Chapter 4

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

Blaine Hall, Room B102
University of Washington, Seattle
Sept. 17, 1956

Dear Mother and Daddy,

Saturday was the best day of my entire life! As I wrote you Friday, I went sailing with Frank and Dr. Rosenau on Sturmvogel (it means “storm bird,” by the way). At first there wasn’t any wind, but before noon we finally got a good breeze. I can’t begin to tell you how glorious it was – Dr. R. even let me steer the boat for a while. He’s kind and very patient. I’m so hooked on sailing now that I plan to sign up for lessons from the University Sailing Club…
Norma’s argument was persuasive, but I kept remembering the touch of Dr. Rosenau’s hand when we said goodbye on the boat and his smile when he looked at me. Or had I merely imagined he’d held my hand longer than etiquette dictated and was his smile the same one he bestowed on everyone? Surely he felt something more than paternal interest and would call me before Friday. Nevertheless, the week dragged by without a word from him, and my disappointment grew with every passing day. I had the scenario all planned: he’d telephone me on the pretext of inquiring about the typing and I’d tell him I couldn’t decipher a couple of words. That wasn’t true, of course. Since Dr. Rosenau had started printing, his handwriting was completely legible, but I was sure I could come up with one or two dubious examples, and this would be his cue to suggest we go over the text together. In my more optimistic moments I pictured us at dinner, sharing a cheese fondue in some candlelit Swiss restaurant, but even the prospect of a coffee date at the HUB would have sent me into transports of delight.
Dr. Rosenau was constantly in my thoughts. When the pressure of studies demanded total concentration, I could dismiss him from my mind for a while, but he was always present, lurking just below the threshold of consciousness, ready to resurface, unbidden, like a nagging pain; the term “heart ache” is aptly named. In my leisure I courted his image. I replayed all our conversations, analyzed every nuance in his voice, every arch of his eyebrow. I constructed imaginary dialogues with him in which I was the epitome of sophistication, and I fretted over the things I’d really said.
When he didn’t call Monday night, I wasn’t dismayed. He didn’t want to appear overanxious. On Tuesday he was probably busy. Wednesday I thought perhaps he’d phoned when I wasn’t in my room. By Thursday I was forced to admit what I’d known all along: David Rosenau, Ph.D., had no intention of getting involved with any student, much less me, and if I believed there was something in his manner beyond ordinary kindness, I was living in a world of fantasy.
I had mixed emotions when I went to his office the following afternoon. I was almost hoping he’d cut the meeting short, take the completed work with one hand, give me the new work with the other, and usher me to the door. At least that would be definitive, and I could go back to being the way I was before we met. But Dr. Rosenau greeted me with a warm smile, took the typing I handed him, and spread the pages out on the top of his desk. He stood for a minute or two perusing the work, and then glanced up.
“You did an excellent job,” he said, gathering the papers in a pile. “Of course, I knew you would. Shall we go?”

We were apparently going somewhere together, to the HUB I presumed. He removed his lab coat, put some books in a briefcase, and we left the office.
After my conversation with Frank, I expected to feel uneasy with Dr. Rosenau. I looked at him and said to myself he’s married, you know he’s married, and it didn’t make any difference at all. Nothing in our relationship had changed; we walked to the student union building laughing and chatting with the intimacy of old friends.

“I see you managed to untangle your hair,” he observed as we sat down to our strawberry shortcake and coffee.
“Yes, but it took me almost an hour, though. You were right about covering my head.” I was on the verge of adding that next time I’d bring a scarf, when I remembered there might not be a “next time,” and my remark would sound presumptuous.
“I wasn’t exaggerating last Saturday when I told you how much I enjoyed the sailing,” I said instead. “In fact, I had such a wonderful time that I’m going to join the University Sailing Club. Did you know they offer sailing lessons for beginners?”
Dr. Rosenau frowned slightly. “Yes, I’m familiar with their program. You’re serious about learning how to sail?”
“Absolutely! I’ve made up my mind. I’m going to be the first woman to sail around the world solo. I think a few lessons are in order before I cast off.”
Dr. Rosenau stared out the window for a moment and then turned his attention back to me. “The sailing club program here is a good one, but the instruction is focused on racing and dinghy sailing, rather than handling a keelboat or cruising. Kate, if you’re really interested in learning to sail, I can teach you, on Sturmvogel.”

I stared at him, dumbfounded. Surely I had heard wrong. “I beg your pardon,” I stammered.

He smiled. “I asked if you’d like me to teach you to sail, on Sturmvogel.”

“I … I hardly know what to say. Do you mean it? I’d love to, but …I know you like to sail alone. I don’t want to intrude on your privacy.”
“You won’t be intruding; on the contrary, I’ll be glad to have your company. Honestly, I don’t sail alone out of preference. I need to warn you, though,” he added, “I’m considered an extremely demanding teacher.”
I studied him closely, wondering if his words concealed a hidden agenda, but if they did, I couldn’t detect it in his face.

