The following is the twentieth 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!
New Year’s Eve, 1991
They caught the five o’clock train from Penn Station and transferred at Princeton Junction to a two-car shuttle—known to locals as the Dinky—that deposited them on the Princeton campus. As the Dinky crossed a trestle above Lake Carnegie, Adam focused his camera on a four-man crew below, propelling a scull through the gray drizzle. He snapped the image just as the oars reached full extension.
“‘Water Beetle’,” Adam said, pointing to the narrow craft darting across the lake. “I like to put titles on the photos.”
“And the shots at Lincoln Center?”
“I’ll need to see the prints, but perhaps ‘Green-eyed Girl’ and ‘Fountain Strawberry.’”
“You took three.”
“Maybe I’ll think of another title when we know each other better.”
A few minutes later, the Dinky pulled into Princeton. At the landing, the conductor took Marisol’s arm as she stepped off the train.
“Thanks, Charlie,” Adam said, joining her on the platform. As if he’d anticipated their meeting, the conductor looked from Adam to Marisol, and said firmly, “Every ending is a beginning.” Charlie was famous for oracular pronouncements, and this one was typical. It left Marisol wondering if it applied simply to the year that was ending, or might hold a deeper meaning for her.
Out of earshot, Adam explained that the conductor was a legendary figure in Princeton, beloved for safely and discreetly ushering countless inebriated undergraduates into taxis after they returned from carousing in the city. Locals recognized him as their sage ferryman, and among themselves referred to him as Siddhartha. “After the hero of Herman Hesse’s novel,” he added.
“I know. Just because I’m a dancer doesn’t mean I’m an airhead.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean…”
“It’s okay, Adam. Most of my friends have no time for Siddhartha or anything else outside of dance. I only know because my dad gave me the book for my birthday.”
“And when was that?”
As they crossed the campus, Adam assumed the role of tour guide.
“Woodrow Wilson was Princeton’s president before moving on to the White House,” he said, pointing to the house where Wilson had lived. Opposite was old Fine Hall, former home to many of the century’s most illustrious mathematicians and physicists.
“Einstein worked there. His law of gravitation is inscribed in a stained-glass window.”
At the party, a steady stream of students congratulated Adam on his tournament play. Marisol sensed that compliments made him uncomfortable, but that he, like she, had learned it was best to accept them graciously and move on.
“It’s too noisy to talk here. Want to go outside?” he asked her, cupping his hand over her ear. He pointed to the courtyard to make sure she understood over the din.
Just then a handsome young man who had greeted them at the door reintroduced himself.
“Hi, I’m Jack. Would you like to dance?” he called out to Marisol, circling his index finger to get his question across.
Marisol looked at Adam, who nodded. She could feel his eyes on her as Jack led her toward the dance floor.
When they reached the floor, the DJ, who’d been playing Madonna, switched to Eric Clapton’s “Layla,” and Marisol began to dance slowly, with restrained, minimal movement in her slim hips and shoulders. When the raucous introduction modulated into the melodic anthem, she shifted gears, dramatically. In a blink, all eyes were on her. Jack did his best to match her movements, but no one was watching him. Marisol, who on stage was the epitome of control, had become woman incarnate.
When the song ended, Jack invited her to the bar, but she politely declined and returned to Adam.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Adam said. “Guys will be lining up to dance with you.”
“Let’s get out of here,” she said.
Marisol slid her arm through his and they strolled across the empty campus.
“At the basketball game, I got to see you in high gear. I wanted to show you mine. Now you’ve seen me choreographed and unchoreographed.”
“I don’t know which I like better.”
“You don’t have to choose,” she said. He freed his arm and put it around her. Just then, the sound of a pealing bell reached them through the clear winter’s night. Then another, and another. Bells were joining the chorus from all over town. They stopped and faced each other. Adam counted the chimes, and at the twelfth one, said, “Shall we celebrate the New Year in the customary fashion?”
“I’d like that.” Closing her eyes, she tilted her head back and offered him her lips. He kissed her softly, just once.
“What a lovely custom.”
Adam put his arm around her again and she adjusted her stride to match his.
When they got back to his rooms, Marisol disappeared into the bathroom with her dance bag and Adam did his best to straighten up his bed and then make up a place for himself to sleep on the sofa in the sitting room.
She emerged in her pajamas to find the lights out.
As she climbed into bed she called out, “Aren’t you going to say goodnight?”
He got up from the sofa and went to her. The soft light filtering through the window was just bright enough to illuminate her hair spread out on his pillow. Slipping his hands beneath her head he leaned down while gently lifting her upward till their lips met. She wrapped her arms around him and pulled him toward her. He let himself be drawn down, but when they’d kissed, he pulled himself up to a sitting position and lowered her head to the pillow.
“I have a proposal,” he said.
“What is it?”
“You’re free New Year’s week and I’m leaving for Paris tomorrow. How about going with me, as my guest?”
“Yeah, I am.”
