Chapter 1

Posted: January 2, 2012 in Letters to my Mother by Rebecca Heath

Blaine Hall, Room B102
University of Washington, Seattle
Sept. 11, 1956

Dear Mother and Daddy,

Classes began yesterday and I’m so happy to be back in school. This quarter is going to be fantastic! I’m taking the anthropology of Oceania (the professor has a perpetual blob of mucous or ? between his lips and when he opens his mouth it stretches like a rubber band – gross!!), primate and human evolution, 20th century Spanish literature, and modern European history.

Do you remember my friend Norma Berrigan, the graduate student in Romance languages? We had dinner together Sunday at a barbecue place on “the Ave” and she asked if I’d like to go with her next summer to a Quaker work camp in Mexico. We’re planning to stop by the American Friends Service Committee office tomorrow to get the details; Norma says it costs $125 for two months, plus transportation. What do you think??

This quarter should be relatively easy, so I’ve decided to look for a part-time job to help defray the expenses. Yesterday I went to the campus employment office and they referred me to a professor in the biochemistry department who’s looking for a student to type some manuscripts in Spanish. I feel ok about the Spanish part, but the subject matter is a bit daunting. I don’t think I have the qualifications, but we’ll see. I have an interview with him this afternoon and must confess I’m a little apprehensive…
I hurried down a path leading south from the library to my interview with Dr. Rosenau, nervously curling and uncurling the appointment card in my coat pocket. In front of the Health Sciences Building I stopped, unrolled the card, read “L.D. Rosenau, 425 HSB, 3 pm” for perhaps the tenth time, drew a deep breath, and climbed the stairs.

As I exited the elevator on the fourth floor, I looked at my watch and realized I’d arrived five minutes too early. I lingered in the hall trying to kill time; I read the instructions on a fire extinguisher cabinet, paused for a drink at a water fountain, sauntered past a couple of laboratories, and stopped to glance at the cars-for-sale and apartments-to-rent notices on a bulletin board.

Toward the end of the corridor a radio was playing, and the sound of music grew louder as I continued down the hall searching for room 425. At the end of one wing, I reached an office with “L.D. Rosenau” written on a nameplate beside the door. I glanced at the appointment card and then at the glass panel behind which the frenzy of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain was reaching its climax. I knocked several times without receiving an answer, then once again with more force. The music stopped abruptly and a voice summoned me to come in. When I entered, a tall man in a laboratory coat stood up and extended his hand.

“Miss Collins? I’m David Rosenau. Won’t you have a seat?”

I took the chair he offered and surveyed my prospective employer. He was in his late forties, I guessed, with a leonine mane of wavy, black hair, going gray at the temples, a mouth outlined by heavy creases, unruly eyebrows, and a complexion so dark that, despite his last name, I thought at first he might be Indian. In repose, Dr. Rosenau’s deep-set eyes gave him an aloof, brooding quality, an aging Heathcliff I decided, but his smile dispelled this impression. He was the most handsome man I had ever met.

The mental picture I’d formed of Dr. Rosenau before the interview bore no resemblance to reality. I was expecting someone balding and paunchy, an old man with stained fingernails who reeked of sulfuric acid, and his actual appearance caught me by surprise; my carefully rehearsed opening speech deserted me, and I sat down without a word, painfully aware how young and unsophisticated I must seem to him. My loafers, sweater and wool skirt (girls didn’t wear pants in those days) were incredibly gauche. Why hadn’t I worn nylon stockings and high heels? Why hadn’t I stopped by the ladies’ room to put on fresh lipstick and fix my hair? Why hadn’t I dabbed some perfume behind my ear? I never thought for a moment Dr. Rosenau would deign to notice a girl of my insignificance, but he was so handsome that being hopeful was almost a reflex. My gaze wandered to his left hand, which was ringless. I felt foolish wondering if he was married, and looked away quickly, hoping he hadn’t observed my curiosity.

