The Game

You’re playing a game and no one ever taught you the rules. You keep losing, but you’re not quite sure why. That doesn’t make you any less frustrated, though–in fact, it makes it worse, because while you struggle, everyone else isn’t just winning. They’re also getting better over time. They’re making alliances, going to tournaments, betting with real money, not just Hannukah gelt, and no one wants to play with you because you’re “bad at the game.”

You can’t help but wonder if that’s a fair assessment. You never had the chance to learn how the game works. You might have all the necessary skills to do well, maybe even better than everyone else. But when other people are judging you and deciding you’re not worth playing with, they don’t seem to take any of that into account. In fact, you’ve even asked them to explain certain moves to you, but they just scoff: “You seriously don’t understand? Are you kidding? It’s, like, the easiest thing in the world.”

Your lack of understanding is now a double-edged sword. They laugh at you when you don’t know how to do something. They laugh at you when you try to learn. You quite literally cannot win.

Sometimes, you try to play different versions of the game, where you do know the rules, because you invented them, and privately, you consider them more interesting than the standard ones. But no one else wants to learn to do things your way. They’d rather stick to what they know and mock you for falling behind. You’re good at solitaire, too, which just gives them more reason to deride you. Solitaire isn’t considered a worthwhile skill because you can’t win, and yet another unwritten rule of the game seems to be that if you’re alone, you must be lonely.

Years and years of this wear you down. You’ve given up on trying to figure out what’s going on around you, surrendered to the fact that you’re just going to keep losing and there’s no point trying to change things. People keep teasing and taunting you. You’re used to it, but that doesn’t make it hurt any less.

Eventually, you find someone else who isn’t so good at the game and would rather play solitaire instead. You don’t talk to them much, but when you’re with them, you feel like less of an outsider. After a while, the two of you carve out your own space where you can play solitaire in peace. Time passes, and then someone else shows up at the door, holding their deck of cards and looking miserable. You don’t even have to ask what’s going on. You smile in their direction and say, “Come on in.”

Their expression is one of tremendous relief. They take their seat next to you and spread out their deck. Their version of solitaire is actually even more interesting than the one you and your friend–yes, friend–have been playing. They teach you, and you’re excited to learn that you don’t just enjoy it–you’re good at it. For the first time in your life, you feel a sense of genuine accomplishment.

Sooner or later, word gets out that you’ve got your little hideaway where people can play solitaire without being ashamed. Folks start to knock at your door. You get used to the desperation on their faces when you first meet them, the way they gaze at you, wide-eyed, when you explain to them that they’re welcome, and that they never have to play the game again. Some of them tell you stories from the outside. The same players you knew when you were young are still winning, but the winning no longer seems to be getting them anywhere. More money, more fame, more so-called friends, but are they really friends if all they want is another chance to score? You wonder why you were so worried about the game in the first place.

Years and years go by. You keep playing, keep not-winning, which is the point. One afternoon, there’s a knock that sounds a little different from the others. It’s heavier, faster, more insistent. You set down your cards and go to answer. 

Standing on the threshold is your first opponent. They’re only a few months older than you, but they’ve aged tremendously in the time you’ve been apart. The hopelessness on their face isn’t quite the same as what you’ve seen before. You realize that it’s a look of guilt: someone who hasn’t just been wrong once, but who’s made the same mistake over and over, maybe for their entire life, and only now are starting to understand.

The opponent explains to you, sheepishly, that they’re sick of winning. That the more the earn, the more they want, and the wanting has only led to anger and enemies and self-hatred. They’re not just good at the game, you learn. They’re the champion. They won the latest tournament, a worldwide tournament in which absolutely everyone competed. They’re officially the best, but all they get for it is more of the same.

They tell you they’ve heard about your little club. That’s what they call it, a club, even though you’ve never thought of it that way. You let in anyone who wants to join. It’s not like a secret society. They say there are rumors about you. That you’ve stopped playing the game, and, even stranger, you’re okay with it. Actually, you’re not just okay. You’re happy.

Your opponent wants to learn how it works, this solitaire deal. They’ve been playing by the rules of the game so long that they’ve forgotten everything else. They need you to teach them how it works, the moves and the skills and the rules. They pause at this point, looking at you pitifully. A smile glints on your face.

“You seriously don’t understand?” you say. “Are you kidding? It’s, like, the easiest thing in the world.”

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