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  • Stanford University. Late summer. 4pm.

    M, a friend of a friend who I knew from the dorms, invited me over for a game of chess. I was really, really looking forward to wiping the floor with him. It would be, I believed, a small measure of payback for his public reading of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." He read Eliot lustily. He read "Prufrock" the way it might have been read by Walt Whitman, if Whitman had a cocaine problem. When he read the line, "do I dare to eat a peach?", he reached out and squeezed an invisible peach.

    I found him in his dorm room, unfolding the board, setting up his flimsy plastic pieces. We said hello, said our seminars were going well, dove in. As he surveyed the board, his eyes twinkled, just as they had during "Prufrock." He kept up a running monologue, of course: "Ah, see, here's this situation which I always get into, where I want to go here, but what keeps worrying me is you coming in with your bishop. And then, as far as these pawns go, I'm kind of pushing you back a bit..." I did not reply; you don't give your opponent free information.

    There was a knock; when M. answered the door, Chelsea Clinton walked in. I'd known they were friends, though I couldn't begin to understand why. I felt, quite strongly, that she must have never heard him reading poetry out loud.

    "Can I use the computer?" she asked. Of course, he said. She walked briskly past our game and sat down at his desk. She opened a web browser; next, she opened the Internet version of the Starr report, and began to read it silently. M. and I looked at the screen, then back at each other, unsure -- on a really monumental scale -- what we were supposed to do.

    He came back to the game and sat down. No running monologue, any more. The room became so delicately quiet that I could hear Chelsea clicking the mouse, and the chess pieces rasping across the board. For perhaps five minutes, we played normally, albeit without speaking. I was way ahead, methodically collecting his pawns, when something changed. It was his turn, and he was taking forever. I wasn't bored; I was concentrating on making even my breathing as quiet as possible. When he finally did move his piece, he moved it gently, carefully. It was like playing on the bottom of the ocean.

    I understood his point. If the game ended, we'd be in a pretty difficult spot. What then? Shaking hands, muttering "good game," playing "best 2 out of 3"? We made that one game last. It seemed elegant, serene, and unreal. Chess is a war that no longer exists. Its metaphors say nothing about shrapnel.

    Fifteen minutes later, Chelsea closed the browser, thanking M. calmly. He saw her to the door. We finished our game, and did not play another.
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