Chapter 1: these ribbons wrap me up
Beth and Benny get takeout.
“Let’s break for dinner,” Benny tells her around six o’clock on her first full day in New York.
“Okay,” Beth agrees, though she’s not sure what dinner will consist of. They’d gotten in too late last night to do much besides go straight to bed. For lunch today, they’d eaten deli sandwiches while playing through the latest Moscow games, but that’s been their only “break” so far.
“Let’s get Chinese,” he tells her, heading toward the door.
He takes them to a brick building on First Avenue with a white awning advertising takeout and a host of foods she’s never heard of before. Of course she’s heard of Chinese food before, but in Lexington, there is exactly one Chinese take-out place at which Beth ate one time, so the cuisine is generally unfamiliar to her.
She spends the time waiting to place their order trying to match each dish with flavors she’s familiar with but largely comes up short. When they walk up to the counter, she’s still unsure what to order precisely, but she doesn’t want to copy Benny either, so she mimics the order of the woman in front of them, only swapping pork for chicken in her noodles. It’s a risk, but not any more so than blindly ordering off the menu.
When they get back, they clear just enough space on the table so they can eat, and hungrily dig into their paper containers. At first, she thinks that Benny will pick up right where they left off before dinner, drilling her about the knight in the Luchenko v. Spassky 1962 game, but he doesn’t. Instead, they fall into an uncomplicated silence, chewing over the day as well as their food. It’s an easy quiet, similar to when Beth had waited for Benny to finish his plate and his glass of milk under the fluorescent lights of the Ohio University cafeteria.
Beth doesn’t mind the silence, though it’s different. With Alma, when they weren’t traveling, the older woman had preferred to cook at home with a vinyl playing in the background or to eat tv dinners with a sitcom on. When Harry had lived with her, their dinners were filled with conversation about their latest game, or sometimes Harry would talk about the classes he planned on taking. After Harry had left, Beth would put the radio on during meals to fill the emptiness of the looming house.
Benny doesn’t have a (working) television, and she’s not sure what they would watch together anyway. The radio would be a good option, but Benny doesn’t have one of those either. Instead, the distant racket of car horns and ambulance sirens and yelling pedestrians are the only sounds as they eat.
The woman who Beth copied, it seems, had good taste. The greasy lo mein noodles and the tangy orange chicken dance on her tastebuds in unexpected harmony, and Beth decides it’s much better than whatever she tasted in Lexington.
She likes the way the noodles wind around the chopsticks, the twirling motion a soothing pattern in contrast to the careful but stilted motions of grandmaster chess and subsequent analysis.
Watching Benny struggle with chopsticks is an amusing experience within itself. When they’d unpacked the food, Beth had automatically reached for the chopsticks that came out of the bag, feeling confident in her memory of the other patrons at Lexington’s Chinese restaurant. But he’d hesitated, pulling out a plastic fork before glancing over to where she’d already started to pick up a piece of chicken, as easily as if she were at a board and it was a pawn.
For all his dexterity on the board, the way Benny’s fingers surely and steadily move pieces as he works his opponent into a corner, he’s much less adept with chopsticks. Maybe it’s due to his constantly twitching hands, a habit that Beth has now picked up on; far too often during the drive, she’d imagined those fidgeting fingers leaning over to brush her own hair, though they’d only ever steadily drummed on the steering wheel, seemingly in tune with her own heartbeat.
He struggles with the wooden sticks, misdirecting the utensils just enough that sesame seeds stick to his upper lip and the dart of his tongue flicking out to lick them off distracts Beth from her own meal. Luckily, he’s working on picking up a few grains of rice, so she doesn’t think he catches how her gaze lingers, briefly wondering how the sesame sauce would taste off his tongue.
Eventually, when he thinks she isn’t looking, he switches to the plastic fork, which proves to be much more efficient. In some ways–with Beth using chopsticks and Benny with a fork–it’s a reversal of what they’ve been at all day; Beth, relying on what she knows to get her through the matches, shoveling analysis of several moves altogether; Benny prodding, poking with careful precision at each and every move and counter-move, his analysis as fine grained as the rice they’re currently eating.
Unlike in Ohio, Benny finishes his meal first. He makes no secret of watching her, eyes intent, as she continues and Beth can’t help but feel self-conscious—she is eating after all. She’s seen elegant women in fancy restaurants with Alma look graceful and put-together as they eat, but she is under no impression that she approximates them, however hard she tries with her clothes. But he isn’t interested in her table manners: in the harsh light of the bulb hanging over his chrome table, he looks at her like she’s a puzzle he just can’t quite figure out, despite being able to solve all the ones printed in Chess Review in five minutes or less. Or maybe, Beth thinks, he’s looking at her like she’s an error in one of his games, one he’s not sure how to fix. Even though she beat him in Ohio, had spent more than eight hours with him in a car yesterday, his facial expressions are still almost as opaque as they were to her last year.
It is a comfortable and an uncomfortable feeling all at once, the quasi-silence uncanny but not unpleasant. Being with Benny is like being with no one at all. But things have never been exactly quiet for Beth when she is alone either, her own thoughts making more than enough noise on their own.
She finishes her dinner, slurping the last noodle from the cardboard take-out box and she realizes she’s eaten just a bit too much as a feeling of exhaustion—from the day and the food—overcomes her. But they’re not quite done yet, as Benny offers her an oddly-shaped plastic-wrapped cookie that’s tan-but-almost-orange.
“It’s a fortune cookie,” he says, to her confused look. “What, do they not have Chinese food in Kentucky?”
Beth scowls. She’s no fan of Kentucky herself, has never cared for it one way or the other, but something about Benny’s scorn for it makes her want to defend it. “They do,” she snaps. Something in his eyes turns thoughtful, as if he’s considering her words, however little they mean. Thinking her judgment may have been a little too quick, even over something so small, she softens it. “I just don’t get it a lot,” she adds, truthfully.
“Huh,” he says, the glint in his eyes disappearing. She thinks it’s over, done with, but once again, Benny surprises her. “What else haven’t you had? Food-wise?” he asks.
The question itself is mundane enough. The topic is food, there’s nothing necessarily intimate or secretive about food. Still, Beth finds herself hesitating to answer, wary her answer will reveal some part of her she isn’t quite sure she wants to share with Benny.
It’s not that Beth is a white-trash trailer girl—at least not anymore , she thinks to herself, remembering Jolene’s insulting-but-fond description of her—she and Alma had developed a taste for fine food during Beth’s time on the tournament circuit. Still, she knows that her experiences are limited, not at all worldly. Their restaurant excursions had been limited to mostly French and Italian cuisine and then “Americana” room service. And from the little she remembers, while the food they’d had in Mexico City had been objectively good, exciting even, any actual taste of the fare there is always shrouded by the memory of loss, ash and grief in her mouth.
Not that she pegs Benny as suave or worldly either, despite whatever image he tries to project, but she knows he has been to far more places, more tournaments and invitationals–Paris and Rome and Moscow–than her. He lives here, in New York City, with an entirely different gamut of people than the inhabitants of Lexington.
She’d conquered this feeling of relative inadequacy during the championship game, had tamped it down when she’d agreed to come to New York, but there’s still an air of intimidating experience Benny exudes, and it remains even when he’s in nothing but jeans and a robe in his crappy apartment. If anything, yesterday and today, his insistence on grandmaster chess and his steadfast focus have only added to his enigma, a paradox when juxtaposed with the almost insouciant ease of sharing space.
Finally, she answers, “I haven’t had Russian food.” Beth figures this is safe enough, and frankly, she doesn’t know how else to answer because it’s not as though she spends her time looking up different cuisines to try. Having taken Russian classes, she at least knows enough about Russian food. “I’d like to try borscht,” she says, her mind flicking to the first Russian dish mentioned in her textbook.
“Uh huh,” Benny says, unimpressed. “Well, you’ll try enough of that in Moscow.” Right. Moscow. The Moscow Invitational which she’d only heard about from Benny two nights ago, the one the USCF Official had briefly mentioned to her at the end of the awards ceremony—more details to come in the mail. She hasn’t allowed herself to think that far yet, has decided that she needs to focus on Paris, coming up in only five short weeks, first.
Five weeks that she’ll be spending here, with Benny. Five weeks that, if today was any indication, will be filled with droll grandmaster chess and seemingly-endless lectures on the intricacies of such expert play.
“Have you ever had Greek gyros?” he asks, interrupting Beth’s musings.
“No,” Beth answers truthfully, not wanting to lie, though part of her fears exposing herself, or Kentucky, to ridicule or disdain.
But Benny doesn’t laugh or mock. “They’re good,” he says. “Do you like lamb?”
Surprised at the continued conversation about food–that Benny is even asking about her dietary preferences–she answers tentatively. “I’ve tried it. It’s alright. It depends on what sauce it’s served with.”
“I think you’d like gyros then,” he says, in what could almost be construed as an earnest tone. “You should try them.”
“I’d like to,” Beth answers casually, hoping not to give away how much the idea—not gyros themselves—but trying out food, here in New York City, with Benny, makes her stomach flutter, and somehow she knows it’s not just from dinner.
In response, Benny clucks his tongue thoughtfully. “Hmm. We’ll have to do that. We can get those for dinner tomorrow. There’s a good place on Fifth,” he says, almost to himself. After a moment of pensive thought, he adds, “Indian curry. Japanese hand rolls. Spanish, paella, perhaps,” as if making a list to himself. Indeed, grabbing a notepad from atop the stack of pamphlets next to him–one Beth had thought was only for his chess notes–he scribbles a few words down, and she just catches sight of the word cheesecake in Benny’s scrawl.
The slight furrow of her brow must give away her confusion at his rambling. “You should get used to eating different foods. You never know what they’ll serve at a tournament reception,” he explains casually. “And you don’t want to offend people like that.”
Beth nods, though confusion and surprise runs through her mind; she doesn’t exactly peg Benny as someone who is concerned with manners or propriety. After all, she, an unmarried woman of eighteen, is sleeping on his living room floor and they just ate Chinese food over his little card table, wiping sticky fingers on paper napkins that now lay crumpled next to them.
“Tournament directors and officials can notice things like that,” he says, ever practical and calculating. “And they remember.”
Of course, Beth thinks. Of course it’s all about chess and tournaments. That’s why she’s here, after all.
But she nods, grateful for the tip, even if slightly irritated by the delivery. Besides Mexico, she has no experience with international tournaments, and doesn’t have much of an idea of what to expect—or what’s expected of her, besides to play chess.
She hates that part—the bureaucratic and politicking parts of the chess world that require maneuvering and managing in a way she finds cumbersome—that only exist as a burdensome diversion from the main event: chess.
She remembers when she first walked into Henry Clay High School, ready to play chess, but unprepared for the hoops she’d have to jump through first. How Matt and Mike and Annette Packer had to explain the rules and regulations of tournaments to her. How in the time since then, she’s grudgingly learned and accepted that the world of professional chess goes beyond the confines of 64 squares. How she must play a game itself of sorts in order to play the game she loves so dearly.
Maybe it’s simply because he’s been playing at it longer, or perhaps his sociable–if conceited–manner makes him more amenable to it, but it seems that Benny is much further along in his study of that particular game.
So she nods. “I wouldn’t anyway,” she says, mostly matter-of-factly, but allowing just a little bit of haughtiness to seep into her voice. She’s not rude. Alma (and Methuen, though she’s loath to give anyone there but Mr. Shaibel credit for anything) did teach her manners after all. And the last thing she would do is endanger her prospects over something as minor as food and drink.
To Benny, she almost comments that growing up in an orphanage, she was never allowed to turn down food, to be picky about what she ate. But she stops herself, not exactly knowing why, the anecdote on her tongue fading along with the remnants of orange sauce.
He doesn’t comment or probe further, opting to unwrap his cookie and crack it down the middle, removing a slip of paper. Beth does the same and a small piece of paper folded between the cookie slips out.
“Read it,” he prompts.
She does, raising the paper. “The past belongs to the past, now the time is right for a new beginning,” she reads. She supposes from the name, the writing is supposed to be a type of prognostication or enlightened counsel. She hasn’t had much experience with that either, but it veers a little too close to biblical prophecy and prayer for comfort and too far away from what’s in her control.
She doesn’t take Benny to be the type to rely on fortune and omens, either, no matter how superstitious or silly he looks walking around in his pirate-cowboy-whatever getup, so it surprises her when he raises his cup of apple juice—the only other thing in his fridge besides eggs and expired milk–his eyes almost expectant.
“To new beginnings,” he pronounces in a way that only he can get away with–if Beth had tried to say it, it’d come out forced and cheesy, but Benny says it just wryly enough that it doesn’t. She cautiously lifts her mug to his glass, the clink echoing throughout the sparse apartment. “And to beating Borgov,” he adds, popping the crunchy cookie into his mouth.
At that, Beth drops her pretense and defense. “I’m not sure I’ll beat him,” she tells him truthfully. This isn’t news to him, or shouldn’t be, she’d said as much at the bar, but he still raises his eyebrows and twists his mouth, almost as if annoyed by her lack of self-confidence. Ever since she discovered the game, she has never thought of herself as someone lacking that particular trait, but here with Benny and the prospect of facing down Borgov again in five weeks, she can’t help the creeping feeling that she’s not—will never be—good enough.
This time, he doesn’t reassure her with platitudes like you’re the best there is . She’s already here, he needn’t flatter her into coming to train with him like he did two nights ago. He does stare at her a few seconds longer, that same look from earlier returning–like he just can’t quite figure her out. It fixes her to the folding chair, as if she’s trapped under a spotlight she only just realized she was under. Then, appearing almost embarrassed himself, he gets up, shuffling toward the garbage with the empty takeout containers, calling over his shoulder, “Then let’s get to work.”
Beth exhales, her shoulders untensing as she stands up, gathering her own containers. The stark white of Benny’s own discarded fortune stands out from the metal gray of the table and her eyes just catch the words
And then the sleek wood of the chessboard slides over the paper, Benny’s freshly-washed hands—free of grease and ready to take destiny into its palms—centering the pieces.
Beth sighs and goes to trash the remnants of her dinner.
Chapter 2: because ours are the moments i play in the dark
Beth and Benny go to the movies.
Beth reaches up to wipe the sweat from her brow. It’s August in New York and she’s been trying to read through a book on middlegame strategy, but the heat in Benny’s apartment is downright oppressive despite the light rain outside. She’s been staring at the book for hours, but between the humid air of Benny’s basement apartment with poor ventilation and the constant drip drop sound of the bucket next to her that catches the rain from a leak in the ceiling, her efforts have been less than fruitful. Opposite from her, lounging on the brown chair, Benny looks as cool as always, casually flipping through the pages of a foreign chess magazine.
“You’ve been on that page for ages,” he remarks, and she hadn’t been aware that he was paying attention to her.
She rolls her eyes, preparing for a lecture on using their time wisely.
Benny is disciplined, setting strict goals about what games to get through, what to analyze, what to take notes on that day. He insists on playing through all the recent Russian grandmaster games they have records of. Beth hadn’t gotten it at first, had felt it was a waste of time moving the pieces when she could simply read about it. But one week in, she has to admit that there is something to his method. She still resents playing through games that are not her own—especially when she finds an error and wants to play that line—but she will admit that playing through it does make her appreciate the win that much more, allows her insights she might not have gotten otherwise.
These days, between the constant reversal of the board, sleeping within ten feet of Benny and his constant notes–he hasn’t shared them with her, but she can tell they’re just as much about her as the grandmaster games they play—there are moments she feels like Benny has slipped inside her own mind. Beth isn’t quite sure how to feel about that—whether she likes his presence there, making a home for itself in the same way she’s made that corner of the living room hers.
Moments like now, when Benny sets down his magazine and leans forward, frowning. “You’re not even paying attention,” he admonishes.
She opens her mouth to protest, but then thinks better of it. He’s not wrong, exactly. “I’m tired,” she says. “And it’s hot.”
He looks at her carefully for a moment, as if judging the truth of her statements. Then, he relaxes his shoulders, his mouth reverting to its usual neutral expression. “Alright,” he says. “Let’s go to the movies.”
It catches her off-guard–this was not what she was expecting.
“Why?” she asks, suspicious, half wondering if it’s a test of some sort. But Benny doesn’t play those sorts of games, she reminds herself. Mind games, she’d heard the girls at school call it.
“It makes no sense for you to sit here for another two hours and stare at the page,” he says matter-of-factly. “Might as well take a break, and when we come back, you’ll be more focused.”
Beth considers his proposal. She’s surprised that Benny is willing to carve out two hours for something other than chess or sleep. Their meals never take longer than thirty minutes, sometimes an hour, if you count the time it takes them to get the food. True to his word, they’ve now sampled an assortment of cuisine previously unfamiliar to her, little tick marks added to Benny’s notepad.
“Besides,” he adds, “the theater will be air-conditioned.”
She suspects Benny will never admit to her that even he gets bored of chess at times, but she can’t help but notice the restlessness in his eyes now, remembering how he was just a little bit short with her while she puzzled over the board this morning.
For her part, she feels the same. Of course, she loves chess, but staring at theory books and pamphlets and the board twelve hours a day is laborious in a way she hasn’t settled into yet. This is different than when she would study with Harry, or even when she’d study on her own after Harry had left. Workman-like chess, Benny calls it.
“Alright,” Beth agrees. A break would be nice–good, even. Perhaps for both of them. “What should we see?”
He shrugs. “Let’s look at the paper,” he says, getting up to carefully move the board laid out on the table and retrieve the morning’s newspaper from underneath. A flash of disappointment runs through Beth—she’d never gotten to read Benny’s fortune from the other night. She’d gone back for the slip of paper later that night, out of pure curiosity, after he’d gone to bed, but it’d been gone.
Beth makes her way to peer at the paper over his shoulder, catching just a whiff of his shampoo—mostly non-descript in its scent, but unmistakably Benny —as she does. The smell, permeating his bathroom and shower area, is familiar to Beth by now, but the close scent of it throws her off-guard temporarily and she grabs a hold of the table to ground herself.
Benny doesn’t seem to notice, his eyes scanning the black and white print intently. “There’s a short film at an art gallery playing— Watts on Eggs ,” he tells her, as a smirk appears on the profile of his face.
Beth rolls her eyes. “You just want to see it because it has your name in it.”
“I also like eggs,” Benny says playfully, but flips to the next page for more listings.
It occurs to her that she has little knowledge about Benny’s aesthetic tastes. His apartment itself, outfitted with mismatched pieces that could have come from anywhere, probably a flea market or just off the street, reveals little except his practicality. The books that line his shelves and the floors are all chess books. The TV and radio in the apartment don’t work, denying her the chance to observe what programs Benny would spend his time on. She has a nagging feeling that even if they did work, they would still often go unused. The few pictures put up in his kitchen are generic prints of the city, revealing nothing about a family, a personal life, a potential girlfriend–topics which Benny has not offered any information about.
At the same time, she realizes she doesn’t know too much about her own preferences. Alma would always choose the TV program or radio channel, and Beth would let her, not knowing what else to suggest. The sitcoms and romance movies Alma would eagerly choose were fine, but then again, Beth had never paid much more than passing attention to them, preferring to play through games in her head or on the board, depending on availability. She does know she’s not much for fine art, or any art really. She’d read a book on Michelangelo once, and while she’d been curious about the life of the genius, how he’d crafted his art, how he’d lived, she’d been much less interested in the art itself. She doesn’t know what she likes, but she’s certain she doesn’t want to go to some arthouse playing a film called Watts on Eggs.
After a minute more of perusing the paper, Beth points to a listing for Holiday at a theater that specializes in old films. The name is at least familiar to her, potentially one of Alma’s favorites.
“Sure,” Benny agrees, and she wonders if this reveals any insight into his preferences. Or, it could simply be that he likes the fact the tickets will be cheaper than a new release.
It’s still drizzling when they step outside and they have to huddle together under one small umbrella. She’s gotten used to Benny’s casual touches over the past week–the clash of their fingers over the board, a friendly shoulder clap congratulating her on a job well done, the brush of shoulders as they bustle around the small kitchen. But this forced proximity feels different, the length of their closeness extended. It sends her nerves tingling–even if it’s just for the few blocks it takes to get to the station.
They take the A train to the theater, and Benny’s duster and hat combo scarcely gets more than a few sideways glances, a far cry from the attention they attracted in Ohio and the gas stations they’d stopped at on the trip back.
“Why are you wearing that?” she asks him, shifting across from him on the hard plastic seating of the subway. It’s hot, and she herself is in her breeziest blouse and skirt.
