We are going to play a game of Scrabble: me; my wife, Eva; her boyfriend, Henry; and our friend Naomi, who is visiting.
While we’re chopping crudités in the kitchen, Naomi asks, “You’re sure you want to do this, Wayne? This seems big.”
It’s the first time I’ll be meeting Henry. Eva has been seeing him for almost a year. Usually she sees him one night a week and spends the night with him once on the weekend. He often sends home little gifts and tokens for me after their dates: an oatmeal-gray Henley shirt, almost new, that didn’t fit him anymore; a red wool scarf with tassels at the ends that wasn’t to his taste (and wasn’t to mine either, but the gesture was sweet); and pricey tickets for both of us to go to the theater when he was out of town. Enough gifts had followed her dates that I often wondered with anticipation, like a child waiting for a parent to return from a business trip, What will he send me next?
What kind of man would be interested in a woman who lives with her husband?
Henry is 10 years older than us. He loves that Eva has children she adores. Because he has two college-age sons, they talk about the travails of parenting. They enjoy the theater and readings at bookstores, the same activities she and I pursue. He lives with an overweight cat in a spotless 13th-floor condominium downtown. A committed bachelor, he thrives in long stretches of quiet and stillness, but he wants the occasional companionship of a beautiful and intelligent woman, and he likes to dote—just not to live with anyone.
Naomi interrupts my reverie. “Are you going to answer me, Wayne?”
It can’t be denied: not only is he good for her, but he’s good for the two of us. I need to up my game and be a bigger man. I need to make sure he stays with her. Like me, he loves Scrabble. Why shouldn’t we be—if not friends—at least friendly?
“You bet I can do it,” I respond.
“You really aren’t nervous?” she whispers when Eva goes to the door to meet Henry.
I want to shout, Stop the train! Call off this madness! But I smile and say, “Yeah, of course. A little.”
Naomi has been our friend since college days. Her divorce three years ago—like most crumbling relationships I’ve witnessed—was splintered by raw emotions, polarities of blame and criticism, an absolute inability to tolerate each other. She and her ex barely talk and still fight over children and money. I’d seen that happen to others. I was glad it hadn’t happened to us.
Ordinarily, I love having new people visit our home. I love the vicarious pleasure of re-seeing it from a newcomer’s perspective. Our house is made of clinker bricks: old-fashioned red, purple, yellow, and brown bricks misshapen or broken by the firing process. Turn-of-the-century bricklayers layered them in even, geometric rows, occasionally interrupting the careful pattern with a broken brick jutting outward. A wooden swing sways in the evening air under the yellow glow of the porch light.
Inside, oak mission-style furniture fills every room. Children’s fantasy books, Legos, and toppled Tinker Toy constructions litter the hand-knotted sepia-and-gold rug. It does not look like the home of a couple who have an “open relationship.” I can’t imagine what that couple’s home looks like.
The first thing I notice? Henry is bald. He has a stocky football player’s build and carries about 20 extra pounds. While he is, I must admit, a good-looking guy—warm brown eyes, an easy smile, a sporty, blue-and-white striped cotton pullover—in terms of looks, he’s no rival for me.
“It’s good to meet you,” he says, grinning, extending his hand, but neither of us grips firmly. Eva and Naomi stand off to the side to witness this encounter between the husband and the boyfriend. It feels illegal. The marriage police should break down the door and cite us for gross impropriety. “I hear you like Scrabble,” he says.
“Love scrabble,” I correct him. About most things, I like to tell myself, I’m not competitive. Except words. I want to spell and use them flawlessly. In both my home office and my work office, I keep an expensive dictionary. The bigger, the better. I love the detailed definitions, fancy pronunciation keys, elaborate etymologies, and obsessive nuances.
“So how long have you lived in Portland?” Henry asks. He has a jolly quality, an effusiveness that makes me think either that this is going to be okay, that I’ll be able to like him, or that he’s a big phony. We open the tattered Scrabble box and turn over tiles. We make what sounds like small talk, but to me each statement feels like a feat. Eva is in the kitchen, pouring wine. Paul Simon’s “You’re the One” plays in the background.
