The way that people look at Beth is starting to change.
She’s gotten used to the expressions of players she’s beaten, the range from pure hatred to scooped-out misery, the envy and admiration of spectators and competitors alike. She doesn’t care much about it, but she knows the way people react to her appearance too, the slightly different forms of envy and admiration there, sometimes a flat lust or a flatter fury, all of it easy enough to wash over her. More and more often nowadays she gets the flicker of recognition in ordinary people’s eyes, those who’ve seen her in newspapers or on television. It’s been long enough overall that she can ignore all of it, so much background noise.
Then a women’s magazine prints an article ostensibly about successful ladies. Beth doesn’t find out about it until a few months after publication when Harry mentions it in passing. She’s trying hard to stay on something resembling the straight and narrow, to lean into life and not into oblivion, and some of that involves acknowledging past sins and trying to amend them. She nods to Harry when she visits the supermarket, makes a little small talk as she firmly avoids the liquor aisle, and then every few weeks they go sit somewhere and drink sodas and talk like people do, or something close enough that it nearly looks like it. Harry’s got graduation coming up, a girl somewhere that Beth suspects that she will never be allowed to meet, and they’re trying for a friendship. They might fall a little short, but, hell, the effort is almost enough.
“June showed it to me,” Harry explains, eyes on his coke bottle, “and we agreed it was all shit, they just want to needle you because you’re the best and some people aren’t ready for that.”
“Sure,” Beth agrees, and as soon as she gets home she calls up Jolene.
“Wasn’t worth your time,” Jolene explains when she turns up later, flings a creased magazine into Beth’s lap. Beth sees herself staring up from the page in sharp bright black and white, one of myriad pictures taken over the last couple years, with the article title splashed across beneath her: The Cost of Success?
“It’s all some puritan fucking bullshit,” Jolene opines, and it is, but Beth still reads every word anyway. The majority of the article isn’t about her and the parts that are don’t focus on her talents or achievements: the writer seems more concerned that she is still unmarried. Entirely unattached, travelling the world alone and going to tournaments surrounded by almost entirely male audiences. It’s all phrased with false concern, like something fundamental in Beth will shrivel and die if she doesn’t get herself into a kitchen to bring cold beer and TV dinners to a man of some kind, but she recognises the bitchiness under the words, the viciousness of the slightest implications.
Beth is too old to be a prodigy now, too successful to be written off, and the world has always had its knives out for those it cannot contain.
“There was no point in telling you,” Townes says apologetically on the phone the next day. “I’m sorry, but it’s what the media does, you know it’s as much an enemy as a friend.”
She knows that, and she hates it, and she also wonders just how many people in her life decided to cocoon her from this; what else they’re not sharing.
Jolene hasn’t finished law school yet so she can’t act on Beth’s behalf, but she has a whole lot of advice and Beth takes most of it. It turns out that she can be anchored to her life instead of drifting, dipping in and out of a bank account and hoping her home doesn’t fall down around her ears. Now she has a savings account as well as her regular one, a lawyer with an idea of what Beth specifically needs and wants from her representation, and an agent to help her actually control her career, keep all the strings of her fate in her own hands.
There was a time, shortly after her triumphant post-Russia press tour, when Beth thought she might never play chess again: that she’d peaked, that there was nothing left to conquer, that she’d strained her hopes and her fears and her talents until all that remained was a sour soup that was better viewed through the bottom of glass, that she couldn’t afford to view through the bottom of a glass. She signed autographs and smiled with all of her teeth and was whirled through a succession of celebrations and parties, new dresses, new shoes, handshakes and amateurs lining up to be checked in three moves on her part. She was tired and relieved and exhilarated and when she finally got back to Kentucky and it was all over she slept for days, waking up to periodic glasses of water and disorienting phone calls, rolling back into slumber again afterwards.
Jolene let her stew for a little over a week and then turned up, ripped open all the drapes and took Beth to play squash. They still play pretty regularly; Jolene is getting better, Beth oddly worse, but it’s fun and it’s nice to be doing something with her whole body that isn’t sitting taut waiting for an opponent to make a miniscule movement. Beth talked about piling all her books and magazines into boxes, to closing up the sets and leaving them be, and Jolene didn’t tell her she was being dramatic or to get over it, but did ask what was going to stop Beth from digging herself back into a pit again. When Beth admitted that she didn’t know, they spent a night drinking three pots of coffee and making lists of options, of desires, of entertaining impossibilities. Those lists became concrete assistance, a crisp new phone book with a whole bunch of numbers neatly inked in, the foundations of a real future.
It’s close to year since Beth returned from Russia, one that’s passed both in a blink and in an endless grind of dragging months. Tethering herself to something like reality leaves Beth feeling impossibly heavy and there are nights when she still can’t sleep, counting sheep that turn to pawns that twirl across the dark ceiling, not a game, just a shifting of patterns too fast to distinguish but which Beth still instinctively knows as she knows the bones beneath her skin. There are still days when she wants to drink wine until she’s blind with it, wants to take a handful of pills and drop the needle on a record and spin in her living room until her knees are grazed with carpet burn and hours have vanished into the blur. Weighing the cost is enough at the moment, though something in Beth dreads the time that it finally isn’t.
“You worked hard to get to the top,” Townes pointed out over dinner, a nice restaurant, Beth’s hair curled coyly and a deep purple sheath dress. “Are you going to let these upcoming little pissants take it from you?”
Beth took the Chess Review from him and looked at the pictures from the US Open. There were more women competitors than before, something Beth had never intended to spearhead but didn’t mind either, and a selection of the usual suspects kicking at each other and scrambling for places. There were plenty of photographs of Benny reaching the final, grinning with shark’s teeth, his hair a little longer, his moustache no better, no worse. He lost in the end, and Beth folded over the possibility of calling him in her mind, like she was marking the page.
“Look how many moves it took, and he got finally got Watts with a fucking triangulation,” Townes shook his head. “The chess world needs you back, Harmon.”
That night, Beth opened a set, laid out the pieces, Benny’s Black and his opponent’s White, and played through the game. The thing was kind of an embarrassing mess for a US Open final, not a banner one on either side, and she decided against calling him. If she’d just played this game and lost, she wouldn’t want to hear from anyone either. Still, there was something soothing in working it over, in deciding which moves she’d play instead, in spotting errors – so many errors – and figuring out a better endgame strategy.
When her phone rang a week later, Beth had made some actual choices, and was more pleased to hear Benny’s weary sigh than she’d ever admit. “Alright, Beth,” he said, like it hadn’t been months since they’d last talked, “let me have it.”
She could have replied in any number of ways, any number of easy lies, but instead she reached for the already close-at-hand pad with its pages of diligent notes. “You sure you can take it?”
His laugh was almost a groan, or maybe it was the other way around. “Probably not,” Benny replied, “but do it anyway.”
The television contract comes with a terrifying amount of small print and stipulations but a truly incredible amount of money. Beth gets not only her agent and her lawyer to look over the paperwork but Jolene and Townes too, the whole thing so overwhelming she kind of needs reassurance that it’s real.
“Shit,” is Jolene’s initial reaction, and she waves at the waiter and orders a martini. She catches the look on Beth’s face and shrugs. “You can’t drink, but I can. Look at this.”
“Yeah,” Beth agrees, and presses her face into her hands for a moment. “I know.”
It’s a regular slot on a primetime variety show, an opportunity to demonstrate an interesting or showy move – and, of course, her own impeccable knowledge – before playing any member of the studio audience who thinks that they can beat her. They won’t, of course, and all the decent players in the chess world know this, but there are plenty of arrogant members of the public who think that being a man and having played a little chess in high school will render them capable of taking her down on national television. Beth’s role will be to take them down in as few moves as possible, sleek expertise and lots of applause. It sounds a little cheap, but mostly it sounds fun, and it’s not something that’s been offered to any of the numerous men gaining success and notoriety. Just to her. Beth could think about being offended, or she could make a lot of money and wear a variety of beautiful dresses she won’t have to buy herself.
“If you don’t take this opportunity, I will,” Jolene tells her, draining her glass and pushing it away to the other side of the table. Beth feels a twinge, but more one of habit than of real emotion.
“You can’t play chess,” Beth points out. Jolene has never let her teach her, never read the book she stole all those years ago.
“For this much money, I would learn,” Jolene replies, slipping the contract back into its folder, sliding it back over the table to Beth.
Townes says something similar to Jolene, without the martini addition, and once her lawyer has checked there are no hidden surprises in the clauses, she signs all the papers, gets her hair done, and lets them fly her out to the studio.
The serious chess magazines don’t go in for gossip and report on Beth’s games, past and present, as they always have. Every other form of press is kind of a fucking mess.
It’s not as though Beth is painted explicitly as some kind of slut, they can’t do that, but she’s bored of her single status being worked into every reference to her. She almost misses when she was a schoolgirl, bored of everyone talking constantly about her age and her gender, but it turns out that she’s at the ripe age for people to speculate on her romantic prospects.
She got some post after Russia, mostly straightforward fanmail, but now she has a specific agent who can forward her letters she gets a whole lot more. Beth and Jolene set aside a Sunday and a stack of LPs to sort through them, dividing them into piles by theme. There are letters of congratulation; letters telling her she’s an inspiration; letters containing chess problems the writer has either gotten stuck on or has made up to try and trick her; letters from abroad that could contain anything because Beth’s grasp of foreign languages never did get as broad as she would have liked. There are, however, two more categories of letters: the marriage proposals, and the Disapproving Older Ladies.
