"Life is an endless string of goodbyes," Nathaniel said.
We sat in silence for a moment, letting the words sink in. There was nothing I could say to that, no words to dismiss or transition on.
Our conversations were often like this. Nathaniel had a knack for knowing the heaviest words. They were words that, once said, needed to be heard. So I heard them with him and felt the full weight of their implication. The least I could do was bear the weight alongside him.
"It is," I said after some time had passed. "But each goodbye yields a new beginning. With each door, as they say." He nodded, an imperceptible movement of the head. If you didn't watch closely, you'd miss it.
"I've just never been good at goodbyes."
I thought for a moment, then said, "I don't think any of us really are. After all, no one really wants to say goodbye. It's just something we have to do, and perhaps, with practice, it becomes easier." The look on Nathaniel's face told me what he was thinking. I had to agree. Platitudes had no place in this conversation.
"Well," I said, leaning back a bit in the lawn chair to look up at the distant moon. It was full and low on the horizon, glowing orange in the twilight's pitch. It looked like a great orange hanging from a tree. So ripe all we needed to do was reach out and pick it. "Well."
A gentle breeze was blowing, rustling the autumn leaves like silent chimes. Behind us, the lights from the porch cast deep shadows, even as the moths hummed about them. Crickets chirped arrhythmically, the waning weather having thinned the choirs' numbers. It was the sort of night that spoke of loss—the sort of night where even the world seemed to be bidding farewell.
"Well," I said again, gathering my strength, "goodbyes are only as sad as we make them." Back to the platitudes. I pushed on. "Let's make this goodbye bittersweet, at least. How about some chess?"
An imperceptible nod.
I stood and gave a grunt. I sound like a father in more ways than one. "I'll make some tea as well. It's getting cold out here."
I smiled. Nathaniel could never pass up tea or chess. No matter how cold he grew, neither would fail to warm him. I hoped that would hold true tonight, too.
Sliding open the screen door, I went to the kitchen and filled the pot with water and set it on the stove. I pulled out my tea collection from the small cabinet beside the sink and chose some Jasmine green. Bittersweet for the occasion.
I let the water boil and padded over to the living room. My flat was quaint, to put it nicely. It kept everything together nicely, and I didn't have much to begin with, so it never got too cluttered. I looked over the collection of boards I had, searching for the right one. Something firm, but not hard. Dark, but gentle. I settled on a walnut board my grandfather had once gifted me and collected the pieces to match. In the other room, the kettle had begun to scream.
I switched off the heat and transferred the pot off the burner to cool for a bit. Too hot and the tea would be more bitter than sweet.
"Yo, Nathaniel," I called out the screen door. "Would you mind grabbing the board and setting up? I put it on the table behind me."
The screen door slid open and shut. "In here or outside?" he asked.
"Wherever you're most comfortable." A grunt. The screen door opened and shut once more.
Once the water had cooled and the tea had steeped, I joined him, setting his cup down on the small table. He had chosen black.
I opened with Queen's Gambit. To be honest, it's the only opening I know well, and against Nathaniel, you had to bring your best. Even on a day like this.
He accepted the Gambit, and we played through a standard opening, neither one of us thinking too deeply.
"How old was he?" I asked as I pulled my queen back.
"Hm, is that so?"
"Yeah. It was pneumonia, the doctors said."
"You were close?"
An imperceptible nod.
We made a few more moves, and I slowly lost the thread of the opening. I focused again for a bit. I couldn't hand the game to Nathaniel without a fight. That would have the opposite effect.
"He was my best friend for a long time," Nathaniel said, taking my silence as a prompting to continue. "Back before I knew how to talk to people. He understood that. We spoke like this instead." He gave a slight gesture to the board.
"I'm sure he spoke stronger than I did," I said absently. Nathaniel chuckled.
"He certainly did. You're not bad, but he was a professional, after all."
I nodded and took a sip of my tea. "Albert really was amazing." A little too bitter, I thought with a slight wince. Nathaniel didn't seem to mind.
We played on. I had to pause a few minutes before each of my moves, carefully analyzing the board to ensure I wouldn't go down without a fight. Nathaniel took only half a minute or so for each move. The skill gap was evident, but if I played my moves carefully…
"He was only my coach, but I always felt like we were brothers. Kindred souls in this world, speaking the same language, understanding each other's isolation. And because of that, when we were together, it was the first time I didn't feel alone."
"You don't feel alone now, I hope," I glanced up in time to see a small smile.
"No, not alone. Sad still, but not alone."
The game pushed on. Somewhere along the road, I had lost my advantage, and Nathaniel had me on the back foot now. My offensives were strong, but if you could weather the storm and launch a counter-attack, I tended to collapse under the pressure. Nathaniel had kept cool and parried my blows and now pushed down on my king with slow, effective precision.
I sipped at the dregs of my tea, a single needle-like leaf spun about the bottom.
A few moves later, I conceded. Despite the cool weather, I found that I was sweating a little, and my heart was racing. It had felt close. The distant look in Nathaniel's eyes seemed to agree.
"Ah, I ran around and around, confident as a tiger, but in the end, I missed the hunter's trap and wound up dead. The ancient wisdom still holds up, even today."
"A ferocious tiger, though. I'm lucky you stumbled into the trap, or I might not have won." He smiled. A full smile this time. I returned it.
"You flatter me."
He shrugged. "Believe what you will, but I thought it was close." It was my turn to give an imperceptible nod.
We went inside after a bit. It had gotten late, and the moon floated high, a paperwhite kite above the treetops. I put the board away, and Nathaniel helped me clean the cups and pot in silence. It wasn't as heavy as before, though. Just a normal silence, I thought.
I walked him to the door, and we said our goodbyes. I hoped this one wasn't as painful as the one he hadn't gotten to say earlier that day.
As I was closing the door, Nathaniel turned around. "Thanks," he said. "I needed that. It felt a little like the conversations we used to have, Albert and I. It was like," he paused, taking a deep breath. "It was like I got to talk with him one last time."
I smiled. What could I say?
"Bye, I'll see you later."