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Charlie Clateman

        My friend is coming over to play the game with me. When I was still with my boyfriend, she would come over once a week to play the game with me, while my boyfriend would lie in bed and scroll on his phone or else go drinking with his friends. Now, since we have broken up, my friend comes over twice a week or more. We always play the same video game. It is a non competitive video game for two players, in which both players work cooperatively to ensure the world does not implode. The physics of implosion are loosely defined.The world looks like an ordinary apartment. At all times, someone must be attending to some thing. Left unattended, the world will implode. But there are obstacles – furniture and pets and, of course, other things that need attending to, like water on the stove, or mailmen and other unexpected visitors. And if, in attending to one thing, some other thing is left unattended, the world turns steadily a deep red color until it implodes, destroying both players inside of it. So one player always has to attend to one thing, while the other is completing some other task or attending to some other disturbance of some kind.
        The tasks and disturbances are improvised by the creators of the game. Some days involve doing almost nothing, and on those days my friend and I can enjoy a conversation between us completely unrelated to the game. But on other days the tasks and disturbances are extremely hard, and we must focus our attention entirely on the game. Say there are two or more tasks demanding to be attended to. A pie needs to be taken from the oven, and at the same time a mailman with a parcel is rapping on the door. These obligations must be shuffled and managed in such a way that the world is never left unattended for long enough to implode. Thus the pie will end up a little burnt, or else the mailman will be left waiting a little too long, so that next time he will be angry and may even leave a fragile package outside to be soaked in the rain.
        This is where a slight competitive element is introduced: pairs of players, just like my friend and me, wherever they are playing, are rated and ranked about the quality of their completion of the task. How burnt was the pie? How angry was the mailman? Though my friend and I are never competing with each other on the couch, somewhere out there scores are being shared with millions of other players so that we all can see, if we are curious, just where we stack up in the mess of things, how we are handling all of it. We try, my friend and I, to ignore the ranking system, but sometimes we let it get to us, and it is responsible some days for a hard gap of blame between us that makes it hard to have a conversation. Luckily, since my boyfriend and I broke up, and my friend and I have begun to play the game more often, our ranking has improved, though not considerably, and even this is due to factors related to the recent changes in the game. I will talk about those in a second.
        We have never, she and I, been very good at much. I sometimes think that this is why we became friends in the first place.

        Always crowding our periphery, when we play, is the clamor of other games we could be playing. Games with guns and knives, games with wars and armies, games with motor vehicles and vehicles in outer space. These games crowd our periphery every moment we exclude them; we do our best to shoo them all away. We do not play those games. We prefer our game, or rather, games in which the element of competition is offshored, so to speak, to an abstract table of achievements that can be ignored at will. And we ignore it, she and I, the table. We suspect that almost every player of the game ignores it, too. We suspect this game was made for players like us, who prefer to work together to get things done, really to do just one good thing: move the laundry to the dryer, move the dishes to the cabinet from the rack, remember to turn the air conditioning off, and to do so in such a manner that the world does not implode in the meantime, destroying itself and us with it.
        And we’ve been getting better and better at it since my boyfriend and I broke up.

        I do not always have time to play the game. My job, when I work, has its own complexities. I am a programmer. I assist in research for a data company. For example, some weeks I have been given the assignment to design and run a program that records and reports every time a user of a search engine puts in the word “king,” or “pulley,” when and where they did it. The question of “why” is a question for people other, probably higher up, than me. I don’t know why they need this information, but apparently it’s working. My bosses look at me with sometimes red faces and boyish, mischievous grins, because the company is making money. Every day they are making money and celebrating every day. Most of us choose to work in the office even though we have been given the offer of working remote, and usually at night I hear a rumpus upstairs, and sometimes if it’s late enough and I’ve been productive I’ll quit my work and join the party. There are drinks and sometimes food. We all look extremely happy and in awe about the increase in money we are experiencing, because we all experience it, like a sort of holy atmosphere. Only that experience of the increase of money is really the only thing we share. The truth is none of us have the faintest clue why all this is happening. None of us know what the hell each other does, and that adds to the holy mystery of things. In the upstairs room, where we celebrate, we all look into each other with faces of utter mystification and wonder about each other’s share in the event. That is enough for us. We drink upstairs and share in the event. We pat each other’s backs and smile. We have no clue what each other do for this company. I guess this is another thing we share: that we have no idea what we do for the company. Someone somewhere must have an idea of what we do for the company, I think we all must think that sometimes. But that person is never upstairs, and if they are, we don’t know who it is. It could, in fact, be me, and I am the only one who doesn’t know it, and that is why they all look at me mischievously when I join them upstairs. It could also be related to a natural bashfulness of men when they see a woman and they have to act professional.
        Sometimes in the upstairs room we try to find out about each other’s lives outside the office, since our lives inside the office are totally incomprehensible. But when we find out about each other’s outside lives, these are equally incomprehensible. What we choose to do outside the company is a completely up to us, and the result is that we have nothing in common outside the company. The company is the closest thing to a life we share. I’ve met artists up there of various kinds, I’ve met “media types.” Others, passing through, have claimed to be microscopists and neurologists of mosquitos. I have no comprehension of art or what it means to work in media. I cannot imagine the neural life of a mosquito.
        Likewise, they have never even heard about the game.

