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Not dumber, just a little bit older

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It snows seven inches in February. Winter in Kentucky isn’t so bad, Beth thinks. She executes the usual routine: wake up. Brush teeth. Make bed, half-heartedly so: in this empty house, there’s no one she needs to impress. Decide if she is hungry. Is she hungry? On autopilot, she cooks her eggs, scrambled - a remnant of teenagerdom at Methuen. She’ll eat them later. For now, she sits with a chessboard and her latest book, Revshevsky’s Middlegames for Advanced Players.

Never a happier relationship did exist, Beth thinks, than that of a melody with its counterpoint. Alma’s Sonata in B-minor by Liszt on piano, perhaps the most peaceful bars that woman had ever played.

Beth imagines an organ with the reverbed strum of a guitar, heartbeats to the sound of drums. In her head, she croons the lyrics she knows by heart. If she keeps the chessboard in her head guarded from the outside world, she locks away her inner rock musician and lets the key crumble to powder. She’s always enjoyed psychedelic music that could warm her toes on a winter evening or could blast on the radio driving down a long, empty stretch of road. Most could call two months afterward too soon for her to reminisce about the “old days” of New York, before Moscow, before the undertow of a now-wrapped domestic press tour, but nevertheless, she feels the wringing of her heart like a dish towel, dripping his name, over and over.

Benny, swallowing his eggs whole rather than cutting them. Beth crinkles her nose at the memory. Obviously, he hadn’t been raised under the rigid regimen that is Christian etiquette for orphans. That first day, he’d eaten like it was a distraction from what had really mattered: the Hastings games, the training, the chess.

Benny, also blushing when she teases him over dinners of takeout containers and plastic cutlery; when she said “Твоя шляпа глупая” (“Your hat is silly”), the quiet echo of his laugh penetrated where her heart had stashed itself away.

Benny, talking chess in rhetoric and riddles, no matter to whom, no matter where, no matter what.

Benny, singing and swaying to the Kinks on a winding road through rural Pennsylvania, the freest she’d ever seen him at that point. The sounds of walls crumbling, because any nine-hour drive will turn two people from “chess players who are tentative friends” into “real friends who play chess.”

She’d been exhausted that whole car ride, but she hadn’t fallen asleep once, because they’d spent the whole time talking or snacking or singing or laughing or sitting in companionable silence. That had to have been a sign they were meant to be good friends. No. Beth shakes her head to clear the fog and the image of his face, his fucking gorgeous face, taking several breaths as well.

Benny and Beth, Beth and Benny. How naturally their names had fallen next to each other, as if the universe had aligned for them to click into place like a lock and key. No, Beth. Another breath. Her newly hired psychiatrist has always told her that recovery is one day at a time, one step at a time. The doctor had been referring to Librium and liquor, but Beth has been reluctant to realize that her mantra applies to another L-word, one people tend to overuse in the month of February. It slips from mouths so easily, as if saying it convinces one of its existence.

No, Beth, true chess champions only love their chessboards. There will be time to find love after she becomes World Champion. Whenever that is. Vasily Borgov had only married his wife after achieving international grandmaster, his son had been born only after securing the highest title in the game. He was not the unfeeling machine she had imagined, but he had been disciplined nonetheless. I can be disciplined, Beth insists to herself. Unbidden, again, her mind summons Benny, telling her she’s the best player here; the best there is.

Deep breath. The extra oxygen imbibes her with steel, and she desperately straightens her body into a new angle to stop her heart from crying. Maybe if she just lets the song tear open the wounds, maybe if she just keeps playing don’t call me again over and over again in her head. Cauterizing a wound, as Harry had once explained to her, a lifetime ago, burning flesh to halt the bleeding. He was perhaps the most worldly person to step foot into her home: an electrical engineer and former state chess champion, eyes wide and sad at the tomes and tomes he could fill with the knowledge and emotion a prodigy like Beth lacked. Beth takes a less clinical metaphor, as she contemplates the flurries outside her window. She’s burying a casket under seven inches of snow. She’s buried enough bodies - too many real, too many that might as well have been. Like the ghosts of Alma and Alice and Mr. Shaibel; of two fathers she could’ve had but never did.

