The Arcade

A short story ABOUT CHILDHOOD TRAUMA AND DADDY / DAUGHTER RELATIONSHIPS.

I used to beg my father to take me to the grocery store across the street, which I called the Arcade.  The store was a typical bodega in The Bronx, selling hot and cold sandwiches, snacks, and a consistent stock of beer.  They also had a Street Fighter 2 game cabinet.  I loved Street Fighter 2.  My dad taught me how to play video games when I was old enough to learn a little about attack combos and I became an advanced Street Fighter 2 player very quickly.  Dad would feed me quarter after quarter while he spent dollar after dollar on Heinekens, pounding them one after the other.  We’d always come home to my mother, who was screaming obscenities at the door, after hours of hanging at the Arcade.  I always knew my dad had a huge drinking problem but when we were at the Arcade, none of that mattered!  He’d pick me up from school, we’d drop off my bags and books, and we’d venture to the Arcade for hours.  My grades and my parents’ marriage suffered but we didn’t care.  We were happy.

            One day, he said no to my request to go to the Arcade after school.  I had just dumped my bags in my room and I stood there, mouth agape and brokenhearted.  When I asked why, he averted his gaze and walked out of the house, presumably to have a cry out of sight.  My mother walked into my room sat me down on the edge of my bed.  She moved my sweaty bangs out of my face; her gentleness jarring.  She was a tough, broken woman who endured my father for my sake.  She suffered having made sacrifices for our family, but it apparently got to be too much to bear.

            “Nelly, mamita,” she said, calling me by my Puerto Rican nickname. “I need you to do me a favor.”  She had dark circles under her eyes and her face appeared sullen and sunken.

“Okay?,” I sniffed out, wiping my nose on my sleeve. “What is it?”

She inhaled sharply and exhaled an exasperated breath.  “You need to tell me if starts drinking again.,” she exhaled, patting my knee comfortingly.

My eyes opened wide.  Me?  Why me?  This was not my job!  I just wanted my father to spend time with me, to love me!  Why was I her spy now? 

“What?  No, I can’t!,” I cried out, clenching my eyes shut, tears falling from the corners of my eyes and down my chubby cheeks.  I leaned forward and buried my head in my hands.  What was happening to us?

“Please, mamita.  Papi is sick and I need your help to get him better.” She stroked my back lovingly.  She was right.  I knew she was right.  I wanted my father to get better.  Most of all, I wanted my family to stay together.  I composed myself and wiped the tears from my face.  “I’ll do it, mami.” And nodded with a half-smirk.

            A week went by, and the house was filled with tension.  My parents had an already icy relationship, but the silence between them, and in the entire house, was deafening.  I had become familiar with her yelling, their fights, and his breaking beer bottles during a heated argument.  But this silence was like a monster waiting for the perfect moment to strike.  Distracting myself with homework didn’t work.  All I wanted to do was go back to the Arcade.   

One night, I sequestered myself in my bedroom and tried to complete my math homework.  I scribbled “MaTh CuD SuK iT” in the upright corner of the page in my opened math textbook and scowled at all of the word problems.

Knock knock.  I turned around in my chair and saw the door opening a crack.  It was my father.  “Can I come in, mamita?,” he said sweetly from outside my room.  I nodded and looked back at my homework, placing a hand over my rebellious graffiti. 

            He sat on the edge of my bed, a strange jingling coming from his pockets.  Keys probably, I thought.  “How’s school?,” he asked, feigning interest in my lax academic endeavors. 

            I rolled my eyes and shrugged non-chalantly, not giving into his inquisition.  It wasn’t great.  Nothing was great.  He wasn’t talking to mom.  He abandoned me.  What could he possibly want now?

            “I know we haven’t hung out much this week, Nelly.,” he said, sighing and relaxing his shoulders, curving them into his chest shamefully.  I stopped my scribbling and listened, my eyes remaining on my homework. 

            “I’m going through some things with your mother,” he confessed, yet speaking nothing about his alcoholism.  “But that doesn’t change how much I love you.”

