The Striped 9 Ball

by Bailey Powell Aldrich

When my fingers grip around the cool, smooth surface of the flaxen striped 9 ball, the night comes flooding back.

He stood before me with an elongated stare, sparkling sweat forming at his hairline in the August heat while I leaned back against the pool table in my safe, all black outfit. “Dare.” He stated, unflinchingly. My eyes scanned the dimly lit bar, it’s emptiness and lush, high-backed red leather upholstery leaving me uninspired. The closest wall was constructed entirely of glass doors, all of which had been flung open with their rich tapestried curtains gathered to the sides to let any teasing bout of wind find it’s way inside to where we stood. All the other patrons were dining outside where we had just been, softly lit by the sea of paper lanterns strung above them swaying gently in the balmy breeze. Their voices had become a calming white noise to me.

“Okay,” I mused, my eyes meeting anything but his. “If you miss your next shot, when we leave you have to steal the ball I knocked in on the break.”

“The yellow striped 9 ball,” he quipped without missing a beat. My traveling glance snapped to meet his large, pale green eyes that had not strayed from my face. He began pacing toward his position to cue up, the dare evidently accepted. His acute attention to detail first surprised then impressed me, but I stopped myself short of feeling flattered. I watched the pool cue glide between his fingers as he focused and took aim and wondered if this was just his game, recalling trivia involving a date’s actions in order to make her feel notable. Fortunately the four beers I’d consumed prior to meeting Rick quickly extinguished the growth of my self-sabotaging thoughts before they got any more creative. I decided to relax and lean into his flirtation, trusting him until I was actually presented with irrefutable dating mens-rea men in my past had conditioned me to expect. I reminded myself that so far, he was innocent.

As the pool ball in play missed it’s intended pocket and rolled to a stop on the rich, red felt I looked up at him to find him watching me. He pressed his lips together and shrugged his shoulders knowingly, a nonverbal acceptance of his charge to pocket the striped 9 at the end of the night.

Our only company was a bored bartender drying glasses on the far side of the room and our presence went largely unnoticed by him over the course of the evening, so when it was time to leave Rick swiped the pool ball in a faux feat of bravery before we raced down the restaurant stairs that deposited us into the mild 8th Avenue sidewalk traffic. We quickly walked two blocks before he looked over his shoulder and handed me the gold and white ball with a grin. I slipped it into my bag and took his hand as our gait slowed.

It was our first date.

When you play the classic game of pool you’ve got seven balls to knock in prior to the 8 ball, either stripes or solids. The balls are numerically inconsequential in general unless you count one as lucky or tainted. They’re diversified by color and pattern as an organizational facet unless you gift a meaning by romanticizing a particular hue or scheme. The approach to the game then has potential to become deeply personal, organically formed by one’s billiard experience or lack there of, social associations, and private meanings. Mine was a stance of nonchalance as I approached the pool table that summer evening, but in hindsight it had beckoned me like a blood red beacon with the brightest light in the room hanging over it. A moment of chance gave all the glory to the 9 ball: a pool ball rack, a muscle contraction in my arm, a lucky break that resulted in a stripe dropping into a pocket. The moment became mine and it became his, and a striped sphere that had been dulled by an unrelenting cue ball over time became ours.

Investing meaning in objects that are considered generic by others further accentuates the intimacy of the idea the very thing represents, a shared thought that lives in a finite number of minds, a memory no absent person is able to hack into or make themselves a part of. A moment has gone and an item remains, and every time an involved party sees it they’re momentarily whisked back to a place no words are worthy of describing. Every time I see the striped 9 ball I’m too nervous to eat, we’re so engrossed with each other the waiter comes back three times, and Rick’s encouraging my speech with affirmations and engaged body language. I feel his eyes burning into me, I dream up dares, I laugh so hard I’m tearing up, he’s taking my hand, he’s walking me home, and I’m setting a striped 9 ball down in my apartment after saying goodnight.

The memory is encapsulated.