The following is the fifteenth 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. If you enjoy The Rowan Tree, please write a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or your own blog!
Through a glass wall, Rowan could see Easter running the gauntlet of Soviet customs. At last she emerged, looking exasperated and bewildered. He called to her over the hubbub and waved to let her know he was waiting. Even from a distance he could see that Soviet officialdom had not made a favorable first impression on her.
Taking her bag with one hand and her arm with the other, he guided her past the ambush of cabdrivers and across the parking lot to the waiting Embassy car.
Once inside, she said, “In America, we’d call that racism.” Even ruffled, she kept her cool.
“Those guys are holdovers from the Evil Empire. Hey, it’s so good to see you. You look terrific!”
“I can’t believe I’m here.”
“What hotel did Intourist put you in?”
“The National is perfect for a first visit. It’s at the heart of Moscow, near the Bolshoi. Let’s get you checked in and then I’ll show you Red Square.”
Driving into the city Rowan pointed out the monument of Hedgehogs— tank barriers welded from three girders of steel—that marked the limit of the German advance on the capital during World War II. He’d never passed these stark reminders of Soviet indomitability without a surge of reverence for the Red Army.
“So close,” he said. “Three years later Soviet troops took Berlin. Everyone you meet here lost a relative in the war. These people have known suffering unimaginable to most Americans.”
“Maybe not to my people. African Americans and Russians have suffering in common.”
As they approached Moscow, Easter’s presence at his side made him aware of an emptiness that had dogged him since they had lost touch twenty years earlier.
When the taxi reached the hotel, he paid the driver and waited in the lobby while Easter was shown to her room. He kept a close watch on the elevator as if somehow she might come down, get past him, and disappear.
The doors parted and she edged past a group of Russians competing to board. In the seconds it took her to pick him out of the crowd, he caught a glimpse of the girl he’d known decades before. But the minute she caught sight of him, she became the self-assured woman who, barely two months earlier, had received him as the president of Jefferson College. Now it was his turn to play host.
“This place is surreal,” she whispered. “What’s with those hall monitors?”
“Ah, the nosy, ever-present dezhoornayas. There’s one on each floor. Their job is to keep track of the room keys, but really it’s to keep track of the guests. Welcome to the USSR.”
Rowan led her through an underground passageway to Red Square, his favorite place in Moscow. Strolling across the infinite mosaic of smooth black cobblestones, he pointed out the queue of tourists protruding from the doorway of a red-and-black granite mausoleum, waiting for a glimpse of its embalmed occupant.
“Lenin’s tomb,” he explained.
“Is it worth a visit?”
“From the outside, yes. From inside, no. Madame Tussaud’s waxes are far better.”
The russet brick walls and yellow ochre buildings of the Kremlin towered above them. At the far end of Red Square stood the iconic St. Basil’s Cathedral, and they set out to get a closer look at its colorful faceted cupolas and golden onion-shaped domes.
“This place has seen plenty of history, and it may soon see more. For months there’ve been rumors of a coup.”
“The communist hardliners think he’s selling out to the West.” He turned to her and, with a gallant bow, added, “Never fear Madame President. The Embassy will evacuate you at the first hint of trouble.”
“How about a photo of yourself in Red Square?” Rowan suggested, pulling a camera out of his pocket.”
He snapped the picture. “I’ll send it to you via the diplomatic pouch. Are you tired? We could go back to the hotel for tea and go over tomorrow’s meeting with the rector.”
Easter agreed. As they retraced their steps, he glanced at her and said, “Marisol and I would like to take you to the Bolshoi tomorrow night. They’re performing Giselle.”
“Oh, I’d love that. We saw it in Paris, remember? A story of impossible love.”
“I’ve seen it many times since, and I keep hoping for a happy ending.”
After a lingering silence that ended in a quick exchange of glances, Easter said, “I’m looking forward to meeting your daughter.”
“I think you’ll like each other, though at first she’s usually a bit reserved around women in my company. She knows nothing about you…or us. How would you like me to introduce you?”
“As an old friend? President of your old college?”
“That sounds good.”
