48 E. 23rd St., New York, NY

When did ping pong become cool? I thought to myself, after I walked down the stairs to the basement floor. They looked out of place, the dozen or so ping pong tables. The lights were dim, there was a bar, the seats at the bar were covered in faux-graffiti. High bar stools surrounded high bar tables, stationed at each playing area. It was weirdly dark. I wanted to compare it to a snooker lounge, but the air was clear and an iridescent green did not predominate. Yellow curtains, the kind you would associate with high-end fashion stores, were draped around the place as partitions. Orange balls moved atop the tables in predictable curves; a stray ball landed near my feet, and I flicked it back in the direction it came. We had plenty of our own: two baskets of three-star regulation balls.

Some time passed. I put down my drink and pushed myself out of the caramel-coloured lounge. Four of us now, trying to track the ball, with untrained hands and eyes. Their untrained hands and eyes, mind you; mine were trained, too trained, and had to feign incompetence: simulate well-timed misses and netted dinks. As the opposition got better, so did I. An occasional smash, an angled drop shot, it was too hard to resist: they thought it was a fluke, making them stretch out and around the table like that. In truth, I was holding back—as much as anyone who’d spent many years training in their youth. Those afternoons of rallying with the coach, lobbing back the smashes of other players, learning to overcome heavy slice with topspin. My music teacher’s disquiet when I skipped practice for the gym. A braided donut after a long training session.

This was more than a decade ago, but the instincts came back almost immediately. Sudden aggressions surfaced. I felt like a hunter, searching for the slightest elevation over the net that would allow me to loop a forehand or smash. Every serve, every slice, shots that skimmed the net: mere preamble to the rousing winner. It’s a tiring mode of play for sure, sustained by energies that must quickly regenerate for each point.  

These feelings were incongruous in the context; I stood up straighter and some aggression disappeared. Then I slackened my wrist and hit the ball high over the net, exactly in the way I was not taught. I was trying to regress to my garage days, father and son times when the ball ricocheted off the corrugated door. Unlearning is not easy, I thought, perhaps harder than learning. I could only ape it in pretending I was feeding balls to a beginner, adjusting the difficulty so the game remained as even as possible, managing even to miss a crucial shot that I had intended to make.

One of my friends was not fooled. He had heard from a girl that I had challenged her friend, or rather her friend had challenged me, when I had visited this girl during her last semester of college. The drive had been long, even treacherous. In the driver’s seat was another friend of the girl, the sort of autodidact one reads about in a Helen DeWitt novel. A hyper-intellectual type who sent me obscure messages about theology, saying he did not know who else he could send it to, who else would understand. No one, I gathered, although I was the closest in his circle of friends to making any sense of it. Instead of notes he wrote emails to himself, and then these emails were sometimes addressed to me.

The autodidact driver looped onto the New Jersey Turnpike when the traffic built up on the Interstate 95. There was a quick stopover in Philadelphia, where a female seminarian (a friend of the autodidact) disapproved of our plans but wished us luck. We needed it: the route west on the Interstate 76, through Pennsylvania and Ohio and Indiana, was mostly taken in poor light, rain, and thick fog. We arrived in Peoria, Illinois, miraculously, stopping at a rundown Chinese eatery; it wasn’t long now to the Gateway Arch, to the great relief of having arrived in St. Louis.

For the trip I had a book on Jane Austen, winter break reading for a seminar. I remember nothing about the book except the yellow cover and the word stylothete. A reference to Austen no doubt, or on second thoughts, was it to the author himself? Many literature professors tire of the monograph, their stock in trade; he (as this queer author would have identified) had written one or two, maybe three, so I imagine it was exciting to try something new, such as fashioning himself as a stylothete. And maybe as something of a stylist himself.

I flicked through the book but couldn’t get into it; besides, the autodidact and the girl were quarrelling. They had quarrelled all trip, from the time he greeted her at the entrance of a large university building; after the Bible talk on Galatians, when he mocked the speaker’s banal exposition; at every meal in the cafeteria or at the local diner, where he paid the bill for everyone, a large group of us. They quarrelled until she needed to do work, or see other friends, or go to sleep. He did not sleep, of course, or not very much; there was much work to be done, in chatrooms and message boards and obscure regions of the Web. All the quarrelling resembled a lover’s tiff, though without any formal attachment or erotic charge. If there was charge, perhaps it was his alone.

She hadn’t greeted me in the same way. Not as she greeted the autodidact, nor the other passenger in the car (there was another passenger, but he won’t be mentioned again). There was something suppressed about it, as if she were trying to conceal a spontaneous feeling. Instead, she affected a sort of minimal acknowledgment that I imagine was reserved for family. After everyone had gone to sleep the autodidact said that the girl found me boring. I couldn’t object entirely; I was rather quiet and shy and mostly in my head, a little bored myself.

