My husband and I frequently comment on how lucky we are. Our relationship is obscenely harmonious—after ten years of marriage, we’re finally having our first disagreements, and they are quickly resolved via honest conversations laden with “I” statements and reminders of what made us fall in love: our shared commitment to personal growth. Feel free to roll your eyes.
Still, it is said that couples that play together, stay together—but that’s just not what my husband and I do. We talk together. We cook together. We lounge together. Alarmingly, nothing we do rhymes with “stay.” Yet one day the clouds parted and a rainbow touched down on our home: Uncle Steve gave us a ping pong table, and we wanted to play together. Perhaps we would meet the demands of the rhyme after all?
I’ll admit now that ping pong is the only sport I am good at. If you do not believe ping pong is a sport, hold your tongue, because this is all I have. As a child, let’s just say I did not have a field day on Field Day. Despite my aversion to athletics, I was forced to play youth softball and spent so much time daydreaming on the bench that I was once mistaken for The Thinker. In ninth grade, my math teacher put me on the basketball team because of my towering height of five feet seven inches. Unfortunately I didn’t score until the final game—and that was due to a foul shot. I later dabbled in ultimate frisbee, but I was more invested in scoring weed than points.
But with ping pong I could hold my own. The many hours I had spent dueling my athletically gifted brother, Wayne, in the basement of our childhood home had made me a formidable opponent. It was many a cold afternoon that Wayne and I—tweens seeking easy entertainment—would skip the three o’clock installment of Santa Barbara and head downstairs. There we found our favorite arena: a green table with white stripes and the cutest little net, shining under a bare bulb. The washer and dryer were the only witnesses as my brother sent that little white ball at me like a blade. I did my best to return it every time—I didn’t want to deal with retrieving it from a cobwebbed corner once it had ricocheted off of every available surface before landing in the Temple of Arachne. Even though I never won a single game against him, I was victorious against almost anyone else.
As I came into late adolescence and embraced a bohemian persona, my athletic skills remained stagnant—except for ping pong. It became apparent that the fine motor skills I honed while knitting sweaters and delicately holding roach clips were upping my game. The light touch that prevented me from throwing a softball with force gave me precision and control at the ping pong table. I could hit the ball low enough to barely clear the net, or I could send it fast into the opposite corner, catching my opponent by surprise. I had never before known this feeling of athletic prowess—of dominating a ball rather than being terrified of it, even if it was a nearly weightless one.
I carried this proud ping pong legacy with me as I geared up to face off with my husband. His pong skills seemed equal to mine, as was his athletic résumé. Though he had been a star runner on his cross-country team in rural Michigan and could ski down on a mountain without sustaining a major injury, his greatest extracurricular success had been on the stage, where as a rangy twelve year-old, he was typecast as a butler. I had met my match.
We headed to the basement, ignoring the scent of cat litter as we squared up. We started volleying and quickly found a rhythm, enjoying the sound of the ball each time it made contact with the table.
“We should do this every night,” I said.
“I’m up for that,” said Leon.
“We could play well into old age. You know, like those couples who walk together every day and live until they’re like ninety, except that we’ll be playing ping pong.”
“I’m game,” he said.
“We’ll be ninety and everyone will be wondering: How did they stay fit and happy all these years? The answer will be ping pong.”
Snap. Snap. The ball was a conversation between us.
“And then when we’re ninety-five, word of our lifelong ping pong habit will spread, and we’ll be contacted by Al Roker from the Today show, who at age 112 will still be hosting. He’ll want to do a feature on us. He will ask us how we did it—how we stayed together and healthy all these years—and we’ll say, ‘Ping pong!’ Then the camera will cut to action shots of us playing ping pong, old and wrinkly but spry as fuck and smiling as we volley back and forth.”
“I like it,” said Leon.
“Let’s do it then,” I said.
“Hell yes!” Leon replied, and we stepped beside the table and slammed our paddles together in our version of a high-five.
We played for ten more minutes then headed upstairs, ready to reclaim our usual positions on the couch.
“Until tomorrow night,” I said to Leon.
“Until tomorrow night,” he replied, reaching for the remote. I sighed, propped my feet up on the coffee table, and pulled a heavy blanket onto my lap.
We haven’t played since.
Instead we keep the spark alive by binge-watching TV shows that were trending ten years ago. I wish I could blame the basement itself, which is now filled with uninstalled kitchen cabinetry, but there’s still enough space to open up the ping pong table. I wish I could blame the reeking litter box, but we upgraded to a multi-cat formula that has it smelling like a Bed, Bath, & Beyond. The truth is Leon and I enjoy our flights of fancy, especially the part where we forgo our flight altogether. It’s the opposite of a dizzying high: it’s a grounding down to exactly where we want to be—on our couch, where Al Roker would never try to find us—because couples who sit together, fit together.
Shana Genre grew up in North Berwick, Maine, and studied at the University of Maine at Farmington. She lives with her husband and two children in Portland, where she works as a librarian. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, Slackjaw, Maine Women Magazine, and Balancing Act 2: An Anthology of Poems by Fifty Maine Women, for which she won the Editor’s Choice award.