For two players, ages 18 to 100:
Start at a Christmas party, where your host pulls out a board game.
Turn to the person beside you. ‘Jesus, doesn’t anyone just drink anymore?’ The person beside you is the best kind of stranger: the cute kind.
‘You don’t like board games?’ he asks.
‘Not since I, umm, stopped hanging out at the mall.’
‘That’s too bad,’ he says. ‘I was looking forward to beating you.’
Drain your cocktail. ‘Doubtful.’
He cocks his eyebrow. ‘Prove it?’
He wins, you lose. Just like that: You have been bitten.
His winter cold won’t go away. Maybe it’s the bottle of gin he drank on New Year’s Eve. Bring over chicken noodle soup and Monopoly, your shot at revenge. Slide beneath the covers beside him, the first time you’ve been there, steadying the board across your knees. Imagine what your bare legs would feel like against his.
He draws a card. ‘You have won $10 in a beauty contest.’ Laugh together, a glorious burst of sound, until he has to stop and cough, his whole body shaking, game pieces rattling out of place as he spits into a wet rag that he later will shove under his pillow. He looks away, embarrassed.
‘You probably have better things to do than beat a pathetic invalid at Monopoly,’ he says with a smile that crinkles the corner of his eyes.
Actually, you don’t. You beat his sorry ass. No mercy.
In a garage-sale bargain bin find the perfect Valentine’s Day gift: Heartthrobs, ‘The Dream Date Game,’ copyright 1987.
‘This is probably going to be the best game ever,’ you tell him.
‘I’m game.’ He loves puns. You are both such dorks.
Open the box and the game pieces—60 portraits of hunky teen boys—spill onto the floor. Johnny, the guitar-playing Rick Springfield look-alike. Steve, the beefy football star just about the throw the winning pass. RAWR, who’s that? Must be Daniel, the Latin lover.
‘How do you play this thing?’ he asks. There are no directions, so make up your own. ‘Charlie is the class president,’ he reads from a card, ‘but he cheats on exams AND he eats bugs to gross girls out.’
Screw the game. Have sex instead.
Move in with him. Why not? It’s the summer. Introduce your CDs to each other: Flaming Lips, meet Talking Heads; old Tom Waits, meet new Tom Waits. Litter his floor with scrunchies. Hang your loofah in the shower like a flag.
That night, play Trivial Pursuit, the original edition. Laugh at the antique kitsch of the questions, all written in 1985. Don’t know the answers? Guess ‘Soviet Union.’ Guess ‘Ronald Reagan.’ Guess ‘Bob Geldof’ and ‘Wayne Gretzsky’ and if it’s about a horse, always, always guess ‘Secretariat.’
He reads the cards like a game-show host, and you giggle, cheeks flooded with red wine and teeth stained purple. Forget the score, lose the board, just enjoy the silly round baritone of his voice, melt into him so you can feel the vibrations in his chest. Think of how this could be enough, maybe, if you ever let it be enough.
Argue about nothing. Begin innocently, like this. ‘Remember Candyland?’ he asks.
‘Are you kidding? I loved that game.’
‘What about Clue?’ he asks.
‘I totally wanted to be Miss Scarlet.’
‘Where do you stand on Sorry?’ he asks.
Your turn. This is fun. ‘What about Pictionary?’
‘Pictionary isn’t a board game,’ he says.
Whoa, whoa, whoa. ‘What do you mean it isn’t a board game?’
‘There’s no board.’
‘It’s a genre, for Christ’s sake.’
‘Pictionary, Scattergories, those are party games. What, is Connect Four a board game? Is Tic-Tac-Toe a board game?’ He rolls his eyes.
Nothing rattles you like condescension.
Say: ‘Just because it doesn’t have a board doesn’t mean it’s not a board game.’ Say: ‘Words take on all types of meanings that are, like, expanded from their original meaning, and that’s called, I don’t know what it’s called but it’s a thing, you know? I mean…’ (What do you mean?) ‘Do you have a point?’
‘I’m just asking for a little precision is all.’ He starts reading the paper. The bastard.
Panic. Oh God, what were you thinking? You’ve known him for what, four months? Way too early. You are pop-eyed at 4am, you are all question marks. Could you do better? Are you right for each other? How come you’re so bad at Taboo?
He feels you bristle. Your moods are as subtle as an axe whistling through the air.
‘Is this because of that stupid Taboo game?’ he asks. ‘That doesn’t mean anything.’
No, no, but it does. How all the other couples at the office party could play Taboo like they were reading each other’s minds. And when it was your turn you both sat there staring at each other, wild and uncomprehending, and when the timer ran out he shook his head like the whole thing was your problem, it was you messing up, while your colleagues sat there laughing—laughing—at how bad the two of you were.
Oh God, what have you done?
