And… Another Story’s Conclusion — Playing The Game

I saw that one of the online magazines where I got published (and linked to from my blog here) had their domain name expire. So I’ll just go ahead and post the rest of the story so people don’t get lost out in world-wide-web-land.

Read the beginning here.

And here’s the rest:

Mike looked up from his paper. “Rule number two?”

I got back to it. “Number two is Disarming Compliment. This one is more complicated. You actually need to be smart to get it right.” I tossed a napkin at Jonathan and he threw it back at me.

“Disarming Compliment?” Mike said. “What does that mean?”

“Um,” I scanned the cafeteria. “Watch this.”

Sarah, a girl I dated for awhile last year walked by. She was a cute girl and was nice, but after awhile I got bored with her. I had to move on to someone else, which, thanks to The Game, had been easy.

“Hey Sarah,” I said.

“Hey Drew,” she said. She paused by our table. “What’s going on?”

“You’re looking good.” I put my hand on her back. She smiled at me.

“You’re sweet.”

“No, seriously. You look different. Did you lose a bunch of weight?”

The color drained from her face and she glanced at Mike and Jonathan, both of whom were paying close attention to our conversation.

“Um, okay, well, bye Drew.” She walked away.

“Keep doing whatever you’re doing. It’s working!” I called after her.

I turned back to the guys. Their faces were blank.

“She was always really self-conscious about her weight. So, did you see what I did there?”

Mike and Jonathan just stared at me. I sighed. They could be really dumb sometimes.

“Okay, so I gave her compliment, which she liked, right? But then I turned it into something bad. I talked about her weight in front of a table of the most popular guys in our class.”

Mike turned back to his paper and scribbled away. Jonathan smiled, slowly nodding his head.

“Okay,” Mike said. “So I could say something like, ‘Jonathan, that was a great tackle this weekend. Too bad your head wasn’t in it for the rest of the game.’”

“Yep, that works,” I said.

Jonathan kicked Mike’s chair. “Okay, man. Or I could say, ‘This Game is dumb.’”

“Nope,” I said. “That’s not it at all.”

“How about, ‘Hey Drew, you have girls lining up for dates. Too bad the only one who’s seen you naked is Jenna Knapp.’”

Mike laughed. “I think that’s definitely a Disarming Compliment,” he said, pointing at me with his pen.

“Okay, assholes. You want the rest of the rules?”

“I think I’d rather know how far you plan on getting with Jenna today,” Jonathan said.

“First of all,” I said. “We were like three years old when she saw me naked. And you know the situation, man. Our moms are best friends. She just comes over and we do homework or whatever until she and her mom leave. There’s nothing I can do about that.”

“Every day?” Jonathan said. He glanced at Mike. Mike nodded confirmation. Damn neighbors.

“I don’t know. Her mom’s going through a thing. Like a divorce or something. I try not to pay attention.”

The bell rang and I tossed my napkins into the garbage. “Good job, idiots. Now you don’t get to hear the rest of the rules until tomorrow.”

Jonathan stood up and straightened his JV jacket. Mike stuffed the paper into his pocket.

My next class was History, with Tiff. I slid into the desk beside hers and smiled.

“Hi, Tiff.”

She had bleached her hair over the summer and the lightness of it contrasted with her tanned skin. She looked great, and I knew I couldn’t be the only guy that noticed. I was going to have to hurry up with The Game.

“Hey,” Tiff said. “How’s your boat coming?”

“Oh, it’s great,” I said. I searched my brain for nautical terms. “My dad and I are sanding down the starboard, um, hull and we’ll be hoisting the sails as soon as possible. We’re hoping to get it on the water by spring. That is, if the … rudder… gets to us in time.” It was total bullshit, but she was buying it.

“Wow,” she murmured. She rested her chin in her hands and smiled at me.

“Hey, where did you hear about the boat? You haven’t been asking people about me, have you?” I winked at her.

Her cheeks turned a little pink as she stammered out an answer. “I think someone mentioned it once.”

