There were two teenage girls in Myron’s basement.That was how it began. Later, when Myron looked back on all the loss and heartbreak, this first series of what-ifs would rise up and haunt him anew. What if he hadn’t needed ice. What if he’d opened his basement door a minute earlier or a minute later. What if the two teenage girls—what were they doing alone in his basement in the first place?—had spoken in whispers so that he hadn’t overheard them.
What if he had just minded his own business.
From the top of the stairs, Myron heard the girls giggling. He stopped. For a moment he considered closing the door and leaving them alone. His small soiree was low on ice, not out of it. He could come back.
But before he could turn away, one of the girls’ voices wafted smoke-like up the stairwell. “So you went with Randy?”
The other: “Oh my God, we were like so wasted.”
“Beer and shots, yeah.”
“How did you get home?”
At the top of the stairs, Myron stiffened.
“But you said—”
“Shh.” Then: “Hello? Is someone there?”
Myron took the stairs in a trot, whistling as he went. Mr. Casual. The two girls were sitting in what used to be Myron’s bedroom. The basement had been “finished” in 1975 and looked it. Myron’s father, who was currently lollygagging with Mom in some condo near Boca Raton, had been big on two-sided tape. The adhesive wood paneling, a look that aged about as well as the Betamax, had started to give. In some spots the concrete walls were now visible and noticeably flaking. The floor tiles, fastened down with something akin to Elmer’s Glue, were buckling. They crunched beetle-like when you stepped on them.
The two girls—one Myron had known her whole life, the other he had just met today—looked up at him with wide eyes. For a moment no one spoke. He gave them a little wave.
Myron Bolitar prided himself on big opening lines.
The girls were both high school seniors, both pretty in that coltish way. The one sitting on the corner of his old bed—the one he had met for the first time an hour ago—was named Erin. Myron had started dating Erin’s mother, a widow and freelance magazine writer named Ali Wilder, two months ago. This party, here at the house Myron had grown up in and now owned, was something of a “coming out” party for Myron and Ali as a couple.
The other girl, Aimee Biel, mimicked his wave and tone. “Hey, Myron.”
He first saw Aimee Biel the day after she was born at St. Barnabas Hospital. Aimee and her parents, Claire and Erik, lived two blocks away. Myron had known Claire since their years together at Heritage Middle School, less than half a mile from where they now gathered. Myron turned toward Aimee. For a moment he fell back more than twenty-five years. Aimee looked so much like her mother, had the
same crooked, devil-may-care grin, it was like looking through a time portal.
“I was just getting some ice,” Myron said. He pointed toward the freezer with his thumb to illustrate the point.
“Cool,” Aimee said.
“Very cool,” Myron said. “Ice cold, in fact.”
Myron chuckled. Alone.
With the stupid grin still on his face, Myron looked over at Erin. She turned away. That had been her basic reaction today. Polite and aloof.
“Can I ask you something?” Aimee said.
She spread her hands. “Was this really your room growing up?”
“Indeed it was.”
The two girls exchanged a glance. Aimee giggled. Erin did likewise.
“What?” Myron said.
“This room … I mean, could it possibly be lamer?”
Erin finally spoke. “It’s like too retro to be retro.”
“What do you call this thing?” Aimee asked, pointing below her.
“A beanbag chair,” Myron said.
The two girls giggled some more.
“And how come this lamp has a black lightbulb?”
“It makes the posters glow.”
“Hey, I was in high school,” Myron said, as if that explained everything.
“Did you ever bring a girl down here?” Aimee asked.
Myron put his hand to his heart. “A true gentleman never kisses and tells.” Then: “Yes.”
“How many what?”
“How many girls did you bring down here?”
“Oh. Approximately”—Myron looked up, drew in the air with his index finger—“carry the three… I’d say somewhere between eight and nine hundred thousand.”
That caused rip-roaring laughter.
“Actually,” Aimee said, “Mom says you used to be real cute.”
