I lifted up the ball. He didn’t move, still standing right beside me. I shot him a look and he shrugged, retreating back to the sticky bench.
Since our first night out together a week earlier, this was pretty much how it had been. A constant back-and-forth, sometimes serious, more often not, stretched out across the hours between when everyone else went home and the sun came up. I knew if I’d spent the same amount of time with Eli during the day, or even early evening, I probably would have gotten to know him, too. But not like this. The night changed things, widening out the scope. What we said to each other, the things we did, they all took on a bigger meaning in the dark. Like time was sped up and slowed down, all at once.
So maybe that was why we always seemed to be talking about time as we wandered the aisles of stores under fluorescent lights, or drank coffee in a dark room while his clothes fluffed, or just drove through the mostly empty streets, en route to somewhere. Time ahead, like college, and behind, like childhood. But mostly, we discussed making up for lost time, if such a thing was possible. Eli seemed to think it was, at least in my case.
‘You know what they say,’ he’d said to me a few nights earlier, as we helped ourselves to Slurpees at the Gas/Gro around three A.M. ‘It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.’
I picked up a straw, poking down the pink slush in my cup. ‘I wouldn’t say my childhood was unhappy, though. It just wasn’t…’
Eli waited, fitting a lid onto his cup with a click.
‘… very childlike,’ I finished. I took a sip of my Slurpee, then added a bit of blue flavor for variety, a trick he’d taught me a few nights before. ‘My brother had kind of worn my parents out on the whole kid thing. They didn’t have the patience to do it again.’
‘But you were a kid,’ he pointed out.
‘I was,’ I agreed. ‘But in their minds, that was something I could overcome, if I just tried hard enough.’
He gave me one of the looks I’d come to recognize, his expression a mix of befuddlement and respect. You kind of had to see it to understand. Then he said, ‘In our house, it was the total opposite. Kid central, all the time.’
‘Yup. You know how there’s one house in the neighborhood where everyone goes to ride bikes, or watch cartoons, or sleep over, or build a tree house?’
‘Yeah,’ I said. Then I added, ‘I mean, I’ve heard of such things.’
‘That was our place. Because there were four of us, we were always halfway to any game of kickball or dodgeball. Plus my mom was always around, so we had the best snacks. Her pizza wraps were legendary.’
‘Wow,’ I said, following him up to the register. The cashier, the older woman I’d come to recognize, looked up from her magazine, smiling at him as she rung us up. ‘Your mom sounds great.’
‘She is.’ He said this so simply, matter-of-factly, as he pushed a couple of bills across to the cashier. ‘She’s so good it’s hard for her to convince anyone to move out. It took her forever to get rid of my sister and older brother. And Jake’s the baby, and totally spoiled, so she’s probably stuck with him until some girl is stupid enough to marry him.’
Hearing this, I felt my face flush, remembering our fast, fumbled moment in the dunes. I swallowed, focusing on Wanda as I paid for my Slurpee.
It wasn’t until we were headed outside that he said suddenly, ‘Look, no offense. I mean, about what I said. About Jake. I know you two –’
‘I’m not offended,’ I said, cutting him off before he could begin to try and define this. ‘Just humiliated.’
‘We don’t have to talk about it.’
‘Good.’ I took a long draw off my straw. We walked in silence to the car, but then I said, ‘In my defense, though, I don’t have a lot of experience with, um, guys. So that was…’
‘You don’t have to explain,’ he said, opening his door. ‘Really. My brother is a piece of work. Let’s just leave it at that.’
I smiled gratefully, as I slid into the front seat. ‘I have one of those, too. A piece-of-work brother. Except he’s in Europe, where he’s been mooching off my parents for a couple of years now.’
‘You can mooch from overseas?’
‘Hollis can,’ I told him. ‘He’s got it down to an art form, practically.’
Eli considered this as we stepped out into the hot, windy night. ‘Seems kind of selfish,’ he observed. ‘Considering he got the only childhood.’
I hadn’t ever thought of it that way. ‘Well, like you said. Maybe it’s not too late. For my happy childhood, and all.’
‘It’s not,’ Eli said.
‘You sound awfully sure of that,’ I told him. ‘So sure I have to wonder if you’ve done this kind of making-up thing before.’
He shook his head, taking a sip off his straw. ‘Nope. I have the opposite problem, actually.’
‘Too much of a childhood.’ We walked over to the truck, and he pulled his door open. ‘All I’ve ever done was goof around. I even managed to make playing a living.’
‘With the bike thing.’
He nodded. ‘And then you wake up one day, and you’ve got nothing of value to show for all those years. Just a bunch of stupid stories, which seem even stupider the more time passes.’
I looked at him over the top of the car. ‘If you really feel that way,’ I said, ‘then why do you keep encouraging me to do all this stuff?’
‘Because,’ he said, ‘you can always break curfew or have a slumber party. It’s never too late. So you should, because…’
He trailed off. By now, I knew not to fill in the gap.
‘… that’s not the case with everything,’ he said. ‘Or so I’m learning.’
Now, ahead of me, the lights were blinking over the pins, on and off. The lane stretched out ahead, the wood polished and worn, and I tried to imagine how, as a kid, it would look even longer, almost endless.
‘You’re overthinking,’ Eli called from behind me. ‘Just throw it down there.’
I stepped back, trying to remember his form, and swung the ball out in front of me. It took flight – which I was pretty sure was not supposed to happen – then landed with a loud thud. In the next lane. Before rolling, oh-so-slowly, into the gutter.