The Game

Creating tales for unacquainted barflies, a weathered couple ponders their own story

Original story illustration by M.C. Matz

Michael felt the bourbon glaze numb his face as it always had after… how many? He stopped counting years ago, in the days when the high was a little higher and the morning climb back to reality not so treacherous.

Sharon sat beside him. Same table, same club. The band was tooling up, and bodies began drifting toward the dance floor. A ceremonious cap to another week. Once in a while they danced, but mainly they drank and enjoyed their game. The waiter brought Sharon another spritzer. Michael watched her hold it. He observed her hands, her fingers gently poised around the stem. She looked at him, and he smiled.

It wasn’t so different a night, that night long ago in a cafe in the Village amidst an intoxicating mixture of laughter and music, that he fell in love with her. And it was just like that: One moment they were friends, the next he was in love. It was out of the blue and took only a moment.

“What are you thinking?” Sharon asked.

“You look nice tonight.”

She blushed. “Liar.”

Moments. He pondered the significance of moments. Years and lives are made up of an infinite string of moments. Occasionally a moment sneaks up on you that changes the course of the rest of your life — moments of supreme introspection, of heart and mind unbound, moments of truth.

There is the moment you fall in love. There is the moment or event in your life through which you pass into maturity. And then there are times when you are the victim of a moment, a tragic moment, like when Sharon lost the baby. They always anticipated leading storybook lives, unsoiled by such emotional savagery. It had been nine years, but scars remained. Her face had changed to reflect a permanent sadness, even when she was happy and smiling. They never talk about it. It’s as if silence is a healing ointment and utterance of the first word will release the flow of blood again.

They surveyed the room. The more eclectic the gathering, the more engaging the game. The standard fare were present. The salesman — of what, it didn’t matter — in a polyester suit and an impeccable coif, hitting on everything with two legs and long hair, soothing every rejection with a shot of the house brand, making sure to save enough cash in case his victim needed to be rented for the night, as was usually the case.

Near the bar they saw another player. Tall with long blonde hair, she wore a painted-on dress that rode up practically to her navel when she sat. She turned toward them, and they saw a child’s grandmother carefully hidden underneath gobs of foundation, rouge and mascara. Perhaps she’d find Mr. Polyester, and they’d join a bowling team and live happily ever after.

Without fanfare, their game of reading faces and naming names began. “What do you think?” Michael asked, looking in the direction of the woman wearing copious makeup. “Local talent?”

“Hooker? Her? No, not her.” Sharon stared for a minute, watching the woman converse with another of the club’s cardboard clientele.

“You sound pretty sure,” Michael said. “Married?”

“No. Used to be. Several times.”

“Why did the marriages end?”

“Bad choices of men.”

“She made the bad choices, or they made the bad choice?”

“That’s not fair,” Sharon defended. “It’s like this is her last stand. She feels she has one more chance. It’s all or nothing, and time is overtaking her.”

“That’s sad.”

“It is.”

Two tables to the right sat an elegant woman all alone who looked to be waiting for someone. She alternated between glances toward the door and a captivating scene to her side. Others were watching, too. Michael followed their eyes to a table by the window where passion consumed a young couple. Attractive, in love, they kissed and fondled, giggling with lustful abandon, unaware of their audience. The watchers’ instinctive derision soon dissolved into jealous longing, grieving for years past.

Michael noticed a man at the bar staring at him, rubbing his nose, sniffling as if he had a cold. Michael missed doing cocaine since Sharon made him give it up. Once in a while he craved the rush, the thankful searing in his sinuses, the numbing in the back of his throat, the crisp, sharp state of mind. Sometimes now the world seemed too gray, his place in it dull and his attitude dispirited.

But the sudden availability of cash when he quit was nice. The bank holding his mortgage would be happy. Sharon certainly approved. She always was one to queue up her priorities just so.

Michael looked again, and the man had already begun to purvey his goods elsewhere.

Halfway through the evening, a gentleman came in and joined the lone woman two tables away. “Sorry I’m late,” he said and pecked her coldly on the cheek. She neither flinched nor acknowledged his apology. She just sipped her wine as he rubber-necked for a waiter.

Sharon observed, her tone serious, “She never sees him. She wants to reach out, to get to know him again.”

“He’s probably the same person,” Michael said. “I’d say he’s hardworking. Success breeds responsibility. Does she work?”

“To keep busy. But she’d rather be with him.”

“He’s just trying to give them the life they’ve always wanted,” Michael explained. “Check out her jewelry. She doesn’t look like she’s hurting.”

“Window dressing. She’s hurting inside. Look at the way she rests her hand on the table between them. She wants him to take it, to hold it.”

Michael was suddenly cognizant of his own empty hands. After an awkward moment, he picked up his glass and the stirrer that lay beside it. With the attention of a surgeon, he stirred the bourbon, sending ice into slow, smooth revolutions.

The beat from another cookie-cutter top-40 cover pounded. On the dance floor, the gyrating grew animated as alcohol and atmosphere squelched inhibitions. Some appeared practiced professionals; some looked epileptic. Near the center, Michael caught sight of a radiant brunette. She had a young yet mature face and danced without a partner. Prospective suitors moved to her, shared her space through several measures and then, sensing defeat, moved on.

The colored lights above shone on her glistening lips, making them look moist and inviting. Michael wondered who would take her home that night. The salesman? The drug dealer? Would Sharon mind if he invited her to come along with them? Yes, he imagined, she would.

He noticed Sharon’s eyes fixed on a couple in the corner to the left. They appeared to Michael to be out of place. They looked successful, moneyed. He thought they should be at the summer home, sipping Chivas and planning this year’s vacation to Greece. The couple sat in silence, watching the dancers.

“She’s uncomfortable,” Sharon said.

“About being here?”

“About being with him.”

Michael looked closer. That, he hadn’t perceived.

Sharon spoke again, “She doesn’t love him anymore.”

Michael appraised Sharon’s insight. To him, the couple looked… tranquil, as if perched atop a long pursued plateau. Maybe stagnation is what she saw.

“Does he mistreat her?” Michael asked.

“No,” Sharon said, in a way that dismissed the possibility entirely. After a moment, in a melancholy whisper she added, “She’s probably mistreated him over the years.”

Michael stared into his glass. An almost imperceptible fissure weaved its way through an ice cube. “Does she think he still loves her?”

“She’s not sure,” Sharon answered. The ice cube separated with a barely audible crack. “She probably hopes he doesn’t.”

The band took a break before its last set, and the dancers returned to freshened libations. The sudden quiet was resounding.

Michael looked to Sharon. “Do you want to leave?” he asked.

Sharon’s lips formed a gentle, doleful smile. It reminded him of the one that hooked him 15 years before. Sobriety returned then with full force.

“Yes,” she said. “If you don’t mind.”

They maneuvered through the thickening crowd and made their way to the door. Outside, the streets were barren and the moon bright. A cool breeze caressed them, its redolence hinting that tomorrow would be a new day and all was as it should be. Michael offered his arm, and Sharon took it. But as they strolled down the walk, he knew they were never going to be the same again.