When Kari wanted to be a closer friend to me and Ashley and Elle, she meant it. She wanted to start a regular tabletop game meeting, even if it was just the four of us.
She said that Gene kicked her out of the house for the night, and that he was meeting with a stranger. A woman, actually, but not the kind of woman he usually met with. She said it cautiously around me, but I wanted Gene to have someone else instead.
“…she wants miso broth and every topping you have,” said Kari. “I dunno, you said you like fermented foods and was really hungry and stuff…do you mind?”
“No, that sounds great…thanks for navigating the menu.” Some of the items only went by their Japanese names and I was lost. But Kari knew enough Japanese to translate for me. Cloud ear mushroom, fish cake, and leeks were all stuff I liked or wanted to try, and I wouldn’t without her. I used to hate ramen for not being pho, but now I was glad that the ramen shop was in Uptown again…
…I missed my chance on trying it the last time. I hated that I used to be so stubborn around food, after I tried so much food. Sabier City had so much food! And it had food that made me happy like sharing cheesecake, samosas, or bánh bao with Elle and Ashley. It was going to be just as good with Kari…or even better.
I couldn’t even count the ways she made me feel clear and warm like no one else did. It even opened my mind up for deeper questions than I ever asked anyone.
“I feel bad,” I said. “Last time I was at this ramen stand, I didn’t eat anything and was mean to Gian and my friends instead. So I don’t know what to do.”
“I heal people with kindness and food…so you can do that,” she said.
“How did you learn that?”
“It was probably when my dad, being a little drunk and with an empty house, bought me doughnuts and hot chocolate whenever I stayed over. Love should taste delicious.”
That was an nice way to say that Gene was only able to keep his kids liking him by feeding them. It was how Andrea kept me too, but he definitely did more…didn’t he?
There was something poetic about that sentence. Love should taste delicious. Because falling in love with men who cooked for me wasn’t working out, but also, I loved the way Kari talked. She had this whole new mode sometimes when she talked. Her sentences became longer and her words did too. I wondered if she did that on paper too, in case I wanted to be a real rich person with a biography.
“What did you get again?” I asked Kari.
“Shoyu broth and extra bean sprouts. Oh my god, it is so much better when made at home though.”
“Okay, can I have a bite? You know…to give me a teaser?”
I thought that it might be too weird, but Kari then nudged a spoon close to me.
“Oh, did you get the bean sprout in there?” Kari asked.
The broth was excellent! I loved bean sprouts like every Viet I knew, but I didn’t care. It felt good to be fed. Love should taste delicious, and friendship had to too, right?
We got back to the apartment before it got dark. Kari would keep me safe in the dark, but I wasn’t ready to trust her that much. Plus, she always wanted to meet my dog…
“Oh…wow…he squirms!” Pickles was trying to lick Kari’s face and it was always difficult to hold him when he wanted to kiss me. I thought she would be stronger, but Pickles was a strong little dog too. “His fur’s so soft though.”
“Yeah, it’s like holding a cotton ball,” I said.
“Aww, thanks for letting me hug you, puppy!” Kari nuzzled the top of his head and cooed to him. I was so happy that someone loved my dog! Gene was allergic to them, so any kids who he raised couldn’t have one. It also meant that Pickles kept him out of the apartment. Kari let me experience special things I never had before, and I could do the same to her.
Ashley let me borrow one of her video games for a week and I wanted to play more until they came over. I wasn’t really good at it. And it was single-player, so Kari had to pet Pickles on the couch instead. She didn’t mind though. She didn’t mind at all.
Neither did my cute dog! He loved all the attention. I guess I had to invite Kari over even more, and not just when Gene wanted to have sex with another woman.
“Oh god, oh god, I didn’t save,” I muttered. There was a checkpoint in the game but I kept missing it or forgetting about it. “Oh no.”
“Don’t throw your controller at the floor next time,” said Kari. “Like, I know we’re rich but it’s still gonna break.”
“It all still feels really weird,” I said, pouting at her. “Trying to be happy. The last time I tried it, it was so uncomfortable that I put myself in an even worse place just to feel like what’s been normal.” I missed Axel, and I couldn’t blame him for that. Being happy with me put him in a dark place too. “And I’m not even good at games.”
