The following is the eighteenth of a series of excerpts from The Rowan Tree: A Novel by Robert W. Fuller. The complete novel is available for Kindle and other ebook formats. The print edition can be ordered from Amazon or order the audiobook at Amazon, iTunes, and audible.com. The author welcomes your comments. If you enjoy The Rowan Tree, please write a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or your own blog!
The weather was lovely in August, and Rowan began most days with a jog along the Moscow River. Although running through the city drew scowls from the natives, he kept at it, not only to fend off middle-age flabbiness, but to clear his head for the demanding meetings that followed. This morning, as he reached the river’s embankment he waved to a solitary old woman he’d often seen sweeping the sidewalk. Instead of smiling as she usually did, she was shouting something to him, gesticulating wildly. He stopped and walked back to find out what she was trying to tell him.
“Gorbachev,” she was saying, “Gorbachev.” Then, in an unmistakable gesture, she drew her forefinger across her neck. The fear in her eyes triggered a wave of dread in Rowan; it started in his chest and shot through his limbs. He turned on his heel, raced to his flat, and switched on the TV.
What he saw on the screen was the Russian setting for a crisis—classical music, a vase of flowers against a black drape, and in the foreground, the red Soviet flag with its hammer and sickle. His cold war vigilance had only recently begun to dissipate. Now, in fear, his adrenaline surging, he grabbed the phone and called his immediate superior. The line was busy.
He was imagining possible scenarios when a commotion in the courtyard drew him outside. Rumors were flying—Gorby’s gone, maybe dead, maybe under arrest, definitely not in charge. The KGB is asserting control. The coup leaders are about to address the nation. The American Ambassador was speaking over the public address system, telling Embassy officers and staff not to panic, reminding them that they had diplomatic immunity. Stalin had even repatriated German diplomats after Hitler invaded in 1941, he added, hoping to reassure everyone, but achieving the opposite.
Rumors spread through the compound: Columns of tanks are approaching Moscow. The military is divided. Communications with the outside world are severed. Civil war could break out.
He ran back to his apartment, looked in Marisol’s room, and was relieved to find her asleep. On TV, the flag and flowers had given way to nervous old apparatchiks seated side by side like crows on a wire, croaking that Gorbachev was “under our protection,” and calling for calm.
He called the home number of his counterpart on the Russian negotiating team; surely Dmitri would know what was going on. He picked up on the first ring. Rowan skipped a preamble.
“What does this mean, Dimitri?”
“Get out if you can,” he shot back. “If the hard-liners win, I’ll be accused of conspiring to disarm the Soviet Union and arrested as a traitor. I could be in the Lubyanka by nightfall. You could be charged with spying and be stuck here for months, years. If I could get my family out, I’d go myself.”
Rowan’s first thought was that he might be able to get Marisol out of the country if they moved fast enough. He woke her and explained what was happening.
“Put what you can in a carry-on bag. I’m going to get you on a plane.”
“What about you, Dad? I won’t go without you.”
“I’ll be fine. I’ve got diplomatic immunity. But if you don’t go now you could be stuck here with me for a long time.”
“No buts this time, girl!” He dialed the Embassy travel office.
“If there are any flights out of the country, anything at all, going anywhere, east or west, book a seat for Marisol Ellway. Call me back the moment you have something.”
The wait seemed interminable, but it was only a few minutes before the phone rang.
“Okay,” Rowan said to the caller, “We’re on our way.”
To Marisol, he said, “Lufthansa has a flight to Frankfurt in an hour. They’re holding a seat for you. We’re leaving now.”
She’d never seen her father in military mode before, but she quickly fell into synch. Tossing her essentials into a duffel bag—dance shoes and leotards, blue jeans, T-shirts, underwear, cosmetics, and her diary—she was ready before he was.
“I’ll bring everything else in a few weeks,” he told his daughter. Just before they left he grabbed a package of German sausages from the fridge. Nothing brought bigger smiles to Russian faces than bratwurst.
