CHAPTER ELEVEN

Coco arranges a game of tennis with the Serts. A club in a neighboring village boasts several well-maintained grass courts. Igor enjoys playing, and Coco is keen to see Misia again. So, in the heat of the afternoon, the two couples—for so they seem—are driven out by Coco’s chauffeur.

Coming to a narrow bridge over a stream, the driver brakes sharply. A car has drawn up simultaneously on the other side. As both approach roads are on an incline, neither is aware of the other’s presence until both are practically on the bridge itself. The two vehicles come to a stop. The driver of the other car makes it plain he has no intention of reversing; so Coco’s chauffeur starts to back up. But she screams at him not to budge. Both cars are thus stuck on the creaking wooden slats of the bridge for about ten minutes. Igor remonstrates, but she refuses to back down. She grows adamant, instructing the driver to switch off the engine and sit back until the other man yields—which, eventually, in high dudgeon, he does. Driving on, Coco offers a magisterial wave to the driver of the other car as they pass. He is red-faced with indignation, she white with self-righteousness.

“Stupid man!” she blurts.

Looking out, Igor sees the telegraph poles stretch into the distance like bars and bars of rest.

“She’s a woman who likes to get her own way,” José says, as he and Igor emerge from the changing room half an hour later.

Tanned and glowingly healthy, both men look dapper in their whites. Igor bends to measure the height of the net as José practices a few overhead serves. Coco and Misia still linger inside.

“Catherine, of course, is still sick,” Coco says. “She’s had Marie up and down the stairs all day.”

“Oh, dear.”

“And the kids just create havoc around the place.”

“Does Igor say anything?”

She laughs. “I’m not sure he even notices. He spends all his time at the piano.”

“Ah, yes.”

“He says he has a new symphony on the go.”

“Exciting.”

Sincere for the moment: “Yes. It is.”

“I liked his Scherzo Fantastique.”

“What was that about?”

“Bees, I think,” Misia says, tying her laces. Dressed, she picks up her racquet and bangs the strings against the heel of her hand. The air around the racquet rings. Small white squares are printed on her palm. “If I remember the scenario correctly, the queen kills off the male once he’s outlived his sexual usefulness.”

Coco laughs. “If only . . .” She copies the gesture of rapping the racquet smartly against her hand.

Outdoors, Igor, a little skinny next to the plumper José, swings his arms gawkily in preparation for the game. Mixed doubles. He is to partner with Misia, while José is paired with Coco across the net.

The women come out wearing white cotton dresses and broad cream hats. They both look swanky in contrast to the men.

After knocking up for a couple of minutes, the match begins in earnest. José is sluggish around the court and rarely comes to the net. But when he connects, his shots are strong. He has an impressive forehand, which fizzes if he hits it right. Igor is quicker and nimbler around the court; his anticipation is good, and while he may lack José’s power, he enjoys a surer touch.

Coco, he notices, holds the racquet oddly, and sometimes it is all she can do to volley his serves back over the net. Yet she manages a few deft dabs and perky volleys, and her timing is generally sweet. He’s more lenient in his returns to her than he is with José. And twice when, with fat backhands, she hits the ball long, he knowingly calls them in. Seeing this, Misia—to his consternation—winks at him. He pretends not to notice. But she’s wrong if she thinks him a pushover. Ever competitive, he’s out to win. And as the match proceeds, he scampers after every point until something swells within him and seems ready to burst. He begins to hit the ball harder and harder as if he wants to punish it.

The weather is hot and he sweats profusely. The handle on his racquet grows humid. His grip begins to slip. Released into a life of higher energy, he chases everything, exerting himself beyond measure. The others seem ponderous by contrast. As the match goes on, he ruthlessly exploits José’s slowness. A series of exquisite dink shots played into space are perfectly calculated to leave him for dead.

“What’s the matter with him?” asks José. “Does he always play like this?”

Then with the score at one set all, and in the middle of a tense final set, he reaches for one of José’s whippy, unanswerable, chalk-flirting serves. The ball hits Igor’s racquet with a melancholy twang. In the following overheated exchange of shots, Igor feels the “give” of the racquet along with its tautness soften. His shots lose their crispness. The song goes out of them. An inspection of the racquet head reveals a broken string, which crimps miserably as he pulls it out. He raises the frame to show his opponents.

The match is abandoned and declared a draw.

“Well, what do you think?” Coco asks. Exhausted, she slumps down in the changing room next to Misia.

Misia idly straightens the strings on her racquet. “He makes a good tennis partner, that’s for sure.”

“Come on,” Coco urges.

“He certainly puts his all into it.”

“He never gives up on a point, does he?”

“He likes to chase the things he wants.”

Coco looks across at her. “And what’s that supposed to mean?”

Misia’s waist may have thickened over the years but she still possesses the aura and frank energy of the sexually voracious. “Nothing,” she responds in a singsong voice. “But none of us is getting any younger, dear. You’ve got to chase what you want, too.”

“That’s part of the problem.” Coco looks despondent. “I don’t know what I want.” She’s finding it hard to resist the instinct that keeps telling her there is something about him that is right. He is talented and sophisticated. He has intellectual weight and the kind of profoundly artistic sympathy that appeals to her. Rather than infatuation, a deep sense of affinity draws her toward him. And the call is becoming stronger with each passing day. “I keep changing my mind. I need to be sure.”

“About him, or you?”

“What I don’t understand is . . .” She hesitates.

“Go on.”

“How can he be so musical, yet so lacking in emotion?”

“He wants people to love him, don’t you see?”

“I’m sure he’d prefer them to love his work. Everything else is secondary. He says so.”

“He’s just shy.”

“You think?”

“Maybe he just needs someone to bring him out a bit.”

“Perhaps you’re right.” Then less cheerfully: “But I want someone who’s mad about me, who can’t live without me.”

Misia looks at her. “You think I don’t?”

Coco clamps her racquet back in its press.

“Here.” Misia tosses two tennis balls to her in quick succession. Coco catches them, opening her hands and closing them over like a mouth.

Misia burlesques the flight of a bee, flapping her arms about rapidly. “Zzzz.”

“Oh, stop it!” Coco says. Then, fitting the balls into the bottom of her bag, she pulls the buckles tight.

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