Tuesday are the days I showcase my own work on this blog. In honor of the athletes now battling it out at Wimbledon, today I’d like to share an excerpt from my third novel, Match Maker.
I’m very proud to say that Match Maker was voted best contemporary fiction novel at the 2011 Rainbow Literary Awards.
My favorite fan, Fausto Unamzor, made a video trailer for Match Maker, so I thought I’d share: http://tinyurl.com/2ev95ds
In the four years since being forced off the professional tour for being gay, Daniel Bottega has taught tennis at a second-rate country club. He found a sanctuary to hide from an unkind world, while his lover, Jared Stoderling, fought a losing battle with alcohol addiction to cope with his disappointment of not playing on the pro circuit.
Now Daniel has another chance at the tour by coaching tennis prodigy Connor Lin to a Grand Slam championship win. He shares his chance with Jared by convincing him to return to the pro circuit as Connor’s doubles partner.
Competing on the world tour is challenging enough, but Daniel and Jared also face major media attention, political fallout from the pro association, and a shocking amount of hate that threatens Connor’s career in tennis, Jared’s love for Daniel, and Daniel’s very life.
Dreamspinner Press (Sept 2010)
To purchase: http://tinyurl.com/3qseap8
We wandered through the maze of courts that were drying nicely. He asked me what I loved about tennis, and I explained, “The fact that you are in control of your own destiny. You’re not at the mercy of a coach calling the plays or benching you, and how you perform depends on how you prepare before the match and how you keep your composure during play. The thing I love most is when I’m pressed to the wall and forced to dig deep, when I hit rock bottom and have to pull out a jackhammer to dig deeper until I find that hidden vein of strength I never knew existed.”
I paused for a moment, realizing the truth of my statement.
“Yes, that’s what I love most,” I said. “When I surprise myself.”
Connor took off his dark glasses and revealed a shine in his eyes.
Something had gelled, but I still needed to tread carefully.
“If you’re serious about the pro tour, we’ll need to work out twice every day. Three hours in the morning and the same in the afternoon.”
“What about school?”
“You’ll take correspondence courses over the Internet. Most of the teenagers on tour finish school that way.”
“But if I’m on court six hours every day, when will I have time?”
“At night. Connor, becoming a pro is a full time job. Greatness doesn’t happen without a price.”
“Okay, Mr. Bottega. School sucks anyway.”
“There’s one other thing I need to know,” I said. “I have the feeling that you don’t share your dad’s goal of you being number one in the world. What’s with that?”
“That’s his agenda. I dream about going to college and becoming a top surgeon. You know, healing sick people, especially kids, or doing clinical research to find cures for shit like cancer and AIDS, but we can’t afford college, let alone medical school. And if I can’t be a doctor, well, being a tennis pro is like, you know, the next best thing. I mean, it beats programming a computer or flipping burgers.”
“Are your grades good enough for pre-med if you had the money?”
“Totally. I mean, it’s all about memorizing shit in books, writing papers, and taking tests. How hard is that?”
He had forfeited his chance at an athletic scholarship by playing the pro tournament in Carmel, which bumped him out of amateur standing, but I explained that with enough hard work and a few good years on tour, he could win enough prize money to pay for college and medical school. “That’s easier than attaining number one,” I said, “but if tennis is your passion and you’re willing to pay the price, becoming a top-twenty player is achievable.”
He didn’t respond. I knew he felt that his dream was too remote even to hope for, but I couldn’t tell which option he yearned after.
“Anything you want to know about me?” I asked.
“Why did you quit? You coached Jared Stoderling, and he was skyrocketing up the rankings until you both vanished.”
Bingo, just the question I had hoped for, because I didn’t want any uncomfortable surprises down the road for either of us. “I met Jared at tennis camp when we were teenagers, and we became lovers. On the tour, I relinquished my aspirations of being a player to help develop his career. After four hard years, when our dreams were coming to fruition, the ATP found out we were gay, and they blackballed us.”
Connor looked gut-shot. His jaw dropped, and his mouth made a perfect round opening, just about the size of his unblinking eyes. The bond between us shattered. He stepped back, shaking his head, visibly grappling with the shock of it.
