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time’s been reckless

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When she’s in Paris, every other day, he calls her. The days in between, she calls him. The phone bill is astronomical but he continues to dial the hotel number, and after each time he swears he’ll let her be on her own, but then she rings him, and his willpower resets like a switch. He calls her and he recalls her: her face and her mind and her lips and her scent and her taste. Then on the night before her match against Borgov, it’s her turn to call, but she doesn’t.

She doesn’t come back to New York, and he thinks, fine, let her lick the blood from her papercut pride. She’s not so stupid that she’d quit chess over one loss, over one night of decisions she hasn’t explained and he hasn’t pressed, but she’s still impulsive, irrational, yet to achieve a centered balance for herself, as self-centered as she already is. Beth doesn’t need to share her emotions for him to know she relies on them too much. I don’t know what I’m doing, or what I’m going to do, she’d said, and though he loathes her drinking away her time and talent, he respects her and her ego enough that he doesn’t even entertain any delusion of dragging her kicking and screaming back to his apartment.

He lets her call when she wants, and on the spare occasions she does, they don’t even talk about chess, ‘cause she’s focusing on her house renovation right now, but he listens while his mind works like an alternating current, modulating between why the fuck is she doing this? and at least she’s still calling. There are times when Benny begrudges that she only calls to ask things from him, always seems to want something else from him - an ear to talk off, a tournament update, a sycophant for her life decisions. But if she’s talking, that means she’s not drinking. At least for the moment.

He won’t pretend it doesn’t sting a little that she changes her flight from Paris to Lexington without telling him first, an afterthought at the airport. He respects her like he wants to be respected, an equal in every sense of the word, and that’s more personal than any mental chessboard. He enjoys the way she fits against him in bed like a puzzle piece locking into place, clings to the memory of their last kiss, a phantom of a promise that’s just a little melancholy and almost sweet, before she left New York. He opens himself up like this, and this is how she treats him?

He can’t sit in his car without wishing she were in the seat next to him. He finds it’s easy enough to fall asleep in his bed all alone, but his dreams are all flashes of red hair and genius and presence, a presence that’s gone. He registers her absence like one feels a ghost: the flirtatious arch of her body toward him when she’d asked “Not even Borgov?”, the stack of magazines she read studiously on the cushions, the heat of every glance he took for granted, her laughter as she twirled in the ninety square feet he calls his living room, the eggs he still cooks the way she always did.

I miss her, he realizes, and the realization sends him into a tailspin. Emotions? Relationships? Never put a lot of stock in them. Maybe he should’ve known from the first time she looked at him at the bar in Ohio that platonic is something they could never be.

And now what? What can he do? He can’t order a hurricane to move from Kentucky to New York to train for Russia. No, even on a pragmatic level that has nothing to do with his desire to play her again, to see her again, he knows she knows the optimal choice, but she won’t choose it. (Has she tried meditation? Buddhism? asked Hilton, when he’d inquired where Beth had gone. Those texts, well-meaning gifts for her, sit untouched, unmailed on his countertop. He doesn’t even know her address in Kentucky.)

She’d said she’d come back, but Benny’s never been one to trust promises or IOUs: from gamblers, from sponsors, from banks, from anyone. He’s a cash-up-front-or-no-dice-at-all kind of guy (until he’d taken her at her word, no collateral but one last smile). But the fact of the matter is: Beth isn’t in New York.

He can’t ask why she doesn’t come. He can’t call to say he misses her, that he wants her here, because he’s afraid of scaring her away, and emotional distance isn’t something either of them has ever been good at closing. It’s not because it scares him that he misses her, and it scares him even more that she doesn’t miss him back, and it scares him most that he already knows this without her ever uttering the words. It’s in her voice, in what she doesn’t say, in her all-too-casual tone as she talks about new curtains and couches and a home she’s making, one with no apparent place for him.

Chess is easy, doesn’t require kid gloves to handle, doesn’t necessitate a tightrope to balance. He bites his tongue so hard it bleeds and throws himself into his books and his games, combines Beth’s old notes and his. He notes the parts of his collection that Beth has with her and hopes she’ll at least have the decency to return them someday.

-:-

He finds himself answering every phone call on the first ring, curses himself as he does. Pathetic, you’re pathetic. When it’s finally her voice on the other end, he feels a rush of something else that he stamps out with another self-scolding of you are pathetic. His world shouldn’t be stopping every time she calls.

