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part i: 1972 - 1979

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November, 1974

 

“I’m ready for Koblents,” Freddie tells Florence. He’s leaning against the doorframe to her bedroom, watching her pack and not offering to help. “I really am, this time.” He taps at the wood with an erratic beat that Florence is pretty sure he doesn’t even notice.

“Fourth time’s the charm?” she asks dryly.

He glares at her.

“I’m only joking, Freddie,” she says, shaking out a green silk blouse so she can fold it. She’ll have to hang her clothes in the bathroom when she showers at the hotel to steam the wrinkles out. What a pain. “We’ve been training for this for ages.”

“I know, that’s why I said I’m ready,” Freddie snips. “He’s not gonna get me with that E-file trick again.” He starts to pace, but her room is so small he bumps into her when he turns.

“Freddie,” she snaps, “are you even packed?”

“Yes,” he pouts. “I packed this morning.”

She knows exactly what he’s packed, too; same thing as every match. Dark-wash jeans haphazardly folded, black shirts balled up and shoved in along with underwear, a dopp kit, that worn portable chess set he refuses to get rid of, and not much else. For someone who loves money so much he’s not very good at dressing nicely. 

“Did you pack that suit for the press conference?” Florence asks. She’s trying to get him to deviate from his jeans-and-t-shirt “uniform,” but she’s starting to suspect it’s a lost cause. She gave up long ago on telling him to wear anything but that during his actual matches.

“Yes,” Freddie grumbles. “And the tie.”

She’ll have to steam that too, she’s sure.

“Good,” she replies. “Now get out of my hair.”

Freddie rolls his eyes but takes her words in good humor. “I’ll call and schedule a cab,” he says, and Florence relaxes slightly when he scoops Cat from her bed and leaves the room. He’s only going to get more antsy, she knows; he hates breaking his routine, hates most aspects of traveling, and the fact that he’s lost to Koblents three times in a row isn’t exactly going to help.

Florence just hopes he’ll keep his head. Koblents is well-liked by the rest of the chess world. He’s eccentric, yes, but overall a polite, pleasant man who seems uninterested in politics, or at the least finds the topic indelicate. Florence likes him well enough herself — he’s a welcome relief from the average arrogant, esoteric competitor — but she’ll never admit that to Freddie. Freddie, who doesn’t have the self-awareness to see that his hatred for Koblents comes from his own insecurity rather than anything wrong with the other man. Freddie, who is positively itching for a fight that had damn well better stay on the board and out of the press.

All hope of that flies out the window when the oh-so-eccentric Koblents decides to make a joke at Freddie’s expense.

The press conference at the Ring-Messehaus goes well enough. In his tan suit, Freddie manages to look both handsome and as if he’s wearing a costume. He only makes one snide little comment when a reporter asks him about competing in Leipzig, and even that isn’t too bad: “Sure , the weather in East Germany is fine, but I prefer New York and I think you know why.” 

Florence is relieved when he doesn’t elaborate, and even more relieved when the conference ends without Freddie once acknowledging Koblents except by shaking his hand at the start. Alright, it’s rude of him to pretend the man isn’t there, but it’s better than bickering with him.

Koblents doesn’t seem to realize this. Florence happens to be watching him when the FIDE officials allow the fans to come forward for autographs, and she sees his face perk up with some idea when he gets the pen in his hand. Sees him scrawl his autograph on the proffered copy of the Shakhmatny Bulletin, and then something else. 

The eager young man peers at the signatures, laughs, and holds up the Bulletin to the people behind him. They laugh too, and Freddie turns in his seat where he’s been happily signing autographs of his own.

Koblents catches Freddie’s eye and offers a friendly smile. “I have signed your name for you, too, Mr. Trumper,” he says into the microphone. “Why not? I’ve beaten you so often, that gives me the right to sign for you, yes?” He chuckles at his own joke. 

“You what? ” Freddie asks with an unhinged little laugh. Florence steps forward from the throng to try to catch his eye, but of course he’s not looking at her.

Koblents’ smile fades slightly. “Only a joke,” he reassures Freddie.

Shit, he thinks he’s being friendly, Florence realizes, and she would laugh at him too except they’re in public and Freddie is about to do something very, very stupid. 

“You think just because you beat me before means you can sign my name? ” Freddie demands. He stands up, the scrape of his chair loud beneath his voice. Florence thinks he’s about to start yelling, but instead he forces a grimace of a smile. Why is that so much worse? 

