The following is the tenth of a series of excerpts from The Rowan Tree: A Novel by Robert W. Fuller. The complete novel is available for Kindle and for other ebook formats. A print edition can also be ordered from Amazon. The author welcomes your comments.
From the steps of the new library, Rowan looked out on the throng assembled for the dedication. About half the faculty had turned out. A half-dozen trustees were seated on the dais with him and the benefactors, George and Adele Clay. Mike Marlborough had informed Chloë that he would not be attending.
After praising the generosity of the donors, Rowan turned the microphone over to George Clay, and feigned attentiveness while he solemnly invoked the virtues of labor and learning. A year of ceremonies had made Rowan allergic to ritualized speechmaking, and whenever he found himself attending to platitudes—his own or others’—he felt like he was wasting his life.
As Clay droned on, Rowan’s thoughts turned to the upcoming faculty vote on the reform package, and he reminded himself to check with Easter about student support. No sooner did he picture her in his mind than he saw her standing alone off to one side of the audience. Easter was what made George Clay and his kind endurable.
Rowan had quickly come to appreciate Easter’s adage of love before politics. With Sara, physical intimacy had grown out of verbal intimacy; after a perfunctory kiss on the cheek they had typically talked through whatever was on their minds, and only gradually warmed up to the possibility of sex. With Easter it was the other way around: love first, talk later. He suspected that Easter’s rule was one reason they never quarreled.
They’d agreed to meet in the snack bar after the ceremony to work out a strategy for the looming showdown over the package of educational reforms.
“I’d guess that one-third of the faculty backs the commission’s proposals,” Rowan began, “and about the same number are against us. Most of the uncommitted are simply waiting to see which way the senior members of their departments will go. Only a handful are genuine independents, but if we present them with sound arguments we can win them over. That’s my main job. There are two others—one for me, and one for you.”
“I think of them as the outside job and the inside job. The outside job is to build enthusiasm for the proposals beyond Jefferson. Newsweek is doing a story on American colleges, and a reporter called about spending a few days on campus to get our story. I’ve also signed up for another round of speeches to alumni on the East Coast. I’ll urge graduates to write their favorite professors and ask them to support the commission’s proposals.”
“And the ‘inside job’?”
“That’s yours—getting students to ask their professors to vote for change.”
“I’ll reconvene the group that saved the gym. If you know which faculty are undecided, we’ll go after them one at a time. If we have to bake them cookies, or take them flowers, to get their votes, that’s what we’ll do. Anything short of sleeping with them.”
“Ah ha! At last she reveals why she seduced the president!”
“Anything for the cause,” Easter said with a grin.
“Seriously, if I can get the alumni to weigh in and together we can change five votes, we’ll win.”
“We shall overcome,” Easter chanted.
He was surprised when Chloë buzzed him on the intercom and said, “President Ellway, Easter Blue would like to see you for a few minutes.” Now that he saw so much of Easter she seldom came to his office.
“Hello, President Ellway,” Easter said in a voice he realized was for Chloë’s benefit. With the door shut behind her, she took a seat and explained, “I’ve got an official request, so I thought I’d raise it formally. I know you’ll say no, if that’s the right answer.”
“Let me guess,” Rowan said cheerily. “You need a recommendation for the Fulbright.” Meeting Easter in his office took him back to their innocent days.
“Nope. I‘ve already lined up the support I need for that. Besides, wouldn’t that put you in an awkward position, knowing each other as we do?” Easter gave him a coy look.
“Actually, I’ve come to see you about funding for the trip Professor Hale is leading to Africa over Thanksgiving. It will cost about a thousand dollars per person, and there are ten of us going. Apparently he’s still several thousand short. I suggested he ask you for help, and he told me you’d already pledged five thousand from your contingency fund. Some of his pledges haven’t come through, and he’s embarrassed to ask for more.”
As Easter spoke, Rowan could see how much she had matured. She’d always been clear and direct; now she was developing the calm self-assurance required of a successful leader. He wished he had her patience.
“That reminds me,” Rowan said. “I need to get a letter off to the president of the university in Dakar about accommodations for the group. As for the money, let me phone my friend Huey and see if he knows someone whose heart and wallet this might open.”
Over the intercom Rowan asked Chloë to put in a call to Huey Scott at Princeton. In less than a minute she had Scott on the line. Rowan explained the situation and then sat back and listened, glancing occasionally at Easter.
When he hung up he said, “That was a surprise. Right off, Scott said he’d find us the money—no problem. He mentioned a few likely contributors and offered to prime the pump with the honorarium he’s receiving for a speech at Notre Dame next week. I’ll let Hale know he’s got the funds he needs. He admires Scott, so he’ll take his support as a vote of confidence.”
“That’s terrific, but it didn’t take him ten minutes to say that. You were awfully quiet.”
