My thoughts on The Tennis Partner, a memoir by Abraham Verghese
When Abraham Verghese, a physician and a professor of medicine at Stanford, moves to El Paso at the opening of The Tennis Partner, he relishes that new desert landscape where “there were broad spaces even between raindrops.” He is a traveller, a newcomer “unencumbered by his past, his mistakes and secrets unknown.” He celebrates the excitement of the peripatetic existence, “the great promise of moving: that if you fold your life into a U-Haul truck and put it on the road, you will be given a clean plate with which to approach the buffet.”
Telling your story similarly gives you the opportunity to start with a clean page and examine life with fresh perspective, to try to unwind the knotted stories of your past, to try to separate out the truth from the lies, to find the meaning in the pain, the addiction and the loss. It must have been that impulse which led Verghese to write The Tennis Partner, his memoir of a friendship and of that new chapter in his life as his marriage ended and his new life in a new city began. Like many memoirs of addiction, he wanted to understand and give meaning to what might otherwise have seemed senseless.
Verghese uses the stories of archetypal characters such as Angelina, a charismatic but damaged woman admitted to his hospital with endocarditis, to tell the broader story of addiction in late 20th century America. He is new, but she is not: “This town was still fairly new to me, the hospital not totally familiar, but Angelina herself was timeless.”
In Verghese’s narrative, Angelina stands for the dignity and suffering of every person who injects drugs. She holds court for his medical students and residents, explaining where the drugs come from, how they are mixed and injected, and her body tells the rest of the story with its swollen limbs, bacteria-laden blood and early signs of decay. As Verghese and his team leave Angelina’s room after that first meeting, they are humbled: “We left, all of us somewhat subdued. It was impossible to leave that room without being awed by the power of the needle, how it has taken a pretty young woman and made her life and her livelihood orbit entirely around it.”
And then there is David - talented, exhilarating, charming, infuriating, tragic David - the tennis partner. This is David’s story, as much as it is Verghese’s. Verghese is compelled to tell it, just as the reader is compelled to follow the story through to the end. David is a former professional tennis player and a star medical student on the team, but he has a secret and the senior resident, Sergio, is never happy with him, never satisfied, and one day the secret comes out as David and Verghese unwind after a round of tennis:
“’The business with Sergio…he’s suspicious of me because I was a big fuckup the last time I did medicine.’ He paused now, and then said in a flat monotone, ‘I’m a recovering cocaine addict.’
He was studying my expression, watching how I would react to this news. I didn’t move a muscle.
He took another sip of his tea. ‘This rotation in medicine was my second go-round…I had to repeat fourth year. Worked with Sergio the last time. And he hasn’t forgotten what I did… the stupidity of it. If you thought I did well this rotation…I should have. I had done it once before.’ His tone was harsh now, and if he were reciting a story about someone he detested.
What to say to this? I wanted to raise my glass to my lips, to take a huge gulp. But I was frozen.
‘You didn’t know?’ he asked softly.
‘I had no idea’”
Verghese is so familiar with addiction on the wards, he knows every sign and every bacterium linked to injection drugs, but when addiction enters his personal life, when he sees it across the table in his tennis partner, he freezes. Later, back on the ward, Verghese is at ease with Angelina, who is now readmitted to the hospital with a worse prognosis. After she uses heroin on the ward, she begins to nod off. David asks if the team should give her Narcan to bring her back. Verghese considers:
“From her face, from the ecstatic expression on it, I thought I understood her state perfectly: Heroin was magical, sacred, orgasmic, and it took her to another world. She tolerated the track marks, the pockmarked feet, the swollen flesh, the fever, because they were symptoms from this world, a world Angelina chose not to occupy. Who was to say which world was better?
‘No, let her be,’ I said”
You have to know when to fight and when to cut your losses in the battle against addiction. Angelina was in another world, but she was safe, monitored in a hospital, receiving medical care, well tended to for a few days in a life otherwise characterized by a harsh existence on the streets of El Paso. David’s story is different. David struggles with many identities, flitting from one world to the next. He is a son, a boyfriend (he was married twice in the past), a tennis player, a doctor, a friend and a patient in his own right, struggling with self-loathing and cocaine addiction. He is being monitored by his medical school, he is deeply enmeshed in recovery groups and meetings, he wants so badly to get through to the other side.
On the court, David is the master, the teacher, the pro. On the wards Verghese is in charge. In between, their friendship flourishes. Verghese drinks too much and is almost pathologically solitary. He reads late into the night, he writes obsessively in his journal; he writes about tennis, about medicine and about David. Verghese is telling David’s story as he told the story of his time treating HIV in his first memoir My Own Country and as he told the imagined story of Missing Hospital in Cutting for Stone. Verghese is the master and I followed him each step of the way, reading late into the night, watching as each shot crossed over the net of the tennis court, and as David lunged to make the return.