“Hey, handsome,” says a sweetly familiar voice from the right of me as I enter the gate at the airport.
I turn to look, and again a riptide sweeps me away, drowning me in love. No matter how many times you may have seen one, no matter how many times you might have held and even kissed one, encountering an angel on earth can only leave you gasping for air and struggling to form coherent thoughts.
I’ve been through this drill enough times to compose myself quickly. I flick my eyebrows upwards, flash what I hope is a suave smile, and say, “Hey, gorgeous.”
Lesley, as always, does look damn gorgeous. In fact, the word dramatically fails to capture just how comely she appears at the moment. When I first met Lesley, she had long, lustrous flowing hair that framed her face beautifully and cascaded softly upon her shoulders and bosom. In her second year in Phoenix, she cut it short, rare among young women who, it seems to me, tend to view long hair as a hallmark of femininity and the ultimate sensual accessory. This time she has cut it even shorter, yet she looks more feminine and stunning than ever.
She gives me a hug and a quick kiss on the lips. As always, her breath is as fresh as strawberries in the summertime. I want to reach out for seconds but refreshed doubts as to what we are to each other after a year apart hold me back. Like any hero’s journey, this one will take time, wits, and courage. I have a week in Sacramento, which should be sufficient time. Now I just need to find the wits and courage to pull it off.
“You looked buffed,” she says.
“Buffed? Like a car that’s just been waxed?”
“No, it’s a Cali term. Buffed. You know, you look muscular,” she says as she squeezes my arm. Good thing I wore my Wham! sleeveless t-shirt to best show off my guns.
“Thanks” I say as I instinctively do what any red-blooded American man does when someone, especially a hot girl, grabs our bicep: I flex hard, to the point that I almost pass out. An American man could be ninety-seven years old, on his death bed, but if the nurse grabs his arm to insert an IV, you can be sure he’ll flex his bicep hard to the point where he will pass out… or even die. Better that than to let a pretty girl feel a flabby bicep.
“I’ve been working out here and there,” I add nonchalantly. In reality, I have been working out like I’m in training for the Mr. Universe contest in anticipation of this trip. Every man knows that, when you are back to chasing the girl of your dreams, every inch counts, whether it be in the size of your biceps, pecs, quads, or one other particularly vital part.
We walk through the parking lot to Lesley’s mini-pickup truck, a red Chevy Luv. I abruptly realize that I’ve never seen her drive before.
“So, you’re driving these days?”
“Uh, duh, you think I took the bus to come pick you up?”
“I’m gonna be okay riding your car?”
“Yeah, sure. So long as you don’t overly value your life, you’ll be just fine,” Lesley says with a reassuring giggle. “Come on, just think of it as a thrill ride, Sacramento’s answer to Disneyland.”
My mind jumps back to an even more exhilarating ride she gave me just over a year ago. I’d love to get back in line for that one-of-a-kind attraction. Again, wits and courage. All I need are wits and courage. And perhaps a good seat belt at the moment.
Lesley drives us out of the airport, and we head home. It’s not exactly as smooth a ride as It’s a Small World, but it ain’t the Matterhorn Bobsleds either.
“So, speaking of attractions,” Lesley says, “I’ve got this incredible itinerary planned for you.”
“Really? Awesome. Like what?”
“All the top sites of Sacramento.”
“Okay, sure…but like which ones?”
Silence. We are entering the highway, so I assume Lesley is focusing on a smooth merge into the ongoing traffic. Now the ride starts to get a bit more interesting as the truck bobs and weaves a bit like a punch-drunk Rocky trying to navigate the last few rounds of his second match with Apollo Creed. The ride is not yet as white-knuckle as Space Mountain, but I find myself gripping the passenger side armrest a bit more tightly than usual. Thankfully, an opening presents itself, and Lesley slides us in about as smoothly as a butter knife slicing through a baseball bat.
“So, as you were saying,” I utter to take my mind off the more thrilling elements of this journey, “which top attractions?”
“All the best ones,” comes her cryptic reply again.
“Like what???” She has really piqued my interest. I never thought Sacramento had much to see other than—
“The Capitol, for one.”
“Awesome, I’ve always wanted to check it out. I wanna see if it’s bigger than the one in Phoenix or Saint Paul. Nice. What else?”
“That’s it,” says Lesley as she bursts into laughter. “Well, there’s also me…along with my family.”
