They lasted seven years because Florence made compromises. She and Freddie didn't work and they'd never really worked, but a man and a woman couldn't live together and be friends, at least not without going through the complicated motions of an attempted relationship first. Besides, Freddie was stubborn enough that he wouldn't admit that he never wanted to sleep with her. She wasn't stupid, though, and she'd met men like him before.
They lasted a month as chess partners before he tried to kiss her for the first time. He grinned apologetically before he did it, and that was how she knew for certain. It was a terrible kiss, and she shoved him away gently. "Freddie," she said, teetering between amused and annoyed. "What are you doing?"
"I figured that was obvious." He sounded stubborn, as though he'd made up his mind to do this.
"Well, don't." She stood up and stepped away firmly, hoping to put an end to that ridiculousness.
It was a week before he tried again. It was three weeks and two more kisses before she finally allowed herself to believe that he might be interested.
She quickly learned that being Freddie's partner meant something different depending on where they were and what mood he was in. When they were in public, they were usually a couple, except when Freddie was too tense and twitchy too touch anyone. When they were home alone, it depended entirely on how involved he was in his game. If they had a good match together, he was much more inclined to grab Florence and kiss her afterward.
The real question, of course, was why she put up with it, and maybe that reason was different at different times as well. Because she loved him. Because he'd have fallen apart without her. Because he was good at chess.
But sometimes he was unbearable. He got into moods and sulked for days on end, coming home in a rage or just never leaving the house to begin with. He refused to talk to her or got drunk every night for a week and wouldn't even play chess. She'd given up trying to make him be rational or talk about what was wrong, for the most part.
Finally, after they'd been living together for seven months and she still wasn't sure not if they were a couple, she broached the subject. They'd just finished dinner, which seemed a safe enough time. They were on the couch together, Freddie's legs slung easily over Florence's in a gesture more childish than romantic. He was thumbing through a chess journal.
He made a noncommittal noise, but he tossed the book away. "Yeah?"
Now that it came down to it, there was no good way to ask. "We need to talk about us."
Freddie scoffed. "Us? What is this? Because I'm not going to marry you, if that's what you think." He refocused, really looking at her, and looking a little sorry, as if he thought maybe she really had been going to request a proposal.
She waved him off, shoving his feet gently off her legs. "No. Look, this isn't easy to say. But I need to know where we stand."
He gave her a look. "What does that mean?"
She took a deep breath. "I need to know—Freddie, I don't even know what this is. What I really want—I need to know if you're interested in men."
He went completely still for a moment, but only for a moment. Then he did something complicated with his face as if he was trying not to laugh, and he stood up suddenly. "You're crazy. You know that? Why the fuck would--? Jesus Christ." He walked into the bedroom and slammed the door.
It didn't come up again until three days later over breakfast, of all things. Freddie looked up suddenly from the newspaper he'd been staring at and said, "Why did you want to know, anyway?"
It took Florence a second to realize when he was talking about. When she did, she sighed and said, "Well, I thought it was relevant to our relationship. Look, I like being your second. I like playing chess with you. This isn't have to be a relationship if you're not comfortable with it."
He snorted. "Where'd you get this bullshit, anyway? About liking men?"
She wished she had a concrete answer, but it had really just been a million little things that had added up over time. He wouldn't sleep with her, he was always mentioning how his father used to call him a queer, he connected with other chess players with a maddening intensity . . . She couldn't tell him any of this, of course. "Just an idea. Because if that's how it is, I don't mind." She didn't, she really didn't. Lying wouldn't have helped anything.
"You don't mind," Freddie said unevenly. "Gee, thanks. Well, I mind. You think I like people going around and accusing me of being a fag all the time?"
Ah yes, and that little piece of evidence. Florence had begun to lose count of the number of times she or Freddie had had to quell rumors about his preferences. She'd always wondered how they got started. "Well, I'm sorry," she said reasonably. "But I'm not wrong, I don't think."
Freddie looked away. "Jesus, Florence. What the hell?"
She knew enough of his language by then to tell she'd gotten through to him. "I understand if you want it kept secret," she said, "but I'm not going to be your beard if you can't even be honest with me, all right?"
