Friday, January 19, 2007

This actually happened to me. Only the last three words are fictional. I put it in short story form 10 years ago, but it's real. I was this way with all of my girlfriends.

Sunday morning after Martha left for work I lay in bed reading the New Yorker she had brought for me. The article about hyenas had been fantastic. We both liked the parts about the antelope stumbling among the loops and whorls of its own entrails.

But I was done with the hyena article, and the magazine was many months old, so I read an article about the final days of Bob Dole's campaign against Bill Clinton. The writer said that Dole, like any politician, had a gambler's intuition, and so he dogged the campaign trail 16 hours a day just in case there was a victory out there waiting for him to stumble into it.

Maybe it was that article that made me get up and check Martha's Scrabble dictionary, stashed under the futon couch along with the board after our argument the night before. We had argued about placement of the board, and then she had caught me trying to spell the gambling game KENO, as KINO.

That allowed her to spell PANG and surge ahead. Pang was the right word, I thought, as I retrieved the dictionary from under the futon, careful not to disturb the wooden pieces which were still on the board. The pang of her catching me in KINO might stay with me for the rest of my life, I realized, because of how cruelly she had done it.

I'm not a Scrabble player, this game with Martha being only the second in my adult life. So she had explained to me the use of the Scrabble dictionary. "You might not like some of the words in there," she had said when she called me from work Saturday afternoon. "Some people get upset about that. We can use another dictionary if you like."

"Any dictionary is fine," I said, "as long as it's in English." She laughed and began speaking to me in Spanish. I understood half of it. She said she would come to my apartment at six. Then she yelled at some cook in Spanish, and told me in English that she had to get back to work, there was a batch of mango salsa to be made.

"I hate this job," she said.

I had shown her a little about database design and she had she had seemed to understand. I told her she could stop working in kitchens and getting burns on her arms if she would learn computers. She was smart, very smart. I wanted to break up with her.

But I wanted to keep her. Yes, as a friend. I knew that the odds were that we would drift apart after she found someone else. But there was a gambler's chance that I could keep her as a sister in that way you can sometimes do with former lovers. I was going to play for that chance, and that would make it a delicate play.

At least she hadn't said she loved me, I thought. She had been getting very involved in the relationship and I had been getting very involved in the friendship. I wanted her to resume sleeping with her downstairs neighbor, Dave, and to play Scrabble, visit bookstores and record shops with me. Plus, she had written some good stories and I wanted to include them in my web magazine.

All these things were in jeopardy, however, if we broke up instead of drifting into friendship.

She came over at six and the argument approached with light winds, like a hurricane catching a town off guard. We pulled the board out from under the couch. It already had some words on it from the night before. She spelled a word that resulted in spin-off word, EN.

"EN?" I said.

"It's a word in the Scrabble dictionary."


"It's a typographer's word for the letter 'n'. They also have ESS in there, for the letter 's'."

"Yeah, that's a wild dictionary. I looked in there and saw the word QUANDANG. You know what it means?"


"It's the plural of QUANDONG."

"What's a quondong?"

"It's an Australian tree."

"God, I swear, these Scrabble people have gotten so out of control in their pursuit for words. They've morphed that dictionary into an unholy thing."

"Yeah, I noticed a lot of three-letter words. I think they probably have a legal word for any three letter combination."

"Featuring a vowel."

"Featuring a vowel. So I can spell anything in three letters as long as it contains a vowel and pretty much count on scoring against you."

"So, wait. Have you been studying the dictionary?"

"For six hours," I lied.

"That's not fair," she laughed. "No, totally, man. That's is totally not -- it's so. Oh, f--. There's people who do that, you know? They, like, do that. And it's so sleazy."

"It's not fair to study it during the game."

"No, not at any time."

"You've been studying it for years."

"I have not!"

"You been playing for years and looking in that dictionary. How else would you know EN is a word? I'm just trying to level the playing field."

"Oh, God!" She moaned and rocked back against her cushion. "I'm beginning to suspect you're really competitive. You're one of those types, aren't you? I can tell because, like, when I was talking to you during your move, you totally shut me out. It was like I wasn't there at all."

