The countdown began just before midnight in the bowling-alley bar, drunken voices calling out the final seconds of the century in a jumbled chorus. My mother had disappeared into the crowd, and I was sitting on a folding chair next to the lanes, looking up at a muted TV that showed a party in a city I didn’t recognize. As midnight approached, something compelled me to go outside into the cold night air and look up at the sky. I wanted to see it happen firsthand: Everything thrown into chaos. The end of the world.
I imagined all the lights switching off at the stroke of twelve, just like everyone was afraid might happen — the electrical grid failing and the world suddenly going dark for a long moment before the stars became visible. The music blaring from the bowling alley would fall silent. Sirens would sound in the distance, everything on fire. Panic-stricken, pajama-clad families would stream out of their houses and fill the sidewalks with their cries and screams. With the traffic lights gone haywire, cars would slam into one another, drivers and passengers crushed and bleeding and calling out for help. No one would come to their rescue.
But nothing changed at all. I heard glass shatter and then the laughter of the older kids who hung around in the back parking lot, smoking weed and drinking from bottles tucked into paper bags. Rock music blared from a passing car. Then everything was quiet again. When I went back inside the bowling alley, no one even realized I’d been gone. Past the swinging doors into the bar, I could now pick out my mother in the crowd. She was leaning heavily against her boyfriend’s shoulder — his hand in the back pocket of her jeans, her fingers curled around the stem of her champagne flute — and laughing at something I couldn’t hear. It was the kind of laugh she didn’t bring home with her anymore. When she caught my eye across the room, nothing changed in her face. It was like she didn’t recognize me at all.
Maybe the end of the world wasn’t fire and explosions and lawlessness and bodies in the streets. Maybe the end of the world was some smaller thing.
As I turned sixteen in the summer of 2000, I couldn’t remember the last time I hadn’t been afraid. Even though Y2K hadn’t happened, I was still waiting for disaster to catch up to us, to catch up to me. I was afraid at school, walking stiffly through the halls and trying my best to escape notice. I was afraid around other boys — boys who felt the right kind of desire without even having to try while I waited and waited for the broken thing inside of me to correct itself. An older boy in the neighborhood had found out the truth about me one night in his basement: He’d given me one too many swigs of his father’s liquor, and after we’d passed out together on his old couch, my warm body had eventually found his in the dark. I felt the sharp crack of my head on the concrete floor as he shoved me away, a kick to my chest when I tried to stand up. The video game we’d been playing was still paused on the TV screen, and before I scrambled up the stairs and out the door, I saw my avatar frozen in place, his pixelated body crouched and watchful.
I felt afraid every time the phone rang. Once, while my mother had been working at a bar after the divorce, I’d answered our home phone, and a man on the other end had told me that I’d better run, because he was coming to kill me. “I can’t believe what you did to her,” he said. I realized then that he thought I was my father. She’d probably been drinking on her shift and complaining about all the things my father had done before we’d finally left. Maybe she’d forgotten to tell this man that we hadn’t seen my father in months. “Leave us alone,” I said, my voice small and weak, revealing me as a kid, someone who would not be able to fight back. The man hung up.
Then there was the call three years ago, telling us my father had died. I could still see the receiver in my mother’s hand, her face as she heard the news, the glance in my direction that had frozen me in place.
But passing my driving test had me feeling bolder. I could finally take to the open road alone — no more practicing with my mother on back roads with hills and woods and sharp turns in the dark. I already knew the first place I would go: on a Saturday night when my mother was out late with her boyfriend, I would head to a nightclub an hour away in St. Louis. A comment beneath the club’s online listing had told me the bouncer rarely checked IDs on college night: “10 PM, 18+! Glitter and fog and laser lights all night long! Boys dancing for tips, stage never empty!” I’d only ever visited St. Louis on field trips to the science center and the zoo. And there was the time I’d won a spelling bee at the art museum, and my school photo had been printed in the paper. In it my blond hair had not yet darkened to brown, and I smiled wide, no shame about my crooked teeth. But now I was going into the city for a different reason. I had shed the boyish smile that would have given me away as underage. I’d grown a rough stubble that accentuated my cheekbones and jawline, and I’d colored my hair with blue gel, the way I’d seen a skinny skater boy do in the pages of XY at the mall bookstore.
