Solo Chess – a novel by Liliana Negoi

“[…] one can never pull back fast enough at the scent of the forbidden fruit… and no god ever said that sniffing is a sin […]”

I.

Befriend…ignore…befriend…ignore…”Why the hell do I even bother to think about this?! I said NO FRIENDS LIST!”, she concluded roughly in her head and clicked the “Ignore” button, then placed her fingers on the keyboard, trying to compose a message that could sweeten somehow the rejection.

“Thank you for your friendship request, I feel honored by it…”

She felt indeed flattered this time. It wasn’t like the general thing, people adding her as a friend on that website just because they were collecting names under the pretext of friendship. Somehow this time was different.

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II.

People are unhappy not because of the lives they live, but because of the lives they know they could live. And as long as they don’t know what they’re missing, they have no reason to question their on-going experiences and to ask themselves if there should be anything more to life than the common hues of grayish pink painting their footsteps in the middle of an ocean of colors each morning. Unhappiness is born in that tiny fraction of a second when our soul gets a glance inside some forbidden to us paradise and we suddenly become aware that what we have is definitely not enough compared to what we’d want, and what we’d want is obviously not meant for us to have, either because someone cut to it right in front of ourselves, or because we’re not worthy of that by not even dreaming of it. Thus the fable of the sour grapes was born, and even if there are so many various degrees of sweetness and so many different levels of perceiving it, for each and every single person in this world there is something compared to which the nectar of gods is just some insipid liquor.

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III.

Suddenly inside her head some sort of alarm started ticking. Karina opened her eyes in the darkness filling the room and fumbled for the clock to check the time. “Only 5:23…” she moaned, knowing that she wasn’t going to be able to fall asleep again. It was much too early though, and she knew that by the end of the day she was going to feel so damn tired and longing to just drown herself in a hot relaxing bath…Sometimes she felt like all those daily routines, more tiring for her soul and brain than for the rest of her body, were eating her alive. She woke up from her bed all silent, and in a brave attempt of removing the remains of dreams from her eyelashes she went into the bathroom and turned on the hot water.While showering, she realized at some point that she was slowly humming “There must be something more than this provincial life” and she smiled: she had watched “Beauty and the beast” the night before with the twins and her brain was still munching on the music leftovers from that cartoon. However she couldn’t stop a shiver when a fugitive thought crossed her mind – “am I to remain at this level forever…?” Read the rest of this entry »

IV.

“The Japanese (if I remember correctly) culture says that a person has three masks – one that can be seen by everybody, another one, deeper, that can be seen only by his/her close ones, and a third one, very deep inside, that only that person actually knows: so…if I get to know you under your second mask I will feel honored, but that doesn’t mean the first one is less meaningful.”

Asheq kept reading and reading those lines with a radiant smile spread across his face. After many miscalculations and shards of disappointment pinning his will to the wall, he finally felt as if a ray of sunshine had suddenly decided to rest in his heart.

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V.

– Masha, niet! NIET! Stop right there! Bozhe moĭ, do I really have to punish you so that you’d listen to me?!

When finally the little girl decided to stop from running in the park, Karina was already exhausted of zigzagging after her and bended forward, palms on knees, trying to catch up her breath. Masha looked at her mother with an incredibly impertinent smile on her face, chocolate dripping from her chin on her coat, while her sister was contenting herself to staying on the bench and looking on the pictures from a children’s book. After managing to get a grip on herself, Karina talked calmly to her daughter:

– Masha, please, get back on the blanket so I can clean you up, or we’re going home. Either you are a good girl and listen to me, or you’ll be punished.

– Niet mama.

– Masha, please…

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VI.

The boy looked at the old man as he was preparing the mousetrap. He kept gazing at his grandfather’s hands, as they were slowly and deftly handling the trap and placing the bait inside of it. The old man noticed with the corner of his eye the boy’s focused attitude and, retaining a smile under his white moustache, he murmured with a neutral tone:

– We are going to catch that mouse…yes sir, we will…

The boy lifted his round eyes and after pondering for one second, he asked with a serious voice:

– Grandpa, do you think this is fair?

