For Steve McCarthy, the reason he became involved with the Union College Chess Club were two-fold. The love of the game was certainly one of them, of course, having been an avid player for most of his 57 years.
The second was that it allowed him to interact with young people, primarily men, and that always made him feel more alive. Having just retired from a life in the public sector, he had a lot of time on his hands and didn’t want to become glued to the television.
Getting emotionally involved with any of the club’s members was not on the list of expectations when Steve McCarthy signed on to help mentor at the school. Besides, what student would be interested in an old man three times their age?
Chapter One: Child Prodigy.
The first thing that I learned after my initial session with the Union College Chess Club was that young people today are a lot smarter than I was at their age. Either that, or I’ve regressed over the years. I suspect it might be a combination of the two.
Regardless, after spending a few hours with these young folks, I quickly discovered that there was no way I could waltz in the room and bowl these students over with my skills. There were a couple of these kids I immediately recognized as excellent players after watching them play for only a few minutes.
Several others in the group of about twenty were also very skilled as well, so I wasn’t sure how much good I would do in the role as volunteer community mentor. Chances are if I wasn’t careful I could find myself getting embarrassed, so I spent most of my time that first day introducing myself and offering advice only when asked.
All but one of the members of the club were males, and many fit that stereotype of the chess playing nerd I had become quite familiar with over the years. I had usually been the oddity in these gatherings, with my 6’2″ beefy frame suggesting a lumberjack instead of a chess player.
None of these students fit the stereotype more than Ryan Truman. Even in a room filled with many people that were introspective and aloof, Ryan was obviously a loner. The only person who seemed willing to play with him was the young woman, and after he dispatched her with ease, he sat by himself and immersed himself in a match with a non-existent opponent.
It was at that point I slid into the chair opposite Ryan and asked him if he would like to have a game. His eyes lit up and he jumped at the chess pieces, his hands shaking as he tried to set the game up quickly.
I managed not to lose that game, salvaging a draw against the little fellow, and at the time I suspected that my lackluster showing was due to me trying to figure my adversary out. My eyes spent as much time on Ryan as they did on the board.
By the end of the club session I was able to find out that that Ryan was a senior. That floored me, because he looked younger than all of the other students. As it turned out, at eighteen he probably was. It seems that young Ryan was a gifted student, having graduated from high school at the tender age of 15.
It was also clear why Ryan was a loner. He seemed incapable of making eye contact with me on that first day, despite my every effort to be my usual jovial self. He would only sneak peeks at me when he thought I was looking at the board intensely, and then his eyes would dart away when I would raise my head.
After playing that game with Ryan, I got up and worked the room again, all the while keeping an eye on the little man with the Harry Potter glasses and the pocket protector. No one else sat down to play against him, and after the members of the club left the room, I sidled up to the faculty advisor and asked about Ryan.
“Ryan?” the man said with a sigh. “He’s an odd duck alright. Let’s just say that there’s been a few incidents with him on campus that’s made him sort of a pariah.”
When I pressed the man for details, he confided in me that Ryan had a reputation of being, as he put it in a way that guys do when they think they’re talking to a fellow straight man, “a little light in the shoes”.
“Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” he said with a laugh. “I know he got his ass kicked by some football player for peeking at him in the bathroom, and then there was something to do with a roommate in his dorm. That and his weirdness make him a bit unpopular.”
“Maybe the fact that he’s the best player in the room has something to do with it,” I suggested, not adding that his social skills might be a result of being a fish out of water age-wise.
“That doesn’t help,” the faculty advisor said with a grin.
I tried to catch up with young Mr. Truman after that, but he had left the building, so I made it a point to seek him out the next time I came to the club’s meeting. Ryan wasn’t hard to find, as he was sitting by himself playing alone. He seemed happy to see me, and after I managed a draw and moved around the room again, I slid back across from the lad.
“You don’t have to do this,” Ryan said, looking around the room as şişli bayan escort I helped him set up the board. “They might think that you’re…”
“Playing chess with you?” I asked.
“I appreciate what you’re doing, but the others won’t like it,” Ryan said softly, seeming to think that the students around would take offense at him enjoying competing with someone instead of sitting alone.
After we drew again, I got up from the chair and started to leave, but before I did I whispered to Ryan.