Benny grins and shrugs, seemingly unbothered by the leather that has to have sweat dripping down his back. Beth imagines rivulets of water dripping into the concave of his back, like the droplets from his hair when he first gets out of the shower, towel wrapped around his waist. “Got an image to keep up,” he says, and the answer could almost be genuine. Beth blushes and looks away, out the window into the dark abyss of the subway.
Outside, they each purchase their own ticket, but when they settle into the plush seats, Benny takes out a Hershey’s bar (miraculously only a little melted) and snaps it in half, wordlessly handing half to Beth.
Beth takes it, pops a small piece in her mouth and savors the rich—if overly sweet—taste.
Around them, there are couples scattered in the seats, cozy as they sit next to each other, heads bent together, hands touching, goofy smiles on their faces as the movie begins.
She wonders if anyone here thinks that she and Benny are together.
But she shakes the thought from her head–it’s silly after all. She leans back in the seat, relishing the cool air of the theater and lets herself be transported to Lake Placid, New York and the troubles of Johnny, Julia, and Linda.
Occasionally, she sneaks a glance at Benny, the shadows from the film reflected on his face, his blonde hair almost aglow in the dim theater. He’s handsome, she thinks, and suddenly she understands how he gets away with all of those absolutely ridiculous almost tartlet-like poses on the magazine covers he graces.
A few rows ahead, a couple whose eyes and attention have been on each other throughout the movie, drop the ruse of even trying to pay attention to the movie. The woman leans in first and the man seems to close the space between them, and soon enough they’re eagerly making out, oblivious to their surroundings and any wandering eyes.
Beth has always felt a sort of self-consciousness in public. She doesn’t care much for random strangers’ opinions or approval, but even still, she tends to find herself hyper-aware of her surroundings. The exception is chess. When she’s playing chess, all of that melts away and her focus is on the board, the pieces, and her opponent. Nothing else matters.
The couple in front of her, with their flushed faces illuminated by the projector light look like they’re a bit lost in a world of their own, reserved just for them; concentration completely focused, intent on only each other. When they finally pull away, the girl is flushed, cheeks tinged pink, and the boy, breathing heavily as well, looks back with a mixture of admiration and smugness, obviously pleased at how the date is going.
Beth wonders what a date with Benny would be like. Would he take a girl to the movies? Would he plan it out or would it be more spontaneous? She doesn’t think he’s the type of guy to go all out and show up to someone’s door with flowers, but then again, she doesn’t know much about his preferences at all. She finds herself wanting to know, as a matter of intellectual curiosity.
In some ways, her trainer, though she is getting to know his mind more and more each day–a natural consequence of the training regime meant to make her understand her own mind better–in other ways, he’s still an enigma to her, carefully guarded. Almost all their energy is expended on chess (and the rest is saved for other basic life functions like eating), small talk or sideways conversations at the end of a long day are few and far between. Every moment is crucially aimed toward the goal of preparing Beth to beat Borgov.
But living with Benny is not like living with a stranger, either. Despite her lack of knowledge about his aesthetic preferences or what he would do when taking a girl out on a date, Beth feels like she knows Benny, knows him behind the Akubra and his cocky outer demeanor. Of course, he’s still cocky–that seems to be a fundamental part of his personality–but there’s infinitely more to him than that, a side Beth wouldn’t have thought to look for before Ohio. Unlike Cary Grant’s Johnny–who blusters through attempts to figure out the meaning of life–Benny lives in a way that indicates he’s never had to question the meaning of life, his purpose in the world. It’s chess, and this training with Beth is simply a natural extension of this world order for him. He’s decisive about this–again, unlike Johnny–and despite his haranguing of her about why move which knight where, he has never once made any indication that Beth coming to New York, this arrangement, was a bad idea. No, instead he’s dedicated himself to her training with fascinating, if sometimes infuriating, furiosity.
So while she may not know his favorite color or where he’d take a girl on a date, Beth knows Benny. She knows his fifty best games, yes, but she’s also beginning to understand how his mind works; that he likes to lay out all options first and then go through them methodically when given the luxury of time. Though he goes through games in head as much as she does, he also finds a special thrill in playing through the games physically on the board, the wins and losses more visceral to him. She knows he likes to stick to a schedule, have a plan for the day as soon as they get up; which games they’ll play through, where they’ll get lunch, what time they’ll break for dinner.
She knows that he washes his clothes at the laundromat three blocks away instead of two because both the dryers and the folding tables at that one are more spacious. He has exactly one set of matching cups–a pair of white camping mugs with black trim. Other than that, one probably couldn’t find a set of matching dishware in his apartment, but Benny keeps them pristine, reserving them for apple juice and water, and never allowing coffee to stain them. She knows the way his fingers seem constantly busy, whether moving pieces on the board, lazily snapping, or simply gesturing into the air, all motion seemingly diverted to those appendages while his eyes and mind stay razor-focused on the game or task in front of him.
She knows that he gets frustrated with her eyerolls and her comfort with relying on intuition, yet he’s fairly patient as she works out all the answers to his demanding questions about pawns and knights. She knows that he rises earlier than she does and goes to sleep later than her, the dim lamplight still slipping through the glass window of his bedroom into the living room long after she closes her eyes.
She knows Benny Watts.
Still, she wonders: what is his favorite food? Does he have any friends, what are they like? What is he like on a date?
As Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant dance around each other, Beth realizes that he wouldn’t know these things about her, either. Sure, he possibly knows about her upbringing in the orphanage–it was in the LIFE article that she knows he’s read, after all, and reporters can’t seem to stop mentioning it, however tired it is at this point. But he doesn’t know about Alma dying in Mexico (at least not how and why), he doesn’t know about Alice and her book on monomials, and the trailer. He doesn’t know about her time with Harry and how desperately she’d needed that sense of normalcy and stolidity that Harry brought at the time.
Benny has alluded to the fact that she’d trained with Harry, but he’s never asked anything more about it, except to inquire what books she’s read and what games she’s studied (not that it had mattered–Benny insisted they go over them all again, apparently having little faith in Harry’s training technique). But he’s never asked if anything had gone on between her and Harry, whether they’d been dating.
To be truthful, even Beth doesn’t know the answer to that. She’d never called Harry her boyfriend, they’d never referred to each other as anything but ‘Beth’ and ‘Harry.’ Harry had fallen into her life, settled into it quietly, and stayed there, until he hadn’t. They had never done anything such as a date. But he’d lived with her and they’d had sex.
It certainly wasn’t like the movies.
Her only other experience with a man hadn’t been a date either, but more so a less-than-thrilling encounter (not that she’d minded very much, she’d sought out the experience out of curiosity and a foreboding sense of time more than anything else). Tim had actually left her in his apartment in order to go to the movies with his friends, rather than take her anywhere. At the time, she hadn’t minded–she’d actually preferred being left to her own devices in his apartment with some weed and booze. But now, she wonders if she’s missed out on a different experience in her haste to get rid of her virginity and her preoccupation with chess–dating.
She risks another side-long glance at Benny, whose eyes are steadfastly on the screen, focused. But his eyes, perceptive and sharp as ever, even in the dark, catch her own, and Beth swears he gives her a half-smile. She quickly turns away, but then there’s a poke in her arm and she looks back to find Benny offering her another piece of chocolate. Is this a date?
The chocolate is cooler this time–if a bit more malformed from the shift in temperatures–as she pops it into her mouth. Benny’s eyes are already back on the screen. She tries to focus as well, though, if she’s being honest, she hasn’t followed much of the plot so far.
In the current scene, Katharine Hepburn’s Linda rejects Johnny–they can never be together, he’s engaged to her sister, after all. This is exactly the kind of contrivance that Alma would laugh at before letting a tear slip, empathizing with the pain of the heroine, secretly wishing she’d been loved that way. Beth has no desire to be in such a situation.
Nonetheless, she can’t help but imagine what it would be like to reject a man one loves. She doesn’t think much about love , is not even sure she knows what people mean when they talk about loving or being in love , but she is certain that it seems foolish to reject someone offering themselves to you.
Then again, Alice had rejected her father, and Beth thinks there must have been love there at some point. Alma had been rejected by a man she hadn’t loved and it’d still hurt. Then she’d spent the last of her days chasing the love of a man clearly uninterested in more than a dalliance. Perhaps there was something to Alice’s advice. Her first mother’s words play in her head, over the laughs of Grant and Hepburn: it takes a strong woman to stay by herself in a world where people will settle for anything, just to say they have something . Perhaps she was right: settling for scraps is it’s own kind of poison.
But it doesn’t matter, not really, Beth reminds herself. She is not in any of those positions, there’s not a man chasing after her–not to a trailer park or to a family mansion. And it’s likely she’ll never be in that position.
So she shifts in her seat, intent on watching the rest of the movie. And she does try.
Except that Benny’s hands can’t seem to stop twitching.
He’s taken up most of the armrest between them, his other hand settled in his lap, but both keep moving, his fingers softly snapping even as his eyes are glued to the screen, the light reflecting just enough that Beth can see each time they move.
It’s downright distracting, the constant movement in the corner of her eye, even as she tries to focus on the antics on screen. The soft light from the movie reflects on the signet ring that always adorns his hand, making them look more elongated, more elegant, somehow. If he hadn’t been a chess player, Beth thinks, he could have been a musician.
She finds herself looking down at his hands too often, the constant motion disconcerting, and without thinking–as if she’s back in the bar in Ohio–she brushes his hand with hers, then covers it, stopping his fingers mid-snap.
Benny turns his head toward her, the rest of his body stiffening at the contact, infinitesimally. For a moment, she wants to pull her hand back, wants to run out of the theater, run all the way back to the apartment, maybe all the way back to Lexington, she’s so mortified– what was she thinking –but then he relaxes, his fingers unclenching and then relaxing on the armrest. She breathes a sigh of relief she’s sure he can hear, but he doesn’t let on, simply turning his attention back to the film. But he also doesn’t pull away or rebuff her.
They stay like that for the rest of the movie; not holding hands but not not-touching. And it does stop Benny’s twitching fingers.
Finally, she concentrates on the rest of the movie, only stealing a glance toward Benny at the end as Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn kiss on screen, their love dilemmas finally solved and all is well. His mouth twists up in what could be a smile or a sneer–she can’t tell from the side, but it makes her stomach flip all the same.
After, they stumble out of the theater, a bit disoriented as their eyes start to adjust from the dark coolness of the theater to the afternoon sun. The rain has stopped but it’s still hot outside and Beth is dreading the ride home on the stuffy and damp subway; it would almost be better to walk, the occasional breeze allowing for some respite.
Around them, the Holiday- watching crowd starts to dissipate, couples walking off hand-in-hand. Beth wonders what would happen if she reached for Benny’s hand now, as he starts to turn toward the station. Would he let her, as he had in the movie theater? Or would he slightly recoil, as he had in the bar?
She half-considers it, her arm moving toward his before she can fully consider it–
“Come on,” he says, breaking the spell, and with that, her nerve. Beth quickly uses her half-raised arm to brush back a loose strand of her own hair. “Let’s go catch the train,” he says, already heading in the direction of the subway.
She’s left with the view of Benny, Akubra on head, duster slightly flared around his legs, walking off into the late afternoon sun, as if some kind of Western movie hero. “We should play through the Capablanca game when we get home,” he calls over his shoulder, and Beth rushes to keep up.
Yes, the Watts with Eggs thing is real and it did come out in August 1967
Chapter 3: i'll be your quiet afternoon crush
Beth and Benny go grocery shopping.
“We need to go grocery shopping,” Beth announces to Benny, whose hair, still wet from his morning shower–annoyingly nice-looking even in its damp state–drips down around the plastic folding chair as he fiddles with the pieces on the board. She keeps her eyes on his face, avoiding looking down toward his bare chest that his open robe does nothing to hide.
At her words, he glances up. She can tell he’s eager to start the day, leg as well as fingers tapping. “Why?”
“You’re out of margarine.”
“Why do we need margarine?” Her brain catches on his echoed we and her empty stomach flips.
“For my eggs,” she manages to say evenly. Call her finicky, but she won’t eat scrambled eggs without margarine; it creates just the right texture.
Benny, it appears, couldn’t care less. In the entire time she’s been here, he certainly hasn’t attempted to cook. She’s honestly not even sure he knows how to, beyond scrambling some eggs in the morning (and it’s mostly her who does that out of morning hunger–Benny, it seems, can subsist on coffee and apple juice for most of the day). Not that her own skills in the kitchen are superb, but she at least cares what she eats.
Normally, this doesn’t pose much of a problem or an inconvenience. Within a ten block radius of his apartment, there are at least twenty different places to get food, and in the two and half weeks she’s been in New York, he’s made good on his word to diversify her culinary experiences in preparation for her international career. Beth has now tried gyros, empanadas, and corned beef, among other new dishes. Her favorite though, so far, is still the Chinese food, particularly the chicken potstickers. And she’ll never admit it to Benny, but she also likes the fortune cookies–and the fortunes contained within. The yellow-orange-ish cookie is just sweet enough without being overwhelming. Benny’s go-to place is the shop they’d gone to that first night, with sticky counters, fluorescent lighting, and plenty of grease and soy sauce. They have to go past two buildings that look like they haven’t been inhabited in years to get there, but it’s worth it.
In fact, most of the places they frequent are inconspicuous enough that you’d miss them if you weren’t looking for them, located in brick buildings that could use a wash, with crude words and hearts with initials sketched into the window glass. If Beth had passed by any of these streets when she came with Alma to New York that one time, Alma would have rushed them out of there as fast as she was able. But Beth hadn’t minded the lingering danger then, and she doesn’t mind now. With Benny, it somehow seems even less daunting, and it’s not because of the knife he carries around (which Beth is fairly certain that he has never used except to sharpen pencils).
She has no idea what it is about Benny that makes her feel that way. Even sitting with him at the chrome table, boards laid out, she starts to regain some of the confidence she had before Mexico City, before Harry left. The idea that she might actually be able to beat Vasily Borgov seems in the realm of possible. At the very least, she won’t fall to pieces.
But today is not one of those days. Instead, she feels growing irritation at Benny as he flicks his wrist at her. “We’ll get it tomorrow,” he says. “Eat something that’s in the fridge and come on. I want to finish up the Capablanca games today.”
Tomorrow really isn’t such a long way away, except Benny also said that last week when they’d run out of eggs. He’d absolutely refused to let them buy them at the nearest corner store, claiming they were overpriced. It’d ended up being three days before he’d caved (or Beth had nagged him enough–she’s still not sure) and he’d finally gone out before returning with a carton of forty-eight eggs. (Benny, it seems, goes grocery shopping even less than Alma had.)
It’s this attitude that makes other things seem less possible with Benny. When Beth had come to New York with Alma, they’d dined at a ridiculously extravagant (and expensive) restaurant. They’d both enjoyed it, but they’d both grimaced when the check had come, though neither of them had mentioned it.
The idea of going out to a fancy restaurant with Benny, though they pass one every now and then, is such a far-fetched idea that it amuses Beth. She can’t imagine Benny shelling out that kind of money on food, nor could she imagine him proposing the time away from chess for a fine dining experience.
At the little diners and food carts they go to, the staff and other patrons hardly blink an eye if they bring out a little pocket set of chess while they wait for the food or if they delay ordering because they’re too busy trading moves back and forth, the board held in their head.
Most of the time, their food comes from these places, ordered hastily and brought back to the apartment to eat over the board. In addition to the spate of international food she’s now been exposed to, at Benny’s insistence they also try foods that are more familiar to her—pizza, bagels, and cheesecake. Benny insists they’re different and better in New York City. Beth doesn’t taste the difference much but happily eats them anyway, though she finds his snobbery just a touch ironic given that his fridge is usually empty save for eggs and milk.
Which brings her to the current problem. They’re out of margarine and Benny apparently doesn’t care.
“No,” Beth says. Today will be the fourth day without eggs for breakfast (since she refuses to eat her first eggs in days without margarine), and she’s pretty sure she used up the last of the cereal yesterday morning, anyway.
“Besides,” she adds, doing a quick double-take of the fridge to confirm that there’s nothing in the fridge besides eggs and milk and a jar of pickles in the back, “you don’t even have anything else to eat.” She’s also fairly sure that even if she were to compromise, she wouldn’t be able to find any oil to cook the eggs in among Benny’s disorganized-at-best kitchen.
For all of Alma’s flaws and sometimes less-than-frequent grocery shopping herself, there were always several sticks of margarine in the refrigerator or freezer that could be used to fry something up. Or in Beth’s usual case, scramble some eggs. Even at Methuen, where condiments to make the food more palatable had been scarce, there’d always been margarine. It was the South, after all.
That was not the case here; she’d used up the last of the margarine yesterday and when she’d gone to the bodega this morning while Benny was taking his shower, the only margarine available for sale had been buried in a rarely-rummaged-through freezer and bore an expiry date from six months ago.
Really, Beth isn’t too fussy about food; she’s had an irregular enough existence that a skipped meal here or there won’t bother her. Her insistence on breakfast that first morning had been just as much about nerves and settling herself as about the food. But lately, she’s discovered that the pills she’s become accustomed to consuming clouded not only her mind, but her appetite. She hasn’t been taking them here in New York–hasn’t felt the need to–but this means she’s hungrier than usual and craving some sort of stability in her eating routine, at the very least.
Besides, she and Benny have a habit of getting wrapped up in their games and training that they often won’t break until the late afternoon, making the most reasonable meal option a late lunch-early dinner combination. She’d learned this the first week, when they’d done it twice in a row, and Beth had ended up unusually crabby.
So she insists on breakfast.
“I’m not playing until I eat,” she tells him, crossing her arms over her chest. For a moment, they stare at each other, eyes locked in a battle of wills. It might be only seconds or it might be an hour and they’ve spent the time a quick trip to the store would have taken–she’s not sure–but finally, Benny caves.
“Fine,” he bites out, exasperation on full display. Beth isn’t sure if he’s usually like this–strict with time–or if this fastidiousness is simply a reflection of the fact that they only have a limited amount of time before Paris and he feels the need to pour as much knowledge and strategy into her as possible. Or, if this level and intensity of work is normal for most grandmasters, and her more relaxed approach is just another thing that differentiates her. Either way, she’s pleased to have won this small battle.
It takes a little while more to get ready to go out. Beth is already fully dressed and simply needs to slip on her shoes and gather her purse, but Benny has to rummage through his closet to find a shirt (it’s almost laundry day) to put on with his low-slung jeans. She hopes, for her own sake and the need to actually focus on the Capablanca games, that he won’t bother undressing again once they get back.
Once they walk up the narrow steps and out the door, they’re hit with the sweltering morning heat of the city. Immediately, Beth feels sweat start to drip down her back, even given her t-shirt and breezy shorts. She readjusts her headband, fixing her hair so it’s mostly off her neck, at the very least.
Benny, for his part, ever-dressed in his black duster and Akubra, seems impervious to the heat, not pausing for a beat except to turn the key in the lock. Beth has to hustle to catch up to him, his long, gangly legs giving him an even greater head start.
“Why are you so against grocery shopping anyway?” she huffs once she’s at his side.
“I’m not,” Benny says with a small chuckle, declining to give a further explanation.
To her surprise, the grocery store isn’t far away at all. If she’d known where it was, she would have just gone herself. Not that she’d asked Benny, but still.
The cold air of the grocery store is a relief, though you wouldn’t know it from looking at Benny, who simply grabs a cart and rolls it toward the dairy aisle, a quick nod at the cashier who barely looks up from filling out a crossword.
“We only need margarine,” Beth says, confused at the need for the cart.
“With the way you use it,” he says, “we’ll need a whole cart.” She scowls at him, she doesn’t use that much margarine and she’s about to say so–
“Relax, Harmon,” Benny says, anticipating her mood and her words–a habit he’s picked up in the past week, and it’s far too unsettling to think about too much. “We’re here, we might as well actually stock up,” he tells her.
His suggestion makes sense, though what they’ll stock up on is beyond her. In the two weeks she’s been in New York with Benny, they haven’t cooked anything besides eggs. Any other meal has come from outside. She considers that they could stock up on TV dinners, like Alma used to, packing the freezer with them. On the days Alma felt up to it, they’d take the bus down to the grocery store and would fill up a cart with mostly TV dinners. For other items, Alma would have a neat list of what they’d need, with the prices and estimated total almost down to the cent.
But they don’t; they don’t wander down the frozen aisle at all. In fact, grocery shopping with Benny is entirely different. They meander up and down the aisles together, grabbing a box of cereal here, a loaf of bread there. At first, Beth hangs back, unsure of her role in all of this; what exactly is he grocery shopping for? But as the cart starts to accumulate with an exceedingly haphazard selection of items, she abandons any apprehensions and starts to add her own preferences to the cart. After all, she reasons, she’ll be living in the apartment for three more weeks, and she’s doubtful that she’ll be able to convince Benny to take the time to grocery shop again.
