One Card Left

It was all in the way he threw the cards at me. I knew it was beginning.

My best friend, his sister, had set this up for that purpose – to begin something. She had wanted us to date for months, and truth be told, he was cuter than I initially expected when she told me, “If it doesn’t work out with that guy, you can always date my brother.”

The fact that he played guitar in a band and held a stoic, yet playful demeanor helped a bit, too. I had a history of liking guys like that; musicians, yes, but more importantly, guys who were incapable of adequately expressing their feelings.

Mike’s Hard Lemonade bubbled in my stomach as we sat across from each other in his room, Uno cards in our hands. I struggled to come up with something to say. His sister had left us alone for some vague reason, a fleeting detail I forgot almost as soon as she said it. I’d never been great at being alone with these types of guys, as much as I liked them, and panic flooded my system.

Whatever the reason, she was gone for longer than she should have been. I knew it was a set up; maybe he did, too. We started a pointless Unogame against each other.

He won. “Best of two out of three,” he said, a grin on his face. I loosened my tense muscles and shuffled the deck.

He won again. “Best of three out of five.”

Again. “Best of four out of seven?”

Finally, I won. This imbalance would become symbolic of our oncoming dynamic. He put the cards between his forefinger and thumb, aiming at me. As they flung out of the pile, they fluttered onto the floor like the butterflies in my stomach.

Yes, it was that easy. Not only was he My Type, he was also my Best Friend’s Brother: a trope I had fawned over in young adult novels for years and a Victoria Justice song I still danced to as a guilty pleasure. By default, this made him and his attempt at flirting dreamier. I so foolishly needed it to happen.

Joke’s on me, though – he liked someone else. I met her at one of his shows a couple of months later. Outside of the tiny venue, she was hanging on him, and he was hanging on her every word. It was blatant, staring me right in the face. I winced at the sound of them laughing together, but I stayed in denial.

This was a guy I had played multiplegames of Unowith at this point. His sister told me all about him – how he was unusually good at checking if all of the food was in the bag before leaving the drive thru, how his favorite fruit was prunes, and stories of him being a great, sensitive brother. Surely, I knew him better than this girl he was actually friends with.

I found myself turning my nose up at her any time he spoke to me instead. When his show was over, his sister suggested we go back to their house and play Uno.

He looked right at the Girl of Interest, raising his eyebrows.

“Do you want to?” she asked him.

“Do you?” he asked, leaning in. His voice alone was more indicative of flirting than the mere act of throwing cards, but I ignored it.

Haha, she likes him,I thought, as someone we were with pointed out the girl’s obvious obsession with him in hushed tones. He’s just being nice. Yeah, right.

We got back to his house and eventually played the card game with them, but not before his sister and I came up with a game plan of our own. I anxiously awaited her in her room while she surveyed the competition.

“Okay,” she said, pushing aside her makeshift curtain of a door and hurrying into her room. “So, this is what’s going to happen. He’s sitting on the futon, and she’s sitting on the bed. You’re going to sit beside him.”

“Okay,” I nodded, once again sipping on my Mike’s Hard Lemonade. That was a good sign, that they weren’t so close to each other. Still, I was hesitant to stand. Like I said, I’d played Uno with him so many times after that set-up in his room, but this was the first time since then that it’d felt like it mattered.

We opened his door, and I took a step back – now, they were both sitting on the bed, but not dangerously close or anything. It was fine. It would be fine. His sister and I sat side by side and she doled out the cards.

I held my breath while he hid his hand of cards from her view. It was another way of flirting he’d used while he and I played in the past. I tried to be friendly – I was easily hurt by this but not about to get crazy.

Until his sister won, then he won, and it was down to me and the Girl of Interest. Now it reallymatters, I thought.

I tried to be subtle, but she could probably see the intensity in my eyes. I was hanging so fiercely onto this thread of what I believed to be “fate.” The winner was more than just the winner of this game of Uno. The outcome was a sign of what was to come.

It went back and forth. I let out my breath when I finally won.

Perhaps for a time, I did believe it was symbolic of something greater. Their relationship became something, but never anything too serious. He and I continued to flirt while playing Uno at his kitchen table, and we even moved up to hitting each other with pillows while watching Stranger Things in his room. Exciting stuff, I know. Most of what I knew of him still came from what his sister told me.

