Trajectory by Richard Russo

  At this Sarah Griffith rose and began gathering her things. “So,” she said. “Just to summarize…Jane Austen is great. Opal Mauntz is great. The rest of us suck. I suck.”

  A fair assessment, Nate couldn’t help thinking, and he might actually have said so if at that moment the door hadn’t opened and, to everyone’s astonishment, Opal Mauntz entered. She was wearing a wool stocking cap pulled down low over her forehead and very dark glasses that weren’t quite large enough to conceal completely her facial swelling. She was limping badly, and it took almost a minute to arrive at and then settle herself in her usual chair.

  Sarah Griffith was first to recover from this surprise. “Hey, Mauntz,” she called. “Good news. You’re on the worksheet.”

  If the girl heard this, she gave no sign.

  “I just read mine out loud,” Sarah Griffith continued. “You want to read yours?”

  “Sarah, please,” Nate said, unable to take his eyes off the other girl.

  “No, really. Share with us, girlfriend. We’re all dying to hear from you.”

  Later, Nate wouldn’t remember getting to his feet, but he must’ve. Even as he approached her he understood this was a mistake. Better to remain at the table with the others, at the distance Opal herself had established as safe, but that would’ve meant he was with the others, no? That his sympathies were with them? And he couldn’t bear that she should think that. Or that they should. He registered, if only distantly, their confusion and alarm as he approached the poor, broken girl.

  Though she’d canted her head away, he now could see her split lip, also grotesquely swollen, and there was a spot of dried brown blood in her ear canal. The idea that this blood would remain where others could see it and she couldn’t seemed to Nate insupportable. “Opal?” he said, without expecting a response. “Opal, you shouldn’t be here.”

  She should be in the hospital was what he meant, but the words were no sooner out of his mouth than he heard their other meaning, that she had no business in his Jane Austen seminar, no business at the college, no business out in the world. And it must’ve been this meaning that she heard because why else would she have turned to face him then, something she’d never done before, and remove, in a gesture he could interpret only as defiance, both her stocking cap and dark glasses. Was it the sight of her, of the full extent of her injuries, that caused the other students to offer up a communal gasp, or the fact that he’d extended his hand to brush, as lightly as he knew how, her swollen, purple cheek?

  “Professor! Don’t!” he heard Cody shout, but of course it was too late. He’d already reached out. Wasn’t that—despite repeated warnings about what the consequences might be—what he’d been doing from the start? Reaching out? Wasn’t that what you were supposed to do for any human in need? Though in the instant the backs of his fingers touched the skin of her cheek, he understood that he was making, had already made, the worst mistake of a career that was itself a mistake, not only by failing to comprehend what this girl needed, but also by confusing her need, her bewilderment, her inability to kick down life’s barriers, with his own. Both of these profound errors of judgment were immediately confirmed by the keening yowl that issued from deep in Opal Mauntz’s throat, the voice he’d been so determined to summon from behind the blank screen of her grotesque face, now gushing forth like blood from a wound that would not close anytime soon.


  There’s a small wine bar at the far end of the campo that’s open late, which is good, because Nate discovers that, along with his sanity, his appetite has been fully restored. In fact, having eaten nothing since a few forkfuls of risotto at lunch, he’s suddenly famished.

  He’d like to confirm his suspicions about his brother, which he could do by calling Evelyn, but it’s quite late. It’s only twenty minutes since he put the two women in the elevator, so he doubts they could be asleep yet, but given what she and Renee have been through with Julian, he’s hesitant to disturb them further. Though he could satisfy his curiosity by calling Brenda, she wouldn’t be happy to hear from him, not twice in one day. Over the years her advice to him has been simple and consistent. To move on. And now the time has come to follow it. So he thinks again of Evelyn, who, unless he’s mistaken, will be pleased to hear his voice, even if it wakes her. And indeed, answering on the first ring, she does seem pleased. It’s hard to tell for sure, however, her barely audible whisper suggesting that Renee has indeed drifted off.

  “My brother skipped out on the check, didn’t he?” he says.

  “I wasn’t going to say anything, but yeah.”