“Seamanship encompasses so much more than simply steering a boat straight. A competent sailor has to know how to handle his boat in heavy weather, how to anchor, how to read nautical charts, how to tie knots; boat handling requires a myriad of skills. Also, since you’re planning to sail around the world alone you’ll need to learn celestial navigation. What do you say?”

“Well … thank you … yes … I appreciate your offer … truly.” I could have kicked myself for my tepid response. What I really wanted to do was jump up and down shouting “yes! yes! yes!”

“Shall I pick you up tomorrow morning at nine?”

I nodded, unable to speak.

“Be sure to dress warmly,” he cautioned. “Do you remember telling me last week I should invite you again when the weather’s so bad that no one else will go out with me? I think you’re going to be put to the test. The weatherman’s predicting rain late in the afternoon and it’s certain to be chilly.”
Saturday morning dawned cold and overcast, with a slight breeze from the south. I waited for Dr. Rosenau in the driveway to spare him the inevitable stares at the reception desk, and he pulled up outside Blaine Hall promptly at nine. He was alone in the car and I wondered if he’d invited Frank to come with us.

As we drove through the marina gate, I couldn’t contain my curiosity any longer. “Is Frank coming?”

“No, this is a private lesson. Did you want me to invite him?”

I shook my head. “I know I’m going to make mistakes, so I’d rather not have an audience.”

When we reached the boat, Dr. Rosenau began his instruction immediately, and before we pulled away from the dock I’d learned the name of every visible part on Sturmvogel, how to hoist and furl the sails, and how to operate the outboard. Once on the water he was equally unrelenting; we tacked and jibed for two hours around the buoys, executing each maneuver until he was satisfied. We talked very little and when we did, it was only about sailing.

Dr. Rosenau never made me feel foolish, though I often did foolish things, such as wrapping the jib sheet the wrong way around the winch or pushing the tiller toward the sails when I wanted to jibe. He gave praise sparingly, but if I did something well, he told me, and I redoubled my efforts. He was right; he was a very demanding teacher.

As if by consensus, we avoided touching one another. Unlike the previous week’s sail when Frank was aboard, if Dr. Rosenau wanted me to move the tiller, he told me rather than putting his hand on mine. When we shifted positions in the cockpit, we moved as cautiously as two porcupines, careful to maintain a buffer of circumspection between us. Frank would approve, I thought.

We’d been practicing for several hours when Dr. Rosenau suddenly seized one of the kapok cushions from the seat and hurled it into the water. “Man Overboard!” He sat back, folded his arms and looked at me. I knew he expected me to turn around and retrieve the cushion as if it were a person who’d fallen into the water, so I noted the compass heading and prepared to jibe. I held the tiller between my legs and hauled in on the mainsheet as fast as I could until the boom was nearly overhead, then eased the tiller to port and controlled the swing of the boom as it passed to the other side. The jib needed releasing, and I looked at Dr. Rosenau.

He shook his head. “You’re all alone; that’s me back there in the water praying you’ll pick me up.”

I put the tiller between my knees again, let go on the starboard jib sheet and started pulling on the other side, using my teeth as well as my hands. By the time I had the boat settled on the reciprocal course of our original heading, the cushion was a couple hundred yards downwind of us and barely visible, though Sturmvogel was gaining fast. We bore down on the cushion and passed it; I shoved the tiller to port without sheeting the sails and Sturmvogel turned slowly, losing way. That was the moment I was waiting for; as the cushion drifted toward the hull, I grabbed the boat hook, reached over the coaming, and skewered the cushion through a loop on the side, hoisting it triumphantly into the cockpit.

“One minute and thirty-five seconds. Bravo!” Dr. Rosenau applauded. “Let’s see if I survived.” He picked up the cushion and held it to his ear. “Thready pulse and probably hypothermic. Aren’t you going to give me artificial respiration?”

I couldn’t resist the opening. “Which kind, chest compression or mouth to mouth?”

He gave me a sidelong glance and laughed. “I may really be tempted to jump overboard if you give me a choice like that.” He leaned over the side and wrung out the cushion. “Do you realize it’s almost two o’clock? I haven’t eaten since six this morning and I’m starving; how about you?”

