Waking that morning, Audrey lay in bed bathed with sun. Hank slept, his eyelashes fluttered with a dream. Looking out the window, she saw the sky as clear as glass. She remembered the mountains that surrounded the town, the fresh air that swept their scent across its streets, and the fact that she now belonged. It thrilled her. She was an ornithologist, chasing her ambitions as they migrated, nested, and sang.
Audrey stretched her limbs and brushed against Hank’s skin, smooth as still water. She peeked under the covers, saw him stir, and slipped under to rouse him with kisses.
When Hank asked Audrey to marry him, it surprised them both. Later he thought of the open window over their nakedness and sex-sweat, the summer breeze bringing the scent of lilacs and coffee, and it all made sense. Later he blamed the moment.
Hank thought himself too young for marriage despite his thirtieth birthday looming. But why not? He loved Audrey. Wasn’t it that simple? They could have the marriage ceremony in the park, invite friends, drink beer, and barbecue. No need to make a big deal out of it. Wasn’t being in love enough?
She, of course, said no.
2. e6 Nd5 3. c4 Nb6
Hank became angry and demanded to know why. This he regretted later, too.
Audrey’s hair lay entangled in the sheets. Her eyes darkened. The small circles she rubbed into his chest became tetrahedrons and stopped. She drew away like the sun passing behind a cloud.
When confronted, she often paused before answering, sometimes as long as a minute or two. At first these silences made him uneasy, because he tended to talk swiftly and make up responses on the fly. Eventually he learned to appreciate her crafted replies.
However, her silence annoyed him now.
Finally she said, “I’m not ready.”
4. d4 d6
“It’s me, isn’t it?” he asked.
“Of course it’s me.”
“It’s the timing, not you.”
“You’re afraid of commitment.”
“I’m in school, you haven’t got a job, I don’t know where we’ll be in a year.”
“What does that matter if you love me?”
“I do love you.”
“When will you be ready?”
“I can’t say.”
“Will you marry me when you’re ready?”
“I can’t say.”
“You can’t or don’t want to?”
“It’s a simple question.”
“You’re pushing me into an area I don’t want to go. Besides, I may never get married.”
5. f4 dxe5 6. fxe5 Nc6
They met in a computer programming class. Hank was learning a skill to make himself employable. Audrey wanted to create her own database to track and calculate research data. They became lab partners, and they built a program they called “The Ark” that paired their classmates based on personal information gleaned from filled-out questionnaires.
They got an “A” on the project, and The Ark claimed they were a bad match. But they started dating despite its conclusion. Hank liked Audrey’s comfortable and confident California persona. Audrey liked Hank’s height, strength, and wit. Plus he knew all the good hiking trails.
7. Be3 Bf5
Born and raised in town, Hank was local. He hunted. He knew where to skinny dip in the Blackfoot. He knew all the cops by name. He majored in journalism at the university.
One time he did live out of the state, a year in New York City. He found it too crowded, dirty, and humid in the summer, it had too many bugs, and there was too much to see, hear, and feel. He was judged by the books he hadn’t read, the movies he hadn’t seen, and the places he’d never been. He learned he didn’t know shit.
8. Nf3 e6
An empty theater stood in Hank’s neighborhood. He had always talked of owning his own café and movie theater, but instead of getting a loan from the bank and making it happen, he sat in diners, read the newspaper, and circled jobs he didn’t want.
Hank’s bad habits annoyed him. He liked to read while eating, even in company. Computer games ensnared him. He was a poor loser. He brooded. His worst trait was his laziness. He lacked the initiative to pursue his dreams. He waited for things to happen and acted only on impulse.
Hank didn’t like himself much.
9. Nc3 Nb3
Audrey moved to the town from California for her wildlife biology graduate program. Though small and picturesque, the town had bookstores, cafes, and a sushi restaurant. Her apartment was in a converted boardinghouse built during the railroad boom. Its windows bordered an alley, which contained the back entrances of a café, video store, and music shop.
Hank worked irregularly at a series of temporary jobs. He lived in a damp, expensive basement apartment playing chess and reading books. She suggested they move in together. The money he would save on rent could help him get a better start, she reasoned.
10. Rc1 c5
Audrey did not suffer from moral ambiguity the way Hank did. Successful at whatever she tried, she was an Ivy-League graduate, a theater director, she had even volunteered on the weekends by answering midnight phone calls from raped women. She ran three times a week and ate fruit.
Now she pursued an advanced degree in ornithology and put raptors at the top of her list. She admired their acrobatics, their range, and the ruthlessness with which they dispatched small animals. It was a way to move through life, she admitted, that she envied. Not cruel, but direct, and with panache.
