by Kevin Lavey
Summer has pushed itself up from the humid soil that only days ago held mellow spring. Passions erupt. Karen, the woman with whom I have been playing backgammon in the lovely, kinetic, circular park, reaches over and in a perfect offensive move tears the brain from my head. She stands up with it in her hand and takes one or two steps from me, plants her feet, arches back: she is poised like a javelin thrower, she looks straight up at the sky. She coils. In one great flex hurls my brain upward, rips it against the strong muscle of gravity, and it diminishes to the size of a pinprick before disappearing from sight. She stares at me, breathing hard, then turns away so forcefully that I feel rolling along my chest and shoulders the rotation of her body leaving my presence.
I sit stunned and vacant. I am there for a long time. When I return to myself I look over at a clock on a building across the street from the park that is flashing its numerical time and notice that hours have passed. The sun has left the upper sky and light stains the western horizon in a savagery of red.
The backgammon game is perhaps the last charade of our involvement, of our interest in a single thing at the same time. But I don’t know this, nor do I know how I’d feel if we never meet again: we’ve been through this before. I haven’t a clue as to what caused her outburst, her charging away across the park.
Last November, Karen said to me, “Mick, I met a man. And he’s worth knowing.”
“He’s worth knowing,” she repeated.
“You’re jealous,” she said.
“Don’t be medieval,” she said.
Back then it wasn’t backgammon, it was rounds and rounds of cards together in the apartment, no one else, little money, just our decks, our private peace, and talk: we’d invented a card game that had a cycle which took days to complete; we innovated, created such intricacies that we became like two monks within the heart of the Vatican keeping oils burning in a secret vigil over some cryptic sacrament. But the game convoluted, its meaning finally vanished in our hands. Neither she nor I could explain a series of plays we’d made. It had become such a fragile structure of mental suppositions that when they disappeared we looked at each other and laughed. She chose this moment to tell me about the other man, so worthwhile.
“I cannot deny my nature,” she said, and so she disappeared, was gone, and because two get to be one I suffered paralysis, the deadening of one half, but I came back, strong and single, intact, one as one… until I walked into my apartment quite drunk one night and saw her sprawled on my bed.
“I need,” she said, “I just need.”
I shut the door and that was it, she had come back, and though I was not entirely ready yet, still, I approved. Yes, I said. Yes, she agreed. Yes, we’ll do this together.
That had occurred, her running away then coming back, after I’d gone from her. I had met another, also, and like hers, she was worth knowing. She said to me, “You bastard, I don’t believe this,” but it was true and she slashed at me with the Parcheesi board, held it like an axe, and I ducked while the dice bounced around me like shrapnel on the dark-wood floor.
“Eat shit,” she said.
I was gone. I went into a her-world, perfect in the present, the past disappeared, the future could not be considered. She wanted orgies, I said yes. There were late nights in Glen Burnie, shag rugs, rooms lit by candles.
Still, my departure had not been the first. Before that, before the time she met a man and I met a woman, sometime during a spring, she came to me with a fellow woman-warrior, she called her. They were perfect together, she explained, and fulfilled and kind and intimate and pure in ways that men and women just couldn’t be. God simply didn’t know how to do that right, she said. I told her that that woman was using her.
“No,” she said. “You’re using me. You’re a man.”
“Kiss my ass, breeder,” she said.
We were two or three months into a Monopoly game passion.
“Capitalist ventures are a man’s domain. No wonder you always win. Look who’s got all the hotels and who’s got a few shitty little houses.”
I reminded her that she’d won five out of the last seven games.
“That’s because I was trying to act like you, like a man. That bag is gone, anteater. I’ll buy you a blow up doll from the porno store and you won’t even know I’ve left.”
Her fling lasted no longer than mine would with the woman. When she moved back we became bridge partners, euchre players, we organized baseball games amongst our friends. We were never one without the other. She told me that she’d taken on the female lover for revenge. You see, before she’d gone to her, I’d had an affair with a woman at work, and when it ended I plunged, smashed into smithereens on the floor, crawled back to Karen, and Karen at first loved and forgave, but soon, filled with anger and resentment, wanted to poison everything, me, her, all men.