“You’re right. That is quite the itinerary. Filled with top attractions,” I say. And I mean it. Lesley is the only attraction I need. Whether it be plumbing the depths along the Sea of Galilee to scaling the oxygen-depleted zenith of Everest, I would go anywhere to be by her side.
Before too long, we arrive at Lesley’s family home. It is tucked away in a pleasant, leafy neighborhood with houses that look remarkably similar to the ones we have in Phoenix. However, instead of desert landscaping featuring Chihuahuan Sage, Red Yucca, Parry Agave, and other succulents, the yards have grassy, yellow-green lawns filled with what Lesley describes as Hummingbird Sage, Margarita Bop, and California Lilac. They are lovely flowers and could easily pass as fancy cocktail names on an upscale hotel drink menu.
We walk into the house, which like the one in Phoenix, is a bit dimly lit and has the living room to the immediate right of the entrance. I see Mr. Gomes sitting on the same La-Z-Boy fixed at the same angle of recline facing the same TV that is likely on the same program, which would either be a re-run of Starsky and Hutch in the afternoon or a new episode of MacGyver in the evening. It is the late afternoon, so indeed, it’s Starsky and Hutch trying to nail some baddies in their red-and-white Ford Gran Torino.
“Hi, Mr. Gomes, nice to see you after all this time. You haven’t changed a bit,” I say, as much in regards to his appearance as to the uncanny sameness of this living room and the one they had in Phoenix. It’s as if Scotty beamed up their entire living room in Phoenix and then beamed it straight back down to Sacramento while Mr. Gomes watched TV on his La-Z-Boy without missing an episode through it all.
Mr. Gomes rises to greet me, giving me a very firm handshake that continues to fuel my suspicions that he is, in fact, Delta Force. I attempt to return his handshake with the same intensity.
“Hey, Richard, welcome to Sacramento,” Mr.Gomes says. Then, either out of kindness or because all my working out is paying off, he adds, “Nice firm grip, you got there.”
“Hello, there, Richard.” It’s Mrs. Gomes greeting me kindly with her eyes and smile as usual. She looks a bit more tired than before. Perhaps the move has been tougher on her than Mr. Gomes. But she still radiates a warmth that I appreciate as she hugs me. “I’m glad you’re here. And thanks for wearing a shirt this time around.”
“Yeah, don’t worry. I didn’t run away from home this time,” I say. I laugh at what has become an inside joke for us all. “I really appreciate your guys’ invitation and look forward to spending the week with you all.”
“You’re always welcome here,” Mrs. Gomes says. “You’re family to Lesley and us.”
Involuntarily, my mind fills with images of Lesley gorgeously ensconced in a striking sheath wedding dress featuring a delicate sheer overlay and elegant statement sleeves. It’s a dress by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel as I recently read about him in a Vogue magazine while standing in line at the grocery check out. Meanwhile, I appear smashing in a Broni bespoke white dinner jacket and black pants. You know, the look that waiters at expensive restaurants try to pull off, but only James Bond truly rocks. Of course, I rock mine as well because this is my daydream. Mr. Gomes looks distinguished in his midnight blue Pierre Cardin tux, as does Mrs. Gomes in her Rose of Sharon blue chiffon dress. Meanwhile, Mom and Dad stand on the other side appear splendid wearing—
“Uh, Rich, you wanna follow Lesley to her room?” asks Mr. Gomes. “You ok? You look a bit dazed.”
“Oh, yeah, sorry. I’m just a bit jetlagged,” I say.
Mr. Gomes laughs. “Jetlagged? There is no time difference between Arizona and California in the summer.”
“You’re right, Mr. Gomes. There’s no daylight savings in Arizona,” I say. Then I refer to the main character of his other favorite TV cop show. “Arizona needs daylight savings about as much as Kojak needs a haircut.”
“Hey, easy tiger. You making fun of my cueball top?” Mr. Gomes laughingly asks as he rubs the top of his head. Mrs. Gomes chortles heartily as well. What a wonderful family to belong to, I think to myself.
Lesley and I sit in a booth in Mamma Susanna’s Ristorante Italiano. We eat some pizza and spaghetti while waiting for her sister, Esther, to join us for the movie after dinner. The home-style Italian food reminds me of the flavors I enjoyed while working at Papa Joe’s. Unexpectedly, I feel the jab of missing Alessia and her advice on love. In her honor, I remind myself to be a strong man in my dealings with Lesley.
“Hey, so tell me about your love life,” Lesley asks.
“What love life?” I respond without thinking. That doesn’t sound like Strong Man. More like Lonely Man.
