I have a message from TorontoCityGirl44. She says “I love backgammon too.”
I don’t really understand what she means until I remember that backgammon is one of the hobbies listed on my profile.
Her profile has a lot of pictures of her hiking. One from Zion National Park in Utah. One from Sedona. And one from, Jesus, one from fucking Nepal. She is wearing one of those hats with the flaps that cover the ears. The ones Monty Python wear while singing the lumberjack song. The caption says “the altitude is giving me the best natural high.”
TorontoCityGirl44 is not unattractive.
“We should play. Loser buys drinks.” I may have used a happy face emoji.
“Be prepared to get crushed. I only drink champagne.” Followed by a host of emojis I had never seen before. One may have been a waffle.
I take another look at her pictures and then ‘like’ her comment.
Dinner is on King Street. Far from my house but walking distance to her condo. It goes well. I make her laugh three times. I only engage the couple at the table next to us once. And this is only to insist they order the butternut squash soup instead of the gazpacho. Cold soup. Are we at war?
If interviewed, the couple would reveal that I displayed a genuine interest in Nepal. And perhaps a little too much interest in the hygiene habits of Sherpas. They are young. Youngish. He is wearing a sports jacket he may have only worn once before. They thank me for the soup suggestion. Make the requisite oohs and ahs. They both give me the thumbs-up. A real life emoji. But I feel they regret not ordering the gazpacho.
TorontoCityGirl44 goes to the bathroom. When she comes back, I notice she has reapplied her lipstick. I take it as a good sign. Later, when I tell the story to Ellen, she looks at me like I am an idiot. Reapplying lipstick is not a sign. It is just lipstick.
She does not fake-reach for her purse when the bill arrives. Which, to be honest, I appreciate.
“Are you ready to get your ass kicked?”
I smile and feign fear and apprehension.
The young man in the sports jacket once again gives me the thumbs-up. He has evaluated the situation, and based on his limited experience, determined that I was about to get laid.
I return the thumbs-up but do not share his optimism. If I had time I would explain it to him. But I don’t. And anyway, it would take too long. He doesn’t get it.
He doesn’t understand.
Backgammon isn’t just backgammon.
The smell is of burning meat. Kebabs and spicy merguez sausages. Cooking on a Hibachi grill. The charcoal, aided by kerosene starter, is now turning white. It has a salt and pepper look.
The music is Om Kalsoum. The famed Egyptian singer who, as legend is told, once took a Jewish lover. If it is Om Kalsoum, then we must be in my Uncle Henri’s backyard. That is all he would ever play.
The other discernible sound is the crackling of the die as they rebound on the plain brown wood backgammon board. The French name for it—tric trac—best describes the sound. The die are tiny ivory cubes. Not the die we would later use for Monopoly or Snakes and Ladders. In Arabic, likely a derivative of the Turkish, it is called Tawula. But the most common name is shesh besh. The shesh comes from the Hebrew word for six and the besh is the Turkish word for five.
That is a good opening roll.
The players are my Oncle Solly and Oncle Andre.
They are shirtless.
Watermelon juice running down their hairy chests as they take turns spitting the seeds across the backyard.
Oncle Solly was the coolest man I knew growing up. He drove a convertible Thunderbird and was a top guy at the Steinberg grocery store organization. He was charismatic and was an inveterate flirt.
The game was one of burgeoning testosterone. Insults, mostly in Arabic, some in French, flying as quickly as the pieces moved across the board. When they hit an unprotected piece, it was with a slam which could be heard at the Williamson house three doors down.
This was not a game. It was war.
Aggressive. Fearless. They played with what can only be described as unmitigated hubris.
The cousins, me amongst them, stood and watched. Sometimes asked to go fetch a beer or a piece of my Tante Nandi’s baklava. We sometimes played on our own mini sets but mostly we watched.
Solly would play marathon sessions. I don’t remember money-changing hands, but losses were not taken with grace. When the Uncles and older cousins would finally take a break in order to nap on the plastic lounge chairs, Solly would, with the twinkle in his eye, point to me and to the empty chair and say, “Ronnie, come show me how to play.”
I tried to emulate what I had seen—minus the Arabic insults—but the game moved much too quickly. Hesitate for a second and Solly would move your pieces for you. Make the wrong move and his face would contort as if in pain. As if he had just been kicked in the balls.
“Ronnie Ronnie Ronnie,” with a shake of the head and a wry smile.
Count the pips with your finger and there was a good chance Solly would reach over and try to snap it off.
Like my father would if we used our hands to gently push the scrambled eggs onto our fork. “We aren’t animals,” he would say.
Counting was for the Ashkenazim.
You needed to know the board. Needed to know every combination. Needed to know where every piece went with any and every combination of the die. Move to the wrong place and you would hear “non.” First time gently. Second time not so much. Third time, well there hadn’t better be a third time.
It’s where I first saw the finger wag. A wag I would ultimately adopt as my own. When one of your pieces was off the board and your roll was one which had you blocked, Solly would hold up his big meaty hand and wag his index finger back and forth. No, my friend. You can’t get in. Better luck next time. Those of you of a certain age will know the wag from the Babu character in Seinfeld.
You are a bad, bad, bad man, Jerry.
I hated that fucking finger.
And sometimes, the ultimate emasculation. When your roll afforded you only one possible move, he would make the move for you before the die even came to a full stop all the while shouting out “force” in French.
The only move you were able to make. You were forced to make it.
With a big smile. A shrug of the shoulders.
It would be over quickly. Another cousin ready to take my place.
“Good game, Ronnie. I thought you had me. Bring me a cup of Turkish coffee. Tell your aunt not too sweet this time.”
This is the shesh besh I grew up with. The shesh besh of Egyptian Jews. The shesh besh of Heliopolis. Of Alexandria. Of the Nile. Of the pyramids. Of the beach on Ras el Sum.
It was a bloodsport.
It was not a game. We took it seriously. Of forced moves. Of finger wags. Of insults in Arabic. This was the only shesh besh I knew. This is the shesh besh I played.
It took me five minutes to know if you could play. Usually less.
And five minutes before I told you that you didn’t know how to play.
This is the shesh besh I bring with me as I walk into TorontoCityGirl44’s condo.
They say when you have a stroke you can smell burnt toast. I can smell Turkish coffee.
“Nervous?” She asks.
“No,” I say as I wag Uncle Solly’s finger. “Not at all. Why would I be nervous?”