We’re getting a little bored, so I ask my girlfriend if she wants to play the game tonight. She says she does. I was hoping she’d say that.
Every time we play the game, it brings us a little closer together.
The game works best in dark, noisy lounges. It’s pretty simple, just a fun thing we do at the end of the night. How it works is, I hang back, lurking in the crowd, while Dani goes up to the bar, alone and looking hot. A guy approaches her, strikes up a conversation. Dani tilts her auburn head, laughs, lets him buy her a drink. Dani’s an actress, a talented one. They flirt a while before I walk up, pretending I’m a stranger. Then Dani and I “spontaneously” hit it off while the dumbfounded guy hovers with terrible sense of humiliation and defeat. He watches, helpless, as Dani and I leave together in a glow of carnal enthusiasm, apparently having just met. And that’s the game.
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Tonight, we’re at Delancey Lounge. Earlier, at the birthday dinner for my ex-girlfriend Clementine (we’re still good friends, which Dani is okay with), Dani and I had a minor fight when she took offense at something I said. But her agreeing to play the game reassures me we’re okay now.
I watch her walk the gaze-gauntlet to the bar, wearing a little black dress that justifies the enduring prestige of Little Black Dresses. She is provocatively petite, narrow-waisted, with a heart-shaped face and full, red lips that make me want to eat a strawberry.
At the bar, a guy wearing a fashionably faded black t-shirt, jeans, and a sleek Movado watch approaches Dani. Sandy-haired, maybe 5’9’’—shorter than me—and about our age, late twenties. He’s good-looking, which will make the game’s payoff more pleasing.
She smiles, showing her white teeth, touching the dark glossiness of her hair, exposing her throat as she laughs.
Five or six minutes is all it needs to develop. By then, he’s leaning in, touching her arm, cocky about how easily he’s been welcomed into her personal space. I move in.
“Oh, excuse me,” I say, bumping into him.
“No worries,” he says, turning back to my girlfriend.
Here’s where Dani will usually break conversation to touch my arm and say something like, “Hang on—you look just like that guy from that thing,” and I’ll laugh and say something like, “You mean the thing with the baboon?” We like to improv, push it a little Dada, take it to the verge of absurdity while keeping straight faces.
But this time, she just says, “So, Miles, how long did it take you to write the play?”
Miles says, “The latest one?”
“Guys, quick question,” I say, confidently interrupting him, shouting over the music to deliver one of my stock conversation-starters: “Schadenfreude—is that when you’re happy to see your friends fail, or unhappy to see them succeed?”
Miles says, “The former.”
And that is when she, Dani, my girlfriend, leans close to this guy, this Miles, this playwright, and—without ever looking at me—mouths Do you want to get out of here?
Moments later, I’m struggling through the crowd, trying not to lose them. A gaggle of girls migrates through my path, and I can’t see Dani anymore. When I catch sight of her again, she’s standing near the entrance—alone.
“A playwright, huh?” I say, reaching her. “Well, that’s perfect for you, isn’t it?”
“Sorry, I think you’re mistaking me for someone else,” Dani says, her body language all Don’t get close, like I’m some creepy bar stranger.
“Ha ha. Game’s over now. Let’s get out of here.”
“My friend Miles just went to the men’s room. We’re leaving. Nice meeting you.”
“Stop, it’s not funny. Are you trying to make a point?”
“No, I’m waiting for my friend Miles.”
“Is this about what I said at Clementine’s dinner?”
She busies herself with her iPhone, not looking at me, full lips pursed. “I’m not sure what you mean. Would you care to elaborate?”
“I’m sorry, okay? I don’t think you’re… unadventurous. And I wasn’t implying you should be more like my ex. Don’t read so much into offhand remarks.”
“No,” she says hotly, looking up, her cheeks splotching crimson the way they do when she’s indignant, “you didn’t say unadventurous. You said inhibited, you said predictable—”
“In bed, and sometimes. I said inhibited in bed and sometimes predictable—”
“Oh, great! And now I’m unadventurous, too? And please do explain what it implied that after you called me inhibited, you offhandedly remarked how exciting Clementine was, and how she was always surprising you, and then I had to sit through her fucking birthday dinner thinking about you two playing ‘Hitchhiking Virgin’ or ‘Freshman Needs an A’ or whatever.”
