Just a Game

Elizabeth and Auvied picked me up from the apartment ten minutes past two in the afternoon, and Elizabeth blamed the delay on her boyfriend as soon as I got into the backseat of her black Honda.

“I’m really sorry, Auvied wasn’t ready.” Elizabeth attempted to let out an exasperated sigh, to which Auvied threw his hands up and hit his right knuckles on the roof of the car.

“Oh my God, she is so full of shit.” Auvied adjusted the red USC cap on his head and stared at Elizabeth in disapproval, who began to giggle as we turned right onto Hawthorne Boulevard. Elizabeth retorted that he was being a drama queen and moved her hand towards a plastic package labeled “Choco Flavor Homerun Ball” placed on the center console of the car. She pulled a chocolate-filled ball from within, popped one in her mouth, and pushed the package in my direction.

“Have them. Auvied doesn’t need to eat any more of these.”

“What? I’ve only had, like, three, and they’re not even that good.” He jabbed an accusatory finger into the green packaging of the snack, specifically the digitally rendered picture in which the insides of the cracker-ball was 90% covered in thick, creamy chocolate. “This shit doesn’t even have half of the chocolate that’s advertised on the packaging! What a ripoff!”

Elizabeth looked at me using the rearview mirror.

“I’m sorry, he’s being overly dramatic. As usual.”

“Please, I’m never dramatic. Hans, when have you ever known me to be dramatic?”

I’ve known Auvied since our freshman year of high school, which, according to my best friend Max, is “too fuckin’ long.” Our first interaction was in Ms. Kim’s Geometry Honors class as fourteen year-olds, during which I had sung R. Kelly’s “Ignition” acapella to the chagrin of my classmates, and he had asked me at another time in front of the class if I was circumcised. His own feats in perceived competitions ranging from intramural basketball and golfing with friends to beer pong and rock-paper-scissors have been described by him as “I fucking ended his career” and “tonight’s ESPN Top 10 highlight.” Auvied had almost gotten into a fight with a forty-year-old man wearing a headband over his afro and knee braces on both legs in a YMCA Wednesday night rec league game because Auvied had blocked the man’s shot and told him that it was time for the man to retire. Auvied led his YMCA basketball rec league two years in a row in technical fouls committed.

“No, you’re never dramatic,” I concluded.

Our car sped down the Rancho Palos Verdes hill and we cruised past the Walteria liquor store on the intersection of Pacific Coast Highway and Hawthorne, where a Chinese man used to sell us the thirty-racks of Coors we used to buy for parties and nights at Auvied’s grandparents’ jacuzzi. The store with its tan walls and dust-covered sign that read “Walteria Liquor Store” glared under the California sun like everything else under its omnipresent rays. By the time we had passed the Del Amo Mall, Auvied had eaten the last of the Homerun Balls.

“So, where exactly in Manhattan Beach is this shop?” I responded that it was on Manhattan Boulevard, away from the strand, and right next to a Trader Joe’s. Elizabeth was asking about the comic shop that I frequent to play Magic: the Gathering, and the reason for today’s hangout was their interest in learning how to play. I had suggested the day before that we visit the shop, called the Comic Bug, in order to pick up free “Welcome Decks,” which are promotional products given to beginners to be used to learn how to play the game.

“How long have you been playing again?” Elizabeth asked me.

“A million years,” quipped Auvied. “Wait, how similar is this game to Yu-Gi-Oh? Because I killed it at Yu-Gi-Oh. I’m not joking, I was basically unstoppable. Or is it more like Pokemon?”

“Like, three years now? And Auvied, I’d say it’s fairly similar, except you have these things called lands, and they produce mana, and you use that mana to cast spells, and Yu-Gi-Oh actually took all of its ideas from Magic because, you know, Magic is almost twenty-five years old, and—“

“Uh-huh,” Elizabeth interrupted. “Auvied, have you eaten lunch yet?”

“Nah. I’d be down to grub soon.” Elizabeth flashed a wide grin and gave a peck on Auvied’s left cheek. They had been dating for a year, but we’ve all known each other since our days at Palos Verdes High School. Elizabeth was the first friend I made in my Chinese class my sophomore year. Our teacher, Gao Lao Shi, had assigned us to make on a presentation about an imaginary vacation to China, and we decided the day before the assignment was due that we would record a video presentation. She invited me to her house, a mere ten minutes away from mine, to work on the project, and the first thing she introduced me to was her kitchen pantry. We spent the rest of the day eating Pocky, watching YouTube videos, and never finished recording the video, so she called in sick the next day. We ended up not having to present our video until a week after everyone else had done theirs, which played a large role in Elizabeth barely missing out on an A that semester and resulted in a long lecture from Elizabeth’s parents about “not wasting time hanging out with that Hans boy.” Elizabeth’s parents privately held the belief that their daughter’s friendship with me, an unrepentant atheist, did much harm to their daughter’s upbringing. Her parents took me to numerous Sunday services with their family in the hopes that I would find the appetite for Jesus in Levicitus 26:27-30.