        My friend who is coming over, who plays the game with me now twice a week or more, works at a totally different company. But as she’s put it to me, her situation is almost exactly the same. We’ve talked about it numerous times, at length, and we’ve agreed that our situations are exactly the same. We hardly need to talk about it anymore, and when we do we often skip to the conclusion that from experience we know to be inevitable: that our situations are exactly the same. That is, until the recent changes. But I’ll talk about those later. But even though our offices are interchangeable, the fact that they are separate breaks the tension between us, opens up a broad plate of ease that we can sit on and on which we can have multiple conversations about almost anything. Sometimes we talk about birds that fascinate us. We talk about the various things we think we know about, not bothering to look anything up. It’s hard enough keeping track of what you think you know to go finding out about what you don’t.

        Players of the game are now informed in advance that at any point in time the game may end, and this has nothing to do with how you have played the game. These days a disclaimer flashes on the screen, right after the flurry of developer logos and animations, stating more or less this: that no matter how you go about it, the game may end at any point and for no reason at all. And it has nothing to do with you. The knowledge that the game may go away for good at any time and with it all your data makes it hard for some to get invested in the game. But my friend and I became invested long before the advent of the disclaimer. So I guess for us it makes more sense to just keep playing, as we did before, and so what if it ends? With all the free time I have, there’s not much else to do.

        My boyfriend, when we were together, expressed no interest in the game. Rather he did at first, but only in the way of fascination, the way when it came to things to do with me, he was fascinated by just about everything. Later he was bored by the idea of it and of me. I don’t think he understood the game at all. He just got annoyed with me for playing it. He did not understand why I played it. Eventually he liked it as an excuse to be alone for a while to do as he liked. Just once we played the game together and this was toward the beginning. It was weird. We kept intersecting and doing the wrong things. I remember there were two mailmen that day, one public and one private, one with letters and one with a large parcel that required two people to move it. There was also a bulb that had flickered out in the living room, and about fifteen little pictures that had to be hung in the living room and in the right way. Meanwhile it was dead of winter and getting dark outside at earlier hours. Oh, we just mishandled everything.
        The letters ended up soggy in the snow. The bulb store closed before we could purchase a new bulb from them and then the apartment was too dark to hang the pictures. Outside, the private mailman with the large parcel was left shivering. Until he took the parcel with him and left a note that said he’d deliver it tomorrow. But we didn’t play tomorrow. We never played again. On top of that we forgot to feed ourselves. That day I really thought the world would implode. But it didn’t.

        In my years of playing the game, the world never really imploded. But as I’ve said, in the past month, things have been changing. The developer has added a new element to the game. Whereas before, every pair of players was responsible for the implosion of their world, now everyone is responsible for the implosion of everyone’s world. The developer, not long after implementing the disclaimer that the game could end at any time, inserted this new element, whereby if one player fumbles the ball and totally messes up their tasks and disturbances for the day, this leads to an implosion of the world for everyone. So often in this past weird month, since my boyfriend and I broke up, when my friend has been over at my house playing the game, the world has turned a deep red, even when everything is going well, when the electricity is being paid for and the mailmen have been attended to, even when the coffee is already in the microwave; the surfaces begin to rattle and everything gets very hot; the red, it gets so dense that you can no longer even see in front of you, and it’s looking like it’s very likely that soon everything will implode.
        But it doesn’t.

        Or at least it didn’t, not until very recently.

        Just at the peak of everything, everything turns back to normal again and settles down. No one knew who’d been responsible for those near misses, and likewise, when eventually the world did start imploding, we didn’t know whose fault it was.

