The following is the seventh 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.
The day after graduation, Rowan flew to New York. As his cab splashed through a puddle on the Upper West Side, he recalled a windy, rainy afternoon, early in their relationship, when Sara had shared her umbrella with him on their way to a local pub. The memory made him sad.
Nostalgia fed his hope that somehow he could put things right.
“Hi,” Sara called to him from the bathroom when he came through the door. She sashayed into the living room and struck a pose. For a moment Rowan was speechless.
“Your ponytail—it’s gone.” Then he noticed what she was wearing. “How come you’re all dressed up?”
In a black velvet Chanel suit, new to him, she looked cut out for success, at once alluring and imposing.
“I told you, remember? The department party. There’s just time for you to change.”
“Oh, no, Sara, I’m exhausted. That’s the last thing I want to do.”
“You can’t back out now. Everyone’s expecting you. Besides, I want to show you off.”
“To the same guys who hated me on TV?”
“I’m sure they won’t mention it. If anyone does, you can change the subject.”
“It’s just that I was hoping to get a break from academic politics,” he said wearily.
“Listen, tomorrow we’ll be on a plane to Alaska and, once we’re aboard ship, we’ll have nothing to do but rest.”
“Okay. I’ll put on my smiling face.”
The chairman of Sara’s department greeted them at the door and showed them into his spacious Greenwich Village apartment. The punctuality of chemists, which Rowan traced to the exacting nature of their work, meant the party was in full swing a mere ten minutes after the appointed hour of eight. Handing their coats to an aproned maid, the chairman himself saw to their drinks. Then he led them to a small group of men and introduced Rowan as “The President of Jefferson College and our Sara’s husband.”
Rowan knew this scene by heart: the Harris tweed jackets with leather elbow patches, the “you-can’t-touch-me” bravado that came with tenure, a defensive undercurrent in those who hadn’t measured up, and, no mistaking it, the barely-concealed hostility toward administrators like himself.
After a few minutes of pleasantries, a fortyish, goateed professor brought up Rowan’s TV appearance. Sara looked at Rowan over the rim of her wineglass with an apologetic smile and a silent plea not to rise to the bait. The professor wanted to know if Jefferson had found it possible to recruit more women and black faculty without lowering standards. Rowan framed his response in non-confrontational language, hoping he’d soon be able to retreat to the company of the chemists’ wives and not have to talk shop.
“Recruiting first-rate minority faculty isn’t easy. There still aren’t many black students in the graduate schools, but that problem will ease with time. We anticipate African Americans making up about 10 percent of our undergraduate body within three years.”
Who could possibly object to that? Rowan thought, accepting an hors d’oeuvre from a server.
“Of course we too have considered affirmative action,” another professor said. “It sounds good at first, but isn’t it really just reverse discrimination—against whites and Asians?”
Rowan couldn’t ignore that. “What we’re trying to do at Jefferson is compensate for a century of de facto discrimination that has denied admission to African Americans.”
“How long is that going to take?”
“A generation or so,” Rowan replied. Noting a faint smear of cocktail sauce on his inquisitor’s chin, he used his napkin to remove any possible traces from his own.
“Frankly, I don’t find your argument convincing. Discrimination against one race cannot be ended by discriminating against another. We’d welcome more blacks, but we want them to get here as we all did—strictly on merit.”
“That’s our long-range goal too” Rowan continued, “but I don’t see any blacks in this room, and Sara is the only woman in your department, so ‘strictly-on-merit’ doesn’t seem to be working.”
“Isn’t the solution to improve secondary and primary education?” another professor proposed.
“That’s part of the solution, for sure, but we’ve also got to address the present emergency. If we continue to shut blacks out of the professions, this country is going to come apart.”
A thirty-something man blurted out, “I’d feel better if our department were more proactive.” Rowan wished there were more like him at Jefferson. But the young man’s colleagues greeted his show of support for Rowan with pained silence. Rowan expected the department chairman, who had yet to say a word, to speak for them all, but one of his lieutenants moved in to quash any further defection.
“Frankly, my concern with compensatory programs is the students themselves. Whenever you use people as guinea pigs, you run the risk of doing more harm than good.”
The young man who had dared to challenge his seniors looked despairingly to Rowan for help.
“We intend to see that the experiment succeeds,” Rowan said. “An essential part of our strategy is remedial work, tutoring, counseling—whatever it takes to make up for inadequate preparation. Frankly,” Rowan locked eyes with the man who had just “franklied” him—“fear of doing more harm than good is usually just an excuse for standing pat.”