11. a3 cxd4 12 Bg5 dxc3
Hank lay silent on the mattress and watched her dress. They did not speak or exchange looks as she stalked about the room, opening doors and drawers and clapping them shut, with a noise like gunshots. The intimacy of her flesh the slim thighs, nipples like uncurled slices of coral-colored apple peel the immediacy of her body slipped away under layers of clothes. She withdrew.
When the door closed and her steps faded down the hall, the room seemed to stir under a cold wind that lifted everything in a slow-motion and invisible funnel-like twist. And then it was quiet.
13. Bxd8 Rxd8
Audrey’s books lay scattered on the floor. The Beak of the Finch. The Secret Lives of Ravens. Death in the Marsh. Textbooks on birds. Hank recalled a certain chapter on mating rituals.
The male of one Pacific island species, the bower bird, builds nests three meters in diameter adorned with fruit, colorful leaves, and orchids, all designed to attract a female. He weaves and sculpts for ten months, waiting. When she arrives, she remains only a moment, then flies off with his seed in her womb. The male remains alone in his palace.
Hank felt sorry for the male bower.
14. Qb3 cxb2
Audrey had small, brown hands. Hank liked to put them in his own and compare sizes, making his own hands seem large. Her hands were strong and callused from the hours she spent climbing trees searching for birds’ nests. And when she grasped his penis, he marveled to see the delicate care with which she handled him.
But a glance around the apartment testified to the chaos those hands could wreak. She left her clothes scattered on the floor and piled foot-high stacks of paper against the walls. Who could have guessed from those hands their dizzying accompaniment of disorder?
15. Qxb2 Na4
Hank had eyes the color of spring leaves, and they were bordered by crow’s feet when he smiled. He had hands that were wide and soft, and they fluttered across her body like birds’ wings. He was slow to anger and quick to laugh, especially at himself. Old-fashioned, he said “sir” and “ma’am” to the elderly.
She admitted that he was like the night spent home alone under fresh sheets, sipping tea, and reading Jane Austen for the first time.
But she felt danger in this comfort, like a lure. Time spent with Hank seemed to slip by, unused, wasted.
16. Qa1 Nc2+ 17. Rxc2 Bxc2
The uneasy looks startled Audrey when she entered the room full of first-year biology students. They were used to seeing their grad student teacher serious, professional, not displaying cheeks streaked with tears. Audrey struggled to regain her composure.
The room was a sauna. Some fool in maintenance turned on the heat. Audrey went to open a window, but they were fastened shut. She stood at the glass, saw hills beyond the campus, and traced their contours with her eye to where their rounded tops met the azure sky. The silence at her back filled with coughs, shuffling feet, and whispers.
18. Nd4 Bg6 19. c5 Nxc5
Audrey cut her chemistry class. She could borrow notes from someone. She needed to get out, stretch her legs, and shed her accumulated rage and confusion. Just a short hike, to the concrete “M” on the slope above the campus center.
Immediately she felt better, drawing great breaths of the cool, clean air and filling her senses with the musk of open countryside the smell of grass, the flattened parabola of swooping birds, the chatter of cricket on the summer hillside. The trail turned upwards, and she felt the adrenalene and blood push aside the concerns of her material life.
20. Bb5+ Nd7
Audrey sat on the “M” and looked over the town, its houses the size of toys, its people strolling, insects. She imagined rearranging the neighborhoods like a diorama.
An older couple, flushed and wearing bright tee-shirts, crested the trail. While the man recovered, the woman talked. They were visiting, and thought it nice to take a walk, although this trail was difficult, didn’t she think?
Audrey thought the woman was annoying and noted they didn’t exercise much. She caught her prejudice and scolded herself. Watching a hawk circle on a plume of rising air helped her regain her own attitude.
21. Qc3 a6
Standing on the footbridge that spanned the shallow river and led to the university, Audrey watched the ducks wallow in the shade. The river cut the town in two, the solitary remnant of an enormous prehistoric lake.
At dusk the swallows would emerge from their nests they built from mud and sticks under the bridge and dart after insects. Audrey knew the Roman augurs used to predict the future by studying their flight.
She wished it were dusk. She wanted to see the mysterious signs the birds would weave. If she knew the future, she would know what to feel.
22. Bxd7 Rxd7
The coffee at Hank’s favorite café gave him the jitters, but chess players hung out there, and he was looking for a game.
Behind the counter, a woman worked, sweat from the ovens clinging to her hair. He watched her push her bangs with a flour-covered hand. It was an intimate gesture, and he longed to know her secrets, brand of toothpaste, the contents of her dresser, the book on her nightstand.
She smiled wanly and took the damp bills he pushed at her, giving him coffee and a croissant with raspberries and cream cheese folded inside like hidden desire.
23. Qc8 Rd8
Hank coached himself for aggression.
