“The Wild One” by Christine Lasek

The Wild One

I was saving it up, those first two weeks of high school.  My locker on the third floor, at the end of the science hallway that always smelled like formaldehyde.  Corridors that seemed to snake off from the central stairwell in a way that didn’t make sense.  Blake Middle School had been a giant O, a donut, a ring of classes with a courtyard in the middle.  Like Renee said, it was impossible to get lost.  But at Thebes High, I only had directions to each of my classes from my locker, without an understanding of how the classrooms related to each other.  How, connected, they made up school.

I would tell Renee all of it.  About how, on the second day of class, the first full day of school, I made my way to the cafeteria, crammed with 650 students, my brown paper lunch bag with an apple, a Tropical Punch Capri Sun, a ham and cheese sandwich on white bread, hugged to my chest.

I looked for us, the other refugees from Blake. The half dozen kids from my neighborhood who, like me, lived on the wrong side of the dividing line.  The kids whose friends, like Renee—and Marge, and Grace, and Lynn, and Eileen—were at that moment eating lunch in the Antioch High School cafeteria across town.  We weren’t friends, the kids from my neighborhood and me, yet I hoped we could be allies, banding together against the strange.  But when I spotted them, they weren’t a cluster or an island of familiarity, they were scattered here and there, at tables, engrossed in conversations.  I imagined friendships forged elsewhere—at soccer practice, at catechism, apart from Blake—and wondered if I was the only person who didn’t have anyone.

While I stood in the doorway, debating what to do, a boy I didn’t know, his group of friends in tow, tossed his paper boat of French fries into the trash can next to me.  It missed, ricocheting off the edge, splattering the thighs of my pale jeans with ketchup. I didn’t wait to see him get in trouble, and instead spent my first lunch in high school in the girls’ room, trying to get the ketchup off my pants, which left rust colored smears damp with paper towel blotting.

“You’ve got period blood all over you,” the kid who sat next to me in biology whispered when I sat down.

“It’s ketchup,” I told him.

“Someone PMS-ing would say that,” he said and laughed.

Renee would have known what to say, maybe, “Well, at least one of us has gone through puberty,” or, “Why don’t you lean in and give it a deep sniff?”  But my retort was a red face and blinked back tears.

I would tell Renee all of it, the details held in my stomach, fluttering up my throat as my mother and I got in the car and started the familiar drive to Skateland Roller Rink.

“Big reunion,” my mother said.  I saw her glance back at me in the rearview mirror.  “I have to say, I’m a little surprised you haven’t talked to Renee on the phone more now that you don’t see each other every day.”

“She’s not great on the phone,” I said.  I didn’t tell my mother that the only phone in Renee’s house was mounted on the wall in the kitchen, and when I called after dinner the day of the ketchup incident, my discarded jeans soaked with Spray and Wash in the laundry room, I could hear Renee’s parents screaming at each other in the background, which meant that either her mother was drunk or her father wasn’t. We only talked long enough to arrange going skating, and I had been swallowing every fear, every daily indignity, ever since.  Saving it up.

The closer we got, past the turnoff for Northland Mall with its movie theatre, past the shuttered flower shop, past the Chinese restaurant we had never been to with the red neon sign advertising Cocktails, the more Thebes High seemed to fade in the distance.  This felt like a returning to an old reality, and maybe if I stayed long enough, the damage would be undone, the school bus would drop me off in Blake’s circle drive come Monday.

I saw Renee before she saw me, the mid-September sun already thinner, casting the parking lot in shadow where my parents’ powder blue Cutlass Ciera blended in with the other sedans already in the lot.  In the light of the entrance, I could see Renee was wearing a brand new, stiff-looking pair of Jordache jeans, a red tank top tucked into the high waist.  Despite the falling temperatures, she had her black nylon jacket slung over her shoulder.

“Isn’t Renee cold?” my mother asked, with the voice she reserved expressly for Renee observations: Doesn’t Renee’s mother care when she gets home? Isn’t Renee worried about spoiling her appetite eating Doritos/Little Debbie’s/Fudgecicles after school? How can Renee study when she’s got Paula Abdul cranked up so loud?

I looked down at what had been my first day of school outfit—burgundy corduroy pants, cream-colored mock turtleneck, the brass-colored metal buttons on my tapestry vest dull in the fading light.  Next to Renee’s outfit, I suddenly felt awkward, like I had tried too hard and everyone would see it.

