Joy and Wonder
BY KIT PYNE-JAEGER
Finalist for the 2021 Adroit Prize for Prose
Nobody had come for me after my tennis lesson. My father was in law school and my sister was a professional gymnast, so this was not uncommon. I accepted being in my parents’ peripheral vision as I accepted other things that made me seem slim and hard and secretive. I thought of myself as an animal, moving swiftly and low to the ground. I was fourteen and in college. I was in a state of exploratory banishment. I was beginning to be interested in edges, borders, mouths, openings, pores, and so I picked tenderly at my flyblown skin and experienced the world like a garment inside out: a clean white shirt without a tag or seams.
Tennis took place a quarter of a mile from a soccer field where my local league used to practice and down the hill from a horse barn where I had broken my elbow, not riding a horse but pretending to be a horse, an injury of the imagination. I had not admitted to being in pain. I had sat on a rock with my elbow balanced on my knee and pretended disinterest, so that the children there would think I disliked them rather than that I was able to be hurt. I would not answer their questions or acknowledge them when they spoke to me. I would give up riding afterward, like the sports—swimming, soccer, tae kwon do—that had preceded it.
It was late afternoon, ninety-two degrees. Movement in the pines without wind, like the sun was exerting a luminous pressure upon them. Light pinballing from court to net to a sky the blue of Byzantine crusaders, supreme and violent. On an empty court a boy and I were playing singles. Next to us a fair-haired college girl, older as pretty, clear-skinned adults are generically older to an awkward and spotted teenager, was practicing her backhand. This was the type of girl I would eventually recognize I loved because I remembered almost nothing about being a child except them—their fine hair, their sloping shoulders, the weather patterns of their bruised legs and freckles.
“You kind of suck at this,” the boy said. I had missed a ball because a beetle had flown onto the court and I was occupied with whether it was a good omen or an ill. I disliked insects, but this was a tiger beetle, a weird and lovely emerald green like a rainforest or Earth seen from space. I was at a ruthless age, but I forgave him because he was right. The fact that I thought it was more important to be right than kind was one of the reasons I knew that I was made to be cruel, and thus to be something more important than loved.
“Look,” I said, “look how pretty it is,” and pointed to the beetle. We were young enough that he did not feel compelled to punish anything a girl liked and I did not feel myself to be comfortably, or comprehensively, a girl. If I was a girl it was in the sense that a lizard without its tail is a lizard regardless: there is no other word for it, but its habitation of the word leaves some empty space, and in that space it is more interesting.
“Oh,” he said, and then, “It can’t turn over,” with appreciation.
“Iridescent,” I said.
“Iridescent. It’s what you call the way the light hits the cells in its skin. That’s why it’s so green.” Peacock spiders, I almost said, are iridescent because they have scales like snakes. Sometimes beetles with glossy exoskeletons were used like jewels, for decoration, in women’s earrings. I was aware, with a certainty like grief, that nothing I said would matter to him. I say like grief because it was a process of exploring the world as though its architecture, its archaisms and preoccupations, were identical for me and for everyone else, and then remembering they were not. There was a hole; there was something extracted.
The college girl made a wordless sound, partly a cry and partly the grunt of an animal in its sleep. The ball pinged off her racket and across the net.
Another insect struck the court. A bee, this time. Also on its back, struggling.
“Oh,” the boy said.
In Los Angeles fire is commonplace. I paid more attention to thunderstorms than wildfires, rain being rarer and its clouds more strange; they left dark thumbprints of the foothills in the fog like the house of a god in an epic. Across the street, behind a row of suburban homes, smoke was swarming. The insects were in flight. Some distance away the air was beginning to crackle.
We did nothing for the first ten minutes. I missed two more balls. He was restless, prickly with curiosity, fidgeting with the wires of his racket. Birds swept by above us. I thought I saw a red-tailed hawk, angled into the wind, unconcerned.
The college girl was saying something to the coach over the net, gesticulating close to her curved stomach, secretive or touching an imaginary wound. I ate the glimpses I got of her bony blue wrists against her T-shirt like chocolate chips from the open bag when no one else was in the kitchen: surreptitiously, in handfuls.
“You ever been this close to a fire?” the boy called to me, as though there were already something to shout over, some emergency. I shook my head.
“Me either. Man.”
It occurred to me that if I were consumed by a wildfire, that would surely make whichever parent had been meant to pick me up from tennis feel appropriately terrible about their mistake. The mind of a fourteen-year-old girl bends, with a kind of cosmic craziness, toward cartoonish violence. I had been the child who stabbed a boy in the cornea with a reed, scratched another so joyously across the face as to give him a nosebleed, smashed a third’s nose with my locker door in seventh grade. As soon as I had recognized that my parents were imperfect, a recent development, their punishment had become my prerogative.
