Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Playing House

In the den of his one-bedroom apartment, Reginald Stevens, a fifth-year philosophy and Chinese major, sat Indian-style on the floor, four feet from the screen of a 30-inch plasma television. His eyes were wide, his forehead covered with a thin sheen of sweat, as he focused all his attention on a video-game karate fight. Seated on the couch behind him was his live-in girlfriend – Jennifer, a thin, twenty-two year-old Chinese girl, pale, with large black eyes. Her lap was covered with clothing that she was folding and arranging into piles. She fought to keep her eyes open . . . The clock above the TV struck midnight, and she had gotten up at 6am for her first class. Afterward, the doctor supervising her internship had asked her to stay late, and she hadn’t gotten home until 9pm. The apartment had been a wreck, dishes piled in the sink, clothes piled in front of the washer, beer bottles and filled ashtrays on the coffee table; Reginald had had some people over. One more load in the dryer and everything would be set to rights, however; she could collapse into bed.
“Robo-Suzuki’s Lightning Strike is faster and does more damage than Chrono-Suzuki’s, but only hits once . . .” Reginald muttered to himself. “It’d be a good combo starter if it hit, and if they jumped it, you could surprise them with a Flame Thrust on the way down . . .”
Reginald paused the game, picked up the guide he had printed off the Internet, and flipped through the pages until he found a diagram that showed how to execute the Flame Thrust.
“Forward, Crouch, Up, Slash,” he said. “Robo-Suzuki does a back flip and swings his sword in an upward arc, catching the opponent on the way down and tossing them back into the air. If they block it they don’t have time to recover, and they’re vulnerable to a combo on the ground. Sweet. I wonder if it works . . . Hey, Jen, play me for a second.”
Jennifer finished folding a towel and got up from the couch. She sank down next to Reginald, bending her knees and sitting on her feet. He handed her a controller.
“Alright, I just need you to walk back and forth; I want to see if this combo works . . . Ready? Okay, I’m Robo-Suzuki, you can be whoever . . . wait, no, not him . . . not Baiku, I know it won’t work on him. Pick someone else. Yeah, be Axl. Ready? Now just walk back and forth . . . let’s see, Lightning Strike . . . no, Jen, you can’t block it, this has to hit . . . actually, just stand there. Alright, Lightning Strike, and . . . Flame Thrust! Dammit, Jen, you moved! Why’d you move?”
“I didn’t do anything. I was only holding the controller.”
“Jeez, well,just put it down and watch. See? Look . . . Lightning Strike . . . bam! . . . Flame Thrust, bam! You hit the ground, and . . . bam! bam! bam!, three hit combo! Kick-ass! I should write this down . . . hey, Jen, I need a pen. Can you get me a pen and paper?”
Jennifer grabbed the pen and notebook she had taken to class from the coffee-table and offered them to Reginald.
“No, no, my hands are full. Just write what I tell you, it’ll be easier. Alright, ready?”
Jennifer flipped through pages stuffed full of chemistry equations, searching for an empty page.
“Yeah, go ahead.”
“Okay . . . Lightning Strike, Crouch, Up-Forward . . . then Flame Thrust, Forward, Crouch, Up. Got it?”
“Yes,” she said, closing the notebook.
“No, I need that. Tear it out for me.”
Jennifer re-opened the notebook, tore out the page, and set it on the floor. She had taken notes on the reverse side, but didn’t say anything; she figured she knew the material well enough.
“This is great,” said Reginald, as he began a new match. “This one is gonna blow the guys away. Hey, are my carpenter pants clean?”
“Yes. I just need to throw them in the dryer.”
“Awesome. I want to wear those tomorrow.”
Reginald turned back to his game and resumed practice, this time against a computer opponent. Jennifer, notebook in her hands, remained seated, silent. She never said much, even when attention was paid to her; most times she was too busy with her own thoughts, and would sometimes space out, oblivious to the world around her. . .
