The safety of my unrequited loves

When I was 15, I had three unrequited loves: my mom, John Ritter, and the 1982 Ohio men's racquetball champion

Published February 9, 2019 7:30PM (EST)


I was 15 years old and so far in my life there had been three indisputable, unrequited loves: my mother, the actor John Ritter, and the 1982 Ohio Men’s racquetball champion.

I was ten when I wrote to John. It was my first love letter and I don’t have a clue what it said. I wasn’t even supposed to be watching his show, "Three’s Company." My mother — a three time divorcee — thought it was too risqué for me at the time. “All the jokes are about sex,” she said — even though all she did was give me a play by play of her intimate encounters.

I didn’t care about the jokes. I just felt bad for John. He was always falling down and embarrassing himself and he never got the girl. I didn’t understand why none of the women on the show seemed to find him attractive — couldn’t they see his cute, rumpled hair and sad puppy dog eyes? I got a letter back in the mail six months later. It was sent on official ABC stationary, which was how I knew John hadn’t written it. It said John appreciated my letter, but I knew that was probably a lie, that probably John hadn’t even seen my letter. Probably. Enclosed with the letter was a 4x6 signed headshot of John. In it his hair looked professionally rumpled.

I was 13 when I fell in love with an 18-year-old, the Ohio Men’s racquetball champion. His name was Doug. It was 1982, the year "Rocky III" came out. I saw the movie and bought the 45 of the theme song, “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor. I would play it on my mother’s record player, sing and dance along to it on nights she worked at the racquetball club. Racquetball had exploded as a national pastime a year or two earlier. There were three racquetball clubs in our small city of 50,000. My mom was the women’s pro at one of them. On weekends I accompanied her to tournaments around Ohio, or hung out at the club where she worked, drinking Orange Whips and using the sauna and whirlpool in the ladies’ locker room to secretly masturbate.

She tried for a while to get me interested in racquetball. She gave me lessons when the club was dead. But I didn’t seem to have the natural athletic ability she had. More importantly, I had a crippling case of performance anxiety. I would practice what she had shown me, alone in the court for an hour — serves and returns and kill shots — and I wasn’t that bad. Occasionally I would even slam the ball into the front wall or ace a serve, imagining myself a teenaged, female, racquetball-playing Rocky, the crowd roaring. Then Mom would come back on the court and I couldn’t return a shot, or I’d hit it into the wrong wall. I’d suddenly be unable to serve without the ball being long or short, either of which disqualified the serve. It was the same thing in my school P.E. class; it was the same thing when my friends talked to boys. I couldn’t perform in either scenario. I was the last one picked for every sport; I stood silently behind my friends.

This didn’t stop Mom from signing me up for a tournament without my permission. “I entered you in the novice category,” she told me a week before the match. I must have looked like I was going to cry. Maybe I was crying. I was entered in the novice category but an adult novice category. I was most likely going to be playing a woman my mom’s age. A novice woman my mom’s age, but still. I was just a child. I was only 13. This was so unfair! I wanted to die.

“It’ll be fine,” Mom insisted. “And it’ll give you something to do instead of just following me around the tournament the whole time.”

Of course it wasn’t fine. I never even scored a point, even after practicing for two hours that week.  The woman beat me 21-0.

“You refused to even try,” my mother said.

I didn’t dispute her. I was just relieved it was all over; that I’d never have to do that again. I’d proven myself a complete athletic failure. I felt light and free. I began to roam around the brand new, state-of-the-art club, blending in with the masses. My mother had left me to warm up for her own match. I heard her before I saw her, yelling her own name along with two swearwords combined by a hyphen. I peered over the railing with the other spectators for a minute. She missed a ball and then another and I knew I had to walk away. Along with being a complete athletic failure, I was also a total jinx.

I kept walking and peering over railings. Finally I peered into a court on which four young men were playing doubles. Two of them brothers, I learned through audience chitchat, Doug and Dave, 18 and 16 respectively. Italians. Just like Rocky! Just like Sylvester Stallone! Dave was cute, a little stocky, with feathered brown hair. But Doug was sexy. Taller, leaner, with a head of tight Italian curls that held and shook sweat, in slow-mo in my mind. And he yelled at the ref. Just like another of my crushes: John McEnroe. I spent the rest of the day watching him win doubles and singles matches, yelling at refs.

Sunday, both Mom and Doug were in the finals. I couldn’t watch Mom’s match due to my jinxing her, but Doug’s was in the enormous, glass-enclosed court, complete with theater seating — rows of carpeted stairs. I took a seat mid-way up and waited for Doug to arrive. I saw his brother first. He was dressed in civilian clothes — black pants, a silk button down, Italian Stallion wear. Ten minutes later the crowd lifted their heads and swiveled around. Doug was walking in with his coach. Another Italian-looking man. Possibly his father. We watched as they arranged their Head bag and gear. My mom had a similar bag. It smelled like sweat, like the women’s locker room on the day of a tournament. I secretly loved that smell.

