The Quiet Game

As soon as I moved my pawn, Grandpa countered with the Sicilian Defense. The old man remembered after so many years: four draws and twenty two losses—my record against the Sicilian. I’d kept score in a recycled notebook, now buried somewhere in my garage. If we counted our rapid transit games, I’d beaten the defense twice, but Grandpa had always called those matches “practice.”

This was my last day visiting my family in Cuba. I’d left Havana nine years before with my mother and older sister, and hadn’t returned since. I’d often blamed my absence on some external issue, but truth was—though I missed my grandparents, I just didn’t feel like going back. I kept making excuses: immigration, money, my new life, not-so-fond memories of my communist childhood. By the time I’d become a citizen my sister had gone back twice, my mother four times. They kept telling my grandparents I was busy with school and work, that it wouldn’t be long before I’d visit them. When my grandparents finally embraced me at Jose Martí International Airport, all I could do was cry and apologize, over and over.

In Miami, I lived with my Chilean wife, a cocker spaniel, and a silver-framed bachelor’s degree in hospitality management hanging on the hall between my living room and kitchen. I had a small group of friends, mostly from school, but no one played chess, at least not well enough to make it entertaining. As a result, I’d only played a handful of times while in the States. I’d glanced at chess books at libraries and bookstores, even bought a used copy on the Russian masters—Kasparov, Karpov, Spassky, Botvinnik, Alekhine. But by now the book was squashed beneath a stack of textbooks on my shelf.

We were on the porch of my grandparents’ 1939 home, enclosed by a brown metal railing. A little past three, children were still in school, adults still at work or just waking up from their afternoon naps. The streets were deserted, the neighborhood calm. A wooden table stood between us. On it was the foldable board and plastic pieces we had used a decade ago. Back then the pieces had seemed bigger, a perfect fit in my hand. Now they were faded and small, like discarded toys. Grandpa, however, refused to use the expensive carved-wood set I’d bought him. He wanted to place it on my grandmother’s sideboard as a display.

By the fourth move of our game, we hadn’t said a word, just like old times. It was all about patience, planning, and silent annihilation. Trash talk, common in the parks and streets in Havana when I was growing up, was offensive to the old man. Chess has an honorable history, he’d say. We have to respect it. To get under his skin, I’d sometimes snicker or chuckle when I noticed he’d made a bad move. He always ignored me, as if trying to teach me a lesson. It was really quite something to see him like that. He was talkative by nature, yet as soon as he sat in front of a ready-to-play chess set he became mute, ready to decimate your pieces until you were left running or you surrendered, all without uttering a word. He’d then shake your hand, get up, drink some coffee, and go chat it up with a neighbor.

Ten moves in and we were still evenly matched, both in number and position. We’d exchanged pawns, I’d protected my left flank, avoiding his attack on the queen’s side, and was already scheming to use a knight to force more exchanges. I needed to limit his weapons, give myself a better chance. A conservative strategy would at least ensure another draw against the Sicilian.

Then Grandpa advanced a rook pawn two spaces—a rare weak move—and said, “I’m really sorry about your grandmother.”

I said nothing. I didn’t think he’d have the guts to talk about it. Grandma had suffered two heart attacks in a span of six months, the second one leaving her, for a few days, with a fifty-fifty chance of survival. My aunt, Isabel, and her daughter, my cousin Yesenia, had taken care of her. The doctors blamed the attacks on old age and a feeble heart, but we all knew better. Just before the first incident, Grandma had discovered what most of the family was aware of but had decided not to tell her: her husband had been cheating on her with a woman in a nearby neighborhood.

The woman was nine or ten years younger than Grandma. She was, supposedly, elegant and spunky, not as frail as my grandmother, whose diabetes and blood circulation problems had taken a toll on her. After the heart attacks she’d become extremely fragile, fifteen pounds skinnier. A cloud of resignation lingered in her eyes. Grandma was a shadow of the rugged, determined, lively woman I’d known as a child, and I couldn’t help, unknown to the rest of the family, blaming my grandfather.

I stared at the old man across the table, his glasses set on the tip of his nose, his eyes buried in lumps of shriveled skin, his scrawny body a hanger to his small-size clothes. “I don’t want to talk about Grandma,” I said. “She’s fine now; that’s all that matters.”

He didn’t reply. We stayed quiet for the next three moves. I thought about his asking my mother for help. I’d heard that his lover, this spunky woman, had left Cuba to live with her oldest son in Tampa. Grandpa wanted my mother to send her an email, saying how he didn’t want to lose touch, how he loved her and wanted to find a way to join her. He’d told my mom that he thought she’d understand. Because of her spirituality and freethinking, he said. Because she never judged people.

My mother told him to fuck off and didn’t speak to him for three months.

Then he went after my older sister, who by then had realized what was going on and stopped him in his tracks. He hadn’t tried with me, until now.

Grandpa slid out his left bishop all the way to the center, strengthening his position. I launched one of my bishops in return and sacrificed it for a pawn on his king side. I knew the tactic would seem risky but with potential. He gazed at the bishop for a moment. His shaking hand hovered above its chipped tip.

“Sometimes we can’t control our feelings,” he said. “One day you’ll understand. Especially when you get to be my age.”

I gritted my teeth, pushed back in my chair. I looked straight at his glasses. He kept his eyes down, dull like a sleepy hound’s. He took my bishop with his knight. I moved my queen for the first time. He retreated. I advanced my pawns. He played conservatively. I followed with my rooks, lined them side by side. He defended well, made smart exchanges, gained better position. I try luring him to exchange queens. He didn’t bite. Then I lost a pawn, a knight, traded rooks. Soon it was just a matter of time. He was now willing to trade queens. I pretended I was thinking, considering my next move. I waited, minute after minute, until it became uncomfortable.

“You better don’t kill her,” I finally said. “None of us will forgive you.”

Grandpa shook his head. He adjusted his glasses with his index finger and glanced up at me. “You don’t understand,” he said. “I love your grandmother. But I have a right to—”

“No,” I said. “You don’t.”

“But I do. I do have the right. I shouldn’t have to lie anymore.” He sounded like a child desperate for approval.

I toppled my king, knocking over a pawn. The tiny piece skipped repeatedly on the porch’s tile floor. The king gyrated on the board, then rocked back and forth, then stopped. I wanted to leave, walk inside the house and recline next to Grandma, talk about her childhood days in the countryside, about the time before the Revolution when she spent most days by the river with her sisters.

But I didn’t. I stayed, watching the chess pieces, most of them black on the board, prove that I still couldn’t beat the old man’s unassailable defense.

***

Dariel Suarez was born in Havana, Cuba, where he lived until 1997. He now resides in South Florida with his wife. He recently graduated from Florida International University, where he was the recipient of five literary awards. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in several publications, including The Florida Book Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, elimae, Barrier Islands Review, and The Acentos Review. Dariel will soon be pursuing an MFA in creative writing.

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