The contents of the cart are truly random: peanut butter, olives, carrots. At a casual glance, they make no sense–there’s more than basic staples but less organized than if they were shopping to make meals for a couple (Beth’s stomach flips on the word before she determinedly puts it aside) intending to cook. Perhaps it’s just the basket of two young people with no particular aim or reason. But Beth has learned that Benny rarely does anything without a thought-out plan in mind, even if the scheme is inscrutable to the casual observer. There’s always a method to his madness. Even if it drives her positively up the wall sometimes.
Finally, they get to the dairy aisle and Beth goes to grab the cheapest option, the generic grocery store margarine.
“No,” Benny says, reaching for her hand to stop her and Beth freezes at the contact, his warm fingertips gently brushing her wrist. Even though she’s more than cooled off in the grocery store–she might even be a little chilly standing in the dairy aisle–she feels her cheeks warm and palms start to sweat. For his part, he only momentarily stills in reaction to her pause, before slowly drawing his arm back. “Um, get the Parkay. It’s better.”
Skin still tingling from the contact, she doesn’t argue, reaching for the blue and yellow box.
“Get two of them,” he says. He pauses and Beth recognizes the look as Benny having a thought–and not just any thought, but a great idea type of thought. “Make that three, actually,” he amends.
“We don’t need three packs of margarine, Benny,” Beth says. Again, she doesn’t use that much margarine.
“Trust me,” he says, “we need it.” Before she can respond, he heads down the aisle again, duster slightly billowing in the cold air of the store.
She catches up to him in the pantry aisle, considering the assortment of sugars, his hand stroking his chin, as if he’s posing again for that Sports Illustrated issue he keeps numerous copies of around the apartment.
It’s unfair, really, how handsome Benny is, on top of being a great chess player–and trainer, she’ll now admit. She herself has always been somewhat self-conscious of her looks; Jolene had called her ugly for a reason. Not that Beth has aspirations to be a model–though she thinks it might be fun and nice to have people look at you like that. She gets a similar thrill, or at least she imagines it’s similar, when people look at her as she decimates them from across the board, the high more exhilarating than any shopping for new clothes.
Still, sometimes she can’t help but feel plain and small as she stands next to Benny in this city of gorgeous places and beautiful people. For the most part, Benny’s apartment serves as a safe haven from these intruding thoughts; they’re both far too busy with the continuous training and too tired at night to think of anything else, but in moments like these, outside of that apartment, she remembers his straight-forward rejection of her sexual advances, salt added to a wound that’s only scabbed over by chess.
But they’re not here for salt. Finally, after much deliberation, Benny reaches for two packs of brown sugar along with some caramel.
“What are we going to do with all this sugar?” Beth asks.
He quirks one of those smiles at her that inexplicably makes her want to smile back. “You’ll see.” To her skeptical face, he reassures her, “You’ll like it.” He drops the items in the cart with a grand flourish that only he could manage without it being totally ridiculous.
“I’m going to like this thing that I don’t know about?” She’s never cared much for surprises.
“Yes,” he says simply, confidence never wavering despite her apparent reluctance.
“Oh?” she says, challenge in her voice is evident. “And how do you know that?”
“You like Butterfingers,” he shrugs. “It’s got a similar taste,” he says.
“Hmmm,” she says, trying to look nonchalant even as her chest does a strange thing. He’s noticed. It’s a small thing: what candy bar she likes. It’s not about chess, or even remotely related to it. It’s a small thing, sure, but it’s about her. Beth, not Beth Harmon the chess player. Sure, some days she has trouble separating those two out–isn’t even sure she can, or wants to, separate them out.
But in the moment, the fact that Benny’s noticed, some confirmation that he knows she’s more than just a chess-playing machine (which she has doubts about some days), makes her smile.
Suddenly, the times he’s gone out to the bodega for a pack of cigarettes and come back with a Butterfinger for her–what she guessed was a random selection–means so much more; this small gesture an unspoken acknowledgement of what’s been building these past few weeks, something that could almost be called intimacy. It’s a different type of intimacy than she shared with Harry, playing house with him. With Harry, it seemed like going through the motions. And ostensibly, she and Benny are doing the same things: studying chess, playing chess, discussing chess, even if Benny’s basement is a far cry from the house with garish wallpaper in Kentucky.
But with Harry, while it had been nice to be wanted, she hadn’t really missed anything more in the way of knowing him, or him knowing her. With Benny, she feels seen. And in moments like this, she doesn’t even have to try for it. It’s nice and unsettling all at the same time, just as surreal as grocery shopping with Benny Watts is.
He adds a box of popcorn to the growing pile in the cart that Beth wheels, hanging over it as she studies him.
“You already have popcorn,” she tells him. Does he need more of it? It’s not like they’ve eaten any since she’s been here, at least.
“Popcorn,” Benny says, popping the ‘p’, “is my favorite food.”
She’s the box of popcorn in what passes for a pantry but she’d never thought anything about it. “Okay...” Why is he telling her this?
“Especially caramel corn,” he says with a smile. “We’re going to make it.”
“Won’t that cut into your plan to finish the Capablanca games?” The words come out of her mouth before she can stop them. Not that she minds the extended break; she’s never played so much chess, thought so much and so intently about chess, in her life. But she is here to learn to beat Vasily Borgov.
“We can afford an extra hour,” he shrugs unbothered, to her surprise.
If the former admission surprised her, she’s in no way prepared for what comes next: he continues talking. About popcorn. “It was my dad’s favorite,” he starts, still smiling fondly. “He’d get it any time he could.”
Beth stares at him. He’s never talked about his family to her before, or even his youth, except when referencing some game he played when he was nine or so. Of course, she’s seen pictures of him as a young prodigy in old magazines, articles praising the child genius, and logically she knows that he must have had parents, or parent-figures of some sort. Still, it’s deceptively easy to imagine that he’s always been as he is now: overconfident; brash; wearing the Akubra and leather duster; fiercely independent at all things, from his living situation to his dietary choices.
She herself keeps far away from conversations about parents and childhood, for obvious reasons, as did most of the girls she grew up with. Even when reporters probe, she only gives them the barest details. So it’s a surprise to her when anyone brings the topics up so casually, but especially Benny Watts.
If he thinks anything of it, he doesn’t let on, continuing in a casual, easy tone, as if he talks about it everyday. “But my mom,” he tells her, “would only allow me to eat caramel corn as a treat.” He fidgets with the boxes in the cart, rearranging them. “She would say I had to save it for something special.”
He clears his throat before continuing further. “At first, she’d let me have it when I won a tournament.” He looks at her, a twinkle in her eyes. “But then that started to become too frequent,” he says, only a little boastfully, “and she limited it to ‘special occasions’.”
“What counted as a special occasion?”
He shrugs, “Birthdays, big tournaments, family reunions, having guests over. You know.” She doesn’t know, but she doesn’t dare to say it, both afraid of turning the conversation to herself and turning it away from Benny.
“And we’re going to make it now?” she asks cautiously.
“Yep,” he says. So is this a special occasion? To her chagrin, he doesn’t answer her unasked question.
“Alright,” she says after a pause, her mind whirring with the new information, this new part of Benny.
The rest of grocery shopping goes smoothly. Caramel corn is a relatively simple recipe with not too many ingredients–or so she assumes, since Benny only adds corn syrup to the cart. It’s not like she has any experience with baking, or anything of the sort.
At checkout, Beth pays for the groceries with cash. She’s glad to do it, glad to at least pay for this. Whenever they get takeout, they pay for their own shares and even though she’s only sleeping on an air mattress, she is grateful to not have to pay for lodging.
It works out too, because her ticket to Paris will be expensive. She hasn’t bought it–or her return ticket–yet, since she’s still waiting for her passport to come in the mail, but she’s anticipating the high cost.
Still, even besides the lodging, she’s grateful to Benny. His offer to train her was more gracious than she ever expected him to be after losing the Championship title to her. In the better moments–moments when she feels like she’s really learning something–she’s at a loss for how she’ll ever thank him. Other moments, when his voice grates on her ears and she just wants to play through the damn game but he insists on making her explain every facet of every potential move, she’s less thankful and more contemptuous, unkind thoughts about his motivations running through her head: that this whole training thing is merely a way for Benny to feed his own ego, have his hand in molding the newest chess star, a way to claw his fingers into her success, get a piece of it for himself.
But today, despite their disagreement about the necessity of grocery shopping and his mercurial change of heart regarding how their time should be spent, she’s feeling warm toward him, and so she happily pays for the groceries.
The walk back is fairly quick, despite the groceries weighing them down and the heat slogging their movements.
Once the eggs and other perishables are safely secured in the fridge, Benny is all business, taking on the task with the same single-mindedness he seemingly does everything with, popping the popcorn and gathering the other needed ingredients systematically and efficiently. To her surprise, and amusement, it turns out he does have things like baking soda and vanilla, squirreled away on a bottom shelf.
For her part, Beth watches in fascinated amusement as she smokes a cigarette, hovering at first, not quite sure what to do. It’s an interesting experience, watching Benny cook, his shoulders slightly hunched over the counter. He prepares the ingredients, as methodical as he is in chess, leveling off measuring cups with practiced precision, working off of some recipe he must have memorized. Her eyes wander to his fingers, which she appreciates are just as nimble here as they are on the board. She relaxes, leaning against the adjacent counter as he moves around the kitchen and around her, her presence non-invasive but steady, the silence between them calm and effortless.
“Here,” he says at some point, gesturing her over to the saucepan on the hot plate. She stubs out her cigarette and shuffles over, where he offers her a wooden spoon. She takes it hesitantly and looks into the pot. In it, clumps of brown sugar, corn syrup, and margarine sit rather unappealingly. “Stir it,” he says. “I’ll be back.”
“I-” she starts but before she can protest more–before she can reveal that she’s never made anything like this before and her cooking is mostly limited to eggs and things that come from cans–he’s already walking off to his bedroom.
“Just stir it until it boils,” he calls over his shoulder.
Sighing, she begins to stir, the lumps of margarine and sugar sticking to the spoon. As they melt, it becomes easy enough and soon the mixture becomes a smooth–if thick–sauce. The continuous motion is soothing in a way, a mindless distraction that still requires enough presence of mind to make sure it doesn’t boil over.
“See,” Benny’s voice says from behind her, “I knew you could do it.” Didn’t have any doubts, she almost retorts, but refrains at his almost-cheerful tone. She offers the spoon back to him, but he declines with a shake of his head. “You can stop stirring,” he says. She does and he covers the saucepan with a lid, also dug out from the bins underneath the counter.
“Tell me when it’s five minutes, okay?” he asks, eyes glancing down toward her wrist.
She leans back against the counter again, nodding. So he’s noticed that she always wears the Bulova. It’s a mundane observation, anyone could notice it, comment on it, but she still feels her chest beat just a little faster when Benny does it.
In the meantime, he moves some measuring cups to the sink, even wipes down the counter, before mirroring Beth’s position against the L-shaped counter.
“Do you always make your own caramel corn?” It’s a germane enough and innocent enough question, though she still hesitates slightly.
He angles his lanky body toward her. “Not always.”
She nods, not pushing for more information, suspecting that’s the end of the conversation–after all, it’s practically a miracle that they’ve gone this long without talking about chess, nevermind that they’re actually conversing about other things. She doesn’t expect more.
But he proves her assumptions wrong again and continues. “As a kid, I’d eat whatever caramel corn I could get my hands on. But I always liked my mom’s best.” He braces his hands behind him on the counter, fingers immediately drumming against the side. “The homemade stuff is always the good stuff, anyways.” He smiles good-naturedly at that before adding, “No taste like home, isn’t that what they say? Or something like that.”
His smile is arresting and even though they’re talking about him, somehow Beth feels exposed, her palms sweating and not just from the heat.
She thinks about all the pieces of Benny and his life, which she’s learned just as much about as she has grandmasters’ favored openings and middlegame maneuvers these past two weeks: the man at the Chinese takeout place always greets them with a warm smile as they enter and ribs Benny about his coat, but good-naturedly places extra fortune cookies in the bag; Benny’s strength is the middlegame (which she already knew) but he prefers endgame analysis; he prefers the Columbia Cinema with older runs and Spanish subtitles that he can’t read to the trendier and nicer Baronet and Coronet Theater. She adds his favorite food is popcorn, especially his mother’s caramel corn to the growing list. It’s small, but feels significant in some way she can’t explain.
“Were you home a lot?” she finds herself asking, again, before she can think better of it. “I thought you traveled a lot.” She’d be lying if she said she hadn’t thought about Benny’s childhood; but mainly, she’s thought about it in an abstract way, his life supplying some information as to what opportunities she might have had if she learned chess earlier in life, if her life had been more normal. But she hasn’t consciously considered Benny as a little kid, what his parents were like, what his home life might have been like.
“No,” he says, the smile disappearing from his face, settling into a more familiar, neutral expression. “We weren’t home much.”
“But you liked traveling?” She’s never considered that he wouldn’t; that he wouldn’t revel in all the chances to play all the greats, no matter where in the world he had to go to do so.
“Yeah,” he answers. His smile returns but this one is all teeth and fake cheer. “It was fine.”
He doesn’t elaborate this time, and she doesn’t push. It occurs to Beth that this, talking about the past, childhood, might be just as weird for him.
Okay, probably not just as weird for him, but still strange in its own way.
They’re quiet for a moment, and Beth takes a moment to appreciate the smell of butter and sugar now wafting throughout the apartment.
There’s a thin sheen of sweat across Benny’s forehead–which makes sense given the proximity of the hot plate–and a stray lock of hair falling over it and into his eyes. She raises her arm to brush it away, but changes her mind mid-air, opting to grab the spoon handle on the counter instead. A glint of silver catches her eyes and she remembers she was supposed to be keeping time.
“It’s been five minutes,” she says, and thankfully, it has been.
He nods, turning fully toward the hot plate. He glances down at her hand, already perched on the spoon. “Do you want to stir?”
She nods back as he uncovers the lid and moves to stir the boiling mixture. He deftly moves around her, reaching for the baking soda and vanilla, and unceremoniously dumps a teaspoon of each into the saucepan. The mixture foams and Beth startles just a bit. “Keep stirring,” Benny murmurs quietly, next to her ear and something in her own stomach bubbles.
But then he’s gone from her side, going to the other end of the counter to pull out something or other, and Beth feels herself deflate again, hunching over the hot plate.
After a few minutes, he declares that it should be ready. When she turns to look at him, she sees that he’s carefully moved the board from the chrome table to his coffee table, and now baking sheets filled with the popcorn he’d prepared earlier cover the table.
At his request, she brings the pot over to the table and Benny makes a show of pouring the caramel over the popcorn. “It’s all in the wrist,” he says, as he drizzles the caramel, wielding the pot handle with a flourish.
Beth rolls her eyes at that but he does get a laugh out of her later while they’re smearing the caramel over the popcorn, making sure it’s evenly spread. They’re using mixing spoons (really, Benny admitted, they should be using rubber mixing spatulas, but he only has slotted frying spatulas, so spoons it is).
“This seems like a lot for just the two of us,” she remarks, looking at the two full trays of popcorn.
“Eh,” he says, “It’ll be fine.” He looks at her for a moment, as if considering whether to say the next thing on his mind, before deciding to go for it. “You know, after I drew against Najdorf when I was nine, I had three bags of this stuff. Ate myself sick.”
She lets out a laugh, shaking her head a little. The image of a young Benny stuffing his face with caramel corn with sticky hands and a stomach ache, along with his current–almost contemplative–retelling of it, is too humorous for her not to react.
“Glad you find it amusing,” he drawls, but this time there’s a broad smile on his face. When she’s finished laughing, he snaps his fingers, as if just remembering something. “That reminds me,” he says as he jumbles the popcorn around, making sure it’s all coated, “I want us to study some Najdorf games.”
Beth nods, belatedly realizing that they’ve spent the morning on something entirely unrelated to chess, that a completely necessary grocery trip turned into something totally unnecessary.
More to life than chess, Alma would say. And for the first time in a while, thinking about Alma feels just a little less heavy.
To her relief, she’s distracted from thinking further about it–and thus sinking into the despair she tends to feel when she lets herself sit with memories of Alma too long–by Benny launching into a detailed summary about the Najdorf games.
After the popcorn cools and sets, they finally get to taste it. It’s surprisingly good. The sweetness of the caramel is tempered by the savoriness of the popcorn and the salt that Benny liberally sprinkled over the finished product. It’s also extremely filling–something Beth only realizes once she’s eaten several handfuls, only to discover that she’s full, despite not having her eggs this morning.
Benny eats even more than she does, bits of caramel decorating the fuzz of his mustache. For a moment, Beth imagines reaching out to brush them off herself, but then his tongue flicks out to catch the stray sugar crystals. His mouth hangs open for a minute, as if about to say something–about caramel corn, about chess, about childhood, she doesn’t know, but then shuts it before grabbing another handful. She reaches for a different distraction.
When they’re finished, after they’ve packed up the leftovers into paper sandwich bags (Beth was right, after all), Benny looks at the clock–it’s a quarter to one–but doesn’t seem surprised or perturbed by the time. “Well, we should get to those Najdorf games I was talking about,” he tells her, stepping to move the board back to the table. He says it easily but firmly and she knows there will be no more diversions today. Not that she wants any, anyway.
Beth sighs and swallows, the caramel overly sweet in her mouth and sticky on her tongue.
Chapter 4: we keep trying to talk about us (i'm somebody you maybe might love)
Beth and Benny talk.
In the morning, they fuck.
Despite getting back from the poker game in the middle of the night, Benny gets up early, as usual. Beth stirs awake beside him, and he’s grinning at her as he counts the money on the nightstand. He flips through the worn bills, an assortment of tens, twenties, and even a hundred in there. She watches him all the while, watching his nimble fingers flick through the bills, silky blonde hair in his eyes. Then, he smiles and leans in to kiss her.
Her body responds before she can remember that she was–is–upset with him. She briefly contemplates turning away but then he’s kissing down her body and heat is building in her belly and she decides this is much better than focusing on whatever tangled mess from last night.
It’s alright, really. She comes with her thighs around his head and her fingers threaded through his hair, her release a spring released from a tight coil. But it clears her head and the simmering feelings from last night return while he chases his own release, head buried in the crook of her shoulder.
She’s still awfully angry at him, she realizes, even as she clutches at his back, her fingernails digging in just a little more sharply than they probably should. Yes, they were finally having sex, which was what she wanted all along, but he’d gone and spoiled it. First the whole Sicilian business, muttering about Borgov and what she should or shouldn’t play as soon as they’d finished, their bodies still flush together, him inside her. How he hadn’t even realized she was upset, that night or the next day. When she’d gone to sleep that night after giving him the cold shoulder, she hadn’t expected he could make it worse, but then he had, springing his stupid poker game on her the very next day.
Wasn’t speed chess and sex enough action for him? Apparently not.
With these thoughts, her sour mood returns and she doesn’t enjoy the rest of it very much, but it doesn’t last much longer either.
Benny finishes with a final snap of his hips and a kiss to her neck before rolling off of her. It’s nothing like the previous night, when they’d first slept together, her breathy sigh of so that’s what it’s supposed to feel like saying all that needed to be said.
But he doesn’t bring chess up this time either, so it’s an improvement in some respects, if not a consolation. Though, she reckons that he simply doesn’t have a chess-related thought at the moment; if he did, she doubts he’d keep his thoughts to himself. It’s everything else that he holds back from her.
“You’re pissed at me, aren’t you?” he asks when he’s regained his breath, sitting up. He eyes her warily, and Beth figures her less-than-pleased expression is probably evident.
“Yes,” she tells him. She sees no reason to lie. But it isn’t just that she’s pissed at him; she’s plenty angry, but she’s also upset. She had thought that having sex with Benny would be something more, both physically and emotionally. While it’d achieved that physically, there’s still something lacking, though she can’t put a name to it.
They’ve had sex twice so far and their bodies connect quite well, but somehow their minds haven’t been on the same track: an unusual deviation. She finds herself wishing she could just unite the two somehow: how her body reacts when she’s in bed with him and how their minds meld over the board. It had almost felt like that the first time, until he’d gone and talked after, and it’d been clear they weren’t on the same track after all, and his actions later that day had only confirmed it.
Benny returns to the subject now. “The poker game?” he asks, in what might be the only guileless question he’s ever asked.