“I must apologize for keeping you waiting. Were you knocking long?” Dr. Rosenau’s English, though fluent, was accented. His words had a slight British crispness, mixed with a hint of something else. German? Not guttural enough. Spanish? That seemed the most likely possibility, considering the typing job, but he pronounced “Miss” as in English, not “Mees.” French? Maybe.

“No, but if you hadn’t heard me, I was planning to wait for the soft part, the oboe passage where the bird sings and the church bells chime.”

Dr. Rosenau’s right eyebrow lifted into an arch. “You know the piece?”

“I have a recording of Bald Mountain at home.”

“Toscanini?”

“Stokowski.”

“Oh yes. The 1954 version. And where is ‘home’?”

Was the 1954 version good or bad? I was afraid he’d ask me something technical about the recording and decided to abandon Mussorgsky’s composition as a topic of conversation. “Clearfield, Utah,” I replied, in answer to his question. Realizing he couldn’t possibly have heard of Clearfield, I added, “It’s a small town between Salt Lake and Ogden.”

Dr. Rosenau asked if I spoke Spanish. “¿Habla Ud. castellano?” I recognized his accent at once; the “ll” pronounced as “j” gave him away.

I answered in Spanish, explaining I’d attended a boarding school in Spain for almost three years. “You’re from Argentina, aren’t you?” I asked, a bit triumphantly.

Dr. Rosenau smiled. “Yes, I was born there at any rate. I’m afraid my accent betrays me no matter what language I’m speaking. It’s been almost 30 years since I lived in Argentina and I daresay I’ve been speaking English far longer than you, but I seem unable to shed one accent or acquire the other. I can’t identify yours, though. Are you originally from Utah?”

“I’m from no place, really. Because my father’s in the navy, I’ve lived everywhere from Hawaii to the Middle East. That’s how I happened to learn Spanish. The Navy transferred Daddy to Turkey in 1949; there weren’t enough dependents in Ankara for the American government to provide teachers for the children, so my parents decided to send me to a boarding school in Spain.”

“Lay or religious?”

“Religious. The nuns from Sagrado Corazon ran the school; it was like a convent – matins in the morning, vespers in the evening and lots of catechism in between.”

“Are you Catholic?”

It was a strange question for a job interview. “No, I’m …” I wanted to tell him I wasn’t at all religious, but that seemed too strong and hardly the thing to say under the circumstances. “No, I’m not.”

Dr. Rosenau switched to English. “You made good use of the opportunity; your Spanish is excellent. What’s the Navy doing in Utah, may I ask? Is there a Great Salt Lake Fleet?”

He’s trying to put me at ease, I thought. I picked nervously at my right thumbnail, loosened a strip of cuticle, and yanked it off across the base. “My father’s a supply officer; that is, he’s involved with provisioning the Navy, as opposed to a line officer, who commands ships. The facility in Clearfield is the Navy’s largest inland supply depot in the United States.” My answer sounded wooden, even to me, and I wished I could relax. I glanced down and saw with dismay that blood was oozing from the base of my nail and starting to drip on my skirt. When Dr. Rosenau swiveled toward the bookcase behind him to get a notepad, I seized the opportunity to lick the blood off with my tongue, whisking my hand back to my lap just as he turned around.

Dr. Rosenau opened a drawer to his left, took out a box of tissues and placed it on the desk in front of me. I felt my face turn red, but he continued as if he hadn’t noticed. “What are you studying here at Washington?”

“Thank you … for the kleenex, I mean. I’m … I’m majoring in anthropology.” I was prepared for the patronizing response this answer usually elicits from students of the physical and biological sciences, but Dr. Rosenau surprised me.

“Anthropology’s a fascinating field! I considered becoming an anthropologist myself. Of course, you’re probably used to hearing people say that; they have such romantic notions of stumbling on some pharaoh’s tomb or discovering the missing link. When I was a teenager, I spent one summer with a tribe of primitive jungle Indians in Peru. It was an extraordinary experience for a youngster and after that I thought seriously about studying anthropology at university.”

