The four of us sit on each side of the table. Plastic cups, in various states of fullness, and scraps of trash from Taco Bell form a circle around the world as depicted by Risk. I move my troops—I chose black so that I can call my army The Black Parade, which my friends don’t get or don’t find funny even though I find it funny despite not liking emo, but, then again, that’s adds a layer of what passes for ironic humor—out of Venezuela and into Central America. I ready the dice designated for attack. Paul readies the opposing pair. I sit down. He stands on his respective side of the table, pacing from corner to corner. His shirt collar stretches, trapped in his teeth. When deep in concentration, he has a habit of biting the front of his t-shirt’s collar. Whether Risk, where his army of yellow pieces focuses aggression on me, under the auspice that I win the most, or in Clue, where his Ms. Scarlet, chosen because she goes first, ventures from room to room trying to decide among the rope, the lead pipe, or the candlestick, he nibbles on his collar. I roll by rolling my wrist and letting the dice tumble in accordance with gravity. He rolls by lifting his hand above his head, dropping both dice at once, watching them ricochet off the table, and blocking their trajectories with his crotch. Thomas and Brenden complain. Paul doesn’t seem to notice. I know the other two work strategies in their head at the moment, both vying for the green Asian continent, with fun names like Kamchatka, forgetting one of the cardinal rules of warfare: to never engage in a land war in Asia. My dice come up with low values. Paul’s show boxcars. Again. I’ve started referring to them as boxcars because no one else does. However, their frequency diminished, maybe even slaughtered, my levity. Still, when I see those two sixes, those twelve pips, because I had learned at some forgotten point that the dots on a die are called pips—just another piece of trivia in my database—I remember all the other times Paul showed such luck. My troops die. I bury them in the corresponding plastic compartment in the box.
Outside this communal room, other students shout. They rumble down the stairwell. In the hallway, doors slam shut. The TV blares, though I can’t identify show. Beyond the windows, I see the lobby and two students bundled in jackets entering the dorm. Their breath condenses at once into a redundant ephemeral cloud. They look the same age. Everyone looks the same age. I find it hard to tell that I have grown any in the preceding years. I don’t think I’ve changed since the sixth grade.
Ah distinctly I remember it was in the bleak November, and when the four of us trekked across North Street for the Taco Bell one street’s width from campus before our game, we wore our winter clothes. I wore the black leather jacket that I’ve worn since high school, which now lies across the armrest of the couch against the wall. Some people establish the rule to forgo shaving in November, referring to something akin to a charity. I haven’t shaved this month because I haven’t shaved in years. The Van Dyke offsets my weak chin, and the stubble from a close trim adds ruggedness. At least I think so. Others make the pledge to not masturbate this month. I don’t because I have nothing better to do. Outside, the wheels of an election turn. Inside, Thomas pushes troops toward Yakutsk, hesitates, says “wait, wait, wait,” returns the troops to Siberia, and then sets his sights on Irkutsk. Red and green collide. The battle wages. Troops on both sides fall. I replay the opening lines to Poe’s “The Raven,” putting the da capo after the bit about embers dying.
My mom had often said if she had had another daughter, she would’ve used the name Lenore. Bill’s wife, from the cartoon sitcom King of The Hill, was named Lenore. Before the show, in the exposition that forms character backstory, Lenore divorced Bill—the subject and the object bare importance since the divorce left Bill a broken man. People love laughing at the broken man. Thomas loses. Brenden maintains control of Irkutsk. Though, I know that control won’t last, especially if Paul expands out of Alaska instead of Greenland (in the world of Risk, Greenland belongs to North America).
I have my own Lenore, named Allison. My current Lenore. Not a true Lenore since Allison still lives. But—But!—I find the comparison close enough to employ, and I get to make the decision. A modular mathematic equal of Lenore. Lenore = ±Allison. Lenore ≡ Allison. Close enough. Ghost. Ghosted. She ghosted me. Transitive or intransitive? The subject-and-object relationship matters. We hadn’t dated long. In this campus of adults enclosed by quotation marks, relationships last years. High school sweethearts, who joined together as sophomores, stay together. Couples stick together for years, making choices to rent a local apartment and to adopt a puppy, which they’ll refer to as their fur baby. Anything that last less than half a year, or does not plan to last more than half a year, receives the label “hook-up.” I didn’t consider the relationship a hook-up. I thought it something more important. We didn’t even have sex.
