This is what happens when I have time to kill after the Bachelor. Please forgive any errors, it’s lacking a true edit.
Losers practice. That’s what is running through my mind as I watch two freshmen I don’t know play a game of Beirut with cups filled with water in the common area of our dorm. Why would you ever practice Beirut sober? They’re both terrible. The pudgy kid on the far side of the table is wearing a faded football T-shirt from his high school. He probably got it at the first practice and quit the next day. He misses the table entirely. I cringe and both players laugh hysterically. The JV offensive guard misses again and the ball comes rocketing across the room and stops at my feet. Up to that point my presence had been unnoticed. The room goes silent when they see me standing there and I look them both in the eye before bending down to pick up the ping pong ball at my feet.
“What are you guys doing later, practicing taking bras off your stuffed animals?”
They both break into uncertain smiles. I flip the ball toward the table. It takes one measured bounce and then splashes into a cup of water.
“Drink,” I say, turning my back and leaving before either can respond.
I didn’t ask to become the best Beirut player at the school. It’s just something that happened. I might not even be the best player, but that’s the reputation I carry. I’m in the myth-making business. My own myth is the one I’m cultivating. Sometimes, like with the idiots in the common area, the shit just falls right into my lap. I couldn’t have scripted that any better. By the time that story makes a few rounds I’ll have been 50 feet away from the table, or I will have thrown the ball over my shoulder on the way out of the room. It’ll make the story better when the freshmen are telling it and in the process it elevates my status even more. Like I said, I never intended for this to happen, but once it started—why not embrace it?
A year and a half ago I’d never seen a Beirut table. When a group of kids from my freshman hall were herded into the basement of a frat house I had no idea what I was looking at the piece of furniture that would get me through college. When people started playing that first night I hung back on the sidelines. I wanted to act like I knew what was going on, so I watched—committing the rules to memory. It was all very simple. The Texas Hold ‘Em of drinking games, but I could also tell that status in the frat house was somehow tied to success in this game. Across the basement, a group of seniors sat around a bottle whiskey watching the game unfold with a sense of big brotherly amusement. They would never lower themselves to getting in this game. I wanted to sit at that table.
For almost an hour I stood there, watching, sipping beer from a plastic cup, listening, walking to the keg, before it was finally my time to play. One of the brothers had noticed my wallflower status and wanted to get me involved. He snagged me as a partner and interjected us into the fray. The next game was ours.
“Are you any good?” He asked.
“I’m good,” I said. I didn’t have any proof to the contrary and we’d find out soon enough.
The beer settled my nerves, but that didn’t keep things from going against us early in the game. My partner, the fraternity brother, the one who lived in the house with the damn table we were playing on, couldn’t hit a shot. He was awful. Uncoordinated, he looked like a left-handed person throwing with their right. I knew immediately why I was recruited. No one else wanted to play with this kid. I hit a few shots, nothing extraordinary, but we were getting absolutely throttled.
“This is a fucking rout,” someone laughed as my partner missed again. We were down to one cup on our side of the table. The kid opposite me, the kid who lived a couple of doors down in the dorm had six cups in front of him as he lined up a final shot.
“Game over,” he cooed as the ball left his hand. I watched the arc and I could see right away we were in trouble. Part of me wanted to snatch the ball out of mid-air, save us the embarrassment, but I let the ball splash down—dispersing the last bits of the beer’s feeble head. The opposition erupted in celebration.
“He called his shot, he called it!”
Anyone care for a Keystone Light? I reached for the cup, resigned to our fate.
“Wait,” my partner grabbed my hand. “Re-tal,” he said. Retaliation. A rule I’d already forgotten. Clearly invented by the kid who loses a game and immediately says, “best of three.” It was a final chance, but meant for games much closer than our own. We’d have to hit six straight cups to send the game into overtime.
“You’re the guest,” my partner said. “You shoot it.” He made it sound like he was being generous, but I could see he didn’t want the responsibility. He was going to save himself the final humiliation. The next day, if anyone talked about the game he lost by six cups, he’d just blame it on the freshman.
“Sure,” I took the ball out of the beer and dipped it into a glass of water. I shook the water off with the practiced motion that I picked up from some of the more experienced players. The other side of the table was still awash in commotion over the victory and the called shot. They were loud. Obnoxious. Something came over me. “You guys want to shut the hell up so I can hit these six cups real quick?”
This produced a burst of maniacal laughter from the other side of the table. They thought I was joking, and maybe I was just a bit, but I focused through their heightened state of agitation. They were all screaming at me, taunting me, but with six cups to shoot at, I had a big target. The first shot found the mark.
“Oh good for him,” someone bellowed. “A five cup loss is way more respectable. Way to keep it close.”
The room didn’t get quiet until I hit the fourth cup in a row. Then the opposition was out of wit and my partner was the one getting excited. He was probably trying to figure out how to take some of the credit. When the fifth consecutive shot found the mark even the seniors across the room started paying attention. One casually got up and made his way over to the table. He leaned against the wall and took stock of me, while I cleaned the ball off one last time. I went through the same routine, lined up the shot, and released.
“Drink,” I said with an eerie calm in my voice.
The ball met Keystone Light and the whole basement went wild. My partner almost tackled me to the floor and even the opposing team seemed impressed with what had just happened. The senior that had made his over to the table looked at me, raised his eyebrows and then walked away. Six shots in a row, all more perfect than the last, it was unprecedented. Needless to say, we ended up winning the game, but that was all secondary to the story. The story of the comeback, it was the first story of many.
The games I’ve played since then, the feats, the burgeoning greatness has all led me to the game I’m about to play. It’s big stakes. It’s important. Bragging rights and more. I have a reputation to uphold. The basement is quiet. The crowd is showing the proper level of deference. The calm is broken by someone calling from the top of the stairs.
“Jeff! Jeff! Are you coming?”
I ignore the calls. I bounce the ball on the table and take aim. I release a shot and watch as it finds the mark.
“Drink,” I mutter under my breath.
“Jeff!” My focus is interrupted. The voice is much closer now. I turn and see my mother standing at the bottom of the stairs. She looks agitated. “We’re leaving,” she says. “Let’s go.”
I nod my head, “I’m coming.”
Finally acknowledged my mom heads back up the stairs. I rush to the other side of the ping pong table and quickly dump the water from the cups into the laundry sink. I stack the cups and wipe the table dry with a towel. Before darting up the stairs I take the envelope I’d just opened a half hour before and slide it into my pocket. Inside is my college acceptance letter.