Walter tells me I play like a girl. I laugh, happy because I think he's forgotten that I am a girl, but then I realize he's just trying to insult me.
"We're not really playing," I remind him, "we're just practicing."
We don't officially play unless Scott and Danny are here. And anyway, it's pinball. How many ways are there to play?
"You're all over the board," he complains. "Look, your target is over here, and you're not even trying to hit it. Come on, Sophie, you should be good at this," and suddenly his voice is bitter. "I hear you're really good with balls."
Walter disapproves of my sex life, mainly because he's not a participant. Sometimes he thinks he'd like to be, but in his more rational moments, he knows it's a bad idea. We drive each other crazy as it is.
"It's called nymphomania," he says. "It's a sickness."
I roll my eyes, and in the second I look away from the board, I lose my ball. I'm glad—now I can turn the machine over to Walter and smoke a cigarette.
"It's called jealousy," I tell him. "It's one of the seven deadly sins."
"I'm serious." He's already released his ball, but it's way up at the top of the lane, so he can afford a glance at me. "You're getting out of hand."
"Out of whose hand, Walter? Yours?" This is part of the problem: we've been friends since kindergarten, and now he thinks he owns me.
"It isn't healthy," he says. "If you had real parents, they would have told you that."
"My parents are real."
I can't argue with that. "Let's change the subject," I suggest. "Let's talk about your problems."
"Okay, sure. Right now my biggest problem is you."
"Fuck you, Walter."
"You think I'm kidding?" He's flipping his flippers, playing the game, and so he's not looking at me. "All day long at school, everyone's talking. I can't go to the bathroom without seeing the latest testimonials on the walls."
" What are you trying to prove?" he asks. "Is this all just to show Hector?"
"I don't see how any of this is your problem."
"I know you don't," he says. "That's part of the problem."
"You know what the problem is, Walter? You're a guy, that's the problem."
"That's part of the problem," he agrees. "The other part is that you're a girl."
"I know," I say. "It sucks."
I'm in the kitchen dishing out cat food for Sid when Daddy comes home with his latest squeeze. She looks just like all the others, small and blonde, like Mama. Like me. Closer to my age, probably.
Daddy looks surprised to see me. He's always surprised to see me, because he forgets that I live here. The squeeze sets a bag of Chinese take-out on the table, and then she just stands there, all perfumed and lip-glossed, pretty as a cupcake.
I put Sid's dish on the floor, and I look up just in time to see the squeeze nudge Daddy, and then he frowns at me and says, "Have you been hanging around some bar?"
"A bar? I'm only fifteen, Daddy, I don't even have a fake ID yet."
She puts her hand on Daddy's arm and says, "No, Ted, it's a sandwich shop."
He glares at her accusingly. "You said it was a dive."
"It is," she says, "and she was the only girl there."
They're talking about me. I pull up a chair at the table, a front row seat. Sid leaves his dinner to climb up on the table and curl up in my arms. Of all the things I love about Sid, this is the thing I love the most: he always knows when I want to hold him.
"The only girl there," she repeats, "and she was playing pinball." She says this as if pinball is the lowest thing imaginable, but Daddy's not getting it. He blinks at her as if she's speaking a foreign language.
"Ted, if you had seen these boys, I think you would be concerned."
Daddy's eyes shift towards me, and he isn't pleased. He doesn't like having to be concerned.
"It's just pinball, Daddy."
This is good enough for him, but the girlfriend's not satisfied. She goes on and on about how cheap and available I looked, and how dangerous a situation I was in, just me alone with all those boys. It makes me laugh, because she's getting so worked up over the wrong boys.
"You think this is funny?" Daddy asks.
"It's just pinball," I say again.
He thinks this over.
"Well, look," he says to the squeeze, "she couldn't have been the only girl in the place, if you were there."
Good one, Daddy. It flusters her, and she stammers a little. "I was just picking up sandwiches," she says. "She was in the middle of a crowd of boys, laughing and smoking and playing pinball."
Daddy wags his finger at me. "You shouldn't be smoking. Have you ever seen a person with emphysema? It's not pretty." Daddy thinks being pretty is the most important thing a woman can do, plus he's a doctor, so he hates cigarettes.