When my mother pulled up to the front entrance, Renee sauntered over to the car, a slow and deliberate walk, as if she knew everyone else would wait for her.  My mother lowered the back passenger window—we’d just gotten the Cutlass when my grandfather died and it was our first car with power windows.

“Hey, Mrs. Michaels,” Renee said, leaning in through the window.  “McDonald’s for dinner?”

My mother had hit the drive-through—a Big Mac for her, Filet-O-Fish for my dad, a cheeseburger for my sister Jaimie, and two large fries for the family to share.  Never a Happy Meal, my mother refusing to “pay extra for plastic trash that would just end up in the garbage.”

She did let me sneak one French fry from the bag, and when I wiped my hand on the back seat, it left a smear on the plush velvet-like interior that sparkled with salt.

“How are you liking Antioch, Renee?”

“’S good.  We miss this one here, though,” she said, pointing to me with her thumb.  “And hey,” Renee said, turning to me, “I just finished this and you should read it.”

She took a dog-eared paperback from her back pocket and handed it to me.

“Flowers in the Attic,” I read the title aloud.  The cover had a picture of a house with a girl peeking out of the upstairs window.

“Let me see that.” My mother reached her hand over the seat and plucked the novel from my fingers. “Isn’t this the book with the incest?” Renee nodded and grinned.  “I can’t believe girls are still reading this garbage.”  She looked directly at me.  “Your aunt read the whole series when it came out a decade ago.”

“And that’s how you know it’s good,” Renee said and opened the door for me.

“Don’t forget, girls—I will be here promptly at 9.  Don’t make me come look for you.”

I nodded, slammed the car door, and followed Renee inside.

Skateland was light and dark, a wall of sound. The overly-bright lobby dumped into the main skating area, where the overhead lights were dimmed, the rink lit by red, purple, and green neon tube lights reflecting off the polished wood surface, bright patches of white overflow light from the skate rental counter and concession area.

The DJ, sitting above the rink in a carpet-covered booth, was blaring Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven is a Place on Earth” through the sound system. The music was punctuated by the mechanical clicks and bells of the pinball machines, the electronic music from arcade games: Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles, Robocop, and Double Dragon.

The lobby had teal, short-napped carpeting you could skate over, spotted with pieces of shellac-hard ground-in gum.  Brass stanchions, greasy with fingerprints, corralled a line of people waiting to get in.  The girl behind the counter had purple hair in a high ponytail, an Antioch High School class of ’88 t-shirt on under her yellow Skateland vest.

“You know her?” I asked Renee when we joined the end of the line.

“The chick behind the counter?  No.  Do you know everyone at Thebes High?”

Renee was annoyed and I wasn’t sure why. “I don’t know anyone at Thebes High,” was all I said.

From our place in line, I could see that the rink was already filling with people, mostly girls.  But there were a few boys, and not all of them had their fingers twined with a skating partner.

My dad had given me a $5 bill—$2 bucks to get in, $1 for skate rental, and enough left over for some food, or to play skee ball, or to pump leftover quarters into the sticker or quarter machines, with sticky hands or glitter-filled bouncy balls or friendship bracelets, near the lockers.

In middle school, Renee and I had spent Fridays, birthday parties, school outings here. My allowance, for keeping my room clean, making my bed, dusting the family room, went to renting tan skates with orange wheels reeking of antiseptic spray, or nachos with a pool of warm cheese sauce, or Cokes in sweating waxed cups.

On a Friday before the end of 8th grade, Renee swiped a $20 bill from her mother’s purse, and we’d gotten huge ice cream sundaes from the concession stand.  We sat perched on the edge of the swing chairs nailed to the floor, knees squeezed together, the heavy leather and metal skates anchoring our feet to the ground.

We discussed, then, the kinds of boys we planned to meet at Thebes High and Antioch, Blake Middle School boys being too immature or stupid or gross to date.

“So, you’re hoping to meet Lloyd from Say Anything,” Renee said scornfully when I finished describing Mr. Right.  We had just seen the movie at the Northland Mall Movieplex the weekend before, and Renee has abused John Cusack’s character after, saying he was “cute but drippy,” and pretty much the same dumb character he’d played in Better Off Dead.

But I’d fallen for Lloyd’s earnestness.  His insecurity.  Plus, Renee was one to talk—her boyfriend sounded like J.D. from Heathers, who, while definitely not boring, killed people.

But instead of arguing about it, I just looked out at the rink, skaters like water in a whirlpool. While Renee spooned hot fudge and whipped cream from around the base of her sundae, I imagined Lloyd there, trench coat fanned out behind him as he skated.  I would race up alongside him, and he would pull me close, put his arm around my waist or, cheekily, his hand in my back jeans pocket while we couple skated around the rink.

