It was game night. In the fifteen years since graduating high school, we’d only cancelled our monthly game night six times. Maybe seven. I couldn’t be sure.
This month it was at Jena and Dan’s house, and the game was Pictionary. There was always a bit of Charades too because we probably didn’t play it right.
Jena was a pharmacist, and Dan was a baseball coach. I was a doctor and was supposed to be the most successful. Cheryl and I had the biggest house, but we took turns where to have game night.
We were in the family room, or something like that. About a nine-foot ceiling, white walls, a TV hanging on one, and decorative art on the others. The couches were a grayish suede. Maybe not suede, but not leather or regular fabric. A dark wooden table that normally sat in the middle had been pushed over under the TV, right next to the gas fireplace which wasn’t on, of course, because it was September.
My eyes traced the glassy lines that flowed over the stained wood of the coffee table. Some were so dark they looked like oil. Six wine glasses were distinctly placed so everyone knew whose was whose, but instead of wine, cans of coke littered the table because Jamie was going to celebrate six years without a drink come next month. October 5th.
Jack couldn’t make it, so Jamie and Donna were split up. Jamie on mine and Cheryl’s team. Donna on Jena and Dan’s team.
Jack was dating someone. He was going to bring her tonight, but ended up not being able to make it. I had been really happy for him at first, but now I didn’t know how to feel.
What was the score?
I couldn’t tell, but it was probably the other team winning. All three seemed pretty excited. Even Jena. I wondered if she had any idea.
It was our turn. I was supposed to up, but I forced a smile and explained I wasn’t feeling all too well. Again.
Cheryl gazed at me for probably five, maybe six seconds. I watched her from the corner of my eye, and tried to read her expression.
She went to the center and began drawing. Immediately, Jamie and Dan began calling out terms. It was some kind of flower, but Cheryl wasn’t the best artist. We used to joke about it. The drawing was just a circle with four simple petals. Cheryl probably didn’t know how to draw the exact flower, so began motioning with her hands for us to keep guessing.
Jamie punched me in the shoulder.
“You’ve gotta help me man!”
I forced a smile, and said, “Tulip.”
“Chrysanthemum, nightshade, orchid, daffodil!” Jena yelled.
“Rose!” Dan grinned as he said it. It felt like a punch against my stomach.
“Uhh…” Jamie snapped his fingers with eyes squeezed shut, trying to remember. “Uh, sunflower!” He pointed at Donna.
“That’s your favorite, right?”
“Yeah, but not Cheryl’s.”
Cheryl’s favorite was a hydrangea. Purple.
She turned quickly and began furiously drawing more flowers. Still laughing, Donna called out, “Hydrangea.”
Of course she would know. Donna was Cheryl’s best friend. I wondered how much else she knew.
“Yes!” Cheryl grinned, then the realization dawned on her. “Aw, you’re not on my team!”
Cheryl was beautiful. Slender limbs, round, hazel eyes, and blonde hair. It wasn’t a natural blonde, but she could pass for being one. She had been blonde when younger, like when we’d met in high school.
I thought I was handsome, with my brown eyes and curly black hair. Same as in high school when we fell in love. I was a decent height. At least two or three inches taller than her. I felt my nose was too big sometimes though.
“Okay, okay.” Cheryl picked up another card. She bounced on her toes. “Come on, my team.”
How could she act so natural? There was a hole in my stomach that I didn’t know was there, and it just grew larger. I took a sip of coke.
This time, lots of tiny dots and slashes and smiling stick people covered the whiteboard. She glanced my way and discreetly signed something. I think it was confetti or snow, but I looked past her and pretended not to see.
The phrase was obviously related to a party, like Happy New Year, but everyone thought it was a birthday party, or a snow day, or a parade. Cheryl would’ve drawn a snowman, floats, or a cake if it was any of those.
They would guess it eventually.
“Hey, I think we should learn some sign language,” Cheryl had said to me one day around two years ago.
I had just gotten home from work. I don’t remember how long I’d worked, but twelve-hour shifts could last anywhere between thirteen and sixteen hours on the right night, and it had been one of those nights.
“Okay.” I’d sat down and held my eyes open as she went through all the different signs she’d learned.
I made enough money for both of us, so Cheryl was a writer. She did editing and odd jobs but mostly focused her time on stories. I had wondered where she’d found the time to learn sign language. Maybe it was for a character. I should’ve asked.
She thought it would be helpful on game nights, you know, if we used it sparingly and carefully. She had a smile that was so hard to say no to.
I took another sip of coke, but my throat was almost too dry to force it down.
“I’m trying to guess! Maybe if I got some help!” Jamie nudged me again, hard enough to almost make me drop my drink. “Hey, are you okay?”
The room went quiet, and everyone looked at me. I try to focus only on Jamie, but the expressions of Cheryl and Dan still bled into my vision.
“Yeah. Just really tired.”
“He picked up an extra two shifts this week,” Cheryl said. She rubbed her hands against her sides and stared at me, but I blocked out the image of her face before allowing myself to read her expression.
