By Holly Day (aka Holly D.)
Pink. Ponk. Pink. Ponk. Pink. Ponk.
“Yes!” Bree shouted as she teetered behind the kitchen line, her volley narrowly flying past Lyla’s outstretched paddle. Gwen jogged up from the baseline and offered Bree a high five. “You’re rockin’ it today, B! Looks like those extra drills are paying off.”
Lyla and Hannah stepped up to the net and offered the butts of their paddles for congratulatory taps. The group walked amicably to the court’s edge to down some Gatorade before packing up their bags.
“I really wish they’d quit relegating us to these awkward timeslots,” said Hannah, between sips. “I enjoy coming out to play with you all, but it’s not exactly ideal to take a 3 PM work break and come back sweaty. Most people step out for an afternoon latte, not a sporting match.”
Bree nodded. “I know, I know. I tried to get them to shift us back an hour or two, but apparently there’s been major pushback from the tennis club that meets here after work. I guess they’re already sorta pissed that we use the space at all.”
“Geez, they’re so territorial,” Gwen scoffed. “We’re just trying to play and it’s not like they use the courts 24/7. I drive by here on my way too and from school pickups and I rarely see any action.”
“I hear you. I’ll email the rec center one more time, but I can’t make any promises,” Bree said with little optimism.
“What if we just go inside right now and see if someone will hear us out? Maybe we’ll catch someone who can pull some strings?” Lyla proposed.
Bree eyed the others warily, attempting to gauge their motivation levels without betraying that she wasn’t keen on talking to anyone in person. Unfortunately, Lyla, Gwen, and Hannah all looked at her expectantly, and as the one responsible for their pickleball meetups, she sighed, turned on her heel, and led the way to the gray wooden building near the parking lot.
. . .
The stale, humid air smacked the group in the face as they stepped into the rec center’s atrium. In the lobby, the sounds of whirring fans mixed with those from a large TV playing highlights from a recent golf tournament and the echoing voice of a water aerobics instructor in the pool visible through glass down a hallway. Bree led everyone around a corner to the check-in desk, where – instead of the Janine, the older woman with bold headbands and cliche-adorned t-shirts who was usually stationed here – they found a decidedly good-looking man with thick, dark brown hair wearing a crisp white polo embroidered with the unnecessarily elaborate Greerville Recreational Facilities logo. He did not notice them immediately, his attention otherwise occupied by whatever was on the computer screen behind the desk. Hannah’s sneaker caught the tiles, emitting a piercing squeak that ricocheted around the hallway. His eyes snapped up to the approaching women, and he quickly took his feet off the desk and sat up straight.
“All done out there today, ladies? Who won?” he asked cordially. Bree noticed the name stitched onto his polo: Noah.
Gwen nudged her shoulder into Bree and said “We did! No thanks to me. This girl’s been taking lessons! So much for ‘it’s just a fun side-hobby.’” She air-quoted the last bit for emphasis. Bree blushed and looked down at her shoes. She was a little embarrassed by how quickly pickleball had consumed her life, going from a once-a-week excuse to hang with the gals while getting some exercise into something she did nearly daily, driving across town to various sites to catch pick-up games and the occasional clinic.
“Well good for y’all.” Noah offered. “So, you want to book the same time next week?” His gaze returned to the computer screen where he was navigating the mouse.
“Actually,” Bree said with some awkwardness, stepping forward toward the desk, “We were hoping that we could get on the schedule for a little bit later in the day? Maybe at 5 or even 6 o’clock? It’s just pretty inconvenient to dip out of work for an afternoon game, you know?”
Noah’s demeanor clouded minutely. He crossed his arms, and Bree flushed, wishing she hadn’t asked.
“The tennis club has priority in the evenings, ladies. Sorry about that.” He shrugged, but didn’t appear too sympathetic. Bree made a note of the racquet leaning against the wall behind the desk, gathering it likely belonged to him.
“Oh okay, no worries then!” Bree replied with a bit too much gusto. “Same time next week is fine.” A few mouse clicks later and a “Cool, all set” from Noah, the ladies made their way back out to the parking lot.
