December 27, 1968
“What do you say, will you come?”
Beth looked up at the ceiling and sighed. As if looking at the ceiling could provide advice to non-chess problems too. “I’m not too sure he wants me there.”
“He does, Beth. He’s too proud to say it, but he would love to see you.”
“Oh, are you know a Benny Watts expert?” Beth said with a laugh and continued when she didn’t get a response: “Look, I appreciate the invitation, Harry. And it’s nice that Benny’s organizing a New Year’s party, but I just don’t feel like it”
“Listen now, I’m not saying you have to come early or stick around the whole time, but it is going to be the first time we’ll all be together since your match with Borgov. I just think you should be there too.”
She rubbed her temple with her free hand and let the words sink in. The worst thing was that she didn’t disagree with what he was saying. “Ugh… fine. I’ll see if I can stop by.”
“Great, can’t wait to see you there.”
She held the phone by her ear for a moment after the call ended.
December 31, 1968
Beth landed in New York that morning. She managed to get a nice room in one of her favorite hotels. She only had one suitcase with her, as she didn’t plan on staying for a long time.
She spent the day walking around Manhattan, window-shopping, shopping, and eventually, she found herself playing chess with strangers in Central Park. Not to mention she signed a lot of newspapers and magazines with her face on the covers. It was nice, but it didn’t chase away her feelings of anxiety.
She wanted to go to Benny’s party. She wanted to see him. All that time her mind was haunted by negative thoughts like he only did so Americans could beat Russians, he doesn’t ever want to see her, Harry was making things up.
The sun set a little too soon to her taste. The streets were emptier than during the day, so around 7 pm, she decided to head back to her hotel. When she returned, she picked out a dress to wear and lay it on the bed.
Then she grabbed a book and a chess set from her suitcase. It was a book she got in Russia and she couldn’t wait to get into it. She actually had another book with her. That one was meant to be a thank you gift for a certain blonde cowboy. In a moment of bliss after winning she thought that she would give it to him and he would smile and say thank you and all will be good. She quickly came down from that high, but she still wanted to give it to him.
She couldn’t focus on chess that afternoon. Waiting for midnight was the worst part of it all. She tried to kill the time by watching mindless television and listening to the radio.
At 10 pm, she started getting ready. Nothing too flashy, he just put on the dress she had picked out and brushed her hair. She didn’t know why she picked the dress she wore at her mom’s funeral.
It was around 10:30 when she left her hotel room. The plan was simple. She would get there, wish everyone a happy new year, maybe have a little chat with Benny to give him the book, and then she would go on her merry way. The whole walk to Benny’s apartment she repeated it in her head.
When she finally reached the place, she wasn’t too sure. She stood outside and contemplated her whole journey. I could still go back and no one would know . The cold was getting to her and she didn’t feel like walking back to her hotel. It was probably freezing.
She went in. Slowly she walked down the stairs and stood in front of the door. Sounds of cheers and chatter could be heard from the other side.
Her hands were already buried deep in her pockets but she wondered if she could get them any deeper. She had to knock. On the other hand, if she knocked and no one heard it, she would most likely feel like an idiot. If she didn’t knock, no one would know she was there and she would spend all night standing there. In the sketchy staircase lined with trash bags
She huffed and pulled her right hand out of her pocket. It was so deep in that her coat sleeve was a little crumbled. In one swift motion, she raised the hand to knock on the door. Fuck it, I have nothing to lose.
She thought that maybe no one heard the knock. She got ready to do it the second time. Then the door swung open.
The familiar blonde curls came into view and brown eyes and she thought she would melt.
“Hi,” she spoke weakly.
“Hi, there, champion.” He spoke lighter than she thought he would.
“I… Uhm.” She cleared her throat. “Harry told me you were having a soirée?”
“Huh, that’s a nice way to put it. It’s a full-blown party at this point.” He turned around to look inside. “Would you like to come in?”
“I was hoping that we could talk? I feel like we should talk.”
