The summer before my senior year in college, my friends and I stayed in Waco rather than going home to crash with our parents until classes began again. We’d signed leases and had jobs in town so we planned on spending our summer together.
Pre-Fixer Upper/post-Branch Davidian Waco wasn’t a bad place to spend a summer. Though not as flashy as Dallas or Austin, it was a college town with all of the bubbled-in amenities that come with it. Movies were five dollars, margaritas were three, and during the summer when the population shrunk by thousands, the city was left with shorter drive-thru lines at Whataburger, less traffic on Valley Mills and more seating at Common Grounds. There was even a drive-in movie theater nearby where a stranger had to jumpstart us in the middle of Wall-E because our car battery died. During our days off, we stayed indoors and drew at my kitchen table while watching hours of Friends on DVD, while our evenings were mostly spent driving and singing with the windows down. It was an easy, enjoyable summer but of all the activities, road trips and inside jokes that came from those months, most of our time was spent playing card games.
Nertz, a hybrid of Solitaire and Speed, quickly became the game of choice in Apartment 3. It’s absorbing when played in repetition and it became a vortex that consumed our attention night after night. In Nertz, each person plays a truncated game of Solitaire, working to empty the cards from their deck onto the sequential trains in front of them. While they do this, they also have to pay attention to playing cards onto communal decks – shared Solitaire piles in the center of the table – in order to score points. When someone plays all the cards in their deck, the round ends.
The first round tended to feel tame, easing us into the gameplay, but as the second round started, the pace quickened and our focus became more crystalline. The kitchen would fall into an eerie silence, the only sound being the shvtt, shvtt, shvtt of cards shuffling in repetition. Throughout the round, one person might beat another to playing the same card on the communal decks, resulting in an audible “dammit,” but it quickly reverted back to focused silence again. As the rounds wore on, the victories became sweeter and the defeats more frustrating, so this silence was always short lived.
Competition may be strong among strangers, but I’ve never felt more competitive than when among my friends. Even in a playful game of cards around a college table, the friend-to-friend rivalry seemed to grow like dough set aside to prove. The desire not only to win, but to win handily increased with each passing round. As such, the energy in the room became more frenetic and vocal, the trash talk more frisky, and a steady tension built that wouldn’t break until the final card was played.
The increasingly combustible and combative atmosphere became part of the game’s appeal, each of us knowing when we sat down what we were in for. Like a briefing before a battle, we prepared for what would be a long night of card-based combat. On one such evening during a particularly scorching week, we filled our glasses with water, took our usual seats around the kitchen table and began shuffling our decks.
The vibe in the room was different that night, as if there was more at stake than simply releasing our pent-up energy from being stuck inside all day. When the first round started, it didn’t do so calmly. Rather, it began with the sort of intensity that would normally accompany rounds an hour into gameplay and in each subsequent round, the intensity built like a fiery crescendo. Game after game, we each tried to take the top spot and as someone won each round, the losers crumpled into their egos before rallying for the next battle. This volley went back-and-forth deep into the night.
As the hours passed, each of us experienced the satisfaction of winning and the explosive frustration of not, but the most pronounced competition was taking place between my roommate and our friend from across the street. For some reason, the tone that evening was set by the two of them as they grappled with each other in an attempt to land a more definitive victory. The rest of us, though still active in the game, became mere spectators in their melee of wits and timing. Card-after-card, round-after-round, they vocally affirmed themselves while tossing barbs across the table; ratcheting up the tension and goading each other on further with every comment.
Well look at that. He places three of his cards into the communal piles.
Shut up. She doesn’t look up from her deck.
Oh, well look at that. Again. Two more of his cards land on the communal piles.
Dammit. She hunkers closer to her decks, frantically shuffling her cards.
He places four more of his cards into the communal piles without her noticing.
She tosses two cards onto her personal decks. I am not letting you win this round.
Sure. Two of his cards into the communal piles.
Their pace was like lightning and they handled their cards with single-minded force. No longer were they placing cards on the communal decks, but slamming them down instead. Loud bangs echoed out like subwoofers as their palms hit the wooden tabletop, the rest of us trying to keep up.
C’mon. She shuffles through her decks again, frustrated.
A smug smile crosses his face as he calmly plays his final card.
Nertz. The round is over.
With her hand still full of cards and her head boiling over with determination, she froze, paralyzed by the shattered hope of besting him. It was as if all of Waco went silent, the tension calcified and suspended above our kitchen table. Dropping her cards on the floor in utter exasperation, she toppled off her chair like a cresting wave. She bellowed in frustration from the floor and when she slowly lifted her head, tears had flooded her red face. Covering her bloodshot eyes, she roared, “You’ve made me so mad I’m crying!”
