Ode to a Bird in Play
Posted on July 9, 2012
Badminton used to be my sport. We moved to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, from Calgary, Canada, when I was sixteen, and when I asked my new American boyfriend, Raymond, if there was a place in town where we could play, he brought me to his back- yard. The equipment came in a narrow box from his basement and required assembly. I helped him stake the net. The racquets were heavy and wood with thick strings. The birds had pigeon-looking feathers and hard rubber ends. Our boundaries: lawn chairs.
When I lived in Canada in the ’70s, I hung out at the Glencoe Club, which was a five-block walk from our house in Elbow Park. It had a giant indoor skating rink, curling lanes (for the old people), an outdoor pool where I attempted my first and last jackknife, and six indoor badminton courts with sleek wooden floors and non-glare overhead lights.
The premiere court had a glassed observation lounge on the side, a place where I played mixed doubles, my favorite, because they’d pair you up with a guy at the last minute and you had to make things work. A low-impact way to touch boys. My best games were on that court with people watching. I rushed the net, dropped shots delicately over the tape, or wound myself like a coiled spring and smashed. Smashing required body and wrist, the instinct to end the point right then and there.
In between serves, I’d bounce the racquet head against the palm of my hand. The strings on badminton racquets are strung between eighteen and thirty-six pounds of pressure and I liked mine tight. “You have more control at lower pressure,” my Chinese instructor advised me, but I took my chances.
The Glencoe’s courts drew world-class athletes. The Red Chinese played an exhibition game before the Cold War’s thaw and their arrival felt James Bondian. The media came with cameras. People crowded the observation room, and a bleacher was erected on the other side of the court so more could watch four tiny men lunge and pounce, their reflexes quicker than worried cats. The speed of their game was frighten- ing. The bird moved like a bullet.
Two Mexican brothers also visited the Glencoe to train for the Olympics and I fell hard for one of them. Victor Jaramillo Luque. He was pure elegance in those small white shorts, a white tennis shirt, white socks, white court shoes, and the older girls lined up behind the observation class, hoping for a chance to play. I was fourteen. The morning he left, he kissed me close enough to my mouth to qualify as my lips. When I blushed he looked surprised and touched. “You haven’t yet been kissed?” he said, but I assured him I had, sure. His face was close; I kissed him.
There’s a buzz you get when the badminton bird hits the sweet spot on your racquet, this sudden pleasure of knowing you’ve returned what your opponent just sent you intentionally, not accidentally, when you’ve bounced the bird off your strings in that [magical,] tender place of maximum strength, speed, and control and put it where you meant to.
Raymond’s backyard needed mowing. He’d covered up an ant mound with a beach towel he found in the garage.
“It’s rough out in the elements,” I said, when the wind pushed the bird back in my face. “Yeah,” he said. “We can play tennis over at Kamper Park if you want,” but I wanted to stay loyal to badminton. I missed Canada.
“You look pretty professional at this,” Raymond said, noticing my flexible wrist and how I crossed my body with my racquet. I rushed the rickety net and smashed the bird at his feet. “What’re you doin’?,” he said. “This is bad-mitten.”
“An Olympic sport,” I said.
“Yeah way.” On my next shot, I hacked the bird off the frame of my racket and it teetered on the tape until the wind pushed it over his side.
“Cheap shot,” he said.
“Keeping it going,” I said, pushing my sweaty bangs out of my eyes.
Raymond chased down a high overhead meant to drive him to the lawn chair in the corner, and at the last second underhanded it back. “Me, too,” he said. He looked crisp as a Brooks Brothers ad in plaid shorts, a lime green Polo, and Topsiders.
His mother had taken her place in the plate glass window, waiting for a good time to bring us lemonade. I liked that she was watching. I aimed the bird at Raymond’s kneecaps.
“Easy,” he said, covering his crotch. “The family jewels.”
“At least try to return it,” I said. Everything in this game with him was start and stop. I wanted the pleasure of a long rally, hitting for hitting’s sake, but my strokes felt dull, zingless. I examined my strings, bounced them against the palm of my hand. “This racquet needs a sweet spot.”
“Not mine.” His bird whizzed past my head. “Gotcha.”
“I wasn’t ready.” I hit one back, high on arc, but the wind grabbed it and Raymond watched it drop out of bounds like a wounded teal. “Too bad,” he said.
On my next volley, I aimed for his eyes.
“Hey, now,” he said, ducking. “Lighten up.”
“You’re a finely tuned athlete, aren’t you?”
He frowned. “This is a barbecue sport.”
His mom brought out sweating tumblers and cheese straws on a plastic tray. “Y’all are doin’ great,” she said, but we didn’t make it through junior prom. Raymond went back to dating a girl he’d broken up with, and I took up racquetball with a senior, an open player who could’ve killed my every return but kept the ball in play until he graduated.
(Published in OXFORD AMERICAN – Sports Issue 2007)