Time in Willow Creek: 1 year, 9 months, 3 weeks, 4 days
Kevin glanced at his watch as he locked up the gallery. “It’s still pretty early. You wanna do something?”
They hopped in the car, and he sat there until an idea arrived. “You ever been bowling?”
“Really? We need to take care of that.” He put the car in gear and headed back to Willow Creek. “So…how did you like everyone so far?”
She had hoped they could discuss it sooner rather than later. “I like the three.”
He smiled. “Yeah…me too.”
Not that she had any doubts they would be on the same page, but knowing he agreed lightened the load on her mind.
“So, do you think this is it, or should we keep looking just in case?”
The emeralds above his nose glowed in the darkness. How could he drive while gazing at her that way? The butterflies in her stomach flitted about but not because of the handsome man who was eager for her thoughts but because of the thoughts themselves. Galleria Sepulveda was her business too, but so far he had made all the major decisions. Of course, she didn’t mind for the entire process felt like watching a foreign film without subtitles. But, that particular decision felt monumental. Everything else had been so textbook, he said, and she could have found the answers on the Internet if she really wanted to. But, no one could advise them on who they should entrust their business to. The decision had to be made both in the heart and the mind. It was so serious, and he left it up to her; she felt honored. The gravity of importance weighed heavily on her. What if she made the wrong decision? Would she feel the same way when she hired her own staff?
“I…I think…we should hire them all.”
Kevin’s eyes remained on the road that time. His chin rose ever so slightly as he pulled in a long, deep breath followed by satisfying grin. She couldn’t help but smile back. His pride made her feel amazing. Did Papá ever make Mamá feel that way? Between burying children and having more children, there had to be something keeping them together and happy. In experiences such as this, she saw the stark contrast of what her life could have been and the possibilities which slowly became realities. She became overwhelmed with gratefulness.
“So, Karli is the manager, and Liliana and Nick are the associates?”
She nodded. “Yes. Yes, that’s right.”
“Great. I’ll schedule a meeting with Mr. Maynard next Sunday so we can talk salaries and get offer letters out. Oh, we need to discuss opening before then. Maybe over dinner sometime this week?”
“We’ll need to put a start date on the letters.”
Juliana’s body trembled with nervousness. It was all so exciting, but thoughts of the gallery finally opening–seeing her dream realized–terrified her.
“Are you ok?”
She smiled and nodded.
He snickered. “It’s so fun doing business with you. People say don’t mix business with pleasure, but they can screw themselves!”
Kevin pulled into the parking lot of the bowling alley. They were in the neighborhood around the corner from home, she realized. While he went to the front desk to pay for a lane and buy two pairs of socks, she peered over the railing and watched people bowl. The game looked simple enough, but she doubted it was as easy as it appeared. Black lights covered everything in an eery yet enticing tone of blue. Everyone looked so funny in their glowing skin. A thick, stale smell that reminded her of her youngest sister’s socks tickled her nose and stole her attention from the games.
Kevin found her and pointed to another desk. “We need shoes.”
Her nose wrinkled when she found the source of the smell. Kevin and people ahead of her in line seemed to be perfectly fine with wearing smelly, old shoes, but Juliana had reservations. Thank goodness he bought those socks.
“Hi…can I get a size 11?”
The tall, lanky kid retrieved his request, plopped the shoes on the counter then looked at Juliana as if she were keeping him from something. He looked like the cows from the countryside back home the way he chewed gum.
“A nine, please.”
He plopped her shoes in the same lackadaisical manner. Kevin snorted and gave the kid a dirty look as they walked away. “Lazy kids…”
They found their lane and put on the dirty, old shoes. How were people ok with this? Had they ever replaced the shoes? Surely it wasn’t sanitary to wear shoes only God knew how many people wore before her?
Kevin snickered. “That’s why you wear socks.”
No matter how true the statement was, the socks did very little to ease her troubled mind. Reluctantly, she put on the socks and shoes. When she looked up, Axel and a woman with hair like fire in the next lane.
Axel noticed them and came over to greet her. “Heeey, look who’s out!” He gave her a friendly side hug. “This is my friend, Averie.”
The woman smiled. She had a pleasant face and stunning eyes. Most importantly, she wondered what friend meant to Axel. “Nice to meet you.”
“This is Juliana. She’s the one livin’ with my folks.”
“Oh! It’s nice to put a face with the name.”
She couldn’t imagine him saying anything bad about her, but it still felt strange to learn he had been talking about her or any of them. Previously, he told her he didn’t talk about his family to his friends. The nature of their relationship aroused her curiosity even more.
Averie glanced at Kevin who lingered in their lane pretending to find a ball he could use.
“And that sad sack over there is her boyfriend, Kevin. Come on over here, man. Don’t be shy.”
Juliana’s stomach rolled when she realized Kevin was back on the jealousy train. She was glad Axel disregarded his behavior and made light of it, but she hoped he wouldn’t continue to tease him. She didn’t want to deal with the passive-aggressive, mopey Kevin all night. In light of her own feelings of jealousy a little while ago, however, she resolved to be patient with him.