"So that's your plan. If I win it's because I'm competitive and I cheated with the dictionary."

"We can change dictionaries if you like."

"I would think you would want me to know there were words like REI and TA in the dictionary. To make it more fair, for me."

"We can switch dictionaries if you like. I said we could switch."

"I don't want to switch. We agreed to play with this one and I wouldn't want to switch up on you in the middle of a game. But did you know there's a word in there for a letter of the Hebrew alphabet?"

"So? It's a letter."

"This is a letter that doesn't even exist in the English alphabet. It's a Hebrew words for a Hebrew letter. And yet you could get points for spelling it against me."

'What is it?"

"I forget."

"I thought you studied for six hours. Didn't you take notes?"

"I lied about the six hours. I flipped some random pages just to get a sense of it. And boy was I surprised."

"We can switch."

"No, we agreed to use this one. Next time we can use something else."

"Now, do you want to play where you have to define the word if you're going to use it? Some people play that way. I've played that way."

"Doesn't that open the door to a lot of arguments? Somebody gives a definition that's close, and somebody else interprets that it's not close enough?"

"Yeah but not if the person you're playing with is cool. And besides, if you think they're pulling that on you then you can pull it on them the next time."

"I wouldn't want to pull anything on anybody."

"It's just one way to play."

"I'd prefer that if those letters are in the dictionary, it's legal, you can spell it, whether you know what it means or not."

"Okay," she said, and turned the board towards herself.

"Hey," I said, "now I can't see the letters."

"God!" she said, "You had it turned toward you!"

"No I did not! I had it right down the middle, like this, so that we could both see it."

"God," she gasped parenthetically, "I can't believe we're having this conversation."

"You agreed," I said. "You agreed to have it right down the middle so we could both sit on the same side and see it."

"I can't see it at this angle."

"What angle?"

"I have to see it straight on."

"Oh that makes perfect sense. Why didn't you say that last time?"

"Say what?"

"Last time when I said we should both be able to see it, you agreed. Now you're saying any angle renders you illiterate, as if you aren't capable of reading road signs and all sorts of other stuff at an angle."

"I didn't know what the heck you were talking about when you said we should sit like this. It made no sense to me."

"Wouldn't it be obvious? I said I wanted to move around to this side so I could also see the letters, and so that you could see them also, during my move."

"I don't want to see them during your move. I've always played this way. The people I play with take the board to themselves when they make their move."

"Be that uncool as it may, you nonetheless in this game agreed to this system whereby we both could see."

"Agree! Agree! What are you, a lawyer? I didn't understand what you were saying, so I just let it go by. If you want to keep the board like this then I'll just move in front of it like this."

"I can't see."

"Now can you see?"

"Yeah but I can see your letters too."

"Oh, god."

"Can I ask you something?"

""Okay," she said, "but I just have to warn you I'm premenstrual." Her lip was starting to quiver. "The girl always cries," she said.

"I'm sorry," I said.

"Well why do you have to be so competitive?"

"I don't care about the game but I do care that if we are going to disagree, it should be fair. What I said last night made perfect sense to me and I'm surprised it wouldn't be common sense to you. But the main thing is, what I wanted to ask you, is why you didn't say something then."

"I thought..." she swallowed.


"I thought you would be mad at me and make fun of me and say I was stupid."

"I would be such jerk then," I said, taking her hand.

"I need a hug," she whispered.

We sat on the floor and hugged and I held her a little longer even after she said it was okay to let go.

"I guess I shouldn't say I love you right now," she said.

"That would be a bad idea," I said. I meant: a bad idea right after an argument. But I don't know what she thought I meant.

We played a few more words on the Scrabble board and I scored two 22-point words in a row, which she answered with a nine and a 32, bringing her within three points.

It was then that I scored a 32-pointer and got in front her by 12 points. We were getting near the end of the game, where the words reach the outside of the board and the risk of triple-value words increases.

I worried a lot about giving her a triple word space, and so I rejected two 18-point opportunities. TANK, for instance, down across a double-letter space, opened up a triple-word space for her which would be so easy to end in an 's,' thus pluralizing TANKS into TANKS, getting that score plus her triple word, and putting the game out of my reach.