Since Jennifer had moved away from home for college, she had dated several boys like Reginald. She met them all the same way, in her classes, where they would notice her sitting at the back of the room, silent, and always in the same spot, with at least one empty chair on either side of her. She would say that their method of courtship was peculiarly awkward, if she had experienced it only once; it began with the boy occupying one of the chairs next to her usual seat before she arrived, so as to make their proximity seem like chance. Questions about the assignments would lead to casual small talk, and, after a week or so, they’d ask her to lunch. This request was always made haltingly, while the boy looked at the floor and fidgeted. Jennifer always said yes, and as the lunch dates multiplied, then the movie dates, she was able to witness the slow metamorphosis of her insecure paramours. None had had a girlfriend before, and as they got used to being around her, the change was nothing short of miraculous. Palms stopped sweating, shoulders straightened, conversation went from hopelessly frantic to comfortably banal; after a couple of weeks, they were able to look her in the eye without twitching. Jennifer knew why she attracted them – she was like a bike with training wheels, not so attractive or aggressive that they felt threatened, but just right, cute, and obliging.
Eventually, though, they’d become bored with her, and their newly found self-confidence would spur them to pursue more exciting girls. She consoled herself each time with the belief that she had committed a selfless act and done a very special thing for every one of them. Her looks belied her experience in this regard; a casual observer would be shocked at the number of boys this unassuming girl had ushered into manhood. Reginald was her tenth . . . She knew that he, too, would soon try his luck elsewhere, and shed her like old skin. The decision to break up would be entirely his, and she would accept it gracefully, as she had always done, bowing out with her dignity intact. It hurt a lot less that way, she found.
A sudden knock on the door broke her reverie.
“Come in!” yelled Reginald. He paused his game and stood up.
In walked Colby, Reginald’s best friend and fellow gamer. Jennifer remained seated and looked up at the visitor.
“Hey, man, I need to ask you a favor,” said Colby, as he slammed the door. He spoke quickly and immediately began to pace back and forth.
“What’s up?”
“Your girlfriend is taking Chemistry 310L, right? I need to borrow her notes, man. I haven’t been to class in a fucking month, and I saw there was a goddamn test tomorrow.”
“Yeah, sure, no problem,” replied Reginald. “Hey, Jen, where’re your Chemistry notes?”
“ Right here,” she said, picking up the notebook. “Not that I need them or anything . . . ”
“Aw, come on,” said Reginald, taking the notes. “You know this stuff like the back of your hand. Colby here is an idiot, aren’t you, Colby?”
Colby grabbed the notes and flipped through them eagerly. “Yeah, yeah, a fucking idiot,” he muttered.
A loud buzz sounded, signaling that the washer had finished its cycle. Jennifer stood and left the room. Colby looked up from the notes. The moment she was gone, he tossed the notebook on the couch.
“Dude, seriously, when are you going to fucking dump her?” he said, stepping up close and speaking softly.
Reginald breathed in sharply through his teeth and looked away, in the direction of the laundry room. “Geez, man, I don’t know . . . she does kinda live with me.”
“Goddammit, stop using that as an excuse! Where’re your balls at? We should be out right now, this second, raking in the bitches nasty-style! But here you are, sitting at home, playing house with your thumb up your ass. Fuck, man, leave the domestic goddess to her chores; let her practice her sewing, or whatever the hell it is she does for a hobby. ”
“I couldn’t do that . . .”
“That’s my point! You’re too nice of a guy to cheat on her, so just throw her out and end it.” Colby assumed a serious expression and placed his hands on Reginald’s shoulders. “Take this, brother, may it serve you well.”
“Take what?”
Colby rolled his eyes. “The advice, jackass.” He threw a quick glance in the direction Jennifer had gone. “Look, what’s your sex-life like?”
“It’s alright, I guess.”
“You shouldn’t have to guess. Do you always fuck her in the bedroom?”
“Um, yeah.”
“Under the covers with the lights out? Every single goddamn time?”
“Yes.”
