The following is the twenty-second 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 get the audiobook at Amazon, iTunes, and audible.com. If you enjoy The Rowan Tree, please write a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or your own blog! The author also welcomes your comments. Enter the Goodreads Giveaway to win a free paperback copy of The Rowan Tree!
From JFK, Marisol took a cab straight to the Upper West Side apartment she shared with her father. She found Rowan in his running clothes, flushed from jogging in Central Park.
Her distress over the revelations of the past twenty-four hours had intensified as she’d flown across the Atlantic. A part of her wanted to blame her father, but he hadn’t known either, and he had every right to be as upset as she was.
“Welcome home,” he said as he opened the door. Rowan was always gladdened by his daughter’s presence, never more than this time, and his greeting was effusive.
“Hi, Dad,” she said, letting go of her suitcase and falling into his arms.
“So, our family is not just the two of us anymore,” Rowan said. “Come sit. I’ve made us coffee.”
After she explained why she’d made the impromptu trip to Paris, she asked him how he’d gotten the news about Adam.
“François called Easter’s secretary, who reached us at the cabin. It must have been three in the morning. Then Easter called François in Paris.”
“What did he say?”
“I couldn’t hear his side of the conversation, but I could tell that Easter was upset. Finally, she told François he’d done the right thing and hung up. For a while, she just sat there by the phone. I was afraid her son had been hurt—or worse.”
Rowan got two mugs from the cupboard and put them on the table. “Then she mumbled something about being sorry and broke down. She kept asking me to forgive her, but I didn’t know for what. When she calmed down, she said there was something she’d wanted to tell me for a long time, but hadn’t been free to do so. Then she told me.”
“What did she say?”
“Her exact words? ‘You have a son, Rowan. Adam is our son’.”
“Holy crap. How did you feel? What did you think?”
“I couldn’t take it in. I didn’t understand what it could possibly mean. It seemed impossible that I could have lived my life without knowing something that important.” Rowan poured the coffee and sat down across from her.
“We had a wonderful time in Paris, Dad. The best time of my life.”
Rowan slowly shook his head. She couldn’t tell if he was upset with her or sympathetic.
“I’m so sorry, Marisol. We’ll all have to find a way to come to terms with this. When does Adam get back?”
“Next week. François is coming too. He wants to introduce you to Adam.”
“I suppose that’s the honorable thing to do.”
“He wants me to be there. But not Easter. I won’t go if she’s there. I’m sorry, Dad, but it looks like she dumped you for a guy with more money. You should hate her.”
“No, Marisol, that’s not how it was. I didn’t want to tell you, but it seems that your mother had a hand in this.”
“What do you mean?”
“After I left Jefferson I holed up at the cabin. Easter couldn’t reach me.”
“Why didn’t she call you?”
“It had no phone in those days. She repeatedly called the apartment in New York, but I’d left.”
“So why didn’t she leave a message?”
“Marisol, it was 1971; there were no answering machines. But one time, Sara answered, and told her to get out of our life.”
“She could have written.”
“I think Sara intercepted her letters.”
“Oh God, I don’t want to hear that either. It’s so…wait, why didn’t you call Easter?”
“I did, and when I finally reached someone at François’s place in Dakar I was told they’d gone to Paris together. That’s when I realized I had to let go.”
“So, you went back to Mom?”
“Not right away, but later that summer I came to New York for a job interview and she offered to let me stay in our old apartment. That’s when you were conceived.”
“Don’t tell me more.”
“Okay, but I want you to understand one thing. Easter believed that she had just two choices: Come home, abandon her fellowship, and be a single mother, or marry François. She went with the choice that offered security and avoided shame.”
“Why didn’t she just get an abortion?”
“For her, that wasn’t an option.”
“François told us that he made her break up with you. Something about his parents not finding out that Adam wasn’t really their grandson. I got the feeling that jealousy was part of it too.”
“Well, I never heard a word from her until after they’d separated, not until she invited me to Jefferson for the honorary degree.”
“You didn’t suspect?”
“It never crossed my mind. The pill, you know. In those days we thought it was foolproof.”
Marisol, uneasy, was suddenly overcome by fatigue. It was midnight Paris time, and the next day she’d begin rehearsals for the new season. She excused herself to go to bed, but stopped to lean against the kitchen doorway.
“Dad, I’ve been thinking about getting a place of my own.”
“I suppose that makes sense. Nearby, I hope.”
“Just around the corner would be perfect.” Rowan got up and kissed her on the forehead.
“I’m so tired I feel dizzy,” she said, turning down the hall.
Within a week, François had made good on his promise to accompany Adam to the States and present him to Rowan. From the beginning of this new phase in their relationship, François’s advice to Adam was that two fathers could be better than one if they’re both good men. And, knowing Easter as he did, he imagined that Rowan would prove to be a good man.
François had suggested that Rowan bring Marisol along, and the four of them met for dinner at a midtown restaurant. Marisol had given a lot of thought to her outfit and decided on a short, black, fashionable dress, with her hair pinned up for a more mature look.
When Rowan met Adam, he had the feeling that, apart from the mocha shade of his skin, in him, he was meeting a taller, younger version of himself. The conversation roamed from sports and math at Princeton to dance in New York. For Rowan’s benefit, François repeated that Adam was his sole heir. He also made it clear that he was encouraging Adam to seek Rowan out for academic advice. The dinner was going smoothly, and Rowan attributed this to the fact that François was a loving father who made Adam’s interests his own.
