That night after basketball practice, I waited until everyone else cleared out of the locker room and I took a shower. No one ever used the locker room-we just chucked our bags in the bleachers, and when coach dismissed us with a 1-2-3 team cheer we went straight to their parents' waiting minivans. But that night, Dad was picking me up, taking me the other direction, away from home, to Lauren Elkin's house. To my first basement party.
It didn't surprise me when someone cut off the gym lights halfway through that shower and left me fumbling in near darkness to towel off then put on clothes I'd considered and re-considered all week-white T-shirt with a red and black flannel left unbuttoned, my blackest Levi's, a pair of worn-out Sambas I'd re-blackened with a Sharpie. It was too dark to check my hair; that had to wait for Dad's rearview.
On the way to Lauren's, we stopped at a divey old convenience store near the neighborhood where Dad grew up. He bought us a couple of vanilla milkshakes and we sat at the only table, right up against the front window. He told me about how he used to sit there with his father, a man I'd met just once-on my birthday. They'd carried me across the hospital to the cancer wing and put me in his arms, snapped a quick picture. It was the first one of me, and the last one of him. I suppose the milkshakes were Dad's way of making a father-son thing out of my first party, some sort of transferal. I looked at my watch as we sucked on our straws, and he reached across the table to pat my shoulder.
"It's good to be a little late," he said. "Trust me."
I knocked feebly as I stood in front of the door, backlit by Dad's headlights in the driveway so that my shadow looked plastered to the door panels. I knocked again, a little louder, and then finally pressed the doorbell. Mrs. Elkin answered opened it and waved me in, then waved at Dad. I turned and waved at Dad, too, grateful that he hadn't tried to walk me to the door. Lauren's mom shut the door behind me-the house smelled like Christmas, a blend of cookies and maybe a roast, but it was only September, and she was only trying to keep herself busy while a basement full of freshly minted teenagers did God-knows-what right beneath her feet. She pulled open the door and showed me into the basement, then followed me halfway down, as she would every guest who arrived after me.
A boom box blared Regulate by Warren G and Nate Dogg, and under the dim light of a pair of red novelty bulbs, half the cheerleading squad was shaking it over by the bowl of Doritos. Beyond them, a handful of guys I didn't know slouched against the wall. As soon as she noticed me, Lauren hurried over to grab the birthday card out of my hand.
"I was hoping you'd come!" she shouted over the music.
By the time I finished, saying "Happy birthday," the card was already open, and she'd pocketed the ten-dollar bill.
"Don't bother with the punch yet," she said, pointing to a big plastic bowl on top of a card table. "Dave should be here soon with the rest of the ingredients."
Lauren started to walk away, then paused, turned, and flashed a mischievous smile.
"I think someone's glad to see you." She shrugged toward the wall, sort of a subtle point.
I looked in the direction she'd indicated and saw Emma, wearing a big, exaggerated grin. She was surrounded by a small cluster of whispering, giggling girls. I understood, then, just why I'd been invited. When Lauren first approached me in the lunch line and told me about the party, I'd taken it as a joke-after all, I couldn't recall her having ever spoken to me before. But the next day, an invitation with an address and date and starting time was dangling inside the door of my locker, stuck to the vent through which it had been slipped.
It had not crossed my mind that Emma would be there. I was just steps from the stairway at that point-I could have easily turned and run back into the kitchen, but I knew Dad was long gone, on his way home. If we'd had cell phones then, I might have manufactured a stomachache and called him back. He would have known better, though. Regardless, I was stranded. Until slightly before midnight (Dad was always early) I was stuck in a dark basement with the most notorious sexual predator in seventh grade.
I walked to the card table that held the snacks and sodas, turned my back to Emma, took a deep breath, and then poured the slowest red Solo cup of Dr. Pepper in the recorded history of mankind. I let it settle until the last bubble had popped, poured another thimble's worth, and kept this up until the thing was finally filled. Even then, I kept my back to the party and tried to look busy until Jason and Chad-two of my teammates who actually got onto the court during games-showed up and distracted everybody. They were from Lauren's side of town, the side where all the houses were brick and the license plates had their drivers' names on them. They'd gone home for their showers.