We texted, but his responses were few and far between. In a desperate attempt to make things happen, I asked him if he was aware that I had a crush on him. His response of a meme and “I am now aware” gave me absolutely nothing and more hours passed between texts. So, I later invited him to a party at my friend’s house. As you do, logically.

That night, I stumbled into my apartment with him and a bag of Taco Bell that he paid for. We sat on the floor to eat, and I was so giddy I was shaking.

“Want to play Uno?” I asked, drunk (yes, on Mike’s) and mouth half-full of nachos. He chuckled while agreeing – this had become our thing, what we’d bonded over since the beginning.

Just like the first time I met him, we sat across from each other, Unocards in our hands. We played another pointless two-player game, where “skip” cards played made it your turn again.

Again, he kept winning. I was bad at this game when it was just us. But still, this time there was a different air about it. An understanding of feelings.

When he threw the cards at me, letting them rain down above my head, I was 97% sure he was flirting. I mean, just that night, he’d turned to me during the party and quietly asked if I was having fun. He’d teased me for the stupidest things, like forgetting someone’s name. It had to be flirting.

Before he left that night, he gave me that last 3% of certainty I needed and kissed me for the first time. Once the door was shut behind him, I spun around in my apartment, one hand on my lips and one thrust in the air.

It was my first kiss – my first anything – and it was with my best friend’s brother. I felt like I was dreaming.

But relationships aren’t a card game, and when I beat the Girl of Interest, I didn’t actually win anything. I should have been paying more attention to all of the games I lost between me and him.

A more realistic metaphor would have been that she won the game first, got what she wanted, and left us to play by ourselves. When it was just me and him, I lost.

I saw him twice after what would become our only kiss, maybe three times. We got pizza the following week and fell asleep on the couch together at my birthday party. For a time, we texted daily, and he’d often been the one to text first. We made plans two weeks in advance at one point, and he even offered to help me get my long-delayed driver’s license. I had every reason to believe that this was going somewhere.

But then, his responses to my texts became few and far between. I rationalized, telling myself he was busy and that he worked a lot. I couldn’t do that once he began ignoring me altogether, even ignoring texts of mine just telling him I was hurt and asking him for an explanation.

He threw his cards at me, and I was devastated. I avoided playing Unofor months.

It was half of a year until I saw him again, at his cousin’s wedding. I was still best friends with his sister, and I’d grown close with his whole family. I sat in front of him, talked to his parents, and tried my best to subtly gauge his reaction when his mom commented on my breakup haircut (six inches and bangs; no, we never dated, but I was still dramatic enough to make that happen). I couldn’t figure him out, though; when he wasn’t joking around, he was still as stoic as ever.

I told myself he looked regretful, but I was just trying not to hurt my own feelings.

I sat at a different table than him during the reception, and I had no plans on speaking to him at all. I wasn’t over him and I still longed to know what I did wrong, but I was tired of going into these things naively, as though they were games to put effort into winning, and the boy was the prize. I was tired of believing everything was on me and my actions and that he wasn’t his own person doing more than just reacting to me.

If he wanted to talk to me, that was fine, but I convinced myself I wanted nothing to do with him. I wasn’t going to beg at his feet. After all, hewas the one who started ignoring me. Even as I paid attention, waiting for him to look my way, I told myself it would be better if he didn’t.

That is, until the reception neared its end and I heard him say, “Hey, Steph!” He called me over to the table he, his mom, and his sister were seated at.

They needed an extra player for Uno, apparently.

At the sound of his voice calling myname among those of all the people he knew at the wedding, I had butterflies once again, and every possibility raced through my brain. I tried to push it all down as I made my way over, and I reluctantly sat beside him.

He shuffled the cards and dealt everyone their hands. He held his own hand of cards away from me, as if we were back at his kitchen table and nothing had happened. I don’t remember who won.

When the game was finished, his sister got up to talk to another family member. His mom got up to talk to his dad. We were left alone to clean up the cards thrown about the table.

I waited for him to say something that meant anything. To apologize, or even acknowledge what he had done. Something to make up for the nights I spent crying, wishing I had played a different card. The right card.

He held the box while I gathered and filed them to their rightful place, both of us making quiet, meaningless jokes and politely laughing. When I was finished, he had the cards to himself.

Nothing was said or acknowledged.

It was all in the way he closed the box and walked away. I knew it was over.

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