Freddie ran his hands through his hair distractedly. "I can't—Why are we even talking about this? This is fucking insane. It's fucking—it's fucked up."
Florence sighed. He always got foul-mouthed and incoherent when he was upset, and it only made things more difficult. She wondered if he knew the patience it took to deal with him on a daily basis. Summoning even more guts than usual, she said, "I know you don't like to sleep with me. And I'm willing to be your friend, Freddie. I'm willing to be your partner. You're a brilliant chess player. If you want to—If you want for us both to find, well, relationships elsewhere, that's fine."
Freddie stared at her for far too long. Then he said, "I'm finishing my fucking eggs in my room."
This time, Freddie only lasted eight hours before bringing it up again. He walked into the kitchen where Florence was making dinner and snapped, "Fine! You want me to be a fag, that's okay!"
"Okay," Florence echoed, giving the soup she was stirring a particularly vicious stir, mostly out of nerves. "So, what does that mean?"
Freddie shook his head and deflated a little, leaning against the counter. "I don't know, Florence. I really don't fucking know."
After that, Freddie started sleeping on the couch. Florence had offered, but he was just barely enough of a gentleman to ignore her, and besides, the couch was more comfortable. They were still friends, still partners, still good at driving each other mad. Florence didn't actually notice that much of a difference in their lives until the night when Freddie didn't come home until four AM.
This was not an unusual occurrence on its own, but Florence usually knew where Freddie was. She'd been more his manager than his girlfriend at the best of times, after all. Tonight, though, she had no idea where he'd been since that afternoon when he'd said he was getting dinner with another chess player. She hadn't thought anything of it, since he did things like that all the time—dinner, a game or two—but perhaps this was different.
She was half-dozing on the couch when he came in stumbling into things and reeking of what she was pretty sure was scotch. She sat, wide awake instantly. "Freddie?"
He muttered something incoherent and half fell against the counter. "Jesus Christ."
"Freddie." She was at his side in time to catch him as he swayed again. "God, you're drunk. What were you out doing, anyhow? Was it . . ." She wracked her brains for the name of the third-tier player he'd been dining with, but it didn't matter.
He was looking everywhere but at her face. "No, fucking no, of course not. You think I'd . . . He knows me. I'd have to look at him in the morning."
"Freddie, what are you saying?" she demanded. "Here, let's get you to the couch."
He didn't fight her for once, just followed her to the couch and collapses half on her shoulder when she sat next to him. "Fuck, Florence. Dammit."
"Yes," she said, trying to keep her voice from sounding too clipped, "but what happened?"
He buried his face in her shoulder, and for a long moment, she thought he wasn't going to answer. His breath was hot and uneven against her skin. Then he mumbled, "I went to a, you know. A fucking . . .You know, a whore."
She bit back an incredulous and inappropriate laugh. "God—Well, Freddie, I—I'm sorry. Are you all right?" It didn't seem like quite the right question, but she didn't know what else she could possibly say.
Freddie gave a little hiccuping laugh that sounded very close to a sob. "Yeah, peachy. I got drunk and payed some guy to suck my dick and then I freaked out. Best day ever." As if he was horrified at having even said any of it, he went back to burying himself in her shoulder.
She was glad of the darkness, because she couldn't have looked at him in the light. She would have either blushed or laughed, and neither was what he needed. Whatever she might have needed, such as sleep, was going to have to wait, she thought with some irritation. "There, there," she said, rubbing his back. "It's all right."
"I can't," he said, sounding a little stunned. "I can't."
She didn't ask him what he couldn't. It didn't matter. "Just sleep."
He nodded. "Good. I want to wake up in the morning and not remember any of this. Or not wake up at all."
She squeezes his shoulders and let him relax against her. "Don't say that."
But he was already asleep.
In the morning, Freddie didn't bring up the previous night, and neither, of course, did Florence. If he wanted to just repress it all, fine. It wasn't her affair.
The same thing happened again a few more times over the years, and it always ended with Freddie drunk, upset, and ruining Florence's night. She never got any happier about it, but she always stayed on the couch when he was out late.