It was a rainy Sunday afternoon in Lexington, the kind best spent under the covers of a warm bed. Benny was flipping through a copy of Chess Review. Beth was undertaking her greatest challenge yet: the Sunday crossword puzzle in the New York Times. She’d grown bored of the ease of the one in the Lexington Herald.
“Are you sure you should be using a pen?” he asked, looking up from his own reading.
“The pencil tip broke,” she replied.
She felt confident enough on the Bible ones to scribble them in without much hesitation. The symbol of Christ was lamb and the Lord’s Prayer began with “forgive us our trespasses”. The remnants of Ms. Lonsdale’s lessons at Methuen rarely came in handy, but Beth didn’t dwell on the dreary place for long.
#60 across was four letters. The clue was maple genus.
You have no idea how hard it is to find good maple furniture.
The items were still in Beth’s old room, untouched by the makeover to which she’d treated the house, but the speaker of the phrase was gone. Sometimes it felt like Alma still haunted these halls, and Beth didn’t know if the thought was a comforting one or frightening.
“Acer,” he provided.
“What?” she asked, breaking out of her stupor.
“60 across is acer,” he clarified. “You’ve been hovering over it for five minutes.”
“I didn’t know I was on a clock,” she replied sharply, filling in the word.
“Just thought you might need some help, that’s all,” he drawled.
She glanced at another clue. ‘33 Across. Mother’s wit with 41 Across.’ Two rows of five letters to describe the hole in Beth’s life, dug twice over.
“Here, why don’t you just do it yourself if you’re so much better at it?” she asked, shoving the paper into his lap and turning on her side away from him.
She curled up under the covers and took a deep breath, but the scent of Alma’s perfume was long dissipated and Beth couldn’t quite recall what it smelled like anymore.
“Beth.” She heard him call out, the way he does when he thinks she’s being unreasonable and he’s summoning his patience to deal with her. “Don’t be like that.”
She didn’t budge. Perhaps if she stayed still enough, time would stop moving. Standing still was the same as moving backwards right? She could go back to a time when this was her home instead of her house.
“35 across, Peruvian coin,” Benny read aloud. “Three letters… hmm, I think it’s ‘sol.’ Did you know ‘sol’ means ‘sun’ in Spanish? A long time ago Peru was home to the Incan civilization and they worshipped the Sun God so it became an important symbol to them.”
Beth was not surprised that Benny knew such facts. He probably picked up the trivia from his tournaments in South America. Then again, maybe he was just making this up. Who knew?
Her lack of response did not deter him. “7 down, Currier’s partner. Four letters, that’s easy. It’s ‘Ives.’ Currier and Ives was this famous old-timey printing house in New York. Wexler likes to go to these vintage art exhibits, and they’re such a drag. I’ll have to take you along to the next one so I don’t suffer alone.”
Beth felt a little guilty, hearing him talk about plans in New York with an underlying fondness in his voice. Here he was in Kentucky, away from his apartment and his friends to spend time with her, and here she was pushing him away out of yearning for the ghost of someone long gone.
“19 down, material for veils. Five letters. Huh, I’m stumped on this one.”
“Tulle,” she said into the pillow.
“What was that?”
She turned around to see him looking at her with an indulgent smile. “Tulle. T-U-L-L-E.”
“See, I never would have gotten that one,” he told her, penning down the word.
Beth moved closer to him and laid her head down on his chest, looking at the puzzle again. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders.
“I know this one too,” she said, pointing at 33 across. “It’s horse sense.”
“Of course, what kind of Kentuckian wouldn’t know their horse metaphors?” he teased, and she let out a small laugh. For now, she could set the past aside and focus on the present. Maybe she and Benny could be a team for more than chess, even if just for the crossword. It was a crack in the door; perhaps one day she’d be able to fling it all the way open.
“What are you doing?”
Beth looked up from the Cosmopolitan she was reading to see Benny staring at her feet, where a set of black pawns were wedged between her toes.
“Oh, I painted my nails, and you didn’t have any toe separators lying around so I improvised,” she replied.
“I see,” he hummed, although he stared at the set up for a bit longer with a thoughtful look on his face.
She stayed seated at the table while he retreated to the pillow corner and started going through some of his notes. Benny had a local tournament coming up to review for.
After a while, she removed the pawns and wiped them down before Benny could complain about her sullying one of his chess sets. Then she painted her fingernails, although it was tricky to do the right hand while the polish on her left was still wet.
“Hey, I need a break. Wanna play some skittles?” Benny asked, standing up and stretching his arms.
“I just did my fingers and I don’t wanna get polish on the pieces,” she said. “We can play verbal.”
He grinned. “I have a much better idea.”
They settled on the floor with the board between them and Beth watched Benny pinch a pawn between his big and long toes and move it two squares forward for his opening move.
Beth thought it was a bit silly to play this way. It would be much faster to play out loud, and touch move would make this even harder, but she noticed Benny’s brow had finally unfurrowed. Perhaps his earlier expression was more about the stress of the looming competition than Beth’s self-grooming.