“White bitches with nothing better to do,” Jolene opines, after reading one aloud. “‘You seem like such a nice young woman on the television, I hate to think that your life is so unfulfilled’. What state does this woman live in, we can make a roadtrip to kick her ass.”
Beth feels the moue twist her mouth. “Does this one want me to marry her conveniently single son too?”
“No,” Jolene replies, dropping the letter onto the growing Disapproving Older Ladies pile.
“Pity,” Beth says, keeping her voice light, “they all sound like such catches.” She waves the one she’s been skimming, neatly typewritten on letterheaded paper and everything. “This one’s going to pray for my soul, to keep me safe in the den of iniquity that a television studio is.”
“She does know you’re not a virgin, right?” Jolene says, reaching to grab the letter from Beth’s hand.
“Keeping my legs crossed and just thinking about pawn patterns,” Beth offers, fluttering her eyelashes. “Most of these women write like chess tournaments are wild bacchanalian orgies.” She tips her head, putting aside another chess problem letter that she may or may not look at later. “I mean, there were several that would’ve been way more fun if they had been.”
Jolene screws up her face. “I’ve seen most of those guys you compete against,” she points out, “nobody wants to see them once their knitwear comes off.”
They both laugh, easy and maybe too hard, and Beth tells herself that she doesn’t mind all the busybodies, all the men who seem to think that she’s just dying for a husband to drag her into some sort of line.
It’s actually Townes who suggests that Beth is ready to start competing again; he spots the restlessness in her before she really does, still caught up in learning the rhythm of her TV work, the dressing room, the camera-ready make-up, the bright studio lights and beats to remember to hit. It’s all shine and noise and then she’s back in Kentucky again, her quiet house, every room empty, empty, empty.
“Dip a toe,” he recommends, sprawled eternally casually handsome on her couch. “I’m not saying jump back in against the Russians, but go to something more local. Remember what winning feels like.”
Something in Beth is relieved to hear this, but she can feel her shoulders hunching defensive. “I know what winning feels like, I win games all the time.”
She’d thought it would pall quickly, showily collapsing the game of an arrogant nobody in front of a whooping studio audience, but it turns out there are few things as satisfying as giving a deserving man’s ego a good, solid kick. It’s cathartic.
Townes waves a hand. “That’s not a real win and you know it. I’m talking about an actual challenge, not something you achieve in six moves. You’re a huntress, Beth, and you miss it. I know that you do.”
They agree that she’ll go to Cincinnati in a few weeks, actually accept one of the invitations that drop through the door instead of guiltily piling them up until Jolene loses her patience and throws them away. Nothing too big, not too much pressure, but a reminder that she’s not forgotten her roots. As to who she’s reminding, well, that’s possibly the real question. Townes is kind enough not to ask it; Beth doesn’t know if she’s ready to put it to herself just yet.
The Cincinnati tournament organisers announce that Beth Harmon will be present at her first competition since her historic win in Russia, and there’s a flurry of press interest that she thinks that she might have been trying to avoid. The phone rings semi-constantly for a few days but it’s mostly chess publications and more local papers, and she finds she isn’t lying when she says that she’s excited to be going. She doesn’t mention the patchy insomnia, sprawled in her bed staring at the ceiling, terrified that she’ll see impossible chess pieces grating across it, more terrified that she won’t.
Beth reads a few of the more recent issues of Chess Review, cross-referencing some of the latest reported matches with players she might meet. She’s plenty confident, this is pretty small-time in the scheme of things, but she also doesn’t want any surprises either. It’s good to get her mind back into the rhythm of moves and countermoves; she’s not rusty, could never be rusty, but there’s a particular strand of competitive thinking that she hasn’t done in a while and she hadn’t even realised how much she’d missed it.
Five days before the competition, Beth is flicking through a fashion magazine after painting her toenails in the hope of finding something to do with the early afternoon purgatory when her doorbell goes. She’s not expecting anyone; her friends have day jobs with set hours, and she’s not the kind of famous where the press line up on your porch. She’s half-expecting an Avon lady or maybe Girl Scouts but there, afternoon sunlight golden in the tips of his hair, is Benny Watts.
“I’m starving,” he says without preamble, “where’re you taking me?”
Beth blinks twice, and offers: “it’s customary to call first.”
“Sure,” Benny agrees, “but I was in the neighbourhood.”
“I guess seven hundred miles can be a neighbourhood,” Beth says dryly but Benny hasn’t altered his stance, hip cocked expectantly, and the part of her that wants to close the door in his face isn’t as big as the part of her that’s suddenly, brilliantly pleased, and it’s easy to slip her feet into flats, grab a coat and a handbag, and follow Benny to his car. The passenger footwell is full of empty coke bottles, candy wrappers and cigarette packets; she winds down the window to let some air in as Benny tosses his hat into the backseat and ruffles already ruffled hair.
“Have you driven straight through?” Beth asks, like she can’t tell from the dark circles under Benny’s eyes, the hint of stubble skimming his jaw. She knows the drive is the best part of the day, that he’d have had to set off some time in the darkness hours to be here by now.
“I slept in a truck stop parking lot at some point,” Benny offers, scowling a little. “Seriously, Beth, I’m starving, where are we going?”
They end up at a diner that hasn’t changed the entire time Beth has lived here; she might have fond teenage memories of coming here after school, splitting shakes with girlfriends or potential boyfriends and bickering over the jukebox, if she’d ever been that kind of girl. They’re given a booth and before they’re even seated Benny orders two cheeseburgers, coffee and coke and an extra side of fries.
“You didn’t ask what I wanted,” Beth tells him.
“Oh, kid, none of that’s for you,” Benny replies, flashing a charming smile at the waitress that he’s never given Beth. She orders coffee and cheesecake and resists the urge to kick him under the table.
They’re attracting an amount of attention, but most of that’s Benny’s appearance – even when he’s taken off the leather duster and the hat, he’s still an ostentatious mixture of silver jewellery and charisma, too many buttons open on his crumpled black shirt. The other part is simple local nosiness: people watching Beth and wondering about her companion more because they’ve watched her grow up than because they’ve seen her on television. It used to chafe on Beth but she likes it more now, there’s something oddly reassuring in the weight of their eyes.
In truth, the last time Beth spent any amount of actual time with Benny was those five hectic weeks in his shitty apartment. Before Paris, before what came after Paris, before Russia. It’s a time that she thinks back to more than she wants to, sometimes with the haze of nostalgia, sometimes with the wince of poking an old bruise. Beth was a different person then, and she learned more about herself over that month than she’ll ever honestly credit Benny with. More about her mind than she knew before, and definitely more about her body; Benny was all business over the chess board, no distractions, but when they’d exhausted the day’s plays and strategies he’d take her apart in his bed with the same dedication and thoroughness. He kissed her goodbye in the car outside the airport as she left for Paris, but she never did go back to New York.
Benny leans back in his seat, calmly insouciant even with the exhaustion in his eyes, and watches Beth like he’s waiting for her to punch his clock. It shouldn’t feel as comfortably familiar as it does, that look, but she knows where she stands with it. She thought she’d be more wrongfooted when she next saw Benny, their only contact in the last year or so a brief grateful handshake in a crowded room before the press whisked her away, and somehow she never could get the words together to pick up the phone.
“I take it you’re en route to Cincinnati,” Beth says, neutral ground.
A twitch of a smirk tells her what Benny thinks of her opening gambit, but he drums easy fingertips on the formica tabletop and offers: “sure, I figured I’d drop in. The calibre of player’s gone up a lot since everyone heard a certain champion was deigning to make an appearance.”
There’s an edge in his words, but not a particularly sharp one, and Beth lets it glance off her. The waitress brings their coffee and Benny’s coke, and Beth takes refuge in adding cream, stirring in the sugar.
“Don’t be like that, Beth,” Benny says, same tone as before. “You dropped off the face of the planet, I figured you’d crawled back into a bottle again. Beltik said you were doing fine, though.”
Beth stills. “You were checking up on me?”
“I had titles to win back,” Benny shrugs, ignoring the glass of ice at his elbow to drink his coke straight from the bottle.
“Well, that didn’t work out so well for you, did it?” Beth keeps her tone light too, and is rewarded with a sharp crack of Benny’s laughter.
“A fucking triangulation.” He shakes his head, rueful, and takes another sip of soda like he wishes it was something stronger.
“So you’re in Cincinnati to prove a point?” Beth asks.
“Something like that,” Benny agrees.
Their food arrives not long after, and Benny smacks Beth’s hand away from his extra fries with a swiftness she recognises from countless rounds of speed chess: “if you wanted some, you should’ve ordered them.”
Benny eats like he’s not eaten for days, as skinny as he’s ever been but comfortably capable of putting away both cheeseburgers, the fries Beth doesn’t successfully snatch, half her cheesecake, three cups of coffee, the coke, and a chocolate shake. They discuss mutual acquaintances, matches Beth read about that he was there for, re-tread old arguments about classic moves that they’ll never agree on. It’s easy in a way that it shouldn’t be. Benny gets up, steals ketchup bottles and sugar bowls from other tables, and between them they corral half a set on the table, bicker about passed pawns and the best way to fork a bishop. By the time they’re pointedly brought the check, it’s gotten dark outside.
