Losing Games

Amy and I were making dinner the way we always did, me a whirlwind of utensils and her a dead voice on the radio. I boiled pasta in a bottle of white wine and added tomatoes, basil, oregano, parmesan, and olive oil as she crooned about looking across the water.

When the pasta was ready, I held a forkful to my mouth and blew through pursed lips, wondering whether I had a crush on her – she was one of those girls who drew me in so fast I couldn’t tell if my attraction was friendly or romantic or both. She sang to me about all the men who had wronged her and I listened with a combination of compassion and smugness. There was no way I would ever let a guy get the upper hand on me. I only ever really went after them when I was drunk or bored.

I ate facing the window and watched the sun go down, casting its last rays over my bookshelf, my bed, my desk. It was my first studio, and I was too young for it. My friends from the student residence I had lived in the previous year were all paired off with each other in crooked little apartments in hipster neighborhoods, but the girl I was supposed to live with had had a mental breakdown in the middle of the semester and moved back home just as we were supposed to sign our lease. It was hard to socialize when everyone had different schedules, and after a few quiet weeks I realized I hadn’t had all that much in common with those people except a shared living space. Most nights after classes were over it was just Amy and me, her singing occasionally punctuated by a Skype call with a friend from high school or my mother. The latter usually asked me in a concerned voice if I had plans for the night, leaving me grasping for an acceptable way to explain that I was swamped and tired and just want to listen to a dead girl sing.

Tonight, however, would be different. I was going to the birthday celebration of a girl I had met a few weeks previously at a house party when we found ourselves squished into the same corner to spectate a game of beer pong. We smiled awkwardly at each other. She was too feminine to be my type – her long black hair hung loose over her shoulders and she wore a lacy blouse that complimented her dark skin perfectly– but she seemed sweet.

“Nice top,” she said, nodding at my black corset.

“Thanks! Thrift store. I like yours, too.”

We chatted about clothes, our schools, and our friends as we watched the pong game. Her name was Alex. She was out of school, and working for a media company in the city. I told her I was in my second year of my sociology major and was relieved when she didn’t ask me any questions about it.

Our small talk fizzled as we tried to avoid getting splashed. I was about to excuse myself to find something more interesting to do she turned to me and asked, “Want to play a game?”

“Sure,” I said, grateful she had suggested something.

“I’m going to point someone out and ask you a question about them. All you do is come up with an answer. Okay?”

“Okay.”

She craned her neck to look around the room. “See the guy with the khaki shorts over by the refrigerator?”

“Yes. Ew.”

“Tell me about his darkest fear.”

I studied him. Average height and build, hair neatly buzzed, longish nose and thin lips. What were guys afraid of?

“Chickens,” I said, decisively.

Alex snorted. “Really? Defend.”

I didn’t miss a beat. “His parents took him to a farm when he was really young and he wandered off to the chicken coop when their backs were turned. He wanted to pet them but they got scared and tried to peck him to death. He still has the scars on his arms.”

Alex smirked. “You know what? I totally see it. Give me someone.”

I scanned the room for a target. “See that girl with the long blonde hair and sequined shirt?” I said finally.

“Yeah.”

“Tell me about her worst night out.”

Alex took a moment to consider. “A week after she broke up with her boyfriend she and her best friend were supposed to go to a club but her friend bailed so our girl got angry drunk, tagged along to a different club with some people she barely knew, went to the bathroom to send her ex a Snapchat of her tits, lost her wallet, and made out with a fifty year old man.”

I whistled. “Rough night. I think I lose.”

She laughed. “It’s not really a losing game.”

We went on like that for a while. “I’m having a birthday party in a couple of weeks,” she told me before she left. “We’re going to pre at my friend’s place and then go to my favorite bar. You should totally come.”

“I would love to!” I gave her my number and a few days later she texted me the address.

When I finished eating, I brushed my teeth, put on a short black dress over leggings, and went to my closet-like bathroom to do my makeup. I put on pink lipstick and black eyeliner, tracing two swooping wings over my lids. I slathered some leave-in conditioner through my dark, unruly hair and hoping for the best.

Before I left the apartment, I tapped every knob on the stove three times to reassure myself they were off. I jilted the lock seven times to convince myself it was secure. I took my key and gently scraped the skin of my forearm, just enough to leave a mark for me to look at in the elevator so I wouldn’t have to rush back upstairs to remind myself that everything was fine. I was sometimes late to class that way.

It was November, and the wind nipped at my face as I walked uptown. It would be brutally cold in a matter of weeks. As I rounded the corner of the street I was looking for, I heard footsteps behind me. I turned and saw Alex, cheeks flushed in the chilly air and wearing golden shadow that made her dark brown eyes look huge. “Hi!” she said.