She decided to humor him and gingerly brought out her queenside knight.
They made it five turns before one of them knocked over half the pieces with a sloppy foot retraction, and they both burst out laughing at the fumble.
“Again?” he asked.
“Sure,” she replied.
Beth couldn’t remember the last time she cared so little about the outcome of a chess game and enjoyed herself with a lack of self-consciousness. Looking at her favorite opponent sprawled on concrete, relief visible in the lines of his body, she thought she could get used to the sight of him this way.
The drive between New York City and Lexington took all day, but Beth didn’t mind. She and Benny always found ways to pass the time.
They were listening to the radio when the music gave way to static.
“We must have hit a rough patch,” Beth said with a frown.
“I’m sure it’ll come back soon. Why don’t you tide us over with a tune until then?” he suggested, with an easy smile that still made Beth’s heart skip a beat even after all this time.
“How about Leaving on a Jet Plane?”
“I, uh, don’t think I know that one.”
“Oh, it goes like this.”
Benny whistled a familiar tune.
Beth nodded in recognition. “I’m blanking on the lyrics. Where’d you learn to do that?”
“It’s just something you pick up as a kid, you know?”
“Right.” Beth swallowed and turned her face to look out the window, considering rolling it down to get some air.
Benny cast a sidelong glance at her, before turning his gaze back to the road and scratching his head. “I, uh, guess there wasn’t much to whistle about in the orphanage, huh?”
“Not really,” she admitted, a hand going to her neck as she leaned her elbow against the door.
“I suppose that means I’ll have to play the Pied Piper,” he joked.
“Are you calling me a rat or a child?” she asked in a serious tone.
“Hmm, I see you had storytime, though,” he replied in an amused tone, seeing through her faux sternness. “Any good ones?”
Beth thought back to one Jolene had told her under the covers that gave her nightmares. She’d never recounted it to anyone else. For a second, she felt protective of the moment shared between two best friends, but she shook it off. She supposed the point of stories, silly or scary, was to share them with others. Telling Benny about her past wouldn’t be breaking a covenant, but rather creating a new memory and moving forward.
“There was a beautiful woman who always wore a red ribbon around her neck,” she began.
“Did she have red hair too?” he jested. She rolled her eyes.
Beth proceeded to tell him about how the woman’s partner was very curious about the ribbon, and even though he promised to leave it alone, one day the temptation proved too great.
“He pulled the ribbon off her neck as she slept and her head detached! ‘I told you not to touch the ribbon,’ her severed head said.”
“Who can blame the poor guy?” he asked, laughing.
She hadn’t managed to shock him, but Beth found she liked making him laugh and took a mental picture to save in her internal scrapbook.
Beth hated throwing up. It felt like she couldn’t breathe, especially when the vomit spewed out of her mouth and her nose, leaving a burning trail of stomach acid in its wake. It hadn’t felt this awful when she used to drink, she could just carry on past it, the alcohol numbing her body and mind until everything was bearable.
Retching sober into the toilet, kneeling on the hard concrete floor, one hand on the seat and the other holding her hair back, the experience was a sensory overload in the worst way. She felt like she was going to pass out as she puked.
“Beth?” a voice called out from the other side of the bathroom door.
She tried to reply, but all that came out of her throat was a strangled sound.
“I’m coming in, okay?” he announced.
She shook her head, trying to tell him to leave. It was bad enough she had to suffer the terrible sight and smell, no need for him to join her in her misery. She must look terrible -- face pale, body sweaty and shaking.
“I’m so sorry,” he told her, crouching down next to her and rubbing her back with one hand. As if he had personally cooked the takeout food they ate, as if it couldn’t have just as easily been his dish that had turned out to be spoiled.
She could feel another hurl approaching and braced herself over the toilet, so he would know it was time to take his leave, but Benny didn’t budge. He stayed there and took over holding back her hair, freeing her hand to balance herself better and take some weight off her knees.
This time when Beth sat back on her haunches, she could feel some relief.
“I think that was the last of it,” she croaked out, throat sounding as hoarse as it felt.
He handed her a face towel and a cold water bottle, which she hadn’t noticed he’d brought with him until now. She washed out what she could from her mouth and nose, using the towel to pat down her face. She finally felt like a person again, and not just a mess on the bathroom floor.
“We’re never getting food from that place again,” he vowed solemnly.
“But it’s one of your favorites,” she pointed out. It was a regular part of their weekly rotation.
“We can find somewhere else,” he told her.
Beth leaned over and wrapped her arms around him, completely oblivious to the unkempt surroundings, and felt him embrace her in return.
“It’s okay, but you’re tasting the food first next time,” she joked lightly.
She couldn’t remember the last time someone took care of her when she was sick. It was probably Jolene, helping her through Librium withdrawal. For all the false illnesses Alma concocted for the school administrators, Beth had never actually fallen ill in the time they spent together. It was always Alma who had come down with something.
