Trajectory by Richard Russo


  “Would you like to join us for Thanksgiving dinner, Tom?” she heard herself say.

  He blinked at her and paused before answering. “What are you serving?”

  She laughed out loud. “What do you mean?”

  “Sommelier!” he called over to the bartender. “A glass for the lady. A clean one. This is Professor Moore. You know Professor Moore, our rising star?”

  The boy behind the bar put a glass in front of her, which Newhouse proceeded to fill to the brim and then a bit over.

  “What I mean is, I’m weighing several options. I assume you’re serving a roast fowl of some sort?”

  “Turkey, yes.”

  “Will it be a stuffed turkey?”

  She said yes, she thought it probably would be.

  “Will there be cranberries? Yams?”

  “Why not?”

  He regarded her seriously with bleary-eyed benevolence. “Well, then. It all comes down to pie, doesn’t it?”

  “What kind of pie do you like, Tom? Is there one that would seal the deal?”

  “Mincemeat.”

  “You’re shitting me.”

  “Pumpkin would be okay. What time?”

  “Midafternoon?”

  “And I can bring what?”

  “A mincemeat pie, if you really want mincemeat.”

  When she stood up, he said, “You’re leaving? You just got here.”

  “Robbie and Marcus went out for a pizza. I forgot to leave them a note, so…” She shrugged.

  “I’ll see you Thursday.”

  “I should warn you,” she told him, feeling her throat constrict, “my son has good days and bad. If he’s having a bad one, you may wish you hadn’t come.”

  He lumbered down from his own stool then and took her in his arms and she didn’t resist. “You’re okay, Moore.”

  It didn’t escape her that her professional life at this moment was bracketed by two scholars: a legendary critic, several of whose books were still considered classics, and the local Mr. Chips, a man who had all he could do to not let alcohol and loneliness undermine his legacy. Two men with nothing in common but an innate generosity. Both disposed, for reasons at once mysterious and profound, to think better of people than perhaps they deserved, whereas her own tendency had always been to think less of them. Bellamy had tried to warn her. He’d seen how skilled she was, how coldly persuasive she could be, that she would use the study of literature to distance herself and build a fortress around her heart. Maybe he even foresaw how things would go for her and Robbie, how she’d win every argument in their marriage until finally there was no marriage left.

  “I’m sorry,” she said, when Tom Newhouse finally released her from his bear hug. “I must look awful.”

  “You’ve looked better,” he conceded. “I’ve looked better. We’ve all looked better.” Then, after a beat: “So James Cox didn’t write that essay.”

  “Oh, I don’t know. He might’ve,” she admitted. “But no, I don’t think so.” It was the same accusation she’d made before, but it felt different this time, and Newhouse now seemed willing to accept it.

  “Well, shit,” was all he said.

  “You were right about one thing, though,” she told him. “I am a good dancer. Or I was. When I passed my prelims, Robbie invited everyone in the department to come out and help us celebrate. His band played, and they were so great that night. There’s this one song I used to sing with them…Jefferson Airplane’s ‘Somebody to Love’?” It was clear Newhouse had never heard of either the song or even the group, but the very thought of Grace Slick had her on the verge of tears. “We ended up at a biker joint around three in the morning where I danced on the bar.”

  “That must have been something,” he said. “I wish I’d been there.”

  “Yeah, well, you missed it,” she told him.

  “Hey,” he said, planting a kiss on her forehead. “Just because I wasn’t there doesn’t mean I can’t remember it.”

  —

  Robbie’s car was in the drive, and when she got out she could see her husband and son through the dining room window, Robbie opening the pizza box, Marcus closing his eyes, breathing in, re-creating, for all she knew, every single detail of the pizza parlor that he supposedly loved. So this, she thought, was heartbreak. She’d read about it but wasn’t sure she wanted to get any closer and had long suspected that epiphany was overrated. Even now her inclination was to remain right where she was with a pane of glass between herself and her husband and child, safe from them and they from her. The night she’d just told Newhouse about, Bellamy had been there, and when the bar closed they’d all adjourned to a truck stop and ordered huge breakfasts. Waiting for the food to arrive, they argued as only happy, drunken grad students can, about which was the greatest lyric poem ever written. You couldn’t nominate a poem unless you recited it first, start to finish, from memory. Only then were you allowed to make your case for its greatness. Robbie had surprised her by doing “Kubla Khan” in its entirety, to wild applause. When it was Bellamy’s turn, he’d chosen “Windy Nights,” a children’s poem everyone but Janet remembered. He emphasized its childish iambic downbeat by slapping the table so hard the water glasses jumped, and by the time he finished, the entire group was weak with laughter.

