Red Clay SummerRed Clay Summer


In 1998, Matthieu was twenty-eight and teaching tennis at the Monsanto Country Club in Phoenix, Arizona. A year earlier he had been doing engineering work in the Utah salt flats, a quick but well-paying job for the state’s Non-Profit Housing Corporation. A friend suggested they do a quick tour of Arizona before heading back to Marseille and he gladly tagged along. The others left after a week, as scheduled. Matthieu postponed. Then he made friends at Lake Havasu and postponed further. He had nothing pulling him home, not by his standards of “urgent”. He wanted to squeeze the orange dry before leaving, but he’d find out on a weekly basis that the thing remained juicy.The Monsanto was tennis-centered and lacked a golf course. Clients were people who didn’t go as far as to require the opulence of the Pine Canyon, but were upper-middle-class nonetheless. He heard about the coaching job through the grapevine. He never imagined that his ranking in the French Tennis Federation would ever come in handier in finding a job than his engineering degree, but he wanted something that he could drop quickly. As such, it fit like a ring on a finger. He got paid by the hour, but handsomely: two hours in the mornings and afternoons three days a week, a full day on Saturdays, and any one-on-ones that he could fit in between. Lots of sweat and baked-red necks, and traces of red clay dirt on everything he owned. But the staff was young and fun, and they would throw clandestine pool mini-parties every other Sunday night after it closed down for members. It got rather glorious when it wanted to.The flings came steadily Matthieu’s way. He knew that his being a six-foot green-eyed Frenchman was a big part of it. Beefy within the ranges of fit. Stocked eyebrows the shape of elongated bricks and close-cropped brown hair that would be curly if he let it grow out. He could get laughs, too. He found himself to be a competent teacher, patient with kids, and effective even with big groups. In short, he enjoyed it. And the college-aged women that paid for personal lessons enjoyed him in return. The hook-ups with trainees started piling up, often followed by drop-outs. Who would want an awkward lesson with the guy they had driven to the nearest motel with? Eventually, Mr. Espinosa approached him to inquire why certain trainees had left weeks’ worth of pre-paid lessons unused. The thought of his father ever finding out that he couldn’t keep a tennis-coaching job hurt like a whip. So he cooled it.He took higher-level English lessons. He bought a bike just in time for summer. Every passing day, his plans to return home drifted further away like an abandoned floatable in the club’s pool.Bianca was introduced to Matthieu on the first day of Summer Tennis Camp, not so much to the person or even the face, as he initially remained a token character in the background, but as the reason Julian and Leslie were bubbly on the drive home, a big contrast to the grumbling they’d given her in the morning. Tennis camp had been her idea, a patch-up replacement for the swimming lessons they’d had to abort due to Julian’s eardrum infection. On the second day, she became friends with a young mom, who watched over her six-year-old’s practice with hawk-like attention even as she talked to Bianca about schools, sunblock brands, and the weather. The woman was surprised to learn that Bianca wasn’t the kids’ mom, but their aunt. It was a common mistake, as Bianca had become not their full-time caretaker, but close enough. She assured Bianca that she’d keep an eye on the twins, so why not stretch her legs a little? Bianca did. She found the walkways around the club’s grounds powerfully soothing and loved the young mom for it. The place’s pine trees provided a cool shade that past year’s anxieties seemed unable to penetrate. On subsequent strolls, she would start humming without realizing it.Tennis Camp wasn’t just tennis, staying true to what had been advertised. The children had swimming time on Wednesdays and Fridays, meals, a group game time in the common room and – the twins were only five, so they would be skipping that one – an overnight camping trip. The French coach was funny. He fooled around often and made the kids laugh. With the little mistakes peppered into his English, he made the moms laugh too. On Wednesday, he lined up the kids in front of the parents in the stands and simulated a military drill. He asked them questions about sun safety and gently pulled their hats down over their eyes if they didn’t know the answer. Bianca felt her young mom-friend clenching up on her left, but she chuckled.”At the end of camp, every kid will have to play a match against their mom,” the coach said. “I’d start my yoga now if I were you.” From that point on, he was easy to love.The next day, Bianca shoved her wavy black hair into a swim cap and finally tried out the pool. In her black one-piece, she felt self-conscious over being the only solo swimmer, as the other occupants were either parents with kids or noisy teens playing ball. She found it less of an issue in the deeper end and made that her turf. She covered the length twice doing the breaststroke, then thought to hell with it and dived fully, soaking her hair. It would be frizzy all day after that, but the summer humidity had been pushing it there anyway. Between that and the walking, she