There’s also the spirit of Mrs. Deardorff, reminding her of the manners of a proper Methuen girl. Mrs. Deardorff, who presently wasn’t dead but wasn’t quite what Beth would call living. The Mrs. Deardorff who once knew Beth, who once snatched her lifeblood away from her via some misguided sense of “greater good,” doesn’t exist anymore, so, as far as Beth is concerned. She is but a phantom now.

There were the lucky girls in the orphanage who got to grow up and move out. Some girls would return to the orphanage within a year, eyes hollow, arms healed at awkward angles, like soldiers returning from war. Jolene would try to coax out their stories; the specters of what were once their smiles. When Jolene would whisper what she’d learn to Beth, her voice was always haunted, and noticeably more angry over the years. “Folks are fucking cruel. Christians, my foot. Mary Sue nearly lost an eye.” Still, Beth always thought, this might be a better fate compared to the girls that were sent to the infirmary with a cough, never to return. At least Mary Sue got to reach age eighteen. At least Mary Sue was given a second chance at life outside the orphanage.

I could be a ghost, Beth thinks to herself wryly. Beth has fumbled chance after chance. She’s dropped pieces of herself; fractured herself until there’s only scraps left - ghosts of Beth Harmon strewn all over the world. Like Prince Absyrtus, slain to pieces by the fugitive witch Medea. Like irrational numbers, ruminating on the edge of her conscience. She knows that pi and tau are provable concepts, but she can’t visualize the end of either, not like the moves to every game she’s ever played. She knows that all the phone numbers in the world can be found somewhere amongst the infinite digits of tau, but for all they matter they may as well be dancing by the pool of the Hotel Mariposa in Las Vegas. If they’re out of sight, they’re inconsequential.

The many, many ghosts of Beth Harmon, scattered to the wind, are just like the 17-millionth digit of pi, in-fucking-consequential. On the doorstep to Methuen, there’s the child who had watched the dress Alice had embroidered for her turn to embers in a garbage bin; the unsmiling girl lying on a sterile white bed among dozens of sterile white beds, forced to cherish friendship and math class rather than chess to survive. In some frat house, there’s the silly teenager-masquerading-as-an-adult that slept-and-left Tim the Dostoyevsky enthusiast, as if leaving first would make her the stronger one.

In Mexico City, there’s the piece of Beth that had perished on the balcony of Aztec Hotel, wheeled away on the gurney with Alma’s body. In that moment she was made of Kevlar, the condolences glancing off like bullets, but softened nonetheless by hugs from Matt and Mike. The teary moiety in Paris, her pride disintegrating spectacularly for the cameras and reporters, descending like vultures on the remnants of her dignity. The angry creature that had lashed out at a truly good person and friend - I’m not the one working in a supermarket because I can’t pay for college - but it’s fair to say that ghost is definitely better off never seen again. And, of course, the Beth of New York City, who had so foolishly pretended she could have it all, who flits between her ribs and memories of golden hair. Unlike Absyrtus, the pieces of Beth Harmon will never be collected, never buried, never mourned.

No, Beth Harmon that is living and thinking now, in February 1968. She’s fiercely cocooned the few pieces left in her identity to herself by patching them into a quilt so they can’t escape. Chess player. Amateur fashionista. Interior decorator. Independent. Single. Kind. Future World Champion. There can be no more shattered smithereens, no more pieces traded away without a second thought. That’s why she safely cultivates life in places she can trust: the fragment left with Jolene, the parcel for Townes. That’s why she splurges on nice clothes - clothes that don’t rip when she falls drunk against a coffee table. Durable.

She’ll always share the chessboard in her head with Benny, but the fragment of her that dared to flirt and giggle coyly in his arms, warm skin against skin; that part that dared to imagine he’ll never let her go...it is dust under his bed, unacknowledged. There will be no fear in a handful of dust, if she can forget it.

She remembers in the back of her mind that she was going to call Annette Packer this weekend, and that Jolene’s birthday is next week. She knows that Annette is applying to medical school this year, and although Beth doesn’t quite grasp the concept of organic chemistry (lots of carbon?), sometimes they both need time to rue those who are so certain where a woman's place should be. Together, they channel their collective seething into laughter.

