We began playing our epic game when we were still young, not long out of college, and my opponent (for once I’ll abide by the rules of civil discourse and refer to her by the nom de guerre Camilla) proved to be the stronger player, at least initially. Back then her strategy was to make me jealous, and I must admit that, for a strategy so simple and obvious, it certainly had the desired effect.
On Friday nights, when we still attended those rollicking parties together in the city, she would push her way through a crowded warehouse apartment, an imposing figure, tall, broad shouldered, almost Amazonian in her war-like gait, and without pausing to acknowledge our inebriated host, march over to a card table that served as an impromptu bar where groups of men circled around the alcohol like a herd of stamping, snorting, fly-swaddled wildebeests protecting a coveted watering hole. Only after fixing herself an obligatory pink martini and taking a few immodest sips would she then carefully assess the other players in the room and contemplate her first move.
From my vantage point as an eager novice, but one who possessed limited skills in mounting a clever defense, I could tell that Camilla had a natural gift for coquettish conversation and an infuriating way of laughing too loudly and too lustily at every adolescent joke that popped into the minds of those drooling brutes yearning to nuzzle her perfumed throat. It almost made me sick to watch her work. I hated the way she pretended to surrender to these men, moistening her lips with a slow, deliberate tongue and sweeping aside her chestnut hair to reveal those delectable earlobes and the tattoo of a small, blue butterfly at the nape of her neck, hallmark of the bad girl. She stroked and squeezed and slapped their arms in such a way as to suggest that, if they played their cards right, there could be more intimate physical contact later in the evening.
Never once did she shoot a furtive glance over her shoulder to see if I was looking. Of course I was looking, and she knew it. With a salacious smile she continued to flirt and tease and tantalize until, at some point in the night, she disappeared from view, not for very long, ten or fifteen minutes, just enough time to drive me insane with suspicion, and the scenes I envisioned were, even by the depraved standards of the Internet age, vivid and appallingly pornographic: a former jock with small, murderous eyes pressing his pulsating, foreskinned scepter against my darling’s flushed face; a trust fund kid wearing a tailored sport coat and a smug smile, offering her cocaine on the bathroom counter before removing her blouse and bras and snorting a fat line of blow between her fabulously tight tits; a little troll of an artist, an emaciated bug of a boy with greasy black hair and bad skin, asking her, with the nervous laughter universal to all sexual deviants, to massage his prostate with a rigid index finger.
When Camilla reappeared at the card table, fixing her third or forth cocktail of the night, she looked terrifically guilty, her cheeks burning, her hair unkempt, her brand new skirt wrinkled and askew. I admit that, on a few occasions, I grabbed her by the wrist and dragged her from these raucous proceedings. She protested loudly--all shrieks and screams and clumsy karate chops--but it was all an act, scripted well in advance. For her this was most enjoyable part of the game, the part at which she truly excelled, and like any formulaic drama it had a predictable ending.
During the miserable cab ride back to her apartment, she reached for my hand and in suddenly soothing tones told me that I could put a stop to this nonsense by proposing marriage. I tried to reason with her. We were only twenty-five years old and flat broke, we needed time to begin our careers, save money, plan for the future, but this kind of talk only made her more determined, and to my unbelieving eyes she turned away from me and started flirting with the turbaned cabbie, twisting beard in her fingertips and whispering to him in Farsi, her minor as an undergraduate. This was more than I could bear. I shouted to the driver to stop the car, threw a few crumpled bills across the seat at Camilla’s smirking face, and like a sullen child I walked the rest of the way back to my squalid studio apartment and empty bed.
The gambit came soon after.
At this stage of the game, cohabitation seemed a better strategic move than marriage, and so before my twenty-fifth year was over, I decided to sacrifice what remained of my independence and packed up my things.
Camilla occupied the top floor of a duplex in a quiet part of town populated, it seemed, almost entirely by married couples in their mid-thirties with small children. The neighbors were friendly to me after I moved in with Camilla, and whenever they spotted me on the street, they smiled and waved and asked when “the young couple might tie the knot.” I laughed and made excuses, but I couldn’t help notice how, as they pushed their wailing, lunatic toddlers around the block in unwieldy, puke-splattered strollers, these supposedly happy people looked imploringly at me as if begging for rescue from some forced labor camp and warning me of the nascent hell of domesticity.
Though our new arrangement made me nervous, Camilla became utterly convinced that cohabitation was the next logical step in our evolution as a couple. Her devotion to me was unwavering, only now--and this is significant, play close attention!--whenever we went to those wild soirees with the other smartly dressed couples and the sinfully sweet smoke of marijuana wafting from great, gurgling bongs and the sound of seductive laughter ringing through the halls, Camilla never once left my side. In fact, she looked at no one else in the room, her intense eyes fixed always on my own, her sinewy arms wrapped so tightly around my torso that I felt pinned by a crafty wrestler who knew every hold, throw and takedown. These constricting, pretzel-like configurations made me claustrophobic, and I found it necessary to untangle myself, whenever I could, and sneak off to some dark corner where I might have a brief conversation with old friends, some of whom happened to be female. There was a kind of danger in this. Camilla was always lurking nearby and had an almost preternatural ability to sniff me out.
