The following is the twenty-seventh of a series of excerpts from The Rowan Tree: A Novel by Robert W. Fuller. The complete novel is available in paperback, in various ebook formats including Kindle, and as an 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.
Princeton’s summer basketball camp for high school players was no place to find the solitude that Somalia had left Adam craving, but he quickly realized that it was the next best thing—mindless. From breakfast till dinner the focus was basketball. He couldn’t imagine a better way to distract himself from the wretchedness he’d witnessed. By day’s end, the repetitive athletic drills, capped by a scrimmage with the younger, hungrier players never failed to produce the pleasant exhaustion that meant a sound sleep.
Like many Princeton undergraduates, he’d been admitted because he had something the University wanted. As point guard he’d led his high school basketball team to the state championship. Princeton’s long-time coach, who’d seen the potential of pairing him with the team’s top scorer, Ben Steinsaltz, had recruited him, and from day one Adam’s job was to orchestrate an offense that capitalized on Ben’s ability to put the ball through the hoop.
With the approach of Adam’s third, and Ben’s final year of varsity ball, both had bought the coach’s argument that competing against the cream of American high school players during the summer was excellent preparation for their regular season.
As the weeks of camp passed, and the reality of his trip to Somalia slowly receded, it was hard for Adam to believe that the horrors he’d witnessed could be occurring on the same planet Princeton was on. More than once he tried to describe what he’d seen to his teammates; they’d listen politely for a few minutes, then cut him short and suggest they go out for pizza. Adam couldn’t blame them; he’d been no different before he’d found himself walking in the valley of death.
During camp, Ben and Adam occupied the same adjacent rooms they did during the school year, and often spent evenings together. Ben, perhaps because of his own travels in the Middle East, was the only one who showed any interest in Adam’s African trip. The previous summer he and his parents had gone on a religious pilgrimage and retraced the steps of Moses from Egypt to Israel. Since then, he and Ben had spent hours discussing Middle Eastern politics. The day after Adam got back to Princeton, and he and Ben had time to talk, he brought out the photos he’d taken in Somalia.
“Who’s the girl?” Ben asked.
“Dr. Élodie Fleury, one of the Doctors Without Borders. She’s half French, half Vietnamese.”
“She’s damned beautiful is what she is, Ad.”
“I know.” His voice must have tipped Ben off because his next question was, “Did you sleep with her?” As friends, they’d always been able to read each other when it came to women. Ben had been the first of Adam’s friends to see that he’d fallen for Marisol. There was no point in lying now.
“Yeah. On the last night.”
“You lucky bastard.”
Adam changed the subject, asking Ben if summer camp had affected his plans to play professional basketball.
“Your photos put pro sports in perspective. They’re just part of the entertainment industry. I don’t want to devote my life to that, do you?”
Ben acted as if Adam, too, were an NBA prospect. “I don’t think I want to play pro ball badly enough,” Adam said.
“You know what I think, Ad? I think we both have better things to do.”
“You’re a born leader, Ad.”
“I don’t know about that. I haven’t been able to get anyone besides you interested in Somalia.”
“You’ve been talking to the wrong crowd.”
“Listen to this,” Adam said, pulling a book from his backpack. “It’s a quote from George Bernard Shaw.”
The true joy of life is being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one…being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown to the scrap heap…being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish clod of ailments and grievances.
“If I do go pro, it’ll be for the money,” Ben said, “so I can make a difference later. Promise me that you’ll make me quit basketball before I turn into a ‘selfish clod’.”
“On the court, you are a force of nature,” Adam said. As he spoke, he felt himself turning a corner that he’d been peering around since Somalia. With new clarity, he told Ben, “I don’t know what I’m cut out for, but I intend to find out.”
Marisol came off the Dinky at midday for that afternoon’s end-of-camp trophy game between Princeton’s varsity team and the high school all-stars. This was the first time they’d seen each other since Adam suddenly departed for Europe. When he’d called, hoping to smooth things over by inviting her to the game, they’d tacitly agreed to treat that evening at her apartment as if it had never happened.
She had a seat immediately behind the Princeton bench. In regular season games it was policy to ignore guests until the game was over, but for this exhibition game, Adam made an exception. In the minutes between the warm-up drills and the tip-off, while coaches were conferring with officials, and players milled around, Adam walked behind the players’ bench to greet his sister. When the whistle blew and he left her to take his position in the backcourt, she wished him luck, and blew him a kiss.
The high school squad, led by a six-foot-eight shooting guard who moved like a young Magic Johnson, took an early lead but never opened up a gap of more than two baskets. Ben was outscoring all the high school players, in part because Adam was covering “Magic” so closely that by the fourth quarter he was saddled with foul trouble. The coach took him out to save him for the final minutes, but his substitute couldn’t contain Magic so, despite the risk of his fouling out, Adam was sent back into the game.
That’s when the trash-talking started. The other high school guard set a pick for Magic and, gripping Adam’s arm, said in his ear, “Black pussy not good enough for you, nigga?” Adam pretended not to hear him, but on the next play the opposing player upped the ante. “After we whup you tonight, we’re gonna pull a train on your skinny white bitch.”
“Fuck you,” Adam replied.
