Games People Play
Laura used to lie a lot to get her way. There was nothing unethical about her lying, in her naive little mind. She was just following the rules of the “game”. When she explained her plan to me, my first thought was to try and stop her. You can never be sure with people. I mean, whether they lie or not, you have to take them seriously, just in case they turn out honest for once. Deep down though, I didn't believe her. She was probably playing one of her nasty games, that was my impression, though this time the joke was on me. This kept me up all night, right after she had confessed her intentions, as I could not decide on my next steps. The thought that she was using me was torturing my mind for days.
“What's wrong with you? Get your head straight and tell us what happened”. The police officer is almost screaming over my head, as I'm laying still, staring out of the window. I'm making an effort to concentrate, not because I feel like it but mostly to please the two costume wearing officers that stand beside me. I'm a people pleaser most of the time, so that happens effortlessly. An officer in jeans offers me a glass o water. I smile back at him, until I notice I'm the only one smiling in the room. He might not be an officer after all, he could be a waiter or something. Do police stations have waiters? My thoughts seem like a train passing by, which I'm unable to jump on. I don't seem to have the power to control them. You cannot control trains of course. Unless you are a train station master or something. Even then, you follow orders, so you obviously need to own the train. Well, there goes the train. Here comes another one.
“I wonder if it's safe up here”. The thought kept on crossing my mind as I took a glimpse of my old world every now and then, while climbing up the floors, but still, I never had the time to stop and think about it. Now, as I stand frozen on this terrace, the supposedly final destination of the journey, waiting for the verdict, the sight of the abyss leading back to my lost innocence leaving me breathless, I have nothing else to do but go inside my mind and think things through. The more I look down, the less I recognize my roots. At this point I can't help but wonder whether this happens as a result of my accomplishments which brought me to this incredible height, or due to the dehumanizing procedures of the “game”, which made me oblivious to memories worth keeping.
It all began when I was born obviously, but it certainly took me some time to figure out how the “game” is properly played. The gentlemen in black are responsible for teaching me the way to reach, step by step, the point I am right now and I am now obliged to confront them, as they ask of me to explain for the choices which they encouraged me to make. This sounds kind of unfair, but that's life.
“To climb up one floor, you should acquire these exact toys” they told me the first time I dared to ask for explanations. I was too young then to be afraid of presenting my objections.
“I don't think I'm interested in this game.”
“This game is life itself.” That was a satisfying answer back then, as the meaning of life was handed to me, before I even started searching for it. They easily convinced me that, since I was alive, I ought to play; there was no other way.
Laura liked to think that she could manipulate people; it was a trait inherited from her father, who never managed to make the best of it as a construction worker. However, he did manage to raise Laura into a happy child and a happy young adult later. He constructed buildings as well as characters, and decided to put a lot of ambition into Laura's psyche to make it solid and strong, just as he put cement in between bricks in his everyday life. Laura wanted out of here. That was her main ambition in life. By “here”, I mean the general misery which our lives had been encapsulated in, over the last few years, not an actual place, as is always the case when people make use of these words.
We studied for med school together. She was good at learning anything by heart, I was good at understanding. She succeeded, I did not. She told everybody that she wanted to help sick people, when all she wanted was a better life. Med school was meant to be her ticket.
“Things are going to change for us” she used to tell me every now and then. Things did change. But not in our favour as usual.
I'm consciously making an effort to focus on the questions addressed to me. I feel like fainting, as the interrogation goes on and on, while my mind is chasing the train of my thoughts. One of the officers leaves the room and closes the door behind him. The other one is standing ahead of me, looking my way, telling me softly to calm down. It sounds like an order. Perhaps it really is an order.
“I am calm” I say as bluntly as possible, crossing my arms in front of my body. I quickly realize I may look too defensive or something and I'm letting my hands loose on my sides, which looks rather pretentious, but I can't help it.
“Of course you are.” He puts up a gentle face, but his eyes reveal tons of condescension.