  “Okay, okay, okay. Now explain,” someone insisted, “why that’s the greatest poem ever in the English language.”

  “Because,” Bellamy said, suddenly serious, his eyes full, “when I speak those words aloud, my father’s alive again.”

  He left the following year, as predicted, back to the Ivy League, but not before he’d recommended Janet for a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship, a much-needed port in the academic storm. Why had he granted this favor? Maybe it was mostly for Robbie’s sake. Though Bellamy never gave any indication, she’d come to believe that he’d arrived at the F-lot in time to see her flee. If so, he apparently hadn’t held her cowardice against her. Was it possible that with this fellowship he wanted, as Tom Newhouse did later in a different place and context, to express his optimistic view that in the end she’d be okay? And if that was what he’d truly believed, could she be certain he was wrong?

  Tomorrow she’d dig up the journal Bellamy had loaned her all those years ago with those essays she’d stubbornly refused to read. She already knew what she’d find in them. In his would be the man they’d all known, his human presence tangible in every word. Truly authorial. What he learned from literature and life had made him hungry for more, and it was this hunger that drew people to him. Robbie had wept when he read her his obituary from the Times, the same year she’d accepted her tenure-track position here, and it was Robbie who’d wanted to name their son in Bellamy’s memory. She’d argued for a host of other names, most originating in her family or his, but could never make him understand. “What’s wrong with ‘Marcus’?” he kept asking, until she finally gave in.

  In the other essay she’d find what Bellamy had noticed in hers, an absence. An implied writer. A shadow. A ghost. “But I do exist,” she’d told him that day, however meekly, fearing he meant to convince her that even that wasn’t true, when in reality he was merely urging her to discover that last elusive thing, a self worth being, worth becoming and finally worth revealing. Yet, even though she knew what awaited her in those essays, she would at last read them. She owed Bellamy that much. He’d given her an assignment, and she intended to finish it. After which, she suspected, he would haunt her no more.

  Robbie was now bent over the dining room window, trying to peer out. He’d no doubt heard her car pull in and was wondering what she could be doing out there in the dark and wet. He’d set the table for three. Tonight they’d eat pizza. Tomorrow she’d figure out what the hell mincemeat was. Then Thanksgiving. After that, who knew?

  Voice

  The World of Others

  The Biennale group—most of whom, like Nate, hailed from central Massachusetts—has taken over the small, three-and-a-half-star hotel in sestiere Dors
oduro. Nate, fearing his social skills might have atrophied after so many months of self-imposed solitude, is standing by himself in the busy lobby and doing his level best to escape notice or, if that fails, to feign innocence, strategies that until a year ago came naturally. What happened with the Mauntz girl changed all that.

  Or did it? He wonders if people actually see him differently now, or if he’s just seeing himself differently. Maybe it’s his own low self-esteem that people are picking up on, self-recrimination his new default mode. Earlier, in baggage claim at the airport, after a single glance Julian had demanded to know what was wrong. When Nate, surprised, asked his brother what he meant, Julian just shrugged, his own default mode annoyance morphing effortlessly to indifference. “You look all uncunted,” he explained.

  “All what?” Nate said, thinking he’d misheard. Though he was the English professor, it was Julian who’d always been in love with language, especially clever or mischievous turns of phrase that identified their speaker as cool. Pushing seventy, his brother still considered himself hip.

  “Uncunted,” he happily repeated, apparently having a favorite new word. “Unhinged, unmoored,” he continued helpfully, “untethered, unraveled, befucked.”

  Amazing, Nate thought. Thirty seconds into their first face-to-face conversation in several years and he already wanted to strangle the man.

  Of course it was entirely possible that Nate’s appearance had nothing to do with his brother’s reaction. Maybe Julian heard about his disgrace from Brenda, to whom in a weak moment last spring Nate had confessed everything. She’d sworn she wouldn’t tell his brother, but possibly she’d then thought better of it; Nate almost hoped this was the case. Better for Julian to know already than to see that debacle written all over his brother’s face. Because if Nate’s mental state was so uncuntedly obvious, he might as well give up now. The rest of the Biennale group, otherwise all strangers, would twig this in short order.

