On the rooftop, ivy snakes around the walls, a chaotic array of leaves.
The lamplights are speckled with ever-increasing black spots one can only suppose the shells of long-dead insects.
The roots of untrimmed plants threaten ominously to break their ceramic pots.
A bench with art nouveau motifs hasn’t been washed since the last rainfall, bird droppings and dirt accumulating like a Jackson Pollock action painting.
Nowhere is it more evident that the entropy of a system, the measure of its disorder, is always increasing, Hilton thinks, rocking on the bench, as his smoke ring dissolves into New York City night air.
The three of them stick out like sore thumbs at chess tournaments: Benny Watts, Arthur Levertov, and Hilton Wexler.
Benny is, well, Benny, in that he can’t be more than two steps outside a spotlight if he wants to survive. Hilton with his luscious bob of hair; Arthur with the wrinkles and stains on his sweaters that he can’t be bothered to iron and wash. It only makes sense that they’d be friends.
They don’t really appear together at tournaments outside of the mid-Atlantic, the major kind that even a globetrotter like Benny never misses. Arthur has no interest in traveling to championships when he’s a trust fund that supports his penchant for cigarettes and music concerts, while Hilton’s ranking is too low to qualify. So, the crew is a crew at the regional tournaments, mostly.
Hilton can’t shake the feeling that if anyone squints too closely, they’d find that something doesn’t quite fit, and that something is he.
He reassures himself that sitting in the shadow of greatness must be better than sitting nowhere at all.
Eagle-eyed chess players can spot Watt’s knife, an accessory for the chalk outline of his public persona, but few ever notice that Levertov twirls a fork like a pen between his fingers when he’s thinking, and Wexler always keeps a spoon in his pocket.
Why? they would ask. A question that the universe itself can’t explain, but it can rationalize, so it does.
There’s one layer of rationalization: Benny eschews basically all utensils except knives, Arthur’s fork is a family heirloom, and Hilton has a lucky spoon.
But also, there’s Benny, angles sharp as blades defining his nose, his jaw, his brows. His eyes flash like radioactive lightning, the kind released by supermassive black holes. The event horizon of his eyeline lures his opponents in before it tears them apart.
Arthur has his multi-pronged mind that can pierce any problem, any person across a board. The trident enables ranged combat, summons a flood that leaves his opponents in zugzwang, their king with no hope of escape.
And tactics-wise, if Benny tends to favor skewers, Arthur’s partial to forks. Benny isn’t afraid to swoop in to battle you up close, like any knife fighter, while Arthur’s formations are a little more scattered, spanning the entire board.
And next to these two fearsome fighters, there’s Hilton, clutching his spoon. He likes to think he’s unassuming, easy to underestimate, but he can be a weapon in his own right. But too often, he finds himself a victim of zeitnot, stumbling like a klutz over his too-big feet, a child in the throes of growing pains.
If Benny plays like Zeus, and Arthur like Poseidon, then that means Hilton must be Hades, but for some reason the analogy erodes the back of his teeth like acid.
Hilton’s having trouble sleeping these nights.
He closes his eyes, the numbers and positions and misshapen metaphors in his head buzzing incessantly.
The buzzing reverberates with remarkable acoustics, really, every decibel drowning out his dreams.
From the rooftop of the two-bedroom apartment they share is a remarkable view of the Carter Hotel in blazing neon and a university that could also be a church.
Benny’s frequently out of town, vehiculating to scope out the competition and rook some worthy players in Blitz; Hilton and Arthur climb up here after dinner to survey the passerby below, kings deigning to judge ants at their toes. 14 million ants to equal the mass of one human.
It’s Arthur’s favorite place to lobby a flurry of existentialist questions, launched right off the bat, followed by a series of suppositions into ethics and politics and aesthetics and epistemology that kind of make sense.
Tonight, it’s a perfectly natural inquiry, one that could come up at any dinner party, “Are we born with inherent purpose in the universe?” It’s spoken like a master of Socratic dialogue.