Emma's house was not brick. In fact, it wasn't really fastened to the ground, just kind of sat there on crooked cinder blocks. Her mom started attending to our church a few weeks before the party, and they quickly became the congregation's pet project. There's no one Baptists love to see walk though the door more than single mothers of potentially wayward 13-year-olds. For the price of a couple delivered casseroles, a few kind glances, a well-timed shoulder pat or two, it's like a buy-one-get-one deal on salvation. Preachers know those mothers aren't going to let their little girls out of sight line; one impassioned sermon, and mom is strutting right down the powder blue shag carpeted aisle toward the wood veneered altar while the music minister warbles Just as I Am into his lapel mic. Once she's in the repentant fold, daughter can go one of two ways: bite the bullet and join the flock, or live up to her full waywardness potential, get knocked up, and start the whole process over again. Either way, it's win-win for the congregation-sort of an evangelical cap and trade system.
With Emma, it started innocently enough-a wink from across the sanctuary, then a small wave or two. A note was passed (nearly intercepted by Mr. Grover): "Do you like Emma, circle yes or no." I blushed when I read it, glad to be noticed by a girl-any girl. I didn't circle anything, because I'd have been grounded for a month if my folks caught me sending notes during the sermon. I suppose she took this as playing hard to get.
Emma's mom was sick the next Sunday (a 'headache') and called to see if we had a spare seat in the car. Mom couldn't say yes fast enough. And that's when it really started to go downhill. Before Emma even had her seatbelt fastened, she had her foot hooked around my calf, and spent the whole ride running her pink jelly shoe up and down the bottom half of my leg. Her deviance completely shielded by the angles of a sub-compact, all I could do was sit there and watch my own face get redder in the rearview mirror. When we arrived, Mom pushed her seat forward and waited for me to climb out, couldn't understand why it was taking me so long to move.
I'll say this about, Emma: she was good at the game. She prayed her way right into the flock alongside her momma, but once she got out of the pew and a few paces from her mother's sight, she was something else altogether. The girl could roll just about any skirt to half its intended length. And then there was footsie under the art room table, all the way up to inner thigh while Mrs. Andrews droned on about focal lines. I'll never forgive that seating chart.
I'd downed one soda and had spent a good five minutes filling a second when I turned around and saw her staring and grinning from the other side of the pool table. She tugged a little at the V of her low-cut dress and arched her brows, smiled even wider. She looked like an ample-breasted she-Satan under that red light. I downed drink number two, turned back around, and repeated the whole process.
While I was doing this, I noticed in the back corner of the room a girl I'd never seen before. A light-haired girl in jeans and a sweater, leaning against the wall, alone. Through Lisa Loeb glasses, she stared at the floor, watched the heel of her right shoe kick at the stationary toe of her left. She glanced upward for a moment, and our eyes connected. I saw the smallest hint of a smile, and I swore (though because of the lighting I could never quite be certain) that she blushed just a little.
Envoys came from the far side of the pool table to tell me how glad Emma was that I'd come. That she was in love, or something to that effect. That she would not say no, should I happen to ask her out. That she had on something special under her party dress. (Which wasn't really a party dress-she'd just worn it on Tuesday). That there was a cozy spot under the stairwell where we could get to know each other real well. All I could ask was, "Who's the girl in the corner?"
"That's Lauren's cousin from up north," one of the girls finally told me. "Sylvia. Forget her, though. She'd frigid."
I was smitten by frigid Sylvia. But I was aware no one in that room was going to let me be smitten by sweet, innocent, alone-in-the-corner, cleavage-covered Sylvia. They wanted to see me taken under that stairwell. They wanted to see me emerge flustered, winded, belt unhooked. They wanted to see me emerge as something interesting. The part of me that had first blushed at Emma's letter wanted that, too-wanted to know what it was like to be one of the bad kids, as Ms. Jenkins said every week in Sunday school before reciting her catch phrase: "Keep 'em zipped, folks." (Despite her constant reminders or maybe because of them, both her daughters were pregnant before junior year.) But the rest of me, the ninety-six or so percent of me that ignored the smiling girl and listened so intently to stern Sunday sermons wished I could talk to Sylvia. And I decided, right there while I watched those carbonated bubbles pop, that I wasn't going without a fight. I slammed one more Dr. Pepper, effectively killing the two-liter (I think I drank it myself, that it had been full when I arrived). I opened the bottle of Crystal Pepsi, filled up once more, and then marched straight toward Sylvia. I was terrified. I had no idea what I would say, what I would do. But recklessly, I walked. I was about three feet from her, my mouth formed into the shape of "Hi." She looked at me nervously and I tried to push some sound through my vocal chords when someone grabbed my hand from behind, swung me around, and pulled me away. It was Lauren.
"Come on," she said as she tugged me across the room. "You're gonna dance with Em." She deposited me in the middle of the area rug that had become a dance floor. I stood there, my mouth hanging open, eye-to-eye with Emma. Lauren gave me one more shove from behind, right into Emma's arms. Girls giggled. A couple of guys laughed. Someone celebrated with a muffled, "Woo!" I heard someone else mumble, "Finally."
