I watch Molly’s gaze lift to the bowling alley’s stained ceiling tiles, eyes edging wider beneath shimmering blonde bangs, peach-glossed lips parting as if she is about to lick them, but she doesn’t. She only blinks and sees me staring. With an apologetic grin she returns her attention to the orange-swirled ball cradled atop her hip, its hard curve pressing into her softer one. That reminds me how I confused intersection of circles with union in my freshman Analytic Geometry quiz. For a heartbeat there is silence.
Her beauty is in her face, the marmoreal smoothness of her skin, the radiant gleam of translucent blue eyes, a symmetric smile. Flesh. Why is my instinct to focus on flesh? Surely hers is not the sort of beauty age will steal. There’s something deeper to it, something I am too dense to interpret. I think of the soft yielding of our kiss last night, her mouth parting, her sharp tongue teasing then reproaching mine. Not so fast. She ducked inside, putting the screen door between us. “See you tomorrow?” I said. She nodded once, eyes flitting from mine. The door clicked closed, leaving me to savor an afterimage of hair silvered by the moon’s light, and the vanilla sweetness of her body spray.
A clattering bang resounds from three lanes away. I watch the bowler, a chunky guy in a Green Bay Packer shirt walk back to the scorer’s table, doing his best not to smile. The air smells faintly of beer, the floor next to our lane sticky where the some frat guys got sloppy with their pitcher, but the lanes themselves glisten, reflecting the bright blue paint above the pinsetters.
Molly blinks again, almost looking up. Her fingers seek the finger holes, caressing their edges as if they are craters to be explored, craters inhabited by darkness.
I hoped bowling would put her at ease. A public place, I figured, a basically unromantic activity with lots of noise. That ought to diminish any thoughts of date rape or uncomfortable advances. She never seems at ease with me, never lets down her guard. How do I break through? How do I show her this is more than skin deep?
She starts her stutter-step toward the pins, ball swinging an imperfect arc beside her. I catch myself staring at her ass, the fabric of her white pants pulling taut, releasing. My pulse thuds and retreats. I glimpse us rolling in the gutter, my darker flesh pressed to hers, legs entangling while the orange ball rumbles past.
Is this more than skin deep? Am I capable of more than lust? I fidget, wishing for a cigarette. I quit smoking last week, long enough to know I’m serious, but not long enough for the nicotine stain to fade. It’s hard to change who you are in a week or even a month, but people do it all the time. Sometimes in a single instant lives are changed forever. At least that’s what I remember the M.A.D.D. speaker telling us from the auditorium stage the last week of high school. I remember her eyes glittering like marbles in the light illuminating her podium. The rest of the room was dark in anticipation of a slide show that never quite got untracked; some technical glitch or other. We ended up hearing about mangled bodies rather than seeing them, and going back to homeroom to finish out the morning.
When the ball finally reaches pins the strike looks promising at first, but quickly deflects, leaving four standing. This girl is different, I tell myself as she turns and slide-shuffles back to the ball carousel, eyes drifting skyward once again.
When she returns from her second ball — leaving two of four pins standing as the sweep descends — I stand reluctantly. She presses past, arm brushing mine. Is she playing me? Is some frustrated boyfriend watching from the snack counter? But when I look into her eyes, that radiant blueness of her gaze, I cannot believe betrayal. She is pure. It must be me who is flawed.
Her ball bumps mine, bringing to mind those click-clack balls my teacher in third grade took such pride in. But they were silver, not black and orange. Why should I think of that now? Clack and click, click and clack, back and forth, forth and back, trying so hard for union, never managing more than momentary intersection.
She gazes into my face, waiting. It seems every girl I date does this at some point; I’ve yet to solve the riddle. With Molly even this ritual seems different, her gaze quietly open rather than accusing. She makes me want to talk, not scream.
“Look,” I say, gulping my nervousness, “I don’t know what’s going on here, you know, between us or whatever. I’m sorry I tongue-kissed you last night, if that’s it.”
She smiles. “No, that was nice.”