“So are we still on for tomorrow night?” asked Lyla as she slung her bag into the trunk of her car. “I have confirmed the babysitter so there won’t be a whole to-do like last time.”
“You bet, Ly,” Hannah replied. “I’ve been looking forward to it.” Bree and Gwen nodded, cementing the group’s plans for drinks to celebrate Lyla’s long-overdue job change.
Amid a series of car-door slams and shouted “see you soon”s, they dispersed.
. . .
“Over here!” Hannah waved as Bree walked through the door into Portia’s, their go-to spot for drinks when everyone could wrangle their schedule for an evening out. Bree wove through a few sparsely populated tables, bumping up against at least one and earning herself an annoyed glare from the older man whose beer she’d jiggled.
Bree slid in next to Gwen with a sigh. “Guys, we are getting old. The only other people here are, like, my dad’s age.” Hannah looked over Bree’s shoulder at the bar’s other customers and snorted. “You’re not wrong. Guess this is what happens when half of us have small humans to keep track of. I can’t make it past ten or so before wanting to fall asleep on my face.”
“Babysitter is paid through midnight, so I’ll be having a cocktail or several, thank you very much,” Lyla declared.
“You deserve it, Ly,” replied Bree affectionately. Reaching for the beer pitcher at the table’s center, she poured herself a glass and raised it to the others, proclaiming, “To the newest staff engineer!” They clinked glasses and beamed at Lyla who was play-bowing to each of them like she was royalty.
Over the next couple of hours, the women jumped between life updates, reminiscing, and a fair bit of warm-hearted lampooning. Hannah opened up about the struggles she was having navigating IVF with her partner. Lyla revealed her nerves around living up to the high expectations of her new role, but also provided some levity by performing a masterful imitation of one of their high school science teacher’s scornful proclamation that “She’d last all of one semester in engineering school.” They cheersed to proving people wrong. At one point, Gwen found herself beset by hiccups, sending the rest into sustained giggles that made conversation all but impossible.
“What about you, B?” asked Lyla. “I feel like I see you on the court every week, but we don’t get as much time to actually catch up.” Trying but only partially succeeding at appearing breezy, Bree answered “Well, ya know, pickleball is practically my whole personality now.” She quickly stood from the booth and asked “One more round? This one’s on me.” She noted everyone’s cocktail preferences, redirecting attention from herself by suggesting that Gwen’s hiccups might be thanks to her dwindling alcohol tolerance. “Heyyy--” Gwen protested, but the drawn out word was abruptly silenced by another hiccup, sending them all once again into cackles.
The bartender took Bree’s order and she perched on a stool while the drinks were concocted. Gazing across the bar space – now much busier than when they’d first arrived – she didn’t notice a man settle into the stool next to her, elbowing her lightly. “Let me guess, a pickleback?”
Bree startled, turning to find a vaguely familiar face that took her a beat to place: Noah, the not-Janine desk guy from the rec center. Her focus on figuring out who he was made her lose the thread and fail to pick up on his joke. “A pickleback? Why would I… oh.” Her eye roll was uninhibited, in part thanks to her beer intake and in part because she was very over pickleball being the butt of jokes.
“And what do you get? The… Highball?” she sputtered, trying but failing wildly to come up with a witty rejoinder.
Noah smirked. “So it would appear that you do do things other than bat around a wiffle ball on our courts. Is this spot a regular of yours?”
Bree did not have the patience for this man, keen as he was to joke about her one hobby. She glanced at the bartender to gauge their progress towards her drink order. She was frustratingly reminded that craft cocktails take approximately one million years, and for whatever reason, Hannah had chosen something that required an herb sprig to be set on fire.
Turning her attention back to Noah, Bree replied tersely, “I’ve got plenty going on, thank you very much. I’m actually here with my girlfriends and we’re having a lovely time. Looks like you’re here… alone?” she noted, pointedly looking around him for a group.
“Nah, my brother and his wife are over there,” he said, gesturing to a table near the door. “They’ve also gotten into the whole pickleball thing,” he added derisively.
