Under His Spell: In Scrabble as in Love, it’s the Little Words that Count

 Deep down, I think, what most writers really want is to be loved with words.

Forget the short-shrift gestures, the achy-breaky looks, the profound silences. Forget ever, ever leaving anything unsaid.

But, ah! The hand-penned poem, the stumblingly sincere email missive, the drunken, napkin-back confessional. These are the mightily longed-for asseverations of a writer’s native tongue. They are ardently imperfect. And they are beautiful.

E - Erin J. Bernard

E – Erin J. Bernard

We writers use words to quantify (and qualify) our love of things and people, and I suppose we expect the same in return from our romantic prospects. Life may appear messy, disjointed, but we know better. There is, indeed, a hidden order to things, and words tease it out, inch by lurid inch.

The “words-as-love” metaphor comes to life nowhere more vividly than on the orderly red and blue grid of a Scrabble board. What better stand-in for that elusive quest than dipping your hand into a little baggie of wooden letters and grabbing at them just by feel?

Now, work the letters into a line across your opened palm. Is it a bunch of sharp-edged consonants, rigid and querulous, dancing bad flamenco across the backside of your hand? Or is it a snotty string of high-minded vowels, soft and squishy around the edges and prone to collapse into themselves at a moment’s notice? Is it that rare perfect creation, full-formed and ripe? Or does it require a bit of reworking?

Play a word, or shake the bag and reselect. Do this enough times and you are bound to stumble into something intelligible, maybe even beautiful. At least I used to think so.

Right around the time I turned 30, I became a full-time freelance writer. And not long after I became a full-time freelance writer, I quietly and permanently abandoned my belief in the all-conquering power of words.

It was a man and a heady season of online Scrabble playing that finally compelled me to renounce my citizenship to that strange, parallel place.

My gaming partner: V, a guy I’d known since high school. He had a rakish charm, bad teeth and a European accent. And, like me, he was possessed of a seemingly unshakable faith in the remunerative power of language. We were full-fledged adults busy with different lives in different cities when it all happened, but our shared love of language bonded us.

V had popped in and out of my life at interval over the course of a few years as I changed coordinates and chased writing jobs. He sent me oddly assembled gift packages in the mail, full of stickers and toys and childish sketches. He also penned me long, rambling letters raving over the essays I posted to my blog.

He claimed he’d read my entire blog – 10 years old and a few-hundred-thousand words long by that point – in a single sitting. Even my own family didn’t read my blog on a regular basis. I was deeply, fatally flattered.

V said to me the kind of stuff people only said to each other in books or movies. The kind of stuff precision-engineered to quicken the heart of any writer, but especially one dragging a comet’s tail of failed love affairs and a low-grade inferiority complex around behind her.

Stuff like: “I think you are so cool and disgustingly bright so I just hope you know cause I seriously spend most of my time thinking people don’t make sense to me, but not you.”

Or: “You are so very cool- I really want to say out loud how lucky I feel to be able to email back and forth and pick your tiny mind on anything/everything.”

Or, simply: “I think so much more highly of you than you know.”

Finally, we reunited in person, for what I guess was technically a date, and the chemistry of our correspondence seemed quadrupled. He drove me to a waterfall, where he kissed me beneath a spraying cascade of rainbow and light while Japanese tourists stood around taking photos. We spent a dozen hours tangled up in each other’s arms, not eating, not sleeping, just talking.

The next day, I drove back to my apartment with my heart thundering in my chest. We weren’t dating. We weren’t really anything yet, but that didn’t stop him from driving to my apartment a few weeks later and dumping me while I cried pitifully and took swigs off a bottle of Cuban rum.

“I just think of you as a friend,” he said, and thus began our ugly pattern.

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Journal – Erin J. Bernard

V preferred, it seemed, to encounter me only through notes and letters. His real-time rejection hurt, and I vowed to cut him out of my life. I ignored his pleading emails and threatened to delete him from my Facebook. I moved to another city. He kept writing me, kept sending me weird mix CDs full of sad songs that may or may not have been his low-context way of confessing that he, too, had unresolved feelings.

If nothing else, V seemed determined to position himself as my Personal Cheerleader. To be honest, I needed the esteem boost. I’d struggled for close to a decade to build a name for myself as a writer, and after all those years and two expensive writing degrees, I was still struggling. V was convinced that all this was about to change.

