Have Set, Will Travel

I don’t remember learning to play badminton, but I do remember liking it pretty early on. Aside from swimming, I wasn’t particularly athletically gifted. I did pretty well at first base for softball, but I wasn’t a strong hitter or a fast runner, and despite my height, basketball wasn’t something for which I had a great talent. I got a C on that unit in gym, barely passed gymnastics, hated volleyball for reasons both physical and emotional.

But badminton–badminton I got.

My friend Lindsay lived in a house with a triple lot: the front one was reserved for the house, the back plot was mostly covered with woods, and the middle section contained a garden and large yard on which her parents had set up a badminton court.

I loved to play.


Maybe it was because that meant it was summer and the weather was nice, or maybe it was time with a good friend doing something semi-competitive that I had a shot at beating her at, since she has always been the superior athlete in our shared sport of swimming. Or maybe it was just fun: the volleying, the graceful arc of the birdie, the satisfying ping of a solid hit or fast-sinking shot (which we called lemon drops), the bewilderment of missing a sure return. It still amazes me when a birdie seems to go right through the racquet.

I could have played for hours.

When I went to college, I knew I wasn’t going to swim competitively, so I looked for other athletic opportunities. When I found out they had intramural badminton, I convinced a new friend to join me. When it turned out the doubles teams had to be co-ed, I asked about the possibility of having a women’s doubles team.

“It’s just that I asked my friend to join and she agreed, having never played, on the condition that we be partners,” I told Mo, the woman in charge of athletics.

“I tell you what,” Mo said, leaning over the registration table. “If you can get four teams together, you can form a new league.”

I went around to the women in my residence hall knocking on doors, testing my extravertedness and the friendships I’d only recently formed, thankful for all the time I’d spent getting to know people, in large part due to the fact that I had an older, absentee roommate who’d transferred to UW-La Crosse that year, her third school in as many semesters. I didn’t even meet my roommate until the third day of college, long after everyone else in the hall had become besties (or frenemies) with theirs. I peddled the badminton league as a fun activity they could do with new friends that didn’t require much previous experience, coming just short of begging near the end.

I got five teams.

When I returned the next week, having gathered my posse for a seemingly frivolous cause (hardly a civil rights issue), the registration people asked me for our team name so they could enter it into the system. I turned to my friend, also a Lindsay, and we shared a shrug.

“We Don’t Know Yet” didn’t win a single match, possibly not even one game that semester, only faring a little better with one ‘W’ as the next semester’s incarnation, “We Still Don’t Know.” I can’t blame it on the fact that Lindsay had never played; even though I spent many summer afternoons in the other Lindsay’s backyard swatting shots, I never learned spectacular technique or form, and hand-eye coordination was hit or miss for me. Pun intended.

But it didn’t matter.

That women’s doubles league inspired a men’s double’s league to form as well (Title IX goes both ways), both of which lasted through my graduation and, last I checked, were still viable, thanks in no small part to Mo and me, I’m sure. I’m weirdly proud of that.

My junior year, I paired up with a guy in my residence hall, the roommate of a fellow RA, thinking it might be nice to branch out but not feeling confident enough to go it alone. Lindsay, my “We Know Now (But We’re Not Telling)” partner, had moved off-campus that year, and we hadn’t played the previous semester.

As with most student activities, intramurals at UW-L were ridiculously cheap: $10 got you a whole season of play. But if you forfeited at the last minute, say, you picked an unreliable partner and couldn’t get a sub in time, you had to pay $5 to buy your way back in. You could only buy your way back in once.

I got a sub once or twice and had to forfeit a game, buying my way back in when the guy promised he’d play, only later to say he was busy when I knocked on his door–dressed in my athletic shorts–to get him for the game.

I should have known he’d disappoint.

I didn’t play badminton at all when I lived in New York, although there were plenty of green spaces in which to set up a court. I lived not far from Prospect Park for most of my time in the city, and I spent countless summer weekends lounging in the Long Meadow, watching kids fly kites and men play pick-up soccer games, people with their picnics and family gatherings. I loved that I could walk fifteen minutes from my apartment and forget, for a bit, that I lived in the largest city in the United States.

I used to walk around the neighborhood, especially during twilight, and peek into other people’s apartments, window-shopping on their lives. When I thought about the future, the possibility of kids, I wanted a lawn where they could play, possibly put up a net. I thought I was homesick.