How can one have a romantic college relationship without sex? Though never articulated, that question resides in the thoughts of those who know Allison and me. Without the sex, how can it be a hook-up? How can it be serious if it only lasted two months? Well, it meant something to me. Something important. I saw it as clear as my strategy to start in South America, then conquer the ill-defended African continent before moving onto Paul’s fortified North America. Yet the relationship ended. She ended it. She became a ghost. Never saying “it’s not working out,” or “we should see other people,” or “we’re through,” she severed the lines of communication. She stopped returning calls, IMs, and private messages. She lost her physical form and became a being comprised of ectoplasm (unless we use ghosted as an intransitive verb, which would make me the one who became the ghost since she ghosted me) who haunts the halls of the liberal arts building or the cafeteria, who wrote for the creative nonfiction workshop an essay explaining why she didn’t have sex with me.
Major premise: she wants to wait until she falls in love before she has sex.
Minor premise: we didn’t engage in the activity referred to as “having sex” or its synonymous variants up to and including “making love,” “doing it,” “bumping uglies,” “making the beast with two backs,” “doing the horizontal mambo,” or “fucking.”
Conclusion: she never loved me.
Brenden retaliates against Thomas, gaining a territory. Paul invades Kamchatka through Alaska.
I loved Allison. I loved the idea of her, the idea of the relationship, the possibility that I won’t die alone. She didn’t, though. How can I reconcile the difference? How can I balance this equation? How can I explain it to my friends who’ve never experienced it—one friend having lost his virginity to a girl rebounding after a break-up with her boyfriend of half a decade, one friend in a quasi-relationship with a girl he met online, one friend having no inclinations toward the romantic? How can I explain I want someone to wake up with not to sleep with? How can I tell them I learned the trivia that Twix were originally called Raiders from a puzzle website and that this trivia constitutes a part of myself? At the moment, I want to cry. I want to say something profound. I also want someone to see me crying, saying something profound., and not to understand what the scene means but to understand that it has value. They will go about their day, and at some point, like while brushing their teeth, remember the scene and feel something about the esthetics. Meanwhile, I, the painter of this still-life, knows the inspiration.
Paul rolls his dice, dropping them from his standing height. One die bounces wild. It flies off, landing on the carpet. Three of us groan.
“Whoops,” Paul says. He drops on his hands and knees. He crawls under the table.
“C’mon,” Brenden says. His dice sit near the edge of the board. One shows a four; the other a five. Respectable numbers.
“This is like,” Thomas says, “the fourth or fifth time. Keep it on the table. It’s not hard. We’ve been doing it.”
Paul stands with a hop. He drops the die, again. He blocks it with his crotch, which elicits more groans from the three of us. When the die settles, it shows five pips amid the red cube. Together, he has a six and a five. Paul smiles, pumps his hand, and moves his troops across the unlabeled Bering Strait. He returns his collar to his teeth.
“Fuck!” Brenden throws his hands in the air. He jumps out of his seat. “What the fuck? I mean, how fucking lucky can you get? Fuck!” He returns to his seat, folding his hands, frowning. “Fuck.”
“That’s the most I’ve heard you swear,” Thomas says, “in like ever. That was wild, dude.” He laughs a few times. “I mean it. I didn’t know you had it in you.” His still laughs while everyone else moves on.
“I’m just glad,” I give Brenden a grin, “he’s not picking on me for once.”
