Man U and Liverpool on’t telly downstairs. I’m up here by myself on a cold Saturday morning. The waterbed is warm.

//

“What Labrador ate those balls?” the pro asked us yesterday.

“They’re pink, for breast cancer,” S said.

They were also half-flat. And they were the fuzziest balls I’d ever seen. They did look dog-eaten. But S liked them, so I didn’t pop the new can I’d brought.

I’m writing about this today because I played with S yesterday afternoon, and I can’t get it out of my mind or body how much I enjoyed hitting with her. She’s fairly new to tennis but she doesn’t hit like a beginner. S is a beautiful Jamaican woman maybe two inches taller than I, so she’s on the tall side, and she’s been working out for years: spinning, weight-lifting, yoga. Her upper body is bigger than mine, and she has the quads of a track star. Plus she’s just totally voluptuous and beautiful. I’m a gamine (read: small tits) and that’s all there is to it.

Yesterday was the second time I’d hit with her and I heard myself thinking like a coach: She’s got some bad habits, she plays inside the baseline and she swings at her volleys and she has trouble sticking to a decision to come to the net, she winds up in no-man’s land (wasn’t this what Robbie called it when I got caught flatfooted behind the service line?), but she’s fast and she’s smart, she’s got good instincts, and she runs every shot down.

“It’s hard on the glutes,” she said.

“I do a lot of squats and lunges,” I said.

I’m working on my down-the-line shots, my inside-out shots. I drove her back and forth. She ran, she was willing, and she made some good gets.

Eventually I was chomping to play some points. But S can’t serve.

“It’s my next lesson,” she said. We both take lessons from a guy named, funnily enough, Rob. She’d played ages ago in Jamaica, she said, and she’d been picking it back up for the last year or so.

“Let me see your serve,” I said.

Her feet were all wrong. Her toss was loopy. She hadn’t worked out the rhythm of the backswing and her ball popped 30 feet in the air.

S NEEDS to serve, I decided. Her ground strokes are too powerful for her to go any longer with a dinky serve.

(I mean who the fuck am I to decide what someone else needs, right?)

“Put your front foot at a forty-five degree angle,” I said. “Now hold your racquet like you’re scratching your back.”

“But what about going like this?” she asked, swinging her racquet back.

“Don’t worry about that right now,” I said. “Just put your racquet back there. Now toss the ball and swing the racquet forward.”

She did. The ball fired and hit the tape. She tried another: the ball landed in the service-box. A decent serve.

Now, I thought, all you have to do is practice that about 200 times a day. (Don’t get me wrong. I love practicing my serve. Robbie would fill up a hopper and let me go at it. He’d spend 45 minutes just returning my serves. I’d do the same for him—which is how I got used to playing with men. I prefer hitting against men, unless I’m playing my sister, which is like playing a man. She’s six feet tall and entirely unafraid on court. A lot of women are afraid to hit hard, and I’ve never been a dinky hitter, in anything.)

I went back to my side of the court and fired off a few serves. S had trouble returning them, but she tried, and in watching her try so damn hard, I was reminded of myself, how hard I tried, how hard I always try, how much I dread failure, how afraid I am of being detected as a fucking fraud, and how little I think I have to give anyone.

The difference was, S was smiling the whole time.

“Wow!” S said when we knocked off. “You really taught me a lot today! I’m going to practice what you taught me.”

Motherhood has gone a little way toward letting me know that I can help someone else—even if it’s just one person. But I was unsober for so much of my kid’s life. One of the side-motivations of drug-use was that it numbed me out to the deep fear that lives in my belly that I am, after all, a shitty mother, from a long line of shitty mothers, world without end, amen. It also numbed me out to reality: I help people. I’m still just learning that I can help other people. I’m usually afraid of stepping on the other person’s toes.

S tells me she wants my advice and I think, Oh right: four or five years ago, when I was unsober and when S was applying for her Ph.D. program, I helped her with her application essays.

Robbie emailed me a while back:

And you – well, you basically taught me how to write – which served me well in law school and beyond. I still remember some forgotten freshman english teacher commenting on my second paper (after you got to me) “you’ve suddenly learned how to write!”

I gave S my serve and she hit some returns and I thought about how it’s nice and everything that I still have Robbie’s voice in my mind, it’s sweet that he taught me, and it blows me away that I can now help someone else.

//

As we walked out of the facility a private girls’-school team was arriving for their practice session. S said hello to several of the girls. S has three boys, ages 18, 16 and 14; they’re all drop-dead knockouts, the eldest one has dated several chicks on that team, he probably knows every 17-year-old girl within a five-mile radius; and the youngest boy is one of my son’s best friends. “S is The Coolest Mom,” my son told me recently.

“Huh,” I said. “What about me?” (The eternal dipshit question, which will always out.)

“You’re cooler than most of the moms,” he said nonchalantly, “but S is sooo cool. She NEVER gets out of the car to say hi to the parents when she’s dropping someone off.”

Which isn’t true. S often winds up in our front hall to say hi. But I agree, S is very cool. The coolest thing about S is not her beauty or her speed or her three amazing gorgeous smart polite cheeky boys or the fact that she is doing it all as a single mom, plus writing her diss. It’s her willingness, and her humility.