“Okay,” I said. I raised my eyebrows. “But if I hear you asking people about me, I might just get the wrong impression, Tiff.”

Mrs. Howard came in and started talking about The Treaty of Versailles and Tiff turned her attention to the blackboard.

I walked home from school with Mike and filled him in on rule number three: Reassurance. It’s the real flattery you have to give a girl after you’ve freaked her out with the backhanded compliment. Basically, it’s giving the girl the approval she is so desperately seeking after you’ve put her down. It works like a charm.

Mike was barely up the hill to his house when the doorbell rang at mine. It was Jenna and her mom. They’d been regulars at our house since Jenna’s mom caught her dad cheating and threw him out of the house. They stayed until dinner most nights, Jenna’s mom sobbing to my mother up in her bedroom. I didn’t mind Jenna – we’d known each other for years, and I even used to play Barbies with her, but it’s not like I wanted everyone to know that crap.

Jenna was pretty cool about it. We did homework in the basement or played on my xbox, and it’s not like she tried to come up to me and talk to me in school. The problem was that Mike couldn’t keep his mouth shut about how she was always over my house. She was just in a different league than me and my friends, and all of us knew it.

I opened the door, grabbed Jenna’s arm and pulled her inside before anyone else in the neighborhood could see her standing on my doorstep. Her mom walked up the stairs, her eyes were already rimmed with red.

“Jeez, Drew,” Jenna said, pulling her arm away from me. “At least wait until we’re alone before you climb all over me.”

“Oh, yeah, right,” I said. Jenna’s been saying weird stuff like that lately. I figure this business with her mom and dad is getting to her. “Let’s just go downstairs and do our homework.”

Jenna sat on the couch and I sat in an old armchair that used to be my dad’s. She scattered her work all over the couch, like she owned the place. I didn’t care. She practically grew up in our house. We worked on some French together. We were both in Honors Junior French because our moms had sent us to a summer program the year before high school. We always started with French because that was the only class we had together.

“Did you get your permission slip and money to Madame Gray for the play?” Jenna said. Our class was supposed to go into the city that Friday after school to watch Les Miserables. We were stopping for dinner in a French restaurant and would have about an hour of free time to ourselves in the city.

“Ah, oui,” I said. “I can’t pass up the opportunity to see a romantic play with beautiful older women.”

“Okay, you know that Les Miserables is less romantic and more … miserable, right?” she said. “Did you get the answer to number seven?”

“I put Louis XVI,” I said. “It’s a guess, though.”

“Hm.” Jenna wrote it down. “I think you’re right.”

She put her pen down and looked at me. “You know, you’re really good at French.”

Jenna was probably really cute, in a non-popular sort of way. Her hair wasn’t bleached and she didn’t wear a lot of eye makeup, which a lot of guys liked. It was hard for me to try to think about her that way, though, since we’d always just hung out in my basement and she was currently dressed like she was ready to teach an aerobics class.

“Oh, merci.”

“It’s too bad you’re an absolute idiot at everything else.”

“What?” I said. Jenna wasn’t usually so blunt.

“Where is this boat of yours, anyway?”

“Oh, that,” I said. “That’s just something Tiff has been talking about. What do you care?”

“Is the boat part of your Game?”

I stared at her. No one besides Jonathan and Mike was supposed to know anything about The Game.

“Everyone knows about The Game, Drew,” Jenna said, apparently a mind-reader. “People have known for weeks. Any girl that would fall for your little plan now would have to be as dumb as the Game itself.”

“How?” I couldn’t get any other words out.

“How?” she repeated. “Mikey, that’s how. You think he could hear about a golden opportunity like this and keep it to himself?”

All I kept thinking was, I am gonna meurtre Mike.

“I’m sorry,” Mike said the next day at lunch for about the fiftieth time. “But it works. It still works.”

It was true. Tiff had sought me out earlier that morning to bring me a cupcake with a boat drawn in blue icing on top.

