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Left to Lose, Right to Win

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New York, New York. 1986. He was there on business. He had business now.

It was a relief, Freddie told himself, not to have to think about chess. At least not in the same way. His business still involved chess, of course. Freddie knew he was nothing without it. And he still played. It was in his blood, his lungs. He looked at people on the streets and he pictured their steps as chess moves. He watched them in the parks and on the subway and he saw the squares of the board, the playing field. Everything was strategy.

He landed at JFK airport and over the loudspeaker he imagined that he heard a voice announce his move. King to G3.

He spent most of the flight thinking of Florence.

The world of chess wasn’t large. It was easy, finding her address. As it turned out, she hadn’t even moved. He’d assumed that she wouldn’t want him to find her. He hadn’t guessed that she might not care.

They hadn’t spoken since Merano, months ago now. Those first few days in New York he walked her neighborhood, orbited it. Each day his route brought him closer until finally he stood on the steps and rang the buzzer. He bounced back and forth, his blood zipping through his veins, heart pounding, feet ready should they need to flee.

When he heard the click, he said, “Florence, hey. It’s me.” The door buzzed open.

He took the steps to the fourth floor two at a time.

He was on the third floor landing when he looked up and saw the Russian coming down. Freddie stopped in his tracks.

He knew that they were together. He’d heard the talk. He’d seen her in the pictures. She was the Russian’s second now, the fucking traitor. The bitch.

“What are you doing here?” Freddie asked. It was supposed to be the Russian’s line, but Freddie had spoken it first. Sometimes Freddie stole things too.

“I live here,” the Russian said. He looked Freddie up and down.

Florence moved fast. She always had.

The Russian – Sergievsky – stood there on the steps, blocked Freddie’s advance.

“I’m here to see Florence,” Freddie said, watched as Sergievsky stepped to the right at the same time that Freddie did.

“I did not think you had come to see me,” Sergievsky agreed.

Freddie wondered if it was supposed to be a joke. Some kind of Russian joke. It wasn’t funny.

“Well,” Freddie said. “Where the fuck is she?”

“She isn’t here.”

Freddie searched Sergievsky’s face, tried to work out if it was a lie. The door to the apartment on the fourth floor stood open. Freddie could see inside from where he stood. He saw no movement there.

“I’ll come back,” Freddie said. He turned to go.

He was starting back down the stairs when Sergievsky stepped forward, held out a hand to stop Freddie, and said, “Why did you throw the game?”

Freddie stopped, stepped back onto the landing.

“I didn’t throw the game,” Freddie said. “I resigned. I made a deal. I’ve got a new thing going.”

Sergievsky didn’t ask about Freddie’s new thing. What did he care what Freddie did with his life if it did not involve chess? It did involve chess, but how was Sergievsky to know? Freddie understood. Freddie wouldn’t have asked either.

Sergievsky frowned at him and said, “I don’t think that is why. I think you were afraid you might lose.”

Freddie shook his head, stubborn, though he knew that Sergievsky was at least partially right. Freddie wasn’t afraid he might lose. Freddie had been losing. That much had been clear, and Sergievsky knew it as well as Freddie. Sergievsky saw it. He was smart.

“I wouldn’t have lost,” Freddie said anyway.

“If you say it again, perhaps you can convince yourself,” Sergievsky returned, a satisfied smile playing at his lips.

Freddie heard Florence. He heard her voice in Merano as she threw her clothes into a bag.

“Keep pretending you love yourself and maybe someday you’ll believe it. Maybe someday you really will and then you won’t have to change a thing, will you?”

He pictured them then, curled up together, Sergievsky’s mouth on Florence’s neck. She knew everything about Freddie. He wondered, suddenly, how much she had told Sergievsky.

“Perhaps you can convince yourself,” Sergievsky said again and they were Florence’s words.

Freddie felt anger and bile rise in his stomach. Sergievsky had taken her from him and now here he was, stealing the words she’d used against Freddie as well.

