The Games between Friends
By A. Craig Newman
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Cards flew in every direction. A blizzard of red, yellow, blue, and green cards whizzed by Raymond as others fell all over the table and the floor. As some of the cards came down, they partially masked the expression on Marcus's face. But from what Raymond could see, Marcus looked mad. His bushy eyebrows were pulled so close together they appeared to become one. His thick lips were sucked into a thin, quivering line. Raymond knew him well enough to know that when Marcus looked this way, it only meant he was concentrating. Still, that expression on any other man would have been scary. Raymond swallowed hard.
Marcus looked at him then looked at the table. There was a long pause where the only sound other than the ticking of the clock on the wall next to them was that of cards falling off the table. "Pick up the cards," Marcus said, stood abruptly, then walked to the refrigerator in the next room.
"You getting a beer?" Raymond said, feeling like he had to say something.
"Does it look like I'm getting a beer?" was the sarcastic reply. There was another pause as Raymond picked up the cards and Marcus grabbed two brown bottles from the fridge and whipped an opener from his pocket.
"Did you hear what I said?"
Marcus popped the top off both bottles, took one in each hand, and took a long drag from the one in his left before doing the same from the other in his right. "Does it look like I heard what you said?" he said, again in a sarcastic tone. He took another swig from each bottle and gasped heavily.
Another long heavy pause. Raymond gathered the last of the cards and sat back at the table.
"Rame, you're talking stupid again," Marcus said sternly but not unkindly. He walked back into the room and presented Raymond the bottle in his right hand. "Take this and shut up." Raymond took the beer that was handed to him and drank long and hard, glad since, as long as he was drinking, he didn't have to say anything.
Marcus plopped back down, swept up the cards in his large ebony hands, and finished the shuffle he had started before the cards had taken flight. Raymond had almost guzzled the remains of the beer down by the time Marcus had finished his shuffle and dealt the cards, 7 each. He put the deck on the table, face down, took one card off the top and used it to start the discard pile. Before Raymond could start playing his hand, Marcus broke the heavy silence.
"Rame, I love you. You my nigga and you know that. But this is a mistake and possibly the most well-intentioned, misguided endeavor you've ever dreamed up."
"Marky," Raymond said letting his southern drawl slip out some. He always did when he drank too much. That last beer was probably two past "too much" for him. "I love you too. We've been friends for longer than I can remember. And for just as long I've been the only white person I know of who gets called 'nigga' on a regular basis. Now, why is that?"
"Don't change the subject, Rame."
"Ok, fine. But that is a subject I would like to address later." Marcus responded with a dismissive wave of the hand he was holding. Raymond started playing his hand. They sat in silence for a few more moments and alternated turns. The issue hung in the air between them in a way that could almost be felt. "It's not a bad idea." Raymond spoke in a tone somewhere between normal and whining.
"It's a horrible idea," was the lightning-quick answer.
"It is not!" In defiance, Raymond slammed a card down on the last word. "Uno!"
"It is too," Marcus said, slamming a card down in a similar manner, "and draw four."
Raymond saw the card, swore under his breath, and took four cards from the deck. "Why do you say that?"
Marcus placed another card on the pile, folded up his hand, and intensely studied some point in space over Raymond's left shoulder. Raymond knew that look, too. It meant that Marcus felt that his gut instinct was right, but needed to organize his thoughts. This could take some time, but Raymond has learned to be patient with it. A few times in the past, Raymond pushed Marcus to explain himself before he was done with this stare. What came out was a blur of disorganized thoughts sprinkled with a generous helping of starts, stops, stuttering, and stammering. Raymond knew it was worth the wait to since Marcus usually gave good advice. Raymond played a card and waited. Marcus stopped his musing, fanned his hand again, played a card, and finally said, "You're doing it for the wrong reasons."
"That's where you're wrong, Marky."
Marcus put down a card. "Uno. Tell me your reasons then, " he said in a calm soft voice.
Raymond quickly played a card he knew was a bad one and Marcus put down his last card, winning the game. As Marcus swept up the cards to begin shuffling, Raymond leapt into his well-prepared list of reasons, a list which had been pulled together for this very conversation.
"Well, first of all, I love her, Marky. I really do."
"We'll come back to that one," Marcus said as he started to deal out a new hand. "Next reason."
"It's also a very economical thing to do."
"It is! You should read up on it. In many states, there are taxes breaks. Not to mention that living together can cut living expenses."
"Oh yeah. Economical. I hear that's why George and Gracie got hitched," said Marcus with his trademark sarcasm. In spite of the belittlement, Raymond let a chuckle slip out. "Next reason."
"Then think about this: Now is the perfect time for me to do it. I'm 28. I drive a Vette. I've got my own house," he said counting off on his fingers. "I'm getting promoted in the firm like mad. And I've got no debts. In short, I'm a successful slice of the American Pie." Raymond swept up his cards with a flourish, daring Marcus to retort.
"In short, you're horny. Your biological clock is telling you it's time for kids and your religious upbringing is telling you that a marriage is the only way you will be comfortable with having them."
"But-" Rame tried to interrupt but Marcus had built up momentum and he wasn't about to stop.
"NOT to mention that your idealized picture of success tells you that adding a wife and a loving family to your picture would put you in the same league as Ricky Ricardo, Mike Brady, and Cliff Huxtable." Marcus swept up his own cards and started to organize them roughly.
There was a moment of silence as Raymond finished organizing his cards and then played one. He was getting upset, but wanted to bring the conversation back to a conversational tone. "You know my mother-"
"-Is just thrilled peachy!" Marcus erupted as if Raymond was the one being rude. "She knows that you've found somebody and is dying for you to get your groove on so Rachel can squeeze out a puppy or two-"
"FUCK YOU!" Raymond said, throwing his cards in Marcus's face. The tension in the room went up a notch or ten. "That was fucked up, Marcus," Raymond announced before going to get another pair of beers. He sat one in front of Marcus. "Take this. You tend to be less of an asshole when you drink."