One night, after using the restroom, I found her standing guard outside the door, waiting impatiently for me, her eyes red-rimmed and ruminative. She glanced inside as if to confirm that I was alone and said with a manic grin, “What the hell have you been doing? Fucking one of your little whores? Come closer. Let me smell you. Give me your hand.”
When I noticed our friends staring, I led her over to a corner and whispered, “Would you please stop being so goddamned possessive.”
She crossed her arms and nodded. “I see. So I finally caught you. Got something to hide this time. Well, I sure as hell hope you brought your own cab fare, because you’re on your own.”
With a theatrical flourish she had long since perfected, she grabbed her purse and coat and stormed from the apartment. Our friends watched closely to see what I would do next. If I pursued too quickly I might be labeled, to use the lingua franca of my philistine buddies, a total pussy; on the other hand, if I didn’t give chase and gallantly see my darling safely home, I might forevermore be labeled, by the sensible ladies, as just another drunk asshole. They talked it over, made predictions, placed their bets.
After waiting a full sixty seconds I casually walked downstairs and out to the street. I spotted Camilla a block away, teetering in her high heels and trying unsuccessfully to hail a cab. The oncoming headlights made her skin look orange and her eyes black and empty like a hastily made-up show girl. Her tiresome drama had turned into a hideous burlesque, and in her drunken rage she was nearly indistinguishable from the chorus of shady characters shambling along the litter-strewn streets during the midnight hour. An old man, reaching into his back pocket for a flask, drifted toward her and, after clearing his throat in preparation for a well-rehearsed speech, intoned, “Excuse me, miss. I mean no harm. Can you spare some change? Hey, now, there’s no need to cry. Why you crying? There, there, darling. Hush.”
I stood on the corner for five minutes, shouting her name, but she ignored me. Eventually I gave up and returned to the party.
“Everything’s under control,” I told our friends. “She had a little too much to drink, that’s all. I made sure she got a cab.”
Now that she was no longer around to pester me, I managed to relax and have some fun, but after a few more glasses of cheap scotch I felt, in the pit of my stomach, a small bubble of guilt that slowly expanded into shame and then alarm before it finally burst into outright panic. How in the world could I have let a beautiful, twenty-five year old woman walk these streets alone? Making inane apologies to my protesting friends, I left the party and hurried home, but when I burst through the door, gasping for breath, I discovered the apartment empty and our bed still made.
Why I didn’t contact the police I do not know and dare not think about, but the following morning, just after dawn, I received a call from Camilla who wanted to know just that--did I, in fact, phone the police? Did I go to the station and file a missing person’s report? Did I confess that I was a pitiful loser, an irresponsible bastard, a selfish lout? I could hear her on the other end of the line, waiting expectantly for the correct answer. Everything hinged on my response.
I could, of course, pretend to be remorseful. I could swear up and down that I had called the police and that even now the city’s finest were searching the streets and alleys, but this would have been playing by her rules, and there didn’t seem to be anything sporting in that. It then occurred to me that the game Camilla and I were now playing was a dangerous one. I had a few acquaintances who maintained an almost dogmatic belief that games, to the extent that one may describe them as such, must include some element of danger, a hint that one’s circumstances, when they change, may not change for the better and that some kind of serious toll, whether physical or psychological, must be exacted in order for the game to really matter.
After a prolonged silence I decided on a risky tactic. Trying to control my wavering voice, I said, “Call the police? Why in the world would I do a crazy thing like that?”
“Can you possibly be serious?” she huffed. “You do realize that I’ve been gone for hours, don’t you?”
I yawned loudly. “Have you? What time is it? I just woke up.”
I heard her catch her breath, a sweet little gasp of disbelief that made me shiver with satisfaction.
“Listen, asshole,” she said. “Are you listening? Good. Because I want you out. Out of my apartment. Out by the end of the day. Is that clear?”
I laughed. “Oh, come on, Camilla, stop it. Do you need a ride home or something? Where are you?”
“You’re a real jerk. Everybody warned me, all of my friends. And now that I know what kind of person you truly are, I want you the hell out. Out of my life. In fact, after I hang up, I’m going to call the police and tell them that you’re an intruder.”
“Well, could you tell them not to knock too loudly? I’m going back to bed.”
“An intruder. Your name isn’t on the lease. You have five minutes. Exactly five minutes before the squad car gets there.”
The line went dead, and I knew she wasn’t joking. I was crushed, irritated, maybe even a little frightened, but mostly--and some of you will know exactly what I mean when I tell you this--I was incredibly relieved that we had reached the endgame.
