Mah shoots. I check to make sure he’s behind the line. He catches me peeking and points to the footprint his damp sock has left behind. It was fair.
“Fine,” I say.
“Come on bro.” There’s too much emphasis on the “R”. Mah must be drunk.
I pluck the ball from the cup and meet his gaze. Bad move. Never acknowledge your opponent’s success.
I line up, take a breath, then shoot.
I line up, take a breath, think, then shoot.
Never think. Thinking in this game means overthinking.
The ping pong ball bounces twice on the marble counter and Mah snatches it just before it falls to the floor.
“Felix the Cat Potvin,” he says.
Mah doesn’t know who Felix Potvin is. He grew up in Egypt and his interest in hockey is recent. But he’s heard me say it so he uses the term now. Perhaps to mess with me.
“You’re slipping, Johnson,” he says, Johnson coming out as two words. Jun. Sun.
Mah knows he has me on the ropes. He starts to rock his shoulders to the music.
I need to extinguish that swagger.
I don’t like what I do next but I dislike losing even more.
Mah raises the ball to his face and goes through the motions. Everything looks symmetrical and precise.
Just as he’s about to shoot, I take a step to the left. It’s subtle, and I’m not sure Mah registers it, but subconsciously it fucks with his calibration. Putting a ping pong ball into the space equivalent of a hockey puck requires precision, hand-eye, and focus, and the slightest movement from, say, a six-foot-two human being, will mess all that up.
Mah – short for Mahmoud – is my best friend. Someone, Jake or maybe Colton, introduced us in freshman year because we were both athletes.
“Mah, this is Taylor. He plays football. Taylor, this is Mah, he plays futbol.”
Neither of us laughed. It was an awkward entry into a friendship that would blossom over the next four years.
I scoop the white ball off the floor before it rolls beneath the couch. It’s covered in hairs and grit so I switch to the orange one, which feels good between my fingers.
I look at the cup, shoot. There’s good arc and the ball drops into the red solo, cleanly. I hear the faintest plop as the plastic ball hits the placid beer. Mah fishes it out and slugs his drink. I wait till he finishes then stare at him. I look down at his one cup. He looks down at mine.
It was more than a drinking game. It was what we used to showcase dexterity, athleticism, and the ability to execute when it mattered. The buzz came from the ball in the cup, not the alcohol.
It had the potential to ruin a night. A loss could turn you so sour that you got into it with someone at the bar. Of course, the person you were most mad with would be the first one to have your back if a fight broke out.
It was a brotherhood.
But God I hated losing to him.
We’ve long since graduated. We don’t see each other all that much. Once a year maybe. Mah is a doctor, I have a serious girlfriend. We’ve grown up, started life. But right here, on the thirtieth floor of Mah’s apartment in downtown Toronto, I’m not thinking about my girlfriend. I’m not thinking about my job. I’m not thinking about bills or whether it’s too soon to amalgamate finances. Right now, my mind is occupied with one thing.
“One cup each.”
It’s a stupid thing to say. There’s no need to draw attention to the obvious. We’ve been in this situation a hundred times. Maybe a thousand. But now, it’s different. We’re different.
Mah lines up. His elbow is straight and there’s a look I distrust playing across his face. For someone who spent a lifetime kicking soccer balls, Mah’s hand-eye is seasoned. He has the form and calm composure of a natural shooter.
Mah releases. The ball soars through the air and drops perfectly into the cup. I feel that weird feeling I always do when he executes. Pride mixed with despair.
“Redemption,” Mah says, making sure I haven’t forgotten the rules.
I nod and try to quell my nerves with beer.
Redemption. The most important shot in the game. I call upon an old formula, engrained in my subconscious like a childhood phone number.
Steady the breath. See the shot into the cup. Aim small.
But I don’t feel it. My formula seems stupid and outdated. The ball feels funny in my fingers.
Dropping the arm, I steal a glance at my friend.
His hair is receding into a widow’s peak, he’s a bit pudgier around the edges, and his clothing is more reserved than it used to be. If it weren’t for his eyes, unchanged after all these years, he’d look like a different person.
“Hurry up and miss already,” he says.
I laugh and meet his gaze. Mah keeps a straight face, kudos to that, but his eyes negate his intended stoicism.
Honest eyes, they say more than I think he knows. Mah wants to win but he won’t will me to miss. It’s just the type of person he is. I find assurance in the look and a calmness washes over me. I line up and shoot. The ball spins around the rim for what feels like full seconds and then banks out.
“Fill your cups!” I yell, a cozy excuse.
“Rematch,” I start to say before realizing that Mah’s already re-racking the cups. I drain the IPA which isn’t as bitter as I expect. And as I walk to the fridge to grab another beer, I stare back at my friend and find solace in the fact that although I’ve just lost, a good man has just won.
Ben von Jagow is a writer from Ottawa, Canada living in Stockholm. His work has appeared or is scheduled to appear in literary journals such as The Antigonish Review, The Stockholm Review of Literature, and The Literary Review of Canada, among others. For more of Ben’s work, visit benvj.com.