ceremony was planned for the following month, and Charlie already had her gift picked out: two round-the-world tickets for them to explore, relax, and hopefully visit her in far-flung cities.
In the row behind them were Piper and Ronin, who would be leaving on a middle-of-the-night flight for their honeymoon in South America. Piper caught Charlie’s eyes and opened her own so wide that Charlie burst out laughing. Charlie nodded. Piper gave her a look that said, Seriously? and glanced furtively to her right where none other than Zeke Leighton sat, waving cheerily to Charlie and mugging for the cameras. Every time a camera found him and splashed his image over the huge screens papering the stadium, the crowd went crazy. From the third and last row, Dan sat alone. She knew her father and Jake and probably Piper, too, had invited him to sit with them, but he liked to watch from his seat behind the others and examine every point with the focused attention of a surgeon at work. He would calculate and analyze. He would will her to win. And when it was over, whether she’d won decisively or lost humiliatingly or something in between, he would wrap his arms around her and ask if she wanted to try the new Korean noodle place he’d read about. Charlie saw him massaging his forehead in nervous circles, but she smiled at him anyway.
The warm-up went by so quickly that the coin toss nearly caught Charlie by surprise. When the chair umpire indicated that Charlie had won, she automatically elected to serve. Karina flashed her a single hard look and began to retreat back to her chair. The women would have a final minute of quiet before official play commenced, but Charlie called her name.
The ball boys and girls, the line judges, the chair umpire, and the thousands of fans all watched as Karina slowly turned around. Her enormous frame, all muscle, was surprisingly agile, and she covered the distance to the net in three long strides. She raised a single eyebrow.
Charlie moved toward the net and stood closer to Karina than either of them liked: she was acutely aware of the cameras and wanted to avoid being overheard. Leaning in, Charlie’s lips nearly touching her opponent’s ear and her heart beating fast, she said, ‘I’m sorry for what I did at Charleston. It was a shitty way to win.’
Karina took two steps back and looked Charlie in the eye. They held each other’s gaze for a few seconds before Karina nodded. ‘Thank you.’
Back at her chair, Charlie took a sip of Gatorade and a bite of banana. Thirty seconds to start time. She took a final look at her player box and felt an enormous rush of gratitude for the people in her life, and then, with her last remaining seconds, she pulled the laminated photo she had kept in her racket bag for as long as she could remember and propped it against her chair’s armrest. Today, her mother would watch from the best seat in the house.
Charlie jogged to her spot on the baseline as Karina strode to hers. She bounced on her toes, waiting for her nerves to settle, for the familiar and addictive feeling of calm to settle over her. Across the net, her opponent took deep, gulping breaths, obviously trying to control her own adrenaline overload. The chair umpire leaned forward and in a commanding voice announced, ‘First set. Charlotte Silver ready to serve. Play!’
She took a deep breath and tried to exhale as slowly as possible. It was happening. Charlie planted her feet, bounced the ball three times, and, with a clear mind, tossed it into the air. The ball disappeared into the stadium lights, and Charlie felt a momentary stab of panic and uncertainty, but still she launched her body upward, a combination of muscle memory and faith and fervent hope, knowing she was ready for anything.