The following is the twenty-third 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!
A few weeks later, as Rowan was preparing for bed, his phone rang. It was Easter, in whose voice he heard a mixture of alarm and resignation. She told him that Marisol’s full name had appeared in The Princetonian, and she’d been identified as Adam’s sister. The news had already made its way to Jefferson and was spreading through the faculty like a firestorm. Rowan tried to calm her and promised to get to the bottom of it in the morning.
Before sunrise, he called Marisol and demanded an explanation. She had indeed been in Princeton for a game, and afterward a student reporter had asked her if she were Adam’s girlfriend. Not content with her simple “no,” he’d asked around, and Ellie had confirmed that they were half-brother and sister.
Easter’s assistant traced the rumor’s arrival on the Jefferson campus to Connie Wellstone, a Princeton professor who’d graduated from Jefferson during Rowan’s tenure as president. From the article in The Princetonian, Connie had picked up on the implications in the half-siblings’ surnames and phoned one of her old Jefferson professors who, in turn, had gleefully regaled the faculty with the news of an affair between a former and a current president.
Rowan’s initial irritation with Marisol contrasted sharply with Easter’s focus on damage control. She told Rowan that she’d immediately alerted the chairman of the board to a potential scandal.
“The timing couldn’t be worse,” she said in a call to Rowan. “I’m scheduled to chair an open forum on the sex code tomorrow evening. Do you think I should offer the board my resignation?”
“Hell, no. I think you can win this. Stand firm, and your critics will back down.”
By noon the next day, Rowan was on a plane that would get him to Jefferson in time for the forum.
He left his rental car in the lot behind the administration building and, wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap, melted into the crowd pouring into Seeger Chapel. If he kept his head down and stayed way in the back, no one would recognize him, or so he hoped.
It was here, twenty years earlier, that he had given his inaugural address. A quick glance around the chapel assured him that for every minority student who had heard him then, there were ten who would hear Easter tonight.
On stage, the deans, President Blue, and the committee members who had drawn up the sex code were waiting to begin. As the chapel bell tolled eight, Easter rose and walked to the podium. The crowd was buzzing, but it lacked the earnestness and solemnity of assemblies held during the Vietnam era. Even when Easter called for order, bawdy laughter and nervous titters could be heard throughout the chamber. Finally, she brought the assembly to attention and introduced the committee chair, a youthful-looking female professor of gender studies, who spelled out three alternatives.
The first was the current hands-off policy labeled “laissez-faire”; the second, “limited ban,” ruled out sex between faculty and students enrolled in their current classes. The third, “complete ban,” prohibited all sexual relations between students and faculty or staff, a position supported by the majority of the committee members.
After committee representatives took turns defending each of the three positions, they fielded questions from students lined up behind microphones in the aisles.
As the first hour drew to a close, Rowan began to think Easter would get through the evening unscathed. Then, a well-dressed young woman took the mike and, in a soft but clear voice, respectfully announced that she had a question for the president.
Easter rose and walked to the podium.
“President Blue, there’s a rumor going around that could have an impact on the subject of this forum. I think you should know that advocates of the complete ban on fraternization between students and faculty are using your personal story to support their proposal. I’m sure the community would like to hear your views on the matter.”
Easter stood silently for what felt to Rowan like several minutes, looking out over the audience. An impatient buzz began to spread through the chapel. Then Easter spoke.
“Twenty years ago, in this chapel, I listened as a young president urged the faculty to do what was long overdue: to seek out and welcome people of color to Jefferson. I was one of his student supporters. We worked together in what was nothing less than a struggle for the soul of the college and, as is obvious from the diversity in this hall, the changes we fought for prevailed. In the process, what started as a friendship gradually turned into something more. By the time I graduated, the boundaries between us had dissolved.”
A few hoots rose from the crowd.
“There is more to this story, but the rest of it is our business and ours alone. I do, however, have something to say to those who would use my story as an argument against any and all relationships between students and faculty or staff.
“I entered into the relationship I have described with my eyes open. I was an adult, I chose it, and I have never regretted that choice.
“In defending love I am not giving my blessing to promiscuity, let alone to sex between students and faculty or staff. We all know that many of the romantic relationships we imagine are unwise, and that we’d be better off not consummating them. But that does not mean that the faculty of Jefferson College should attempt to legislate matters of the heart between consenting adults.”
This last remark was met with hisses sprinkled with a few bravos. Easter pressed on as if she’d heard nothing.
“In my view, legislating love is like regulating speech. Along with the founding fathers, I believe that the costs to liberty outweigh the benefits to society.”
She paused to let them absorb the parallel.
“Legislation has a sorry record when it comes to love. Consider how often laws have been passed with pious certainty by one generation only to become an embarrassment to the next. We find ourselves today in the middle of just such a change of attitude toward homosexuality.”
Scattered applause, a little stronger, but intense in several sections of the audience. Easter looked out across the chapel, made eye contact with two or three individuals, and resumed.
“The code recommended by the committee would disallow the defining event of my life and virtually criminalize a choice I made with all my heart, a choice I stand by today. If you want to do that, that’s your prerogative. But for me to support it would not only be hypocritical, it would be to disavow the love of my life.
“John Keats spoke for me when he said, ‘I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections.’ If the faculty adopts the ‘complete ban,’ I want you all to know that you have a president who transgressed it and who believes that you should have the right to follow your hearts as she followed hers.”
