The Romance of Chess

January 1, 2022

I wanted to write a memoir but the connective tissue of the memoir didn’t interest me. I wanted to render memories that would pop up like mushrooms and quickly vanish. I owe much to where I was raised, in a black neighborhood where people talked to each other and spent time on the porch and on the corner, as did my brothers and their friends as they smoked weed, drank Mickey Big Mouths and Heinekens, and talked all the time about the insanity of Vietnam, nuclear war, and H.P. Lovecraft, and from there they’d segue into the adventures of the many memorable characters in the neighborhood. I tried to do that here. A new installment will appear here every Saturday this and next month.

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My high school girlfriend dumped me soon as she arrived at UCSB and realized that she could do better. She was attractive and thin at a time when being thin was possibly the most important attribute for popularity at a university surrounded by beautiful beaches and populated by college students strutting about in bikinis and other scanty swim wear.

Though I didn’t hear from her, I had fantasies about us getting back together and staying together and having a family and all of that. I thought I might be able to win her heart again, but I realized it was hopeless when she started tanning. It was proof that she had crossed over to the other side. We stayed civil and we’d sometimes see each other in the commons for lunch. We were polite enough.

My homey Layne was still seeing her sister Justine. They were an attractive couple in appearance and intelligence. He read the encyclopedia of philosophy for fun, and she was just as smart and serious about getting into medical school. They shared a lusty love affair. She didn’t mind his dedication to achieve a master’s rating in chess even if that meant him crawling through her bedroom window after her mom fell asleep — as much to be with her as to study Kasparov games. Lucky for them, her mom was a heavy sleeper. His focus was threatened when his aunt tired of him spending all his time playing chess ten hours a day and mostly ignoring schoolwork as he prepared for a chess competition that might propel him to a master’s rating. He didn’t care about school because he was in fact a very smart guy and he could pull it together to turn in the required schoolwork, play basketball and practice chess and hang out with my old girlfriend’s sister. I was surprised to get a call from her when I was home for a weekend. It was a succinct conversation, and it didn’t involve her wanting my presence in her life.

“Your best friend is at my mother’s house, and he won’t leave.”

“What?”

“I heard he’s on some drug to help him focus for a chess tournament and he’d gone nuts. He refuses to leave, and my sister is taking his side. Could you please go over there before my mama calls the police on him?”

She started to cry and began begging me to get him to go. It was a strange position to be in. She dumped me for a guy who had a withered arm and who had once been caught in a fire, so he had weird facial scars. Somehow his scars made me doubt my own attractiveness, or maybe the guy had a really winning personality. I still wanted to be with her, so maybe if I got my crazy-ass-chess-player buddy to move on she’d want to kick it with me again. It was worth a shot. Since my friend had become a committed and competitive chess player, he didn’t have time to kick it on the porch and eat hot Cheetos and those weird off-brand tamales, talking about science fiction novels and where to find the blow job scene in Dahlgren.

I borrowed my mother’s car and drove over to Ladera Park, which some felt was the next Baldwin Hills where black folks with cash moved to go seriously upscale. It was also the place where my girlfriend’s stepfather pulled a shotgun on us for being in the kitchen with his stepdaughters while they cooked hot dogs and French Fries. I was paralyzed with fear but my girlfriend blitzed him and disarmed his ass and broke the shotgun on the sidewalk. And I knew then that women were the stronger half of the gender divide.

Now it was all over between us, except for this one last get-together that might change something and she’d want me back.

I knocked at the door of their Ladera Park home and my girlfriend’s sister answered it and I could tell that they’d been doing it, you know, doing it like they weren’t coming up for air. And from the sweet smell of air freshener and the bitter smell of cheap ass weed they were happily ensconced. I was happy for them but he had to go. If the police rolled up, his ass would get rolled up.

“Hey,” he said, and it took a minute for his eyes to focus.

“Glad you awake because you got to get up on out of here.”

“What, why? I got a chess competition and I got to concentrate.”

My girlfriend’s sister nodded as though she had been drinking the Kool-Aid with him. I thought of my girlfriend and how pretty and smart she was, and I really wanted to get back with her, so I started lying like you do when nothing else is working. My boy had set the chess board up and had opened a big ass chess book and began running through openings. His ass wasn’t going to listen to reason, so I knew I needed to lie. The whole time I was there, he was trying to light a joint, but he was having a hard time getting it lit, so I assumed he had already smoked more than a few bowls. Finally, he got it lighted and inhaled deeply as he ran through chess game configurations.

It was hopeless. He had found happiness at my old girl’s house, and he was never going to leave, and I’d never get my old girlfriend back. Then it occurred to me what I needed to do. When in doubt, lie your ass off.

“Dude, she’s going to have the house fumigated in the morning and you gonna be trapped inside with all that.”

Now I had his attention. “You got to go!”

“Maybe,” he said, looking pissed. He dressed and I thought I had pulled it off and got him out of my old girlfriend’s house. He grabbed his backpack and put on his t-shirt and his B-Ball shoes, and just as he headed for the door, he turned back to me and shook his head in anger.

“I don’t believe her. That woman is always up to some shit to interrupt my prep.”

“You don’t want to be here if they tent this place and start spraying poison.”

“I ain’t going!” he said and flung himself back onto the bed.

As I said before, my friend was a tall and lanky basketball playing guy who wore basketball shorts almost all the time. Somehow in his anger he forgot he didn’t have a jock on, or even tighty whities. Under those basketball shorts he had nothing but his bare ass.

As soon as he landed on his girlfriend’s bed, his face went from paranoid rage to agony. He shouted liked he had been knifed and was near death. Then to drive up the theatrical aspect, he curled into a fetal position and moaned in pain.

“What’s wrong with you?” I asked, but not really wanting to know.

“I got them twisted,” he gasped.

“What twisted?”

“My nuts and I sat on them.”

My girlfriend’s sister rushed from the room and returned just as fast with car keys. She reached for his arm and helped him off the bed and led him all bent over to her mother’s car outside. She gingerly helped him into the car as he continued to moan in pain. I had to struggle not to giggle. I watched them drive away just as her mother came outside shouting that her daughter had stolen her car.

Though I succeeded in getting my former best friend out of her mother’s house, my high school girlfriend still had me kicked me to the curb. I got over it, but I still don’t understand the evolutionary advantage of having large testicles.

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Jervey Tervalon was born in New Orleans and raised in Los Angeles, and got his MFA in Creative Writing from UC Irvine. He is the author of six books, including Understanding This, for which he won the Quality Paper Book Club’s New Voices Award. Currently he is the Executive Director of “Literature for Life,” an educational advocacy organization, and Creative Director of The Pasadena LitFest. His latest novel is Monster’s Chef.