Dr. Rosenau went below to get the roast beef sandwiches and while we ate, he told me about his sailing experiences in college. He had a friend whose father owned a sixty foot yacht, Arabesque, which he raced along the Pacific Coast, and when one of the regular crew broke his leg shortly before a race to Ensenada, the owner invited Dr. Rosenau to take his place. The trip to Mexico was the first of many he made on the large wooden ketch, on voyages which took him as far as Acapulco and Hawaii for up to three months at a time. He told me about sailing through schools of gray whales off Baja California, of steering the boat at night under a canopy of stars, of lazy days in the tropics where he spent his off-watch hours sprawled on deck in swimming trunks, reading Dickens and Thackeray. Dr. Rosenau’s enthusiasm for sailing was infectious and I listened to him spellbound; if he’d proposed a trip around the world, I would have accepted without a second thought.

We started back to the marina about five, after another short practice session. Dr. Rosenau was below making coffee and I was steering, when I noticed a white sloop sailing toward us. The helmsman seemed to be alone, and beneath the down-turned brim of a sailor’s hat, I made out the ruddy face of an elderly man. His boat approached us at an angle, and then sheered off to windward, converging with Sturmvogel until our hulls were less than ten feet apart. The skipper hailed me and I waved tentatively back, petrified we were going to collide. He leaned over the side.

“Is David aboard?” he shouted.

I nodded and called below. “Dr. Rosenau, someone’s out here who wants to speak to you; someone on a sailboat.”

Dr. Rosenau poked his head out of the companionway and waved. Rive Gauche, the white sloop, nosed toward Sturmvogel from time to time while the two men chatted, until finally the other skipper raised his hand in farewell and his boat slipped behind us and to leeward, giving us sea room at last.

I breathed a sign of relief. “Your friend took ten years off my life; what on earth was he thinking of, getting so close to us? Could you steer for a few minutes? I’m still shaking.”

Dr. Rosenau laughed and took the tiller from me. “I suspect Phil was just trying to get a good look at you. You’re certainly Sturmvogel’s most attractive skipper to date. You may have thought he was going to hit us, but Phil’s an experienced sailor.”

“What about me? I’m not.”

“Oh, I was watching out for us.”

We sailed for a few minutes in silence. A couple of times I caught him staring at me thoughtfully, but he didn’t seem in the mood for talking.

“Kate,” Dr. Rosenau said at last, “are you always so formal with me?”

“What do you mean?”

“When Phil came alongside and you called to me down in the cabin, you addressed me as ‘Dr. Rosenau.’”

“Yes,” I replied, looking away.

“Don’t you call me David?”

“Actually, I’ve never addressed you by name; it’s a situation I’ve been trying to avoid. When your friend asked for you, I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t just go below and pluck your sleeve because he was so close I didn’t dare leave the tiller. I can’t call you by your first name; it’s … so presumptuous.”

“But I call you Kate.”

“That’s different. You’re a professor and I’m a student. You’re also my employer.”

“For God’s sake! Is that how you think of me – as a professor, an employer? What about a friend? It’s the difference in our ages, isn’t it? You’re 19 and I’m 47. I must seem like Methuselah to you.”

“No you don’t. I never think of you as any particular age.”

“Well then, how do you think of me?”

I looked down, too embarrassed to answer.

“I’m sorry. I have no right to ask you that. Let’s see, if Phil took ten years off your life, that makes me 38 years older than you. Damn that Phil!”

I started to laugh.

“Will you do me a favor, forget our professor-student roles and call me David?”

“Yes, if you want me to.”

“Yes, David, if you want me to.”

“Yes, David, if you want me to.” My eyes met his and we smiled at each other.

“When Phil dropped by, I believe I was preparing coffee; let me get back to work. Are you all right with the tiller now?”

“Yes…” he looked at me with raised eyebrows. “Yes, David.”

“Good girl. Practice makes perfect.”

“You know … David, letting me call you by your first name is rather dangerous.”

He paused in the companionway. “Why?”

“Some tribes in Africa believe that knowing a man’s name gives you magical power over him. When a baby’s born, the father whispers the child’s name in his ear so no one else can hear it. The boy’s real name is never spoken aloud.”

David regarded me gravely as he started down the ladder. “It’s already too late, no matter what you call me.”
The rain began soon after we finished our coffee. Within a short time my windbreaker was soaked, and although I tried to keep from looking as miserable as I felt, my chattering teeth betrayed me.

“Can you take the tiller for a couple of minutes?” David asked. “I’m going down to put on my foul weather gear and then you can go below to get out of the rain.” He returned wearing a yellow jacket and pants, a sou’wester, and black boots.

“Here, drink this”, he said, handing me a cup.

“What is it?”
“Brandy.”

I took the cup with hesitation and drank. The liquor blazed a trail of fire from my throat to my stomach and I began to cough.

“Now go below and try to get warm. I put some extra blankets on the settee for you. I’ll take over now.”

I made a meek protest about wanting to do my part, but he gave me a small shove toward the companionway and I went below, too wet and exhausted to resist further. I sat on the starboard settee to remove my soaking tennis shoes and David slipped the hatch boards in place, plunging the cabin into darkness. Reaching for the blankets, I covered myself and lay down, conscious only of the singing of the wind in the rigging and the swish of water along the hull.