“You know, all the chicks who must be digging you these days.”
I have to strike a balance here. I can’t seem too loser-ish in sharing that I’ve been on an abysmally low number of dates since I last saw her. But I can’t give the impression that I’ve been indiscriminately dating either.
“Well, there was this one pretty Xavier girl, Rosa…” I say.
“We went on this date. My mom had to drive as I didn’t have my learner’s permit yet.”
Lesley chuckles and says, “I’ve never been on this kind of date. Sounds interesting.”
“That’s because all your boyfriends and dates have been older,” I say as I suddenly think back to when I used to accompany Lesley and Troy on all of their dates. “Anyways, we go to pick her up at her house. I instruct Mom that she can greet the girl when she first gets into the car, but afterwards, to please give us some privacy and just look forward to drive.”
“And?” Lesley asks, leaning forward in her booth.
“So, the girl comes out of her house and, like a gentleman, I open the car door for her. She bounds in, and I close the door.”
“That’s nice. And then?”
“Well, as I’m walking behind the car to get in on the other side, my mom starts driving away!”
Lesley begins to crack up.
“It takes a full minute or so before the girl, Rosa, works up the nerve to tell my mom that they’ve left me behind!”
“Wow, that’s quite an exciting start to the date,” Lesley says with tears of laughter in her eyes. “How did it go from there?”
“We go see this John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John movie—”
“Nah, I wish. It was Two of a Kind.”
“Exactly. It was cute and romantic, but a bit of a dud compared to Grease,” I say. “But, I figured the title might apply to us.”
“Nah, not really. Turns out, we were two of two kinds. Rosa was nice and sweet, but so damn quiet. On the way home, I ended up chatting more with my mom than her.”
“Oooh, that’s not a good sign. So what about all the other girls? I wanna hear about them all.” Lesley sits back like she’s settling in for an evening of Hans Christian Andersen. She looks at me, eagerly awaiting my epic ballads of romance and high adventure.
But there will be none forthcoming. I don’t have the heart to tell Lesley that this one single date has been the extent of my love life, that the girl I have been seeing the most of is my little sister. So I make like a politician and misrepresent, evade, and deflect, saying, “Enough about me and all my dating. What about you?”
“Well,” she says, voice trailing off a bit.
“I lost my virginity.”
“What?” I say, while my mind thinks, what the fuck? Lesley was my first kiss, my first experience with necking and dry humping. I was her first close encounter with a hard-on. Logically, weren’t we supposed to be the first for each other in this most meaningful regard as well?
“It was with a boy,” she quietly continues as if reliving a crime she had committed in her youth. “Well, obviously.”
“Did you love him? Was he your boyfriend?”
“No, it just happened one night. Rather quickly, actually. I never did see much of him afterwards.”
Splendid. In the past year, since she had left, she lost her virginity to some random idiot.
“Oh, and speaking of boyfriends, I just started with one. I’m rather taken with him,” says Lesley. “His name is Anthony. You’ll like him. He’s kind of like Troy, very sweet and thoughtful. Even kinda looks like Troy a bit.”
“Even the abs part?” I ask, hoping for some sign of mortality in this new competition.
“Yes, even the abs part,” Lesley says with a smile that reveals what I fear most. She’s in love with this one.
Like Casey Kasem’s Top 40 Countdown, the hits just keep coming. Indeed, this is turning into The Karate Kid. And this time, an authentically menacing Johnny Lawrence has been thrown into the mix.
Except Anthony is not a menacing Johnny Lawrence. He does look like Troy and so looks like Johnny Lawrence: tall, blond, rakishly handsome. And with a rich dad as well. To my further disenchantment, he’s quite a pleasant fellow, to the point he has invited me to play racquetball at his club on the third day of my trip.
I feel I must beat him in racquetball to even things out on a karmic level, to interject some balance into the universe, into my life. I’d played a lot of three-wall, outdoor racquetball with Jeff, Don, and Mike back at Deer Valley. We had gotten pretty good, playing under the scorching Arizona sun with chests bared, and Styx, Foreigner, Def Leppard, and Prince blasting out of my boombox. Like all those hours Daniel LaRusso spent under the sun waxing on and waxing off, all my hard work and discipline would now come to bear as I prepared to crane kick this Johnny Lawrence’s pretty face into tomorrow.