When, after the main course, Marisol and Adam excused themselves “for a walk,” Rowan took the opportunity to ask François if he thought their romance had cooled, or simply gone underground. Easter had encouraged him to push François on this point, so when he demurred, Rowan said, “I hope you have more influence with Adam than I do with Marisol.”
“After your daughter left Paris I shared something with Adam that might help him sort this out.”
“That’s good, because I’m at a loss.”
“My father’s sister had a daughter about my age, my cousin Viviane. As children, we saw a lot of each other at family gatherings. In adolescence, what began as child’s play turned into flirtation. One summer, when my parents were in Senegal and I had the house to myself, flirtation blossomed into first love.”
“Cousins are legal,” Rowan noted.
“Genetically, half-siblings are no closer than first cousins. Couples of either type share two grandparents,” François replied. “But for us, marriage was never in the cards. When my parents returned we tried sneaking around for a while, but soon realized that we were more important to each other as friends than as lovers. We’ve been soul mates ever since.”
“I hope Adam and Marisol find their way to something like that,” Rowan said.
“Viviane and I feel that our bond is closer because we were once lovers. I told Adam that a former lover always holds a special place in a man’s heart.”
“How did he respond to your story?”
“He hasn’t yet, but I hope it’s sinking in.”
A week later, after a luncheon speech to Boston alumni, Easter drove to the Berkshires to spend the weekend with Rowan. They’d had several long phone conversations since Rowan had met Adam, but this was their first face-to-face meeting since this new phase of their lives had begun. He heard the car pull up and went out to greet her.
Ordinarily, he’d have stuck to their tried and true formula—“sex first, talk later”— but given all they’d been through, he sensed that an intermediate step was called for.
Easter hardly had time to sit down before he bundled her into a parka and ski boots and fastened on her skis. Two hours of cross-country skiing proved to be just the ticket. By nightfall she’d left her regrets and worries in the Berkshire hills.
After many hours of phone time devoted to children and their own lost years, Rowan was determined to make this weekend a new start. Relaxing before the fireplace with after-dinner coffee, he pulled out a small gray velvet box tied with a silk ribbon and set it on the table.
“I’ve been waiting for the right occasion,” he said. “This is for the gift of Adam. Under the circumstances, I trust you’ll overlook the fact that it’s nineteen years late.”
“That’s the least I can do,” Easter said with a rueful smile as she tugged at the ribbon. Inside the box she found a delicate brooch studded with rubies, pearls, and lapis lazuli—red, white, and blue.
“It’s exquisite, Rowan!” Easter held it to her breast. “Where did you find it?”
“In Novosibirsk. The artist lives on the shores of Lake Baikal. I thought of you the moment I saw it and snapped it up in the hope that a day might come when I could give it to you. Some summer, I’d like to show you Baikal. We could rent a cabin and live like the natives—on mushrooms, berries, fish, and black bread. Wood fires at night, no electricity, no phones. I know just enough Russian to get by.”
As he painted this rustic picture, Easter got up, walked around behind him, and, taking his face in her hands, tipped his head back and kissed him on the lips.
“Once upon a time, I was the president’s lover,” she said. “Now, you are.”
“Just a permutation,” he said, pulling her onto his lap. Easter had regained her footing and come back to Earth—to him.
The conversation went where it had so often gone: to college politics. A coalition of students and faculty women had drawn up legislation banning all sexual contact between students and faculty or staff. They had come to Easter early in the process, asking her to endorse their goals but, to their dismay, she’d refused to join their crusade.
“I told them I’ll be presiding over the debate and must be seen as impartial,” she explained. “They didn’t buy it. They don’t know where I stand, and for that matter, neither do I.”
“Surely the faculty can tell the difference between consensual sex and harassment.”
“You’d be surprised, Rowan. The idea of an outright ban on sex between people of different rank is gaining ground. One extreme group maintains that, so long as society is patriarchal, sexual intercourse is tantamount to rape. They’re like fundamentalists. Rowan, I can’t reason with them. I haven’t seen such venom since the sixties.”
“Haven’t quite a few professors married students?”
“Yes, and many more are like me—they’ve done things the new code would prohibit, and they’re against it. On the other side, there are women backing the new code who were taken advantage of by professors.”
“Philpot,” Rowan said glumly.
“He’s Exhibit A. A few years after you left, one of his students charged him with offering to get her into Yale in exchange for sex. The president forced him to resign.”
“I should have done that,” Rowan said.
“Last fall, a football player wrote an anonymous letter to The Jeffersonian, charging an assistant coach with offering him playing time for sex. But he wouldn’t identify himself or the coach, so my hands were tied.”
“That’s extortion, pure and simple. How do the French handle this? They’ve got a lot of common sense when it comes to sex.”
“They’re laissez-faire. But they draw the line at pressure of any kind, as should we.”
“It seems impossible now…that we did what we did. Was it a dream?” Rowan ventured.
“I’d have left you alone if you hadn’t been so young,” Easter said with a smile.
“Yes, it was all your fault, you hussy. Anyway, whatever they do, it’s going to look silly in a few years.”
“But I’ve got to get through this semester.”
“The job doesn’t sound like much fun.”
“Worse than that,” Easter said, “it doesn’t even feel important—like what we fought for. For the first time, I’ve begun to think about life after Jefferson.”
“There is one, you know.”
“You managed it pretty well. What could I do?”
“You won’t even have to look. Opportunities will find you.”
“Not if our story gets out. By the way, Marisol still understands the importance of keeping this in the family, doesn’t she?”
“She moved into a place of her own last week. I’ll remind her this weekend.”