We played in the basement, which doubled as a two-car garage. The ping pong table had dispatched the cars to the driveway, where they weathered the snows of Upstate New York and watched us through the windows of my childhood.
Ping pong ruled.
Our parents had taught my sister and me to play as little kids, but by the time she was twelve or thirteen, Lara had outgrown ping pong, and instead engaged my mother in more complicated battles of rebellion and rage. Lara was brilliant but troubled, and held us all accountable for her misery. She would storm through the house, knock me down, scream at my parents, tear at her hair.
My mother always returned Lara’s anger with compassion, and their exchanges could last longer than the longest volleys, suspense rising with each returned verbal blow. How long could Mom hold out? She had amazing endurance—her love was indefatigable.
My father and I were the ones who took our love and rage downstairs to the ping pong table, and unleashed it on a defenseless little celluloid ball, slamming it back and forth between us with a ferocity that expressed all that was going on upstairs. My father and I could play for hours—tense games that were explosive, athletic, and highly competitive. My father always played on the side with the water heater, which stood sentry behind him to his right; I had the side with the steel pole in the middle. It held up our house. I developed a defense that involved grabbing the pole with one hand, swinging forward to reach the backspin balls my father dropped just over the net, and then lurching back to field his forehand smashes that inevitably followed. Sometimes my father worked the left and right corners of the table, sending me scurrying back and forth, until finally I crashed into the pole. We’d both laugh then, leaning over to catch our breath, sweat pouring from our faces. “You’re killing me!” I would say, and the delight in his face lit me up; it was well worth losing the point for that shared exhilaration.
We always spent the first ten minutes of the evening loosening up with easy volleys, gradually hitting more difficult shots, and finally slamming the ball as hard as we could. Then we started playing for real. After the first game or two, my father paused to strip off his button-down dress shirt. He always had a little trouble getting it over his left elbow, a wacky hinge of a joint that had been broken by fellow prisoners who had tried to steal his clothes during his years in the Siberian Gulag. After his escape in 1946, he’d walked across Europe by night as a fugitive, and somehow found my mother—his pre-war sweetheart—in Rome, and married her. Italian surgeons managed to remove his calcified elbow and sew him back together, but he never regained full use of his arm. My mother took in the left sleeves of all his suit jackets, and you didn’t notice the deformity until he removed his shirt. Compared to his powerful right arm (he’d been an Olympic decathlete before the war), his left arm was a shriveled stalk; the forearm and left hand dangled from a make-shift elbow.
Stripped down to his flimsy undershirt stretching over his massive chest, he looked even more formidable. Silver tufts of hair sprouted from his chest, the slick sheen of his undershirt sticking to his skin. At six foot two, he loomed dangerously close to the pipes and wires that snaked across the ceiling. Once, making a brilliant backhand smash, he inadvertently nicked the naked light bulb hanging on his side of the table. It exploded. I grabbed a rag and swept up the glass while he found a replacement bulb, and within seconds, we were back in the game.
By the time I was thirteen or fourteen, we were evenly matched, and we fought for each point with equal bloodlust. Neither of us could bear to lose, and as the night wore on, the loser of the “final” game would always plead, “Just one more,” extending our games late into the night, until we had to admit that I had school the next day, and he had to be up before dawn for his rounds at the hospital. Grudgingly we would place our paddles on the table—my father’s gently tented over the ball—and trudge upstairs.
By then it was nearly midnight, and no matter how bitterly my sister and mother had fought, all was quiet when we emerged from the basement to the kitchen. We poured ourselves tall glasses of ice water and drank standing over the sink. Sometimes we could hear the faint murmur of my mother whispering tearfully into my sister’s ear at her bedside, but it seems impossible we could have heard that—perhaps we were attuned to the sounds of our family as if the wiring ran through our bodies.
Night after night, my father and I found rescue in the heart-pounding, breath-taking smashing of a ball back and forth across a small net on a dark green table. We were unable to talk about our feelings, and the ball did all the work for us. Upstairs was another story, another battle, another drama. Each pair of players in our family had found the dance steps for our own relief and release.
