I play first, and I play the word “vet,” which is what I wanted to be when I was a little girl. He plays “raja,” which (I now know, because I looked it up) means a king or prince in India. I play “zap,” he plays “vat,” and we have exhausted short “a” words for now. It was the first vowel sound I taught him when he started kindergarten, when we read The Cat in the Hat over and over again, when I felt sucker-punched by the level of my terror at seeing him climb the school bus steps and venture into the world without me for the first time. Now he’s graduating from high school, getting ready to leave for real this time. He will study English; he will play with words for grades and other things now.
As a preschooler, he fell in love with Scrabble’s perfect wooden tiles. We would “play” the game for hours, making the words he knew just to see the space each one occupied, to learn the particular shape of “house,” of “dog.”
For the past five years he has lived with me half time, with his dad half time. Words With Friends is there all the time, though, and playing it with him from across town is almost like except not at all like sitting across from him. It’s a digital echo of his chubby five-year old fingers carefully counting tiles, looking up at me for confirmation that he’d spelled “purple” correctly. We never kept score back then, because it would have been cruel to keep score against a little kid with a limited vocabulary, and because we both hate math. Now our phones do all the math, and the app keeps a “completed games” history that documents the fact that I can no longer beat him.
I play “zest,” which was the name of the deodorant soap my dad used when I was a little girl. He plays “glints,” I play “vain,” he makes it “vainer,” I play “din.” He plays “koi,” and he gets more points than is fair, because he played the 5-point “K” on a triple word score. It is sort of fitting, though, because koi embody the paradox of being both small and consequential; they’re just goldfish, really — they’re insignificant things — except that when they’re koi they are suddenly big and worth more money. When he was little I took him to the zoo and he stared at them wide-eyed, unable to reconcile these monster fish with the tiny creatures that swam in our fish bowl at home.
It’s unsettling, how things can retain their original attributes even after they’ve grown to something beyond what once seemed conceivable.
I play “cyborg,” and I think it’s a pretty cool word, that I’ve been clever, though I know I will still not beat him. I tell myself that it is not really my fault, it’s just I’m not getting good letters, or the board layout is not accommodating the letters that I do have. He’s making it work, though; he’s playing smart with what he’s been dealt. I become mired in frustration, because I now have the letters to play “zag” for ridiculously big points, but only if I could play them in the wrong direction. I curse Scrabble for its rigidity, its lack of provision for creative license in word building. Can’t things move backward just this one time?
He plays “NO.”
I play “tag,” [tag you’re it, it’s your turn over there at your dad’s house, please play me back soon because I miss you and there’s no one to talk to over here]. He plays “qi” for 35 points on a triple word square. I question him on that through the little chat box, and he says, “It’s a variant of ‘chi,’”as though duh, everyone knows that. I look up “chi” to find that it is a “vital energy that is held to animate the body internally.” I gather up all my qi/chi, because he is beating me by 34 points.
I play “abut,” he plays “goa.” “What’s ‘goa’?” I ask, as he walks into the kitchen while I’m pondering my next move. “Don’t you have a Ph.D. in English?” he asks. “I do,” I say. “It’s not really helping you,” he says.
I play “coy” [homonym of “koi”]. He plays “anoa.” I don’t even look it up. Words With Friends, for all its handy built-in calculations, has done away with the Scrabble “challenge,” and it’s a sacrifice I sort of resent, given the opportunity challenges offer for lively interaction. I play “oaths,” he plays “pees,” which still cracks him up because he is still a teenage boy, albeit one on the brink of manhood, one who is now registered with the selective service. I play “well,” he plays “feel.” He is only beating me by 27 points now.
I play “yeti,” which is an awesome word, and I am pretty impressed with myself. He plays “mom” for 30 points, picking up “of” and “me” as collateral words, and I note the weirdly explicit application of “mom of me,” which of course I am — mom of him. And I wonder what exactly that means now.
I play “now.” I wonder how things change, when kids leave. I play “id,” he plays “ark,” and I see his little Fisher Price Noah’s Ark set, the simple round animals lined up by twos in our old family room, a little bowl of Teddy Grahams and a little boy in a Batman cape.
I play “fur,” he plays “beef,” which he no longer eats. He no longer eats anything with fur, feathers, or face. Two years ago there was an animal activist almost-girlfriend — a hippie girl named Summer who had a distant father and a pet fox. Summer didn’t stick around, but her message did, and he’s been vegetarian ever since.
“Box,” “darn,” “rude,” “gluer.” He’s winning by 55 points.
I play “grit.” It’s a concept now — “grit” — in higher education. Recent studies have found it’s the determining factor in whether or not kids succeed. It trumps IQ, socio-economic level, everything. Kids who are gritty — who keep pushing even when things are ugly and tough — they’re the ones who make it. I used to tell him to “be careful” when he left for school in the morning; now I tell him to “be gritty.”
We are now at the end of the game, the part where the plays become more a matter of going through the motions than anything else. You still want to strive for meaning, to cull significance from the moves, but there just aren’t that many letters left, so you make articles, small prepositions: “an,” “of,” “in.” You can’t really affect things much at this point. We are down to the last few plays of this particular game as he heads out with his friends for yet another graduation party. I ask him when he’ll be coming home, but I don’t intend to enforce a curfew at this late date. The board is pretty much established. I know I’ve made mistakes, but a lot of them I made so early in the game that I can’t even recall what they were. And now they’ve affected so many subsequent moves that it’s futile to question what could have been. What’s played is played.
As I’m going up to bed, which I do increasingly early these days, my phone chimes with a message that Words With Friends has sent to alert me he’s made another move. “It’s your move,” it says. But it’s not anymore, and I know it. I resign with one “H” left, because he is beating me by more than a hundred points. It’s his move now, and I will be here waiting to see what he plays.