Which is why every block we walk that Mia doesn’t hail a cab or make excuses and say good night feels like a stay of execution. In the sound of my footsteps slapping against the pavement, I can almost hear the word, reprieve, reprieve, echo through the city streets.
We walk in silence down a much-quieter, muchscummier stretch of Ninth Avenue. Underneath a dank overpass, a bunch of homeless guys camp out. One asks for some spare change. I toss him a ten. A bus goes by, blasting a cloud of diesel exhaust.
Mia points across the street. “That’s the Port Authority Bus Terminal,” she says.
I just nod, not sure if we’re going to discuss bus stations with the same amount of detail we did parking lots, or if she’s planning on sending me away.
“There’s a bowling alley inside,” she tells me.
“In the bus station?”
“Crazy right?!” Mia exclaims, suddenly all animated. “I couldn’t believe it when I found it either. I was coming home from visiting Kim in Boston late one night and got lost on the way out and there it was. It reminded me of Easter egg hunts. Do you remember how Teddy and I used to get about those?”
I remember how Mia used to get. She’d been a sucker for any holiday that had a candy association—especially making it fun for Teddy. One Easter she’d painstakingly hand-colored hard-boiled eggs and hidden them all over the yard for Teddy’s hunt the next morning. But then it poured all night and all her colorful eggs had turned a mottled gray. Mia had been tearfully disappointed, but Teddy had practically peed himself with excitement—the eggs, he declared, weren’t Easter eggs; they were dinosaur eggs.
“Yeah, I remember,” I say.
“Everyone loves New York City for all these different reasons. The culture. The mix of people. The pace. The food. But for me, it’s like one epic Easter egg hunt. You’re always finding these little surprises around every corner. Like that garden. Like a bowling alley in a giant bus depot. You know—” She stops.
She shakes her head. “You probably have something going tonight. A club. An entourage to meet.”
I roll my eyes. “I don’t do entourage, Mia.” It comes out harder than I intended.
“I didn’t mean it as an insult. I just assumed all rock stars, celebrities, traveled with packs.”
“Stop assuming. I’m still me.” Sort of.
She looks surprised. “Okay. So you don’t have anywhere you need to be?”
I shake my head.
“It’s late. Do you need to get to sleep?”
“I don’t do much of that these days. I can sleep on the plane.”
“So . . .” Mia kicks away a piece of trash with her toe, and I realize she’s still nervous. “Let’s go on an urban Easter egg hunt.” She pauses, searches my face to see if I know what she’s talking about, and of course I know exactly what she’s talking about. “I’ll show you all the secret corners of the city that I love so much.”
“Why?” I ask her. And then as soon as I ask the question, I want to kick myself. You got your reprieve, now shut up! But part of me does want to know. If I’m unclear why I went to her concert tonight, I’m thoroughly confused as to why she called me to her, why I’m still here.
“Because I’d like to show you,” she says simply. I stare at her, waiting for her to elaborate. Her brows knit as she tries to explain. Then she seems to give up. She just shrugs. After a minute she tries again: “Also, I’m not exactly leaving New York, but I sort of am. I go to Japan tomorrow to do two concerts there and then one in Korea. And after that I come back to New York for a week and then I really start touring. I’ll be on the road for maybe forty weeks a year, so . . .”
“Not much time for egg hunting?”
“Something like that.”
“So this would be like your farewell tour?” Of New York? Of me?
A little late for me.
“That’s one way of looking at it, I suppose,” Mia replies.
I pause, as though I’m actually considering this, as though I’m weighing my options, as though the RSVP to her invitation is in question. Then I shrug, put on a good show, “Sure, why not?”
But I’m still a little iffy about the bus station, so I put on my shades and cap before we go inside. Mia leads me through an orange-tiled hall, the aroma of pine disinfectant not quite masking the smell of piss, and up a series of escalators, past shuttered newsstands and fastfood restaurants, up more escalators to a neon sign blaring LEISURE TIME BOWL.
“Here we are,” she says shyly, proudly. “After I found it by accident, I made a habit of peeking in any time I was in the station. And then I started coming here just to hang out. Sometimes I sit at the bar and order nachos and watch people bowl.”
“Why not bowl yourself?”
Mia tilts her head to the side, then taps her elbow.
Ahh, her elbow. Her Achilles’ heel. One of the few parts of her body that, it seemed, hadn’t been hurt in the accident, hadn’t been encased in plaster or put together with pins or stitches or touched by skin grafts. But when she’d started playing cello again in that mad attempt to catch up with herself, her elbow had started to hurt. X-rays were taken. MRIs done. The doctors couldn’t find anything wrong, told her it might be a bad bruise or a contused nerve, and suggested she ease off the practicing, which had set Mia off. She said if she couldn’t play, she had nothing left. What about me? I remember thinking, but never saying. Anyhow, she’d ignored the doctors and played through the pain and either it had gotten better or she’d gotten used to it.
“I tried to get some people from Juilliard to come down a few times, but they weren’t into it. But it doesn’t matter,” she tells me. “It’s the place I love. How it’s totally secreted away up here. I don’t need to bowl to appreciate it.”
