I Laugh Like Richard
I met him in University and it is no exaggeration that he taught me more than any of my professors. Richard had no college degree, but was polished as a man of social standing and power in the local community. In his sparkling blue eyes I saw spirit and enthusiasm and confidence. This soon to be mentor with twinkling eyes and a ready laugh was cracking gum to the rhythm of his questions when we met at the University Athletic Fieldhouse.
“Do you play racquetball?” I found myself smiling, accepting a hinted challenge in his question, as if not playing racquetball was some type of personal inadequacy. “I’ve got two racquets if you’ve got the balls.” There was the laugh again, the twinkle in his eyes, and a smirk as he waited for my all-too-forced casual “I ‘m in!”
I brought a can of balls , goggles and leather gloves bummed from a friend who played often; Richard laughed and simply shook the can of balls. “Mine are new” he said, smirking again as he led me onto the court.
The lesson began immediately. “Stay behind the line when you are serving and find your sweet spot on the court after that. He showed me how to not smack the cement wall with my shoulders. “Anticipate walls” he said. “And know where your opponent is. Get in someone’s way and you’ll get a ball or racket whacked against you."
When I served; he killed it. "Serve well, make good shots and own your place on the court and you score. " Whack! Ace! "Just play that game that feels right to you. Don’t play someone else’s game.”
Richard was the first gay man I knew and he was courageous, tenacious and a lion on the court as well as in life. He was fast for a fifty year old.
My father had told me that gays were pussies; what did he know? What a competitor! Despite my youth and conditioning, Richard always put the ball out of reach. He had me ducking fetching, and smacking the walls hard. I wanted to beat him partially because he kept laughing at my struggles, but mostly because I was competitative too.
Whack! “Anticipate, watch my feet, make me move off my sweet spot, challenge me will ya?” The eye-twinkle-laugh. “Now try some of my kill serves. As close to the floor as you can get it. Look at it and put it there.” Whack! "Good, now harder!” So for an hour we sweated and swung and he laughed and twinkled his happy blue eyes. When he nodded at me it was camaraderie and something akin to porch dogs running off in the fields chasing something. “Next time, we can get the court for longer if you want; Friday same time?” I smiled confidently. “You bet!”
The next day, I was sore in odd places. The same friend who lended racquetball gear offered Tiger Balm this time. “It’s hot but it smells good gives relief as long as you haven’t broken any bones.” I Hadn’t and it did.
During class I smiled like a kid with circus tickets in his pocket. Between Balzac and botany, I daydreamed; preparing to be better on the court than last time. What did he say about owning my place on the court? Play my own game and not someone else’s’, that‘s it. And, anticipate the walls. I played hundreds of games while an undergrad; never did manage to beat him. I guess we both got better in the process.
He was also generous and thoughtful as I continually found out on so many occaissions. He used his influence to get me a great apartment close to campus, and a job at his bank. Richard taught me how to drive and helped me get my license; I used his expensive foreign car for the test. He showed great faith in my abilities then. Maybe I was the son he never had, so he taught me like a good father would. His lessons were those of the civilized man, Richard taught etiquette, and concepts like nobless oblige. I learned to be generous, humble and how to speak French like a Parisian. The lessons kept coming, even after I left school for the military.
Years later, when I heard he died, I was on deployment and could not say my last farewell the way I wanted. The news caught me crying under a pitch black heaven in a lonely expansive Saudi Arabian desert , as millions of stars twinkled brilliantly in the night heat. I was not sad too long however; Richard would not have wanted that.
I think of all the things he taught me. He taught me to own my place on the court, watch my oponents, play my own game, and to anticipate the walls. Most importantly, Richard taught me how to laugh a full, genuine and soul belly laugh with a twinkle in my eye. With enthusiasm and confidence, I laugh like Richard
A mentor guides the young author through college days and leaves him with a delightful gift.