“Dude, what’s your deal with pickleball? It’s a legit sport. There are pros and national competitions and everything,” Bree asked with obvious exasperation.
Noah shook his head and shrugged. “It’s just so weird to see everyone playing a sport that used to be the sole domain of retirees. Like, just play tennis if you want a racquet sport? But I didn’t come over to debate pickleball with you. I’ve seen you at the courts a few times and was wondering if you – ”
Bree didn’t let him finish. “I am really not interested in chatting with someone so judgy about something that’s bringing me a lot of joy right now. In fact, you are actively impeding that joy by blocking us from getting better court time. So if you don’t mind, I’m just going to gather my drinks and head back to my friends.”
“Woah, ok,” he said, putting his hands up in mock surrender. “Before you go, how about I make you a deal? I’ll try pickleball, if you think it’s so great. Play me a match tomorrow and if you win I’ll adjust the schedule so y’all can have Thursday nights.”
Bree eyed him with both skepticism and intrigue. “And…if you win?”
“Then I get what I came over here to ask you about.” He said, playfully.
“Which is?” Bree countered.
“Dinner and drinks? Somewhere that isn’t the concession stand?” He said with a nearly imperceptible dip in confidence.
Bree held his gaze, willing her face to remain unreadable while she processed his proposition. It took her a moment, but then she said, “Ok. What time?”
. . .
When Bree arrived at the club the next morning, Noah was already on the court and in such a comical outfit, she couldn’t manage to keep her amusement from overriding her annoyance. His lush hair was pushed back with a neon green sweatband and his shirt was a very loud tropical print. His bright white tube socks came up to just below his knees and his face was obscured partially by oversized, highly reflective RayBans. Bree was impressed by his commitment to mockery, even if it did make her feel like she was in a pickleball spoof of Battle of the Sexes.
Setting her bag down on the bench and gripping her paddle, Bree asked, “Do you even know the rules?”
Noah grinned and replied, “Yeah, I’ve played once or twice with my brother. I think I’ll manage.”
Bree began to run through a few basic stretches and tried to act nonchalant. She hadn’t expected him to show up at all, let alone on time, and she was surprised to note that his doing so raised him in her esteem. Feeling a mix of nerves, rivalry, and a slight hangover, Bree took her place on the opposite court from where Noah was performing excessively grandiose stretches. “Ready?” she called. Without waiting for his reply, she declared “Zero, zero, two!” and dropped the ball for a serve.
Within the first rally, Bree realized that she’d underestimated Noah’s athleticism and overestimated her ability to play without a doubles partner while feeling the pressure of trying to represent pickleball at large. Noah moved around the court with ease, and she had to hustle for nearly every get, failing repeatedly to read his shots before they came over the net. In just ten minutes, he’d claimed the first game.
“So, where would you like to go to dinner?” he asked, playfully, as they each took a break for some water. Bree glared at him: “It’s best two out of three. This is so not over.”
They swapped sides, and though the score was much closer this time, Noah clinched in the win. Bree put her hands on her hips and looked down at the court, trying to not let on just how disappointed she was. She was relieved none of the girls had known about this little bet, or she’d have been mortified to tell them about the outcome. Now, she could get the date over with and no one would have to be any the wiser.
Noah jogged up to the net, extending his hand and pushing up his sunglasses to reveal his sea glass green eyes. With an undeniably attractive grin he said, “Valiant game, Mrs. Pickle. How’s tonight?” Bree shook his hand and weakly returned his smile, saying, “Sure. Fair’s fair.”
. . .
An hour before the date while trying to pick an outfit that said “I’m hot and you should be glad to be seen with me” without saying “I’m into you and hope this leads somewhere,” Bree realized a hitch in her plan: she couldn’t tell her friends about it, but they were exactly who she wanted to ask for input. Settling on a solid blue dress that fell just above her knee and made her feel like herself, Bree pinned her hair back, and sat in front of her mirror to give herself the pep talk she’d normally have called Lyla or Hannah for.