The latest gives me this very sincere, I'm-only-concerned-about-your-welfare look, and her voice goes all soft. "Sophie, honey, don't you realize how it looks, when you're flaunting yourself in front of a bunch of boys like that?"
I don't bother to answer; she won't be around much longer, anyway.
"Who are these boys?" Daddy asks.
"Just Walter," I tell him, "and a couple of his friends."
"Walter," he says, as if he might know who that is. "Dark kid with curly hair?"
"No, Daddy, that was Hector. We broke up six months ago."
"So why are you hanging around this pinball place with him?" Daddy can be quite obtuse when he wants to be.
"I'm not," I assure him, and he looks relieved—at last, I'm being sensible. Nothing to worry about here.
"All right, then," he says, and he actually pats me on the head and says, "Good girl." Now that he's discharged his fatherly duties, he wanders down the hall towards the bathroom.
The squeeze isn't looking so warm and caring any more. She pointedly takes out two plates for the Chinese food, and she says to me, "I wish you wouldn't let that cat sit on the table."
"He lives here. He can do whatever he wants."
"Just like you?"
"That's right," I say, "except he can't play pinball."
I get up and put my jacket on, and I can see how relieved she is that I'm leaving. She doesn't care where I go or what happens to me when I get there, she's just glad I won't be here to ruin her evening with Daddy. I know what she thinks: she thinks I'm a brat, and she might be right, but if she thinks Daddy's going to fall for her wife-and-mother routine, she's dead wrong. Mama went crazy from being a wife and mother, and one crazy woman was enough. Daddy's not looking for a replacement, and neither am I.
It's the one thing we have in common.
It's early, but it's already dark. November sucks—there's no leaves and no snow, it's just dark and cold and bleak. No one's around, because everyone is home having dinner. A search of my pockets produces about two dollars. If I'm the first one there, I might have just enough quarters to hold the pinball machine until Walter's friends show up. They'll be surprised, because I don't play with them that often, and usually later in the evening. They'll be surprised, and they'll be happy. I'll have done a good deed.
I stumbled into Walter's pinball game about a month ago, on a Saturday night in October. I'd been at a party, where Hector cornered me and reminded me that it was our anniversary—exactly a year since we'd lost our virginity together.
"We should celebrate," he said. He was standing close to me, and his voice was low and sweet in my ear. I could smell the deodorant he uses, a smell so familiar and comforting that I actually asked myself why not. I closed my eyes and let him kiss me, and I couldn't think of any reason why we shouldn't.
"I still love you," he said, and I could have ignored that, but then he added, "I don't care how many other guys you've fucked."
That snapped me out of it, because the fact is I'd never been with anybody but Hector, ever, until the night he traded me to his friend Ray, in exchange for Ray's girlfriend Charlene and her big tits. Even now it makes me sick to think of it, and so remembering it that night, on our anniversary, made it that much easier to resist the sentimentality of the occasion.
"I have to go," I said.
It was a big party, crowded, and by the time I made it to the front door I'd been propositioned by two other guys, who also seemed not to care how many other guys I'd fucked. I couldn't wait to get out of there.
Outside it was foggy and cold, and I was glad, because the cold cleared my head and the fog kept me hidden. I wanted to be alone and anonymous, like I was wandering around in a foreign city. I like fog. It's like walking through clouds; it's like dreaming.
I don't know how long it took me to walk downtown, but by the time I'd crossed the river I was freezing. The sandwich shop was open, and I went in to get a cup of hot chocolate, and while I was waiting at the counter, someone came up behind me—Walter, as it turned out—and said, "What's wrong, Sophie? You couldn't get a date tonight?"
"I'm sick of dates," I told him. "I'm sick of boys."
"So you came looking for me? I'm flattered."
"Well, I wasn't really—"
"Sure," he said. "Why not?" And he took me by the arm and dragged me to the back corner, where colored lights were flashing through a haze of smoke as thick as the fog outside, and his friends Danny and Scott were playing the Venus game.