It was then that I saw KINO, with the 'k' on a triple-letter space. Yes, it opened up a triple word for her, but only if she could fit one of her letters in front of the 'k' in KINO and still make a legal word. I didn't think there was, or could be, any such word, even in the Scrabble dictionary. KINO would get me 18 points and probably win me the game.

"KINO," I said, and put down the letters. "Eighteen points."

It was then that she played a classic Scrabble joke on me. First she challenged. I was surprised.

"What's kino?" she said.

"It's a gambling game," I said.

She smiled and flipped gleefully through the dictionary. I wondered how she could not know that word. She has to have heard of it. Boy will she be shocked when she finds out. Plus, she will lose her turn for challenging, and then I'll win for sure.

"It's in here..." she said. She began to hand me the dictionary, then pulled it away. "But it's spelled wrong!" she laughed, and threw back her head.

"Good one!" I said, and went to use the bathroom. When I came out I said, "That must be a Scrabble classic. Enjoy it now, because now that you've taught it to me, I'll never fall for it again."

"Ooh, you don't think I was mean, do you?"

"Not mean. More like cruel."

"It's just part of the game."

"Really? It's seems sort of a gamesmanship thing."


"Psychology. Mental games. I didn't know that was part of this. I thought we were supposed to respect each other, and limit the combat to the board. I don't really want to play a game that involves being your enemy in real life."

"Are you angry with me?"

"No. It was a good joke. It's natural. Lots of people would do the same."

"Wouldn't you, if you had the chance?"

"Uh, maybe, no. Actually, no. I don't think I would do that."

"Why not? You make fun of me when we're arguing. You say sarcastic things like, if I knew how to drive and read at the same time..."

"Well, yeah but that's a two-way street. You were calling me a competitive jerk."

"No I wasn't. I totally wasn't. And I am so sorry if you thought that's what I meant. We just had a misunderstanding, is all."

"We had a misunderstanding, but I'm not willing to be designated the mean guy. You were pretty sarcastic yourself."

"I'm not willing to let it be my fault either."

"It was a misunderstanding."

"But you should just be able to hear what I'm saying without getting defensive."

"You should just be able to say what you're saying without starting your sentence with 'God!' as if you can't believe what a fool you are talking to."

"Did I do that?"


"I'm sorry. It must have just been my inner voices coming out."

"It's okay. We can have fights, as long as we try to be fair."

"I don't want to fight with you."

"I respect you enough to fight you."

"That's sick."

"I'm sorry, but it's not," I said.

She ran her hand from her brow to the back of her head. "Listen, can I give you your turn back?"


"Let's just play from before KINO."

"No way. That wouldn't be fair."

"I don't want to beat you."

"I can accept losing."

"Let me just give you the points."

"That would be awful. No thanks."

"Then I don't feel like playing."


"This is just too stressful."

"I see."

"Are you mad?"

"I thought you wanted to play. Now you don't. So I guess that means you win."


"The game ended. And you have more points, so you win."

"No, that's not what I'm trying to do!"

"Well how about if we suspend it then, and finish it later?"


We went into the other room and got in bed. A little while later we had sex. It was nice but I wasn't in love with her. I had to get rid of her somehow.

"You said this weekend we should have a relationship talk," she said softly.


"I have some foreboding about that," she said. "I feel you're going to reject me."

"I won't reject you," I said. You might not be my girlfriend, I thought, but I won't reject you.

In the morning the clock radio went off at 6:10. The remnants of the Khmer Rouge were holding Pol Pot captive and offering to give him back to authorities for certain immunities for themselves. Didn't the government see, I thought, that aged Pol Pot was declining in value every day, and that the pieces to capture would be his former lieutenants, the people who were young enough to continue to cause trouble in Cambodia?

"What time is it?" Martha said sleepily.

"6:16," I said.

She stumbled up. "I have to be out of here in four minutes."

She went into the bathroom, tacked on her clothes, and left.

