The following is the eleventh 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. Enter the Goodreads Giveaway contest for a free copy of the paperback edition. The author welcomes your comments. If you enjoy The Rowan Tree, please write a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or your own blog!
Rowan booked their Paris trip at a travel agency in New York. Easter would fly into New York from Chicago the day after Christmas, and they’d go on to Paris together.
He also reserved a room in his favorite hotel in Montparnasse near the Luxembourg Gardens. What a privilege, participating in Easter’s education sentimentale. Or was it the other way around? Was she the tutor, he the novice? The fact that the question even occurred to him was a measure of her mystery. There was something elusive about her, something private and inscrutable.
“And what name shall I put on the other ticket?”
The agent’s question brought him to attention. When he answered, he felt as if he were giving up the name of a coconspirator. As he walked through lower Manhattan, tickets in hand, he began to question the wisdom of this trip. What if someone spotted them in Paris? But he wouldn’t back out now. He wanted this as much as she did. It would be the first time since their drive to the Maryland shore that they’d spent more than half a day together.
Shortly before Easter was due back, Rowan received a letter she’d mailed from Dakar near the end of her stay.
I love Senegal. I’m planning a return trip next summer. Our first day we made the trip to Gorée Island, a speck of land in the Atlantic just a few miles from Dakar. Gorée was the last thing African slaves saw before they were shipped to the New World.
It was eerie, walking the pretty lanes of Gorée under bougainvillea and wrought-iron lamps, imagining my ancestors being packed onto slave ships. Our guide called Gorée the “African Auschwitz.”
A university lecturer named François Merle told me that the library still has the original mercantile records of the slave traders. Some from the 17th century. When he asked why Western scholars had shown no interest in them, I asked if I could see them. He ended up inviting me to spend Saturday at his country estate. His mother is Senegalese, his father was French, and he has homes in both Dakar and Paris.
I know you’re wondering what happened, so let me set your mind at rest. Yes, he made a pass (I have to admit I found it flattering), but no, I did not sleep with him. I told him what I told you: I’m a one-man woman, and he accepted that like a gentleman. He offered to get me access to the archival records when I return next summer.
Paris has long provided taboo-breaking couples an escape from the closet. After rehearsing their cover story on the off-chance that they might be recognized by someone with Jefferson connections, they went about in public like any other couple. They attended the ballet Giselle at the Palais Garnier, and Bizet’s Pearl Fishers at the Opéra-Comique. Easter was delighted that the French shared her fascination with African art, and they spent several afternoons gallery-hopping on the Left Bank.
One afternoon, after a walk along the Seine ending at Notre Dame, they warmed up over café au lait in a little bar in the Latin Quarter. After they’d both noticed an older woman kissing an obviously younger man at a nearby table, Easter whispered in Rowan’s ear, “I can’t imagine what she sees in him. I’ve always been drawn to older men.”
The next morning Rowan suggested a trip to the Rodin Museum. He loved the eroticism of Rodin’s figures, and as they wandered among the exquisite marble sculptures he could sense that she too found them arousing.
Later, back in their room, he set about opening her eyes to that beauty by undressing her and, as he removed each article of clothing, kissing what it concealed.
Afterwards, Easter seemed subdued. When he asked her if she was all right, she said, “I missed having you inside me.”
Paris’s legendary embrace of lovers gradually relaxed all their inhibitions—in bed and on the streets. Below the Eiffel Tower, a street photographer hawking Polaroids cajoled them into buying souvenir photos of themselves. They posed as the lovers they were, arms around each other. Huddled over the developing prints, they marveled as their ghostly images rose into sharp relief.
At a final dinner on New Year’s Eve in a cozy Montmartre restaurant, the waiter delivered a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau to their table, compliments of an anonymous patron. Only when an elderly Frenchman passed their table on his way to the door did he reveal himself with an approving nod. It was the first time anyone had acknowledged them as a couple.
On his return to Jefferson, Rowan began drafting a speech that he’d deliver to an all-College assembly in Seeger Chapel on the eve of the faculty vote. He’d met personally with undecided faculty, and Easter’s troop of student lobbyists followed up. He made a list of anything that might boost their chances of winning support for the program and assigned every item on the list to someone. As the showdown approached, he felt like an orchestra leader who knows the musicians could perform the piece without him, but nonetheless continues to wave his arms lest they lose confidence, put down their instruments, and wander off.
He was in his office polishing his speech when Easter burst in waving a telegram.
“Rowan, I got it! The Fulbright!”
“Wonderful! I knew you would. You’ve earned it.”
“Will you come see me in Oxford?”
When they sat down, he told her what he knew of Oxford, and she described her ideal flat: a sitting room with an electric fireplace, a second room large enough to hold an antique featherbed, and a small kitchen where she would cook roast beef and Yorkshire pudding when he visited.
To be continued…