“Oh, really,” said a short professor with tortoise-shell glasses, his voice oozing disdain. “We think you’re downplaying the danger of grade inflation. Won’t the pressure to lower standards be irresistible?”
Rowan felt himself losing patience.
“Tell me,” he addressed the short professor, “don’t you think women and blacks deserve role models, too? Like the ones we men have always had?” With a sweep of his arm, he drew a circle around the group of men.
“The solitary woman professor at MIT was an inspiration to me,” Sara volunteered. “I’ll never forget…”
“Yes, of course,” the professor cut in, “but doubtless she had earned her rank, as have you, Sara. Role models can serve no purpose if they’re tainted by suspicions of favoritism.”
In contrast to Rowan’s burgeoning intensity, the professor’s tone was perfectly modulated as he wrapped up his case. “Let me assure you, Dr. Ellway, our department has given this a great deal of thought. Some of us fought hard to get rid of Jewish quotas in the postwar years. I’d be less than honest if I didn’t tell you that I find your arguments for affirmative action specious at best and disingenuous at worst.”
Rowan, who stood a head taller than the professor who had just spoken, looked down at him, meeting the challenge. “You seem to be saying that I’m either an idiot or a hypocrite. Would you care to rephrase your remark?”
He wanted to hammer this smug little man through the floor and into the apartment below, but instead, he simply leaned slightly toward him. As a buzz rose from the group, a distraught Sara grabbed Rowan and, mumbling apologies over her shoulder, dragged him toward the adjacent room. He’d had enough, and let himself be led away.
“How could you?” she hissed when they were alone. “I’ll never live this down. Never.”
Staring at her now, Rowan saw not the elegant self-assured woman he’d arrived with, but a harpy. Her eyes looked smaller and closer together, her nose sharper.
“There’s more at stake here than image. That guy was insulting and wrong, and you know it.”
“Do I? Do I really? You’re so busy sounding off, you don’t know what I think anymore.”
“What do you think? I’d like to know.”
“We’ll discuss it at home.”
“That’s where I’m going now. Are you coming?”
“I’ve got to try to patch things up. We’ll talk in the morning.”
“I’ll be up.” He left without a word to anyone except the maid.
Once away from the party, walking alone through near-empty streets, he had the sense that he and Sara were on separate halves of an ice floe that had split in two, and were ineluctably drifting apart. All his life he’d had a vague sense of being an outsider. Now he felt like one in his own marriage.
Around midnight, Rowan heard Sara’s key in the lock. He looked up from the TV as she came into the room. She didn’t sit down with him on the sofa, but took her stand at the window.
“How’d it go?” Rowan asked.
“They’re still arguing. Are you pleased?”
“If it makes them think, yes.”
“What’s come over you, Rowan?”
“My views haven’t changed.”
“But you have. You’re a different person. You were always impatient, but now you’re belligerent, even reckless.”
“I thought I was rather patient with them, actually, until your colleague insulted me. And besides, what’s wrong with a little passion when it comes to justice?”
“It divides people, that’s what. You just made things worse.”
“Look, Sara, I come here to get away from academic politics, and you make me spend my first night home with those Neanderthals.”
“Those ‘Neanderthals’ are my colleagues. I needed your support and you embarrassed me.”
“You don’t support me either, not where it matters. You haven’t spent a weekend at Jefferson all semester.”
“Don’t give me that.” Sara threw her keys down on the table, turned her back on him, and went to the kitchen. Rowan got up and followed her.
“You’ve always known how important my career is to me,” Sara said as he slumped on a chair at the kitchen table. “And there’s no time for us when I go to Jefferson anyway. No, the question is why you’re never here. Maybe you think I’m a Neanderthal too.”
When Rowan didn’t speak up immediately, she added, “Well, I guess you do. Really, Rowan, why don’t you come home more often?” She crossed her arms and took a step back. “Have you got a chick on the side? Is that it?”
Rowan looked up. His face told her what he could not.
“Oh, my God,” she said, backing up until she was against the refrigerator. She could read him and he knew it.
“No, wait, Sara. Please come sit down.”
Sara didn’t budge. “Tell me. Are you having an affair?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I don’t know how to say this.”
“You’re right, Sara, I am a different person.”
“Answer my question.”
“Okay. I’ve formed an attachment.”
“An attachment? You mean to a woman?”
“Who is she?”
“She’s a student. We’ve been working together for almost a year. It started as a friendship, and gradually it has become something more.”
“What do you mean ‘something more’? You can’t be sleeping with a student. That’s unthinkable!”