She nods, though she’s annoyed that she even has to confirm it for him. She isn’t sure what’s worse: that he has to ask if the poker game is why she’s pissed at him, or that there are technically two things he could be talking about: poker or the Sicilian business. Or that he hasn’t acknowledged the way the Sicilian comment bothered her. He hadn’t brought it up yesterday, even before the poker business, so she doubts that he’ll ever bring it up. Still, it’s another thing she’s sore at him about.
She doesn’t know how to bring that up now though, so she instead sticks to the topic at hand.
“The way you didn’t tell me about it,” she says. It’s the way he never seems to tell her anything that’s not related to chess in some way, or at least, not anything that really matters. The way that, even when she opens up as she had after their first time, he still brings it back to chess, to the familiar ground of their professional relationship. The way that she feels silly for thinking she knows him, when days like yesterday make it clear that there’s far too much she doesn’t know.
He doesn’t argue, only nods back. “I’m sorry.”
His words catch her off-guard; she wasn’t expecting an apology from Benny. He certainly hadn’t seemed sorry yesterday morning or last night. But she supposes she hadn’t outright told him she was upset, either, as she just did now.
In another surprise move, he adds, hesitantly, “I do keep my distance.” He says it in the same tone he’d had the other night, when she thought he would kiss her by the stairs but instead made an excuse about not being sober. It’s hesitant and tender, but a retreat all the same.
Still, at the words, she feels an odd rush of relief flow through her, more satisfying than her orgasm. The words do what he’d failed to do before: acknowledge her, validate her. She isn’t crazy–at least, not about this–after all.
“I suppose I do too,” she says, after another moment of thought. While it’s true she hadn’t liked how the Sicilian talk and the poker game had pushed her away right after they’d finally had sex, she hadn’t told him explicitly that it’d bothered her. She isn’t sure exactly why she hadn’t in the first place, but she didn’t.
If Benny has any questions, he doesn’t ask. Instead, he smiles one of those wry smiles at her and simply says, “I’ve noticed.”
The conversation is far from satisfying, but it’s better than nothing.
They make breakfast, quietly shuffling around each other in the kitchen, seemingly back to their schedule. The normalcy of it all, the routineness, bothers her, and she suggests a game between the two of them in an attempt to shake it up. They play surprisingly few games between the two of them–the night of speed chess exempted–and Beth is itching for it.
Beth can tell he’s about to refuse, to tell her they need to play through the Stockholm ‘48 games, but she catches his eye directly and he reluctantly agrees, on the condition of a thirty-minute time control.
She plays the Sicilian Levenfish and beats him, defending well and attacking by hounding his king mercilessly. It pleases her and she feels some of her soreness wearing off.
After he resigns, Benny shakes his head at her. “I needed that six hundred.”
“Maybe so,” she says, “but your timing was bad.” As a chess player, for someone who pays attention to how many games they get through a day, he really should know timing better.
“It doesn’t pay to cross you, does it?” he remarks.
She ignores that because she doubts it’ll go where she wants to go. His timing isn’t really any better today. Instead, she asks, “Do you want to play another?” She misses this, getting to decide her own tactics and strategy, winning games with her own moves.
But he just shrugs his shoulders and turns away, “Save it for Borgov.” She’s momentarily disappointed, but then she catches the way he’s analyzing the board and seeing just how early on he’d lost. He doesn’t think he can beat me, she realizes. The thought makes her feel better; at least something here is going right.
They resume their usual activities for the rest of the morning. By lunch, which they eat in silence, Beth starts to feel the creep of annoyance again, displeased with the way Benny so easily shifts back into his trainer role, again and again.
By two o’clock, she suggests they play another game, but he doesn’t crack this time, just pushes another pamphlet toward her. She starts to get the feeling that he might not play her again.
By three o’clock, they’re back in a familiar position, Beth sitting on a chair with one knee up and Benny standing, lanky figure looming over the board and the chrome table, and her earlier feelings are back in full force.
“Like I said yesterday,” Benny says, “you’re a born tactician.”
Beth supposes she’s supposed to be happy, glad for this repeated observation, especially without the added “but your planning is jerry-built.” It’s practically a compliment, coming from the man before her, after all.
But currently, she’s having a hard time feeling anything but the irritation and resentment that’s been rebuilding all morning.
She knows she should be listening, should be taking mental notes at least, but instead, she keeps turning the past two days over and over in her mind–flashes of cash exchanging hands, Benny’s lips and mouth and hands on hers, stacks of poker chips, and the long walk home alone last night replaying on a loop–analyzing them as if they were positions on the board, as if pondering endless variations would make the situation any different than it is now.
Finally, accepting the futility of trying to concentrate on chess right now, she pushes away from the table and stands. “I’m going for a walk.”
“It’s not time to break yet,” Benny says, frowning.
Most of the time, Beth admires his persistence–respects that stamina is just as important to workman-like chess as strategy. After all, sitting and playing chess for hours has never tired or bored her much before.
But today, she’s not sure she can tolerate much more without a break. Besides, they’ve already deviated from the schedule of grandmaster games, and he didn’t seem to care much about any schedule or getting through certain pamphlets yesterday. The bastard had gone out and done as he pleased. She could very well do the same.
If he can leave in the middle of the day for a poker game, she can damn well do what she pleases. “Well,” she tells him, “I need a break now.”
His shoulders tense and his jaw clenches and half of her expects that he’ll make a fuss and insist that they continue playing through the games. She knows she’s pushing it, pushing him, but she really doesn’t care right now. It’s not as if he’s shown much thought to her feelings or wants, after all, she thinks bitterly.
But true to form, Benny doesn’t get yell or pick a fight, instead just tightly nods at her and takes a long drag of his cigarette.
She suspects Benny only concedes because he thinks she’s still cross with him. Well, she has every reason to be, she thinks as she gets up from the table.
Usually, during breaks, Beth will flip through a women’s magazine, sit on the stairs outside Benny’s apartment and people-watch, or put a record on. But today, she doesn’t feel like doing any of those things, doesn’t feel like being in–or anywhere near–this apartment.
“I’m going for a walk,” she informs Benny, who just sits at the table, eyes following her around the room as she gets ready. The long walk last night had helped clear her head–maybe another one will do the same.
Again, he nods, but this time he gets up, stretching his long limbs. “I’ll come with you.”
She freezes, midway to her shoes; she hadn’t expected this. He normally doesn’t join her on breaks anyway–a few exceptions like the movies aside–preferring to give them both some space. So she’s unsure why he’s offering, especially now. If he’s offering, at all.
“You can come along, if you want to,” she says, doing her best to imitate his tone from yesterday, when he’d reluctantly let her come along to poker, adding that she’d have to be quiet. He grimaces at the words, but continues on to get his coat anyway.
It’s really too hot for a coat, in New York in mid-September, but Benny wouldn’t set foot outside without it. For her part, Beth opts for a light sweater.
As they leave the apartment, he double-checks the locks on the doors and Beth’s mind flashes to the wad of cash on the nightstand. I have to pay the rent, he’d told her.
His other words from this morning, I needed that six hundred, return to her as well, and she wonders if she’s been too harsh on him.
Before last night, it hadn’t occurred to her that her presence in Benny’s apartment, in his life, was disrupting any semblance of normalcy he’d have, that their marathon training was any deviation from his everyday life. His almost-singular focus on chess makes it easy to assume that this is his normal routine, studying chess day in and day out, only breaking when absolutely essential, and her additional presence isn’t much of a disturbance.
Just as it’s difficult for her to imagine Benny as a young child with his parents, it’s equally difficult for her to imagine Benny operating in the world outside of chess: the world of adult responsibilities like rent and telephone bills.
Her own bills aren’t much of a burden to her: she’s been paying the mortgage that Allston insisted upon out of her savings. She has quite a lot still from careful saving over the years on both her and Alma’s part, despite their sometimes lavish trips. And the National Championship winnings, once she gets to deposit them, will only add to that. Paris winnings, too, which she grows more certain of winning every day.
She’s doing alright financially now, and perhaps that is why she hadn’t thought about Benny’s money situation, though she’s well aware from the months before she started playing at tournaments–when Allston wasn’t sending any money and money grew tight–that debt collectors wait on no one.
He probably really did need that money. He doesn’t play as many opens as she does, and it’s surely more expensive to live in New York City than Lexington. The thought unsettles her and her anger is displaced for a minute.
But, just as fast as the cars driving by as they walk, it returns. She’s justified, she tells herself. She was right: he did have bad timing. It wasn’t necessarily that he’d gone out and played the game. It’s that he’d kept it from her, until the last possible minute. He must have known about it before–after all, Benny is precise in his schedule. And he didn’t tell her, keeping her at bay like she’s just some young trainee and they hadn’t started having sex.
No, she thinks resentfully, looking at the man next to her, it’s alright for her to be mad at him. So much for the walk clearing her head.
At the very least, it doesn’t seem as if Benny is having a great time either. He walks stiffly at her side and she wonders why he even insisted on coming with her. It’s not that she needs a minder. And they’re certainly not talking. At least, she notices, he’s kept his gait steady and matched to hers, follows her lead toward midtown.
In some ways, it’s easy to walk next to him like this, the silence stretching between them; she can’t imagine talking with him right now, what they would even say.
But that’s the thing with Benny. It’s easy being with Benny until it’s not. Until it’s hard.
Until they have to talk about something that’s not chess.
Chess; that thing that is so impersonal–sometimes that’s all they’ll talk about for days, not even bothering with ‘good mornings’ or ‘good nights.’ Other times, it feels like chess is the most intimate thing in the world for them, the flutter of hands, the sharp, quick breathes, neurons and synapses firing.
It pushes them to their mental limits; a push and pull across the board, as they hone their strategy and skill.
Other times, it seems as though chess only acts as a numbing agent for them, covering over everything that’s too difficult to think about or to feel, their steps as clumsy as when she’d first taken Xanzolam at the orphanage, before heeding Jolene’s words to save them.
Interestingly enough, she doesn’t feel the need to take the pills now. She hasn’t taken any pills since arriving in New York. The clarity to her mind has been good; she can concentrate on the games, really think about them, in a way that the pills don’t usually allow. She’s relied on the pills to allow her to make quick decisions and quicker moves, let her intuition take over. But they’ve never allowed for–or perhaps she’s just never tried–the analysis of the sort Benny insists upon, that he draws out of her even when she’s tired and weary.
She desperately wants to get rid of the uneasy churn of unidentifiable feelings that roll through her now with each step on dirty concrete. A few weeks ago, she might have reached for her little golden case containing smuggled Xanzolam. And she could still, she knows exactly where they are in her suitcase. But for the first time in a while, she doesn’t think they will help.
No, what she would really like is for Benny to talk to her. Not to lecture at her, but to talk to her. But maybe that’s a fool’s wish: their earlier attempts might have put a bandaid over the wounds, but she can still feel them festering.
Maybe it’s better like this, after all. The sparse words they’d exchanged this morning seem to be the extent of what both of them can bear to say. Distance, indeed.
So they walk instead. They walk and they walk, passing through neighborhoods of brownstones and green planters and avenues filled with shops and bustling crowds. At some point, Beth’s feet start to ache mildly, but she pushes through it, even revels in the dull physical ache, taking away from the twinge in her chest and her mind. At least with her feet, she knows the source.
Eventually, they’ve walked far enough that they’re at the pedestrian entrance of the Queensboro Bridge. Around them, tourists and other folk simply enjoying the mid-September evening mill about, entering and exiting the pedestrian walkway.
She’s seen the bridge in a few pictures–Benny might even have a picture of it tacked to his kitchen wall. But she’s never walked on a bridge, set foot on a bridge itself–not since the accident on New Circle Road, a day she tries not to think about. She’s not scared of bridges exactly, but she doesn’t seek them out either.
But somehow, right now, the bridge–and anything it might represent to her–doesn’t faze her. Instead, something about the towering arches and suspended cables call to her, a magnificent structure built in the water, strong enough to withstand cars and people and weather, stolid throughout, connecting Manhattan and Queens.
It’s funny, Beth thinks, how bridges withstand so much, do so much.
So she enters the walkway and Benny follows. The first step onto the rickety wood startles her and she wobbles, losing her balance and she feels as though she’s going to fall and drown, even though she’s nowhere near the edge and there’s a grate anyway. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees a leather-clad arm shoot out, as if to serve as a brace, but she regains her balance and it retracts just as quickly, leaving her to wonder whether it was all just a figment of her imagination. She breathes in and takes another step, and the wood is now as solid as anything, walking just as easy.
They continue to not say anything, to let the city sounds fill their ears as they walk, eyes downcast toward the waves below them, the water dark and murky, fittingly matching Beth’s mood.
Once they get to the middle of the bridge, they stop, stepping toward the railing, out of the center path. Tourists and city dwellers alike mill about them, taking in the skyline against the setting sun through the protective iron grates
Beth looks at Benny, currently turned toward the grate, looking out onto the skyline. He looks as if he could be the hero in some movie, she thinks, with his handsome face and his hair that’s glowing in the sunset and his Akubra hat that would probably be pegged as a cowboy hat and his flowing trench coat. Okay, maybe he’s not handsome in the same way Townes is–Benny probably wouldn’t actually be cast in a movie–but that knowledge doesn’t make him any less handsome to her.
Suddenly, she feels off-kilter again, her stomach fluttering and her head light. She reaches for the railing, turning her body so both hands can grasp it.
Next to her, Benny’s hands also clutch the railing, though his eyes stare straight ahead, face pensive.
The light glints off the silver signet ring that never seems to leave his finger. He has long, bony fingers that have a way of making each chess piece he curls them around look like they belong there, like he was born that way. But even though those fingers have been inside of her, making her belly coil and her muscles taut, she doesn’t know the first thing about the ring; why he wears it, the significance of it–if any; she doesn’t know it’s just for flourish, for decoration, or something more. Even though his necklaces have tickled her bare chest as he glides over her, she doesn’t know why he wears them.
But she knows that they’re a part of the image he so carefully cultivates, just as she knows that tactics are an integral part of the philosophy that he’s cultivated into a distinctive style of playing. The very style that he’s foisted upon her and–despite his pontifications and admonishments about strategy–she’s absorbed it all. It’s part of her game now, too, the voice of Benny Watts will always be in the back of her head asking why this move and not that one.
Beth knows that he doesn’t mind romantic comedies, but is also open to more arthouse films. She knows that his favorite food is caramel popcorn–especially the homemade kind his mother used to make. She knows that he lives in an apartment on Seventy Eighth and that he’s a regular customer at the ten takeout places within a two-block radius.
She knows that he has friends. Nice friends, even. A gorgeous model and a grandmaster and a puzzle-obsessed master. She knows that he plays poker to pay his bills, and he must be good at it, at least successful enough to support his chess career.
But she also remembers his words, how he keeps his distance. And she is reminded again, that her presence here was not planned, it was a spur of a moment thing. That really, he was being pretty gracious to let her stay here and train her, even if she did suspect it had just as much to do with his own ego as with her. That any wins she claims in the future will undeniably have his mark on them, the same way a hickey is starting to form on her neck from where he’d sucked last night.
The sun starts to set, making his hair even more golden, and she’s struck with the unfairness of it all really.
“Let’s play,” he interrupts her thoughts and the silence, his first words to her in more than an hour.
“I thought you told me to save it for Borgov.” She thinks back to his wary look from this morning, declining her invitation of again. She knows him well enough now, has played through enough games with him now to know that his refusal wasn’t just the aftermath of their conversation; his refusal communicated his silent admission that she had surpassed him.
She’d been disappointed that he wouldn’t play again, but it hadn’t really taken her by surprise. It’s hung over both of them for a few days now: the knowledge that, despite his continued lectures, she was moving past Benny. It’s unsettling, joyous, and bittersweet all at once. For both of them too, she thinks, as she recalls the soft awe in his voice as he’d told her no one has done that to me in fifteen years, even as he’d held a look of consternation. He’d simply acknowledged it with his refusal.
She had thought that it might put them on equal footing. That despite his usage of the condescending kid, that he’d realized that their situation was no longer one of trainer and trainee but of study partners. Initially, she thought that was how they’d ended up in bed together, his forget about it missive seemingly forgotten or forgone in light of her beating him thrice.
But his pillow talk of the Sicilian and the poker game and his continued sermonizing about strategy indicates otherwise.
And now here he was, suggesting they play again, even though he thought he couldn’t win this morning.
Benny shrugs at her reminder, seemingly unbothered, unaffected. “We can play skittles,” he said. “We don’t have a board anyway,” he says, as if that would make the game somehow less real, when it never had before. At least, not between them.
“Okay,” she agrees, because she hardly ever doesn’t want to play chess with Benny.
He starts with the Sicilian, and she’s slightly perturbed by it, briefly wondering if it’s his way of trying to communicate something. What exactly that would be, she couldn’t begin to guess. But maybe she’s overthinking it: it’s probably just an opening he thinks he can win with.
They trade moves as they watch the sun go down, skyscrapers illuminated against the darkening sky. It’s a game that doesn’t really count, except of course they count it because they count every game.
When they finish, and she has eked out a win by hounding his king, he gives her a sort of lop-sided smile, one corner of his mouth just crooking up.
“Good job,” he says. And even though she knows it was a good game; even though he might not be winning against her, he’s still good; even though she doesn’t need him to tell her she played well, she smiles at the praise nonetheless. This one feels real, more sincere than the stray compliment tossed in a lecture about her weaknesses.
They settle into silence once more, staring into the stretching sky. They stay like that for a few minutes, before Benny clears his throat, speaking again.
“I’ve been studying some of your past games,” he tells her.
She shifts her head to look at him once more. This isn’t news exactly, he’d said something similar to her in Ohio. But that was when he’d been preparing for her as an opponent. She hadn’t realized that he’d continued reading up on her previous games.
“Oh?” she says, bracing herself for whatever criticism he has prepared for her.
“Yeah,” he says. “Including the ones we’ve played recently.”
She gestures for him to continue.
“You attack like Alekhine, your positional foundations are sound but you have such a conscious feel for dynamics.” This isn’t new information, but something about the way he says it, the unexpected praise instead of reproach, makes her flush. “When they write about your history, they’re going to say, ‘Beth Harmon, brilliant attacker.’”
He says it bald-faced admiration and it’s clear he’s not buttering her up (as if Benny would do that for anyone) or exaggerating in any way . She flushes at the idea of her name in the history books, at the realization that Benny truly believes she’s world-class.
But he’s not done. “For instance,” he adds, “you also don’t underestimate the significance of, say, protected passed pawns.”
She considers this; she’s never considered herself particularly strong with something like a bishop pawn, which just covers her knight against frontal attacks. In her head, she runs through the significant wins of her career, trying to see where he’s getting this. It’s when she comes up short that she realizes that this is something new, only emerging in the games they’ve played since she came to New York., since she’s started studying with Benny.
But it’s not simply her emulating Benny’s style; his own strengths tend to shine best with pawn combinations. No, this new development is a fusion of both their styles.
The revelation makes her feel light, giddy, like she always does when discovering a new insight into chess. She wants to break out into a smile but the memory of Benny’s reserved reaction to her finding an error in Fine stops her. Instead, she says, “I suppose you’re right.”
Benny nods, all serious confidences. “I know I am.”
Of course. Any unsurety from this morning has fallen away: she could beat him from here to Sunday, and he’d still carry himself with all the authority and assuredness as he’d had a year ago in Vegas. She doesn’t mind, exactly. In a way, it’s reassuring to have someone so self-assured around; Benny’s confidence in her convinces her more and more each day that she’ll beat Borgov. Still, he isn’t the only one who can talk theory, can dissect not just a game, but a player. “You don’t defend your queen pawn enough when you play the Queen’s Gambit,” she tells him.
He looks at her thoughtfully, brown eyes almost unbearably scrutinizing her, and for a moment, she thinks he might rebuke her, snap at her with cold as he had in the car. But then he lets out a long breath, admitting, “You’re right.” He gives her another crooked grin. “Nice observation.”
This pleases Beth and this time she does let out a smile, albeit a small one. It’s nice to be right, to be acknowledged.
The sun is setting now–really setting, the sun almost touching the water. The orange rays glitter across the harsh green waters, forming what would be a jarring combination if not softened and balanced by the hazy blue of the evening sky.
When they’d first started the game, they’d been next to each other but not near. Somehow during the course of their game, or their subsequent conversation–Beth’s not sure which–they’ve migrated closer to each other. There’s still space between them, but only just.
Both their hands lay flat on the railing, half an inch separating them.
Suddenly, Beth has an overwhelming urge to take his hand, to brush his hair back, to kiss him as the sun sets. Her own life certainly isn’t a movie and she’s never cared much about anything besides chess, but in this moment, she thinks she emphasizes with Katharine Hepburn’s character in Holiday, wishes Benny would pull her in and kiss her.