So your Garden-of-Eden boyfriend is too highbrow for greasy diners and bowling alleys, huh?
Mia and I used to go bowling, sometimes the two of us, other times with her whole family. Kat and Denny had been big bowlers, part of Denny’s whole retro thing. Even Teddy could hit an eighty. Like it or not, Mia Hall, you have a bit of grunge twined into your DNA, thanks to your family. And, maybe, thanks to me.
“We could go bowling now,” I suggest.
Mia smiles at the offer. Then taps her elbow again. She shakes her head.
“You don’t have to bowl,” I explain. “I’ll bowl. You can watch. Just for you to get the whole effect. Or I can even bowl for both of us. It seems like you should have one game here. This being your farewell tour.”
“You’d do that for me?” And it’s the surprise in her voice that gets to me.
“Yeah, why not? I haven’t been bowling in ages.” This isn’t entirely true. Bryn and I went bowling a few months ago for some charity thing. We paid twenty thousand bucks to rent a lane for an hour for some worthy cause and then we didn’t even bowl; just drank champagne while Bryn schmoozed. I mean who drinks champagne at a bowling alley?
Inside Leisure Time, it smells like beer—and wax and hot dogs and shoe disinfectant. It’s what a bowling alley should smell like. The lanes are full of an unusually unattractive grouping of New Yorkers who actually seem to be bowling for the sake of bowling. They don’t look twice at us; they don’t even look once at us. I book us a lane and rent us each a pair of shoes. Full treatment here.
Mia’s practically giddy as she tries hers on, doing a little soft-shoe as she selects a ladies’ pink eight-pounder for me to bowl with on her behalf.
“What about names?” Mia asks.
Back in the day, we always went for musicians; she’d choose an old-school punk female singer and I’d pick a male classical musician. Joan and Frederic. Or Debbie and Ludwig.
“You pick,” I say, because I’m not exactly sure how much of the past we’re supposed to be reliving. Until I see the names she inputs. And then I almost fall over. Kat and Denny.
When she sees my expression she looks embarrassed. “They liked to bowl, too,” she hastily explains, quickly changing the names to Pat and Lenny. “How’s that?” she asks a little too cheerfully
Two letters away from morbid, I think. My hand is shaking again as I step up to the lane with “Pat’s” pink ball, which might explain why I only knock down eight pins. Mia doesn’t care. She squeals with delight. “A spare will be mine,” she yells. Then catches her outburst and looks down at her feet. “Thanks for renting me the shoes. Nice touch.”
“How come nobody recognizes you here?” she asks.
“It’s a context thing.”
“Maybe you can take off your sunglasses. It’s kind of hard talking to you in them.”
I forgot that I still had them on and feel stupid for it, and stupid for having to wear them in the first place. I take them off.
“Better,” Mia says. “I don’t get why classical musicians think bowling is white trash. It’s so fun.”
I don’t know why this little Juilliard-snobs-versus-the-rest-of-us should make me feel a little digging thrill, but it does. I knock down the remaining two of Mia’s pins. She cheers, loudly.
“Did you like it? Juilliard?” I ask. “Was it everything you thought it’d be?”
“No,” she says, and again, I feel this strange sense of victory. Until she elaborates. “It was more.”
“Didn’t start out that way, though. It was pretty rocky at first.”
“That’s not surprising, you know, all things considered.”
“That was the problem. ‘All things considered.’ Too many things considered. When I first got there, it was like everywhere else; people were very considerate. My roommate was so considerate that she couldn’t look at me without crying.”
The Over-Empathizer—her I remember. I got cut off a few weeks into her.
“All my roommates were drama queens. I changed so many times the first year before I finally moved out of the dorms. Do you know I’ve lived in eleven different places here? I think that must be some kind of record.”
“Consider it practice for being on the road.”
“Do you like being on the road?”
“Really? Getting to see all those different countries. I would’ve thought you’d love that.”
“All I get to see is the hotel and the venue and the blur of the countryside from the window of a tour bus.”
“Don’t you ever sightsee?”
The band does. They go out on these private VIP tours, hit the Rome Colosseum before it’s open to the public and things like that. I could tag along, but it would mean going with the band, so I just wind up holed up in my hotel. “There’s not usually time,” I lie. “So you were saying, you had roommate issues.”
“Yeah,” Mia continues. “Sympathy overload. It was like that with everyone, including the faculty, who were all kind of nervous around me, when it should’ve been the opposite. It’s kind of a rite of passage when you first take orchestra to have your playing deconstructed—basically picked apart—in front of everyone. And it happened to everybody. Except me. It was like I was invisible. Nobody dared critique me. And trust me, it wasn’t because my playing was so great.”
“Maybe it was,” I say. I edge closer, dry my hands over the blower.
“No. It wasn’t. One of the courses you have to take when you first start is String Quartet Survey. And one of the profs is this guy Lemsky. He’s a bigwig in the department. Russian. Imagine every cruel stereotype you can think of, that’s him. Mean, shriveled-up little man. Straight out of Dostoyevsky. My dad would’ve loved him. After a few weeks, I get called into his office. This is not usually a happy sign.