Hilton stares thoughtfully at the sky, clouded by the city’s light pollution but still magnificent. Maybe it’s the weed, but he’s in a headspace where he forgets where he ends and where the universe, in all its grandeur, begins. Numbers roll through his head: it takes over 35 sextillion people to equal the mass of Earth, 330,000 Earths to equal the mass of the sun, and five hundred billion suns to equal the mass of the Milky Way Galaxy. And the galaxy is about 150,000 light years across, while the universe is 93 billion light years in diameter.
How can something as infinitesimal as a human being fit into that?
“If we are, the quotidian routine of going to work and making money isn’t it. Neither is that stupid propaganda bullshit the government keeps pushing.” Hilton’s voice is hard, his fingers twitching restlessly.
“Could it be pushing artlessly curved wooden carvings around a board?” Arthur poses a joke to break the tension.
“That’s different. Chess isn’t pushing a boulder up a hill and chasing it back down. It’s patterns, a thrill, some vain embrace of hedonism, since we apparently can’t figure out any other way to fit into this absurd world.”
“The Greeks - Aristoteleans in particular - would say our highest purpose comes from living in accordance with reason, flourishing in virtue.”
Hilton almost snorts, incredulous. “Do you have any interest in flourishing virtuously?”
Arthur grins. “Eudaimonia is all about moderation. Deficient in conversation, and you’re a boor. Excess, and you’re a buffoon. If you strike the balance, you’re a quick wit.” He’s serene, peace beneath the waves, nary a storm in sight.
“I don’t need eudaimonia. I just want peace.”
“Like peace of mind?”
“Freedom of mind. From distress, from worry.”
“Are we born inherently distressed?”
“Who wouldn’t call the labor process distressing? We’re born kicking and crying, moms screaming, dads fainting, blood everywhere.”
Arthur releases an amused ha. “And how do you achieve peace of mind?”
Hilton’s eyes are locked on the stars as he answers, his mouth tasting truth. “Become so absolutely free, your very existence is an act of rebellion.”
Benny’s different these days. On the surface, he’s still confident, fancying himself a nomad. But his arrogance shields an insecurity that betrays his underlying humanity (He’s human? Cleo asks); his easy banter having become more distracted, tinged with an edge that Hilton can recognize from his own sleepless nights.
Hilton and Arthur are used to delivering meals to Benny’s apartment - an extra takeout meal, some leftover rice. If they don’t make sure Benny eats, who will? The kid lives and breathes chess, but not even Benny can subsist solely on coffee and notation.
Recently, Benny has been more agitated than usual. There’s this newcomer that’s shaken him like nothing else on American soil, even though he won the one game they played together three years ago. “She’ll be a grandmaster within two years’ time. Her games, they’re the most elegant I’ve seen in a long time. She’s unrefined now, but she’s going to be unstoppable.”
He barely touches his rice as he’s playing through one of her games.
“She attacks like Alekhine,” Arthur says, voice colored with respect.
“Exactly like Alekhine,” Benny murmurs. He’s talking to them, and he can kind of hear what they’re saying, but he’s whirring like a machine, a bundle of awe and envy and excitement and uncertainty. “Borgov’s opponents can’t prevent checkmate. Her opponents can’t even expect it.”
This might be the worst they’ve seen him since he came back from Moscow. And came back from Moscow, again. Again, and again. They know he stuffs his third-place and fourth-place trophies in the back of his closet out of shame, like a cankersore that’s too exposed to heal.
“She’s still very rough. Her pawn formations could use some tightening. But I think she’d make an excellent second for Moscow.”
“If you can charm her into going,” Hilton says. He leans back onto the cushions against the wall, while Benny criss-crosses his legs and Arthur sprawls comfortably on the floor.
“In what world is that an ‘if?’” Benny says, mock-insulted, easy territory.
He plays through a game - Harmon versus some grandmaster in a Baltimore tournament. She had forced him to resign after 28 moves, cleverly cornering the king on the eighth rank with two rooks and a queen. It’s been a whetstone to the movements of his fingers; usually so graceful and sure, he finishes the game with a jerky sharpness instead.
“There’s a chance there will be a new U.S. Champion in September.” And there it is, his vulnerability rearing its head for the first time tonight.
