The room orbited around the fireplace. It was the system’s sun, its anchor, holding the surroundings together, containing within itself domesticated fire—man’s greatest discovery. Second greatest, maybe. First was chess. Robert took the crown of a queen between his thumb and index finger, lifted it, and set it down four squares diagonally to the right, the first step in an isolated attack on a black bishop idling in the forefront of the board’s other half. The situation was stalemated, and he needed to generate some attacking momentum on white’s part. Black would respond accordingly.
Such deliberation on both sides was characteristic of a solitary game of chess. It was as close a man could come to playing God outside of his own head, more real than pen and paper and livelier than brush and canvas. Robert loved chess. The table sat in front of the fireplace, enveloped in warmth and teased by light escaping from the marble rectangular mouth in the wall. The flames were subjugated to a finite area, swallowing the logs as the snake swallows its own tail. Fire had never adapted to containment. The light was sharp and quick in its movements, less steady than the dimmed fluorescent bulbs that hung like bats overhead. There was scarce illumination outside of the far wall’s windows; it was night, and Robert could picture the room’s brightness as a blemish on the wool of the dark-suited city.
Through the snaps of the fire, sharing the smack but lacking the consistency of leather soles on a cement floor, came a metronome’s tap. The intruding noise seemed to intimidate the previously unchallenged fire, which shuddered and wheezed to an artificially natural death. The ceiling fixtures extinguished themselves as though following the fire’s lead, copycat siblings emulating the wild older brother, as did the faint hint of streetlamps beyond the window.
Robert took his eyes, now unseeing, from what was ostensibly the location of the patchwork of black and white—more accurate, in a way, than any geographical map’s portrayal of the world’s congregations and boundaries, what with the stark separations and distinct demarcations and the homogeneity of each self-contained individual square—and looked to where the small foot must be rising and falling in a sustained, regular beat. Its sister hung overhead, bare and defined but consciously idle, letting the other move and live for the both of them. The constant rhythm of its activity kicked around in Robert’s skull like a pinball, and he let it bounce from wall to wall. The feet were delicate, surprisingly able to sustain the pounding of an afternoon’s run even when clad in the armor of a shoe. He had seen them first, pistons rising and falling in the interest of propulsion, as he crested the path’s first hill with heaving breaths. They were miniature pink-streaked tanks, and when he approached them to introduce himself they had stopped and pointed out to ten and two. The stance was distinctive.
They were guided by a slender set of thighs, exposed by the scant presence of running shorts. During sex, these thighs would wrap around his waist and envelop him completely, conveying that singular mental security that comes from being recognized as a protector. The glimpse of one through thin, clinging cotton or the slit in a dress would shake up the insides of his stomach and shatter his concentration.
The thighs sprouted from feminine hips, rounded and full. They were the wormhole through which his son had entered his universe, and they provided structure and centrality. His son was three years old now. No, SIDS had snuffed him out after a mere few months of crying. A legacy of tears. He wasn’t in the room, regardless. Robert would have named him Samuel Conor Truman, probably still would when the time comes. Six plotted syllables give a name balance, create an appropriate weight and gravity, grant a man detached masculinity. Names are important; they must be able to stand alone.
The neck was as thin and straight as a young tree. He had kissed every inch of its surface, which was soft and salty, often fragrant, rarely covered. One instance of kissing had resulted in an ejection from a theatre; another, catcalls on a park bench. Atop the neck a head, sporting curtains of dark chocolate hair and smatterings of tiny freckles. Inside the head was once adoration, but now mostly scorn. He was a fruit that had soured, lost its color, become contemptuous. He spoke to her softly, knowing she was there.
“You know, I never cheated on you.” What was a room full of schizophrenic flames now only had sound to contend with, in the darkness.
“You remember that one evening last fall? The event at that one art museum uptown? I think it was a gala of some sort.” Robert teased the stray curls falling over his left ear, tucked them behind it like a pencil.
“There was this woman. She had this impossibly orange hair, just incomprehensibly orange. It redefined the color. It was long, bundled on her head and tied into a choke point right at the back, the rest free-flowing behind her. She was so thin. Just looked like a dyed mop.”
