Our mothers drove us here in silver Mercedes-Benzes, gave us twenty-dollar bills, and told us to be outside at 10:00 P.M. We got extra coins for good report cards, waited in line to show a college student that we excelled in math and science, English and history. We wore jeans and tight tank tops, sneakers for the rock-climbing wall, straightened our hair with off-brand straighteners that we bought from Sally’s beauty supply. We knew that Ryan would be there, or Jeremy, or Sam. We knew he would play laser tag, but we hoped he would accompany us on the go-karts, watch us on the track, see how fast we were willing to go.
We arrive alone and find friends posted up at various game machines, eating churros or brushing their teeth with sugary dust from the bottom of a bag of candy. They wipe their fingers on denim pockets, they tell you Ryan is here, he’s with two girls, but they might not last, you think, you hope. You go to the bathroom even though no one goes to the bathroom. There are rumors that the college kids who work here do coke in the stalls. You’ve never seen it, but you believe it. You picture cocaine as overflowing laundry flakes from a story about a stuffed bear who needs a pocket. You remember your mother reading you this book, “something white, glowing in the dark,” and think of a bear falling in all the soap, believing it was snow.
When you leave the bathroom, your friends are in line for the go-karts. They are not with Ryan, so you leave them and search the game room. He is not there either, but Danny Martinez from math class plays a stationary racing game and says a bunch of guys went upstairs to play laser tag. You do not want to play laser tag. It will cost you most of your tokens, and you are not very good. You do not want to put on a heavy vest and carry a laser gun. You do not want people to shoot at you and for your vest to light up and vibrate and make noise. You do not want to shoot anyone. You do not want to pretend. But you go upstairs anyway, and when you see Ryan putting on a vest and holding a laser gun, you enter the competition and agree to play. You pay and are fitted for a vest and gun. You sit in a tiny theater and watch a demonstration video. Ryan’s hand is on Lisa McAllister’s leg. In the video, you are told you can only be shot three times before you must leave the maze. You are told not to be rowdy and engage in foul play. You are told that if you do so, your gun will deactivate, and your vest will turn from green to orange.
Upon entering the maze, you realize you have not told your friends where you were going. They are most likely still waiting for a turn around the track and you wonder if they notice you are gone, if they’d be mad if they knew what you were up to. The maze is filled with neon architecture, an assortment of Egyptian décor, and you sidle along the pillars, seek out a safe place to hide and wait for Ryan. You see boys with blonde tips run pass you, but you look for Ryan’s brunette locks. Someone shoots you and your vest lights up, even though you were hiding. It is Drew Fisher from English and you hate him because he often steals the snack your mother packs for you. Right before class starts he will rummage through your navy blue JanSport and find a 100-calorie bag of popcorn, a Ziplock filled with Cheeto Puffs, and he will take them to his desk and hide them in the pocket of his khakis. He will look back at you and smile during class, and his teeth will glisten orange and it makes you feel sick.
Right now Drew Fisher laughs and points at you. He says, “What a loser,” and continues on his shooting spree. You hope Lisa is next, but you know she is not since she has a full chest and gives blowjobs to whoever wants on weekends. You have only seen a penis once and it was at a Jillian Klein’s bat mitzvah on the playground of the temple. Dylan Harris showed a group of girls his thing and asked if they wanted to see it hard or soft. The group had voted for soft, as this seemed less invasive. When he showed us, he undid his zipper and slid it through his boxers. He said he could get it hard if we wanted.
You are shot twice more, almost immediately, but you do not see who hit you. You simply glow orange and stop working. You exit the maze and give your equipment to a college student named Trent. His face is very red and his hair is horrible, long and greasy and red. You wonder if Ryan is having a good time. You wander over to the snack area and buy a Sprite for a dollar. It comes in a bottle and you like opening and closing it, the feeling of having something to nurse, an object that you can return to at will.
