Angle Side Angle
Mary Lynn Reed
Two minutes before the bell, Mrs. Jensen was still pounding geometry proofs on the blackboard. Yellow chalk dust caked her fingertips and speckled her black hair. It was Friday and none of the other kids cared about her theorems and postulates but she was unfazed. I was interested in the proof, I always was, but as soon as the bell rang, I rushed out like everyone else and stuffed my books into my locker. I wanted to strut down the sidewalk slowly, smoking a cigarette or drinking a Slurpee like the cool kids, not lugging three textbooks home for the weekend. But I had a test on Monday and an essay due. So I pulled out Geometry and American History, and slammed the locker shut.
I was such a loser.
Junior high cliques didn't have a lot of spots open for a tomboyish girl who made As and never got in trouble. I had a best friend in eighth grade who was funny and good at math, too, but she moved to Alabama with her father right after her mother "lost her mind" over a tennis pro named Sven.
Five blocks down from school, I ran full-speed across the highway, made my way toward the Tropical Horizon Plaza. I strolled past the movie theater, the dry cleaners, the Cuban deli, kicking cigarette butts along the breezeway until I reached our place.
The Horizon Plaza Game Center.
We just called it the Game Room.
Dad bought the place when he got laid off from the phosphate plant two years ago. Video games were the next big thing, he said. We had Space Invaders, Asteroids, pinball, foosball, and-my favorite-three beautiful green-felted pool tables. If your parents had to own a business when you were fourteen, this was about as good as it could get. Mom complained because we didn't make enough money to hire employees, so we were there all the time. Seven days a week. Late closing every night.
No one heard me complaining.
Mom wouldn't let me play pool until I finished my homework, which is how I became a whiz at geometry. The proofs went faster if you never had to look anything up, so I knew every triangle congruence by heart.
Side-angle-side. Angle-side-angle. Side-side-side. Angle-angle-side.
"Playing pool actually is geometry," I said to Mom, as she wiped moon-pie crumbs off the small round tables in the snack area.
"Good," she said. "If we stay in business, you should have a Ph.D. in math by the time you're eighteen."
I tried to get her to shoot with me but she waved me off and went back to the office.
"These games are for men and kids. Not middle-age women like me," she said.
"If we stay in business long enough, maybe you'll become a kid again," I said.
She was already hiding in the office. I couldn't see her face but I knew she was shaking her head, and pursing her lips like my grandmother.
Later, when it was dark outside and the jukebox was blasting Rock 'N Roll Fantasy, I broke a rack of eight-ball and heard the cowbell behind me.
Dex wore a white T-shirt, had a pack of cigarettes rolled up in one sleeve. He tugged at his amber Afro with a pick.
"Nothing in yet," I said. "Wanna play?"
He went to the wall, selected a stick.
There was a one-way mirror to the office; I couldn't see my father, but I knew he was watching Dex's every move from behind that tinted window.
Dex was nineteen. He was a soft-spoken guy but he was expelled in his senior year for breaking a Coke bottle over a kid's head. He didn't have a job but he always had money, and everybody loved him. Dad said that could only mean one thing.
I thought Dad was too judgmental.
But I didn't tell my parents about the little bags of Quaaludes I knew Dex carried, or the pot he said I could have whenever I wanted it.
Dex missed an easy shot in the corner pocket and I stepped up to take my turn. I could feel Dex's eyes on my ass as I slid the cue gently between my thumb and forefinger, an advanced grip I'd learned from a shark named Diaz who lived in Plant City and drove an eighteen-wheeler. I sank the three ball hard in the side pocket, and Dex said, "Damn, Wendy."
I slipped by him and smiled.
My father stepped out of the office.
I called a bank shot and made it.
I chalked my cue, then tapped it on the tight weave carpet. I was studying the table, planning my next sequence of shots when I heard the cowbell again. Dex's smile broadened, and he yelled, "Maria!"
Maria sauntered in slowly, like a real boy, not a pretender. She wore tight black jeans and a plaid flannel shirt. Dex greeted his friend with a handshake, a pat on the back.
She waved at me with one finger and my stomach tightened. I wanted to walk right up to her like Dex did; I wanted to be cool; but I just stood there holding my cue, watching my father's face flatten. There was only one Game Room kid he disliked more than Dex, and that was Maria. He didn't tell me why, but I was pretty sure I knew.