The meeting at Moscow University went smoothly with Katya interpreting. At Rowan’s suggestion, Easter invited the rector to visit Jefferson College, all expenses paid, and from that point on he agreed to her every wish.
“You and she make a good team,” commented Katya after they’d dropped Easter back at her hotel.
“We had plenty of practice twenty years ago,” Rowan explained as the car sped through Moscow to the American Embassy.
“You’ve known her that long?”
“When I was president of Jefferson College, she was a student. It was a time of social revolution in America and we were on the same side. She presented the award I got in May. I told you about it.”
“Not about her. Not that she’s a black. The rector and his staff were shocked. You didn’t notice? We don’t expect to see them in positions of authority.”
No longer surprised by Russian attitudes on race, he said simply, “America used to be like that but things are changing.”
“You know, Rowan, when I interpret for you I usually feel I’m part of a team. But around her, I felt invisible. And later in the car it was like I didn’t exist. She seems like your wife.”
“Katya, Easter and I have known each other a long time, that’s all.” He didn’t want to explain his long-ago relationship with her, and hoped Katya would let the matter drop.
“I wish you weren’t taking her to the ballet tonight.”
“You were invited.”
“You knew I couldn’t go, Rowan. I told you we’re celebrating Papa’s birthday at the dacha.”
Easter was scheduled to spend three days in Moscow. College business behind her, they passed the rest of the first day sightseeing. The historical high point was Lenin’s apartment in the Kremlin. They were sobered by the fact that orders resulting in millions of deaths had been issued from this room. As he left her at the National that evening, Rowan proposed spending their final day together in a park on the outskirts of the city.
Easter was waiting outside the hotel when he arrived in the Embassy car, and Rowan gave the Russian driver their destination—Fili Park, a forested area along the banks of the Moscow River.
When the driver had parked, Rowan got a picnic basket out of the trunk, and he and Easter set off into the forest, leaving the driver reading Pravda.
“This place feels a thousand years old,” she said as she caught her first glimpse of the Moscow River snaking back toward the capital. “Like a primeval forest.” She took in the scene, then turned to him. “Marisol is a beautiful girl, but you know that. While we were watching the ballet together, I pictured her up on that stage. Did she say anything about me?”
“She’s curious about you.”
“What did you tell her?”
“That we knew each other way back when. That we had worked together.”
“She asked about your son.”
“What did you say?”
“Nothing, really. You haven’t told me anything about him.”
When she didn’t respond, he added, “I remember one thing. She thought you were ‘cool.’”
“What made her think that?”
“Probably your reaction to the ballet. She could tell you were moved by Giselle’s loyalty to Albrecht.”
Rowan knew her well enough to sense her fleeting embarrassment. As if to acknowledge it, she reached over and touched him on the forearm. Then, she said, “Here, let me help,” and took the thermos he was carrying from under his arm.
They wandered along the Moscow River before settling down under a shade tree on the embankment, where they watched couples stroll along both riverbanks. A young man in a dilapidated boat rowed against the current, going nowhere.
Rowan spread a blanket on the grass and opened the basket, pulling out a loaf of dark bread, a small crock of butter, a jar of caviar, two pieces of apple pie obtained at the Embassy commissary, a bunch of red grapes, and a chilled bottle of the sweet fizzy white wine that passes for champagne in Russia.
He uncorked the wine, filled two glasses, and handed one to her.
“How do you say ‘cheers’ in Russian?” she asked.
“Za vasheh zdahrov-yeh,” Rowan intoned. “It’s one of the first things you learn here.”
“Za vashas da-rovia,” she pronounced tentatively.
“Sounds good to me,” he said. She repeated her new toast as they clinked glasses.
They chatted about the river scene and then about the changes that had come over Jefferson during the past two decades. Shortly before Easter took office, Steve Hobson had left to head a poetry program in California. Donald Bentley, though nearing retirement and no longer chair of the chemistry department, was still an influential voice among the faculty. And Obea Uhuru, who’d reverted to his given name of William Stone during his first year of law school at the University of Chicago, was now a high-profile civil rights attorney in Chicago, and angling for a seat on Jefferson’s Board of Trustees.”
Rowan couldn’t find a graceful segue, so he just blurted it out: “How are things with François?”