Colby raised one eyebrow and stared Reginald dead in the eyes, mouth set in a firm line. Reginald swallowed hard.
“You’re right.”
“You’re goddamn right I’m right”.
The sound of the dryer starting made them both jump, and they turned to meet Jennifer as she re-entered the room. She stopped short and looked from one to the other.
“I’m sorry, did I . . . ?”
“No, no,” said Colby, breaking into a smile. “I was just leaving. Hey, man, thanks for the notes,” he said to Reginald, grabbing his hand and shaking it vigorously. “Remember what I said. I’ll catch you guys later. Bye, Jen.”
“Bye.”
Colby grabbed the notebook and exited, slamming the door on his way out. Reginald and Jennifer remained standing, looking at the floor. The apartment was silent. Reginald glanced at the TV; his game was still on pause. Jennifer raised her eyes and studied his face.
“What did Colby say?”
Reginald started, as if she had screamed in his ear.
“Oh, Um . . . nothing. Just something about Street Boxers.”
“Oh . . .” she said softly, lowering her eyes. “Well, your pants are in the dryer. I’m going to bed.”
“Alright. I’ll be there in a bit.”
Jennifer left the room, her feet soundless on the carpet. Reginald watched her, his brow wrinkling in thought. He walked to where he had dropped the video game controller and looked down at it, unsure of what to do next. He knelt and picked it up, fondled it for a second, and then placed it down and turned off the system. The apartment was suddenly dark. Reginald went to the fridge and grabbed a beer, unscrewing the cap on the way to the couch. The silence was oppressive, and he had to fight the urge to turn the television back on. He tipped the beer back and took a swig . . .
Reginald didn’t like allowing his thoughts free rein. He was, by nature, obsessively introspective and would constantly analyze himself in regard to the perceived reactions of some imaginary audience. Social situations were unbearable for him; he would feel paralyzed, unable to mingle for fear of saying something stupid, yet entirely conscious of the awkwardness of his silence. Left to his own devices he’d worry himself sick over a million and one things, until he was so anxious that he couldn’t sit still or think clearly. That’s why he liked video games so much; they were his tranquilizers. While he played them, his attention was riveted, and there was no room for little thoughts.
Girls had always left him flustered and tongue-tied. Jennifer was the first he’d been with, though he’d not admit it. He had goaded himself into approaching her after a weeklong bout of self-deprecation, initiated by the damning realization that he was a twenty-one year-old virgin. The first few dates were god-awful, nervous affairs. He’d spend days afterwards reviewing them, dissecting every word and grading his performance. Jennifer could do no wrong; she was the one who held the power of approval. Reginald saw in her his chance to prove himself worthy of female companionship. After the first kiss, his feeling of gratitude was so immense that he mistook it for love. Before he knew it they were a couple, holding hands in the street, seeing each other everyday, and, after a few months, living together.
It was then that the idea of Jennifer gave way to the reality. She was no longer his saving grace but rather his roommate. The smells she sometimes left in the bathroom proved that she wasn’t, in fact, made of lilies and roses. He discovered that underneath the makeup and hip clothing there lurked a plain, pimply person, one that he woke up beside, each and every day. His blessed redeemer, stepping out from behind a blinding light, had turned out to be nothing more than an average, insecure girl. Now Reginald found himself dogged constantly by the same persistent question: At what point should he stop saying ‘thank you’ and move on?
He knew what he had to do. He told himself it would be for the best, better sooner than later. Plus, he was tired of Colby giving him shit. He drained his beer, slammed it on the coffeetable and stood up in a dramatic and resolute fashion. His strides to the bedroom were evenly spaced and self-assured. When he reached the doorway, he stopped dead in his tracks. Jennifer was only a faint outline in the dim light, but he felt her stare like it was a tangible thing. After a moment, his vision adjusted, and he saw that she was still dressed, sitting on top of the sheets, waiting. Their eyes met.
“Hey . . . you’re still up,” said Reginald.
