So say there’s this guy, and you’ve been with him a while now—long enough to know whether he prefers black or pinto beans in his burritos and how many beers he can drink before he’s an asshole—and he’s dying to drag you into the big arcade on the boardwalk. What are you supposed to do? You go. Big duh. Of course you go. Forget that outside there’s a sunset and maybe even a dolphin or something else you’d rather be looking at. You don’t admit that the stuffed beanie bodies shoved into all of the machines have always reminded you of mass graves. You smile. You try real hard not to think CONCENTRATION CAMPS, CONCENTRATION CAMPS, CONCENTRATION CAMPS and fight the uneasy feeling from all of those lifeless, plastic eyes.
Why? What do you mean, why? This is your guy! Let’s call him Frank. This is your Frank. This is the Frank who you built a pillow fort with that one time. Just imagine you have this guy, and last fall the two of you took all of the pillows and sheets from his room and all of the sheets from his roommate’s room and built this big, stupid tent thing. Then you smoked inside of it. Then, after the two of you were pretty baked and all of the pillows were already part of the fort, he used your stomach as a cushion for his head. He called it your belly and told you that you were beautiful. And it’s not like anyone is counting or anything, but maybe he was the first one to ever say that to you. Ask yourself: are you the kind of girl who can’t put up with twenty minutes of skeeball for the first guy who ever told you that you were beautiful? So you tell yourself that you’ll catch up with the sunset next time and ignore the tiny part of you that’s worried that no other sunset ever will ever be as beautiful as this one right now that you’re missing.
When something inside one of the claw machines catches Frank’s eye, you just smile. Even after he puts the quarter in, and the scrolling LED letters above the machine flash the words PLAY UNTIL YOU WIN, you keep smiling. It’ll be over soon.
On the front panel of the claw machine, there’s a toggle with a big, blue button on top that says DROP. Next to that is the blinking timer that starts at sixty and works its way down. The robotic limb jerks all around as Frank pulls the toggle. Then, with his face inches from the glass, he presses the big button, and the claw lowers itself. Its long, curved fingers grab lazily, without conviction, and come up empty. A second later, the timer resets itself.
So it’s fifty-eight seconds, then fifty-five, and now you’re standing there like an idiot, watching the clock while he keeps on yanking on the toggle. You’re probably starting to realize that this strategy is questionable, but you take one look at his frown lines and the sweat pooling around his shirt collar and decide not to question it. Instead, you start doing some counting yourself. Imagine that Frank did something really great that week. You need specifics? Let’s say he played with your younger brother for two hours—catch or something cute. So you keep telling yourself that you have no right to be annoyed about a few minutes in an arcade. Except wait—you went down on him for almost forty-five minutes that night because he was drunk, so why should you feel guilty? Pretty soon, the timer flashes five, and you’ve divvied up your whole relationship like a check at a restaurant.
By now, you’re maybe starting to wonder what intentions a guy like Frank could possibly have with some cutesy toy anyway. This is a guy—and I know you don’t know him—but just imagine that this is a guy who you watched almost lose an ear playing rugby once. This is a guy who’s spent more than one Sunday afternoon watching his pet piranha chomp on a goldfish. Picture this guy. How many pocket-sized plushies could this man possibly require in his pursuit of happiness?
And what’s really freaking you out is how freaked out he’s getting over this stupid game and some dipshit prize.
Suddenly, his eyes light up, and he presses the button again. One more time, the claw plunges down into the Valley of the Dolls and this time when it comes back up there’s something hanging from it—some doll.
Except that when you look closer, it isn’t a doll at all, and it isn’t a stuffed animal and it isn’t an action figure. It’s a girl. It’s a teeny, tiny Thumbelina with her hair done sort of how yours is. If you squint, it has the same coloring as you and it’s even wearing the same men’s undershirt over cut-offs that you are.
You’re so distracted by these revelations that you hardly realize this little person-thing is moving all on its own. But of course, you eventually notice that too and then you really start losing it.
There it is: this itty bitty you trapped inside this glass box dangling from one of the claw’s long, metal fingers. The little you is flailing around, kicking her legs so hard that a Barbie-sized shoe flies off and hits the glass. Her mouth is wide open in a scream that you can’t hear over the hum of the machine and the Pac-Man music. Her eyes are frantic, darting back and forth between Frank and You and You and Frank. She shakes her head no, no, no. Looking straight into your eyes, she mouths the words NO, PLEASE, and HELP.
Meanwhile, Frank is smiling again. His breathing is heavy, but he looks happy. He’s so sure this is it. Now who do you root for? You’re panicking because this is your Frank, but also this is you that you’re dealing with. It’s you caught on this hook, and you’re only just now starting to realize that if Frank won’t give up, and the little you won’t quit squirming to escape, this could just go on and on until one of them wins.
Suddenly, the claw jerks abruptly, and the little you sticks her arms straight over her head and slips right out of the undershirt. In just cut-offs and the same blue bra that you’re wearing right now, she falls back into the mound of Tweety Birds and Care Bears. She lands on one bear’s heart-tattooed stomach, rolls over, and starts to burrow frantically into the pile. A second later she’s out of sight. For a moment, you can see a few of the prizes’ limp limbs come to life while she moves underneath them. Then, everything in the machine becomes still again. Frank pounds his palm on the glass, cursing.
The timer goes back to sixty. Frank drops the claw over the spot where the little you has just disappeared. Instead of some half-nude girl, the claw grabs hold of the Care Bear. Frank is saying fuck fuck fuck. You? You’re sort of sweating—sort of damp the way you get when you’re nervous. Then the claw releases right over the shoot, and suddenly it’s game over. Frank bends down to pick the bear out of the bin. The way he looks is just too horrible—like someone’s just mailed him that stupid piranha all dried up in a shoebox. This is your Frank, standing there with the Care Bear in his hands. This is your Frank, and he’s so sad.
“What do we do now?” he asks you. The question in his voice is so much bigger and longer than the next few minutes, the rest of the night, or time left until the end of the weekend.
So what do you do? What the fuck are you supposed to do? I’ll tell you what you do. You reach into your fucking goddamn pocket and you hand the poor guy another quarter. And you return his smile as he feeds it into the machine, watching as the LED lights begin to flash the words PLAY UNTIL YOU WIN.
Cara Dempsey studies English Literature at Skidmore College. In the second grade, she wrote a report on armadillos. After careful deliberation, it was deemed the best report in the whole class. She was rewarded for her hard work by being forced to read it in front of the entire school. The experience was nightmarish, but the armadillo report remained her most significant literary achievement for many years.
Lead image: “Toy machine” (via Flickr user Newsbie Pix)