And Beth can play “workman-like chess” all she wants, but Beth knows that Jolene works harder than she ever will. She has to. So, next weekend, Beth is taking a bus to Jolene’s house to meet some of her radical friends in the legal world. She’s going to learn about the ramifications of Jim Crow and the teachings of Malcolm X over dinner at Jolene’s Louisville church; give Jolene a book she had finished recently, go shopping at boutiques to treat her. Lose herself in friendship, not in addiction, but a pattern her psychiatrist calls a “healthy adult behavior.” Maybe this time with Jolene can help her will away some of the lingering sadness that has taken root like a bad infection.

Pushing her chair back, Beth puts on the vinyl record that accompanies the song stuck in her head. The same way playing games physically can be more didactic than playing in her own head, sometimes hearing a song one knows by heart can help suppress its yearnings. She plays a vinyl record, the one she’s had since fifteen that has seen her through much darker moments, much worse than this longing for a time and a place and a boy. Perhaps dancing will clear her head. She sways to the song.


Pay no mind

It takes time

What's that you say


The notes caress her gently, warm like his grip. The night before her flight to Paris, Benny had hugged her so tightly. They’d fallen asleep, ensconced in each other, pretending like they would do this tomorrow night and every night after that, no problem. They had paid no heed, no mind, to the hour of her flight creeping closer every second.

In her fading wakefulness, Beth had heard a rustle from Benny, felt a shuffle in his position. He had murmured something inaudible.

“Benny?”

His determinedly steady breathing had been all that answered. A beat had passed, and Benny was mumbling, painfully softly. Beth still couldn’t hear.

“What’d you say?” Beth had whispered.

He’d fallen silent again. But this time, Beth couldn’t fight the drowsiness any longer, and she had succumbed to sleep.

This wasn’t Beth now, of course. This is a fragment of a Beth long passed, a version of herself that could juxtapose the intense fire that always comes with studying chess alongside some foreign passion for another’s body. Chess with Benny by day, Benny without chess by night. Pretending it was sustainable.


Down the hall

I heard a song

Who knows

Drifting away


His laugh, oh God, his laugh. She keeps an entire catalog in her head of Benny’s different laughs.

The first real one, when he was half-focused on the road, half on the conversation, in the car ride from Ohio. It’s contained and low and, frankly, charming, imbued with a playful warmth in his eyes that makes her pulse skip, just a little bit.

The breathy chuckle that accompanied a shake of his head when she had pretended to curtsy in a new dress from Saks.

The giggling that always accompanies sex with a lover; the sometimes awkward positions and the noises and the clumsy-yet-frantic energy.

The body-shaking hysterics when he’d chased her around the apartment after she’d refused to return his hat. They’d wrestled each other to the ground; they didn’t give a damn if the neighbors could hear them.

She doesn’t quite recognize this version of herself, caught in the thrill as every inch of his skin met hers, but she never wants to forget his laugh: a melodious, wondrous thing.

In the phone call Benny had made to Moscow, he had been business-like, the living embodiment of chess and strategy. But then wonderful, dopey Harry had made some witty comment to the twins in the background, and Benny had laughed, a sharp, intelligent bark, before snapping back to the task of outlining Borgov’s probabilistic endgame. Beth filed this laugh away, but she wasn’t sure where. Post-I miss you, post-no you can fucking well go alone, post-maybe I shouldn’t have done it, post-mistakes ad nauseum. He’d laughed like his guard was still up, but something was mending, stitched by the strategy they both spoke so fluently.


Baby, at night when I look at you

Nothing in this world keeps me confused

All it takes, look in your eyes


One night in his apartment, the night they’d finished the last of Borgov’s games, she had cooked eggplant parmesan. While it was baking in the oven, she explored the vinyl collection on the top shelf. This song had been playing; she’d impulsively swept him from his book into a dance.