Climbing up the levels got more and more difficult as I grew older. Obviously there were others that left me behind, either because they were trying harder, or because they were luckier than me. The gentlemen in black informed me that those were the rules and I could not change them. All I ought to do was keep trying as hard as I could. Tommy on the other hand, never really conformed to the rules. Tommy ended up a loser, but I still like him.
“Never forget that you were born luckier than some of the other players too” they reminded me at a time that I had lost my courage. They showed me some faraway place, where I could not see clearly. People without shoes walked on the desert carrying water. Some other people were awaiting them and drank the water with the same longing that I absorbed my refreshments, when water seemed way too obvious to cool me off.
“They play the same game?”
“They surely do. In fact they are way below you.” I was not certain whether it was sadness I was feeling for those people or joy because I was winning. The gentlemen's in black applause left no doubt as to what the expected emotion was.
Laura liked to consider herself an optimist. Deep down inside, she always thought that things happen for the best. I've always been a declared pessimist. I never believed in utopias, wish fulfillment, positive thinking, or other fairy tales that have been invented as consolation, in order to instill some necessary endurance in the slaves' minds.
She got married and quit school as soon as she found a cheaper ticket to her dreams. I don't blame her at all. We were raised to seek the opportunity. Not just us two, but my whole generation as well has been infiltrated with the notion of the easy way out. The dream of climbing up the social scale has invaded our minds during our childhood and has resided there since then. A whole generation of positive thinkers, feeling entitled to all goods life has to offer, has been nurtured with sweet lullabies and fairy tales about success. Besides feeling kind of betrayed, I almost admired her way of moving around the world with the certainty that all will go as planned, or even better.
Laura's husband is a natural born lawyer. I mean, he went to college and all, as all lawyers do, but even before he got his degree, I can tell he could stand in a court and win the trial, only by talent . He went to college just to collect some more information about the law, to gather the necessary knowledge, as others gather old furniture thrown away around garbage cans, hoping they might seem useful in the future. He also needed the license obviously. Laura's husband is a smart person, unlike Laura herself, I suppose. I'm not saying Laura was not smart at all. After all she got in med school at her first shot. Even though I'm not sure smartness is truly a requirement for med school, despite what is generally believed, I have to give her some credit here.
I'm not quite sure why they invited me here. I did come out of my own good will though. So, there's nothing to be afraid of, I keep reminding my pounding heart. I should not be that distressed and the whole situation should not be distressful either, but somehow it is.
“Do you need a smoke?” the officer is asking me in a rather polite tone.
He's looking straight into my eyes, in an attempt to bypass my mind and reach directly into my soul. He can't do that. My soul is locked for good and the key is thrown away. I threw it down the gutter the day I realized Laura disappeared. When she comes back, it will magically appear again to unlock the closet. I have to stay positive for once.
Things moved smoothly afterwards, as I managed to go up all the time even with some loans that magically appeared on my way, when things got tough.
“Keep on playing” they encouraged me, as they gave me more. This time I took the initiative to take some money, without asking. After all my sacrifices, I felt like I deserved it. All I wanted after all was to spend some carefree time with Tommy.
This brings me to my current situation, up on this terrace.
“It's over” they tell me, strictness lighting their ugly faces. I can see some buildings around me, some shorter, some taller than mine. People around me are still going up or are already on the terraces. Strangely, I cannot see anybody flying, as I had imagined, so I suppose it's all downhill from now on.
“It's time for you to return what you borrowed.”
I remember the old joke about the fall. You fall and you keep telling yourself, so far so good, but then comes “boom” and that's the end. The “boom” is not necessarily the end to this tragedy though. There can be another version of the story. When the fall begins, it's natural for you to worry, especially in the start, when you realize you are heading to the ground.
Laura liked to think she always knew what she wanted. “I'm coming to get you, as soon as possible” she told me on the day of her wedding. All I could do was trust her. In the meantime I had to make ends meet, which wasn't easy at all. As the financial crisis got deeper, no one could take survival for granted anymore. At least oxygen was still free and breathing costless, but nobody can survive just on breathing. Nobody is certain that oxygen will stay free for long either.