“I’ve heard eating your rice helps with losing,” Arthur responds lightly.
Hilton furrows his eyebrows at him. “Are you going to be okay?”
Benny is up and away, off to some other planet. “I’ll let you know when I figure it out.”
Hilton attempts comfort through strategy. “She knows she can’t beat you in terms of theory. She’ll play to her strengths, and so she’ll play the Sicilian.”
Benny answers curtly. “Thanks.” His face softens a fraction but then he barely takes a breath before saying, amusement lacing his voice, “You know Harry Beltik’s been coaching her?”
On the rooftop, Hilton shows Arthur the latest puzzle he’s composed on their travel set. It’s a neat directmate in three, inspired by a recent game with masters Roberto Grau and Edgar Colle. Arthur is still contemplating, but Hilton knows him well enough, has seen him think up close long enough now to know that his pupils can expand so fast one would think he’d get dizzy.
Arthur’s shoulders relax when he thinks he’s found it. He plays the sequence: knight to queen rook 6, check. King takes pawn, but then bishop to queen seven for a discovered check, and white wins in a neat queen-bishop mate. He looks up, grinning ear to ear. “This might be my most favorite puzzle of yours yet. A brilliant knight sacrifice.”
Tonight, there’s been a reprieve from the last two weeks of sweltering summer humidity. The air is crisp, rejuvenating Hilton’s lungs. For his mind and body, it’s one of the lighter nights. The disarray of gliding fireflies still twinkle prettily and make the night feel almost dreamlike.
Arthur doesn’t fire off his latest metaphysical musing. Instead, with a long draw of his cigar, he asks a simpler question, grounded in something as mortal as bodies and mundane as the earth. “Do you remember how we came to be?”
Of course Hilton does.
They’d met on the first day of boarding school, became next-door neighbors in single dorms that had been prison cells during some old war. Coincidentally caught each other sneaking out to the kitchens after hours and realized they were meant to be friends. Met up every night to nick snacks and smoke cigarettes.
Achieved first and second board of the chess club by the end of their first year, alternating between tournaments.
Spent long nights in each other’s rooms and soon on top of each other’s beds, practicing and reviewing and drilling and memorizing.
Never noticed when their conversations bled from chess to childhoods and futures. Rants about a mother who wanted a doctor son but had to settle for a son with mediocre grades and a brain for anything but biology. Recollections of a father ossified to his study. The words “absolutely free” and “act of rebellion” screamed in Hilton’s mind, tightening his chest and snatching his breath, a mantra too fragile to vocalize.
Their adventures around the school: blitz chess in the courtyard. Poker games in the student lounges.
Experimented with their bodies: falling into bed for the first time. And the second. And the third. Curtains drawn, pleasure muffled into bedsheets, hands gripped tightly.
Hoped no one would notice the way they’re joined at the hip, so to speak. Like Siamese twins.
Washed in their mutual relief when they both got their King’s College’s acceptance letters. Moved into school again. Long nights of physics homework and philosophy papers. Their first fight and falling out. And their second. And the third. The apologies that swiftly followed, warm and full of forgiveness.
(The others that entered their beds, just footnotes in the story of their lives intertwining.)
More chess, more competitions. More improvements. On equal pace with each other’s ability, knee to knee, toe to toe.
They’d moved to the U.S., ready for graduate school and American prize money from tournaments, ready to trade their tweed blazers for casual polos and pullover sweaters, ready to give up long seminars for underground rock concerts and poetry slams.
The table of the first diner they’d visited in New York City was covered in black and white square tiles. They’d caught each other’s eyes, both alight with mischief. Hilton had started ripping the napkins; Arthur had pulled out a pen to label them: one K, two Qs, 4 Ns, 4 Bs, 4 Rs, and 16 Ps for both sides. And then they had decided to play a spontaneous game of fairy chess, with napkin pieces on the diner table.