At the sight of Rowan waving two sausages over his head, a Moscow cabby executed a tight U-turn and screeched to a stop in front of them. Giving him one of the sausages and shouting “Sheremetyevo Aeroport,” Rowan then passed another one before his eyes, along with a ten-dollar bill. As they climbed in, he told her to tell the driver in Russian that they had to make the trip in twenty minutes—half the usual time.
Darting through traffic, the cab reached a crowd gathering at the “White House,” the Russian Federation’s monumental parliament building. A half-dozen tanks were forming a defensive barricade around the entrance. People had climbed onto the tanks and were addressing the crowd with bullhorns.
Pointing to a large man with a shock of white hair standing on a tank, the driver slowed down and yelled out, “Yeltsin!” Rowan tossed a third sausage onto the seat next to him.
Moments later they came face to face with a column of tanks advancing on the city and blocking the route to all traffic. Rowan pointed to the sidewalk, slapped another ten-dollar bill on the seat by the driver, and with a sweeping gesture, told him to bypass the blockade. The driver pocketed the bill and steered his taxi over the curb onto the sidewalk. A hundred yards along, he reached a street corner and turned off the sidewalk into an alley that led away from the main road.
Twenty seven minutes later, after a wild ride on back roads, the cab pulled up to the departure terminal. Leaving the last of the sausages on the front seat, Rowan took Marisol by the hand and together they ran to the Lufthansa ticket counter. There, as if nothing were out of the ordinary, an agent assigned her a seat and told her to proceed immediately through passport control to the departure gate.
“I’ll arrange for a consular official to meet your flight in Frankfurt and put you on a plane to Boston,” Rowan said. “I’ll let your mom know you’re on your way.”
The gravity of the situation finally struck Marisol; she burst into tears and clung to her father. Comforting her, he said, “They can’t touch me. But Marisol…” Rowan hesitated.
A Lufthansa agent yelled at Marisol to proceed to the gate.
“What is it, Dad?”
He grabbed her shoulders and said, “Marisol, if you don’t hear from me by the end of the week, call Jefferson College and let Easter Blue know what’s happened.”
“Sure, Dad, no problem.”
“Okay, then. Now go. Run.”
A tide of fleeing passengers carried her away from him and she disappeared into the labyrinth of passport control.
Standing at curbside outside the airport a few minutes later, he watched as a lone jet powered its way into the sky and wheeled westward, taking his daughter to safety.
It was two days before Rowan could get a call through to Sara’s place in Boston.
“Marisol, it’s me.”
Before he could say more she yelled back, “Dad, are you all right?”
“Everything’s fine. You’ve probably heard. Gorby’s been released.”
“Then you’re coming home?”
“As soon as the negotiations are back on track. Shouldn’t be more than a few weeks. I may have overreacted, rushing you off like that.”
“Very dramatic, Dad. I’ll never forget that cab ride.”
“My Russian colleagues were amazed that the coup just fizzled.”
“I’m going to New York tomorrow. I’ll have the apartment stocked by the time you get here. Come home soon, Dad.”
“I will. And Marisol, don’t bother about that call to Jefferson. When I get back, I’ll explain everything.”
By the time Rowan left Moscow two weeks later, Katya’s disappointment had been assuaged by the attentions of a young American scientist new to the negotiating team. Rowan anticipated that within a year she would be living in the States with her new beau, studying investment banking.
Rowan set off on foot through Riverside Park, overlooking the Hudson River, to meet his daughter for lunch.
In the aftermath of the attempted coup he’d moved his daughter and himself from one great city to another. She was now exactly where she wanted to be, and he was beginning his history of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT). A modest book advance from the publisher and a research grant from The Brookings Institution would pay the rent while he wrote it. He’d cover the rest of their expenses with honoraria from his talks on arms control. The weather was beautiful, the leaves were turning, and from his vantage point, the Hudson looked as pristine as it did in nineteenth-century paintings.