Somebody cut off poor Snoop Dogg right in the middle of a track and switched discs on the boom box. So as Celine Dion explained The Power of Love, I had my very first slow dance. With Emma. Who kept constricting her arms around my waist, forcing me to follow her wobbly, off-rhythm sway. An entire room full of people gawked, but I couldn't stop thinking about Sylvia-how as I had approached her, she looked just as awkward as I felt. Every time I craned my neck to try and find her, Emma squeezed tighter, made sure I knew that for the next five minutes and twenty-nine seconds I was hers, and that there was nothing I could do about it. I hated how the lace from her bra jabbed into my chest. I was surprised by the tenderness with which she rested her head on my shoulder. I was embarrassed that parts of me conspicuously refused to be repulsed. After the first chorus, more couples filtered onto the carpeted space, surrounded us so that we no longer seemed to be on a stage.
Emma let go when the song ended and somebody replaced it with Here Comes the Hotstepper. She looked at me sweetly, expectantly. In that moment, she looked like a completely different person. She looked quiet and vulnerable. All I could think to say was: "Do you know where the bathroom is?"
She pointed to the stairs. Her face looked pained. She folded her arms across her chest and almost recoiled before turning and walking back to her friends. I stayed in the bathroom for five minutes, toweled off my face, slumped against the wall. My first dance was supposed to be with someone sweet, someone important. Not the school slut. I felt like I should pray, but had no idea how to define what I wanted to be forgiven of. Back downstairs, I leaned against one of the walls and watched everyone else mingle and laugh. I checked my watch. Only ten-thirty.
Twice more I tried to approach Sylvia. Once, Stephen stepped between us and asked me to explain where he was supposed to line up on coach's new baseline in-bounds play. The second attempt, I made it one step past the newly fortified punch bowl when someone started the Electric Slide . I was jostled and nearly run over by three girls racing toward the dance floor. By the time I recovered and pointed myself back in the right direction, Sylvia was gone from her post against the wall. I turned and saw her, halfway up the stairs-on her way to the kitchen or bathroom or outside, on her way to somewhere I wasn't.
Lauren put me in Emma's arms once more, but Emma looked disappointed, held me loosely, as if she were doing this as a favor to me .
In the car, Dad asked how it had gone. When I shrugged and didn't answer, he dropped it. I knew he understood when he switched off the talk radio station and pushed my MC Hammer tape into the cassette deck. I knew how this music repulsed Dad, how he normally rolled the windows tight and relied on the A/C every time I produced that cassette from my pocket (so that no one in the neighborhood would hear rap coming from his car). But on that night, he left the windows down, and he even turned it up. Hammer said everything that needed passed between father and son that night. When we got home, he turned off the car, and we both sat there for what felt like quite some time, though it couldn't have been more than a moment. Finally, he patted me on my knee.
"It'll get better, son."
He didn't mean that any more than he wanted to listen to Hammer's rhymes. But he said it anyway, and then opened his door. When I was slow to follow, he called from the door. "Come on. Get some rest."
Monday, there were stories, none of them correct. I gave up trying to fix them. Half the school thought I was a hero; the rest were split between liar and hypocrite. By Wednesday, though, the school had turned its attention to people who did actual interesting things under people's basement stairs, or who scored points during actual basketball games. There were a dozen more parties that semester. Each time I heard about one of them, I invented a new preoccupation so that I could avoid it, just in case someone happened to invite me. And when no one did, I pretended to breathe a sigh of relief.
I see Emma every now and then-she walks past me sometimes while I'm at work. She married a banker a few months back, and they live across town now. After the party, Sylvia went back to her home, wherever 'north' was. I never heard from her again, and Lauren just rolled her eyes the first two times I asked about her. The third time, I asked for an address and got one-one that earned me a big red return to sender stamp on the envelope, along with a handwritten, underlined message that said, "No such town!"
Dad's in a nursing home now-I visit every Saturday, and every Saturday he gives me a quizzical look and I explain that I'm his son. After I've had as much as I can handle (lately, it's not much) I go home to his house, where I still live alone.
I was driving home from a chat with Dad's shadow last week when I heard on the radio that Nate Dogg died. The old convenience store was leveled years ago; otherwise, I would have stopped in and bought a milkshake, poured part of it on the curb in his honor. He died of heart failure, the disc jockey said-not the way most gangsta rappers probably envision going. The station played Regulate, and it gave me chills-put me right back in that place, back in the middle of that dim basement. Before the song ended, my car was idling in the driveway of a house the Elkin family sold years ago.