“Uh…I can’t help you with that first one, but I have a story for that too…but like, it’s a real one,” said Kari. “You know, you gotta go to the Angel City Museum of Art and Natural History one day. You know…it’s the country and world we live in. Even if you’re not a citizen…” She trailed off and looked at me in an awkward way.
“I was born here,” I said. “Just like you.”
“Oh, well, it’s more complicated for me and I have two passports and everything…it’s a long story and stuff,” she said. “Kind of like this one.”
Kari transformed when she was in story mode even more, for paragraphs at a time. Her awkward pauses and Valley Girl filler turned into a beautiful story, like it was written on paper in front of her…
What’s harder than finding someone excited about an unpaid internship? I got told that joke on my first day working at the museum, but of course I laughed it off. I was so lucky to not have to worry about pay or money, and I could fill an important position that was otherwise a giant crack in their big glass windows. My specialty actually wasn’t Japanese pottery or pre-Columbian life in Selvadorada, but it was positioned as a chance to learn anyways.
Of course, I protected against those cracks. I never knew how desperate they were for security guards who were working on history degrees.
It is such an amazing job! But everyone who gets it wants to be the hero, instead of resigning to the fact that they won’t be. They wear the costume so everyone feels safe and the artifacts of war do too…and shouldn’t that be good enough?
Once you know you won’t be the hero, you have time for everything else. You see school groups roaming the exhibits, and at least one child thinks you’re a tour guide instead. It would crush them if you said that you can’t help, that you know nothing about the treasures you guard, or even worse: that none of them are important.
History is the most important part of learning! And my old professors would hang me by the foot if I said otherwise, but I believe them earnestly.
It was a quiet day when he came into the Japanese exhibit. His name was Harry, and he went for 65 years without ever passing a history class. It was astounding to me, and not in a good way! But Harry wanted to atone for that sin, and wondered if there were classes he could take.
I could have recommended the community college, but I knew how much it cost, and that not everyone had a dad who was an executive at Cote & Savoie.
So we met after hours in the museum’s library, once everyone was out or at the front desk at most. I didn’t think it was anything but a good deed…
“…buuuuuut I got terminated from the internship for breaking museum rules about employee-only spaces, so…not my proudest moment.”
“Uh…did you finish college?” I asked her. I always found it fascinating after not finishing school. But everyone else I knew went to Harvard or Yale or the University of Texas. They had a lot of stories.
“Oh, yeah, it was pretty uneventful. I didn’t even get wasted at a party or anything,” she said. “But I loved it! And people can start it at any time!”
“Yeah. The end of the story is that I saw Harry in one of my classes later. And he’s so much older than you.”
She must have wanted me to go to college. It would be hard for me, but Kari sounded like good enough of a reason to go…why? We were friends for a couple weeks at most, and even weirder, she seemed impressed with me just the way I was. Everyone else I knew was, but even Axel started out with prying into my past every day, and treating me as a sexy mystery! Was I allowed to be mad at that in hindsight? It wasn’t nice to think back on. I liked the sex with him a lot more.
I was also so happy to see Ashley and Elle when they arrived. I even gave them hugs. I was starting to feel better about it. But even better, Kari was going to be their friend too! She had to be. If they could be friends with me, they could be friends with anyone.
“Hiii, I hope you remember me from, you know, hanging out outside the limo?” Kari asked Elle.
“Oh yeah, the other straight girl. We’ll accept any talk about your boyfriend as long as your game doesn’t suck,” said Elle.
“Well, I’m bi and actually don’t have that much to talk about! Like at all,” Kari said.
She said it quickly like she didn’t want to say it…was I going to be the odd one in the group again? Not like Kari would make me feel left out. We still had a lot more in common. While I wasn’t a Cosavo kid like she was, I still felt like that anyways.
But then I felt a lot of relief when she said that and I didn’t know why! Was I just associating bi girls with easy friends? Guaranteed niceness? That sounded kind of stupid. I didn’t know that many gay or bi people before I met Elle and Ashley anyways.
“Awww, I had a bit of a feeling,” Ashley said. “I’m glad that she said it.”
“Yeah, I am too.”
Kari looked really happy when she grabbed the big bowl of chips on the table, so she must have been glad to say it too.
“So welcome to our first meeting for Dragons Out of Their Cages…it’s…oh my god we need a new DM. I am so not good at this,” Kari said. But I disagreed. “I wanna say you might not know what the game is, buuut it’s been one of those big sellers at game shops too? Do we all still do that?”