“Yeah.”
Her gaze was fixed, heavy, and held him rooted to the spot. It clung to him like sodden clothing, and he began to fidget. Feeling his resolve beginning to wither, he moved impulsively to sit at the foot of the bed, turning his back to her.
“Look, we need to talk,” he said.
Jennifer’s lashes fell to hide her eyes.
“Yeah?” she said in a soft voice.
“Yeah . . . Um . . . You see, Jen . . . ” he began, “It’s that . .”
He stumbled around a few monosyllables and trailed off, at a loss. With a sigh, he started drawing tight circles around his temples. The bed vibrated from the tapping of his foot.
“What is it?” Jennifer asked tentatively.
Reginald tensed for a moment, then steadied himself. The bed stopped shaking. He looked to the ceiling, as if petitioning the heavens for assistance. A sense of fatality came over him. He turned to face her.
“We have to break up . . . we have to end this,” he blurted out. “I . . . I’ve been thinking a lot, and . . . “
He broke off, confused, unsure of what to say next. His mouth opened and closed several times. His hands began to shake, and he clenched the bedsheets reflexively.
Jennifer understood. She watched him, a pale, trembling lump at the foot of the bed, and waited for his words to sink in. Then a strange thing happened. As she searched the depths of her reservoir of pain, seeking a place to store this newest hurt, she felt an odd swelling in her chest. At first she thought it was love and was frightened and excited at the same time. Then it began to hurt, to hurt terribly, and she realized in an instant that it wasn’t love, but an overwhelming sense of grief. In the deepest grottoes of her heart, where she had sunk the anguish of one rejection after another, shameful remembrance had given birth to the deformed, fetal, bastard children of love - regret, obsession, and hatred – which, left to rot like aborted triplets in-utero, had bloated up until they burst their confines. Death within corrupting life without, Jennifer’s carefully hidden pain had seeped out of the recesses and poisoned her entire heart; any more might destroy it forever. Frightened and bewildered, she suddenly saw her graceful exits as running scared, running from resolution, and the knowledge it would have imparted of her vulnerability. Now, she couldn’t ignore the throbbing chancre in her chest; she couldn’t run from resolution any longer.
“Why?” she asked, her voice trembling.
Reginald shook his head and said nothing. He hadn’t thought to prepare an excuse.
“Why?” she repeated a little louder, leaning towards him, emboldened by his silence.
He blanched and shrugged, jumping up. He felt an answer lurking in his spleen, but feared the taste. She inched closer, mouth half-open, chin trembling.
“Why?” she said again, her voice now thick with emotion, the stunted manifestations of a frozen anguish coming to life.
Reginald, his tongue thick and filling his throat, felt his stomach turn.
“Why?!” she screamed suddenly, leaning forward on all fours.
Reginald flinched.
“Why?!” she screamed again, tears streaming down her face, freed from a grief that was at best parsimonious. She wanted to give it all at once, to set it in Reginald’s lap and ask ‘What the fuck is this?’ She wanted an explanation, would demand it, would force Reginald to answer for every rejection, every casual dismissal, every callous disregard for her feelings, her needs.
“Tell me, goddammit! Tell me why!”
Reginald felt ill. Words rose in his throat like bile, and he struggled to choke them down.
“Answer me,” she pleaded, hungry and desperate, ten broken hearts breaking her in two. She reach out and grabbed him by the waist, her voice rising to a fevered shriek.
“You owe me a reason! Tell me! Why aren’t I good enough?! Why aren’t I fucking good enough for you?! You owe me!”
“I don’t owe you a fucking thing!” Reginald yelped, knocking away her hands. He felt himself cornered and started to panic. Jennifer made a growling noise, and in a sudden movement grabbed his face, wrenching it down to hers.
“Like fuck you don’t!” she hissed, livid. “You owe me everything! Just give me a fucking reason, one goddamn reason! Tell me the truth!”