“What tribe were you living with?”

“The Shipibo. Have you heard of them?”

“Are they the Indians who live along the Ucayali River? They must have been headhunters in those days!” As soon as I uttered the remark, I realized it was an unflattering commentary on his age, but Dr. Rosenau only smiled.

“Yes, they’re the ones. I was living in a settlement a few hours’ hike away from a town called Pucallpa. By the late 20’s the missionaries had put a stop to headhunting, officially at least, but one old fellow did show me a few grisly family heirlooms. Now I suspect they’re wearing blue jeans and carrying transistor radios.”

I subtracted “late twenties” from 1956; thirty years, give or take a couple, and if he was seventeen or eighteen then … “What changed your mind, about anthropology, I mean?”

“My father was a doctor, and of course he encouraged my interest in science. We used to spend a great deal of time together netting butterflies, popping vipers into formaldehyde and mucking around in caves photographing bats. Papa was an indefatigable naturalist, so some of his enthusiasm was bound to rub off on me. What made you choose anthropology?”

I hated questions like that. No one really cares why you major in something. They’re just conversation fillers, bits of trivia to grease the wheels of social intercourse. I envied the French girl in my Social Anthropology class who, when asked the same question, had purred “Because it’s the study of men; what could be more interesting to a woman?” I could never have thought of anything so clever and, even if I had, such a comment would have sounded ludicrous coming from me. Dr. Rosenau looked at me intently, as though truly interested in my answer. All right, I decided, I’ll let him have it.

“A grad student once told me people major in anthropology because they’ve read either Gods, Graves and Scholars, Coming of Age in Samoa, or Patterns of Culture. In my case it was Patterns of Culture; I picked up the paperback edition in a drugstore three years ago. That was my first encounter with the idea of cultural relativity. Like everyone, I assumed our way of doing things is the way of doing things and for me it was an epiphany to read about people functioning with entirely different sets of postulates and theorems. When I read that book I’m not even sure I knew what anthropologists do, but I knew I wanted to be one. It’s fascinating to consider how the concept of mental illness varies from culture to culture or how the proliferation of western technology alters role expectations.” I was warming up to my subject and hurtled on, oblivious of the expression on Dr. Rosenau’s face.

“For example, I was thinking this morning how in primitive societies the aged frequently enjoy high prestige because the skills they’ve taken a lifetime to acquire have survival value to their group, like knowing the habits of the animals they hunt, or how to navigate in the ocean using wave patterns and star position. But in our society knowledge is changing so rapidly that what older people know, at least on a technological level, becomes obsolete overnight, and their low status reflects this knowledge gap. When you combine this situation with a system in which government payments have replaced the traditional …” I was suddenly aware Dr. Rosenau hadn’t taken his eyes off me once and he was clearly trying to repress a smile. I blushed in embarrassment. “I don’t think I explained it very well,” I stammered. “I guess I just get carried away by ideas.”

Dr. Rosenau regarded me for a moment with a serious expression, and then grinned. “I understand you perfectly. I get excited about ideas myself, but,” he leaned forward and lowered his voice to a whisper, “I don’t tell anyone.”

I met his gaze and we smiled at each other.

“Do you plan to teach on a university level?”

“At this point I’m not sure. I’m only a junior, so graduate school still seems a long way off. I can’t picture myself as a professor but, to be honest, there isn’t much else you can do with a degree in anthropology except teach. On the other hand, I hate to think of earning a Ph.D. just so I can hang a diploma on the wall and then having to search for a job as a secretary.”

“So do I. It would be an appalling waste.” The mention of secretarial work reminded Dr. Rosenau why I’d come, and he swiveled around, searching for something in the bookcase behind him. A moment later he glanced over his shoulder and, apropos of nothing, asked “Do you smoke?”

“Both my parents smoke and they’ve always assumed I would, but I don’t. It’s a form of teenage rebellion.”