I kept nodding along to what she was saying. I hadn’t played a tabletop game like that ever. Mike and Tessa sometimes did, so I stayed away because of that. It also meant that Ashley probably played with them before, but I was able to think less and less about that. I was making good progress with not letting the stepkids run my life.
“We’re taking you back to a clearing in a deciduous forest, growing out of coasts and grey rock cliffs…”
…it was one of the many grey days when she came with her pets…so to speak. She was once known as the Duchess of Akaiva, but she was stripped of her title long before her conspiracy to burn whatever could be set alight with her dragons’ breath.
Everything was at stake, from every tree and pile of kindling to even the grass underneath their feet. Before the whole state turned black with ash between any survivors’ toes, there were campaigns to stop her, but more importantly, her beasts. It was easy to spot a dragon; fully grown, they are 20 feet without their tail. It was their fire burning, and their feet crushing whatever remained.
But every man who tried failed within seconds.
It was a long monologue, and everything she said captivated me. What could be next?
Ten years later, every wooden building was a pile of ash and dust, and every stone foundation charred black. The dragons regretted it. They were growing hungry when everything was killed, and cold when nothing as left to burn. Her wolves and bears grew thin too, even cannibalizing their own. Any survivor who passed through left them in that state of neglect.
Was it the animals’ fault? They were trained but never had a choice in it. Was there even the capacity to disobey? Or to change?
And you have a choice: you can be a scared survivor, or you can give the tools of war a second chance.
“…and that is what I read from the DM’s pages,” said Kari. “I embellished it a little but, like, don’t give me too much credit.”
“Oh, it looks like Thu will,” said Elle. How did she know me so well?
Kari was keeping score and doing a lot to make sure we didn’t read over her DM screen, even if meant not writing at the counter.
I played but it was hard to not watch her. She got a beer, smiled a lot and gently guided us through the game, and I didn’t know how much I actually learned. But Kari kept my score: I raised three dragons and a bear to full health! And killed one human and her infant. It was a weird game.
And for that whole time, I didn’t know what Elle and Ashley were whispering about!
We turned on the console again after the old adults went to bed. Gian was okay with anyone staying as late as they liked, as long as they got themselves home safely. I was getting a little better at video games but Ashley brought another one to confuse me. Everyone else was keeping us alive but I sat down puzzled by the controller.
Elle and Ashley cuddled a little while they played, which they always did. I usually had nothing to think about it but that night, I almost felt jealous. I realized that I hadn’t gotten cuddled in months (as long as I didn’t count Gene). Or did Kari cuddle with me when I stayed over in her room? That was nice, I wanted that again.
“Ugh, I am so not doing well!” Health and ammo were down and no one was coming to my aid. “Is there a three player option? I can’t do this.”
I sat on the other couch and felt bad for giving up. I had gotten used to giving up on everything else, or when I didn’t give up, for it all to go horribly. Wasn’t Cosavo going to be that, then?
“Hey, you still did a great job,” Kari said, with her hand on her chest.
“No I didn’t…but you were the DM all night and explained that game really well to me. I even got a great card combo and it was all…you!”
“And you hosted us and gave lots of chips and beer? That’s great too…like…you didn’t even know those were some of my faves.”
“Yeah…” Oh god, she was being nice again. I had to be nice back…and I wanted to be. Kari was supposed to be someone who was easy to be kind to.
“You know, it was really brave of you to say that you’re bi tonight. I’m happy that you are.”
“Why’s that?” she asked. She looked so innocent, but also like she was trying to get some kind of deep answer from me. I didn’t do deep answers! I needed to spend more time asking Kari deep questions first.
“I dunno…I think it’s a cool thing to be. It’s nice to be able to explore who you are, and answer questions like that. I….I wonder if I missed my chance.”
“There’s no time limit.” Kari put her arm around my shoulder and pulled me a little closer. “There is so much to discover about you! You should never give up on that.”
“I mean, I’m older than anyone here.” I was turning 30 in a few months and that was scary.
“It doesn’t matter! There’s no time limit, and I’m so happy to watch you do this.”
No one had ever told me that. They usually thought I was doomed from the start, or that it was sexy to be doomed from the start. And Kari’s own dad was in that last kind of camp. She did seem to say that he raised her, but how much? She was everything Gene should have been.
And for that, she got a big hug.
“Thanks, I won’t disappoint you,” I said.