He’d been confused at first, his smile inquiring. Beth remembers the circling of her arms around his neck, the softness of his hand on the small of her back, the smell of him. She’ll never forget the swoop of her stomach, as if she were in a gown and he were in a tuxedo and a chandelier were illuminating them from above. When Beth was a baby, she didn’t do dolls, but she could do daydreams. She’d seen couples pawing at each other, like the world would end if they didn’t touch each other right now. But she’d also seen the evening dances at the high school by Methuen - dates escorted with linked elbows, dressed to the nines in long tulle dresses and neat, crease-resistant suits with bowties. Like many, many other things in New York, dancing had felt like a daydream.

Beth and Benny couldn’t quite waltz, but she could lead them in some sort of step, and he could spin her gently. She’d leaned in to brush her lips to his. When she’d pulled away, the look in his eyes could have melted all the ice in the freezer. It hadn't been the hungry desire to yank her into the bedroom, but it had been just as intense. Soft. Open. His forehead had knocked against hers, for to kiss would have been to break whatever spell under which they had fallen.

At the end of the song, he’d spun her again, and again, and again, until she was dizzy and giggly. When she’d started stumbling, seeking balance, he’d rolled his eyes but held her steady nonetheless. They’d both been a little out of breath, but not from physical exertion.

The eggplant parmesan had been delicious, she remembers, and so too had their fucking on the kitchen counter afterward.

Oh, how far they’d come, in the time after you should play the Sicilian. When she thinks of it, she still suppresses a smile at the memory. In the afterglow of all their times afterward, he’d sometimes strangle out something totally coherent (“Fuck”), and she’d sometimes say “king four” to start a game before Round Two. Watching him struggle to regroup to play had been, for lack of a better word, delectable. Once, while casually playing as they folded their clothes from the ground, so irritated she’d forked his king and his queen that he’d fucking hissed, he had summoned the force to pin her to the wall (in lieu of pinning her knight on their mental chessboard).

“Draw,” he’d ordered, his eyes narrowed like those of a snake.

She’d smirked back, somewhere into the air, her gaze unfocused, because his tongue was moving in ministrations down her neck in the exact way that made her knees weaken.

“No,” she’d whispered, though he’d definitely caught the waver in her voice, the hm that escaped her, and she felt his smirk against her neck; felt it in the way he’d held her just that much tighter. Felt it in the way he’d kissed her ‘til they were both breathless.

Sufficiently flustered, tingling to her fingertips, she’d felt Benny’s mouth pause against hers, savoring her quick, heavy breaths that betrayed the effect he had. In her mind now, there was a steady chanting of want and need and now and Jesus Christ, Benny Watts that eclipsed all other rational thoughts. Grinning mischievously like some sort of a supervillain, he’d withdrawn and pulled his weight from her against the wall to go toss his crumpled t-shirt from the corner into a laundry hamper. Ostensibly, that was it for tonight.

Well, Beth couldn’t have that.

Seeing straight through his plans, knowing he was buzzing just as much, she had reclined on the bed, amidst the tousled sheets. Her body lay supine, every angle available for his inspection.

Benny had tried to resist looking, he really had. But inevitably, she’d lured him with a crook of her finger and a soft, innocent call of his name. She watched him try to conceal whatever desire was coursing through his body, but without the protective layer of clothing it simply wouldn’t be hidden. Eyes dark and starving had wandered across her stomach, up her neck, to meet her gaze. From the bed, she’d seen the intake of breath as he calculated his next step, his shoulders rise and fall, the ever-so-subtle way that his jaw locked as she smiled demurely, relaxed. And then, he strode toward the bed, a predator closing in on its wily prey, ready to pounce and ravish raw.

She could have been the siren beguiling him with just her eyes - caught up in the exhilaration of the chase, his smile expanding uncontrollably into something wild. She'd thrilled in the shake of his head, a concession to her trap; a concession to his outfoxing. Still - she'd known that the game is not won, not yet.

It hadn’t been a checkmate, but it had quickly become a most satisfying sequence in its own right.

Somewhere in the earth-shattering shock of two people colliding furiously on the bed, battling for domination and control, a spare chessboard had clattered to the ground. And that’s how Beth and Benny, Benny and Beth would be immortalized in her mind: pushing each other to the edge, constantly warring between give and take, revenge upon revenge, setting each other alight like the intuitive players they are. A game: how long could one resist the other?

