The following is the thirteenth 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!
Easter’s letter from Senegal arrived shortly after she’d left Jefferson. On her first day in Dakar she had made a return trip to Gorée Island. She included this vignette:
As we pulled away from Gorée for the trip back to Dakar, boys were diving off the ship for coins passengers tossed into the sea.
After a day spent contemplating the horrors of Gorée’s dungeons and slave ships, I wanted to be alone. I wandered to the rear of the ship and watched as the island shrunk in the distance. I noticed a man looking out to sea, and when he turned to face me, I could see that Gorée had affected him deeply. He reminded me of you, and I sensed that he wanted to speak to me. With a drawn smile in my direction, he shrugged, almost apologetically. I wanted to tell him it wasn’t his fault, but I couldn’t speak.
I felt him watching as I made my way down the gangway, but when I turned to wave goodbye he had vanished.
On the same day that he received Easter’s letter, the local paper published a front-page story headlined PRESIDENT ELLWAY ATTENDS GAY DANCE. A photo showed the chairman of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance with his arm draped across Rowan’s shoulder.
Lucky I don’t dance, Rowan thought. When he arrived at his office, Chloë told him that the phone had been ringing since she got in, and there were already a dozen calls to return: reporters from national papers, Jefferson faculty, leaders of various gay organizations, and a handful of trustees. At the top of the list was Mike Marlborough.
Rowan decided to return the calls in reverse order. He’d gauge the temperature before subjecting himself to Marlborough’s invective.
The faculty members on the list were all supportive. One of them had attended the dance himself and said he’d never felt he quite belonged at Jefferson until he saw Rowan in attendance.
The journalists covering the story for national newspapers were mainly interested in the fight that had broken out between townies and students after the dance. Rowan had been home asleep by that time and could add nothing except that he’d heard from campus police that only a few young men had been involved, and they’d faded into the night when the police arrived.
The trustees were another matter. Only one of them, John Rideout, saw Rowan’s gesture as upholding Jefferson’s tradition of welcoming the marginalized. Several trustees felt that Jefferson should issue a statement to make it clear that the College was not endorsing the gay movement. Mr. Clay urged that Rowan revoke the Alliance’s charter. Finally, when he’d returned all the calls except Marlborough’s, he asked Chloë to get him on the line.
“Before you tell me your views, you should know that it’s a principle of mine, and one for which Jefferson College has long stood, that there is no alternative to equal dignity for everyone in the Jefferson community. As long as I’m president that commitment includes minorities, women, gays, the disabled, and other marginalized groups struggling to find their voices.”
“Do-gooders like you understand just one thing,” Marlborough replied. “Votes. I didn’t have quite enough last time, but now you’ve given me what I need.”
“I look forward to the board debating this.”
“There will be no debate. I’ve got the votes to override your few supporters, and to fire you.”
“Then why are we talking?” Rowan said, and hung up. He looked out the window and thought, This could be it. Then he asked Chloë to call Rideout.
When he got Rideout on the line, he asked, “Is it true, John? Marlborough says he has the votes.”
“He might, but from what I can tell it’s not a foregone conclusion. I’m calling around to find out if he’s bluffing.”
“I’d be surprised if a majority of the trustees share his homophobia.”
“That’s the nucleus of Marlborough’s faction, but there are others who, for reasons of their own, may side with him.”
“Who? What reasons?”
“Some board members think you were the right medicine two years ago, but that you’re simply not what Jefferson needs going forward.”
“And that is?”
“A healer; a great fundraiser.”
“Fundraising isn’t my strong suit,” Rowan admitted.
“Others think you’re too radical. For them it’s not just the gay thing, it’s everything else you’ve stood for.”
“And you, John? What do you think?”
“I think you’ve been just what the doctor ordered. Fortunately for the College, you’ve gotten things done quickly—too quickly for the incrementalists, but quickly enough to have put Jefferson back on the map before you’d worn out your welcome. I’d find you a job in the firm, even without a law degree, but I don’t think it’s what you want.”
“No, it’s not, not now. If you told me I was through at Jefferson I don’t know if I’d protest or celebrate.”
“I have a suggestion, Rowan. Want to hear it?”
“Why not use the ambiguous vote in the faculty referendum as a pretext to resign? If you’d rather stay and fight, I think Chairman Knight and I could put together a slim majority of trustees in your favor. But you’d be on thin ice. Your hands would be tied. You’ve already done 90 percent of all you’d ever be able to do. By resigning now, before the board meets, you’d remain in charge of your destiny.”
Rowan composed a short letter of resignation, effective immediately, and asked Chloë to send it to the public relations office for wide release.
Steve Hobson stopped by while Rowan was packing the few personal things he kept in his office. He simply said, “I guess it’s not worth your while to carry on in the face of such tepid support on our part.”
“Yes,” Rowan responded, “but your personal support has meant a lot to me. I’ll be in touch.”
His clothes and books would be sent after him. The car, furniture, most of what he’d used during the last two years, belonged to the College.
He didn’t want to tell Easter what had happened until he was in New York.
Rowan hadn’t set foot in their New York apartment for more than a year, but he hadn’t forgotten Sara’s saying he could use it. The last he’d heard of their divorce was that her attorney had filed the papers.
