I put a shiny quarter above the start button of the arcade cabinet.
It’s the tail end of the Cabinet era, but the Quarter is still universal geek talk for, “I got next game.”
I’m in a little Brooklyn deli that has some of the last arcades of the generation. I’m watching two kids play a fighting game. A tall skinny white kid, and a short, spiky-haired Chinese kid, the latter being heckled by his group of friends as he loses to the white guy.
Defeated, the Asian kid and his group leave the deli. It’s just me and the tall one now.
He looks sickly. A frail twig about to snap. He’s about 6’2 and dangerously skinny. His emaciated face makes his big teeth look even bigger. He’s wearing a black baseball cap to tame his long, thick, unruly hair. His outfit is a polyester black t-shirt, two sizes too big, faded black jeans, and black work boots. It’s a lot of black to be wearing in the middle of summer. A sartorial rebellion. A show of his hate for humanity.
I insert the quarter into the coin slot, the game cabinet says “Capcom,” and I press start.
We quickly select our three characters for the upcoming battle. In perfect synchronicity, we pick the same three fighters, in the same order. He contorts his face, thinking “that was weird.”
He doesn’t get it yet.
He’s kicking my ass in the game. I haven’t played in nearly a decade.
“You can get over her,” I say without turning from the screen.
He looks at me, confused, as I take advantage of the distraction and catch his Cable and Juggernaut in a Special.
“Jessica, you have two choices. Either let her rejection eat you up for the next two years, rotting in a deep, chronic depression, or you can become better, stronger and smarter.”
He asked a girl out for the second time in his life, and for the second time in his life, got rejected. He hates himself, he hates humanity, and he’s contemplating suicide. He won’t do it, but this will trigger a depression that will last a long time.
I know this because he knows this.
“You think you’re bad now, kid? Wait until you graduate into the Great Recession. Wait until you’re a borderline alcoholic getting fired from a crooked law firm. Wait until you’re an entry level security guard pissed at the years wasted on Grad School. Wait until the embarrassment of pushing a mail cart for two years as a mailroom guy.
“Oh, you’ll have plenty of time to know self pity.
“Your depression will get worse as you start making unhealthy decisions, engorging on garbage food, drinking excessively, drowning in self loathing. You’re skinny now, but in five years you’ll be the poster boy for skinny fat.”
As I say that, the arcade flickers and this image quickly flashes on screen:
The screen goes back to the game, but he’s spooked. I take advantage and easily beat the rest of his team. I win.
“It’ll be a vicious cycle of unhealthy decisions and depression, feeding each-other.
“Then one day in your mid-20’s, you’ll make a stupid little bet with your friends: you’ll have a 30-day fitness challenge to see who can get in the best shape.
“It’ll be the very first time you see the inside of a gym. You’ll be terrified, but in true manic-Nerd form, you’ll have researched everything there is to know about fitness.
“Overnight, you’ll go from having hated everyone and everything related to fitness, to being a protein-guzzling, weightlifting gym rat.
“And overnight your depression will nearly vanish.”
He starts to realize that there’s something familiar about me. Same height, same pronounced brow line, but different. Short hair, a shirt that fits, and about 35 healthy lbs heavier.
“As you learn more about health, you’ll realize that your Inflammatory diet and malnutrition had physical and emotional ripples throughout your body. You were chemically and hormonally unstable because of your industrial-fat-and-sugar diet. Your hot pocket, ramen and coke meal plan was killing you, making you depressed in the process.
“Mindful eating will be the second pillar of your recovery, if you choose to have one.
“There’s more to the story, kid, but if you get those two basics down, you’ll never need to worry about self-loathing or suffering again. You’ll know happiness, you’ll know success. Life will have color again.”
I leaned a sealed envelope against the joystick of the cabinet.
“You can get through this kid, it’s in your hands.”
With those words, I walked out of that old Deli and never looked back again.
Also published on Medium.