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Queen of Hearts

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When we were little, we watched from afar as the adults had their daily cup of tea and game of cards. Entranced, we watched the deft movements of their hands over the cards, admired the tendrils of steam that rose from their cups. Occasionally, one of us dared to approach, to ask for a sip of tea or to be allowed to play just one hand.

The invariable response to our boldness was, “You’re not old enough,” that hated refrain to which all children become accustomed. Still, we persisted. Once, we managed to steal a cup after their game, dregs of tea growing cold in the bottom. He tried it first, one small sip. He made a face, handing me the cup. The liquid was lukewarm, with a taste that was almost bitter, only a little different. We quickly returned the cup.

For a while after, we scoffed at the whole thing. How could the adults stand to drink that stuff? How could they sit so still for so long, and what was so interesting about bits of paper with spots on them? Soon, however, we were back to watching from the shadows.

Time passed. Our wistful gazing became keen observation. We watched them, slowly learning the rules of their game and their society. We dreamed of the approaching day when we would finally be allowed to sit at the long-forbidden table and say, over a cup of steaming, freshly-poured tea, “Deal me in.” I whispered to him that I was going to beat him in our first game. He laughed at me and said I had no chance.

Now it is time. The adults are bringing out the cups, the deck of battered cards, just as they always do. Today will be different, though. Today, after years of waiting, it will be our turn.

We sit across from each other at the square table. His father pours tea as my mother begins to deal cards. We raise our cards, examining them, arranging them carefully in our hands as we have seen the adults do innumerable times. Watching them from the corner of my eye, I see his father take a sip of tea as he studies his hand. I do the same. It still has that almost-bitter taste, but now the tea is very hot.

We are ready. As I glance up from my cards, his dark eyes meet my hazel ones and each of us sees the challenge in the other’s gaze. We both remember what I said on that afternoon that now seems so long ago.

Slowly he pulls a card from his hand, his eyes never leaving mine as he slides the two of clubs onto the table.

The game has begun.



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