Of course, she could kiss him, and she almost does, but she doesn’t, the short space between them just as suddenly seeming insurmountable.
She sighs at her own foolishness, at the way she’s letting this distract her, turning her head away to let the bitter truth wash down.
A light brush against her pinky startles her and she swings her head back and down to see him shifting his hand to just overlap hers, pinky over pinky. They’re hardly touching, but the small, scarcely-there contact of his skin on her sends tingles throughout her body. When he starts to slowly rub his finger over hers, she feels as if she’s positively electrified, hyper-aware of every moment, every graze. She can’t be sure if it’s conscious or not–and maybe she doesn’t want to know–but it’s dizzying, both odd and comforting at the same time.
In the evening light of the bridge–no darkness of movie theater or the privacy of a bedroom–it makes Beth feel vulnerable, as a hanging knight or an exposed king.
Benny’s never been stingy with his touches exactly–clapping her on the shoulder the very first time they met, offers of firm handshakes in Las Vegas, and casual brushes of their shoulders in his apartment are all commonplace enough. But this feels different.
The other touches were casual–if lingering–but this feels deliberate in a way the others haven’t. It’s different even than how he’s touched her in bed, his hands roaming with more fervor than finesse.
This is an intimate touch. It’s intimate in a way that sex for them hasn’t been. The two times they’ve gone to bed together have been all intensity and rapture, words and coherent thought falling to the wayside. They don’t speak now, but she can feel and intuit the difference anyway. This is a different, actual intimacy, an understanding of sorts.
When she’d first decided she wanted to sleep with Benny, she’d been resolved to make sex something more, more than it had been with Tim, more than it had been with Harry. The physical part had been easy enough, Benny taking the lead in a way she wouldn’t have known how to, or necessarily cared to. But emotionally, it seems, both of them are as lost as the pieces of wood that float in the river below.
And maybe that’s the real problem. In bed, in that apartment where Beth and Benny ostensibly exist first and foremost as mentor and mentee, former U.S. Champion and current U.S. Champion, there’s an imbalance that can’t be quite overcome. Or maybe it’s not even about any roles; maybe both of them are simply too in their heads about everything they expect and have experienced thus far, too far out of their depth to bridge from chess to sex to something more.
But out here, in the open New York City air, with dozens of strangers to witness this touch but no one but themselves to care, they can let go of all of that for just a moment. They can be Beth and Benny, an unencumbered meeting of the minds.
There’s potential and promise on the horizon, but it’s still just out of reach, something she’d have to work for, and she knows time is ticking down as surely as the sun is setting.
But she can only reach so far, she realizes, just as on the board, she can only make so many moves; she can’t move Black’s pieces for them when she’s playing White.
Maybe for Benny, who is more casual and careless with his touches, this is just another pawn move, one that will be forgotten in a matter of days, if not hours. It won’t mean anything, not in the grand scheme of things, just as the past forty-eight hours hadn’t either for him. But for Beth, she knows this slight touch will play through her head again and again, in the same way their games do, as she tries to find meaning that probably isn’t there. Apophenia, indeed. Maybe she is crazy.
It terrifies her just as much as the prospect of Paris had a few weeks ago.
And so before she can settle into the warmth of the touch, before she can proffer what little she has in hopes of some dramatic queen sacrifice that she can’t expect in workman-like chess, she stops herself, shifting her hand away.
Benny looks at her, mouth slightly open, almost like he wants to say something, like he will say something that has nothing to do with chess–or maybe it has everything to do with chess because what are she and Benny without chess, anyways?
But the moment passes, Beth shaking her head, shaking herself out of her own musings, out of whatever bubble the end-of-summer September air has formed. She needs to move past this, needs to stop trying to force a move that just isn’t there.
He may have refrained this time, but he’ll start talking about strategy again soon enough anyway, and that will make it easier. It’s a good reminder to herself to tether herself to the only thing that really matters here: chess.
Chess, the ambience of it confuses her still; so intimate at times, yet so impersonal at others. Like Benny.
But she is not an unprotected pawn, and her strength has always been the attack. So she turns to him instead. “Come on,” she says, walking away so she’s unable to see his face. “It’s getting late.”
On the way back, they stop to buy popcorn from a street cart and Benny’s hands clutch the bag just a little too long when passing it to her, the brush of their fingertips still sending shocks through her. But just as quickly, she reminds herself of Benny’s lesson from long ago; it’s no use getting hung up on doubled pawns when there’s a queen exchange to be worried about.
“We should finish up the Moscow 1948 games tomorrow,” he tells her, as they’re approaching home. He hesitates before adding, “What do you think?”
She nods. “Sounds fine to me.” Then, thinking a bit more, she adds, “We ought to try to get through the Holland 1940 games as well.”
Chapter 5: (be your violent overnight rush) make you crazy over my touch
Beth goes shopping for Paris and Benny tags along.
“You’ve been to Paris.”
It’s a part question, part statement, and Beth grimaces at the awkward way it’s come out.
Benny looks up from an issue of MAD magazine–one of the only pieces of media in this apartment seemingly unrelated to chess–raising an eyebrow at her. “Yes,” he answers, staring at her quizzically.
She looks at him, chest visible under his barely-buttoned shirt, silver necklaces dangling. His current attire does nothing to alleviate her concerns about the wisdom of this conversation, concerns that grow with each passing moment. Still, she pushes on. “What did people wear there?” she asks, the words coming out in a rush.
It’s a bit embarrassing, frankly, to resort to asking Benny about fashion, but currently, he’s her only point of reference. It’s not exactly like she has friends she can call up and ask what to wear–it’s not like she has friends to call up at all.
It’s something she’s been thinking about all week. Beth leaves for Paris in five days and she desperately needs to go shopping. She wasn’t lying to Benny in the bar in Ohio; she doesn’t have the right clothes for Paris. The only problem is she’s not sure what to buy.
Of course, she regularly flips through fashion magazines, admiring the latest styles. But most of the magazines she devours are American, and she has no idea if those trends will work in Paris.
It’s just unfortunate that her only reference with actual experience in the area is Benny.
He continues to stare at her before tossing aside the magazine. “I was playing against five international masters–including Luchenko–and you think I was paying attention to what people were wearing.”
The incredulity in his voice makes Beth scold herself for even asking. But she’s already opened the gates for whatever ridicule this might earn her (which would be rich coming from someone who wears a leather duster and carries around a knife). She knows that he’s observant–his snide remarks on the subway about their fellow passengers are evidence enough. The irony isn’t lost on Beth, but she finds it charming, in a certain way.
“Well,” she says, hoping to sound nonchalant. “Cleo was there. You must have noticed something.” Beth hasn’t forgotten the memory of Cleo in the kitchen, the word mesmerized rolling off her tongue seductively.
Of course, Cleo hadn’t said that Benny was “mesmerized” back. But Beth herself had been entranced by the stylish French woman with her mysterious airs and stunning smiles. Why wouldn’t Benny be similarly enthralled by her? The thought is sharper–more bitter–than she expects, and there’s a tug in her gut. It’s one that she hasn’t experienced since Las Vegas, the unexpected arrival of Roger quickly souring the moment.
It briefly occurs to Beth that she might not actually want to know how Cleo dressed, particularly the garments Benny is probably more intimately acquainted with. But they’re already too far into the conversation now to stop it.
Benny leans forward, brow furrowed as if he’s analyzing a particularly puzzling position. “Why on Earth would I pay attention to what Cleo wears?” he asks, and the confusion at Beth’s barb appears genuine.
Because you fucked her, she thinks. Because she’s gorgeous and beguiling and all the things I’m not.
Of course, Beth can’t say any of those things aloud. It wouldn’t make her feel better if she did anyway, because she doesn’t care.
So she shrugs instead. “I just thought you might,” she says, fidgeting with the pieces on the board in front of her. “Pay attention to the fashion, that is,” she clarifies, hoping her tone comes off casual enough. Jesus, I should have just asked Cleo herself.
It would have been better that way, she thinks. She would have at least gotten some solid fashion advice from a reputable source. But something about the idea of asking Benny’s ex-lover makes her feel ill. She concentrates on adjusting the pieces on the board in front of them, centering each piece on their respective starting square.
Benny’s brow is still furrowed, creases forming in his forehead as they do when he’s thinking hard about something that she’s said, or in anticipation of her next move. In the past week, she’s also become intimately familiar with the way it furrows similarly but more intensely, as he moves above her. If she didn’t know better, she’d say it’s the look he gets when he’s intent on pouring himself into her, mind and soul. It’s confusing.
Finally, Benny speaks. “I wouldn’t know what Cleo wore in Paris because I never paid attention to her like that.” There’s something laced in his voice, something just beneath the surface that Beth can’t get at–or is maybe too afraid to. But before she can answer, it’s gone. “So I won’t be much help there,” he continues, his voice clearer and stronger, all traces of any vulnerability or hidden meaning gone.
Beth can only nod, once again disappointed at the direction of the conversation. “Well,” she says, looking down at the board again. “I’m going to go shopping today. I need clothes for Paris.”
“Okay.” He doesn’t make a fuss about training, that they still have dozens of pamphlets to get through, which is a relief to Beth. But he doesn’t say anything else, either.
“I told you in the beginning I didn’t have the right clothes.”
“I’m going to go in a bit.”
Benny shrugs, silk shirt accentuating his bony shoulders.
She’s about to let it be, go change and start to think about where exactly she’ll go, when Benny speaks.
“What, did you want me to come with you?”
Yes, the answer is on her lips before she can really think, before she can process that that was exactly where she wanted the conversation to go. But Benny’s tone is sardonic, jibing at her, not a real offer.
It’s almost mean, she thinks. The way he plays with her when he knows, he must know, how she looks at him, at the jumble of her feelings about him, even if she can’t untangle them herself. How his knowledge of her seems to extend beyond even her own comprehension sometimes.
It’s cruel and infuriating. But she can be just as caustic. “Yeah,” she says, rising to Benny’s challenge, his eyebrow quirking up as she speaks. “I thought you’d make a good bag boy.” Her tone isn’t as callously breezy as she’d like, the sharpness of it biting into her words. She resists sticking around to study his reaction, instead walking toward the bedroom to get changed.
Inside the room where she’s slept the past week, she thumbs through her clothes hung up in the closet.
Something about Benny’s casual indifference is discomfiting. There are moments–discussing Fine’s endgame strategy; bouncing ideas off of each other as easily as they sang together in the car; making caramel popcorn over the hot plate; when he’s telling her that no one has beaten him the way she did in fifteen years; or even that afternoon on the Queensboro Bridge, that she thinks they’re getting somewhere. Even if she’s not sure where or what somewhere is. But then he pulls back into the same smug pirate demeanor he wears like armor.
Her fingers land on her silky pinstripe blouse, the one she’d worn to defeat Friedman at the championship. She hasn’t worn it since, preferring to cycle through her soft and comfortable t-shirts. Adjacent is the accompanying blue pleated skirt, the perfect complement to the blueish-purple top.
And next to it hangs Benny’s green shirt, the one he’d worn in Ohio and all the way back on their trip, the buttons hanging open in a way that he never is.
She pulls out the shirt and skirt combo and begins to get dressed. Both items smell like her perfume, but also sandalwood and citrus and plain bar soap. It smells like Benny, a scent she’s become increasingly familiar with over the past few weeks, and one she’s not sure she’ll ever be able to totally wash off.
When she exits the bedroom, she heads to gather her purse, intent on enjoying the rest of her day, filling it with shopping. It’s only when she turns around toward the door that she notices Benny leaning against the railing, dressed in his hat and coat, like he’s waiting for something. Waiting for her.
“Where are you going?” Beth asks cautiously.
This earns her an eyeroll. “Where do you think?”
“I don’t know,” she says carefully, ignoring the little leap in her chest.
“Come on. Let’s get to it so it doesn’t take up the whole day,” he says, starting up the stairs.
For a moment, Beth’s feet feel glued to the floor, her eyes staring at Benny’s moving figure, unsure what to say.
As he opens the door, he looks toward her. “Come on.” His tone is something between a playful jibe and a serious chiding, tossing Beth into further confusion. “We still have to play through the Moscow ’54 games later. We don’t have all day.”
Of course, Beth thinks. Benny is nothing if not hyper-conscious of their limited time.
Once they’re outside, Benny makes a mockingly gentlemanly gesture for her to lead the way. She does, taking them to the bus stop so they can take it to Midtown. It’s a point of pride, her newfound ability to navigate the city (or at least the bus line closest to them).
On the bus, they sit opposite each other and Beth makes a point to look studiously out the window. Still, she can’t help but sneak an occasional glance at Benny. To her alarm, his gaze never seems to leave her, brow furrowed once again, staring at her like she’s some sort of puzzle that he could solve if he just had a little more time.
Time. Something that they don’t have, of course, because she’s leaving in five days. Briefly, she wonders what it would be like, if they had more. If, given enough time, she could open Benny up, just as he has done to her. If it’s even possible for Benny.
The bus ride is slow, the driver almost idling along in the summer heat. Beth doesn’t mind, in fact, she takes some satisfaction that the slowness is surely irritating Benny, who apparently is only here to make sure she doesn’t take too long.
At one point, he catches her eye, and she has no choice but to hold it. Something in his gaze makes her want to squirm, but she maintains her posture, keeps still.
“What?” she says, hoping the annoyance in her voice is evident. What she really wants to ask him though, is why do you keep staring at me like that?
Benny stares at her a moment more before finally away from her, toward the front. “Nothing,” he mumbles, uncharacteristically. She supposes he’s just grumpy at this impromptu shopping trip.
Well, he chose to come along.
When they get off the bus, she leads them on the short walk toward Saks, Benny trailing behind her. Beth smiles in satisfaction at her outfit choice, in the knowledge that this skirt fits her body particularly well.
Outside of the looming department store, he gawks before frowning. “This is where you want to shop, Harmon?”
Beth bristles at the use of her last name, as if they haven’t just spent four weeks together.
“Yes,” she answers, irritated. She turns to push through the heavy glass door but Benny interrupts her.
“Are you sure they’ll even allow me in?” he asks, his voice hesitant.
Is that what he’s worried about? In all the time she’s known Benny, she has only known him to truly hesitate twice. He’d hesitated before trading queens with her at the National Championship and then again when he’d asked her if she liked his hair. It’s much more common for Beth to hesitate. Benny walks through the world cocksure, with such certitude, confident of himself and his decisions. Of his place in the world. Of his ability. It’s something Beth both envies and despises about him.
But she says none of this to him. Instead, she rolls her eyes. “It’s Saks, not the Chanel showroom. We’ll be fine.”
She’s been inside before, a few times when she’s gone on walks to clear her head at the end of the day, Benny staying behind to shower or flip through a new foreign chess magazine or simply because he wasn’t interested in walking with her. She’d get a Hersey or Butterfinger and look in the windows, and sometimes, stop inside.
Despite Beth’s familiarity with the store, the lavish displays of vibrant clothes and bags amidst perfumed air and bright lights still steal her breath momentarily, the awe at the grandeur sneaking into her lungs and holding a place there.
Benny’s outfit draws a few eyes from some of the security people, but it’s New York and even the people at Saks have seen weirder.
With a confidence she’s become adept at assuming over the years–even if she doesn’t quite feel it–she continues to lead them to the Misses’ Department. There, she mills among the clothes, admiring the mannequins and running her fingers through rich fabrics.
Benny dutifully follows, sticking close–but not too close–by. At one point, he reaches out to check the price tag of a dress Beth had spent a minute admiring. “Sheesh, I know you won first place, Harmon, but you gotta be careful with your money.”
Beth bristles at the casual Harmon–the second time he’s used it today, each use exacerbating that distance that always lies between them–and his unsolicited financial advice. She’s not the one playing poker games for money.
His comment, along with the unpleasant reminder of Benny’s poker games, nettles at her. For the most part, she tries not to think about the poker game and all the feelings associated with that night–desire, frustration, want, irritation. They’ve both moved on from it. But if she thinks too much about it, tries to dissect it like Benny would insist she do a Borgov game, a lump forms in her throat. It’s not something she wants to dwell on right now.
“If I win in Paris,” she says coolly, “it’ll more than cover costs.”
Benny shoots her a skeptical look and Beth feels her back straighten. Is he doubting her? Even after all this training? Even though he’s still refused to play a game against her?
The look makes something rise indignantly in her, but she still feels the need to justify herself to him. “Plus,” she adds, “I’m good at saving money. I can afford this.”
It’s true. She hasn’t bought many new clothes in a while. Besides, she wants to look stylish in Paris, and all of the clothes she brought to Ohio are summery. It’ll be October when she leaves for Paris, and it’s quite cold at that time of year there, or so she hears. She told him that in the first place.
Benny opens his mouth as if to object, but then he closes it. Beth turns on her heel, not wanting to argue with him here, and goes to look at more clothes.
Eventually, she has a stack of clothes to try on draped over her arm. Benny mostly lingers around her, his fingers snapping and eyes roaming, antsy in this store where he doesn’t quite belong. Not that it seems to put him off too much. More than a few women shoot him curious glances while some of the older ones simply stick up their noses. He returns their displeased eyes and pursed lips with one of his shit-eating grins.
Internally, Beth laughs, finding it more amusing than embarrassing. Outwardly, she simply rolls her eyes at him.
Toward the end of an hour, she heads to the fitting rooms, wanting to try on a few pieces to make sure they fit. Ever since she started having money of her own, she’s always tried on clothes before purchasing. She remembers the laughter of Margaret and her group of girls ridiculing the baggy fit of her Ben Snyder’s clearance coat and the lumpiness of the Methuen uniforms. No, if she has a choice, she won’t go back to that.
On the way to the fitting rooms, they pass the lingerie selection, discreetly tucked away toward the back of the women’s apparel section.
She’s never bought lingerie; never had a reason to. She’d considered it, briefly, when Harry stayed with her. But ultimately, she hadn’t; it had felt more like something she should do, rather than something she wanted to do.
That had also been the day she’d met Margaret at the store. Margaret, with her baby and her husband that she’d married right out of high school. They’re the same age, but in that moment, Beth couldn’t imagine herself in that life.
Still, she remembers how she’d seen Margaret and her boyfriend in the library that time at school, making out. How into it both of them seemed, a flurry of teenage hormones and lust. How it’d seemed the same way for those teenagers who would make out in the abandoned lot near Methuen, hands groping, lips locked. Like they knew something she didn’t.
She’d continued to feel like she was missing out on something, some knowledge or experience she was supposed to have, even when she did have sex. With Tim, it’d been merely a matter of curiosity, and she was glad to have gotten it over with - to put the experience under her belt, so to speak. But it hadn’t even approximated anything that she’d felt just watching her peers go at it, like they couldn’t help themselves or like there might be something more than just physical touches, brushes of skin upon skin.
When Harry had kissed her and moved in, she thought it might be different. She’d thought it might be better. After all, she knew Harry, and he played chess. But it wasn’t. It had been nice to be wanted, though, even if she’d still felt there was something missing.
And then there had been the night where Benny had asked her if she still liked his hair. Her answer, at least internally, had been a resounding yes. After, when the deed was done, she’d been happy, her body singing and she’d thought that that must have been what the others felt, what it was supposed to be. When he’d started talking about the Sicilian, and then again in the morning when he’d told her about the stupid poker game, she’d realized she may have spoken too soon.
After they’d talked, after that afternoon on the Queensboro Bridge, things had gotten better. She’d felt less angry at him after his apology and his acknowledgment of that distance of his. She’d realized she kept it as well, and she supposed she couldn’t ask more of him, even if she wanted to. So she enjoyed their times in bed together, taking it for what it was, and not putting anything more on it. It was nice, but that was all, really, she told herself.
So no, she has no use for lingerie. Still, as they pass, her eyes linger on an especially pretty and lacy black set. For a moment, she imagines what she’d look like in it, how nice it might feel against her skin, how dark Benny’s eyes would become when he saw it.
But that’s no good. Her taste has always been more modest, and the black lace looks like it might actually be more scratchy in reality. And Benny probably wouldn’t care; it’s not like it’s the first lingerie set he’d be seeing, she thinks, Cleo flitting back into her mind.
Still, Beth ponders buying it, even if just to wear around her hotel room in Paris. She bets that Parisian women all have nice underthings as well.
But that seems silly. After all, clothes are for being seen, and she doesn’t have that much money to spend. No, it’s better to spend on what will actually be seen.
The fitting rooms are empty, no shop girls in sight. Beth figures they’ve probably deserted their posts on a slow Wednesday afternoon shift for an illicit cigarette break.
She doesn’t mind; she’s never been comfortable with the forced oohs and aahs of the dressing room attendants, the ever-increasing encouragements to buy a baggy dress or oversized coat.