“We moved to Oregon 12 years ago,” I say. “We wanted to live someplace beautiful.” Immediately I realize I have violated the terms of some new etiquette. Eva comes into the dining room with two glasses of wine, hands one to Henry, then one to me. She sits beside him on the opposite side of the table. Naomi, the loyal ally, sits beside me. Suddenly, I’m looking at Henry and Eva. They look good together. They are the we at this moment. Theirs is the common story evolving over time. The night we played Scrabble with Eva’s husband. My we statement sounds disjointed, possessive, out of place.
When Eva and I fell in love at 24—she, a feminist activist skeptical of marriage; me, a queer guy counting men and women as romantic partners—we both wanted to think we could succeed as a conventional-looking, monogamous couple. That was the map, however ill-fitting, they gave us. We married, bought a house, had three children spaced two years apart, and made a go of it. But ultimately, I couldn’t fit into an exclusively heterosexual mold, which required lopping off parts of myself. After a lot of talk and therapy, even nearly splitting up, two years ago we arrived at a creative arrangement that allowed both of us to date other people: Will and Grace with kids, cats, and a mortgage.
Now, everyone chooses seven tiles and begins to study their letters. I spy Eva touching Henry’s back as he says something in a low voice that only she can hear.
“Jesus,” Henry mutters. His broad shoulders hunch over the wooden tray of letters with intense focus. “Look at all these U’s.”
“Am I allowed to put these back,” Naomi asks, “if I have four vowels?”
“That’s not a real rule,” Eva mumbles.
“I think it’s a West Coast rule.”
“Oh, please,” I say, pulling out the dog-eared directions to prove she’s wrong. For a moment, I’m grateful for a game with such clear rules.
Henry plays Scrabble with zeal. He’s a strategic player, always thinking several moves into the future. I wonder if he’s read one of those books on Scrabble-playing that I’m always intending to pick up. Before long, he seems to be stealing every double-word score. Christ, how did he get the Z and the Q? Is zedonk really a word? Honestly? Where’s the dictionary? A thought surfaces in my mind, the first of two clear, strong truths that will occur to me this evening: I must win this damn game.
While I wait for Henry to lay his tiles, I steal glances at the two of them. I see her through his eyes. Like me, she’s 45. She has those high cheekbones, that tilted nose, hazel eyes that crinkle when she smiles. The scooped neck of her cream-colored peasant blouse shows her strong collarbones. Sometimes, when I’m bored at a party, I compare her to the other middle-aged women in the room and usually think she’s the most beautiful. I’m not idealizing her. I know she has aged. But somehow, when I see her, she’s many people layered onto one, young and old selves all at once: the blonde undergraduate, tanned, just returned from back-packing in Europe; the graduate student in the library, fretting over Saul Alinsky; the victims’ advocate rushing out after midnight to the emergency room to help an overwhelmed teenager whose date has ended badly.
I make jokes. I tease Eva about putting down measly two-letter words. She never cares about winning. I’m not sure she even likes Scrabble, but she’s played it for years because I like it. I lean over and help Naomi spell sinew, which scores well and gets a sarcastic howl from the onlookers. I gawk when Henry uses six letters for one turn. Shit! For better or worse, the habit of being a psychotherapist has given me the gift, which is sometimes a curse, of putting dark feelings and petty, irrational jealousies at a distance. Of putting my best self forward at all costs. I take a deep breath.
I must win this damn game. Maybe because I’m seeming so casual with the situation, Henry puts his arms around Eva’s shoulders. He rubs her back with encouragement when she complains she has nothing but T’s. Okay, this is hard. I don’t think I want to watch this guy. After each turn, he’s winning the game by a few points. I imagine I see a bead of sweat on his bald head. Our board crowds up with words, building its own dense contingencies, tight squeezes, inconveniences, and traps. We study it, looking for opportunities and clever ways to adapt. Someone mentions the elusive dream of the board “opening up.” Suddenly it hits me, a fact that has never bothered me before tonight:
THIS. GAME. GOES. ON. FOREVER.
Henry’s been in the house for two long hours now. Everyone at the table is laughing. I imagine Naomi, the skeptic, thinking, What a surprisingly successful social event! Although my emotional reserves are running low, my façade remains strong. Or so I think. Henry and I are playing neck-and-neck, clearly the only players interested in winning. I’m five points behind him when I take the last tile. The end is in sight.
