Ken’s attention was divided.
At the end of the bar stood an Avenue Killer’s arcade machine. It’s black and red plastic cabinet had been kept scratch free from wear and tear, like when he first saw one in the summer of ‘95. It had been a catalyst for young Ken, the start to spending years in arcades, memorizing move sets and developing eye strain. To him it was his childhood, unguarded and calling to be played.
Sitting across from him was his girlfriend Diane, having recently finished general education studies at community college followed by three months of general anxiety. They both dressed in casual attire a baby blue blouse and gray jeggings for her and a sweatpants and shirt ensemble for him with unidentifiable stains dotted here and there. The light blush and eyeliner she wore made her stand out in the sparse crowd at The Underground, where students from Brown University went to drink themselves into a confident stupor for whatever their teachers would throw at them. He barely shaved, or rather just used his razer on his neck. She was a princess to his bumbling plumber. From her cocktail to his second beer, she out classed him every single way he could think of, except for right now as the buzz started to consume him. He began to drift in and out of their conversation.
“I really think I could get into nursing, I mean I like helping people.” She took a sip from her glass. “I feel like I could learn more in Quincy than I could just staying in Rhode Island.”
“Ahuh,” he said nodding his head.
“Even if I did get into Providence College or Newport University, I feel like I would do better if I just get out and travel and live somewhere else for a bit. I mean most kids who go to medical school travel to Europe and Asia, but I’ve never left the state. My uncle Ryan travels with his husband all the time, and they tell me it’s worth it.”
“I feel stifled here, like a bird that’s grown too big for its cage.” She leaned back into the fake leather booth seat, looking into Ken’s glazed eyes. “Are you even listening to me?” she asked.
“Ahuh,” said Ken.
She took a drink from her highball glass, wiping away some stray strands of blonde hair from her face and narrowing her eyes. “Do you remember when we first started going out?”
“Oh, ah,” he forced his eyes back into focus. “Yeah, it was a few years ago. We were in our sophomore year in high school taking chemistry together.”
“No, originally we were taking it separately, and just happened to sit next to each other. And if I recall correctly, I would spend my time paying attention in class while you were always doodling on your handouts and in your notebooks.”
“Yeah, miss ‘C student across the board’ was always paying attention in class, and she never spent entire lectures texting her friends.”
“Shut up,” she said. “What I’m getting at is that we were strangers that didn’t know the other existed.”
“That’s a lie too,” he said waving a finger at her, “I knew who you were, and I was glad to sit next to you.”
“Well, it wasn’t like we talked to each other for the first two months.”
“Maybe a little flirting,” he added.
“Maybe,” she said as she straightened out her back. “But what I really remember about that class was when you first asked me out. The teacher was going over elements and how the closer the molecule is to resembling a hydrogen atom the more stable it becomes. That’s why water forms so easily, as oxygen bonds with hydrogen to become stable or something like that. He goes on and on about how it’s like the greatest discovery of mankind and I feel something distracting me with a poke in my arm.” Diane smiled a bit, and started playing with her hair. “It was you with a folded-up piece of paper in your hand. I took the note, and I’ll never forget what it said.”
“It was ‘Would you bond with me?’,” said Ken, snickering at his own brilliance.
“Yeah, it made me laugh in the middle of class and I kind of got in trouble for that, but it was a really funny note.” She stopped smiling, and considered the bottom of her glass for some divine wisdom that never showed up. “But these days, I don’t think we bond anymore.”
“Well, how about we play a game of Avenue Killers?” Ken pointed to the back of the bar, driving the conversation away from where he feared it was heading. “They’ve got a machine over there that no one’s using. I thought since this is our last night together for a while, we could spend it fighting instead of drinking. Wow, I could have said that better.” Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out eight quarters that were burning a hole in the denim. He stood up from the table and reached out a hand to Diane. “I’ve got enough coins for at least two games. What do you say?” he asked.
“Sure,” said Diana. She brushed past Ken in the direction of the cabinet, pushing up the sleeves of her blouse and sighing. She brought her drink along.
“I haven’t played this game for a while now, but I’ll see what I can do.” He slipped a few quarters into the machine as the introductory animation finished playing on the screen. The scene changed to a sixteen-bit map of the world with small flags scattered across the continents. At the bottom sat the portraits of the world warriors. As the clock clicked down on the character select screen, Ken picked Toshi the karate master from Japan dressed in his world famous red and white headband in pure instinct.
“I like this guy with the Mohawk.”
“Rosso? He’s the Red Rocket of Russia.” The character in question was stylized how comic book artists from the ‘80s designed muggers dressed in nothing but a red speedo and boots; the professional wrestler from behind the iron curtain was covered in battle scars and facial hair. “He’s cool. Grappler character, so he does a lot of throwing. His special move is called ‘The Kremlin Kicker’. I know he’s cheesy as hell, but he’s an example of what was popular in early 90’s Japan.” As the screen changed, they found themselves on an American air base as pilots and army men stood around throwing their arms in the air in one-second intervals. The word “FIGHT” flashed on the screen, followed by a robotic voice shouting it out. “Shall we begin?” asked Ken.