Maybe I just missed badminton.

When I moved back to the Midwest, not home but to a city nearby, I naively believed the transition would be easy. I wasn’t fleeing because I couldn’t hack it; I loved New York. Mostly. But, even when I didn’t like things about it, I still, deep down, liked my life overall. I had made it there; by rights I could make it anywhere.

I was so very wrong.

That first year was hard. When I moved out of my first apartment in St. Paul and into a duplex with a friend, things got a little better. We had a nice, fenced-in yard and downstairs neighbors we grew to love; it felt like college again. As soon as the weather warmed up a bit, I bought a badminton set, dreaming of the tournaments we’d have, the long games in cool grass. Feeling thirteen again.

We never played. Not once.

Shortly after I bought the set, my roommate told me she wanted to move out. It was nothing personal, she’d been living by herself before we moved in together, and I know, at times, it can be difficult to share space, no matter how good your roommate is. Now that I’ve lived by myself I’d have a hard time living with someone again.

I found an apartment not far from the duplex, where our old neighbors remained another year. The building was fine, the rent was fairly cheap, and the apartment was the perfect size for one person. It was close to a large park and flanked by other apartment buildings, with enough space in between to set up a court. Besides, the set I bought was meant to travel.

It sat in my linen closet for almost three years, unused.

I brought it to a summer writing workshop shortly after I bought it, eliciting a comment from one of the friends I was traveling with: “Yes, that’s necessary,” she said when I moved it to make room for her bag. My trunk was mostly inaccessible after a bad rear-ending, and for a second I thought about explaining that this was a rare opportunity to be around a group of people, that they had a volleyball net people played on the year before so I thought badminton would be fun, that I was looking for every opportunity to play. Since I was giving her and another friend a ride down, I didn’t go into all that and instead apologized about my lack of space.

I didn’t end up asking anyone to play when we got there, either.

The set made a trip to my parents’ house with me one weekend that same summer, but it rained one of the days and was scorching hot the next; we could only manage a few rounds of ladder golf and washers, and then only in the shade.

It went back to the bottom of my linen closet.

I started dating someone pretty seriously almost a year after I moved into that one-bedroom apartment, someone I met on the vaguely athletically-suggestive dating site “Match.” I proposed we play badminton once, when we were on the way to his friend’s cabin, but it was just a casual reference, and since I was a (girl)friend of the friend of the friend whose in-laws owned the cabin, I didn’t think I should push it. I had learned, after that other trip, even a travel set takes up too much room. Besides, they had bean bags and ping pong and plenty of other things to do at the cabin. It was our first trip together that didn’t involve meeting someone’s parents, and I was just happy to have gotten that far with someone.

After he broke up with me, I didn’t do much of anything, least of all badminton. It’s hard to volley with yourself, and long walks around my neighborhood were about all I could manage, physically. Some days not even that. I had moved back for green lawns and space and people who were like me, who would possibly like me, and all I could think was I was still just window-shopping. I didn’t have a yard, let alone a doubles partner.

“Have set, will travel,” could have been my tagline.

A year and a half after the break up, I had actually reached a place in my life when I was okay with being single. Content even, happy. I had a book to focus on and a new job to learn. I just needed to power through, write to the finish, and then I could figure out my next move.

So when a guy I hadn’t paid much attention to started lobbying very hard for me to like him, I initially resisted. I had not reservations exactly but hesitations, or at least things I less-than-liked. He was significantly older and recently divorced. I wasn’t initially attracted to him, necessarily, but I went out with him out of curiosity more than anything, and because, as everyone will tell you when you’re single, “You just never know.” I’m really sick of hearing that.

I’ve been told I’m too picky; when I say I don’t want to date a divorcee, I’m told I can’t be so selective. When I go out with everyone, someone’s feelings end up getting hurt. If I let people set me up with someone, they’re often surprised or disappointed when I’m not as jazzed about the other person as they are, forgetting the importance of chemistry and shared interests and attraction. But I don’t want to turn anyone down because you just never know. It seems dating is another thing I just can’t win.

And some choices you just have to make yourself.