began, with some guilt, to see tennis camp as a treat more for her own benefit than for the kids’.The first time Bianca talked to Matthieu was over Leslie’s attitude. He came to her discreetly during the first break to ask if Bianca knew what was up. Leslie didn’t want to run, didn’t want to play, and the one friend she’d made said she had given her the cold shoulder all day. Had she fought with her brother? Julian swore she hadn’t. Leslie kept it up for the rest of the day, but Matthieu was gentle and didn’t push. The next morning, Matthieu came up to Bianca during the same break with an answer.”I don’t think she’s mad at Julian, or you,” he theorized. “I think Julian’s made so many friends, and he’s loving every day, and he’s having many, uh, fun times. I think she feels a little… ignoré?””She’s jealous, you mean?””Yes!”Bianca found out he was right on the money. She asked Natasha – her younger sister and the twins’ mother – for permission, canceled Julian’s scheduled hangout with his next-door buddy, and took the two of them out for burgers and to the movies. The family time improved the chemistry between the twins, and her short talk with Leslie afterward sealed the deal.Matthieu had mentally pinpointed Bianca as, “the pretty lady with the Italian face,” placing her somewhere between her early forties and fifty. It was difficult to say with the sunglasses on, worn Ankara escort by all parents at all times.He knew he was making a good impression on the whole group. He had been ending every single class with little talks with the parents, less about tennis and more about their kids’ personal qualities. If he talked long enough, he managed to hit on exactly what either the parent or the kid was hoping to hear.He somehow found himself having dinner at little Steve’s hyper-posh apartment at the end of the second week. His dad, Mark, was a fellow Olympique de Marseille superfan, having lived for a number of years in Perpignan. He did have a better knowledge of the Saint-Germain’s current line-up, and Matthieu suspected his Olympique love had been a front to facilitate the invite. Mark was a VP for a multinational that imported lysine into Arizona. He and his wife were a hip young couple, brilliant conversationalists, religious but open-minded, and for whatever reason had found Matthieu impressive enough for an invite – which intimidated him. Once the subject of his being an engineer was broached, the conversation seemed to be headed somewhere fast. They asked when he was planning on returning home. He gave his same old line.”My ticket’s booked for August!”Before the evening was over, Manuel had offered to connect Matthieu to acquaintances in Paris. Folks who might hire him for something. Matthieu put on a show of gratitude and of having every intention of pursuing the opportunity but left their apartment deflated and with a good deal of self-hatred……………………………………….Rudy, Bianca’s boyfriend, paid for dinner. She held his hand on the way to the mall’s parking lot and said goodbye to his two grown daughters, who wished her a happy trip, as they wouldn’t be seeing her for the rest of the month. In the car, she and Rudy discussed travel arrangements. He wouldn’t be going on the Florida trip, but his problem-solving side, hyperactive to put it mildly, kicked in full gear regarding Bianca’s choices of hotel and car rental company. He was critical of both and recommended his favorites. She could have let it turn into another small tiff, or reminded him that booking things for people is what she used to do for a living. But she chose not to, lied, and said she’d think of changing it.She had met Rudy sometime around Christmas the previous year, a golfing buddy of her sister’s husband who showed interest early on. Natasha encouraged Bianca to go along with the flowers and the wine-tasting dates, and there was sweetness in her concern, as she felt her older sister had been single long enough. He was fifty-three, almost a full decade on Bianca’s forty-four, but had charm to spare and seemed to have read all the books on what’s expected of classy older gentlemen, possibly even written one himself. They saw very little of each other every month, as his company kept him flying back and forth between Phoenix and Salt Lake. Did she miss him? She did at times. The past couple of visits, however, had been dampened by the recent drama in her family. He could have supported her. Instead, he took their side and made himself into one more voice to fight against. She still resented him.Right after getting dropped off at home, she got in her own car and headed straight to the club. These weren’t Tennis Camp hours and she wasn’t a member, but the guard saw no problem and let her right on in. With a few hours to go until the 8 PM closing time and the sky the color of peach, she changed into her one-piece, took a shower, and dove into the mostly-vacant pool. Her sister had the kids that night, so a pleasantly empty apartment awaited Bianca after this. She loved the idea of finishing her book in bed over a mug of tea while her skin still smelled of chlorine. As usual, her anxieties seemed to dissolve into the water.”Hey!”She looked up. The kids’ tennis coach had a fresh-off-the-shower look. She guessed he had just finished using the pool himself.”You’re the twins’ mom, correct?””Yeah. Uh, Daniel?” she asked.”Matthieu!””Matthieu! French, right?””That’s