There was a quiet pause and then Benny closed the door behind him, not closing it completely.
“We probably should.”
“I’m sorry.” Beth started.
“I’m sorry too.”
Beth looked at him like he was crazy. “What are you apologizing for?”
“I was an asshole.” He said with a strange sense of pride. It didn’t sound like he was proud of his behavior, more like he was extremely aware of it. “When we called before your trip to Russia, I was mean and immature and I said some things I didn’t mean.”
“I am sorry that I pushed you away when you were only trying to help. And you were right, I was an asshole. To you, Harry and everyone else, basically.” She leaned her back against the wall and looked at her shoes for a moment. “I didn’t think you’d ever want to speak with me again until you helped me in Russia.”
“Oh, come here.” Benny stepped closer and wrapped one arm around Beth, giving her a short one-sided hug. “Now, do you want to come in? Midnight is closer than you think.”
Beth checked her watch and he was right, it was almost 11:30.
“I’d like to.” She almost walked in when she remembered something.
“I actually brought you something. A thank you gift.”
Beth got the book out of her bag and showed it to Benny. “I got it in Russia and I figured you might want to put it to good use.”
He flickered through the book and raised an eyebrow. “Beth, I know that you beat Borgov and you absolutely should feel free to boast about it. At least, I endorse it. But I have to ask, are you telling me that I’m bad?” He asked with a serious face that he couldn’t keep up for long.
“What? No!” She laughed and jokingly reached for the book. “If you don’t want to get better, I will happily take it.”
“No, hey, I never said that. I’m honored that you got me this book and I will cherish it, I promise you that.”
“I’m glad to hear that.”
“Would you like to come in and meet everyone?”
Beth nodded and Benny let her enter. She looked around. There were quite a lot of people, not too many though. There were some that she didn’t know. She could see some beer bottles, not like she was interested. Benny’s table that they used to play on was pushed to a corner and every surface was cluttered with snacks and drinks. She even noticed a chessboard somewhere that looked like someone played on it recently.
“It’s Beth!” She heard a familiar voice and looked where it came from. She found her boys sitting in a circle, Harry, Hilton, Arthur, Mike, Matt, and Townes. Beth went over to the group and Benny showed up a few moments later with two glasses. He handed one to her and she learned that it had water in it. The other one had most likely apple juice in it.
“Hey, Watts,” Arthur spoke loudly. “Why are you always drinking piss?”
Beth snorted and looked over at Benny, who just rolled his eyes. She got the impression that it wasn’t the first time he heard that joke.
“I don’t know and why are you drinking piss, Levertov?” Benny pointed to Arthur’s beer bottle and took a sip of his drink.
They talked and talked and lost track of time. Beth received a lot of congratulations for her win and told everyone how she won her matches in Moscow. They all seemed to be hanging to her every word. Even Beth was surprised that she would enjoy talking about it so much, considering how many interviews she had done since she got back to the States. While all reporters were very bureaucratic and formal in their questions but talking like this was fun. She longed to tell someone about it how she felt it.
“Five minutes until midnight!” Someone yelled out. Everyone stood up to refill their drinks. Someone got a bottle of champagne. Beth noticed that some people seemed to pair up.
“Arthur and Hilton have girlfriends now. I couldn’t believe it either.” Benny stood next to her. “What would you like for your midnight toast?”
She snickered. “No alcohol for me, that’s for sure.”
“No, I knew that. We have water, juice, tonic.”
“I’m feeling celebratory, I think I’ll have apple juice.”
“Ah, great choice.” Two minutes later Beth was handed a glass of juice.
“Oh, fancy.” She held the glass in her hands. They still had about two minutes left.
Beth noticed that a lot of people were coupling up.
“Did everyone here get into a relationship while I was gone?”
Benny shrugged.”Not everyone, I didn’t and there are more single people here.”
Beth put a strand of her behind her ear. “Midnight kiss is going to be awkward, that’s all I’m saying.”