We rode for twenty more minutes before Elizabeth pulled up in front of the Comic Bug and put an hour’s worth of quarters in the parking meter.

“This should be more than enough, right?” She asked me.

“It won’t take longer than an hour to kick your butt,” Auvied chimed in.

“You… um, suck.”

We walked into the air-conditioned shop, the front of the store occupied by almost twenty people playing a game of two-headed giant for the Hour of Devastation Pre-release. In the back of the store, two groups of huddled men and women carried out a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, a metal box next to each playgroup containing smaller containers within that held rulebooks, campaign guides, miniatures, and board games during breaks. An oversized printing of a tenth edition printing of the card “Hypnotic Specter” hung above us, and accompanying it along the ceiling were small cardboard models of the card “Ornithopter.” In the glass display case that was the store’s counter were expensive cards for sale, both sought-after foils from sets fifteen years ago and the newest standard staples that were printed six months ago. Trinkets and merchandise hung from the walls of the store, and displayed on the opposite side from the counter lay a stack of collector’s edition board games on sale. The Magic players partaking in the pre-release event shuffled decks, flicked cards, rolled dice, and chatted with their teammates and opponents.

Some of the faces in the store I recognized, many I didn’t, and I thought that I saw a teenager who looked awfully similar to a student that used to come to the private tutoring center I used to work at two years ago. He wore a red cap, a red t-shirt, and beamed in a way he never had when I used to see him sitting in the corner of the tutoring center and pretending to pore over math and science textbooks that stayed on the same pages for two hours a time.

I thought back to the pre-releases I played in, the train-wreck decks I drafted, and the cards I traded with the store regulars of the Comic Bug. We had all spent countless hours of our Friday evenings here, and we would’ve happily spent more if the store didn’t close its doors a little before midnight.

Elizabeth whispered to me that she didn’t expect so many people to be playing on a Sunday afternoon.

“A new set of cards is coming out, and the pre-release is the first opportunity for people to play with the new cards before they’re officially released.”

Behind the counter stood Vincent, an outstanding player and an even friendlier store worker who I had gotten to know since I started coming to the store after the release of the “Khans of Tarkir” set back in 2014. He greeted me, we chatted a bit about the turnout at the store for the pre-release, and I asked him for a couple of Welcome Decks for Elizabeth and Auvied.

“Sure,” smiled Vince and pulled out a plastic container containing twelve deck boxes from a shelf behind the counter.

He looked at the pair standing behind me who looked both nervous and excited. “Do you guys have any preferences? Colors that you would like?” Auvied reached out to take the green deck box, and Elizabeth smacked his hand away.

“I’m obviously taking that one, Auvied.”

“What! That’s bullshit! I wanted that one!”

“Yeah, yeah, calm down,” Elizabeth laughed. Elizabeth definitely wore the pants and knew how to be the boss – another scientifically-bullet-proof anecdotal evidence that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Auvied begrudgingly took the white deck box and we walked on over to the corner of the store and pulled up three chairs to the plastic table.

“So you know how you said you want us to play Magic at your bachelor party?” Auvied asked. They were among my friends from home flying to Vienna for my wedding in November, and these two were taking time out of their Sunday to make my request a reality for me. “Aren’t you just going to absolutely wreck us if we bring these beginner decks and you bring your pimped out, whatever-the-fuck-pro-deck?”

“No, we’ll hopefully be doing a draft.”

“What’s that?”

“So, the way a draft works is, each player brings three booster packs to a table of eight players. Each person opens the booster, which contains fifteen cards, you choose a card from within, and pass the other cards to the left. You do that fourteen more times until there are no more cards being passed. Then, you open the second booster, take a card, and pass it to the right. You repeat this process until all the cards are gone. Finally, you take the third booster, you do the same with it, and then you take the cards you’ve picked and make a deck.”

“Oh, that sounds dope,” Auvied nodded. “I can’t wait to do that.” The couples took the cards from out of their deck boxes and began looking through them. Auvied took a few seconds to sniff the pack-fresh smell of the cardboard stock. I took five different cards from Elizabeth’s deck and began explaining the cards and the rules of the game. In less than an hour they had already finished their first game and were in the process of chiding each other about the cards in their decks.

“I’m gonna go outside and put some more minutes in the parking meter,” I told the two. Auvied was in the middle of losing his second game in a row and said nothing, his gaze focused on a handful of cards that he held and a look of concentration fixed onto his face in the form of wiggling, furrowed eyebrows. Elizabeth thanked me and asked me to not be away for too long.

“I don’t want you to miss Auvied losing again, you know.”

“Oh, shut up,” Auvied rolled his eyes. Elizabeth in the meantime cast a Serra Angel, a creature with four power and four toughness that also had flying and vigilance, and informed Auvied that he was hopelessly dead – again – next turn.

I stood up and left the couple to go outside. I walked to the parking meter with my worn, blue wallet in hand, jammed two hours’ worth of quarters down the slot, and headed back into the store. Elizabeth and Auvied were shuffling up for another game, and Elizabeth thanked me once again. I smiled and thanked them both.

 

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