Seinfeld marked the full-fledged mainstream emergence of the idea that it was possible to be cool with your exes. Elaine and Jerry's brief relationship backstory served merely as a preamble to their more important roles as lifelong amigos—you could be friends with your former lovers, and your friendship could be more important, or longer-lasting, than your romance. I have one such ex-girlfriend, with whom I'm still on good terms. After the initial wounds of our conscious uncoupling had started to scab, we began our transition back to being friends, working to overcome the awkwardness of platonically hanging out with someone you're used to seeing naked.
Wanting to test the strength of our now non-romantic bond, I asked my ex, Amber, if she wanted to lock herself in a basement with me. Oh, and if we couldn't escape within 45 minutes, we would be gassed and killed. Well, not really. But that's the fun little backstory of The Basement: A Live Escape Room Experience.
IRL room escapes model themselves after modern room escape game apps (and the clunky flash-based escape games of the aughties internet), which require you to solve puzzles and find clues in order to escape a dangerous situation. The Basement provided the perfect trial for testing the friends-without-benefits relationship Amber and I had forged.
Things got off to a rocky start, however, when I tried to purchase our tickets for the event on my phone. I couldn't figure out how to purchase multiple tickets on The Basement's mobile site, so I got mine and called Amber.
"Hey, listen. I don't know what's up with their site, but I could only get mine. Can you get yours on your end?"
"Are you kidding me?" This was starting to feel like we were dating again. "I thought I wasn't going to have to spend anything. That's the whole reason I agreed to do this with you. Fine. Whatever. Yeah, I got it."
Communication hadn't been that big of an issue while we were together, but we both could admit we had a short fuse when it came to things outside our locus of control. If some outside force threw a wrench into our plans, we'd find a way to twist the annoyance into somehow being a result of the ineptitude of the other. If we had any hope of surviving, we'd have to make sure those old habits didn't flare up as we were scrambling around in the dark.
I met Amber at hers the next morning at 11 AM so we could drive together to The Basement's home of Sylmar, California, near the methiest part of LA County. Los Angeles being Los Angeles, there was, of course, traffic. Amber cursed at some drivers and I cringed like the old days because I'm positive her road rage is going to get her in trouble some day. (But that was no longer my problem to worry about.)
The Basement was hidden in a dusty, barren strip mall right next to an adult-toy superstore. As we were the first of our timeslot's group to arrive, we thought we'd kill time by going into the sex shop and laughing at the ridiculous products together.
In retrospect, that was an odd decision. It was bizarre to have dicks and vaginas in our faces and try to avoid the natural instinct to then think about that person next to you through a sexualized lens. Sure, we were in this place on a lark, but I had seen Amber naked a million times and could still tell you where specific freckles were located in her swimsuit region. So, despite our having moved on and my having no desire to get intimate with her, I wasn't exactly digging the uncomfortable questions this shop was making me contemplate. I had no desire to ruminate on what penises might have been around her since our breakup. I certainly wished for nothing but her happiness, and undoubtedly that would involve penises, but I still didn't need the mental image brought about by her intrigued "hmm" as she looked at some shredded porn stars.
"We should probably head back to the waiting area," I suggested.
Once back in the holding pen, Amber and I filled out the perfunctory release forms as the rest of our group showed up. It was a clique of eight women. Their giggles and lack of game faces gave off more of a "Sunday Funday" than "we're here to crush this" vibe. Amber and I, who were decidedly here to crush this, shot glances at each other. Looks like it's you and me carrying this thing, we said wordlessly. It had always been this way for us, in happy times, and even as things got bad: the two of us against the world. Apparently, some things don't change.
The previous escape group filed out past us, all chummy and back-slapping. I don't know if they'd beaten the game or not, but their obvious comfort and companionship gave me pause about my own choice to be here: Why wasn't I escaping a torture room with my best friends? Why couldn't I have what this group had, rather than a semi-awkward connection with one person along with mostly benign disdain for some strangers I'd already (unfairly) written off? Quit comparing yourself to others, Justin, I told myself. This is part of what forced a wedge between you two in the first place.
Finally, it was time to enter the room and get to work. Black sacks on all our heads, we were placed in a enclosure surrounded by a chain-link fence while our captor spoke to us via speakers about how he was truly rooting for us to escape and spread his message.
This dungeon had the same ambiance of all those in games you've played on your iPad: hints written in blood on the wall, items hidden under furniture, computers with unrealistically simplified GUIs, and all the creepy children's toys in the world to pad out the modern horror-film aesthetic.
I attempted to bellow some general advice to the group.
"Let's all pick an area to focus on at first. Check carefully to find all the hidden top layer clue—"
This group was having none of my mansplaining. Everyone was running around doing their own thing like this actually was life and death. Amber laughed at my flaccid attempt at leadership.
"I don't think they really care what you have to say."
She was right, but the unnecessary emasculation was not appreciated. I stormed off to dig through a pile of body parts away from her snark.
Codes were cracked, riddles were solved, locks were opened, and our group was mostly operating as a full-blown clusterfuck. At half an hour through our gauntlet, Amber had become a sort of de facto liaison between the group of women and me. Just as when we were together, Amber and I had our own separate things going on. While I maintain this is a healthy way to conduct a relationship, I also know it caused a strain on us when the cracks began to show. Would our unwillingness to share experiences together be our undoing in this creepy cellar as it was in our romantic life?
The countdown timer shifted from a gentle beeping to a submarine dive alarm as we inched closer to our doom. We were just short of freedom. All the passwords were entered or solved and ready to be entered in each wall safe and computer. We just couldn't seem to find a crucial last piece of the puzzle that would set into motion the Rube Goldberg machine of our liberation.
"Gas" began to seep into the room, and Amber and I locked eyes over a table of shackles and bondage devices that we'd never had the chance to use in our own sex life. There was kindness in that shared look. Understanding. We both knew that, just as in our time together, we'd done all we could, but some things are just meant to die. This group of pretend-captives was one of those things.
The floodlights came on and the Basement's manager came in to debrief us and field a few questions. This woman was as confused as we were as to the whereabouts of that vexing missing piece. "It's the first one we give you so... it's gotta be around here," she explained. A woman from the group sheepishly raised the clue in the air.
"Oops. I think I put it in my pocket. Hehe."
This was not a "hehe" moment. Her friends gave her a thinly veiled razzing of "Aww, c'mon, Carol!" but I never had to see her again so I made a beeline for Amber and probably too loudly said, "Is this lady fucking serious?"
Once we were out of earshot of the others, Amber piled on.
"What kind of moron forgets they have a clue in their pocket while playing a motherfucking ROOM ESCAPE game?!"
In that moment there didn't seem to be any awkwardness or the weight of a complicated personal history between us. We were just hating someone together, as friends.
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