“I’m sorry that I’ve made you feel awkward,” I explained. “If you would like to play me sometime and somewhere else out of sight of your classmates, let me know.”
Ryan looked up at me with a dazed expression, and mumbled, “Sure.”
“If we do,” I added before departing. “I don’t want to you to let me get draws with you, because I find that insulting. I much prefer losing outright.”
Chapter Two: After the meeting.
Ryan was waiting for me after the club meeting was over. He was standing at the end of the hallway, looking around like he was about to commit a crime as I joined him.
“Care to grab a cup of coffee or something?” I suggested, and Ryan agreed. We walked a little ways into town, at Ryan’s request bypassing several of the usual student haunts, until we ended up at Dunkin Donuts.
We spent about an hour there, and after I was able to get Ryan to start talking, there was no shutting him up even if I wanted to. It was as if he had been waiting all of his life for somebody to talk to, and once the floodgates were opened it all came out.
After we parted outside and went our separate ways, I reflected on our conversation, or more accurately, Ryan’s monologue. This was a tortured young man who so badly needed a friend.
“I wish,” he had confided in me. “I wish that instead of doing my best on all those tests during grade school, I had missed some questions. Not enough to make me seem like an idiot, but just enough so that they left me alone.”
Being left alone meant not skipping him over first and third grades, and then moving him through high school a year quicker. The result had left him resenting his intelligence and wishing to be able to be like everybody else.
“I should be graduating high school this year,” Ryan said sadly. “Instead, I’m graduating college. I feel like I missed everything. I’ve got no friends and I’ve messed up my life.”
After excusing myself to go to the men’s room just before we left, I was busy relieving myself at the urinal when I happened to notice Ryan had entered.
“I’ll be done in a second,” I told him, since this was a one urinal bathroom.
“No,” Ryan said. “Just have to wash my hands. The donut was sticky.”
Ryan’s hands may indeed have been sticky, but I instantly knew why he had come in there. My peripheral vision wasn’t what it used to be, but I could see that while Ryan’s hands were busy scrubbing away in the sink, his eyes were fixed on me.
Being a guy who neither flaunted himself or crawled into the urinal to hide myself, I stood there and finished doing my business. By the end I had figured out why Ryan had that “bathroom incident” the faculty advisor had mentioned, because after a lifetime of using public bathrooms I could pick out a pecker checker a mile away and Ryan may have been the most blatant of them all.
Ryan seemed overjoyed when I suggested we spend an evening together to play chess – serious chess, I had warned him.
“That taking pity on your opponent stuff should be left to guys like me,” I said with a smile. “I’ve done it enough to others that I can recognize it pretty easily.”
“I didn’t want you to not want to play with me,” Ryan said. “People seem to get mad at me if I beat them.”
“I’d rather be beaten than pitied.”
“I wasn’t pitying you. You’re really good,” Ryan assured me.
“We’ll find out tomorrow night then, okay?”
After I had offered to let Ryan choose the date and place, he had suggested it be anywhere but his apartment, which he seemed ashamed of. When I told him I lived nearby and would be happy to have him over, he readily accepted.
Now as I entered my place, the brownstone that I shared with my partner Albert for many years until his passing 18 months earlier, I wondered if I was doing the right thing. Ryan was so vulnerable and innocent looking that I felt like a predator.
Besides, Ryan wasn’t really my type. Albert had been very similar to me physically and age-wise, and I had never been attracted to younger men until recently. Then again, when you get to be 57, most men are younger, and when you’re 6’2″ and about 220, most guys are not your size either.
There was always the slim possibility that Ryan wasn’t gay and not interested in me in “that” way – and I laughed when that thought crossed my mind. After the way he had gawked at me in the men’s room, there was little doubt as to his feelings along those lines.
While I had found his antics rather crude and tasteless, he had done it in such an şişli escort innocent way that I couldn’t make myself feel offended, although I could certainly see why other men might well be.
Besides, it had been so long since anybody besides Albert had looked at me with that look in their eyes, that I had to admit to enjoying the attention. Whether I was making a mistake or not would be something I would find out the next night.
Chapter Three: Alone with Ryan
Ryan was right on time the next evening, and I brought him into the den, where I had spent so many evenings playing chess with Albert. Ryan was impressed with my chess set, and was thrilled when I offered him a glass of wine, even though I suspect he didn’t really care for it.