As if suddenly surprised, the old man stopped from what he was doing and turned back to the eleven years old child.

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VII.

Sunday – the seventh day. “No, Sunday is just a day. Not the seventh, not the first, just a day in the structure of the calendar. One rotation of Earth around its axis, the sum of events comprised within twenty-four hours, one more…oh, this is becoming stupid.”

And this Sunday was not even sunny, as it should be given the fact that it was a day of the sun.

“I just wish winter came faster…”, thought Karina.

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VIII.

“[…]…you can’t even begin to imagine how nice it feels to read your e-mails! I almost forgot the pleasure that can be brought by long letters…I used to write letters when I was younger (by younger meaning somewhere at the beginning of my 20s). I loved calligraphy, but ever since computers entered my life the hand-written letters became fewer and fewer until they almost vanished…Now I don’t think I write more than two per year, and quite short ones.

First of all, I don’t believe in the traditional image of God – the white-beard guy waiting up-there to decide whether we go up or down. I rather believe in some energy entity and some sort of interdependency between itself and us – and this reminds me of a quote from Frank Herbert’s “Dune”: ‘what senses do we lack if we cannot see another world around ourselves?’

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IX.

[…] for the first time she rose her head and undressed her heart in front of him: “they say that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’…yet we all make use of the mirror of Snow-White’s stepmother when we don’t have a pair of eyes to tell us that for them we’re the ‘fairest of them all’…and if we don’t have that either, we are bound to forever see ourselves as ignored frogs…”[…]

– Writing again Kasha?

The voice of her husband appearing almost from nowhere right behind her startled her and she turned around.

– Yes. You see, I’m working on a series of texts…

– Yeah, yeah, whatever…Listen, I’ll be away this week, my boss wants to start a new project and I must go with him on a business trip all the way to Moscow.

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X.

“I realize it couldn’t have been easy for you to talk to me suddenly of such intimate matters, and I have to tell you first of all that I am grateful for and honored by your trust.

And now about what you shared with me – I will not tell you what you should or shouldn’t do, I do not believe that I am the best advisor in such a matter, even if in this moment, after your pain resonated in a much deeper level within me, I wish I could have the necessary and sufficient wisdom to tell you ‘Do this! And you will be happy!’ I cannot do that. Instead, I will share with you my own such part of life.

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XI.

It’s amazing how much a word can help sometimes, if coming from a gentle heart and loaded with kindness. Maybe it was the human tone of Asheq’s messages in general, or maybe the fact that he had not judged her, but been there for her in a very sensitive moment, or maybe simply the thought that he himself didn’t have the perfect marital paradise at home, resonating in an “I’m not the only one” idea – no matter for which of the above reasons, or even for all of them, or for others aside those, Karina started to feel her soul being veiled by some sort of warm and protecting sheath, as if suddenly coated in cotton. That online presence had a most marvelous way of calming her, sweetening her thoughts the same way a ray of sun sweetens the sky of autumn when covered in thick gray clouds.

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XII.

“What am I to you?”

Those words of Karina kept spinning with light speed inside his head and for the first time in a long while Asheq had no idea how to express what he was feeling. To be honest, it was the first time actually that he felt so dizzy and intoxicated – “if I was on the edge of a mountain now, I swear I’d throw myself into the abyss with the certainty that I can fly…How do I tell you everything that you are to me, Kasha?”

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XIII.

“He is in love with me!”

Karina was so thankful that her husband was not around to decipher that smile that simply wouldn’t let itself erased from her lips. Asheq’s words were decorating her mind like aurora the North Pole, and in a sweet surrender she kept picking random sentences from what he had written to her and she re-inhaled their perfume over and over again, wrapping her thoughts with their narcotic fragrance. Somehow she felt as if she had just opened her eyes upon the most extraordinary world, and now she wasn’t able to stop from day-dreaming, bewitched by his words – “If I could, I would command the words to come to life – maybe then they could truly express how I feel for you”.

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XIV.

– Another project?!

Asheq felt a deaf rage mounting inside his chest. He looked at his boss, striving to calm his need to punch him. That much an idiot was he? Their office hadn’t finished yet the four on-going projects and his boss had contracted another one?