When I awakened, the noise of the water had ceased and Sturmvogel lay rocking in her berth. Farther down the dock some loose halyards slapped rhythmically against their masts, but Sturmvogel’s cabin was still except for the hissing of the stove. David had covered me with a couple of additional blankets. I opened my eyes slightly and saw him sitting on the opposite bunk in his stocking feet, with his back against the bulkhead and his knees drawn up, supporting a book. I squinted through my lashes to peek at him. David. I rolled his name around in my head, savoring the sound of it. He was reading intently; his forehead was slightly creased, and he was tilting the book to catch the flickering light from a kerosene lantern hanging above him. In repose David’s face wore the same expression of brooding intensity I’d noticed on the day we met. I closed my eyes and drifted back to sleep. When I awakened again I must have stirred, for he was looking at me.

“Good evening, sleepyhead,” David said softly. “It’s about time you woke up.”

“What time is it?”

“Seven-thirty.”

“Seven-thirty!” I sat up with a start and began to put on my soggy tennis shoes. “I’m awfully sorry I fell asleep the way I did. You must think I’m terribly rude.”

“I’m the one who owes you an apology. I’m so accustomed to sailing this boat alone that I didn’t realize how tiring the steering was for you. Are you warmer now?”

“Yes, I’m fine. Thanks for the blankets. What’s that on the stove?” It looked like David was cooking a flowerpot upside down on one of the burners.

“A jury-rigged cabin heater, really just a flower pot over a flame. One of these days I’ll buy a proper heater, but in the meantime the pot works well enough. Would you like some hot chocolate?”

Without waiting for my reply, David spooned cocoa into a mug and added boiling water from a vacuum bottle; he stirred the drink and handed me the cup. The aroma reminded me that dinner at the residence hall was long over and I was acutely hungry. David must have read my thoughts.

“I’m not going to send you to bed without any supper. Do you like fish?”

“I love fish.”

“Great. I know a small restaurant not far from here which serves some of the best seafood in Seattle, so why don’t we have dinner there? Sam’s is unpretentious; we can go as we are.”
The thought occurred to me that David might have had other plans for the evening and by oversleeping, I’d ruined them. “You don’t need to invite me to dinner. A food cart comes through the dorm every night at ten; I can pick up a corn dog and coffee …”
David looked surprised. “Don’t you want to have dinner with me?”
His question took me aback. “Well, yes, of course … I mean I’d love to, but you’ve already spent an entire day with me and you were probably planning to do something else afterwards and I’ve spoiled your …”
David laid his index finger on my lips and shook his head. “Good, that’s settled, then.”

He reached toward the bookshelf and removed a slim volume. “Before I forget, here’s the book I promised you; I meant to give it to you last week.” He handed me a copy of Le Petit Prince with its droll cover picture of the little prince standing on his asteroid.

“I hope you enjoy the story,” he said as I thumbed through the book, looking at the illustrations and reading some of the text. I came to a picture of an animal that resembled an electrified Welsh corgi.

“Is this funny little creature the fox?”

David nodded. “It’s a fennec, a kind of fox from North Africa, where Saint-Exupéry was a mail pilot. He really did crash in the Sahara, you know, just like the narrator of the story, and the fennecs he encountered in the desert were his inspiration for the fox. They have some at the zoo, delicate animals with silky hair and great bat ears. We should drive to Woodland Park one of these Saturdays when the weather’s so miserable even I won’t sail.”

David told me more about the restaurant when we left the marina. “Its real name is Hazel’s, though everyone calls the place Sam’s after the owner. Sam used to be a commercial fisherman up in Alaska, but when he lost one of his eyes in an accident a few years ago, he decided to sell the boat – the Hazel M. – and open a restaurant with the proceeds. Sam’s a genuine character; most of his customers are fishermen and you may be the only woman in the room, so be prepared for a few stares. I should also warn you the atmosphere’s not exactly Michelin three stars, but if you like fish you won’t be disappointed; Sam’s a wizard in the kitchen.”

Sam’s was located on the waterfront, surrounded by all-night coffee shops and hotels for transients. An orange neon sign reading “Hazel’s” flashed on and off above the entrance, alternating with a beer advertisement that featured an illuminated waterfall flowing into a mountain stream. In the window, a pair of dispirited rubber plants clung tenuously to life, flanked by red and white checkered curtains which concealed the interior of the restaurant from the street.

I looked at David inquiringly. “I know what you’re thinking; just wait and see.” He opened the door and a billow of warm air surged out, carrying with it the aroma of seafood, the babble of men’s voices and the insistent pulsation of rock and roll.