  “I’ll make good on that,” he assures her.

  “I’m not worried.”

  Which makes him smile. People are like paintings, he thinks; they exist in real time and space, but also in the eye of the beholder. Julian, who’s known him all his life, took one look at him at the airport and saw cause for alarm. Evelyn, who’s known him for all of twenty-four hours, sees an entirely different man and isn’t worried. Is it within his power to prove her right, his brother wrong? He will make it his business to find out.

  “Julian’s gone,” he tells her, explaining that he’s taken a water taxi to the airport. “I’m pretty sure he’s broke.” He hopes it’s not true, but the known facts—the denied credit card, Julian’s inability to broach the subject directly, Brenda’s unwillingness to say anything until he did—all suggest that this whole Venice trip is nothing but an elaborate head fake. Brenda had admitted as much. She knew Julian as well as anyone, understanding all too well how hard it would be for him to ask Nate for help. His entire life he’s been the wheeler-dealer, lording his various worldly successes over Nate, relentlessly poking fun at his brother’s poorly paid profession, as well as his financial timidity when offered opportunities for greater reward. Asking for help now would be tantamount to an admission that Nate has come out better in the end. Worse, it would be admitting to an even-more-damaging truth: people had stopped buying Julian.

  “What will you do?” Evelyn asks.

  “I don’t know,” he tells her. “Whatever I can, I guess.” It will depend on how much help his brother needs. That he needs money is a safe bet, but how much? It’s also possible he needs a place to stay until he can get back on his feet. That would explain Brenda’s remark about Julian’s proposal not being, in her opinion, a great idea. “How’s Renee?” he asks.

  “Out like a light,” she says, “but I still should keep my voice down.”

  “And how are you?”

  “Disappointed, mostly. I bought a new dress, and the man I was hoping to impress didn’t even notice.”

  “Maybe he’s not worth the effort.”

  “Yeah, but what if he is? Maybe he deserves another chance. Maybe he’s just lost. He got lost earlier today, actually. Of course in Venice, that’s allowed.” She must’ve heard the music in the bar, because then she said, “Where are you?”

  “That little place across the campo. As you know, I missed out on dinner.”

  “Order me a glass of red. Something expensive.”

  Hanging up, he enters her number into Favorites, where it belongs, and deletes Brenda’s, which doesn’t. Seeing his ex-fiancée’s name disappear makes him even more ravenous, and when his pasta comes he inhales it, pushing the plate away just as Evelyn, in one of her tracksuits again, walks in. As she comes toward him he can’t help smiling, finally recognizing her for what she is, the overlooked woman. That he, a Jane Austen scholar, has been so blind to her shames him. Still, that he’s blind to her no longer just might be grounds for hope.

  “Oooh, yum,” she says, sliding into the booth and taking a sip of the Barbaresco he ordered for her. “Will we always drink expensive wine?”

  “Probably not. Only one of us is now.”

  She smiles, then grows serious. “Poor Renee. She was doing so well. Now this.”

  “What did Julian say to her?”

  “He asked if somebody dropped her on her head when she was little.”
  “What in the world would have provoked that?”

  “Oh, he’d been going on about you, how you’d always been passive-aggressive, and this was all about you trying to humiliate him in front of us. Renee said no, she couldn’t believe that. You were a nice man, and this had to be a big misunderstanding.”

  “I’m really sorry,” he says, and he is, especially knowing it was Renee’s defending him that had precipitated Julian’s cruelty.

  “The worst part is, it’s exactly the sort of thing her husband used to say.” There are, Nate notices, tears in her eyes. “Renee’s always been a little…she’s not slow, exactly, just…defenseless against unkindness. She doesn’t understand it. She gets flummoxed.” She dries her eyes on a bar napkin and just that quickly is herself again.

  “You’re a good friend,” Nate tells her.

  “No choice. She’s my sister.”


  She regards him gravely now.

  “I’m sorry. Did I miss that?”

  “Couldn’t you tell? We’re twins.” He half believes this until she bursts out laughing. “Of course we’re not twins.”


