He is twenty-five years old, and somewhere between Flagstaff and Albuquerque. He's done these drives almost every year for the last seven; ever since the USCF picked up the habit of hosting the U.S. Open in the West. Region VI, the Southwest. Region III, the Pacific.
Manhattan to Vegas is a long drive, and he does it two ways, but flying still isn't worth the cost. He has the time. So he adds a day to the expected trip length, and traverses the country, playing at any available clubs en-route and sleeping in cheap motels, his car, with friends or a quick lay.
He does not mind the long hours alone on the road, not when he can fill his thoughts with chess and play dead masters until the sun gets low in the sky. And when his back gets stiff and his fingers begin to cramp, he can easily find somewhere interesting to get out and explore.
But this time the only game that goes through his head is the newest Senior Master's first loss, and he mulls it over as he loops south to avoid the heavy mountain snows.
His fingers tap the wheel, frustrated. He can see how she could have drawn, or won if she had switched her focus more effectively. If she hadn't fixated on one idea until it cost her the game. And he could see, feel, how it hurt her.
No one likes learning they aren't invincible. But if she cannot get past it, she will not survive playing internationally.
But Benny is twenty-five, and he knows while his soulmate is seventeen, she has been playing opponents for only three years. She is probably still learning when to focus, and when to see the whole board. She will learn from this. When they will play again, she will be better.
('And when she does?'
He will deal with it when they come to it.)
She is seventeen when she confronts the box the man from Cornell gave them.
He had introduced himself as "Miss Harmon's old thesis advisor", and he brought with him a heavy cardboard box and a book. "Her research materials and books were left to the University library," he had apologized, "but she never came back for some of her belongings. Teaching supplies, I think, but a few personal items." But she had been amazed, nonetheless. Her mother had taught at the University. She hadn't even known that much.
The old professor looked surprised when she told him this, and gave her permission to write if she had questions.
"I have one now," she had said. He nodded, and she asked if he knew her father. He didn't, but he gave her the book to keep. She recognized it at a glance, but Alma flipped to the first page.
"She spent two years on that," the professor told them.
"Nineteen-forty-six? She was—" Alma trailed off, prompting her to look at the page. There is a quick biography, featuring Alice Harmon's birth year. Her mother had been working on her doctorate at her age. Younger, perhaps. She didn't know what to think. But Alma, her new mother, did. "She was a genius," she murmured.
As a child, she had never asked her mother for details. Then, it became too late to ask. In one meeting her knowledge of her first parent practically doubled. She wants whatever she can. This box has all that is left.
But she has doubts. How much more could this box teach her? And does she want to know? But some people call her a genius at chess. Is this her fate? (If it is, perhaps ignorance really is bliss.)
But Beth is seventeen years old, and she knows there are things you have to face. She had held off on opening the box until after the U.S. Open because she hadn't wanted to be distracted, not because of fear. Now she has over a month until the next big prize, in Chicago. She has the time, and no more excuses.
They say the onus of the older soulmate is patience, of waiting for their match to become themselves. In my experience, however, expectations are just as much a cause for conflict. One can think they know themselves, but can one ever truly know another? Predict their nature, or their movements?
He is twenty-five, and back in his friends' apartment. They had run down to the nearest deli to grab sandwiches, but Cleo is still there.
(The sleeper couch hasn't been used. It is covered in stacks of Levertov's two-week-old grading.)
They share a light, and fall into their usual subjects of choice. Beyond the technical ones that only two regular world travelers can appreciate, they compare notes on politics and travel, European music and New York's many undergrounds.
But inevitably, Cleo brings up "the girl". She does it with her usual bluntness, and when he least suspects. "Hm… Is she attractive?"
He is thrown, because they were discussing Moscow. "Who?"
Cleo raises an eyebrow. "You just played her."
He shoots her a look. "She is seventeen." Even as he says it, he kicks himself. Considering her background, Cleo will not care. For her, survival in the postwar economy came first.
She smirks. "Obviously. Tell me something else. You did speak to her, didn't you?"
It sounds familiar. "Did Wexler put you up to this?"
Cleo laughs. "No, but Hilton and I discussed it while you were wasting a week in that tin can of yours. So? What was she wearing?"
He was about to reiterate his first point, when it occurred to him that, for Cleo, clothes were a language in the way chess was for him. Unfortunately, he hadn't been paying much attention. "Blue at the game, but I saw her wearing a red shirt and a camera before."
"Nothing else?" she teases. He takes a drag from his cigarette, rather than answer. Cleo sighs. "Yes, yes. Underage. But if she wasn't?"
I don't think I would notice, he thinks. I have a rule: don't shit where you eat, he wants to say. The first would be honest; he has never seen his opponents like that, not when chess is involved. The other would also be true; he doesn't want to cause problems in the driving force of his life. But instead, he settles for something just as true. "She's the Kid."
Cleo rolls her eyes, skeptical. "You keep saying that." She pauses, and admits, "With all this talk, I would like to see her play."
Benny is twenty-five, and it has been twelve years since her words took shape. That one word has become layered with meaning beyond its definition. A potential rival, an equal, a way to improve. A fellow chess player above all else. Later, a pain on his wrist, a grim-faced child in black and white, an awkward teenager with a well-hidden temper. Now, a talented player not quite there yet, but could be. Soon.
