Trajectory by Richard Russo


  All night long and well into the next day their mother screamed, sometimes calling out their names. Did she even know they were alive?

  “Don’t you dare go in there,” Julian told him sternly, as if he’d voiced an intention to. They’d been told, of course, that due to the risk of infection it would be several days before they’d be allowed to see her, but it wasn’t this prohibition Julian was cautioning him about. Rather, he was warning Nate against wanting to go in there, against wanting to comfort and be comforted, against wanting to touch and speak, against wanting to forgive.

  So, yes, Evelyn, Nate would like to say, you are correct. Something did happen between them, something that’s made them fundamentally distrustful of each other, that’s undermining every impulse toward brotherly affection. Sure, it happened fifty years ago, but nothing’s changed. Julian is still seething, still furious with Nate for being so…for being himself. As if he could be otherwise. As if by being himself he’s demonstrating unnatural, perverse obstinacy.

  According to Evelyn, Julian had seemed out of sorts right from the start of the evening, his agitation becoming more pronounced when Nate failed to arrive at the restaurant. Renee suggested that maybe one of them should go back to the hotel and see if he was there. Maybe he never got Julian’s e-mail. Hadn’t he indicated at lunch that something was wrong with his phone?

  But Julian insisted this was bullshit. There was nothing wrong with the goddamn phone. Something was wrong with Nate. He’d always been a passive-aggressive little shit, and this was just an attempt to embarrass him publicly. When asked exactly what there was for him to be embarrassed about, though, Julian wouldn’t say, and as the evening progressed he grew increasingly morose, refusing to allow himself to be drawn into the conversation. Finally, when dessert was served, he rose from the table and said he was going to the men’s room. Worried when he didn’t return, Renee phoned him, but the call went directly to voice mail.

  “She’s very upset,” Evelyn adds, when Nate admits to being baffled by the particulars of his brother’s behavior. “And I’m worried, too. I know it’s silly, but I can’t get what Klaus said earlier out of my head. About how we’d be lucky if somebody didn’t end up floating in the canal? You don’t think Julian’s suicidal, do you?”

  The idea of Julian taking his own life is laughable, and Nate’s about to say so when he, too, is visited by the mental image of Julian’s body floating lifeless in the black water. Shaking it off, he suggests that she and Renee stay put, that he’ll leave now, and it shouldn’t take more than ten minutes to get to the restaurant. Then, whatever this is about, they’ll figure it out together. Evelyn gives him backup directions in case his phone’s locator app fails again, but when he types in Gondolieri Ristorante, a map pops up that correctly puts him at the hotel and the restaurant on the other side of the Accademia Bridge, right where it’s supposed to be.

  In the lobby, when Nate steps out of the elevator, Giancarlo seems embarrassed again and motions for him to come over to the desk, but whatever he wants it will have to wait. Despite the hour the bridge is bustling with tourists returning from dinner and Nigerians selling knockoff handbags. Nate takes the stairs three at a time right to the top, pausing there to catch his breath. Directly below, a man standing in the back of a water taxi looks for all the world like his brother. “Julian!” he calls, but the man doesn’t react. He shouts again, louder this time, as the taxi slides beneath the bridge. Just as the figure disappears, is there an instant of recognition? Nate hurries over to the other side of the bridge, but when the taxi emerges again, no one is standing in the back.

  A Learned Man

  It was Thursday afternoon when the dean visited, so Nate had a long weekend to consider the wisdom of his plan for Monday afternoon’s class. Though he’d neatly parried her thrust, Greta Silver’s suggestion that he might be dangerously mistaken about Opal Mauntz did bring him up short, and on the off chance that she might be right he went online to read up on Asperger’s. He already knew enough about the syndrome not to be terribly surprised by what he found. Like the Mauntz girl, most Asperger’s sufferers struggled with social interaction, often avoiding eye contact and failing to make friends, even refusing to speak to people they didn’t like. And like Opal their emotional range often appeared stunted. What was surprising, though, were the secondary symptoms; AS victims were frequently wedded to inflexible routines and many were physically clumsy, which of course brought to mind both the girl’s single-minded doggedness on the StairMaster and her injuring herself on it. Still, he reasoned, wasn’t this litany of symptoms—suggestive as it seemed at first glance—rather like those character descriptions as defined by astrological signs, broad enough to apply to an incredibly wide range of people? Didn’t his other students exhibit at least a few of these same indicators? Wasn’t Sarah Griffith, for instance, essentially devoid of empathy and concern for others?

  More tellingly, as Nate saw it, there was another cluster of symptoms that didn’t fit with what he’d observed in Opal Mauntz at all. Many AS sufferers not only spoke but in fact exhibited extreme verbosity, giving long-winded lectures on subjects of interest only to themselves. Others possessed abnormally large vocabularies but used pet words in rambling, incoherent sentences, “word soups” devoid of meaning. Nuance escaped them; ambiguity angered them. Preferring straightforward nonfiction, where facts could be controlled, people with Asperger’s often saw little merit in fictional narratives. For them, Jane Austen would be a minefield, and writing about her with precision and elegance and grace would be impossible. Yet that was exactly where Opal Mauntz excelled.