        At work this month, ever since my boyfriend and I broke up, things have been going extremely well. Even more well than usual, and that is saying a lot. You can tell by the way people are showing up to work in tighter shirts and tighter pants, and by how some men have been visiting the bathroom and the water cooler more frequently. The truth is that our work has begun to pay off. It has begun to pay off in an unexpected way: the work has now begun to do itself. We still don’t know quite what this means, or what the implications of it are. We still show up to work every day and sit and talk, and make visits to the bathroom and the water cooler as much as possible, and generally are baffled at the lack of work to do, since that work can do itself now. Finally we go upstairs when it becomes dark, because none of us really want to go home yet. We have excess energy to burn. We feel as if there is something to say but don’t know how to say it, not to ourselves and especially not to each other. No one knows how it happened; it was either the accident or the invention of the person who knew what all was going on to begin with. But it happened and we all were basking in it.
        This past month, the upstairs parties have had something definitively sacred about the air in them. We try to talk but we can barely say a word to one another, because really we’re all thinking the same thing, about the work and the miracle of it doing itself, about how little, when you think of it, we all had to do to get here, and now that we were here, how little we would have to do from here on out. We wondered just how long we’d all be staying here. Would the work continue to do itself this way? Would we have to work to make it do itself more?
        The guys who usually had drinks at these upstairs gatherings, in recent weeks, have been drinking nothing at all.
        Except for water, of course.

        Lots and lots of water.

        The lack of work in the past month, ever since my boyfriend left me and the work began to do itself, has led to me, on the one hand, having much more time on my hands to play the game. But my friend who, on the other hand, has the exact same working situation as me, her company has not had the same luck that my company has had. In fact, it is a problem with another company, she says, whose success has come directly at the expense of her company and her line of work. That’s the way it goes, isn’t it, she says. Because of this, the work at her company has been sagging. She has had to prod it, she says, to poke at it and try to pick it up because it’s been not moving, like it’s somewhere that it doesn’t want to leave.
        But ultimately, she says, it seems like the end result will be that there just isn’t any work to do, and that will be the end of her company.

        In the past month, even though she still makes time to play the game with me, and we play it now even more than before, back when I still had a boyfriend, I get the sense that the stakes are different between us. It goes without saying that our working situations are no longer identical, as we once agreed they were. But on top of that, our playing situations, so to speak, I mean the circumstances under which we are able to meet and play the game, are laden with different kinds of pressure. I would have to say that my circumstances are laden with the pressure of new activity and the need to burn off excess energy. But her circumstances, I have lately come to feel, hers are laden with a sort of obligation to me. To herself maybe but also to me. These changes in our respective working lives have put a long plank of not knowing between us that has made it hard to converse if we’re not busied with the game.
        Luckily, that has not been a problem. The changes in the game in the past month have made it almost impossible not to be busy with it, if you are a player of it. The frequency of near misses and the constant threat of implosion have made it so that you can hardly not be fearful of the game, even when there are no disturbances to attend to. At any point, any one player could destroy the game for everyone. To judge by the leaderboards, many of the top players, due to the recent whims of the developer, dropped off, giving up on a game whose premise has become pointless and even impossible. And I have to say, it certainly isn’t what it used to be. I’d have to say my best memories of the game were when my boyfriend used to watch me play it. It did not seem so dangerous then. There was something about it that was light and playful, something comforting about attending to the disturbances, and even when they were difficult, about attending to them. And to do it with him around and admiring me for it — I don’t know what it was. I remember it fondly.
        But now it seems ridiculous, doesn’t it? A single player now can ruin everything for millions. And some days it does seem that someone is really doing that, some one person terrorizing everyone. I don’t know who it could be. I can’t know. That information is hidden from me. The experience now, and especially in the past week, of playing the game is nothing like it ever was before. You go to wash the towels — boom, imploded. You go to shut the window to block out the construction sounds so you can hear the TV — boom, imploded. Everything is destroyed and gone and you must start over again. It was never like this before.
        No wonder in this past week, to judge by the leaderboards, millions of players have dropped off.

        My friend should be arriving here any minute now. In a week or two, I imagine we will be the only kinds of players left. We will still play the game because if we did not play the game we would have no reason to see each other. I’m not sure about her, but that would make me very sad. She’s the only one I know who plays the game anymore. Though I can imagine there are others, I wouldn’t know how to begin to meet them. It’s getting to a place where it is very difficult to share things, not only between us but more generally. Often when we speak, if it is not of the game, I am not at all sure that when we use one word, say, “king,” or “pulley,” for example, that we even mean the same thing by it. And yet we carry on talking as if we do. And I don’t know if she thinks that we are talking about the same thing, or if she questions it like I do. But she keeps on talking anyway, letting the words pour out of her mouth, telling me stories about her work situation, for instance, which is totally incomprehensible to me now. And the more she talks, the more words pile up in front of her, one on top of the other, and it’s for me to sort them out. I can hardly account for one before she lets another one fall, and it’s the same thing with the next one and the one after. Soon I have to give up trying to keep track of them all and just let her continue talking. And that’s when I become terrified. Because the more words she lets fall in front of her, the more terrified I become that they don’t mean anything at all.