by Lindsey Harrington
The laughter stops when I enter the room. The game continues, but no one’s heart is in it anymore. It’s like when you pull out a video camera and everyone forgets how to be themselves. Their movements become stiff, their smiles a little off.
There is no camera, but they know I’m watching, recording, and collecting injustices.
My parents are visiting—staying at my sister’s house. I’m just popping in and I’ve caught them in the middle of one of their infamous card games.
My family relates to one another through play. They would never describe it that way, but it’s true. Their cards are so thumbed over that the ink is wearing off at the corners. There’s a special drawer in my parents’ wall unit, bursting with scoring sheets and chewed yellow pencils. The drawer catches and sticks from overuse, often requiring extra force to open and close it.
They treat each other roughly too, ribbing one another over a game of rummy.
“How’d you miss that?”
“Stunned as me arse.”
“Go on wit yah.”
Drinks flow freely. Fingers are greasy from plunging into the chip bowl. And there’s so much laughter. I envy their easy rapport. Anxiety has curdled my insides for as long as I can remember.
In the house of my childhood, smoke hung thick in the air and empty bottles spread across the countertops. Dirty quarters were piled in the center of the table. Country music blasted from the sound system, but it was barely heard over the verbal spars between aunts and uncles.
“Cough it up!”
“You owe fifty.”
“Put it in yah sneak.”
Eight years old, I hid around the corner clutching my swear jar, inexpertly labeled with masking tape. I would tally each person’s sins and dart out to collect my fees. Adults would rub my head, plunking in some change before continuing the game.
Even then, I separated myself—a self-appointed enforcement officer. I kept my eyes on the table as I collected my fines, watching stray ice cubes melt into puddles.
I think back to other games. The memories are disorganized, like a deck of cards. I draw one from the top and flip it over.
The memory that surfaces is of a game, serious and focused, a decade ago. It was the Christmas holidays in our hometown, my brother and sister, their spouses, my parents, and I. Only brows were visible over fans of playing cards. Only a few staccato syllables were said.
It was an insider-language I never bothered to learn. But even I could tell things were coming to a head. Cards were quickly picked up and laid down.
“Out!” My mother splayed her cards and threw her arms in the air. A chorus of cheers and jeers ensued.
Someone’s fist came down. “Goddamnit!”
Handfuls of cards were thrown on the table.
Partners congratulated or chastised one another, depending on their placement.
The current game at my sister’s is more subdued. They’re all tired from a day of chasing children, now put to bed. Just something to do with their hands as they enjoy each other’s company.
“Having a laugh.”
“Passing the time.”
For me, it makes things slow to a glacial pace.
They would deal me in on the next round if I asked, thinly veiling their surprise. But I’ve played the scenario so often in my head, and I can’t re-write the scene.
Home for a visit in my twenties, I tried to play along. I traded quips and insults with my father. They became sharper and louder, more barbed as the game progressed. Until I broke.
I heaved and sobbed while my father looked on, stunned. No one else said a thing, their hands of cards suddenly very interesting. I fled.
“I thought we were just having fun,” he called after me.
I’ve blocked out the specifics: the game we played and the words we said. But the angry red scar is still there. Pain radiates from it like a phantom limb.
Watching the current game, I imagine how much easier things would flow without me. Regret thickens my blood, making me sullen and withdrawn. I smile weakly at their jokes and check my phone, making clear with my demeanor that I don’t want to be there.
I wish they would leave me in their discard pile.
Recently, my husband and I invited my family to our cottage. Tensions ran high all weekend as we reverted to our childhood selves.
I pointedly refused the salad brought by my sister-in-law as it passed around the table. I escaped into a book while everyone sat talking together. I drank steadily to dull my sharp emotions. That petulant child with her swear jar was still alive and well.
Mercifully, the cards were never extracted from their opaque plastic case, although I’m sure everyone was itching to play. My mother instead offered to play Scrabble, using the dusty version of it that was in the cottage’s collection.
“This stuff makes me feel stupid,” she confided, shuffling her tiles in hopes a word would emerge. There were a lot of things she would rather be doing but she was there, making an effort—for me.
There’s no denying we are all trying our best. It’s just that we are playing different games from different decks.
Sometimes I think my family members are all hearts, while I’m a spade, digging myself deeper into isolation. I’ll never sit around the table with them swilling beer and swapping good-natured insults. But I’m trying to learn that that’s okay.
Just like card games, different relationships have different dynamics. I talk to my father about his woodworking. When my parents are visiting, I pick my mother up and we go thrifting.
I have no ace in the hole—no card up my sleeve. It’s just me, fumbling through this puzzling game called family.