Beth glances at Benny and pays, and his mouth works a moment but he lets her.
“There a motel somewhere around here?” he asks, tilting his hat easily back onto his messy hair.
She thinks about it, shifts some pieces in her head, and offers: “you can sleep in my living room.”
Benny laughs. “Place that size, you’ve gotta have a spare room.”
“At least it’s not an air mattress,” Beth responds, and watches the easy spread of his grin.
She’s expecting it to be awkward when she leads Benny into her home, his duffel bag slung over his shoulder, flicking on lights as she goes. He hangs up his hat and coat like he’s done it before, looks at the half-played game she’s left on the coffee table and bends to shift a rook.
“I’ll get you, uh, bedding, I guess,” Beth offers, and he nods, waves a hand with his gaze on the pawns. She bites into her lip for a moment then goes upstairs to rummage in a closet, find pillows and a quilt, unsure how she feels about today’s development. She breathes a few times before she heads back downstairs.
Benny is sprawled fully-dressed across her couch, dead to the world. Beth hesitates, considering, and then gently places what she’s brought on the vacant armchair. Benny doesn’t stir, and she looks at his still-booted feet, his hair falling across his too-boyish face, and then shakes her head and turns out the light.
When Beth wakes up she freezes at the sound of someone moving around downstairs before yesterday rushes back into her head in technicolour glory, and she rolls over to press her face into a pillow and groan. It’s easy, muscle memory maybe, to be around Benny, used to their back and forth, their dynamic. It’s only when she’s alone that Beth can clearly look at this situation and wonder what the hell is actually happening here. It takes a few long minutes for her to steel herself to wash and dress, applying a careful slick of eyeliner before she ventures down to the kitchen.
“I made coffee,” Benny offers, sat comfortably at her kitchen table flicking through the latest Chess Review. “And someone named Jolene called to check in but you didn’t wake up, I said you’d ring her back later.”
Beth stares at him. He’s wearing another ridiculous floral silk robe, his hair shower-wet and falling in his eyes, mug of coffee gently steaming on the table in front of him.
“You made yourself at home, huh?” she says, sharp.
He shrugs, spreads his hands. “Must be some of that famous Kentucky hospitality.”
She rolls her eyes, and goes to help herself to coffee. “Did you enjoy snooping?”
“Who says I snooped?” Benny turns a page, refuses to look up. “Your bathroom cabinets are suspiciously empty, did you know?”
Beth slams her coffee down on the table hard enough for some of it to slop over the sides. “I didn’t snoop when I stayed at your place!”
“Sure you did,” Benny replies easily. “I just didn’t have anything good for you to find. Don’t think I didn’t see you trying. And anyway, I was just looking for shampoo.”
“Uh huh.” Beth levels a glare at him. “It’s generally expected that guests will bring their own toiletries.”
“I was in kind of a hurry,” Benny replies. “And hey, at least I didn’t need to use your toothbrush.”
Beth can’t suppress the shudder that ripples through her and he laughs. She takes a sip of coffee and reconsiders his words. “Why did you leave New York in a hurry in the middle of the night?”
“Maybe I thought I’d take the scenic route to the tournament,” Benny offers. “Is there breakfast?”
It’s a bad distraction and Beth doesn’t want to let him get away with it but she knows from experience that the more she presses, the more he’ll just clam up. She’ll save the interrogation for later, when he isn’t expecting it.
“Your snooping didn’t extend to the fridge?” she says.
“Your privacy is very important,” Benny replies drily, and flutters his eyelashes at her until she kicks his ankle and goes to see what she’s got to eat.
She calls Jolene back when she’s sent Benny out to get more smokes with a vague set of directions she kind of hopes will get him lost and keep him out of the house longer.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Jolene asks, a thread of amusement woven through her voice. “Are you two shacked up again?”
“We weren’t shacked up before,” Beth protests. “And anyway, he’s on the couch.”
Jolene’s answering hum is disbelieving, doubtful. “Right.”
“He is!” Beth explains briefly about Benny’s sudden, random appearance. “What was I supposed to do?”
“Send his ass to a motel,” Jolene says, like she can’t believe she has to explain this. “He’s not a lost puppy, Beth, he’s an overgrown child prodigy who thinks he’s a cowboy with the shitty facial hair to match. And an actual fucking knife. Why haven’t you kicked him out yet?”
Because I’m fairly sure he’ll just sleep in his car if I do, Beth realises, but she doesn’t say it aloud, some odd protective instinct in her not wanting to admit that she suspects Benny can’t pay for a motel. It took her a long time to read between the lines of his fluctuations, to figure out that his hustles over a chess board for quick cash and penchant for all night poker games that he wouldn’t invite her to weren’t just an affectation or a way to broadcast his arrogance.
Jolene must read something into Beth’s lingering silence, because she just sighs, and offers: “well, don’t let him answer your phone anymore, anyway. Your agent will have a shitfit.”
“Oh,” Beth says, “shit.”
She actually hadn’t thought that hard about the lifestyle clauses in her contract; there aren’t that many of them and in her head the whole ‘clean living’ part mostly meant that she wouldn’t be drunk or stoned in public anymore, and since that was what she was aiming for anyway it didn’t seem like it would be a problem. Beth turns the situation over a couple of times in her head and decides that maybe the studio would not be happy if anyone found out that she had Benny staying in her home, even in a different room, and the excuse we’re not sleeping together anymore probably wouldn’t improve it any.
“I’m not gonna tell you what to do,” Jolene says, “but for fuck’s sake be careful, that asshole can bring the whole damn house of cards down around you.”
“Wrong game,” Beth says, to hide the way her lips have gone numb.
The day before they’re due to leave for the tournament, Beth walks into the kitchen for morning coffee to find Benny smoking and frowning at a piece of paper. He flicks a glance at her and then looks back at the page again, taking a slow, angry drag. She assumes it’s some of the notes he’s been making on recent games – way more copious and detailed than the ones Beth has been, but he’s the one with a fresh humiliating defeat – until he turns his annoyed attention to her.
“Do you get a lot of letters like this one?”
Beth feels her stomach drop, irritation and humiliation and something weirdly like panic ripping through her. “You started opening my mail?”
“You weren’t opening it,” Benny replies, waving the cigarette dismissively. “And answer the fucking question, Jesus, Beth.”
She swallows, tells herself to remain calm. “I don’t know, Benny, because I haven’t seen the letter, you’re the one reading my private correspondence.”
He all but throws the paper at her, disgust in his expression. Beth is a little apprehensive as she starts to read but it’s actually not too bad, another bored housewife lashing out at Beth because she isn’t tied to the kitchen by her apron strings and hiding the vitriol poorly under the guise of concern. She shrugs, drops it half-read on the table and reaches for one of the cigarettes, noticing as she does so that there are multiple letters spread around Benny’s coffee cup and ashtray. She needs to yell at him about this, she thinks, make sure that he knows this is unacceptable behaviour, but there’s something oddly like shame sitting on her tongue.
“Any viable marriage proposals?” she asks at last, when she can trust herself to speak. She doesn’t mind when Jolene sees all these messages, actually feels better about it all when they’re sifting through them together, but something about Benny reading them makes her feel like the kid she was when they first met, awkward angles and shy and apparently entirely unmemorable.
“Sure,” Benny replies, brittle, “if you like smug assholes and their meddling mothers.”
Beth’s hands are shaking and she thinks for a split second about tranquilisers and sour red wine, the cigarette between her fingers nowhere near enough. “Are any of them rich?”
“Fuck.” Benny slams his hands on the table and it takes all of Beth’s will not to jump. “The way these strangers think they can talk to you-”
“Stop,” Beth snarls. “You turn up out of nowhere looking like twenty kinds of shit and think you can just worm your way into my life and start passing judgements?”
“This is bullshit,” Benny snaps, waving another piece of paper at Beth.
“I know,” she says, heart thudding in her chest and her throat and her temples. “But it’s none of your goddamn business, Benny Watts. Or do you want to tell me why you had to run from New York in such a hurry in a car covered in unpaid parking tickets?”
Beth wonders, briefly, if Benny is going to slap her; she sees in his expression that he’s wondering it too, something sharp and hard and dark in his eyes before he sighs and stubs out his cigarette. He won’t look at her, and Beth shoves the letters into a pile in the middle of the table and drinks her cooling coffee and practices breathing and curling her toes, Benny pushing hands through his hair in her peripheral vision.
“You deserve better than this,” he grits out at last.
“Yes,” Beth agrees. “That’s why I don’t open my mail.”
Benny nods, twice, like he’s confirming something with her and something with himself, and gets up to make more coffee. Beth studies her nails, and makes sure her voice is quiet when she says: “do you need money?”
His shoulders tense, take a long long moment to relax again. “Not yet,” he replies, tight but not angry, and Beth exhales the smoke and the strain and the worst of her bitterness.
“Okay.” The word feels good in her mouth, the sweet relief of an unexpected but hoped-for adjournment, and the sudden cessation of fury in the kitchen leaves her feeling almost dizzy. She says it again, just for good measure: “okay.”
“You never did show me around,” Benny remarks when they’re driving out of town.