All these months later, Beth still longs to keep playing.


All of me / Is to tow the waste

What's that you say / It's going away

It's painful but / You do what you must / Takes time to know


Head sharpened from five weeks of chess, Beth had been putting her coat on for the airport, prepared to hail a cab in the October rain. She was touching up her makeup in the mirror of the bathroom when Benny had sidled up to her, hat poised on his head, just as her headscarf sat elegantly in her hair. By that point, his closeness had felt so normal - expected, even - and she reveled in how her heart still staccatoed nervously, a firecracker whose wick was burning too fast.

She hadn’t been able to read his eyes, but whatever feeling his face had been reflecting had stirred something that felt like anguish. To be away from him, even for a short while - the idea had been shielded from her consciousness until now. Then Benny, standing behind her, was wrapping his arms around her waist, his breath warming her hair, her eyes locked on his in the mirror. The idea of having a Beth without a Benny was suddenly inconceivable to her, or likewise, a Benny without a Beth. Her breath had seized and she suddenly committed to memory everything about this moment and this arrangement, more intimate than any sexual position could pray to be. The claws of her mind sharpened to fight not some international master but some menacing, intangible foe.

“You should come back after Paris. To keep training for Moscow.” His voice had been rolled in the rich, smooth confidence of Benny Watts, the Benny at Osler Grille and Bar in Ohio. But an audio recording would not have picked up on the fact that his arms were tightening and tightening and tightening around her body in the most intimate manner, crushing her like his life depended on it.

She had been positively weightless with something like elation, his arms anchoring her where her hands rest on them. Her mind had embraced the thrill that he wanted her to come back here, the feeling that nothing except good can happen. She’d never been one to focus on worst-case scenarios. “I can do that,” she’d replied, head engulfed in the here and now because honestly she never wants anyone besides Benny to embrace her like this again. Their potential had felt infinite, like the chessboard wasn’t just sixty-four squares, but endless black and white tiles extending beyond the foreseeable horizon.

In this moment, they weren’t Benny Watts and Beth Harmon; they were two lovers, indulging in each other one last time, for now. This is lightning in a bottle, this is. It's crackling with electricity and stealing her breath. In a lifetime, every person should get to feel whatever Beth is feeling, even just once.

(She hadn’t mentioned she’d already booked her return tickets from Paris to New York, anyway.)

In the present, Beth opens her eyes and realizes she needs to scrub away the sting of broken promises and futile determination. The color from her living room is draining, to white, to black, to shades of brown and grey.

Beth scoffs at herself. A future World Champion cannot afford distractions like lovers or soulmates. Beth chides herself: there’s no such thing as soulmates. And if there were, yours would be chess. It’s always been chess. She needs just enough love to have friends with whom she can celebrate after her victory, just enough coition to satiate her body’s needs (needs she hadn’t realized had even existed until Benny, but that’s besides the point).


Who knows if there're roses in heaven / Let go of that empty feeling

Not dumber just a little bit older / Kiss of love couldn't be much colder


Benny had pulled his Beetle up to the curb of the airport terminal. Beth, admiring the buildings they’d passed out her window, had turned to him, cognizant of his silence for most of the trip. He had suddenly seemed so weary, and for the first time Beth noticed the lines on his forehead, usually so imperceptible. His mind still whirred around his mental chessboard, sharp as his jaw. But this twenty-five-year-old had appeared fifteen years older, like his opponent had just played a deadly attack that he knows will destroy him.

Beth’s mind, previously filled with bishops darting like dragonflies and knight subterfuge and intimidation by rook, suddenly had flooded with questions, a desire to know their future like an endgame. Will you still want me after I become World Champion? What about forever? Could we still have whatever this is, even with the tournaments and traveling? And other, more inconsequential things that still ask the same thing, basically. Do you think there are roses in heaven? Every question lodges in her throat, as she waits patiently for air to reach her head again.

I’ll miss you. But that might put pressure on you to say it back, pretend you mean it when you don’t. Besides, you already know I’ll miss you. The rain falls in torrents outside, trying to fill the silence where Beth’s heart had just been beating.