I knocked, then rang the doorbell. Just as I was turning to walk back to my car, the deadbolt clicked, and a bald old man opened the door.
"Can I help you, son?"
I hadn't thought this through.
"I've already got a church, if that's what you're here about. And if the paperboy wants a tip-"
"That's not it," I told him. "This-this is going to sound strange. I wondered if I might, I mean-I knew the people who used to live here. Could I, maybe, take a look at your basement?"
The man scrunched his brow for a minute, looked real uneasy. He stared at my car. It was still running and I hadn't turned down the stereo. They were playing Regulate again.
"Just a peek," I said. "Something happened there a long time ago. It's okay if you'd rather not."
I had a tie on. I think that helped. He took a deep breath and stepped out of the doorway. "Go ahead. Nothing down there-I don't use it. I doubt you'll find what you're looking for, but good luck."
As I walked into his house, stepped once more across the foyer, I got goosebumpy, and started to hope that maybe I would see or feel or remember something in that basement, something to explain that night, or explain my life, or maybe for just a moment make me feel giddy and hopeful again.
But when I reached the bottom of the stairs, I saw that he was right-it was stark empty. Even the area rug was gone. The red tint, the boom box, the card table-all long gone. But the shape of it was still the same, and I tried to picture everyone and everything in its spot, just as when I first descended those stairs. I looked at the far corner and I looked at the middle of the room where the dance floor had once been and I tried to see the two girls who had occupied those spots: one shy and sweet, the other pushy and brash. Hard as I tried to reproduce the image, I couldn't help seeing it differently this time. I saw one girl standing apart from everyone, a girl who felt out of place and just wanted to be left alone. Who probably didn't want to be there at all. Who didn't need to meet anyone. And I saw another girl, one who had been so eager to catch just an instant of my attention that she'd tried everything she knew, maybe everything she'd learned from watching her mother's flailings-a girl I hadn't bothered to talk with or listen to. I saw a father who once seemed to know everything and now couldn't tell his son from a nurse. And I felt like a very lonely man standing in an empty room, lost.
I got snapped out of it by a sound, something faint and familiar-the thumping bass, the swirling Wurlitzer piano penetrated the poured concrete wall. From my car stereo, Nate Dogg sang "The rhythm is the bass and the bass is the treble." In that moment, inside that empty space, the dumbest line in a bad song that made the strangest night of an awkward year seem oddly perfect: "The rhythm is the bass and the bass is the treble."
I thanked the old man, and he smiled at me, looked relived I hadn't held him up at gunpoint. The radio station had gone to commercial so I put in a CD, and headed for home.
When I got there, I turned on my computer and looked up Emma's email address. Before clicking 'send,' I stared for a few minutes at the note I'd written:
I was proud of this. It felt right. I clicked send. It was less than two minutes later when her reply came:
I didn't know whether to laugh or to be embarrassed. I didn't know whether to save or delete. But I did know that, for once, it would be right to do nothing. That this time, I should let it go.
I didn't notice when she walked up to the counter-I was too busy trying to make eye contact with the girl who works at Auntie Anne's Pretzels. It's such a foreign concept, someone actually stopping at the cell phone kiosk on purpose. I've grown so accustomed to people walking to the far side of the mall, or darting their eyes away, acting like they're window-shopping before I can even finish saying, "Excuse me sir, can I ask you about your cell phone plan?" And so I have no idea how long Emma stood there, watching me try to catch the eyes of a (maybe) eighteen-year-old.
She finally coughed (one of those fake, muffled, look-at-me coughs), which is what caught my attention, and I jerked straight into sales mode: "Can I help you with some-oh, how are, um, how are you?"
"That's what I came by to ask you ," she said, and I smiled at that, glad at the gesture. I don't remember the last time somebody stopped by the Sprint kiosk to ask for anything but a battery replacement, or to complain about something I wasn't authorized to fix.
I think our booth used to hold a watch repair stand-that's the only explanation I ever came up with for why there's a vanity mirror on our counter. I caught myself glancing at it, checking to make sure my company-issued black tie was straight. She looked away while I did this, like she was window-shopping American Eagle, just like a regular mall customer would.
"I'm good," I finally managed. She looked back at me, and her smile didn't seem quite right. Like she didn't believe me.
"How's your Dad?" she asked. "I heard he wasn't feeling well."
"Well, I suppose that's the gentle way to put it," I said, and then realized that's exactly why she'd said it that way. I probably blushed, because she looked away again and then checked her watch.
