I felt Keith’s fist connect with my cheekbone with more force than I had expected. It hurt like hell, at least partially because it was one of the bones that had been smashed in the accident. Even though I had never been in a fight before, my instinct was to punch him back. But before I could do it, Benny had tackled him to the floor. I guess I had to be rescued.
A crowd gathered around me as I leaned forward in my chair, clutching my face. I heard someone saying, “Call for a doctor! He’s injured!”
“I’m fine,” I managed to say. “Please don’t call a doctor. I’m okay.”
Avi crouched down by my wheelchair. I could see the concern in his brown eyes. “Riley?”
“Can... can you wheel me to the men’s room?”
Avi had to fight off the reporters and concerned bystanders as he directed my chair toward the bathroom. I was relieved that nobody followed us in there. Maybe they were afraid to get too involved.
I was nervous to look in a mirror, but when I did, I was relieved to see that it didn’t look as bad as it had felt. My cheekbone right below my eye was a dark red color and would definitely turn into a bad bruise, but it didn’t seem like anything was broken and there was no blood.
Avi gently touched the bruised skin on my face and I winced. “Shit, Keith really nailed you...”
I shrugged, even though it still hurt like hell.
Avi’s knelt down beside me and put his hand on my thigh. It was a nice gesture, even if I couldn’t feel it. “Keith is going to get disqualified now, you know.”
“Yeah, I know.”
He took a deep breath. “I decided I’m going to let you win.”
I stared at him. “Get your fucking hand off my leg, Avi.”
“What? What’s wrong?” he asked innocently, removing his hand from my leg. “I know this is important to you and I know you’re upset I’m not leaving Sheila...”
“Fuck you,” I spat. “I can win this myself, without your fucking pity.”
“No, you can’t,” Avi said flatly. “I can beat you, Riley.”
I had never seen Avi act so arrogant before. But the thing was, he didn’t seem like he was being arrogant. He acted like he was telling me the weather outside.
“I’m a better player than you are, Avi,” I said quietly.
“You used to be,” Avi said. “Not anymore.” He tapped my left leg. “You’ve got a tell. I know when you’re bluffing.”
My face flushed. I didn’t realize any of the other players had known about my leg jumping when I bluffed. “That doesn’t happen all the time.”
Avi shook his head. “Yes, it does. It’s subtle, but I noticed it.”
I didn’t know what to make of the fact that Avi had been staring at my legs through the whole game. But what he was telling me didn’t matter. I wasn’t going to let him intimidate me anymore. “You’re so sure you can beat me, why don’t we make a side bet?”
Avi raised an eyebrow. “Yeah? Go on…”
“If I win the game, you leave Sheila.” I crossed my arms and waited for his response.
His eyes widened. “Riley, you know I can’t...”
“What are you whining about? You told me you could beat me. Why don’t you grow some balls, Avi?”
Avi backed away from me and leaned against the sink. “So what do I get if I win?”
“What do you want?”
I think what Avi really wanted was out of his marriage, but he couldn’t say that. As he thought about it, I wheeled closer to him and ran my hand up the inside of his thigh. He moaned softly. “Riley,” he murmured. “We can’t…”
He looked down at me, his expression sad. “I know what I want,” he said.
I cupped my hand over his erection. “Yeah, so do I.”
Avi shook his head. “No, Riley. If I win, we don’t hook up again. Not ever. You stay out of my life and I stay out of yours.”
I laughed. “That’s not what you want.”
“You don’t know what I want,” Avi said quietly. “What I want is to live a happy, normal life with Sheila.”
“Bullshit,” I said.
Avi shrugged. “If you’re too scared, then don’t make the bet. You’re so confident you can beat me.”
I remembered the night I ended it with Avi five years ago. It was the day that I made the final table. I had been out with Benny Gomez earlier in the night, trying to pick up waitresses. I was so amazingly good at it that even Benny was impressed—I wound up fucking a pretty little waitress in a supply closet. I came home to Avi’s apartment at around midnight, buzzed but not drunk.
I remembered my irritation when he didn’t even ask me where I had been or why I smelled of women’s perfume and had lipstick smeared on my collar and hickies on my neck. He just sat on the bed, reading a book about poker. I started to unzip his pants and he brushed me away. Riley, I’m reading. Can’t you keep it in your pants for one night?
That’s when I blew up at him. I forgot most of what I said, but it wasn’t nice. One thing I do remember is that I said I was sick of our relationship and that I was sick of him. I stormed out and checked myself into a hotel for the rest of the tournament.
