I'm drawn to complex systems, but I think the real allure of the game for me was the "pot" of shiny copper pennies in the center of my grandmother's yellow vinyl table cloth. Players sat around the table, sweat dripping from glasses of fresh lemonade as they anted up and waited for the revelation of trumps. The rest of us--those too young or miserly to join in--watched each hand play out, cheering for those taking the most tricks, and joshing the ones who took none and bourréd. As the afternoon wore on, the pot shifted owners until my grandmother reclaimed the table to set out supper.
I finally got my chance to play sometime around my tenth birthday; my father passed me a dollar's worth of pennies, and my uncle dealt me in. I thought I'd picked up the game watching them play it over the years, but playing proved a bit more challenging than I'd expected. I kept the wrong cards, discarded the right ones, and ended up bourréing out on my very first hand. The next wasn't much better, my desire to win leading me to renege by holding onto a trump card a bit too long.
In bourré, you always play to win; the game rules demand it, and you're penalized if you try to slough off. I took my punishment, matching the pot on the next round and adopting a winner's attitude. I'd waited too long to play this game to take myself out of it.
There are certain shades of limelight that can wreck a girl's complexion.
--Holly Golightly, Breakfast at Tiffany's
"What do you want from me?"
We're sitting in the coffee shop that's just opened across from campus. I'm twenty-one, so close to finishing up this part of my life but screwing it up royally: behind on my degree program, fighting with my parents, and a month away from getting knocked up by my sometime playmate on the debate team. I'm spinning and wobbling, but he's grounded, all stubble and fatigues, a cool hand Duke.
The coffee's heat hasn't quite overwhelmed the cold ceramic mug; beneath the chill, my hand feels the promise of the burn. I take a sip and wait for his answer. We've been meeting by chance and dancing around this question for weeks now. His wedding band clinks against a china cup as he shrugs.
"Nothing." He chugs the espresso. "Friendship."
I grin as the heat hits my hand.
He stops off at my apartment on his walk home from the newspaper offices; I live somewhere in between the spaces he inhabits. It's November now, seven months after a visit to a clinic with a guy I used to know, and I'm crying when he finds me. We burn pomegranate candles and sit on my roommate's really long couch with our cigarettes, blowing smoke out the window in a vain attempt to hide this illicit activity. I'm so very sad and he's so very solid and in this place we fit just so very perfectly that for a little while I can forget the wife waiting at his home, the child that's missing from mine.
I wish that I could say that it stopped after that, but I can't because it doesn't. Instead, I play the part I need to play to be close to him, even briefly dating his brother-in-law as part of the subterfuge. In for a penny, in for a pound.
Years later, though, I'm lying on a therapist's couch wondering how to choose between Cool Hand, who's finally divorced his wife, and The Brit, a guy who'd only started seeing me as more than a friend when I began spending my time with someone else. The therapist tells me that I don't really have a choice to make, and I don't understand what she means at all until the game is over, they're both gone, and I bourré.
"You have not been long enough in Bath," said he, "to enjoy the evening parties of the place."
"Oh, no. The usual character of them has nothing for me. I am no card-player."
--Captain Wentworth & Anne Elliot in Jane Austen's Persuasion
In her youth, Anne Elliot follows unwise counsel, putting aside who she knows she is to become the woman she thinks she ought to be. This course of action proves predictably fruitless, and the woman we meet at the novel's beginning is finally coming to understand what her youthful gamble has cost her. By the story's end, she rejects the rules of the social game she's been playing and authors a new set uniquely her own. In the process, she gets a second chance at love and life.
Of all of Austen's heroines, I've always understood Anne Elliot best. I don't share her fortune in recovering a long-lost love, but find in her story an emblem for my own recovery of self.
Having said that, I think she's missing the fun of a good game of cards. Once you know what kind of player you are, you know how far in you're willing to go and how to get yourself back out once you're there. You also know who to play with, how to fill the open chairs at your table with people who play by shared rules. I haven't played bourré in years, but I think it may be time to crack open the piggy bank and deal a hand.
This post was written in response to the Week 33 prompt at therealljidol and intersects with Chance from my partner for this week, drjeff. I'd like to thank the good doctor for being such a fantastic collaboration partner; it's been an honor and a pleasure to work with him. Thank you for reading.