Playing Stories — Chapter 10: The Winner Takes It All

Chapter 10: The Winner Takes It All
from the 1980 album “Super Trouper” by ABBA
posted 11:14, 10 February 2019

The gods may throw a dice, their minds as cold as ice
And someone way down here loses someone dear

When he finally said it, the poison of the words took a few seconds to work their way in. Maybe I could have run away from him, or closed my ears… but no, once that one syllable had come out of his mouth, that was it. I was — we were — doomed.

I sat there, staring at him with a stupid expression on my face, as if he’d just said something in a language I did not know. Maybe he’d misspoken. Or maybe he was just bluffing. But it was just one word, and he was all too clear about what it meant. That was the one thing that defined Oscar: he had always been direct about things, he always knew what he wanted. But I couldn’t possibly give him what he wanted right now: a clean, swift separation from each other, no heartbreak, just friends again after sixteen months together. How could I possibly say yes to that?

He shifted uneasily in his seat, waiting for me to respond, but all I could do was stare at the cloth on the table. It had little specks of dirt in the whiteness, the faintest stains of brown and yellow caught in the stitches. We’d been in this place a dozen times and this was only the first time I’d noticed it. “I guessed that,” I finally said, trying really really hard to hold it off, to not break up right in front of him. Instead, I bit my lips. “Why now?” My voice sounded ridiculously tiny coming out of me.

“Well, I…” His voice caught. “Well, you know, we… we just keep ignoring each other when we’re together. And like… God, Vicky, we don’t even care about each other anymore. I mean, there’s so much about you that I just don’t know…”

He continued to speak, but I can’t really remember what he really said in between all of those things. Something about us having different personalities, or maybe it was how unstable we felt with each other. His words were simply lost in the roar of the restaurant — everything seemed so loud now, this person next to us telling the waiter his order, the people trying to make the voices heard above the din. He could have been shouting right next to my ear and still I wouldn’t have heard anything more than a faint buzz. My head just hurt and my face burned, even though the air had just dropped ten below freezing. I no longer had any feel of my hands or my legs, or any part of me for that matter. The lights seemed dimmer than they did when we came in — why had everything suddenly desaturated?

He had stopped, looked at me with concern. Trust him to get his manners right even when he was being a total shithead. “Go on,” I said, still staring at the tablecloth. It wasn’t really that interesting, but I didn’t even want to look at him now.

“It’s not really what I wanted,” he said. He swallowed nervously. He never liked to look nervous in front of people. “It’s just… you know, the two of us are so different. I would have loved for us to have more time together, but perhaps, you know, we just need some time apart.” Of course we did. “It’s not — we’re just not cut out for each other, okay?” I knew what he wanted to say: it’s not you, it’s me. Another problem with Oscar: he always was looking for a new way of saying things, always wanted to make himself sound original while crashing into every single cliché there was on Earth. And of course it wasn’t my fault, of course it was his fault. Maybe it wasn’t really, and everybody says how it’s never anybody’s fault: it’s always incompatible personalities, one side or the other not being ready for this or that, same things here and there. But I dare anybody who’s been dumped not to wish, even for a moment, for an avalanche of rocks to descend at once. Doesn’t matter which one it lands on.

He looked at me uncertainly. “I know it’s, erm, all a bit sudden…”

“No, you’re right.” I pushed away the almost full basket of fries that lay in front of me. I felt a sniffle coming on, so I grabbed the napkin, hastily wiped my hands and nose, and raised my hand. “Let’s just get this over with now. I don’t really feel like talking tonight.”

We both stared at the tablecloth silently, as if some kind of hidden message would pop out from it and teach us how to reconcile if we stared at it long enough. The seconds ticked by. I would look at my watch, and groan inwardly when I saw that less than ten seconds had passed since I last checked it. “That waiter’s taking a very long time,” he said, turning to look at a spot on the kitchen door. I didn’t answer. The more I talked, the more I felt closer to that precipice I was trying in vain to scramble away from. I only prayed that I could hold it together while he was still there. Neither of us needed a scene that prolonged this.