On Saturday after dinner I headed out in my mother’s old car, dropping my brother off at a sleepover before continuing down the highway. I was almost to the bridge over the Missouri River when I passed the exit to the bowling alley. That summer I’d spent many nights waiting up for my mother to come home from the bar that looked out on the lanes. Her boyfriend was old high-school buddies with the owner of the place, so my mother never paid for her drinks there. The owner’s wife would give me free Coke refills on my mother’s bowling nights, before I was old enough to stay home alone. I’d play the arcade games near the snack bar for hours with my little brother and then wait bleary-eyed for nightcaps to be poured and drunk. The bartender once told my mother that maybe she should slow down, that she might have had enough, and my mother just laughed as if she’d been told a very funny joke. On Tuesdays she would close the place down with her boyfriend and some of the other couples from the evening league. I’d stay up late in my bedroom, my body tense with coiled anxiety as I pictured her driving home: pulling onto the highway, the four lanes ahead of her dark and empty, hot air rushing in through her open window. My legs would grow cramped and stiff beneath me as I sat at my window upstairs, watching the lights in the other houses wink out one by one and waiting for the headlights of my mother’s car to appear at the turnoff from the state road. The bowling alley was nine exits down from our house.
One night I heard the phone ring.
I went downstairs to answer it. The extension beside my mother’s bed was closer, but that was where she’d taken the call about my father. My brother was asleep in the room across the hall, his door slightly ajar and the glow from his night-light casting shadows into the hallway as I descended the stairs. Earlier that night we had eaten our frozen dinners while the local news played on the TV above the liquor cabinet. The weather forecast was always bright and sunny that summer, like nothing bad could ever happen.
In the kitchen I picked up the phone and waited for someone to speak. For a while I heard only a deep silence, like the quiet of the woods after a gunshot has rung out. Then I heard my mother’s voice.
“I went off the road,” she said.
It was just after midnight, the summer sky outside the kitchen window full of stars.
“I don’t know where I am. I think I hit something. You have to help me.”
She sounded very far away. I tried to picture how far she would have to go down the highway before she no longer recognized where she was: past the fast-food restaurants and discount warehouses, the gun shops and porn stores, until it was just open fields as far as you could see.
“I think I hit something,” she said again.
She tried to tell me what she could see through the windshield, but it was too dark for her to make anything out. Even her high beams told her nothing. She said it had been a long time since she’d seen any other cars.
The line suddenly went dead, and she didn’t answer when I called her back again and again, desperate to hear her voice. I waited up until almost dawn, running through all the ways the night could possibly end. Finally I saw her headlights turn into the neighborhood and heard the garage door slowly open downstairs, the electric thrum and the spinning of its wheels on their tracks.
I went to greet her. “You made it,” I said from the stairs. She kicked off her shoes at the door to the garage, tossed her purse onto the tile floor, and turned on the overhead light, squinting against the glare and raising a hand to shield her eyes. She couldn’t find me, but she turned toward my voice and leaned heavily against a wall of framed family photos: our faces over the years all collaged together.
“Go back to bed,” she said, and she switched off the light. As she made her way slowly past me on the staircase, her hand grazed my shoulder. “I’m so tired,” she said. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
After my mother was asleep, I made my way down to the garage, the hard concrete cold against my bare feet as I inspected her car with a flashlight, running a hand along the front and rear bumpers, checking the tires for air, making sure the side mirrors were intact — looking for any clue that would tell me what had happened to her, what she’d done. I found myself searching not just for dents but also for blood I would need to wash away. But I left the garage with nothing to show for all my careful searching. In the anxious days that followed, I watched the news for reports of a hit-and-run. I walked the neighborhoods, checking telephone poles for signs about missing pets that could have been killed in an accident. I watched my mother leave every morning for work and return home with groceries or takeout as if nothing had happened. I examined her face while we watched TV together, searching her eyes for something hidden away there.
