When I went to the bowling alley as a kid, I always wondered where the balls went after they hit the end of the lane. They knocked down some pins, or no pins, or all of them, then fell into this deep, strange underworld of conveyor belts and pulleys. I imagined that if I fell down there, my body would be squished and folded into a bowling-ball shape, Willy Wonka–style, and I’d roll out of the machine a few minutes later into the waiting hands of one of my siblings. If I stood still at the end of the lane and closed my eyes, I could feel the hum of this hidden universe beneath me. I wanted to know it, see it, but I knew it was one of those things I’d never really be able to know or see.
We always went to Dancing Pins because it was cheap and we could spend all day there, easy, no complaints. We’d go when our mom was drunk and didn’t have anyone to sleep with. She brought her own vodka in a paper bag, like it wasn’t obvious. But we didn’t care; she was always like that. She just sat there with her head lolling as we bowled game after game. Eventually she woke up and decided it was time to go. Nobody was bothered by us: four, then five, then six little half-sibling squirts, mismatched and making too much noise. Nobody gave a shit.
But, like everything else in the area, Dancing Pins had changed over the years. There was a bar there now, fully stocked, and the rental shoes teetered on the edge of stylish. It had lost the sticky red feel. Kids barely ever went there anymore. It filled up with thirty-somethings in the evenings and twenty-somethings late at night — bored-looking people who seemed to be searching for something new but didn’t know what, exactly, or how to find it.
I’d been working summers there since I was fifteen. They had me cleaning bathrooms at first. You don’t even want to know what that was like. The old boss, Tobin, got a kick out of sending me to clean the men’s room when he knew full well guys were in there with their dicks out. Then I was in the kitchen, pulling potatoes and chicken nuggets out of the fryer and plopping them onto paper plates. My employers made me more and more visible each summer, because the customers wanted nice-looking girls to pour their drinks and wipe down their tables. Management put in mood lighting and started playing indie rock. I hardly recognized the place.
I started full-time at Dancing Pins in January, right after I dropped out of college. I worked from noon till seven weekdays, evening shifts on weekends. If you want to get depressed, stop by a bowling alley in suburban Pennsylvania at 3 PM on a Wednesday in February. That’ll do the trick.
Magnus, the bartender, was the best part about working at Dancing Pins. He was thirty-one and seemed content making cocktails for half-drunk bowlers. He was the kind of guy everyone loved: cracked jokes, mixed strong drinks, smiled at white people to make them feel good about themselves. “Well-meaning” white people had been encroaching on our neighborhood for years; some bowlers tried to speak to me in terrible Spanish, which killed Magnus, and others told Magnus they’d voted for Obama, as if that meant anything. Magnus infuriated me because he refused to flirt with me — I guess on principle. He’d been working there since before I’d started. It had been his summer job, and then it was his only job.
“I’ve known you since you were a kid,” he said one night in May as I leaned against the bar with my tits pushed up, coming on to him the way I did every now and then, just to check.
“Don’t say shit like that. I was fifteen. Fifteen isn’t a kid.”
He gave me a sad look, like he thought he understood something about me that I didn’t understand myself.
Maybe he thought he knew me because he knew my mom. Everyone in town knew my mom. She was like that — always around, like a bad smell in the air. She thought we couldn’t criticize her, because at least she was still there for us sometimes, unlike our dads, who were all gone. A few came by now and then — David, Fredy, Stunt. Mine was probably dead for all I knew.
But this isn’t some sob story. I used to daydream about my wedding: my imaginary husband would be an only child from some dry, cookie-cutter family; his side of the small church would be near empty while mine crawled and hummed with loud and colorful half strangers, all fucked up and all a part of me. I knew my family wasn’t conventional, but Magnus didn’t have to act so mighty about it. He didn’t get it. I wanted him to flirt with me. I wanted everyone to flirt with me. But not in some weird or sad way. There just wasn’t anything else to do, especially in the summertime.
That summer — my first since leaving school and taking up full-time residence on the outskirts of my gentrified, shithole hometown — I had to train a newbie. Stephanie was her name: blond, sixteen, from the type of family who call themselves “middle-class” but have a beach house and a shiny white Lexus or two in their driveway. She showed up in early June wearing enough mascara to make her eyelids droop. I talked her through shoe rentals, serving food, restocking the paper in the photo booth.
“Easy,” she said.
“No,” I started to say, but I dropped it, because she was right. It was easy.
