Thursday, 1 May 2014

A Not-So-Guilty Pleasure l Part 1: The Games We Play

For a moment, the world came to a complete standstill as thirty seven thousand people collectively held their breath in suspense. For a moment, the only sound in the stadium was the cawing of seagulls demolishing the feast of the year…

…and then the next, it erupted into a thunderous roar that echoed throughout the stadium with such intensity that eyes watered, ears ached and the floors vibrated. At one end of the venue, the crowd screaming their undying love for the man (no, not a man, a…a hero) with the number 26 etched into the back of his jersey who had just put them six points in the lead, waving their banners in a mad display of drab colors and chanting primitively – at the other, the inhabitants booed furiously, a drone that rivaled their equally passionate opposition. Far below on the field, the blue-and-gold clad champion raced towards the center of the field, his hand held high and clenched in a fist of victory, even as his team mates ran towards him to clap him on the back and congratulate him on taking such a spectacular goal.

Aussie. Rules. Football. Unquestionably one of the most nail-biting, hair-raising, blood chilling sports on the face of the Earth. The tension, the suspense, the atmosphere…it was so thick that you could practically cut into it out of the air with a knife. The players were fast and brutal, darting across the field with athletic prowess rivaled by few, racing for the ball so that they could sink it firmly between the center goal posts and earn the support and adoration of their fans. The fans in question relentlessly urged them on, poised on the edge of their seats all around the enormous stadium as they eagerly screamed their support and created the cacophony that has always been the soundtrack of the game.

It was an electric atmosphere, and it was on a very chilly Friday night that I found myself immersed in it as I feverishly watched the action from my (admittedly quite dodgy) seat high up in the stands, not wanting to miss a second of what was shaping up to be a spectacular game. Wrapped in a thick wool jacket, a scarf around my neck and criminally oversized and unfashionable gloves, it really wasn’t the best night to be out enjoying the footy – it was pissing down rain like it rarely does, and the drone of it on the stadium concrete was almost as deafening as the crowd itself. It was so cold that the air you exhaled appeared in small, translucent clouds before you. It was so cold that your muscles were stiff and burning from the chill and you could practically feel tiny specks of ice running through your bloodstream. It was a shock that there wasn’t ice paving the walkways.

It. Was. Cold.

Despite the fact that I was wrapped in an attire that would make an Eskimo jealous, there was no other place that I’d rather have been on this dismal evening. It wasn’t ideal weather to be out watching the footy, not by any stretch of the imagination – but it’s the footy. If I wasn’t here watching it in person, I’d be on the couch at home, in front of the TV watching it unfold live anyway with a beer in one hand and the remote in the other. If I was exceptionally lucky, the girlfriend might even be around. Angelina didn’t approve of the footy terribly – she said it was a horrible game and that it was a waste of time, effort and money that could be better spent elsewhere. She was of the opinion that there were far better things that could be done rather than watching grown men wrestle with other grown men over a leather ball in an orgy of blood, sweat and tears.
           
Her enlightened opinion was duly noted, but at the end of the day, she had a very, very, very shallow understanding of the game, to say the least. She just didn’t get it.

At all.

I had tried and tried and tried to show her how mesmerizing the game could be. I had dragged her along to a match or two (before she refused to be involved with it anymore, that is), and on one occasion I literally went through the rulebook of the game and explained the backstory about the various teams and players. But she didn’t care. She was too focused on her own matters to give a damn about my own, and it resulted in me having this loving obsession and no one to share it with. It was somewhat disheartening at times…

…but, of course, I always made myself feel better by watching just a little more footy.

It was for this reason alone that I was surprised that she had offered to accompany me tonight, and the thought made me spare a glance in her direction. She was wrapped up just as snugly as I was, but even through the mass of material I could make out her gorgeous blonde hair, shoulder length and framing a very pretty face. I went out to watch the game every Friday or Saturday night, and she’d either stay at home (as she normally did), or she occasionally went out to have a nice dinner with friends. This morning, however, I had received a phone call completely out of the blue telling me that she wanted to spend the night with me, even if it meant coming to the footy. Over the phone, she’d sounded somewhat reluctant, yet ultimately resigned, and even though I did pick up on this, I was too elated about the fact I could share my love of the game with her to do anything about it. It wasn’t often that I got a chance to express my love of football to her, and I wasn’t about to do anything at all that might endanger it.

And yet tonight, here she was! Drop dead gorgeous, even hidden in the depths of her many layers of clothing, at a footy match, sitting alongside me, her boyfriend! It made me smile a little to myself, which developed into a full-blown grin as our team scored again. I jumped to my feet enthusiastically, applauding loudly and roaring with the crowd as the player did a victory sprint from the goal square all the way back to the center of the field. It had been a long time since I’d been this ecstatic – an amazing game of footy, and my girlfriend was finally showing a little interest. How could it possibly get any better?

