Saturday, August 27, 2011


 442. The lone Snickers bar is silently waiting on my side of the table, its three former package-mates lying on the other side, near the myriad of E.'s pocket contents, emptied at the beginning of the chess game to make him feel comfortable when sitting down. I have just eaten lunch a few hours ago, I do not biologically need to eat this Snickers. But, as E. gave this to me in the friendly spirit of chess fellows and temporary adversaries, surely it would be rude not to eat it, and I have a vague feeling that if I do not eat it now, I am soon running out of time. A few moves earlier, the combination of the lack of practice and a fleeting urge of being daredevil has led me to a dangerous sacrifice to open up his king's side for, as it has painfully transpired, nothing. If I am about to lose my first match against a lower-rated player in the two years living in Brussels, I might as well eat the damn Snickers.

Sure enough, as soon as I finish the overly sweet chocolate bar, his king has finished matching from one side of the board to another, which is usually not a good indication -- imagine the Queen of Britain being forced to migrate, one country at a time, halfway across the world and ending up in Papua New Guinea -- but which in this case results in me having both my queen being exposed and my king being threatened with mate in one. I put down the plastic wrap, and extend my hand; E. shakes it with the widest restrained smile possible, then stands up and, for seemingly no reason, immediately leaves the room. 

Normally, the role of an immediate leaver is carried out by the loser, and, more often than not, with added features like red face, refusal of eye contact, one hand clutching the poor BIC pen for dear life, etc. But, as E. has just vanished and we cannot simply abandon the pieces (especially when they are still currently in the losing position for White!), I stay at the table to pack up the set. After also putting the digital clock away, I look up to see E.'s standing at the entrance of the playing hall, wordlessly motioning me to come closer. Puzzled, I do what I am told (or signaled, rather). Once I cross the doorway and into the land of So-Now-We-Can-Talk, E. whispers to me, conspiratorially. "Do you want cake?" 

In the split second before making my decision, three consecutive things come to my mind: first, this is a departure of the usual Russian pancakes that E.'s wife often prepared for him; second, what are we doing, like, having celebratory cake for my first lower-rated loss in Brussels? and third, when did I last say no to free cake? So yes, I do want cake. It turns out, that I have a choice of two: a thin peach cake in a SucréSalé box, and a thicker something cake in a plastic container. I never actually find out what the latter is, because we share the peach cake instead. By sharing, I meant me modestly taking one piece at a time from the cake until it is almost completely gone, and E. watching me during this modest process. Out of obligatory politeness, we discuss the game a little ("So, that sacrifice totally sucked." "Yes, you played like Judit Polgar..." "When she was five maybe..."), and when we run out of nice things to say about a miscalculated sacrifice, we change subject. 

How long does E. have left in his postdoc scholarship, I want to know. One month, he says, casually, and I find myself wide-eyed. E. laughs, why do you think I was in such a hurry to play with you? Had I known this was to be the only standard game we played together, maybe I would have played it a bit less dreamily, I tell him. What I think but not say is, my surprise comes from the sudden reminder that how quickly time has flown. We have started our postdocs together, in October 2009, and had it not been for the two impromptu three-month extensions, I too would have been packing up now. He has a postdoc lined up in Munich, I am told, his "(N + 1)th postdoc." So, I guess your wife will come with you, I say, thinking that I might as well have said, so I guess the Pope is Catholic. Actually, we are divorced, E. replies, and my first thought is, maybe someone should ask if the Pope is actually Catholic. My second thought is probably written all over my face, because E. hastily points out that it happens all the time, so do not be so surprised, it presumably being divorces in general and not his getting a divorce. 

I am well aware that divorces happen all the time -- one out of two marriages, actually, if we are to believe in the oft-quoted miserable statistics -- but that does not mean it fails to surprise, and sadden, me each time I hear of yet another divorce, or even simply breakups in general. Another couple that I know has also broken up recently. Despite that this is news to no-one considering the time it has taken to transpire, and that I really only know this couple by proxy, I still protested and wildly invented all crazy circumstances for them to get back together. "Why do you have to make things complicated?" the news bearer asked me at the time. "It's a good thing. They tried. It didn't work out. Now move on." I don't think my therapist would have been able to put it more succinctly, yet at the same time, I can't bring myself to repeat the line of reasoning to E. 

Instead, what I say, is that I am sorry. E. smiles good-naturedly, and assures me that other people have made the same mistake (asking after his now-ex wife), because the divorce is quite recently. I smile weakly back, not correcting his wrong assumption for what I was feeling sorry for. I suppose I should be sorry for having unknowingly assumed that he was still married, but my being sorry was for him losing the person that he was supposed to love and be loved by for the rest of his life, for yet another hopeful dream being broken, for the feelings of failure and of uncertainty about the future that he might be having right now. Unlike decisions like whether to eat a Snickers bar or to go for a reckless sacrifice in a chess game, to be with someone for the rest of your life or not is a decision that (I hope) no-one makes lightly, and when it turns out to be wrong, it takes a lot more than just a few runs around the park to erase the aftermath. Obviously, that is for after eating the Snickers bar. For the chess game, well, there is nothing you can do about a loss.

443. Seen at L'Anticyclone des Açores, an excellent travel bookstore with a book on possibly every city. (Except Adelaide. And maybe none on Elmshorn either. They probably have one on Hamburg, though.)

444. The shock doctrine, by Naomi Klein. The reason why I now have a combined 77 cents in both Belgium bank accounts, and the reason why I feel depressed for the rest of the weekend. How did these powerful people grow up to be so heartless? How do they look their children in the eyes?

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