He’d say: “You and I never went out really, but you are someone I believe(d) in a ton and my world will make more and more sense the better you do in life. I know I was retarded with you, but I still hold you in the highest regard and expect continued greatness both big and small from you. How you are not famous yet is beyond me”.

Still sore from what happened after the day at the waterfall, I kept V at bay, refused his invitations to climb mountains and watch movies and meet up for lunch. A few years passed. I thought of him often, and with a conflicted heart.

Then I turned 30. My live-in relationship was starting to sour and I hated my writing job, so I retreated further into fantasies of V. I’d mull endlessly over the contents of our earnest letters, our precious few real-time conversations. I’d committed most of them to memory. Sometimes, when I was drunk and the wrong song came on the radio, I’d even cry. I still didn’t understand what I’d done wrong. And I still missed him.

So I started writing to him again. And again and again. Our correspondence picked up speed and intensity as fast as it had the first time over the course of that rainy spring. We logged thousands and thousands of words some weeks, discussing modern art, child rearing, power dynamics, city governance, fame, humiliation tactics, human trafficking.

Usually, though, we circled back to love. Our friends’ and parents’ relationships, our own public and private romantic failures, our secret wishes.

He’d say: “I sometimes think marriage is for dumb people stuck in the past.”

I’d say: “The older I get, the more marriage feels like a sham and a waste of money and the more confused I am about what I believe love can and can’t do for you.”

Despite my professed doubt, I also confessed a host of optimistically bookish fantasies: a husband who’d pore over crossword puzzles with me for hours on lazy afternoons. Handwritten love notes. Making out among the dusty stacks of the large city bookstore we both loved. (None of them things that my current boyfriend had the slightest interest in.)

V had long been convinced he’d someday fall in love at that very same bookstore, he said.

Our ideas came pouring out like little golden coins, clamorous and full of importance. My boyfriend and I had less and less to say to each other. V and I? We could barely type fast enough. And we began playing Scrabble as we chatted and emailed – long, languorous Scrabble games that took days to finish and overlapped and overlapped until we were drowning in a sea of words.

Staring at that organized grid, I had the hopeful sense that I really could give and receive love with V on my very own terms, and that I could leave unbidden the harder truths about what we were really doing. Chief among them: I was waist deep and sinking in a mucky, sucking pit of infatuation; and despite his enthusiastic admirations, his flourish for language and his boyish élan, V seemed in no hurry to encounter me in any sort of non-virtual form.

Still. I became obsessed. Nighttimes, I’d roll away from my boyfriend to face the wall, and I’d lose myself in dreams of V. Of how it could be. Of all the years we still had left to tell each other everything, never mind what had come before. The two of us, a Scrabble board. A crossword puzzle. A lifetime of handwritten notes put to paper in his childish scrawl and meant for no one but me.

I’d wake up in the middle of the night to see if he’d played a word. I’d check before breakfast, at lunch, at dinner. I neglected my writing. I was often distracted, and I began turning down any social invitation that kept me from the computer for more than an hour or two.

After several months of this compulsive Scrabbling, I could stand it no more. I kicked my better judgment out the back door and asked V to meet me at a bookstore in Portland – the rambling, sweeping one of our shared fantasies. We ended up, instead that night, in his bedroom. On his bed, our faces inches apart, blinking at each other in the dusky half-light.

The chemistry was a living, breathing thing, buzzing between us like a million dumb, tiny fireflies.

“I tried to forget you,” I told him. “But I couldn’t.”

“There’s just something about you,” he told me.

The words passed between us as easy and sweet and slow as a molasses river, until we ran out of them. Again, my heart thundered. It felt like the beginning I’d longed for ever since I’d had the words to make such a thought with, and in that moment, I would have sacrificed anything and anyone to see it through, so determined was I to join his orbit.

It was the last night we’d ever spend together.

In the weeks that followed, our correspondence again grew strained. I struggled to navigate the ending of my relationship, and V stayed away from our Scrabble games for long stretches. His computer wasn’t working, he said. His emails, once so sweeping and ebullient, tapered lamely off.

Screen Shot 2014-10-03 at 3.02.12 PM

There was one awkward reunion a few weeks later, which ended, again, in his bedroom at twilight.

He stepped out to use the bathroom, and as I waited on his bed, my eyes fell upon his computer monitor. A long, lascivious email from another girl sat open, as if by design. I commandeered his mouse, scrolled up, and discovered that they’d been at it, like we had, for months. She had come to visit him a few weeks before. She was much younger, much prettier, and a terrible speller.

