THE WHOLE sordid business began at a recent party, when I put down my beer and loudly asked if anyone was foolish enough to play me in pingpong.
As usual, the challenge was met with a resounding silence. Grown men and women stared down at their drinks and mumbled excuses, weak-kneed and quivering at the thought of facing a legendary backhand, crushing forehand and unfathomable spin serve.
Then a small voice from the back of the room said: "I'll play."
Who is this drunk? I wondered. Who is this stranger -- reeling, no doubt, from the contents of an entire Smirnoff distillery -- who would dare challenge The Master to . . . sweet Jesus! It was my wife. And the woman was stone sober.
So it has come to this, I thought. Things have gotten so bad that a man can't even attend a party without his wife following him -- often in the very same car -- and badgering him into playing some silly basement game.
Of course, pingpong with this woman was completely out of the question. The secret to our marriage is quite simple: We don't play any sports together.
Inevitably it leads to tears, whining, bruised feelings and zooming frustration levels on the part of a certain someone. Plus she doesn't handle it very well, either.
Therefore, looking to spare our hosts from a potentially ugly scene, I said to my wife: "You don't know how to play pingpong."
"You could teach me," she said.
YOU COULD TEACH ME. The words sent a cold chill through me and took me back nearly 14 years.
The first time I heard that disturbing phrase, we were newlyweds -- young, hopelessly in love and . . . well, stupid.
At least I was stupid. Because one day she asked me to teach her to play tennis, and I actually heard myself say: "Sure."
On the court that day, all we did was fight. No matter what I tried to teach her about footwork, court strategy, etc., she insisted on doing things her way.
The end result was this: The woman single-handedly set the sport back 200 years. Two hours later, her ground strokes retained all the grace of someone who'd just inhaled a tube of model-airplane glue.
For her part, she accused me of -- get this -- having no "patience." Just because I was rocketing overheads and smacking sizzling cross-court volleys and rolling my eyes when she couldn't return them.
In the following years, we tried participating in many sports together: softball, basketball, volleyball, I could go on. But each doomed attempt ended with both, ahem, partners muttering threats about retaining attorneys and boning up on local property settlement and child-custody statutes.
Still, as we made our way to the pingpong table, I thought: Maybe this sport will be different.
Maybe we can treat each other with consideration and kindness this time. Maybe we'll play with good sportsmanship and a gentle sense of humor. Maybe this game can serve as a reaffirmation of all the good in our marriage.
And maybe . . . maybe donkeys can fly.
The first game started predictably enough. On her first lackluster serve, I crushed a forehand that hit about an inch from the end line and shot past her at 120 miles an hour for a point.
Then I danced around the table with my index finger high in the air and screamed: "No. 1, baby! No. 1!"
Naturally, she started shooting me looks, even though the crowd ate it up. I don't know what it is with her sometimes. She can be so moody.
Pretty soon, though, we had to play by HER rules. The ball was allowed to take two bounces before you had to hit it. You could catch it and THROW it over the net if you wanted. There were "do-overs" if you didn't like the way the point went.
Despite this ruthless tampering with the rules, she ended up getting dusted 21-0.
The rematch was 8-0 when she reeled off three quick points, which looked promising until you considered that she'd blinded me with salt in both eyes.
But once I flushed my eyes out with water and one of the guests (an ophthalmologist, as it turned out) determined there was no permanent damage to the cornea, it was wham, bam, thank you, ma'am. Final score: 21-3.
All in all, though, she was a pretty good sport about the whole thing, if you don't count that vicious attack with the salt shaker. Why, on the ride home, the two of us were chattering away like jaybirds.
Sure, it was mostly about who was going to sleep on the couch.
But conversation is conversation.