Chapter 7

Posted: January 20, 2012 in Uncategorized

Blaine Hall, Room B102
University of Washington, Seattle
Nov. 19, 1956

Dear Mother and Daddy,

Happy birthday, Daddy, and a Happy Thanksgiving to you both!

Today something funny happened in my Spanish literature class – the professor, Mr. Maldonado, was lecturing about The Book of Good Love, a collection of raunchy medieval tales, in which there’s a story about a young man who wants to marry three women. Before marrying the first one, he’s strong enough to lift his father’s gigantic millstone, but after taking his second wife the fellow’s so exhausted he can’t budge it. About ten of us were seated at a seminar table, with our books, notebooks, etc. on top; Mr. Maldonado shouted “he was so tired he couldn’t even lift the MILLSTONE,” and with that he raised one end of the table up about three feet. “Ay de mi, he was so pooped!” He slammed the table back down and all our things went sliding to the floor!

Last Saturday I went sailing with Frank and Dr. Rosenau…
In the following weeks, David and I continued to sail on Saturdays; we made a good team handling Sturmvogel, and as I gained experience, David let me take over some of the tasks he was accustomed to doing himself. He initiated me into the mysteries of “Taylor,” the cranky kerosene stove, who greeted my first efforts at stir-frying with a flare-up that threatened to incinerate us both, but I tamed the beast and David promoted me to ship’s cook.

Saturday mornings we stopped at a supermarket on our way to the marina. I enjoyed these excursions; pushing a shopping cart beside David lent an aura of domesticity to our relationship, and I could almost pretend we were a normal couple buying food for the weekend. We were standing in front of a refrigerator case one morning when our eyes met in a mirror. David regarded us for a moment.

“We make a handsome couple, don’t you agree?” he asked, addressing my reflection in the glass.

“Very. Do you suppose people think we’re married?”

“I doubt if anyone thinks about us at all, and if they do, they probably assume you’re my daughter.”

“Impossible.”

“Because I’m dark and you’re fair?”

“Because most fathers kiss their daughters occasionally.”

David responded with a pinch on my arm.

On Saturdays we usually sailed until the mid-afternoon and then anchored, giving me time to prepare dinner. Since the galley was small and I was a novice cook, our first Saturday evening meals together were necessarily simple, on the order of spaghetti, garlic bread and salad, but as my confidence increased, I branched out to more exotic fare, like chicken breast in wine and mushroom sauce served on a mound of steaming rice. While I fixed dinner in the galley, David fished for crab from the cockpit. Every ten minutes or so he’d haul up the trap for inspection and plop his hapless victims into a bucket of salt water. I pitied those poor creatures who waved their eyestalks and ogled us gravely, opening and closing their mouths in silent rage, and couldn’t bear the thought of cooking them. After hearing “oh David, we just can’t eat those crabs, please throw them back” one time too many, David took to hiding his catch from me; he dispatched the crabs in the cockpit and then handed them down to me for boiling. Sometimes Frank joined us on these Saturday sails; he was good company and I always enjoyed having him along. I never saw David on Sundays; I assumed he spent the remainder of the weekend with his family or at least at home, but he never brought up the subject, and I didn’t want to know.

When the weather was too miserable for sailing, we passed the day at the dock, studying, talking, reading aloud to each other, or simply lying on our backs listening to music and the patter of raindrops on the cabin top. David introduced me to his favorite poets – Tennyson and Whitman – and I read Swinburne and Yeats to him. Thinking back to those months, I realize they were some of the happiest in my life, full of innocence and laughter and warm companionship.

Two or three nights a week I went to David’s office after dinner, taking my books with me, and studied, curled up in his massive leather armchair, while David wrote or read technical journals. Sometimes we didn’t speak for hours, but we only needed to look up and catch the other’s eye to reforge the bond of intimacy between us. David bought a hot plate, and I made coffee or tea about ten, giving us a break before David drove me back to the dormitory.

Frank often worked in the building at night and he quickly got in the habit of dropping by for a few minutes to chat. He was one of those individuals who has an opinion on every subject and feels duty bound to defend his position, no matter how untenable, and I often listened in dismay to his arguments with David.

Although Frank admitted he never went to mass unless someone in his family was ill, he was Catholic to the core, while David, though culturally Jewish, was an atheist. By unspoken consent they avoided discussing religion, and on those few occasions when the conversation did turn to faith, David could usually hold his tongue, but bringing up some topics with him was like waving a red flag in front of a bull. One of these was prayer, and when Frank happened to mention his priest in Spokane had asked the congregation to pray for a little girl suffering from cancer, one glance at David told me he was girding for battle.

