The Unexpected Benefits of Bowling

The bowling alley is nearly deserted, maybe because it's two o'clock on a Tuesday afternoon. I don't care. I'm bowling. I need to throw a heavy ball at pins who vaguely resemble both the shape and the IQ of my boss. And I need to do it now.

The manager's mouth curls up on one side as he takes in my outfit. So I'm dressed for work, not bowling. Still don't care. People can bowl in a cute skirt-jacket combo. All that matters are the shoes. The... hideous... completely clashing... red and green shoes with dingy brown laces that he slides toward me in return for some of my hard-earned cash. Hard-earned, ha. Try slave labor. I'm completely underpaid and unappreciated.

Lane one, he says, sticking me on the end. Maybe my face gives away my violent mood and he wants to keep me as far away as possible from the small impressionable children bowling on lane twelve with their parents. Maybe that's not a bad idea. Who knows what might come out of my mouth until I bowl out my frustration for a while. I head to the left.

The shoes are lovely. Oh yes. And so comfortable. The balls are lined up on the racks in some sort of system, but it can't be one designed by any reasonable human. So I spend a few minutes hefting balls, searching for numbers on their scarred surfaces, sticking my fingers in to check for a fit that will keep me from losing the ball behind me on my backswing. Finally a suitable candidate is found, and I lug it back to the carousel.

Computer scoring. Cute little cartoons of balls and pins doing strange things. I wonder for a moment if the children on twelve should really be seeing these things. Steamrollers, wrecking balls, helicopters that blow the pins over as if it were Armageddon. I shake my head and put in my initial. That's enough. Nobody needs to know who I am. I am the angry woman on lane one. I backspace my initial and instead put in A.W.O. Angry woman on one. That's me, officially. I am woman, hear me roar.

I step up to the arrows at the end of the smooth polished wood, hoist my ball, and take a deep breath. Did I mention I stink at bowling? But it doesn't matter. Today this is not a sport, nor a game. This is therapy, my friends.

Frame One.

At least it wasn't a gutterball. That one little pin dangling off the edge of the lane has saved me from that particular embarrassment. But I will get better. I just need to warm up. Maybe. It felt good heaving that ball down that long lonesome road, and I am looking forward to exhausting myself. The jukebox blasts to life and I look up to see father and son from lane twelve leaning over the contraption, searching its offerings. And hooray, they don't seem to be country fans. I allow myself a little rock-star lip synching as the words to one of my favorite songs fill the alley.

My ball swoops up the chute and I find the holes and set myself. Step, swing, heave. Now there's my gutterball. Yay me. I have a grand score of... one.

Frame Two

I would bowl. Really I would. If only I had a ball. But mine seems to be cowering in fear somewhere in the back recesses of lane one, and I wait. And hit the reset button, and wait some more. Nothing. I trudge up to the manager and tell him my tale of woe, and he nods knowingly. Lane one is temperamental, he says, and I tell him that makes two of us. He offers to switch me, but I like the idea of a temperamental lane and decline. He smiles, but looks a bit nervous as he picks up a walkie-talkie and tells someone 'lane one'. His brother is in the back, studying. As usual, he tells me with a roll of his eyes, and I picture a bookish twelve-year old forced to help out in the family business while he reads about bugs. He motions me back to my assigned therapy area and I return in time to see a hand reach into that black cavern at the end of the lane and scoop up a ball, and a moment later comes the familiar and comforting swoosh. My baby has returned to me. I pick it up and cradle it, comforted.

And now I am empowered. I am imagining ten faces from the office lined up in their little rows, and the front pin is my boss. I fling that ball down the lane like a pro, and hooray! I get seven. It would've been eight but Mark from HR just wouldn't go down. I'll get him on the next one, I promise myself.

If I had a ball.

I wait. Press reset. Turn around and shoot a look to the manager, who catches my eye and lifts the radio to his mouth again. I turn and watch, and this time the hand scoops the ball on its way and then stays to give me a thumbs up.

Nice hand, and I'm thinking now that he's older than twelve. High school maybe, and studying for his SAT's. I am rewarded for my patience and self-control with a satisfying whoosh, and then it's time for Mark to face his doom. I step off my paces and heave. Mark is history. And so is his little shadow, which just has to be Ben because you can always find him on Mark's heels. I have gotten a nine on this frame. Grand total: ten. Things are looking up.

Frame Three

I bowl a strike, and can hardly believe it myself. If my boss only knew I had just mowed him down. Exploded him all over that black backdrop. Ha ha, I chuckle evilly to myself. Take that. Twenty and counting. Before I can even hit reset, I see the hand come to my rescue once again, and I smile when this time its partner joins in to give me two thumbs up. My triumph has not gone unnoticed.