  “Nate? For future reference? When I tell you things that can’t possibly be true, I won’t be mad at you if you don’t believe them.”

  “That would make you unique among the women of my experience.”

  “If it makes you feel better, your brother didn’t twig it, either. I’m pretty sure he concluded we were lesbians. Maybe I should let my hair grow out.”

  “Um,” he says, aware that he might be about to make one of his catastrophic mistakes with women, “while we’re setting the record straight?”

  Evelyn does look genuinely worried now. “There’s a wedding ring in your pocket?”


  She takes a deep theatrical breath, then another sip of wine. “Okay, let me have it.”

  “Well, I haven’t been entirely honest. In fact, the very first thing I told you was a lie. About how I read Death in Venice on the plane?”

  “And it failed to cheer you up.”

  “The book I actually read on the plane was about a fire at the Venice opera house.”

  She just stares at him for a long moment. “What else you got,” she says, “because so far I’m not impressed.”

  “And then this afternoon, when I was on the phone and you asked me if I’d gotten bad news, I told you a student of mine had died.”

  “And he didn’t.”



  “I’ll tell you about her sometime,” he says, “but not tonight.”

  “Maybe in Rome,” she suggests. “By then we’ll be fast friends.”

  “I should warn you it’s a very sad story, and I don’t come off at all well.”

  She doesn’t say anything for a long moment, but then rummages around in her purse. “I want you to see something,” she says. She’s holding up a lady’s makeup compact, which she pops open and hands over, as if she expects him to powder his nose. “Look at your face.”

  He hesitates, almost afraid of what he’ll see reflected there. On the other hand, he’s coming to trust this strange, kind woman, so he takes the compact, and the face that looks back at him is, well, his own, neither ugly nor handsome, no longer young but hardly a ruin, either. He can find nothing remarkable in it, no particular reason for any woman to be attracted to it, though, by the same token, no reason to be repulsed. The only thing out of the ordinary—it’s probably just the dim lighting in the restaurant—is that his lips, for some reason, appear bruised.

  “Smile,” Evelyn suggests, and when he does he finally sees what she’s getting at. On the waiter’s enthusiastic recommendation he’d ordered the squid-ink pasta, thinking the ink would be in the noodle, whereas what came was ordinary spaghetti drenched in a salty, pitch-black sauce that’s not only darkened his lips but ringed his teeth. The overall effect is gruesome in the extreme. “Sometimes,” Evelyn says, handing him a cloth napkin, the end of which she’s dipped in her water glass, “things aren’t nearly as bad as they appear.”


  That night Nate sleeps soundly for the first time in what seems like forever. Near dawn the acqua alta siren wails again, but for once it fails to penetrate his slumber until the moment it ceases. Blinking contentedly in the dark, he sees that the shutters, which he’s forgotten to latch, have blown open. The room is chilly, but under the covers it’s cozy, and from where he lies in bed he can see the first hint of gray in the east. His first thought is of Eve—since it suddenly matters, he’s decided he prefers Eve to Evelyn—and how he’d hurt her feelings by not noticing her dress. A week ago such a failure would’ve driven him even deeper into self-imposed solitude. Now, perhaps because she’s gone on record as saying they’ll be fast friends by Rome, he feels hopeful he can make it up to her. Having agreed to call her this morning, he’d like to make good on that promise right now, though of course it’s too early. He’ll wait. But for how long? He hates to think of her awake, perhaps rethinking her conviction that he’s worth the effort. If he allows himself to fall back asleep, the time will pass more quickly, but what if, like yesterday afternoon, he sleeps too long?