It was something to look forward to with high school and my inevitable separation from my friends looming.

By the end of the night, Renee and I both had stomachaches and we had winnowed her $20 down to a handful of quarters.  After retrieving our shoes from the skate rental counter, Renee pulled off her socks, balled them up and shoved them in her jacket pocket, and slipped into her yellow jelly shoes.  While I laced up my faux Keds from Kmart, Renee pumped the last of her money into one of the quarter machines near where we sat. The one she chose had tiny padlocks, like for a diary, which came in different colors and shapes.  She handed me the first clear plastic capsule, which had a round, light blue padlock inside, two silver keys tied with gold foil string. The padlock Renee got was red and heart-shaped.

“Like this,” Renee said.  She used her teeth to force the plastic egg open, unlocked the padlock with the included keys, and affixed it to the belt loop on her jeans.

“This can be our thing,” she said.

I forced open my plastic egg and clipped the padlock to my belt loop in the same way.

“We’ll wear them every day,” Renee said. “And no one at your school or mine will know what it means.”

And I had worn it every day, all summer long on my jean shorts, on the belt loop of my corduroys the first day of school.  The keyhole had rusted a bit from the time I forgot to take the padlock off my shorts and my mother sent it through the washing machine, but it still worked.

As the line to get into Skateland inched forward, I glanced down at Renee’s waist and saw she wasn’t wearing the heart-shaped padlock.  My own, with its keys, made a hard lump in my pants pocket—I touched it through the corduroy and was relieved that I hadn’t worn it.

“This is stupid,” Renee said.

“Standing in line?”

Renee raked her fingers through her shoulder-length brown hair, which looked a little greasy.  She seemed jumpy.  Uncomfortable.  My dad would say “crawling out of her skin.”  My mother would say she needed sleep or soup or time away from the television.

“The roller rink is stupid,” Renee said.  “This is baby stuff.  We’re in high school now. We should act like it.”

“You want to go someplace else?”  I’d been looking forward to this time since we planned it, but I tried not to let disappointment seep into my voice.

“Yes!”  Renee ducked under the stanchions and out of line. Reluctantly, I followed.

“Well, I could call my mom to come get us.  We’ll have to wait until my family’s done with dinner,” I said, digging a quarter out of my pocket and heading toward the payphone just outside the door.  I knew my mother would be annoyed, and I usually tried to shield Renee’s behavior from her, but this time, I would let my mother know that changing plans at the last minute had been Renee’s idea.

“No need to call you mom,” Renee said.  “Let’s just go next door.”

“To the Bowl-A-Rama?”

On the other side of the vacant lot next to Skateland was the Bowl-A-Rama, its giant metal sign dotted with blinking lights and a neon arrow, announcing 40 LANES! COCKTAILS! BILLIARDS! to drivers exiting the I-75 expressway.

When I had gone bowling in the past, for birthday parties or one time with my dad’s work, it was always at Astro Lanes across town, where they had bumper black light bowling and pizza.

“If you want to go bowling, I could probably get my mom to drive us to Astro,” I offered.

“You call your mom and she’s gonna get pissed.  Why would we do that when there’s a bowling alley right here?”

“But Bowl-A-Rama’s where the older kids hang out.”  I said kids, but I meant women and men.  People that inhabited the inscrutable space between my age and my parents’.

“WE’RE older kids, now,” Renee said.  I shook my head slightly. “Look, you just said that you don’t know anyone at Thebes High. Newsflash, you’re not gonna meet anyone at the roller rink. But we might at Bowl-A-Rama.  Plus, it’s got a bar.  There could be college guys there!”

I didn’t want to meet college guys, but I couldn’t tell Renee that. Panic roiling in my stomach, I could feel the window for changing Renee’s mind closing.

“My mom will be pissed if we leave Skateland without telling her,” I finally said.

“Your mom’s not gonna know, genius.”  Renee pulled on her nylon jacket but didn’t button it up.  “We’ll run back before she gets here, just like the good little girls we are.  Now, c’mon!” Renee took my hand firmly and led me through the doors, around the building, toward Bowl-A-Rama.

There used to be a chain link fence between Skateland and the vacant lot we had to cross, but someone had driven over it years ago, and Renee and I stepped gingerly over its rusted remains.  Parts of the lot were paved, the concrete broken and uneven, scrubby plants and weeds growing up through the cracks. A chair leg. Broken beer bottles, shards held together by their labels. Rustling chip bags and the silver glint of candy wrappers. One used condom dotted with gravel.

