It starts because we both think my unpredictability has become predictable. He finds it hilarious. I look up in the middle of reading to do it, stop stirring risotto or petting the cat and turn to him. “Hey, Eli,” I say, “Name that tune.” Without breaking eye contact, I begin to tap on his arm. Dat dat daaaa dat dat daaaa da dat da da daaa. “Jingle bells!” he says, breaking into a smile. It is always “Jingle Bells.”
Once a year, over our three and a half year relationship, it will be the first act of the Nutcracker Suite. But usually it is “Jingle Bells.” And it becomes one of our favorite things about each other: this game that pretends to offer surprise, that requires close attention to the message being tapped, like Morse code, onto the other’s body, when, in actuality, we know it is a ritual communicating our certainty of each other, a sly wink to the other in the face of the unknown. “I know where this is going, but I will pretend I don’t,” his eyes smile at mine. “And when it goes there, we will have gone there together.”
I decide it will be our first dance at our wedding.
I imagine his delight as I announce, in a beautiful, creamy dress, a glass of champagne in my hand, that I have chosen a very special song for this first dance, and the song begins—Bing Crosby’s version, or maybe that of Sammy Davis, Jr. He laughs as I prance towards him, and we join hands. We swirl in a big circle, enclosed inside arms and an inside joke.
But there is no wedding because I’ve been playing the wrong game. That’s not what love is–there should be no games, I know. Except that there are, and it is a game in and of itself to pretend there aren’t.
There are games of strategy, which I attempted to avoid, the more it became clear that he really didn’t want to get married—the kind that drive you to read articles titled things like “How to Get Him to Move In with You” or “How to Tell If He’s Never Going to Be Ready.”
There are board games, structured as the weeks you spend together: pick up your piece and go to the farmers’ market; buy a half-flat of raspberries for half-price (bonus points). Proceed to Monday, Tuesday, your weekly viewing of “How I Met Your Mother” (watched late because of band practice). Thursday—Standing Date with Friends (overdid the drinking again! Lose one turn).
There are games of chance (“We’re at the P.I.–join us for a drink, if you’re on your way home!”) and team challenges and individual foot races. There are mind games, but these are be benevolent, recast as “relationship discussions,” in which I sit on the couch beside you, the cat sleeping behind our heads, and love you as you try to come up with something, anything, to explain why you are not ready to want this life you have built with me. I turn this game on myself: this is not about me, this love is worth more than your pride, Bryn, not everyone is as quick with words as you are.
There are rules of engagement, but the engagement never happens. He tells me that at some point, he felt like we stopped being on the same team. I look at our life for the evidence of this: his anticipation that I will want the flour back on my side of the counter as we cook, my ability to pick which restaurant we should go to during Restaurant Week by the lack of nuts on the menu, the sand squirrel he made me on Ruby Beach, the book I bought him this Christmas on how to draw a chicken. Even when I think of the couch discussions, I think of holding his hand and thinking, “This is what love is.”
There were different teams? When had the game changed? What was the game changer, when marriage, maybe a baby, seemed only like extensions of the game we were playing together, the one I called “We’re So Lucky”?
Our relationship did not “move forward,” but the movements I miss now are these: the whirling in the kitchen, as I grabbed him for “Surprise Dance,” the intuitive rearrangement of limbs as one person turns on their side in sleep, the tapping of my fingers to a tune that will not be guessed, a tune tapped, now, on air.