The games had taken a little longer: the pawns require more moves to control the center of the board, and bishops fly like sniper bullets for surprise captures when one player loses track of the long diagonal, but their fingers still slide the pieces quick-fire fast. Their complex dance had gained an audience (and fans, and chess-player friends). The hours had passed by in an exhilarating whirl, and by the time the diner had closed and they had walked home, they’d passed out on the air mattress instantly.
And now on the rooftop of that same apartment, there’s no need to reminisce, to drip with sentimentality. They know the back of each other’s hands as well as their own.
Hilton’s thoughts gnaw at him, unwelcome, unbidden, unceasingly. They stave off sleep, so he lies awake, Arthur asleep in the other room (or sleeping with Cleo, or someone he met at the bar, Hilton doesn’t know, nor does he ask). For Hilton, sex is nothing more than a physical urge, something that comes up to be satisfied. Sharing the same bed? An unnecessary waste of a perfectly good, second bed.
Hilton tells himself that all the things he doesn’t tell Arthur are just a reminder that they’re still their own separate people, individuals who can work as a team but can still play untethered to the other.
It’s perfectly natural to exacerbate the differences, Hilton thinks with gritted teeth.
First, Benny’s become still more distant, an ice floe breaking from a glacial mass. He tries to tell them to go away a couple times when they bring him food. Of course they still leave him the dinner (how could they not?), but privately, they worry.
Second, Arthur just reached grandmaster status officially, his rating 2625. Hilton tries to not be unnerved that his rating has seemed to plateau around 2383. Everything comes so easily to Arthur, with his steady surgeon’s hand. He’s brilliant at chess, could be every bit as good as Benny Watts with just a bit more fire. But Arthur is content instead to memorize trivia questions, like the name of every rollercoaster in the United States and all the words for groupings of animals (a rookery of albatrosses, a slaughter of iguanas, a maelstrom of salamanders).
While Arthur’s mind may work like a steel trap, Hilton’s feels like a steel sieve. The equal footing they had in high school and college is no longer. Hilton can work lightning fast in pieces. He can calculate quickly. But he can’t memorize like Arthur, can’t analyze like Benny.
He’s tried, but he tends to mix up positions, miss easy clues. Talking to Arthur and Benny is always helpful for one’s game, of course. Talking to some other friends (the problem freaks gang, Cleo’s amused moniker for them) can be, too, but it’s not the same, nowhere close to the same.
Hilton tries not to feel envious. Hilton tries not to feel alone.
What do I have that they don’t?
Something like charisma? So Benny pretends his competence compensates for his lack thereof, but Arthur oozes charm with his quiet smile and careful input - when he speaks, everyone snaps to attention to listen, because they know the value in his words. But Hilton himself is so, so different, because he’s earnest and approachable, the first person to offer a handshake. Being nice isn’t necessarily equivalent to being charismatic, but it’s still something. (It has to be.)
Perhaps not charisma, but possibly puzzle-making. Benny doesn’t waste his time with puzzles so much, throwing all of his energy into plotting every game, winning every match. Both Arthur and Benny enjoy the puzzles for their asceticism. They all like to compete to see who can solve the most puzzles in five minutes, but it’s Hilton with the knack for spotting the indisputable best move, the tactics: hanging pieces, double checks, quiet moves that lay the groundwork for an inescapable trap, Arabian mates, tricks with underpromotion. He can piece them together without much thought at all.
Hilton sees it this way: The best games of chess are like epics: admired, revered, dissected by experts and enthusiasts alike. They’re symphonies, with every instrument a piece to conduct across the board. Chess puzzles aren’t at the same grand scale, but they’re like sonnets or limericks, structured according to their own artistic themes, playing by their own principles. Hilton collects chess puzzles like Shakespeare wrote poetry. He’s no Shakespeare, but honestly, both puzzles and poems are worth their weight in gold.
Tonight, Hilton sees a frenetic Newton’s cradle, swaying, clacking to and fro in a way that defies the law of conservation of energy. Energy can’t be added to any closed system without force, but everything is still moving faster and faster and faster.
The force is tipping him over the brink.
On the rooftop, gossamer spiderwebs dewy in the walls, cirrocumulus clouds dotting the sky, Arthur asks him, “What would make you believe in gods?”