The summer I turned fifteen, I went to France to study French at a small college in Vichy. As it turned out, the French National Table Tennis Team was holding its summer training camp there; they’d set up a dozen tables in the gymnasium. Young men in red shorts volleyed with rapid-fire precision at every table. The sound was symphonic, exhilarating—a syncopated beat that swelled and dipped, punctuated by an occasional grunt or shout; squeak of tennis shoes on gym floor; bodies leaping forward, backward, sideways like marionettes jerked about on strings. The tiny white ball shot back and forth like a flame, and it seemed as if one player’s arm was attached by invisible string to the arm of his opponent. No sooner had this one struck the ball, than the other’s arm flew up and struck the ball back. And so they did a puppet dance back and forth, forehand to forehand, in dizzying repetition. Then they switched and volleyed backhand to backhand, sustaining the same split-second rhythm for minutes without interruption.
A leathery-faced man in a navy track suit came over to me. “Est-ce que tu joues?”
I noticed the French team insignia embroidered over his left breast; he was their coach. “A little,” I said. He handed me a paddle, and gestured to one of his players to step aside so I could volley with his opponent.
At first he took it easy on me but when I nailed a few slams, he started playing in earnest. The coach shouted encouragement to me, then interrupted our volley to show me the proper technique for a forehand topspin. Holding my arm at the wrist and elbow, he guided me through the motion, like a salute. “You end here,” he said, moving my hand until it reached the tip of my eyebrow. “Again.”
Between French classes, I spent the summer training with the National team as their guest. My French improved. My table tennis soared. This was nothing like ping pong. This was race-car driving with a racket and a ball.
I returned home at the end of August, and within a few days, my father challenged me to a game. We descended to the cellar as always, but now I pulled out my own bright red Butterfly racket with inverted rubber, recommended by the French coach. “Wow,” my father said, sarcasm dripping.
“You’d be amazed what a difference it makes,” I said.
He served the ball. I slammed it with a topspin loop that flew past my father before he could even lift his paddle. “Good shot,” he said.
He served again. I slammed it to the opposite corner. He chased the ball down through the legs of the chest of drawers in the corner.
His next serve went into the net, and his hand holding the paddle shook with irritation.
I didn’t want to beat my father like this, but I had too much of an advantage. “Wait,” I said. “Let’s switch paddles.” My father shook his head with disdain. “Ok, then I’ll use the same paddle as yours.” I zipped my fancy paddle back into its case and took up the same type of plain paddle my father played with. But it was no use. I kept scoring points. I tried to go easy on him but he glared at me. “Play!” he barked. “Don’t pussy-foot!”
I could see his frustration growing, and there was nothing I could do to regain the volleys we’d once had, no way to get him back.
“Good game,” he said solemnly, placing his paddle over the ball. “That’s enough. You’ve gotten too good for me.”
It was unnerving to be better than my father at anything. What I most wanted was to be with him. In the years to come, the ping pong table grew neglected; we weren’t a match any more. I joined a club and played in tournaments away from home. Eventually we folded up the table and gave it away. My parents’ cars came inside, where they filled the room with their lugubrious weight. My sister and I grew up. I ran errands with my father and went to the movies with him, but we could never again recapture the glee of our games, the sheer joy of engaging each other in a heart-pounding test of agility. Our words were an awkward translation of the connection and eloquence we shared during those long nights of ping pong; we sometimes faltered without the game to support us.
Helen Fremont’s new memoir, The Escape Artist, published in 2020 by Simon & Schuster, was selected by The New York Times as an “Editor’s Choice” new book in 2020. It was also chosen by People Magazine as a “Best New Book” in February, 2020. Her previous memoir, After Long Silence, was a national bestseller. Her works of fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, Ploughshares, and Harvard Review.
A graduate Wellesley College, Boston University School of Law, and the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, she has been a teaching fellow at both Bread Loaf and the Radcliffe Institute. She was a Scholar in the Women’s Studies Research Center Scholars Program at Brandeis University and worked as a public defender in Boston, where she now lives with her wife.