  Still, much as he would have liked to reject Greta’s diagnosis out of hand, he simply couldn’t and was moreover aware that as dean of students, she might know things to which he had no access. To make matters more complicated, AS sometimes overlapped with other syndromes, causing its victims to be that much more difficult to diagnose and treat. What particularly angered Nate was the dean’s disinterest in reading the girl’s essay, her stubborn determination to focus on his own behavior rather than Opal Mauntz’s plight—however they chose to define it. Her threat to remove her from the seminar had the unintended consequence of stiffening his resolve, as did what he’d learned about her father, an alum of the college. A wealthy investment banker with residences in Manhattan, London and the Bahamas, he’d joined the board of trustees a decade earlier, and though he seldom visited the college in person, attending most board meetings by teleconference, he’d made several staggering donations. His daughter’s threadbare clothing had initially led Nate to believe she must be a scholarship student, not from one of the richest families on the East Coast, but now it was hard not to see her self-presentation as a repudiation of her father and everything he stood for. And while that scorn might have been abstract and political, what if it wasn’t? Why, until this semester, had Opal Mauntz not taken a single course with a male professor? Was it possible she not only loathed her father but also feared him? This was pure speculation, of course, yet Nate felt a pattern was emerging, one that compelled him to reconsider his assumptions. Maybe Greta Silver knew more about Opal than he did, but what if she knew—or suspected—less? What if she was really more worried about Mr. Mauntz than his daughter? Or if the advice she’d been giving him—to pretend Opal wasn’t there—wasn’t just wrong, but dangerous. Maybe what the girl needed most was to understand that there were men in the world who could be trusted.

  It rained hard all weekend, stripping the trees of their last foliage, though on Tuesday the sun came out, and by the time Nate arrived on campus the crisp autumn air was redolent of burning leaves. Greta’s husband, apparently back from his travels, was supervising the blaze. Leaning against his university pickup, he watched, unblinking, as Nate pulled into the faculty lot and walked across the quad to Modern Languages, as if the professor represented a greater danger to the college than wind-borne sparks. Had Greta told him about her visit?

  In his office Nate took his
fourth antacid tablet of the day and reminded himself, as he’d been doing all weekend, that there was nothing pedagogically unsound about the prose workshop he meant to conduct during the second half of today’s class. In the first, they’d discuss Northanger Abbey, the next Austen novel on the syllabus, but since Wednesday marked the beginning of fall break, many students were already halfway out the door, and few in his seminar would have started the reading. So in the final forty-five minutes, prior to his handing back their essays, they’d examine in detail two substantial passages from the most recent batch, excerpts he’d selected and retyped without authorial attribution. Was it the very necessity of this exercise, he wondered, that prompted his students’ deep, nearly universal resentment of it? They understood and grudgingly accepted that their arguments were supposed to be persuasive, their theses clearly articulated, their supporting evidence effectively marshaled. They’d all taken and passed the required composition course where these principles had been drilled into them. Still, most of his students, even the English majors, were content for their meaning to loiter in the shadows of their murky prose, as if clarity were a responsibility shared by both writer and reader. His prose workshops flew in the face of their unshakable conviction that the essays they turned in were a private matter strictly between them and him, sort of like therapy or confession. “What if you were taking a painting class?” he inquired when they made this claim. “Wouldn’t your work be public—and an implied object of criticism—from the start?” If you couldn’t discuss the specifics of good writing in an English class, then where? To assuage the worst of their fears, he was careful to preface each session by reminding everyone that he’d chosen these particular passages precisely because the problems they highlighted were so common. Predictably, they were not persuaded. Because this wasn’t a painting class and because having their shortcomings, whether unique or not, put under a microscope was humiliating. If they’d known when the workshops were coming, they’d have skipped class en masse.

  None of this, however, was why he was eating antacids today. His misgivings—okay, they were grave ones—derived from the fact that today’s iteration would be different. For one thing he’d never conducted a workshop in a seminar; they were far more effective in survey courses with students drawn from a variety of academic disciplines, allowing the various writers’ anonymity to be mostly preserved. Here, since many of the students—setting aside Opal Mauntz—would’ve discussed their proposed topics in advance of actually writing the essays, anonymity was a transparent ruse. More important, the second excerpt he’d selected was from the essay that Greta Silver had declined to read. It was difficult to justify putting such an accomplished piece of writing on the worksheet. What was there to say about it except This is what you should be striving for? On the other hand, the passage eloquently answered the question that had been stumping B students from the beginning of time: Why isn’t my B an A? Surely on these grounds alone its inclusion could be justified. The others would know the work was hers, sure, but what of it?

  Of course the real problem was that he’d chosen Sarah Griffith’s essay for unflattering comparison. But really, could you blame him? She, more than any of the rest, seemed to feel entitled to an A grade she couldn’t earn, and when she didn’t get it, her conclusion was that her professor’s unreasonably high expectations had cheated her out of it. Why not demonstrate how wrongheaded this was to both her and her classmates, most of whom actually seemed to admire her pretentious, awkward, jargon-riddled prose? Besides, in addition to his many valid reasons for putting the Griffith girl’s work under scrutiny, there was an ugly personal motive as well: it was she, Nate was certain, who’d gone to the dean to complain about his behavior.