“Fun summer, huh?” I said to Stephanie on her third day. I’d caught her in a moment of boredom, chin in her hands, eyelids falling down.
She shrugged. “Parents made me get a job. Work ethic, et cetera.”
“Lame. I’ll never make my kids work if they don’t have to.”
Stephanie studied me, as if deciding something. “Yeah, it’s fucked up. All of my friends are at the beach, and I’m just, like, rotting here.”
I nodded. I wanted Stephanie to like me; I wasn’t sure why.
“I’m just killing time,” I said. “Student loans and everything.”
“You’re in college? Jealous.”
“Yeah, it’s fun. Lots of work, but the people are cool.”
“Where do you go?”
“UMD.” University of Maryland. It was a half-truth. It was the place I’d dropped out of.
“Ugh. I’m so jealous. State schools seem so fun. All the people.” She popped a stick of gum in her mouth. “My parents want me to go to an Ivy. To be a doctor, you know.”
“Aren’t you, like, sixteen?”
I felt Magnus watching us from across the room. He was standing at the bar, drying glasses, and he smiled when I looked at him, like he was proud. I rolled my eyes.
“Magnus is so hot,” Stephanie said.
“Homegirl, he’s like twice your age.”
“What’s with you and my age? Plus he looks so young.”
From then on Steph and I were friends. I’d forgotten what it was like to be sixteen, when friendships come and go so easily. During slow hours at work she’d complain to me about her parents, her older brother, her friends and the pictures they sent her from the beach. One afternoon, as we sat in my car in the McDonald’s drive-through on our break, she told me how she did gymnastics and loved it but was afraid for the day she’d have to stop, because she didn’t know who she’d be without it.
“Did you have anything like that?” she asked. “Like, something you had to give up?”
“Yeah,” I said. I considered fessing up about leaving college. I’d been studying nursing on a scholarship, but to pay for books and housing and random shit like coffee and groceries, I had to work long hours in the library and the dining halls, and I wanted to get to do normal college things, too, like parties and spring-break trips. I got so swept up in boys and student jobs that my grades fell and kept falling. I repeated classes, blew all my money, took time off, went back, then finally gave up and left after I’d overheard some kids in my anatomy class calling me an “affirmative-action case.” It was a morning class, and I was still a little drunk — I drank a lot in college — so I went over to them and told them to get fucked: “Oh, wait, sorry, you’ll never get fucked, will you, because who would wanna fuck any of your sorry asses?” The professor kicked me out of class, and after that I packed my shit up and left.
Since being back home, I tried not to think about any of it, but it was hard not to. I wished I had generational money so I didn’t have to work so hard. If I wanted something, I always had to find my own way to get it. It was tiring.
Steph was studying me from the passenger seat. I decided to tell her another truth, a smaller one. “Well, I have a fuck-ton of half siblings from my mom. She’s something of a player. I was close to them all as a kid, but I’ve stopped seeing them. They’re still around here, some of them, but they’re assholes. I guess that’s something I gave up.”
We got our McFlurries, and Steph said, “Well, that’s not really the same as my thing, because it was good for you to give them up, right?”
This was something I went back and forth on personally, but I decided to agree and say that, yes, it was a good thing for me.
Magnus snapped at us when we got back from our extended break. Actually he snapped at me.
“You’re a bad influence,” he said. His hand gripped my upper arm gently, and I could hardly breathe from the feeling of it.
He smelled like men’s deodorant, musky and strong, and something else, too, something I couldn’t quite identify. I remembered a lesson from high-school biology class about pheromones, how they attract you to mates and how sometimes two people just fit together, biologically speaking. I pulled him into a hug and burrowed my nose into the armpit of his shirt. He barely hugged me back. It made me crazy to be around him sometimes, because I wanted him so badly, and he didn’t seem to want me, and it didn’t make sense how I could be so drawn to him if it was just one-sided.
“What’s wrong with you?” he asked after I finally released him.
“I was just testing something.”
Magnus sighed. “Look, just . . . don’t.”
“Am I sexually harassing you?”
He shushed me, even though I wasn’t being loud. “I mean, imagine if the roles were reversed.”
I grinned. “I’d love that.”
“Go refill the waters at lane three.”