The question wrests itself out before he can stop it. Are you, uh, coming to New York?” And she says no, casual and careless as they both usually are, and why is he like this, why does he care?

When she brushes him off and then has the audacity to ask him how he’s doing (maybe the first question she’s asked him about him in a while), he tries to say “good.” Usually he’s a superb bluffer but for some godforsaken reason, not right now.

“I’m managing,” Benny says. Then, the words claw heavily from his throat before his brain can stop them: “I miss you.” Her previous rejections have scratched him raw and bloody; this one has peeled him back to reveal words he never thought he’d say.

-:-

Through the crackling of the silence of the phone, Beth entreats him, Benny, please say more, for once talk about something, anything other than chess. It should be paradoxical, that she loves that he loves nothing but chess and yet she longs for him to gaze at her the way he looks at his favorite chessboard, say her name the way he reveres his most pedagogical Capablanca games. This is the thing about longing for Benny - you can’t expect a checkmate to admire you back.

Beth could say anything. But Beth is Beth, and she freezes under the spotlight of emotions, and she can’t process the hint that Benny wants to see her again for her and not just for him, his ego, his bed. She feels something in her veins, and she waits for him to say more, for her to feel more. She opens her mouth to try to say it back, but she can’t, because she’s never said I miss you, doesn’t know how to say I miss you to any of the ghosts haunting her now: a father that abandoned her to an orphanage for Alice’s mistakes, a father that reneged on every promise he ever made, two mothers that left her behind. She’s not sure that she’s capable of being missed, truly. And if she can’t be missed, how can she miss Benny? Going back to New York may well be an exercise in futility, chasing wood around a board long after everything -- and everyone -- has left.

The weight of I miss you is almost more than she can bear, worse than the loneliness echoing around the house, worse than the vinegar associated with “Allston Wheatley,” worse than the shame synonymous with “Paris,” worse than the anguish that sounds awfully like “Mexico City.” I miss you: three words that should just be neurons firing in her head, but she would erase her whole brain if it means the aching went away.

Beth says nothing, as does the other side of the line.

She feels a twisted flood of relief and regret when Benny jumps to “Study the game pamphlets from the last Moscow Invitational.” This is the Benny that she knows - the one that says “You should play the Sicilian” rather than expound emotions, that pushes her to her limits and then tells her it’s not enough, that can pontificate about every piece on a given board, that welds training and fucking into something so beautifully intense that playing bonafide FIDE International Masters in Paris feels like a mercy. This is not the Benny that laughed almost amiably during their Russian practice sessions over Chinese takeout dinners. This is not the Benny that rested his forearm against hers in the movie theater, shooting her wry half-smiles during the scenes that made her wince. This is not the Benny that slipped his hand into hers when they walked back to the apartment that night, a security for which she was grateful but didn’t articulate at the time. This is not the Benny who says “I miss you” like he means it, like it’s killing him to speak but he’d die faster if he says nothing at all.

“I'm not even sure I'm gonna go.” Her hesitation — what familiar territory for them both. Beth is regressing back into a girl in Ohio who just wanted a drink and a guy to kiss her, no fucks given or plans concocted for what to do with something like tomorrow. Like Benny, she knows promises for the future aren’t her strong suit.

“Just do it, Beth. And write the Jesus people back. Tell them you will take all the help that they can give you.” His voice is so cool, so controlled, Beth can nearly miss the teetering edge in it, almost pretend she doesn’t hear the fragility.

When the call ends, Beth sits still at the table for a while and resists the urge to bang the back of her head into the wall. I’ll listen to you about writing the Jesus people back, about reading the pamphlets you gave me to study in Paris and I never gave back. If you tell me to miss you, maybe I can.

Somewhere out there, there’s a perfect response she could give to his I miss you, but it’s lying in the dark, far out of her reach.

-:-

Whoever said “distance makes the heart grow fonder” was a fucking idiot. Or maybe fondness just feels oddly like contemptible frustration.

In the long run, Benny thinks, I miss you doesn’t mean shit. Longing is fleeting, and maybe someday he’ll forget how he’s sitting now, next to the phone collapsed in its cradle: his elbows on the table, head buried in his hands so his ring leaves an imprint on his temple and his fingers tangle with his hair, eyes squeezed shut. He sits like this for what feels like hours, gives himself some time to think, hopes heartsickness is just some curable pox, some terrible dream.