On Princeton’s next possession, Adam positioned himself in the backcourt at a point where the trash-talking guard was directly between him and the basket, and called for the ball. Then he drove directly through the high school player, knocking him to the floor with such force that the crowd gasped. The trash-talker lay on his back looking stunned as Adam slammed the ball down through the net.
The whistle blew, the basket nullified, and Adam was charged with his fifth foul, a disqualification, and sent off to the locker room. To make matters worse, the referee judged the foul flagrant, and the high school team was awarded an extra free throw.
For a few mindless seconds, Adam had become a force of nature—a righteous, vengeful force. The target of his wrath had hobbled off the court supported by the attending physician. Ben tried to rally the team, but they couldn’t contain the younger players. Princeton’s coach was furious when his team lost by eight points.
“Sorry about the game, Adam.” Marisol said. “What happened out there anyway?”
“Forget it. Let’s get out of here.”
They skipped the post-game party and immediately left for New York. Adam would spend the night with his mother and Rowan before he left for California and MSRI the next day.
On the train, going through New Jersey, Adam was still frustrated enough about the game to tell Marisol what was really on his mind.
“You know, if I’m honest with myself, nothing I’m doing in college is taking me where I want to go.”
“You mean basketball?”
“I mean everything.”
“Your mom would kill you if you dropped out.”
“I know. Plus, I feel obliged to play with Ben until he graduates.”
“What is important to you?”
“Not much, except I can’t get Somalia out of my mind. Wait, I’ll show you.” After Ben’s question about Élodie, Adam had taken out the photos of her, and it was this edited stack that he handed to Marisol.
She sorted through them in silence, then handed them back, her face a mirror image of what she’d seen. He’d already noticed that she was looking drawn and thin, and now, the stricken look on her face reminded him, for just an instant, of the Somali girl he’d given his jacket to.
“How’s your dancing going?”
“What? Dance? It’s fine; it’s hard. But Jesus, Adam. These photos…”
“Are you glad you went?”
“In the sense that not knowing about things like this is even worse than knowing.”
“You should show them to everyone. When I feel something I want everyone to feel it too.”
“It’s easier to get an audience for dance than for…”
“…death?” Marisol finished his thought, putting it more starkly than he would have. “Come to think of it, many ballets end in death,” she said. “Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake, Giselle. Death and show business go hand in hand. Maybe your photos belong in a show.”
“That’s something I could get passionate about.”
“You looked plenty passionate out there tonight.”
“That wasn’t passion, I was just pissed.”
“Come in,” Rowan said, grasping Adam’s hand firmly. “Easter should be here in a couple of hours. I’ll shut down my laptop.”
“Marisol told me you’re working on a history of nuclear arms treaties,” Adam said to break the ice. It was the first time he’d visited Rowan’s apartment without Easter being there, and for a moment, he felt awkward being alone with his “new” father.
“I finished that; it’s being vetted by the State Department. How was basketball camp?”
“Less fun this year.” Adam knew that it was not Rowan’s style to spend much time on small talk, but he wasn’t sure which of two competing desires was stronger—to hear Rowan’s views, or avoid having yet another well-meaning advice-giver in his life.
“Letting go of one thing makes room for another,” Rowan said. Adam could feel a lesson coming; stuck, he settled back in the sofa and tried to look interested.
“What’s important to me has changed over the years,” Rowan began. “Sometimes I hardly recognize the former me.”
“How have you changed?” Adam asked to be polite.
“You really want to know?”
“I started out in math, like you, then switched to physics. It was the fifties, and physics was glamorous because of the bomb. But in the sixties my attention shifted to social issues. That’s what brought your mother and me together. After I left Jefferson I went through a period of not knowing what to do. I read, I traveled, and gradually a new interest grew inside me that eventually displaced the others.”
“It’s a bit embarrassing.”
“Embarrassing?” Adam’s ears perked up.
“In the sense that it can sound naïve.”
“What was it?” Adam asked, no longer feigning interest.
“On a trip to the Soviet Union I’d been struck by how different the Russians seemed when we talked politics—but how similar they seemed when we talked about anything else. A question took shape, something like, ‘Are the Russians Martians, or are they just like us?’ It sounds dumb now, but at the height of the cold war that question consumed me. To my surprise, it took over my life, and for several years, gave it direction.”
“How’d you respond to it?”
“I booked passage on the Trans-Siberian Railway, immersed myself in things Russian, and trained myself in strategic arms control. Within a few years, I was offered a job in Moscow with the State Department. That’s when Marisol studied at the Moscow Ballet Academy and I reconnected with your mother.”
“That part I know. So the Russians, they’re not Martians?”
“Once they were free to speak their minds it became obvious that they were just like us. In a police state, people get bent out of shape. If you judge them by their external behavior, from what they say, they seem like Martians—even to each other.”
“I wish I had a passion like yours.” Adam was beginning to sound like a broken record to himself.
“How about some supper? A man never feels at a loss for purpose while he’s eating.”
Rowan pulled some leftover macaroni and cheese from the fridge and put it in the microwave. Getting out two bowls, he said, “As for finding a question of your own, one day you’ll notice that something is turning over in your mind. At first you may try to ignore it, but it’ll keep coming up. When you stop pushing it away, when you turn to embrace it, well, that’s your question. If you’re not too proud—because it may sound naïve, like mine did—it will generate a quest. I resisted my question for years. Once I took it to heart and began looking for an answer, it filled my life.”