However, I feel a bit achy with some chills coming on. After dinner the night before, Esther, Lesley, and I walked around the Capitol in the evening chill. We took some pictures and checked out these strange chalk outlines of bodies similar to those you see on Adam-12 and other cop shows. They were there to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the dropping of the first atomic bomb upon Hiroshima. Then we watched a young Val Kilmer in Real Genius, which we found hilarious. Unfortunately, the theater’s air conditioning had been on full blast, and I caught a cold. I felt the edges of it yesterday, and now I feel its full effect.
Still, does Daniel give up after Johnny illegally slams his elbow into his knee? Does he go home when everyone would have understood if he had? No, he doesn’t. He simply has Mr. Miyagi do that dramatic clap thing followed by the vigorous hand-rubbing qi routine, and instantly he is back in the ring with one leg cocked and both arms up as if he is readying for takeoff.
So, as the new Karate Kid, I must do the same.
Like Daniel, I begin a bit shaky but then surge to a slight seven-to-four lead. I’m not accustomed to playing racquetball in an indoor court with four walls (and with air conditioning, for that matter), but I find that it involves somewhat less running and more angle and drop shots. I’m getting pumped up, and the heat of playing pushes away the soreness and chills.
“Nice shot, you’re pretty good,” says Anthony after I score with a sharply angled shot.
“Thanks,” I reply while thinking, That’s right, dude, I’m gonna kick your air-conditioned racquetball-playing ass all over the place.
Then he immediately goes on a tear, stringing together five straight points, including a couple of aces. I take the next two points, both involving long rallies, and I start to feel fatigued from the chills and all the running around. This dude’s like a cockroach, albeit a pretty blond one, that’s so damn hard to kill.
“Ten-nine,” I announce the score as I struggle back to the service area. I double over for a second. Now my stomach is starting to growl like a lioness protecting its young.
“You okay, buddy?” Anthony asks with sincere concern. “You wanna take a break and catch your breath?”
This fucker’s so irritatingly nice I want to vomit on his shoes, which appear to be the latest Nike Airs. I can’t tell for sure as I’ve only seen these shoes on TV. I really could use a time-out, but instead, I say, “Nah, I’m fine. Just need to re-tie my shoes.” This gives me a chance to bend over without looking like I’m about to throw up or shit my pants when in reality, I feel the urge to do both.
He breaks my serve and goes on another five-point tear. He’s now up 14-10 with one to go. I’ve gotta break his service and then win five points in a row. If we were playing in Phoenix, I would play “You’re the Best,” “Flying Higher,” or any other Bill Conti song to get my blood flowing and put this joker away. However, this is Sacramento, my portajam ain’t here, and Jeff and Don are not around, so I will need to do this on my own.
Anthony serves one that nearly dies in the left rear corner, but somehow I fish the ball out with a nifty backhand. The ball barely scrapes the front wall. Anthony has no chance at this one as it takes two tiny bounces before he can even get near it. I luck out and now I’ve got to win the next two points.
I make my way slowly over to the service area, holding my tummy that’s rumbling in protest. I’m perspiring as much from adrenaline as I am from the cold sweats that envelope my entire body.
“Ten-fourteen,” I say weakly as I bend over and dribble the blue ball a few times before smacking it rather weakly into the right corner. In three-wall outdoor racquetball, this would have been easily fielded by my opponent, but with the rear wall, the ball skips meekly out of the corner and dies at Anthony’s left foot.
I luck out again and proceed to gut out another three points in long rallies to tie it all up. I’m about to walk to the service line when my stomach seizes up big time. I tell Anthony, “I gotta go,” before I run out and head straight for the restroom. I dash for the first stall, and it’s occupied. So are the second, third, fourth, and fifth stalls.
“Just perfect! Huge, luxurious gym and all they have are five shitty stalls!” I yell in primal fashion.
A hoarse voice from stall three: “I’ll be done in a minute, kid. Just need to—”
A calming voice from stall five: “There’s another men’s room on the other side of the racquetball courts.”
I look in the mirror. My face is nearing a shade of baby food green-brown. Or worse, baby puke green-brown. I quickly exit and start making my way across the row of racquetball courts. Lesley is reading a magazine—thank God she doesn’t see me hobbling past. I reach the other men’s room and pretty much fall through the door. It’s coming soon and, fuck, kill me now, Anthony is there at the sink washing his perfectly-chiseled, high-cheekboned, ivory-smooth face.
“You okay buddy? I was wondering where you went,” he says.
“I’m fine. I just need to do something,” I say in near desperation as I tumble into the first stall.
I close the door, just in time.
