By JUSTIN RACE
Her OkCupid profile mentioned that she was really good at Scrabble, so I sent her a message challenging her to a game of Words With Friends.
“Loser buys the winner coffee,” I wrote. “You game?”
She accepted but told me coffee wasn’t possible; she was in China for the school year teaching English and wouldn’t be back until July. It was now January.
I had moved to Reno from Washington, D.C., six months earlier to take a job at the University of Nevada and was having trouble meeting people. Over those months, I had messaged more than 60 women and heard back from only six, leading to zero dates. So it seemed cruelly fitting that the first woman I really connected with had moved to China. But hey, a good Words With Friends partner can be even harder to find than love.
Later that evening, she challenged me to a game, at 6 p.m. for me, 9 a.m. for her. An odd first date: half a world between us, sitting on my couch with phone in hand, looking for bingos and hoping to draw an “S” or a blank. Play a move, send a message. Repeat.
We were evenly matched. I barely won our first game. Soon we were playing two games at once and chatting in both, two entirely different conversational threads — one serious and the other playful. We kept this up for six straight hours. At one point, I had to slide my couch closer to an outlet because my battery was at 2 percent. Like any good first date, I didn’t want it to end.
We talked about everything from our childhood pets (her rats, Mr. Peepers and Tefnut, and my dog, Inky) to my fanciful dream of one day running a retirement home for animals: geriatric cows and octogenarian pigs happily living out their golden years with nothing whatsoever expected from them.
She told me the worst gift she had ever given a boyfriend was a giant Hershey bar. I confessed that I’m more likely to cry during a movie trailer than while watching the actual movie. I told her I always botch clichés — “It’s not like it’s rocket surgery.”
Falling asleep that night, happier than I’d felt in some time, I wondered if I was being catfished. Those six hours had been too good, the kind of night you dream about, and then suddenly the sun is rising. Ridiculous, flirtatious or serious — whatever the topic, it was always easy.
The next night was no different, and I realized I had to start getting this down on paper. When a game ended, our chats from that game ended with it. Every 45 minutes or so, everything would disappear, and I wanted to preserve all of it, proof that such things are possible, and at any age.
After a week, I told my best friend back east what was happening. She told me a story about a co-worker who had an online relationship with a woman for two years. Now they were married. I laughed it off and thanked her, but I told her I had no illusions.
We were always brutally honest about our future, namely in agreeing there wasn’t one. It wasn’t even clear that she was coming back to Reno; she would go wherever she managed to land a job. We were a most pleasant distraction for each other, but school would eventually resume for her, and I’d eventually meet someone in Reno. On the Words With Friends board, we were both masters of the endgame, but there didn’t seem to be any endgame for us in real life.
I also knew that it was the baked-in distance and the impossibility of a date that had allowed me to fall so deeply in the first place. In person, I’m typically so shy in romantic situations that I can barely make eye contact with someone I’ve just met. With her, I felt free to open myself up entirely.
Two weeks in, after playing and chatting four to six hours every night, she warned me that she was meeting her father in South Korea the coming weekend and wouldn’t be around to keep up our nightly ritual.
It’s strange to miss someone you have never actually met. In the morning, I awoke to a message she had sent from the airport, waiting out a delay. This single message meant more to me than the thousands of others we had exchanged.
When I took my first business trip as a single man a few years earlier, I remember wishing I had someone to text from the airport. I had internalized the idea that love is having someone who cares about every utterly benign detail of your travel.
“I made it!” I wanted to tap out. “Man, I think I parked in the furthest possible spot.” “The line at security is insane — is it spring break or something?” “Ok, at my gate!” “Boarding!” “Shutting down now, about to take off :).”
All those imagined texts with no recipient. It stung even more when my plane touched down several hours later with nobody to tell I’d arrived safely.
Our three days “apart” didn’t stall anything. After she returned, we slid right back into our routine of increasingly intimate disclosures. The times we each tried to rescue a hurt animal we came across. The worst thing I did as a kid that I still feel guilty about. Growing up in broken homes. Worst dating experience. Favorite sex position. Ever fake an orgasm?
She agreed with me that the biggest commitment either of us could ever make would be combining our libraries, and that we probably shouldn’t take that step until we had at least two kids.
One night, I told her my memory is extremely selective: I’ll remember she played the clarinet until sixth grade, yet consistently forget her birthday. It turned out that very day was her birthday. By that point, we had long stopped being surprised at the freakish number of coincidences. Fittingly and as promised, I don’t remember what day that was.
Another night, I preemptively apologized and told her not to hate me, then played “eutaxies” — a triple word bingo with the “x” on a triple letter for 227 points. She messaged me a considerable growl, and five minutes later I went to bed with a smug grin plastered across my face. I took a screen shot of my play, printed it out and proudly showed my three interns the next day at work. It still hangs in my office today.
And then, as I had long feared, something shifted. Two games at once turned into one. Our six-hour chat sessions dwindled to five, then four, then three. Eventually we played a full game without either of us sending a message.
At one point, I gathered my courage and asked if I’d said anything wrong. She was quick to assure me I hadn’t.
Yes, there were other factors at play. Her teaching break had ended, and she was back at work. That same day, my mother called to tell me her breast cancer had come back and she was having a mastectomy. Three days later, my father ended up in the hospital with a blood clot — a complication from leukemia. Still, if there was ever a week when I could have used six hours of nightly companionship, that was it.
We stretched it out for another few weeks, playing a single move per day accompanied by a single chat, neither of us willing to concede the end. One night, I sent her a message thanking her for the last two months, letting her know that however unorthodox it had been, I had loved every minute. She told me she felt exactly the same.
One day, we started what would be our final game. We each played a move. The next day, she didn’t play. Nor the day after. Ten days passed before Words With Friends automatically killed the game. The last time I saw her screen name was with the message, “They Timed Out.”
Midsummer is when she was due to return to the States, but I don’t know if she ever did. July was also my one-year anniversary in Reno. Yet my happiest memories here have nothing to do with Nevada or the mountains or the university. They are of me sitting on my couch furiously tapping away on a three-inch screen to a woman on the other side of the world, a woman I know both intimately and not at all.
I know how she felt when staring into the eyes of a buffalo up close. I know she would love to see “Owl Jeopardy,” where every response starts with “Whoooo.” I know she gets mildly aroused talking about compound miter saws and has a weird thing for hands and likes to sing songs about her cat.
But I don’t know what she looks like when she sleeps. I don’t know the sound of her voice or the feel of her hair. I don’t even know her last name.