Illustration: Erin Perfect.

At the Board Game Couple’s apartment, they ask what you’d like to drink only after you’ve agreed on what game you’ll play.

The Board Game Couple often decides the game before you get there, but they make it seem as though you have a say.

The Board Game Couple usually stocks one bottle of red and one bottle of white. A handle of cheap bourbon sits on their bar cart. The husband will bring out four small glasses and a bomber of beer that is usually disgusting for one reason or another—maybe it was fermented with the yeast of one of the brewers’ beards or infused with bacon or peppers or chocolate or all three or maybe there are chicken feathers glued to the outside of the bottle for no reason that you can discern. All have been chosen for their novelty and rarity, not for drinkability. You can ask for the wine or the whiskey, but you’ll still get a sip from the bomber poured in your glass, and the husband will watch that finger of beer until you make it gone.

At the Board Game Couple’s apartment, there is no working doorbell, so you have to call or text them to be let in, but both the husband and wife keep their phones on vibrate and usually leave them in some other room, so be prepared to wait for a while. The Board Game Couple offers to take your coats but then they throw them on a desk chair covered in cat hair. For appetizers, the Board Game Couple usually serves popcorn in three bowls, each with a different mix of herbs and spices to give the illusion that they are thoughtful and resourceful about their snacks, not cheap. The hummus is always the new flavor you saw on super sale at the grocery store. The cheese is usually a store-brand block of something mild served with fancy water crackers: creamy nothing on crunchy nothing. You wonder why they choose to splurge on the water crackers over anything else.

For dinner, they serve something out of a slow cooker: chili or pulled pork or a soup, even in the summer months. The wife always realizes, at the last minute, that she’s forgotten some key condiment and then spends the rest of the meal asking you if you’re sure it’s okay, as if you have a choice, as if you might call in an order of takeout to make up for the mediocre bowl before you. The amount of reassurance she requires strikes you as selfish, a greater slight than the missing accouterment.

The Board Game Couple has only a shitty turntable with old computer speakers to pump the sound through. They won’t play music from their phones or an iPod, only scratched, skip-pocked, bargain-bin vinyl. They’ll tell you to choose the next record, but that’s like telling a prisoner to pick his cell.

The Board Game Couple plays mostly obscure German games with pages of complicated rules. Even if you succeed in convincing them to play a classic—something from Milton Bradley or Parker Brothers—they’ve always devised some new house rule that they only think to tell you about after you’ve committed a violation of this rule, and no, you cannot change your move after the fact. If you disagree on the standard instructions and confirm that your understanding is correct, the Board Game Couple behaves as though they’re doing you a big favor by complying. At the start of the game, the husband always complains that he’s already so far behind and then you’re required to treat him delicately for the next hour or two until it’s absolutely clear that he will win—which he always does.

The Board Game Couple mentions they just got back from two weeks in Europe, and you ask them to tell you about it, but they wave you off, insisting that you all focus on the game instead, like you don’t really want to hear. When you tell them about your promotion/your new house/the birth of your nephew, you only get a smile in response, and only from one of them because the other is busy strategizing.

When you suggest that maybe the next time you hang out you could go on a picnic or hike, the Board Game Couple talks about the travel Scrabble set they’d bring along.

The Board Game Couple never wants to come to your place. “You don’t really have a table big enough to play on, but that’s okay. We love to host,” the wife says, as if she’s comforting you, as if you’re worried about putting her out.

Even if it’s pouring when you leave, the Board Game Couple raises their eyebrows when you summon a car to take you home.

As you make your way out of the dark side streets, your wife says, “Maybe we don’t hang out with them anymore.”

You say, “How? What would we do when they ask when we’re free?”

“It’s not impossible to turn down an invitation,” she says. “Say you’re overcommitted right now.”

“You know he does that thing where he just texts, Hey, so that I’ll respond, and then he follows up to ask what we’re doing, and if I say, Nothing, then there’s no way out.”

“So don’t respond to that Hey text.” Your wife takes out her phone like she wants to stop talking about this.

“Maybe we could find a new couple to play games with,” you say.

She looks up, the right side of her face lit with the blue light of her phone’s screen. “Or just to have dinner with?” she suggests.

“Right, that’s what I meant,” you say. You worry that the driver is judging you and your silly problems, and remain quiet for the rest of the ride.

*

When the husband emails you an article about budget cuts for the national parks, you don’t respond. You know where such engagement leads.

When he texts, “Big news,” you ignore it.

You spend entire suppertimes worrying over your lack of action, but your wife tells you it’s no big deal. This is how friendships end. People drift apart and sometimes it’s more one-sided than others.