I thought it was silent, but the one mercury vapor security lamp at the back of the lot droned electrically and cast everything with a greenish light.  When Renee looked back at me, her skin looked sickly-yellow, her eyes sunk completely in shadow.

“This is fun,” she said.  She was telling me, but she smiled and squeezed my hand, and even in the gloom, I could tell she was feeling more like herself, so I smiled back and felt a little less sick to my stomach. If we were bowling, it would probably be easier to talk than if we were skating, anyway.

“Okay, before we go in, let me fix you up.” Renee turned me to face the building, which was long and low with rough brick in shades of black, tan, and beige.  She considered me, her hand to her chin, in the light from the Bowl-A-Rama sign.

“Tuck in your shirt,” she said.  As I did, she reached behind me and pulled out my scrunchie.  “Good.  You don’t have the kink in your hair from wearing this thing too long.” She put my scrunchie in her coat pocket and fished a tube of lipstick out of her jeans pocket.

“I can’t put this on without a mirror,” I said when she handed the lipstick to me.

“I’ll help you.  Open your mouth like this.” Renee made her mouth a perfect O.  When I mimicked her, she took my face with one hand, opened the tube of lipstick with her teeth, and traced my lips.  The lipstick was warm and smelled like Vaseline, but Renee at least still smelled like exʹcla·maʹtion, which she bought when she decided thirteen was too old to keep wearing Love’s Baby Soft.

She swiped the lipstick over her own mouth, mashed her sparkling pink lips together. “Do I have lipstick on my teeth?” she asked and grimaced.  I shook my head.

“You look pretty good, too,” she said, pocketing the lipstick. “At least with your shirt tucked in, you can see you have a body in all those clothes.  Too bad we can’t ditch the vest somewhere.”

“My mom would freak if it got lost or someone stole it.”

“Let’s try to forget your mom for like five seconds, okay?” Renee pulled open the door, which was rounded and wooden, with iron fixtures and a rough iron handle like the door to a castle.  She yanked with all her weight but the door still opened heavily.

The Bowl-A-Rama was murky inside, cigarette smoke as thick as fog.  Renee didn’t cough, but I did, the sound drowned out by the roll and crash of ball against pin.

Renee sauntered up to the counter just inside the door, which had a man behind it sitting on a stool. The counter was lit by a single banker’s lamp, haloing the man’s torso with light but shadowing his face.  The hair on his forearms glinted like copper.

“How much to bowl?” Renee asked loudly, over the noise, as if she belonged here.

“Five dollars for two hours including shoe rental.”  Behind the man was a wall of cubby holes, pairs of shoes crammed inside toe first, with sizes painted on the back with what looked like whiteout.  “But I’m all booked up for at least an hour. I can put your names on the waitlist and I’ll call you when a lane frees up.  You’ll pay then.”

I felt momentarily relieved—there was no way Renee would want to wait. I tugged her jacket sleeve toward the door, but she didn’t turn to me.

“Renee and Catherine,” Renee said and I let go of her sleeve.  The man wrote our names on something I couldn’t see.  “Can we wait at the bar?”

“How old are you?” the man asked.

Renee turned to me then, looked me up and down.  Considering.  “Sixteen,” she lied.

The man looked at me, too, but I wouldn’t make eye contact.  I just focused on the arm hair.  He finally said, “Uh huh.  Well, no beer.  Just stick to Cokes, okay?”

“You got it.  I’ll keep my eye on this one.”  Renee pointed to me with her thumb.  “She’s wild.”

I could feel all my blood rush to my face, hot embarrassment, and I was thankful it was so dark in there.  Renee linked her arm in mine and led us away from the counter.

“Are you nuts?” I asked.

“What?” Renee feigned innocence, eyes wide, goading me.

“‛I’m wild.’ ‘We’re sixteen.’ Why are you making a bunch of stuff up?”

Renee shrugged.  “That guy was a cheese ball.  The next time we go out, you should wear that blouse you got at Contempo.  The fuchsia one? With jeans.  Then I can say we’re eighteen.”

I didn’t know why we suddenly had to be eighteen, but I didn’t argue.

We skirted behind the long row of lanes—wide open mouths with wooden tongues and scuffed pin teeth—to the lounge, cordoned off from the rest of the bowling alley by a low iron railing, like on a porch.  The six dark formica tables, ringed with red vinyled banquet chairs, were all occupied—plastic pitchers of beer, the glowing tips of cigarettes resting in overfull Bakelite ashtrays.

