The old man in the green jacket wipes the table down carefully, deliberately flicking away each piece of debris. There are already two people at the table next to his, deeply focused on their game of chess. The white pieces have crawled over the board, the game nearly at its close. In a few moves, it is finished; the two men shake hands, and one walks away. The other turns to watch the old man as he lays out a chessboard of his own.
A group gathers around the table–four other guys looking at the empty seat. The man in the green jacket waits, his back perfectly straight as he surveys the pieces laid out before him. The group surrounding him is tall, tan, and young, the kind of people you’d totally expect to see walking around Santa Monica. It’s rude to stare, I know, but I’m having a hard time looking away from something so out of the ordinary.
One of them finally sits down, and the game begins. They use a timer to play, slapping down a brass knob to begin the countdown for each move. The other three stand and watch the as the pieces slide back and forth. I don’t realize how obviously I’m watching until one of them smiles and nods at me.
He comes in a few minutes later to buy a bottle of water, and walks over to me on his way out. He’s in his mid-thirties, I think, still dressed like a college kid in jeans and a t-shirt and running shoes.
“You from the area?” he asks.
“Yeah, I go to UCLA. Are you?”
“Moved here from New York a few years back.”
We chat like old friends in the way that only total strangers can, the conversation flowing smoothly as we share the superficial details of our identities. He is retired already; worked in software development before that; has a mom who studied chemical engineering until she “did the homemaker thing.”
It’s the kind of conversation that you can have exactly once with a person, before you learn enough about them that an exchange of facts can no longer pass for conversation. When friends talk, there is an expectation of intimacy: if you already know the pieces that make up a person’s life–their job, their family, their hometown–all that remains is to get to know the pieces that make up the person themselves–their dreams, their passions, their fears; and these things are not so freely shared. Maybe this is why meeting people is so easy (“What’s your name? What’s your major? Where are you from?”) but quickly turns into me pulling aside someone else I know to introduce them as well, so that the whole thing can begin again.
He asks if I want to play chess with them. The last time I played was in fourth grade, sprawled out on the living room floor as I tried to think just a few steps ahead of my dad.
I accept, and find myself seated across from the old man in the green jacket.
“Have you ever read any books about chess?”
“No, I haven’t.”
In retrospect, this should’ve been a sign that I was going to lose even more spectacularly than I anticipated.
The game is over in five minutes, my king cornered and half my pieces removed from the board. I thank him, we shake hands, and I leave, for now finished trying to fit in. I am neither tall nor tan nor male; I am not a chess player, though not because I lack the qualities I just mentioned. I should not feel like I have failed some unfair initiation into a secret boys’ club simply because I am a girl–I am not a chess player because I know almost nothing about chess. That’s kind of how life works. But as I wait for the bus, I can’t shake off the feeling of failure, which makes no sense because to be honest setting up the pieces correctly was about as much as I could’ve hoped to accomplish. All too often, I find myself wanting to fit where I don’t belong, and sometimes it’s simple to change myself just enough to make it; but there are some things that can’t be faked. And chess, as I have been reminded, is one of them.