The Venus game was obviously invented by a guy. The very air around it reeks of male hormones. The lights, the noise, the fast pinball action, plus it has a macho premise. The idea is that you're some kind of space-science-pioneer, on a big special mission to the planet Venus to explore and research and report back. You earn stars by hitting a sequence of targets, and these accomplishments, such as they are, are rewarded with promotions, so you get to be the commander or the grand marshal or whatever. It all sounds very manly and important, but it's all just bullshit to cover up the true purpose of the game, which is to explore Venus herself, a blonde goddess in a diaphanous toga, who appears to be the sole inhabitant of her planet, and no wonder. Her legs take up half the board, and her breasts take up the other half.
Walter and his friends talk to her. "Come on, baby, please," they say. When they hit their targets, they tell her how beautiful she is and how much they love her; when they miss, they curse her and accuse her of being a tease. When they invite me to play, I don't think I'll like it.
But I do. I like having flippers, for one thing, and I like the feeling that we really are on another planet. Venus is one of four games crowded into a small area, and although Daddy's girlfriend is right when she says I'm the only girl here, most of these guys take their pinball seriously, and they don't bother me, so I don't really feel like a girl. Compared to Venus, I'm an insignificant, titless little speck, not really female at all. Yet, clearly, I'm not one of the guys. I'm not male or female, I'm something in-between; I'm nothing. Just a pair of flippers and a head. I'm uncomplicated.
Scott is the first to arrive. He's the quiet one. He doesn't play as aggressively as Danny or Walter, but he does all right—he's got two of the top ten scores.
He's surprised to see me; he's happy I've reserved the game. I give him a turn, and he plays in his quiet way. Even Venus seems subdued; her clicks and beeps and buzzes sound almost like purring, as if Scott has tamed the wild planet. It occurs to me that I don't know anything about him.
"What did you have for supper?" I ask.
"Pork chops," he says. "Mashed potatoes, corn, applesauce. What did you have?"
"I wasn't hungry. Did you eat with your family?"
I pry some information about his family out of him, and we're almost having a conversation, and then suddenly he says, "You don't remember me, do you?"
"What do you mean?"
"You don't remember seeing me before Walter introduced us."
I study his face. He's kind of cute. Nice eyes. "Did we make out at a party?"
"No," he says, "I was in your algebra class last year."
He's right, I don't remember him. "I took algebra?"
He laughs. "You weren't there very often."
"That must be why I'm taking it again this year."
It's my turn again, and I get a lucky ball, one that goes on and on, and every time I hit it, something spectacular happens. Bells ring and lights light up, buzzers buzz, the ball zooms and ricochets all over the board. I can hear the counter clicking frantically, racking up points by the thousands.
"I like the way you play," Scott says.
"I just get lucky sometimes. It's not like I know what I'm doing."
"That's what's so great about it. It's so random, and you hardly ever lose. You don't always have the highest score, but you rarely have the lowest."
"I know. It drives Walter crazy."
"Danny, too. People who work that hard honing their skills don't like to think that luck has anything to do with it."
"What about you?"
"Sometimes I think I played better when I didn't know what I was doing," he says. "I hope you never learn the rules."
I assure him that I have no interest in rules of any kind.
"No," he says, "I guess I knew that about you."
"How could you know that?" I ask, and in the moment that he hesitates it occurs to me, somewhat belatedly, that this guy I barely know is reading the same bathroom walls as Walter.
He clears his throat. "I thought it was obvious when you cut all those algebra classes."
Walter and Danny show up together, and right away, Walter starts in being a dink.
"What's going on here?" he demands, like Scott and I have been plotting against him, instead of holding his precious Venus for him.
"We were waiting for you," I say. "Where have you been?"
"Dope deal," he says, and he cocks his head towards the door, indicating that I should step out behind the dumpster with him. It's just the two of us, because Scott doesn't smoke, and Danny's already stoned.
Actually, Walter's already stoned, too, and so it's really quite generous of him to be getting me high, but it's kind of hard to appreciate it when his paranoia kicks in.
"So," he says, "are you and Scott hitting it off?"
"He likes the way I play."
"I bet he does."
I have to laugh, he's being so ridiculous.
"Don't do this," he says. "Don't mess with Scott, okay?"
"Walter, we've barely even spoken to each other."
"I didn't realize that was a requirement."
"What's your problem?" I ask. "Why are you so pissed off at me, when I haven't even done anything?"
"You've done everyone."
"Everyone but you? Is that what you mean?"