The absence of attendants seemingly works for Benny as well, as he plops down on one of the plush sofas situated near the three panel mirror–ostensibly for mothers and girlfriends to help appraise any outfits in question.
But Beth has no mothers or girlfriends, just Benny. At the thought of parading in front of the mirrors in front of Benny, for Benny, a pit forms in her stomach, and she can’t tell whether it’s dread or desire, or some combination.
“I’ll wait out here,” Benny informs her of the obvious. She nods tightly. “But,” he adds, “I’m not carrying your bags.” The comment is seemingly good-natured, joking, but there’s an undercurrent to it that she can’t quite place.
At that, she rolls her eyes but doesn’t remark as she picks out a dressing room stall. She encloses herself within it quickly. The velvet curtain that separates the small space from the rest of the fitting room is a little too flimsy–she’d vastly prefer a solid wood divider–but, to her relief, there’s also a mirror within the room.
Carefully, she places the hangers on hooks and gets to work undressing. In her white bra and underwear, she feels plain and exposed, a white trash orphan out of place and out of her league in this designer store.
She stares at her reflection, assessing herself. Her hair isn’t quite shoulder-length, but just about, and she notes with dissatisfaction the way it still frizzes despite her attempts to pat it down. Her eyes are set just a bit too far apart, something the Apple Pis never failed to point out. Her skin is pale, especially under the bright lights of the department store, and there are enough blemishes that she makes a mental note to go to the drug store to get some cream.
Beth isn’t vain, she doesn’t think–or at least, not in the way the Apple Pis were. She knows she is not beautiful, not like Margaret with her All-American Girl looks or Cleo with her alluring French manners, or even Jolene with her gorgeous smile and assertive attitude. She knows this and has made peace with it over the years–it wouldn’t do to have people commenting on her looks as well as her gender, anyway. But still, here in this opulent department store in an elegant fitting room with posh interiors, she can’t help but feel inadequate.
Sighing, she pulls on the first dress, a simple gray number with a jewel neckline. The mannequin had paired it with a black turtleneck underneath. The wool is warm but light enough in a way that reveals the quality of the material, good for cold weather.
Studying herself in the mirror, Beth decides that this dress will do. It’s modest and functional, while also belying classic style. It looks professional, she decides. It makes her look like someone to be taken seriously; she feels like someone to be reckoned with.
She undresses and fixes the dress back on the hanger, placing it on a separate hook. It will make a nice dress to wear during the beginning of the invitational; to show the world that she means business.
Steadily, she works through the rest of the outfits, sorting what to buy and what not to on hooks–a lovely emerald green cashmere sweater lands in the ‘to purchase’ pile, a bright blue sleeveless dress among the rejects, and so on. Most of the clothing ends up in the reject pile–they’re all nice and well-made–but some don’t hang quite right on her body or some she’s not sure whether they look right for Paris. It’s alright though; she isn’t too concerned about purchasing enough clothes to last a week. She fully intends on going shopping in Paris, she just needs some outfits for the first day or two.
The single-panel mirror suffices to assess most of the clothes, but then she gets to a blouse and slacks combo and she’s not quite sure how the hem of the pants looks with the rest of the outfit, the mirror ending several inches above the floor.
Reluctantly, she draws the curtain open and steps outside toward the three panel mirrors.
There are still no shop attendants in sight, and Benny lounges on the loveseat as if it were his home–if his apartment had a couch, that is. At Beth’s entry, he looks up and sits a bit straighter, the spaced-out look in his eyes disappearing. She wonders what game he was playing through.
But that’s not the purpose of this trip. She forces herself to look away from Benny and instead marches toward the mirrors.
The view from the three-panel mirror is much better, and Beth can almost see the appeal of parading in front of it. She reviews the current outfit; the hem hits just right with the flats she’s wearing. Another serious outfit for a serious invitational. Yes, it will do.
Looking in the mirror, she can see Benny’s gaze fixed on her. His look is one of careful appraisal, but one that still doesn’t give any insight to his thoughts, his chin simply resting in his hand, elbow perched on knee as he leans forward.
He must know she can see him looking in the reflection of the mirror, but he doesn’t budge; as if staring at her is the most natural thing in the world. She catches his gaze and he doesn’t avert his eyes, he’s unembarrassed as always.
She wants to look away, to run back into the four-by-four room surrounded by clothes that lets her control who she is. But she finds she can’t, instead holding his gaze in the mirror.
Finally, after a minute–or maybe five–she releases a breath. Beth licks her lips and an infinitesimal flicker of his fingers makes her realize that he’d been holding uncharacteristically still as well.
“What do you think?” she asks, the words coming out a little staggered but hopefully calmly.
“You look like you,” Benny replies flatly, finally, looking away, toward the fitting room entrance, where still no one has come in.
Something in Beth’s gut drops, something she’d almost name as disappointment. But what would she be disappointed over? The shirt, though nice, is nothing special and the pants are plain black slacks.
You look like you. What does that even mean?
She could spend hours dissecting those four words, analyzing them until there’s nothing left but doubt and indecision and cynicism. So she doesn’t.
“Thanks,” she returns just as flatly. Benny nods, though he doesn’t relax back into his lounging pose.
She returns to the stall, the silence in the dressing room–between them–now looming uncomfortably so. Thanks. Why did she say thank you? And for what? For his non-compliment?
Since their conversation after they’d first slept together, Beth knows she shouldn’t–can’t–expect much in the way of intimacy or romance. But rationally knowing this doesn’t help to stop the rising feeling in her chest every time he looks at her like that.
Outside, she can hear him the soft sound of snapping fingers, the only noise in the otherwise empty room.
Normally, she doesn’t mind the silence, but right now it feels suffocating. “So,” she says, “you weren’t paying attention to what people were wearing in Paris?” It’s a futile, pointless question, but it helps to at least give some semblance of normalcy, as if it’s everyday she goes clothing shopping with Benny Watts and he looks at her like that, only to disappoint her again.
She can practically picture Benny shifting on the couch outside, rolling his eyes as he answers, not bothering to repeat his negative again. “Why do you keep asking?”
“What were you paying attention to?” Two can play at elusiveness, this game of queries and no answers.
“What do you think?” he responds in kind, his voice acerbic.
Of course, the answer is obvious. Benny would have been paying attention to the only thing he ever pays attention to: chess. And himself. But mainly chess.
Still, Beth pushes on. “Why were you there with Levertov and Wexler instead of Weiss?”
There’s a pause, then, “How did you know that?”
“You met Cleo then?” She stops her movements, frozen with a shirt half over her head as she realizes her blunder–a legal move, but an error she hadn’t even known could be an error before it slipped out of her mouth.
On the other side of the velvet curtain, there’s a sharp intake of breath and then, a technical surrender, but Beth can’t help but wonder if it’s really Benny claiming victory. “Yes.”
Rather than admit defeat–because she’s never been good at that, and she’s not sure this is a defeat, or even a draw–she maintains the advantage of silence.
The next dress she tries on is a sleeveless red dress made of wool crepe. The color accentuates her hair without being tacky and she feels sophisticated in it. It’s not a dress she would necessarily wear to a match; she prefers more neutral colors for those, but it’s pretty nevertheless.
She can’t quite see the full effect of the back of the dress in the single mirror, so she steps out once again to the larger fitting area.
This time, she’s careful not to spare a glance at Benny, heading straight to the mirror. But the mirror is a mirror, and she can’t help but notice Benny’s open gaze at her from the third panel. It unsettles her, and she has to quickly look away.
She doesn’t bother to ask him what he thinks about the dress, because why would she? But of course, Benny offers his opinion anyway, and this time it’s Beth’s turn to roll her eyes as he clears his throat to speak.
“You look...nice.” His words catch her off guard; whatever she was expecting from Benny, whether something cryptic or cynical, it was not this, a sincere and straightforward compliment.
It’s a small piece of praise–nothing to write home about–but another lesson she has absorbed from this time with Benny, almost unwillingly, is the importance of things others would call minor. What Beth does not know is how to react or respond in kind.
So she simply nods, tries to fight the flush that the scarlet of the dress will only emphasize, and turns back toward the dressing room.
She has to take a few seconds to brace her hand on the wall, to anchor herself, to remind herself that she only has one thing to reach for, and that is beating Borgov in Paris. Anything else is simply a distraction at this point.
Fittingly, the last dress left is a black and white geometric patterned dress that might be just a little too on the nose for a chess tournament, but she figures there’s no harm in trying it on.
Switching tactics, Beth doesn’t avoid eye contact when she emerges from the dressing room this time; Benny’s standing up, seemingly stretching, and she looks him dead on as she struts toward the mirror, daring him to say something.
The momentary silence that follows briefly tricks her into thinking she’s won (won what?) when the timber of Benny’s voice disrupts the silence once again.
“It’s a little amateur to wear a pattern like that to an invitational, don’t you think?”
Her head snaps back toward Benny, who’s still standing, now leaning lazily against the adjacent wall. “What?”
His mouth opens, surely to say something equally as snide or rude, but Beth is done.
“Nevermind,” she snaps, the venom in her voice leaves no room to mistake the words for a question. “You would know, wouldn’t you?” Just like he knows everything. “You’re obviously an expert in women’s fashion.”
He wouldn’t help her earlier, when she had asked, thinking that he might have some clue about Paris style. Of course it’s now that he chooses to give her unsolicited feedback on her wardrobe?
It’s not even that she hadn’t had the thought herself, but the gall of him to suggest it; to suggest anything she does is amateur is insulting.
She hates the implication that she could come off as less than sophisticated, less than polished, as if she’s just some little girl trying to imitate the Paris pros–be they rival players or mondaine models.
Besides, what business does he have commenting? She’s not looking for his opinion, his praise, or his approval. She’s not.
She swivels on her heel, ready to return to the dressing room, and she’s halfway there when Benny catches her arm.
His touch is light, and she could easily break away if she wanted to, just like the night he’d asked if she still liked his hair, but instead, she freezes.
They’re only an arm-length apart, close enough that Beth can see the slight heaving of his chest, the pronounced bob of his throat, the way his eyes can’t pick a focal point, darting from her eyes to her lips to the mark on her neck.
She’s sure her own breathing isn’t normal, her heartbeat drumming wildly in her ears. It would be so easy to bridge the gap between their lips right now, to kiss him and to forget and to let him break down whatever walls she thought she erected, even while his own have stayed solidly in place.
“Beth…” his words stutter off, the look in his eyes shifting from confusion to alarm before he closes them, closes off.
At that, she does break away from his gentle hold, retreating into the small room full of gorgeous clothes. She’s face to face with the mirror that doesn’t quite reach the ground, and she sees that her face is red with fury.
She distracts herself by undressing and redressing in her own clothes, smoothing her skirt down, hoping that her anger will go down as well.
“Beth.” This time, there’s no hesitation or insecurity.
This only has the effect of infuriating her more: Benny’s ability to seemingly switch emotions on and off at the drop of his goddamn Akubra.
“What?” she snarls, turning around to yank the curtain open, the rings screeching on the rod, and face Benny.
He looks at her in surprise, as if he didn’t expect her to reveal herself. But he quickly pulls himself together. His next words are mumbled, as he stares past her and instead into the mirror, meeting his own eyes. “There’s nothing going on between me and Cleo.”
“What?” What? She didn’t ask that, she doesn’t care, she can’t care. That is not what this is about. It’s about–
“Nothing is happening–or has happened–between me and Cleo,” he grits out this time.
Beth knows her eyes are even wider than usual, but her mind is racing and everything is a jumble and the only thing that doesn’t seem like it’s spinning is Benny, which is ridiculous because he’s the reason why everything is even moving. She starts, “I wasn’t–”
“Yes, you were,” Benny insists, his voice low in an entirely different way, a current of desire running through it. He states it so confidently, so surely, that Beth almost believes it for a second; okay, sure, maybe she was curious, but she didn’t ask and besides what does she care about Cleo or Benny, she resolved to herself that she wouldn’t, and so she doesn’t, she can’t and–
And then all her thoughts just stop when he kisses her. It’s a fierce kiss, one that’s all untamed desire and impulse, and it’s like Benny is pouring himself into it, like he’s the water that’s finally, finally been released from behind a dam, rushing her with the intensity of it all.
Beth’s thoughts may stop but her mouth doesn’t, kissing back, at first on instinct and then with frenzy at the overwhelmingness that is Benny.
For his part, a hand goes to rest on her hip, driving her backward into the room, his other hand pulling the curtain shut behind him.
She gasps as she feels her back hit the smooth plane of the mirror, and Benny takes the opportunity to slip his tongue into her mouth, deepening the kiss. It’s as intoxicating and overwhelming as the perfumes at the counter downstairs and Beth wishes she could bask in the feeling forever. This–their bodies and mouths together–is uncomplicated, skin on skin, pure sensation as she wraps her fingers in his hair and his grip on her hips is just tight enough and her core becomes taut from the slide of Benny’s body over hers. She doesn’t have to think when it’s like this, she can just feel, just revel in the connection with Benny.
Sex with Benny has always been good, the press of their bodies together practically effortless; it’s only gotten better since that first night. It’s everything that comes after that complicates and sours things. She just needs to hold onto this, and not fall into the trap she did the first time.
Their first time, she’d been expecting something more afterwards. But since they’d talked, she’s since let go of certain hopes and desires, realizing that they’ll only hinder her experience. Wanting more from him is a futile effort, an unwanted distraction on her mind. Now, she tries to take their time in bed for what it is: pleasurable moments lost to each other’s bodies, with the connection starting and ending there.
Of course though, there’s chess. There’s always chess between them, the other seamless bond they share.
Beth’s not sure what it says about their relationship that chess and sex seem to be the two languages they speak best with each other–if it says anything at all. If this can even be called a relationship. But to even think of that would be overthinking it, putting a name to something that Benny has made clear isn’t there.
What’s happening now is not too cerebral, as Tim would say, but the opposite. It’s Beth in her body, feeling grounded and tethered to the small dressing room, with the cool mirror at her back through her silk shirt, Benny’s hands now roaming her body, every touch of his fingers sending heat throughout her, and she feels as if every nerve in her is awake and alive–neurons and synapses firing every which way, a rush of good feeling and pleasure.
When Benny is like this, kissing her almost as if his life–or at least, his past Championship title–is on the line, it’s hard to remember that something more is not an option. It’s easy to forget, to just feel, to get lost in a fantasy of being like this with Benny always.
Benny pulls back to break for air and Beth can see that his cheeks are red, his eyes are still dark and his nostrils are still flared just the slightest–and oh, they were arguing. They were arguing, but what about? Benny’s incessant know-it-all attitude? His untimely comments on her clothing options? Cleo? Sex? Chess?
It’s always about chess, somehow.
“Black and white are perfectly fine colors.” She’s not quite sure why she says it, why she chooses this moment to stand her ground on this topic.
Benny’s own eyes are dark, his breathing unsteady as he hears her question. She feels a sick sense of satisfaction at the incredulity in his eyes, how taken aback he is by the statement; the same way she’d been by his statement after their first time. “Sure they are,” he says and leans back in to kiss her.
“And I’m not an amateur,” she tells him, before their lips meet.
“Jesus, Beth,” Benny pulls back again, runs a hand over his face, the silver of his ring glinting under the bright lights, the wrinkles in his forehead creasing as he thinks. His frustration shouldn’t look so good–again, it’s really unfair how handsome he is–but it does and the heat in Beth’s belly only rises. “I didn’t say that, of course you’re not an amateur.”
Beth nods. She should feel better at the words, but she doesn’t. She wants something more. She always wants something more.
“Beth,” he says, snapping her out of her reverie and self-fury. His voice is insistent, almost pleading, a little throaty.
She can see him struggling with what to say. It’s a rare moment for Benny, when he’s at a loss for words, but one she’s become more acquainted with in the past few weeks.
He swallows before speaking again, and for a moment, she’s afraid that he’s going to swallow anything he might say. But he doesn’t. “You’re the furthest thing from an amateur. You’re the National Champion. You’re going to Paris, to Moscow,” he says, and it can only be described as ferocious. He says it like he moves his pieces on the board; vehemently and full of conviction.
Beth tries to speak and can’t–she’s never seen Benny this passionate, not during any of their games, not in bed. His eyes are blazing, full of fervor. Still, as he steps closer, he’s cautious, as if he’s afraid she’ll–or he’ll–scare. “Beth,” he says, her name a statement, an honor, an object of admiration. “You’re the best there is. You’re going to beat him.”
“You beat me,” he says finally, and she hasn’t heard those words since the bar in Ohio. Benny’s face is stricken–as if by saying it aloud this time he’s revealed something of himself, left another piece of his open and exposed.
These aren’t dreamy words of pillowtalk praising her skin or her hair nor is it a declaration of love of any kind (at least, if the romance movies she’s seen have any say in the matter). No, these are words that could only come from Benny Watts. Benny, her friend, her mentor, her study partner. The closest person she has to an equal. And Beth has never wanted him more than right now.
In a movement that could almost be mistaken for shyness, she reaches out and hooks a finger into one of his necklaces, drawing it closer to her. As if tethered to her, by something more than the thin chain, he steps closer; her heart is possibly beating even more erratically now.
This time, she kisses him, with as much intensity as he initially showed–and soon reciprocates gladly–lets herself get caught up in this man who she can’t expect to tell her vapid comments and pretty lies, but won’t shy away from complimenting her chess skill. That’s all she ever wanted, anyway. Isn’t it?
Soon enough, Beth’s winding her arms around his neck to pull him closer and he’s drawing back slightly with a question in his eyes. She nods quickly and then he’s untucking her shirt, hands working their way under.
He doesn’t go for her breasts immediately, opting to deliciously run his hands up and down her sides, almost as if he’s warming her, warming to her, as if they have all the time in the world, as if they aren’t in a department store fitting room where anyone can walk in at any moment, as if there aren’t dozens of grandmaster games to get through still, as if he hadn’t initially protested any impromptu breaks, any detours from their training.
She curls her fingers at the nape of his neck, threading through soft strands of hair gathered there. Even in the coolness of the air conditioning, Benny’s neck is hot. Beth smiles at the knowledge that she is the reason for that, even as her own body flushes, a pulse starting between her legs.
He kisses down her neck while his hands slide up her body and under her bra, the ring on his right hand brushing against her, another rush of desire making her clench and gasp as he tweaks her nipple. Her head tilts back toward the mirror and she can see the curtain through her almost-but-not-closed eyes, and she realizes only a swath of velvet separates them from being caught, from being kicked out of this store.
But she pushes that thought out of her head–right now, she really doesn’t care. Her own hands go to settle on his shoulders as he laps at her neck, lavishes attention on her chest with his fingers, alternating between languid circles and gratifying pinches to her nipples that make her spine arch. A particularly sharp but glorious pull has her fighting back a moan and she instead opts to clutch his shoulders, gripping his coat and bunching the fabric.
The leather is soft and buttery beneath her fingertips, and by the touch–to her surprise–she can tell that it’s high quality, equivalent to what one would find in this store. In the time she’s been with Benny, in all the times she’s seen him wear the stupid trenchcoat that makes him look like a pirate, she’s never touched it; never had a real opportunity or reason to.
Beth’s never cared for the getup itself–or the affectation that seems to go along with it. At the same time, she doesn’t begrudge him it. She understands how clothes can be a shield; they have the ability to add an aura of mystery and allure where there might not be otherwise.
But to Beth, his allure doesn’t come from his clothes or even that ridiculous knife. It’s always there, even when they’re naked in bed together, even in the rare moments when she feels like she understands him completely. He captivates her in the same way she was first captivated by chess: how she noticed the board at first, then the pieces. She understands the board; the board is beautiful, an entire world of just sixty-four squares. The pieces complicate it, but it’s still beautiful to her.
Benny is both like chess and entirely unlike chess. She thinks she understands Benny, the board, the base; he loves the game, respects it in a way that she can’t quite explain but understands all the same. It’s the pieces that bewilder Beth at times; some positions making perfect sense–when he places a time control on their other activities, his stark and minimal apartment, how he’d acquiesced to her again. Other times, the pieces of Benny utterly confound her–his unabashed praise of her game, his singular focus on helping her beat Borgov even right after sex, how free he is with his touch.
His touch, which, right now, is making her skin feel hot, feverish almost, as his hands continue his ministrations and Beth feels her nipples pebbling further. They rub delightfully against her bra, but it’s not enough, she needs more friction, even as she curves her hips up to meet his.
But Benny seems intent on drawing this out, each movement deliberately tortuous, aiding in the increasing wetness between her parted legs. It’s enough to make her want to plead with him to get on with it, to fuck her senseless, until she can’t think or remember they’re in a goddamn Saks dressing room. It’s enough for her to want to relinquish control to his adept hands, if only for a few moments.