– We have to finish this one prior to the other four, explained the director. The client is a very important and wealthy one, and we should get paid accordingly.

Barely refraining from exploding, Asheq weighed the implications of this fifth project contracted by the company where he worked – the extra hours to be spent at the office and on field, the significant reduction of his spare time, the increasing level of stress, tiredness, less time with his family, and on top of it all, much lesser time for him and Karina. Read the rest of this entry »

XV.

“Scheherazade, you say…how this makes me smile…I remember when I was a little girl – one of my favorite books used to be the ‘1001 Arabian nights’, I think I’ve read that one at least fifty times. I guess the list of our tender coincidences keeps growing, doesn’t it?

There is a lake in my past too, a lake where I used to go with my father. I didn’t tell you about it until now, but somehow you keep reminding me of that lake, ever since the day we met – the same apparent stillness at the surface and the same wondrous splendors lying beneath it. Read the rest of this entry »

XVI.

d4…

The evening was peaceful and after the light dinner that had just ended Asheq now sat in an armchair next to the fireplace. The chessboard was placed right next to him and arranged, as usual, so he began to move the pieces in a solo game, with a slightly absent-minded air on his face. Minnah, attributing his nostalgia to the tiredness of the day and knowing how passionate he was about the chess game, left him alone and went quietly into another room.

d5…

“Classic opening…” he thought. It had come to him more like a reflex, unpremeditated, sign that this time he was actually searching more for a pretext to not talk than for the pleasure of the game itself.

c4…

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XVII.

“You have 1 unread message.”

The sudden note on her screen took her by surprise. She had just closed the discussion with Asheq and said goodnight – had he decided to surprise her with some new verse or to challenge her mind with some idea? She clicked eagerly on the link, but contrary to her expectations, the sender of the message was not her lover.

“Hi Karina,

I like your poems on the website so much! And you look simply gorgeous in your profile picture.

Could we be friends?

Soul-Catcher”

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XVIII.

“You have 1 unread message.”

Had he seen this line when logged in with his usual email address, Asheq’s heart would have shivered with a normal joy, knowing that she was its author. But finding that message at the first hour in the morning in his alter-ego’s inbox, a cold thrill slithered its way inside him – and with an exquisite masochism Asheq twisted the knife inside the wound, reading and re-reading the lines meaning almost nothing and almost anything in the same time. True, she had mentioned to him that she had received a note from some guy, but hadn’t he suggested her to just let him go?!

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XIX.

Almost two days had passed since Karina had found the last email from “Sean”, but being physically drained by the fact that her twins had both gotten sick and she had to take care of them, she didn’t have the heart to open it. She knew that the easiest way to move on would have been to simply ignore the sender, not reply to him anymore, and go on with her virtual relationship with Asheq. But that darn voice inside her repeated only one thing, over and over again: “But if this IS him, and he is doing it once, won’t he do it again? And what will happen next time?!”

So in the end, tortured by doubt and mistrust, Karina finally clicked it open, praying like she had never prayed before in her life that she would be wrong.

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XX.

While reading Karina’s last email to him, Asheq thought he detected a slight fragrance of guilt perspiring through her words. Otherwise why suddenly all that need of hers to remind him of their (not so far in the past) beginnings?! Why the abrupt desire of rememorizing reasons and raking through their common history? Was she actually trying to convince herself that she wasn’t truly that much interested in “Sean”? And one more thing – why had it been necessary for “Sean” to appear in order for her to try and relight what they had?

Asheq was certain that whatever was going on in Karina’s heart, “Sean” was gaining a very serious advantage, and although pain infiltrated in his soul with each passing second, he decided to go on with his plan. Besides, he could feel the contained doze of flirt inside her message to his second persona, and that one incited him to continue. He enjoyed so much that veiled teasing, and although she hadn’t actually said anything directly, her words implied oh! so much…

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XXI.