Arthur is a God-fearing man, found in the pews of the synagogue every week. He never makes Hilton go, but the ontological question still pops up every so often.
Hilton hates the establishment: the government, the corporations, the television glazing the brains of American households, the goddamn society that reinforces such structural injustices. Hilton hates the establishment, including the institution of organized religion, especially because he sees some of the same problems echoed in the Chess Federation.
He thinks of his parents, long estranged over in England, their expectations a weight on his shoulders. He is a version of Atlas who long ago told the universe to fuck off and let the world come crashing to pieces all around him.
He thinks of the game that he loves, that he throws himself into even knowing he won’t ever get better, can’t ever reach the top. His body chained to the cliff of forced existence; his pride eating his liver out like an eagle. Prometheus, forced to live the same punishment over and over and over again, because his love of the game will never die, will always renew itself.
He thinks of his friends: living, breathing examples of the brilliant chess player he is not. He feels like Epimetheus, the foolish Titan. His very name means afterthought.
He wants to curse any gods that condemn people to live such futile lives. What did they do to deserve their power? In the hierarchy of nature, humans conquer animals who conquer plants who conquer sunlight (Helios, the sun god). Humans can’t conquer the sun, but they can conquer just a bit of sunlight.
What would make me believe in gods?
“I’d believe in gods if I could cast them down.” He intends it as a laugh, but he can’t keep the edge out of his voice.
Arthur twists his mouth, and Hilton pretends not to notice the sadness in it.
There are better days, where Hilton can ignore the tumult in his head, and there are also worse days. Meeting Beth Harmon is a better day, an invigorating one.
They haven’t heard from Benny in weeks. In Ohio, he’d called them that night to let them know he’s coaching the new U.S. Champion. Of course, they’d been eager to meet her, so Benny promised he’d invite them over at some point. Hilton remembers Benny’s unrest just thinking about the loss of his titles and hopes he’s feeding himself.
Three weeks later, they get another phone call. Since Cleo is crashing on their couch in the apartment while in the city for a gig, she’s invited along too.
The first thing they notice is the light in Benny’s face, his excitement, the warmest ‘hello’ they’ve gotten in months. He’s different. Maybe having a study partner has been good for him, Hilton thinks. Maybe being second best isn’t so bad for him.
“Beth Harmon, this is Hilton Wexler and Grandmaster Arthur Levertov.” His inflection on ‘grandmaster’ is perhaps the strongest hint they’ve ever gotten that Benny is proud of his friends.
Beth looks surprised, uncertain. Hilton attempts to set her at ease and shakes her hand warmly. “The new champ. Congratulations, Benny needed a lesson in humility.”
He earns a smile from Beth.
“I'm already tops in humility,” Benny interjects indignantly from off to the side.
“Do you do problems?” Hilton is curious after he takes off his coat.
“I always found them irrelevant. Positions that never come up in actual games.”
Hilton catches Arthur’s eyes, his smirk - nothing they haven’t heard before. Well, they’ll be an icebreaker, at least. “Let me show you one you might like. Can I mess this up?” He gestures to the chessboard on Benny’s excuse for a kitchen table.
“Go ahead,” she says. He sits down, vaguely processing Arthur coming to stand at the edge of the table, watching curiously. Benny’s looking over Hilton’s shoulder. Beth slips into the seat across from him, while Cleo searches for drinking glasses.
“Hilton, she is not one of your problem freaks. She's the US Champion, for Christ's sake,” Cleo chides.
Beth reassures her. “It's okay.”
“This one is,” says Hilton, setting up the board, “is my favorite. How does White win in three?”
Beth gets the answer in six seconds flat: “King to queen seven.”
“Jesus! That's fast.” Hilton can’t help grinning - it feels good, enriching even, to be this close to such brilliance. Beth smiles placidly at him, her fingers interlocked under her chin.
Cleo cuts in before Arthur or Hilton can offer another puzzle. “Drink?”
“No. Thank you. But I should fix the food.” Although she refuses the drink, Beth rises from the table to help Cleo. Hilton fights to keep his expression neutral as Beth’s eyes stay locked onto Benny’s.