I sat back down as the game resumed play, and I leaned over to press my face against her ear. She was just beginning to look across to me as I said, loud enough to be heard over the crowd, “What do you reckon so far?”

The look she gave me surprised me (although in retrospect, I guess it probably shouldn’t have) – it was one of disgust, contempt and barely concealed anger. My smile faltered instantly. Her displeasure was radiating off her strong enough that it felt like a physical repellent, like the tumultuous ripples that follow disturbed water. Her sharp blue eyes, normally the sweetest of jewels, were hard and cold, flat and furious.

“I’m loving it, Joel,” she said in a cold, biting voice. “Simply can’t get enough of it. It’s exactly how I wanted to spend my Friday night, you know. Thank you ever so much for bringing me with you!”

I stared for a second, not entirely sure how to react. Angela was normally the most docile of beings, and yet her voice was practically dripping with venom…and it was being flung entirely in my direction.

It stung.

A lot.

Not entirely sure how to answer that particular onslaught of sarcasm, I spluttered for a second or two before returning to my senses.

“But you didn’t say no,” I managed to force out. “We could have done something else…hang on, you offered – ”

“I asked if we could do something together,” she said flatly. “I didn’t ask you to pull a second ticket to this crap out of your ass and drag me along. I’ve seen enough half naked morons running around in the cold to kick a ball around to last me a lifetime, and god damn it, you know that.”

I opened my mouth to retort, but she simply glared at me and proceeded to cut me off yet again. “If I had have said ‘let’s do something else’, you would have made an excuse to get out of it, come here, and you wouldn’t have thought about me even once the entire time.”

“You know that’s not – ”

“Isn’t it?” she answered coldly.

Was it?

I couldn’t bring myself to open my mouth again.

We sat there in a bubble of deafening silence amidst the din of the crowd until the end of the quarter, where the siren went off with a ridiculously loud wail that made a little girl sitting in front of us jump in fright. I forced a smiled at the reaction, hoping to ease the palpable tension between the two of us, but Angelica didn’t even bat an eye. She never broke eye contact with the field, looking down at it fixedly and refusing to look at me. I sighed, suddenly not enjoying this as much as I could be. As I should be.

People were shuffling to their feet around us, preparing to go the toilet or get something to eat during the break, and I realized that I could maybe use this time to win her back over to my side. I had a couple of minutes before it started up again…I could easily go get us something to eat while we waited, if I was quick. It wasn’t much, but it might be enough to thaw her heart a little, at least for a while.

It sounded like a good plan.

I got to my feet quickly, and I declared, “I’m going to get something to eat, I’ll be right back. Do you want anything?”

She barely acknowledged my statement, not even looking up. I had already came to the conclusion that she was a lost cause and was beginning to walk away when she called back to me, “Get me a drink and a pie or something, will you?”

The remark was so disarmingly casual that in the context it was coming from, it came across as just snide enough to make me flush with anger and bite back a sharp retort. How dare she be so bitchy to me, her boyfriend! So she got dragged to a football game against her will, so what? How dare she be so self-absorbed that she demands I do her bidding when she refuses to even look at me!

I only had a couple of minutes. I had to hurry, I could chew her out when I got back…

…or maybe not, actually. On second thought, it would only make the situation worse and would ruin any enjoyment I might get out of what was left of the game. I should save it for later tonight. Grinding my teeth together, I hurried out of our row and down the stairs, turning the corner and entering the interior of the stadium.

While the exterior of the building was brightly lit and practically vibrating from the electricity of the crowd, the interior was quite another story. It was a labyrinth of endless, chilly corridors made from vast stretches of concrete that ran in concentric rings around the central oval on five or six different levels, all identical and each as soulless as the last. On top of that, the winding hallways were built in such a way that they (unintentionally) became an echo chamber of sorts, with the voices of thousands of people ringing throughout the entire stadium interior from top to bottom as a single, aching drone. It was as loud and obnoxious an environment as it was depressing and sterile, and it did little to brighten my mood as I stormed into its depths to find a stall to buy my charming girlfriend ‘a drink and a pie or something.’

On top of that, the hallways were bursting at the seams – hundreds of people awkwardly pushed their way around each other to get to wherever they were going through a corridor that probably could have afforded to be about three times larger than it was, and quite simply, it sucked. I could barely make out the various stores around the place past the bustling throng, and it was immediately clear that getting anywhere at all was going to be a steep uphill battle. Groaning a little to myself, I joined the war effort, weaving in and out of far too many people as I undertook my grand quest to appease my witch of a girlfriend.

As it turned out, it actually wasn’t that exceptional a war effort. Luck was on my side; before I had fought the tide for any more than thirty seconds, I found myself outside a brightly lit walk-through store set in a small hollow in the concrete stadium wall. A number of racks that held an assortment of food, beverages and candy were positioned so as to form a queue to the far wall, where pimply-faced teenagers worked diligently behind a long, steel counter to process the orders of footy-goers. I joined the queue, quickly made my decision as to what to buy, and five minutes later I was walking back out with two pies and two bottles of coke.