I rolled over and picked up the New Yorker magazine. In the hyena story the young woman is attacked and mauled by the animal to the point that she must beat it over the head with her own arm. Using her stubbornness, she pokes it in the eyes with her fingers and so escapes. In the Bob Dole story, Dole goes down but he goes down fighting, just in case there was a million-to-one chance out there with his name on it.

That's a good philosophy, I thought, drifting into thoughts about how I played basketball. I nearly always lose at basketball since I am so uncoordinated, and slow. But I play because I love it. I have learned to lose gracefully.

But you shouldn't accept losing, I thought, and I padded in bare feet across the carpet. I looked across the room to the futon couch, with the Scrabble board under it.

You should always make that last, futile gesture, like the woman trapped in the hyena cage, I thought, as I bent down to retrieve the Scrabble dictionary.

I looked up KENO. There it was, on page 295. KENO n pl. -NOS a game of chance.

Then I flipped the pages to 299. And there it was. KINO n pl. -NOS a gum resin.

A gum resin!

I turned to the phone. I wanted to call her, to tell her that my word, KINO, was a word. Then I looked at the clock. 7:29 AM, Sunday morning. She was just opening the kitchen at the delicatessen. It would be too obsessive of me, and besides, she would say things like "I am so sorry," and "Will you forgive me?" or "I guess you won it fair and square."

And I didn't want that.

Then what did I want?

She might say that we should rewind the game to when I spelled KINO, since she had been mistaken to challenge it. I might point out that the rules said she would have to lose her turn for making a false challenge.

But I didn't exactly want that, either. That would put me so far out ahead that we could both be certain of the outcome of the game.

I looked at the carpet, and the Scrabble board, and I realized what I wanted. I wanted her to make the same mistake twice. I would spell KINO yet again, and she would challenge it yet again. Then she would feel the same pang I had felt when she had used the "It's-in-here-but-it's-spelled-wrong" joke on me. In that moment, my PANG would be transformed into a KINO, a sweet little bit of gum resin that would stick to me for the rest of my life, like a piece of gum under a chair, to be chewed and re-chewed at intervals.

Whatever else is going on, I thought, we're not going to have that break-up talk if I can avoid it. This sick little relationship has got to continue at least until I can spell KINO on her again.

She had taken the last move before quitting the night before. So my move was the first one, and I still had all the letters for KINO.

I laid down the letters.

She made half a laughing sound. I didn't want to give her too long to think. So I said, as by way of explanation, "I had an 'i' too."

"You used an 'i' last time. Remember? KINO."

"No, KINO is right."

"It's KENO, like in the dictionary."

Pretending to be annoyed, I said: "I know what I know."

She held her head in her hands and started rocking back and forth. "Oh God!" she said, "This is so awful. Can we just quit this right now?"

"Quit what?"

"Quit arguing and fighting over a silly little game."

"Let's just play. We don't have to argue and fight."

"But I don't want to humiliate you again! You're making the same mistake twice!"

""Look," I said, being annoyed again. "You let me play my game and take the consequences. If you want to challenge, then go ahead. Otherwise play."

"Okay then, I won't challenge," she said in a hushed voice.

"You're just going to let me have the points."

"Why not," she said resignedly.

"You don't respect me enough to just play me. You think I'll be angry to lose? Think how I will feel if you hand me charity points. What kind of respect is that?"

"Okay, okay," she said, laying her hand on the dictionary. "I challenge. You lose. Now can we just end this game and go to bed?"

"You're not going to look it up?"

"You look it up," she said, tossing me the dictionary. She reached for the television remote.

I turned to page 295. Leaning over and pointing out KENO for her, I said: "It's in here, but it's spelled wrong."

Then I flipped to page 299. She looked at me with that sick look.

"Oh my God," she whispered. "KINO is a word too."


Martha had always struck me as an honest and honorable person. She had always been fair and open with me.

She said, "But you defined it wrong! You said it was a gambling game!"

"First of all, we agreed that the players don't have to define the words. Secondly, you did not ask me for a definition this time."

She looked at me. I looked at her.

"You little f---er," she said, "Let's play again."
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