The Suitcase Game
by Renato Barucco
The man stared at the napkin stuck to the counter like a flimsy shirt to a sweaty chest. He had scribbled four words on it. His handwriting was precise and minuscule, easy to read, unlike his thoughts. He counted the words under his thumb from top to bottom, then from bottom to top, unsatisfied. Socks, charger, phone, toothbrush. He squeezed his lips with the tips of his fingers, not a sign of his attitude toward the game, but an indication of wise caution. On the stool next to him, Johnny, the brains behind the game, nodded to the beat of “A Little Respect” by Erasure, sipping his Cuba Libre, as he liked to call it, bewildered by his decision to bring back the game.
“What am I going to find out again?” asked the stranger, whose name was either Greg or Craig, almost certainly Greg. Johnny would go with that.
“I can’t tell you now. It would sway your answers and spoil the game. You scared, Greg?”
“A little. And it’s Craig.”
Craig wasn’t scared; he was normal. A tad of hesitation at the beginning of the game was part of the experience, so to speak. There had been all sorts of players over the years: tough guys who’d loathed the nonsensical directions (which required a certain level of abstraction), hysterical boys who’d embraced the journey with inappropriate enthusiasm, and amoebas without vitality and imagination, unable to play by design. Once in a while, a perfect match would come around, a man like Craig, disillusioned, eager, unfulfilled. All players had been men. For one, women would have smelled the bullshit from miles away. Besides, the whole thing wasn’t a whole lot more than a stunt to get laid, and Johnny liked men.
He could no longer remember how the game came about, or even if he’d made it up. The result of his round with it, though, was vivid in his mind: a road to nowhere. It served no purpose at all, except for tormenting Johnny when he least expected it with visualizations of a curved, white road in a desolate field. Still, the game was fascinating, useful in ways that escaped rationalization. It was a one-shot deal since, once its purpose was known, playing it again didn’t make sense. The instructions were elemental, engaging for most.
“You have to leave for an important trip. You don’t know where you are going or for how long you’ll be gone. The destination could be in the tropics or the Arctic, a big city or a desert island. You could be away for a day or a lifetime. Write sixteen things you put in your suitcase.” Johnny would say something along those lines then guide the player through four rounds of word associations that would reveal an unconscious dream, a fear, or a desire, something lurking in the basement of the player’s mind, devouring psychic energy. In other words, the game relied on baseless psychology for people raised on insecurities and determinism, Johnny’s favorites. It wasn’t, however, entirely innocent or without consequences. It weakened a man’s defenses, and a weak man was an easy target for Johnny, an uncomplicated antidote to days of crushing boredom. A few years back, he’d sworn to himself he would quit playing the game once and for all. His intentions, however, were as weak as his flesh.
“I take it socks is one item,” said Craig. “Or are two pairs of socks two items? Or four items?”
“Socks is one item.”
“What about toothbrush and toothpaste?”
“One item. Toiletries.”
“Oh. It’s going to be easy, then.”
He hunched over the counter and added a bunch of words to the list.
Toothbrush, toiletries, t-shirts, jeans, boots, belt, sneakers, shorts, passport. He paused, rubbed the knuckles of his fingers against his thighs, and ordered another Old-Fashioned. Antibiotics, watch, wallet, sweatshirt.
With his spacious forehead and a Gérard Depardieu nose, he was almost handsome in the compassionate light of the bar. He blinked slowly, like a consumed man. The bartender peeked at the napkin as he stirred the drink, then gave Johnny a judgmental look as if he’d been behind that counter long enough to read minds. But Johnny held his gaze and raised his eyebrows, driven and unafraid.
Earlier that night, hands in his pockets, he’d walked around the West Village aimlessly, not sad but dour, locked out of life. The city had seemed a ghost town of lucid sidewalks and driverless cars. On Waverley Street, he’d heard music coming from the bar and thought, why not? He’d picked the stool at the corner, opposite to Craig already on his third Old-Fashioned. Fifteen minutes later, their laconic conversation had turned into the infamous suitcase game. A trouble shared is a trouble halved.
“You are doing good. Go on. I’ll be right back,” said Johnny now, before leaving the man to his task to go to the bathroom, an unheated, foul room in the back of the bar. In the mirror above the urinal, he noticed his eyes arched downwards, the telltale signal of his growing guilt. The game was selfish and ruthless when it worked, useless and boring when it didn’t. On top of that, the type of men who agreed to play shared a sweet weakness, the echo of inner voids no one should abuse. Back in the main room, he was tempted to raid the jukebox and put an end to the looming threat of never-ending ballads from hell. “Total Eclipse of the Heart” had just followed “Didn’t We Almost Have It All.” But then “The Way” came on.