  But never mind. In all probability, he thought, rising from his desk chair and gathering his things, his anxiety was groundless. In the end these prose workshops never ended up as rigorous as planned. When push came to shove, he’d remind himself that the writer was only nineteen or twenty and could hardly be blamed for the culture of carelessness he or she had grown up in. Invariably, the poor kid’s hangdog, mortified expression identified him as the offending author, and then Nate always relented, unwilling to cause him any serious embarrassment. The same thing would probably happen today. He’d measure Sarah Griffith’s reaction to being selected, and if she appeared more apprehensive than indignant, he could always tone down his remarks by emphasizing, as he generally did, that in and of themselves any mistakes you could correct with a pencil were relatively minor, significant only when their cumulative effect undermined the whole. His purpose was merely to prove how something good, with a little fine-tuning, could become special, which after all was the goal.

  In the doorway to the tiny office he shared with an adjunct poet, who was away this term on a visiting-writer gig, Nate paused to wonder, not for the first time, if he’d stayed too long. The college had been good to him. He’d been decently paid, fairly treated. Why hadn’t he made a clean break like the rest of his retiring colleagues? Was it possible that the dean’s visit last week wasn’t about the Mauntz girl at all, but simply because he’d overstayed his welcome? Had he, without meaning to, become the guest still seated when the rest of the dinner party pushed back their chairs to go home, the one who ignores the yawns of his host, pours himself one last glass of port and takes his leave only when he glimpses the hostess in her terry-cloth robe turning off the kitchen lights and heading upstairs?

  Indeed it was possible. But it was also possible his mistake had been in accepting the dinner invitation in the first place. He’d been a competent, dutiful teacher, but not—he knew deep down—a really good one. He often liked individual students, but in a classroom of forty or fifty, his spirits routinely plummeted. As a young professor he’d tried to convince himself that over time he would cleave to the work, or at least come to see it as vital and necessary, as turned out to be the case, but he knew he’d never be a natural, and so his fear that he just wasn’t cut out for academic life festered. When finally granted tenure, he’d celebrated, like many of his colleagues, by buying a house. These properties were all close to campus, many within walking distance. They bought as much house as they could afford in neighborhoods where their children could enroll in the best schools. The house Nate bought in the poor, working-class hamlet was a good twenty minutes away—even more in winter—and was in such ruinous condition that his peers shook their heads and wondered if he’d lost his mind. Not one suspected that the place appealed to him not in spite of how much work it needed but because of it.

  That house had excellent bones, though, and over the next decade he methodically restored it, usually working alone, though he’d hire a scholarship student when a task required an extra pair of hands. It always surprised him how much he enjoyed these students’ company in a nonacademic setting, and they appeared to enjoy his as well. They invariably remarked on how different he seemed when dressed in jeans and work boots, with a tool belt around his waist and his tweed jacket hung on a hook in the mudroom. They didn’t say they liked him more then, or that he was better at teaching carpentry or plumbing than romantic poetry, but he could tell that’s what they meant. The same day he was promoted, in an irony no English professor was likely to miss, he received a letter from Mrs. Handscombe, who was writing to tell him her husband had fallen off a roof and broken his back the previous spring; he’d survived that, but later contracted an infection and died. Going through his things, she’d run across an old photograph of the two of them and wanted Nate to know that over the years her husband had often wondered if he was enjoying his life as a man of learning. Had that been her phrase, he wondered, or her husband’s?

  But what did it matter when the error in judgment had occurred? In any case, he decided, closing the office door behind him and starting down the deserted corridor toward the seminar room, this would be his last year. Even if he were offered a course next fall, he’d decline. It was time. Which made this, with only five weeks left, his last
seminar and that much more important. What difference did it make if he’d never been a natural? He’d learned to do the job, and in the time remaining he would do it as well as he could. Why, now that he was on the brink, should he be timid? Normally, he didn’t read the passages on the worksheet out loud, but today he thought he might. Hearing words could be instructive. The tongue often tripped precisely where the mind stumbled, and elegance was as much a function of the ear as the eye.

  Really, though, it came down to this. He was determined that the others should hear Opal Mauntz’s voice, even if it had to come out of his own mouth.

  Batshit

  So, then, it’s even worse than what he’s been fearing all along. He’s losing his mind.

  Really, what other explanation is there? Because the man slipping under the Accademia Bridge can’t have been his brother. From the restaurant it’s an easy walk back to the hotel, and on such a lovely night there’s no reason for Julian to take a taxi, and where else, at this hour, would he be going? Therefore, if it wasn’t Julian he saw, then Nate’s mind is playing tricks on him. His senses are no longer to be trusted. Also supporting this thesis there is, well, the whole day, starting that morning with his inability to locate his entire troop, then getting lost trying to find the restaurant, not to mention the phantom phone call to his ex-fiancée. And finally, after inviting his brother to dinner to hash things out, falling asleep for five hours and missing dinner entirely.

 
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