“I’ve never done anything like that before.” Her mind was racing. She’d always been a good girl. This felt like breaking the mold.
“I can’t just disappear, can I? Plus, I don’t have that kind of money.”
“Don’t worry. My dad’s always urging me to see the world. He complains when I don’t use the credit card he gave me.”
“Exactly, except it’s American Express. So you’ll go?”
“Can we get a ticket this late? And I’ll need to pick up my passport.” As the implications sunk in, Marisol was babbling, but she knew she’d passed the point of no return.
“I’ll call the airline first thing in the morning. We’ll stop by your place on the way to JFK.”
“I’ll leave my dad a note. He wouldn’t try to stop me, but somehow I don’t feel like talking it over with him.”
They were too excited to sleep, and talked for an hour before Adam dragged himself off to the sofa.
From Charles de Gaulle Airport they took the train into Paris, the Metro to the Bastille, and walked the final few blocks to François Merle’s town house at Place des Vosges. The usual gaggle of tourists stood gawking at the picturesque seventeenth century structures bordering the grassy square.
Nearly four centuries old, the historic site had been the first residential square in the city. It comprised thirty-six matching buildings with red brick facades, white cornerstones, and steep, blue-slate roofs. A series of vaulted arcades formed the ground floor. Cardinal Richelieu and Victor Hugo had lived and worked there. Adam pointed out the fountain he’d cooled off in on hot days when he was a boy.
“Come on, I’ll show you where you’re staying,” he said. “You’ve got a room with a view.” He glanced at her to see if she’d caught the allusion to Forster, but couldn’t tell. Taking her suitcase, he led the way up the steps to the front door.
On a table in the entryway there was a note from François. “We’ve got the place to ourselves for a week,” he announced.
“Great! Let me unpack and change into my workout clothes.” When they’d passed through New York, Marisol had phoned the ballet mistress there for help in finding a daily barre in Paris.
“You dance every day?” he asked.
“You practice every day, don’t you?”
“There’s a saying: ‘Miss a class and you know it; miss two, and the teacher knows it; miss three, and the audience knows it.’ I’ve missed two already.”
“But everything’s closed New Year’s Day,” he said.
“Oh, I can limber up here and take a real class tomorrow. And sometime this week I want to stop by and see the round studio at Palais Garnier. It’s a mecca for dancers. Degas painted there.”
After they toured the house, Adam carried Marisol’s bag to the guestroom on the third floor that overlooked the square.
She said, “Actually, I could use a nap. All of a sudden I’m so sleepy, maybe I’ll lie down for a bit and then stretch out.”
“Okay, but if you’re not down in two hours, I’m coming to get you. I want to show you Paris.” He followed her footsteps up the stairs until he heard the door to her room close behind her.
“Beautiful table,” Marisol said when she entered the room where Adam was reading. “A perfect circle. What’s it made of?”
“Baobab wood, from our farm in Senegal. The Senegalese believe it brings good luck.”
“And you have a round table made of it,” Marisol mused, rapping lightly on it and, appearing satisfied, said her nap had put her in the mood for a walk.
“It’s cold out there.” He went to the coat closet and returned with a moss-green scarf. “I think this will look good on you,” he said, putting the scarf over her head and giving the ends a playful tug.
They stopped at Mariage Frères for a pot of Russian Caravan tea, and as Adam added milk to his, he said, “Tea with milk reminds me of England. We lived there while my mom got her Ph.D.”
“When did you come to the States?”
“I started high school in Cambridge while she was at Harvard, and finished at Jefferson when she took the job there.”
“Will I meet your dad?”
“Yes, he’s coming in from Africa on Saturday.”
“Are you close?”
“Very. And you…to your dad?”
“Yes, close as father and daughter, plus, we’re pals.”
“Come on, you must see Notre Dame.”
Walking through the streets at dusk, Marisol saw Paris as a well-lit stage on which she and Adam were anonymous extras in a show that would run long after they’d made their exits. To be beyond the reach of parents and friends, to be with a man she’d hardly known a week, was at once sobering and exhilarating.
The next morning, Marisol took an advanced ballet class at the Paris Centre Studio. It felt good to execute the familiar steps, to contract and lengthen her muscles, to reconnect with her body.
Adam was there to meet her when she left class.
“What would you like to do today?”
“If I don’t go to the Rodin Museum while I’m in Paris, I’ll never hear the end of it from my dad. He’s a big fan.”
“Well, this place is certainly not for prudes,” said Adam as they passed a marble figurine configured to reveal every minute anatomical detail of the female body.
“Wow! Rodin doesn’t leave much to the imagination, does he?” Marisol added.
“I wonder how he got his models to pose like that.”
“Not hard to guess what happened next,” she said with a giggle.
Before they left the museum, they sat on a bench in the lobby to rest their feet.
“I’ll cook tonight. Would you like to try my specialty?” he asked her.
“Pasta. My mother taught me how to make a good red sauce.”
