My hand moves swiftly over the quadrille lines of the journal page. I want to capture all of it before you’re lost. That stubble on your jawline, smiling that smile because this dream version of you doesn’t know the truth of what happened. We meet in the same old places: the college dorm, on a leaf-covered quad, a neglected corner of a humid subway station.
In New York City, a place dusted in snow, inside an apartment overlooking the lights of a city grid, we’re a couple again. The warmth between us returns, but it’s fuzzy and unreal. If these places are lost, if I tell this version of you the truth, then any chance of us meeting will be lost too, because our home’s no longer an option.
I turn back the pages of our journal to when we were just friends and played on the lawn of the yellow house, where you lived with your roommates and that girl you were dating. My knight jumped ahead, toward where reality and dreams can blur. And you, the math major, liked calculating the odds of dreams turning real. Still, you enjoyed this about me; my propensity for blending the two.
The game continued. My breathing kicked up after the long chase, fingers sliding beneath your shirt, removing the queen from the board, and trapping the king. Your expression stayed serious, steady, but your eyes burned, and you’d stopped playing. So, I cuddled a not-just-friends cuddle, changing everything.
My next move: a kiss-mate.
Some nights the Silver Bullet Express thrums overhead. Wide white stripes mark the crosswalk below. When the light changes, we catch each other’s gaze in a crowd. Familiarity swells between us, as if we still have a future. You tell me, “The downtown train’s leaving.” My throat tightens with longing. Your chin brushes against my ear, and you whisper—about returning home.
Yes, it’s the only place I want to go. So, we walk hand in hand, past an empty square, nonchalant, as if I haven’t run out of moves.
I flip back to when college ended. Do you remember that new apartment? How everything began on the wooden floor? A mattress, a chessboard, you gave me this leather journal where we wrote messages and famous chess moves in the grid lines. And Miss Kitty, the black and white cat in the middle of it all. Fans blew humid air. A soft song about a river played on the radio while we sweated, and shivered, and drifted on into late afternoon. She padded to her bowls, lapped her water, crunched her kibble, and leapt onto the windowsill. Her tail swung at the scene on the mattress below.
In the dream house on the college quad, oak branches hide the world. Wet leaves spiral and thrash against the boards. Graduation was last month, but my math class goes on, and the equations won’t balance. Summer rain falls through the wooden roof, blurring the numbers in our journal.
The door swings open. Wearing your heroic smile, you enter as if you’ve worked out the solution for our future. Relief warms my body. But when you hold up graph pages, they’re blank.
Far above, a bell rings louder and wakes me to a dark, dreamless morning.
I push the alarm button off. Turn another page to a later time at the apartment, when my pawn advanced to black, and yours to white. We built walls around our kingdoms, turning life into stalemate. You wanted to paint the kitchen. Miss Kitty pounced on a dancing sun fleck before chasing it outside.
“Let’s go out, into the sun.” I watched as her claws scraped against tree bark. “Somewhere different.”
Your move: “If we get it done early, we’ll have the afternoon.”
The same sun played at the corner of my eye. “Do you remember the first day on the mattress?”
“Come on. That was so long ago.” The words of an endgame. “We can’t cook without a kitchen, right?”
“But a treehouse doesn’t have a kitchen.”
I touch the page where the rain smudged the words dreamer and realist together.
Unsteadied by gusts down the avenue, my steps are slow on slick streets. I’m circling the dream block, past the same traffic lights and pawn shops. The train station’s ahead. A homeless man with dusty brown hair and ice-blue eyes opens a chess game near the stairs. He slides his pawn in invitation. My pawn, his pawn, my bishop moves sideways, a non-regulation move.
The delay costs, and I bound two steps at a time, up to a platform where the train still waits. Passengers step in, step out. Through the window, you grip a strap, smiling at me. But the doors close between us.
Miss Kitty hadn’t come home yet. You stood in the kitchen doorway, paint on your hands. “Kitchen’s all set. We could play a round?” The corner of your mouth hopeful—a lone knight advancing.
But the queen struck, and in red pen, she’s written: “I’ve been playing with someone else.”
The sun rises before I open my eyes. Shadows melt to red to morning light, burn away the dark. What if it’s the last dream? My imagination creates another minute on the Silver Bullet Express. And so you’re next to me, on a vinyl seat, asking about returning home. Smiling.
I know the truth. I’ve reread our past and drawn the dreams. The words rise through a veil of sleep. “I want to.”
Before you frown, before brakes screech to stop, and doors slide open, absorbing you into a crowd forever, I capture it—en passant—your last smile.
Claws dig into my aching chest. Miss Kitty purrs. I carefully remove her and slip the journal into a brown mailing envelope. Seal the fold, and add the chessman stamps. Your address is on it, and this is it, my last move.