“I guess.” Benny looked around. “Do you want to do something?” He leaned towards her while still looking at the crowd.
“Are you asking me if I want to kiss you?”
“Do you want to kiss me?”
The question stopped Beth in her tracks. Of course, she wanted to kiss him, how dare he ask such a stupid question?
Benny must have taken her sudden silence as rejection. “That’s fine, we can just have our drinks.”
The countdown started. And when it ended, loud cheers roared through the room. Out of nowhere, Beth pulled Benny to her and put her lips on his. He didn’t expect it and before he could react, it was done. It was a very soft and fast kiss.
“Happy new year,” Beth spoke and took a sip of her juice. She walked over to the group in the middle of Benny’s apartment.
“Happy new year,” Benny said to himself and joined the crowd.
Once the congratulations toned down a little, everyone settled into a comfortable chatter. Beth was sitting alone in a corner, half-dozing off and half-munching in peanuts. She was alone until Benny joined her.
“You know, you’re a terrible host, you should pay attention to your guests,” Beth said when she noticed him.
“What do you mean? That’s exactly what I’m doing.”
Benny smirked and Beth groaned.
“I’m serious. I don’t care about half of these people half as much as I care about you.”
“Even if I treated you so badly?”
“Hey. You were… having a bad time. Harry let me in on some of it. Don’t worry, just the basics, but it was enough to paint the picture and make me feel like a dick. If that makes you happy.”
Beth smiled tightly. “I should have called after I won. You were probably waiting for a response and I left you hanging for weeks.”
“Don’t worry about it. You’re here now and we’re happy to have you. I am happy to have you here. Your mess and all.”
“What can I say, I am a piece of work”
“The question is if you want to make it work.” Benny fell silent for a moment. “With me?”
“I do.” Beth agreed without hesitation and Benny took her hand in his.
“I’m going to make you proud.” She spoke suddenly.
Benny chuckled. “I already am proud of you.”
“No, I mean, I’m going to get myself together and become the world champion one day kind of proud.”
“Okay, I’m going to be your biggest fan.”
The clock on Beth’s wrist was ticking away and eventually, people began to leave. Beth thought that the party would last all night and Benny did too, but the people seemed to have other plans. Around 3 am, it was just the two of them, an empty apartment full of a mess.
“Do you want to clean it up now?” Beth asked.
“No. I-” A yawn overtook him and Beth thought it was the cutest thing she had ever seen. Sleepy Benny Watts with his messy hair being all cute. “I’m tired. Do you want to sleep over?”
“Yeah. Besides, I don’t want to walk to my hotel when it’s so cold, it was already freezing on my way here.”
“You know that I would walk you there and give you a jacket if you got cold, right?
Beth felt redness burning in her cheeks. “What a gentleman.”
“Only for you.” He walked over to his bedroom door and let Beth in. He walked over to his closet. ”Do you want something to sleep in?”
She looked at what she was currently wearing. “Yeah, that would be great.” Benny handed her a pile of clothes and she walked to the bathroom to change. She was starting to feel tired too.
When she got back, she placed a folded pile of her clothes on a chair. Benny was already there, he made some room for her.
“My favorite New Year’s Day in years,” Benny said once they were settled in their positions, Benny on his back with one arm around Beth and Beth’s head on his shoulder.
“Now you’re just being cheesy.”
“I don’t care. You looked beautiful tonight, you were glowing actually. I was so happy to see you.”
“The dress is from my mom’s funeral.” Beth blurted out and regretted it immediately. Benny was a little taken aback too before he continued.
“You looked beautiful, nonetheless.”
Beth sighed contently. “I think I’ll be alright. I’ll still be a mess and all, but I’ll be alright.”
“I’m glad you believe in yourself.”
“I’m tired,” Beth whispered after a moment.
“Me too. Let’s sleep then.”
Beth couldn’t fight her exhaustion anymore. “Good night.”
“Good night. Happy new year, Beth.”
“Happy new year, Benny.”