You pass by the activity room that is dirtied with paper plates and leftover cake. It is always someone’s birthday here, no matter what time of year, what time of day. You remember your little cousin’s birthday here just a few months ago, the way you didn’t know if you should sing along during the “Happy Birthday” song, how you felt uncomfortable and knew that there was something changing in you, around you. It was as if you could feel yourself getting older and more aware of who you were, who you were becoming, and it felt like time was happening too fast. You tried to tell your mother, but she was tending to the cake she made. She had worked very hard and you didn’t want to spoil her moment.
Your friends are still in line for the go-karts. You cut in and people are mad, families with children, other kids from school who you aren’t close with, girls with sad ponytails and boys who still think farting is funny. Your friends don’t ask where you’ve been, but they debate which color go-kart they will choose, and you sip your Sprite, occasionally, and decide that you don’t want to go on the track after all. You don’t even enjoy racing, and you only wanted to do it to impress Ryan, but now that he’s occupied, there is no point. Your friends will not forgive you, will not let you escape, so you must ride anyway, and you pretend you want the red go-kart so badly that it has to be yours. You inch up in line and time goes by, time that you know is important, but you waste it anyway in line with friends you don’t really like waiting to ride a ride you don’t want to go on. You must act like you enjoy this, all of this. All of these things are what you want. You are a teenager and this is the place of dreams. You are young and this is your life. This is the beginning of all good things.
The race is a blur of color; red, blue, green, yellow. You do not win this game either, in fact, your kart is knocked into a bunch of times, concernedly so, but the ride attendant doesn’t seem to flinch. Risk is part of the go-karting adventure. Un-safety is necessary for the thrill you came to enjoy. And when you go home later, you will not tell your mother you rode the go-karts, but you feign sleep on the ride home to avoid communication, the fake sleep always turning into real slumber, somewhere along the way. For now, you and your friends sit at a table outside and someone gets an ice cream cone from a vending machine. Everyone wants a sip of your Sprite, and you let them have it, but do not drink from it after they all have a turn. There is talk of going across the street to the movie theater, which is not allowed, but to talk about it revives the spirit of the night. You mention the rock wall, but no one else has proper shoes, so the topic is dropped. You say you have to go to the bathroom, again, and with every step away from your friends you feel like crying, like calling your mom and telling her to come and get you early, like you are the only person on earth who feels these things, who feels everything and sees things the way you do, and you want to cry and cry and cry.
But as you walk inside, Ryan is downing a bottle of water, and calls for you as he makes a three-point-shot of it into the garbage. You walk over, and he takes your hand and guides you to the rock wall. He pays your ticket fare, and you both get fitted for harnesses and helmets. He says he will race you to the top, and lets you do the easy course, even though you’ve completed all three levels before. Your father coached you through the hard level one Saturday afternoon, when it was just you and your family here. It was the middle of the day and a rare weekend for your father to accompany the family on an outing of this sort. But he told you where to place your feet when you couldn’t see, and he encouraged you to keep going until you reached the top and rung a bell. When you rappelled down, he asked you how it felt to make it all the way. You told him you wanted to do it again.
Ryan counts to three and you begin your ascent. As you climb, your underarms start to sweat and you become nervous that if Ryan wins, he will not like you anymore, he will have no reason to keep playing with you, to give you any of his attention. You climb hard and fast and your hands hurt, but you keep going. Ryan disappears below and you take a clear lead. Looking back, you will never fully understand why you liked boys like Ryan. You theorize that maybe it was because they always seemed like fun, like they were having a good time, and you thought that if those boys loved you, you too could finally understand what that meant. You saw yourself as a sad girl who wanted to be happy, when in actuality, you were a smart girl who thought too hard about everything and made it impossible for herself to enjoy anything. It was all in your head. All of it.
When you reach the top and ring the bell and look behind you, out and down at the spectacle of children and games. Everyone gathers here to let loose and run wild. Even you have managed to win a game and earn the affection of a boy for one evening, one moment in time. But everything moves and changes, like that game your mother loves where you drop in a coin and all the other coins are pushed over the edge. Like the pennies, these moments, they build upon each other, collapse into one another, and it is one night, all nights that we ever came here to play. You feel so different, and you are, and yet, we are all the theater.