“Not only can he shoot a basket, he cooks, too! The crowd goes wild!” With that, Marisol gleefully threw her arms around his neck. Then she whispered in his ear, “I’m not going to be able to get this place out of my mind.”
Adam kissed her. “Me either. Let’s go home.”
The week that followed was the happiest time Marisol had ever known. Her youth, like that of all dancers, had been highly disciplined. Now she was spontaneously giving her heart to a man she’d just met, yet felt she’d known all her life. In previous relationships with men, she’d been guarded; with Adam, she was fearless. It was the first time she’d felt the audacity she displayed on stage expressed in her life.
Their days quickly fell into a pattern: They got up late and hung out in the house till about noon. After a light lunch out, they explored Paris on foot. By late afternoon, they were back at the house at Place des Vosges making love.
One evening, they went to Giselle, and afterward spent hours discussing it. Adam wondered whether, when Giselle finds out that Prince Albrecht is betrothed, she dies of a weak heart or a broken heart. It’s deliberately ambiguous, answered Marisol. In some versions she commits suicide. And, Adam continued, in the first act is Albrecht a cad, consciously leading a peasant girl on, or does he really love her? The role can be interpreted either way, Marisol replied, adding, “But in the second act Giselle’s love is so strong and pure that it reaches beyond the grave. She shows him what love really is, and that knowledge changes him.”
The next evening, he took her to the film Casablanca, another tale of impossible love. “‘We’ll always have Paris’ isn’t enough for me,” was Marisol’s reaction. “I’m glad you’ll be heading back to the States soon too.”
“I’ve got to go out to Jefferson to see my mom for a few days. She was away Christmas week,” he said.
He turned to look at her.
“Adam, I should tell you something. You’d find out anyway.”
“My dad and your mom are seeing each other. He told me just before he left to spend the week with her at his cabin in the Berkshires.”
“No! You told me they knew each other but I had no idea they were…”
“…dating.” Marisol finished his sentence.
“Wow! This is going to take some getting used to.”
Marisol could see he was uncomfortable with the idea. “I think they’re perfect for each other,” she offered, but when Adam didn’t respond she wished she’d kept her mouth shut.
“I’m sorry, maybe I shouldn’t have spilled the beans.”
“No, I’m glad you told me. We shouldn’t have secrets between us. I think I’m still in denial about my parents’ separation.”
They were startled when the phone on the bed table rang. It was François calling from Senegal to confirm his arrival.
After Adam hung up, he said, “My dad’s on the board of Doctors Without Borders. There’s an emergency meeting on Somalia tomorrow and he asked me to stand in for him. It won’t take us long.”
Before the meeting started, Adam made a point of conveying his father’s regrets to the executive director. Then he led Marisol to a seat at the back of the auditorium so they could duck out if it ran on.
The executive director set the stage for the event by explaining how chronic drought in the Sahel, coupled with fighting among Somali chieftains, was driving hungry refugees into the cities. He then introduced a young Indochinese woman who had just returned from Mogadishu. After completing her studies at L’Écoles des Médecins, Dr. Élodie Pham Fleury had signed up for a year of fieldwork in lieu of the typical hospital internship. Dressed in a lavender ao dai—the traditional Vietnamese silk tunic—over black pantaloons, she was the epitome of cosmopolitan elegance.
“I’ll translate when she’s done,” Adam whispered. Although Marisol couldn’t follow the substance of Dr. Fleury’s presentation, she was impressed by her dynamism and passion. She tried to imagine herself in a world in which no one cared about tendus and arabesques. The satisfaction she presumed would come from saving people from starvation made her question her single-minded dedication to dance.
Dr. Fleury, who illustrated her talk with slides of emaciated children, argued that famine had become unavoidable and called upon the French press to get the story out. Then, speaking English with a light French accent, and with even greater urgency, she repeated her appeal to the world media.
Adam and Marisol were discussing the talk when Dr. Fleury joined them. She began in French but, after Adam introduced Marisol, switched to English.
“I’m told that you’re the son of François Merle. He’s one of our staunchest supporters.”
“He’s in Senegal and asked me to come in his place. This is my friend, Marisol, a ballet dancer in New York.”
“I think your work is wonderful,” Marisol interjected.
“Have you been following events in Somalia?”
“This is the first I’ve heard about the famine,” Marisol admitted.
“No one’s heard of it; that’s the problem. We’re looking for recruits. We’ve got nothing against dancers.” She flashed Marisol a smile.
“When are you going back?” Adam asked the doctor.
“Next week. I go from Paris to Nairobi, then on to Mogadishu. Why do you ask?”
“Sounds like an adventure. I’ve lived in West Africa, but I’ve never seen the East. Who took the photographs?”
“I did, but they don’t capture the extent of the tragedy. We’re desperate for volunteers. Are you interested?”
Marisol’s face froze and her heart pounded. Surely Adam wouldn’t go off to Africa with this woman.
“Sorry, but I return to school in the States next week.”
Marisol took a breath and smiled politely.
“Well, if you change your mind, you know where to sign up.”