Maybe it was okay for Benny to help her when she needed it. She could lean on him, and he wouldn’t see her as a burden, just like she wouldn’t if it was the other way around.
“Shower?” he offered gently.
She nodded, but just held on tighter for a moment longer.
It had been a while since Beth had the house to herself. Benny was on a road trip to play a tournament and visit a few friends. He’d invited her along, but she just hadn’t felt up for it.
She decided to be productive and play through some of the games in the latest Shakmanty Bulletin. She took notes on a legal pad. Every now and then she’d begin to make a comment aloud, only to realize there was no one to hear it.
After dinner, she sat down in front of the television and put on one of those ridiculous soaps Alma used to watch, but it failed to distract her. Sometimes when Beth was alone and not actively playing chess or doing housework, the gears of her mind would start to spin counterclockwise, pulling up memories of the past.
Beth decided to retire early and got ready for bed. When she entered the bedroom, she eyed the closet, wondering if she should grab Alma’s housecoat. It had acted as a sort of security blanket for her on nights like these.
However, she halted in her path when she noticed Benny had left his floral robe hanging on the headboard. Beth sighed. She had asked him three times yesterday if he was fully packed, aware that she sounded like a suburban housewife, based on his playful reply of ‘yes, dear’.
She went to put it away, but when she grabbed the silky material, she found she didn’t want to let it go. It felt soft against her skin, and it smelled like him. She must be going crazy because when she put it on, she could feel the warmth of his touch enfold her body, even though it had been hours since he took it off.
When he had become someone she missed when he wasn’t around? He hadn’t even been gone long, and he'd be back in a week.
She tucked herself in under the covers and pulled up her mental chessboard, replaying their Vegas and Ohio matches. Somehow both of them were equally comforting. She drifted off into a pleasant slumber not long after.
Beth was aware that the most common snacks to serve at a party were cheese, crackers, and charcuterie. They were inexpensive, required no extra prep, and allowed people to self-serve once the platter was out. Unfortunately for her, the natural accompanying beverage to this prevalent food combination was wine.
The scent of summer berries wafted over to her from the others’ glasses, and she gazed at the dark, rich-red liquid with a longing she tried her best to smother. She could practically taste the dry sweetness on her tongue and feel the pleasant burn as it made its way down her throat. She took a sip of the ginger ale in her own tumbler, but it did nothing to sate her thirst.
Arthur and Hilton were telling her and Benny about a spoken word poetry slam that they attended in the Village. It wasn’t much of a distraction for her.
Benny seemed to be enjoying their retelling, occasionally injecting sarcastic comments. He had told her there would be alcohol at this party, that she didn’t have to come, and they could both stay home together. She’d told him, of course it wouldn’t be a problem. Benny loved to socialize. Besides, she’s made it this far sober.
Furthermore, his friends were starting to become her friends too, she hoped. Hilton managed to wrangle her into at least one chess problem whenever he visited, and Beth never grew tired of seeing the look of astonishment on his face when she made quick work of the puzzle. Arthur was always happy to go over the latest Deutsche Schachzeitung with her and humored her rudimentary attempts at German.
However, this turned out to be harder than she thought. It would be disruptive to leave for a walk to get her head straight. Benny wouldn’t let her roam around in the dark by herself and even if she managed to get out the door on her own, she knew he’d be worried and she didn’t want to ruin his night.
As if he could hear her thoughts, he looked over at her and reached a hand out. Not sure what he intended, she tentatively grasped it with her own and allowed him to gently pull her over to him. He casually seated Beth on his lap and continued the conversation.
She felt her blood rush to her cheeks at the compromising position and couldn’t bring herself to look at the others. What was Benny thinking? They were in public, surely this was inappropriate.
One hand rubbed circles into her back and she gathered the nerve to lift her gaze from her lap to see him still focused on the others, but the small upturn of the corner of his lips betrayed his amusement at her flustered disposition.
Beth huffed in annoyance, ready to tell him off, their audience be damned. His eyes flickered to hers and instead of smugness, she saw affection in them and her indignation melted away like cotton candy on her tongue.
The draw of the wine was insignificant when she was in his arms. She preferred the sight of his tousled golden locks, the smell of cigarettes and his cologne, and the warmth of his body against hers. She relaxed into his hold.
Taking a deep breath, she risked a glance to find that the boys seemed unperturbed by the sight of them together on the lounge chair. Maybe this wasn’t such a weird thing; perhaps this is what all couples did in front of their friends.
She’d been hesitant to put a label on their relationship, even within the confines of her own mind. She enjoyed spending time with him and doing things together. She was glad to have him in her life for the ups and downs. Sometimes she would be standing right next to him, like she had been a few moments ago, and a part of her would miss him from a few feet away.
His gravity lent itself to such easy surrender. Beth wasn't sure when she had started falling for him, but she didn't ever want to stop. She knew he would catch her before she hit the ground.