Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Cursed Island

(This is an essay I wrote for my graduate writing program at Johns Hopkins University.)

I checked into a hotel, brought my worn, black canvas bag into the room, and tossed it onto the bed. I went back to the car, grabbed my pizza and 2-liter of Coke, and came back. After that, I just stood there, for a moment. I could feel it already; doubt manifesting like an evil spirit in the back of my mind, haunting my subconscious. What have you done? What will you do? You have to go back—

The case for a separation had been growing between us for years. Yet for all the compelling arguments, no action had been taken. Then, one grumpy Saturday spent running errands and nursing a hangover, the fire was lit.

Emotions burst out of me; raw, unfiltered, unchecked. Anger and frustration and resentment consumed me. Things were thrown. Things were broken. Words were said.

I stuffed my bag, left the house with a slam of the door, and just like that, I was separated from my wife. I no longer had a home.

I needed to keep thinking, keep acting. Keep doing something. I opened my bag. At the very bottom, buried under a random assortment of clothing and diabetes medication, was Robinson Crusoe: Tales of the Cursed Island, a boardgame I purchased just two days before. I and three of my friends had played it the previous night. We all died. Crushing as that defeat was, the game lingered in my brain. I wanted to play it again. Robinson Crusoe had rules for playing the game solitaire.

And so, on the night of my separation from my wife of nearly ten years, I sat alone in a hotel room, playing a boardgame by myself.

* * * * *

I played as the Cook. Stranded on a deserted island, I had to build shelter, hunt for food, and survive, all the while gathering wood to build a bonfire big enough to signal the rescue ships by no later than the tenth round.

I was doing so well in the early rounds. As the Cook, I had skills that allowed me to stretch my food longer than other survivors. So starvation, an issue that cost my friends and I dearly during Friday night’s game, was less of an issue for me playing alone. The island consists of random tiles depicting island flora and fauna. I explored the island freely, uncovering the random tiles and living off the land and gathering wood for the bonfire.

The problem was I had neglected hunting and shelter. As the turns progressed and my Cook ate all the readily-available food found from exploring the island, I needed to shift my priorities to constructing weapons and putting a roof over my head.

I didn’t re-prioritize fast enough. I never do. The rain started on round six, forcing me to burn additional wood for warmth and consume additional food. I attempted to go hunting, but did not build sufficient weapons, instead using too much wood for the bonfire. After a disastrous encounter with a tiger, I was left nearly dead. When my wounds became infected and snow began to fall with the rain, I was dead by round eight.

That night, I laid in a bed that was not my own, alone in the dark, in a hotel room two miles from what used to be my home. The guilt came back in the dark, around the edges of my mind. What’s wrong with you? How are you going to live alone? What have you done?

Both she and I had done things wrong, of course. But that night, that weekend, I didn't focus on her. I focused on me. What I did wrong. How I contributed to this current state of affairs. All I could think about were my mistakes, like when I used to take an exam in high school and immediately after it was done I would think of the questions I knew I guessed wrong on. The guilt, irrational and unfair as it was, was relentless in its indictment of my role as a husband.

I had a single, solitary thought to fight the guilt back. A thought I held like a torch to light the darkness: I should have built the shelter right away.

* * * * *

The following Monday was President’s Day. To seize the free day off, my boardgaming group organized a bonus get-together at the Landing. Normally, we’d just meet there on Fridays. I hadn’t planned on going. I was supposed to spend the holiday with my wife.

The Landing is an open, public area in the Crystal City shopping complex underground. Dozens of tables and chairs are set up for anyone to sit at and eat from the various take-out places nearby, or to rest briefly from an extended shopping trip, or just to check your email on the free wifi. The Landing is huge; even when my boardgaming group shows up in a full force of three dozen or more boardgamers, there’s usually more than enough room for anyone else not-boardgaming to show up and do their own thing.

The meeting was planned for 1:00 P.M. I was there by 12:30, lunch eaten, Robinson Crusoe out and ready to play with the first three other people to show up. The Landing was still quiet at that time.

That early Monday afternoon, sitting at every seat at every table, was my guilt. It had grown, mutated into regrets, self-loathing, and doubt, ghosts of myself. Making eye contact immediately with one of these ghosts shot a telepathic message through my head: Why did you get so mad? Why didn’t you just leave earlier and come back? What have you done? WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?

My only defense was to keep my head down and focus on this one game. I was going to win today, I knew it. It was all about the shelter, build it right away—

* * * * *

—we froze to death.

I was the Cook, again. With three other players, the other roles...the Soldier, the Carpenter, and the Explorer...were all on the table. We had to work together to survive. And, like last time, and the time before, it seemed like things were going so well. The Carpenter built the shelter for us, then got to work on other items to help us survive. I aided the Explorer in mapping out the island, gathering food and making sure we were well-fed. The Soldier aided the Carpenter, until the Explorer and I could discover some wild animals for him to hunt.

Once the Explorer and I found some wild animals, the Soldier and the Carpenter went to work on weapons. Our shelter was built. The Explorer and I were still exploring, trying to find more food and maybe even a helpful treasure or two from the treasure card deck. The Carpenter spent a few rounds building a cooking pot, which we needed so we could cook a medical remedy for the infection the Soldier got a few rounds before, from an injury. Things were looking great.