“Who’s that man in the picture with you?” Ryan asked, nodding over at the photo on the bar.
“Albert,” I said. “He was my partner for over a decade years. He passed almost two years ago.”
“Partner? Like in a business?”
“No,” I said softly. “Partner as in lover. Friend. Companion.”
“You mean you’re…”
“Gay?” I said after Ryan left the word unsaid. “It’s alright to use the term, you know. They don’t kill you for being gay anymore. Not usually anyway.”
“No, I mean I didn’t know – didn’t think you were,” Ryan mumbled.
“Is that alright?” I asked with a smile.
“Yeah, I mean, it’s great,” Ryan exclaimed. “I’m sorry about your partner though.”
“It must be nice to be with somebody like that,” Ryan mused aloud.
“It is,” I agreed. “I was a lucky man.”
“I think I am,” Ryan said, peeking up from the chess board for my reaction.
“No. Gay, I think.”
“They probably told you at the Chess Club,” Ryan said, and I shrugged my shoulders at that.
“I don’t much pay attention to gossip,” I told Ryan. “It was mentioned to me that there was an incident with you and another fellow.”
“Which incident?” Ryan asked, studiously eyeing my Queen who was very vulnerable. “I get beat up a lot.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. “If that happens because of what you did in the restroom yesterday with me, I can understand why though.”
Ryan’s face turned crimson as he tried to concentrate on the game, making a blunder that was probably not intentional.
“Sorry,” Ryan said.
“Is that how you try to meet men?” I asked casually.
“Sometimes,” Ryan said. “I’ve also been to the book store – you know Adult World?”
I nodded at the reference to the seedy porn shop down near GE, having ducked in there one time years ago.
“I went back to the booths – you know – the movies,” Ryan explained. “I met a man that way once”
“What did he do, take you home with him?”
“No, he just had me – you know. Give him oral sex.”
“Right there in the booth?” I asked, cringing at the thought of this poor lad in that place. “That’s not exactly the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard of.”
“Better than being alone,” Ryan said.
I wasn’t so sure about that, thinking that I would rather be lonely than lurking around peep show booths and urinals, but Ryan looked so depressed that I decided to bite my tongue.
“It’s also a dangerous way to meet guys,” I suggested.
“I know,” Ryan said. “I found that out. That’s why I don’t go down there any more.”
“Anything you care to talk about?” I asked, but Ryan just shook his head.
We played a few more games, and I managed to not lose them all, managing a real draw as the clock struck midnight.
“Time flew,” I said as I yawned. “I don’t have to get up in the morning, but I’m sure you have classes.”
“Yeah, I suppose,” Ryan said, although I got the impression that he would have stayed until morning if he had his druthers. “This was really fun.”
“I enjoyed it a lot,” I told Ryan. “We’ll have to do it again sometime.”
“Really?” Ryan said eagerly. “When?”
“I don’t know,” I mused, taken aback at Ryan’s excitement.
“Tomorrow night?” Ryan said, looking like a puppy trying to impress a would-be owner.
I didn’t have the heart to say no, and so I nodded. Ryan returned the next night, and that took us to where I was when I visited my old friend Father Mulgrew Friday afternoon.
Chapter Four: What’s up Doc?
That was how Don Mulgrew greeted me when I showed up at his rectory around noon on Friday. The question was a jab at my old hobby back when we were schoolmates years ago. I had claimed I was going to be a doctor, so I would give Don physical examinations.
They weren’t very professional exams, and usually concentrated exclusively on a certain area, but we both enjoyed them, and although I never became a doctor, he likes to stick the needle in whenever he can even today.
Since we have a history together, I can trust Don like a brother, and although I rarely ask his advice, I’ve always found him helpful. How I would have gotten past losing Arthur without Father Don’s help, I don’t know. Even though our mecidiyeköy escort relationship has been strictly platonic for decades, I love him.
“I’m kind of in a relationship,” I began.
“Splendid!” Father Don declared, his face beaming.
“Not so fast,” I said, waving off the congratulations. “It’s not like that.”
“What is it like?” Don asked. “How long have you been seeing each other?”
