Trajectory by Richard Russo

If he is losing his mind, then much of this behavior makes a certain kind of sense. His subconscious, somehow, is now in charge. Earlier, desperate and lost, he’d wanted to talk to Brenda, so the back of his brain managed to phone her without troubling the front. And she was right to chide him about still being on his list of Favorites after all these years. And while falling asleep for five hours this evening might be attributed to jet lag, a far-better explanation would be that part of him feared a confrontation with Julian, who as always would emerge triumphant. Though he sometimes hates his brother and maybe even wishes him gone, he’s also terrified of being utterly alone in the world, so after Evelyn mentioned a body floating dead in the canal Nate’s subconscious had restored Julian to life by placing him, hale and healthy, in a water taxi. These events all add up to a case study in avoidance; he’s alternately blamed his own phone, his brother’s phone, and Julian himself, but it’s time to face the ugly truth. At the airport Julian had taken one look at him and known something was terribly wrong. Odd that the loss of his rationality, a ghastly possibility earlier in the day, should be so exhilarating now, but it is. Because if he’s really batshit, then he’s also off the hook. He can stop feeling responsible for his failures, past and present. Surely a drowning man, exhausted and alone in a sea of self-doubt and recrimination, is at some point allowed to welcome the water into his lungs.

  If he’s crazy, then it follows that the world is sane. By the time he arrives at Ristorante Gondolieri, he reasons, rational order will probably have been restored without any assistance from him. If for some reason Julian did momentarily go off the rails, there’ll be some perfectly logical explanation. After all, his brother is not a young man. Perhaps before leaving the States he was given some new medication that’s interacted badly with something else he’s taking. By now he’s had the opportunity to reflect on his boorish behavior, realize he owes his dinner companions a profound apology and has returned, hangdog, to offer it. Even his abrupt disappearance from the restaurant will somehow turn out to be perfectly sensible. Maybe in the men’s room Julian realized he’d left his wallet at the hotel and went back for it, made a wrong turn and got lost. Hadn’t much the same thing happened to Nate himself? Right now, over grappa, Julian’s probably explaining, to great comic effect, how it all played out.

  But no, when Nate arrives, he can see from the restaurant’s foyer that except for the waiters, busily turning the chairs upside down on nearby tables, it’s just the two women inside. He almost doesn’t recognize Evelyn, who instead of one of her signature tracksuits is wearing a sleeveless black dress and a necklace and, unless Nate’s mistaken, makeup. Renee looks different as well, though in her case it isn’t the attire. She usually gives the appearance of being on the cusp of a panic attack, but now she looks like whatever she’s been dreading has come to pass. Both women seem genuinely relieved to see him, and this causes Nate’s newly identified inner lunatic to grin maniacally. They wouldn’t be so pleased if they knew the man who stood before them was in fact completely uncunted. (For the first time, his brother’s terminology seems appropriate.)

  “We’re sorry to drag you here,” Evelyn tells him. “We should’ve just gone back to the hotel.”

  “We didn’t know what to do,” Renee adds.

  Clearly, they’re under the misguided impression that he will, and their faith in him stirs something like regret, because he’s always wanted to be someone women could depend on. He should probably confess to these two that he’s merely feigning competence, but they’ve apparently had a rough evening and he can’t bring himself to disappoint either of them further. Why not pretend a little longer?

  So, though a waiter has apparently done this already, he locates the men’s room and checks the stall to make sure that his brother, for reasons unknown, isn’t hiding in it. Then he goes outside and surveys the square in case Julian has fallen asleep on a bench or isn’t smoking yet another cigarette alongside the small canal. And, yes, he even glances in the canal itself for any floating bodies. Finally, going back inside the restaurant, still faking competence, he asks Evelyn what he imagines a movie detective might—whether Julian said or did anything peculiar right before leaving the table.

  “Actually, it was all rather peculiar,” she admits. “He said several very cruel things to Renee.”

  “Like what?” Nate says, because while Julian certainly can be mean-spirited, it really is out of character for him to be anything but charming to an attractive woman he isn’t married to.

