a former Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University, has published work in ZYZZYVA, The Nashville Review, The Los Angeles Times, and Monkeybicycle, among many others. Her debut short story collection WOMAN, RUNNING LATE, IN A DRESS (Yellow Flag Press) won the 2018 Cypress & Pine Short Fiction Award. Connect with her at www.dallaswoodburnauthor.com
The afternoon I win the game, no one is around to hear my scream of victory. No one watches me jump up from the couch and throw my arms into the air. No one sees me dancing around the coffee table, adrenaline pounding through my veins, thinking that maybe Etienne is part of this somehow. Maybe he pulled some cosmic strings for me, getting the universe to align just right for this shining moment to occur. For the first time in months, it seems possible to believe that life indeed has a shape, a purpose. That there might be some underlying plan for the way things unfold — like oxygen, or gravity, impossible to see or touch, but absolutely there.
I sit back down on the couch, twisting open my glue stick to attach the winning piece to the paper game board. However, I then realize that my tired eyes had read the piece wrong, switching two of the letters around. This small paper rectangle in my fingers is not the winning piece after all. This is just an ordinary game piece, a duplicate of one I already glued onto my board months ago. Perhaps Etienne even glued it on himself, in our first few days of playing the game.
My faith and euphoria evaporate, replaced with a familiar leadenness. A memory from last summer sweeps in: Etienne in the pool, splashing me when I said I didn’t want to swim, didn’t want to get my hair wet. The pinprick freckles on his shoulders and the pencil-eraser mole on the small of his back. Water droplets vanishing on the scorching July sidewalk. The memory is so clear, there should be a corner of the world I can lift up and step through. Some way I can slip back into the scene. The dry heat. The yellow swimsuit, pinching my neck a little. In my mouth, the taste of lime. We made margaritas. It was a Sunday.
I rip the piece in half and move on to the next piece. My vision is blurry. The smart thing would be to sleep for an hour or two, give my strained eyes a bit of rest. But the game ends in less than twelve hours and I still have a whole box of pieces to look through. What if the winning piece is inside, waiting, and I don’t reach it in time? The vacant gray space on the colorful game board mocks me. The only thing to do is press on. It strikes me suddenly, as I scan the piece for the five digits I need to become a multi-millionaire: Perhaps it isn’t really winning if you have no one to celebrate with. But I shove the thought aside, clinging to the belief that this is what Etienne would have wanted. He was the one who began the game. I will finish it. For him.
When the game ends tomorrow, there will be nothing left to hold my life together. I push that thought aside, too. I rip the piece in half and reach for the next in the pile.
* * *
“You know we have virtually a zero-percent chance of winning,” I told Etienne when we started playing the game: a month-long sweepstakes sponsored by a big national supermarket chain.
“C’mon C, dream a little.” He nudged me. “Someone’s gonna win, right? Might as well be us.” He carefully glued a piece down on our stillmostly-empty game board.
“If only real life were as simple as this stupid game,” I muttered.
Etienne glanced over at me. “What do you mean?”
“They clearly based this off the board game Life.” I gestured at the winding gray road printed on the thick paper. “See? Start line, finish line. Meander down the Road of Life and at the end you shall receive a huge mansion and five million dollars.”
Etienne nodded, feigning seriousness. “Sounds about right to me. Wait—you mean that’s not your life plan?”
I tore open a family-size bag of chips and set it on the floor between us. “All I’m saying is, the game of Life sets kids up with unrealistic expectations.”
Etienne was quiet for a few moments, steadily opening pieces and peering at the numbers. Each game piece had five digits at the top so you knew where it went on the board and what stage of life it belonged to. All of a sudden, he whooped and threw his hands in the air.
“What?” I asked. “What is it?”
“I got my driver’s license! I told you I would get it one day!” He shoved the piece at me, laughing. And there were the words, right there in bold letters: Get Your Driver’s License!
Etienne, born and raised in New York City, had never driven a car. He told me he never needed to—he could take the subway or ride his bicycle anywhere he needed to go. His utter indifference about getting his license was something I could not comprehend. It became an ongoing joke between us.
I touched his knee. “Wait, wait—don’t glue this one on the board. We should frame it or something.”
“We have to glue it down! What if this is the winning piece? What if this is the only one of its kind?”
I snatched it from his fingers. “Doubtful. Hey Etienne—I think this piece is a message from the universe. It’s basically ordering you to get your driver’s license.”
He rolled his eyes and reached for the bag of potato chips. Later, when he wasn’t looking, I slipped the game piece into my pocket. For some reason, I really wanted to keep it.
After he died, I opened up countless pieces that said Get Your Driver’s License! I guess in the game, like in real life, it’s a pretty common thing. But I kept the original piece Etienne had opened—the closest he would ever get to an actual driver’s license—safe in the folds of my wallet.