“That easy it is for you to weave another story, Ash? And you called ME Scheherazade…such irony…”

While Karina paced slowly the frozen shores of Volga, holding the hands of her daughters, her mind couldn’t help returning over and over again to her lover and to the yet senseless to her game of his. She couldn’t believe that he simply never loved her, considering every little thing that they had talked about, his reactions and his always caring manner of treating her. “Maybe you simply got bored…maybe I’m too boring for you the way that I am…maybe you want more…but I have nothing more! And you know that…”

She had gone over and over again through all the potential answers, but to no avail. And after all, it didn’t matter anymore. Facts were facts, and understanding the “why” behind them didn’t make it any easier for her. She was tired, completely drained of energy by all that was happening.

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XXII.

The last messages sent by Karina were lingering in both his and his alter-ego’s inbox, unreplied to just yet. But for Asheq the ever growing sweetness of her tone in the emails addressed to “Sean” was becoming worse than poison, filling his veins with a bubbling jealousy and sadness, and lately it was harder and harder for him to keep a cool head when writing to her, under either identity. Although aware that he had started all this, when first considering to approach her as a different man, there was still something that prevented him from completely assuming the guilt for the entire situation – he kept drilling inside his memories, constantly fueling his jealousy with shards from the recent events and torturing himself with the supreme question: “what if some other guy actually did this, and not me?”. But what tortured him even more than that was that he realized how, above all else, he felt frustrated for not being able to actually offer her more than merely dreams, less consistent than even the thinnest air.

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XXIII.

Karina took a glance in the tall mirror before going out through the room’s door – and the mirror reflected back at her the image of an outstandingly beautiful woman, all dressed in white, carrying inside her eyes enough sadness and mystery to make any angel fall from grace. She felt that she was running out of time, but there was little that she could do to control this. So after pondering for a few more seconds, she opened the door and went out, leaving a delicate trace of Sarrasins behind her.

Down in the hotel’s lobby, Sean was already waiting for her, gazing absentmindedly at a very artistic interior artesian well. Seeing him from a distance, she smiled and felt as if suddenly taking a breath of pure oxygen – ever since this man had appeared in her life everything seemed to go from good to better.

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XXIV.

Asheq felt like suffocating, and fortunately enough the other three men sitting next to him were too feverishly caught up with whatever they were discussing to notice what was happening to him. Seeing the blonde woman’s reaction while meeting his gaze confirmed his surmise – “Karina…”

For a very long second the entire restaurant seemed to sink in silence and none of them was able to do anything. If in that second earth had been split in half, none would have made a move at all. Karina yet realized that the one who was supposed to break that moment of ultimate surprise was her, not him. So she made a titanic effort to sketch a smile and to nod her head towards him, in a discreet and silent “hello”.

Suddenly all the noise returned into the room, but Asheq felt like all the blood and energy were being drained with the speed of light from his body. “She” was there, just a few meters away. Read the rest of this entry »

XXV.

From behind the curtain, Karina looked down, tensed and melancholic in the same time. “Photos aren’t doing you justice, my love, and neither is the webcam…” she thought, while gazing at him. She knew she was playing with fire – had he decided to come up she would have never been able to push him away. She didn’t expect him to come this far, and now, feeling her heart slightly twitching while seeing him in front of the hotel, she was wondering if leaving him that note at the restaurant had been a wise choice.

Seconds later, Asheq turned around and left, and it was Karina’s turn to follow him with her eyes as he was furthering. When she saw him no more, she repressed a sigh, sat down in front of the laptop and wrote him.

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XXVI.

 “Coward!” screamed Asheq’s heart inside of him. He was sitting at his desk, hiding his resignation beneath piles of documents, pretending to be interested in a study about a bunch of hills, but with each second he felt that he was going to be defeated by the anger against himself. For once in his life he wished he had again the spontaneity of his youth, so that he could have recklessly ignored all the circumstances and consequences and just selfishly go to Karina and drench himself in her love. The shadow of a bitter smile curved his lips when he realized that despite all those months in which he struggled and believed that he had gone over the entire affair, one glance had been enough to revive all those feelings asleep inside of him.

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XXVII.

The flight back home seemed so much longer than the previous one. Karina looked through the airplane’s window, aware that in a matter of minutes the sky was going to be flooded with an explosion of light. Sunrise was just moments away, and the horizon was already bubbling with day essence.

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