She noticed that she was a little jittery, and tried to take a few deep breaths. This was a cursory date that was really just the fallout of an ill-advised dare in a bar at a moment when she was feeling a little defensive. There was no reason to be nervous. But then she’d think about how, even while poking fun at her sport, Noah’s green eyes had been so soft and playful. And how this was the first date she’d had in ages that she wasn’t going into completely blind, based entirely on a photo and a couple texts. And how he’d be interested in her from afar, and, to be totally honest, how good he looked in his tight white uniform polo. Seriously, who makes a polo look good? Noah, apparently.
With a full body shake to dispel her nerves, Bree grabbed her keys and headed out.
. . .
When she pulled up outside the restaurant, Bree was surprised to see Noah waiting outside looking very nice in a crisp, untucked button down and holding a small bouquet. Oh geez, she thought, he’s taking this seriously. She considered making a loop and bailing, but decided that would be both unfair and awkward since she’d inevitably see him at the club. Weird perk to anonymous online dating? Smoother ghosting? she thought.
He greeted her with one of those awkward half-hugs that result when neither of you know quite what the other’s going for. Handing Bree the flowers, he opened the door and followed her inside.
“Ever been here before?” he asked, his voice betraying a hint of earnestness that took Bree off-guard.
“No, I’ve actually been looking for an excuse to try it out,” she replied. Hearing this, Noah broke into a grin – the easy, charming expression that, with each successful deployment, further softened Bree’s resolve and drew her attention to the mounting butterflies in her stomach.
They sat and ordered drinks, perusing the menu between bits of small talk. Noah asked about Bree’s work and she asked about how he’d gotten into tennis.
“Well, my older brother was my idol, and he played, so naturally I wanted to, too,” he offered. “He was so good in high school, and I was a few years behind, always trying to keep up. When he went to college, he dropped the sport, but I kept going. He’s now married with a couple kids. He’s got that, I’ve got tennis.” He sipped his drink thoughtfully.
Bree let the silence linger for a moment. In Noah’s story, she recognized something that mirrored her own feelings. “Do you spend lots of time with his family?” she asked.
“Yeah, I love being an uncle,” he said, smiling. He pulled out his phone and showed her a series of pictures with a little boy and girl clinging to him like a jungle gym. They had magnetic grins not unlike Noah’s own.
“I don’t have siblings,” Bree offered, “but my girlfriends are practically sisters. And two of them have kids who call me Aunt B. I love hanging out with them, too.”
“Are those friends the ones you were with the other night at Portia’s?” he asked. She was surprised and flattered by his attentiveness.
“Yeah, we all grew up here together, actually.” She looked down and picked at her food, figuring whether or not to continue sharing. Talking with Noah felt much more natural than she’d expected, and she was surprised by the quick intimacy she felt. She decided to risk it, hoping that what she thought she’d picked up on earlier was real. “Coming back after college, I sort of believed we’d all be on the same trajectory. But at this point, I more often feel like an extra in their lives. I had a stupid hope that we’d carry on Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants-style, raising kids all born within a week of each other. But that’s just not quite how it panned out.”
She glanced up, trying to gauge if he was put off by her admission. To her relief, he was looking at her with a tenderness that indicated he could sympathize.
“Those kids are really lucky to have you around, you know. Your friends, too.” Bree was flooded with warmth at his kindness.
“I could say the same about your niece and nephew,” she replied. They remained in amicable silence for a few minutes before Bree followed up playfully, “So, are you and your brother competing to win the kids over to tennis or pickleball, respectively?”
Noah laughed. “Are you kidding? They obviously want to do what their cool uncle does, not what their boring dad is into.”
Bree feigned offense at the idea of pickleball being boring, but mostly she felt like giving Noah a high-five for his successful recruitment.
The night continued with the more easy, pleasant conversation. When Noah offered to take Bree to ice cream afterwards, she found she was excited by the prospect of more time to talk. She accepted.
. . .
Thursday rolled back around quickly, catching Bree off guard thanks to a week’s rhythm entirely upended by several successful successive dates with Noah. When she arrived at the court for her weekly game with Gwen, Hannah, and Lyla, they were all already there and smirked playfully at her approach.