Frame Four

What kind of person follows a strike with a gutterball, I ask you? Me. That's who. Even though the ball made its own way home this time, I catch a movement out of the corner of my eye and see that I am getting a thumbs down from my biggest fan and best critic, The Hand. I can't be angry. I laugh.

I will hit these pins. I will show them who's boss. And I do. I nearly tripped on my skirt and went face first behind my ball, but I saved myself. And somehow my ball had pity on me because it went straight and true down the middle, and everyone went crashing down. Even Ben, the new guy, the one who was bucking for promotion right past me and might just get it. Forty and counting.

Frame Five

My righteous indignation is cooling. I no longer name each pin. There is only poor Ben cowering in the back and my arrogant chauvinistic boss standing there smirking at me from his prominent front-and-center position. And that's enough. I hold the ball to my chest and glare back at him. "You don't know a good thing when you see one!" I mutter as I stride forward, the last few words coming out a little louder than intended as I swing the ball. I take a self-conscious look across the room, and there are no wide-eyed, frightened children looking my way, so I look back at the ball just as it leaves me with a seven-ten split. Wonderful. I'll keep my mouth closed from now on.

The ball needs help making it back again, and I start to feel sorry for the pin boy who has to babysit the A.W.O. I wonder if I'm interrupting his studying. As it rumbles its way toward me, I catch a glimpse of a dark head poking out from the side, taking a peek at me, and it's not a high school head. Definitely college. It looks like a nice college head but it's hard to be sure with such a quick look. Dark wavy hair, maybe needing a trim, and dark eyes. I wish he would peek back because now I'm a little curious to know more about my partner in crime. I stand and wait before picking up my ball, but no luck. The head is gone.

My ball and I line ourselves up and I speak a few encouraging words this time, focusing on that seven pin because ten is Ben and I know that's a hopeless cause. I take a deep breath, frown appropriately, and make my approach. It looks good as the ball heads right for old number seven, and to my utter amazement I have conquered the seven-ten split for the first time in my life. The seven pin loves me. Enough to knock Ben senseless. I let out a happy yell before I realize, then clamp my mouth shut. Okay, now the children are looking. And the parents. But they smile and go back to their game, and I almost wish I weren't bowling alone. It's nice having someone to cheer you on.

But wait. How could I have forgotten? I do have someone. The hand is back. A thumbs up. Then the left thumb above it, then the right one makes another appearance above the left. I have rated a three-thumbs-up. I applaud both for myself and the wisdom of my friend backstage.

Frame Six

My luck has run out along with my aggression. My next ball taps down two pins, then lops pitifully into the gutter and slides to a graceful stop. There is a moment's pause before I see the hand swoop it up and send it back to me, and when I bend to retrieve it I see a dark flash which is gone by the time I look up. I've missed him. But I know he's waiting, and I know he's rooting for me. I will do him proud.

I take the deep breath that helped before, but this time when I release the ball it doesn't want to leave me. It holds on for one moment too long and then lofts gracefully forward, crashing to the wood with a nice, loud, solid.. bang. Oops. But it hangs in there, wobbling forward, and I end up with four more pins thanks to a chain reaction that started with the boss and toppled a few of the ranks behind him. The hand has nothing to say, but I now have sixty six points. In the sixth frame. Six six six. A fitting number for the man who spurred me to come here. I need a new job. If only I didn't like mine. The mere thought gets me fired up again, and again I remember the morning staff meeting. And again I am ready to kill some pins. Come on, ball, we're in this together.

Frame Seven

The trend continues. My first ball is a near-dud, neatly trimming off one small corner of the triangle of pins. The ball obviously wants another shot at it because it comes rushing back without assistance, beseeching me to pick it up by gazing up at me with its three eyes. I do, stroking it and thanking it for its support, and I try to lay it down gently on my next throw. But with my concentration on the ball, my wayward foot slides across the line and a harsh buzzing reprimand sounds. Although I knock down five more pins, it is a tainted accomplishment. But I don't mind so much when my personal pin boy makes an appearance, coming into view on his stomach to reach the ball way over on the other side, wagging a finger at my transgression, and I see he has a nice smile. I laugh and smile back as he disappears. As I walk back to look at my score, I notice the manager watching me, but when he sees me looking his way, he turns away and pretends to be busy. I hope he's not angry with his brother, because instead of trying to smash the pins to dust, I am beginning to have fun.

Frame Eight

I am no longer surprised that my ball can't overcome my lack of bowling skills. We both seem to have become content with a few pins here and there. Three first, then three more. I am up to eighty. I will be lucky to break one hundred, which is my yardstick for a successful bowling adventure. After both throws the pins reset themselves and the ball whooshes its return without delay, and I wonder if my pin boy has fixed the problem and gone back to his books. I think I'll miss him.