“Happy birthday,” I said, hugging her.

“Thanks! I think this is Willow’s apartment right here,” she said, gesturing at a greystone walkup.

We climbed the stairs and followed the sound of music to an open door down the hall. A small group of people congregated in the open kitchen/living room, splayed over sofas and perched on stools. “Happy birthday!” they roared when they caught sight of Alex. She laughed and introduced me to Willow, Olivia, Ben, Marion, Sadie, Juan, and Thomas, all of whom seemed to be young professionals or graduate students. I felt small and out of place.

Willow poured us glasses of sangria and we all sat in a circle. “What should we play?” Olivia or Marion asked from an oversized beanbag chair.

“I have drunk Jenga if anyone’s interested,” Willow offered. We sat in a circle as she explained the rules. Someone had taken the time to stick labels bearing different commands on all of the narrow blocks. Ben or Juan drew one that instructed the player to do a celebrity impression and drink if no one could guess who he was supposed to be. When it was my turn, the piece I managed to extract from the tower told me to take a drink and then do a handstand.

“I can’t do a handstand,” I protested.

“You don’t have to if you don’t want to,” Alex assured me.

“I’ll hold your legs if you want,” Thomas offered. He had a broad, blandly handsome face, with waves of dark blonde hair falling across his forehead. I glanced at him suspiciously.

I felt like I had to do something or risk being the prudish stranger, so I decided to attempt a headstand. I hadn’t done one in years, but I went over to an empty stretch of wall and kicked my legs up against it, bearing the weight of my body on my head and shoulders. The group whooped and applauded as blood rushed to my head.

By the time the Jenga tower toppled we were sufficiently buzzed and headed out to a bar called Estelle’s. I walked inside and thought “womb” with the same immediacy I thought “sea slug” during my first kiss. The walls were exposed brick, illuminated by dark red chandeliers. The abstract art hanging on the wall was also painted in shades of red. Alex ordered bottle service so we could get a booth. The bartender brought us rum with coke and lemon.

My memories after that have a tilted, blurry quality. We made our way to the dancefloor, bouncing to songs from the nineties and 2000s. I found myself dancing next to Thomas when a remix of “Valerie” started playing.

“Did you see that documentary about Amy Winehouse?” he half-shouted at me.

“Her dad was such an asshole!” I shrieked by way of reply. I could have said so much more.

“You kind of look like her!” he informed me. I didn’t think she was that pretty, all stick limbs and beehive hair and horsey teeth. I once saw a picture of her taken when she was high, and she looked like a zombie –slack-jawed, slivers of milky white gleaming beneath her eyelids.

But I liked that he liked her. I liked that he thought I was like her. I liked that his eyelashes were long like a girl’s. I put my arms around his shoulders and we danced together. Then I leaned in and pressed my mouth to his in an off-center kiss.

After a moment’s hesitation, he kissed me back. We made our way over to the bar. I let him buy drinks because I was too drunk to count money. We did tequila shots, which I liked, and then he bought us beers, which I didn’t. The air was stifling from all the people moving and sweating around us. He pressed the cold green glass to the back of my neck.

“Does that feel good?” he asked softly.

“Mmm.” I closed my eyes with relief as condensation trickled down my back.

Eventually we went back to dancing, screaming the lyrics to “Mr. Brightside” and “Baby Got Back.” We started making out again. I saw Alex dancing on top of a table, waving a sparkler in the red darkness.

And suddenly we broke apart and he was gone.

I zig-zagged back over to our booth, where Willow and Alex were talking. Alex gave me a mischievous look. “So. You and Thomas?”

I smiled sloppily. “Where did he go?” I slurred.

“I think he went outside to smoke,” Willow said.

“No, no,” I explained patiently, shaking my head. “Like, where did he go?”

“OUTSIDE. TO. SMOKE.” Alex repeated.

Leaving the bar proved difficult because it involved descending a staircase. The floorboards seemed to lurch every time I took a step. I finally made it to the coat check and then outside. I saw him leaning against the side of the building smoking a cigarette.

“Hey,” I said, trying not to sway where I stood.

He turned towards me. “Hey.”

“Why’d you leave?”

“I had a pressing engagement,” he said, displaying the cigarette between his fingers. “You don’t smoke, do you?”

“Nope. Asthma.”

“Don’t start, it’s terrible.” He exhaled slowly. “I live right around the corner from here.”

I tried to look as though this information didn’t interest me in the least. “That’s nice.”

“We can go there if you want.”

We started walking. I texted Alex, Feeling kind of tired, think I’ll head out. Thanks for inviting me!

