Left Pong Paddle stared across the parking lot through the windshield of its ‘13 Toyota Corolla, its iced coffee (almond milk, no sugar) momentarily forgotten. The rain obscured its vision, but the figure ahead struggling to place its paper bag of groceries in a flimsy bicycle basket still looked familiar. It didn’t take more than a moment to be certain that the person it was looking at wasn’t a person at all, but a paddle from the 1972 video game Pong.
Left Pong Paddle paused, listening as the downpour beat an angry staccato against its roof. For a moment it considered pretending it hadn’t seen anything and just driving away, but it knew it wasn’t going to do that. Watching Right Pong Paddle struggle under the awning of the supermarket, it finally set down its iced coffee into its holder, pulled slowly out of its spot, and inched forward, honking its horn. Right Pong Paddle glanced up warily as the car approached, only straightening itself once it recognized the Corolla, and the almost-identical paddle inside.
Left Pong Paddle shifted to park and climbed out of the car. Right Pong Paddle hesitated again, which gave way almost immediately to a short peal of laughter. “Fancy meeting you here.”
“You get the back door, I’ll get the bike in,” Left Pong Paddle said. It was a feat, considering neither of them had arms, but they managed it. Don’t think too hard about it.
“You really don’t have to give me a ride,” Right Pong Paddle said, even as it helped Left Pong Paddle shift the bike inward so the back door of the Corolla would close. “I’m sure it’ll clear up soon.”
“There are going to be thunderstorms all through the evening,” Left Pong Paddle said. “Don’t you ever watch the news?”
Right Pong Paddle just laughed, and Left Pong Paddle caught a hint of embarrassment, but doubted it would change anything. There’d been so many fights when they’d been married about Right Pong Paddle never preparing for anything, and just as many about what Right Pong Paddle referred to as Left Pong Paddle’s need to control everything. Once, outside of an Arby’s in Hartford, it had accused Left Pong Paddle of getting off on being considered ‘Player One’, and now whenever it passed an Arby’s, any Arby’s, something stirred inside it that it couldn’t fully name.
So many back-and-forths that didn’t even involve the tiny, programmed ball they were expected to bounce between one another. So many arguments that never went anywhere but seemed so important in the moment, all just to score another point over the other. Since the divorce, Right Pong Paddle’s inability to plan ahead didn’t bother Left Pong Paddle the way it once did. It wasn’t important anymore; none of it carried the weight it once had. If Right Pong Paddle wanted to get caught in thunderstorms through its own lack of planning, it was entitled to do just that.
“Thank you,” Right Pong Paddle said, once they were both safely in the car. It buckled itself in with a smile that wasn’t quite the genuine one Left Pong Paddle remembered, but not an unkind one either. “I would’ve gotten drenched if it wasn’t for you.”
“How do you even ride that thing?” Left Pong Paddle asked, glancing at the bicycle currently soaking the backseat in the rearview mirror.
“How do you even drive this thing?” Right Pong Paddle asked, gesturing at the dashboard, then then at Left Pong Paddle’s smooth, limbless body. “Let’s just say I figured it out.”
Fair enough. Left Pong Paddle shifted back into drive and they headed toward the parking lot’s exit. Left Pong Paddle stared at the road, as did Right Pong Paddle. It was always awkward, those rare moments when they found themselves together for more than a few seconds. It was just enough time to remember the aspects they enjoyed about one another without having to deal with the aspects that had derailed their marriage. And yet it hung above them all the same, the constant, unspoken reminder that they’d had their chance, and here they were now. A constant reminder of all the little things that would always lie unspoken beneath the surface, just waiting to drag them under if they did something as foolish as Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man and tried to give it another go.
Not that Left Pong Paddle wanted to give it another go. It was happy with its life now, with the studio apartment over Jack’s Italian Cafe. It was happy with Cathy, a human woman who’d had a crush on it ever since she first played Pong as a teenager. It was just… Left Pong Paddle exhaled slightly, turning onto the main road. Cathy was wonderful. She was exactly what Left Pong Paddle needed right now. She didn’t treat it like a celebrity, and they could go whole weeks and months without ever bringing up that Left Pong Paddle had once been the co-star in the most famous game in the world– not that there’d been much competition back then. It didn’t want to go back to the dysfunction that had been its marriage with Right Pong Paddle, with everything that came with actually being in an international hit. But all the same, there was a history there that Left Pong Paddle didn’t have with anyone else.
Their very first game together had been at a bar in 1972. The machine was wheeled in on a wooden dolly with two malfunctioning wheels, plugged in for an indifferent crowd, and in that moment everything came to life. As the public gazed upon Pong for the first time, Left Pong Paddle gazed upon Right Pong Paddle across the dark field. It was like looking into a mirror, but Left Pong Paddle could see from the very start that there was more beneath the flat, 2D exterior. There was a creature containing multitudes.