When he returned from the bathroom, I confronted him.

“Are you fucking with me?” I said.

“You’ve had too much to drink,” he said.

I left in a rage. As foretold, yet another rejection letter arrived a few days later: he hadn’t meant to mislead me, he said, and couldn’t we please just forget all this ridiculous talk and just be the kind of friends who wrote each other nice, long letters?

We couldn’t. I was tired of the muck pit, the innuendo, the rejection. I wanted only to sink. I told him to leave me alone. And finally, I meant it.

V agreed, reluctantly, to stop contacting me, and then he forfeited the last, sad handful of our unfinished Scrabble games.

“You beat V,” came the automated notification, three times in a row, before I deleted that bedeviled Scrabble app – and V – from my life forever.

But I know better: It was I who had been defeated, entirely and incisively, by my stubborn conviction that you could love a person entirely in theory. That actions mattered less, and that the particularly bad and painful ones were canceled out by a weightier calculus of flowery prose. That a man must have invariably meant every word he put to paper or pixel, even if he didn’t want to hang out with you in real life. Even if he only liked the part of you that effortlessly into a virtual grid – No squishy bits allowed.

It felt like ripping off a limb, copping to that final, ineloquent truth: V wasn’t a poet or a soul mate or the romantic wordsmith I’d longed for all my lonely and overly verbose days. He was a womanizer who hid behind a stream of fancy words meant for me, or for that pretty idiot living in his computer, or for anyone at all.

V taught me that too many of the right words at the wrong moment can represent a particular brand of magic and danger, especially when you commit the unpardonable sin of conflating them with the Real, the Tangible.

Even if you’re a writer. Especially if you’re a writer. Really, they’re just empty shapes and squiggles, cast forth will-nilly with whole hearts, but blankly. It is we who color them in with the ghost meanings of our choosing.

By now, I do not think of him often. His letters are stuffed into an old hat box beneath my bed. I’ve packed all the things we said carefully away, like pocketfuls of lettered tiles scratched out in a language I no longer care to decipher.

But I still carry them with me. I jangle those tiles in my empty, cupped palms like clunky stones that some other stupider and far more hopeful version of me once mistook for little jewels.

Probably, I’ll carry them forever.

Courtesy of Morguefile

Courtesy of Morguefile


37 thoughts on “Under His Spell: In Scrabble as in Love, it’s the Little Words that Count

  1. Ankita Shreeram says:

    This is lovely – although I do hope you aren’t obsessing over him any more. It’d disturb me to write such an intense post on any former lover. So I appreciate your courage and also your openness. Not everyone can bare their soul like that. I’ve had similar experiences when it comes to romancing other writers and I’ve come to the same conclusion. Also agree with intergalacticbattlegirl’s comment thoroughly. All of us look at writing differently but when it’s used as a weapon of seduction, good results rarely ensue. I think artistic people are best balanced by people who are perhaps athletic, or have interests other than art. It’s just healthier for two extremely introspective people to not be together as partners and lovers, in most cases.

    • erinjbernard says:

      Actually, I think this story bothered me much more when it was just stuck rattling around in my head! I started this essay almost 2 years ago and hemmed and hawed over whether it was too personal to put out into the world, but finally I just said, “Fuck it.” I still half-consider taking it down every week or so, mainly because it is so unflattering for all involved, and embarrassing to cop to as well, but I’m trying to ignore that impulse. I think you are so so right about it being unhealthy for two introspective types to pair up. Things just get so messy and intense in all the wrong ways. It’s funny, because we are drawn in romantic attachments to those who mirror us in deep ways, but ultimately, we are better off seeking our opposites. It’s that whole balance, yin-yang pairing kinda thing. Thanks for the comment!

    • erinjbernard says:

      Honestly, Wilson, I’m not sure why you still read my blog. You don’t seem to enjoy anything I have to say, or anything anyone else has to say about what I’ve said. That’s fine, but I’d appreciate it if you directed your snark elsewhere. It’s really not that interesting to me.