“Your God is omniscient, isn’t he? Given that premise, God is already aware of what you want, so why does he need reminding? Besides, what’s the logic in praying for a specific outcome and at the same time saying ‘God’s will be done’? Either you’re praying God’s will be done or you’re not. And all those people petitioning God to save a little girl’s life – that reminds me of the talent shows on television where the audience claps and they use an applause meter to determine the winner. Is God tallying the prayers up in heaven? ‘As of ten minutes ago I’ve received 3,576 prayers urging my intervention; surely you can do better than that. Can you make it 4,000?’ How many prayers does God require to change his mind? What is he, some kind of cosmic bellhop? If God’s benevolent and omnipotent what possible reason can he have not to save a child’s life? And don’t give me some b.s. about his inscrutability. What about the sick children who aren’t lucky enough to have someone praying for them, is God simply going to let them die? Or Jewish children who don’t acknowledge Jesus as their savior; are they less deserving of life than the child in your parish? And if, after all those prayers, the little girl dies anyway, you’ll say her death was God’s will. If God’s will is going to be done regardless, what good is praying?”

Frank was aghast at David’s blasphemy.“How can you say such a thing? The value of prayer is unquestionable. Prayer is good because it changes the person who prays.”

“That’s what Kierkegaard said and I think it’s totally beside the point here.”

By this time I was signaling David to desist; I agreed with him, but goading Frank seemed both cruel and useless. David caught my expression.

“Kate’s telling me I’m out of line. All right, I’ll stop, but why don’t you try praying to the sun for a change? At least you can see the sun and it won’t ask you for money.”

David’s lack of faith distressed Frank; he was genuinely pained to think David’s soul risked eternal damnation, and though he nourished no hope of converting David to Christianity, he did suggest David return to the fold of Judaism. Unsuccessfully.

David generally respected Frank’s religious beliefs, but when Frank strayed from the path of orthodoxy into the mists of supernaturalism, poltergeists and UFO’s, David was openly contemptuous because he found Frank’s credulity incompatible with his role as a scientist. One day when we were chatting in the hall, out of David’s earshot, Frank confessed to me he believed in ghosts. He’d never seen one himself, he hastened to add, but his uncle, a sober and truthful man, had once met a ghost while bicycling at night on a road in southern Italy. His uncle’s experience was unimpeachable evidence for Frank, though he was careful never to mention the incident to David.

Their discussions followed a predictable course: intially amiable until Frank realized David was undermining his logic, at which point Frank interpreted David’s arguments as a personal attack and became belligerent. The two of them continued parrying and thrusting down a mental corridor until Frank had his back to the wall and David was ready to deliver the coup de grace. I always knew when that moment had arrived because the corners of David’s mouth would turn up ever so slightly; he would lean back in his chair and put the tips of his fingers together. Frank never admitted he was beaten; he’d just say huffily that David was engaging in sophistry and stalk out of the room. David would shrug his shoulders and roll his eyes, sighing, “a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”

I never dared take on Frank in one of those debates; he may have been fair game for David, but he was too clever for me. We often engaged in some ridiculous arguments about factual matters, however, like our disagreement over the origin of the Turkish language, Frank maintaining it was Indo-European, while I insisted it was Ural-Altaic. On another occasion we disputed heatedly whether the author of Frankenstein was Shelley’s wife or his mother-in-law. Appealing to David to settle our differences was futile; he only laughed at us like an indulgent uncle babysitting a couple of squabbling children.

Our gatherings began to attract some of the other graduate students as well, and before long there were six or seven of us in David’s office after dinner. He introduced us to yerba maté, a South American herb tea and occasionally, for David frowned on junk food, he brought a box of doughnuts. Frank declared the maté tasted like horse piss, but he could always be counted on to eat the pastries.

When the discussions were technical, which was frequent, I tuned out and returned to my studies, but even when the conversation was non-scientific, I was a silent spectator for, with the exception of Frank, I never felt comfortable around the other graduate students. I suppose they must have guessed David’s and my relationship, although he rarely acknowledged my presence in front of them, but when the three of us were together, David hugged and caressed me openly without embarrassment. If Frank appeared uneasy at these displays of affection, David seemed oblivious of his discomfort; on the contrary, he treated Frank as a co-conspirator. Despite his disapproval, Frank took a voyeur’s delight in observing us, and it was often difficult to get rid of him. David said you could spit in Frank’s eye and he’d think it was raining. When subtlety failed, David would open the door and say with a smile, “Goodnight, Frank, I know you were just leaving.”

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.
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