Easter hadn’t been to New York since he’d returned, and although they spoke regularly by phone, he was beginning to wonder if she was avoiding him. New York was full of Jefferson alumni, and Rowan surmised that she might not want to be seen with him, particularly in light of the continuing sex code debate at Jefferson.
He had to admit that, while Easter was not unromantic, she’d never allowed matters of the heart to blur her vision. She insisted that love preceded politics, but when it came to her own life she invariably put her career before romance. “My life does not revolve around love,” she’d said on more than one occasion. Was she staying away from him out of propriety or indifference? He had to find out.
When he got back to the apartment, he sent her an email.
September 16, 1991
What separated us twenty years ago was a tragic series of miscues, not deliberate choice. I can’t stop wondering if we couldn’t give our story a different ending.
I love you, Easter. I want to see you. If you’re not coming to New York soon, I’ll come out there. No one need ever know I’ve come and gone.
September 17, 1991
I’ve thought about this, endlessly. I want to meet as much as you do, but I’d lose all credibility if our story became known at Jefferson.
Try to understand. The debate on the campus sex code is coming to a head, and it puts me in a terrible bind.
P.S. I will be in New York early next month for a meeting. We’ll talk then.
Strolling through Central Park with Easter reminded Rowan of the day they’d spent together in Moscow’s Fili Park.
“How’s Marisol?” she asked.
“She’s dancing at Lincoln Center tonight. We’re both hoping you can come.”
“Does she realize I’m still married?”
“The divorce will be final later this month.”
“She thinks we’re having an affair.”
“Teenagers have such wild imaginations.”
She hadn’t flinched, but he saw the trace of a smile on her lips.
“I’d love to see her dance, but …” she trailed off.
“Easter, you and Marisol live in separate universes. There’s no risk.”
“You’re right. I think I’m getting paranoid.”
After the performance, when they entered Marisol’s dressing room, Easter presented her with a bright bouquet of mums. She had danced Balanchine’s Serenade and, even as just a member of the corps, she had drawn the eye.
“You were flying out there,” Rowan said.
“Thanks, Dad, and thank you for the flowers,” she said to Easter. As she was catching her breath, sweat ran down her bare back.
Rowan took a half-step back, glad to see them together. It was only the second time the two most important women in his life had met, and he was relieved that they were at ease with each other. Then he heard Marisol say something he hadn’t expected.
“Dad tells me you have a son my age at Princeton. Next time you’re in New York I’ll get you both comps.”
Friends and admirers suddenly flooded the crowded room, clamoring for Marisol’s attention, and in the crush, her offer was left hanging.
Taking Rowan’s arm and edging them toward the door, Easter shouted over the commotion, “Wonderful to see you,” then led Rowan through the crowd and onto the street.
“You didn’t respond to her offer,” Rowan said.
“I don’t know about bringing them together.”
“So, what’s the problem?”
“Your Marisol is just the kind of girl Adam would like. It would be a bit awkward for us, don’t you think?”
A few weeks later in one of their late-night phone calls, Easter reported that her divorce was official. She added that, since his mother’s death, François had been sole owner of the family estate outside Dakar as well as the town house in Paris. By mutual consent, neither she nor François had made any claims against the other’s assets or income.
“Are you glad it’s settled?”
“The truth is, I’d been thinking about this for a long time.”
“Why, exactly? You haven’t told me.”
“I was never in love with François. Our marriage was always amicable, but hardly passionate. As I did tell you, he was a wonderful father to Adam. I’ll always love him for that. But with Adam at college, and me in the Midwest, it made sense for us to go our separate ways.”
“Why didn’t you file for divorce sooner?”
“I could never bring myself to act. I was afraid it might cost Adam his patrimony.”
“You mean if François remarried and had another child?”
“Yes, but my fears were groundless. Along with the divorce, François revised his will, making Adam the sole inheritor of the properties in Paris and Senegal.”
“Easter, you’re free. The past is the past. The question is where we go from here.”