  2. Intergalacticbattlegirl says:

    In my rant i skipped half a sentence “When women were anthropologically built to communicate as they sat around a fire, holding on to their babies and wagging tongues, building community ties, while men hunted for days in pointed silence”
    Rant less, proof more, i should get that tattooed! 😛

  3. Intergalacticbattlegirl says:

    Dang, girl. I get it. Uggh you certainly can write & beautifully.
    The problem with female writers is that they feel like they can be best understood & loved by other writers, but it’s a mousetrap. Writers are fundamentally narcissists, but male writers are the worst of the two genders. Women were anthropologically built to communicate, whilst men hunted in pointed silence. Women who can write are not necessarily that different from those who cannot, they are simply more literary, more insightful, more romantic etc…they are easy prey to men who can write. Because men who can write are different. They are mostly a unique brand of narcissists. Their biological maleness is amplified by need of various experience, accountability only to self and to ideas, fickle tastes and flights of whimsy, defiance of conformism (silly marriage, silly breeders) etc, They use words to show themselves to the world, to build an identity and to garner a reaction, hopefully one of adulation and fawning. Writing for all writers a process of self exposure, a voguing of sorts, a performance. When male writers write to female writers it is usually nothing more than the dance of a regular guy picking up a regular girl at a bar conducted to the tune of a different instrument and in a foreign tongue. Their narcissism is not as external as someone else’s but it is infinitely more virulent, because it’s fueled by communication, as apposed to just a sexual reaction, it creates an illusion of a soul connection. To these male writers words are like bodies & faces are to the regular folks. A male writer uses words like a peacock uses feathers and female writers fall for these words with all of the conviction of their overly sensitive, often lonely little souls. They revel in concepts, in ideas, in cheap tricks like long hand snail mail, funny gift boxes etc. I can honestly say that in my own way I had been there once, and in a similar way I was discarded, i still Facebook stalk him once a year or so, and our thang wasn’t nearly as epic or as long lived as yours, it stays with you. For them, though, the novelty wears off quick, we are to them just ideas, just mirrors in which their greatness, charm and appeal can be reflected, just objects against which to bounce off their romantic flare, they are vampires but instead of our blood they seek our attention, the ways we make them feel by loving them from afar.

    Hmm that got long. Kind of a rant. In conclusion, I don’t know if you will find this useful at all, I found the truest, deepest, most profound love, with a man who is not artistic in the ways I am at all, he is literally the apposite of a writer, he is a very bad writer and not an eloquent speaker. But he is smart. I think being complementary as apposed to alike is key. Words are not his tools at all, he doesn’t think as deep or look as hard at things as i do, in fact in the beginning of our courtship he wrote me one of the worst poems I could have ever imagined to be composed by an adult, for a little while i thought it was written by his kid son, but then the meaning struck me as a little sexual and i realized it was from him to me. He is solid, honest, good hearted, he’d die for me, he supports me in everything, my writing is impressive to him without much merit. He paints terrible abstract pictures, builds cars, makes weird metal art, he has carved a few really gorgeous spoons for some reason. He plays tons of video games. A dubious past time. He lets me do me. Frankly we share few hobbies besides tv and food. But we are the very best of friends. He is not into any of the airy romantic stuff i can revel in for all eternity, but he loves me fully, foibles, uglies and all. It is the most romantic love of all, I am telling ya, it’s what romance is supposed to be, not what masquerades for romance in the forms of long hand letters and steamy kisses. He is not who i thought i would end up with, he doesn’t resemble in the slightest the man i thought i would marry or the men I dated in my late teens/early 20’s, but he is decidedly the best thing that ever happened to me. Before him I was always lonely, and mostly hurting. Female writer types are narcissists too, we just need someone who’ll love us and TRY to understand us, rather than someone who IS like us. I believe that.

    • Wilson says:

      Sounds like a relationship built to last, its always a good sign when you mistake a poem written by your partner to you as written by a child. God I love the internet.

      • Intergalacticbattlegirl says:

        It wasn’t written over the internet, it was a silly bad rhyme. I think my point got across well to anyone who isn’t just trying to say something, anything snarky. I feel like you’re stalking me.
        It is built to last and it’s lasted many years. Anything else?

          • Intergalacticbattlegirl says:

            The fact that you seem to think you need to respond to me not only on my blog but on my contribution to
            Other people’s blogs denotes a fixation. Wherever i am, there you are with you vapid quips. I appreciate the attention, like i appreciate a persistent mosquito. If you can ever muster something substantive to say…it would be a nice change of pace.

              • Intergalacticbattlegirl says:

                Like a thought which either confirms or disputes my theories about male and female writers, or a thought which contributes something to Erin’s experience, an insight, perhaps one from a male’s perspective. Latching onto something i said to ridicule it has been your SOP so far, exclusively, it’s the easiest thing to do, i know because i do it too, but it’s not all i do, try and diversify

                • Wilson says:

                  There was no ridicule intended but from a males perspective I’d be a little pissed if I went through the effort of writing a girl a poem to have her say it was awful and written by a child. And also I Erin has a very large vocabulary but you don’t write an entire essay about a guy then say “I don’t really think about him anymore”.

