In the afternoons I play cards with my neighbor Blanco at the corner bistro. If you’re ever in the neighborhood around 2pm, we’ll be inside, first table by the door in front of the storefront window. We’ve been doing this for a while.
At one point we kept our card games individually at our houses, but we’ve had this arrangement long enough Blanco got an organizer thing to hold the decks. Each day, he brings it with him, and we decide what we’re playing, and if it’s for money. He usually decides on poker, even though I left Mille Borne, some trivia games, and a strategy game in the container, because he says he likes the thrill. No thrill in it I can see, as he’s always got more money than I do, and almost always wins.
Blanco’s popular in the neighborhood. Sometimes it helps to be friendly with him. A lot of people know him. He’s not always well-liked, but lots of people wave as they walk by, or say hello if they come into the bistro. I’m never quite sure if I like him either, but he’s got some good qualities, and we’re close neighbors in a duplex, so we try to live together amicably. He does favors for people in the neighborhood, so they’ll sometimes repay him by buying him coffee or snacks.
“Nice for you! Nobody buying me free food,” I sometimes tease.
“You should make more friends in the neighborhood! Help out more.”
It doesn’t occur to him our experiences are different. I try to explain people ask different things of him than they do of me, and for whatever reason, they rarely offer me gifts in exchange. “You need to meet other people, then,” he says, still without seeming to realize we are talking about the exact same people, just under different circumstances.
Blanco only likes to play cards in the afternoons, when the street is bustling with farmer’s markets, shoppers, and street hustlers. He works mornings and I work nights, so it’s a good time for us, and he says he’s luckiest in the afternoon when everyone’s around. He’s a good player, it’s true: he always has amazing luck. He always has the uncanny ability to know when to fold and when to bid. I tried learning his strategy once, but he couldn’t teach me. He just had good timing and excellent skill. You’re either born exceptional, or you’re not, he’d say.
Right, so, we’d had this arrangement for months, when suddenly, one day, I realize:
The source of Blanco’s luck was that I always sat with my back to the window.
In this moment, I’m so shocked by this realization, I just blurt out, “Hey! You can see my cards!”
Now Blanco’s pissed off. “You calling me a cheater? I would never! How dare you.”
Instantly, he’s enraged I’m calling him remotely unethical, and I can see he’s sincerely upset. I say that having my back to the window isn’t fair. He says he hasn’t looked at the reflection once, and things start to escalate. I realize if I don’t drop it, things might turn bad. It doesn’t seem worth fighting over.
But as we keep playing, I’m watching him. Friends walk by outside and wave. Sometimes they make hand gestures and faces at my cards. He laughs at their joke and bets accordingly. Sometimes he looks away from the window, but the door opens, catching the reflection again in reverse. Sometimes his eye glance over, just for a millisecond, totally unconsciously. I realize he is telling the truth: He isn’t cheating. But he is BENEFITING.
So then, still this same time, I say I’m getting too hot by the window, and I ask him to switch seats with me. “You still think I’m cheating, don’t you?” he demands.
“No, I’m just saying, I’d like to change seats. I’m uncomfortable.”
“Well, I’m comfortable here. Why should I have to move?”
“We don’t have to switch, if you’re worried I’ll see the reflection. We can just each move a little counter-clockwise.”
“No, I like being able to see out the window. That’s why I chose this table. I shouldn’t have to put myself out for you because you’re a little uncomfortable.”
“But you didn’t. I chose it,” I insist, “Remember? Ages ago.”
We’d been playing cards here now for some time, as I think I’ve already told you.
“No,” he said, “I remember that I picked it when we met up after class that time.”
“Right,” I said, remembering when we bumped into each other again at a cooking class. I cringed at the memory. It was so awkward, and I’d hoped he didn’t recognize me! He assumed he knew what the teacher was going to say before she said it, was an expert on every ethnic cuisine for every country he’d never seen, and was generally insufferable. When he recognized me and insisted we go to the bistro, I was hesitant. “But you chose it because it was where we’d sat when we first met here.”
“I think we may have sat at this table, but you were sitting in this spot then.”