Then what? “If, well, you know, if you’ve never been with a guy, I mean that’s okay. I–”
“No. It’s not that.” Her eyes drift, following a mote floating upward through the fluorescent lighting. If I can’t even hold her attention now, what hope is there?
“Or if some dude treated you bad, you know? I’m not like that. Tell me his name and I’ll break his legs or whatever.”
She laughs at that, an unscripted giggle that lights my emotions.
“There’s going to be an eclipse tonight,” she says. “I was hoping…”
“What?” Anything, my thoughts whisper.
“Would you like to see it? There’s a hilltop gazebo over by Harmon Hall. I thought maybe we could go there and watch.”
“Sure. Why not?”
The last three frames fly by. I don’t even recall what my score was.
We stroll, hand-in-hand, beneath a full moon. In its light she seems weightless; her smile is a comet. I watch her lips as she talks, teeth so white they leave afterimages. I want to kiss her. I lean toward her, but she leans away, not rudely; enough to send a message.
She stops abruptly. “Would you really break his legs?”
I search her face for laughter. She seems serious, or almost so.
“Sure. I mean… yeah. If he hurt you.” Our eyes meet head-on, deflect. I try to lighten the mood. “Unless he’s, like, six-ten or something.”
She laughs, the moment shattered, having served its purpose. I feel like a rock climber scaling a sheer cliff, one more pinion planted, one more foothold made. She squeezes my hand and we continue.
“Would you break your own legs for me?”
“What?” It’s my turn to stop abruptly.
“If you hurt me,” she says. “Say you hook up with someone else, break my heart. Would you shatter your own kneecaps to protect me?”
“I don’t understand.”
“My last boyfriend told me I was beautiful.”
“He said he loved me.”
I do, I think impulsively. It’s too early for that.
“When I broke up with him, his love turned to hatred. You know? He started spreading gossip behind my back, turning my friends against me. It got ugly.”
I think of my high school girlfriend telling me on the phone that we should date other people in college, open ourselves to the new experience, my mind substituting ‘my’ every time she said ‘our’. Emotions roiled, smoky and dark like cigarette smoke held deep in my lungs, leaking only slowly through my nostrils. I hated her in that moment between comprehending her words and my tongue managing,”Sure,” into the mouthpiece. “I understand.” It had only lasted the night. I could not imagine hating her the next day. Whenever we passed in the halls that final week we smiled, we touched, but we never again connected.
“How could he love me one second and hate me the next?” Molly says, voice lower than usual. “That’s not love, is it?”
“Did you love him?” Jealousy colors me long enough to make me squirm. A silly impulse. Everyone has a past.
Molly’s forehead creases, opens, creases again.
“I wanted him to love me. Is that what love is? Is that it?” She glances into the night sky. “I used to daydream about living on the moon. You can jump into the sky whenever you choose, but there’s still enough gravity to bring you back down if you want. It’s not like Earth.”
I look into Molly’s eyes. “I won’t hurt you.”
“Cross your heart?” Her face is unreadable, but I see a new softness in her gaze. It makes me smile.
“I like my kneecaps too much.”
She giggles and pulls my hand closer, nearly touching her hip. I feel like I could kiss her now, but I don’t. That’s not the point.
She tugs me into motion. We walk without speaking. There was a time when that would not have been possible, when I felt a nervous impulse to fill every silence, but I feel comfortable with Molly. Even if she’s a little strange. My father used to call my friend, Eric, eccentric when he ate dinner over or spent the night. I’ve always liked the flavor of that word.
By the time we reach the gazebo, there are others there, singles and doubles, people with telescopes awash in silvery light.
We stand silently, watching the moon give way to blackness, two circles intersecting, one bright, one dark. I watch Molly vanish with it, her silvered hair, unblemished skin, her over-whitened teeth… her perfect ass.
And, suddenly, I get it, as if the night has fluoresced, as if a spotlight has shined down upon my sleeping mind. Click and clack, clack and click. My arm slips around her shoulders, but it is not her flesh I feel. Emotion rises through me, verging on tears. Maybe I’m eccentric too. Maybe.
I watch her watching, and smile.