Meanwhile, Laura's husband did pretty well, despite the financial crisis, or maybe because of it. He got richer and richer as I was getting poorer poorer, not an unfamiliar event in times of crisis. This happens all the time, but in times of turmoil, it becomes even more evident. Laura was enjoying the life she had been dreaming of, while I was outside watching. I thought she forgot all about me. But I was wrong.
We sit in silence, both of us smoking, our eyes on the ashtray, as if the meaning of the life is hiding in the ashes and the cigarette butts. The other officer comes rushing in. He's trying to catch his breath before he talks, which makes him look more human in my eyes. I almost like him at the moment. He seems to be losing his temper, minute by minute, while he's taking the cigarette from my hand and throws it on the floor. He's stepping on it with his shoe, not taking his eyes off of me, looking like he'd rather have me under his shoe, instead of the cigarette.
“She will be found” he says. I can feel my ears almost ache at the sound of these words. I secretly hope that Laura is not going to be found. I secretly hope she will find me.
“You tricked me into this game” you shout with all of your might, but it is pointless and a waste of effort. You remember them swearing that there is no alternative to this game, but as you travel fast towards the ground, you are certain that other games are possible. You wonder why you never thought about it when you had the chance, why you never questioned their rules and you helplessly come to the conclusion that you actually enjoyed the game while it lasted. It was rather addictive, boosting your ego as you were climbing up, blurring your thinking processes, soothing your insecurities.
As the fall lasts, the longer it takes, the more the distance that separates your body from the ground, you may even get distracted. While in the beginning you are trying hard to hold on to something, to fight against the air that surrounds you, if there is nothing else around to fight against, to think of logical solutions to save yourself, as time passes by and the collision is not happening yet, you close your eyes to reality and you begin to enjoy the trip. The thought that you are not actually falling down crosses your mind, it might have seemed like it but it is not happening, like your senses have created an illusion to make fun of you. It is like you are flying on your own will, as if you have grown wings and control the flight. The air thickens though and the roar from the ground getting closer and closer forces you to open your eyes. Moments before impact, you realize that the end is near and about to find you unprepared. Some myoclonic jerks later, aimless movements out of desperation, you are ready to hold on to the first rope that is thrown towards your direction. They ask for your soul, you look their way recognizing the gentlemen in black who are responsible for your fall. At first you deny the help, with a loud “no”. You cannot accept salvation from the same people who pushed you over.
Laura used to be focused on the “game” all the time. “If you work hard and make the necessary sacrifices you can climb high” she insisted. I tried to talk her out of it several times, but she said there is no other way to be. “You can choose to play,” I told her once, “but it's your loss either way. You either lose yourself, or the game, you cannot have everything in life.”
“As if you have a choice. Even if you think you are not playing, you actually are, and guess what. You do not stand a chance if you are not even trying,” she answered smiling and then called me naïve.
I've been secretly in love with her, since elementary school. We've been best friends for the whole of our short miserable lives. Our lives have not always been miserable though. We had some good times too, I must confess. Of course, our biggest and most memorable moments happened before all this crap began. Laura is not cut out to endure crappiness, if you know what I mean. She has to escape at all costs.
She came to me that night with two suitcases. One for her clothes and one for the money. She wanted to run away with me. The money was enough to ensure a comfortable, even luxurious life for both of us, if only I'd follow her far away. We had to be fast, she said.
This may have seemed like a dream come true for me, but I'm not the kind of person who easily does what he's told. My trust in her had vanished long ago after all and my instinct told me that Laura was only there to use me. She needed help with the escape plan and I was the most obvious solution, the helping hand she would later get rid of, like people get rid of used napkins, once the job is done. I told her to take the money back. We would manage without it. She insisted on keeping it.
“I can't live on stolen money”
“It's not his anyway. He's stolen it too, you know. From poor people, like you and me.”
“Legally though, it's his money. He can come after us.”
“He won't find us.”
“For once in your life, be positive.”
Unfortunately, I could not be positive. Positive thinking was never my thing, if you know what I mean.
