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GAME THEORY by Simon Graham

For a time I dated a girl who was also an orphan. It was really great at first, us being orphans together. We had no responsibilities or allegiances, and we had plenty of money.

Sarah and I used our money to play games. I liked games because they stopped me thinking about doing what I had done prior to dating Sarah, which was putting my body against hot surfaces. I had done this because it made me stop thinking about being an orphan and because there are very few fun games to play on your own.

Sarah liked games as well. She didn’t have a problem with burning herself, but she did have a problem with depriving herself. That was what she called it. She said, I like playing games because when I’m playing them I forget that I’m meant to be depriving myself.

I have a theory that all orphans like games.

One game Sarah and I played was called Cat. Sarah came up with it. In this game, Sarah moved first, and her first move was buying a cat. My first move was telling Sarah that I’m allergic to cats.

Sarah’s second move was insisting the cat sleep with us in the bed. My second move was getting hives all over my body, even my genitals.

Sarah’s next move was naming the cat after a serial killer from the 1980’s.

She was an orphan, Sarah said.

My response was refusing to use the name because it was in bad taste. I called her Cat instead.

Sarah’s next move was yelling at me.

How is A_____ not an appropriate name? She yelled after Cat brought home a decapitated bird.

The next day I placed an anonymous tip with the real estate that there was a cat in Unit 3.

The real estate slipped a letter under our door. It read: You have two weeks to rid the apartment of all pets or, as per Section 45c of the code, you will be evicted.

I thought this was such a good move, but Sarah had a brilliant counter up her sleeve. Her move was telling me that Cat had become part of the family and so we had no choice but to move apartments. The reason this was a game-winning move was because it led the game of Cat into the new game of Moving, and this was the ideal – for there to never be a gap of time in between games, no gap of time in which I would think of hot surfaces or in which Sarah would think, I better make up for the past month of not depriving myself by depriving myself twice as much as I normally would.  

~

A few months later Sarah and I played a game called Guidance. The idea of this game was that Sarah and I would both pay to receive guidance from someone who gave it for a living.

Guidance came about because one morning after not sleeping all night Sarah said, I think we need serious help.

We can’t just play games forever, she said, and I will deprive myself if we are not playing games, and maybe even if we are.

At the time we were playing a game called Drugs. The end of the Moving game had led us to meeting our new neighbours. They were playing the Drugs game and so taught us how to play it too.

It was a good game at first. Like, really good. But it had become a bad game. It was repetitive and demanded so much of us. It seemed like there would be no winner to the game, no end.

We just need a new game, I said to Sarah. I get it. This Drugs game is getting old.

Let’s go to a therapist, Sarah said.

I said, That doesn’t sound very fun. That sounds like the opposite of fun.

It’s not supposed to be fun, she said. It’s not a game.

I said, How about we compromise by turning us getting guidance into a game?

I’m not sure, Sarah said at first, but after a day she came around because she knew that compromise is integral to all relationships, and also because part of Sarah was scared of what would happen should she stop playing games.

For Guidance, Sarah filled a hat full of names of people in our town who gave guidance for a living. There was a rabbi, a pastor, an analyst, a psychic, a yogi, et cetera. Sarah picked out a priest. I picked out a clairvoyant.

I had no idea what a clairvoyant actually did and so I thought, Guidance is a fun game, full of surprise and intrigue.

But I was very disappointed by Guidance. Let me tell you why.

First of all, the clairvoyant’s eyebrows didn’t move and she made me pay upfront.

Second of all, the clairvoyant’s first move was too bold. Games are meant to start subtle and then escalate. Her move was staring into my eyes for a long time. Like twenty minutes, or maybe even longer.

The clairvoyant then played more moves, it apparently being okay in Guidance for one person to just play as many moves as they like while the other player sits in silence and watches.

Most of the clairvoyant’s moves involved saying things about me that could apply to anyone.

She said, for example, that our galaxy is in a spiritual period known as Kali Yuga.

She said, It is a time marked by evil and impurities.

I said, That sounds about right.

She said, I think you’re feeling these energies in a very acute way.

I said, Well sure, who isn’t?

She said, Times of destruction can lead to true freedom.

I asked, Is that what the next game will be? Freedom?

She said, Our time has run out.