Then an amazing thing happened, something for which I was wholly unprepared: Doug removed his jacket, placed his headphones over his ears, turned his back to us, and began to jog in place. Which was when I saw them; the words written across the back of his shirt. "EYE OF THE TIGER." I had, for a brief second, been wondering what he might be listening to while warming up: AC/DC? Queen? Dexys Midnight Runners? How stupid I’d been to overlook the obvious, the one song any young Italian-American athlete would be listening to in 1982: The "Rocky III" theme song.

Doug wasn’t just sexy and an amazing racquetball player. He was a bona fide teen heartthrob! He should have been in Teen Beat with Scott Baio and Ralph Macchio. Of course he didn’t know I was alive, but that was beside the point. Infatuation wasn’t about the other person loving you back. It was about idolizing another person from a safe distance. It was about making them into whatever you wanted them to be in your mind.

It all might have ended there. But a month later I was snooping through my mom’s room, bored as usual, when I came across a large folder with the words "Ohio Racquetball Association" written across it. My mother had also won her match and was now the new Ohio Women’s Veteran Racquetball Champion. As part of her title, she’d been asked to handle some of the association’s mailings, newsletters, things like that. It quickly became apparent to me, as I flipped through the binder, heart racing, that contained within were the names, addresses and phone numbers of every person affiliated with Ohio racquetball at that time. I struggled in my excitement, flipping past or turning back too far. Finally, I found them — there on the page were Doug and Dave.

I stared at the phone number for five minutes knowing there was no way I could call. For one, it was long distance, which was expensive. I wasn’t allowed to make a long distance call without asking my mother. For two, what would I say? Hello, this is Beth Grant, you don’t know I’m alive but I think I love you?

I got a piece of notebook paper from my room and copied down the address. I wrote his name in big cursive letters and next to it a bunch of hearts.

I stared at that address for five days before I wrote the letter. This was way more serious than writing to John Ritter. For one, Doug lived in the same state as me. For two, he was only five years older. It felt conceivable to me that we could actually date.

I checked the mail expectantly for a month. I listened to “Eye of the Tiger” over and over. Some part of me really believed he would write back. But Doug didn’t even have a studio to send out form letters and headshots. I began to lose hope that I would ever make out with my #1 crush, that he would ever tell me he loved me, too. But then I saw his name on the board at my mother’s racquetball club. There was an upcoming tournament and he and his brother were going to play in it.

The day of the tournament I put on my Jordaches, put on my Bonne Bell lip gloss, and curled the sides of my hair in a bad imitation of Farrah Fawcett. At the club, I didn’t go up to Doug. I played it cool and waited for him to come to me. I’d enclosed my eighth grade school pic with my letter; I figured he would be able to recognize me. I guess I shouldn’t have been so shocked when he didn’t. Or when he did and decided to steer clear of me. He was 18 and the Ohio Men’s Open racquetball champ! He probably had lots of girlfriends. Italian girls his age. Or full grown women like Rocky’s Adrian.

I should have recovered more quickly than I did. I shouldn’t have been so completely devastated. I’d already had my heart broken several times by my mother. Each time she married a new man or brought a new man into our house, the same thing always happened: we’d go from being best pals, inseparable, singing “You and Me Against the World” (our Helen Reddy theme song) together in the front seat of the car, living our "Kramer Vs. Kramer," "Courtship of Eddie’s Father" lifestyle, to me sitting silent in the backseat, me playing by myself up in my room, me playing pinball alone while Mom and New Guy shot pool and drank at the bar.

Each time she and New Guy broke up (or got divorced), then it’d be right back to “You and Me Against the World” again, right back to me in the front seat, me as Mom’s best friend and pal and confidant. I had whiplash from how many times and how quickly it all happened, the breakups as quick and dramatic and dizzying as the initial hookups. But each time I seemed to take it as hard as the first. Each time Mom met a new man and fell in love and didn’t need me anymore.

Which was exactly what happened a year later, how I ended up at a boarding school in Central Florida where a boy my age — a boy I actually liked — had the nerve to like me back. Of course I ended things as soon as he held my hand, before he could kiss me. I was terrified of him — of having an actual boyfriend. Instead I went back to writing Doug’s name in my journal, convincing myself he was my true love after all.

I stayed in my room and wrote Mom letters I couldn’t mail because I didn’t have her address. I didn’t have a phone number, either. She was somewhere out in Arizona working construction with a man named Mark and I was alone at a boarding school in Central Florida, dodging a boy named Travis and writing Doug's name in my journal. I dodged Travis for nine months. I dodged boys who might have liked me at my next school in Arizona, too, where Mom and Mark left me home alone most nights. I refused to even try. I got good at it, preferring the safety of imaginary relationships with boys or men who didn’t know I was alive: Michael J. Fox, a football player a year ahead of me, Prince. The most terrifying thought in the world was of a real boy kissing me, of allowing myself to like a real boy: Travis holding my hand, which would inevitably lead to Travis breaking my heart.

I ran and ran and ran. Into my room, into my journal, away from Mom and Mark, away from school games and dances. I was 16. I wrote letters to Michael J. Fox instead. I waited and waited for a letter back. A headshot. I waited and waited. There was a safety in falling in love with unavailable boys and men. There was safety in waiting.

By Elizabeth Ellen

Elizabeth Ellen is the author of the novel "Person/a," the story collections "Saul Stories" and "Fast Machine" and a poetry collection, "Elizabeth Ellen."

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