Commentary

Squashed: A Confession

A young man's competitive spirit gets the best of him

Updated: March 8, 2011, 7:12 PM ET
By Tobias Wolff | ESPN The Magazine

BowtieJohn O'Brien/Gallery Stock

This short story appears in the iPad version of ESPN The Magazine's March 7, 2011 Fiction Issue.

I HAD NEVER played squash before I arrived at the Hill School, an Eastern boarding school, in 1961. I was a scholarship boy, a veteran of the public schools of Utah and the Cascade Mountains of Washington State, where you played football, basketball and baseball. Nothing else, not even track, really cut the mustard.

But at Hill I'd fallen through the rabbit hole, into a world dominated by exotic games I had barely heard of -- soccer, lacrosse, golf -- and one I'd never heard of at all: squash. Even the name was weird, almost comical. But I understood that its very obscurity where I came from was a sign of its cherished place among the sort of people for whom this school -- and also, it seemed, the world beyond -- had been created. To change classes, one must change games. And so I took an interest in squash.

It was my roommate who gave me my first lessons, and I immediately fell in love with the game. Indeed, I became an addict and exhibited all the nervous irritability of withdrawal when the courts were taken, or I couldn't find a partner. No sport had ever taxed me so much; my face turned red, my eyes burned from rivers of sweat, I frequently had to stop midgame to lean, faint, gasping for breath, upon my knees. And yet I shrugged these pains off as nothing, because in the actual playing I was so fixed on the ball that I didn't notice the labor of getting to it. However tainted my original motives in taking up the sport, I came to love it as the most pure, challenging form of competition I had ever experienced.

I wish I could say I was good at it. In fact, I am never more the brutal prole than when I'm on the squash court. It is a game of diabolical subtlety, of cunning, maneuver and restraint, and I know and value this, but in the heat of play my instinct to win by sheer power tends to overwhelm any science I possess. The result is predictable: myself caught flat-footed, out of position, racket twisted halfway around my back from the smashing, unanswerable blow I've just struck, watching my opponent love-tap the ball into the corner to die.

Sportsmanship? One day I browbeat a Hungarian friend -- an expert, let it be said -- with his good arm broken and encased in a full plaster cast, into playing me with his weaker arm, then muscled him around the court. He still beat me.

Which brings us to my confession. Faced with the skill and easy grace of my opponents, I have at times become so exasperated that after calling "Around!" I have deliberately drilled them in the back. So this beautiful game that I took up with an eye on class has become the occasion of some of my unclassiest moments. For this I am truly sorry. Sorry, Geoffrey. Sorry, Richard. Sorry, Alan. Sorry, Brooks. Sorry, Jay. Sorry, Paul and Jason and Keith; sorry, all of you. I will do better. I promise I will do better. Just give me one more game.

Tobias Wolff is the author of the novels The Barracks Thief and Old School, the memoirs This Boy's Life and In Pharaoh's Army, and the short story collections In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, Back in the World, and The Night in Question. His most recent collection of short stories, Our Story Begins, won The Story Prize for 2008.

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