As soon as Albert got home, he called Peter.
“Her name is Nan,” he said.
“That girl,” he said. “The one I always see—the one I’ve told you about always seeing. Her name is Nan.”
Peter was silent. Albert could hear the television on in the background. He felt ridiculous for calling, but he couldn’t stop himself—just knowing a little bit more about the girl in the park felt like a minor accomplishment, and since both he and Peter had just started their dissertations—at the point where tangible progress of any kind felt like a fantasy—he thought Peter would appreciate at least something in the world moving forward.
“So you met her?”
“Well, no,” said Albert. “But I saw her again. She was with two people, which was weird, because she’s usually alone—or, whenever I see her she’s alone. I think they were her parents. I heard one of them—her mother, I guess, say her name: Nan, and she responded to it. So, that has to be it.”
“This was in the park?” said Peter, distractedly.
“He’s not listening,” thought Albert. And why should he be? Peter had plenty of other things to think about than the name of some random girl Albert had seen a few times in Riverside Park. And frankly, so did Albert.
The television clicked off.
“So what now?” said Peter. “What do you plan to do about it?”
Albert looked out the window; the Hudson River glittered in the sunlight between the new spring leaves. He felt grateful to his friend for humoring him.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Nothing, I guess. It’s just… it’s a new piece of information. It just feels like something new.”
“A name is something new,” said Peter. “Although…”
“Although what?” Albert said, cautiously.
“Who’s named Nan these days?” he said. “What’s that about?”
“Exactly!” said Albert. “That’s why I called!”
On the days he wasn’t teaching his two sections of Introduction to Art History to undergraduates, or meeting with his advisees, or correcting papers, Albert was on the top floor of the library, in the tiny office he shared with Peter, with its two old wooden desks and small window that looked out over the main quad. They had similar schedules, so they were usually there at the same time, arriving sometime after nine in the morning and staying until the library closed. Mary, Peter’s girlfriend, a doctoral student in Psychology, sometimes came to visit them, but usually not after three in the afternoon, when she claimed the room reached such stultifying levels of body odor and it was impossible to cross the threshold.
The smell didn’t bother Albert. He couldn’t afford to let it; he needed every moment he could spare in the library, for things were not going well with his dissertation. He had yet to find a solid topic that he and his advisor could agree upon. His undergraduate work in Baroque and Renaissance religious painting had been strong enough to get him into the program, and the paper he’d recently presented on Pontormo’s Mannerist masterpiece, “The Deposition from the Cross,” had been relatively well-received at the winter Renaissance conference in Ithaca. But since then, he’d had the increasing feeling that he was losing steam, losing heart. Every morning when he woke up, he had the distinct feeling that he had lost something, and, lying in bed, listening to the muted sounds of the city through the airshaft of his building, he didn’t know what it was or where it could have gone.
Peter always tried to encourage him—reminding him that it was normal to feel exhausted at this point of the program; that it was common to slump after coursework was complete—but Peter had his own work to think about: nineteenth-century daguerreotype landscapes and portraits, for which he was constantly applying for viewing permission from the Met. In their tiny, rank garret, while Peter hammered away at his laptop, Albert would sit, listlessly turning the pages of reference books and catalogs, flipping through image banks and slide sheets, hoping to find something that inspired him. When he finished going through everything, he’d arm himself with a new list of call numbers, and descend to the sub-basement to hunt around for more books, often wandering into sections he had no interest in or knowledge about. What am I doing here? he’d think, sitting on the dusty tiled floor, deep underground, thumbing through a book on Poland’s economy after the Second World War, or a biography on some obscure chemist from Mainz, or a miniature tome on endangered wildflowers. But by that point, he’d have already been down there for hours.
It was here where he’d first seen the girl—Nan. Slender, with brown hair, pale skin, sitting on a bench, and reading from a pile of papers on her lap.
