Trajectory by Richard Russo

  At some point during dinner Nate realizes that he’s drunk too much red wine, which isn’t recommended in conjunction with his antidepressant, and that he doesn’t much care. He’s having an excellent time, his first in what seems like forever. His food actually tastes good, and the Chianti, well, he can’t get enough. Is it possible that at long last his depression is lifting? Or maybe the doctor who diagnosed him is full of shit and he’s just been in a funk. He knows now that taking Ambien was a huge mistake. Yes, it had allowed him to sleep, but also made him morose and deepened his sense of personal failure, as well as rendering him too sluggish to extricate himself. So it might be time to quit taking the mood medication as well. Because tonight, in the company of these two women, he’s actually flirting with happiness, or at least its possibility. No sooner does this occur to him, however, than he wonders how much longer it can last, what will cause it to fizzle, precisely the defeatist attitude he’s determined to banish once and for all. This, he realizes, is what he’d hoped to explain to Julian in the water taxi. Not what happened with the Mauntz girl, but that for the last year he simply hadn’t been himself and that he was determined to shake off his lethargy and once again enter the world of the living. He’s tired of hiding. At this, he again glances over at the second table, just as his brother whispers something to Bea, who replies, “Oh, that’s a splendid idea.” When she gets to her feet, Julian helpfully calls for silence by tinking his wineglass with his spoon, and Nate’s heart sinks. He should’ve known better than to ask how much longer his newfound sense of well-being could last. To pose that question was to invite its speedy answer. The group will reconfigure over dessert so those who haven’t had a chance to introduce themselves can do so.

  “Rats,” says Evelyn, when this is announced. “And we were having such a good time. Okay, everybody, let’s act invisible. Maybe they’ll leave us alone.”

  It’s too late, though. All the other chairs are scraping back, and a moment later Nate feels a heavy hand on his shoulder. He doesn’t even need to look up to know it’s his brother’s.

  But guess what? To Nate’s amazement, both the warm glow from the wine and a renewed sense of possibility accompany him to the next table, where he finds himself seated beside a woman who’s just received an urgent text from her cell-phone carrier about her escalating data fees—apparently triggered by her daughter e-mailing her a dozen photos of her new grandson. Nate, who for this trip has traded his ancient flip phone for a snazzy new “smart” model and received a tutorial in its use, shows her how to turn off the phone’s roaming feature and is promptly celebrated with a toast. Asked again to account for his presence on the tour, he repeats what he told Evelyn and Renee, including the bit about how reading Death in Venice on the plane had failed to cheer him up, and is rewarded with more appreciative laughter. Part of him, though, is still back at the first table, where his brother, to judge from the hilarity there, is a hit. Nate can’t help noticing that the lovely Renee’s smiles, hopeful but tentative when he was there, are now more frequent, confident and radiant, though it’s possible some of this might be in response to the charismatic Klaus, who’s been coaxed into repeating his story about the children of the fifteenth-century whores, their lovely voices rising up from behind the screens.

  On the walk back to the hotel, Bea falls in step alongside him. Evelyn and Renee and Julian are up ahead, arms linked, his brother in the middle, their laughter echoing off the moldering Venetian walls. “I’ve known her most of her life,” Bea whispers. Apparently she noticed that during dessert his attention kept being drawn back to the other table. “She’s a lovely woman.”

  “Yes,” Nate agrees, realizing only then that she’s talking about Evelyn, not Renee. There is, of course, no way to clarify this confusion, and at any rate Bea happens at this moment to notice that the humpbacked Bernard has fallen behind and is angling across the campo in the wrong direction. “Yoo-hoo!” she calls. “Over here, Bernard! This way.”

  Later, in the middle of the night, a siren wakes Nate up, and for several moments he’s disoriented, his throbbing head still back in Massachusetts. Rising, he goes over to the window, half expecting to see flames reflected in the canal below, but the water is black and still as death. Did he have the fire dream again? If so, it’s the first time in many years. When he and Julian were boys, their mother fell asleep with a lighted cigarette and burned down the shabby house they were renting, nearly killing all three of them in the process. Since then, sirens always make him think of fire. Actually, the book he’d read on the plane wasn’t Mann at all but one about the famous fire at La Fenice, the Venice opera house. Why had he lied about that, especially to so little consequence? He wonders if lying—the habit of it—might be part of what’s afflicted him. Once diagnosed with it, he read up on clinical depression, which is generally attributed to a chemical imbalance in the brain, an explanation he finds less than satisfying. But then English professors are probably drawn to moral and symbolic diagnoses rather than medical ones.

  Returning to bed he lies awake, trying to recall what that siren—still wailing in the distance—is all about. At some point during dinner or on the walk back to the hotel, somebody—was it Klaus or Bea?—said something about a siren, but what? Finally, it comes to him: acqua alta. This had also been noted in the pamphlets he’d been given when they checked into the hotel—the high-water siren that sounded in anticipation of flooded streets. Odd that his instinct upon hearing the siren had been to fear fire when the actual threat was water. Not just incorrect but diametrically so. Strange, too, that a man so desperate to rise from a dark place should travel thousands of miles to a city that’s sinking into one.