“What?” she asked, setting down her bag and lacing up her shoes.
“So, what’s his name?” Hannah asked, drawing out the “sooooo” like they were teenagers swapping rumors in the bathroom.
Bree furrowed her brow, and played coy: “What do you mean?”
Gwen half-laughed, half-scoffed. “B, you have been the worst group texter this week. You’re usually the one we can all count on to respond to our weird memes and pictures, but you’ve essentially sent a few emojis and otherwise been MIA. We know there’s a guy.”
Bree blushed, embarrassed by how she’d dropped off the map, but also tickled at the reminder of Noah. “Oh, I mean, I did go one a few dates this week...” she said, stifling a grin.
Hannah squealed and Lyla exclaimed, “I knew it! Tell us more, please!”
“After we play, ok?! I don’t want to waste our slot!” said Bree.
“Fiiiiiine,” said Lyla, “But we are so not letting it go that easily.”
As they took the court, a group of guys from the tennis club walked up. “Hey ladies, sorry, but the court is ours today,” said the one leading the pack.
“Wait, no,” said Bree, taking a step towards them. “We’ve got this time reserved. Y’all have the court from 5 PM onward.”
“Yeah, but we’re starting early today. We’ve got a tournament to prep for and all that. You understand. Y’all can manage a day without pickleball, right?” The rest of the guys started setting their stuff down and taking out gear.
“C’mon, guys. We were just getting started,” Hannah said, adopting her well-practiced teacher tone.
Bree was about to jump in with Hannah when she spotted Noah walking their way from the parking lot. She exhaled, relieved that someone with rec center authority could set things straight.
Noticing her shifted attention, Entitled Tennis Bro turned and – to Bree’s dismay – broke out in a smile of recognition, and, raising his arm to wave, shouted, “There he is! Man of the hour!”
Hearing this, Noah looked up from his phone mid-stride and Bree watched as he looked back and forth from Tennis Bro and her, slowly processing the situation before panic set into his expression. He opened his mouth to speak, giving off the impression of a guppy fish caught with his pants down.
“The man of the hour, eh?” Bree repeated, incredulous.
“Yeah, Noah’s the best. He cleared us for the extra court time,” Tennis Bro explained as he walked away from Bree and towards Noah, arm extended for a fist bump.
Bree put her hands on her hips and made intentional, withering eye contact with Noah before grabbing her bag and walking off the court without another word. The other ladies scrambled to collect their stuff and follow to the parking lot, confused by her sudden resignation.
. . .
After calling in sick Friday in order to pendulum between wallowing and rage, Bree pulled herself together for her standing date with Gwen’s twins, Sophia and Valerie, at the neighborhood playground so that Gwen and her husband got to have some one-on-one time without the small humans. The girls needed very little entertaining – surrounded as they were by other energetic seven-year-olds – so Bree usually posted up at a bench on the park’s edge, serving as a basecamp of sorts while they played.
At one point while scanning the jungle gym for a flash of Sophia or Valerie, Bree’s eyes stuttered as they ran across a familiar mop of hair. She took a sharp breath in, seeing Noah lifting a small boy up towards the monkey bars. After watching for a moment, she realized the kid was one of the grinning faces in the picture Noah had shown her on their first date. She groaned to herself – why, of all places, did he have to be here? Today? And how dare he be so endearingly cute? Damnit.
Evidently sensing her burning glare, Noah turned to spot Bree sitting across the park. His smile faltered, and he lowered his nephew to the ground. He started to walk towards her, but Bree crossed her arms, the universal sign for “Don’t bother.” He slowed his stride and re-routed behind the slide.
About ten minutes later, Bree felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned to find two undeniably adorable kids standing next to her, one of whom was holding out a crumpled piece of paper that looked suspiciously like a repurposed receipt. The little girl said “Uncle Noah says he’s sorry.” Bree balked at his boldness, sending kids to do his dirty work. But, never one to shoot the messengers (especially adorable ones), she took the proffered paper and thanked them. The kids stood still, clearly waiting for her to open the note.