“I never should’ve told you that.”
“Well, maybe I’m more adventurous than you think.”
Miles emerges from the bathroom, sees me. “You’re really persistent, aren’t you?” he says amiably.
Dani takes his arm, leads him to the door.
I’m in a cab, following their cab, in Lower East Side Saturday night traffic. I called her, but she won’t answer. I’m texting.
I go on Facebook on my iPhone, looking up guys named Miles in New York. He’s the third result; we have a mutual friend, some actress I hardly know. Miles Walcott—sounds familiar. I google him. The first hit is his Wikipedia page, the second a rapturous New York Times review of his play, Death by Misadventure.
Death by Misadventure, Christ… that just premiered at the Atlantic this month, and I know it because Dani auditioned for it back when they were casting. It’s about two couples in sex therapy and they’re all cheating amongst each other. We went to see it last week so Dani could pass judgment on the actress who got “her” role.
A text from Dani comes in:
What an adventure
We stop at a red light as I look up from my iPhone. Their cab is gone.
As we drive around looking for them, I send a series of texts.
Where r u
Call me asap
DANI, CALL ME
R U KIDDING ME RIGHT NOW
SERIOUS, WHATS UR FUCKING PROBLEM
Can we talk?
No sight of them on the clogged, clamorous streets. I even memorized their cab number—4K79—but it doesn’t make another appearance. Then a text comes in:
i’m going home
I take the cab straight to Prospect Heights and run upstairs to our apartment. The lights are off.
Our place is empty. It’s a drafty and charismatic one-bedroom with uneven hardwood floors. Dani’s audition pages lie scattered across the kitchen table like dead leaves. I call her, no answer.
Where r u? I’m here
I’m home. R u on ur way?
For forty minutes I wait, pace, send unanswered texts. Rage and humiliation gnaw my insides. Death by Misadventure was, infuriatingly, an excellent play. That’s it, this is the end. Two months ago, we broke up for a couple days, and there was a time before that as well, but now it’s over for real. I’d tell her by text but I’m afraid she won’t answer, which would be too maddening to contemplate, so I go back downstairs, hail another cab, and take it over to Fort Green, where my friend Henry lives. I’ll crash there. Let her come home to an empty apartment.
From the street outside Henry’s building, I see light in his bedroom window, but there’s no answer when I ring the buzzer. Is it broken? I call him.
Henry’s the one who introduced me to Dani. They were roommates, here in Fort Green. Then she and I started dating and six months ago we moved in together, and now he has a different roommate, some guy named Aziz.
“Are you drunk-dialing me?” he says.
“Yeah, I miss your touch. Actually, I really am outside your door. Buzz me up.”
“I would, but I’m in Westchester.”
“And yet I’m looking at your bedroom window. It’s all aglow.”
“Mine or Aziz’s?”
“His is dark. Yours is light.”
“That’s odd. Because I’m in Westchester.”
“Does Aziz use your room?”
“He’s a walking carpet. I’m sure I’d have noticed an increase in little hairs.”
I get a distinctly not-good feeling. “Does Dani still have a key to your place?”
“Why would she? I mean, I’m not sure. Why, do you have some reason to believe she’d be in my apartment… using my bedroom?”
“I’ll call you back.” I end the call, looking up at his bedroom window. Just across the street, there’s a children’s playground. I walk to it, climb the jungle gym, and steady myself into a standing position on the very top. Now I’m fifteen feet tall. I can look in the bedroom window.
Dani sits with Miles on the bed, side by side like we sit in our bed. They’re clothed but her Little Black Dress could be negligee. Some dresses just want to come off. Open between them is a gigantic coffee table book that belongs to Henry; despite the distance, I recognize the cover—it’s Little Nemo in Slumberland, a deranged newspaper comic from the 1920s. Dani and I used to read it at the old apartment when we were high. Miles points at something in the book. As she laughs, he kisses her. She allows this briefly, then nods at the book, like he’s a distractible child whose wandering attention needs to be checked with gentle reprimands.
