Every summer Gray announced his arrival with a phone call wrapped in a Southern accent as velvety as the scotch and pot he took like vitamins: “Tell me: who died while I was gone?” He was in his 60s and I in my early 40s so our perspective of time was completely unaligned. But we were bound as fast friends from the moment we were introduced as tennis partners. Every July Gray rented the cozy cottage on Rose and William Styron who lived near me. The rest of the year he lived on the Upper East side in a rent controlled apartment I imagined to be filled with perfunctory furniture and wiring.
Gray leased a Rolls-Royce for the country months and when he picked my best friend Holly up at the bus station (insisting, because while never having met her he already loved her from my stories of our shared childhood) he asked her to help him find the high-beam switch so he could navigate them back to me through the unexpected summer fog. Gray loved women in all their glory and girlfriends with names that sounded and bloomed up everywhere like meadow flowers and clung to him like vines, seemed to understand that his love for them was the very reason he couldn’t commit to any of them. One night on the phone together while opening up a box of spaghetti as my kids watched Sponge Bob, I listened to Gray rhapsodize about Marilyn Monroe (who had lived nearby when married to playwright Arthur Miller): “She loved to love!” he drawled and I knew it was his biggest compliment.
The driving force behind Gray’s day besides cocktail hour was arranging tennis games. You got a call Monday morning to find out your availability throughout the week via a dusty landline and the matches were then noted on a hall calendar you could tell wasn’t used for the rest of year. A mixture of people were gathered: seniors, teenagers, locals, New Yorkers, producers, writers, someone’s mistress. The mossy courts of the Styrons was our salon and Gray presided over us all in his faded whites and mildewed tennis towel. At the end of one summer I presented him with a fresh towel with his name in simple monogram. “I will use this,” he said, holding on to his “I” like he was pulling honey apart. On the court Gray and I had an unspoken alliance that we always played together.
We relished in strategizing our often impossible odds at victory. One match we were down 5-0 and fourty-love with our opponents serving. I turned to him and said “Do you think anyone in the history of tennis has ever come back to win from our current situation?” “I’m not sure,” Gray said in his thoughtful drawl. As I walked to net I could hear him roll out a series of farts and we began to laugh so hard we had to sit down flat on the court before we could continue. We didn’t win but we won the next four games. The only time we didn’t play together was the morning I arrived to see Daniel Day Lewis climbing off his motorcycle and casually pulling a racket off the back. “Good morning everyone,” Gray said striding up behind him. “Susanna why don’t you and Daniel face off against me and Rose.” Daniel played with the elegant ferocity of a ballet dancer. At one point he and I rushed net and I looked over to see him soaring up like an eagle to get an overhead. I wanted to pause and freeze this moment forever. Most especially because he was upstaged by Gray’s sly smile, so happy to give me this moment and as always, ready to receive.