I wandered through the familiar alley, listening to the sound of balls rolling down the lanes, the timid cheers, the clinking glasses, the underworld machinery. Moments like that made the job almost fun. They interrupted the mundane rhythm of work, the stifling darkness of the windowless building where I passed my days, where the sunlight and humidity and cicadas outside seemed a mere memory. I’d snake through the guests, feeling their eyes on me, and remember that I was still young enough that everybody wanted me. I was twenty-three. I still had time to do anything. This wasn’t my life. It was just a pause before I moved on to whatever it was I was supposed to do.
I slept with a lot of people. Some would say I “slept around.” I didn’t like the negative connotation of that phrasing, but it was true, technically. I met the guys on apps, or sometimes at work, when bowlers had a few too many drinks and dared each other to ask me out. I loved sex, especially with strangers: the awkwardness of that sudden intimacy, the noises people made, the feeling of a body over mine.
I thought about sex pretty much all the time. I used to think this made me weird. It’s normal for guys, but nobody talks about how girls can be like that, too. Other girls gave me weird looks and told me I should wait a few dates before sleeping with a guy if I ever wanted him to stick around. They didn’t understand: I didn’t want them to stick around. I wanted those moments right before, when you both know what’s about to happen, and the big mystery is: How? How has this ever happened to anybody before? But it happens, inevitably, sometimes clumsily — I’d really like to kiss you, which, we all know what that means — and sometimes like something feral, me and him lurching toward each other, breathless. That was the best way, when it’s like you can’t help yourself.
I’d go silly for days after. I could never remember their faces. I’d try to conjure up images of them in my head, but all I would find were guys I’d known who reminded me of them. I’d spend the whole next day distracted, falling into a tailspin whenever I remembered one specific way a guy had touched me, one thing he’d said. It was bliss.
One of the people I fucked that summer was Steph’s brother. He dropped her off and picked her up sometimes. He was about my age and named Teddy, and when a guy has a name like that, you know you’re in trouble. He was home from college before law school and apparently doing a whole lot of nothing. I’d watch him and Steph bicker in her car while I smoked outside the back entrance. He had long, swooping hair, like a wannabe surfer. I’d had my eye on him for a while but kept it to myself. It gets lonely being a girl who sleeps around.
“Teddy’s such an asshole,” Steph said when she came in one day.
“He looks like one.”
“He’s got this girlfriend that’s obsessed with him: Colby.”
“Yeah, and he treats her like shit. It makes me mad. I’m always like, ‘Teddy, how would you feel if a guy treated me like that?’ ”
“And? How would he feel?”
Steph paused. “He never said, actually. Probably bad, I guess.”
A little flame of defensiveness sparked in my belly. I knew that somebody who didn’t know better might think that guys treated me badly, that I was a sorry case, some sort of victim, just waiting for one of them to fall in love with me or something.
“Isn’t it Colby’s choice, too, though?” I said. “Like, if she’s OK being treated like that, then that’s her prerogative.”
Steph began arranging bowling shoes neatly in size order.
“It’s not like that, though,” she said. “Colby puts up with his shit because she loves him. If he was a better person, he’d stop treating her terribly, or else he’d just break up with her.”
“She could dump him, though, right?”
Steph gave me a hard look. “Didn’t you hear me? She loves him.”
“Shit,” I said. “Didn’t know you were a romantic.” I laughed, but I thought about what she’d said for the rest of the day. It didn’t make sense to me that you could love someone enough to choose and keep choosing the hurt that person caused. How humiliating, I thought. But I was also moved by Colby’s love in a way. It didn’t make sense, but it was moving.
Teddy entered Dancing Pins exactly once, when Steph was helping me close up. It was mid-July and hot outside, and he got bored waiting in the car and came in, checking his reflection in the windows as he rounded the corner.
“Steph, I’ve been waiting forever,” he said.
“Don’t rush me. Some of us actually have to work, you know.” Steph rolled her eyes at me in a let’s-tear-down-capitalism way. I smirked and looked at Teddy hard until he made eye contact.
“Yeah, Teddy,” I said. “Some of us work.”
It was like a superpower I had — flirting with men. It’s not like I was even all that hot, technically speaking. I just wore tight clothes and refused on principle to be the first person to break eye contact. Guys get nervous if you just keep looking at them. That’s what I did with Teddy.
“My sister giving you any trouble?” he asked.
“Tons. But she’s entertaining.”
He half smiled. “Right.” Teddy glanced around the dimly lit bowling alley, the stacked chairs around the bar. “Pretty cool place here.”