* * *
When I moved into Etienne’s apartment eight months ago, it felt like fate had brought me there. Not in a romantic way. More in a sometimes-things-work-out way. Before that, I was living with my parents, waiting tables in Sioux Falls and waiting for the next chapter of my life to begin. Being accepted into the grad program at NYU seemed like a miracle. I was prepared to commute to class from Brooklyn or the Bronx—there was no way I could afford to live in Manhattan.
But a friend-of-a-friend from college was sharing Etienne’s two-bedroom apartment, and when he saw on Facebook that I was moving to New York he sent me a message. He explained his company was transferring him to L.A. and asked if I was interested in subletting his room. The building was rent-controlled, which meant I could actually afford it. “You can see the Brooklyn Bridge from the living room,” he said. I had written down a long list of questions, but I didn’t ask any of them. Instead I heard my voice saying, “I’ll take it.” The cell-phone connection crackled with static. My heart pounded with the knowledge that this was really happening, I was really moving to New York City and I had a place to live. I signed the sublease and emailed it in that day. The funny thing was that I did not feel even a twinge of uncertainty about moving in with a complete stranger. Maybe that was faith, or fate, or both.
Etienne and I hit it off right away. My second night in New York, he invited me along to his friend’s birthday party. I actually ended up dating a different friend of his for a while, this guy named Robbie. Etienne dated around, too. Most of the girls didn’t last very long, except for Ashleigh, who I never much liked. She would come over and cook dinner and leave a huge mess in our kitchen, and she wasn’t even that good of a cook. She put garlic in everything, way too much garlic. Etienne liked to tease me about Robbie, and I would tease him about his ladies. It was that way between us. Easy. He especially liked to wear this ballcap with the Canadian flag stitched on the front—his parents were from Canada originally—and I would sometimes steal it and wear it around all day, just to annoy him. People would ask if I was from Canada and I would look at them blankly for a few seconds, forgetting.
Anyway, it wasn’t until Etienne died that I realized I was in love with him. And by then, of course, it was too late to do anything about it.
* * *
Etienne was a sucker for any type of contest. One day he came home from the supermarket with the paper game board tucked into his reusable bag alongside produce and gummy candy—he had the sweet tooth of a six-year-old—and told me not to be a buzzkill. It would be fun to play. “Maybe we’ll win a $5 gift card at least,” he said, spreading the colorful game board across our coffee table.
And the game was fun, at first. It’s rigged to be that way. It sucks you in. Whenever you go to the grocery store, the checker asks if you’re playing the game. If you are, he smiles and hands you a stack of game pieces—you get more pieces the more money you’ve just spent—and says something like, “Remember us when you’re famous!” Even though you know the checkers say this to everyone, it still makes you feel special and included.
It’s true—at first, I felt grudgingly happy to be playing the game, grateful that it was something Etienne and I were doing together. We talked about what we would do with our millions of dollars and there was a small, secret part of me that actually believed our plans weren’t made of fairy dust and clouds. That they were actually the beginning of something solid: he and I, dreaming of a future together.
* * *
The way to win the game is simple: glue down all the pieces on the Road Of Life, each one corresponding to what the creators have deemed a crucial life experience: Learn CPR! Give a Toast at a Wedding! Get a New Stamp on Your Passport! When you begin the game you’re gluing pieces on the board left and right. You’re thinking, This is so easy! I’m going to win millions for sure! That’s when the game has you hooked.
I figured out after a little while that most of the game pieces are ordinary. Before long, every piece you bring home from the store is one that you’ve already glued onto the board. But you only have five or eight or ten empty spaces left. You’re so close! You’ve put in so much time already. It’s too late to turn back now.
When Etienne’s accident happened, it was early in the game. We had only been playing for a week or so. Most of our game board was empty space. I very clearly could have quit. Should have quit. But for some reason, the game was the only thing I didn’t quit. I stopped going to class. I stopped showing up at my part-time job in the Admissions Office. I stopped eating real meals and I stopped going to the gym and I stopped returning my friends’ texts and calls, because even typing on my phone required more energy than I could muster.
But I kept gluing on those damn pieces. I made excuses to myself to go to the grocery store, stocking up on canned beans and ramen and Oreos and rice. When I bought a box of a thousand game pieces on eBay for $200, I knew I had entered a whole new level of investment in the game. I told myself that Etienne would be proud of me—of my passion.
* * *
“Let’s buy a big boat,” Etienne said. “Top of the line. All the bells and whistles. And we’ll sail it around the world together. Where do you want to go first?”
“Five million dollars would buy us a lifetime supply of Coronas,” Etienne said as we watched a basketball game on TV. He sipped from his Corona, reached over to steal a Red Vine from the package on my lap. “And Red Vines. I’ll pay you back for this one, I promise. We’ll have a whole pantry filled with nothing but Red Vines.”
“I know!” Etienne said, sitting up. He was stretched out on the bed beside me. The pure excitement on his face gave me a glimpse of his little boy-self. “We can buy an amusement park! Or build our own!”