“You know what?” he says. “I understand.” He leans over the FIDE moderator and claps Koblents on the back. Both men watch him warily. “I do,” Freddie continues. “ My autograph is going for twenty-five dollars, which is a hell of a lot more than yours, and would be even if the dollar weren’t a thousand times more valuable than your worthless rubles. It’s alright, comrade, you can ride on my name if your family is too hungry to wait in the bread line.”

Freddie turns to face the crowd of fans and reporters. “You see how the communists treat their own chess champions?” he calls out, spreading his arms. “They turn them into beggars.” He drops his hands and turns back to Koblents, all pretense of a smile gone. “Either that, or dirty liars who pretend to be polite when all they want to do is mock Americans , because they’re too scared to play fair !” 

He’s yelling now as he points into Koblents’ shocked face, and it’s all Florence can do to not drag him bodily from the dais — but it turns out she doesn’t have to, because Freddie turns on his heel and storms back behind the curtain. She hesitates as the room erupts into chatter — should she take Freddie’s place and try to spin this? No, she decides, and hurries after him; better to get him to come back out and apologize as quickly as possible.

It’s an impossible task. He’s in such a rage that the green room, which had felt spacious enough before, seems the size of a closet now. Florence closes the door behind her all the same.

“That motherfucker,” Freddie snarls through his teeth. “That motherfucker, he thinks he can — my name — in front of everyone , he mocks me —”

He’s breathing hard through his mouth, can’t even finish a thought, and something is wrong with him. She’s never seen him so upset, not even that time she’d startled him out of a nightmare and he’d woken to panic so bad he had to hide in the bathroom.

“Freddie,” she tries.

“He’s not gonna beat me again. He’s not. He’s not. He won’t. He’s not. He —”

“Freddie, please, just breathe.”

“I’m gonna win. I should go out there right now and — and —” 

He heads for the door and Florence moves to block him; she doesn’t know what he’ll do if he gets out there, and it’s obvious he doesn’t know either, and nothing good could come of that.

“Why are you acting like this?” she demands before he can tell her to get out of his way.

“I’m not acting like anything,” he says, and it’s almost funny how his contrary nature is so stubborn it gives him back the ability to speak in full sentences. “I’m mad.”

“I can tell,” she says dryly, her back against the door. “But I haven’t seen you mad this way before.” He looks suddenly guilty, and although she dreads knowing the answer, she asks: “Are you hiding something from me?”

“It’s nothing,” he claims. Then adds brusquely: “This isn’t the time. Let me out of here, I want to finish signing my autographs.”

“That’s all done,” she lies smoothly. “The press conference is over. You’ve already made your headline for today.”

“I’ll make a better one tomorrow, when I beat the commie.”

“You won’t beat him if you keep up this behavior.”

“Fuck off, Florence. Let me out.”

He still looks slightly deranged but she’s now officially too angry with him to argue, so Florence relents. “Fuck right off yourself, then,” she snaps, and opens the door for him.

To her horror, Freddie makes a beeline for the stage. When he sees the cameras and people are still there, he shoots her a look of such scorn and betrayal she’s speechless, and then he steps out into the light and all she can do is watch from behind the curtains.

When she cranes her neck, she can see that Koblents and the moderator are still there too, both looking distinctly nervous at Freddie’s sudden reappearance.

“I’ve come back to finish my autographs,” Freddie announces coldly. 

To Florence’s surprise and chagrin, the fans immediately swarm his side of the dais, jostling for his attention as if having had a tantrum and flouncing away made him a rockstar and not a child. Well that just makes them children too, then, she thinks petulantly. Little boys, all of them. Something about Freddie’s demeanor earlier continues to nag at her — this wasn’t like his usual tantrums — but she hasn’t the patience to parse it out. She hasn’t any patience left at all, she finds, so she leaves Freddie to make his own way, and uses her best German accent to ask the cab driver to take her back to the hotel.

She parks herself at the bar with a gin and tonic and for several hours resolutely ignores every man who tries to speak to her until by their very presence they drain her of the last of her energy, and she pays her tab and returns to her room, feeling utterly defeated as if by an enemy she did not know she had.

Despite the exhaustion, despite the defeat, instinct prompts her to pause at the door adjoining her hotel room to Freddie’s. It’s silent on his end, though it’s only 8pm Berlin time. Florence considers knocking to wake him up, as he really ought to get a proper rest at the proper hours, but she’s tired too. So she shucks off her dress, sets her alarm clock for 5am, and embraces the jetlag.

 

A high, jangling noise from the other room prompts Freddie to open his eyes. Alarm clock. Florence’s room. Can’t turn it off. He closes his eyes again and sinks back into the meditative state he’d been in before, not asleep and not awake and perfectly, exquisitely prepared to grind Mikhail Koblents into dust beneath his heel.