The game started, and when the audience told Left Pong Paddle to move up, it moved it up. When they told it to move down, it moved down. They bounced that little square back and forth for hours, panting with exhaustion, never breaking eye contact once. That night, after the machine was shut down, they both walked across the now empty field together and sat and talked for hours. Sweat glistened off both of them, and neither smelled very pleasant, but neither cared. If anything, it was a strange, adrenaline-fueled bonus.
They were a hit. Despite their initial hesitance, the crowd found themselves hooked on the then-revolutionary game. The machine malfunctioned within the first few days of use, and it was discovered the cause was too many coins stuck into the coin slot. And then, suddenly, they were everywhere.
“You’re quiet,” Right Pong Paddle said as they headed toward Springfield Avenue. “What are you thinking about?”
Left Pong Paddle couldn’t hold back a small laugh as it admitted, “The early days, if you really want to be honest. Those first games.”
Right Pong Paddle let out a small laugh of its own before pausing for only the briefest of moments. “Jesus.”
“Ancient history, I know,” Left Pong Paddle said, then added, “Sorry to bring it up.”
“Nothing to be sorry for. It was a nice time.” Right Pong Paddle reached for a pack of Newports, then hesitated. “Sorry. Do you mind?”
“Nah, go for it. Just crack the window open.”
Right Pong Paddle gave it an almost suspicious look, then smiled and reached for the button.
They’d fought about Right Pong Paddle’s smoking for years when they were married. They’d both been smokers in the beginning– it was the ‘70s, after all– but Left Pong Paddle quit in early 1980, while Right Pong Paddle kept going on. The fights were, at times, legendary, with Left Pong Paddle arguing that it was unhealthy, that the menthols weren’t any healthier than regular cigarettes, that it was starting to slow Right Pong Paddle down in matches. They’d been drunk when it had said that last one, and well into a multi-hour fight that flared up and down throughout the night about every topic imaginable.
“That’s all you care about, isn’t it?” Right Pong Paddle had asked, so much younger then and yet exactly the same, given they never physically aged. “The game. You don’t give a damn about what it’s doing to us.”
And maybe Right Pong Paddle had a point. Maybe Left Pong Paddle was relying a bit too much on their sudden fame as the earliest recognizable video game characters to get it through its own day, to help it ignore the constant sense of dread that nothing in life meant anything and that, on their own, they weren’t that special. The Pac-Mans had just gotten married, and suddenly a field they dominated was being taken over by younger, hipper, more polished games. Maybe Left Pong Paddle still needed to be Player One too much.
All the same, it was tired. Tired of being the responsible one, tired of dragging a hung over Right Pong Paddle out of bed before a match. Tired of being the one to deal with the interview requests, to handle the arrangement of everything needed instead of just showing up to the interview, ready to talk about itself. Tired of being the one to handle the things that had to be done before having fun. Little things, but they added up.
So did the resentment.
“I’m just looking out for your health,” Left Pong Paddle had argued during that dragout fight all those years ago. “Do you want to kill yourself?”
“Jesus Christ, Lefty, I don’t even have lungs,” Right Pong Paddle shot back. “Will you lay off? I’m still putting you in your place every time you come at me.”
Whether it meant their video game matches or their real life sparring, Left Pong Paddle wasn’t entirely sure. Somehow their games weren’t really games anymore. They’d never been in control of what they did in those matches; it was a job where all they really had to do was show up and do what they were told. Their actual performance all came down to what the player chose, how good at the game they were.
But these days when they went to work there was a rage that hadn’t been there before. Left Pong Paddle could see it in the way Right Pong Paddle stared across the field, in the fury it felt itself as they hurled the ball back and forth. What had once been a simple computerized ‘boop’ of joy as the pixels of the ball tapped against it now captured years of resentment. Towards the end it sounded more like a primal scream.
Now here they were in Left Pong Paddle’s ‘13 Toyota Corolla, trying to pretend that those days had never happened, or at least not talk about them. Right Pong Paddle puffed on its cigarette, taking care to hold it as close as it could to the window without the rain extinguishing it.
“I’m just thinking, and there’s something I want to tell you– and I don’t get to see you very often, so I might as well do it now,” Right Pong Paddle said suddenly, all in a rush as though it had memorized the lines of a script but hadn’t yet rehearsed them. It stared straight ahead, as though it could only say what was on its mind without eye contact. “About Pac-Man. I’m sorry I said you weren’t as three dimensional as him.”
Left Pong Paddle took its attention from the road for a moment to stare at Right Pong Paddle, who in turn continued on, “I’ve felt bad all these years. Whatever we were arguing about, it was uncalled for, and it wasn’t true.”
“When did you say that?” They were turning onto Right Pong Paddle’s street; its rental condo was just visible through the pouring rain. Left Pong Paddle slowed down as they approached. “I don’t remember it.”
“Really?” A hint of surprise and something almost like suspicion tinged Right Pong Paddle’s voice. “The K-Mart parking lot in that town just outside Cincinnati. That fight we had on the drive home after the 1986 Atari championship. I just blurted it out. I wanted to hurt you, and I’ve always felt bad.”