  “It was probably my—”

  “No,” Evelyn says sternly, as if to a child. “It was not your fault.” She waits until she’s sure Renee doesn’t intend to challenge her on this point before turning her attention back to Nate. “There’s no need to repeat the actual words.”

  Something about how Evelyn says this suggests she plans to tell him later, just not now, in front of her friend. “Was he, like, joking?” Nate says. “I mean, trying to be funny?”

  “No,” Evelyn insists, apparently certain of this much. “He was trying to hurt her feelings.”

  “I don’t really think he—” Renee tries to interject.

  “Don’t make excuses,” Evelyn says, taking her hand. “You know I’m right.”

  “It’s just…,” she says, utterly bewildered. “He was so nice the rest of the day…”

  “I know, sweetie. I know how much you liked him,” she says, “but Nate’s here now and you like him, too.”

  Renee regards Nate seriously, as if to determine whether this can be so, then says to Evelyn, “We shouldn’t have come.”

  “That’s not true,” Evelyn tells her. “Remember what you said this afternoon? About what a good time we’re having?”

  “Julian thinks there’s something wrong with me.”

  “There isn’t.”

  “So does Nate.”

  “He thinks no such thing,” Evelyn assures her when Nate is caught flat-footed and misses his cue to testify on Renee’s behalf. Actually, despite Evelyn’s assurance to the contrary, he’s begun to wonder if there is something wrong with the woman, as she appears to be unraveling faster than Nate himself. Was it only yesterday that he’d imagined falling in love with her, devoting the rest of his life to making sure she knew that everything would be okay? What a batshit pair they’d have made.

  “Besides,” Evelyn is saying, “remember we agreed that it doesn’t matter what other people think? It’s what you think that counts?”

  One look at Renee and you know the reverse is true. “Can we…,” she pleads with her companion, as if Nate were not present. “Can we, please?”

  Can they what? he wonders. The way she’s holding her knees together makes it look like she needs to pee.

  “You want to go back to the hotel?” Evelyn says, somehow understanding her friend’s actual need.

  Renee nods, choking back a sob. “And when we get there, can I take one of my pills?”

  “Of course you can,” she says, and the intimacy between the two women is suddenly so private and profound that Nate has to look away.

  —

  Back at the hotel, he steers the two women into the tiny elevator, telling them he’ll take the stairs. Not wanting to alarm Renee, he doesn’t tell them he’s going to stop at his brother’s room. If Julian’s there, whether Nate’s subconscious mind wants to or not, he means to get to the bottom of things, once and for all.

  “Call me in the morning?” Evelyn says as the elevator door closes, and to Nate, though he’s no longer able to put much faith in his own conclusions, the invitation seems sincere, rooted in genuine fondness. How lovely she looks in her black dress, he can’t help thinking. How has he managed to miss that loveliness until now?

  Arriving at his brother’s door, Nate knocks, gently at first, then louder, listening for sounds of stirring inside. “Julian?” he says. “If you’re in there, please open up. I know it’s late, but please…I need to talk to you. Julian?” He puts his ear to the door, but only for a
moment, because he immediately imagines his brother doing the same thing on the other side, and that idea’s too creepy. The silence within is perfect.

  Downstairs in the lobby again, Nate gently rings the bell at the front desk until a sleepy-looking Giancarlo emerges from the back, rubbing his eyes. “I’m sorry to disturb you,” Nate says, “but can you tell me if my brother has returned to the hotel?”

  For some reason this question elicits from the young man an even-more-profound embarrassment than his earlier one over Julian’s credit card. “Signore,” he begins, producing from beneath the desk another official-looking document. “You brother…,” he continues, but then words fail him. When he pushes this new paper toward him, Nate sees in the upper-right-hand corner a drawing of a water taxi, and the significance of this hits him right between the eyes, everything becoming, in that single image, painfully clear. He’s not insane. The man in the water taxi was his brother. “He’s gone, isn’t he.”

