Image Credit: Brett Jordan via Unsplash
One Sunday evening, I tucked myself into bed earlier than usual with the intention of getting a long night’s rest before the busy workweek ahead. Per my usual routine, in a self-mothering way, I told myself I would just catch up with my Words with Friends games and then go to straight to sleep.
Once under the covers, I tapped the big golden W icon on my iPhone and opened the first of two games I almost always have going with my older brother, Tommy. He plays under the name “Fastloaner,” an identity borne from his business persona, mortgage broker—and one that reminds me of how he’s been a slick businessman most of his life, starting out by earning salesman-of-the-month awards as teenager hawking subscriptions to the Houston Chronicle over the phone.
Over dinner at our mom’s house one time, Tommy regaled the family with a story about how he had camped out at a car dealership all day long, wheeling and dealing to ensure that his then-wife got the best possible deal. His blue eyes lit up while he spoke manically, so pleased with himself as he recalled how he pushed and how the salesperson pulled, what a game it all was, how he won and he won big. It sounded about as fun to me as swallowing nails, but he loved every minute of it. For Tommy, negotiation and strategizing come so naturally it’s like breathing, and getting what he wants is like the adrenaline-fueled rush a runner experiences crossing the finish line ahead of the rest of the pack.
When we discovered that we both loved this digital game on Christmas seven years ago, I was surprised. “You play Words with Friends?” I remember asking in my most condescending little sister voice.
Tommy had gotten mostly Cs growing up, and was often in trouble at school and at home. I think Mom was happy to have him graduate from college at all, even from one that is a well-known party school. I never think of him as an intellectual of any kind and definitely not as a “word person.”
I, on the other hand, am the one in the family who read at a twelfth-grade level as an eight-year-old and have been studying creative writing since grade school, penning short illustrated books as a child and long descriptive poems in high school—odes scrawled on college-rule pages torn out of notebooks that I passed to my best friend in the hallways as secretly as if they were notes about boys. I’ve always been madly in love with the dictionary and read books like they were nourishment. I went to a college based exclusively on the fact that I could major in creative writing there. I was the word person. I am the word person. Surely, I thought, Tommy would be a laughable competitor in this game. I would whip his butt, and it would be so satisfying. Finally, the little sister would prevail.
It turns out that strategy is as much a factor in winning Words with Friends as knowledge of actual words, perhaps more.
I seethed when Tommy played words that I knew he couldn’t possibly define. In Scrabble, our analog childhood version of the game, he would never have pulled it off, of course. If he’d tried to play an unknown word, I would have challenged him to define it, and he would have balked. He’d also end up showing me his hand with all the toying around he must do before committing to a play. Of course, the rules on our iPhones are different than they were with the folding board game.
In Words with Friends, given the time, Tommy can move letters around as much as he likes without my seeing them in order to find out whether the computer brain will allow his play. He can also spend time figuring out how to land on double and triple letter spaces rather than focusing on creating interesting words, emphasizing where he plays, not what he plays. Then he usually maximizes on what’s already there by positioning the word so that it actually creates not one, but two—or even three or four—words with just one turn, therefore racking up tons of points on dumb little two and three-letter terms purely because of placement.
This was deeply disappointing to me. Having my dumb brother beat me swiftly at a game I felt destined to win was beyond embarrassing. It brought out the worst in me.
I would push the small screen on my phone into my husband’s face and say, “Look at that! I am positive Tommy doesn’t know what GLAIR means. I don’t even know!”
My husband would sigh deeply, rolling his eyes, as I looked up the word on my Merriam-Webster app—it having replaced my heavy paper dictionary long ago—and would pronounce the word to mean “a sizing liquid made from egg white.”
“Ugh, he’s an idiot,” I declared, proving sibling rivalry never ends, even after everyone is middle-aged.
“It’s a game,” my husband would remind me.
Since I couldn’t argue with him face-to-face, I would message Tommy through the little chat function in the game when I found his choices of plays ridiculous: Do you even know what ADZ means?? or OKAPI?? That’s an S.A.T. word for sure, smarty! Or ZA? That’s not a word! That’s a ridiculous abbreviation for pizza!
My snottiness had no effect on him whatsoever. Well, it played! He’d write back. Big bro having fun!!! It was maddening.
For months, in an act of sheer superiority, I decided to “school” him when he played words I knew he didn’t know, messaging the definitions to him as if expanding his vocabulary, at least, would bring some satisfaction. He didn’t care one whit about my teacherly intentions. He never responded to those comments.
That Sunday night, cozy in bed, I opened a game and scanned the grid. It was a newer set-up with just a few words played on the lit-up board so far—benign, simple ones like GLOB, MUG and YE. In the bright yellow digital tile letters, Tommy had played one of his trademark moves, capitalizing on creating three words at once: MET and YA along with the overarching play, MOAT.