“I know,” she said softly.
“When’s your next trip to New York?”
“Next month, as usual.”
“How would you feel if I came out to Jefferson for a quick visit?”
“I want that too, but I’m—”
Rowan interrupted, saying, “I’d arrive on the last plane from New York and slip into your car like a ghost. We used to be good at this, remember? Name a day.”
He heard her thumbing through her date book.
“I’ll send the details by email.”
“I’ll pull up to the curb at Arrivals.”
“In the green Citroën?” he joked.
“In a green BMW,” she said with an apologetic chuckle, and he wondered how he’d made it through two decades without her.
Rowan had booked a room at a hotel near the airport, so he was surprised when Easter insisted on driving to the College.
“The campus is empty at this hour,” she said. “I want you to see it.”
He recalled their drive to campus when he was president-elect in 1970. Jefferson Square had been the scene of a riot that day, but tonight it was stone quiet. As she drove past the square he felt like a time-traveler.
In his thirties Rowan would never have imagined that twenty years later he’d find Easter more attractive than ever, but her beauty had grown with the years. Her high cheekbones, once hidden by the roundness of youth, were now pronounced. Her soulful eyes had deepened, their intelligence marked by tiny lines that appeared when she smiled. He reached over and stroked the nape of her neck. She leaned into his touch.
Her route took them past the President’s House and Sojourner Truth House—still home to a contingent of black students. He spotted Walker Gymnasium standing next to Clay Library.
“There’s something I want to show you,” she said, pulling into the parking lot behind the administration building.
“Come,” she said, stepping out of the car and leading him toward the Archives. She swiftly unlocked the door and they stepped inside like two shadows vanishing into a cave. Closing the door behind them, she said, “When I got here, your hideaway was a storage room. I had it remodeled. Come.”
Following her up the stairs, he noted the sway of her hips. He imagined placing his hands on her waist as he used to, but restrained himself.
At the top of the stairs she opened the door. The room had been transformed into a cozy apartment of understated elegance.
She took his hand and showed him around. “I use it for important guests—trustees, donors, and the like.”
She smiled. At the far end of the room an efficiency kitchen had been installed. She opened the refrigerator door, and he was surprised to see a demi of champagne. An arched doorway led to a small bedroom with bath.
“What do you think?” she asked.
She walked to the window and Rowan followed. She closed the curtains. Rowan put his arm around her shoulder, and she turned to face him. She put her arms around his neck and looked up with her characteristic blend of boldness and reserve. He bent down and touched his forehead to hers. She made herself taller by standing on her toes, and offered him her lips.
Rowan met her passion with a hunger of his own, heightened by years of longing. Their lovemaking, tender yet explosive, connected past and present. Afterward, they lay back, side by side, as if only a week had passed since they’d been together.
Finally, she looked at him with mock seriousness, poked him in the ribs with her forefinger, and said, “So, tell me. Would you still love me without the title?”
“Touché,” he said, returning her jab. “But are you willing to be seen with me in public?”
“Once the sex code is off the table, absolutely.”
“There’s no hurry. We know how to wait. And we know how to hide.”
They lay still for a while. Then he said, “Easter, you’ve met my daughter but I still haven’t met your son. Marisol wants to meet him too. How about bringing him to a ballet? We could all go out to supper after.”
“That would be nice, but Adam is so busy I hardly ever see him myself.”
“Tell him one of the ballerinas has invited him. That’ll get his attention.”
“He’s never shown any interest in dance.”
“I’ll bet he hasn’t seen the pros. Great athletes appreciate each other. I’ve heard Marisol compare basketball to ballet.”
“Look, Rowan, it’s risky enough—us seeing each other right now. I don’t want to tempt fate by appearing in public as if we’re one big happy family. You and Marisol can watch Adam on TV. Princeton’s going to be playing in the National Invitational Tournament Tip-Off next month.”
She spoke with a finality that told Rowan to drop it.