“As you know, we’re separated.”
“Yes, but tell me something about his background, about your relationship. I always wondered why you married…so quickly.”
Easter gave him an inscrutable look—whether apologetic or defiant, he couldn’t tell. She explained that when World War II broke out, François’s father was a French admiral stationed at the colonial naval base in Dakar. His mother, who still divided her time between Paris and Dakar, was the sister of Senegal’s poet-president, Léopold Senghor.
“François doesn’t identify as white or black. I noticed this the first time I met him. He’s your classic cosmopolitan, at home everywhere. A human being first and an African European second.”
“A world citizen. I’ve met a few of them here. Has he been a good father?”
“Devoted. Adam idolizes him. Temperamentally, they’re very much alike—self-possessed, imperturbable, confident.”
“That he got from his mother.”
“I think it comes from social breeding, not biology. Both sides of François’s family go way back.”
Rowan, in an attempt to show that he wasn’t entirely ignorant of things African, said “I’ve heard of Senghor.”
“You heard of him from me!” she said, tossing a grape at him. “He was all the rage in the sixties as the philosopher of Negritude. I was reading him my senior year at Jefferson.”
“Oh, that’s right.”
“The point is that François’s family ties gave him access to the upper echelons of both French and Senegalese society. Adam is the heir to the Merle family holdings in both France and Senegal.”
“So he’s French?”
“No, actually he was born in America. I went home to Chicago to be with my mom for the birth.”
“I hope you worked ‘Blue’ into his name somehow. Your family name is too good not to pass on.” He’d always loved her name, and wanted her to know.
“François and I had quite some discussion about that,” she said with a sigh.
“We finally settled on ‘Adam Merle-Blue,’ on the grounds that a hyphenated last name would work in either America or France and connect him to both families. In practice, Americans often drop the hyphen and omit the ‘Merle,’ as if it were a middle name.”
“What is Monsieur Adam Blue doing this summer?”
“He spent two weeks in Paris with François and his grandma.” Easter dug a family photo out of her purse and showed it to Rowan. “This was taken on the front steps of their town house on Place des Vosges. Then he and François spent a month at the family estate near Dakar.”
“I’d like to meet Adam. Didn’t you say he’ll be at Princeton this fall? Perhaps next time I’m in New York we could all have dinner.”
“When are you coming to the States?”
“As soon as we initial the treaty. Next year sometime.”
Easter leaned back on her elbows and looked up at the leafy canopy overhead. The hypnotic clunk-whoosh of the oars of a passing rowboat drew their attention to the river. Rowan refilled their glasses with the Russian champagne.
“Santé,” Easter said.
Easter took a slow sip. “This is the worst champagne I’ve ever tasted,” she said, screwing up her face.
“It’s probably made from the same rotten apples you see in the stores here,” Rowan explained, relieving her of her glass. “I bet they served better stuff at that White House dinner you attended a few weeks ago. I noticed your name on the guest list in The New York Times.”
“I made that list as the wife of a prominent French businessman. It was a state dinner for the president of France, and François was invited. It was the only thing we’ve done together since I took the job at Jefferson.”
“You know, Easter, after you make a name for yourself at Jefferson, the Ivy League is going to come courting.”
“Not if our story ever comes out. The issue on American campuses now is sexual harassment. I think I told you that there’s a committee at Jefferson drafting a code of sexual conduct for faculty, staff, and students.”
“A sex code? I thought we’d seen the last of those.”
“They’re back with a vengeance. The hard-liners want to forbid all sexual contact between students and staff. A few professors who married students are arguing that colleges have no business regulating the love lives of consenting adults. A group in the middle is advocating a compromise forbidding sexual relationships between students and anyone in a position of authority over them. You know, like a student in a professor’s class, or, to pick a purely hypothetical example, between a student and the president.”
“So, if I support the proposals, I’m a hypocrite, and if I don’t, I’m a libertine. In the current climate, the truth about us would be a career-killer.”
“I’d have thought it was ancient history.”
“Rowan, you’re out of touch. I’d be through.”
“Even at liberal Jefferson?”
