Looking back, Jay realized the sickness had been enmeshed in Christine even before they were married. He had wanted a sensuous, romantic honeymoon in Hawaii but she had insisted on Las Vegas. She was so pretty, so full of laughter that when she said, “Yes!” he felt like he had won the jackpot.
If she wanted Las Vegas, he would give her Las Vegas. Reservations at the best hotel had stretched his budget to breaking point, but Christine came from wealth and he didn’t want her to think he couldn’t afford her. With a small surge of pride, he had even signed a pre-nup. Christine was the love of his life, and even a computer nerd had his self-respect. With every fiber of his being, he vowed that he would always look after her. Do whatever it took to make her happy.
Her eyes sparkled when he promised her. When he told her of his ambitions, she looked at him with admiration and assurances that she knew he would be able to do it all. No one else had ever believed in him. For that, he was willing to offer up his very soul.
But on their honeymoon, she had spent as much time at the tables as in the suite with him; he’d had to damp down his disappointment. He loved her. He wanted her to enjoy every part of her life. It was fine.
For several years, life had seemed pretty good. Christine laughed when he suggested she find a job at something she enjoyed, and especially since the death of her parents, she surely didn’t need the money. Not even a little. Aside from a few classes at the gym, he was a little confused about what she did all day; but if she was happy…
And when their big event happened, she’d whispered, “I’m going to stay home with our baby.” A hug, a kiss and his own adoring eyes on April, their daughter.
But when he’d staggered home one morning with the flu and found his daughter crying miserably in her crib and his wife’s eyes glued to a game on her computer, he’d nearly lost it.
“What’s wrong with you?” he’d shouted. When April cried harder, he lowered his voice. “Chris, honey, the baby comes first!”
Christine had flushed but tossed her head. “It was just for a minute. You shouldn’t make a big deal. Besides, I need a break sometimes. It’s hard looking after a baby. You get to go out and be with people and I’m stuck here.”
Too sick and too upset to answer, Jay nodded. He averted his head to avoid breathing on his baby and changed her filthy diaper. Her bottom was bleeding from the rash.
Jay took several days off, recovering, caring for the baby. Trying not to fall apart. Christine told him that with him there, she was just taking a much-needed break. But he saw. He saw her fixated attention on the screen, the credit card at the ready to buy more tokens or chips or bingo cards or whatever series of games she’d lost herself in.
Then he made decisions. A lot of decisions. Decisions that made him throw up with despair and tension.
“I hardly need Gamblers Anonymous,” Christine told him. “They’re just computer games. It’s not like I’m playing slots or blackjack in a casino.” She picked up her piece of pizza and bit into it angrily. “If you really loved me,” she said, eyes filling with tears, “you’d try to understand that there’s nothing wrong. That I just need a break from being Mommy.”
Jay tried again to persuade her. She cried and stormed and turned her head away until he finally gave in.
He began that night on the decision. If it hadn’t been for his baby, he thought his heart would have broken completely. Christine had drifted so far away from him, he wondered if she would even notice if he had gone. So long as the games flashed and tinkled and exploded with “Jackpot!” for her.
When the new nanny reported for duty, Jay spent a couple of days at home, making sure the woman was competent and could manage. All good.
And he took the time to show Christine a new computer game.
“It’s got a gambling piece to it,” he told her. “But you don’t have to gamble to play.”
Christine stared at him a moment and shrugged. “I thought you hated my games. Why are you telling me about it?”
“I thought maybe you’ve been alone too much.” His eyes were scratchy from being up all night. “I’m trying to help, to be interested in what you like.”
She smiled gratefully, but already she had turned back to the flickering screen. To the multi-colored graphics now reflecting off her face.
“Want a sandwich?” he asked.
“Mmm,” she mumbled. And he left her.
Two months later, he quit his job. “I’m going to start my own company,” he told his wife. “On-line games. Just like we used to talk about. I’ve got a knack for it.”
“Whatever you want, sweetheart.” She smiled, eyes weary from the screen. “I love the game you showed me,” she added, enthusiasm lighting up her heavy features. “I don’t even play anything else. It’s expensive as anything, but,” she leaned forward confidingly, “it feels like it practically reads my mind. I lose and lose but when I’m ready to quit and go back to my old games, I win big. Sometimes, the game feels like a person who just wants me to have the best time ever.”
Jay reached over and squeezed her hand. “If you’re happy, hon…”
“I am. And I love you so much!”
He left the lunch table and went upstairs to read April her pre-nap story. The nanny eyed him approvingly. “It would be nice if Mrs. Jones would read to her more often,” she said.
Jay frowned. “Mrs. Jones isn’t well,” he said. “It’s up to us to make sure April is loved and cared for.”
“Of course.” The nanny was smart enough to say nothing else.
Jay made tea for himself and his wife. Pausing by the computer, he said, “Why don’t we take a break and go to Hawaii?”
Christine glanced up briefly. “No, I’m good now. Having you and nanny here really helps.”
“You’re sure?” he asked. “It could be like before…”
But her eyes had gone back to the game and she laughed as the jackpot rang up.
His mouth tightened, but he went away, down to his office in the basement. He typed in his password and checked the algorithms on his wife’s game. In a day and a half, more than $7,000 had poured from her accounts into the ones he had set up for the household expenses, his salary, and April’s trust fund. In the last four months, his wife had gambled away close to a million dollars. He estimated all her fortune would be gone in two years at the latest.
With a sigh, he began work on coding some new games, ones that were fun but didn’t lead to any kind of gambling. Already, they were making him rich.
But what difference did that make? Christine was gone. But he had done his best to make her happy. And he was providing for April too. Even a computer nerd that no one else had ever wanted could stay faithful. He’d promised.
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