David guided me toward the cash register. “Before we eat, I want you to see a picture of Sam’s boat; he’ll be pleased I showed it to you.” Hanging on the wall was a mural-sized photograph of a fishing boat, with a group of men on deck hauling nets against a panorama of snow-clad mountains.

“She’s a beauty. Sam must have fond memories of her. Did you see mountains like that when you were in Alaska?”

“Every day. Once you get north of Puget Sound you can sail close to shore sheltered by a string of islands. Everywhere you look there are mountains and waterfalls and the land is so pristine that moose and bear come right down to the water’s edge to stare at you. Alaska’s a grand country, rugged and clean. I hope you get to sail the Inside Passage some day.”

“I hope so, too. If you’re ever going up to Alaska again and need a crew member …” I stopped and laughed, surprised at my boldness.

David smiled. “Don’t think that hasn’t occurred to me.” He took my arm. “Let’s find a table away from all these people where the atmosphere’s a bit quieter.”

The restaurant was crowded with men, fishermen I gathered from their conversations, but we finally located a small table for two near a window. We were no sooner seated than Sam himself, wearing a white chef’s apron and a green baseball cap with “Gut Salmon?” embroidered on the visor, walked over to greet us.

“Good evening, doctor, good evening. What have we here?” Sam’s good eye, round and bird-like, seemed to swivel in his head like a chameleon’s, and come to rest on me. A black patch hid his other one, giving him a piratical air, and I half expected to see a parrot on his shoulder. Sam’s teeth jutted from his gums at irregular intervals and when he smiled, his mouth resembled a battered comb. David introduced us and Sam held out a ham of a hand.

“I am delightful to meet you, young lady. Are you a nurse, my dear?”

I stared at him, not understanding his question.

“Kate’s a student at the university. She sails with me on Sturmvogel.”

Sam’s smile widened further. “So you’re a sailor too, are you? Doctor, be sure to show Kate here the picture of the Hazel M. before you go.”

“David showed it to me as soon as we came in. You must have been very proud of her.”

Sam wiped his hands on the apron. “That I was. Man and boy she was my home for 40 years. I’ve dropped anchor now, but Hazel M. is still working the Alaska fishery. Best damn boat in the fleet, if you’ll pardon my French.” He paused. “Was you out today, in the rain squalid?”

I nodded, trying to repress a giggle.

“You must be hungry then. There’s nothing like salt air to simulate the appetite. How about a bowl of clam chowder to start things off? The sole is also exceptionable tonight.”

Sam handed us a couple of greasy, plastic-covered menus and, wishing us a “bone appetite,” he moved along to chat with other customers.

“You’re right about Sam. He’s really an original. Does he always talk like that?”

“Sam’s surprisingly well read for a man who didn’t go beyond the fourth grade, though I’ll grant you his English is a trifle idiosyncratic. I’ll never forget the time he told me how he pulled an octopus from one of his nets and the beast wrapped its testicles around him.”

David nudged the menus to the edge of the table with the side of his hand. “I don’t think we’ll need these. If Sam recommends the clam chowder and the ‘exceptionable’ sole then, believe me, chowder and sole’s what we ought to order. Unless, of course, you’d rather try something else.”

“Sole’s fine with me; I adore all seafood. Why did Sam ask if I’m a nurse?”

David laughed. “Because you’re with me. When I first came here, several years ago, a friend introduced me to Sam as Dr. Rosenau, and he’s had the idea ever since that I’m a medical doctor. When he started asking me to diagnose his aches and pains, I told him I’m a Ph.D., not an M.D., but I don’t think he’s entirely convinced. I did overhear him telling someone once, however, that I’m ‘the kind of doctor who don’t do you no good.’”

After the chowder, the waiter brought us two platters of sole and David asked me to pass him the salt. He took the shaker from me with his right hand, and with his left opened my fingers and examined my nails. I pulled back and tried to close my fist, but David held on, frowning.
“Kate, do you bite your nails?”
“I used to, but as soon as I got my high-paying job with you, I hired someone else to bite them for me.”
“Smartass! Seriously, do you have any idea how many bacteria…” His hand closed around mine, I drew in my breath and our eyes met. For a moment he stopped smiling and just looked at me, and then he released my trembling hand. There was an awkward silence and for the first time in hours, neither of us could think of anything to say. David eventually bridged the gap with some commonplace remark about the food; we glanced at each other furtively and I returned my eyes to the tablecloth.

“Shall I call the strolling violinists over to serenade us?” David asked after the waiter had cleared away the dinner dishes. In answer to my expression of inquiry, he nodded toward the jukebox selector on the table.

“Judging from what we’ve been hearing I don’t think you’ll find anything that would interest you.”