  Giancarlo grimaces with sympathy. “I try to say to you before. He check out-a.”

  Nate looks at his watch. By now Julian’s at the airport, possibly even on a flight back to D.C.

  “He say-a…you pay. I hope is okay?”

  The restoration of his sanity should be a relief, even cause for celebration, but somehow it isn’t. Indeed, what Nate feels is closer to dismay than elation. Having accepted, perhaps even embraced, the idea of lunacy, not to mention the sense of emancipation that trailed in its wake, he’s reluctant to switch gears again so quickly. Because if he’s not crazy, he’s also not off the hook. If he’s in his right mind, then it’s his moral duty to expel the metaphorical water he’s so recently welcomed into his lungs, to push painfully for the far-off surface and emerge yet again into burning air. He hands the man his credit card and tells him not to worry, it’s fine, really, it is.

  “Goo-da,” Giancarlo says, wiping imaginary perspiration from his brow. “Be-cow-za. If signore don’t pay?” He points at himself. “Giancarlo. He pay.”

  Bacon

  In the run-up to fall and spring breaks it was not unusual for impromptu parties to spring up in the quad, so when Nate heard sounds of revelry in the seminar room, he assumed they must be coming from outside. Stepping in, he fully expected to see his students, those who hadn’t already departed early for the break, hanging out the open windows and shouting encouragement to their partying friends below. Not Opal, of course. No social reciprocity for her—not with people her own age and certainly not, he was reluctantly coming to understand, with her teachers. If Greta Silver was right, there was simply no room in her syndrome for his good intentions, much less his almost pathological desire to help her discover a normal life that would include touching and being touched, speaking and being spoken to. Sadly, Opal would be in her usual seat, situated so as to preclude bearing witness to a life she’d never share, her gaze, as always, directed inward.

  But no. Entering the seminar room, he saw that the revels were being conducted right here. Sarah Griffith had climbed up on the chair he himself usually occupied at the far end of the oblong table and was tossing—he could scarcely believe his eyes—strips of raw bacon to her classmates at the other end. Each time she threw another, they lunged for it, yelping like dogs, their expressions so ravenous he half expected them to devour it on the spot. What they were actually doing with it was even stranger. Kneading and massaging the bacon strips until their hands glistened, they then ran their fingers through their hair, slicking it back, shiny, against their skulls. The air in the room was redolent of smoked pig.

  “Professor!” exclaimed Cody, his lone male student, who appeared delighted by his arrival. “You’re just in time!” The others also seemed pleased to find him in their midst, as if they’d forgotten altogether that this was their Jane Austen seminar. Immediately, a chant sprung to life—“Grease him up! Grease him up!”

  Several of the girls were on the lacrosse team and had relatively short hair, which they’d now fashioned into glistening pompadours, and this gave them a rather terrifying, androgynous look. This was especially true of Sarah Griffith. Cody had tried his best to achieve a similar effect but had little to work with, his blond head cropped too close. “Release your inner Elvis, Professor!” he suggested.

  Griffith—making no move to climb down from his chair!—made an imaginary microphone of her shiny fist and began singing, her normal, husky alto now scarily baritone, “He’s a hunka, hunka burnin’ love.” The others joined in, expressing the same, no doubt ironic, opinion. “Hunka! Hunka! Hunka! Hunka!” they howled, until Griffith climbed onto the table itself and strutted its length to her accustomed seat at the other end. Only then did the chanting stop. Most amazing, to Nate, was that they were so clearly pleased with themselves, not in the least ashamed of their behavior.

  “Uh, Professor,” said Cody, when he finally joined them at the table. “Don’t be shocked, but”—here he lowered his voice confidentially—“we’ve been drinking.”

  “All of us,” said the shyest girl in the class, who seemed anxious that he understand, should he feel disapproving, that they were all, if not innocent, then equally guilty.

  “And Jane Austen?” said the girl sitting next to her. “Could we give her a pass? Just for today?”