Unfolding what she could now distinctly see was a Dick’s Sporting Goods receipt, she found Noah’s handwritten missive on the back: I’m so sorry. Can I please make it up to you? Meet me at the pickleball courts tonight at 8. In a serious throwback to middle school, he’d put a Y and N at the bottom with the instruction to circle one. She wanted to stay mad, but was, against her better judgment, charmed by the whole playground operation. She fished a pen out of her tote, and circled the Y.
. . .
Unlike their first date, Bree did not fret over what to wear on this particular evening. After dropping Sophia and Valerie back at Gwen’s place, she’d gone about her normal Saturday routine which did not include several hours for fretting over dresses. She arrived at the club shortly before 8 PM, and waited in her car until a few minutes after the hour so as to appear appropriately nonchalant.
Walking to the courts, Bree noticed twinkle lights strung along the fences leading towards the center court. She could faintly hear instrumental jazz playing with the tinny quality of a cheap Bluetooth speaker. At the court’s gate there were candles on the sidewalk and a vase packed with daisies.
Swinging the gate open, Bree spotted a small two-top table with a white tablecloth set at the baseline. Noah was standing next to it, holding out a chair and gesturing for her to come sit. She couldn’t help it – she broke out into a grin. His closed-mouthed smile broken open into is full, toothy glory, his relief at her presence palpable even across the court.
She sat down, and Noah pushed the chair in behind her. On the table, there was a charcuterie plate, a couple cans of wine, and a centerpiece made of two pickleball paddles tied together with a ribbon and stood on end. Wedged between them was another spray of daisies. Noah, she noted, had not wasted this second chance.
“Thank you for coming out tonight, Bree,” he said sincerely, sitting down opposite her. “I’m so sorry about Thursday. I told the crew it was ok last week. It was before we’d really started getting to know each other. I honestly didn’t even put together that it was your slot I had bumped – in part because I have been so distracted at work lately. I can’t stop thinking about you. Even just after a few dates, you’ve totally infiltrated my heart. And, to make it up to you, I’ve updated the schedule. From now until the end of time – which, according to our office software, is December 31, 2029 – you and your girlfriends have the 7 PM timeslot on Thursdays. Do you think… you might be able to forgive me? And get back to this great thing we have going?”
Bree considered Noah’s spiel, his evident effort in making tonight special, and the sincere apology he’d offered without somehow blaming her for her own feelings. She reached across the table, and offered his hand. He took it, still holding her gaze.
“I accept your apology,” she said. “On one condition.”
Noah stiffened, but looked on expectantly. “And what’s that?”
“Play me a rematch. Best out of three.”
His smile broke into a laugh, and he reached across the table, taking her face in his warm, wide hands, and kissed her deeply. She leaned in and savored it. They pulled back and looked at each other with palpable warmth, then Bree plucked a paddle from the centerpiece and jumped to her feet. “C’mon, pal. I’ve gotta score to settle with you.”
. . .
Six months later
Bree waited eagerly in the club parking lot as Gwen unloaded Sophia and Valerie from the van. The girls bounded up to her, each taking a side to sandwich her in a hug. Gwen followed behind, carrying a cooler and a tote full of various sporting equipment. Bree took the bag from her friend, and led the girls to the courts.
Valerie squeaked open the gate and Sophia ran out, throwing an arm across the shoulder of her new friend, Amie. Amie’s brother, Michael, was already exchanging warm-up dinks with his uncle, Noah.
Grabbing a metal basket full of wiffle balls, Noah asked, “So, y’all ready for today’s lesson?” The kids cheered, and he motioned for them to head to the baseline on the opposite side of the net. Gwen and Bree watched from the court’s edge, leaning against the fence.
“So, y’all sign your lease?” Gwen prompted.
“Yeah, we move in next Saturday,” Bree answered, smiling. “I can’t wait.”
“I’m so happy for you, B. He’s really great,” Gween said, squeezing her friend’s shoulder.
“Yeah, he is. And we’re pretty great together, too.” She reciprocated Gwen’s affection with a quick hand squeeze before jogging out onto the court and joining Noah, ready to coach the next generation of picklers.