After a few days of sofa surfing in the apartments of various friends, I decided to deliver the final blow by taking the downstairs unit in the same duplex. This wasn’t playing nice, not at all, as Camilla was quick to point out in a nasty note she slipped under my door one night. She accused me, among other things, of being a stalker and threatened to obtain a restraining order. She would, so her note promised, force me out of the building and have me branded a sexual predator, and just in case I “became aggressive,” she had taken several precautionary measures--she changed the locks on her door and installed a state-of-the-art alarm system and bought a big bottle of pepper spray that she carried on her person at all times. Fortunately, she never made good on these threats, never served me with papers or blinded me with mace as I tried to collect my mail in the hallway. Like any cruel competitor, she exacted her revenge in ways that were far more subtle and sadistic.
Within days of the move, Camilla started bringing men--total strangers--back to her place. In the evenings, while I dozed on the couch in front of the TV, I would suddenly awaken to the sound of Camilla and her latest paramour engaging in very vocal lovemaking. To describe her screams as blood-curdling would not be too great an exaggeration. At first I thought a robbery was in progress or that she had paid someone to attack her so she could later pin the blame on me and have me hauled off to jail. I turned off the TV and listened. Careful not to let the floorboards creak, I positioned a wobbly chair directly beneath her bed and on tip-toes pressed my ear against the ceiling so I could decipher her tortured bellows: “Suck my toes! Eat my ass!”
How, I wondered, could anyone be so foul, so base, so unsanitary?
As a parade of degenerates came and went from her apartment, I trembled with jealousy and self-pity, and I vowed to match her, lay for lay. A lofty goal, no doubt, and not without its challenges. I am no Casanova and have never been particularly skillful when it comes to talking women into the sack. What’s more, my sudden breakup with Camilla made our mutual friends feel uncomfortable, and because they wanted to postpone for as long as possible the awful business of choosing sides, they no longer extended invitations to those swanky parties where I might actually meet an available woman.
In the end I was forced to frequent those sordid meat markets where a man, if he waited long enough, could entice certain lonely ladies by offering them bribes--shots of top shelf tequila, prescription pills, a night of companionship with plenty of foreplay--but the selection was always slim. One night I settled for a woman twice my age and drunk out of her mind. “Oh, you dirty boy, I’m gonna make you so happy,” she slurred before staggering over to my bed and passing out.
Not to be outdone, Camilla brought home three scruffy outfielders from a local softball team for a lubricious saturnalia that lasted an entire weekend. She was no slouch, she kept pace with me, and when I lagged behind in the body count I decided to really play dirty. I shelled out small amounts of cash to emaciated junkies who haunted a desolate strip of road near the airport. These paid professionals, to my surprise, worked very hard for their wages and knew how to put on a good show. They suggested we screw on the floors next to the heating vents so our amorous howls would travel more effectively up to Camilla’s apartment, and by the end of the night I had these floozies in a fantastic frenzy. They rammed the heels of their lethal stilettos into the plaster walls, and through a horror of crooked teeth they made a hundred mad pleas: “Ruin me! Destroy me! Split me in half!” Performances so convincing that I almost believed I truly was an accomplished cocksman.
Our game continued in this fashion, month after month, but a definitive end never seemed within reach. Evidently, we needed to increase the stakes, but just how far were we willing to take things? I will tell you: After our year-long tournament, we both renewed our leases, prepared to go one more round, hoping to morally bankrupt the other. Only then did Camilla announce to our scandalized friends that she was pregnant. With whose child she did not know and did not seem to care. I was so outraged by the news that I immediately dispensed with condoms and swiftly impregnated not one but three women, the weird sisters I called them, all former housemates in the same sorority at the same middlebrow college. Here was a sinister turn of events that Camilla simply could not abide, and after having her first child, she spent the next five or six years bearing the babies of men she barely knew.
Yes, much has changed since we first started dating so many years ago. Instead of a typically discontented middle-aged married couple living in the suburbs we are a pair of rapidly aging adolescents. We are prematurely gray now and grossly overweight. Every two weeks a social worker visits the duplex to check on Camilla’s feral litter of hectoring, underfed brats, and the weird sisters show up unannounced at my door to demand an increase in child support payments. Money is scarce these days, I am unable to meet all of my financial obligations, and just the other day I received the third and final eviction notice from the extortion company that owns this crumbling duplex.
In preparation for another move, I took inventory of all my worldly possessions and discovered in the corner of my closet a box stuffed with old love letters from Camilla. Outside, cold rains pelted the window and strong gusts of wind slapped wet leaves against the filthy screen. Imprisoned in my dark little room, I decided to read through the letters one at a time. The paper on which they were written had turned brittle and yellow, and the words sounded so alien to me, so overblown and sentimental (“Have a wonderful day at work, my love. I miss you terribly and cannot wait to hold you later tonight”) that they may as well have been penned by some silly schoolgirl in a jumper and knee highs with dreams of one day becoming romance novelist.
I wanted to read through the letters a second time, but the naiveté of this youthful voice was suddenly drowned out by a much older, hard-hearted one. Upstairs, Camilla was chasing her obstreperous crew of unwashed scamps with a broom, threatening as usual to beat them senseless and shouting a refrain that by now had become all too familiar to me: “You monsters, I hope you’re satisfied. You ruined my life, you ruined my life, you ruined my life!”