“Sometimes,” I said, though I hadn’t bowled since I’d started working at the alley all those summers ago. Steph went to the locker room to change out of her uniform, and I stood there with my hands in my jeans pockets, watching Teddy. “Any plans tonight?”
“Not really,” he said, and he smiled in a way that told me I was in. He had high cheekbones with impressive hollows beneath them and Steph’s same bow-like lips.
While he took Steph home, I lingered in front of Dancing Pins, smoking as cars zoomed past and the neon signs of the nearby restaurants blinked off. It’s not like I was waiting for him, exactly. We hadn’t talked about it. I was just waiting.
Teddy pulled up fifteen minutes later, and I got in the passenger side as if he were someone I knew well.
“Where do you live?” he asked.
“Not far,” I said. “I’ll direct you.”
Bad rap blared from the speakers of his mom’s Lexus. I pointed out where to turn. We rolled up at my apartment complex, which was square and brick and ugly. We took the elevator up to my floor.
I loved bringing men home. They looked around my apartment and commented on things as if they were saying something unique, when really they all noticed the same things. One popular object of fascination was a framed photo of my mom when she was young, smiling from the back of a tractor.
“Cool photo,” Teddy said.
“Found it at a garage sale.”
He smelled like shampoo and peppermint gum. No pheromones that I could detect. His sleek ribbon of a tongue swirled and darted around when we kissed. It was like this with a lot of guys who were too attractive. They never learned how to kiss. He tried the porno stuff, slapping my ass and choking me, but when I told him to stop, he did. Guys learn the weirdest shit from the Internet.
That was my one rule about sleeping with strangers: I didn’t let them degrade me. Not that I judged people who did; I understood the appeal. But it’s a slippery slope, being a girl who likes to sleep with strangers. It can go from enthralling to terrifying in 0.5 seconds flat. I’d been lucky, sure, but part of it was what I chose to put up with, and what I didn’t. I’d kicked guys out before. I’d kicked guys in the nuts before. Nothing too bad had ever happened to me. It was a risk I ran. Some guys think they can treat you a certain way just because you’ll sleep with them. It’s something I’ll never understand.
Teddy was fine otherwise. I lay with my head against his bare shoulder afterward, waiting for him to leave. I thought about what Steph had said about Colby, and how Teddy would probably be upset if a guy treated Steph the way he was treating Colby. Steph would be mad at me, I knew, if she found out I’d slept with Teddy. But she didn’t have to find out. Besides, Teddy would just cheat on Colby with somebody else. At least I didn’t give a shit about him.
“I’m pretty tired,” I said, hoping he’d take the hint.
“Steph says you treat your girlfriend badly.”
“Steph is just a kid,” Teddy said. “She doesn’t know anything.”
“Sure seems like she knows a lot.”
He stroked my arm in a way that tickled. Gestures like that seemed more intimate to me than sex. I turned over.
“I’m pretty tired,” I said again.
“Fine, fine. I’ll go.” He started to get dressed. “What’s your number? I’ll text you.”
I pulled my T-shirt back on and wiggled into my underwear. “You really don’t have to.” I watched him put on his shoes. His long hair was all messed up. He had Steph’s coloring: the pale hair and tan skin. “Hey, listen,” I said.
“Nothing.” I was about to say something stupid. Then I asked, “Do you think I’m a bad person?”
I bit my thumbnail. “OK, but you’re not really the best judge, right?”
He laughed like I wasn’t being serious.
“I just wonder if it’s bad that I don’t feel guilty about this?” I said. “About sleeping with you even though you have a girlfriend, and even though I’m sort of friends with Steph. I guess I just wonder if I should be concerned about that.”
“I think we’re pretty similar, you and me,” Teddy said, and I wanted him out of my apartment right then, because that struck me as a mean and not very true thing to say.
What I’d wanted to tell him was: Earlier tonight I thought I’d die if I didn’t sleep with you, but then we fucked, and it was so silly and short. I didn’t even feel anything. So why is it that I’m so obsessed with this? Which really meant I wanted to ask the question everybody wonders about themselves: What’s wrong with me? I didn’t feel that way often. For the most part I felt cocky and superior, or at least cool and different. But in moments like that one, I wondered why I didn’t want what other people had: boyfriends and stable jobs and a clear plan for the future. It’s scary not to want those things, because it feels like there’s nothing else to want really.