  Stop, Nate chides himself. Because hasn’t he just traveled halfway around the world in the hopes of escaping precisely this kind of thinking? He is not a monster. He’s not and the fact that he’s felt like one the last twelve months doesn’t make him one. Nor can people see inside him. They can’t know the truth unless he confesses it. And what is that truth, anyway? Okay, without meaning to, he harmed someone. Just how badly, he might never know. And it’s clear he also harmed himself. Still, people live with such things and much worse, Nate knows. They have no choice. He has no choice.

  Nearby in the lobby, Klaus, the leader of this Biennale tour of Venice and then Rome, is telling a story about the offspring of fifteenth-century prostitutes who were conscripted to sing at Mass because of their angelic voices. Since many were grotesquely deformed by venereal disease, they were carefully situated behind opaque screens to safeguard the finer sensibilities of the patrician Venetian faithful, lest their uncouth appearance divert those superiors’ attention from the divine. Hearing this, Nate again finds himself thinking about the Mauntz girl, though it’s not immediately clear why. What did these unfortunates—however heart-wrenching—have to do with a troubled American girl six centuries later? Was it starting all over again? A year ago his thoughts had labored along on some unending loop where everything—overheard conversations, song lyrics, scenes from movies—reminded him of what had happened with the Mauntz girl. Going to ground had helped, at least for a while. Muting the noise of the outside world had also turned down the volume on voices in his head, a much-needed relief. Was it a mistake to allow the noise of life back in? If so, it’s too late to correct now. For the next twelve days, unless his courage fails him and he locks himself in his room, he will be back in the world of others. He will see and be seen.

  Scanning the crowded lobby, he notices the two women standing near the elevator. The taller one is attractive in an anxious, deer-in-the-headlights way, but unluckily, it’s her squat, plain companion with whom he makes accidental eye contact. Realizing what’s about to happen, he looks around for his brother, but he’s still deep in conversation with Bea, the woman who organized the trip. The good thing about Julian—maybe the only good thing—is his lifelong ability to reduce Nate to a welcome state of insignificance. Coming in from the airport, Julian spent the entire trip talking to the water taxi’s driver. He loved chatting up strangers. People with whom he had an actual connection were a different story. His endless silences were the reason, or one of them, that Brenda had cited for divorcing him.

  Sitting there, listening to the two of them shout at each other over the roaring engine and the boat’s slapping maddeningly against the waves, Nate understood that yet again he’d made the mistake of expecting too much of his brother. His flight had arrived late, and when he saw on the monitor that Julian’s would be early, he’d decided to wait. It was only forty-five minutes, and they could share a taxi and spend the half an hour catching up. His all-too-predictable reward was to be told he looked “uncunted” and then ignored. Nor should he have been surprised when, climbing out of the taxi, Julian turned to him in his most offhanded manner and said, “You don’t mind falling on this particular grenade, right?” He hadn’t had a chance to stop at the ATM at the airport, he explained—Sure you did was on the tip of Nate’s tongue—and he’d pay Nate back that evening when the group went out to dinner.

  At any rate, as the two women approach, weaving through the crowd, Nate knows he’s on his own. The plain one arrives first, thrusting her hand out, much as a man would, and announcing that her name is Evelyn, or, if he prefers, Eve. Nate, wondering why on earth he should have a preference, takes the proffered hand and pretends delight to be met. Eve’s hair is cut sensibly short for a woman her age—early sixties, Nate figures, though he’s never been much good at guessing women’s ages—and she’s wearing something like a tracksuit, except nicer and maybe even expensive. The general impression she conveys is of a woman who once upon a time cared about how she presented herself to men, but woke up one morning, said fuck it and was immediately happier. She is also, Nate fears, one of those women who’s confident she knows what’s in the best interest of others. Seeing someone who obviously prefers to be left alone, she’s all the more determined to include him in whatever awful group activities she’s contemplating. The word she probably uses to describe whatever she has in mind is fun. It won’t be, of that Nate’s certain.