right.””Where from?””Marseille,” he said, pronouncing it as an English speaker would.”Oooh,” she said.”Yeah. The Provence region. Do you know?””Is that close to Paris? Because that’s the one I know.””No,” he chuckled. “Not even a little.”By then, she had reached the edge of the pool. He sat down on a lounge chair. Without meaning to, they obligated one another to stay for a conversation.”Do you come to the pool often?” she asked him.”Oh, all the time. All the time. Half the pool’s chlorine… spent only on me.”She laughed. “I’ve been coming almost every day. While the kids have their class. I can’t tell you how much I’m loving it.””Yeah?””Yes, it’s extremely relaxing. I don’t have a lot of access to pools, so I’ve appropriated this one completely. It makes me wish I could float on a buoy with a book in hand all day.””Are Leslie and Julian here somewhere?” he asked.”They’re at home with their mom. It’s just me right now.””Their mom?””I’m not actually the kids’ mom,” she said on autopilot. “I’m their aunt.””What?” he asked, outraged, and his look made her laugh again. She explained, selectively, the family history, yet another recurring script, although one that usually took longer to pop up in conversation. When Bianca was twenty-one, her dad remarried and had Natasha. When Natasha’s mom died just five years later, Bianca became a competent substitute. Then Natasha got pregnant at eighteen, right out of high school. She was currently twenty-three, and one year into a job as a photographer, which kept her passions burning but her schedule busy. Bianca was divorced and childless, so how could her help not be available?She didn’t mention Natasha’s new husband. It would have ruined her mood.Bianca had a gentle voice, a little hoarse, a little nasal, thick with patience, and naturally low-pitched, much like an introvert’s. Her tone got sing-songy whenever she was her own topic for too long, a way of making it clear she didn’t take herself too seriously. Her laughter was discreet, but it dragged out when strong, with little silences in between. Matthieu noticed the exact same graceful design of Mediterranean eyes the twins had and was surprised yet again to know there was a whole descendant between them. He asked her about their last name, which was Italian, and got to hear all about Italian immigration from Italy into Arizona in the late 1880s.”I don’t speak any Italian, no,” she said. “It got lost in the generations. Maybe I should learn.””I bet you it’s easy.””Did you feel learning English was easy?””I’ll tell you when I learn it,” Matthieu replied. He got that laugh again……………………………………….In Ankara escort bayan Phoenix, Matthieu got used to the smell and feeling of wearing layers of sunblock from head to toe, with particular care paid to the “behind” spots – knees and ears. He eventually began using a moisturizer gifted to him by his matronly landlord, who liked him for always being on time with rent. He had spent Christmas by himself but did take up an invitation to a New Year’s Eve beach party at the Colorado Plateau to greet 1999. While the fireworks boomed overhead, he had pushed away scary questions of what the year had in store for him. On the previous one, he had done the same and good stuff had come. Maybe the key was expecting nothing.Meanwhile, his self-imposed August deadline loomed ever closer. Then, after the morning class one Friday, he got summoned to the staff office. They were happy with him and felt a contract was due. No more getting paid by the hour. The workload would increase, as he’d be in charge of inventory and administrative planning, but for him, that was not an issue. The recent conversation with his father, that was. A lot had been said and Matthieu had come close to agreeing that it was time for him to head back home. With just one phone call, August had been made to feel like a tangible reality. And with just a signature, it turned into smoke again. He would have to worry about it again in exactly twelve months.That afternoon, Bianca played with the kids in the club’s pool. For Leslie’s sake, who was still extra-possessive towards her brother, she made sure it was just the three of them. Natasha came through with her promise to join them for lunch and it was certainly nice to have her help with the kids at the table. Natasha was more snappy and hadn’t yet mastered the little tricks for how to get them to sit up straight or eat the veggies that came with the burgers. But when she committed to spending the afternoon with them, Bianca did a good job of hiding her joy. She waved them goodbye in the parking lot, then swam from 4 to 6 PM, to the point where the water felt heated and the air freezing. She read a People magazine with her arms folded over the pool deck, further accumulating sun freckles on her shoulders and back. She had a virgin daiquiri and ate the fruit.As she pulled her car out of the parking lot, hair still wet from the shower, she saw Matthieu lugging his heavy tennis bag. Her mind being cleared and light as it was, saying hi felt like the thing to do. He returned the greeting with a wide smile.”That looks heavy,” she said. “Do you carry that all the way to the bus stop?””Ehm,” he said, hoisting it with one arm as he pondered.”Where are you headed?” she asked.”Litchfield.””I’m headed to the market, that’s on the way for me. I can take you no problem.”Matthieu considered it for a beat, then