At last, the bill came. Oscar pointed at himself. I shrugged and stood up, leaving the restaurant behind me. It was his idea in any case.

As we walked down the waterfront, the waves laughing at the both of us, I tried to collect my thoughts. That didn’t happen. Everything was just a broken record that repeated “he’s dumping me he’s dumping me I’m being dumped what is happening”. Oh sure, it’d been coming for weeks. Our texts to each other were getting shorter and shorter every day, and we saw each other less and less and work. We never did anything more than perfunctorily update each other, and even though we went to the beach when we met up (like we always did) we never spoke to each other about our day at work, or the hefty night classes I’d started going to. We just sat and stared at the ocean. Maybe I’d thought that that was enough. It wasn’t for him, apparently.

The light was getting dimmer on a hideously beautiful summer’s day. The streets were packed with people, getting through their debauched Friday night rituals. The two of us walked on, close to each other, but not a word passed our lips as we headed towards the subway station. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. Where was the driving rain, the deserted streets? Why couldn’t I just scream at him here, tell him to piss off back to hell and be done with it? A thousand questions running through my brain, and yet I couldn’t even answer one of them.

We’d arrived at the station before we knew it. “Can I walk you home?” he said. “I’d like to make sure you go home without… you know…”

“Me collapsing in a heap on the street?” I said. It came out harsher than I thought it would be, and he instinctively looked away. “It’s fine. It’s just ten minutes, I can do it on my own.” I tried to force my mouth into a smile.

“You sure?” He looked guilty, and for a moment I glimpsed the little boy within him. Scared of making trouble, trying to be of help. And for a moment I wanted to say yes, to keep the illusion going for a couple more minutes. But that was all I could bother to muster. A vague sense of wanting.

We stood there, staring at each other. It was me who said it first. “Well then… goodbye. Can we text later? I’m sorry I wasn’t helpful tonight, I know you wanted this to end well and I just…” I trailed off. What else could I say, really?

“Yeah,” he said, ruffling his hair. We stood there a little more. An announcement came over the speakers: the train was arriving soon.

I nodded in the direction of the stairway. “You should be going.”

“You’re right… goodbye, then.” Then he went down the stairway and into the connecting tunnel. He didn’t even look back, and then in the blink of an eye I was alone.

I managed to stumble onto a bench before breaking. The world seemed to shatter, water filled my vision of the skies and the sea. All the sobs I’d been holding back for the last forty-five minutes rushed forward and grasped me in a merciless stranglehold, squeezing every drop of me out like someone wringing a towel. Because I’d thought that he’d really have been the one. All those failed relationships had left their mark on me, but this one had really seemed like it would work. He’d seemed honest and dependable, or at least the sort who was charming enough to help you deal with stuff. And yet with one single word, he had swept aside all of it as if it didn’t mean anything to him. Why did this happen to people? How hard was it to find that one soulmate you could depend on… and why did they always have to turn out to be terrible at staying? Or was it just me who couldn’t find one…?

I sat there for God knows how long, watching the tears pool on the pavement. The people walked past, their eyes glancing at me for the briefest of moments before glazing over and carrying on with their revelry. It was just another Friday evening for them. A lonely, sobbing girl wasn’t high on their priority list.

The phone rang. My sister. “Laurie? Oscar called me… I’m so sorry. Do you want me to come over?”

I became aware of how messy my nose was and blew it hastily.

“Yes,” I said, trying to wiping the tears away. “Yes, please.”


Quentin… I’m sorry about what happened last week, okay? It’s been a rough January. I’ve been stuck in here all the time following up all the paperwork and learning all this stuff and it feels like everybody’s going away… and all that stuff just poured out that night and I know you didn’t mean to be nosey… hope your head is alright. I guess I really don’t know my own strength.

I genuinely like writing these, but if you don’t want to carry on, I’ll understand. Thanks for trying to set me up with somebody.

Em

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