“Every time I hear this track, I think about dementia,” he said, back in his seat. “This song is based on a true story. Did you know that?”
Craig shook his head.
“It’s about a couple from Texas. Old, like, in their eighties. They both had issues with their brains. I don’t remember what exactly, but age-related stuff. One day, they decided to go to a festival in a town nearby. I think it was the wife who was driving. Anyway. They never made it there. They vanished. It makes sense if you listen to the lyrics. The cops found them two weeks later, miles from home, dead in their car.”
“I picked the song,” said Craig.
“Well, it’s a good track. I was just saying.”
Johnny hid his nose in the tumbler to camouflage the awkwardness of the moment. Craig took a sip of his drink, too, then jerked his head in the direction of the napkin with the complete list of sixteen items for the suitcase. The last word on it was rosary. Go figure.
Johnny grabbed the list and studied it in silence for maximum effect, then took another napkin from the bar and the pen sitting on the counter in a pool of condensate water.
“I will mention two items at a time,” he explained. “You have to tell me the first thing that pops into your head when you hear the words. But don’t give it too much thought. It has to be spontaneous. Okay?”
Craig raised his eyebrows and sat back in his seat, holding onto his Old-Fashioned like a weapon. He appeared vulnerable at once, an unassuming man who had sought refuge in a shitty bar to escape the downpour outside. Johnny swallowed hard to get rid of the guilt rambling in his stomach. Every man for himself.
“Socks and charger,” he said.
“Phone and toiletries.”
“T-shirts and jeans.”
The answers came without hesitation. Leather, the beach, gonorrhea, shopping.
“Sweatshirt and rosary.”
And in less than a minute, the sixteen words became eight.
“So, what’s the verdict?” asked Craig. A distinct urgency betrayed his composure for the first time.
“There’s no verdict. It’s not like that. And we are not done. There are three more rounds. Ready?”
His cheeks went up in flames as he nodded. He sat up in his stool and tried to catch the attention of the bartender who was chatting with two elderly fellows snacking on stale chips.
“Cold nights and Instagram.”
“Ibiza and leather.”
The beach and gonorrhea became strangers. Shopping and protection led to weighted blanket. Craig had an intricate brain behind that big forehead. He ordered another drink when Johnny paused to take a sip of his. They sat in silence as the bartender worked, the respective body languages—Johnny’s spread thighs and Craig’s crossed arms—an open book.
“We are almost done. Concentrate. Empty rooms and dance parties.”
“A conceptual club, like the Berghain in Berlin.”
“Is that what it is? Conceptual?” said Johnny, and then, without waiting for an answer, he added, “Strangers and weighted blanket.”
“A special stranger.”
Johnny drew a breath as a vague sensation tingled his lower abdomen.
“I’m left with the Berghain and a special stranger,” said Craig. His neck and eyes reddened, matching his cheeks.
“Yes. Correct. Berghain and a special stranger.”
“A new life. Away from here.”
The words came out loud during the two-second pause between songs, right before the piano riff of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” interrupted the silence.
“Let me take care of the music situation. I’ll be right back,” said Johnny, playing for time. He wasn’t ready to tell Craig that his mind dreamed of a new life away from that squalid bar, even if it was the damn truth. At the jukebox, he selected some Dolly Parton, a solid choice for ambiguous situations. In the process, he decided he would resort to deception, lie and tell Craig something senseless, like the result of a BuzzFeed test. “The title of your biography will be ‘A New Life Away from Here.’ ” The conversation could veer off in an innocent direction after that, books or movies, for example, anything but reality.
But by the time Johnny walked back to his seat, Craig was gone. Vanished, like the couple from Texas. He should have spared him that anecdote. Johnny stepped outside in his t-shirt to find nothing but wet streets. He returned to his stool and ordered another Cuba Libre.
“Your boyfriend’s gone?” asked the bartender, good only to fix stiff drinks. Johnny changed his mind.
“You know what? I don’t need another one.”
Outside, the rain had started falling in thick drops, heavy like disappointment, reminding him of the reason he had promised to forget about the stupid game in the first place. Overwhelming someone is as violent as ignoring them. The game was nothing but theater, another mask. He walked to the subway station apace, eager to escape the night, wishing for another life, away from there.
Renato’s work has appeared in Not One of Us, Storyscape Literary Journal, Adelaide Literary Magazine, and The Magazine of History and Fiction, among others. He has recently completed a novel and is at work on another. He lives in Brooklyn. He/his/him. More at renatobarucco.com