The following is the sixth of a series of excerpts from The Rowan Tree: A Novel by Robert W. Fuller. The complete novel is available for Kindle and for other ebook formats. A print edition can also be ordered from Amazon. The author welcomes your comments.
In February, when Dr. Noel Ford, one of Jefferson’s more illustrious graduates, visited the campus, Rowan took the opportunity to reach out to the leading faculty opponent of reform. He arranged a tour of the new Science Center for Ford, now a top official in NASA and a potential Jefferson trustee, and invited Professor Bentley to accompany them. Bentley had accepted with such relish it had made him uneasy, and he saw his mistake the moment he heard Bentley characterizing the new admissions strategy to Dr. Ford as “quotas in disguise.”
Rowan was about to jump into the argument when they joined a biology lab in progress. Across the room he saw Easter peering through a microscope, a male student standing alongside her with his hand on her shoulder. Feeling an involuntary wave of jealousy, he turned away, and the muffled sounds of Bentley importuning their distinguished guest brought him back to reality.
Once again, Rowan wondered what Sara could ever have seen in this pompous defender of the status quo. He stepped toward Dr. Ford and addressed him without so much as a glance at Bentley.
“Dr. Ford, you came to Jefferson on a full scholarship. The reforms we’re considering are designed to open Jefferson to people, independent of their means—people like you were then.”
“Surely, Dr. Bentley,” Ford said, “the faculty shares the president’s concern about the high cost of a Jefferson education.”
“Of course,” Bentley agreed, “but most of the cost increases arise from economic factors beyond our control. The faculty shares my conviction that we should find solutions by enlarging the College’s endowment. Fundraising is the primary responsibility of the president, not policy reform, which is the prerogative of the faculty.”
Bentley looked at Rowan. So did Ford.
“I learned at Columbia that the best way to raise funds is to raise a standard. When funders see that we stand for something worthy— like making college more accessible to deserving students—money will follow.”
“Sounds a lot like our situation at NASA,” Ford said. “Unless we make Americans proud, Congress cuts our budget. But tell me, Dr. Ellway, what kind of reforms could reduce costs without also eroding quality?”
“Exactly!” Bentley chimed in. “Preserving quality—that’s my point.”
“The commission is exploring more productive uses of College resources. For starters, the campus is idle for one-third of the year. I’ll put our detailed proposals in the mail to you, Dr. Ford. We’d welcome your critique.”
Turning to Bentley, Rowan explained that their guest had an appointment with one of his former math professors. When he and Bentley were alone, he said, “I was surprised that you chose to air our disagreements. His appointment to the board would strengthen the College.”
“There’s more at stake than an appointment to the board. I’ve given my life to Jefferson. I don’t intend to stand by while you destroy it.”
“You have every right to your views, but why are you trying to alienate Ford?”
“Because I don’t want anyone on the board who supports the changes you’re proposing.”
“You mean who supports me.”
“You don’t care about the college,” Bentley said, moving off. “The faculty sees you as a Boy Wonder who’s using Jefferson as a steppingstone to something bigger.”
In March, under pressure from a group of alumni to establish an exchange program with Hebrew University, Rowan agreed to lead a delegation to Jerusalem during Easter week. Aware of Sara’s Jewish heritage, the alumni had made a point of inviting her, all expenses paid, but in the end, and despite her parents’ and Rowan’s urgings, she felt she had to decline on the grounds that her absence from the lab would hurt her prospects.
On the day of the trip, Rowan got to his office well before the College car arrived to take him to the airport. There was a letter in his in-basket from Noel Ford, declining appointment to Jefferson’s Board. Damn, Rowan swore to his empty office, convinced that Bentley had scared him off.
“What’s the matter?” Looking up, he saw Easter peering through his open doorway. He put all thoughts of Bentley, Ford, and Jefferson College on hold.
“I came to see you off, and I brought you something.” She handed him a small box wrapped in maroon velvet cloth and tied with silver ribbon. “Open it on the plane.”
Rowan felt uncomfortable about receiving a gift from Easter, and at a loss for what to say, asked, “May I open it now?”
“Only if you promise not to say a word.”
“Okay.” He unwrapped the box.
In it there was a miniature glass replica of an Easter lily. “So you won’t forget me,” Easter offered, looking up at him. A surge of affection made him reach for her hands and pull her toward him. Wrapping his arms around her, he held her tightly, and it took every last bit of his will not to kiss her. Taking a step back, he picked up his suitcase with his free hand and, cradling the lily in the other, left the office without saying a word.
Although he was assigned a middle seat, he was relieved that it was between strangers, so he wouldn’t have to chat with anyone in the delegation. Thinking about Easter, wondering what would’ve happened if he’d kissed her, he was glad to be at thirty thousand feet, safely away from her. That close call, his arguments with Sara, and the repetitiousness of his job, made him wish he could just keep on flying around the world forever.
After the group checked in to the American Colony Hotel, he threw himself into the work and joined his colleagues on tours to Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religious sites.
By the time Rowan returned to Jefferson he’d convinced himself that he could maintain a proper distance from Easter. They would be friends, but nothing more. If Sara couldn’t or wouldn’t come out for weekends, he’d go to New York.
He was unpacking from his trip when the phone rang. He immediately recognized Easter’s voice.
“My father’s had a heart attack. I’m packing to go home.”
“Yes. There’s one in an hour.”
The train to Chicago stopped in a city not far from Jefferson. “I’ll take you to the station. I’ll pull into the parking lot behind Truth House in five minutes.”
Easter came out as he drove up. She threw her bag in the back seat and they sped off.