(Someone to watch out for.)
She is seventeen, and thinks she understands there are times when you may need help, or friends. So they make a day of it, she, Alma, and Jolene. Jolene comes over on the following Sunday, curious after too many blanks in their conversations over the phone. Alma greets her with some relief, hoping that "you may be able to understand if something is worth bringing to our lawyer. Would you like some tuna casserole?"
Jolene laughs as she attempts to signal to her from behind Alma not to accept the offer.
The levity ends, though, as the box is opened. On the top is a glass paperweight. Jolene picks up a stack of books and sets them aside for her to look at later.
Underneath there are photographs. They all have tiny holes from being pinned to some sort of display, but they are clear enough. The only framed photograph is a professional print dated January 1948 on the back, featuring a middle-aged couple, and a girl who looks familiar enough to identify. She knew intellectually she had grandparents, but it is another thing to see the smiling, well-dressed pair.
While Jolene comments on sharing a taste in clothes, she recalls that her mother once said she came from money. She remembers that her mother said she married into more of it, and starts flipping through. But there is no sign of the man who she saw before the accident. She is not surprised.
She looks at Alma, who is studying the portrait with a frown. "I hope they are dead," she confesses with sudden clarity. Her adoptive mother stumbles at her words, but Jolene nods.
Alma sets the frame down on the coffee table. She clears her throat. "For not coming for you, I take it?"
"It's better than your own family not wanting you," Jolene explains solemnly.
Alma looks even sadder. "I see… And she had no one else?" It hadn't even occurred to her to check. She skims the photographs, but all the people they contain seem to be students or staff.
"Not soulmate, Cracker?" Jolene asks gently.
"It's all just skin." Alice waves her arm, displaying where the mark had been rendered permanently illegible by jagged scars.
Her voice hitches. "No. No soulmate."
She knew her mother's was set, the words of some stranger too far away to help the daughter indistinguishable under the scars. It figured. Just another missing man in her life. Another might have been. She can handle that; Mr. Shaibel is everything she needs in a father, she has a whole team of brothers, and Townes may be one too.
She does not know what to think of her own match. Though she understood the logic, and over time began to welcome the simplicity it afforded her, his absence had left a great deal of ambiguity. It was probably for the best; her focus was on chess. If his intention in letting her be was to let her progress on her own, it had done its job. She could at least respect that.
Determined to set aside this topic, she flips open what appears to be a pocket planner. She sees a simple slip of paper sticking out of the back, and freezes.
Beth is seventeen years old, and can recognize a prescription when she sees one. And she has been intimately familiar with that particular name for the last three years.
(She puts it in her pocket, and later, in her copy of de Fermian. She doesn't want to get rid of it, but she doesn't want anyone reading it. There, it will be safe.)
Yet almost all soulmates, save the rare few who find each other in infancy, display this behavior to some degree. It is as though, having had time to develop that image of their soulmate, humans may find it hard to shake when faced with the reality of the person behind the mark…
He is twenty-five years old, and comes back from Argentina to turmoil. Not for him, but for the Invitational in July. The organizers had just gotten a response, and apparently the Soviets will not be joining them.
It is a blow, for them and for him. But it is not enough to make him reconsider his travel itinerary. Not with its prize fund, and the likes of El Viejo and Reshevsky.
Still, it is disappointing. He distracts himself from it by challenging everyone he can find, and scanning the magazines for tournaments nearby. He could use some speed chess with decent players, and most club members won't risk playing him.
Instead, he finds an announcement. He thinks of his last conversation with Cleo, and the likelihood of Harmon showing up. With her rating potentially pushing 2450 after the Greater Chicago, she is a shoe-in. Still, he snips out the announcement and adds it to a response to Mrs. Wheatley.
Benny is twenty-five, and not above doing a friend a favor.
She is seventeen years old when she asks the Kentucky State team for help with her game analysis. She phrases it as homework, the first she has ever assigned beyond "practice", but they can read her well enough, she suspects.
"What did I miss?" she asks. It was a radical suggestion of Jolene's to do this, and seems pointless, but she trusts her. Still, asking hurts almost as much as losing, or finding out some unknown (even a soulmate) has been studying her games, and she braces herself for the answers.
And they come, and come, and come. Some are brilliant, and others are absurd. Lines of notation she would not have had time to work out, or which her gut would have dismissed. Joking assessments of her opponent's character, and serious assessments of his past and present play style. Strategies. Priorities. Even luck is argued, regarding a possible fork.
But then Jones, a freshman from Ashland, pulls out a book. "Have you seen this?" He sets up a position on the board. It looks familiar, but it is not from her game.
She starts imagining the lines that might result from such a position, while the others look at the book. Then Levy looks back at the board, and swears. "Are there any others?"
"A couple." The team breaks into murmurs.
"I don't know whether this is a complement or an attempt to destroy your confidence, but I think he was inspired by some of the early games between Luchenko and Botvinnik. Or maybe a Tal? And there are a couple from Hoogovens that look similar…"
She lets their discussion wash over her, and makes a decision.
Beth is seventeen, and has been all but coaching these men for two years with outstanding results. Perhaps now, after these not-strangers she trusts to have her back have studied her games, they could point out what others see.
Maybe that is what Jolene meant when she told her, "You need to get off your pedestal."