“Seventeen days,” I said. “Seventeen evenings rather. Every night.” I explained to Don that ever since that first night, Ryan had kept asking if he could come back the next night, and I’ve kept saying yes.
“If you don’t want him to be around, just say no.”
“That’s the rub. I love his company. He’s a great chess player and a brilliant student.”
“Student?” Don asked.
“Yes. A senior,” I said, before quickly adding, “over at Union. I met him when I started mentoring for the Chess Club”.
“Ah! The protege/mentor system,” Don said. “There was a Seinfeld episode about that.”
“The thing is that Ryan is way better at chess than I am. He’s a freaking genius.”
“Then what’s the problem?” Don said. “He sounds great.”
“He’s 18 years old,” I said, explaining how he had enjoyed and suffered from an accelerated learning program. “And if you saw him, you wouldn’t believe he was. Think Harry Potter – Wally Cox – Stanley Beamish, remember him?”
“Mr. Terrific!” Don smiled, recalling the old TV show from the sixties.
“Ryan is so – I don’t know. I just feel guilty.”
“Why? What have you done to him?”
“Nothing. Not a blessed thing. He gave me a hug last night when he left,” I said. “It’s just that I’m not sure how I feel about him. I look forward to him stopping by every night, and he’s really changing. Opening up and all. I think maybe I’m falling in love with him.”
“That’s a good thing,” Don said.
“But I just don’t know if I could do anything with him,” I said.
“Not attracted to him physically?” Don said. “Judging from how you’ve described him, he’s certainly nothing like Arthur.”
“My word no,” I laughed, thinking of how different the two of them are.
“Well, if you find him unattractive, that will be a problem,” Don said.
“It’s not that,” I said. “It’s just that I feel guilty when I think about him.”
“He’s 18 and certainly not addled, from what you’ve said,” Don asked. “Why the guilt?”
“Maybe I’m afraid that he’s just desperate for affection – he’s never really been with anyone,” I said, mentioning briefly his bathroom antics and the time at the adult book store. “And maybe I’ve become so lonely that I’m that way too. After all those years with Arthur, I’m not doing this solo thing very well.”
“So what is the harm in that?” Don asked. “Two lonely people being together is not a sin. As for you feeling guilty, or like a predator? The one thing I’m sure of in this world is that Steve McCarthy is the most gentle and caring man I know, and would never take advantage of anyone or hurt them for anything.”
I shrugged and waved off Father Don’s high praise, wishing that I could live up to the ideals he thought I had, but he continued.
“So what is the worst thing that could happen? The two of you are together for a while and it doesn’t work out? So what? You both have a nice time and move on,” Don said.
“He’s just so naive and innocent,” I explained. “He keeps asking what it’s to be with a man, and how he doesn’t know how to do anything.”
“Then who better to show him than you?” Don mused. “I can picture this young fellow in my mind, and I can also think of how many other guys he could meet up with – and what they would do to him. Can’t you?”
I cringed and nodded, having indeed thought that very same thing myself on more than one occasion.
“Just because you can’t beat him at chess doesn’t mean you can’t mentor him in other ways,” Don said. “More important ways. You know what’s in your heart, and you’ll do the right thing. I’m sure of that.”
“Who knows?” Don said with a laugh as I rose to leave. “Maybe 20 years from now the three of us will be sitting around enjoying your anniversary. Remember, in 20 years you won’t be three times his age any more. Just twice his age.”
“How about in 50 years?” I asked with a laugh of my own. “What will I be then?”
“Dead, most likely,” Don chuckled. “But why not live until then?”
Chapter Five: Friday night with Ryan
“Oh no,” I said when Ryan appeared at my door later that day, armed with a little pastry box. “Have you been to Perreca’s again?”
I had scolded Ryan in a joking way when he came to my house with some pastries one night, telling him that I had about 20 pounds I needed to lose, and now he had something else from that delicious bakery.
“It’s a special occasion,” Ryan announced. “We need a couple of plates and stuff.”
I went to the kitchen and got some utensils, bringing them back to my den, where our nightly chess matches were held. Ryan had already cut the string on the box and had opened it up.
It was a tiny round cake with chocolate frosting, and on the top was written the number 19.
“It’s your birthday?” I asked.
“The cake was too small to write my name on it,” Ryan said, blushing.