“Good.” Dr. Rosenau turned again toward the bookshelf, giving me a chance to look around. Bookcases lined three walls of the office; against the fourth wall, and to the right of the door, a glass-fronted mahogany cabinet housed a variety of knick-knacks – a small ship model, a seashell, and some morpho butterflies embedded in plastic. There were two windows, one whose view was covered by a buff-colored window shade, and a second that opened to an expanse of grassy lawn below and Portage Bay beyond. Apparently Dr. Rosenau had been reading when I came in, for a book of German poetry lay open in front of him. Beside the book stood a framed picture angled away from me, and I leaned forward, expecting to catch a glimpse of his wife and children, but I was mistaken. It was a photograph of a sailboat flying before the wind, and I wondered if the boat was his. I settled back in my chair just as he turned to face me again.

“Did anyone at the employment office tell you the nature of the typing?”

“They only said the subject matter is biochemistry and it’s in Spanish.”

“Yes, that’s correct. These are translations of papers I wrote originally in English, and I’m putting them together for publication in Argentina. I’m a terrible typist; fortunately I have a grant to cover the typing expenses, which is why I contacted the employment office. Normally I’d let someone else handle the translation as well, but in this case I’m doing it myself so I can make revisions and bring the work up to date. Since my time is limited, I’ll be giving you the articles piecemeal – that is, I’ll be giving them to you if you’re interested in the job. I can pay you fifty cents a page, which is well above the prevailing rate but, frankly, the material is difficult and it’s written in longhand.”

“You’re offering me the job?” I asked incredulously.

“Yes, of course. Why, are you surprised?” His right eyebrow shot up again.

“At the employment office they told me I’m the first person to apply. I thought you’d interview a number of applicants before making up your mind. I also thought maybe you wouldn’t consider me at all since I don’t have a scientific background.”

Dr. Rosenau gave me another one of his penetrating looks. “I’ll be delighted if you’ll accept the job; I think you and I will get on very well together. Would you like to see the manuscripts?”

He handed me a sheaf of papers and I read the titles with dismay: “Influencia de la ocitocina y de la aldosterona en los efectos renales del la renina,” “Influencia de la simpatectomia y de modificaciones de catecolaminas sobre la toxicidad de k-estrofandosid,” “Adaptación de la técnica Gomori-Takamatsu parafatasa alcalina al studio del blastocisto.” The articles might as well have been written in Urdu for all the sense I could make of them.

“Do you know of a dictionary of scientific terms in Spanish I can use? If I’m unsure about a word at least I can look it up and get it spelled correctly. It’s not that I can’t read your writing,” I stammered, “but I never learned words like this in Spain.”

“I have one right here you can borrow.” Dr. Rosenau pulled a thick volume from his bookshelf and handed it to me. “I think you’ll find this helpful. There’s one more article I’d like you to type and it’s in English, for publication in the United States.” He leafed through a few stacks of paper. “I must have given it to my assistant. Excuse me for a moment.” Dr. Rosenau picked up the telephone and dialed. “Frank, do you have the monograph on the formation of verdoheamochrome from pyridine protohaemochrome? Would you bring it to my office, please?”

Like Dr. Rosenau, the young man who brought in the manuscript was wearing a lab coat, but the resemblance ended there. He was in his middle twenties and short, with slightly protruding eyes and dark curly hair already receding at the temples.

“Miss Collins, this is Frank Caputo, my research assistant. Frank, Miss Collins is going to type those articles I told you about.”

Frank and I exchanged the usual greetings and I prepared to leave.

“When would you like me to have these ready?”

“There’s no rush. I don’t expect you to type all of them at once; do what you can. How about bringing the first batch next Friday? I’m usually in my office after three and by then I should have some new work for you. Just knock. Hard if you hear the radio.” Dr. Rosenau walked with us to the door and held out his hand.

“I’m very pleased you can do the typing for me, Miss Collins. I know my handwriting’s wretched, so if something’s bothering you that the dictionary can’t help you with, just give me a call and I’ll try to decipher it over the phone.” He turned to Frank, “Does she remind you of Helen?”