He studied the list. “Oh, I don’t know. Not everything’s rock and roll; some of these are very pleasant, but no one’s playing them. Let’s each choose one song.”

I flipped the pages inside the box. “All right, I’d like D-5, please. David deposited the coins and punched two selections. Moments later a raucous piece came blaring from the speaker, something about a mad motorcycle going boom-boom-boom.

David raised his eyebrows. “Is that yours?”

“Heavens no! Someone else must have beaten you.”

My choice was next and David listened in silence until the end. “The tune is familiar, but I can’t remember the title. What is it?”

‘Unchained Melody.’ I think it’s from a movie called Unchained, about a prison, however unlikely that sounds. The song is one of my favorites.”

“Does it have lyrics?”

“Yes.”

“What are they?”

The first three lines went through my head:
Oh, my love, my darling

I’ve hungered for your touch

A long, lonely time.

I shook my head. I knew I wouldn’t be able to recite them to David without choking up.

“Will you tell me someday?”

“Maybe.”

David’s selection, Stranger in Paradise, was next.

“Borodin” I remarked with a smile. “I should’ve known you’d manage to find something classical even on a jukebox.”

David gave me a long look. “I just like the song.” He laid down his cup. “Kate…,” he began. I glanced up, expectantly. He waited for several seconds before speaking, as if deciding whether to continue. “Oh nothing. Would you care for some dessert?” He ordered two pieces of cake, leaving me to wonder what he’d intended to say.
We lingered at the table for more than an hour, drinking coffee and talking until Sam announced, regretfully, that it was closing time.

David had told me before about his childhood in Argentina, but never so vividly as he did that night, and when he talked I could hear the sigh of the wind through the pampas grass, smell beef barbecuing over the gauchos’ campfires and imagine David as he was then, a tall, dark boy on horseback, always alone.

David’s father practiced medicine outside a small town in the province of Cordoba, about 500 miles northwest of Buenos Aires. As a little boy, David often accompanied his father on his rounds, David wedged into the saddle in front of his father and later, when he grew older, beside his father on a horse of his own. Except for these excursions, David rarely left their farm until he was old enough to attend school; few children his age lived nearby and he spent most of his time in the company of adults.

David told me about his first day at school, sitting beside an older student during recitation. When the teacher called on the boy to read aloud, he stumbled over the text and five-year old David snatched the book away from him impatiently. “That’s not how you read it; it goes like this.”

David couldn’t recall a time when he wasn’t reading. By the age of ten he’d devoured almost every book in his parents’ extensive library, from medical texts to the Tarzan adventures his grandparents sent to him from Buenos Aires, and he counted the days to their annual visit to the capital, when he could spend hours browsing in the bookstores that lined Avenida Corrientes.

David’s precocity and arrogance won him few friends among either his schoolmates or his instructors. He chafed at a school curriculum that emphasized spelling and grammar rather than composition, and David’s teachers never knew of the poems and short stories he wrote for his own amusement. Despite his ability, David was an indifferent student; memorization bored him and he was frequently absent. In fair weather he would load his saddlebags with the essentials – bread, cheese, a few books – and, leaving a note for his parents, turn his horse to the hills. David reveled in the solitude of the wilderness and often camped for days on the shore of a small lake, returning home only when his supplies ran out. When David’s mother protested he should be in class, his father supported him. “Let the boy go; he’ll learn more out there by himself than he ever will in that so-called school.”

David’s athletic ability earned him the grudging respect of his classmates, but if he was the first to swim across a river, the fastest rider, or the first to reach a mountaintop, he was indifferent to either the praise or the awe of the other boys. In anyone else this reaction would have passed for modesty, but David had a healthy appreciation of his own considerable gifts and was uninterested in the opinions of his inferiors.

When David was twelve and his brother Daniel nine, his grandfather insisted on paying their tuition at a British boarding school in the capital, ending David’s days of freedom. The transition was painful; English was the language of instruction, and while he spoke both Spanish and German fluently, David had only a shaky grasp of English. For the first time his arrogance was humbled by competing with other boys of outstanding ability who had the advantage of a superior education and exposure to the cultural life of a cosmopolitan city. Instead of memorizing, the school asked David to think critically, to pose questions and find the answers. In return, he had sympathetic teachers who recognized in “el salvaje” (the savage) a boy of exceptional ability, one whose tenacity and ambition they could channel to useful ends.

At home he’d often lain on his back at night, gazing at the sky, but he balked at memorizing the names of meaningless galaxies. In Buenos Aires he studied astronomy, and he marveled at the complexity of the universe and at the laws which hold the stars and planets in their course. When he examined a drop of water under a microscope and discovered a new world of plants and animals, David told me he felt the awe of an intruder in Lilliput. It was, he said, as though he’d been born with bandaged eyes, and when the wrappings were removed, he was in perpetual motion, looking at everything, studying everything, making up for twelve years of mental darkness. The transformation in David’s personality was dramatic; his grades improved and he made friends. At the end of the term he finished second in his class and by the end of the next semester he was number one, a position he never relinquished through all the years of college and graduate school that followed.