“Yes, well, I suppose, but I don’t think of her as a student.”
“So you have slept with her?”
This was the question Rowan had dreaded. Without looking up, he said, “Once.”
“Oh, no, you bastard. I thought I could trust you.”
“I’m sorry, Sara.” Rowan stood as if to go to her.
“Have you lost your reason? Don’t you know that even the appearance of involvement with a student would get you fired?”
“You don’t know anything.” For an instant, Rowan imagined that he saw hurt on Sara’s face, that she might break down. If she had, he might have found a way to her. But tears were not for Sara. She’d always maintained that she hadn’t cried since she was seventeen, when she learned she didn’t have the knees for dance.
Then she jolted him with a question he didn’t anticipate: “Are you in love with her?”
“I love you. No one will ever know about this.”
“Bullshit. You’re an open book.”
“We’re in a lot of the same meetings. People are accustomed to seeing us together.”
“What’s her name?”
“That’s an odd name. Easter what? Egg?”
She rolled her eyes and sat down on the other side of the table. She stared at him.
“You’re losing it, Rowan, losing it completely. You’re not the man I married.”
“I’ve been trying to figure out what’s happening to me, to us. All I can think of is that, well, you and I, we have no private life together…to balance the public lives we live apart. There are so many times at Jefferson when I feel I’m just playing a role, impersonating myself.”
“Gee, Rowan, excuse me if I don’t feel for you. You have to end it, that’s all. I won’t live with this. Don’t be here in the morning.” Turning her back on him, she walked down the hallway to their bedroom.
“I’m so sorry, Sara,” he called after her as she slammed the door. He heard the lock click. His suitcase was still in the front hall where he’d dropped it that afternoon. He picked it up and headed out to find a room for the night.
He waited until nine the next morning before he called Sara. Either she was not answering or she was out. Then he thought of trying her at her lab. She answered on the first ring.
“Can we talk?”
“Not until you’ve told ‘Miss Egg’ that it’s over,” she said sarcastically.
Rowan took the first flight back to Jefferson.
For three days he didn’t let Easter know that he’d come back early, intending to end the affair.
If it were only her exotic beauty, he knew he could easily have given her up. But he loved Easter for more than her swan’s neck, her full lips, her sensuality. She took him to places in himself he couldn’t get to alone. Together, they were working something out—and yes, it had something to do with race, but it was more than that. He felt real with Easter.
Their relationship, which he knew others would see in terms of rank, was for him beyond rank. Easter was his closest ally in the battle of his life. She was no “chick on the side.”
Late in the evening of his third day back he phoned Sara.
“Would you agree to a ‘leave of absence’?” he asked.
“Does that mean you’re going to keep seeing her?” Sara said.
“I don’t know.”
“Well, unless you give her up, it’s over for us. Ruin your life if you want to, Rowan, but I can’t let you take me down with you.”
Rowan could think of nothing more to say. Was this how the conversation that had defined their marriage would end?
Without students, the campus was quiet. The leisurely atmosphere that had settled over the College after graduation gave Rowan and Steve Hobson plenty of time for racquetball.
During a water break, Steve caught Rowan off guard.
“I think that girl likes you.”
“You know who, Easter Blue. I see you together a lot.”
“What makes you think she likes me?”
“The way she looks at you.”
Rowan wiped his face on his sleeve and took a swig of water, but said nothing. Finally, he gave Steve a helpless shrug and changed the subject. “Are we still on for Saturday?”
Though he wasn’t willing to discuss his feelings for Easter, Rowan did confide in Steve about his growing distaste for administration.
“I’m not cut out for it,” he said as they left the gym. “I hate repeating myself.”
“You’re just what Jefferson needs right now. Without your pushing them, the faculty would just dither. But, if I may give a word of advice, it wouldn’t hurt to do a bit more schmoozing. The faculty has got to feel that you respect them.”
“All I know is that the minute this job is done, I’m going to drop out of sight.”
Steve, who taught modern poetry, said, “You remind me of Emily Dickinson’s ‘Somebody-Nobody’ poem. Do you know it?”
“It goes like this:
How dreary to be somebody!
How public like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!”
Rowan thought for a while, then said, “Yes, public life makes me feel like a frog…croaking the same refrain over and over.”
“I don’t remember the first verse exactly, but it’s about being a ‘nobody’,” Steve said. “Look it up.”
That night Rowan searched his anthologies until he found it. As he read Dickinson’s lines, he felt a kinship with this solitary, prescient woman.
I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us—don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.
How odd that, at the moment, he was a somebody to others and a nobody to himself.
To be continued…