He hasn’t slept all night. He’s needed sleep less and less, lately, and the jetlag has really cinched it. He’d slept too much on the plane, that was his problem, that was why he’d lost it at the press conference ( though Koblents had it coming, he thinks, smiling at the memory of the commie’s shocked face). But now he’s balanced it out by staying up all night. He feels peaceful. Today, he knows, is the day he’ll begin to take down his crown. Today Koblents; tomorrow, whoever they threw at him next.

He registers that someone — must be Florence — is knocking at his door now. Rude of her to disturb his meditation, especially after her nasty little lie yesterday about the press conference being over. What had she been thinking? It was the kind of lie a clumsy saboteur would tell, they’ve all gone, don’t go back, no point in trying to win back the press now, when no one had gone anywhere and he won them back easily. Well, won back the fans at least. Who knew what the press were saying.

Anyway, point is, he’s not answering the door. He doesn’t need her fussing around him, it’ll only disturb his calm. She’s such a pecking hen sometimes, such a woman . It’s maddening.

Eventually the knocking stops, but then he hears a key in the lock. He opens his eyes to see a nervous East German porter standing in the doorway, with Florence behind him managing to look both worried and enraged.

“What are you —” she begins, but he cuts her off with a careless wave of his hand.

“Meditating. Don’t speak to me. We don’t have to leave for” (he glances at the clock) “two more minutes.”

“You need to get dressed,” she hisses, edging around the porter, who is about six foot five and trying unsuccessfully to shrink.

“I am dressed.”

“You can’t wear pajamas to the match. They won’t let you into the room. There are rules, Freddie, and regulations.”

He stands up and strips off his striped cotton pants; when they reveal jeans underneath, her shock turns to bewilderment.

“Why —”

“I said don’t talk to me,” he reminds her, because every word is gouging into the smooth surface of his calm, making the board in his mind pitted and uneven, and he can’t have that.

She presses her lips together and glares at him loudly. Freddie tucks his black t-shirt into his jeans and walks out the door, not looking back to see if she follows because she always does, and always will.

The cameras hum and the lights are too hot for comfort, but with the board laid out in front of him, with his mind cool and clear, nothing can stop Freddie. Not this time. He barely even sees Koblents in the seat across from him, but he can feel him. He can sense the man shift in his seat an hour or so into the game, a tiny, silent, frightened movement that confirms to Freddie what he already knows: I’m gonna crush him. I’m gonna win.

And he does. He finally, finally does, and when he stands up triumphant there’s roaring in his ears as if a crowd is cheering him on, and everything goes black as if the curtain has dropped, and when he opens his eyes he’s on his back on a couch with an old man shining a light in his eye.

“Am I dead?” he asks stupidly. “Did I really win?”

“Oh, am I allowed to speak to you now?” comes Florence’s snide voice from somewhere behind him. She doesn’t wait for an answer. “You’re not dead, and you did win.”

“Do I detect a note of pride in your voice there?” he crows.

“No.”

He tries to sit up so he can look at her, because he’s pretty sure she’s fighting a smile, but the doctor (he’s figured out it’s a doctor by now) shakes his head and says nein. 

“Speak English,” Freddie snaps at him. At least he’s turned off the light he was beaming into Freddie’s poor eye.

“He’s telling you to shut the fuck up and lay back down,” Florence translates helpfully.

“No he’s not.”

The doctor looks over at Florence and speaks again.

“He wants to know if you’ve eaten anything today.”

“Hmm. No,” Freddie answers.

“For the love of —”

The doctor must have caught her tone, because he shakes his head at Freddie again, solemn and disapproving. Then he and Florence strike up a keenly obnoxious back-and-forth bombardment of questions.

Something in German, then “have you had water?”, no, shake of head; something in German, “when was the last time you slept?”, on the plan, shake of head; something in German, “have you had any alcohol or drugs in the past 48 hours?”, no, approving nod (a welcome change of pace); something in German, “have you started or stopped any medications recently?”

“Uh,” Freddie says, and too late realizes that Florence can translate that as fluently as she can the German.

She finally comes into view. Standing behind the doctor, she’s looking at Freddie as if she’s caught him in a foolish lie. Which she hasn’t. It’s much worse than that.

“Well, have you?” she asks.

He practices the argument as well as he can in his (he’ll admit it) slightly addled brain. Been lying to you since 1972, sure, but for your own good, for my own good too, it never hurt anyone, none of your business anyway, between me and my shrink and I wouldn’t have won if I hadn’t stopped taking those fucking pills anyway, so I was right, and you’re not allowed to be upset with me.

