Playing the Game
Updated: Jan 10
"Playing the Game"
She’s been looking at herself in the mirror for about 30 minutes now. The actual period of “getting ready” has been over for quite a while; she put on her last item of clothing about 35 minutes ago. Looking for something to do, some extra, unnecessary step to make herself look better, she reapplies her mascara, changes her lipstick color for the second time, and puts on another coat of golden eyeshadow. Suddenly remembering that too much make-up can actually be more unattractive, she tries to smudge the excess off with paper towels and makeup wipes, only to finally consider that attempting to take off makeup would just make everything worse. It’s better to leave it all alone, she finally concludes. So, she ends up standing in front of the mirror, checking different angles while she fake-dances, all in preparation for tonight.
And she’s doing this all for Him.
Of course women dress-up for themselves, put on makeup for themselves, care what they look like for themselves, but there is no doubt that she, in this moment, is doing this all for Him. This is the first time He’ll ever truly see her, physically, so she resolves to look perfect. No makeup smudged. No messy hair. No noticeable sunburn. Nothing out-of-place. Just perfect.
Why Him exactly? That’s a good question. He’s not necessarily any more special than the other guys in her life; He’s not necessarily the nicest. He doesn’t say the funniest things. To be honest, there are far more handsome men. So, why is she obsessed with Him? Why has she decided to waste all this time and effort on Him, one seemingly insignificant person, when there is an abundance of people she could potentially meet tonight? Why does she specifically choose the red dress to match his favorite color when all different tastes will be on display tonight? She couldn’t tell you why. She’s too busy achieving the goals she’s set for herself that it doesn’t matter if she forgot the foundation, the reason why these goals existed, in the first place.
Thanking her Uber while shutting the car door, she arrives at the entrance and walks in. Once past the door, she immediately looks for some of her friends at the second table from the DJ, where Judy texted they’d be. Two steps past the door, she spots Him among the four girls and two guys. As soon as she sees the outline of His dark, voluminous hair, her heart beats fast, like a sudden attack. It’s not the “skip of the beat” that is so often described in movies and songs; instead, it’s a violent one, an almost scared contraction of the heart. It doesn’t feel romantic--it just feels...bad. He looks like He’s having fun so far, she analyses from His interaction with her friends and His own; He’s noticeably a little tipsy and is moving His body a beat slower to the music in the background. It’s so funny: if she ever looked at Him through purely objective eyes, she would have skipped over Him so easily. If she was at college and saw Him dancing, she would lead her friends to another party, complaining at the deficiency of “actual cute guys.” She’d be frustrated that all this dressing-up and all this makeup bought from Sephora earlier in the morning would be wasted only for Him to be her best option. In any other circumstance, she would not even consider Him that physically attractive, much less make Him the complete and utter object of her affections, the one she’ll try to impress, for an entire night.
Yet, acknowledging all this, she still walks over. Once she calls out to the group, He’s the first to immediately turn His back and look at her, a subtle smile gradually appearing. She, however, remains steady and controlled, resolving not to smile back. That would be too easy for Him, an immediate defeat she would suffer in only the first few seconds of the game. She hugs Judy first, who compliments her on her shiny dress, remarking how she saw the exact same one but in black at Free People the other day. She hugs Chloe second, who raves about her golden eyeshadow, stating how she just can never do makeup, no matter how hard she tries. She then hugs Patrick and James very platonically; though they are far more attractive than Him, they aren’t even on her radar tonight. And, now, with two people left to hug, she is forced to make a decision in a split second. Choice one. She hugs Him last, making it the longest and leaving her to physically end up right next to Him for the subsequent group conversation, inevitably forcing Him and her to talk one-on-one. No, she decides; hugging Him last makes Him too special; it’s almost as bad as hugging Him first. Choice two. She doesn’t hug Him at all, perhaps showing her complete indifference by displaying how little she cares to touch Him, how she completely forgets to even consider Him. No, she thinks. Again, too special. Deciding not to hug Him at all would still give Him something, as its unnecessary rudeness would make known some sort of care, even if manifested into a strong negative emotion, for Him on her behalf. Instead of showing complete indifference, she would instead be showing disdain, a feeling far closer to love than to apathy. Now, for the final option. Choice three. She hugs him now. This would allow her to quickly hug Him and then move straight on to Clare, physically ending up at her side. She decides this would be the most indifferent thing to do--to not ignore Him so completely that it comes off as hatred, but to not give Him too much time that it seems like she prioritizes His hug as opposed to all the others. When she finally enacts that option, He quickly pulls her in for a hug as He says something in her ear; she can’t quite make it out or even focus on what it is, instead obsessing over the follow-through of her plan, quickly moving on to Clare so that this phase of the game, the first physical interaction, completes itself speedily.