He joined the rest of him and extended his hand to the woman. “Good to meet you.” His tone was as stiff as the handshake looked.
An awkward silence fell on them in the midst of the loud music and clamor from the adjacent lanes. Juliana feared how the rest of the night would go and almost wished she hadn’t noticed Axel. But at the same time, she couldn’t let it bother her because–frankly–it wasn’t her problem. Kevin was her boyfriend, and Axel was family. The two mules were destined to often be in the same space, and the quicker he realized that the better.
“Juliana, I hope you’re a better bowler than me. We can’t have both us girls be terrible.”
She smiled. “This is my first time.”
“Oh boy. Well, I guess the guys will compete against each other then.”
An Axel-Kevin battle was the last thing they needed. She could see his roaming eyes in her peripheral vision. He almost looked like he was searching for an exit.
Axel snorted. “Kevin don’t want none…unless he’s ready to lose his self-respect.”
He winked at Juliana who felt all kinds of uncomfortable. She hoped he was simply talking trash and not trying to rouse him.
Averie shoved him. “Babe! I hope you can back that up.”
He sucked his teeth. “Girl, you know I can. You can too.”
He winked at her and slapped her butt. She shrieked.
“Good grief,” Juliana heard Kevin say under his breath.
When Axel finished playing with his friend, he addressed Kevin. “Look, man, I’m just messin with you. Gon’ over there and have fun with your girl. I know you don’t wanna spend all night with me.”
He and Averie commenced their game. Kevin still looked a bit bewildered, so Juliana tried to bring him back to the present.
“How does this work?”
He snapped out of it, slid into place next to her, and pointed to the end of the lane. “Those white things…they’re called pins. There’s 10 of them. The goal is to knock all of them down in one roll. That’s called a strike.”
“All of them?”
He nodded. “Unless you’re really good, it’s hard to do. The rest of us just knock as many down as we can, heh. Whoever gets the most points wins.” He pointed at the scoreboard. “Once I get our names in here, you can keep up with your score up there. A strike comes up as an X. Nine pins is a spare and comes up as a slash. We get 10 frames. Uhhh, frames are like…chances. We get 10 chances and then the game is over.”
She wasn’t nervous before, but now she was. So many people were around, and she didn’t want to make a fool of herself.
“Do you want to go first?”
She blushed. “No.”
He chuckled and pressed buttons on the control. “Ok.”
He approached the fault line, peered down the lane, got into a position that made her laugh and fired the ball down the lane. Though he didn’t make a strike, he knocked down a good number of pins. She was so impressed, she applauded him.
He grinned. “When you don’t get a strike, you get a second chance.”
He repeated the same ritual, knocking down all but one pin. She groaned. It was so close.
On her turn, she picked up a ball. “It’s heavy!”
“We can find a lighter one.”
She knew the ball would be heavy by watching and listening to them speed down the lane, but the density caught her off guard. She could handle it though. “I can try this.”
“Are you sure? I don’t want you to strain your wrist.”
“It’s fine. I can do it.”
Her breath quickened when she found his hands at her waist, moving her to where she needed to be. His breath tickled her ear as he gave her a few pointers about using the lane markers to aim. Placing his hands on top of hers, he showed her how to hold the ball. Who knew bowling could be such an intimate experience? She wouldn’t have minded if they stayed like that for the rest of the night and resisted the urge to turn around and kiss him. For the moment, he acted like he let the Axel thing go. She didn’t want the situation to ruin her first bowling experience. After she received all the instructions, he backed away and left her to do everything she had been taught. When she was ready, she rolled the ball…right into the gutter.
Axel applauded her. “That was beautiful! You keep doin it like that, you’ll make your man look real good!”
She and Averie laughed, but Kevin did not. Juliana’s shoulders dropped. He hadn’t let go.
Axel slapped him on the back. “Come on, Kev. Loosen up!”
Kevin retrieved her ball. “You get another chance.”
She smiled at the other two and drew her attention back to her lane though it was hard not to overhear their conversation.
“Is he always so serious?”
“He just don’t like me.”
Juliana wanted to ask him if he was ok without accusing him of bad behavior. She knew he tried to behave like everything was ok, but he failed miserably.
She took her ball and walked to the fault line. Kevin slid behind her to help.
She nodded, and he placed his hands on her waist again and nudged her a few steps to the left. His touch was gentle, so she knew he wasn’t angry–not that he would ever be aggressive with her if he were. Whatever this thing was, it bothered him in a deep place. He always deflected whenever she tiptoed around it; she was too afraid of upsetting him to ask directly.
“Try it from here.”
The ball launched from her grasp down the lane, and to her surprise, she hit one pin.
“I did it!”
He high-fived her. “That was great.”
He sounded happy for her despite the far away tone in his voice.
Loud hooting erupted from the next lane. “Go Juliana,” Averie yelled.
“Good work, teacher,” Axel yelled to Kevin.