When he landed at LaGuardia late that evening, he dialed their old home number. Sara had said she was seldom there, so he wasn’t surprised when there was no answer. He still had the key. He decided to take a cab to the Upper West Side, then try the number again.
He called from a bar a few blocks from the apartment—still no answer. He ordered a double Jack Daniel’s, then another, and tried the number for the last time on his way out.
Surely she wouldn’t mind if he just let himself in; after all, he was still paying the rent. He took the elevator to the seventh floor, rang the bell, and knocked. Still no answer. When he tentatively put his key in the latch, it fit and turned, but the door didn’t click open as it always had.
The entrance to the apartment stood at the end of an L-shaped corridor. Exhausted and miserable, thinking no one would see him if he sat down in the hall, he slumped against the wall and promptly fell asleep.
“What are you doing here?”
He woke with a start to find Sara staring down at him. For an instant, looking at her face, it was as if the Jefferson chapter of his life had not happened.
“Let’s go in and I’ll explain,” he replied hoarsely as he came to his senses. He felt sick. “What time is it?”
“Late. How long have you been here?” she asked.
“Since nine. I don’t feel so good.”
She opened the door and took his coat. “Have a seat. I’ll get you some water. Are you hungry?”
“Some Alka-Seltzer would be good. I’ve got an awful headache.”
He took his old seat on the sofa. “I’m through at Jefferson.”
“It makes no sense to carry on with the support of just half the faculty, and a gang of trustees gunning for me. I’m done there. I’ve resigned.”
“Did it come out—the girl?”
“No, no one knows about that.”
“What’s happened to her?”
“She’s in Africa. She doesn’t know that I’ve left.” He looked up at Sara. “I tried the lock.”
“I added a dead bolt. With you gone, I didn’t feel safe.”
She left for a moment and came back with a fizzing drink, then sat down at her end of the sofa. “What will you do now?” she asked softly.
“I don’t know.” A knot was forming in the pit of his stomach.
“You could base yourself here for a while.”
“Wouldn’t that be awkward…what with your Latin professor?”
“We’ve cooled it. He doesn’t want children. There was no point.”
It jolted Rowan to hear her speak of having a child with someone else. He’d always assumed that they would have one. That dream had collapsed along with all the others. He glanced at her, and the sadness in her face made him feel his own despair.
He hadn’t intended this. He hadn’t planned any of it. All of it had just happened. He had an otherworldly sense of seeing himself from above, like a sea bird looking down on a man adrift on the ocean, at the mercy of its currents.
He couldn’t speak. He knew if he tried to, he would break down, and he couldn’t break down. He never had. He began rocking back and forth involuntarily, trying to swallow the lump that was rising in his chest.
“Rowan, what’s wrong?”
The lump was taking on a life of its own, moving into his throat, suffocating him. His body contracted, loosing a muffled, choking sob. He fought to compose himself, glanced at Sara, then broke down. One sob followed another. Sara was dumbstruck. He didn’t deserve her comfort and she didn’t offer any.
Wave after wave of sadness washed over him—every rebuff he’d suffered at Jefferson, the humiliation of failure, the loss of people he loved.
Defenseless, he collapsed into the sofa’s embrace, his hands covering his face, his tears dropping on the cushions. Sara still didn’t move, but her eyes shone with compassion. She gingerly reached over to him and pulled one of his hands away from his face, cupping it in hers.
“Okay, I’ll stay for a day or two,” he managed. “Just till I figure out what to do.”
“Drink up,” she gestured at the glass. “Then get some sleep. Things will seem better in the morning.”
He woke up twelve hours later, disoriented. Then, in a quick series of images, it all came back: Mike Marlborough, John Rideout, the flight from Jefferson, alone in the hall, Sara. He got up and went to the kitchen. Propped against their old teapot was Gumby, holding a note:
R — Teaching this afternoon. There’s a bagel for you in the cookie jar. See you at six. — S
Where would he go? Easter didn’t want him in Africa, and he couldn’t ask her to change her plans. Jesus, he suddenly realized, she still didn’t know.
He found her number and placed the call with the international operator. A man answered, and summoned her.
“Easter, I’ve resigned.”
“I’ve left Jefferson.”
“Why? Where are you now?”
“I’m in New York, at my old place. I’ll explain everything in a letter. It has nothing to do with you, with us.”
“Are you with Sara?”
“I got in late and she let me crash here.”
When Easter didn’t respond, he said, “You’re not staying with François, are you?”
“I’m in the University dorms, but I’m using his phone. I’m leaving for Accra in a few days.”
He hesitated before speaking. “I could join you there…now that I’m free.” As soon as he spoke, he regretted it.
“It just won’t work, Rowan. This is Africa. But we could meet in Oxford.”
Rowan had seen this coming. He could hang on or let go. If they were to have a future, he’d have to let go for now. He could barely get the words out.
“No, Easter. This is your chance. I’ll see you in Oxford in the fall.”
“Rowan…” her voice faltered. When she collected herself she said, “Will you be all right?”
“Don’t worry about me. Expect a letter at the Amex in Accra.”
“So long for now, Rowan. I love you.”
“I love you, Easter.”
He felt empty, numb. In the bedroom closet, he found some worn blue jeans and a pair of old tennis shoes. He’d pick up a few things in the City and head to his cabin in the Berkshires. He dressed, took the elevator to the lobby, and stepped out into a light summer rain.
To be continued…