I didn’t know who Renee hoped to meet—a few of the lanes had younger people bowling on them, mostly groups of couples, their arms slung around each other, bottles of beer in their hands.  But most people—bowling, playing pool, sitting in the lounge—were my parents’ age or older, the thunderstorm sounds of bowling punctuated by harsh laughter, adult voices shouting over their own racket.

Renee walked over to the only two unoccupied stools at the bar and hopped up in one, motioned me toward the second.  We were flanked by old men on either side. The one next to me had a great grey beard and smelled musty, like the back of the pantry.  I held my arms close to my body so we wouldn’t accidentally touch.

I leaned toward Renee, said, “Umm, I don’t think there are any guys here our age.  Or even guys only a little older.”

Renee shrugged.

“Well, why are we staying if there isn’t anyone from your school or mine to meet?  We can’t even bowl.  We’re just sitting here.”

“It’s an adventure. We can’t keep doing the same stupid thing all the time.  In case you haven’t noticed, the whole world is changing around us.  This, right here, being at the bowling alley instead of the roller rink, is our thing.  Our change.”

Renee’s voice was quiet but fierce.  The last time she’d spoken to me like this was in seventh grade, after a particularly bad night at home.  Renee explained before school that her mother and father had gotten into it, her mom one and a half bottles of wine in.  At one point, her father hit her mother with the back of his hand, which left a bruise on her mother’s cheek and split her lip.

“And we spent the night at my grandma’s,” Renee finished.

“I’m sorry.”

“One time is an accident.  He can hit my mother one time in the heat of the moment.  But he touches her like that again, and I’ll kill him.  I know where he keeps the gun and I know how to shoot it.”

I believed her, which left me scared and a little in awe.  Like she wasn’t afraid of anything.  But there was nothing I could say.  My father had never hit my mother.  I had never even seen my parents drunk.  The only comfort I could offer was to say nothing and not argue.

And it was the same at the Bowl-A-Rama.  I believed her, that this, for whatever reason, was the change she needed. But it wasn’t our change.

But when the bartender asked us what we wanted, and Renee ordered us two Cokes, I handed over my five dollar bill without comment to pay for them.

The Coke was flat and overly-sweet. I sipped it grumpily through a tiny straw, not assuaged by the fact that the bartender added two maraschino cherries when Renee asked him to.

“So, how’re Grace and the rest of them?” I asked, hoping to turn the conversation back to school.

Renee shrugged.  “Haven’t really seen anyone except Marge.  Our lockers are near each other, Miller and Mills. But we don’t have any classes together, and after school, she, Grace, and Lynn are all in Marching Band, and Eileen’s doing Cross Country.”

“What’s that?”

“Running I guess.  Like Track.  Sounds pretty stupid to me.”

“Are you going to join something?” I asked.

“Well, I can tell you that I am NOT going to join Cross Country.  I like to think I have better things to do with my time than run for no reason.”

“You could pick up swimming again,” I said.  Swimming and Social Studies were the only classes Renee had liked at Blake.

“I guess.  The chlorine ruins your hair unless you wear a head condom.”

I snickered.

“What about you?” she asked.

I shrugged.  “I don’t know.  I kinda wish I had done band or something at Blake.  Then I’d already be joined.”

“You can play the triangle in the marching band,” Renee offered.

“I don’t think there is one.”

“Sure there is.  You can’t have a Souza march without the triangle!  Or, you can play the comb with waxed paper over it.  Or, electric guitar.”

“Marching electric guitar?”

“You’ll be the first!  It’ll be amazing.  They’ll need it for the marching band versions of ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.’  And don’t forget marching ‘Stairway to Heaven.’”

“How could I forget that?”

“We’ll fit your amplifier with wheels and you can just drag it along behind you.”

“Sure.”

But now Renee was into it—it didn’t matter that I had never played a guitar, of any sort, in my life.  “Of course, you’ll have to march in the back, to keep any out-of-step tuba player from tramping over your amp.  But that’s okay. That’s where all the drummer boys march, and they’re always the sexiest members of the band.”

“Is that so?  I played drums in high school.”

The words felt like they were spoken in my ear.  When I spun on my stool, I saw the guy with the beard must have left while Renee and I were talking.  Standing behind his vacant chair next to me was a younger guy, two sweating bottles of Miller Lite in one hand.  He used his other hand to run his fingers through his Ferris Bueller hair in a deliberate way.  So close, I could smell him, cologne and something else familiar, like our mothers used the same fabric softener.