“Thanks, Tiff,” I said. She practically wiggled with adoration. This was going to be easier than I thought.

“So what’s rule four?” Mike said.

“Okay. Shit, you need to keep your damn mouth shut,” I said, running my hands through my hair.

“Deal.”

I looked at Jonathan. He just shrugged and folded his arms across his chest, his usual lunchroom stance.

“Ideally, you’d repeat numbers two and three over and over, so that the target girl is going crazy trying to prove to you that she’s worthy of your attention.”
Mike nodded. He didn’t write anything down, which made me feel slightly better about continuing with our lesson.

“Rule four is the Dream Date. This is when you finally ask the girl out. The date needs to be amazing. She will tell her friends, who are potential future targets, so you want to make sure you sound good to them.”

Jonathan leaned forward. “I asked Lauren on a date for this weekend.”

“Good. What are you going to do?”

“How does a picnic in the park sound?” Jonathan said.

“Sounds like a dream date,” Mike sighed.

I ignored them. Things between Jonathan and Lauren were moving swiftly, so I decided to accelerate the rules with Tiff. The plan was working and even though it felt a little like hyperdrive, I was pretty confident I could prove Jenna wrong about getting another girl with my Game.

“Rule five?” Mike said.

“Five is the most important rule of all,” I said. “Rule five is letting the girl down easy. You have the ‘friend talk’ or you do the whole ‘it’s not you, it’s me.’ Whatever you do, you need to leave the girl as happy as possible. Happy girls have happy friends.”

Jonathan pulled at his JV jacket. “What if we want to keep this girl? You know, as in, have a girlfriend?”

“Your funeral.”

“So you don’t want a girlfriend?” Jonathan said. Mike was looking back and forth like he was watching a game of ping-pong.

“Let me tell you a story,” I said. “My brother came up with The Game. He perfected The Game. And he passed The Game down to me. You know why he came up with these rules? Because girls can be ruthless when they are not managed well. If you don’t do The Game, some girl will come along and rip your heart out. That’s what happened to my brother. So, you’re better off choosing a target girl, playing The Game, and at the end, saying ‘Thank you for playing’ and moving on to the next girl. The alternative is catastrophic. Trust me.”

In History class, I made my move with Tiff.

“Hey Gorgeous,” I said. I dropped a note onto Tiff’s desk.

She smiled and opened the note. It had a picture of a boat on it with two stick figures.

“It’s not the finished product, but I was thinking we could rent one of those paddleboats by the river?”

Tiff nodded, her eyes shining. Hyperdrive wasn’t so bad. Jenna was going to eat her words. I couldn’t wait to tell her how wrong she was after school. I was mentally conjugating the sentence together in French for the ultimate effect, when I realized Tiff was talking to me.

“I’ll meet you there at 6 on Friday?” Tiff was saying.

“Oh, crap. I have a French field trip.” Tiff’s face fell. “We’ll do it Thursday. The sooner the better.”

Nice save, I told myself, as Tiff carefully folded the note and saved it in her purse.

That afternoon at my house, Jenna was less impressed than I’d expected.

“I didn’t say that no one would fall for your dumb ruse,” she said. “Just no one smart. So Tiff? That seems about right.”

“What is your problem, Jenna?” I said. The way she was acting and the things she was saying were so unlike her. It must be about her mom and dad, I figured.

She turned to face me, sitting Indian-style on the couch. She had three textbooks piled in front of her. At least today she wasn’t dressed like a soccer mom. She had on a pair of shorts and a tank top. It wasn’t fancy, but it worked on her.

“You’re just not the Drew I remember,” she said. “You used to ride your bike over to my house every afternoon and play with matchbox cars in the backyard. Geez, Drew, you used to play Barbies with me. You didn’t care about people knowing that we were friends. You used to say hi to me in the hallways at school. Now you act like I’m some blemish on your perfect, popular life.”

I didn’t know how to respond. Everything that she said was true.