“Do you think it’ll come all the way over here?” I leaned my elbows on the handle of my upturned racket. At age fourteen my body was as lumpy with knobs as an old house—the rattling doorknobs, the protruding windowsills, the screws of missing light fixtures. The only parts of it that pleased me were my hands, silky and fine-boned, belonging to a person who handled beautiful objects with competence and care.
He shrugged. “Probably make us go inside if it does,” he said with equanimity.
Among the things about boys I envied, their going shirtless in summer and rude, jostling ways of expressing friendship, was their ability to accept horror casually, with crude jokes. A girl in my class had begun sobbing and fled the room when my art history teacher screened a film about Pompeii. From this I had recognized that the tolerance of girls for reality was to be looked down upon, with the exception of those girls, Joan of Arc or Sylvia Plath, who understood it so quickly and clearly they would not survive it, whom I would have liked to know.
John Keats, too, died young. This isn’t important, except that I would never be able to distinguish entirely the beauty of a thought from its truth.
I said, “Can a tennis court even burn? What’s it made of?”
A white flake landed on the court next to my sneaker. I watched it curl into itself like a segment of insect, disjointed leg or powdery wing, and then I knew what it was. In Paradise, the town north of Sacramento Valley that had existed in the past tense since a wildfire last winter, ash had fallen on what the newspaper described as a field of war, a nothingness that smelled of rubber and Christmas. On the news had been videos of bloody pink air, photographs of animals submerged in swimming pools, audio clips of staticky dispatches that suggested distance, an obliteration occurring in a place not quite real or translatable.
“It’s—“ the boy said, and stopped, uneasy, as ash floated around us.
“Kids?” From the next court the coach called us. He and the college girl, her hair and her walk light and swinging, had been collecting tennis balls and his neck was startlingly pink. “How about you guys get off the court? I think we’re gonna take it inside.”
The boy hitched his racket into his sweaty armpit, pinned it there with his upper arm, and said, “Aw jeez,” and I understood what I was meant to, that he was relieved.
Inside it was cold, the A/C turned up too high, and untidy in an approachable way—somebody’s desk scattered with magazines and envelopes, the faint smell of fruiting teenage bodies. There was a rack of tennis balls for sale in squeaky plastic tubes next to a roll-top cooler of ice cream from which I was only allowed to buy coconut Popsicles. The receptionist, who was sharp-haired and pimply, said to the coach, “We saw the fire from in here.” He spoke with awe and a titillated hush, as though someone had died or a fruit truck exploded on the roadside, and I imagined picking up the pen on his clipboard, uncapping it, and driving the nib through the raw meat of his cheek. I would be able to estimate, older, when I had acknowledged my girlness based on when the target of this arbitrary violence became my own body.
The boy was pressing his face damply against the window, open-mouthed and blinking, like a zoo animal. I hated him, I thought. In my art history course I was writing an essay about the contributions of Empress Theodora to Byzantine art and architecture. From a biography of Theodora I had learned that the Greek for a brothel, now only legal in Nevada, was porneion, which was the root of pornography. I suspected that I was the only person my age I knew who had never looked at porn and this made me feel both very young and very virtuous. I wanted my exposure to those things fourteen-year-olds enjoyed to be clinical and archaeological, excavated through dryness (academic theory, Greek language), stripped of dirt. I hated these boys because they were too much of the flesh, too brawny with self-satisfaction and the masculine right of kingship. The coach said something I did not hear, probably an expression of apology.
I sat in front of the TV in the lounge and read an old issue of Architectural Digest. The club was full of out-of-date magazines, publications breathlessly addicted to the hobbies of the wealthy—Wine Enthusiast, Cycle World, American Angler. Across from me the college girl was working on her laptop, a biochemistry textbook open on the sofa, pausing occasionally to check some fact or statistic against a chart. Her ponytail was still shiny and tight against the back of her skull, her head sleek as a mountain lion’s.
The coach said with professional gentleness, “You OK?”
It became clear that he was talking to me. I looked away from her and closed the magazine, rubbed the back cover with my thumb, as though to be caught in the act of looking called for shame. I had learned from Greek and Roman Art that in Greek martyr simply meant witness, someone who was killed without dignity for looking with purpose. I said, “I’m fine.”
“OK,” he said. “OK.”
“My dad’ll be here. Thanks.”