Part of the allure of the board to Beth, the beauty of chess, has always been that she can control what happens on it; she can dominate it, if she puts her mind to it. Benny’s allure is more complicated. Even as she thoroughly decimates him on the board, her chess prowess increasing with each day of workman-like chess, she’s never once been under the illusion that she can control him as if he were just some pawn. But neither is she; and for all his missteps, Benny has never acted like that toward her, either.
Instead, most of the time they’re at each other’s throats, relentlessly hounding each other on and off the board, both hoping to come out on top. But there are moments, when she beats him thoroughly or she crawls on top of him with blazing and hungry eyes, that Benny looks like he might not mind letting her take over. And there are moments, when he pulls out a book she hasn’t read and demonstrates just how to get out of a pin, or when the weight of him is heavy and just right above her, his hips just a little frenzied and his grip just a little bruising, that Beth thinks she might not mind letting go of her tightly-held control, her position on top.
Moments like now, with Benny’s lips attached to her neck, persistently sucking, and she knows he’s going to leave a mark, and she should care, but she doesn’t, and part of her likes it, the wet, sucking sound of his mouth just above her collarbone only heightening her arousal. His mouth closes and there’s just the teeniest nip of his teeth at her skin, the slightest prick of pain that she almost wishes would be just a little harder, a little rougher.
Benny pulls back, concern and a sort-of apology in his eyes as he mumbles, “You okay? This okay?”
It’s two questions at once, and she’s not sure how to answer, all she knows is that she wants more, doesn’t want to stop, doesn’t want to go back to arguing or trying on clothes or playing chess or whatever they were doing, just wants to let herself feel. So she swallows thickly, before nodding, “Yes.”
He goes to kiss her again, and this time he’s gentle, almost chastely capturing her lips with his as he moves the hand out from under her shirt to cup her cheek and his signet ring is warm where it should be cold against her cheek. It’s maddeningly tender, the kind of kiss that happens on movie screens when the hero gets the girl.
But Beth is not Katharine Hepburn or any Hollywood starlet, and she knows Benny is no romantic.
She knows Benny; would know him in the dark, would know him stripped of all affectation and pretension, would know which board was his from just three moves. She would know him anywhere and everywhere–distance be damned.
And to think of this as anything, anything more than the slide of their bodies working out some tension that just can’t be worked out over the board, would be to delude herself about Benny.
She’s been accused of delusion and madness before, the memory of a LIFE reporter and conversations of beautiful boards and faux father figures springing to mind, along her words if I get hurt, I only have myself to blame, echoing back to her now.
If she gets hurt here, with Benny, she only has herself to blame. If her hopes get dashed, she only has her expectations to blame. This isn’t bughouse, the pieces she needs won’t appear on the board out of nowhere, and she can’t will them to. She has to make do with what she’s got. And Beth can’t quite close that distance, no matter how far her pawn advances.
But what she can have, she tells herself, is this: her gripping his shoulders, drawing him closer to her, the warm flush of their bodies together, his eyes wide open as they kiss, her back to the wall.
Again, she revels in the smooth feeling of the leather under the fingertips. Briefly, she wonders about the origins of the coat; where Benny purchased it, how he decided it was a good idea, why he continues to wear it.
She’s here trying on clothes for him (no, not for him, she reminds herself) and she doesn’t even know about this seemingly essential–if somewhat superficial–part of him. It makes her want to laugh, and to cry. For all that she knows about him, there’s still so much she doesn’t know about him. Maybe she wouldn’t know him anywhere, after all.
She imagines asking him, about the coat, about the whole outfit. Her mind flashes back to a college quad in Ohio, where she’d asked him about his precious knife. His wry and dry response–one she still can’t quite figure out the meaning of in her mind, though she has her suspicions–that left her both incredulous and intrigued at the same time. A question she’d asked him while wearing this exact outfit, actually.
This outfit, which Benny’s fingers now move under, his left hand skating down her side to the hem of her skirt and reaching up, the large press of his hand against her thigh, so near her core, where she can feel she’s already wet. Without thinking, she further arches her hips toward him, toward his hand, desperate for just a little friction, a little contact.
The touch is gentle, almost featherlight as his left hand ghosts over her thigh. Beth aches at the overwhelming feeling of want as she moves her own hand from his neck to grab his hand and place it exactly where she wants–needs–it, over her clothed center.
She can practically feel him smirking into her mouth, but he follows her lead all the same, stroking light circles over and around her clit through the fabric. She keens at the new pressure, shifting her hips for more, feeling wanton and unruly with Benny’s hands on her.
Besides the control and domination she wields over the game, Beth likes that chess is predictable. She likes when things are predictable; likes when she already knows the answer. It takes the guesswork out of life, and life, she has learned, is already too unpredictable, often not for the better.
Benny is predictable in some ways: she knows when he’ll suggest a break, when he gets up in the morning, how he takes his coffee. But even as she tells herself she would know him anywhere, she also knows that a part of that is his unpredictability; even now, he surprises her.
He surprises her now as he breaks their kiss again, stepping back just a bit so that he can spin her and then they’re both facing the mirror, Benny at her back. Beth studies his reflection, their reflection, for a moment, and though their eyes don’t meet directly, his gaze is fixed on her, arresting, almost as if he can see through her. And she wonders if he would know her anywhere. She thinks about his comment the other day, about how her game has changed, the things he’s noticed about it, about her, even before she did.
But does he know that she likes the chicken potstickers best? Does he know that she likes to dance? Does he know that, for all her confidence strolling into this store, she still buys outfits off the mannequins? Does it matter, if he does?
Maybe none of it matters. Maybe she just needs to feel and to not–
Her thoughts are interrupted by a nip at the shell of her ear, Benny’s lips ghosting over it in a way that sends shivers down her tense body. At the same time, he renews the pressure over her underwear, his thumb circling over her clit as his index and middle finger trace lines up and down over her sex, which has become even more sensitive and aroused.
Their bodies aren’t quite flush but it only takes a slight shift and then Beth feels him hard at her back, his eyes seemingly entranced by the sight before them.
Objectively, there’s not much to see. They’re both fully clothed. Her bra is slightly askew and Benny’s hands are up her skirt, forming an obscene suggestion, but nothing is out on display. Nothing, except for two hickeys on Beth’s neck. One is just starting to bloom, fresh from mere minutes ago, but the other, on the right side of her neck, is older. She’d noticed it earlier, when she was trying on clothes, but hadn’t thought much about it.
The mark isn’t ugly, but it’s not attractive either, a small brown-ish reddish spot marring what she knows to be already blemished skin. But Benny’s eyes don’t seem to be cataloguing her flaws. Instead, his eyes follow hers, even in the mirror, and as they land on the spot, his eyes darken and lips part, unembarrassed and unashamed–perhaps even a little smug about it.
She has a sudden urge to cover it, to hide it, and her left hand moves on its own accord, her cheeks now blushing furiously and her mouth turning into a frown. It’s slightly tender to the touch but not at all in an uncomfortable way. Still, it’s just another reminder of her imperfection, another thing that only her skill at chess makes up for.
His hand on her cunt stills as his other hand goes to cover her own, gently prying it from her neck and intertwining their fingers. Beth lets him, watches with some wonder as he moves his head in the mirror to the other side, the side with the old hickey.
He kisses it once, lightly, and the feel of his lips against her neck is just as powerful as his fingers over her cunt. He hovers over it for a second, as if indecisive, before raising his head to press his mouth against her ear, the delicate hairs of his mustache delightfully brushing against her. His voice is strangled, as if fighting for control–the thing he’s usually in no short supply of, as he whispers against her skin, “You’re gorgeous.”
Goosebumps appear at the words as she wages war internally. She’s not sure she believes it; no one has ever called her gorgeous before. In fact, she’s been called the opposite: ugly. She knows she’s no model, knows that, by most standards, she’s plain. Still, the sound makes her core clench, something about the seductive way Benny says the words making her feel irresistibly sexy, somehow, her whole body wonderfully alert and aching at the words, at his touch.
She’s never felt like this with anyone else. Tim must have liked her body enough, but she’d hardly felt sexy, lying there under him and wondering when it would be over. Harry, she thinks, might have thought she was pretty, but she’s also fairly certain that a version of her that didn’t really exist was the girl that Harry was attracted to, a girl layered in swaths of clothing and chimera.
But here, wearing a nice but not special outfit, for just a moment, she feels gorgeous, the low sincerity of Benny’s voice shooting straight from her brain to her heart to her cunt.
Of their own accord, her thighs rub together, again trying to find some friction, practically trapping his hand. His low chuckle into her ear sends another burst of desire through her and she turns her head to capture him in another kiss.
He returns it, and this time, it’s not gentle, the passion from earlier returned. If Beth is feral for it–and she certainly feels that way–there isn’t a word to describe Benny, kissing her fast and hot and open-mouthed, as his fingers resume their stroking in steady circles.
The feeling in her stomach is wild, erratic and all she can think is that she wants more; she wants to keep feeling this way.
With Benny behind her and her neck craned to meet his face, she doesn’t have as much access to him as she likes–she wants to touch him all over, wants to run her fingers through his hair, down his body, wants to stare into his pupils full-blown directly, wants proof that she’s making him feel as delirious as she does, like her king is surrounded on all sides and somehow, somehow, she doesn’t mind.
So this time, it’s Beth who whirls around to face him, maneuvering just so to keep their hands intertwined and this time, it’s her that walks Benny backwards–or sideways, in this case–so that his back is against the wall–thankfully not the one where the clothes are hanging–as she grinds down on him, bodies pressed together. He’s hard through his jeans and the rub of the denim seam against her thin skirt elicits a low moan from her, while he groans into her mouth.
Beth takes advantage of their new position (one thing that she’s always been good at is pressing her advantage on the board), to let her hands roam freely, from Benny’s hair to his back, exploring the slight concave there, to his leather-clad shoulders again. It’s a powerful feeling, to have such access to him, and he’s letting her, just as pliant to her as she is to him.
He shuffles back slightly and she has to stifle a whine at the loss of contact, but the reason is made clear when his hand returns under her skirt, fingers toying with her once again. She wants it, wants him so very badly.
“What do you want?” Benny asks, the words coming out in a rush as he breaks apart from some air.
What does she want?
You, she almost says, and she could say it, and it probably would be just another thing said in the throes of passion. Just like the way he’s looking at her now–like he’d give her anything and everything–is just something temporary, a fleeting thing born of lust and dying with release. So she doesn’t say it; she can’t.
“More,” she says, she asks, she demands.
It’s not nearly enough, it will never be enough, but it’s something.
Deftly, he pushes aside her underwear, his fingers finally coming into direct contact with her cunt, seeking out her clit and she breathes out a sigh at the lovely pressure. He teases her, gathering the wetness that’s already formed and dragging it up toward her clit, then dipping back down to play with her folds.
Her mind is cloudy and she can’t think, god. Good. Maybe she doesn’t need to think right now.
His fingers tease her entrance, and she lets out a stifled please, and then he’s got a finger inside her, his thumb still on her clit, and he starts to circle his hand in a slow rhythm that is sending her toward the edge and fuck, how is he so good at this, Beth thinks, as she clings onto his shoulders, rocks into his hand almost shamelessly. She’s aware he’s got his eyes on her, boring into her in some way that would make her squirm, if she weren’t already writhing on just his hand.
“You’re beautiful. You’re the best goddamn chess player I’ve ever seen.”
The almost reverently said words snap her out of her lust-induced haze, back to her spinning thoughts.
Benny is not a talker in bed. Contrary to his usual candor and glibness, he doesn’t say much when they have sex. Their very first time, he hadn’t said much at all. It’s gradually increased, but still stands in stark contrast to his coaching method, as if he gives all he has–his wisdom and knowledge–during the day, and has nothing else to say when they go to bed, besides a few almost routine check-ins and affirmations. He’s certainly never said anything like this, never given her the more she’s so desperately craved.
She doesn’t know how to respond. He said it without his usual affect or pretension, just pure belief. And she wants to believe: Beth wants to believe this man with his handsome hair and genius chess skills means it. She wants to hear more, thinks she probably wouldn’t mind hearing it from his lips every day. But the thought of saying that, of even acknowledging that, twists in her stomach, a sharp knife against the edge of her arousal. But no–she’s thinking about it too much. She needs to not overthink and overanalyze it; intuition has always been her friend after all. So she doesn’t respond, just keens against him, burying her face in the leather of his jacket and breathing in that intoxicating scent of sandalwood and citrus.
He doesn’t seem to mind her lack of reply, though his body tenses for a second before relaxing and adding another finger. Beth blushes at the slick sounds the connection makes even as she cants further into his hand, clenches down, the slow drag of his fingers inside her steadily building into a frenzied tempo, working her up, all the while as the pad of his thumb teases her clit.
Her hands are in his hair now, his gorgeous hair that smells like citrus and she loves their times in bed together, if only for the fact that she can freely touch it, the strands soft and silky against her fingers, cradling the skin and skull that protects and makes Benny, well, Benny. This man who infuriates her and intrigues her all at once, and when she’s touching his hair, she wants, she wants, and she wishes she could just worm her way inside a little more, to know what he thinks, what he thinks of her, how he thinks of her.
His free hand moves from bracing against the wall toward her back, settling on the arch just above the band of her skirt, and his palm is warm even through his silk shirt. It steadies her and excites her all at once, and she leans back into the contact, body wound up.
He says it again, you’re beautiful, the best there is, this time his voice a low whisper, as if she isn’t meant to hear it. But she does, and it’s just enough, she feels herself unravelling, clenching down on Benny’s fingers. It’s sharp at first, her body going taut as she peaks, and then limp while she buries her face further in his shoulder to muffle her scream.
He holds her through it, fingers slowing down but not stopping entirely, until she’s done, leaning breathlessly and bonelessly against him. The hand at her back rubs slow circles, the touch unhurried and nice.
They stay like that for a few moments, Beth catching her breath while Benny holds her, and she is hyper-aware of his rapidly beating heart as he removes his fingers, his arm around her with one hand still on the small of her back.
Finally, she pulls back from him. His face is oddly relaxed–as if they hadn’t just wasted precious training time getting her off in a dressing room in Saks. His eyes are intense, lips parted into neither a smile nor a frown, but his forehead is uncreased, worry lines nowhere to be found.
It’s a rare sight, this almost tranquil, unguarded look on Benny. On the rare occasion that she gets up earlier than Benny, sometimes she’ll catch this look on his still-sleeping face, his skin luminous in the morning light, before he opens his eyes, somehow always aware of her.
Even now, his eyes follow her as she steps back, though the rest of him is less composed. Tufts of hair stick out at all angles where her hands have pulled, his jacket is slightly off on one shoulder, and the outline of his erection is visible through the fabric of his jeans.
But even in this ruffled state, he still looks handsome–beautiful even–the warm halogen lighting complementing his pale skin, delicate veins forming criss-cross patterns over the hands that so deftly navigate the board and her body.
His whispered words tickle at the back of her mind, you’re beautiful and you’re the best goddamn chess player I’ve ever seen and the accompanying sensation of–maybe–believing and feeling those words, even if just for a moment.
She almost brings it up–whether to ask about it, tease about it, or prod it, she doesn’t know–but then his face morphs back into it’s usual impenetrable expression and her nerve is lost once again.
“Um,” Beth says, unsure of where to go from here. She glances over his body once again, her eyes landing on his still semi-hard erection. She gestures toward it, “Do you, uh, want me to take care of that?” she asks, because she supposes it’s the least she can do.
To her surprise, Benny shakes his head. “No,” he says, before pausing. He turns away from her then, looking toward the mirror. As he turns, she catches his side profile and she can see that he now bears a matching mark on his neck. “It’ll go away in a few minutes.”
Part of her is disappointed, part of her relieved at his answer. She truly wouldn’t mind reciprocating–it might even satisfy her in another way to watch Benny fall apart in her hands or her mouth, an equaling of the captured pieces. The other part of her–the part that sighs with relief at the answer–is really just the flip side of that feeling: this detachment is familiar, puts them back on known ground. What is it she thought earlier? If I get hurt, I only have myself to blame. She knows she cannot control Benny, cannot dominate him, cannot predict him; if she tries, if she hopes for something else, it’s her own fault.
“This trip was about you, anyway,” he says, his voice deliberately blase. “For you.” His voice is low, almost a whisper.
For a brief minute, she closes her eyes and she imagines him saying it’s all about you. She imagines that it is the truth, that these past weeks have been all about her–not just her talent and building her up–but about her. She doesn’t know if it’s even possible to separate herself from her talent, if she’s anything worthwhile without it, but anything can go in this illusion, she supposes. Because it’s nothing more than wishful thinking, pure fantasy, on her part. He doesn’t say it, and, anyway, if he did, she thinks that it would also be a lie. Maybe it would be something he can tell himself to soothe his own ego, make him feel more beneficent, more giving, that he is doing this for her sake, rather than his own desire to craft a winner. Or maybe her desire for it is just some twisted reflection of her own conceit. It doesn’t matter, anyway.
If I get hurt, I have only myself to blame. She has no time to get hurt, no time to focus on anything other than beating Borgov, the only surefire way to prove her worth. It doesn’t matter how or what Benny thinks of her besides her chess skill. This–whatever this was just now–was simply an adjournment. A grudging break.
When she opens her eyes, Benny is gone, the soft swish of the velvet curtain signalling his departure. So much for being about her.
Taking a deep breath, she goes about righting her clothes and gathering the items she intends on purchasing. She spends at least two minutes staring at the red wool crepe dress, reaching for it before drawing her hand away, before finally closing her fingers around the hanger and adding it to the small pile draped over her arm.
She exits the dressing room to an anterior empty of Benny, but with a blushing shopgirl who looks down at the ground in embarrassment as Beth walks by.
Benny waits for her outside the fitting rooms, hat in hand. He looks mostly put back together–if he ever was apart, she thinks somewhat bitterly. He smiles crookedly as she comes out.
“Find everything you need?” he asks in a drawl, and his smug pirate-cowboy persona is fully back in effect, on display along with the mannequins.
He nods. “Good.” There’s a slight pause, then he asks, “When we get back, do you want to finish?”
Beth almost snaps, fine, because of course, he has to bring it back to chess again, and for a moment, she wants to slap herself for her delusions just as much as she wants to slap him.
But the words catch and replay in her brain before she responds and she realizes he hadn’t specified what they’d finish exactly. For a moment, she wonders what he means. Is this just another move in their game? Is he talking about sex? Chess? Does it matter?
What’s more important, she realizes, is that he asked her. Not told her. Asked her if she wanted to finish–like the true equals they are.
She swallows, not allowing herself to think about it too much before responding, “Yeah.” It doesn’t matter, she decides. Maybe it never mattered–maybe chess and sex are indistinguishable, at least for them. She turns to head toward the escalators. “Let’s finish it off.”
I have no idea how this got so long. Hope you liked the smut and all credit to youhandsomedevil for the prompt "Benny is the king of hand stuff"
Chapter 6: so i fall, into continents and cars
Beth leaves for Paris.
The night before Beth leaves for Paris, they go to bed early. She really should get some sleep; traveling can be tiring after all. But they’re not in bed for more than a few minutes before Benny’s reaching for her and she’s reaching for him.
At first, it’s all slow kisses and soft touches, neither seemingly ready for an end of any type, but as the night progresses, their touches turn more frantic, their kisses and touches marking each other in the rush. It goes all too fast anyway. The whole thing lasts a few hours, despite (or perhaps because of) Beth’s travel plans tomorrow.
After it’s all over, they lay there in silence. She can already feel that she’s going to be sore in the morning, the copious attention from Benny’s mouth and hands scattered across her body. For her part, she’s fairly certain there’s a trail of light scratches on his back from where she dug in.
It stretches between them, eerie and uncanny. True, Benny isn’t much of a talker in bed, but the quiet between them has never been so disquieting.
Neither brings up chess, or Paris, or Borgov. Beth lies on her back, watching him out of the corner of her eye, watches as his breathing settles into a steady, slow rhythm.
She expects him to bring up one of the topics any moment. He doesn’t, though he opens his mouth at one point as if to speak, but closes it before a sound can come out.
Finally, Benny flips over onto his side, facing her. “You should come back,” he says, his voice carefully neutral.
Come back? What does he mean by that? She hasn’t left, not yet. She turns the words over in her mind once more, before deciding that if she wants to know, she should just ask. It’s no use thinking up answers for him.
He clears his throat. “You should come back. After Remy-Vallon, come back to New York.”