Understanding David was easier after he told me about his childhood. He smiled when I said my first impression of him was Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. Even then, after more than 30 years of civilizing, something of the savage boy still lurked in David. I saw it in his ruthless desire to excel in everything he did, in his disdain for people less gifted than he, and above all in his passion for sailing. David didn’t sail for pleasure or relaxation the way other men did; for David the ocean was an arena where he pitted his knowledge and strength against the Goliath of nature.

David told me, too, about his undergraduate life in Berkeley, and he related a few incidents of graduate school at Harvard, but on the subject of his present circumstances, he was mute. If I hadn’t known better, I would have suspected he kept a sleeping bag in one of his filing cabinets and lived in his office.

“Did you ever consider studying medicine, like your father?”

“Oh, the idea occurred to me. At one point I thought of becoming a doctor and ministering to some heathen tribe in New Guinea or the Congo. A sort of Schweitzer sans Jesus”

“How come you changed your mind?”

David laughed. “I’m not like Papa. I lack the human touch. If I were a medical doctor, I’d probably alienate so many of my patients that I’d starve to death. My problem is I love humanity; it’s just people I can’t stand. After I decided to major in biochemistry I thought of teaching abroad; I still dabble with the idea occasionally. On a more rational level, what I’d like is to teach at a first rate university on the Pacific Coast, such as Stanford or Berkeley. I’ve received job offers, but …” He stopped.

“Why didn’t you accept?”

He hesitated. “Personal reasons.”

I sensed he was shutting the door again. “Do you have any regrets?”

“About biochemistry? No. About other things … when I was young, Kate, I had so many dreams. I was going to be the first man to climb Mt. Everest. I was going to be the first Argentine to sail around the world alone. I was going to be an explorer, an adventurer. It’s funny, isn’t it what you dream when you’re young? I wasn’t going to stay in one place for more than a few years, or work at a desk or go to an office from nine to five. Not I! That sort of life was for dull, pedestrian people. So here I am, working at a desk from nine to five, about as adventurous as a limpet on a rock.”

“But David,” I protested, “those things you mentioned like Everest or sailing around the world, they’re unrealistic and self-indulgent; other people have done them, but how can sports records possibly compare with what you’ve accomplished? Surely you’re proud of your work.”

“That’s a strange thing to say.”

“Strange? Frank idolizes you. He’s told me all about your important research, your publications, the prizes you’ve won. I have a confession to make. I looked you up in The Biography of American Scholars, and even Frank’s not aware of all your achievements. If I had one third your accomplishments I’d be supremely happy.”

I thought he would smile, but he didn’t, and I wondered if he considered my research an invasion of his privacy.

“Yes, I suppose my curriculum vitae is impressive to you and Frank and, in a way, it is to me, too. I’m not regretting Everest; that would be childish petulance, but the important things in my life turned out so very differently from what I’d hoped. If you measure achievement with an academic yardstick, then I’m a roaring success but, honestly Kate, I’m a failure in everything that matters.

“Now that I’ve acquired tenure and a few gray hairs, I’ve become a father confessor. Not a day goes by I don’t talk to at least one student who’s flunking organic chemistry, or who’s worried he won’t receive the fellowship he’s counting on, or who’s scared he’s got his girlfriend pregnant. I sit in my office dispensing wisdom, the omniscient Dr. Rosenau, resident guru of the biochemistry department. It’s ironic; they’re flocking to me for advice, but I’m more confused than they are, only I don’t have the excuse of youth. Some days I’m so depressed it’s all I can do to put one foot in front of the other, just to keep moving. I’ve reached the point in my life where I’m running out of time. You know how it is when you’re young: the future seems like an eternity. If you can’t do something today, well, there’s always next week or next year, but I’m 47 and I’m running out of ‘tomorrows’. There have been moments recently when I’ve felt like someone looking through a chink in the wall of Eden; the breath of paradise caresses my cheek, I’m as young as on the first day of creation … and suddenly it’s all snatched away.”

He stopped and looked at me. “I’m sorry. I know you don’t have the faintest idea of what’s chewing on me. I wasn’t planning to unload this dung heap of self-pity on you; usually I manage to repress my emotions somewhat better.”

“You’re terribly harsh on yourself. I wish I could say something comforting, but … I don’t know what to say. No one has ever talked to me before the way you do.”

“I suppose not; you can consider yourself blessed.”

“No, you’re wrong. It’s awfully hard for me to say what’s in my heart. You’ve shared your joy with me, your love of music, books, sailing. I … wish you’d share your sadness with me as well.”

