The next afternoon Owen walked into the student fitness center wearing shorts and a t-shirt and carrying a racquetball racquet. Amy had called him that morning and asked him to play racquetball with her. He had borrowed a racquet and now here he was. He looked around the lobby of the center and spotted Amy watching the swimmers through the glass that looked into the pool. She wore a blue cotton tank top and black spandex shorts. Owen pored his eyes over the soft lines of her body as he walked toward her. As he neared, Amy turned and smiled and then she laughed.
“Cute legs,” she said.
“Yeah, well. Yours too.” Amy held her own racquetball racquet and a can of new balls.
“Have you ever played racquetball before?” Amy asked.
“Once or twice,” Owen said. “But my dad used to play, so I get the gist of the game.”
“Your dad used to play? I don’t think that’s going to help you today.” Amy smiled and gave Owen a playful shove as they walked down the hallway to the racquetball courts. Owen swayed away from her with the shove and then let his body fall back against her small hand and bumped his shoulder into hers. “Scott and I used to play a lot,” Amy said.
Owen heard the echo of racquetballs slamming against the walls of the courts and the squeaking of sneakers on the polished floors. Bodies thundered inside the tiny pen-like enclosures and the air was filled with the smell of sweat and rubber.
“So are you good?” Owen asked. He and Amy had reached their court and he opened the low door, waited for Amy to duck through, then followed her in and closed the door behind them.
“I’m not bad,” Amy said. “Why? Are you nervous?”
“No, just want to know what I’ve gotten myself into.”
“Shouldn’t you have asked that before? Maybe when I invited you? Why did you say yes?” She opened the can of balls and pulled one out and put the can in the corner of the court.
“It sounded like fun. And you said how much you liked it. So — I don’t really care if you’re good at this. It’s just fun to play, right?”
“Absolutely not,” Amy grinned. “I want to win. Don’t you?”
“Just serve,” Owen said.
Amy stepped to the service line and rocketed the ball off the wall with a deft flick of her wrist. It caromed back toward Owen, sailed over his head and bounced against the back wall of the court and then bounced forward past him and rolled and stopped against the front wall.
“That’s a point,” Amy said. She walked up to the front of the court and picked up the ball and returned to the service line. “That racquet you’re holding,” she said, “it’s to hit the ball.”
She turned and served again.
This time Owen jumped at the ball as it sailed toward him and he got his racket on it. But the ball skidded along the side wall before hitting the front of the court.
“Gotta hit the front wall first. Another point for me,” Amy said.
Her wrist flicked and the ball was sailing at Owen again. He smacked at it. Good contact this time, but off target. The ball shot forward at waist height and spanked Amy in the right butt cheek. She squealed and then turned grinning at him.
“Are you flirting with me?” She said.
“I’m sorry,” Owen said. His face felt hot. The ball had rolled to him. He picked it up and held it out to Amy.
Instead of taking the ball from his hand she danced up to him, rubbing at the spot on her bottom where the ball had hit her. She pouted. “I think I’m going to have a bruise, Owen. I’ll tell everyone Owen bruised my pretty bottom.”
Owen’s face burned now. “Oh, God,” he said. “You’re too much. I’m sorry.”
“My sweet ass.”
“OK. OK. I said I was sorry.”
“You are blushing. Beautiful! Am I embarrassing you?”
“Just serve,” Owen said.
“It hurts a little. Can you check it for me?” Amy pushed her hip to the right and pulled out the waistband of her shorts.
“Serve,” Owen said.
“You are embarrassed.” Amy’s dark eyes flashed and her eyebrows jumped as she sized him up. Then she shook her head and smiled and turned and served again. Owen’s return sailed into the ceiling.
They played for an hour. As Owen settled down he managed to score enough points to make the match interesting. But it wasn’t close. They played three games and Amy Wheatman won them all.
“Good game,” Owen said as they stepped through the door of the court and back into the hallway. He held up a hand for a high five.
Amy slapped her hand into his and then in a single movement she grasped his hand in her fingers and pulled his arm down and around the back of her waist. She pressed her body against him. Owen felt her heart beating in her stomach as it pushed against his.
Amy brought her face close to Owen’s. “You got beat by a girl, Owen,” she whispered.
Owen leaned his body away from her and looked into her face. “That’s OK,” he said. “I had fun.”
“You got beat by a girl,” Amy repeated.
“Yes, I did. You’re good.”
Amy relaxed her grip on Owen’s hand and she directed his arm from around her waist. They stood facing each other now, just their fingers loosely locked together. Owen’s hand was sweating and he let go of Amy’s fingers and wiped his palm dry on his shirt. Then he wanted to reach out and hold Amy’s hand again, but she had started walking so he fell in beside her.
Amy turned and walked backwards in front of him. “Will you tell people you got beat by a girl?” She said as they walked.
“Yes, of course,” Owen said. “Or, you know, if it comes up. I don’t know why anyone would want to know. Why wouldn’t I?
“I just thought it might bother you,” Amy said.
“Not even a little?”
“I don’t care if I win or lose,” Owen said. “I had a good time. That’s really all I care about.”
Amy spun on her heel and walked beside Owen to the lobby. They agreed to meet at the library later. When Owen said good-bye, Amy Wheatman did not respond.
At six o’clock Owen was in the library. He found a table and spread his books to save a seat for Amy. At seven o’clock he was still alone and he texted Amy but she did not reply. At eight o’clock he checked his phone again, but there was nothing from her. At nine o’clock he was still alone. At ten o’clock the library closed and Owen went back to his dorm room. He texted Amy one more time. “Did I miss you?” he wrote. “Where were you sitting? I was in the main room.” His phone stayed silent.
The next morning he tried her again. Texted her and called, left a voicemail. He said he’d be at the library again that evening. Six o’clock, main reading room, she should come. He got the same table as the night before, spread his books and waited. He read. He grew tired and put his head down on his books to rest. He dozed until a chair moved and something rocked the table. He lifted his head and looked up into a grinning face. It was Debbie.
Owen had never seen Debbie smile before. He looked at Debbie’s teeth. They were baby teeth, tiny in dominant gums. He sat up straight and looked around for Amy Wheatman, but he didn’t see her.
“Where’s Amy?” he said.
“Not coming,” Debbie grinned.
“What do you mean?”
“You’re a dope.”
“Not coming. How do you not get that? Not. Coming.”
“No, I get that. Debbie. But why? Not coming why?”
“Because you’re a dope and I was right about you.” Debbie said. Her smile was gone and her lip curled as she spoke to Owen. Her tiny teeth glinted.
“Is she in the library? You’re here?” Owen said.
“She sent me. She’s not coming. Don’t call her anymore.”
“Wait? What? What is going on?”
“I was right and Amy finally sees it and says don’t call her. I said I would tell you.”
“Why not? You were right about what?”
Debbie’s face pulled back into a smile again, her heavy cheeks tugging open her plump lips. She was enjoying this, and this was the moment she’d been waiting for most of all.
“A man who doesn’t want to win is not worth your time.”
Debbie stood up and smoothed her coat around her globe-like body. Her arms were short and her fingers barely reached the equator. She gave Owen a last look full of triumph and then moved out. She sidled between the tables in the reading room and then disappeared between the bookshelves and was gone.
…next week, the final chapter…