Guidance is a very strange game, I thought on the way home from the clairvoyant. I didn’t understand why people found it so fun. I didn’t understand why so many people had been playing it for thousands of years. I knew I had only been playing the game for one day, but I couldn’t help feel like there weren’t enough rules.

At home, I asked Sarah whether she was enjoying Guidance, she having seen her priest that day as well.

Sarah said, I like Guidance. It is a fun game.

I said, It seems like anyone can play Guidance. It seems like some people have been playing it forever and are still not very good at it but think they are.

Sarah said, The priest told me I should stop playing all other games and just play Guidance. He said my next move in Guidance should be getting sober.

I said, It’s not a game if someone else decides your moves for you.

Sarah said, Maybe Guidance isn’t a game.

~

I didn’t like where Guidance was headed. I wanted to play a different game, but I knew that this is not how games work. A game had to end on its own, or turn into another game, the way Cat turned into Moving and Moving into Drugs and Drugs into Guidance.

Sarah went again to the church to play Guidance with the priest. She came back and said I was wrong, there were rules to Guidance, and then she handed me a tome of rules, rules that seemed to be irrelevant not just to the game but to our place and time.

It was an awful game, this Guidance. There was either no rules or too many. But I was in a real pickle because I wanted to spend time with Sarah and yet she all she was doing with her time was playing Guidance.

I did some thinking and came up with five options:

  1. Suck it up and play Guidance with Sarah (Boring).
  2. Think about hot surfaces again (Terrifying, not an option).
  3. Play Guidance with someone else (Boring and also likely to make me feel very sad as not with Sarah, leading then to 2. Terrifying, not an option).
  4.  Playing a different game with someone else (Maybe not boring but still likely to make me feel very sad as not with Sarah, leading then to 2. Terrifying, not an option).
  5. Find a game to play by myself (See 4.).

I nonetheless tried 4. and 5. to ensure they did in fact lead to 2.

I went to the neighbors’ house and asked what they were doing. They said they were playing Drugs. I said, Do you mind if I join?

They said, Not at all.

So I played Drugs with them for a while, until they both played the move of passing out.

Then I played the game of Drugs with myself for a while. For whatever reason, I hadn’t realised until that moment that Drugs was a game you could play on your own. How good it would have been to play Drugs before I met Sarah?

It was a lot of fun, playing Drugs on my own. I thought, I can do this. I can play this game forever. But then, no. Not forever. For one night. Or maybe two. I tried two. After the second night I realised that people don’t play Drugs by themselves because it quickly stops being a game. It becomes like hot surfaces and depriving yourself in that you need to play a new game in order to stop thinking about it.

It was then I told Sarah that I was having a really hard time. I said, I keep thinking about hot surfaces, Sarah. I need to play a game.

So Sarah said, Well come down and play Guidance with the priest and I tomorrow.

I thought about my options. About hot surfaces. About the importance of us being orphans together. I looked at Cat and then turned to Sarah and said, Guidance sounds like a great idea.

~

So that’s how Sarah and I came to play Guidance for seven years.

It was a long time to be playing the same game. It was boring for the most part. There were no real surprises anymore, us having both memorised the rules, the moves, the strategies.

Sometimes I wanted to play Drugs again. Or Moving. Or even Cat (Cat died). But mainly Drugs. Each time I thought this, Sarah would remind me that Drugs is only fun for a day or two and I would nod and say, Yes, Sarah. You’re right.

Sarah was fine with Guidance being boring because she thought the next game would be Paradise. She said it’s a small sacrifice to play this boring game when the next will be so much fun.

We can play Paradise with our parents, she said. Imagine that. Can you just imagine?

I imagined. Sarah and I spent hours lying in bed together, imagining. Sometimes I would joke that the game we were playing should be called Imagine not Guidance, but Sarah would look at me very sternly and say, That is the kind of thinking that will stop us from playing Paradise.

It makes me sad to think about Sarah saying this now. Mainly because she was wrong. The next game was not Paradise. After the car accident, Guidance definitely ended, but the next game, the game I’m playing right now, has no Sarah and no parents. It can’t be Paradise.

I’m not sure what to call this game. Maybe Floating. Maybe Void. Whatever it’s called, it’s an okay game. There is no Sarah and no parents but there are no hot surfaces either. There is nothing, which now that I think about it means the clairvoyant was the closest to being right. I feel free. Completely free.

That’s a good name. Free.

Read Next: SISTERS ARE NOT DOGS by Chelsea Houghton