“Look, I’m sorry,” I said. Jenna waited for the ‘but’ to work its way up my throat. I pushed it down, even though we could both hear it at the end of my apology.

She picked up her books and stood up. “I’ll finish my homework upstairs.” She left.

I stayed in the basement, mostly because I didn’t know what I should do. If I went upstairs and acted like a good guy to Jenna, then what did that mean for school the next day? I knew I could no longer act one way at home and another way at school. She was forcing me to decide who I was going to be: new Drew or old Drew.

An hour later, Jenna’s legs appeared on the basement steps.

“My mom wants me to tell you that she’ll pick up here at five for the field trip on Friday,” she said. She wouldn’t meet my eyes.

“Okay,” I said.

She turned and walked back up the stairs.

In French the next day, I tried to catch her gaze. I even mock surrendered to her en Francais, but her face never found a smile. Tiff, on the other hand, couldn’t keep her eyes off of me in History. Our date was that night and she wouldn’t stop talking about it.

We met at the river at 6 like we’d planned and we rented the paddle-boat. Tiff yammered on about how her friends were so excited for her, and she’d never done anything like this before. I finally stopped thinking about the Jenna situation when we got in the boat because paddling that sucker was harder than I’d imagined. After five minutes of paddling under the setting sun, I was pouring sweat. I looked over at Tiff. She wasn’t doing a damn thing.

“Hell, Tiff, you gotta help out a little,” I said, puffing the words out in quick breaths.

“I’m steering,” she said.

Five minutes later we were back on land, and I was gulping down water.

“I just can’t believe that you gave up so easily. We didn’t even use our full time on the boat,” Tiff whined.

I resisted the urge to throw the water in her face, and instead turned to her and began, “Tiff, we need to talk. I think you’re great, but I’m just not ready to be dating someone right now.”

The next day at lunch, I told Jonathan and Mike what happened with Tiff and the paddle-boat. “See? So that’s why you need to cut the target loose before anything really bad happens.”

Jonathan shook his head and chuckled. “I don’t know, man. I talked to Lauren on the phone for a long time last night, and it was really good. I’m not going to screw up a good thing.”

“Suit yourself,” I told him.

At exactly five on Friday, the doorbell rang. I’d been looking forward to this all day, since Jenna wouldn’t talk to me at school. I even dug around in the back of my closet for an old tie with frogs on it that Jenna gave me for my twelfth birthday when I was going through a whole amphibian phase. If she noticed the tie when I stepped outside, she didn’t let on.

“Mom’s waiting,” she said, turning and walking down the steps.

Jenna went all out; no digging in the back of her closet for that dress. It was a shiny blue and had straps everywhere. She wasn’t one of those girls that had to wear something black and slinky to look good. That just wouldn’t suit Jenna. Her hair was curled and loose on her shoulders. Walking behind her, I sensed a slight fragrance of perfume. By the time I slid into the backseat of her mother’s station wagon, I was done for. Jenna was driving me crazy.

Did she know? Was she doing it on purpose? I could barely answer her mom’s polite questions on the way to the school. Jenna refused to speak, but I caught her eye in the side mirror a couple of times. Her mom let us off in front of the school, and we boarded the bus that would drive us into the city.

There were only fourteen of us going, so everyone was pretty spread out on the bus. Jenna picked one of those seats that could fit two kindergarteners or one adult. I pushed in next to her, anyway.

“Crap, Drew!” she said, pulling at a bit of her dress that I accidentally sat on. “Why are you all over me all of a sudden?”

I took a deep breath. “I’ve been thinking about what you said. I was a jerk. I mean, I have been being a jerk. I am a jerk.”

Jenna stared at me. A corner of her mouth went up into a smirk. “Oh, I get it. Your dream date with Tiff didn’t go so well, huh? Now you’re moving on to the next girl? Or is it just that I’m here, so you might as well go for it?”

“No, screw the Game, Jenna. I’m over it. It’s crap, anyway.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Really?”