“You played the drums?” Renee asked.  “I would have guessed clarinet.” She was completely unfazed, not even skipping a beat.

The boy grinned.  “I’m Josh.”

“Heather,” Renee said.  “And this is Veronica.”  She pinched my arm and I smiled.

“You guys here to bowl, or—?” Josh glanced at our Coke glasses, maraschino cherry stems littering the bar.

“Eventually.  All the lanes are full,” Renee said and made a pouty face.

“Well, my buddy and I were about to start a second game.  You guys could join us.”

“I thought you’d never ask.”

I watched Josh watch Renee as she slid off the stool.  Like a movie.  Like a series of pre-determined dance steps.  I didn’t know how Renee knew what to do, what to say.  Like she had anticipated this moment and worked it all out ahead of time.  I just felt nervous and awkward.  When Josh walked toward a lane at the far end of the alley, Renee in tow, I almost fell off my stool to keep up.

When Renee stopped in front of a bowling ball rack to choose one, I said in her ear, “We never got bowling shoes.”

She looked at me with wide eyes, like I had said something incredibly dumb.  “So?  You think Josh or anyone else cares?  Just pick a ball.”

Renee picked one that was red and 14 pounds, heavy enough that she had to cradle it.  I picked a 12 pound one and didn’t care if I looked babyish with a lighter ball.

Josh and his friend had the second-to-last lane in the alley.  Josh’s friend was tall, wearing a blue flannel shirt and ripped jeans.  His blond hair was long and he had eyebrows so light they were almost invisible on his acne-scattered face.

“Heather and Veronica, this is Chase,” Josh said.

Chase nodded and took a drink from his beer.  I watched his Adam’s apple bob as he swallowed.

Josh and Chase, it turned out, knew each other from Macomb Community College.

“But where’d you go to high school?” Renee asked.

“I went to Stevenson.  Chase is from Lapeer,” Josh said. “Why?  How old are you guys?”

“We’re seniors at Thebes High,” Renee said.  “I was just wondering why we didn’t recognize you.”

“You’re a senior?” Chase turned to look at me.  It was the first thing he’d said since we arrived.

I could feel myself blushing again and I had a sudden urge to laugh, or cry, or to confess that, ‘No, I’m just a freshman and we’re totally lying about everything.’

“She skipped a grade so she’s only seventeen,” Renee said quickly. “Total nerd, am I right?”

“Skipping a grade’s pretty cool,” Josh said.  When I looked at him, he winked.

I felt like I was starting to forget the real me.  Was I Catherine or Veronica?  Was I 14, or 16, or 17?  Was I wild or a nerd?  Nothing felt right.  I was also bowling the worst game of my life.  When I walked to the edge of the lane, I could feel eyes on me—Chase’s and Josh’s.  The people bowling on the lanes either side of me. The people behind us playing pool.  Renee’s.  Cold and judging—my youth, my vest, my inappropriate shoes.

When I bowled, my fingers were sweaty and slipped inside the bowling ball holes. The ball hugged the left side of the lane all the way down before finally dropping into the gutter, knocking over no pins.

“You’re not very good at this,” Chase said when I sat back down.  When he bowled, it was with economy, striding to the line with purpose and sending the ball down the middle of the lane every time.  No flourish.  He didn’t even wait to see the ball knock the pins over.

It was Renee’s turn to bowl.  She and Josh had been speaking quietly to each other, knees touching, heads bent close together.  When she rose from her seat, but before she retrieved her ball from the return, she plucked Josh’s beer from his hand, took a languid drink, and handed the empty bottle back to him.

I was staring. I couldn’t help it.  And when I finally looked over at Chase, he was staring, too—mouth slightly open, as if in awe, as if waiting for the beer bottle that had gotten half way there before he witnessed Renee’s little show.  Chase shook his head slightly, then looked my way.  He raised his eyebrows and held his beer toward me.  When I shook my head, he shrugged, grinned, swallowed what was left inside.

I was relieved when the game was finally over, even with my pitiful 87 lit up on the overhead score projector.

“So you guys wanna bowl another game?” Josh asked.

“Not really,” Renee said.

I saw Josh look at Chase, then back at Renee. “You wanna go somewhere else?” he asked.

No! No! No! I thought.

“Sure,” Renee said.  “Where you wanna go?”

“I got my truck,” Josh said, pointing to the door with his thumb.