Teddy left, finally, and I lay back in bed and tried to sleep. I thought about Steph and how jealous I was of the stability in her life: the house and the one older brother and the parents who made her get a job to teach her a lesson. A bitter part of me sometimes thought I could’ve been normal, too, if circumstances had been different. I wouldn’t have dropped out of college. I wouldn’t have spent every summer under the treacherous eyes of middle-aged managers. I would have found cheating morally reprehensible. I might even have had a boyfriend and unironically called him pet names like “sweetie” or “babe.”
A therapist might tell me it all goes back to my mom. I don’t even know if that’s true, though if I really think about it, it probably goes back to how she came to this country and how alone she always was. So I guess she and I are pretty similar, except that I use birth control. I also don’t believe in sob stories, and my mother probably would’ve been an asshole either way.
I think Steph noticed something different about me at work after I fucked Teddy. I usually joked around with her a lot, but I kept my distance for a few days — not because I felt guilty but because I felt— I don’t know, just weird. Like I’d done something mean to her. She looked young with her orange-and-purple uniform hanging loose from her body and her hair in a ponytail. When I was sixteen, I’d thought I was so old. I’d thought I was a grown-up and every choice I made was a free one.
I put in a bar order for lane twelve: a pitcher of strawberry margaritas.
“Got it, boss,” Magnus said.
“Hey, Magnus, what were you like when you were sixteen?”
He laughed as he scooped ice into the pitcher. “An idiot.”
“Did you think of yourself as a grown-up?”
“Um, let me think.”
I sat on a bar stool. It was still early. The customers were just starting to come in, and nobody was drunk yet.
“Sorry,” I said. “I forgot that it’s been, like, centuries since you were sixteen.”
“You really think you’re something. You better be clocking this as your break.”
I rolled my eyes but stood up. “Narc.”
“Why are you asking me about sixteen? Your little follower making you sentimental?”
We both looked over at Steph, who was taking an order at lane four.
“It’s nice that y’all are friends,” he said. “Not to be savage, but it doesn’t seem like you have a lot of people in your life you can trust.”
He was looking at me with those big, dark eyes. I wanted to tell him a truth just then, so I said, “I feel this weird jealousy because of how much better the world treats her than it treated me when I was that age. Even working here. Tobin was a jackass to me, or worse.”
“I’d forgotten about Tobin.”
I shrugged. It wasn’t like Tobin did anything to me. He was just a creep, and you learn a lot from working under a creep.
“You were a lot cooler than her at that age,” Magnus said. “You were already yourself in a way a lot of full-grown people aren’t.”
“I was so in love with you that first summer.” I leaned over the bar and brushed invisible lint from his shoulder. “Still am.”
“Come on. Take me seriously for once.”
“Trust me, I take you more seriously than you know.”
I groaned. “It’s cruel.”
Magnus set the pitcher of pink liquid onto the bar beside a stack of cups. “Just because I’m a straight guy doesn’t mean I want to sleep with you.”
“You know that’s not true.” I grabbed the margaritas and walked away, pretending to be full of myself but really boiling inside with anger and frustration that nothing would ever happen between Magnus and me, and feeling how unfair that was. Because I guess he was the one I really wanted.
One evening in late July Steph and I were setting up for a party. Some guy had rented out the entire place for his girlfriend’s birthday. He wanted string lights, balloons, flowers. She and I coordinated the deliveries and spent the afternoon blasting music and dancing as we set up.
“I have something to talk to you about,” Steph said, standing on a stool to pin a string of lights to the back wall.
My stomach dropped. “What’s up, girlfriend?”
She sighed. “Well, my mom finally took pity on me and said I could come to the beach house for August, since I’ve been working so hard.”
I unraveled a ball of lights, letting her words sink in, relieved that she didn’t know about Teddy. “So you’re quitting?”
“I guess, yeah.”
“Steph,” I began, but then I stopped. Finally I said, “I’m happy for you. The beach will be fun.”
“You should totally come for a weekend.”
I laughed. “Babe, it’s not a good look for someone in her twenties to hang out at the beach with a bunch of teenagers.”
Steph pressed her lips together. “You’re right. I wish it wasn’t like that.”
“Me, too.” I turned the music up so we didn’t have to talk anymore.
The party made me melancholy. It was crowded. This woman had a lot of friends, evidently. She was turning twenty-five. The boyfriend who’d organized the whole thing was cheesy-looking but seemed like a good guy. It must’ve been so expensive: renting the place, buying the bottomless food and drinks. I wondered what the guy did for a living. The guests were attractive and well dressed and laughed a lot. None of them looked me in the eye when I refilled their drinks, but the boyfriend gave Steph and me big tips.