  “The thing about Jane?” said Sarah Griffith, indicating the copy of Northanger Abbey he’d placed on the table. “She never once in her whole life went to a bacon party. It’s kind of tragic, really.”

  “She’s a hunka, hunka burnin’ love,” someone sang, but the joke had run its course and this time no one joined in.

  “So,” Cody said, suddenly embarrassed, as if he’d just looked down and discovered he was naked. He pointed at the two strips of bacon left in the package. “You gonna grease up?”

  What he was being offered, Nate realized, was membership in their drunken society, which was, in its own stupid way, kind of sweet. If he accepted, if he gave in to the moment and ran greasy fingers through what remained of his hair, his relationship with these students would be fundamentally and permanently altered. It was, he realized, a perverse, twisted version of what he’d often wished for, the kind of acceptance and appreciation that can be conferred upon a teacher only by his students. By the time they all returned from fall break, everyone in the college would have heard how Professor Wilson had attended a bacon party and there revealed a side to his personality that no one had suspected. It was the kind of story that would be told for years, maybe even become part of his legacy, how he would be remembered on campus. The choice was his. Without realizing it, he’d picked up a strip of bacon and could feel its warm grease being released onto his fingers.

  What he would try to recall in the long months that followed was just how strong the temptation had been. Would he have actually joined in their idiotic fun if he hadn’t just then thought of the Mauntz girl? That, of course, made it impossible, and in his hesitation, when he glanced in the direction of the chair she always occupied, apart from the rest, Sarah Griffith read his mind. “She won’t be coming,” she said, with what seemed great personal satisfaction.

  And just that quickly he was full of dread. “Why not?”

  “We heard she had an accident,” Cody said.

  “What kind of accident?”

  “She fell off a StairMaster.”

  “Again,” someone added.

  “On her head,” said someone else.

  “They had to call an ambulance.”

  “I guess some people never learn,” Sarah Griffith concluded.

  What occurred to Nate then was that he was the only one who, in the midst of the revelry, had forgotten Opal. The others—all of them—had been waiting for him to notice she wasn’t there. Their terrible silence now made this clear. Worse, far worse, was a second realization—that her absence was actually responsible for their high spirits. As they saw it, Opal—and people like her—kept the world from being a fun place. They understood that the Opal Mauntzes of the world—the damaged, the p
oor, the snakebit—existed, much like third world countries did. They comprehended, too, at least abstractly, that such unfortunates were owed sympathy, understanding, perhaps even assistance. At some later date, a few of these same students—for some reason he suspected it might be Cody—would come to embrace empathy and even moral obligation. Others, like the Griffith girl, would end up living in the world’s gated communities, aloof, at a safe distance. Ironically, she and those like her would have, as did Opal Mauntz herself, “proximity issues.” Their expensive educations would prove a waste of time. Of his time.

  And so, instead of “greasing up,” Nate took those strips he’d been given, together with the rest of the package, and deposited it all in the wastebasket.

  “Uh, Professor?” said Cody, slow to grasp that the party was over. “That was perfectly good bacon.”

  A hush fell over the room, and Nate allowed this uncomfortable silence to abide before announcing that if no one was prepared to discuss Northanger Abbey, then they would proceed to the only other item on the day’s agenda before adjourning. Normally, the distribution of a dreaded worksheet would have elicited a communal groan, but today there was just the sound of rustling paper as the handouts were passed around the table. Noting that Sarah Griffith’s essay was excerpted there, the other students, one by one, glanced over at her warily, and when Nate began to read her passage aloud she interrupted him. “I can read it,” she said, twirling her greasy pompadour with her index finger, her voice rich with confrontation. “I mean, everybody knows it’s mine, so why not? Then you can explain why it’s a piece of shit.”

  “The purpose of the workshop—” he began, but she’d begun reading and there was nothing to do except wait for her to finish. When she did, she tossed the sheet of paper toward the center of the table, where it caught an updraft and skittered off onto the floor. “Like I said. A piece of shit. But hey! The second one’s much better, right?”

  “Yes,” Nate heard himself say. “Yes, it is.”

 
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