What comes out is hedging: “I was on a medication for a while but I stopped back in April.”

Florence pauses, then translates for the doctor. He responds with another question.

“What medication, and what was it for?” Florence asks.

“None of your business,” he says, finally sounding like he has a backbone, he thinks.

“Freddie, be reasonable.”

You be reasonable. Get me some food so I can go out there and talk to the press so they treat me like a proper champion, I don’t want the headline to be about how I fucking fainted. Were the cameras still on when I fainted?”

“Yes,” she says coldly. “The press can wait.”

“They really can’t. Have you met a reporter?”

“What medication,” she repeats, “and what for?” The doctor says something in German to emphasize the importance of the question.

“It was in April that I stopped it,” he argues. “It can’t possibly have caused this. I just didn’t eat or sleep for long enough, that’s the only reason I fainted.”

But now Florence is looking as if she’s had a thought, and that can’t be good.

“You haven’t been sleeping or eating as much as you used to for a while,” she says in English, and then in German, or so he assumes, because the doctor again shakes his head. “Since April, I would bet. Spit it out, Freddie. Otherwise I’m going to start imagining possibilities that are far worse than whatever the truth is.”

“I doubt that,” he says, and kicks himself for being contrary all the way to his own doom.

“You’re dying of some mystery disease.”

“Nope. Not that I know of.”

“You have some kind of slow-acting rabies.”

“That’s not a real disease.”

“You’re a paranoid schizophrenic.”

It’s like she’s punched him in the chest; Freddie tries to gasp but can’t. He twists his neck to press his face into the couch so he doesn’t have to see the horror on her face, the fear, the revulsion. He hears Florence say something in German, and then she walks out the door. He manages to take in an awful, wracking breath, and his body shudders with it, his whole body, I look insane, he thinks, They’re gonna commit me again.

The footsteps return, and then there’s a steady hand on his shoulder. Florence’s. He doesn’t have to look up to know. He grips the cushions with all his strength but he can’t stop gasping and shaking, I can’t, I can’t, Florence, don’t leave.

“I’m not leaving,” she says, and he’s not sure if he’d spoken out loud without realizing it, or if she’s just read his mind. “Here. I have water for you, and a banana.”

The tremors begin to recede but he still speak or lift his face from the cushion. She’s not saying it all confident and certain like the time he had a panic attack and hid in the bathroom after a nightmare. She’d gotten him water then, too, and coffee the next morning. She hadn’t doubted he’d be alright, hadn’t known to. Now she knows more about me than she should.

The doctor asks another question.

“Did your psychiatrist tell you to stop taking — whatever you were taking for it?” Florence asks.

Freddie manages to shake his head without setting off another bout of full-body quakes.

Florence and the doctor confer, and then she tells him what he knew she would: “You have to take your pills, darling.”

But I wouldn’t have won if I was taking them. And then he properly remembers: I won! I beat Mikhail fucking Koblents! 

He sits up. Florence looks wan and uncertain; the doctor looks disapproving. Freddie seizes the banana with one hand and the water with the other, then hands the water back so he can peel the banana, all the while talking: “Yes, I’ll take my pills from now on, I promise, but I need to talk to the press, how long has it been since I fainted? They haven’t gone, have they? Don’t lie to me this time, Florence, have they gone?”

“They haven’t gone,” Florence admits; “it’s only been about ten minutes.”

Well thank goodness for that. He washes the half-chewed banana down with the water, and already he’s feeling much better. I can take the pills most of the time and taper off before big matches so I have a clear head, and as long as I remember to eat and sleep it’ll be fine. I just need to be more careful. He thinks it quietly, in the back of his head, so Florence can’t read his mind again.

Out loud, Freddie says “I’m ready,” and when he stands up he’s not dizzy. He runs his hands quickly through his hair and then he really is ready. He’s been ready for years. This is his comeback, at last, at last. It’s time to work the cameras.

He exits the room without a backwards glance, and Florence follows. This time he does turn around, just for a moment, to press her hand in thanks. He still can’t quite look her in the eye, and has to wipe out the memory of the way she’d said paranoid schizophrenic as if it were the worst thing in the world, so bad it could only be a joke — there, gone. He won’t think about it again. He knows she knows that the touch of her hand meant thank you for not leaving me, and that’s truly all he has to say, from the bottom of his heart. 

It’s a quick, quiet moment. Nearly too much for him to handle, and (he doesn’t know this, and Florence never finds a way to tell him) not nearly enough for her. She stands back and watches him return to the world stage, wondering for the first time whether he can handle it. Wondering, too, whether she can.