It was Mary who suggested that he leave the library at some point each day and take a walk. She was persistent with her advice, which she considered part of her training, and annoyed if it went unexercised—at least just try it for a week, she’d told him. So, he did: every day at four o’clock, Albert would leave the library and walk down the upper tier of Riverside Park to the 103rd Street ramp, which would bring him to the park’s middle level. The tall trees arching over the promenade always reminded him of the trip his family had taken to Paris when he was young, where he and his brother and sister were allowed to walk around alone while their parents had fancy lunches with his father’s business partners. They were given a map, some money, and strict directions not to stray, and, because Albert was the youngest, he was always given one of his siblings’ hands to hold.
No one, however, held his hand on these walks in the park. His hands were empty and his head was full—overflowing with thoughts, fears, hopes, confusions, all swirled together like wet laundry, tumbling beyond reach behind glass. He’d walk north toward the tennis courts and eventually up the sloping side to 116th Street, just below the edge of campus. It was here where he’d first seen the girl—Nan: slender, with brown hair, pale skin, sitting on a bench reading from a pile of papers on her lap.
So, what had he learned? Her name. What else? She had parents. They already had things in common. Though, compared to his parents back in the Bay Area, hers seemed… rustic? Hippies, he’d thought immediately when he saw them, though not in a judgmental way, he hoped. The mother had a long graying braid and wore jeans and a cable-knit cardigan sweater with large wooden buttons, which looked handmade. The father wore jeans, too, a plaid chamois shirt, and a faded baseball cap. They both wore boots, and they carried duffle bags instead of regular luggage. He watched them walk up toward Riverside Church where their car was parked. He stood up to see them better. They all got in and drove away—too quickly for him to see where the license plates were from.
Nan knew how nervous her parents were about the visit—not the spending-time-together part, of course, but the fact that the visit would be taking place in New York City. It had been four years since they’d driven down from Vermont and dropped her off for her freshman year, and they hadn’t been back since—Nan usually went up to see them on long weekends and vacations. Now, as her graduation approached, there were decisions to be made. Nan had offered to come home after her last exam and forgo graduation altogether—she could just as easily receive her diploma in the mail—but they wouldn’t hear of it. They were coming—they’d already decided. She talked to them the morning they left and, though they seemed excited, she’d detected a clear note of trepidation in their voices. Before hanging up, her mother couldn’t help reminding her that, if something happened to them on the way down, they both wanted to be cremated, and their ashes spread in the meadow at the back of their house near the pond.
Once they’d arrived, however, with the car parked in a well-lit spot on Riverside Drive, and the two of them safely installed in Nan’s small one bedroom apartment across the street from the post office, the visit went smoothly. How could it not have? Nan, in their eyes, had done the impossible: coming from rural Vermont, she’d survived four years alone in New York City, and was graduating with highest honors and a prize from the English department. She hadn’t made many friends, it seemed—they went to dinners alone, just the three of them, and at the few graduation activities they attended, she seemed to know no one—but, her parents being singular, creative-types, that didn’t seem all that unusual to them. The one person she had connected with, they knew, was her advisor, Professor Paulson. She had been talking about him for years, and they were eager to finally meet him—which they would, at the celebratory cocktail gathering he was hosting at his apartment the evening after graduation.
“I’m worried we might embarrass you,” said her mother, staring at herself in Nan’s bathroom mirror. The door was open to the bedroom where Nan sat at her desk and her father lay on the bed, his boots hanging off the side to keep the comforter clean. “Two old hayseeds from the north country.”
“Hey!” said her father, browsing the book-length graduation program. “We’re not that back-woods—we went to college; we got the book learnin’!”
“I’m just worried that Nan’s used to more cultured company now,” said her mother, brushing her long, coarse hair. “Not the old potter and the furniture maker who were paralyzed by the Henry Hudson Parkway.”
“You were?” asked Nan, guiltily, picturing the meadow and the pond behind their house.
“I was not,” said her father, calmly. “I figured it out—like everything else in life, you just got to go with the flow.”
“Spoken like a true hayseed,” said her mother. She turned to Nan. “Now, what are we to expect from this ‘cocktail gathering’ tonight?”
“Fine food and wine in the company of our esteemed and celebrated graduates,” her father read aloud from the printed invitation.
“Who is going to be there?” said her mother.