I imagined what my twenty-fifth birthday would be like. Maybe, I thought, if I put in the right kind of effort for the next year and a half, it could be something like this: a crowd of people who loved me, or at least liked me. Maybe I could move somewhere new and pretend my whole family was dead and flirt my way into a position at some big company and act aloof and mysterious, even though I wasn’t either of those things. I was scared, just then, of the thought that there were things in the world I would never experience, no matter how badly I wanted to.
The last guests staggered out a little past midnight. Magnus ducked out soon after, but Steph and I stayed, taking down the lights and gossiping about the guests. I sort of loved her in a way, but I could never say it, because it might have come across as weird. It was a type of love I hadn’t felt before and didn’t have a name for and that wasn’t entirely platonic, so I didn’t say anything.
Jacinta, one of the cleaning ladies, approached me. “Ya acabamos,” she said, gesturing to the bathroom.
“Gracias, Jacinta,” I said. “Podemos cerrar nosotros.”
After they left, I said to Steph, “Since I’m a bad influence anyway, how about a drink?”
I poured us gin and tonics from behind the bar, putting on a show like I was some hotshot bartender, which made Steph laugh. We took our drinks to the end of a lane and sat down on the polished wood. The alley lights flashed red and yellow against our faces.
“I always used to wonder what happened to the bowling balls at the end of the lane,” I said. This was a thing I usually said to guys when I wanted them to find me enigmatic.
Steph sipped her drink. “They just go under and feed back into the machine, right?”
“Well, duh. I meant, like, metaphorically.”
“I guess.” She tucked her arms under her legs. “Hey, you’re not really a student, are you.”
I shook my head. “Used to be. Dropped out.”
“Seemed like a waste of time and money, I guess.”
“But you need a college degree to get a job.”
“I have a job.”
“Right, but I mean, like, a real job.”
“Ouch.” I laughed too loud, to make it seem like that hadn’t stung.
“You know what I mean.”
I did. I downed the rest of my drink. “Sometimes I take care of this old guy, Stanley,” I said. “He’s off his rocker now, but he gave my mom a job when she first got here, looked out for her — for all of us, I guess. Stanley’s son had died in combat or something. Anyway, when I think of it, I go by his place and talk to him. He says he doesn’t recognize me, but I think he does. He tells me I should marry his son, how lucky his son would be to have such a nice girlfriend. Sometimes it makes me cry, but that upsets him, so mostly I just read aloud to him from magazines.” I hadn’t visited Stanley since I’d dropped out. I decided I would start visiting him again. I would call the next day and go see him.
“That’s a nice thing to do,” Steph said.
“Yeah, well. One day I want to be a nurse.”
She lay back on the lane. “You’d be a good nurse.”
“You think?” I lay down beside her. Something was happening between us that I didn’t quite understand, and it scared me. I felt guilty all of a sudden. “Look, Steph, I don’t want you to feel bad for me. Sometimes things just—”
“You don’t have to make this into some lesson for me,” she said. “I know how shitty things get.”
I smiled, because she didn’t, really. “You’re gonna have so much fun at the beach.”
“I wish you could come with me. I’m going to miss you.” Steph closed her eyes. “This is one of those situations that’s, like, never going to happen again, you know — like the two of us together, as friends.” Her voice had turned solemn. “You’re so cool. You don’t give a shit about what anyone thinks, and it’s like you’re happy, even though maybe you shouldn’t be.”
“That sounds like an insult.”
“It’s not, I swear.”
An unfamiliar feeling flickered inside me, and I realized I was going to tell her the truth, even though I didn’t have to. I was going to tell her the truth because she deserved to know.
“Steph, I slept with Teddy.”
She sat up and faced me, her pale-blue eyes blazing. I felt my pulse thrumming against my skin.
“A few weeks ago,” I said. “The night he came to pick you up.”
“I can’t believe you did that,” she said. “I didn’t think you would do something like that.”
“I guess you don’t really know me.”
Steph stood up, knocking over her glass and spilling her gin and tonic onto the lane. I would have to clean it up. She grabbed her purse from the bar stool and said, “I actually can’t believe you.” She paused, like she wanted to say something else. And then she was gone.
I wanted to run after her, to apologize, but it was no use now. Steph would join her friends at the beach and forget all about me. It hurt to destroy the image she’d had of me, an image that was better than the person I was. But I was also proud that I’d done it. Otherwise she never would’ve known.