Dex whispered something to her and she nodded.
"You finish it," Dex said, pointing at the table. Then the two of them left, heading across the parking lot toward Dex's car. I watched them go, then glared at my father, and abandoned the table.
When Dex and Maria came back, their eyes were slits and they couldn't stop laughing. I sat in the office with Mom.
"They didn't keep her in very long this time," Mom said.
Maria was sixteen and a frequent visitor to Juvenile Hall. She'd been away five months this time, for breaking and entering, we'd heard.
My feet were propped on the desk and Dad hung over the half-door between the office and the snack area. He took a roll of quarters out of the money drawer and tossed it to me.
"Nobody's touched Missile Command all night," he said. "Go play."
I was the Game Room shill. If a game wasn't doing well, Dad sent me out to rake up a high score and gather a crowd. When I finished, everyone clamored to play. It was shocking how well it worked.
I took the quarters and went into the main room. It was almost midnight and the place was packed. The jukebox screeched Another Brick In the Wall over the ding-ding-ding of pinball and the clickety-clack of billiards colliding. I sank a quarter in Missile Command and ran my fingers over the big round track ball. The only problem with the shill trick was that sometimes I was too good at a game and the crowd grew bored before I finished. Dad tried to coach me to throw games after I'd drawn a crowd but I just couldn't do it. I loved to play.
After fifteen minutes playing the same quarter, Maria appeared at my right elbow.
"You're pretty hot," she said.
Immediately, I was sweating. I knew she was talking about the game, but the tone of her voice saying those words caught me off guard and my hands started to shake. I lost control of the track ball. She stood so close, almost touching me. My thumb slipped and the missiles penetrated my defenses. Loud explosions rocked out of the game's speakers. Then I felt Maria's hand on my right hip. She slipped something into my front jeans pocket, then leaned in tight, and whispered, "This is from me and Dex."
I took a deep breath and she was gone. Looking left to right, I prayed my father hadn't seen her. Prayed he wouldn't bust me and never let me out of the house again. I died quickly after that. Three lives lost in record time. I stepped away from the game. My father was nowhere in sight. I felt the small plastic bag in my pocket. Two 'ludes. And Maria's breath still warm on my neck.
I needed to sit down.
When I woke on Saturday morning, I was alone in the house, a note on the kitchen counter said my parents had gone to open up, I should call when I was ready.
In the shower, I let the hot water flow over my skin until steam filled the bathroom. I put Dark Side of the Moon on the stereo, lay on my bed in my underwear, and stared at the bag of Quaaludes. I'd only taken one before, late at night, right before bed. I'd gone right to sleep and never felt anything but tired.
I put one of the pills between my teeth, closed my eyes and thought of Maria. I could see the silver rings she wore on her dark thick fingers. I could picture the nape of her neck and I wanted to kiss it. I wanted to put my lips there and feel her hand on my hip again. My stomach cramped and I tossed my head back, swallowed the 'lude.
When the phone rang, I was still in my underwear, watching the light filtering through the windows, soft and grey. My father's voice snapped me to attention and I tried to sound natural but paranoia crept in and I was certain he could tell. He said he'd be home to get me in fifteen minutes.
I put on jeans and a black T-shirt, threw a flannel shirt on top. I pushed my finger through a small hole in the shirt tail, watching the universe of plaid expand in my mirror. I touched my face and it felt coarse, porous. My fingers tingled and I shook my head and ran my hands through my hair. I drank a Coke fast, did a few jumping jacks, touched my toes, then splashed water on my face.
I'm fine, I told myself. No one will ever know.
My father thought he was the most observant man in the world. He wasn't.
I got in the Monte Carlo and he said, "Thought you were gonna sleep the whole day away, did you?"
He blew cigarette smoke out the window, and never met my eyes.
I rolled my window down and let the weighty afternoon air blow through as the sun slipped behind a billboard, and I leaned my head out, stuck my tongue into the wind like our old German Shepard used to do.