  Her companion—whom she introduces as Renee—offers a lovely contrast. Tall and slender and coltishly awkward, she’s dressed in a long, flowing skirt and a sleeveless silk blouse, a colorful shawl draped over her fragile shoulders. Unless Nate is mistaken, paralyzing anxiety is this woman’s more or less constant companion. Her hands are restless birds, anxious to take flight. And when she offers one, he hesitates, fearing it might not be possible to grasp something so delicate without damaging it. But of course this doesn’t happen, and he suddenly feels a surge of gratitude so powerful he’s able to envision a future, a whole new life—one devoted to reassuring this lovely woman that there is absolutely nothing to fear. An odd thought for a man in these circumstances to have but, given Nate’s personality, not all that surprising, either. He’s always gotten out ahead of himself where attractive women are concerned; he wishes it were otherwise, but it isn’t. He’s noticed that in general things prefer to remain as they are.

  “So,” Evelyn says, the intros now complete, “are you an art lover or a Venice lover?” Apparently this Biennale group is divided equally along these lines.

  Nate takes a deep breath and explains, alas, that he belongs to neither camp. He knows exactly nothing about art after Pollock. He has traveled some, having served as director of his former college’s junior-year-abroad programs in Salamanca, Lyon, Cork and London, his favorite, but never to Italy. More than once, when the chill and damp of England or Ireland got to him, he’d considered hopping a cheap flight to Cinque Terre or Rome or the Amalfi Coast, but soon recognized these as mere impulses, and he’d never acted impulsively. He’s feeling, truth be told,
woefully unprepared for both the Biennale and Venice. He’s tried to prepare for the latter by reading some Henry James and Ruskin. (What an insufferable ass he must sound like, Nate thinks, dropping Ruskin’s name as if these two women would know who the hell he was, and the world were populated solely by English professors.) Maybe because it’s been so long since he’s talked to anyone, this personal information gushes out like a torrent from some abruptly breached dam. He wouldn’t blame them if they turned on their heels and fled. Indeed, he almost wishes they would. “Oh, and I reread Death in Venice on the plane,” he adds, “which failed to cheer me up.”

  He hadn’t really intended this remark as a joke, but that’s how it’s received, at least by Evelyn, who brays loudly in appreciation. Her companion offers a smile that’s both lovely and difficult to categorize: the smile of someone who perhaps hadn’t meant to, who’d fallen out of the habit and is surprised to learn that her facial muscles still work.

  “All right, then,” Evelyn proclaims, as if by his witticism Nate has passed some muster. “When we get to the restaurant, you’ll sit with us.”

  And so, since Julian seems to have completely forgotten that he’s even here, Nate does. Loud and boisterous, the group takes up two large tables set for ten in the otherwise empty restaurant. His brother is seated next to Bea and her husband and a round, humpbacked man named Bernard at the far end of the second table, and he chats them up as effortlessly as he did the driver of the water taxi. Studying Julian, Nate decides that he doesn’t know about the Mauntz girl. Even he wouldn’t be so unfeeling as to abandon him to strangers on their first night in Venice if he knew what Nate had recently been through, would he?

  Over the course of the meal, Nate learns a good deal about his new companions. Both women are divorced. Evelyn, a few years older, gave her husband his walking papers some time ago and seems unambiguously pleased with this decision. She now refers to her ex, whom she presumably once loved enough to marry, as “the Wanker,” a term she apparently picked up from watching the BBC cable channel. Renee’s divorce is more recent and, Nate gathers, more ruinous to her frail self-confidence. Evidently the unstated purpose of this trip is to reintroduce her to the wider world, from which she’s voluntarily withdrawn, which gives them something in common. When the subject of his own marital status comes up, Nate admits he’s a career bachelor. Never even come close? Evelyn wants to know, probably trying to ascertain if he’s gay. Well, as a younger man he was engaged to a woman named Brenda, he tells them. (What happened?) She married his brother instead. (No!) Yes, in fact, though the marriage didn’t last. (You must be a very forgiving man.) Nate doesn’t think so, but doesn’t mind if they do. It’s true that he’s never held a grudge against either Julian or Brenda. They didn’t mean to fall in love, it just happened. And anyway, Nate says, in hopes of changing the subject, his true love has always been Jane Austen. This makes Renee look momentarily hopeful, until the name rings a bell and she realizes she’s made a mistake. Jane Austen is someone famous and dead. She, too, Nate can tell, would like to be dead, and thus beyond such social gaffes. Whereas Nate would like to take her in his arms and tell her everything’s okay. He marvels again at his need to say such a thing to a woman he barely knows—the very thing, in fact, that most days he struggles to convince himself of.

 
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