He doesn't answer.
"Because if that's the problem, Walter, we can fix that. We can just do it right now, and then you won't have to feel like everyone else is getting something you're not. Come on," I say, and I unbuckle my belt.
He flips out. "Jesus Christ, Sophie, what are you doing?" He catches my wrists before I can undo my jeans. "Don't," he says.
"Come on, Walter, let's just get it over with, and then it won't be eating away at you like this."
"Shut up." He flings my wrists away.
"Don't you want to know what you're missing?"
"You make me sick," he says, and he walks away, leaving me out behind the dumpster.
"Fuck you!" I call after him, but my voice breaks and I hope he didn't hear me.
I crouch against the building and smoke a cigarette. No one comes looking for me, which I'm grateful for, at least for a few minutes, and then it pisses me off. I make him sick? He's got a lot of fucking nerve, when he's the one who's acting crazy and fucking everything up.
Fuck him. I know where there's a party tonight.
My friend Gina's at the party. As soon as she sees me, she rushes over to tell me something, but every time she tries to say it, she bursts out laughing. She's with this other girl Sarah, who's also laughing, but not as wildly as Gina. She manages to tell me what I missed.
"Laurie Bradshaw backed into a candle and set her hair on fire."
Laurie Bradshaw is a stuck-on-herself cheerleader who thinks she's more popular than she actually is. Gina hates her, which is why she finds this so funny. That and the fact that she and Sarah are tripping on mushrooms. They meant to save me some, Gina says, but somehow they ended up eating them all.
"Don't be mad," she says, but I am kind of mad. There was a time when Gina wouldn't have dreamed of doing 'shrooms without me, but suddenly she and Sarah are like best friends. There's no point in trying to talk to her, especially now, while she's tripping, so I just say it's fine, it doesn't matter, I'll get drunk.
This isn't hard to do, since Kyle, the guy who's having the party, is acting all host-like, keeping my cup full of this purple punch he's made. I have no idea what's in it; it tastes like cough syrup. It gets you drunk, though.
I'm in the kitchen talking to Kyle and some of his friends when this guy Andy leans over and whispers in my ear, like he's telling me a secret. He wants to know if I'll roll a joint for him.
"Sure," I say. "Do you have a dollar?"
He takes out his wallet. "Is that what you charge?"
"I'm not going to charge you to roll a joint, Andy. I just need a dollar bill to use, like a rolling machine, that's the only way I can do it. Walter taught me."
"Okay," he says, and he motions for me to follow him. We go down the hall and into a room, which turns out to be Kyle's bedroom. It has that boy-smell.
Andy locks the door. Either he's very paranoid about being busted with drugs, or he's expecting to catch more than a buzz.
"Where's Avis?" I ask. Everyone knows he's been going out with this girl Avis for a long time; even people who don't know them have heard about them, because they're Avis and Andy.
"She's grounded," he says. "She thought she was pregnant and she told her parents, and now they won't let her go out with me."
"I told her not to tell them until she knew for sure, but she just freaked out." He doesn't sound angry about it; he sounds like he understands why Avis freaked out.
He hands me the bag of weed, the papers and the dollar bill, and I sit at Kyle's desk and set to work. Andy sits behind me, on the bed.
"So, are you still going to see her?" I ask. "Against her parents' wishes and all?"
"That's very romantic. You must be in love."
"Yeah." He moves over to the stereo and picks out a Bob Dylan album.
"I hope it works out," I say. "I was in love with Hector, but it didn't work out."
"Yeah, that's too bad. I heard about that."
"Yeah. Avis is friends with Charlene's sister. Charlene was telling everybody."
That's Charlene. Big tits and a big mouth. She didn't mind being traded to Hector; she couldn't wait to get her hands on him, just like he couldn't wait to get his hands on her. He fucked her right in front of me, like I wasn't even there.
How does it feel? Bob wails.
I finish rolling the joint. "So, here you go." I present it to him, and he marvels over how perfect it is.
"Walter taught me that," I say, and I think of Walter. Right now he's taking it out on Venus, playing with a vengeance. I wonder how many times he's tilted tonight.