  He’s about to fall back asleep when his new phone vibrates on the nightstand, its screen eerily illuminating the room. The device suddenly inquires whether he wants it to make use of his current location. Unable to make sense of this unprompted question, he powers the phone completely off, its screen darkening at the exact same moment the siren outside stops wailing, filling him with sleepy wonder at a linkage that’s simply not there.

  Speaking of linkages, his last waking thoughts are of the prostitutes’ children who sang so beautifully. How did they feel about being hidden behind those screens? Did it seem a kindness that their voices alone should represent them to the world of others? Why should these privileged others be spared the deformity its victims had no part in causing? Is it better to be known whole or to conceal what makes us unworthy of love?


  Nine-thirty the next morning finds the Biennale band once again filling the tiny hotel lobby. Klaus is giving them their marching orders, stressing his intention—no, his determination—to run a tight, efficient ship. Having led this group before, he knows all too well that they require a firm, authoritarian hand. Apparently part of his shtick includes being endearingly insulting in the manner of gay men, though Nate isn’t certain the others recognize him as gay, just witty and urbane and a snappy dresser. Not, in other words, from central Massachusetts.

  They’re only here for four days, Klaus reminds them, and there’s much to see and do. Therefore. Each morning they will be leaving the hotel promptly at nine-thirty. Anyone who isn’t in the lobby will be left behind, and won’t they be sorry! Because this is not London or Berlin. They won’t be able to hail a taxi out front. Many of the venues they’ll be visiting are well off the beaten path, and Venice is a labyrinth whose streets are famously full of water. Personally, Klaus informs them, he’ll consider this leg of the tour a success if nobody ends up floating facedown in the Grand Canal.

  This is an attempt at humor, of course, and it gets the expected laugh. Though Nate chuckles along with the rest, the joke sends a chill up his spine. Lying in bed this morning, hungover and wide-awake an hour before the alarm, he studied the schedule of daily activities they were given at dinner, trying to square it with the people he met there. A few appear fit enough, but others strike him as medical emergencies waiting to happen. Bot
h humpbacked Bernard and the orange-haired, chain-smoking woman who stops to catch her breath at the foot of each new ponte are genuine heart-attack candidates. Then there’s the extremely elderly couple who, when at rest, lean into each other shoulder to shoulder, forming the letter A; if either were to move quickly, a broken hip would be the likely result for the other.

  This morning the whole jet-lagged group appears even more vulnerable than they did the night before. This pessimistic assessment suggests to Nate that today is going to be one of his down days. Last night’s flirtation with optimism seems just that: a flirtation. In his pocket is the pill he takes with lunch each day to ward off despondency. Is it possible that, under the influence of too much Chianti, he actually contemplated forgoing the medication his doctor told him was essential to his recovery?

  If Julian doesn’t hurry up, Klaus is bound to use him as an object lesson. When heading down to the lobby, Nate had stopped by his brother’s room, but Julian growled through the locked door that he should go on by himself, he’d follow in two shakes. That was fifteen minutes ago. It’s entirely possible that Nate’s knock woke him up, and if so, there’s a good chance he went right back to sleep. True, his voice hadn’t seemed sleepy, but that didn’t mean anything. Even as a boy Julian had been a master of sounding awake when he wasn’t, of pretending to be up and about even as he burrowed under the covers. “I’m just tying my shoes,” he’d tell their mother when she called up to him from the foot of the stairs. (Why did she always believe him?) Nate is about to ask Giancarlo at the desk to ring Julian’s room when he appears on the stairs.

  “How perfectly divine you could join us,” Klaus says jovially.

  “Divine I’ll grant you,” Julian says, ignoring Nate’s wave so he can join Renee, who is standing shyly at the outer ring of the assembled group. “Perfectly divine is pushing it a bit.” A charismatic himself, Julian doesn’t take to others of that ilk, and though Nate finds Klaus to be cultured, extraordinarily well read and far more knowledgeable on a wider range of subjects than his academic colleagues used to be, Julian seems to dislike him on the grounds of flamboyance. It’s never before occurred to Nate that his brother might be homophobic.

  “So, then,” Klaus says, ignoring Julian’s remark. “Are we all buddied up?”

  That’s the other thing Klaus insists upon, to ensure that no one is left behind as they move from exhibit to exhibit. And if this doesn’t work, he threatens they’ll be required to hold on to a rope like preschoolers.

  To Nate, a buddy system makes sense, and for most it won’t be an imposition. There are several older couples, as well as half-a-dozen women like Evelyn and Renee traveling as companions, so these are already buddied. As of course Nate and Julian are de facto as brothers. He does feel bad for the singletons, though. It seems unfair that they be required first to search each other out and then be responsible to and for a stranger. That Nate himself might become one of them doesn’t occur to him until Renee raises her hand and announces that Evelyn, whom Nate hadn’t noticed was missing, woke up feeling under the weather and she’s decided to sleep in, though she may join them for lunch if she feels better. Which means Renee is buddyless. For about half a second. That’s how long it takes for Julian to steal a march on his brother.