In for a penny, in for a pound. “If we work together, some people might assume that we are intimate. They’ll whisper behind our backs at every tournament. You’d better be sure you can handle that before we get started, because once the rumor mill starts rolling, it’s unstoppable.”
A ladies’ foursome trooped by us on their way to the clubhouse. Their jewelry sparkled in the sunshine that had broken through the clouds. “Hello, Mr. Bottega,” they all crooned.
He waited until they had moved out of earshot before saying, “I’m straight!” His curt tone broadcast that he didn’t want anyone believing otherwise, not me and not anyone on the pro tour. He slipped his sunglasses back on and looked as though he was about to cut and run, but he asked, “You’re not interested in me? I mean, sexually?” His voice had turned shy.
“No, Connor. I’m not a chicken hawk.” I smiled, but he didn’t acknowledge my lame attempt at humor, so I pushed on. “Jared and I are still lovers. We have our problems, but there’s nobody else for me. Your virtue is categorically safe. It’s your reputation that may suffer.”
He visibly relaxed, even showed the hint of a grin. He stared at his sneakers and shook his head. “My dad’s a straight fascist. He hates gay people. Of course, he hates anybody that’s not Chinese.”
“If you still want my help, we’ll tell him and let the stuff hit the fan.”
“Why? It’s none of his business what you do off the court. None of mine either.”
I began to protest but stopped because his sudden attitude change baffled me. One minute he looked ready to bolt, the next he seemed accepting. Could his only issue have been fear of me hitting on him?
“Does this mean you still want to work with me?”
“I need time to think.”
“Fair enough. Let me show you the rest of the layout here before you decide.”
The facility had a dozen pristine hard courts, but the two clay courts were my pride and joy. As we approached them, he veered off the concrete walkway and stepped onto the nearest court, sliding his foot across the moist clay. “If I could win any one tournament, I would choose the French Open. Can you teach me how to be a great dirt-baller?”
The clay court tennis that dominates Europe and Latin America connects more closely with my core values than the hard court tennis that prevails in North America. For me, clay courts represent the true spirit of the game, which champions finesse, patience, strategy, and endurance, whereas the hard court game is primarily one of aggression, short points, and instant gratification from blasting winners. Clay court tennis gives me satisfaction from playing long, grueling points and from the tactical thinking that goes into every game. Connor’s interest in becoming a dirt-baller hopefully meant we shared the same core values.
I nodded. Again, I saw my reflection in those dark circles of glass hiding his eyes.
I thought I felt something gelling again, but I couldn’t be sure. The fact that my facility had the only clay courts in San Francisco gave me an edge, but was it enough? “Talk it over with your father. Make sure you’re both comfortable with everything, and I mean everything.”
“Tell me one thing,” he said. “Can you make me a top contender on the terre battue?”
“I know what you need to get there. Whether you can learn from me is another question. We’ll just have to roll the dice and see.”
He took off his dark glasses again. The tentative set to his eyes transformed his entire face, making him ravishing, at least in my eyes.
“I know you can help my game, Mr. Bottega, but I’m not sure I can handle this gay thing. I mean, I don’t care that you’re gay, but it feels weird that people will assume I am too.”
His reluctance felt like a knife twisting in my gut, but I understood: he was proud. I liked that about him. I hesitated, knowing he needed more coaxing and that this opportunity was too momentous to let slip away, but I didn’t know what else to say. My safe job, my entire life, seemed like a low-salt, fat-free, sugarless diet. I wanted this badly.
“Go home and mull it over. If you’re interested, be here Saturday morning and we’ll make it happen. If not….” I paused and shrugged. “I wish you luck.” I tried to sound matter-of-fact, like it didn’t matter one way or the other, but I couldn’t mask the pleading tone in my voice.
Connor reached out and clasped my hand, shaking it firmly. “I’ll think it over, Mr. Bottega.”
He turned and jogged back to the clubhouse, leaving me in the center of my sanctuary, which suddenly felt way too small.