When my siblings and I were kids, we went down to the shore only once that I remember, the whole gang of us together, with our mom and her boyfriend at the time, Stunt. He was trying to be a father to us all, before my mother did what she did with all her boyfriends, which was let them down. We took the bus wearing our Old Navy bathing suits and spent the day running in and out of the water. Stunt sent each of us to different food stands on the boardwalk to ask for samples, and we feasted on a buffet of mini ice-cream scoops and fistfuls of fries. I don’t remember what our mother was doing; sleeping, probably. I loved the hot sand against my feet, the relief when I plunged them into the water. My oldest brother, Nico, threw me into the waves again and again, laughing. I loved my siblings then. I loved them all. I daydreamed that our mom would drop dead and Stunt would take us in, wrapping us up in his broad, tattooed arms. There would be no more babies or fathers, no more drunk mother, just the six of us and him.
I hadn’t thought about Stunt in a long time. He wasn’t all that great, objectively speaking, but I guess he was the best of them.
I fantasized that Stunt had stuck around, and we’d gone to the beach every summer, and I’d run into Steph on the boardwalk, both of us in cutoff shorts holding ice-cream cones, and we’d be friends, real friends. That was a life I wanted.
Once Steph left, I tried not to think about her, but she’d overridden my old memories of Dancing Pins, memories from when I was a kid, from those early summers working there. Missing her was made harder because I couldn’t say anything about it without sounding like a creep.
Her replacement was some recent high-school grad named Jeffrey, the manager’s nephew, a white boy with red acne on his chin and a very male inability to take initiative. At least he wasn’t someone I wanted to sleep with.
“Lost your little follower, huh?” Magnus said when he caught me smoking out back.
“Looks like it.”
He leaned against the wall beside me. It was a slow afternoon; nobody was ordering drinks yet.
“You’re not acting like yourself,” he said.
I rolled my eyes, for once angry with him for a reason other than his refusal to sleep with me. “You don’t even know me.”
“No, I guess you’re right. I don’t.” He reached for my cigarette, and I let him take a drag. “And you don’t know me either. We just know each other at work.”
“I’ve been trying to change that, you know.”
“No, you haven’t. You’ve just been testing me.”
I stubbed out the cigarette. “Maybe.”
“You doing anything tonight?” he asked.
I raised an eyebrow at him. “Wait, is this happening?”
Magnus laughed and shook his head. “No, perv. I just have an idea.”
For the rest of the afternoon I tried not to look at him as we worked. My stomach fluttered in a sad new way, because I wanted it to happen between us, and even though he had said it wouldn’t, all the evidence in my life pointed to that being a lie, because every man I’d ever talked to had wanted one thing from me. And then I thought about how maybe the thing I loved about Magnus was that he didn’t.
After we closed up, Magnus called me over to lane five. It was all lit up. He had two pairs of bowling shoes beside him. My heart kicked.
“No,” I said.
He picked up the smaller pair of shoes and held them out to me. “Come on. You used to bowl all the time.”
“ ‘Used to’ being the key phrase there.”
“And what do you know about harmless?”
I was trying to say something that would shake him, but he was unshakable. He held out the shoes, red and shiny with black accents on the side. He was standing there offering me something, something that I probably needed, but I didn’t have it in me to take it.
“Nothing’s ever gonna happen between us, is it?” I asked.
Magnus lowered the shoes and pressed his lips together in an empathetic half smile. “No,” he said. “I’m not going to do what those other guys do with you.”
“But I want you to.”
“That’s not how it works, kid. Hey, don’t cry.”
“I’m not crying,” I said, but I was, and he hugged me, which was just about the meanest thing he could have done at that particular moment. I loved him so much I thought it would kill me, even though he was right: I didn’t know him. I squeezed his shoulder and pulled away, wiping my nose on the hem of my uniform.
“You’re such a shithead,” I said, sitting down and pulling on the shoes.
I approached the rack of bowling balls and picked up a yellow one, eight pounds, with holes big enough that my fingers wouldn’t get stuck. It used to be my favorite. It felt heavy and familiar in my hands. I stepped up to the lane and lifted the ball to my chest, focusing on the triangle of pins at the end. I told myself I wasn’t the girl I had been. I was a different person now.
I took a deep breath, stepped forward, and released the ball from my fingers. Halfway down the lane it rolled into the gutter, then tumbled into the darkness behind the pins.