Beth slips on her sunglasses and leans back in her seat to watch the houses skim past. “I never said that I would.”
“You could’ve done some kind of Beth Harmon retrospective,” he says, and he’s needling her a little but it’s just his regular brand of quiet antagonism, he can’t function without it. “A tour of the gymnasiums and rec rooms you won games in, the porches you let all those fumbling teenage boys kiss you on…”
“Sure,” Beth says, brittle. “I could’ve taken you to the drugstore where I got my mother’s tranquilisers that then became my tranquilisers and where I stole chess magazines that I couldn’t afford. Ooh, and at least three liquor stores, you’ll love those.”
Benny says nothing, and Beth lets them sit for a while in a silence that’s not entirely uncomfortable, breeze from the open window ruffling his hair in her peripheral vision.
“I’m not saying high school was a picnic for me, either,” Benny says at last.
“What, the great Benny Watts wasn’t valedictorian prom king?” Beth asks dryly.
“Ha.” Benny taps his fingers on the steering wheel, eyes on the road. “I’m sure you remember, everyone loves skinny chess nerds who haven’t had their growth spurt yet, they’re real popular.”
Beth smiles a little, remembers the cold armour she built around herself so she didn’t mind the distance between her and her peers so much, looks at Benny’s shitty attitude and it’s still shitty, yeah, but she can see some of why he might have chosen to build it in the first place.
She reaches for the radio, fiddles with the dial until a burst of static gives way to the low dark hum of a familiar baseline. Benny makes a soft noise, and Beth remembers his terrible collection of pretentious records, not one Beatles album among them.
“They kept playing this half the way down,” Benny says. “So the British guys have discovered drugs, haven’t we all.”
Beth slants a look at him but he doesn’t look at her, and she suspects that even if she explicitly asked he wouldn’t tell her. There’s got to be a reason why Benny barely drinks alcohol, one that has nothing to do with Beth’s own problems and his opinions of them, but she couldn’t work it out of him back when they were as close as they’ll ever be and she knows he won’t give her anything now. He’s not big on handing things out if they haven’t been earned. Instead, she taps the beat of Come Together on her knee, hums a little, enjoying the irritation in Benny’s posture out of the corner of her eye.
When the song switches Benny groans but leans over to turn up the radio anyway, because some things are inevitable, and there are some songs you can’t not sing along to.
“We’re caught in a trap, I can’t walk out, because I love you too much baby…”
It’s a popular song, Beth’s heard it on the radio and in stores lately, learning the words almost by osmosis. It’s easy to belt it out with Benny, the little car full of winter sunlight and a little too much breeze, both of them hamming up their Elvis impressions. Beth’s pretty sure she’d be mortified if anyone else caught them, crooning along a little too expertly to this song, but she doesn’t mind as much when it’s Benny. They’ve humiliated each other enough times over the years that this doesn’t count as anything at all.
“We can’t go on together with suspicious minds,” they bawl, catch each other’s eyes and burst out laughing.
Beth thinks vaguely that she probably shouldn’t be enjoying this so much.
A couple of hours and a near-argument later, Benny leaves Beth and her suitcase enough blocks from the hotel that she can justify catching a cab. The driver makes cheerful conversation about how many people he’s driven to this chess convention and Beth smiles and nods, adds bland replies, and tries not to think about the nerves creeping in the closer that she actually gets. She’s not been to a Cincinnati meet in years, the city doesn’t look all that familiar through the car’s windows, and for a few minutes she feels impossibly small and lost, thirteen and stumbling all over again.
The Gibson doesn’t seem to have changed all that much in the last six years, although it looks a lot smaller than it first did, and Beth’s room looks a little cluttered and tired. She thinks of Alma, settling herself on the end of a bed and talking about a pleasant room and she has to fall back against the door, closing her eyes against hot tears and a sharpness in her throat. That’s the problem, sometimes, with retracing your steps.
Every head turns as Beth makes her way to sign in for the competition; she gets some smiles and nods, a few offers of welcome back from people she knows and people she doesn’t, and is aware of the low buzz of conversation surrounding her. The men at the desk stand up to shake her hand and tell her how pleased they are that she’s come, and Beth feels herself flush as she admits how pleased she is to be there. Her hand trembles a little as she fills out her form but she thinks that she might be the only one who notices.
She wanders through the lobby, exchanges greetings with a few people she recognises, lets herself enjoy the wince on some men’s faces as they realise they stand a good chance of being grindingly defeated. It feels right to be back among real chess players again; Beth spent her adolescence in places like this, the smell of dust and nervous sweat and hair oil, so insulated and isolated in her own determination and desperation that she didn’t realise that she’d carved out a little niche of her own in this environment, or that it had carved out a niche in her in return. There are a few women scattered about, some clutching notebooks or strategy manuals in nervous hands, some looking far more composed than Beth can ever remember being. They exchange awkward nods with her, politely distant but acknowledging camaraderie nonetheless, a start of something.
Townes is meant to be here somewhere – he’s apparently taking her for dinner tonight – and Beth lets her feet carry her up the stairs. She skims her fingertips up the handrail, the smooth polished wood cool under her touch, and thinks to herself all pawns and no hope. Benny claims insistently and constantly that he doesn’t remember meeting her when she was the most awkward of schoolgirls, but Beth has never forgotten. She doesn’t forget much; it’s one of the reasons drinking is always so appealing. Caught up in nostalgia thick enough to choke on, Beth makes it all the way up the stairs before she realises the arrogant voice holding court isn’t a part of her memories but is really Benny, taking up far more of a chair than his slight frame can really justify and telling an anecdote about the Pirc Defence that Beth has heard before. The Pirc is too much of a risk for tournaments, but get your timing right and there’s a quiet satisfaction to it.
Beth pauses on the edge of the little group, unsure if she should linger and offer the observation that a solid Austrian Attack can shatter the Pirc like candy, as Benny well knows, or if she should leave him to his ego exhibition. They’ve only been apart a few hours, there’s no need to speak again so soon, but she’s still a little discombobulated from being alone amongst the present and the past. She’s still pondering when Benny glances up. He impossibly manages to slouch lower in his chair, tipping his hat back, playing a gunslinger when their nemesis walks into the bar; he’s never admitted to practicing all this in a mirror but Beth is sure that he did, at least to begin with.
“The queen graces us with her presence,” he says drily, a little mocking but not cruel, lacing his fingers over his stomach as he considers her. “And just when did you arrive at this Heartbreak Hotel, Miss Harmon?”
Beth is aware of the attention on her, on both of them, people in other parts of the room catching her name and turning to look; she scrapes together a smile. “Benny Watts. And there was me thinking you were all shook up after your Open loss.”
Something competitive glitters in Benny’s eyes. “Don’t be cruel, Beth.”
Some part of Beth is desperate not to appear overfamiliar in front of all these people, half of whom are murmuring about her already, and some other part is thinking that she’ll definitely lose if she straight-up calls Benny a hound dog. “Maybe you should just surrender,” she offers mildly.
Benny indicates the chess board beside him, demonstrative pieces scattered across it. “Want in? It’s now or never,” he tells her.
“That’s all right,” Beth replies, and spins on her heel before Benny can come up with a rejoinder and she has to refer to him as the devil in disguise. She’s aware of gaining more attention as she keeps walking, relieved that she can still garner it among serious players, whatever the Federation has to say about her, wishing just a little that she was still a slip of a girl who could pass mostly unnoticed.
The twins find her, apparently by following the trail of gossip, and envelop her in almost matching embraces before bearing her off to the hotel bar for too-sweet sodas and people watching. They help her pick out some of the newer faces in the crowd, matching up names she’s read on game reports but not faced in person, dropping in any facts they’ve gleaned alongside a range of rumours. In some ways, it reminds Beth of listening to the high school girls lined up in front of the bathroom mirrors, pointedly ignoring Beth while they tossed social currency back and forth.
“Are you playing?” she asks at last, when most of the people sitting around them have stopped staring and the flow of new arrivals has slowed.
“God, no,” Matt says on an easy laugh. “Mike’s threatening to do Kentucky, though.”
They’ve stayed closer to chess than Harry has, keeping a foot in the door of the world rather than letting it bang closed behind them. Beth’s glad; they were the first friends she made for herself after losing Jolene, and it’s good to be able to talk about chess with them and have them understand what she’s really saying. She’s done this on and off over the years, sat in numerous hotels and halls safely bracketed by the twins and their easy conversation.
“Go on, tell her,” Matt says, and Mike’s cheeks pink a little.
Beth twists to face him. “Tell me what?”
“I’m engaged,” Mike announces, looking embarrassed but pleased.
“Oh, Mike!” Beth gives him an impulsive hug. “Tell me about her.”
It takes a little more prodding but soon Mike is telling Beth about the girl he met at work, their plans for a spring wedding, while Matt teasingly interjects from time to time.
“Susan even plays chess!” Mike finishes.
“She’s better than he is,” Matt remarks, which makes Mike smile ruefully and nod.
“I’d like to meet her,” Beth says.
“She’d love to meet you,” Mike replies. “She always watches you on television, I don’t think she really believes I know you.”
“We’ll have to fix that,” Beth smiles. Her stomach flutters a little at the first reference to the show; she knows that Townes and Jolene are pleased for her, and that Benny hasn’t explicitly said that he disapproves but he definitely does, and she’s been a little nervous about reaching out to ask anyone else.