“I can’t,” I finally said, a tiny explosion of pent-up panic.  Renee looked at me with her lips pursed, eyes wide.  Warning me.  “I mean, my ride’s gonna be here pretty soon, so I probably shouldn’t go anywhere,” I added.

“That’s okay,” Josh said.  “Do you have a ride on the way, Heather?” he asked Renee.

“Nope. I figured you could give me a ride home after.”

“Then it’s settled,” Josh said to me.  “I’ll take Heather home, and Chase can wait with you until your ride comes.”

I couldn’t argue.  I couldn’t pull Renee aside and tell her that I didn’t think this was a good idea.  I knew better than to say my mother was expecting to drive us both home.

We followed Josh and Chase to the door and waited while they turned in their bowling shoes.  I glanced up at the guy behind the counter.  Despite the gloom, I could see him look at Josh and Chase, struggling into their shoes—brown oxfords for Josh, ratty Chuck Taylor hightops for Chase—then back at Renee and me.  His brow was furrowed, but he didn’t say anything as we left.

Outside, the night was colder.  Darker.  Josh started toward the back of the Bowl-A-Rama parking lot, which was lit with white security lights.

Renee pulled me into a quick hug, said in my ear, “Chase likes you! Just be yourself,” before letting go.

I wanted to ask, “Which self should I be?” I wanted to say, “Stay with me,” but didn’t.

Renee jogged to catch up to Josh, looked back and shouted, “I’ll call you,” then disappeared between the trucks and 4x4s.

When I turned back to Chase, he was standing in darkness under the Bowl-A-Rama awning.  While I watched, he took a crumpled pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, shook one loose, and lit it with a plastic lighter.  The tiny flame lit his face for an instant, a flickering blanket of orange light.  After, he was a single glowing dot, brighter with each inhalation, before being obscured by smoke.

I felt exposed.  I crossed my arms and said, “My ride’s picking me up in front of the roller rink, so I should probably wait over there.”  I pointed to Skateland, but he didn’t look, didn’t take his eyes off me.

“Sure,” he said.  I watched him take one last drag off his cigarette before extinguishing the tip against the building.  He put the half-smoked cigarette behind his ear.

When I started weaving my way between the cars toward the vacant lot, Chase came up beside me and took my hand.  It was the first time I had held hands with someone not in my family.  I could remember taking my father’s hand as recently as two years ago, as we made our way through the crowded Detroit Zoo and he was worried about losing me in the shuffle.

This felt different. Intimate. Chase’s fingers were long and slender, his palm dry.

“You’re not really a senior are you?” he asked.

I looked straight ahead, at Skateland’s brightly-lit entryway. “No,” I said.  Relieved.

“Thought so.  That’s okay.  I like younger women.”

I could feel myself blush again, but I doubted Chase would be able to see.  The mercury vapor lamp droned between us, and in its light, our clasped hands looked yellow.

“Why?” I asked.

We had gotten to the far side of the lot, but before I could step onto the sidewalk, Chase pulled me back to face him.  I could see the vacant lot fanned out behind him.  Facing the road, his skin looked bluish.

“Younger women are sweet,” he said.   Quietly, a secret we suddenly shared.  “I can tell that you’re sweet.  And you’re very pretty.”  With the hand not grasping mine, he tucked a lock of hair behind my ear.  The air suddenly grew thin, my breath shallow.  I could feel my heart beating furiously in my neck.

Chase smiled and pulled me gently toward the side of Skateland, out of the glare of the vacant lot’s security lamp, the glow from the roller rink entryway and parking lot lights.  In the darkness, he put his hands on either side of my face and kissed me.  Gently at first, but then with more insistence—I could feel his stubbled mustache grate my upper lip, his tongue thick in my mouth.  He tasted heavy and sour.  He moved his hands to my shoulders, snaked them up under my vest to my back.  He held my hips and pressed his body against mine.  I could feel the roller rink’s aluminum siding, cold through the backs of my corduroys.

I was far away. Under water.  I felt myself struggling for air.

I realized—suddenly, jarringly—that I had no idea what time it was, and I wouldn’t be able to see my mom’s car from the side of the roller rink, anyway.

I pulled out of Chase’s embrace, sidled toward the front of the building.

“Don’t go,” Chase said.  He held my hand tightly.

“I—ah—I forgot something inside,” I lied.  “I need to go get it.”

I moved with more purpose, but he wouldn’t let go of my hand.  Panic rose the hair on the back of my neck.

“I’ll be right back,” I said, and when I yanked my arm, he released me.

