Tired of the noise, he looked up from his screen and around the table.
Everyone else was looking down. The food hung mid air. He thought about reminding Alice to close her mouth when she was chewing but she wasn’t even doing that. She wasn’t really doing anything, just staring- with her mouth open; he wasn’t even sure if she was breathing. He thought about the cold glare he would get if he said anything, so he just tried to peek at what was so interesting on her screen. Her thumb swiped something away, it seemed like. As he continued to tilt his head to find a good angle, he could make out various things whizzing around on the screen. Perhaps that was a dragon, no it was a woman, no it was a man, no it was half human and… Alice tilted the screen up to obscure his view. He didn’t dare meet her gaze and slowly, casually, pulled a duck face and lighthoused his view over to the missus, who was masticating furiously while making noises and faces appropriate for kawaii kittens and such.
Alice put her screen down on the table and with a finger of toast in a ‘perfect’ hand sign, resumed watching the main screen of the room. John couldn’t help but notice things continued to swarm and explode on the device. This seemed a good opportunity to be helpful.
“It’s still on, Al”, he said, kindly and accidentally not condescending as possible.
She sounded like he had announced 2+2=4. Fuck. Oh well, here comes a new challenger. He prepared himself for the struggle.
-So what you up to these days? A game, is it?
-Of course, it’s a game.
Wait, he had wanted to talk about her life, not the game. Argh.
-Oh? But… you… are you playing it?
-But you’re not, you, you don’t have to press any buttons?
-Dad. You just set up your squad and press “go”.
He felt like every time he spoke to her, he was more stupid, left out, even older, further left behind. He used to be a gamer, all this should be obvious to him, but he was having difficulty accepting that his kid would know more than him about it. She should, of course. She was the new school (skool? Is that term too old now?). He had left behind video games- his company didn’t approve, it wasn’t part of the office culture, they all knew these weren’t even ‘games’ anymore, they had evolved into timesinks, gacha blackholes, activities to keep kids and social misfits from doing bad things, unless it was mainstream commercial success by a vetted reputable brand, supported by recognisable celebrities, for then it was marked as a pleasant pastime for happy people. He wasn’t sure of what she was playing or whether her network evaluation was accurate but right here, sitting in front of him, glued to a screen with a still half eaten breakfast while she fed a dragon-thing in virtua, she didn’t seem happy, and not that he really wanted to change the topic, but neither was he.
He tried to not sound like a salaryman about to go mental over a burger advertisement, but it seemed just too comfortable to state that he just didn’t have any control over anything in his life. He inhaled sharply through his nose. He should be happy. No, he should be satisfied. They were fifty percent through the mortgage. His blood pressure was just a little over average. Work didn’t ask for that much overtime. His network reputation was untarnished (nobody had dug up his past to fling dirt at him for stupid things he had done, yet). Life was ok. Just ok. He had stopped buying things he needed. That was the accepted social sign he was a fortunate one. During this reflection, Conney hadn’t moved an inch. She knew where this was going. She picked her battles. She pretended to not be listening intently, while looking over her friends’ selfies, holiday snaps and baby pics, and pretending to like them.
John turned his gaze to the main screen of the kitchen, where the news was condensing a war report with cartoon imagery. He remained casual in tone and moved his head forward and back, like he was listening to ‘cool’ music, as the cartoons continued to depict people being ripped apart by missiles in some far away miserable country.
“Oh, so it’s like a simulation?” He inquired politely, “Like Football Manager?”
She had never heard of this but the title was explanatory.
“Can you take control of your team at any point?” She returned.
“Um, no” he assumed, as he hadn’t tried the game in fifteen years, “it’s fully automatic”, he hoped.
“Then,” she replied with the most dramatic of pauses, “no.”
This wasn’t over. He had to keep trying!
“So it’s playing by itself? So what’s the point then?” He reeled inside and out, knowing she could explode with the last question.
She looked up briefly, her eyes continuing to roll into the back of her head, to dismiss him, and his lack of anything substantial, before returning to her breakfast with a sigh.
Well, fuck, he thought. That went well. It was this kind of questioning that made him feel retarded. As soon as he asked the question he realised the answer but it simply hadn’t occurred to him before. As if he had time to think about these things. That’s what conversations were for, weren’t they? Bloody weird way to play a game, he thought, and, taking some offence, the way you’re swivelling those eyeballs, you’re gonna end up like a chameleon. He humphed to himself and didn’t notice two pairs of eyes glancing at him momentarily, then to the screens and finally to each other, just to check if they had missed something. They hadn’t, and so resumed their gazes elsewhere, after confirming and recognising their respect and boundaries for one another. Oblivious, John picked up his mug of coffee and took a sip. As he looked into the darkening dark liquid, he noticed Conney’s eye now swivel in his direction, just for him to chase it, albeit unsuccessfully. He might be too slow for his kid but aha, still could match his lady. He wondered why she didn’t interrupt, or chime in with something. But, considering the volatility, perhaps that was better. If they teamed up, Alice would simply walk off. Not that things with Conney were so great either. He wasn’t sure what to call it. If anything, he felt a lack.
He felt the gap between them all widening. A chasm across the table was cracking three ways. Why was this happening? Or was this normal? He tried to remember his parents but all he could do was wave away the dark clouds and divert divert divert, change the subject and remember that it was time to work. He couldn’t remember if it was a pollution day, bacterial day or home office day, and flicked open his calendar. Ah, it was a healtive day, a.k.a. working at someone else’s office day. Others liked to call it helltive, as it was, relatively, hell.
He put his screen in his pocket, stood up and wondered about kissing his family goodbye. He didn’t get the choice, as he hadn’t noticed the sounds of their voices as they had left. Or maybe he had, and had automatically responded, without thinking. He just wasn’t sure. Wondering if he should blame his screen, he swiped it a few times to check on what he should next and at what time. He was late.
He checked for his keys, and could feel the old keyring of that fighting game he used to play. Something lit up inside him and he grinned, for some reason. It’s time to go.
He opened the front door of their small apartment in the tower block in the east side of the new old city suburbs and stepped out into the flickering yet ecological corridor lights, the red front door shutting behind him and automatically locking.
Slinging his bag over his shoulder, he started walking. It was time to battle. A theme from the game started playing in his head.