We’ve done it in the courtyard of a bungalow in Zihuatanejo. We’ve done it on the High Line in Manhattan. We’ve done it in Durham and Denver, in Santa Fe and San Francisco, in a London park where cigarette smoke clotted around us and in a Barcelona apartment where prostitutes posed on the street below.
We’ve done it hurriedly, with just minutes to spare before meeting my brother-in-law for dim sum. We’ve taken our time, pausing to sip merlot between unrushed moves. We’ve sometimes invited a third, or even a fourth, though we prefer the more intimate clinch when it’s just us two.
We’ve done it with Ella Fitzgerald crooning in the background and with the H bus wheezing past our house — after dinner or before a bagel brunch, in lieu of a nap, at the start of a vacation or the end of a harrowing day, on an anniversary, after a funeral and once with my family in the next room, television blaring, Phils playing the Marlins, top of the eighth inning with the score at 6 to 9.
Of course, I’m talking about Scrabble.
On the night she first seduced me, two dozen years ago, Elissa invited me to her apartment for dinner. I told my roommates I might not be home till morning.
It wasn’t the first time we’d played Scrabble, but it was certainly the most erotically charged. We sprawled on the floor, white wine in tumblers by our sides, bowls of mushroom fettuccine barely touched. With one hand, I shuffled my letters; with the other, I massaged Elissa’s gorgeous foot.
I have no idea who won the game that night. I do recall biking home the next day, tired, giddy and certain that I had just crossed a threshold into the rest of my life. My roommates smirked when I walked in the door. “Good game?” they teased.
But the twinning of Scrabble and seduction goes back even further. Flash to 1979: my high school boyfriend and I abandon our game to make out on the squeaky leather couch in his father’s study. When we come downstairs, his mother wants to know what we’ve been doing. “Playing Scrabble,” says Josh — not a lie, just not the entire truth.
“With the lights off?” his mother deadpans.
Even at sixteen, I understood that Scrabble wasn’t just a game; it was a metaphor for love, for life. The blend of persistence, ingenuity and luck it takes to succeed. The need to play the hand you’ve drawn — even if it’s a grim array of two Us, two As, an L, a K and a Z. The importance of losing gracefully and winning humbly, especially if you want to play again.
And I did want to play again. Especially with Elissa, who knew obscure two-letter words — LO, QI, EN — and who always used an S to make a previously played word plural, thus scoring horizontally and vertically at once. She introduced me to her family’s idiosyncratic rules — we call them the “Goldberg Variations” — including the option to trade a tile if you draw three of the same thing, and to replace a blank on the board with the letter it signifies, then use the blank immediately to make a new word.
Scrabble is sexy, not only because it might be the prelude to a more carnal encounter. There’s anticipation and cunning, there’s bluff and bold maneuvering. There’s generosity: “Here’s a present for you,” as I leave a triple-letter square exposed. And competition: “Sorry, sweetheart,” as I make “romance,” log the 50-point bonus for using all seven letters and watch my score leap from 52 to 132.
Even after 24 years, we still try to woo each other, to wow each other: words like “deriding” (April 2002, the day our daughter first said “eyes”) and “brogues” (May 2006, after a trip to the carnival). When Elissa shuffles her tiles to put “fleeting” on the triple-word space and clocks 86 points, I swoon all over again.
I know people who play Scrabble without keeping score. I don’t understand them. We take turns, using a small notebook and a black pen. The scorekeeper dates the page and jots a few notes about where we are, what we’ve done that day or what’s happening in our family or the world:
October 26, 2001: 13 years ago tonight, we met at the Oasis Café. Score: Anndee 328, Elissa 308.
November 23, 2003: Sasha is sleeping in a “big kid” bed for the first time. Score: Elissa 327, Anndee 272.
June 26, 2009: Yellow calla lilies sit on the coffee table, waiting to be welcomed into our garden in tribute to Al [Elissa’s father, who had died a month earlier]. Huge thunderstorm this evening. Score: Elissa 305, Anndee 264.
Sometimes, we play for a premium: Best of three games over a weekend and the winner takes the loser to breakfast. On a long trip to Mexico, we played a best-of-seven tournament and each won three. The day before we left, I took the final game by just ten points. That night we clinked glasses containing our prize — a poolside round of White Russians — in a toast to our Mexico sojourn and every move that had brought us to that moment.
Recently, Elissa made a confession: She’d been playing Scrabble online with a stranger. Just once. Only for a week or so. “I’d play a few turns, and the other person would play a few turns, and then I’d get tired or busy and leave it for a couple of days.
“I had to stop,” she said. “It felt like I was having an affair.”
Later that day, after Chinese pizza and iced coffee, after watching drag queens float down Fifth Avenue in New York’s Pride parade and arguing about the play we’d seen the day before, we unfolded our travel Scrabble set on the grass in Union Square.
We did it as the day cooled, as a father tossed a ball to his toddler, as a woman in combat boots read a thick book, as a family hand-lettered signs for their yard sale. We did it — each move a come-on for the next, a tango of familiarity and surprise, the game crescendo-ing toward the triple-word whammies — until the little cloth bag was empty and the last tile clicked into place.
I won’t tell you who won.