They converse amongst one another, laughing as they share stories. However, every time it’s His turn to speak, she pretends not to care. She makes an effort not to laugh too hard at his jokes, attempting to showcase her indifference to his stories, even when she is, in actuality, mesmerized by what He has to say. She hardly ever looks His way, just to further exhibit her disinterest in staring at His face. In fact, she begins to play with James’s hair, asking if he had recently gotten a haircut, and compliments his some-what formal attire for the night
When “Love My Way” finally comes on, she storms ahead to the dance floor, violently grabbing Chloe by the hand to bring her along. Multi-colored lights flashing down, she dances crazily. Never directly looking at Him throughout this self-indulgence, she instead finds moments in the song to flirtatiously point at James. In the group still at the table, James becomes confused with this sudden direction of attention, starting to develop feelings for her due, in large part, to this unexpected flattery. Of course, she doesn’t like him, but a little amusing misdirection couldn’t be too harmful, right? In fact, she justifies, it is a necessary prerequisite to prompt Him to jealousy.
Once the rest of her friends have finally quit the table to formulate themselves into a circle around her and Chloe, she twirls around in the center spotlight as her girlfriends cheer her on. When whichever 2000s pop song finally finishes, she clumsily stumbles out of the circle, her head and heart racing, only to realize, when she comes into full consciousness, that she has chosen to position herself right next to Him in the group’s shape. Was this some subconscious decision she made? Her feeling some kind of “safety” from all the adrenaline next to Him? Shit!, she thinks. I’ve blown my cover. But before she has the opportunity to turn to her left and ask Judy to accompany her to the restroom, He says the first understandable words of the night, ones she has no opportunity to avoid.
“It’s nice to finally meet you, for real,” he says, in a moment of complete sincerity, the first truly genuine interaction she’s had all night.
“Ya, Hi,” she replies back seemingly annoyed, attempting to avoid direct eye-contact, as if He shouldn’t even have the audacity to speak to her. Somehow, her anger at her physical position, her “cover” of indifference being blown, manifested itself into such a harsh reply. It just came out so wrong. He reacts with a hurt, but mostly overwhelmingly confused, face, wondering what He had done so wrong as to receive this kind of treatment, searching His memory for any past fight the two might have had. She, realizing her immense exacerbation of the previous predicament of simply standing next to Him, tells the group she’s headed to the restroom and scurries out without looking back.
Finally alone in the ridiculously over-adorned restroom, she spectates her breakdown in the ginormous mirror on the other side of the room. This has become an unhealthy practice of Sophia’s life--watching herself cry in mirrors for the end purpose of helping her become a better actor. It could easily be regarded as masochistic, her “treasuring” of these moments of sadness, but it’s not like she tries to plunge herself into that dark place. It’s just that, if sadness ever does naturally occur, she likes to physically document, and be a spectator to, her overwhelming humanity. Maybe it just makes her feel more alive, more mortal, in that way, where so much of her life is superficial. She presses the concealer that has clumped under her eyes and wipes off the black specks of mascara that have made their way almost to the edge of her nose. She cries for the horrible first impression she’s made. Not only did she fail at acting completely indifferent, but she just came off as unnecessarily mean. She cries because of how much better they had been when they first talked, the effortless fluency in which they discussed their dreams and favorite songs. And sure, he wasn’t so special, but he was someone real she had some kind of a positive relationship with, some real exchange of mutual romantic feelings. Trying to transport herself back to that simple time period in her mind, she tries to remember all of their past conversations regarding his terrible taste in TV shows and her “obsession,” as he deemed it, with romantic comedies. She remembers how much she missed talking to him. Staring into the mirror at nothing in particular, she loses herself in the nostalgia, remembering what they were before. She almost regards him as someone lost, someone who only lived in her past life. In a way it’s sort of true; that untouchable, virtual person is gone and will never come back. In his place is his physical, most real self. And he’s finally in front of her. Resolving to act the way she truly feels around him, even before the next girl enters the restroom--an unspoken indication that she must leave the mirror--she decides to go back out.