“My mother phoned to tell me that a janitor had found my father on the floor in his office. He’s still unconscious. The doctors aren’t saying anything.”
“Your being there will help him recover.”
“You think you know your parents, but when something like this happens, you realize you don’t. If he were to die, all I’d have are some photos and a few stories. My children would never know him.”
Rowan reached across and put his hand on her shoulder. She cupped it with hers, and stared out the window.
At the station he waited while she bought a ticket, then walked her to the westbound platform.
“I’ll stay as long as I have to. I can work on my thesis at home.”
The train pulled into the station and a conductor stepped off to board the waiting passengers. Easter lingered until the last minute. As she turned to go, Rowan embraced her. She clung to him, and he buried his chin in her hair.
The whistle blew. She mounted the steps, and the conductor slammed the door behind her. Standing at the top of the steps, Easter looked down at Rowan. He gestured to her to lower the window. She leaned out, and he craned his neck upward. Just as the train lurched into motion, he took her face in his hands and kissed her on the lips. He watched her as it gathered speed and carried her away.
On his way home, he almost rear-ended a car at a stop sign. When he walked in the house, the phone was ringing.
“Hi. I hope you weren’t asleep.”
“Hi, Sara. What’s up?”
“I’m in San Francisco, remember? At the American Chemical Society conference. I tried you earlier, but you were out. I want to hear about Israel while it’s still fresh in your mind. Where were you anyway? There was no answer in your office either.”
“I must have been in the shower.”
“How was your trip?”
“Great, we’re going to be exchanging a dozen students with Hebrew University.” Rowan pulled at a tangled coil in the phone cord while he waited for her to continue.
“Rowan, I miss you. I’m starting to worry.”
“About us, about our marriage.”
Rowan’s heart sped up. A wave of guilt overcame him. He mumbled, “What brings this on?”
“I feel bad that I missed the Israel trip. It’s just, oh, I don’t know. We’re together so little. And when we are, we can’t escape our jobs. We need a real vacation. Alaska, perhaps. You’ve always wanted to go there. I could get away right after the year-end departmental party.”
“When is that?”
“The day after graduation.”
“That sounds good. Then, without thinking, he added, “Sara, I don’t know how long I can carry on like this. On my own, I mean.”
He could almost hear Sara revving up, and braced himself for her response. “Are you blaming me for not living there?”
“No, I don’t blame you.”
“I’m the one who’s suggesting a vacation.”
Why had he said anything? Before he could reply, she went on.
“Remember, it was you who left New York, not me. We both had perfectly good jobs here.”
“I’m sorry, Sara. I don’t want to argue. I never expected you to give up your career for mine. It gets lonely here, that’s all.”
After they had hung up, Rowan remembered that Sara was giving a paper at the conference. For years, he’d followed every step in her career; now, he’d even forgotten to ask her about her presentation.
On graduation day, sunlight flooded the solarium off Rowan’s bedroom. Still in bed, he spent a few minutes gazing out the window at the elms overhanging the house. Soon he would get up, shower, and put on the suit that Sara had insisted he buy the year before. Same suit, different man. In a few days he’d be in New York, and they’d fly to Juneau for a cruise along the Alaskan coast that Sara had booked.
From Chicago, Easter had reported that her father was slowly regaining his strength. Always the conscientious student, she had arranged with her professors to carry on with her studies at home so she could continue to visit him daily.
After collectively pronouncing them “Bachelors of Arts with all the rights and privileges thereunto appertaining,” the president traditionally presented each senior with a diploma. This time, the procession took more than an hour, and by the time it was halfway through, Rowan was on automatic. When one student celebrated his degree with a back-flip off the stage, Rowan took a moment to scan the cheering audience. There was Easter, looking regal and self-possessed. She wore a red sundress with thin straps tied in bows over her bare shoulders. Smiling, she raised four fingers and gestured toward the administration building.
After the last student had clowned his way across the platform and Rowan had greeted hundreds of parents at the reception, he slipped away to meet her.
She was waiting for him in the lobby outside his office. With a quick glance around, they rushed into each others’ arms. He encircled her waist and lifted her off her feet, pressing her body against his. This time he kissed her long and hard and full on the lips.
She had the presence of mind to pull him into his office and lock the door. Arms still encircling her tight, he lifted her onto the edge of his desk so she sat facing him. Her eyes locked on his, she reached up to the bow on her left shoulder and gave it a tug, not to untie it, but to suggest he do so. She was presenting herself to him—as a gift to be unwrapped—and her desire heightened his own.
He moved between her knees and released the bow, then reached for the other and gave it a gentle tug. The dress fell from her shoulders to reveal full, bare breasts, and in the next moment he was covering them with kisses. His hands moved up her long thighs and found that she wore nothing under her dress. He could barely breathe as she deftly unbuttoned his shirt. Then he stood back for the instant it took him to shed his pants. She wrapped her legs tightly around his waist as he slipped into her.
After a year of sexual tension, consummation was swift and unrestrained. As they untangled their bodies they laughed in relief, now that the ambiguity they’d lived with was over.
“I wasn’t prepared for this,” he said. “I couldn’t stop myself.”
“Don’t worry, I took precautions,” Easter said, reading his mind.
Then she said, “You’re the first man who ever took the trouble to get to know me. Thank you for…for finding me.”
Later, with darkness covering their exit, they crept out and drove back to the train station. In the car they talked about the graduation ceremony and her father’s condition, but not about what had happened between them.
Rowan drove home feeling a mixture of elation and dread. They’d been lucky this time. He promised himself there wouldn’t be another.
To be continued…