“I’m not sure,” said Nan, peering at herself in the mirror on the wall. Her graduation cap had flattened her hair; she could see the cap’s elastic imprint still encircling her skull.
“Your advisor will be,” said her father. “He’s the one throwing it.”
“Yes,” said Nan. “He’ll be there. But, as for the other people…I don’t know. His other advisees, probably. Maybe people from the department…?”
Her parents looked at her with a combination of sadness and pride—a look they’d given her all her life. It was not pity; it was equal parts empathy and respect, an understanding that their daughter had always had an uneasy place in the world, and every day she was doing her best to soldier on.
“How about from the magazine?” said her mother, referring to Verbiage, the literary magazine where Nan was an intern, and which had recently published her first story—unheard of for a new writer to be in such a slick, established magazine, and as an undergraduate, no less. The circumstances of this coup still confused Nan, because her advisor was the magazine’s editor, though he’d insisted that he’d had no direct part in accepting the piece. Still, when she was able to ignore her discomfort about the situation, it thrilled her to see her name in print, and thrilled her even more to know that by being in the magazine, she’d officially gotten her start—according to her advisor himself—as a real writer in the world of publishing.
“We don’t have to go, you know,” said Nan, sitting down on the bed beside her father, fiddling with the peeling sole of his boot. “We can go and do something else.”
“Do you not want to go?” said her father. “I’ll do whatever you want, honey. I don’t need to go have fine food and wine in some stuffy apartment with people we don’t know.”
“What are you talking about?” said her mother, standing in the bathroom doorway. “We have to go! This is to celebrate you. And plus, I bought new shoes for this trip and I want to wear them to a real New York Party! ”
The first time Nan had gone to her advisor’s apartment, she’d met his wife—an imperious, sinewy lawyer, with dark green eyes and a taut, horizontal smile. She’d met his twin boys, too, who were five at the time and spent most of her visit fighting in the playroom. She wondered, being about seven now, if they’d be invited to the party, and if they’d remember who she was. And she wondered if his wife would be friendlier toward her, or at least friendly toward her parents—she wondered how her advisor would act; what he’d say, and if he’d kiss her on the cheek when he greeted her, which he’d only started doing in the past few weeks. All these questions and concerns turned out to be pointless, though, because there were enough people at the gathering—well-dressed, chatting convivially by the windows overlooking Riverside Park, that, for the first fifteen minutes of their arrival, no one, not even the caterers, seemed to notice Nan or her parents at all.
“I’m ready to go anytime you all are,” said her father.
“That’s fine with me,” said Nan. “I don’t mind leaving.”
“No,” said her mother. “We have to at least thank the host for inviting us. We’d do that at home, so we’ll do it here, too. Which one is your advisor, Nan?”
Nan didn’t have to point him out; like a spirit summoned when its name is uttered aloud, Professor Paulson appeared before them with his hand outstretched.
“Thank you so much for coming!” he said, smiling broadly. “You must be so proud! I, for one, am so proud.” He looked at Nan, put his hand on her shoulder. “And she should be so proud!”
Nan wondered if he was drunk. His face was flushed and his eyes looked red and watery. She couldn’t say for sure, because he’d complained about allergies in the past.
She said this to let him know that, despite being solitary and virtually alone for all the years he’d known her, there were others in the world to which she was attached.
Her parents shook his hand and thanked him for inviting them, thanked him for everything he had done for Nan. Professor Paulson grinned some more, excessively complimenting them on their parenting, and then rushed off to get them drinks for a toast.
“He looks kind of young to be an advisor,” said her father, suspiciously. “How old did you say he was?”
“I didn’t—I don’t know,” said Nan, scanning the crowd to see where he’d gone, fearing he might return with his wife.
“What does it matter?” said her mother, marveling at the view of the park outside the windows. “He’s got a beautiful apartment and he’s throwing a party for our daughter, why do we always need to be so skeptical?”
“You’d tell us if he tried something funny, right?” said her father. His voice was at once joking and pointed—he knew he was probably going overboard, but he was a man who trusted his instincts.
“Dad,” said Nan, uncomfortably. “Please.”
