I was six when my mother taught me the art of invisible strength. It was a strategy for winning arguments, respect from others, and eventually . . . chess games. At home, she said, “Wise guy, he not go against wind. In Chinese we say, Come from South, blow with wind—poom!—North will follow. Strongest wind cannot be seen.” The next week I bit back my tongue as we entered the store with the forbidden candies. When my mother finished her shopping, she quietly plucked a small bag of plums from the rack[.]
Waverly describes an early life lesson Lindo taught her. Interestingly, Lindo elsewhere expresses her disappointment that Waverly never learned “[h]ow not to show your own thoughts, to put your feelings behind your face.” While Waverly may not be as good at hiding her thoughts and feelings as Lindo, she did absorb the lesson and uses this skill both in chess and in life. Lindo’s assumption that Waverly never learned that lesson demonstrates the lack of communication between mother and daughter.
I learned about opening moves and why it’s important to control the center early on; the shortest distance between two points is straight down the middle. I learned about the middle game and why tactics between two adversaries are like clashing ideas; the one who plays better has the clearest plans for both attacking and getting out of traps. I learned why it is essential in the endgame to have foresight, a mathematical understanding of all possible moves, and patience; all weaknesses and advantages become evident to a strong adversary and obscured to a tiring opponent.
Waverly reflects on how through the game of chess she learned strategies that can be applied elsewhere in life. Waverly goes on to great success in both chess and, later, her career. By applying the lessons of chess in life, Waverly became successful in a ruthless way. By seeing others as adversaries and by always seeking the advantage over them, she lived her life very differently from her contemporary, June, whom she viewed as one such adversary.
[T]here was one duty I couldn’t avoid. I had to accompany my mother on Saturday market days when I had no tournament to play. My mother would proudly walk with me, visiting many stores, buying very little. . . . One day, after we left a shop I said under my breath, “I wish you wouldn’t do that, telling everybody I’m your daughter.” My mother stopped walking. . . . “It’s just so obvious. It’s just so embarrassing. . . . Why do you have to use me to show off? If you want to show off, then why don’t you learn to play chess?”
Waverly feels annoyed and embarrassed by Lindo’s bragging about Waverly’s success for two reasons. First, Waverly knows that American culture views showing off as unseemly. Second, Waverly feels like Lindo is trying to take credit for Waverly’s accomplishment. As Lindo feels her own and Waverly’s identities are tightly linked, she expects to be admired for Waverly’s talent. Waverly, however, wants full and sole credit for her accomplishments in the American way.
I discovered that, really, my mother had changed. She no longer hovered over me as I practiced different chess games. She did not polish my trophies every day. . . . It was as if she had erected an invisible wall and I was secretly groping each day to see how high and how wide it was. At my next tournament, while I had done well overall, in the end the points were not enough. I lost. And what was worse, my mother said nothing. She seemed to walk around with this satisfied look, as if it had happened because she had devised this strategy.
Here, Waverly reflects on losing a chess tournament and what may have contributed to her lackluster performance. When Waverly gets chicken pox, Lindo seems to forget the fight they had over Lindo’s excessive involvement with Waverly’s chess. But when Waverly goes back to chess, Lindo pulls back. While less attention was just what Waverly wanted, Waverly suddenly struggles to win. She believes her mother prevented her from winning via a secret strategy. In reality, Lindo probably liked the idea that her support had helped Waverly win after all.
[S]he would say a word about something small, something she had noticed, and then another word, and another, each one flung out like a little piece of sand, one from this direction, another from behind, more and more, until his looks, his character, his soul would have eroded away. And even if I recognized her strategy, her sneak attack, I was afraid that some unseen speck of truth would fly into my eye, blur what I was seeing and transform him from the divine man I thought he was into someone quite mundane, mortally wounded with tiresome habits and irritating imperfections.
Waverly fears her mother’s criticisms because she takes them seriously. What she needs from her mother, but does not hope for, is a willingness to go easy on her fiancé, Rich. The fact that Waverly can anticipate her mother’s criticisms of Rich suggests that she herself sees his flaws. As mother and daughter are very much alike in their high standards, Waverly must ignore Rich’s flaws in order to be happy with him.
He saw all the private aspects of me—and I mean not just sexual private parts, but my darker side, my meanness, my pettiness, my self-loathing—all the things I kept hidden. So that with him I was completely naked, and when I was feeling the most vulnerable—when the wrong word would have sent me flying out the door forever—he always said exactly the right thing at the right moment. He didn’t allow me to cover myself up.
Waverly explains what she loves about her fiancé, Rich. She reveals that despite her clever, successful, and seemingly effortless appearance, inside she does have self-doubt. The flaws she recognizes in herself include “meanness” and “pettiness.” Her frenemy, June, would probably be surprised to learn that Waverly acknowledges and dislikes those aspects of herself. Waverly has behaved in unkind ways to June seemingly without any qualms. Unlike June and others, Rich sees and loves the real Waverly.
“You mean you still go to that guy on Howard Street?” Waverly asked, arching one eyebrow. “Aren’t you afraid? . . . I mean, he isgay. . . . He could have AIDS. And he is cutting your hair, which is like cutting a living tissue. Maybe I’m being paranoid, being a mother, but you just can’t be too safe these days. . . . You should go see my guy . . . Mr. Rory. He does fabulous work, though he probably charges more than you’re used to.”
Here, Waverly displays her skills for petty one-upmanship. A flattering comment about June’s appearance serves as an opening to question her judgment, point out her childlessness, and call into question her financial status. She also shows a paranoid fear of AIDS, although at the time of the book’s writing, fewer people understood how AIDS was transmitted. From June’s perspective, Waverly has not changed since the two were children.
She looks in the mirror. She sees nothing wrong. “What do you mean? Nothing happened. . . . It’s your nose. You gave me this nose. . . . Our nose isn’t so bad. . . . It makes us look devious.” She looks pleased. “It means we’re looking one way, while following another. We’re for one side and also the other. We mean what we say, but our intentions are different. . . . They just know we’re two-faced. . . . This is good if you get what you want.”
Lindo has noticed that she and Waverly share the same nose. Lindo had thought she damaged her nose in a bus accident, and she does not like the look on Waverly, but Waverly thinks the feature was inherited and likes her nose. Suggesting that the nose looks devious shows Waverly’s lack of interest in conventional “goodness.” She feels proud of her own, and her mother’s, ruthless nature. Perhaps character, rather than an accident, changed Lindo’s nose over time.