He’s asking you to come back. He wants you to come back, she allows herself to think, allows herself to infer. Something in her chest twists at the thought. For a moment, she lets herself imagine it, coming back after Paris, after defeating Borgov, after winning. More workman-like chess, yes, but also more Chinese takeout dinners, more movie theater trips to beat the heat, more caramel corn, more walks over the Queensboro Bridge, more department store trips. More Benny.
Come back to New York, he’d said. Not come back here, to this apartment with the air mattress but also the bed we now both sleep in. Not come back to me, and the thing in her chest twists further, and this time it’s a pang rather than twinge.
She can’t pretend that the idea of coming back to New York isn’t appealing. She loves the hustle and bustle of the busy streets, the anonymity and non-prodding neighbors. She likes the variety in food, in people. She likes the nice department stores and the niche little neighborhoods. It would be nice to come back to.
Besides, she’s mulling over semantics and she’s never cared for word-play. It doesn’t matter whether Benny said come back to New York or come back here or come back to me. It doesn’t. It all means the same.
Come back to New York, after she beats Borgov.
She’s put in so much work since she played him in Mexico, in these past few weeks. She can’t imagine not beating him. She can and will beat him. She won’t entertain the thought of another outcome.
She shakes her head slightly, at herself, but she doesn’t clarify when he fixes her with a questioning look.
“To train for Moscow,” he adds, the creases in his brow growing, his face starting to look like it does when he’s only a few moves from being checkmated. “It’s a bit of time away but four Soviet chess players is a lot.” She catches her own words repeated back to her, but her mind is too busy whirling to comment. It’s almost like a last minute surprise mate with a knight and rook. Just the type of move she delights in and the type that he’d lecture about not being able to rely on. But no, that’s her, not Benny. He is methodical, diligent, as committed to workman-like and grandmaster chess as anyone. He’s been thinking about this for a while, even if he’s just asking now, she decides.
He wants her to come back. To train for Moscow. With him.
Moscow is practically a year away.
She has a house in Lexington that she should be taking care of, but the house won’t fall down in her absence. It will still be there whenever she decides to go back. She hasn’t been gone that long, anyway. It’ll be just over seven weeks, once Paris ends. It can stand a few more. Many more, even.
She remembers when she told Harry he could stay with her. How she hadn’t really considered, in the moment, that she was basically asking a man to move in with her. She wonders now if Benny really has thought this through, or if he’s simply thinking about the best way to prepare her to beat four Soviet chess players, to claim some glory for American chess.
“Moscow is a long time away,” Beth echoes. She’s still lying on her back, eyes shifted sideways to watch Benny.
He’s mentioned that he wants to be her second in Moscow, but they haven’t talked about it too much. Going to Moscow will cost a lot, and she’s not sure where she’d get the money for both of them. Still, in the times she has thought about it, she hadn’t considered–hasn’t let herself consider–that it would mean being with Benny until then. It’s tempting and unnerving all at once.
His shrug confirms that he hasn’t thought too far into the future. About what will happen in five weeks, in a few months, in half a year, if she comes back. Can they really study together that long? What else will they do? Benny will still need to make the rent, go to poker games. She’ll have to at least check on the house eventually, settle some papers her lawyer mentioned on the phone a few weeks ago. Beth knows there’s more grandmaster chess than they can ever get through in a lifetime, but still, at some point, it has to be enough? Even Benny once admitted he got tired of it, sometimes.
“You haven’t packed your bags yet,” he remarks.
“I know,” she says, suddenly defensive. “I was waiting so I could pack everything at once.” The truth, really. She hadn’t wanted to pack everything today, only to have to add her nightclothes and today’s laundry and her toiletries in the morning.
It occurs to her that he probably thinks it will go on like it has: them playing chess out of the books, maybe playing a game or two of their own until he gets tired of being beat, sleeping together, going on as they have.
Does she want that?
It’s silent for a moment again, until the sound of soft snapping breaks it, Benny’s fingers moving almost of their own accord.
She’s gotten used to it, the near constant movements of his fingers. She doesn’t mind, the smooth rhythm of his fidgeting becoming just another thing in the background of her daily life. But now, the noise comforts her, blending in in an odd way with sirens and car horns and yelling pedestrians outside, and she realizes she’ll miss all these sounds.
And will she miss Benny?
She’s not sure how she feels about Benny, her brain and her heart and her stomach all turning into a frenzied, twisted knot when she tries to think about it too much.
She’s–she’s fond of him. Yes, that sounds right. She’s fond of him.
She only mindly dislikes his persistent questions and his sometimes overbearing know-it-all attitude. She doesn’t mind the near-constant snapping of his fingers or his tightly regimented training schedules that sometimes get derailed anyway. She likes playing against him and having sex with him. Yes, she’s fond of him.
And if she comes back, once she wins against Borgov, there will be no question that she’s not coming back as his trainee or mentee. No, if she comes back, she’ll come back as his equal, the two top American chess players studying together.
Finally, she turns to her side to face him. “Okay,” she says, only a little shakily.
“Okay?” The questioning tone of his voice brings back the clenched feeling in her chest but she pushes it aside once again.
“I’ll come back,” she says. He smiles then and it makes her heart pound and she feels a little lightheaded and she wants to say something more. Instead, she gives a weak smile back and turns over and away from him, hoping that he’ll take any redness in her face to be just another part of the afterglow.
“To train for Moscow,” she adds, all in a rush, before adding, “Goodnight.”
“Goodnight,” he says, reaching over and around her to turn off the light, and she just catches a smile on his face before it goes dark.
In the morning when she wakes, Benny is already up, as usual. She feels a brief sting of disappointment; she’d have liked to wake up before him, to commit to memory the relaxed features of his face, the steady rhythm of his bare chest, the way the morning light catches the golden strands of his hair. Her disappointment abates slightly when she remembers that she’ll be coming back in a week.
He’s already waiting with coffee when she exits the bedroom. He hands her a cup wordlessly and she nods in thanks, words seeming superfluous. After downing it quickly, she gets dressed and goes to pack her things.
She knows she should have packed earlier, last night, or even before that. But she’s put it off until the very last minute, as if it would somehow make her departure less real, or less imminent, at the very least. She’s not sure exactly why; yes, she’s nervous about Paris, but she’s also excited. But her flight doesn’t leave until the evening, so she has time.
She only has the one suitcase–the one that used to be Alma’s–with her and she can’t possibly fit all of the clothes she brought to Ohio, plus the new dresses she brought in New York.
She tries, anyway, arranging and rearranging the clothes in hopes she can make them fit. Benny watches her amusedly from his seat at the table, as she fiddles with the suitcase, trying to get it to close.
Finally, just as she’s sitting on the case to try to smush it down, he speaks. “You can leave some clothes here,” he tells her, looking into his coffee mug. “If you want.”
“Yeah,” he says, with a shrug. “You’re coming back in a week anyway.” He says the last part hesitantly, almost as if he thinks she might have changed her mind in the past eight hours. She nods to confirm she hasn’t.
Any hint of concern is gone with his next words. “You can figure out how to stuff all your shit in a suitcase later.” He gives her a smug grin, all carelessness and arrogance, as if that will somehow get a rise out of her.
Beth feels something else rise in her throat instead, and it is–surprisingly–not irritation (or at least, not all annoyance). But whatever it is, she swallows it down and nods at him. “Thanks.”
Carefully, she picks out a few items of clothing to leave behind–some of her more casual clothes, ones she won’t need in Paris. A casual tee, her pleated skirt, her red jacket. She bought a new pink and white coat to wear on the plane and in Paris, anyway, one that’s much more fashionable. She leaves out a bulky brownish-yellowish cardigan that takes up far too much room. It’ll be cold in Paris, but she’ll buy a new sweater there. She makes sure her little gold case containing the Xanzolam is in its special compartment. She hasn’t needed them at all during her time in New York, but it doesn’t hurt to take them with her. Paris will be different, after all.
She’ll probably need to buy another suitcase in Paris–she plans to do a lot of shopping, but she’ll deal with that later. Right now, she just needs to make enough room to fit the few outfits she plans to bring to Paris.
Benny watches her all the while, silently sipping his coffee. At last, she’s made just enough room to fit everything. She goes to the sink to pack up her toiletries, deciding she’ll take a shower when she gets to the hotel later tonight; she’s looking forward to a luxurious bath in a nice tub.
As she’s gathering her toothbrush and paste, she looks into the cracked but still-serviceable mirror. On either side of her neck, just above both sides of her collarbone, are fading hickeys, the slight reddish-purplish only barely visible against her skin. Still, they’re noticeable enough and won’t fade for another couple of days. She’ll have to wear high-necked tops until then, at least.
Beth was right last night, as well. From getting dressed this morning, she knows a few new hickeys are forming along other parts of her body, along with a couple of fingerprint bruises from where he clutched her hip last night. Benny’s own neck and chest sports three blooming hickeys, hyper visible due to the robe he doesn’t bother tying. In the dirty mirror, she can just see that his body angled toward her, though she can’t quite make out what he’s looking at.
After, she takes the clothes she’s decided to leave here and goes to hang them in the closet. There’s much more space now that not all of her things are hanging up. She carefully places each item on a hanger, making sure to straighten each article, align each hanger exactly, as if centering the pieces on a chessboard.
Her clothes will definitely smell like Benny’s sandalwood, citrus, and bar soap blend when she gets back, but she doesn’t mind. She wonders if she can find a nice new perfume in France.
As she puts away the last piece of clothing, a hanger shoved toward the end of the closet catches her eye. Strips of silk dangle from the bare wire. Her headscarves. She reaches for the hanger, pulling it out to examine it. The scarves hardly take up any room; she could pack them. But she’s already shut her suitcase and despite her leaving some clothing behind, it’s still bursting at the seams. No, she doesn’t want to open it again. She could stuff them in her purse, that would be easy enough.
But what use will she have for them in Paris? Her hair has grown since she left for Ohio and she can now sport what she thinks is a fairly sophisticated cut, ends curled just above her shoulders. She doesn’t need to bring them with her. Paris will bring a chance to beat Borgov, and maybe, along with it, a chance for a new, more fashionable and elegant Beth.
Besides, they’ll be here in a week, anyway. She’s coming back.
So she carefully places the hanger back in the closet and shuts the door.
The rest of the day passes too slowly and too quickly, the creeping feeling of the appointed departure hour sneaking up on them.
Around lunchtime, Beth changes her mind and takes a shower anyway. It’ll be late when her flight gets in, and she’ll probably be tired. She’ll have to change back into the clothes she put on this morning, but it doesn’t bother her. It’ll be nice to be fresh on the plane.
She hears the front door close as she’s in the shower but doesn’t think much of it, supposes Benny went out for cigarettes. Just as she’s finished getting re-dressed, he comes back, bag of takeout food in hand.
“Lunch?” she asks.
He nods, heading to the chrome table and emptying the contents. Smells of ginger and sesame and just a hint of grease flood the apartment. Beth approaches as he fusses with the utensils before holding out a pair of chopsticks to her. She takes them and sits down at the table, going to open the paper takeout containers he’d placed on her side. The first container greets her with the mouth-watering sight of sesame chicken. She goes to open the second container, expecting rice or lo mein, but instead finds chicken potstickers.
She swallows and looks at Benny, who’s digging into his food with a fork (he gave up trying to use chopsticks in front of her the very first week). He doesn’t say anything, so she doesn’t either, lets it go. She does savor every bite of the potstickers, the knowledge that she’ll be able to get them again in a week, not making them any less delicious.
Once they’ve had a few bites, she brings up the question of the Sicilian, a question they’ve been hotly debating ever since three weeks ago. They fall into a mostly easygoing, if topically difficult, conversation. There are a few times voices tense and tighten and Beth wonders if this will all end with an argument, after all. It doesn’t though, and he even offers her the extra fortune cookie in the bag, hand outstretched.
Her first one had been a dud, missing the little slips of paper that she’s come to enjoy reading, if only for entertainment. She’s tempted to open this one, if just to have something to do with her hands. But she’s already fairly full, she shouldn’t eat more–she probably shouldn’t have eaten as much as she did, since she’ll be flying in a few hours anyway. But she doesn’t want to leave it here either. So she tucks it into her purse, for the flight, or maybe even when she gets to Paris.
Soon after lunch, it’s time to head to the airport. Beth gives the apartment a once-over, like Alma used to do before they’d leave to or from a tournament, making sure they hadn’t forgotten anything. It feels a little odd to be doing it at Benny’s place, but what’s even more strange is that it only feels a little weird.
Once she’s satisfied she has everything she needs–for the week, anyway–she heads toward the door, stopping to put on her new pink and white coat. She turns to pick up her suitcase, only to find him standing behind her, her suitcase in hand. She assumes that he’s only picked it up for her–eager to get out the door–and so she goes to take it from him but he pulls back.
“I got it,” he says, casually. And it is a casual thing, she supposes. She’s seen men at hotels carry women’s bags and suitcases all the time. But, well, she didn’t think Benny was the type to do so. She’d hauled her own suitcase from the Ohio dorms to his car and then out again when they’d arrived in New York. True to his word, too, he’d made her carry her many bags back from Saks. She didn’t mind, didn’t expect anything different from him really.
Five weeks ago, she might have thought about the gesture for as long as she’d thought about Townes’ nice smile–not too long, that is, but longer than she gives most non-chess-related things. She would have tried to make more out of it than there was, just like she’d wanted with sex. Now, she just nods and bounds up the stairs to open the door, reminding herself to focus on the important task ahead of her.
She was confident of her ability to beat Borgov last night; still is fairly confident, but as she gets closer and closer to Paris, and it sinks in that the rematch she’s been waiting for will happen in just under a week, a sneaking feeling of doubt creeps up on her. She almost brings it up with Benny, hoping that he might be able to soothe any doubts of hers, work her confidence up again in a way only he has, but she refrains. He might know how it feels to lose to Borgov, but she’s not sure he knows how she feels, knows about the cowed feeling she gets when Borgov enters the room, when she’d sat down to play him. She’s not sure that Benny’s ever been afraid of anything in his life.
When they get to the car, he clears off the slew of parking tickets that have built up since he last drove it and goes to put her suitcase in the trunk. Beth climbs in and looks out the window at the street. Although it’s afternoon, it’s not too busy, a few pedestrians here and there. She can see Benny’s apartment building down the street. She thinks she could find it fairly easily now from anywhere in the city, as long as she was near a bus line or subway.
She checks her purse again, makes sure she has her passport and wallet. She still has a decent amount in traveler’s checks and she’ll bring home more from Paris. She’ll have to arrange her plane ticket back at the airport there; even when she’d had the vague idea that she’d be going back to Lexington (though she realizes now, she hadn’t thought much about it, had been so focused on Paris up until last night, she hadn’t really thought about what she would do after), she hadn’t bought a plane ticket back. She’d only bought her plane ticket to Paris a few weeks ago, after all. Ever since Mexico, she doesn’t like doing things too far in advance. Maybe that’s why she’s been putting off thinking about what comes after Paris.
Benny climbs in the car, plays with the gear shift, and then they’re off toward Kennedy Airport.
It’s quiet for a while, the city sounds that bleed through even the closed windows preventing them from falling into a complete silence. But Benny makes no effort to add anything. Beth is glad for it; she does not want to talk. He seems to understand, and she is grateful for it. It feels like one of those moments where she is with no one at all.
But eventually, she ends up reaching for the radio, fiddling with the knobs to find a good station. She lands on one that seems to play mostly music released within the past five years; music that she knows.
The announcer gives a brief weather report and then introduces the Kinks’ new single. It’s catchy enough, but the melody isn’t what catches her attention, it’s the name: “David Watts.” She smiles, even though she knows the surname is common enough. She’s reminded of the arthouse film they never did go see, “Watts on Eggs.” Maybe it’ll still be playing when she gets back. She should make a list of things she wants to do when she gets back–have Benny make one as well.
They don’t talk, and Beth keeps her eyes ahead of her and assumes that Benny does too, but at one point, she finds herself singing along to the radio. She doesn’t realize she’s doing it until Benny’s voice joins hers in harmony–or at least, what she thinks is harmony; she never did pay much attention to Ms. Lonsdale’s classes, preferring to sneak down to the basement or study Modern Chess Openings under the table. But that’s what got her here and she doesn’t regret it.
Benny’s voice is surprisingly calming and she realizes with a start that she’ll miss it in Paris, even if it’s just for one week. She thought she wouldn’t at all–she does get rather annoyed with his lectures at times. It would be nice to be able to call him from Paris, but international connections are prohibitively expensive. Besides, it’s just one week, she reminds herself. No time at all. And she’ll be so busy playing and preparing for games that she won’t have time. In her spare time, she plans to shop and to see Paris, anyway.
And while it might be nice to hear his voice, to talk to him, she’s not sure how helpful he would be. He’s been very helpful with all the workman-like chess and studying, but she’s more than in her element during a tournament. The Soviets have many virtues, but she’s not convinced that playing as a team is any particular strength. She’ll need to focus.
Finally, they arrive at Kennedy Airport and Benny navigates the many lanes to Air France. He pulls into a no-parking zone, idling the car. This time, Beth grabs her own suitcase, fighting off her disappointment that he won’t be able to really see her off.
“He’s not impossible,” he tells her through the open window as he hands her her purse. “You can beat him.”
She wonders if this is more of Benny’s unsolicited words of wisdom, or if he somehow picked up on her growing nervousness. She’s not quite sure whether it’s because she’s easy to read or it’s just easy for Benny to read her.
It probably doesn’t matter at this point. There’s no use faking bravado or projecting false confidence in front of him now. So Beth responds with a simple, “We’ll see.” She doesn’t want to get into this conversation right outside of the terminal. Beating the World Champion, they both know well enough, will be no easy feat.
Beating Borgov won’t be easy, but if she ever stood a chance, it’ll be in Paris. She hadn’t been prepared at all in Mexico; she probably wouldn’t have been ready right after the National Championship, even. She’ll admit that she was skeptical when Benny first offered to train her–she hadn’t been sure she’d stay more than a few days with him–but she realizes now that he’s given her the best chance to beat Borgov.
No, not chance, she reminds herself. She does not believe in fortune and luck. She will earn her win. All those afternoons of studying grandmaster chess will pay off. If they don’t, what was the point of the past five weeks? They have to.
“Thanks for the help,” she says honestly. Even if she’s moved past him now–she’s not sure he has much, if anything, left to teach her–she’s grateful.
She wants to say more; to thank him not only for the help, but for letting her stay with him, for the ride, for making her realize she’s good enough to beat Borgov. And she is. She is.
But the words die on her lips, drowned out with the sound of takeoffs, swallowed back down in a thick lump in her throat, settling clunkily in her stomach, the start of a growing ache she’s not sure how she’ll get rid of.
I’m coming back, she tells herself. It doesn’t make sense to thank him now. There will be plenty of time for that later; she needs to narrow her focus to the world of sixty-four squares.
But where does Benny belong, if not that world?
Again, she has to remind herself that such thoughts are for fortune cookies and philosophers and romantic movies. But not her. She is a chess player.
She is a chess player and she has a game against Vasily Borgov to win and then she will come back and study with Benny Watts for Moscow.
For his part, he’s as casually cool as ever, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel and ignoring the honking cars behind him. “See you next week,” he tells her with a smile, any earlier hesitation about her plans gone.
She nods. There’s nothing more to say, really. She smiles and prepares to leave, taking one last look at him. Involuntarily, she commits his face to memory–the rare genuine smile, the hair that falls into his eyes, his lips that always seem to be just slightly open.
For a moment, she wants to lean in the window and kiss him.
Beth imagines doing it, imagines leaning in to kiss him before she goes, his hand reaching up to cradle her face, brushing aside her hair.
She almost does; there’s nothing stopping her; Benny wouldn’t do anything much, besides drive away, like he was always going to.
No, this is not the time for something more.
So she does what she was always going to do; she restrains herself, stepping back from the window.
“See you then,” she tells him.
Finally, Beth turns, looking toward the airport doors that will lead her to Paris. She’s going to Paris, to play in Remy-Vallon and she’s going to win. She’s going to win against Borgov. She will. And then she’ll come back to New York and its chicken potstickers and beautiful bridges and Benny. They’ll train for Moscow and this time, they’ll be equals.
As she walks away, she almost turns around again–wants to–but doesn’t. She’ll have plenty of time when she gets back, she decides. After all, this is just an adjournment.
well, i hope you enjoyed this "missing moments" series that is longer than any missing moments fic has a right to be, but we're here anyway
also, since I am trying to not clog up the tags talking to myself: someone please stop me from finding things with "Watts" in the name. It's not that funny but I keep adding them into these fics
Again, huge thanks to the amazing HumiliatedRook, fourteenlines, and paperclipbitch for beta-ing this monster