It’s hard to resist someone who’s interested, who’s interesting, especially after a long winter (romantic and literal). I had loved the guy who broke up with me; then, when I finally was ready to date again, I put my feelings out there for a different guy, who didn’t reciprocate. A kind rejection is still a rejection; you’d think as a writer I’d be used to “thanks, but no thanks,” but sometimes they compound. So when this new guy showed interest, cared about my writing and consequently me, I did go out with him. Despite my concerns. I challenge anyone who says they’d be immune under the same circumstances.

When he showed me pictures of his house, which was for sale, I gaped at the size and the price. It had an exercise room and a sauna, four bedrooms, a library, more square feet than I’d lived in total in my previous three apartments. But what I marveled at the most was the giant lawn, freshly-mown in neat lines and surrounded by a fence of trees.

“That would be a great lawn for badminton,” I said. I told him about my set, how I’d bought it three years earlier, how I’d never gotten around to playing. “Something always got in the way,” I said. I didn’t tell him that I never pushed hard when I asked people and they declined. After all, it was just a silly game with something called a shuttlecock. How could I expect anyone to take it seriously?

“We’ll have to play sometime,” he said. “Actually, I know of a better lawn.”

He took me to his parents’ house while they were out of town, showing me their historical landmark three-story built by a cigar baron in the 1800s. We toured the billiard room and the conservatory–I felt like I was on the set of Clue. He even took me up the elevator and into the tower. In reality, the lawn was probably less ideal than his, with a fairly steep slope and less privacy, along with the inability to put in stakes since it wasn’t his grass we’d be marring with holes. We haphazardly strung the net over two Adirondack chairs (not regulation height) and batted the birdie around, not keeping score, until the accumulating gnats and mosquitoes forced us off the court.

I don’t think I told him how much that meant to me, to finally play again, to have someone finally say yes when I suggested a game, when I said I’d been wanting to play for a while. But that was one of the main things that won me over, even if it was just a guise, an effort on his part to impress me with his parents’ mansion. I’m a sucker for small gestures, and he was full of them, even if, eventually, he flew away.

I don’t blame him, not really. I’m not sure I would have done anything different; I can’t explain if you’ve never been lonely–alone–for a very long time what it’s like to suddenly realize there are other ways to feel. That someone could like you again. Sometimes you don’t realize how lonesome you are until you stop feeling that way.

I don’t know why I’m writing this.

I just went for a walk and found myself window-shopping again, coveting the lives and lawns of other people, imagining a place of my own, where I could put in stakes without being in someone’s way or getting fined by the landlord, where I could pull out the racquets and play with a partner anytime I want. Where I wouldn’t have to buy my way back in if that partner proved unreliable.

I’m contemplating going on Match again, still need to finish that book, still feel ambivalent about where I live. I never wanted to be one of those people who makes someone try really hard to be with them, but I’ll admit I’m a little gun-shy after past experiences, unimpressed with someone who’s unwilling to make an effort, wary of someone who does. It may hinge on how he responds when I suggest a game of badminton; it’s summer, and I’m finding myself itching to play.


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5 responses to “Have Set, Will Travel”

  1. Marjorie says :

    Thanks for this post, Sarah. I relate to that feeling that some things are not-for-you if you’re a single person. I’m good at bypassing this feeling with some things (I go to movies by myself all the time and barely think about it) and really anxious about others (there are some kinds of places I feel comfortable eating out by myself and some where I don’t, and if I’m hungry and away from home it’s a weird feeling trying to convince myself to go eat somewhere I normally wouldn’t). I don’t really want to refuse myself permission to participate in any part of life, but some things, like badminton, just aren’t designed for one person.

    • Sarah in Small Doses says :

      I agree. I have no issues (sometimes even relish) going to movies by myself, partly because I get anxious when my movie companions talk. And I used to dine alone in NYC all the time, but there aren’t a lot of places here where I’d feel comfortable. Some things just aren’t for one person. So let me know if you ever want to grab dinner! And thanks for the comment.

  2. Michael Turner says :

    I remember playing badminton in the back yard at home – a lot of fun. I didn’t realize how it was spelled. I feel you on the relationship stuff and awkward single issues too.

    • Sarah in Small Doses says :

      Yeah, it is spelled weird. I don’t remember playing much at home, but I know we had racquets. And it’s nice to know I’m not alone on awkward single issues, although I wish for smoother sailing for both of us moving forward.

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