There was no surprise on Avi’s face when I left that night. He expected me to leave. Maybe he had even provoked me on purpose. We were both looking for an excuse to end the relationship because neither of us could handle it. I couldn’t stand the fact that I was in love for the only time in my entire life and it was with another guy.
I stared up at Avi. Without his dark glasses on, he was so easy to read. The trick to being a good poker player is you’ve got to be able to lay down everything on the line. You can’t worry about the money or what you might lose. The second your confidence starts to waver, it’s all over.
I was the better player. I knew it.
I could beat Avi.
“It’s a bet,” I said.
I knew the only way I could bluff Avi was to cover my legs completely. I hadn’t noticed any subtle twitches, but if he was seeing it, then I didn’t have much of a choice. Luckily, I always carried a blanket with me in the back of my chair. It wasn’t that useful in the Nevada desert, but in places where it can be a little bit cooler, sometimes I liked to protect my legs. The circulation in my legs wasn’t that great and I couldn’t feel them when they started to get too cold, plus they couldn’t shiver like normal legs, so the blanket was often a good idea. The down side was that I hated the way it looked. When I saw myself in the mirror with that blanket on my lap, I thought I looked like some crippled old man. But it was the only way I could win today.
Avi looked very confident as he strode back to the table. He even blew a kiss at his wife. As soon as I approached the table, several people came over to me: “Are you all right, Mr. Haveson? Can you keep playing?”
I touched my eye, which was tender but not too bad. “I’m fine.”
I didn’t know where they had taken Keith, but his absence left a void at the table. I felt guilty. Keith was right—he had been like an older brother to me and I had let him down. I had let him down for Avi, who couldn’t even get up the nerve to live his own life. I looked up at Avi, who had slid his dark glasses on over his eyes. You’re going down, Green.
As I pulled my wheelchair up to the table, I heard the audience starting to chant something. I couldn’t make it out at first, but as it got louder, the words became distinct:
“Heartbreaker! Heartbreaker! Heartbreaker!”
I blushed and looked up at the dealer, who smiled at me. “Looks like you’ve got quite a set of fans, Mr. Haveson,” she said.
I looked over at the crowd and I saw that one girl was exposing her breasts to me. “I love you, Riley!” she screamed.
“Wow,” I said. I was shocked. I never expected women to act this way around me ever again. But what surprised me more was that I didn’t care. All I could think about was the nights I spent with Avi. I already had half my body taken away from me and I couldn’t stand to lose him too.
Once the cards were dealt, the crowd quieted down. The first few hands were uneventful, and truth be told, I felt myself backing down to Avi a little bit. As I said, I’m a tighter player than he is, and I also felt like I didn’t want to get aggressive and sloppy just because he was challenging my skills.
I started to think back to some of the old games we used to play against each other. I remember sitting next to Avi a limit Hold ‘em game, slipping my shoe off and sliding my foot up his leg. It was a game to see if we could get away with it, just like it was a game to see if we could get away with our bluffs. Now I couldn’t move my feet anymore… the best I could do was move my wheelchair so that my feet coincidentally knocked into Avi’s legs, but we were too far away from each other for that anyway. Shit, I missed those days.
“I’m all in.”
I looked up in surprise when Avi made the declaration. All in. The flop hadn’t even come yet, so it seemed like he was just making a move to push me out of the game. And as the chipleader, Avi was powerful enough to do that. I heard the crowd had started chanting again: “Heartbreaker! Heartbreaker! Heartbreaker!”
My cards were an unsuited two and seven. If a pair of aces is the best hand you can get statistically, the unsuited two and seven is the worst. They’re the lowest cards you can get that are too far apart to make a straight. Even if Avi was bluffing, I knew I had the worse hand. There was nothing to even think about. If I went in, I’d almost definitely lose.
Avi removed his dark glasses and looked me straight in the eyes. He was one of the best poker players in the world, but there was no one out there chanting for him, not even his wife. He didn’t belong here. He needed to go back to the suburbs with his wife, have a couple of rugrats, and live a normal life.
“I call,” I said.
I laid down my cards and the whole audience knew what I had done. I had just thrown the game. Avi stared at me. “What the fuck, Riley?”
I shrugged. “Maybe I’ll get lucky.”
Avi laid down his own cards: and unsuited two and eight. The second worst starting hand in poker. I shook my head, realizing the Avi didn’t know what he wanted anymore than I did.
The audience grew silent, waiting for the cards to turn and decide our fate.
To be continued...