“It’s still puritanical, at least compared to France. I’d be hopelessly compromised. I’d have to leave.”
“I’ve come to believe that our relationship was what kept me going. Public life was suffocating me, and getting out when I did was a deliverance.”
Then, rising to his feet, he said, “We’d better go. You’ll need a little time at the hotel before you go to the airport.” Reaching down for her two hands he pulled her to her feet, and for an instant they brushed against each other. She appeared a bit flustered, and he tried to cover his nervousness by bending down to collect their things.
“Russians would scoff at my calling this a forest,” he said as they returned to the car. “It’s the best I could do for a day trip. The Trans-Siberian railway passes through thousands of miles of birch and larch trees—that’s a real forest.”
“So, you did take the Trans-Siberian? I remember your talking about it.”
“Yes, a few years after I left Jefferson, I boarded the train in Moscow and rode all the way to the Sea of Japan. I don’t know anyplace with brighter stars than Siberia. I thought of you out there.”
As they strolled through the sprawling park she slipped her arm through his.
“I’m curious about how you and Sara got back together.”
“We didn’t get back together, apart from the one night when Marisol was conceived. The day after our last conversation I went to my cabin in the Berkshires. I stayed there while I tried to find you, but gave up when I learned you were married. At my lowest, I went to New York to interview for a job. Sara offered to put me up for the night, and it just happened.”
“Were you upset about her pregnancy?”
“Not a bit. I felt it was her due. She’d wanted a child for years, and somehow the baby helped me atone for what I’d done.”
“Didn’t you want to raise Marisol with her?”
“Not together. I got my own apartment in the city, and as it turned out, Marisol usually spent weekdays with me and weekends with Sara. Actually, I think I was a better father to her single than I would have been married. I love having her with me here in Moscow.”
“And your work—how did you end up in Russia?”
“During Sara’s pregnancy I finally went to Vietnam—as an ordinary citizen on a tourist visa—and got a first-hand look at war.”
“I remember your wanting to do that. How did it affect you?”
“Imagine standing over a dying Vietcong prisoner who’s chained to his bed and covered with flies feeding off his open wounds. He looks up at you, pleading for help with his eyes.” The memory made Rowan’s throat tighten. “The image still haunts me.”
“How did you get involved in disarmament?”
“My physics background gave me a technical understanding of nuclear weapons, and I studied arms control at the Brookings Institution. While I was crossing Russia on the Trans-Siberian, I developed a deep regard for the Russians. They’ve survived unspeakable horrors, and they did more to defeat the Nazis than any other nation. I came to feel that the cold war was a historical mistake, and that if some of us began acting as if it were over, it might help to end it. Here I am, still trying.”
“I wouldn’t have expected to find you back in public life.”
“This job looks public, but it’s really not. The important stuff is done behind the scenes. Off the record, American and Russian scientists see things pretty much the same way. We all understand that nuclear war is mutual suicide. The challenge is persuading the politicians, who have to either pander to their constituents or bring them along. A politician’s job is more like a college president’s than people realize.”
On the way back to her hotel, Rowan offered to take Easter to the airport but she declined, having previously arranged to share a taxi with an American couple on the same flight.
“A farewell drink?” Rowan suggested.
“Not champagne!” she said, quickly adding, “Some red wine would be nice. I’ll check out while you order.”
There was a bar off the lobby. He chose a dimly-lit booth and ordered two glasses of the best red available—Bulgarian. When she returned, instead of taking the seat opposite him, she sat next to him.
Emboldened by the touch of her arm and thigh, he asked the question that had been on his mind all day.
“You told me that you and François are separated. Are you seeing anyone else?”
“I have many good friends, some at the College, more in New York. But there’s no one special. My life is my job and my son.”
“That’s what you said at Jefferson.”
“There’s something missing, I know.”
“I’ve asked myself that. I don’t regret the sacrifices I’ve made for my career, but I can’t say I feel whole.”
Rowan reached for her hand. It felt soft and responsive and familiar.
“Easter, our taxi is waiting.” An American woman was calling to her from the doorway. “We’ll start loading the luggage.”
She stood up, and Rowan walked her outside. When they embraced, decades seemed to melt away.
To be continued…