With both pies in one hand and both drinks in the other, getting back out was a little more frustrating than getting in, as not dropping everything became a chore in itself. Regardless, I was content. Now if only I wasn’t returning to a harpy out for my blood.

The dim lighting of the stadium’s interior soon gave way to the much stronger, piercing lights that illuminated the field and I was once again immersed in the eighth wonder of the world. The biting chill of the wind on my face made me wince as I finally exited the tunnel connecting the two areas, and I began to climb back to where we were sitting. I looked down at the oval as I made my way up the stands – apparently I hadn’t heard the siren from inside, because the game was on again in full force. Mentally berating myself for missing the kickoff, I quickened my pace, watching over my shoulder as I made my way back to my girlfriend. The ball was deep in enemy territory as the brave men of my chosen team laid siege to the opposition’s defenses, kicking ass and taking names. Perfect.

A minute later, I was taking my seat beside Angela. She took her food from me with a quiet “thanks,” and I grunted non-committedly in return. On the inside, I was still fuming, but I had already decided not to push her any further. I knew I was on thin ice as it was, and it just wasn’t worth jeopardizing my enjoyment of what was shaping up to be the game of the season. She could wait.

With that, I went back to the game. Oh God, the game. It swept all of my sorrows and problems away and replaced them a single minded, joyful enthusiasm. Screw Angela. I loved her, but I loved the game too. Why was it so hard for her to comprehend the fact that a man has needs besides satisfying his woman? I unwrapped my pie and took a hearty chunk out of it before washing it down with a swig of coke, my eyes locked to the epic scene playing out down on the field below.

We had stalled momentarily since I last watched on my return journey – we were still deep in the enemy pocket, but apparently unable to make it that last little stretch and kick the goal we needed to pull ahead and create a comfortable buffer zone on the scoreboard.  The ball went from player to player, each one trying to get a clear shot and failing before passing it off, but in the end it was futile. A second later, it became clear that it was all for naught as the attempt to break through the enemy line dissolved into a stack of five or six guys on the ground trying to claw the ball free from the poor soul trapped with it beneath him on the bottom. The whistle sounded.

I was abruptly broke from my reverie by a choked noise to my left; startled, I span around, only to see Angela holding her coke in front of her and eyeing it with a look of disgust. She caught me looking and immediately thrust it into my hand.

“What the hell is this?”

“What?”

“Taste this,” she said, her face still contorted as if her tongue had just told her to shove the drink where the sun doesn’t shine. “Tell me if that tastes right to you.”

I gave her a funny look. “It’s just store bought coke. From inside.”

“I said taste it, not narrate its life history to me.”

I glared at her, ready to throw it in her face, but sighed and put the neck of the bottle to my lips, taking a deep, long draught of it just to spite her.

Her eyes flashed with devilish satisfaction.

From the instant it touched my tongue, it was apparent that store-bought coke or not, something was off. What should have been a sweet, sugary gift to the tastebuds was actually a bitter and coarse rape of the mouth. Surprised, I sputtered stupidly and stopped myself from spitting it all over the people in front of us, reluctantly forcing it down my throat with a traumatized grimace.

Grumbling a little to myself, I thrust the bottle back to Angela, who was trying to hide her resulting fit of giggles behind one hand. “Shut it,” I growled, feeling my cheeks flush hot with embarrassment. “You could have told me that was going to happen.”

“Maybe you should listen to me more often then,” she returned with disarming cheeriness. “I did warn you.”

I glared at her.

With an infuriating smile and a look of complete and utter satisfaction plastered on her face, she took the bottle from me without further comment, twisting the cap back on then reaching down to put it into her bag.

She straightened back up, adjusting the hood of her coat, then turned back to face me. “Do you feel up for getting me another one?” she asked brightly. “Because obviously, I won’t be drinking that.”

A little off put by her sudden transition from spiteful witch to cheerful lover, I went to tell her that no, I missed enough of the game as it was, but in that moment I was overcome by an intense wave of dizziness. Startled by the suddenness of it, I gasped out loud as my vision doubled, then tripled, and the urge to vomit rapidly rose within me and I tasted bile at the back of my throat. My mouth suddenly went dry and I fell back into my seat, grasping the edge of it with all of my might in the sudden fear that I might fall off and collapse into a twitching pile on the cold, wet concrete.

“Joel?” Angela’s voice cut through the haze that was rapidly descending over me, and I struggled to stay sane and focus my vision on her. What the fuck was going on? For a moment, I could quite clearly make out what couldn’t possibly be a smirk on her face, then it blurred, and then there were not one, but five blurry things that couldn’t possibly smirks demanding my dwindling attention. “Are you – ”

I didn’t hear the end of her question, because at the moment, I passed out. My very last sensation was that of fear, and the question that died gnawing on the tip of my tongue:

What the fuck did I just drink?

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