After a match— usually during one of those press conferences that I always assume will have twelve viewers but instead are streamed by hundreds of thousands of nerds like me— people will ask me how, in a specific moment, at a specific turn of the game, I decided what to do. How did you know to sacrifice the pawn? Why that trade? Rook e6 was perfect— what made you think of that?
People ask me. And all I can say is: I just knew.
Instinct, maybe. Something innate within myself that helps chess come together like a fully formed shape. A rudimentary, gut understanding of how things could be if I let myself follow a path.
The pieces tell me a story. They draw pictures and ask me to color them in. Each one, with its hundreds of possible moves, billions of possible combinations, is like a beautiful skein of yarn. I can unspool it if I like, then weave it together with others to create a beautiful tapestry. A new tapestry.
Ideally, a winning tapestry.
If it hadn’t been for Dad, that instinct would have stayed coarse, unspun within me. If it hadn’t been for years of hard work, of practicing, studying, analyzing, thinking, reliving, obsessing, playing, playing, playing, my instinct would be worth very little. If it hadn’t been for Defne, after falling asleep for four years, it would have stayed dormant.
But I would still have it. If things had been different, my instinct would still be a raw ball of unknowns knotted inside me: waking me up at 3:05 a.m. on the most important day of my life, thrumming within me, pulling me out of bed.
I don’t even remember falling asleep. The TV is still on, Netflix pointedly asking if we’re still watching Riverdale, and I have no idea why my sisters decided to infiltrate my room instead of returning to their overpriced suite. Climbing out of bed takes Cirque du Soleil– grade coordination and a nearly sprained ankle. Once I’ve peed and drunk what’s left in my water bottle, I’m just not motivated enough to dive back in.
I try to keep quiet as I put on Easton’s CU Boulder hoodie. It stops just below my shorts, and I should probably grab a coat and some thick sweats, but I don’t bother turning on the light for something warmer, and instead let myself out of the room.
The hallways are silent and gelid. The sea, quiet. There are no ferries, no boats, no seagulls, because all of Venice is fast asleep. I make my way down the stairs, the shiny pinks and whites of the marble floors pure ice under my bare feet, hair bouncing over my shoulders.
I don’t know where I’m going, but I know in my stomach that it feels right. It’s good, this: being alone with the night sea breeze, exploring the deserted gardens, inhaling the smell of grass and salt. I spot some lights in the distance, from the little glass house where I’ll spend the next two weeks, immersed in chess and heartache. I follow the stone path, shivering, tracing the steps for the first of thirteen times. Wondering if come morning, the precious calm I feel right now will tangle into a pile of exposed nerves.
I stop in my tracks when I see him, but I’m not startled. Maybe I should be surprised to see him there— the time, the place, the coincidence don’t exactly make sense—but my gut tells me that this is fine.
This is why I’m here: for Nolan.
He gives me his back, standing tall in front of a familiar frame. Marcus Sawyer’s picture has been moved into the glass house, flanked by three others— all the world champions who have been crowned here in Venice. Tomorrow, when the first game starts, they will surround the players. Place them right within history.
I watch the relaxed line of Nolan’s shoulders and think about my next move.
Think about turning around.
Think about my cold limbs and the pile of sisters back in my room.
Think about his messy hair and a box of Froot Loops and his wide eyes as he said, Kasparov was there.
Think about him nuzzling my belly button, and his penchant for the Scotch Game, and the way I liked being with him so much, maybe I got a bit scared.
A lot scared.
My next move, then, is to keep on walking. Horizontally, through an unoccupied path. Like a rook would. And Nolan . . . he must hear me open the glass door and enter, but he doesn’t turn. Nor does he acknowledge my presence. He continues to study his grandfather’s picture, dark eyes to dark eyes, stubborn jaw to stubborn brow. When I come to stand right next to him, close enough to feel his heat, and say, “I’ve been studying his games,” his answer is simply:
I missed his voice. Or: I missed the way his voice sounds when it’s the two of us and no one else. Rich. Lower than usual. Stripped of its coats and edges. I missed letting it flow through me.
“Because I couldn’t bear to study yours.”
“That boring, huh.”
I exhale a shaky laugh. “No, it’s just . . . Come on. You know.”
He nods, still facing the picture. The soft lights play beautifully across his skin. “I do know.”