Then the rain came. Although we had shelter, we hadn’t invested too much into the roof. We didn’t think it was necessary. The rain came down hard, and our roof was proving insufficient. When the rain comes down hard, you have to consume more wood to stay warm. If you don't have sufficient wood to stay warm, you take damage. We all took damage.

Then, in one disastrous round, a severe storm ripped the roof clean off. We scrambled to fix it, but we didn’t have enough wood. Then the snow came. Then we died.

As we put the game away, the others talked about how much fun it was, but also how hard it was. Though Robinson Crusoe had only come out last year, it had already grown a reputation in the boardgaming community as one of the hardest cooperative boardgames in the hobby. With my record now 0-and-3, I could see what everyone was talking about.

The other players, after getting handedly destroyed by Crusoe, wanted to play something lighter next. Jesse, my neurotic Jewish friend from New York City, who was also gracious enough to give me a couch to sleep on in the days following the separation, brought out Quarriors, a breezy dice game with a cartoony theme.

As he explained the rules to us, I looked up. Every ghost saw me. They all stood up, and circled me around the table.

* * * * *

The next hour was a bizarre contrast of silly dice-rolling and vicious self-hatred.

Was she really asking for so much? I rolled the dice, marked my score.

You know, if you were a better man, this wouldn’t have had to end this way...I ended my turn. I drank some Diet Coke. I ate a cookie from Subway.

She had some real concerns, some real issues she wanted to work out with you, and you just bit her head off, ran away, and now here you are, playing games like some kind of child...I asked a question about the rules. I took my next turn. I marked my score.

You know the truth. She’s right about everything. You just can’t handle being called out on your bullshit. No wonder she hates you. The game ended. We tallied up points. I won.

Apparently, the self-inflicted verbal abuse was showing on the surface. Jesse looked at me like I was having a stroke. “Ed? Ah..what do you want to do now? Do you want to play something else?” he studied me for a moment. “Do you want to go back to my place?”

You fucking man-child, you worthless piece of shit, she was your everything, everything that was good about you came from her and you fucking threw it away and now she’s gone and you need her but she’s gone and you’re alone and you can barely fucking live by yourself how are you going to do anything right ever again—

I took a breath. I paused for a moment.

“You know what I want to do, Jesse? I want to get off that goddamn island.”

* * * * *

It was no metaphor. It was no symbol. I just wanted to not be me, for just a moment. The ghosts of my regrets were torturing me, and I couldn't handle it. At that point, I was thinking of nothing less than relief from the pain. Survival in the presence of my own destructive thoughts.

I played as the Carpenter this time. Jesse was the Cook. Eric, who had played the previous game with us, was the Soldier. A new player, Tuan, who thought the game looked cool, joined us as the Explorer.

We didn’t build the shelter right away. Instead, the Explorer set off towards the center of the island. He quickly found a natural shelter in a deeper part of the jungle. The wood that would have gone into making the shelter itself was saved, and spent instead on the roof. The explorer also got to pull a treasure card off the deck, an old pair of bongo drums. Playing the drums raised our morale, giving us precious determination tokens to power our special abilities.

After I built the roof, I got to work on a few other projects...hammocks, so sleeping was more restful; a defensive palisade, to keep out predators; and the cooking pot, earlier this time, so a cure for any infections could be made right away, before they chipped away at the health of my fellow castaways. I let the Soldier build his own weapons while I transitioned over to gathering wood for the signal fire.

The Soldier, fully armed and ready to hunt, set off into the jungle. He bagged an emu, and some other exotic creatures I’d never heard of. Then he ran into a tiger. Thankfully, his weapons level was high enough to come out of that hunt not only victorious, but virtually unhurt.

When the rain came, our roof held, and kept us dry. No matter how many storm clouds showed up on the weather dice in the later rounds, we managed to keep our wood burning and excess food consumption to a minimum. With the vast amounts of meat the Soldier was bringing in, I constructed a cellar, to help preserve our surplus food from rotting. I took all the furs he was bringing and used them to reinforce the roof, which became especially handy once the snow started falling again.

A few rounds later, we had the signal fire up and lit. We had food to spare, and no one was hurt.

By the time the rescue boat showed up, all four of us broke from the game for a moment to describe the scene to each other. The Soldier, draped in a poncho made of tiger fur, wearing its head as a hat, steps onto the beach and sees the boat coming. He yells to the Cook, who’s turning the carcass of an entire gorilla on a spit over the raging bonfire. The Cook wakes the Explorer and I, sleeping on the hammocks, nursing hangovers from last night’s bongo drum party where the Cook made us some crude hooch (one of his special abilities) to help warm our blood in the cold of night.

“You’re here to rescue us? Nah, we’re good!” said Eric, speaking in character as the Soldier to the theoretical rescue ship that would site us on the island. We all laughed. Jesse and I talked about it all the way home from the Landing.

* * * * *

Jesse opened the door to his place. We were both still basking in the glow of glorious victory.

I entered the living room. There, sitting on the couch, and at all four chairs of the dining room table, were the ghosts, waiting for me.

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