In the long range of things, what is I miss you?

I miss you is one more swipe in a coordinated (or desperate) attack to bring her back, to help shape the most brilliant American chess player and save her from the bottles she insists she’s not drinking but he knows call like siren songs and will inevitably encroach on her sobriety (if they haven’t already). There’s still more to learn, more to study, always, and maybe she wiped him out in thirteen moves in a casual game (his ego is bruised but fine and the least of his problems), but there’s more to chess than can be packed into five weeks.

I miss you is his last shot in a different mission, to see if her feelings were still there, if they existed at all, or if she’d scuppered whatever they had (or maybe he had; untangling the threads of blame over this mess is the fucking last thing he wants to do right now).

I miss you is a miscalculation. How are you? is a nicety, a ploy to change the subject, and only a dunce would think it could mean she cares.

I miss you is futile, because he should’ve known since their conversation on her last day in Paris. He remembers “What if I said, ‘Go ahead, get drunk’? Would you come then?” spilling out easier than it should have, concerns about his apartment and books going to pieces in a liquor-fueled tantrum falling away. Maybe it’s a relief, a blessing in disguise; his collection is irreplaceable. But this feels nothing like a blessing. He’d really been asking, Do you really want to drink, or do you just not want me? Her non-answer should’ve been answer enough for him to leave it alone.

But he can’t. “I miss you.” Do you miss me? Do you love me? The four-letter word alarms him the same time the realization finally sinks in in the wake of her silence.

Benny curses himself - not even Icarus was foolish enough to fall in love with the sun. There is nothing else one can do with sunburnt skin but nurse it back to health; nothing else one can do with dreams melting like wax but let them die.

I miss you is just another thing he says before he falls back into chess, burying something and everything like he’s always been able to do. Just a piece of himself he gives to her and won’t even think twice about once it’s gone. Just a coping mechanism to deal with the ways their relationship does and doesn’t function. If he can repeat it doesn’t matter to himself enough times, he can believe it. He is fine; he will be fine.

In the long range of things, I miss you is milquetoast, meaningless. Sure, he’s not thrilled that she hems and haws about coming back to New York, and, yes, he frequently finds himself questioning why did I trust her? Something in him answers: because he knows that someday all pain must dissipate, and if anyone can be strung along by Beth Harmon and come out unscathed, it’s Benny Watts.

She hadn’t said anything that cuts him any deeper. Maybe because she’d already scraped him hollow, revealing a fruit with no seeds at its core.

If this is love, if this is relationships that aren’t built on poker games and cigarettes, Benny wants nothing to do with it. If this is opening his heart, then it can fucking well stay closed. Benny decides he despises the phrase “I miss you.”

-:-

Beth’s ghosts drum around her head, while Beth’s ghost dances in Benny’s. He feels her name in every speck of dust in the basement in New York, and she feels his name tattooed on her brain as it rests on a down pillow in Lexington.

It was always chess for him, Beth thinks as she nods off in Alma’s bed, wrapped in her dressing robe. And sex. Never about me. Or us.

It was always chess for her, Benny thinks as he falls asleep alone, again. And sex. Never about me. Or us.

How could this get any worse? They both toss restlessly, two souls in two cities, unknowingly, unwillingly intertwined.

His advice is keeping me lucid, Beth realizes while Benny thinks, her voice is keeping me sane.

Her heart beats like it’s breaking. Maybe it was always broken, and now she’s vainly sweeping the pieces under the brand-new carpet of her house. These emotions shouldn’t matter; she has a house to maintain in the suburbs and a tournament to win in San Francisco.

His head feels like a bustling street littered with traffic cones and construction signs. He can swerve around regret, roll past the red lights and parking tickets that put a number to just how many weeks it’s been since she left, take a detour to avoid every memory that makes him think of her. These things shouldn’t matter; he has more important shit to do.

Moscow, they think at the same time, because that’s when they’ll see each other, the Christian Crusade sponsorship opening a door. They’ll be alright then; they have to be alright until then.

This doesn’t feel like living, this can’t be all living is, but in lieu of other possibilities, they live like this.

The only thing left to do is attempt a dreamless sleep, counting confessions, concessions, that which can be said over the phone, and that which can’t, instead of sheep.

-:-