Freddie pulled back, anticipated the release, the satisfaction that he would feel when his fist connected with Sergievsky’s jaw. His arm was set, ready, when Sergievsky reached for him, a hand on his shoulder.

Freddie pushed him away, shoved him back, hard, and Sergievsky stumbled, but did not lose his footing, would not fall. When Freddie came at him again, Sergievsky grabbed at Freddie’s arms, held him back, his grip hard and pinching as Freddie strained against it. Freddie twisted beneath Sergievsky’s hands, twisted until he could reach him, his fingers pulling at Sergievsky’s elbows, pressing hard into the skin there.

When Sergievsky released him it was unexpected and Freddie surged forward, his hands flying up to Sergievsky’s shoulders. Sergievsky stepped back, propelled Freddie forward as he moved away. Freddie tightened his grip, pulled at Sergievsky.

He must have started it. He must have been the one. It wouldn’t have been Sergievsky. It wouldn’t have occurred to Sergievsky, but it did to Freddie. It did. The press of their mouths, the crush of them as they pushed at each other, pulled at clothes and skin. The kiss was sour and sharp and Freddie had started it. It wouldn’t have started any other way. But when he realized – when he realized what he’d done and tried to back away, it was Sergievsky who pulled him in again. It was Sergievsky who bit at his lips and pressed his tongue to Freddie’s, who let Freddie reach for the buckle at his waist, who helped when Freddie’s fingers fumbled. Freddie let Sergievsky move them both until Sergievsky was leaning against the wall, and then Freddie fell to his knees, felt Sergievsky’s hands firm on his shoulders, urging him on.

It was clear to Freddie as soon as he felt Sergievsky on his tongue, as soon as he had him in his mouth. It seemed clear that the Russian had thought of this, had crouched in his room, hand moving frantically over himself, eyes squeezed shut and head filled with Freddie Trumper. Freddie sucked at him and wondered if Sergievsky thought of fucking Freddie when he was in bed with Florence.

Freddie heard Sergievsky’s head hit the wall as he threw his neck back. Freddie gripped at Sergievsky’s thighs, his lips stretched around Sergievsky’s length. He thrust forward and Freddie gagged, pushed back at Sergievsky and held him as best he could when Sergievsky thrust again.

Sergievsky’s hands were on his head now, palms caressing, seeming to get off on the scratch of Freddie’s stubble against his skin. Freddie slid off, licked at Sergievsky’s dick, then set his mouth at the tip and let Sergievsky’s hands push him back down.

It was always about winning with him, wasn’t it? Freddie understood how the world worked. Sometimes you had to lose a round in order to win. Sergievsky was older in years, but here Freddie felt wiser.

Sergievsky buckled above him, grunted as he shot his load against Freddie’s tongue. Freddie choked on it, pulled back, felt the rest of it land on his cheek. He spat on the floor, wiped at his face with the back of his hand. He saw Sergievsky fastening his trousers from the corner of his eye.

When Freddie looked up, Sergievsky was on the steps again, above Freddie, looking down on where Freddie remained crouched on the ground.

“You’re insane,” Sergievsky said.

“You think so?” Freddie asked. The question sat high in his voice, on the verge of a laugh. He knew what was said of him.

“No,” Sergievsky admitted. “But sometimes I wonder.”

“I’m not insane,” Freddie said. He stared at Sergievsky’s spunk where it splattered the floor. He stood. His fingers curled in toward his palm and then stretched out again. He reached up and wiped at his mouth.

“No,” Sergievsky agreed. “Just self-destructive. Or just plain old destructive, perhaps.”

Freddie didn’t come here to talk about himself. He nodded past Sergievsky. “So how is she?”

Sergievsky glanced behind him as he responded. “She wouldn’t want me to say.”

“That bad, huh?” Freddie said with a smile.

Sergievsky smiled in return, shook his head and then turned and left Freddie alone on the landing. He heard the click of Florence’s door, the sound of the bolt.

Freddie’s move.