“Woah, Rich, I know that feeling. Hey, take your time. Let me know if you need anything,” Anthony says ever so helpfully.
God, I hate this joker. Do I need anything? Yeah, I could use a whole new gastrointestinal system. I want to ask his perfect cheekbones, whether that’s something he can help me with. Instead, I say, “Nah, I’m good, buddy. Thanks. Just need to take care of, uh, some business.”
“Sweet, no prob. I’ll wait for you on the court.”
About fifteen minutes and half a roll of toilet paper later, I’m back on the court. I almost didn’t return. My cramps just about made me want to jump down the toilet, my ass felt like someone had lit it on fire, and my whole body suffered from the chills. I didn’t have Mr. Miyagi around to rub my tummy or share with me some pithy phrase of wisdom. I just had myself and my love for Lesley, which had to suffice.
“Fourteen all,” I announce while taking a deep breath. I don’t want to jinx myself, so I don’t call “game point” as customary.
I bounce the blue ball up and down in the service area and serve. It’s a decent shot that almost reaches the back left corner. However, Anthony scrambles over and manages to return it with a deft backhand down the wall. Now it’s my turn to return a challenging shot down the line, and I barely do so with a dive into the wall. I jump back up just in time to slap a ball coming straight from the front wall. This is turning into yet another epic rally, but I am losing a life gauge and nearing complete depletion with each return.
Then it happens. No, no, I don’t shit my pants right there on the court, thank God. Something infinitely better happens. Again I rely on pure reflexes and feebly deflect the ball. It ricochets timidly off the side wall, scratches the front wall before dropping to the ground and rolling softly to Anthony’s feet.
I win. All of a sudden, I realize this is not just a scene from The Karate Kid. It’s even more significant, more momentous. It’s more like a scene from John Avildsen’s other classic underdog tale, Rocky.
As I realize this, I hear the surge of Bill Conti’s “Final Bell” fromthe movie. I toss my arms up weakly in the air, stagger around the court for effect, and collapse into the corner out of sheer exhaustion. I may not be crumpling into the arms of Mickey, Apollo, or even Paulie, but I don’t care. As I close my eyes to shut out the tears of joy, I feel like shouting, “Yo Lesley, yo Lesley, we did—”
“Hey, you okay?” says Anthony, puncturing my Rocky dream in mid-sentence.
I open my eyes and see Anthony’s hand extended towards me. Damn, even in defeat, this guy is so unnervingly gracious. Doesn’t he know that, as the villain, he’s supposed to act like an asshole at this juncture?
I grab his hand, totter to my feet, and say, “Yeah, I’m fine. Good game.”
“Oh, we’re done? Don’t we play to twenty-one?”
“What?” Shit, he’s right. Tournament rules, under which Don, Jeff, Mike, and I play when we do our round robins, are first to fifteen. However, in recreational play, it’s first to twenty-one. “You’re right. Well, that’s a bit embarrassing.”
“No worries,” says Anthony. “Play to twenty-one, win by two? Or we can just count this game as your win and play again?”
“Nah, you’re right. We should play to twenty-one,” I say. Although I have expended all my energy, I don’t want his generosity, no matter how genuine it might be. “Let’s do this.”
We play to twenty-one with no need to utilize the win-by-two rule. The final score reads 21-15. Anthony wins by weaving together seven points in a row.
I congratulate him, and together we go out to greet Lesley.
“Wow, you guys were so intense, so macho with your play.”
“Yeah, Anthony kicked my ass in the end.”
“Not really, it was close, and you had a bit of a disadvantage with your, uh, condition.”
“What condition?” Lesley asks.
“Oh, nothing,” Anthony and I say at the same time. He gives me a friendly, knowing wink, which I return with a friendly, knowing grimace as I have to run to the restroom once more. As I turn to go, I catch out of the corner of my eye Lesley giving Anthony a kiss, with the same lips and tongue that once so tenderly caressed mine. In our parallel universe, Johnny Lawrence turns out to be a good guy. Furthermore, in that parallel universe, he beats Daniel LaRusso fair and square, not only in sport but also in love.
After thirty years as an executive in the corporate world, Richard Lin recently retired when Covid-19 decisively taught him that there is much more to life than struggling to get into a Zoom meeting at 2 am. He now focuses instead on writing, counseling and supporting young adult orphans in China, and guiding (or being guided by) a spirited family comprised of one wife, three kids, and nine hamsters. His short stories are starting to appear in literary journals such as The Dillydoun Review and Drunk Monkeys.