  “Looks like you drew the short straw,” Bernard says when he shakes Nate’s hand on the street. They’d been introduced at Bea’s table the night before, but the man hadn’t said a word beyond hello, so they might as well be complete strangers. Perhaps because Bernard is so round shouldered and hunched over, Nate is surprised that his voice is so deep and robust.

  “No worries,” Nate tells him, “I’m not exactly the longest straw myself.” He intends for this remark to be self-deprecatory, but it doesn’t land right. Without meaning to, he’s conceded Bernard’s status as the group’s shortest straw. As they begin walking, Nate, for something else to say, poses the question Evelyn asked him last night: “Are you here for Venice or contemporary art?”

  “I’m here for my wife,” Bernard tells him. “She’s the one who loved this place.”

  Noticing the verb tense, Nate says, “I’m sorry…did she—”

  “Last winter,” the other man says. “Sudden. She booked this trip and died before the check cleared.”

  “That’s terrible.”

  Bernard shrugs. “Everybody dies.”

  “I’m sure they would’ve refunded—”

  “I have to stop talking now,” Bernard tells him abruptly. “I can either talk or walk. Not both.”


  The first exhibition, on the fourth floor of an abandoned warehouse, fills that very large room, the floor of which is covered, several inches deep, with dark soil. Exactly how dirt is to be construed as art is not immediately clear to Nate, and the artist’s statement—an obscenity-laced, left-wing political rant—might have been expected to shed some light, but instead muddies things further. For this artist, Dirt equals art apparently wasn’t a sufficiently slippery equation; he chose dirt equals politics equals art. Nate, cursed with a highly practical imagination, finds himself wondering how all that soil got up to the fourth floor and, once there, who spread it. Had the artist thought of this laborious process as “installation”? How would the result have differed in the hands—wheelbarrow?—of a lesser talent? More bizarre still, according to Klaus, there is a precedent. A couple years before in New York, another conceptual artist covered the floor of his Chelsea loft with dirt, and this exhibit could be taken as a scathing critique of it or else as an homage. Near the exit is a small sign stating that the work isn’t for sale. Seeing this, Bernard snorts but makes no further comment.

  As they walk to the next venue, which Klaus assures them will be equally provocative, Nate’s thoughts wander to his brother, who’s up ahead with Renee. Since becoming her buddy, he hasn’t left her side. Nor has he apologized to Nate for abandoning him so unceremoniously. Indeed, beyond a gruff hello there in the lobby, he’s barely spoken a word. Did Nate somehow manage to offend him? When, at baggage claim? In the water taxi? At the restaurant? He could ask, of course, but to what reasonable end? Julian would just deny anything’s wrong and want to know why the hell he was forever internalizing everything. Incredible, really, that Nate could ever have imagined two such inherently different, even diametrically opposed, men reconnecting after so long an estrangement. Still, it’s a shame, right? Because they are, at least as Nate sees it, all each other has. There are no other siblings. Neither having fathered children, they’re the end of their family’s line. But who knows? Maybe Julian doesn’t see it that way. His life might be rich and full. Unlike Nate, he’s always made friends easily and may have more than he knows what to do with. Lovers even. In a world of social networking and Facebook “friending,” Julian might consider blood relatives as vestigial as tonsils or appendixes, whose original purposes have long been forgotten and that can be excised without consequence. What particularly troubles Nate is that he can do little more than speculate. He knows next to nothing about his brother’s life. He is never home when Nate calls, though maybe he is standing right there by the ringing phone, staring at the caller ID. Granted, he usually calls back in a few days, explaining that he’s been “straight out” or “tits back,” or some other Julianism, but he never elaborates, and his curtness conveys all too clearly that Nate is as much a bother as a brother.

  Which begs an obvious question: why, against reason and experience, does he continue to hope that things will ever be different? That this time he’ll not only love Julian, which after all is his blood’s duty, but also like him. They’ve always been temperamental opposites, Nate instinctively striving for peace and harmony, Julian thriving on confrontation, seldom right but never in doubt, much less self-doubt, his brother’s lifelong weakness. What he’s been banking on, really, is time. Aren’t people who share the same bundled genetics supposed to become more alike as they age? Maybe Julian’s gruff manner masks sympathies he’s unable to give voice to.
It’s possible. Doesn’t Nate himself secretly envy the very qualities that make Julian such a dick? Women actually like the man, at least for a while. Even they don’t seem to know why. His charm—Nate has to admit his brother can be charming—is gossamer thin, a triumph of style over substance, and females drawn to him all eventually realize he’s an empty vessel. There would be comfort in this except that even after they finally do come to their senses, these same women invariably blame themselves, not him. Sure, he’s a self-centered jerk, they concede, but he never pretended to be otherwise, right? And if his wake is strewn with the casualties of his narcissistic carelessness, well, they should’ve known better. Julian, Teflon coated, always gets a pass.

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