“Sure Mister ‘I’ve played this game before’,” said Diana.
It didn’t last long.
“Well... that was the first time I’ve ever seen a man’s underwear explode,” Diana said between sipping the last drops of her highball.
“It usually doesn’t happen so fast.”
“That echoed scream at the end when Russo flew into a wall was a neat feature.”
“How can someone be so bad at this game?”
“I think the better question is ‘why would someone drag their girlfriend out to a bar they didn’t like and humiliate them at a game they’ve never seen before?’ Now that’s a head scratcher.” She turned away from him to walk back to the bar.
Never before in Ken’s life did a red joystick look more appealing than his own girlfriend. It was simple. It was red. Diana had neither of these qualities, but she did have kindness and patience that were wasted on people like him. He slid another quarter into the cabinet, starting a new fight. Right now, it didn’t matter where Ken’s life was heading, now that Toshi needed to advance to Dictator Buffalo and stop his dreams of world conquest. Saving the human race with the power of his fists was where he belonged; indented curves of the bright colored buttons fit the pads of his fingers.
“Stop,” said Russo. The virtual heart and soul of the soviet nation paused the game and turned to face the bar.
Ken stopped, and then he wondered why.
The Russian wrestler had turned to him and put his arms up. “Young man,” he said in a cartoony Russian accent “Do you not see the path you are heading down is one filled with regret and suffering?” Russo bashed on the glass, creating a dink sound in the real world. “There is still time to walk away. To fix your lover’s broken heart.”
“What do you think you’re doing?” asked Toshi. “You can’t just talk to the players like that.”
Russo shot a look at the martial artist. “Forgive me, my comrade in arms, but I cannot stand by while a man throws love out like an empty vodka bottle.” He turned back to Ken with a face as angry and sorrowful as a sixteen-bit game could process. “Listen to me player.”
Maybe it was the fact that this was the first miracle Ken had ever seen in his life. Maybe it was the three beers. Whatever it was it stopped him in his tracks and made him wonder. “What is it?”
“You can’t just let her go like that,” pleaded Russo. “You have a very good chance of losing her forever if you keep acting like a spoiled child.”
“Why should you care?” asked Ken. Even considering the situation he was in right now, his pride took a higher position in his heart than listening skills.
“Because I can’t stand to see a relationship break like a tree limb from the weight of ice and snow. Your girlfriend could disappear before you like melted snow between your fingers if you let her.”
“Are you going to wrap this up in forty-two seconds, or do I need to pause the countdown timer?” asked the announcer.
“Whoa, what are you talking about? This is just a little fight. All couples have them.” Ken grabbed a stool, and planted himself in front of the screen.
“Not when one is about to leave for higher education. Think for a second man. Do you really want to end tonight on a sour note?”
Pressure in the bridge of Ken’s nose started to itch. “How do you know that?” he asked.
“You were not exactly quiet at the bar. It doesn’t help that you came in on a slow night.” Russo walked back and forth across the stage. “Do you want some advice?”
Ken sighed. “What do you suggest I do?”
“Take her home. Stay with her tonight. Do anything else than staying here talking to video game characters while getting drunk.” Russo jumped up and down on the screen with cartoon steam pouring out of his ears.
“You’re right,” said Ken. He walked away from Avenue Killers and back to the bar. “Diana,” he called out.
“What is it?” she snapped back. Her new highball was on its last leg, mirroring her own wobbly state.
“Look, I’ve been a bit of a jerk today, but I have a good reason.” He leaned into her, collecting her cool touch to sooth his overheated skin and sliding along the wet counter top. “I don’t want you to leave me, and Providence.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Diana.
“It’s just, I know you want to be a doctor, or a nurse, and I think you would make a great doctor. You would look great in a lab coat.”
“That’s not the point, though.” He picked himself off the bar and stared straight into her eyes. If eyes were a type of currency, hers would be priceless. “You’re one of the few people in my life I don’t want to disappear. I still want to bond with you.”
Diana placed her glass of ice on the bar top. “I didn’t think I meant that much to you.”
“You mean the world to me.” He leaned in for a kiss, but his face collided with her opened hand.
“Oh no. Not yet. First, we’re taking an Uber home.”
“Okay,” he relented.
“Second,” she said holding up two fingers in Ken’s face, “we’re going to my place, and bond like water.”
“I’m fine with that.”
“And then we’ll see how this goes, because I think the two of us are too wasted to either drive or make life changing plans.” She burped to emphasize her point.
“I totally agree. I love you, Diana.” He put his arms around her. It helped keep his knees from shaking, but when she returned to hug him back, his heart skipped a beat.
“I love you too, you big nerd.” They walked hand and hand out of the bar, out of sight of the Avenue Killers machine, where Russo was drying his tears with a handkerchief.
“Good fight, kids,” he said between sniffles. “You’re both champions tonight.”