Celebrate Thanksgiving with his extended family. Turnabout = fair play. Drink scotch, the fireball of libations, so perfect and powerful you forget to eat. Befriend 90-year-old grandpa while he watches the parade.
‘They won’t let me do shit,’ Grandpa complains as Bugs Bunny floats past. Grandpa is dying of everything, but right now he is dying of thirst. Make him a double. It’s the holidays.
While the others are eating dinner, play Chutes N Ladders with Grandpa and the adorable five-year-old nephew in the game room. Grandpa’s rules: A shot before every turn. Kool-Aid for the kiddie, Kahlua for you and gramps (it was the only bottle no-one would miss). Later, on the drive home, slumped against the car door, complain about the unfairness of Chutes N Ladders. What is winning based on? Not skill, not strategy, nothing but chance. You’re climbing, climbing, and then WHOOSH! Suddenly you’re back where you started.
‘It’s like life,’ he says.
Say, ‘No it’s not.’
‘You’re smashed,’ he says.
Say: ‘Stop the car.’ Say: ‘Stop the car, I’m not kidding.’
Get out without a word and start walking home. Even though that is such a stupid-ass thing to do.
Maybe it’s time to slow down with the drinking. Stay at home while your friends enjoy glass-crashing ragers at the bar. Think of all the money you’re saving. Play Scrabble.
‘Scrabble is the ultimate board game,’ he says.
Correct him. ‘Trivial Pursuit is the ultimate board game.’
‘Trivial Pursuit is fine, but Scrabble is elegant,’ he says, because he always calls things he likes ‘elegant.’
Lay down your piece de resistance, a seven-tile word. ‘Beeatch.’
‘That’s not a word,’ he says. So humorless.
‘What do you mean it’s not a word? Look it up, bee-atch.’
He peers over the top of his glasses.
Ask: ‘Oh what do you care?’ Point out the obvious. ‘You’re winning by like 200 points.’ Grow petulant. ‘Just give it to me, okay?’
He shakes his head. ‘I can’t.’
‘You can’t? What do you mean you can’t?’
‘‘Beeatch’ is not a word. It’s a dumb slang word. I can’t give you points for a dumb slang word. That’s not how you spell it, anyway.’
‘Oh my God, I can’t even talk to you right now.’
‘Do you want to win by cheating?’
‘Yes, yes I do.’
‘I’ll give it to you if you admit it’s not a word.’
‘It is a word.’
‘Admit it’s not a word and I’ll give you the points.’
‘It’s not a word, it’s a way of life.’
‘Jesus,’ he says. ‘Take it. Take the points. Are you happy?’
‘I don’t want it anymore.’ Scatter the tiles as you stand. Stare at the walls. Is it your imagination, or are they closing in?
‘I’m sorry, but I need to play by the rules,’ he says finally.
Say: ‘I hate losing is all.’
He catches your eye. ‘Boggle?’
Christmas whizzes near, a surprise once again. One minute you see it looming on the horizon—December 25, months away—and next thing you know, Christmas is smooshed up against your face. Presents purchased? None. Gift certificates? Lame. Poems? Hard.
Ask him, ‘What was the best Christmas present you ever got?’ Scratch his back lightly as he cooks dinner. These days, you have stopped kicking so hard.
‘Probably the year I got my Atari,’ he says. ‘1981, I think.’
You got an Atari too—along with Ms. Pac-Man and Frogger and your favorite, Pitfall—but the best Christmas was the year before, when your parents bought Oh What a Mountain. You remember your brother, your first love, ripping open the package and shaking the box over his head like a trophy. Or maybe you remember that because it is a picture hanging in your parents’ bedroom. In the long, sinking hours that followed Christmas morning, you and your brother lost an afternoon to that game, in front of the TV but not watching the TV, marveling at how the game folded into an actual mountain, transcending the traditional two-dimensional board game, a sort of mountain the player could climb and do what? Pick cherries? Yodel? Shit. You have confused Oh What a Mountain with ‘The Mountainclimber’ on The Price Is Right. You can’t remember what Oh What a Mountain does anymore. Call your mother close to midnight, kind of drunk: ‘Do we still have Oh What a Mountain? Ask Dad, will you?’ But no-one knows. The garage is littered with your old games.
The two of you spend Christmas Eve at your house. Your parents, always trying to please, have rummaged through the garage and found not Oh What a Mountain but a dusty copy of Life. Christ. You haven’t seen this thing in years.
He reads the instructions. ‘The person with the most money wins!’ Typical. The game is fabulous and ridiculous: you are an artist who makes $100,000 a year. He cures the common cold and wins $50,000. You both laugh. What on earth were they teaching you?
‘You know, the spinning wheel on the Life board revolutionized game play,’ he says.
You could live the rest of your life not knowing this. But why?
After dinner, after services, after everyone argues over whether or not to open a gift early or not, spend the evening playing the game with your family, which for now includes—impossibly—him.