I found Thomas again and we started walking. The temperature had dropped while we were at the bar, and the chill of the wind made my eyes water.

“It’s this one,” he said, stopping in front of a large brick building and fumbling in his pockets for a key. His breath steamed in the cold air.

The foyer smelled like dead flowers and disinfectant. “I feel like you’re the kind of person who doesn’t sleep,” he told me as I stepped inside.

“I don’t.” He unlocked the door to number sixteen as I told him about my first night in my apartment after moving day, when I stayed up until three and couldn’t stop thinking about all the crap I had seen clogging up the sidewalks and about capitalism killing the environment because of all the disposable shit people accumulate in their little rat nest apartments and then I started worrying about making enough to live off of with my useless sociology degree and at that point I really wished that the girl I was supposed to live with hadn’t had a mental breakdown.

I expected him to be quiet after I told him that, but he said, “I know the feeling. I’m on a ton of anxiety meds, you should try them.”

I didn’t notice much about his entryway or the kitchen we went through to get to his room. My head was still spinning as we fell onto the bed. I enjoyed the feeling of his body crushing mine. I wondered if he would let me spend the night so I wouldn’t have to sleep alone. I bunched the fabric of his shirt in my fist and reached for his belt.

He rolled away, panting.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

He shook his head and put his hand to his temple, as if he had a migraine. “I can’t do this. I have a girlfriend.”

I sat up. “How long?”

He stared at the floor. “Four years.”

I lay back, stunned, figuring that I would just lay there and absorb what was happening because I was still drunk and there was no way I was wasting money on an Uber. Tears leaked out of my eyes and into my hair. He sat down in a chair and regarded me like a therapist.

We stayed like that for a while, not speaking.

I asked him for water. When he came back from the kitchen and gave me the glass he sat down on the bed. After I finished drinking we lay side by side.

“Do you think I’m crazy?” I blurted out.

He shook his head. “No. You’re interesting.”

This struck me as incredibly false. “Right now the most interesting thing about me is that it takes me half an hour to leave my house because I have to check that the stove is off and the door is locked so many times.”

“I’ve left class to come back to the apartment and check my stove because I was convinced I was going to burn this building down.” He laughed softly at himself, and his eyes were full of despair.

I reached for his hand beneath the blanket and squeezed it in mine. “You’re going to be okay,” I said, meaning it, wanting it to be true, for my sake more than his.

It felt like the right thing to do, until he pulled me to him again and kissed me with so much urgency that I didn’t resist even as something deep inside me screamed WRONG. He rolled on top of me and I felt the full bulk of his body on mine, crushing the air from my lungs. I whimpered in protest. I tried to move my body in a way that allowed me to breathe, but he only pressed into me harder. It felt like we were both drowning, dragging each other deeper and deeper underwater.

After a while he came up for air. “You don’t feel guilty about this?” he demanded.

I tried to speak, to tell him that something was wrong, that I wanted to go home, but all that came out was a mumbled, “Your relationship isn’t my responsibility.”

He kissed me again. He ran his hands over my back, my legs, my chest.

He unhooked the back of my dress and lifted it over my head.

He looked at my naked torso and made a noise, something between a grunt and a sigh.

Then he pushed me away. “You need to leave. Now.”

I lay there for a moment, wishing he had dismissed me earlier so I wouldn’t feel as if he had been turned off by the sight of me without my clothes. The haze of hormones began to evaporate, and I wanted to wash the feel of him off my skin.

He handed me my dress and I slipped it over my head. I picked up my bag and coat. He walked me out of the room and to the front door in silence. Then he opened the door.

“Good night,” he said. “I’m really sorry about this. I think……I think I just wanted to see how far I could get with you, you know?”

I walked silently out into the darkness.

It was five AM, closer to morning than to night, so I wasn’t worried about getting murdered as I made my way down his street. He lived on one of the main student arteries near our university. I have walked down that street hundreds of times since that night and have never been able to identify his apartment.

I caught my reflection in a storefront window and paused. My dark hair drifted in clouds around my face. My heavy makeup dripped and smeared over my cheekbones. My eyes had a hollow look. He was right – I did look like Amy. I would probably have to do something if I didn’t want to die like her.

I put in my earbuds and let her sing to me about losing games.


Sophie Panzer recently completed a year teaching English in Prague, Czech Republic. She is the author of the chapbooks Mothers of the Apocalypse (Ethel Press 2019) and Survive July (Red Bird Chapbooks 2019). She edits prose for Inklette and her recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Jewish Fiction.net, Sad Girl Review, Coffin Bell Journal, Little Old Lady, Lavender Review, Anti-Heroin Chic, and Josephine Quarterly.

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