Once we arrived at the Game Room, I bought myself another Coke, drank it fast, tapped my fingers on the jukebox. There was no sign of Dex or Maria and the pool tables were full of paying customers. So I watched a bunch of jocks play doubles foosball. I knew one of them. His name was Gar and he was shorter than me, probably not even five-two. But his muscles looked like they were ready to bust through his T-shirt and he winked at me every time he made a shot.
"You wanna play?" Gar said.
"Don't have a partner," I said.
A warm hand slid across my shoulder. "Sure you do."
I stuttered something stupid and tried not to fall over.
Gar pointed to the table, and said, "Well?"
Maria plugged quarters in and the balls dropped. She nodded at me and I just stared at her chocolate eyes. I felt like such a freak.
Gar and his doubles partner were watching me. I was certain they could tell I wanted Maria. They knew I was a freaking dyke and I was about to pass out.
"Wendy-" Maria snapped her fingers in front of my face.
I took the goalie position. She was on offense. Before I could catch my breath we were playing. I tried to follow the ball, but it was moving too fast. Gar took a shot and I wiggled my men but he found the hole. The ball smacked the inside of our goal and I jumped.
Maria put her hand on my arm, and said, "You okay?"
I nodded. But I couldn't feel my fingers.
Her smile broadened.
"You like it?" she said.
I nodded, suddenly grinning like an idiot.
She winked and I gripped the foosball rails tighter. I needed to sit down. But I wouldn't leave her. No way would I leave that foosball table.
She tapped the ball on the edge of the table. "Ready?"
"Go," I said.
This time there were no cracks in my defense. I blocked three shots, captured the ball with my defender, rolled it into striking position. Maria lifted her men to make room for my long shot. I bent my knees, tilted my head, looked down the table. Gar's partner was a wild goalie. He showed you a hole, then took it away. Fast. Faster. I saw it. I took a bank shot off the far wall.
Gar punched his partner and Maria threw her arms around my shoulder. "You're a little shark at everything in here, aren't you?"
My face grew hot.
We won the game easily. Gar blamed his partner. Said he was blitzed on Budweiser and couldn't concentrate. That made me laugh. And then, I couldn't stop. I held my side, laughing so hard. Maria took me by the arm and pulled me toward the front door. She opened it and I pulled back.
"I can't," I said, looking back to the office. "I can't go out there."
"Come on," she said. "Dex is in the car. We'll go for a ride."
I looked around, didn't see my parents. I knew they were there, behind the one-way mirror in the office. And if I wasted one more minute my father would see me and come pull me away and throw Maria out and I might never see her again. I knew all of that was true.
So I pushed the door open and ran with Maria to Dex's car.
Maria opened the backseat door and I jumped in. The windows were up and the car reeked of marijuana. Maria kicked the front seat.
"Holy shit," Dex said. "Are you crazy? Her father's got a fucking .38 in the back, you know."
"Don't be a fucking pussy, dude. It's just a little ride," Maria said.
"He's right," I said. "My dad will flip when he realizes I'm gone."
Dex and Maria exchanged glares.
"Let's go," Maria said, sliding closer to me in the backseat.
Dex looked at me. "You okay with that?"
Dex shook his head but started the engine, pulled away slowly. I stared at the Game Room door, waiting for some sign of my father. But there was none.
Maria leaned over the front seat and said something to Dex I couldn't hear. He looked at me through the rear-view; his eyes were colder than I'd ever seen before. I looked away.
Maria slipped closer, put her arm around me, and gave me another 'lude. I tossed it into my mouth and swallowed. Closed my eyes.
Soon the radio was blaring Molly Hatchett and I didn't know where we were or how long we'd been gone and there was a heavy weight on my leg. Warmth. I opened my eyes and it was Maria, rubbing the inside of my thigh. She looked at me and I looked back and for a minute, I thought I might faint. I thought I was losing consciousness but then her lips were on mine and I was fighting for air, fighting for feeling in my hands and my feet and my tongue. Fighting to feel the kiss I knew was happening, but the car was spinning and jerking, and then it stopped. The car door slammed and Dex was outside, lighting a cigarette. We were parked. I didn't know where. Dex jumped on the hood of the car, leaned back on the windshield, facing away from us.
"What's going on?" I said.
"Nothing," Maria said, wrapping her fingers through mine.
"What did you tell him?"