“You’d never guess what he told me. He said I’ll soon be hearing from an Ivy League university about interviewing for its presidency. He’s got to mean Princeton. I know they’re headhunting, and Scott is on the search committee.”
“He said they’ve been checking into my credentials for months…and that they’ll be expecting me to bring Sara along for the interview.”
“What’s she got to do with it?”
Huey’s news had sent Rowan’s mind racing. For a few moments, he’d imagined making his mother proud with an Ivy League presidency. He’d forgotten his estrangement from Sara and his exasperation with public life, until Easter’s question brought him to his senses.
“Of course, the whole idea is preposterous…on several counts.”
“Because of me?”
“Well, first off, I don’t even like administration. Of course, if they found out about us, I’d instantly be scratched.”
“What are you going to tell your friend?”
“That I can’t be a candidate, that I’m committed to Jefferson. When I tell him that Sara and I have split, he’ll stop trying to change my mind.”
“My friends wonder why I don’t date,” Easter said. “It’s not easy…coming across as if I have no love life when actually I’m so happy.” Her wistfulness touched Rowan.
“I had a homosexual friend at Columbia who worked in the dean’s office. He had to hide his relationship from his coworkers so the higher-ups wouldn’t get wind of it. Now I know what it’s like to be in the closet.”
When they met off campus that evening, Easter said, “I was upset this morning. You noticed.”
“After you left, I realized the strain this is putting you under.”
“That’s not it. It was the mention of your wife. I’d put her out of my mind, but she exists. Even though she’s in New York, I feel her presence.”
“I felt you withdraw. I can’t help wondering if this is worth it to you.”
“How can you ask that?” she said, reaching for his hand. “The problem is that we exist only in private.”
“But is it enough—a closet relationship?”
“If it weren’t, I wouldn’t be here. You must never doubt me, Rowan. I’m a one-man woman and you’re my man.” Her voice broke as she finished.
“So long as you’re a student we can’t be together, but that’s not forever.”
“Eight more months and I graduate,” Easter said, pulling herself together.
Rowan closed his eyes and exhaled. “This has been a tough day. Something came up this afternoon.”
Without naming names, Rowan described an incident a dean had brought to his attention. A student was accusing a professor of suggesting that he’d write her a better recommendation for graduate school if she’d sleep with him.
To his surprise Easter interrupted him. “I don’t know who the girl is, but the professor’s got to be Philpot. I’ve heard things about him ever since I got here and I’m glad someone’s finally nailed the bastard.”
“I called him in and confronted him with the charge. At first he maintained that the student had proposed the deal. But faced with hearings, he turned contrite, swore it would never happen again.”
“Without public exposure, how can you be sure?”
“I can’t. But the student refuses to go public. I told Philpot that we’ll have his job if there’s a recurrence, and I relieved him of his chairmanship.”
“I’d want his head.”
“Without public testimony from the woman, tenure would protect him, but it made me think about our relationship. We know there’s a difference, but no one else would see it as we do. Your friends, for example—what would they think?”
“That it’s cool.”
“And Obea, what would he say?”
“He’d be jealous, even though he’s got a new girlfriend. He’s against black women dating white men under any circumstances. If Philpot was messing with a sister, Obea would make his life miserable.”
Easter stood up. “But if Philpot laid a hand on me, I’d knock him into next Sunday,” she said with relish. Rowan had the impression that she wished Philpot had given her the chance.
“Well, you could, because you’re strong and self-confident. But many students would be intimidated.”
Rowan paced the room, feeling more vulnerable to Easter than ever before. “This has got me thinking, Easter. I can’t help wondering how you see me, how my position affects you. Would you feel the same way if I weren’t president?”
She walked over to him and took his hand. “Mostly I just see you as a man, but every once in a while I see you as president, like this morning in your office, or when I see you in a suit. It’s not why I love you. I wouldn’t love just anyone who was president, and I’d love you even if you weren’t.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure, but I don’t deny that status is part of a man’s appeal—like looks are part of a woman’s.”
“Sad, but true.”
“Look, it’s more likely I’d love you as a nobody than you’d love me if I were forty.”
“I hope I get the chance to prove you wrong,” Rowan said with a smile. “Why do you think love goes where it shouldn’t?”
“‘The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing,’” Easter quoted Pascal.
“John Keats would agree.”
“He trusted in ‘the holiness of the heart’s affections.’”
By the end of October, copies of the Commission’s report were in every mailbox on campus. If the faculty adopted its principal recommendations, Jefferson College would become proactive in diversifying its student body and faculty, granting students more say in their curricular choices, and broadening the participation in governance to all constituencies.