Just as she steps out onto the lit-up tiled floor, she searches for him, just like she did at the beginning of the night. This time, however, it’s not a look of calculation, one designed to formulate some sort of plan; instead, it’s a soft look of true love, an innocent look of her simply just wanting to see him. Before, she used Him as a means to an end. It wasn’t Him that she wanted; it was what she could get from Him. Specifically, she wanted to hear all His undying feelings for Her, His ultimate craziness about her while she maintains entirely indifferent. She wanted that validation. But now, the only thing she wants is him, his real self responding to whatever random thing she says or whatever unconscious action she does.
She finally finds him, where She never ever thought She’d see him--alone on the dance floor, dancing. No friends around. Before, She wouldn’t peg him for the extroverted dancing type, much less have the confidence to do that alone. Only, She begins to see, he’s not alone. He’s with some random girl She’s never seen before. Some girl with short brown hair wearing a little black dress. Sophia begins to understand that, instead of hopelessly waiting around for Her, he’s enjoying himself with another person. Instead of caring to investigate Her abrupt outburst of cruelty, he’s apparently already moved on.
Seeing the futility in staying and realizing how pathetically desperate she’d look attempting to direct some of his attention her way, she retraces her steps back to the starting point of the restroom, only to turn the other direction and head for the exit door. Disregarding her entire group, she never once looks back.
Unbeknownst to Her, he’s been on the look-out the entire time, catching glances every now and again from the various positions his dancing brought him to. Knowing Her back is turned as She walks out the door, he stops the tiresome chore of his chaotic dancing to watch Her go, a solemn look on his face. He regards his dancing partner with absolutely no emotion, a total lack of any connection. He doesn’t like her at all and yet has chosen her tonight instead of the One he loves. He used this girl standing next to him, took advantage of her, to achieve his end-goal of absolute indifference towards Her. Moving his lips to the words of “Boys Don’t Cry” that encompass the entire club in a nostalgic 80s fervor, he tries to tell himself that all is okay, that nothing was lost tonight. But all was lost.
With her obsession with the game, with her obsession with showcasing herself as far superior to Him in every single way, she lost Him not only for the duration of the night, but for forever. When he got hurt, his obsession with showcasing his indifference, and directing his attention to another, lost Her not only for tonight, but for forever as well. Though she started it, both are culpable in the game’s resulting “score.”
They both end up going home early that night, dissatisfied with the way everything played out. Lying in bed later that night and staring up at the ceiling, blankets kicked down to their feet, they re-play moment after moment of the night in their heads, pausing and rewinding to find the watershed moments that could have potentially changed the course of events for the better. She considers that maybe, she should have hugged him first, explicitly exhibiting her excitement at seeing him. She should have said, “Me too” when he said it was nice to finally meet her. He considers that maybe he should have followed her when she ran away, asking what the hell happened. He should have waited until she was ready to come out before maliciously and selfishly conspiring to make Her jealous. The worst thing about their interaction tonight was how it was able to cease all further connection between the two, even online. If they didn’t meet tonight, some kind of relationship would have still existed, more funny stories and intimate anecdotes would still have the opportunity to be shared. But now, her previous feeling of him being someone from her “past life” has finally been fully actualized. Now, he is dead. His previous online persona was replaced by his real self tonight, and she ruined that. Her previous online persona was replaced by her real self tonight, and he ruined that. Their relationship was forever replaced by the terrible interaction tonight. And, instead of attempting to rectify the mistakes of the night, the overwhelming feeling of awkwardness and sadness halts any desire to reach out. Their story is over.
The night ends how it began. Though so much more needs to be said, neither can overcome his or her pride to accept “defeat” while the other “wins.” Neither is willing to admit he or she cares, because of the possibility that the other doesn’t return the sentiment.
The resulting score: both lose.