I get a W, an auspicious letter, the first letter of my name. I’m feeling golden, jostling my seven tiles, scanning the board for a high-points opening. Everything is salvageable if I can win this game. And then, I see it: an unbelievable, once-in-a-lifetime, 11th-hour word; a word that just reaches a triple word score to take me over Henry’s lead:
W H O R E.
I stare at it in giddy amazement mixed with shock. All I can hear is the clicking of tiles on wooden racks.
“God, it’s hard to find anything at this stage of the game,” I lie, stalling, staring at my prize word. I wonder how much I want to win.
How will everyone react? Clearly, “whore” is just the luck of the draw. Certainly, it’s no message I’m intending to send anyone. And, even though it’s ugly, it’ll score a whopping 54 points. Fifty-four points!
And yet. . . .
Naomi is losing terribly and doesn’t like Scrabble anyway. She yawns. “Do you need help?” she says, leaning over. I jerk the tiles away from her gaze.
“Do you want to pass?” Eva offers, not caring who wins or loses.
Brow furrowed, Henry studies his seven tiles. He’s not done with me yet.
The ticking of the clock gets louder, insistent on bedtime. I’m using up the good graces of my fellow players. Is it timidity or a sudden surfeit of niceness? Is it the worry that someone might make an awkward joke? Or my alertness, on this odd, unmapped path we’ve taken, to the potential for hurt? (Henry defends the lady’s honor and yells, What the hell do you mean by that word, Wayne?! Eva bolts from the room. I should have known you couldn’t handle it! Naomi follows. What a coarse and offensive thing to put down!) The word seems to violate an unspoken rule. We can all play a civilized game of Scrabble as long as no one calls attention to one fact: Eva is married to Wayne but dating Henry.
“All right,” I say, laying down four tiles.
WORE. Past tense. Like worn down. Damaged or diminished. Like a costume I put on in another life.
The word misses the triple-word score and puts me a mere seven points ahead of Henry. The game moves to Eva, who lays three letters. At the end, Henry, the competitive cuss, pulls out the punches with a 25-pointer, and I lose by five. The Scrabble game is over.
It’s almost midnight. I clean up the board—it’s an East Coast rule that the loser cleans up the board—then stand like I’m going to leave. We have a rule: no romantic partner ever spends the night in the family home. But before Henry arrived, I’d decided that the proper etiquette for a guy like me was to exit first and let them say a private goodbye.
“I need to turn in now.”
“It was good to meet you, Wayne,” Henry says, shaking my hand. This time it’s a sincere, strong grip. Eva stands beside him. “This was very special.”
I look him in the eye. “It was good to meet you too, Henry,” I say. “I mean it.” He not only met his girlfriend’s husband: he spent three hours with him—something I imagine few men would do. Inside I feel a glimmer of confidence, on this unmarked path, that Eva and I are not lost.
In fact, we have achieved something extraordinary.
“I’m heading to bed.” I say it to everyone while looking at Eva. When I take a last glance of her, I see her tonight and at other ages: the weeping 30-year-old, cursing a negative pregnancy test yet again; the laughing-crying mother being handed our daughter in a hospital room; Eva at my side, toddler in hand and baby in a backpack, on the long hike to Mirror Lake near Mount Hood.
A thought comes to mind, the second clear, strong truth of this evening:
I am devoted to her. “It was fun, everyone.” I smile at Eva. “Good night.”
I hear clinking in the kitchen as Naomi puts dishes in the dishwasher. Without looking back, I walk up the stairs. I kiss each of our sleeping children, pass Eva’s dark room, the door slightly ajar, and head to my bedroom, where a new book awaits, and softly close my door.
Wayne Scott, MA, LCSW, is a writer and couples therapist in Portland, Oregon. Recently his New York Times essay, “Two Open Marriages in One Small Room,” was adapted for the Modern Love podcast and read by Edoardo Ballerini. It is adapted for the Modern Love (Amsterdam) television series, available now on Amazon Prime. Visit his website at waynescottlcsw.com.