                  • Intergalacticbattlegirl says:

                    Ok. So the thing is, Todd and I do not take ourselves too seriously, he writes awful poetry and we laugh about it, i cook him terrible inedible meals and we laugh about my ineptitude also. The best part of an honest relationship is that there is no need to sugar coat anything, our egos play no part in our love, we appreciate each others efforts and make light of the best often disastrous results.
                    As for Erin, i’ll speak for her from my perspective. I don’t think of my “V” but once a year, that’s when i look him up on facebook, it doesnt come from any longing, but just from a mind reminiscing about many things past and people gone, he was a major event of my early twenties, and if i chose to write about it, which i probably will after some time as not to piggy back on Erin’s beautiful piece, i would write about it in painful and extensive detail, i would make sure that what it meant to me then, is clear to my now readers, it wouldnt mean however that what it meant to me then is what it means to me now. I hope that clarifies how she can write a piece like that but not think of him often. That was substantive, i appreciate that you heard me, i did not expect it.

                  • Wilson says:

                    Well I’m not slamming her piece at all and thats actually enlightening and something I would not have thought about. Now from the male perspective, how would you feel if your current boyfriend wrote an article about a girlfriend he had in the past?

                  • Intergalacticbattlegirl says:

                    I think adulthood and maturity exists on a spectrum, some can handle honesty about pasts others cannot, lots of writers pull from the past, we have all had life and experience prior to our present loves, pretending like they dont exists or arent a part of us for the sake of our partners fragile egos is a losing proposition and a life of repression, my husband is my best friend, i talk to him about whatever whenever and it can’t touch what we have & vice versa, everything prior to our life together is just lessons lived and learned, we talk about past loves like we talk about old movies. Some couldnt handle it, but some can, i think those able to be open and ruminative about their pasts together have a richer bond and a truer unity, all that i am now is composed of all the moments of my past, i honor them as does my partner, that is the only way to truly know each other. I’ve theorized before that you’re in your teens, assuming this is true, and not disparaging at all your youth or capacity to understand, i think it’s vital to accumulate that past filled with adult relationships before you figure out a method of compartlization* which best works for you. I think writers more so than others will often share in the opinion that all life experiences are fair game as far as writing prompts go. When i write about my “V” my husband will be amused to learn about that moment in my life, and in no way affected or threatened.

                  • Wilson says:

                    Well again your assumptions are way off although I have picked on you unfairly, but thats only because you reply. And like you have I can only surmise that you are in your 20s. Im going to show my maturity by not pointing out the obvious ridiculousness in that reply.

                  • Intergalacticbattlegirl says:

                    Huh? So i am off on your age ok? I stand corrected, perhaps you’re just annoying and not merely young. What is this “obvious ridiculousness” do tell, saying that it’s there but not saying what it is doesn’t bode well for your maturity. Also stating that you’re showing maturity is counter productive to showing it lol. And you were doing so well.
                    You surmise wrong.
                    You have picked on me unfairly only because i reply? That’s nice, another solid sign of maturity. I dont feel picked on in the least by the way, so don’t worry about it.

    • erinjbernard says:

      First, Battle Girl: You need to turn this excellent rant into a blog post on your own site! Lots of great observations worth sharing more widely.
      Second: I totally agree on the don’t-date-a-writer-if-you’re-a-writer thing. I read this satisfyingly long comment in bed when I woke up this morning. Next to me asleep was my boyfriend/fiance, who is incredibly fantastic and not the least bit creative and artsy. In fact, he teaches upper-level math and is as analytical as they come. Me, I’m all gut. And it works fantastically. He writes me short, thoughtful emails and a sweet card each birthday and Christmas and I couldn’t be happier. We connect over our love of foreign languages and great books and have fantastic conversations every day about everything under the sun, probably BECAUSE we come at life from such different angles. Here’s to difference!

        • erinjbernard says:

          Well, I was just chatting with my stepmom about this blog post a few minutes ago and we both agreed that the process of learning and growing through relationships is never really finished. You just keep getting smarter, learn from your mistakes, and apply what you’ve learned to future interactions. It’s a journey. Fantastically interesting and sometimes baffling.

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