The following is the ninth 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.
With students gone and many faculty away for the summer, Rowan tried to imagine life beyond Jefferson. After spending the day in his office—dressed in jeans unless he had a meeting with a donor or trustee—he’d return to the President’s House and watch the nightly news while he ate the dinner Margaret always left warming in the oven.
TV coverage of the war in Vietnam made him recall Tolstoy’s Pierre wandering through the battlefield at Borodino during the Napoleonic war. He imagined that actually seeing the Vietnam war would change him, as it had Tolstoy’s protagonist. He wanted to experience what Pierre had. Maybe he could find a way to go there the following summer, he thought.
Easter’s father had bought her a dark-green secondhand Citroën for the trip between her family home in Chicago and Jefferson College. She visited Jefferson every other week.
She would call Rowan before she left the house but, at Rowan’s insistence, they would rendezvous at little motels a safe distance from campus.
The rest of the time, they went about their work. Easter made up the biology labs she’d missed in the spring semester, and consulted with Professor Cowper about her honors thesis. From nine to five, Rowan struggled to stay ahead of the endless demands of his office. When he could no longer stand being cooped up he’d suggest a walk to his next visitor, and hold their meeting while they strolled across the campus.
Since he was in high school, friends had sought Rowan out for personal advice and help with their problems. The office he now held seemed to only increase these requests. A psychology professor asked him to find a job for his troubled son; Margaret lingered one evening while he consumed the meal she’d prepared and asked his advice about her teenage daughter, who’d dropped out of high school. The variety of personal problems that were brought to him was dizzying. Dealing with them was sometimes wearing, but it was also a welcome respite from the sameness of the political issues that claimed most of his time.
He traced his role as counselor to a change that had come over him at thirteen. He still remembered exactly where he was standing when he realized that you could just go on asking why? forever. At first, the absence of absolute moral answers made him feel unmoored and alone. But as his new perspective took hold, it loosened the grip old certainties had had on him, and he became curiously nonjudgmental about others’ predicaments.
Detachment failed him, however, when he tried to see himself as he saw others. He had misgivings about his love affair with Easter, yet now, strangely, she was the one thing in his life that made him feel alive. Somewhere he’d heard the soul likened to a pilot light on a gas stove. This job was depriving his soul of oxygen, slowly dowsing the flame; losing Easter would snuff it altogether. Jefferson College owned his public self; he wouldn’t let it take possession of his private one as well. His relationship with Easter was all that saved him from becoming a “smiling public man.”
Through the grapevine he’d heard that quite a few students were having affairs with faculty members, but a president having an affair with a student?—that was, as Sara said, unthinkable. If anyone had even so much as suspected it, a little detective work could easily have exposed the truth. But the crazy audacity of it was probably what precluded such suspicion. At worst, their relationship might be interpreted as a harmless flirtation.
Their secret was safe with Sara. Rowan knew she felt too keenly that their fates were linked to give him away.
When Easter phoned one evening to ask if she could stop by the house, Rowan hesitated, unwilling to take the risk of her being seen there.
Noting his pause, she added, “To drop something off. I’ll just hand it to you from the car and be on my way.”
“Maybe I’m getting paranoid. What is it, anyway?”
“You’ll see. I’m due at Professor Cowper’s shortly, so it’ll be quick.”
To preempt her honk Rowan loitered in the front yard until she drove up. He went around the Citroën to the driver’s side and, without a word, she presented him with a pie.
“Sweet potato. I’ve seen references to it in slave stories, and decided to try my hand. Pie equals love, remember?”
“If you make me pies, I’ll be your slave.”
After she’d driven off, as Rowan reached the front porch, an unfamiliar car pulled into the driveway. To his amazement, out stepped Sara.
“Hi there,” she called to a gaping Rowan.
“What are you doing here?” he stammered, trying to hide the pie.
“We’ll talk in the house,” she said, slamming the car door.
Inside, she began, “Was that your girlfriend? How sweet of her to bring dessert.” Rowan, who reacted viscerally to sarcasm, strode to the kitchen and stuck the pie in the back of the fridge.
“Would you like a drink?” he asked.
“Some wine, if that’s all right with you.”
Rowan pulled a bottle of wine from the rack, uncorked it, and poured them each a half-glass.
“You didn’t tell me she’s black.”
“What if she is?”
“It surprised me, that’s all. Men in midlife crisis usually fall for blonde cheerleaders.”
“I don’t think this is a midlife crisis.”
“What is it then?”
“A partnership. We share the same goals. We work together. We became close.”
“Is this where you have your trysts?” Sara asked, pointing upward. “In our bedroom?”
“No,” Rowan said firmly. Hoping to mollify her, he added, “Never.”
“How chivalrous! Listen, Rowan, I’ve come to settle this. Every paper in the country will cover this story when it comes out, and believe me, it will come out. Don’t you see the danger—to Jefferson, to yourself, to me?”
“What exactly do you want?”
“How long has this been going on?”
“You must be out of your mind.”
“No one knows except you, and no one else is ever going to find out.”
“Doesn’t the College have rules against exploiting students?”
“She’s a consenting adult.”
“She’s just a college girl. I’ll bet she’s pleased with herself, bedding the president.”
“You can’t have it both ways. Victims don’t gloat.”
Losing her composure, Sara yelled, “You’ve got to give her up…while you can.”
Rowan knew this was going nowhere and, looking for a way out, asked her if she planned to stay the night.
“Absolutely not. I’m sure she’s been in every bed. I came to let you know I’m filing for divorce.”
Sara had been pacing around the room, but now she sat down and faced him. “I’m thirty-seven. I want a child, and here you are chasing a babe. It’s disgusting.”
Rowan put his hand on her shoulder. He hated failing her and hated himself for letting it happen. She pushed his hand away and got up. “Don’t touch me,” she shouted, and stormed out the front door. He watched helplessly as her car sped away. She had left just in time to catch the last plane to New York. It occurred to him that no matter how upset Sara was, she never lost track of time.
The next time they met, Rowan asked Easter what she thought people would say if their relationship were known.
“I’m sure a lot of girls would be jealous,” Easter said. “I’ve heard them talk. They see your wife’s absence as giving them a chance.”
“You know, don’t you, that a lot of the men around here have imagined making love to you. If they found out about us they’d feel jealous of me for having done what they’d like to do, and at the same time guilty about their desires. They’d try to resolve this conflict by making an example of me.”
When Easter just sighed, Rowan went on, “People imagine all sorts of connections, but only rarely do they find a way to each other. Now that we have, it seems inevitable—but only to us. To everyone else it would seem unnatural and immoral. A year ago, it seemed impossible to me.”
To be continued…