Rowan listened in awe. When Easter finished, a stillness came over the crowd. It was broken by a few students carrying a placard reading NO FRATERNIZATION who got to their feet and booed.
But a wave of applause, rolling from the rear to the front of the chapel, soon drowned out the protestors. Rowan saw groups of students rising to their feet in a standing ovation. As he slipped out into the night, it was clear that the majority of students didn’t want the College involved in their love lives.
He quickly crossed the short distance to the Archives, climbed the stairs to the guest suite, and found it unlocked. Twenty minutes later he saw Easter’s car pull out of the lot behind the administration building. After giving her the five minutes he knew it would take her to get home, he dialed her number.
“I’m here, in the Archives.”
“Oh, my God, you were there?”
“In the back. No one saw me. You won the day.”
“Nothing’s settled until the faculty votes, but I am sure of one thing—we’re done hiding. I’ll be right over.”
He lay down on the bed in the darkness, trying to get used to the idea that their secret was out. The sound of a door snapping shut told him Easter was in the building. He listened to her steps on the stairs with growing anticipation.
She let herself into the apartment and walked toward him in the dimly lit room. As she settled down on the bed beside him, she put one finger over his lips to remind him of their rule.
“I don’t like what’s going on here,” Easter said to Rowan in one of their daily calls between Jefferson and New York. “The lawyers on the board are arguing that colleges bear legal liability for sexual harassment charges brought by students. They’re lobbying the faculty to ban fraternization of any sort.”
“What about the consensus on campus? After your speech, they were with you.”
“The students, yes, but as you know, they have little say.”
“Did The Jeffersonian take a position?”
“They came out in favor of the limited ban, but Rowan, none of that matters. When it comes to questions of liability, the faculty’s going to defer to the board. In any case, the board looks set to impose an outright ban. They see it as a matter of fiduciary responsibility.”
“The whole thing has been blown out of proportion.”
“I can’t just carry on as if nothing has happened.”
“Actually, that would be the best strategy. Stay aloof and in no time people will be talking about something else.”
As if she had decided to take his advice, Easter changed the subject. “Marisol sent me an apology for blabbing to Ellie. I presume you suggested it.”
“No, she’s contrite. She’s moved out now, and I’m feeling out of touch…with both kids, actually. Let’s ask them for dinner next time you’re here.”
The following evening, Rowan responded to a knock on his door and found Easter standing in his hallway. Before she even said hello, she announced glumly, “The faculty caved.” Disgusted with academic spinelessness, she’d driven straight to the airport and caught the first flight to New York.
Over a hastily opened bottle of wine she told Rowan that the Jefferson faculty, by a sixty-forty majority, had approved the “complete ban” that prohibited all fraternization, and then gone on to make violation of the ban cause for immediate termination.
Although several trustees had assured her privately that the board valued her services and wished her to continue, she took the faculty’s action as a slap in the face. For the first time, she was seriously thinking of leaving.
Rowan poured her a glass of wine while she filled him in. “It’s not that I feel they’re wrong and I’m right, but they treated me as if my views counted for nothing, as if I didn’t exist. Well, perhaps I don’t.”
As he listened, Rowan realized that one side of him relished the prospect of her moving on. If she left, Jefferson would be behind both of them.
“Getting out was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said.
“You could afford to lose your status. My dad would never have put it this way in public, but in private he’d say, ‘Without a title, you’re just another nigger.’”
“In his day, yes, but not today. You are in fact eminently employable.”
“He believed that rank trumps race, that status could protect us from bigotry. If he were alive he’d tell me to hang onto my current title until I got a better one.”
“He was right,” Rowan admitted. “It’s always been tough out there for nobodies. But come on, you won’t be one for more than five minutes. Just offer your services to the Clinton campaign. They’ll grab you and give you a top-level job when he wins.”
Rowan invited Adam and Marisol for dinner the following evening. Over dessert, Marisol said to Easter, “Adam told me about your speech. I trust the heart’s affections, too.”
“Oh, that’s from Keats,” Easter said. “But it doesn’t mean that anything goes.”
“I don’t think love can mislead us,” Marisol said. “If it’s holy, how can it?”
“When it’s selfish. But so long as we put our beloved first, love is holy. I think that’s what Keats meant. In any case, it’s what I meant.”
Before Marisol could reply, Rowan jumped in.
“Easter and I realize that we’ve put you in a pickle.”
“We can take care of this,” Adam said. “We don’t want any advice.”
“Please let me finish,” Rowan said. “We know that our choices have caused you pain, and we’re sorry.”
“Well, you shouldn’t be,” Adam said. “If anything had been the least bit different, neither of us would exist.”
Adam’s remark put an end to the apologies. To move on, he passed the bowl of mashed potatoes to Marisol, saying, “I think you’re losing weight.”
“Dancing six hours a day is the ultimate diet plan,” she said. “I agree with Adam. Please don’t worry about us. We can handle this.”
“No parent wants to see her child suffer,” Easter said.
“No parent wants to see two of his children suffer,” Rowan added. “But I’ll say no more. We love you no matter what.”
“We’ll be fine,” said Adam. “What we do want you to know is that in each other we’ve both found a best friend.”
“You used to complain about being an only child,” Easter said to Adam.
“Well, now I have a baby sister.”
Rowan felt Easter nudge his leg under the table. He could see from her face that she was satisfied.