Reginald felt her hot breath on his face and was forced to look into eyes that were mere inches from his. He saw in them naked misery and realized that at that moment Jennifer was fearless. Something clicked in his head. He unconsciously opened his mouth, like he was about to hyperventilate. The words fought their way to the surface . . “Is it because I’m ugly?! Because of my – “
. . . and it seemed to him there were no such things as truth and falsehood, only. . .
“-cooking?! The fact that I don’t play your stupid video-games or suck your–“
. . . honesty and dishonesty, freedom and bondage, since . . .
“- cock to wake you up in the morning?! Is that what it is, you –“
. . . lying to others means one is enslaved by expectations . . .
“ – fucking pervert! Because I’m –“
. . . and lying to oneself is to be enslaved by convention . . .
“not good enough in bed?!”
Reginald was tired of being enslaved. Colby’s influence was a chain, just like his relationship with Jennifer; he needed to end this, but he also needed to be honest about why. He quit looking for the answers in his head; they streamed up from his gut.
“Shut-up!” Reginald yelled at the top of his lungs, pulling himself free. “Shut-up, for God’s fucking sake!”
Jennifer drew back sharply, momentarily taken aback. Her face screwed up to spit a retort, but Reginald cut her off.
“You want to know why I’m ending this?” he said in a commanding tone, “I’ll tell you why. It’s because I’m bored, Jennifer. You fucking bore me and I’m sick of it.”
Jennifer drew back sharply, eyes widened in shock. Reginald’s face turned a bright red, his eyes narrowing. He continued:
“Because I come home everyday, and here you are. Here you are - small, quiet, ready to cater to my every fucking whim, asking me how my day was, turning down the bed, standing until I sit, never speaking unless spoken to, never laughing, never joyous, never excited, just here, just false, acting appropriately but never honestly, hiding your face for fear of being slapped, giving me nothing, absolutely nothing, that you wouldn’t give just as readily to someone else!”
Reginald paused for a moment and caught his breath. A couple of tears trickled down his cheeks. He wiped them away without an ounce of remorse before going on, his voice lowered to an accusatory croak.
“You,” he said, pointing at Jennifer, “have never once made me feel special. I’m just another roll of the dice. You act as if this is as good a place as any, so long as someone pats your head and you’ve got a warm body to curl up next to. You’re like a whipped dog, Jennifer.”
The words hung heavy in the air. Reginald’s breathing slowed. Jennifer’s face was a mask of misery, veiled by a steady stream of tears. She gasped convulsively, unable to draw a full breath. Reginald felt something like pity. Her lungs found purchase, and the gasps turned into wrenching sobs. Reginald passed a hand over his face.
“Look . . . don’t cry, please” he said in an exhausted voice. “It’s not worth it. We don’t love each other, so we don’t deserve to hurt each other. We’re pitiful, you and I. All we’ve done is take pity on one another.”
Reginald fell silent and let Jennifer cry. Her sobs gradually lessened in intensity and turned into quiet sniffles. She was no longer looking at Reginald, but out the window, her eyes distant. She wiped her nose and drew herself into a ball, hiding her face. Reginald sat down again on the bed, and, as the minutes passed, he gradually scooted over next to her. He placed a hand on her back.
“Ask yourself why we’re doing this,” he said gently, “why we’re willing to be unhappy, so long as we’re comfortable. You’re afraid of being alone, I know; I’m afraid of not finding anyone else. So we settle for one another, and we go through the motions, like a couple of stupid kids playing house. We tell ourselves this is all there is, while dying inside, because it’s not enough.”
Jennifer’s sniffles ceased. Reginald rhythmically stroked her back and said nothing more. The air-conditioner clicked on with a hum. Jennifer reached around and took Reginald’s hand.
“I’m sorry,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. “I’m so sorry.”
Reginald wrapped his free arm around her, and curled against her on the bed.
“Me too, Jen. Me too.”

1 comment:

Kelly said...

Wow, what a great story. I could feel the arc of it, like taking a long, deep breath, then screaming.