“Yeah.” I folded my arm around hers, and since we were so crammed into the bus seat, there wasn’t much she could do to pull away, not that she tried. I told her about Tiff and the Game and how it had played out. I talked for over half an hour, without much of a reaction from her.

When we exited the Holland Tunnel into the city, an entire scene of lights and noises opened up in front of us. The bus let us off for our dinner.

I had to take a break from my soliloquy because Madame Gray only permitted French at dinner and my expertise with the language only went so far.

I picked it up again on our walk to the theater. I told her about Jonathan and how he really liked Lauren. He got me thinking about high school and dating and the things that I really liked about girls. I liked girls who were honest and smart and who weren’t just trying to flatter me.

“So, girls who are the opposite of you?” Jenna said, smiling. At least I got a real smile out of her.

We were in the theater now, and the lights dimmed. Our class was spread out in the row and a junior named Kate shooshed us. I ignored her.

“Yeah,” I joked. “Opposites attract.”

Jenna rolled her eyes. The orchestra started up.

“Jenna, it’s you. You’re honest and smart. You don’t let me get away with anything.”

Jenna squeezed my arm in an effort to quiet me and I took the opportunity to grab her hand. Again, she didn’t pull away.

At intermission we fought the crowd and I bought her a soda. Madame Gray gathered the class to talk about a few of the major themes of the play, en Francais, bien sur. In the second half, we watched Jean Valjean try to piece together his life and Cosette deal with unrequited love.

The play ended and we boarded the bus home, exhausted from the exciting day. I sat across the aisle from Jenna on the way home, so she could sleep like everyone else. I stayed awake, thinking about what it would be like to date her. Like, to really date Jenna. I thought about school and the kids and the girls, and I realized that I had already made my choice. I made it when I ended the Game with Tiff, and when I picked out the frog tie for our trip to New York. I made it when I followed Jenna to her car and I drank in the smell of her perfume. I made it when I sat next to her on the bus.

Back at school once again, the juniors all piled into their cars and drove home. Madame Gray wearily walked to her car. Jenna and I sat alone, waiting for my mom to pick us up.

“This was an amazing night,” Jenna said. “So you really think you’re done with the Game?”

“I am definitely done,” I said.

“So, you were saying before about a new girl that you liked?” Jenna said. She smiled at me, and I could see where a little bit of her eye make-up had smudged away while she slept on the bus.

“Yeah,” I said. “About that…” I leaned over and swept one of her curls off her cheek. I traced a finger along her jaw. I kissed her there, in front of the school. It made sense, start this thing here, in front of the building, in plain sight of anyone who happened to be driving by at midnight. I knew no one would see us, but it was symbolic. This thing with Jenna was happening and there we were, kissing on a bench at the school.

My mother pulled up and honked the horn. I stood and pulled Jenna up. I was beaming and as we walked to the car, I put my arm around her.

“Hey Drew?” Jenna said. She took a couple steps ahead and faced me, walking backwards.

“Yeah?”

“The Game,” she said. “It’s not over.”

“What?”

“You thought you’re done with the Game, but it’s not over.”

I laughed. “What are you talking about?” I tried to grab her hand, but she pulled it away. She stopped and put her arm out, stopping me in my tracks.

“What I’m saying is, thanks for playing my game,” she said. She took a couple of steps, still facing me. “Or do you prefer, ‘let’s just be friends?’ Then, let’s just be friends.”

She turned and walked to my mother’s car. I stood, shocked, still.

So, obviously, the Game needed some refinement. In the first place, no one else knows about the new Game, and it will stay that way. As far as everyone is concerned, the Game is dead and I’ve learned my lesson. But, what sort of player would I be if I let myself get played? New Game, new rules. Rule number 1: Never, ever let your feelings get in the way of the Game. And the rest of the rules? Sorry, they’re confidential.

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One response to “And… Another Story’s Conclusion — Playing The Game

  1. Pingback: Short Story Numero Uno: Playing The Game | christywrites

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