“Yeah. Anyway.” I push my hair behind my ear. I’d love to meet his eyes, but it’s not going to happen. Not if we continue this way. Not if he won’t look at me. “My favorite was the one he played against Honcharuk at some point in the early eighties. Tata Steel, I think, back when it was called . . .”
“That game when he offered a draw even though he had the losing position?”
“Yes.” I chuckle. “It must be such a mindfuck, having Marcus Sawyer do that. You have to assume he’s seeing something you’re not.”
“Right. I still can’t believe Honcharuk accepted instead of slapping him.” He shakes his head fondly. “God. What an asshole move.”
“Clearly runs in the family,” I say. He laughs a little, silent, wistful, and I immediately want to kick myself and take it back.
I didn’t mean
I lied when
“No. No, I . . .” I cover my eyes with my hands. I’m a mess. I’m making a mess. “I didn’t mean to . . . For what it’s worth, I don’t think you’re an asshole. Or manipulative. Or selfish. Or . . .” Unloved. “Or most of the other things I called you in New York, really. Or maybe you are, a bit, but no more than any other chess player in the entire universe. No more than me.” I try to take a deep breath, and the air almost chokes past the ache in my lungs. “I really didn’t think any of the things I said. And when I called you ‘crazy’ . . . I’m really ashamed of that. I was . . .”
I don’t know what I was. But Nolan does. “Angry. Tired. Hurting, and wanting to make me hurt just as much. Scared out of your mind.”
I close my eyes. “Absolutely fucking terrified.”
He nods. Still not looking at me. “I never wanted to manipulate you, but . . . you can pay me back for the fellowship, if it’ll make you feel better. That way you won’t owe me anything, and you’ll be free of me.”
My stomach sinks. “Would you like me to pay you back?”
He lets out a small, self- effacing laugh, and finally turns to me. The night air is sucked out of my chest. “How are you, Mallory?”
“I . . . Good.” As it turns out, I’m the one who can’t stand to meet his eyes. I’m the one studying Marcus Sawyer’s impeccable suit now. “I don’t know if I’m good. But I’m . . . better than I was,” I add, because I think he wants a real answer. “It’s . . . You were right. About the way I acted, especially with my family. But things have been better. Well.” I scratch my neck. “I have tried to be better. Less of a control freak on a path to martyrdom and more of a . . . person?”
He studies me for a second. Then I feel him shift forward and I tense— caught, immobile, strung out. Awaiting. He could take my hand. He could tug me to himself. He could wrap his hand around my neck and kiss me as hard as he once did.
He just pulls a loose strand of hair from where it stuck to my lips, straightens back, and says, “Darcy and Sabrina seem good, too.”
I’m . . . dizzy. Disappointed. “You’ve met them?”
“We went for a walk the other day. And I took them for gelato this morning.”
“They didn’t tell me.” I’m scowling.
“It was very hush- hush. Since you are, I’ve been told, known for throwing hissy fits.”
I scowl harder. “Is that why you were late for the press conference?”
He nods. “Darcy needed to try every single flavor before settling on an order. A problem, since samples are not a thing in Italy.”
“Did you have to fisticuff a brawny ice cream man with a gold necklace?”
“Depends. Would that make me more or less cool than bribing him with fifty euros?”
I laugh into the back of my hand. And after that I look at him, and he’s serious once again.
“I’m sorry, too. About what I said. I had no right to imply that what you’ve been doing for your family is not the right thing. And I know I can’t imagine what you’ve been through with your dad.”
“Actually, I think you can.”
He studies me for longer than is comfortable. Galaxies pass through his black eyes, and I wonder whether this second could last a century. Whether the universe could be just me and him, understanding each other on a forever loop. “Yeah. Maybe I can.”
I clear my throat. Okay. Here goes.
“In the spirit of acknowledging that I’ve been hiding behind . . . a bunch of stuff— mostly Mom, and my sisters, and Dad— and that I’ve been using what needed to be done as a shield, I’ve been trying to practice verbalizing what I want. So that I can, you know, live my life for myself.”
“Yeah. For instance, I know now that I want to keep on playing chess. Professionally. I want it to be my job.”
Nolan’s mouth twitches. His eyes widen with that boyish gleam that I’ve come to love from him. “Yeah?”