“See you soon?” Beth had tried to assuage the thickness of ambiguity that hung heavy in the car.

“Of course,” Benny had replied, brow cinched, as unreadable as he’d been this morning in the mirror of the bathroom and last night right before they’d drifted off.

She’d leaned over to kiss him, and his lips had been chilly. Languid, restrained uncertainty brimming with...melancholy? No, that’s not right.

(Only months later, in the present, Beth finds the word: mortality.)

As their mouths moved against each other, Beth had felt her limbs leaden, like Benny’s touch had also aged her. Her mind jumps to some constitution of her death. What happens if I lose? Would you still want me? As if Benny had been thinking that, too, Would you remember me?

All Beth feels is hollow, her insides carved out by anxiety. Fuck, they really should’ve talked before this.

Beth had laced their hands into a pretty lattice pattern and forced a fragile beam, of sorts. Vindictively, she had shoved that horrid, empty feeling out of the car and drawn upon every substantial ounce, every reserve of warmth that, really, Benny was more known for having rather than her.

“You could come with me. To Paris,” she had heard herself say while her heart was folding in on itself like origami. They say you can't fold a sheet of paper in half eight times, but this useless organ was definitely breaking that law of physics.

For a very long moment, Benny had been silent, and her stomach had experienced its own gravitational collapse, leaving some black hole to swallow her in its wake. She’d been so certain… She couldn’t understand why he was shaking his head; she’d thought she’d known him well enough to know that this isn’t some silly power play in their game, that he’s being serious.

He'd taken a deep breath, like he was thinking, and said, “We’ll see each other after.” There’s something he’s left unsaid; she knows him that well at least. “You’ll be great.”

And that had been the end of that.

She’d ignored the throb in her throat and let the mood shift. “Can I borrow your umbrella? I didn’t know it was going to rain.” She’d gestured to her hair.

Benny’s lips had quirked up, though his smile was just as brittle as hers. “Don’t break it.”

She had nodded briefly, noting her unfortunate penchant for breaking things. Never umbrellas, but there’s a first time for everything.

Benny had cocked his head. “It seems only fair you give me something as collateral.”

She had laughed, genuinely, and unclasped the silver necklace she’d been wearing, adding it to the five or so golden chains already adorning his neck, a final trade before she’d been whisked into the hubbub of JFK. He hadn’t needed another necklace, no, but it hadn’t been like she was going to be out in the rain for too long, either.

And with a rush of clarity, like light catching the facet of a sharp radiant-cut diamond, Beth sees a new angle of Beth and Benny, Benny and Beth as they exchange pieces - not queens, not insults, not tricks, not traps, but something new - something brilliant, in their ongoing game.


In Kentucky, the room is spinning. Her eyes catch on his umbrella, sitting peacefully, wretchedly, by her door. Her heart is about to burst, like a red balloon. Beth stops before she does something stupid like cry. She sepulchers the spirit of New York Beth into her tomb, once again.

Romance is more like music than like chess, Beth muses. The rush of the moment, the immersion in a different version of oneself and a different world. No endgame to plan. Maybe I should work on my endgame. Beth’s strength has never been endgames. An orphan, especially a child prodigy orphan (there’s very specific subtypes), does not waste their time thinking about tomorrow when the present is already such an uncertain purgatory. They scrape by, surviving with instantaneous calculations and recalculations. And her calculations tell her, there’s not enough hours in the day to become World Champion and fall as utterly, wholly for Benny as she inevitably will if she takes that path. She’d lost in Paris when hours of lovemaking (with Benny, with Cléo) had replaced hours of study. Won in Moscow when she’d been Just Beth, then Beth with her second, Townes, whom she’s definitely not fucking.

She isn’t Beth, with her second, Benny, whom she frequently obliterates on a chessboard and any other flat surface she likes.

Sometimes Beth wonders if Benny blamed himself, for letting himself sleep with her, for failing as her teacher to help her win. The smarter part of herself thinks not. He was your trainer, he brought out the best in you - the steadiest, the smartest, the most sober, the happiest. Your best self. You brought out the best in him, too. She recalls Friedman’s wife (also a chess player) at an excursion to a chess café a week after Speed Chess Night, offhandedly commenting on the marked improvement in Benny’s game and how happy he seemed.