Benny claps him on the shoulder and says, “Come on, that's enough of that.”
Hilton looks at Benny with a million questions - like are you sure not one more problem? Also, why didn’t you say you were dating Beth Harmon?
Arthur offers another question, his nose crinkling in affectionate disgust as he scans the dust around the room. “Do you ever clean?”
Later, on the rooftop, they sit on the bench and watch the cars threading the streets below, honks echoing off the sides of the hotel and the university. Cleo is sleeping on the couch.
Hilton wonders what Arthur is feeling right now: some shock, mostly awe, maybe some wounded pride? They touch on the night with amusement.
Hilton keeps the topics light and easy. “I wonder what story Cleo used this time to explain how we all met.”
Arthur laughs. “I hope we met at a labor rights’ protest. Or maybe you two dated in college and stayed in touch. Or at Columbia for grad school.”
“When was the last time you lost this badly?” Hilton asks.
“I’m not sure.”
“Are you mad you lost to a 19-year-old?”
“Not really. Dazzled, mostly.”
“I’m dazzled that she’s lasted three weeks in that apartment. When was the last time someone survived living there that long besides Benny himself?”
They cross and uncross their feet in the silence settling over them, their books half-forgotten in their laps. Hilton brought The Love Book, by Lenore Kandel. Arthur brought his notebook, where he keeps his poems and his notes.
“So, Beth doesn’t like puzzles.”
“She’ll come around.”
Arthur shrugs. “You’re not even the slightest bit ticked off Beth insulted your puzzles? Or beat you three times in a row?”
“Why would I be? I know I’m not as good at chess as you and Benny. And now her, I guess.”
“Does it make you feel better to beat Cleo?”
Hilton throws him a look that says don’t insult me. On some impulse, he looks over to see what Arthur is scribbling in his notebook, maybe some poem about tonight that casts Beth Harmon as a fire-haired spirit that taught him about the duality of man and the fleeting nature of existence. He scooches closer to sit next to Arthur, so that their legs knock together.
Arthur speaks his notes before Hilton can read them. “You think about philosophy like you think about puzzles; very analytically. You look at a position and then you are able to pull out what’s useful and throw away everything else.”
This makes sense to Hilton - he enjoys wrangling a game, that which is huge and incomprehensible, into a pattern he can recognize. “Composing chess puzzles is about cutting out the noise. Moral decision-making is the same. You don’t need absolute general principles for acting right or wrong - you can just see it.”
“That’s not how you play chess, though. You need to create a framework, have a plan,” Arthur responds pensively.
“But you can’t predict how the whole game is going to go, so why bother forming a plan and then revising and revising? It saves time to think just a few moves ahead.”
“You think there are things we can’t know with utter certainty. Divine will, if you believe there is one. But you really think that you understand the universe enough to sort every action into right and wrong?”
Something in Hilton tightens, and the unknowability of the universe hits him again like a prison door slammed in his face.
“I think I’m going to have to study with Benny, get some notes on Harmon.”
Maybe it’s the unusually loud music coming from their neighbor that’s giving him a headache. Maybe it’s the offhand, absentminded way that Arthur so casually excludes him, the same way Benny’s drifted from them these past few weeks. Arthur’s body heat is radiating into Hilton’s right side, but Arthur’s mind is wandering somewhere he can’t see. Maybe it’s Arthur’s attitude from earlier, let’s revel in all we don’t understand. It does nothing to allay the existential anxiety that torments Hilton.
But the rooftop, usually the eye of a hurricane that briefly clears his head, stimulates his mind, is spinning.
“I hope you have fun with that.” The snarl in Hilton’s sarcasm makes Arthur’s head whip toward him. “I’m sure you’ll both become even better chess players for it.” Without me.
“Hilton - “ Arthur starts a question, but Hilton rises abruptly to cut him off. The body heat they shared crumbles against the wind.
“I’m going to bed.” And he excuses himself, leaving Arthur staring at him, slightly open-mouthed.