I wouldn’t find out whether she had hit anything or how she’d made it back to the house that night. We would never speak of it again.
As I drove toward St. Louis, the image that had accompanied the nightclub listing online flashed over and over in my mind: a shirtless boy in a light-blue Speedo and loud makeup, his tongue pressing against his teeth as he opened his mouth invitingly in a smile, one hand gripping a metal pole. Glitter and fog and laser lights all night long! Stage never empty! I was driving way over the speed limit, but I didn’t tap the brakes.
I followed the directions that I’d written down and parked in a cluster of cars underneath a highway overpass, next to a pickup truck in which two men were casually passing a bottle back and forth. I breezed past the bouncer at the door and held out my arm to receive a wristband, like I’d seen the boys ahead of me do. Then I passed underneath a sparkling disco ball and through rainbow-colored streamers into a place I never could have imagined. The pop music was loud and pulsing. Colored lights flashed. Men in sweaty T-shirts and cutoff shorts danced close with their heads thrown back. I was overwhelmed — the rules of the world were changing around me so rapidly. But no one looked at me like I didn’t belong. No one told me to leave.
The drive home was long. My earlier excitement and nerves had given way to a gnawing sense of loss as the glow of the city faded in the rearview and the dull expanse of darkness ahead took hold. The highway cut straight through the floodplains and down toward the river. I thought of the news images of floodwaters from several years earlier, all those houses underwater. And then I crossed the bridge, holding my breath the way I always did until I reached the other side. But this time I didn’t want to exhale. I wanted to hold the night inside of me forever. When I finally took a breath, I coughed and hunched over the steering wheel like a sick child, scared of what would happen to him and desperate for it all to be made right.
I was surprised to find my mother waiting up when I got home, sitting at the drop-leaf kitchen table that we usually kept pushed against the window to save space. The smoke from her cigarette filled the air like in an old detective movie. Everything was in shadow. The only light came from a lamp around the corner in the living room. I rubbed my eyes with my fists, trying to clear them.
“It’s late,” she said. The digital clock above the stove showed past 3 AM. She put out her cigarette in the glass ashtray and stood unsteadily, stretching. Her knees popped when she straightened her legs, and she rubbed her shoulder with her free hand, wincing as she dropped her neck to one side. “I was worried,” she said. “Your phone was dead. It didn’t even ring.”
I thought about the night earlier in the summer when I’d been the one waiting up; the night when she had finally come home, too. Now I stood before her, blinking away my exhaustion, my eyes adjusting to the dark. I wondered if she was doing what I’d done that night — examining my body for evidence, looking for something that would tell her where I’d been, what I’d been up to: The cigarettes I’d bummed from the college kid leaning against a graffitied wall, just so I could feel his hand brush against mine as he held out the flame from his red Bic. The shots of rum the bartender had poured into my Coke refills with a wink as I’d fumbled to hide my neon wristband. The way the man in the bathroom had pulled me to him suddenly and without warning, his teeth scraping roughly against mine, the scent of him reminding me for one horrible second of my father, and then, in the next moment, smelling like something I could possibly become. I’d given him a fake name when he’d taken my number. I didn’t even remember what name. I’d lied in response to every question. It had been so easy to transform into someone else, a stranger I could get to know better over time.
“You’re home,” my mother said. She smiled and closed her eyes for a long moment, already anticipating bed. I knew then that when I’d stepped in from the garage, she hadn’t seen anything about who I was becoming. She hadn’t noticed the glitter that the boy with the red Bic had thumbed across my cheekbones, hadn’t spotted the neon wristband still snug around my wrist, and wouldn’t have thought to smell my breath for the booze I’d gulped without regard for the long drive ahead of me. She had seen only her little boy, the one who had always wanted to make her proud. She had been my entire world, nothing else but her and me. Now she stepped carefully around the furniture in the dark, found her way to the railing, and climbed the stairs.
I could barely see her at all.