Rhythm by Isaac Yuen

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tennis ball close-up on court

I discovered truth one day during my seventh shot with a tennis ball machine, as imparted by a one-handed topspin backhand. At the time no thought was given, only commitment to a kinetic chain set into motion even as it was being imagined; the rooting of the foot; a twisting of the hip, all timed exact to a backswing completing an aerial figure eight. I knew, even before the impact cushioned against strings, before the racquet finished high and light above the head. It didn’t matter where the ball landed, even as it clipped the crosscourt baseline and spat up kicking. That reality was secondary to the fact that I was flying, my chest open and exposed to the side fence, my arms pulled back like wings while shoulder blades pinched hard across the back. There it was.

My community centre instructor recommended that beginners like me develop a two-handed backhand instead. It is a stronger and more reliable shot most tennis professionals nowadays favor. But look at that shot, goddamnit. Just look. Tell me the stroke I grew up watching the likes of Henin and Federer use to paint winners down the chalk of the line deserves to go the way of the dodo. No. I am not in this for safety. What I am after is something I don’t deserve and can’t keep. I seek that flash of clarity in a sea of risk. With it, joy.

For the next two hours I couldn’t hit a backhand to save my life.


One afternoon I made five jumpers in a row from all over the basketball court, even a corner three from the pocket where I usually jacked up airballs. I usually shy away from pick-up games, my palms being too small to dribble well, and under pressure from defenders my offensive drive seizes up and grinds down. But alone, the hoop at the park and I shared a certain understanding, and often we held evening congress in which jump shots reaffirmed the world through the co-creation of perfected parabolas, ball and arm and mesh. No lucky bounces or friendly banks when the hand is hot and the form is on, this existence too distilled for chance or fate. But such transcendence only lasts so long, five shots in a row thus far; when next it comes I will try to hold on, so that after it fades I can recall it once more, another day.


Virginia Woolf believed that style in writing all comes down to rhythm, that once you find it, there are no wrong words. So here I have sat at my living room table staring at old water rings, sifting through memories for more, coming up with nothing but shanks and bricks that veer wide or fall short. But once in a while, like this instant now becoming past, Woolf’s wave in the mind breaches the wall, and everything flows out easy and sure; in sculpted phrases that says in words what cannot be said in words; in sentences of assorted lengths, some certain like slam dunks, others overlong like hail Marys that demand the mustering of mind and leg strength. Yet, still, I am on the lookout for the bolt that strikes deeper than thought, shorn of all but a grace that renders powerless all manners of prediction, landing in the sweet spot of revelation that leaves me in awe, keeps me writing.


Sometimes I head down to the pool late, guided only by the humps of small stones on bare soles. Some nights I slip in, smooth as silk, to dwell in space free from light or earthly distractions. One evening, I fell in at dusk, stumble-drunk, hoping the shock would help me work through a summer haze of mojitos and garlic fries. Sticking to the guideline on the pool floor, six tiles wide and smooth against toes, I pushed off into sweet surrender, into water that filled in wounds, doubt, interstices. For one length, the twenty-second out of the thirty-four I would eventually complete, I was a seal, dark and torpid, and my arms were fins with which I used to shape the world. For one length, just one, I shed all meaning, instead was meaning, until nothing was left but presence, before strength failed and form broke, and I was human once again.


issac-yuenIsaac Yuen’s fiction and nonfiction can be found in current and forthcoming issues of Flyway, Zoomorphic, and Orion. He is the creator of Ekostories, a long-form blog that connects narrative to ideas around nature, culture, and identity. It won the 2013 juried Canadian Weblog Awards for writing and literature and was selected as an Editor’s Pick by Discover WordPress in 2016. Isaac lives in Vancouver, in the unceded territory of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations.


STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/john-catbagan

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