Meeting Beth Harmon had been one of the better days, but the night is taking a turn for the worse. Usually, Hilton can fake being steady: the tip of the iceberg that he presents to the world, the darker majority lurking beneath the surface. But not tonight.
Albert Camus talks a lot about the unreasonable silence of the universe.
In his bed, tonight, unlike the noises that pestered him before, Hilton only hears quiet. And Hilton decides the quiet is the worst noise of all.
Entropy, Hilton knows, is the number of states that can be occupied by the atoms of a system. Like every individual molecule, his mind adheres to its own uncertainty principle - he can know where he is and he can know how fast he’s moving, but he can’t know both at the same time.
Around eleven the next day, Hilton plods out of bed, shadows beneath his eyes. Arthur’s left him breakfast and coffee, a tacit peace offering.
This hasn’t been like any of their other arguments, where both parties were furious and immature and hormonal. Hilton instantly feels the guilt from his outburst register.
He sits to eat the spread in front of him.
He thinks about how much easier it’d be to never worry about the past or present or future in the world of quantum mechanics. The simplest interpretation of quantum mechanics is timeless. However, people exist in physics instead, so it’s not yet possible to step through time.
He thinks about the Tarrasch rule, famously simple and intuitive, that rooks should be placed behind passed pawns to defend them as they traverse the board.
How, whenever he concocts a new puzzle, Arthur always gets to see them first. And then, it’s only with Arthur’s reassurance in the back of his mind that he feels ready to share them with the rest of the world.
He thinks about how if he lived on a Möbius strip or a Klein bottle, some orientable manifold without boundary in topological space, then where he stands would be the entire surface. He could walk in the same direction and always find his way back to his original point.
He doesn’t know what Arthur’s out doing now, but they both know he’ll always come back.
Hilton opens the mail and an embossed letter from Chess Life falls out: an invitation to be the flagship puzzle contributor for a monthly column, with the promise of a very tempting paycheck.
He’s thrilled and thinks maybe his rating trajectory and, by proxy, his life, might not be terrible after all.
Arthur returns while Hilton’s cooking dinner. Hilton has constructed his latest puzzle on the board for Arthur to enjoy - a tricky problem solved by a waiting key.
Arthur sits down to figure out which weakness of White’s to exploit, to check for any alternative moves that would make the problem unsound. But Arthur’s eyes quickly find the opened letter from where Hilton had left it.
Hilton leaves the stove on quickly to grab the letter, place it in his pocket. He’s not sure why that’s his instinct, but before he can Arthur skims the gist of the letter then rises to embrace his friend.
Arthur doesn’t waste words with trite platitudes like I’m so proud of you. He doesn’t have to. When they kiss, it’s a spontaneous celebration, uncharacteristically domestic, soothingly contented.
When they break apart, Hilton gets a second rush seeing the same proud delight he felt when he opened his letter etched into Arthur’s face. How can he feel inadequate when Arthur Levertov looks at him like that, rejoices at his wins like this, and, now that he thinks of it, supports him so unconditionally?
It’s so pleasing when a piece finds its perfect place on the board.
They take the stairs up to sit and read on that art nouveau bench, the autumn wind nipping at Hilton’s cheeks, but for once he doesn’t feel like he could tip over at any moment.
Arthur holds his hand and kisses him on the cheek. “The Epicureans had a word for peace of mind, you know. Ataraxia.”
Hilton looks at him curiously. It feels right to have a word for it - no need for metaphors, no need to search for something that he can taste on his tongue.
Feeling the respite from the weight on his chest, the freedom, he repeats the word. “Ataraxia.”
Arthur asks, “Do you think you’ve found it?”
Hilton smiles, a little weary but mostly happy. “I’ve found a pattern. Do you think you’re living the eudaimon life?”
“Not a chance. But maybe someday.” Arthur can’t keep his own smile from creeping onto his face as Hilton nestles his head into his shoulder.
Technically, Hilton thinks, I was wrong about entropy. The entropy of a system doesn’t always increase; it can stay constant. And in this moment, even if just for this moment, next to his best friend who’s something infinitely more than a best friend, Hilton feels steady on the rooftop.