I wanted to run but forced myself to walk, to not give anything away. I knew he was following me.  I didn’t know what I would say if he followed me into the building, but I didn’t care.  All I knew was that I needed to get out of the night.

Chase stopped short of the entry way.  I risked a glance back as I opened the door and saw he had put his ear cigarette back between his lips.

The Skateland employee with the purple ponytail was sitting behind the counter, flipping through a magazine.  She was the only person in the lobby.  I skirted the stanchions and the girl looked up when I approached.

“Can I use your guys’s phone to call my folks?” I asked.

“There’s a pay phone right out there,” she said and pointed to the front door.  I could tell she was annoyed.

I learned over the counter, whispered, “I can’t go back out there.”

The purple haired girl raised her eyebrows.  I saw her look over my head to the door.  Her eyes narrowed.

“Okay, kid,” she said and pulled a heavy yellow phone out from under the counter. “Just make it quick.  My boss’ll ream my ass if he sees you using it.”

After the second ring, my dad answered.

“Can you come pick me up?” I asked.

“It’s early.  Everything okay?”

Everything was not okay, but I didn’t know how to explain, and the Skateland girl was staring at me.  “It just ended early,” I finally said.  “Can you or Mom come now?”

My dad paused a second but then said, “One of us will be right there, kiddo.”

I put the receiver back on the cradle. “Is it okay if I just wait over there for my ride?” I pointed to around the wall, out of the bright lobby but still in sight of the purple haired girl.  She nodded.

I leaned against the wall and took deep breaths.  The familiar smell of floor polish, of fried food, of kids crammed together, was calming.  From my hiding place, I saw that the rink was full of skaters.  As the song ended, one I didn’t recognize, the DJ said, “We’re going to slow it down for the ladies.  Time for couples skate.”

The neon lights went out and white spotlights lit up a spinning disco ball, shards of light glittering the rink.  As the synthesizer, piano, and drums of Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” played over the loudspeaker, I watched as individual skaters left the rink or merged into pairs.  There was a lump in my throat where the panic had been beating minutes—hours?—ago. I didn’t look away, but I didn’t cry.

The DJ played two more songs before the purple haired girl called to me, “Hey, kid!  That weird guy left.”

I nodded, sighed, turned my back on the rink and crept to the lobby to watch for my ride.  When the Cutlass pulled up out front, I looked back at the girl behind the counter.

“Thanks,” I said.

“Be careful,” she said back.  Her smile to me seemed sad.

I was surprised to see my dad behind the wheel when I climbed into the back of the car.

“Where’s Mom?”

“Watching a movie on TV.   Where’s Renee?  Mom said I’d be driving you both home.”

While I’d waited for my ride, I’d thought about what I would say when I was questioned about going home early and alone.

“She met some people she knew,” is what I came up with.

My dad pulled out of the parking lot.  “Her friends didn’t offer you a ride home?”

I could feel the tears I hadn’t cried while I was watching the couples skate well up and I blinked to keep them in.  “They weren’t going home, and I didn’t really know them, so I didn’t feel comfortable going with them.”  I swallowed, told myself that it wasn’t really a lie.

My dad glanced at me in the rearview mirror.  “Well, I’m sorry that Renee left you.  But I think it was very mature of you to listen to your gut and not go with her if you didn’t feel comfortable.”

I couldn’t respond.  Despite my blinking, the tears escaped and rolled tell-talingly down my face.

 

I wouldn’t see Renee again.  Despite her promise in the parking lot, she never did call me, and I didn’t call her.  I joined the tech crew for Thebes High’s production of Brighton Beach Memoirs and found a group of kids like me, misfits who hadn’t been smart enough to join band in middle school.

In October, an invitation came in the mail for Grace’s “sweet fifteen” birthday party, which would start at Skateland and end with a sleepover at her place, but the party was the same night as the Brighton Beach Memoirs cast party.  When I didn’t hesitate to RSVP’d no, I was surprised at how easy it had been to choose my new friends over my old.  It bothered me at first, but then the cast party was really fun, and I stopped thinking about it.

I still have Renee’s copy of Flowers in the Attic on my bookshelf.  I never did read it.

 

✶✶✶✶

Christine M. Lasek is the author of the short story collection Love Letters to Michigan. She has had work published in several literary magazines including Eleven ElevenMidwestern GothicVIA: Voices in Italian Americana, and elsewhere.  Christine holds a BA from the University of Michigan and an MFA in Fiction from the University of South Florida.  She currently teaches creative writing and administers the Creative Writing Program at the University of Georgia.

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