He reached across the table and squeezed my hand. “Thank you, Kate. On Fridays, when you’re coming at three, from one o’clock on I start to feel happy.” I realized he was quoting from Le Petit Prince, and a lump rose in my throat.

David looked at me and smiled. “Enough of me. Definitely enough of me. Tell me your dreams. What do you see yourself doing in, say, twenty years from now? I seem to recall someone else who’s planning to sail around the world.”

“That’s a bit premature. My dreams? I don’t think I have any, not like yours anyway. I’m always waiting for something dramatic to happen in my life to give me a focus, a direction, like St. Paul meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus. When I was a little girl I was sure I’d die before I was 21; I suppose I couldn’t imagine myself functioning as an adult. In a way I still can’t, though I don’t have the death premonitions any more. I guess I’d like to travel more than anything else, maybe work for the Foreign Service after I graduate, even if it’s only a clerical job. I don’t want to teach; I’d be petrified in front of a room full of students. Your aspirations were a lot more altruistic than mine are.

“Sometimes I’m afraid when I think about the future. I have a strange dream from time to time, a real dream, I mean. I’m sitting on a raft, floating down a river. I’m just sitting with my arms clasped around my knees, watching the landscape drift by. There’s a great deal of activity on both sides of the river; the whole scene is like a picture by Brueghel, but no one is paying attention to me and I have no desire to communicate with the people on shore, either. In my dream I’m aware the river leads to the ocean, but I never reach the sea. I suppose the river symbolizes my life and the ocean is death.”

“That’s a rather grim fantasy. Is there room on your raft for someone else? A boyfriend, perhaps?”

“I don’t have a boyfriend.”

“A girl as attractive as you? That’s hard to believe.”

I frowned at David, wondering if he was being facetious. No one had ever called me attractive before, and if he was paying me a compliment, I didn’t know how to respond.

“Are you making fun of me?”

“Good grief! Of course I’m not making fun of you. I think you’re a lovely young woman. Why shouldn’t you have a boyfriend?”

“Boys aren’t interested in girls like me.”

“Kate, for heaven’s sake, that’s utter nonsense. Why do you say such a thing?”

“Because … well, it’s true. I know it’s my own fault. I’m too shy. Around other people I can never think of anything to say or I’m afraid if I do say something it will be really stupid. I remember when we lived in Illinois – it must have been three or four years ago – and the boy next door came over to invite me to the movies. I’m sure his parents made him do it. I heard him talking to my father, so I hid in the attic all afternoon where no one could find me. I’m nineteen years old and that’s the closest I’ve ever come to going out on a date.”

“I think most of the young men I’m acquainted with would love to meet you, but you’re a bit intimidating.”

“No, that’s not the reason. I’m just too shy.”

“You’re not shy with me.”

I swallowed. “I know. Somehow it’s different with you. If … if I were one of your students coming to you for advice, like the ones you were telling me about, what would you say to me?”

“Let’s see, Miss Collins,” David mused, pressing the tips of his fingers together. “I think I’d advise you to become involved in co-educational group activities of a non-threatening sort, where you can be busy, but non-competitive.”

“Like the University Sailing Club?”

David threw back his head and laughed. “Touché. Perhaps I should recuse myself from the role of advisor because of bias.”

It was nearly midnight when we drew up outside the residence hall. David set the hand brake and looked at me for a moment, almost inquiringly, with a slight smile on his lips and I wondered if he was thinking of kissing me, but instead he turned to open the car door.

As we walked together up the path to the dorm, our hands touched. David’s fingers reached for mine and I put my hand in his; it was a gesture more intimate than a kiss, one that expressed a tenderness neither of us dared put into words. I was shivering slightly and hoped David wouldn’t notice.
“Cold?”
I shook my head.
“Nervous?”

I looked up at David, disarmed by his candor. “Yes, a little.” I knew my hand felt chilly in his warm embrace. I longed to unbend, to reach out to him emotionally as I had physically, but something held me back.

“I’m sorry my hand’s so cold …” I began apologetically. What a stupid remark, I thought. What a maladroit thing to say. Why belabor the obvious?
David squeezed my hand. “Cold hands, warm heart.”
We reached the front door.

“You earned an A+ on today’s lesson. I hope you enjoyed the sailing as much as I did.”
“Oh I did! Thank you for everything, the sailing, the dinner…I can’t remember when I’ve had such a wonderful day. Yes I can, it was last Saturday, but this one was even better. I enjoyed myself enormously.”
He took my right hand, slipped something into my palm, and closed my fingers around it.
“I’d like to help you get off that raft of yours, Kate.” He smiled and said goodnight. After David left, I looked at his gift. It was a roll of lifesavers.
Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s