I have a snapshot Frank took at one of these gatherings; the picture shows a group of eight students – Alan, Nicholas, Mikail, and others whose names I’ve forgotten. They’re looking at David, who’s standing beside his desk with his right foot resting on some object out of the picture, a wastepaper basket, perhaps. His sleeves are rolled up and his hands are raised and gesturing; he is explaining something, as I can tell from the parted lips and the crease in his forehead. I’m in the photograph too, curled up in the leather chair with my skirt folded over my legs. I’m looking at David with what Frank insisted was a worshipful expression; he was probably right
I often worried those late-night seminars were too exhausting for David after a day at the university which began at seven in the morning and included a full round of lectures, laboratory sessions and meetings. One evening, when the graduate students had left, David sat down in the leather chair I’d just vacated, removed his shoes, and rested his head against the cushion, with his eyes closed. I stopped collecting coffee cups and went to sit on the arm of the chair; I took David’s hand and laced my fingers through his.
“This is completely inappropriate,” he said.
“What, holding hands?”
“No, you and me; it’s every professor’s worst nightmare, getting involved with a student.”
“I’m not your student. I’m not even in your department.”
“Thank God for small favors. You know that’s not what I mean.”
“Because you’re married …”
“… and because I’m so much older than you. Twenty-eight years, an eternity.”
“Tell that to a paleontologist.” David smiled and squeezed my hand “Besides, Professor Rosenau, I fail to understand how you’re ‘involved’ with me. I can’t imagine a more chaste relationship than ours.”
David sighed and looked at me. “My dear Miss Collins, it’s not what we do that’s immoral; it’s what I fantasize doing. You’re nineteen years old, still a minor. You realize what that makes me? ”
“Do you care about the law, what people will think?”
“No, but I care about you. Twenty years from now are you going to be lying on some psychiatrist’s couch, wracked with guilt, telling him how an old lecher took advantage of you and ruined your life?” He closed his eyes again and shook his head. “Honestly, Kate, I don’t know what to do.”
I cradled David’s head against me, wanting so much to kiss him, but David had traced the boundary clearly and I hesitated to be the first trespasser.
It must have been in early December when I went to his office one evening and found him at his desk writing, and I saw at once something was wrong, for his mouth had the tight, clamped expression it assumed when he was disturbed or angry.
“I had some bad news from Argentina today,” he said, without looking up. “Mateo is dead.” I had to stop and think for a moment before remembering that Mateo was a boarding school friend, the boy who had backpacked with him around South America after David’s graduation from high school.
“His sister sent me this letter.” David opened a drawer and handed me an airmail envelope postmarked five days earlier from Buenos Aires; the message said simply that Mateo was killed instantly in an automobile accident and they’d buried him the following day.
I murmured whatever words of comfort I could think of, knowing they were inadequate. “I’ll ask the others not to drop by this evening,” I said, going to the door.
“Frank knows. He’ll tell them”. David looked down at his desk. “Mateo had a phobia about being buried. He didn’t want to be put in a cemetery ‘with all those dead people.’ When we were boys, Mateo made me promise if he died first I’d make sure he was cremated and his ashes scattered in the mountains. Now it’s too late.” David swallowed. “I’m writing to his family.”
He got up, took the tea kettle to the men’s room for water, and set it on the hot plate. When the kettle whistled, he poured the water over a tea bag and handed me the cup.
“You would have liked Mateo. He had more life in him than anyone I’ve ever met – the last person in the world to die young. He had an élan vital too strong for death – or so I thought.”
David had told me a little about his friend, how Mateo bribed a guard to let the boys into the Teatro Colón for a performance of La bohème, how he smeared Limburger cheese on a radiator in the classroom of a detested teacher, how his friend had rigged a spinning gyroscope in a cardboard box and given it to one of the servants to carry to Mateo’s room at boarding school and how, when the gyroscope refused to negotiate a turn in the hallway, the servant dropped it and ran out of the building screaming the box was bewitched.
“Didn’t you once tell me he was a writer?”
“A drama critic, actually, though he also wrote essays for literary magazines. Shortly before his death he started working on a novel. Mateo was so gifted …he could do virtually anything he set his mind to. When we were boys he was always getting into trouble at school – nothing bad, he was just high-spirited, an incurable prankster, but underneath the exuberant exterior he was a sensitive and tender person.” David sighed. “I loved him greatly, like a brother, even more than my brother.”
“Was he married?”
“No. He was living with an Argentine painter. I never met her.”
He reached in the drawer again, pulled out a photograph and handed it to me. “Mateo’s sister sent this to me, along with the letter; the picture was taken right after we graduated from high school. It’s a good likeness.”
The photograph showed two boys dressed for hiking in the mountains, complete with leather pants and rucksacks. I recognized the tall, dark boy with the brooding expression as David. He was little different from the David I knew, somewhat thinner, perhaps, but with the same cool, penetrating gaze. David’s friend was perched beside him on a large rock, sitting with his arms clasped around his knees. Mateo was Shakespeare’s Puck come to life, a boy with an impish, almost naughty smile, twinkling eyes and tousled dark blond hair.
We spent the remainder of the evening in silence. I studied for my final exam in Spanish literature, while David composed his letter of condolence. He sat at the desk with his left elbow bent, supporting his forehead in the palm of his hand, as if his head was too heavy to be borne by his neck alone; he was writing a draft, as I could tell from the sound of words being crossed out. I looked over at David occasionally to find him staring at the paper, his pen poised to write. David’s heart was in Argentina that night, climbing a mountain beside a boy with a sly grin and laughing eyes.
At last he sat back in his chair and looked at me. “There’s something else I’d like you to read,” he said, handing me an envelope lying on his desk. “Amazingly, the letter arrived a couple of days ago; he must have written it just before he was killed.”
It was a letter from Mateo, a long letter, at turns scholarly and witty, full of gossip about people I suppose both of them knew, but written cleverly and without malice. Mateo touched on current events, books, politics, music; with great enthusiasm he described the novel he was beginning. I understood what David meant about his friend’s élan vital; Mateo came across like a genie who refuses to stay in his bottle. But it was the end of his letter that moved me most:
“My dearest friend,” he wrote, “I rejoice to read of the happiness you have found with Kate.” I swallowed the lump in my throat and looked at David, but he didn’t return my glance. I continued reading. “I understand your hesitation perfectly; it is so characteristic of you, but for once be guided by your heart and not your head. You are 47 years old, David. What are you waiting for? If Kate loves you, as you think she does, let her know how you feel before it’s too late. Seize the brass ring; it won’t come round again. My best wishes to you both.”
I hastily wiped away a tear before it dropped and smeared the ink, folded Mateo’s letter and handed it back to David.
Without a word, he put all the correspondence in a drawer, locked the desk, and stood up.
“I’m too tired to write; I’ll finish the letter tomorrow. Don’t worry about washing the cups; they’ll keep too. I’ll take you home now.”
David put on his coat and I walked beside him to the door; he switched off the light and we stood for a moment in the semi-darkness. He looked back at his desk as if asking Mateo for guidance, and then down at me.
“Kate,” he whispered hesitantly, “I love you.” I raised my face to his, and when he kissed me, I felt his cheek was damp with tears.