Brenden understands whatever little subtext. We four have our own language, a mix of verbal and nonverbal. Some words or phrases carry a weight unique to our little circle. One of us can say “Nilbog?” putting additional emphasis on the question mark, and the others will get the joke. “Oh, too hot!”: a seemingly innocent phrase carries value. Although I originated the phrase while walking about Renfest and pantomiming tossing my overpriced turkey leg, the other three can repeat the phrase now, in different circumstances, and we’ll understand the subtext, the unspoken importance and fluid meaning. “Nilbog?” means something to us. It has become a codeword. Still
—still, why do I find it hard to tell them that I didn’t care about Allison’s bust size? How do I explain that I remember every day before now and that the period between now (the single, broken man) and when my high school girlfriend broke up with me at the end of our freshman year, runs like a singular, unbroken film reel? How do I admit that in this period of time, I pined for another girl, like a loser, believing that our friendship might morph, realizing she will never see me as anything more than a friend, spending nights philosophizing, like a loser, the nature of love and whether I could ever love someone else, and whether this hypothetical new love would exist as a pale shadow, a transparent reflection, a quiet echo of that lost, pure love? I know them. They don’t think the same. They never spent the time I’ve spent thinking about the subjects I’ve thought about. They haven’t read the same books I’ve read. Brenden calls me pretentious for having read more than one Eco novel, ever after I extended a metaphorical olive branch by wading through the Harry Potter series, which he now says isn’t as good as when he first read them in the seventh grade.
I thought I could move on. Like most speculation, though, I was wrong. I should stick with what I’m good at: the stuff I don’t like doing. How does it happen? I find a natural inclination toward student work. I don’t try and I succeed. Yet, when I try for a goal outside the usual routine for a student, I struggle, I plan, I trust luck. I lose. I fear the future will repeat. Maybe I should stick with the school plan. Maybe I shouldn’t try for more. Based of inductive reasoning, my next attempt will fall. The next attempt will fail through motions and mechanics out of my control. The next love of my life, which will sparkle less than the previous, which sparkled less than the first, will fall apart, will end with her saying “we can still be friends,” which translates to “goodbye, for now, forever.”
Paul re-organizes his troops. He fortifies Central America. I groan. I set my sights for Europe. Although I have nothing against Thomas in this particular game, I need another route into North America.
“Brenden,” I say to gain his attention. He looks to me with an eyebrow raised, a non-verbal cue not specific to our little circle. I alternate between pointing to him and myself, a non-verbal cue specific to our little circle. With a nod from him, we form an alliance.
“Oh,” Thomas says as he slaps his knees, “C’mon, man. That’s harsh.”
“Nothing personal.” I attack Western Europe from North Africa. I roll two fives and a three. Thomas clicks his tongue while picking his troops one at a time. I continue through Great Britain and Iceland with similar results. In Greenland, I defeat Paul’s scant troops, breaking his continental bonus.
“Oh, my my,” I say dividing my troops among two fronts, and leaving the European territories under-guarded. “Oh, hell yes.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Thomas accepts the dice from me. I know he’ll leave Brenden alone this turn. Brenden and Paul will battle in Japan and Mongolia. “ ‘Kids, you tried your best and you failed miserable. The lesson is, never try.’ ” He attempts a Homer Simpson-voice. I judge it close enough. I remember the line but not the episode. It comes an early season. I know that.
A failure brings me back to…One of us is the ghost in this scenario, but I don’t know which one. In the creepy pasta of this life, of this moment, of this little story in which I’m a character, maybe I’m the ghost. She lives. She’s living a full life at the moment, doing things, meeting people, making memories. I sit here, playing another game of Risk with the same three friends. Sitting. Waiting. Not making memories, although I will remember today. I hesitate to call this living. I call this existing. Going through the motions. Playing the part. Following the script. Nothing happens. Nothing will happen. If I tossed a quarter it would land on its edge, but I wouldn’t get psychic powers like Dick York (or was it Dick Sargent?)—it would land on it edge to indicate neither loss nor win, neither regress nor progress, neither action nor inaction, neither chaos or order; stagnation; stasis; it would indicate a simple passive verb: is.