“You killed her” says the police officer, looking angrily my way. I'm not sure whether this is a question or a statement.
“You must be wrong. Laura cannot be dead.”
“Her husband claims you always had a crash on her. So tell us what truly happened. Was the thought of her staying away from you too much?”
“I could never harm her, don't you understand?” I'm trying to stand, while the other officer is pushing me down. My head is spinning.
Even if all have a price, which is rather possible indeed, the switching speed from “no” to “yes” indicates the level of your self esteem. There are even people who will say “yes” from the start. These are the people who will sell themselves without even negotiating the price, who will sell everything and everybody when the first difficulty appears. You surrender and grab the rope, without even the chance to properly process the facts. You are still alive, but you have no soul.
Some others reached for the rope earlier than you and they are now applauding you. You understand that you are among people with no soul, defeated people who have sold whatever precious they owned to their executioners in exchange for a few more moments of life. You ignore the bodies around you that obviously refused to sell their soul. It was their mistake that they did not think logically on the last moment. The gentlemen's in black laughter reaches you ear. You want to walk away but you no longer control your movements. You are now a puppet moving around by the rope that saved you, which is controlled by those who pushed you down and then ran to help you out. It is comforting though that a bit later the noise coming from their laughter is not so bothering anymore. You can get used to anything, as long as you are alive. You are in your old neighborhood again, where babies get born and begin climbing up the floors as soon as they begin walking, but you still don't recognize anything. The rope saved your life, but could not give you back your innocence. Without soul, you no longer need it anyway.
“You played well” you hear them shout from above. You bow as you proudly accept the cheering.
Laura liked to think she never took “no” as an answer. She told me she would give me some time to think things through and make up my mind. She promised to return in two days with the tickets.
“No more than two days. When he realizes the money is gone, he's going to kill me I swear. He's not interested in me, I'm free to go, but once he finds out about the money, I'm dead.”
A week passed by without any sign of her. I should have been more decisive at that very moment. I shouldn't have taken the time she offered me. It was the rest of her life she intended to give me after all, whether she meant it or not.
Gaining my sanity back, I come to the conclusion that there is no need to argue. Nobody will ever believe me. Just a poor jobless bastard against some respectful lawyer, twice my age. I no longer care anyway, since Laura's not around anymore.
The two officers talk to each other for a moment after a paper is handed to one of them.
“You are free to go. Laura is safe.”
“Where is she? Is she ok?”
“You can check out yourself”. I can see him shrugging as he shows me the door, making a gesture for me to hurry up, implying the whole situation is a waste of his precious time.
I see her standing in the waiting room, looking my way. I run to hug her, but at the last moment before I reach her I notice she's not looking at me, but rather through me.
“We lost, but at least we are alive” she says with a forced smile on her face.
“There are other games too, Laura” I tell her, but she seems unresponsive, as if life is sucked away from her body, as if she has transformed into a puppet. Laura is wrong. She actually won the game, but lost herself.
“Yes, there are. You must go now. My husband will be here any minute now.”
At least she now knows. This kind of change always comes with a price.
“Tell Laura I love her” I sing softly on my way
out. I 'm laughing loudly as I leave the building, remembering the
old song her mother used to sing to her at nights to help her sleep.
I grew up believing it to be a lullaby especially invented for her.
I found out it wasn't just a few months ago. I swear I could have
made up this song myself though. I really could.
Mileva Anastasiadou is a neurologist, living and working in Athens, Greece. She has published two books in Greek. Her work can be found in Ofi press magazine, Infective Ink, the Molotov Cocktail, Foliate Oak, HFC journal, Down in the Dirt, Minus paper, Massacre, Pendora, Maudlin house, Menacing Hedge, Scarlet Leaf Review, Nebula Rift, Idler, Litterateur online, Sick Lit and soon in Midnight Circus, 600 Second Saga, AntipodeanSF, Big Echo:Critical SF, the Ham, Blood and Thunder:Musings on the Art of Medicine, Hindered Souls, the Potomac, Front Porch Review, and Jellyfish Review. https://www.facebook.com/milevaanastasiadou/