We had a ping-pong table in the basement growing up, and I always thought I was pretty good. I mean, I was a little kid, but I could hold my own in a game to twenty-one. I knew how to serve it just right, so that the ball sailed barely over the edge of the net. I could dive and rescue shots that would have knocked out most other opponents. And in between volleys, I could twirl the paddle around in my hand. I was good at ping-pong.
At least, I thought I was good at ping-pong. We moved out of our house when I was in the sixth grade, and for whatever reason, the ping-pong table wasn’t invited along. So for the next three years or so, I didn’t really have any outlet. I knew in the back of my head that I had the talent, but I never got to play anymore.
And so, when I got to high school, I was so excited when I heard about ping-pong intramurals. “When are sign-ups for ping-pong?” I remember asking the homeroom teacher on my first day of ninth grade. “Ping-pong?” he looked at me, confused. Come on man, I thought to myself, I could see it so clearly, when I went on that high school tour the year before, they handed us this folder of information. One of the pieces of paper listed all of the extracurricular activities. I think I may have even saved it somewhere, ping-pong intramurals were definitely an advertised thing.
But the homeroom guy didn’t know what I was talking about. And any upperclassman that didn’t outright dismiss my presence whenever I opened up my mouth was equally ignorant. And so I kind of had to slog through the first half of that year not playing ping-pong. Sometimes I’d show up for basketball intramurals, but I sucked at basketball, all I wanted to do was play ping-pong.
And then, after Christmas break, I saw it, a flyer for ping-pong intramurals. It didn’t look real at first. I wondered if someone was messing with me, trying to get my hopes up by placing flyers close to my locker. But no, word spread, apparently ping-pong intramurals were really a thing, and everyone was getting pumped.
Within a week it was all anybody was talking about, ping-pong. The hype got to be so much that administration started taking names to reserve spots. As the sign up sheet got passed around in homeroom that day, this kid in front of me laughed when I put my name down. “Ha, Rob, please, you’re just wasting everybody’s time.”
He’d never seen me play ping-pong, and sure, it was probably just a jerk high school thing to say, but I got pissed. “I’m actually really good at ping-pong. We have a ping-pong table at my house.” I don’t know why I said that, it was only partially true anyway, because I think the ping-pong table was somewhere in the garage, maybe, nobody ever went in there, we were all scared of spider-webs and mice droppings.
“I have a ping-pong table too,” the other kid said, and I don’t know why, but I didn’t believe him. I could just tell that he was full of shit. But back in high school, I don’t know, I could never come up with any comebacks, and I was really bad at playing it cool, making it look like I wasn’t hyper-sensitive and super pissed-off. But I resolved in my head to beat this guy.
And I carried that resolve to the wrestling room the first day of ping-pong intramurals. There were like twenty tables, all set up very tightly together across the gym floor. I had to wait like an hour until it was my turn, but finally the moderators called my name. I grabbed the paddle, gave it that quick twirl move, and turned my head to see where that kid from homeroom was playing.
That’s when my opponent got his first point. “Wait, that was a point? Don’t you have to volley for serve?” and this kid who I only kind of recognized from Earth Science class, he was like, “Volley for serve? What does that mean?” I tried to grab one of the gym teacher’s attention, to help clear up some ground rules, but he was dismissive, “Boys, we’ve got a lot of kids that want to play ping-pong.”
Worse, this other guy had no idea how to score. I always played where you could only score on your serve, but this guy was counting everything. Even worse than that, I found that I really wasn’t very good at ping-pong. I was holding my own for like three or four volleys, but after that, I’d almost invariably lose. I don’t know what it was, maybe the lack of space in between the tables, maybe because it had been years since I played, but the whole game was over in about three minutes, and I was booted from the gym.
“That’s it” I asked the gym teacher. “That’s it. Better luck next year.”
“Next year? Wait, you guys set up all of these tables for just one day?”
And that was it. I saw that kid in homeroom the next day and I asked how he did. “Ping-pong? I don’t play ping-pong. Ping-pong is for losers. Ha.”
And I just sat there, fuck ping-pong, fuck intramurals, fuck this kid, but I didn’t say anything out loud, I just sat there and hoped that my face wasn’t beet red.