“I don’t think so, love,” Peter said from between clenched teeth. The endearment became an epithet as he hurled it back to her. “Why the hell are you always so ready to predict defeat for me, huh? Can’t you ever be supportive, not even for a goddamned minute? If you won’t help, why don’t you just bug off? I’ve had all I can stand of you, damn it. Always belittling me, mocking. You’ve never believed in me. I don’t know why the hell you married me, if all you wanted to do was make my life a hell. Just leave me alone!”
For a long moment after Peter’s outburst there was silence. Sitting there in the darkned room, he could almost feel her rage building—any instant now he expected to hear her start screaming. Then he would scream back, and she would get up and break something, and he would grab her, and then the knives would come out in earnest. He closed his eyes, trembling, feeling close to tears. He didn’t want this, he thought. He really didn’t.
But Kathy fooled him. When she spoke, her voice was surprisingly gentle. “Oh, Peter,” she said. “I never meant to hurt you. Please. I love you.”
He was stunned. “Love me?” he said wonderingly.
“Please listen. If there is anything at all left between us, please just listen to me for a few minutes. Please.”
“All right,” he said.
“Peter, I did believe in you once. Surely you must remember how good things were in the beginning? I was supportive then, wasn’t I? The first few years, when you were writing your novel? I worked, I kept food on the table, I gave you the time to write.”
“Oh, yes,” he said, anger creeping back into his tone. Kathy had thrown that at him before, had reminded him forcefully of how she’d supported them for two years while he wrote a book that turned out to be so much waste paper. “Spare me your reproaches, huh? It wasn’t my fault I couldn’t sell the book. You heard what Bunnish said.”
“I wasn’t reproaching you, damn it!” she snapped. “Why are you always so ready to read criticism into every word I say?” She shook her head, and got her voice back under control. “Please, Peter, don’t make this harder than it is. We have so many years of pain to overcome, so many wounds to bind up. Just hear me out.
“I was trying to say that I did believe in you. Even after the book, after you burned it… even then. You made it hard, though. I didn’t think you were a failure, but you did, and it changed you, Peter. You let it get to you. You gave up writing, instead of just gritting your teeth and doing another book.”
“I wasn’t tough enough, I know,” he said. “The loser. The weakling.”
“Shut up!” she said in exasperation. “I didn’t say that, you did. Then you went into journalism. I still believed. But everything kept going wrong. You got fired, you got sued, you became a disgrace. Our friends started drifting away. And all the time you insisted that none of it was your fault. You lost all the rest of your self-confidence. You didn’t dream any more. You whined, bitterly and incessantly, about your bad luck.”
“You never helped.”
“Maybe not,” Kathy admitted. “I tried to, at the start, but it just got worse and worse and I couldn’t deal with it. You weren’t the dreamer I’d married. It was hard to remember how I’d admired you, how I’d respected you. Peter, you loathed yourself so much that there was no way to keep the loathing from rubbing off on me.”
“So?” Peter said. “What’s the point, Kathy?”
“I never left you, Peter,” she said. “I could have, you know. I wanted to. I stayed, through all of it, all the failures and all the self-pity. Doesn’t that say anything to you?”
“It says you’re a masochist,” he snapped. “Or maybe a sadist.”
That was too much for her. She started to reply, and her voice broke, and she began to weep. Peter sat where he was and listened to her cry. Finally the tears ran out, and she said, quietly, “Damn you. Damn you. I hate you.”
“I thought you loved me. Make up your mind.”
“You ass. You insensitive creep. Don’t you understand, Peter?”
“Understand what?” he said impatiently. “You said listen, so I’ve been listening, and all you’ve been doing is rehashing all the same old stuff, recounting all my inadequacies. I heard it all before.”
“Peter, can’t you see that this week has changed everything? If you’d only stop hating, stop loathing me and yourself, maybe you could see it. We have a chance again, Peter. If we try. Please.”
“I don’t see that anything has changed. I’m going to play a big chess game tomorrow, and you know how much it means to me and my self respect, and you don’t care. You don’t care if I win or lose. You keep telling me I’m going to lose. You’re helping me to lose by making me argue when I should be sleeping. What the hell has changed? You’re the same damn bitch you’ve been for years.”
“I will tell you what has changed,” she said. “Peter, up until a few days ago, both of us thought you were a failure. But you aren’t! It hasn’t been your fault. None of it. Not bad luck, like you kept saying, and not personal inadequacy either, like you really thought. Bunnish has done it all. Can’t you see what a difference that makes? You’ve never had a chance, Peter, but you have one now. There’s no reason you shouldn’t believe in yourself. We know you can do great things! Bunnish admitted it. We can leave here, you and I, and start all over again. You could write another book, write plays, do anything you want. You have the talent. You’ve never lacked it. We can dream again, believe again, love each other again. Don’t you see? Bunnish had to gloat to complete his revenge, but by gloating he’s freed you!”
Peter sat very still in the dark room, his hand clenching and unclenching on the arm of the chair as Kathy’s words sunk in. He had been so wrapped up in the chess game, so obsessed with Bunnish’s obsession, that he had never seen it, never considered it. It wasn’t me, he thought wonderingly. All those years, it was never me. “It’s true,” he said in a small voice.
“Peter?” she said, concerned.
He heard the concern, heard more than that, heard love in her voice. So many people, he thought, make such grand promises, promise better or worse, promise rich or poorer, and bail out as soon as things turn the least bit sour in a relationship. But she had stayed, through all of it, the failures, the disgrace, the cruel words and the poisonous thoughts, the weekly fights, the poverty. She had stayed.
“Kathy,” he said. The next words were very hard. “I love you, too.” He started to get up and move toward her, and began to cry.
They arrived late the next morning. They showered together, and Peter dressed with unusual care. For some reason, he felt it was important to look his best. It was a new beginning, after all. Kathy came with him. They entered the living room holding hands. Bunnish was already behind the board, and Peter’s clock was ticking. The others were there too. E.C. was seated patiently in a chair. Delmario was pacing. “Hurry up,” he said when Peter came down the stairs. “You’ve lost five minutes already.”
Peter smiled. “Easy, Steve,” he said. He went over and took his seat behind the White pieces. Kathy stood behind him. She looked gorgeous this morning, Peter thought.
“It’s your move, captain,” Bunnish said, with an unpleasant smile.
“I know,” Peter said. He made no effort to move, scarcely even looked at the board. “Bruce, why do you hate me? I’ve been thinking about that, and I’d like to know the answer. I can understand about Steve and E.C. Steve had the presumption to win when you lost, and he rubbed your nose in that defeat afterwards. E.C. made you the butt of his jokes. But why me? What did I ever do to you?”
Bunnish looked briefly confused. Then his face grew hard. “You. You were the worst of them all.”
Peter was startled. “I never…”
“The big captain,” Bunnish said sarcastically. “That day ten years ago, you never even tried. You took a quick grandmaster draw with your old friend Hal Winslow. You could have tried for a win, played on, but you didn’t. Oh, no. You never cared how much more pressure you put on the rest of us. And when we lost, you didn’t take any of the blame, not a bit of it, even though you gave up half a point. It was all my fault. And that wasn’t all of it, either. Why was I on first board, Norten? All of us on the B team had approximately the same rating. How did I get the honor of being board one?”