I want to write. I want a reclusive life as a writer of novels that schools make students read. I’ve started with short stories. I avoid disguising autobiographical information as fiction. Maybe I shouldn’t bother, though. I don’t fear rejection. I wonder whether to suffer those slings and arrows that someone much wittier than me talked about or to give up. Maybe I will write a story about Allison and this current mess. Maybe my friends will read it and understand what I’ve attempted saying during these board game nights, when four college students should engage in stereotypical college behavior and make bad decisions that make for good stories years and years hence, but instead we sit around a cardboard world with plastic pieces, eating fast food. Who am I kidding? Not me. My friends will never read my stuff, good or bad, formal or experimental, literary or genre, sad shit destined for the trash or the early evidence of burgeoning artistry. I can’t get them to pass their glance over my rough drafts. After all, they don’t read the same books I do. They don’t feel the same about the books we have in common. They never reached for a green light beyond their grasp across the water. I did, metaphorically of course. I still do. I can’t tell them that I do. They’ll give me looks, call me pretentious, roll their eyes, scoff, chuckle, equate my want for romance with their libidinous urges. After all, they don’t read the same books I do.
All of these Nilbogs and these Raiders, and these quotes from The Simpsons, and King of the Hill, and all of these things that I can’t say and want to put into words on a page in a short story or in a novel weight me down. Did I ever love Allison? Or did I view her as a substitute for that one pure love from my younger years—the purest, the most literary—the one composed of me pining? Maybe I considered Allison an excuse to write, fodder for stories, the “know” for when non-writers suggest “write what you know?” O muse! O Allison, muse of my poetry, descend from your heavenly station and kiss the brow of this poor wordsmith to allow him to smith better words! O muse, give me something to know! Give me something other than my own entrapping thoughts to know! Maybe. Maybe. Maybe I saw her that way. Maybe
—mayhap I wanted to use her for my own selfish ends. Here in this dorm, I see couples all the time. They hold hands. They make out in the halls and the stairwells. They make love, in the way Fitzgerald meant. They dry hump, bumping and grinding, grunting and laughing with everyone else laughing in every room on every couch on every night. They make love, in the way Fitzgerald didn’t employ it, making noises too great for these old dorm walls to contain and leaving me in a state where I can’t not hear and can’t not know the actions on the other side. And I! I have to live with the knowledge. Knowledge.
Thomas reclaims his territories. He adds troops to his Asian theater. I shrug. Brenden winks. I nod. Paul bites his collar. He begins pacing farther, leaving the confines of the table. He reaches one wall, pivots on his heel, and treads to the next wall.
“Get back here, Paul,” Brenden says. “Hurry up and kill me so that we can move on.”
He and Paul battle. Stalemate after stalemate. Thomas starts singing “Uptown Girl” by Billy Joel. His voice sucks. Brenden finishes his turn, and Paul looks over the board. His eyes roam. He passes the dice from hand to hand. He makes a move, mumbles “wait a minute,” and retracts the move. Nothing happens for a moment.
“Who wants pizza?” Thomas says.
“Sure,” Brenden stands. “I’ll chip in.”
“Okay.” Paul drops the dice in the game’s box. He hurries to the door and waits. Brenden and Thomas go, almost at the same time. I bring up the rear, where I can speculate about these three people in front of me, where I can consider them from a perspective they have not.
We know no one will mess with our game. No one will notice the board. They will pass by it the same way they pass by us. A dormitory full of other people, with their own lives, with their own connections, with their own worries, worrying about their own purview. We’ll leave the game, and when we return, we’ll restart as though nothing happened. We’ll have pizza, sure, but that constitutes a minor variable in this circumstance.
Outside, I feel the cold. My breath fogs. I hesitate. The night sky reaches across from one dorm to the other in a solid black. Light pollution has taken away the stars. I know that. I’ve known that since I learned the term light pollution. Still, I look up while my friends shiver and complain and hurry around the building, and I want to see something that I assume is named Allison. Something that I can label Allison. Something that I can grasp. Something. But I don’t know, and I worry that I know nothing.
Bennett Durkan’s fiction has appeared in Riddled with Arrows, The Garfield Lake Review, and Short Story Town. His poetry has appeared in Divot, Willard & Maple, and Ikleftiko. He has also contributed to Lit Mag News and WritingBad.
Photo credit: Adam Sherez, Unsplash