I sit on the bed with Andy and we pass the joint back and forth. We're in the same English class, and so we talk about Gatsby for a while, and about Scott and Zelda, and we lounge on the bed, stoned, and continue to talk, until we stop talking and start kissing. One thing leads to another, and we end up fucking each other's brains out.
Avis is a lucky girl.
In a dream, Walter and I are shooting marbles, not where we used to play, but somewhere in a forest. I think there are bears nearby.
We've swept away the pine needles, but the ground is bumpy and uneven. This is a stupid place to be shooting marbles, and I say so, but Walter doesn't care because he's winning. He's captured my favorite marble, a green cat's eye, and I'm determined to win it back, but every time I take a shot some obstacle appears out of nowhere—a twig, an anthill, a tuft of rabbit fur. It isn't fair.
"That wasn't there a second ago," I complain, but Walter just shrugs.
"That's the way it goes," he says. "Things change."
And suddenly everything does change, and we're not in the woods any more, we're in the back corner of Whiffle's, shooting pinball, and instead of being surrounded by bears, we're surrounded by senior boys, seven or eight of them hanging around the next machine, and another five or six playing the next game over. There's a pipe being passed around, and somebody offers it to me. It's this guy Lester; I know him because he's on the track team with Hector.
I take a hit off the pipe, and I turn to pass it to Walter, but he's not there. He's taking a turn at the next game over—something with a war theme, I think—and he's buddying up to all these guys.
"Forget him," Lester says. "He's just another guy."
I hand the pipe back to him and say, "Forget all of you. I don't want to play these games."
"But you play this one all the time," he says, and he drops a quarter into the Venus game.
Venus is naked, and she's not just a picture any more, she's a real woman, trapped in a glass box like Snow White, but she's not sleeping. Her eyes are open, and she's smiling. Her breasts are even bigger than I remember. They look like balloons; her nipples are actually poking up through the glass.
"You know what?" says Lester. "If you looked like her, you'd still be with Hector."
Would that be a good thing, or a bad thing? I don't know. I'm so confused that I don't even know where to begin thinking about it, and it's this sudden boggling of the mind that jolts me out of the dream.
I wake up, and I'm still confused.
On Sunday morning I go to the park and sit by the duck pond. My friend Janet and her father always come here after church to feed the ducks, and if I'm lucky they'll invite me home to have Sunday dinner with them.
I'm waiting for them when Walter shows up.
"Feeding the ducks?" he asks.
"No," I say. "If there were any food at my house, I'd have eaten it myself."
"You're pathetic," he says.
He sits next to me on the bench and discreetly packs a pipe. He lights it up and passes it to me.
"Peace," he says.
We smoke in silence for a few minutes, and then, when we're good and baked, he says, "You think I just want that one thing, don't you? You think I'm just like all those other guys."
"I know you're not," I say. "It would be easier if you were."
"Well, I'm not."
"Well, I can't help that, Walter."
He lights a cigarette and settles back to smoke it. This is a good sign; it means he's not leaving right away.
I'm glad, but then he says, "What the fuck is wrong with you, Sophie? You think it's tempting, when you're offering to fuck me in the alley behind the dumpster? This is what you're doing now?"
"No, because you turned me down."
"Hard to believe, isn't it?" He laughs, but it's not a happy laugh.
This, this is the problem, this miserable laugh. I hear it more and more often, and his real laugh less and less.
"You used to be fun," I say. "We used to laugh all the time."
He tosses his cigarette on the ground and grinds it out with his boot. "I guess nothing's funny any more."
"God, Walter, why do you have to be such a drag?"
I expect him to get mad, but he doesn't. I wish he would, because there's something about the way his shoulders slump, and the way he sighs; it gives me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.
"I can't take it," he says. "I can't see you so much."
"Are you dumping me?"
"No," he says, "I don't want to do that, but . . . yeah, I think that's what I have to do. I can't have you hanging around all the time."
"You want me to stop playing the Venus game."
"Among other things. It's nothing personal."
"No more flippers?"
"Well, look at it this way, Sophie: it'll free up more of your time for getting fucked up and sleeping with other people's boyfriends."
I turn my head to look up the path, partly to see if Janet's coming, but mostly so Walter won't see my tears.
"I'll see you around," he says, and then he's gone, and I'm just a girl alone in the park, with nothing to feed the ducks.