            I swiveled in my chair and faced him.  “Then why do we have to stop going to the Arcade?!”  My face was red with sadness, eyes welling again with tears.  In my heart I knew why.  It was the drinking.  It was easy for him to surrender to his vices when he was at the Arcade.  But I didn’t care.  I just wanted US back.

            “We don’t,” he said, sliding both of his hands in his pockets.  I see his hands transform into fists causing the pockets to bulge.  He suddenly pulls them out and opens them!  “Ta Da!,” he exclaims with a big wide smile!  Quarters!  Handfuls of quarters!  Shiny ones, dull ones, but all still quarters!  They made the familiar jingling sound as he shook his open, full palms gently.  My heart skipped a beat knowing what was to come.

            “To the Arcade?,” I asked with hopeful enthusiasm.  “To the Arcade.,” he confirmed.

            Minutes later we were at the Arcade and I am feeding quarter after quarter into the Player 1 slot!  The A.I.’s Chun-Li was no match for my Ryu!  It was one Hadouken, one K.O after another!  Match after match after match!  Behind me, by the fridges, my dad cheered me on.  His hoots and hollers gave me the motivation to keep playing.  Everything was going to be okay because we, the unstoppable duo, we together at last at the Arcade!

            On my last match, I inputted a combo incorrectly and lost to Vega, one of the final opponents with a ski mask.  I threw my head back, frustrated with myself for not knowing better.  Shaking it off, I turned around to ask for more quarters and stopped dead in my tracks.  Dad was at the counter buying a six pack of Heinekens with the remaining quarters!  The cashier looked annoyed at having to count all of the change, but money is money, and he dumped the quarters into the cash register.  As it slammed with a metallic clang, the blood drained from my face and my knees shuddered.  My father, not noticing me staring, took a bottle opener out of his pocket, and with a hungry smirk, he opened the bottle.  Heineken’s distinct lager-stench filled my nostrils.  Only then did he cast a glance at me to lift the bottle in my direction.

            “Cheers to the best daughter in the world!” He took a big gulp, followed by a satisfied “ah!”

            Thought after thought raced through my traumatized mind.  My promise to my mother – do I tell her?  My relationship with my father – why did he manipulate me?  Feeling so utterly betrayed, I stood there.  Staring in shock, I was completely heartbroken and caught between a rock and a hard place.  I watched my father walk over to me, the remaining beers from the six pack in his hand and the opened one in his other.  He bent over and looked into my eyes.  They looked bloodshot, tired, and defeated.

            “Please.  Don’t tell mom,” he whispered an inch away from my face, breath stinking of yellow bitterness.  I stood there in that same spot, tears streaming silently down my face, and watched my father saunter behind the grocery shelves, hearing the familiar ‘tsss’ of the beer bottles.  On our walk back home from across the Arcade, all I could think about was how to break this to my mother.  After all, I made her a promise.

            Everything fell apart shortly after that night at the Arcade.  My father died a year later from cirrhosis of the liver and my mother grew bitter, more distant, and less loving.  I too struggled with my own addictions as I got older but instead of the drink, sex was my vice.  As a teen, I used to flirt with older men from the neighborhood and let them do whatever they wanted to me; anything to feel wanted and close.  Some were drunks, some were junkies, all were troubled like my father.  About a month ago, I went to a retro-style gaming convention as a way to face the source of my demons.  Arcade cabinets from the 80s and 90s lined every wall and covered nearly every square footage.  I ventured into the fighting games area of the expo hall and stood before a restored Street Fighter cab.  Pristine, shiny, and new, much like how it forever stayed in my memories.  I walked up to it, touched the joysticks, the buttons, and watched as an AI-operated match unfolded between Chun-Li and Ryu.  My lips curled back into a sneer, remembering the last time I played.  The pain of my father’s betrayal and the guilt of my kept secret washed over me.  No, I didn’t tell my mother about that night at the Arcade. 

            Hot tears poured down my now adult cheeks, no longer chubby with baby fat.  “Fuck you,” I spat harshly at the screen with a growl in my tightening throat.  I turned on my heels and stormed away from the cab, pushing past avid, adult gamers and their young, happy children, their haunting laughter lingering forever in my thoughts.

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