In chess, Alekhine’s defense is an aggressive response to white’s standard e4 opening. Black brings out the knight to threaten white’s pawn, prohibiting white’s typical second move e5. Black’s move provokes white to move her pawns forward; doing so, he attempts to exploit the vacated space behind her front lines.
Hank had been itching to use Alekhine’s Defense. He had studied the lines of attack and defense in his book “Modern Chess Openings,” which noted variations from black’s Nf6 foray. Instead of waiting for his opponent to make a mistake, he would now force mistakes.
24. Qxb7 Rxd5
The town’s chess master an old Pole who called himself “Godzilla” agreed to play Hank, and they wagered a dollar on the outcome. Hank volunteered to play black, but his opponent surprised him with a queenside attack white’s first move was d4, not e4 and Alekhine’s defense was useless. In a matter of moves, white had smashed through black’s meager lines of defense and ran his rooks to Hank’s seventh rank, thus
sealing the game. Hank had focused so much on aggression, he had forgotten his defense.
He handed the dollar to the old man and got himself another coffee.
25. Qc6+ Rd7
As Hank stepped in the door, the telephone rang. Cupping the receiver to his ear, he heard a smoke-scarred voice offer him congratulations. He had won the job writing press releases for the university president. A café misfit transformed into the voice of a university president! He whooped and jumped, amusing his new boss, the president’s personal aide. His mind traced the lines of communication he would navigate, stretching from the wood-paneled office in the brick building with bell-tower to all the towns across the state, forming a web of community relationships with himself and the president at its center.
26. 0-0 Bd3
Audrey came home from lab and immediately sensed change. The apartment was clean. He had collected scattered books and returned them to their shelves. He had removed his chess board and pieces painstakingly arranged to study a chess problem and a jar of lilacs now stood in its place on the coffee table. Even the windows shone, the dishes lay stacked neatly, and the kitchen floor was swept.
She heard him humming in the shower. She was relieved, although her day had been wasted in anxiety. The relief was worth the churning stomach and the sobbing in the bathroom stall.
27. Rxf7 Bc5+
Wearing only a towel, Hank waltzed into the living room with an imaginary partner. His skin was red from the hot water.
“I got a job,” he said.
To celebrate, they would go to the sushi restaurant using the card. He wore his sharkskin jacket, looking like a saxophonist after the war. Audrey wore a dress, blue with a bow on the back. Her hair was up, revealing a slender neck and a curl hanging over her ear.
They stood side-by-side and admired themselves in the mirror. He turned and kissed her ear. She watched her reflection shiver with pleasure.
28. Kh1 Bb5
In the elegant murmur of the restaurant, Audrey arranged her empty plate and cutlery into geometric patterns. Full on fish and flushed with rice wine, she tackled what sat between them.
“About this morning,” she said.
“Don’t worry,” Hank said, waving his hand as if swatting mosquitoes, “I’m past that now.” He gave her his mischievous half-smile, the one that made her nervous, and he flicked pickled ginger into his mouth with the tips of his chopsticks.
The bill came, and Hank snapped the credit card onto the plastic tray, winking at her. She turned and slipped into her jacket.
29. Qe6+ Re7
They walked down the sidewalk on a carpet of starlight, Audrey’s hand swallowed by Hank’s, and she looked up to see innumerable and insignificant points of light, each an inferno of boiling gas and heat wracked by storms, yet separated from the other by the impenetrable gulf of infinity.
The night filled her with the crickets, the breeze, trees sighing, the collage of shadow on shadow. Her skin tightened, air filled her lungs, and the dampness caressed her neck and she must have stopped, because Hank tugged on her hand and drew her home, unaware of what had just transpired.
30. Rxe7 Bxe7
Joining hands, they groped in the dark, trailing fingertips across the limbs and joints of their apartment. They stood on opposite sides of the bed: he pulled the blinds; she turned on the bedside light; together they unfurled a sheet that fluttered to the bed between them, freeing a scent of fresh-mown grass and gingerbread.
They undressed without hurry.
When fully naked, they paused, considered, and slid into bed. There they explored the contradictions of sex: urgency and deliberation, audacity and the covert, camaraderie and solitude, and finally wet meeting dry, soft embracing stiffness, and the sudden death of vitality.
31. Qc8+ Bd8 32. Qe6+ Be7 33. Qc8+ Bd8 34. Qe6+ (draw)
This how it could have been.
He folds her into his arms. He breathes into her ear. “Do you love me?”
She nods, yes.
She says no.
A pause separates them. Then they laugh loud together like the clucking of fowl. In the morning they carry on as usual.
He tells jokes. She delights in his humor, but soon he drifts off, and she is alone with a myriad of minor noises: the groans of the building as it settles, the occasional rush of water through the pipes.
She knows it will never be the same again.