That was many, many different games ago, and since then we have talked and lived and returned to one another. She stormed across the park, though, and I imagine that wherever she has gone men glance in her wake. They always do.
The unfinished game of backgammon is still by my side here on the park bench. I notice it and start to move the pieces around idly before I’ll close it up and walk back to the apartment. Instead, a friend of Karen’s passes by and says hello and sits and begins to talk. She and Karen are not close, because, I imagine, we’ve had eyes for each other. I bask in her attention, her eyes on my chest and hands. We are laughing and the board is still open between us, and I’m just about ready to ask her to join me for a beer when she says, Let’s finish the game. Whose move? Yours, I say. But before she tosses the dice, I see Karen approaching and I hold up my hand in the cartoon Indian gesture of ‘How’ for this woman to stop. She turns and sees Karen herself and stands and Karen is right next to us.
“I’m not finished with him,” she says. Karen’s friend disappears.
“I’m leaving you because I met a man last week and this time I’m sure,” she says.
“This time I know what I need and know what I’m not getting from you,” she says.
“I’m gone,” she says.
She sits down.
“I’m gone,” she says. She picks up the dice and rolls and makes her move and I make mine and it is the beginning of perhaps five more games we play together. She has taken off her shoes. The sun has long ago set and light has left the sky and all around us the park clears of people. A park lamp illuminates the game board for us to be able to play. Though neither of us would usually sit here well after dark like this–it has been the site of robberies–we are here and I believe that we’re invulnerable and immune. We begin to talk and laugh and finally I lean over the game board and kiss her. We pause only when we hear footsteps approaching. We let the man walking his dog go by. I again reach over and bring her close then urge her to stand up which she does and I take her hand and we go to a huge thicket of shrubs and find a concealed hollow within it and we take off our pants and we rut, rut, rut. Afterwards we lie together in the now strange and new night before moving to dress ourselves. A slight rustle from very close by catches my attention. I look and not three feet away a homeless guy is sleeping. I point him out to her and she laughs hard into my chest, holds me tight while convulsing with laughter which makes me feel indescribably happy: I suddenly know she is not like this around anyone else. When we return to the bench we see someone has stolen our backgammon board. The dice are strewn about the cement.
“It’s a good omen,” she says. “Look, all of them have come up six.” Which is true and so we leave them there hoping they’ll keep us under their good graces.
We go to the apartment after buying pizza and beer. She begins to talk about how we should go to an upscale store and buy a really fancy backgammon board, but I don’t respond. We watch television together until she nods off then falls into a deep sleep. She is stretched out on the couch with her feet on my lap, and I sit there for a while and drink a beer and listen to her regular breathing. Finally, she is so far away into sleep that I’m able to stand up without disturbing her. I get myself another beer and open it then walk to the closet and stare at the two dozen boxes of games that are piled neatly in stacks on the open shelves. I feel a mad impulse to toss all of them into the bathtub and burn them in a ritualistic, in-house bonfire.
I lock the doors, the one in the kitchen that leads into the hall, the front door, and the back door that goes to the fire escape.
I return to the couch and hike her feet back onto my lap, secure now that the apartment is locked tightly shut, and I settle in to watch late night television. I am feeling that we could last for longer than this current season and I hope beyond all rights that she is dreaming the same thing. I hope she wakes up and is beside herself to tell me of a new vision of us that she wants me to believe in, but right now it is enough to be here, this close to such a possibility, and so I stay awake.
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Kevin Lavey has had stories in the Free State Review, Witness, Stickman Review, Zygote in My Coffee, Unlikely Stories, and The Lifted Brow. He has won two Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Awards for fiction. His novel, Rat, won a contest sponsored by RockWay Press, and it was subsequently published. He has won Maryland Writers’ Association contests for a novel and a short story.
2 thoughts on “The Moderns”
A bitter, tale. It’s title suggests that the serial frustrations aptly described are socially produced, if personally experienced, but it is in the latter that the considerable appeal of the account resides. The ironic metaphor of game playing is dominant. The hope of a different ending seems unjustified. AGB
Thank goodness I’m traditional. Great, powerful writing.