“Yeah. So I’ll do that. Or at least I’ll try. And . . . My friend Easton is here, which is nice. And we made up. But once we leave, I’ll still want to talk with her every day. So I’ll just . . . call her myself. I’ll make it happen. If we’re not up in each other’s business till the day we die, it won’t be for my lack of trying.”
He nods. “Fair.”
“And also, I’ve been talking about Dad at home. Slowly. But more and more. I’ve been looking at some of his games. I’ve been showing them to Darcy as I teach her how to play. Because even if I can’t forget the bad, I want us to still remember the good.”
He knows exactly what I mean. I can tell from the rueful twist of his smile. “You should.”
“And also . . .” I swallow past the lump in my throat, nearfrozen toes curled into the floor. “Also, I’ve been considering things like fate, and coincidences, and the past. Sappy, I know. And you probably never thought of it, but when I was a kid, and you were a barely older kid, we both played chess, both in the same geographical area. And for some reason we never met, but I have to wonder if maybe we were at the same tournament or at the same club, just in different divisions. I have to wonder if maybe we played on the same chess sets, one after the other. I have to wonder if we were meant to be, and only missed each other narrowly. Because when I stopped playing, I was done. Done. Years passed, and it should have been it for you and me, we should have been that narrow miss and nothing more. But Defne’s tournament happened, and it was . . . a second chance.” I take a deep, shuddering breath. “I don’t think I believe in destiny. I believe in solid openings, and middle games that show initiative, and swift transitions to end games. But I can’t stop wondering if maybe the universe was trying to tell us something, and— ”
“I can’t believe you prefaced all of this with ‘you probably never thought of it.’ ” Nolan’s tone is dry and amused, and I can’t keep the words inside me anymore.
“I want to be with you,” I push out. Shaky. And then, when nothing explodes at the revelation, I repeat it more firmly. “I want to be with you. As much as I can. As much as you’ll have me.”
I’ve said it. It’s out there. I’ve set it free, and I watch Nolan hawkishly, on the lookout for an answer, for any kind of emotional reaction. But his dark eyes are as inscrutable as ever.
“I’m glad you said that,” he tells me. Like he’s complimenting a good chess move. Like this is not the biggest leap I’ve ever taken.
He’s staring at me with a small smile. It’s barely noticeable, but somehow manages to make the entire earth tip over. “Because now I can say it back.”
I close my eyes, feeling like my every atom is in the middle of a seismic event. But Venice is still witching- hours calm, and Nolan’s heat is so close, it centers me, grounds me more than I thought I could ever be. “The last time we talked, I said a lot of things that weren’t true. And I forgot to say one thing that was. Which is that I was happy with you. The days we had in New York were . . .”
He seems vaguely amused at my inability to articulate my emotions. “Good?”
“Yeah. Very. And I’d like to have more. A lot more. Starting . . . now, if possible. Even though . . .” I look around and let out a choked laugh. “This is really poor timing on my part.”
He smiles. “I don’t know if I agree.”
He gestures to the board with his head. “We are about to spend a lot of time together.”
“Right. There is that.” I scratch the back of my neck to stop myself from reaching out for him. I want to. But maybe I shouldn’t. But I want to. “By the way . . . since you’re not a newbie like me, do you have any advice?”
He tilts his head, pensive. “Make sure you have breakfast.”
“Something with protein, if possible.”
“Okay.” I wait for him to continue. Frown when he doesn’t. “Really, that’s it? Are you hoarding advice?”
He shrugs. “That’s all I have.”
“Come on, Nolan. You’ve done three of these.”
“Yeah. But this one is unlike any other championship.”
“Why is that?”
I look at him looking at me, and overflow with something I cannot put a name to. “Because when I’m with you, Mallory, everything is different. When I’m with you, I want to play more than I want to win.”
My eyes begin to tear up, but I’m not sad. For the first time in a long, long while, I’m a million things, and sad is not any of them.
“You know,” I say, taking a step closer. Then another. Then one into him, and it’s like stepping into a new world. A new era of my life. “I’ve been reading a lot of chess theory. Big, tedious books. And they all say that when chess is solved, when the perfect game is played— they say that it will be boring. Because it will inevitably end in a draw.”
I feel his smile in the beat of his heart. “They do?”
“Well, then.” His arms close around me. His lips speak into my hair. His chest rises and falls against my ear, and I know it in my gut, like I know chess, that this is where I’m meant to be. “It will be fun when we prove them wrong.”