  Before he can resolve this thorny issue, his phone, which he set on silent before falling asleep, suddenly comes to life, as if its awakening were somehow tied to his own. JULIAN CALLING, it says, but when he answers, the line is dead, and pressing RETURN sends him yet again to voice mail. “Julian,” he says, then pauses, unsure of how to continue. Should he scold his brother for his treatment of Eve and Renee? Or apologize for not intuiting his financial distress? As he did last night before falling asleep, Nate wonders exactly where Julian is. Back in D.C. already, having caught a red-eye? Or still at Marco Polo Airport, having spent a sleepless night in a straight-backed plastic chair, waiting for the first flight out this morning? It’s possible he’s boarding now. Who knows? Maybe the flight attendants have asked everyone to power off their devices, and his brother’s compliance somehow triggered the call. Why their phones should each be able to communicate with the rest of the world but not with each other is still deeply mysterious, though perhaps apropos. “I have no idea where you are,” Nate says, adding, “but that’s been true for a long time, and it makes me very sad. I miss you. Maybe you feel differently, but could we at least agree to clear the air? I’m tired of being angry at you.”

  Later this morning he’ll have to tell the others that Julian is gone and make some sort of excuse. He should probably cut his own trip short and return home, find his brother and somehow make things right, but he knows he won’t. For the first time in a long while he actually wants something. He wants to see Rome. He wants to see it with the Biennale group, which has been, without exception, kind and welcoming. Julian? He’ll mend pontes with his brother later, those that can be mended. Right now, for the next week or so, he means to mend himself.

  When there’s a low knock at his door, his heart sinks. Having placed his brother at a distance, he would hate for him to be just feet away, his mood, as always, volatile. Still, he’d rather have it be Julian than Eve, come to tell him that her sister’s had a bad night and is in no condition to continue on the tour, that there’s a water taxi bobbing in the canal below and she’s come to say a quick goodbye. Because in that scenario their friendship will be nipped in the bud. Each, for the other, will be forever associated with a trip to Italy that should have been wonderful but somehow ended badly.

  About the last person he expects to find at his door is Bernard. The man’s dressed as he was yesterday, in layers—overcoat, sport coat, sweater, shirt, undershirt. This morning, in the crook of one arm, is a box just large enough to contain a football. “I need a favor,” he says without preamble, and Nate is again surprised by his powerful baritone.

  “Are you feeling poorly…?”

  “I’m fine. This”—here he jiggles the package—“will only take a minute.”

“Okay if I get dressed first?”

  “I insist.”

  Downstairs, the front desk is unmanned, the lobby hushed and empty, the rest of the Biennale flock still safely tucked in their beds. Out in the street, Nate expects Bernard either to turn left or head straight across the campo, because a right turn sends you down a dark narrow alley that dead-ends abruptly at a canal. But that, it seems, is where they’re headed. The only sound is their footfalls on stone, that and Bernard’s already labored breathing. “Did I mention,” he says, “that what we’re about to do may be illegal?”

  “If you did, I missed it,” Nate tells him.

  Though the siren has stopped, the water’s still high, in places lapping over the wall, which means that Piazza San Marco is flooded, a sight Nate wouldn’t mind seeing. A barge laden with fresh produce chugs toward them. “Let’s let these guys pass,” Bernard remarks, deepening Nate’s misgivings. On deck three men dressed in work clothes acknowledge the two of them with a tip of their caps, probably having concluded that they’re awaiting a water taxi. When the barge is out of sight, Bernard hands Nate the box. “I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to do this,” he says. “I already tried and it’s no go.”

  Inside is a plastic receptacle, and Nate knows what it contains even before he removes the lid. He thinks again of Julian, how he wanted no part of scattering their mother’s ashes. There was no earthly point in his coming all that distance, he’d argued, and it wasn’t like flinging a few handfuls of ashes was a two-man job. (The present circumstances suggest otherwise, Nate can’t help thinking.) Not long after their mother was finally released from the hospital, she and Julian had a serious falling-out, after which he moved away, eventually settling in Atlanta. Nate never knew exactly what hurtful things had been said, but over the next few years he urged his brother to make things right. Their mother was never the same after the fire, recovering neither her physical nor mental health. Part of what ailed her, he felt certain, was Julian’s refusal to forgive her carelessness, continuing to blame her for what might have happened as if it actually had. He tried to make him understand that she blamed herself even more than Julian did, but his entreaties fell on deaf ears. Sure, Julian would call her over the holidays and again on her birthday, but every time she asked if she was ever going to see him again, he only said, “Ma, we’ve been through this.”

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