Throughout the night, Juliana’s cheerleaders encouraged her, and she got better. Every now and then, Axel would yell something to Kevin. Sometimes complimentary, sometimes trash talk. It was obvious he simply wanted him to loosen up and have fun. Instead, Kevin stiffened more and more as the night went on. Their lane was so cold while things were hot and spicy on the other lane. Averie was such a live wire and kind of wild. People like her usually exhausted Juliana, but that night she was mildly jealous.
Once they determined the third game would be their last, Juliana asked Kevin to wait while she said goodnight to the others, but he left her.
“What’s wrong with your boy? He wanted to wear his $500 shoes?”
She laughed with them although it felt wrong.
“Don’t let that little punk treat you like that. You want me to talk some sense into him?”
She tried to smile. “No. I’ll talk to him.”
“It was nice meeting you, Juliana. I’d say we should do it again, but…”
“Aight then, go find ya man. Remember…don’t let ’em talk his way out of it.”
“Ok. See you Sunday. Bye bye, Averie.”
She hurried out of the bowling alley toward their parking spot and saw him walking up the street a couple of blocks away.
She trotted after him. “Kevin! Wait!”
He kept walking.
Finally, he slowed enough for her to catch up with him and veered off into a green space. His head was low and hands in his pockets.
“What is wrong?”
He shrugged and shook his head.
She sighed and didn’t want to have to work for it. “Kevin…”
“I’m fine, Juliana. I just…I wanted some fresh air.”
She didn’t want a fight and took a deep breath. Something occurred to her. What if the problem wasn’t Axel at all? What if he didn’t appreciate her embracing him like she did? Did she violate some girlfriend code? He couldn’t possibly expect her to ignore the man, and any such request would be denied, but if he felt that way she would consider his feelings.
“Did I do something wrong?”
He looked up at her, finally, with the most precious expression. “Of course not.”
“You don’t like Axel…”
His eyes closed, and he sighed aggressively. “I…I just don’t trust the guy.”
He struggled with his words. “He’s just not a good guy!”
This again. She tried to keep her cool lest the conversation escalated quickly. “Why do you say that? You don’t know him.”
“I know guys like him! They’re just not trustworthy.”
“Juliana…just trust me.”
He deflected again. Part of her didn’t want to bother him, but this needed to stop. He needed to confront whatever it was that plagued him.
“Do you trust me?”
He came closer and touched her shoulder. “Of course. It’s not you. It’s him I don’t trust.”
Remembering what Axel did, she knew what he was getting at. But, things were different now. “I don’t understand. He’s family.”
He snorted. “He’s not your real family. If he wanted you, he could have you. Then you’d be someone else in my life who leaves.”
Tears erupted from his eyes.
“I’m sorry.” He tried to wipe them quickly, but they kept coming.
She went to him and placed a caring hand on his shoulder. “Please…tell me.”
His posture stiffened. He cleared his throat, crossed his arms over his chest and tried to shake it off as if to will himself to be composed. “I feel like…everyone I love leaves me.” The relentless tears poured down his cheeks, disobeying all commands to stay put. “My dad…my mom…my wife. My uncle dropped me as soon as I left for college. Everyone I loved…they’re all gone. I can’t handle anyone else leaving me.”
Her heart dropped. She wasn’t sure how his feelings related to the Axel problem, but a clearer picture formed in her mind. “I’m still here. And you have Marq. I’m not going anywhere.”
He smiled and wiped his face with the handkerchief in his pocket.
“I know. It’s silly…but sometimes I’m just so afraid one day I’ll wake up and you’ll be gone.”
“He’s so…charming…and bold. He could do it.”
She smiled. “You are charming too.”
He snorted again. “Not like him.”
The fuzzy picture became clearer. Perhaps Kevin saw something he wanted and lacked in Axel. There had to be more to it than that though.
“But, I am with you.”
He grinned. “That’s true.” He stroked her cheek but turned away when the bad thoughts came over him again. “I get on your nerves so much. You’re so young…just starting out.” He shrugged. “Maybe one day you’ll decide you want to be with someone who doesn’t frustrate you and has less baggage.”
If he weren’t so emotional, she’d call him crazy and demand he stop entertaining such foolishness. She should have been offended by the perceived lack of trust and immaturity, but he didn’t need her expressions of disappointment. He needed comfort…and reason.
“Axel is not any of those things.”
He gazed at her as if he considered her words. At least she hoped he considered them. Perhaps this jealousy and fear of losing her would need to be worked out in time, but at the very least, she wanted him to understand no one threatened her place in his life.
She squeezed his shoulder. “I like how you are.”
He smiled. “Do you?”
She punched him playfully. “Of course. I don’t want you to be like anyone else.”
His eyes were brighter than they had been all day, and she breathed a sigh of relief.
“I know what you say about Axel. But, I know him better than you. He isn’t always nice, but he’s good inside. He wouldn’t do that. Trust me.”
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Ok.” His head bobbed as if he were trying to convince the rest of him to agree. “Ok.” His arms invited her for a warm embrace. “I’m so sorry, Juliana. I’ll do better. I promise.”