I understand her frustration as I’m also competitive to a fault. Late in the summer, a friend of ours had a birthday and as a part of a quickly thrown together party, our regular card-playing group over-decorated a cake for him. We were fresh off our Christmas in July week in which one of the activities was a gingerbread house building competition. We bought the decorations, used graham crackers in place of gingerbread because no one had the patience to bake in the middle of a Texas July, and we spent an evening building, decorating and demolishing our creations. In the same spirit, we turned an ugly blue-iced sheet cake into an underwater fantasia covered in gummy sharks, sprinkles and any color icing we could find in our respective apartments.
At the birthday party, we had a pleasant evening playing cards and eating cake but as we packed up to leave, a food fight broke out. Flinging blue icing at each other, my best friend and I became like the lost boys in Hook, channeling our inner “Bangarang.” We scrambled to get as much icing on each other as we could and when it was over, our friends declared her the winner. I argued steadfastly that they were wrong, to which my friends told me to look in the mirror. Not only was I covered in blue, but I somehow had icing under my shirt. Still, I wouldn’t concede defeat. This wasn’t an issue of moral high ground or ethical superiority, it was a cake fight for god’s sake, but petulantly, I wouldn’t give in. That competitive nature has been a part of me and my family for as long as I can remember.
One of my earliest card game memories is of the adults in my family playing Pit. My siblings and I were deemed too young and as we lay on my aunt’s living room floor coloring with a jumbo box of crayons, the adults played what sounded like the loudest and most fun game ever. Pit is ultimately a hybrid of Go Fish and Gin Rummy with a bit of Poker thrown in. The goal is to gather a full hand of one type of card but rather than calmly asking person-by-person as one does in Go Fish, the entire table shouts the number of cards they’re willing to trade at once, each trying to procure the hand that’ll help them win the game. This results in a continuously loud game full of demands and I wished I’d been old enough to play. I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed shouting.
I have a theory that every card game is a hybrid of other games; very few stand on their own. Sure there are your standards – the Solitaires and Pokers and Rummies – but most games are built on the backs of those. Playing cards have been around since the Tang dynasty, first showing up on the historical map around the ninth century, and today’s modern 52 card deck remains the simplest way to get a game started.
While it doesn’t utilize the standard deck, Pit was eventually introduced during that college summer and it felt retroactively fulfilling to play the game that’d intrigued me so much as a kid. But Pit never became a go-to option for us in the way Nertz or Spoons did.
The game of Spoons, again, another hybrid, is a simple mash-up of Go Fish with Duck, Duck, Goose. Players pass cards around the circle and the first person to accumulate four-of-a-kind grabs a spoon from the center of the table. Then, it’s up to everyone else to grab a spoon, leaving the slowest in the lurch as there’s one less spoon than there are players. What began as a less stressful reprieve from the intensity of Nertz quickly became its own monster.
I sat in my usual game-playing seat at one end of the table. At the other end sat two friends who, in a familiar turn, found themselves in a game separate from the rest of us. Though we sat at the same table, they were in a world all their own.
My roommate and I had lived in that apartment for a couple years, our furniture cobbled together with hand-me-downs from our parents. The chairs at our kitchen table had been in his family for years and showed signs of well-worn use. On more than one occasion, we had to reinforce the legs with nails or screws to prevent them from falling apart completely. Still, the table felt homey.
That afternoon, the game between the two girls devolved into a slap-happy wrestling match where grabbing a spoon wasn’t merely a goal to stay in the game, but a life or death imperative. In a round won by someone at my end of the table, the two of them were left to lunge for the last remaining spoon.
They grabbed the spoon in unison, each with a hand on it, and they playfully pushed and tugged, trying to pull it from the other’s grips. Like Monica and Ross refusing to let the football go on Thanksgiving, they refused to concede defeat. When pulling didn’t work, they began to contort their bodies, determined to wrangle a win. As they laughed and twisted their torsos toward the ground, the force became too much for one of their old chairs and it buckled. The legs cracked and splintered, sending both girls tumbling to the floor with their hands still clasping the spoon.
They screamed and laughed and tugged until one of them finally exhausted herself with laughter and let go of the spoon. As they both lay on my kitchen floor cackling, tears came out of the corners of their eyes, this time, not out of explosive frustration, but out of joy. Though we had to toss the broken remains of the chair into the dumpster, it didn’t dampen our gameplay. We found another chair and the games continued until five in the morning as they had before.
In one of the early episodes of Friends we’d watch while playing cards, Joey tells Ross he needs to “grab a spoon.” He explains to a forlorn post-breakup Ross that there are “lots of flavors out there. There’s rocky road and cookie dough, and bing, cherry vanilla…This is the best thing that ever happened to you…grab a spoon.” That summer, those people were the best things that happened to me. We were each other’s chosen family and in those unencumbered months of freedom, we laughed and cried and shouted and quite literally, grabbed a spoon.
Dedicated to Ryan, Lisa, Cheryl, Danielle, Laura and our friends who joined us at the kitchen table that summer in Apartment 3.