I was left alone. The girl typed frowning and with devout attention. The boy had lost interest in the available view of the fire and was now gnawing a chocolate-capped Drumstick from the cooler, playing a game one-handed on his phone. I folded and unfolded the corner of a page and chewed over why the coach had felt it necessary to ask me whether I was okay, I, who knew I was a witch because of the number of pennies I found, who knew I was a martyr because I was stubborn with a virgin’s name, who knew I was an oracle because sometimes my best friend and I predicted what the other was thinking about.
I sometimes thought I must be the most important person in the world. It was unlikely, but it was possible. At other times I thought I was not meant to be alive, that the world squirmed and torqued around me like black pepper fizzing away from soap, a foreign agent. It was a long time before I recognized that these were the same thought.
I put the magazine down and stood up. The boy did not look at me; the girl kept typing. By the door the coach was placating a parent, belonging to one of the kids in the beginner classes, too young to be left indefinitely alone. The chill air inside the club tasted like smoke, a tart, yellow flavor on the tongue that made me think of rationing food, survival at extremes. I pictured Arctic explorers hunkering down in a storm, Shackleton on Elephant Island—fur hoods moist with sweat and body fluids, seal oil and chocolate, only cigarettes for light.
Down the hall, on the other side of the bathrooms, was a door to the courts on the opposite side of the club, rarely used because they were spiky with pine debris. No one was watching me. I walked past the bathrooms softly, on the balls of my feet. My not being seen was my being lucky. The fact of my being lucky rather than unlucky, which was the state of meaning things were predisposed to, meant that I was doing rightly, I was obeying whatever force governed luck and which knew what I wanted, what I was for.
When I stepped outside into the naked heat the sky was a visual defect, a wound in the logic of the eye. The texture of the air stung my tongue. Ash disintegrated on my hair and shoulders, left behind a greasy softness.
I wanted there to be a reason for the horror and wonder of it, the unlikeliness, the charcoal ground. The Santa Ana winds, I thought, the dry season after a rainy winter, lightning striking a dead tree somewhere in the San Gabriels, but California, for all of your holy names of saints and martyrs, you kill like an atheist: without justification, good or bad.
The heat was a substance, walking through liquid gelatin. There was no wind. I was already sweating through my top, smelling my own bitter crevices, the baby hairs wet on the nape of my neck.
Only one other time had my chest hurt with the beautiful rightness of something, time pausing to acknowledge a purity and a terror so unaware of the human, so grand. Last year my parents, my sister and I had gone to Joshua Tree National Park for Thanksgiving, which was to say we spent the holiday camping in a desert where people regularly went missing, departed the marked trails and were searched for and never recovered. None of us was lost although I hoped I would be, so that I would see something extraordinary no one else had seen, or so that people would have to look for me. In the Mojave the birds were symphonic, the trees lunar, the sky at dawn and dusk a passion of color for which I knew there was no language. Night and day weird living creatures, Nowhere, California rich with radiant things coming out of the earth, toothsome things that would live a thousand years.
On the third night it started to rain. I woke to bubbles of it hammering the roof of the tent and rolled out, still in my pajamas, into the pre-morning darkness, soaked almost before I opened my eyes. We were laughing as we kicked earth over the last of the fire, packed the car. Giddy, disbelieving, like new lovers. We drove to Starbucks and ordered coffee and the morning was the blue of things too complicated to be explained: relativity, the universe.
I pressed my face against the court fence, opened my sandy mouth, extended my tongue. I thought of a dog exhausted, drinking water in gulps with its tongue out, and air full of the particles of the dead, pharaohs and novelists, tennis players, martyrs. I thought about the things that would be gone after the fire, the things I would leave behind to be burned. I thought about how the best way to die must be death by exposure, the way with the most marvelous view.
This a Greek word also, a word meaning pure, or clear of shame.
It was my father, my father and the coach, pounding on the glass. My father wore a dark suit jacket and a tie, which meant he had driven from Downtown when he had not expected to, had been working late and left early.
I would try to explain to them later why I had gone outside. I would fail, of course. The most I can do, I would try to say, is see, is be there to see. I lingered. I looked at my beautiful hands, my hands that were almost perfect, and thought of the lost people in the desert where we had laughed in the rain, the birds flying like spears or Joshua spines from the fire.
A wet year, a year of luxurious greenness, and so a year of wildfires. There would be more. I would never be as close to the burn again but I would watch every time, summer after summer until I left California, the flame-chewed valleys and the mountains scoured like an upturned glass left by the sink. The fear and wonder, the view past the clear blue light into emptiness, the generosity at the fault lines of being alive.