To generate outside support for increasing minority enrollment and giving students a voice in educational policy, Rowan made a seemingly endless series of speeches to alumni groups. After one of them, he phoned Sara at her office, and she accepted his invitation to meet for coffee in the Village. Although they hadn’t been face to face since the summer, she seemed to have accepted the new reality. He wondered if time had mellowed her, or if she were seeing someone else.
Sara arrived wearing eye makeup and a short, stylish red dress. As a graduate student, she’d had little regard for fashion. Now she was wearing the chic kind of outfit she used to scoff at.
“You look right out of Vogue,” Rowan said.
“Different roles, different rags.”
“What’s your role now?”
“Woman-on-the-way-up is half of it. The men who run the department treat me better if I dress well.”
“What’s the other half?”
“Dating. Nice clothes enlarge the pool of candidates—like affirmative action,” she quipped. “But in the lab, I’m the old me.”
“I miss the ponytail.”
“That’s history. You’re looking as fit as ever.”
“It must help to have a girlfriend.”
“I don’t want to go into it, Sara, but yes, it helps. And yourself?”
“I’m seeing a professor in the classics department.” Sara caught herself. “Hey, that’s none of your business.” She reached across the table and gave his arm a pat.
“That’s true,” he said, relieved to hear she was dating. “I was the one who drifted away.”
Sara looked at him. “I should have known you would, left on your own. You tried to tell me, but I was too wrapped up in my career to hear you. I wasn’t myself…the last time we saw each other.”
It never took Sara long to find her footing, he thought.
“Obviously, you’ve managed to keep everything quiet…so far.”
“She’s mature. We’re discreet,” Rowan said, eager to get off the subject.
“I know I sound like a broken record, but you know what will happen if you’re found out.” She paused. “You still care what people think, don’t you?”
“I still care,” Rowan said wearily, “but not in the same way.” He drew a breath. “I’m a bad actor, Sara. The job was fun for a while, but I don’t know how much longer I can carry on. In the last week, I’ve explained the reforms to six alumni groups in six different cities. And I think half the faculty hates me.”
“No!” Sara said. “They might think you’re too impatient, but they wouldn’t hate you for that.”
“They think I’m using Jefferson as a steppingstone to the next job. At least Bentley does.”
“Administration doesn’t suit you, and Bentley’s an ass.”
“I feel bound to stay five years.”
“Tell them you made a mistake.”
“I feel I have to finish what I started.”
“Well, before you bring the house down on my head as well as your own, I want to finalize the divorce. Not in anger, Rowan, just to limit collateral damage.”
“I’ll pay for the attorney,” Rowan offered. It was the least he could do.
“I’d like to stay friends, Rowan, if you’re willing. If you need a place to stay in the City, well, you’re still paying the rent on our apartment. I’m hardly ever there.”
Walking Sara back to her office Rowan felt a slight lifting of his guilt. At the entrance to her building she hesitated between offering her hand or giving him a hug, but then opened her arms and gave him a tight brief hug. This brave woman was once my wife, he thought. Just before she disappeared into the crowd Sara called out after him, “Happy birthday, Rowan.” That weekend he’d turn thirty-five.
An envelope marked Personal and Confidential, in Easter’s handwriting, was the first thing he saw on his desk. A birthday card contained a note.
Follow these instructions: Go to the intersection of College and Main. In the northwest corner you will find the object of your quest. Happy Birthday. Love, Easter.
P. S. Meet me at 8 tonight in our usual place.
Without looking at the rest of his mail he did as instructed. He was amazed that Easter remembered. He’d only mentioned it once, the day they met, more than a year and a half ago.
Exactly where he and Tony Radcliffe had stood with their thumbs out en route to the Van Gogh exhibit was a hand-painted sign on a stake. Rowan parked the car and got out.
He found her waiting for him with a little round cake.
“It was when you told me about not playing it safe that I fell for you. You’re an explorer. I admire that.”
Rowan sat alongside her on the edge of the bed. “I’ve compared that journey to this one. I landed on my feet with Tony.”
“We will, too. Make a wish.”
“I wish we could walk out of here and just keep on going.” He took a quick breath and blew out the candle.
“You’ve almost accomplished what you came for. By Thanksgiving, we’ll have the votes we need.”
“I envy your trip to Africa. Perhaps we can go together sometime.”
“Impossible. In Africa, a black woman in the company of a white man is taken for a whore.”
“Unfortunately, no. Tourists pick up the local girls. Traveling together in Africa would be humiliating for me.”
Rowan swiped some frosting off the cake with his finger. “Would you like to go away together over Christmas break?”
“I’d love to. But not where we have to hide.”
“We’d be anonymous in Paris.”
“Paris! I’ve always wanted to go there.”
“I’ll arrange it while you’re gone. Just save the week after Christmas.”
“I will, yes, I will.”
To be continued…