"Hey, congratulations, by the way," I told her, and she smiled, this time, for real.
"Thanks," she said.
"Sorry I couldn't make it," I lied. "I couldn't get anyone to take my shift."
"Well, we would have loved to have you there. But thanks for the present. It was so.thoughtful."
I shrugged a little and smiled. "That's what Mom always used to get everyone for weddings. She said, 'Everybody always gets toasters, but no one ever thinks of a cooler.'"
"We hadn't even thought to register for one, but you know what? We didn't have a cooler. We've used it twice already."
She shifted her weight, and I knew she'd leave soon. I saw the light flash off her ring and asked the first thing that popped into mind, the first thing I thought might keep the conversation going, keep her there for a moment.
"How was the honeymoon?" I asked, and then my stomach sunk, because I really did not want to hear the answer, or to think about it.
"Oh, God it was great," she said. "Aaron took me to Tuscany, where his family is from."
She waited, and I said nothing.
"Oh, I bet the food was amazing," I told her. "You know what I really like, is the chicken Marsala at the Olive Garden. Sometimes, I go there on payday weekends before I visit Dad, and that's what I always get. Did you have that in Italy?"
"Sure," she said, and she broke eye contact, looked at the display case full of last year's flip phone models. "Yeah, I think we did. Probably."
Then she was quiet again, and I had nothing left to ask. When she checked her watch again, I knew that I'd lost her.
"Well." she said.
"It was good to see you, Emma."
"It was good to see you, too," she said, and she patted my shoulder, gave it a little squeeze. "You take care of yourself, okay?"
I nodded and smiled.
"Hey, you should stop by church sometime," she said. "Everyone would love to see you." I believed this, but did not want to explain how it felt to be surrounded by a room full of Dad's old friends, who couldn't bring themselves to visit him, but who had played 20-questions about his health the last time I'd tried to sneak into the back pew. "And you've got my email address if you ever need anything."
"You know where to find me," I told her, and she waved and walked off toward the nice end of the mall, the wing with Macy's and Victoria's Secret and the covered parking deck. I like to think she'd have hugged me if it weren't for the glass display case between us.
I was pretty certain my sales pitch (mall employee slang for chatting up a lady while you're on the clock) had cost me any chance to ever get a smile from the pretzel girl. Not that I'd try to date a teenager, but a smile from a girl is a smile from a girl, and for 45 or so hours per week, the choices inside Oakdale Place Mall are slim. I watched Emma walk away until she disappeared, blocked from view by the kiosk where they sell oversized cookies with drawings and inscriptions done up in icing. When she was gone, I rearranged the phones and straightened all the glittery protective sleeves. I wiped down the glass cases three times. I swept, which I hadn't done in a month. I changed the light bulb that had been flickering for a week. And when I was done with every menial task I could find, I glanced at the Auntie Anne's girl, who stopped rolling a rope of pretzel dough long enough to place her hand on her hip, roll her eyes at me, then look pointedly in the opposite direction.
About an hour before my shift ended, I broke my manager's number one rule and made a personal call on the clock. Nurse Mary answered and told me he was particularly alert that day, and ornery as can be. "You should stop by," she told me. "This is one of the better days he's had in a while."
"I was planning on it. But I had a question for you. I wondered if.could I bring him a drink? I know it sounds funny, but-"
"Now you know I can't allow alcohol in here. That's just-"
"Oh, no-no, I didn't mean that. I just meant a milkshake. Vanilla. He used to really like those."
She paused. I heard her sigh.
"Well, Bess is on reception duty tonight, and you know how she is."
"But tell you what. Don't go flashing it around when you come in, and I'll try to distract her. It's worth a try, right?"
And so I did it. I snuck two milkshakes in, held them down by my hips and walked right past the nurses' station, smiled at Mary as she pointed out something high up on the wall to distract her old battleaxe of a boss. Dad didn't say much of anything that afternoon, but smiled as he drank that milkshake, and I knew something inside his head was turning the proper direction.
On the way home, Q-105 played a recorded re-run of a week-old broadcast, which has happened with increasing frequency-with no competition left in town, they can get away with it. Saves them money on staff, I guess. I was just a mile or so from home when Regulate came on the radio again. I reached to turn up volume dial, ready for the goosebumps to set in, ready to reflect on the day, the week, maybe the future. But nothing happened. It just sounded like another played-out, three-minute song. I realized I needed something new, something meaningful that this memory couldn't provide. And so right then, right in the middle of Nate Dogg's smooth crooning of the refrain, I reached forward and clicked the radio off.