“When we’re back home,” Mike says, and they clink glasses, drink to it.
Benny wins Cincinnati.
It comes down to the two of them like pretty much everyone knew it was going to, other competitors grudgingly or gratefully or resignedly accepting defeat through the rounds as E. Harmon and B. Watts climb the boards. In the evenings Beth replays the games with herself or with Townes, occasionally sits with the twins and watches Benny cheerfully hustling the cocky or the unwary with rounds of knife-sharp speed chess. He doesn’t offer a round to her and she doesn’t ask for one; she’s not sure which of them would come off worse in the end.
There’s no clear victor for most of the game, the two of them stepping in and out of each other’s traps with clean precision. Beth watches Benny’s hands and the board and doesn’t look at the audience, even as she senses their growing admiration, doesn’t look at Benny’s face because she knows all the different expressions he can wear over a game and none of them will tell her his next move. There are two or three moments when she notes an official shifting, clearly hoping that they’re about to call it a draw, but then she or Benny nimbly kicks the other’s net apart and the game carries on, tension slowly creeping up Beth’s spine the longer the clocks tick.
It hurts more than it should when Benny finally pins her king and Beth tips the piece over, listens to it clatter against the board in the silence before the applause begins. Benny holds out a hand and for a brief second Beth wants to refuse, to behave like a brat and shove the board at him, but she takes his warm sure grip and when he squeezes, she squeezes back.
There are flashbulbs and photographs; Beth catches Townes’ conciliatory smile from behind his camera amid the reporters. She wants a drink, wants to blur the bitterness of the defeat on her tongue, wants to lie on the anonymous hotel room bed and stare at nothing at all on the ceiling while her brain drowns itself. She doesn’t want to smile and admit to her first public loss since Russia, doesn’t want to say something polite and neutral about Benny, doesn’t want to play the dignified loser. She wants to hurl Benny’s stupid hat across the room and scream until there’s no one here but her and the relief of silence.
“Good,” Benny says under his toothy grin, letting their shoulders graze for a moment.
“What?” Beth asks. Just another minute, maybe two, and she can escape to her room and a burst of angry tears.
“You want my head on a fucking spike,” Benny replies, low enough for only her to hear, lips barely moving. “You should. Anything less would be a disservice to us both.”
Beth flees the scene with grace before they can talk anymore; a furious cry in the shower, a clean dress and a fresh coat of lipstick set her up for the evening, dinner with Townes and the twins. All of them stick to water all night, and Beth wants to spitefully demand a Gibson or a glass of wine, just to see what any of them do. In the end she behaves herself, glad to have people around her even with the loss today a physical, thumping ache behind her breastbone. When she blinks, she can see the final click of Benny setting down the Black rook, inexorable.
Back at the hotel, the twins waved off – they’re driving back early in the morning, earlier than Beth’s willing to surface to say goodbye – Townes considers her in the dim light of the lobby.
“Do you want me to stay tonight?” he asks quietly.
Beth swallows a lump in her throat formed of a half-dozen emotions and says: “I apparently signed a contract that promised I wouldn’t have unchaperoned men in my hotel room.”
Townes grimaces, but offers: “I’ve had to get very good at discretion, Harmon.”
“I know.” Beth looks down at the floor for a moment, her slip-on heels, his shiny brogues, and feels a wave of something like exhaustion run through her. “I’ll be all right. Thank you.”
The halls feel too long as she trudges back to her room, late enough that it’s mostly quiet in the hotel, the occasional burst of voices or static from the television as she passes each closed door. She’ll have to set the game up and play through it when she gets back to her room even though she doesn’t want to, doesn’t want to poke at a wound so open and so fresh. The need to do it is greater than self-preservation, the way she laid out her games against Borgov again and again, watched herself lose over and over and over.
Conversation in the corridor has her ducking back into the stairwell, not wanting to be seen right now, not feeling like this. She’s too far away to make out much, a man and a woman, voices overlapping, rising and falling. Beth digs her nails into the palms of her hands, forces breaths into her aching chest, tells herself that in another moment she can be back in her room where the rest of the world can be held at bay with closed drapes and a locked door. No one hangs out in hotel hallways at night, whoever it is will go away soon enough.
The woman laughs, high and a little breathy, and the conversation stops for a long, heavy second. Beth doesn’t have time to get hopeful when there’s another giggle, a hiss of Benny! that carries right the way down the hall, then a low laugh that’s too blurry for Beth to tell if it’s actually Benny’s or not. A door slams, and Beth stands in the silence and counts to ten before she ventures into the empty corridor, scurrying to her room with her heartbeat thudding in her ears.
It’s a gruelling game to play through, their moves so densely knitted it’s hard to pick them apart and suggest which one was better for most of the middle game, hard to find an alternative move that would snip through the threads and give one of them an upper hand. Beth debates putting on the television just for background noise, debates calling to see what room service have handy at this time of night when you want an easy oblivion. Ennui hits her in the end and she goes to lie on her bed, listlessly staring at the light fittings, pawns moving in front of her eyes and always, always that damn final rook.
Finally, Beth gives up, puts a cardigan on over her crumpled dinner dress, slips her shoes back on and goes downstairs. The lobby is empty; the concierge glances at her but Beth doesn’t engage and he turns his attention back to the book spread open on his desk. The chairs are all empty, spectators long gone, and the rooms they played in are all locked up. Beth wanders, restless, and finds the closed bar. It’s merely roped off, and no one is watching when Beth slips around the barrier and walks into the dark.
There’s a click of pieces against a board and for a second her heart leaps into her throat. Then her eyes adjust and she sees someone sitting at one of the tables by the window, chess board lit by the bright winter moonlight streaming in. A childish part of Beth thinks about ghosts, but she knows that posture by now and walks over.
Benny’s face is streaked with silver in the moonlight, all his jewellery shining, and he startles when he looks up and sees Beth, maybe a little ghostly herself in her pale dress. He considers her for a long moment, eyes too dark to read, body utterly still.
“It’s coming down to luck,” he says at last, and Beth drops her gaze to their game laid out on the table in front of him. The Black pieces are barely visible, the White ones almost glowing.
“Luck’s a loser’s word,” Beth replies as she sits down opposite him; he’s never said this to her, but she’s heard him say it to others, usually after he’s soundly beaten them.
“So tell me you did a better job prying this one apart.” Benny spreads his hands. “This is my third time through and it could just as easily have been you.”
“But it wasn’t.” The words are sour, and Beth grits her teeth. Benny dips his head to look at the board again and she studies him a moment, his messy hair, a dark smudge on his cheek that in better lighting would almost definitely be lipstick. “Shouldn’t you be… sleeping?” she asks at last, shrinking back from her original question because what does it really matter, anyway.
Benny shrugs, shifts a knight. Beth remembers that move: it was one of hers. “Shouldn’t you be?” he asks. “Or was this meant to be a relapse?”
Hotels do not leave their liquor lying around for their guests to acquire; Beth knows this of old, from longer nights than this one.
“I don’t know,” she admits, and replies to the knight by pushing a Black pawn, Benny’s next move. The whole game seems carved into her skin, painful and irrevocable. She hadn’t even known how badly she needed the win until she was halfway through the match and saw the possibility of winning halving, then halving again.
Benny shifts the hanging White bishop instead of replying. Beth pushes the Black pawn again, the best of the available moves, and Benny moves a White pawn to meet it, to strand them gridlocked in the centre of the board.
“Was this what you needed?” Beth asks a while later, when they’ve gone through the next few moves and Benny’s silently tried shifting a White rook instead of the knight that Beth originally moved and then carefully moved it back after staring at the board a while longer.
“The win or the money?” he responds, not looking up as he places the knight down.
“Either,” Beth says. “Both.”
“Yes,” he says, and reaches to shift the Black knight when Beth doesn’t.
She wants him to apologise and she doesn’t want him to, and she wants it to have been someone, anyone other than him that she lost to, and she’s glad that it was only him who could beat her. Beth thinks about shoving the board at Benny, sending pieces scattering, pawns lost under the chairs until morning.
“Can you go back to New York now?” she asks at last, still looking at where she castled hours ago and wondering if she shouldn’t have after all. The rook protects the king, sure, but then the rook is more pinned than she usually likes.
“I leave in the morning,” Benny says, moving the White queen to take a Black bishop. Beth remembers how it felt to do that the first time, but it didn’t mean anything in the end. He lifts his head. “Are you okay getting back home?”
“Townes is driving me back tomorrow,” Beth explains.
“Sure he is,” Benny says, nodding, and Beth isn’t sure what his tone means; she opens her mouth and closes it again, unsure what she wants to actually say. She doesn’t know what Benny knows or thinks or has extrapolated, and regardless she’s not going to reveal a secret that isn’t hers in the first place.
Instead of replying, she pushes a Black pawn, forks a White knight and a White pawn, and gets up from the table.
“‘Night, Beth,” Benny calls when she’s most of the way across the room; she freezes a second, but doesn’t look back.
After Cincinnati, Beth throws herself into preparing for the Kentucky State Championship. She lost her title after Paris, the one she’d proudly held since she was fifteen. At the time she told herself it was too small to matter, but she wants it back now.