Myron arched an eyebrow. “Used to be?”
Both girls high-fived and fell about the place. Myron shook his head and grumbled something about respecting their elders. When they quieted down, Aimee said, “Can I ask you something else?”
“I mean, seriously.”
“Those pictures of you upstairs. On the stairwell.”
Myron nodded. He had a pretty good idea where this was going.
“You were on the cover of Sports Illustrated.”
“That I was.”
“Mom and Dad say you were like the greatest basketball player in the country.”
“Mom and Dad,” Myron said, “exaggerate.”
Both girls stared at him. Five seconds passed. Then another five.
“Do I have something stuck in my teeth?” Myron asked.
“Weren’t you, like, drafted by the Lakers?”
“The Celtics,” he corrected.
“Sorry, the Celtics.” Aimee kept him pinned with her eyes. “And you hurt your knee, right?”
“Your career was over. Just like that.”
“Pretty much, yes.”
“So like”—Aimee shrugged—“how did that feel?”
“Hurting my knee?”
“Being a superstar like that. And then, bam, never being able to play again.”
Both girls waited for his answer. Myron tried to come up with something profound.
“It sucked big-time,” he said.
They both liked that.
Aimee shook her head. “It must have been the worst.”
Myron looked toward Erin. Erin had her eyes down. The room went quiet. He waited. She eventually looked up. She looked scared and small and young. He wanted to take her in his arms, but man, would that ever be the wrong move.
“No,” Myron said softly, still holding Erin’s gaze. “Not even close to the worst.”
A voice at the top of the stairs shouted down, “Myron?”
He almost left then. The next big what-if. But the words he’d overheard at the top of the stairs—Randy drove—kept rattling in his head. Beer and shots. He couldn’t let that go, could he?
“I want to tell you a story,” Myron began. And then he stopped. What he wanted to do was tell them about an incident from his high school days. There had been a party at Barry Brenner’s house. That was what he wanted to tell them. He’d been a senior in high school—like them. There had been a lot of drinking. His team, the Livingston Lancers, had just won the state basketball tournament, led by All-American Myron Bolitar’s forty-three points. Everyone was drunk. He remembered Debbie Frankel, a brilliant girl, a live wire, that sparkplug who was always animated, always raising her hand to contradict the teacher, always arguing and taking the other side and you loved her for it. At midnight Debbie came over and said good-bye to him. Her glasses were low on her nose. That was what he remembered most—the way her glasses had slipped down. Myron could see that Debbie was wasted. So were the other two girls who would pile into that car.
You can guess how the story ends. They took the hill on South Orange Avenue too fast. Debbie died in the crash. The smashed-up car was put on display in front of the high school for six years. Myron wondered where it was now, what they’d eventually done to that wreck.
“What?” Aimee said.
But Myron didn’t tell them about Debbie Frankel. Erin and Aimee had undoubtedly heard other versions of the same story. It wouldn’t work. He knew that. So he tried something else.
“I need you to promise me something,” Myron said.
Erin and Aimee looked at him.
He pulled his wallet from his pocket and plucked out two business cards. He opened the top drawer and found a pen that still worked. “Here are all my numbers—home, business, mobile, my place in New York City.”
Myron scribbled on the cards and passed one to each of them. They took the cards without saying a word.
“Please listen to me, okay? If you’re ever in a bind. If you’re ever out drinking or your friends are drinking or you’re high or stoned or I don’t care what. Promise me. Promise me you’ll call me. I’ll come get you wherever you are. I won’t ask any questions. I won’t tell your parents. That’s my promise to you. I’ll take you wherever you want to go. I don’t care how late. I don’t care how far away you are. I don’t care how wasted. Twenty-four-seven. Call me and I’ll pick you up.”
The girls said nothing.
Myron took a step closer. He tried to keep the pleading out of his voice. “Just please … please don’t ever drive with someone who’s been drinking.”
They just stared at him.
“Promise me,” he said.
And a moment later—the final what-if?—they did.