“Exactly. I picked it.”
“When we first met?” We had seen each other on the common stoop, at the mailbox, in the back yard over the fence between our apartments, that sort of thing, but didn’t really talk until running into each other here at the bistro. “That was MONTHS before. We barely saw each other until the met again in cooking class. Those were two entirely separate events.”
“No, I know, but at the same time, the first picking is what INFLUENCED you to choose it the second time. I picked it first.”
“This is stupid and you sound crazy. Why are we bickering over who picked what seat months ago?”
“Because you said you shouldn’t have to move because you picked the spot! YOU DIDN’T PICK THE SPOT! I picked the table, influencing you to pick the table, and then you said you didn’t like having your back to the window and I switched with you. I’ve been stuck here ever since. You can’t tell me you get to keep the spot because you picked it when I picked it and you stole it!” I realized the choice of words was strong, but I was getting irritated that he called me crazy and my concerns stupid.
“Oh, I ‘stole’ this spot from you 8 months ago, after not seeing you for 3 months, so that I could cheat you at cards for 6 months? This is all a huge conspiracy so I can win at a penny ante game.” He rolled his eyes, which only made me more angry. “Is this about the money/ We can play something else if you can’t afford it.”
“NO. t’s not about that,” I could feel my hands starting to shake and my throat getting tighter, my voice more shrill, and I hated myself for it. I recognized the slightest sign of emotion would undermine any logic in my words. “I don’t care who picked the seat first, I’m just saying you can’t use that as a justification when you didn’t pick it first. I don’t think you’re cheating, but I do think you’re getting an advantage from the signals people send you when they walk by, their body language, from stray reflections you see subconsciously. Also, I am genuinely hot and uncomfortable in this spot, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask you to move your chair a couple of feet.”
“Subconscious messages? People are sending me signals now? Are you off your meds or something? This is seriously delusional. I’m worried about you.”
“Don’t patronize me. And don’t make fun of mental illness!”
“Ugh. Is this seriously a civil rights issue for you now? Look, why don’t we just stop playing then. If I’m such a monster that I’ve constructed this terrible plot against you just to pass away the time in the afternoon, why don’t I just quit the game so you can sit anywhere you want.”
And with that, he got up, and left with all the cards. (Including mine.)
So now, in the afternoons, we sit, and we play. Sometimes I think he’s in an empathetic mood and ask him to move the chairs. Sometimes I get here first and adjust the chairs, and we play for a while before he shifts them back. Sometimes he gets angry if I say anything, says I’m accusing him of cheating again, even though it’s “some made-up, subconscious conspiracy theory version of cheating since you can’t make a case for the regular kind,” as he says. He still doesn’t notice when he glances at the reflections or the antique store owner across the street wrinkles his nose at my hand.
Once, I quit playing cards completely, but that made it worse.
He lives in my building. He is not always a kind man. Sometimes he is very vindictive, even violent. I can’t move, and he is friends with the landlord.
So we still play cards in the afternoons.
Sometimes I don’t say anything. I just sit there, in the spot he has left for me, feeling the afternoon sun setting down my back with its rays baking into the crown of my head, then my neck and shoulders, down through the rickety cheap wood fleur-de-lis chair back. I think about how it was my spot first. And how it isn’t unfair to want him to move so that we are equal. How blind he is to how his position creates a subtle advantage, to how that advantage compounds over time. He is blind to the superiority with which he wears this ignorance.
Sometimes, when it’s hot and I’m tired, I think about forcing him to change seats with me somehow. Sometimes in a nice way. Sometimes in a less nice way. The methods always seem elaborate and impractical. He is popular in the neighborhood, even if he is not well-liked.
For now, we keep playing, until the day I can no longer bear the sun burning into my back, or the way he stands over me at the table. For now, we keep dealing hands I will always lose, just as we have always done. But each day I feel like the heat of yesterday’s sun never cools. It just keeps burning charcoal-rimmed holes into my chest, and keeps seeping shaky, licking flames into my bloodstream, until the day comes when I take the hand, one way or another.