“There’s my crazy girl,” Jolene says when she comes over for dinner one night, finds six chess boards scattered across the living room in various states of play. They eat pizza and Beth scrambles for conversation that isn’t about chess players alive and dead and what they thought the best opening moves were. Jolene doesn’t mind, full of stories from school, from the law office, from the various lives she lives while Beth just lives this one and can barely keep her grip on it.
“I’ll come watch,” Jolene offers.
“You’ll be bored,” Beth replies, though she’d like to have Jolene there; she’s missed having family spectating, even if said family doesn’t understand what the hell is going on.
“I won’t be if you make a stuffy white boy cry,” Jolene tells her, grinning with all her teeth. “Maybe two, remind them what a shark bitch you can be.”
Beth laughs, really laughs, and feels a little better about the grim tone of the serious chess reviews that praise the skill of the match between her and Benny but worry that Elizabeth Harmon has lost her edge, about the sly tone of the magazine that printed photographs of her in the hotel bar with Matt and Mike, in a restaurant with Townes, looking briefly at Benny as he grinned through his win. The magazine mildly suggested that Beth needed more practice and less of a social life, but the darker implications were painfully clear. Her agent hasn’t said anything explicit, but he was the one to post her the magazine in the first place.
It’s a different high school this year but the atmosphere is the same as it always is, the waxed floor and vague old sweat in the air of the gym, the jaded expressions of the masters and the anxious ones of the amateurs proud to scrape this far. The press is local, Townes turning up without his camera but promising a column that talks a lot about her talent and absolutely nothing else. Jolene comes with candy and a leather jacket that Beth immediately covets, while Matt’s there rolling his eyes as his brother signs up and then shyly introduces Beth to Susan, a sweet blonde who keeps proudly glancing at the engagement ring with its diamond chips like it’s five times bigger than it is. She immediately asks Beth a question about the French Defence and has intelligent follow-up questions too; “maybe you’re the one who should be playing instead,” Beth says.
Susan giggles but throws a look at Mike and says: “maybe next year” in a contemplative tone.
Most of the matches Beth plays are pretty simple, players she can checkmate in less than two dozen moves, but it’s still enjoyable to run through her favourite tactics with flesh and blood humans, even the ones that leave afterward looking frustrated and just a little disgusted. One of the men she beats in the second round mutters something derogatory about her TV appearances; Beth misses all the words that aren’t bitch, but the gist is pretty clear. Later, Jolene tells her that she went out to the parking lot to kick him in the balls but found the guy crying in his car instead, and presses a proud kiss to Beth’s cheek.
For the final, Harry and an awkward brunette he identifies as June – who definitely doesn’t know about the ugly youthful history between Harry and Beth, thank heaven for small mercies – show up to watch too. Jolene raises her eyebrows but refrains from saying anything, and when Beth looks up in the middle of a match that’s a little taxing but nothing she can’t handle, she sees Wexler has arrived from somewhere, whispering something into Matt’s ear that makes him grin.
Beth reclaims her title, the first one she ever wrapped her determined fingers around, to whoops and cheers from her little support group. They whisk her off to dinner, all of them: Townes and Jolene, Matt and Mike and Susan, Harry and June, Wexler. It shouldn’t work, Beth is sure that it won’t, but everyone is cheerful and proud and in the mood to enjoy themselves, and somehow they all manage to sit around a table and make a ludicrous amount of noise.
“What’re you even doing here, Wexler?” Beth manages to ask halfway through dinner. At one end of the table, Matt and Susan are attempting to explain what looks like a smothered checkmate to June, with the aid of a salt cellar and three wine glasses, while Harry and Townes are animatedly discussing a television show Beth has never heard of.
“Catching up with some old friends,” Wexler shrugs. “Mike told me you were competing and I thought I’d stop in on the way, watch you crush some unworthy opponents. Levertov was supposed to come too, the whole trip was his idea, but Benny dragged him into one of his fucking all-night poker games and they were still at it when it was time to go, so I left him behind.”
“How is the cowboy prince?” Jolene asks, which makes Wexler choke on his beer and laugh.
“Ah, he’s Benny Watts,” he says, on an eyeroll that’s part fondness and part frustration.
Beth says nothing, not sure what Jolene is doing, not sure what she herself is thinking or feeling. She sips her coke and watches as Jolene finds a clean serviette, prints a few words on it in ballpoint before passing it to Wexler.
“Get that skinny white boy to mail one of these to Beth,” she orders, and shrugs at Beth’s glare and Wexler’s bemused expression. “You try getting radical Black poetry collections out here, then get back to me.”
Despite her best attempts to derail it, the table’s conversation eventually drifts to media coverage of Beth. All of her friends have seen patronising articles, turns of phrase that can be read more than one way. Beth has never liked the way journalists talk about her gender and almost nothing else, but it’s definitely getting worse and she hates that it’s getting so stupidly noticeable.
“What you need,” Susan says thoughtfully, “is a husband.”
Beth narrowly avoids swallowing her drink the wrong way. “What?” she demands.
“I don’t mean a real husband,” Susan explains quickly. “A husband like movie stars have, you know, to carry your purse and light your cigarettes and look at you silently but adoringly.”
There’s a long moment of silence. “…it’s a shitty idea but it’s not a bad one,” Jolene says at last.
“No,” Beth says. “That’s… I can’t just give in to this.”
Her friends are all exchanging glances. None of them look comfortable, but all of them seem to be considering it like getting herself a random dummy husband is a viable option. It isn’t. Beth will not let it be. If she has to win every fucking tournament in the world to make people look at her and see her as more than a delicate young woman, then that is what she will do.
“No,” she repeats, making sure to meet as many pairs of eyes as will meet hers. “Never. Okay?”
Ten days later there’s a small package in Beth’s mailbox alongside six marriage proposals, five chess puzzles, three letters of congratulation and two people who think she’s setting a bad example to young women and that she had the devil with her in Cincinnati.
“Like he doesn’t have better things to do,” Beth mutters to no one.
Inside the package is a slim book of poems, The First Cities by Audre Lorde. The one Jolene demanded in the restaurant; Beth had forgotten. She carefully lays the volume to one side but there’s nothing else, just the brown paper wrapping. She skims the pages of the book and there’s nothing there either.
Beth isn’t disappointed, because there is nothing to be disappointed about.
Life carries on. Beth trains for several hours a day, reads books she’s read before and forces her way through the footnotes, takes out subscriptions to several international chess magazines and reads about rising European stars, plays through games against phantom competitors she has yet to meet. When that doesn’t work she takes long aimless walks, nods awkwardly to her neighbours and shifts pawns between the clouds with her hands curled in the pockets of her coat. She listens to the radio and learns the words to all the new hits regardless of whether she likes them or not, thinking about the teenage girls gathered around the television singing along like their lives depended on it, the wall of glass Beth felt between them and her. She does handstands against the living room wall and recites strings of strategy squares or Russian phrases while the blood rushes into her head and her wrists start to tremble.
The truth about staying sober is that it’s boring. There were endless days and nights before, but they drifted shiftlessly past when she’d taken pills or drunk enough wine to make everything blindingly clear, hours gone while she played games across the ceiling or the inside of her eyelids, listened to records until the needle slipped into an empty groove. Now Beth is determined to stay afloat, whatever the cost, she finds she has more time than she knows what to do with and not enough to fill it with. There are her television appearances of course, but they slip by almost too fast, as though the hours she spends under the bright lights with every eye on her are siphoned away and pumped into the rest of the week.
She’s not alone, of course. She and Jolene are carefully twining their lives back together, phonecalls and dinners and trips to the movies. Townes calls or drops by when he can, takes her out to restaurants where they both dress in their finest and catch people’s eyes for their mutual beauty more than Beth’s fame. And she still exchanges her periodic careful pleasantries with Harry, spends an afternoon with Mike and Susan and three different chess boards, starts the slow but not dissatisfying practice of postal chess with a Russian woman who writes her moves in thick black marker on postcards. Beth’s life has plenty of people in it, she isn’t lonely.
The twins invite her on a roadtrip with them and Susan to a tournament in Washington, and Beth barely hesitates before she agrees, packs new pamphlets and an old board in her suitcase. She and Susan sit in back, sing along to the radio and flick through Chess Review back issues while Matt and Mike take turns behind the wheel and good-naturedly argue about the best route and which way up the map should go.
“Is Borgov as handsome in person?” Susan asks, studying a photograph.
Beth blinks twice; in all those years of him looming over her, a sword of Damocles, he became something more than human. Now she’s beaten him and they’ve settled into something like mutual respect, she’s still kind of working out how to recategorize him. But she looks at what Susan is looking at, the neat hair, the sharp suit, and considers.
“He’s a gentleman,” she decides at last.
“He looks it,” Susan agrees, tapping the page. “When chess is played seriously, I think the competitors should look dapper. Not like that Watts guy.” She raises her voice. “Honey, didn’t you say that Watts was coming to this meet?”
“He is?” Beth asks, her mind rifling through a selection of thoughts and emotions too quick to define any of them and settling at last on a ridiculous wish that she’d packed a different shade of lipstick.
“I said he might be there,” Mike says, craning around in his seat to look at them. “I mean, who really knows the ways of The Great Benny Watts?”
Beth laughs because it’s the easiest of all the available options.
