The Northville Review
an online literary journal
Serve and Volley

Thomas Mundt

Wang Hao and Peng Luyang are sitting on the leather sofa outside of Coach Cai’s office, waiting. Their posture is perfect and they stare straight ahead and with great focus. A film is being projected onto a wall across the room. It is a retrospective of their table tennis careers and it is perceptible only by the two of them. While they dare not touch, their legs keep shifting toward each other in barely-noticeable increments. They know this is as close to an embrace as they will get in this moment of anxiety.

Luyang is the first to whisper.

–I knew this would be a great mistake. Not you, Hao! Oh, now I’ve gone and said something hurtful! You are not the mistake, Hao. The mistake is our recklessness. We should have never done what we did that day.

Hao’s anger hits its apex, but his love for Luyang and his fear of reprisal keep him level.

–Is it wrong for a man to kiss the sweet lips of his lover amongst the cherry blossoms? And, should another man happen to witness this kiss, is this too wrong? Woe be to China if she forbids such expression, for her fate is sealed.

Luyang allows a sliver of a grin to form on her mouth. This Hao, she thinks. This is a man.

A tall, slender woman in a navy blazer and red neck-scarf emerges from Coach Cai’s office. She is beautiful and serious. Hao and Luyang remain frozen.

–Coach Cai is ready to speak to you now. Please, follow me.

Hao waits for Luyang to stand first before arising and following her through the office door. This is the first time they have been in Coach Cai’s office. They are immediately struck by its cavernous proportions. It is large enough to house not one but two regulation-size ping-pong tables, a Frogger machine, and an 10′ x 5′ x 3′ aquarium full of exotic marine life.

–Ah! Mr. Wang! Miss Peng! I’m so glad you’re here. Please, do sit down.

Coach Cai is at his desk, a glossy oak behemoth with various trophies and ribbons strewn about its surface. His computer monitor is tilted just enough that Hao and Luyang can see the crossword puzzle he has been working on. Did he not have an appointment before ours? Hao and Luyang fret, concerned that Coach Cai had them lying in state back there in the lobby.

Hao and Luyang take their places at the far left and far right in the row of three seats before Coach Cai’s desk, leaving an empty chair between them.

–Ha! Timid now, are we?

Coach Cai has a wry smile on his face as he rocks to and fro in his ergonomically-correct computer chair.

–Mr. Wang. Miss Peng. I will waste your time no further. I presume you know why you have been called into my office today. Does the image of cherry blossoms stir any emotion in you?

Hao and Luyang can see that film again. This time, it’s being projected directly behind Coach Cai. They do not blink as they follow it scene by scene.

–I thought so. One of my aides just happened to be strolling through Wulin Square the other day when he saw you two, in the midst of -how can I put this?- kissing. He saw you two kissing. You probably thought your profiles were obscured by the cherry blossoms but, I assure you, they were not.

–Coach Cai, if I may interject on Luyang’s behalf, it was my…

Coach Cai calmly raises his left hand and shows Hao his palm, a request to cease and desist.

–Mr. Wang, please let me continue. Now, as current and former members, respectively, of the Chinese National Table Tennis Team, I need not remind you two of the Morality Pledges you signed upon joining the squad. By signing that Pledge, Mr. Wang, you promised to refrain from engaging in Lecherous Behavior Unbecoming of an Athlete Representing the People’s Republic of China. And you, Miss Peng. I must remind you that the Pledge has retroactive effect. Remember? The provisions concerning former Team Members demand that you refrain from aiding, abetting, or otherwise encouraging a current Team Member to engage in such Behavior. You two do still have copies of your Pledges, correct? For if you don’t, I will gladly call Ms. Bei in the Records Department and track them down.

Hao and Luyang continue to watch the film behind Coach Cai. In this particular scene, Hao and Luyang are turning in their monogrammed paddles to Coach Cai, the ones they were presented with their first day of Training Camp. They are then escorted out of his office and out of the building and into a running cab.

–Now, I am a coach, not an attorney. But it seems to me there is a fair amount of -for lack of a better phrase- wiggle room in defining “Lecherous Behavior.” I would argue that there was nothing lecherous at all about your stolen kiss beneath the cherry blossoms. In fact, I believe the great poet Li Po addressed that very subject in a piece commissioned by Prince Lin. I know I have a copy of his Analects somewhere, if you’ll indulge me…

As Coach Cai opens and closes the drawers of his desk in search of the elusive text, Hao and Luyang read the bewilderment written on each other’s faces.

–Ah, it is of no consequence. I have it somewhere, and I will find it and show it to you both sometime. My point is this: as Coach of the National Team, and in accordance with the terms of the Pledge, I alone am vested with prosecutorial discretion. And, at this time, I elect not to categorize your activity beneath the cherry blossoms as “Lecherous Behavior.” That being said, Mr. Wang, consider the decision rendered a gift. There will be no more gifts during your tenure as Team Member. Clear? And Miss Peng? Your ribbons and medals are safe. For now. But you will be subject to the same scrutiny as Mr. Wang, for a probationary period of yet-to-be-determined length. Understand? You may both now leave and go about your day’s business.

Hao and Luyang, in concert, rise and bow to Coach Cai. The same beautiful and serious woman as before has already opened the door for them and smiles as they exit. She then enters Coach Cai’s office and closes the door behind her.

Once safely out of earshot, Hao speaks.

–Luyang, please accept my sincere apology. I would never dream of subjecting you to such a harrowing ordeal, one that would in any way jeopardize your tremendous achievements. I would never…

With the woman gone and Coach Cai safely tucked away in his office, Luyang kisses Hao on the mouth, her hands pressed against his flushed cheeks. She lifts her leg, just like in the movies. Just like in the film that is playing on the wall directly in front of her.

About the author

Thomas Mundt likes that shirt on you. for more stories this, currently completing his first short story collection (You Have Until Noon to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe) that. Gingersnaps.