"Nothing," she said.
Her eyes were half-mast but not sleepy. I wanted her to kiss me again. I wanted her to touch me. She read my mind and did. And this time, I felt it. Her tongue slid inside my mouth, warm and certain, and I thought I was dying. I thought my heart was too weak and I couldn't take it.
But I managed.
I kissed her back and touched her face and when she slipped her hand under my shirt I moaned. When her fingers reached my bra I knew I was going to pass out. I wrapped my arms around her neck. There was a whirring in my ears.
"Just breathe," she said.
Her right hand worked under my bra while her left unbuttoned my jeans. Her tongue was inside of my mouth and I thought I could die right then. There was nothing else that could ever feel as good as this.
A knock on the window.
Dex stood by the door, watching us.
"Shit," Maria said, as she pulled away from me. As soon as she was gone, I started to shake and I couldn't stop. My teeth chattered.
Maria rolled down the window. "What the fuck?"
"We need to get her back," Dex said.
"Fuck off-" Maria rolled the window back up.
Dex didn't say anything else but he got back in the car and started the engine. Maria's eyes turned to flint. I buttoned my jeans and straightened my shirt. I sat upright and rolled my window down, hoping fresh air will help. It just made me colder. I hugged myself and tried to stop the shaking. Tried to picture my father's face when I walked back in the Game Room. I caught Dex staring at me through the rear-view again.
He looked away.
When we pulled back into the parking lot, I said, "I can't go back in there."
"I'll come with you," Maria said.
Dex shut the engine off and turned around. "You're insane."
I tried to look Dex in the eye, but I couldn't. He pointed to himself and then to Maria, and said, "Who does your old man hate worse-me or her?"
"Hey!" Maria said.
Dex lunged over the seat and grabbed Maria by the collar. "Wake up! He knows you're a dyke. And look at her-Look!-that's his daughter, you idiot. Look at her!"
I gripped the seat with both hands, wishing to God I'd never swallowed that second 'lude.
Maria stared out the window; her jaw was chiseled stone. I reached out to touch her and she froze.
"Come on," Dex said. "I'll go with you. He'll kick me out but he won't kill me."
I didn't want to leave Maria there, but Dex was right. There were some angles my parents weren't ready to see.
As I closed the door, I looked back at Maria. I wanted to apologize, to try to explain. But she wrapped her arms around her chest, and yelled, "Go!"
As soon as we got inside, I felt scared for Dex and I told him to leave. But he took my hand and walked with me, all the way to the back. My father stood at the office door. The veins lining his neck were thick and blue. He pointed at me and then the office.
"You're not welcome here anymore," he said to Dex. "Don't ever come back."
"Not a word," he said, with a raised backhand. My mother sat quietly at the desk. She wiped her eyes and looked away.
Dex angled away slowly.
I went into the office.
As he left, Dex looked at me through the one-way mirror, and waved goodbye with one finger.
On Monday, I aced my geometry test in record time, then I stared at the palm tree fronds fluttering in the breeze outside. I thought of Maria's hands on my body, her lips pressing mine. My stomach cramped.
My parents were threatening to sell the Game Room. Business wasn't as strong as they'd hoped and Mom thought the bad was outweighing the good. Teenagers needed stability, she said. A normal home life, not a gang of bad influences.
I raised my hand and asked Mrs. Jensen for the hall pass to the restroom. The third time I strolled past the bathroom the hall monitor told me to go back to class or he'd send me to the principal's office.
I wondered what it would take to get expelled. I wondered if a Coke bottle over the head was required, or if something less violent would do the trick.
Even as I thought it, I knew I'd never find out.
As I headed back toward geometry I saw someone at the end of the hall with dark hair and a slow strut.
"Maria!" I yelled, running toward her.
But it wasn't her. It was just a stoner guy skipping class.
He nodded at me, and asked, "Got any 'ludes?"
"No," I said. "You?"
He shook his head and I turned around, and the two of us headed off in opposite directions.
Mary Lynn Reed lives and writes in Maryland, near Washington, D.C. Her fiction has appeared in The MacGuffin, Karamu, Happy, Night Train, The Summerset Review, Temenos, Smokelong Quarterly, and Per Contra, among other places.