Dead or Alive

I am thirteen when my grandfather dies.

I play Dead or Alive 3 on my brother’s Xbox. This is one of the few games I am decent at. I am decent at it because it’s a button masher. I frenzy on the controller and often manage to stumble on a sequence that produces a combo attack. It takes little skill, finesse, or memorization. It just requires I go at it again and again. My brother tells me I only win because my attacks are so random, without logic, that the computer can’t predict and defend.

The DOA girls are beautiful. I want their soft-brown, long hair with perfect edges and messy bangs. I want their short, pink pixie hair and unblemished skin. I want to live in a world that’s shiny, everything high gloss. When I am older I will understand that these anime women are the real reason for the game’s popularity. I will understand that DOA Xtreme Beach Volleyball was actually just a means to show these women bounce around in insanely impractical and revealing bikinis. At the time, I didn’t see the point of the theatrical interludes of the women playing joyfully on a tropical beach, of women slowly emerging from hot tubs. I thought, Finally, a sports game for girls like me!

When I come home from school my parents meet me by the door and tell me my grandfather has died. They hug me and cry, but I don’t really cry. I go to my room and do my homework, and when I am older I will learn the term “dissociation.” I will learn that I have been dissociating for years, for decades.

My grandfather died in the spring and I spent what, in my memory, was my entire spring break playing DOA 3. My parents were at work or dealing with the aftermath. An entire house of stuff to sort through: boxes of National Geographic magazines, WWII fighter pilot uniforms, native Alaskan art, a garage brimming with scraps of wood and metal for projects that would never come to be. They were busy trying to find a way forward with my grandmother who had never lived alone, who didn’t know how to be without my grandfather. I did not know how to be without my grandfather, who took us for shopping sprees at Sam Goody. Shuttled us between afterschool activities. Bought us Dairy Queen on summer afternoons. Just a year before his death, he had crafted a longsword out of wood and helped me design and spray paint a suit of armor to wear for a class project. But I did not think about any of this then. I played DOA. I wondered if I could go without sleep, without food, without stepping outside. I didn’t question why I wanted this.

Now, my therapist says I am not connected to my body. She asks what emotions I feel and then asks where I feel them in my body. I guess, uhm, like a heaviness in my chest? Like a heaviness in my stomach? Like tense? In my shoulders?

A new Modest Mouse album came out the same month my grandfather died, so, while playing DOA, I listened to Good News for People Who Love Bad News over and over on the boombox. I remember the sliding screen door being open, it was perfectly spring outside, the music feeling so in season. There was a dreamy lightness that buoyed me. The songs twangy and reverberating, the lyrics echoing and looping, at some moments sounding upbeat and frantic, at others a lullaby. I was in a trance.

The day before the funeral, we took my grandmother to the mortuary to see the body, to make sure everything looked right. Upon seeing him, hands folded on his chest, clean-shaven, in a casket, my grandmother said through tears that it didn’t look like him, he needed more rouge, he had always had such color in his cheeks. I knew then that this body was not my grandfather, that no amount of rouge could make it seem anything like him. I knew then that bodies were not people.

In meditation, my mind takes me to memories, and the memories are blank rooms I stand in. I stand in the basement of the church my grandparents went to, where every Sunday after mass, coffee and pastries were served. Where I sat in a white, button-up shirt with black, vertical stripes after my grandfather’s funeral, feeling like my clothes never fit right, embarrassed by my bout of stifled sobs that manifested into silent convulsions during the service. The tremor had run through me unexpectedly and filled me with shame before it sank into nothingness. I stand in my sister’s room where, during summer, I’d sleep in a sleeping bag on the floor because her room had window AC and mine didn’t. Her metal windchimes softly singing in the fan breeze. I am driving, I live in Tucson. I grip the wheel. What does it feel like? I look at my fingers. The cat observes itself, I think. I’m at the edge of the yard at my parents’ house in Pennsylvania, right where it begins to dip in a steep curve, the bank of the creek below obscured through tangles of trees. I’m digging up the shoebox we buried my sister’s guinea pig in last week—just to make sure. Except I’m not there, it’s an open hole and I can’t make out the contents. I’m standing in my grandparents’ kitchen, a painting of a man praying over bread above the dining table, there is a saucepan of melted butter on the stove for popcorn and soon my fingers will be slick with it. What did my grandparents couch feel like? Their carpet? Their hands? I can see it, but it’s nowhere in my body.

Each fight in DOA takes less than two minutes. When I got knocked out, I could hit Continue and retry on an infinite loop. The gameplay was repetitive, every level, every fight, just like the last. No character development to speak of and the story basically nonexistent, a loose shell for endless hand-to-hand combat. I liked the elegant movements, the gliding leg sweeps, the swift jabs. I liked being a cog in the never-ending system. I easily died hundreds of times that week as several different women. Against a tree in a forest filled with foliage, on the glass floor of an aquarium, while falling through the mist of a waterfall before landing on a mossy pillar of rock. The game’s graphics were beautiful and entrancing, like watching a screensaver while I waited for my life to buffer.

By the end of that spring break, I had accomplished something I never had before—I beat all of my brother’s high scores in a video game. I remember him being incredulous and kind of annoyed. I had beaten his scores not through skill but through sheer input, the way someone plays slots until hitting gold. He set to it and easily overtook my scores in a matter of days. That didn’t matter though. For that week, I had become the game. I existed in falling cherry blossoms, in paper-walled pagodas, in ice caves. I was a fierce warrior woman who was also so physically without flaw, without a wrinkle on her skintight dress with slits up past her hips, with enormous breasts, my god! The CD ends and I hit the Play button again. I hit Continue as the Game Over clock counts down from ten. I am in the room now but I can’t touch anything, I am years away from myself.

That spring, I get dental surgery and abuse painkillers for the first time. We paint the house my grandparents lived in and prepare it for sale. I cover my backpack in patches and squishy cartoon animal keychains that my grandfather had bought us, I scribble on them with Sharpie and poke paperclips through like voodoo dolls. I read A Brief History of Time and Shakespeare’s sonnets during study period. I read the words and retain nothing. I wait for the school year to end, for me to become a high school freshman. I feel blank. My hands act on the controller without me knowing which buttons are hit. Things happen on the screen and I’m unsure the cause. It’s all random. Sometimes you’re dead. Sometimes you’re alive. Sometimes both.