I call her. She glances at the bedside table—at her iPhone. She doesn’t answer. I send a text.
Did he cast you yet?
She reads the text. Miles says, What? She kisses him deeply, neck arched, miraculous mouth doing miraculous work. Familiar electricity climbs my spine. I want to fuck her and strangle her. Which is ironic, since she’s not into being choked. She’s running her clever little hands over his body. He’s got her by the waist. I open my iPhone camera, zoom in as far as I can, and start taking pictures.
They’re blurry, hard to decipher, but Dani will manage. I send them to her phone. She stops kissing Miles and looks at the message. Miles asks her something, I think, but she just goes to the window. Looks out, and sees me. And closes the curtains.
A moment later, I get a text.
Do I seem adventurous yet?
I climb down from the jungle gym, stand defeated on the dark playground. I consider hurling something through the window, but when I look around for a rock or a brick, I don’t see anything suitable. Also, I don’t want to break Henry’s window. So I decide I’ll go home. Then my phone rings. Dani calling.
Crunchy static. Something underneath it—human voices, but not speaking. Moaning.
Her: “Do you like that? Are you sensitive there?”
Him: “Apparently so. Yes. Jesus.”
Her: “Do you want to be anywhere else right now? Anywhere at all?”
That’s our thing! Our thing that we say! During sex. Would you rather be anywhere else in the world right now? No, I’d rather be here.
Him: “Fuck, no! What’re you talking about? Jesus.”
Her: “Do you like this? Am I doing this okay? Do I seem inhibited or anything?”
Him: “What? You’re the opposite of—Jesus, yeah, those are sensitive.”
I’m physically incapable of hanging up. My synapses won’t relay the instruction from my brain to my fingers. Rough breathing, little moans. All I can do is listen and visualize. Now he’s doing something to her. Those shivery gasps sound different when she’s making them for someone else. But they’re no less hypnotic.
A stately oak stands in the center of the playground. I walk to it, cloak myself in its shadow, unzip my jeans, and masturbate quickly and brutally. Dani’s moans rise as I’m doing this, and we finish together.
In the cab ride home, I get another call from her phone, but this time I don’t answer. As I’m arriving back in Prospect Heights, a voicemail comes through. I don’t listen to it. I go upstairs with a half-hollowed, half-fulfilled feeling, as if I’m the one who just slept with someone new. It’s just after 3 am. Four quick shots of bourbon, then I fall into bed, into heavy, drunk, sweating-in-my-clothes sleep.
The alarm clock says 4:02 am when I wake to the sound of the front door unlocking. The bourbon’s in full effect. I listen to her footfalls come softly through the living room. She enters the dark bedroom and the dress whispers as it comes off. When she gets into bed, her body is feverishly warm.
We just lie beside each other for a few minutes.
“Did you listen to my voicemail?”
“You would’ve heard me tell him goodnight. I said I was going to sleep in my own bed, with you.”
“He has a girlfriend too, by the way. That’s why we didn’t go to his place.”
“When are you going to see him again?”
“I told him about the game right away. At the Delancey. He said I should turn the tables on you. He said he loved it so much he’s going to write a play where a guy and girl play the game, and she turns the tables on him.”
“And who will play the girl, I wonder.”
“He’s really cool. I actually think you’d like him.”
“I fucking hate you. Do you know that I fucking hate you?”
“I couldn’t stop thinking about you listening,” she says. “I was making sounds for you. Did you like that?”
She squirms closer, wraps her strong little arms around me. I’m under the comforter but still encased in my sweat-damp clothes. The heat of her body penetrates them. She’s naked.
“That was for you,” she says.
Nick Antosca is the author of the short story collection The Girlfriend Game and the novel Midnight Picnic. He is also a co-producer on NBC’s horror drama Hannibal. He lives in Los Angeles.
“The Girlfriend Game” was originally published on Metazenand inspired a short film.