The rooms are a little poky but the hotel itself is nice enough, high-ceilinged conference rooms with big windows and comfy chairs in the lobby and bar. There’s a buzz when Beth walks in that spreads quickly and changes key into something slightly relieved when she confirms that she’s just there to watch. She studies the competitor lists for names she knows and finds a few, none of them Benny. This doesn’t mean anything; he’s always liked to make an entrance.
They all eat dinner in the hotel restaurant; Matt manages to round up Wexler and Levertov, and Weiss comes over to say hello and ends up staying for coffee. The place is busy, the happy hum of people looking forward to a good weekend, and Beth decides she’s glad she came. Wexler pulls out a set and he, Mike and Susan start working through a set of problems; Susan’s slow but she’s methodical and right more often than not. Levertov talks about the New York chess scene and Beth doesn’t ask and doesn’t ask and doesn’t ask.
The next day, Benny’s name is neatly printed on the list, his first match lined up. Most people are going to watch him, Beth catches his name again and again from passers-by, but she tells the others to go without her: “I’ve seen him take enough poor suckers down to last a lifetime”. Instead, she drifts around the lower ranked games; there’s nothing ground-breaking and a lot of awkward mistakes and clumsiness, but in a few places she spots sparks of potential, makes a mental note or two that she’ll try and pass on later.
After the day’s games have closed, Benny has his usual crowd of admirers around him. Beth ponders going over, knows that he’d make space for her, but she realises that she honestly doesn’t know what to say. She eats dinner alone in her room and falls asleep faster than she expected, waking up still-clothed on top of the covers in the early hours of the morning with the lights blazing, lies still for several moments wondering where she is.
The second afternoon, with Mike and Susan off for some sightseeing or shopping or something, Matt accompanies Weiss to play an adjournment and Beth volunteers to meet Levertov downstairs to help replay the game that knocked him out. She’s waylaid by two young women who ask her to sign copies of Sports Illustrated and want to talk about their high school’s chess club; they’re eager and sweet and Beth doesn’t mind giving them her time, waving them off a little bemused but pleased nonetheless. She makes her way to the lobby and is stopped again on the landing by a man who steps into her path.
“Miss Harmon,” he says, and Beth takes the hand he holds out. “I’m Albert Stone.”
“Nice to meet you.” His grip is firm, just a little too warm, and he doesn’t immediately let go.
“I’ve written to you,” he says.
He’s taller than Beth, very neat dark hair, largely nondescript features, a slightly faded argyle sweater. She takes all this in before her gaze drops down to where his hand is still wrapped around hers.
“Thank you,” Beth says carefully. “I, um, I get a lot of letters.”
“I’ve written to you eight times,” Stone tells her, and even though his tone is quiet and mild something in it makes the hairs on the back of Beth’s neck stand up. She swallows and forces herself to meet his gaze. He’s staring at her, unblinking. “I’ve asked you to marry me.”
“That’s very flattering,” Beth says quickly, trying to pull her hand out of his grip, but he tightens it. “I’m not looking to get married right now, thanks.” When he still doesn’t let go, she drags up an awkward smile. “Sorry, I’m meeting a friend, I need to go.”
“One of your boyfriends?” Stone steps a little closer and he’s by no means a giant but there’s an air of menace to him. Beth reminds herself that they’re in public, there are plenty of people around, nothing will happen, but her hand is slowly being crushed and her stomach is churning. “Everyone knows about them,” he continues, low voice turning a little uneven. “Everyone knows what you are.”
Beth wrenches her hand back, biting the inside of her lower lip against the pain, and turns and walks away as fast as she can without drawing attention to herself, aware of Stone’s gaze between her shoulder blades.
Benny’s sat opposite Levertov at a corner table, lecturing: “your diagonals are a fucking mess, that’s your problem” and waving a White bishop that Beth remembers was lost pretty early in the match. Beth makes a beeline for the chair between them, aware the room is shivering around her and just wanting to sit down before something in her collapses.
“Nice of you to show,” Benny drawls from beneath his hat, putting the bishop to one side with a damning click as Beth drops into the chair like her legs have been cut out from beneath her.
“I was thinking about your knights,” she tells Levertov, but the words come out too quick, jumbling together. She reaches for the White knight that he should have deployed earlier but her hand is shaking so badly that she knocks most of the pieces over, pawns rolling off the board all over the table.
“I’m fine,” she says, but her vision has tunnelled and there’s a weird ringing in her ears. She starts trying to pick the pieces back up again but they slip between her fingers. Benny reaches out and she snatches her hands back. “Don’t touch me!”
“Is she-” Levertov begins, sounding helpless.
“I don’t think so.” Benny’s voice is soft, and Beth wants to snap at him but she’s terrified that if she does she’ll burst into tears instead. She looks down at her fingers, knotted tightly together in her lap. Her right hand is flushed red, the wrist purpling.
“I’ll get you some water,” Levertov says, pushes away from the table, and Beth feels small and stupid and ashamed.
“Beth.” Benny’s voice is barely above a whisper but she can’t look at him. His hand settles between her shoulders and she flinches, but he doesn’t move it. “Breathe,” he instructs, and she tries, dragging air raggedly into her lungs. She wants a drink, wants three green pills, after which none of this will matter. Benny’s hand is still on her back, touch firm but light, and she thinks everyone knows what you are. It’s stupid to be so shaken over something so small, people have said far worse about her and she hasn’t cared, she shouldn’t be sitting here feeling like she could shatter into small pieces at the slightest provocation.
“Tell me the Danish Gambit,” Benny says, and Beth takes another raw breath.
“White to e4,” she manages, “Black to e5.” Benny makes an acknowledging sound and she continues: “White to d4. Black takes. White to c3.”
By the time she’s talked through the opening, has the White bishop in position and none of the Black pieces developed, her head is thudding a little less and Levertov has returned with a glass of ice water. Beth drinks it gratefully, focusing on each sip and not on the two men exchanging worried glances.
“What happened?” Benny asks at last.
Beth takes in a breath through her nose, lets it back out again, squares her shoulders. “What happened is that Levertov’s diagonals are a fucking mess, and you need to keep your hands to yourself before some gossip rag announces that we’re sleeping together.”
Benny sits back in his chair, expression still too thoughtful for Beth’s liking, but he doesn’t push. “Gossip rags are already announcing that we’re sleeping together,” he says neutrally.
“That doesn’t make you special,” Levertov replies, setting chess pieces back on the board. “She’s supposedly also dating Townes, Wexler, and both the twins.”
Beth’s chest is still too tight but she manages to smile. “What can I say, I like to keep my options open.”
“Mike’s girl says Beth needs to find herself a fake husband,” Levertov says cheerfully, glancing down at the page of notes next to the board and moving the initial pawns into place.
“I’m not having a fake husband,” Beth says impatiently, putting her emptied glass on the table and leaning forward to study the game. All she wants right now is to get herself lost in discussing strategies and moving pieces, a world that’s much better and more important than the real one, where all the rules are hers alone.
A grandmaster from Pittsburgh knocks out Benny early on the final day in a quick exchange of barely thirty moves; Benny sighs but concedes with grace and a rueful smile.
“At least your diagonals were strong,” Levertov tells him later, smacking his shoulder while Benny groans and drinks a carefully solitary beer. He could order more, it’s not like it matters to Beth, but he drags it out, sipping and picking at the edges of the label until Beth wants to snatch it off him and finish it herself just so it will be gone. It doesn’t chase any of the stiffness out of his shoulders, but he grins for everyone who comes up to commiserate, shake his hand or offer unsolicited advice.
Beth didn’t sleep well last night, but she took time over her hair and make-up and selected a cardigan that hides a slightly bruised wrist without anyone asking questions, and after the first hour of the day passed and no one tried to accost her beyond a couple of autograph hunters, she’s relaxed again. She can remember the sharp fear of yesterday, the crawling discomfort that interfered with her breathing, but it seems a long way away now. It’s not like she doesn’t get letters like that all the time, of course it was bound to spill into her life sooner or later. It doesn’t have to mean anything, it’s just unfortunate that she reacted so badly; at least there were no cameras around.
Everyone is gathering in the main hall to watch the final; their group starts dispersing to find good places, and Beth scoops up her purse to go with Susan and Mike, not above using her notoriety to get a decent view.
“Can I borrow you a minute, Beth?” Benny calls.
Beth looks over her shoulder but he’s still slumped at one end of the fake-velvet couch he commandeered in the hotel bar, hat and finally emptied beer bottle on the table in front of him. She tells Susan she’ll catch her up and goes to sit down at the other end of the couch, a decent distance between them, presses her knees primly together. Benny doesn’t say anything, and they watch as the majority of the patrons finish their drinks and head out. The silence between them is expectant, but Benny started this and Beth can’t think of a reason for her to finish it.
“You gonna tell me who it was?” Benny asks at last, rolling his head on the back of the couch to look at her. When Beth frowns at him, he drops his gaze to where her cardigan sleeve has slid up enough to reveal a distinctive-looking bruise. She thinks about telling Benny she had an accident in the shower or with the hotel room door, but neither of them would believe it.
“It was a misunderstanding,” she says instead. “You may have the attitude and the fucking knife but you’re not an actual cowboy, Benny.”