The cut hurt Marcus, and he wore that hurt on his face and posture. But he knew that it was well deserved, so he didn't protest. He popped open the beer and took a drink. "You're right, and I'm sorry. But am I wrong?"
"Why are you being like this?"
"Am I wrong?"
"Why are you being-"
"Because you aren't telling me the real goddamn reasons! Now out with them!"
They went through a few volleys of placing cards, drawing cards, and drinking beer before Raymond spoke again. "She's my first, Marky. And if past indicates the future, she's my only."
"That's not true, Rame-"
"Don't me give me that, ok?" It came out as more of a command than a request. "Don't give me that. I'm not like you. I don't have the same touch with women that you got. They practically throw themselves at you; Rachel's the first to even look my way."
"I'm 28 and she's the first real girlfriend I've ever had. AND, add to it that she's beautiful and smart and caring and loyal and she loves me. ME! I haven't had anyone and my first girlfriend is the object of most men's dreams. Why shouldn't I marry her?"
There was another pause. The forgotten game cards sat on the table as both men sat deep in thought.
"I'll tell you why you shouldn't marry her."
Raymond looked up from his cards and looked deep into Marcus's eyes. Part of him was looking for some idea as to what Marcus was going to say next; another part of him was daring Marcus to say ANYTHING next. Finally, he said, "Why?"
"Because you're not crazy."
"What does that have to do with anything? Plenty of non-crazy people get married all the time."
"Yeah, and later these same non-crazy people are fighting over who gets the kids and who gets the house. Rame, to marry somebody and make it last, you've got to be crazy."
"I don't understand."
Marcus put his cards down and stood up. He began to walk back in forth behind his chair. His motions became more dramatic and his whole presence assumed a kind of relaxed tension. Raymond knew that this meant the actor/orator side of Marcus was coming out. This side only came out on two occasions. Either Marcus was about to lie his ass off or what he was about to say next was so important to him, he felt a speech was in order.
Suddenly, he stopped pacing, faced Raymond and put both hands in front of him. He looked like someone pleading. "Love does it to you. Love makes you crazy." He resumed his pacing while he continued speaking. "It drives a man to do the things he hates the most just because she needs it done. It's love, man. It's got to drive you nuts. And to get married, you've got to love her so much, her happiness and her life comes before your own. You've got to be willing to do ANYTHING for her. Sit in hell if it will get her into heaven. Love, the REAL stuff I'm talking about, will drive a man mad. Not just temporarily, but for good." He stopped his pacing and stared intensly at Raymond. "You, my friend, are not mad. You're lonely and you're scared, but you're not crazy. You like her and you want her, but you don't need her. You don't need her, Rame. And either you figure that out now or you figure that out years down the line when some secretary starts looking better to you than your own wife."
Raymond looked down and contemplated what he just heard. He told himself that he didn't believe it, but stomach started to knot up. He knew what would come after that, but he tried to fight it off. "I do love her," he said, trying to sound convincing to himself if not to Marcus.
"Love will drive a man off a cliff, Rame. I'd be shocked if yours will drive you around the block."
Despite his best efforts, Raymond began to cry. "But I love her so much."
"No, you don't."
"How the hell do you know?" Raymond screamed.
"Because you're crying, Rame," Marcus said as he sat back down. The actor/orator side of him was slipping away. "Why are you crying?"
"I don't know," Raymond said, hoping Marcus wouldn't know either, but knowing that he would.
"I know. You're afraid. You're crying because you're afraid that I'm right. You're afraid of being alone and you're afraid that I'm right. If you were in love with her, you'd be so pissed off at me that you couldn't see straight. But you're not. You're scared. You're not in love."
Raymond exploded into new tears. He fumbled around for his jacket and put it on. "I've got to get out of here," he said under his breath.
"Where are you going? You're not driving, you've had too much-"
"I'm NOT driving any-FUCKING-where!" he exploded. He stood up and before he could stop himself from doing it, had grabbed the table and flipped it forward into Marcus's lap. The beer and cards went flying, but Marcus caught the table before it could go too far and helped it settle back down on the floor. "I'm not driving anywhere! In fact, here are my damn keys," Raymond said throwing the keys on the floor next to the beer bottles. "I'm going out to the stoop for a smoke. Is that ok? I may walk some. Is that ok? Is that ok with you?"
Marcus put his hands up and sat back down. "Go ahead, do whatever you want." He turned his back to Raymond and picked up the beers and the cards.
Raymond marched over to the door and swung it open. He stopped and said what he knew he was going to repeat later. "I'm sorry. I just have to be alone right now."
"It's ok," Marcus lied. "I understand. Go ahead and sort things out."
Raymond walked out and closed the door behind him. He walked right to the sidewalk, lit up a cigarette, and started to pace.
...Love drives you crazy...sit in hell...put her needs before his...What sort of horse shit it that? That couldn't be true. Well, maybe some of it, but not all of it. All Raymond knew for sure is that he loved Rachel and nothing Marcus said could make that untrue. Unless Marcus was right and Raymond was more scared than he was in love. Maybe he was afraid, but couldn't he be in love too. Why did it have to be one or the other? Maybe he's wrong... Maybe...
Raymond paced and smoked and debated with himself for an hour. In the meantime, inside the apartment and out of earshot, Marcus was on the phone.
"Yeah, he's outside now, smoking up a storm. Means he's thinking hard. Means I got him good...Don't worry, it'll work. I was too convincing for it not to.... Like I said, he still doesn't have a clue about us...Trust me, Rachel, he doesn't have a clue....