Frame Nine

The exertion, as wimpy as it may be, has me feeling warm and constricted. I drape my jacket over the back of the ugly plastic chair. I see the family on twelve has replaced their balls on the racks and are gathering ugly shoes. I will be alone soon. I take the opportunity to go to the counter and order a Sprite, and then I watch them as they walk to the counter. The parents each have a child by the hand, and all of them are smiling and laughing as they recount the best balls of the day. I look the most at the mother. A lucky woman, her eyes are full of contentment and maternal pride. I hope to look like her one day. My Sprite arrives, I unwrap the straw and with no reason to keep looking, I return to my haven, dear temperamental lane one.

My ball is patiently waiting while I take a long, cool drink. I listen as the family leaves. When the door closes behind them, I am the only customer. I feel shy about bowling now, but shake that thought away. This is my domain. And this is my time. I step up the step onto the smooth wood and take my ball, sliding my fingers into the now-familiar holes. I am eyeing the pins, almost ready, when a curious head pops out. I've taken a long enough break that he's wondering if I've gone. His eyes widen when he sees me there, waiting on him now, and then he grins at me. He tosses his chin, a challenge, bring it on, and then he disappears again. I am determined to do well now. Step, step, swing, and... bowl! The ball feels it too and heads straight for the front pin, which has at some point ceased to be anything but a pin. And maybe it knows it too, because it yields easily and takes others with it with the delicious echoing crash that just sounds like a strike. And it was. I pump my fist and allow myself a little hip-shimmy as I return to my drink, looking up to check my score. If I can do well on the next frame, the tenth, I will reach my goal and life will be better. And I will be able to return to work feeling invigorated and forgiving and calm. Ten more pins.

And he knows it too, my friend the pin boy, because even though the ball doesn't seem to need his help any more he flashes out five fingers, then closes his hand and opens it again for five more. He wants me to succeed. I feel a rush of gratitude and wish I could say no, go study. You've brought me this far, now it's your turn.

Frame Ten

The final frame brings with it the pressure of knowing that it's the last chance. Do or die. I know it's just a game, and I'll survive if I only get eight, or even... shudder... nine. How disappointing it would be to get a ninety nine. But it would still be worth it just for the improvement in my mood. I should come bowling more often. I never imagined I would do it alone, and yet I have today, and I'm glad.

I tell my ball we're in the homestretch now, buddy, and we do our routine to the line and I let it go. I urge it on under my breath, waving my hands as if I can direct its path, and it rewards me with a seven. One side is empty, one side has a threesome of stubborn pins waiting. It is possible.

One more drink, for energy. The Sprite is cool and tingly as it flows down my throat, and I am ready to take on the world. Well, at least those three little pins. I step forward and retrieve my ball for what might be the last time, and as I place my toe on the arrow of my choice and hoist my ball into position, a door opens in the wall beside my lane. It is him, my pin boy. He leans against the door frame, his brows rising and asking my permission to witness this final frame, and I nod and smile slightly even as my heart twitches a little. My pin boy is no boy. He is a tall, broad-shouldered, untucked-t-shirt example of what men should look like. I wonder briefly if I can take back my nod, because how can I possibly bowl under that piercing gaze? And yet, somehow, I do. I take a deep breath for luck, concentrate, and count my steps. The swing is a good one, the release smooth, and the ball seems to hurry to its destiny as if it already knew. The first pin falls into the second, which wobbles into the third before toppling over, and then the third wobbles... and ... doesn't fall. It wobbles, and wobbles, and then decides it prefers being upright and settles.

I have gotten a ninety nine.

And yet, I'm okay with it. I look at the pin and tell it that I understand, that it fought a good fight, and that it emerged victorious. I feel someone beside me, and I dip my head respectfully to the pin before I turn.

"Tough break," he says.

"Not so tough," I reply.

"So, are you feeling better?"

I look up. He's surprisingly tall, and the logo on his t-shirt tells me either he's in med school, or he just likes their t-shirts. I think the first one. "Was it that obvious?"

He nods, and a cute crooked grin finds its place between some really nice dimples.

I shrug, then laugh a little. "I guess I am."

There's a pause while we both look at that one lonely pin, and then he looks down at me.

"Going again?"

"I don't know. I've kind of accomplished my goal."

"Good," he says. "Now you can play for fun."

I think about it. "You're right. I think I will."

He turns to me, hooking his fingers into the pockets of his jeans, and smiles. "Want some company?"

And I smile back. "That would be great."