threw his bag into the back and took the passenger’s seat. He made no mention of the fact that he actually never took the bus home and had just been steps away from his bike when she stopped to talk to him. He would have to leave it at the club overnight and come to work the next morning by bus.”Can I slide the seat backward?” he asked. “I look like I’m riding a Devalkart. Do you have Devalkarts here?”True to habit, Matthieu started the chatter early, feeling the best way to earn his spot in the car was to kill all lulls. He asked about Julian’s nosebleeds, of which he had seen two. Bianca told him he had always been the frailer one. He got them at school on occasion, although the first one to panic was always his sister.”You’re a nurse, correct?” Matthieu asked.”Nurse? No. Why?””I thought so because of your shoes. A nurse I knew had the exact same model.””Funny you should ask,” Bianca said. “I did get them when I was helping a nurse friend of mine do some shopping. That’s a good eye.” She turned right at Camelback Road and shifted to third gear. “I’m actually a manager at a supermarket.””What? No way.””Yeah.””I never would’ve guessed.””Because I look more like a nurse, you say.””Oh, you look like a manager too,” Matthieu said cheerfully. “I just had the sun in my eyes.””I worked as a secretary for years. Many, many years, for the assistant manager.””And you learned the job that way.””Exactly. Then he got promoted…””… and you got his job,” Matthieu finished. He was a good audience.”Correct,” she said with a wistful smile. “Then last year I got the manager job.””That’s amazing,” he said. “The American Dream. The Arizona Dream?” His next question was inevitable. “So you’re on vacation now?””No. I’m in the process of quitting the job.” Lying was never the first option for her, even when tempting. “We’re moving to Vegas, me and my sister’s family. By the time the school year starts. But before that, my sister’s husband is taking us to Orlando, so the kids can enjoy the parks and all that.””Oh,” he replied. Then, “Do you have the option to transfer to the same supermarket chain over in Vegas?””No,” she answered. “Even if I did, I’m going to be helping my sister more. With the kids. You see how it is for her… they keep her very busy at work. And she’s living her dream, she’s doing a lot of the things she’s always wanted to do, meeting all the right people. She needs the help.””So that’s the plan.””That’s the plan.”Matthieu caressed his sunburnt knees for a moment. The first real lull of the ride.”While you were secretary,” he finally asked, “did you ever feel you could do your bosses’ jobs better than them?””No comment,” she said after laughing. “But I’ll write my book about it one day.””I would read that.”………………………………………Bianca had asked Natasha for two days of alone time so she could get ahead on packing. She did most of it on Day One. Small as her apartment was, she had made it a point over the years to fill up the walls with family pictures and affordable art. It was sad now to see them bare. Day Two was being used to arrange the boxes in order of fragility, when her phone rang. It was Natasha. In choked tones, she told him that Julian had fainted during pool time at Tennis Camp. Bianca was at the clinic in under thirty minutes, pampering a perfectly OK Julian, who had simply suffered heatstroke. She did feel an MRI was due, as the kid had hit his head on the way down. Phillip, Natasha’s husband, arrived soon thereafter.The Radiology Room allowed only parents as company, so Bianca headed down to the cafeteria, ready for the long evening ahead. She’d be going home with them after this to spend the night. As she took the first sip of her espresso, someone made her look up. It was Matthieu, in his red clay-stained tennis shorts and wide Escort Ankara stubbled smile, having come straight from the club. He had seen her walk past the lobby and followed her into the cafeteria, eager to hear about Julian. Bianca offered him the seat to her left……………………………………….Bianca reminded Matthieu of a classic Greek or Roman painting, something out of a vase or a fresco. Eyebrows were drawn like an elegant brushstroke, thick and perfectly horizontal, before splitting downwards into wing-like spikes towards the sides; heart-shaped lips flanked by puffy cheeks and smile lines; wavy black hair down to the base of her neck. Her skin was the color of peanuts. There were curves under her swimsuit, uneven around the waist and hips, and a heavy bosom that she tried to hide by slouching on the short walk from the lounge chair to the pool.They were swimming together. On Thursdays, the pool crowds usually cleared out right after lunch. Two older women dipped their feet while they watched over a kid playing in the shallow end. A middle-aged gentleman splashed around, noisily focused on doing laps. Jackson the caretaker fished out leaves. The next day was pool day for the army of Tennis Camp kids, usually set to constant yelling by Matthieu and his fellow coaches to keep the younger ones on the safe side of the rope. The day prior was the calm before the storm.For several minutes, Bianca and Matthieu talked only casually about Phoenix, France, and the rules of soccer vs. American Football, all the while gravitating towards and away from each other in the water, like balls on a pool table. Whether they meant it that way or not, it worked as a palate cleanser. On