“She kept walking by me and brushing her shoulder up against mine. Always subtle. I would’ve just passed it off as inadvertent if she hadn’t done it time and time again. She’d skim me like a fish hitting the surface and then walk past, and I’d turn to see that massive Cheshire cat on her head gliding away.”
“Lily, if I wanted to murder you, I’d poison your tea with cyanide. I’d get the cyanide in Chinatown somewhere, pirated from a supply ship in the Indian Ocean. I’d pay some poor desperate kids to get rid of your body, and when I met with them I’d wear a mask.”
“Our wedding should’ve been a bigger affair. You only get to do it once, right? Well, that’s the idea. Ours was a little boring. The minister should’ve worn a costume. Priests are cliché.”
“God, you hate me so much, you really loathe me. That’s understandable. You’re nothing without me. If I depended on someone like that I’d hate them too. I don’t even know how I could make you like me, even though you’re my wife. Probably gratitude, that would be a good place to start. You should be thankful to me.”
Lily was a model. She wasn’t born a model, though. She was born in the Balkans, or Africa. Bangladesh. Robert had rescued her when she was a baby and he was in the Peace Corps, white and righteous. He had swept into her tumultuous village with few others and carried her out cradled in his arms, a blanketed bundle. Her brother was a child soldier, died clutching an AK-47 to his chest in heat and squalor without hope or a future. Her father was an infamous Russian expatriate and ideologue. Robert had attended one of his lectures at Columbia, and listening to his message was like sticking his fingers into a wall socket. Which he and Lily had done, stoned teenagers in her basement in New Jersey listening to early Pavement and Guided by Voices. She was a model because he wanted to be married to a model.
She spoke in tongues. No language would isolate from the amalgamation of dialects. It wasn’t happening. There was no reason to stop the wheel. She was playing Russian roulette when he first met her. She was a man in a club in the Ukraine, needed the money for a sex change. All bets were on the table. He took the gun and fired it into the ceiling and paid for the operation. The bullet buried itself deep in the cement.
Lily was sitting on the chessboard in the dark, waiting to finish her assault on the bishop, when Rose walked into the room.
“Robert, what’s going on with the electricity?” Robert was still seated at the table. He tried to remember the placement of the pieces before it had gone dark.
“I don’t know, Rose. Why don’t you go back to bed?” She clutched her robe around her body. Robert hadn’t looked over. This was true because he knew it to be true.
“No, I think I’ll come sit out here with you for a bit.” He heard her pad along the hardwood floor over to a seat against the wall facing him, between two large windows. She sat with a loud exhalation of air from the cushion, and her fidgeting rustled the fabric of her robe. Robert enjoyed listening to her. She sounded nervous and uncomfortable, and the silence was palpable to the point that he could feel the mechanisms in her head grinding away at something. He kept his mouth closed and sat as still as possible, breathing quietly, at regular intervals.
“Robert, are you still there?”
“Yes, where would I have gone?” He liked not having to look at her. He spent most of his time in silence, and her presence made no difference to him. She used to be so beautiful.
She took a few sharp intakes of air, piercing noises that hurt his ears. “Do you ever get bored, just sitting here all the time?”
“Bored of what?” He kept his responses terse and direct. The shortness of breath continued, however, and she pressed on.
“Bored of everything, maybe? You just sit here all day. You wake up in the morning, you go for a walk, and then you just sit, by yourself, in this chair, all day. And night. It would drive me crazy.”
She used to be so beautiful. His hands fit around her stomach perfectly, right above the swell of her waist, and he would hold her body to him and burrow his face into her until she laughed or moaned or both. Her belly was smooth and taut like skin pulled over a drum, and he woke up on it most mornings.
“Do you still love me?”
He ignored her. After a few more minutes, she rose from her chair carefully, creaking almost as much as the furniture. She padded back towards the bedroom and had a spasmodic coughing fit, hacking four or five times. The door shut behind her with a crisp click.
The sun began to cast overenthusiastic rays on the wall behind Robert, at first a handful but increasing steadily, as it is wont to do. Fulfilling expectations. He sat and blinked frequently, retraining his eyes after their lengthy respite. The white and black towers slowly emerged, in silhouette at first and then substantiated through sunlit clarity. A black horse had followed its L-shaped path and taken a white pawn, far beyond the tentative line formed by its comrades. Death would have to do better than that. Robert picked up his queen and took the black bishop.