His mouth tightens. “If you need help-”
“I don’t,” Beth cuts him off, and he huffs out an annoyed sigh that she remembers hearing multiple times on the end of a phoneline.
This is the moment to leave: there’s still a little time before the match starts, but Beth doesn’t move.
After a couple more crawling minutes, Benny adjusts his posture so he’s actually sitting instead of sprawling, and says: “we should get married.”
Beth turns her head so fast she hears something in her neck crunch. “I’m sorry, what?”
Benny shrugs. “I have everything you need in a fake husband,” he tells her. “One, I won’t make you quit chess. I won’t let you quit chess. Two, I’ll always be at your tournaments to support you because I’ll be there anyway.” He’s ticking them off on his fingers like this a real list, a real consideration. “Three, you won’t need to find a trainer. Four, you’ll get the Federation back on your side because we’ll make chess look sexy and romantic to whoever it is they think they want to appeal to. Five, the country’s two greatest players getting married? You can’t buy that kind of publicity.”
Beth stares at him for a long time but he doesn’t blink or crack or back down. “Fuck off, Benny,” she says.
“They’ll keep writing about your personal life and not your chess playing unless you make chess playing your personal life,” Benny tells her. “Once you’re married the press won’t care what you’re doing outside of tournaments or television. Go where you want, do what you want, fuck who you want, no one will write a damn thing about it.”
“I am not marrying you,” Beth snaps. She can’t believe that this is something she has to actually say; she can’t believe that this is something Benny is actually offering.
Benny’s expression doesn’t change. “We know that we can live together,” he adds. “We managed five weeks, which I think is a record. Cleo tried to kill me with my own knife after ten days.”
The thought of that unlocks a whole train of emotions in Beth that she forces herself not to focus on now; she settles for simply saying: “no.”
“Don’t think of it as marriage,” Benny tells her. “Think of it as castling.”
Beth raises an eyebrow. “Am I the king or the rook in this analogy?”
Benny’s mouth twists a little as he considers this. “I always thought of myself as a knight, frankly.”
“Yes, that’s patently obvious.” Beth has had enough of this conversation, knows that she and Benny could bat it back and forth into a stalemate for the rest of the afternoon. She brushes her hands off on her skirt, gets to her feet.
Benny grins up at her, something sparked in his eyes. “You’ll think about it,” he says.
“I won’t,” Beth says, and walks away.
She does, though.
For months and months and months when Beth was seventeen, she thought about Benny Watts.
It was an impossible compulsion; whenever she heard US Open Co-Champion her mind snapped straight to him with a hot flush of shame. She’d be studying or sitting in class or walking to the store and suddenly she’d see him sitting across from her, dark eyes and placid expression and fucking Caro-Kann Defence that forced her to concede. She’d hear you shouldn’t have castled and turn her head to find no one there, just her mind tormenting her over again. She’d be practicing new moves and all she could see was her position crumbling, nowhere left to run.
A lot of things happened that year and looking back her memories of stewing over Benny are kind of mixed up with walking away from Townes, with wine and music and losing her virginity, and in the end it took Borgov and Alma’s death to put Benny Watts from her mind altogether.
Things are different now, but sometimes Beth is uncomfortably reminded of those months, of reading every chess magazine and scanning the game lists for Benny’s name, playing out his matches and crowing every time she spotted a mistake or he drew or he lost. A feverish obsession that at the time she told herself was based in humiliation and anger and nothing else. Inevitably when Beth thinks about Benny now there are far more emotions and far more factors to consider but the way she keeps involuntarily drifting back to Washington is awkwardly familiar. No matter what she’s doing, multiple times a day, Beth blinks and there Benny is, saying we should get married like it’s the most obvious thing in the world.
Beth could talk to Jolene about this, and Townes probably has some good advice about the wide difference you can have between public and private relationships, but she can’t bring herself to want to discuss this aloud. This was all Susan’s idea, and she could probably offer to spend an evening tutoring Mike’s fiancée in some next level openings, then ask her what she really meant by suggesting that Beth find herself someone to act as her husband, but the idea of doing so makes her press her face into her hands at the sheer awkwardness.
It’s possible that she and Benny are friends, that that might be the simplest term to sieve out of the wide range of options and slap on a label. There was a time when Beth wanted nothing more than to break his nose, to tear him apart on the board with all the fierce vigour of a teenage girl suffering her first heartbreak, angrily kicking magazines with his face on the cover underneath her bed where she could hide from his knowing eyes. And there was a time when she could see and feel his magnetism, drawn inevitably to him and half-hating herself for it. And then there were the five weeks they spent in his apartment, playing chess like Beth had never played it until her veins were full of pawns and bishops, her mind like lightning and flames all the time, and she lived for the moments when she could see the admiration on his face and he wasn’t trying to hide it. That time is matched up with a similar but also different version of Benny, who kissed with a ruthlessness that she recognised from the board, who learned her body and taught it back to her with the same dedication that he taught her Borgov’s favourite opening stratagems. It wasn’t romantic, and he was frustratingly focused on her upcoming tournament, but it sure as hell was something.
Beth fucked all of that up by fleeing from it along with everything else about her life that year, and she’s still not sure which parts were deliberate and which ones were not.
Some mornings she wakes up furious, suddenly indignant that Benny thinks he could offer her anything when her life is coming together so well and she’s no longer the lost little girl who crossed his paths at tournaments. Other times she’s making dinner and remembers the way her heart felt too big for her chest when she picked up the phone in Moscow and heard his voice, tinny from the distance and more beautiful than anything she’d ever heard in her life. She drags her trash to the kerb and exchanges awkward half-smiles with the neighbours who still don’t approve of her and thinks, well, who the fuck proposes and then doesn’t even call?
Finally, Beth loses her temper and dials New York, ready to tell Benny that he’s an asshole, that he’s arrogant and smug and her talents outstripped his years ago. But the phone rings and rings and rings and no one picks up and she slams the handset back into the cradle, thwarted. She leans her back against the wall and closes her eyes and there’s another memory, sharp enough to make her breath hitch: Benny grinning up from between her thighs, golden hair caught in Beth’s fingers as he made her twitch and squirm, the bite mark he left on her hip that she could feel all the next day as she read pamphlets and played the same moves three times over.
They’re older now, though, and all that is definitely behind them, blazed out of their systems.
The next two times Beth tries calling Benny she gets no answer. It’s possible he’s avoiding her, that he realised it was a stupid mistake too, but he can’t know that it’s her calling. Annoyed, she sets her alarm clock and calls him at three in the morning, determined to get him out to bed just to talk to her, but she sits there listening to the ring miles away and he doesn’t pick up. Beth considers checking with Wexler or Levertov, see if one of them can put her in touch with Benny, but if something was really wrong she’s sure the news would have made its way to her one way or another, and she’s not desperate. Increasingly annoyed and periodically a little distracted, but there’s no actual need for them to speak to each other.
Sorting her mail into stacks on the living room carpet based on the tone of the first line of each letter, Beth is not thinking about her agent pointedly suggesting that there are several brands who would love to sponsor her and use her for advertising campaigns, but that said brands would feel more comfortable if she were settled down, married, a safe bet as he calls it. Beth is angry about this in the way that she’s been angry since the first time she read a newspaper article about herself and all it wanted to talk about was her gender and not her Sicilian Defence, but she’s tired as well. Tired of the seemingly endless ways that her life is made difficult just because she didn’t have a high school sweetheart to marry and procreate with the moment she graduated, just because she dared to want more.
When she next calls up Benny, not even sure what she’s going to say, the number has been disconnected.
Beth recalls Cleo tried to kill me with my own knife after ten days, and conjures herself a grim smile. “I bet she did,” she tells her empty kitchen.
Benny finally calls her nearly two weeks later, voice brisk and bright like he’s not been successfully driving Beth insane by doing nothing at all a very long distance away. “Are you ready to admit that I’m right yet?”
“I see you got your phone reconnected,” Beth replies, cool, lights herself a cigarette to remind herself not to lose her temper and by extension the upper hand.
“Some very minor bill misunderstandings,” Benny says, like Beth didn’t live with him long enough to watch him stack up the unopened official envelopes with the angry red stamps on them. “That’s not what I rang to talk about, and I bet it’s not what you were calling me about.”
“Betting’s your whole problem, isn’t it, Benny?” Beth remarks, and in that moment hears the click of a perfect check. “That’s what this is all about.”
“Don’t be a brat, Beth,” Benny says, a warning note in his tone.
“You need my money,” Beth tells him, hoping she sounds calm, steady. “You never could stay on the right side of broke. You came up with a whole list of misdirection but you’re not offering to do me a favour, you need to marry me before your gambling debts come back to bite you.”
“I don’t want your fucking money,” Benny spits. Beth’s never heard his voice so sharp, so coldly furious, not even when he was telling her never to contact him again. “Get one of your showbiz lawyers to draw you up something binding, you can keep all of it.”
“They cut off your telephone because you couldn’t pay for it,” Beth tells him tightly, unsure if she’s incredulous or stung.
“So you’d take care of the finances and I’d take care of the liquor cabinet.” Benny’s voice is still angry, a fist to the sternum that has Beth opening her mouth defensively before she realises that she has nothing to say. There’s a long minute of silence, just crackling and breathing on the telephone line, and Beth finally understands just what Benny is offering and why.
“Fine,” she says at last.