I don’t like being compared to other people and took an immediate dislike to the unknown Helen.

Frank looked uncomfortable and shifted on his feet. “Maybe, but I didn’t know her all that well.”

Dr. Rosenau gave my hand a firm shake and we said goodbye.

Frank walked down the hall with me. “What are you majoring in? I know it isn’t biochemistry.”

“Are you acquainted with all the undergrads, or am I wearing some kind of sign?”

“You’re too attractive. When there’s a new girl around here she’s either a biochem major or a horse stepped on her face.”

I laughed at his compliment. “Don’t you think a woman can have beauty and brains, too?”

“Not in this department. Seriously, what are you studying?”

“Anthropology.”

“Really. I would have guessed English or Education. What do you think of David?”

“Dr. Rosenau?” I had to be careful of my answer. I could imagine Frank’s going back to the office and chortling, “Guess what? That kid you hired has a crush on you already!”

“He’s very nice,” I replied cautiously.

Frank smiled.

“Isn’t he?”

“You know the word association game? You say ‘volcano’ and I say ‘lava’ or you say ‘moo’ and I answer ‘cow’? If you said ‘Rosenau’, I don’t think ‘nice’ is the adjective that would leap into my head.”

“What would?”

“Maybe ‘brilliant;’ he’s a brilliant guy, I mean really brilliant. He’s won nearly every prize there is. But ‘nice’?” Frank considered his words for a moment. “David doesn’t suffer fools gladly.”

“Have you known him long?”

“A little over two years. I’ve finished the coursework for my Ph.D. and passed the orals; the research I’m doing with David is the basis of my dissertation.” A grin flashed across Frank’s face. “I’ll bet he asked if you smoke.”

“Yes, he did. Why?”

“David has a thing about smoking. Not the stunt-your-growth sort of stuff. He used to smoke himself, years ago, long before I met him, but then he did some research on lung tissues and got the idea cigarette tar is harmful, so he quit and now he’s kind of an anti-cigarette crusader. David even told me he wouldn’t work with me unless I stopped.”

“Did you?”

“Yeah, but those first two weeks were sure hell. I gained ten pounds right off the bat and I was chewing everything in sight – gum, candy, my fingernails. At least I’m saving money.”

“Does he always stare at people so intently?”

“He makes you feel like a bird being charmed by a snake, doesn’t he? That’s just his way. You’ll get used to it.”

As we passed the open door of the departmental office, Frank lowered his voice and nudged me in the ribs. “Here’s exhibit A of what I was talking about. Take a look.”

Inside I saw a woman in her late twenties typing at a desk; she was thin to the point of emaciation, with stringy hair that needed shampooing, acne, and coke-bottle bottom glasses.

“Well?” I said as we continued down the hall.

“That’s Iris Williams. She graduated here eight or nine years ago. Iris is the secretary for the biochem department.”

“The secretary? She has a Ph.D. in biochemistry?”

“Not a Ph.D., a bachelor’s. Dr. Jacobs got her the job. She’s his mistress, has been ever since she was his student, or as we say here, ‘he had her in his class.’ He sure did.” Frank laughed at his own joke.

“Who’s Dr. Jacobs?”

“A professor in the department. One of the head honchos in these parts. You’ll see him around. He looks like a vaudeville conjurer – short, skinny, black hair glued to his scalp, a waxed moustache and the eyes of a dead fish.”

Frank was nothing if not informative. I wanted to ask him if Dr. Rosenau was married, but I couldn’t trust him to keep the question to himself.

As I got in the elevator, Frank waved. “Ciao, Miss Collins. That’s terribly formal; I’ll bet your first name is very romantic.”

“It’s Catherine, but call me Kate.”

“Franco, but call me Frank. Are people always saying, “Kiss me, Kate?”

“Just the men,” I replied, waving goodbye. Only back in my room did it occur to me I’d forgotten to ask him about Helen.
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