“What should we call it?” I asked, playing along.
“I don’t know,” he said. “You’re the creative one. You’ll be the brains of the operation. I’ll just be the pretty face on the commercials.” He fluttered his eyelashes at me. I whacked him with a pillow. We went back to watching the movie, but a few minutes later he said, “I was just kidding, C. You’d obviously be the brains and the pretty face.”
* * *
My relationship with Etienne felt like looking out the window to the first glimmers of sunrise. Just a thin line of golden light peeking above the horizon—beautiful on its own, and even more beautiful because you knew it would continue to expand and expand until it enveloped the entire sky with pink and orange. What I had with Etienne was just that first glimmer. When he died, it was as if the sun stopped rising and fell backwards below the horizon, plunging everything into darkness.
* * *
The creators of the game have decided that these are the main stages of life: birth, schooling, first job, promotion. Marriage, kids, apartment, house in the suburbs. Send kids off to college, retire, and eventually die at a ripe old age with your children and grandchildren crying at your bedside.
There aren’t bad things in this game version of life, not really. No childhood friends moving away. No bullying. No break-ups, no bad dates, no divorce. No illnesses. No arguments or job losses or failures or rejection letters or dreams languishing unfulfilled.
No hit-and-run accidents.
No bicycles mangled on the side of the road.
No dying at twenty-six.
I hate this game. And it’s not the mild, simmering annoyance that you can swallow and push down. It’s a sudden flood of desperate hatred, the burning kind that makes it hard to breathe.
I want to rip all of the game pieces into tiny sprinkles of paper. I still have a pile of them to open up. At least a hundred more to get through. I glance at the clock; it’s nearly 4:00 am. Soon the game will be over. Winning boards need to be turned in at 5:00 am when the store opens.
Furiously, I rip open the pieces two, three, four at a time, quickly scanning the numbers to see if any is the piece I need. The single rare piece I have yet to find is Q7593, Throw a Big Celebration. The game creators obviously think they are being clever—find the most rare piece of all, win the game, and you will be throwing a big celebration. Ha, ha. Not me.
I rip the pieces open. No. No. No. No. I toss them aside to join the mess of discards littering the carpet. No. No. No. No. I have so many pieces left to open.
And then, quite suddenly, I just have one unopened piece remaining. I carefully grip it in my fingers, holding it up to the light as if the contents will be revealed through the flimsy paper. As if what is inside this piece will make everything in my life shift into focus. I squint against the bright LED bulb. The piece is a small dark square.
It might turn out to be Q7593, the winner I have been searching for and searching for. Or it might be yet another duplicate piece—Adopt an Animal from a Shelter! Try a Kickboxing Class! Plant a Garden!—that is already affixed to my game board. There is no way of knowing until I open the piece and see what it holds.
The clock reads 4:38 am.
I stand up from the couch on shaky, tired legs. I fill a glass of water from the sink. Drink it slowly. Stare at the piece, waiting on the coffee table.
The last time I saw Etienne, I didn’t really see him. Didn’t pay attention, I mean. He was rushing off somewhere, grabbing his helmet from the hall closet, and I was sitting on the living room floor, bent over the coffee table. Gluing pieces onto our game board.
“Bye!” I’m sure he said as he headed out the door. “See you later.”
“Bye!” I’m sure I replied. But I didn’t glance over at him. I don’t have a final memory of his smile, his eyes and chin and fringe of dark hair poking out from under his beanie, his hand waving goodbye. In my memory, there’s just the sound of the door closing. His boots fading down the hall. The letters and numbers of the game pieces swimming before my eyes.
I still believe what I told Etienne when he brought this game board home: there is virtually a zero-percent chance of winning. Undoubtedly, this final unopened piece lingering on my coffee table is not the winner.
But I don’t want to know that. Not for sure. I want to keep the mystery alive, to wrap the not-knowing around myself and pull it close. I want to keep the door open a crack, even after the clock ticks forward to 5:00 am and the game officially ends.
I cross the living room and open the sliding glass door onto the balcony. Cool night air sweeps into the room, fluttering the torn-up game pieces. The air feels fresh on my face. Morning smells and sounds are already brewing in the city below: meat roasting, bread baking, trucks rumbling down the street with deliveries. Soon the dark sky will be tinged with light.
I grab handfuls of torn-up pieces and tear them even more, into tiny scraps of paper. Then I take them with me onto the balcony. At Etienne’s memorial service, we released balloons into the sky, looking up into the scrim of clouds, as if that is where he is now. When really, up there past the clouds is nothing but empty space. I knew the balloons were not actually going to reach Etienne. But somehow, it felt like they might.
Taking a deep breath, I fling up my hands and send the confetti of game pieces into the air. They swirl and flutter around me in a hundred different colors. I watch them floating in the breeze, trailing down into the city streets, looking for all the world like a celebration.