the day of Julian’s incident, the talk in the hospital cafeteria had stretched out for over an hour. As a way of repaying Matthieu his interest in her supermarket career, she displayed genuine interest in his, not knowing that his mess had been private for a long while by that point and that unwrapping it for others to watch was deeply counterintuitive. Bianca poked and prodded skillfully. When he talked about choosing Water Resource Engineering as his career, she asked why. When he told her about the “dream job” that he’d had for years, she asked to hear about it.In truth, Matthieu had been fired. He had worked for four years at a company in charge of channel improvement at Marseille’s Huveaune River. It was an outdoor roughneck job that seemed to be teaching him everything vital about sliding into adulthood. In return, he had given it his all, aiming for a management job early on. Through a friend of a friend, he met Lea. Within months they were living together, all very grown up. Only months later, however, he got the boot, courtesy of the project’s new leadership. There was never a sit-down, just a letter, and he was left to speculate as to the reason for dismissal. It might have been a lack of kissing up. Or they might have gotten wind of the fact that he had interviewed elsewhere. Or simply, and flatly, performance. He had never asked; therefore, he would never know. He hadn’t imagined just how much worse that would make it during the years after. In his attempt at Life, he had made the leap, missed, and fallen hard. The paralysis had yet to lift.Bianca seemed to put two and two together regarding the Lea heartbreak. In turn, when it was his turn to be nosy, Matthieu didn’t ask about Bianca’s ex. He still got more than he expected. Bianca told him she was a recovering alcoholic, sober for eight years since her last and only relapse. It was the kind of information that seemed to lift a veil off a person, adjusting their colors and details in an eyeblink. Without offering every detail herself, it became evident to Matthieu just how much of her life had needed to be rebuilt from scratch. Initially, Matthieu had felt unworthy of her story. But Bianca, in all her modesty and softness and low-key approach to everything she said and did, was fiercely proud of it all.Then she touched on her imminent departure from Flagstaff and her voice raised an octave. She didn’t want to go, no. She had just gotten the job of a lifetime a year prior, how could she? She was going because Natasha had asked her to. Begged her to. That came in large part, Bianca knew, from Natasha’s husband, who had somehow convinced Natasha that her sister would suffer another relapse if left alone. It had triggered a bitter argument, made all the more suffocating by seeing Rudy add his voice to their case. Maybe her brother-in-law didn’t want to bother finding a full-time nanny. Maybe he just wanted his wife happy and working unencumbered. Maybe his fears were genuine, even if idiotic. In any case, he and Natasha were getting what they wanted. Bianca had quit her job and was headed up to Vegas with them.In the water, however, none of it seemed to matter much.”I hate six o’clock, it’s when the cold starts,” Bianca said, holding onto the edge of the pool to rearrange her swimming cap. The sun had mostly disappeared on the horizon, even if there was still daylight for another hour. “It makes me a little sad. Makes me think I should have come earlier.””There’s always tomorrow,” said Matthieu, doing a backstroke. “Although I don’t recommend it. Not after forty little kids have used it.””Oh, let them. They look forward to pool-time all week.””Good thing you don’t mind sharing.””I don’t,” she laughed.The red in Matthieu’s chlorine-affected eyes somehow made the green in them shine brighter. He had a pleasant suntanned face, stuck in a semi-permanent superhero smile of big white teeth and a sharp chin covered in stubble. It hid so much so well, Bianca thought. He had stopped by the pool for a quick hello during her swim and she had suggested that he jump in, not really expecting him to want to. There was too much self-consciousness attached to having a pool companion and she initially counted this one as a “lost” afternoon in the relaxation department. But as she heard him share enthusiastically about X, Y, and Z and she became endeared to him all over again, she was reminded that there was a lot she had left unasked during their talk at the clinic. A lot she felt she could recommend. She wasn’t going to bring it up at the pool, but what she had noticed about Matthieu was that he had a lot to share and that he needed to. He was only waiting to be asked.Matthieu leaped out of the pool and sat on the edge, creating a big puddle.”Is it cold out there?” Bianca asked.”Hmm, I’ll wait three seconds and see.” He thrust a hairy chest outwards. “One, two, three. Oof. Very.””I really don’t want to get out,” she said dramatically, dipping herself back in up to her ears.”I don’t either,” said Matthieu. “But I’m doing it in stages. I’ve wanted to go to the bathroom for an hour now. I’ve been holding it in just to stay warm.”She laughed hard as she spun around slowly, creating delicious watery murmurs with her elbows. Matthieu leaned back on his arms, his bent knee protruding outwards. They stayed silent for a moment.

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