Beth sees the phone, and every nerve in her body screams to call him. No, a sterner part of her brain reminds her, cauterize. These memories - the bliss - are just the Benny in her head, a golem phantasm shaped from clay by her flawed, clumsy, heartsick fingers. The real Benny is lounging around a rundown Midtown apartment, emerging only for tournaments and poker games. That Benny is an ally, a colleague in the world of chess. Optimistically, he is a chess player who is also her friend, and she has no choice but for friendship to be enough. He’s made it clear he doesn’t want her anyway.

The newspapers would call them E. Harmon and B. Watts, with every degree of separation, no indication of how Benny moans when Beth flicks her tongue over him just right, the ease with which his eyes unravel her, the comfort and safety of her hand locked in his, the late nights laughing and dancing and racing to trip each other up.

She sighs. Beth Harmon has better things to do than pine for blond men in black leather dusters; to pretend a future Chess Champion is cut out for a long-distance relationship. Remember the good parts, her psychiatrist once said, be grateful for the memories. They will become tattoos, an inked image to commemorate what she had left behind in New York: an imprint in his bed, a scratch on his pan, a necklace, a piece of herself. Beth thinks with relief, or maybe bitterness, that the tattoo, the symbol, the picture, a mere representation: is not the thing itself. Cléo had murmured about some Frenchman named René Magritte who had once declared it the “Treachery of Images.” I never take photographs, facsimiles of reality that try to mean something.

An addict would give into the cravings. Just dial the phone. Say hello. Say something. He won’t hang up. Mention his umbrella is safe and sound. Ask if he has plans for Valentine’s Day.

Her fingers linger over the phone, still like a freeze-frame. A clammy cold sweat washes over her. They may be friends, but in her current state of mind Beth would definitely tread territory off-limits to friends if she tries to talk as friends.

On the brink between action and inaction, Beth finds herself. Maybe I could - and like a broken record, Benny’s spirit is jeering in the section of her brain cordoned off specially for him with a VIP-red-carpet velvet rope. As her psychiatrist advised to stave off temptation, remember the darknesses, and this is her darkness, his fury and hurt and wounded pride.

At this wistful, uncertain woman, Benny is spitting vitriolically. Maybe? Maybe is a loser’s word, Beth. When he said that, his previously underutilized knife might as well have lacerated her insides. She is mangled, and she is sad.

Now or never, Beth.

Well, now or tomorrow, when you’ll have this same conversation with yourself again.

She retreats from the landline - her cheapest, quickest connection to Benny, huddling her hands to her body, protecting another piece of herself from spilling from her chest.

Beth tries to bargain with herself: at least her unsatiated longing for Benny isn’t destructive to her liver. Her pining for the man may render her heart a shriveling leaf in the snow and her mind a broken mess of branches, gasping for air or warmth or purpose, but at least she can’t die from unrequited love. Not dying, not calling? Those are second chances, like what Mary Sue got. Living to fight another day.

Beth inhales, counts to one, two, three, four, five, exhales, and turns away from the phone and the newspaper listing domestic flights this week.

She swallows her saliva, her fear, her desire; buries her feelings under an evanescent layer of crisp white cold. Here she is, some Frankenstein-esque creature composed of bullet holes and phantom limbs (all she’s lost, all she’s missing) as much as she is of eclectic lumps sutured by a frighteningly breakable thread (all she has left).

Beth Harmon resigns herself to a day (and a night, and another day, and another night, and a lifetime) of longing and returns to her book on middlegames, the snow settling to block her doorstep and the last echo of the song hanging, then dissipating, in the air.

She scribbles on a notepad of things to do to hang on her refrigerator.

  • Call Annette - walk to farmer’s market for groceries?
  • Buy bus ticket, book for Jolene (bring racquetball stuff?)
  • Dinner with Harry, Mike, Matt
  • Blackwell Art Museum with Townes and Dione

She hesitates before she adds at the bottom:

  • Book flight to New York City - April? Bring umbrella.

Tonight, she’ll dream of Benny, and being World Champion, and Benny, and springtime.