It made me catch my breath.
It was a short little word, one that I had been able to play many times over the many years and countless games, but deliberately chose not to. For most people, it is a benign word too, just a term out of a fairy tale—describing a protective trench of water surrounding a castle, maybe filled with alligators or dragons—but it means something else to Tommy and me. The letters stand for “Mother of all Teams,” the name of our deceased brother David’s adventure racing team.
I was glad I was by myself. Socially, triggers are darkly inconvenient—those strange, uncomfortable secrets give me bursts of interior pain that usually have to be stifled for the comfort of others. I’ve been known to duck into bathroom stalls at work, close doors at home and pop inside the protective bubble of my car to experience moments too private and hard to explain or experience in front of coworkers, friends, even my husband. One tiny four-letter word shouldn’t set me off so much after all these years, should it? Was it even reasonable for it to be a trigger at this late date? What is reasonable anyway?
I’m pretty sure David came up with the name MOAT for his team, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t find it terribly poetic or meaningful at the time. In fact, I remember thinking it was a little silly. I think acronyms are most effective when they don’t just provide a more practical, shortened version of a longer phrase, but when they create another interesting word with the first letters of the words in the phrase. Neither “Mother of All Teams” nor “MOAT” sounded that great to me. Aspirational, sure, but not terribly creative. But it made him happy.
Seeing the word transported me immediately out of bed and around the globe to David’s many adventure races—expedition-length, scary, exciting, athletic competitions in exotic locales—Moab, Utah; Montana’s mountains; Louisiana swamps; Florida’s Everglades; Tasmania, Australia. I thought about all the times Mom and I had followed the team’s courses online as they competed. We delighted in pictures, triumphed when they pulled ahead, struggled when they fell behind, called each other in excitement when MOAT topped a leaderboard. Occasionally we watched the little GPS dot marking their spot on a map move in the wrong direction, which panicked us, but they always ultimately corrected their errors. They always finished, unlike so many teams that dropped out because of injury or fatigue or delirium or poor judgment, or a combination of all of these—or worse. We sighed deep breaths of relief when MOAT crossed the finish line.
I considered his teammates, the second family he had, the one he loved as much as us, maybe more. The ones he traveled with, ate meals with, slept with, made life and death decisions with. I have a photo of the members of MOAT, arms around each other, wearing sporty t-shirts emblazoned with their team name, laughing. They look as much like brothers and sisters as we ever did.
I remembered how, after David’s death, that one fateful time he didn’t finish the course—the time he fell from the top of a 14-thousand-foot peak on a solo excursion in Colorado—they decided to change the team’s name to iMOAT, to stand for “In Memory of a Teammate.” Stickers were made up with these letters and passed around at his memorial service.
Tommy invited me to play my first Words with Friends game with him that Christmas day years ago, and we never stopped. In fact, we barely pause. My husband thought it might be a cute phase, but it has become an integral part of my every day (really, truly, every one). I can’t imagine a day without it.
Despite the base sibling rivalry that this computer game engenders, I am truly grateful we have this mechanism in place that keeps us connected. We don’t often talk on the phone or even through email or text, and we see each other in person approximately once a year. So this is often the extent of our communication. But I know he’s there on the other end somewhere every day, and I like that. Occasionally, Mom will complain that she hasn’t heard from Tommy in a month, and I’ll say, “He’s alright. He played me in Words with Friends today.” Checking in with him in this way assures me that we are connected, even though we may not be close in any other way.
Occasionally, he sends me a message like Ouch! if I play a really good one, and I momentarily allow myself to feel like a rock star, but he is more likely to write something chest-puffingly confident like, Keep ‘em coming! I’m having a GREAT time! if my playing is sucking particularly badly. It may not have the stakes of car-buying or even selling newspaper subscriptions, but WWF shows that the competitive spirit is alive and well with him. Sometimes, I actually tell myself that I am letting him win—because it matters so much more to him.
I didn’t message Tommy about his use of the word MOAT in his play in Words with Friends that night. I knew he thought about that combination of letters as he moved the electronic pieces into place; there was no way he didn’t. I left it unspoken and went ahead and placed my tiles, creating the word SAD in response. It wasn’t good for points, but it spoke plenty between us.
Anne Pinkerton studied poetry as an undergrad at Hampshire College and received an MFA in creative nonfiction from Bay Path University. Her writing has since appeared or is forthcoming in Hippocampus Magazine, Ars Medica, and Modern Loss, among others, as well as on her blog, truescrawl.com. She works as a communications professional in western Massachusetts where she lives with her husband, five cats, and two dogs.