Coming to Arkansas, by Louise Östling Arsenio

Liza:

My new American coach Aengus picked me up from the airport last night, and Wendy will be the first teammate that I’ll meet.
“You’ll like her. Wendy is nice,” Aengus says.
I nod.
“She’s from southern Arkansas. She’s a typical southern, friendly girl,” Aengus says.
Aengus is driving, drumming his fingers against the wheel to the music, seemingly not caring that I don’t talk that much, like it’s ok, like he really doesn’t expect me to talk at all, like it is as it should be. Aengus seems comfortable.
I’m not comfortable. I wish Stina was here with all her self-confidence. But I know, I know I’ll probably have to handle everything in the beginning before she even shows her face.
“You’ll like her,” Aengus says.
It’s very hot outside. The sun is as strong as I’ve ever seen it. It’s as if the landscape is more golden, more promised in the US, as if promising a golden future. That was the first thing that struck me coming off the plane—the heat. It was dark outside but still hot, very hot, shorts-and-T-shirt hot, hotter than shorts-and-T-shirt hot, like the very hottest summer day in Sweden on a record summer when people complain that the climate must have changed and they can’t even go outside it’s so hot.
But I thought the heat welcomed nicely, as if Arkansas wanted to welcome me with a warm blanket in the dark. Comforting, like saying I wouldn’t need clothes to protect myself. It was late, so Aengus drove me straight to my dorm room and then came and picked me up at 11 this morning.
I don’t know anything about him yet, I only know his car is so new it still smells new. I guess neither of us is a big talker. It’s been quiet and uncomfortable in the car quite a few times. But we did drive past a sign that said, First home of Bill and Hillary Clinton, and also, the lunch place served chips with the sandwich. Chips! No wonder Americans are fat.
“You’ll like her,” Aengus says.
He drives into the parking lot outside the tennis complex and parks the car and pulls up the parking break. Wendy sits in a green jeep Cherokee already waiting for us, occupying herself with something in the car. When we get out of the car, she gets out, too, fulfilling my expectations of a typical American. She is tall and blond with freckles; she wears short-shorts and a sports-bra; two rackets dangle in one of her hands in front of her bare stomach.
Wendy smiles and greets me. Aengus gives her a friendly pat on the shoulder and they walk on in front of me as if they’ve totally forgotten about me, talking as if I can’t hear what they’re saying, talking as if I don’t understand what they’re saying.
On the court, Wendy and I start hitting, just easy, straight ahead, and right to each other, like feeling each other out, seeing how good the other one is. It’s very hot, very humid, as hot and humid as I’ve ever experienced. This is the first time Aengus sees me play. But it’s hard to be nervous even for me when Wendy doesn’t seem to take it very seriously: no stretching, only two rackets, and a forgotten water bottle.
“Can you hit the ball up here, too?” Aengus asks and shows a high backhand in the air.
I’m hitting returns on Wendy’s warm-up serves, hitting the balls shoulder-high instead of waist-high, just like he wants. It’s nothing hard he asks of me, but he’s pleased. He nods like he’s content.
“I’m glad you’re, like, nice,” Wendy says after Aengus has left. “I guess we’ll have to see, like, how the others are.”
Wendy drives on two wheels in the curves driving me back. She’s talking about her boyfriend.
“I don’t know, like, if he’s cheating on me or not,” she says.
I’m dividing my time between looking at her and looking at the road. I’m not particularly scared. We sit in an SUV and she’s Americanish sure of herself and a year older or so. She knows the language properly and she’s nice and easy to talk to and my very first American friend. I’m not particularly scared at all.


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