“Wow. Things at the hospital getting bad, huh.” Jamie’s face was scrunched up with his nose, eyebrows, and lips all wrinkled towards the center, meaning he was either concerned or thinking. Could he see it? Could he tell that something else was wrong?
I didn’t know what to say, so I took another sip, but the hole in my stomach was so large that I thought I might get sick.
Jamie was one of my best friends. We weren’t as close as Jack, but we were closer than Dan and I.
Maybe that was the reason.
“Hey, we’ll finish this round then end it,” Dan said.
I stared at the ground between them and tried to watch for how they looked at each other.
Dan was taller than me by several inches, and he had light brown hair and blue eyes. I thought my face was better-looking, but Dan was definitely more muscular. I didn’t have the time to exercise like I used to.
They barely looked at each other, nothing more than what would be usual. Maybe. Perhaps they knew I was paying attention.
“Hey,” Jamie whispered to me, but I shook my head. I couldn’t talk about this. How would I even begin to talk about this?
“I’m just… dealing with a lot right now.” I tried to force down another sip.
Jamie shook his head and shrugged.
“Yeah, I mean. I’m just a foreman. I can’t begin to understand what you have to deal with every day.”
“You guys, it’s your turn!” Donna elbowed Jamie.
“Sorry! Sorry, uh…”
Cheryl had drawn a box. There was a lightning strike and a pair of glasses. She didn’t seem nearly as excited as before.
“Harry Potter?” Jena asked.
“Uh… Uh, uh…” Jamie was snapping his fingers furiously, staring boggle-eyed at the drawing, like the answer was on the tip of his tongue. I smiled.
Cheryl continued to draw, but I wasn’t paying attention anymore. I poured more coke into my glass even though it was still half full.
“Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets!”
From the corner of my eye, I could see Dan staring at me. I had figured that in such a situation I would get angry and not be able to contain myself, but instead, the hole in my stomach grew bigger.”
“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone?”
“No, Donna got it,” Cheryl said.
Everyone stood up and got ready to say their goodbyes and leave. Finally.
“What’s up with everyone tonight?” Donna laughed as she asked.
“When old doc’s not himself, there’s no use in meeting. He’s the life of the party.” Jamie grinned. I forced myself to smile.
We had made our way to the porch, mostly because everyone was following me, and I couldn’t stand to be in that house anymore. I had to get away from those four white walls before I suffocated.
I almost stepped off the porch when I turned to Jamie and Donna – Jamie had once been an alcoholic, and he ran a team of ragged misfits to any construction site that needed extra help, and Donna was the daycare worker who had gotten let go from her teaching position when the school decided it didn’t have the funds for a music program. They were the ones who should be struggling.
“You two take care of each other,” I said. Both Dan and Cheryl were out of view, but Jamie stared at me wide-eyed. Donna also had her eyebrows raised.
I was walking back towards the car when I heard Jamie ask, “Did he watch someone die or something?”
One thing Cheryl did do was convince me to give them enough money to put a down payment on a house. Jamie still had no idea, and I hoped he would never find out. I hoped Donna would keep up that lie about the school giving her a boost of unemployment for feeling bad about letting her go. I wanted to give him more money, and I wished I knew of a way possible to do it so that he would never find out, and then he could take Donna on a good vacation. Somewhere like Italy or Greece. That’s where Cheryl and I had gone last summer.
The drive home was only supposed to be fifteen minutes, but it felt like at least three hours.
Cheryl kept glancing at me, and I knew she was watching me from the corner of her eye. She was biting her lip because she didn’t want to ask me what was wrong. Maybe because this time, she was afraid of the answer.
“So, work has been really rough lately,” she said instead.
I didn’t answer. It hadn’t been a question but an obvious statement that didn’t warrant an answer. Still, the silence between us made the air much denser, until it was nearly impossible to breathe.
I licked my lips because they were growing increasingly chaff from having to wear that mask all the time at work, and I had been forgetting to put on Chapstick.
Cheryl stared at me for a long time, and there was this look in her eyes, in the way her mouth was curved, it made the hole inside me swallow up my stomach and press hard against all my other organs until I was struggling for air. I could feel hot tears forming behind my eyes, but I clenched my jaw and focused on the road.
Going to game night had been a bad idea. A terrible idea. But, I had to see them in the same room together, to see if she looked at him the way she had once looked at me. I had held everything together for an entire week just to make it to tonight.
And I saw nothing. Nothing on their part slipped.
Why had it happened?
I wanted to ask but was terrified of the answer. There was no justification, but surely there had been a reason. What was it?
Would she even tell me?
Cheryl was staring out the window now, so my eyes moved from the road to the platinum ring around my finger that reflected in the streetlights as we drove past them.
Where did I go from here? What did I do? How was I going to explain this to everyone? What would happen to her? Did I care? Should I?
I didn’t know what to feel, nor did I even know what I wanted to feel.
A single hot tear slipped out my left eye, but I carefully exhaled and clenched my jaw, determined that no more should escape.
“So…” My voice didn’t crack. That gave me the strength I needed to continue. “The next game night is supposed to be at my house. When do you think we should tell them it’s cancelled?”
Photo by Thilak Lees