The bowling alley is already filled with rows of Brooklyn kids heaving balls pocked like mauled wads of gum, ripe with teeth marks and sharp ridges. Christmas lights hang along the old brick wall, the kind my parents used to hang off of the gutters of my childhood house. Blue and red and orange and green and something white, like faded lemon or rotten cream. Glass bulbs. The original kind. We kept them balled up for eleven months of the year, stuck in some crumpled cardboard box, banging against one another until half of them broke.
A kaleidoscope of festive colors spills over vintage beer signs. Old Milwaukee Light. Knickerbocker. Mackeson’s Stout. This place looks like the basement of my dad’s cop friend before he remodeled and took off the forest-themed wallpaper, tore out the shag carpet.
My friends aren’t here. Serena texts me to say that everyone’s gone over to some beer and brat place down the street to kill time. I meet her in the middle of a dark sidewalk. “Jenster!” she says, running towards me with skinny legs. She calls me Jenster. The nickname didn’t work until finally it did, like jamming a square peg into a round hole until the friction whittled both ends into submission.
Our table of friends sits in front of drinks, an unfinished game of Scrabble in the center. I’m terrible at Scrabble. There are always too many options and not enough letters, too many almosts. I scan little squares and try to think of good words, not point-efficient ones. I always lose, my brain stuck somewhere between knowing how the game is played and trying to play it the way I want.
Tom’s been doing drugs all week. First Vegas, then Burning Man. “I don’t know how I did it,” he says, a wide smile crossing his lips, his eyes laughing at his extreme bodily disregard. He doesn’t think about the long-term consequences of his actions. He doesn’t think that his extreme exhaustion was likely a result of his body being on the precipice of giving up, of dying.
But I’m always thinking of this.
Tom and his boyfriend and Tom’s best girlfriend tell stories of late nights and early mornings partying, of people crawling out the front door of an apartment building on their hands and knees into cabs because someone bought ketamine that night and not cocaine, everyone snorting downers when they were looking for uppers.
Tom’s boyfriend buries his head in his hands, less thrilled with the story than Tom is with some of his own. Still, everyone laughs about it now. Our most depraved stories are always the most entertaining, unique and unoriginal at the same time.
I have never been capable of this adolescent freefall. I was always too busy thinking about being an adult because of the things that happened to me as a child. I wish I could be free in my debauchery, but I’m too consumed by a past history of a brother who had cancer and a family dealing prematurely with its collective mortality.
The living can dance next to death when they have never thought about it in a real way, when they have not been forced to value their lives in real terms. They will always be here. They will live until old age, no matter what they snort or how many drinks they consume, how many strange beds they wake up in at 3 in the afternoon.
Later, at another meeting of a different kind, I will be sitting across from two girls who ask me if I want kids and I say, “Sure, I mean maybe, who knows.” Because I hate the assumption of “when.”
When I get married.
When I have kids.
When I become the editor of that magazine.
Because “when” assumes that we know. “When” assumes we are in charge. But my brother didn’t ask to have cancer. My parents didn’t ask to have a sick kid. I didn’t ask to be weighted to the ocean floor with the anchor of unrelenting responsibility to God knows what. When my mother was pregnant, I’m sure she was thinking about the ambiguous joys of motherhood, not midnight trips to the E.R, chemotherapy, spinal taps. My mother wasn’t sitting at her baby shower thinking “when my son gets cancer.”
And so I will sit there, telling these girls the reasons I would like to have kids, but stating that I do not know if I will have them. Because I don’t. And even though they sit there across from me with their confused eyes and their sweet maternal intentions, they don’t know either. I’m the one looking cold and clinical. I’m the one playing it safe.
I am always the one playing it safe.