I escaped the quarrelling and boredom for three or four sets, I don’t remember, all I know is that I lost to the girl’s college friend, who lent me one of her table tennis racquets and eventually saw through my game, which was admittedly one-dimensional. I had practiced other kinds of styles before, particularly the so-called defensive style, but it never occurred to me to play like that—not during the heat of play anyway. I only knew aggression, the offensive style, a style which subordinates every other shot to an overweening forehand. During the match, I blamed the long strands of hair which kept obscuring my view: because of that I couldn’t anticipate her fast serve and missed some crucial smashes.

Two or three years later, I also lost to a gruff, Eastern European man at one of the tables in Bryant Park, which I walked past every time I visited the New York Public Library on Forty-Second. I blame the bad equipment, but the truth is that I couldn’t read his serve or coordinate my senses with the racquet I borrowed, which, I repeat, was of dubious quality. In better conditions his serve would have still been troublesome; maybe after a set or two I might have figured it out. We were playing by the rules of the street, however: a single set decided the match.

Two young guys who had been watching on commiserated me, and then asked a question it seemed they had been waiting to air. Not about where I’d learnt to play, or for how long, but where I had gotten the boots I was wearing—black leather lace-up boots, handmade in Mexico. Slightly taken aback, I said a shop in Toronto. They were disappointed, thought I was lying, one of them even asked again, and to commiserate them I said that it was like any vintage shop in the East Village: after all, that’s the usual point of comparison with West End, where I had purchased the second-hand boots.

What I was doing in Toronto was anyone’s guess. I hadn’t planned it, at least not consciously; the seeds of the trip were sown much earlier, when I had been issued a new I-20 but forgot to renew my F-1 student visa, which I could only do if I was outside the US and which I was, for a few months, when I visited my parents in Sydney. Upon my return, the immigrant agents at Los Angeles airport took pity on me and allowed me entry on a waiver, foregoing even the fine. I had waited two or three hours in a sort of nation-state limbo where passports or green cards or the legitimacy of a certain Christian-sounding college were contested across melamine counters. Pakistanis, Afghanis, Cubans, an Australian… but then I was ushered into the back for photos and paperwork and sent, mercifully, on my way.

I was not so lucky when I tried to re-enter again, this time at Toronto airport. (I had flown from Vancouver.) The waiver had its limits and did not extend to Canada, as the relevant university office had advised; I was left in the airport, my head swimming, frantically trying to book a night or two at the closest budget hotel. Over the phone my brother suggested that I write about this and publish it one day. I was in no mood for that, of course, but nonetheless I find this recorded in an old black notebook:

So today it happened all over again. I’m standing at the U.S. Customs border, and I stutter my way through an explanation—my visa’s expired, but I have this waiver—and she looks at me totally unsympathetically and sends me to secondary immigration. There’s a girl there, chewing her gum and bopping her head, and she tells me that I may have cleared it with my visa office, but the university ain’t immigration. Then the Hispanic next to her adds: “you’ve run out of gas.” Nothing like an American metaphor to cheer you up.

What wasn’t recorded in the notebook: the insect-ridden bed at a B&B on Bloor Street; sushi and Chinatown clay pots with my undergraduate supervisor (who was, by chance, visiting his mother); trips to several good museums, including a local textile gallery where the young shopgirl—almost certainly an art student—represented a sort of ideal to me at the time: an Asian artist-intellectual type.

Actually, as I look through the notebook again, I discover I had written about her:

I saw the 100% perfect girl the other day. She was sitting at the museum shop, minding the shop, and said, “yes, the museum isn’t very extensive… But I think you might look at this book, on string theory, which might have to do with it…” Petite, Asian, with a slight slouch, all in black, and those large, black-framed Ray-Bans. I could barely concentrate on the book she showed me. Later, when I exited the washroom, she glanced sideways to see who it was; I stupidly decided to take the elevator down.

I returned the next day but the gallery was shut. Or maybe it was: she wasn’t there. In any case, what was I hoping for? My student visa had been generously “expedited” by the US Consulate; I was due to return to New York by the end of the week.

On the same page as the entry above:

Finally, I’m at Toronto Airport again, and I’ve made it through customs. That expired visa has caused me too much grief—the problem of secondary checks, accessibility lounges—but it has opened up something nice in the way of seeing more of Toronto, which is actually a decent city. More spread out than New York, it has its usual chain stores & the like, but also its hipsters, its vintage boots (I picked up a pair)…

Of course, I didn’t know then that this transgression, this indelible stain, would follow me around everywhere, at any rate when I wished to visit the US. For I would always have to declare that I was denied entry to the US, a so-called Christian country which sometimes forgave (if entry is forgiveness) but never forgot. Yes, I would always have to admit I was denied at a US port of entry, and after admitting that would have to write the word TORONTO; and it is then that I would be reminded of the unplanned and even wonderful week I spent there, having been denied entry, which was a result of carelessness and, above all, forgetfulness.

Kenneth wonders whether it is worth a panic attack to visit the US again. Please message him or comment below, and consider throwing a few bucks for this travel experience.