*

You ask the Artist Couple if they want to come over for dinner. You serve sazeracs and bluefin tuna and homemade tabouleh. Your wife whips fresh cream and plops it onto the first raspberries of the season.

Dessert bowls emptied, the conversation lulls. “What do we think about playing a game?” you ask.

“Like Truth or Dare?” The wife sits up in her seat.

“We can’t do that again. Someone went a little too far with her dare last time,” the husband says.

“No, no, like Monopoly or Clue.” You stand to pull a few options out of the closet.

“I don’t think so. We should get going. You have that thing tomorrow,” the husband says to the wife.

“Oh yes, right, the thing.” Her eyes stay trained on his.

You grab their coats from the bedroom and wait awkwardly, while their driver fails to follow his GPS, circling the one-way streets of your neighborhood inefficiently.

“OK, then, bye for real this time. Don’t come back,” your wife says, joking, but they sneer like she’s serious.

When you lock the door and hear their car pull away, you realize she was serious.

“I don’t care if we ever see them again,” she says.

“Weren’t they better than the Board Game Couple?” I ask.

“Well, they didn’t want to play a game, that’s for sure.” She drains some watery rye from a stray glass.

“OK, you pick next,” you say, as you gather plates.

She smiles. “That’s the spirit.”

*

Your wife tells a Childhood Friend to come over, but they make inside jokes that you’re incapable of understanding because you weren’t there the first time. When the Childhood Friend leaves, your wife says they were just riffing, making everything up, creating new jokes for the next time. “If I’d known that I would have jumped in,” you say.

“One potato, two,” she says, but you still don’t get it.

*

After dinner with your Gym Friend and his husband, you ask if they’d like to go for a walk, and the husband says he doesn’t like to walk after he eats.

“He’s afraid of shitting himself,” your Gym Friend says and laughs, and you can’t decide which of your questions to ask and then you’ve waited too long, and the silence hangs.

*

Your wife’s College Friends bring their baby.  It’s hard to maintain a conversation with the child distracting everyone.

*

You invite over your Work Wife and her husband, but all you do is talk about work, and you watch your real wife take her phone out, below table level, to scroll through Instagram, like no one will notice. Maybe no one does.

*

The Professional Acquaintance your wife met at a conference and his wife ask if you’re interested in a swap even before the salad is brought out. You pretend like it’s totally normal that they ask such a thing, surprising yourself by thanking them for the compliment, but declining. At the same time, your wife says, “I have my period,” you say, “She’s getting over food poisoning.” The couple accepts both answers like they are equivalent, and indeed they are: a lie constructed to deliver a truth.

*

Your Neighbors clog the toilet and don’t tell you.

*

Your Fantasy Football League Buddy doesn’t apologize when his wife spills red wine on your new taupe couch.

*

Friends of Friends move to your city and call every week to see if you want to get dinner, go to the free show at the park, go for a bike ride. You run out of excuses.

*

The Woman From Your Wife’s Book Group keeps calling you Kent.

*

You stop responding to anyone. You pull the curtains and binge-watch the long list of TV dramas that all of these people have recommended to you. It is summer. You grow pale and bloated. The humidity makes it hard to breathe when you walk to the bus in the morning. This fallow period lasts through the fall and winter, and then when the early mornings turn dark, and the late afternoons bright, you slough off the dead skin and take out the recycling.

*

Your Cousin and his wife come over and you offer jarred salsa and chips that make you ask the question “Are these stale?” every time you eat one. Frozen pizza. Domestic beer. They ask to play cards, but you take out a game with tiles and resources, small wooden figures and oddly shaped tokens. Your wife, her hostess skills rickety, hits Shuffle on a classic rock album, and your Cousin’s wife keeps saying the next song is her favorite and then having to correct herself.

“It’s been so long,” your Cousin says. “What’s new?”

You and your wife can speak only of TV plots.

“We’ll have to add those to the list,” your Cousin says, generous, as always.

Your wife dribbles some beer on her shirt and doesn’t even bother with a wet washcloth.

When your Cousin wins the game, you say, “Beginner’s luck.”

Jac Jemc

Jac Jemc is the author of The Grip Of It (FSG Originals). Her first novel, My Only Wife, was a finalist for the 2013 PEN / Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction and winner of the Paula Anderson Book Award, and her collection of stories, A Different Bed Every Time, was named one of Amazon’s Best Story Collections of 2014. She’s completed writing residencies at the Oberpfalzer Kunstlerhaus, Danish Center for Writers and Translators, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Vermont Studio Center, Thicket and Ragdale Foundation. She edits nonfiction for Hobart.

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