Left Pong Paddle was a bit surprised too, because it didn’t remember this at all, and it seemed like something it would remember. But it supposed they’d thrown so many things in the other’s face by the end that it all just blurred together as an angry, spiteful mess.
“I said things too,” it admitted. “Things I’m not proud of. I’m sorry, myself. I never apologized for that crack about you and Frogger. I never really thought…”
“We didn’t,” Right Pong Paddle said quietly, and Left Pong Paddle looked away, realizing that it hadn’t been forgotten. “I didn’t.”
Left Pong Paddle exhaled, and truly meant it when it said, “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Right Pong Paddle said quietly, putting on a small smile as though they were talking about the weather. “We both said things. Either way, the slate is clean now.”
It wasn’t, though, not really, and yet it didn’t matter anymore. For all those years they’d been competing against one another, hurling that ball back and forth, keeping score. Once the divorce was final it just didn’t matter anymore, and there was a sense of peace between them now because of it. Strange, Left Pong Paddle thought, how they could talk like this, about their marriage in ways they never could when it existed. And yet the window was closing, the tender moment would pass, and soon they’d be acting like old acquaintances again. Maybe that was the way it was meant to be. Maybe their best case scenario was to have those moments of quiet forgiveness now and then, while living separate lives apart from one other for the rest of it.
“How’s Cathy?” Right Pong Paddle asked abruptly as they pulled up to its place.
“She’s fine. Taken up gardening. How’s Rodney?”
They paused for a moment, each trying to think of the right thing to say. Finally, Left Pong Paddle broke the ice. “You know, we don’t age.”
“I’ve noticed,” Right Pong Paddle said, but without any trace of sarcasm. Instead it seemed slightly surprised by the non sequitur, but willing to play along. “You look exactly the same as you always did.”
“As do you. And I was just… thinking. About how much has happened. Our history. All of it. You’d never know just by looking at us. You’d just see the same old paddles from Pong. It makes me wonder sometimes if I’ve grown at all.”
It wasn’t sure what inspired it to say that, hadn’t even realized it was thinking it to begin with. It just came out in the way things could with someone who’d known you as long as you’d known yourself. The silence lay heavy and Left Pong Paddle could feel itself flush with embarrassment.
“Please,” Right Pong Paddle said, with the casual familiarity you could only have with someone you’d known as long as yourself. “Of course you’ve grown. I wouldn’t be able to stand you otherwise.”
Left Pong Paddle laughed, but Right Pong Paddle was gazing at it now with an intensity it hadn’t seen in a long time. It was the kind of look they might have given one another when they were married, but now no longer had the right to give, except for those rare moments where it surprised even them.
“No, really,” Right Pong Paddle said. “You seem so much more… relaxed. You aren’t rushing anywhere. You’re not always trying to win.”
“I guess at some point we had to stop playing the game.” Left Pong Paddle shrugged, flushing slightly, pleased at the praise and the fact that it came from Right Pong Paddle, and embarrassed by it for the same reasons. “You’ve changed, too.”
And Right Pong Paddle had changed. It seemed… happier. Less like it was just going through the motions, trying to numb itself to get by day-to-day. It seemed at peace. Left Pong Paddle wondered if it was because they had split up, that they weren’t in each other’s lives anymore. Maybe that was true. Or maybe it was one aspect of a much larger picture; maybe they’d both needed to go on their own journeys alone to figure out whatever it was that they needed. Left Pong Paddle still wasn’t sure what it needed, but it wouldn’t stop looking.
“I know I have,” Right Pong Paddle said. “Help me with my bike?”
It wasn’t an overwhelming display of affection or support, but Left Pong Paddle could hear the warmth behind the words. And, honestly, anything more probably wouldn’t feel right. This was… right, for them.
Left Pong Paddle climbed out of the car, helped Right Pong Paddle haul out its bike, and together they carried it, running through the downpour to the front door. It felt nice like this, not competing or fighting for once, but working together.
“Thank you again,” Right Pong Paddle said, and gave Left Pong Paddle a quick hug, something they hadn’t done in years. It felt strange even when not thinking about their lack of limbs, but it also felt… nice. Genuinely nice. “It was good to see you.”
“Good to see you too, Righty,” Left Pong Paddle said, and it smiled as it hurried back to the car, trying to avoid getting completely soaked, wondering if it shouldn’t have used that old nickname– but there was Right Pong Paddle smiling back at it with its old smile, before turning away and disappearing around the side of the house to the back entrance.
Left Pong Paddle took a sip from the remnants of its iced coffee (almond milk, no sugar), and started back to the supermarket. Its trunk was empty; it hadn’t actually started its shopping yet. And yet, despite the time wasted, despite the storm, despite everything, Left Pong Paddle felt… right.
It felt almost like the ball from Pong as it drove on more than anything else. It felt like if the ball from Pong were free from the arena, free from being shot back and forth between two angry lovers. It felt as though the ball had been set loose and allowed to propel itself anywhere it wanted to go, to a place where there was no competition, to a place where winning or losing was meaningless.
Like the ball, Left Pong Paddle felt free, even if it didn’t fully know what that meant. It was enough, at least for now.