The entire time she’d known Professor Paulson, he’d championed her writing and scholarship; he’d done everything he could to get her a better on-campus job than her lame position behind the desk at the language lab; he’d gotten her the internship at the magazine; he’d treated her to coffee almost weekly. He was always kind to her, and as unused to this kind of attention as Nan was, at a certain point it had become normal to her. Things are different here in the city, she wanted to tell her parents. People are different.
They stayed an hour—a respectable amount of time, they agreed afterwards—and on their way out, Professor Paulson grabbed Nan by the arm. Her parents were occupied talking to Tammy, the secretary at the magazine, over by the door, so they didn’t see him lead her into the study. In the dim light of the empty room, she could tell that he was, in fact, drunk. His hand gripped her forearm.
“Your parents,” he said, his mouth rubbery. “They seem… wonderful. Just as I knew they had to be.”
“They are,” she said, turning back toward the door. “And they’re waiting for me.”
She said this to let him know that, despite being solitary and virtually alone for all the years he’d known her, there were others in the world to which she was attached. Still, she did not move from where she stood, close beside him.
“I know,” he said drunkenly, his hand still on her arm. “But tell me something: You’re not going back now, are you?” He leaned toward her. “Back to Vermont? Not right now, right? Are you staying in the city? At least for the summer? Have you made any plans, now that you’ve graduated?”
She looked at him; his face was changing from smiling to frowning to mournful to hopeful, all in a matter of seconds, like those curtains in old theaters that rise up to reveal another curtain of a different color or pattern behind it.
“I’m going back tomorrow,” she said. His expression deepened to grim regret, which gave her a secret, unexpected thrill. “But only for a few weeks,” she said. “Then I’m coming back.”
“Really?” he said. “For how long?”
“At this point,” she said, “indefinitely.”
His smile restored the handsomeness to his face, which had not been designed to show weakness. Seeing this, her own face felt flushed, and she ran from the room before his face could move in any closer.
After the third day of Albert not showing up at the library, Peter called him at home. He didn’t pick up, so he and Mary agreed that they’d better go over to make sure everything was okay.
Albert opened the door looking a little tired, but not disheveled or demented, which were two of the myriad of possibilities Peter and Mary had discussed on the walk over.
“Hi,” said Albert.
“Hi?” said Peter. “Just hi? I’ve been calling you for the past two days. I even wandered around the park all yesterday looking for you. I thought something had happened!”
“What could have happened?” said Albert.
“I don’t know,” he said. “You tell me.”
“I don’t know what to tell you.”
“Can we come in?” said Mary.
“Oh,” said Albert. “Sure.”
Albert lived in a beautiful two-bedroom apartment on upper Riverside Drive, a few blocks south of Riverside Church. It wasn’t his—it was owned by his uncle, a banker who lived in London and only came to visit the city once or twice a month. Peter always felt a twinge of jealousy whenever he went over to Albert’s place, because by the time they’d become friends, the thrill of being surrounded by his uncle’s expensive collection of art and photography, and his fine selection of modernist furniture, had worn off for Albert. He was grateful for the place to live, particularly with its spaciousness and proximity to school and views of the park, but he never felt like the place was home—especially when his uncle came into town, bringing guests back from dinners or benefits, where they’d party all night, drinking and smoking and snorting, while Albert, his ears stuffed with toilet paper, worked away in his room. But even considering those things, Peter still couldn’t believe Albert didn’t reserve at least fifteen minutes a day to contemplate the three pristine Edward Weston prints, which hung in the main hallway.
Peter and Mary sat down on the slender, white couch, low to the ground like a child’s bench, at the far end of the living room. Albert sat across from them, on an orange chair that resembled half of a cracked egg, hovering over the floor.
“Is someone here?” said Mary, tilting her head toward the kitchen.
“Cleaning lady,” said Albert. “She’s almost done.”
“I thought maybe you had a visitor, ” said Mary, coyly smiling. “Which might have accounted for your disappearance.”
“No,” said Albert. “No visitors. Except for you guys. Right now.”
“So,” said Peter. “What does account for your disappearance?”
Albert sighed. He’d moved all the way across the country to get away from this kind of scrutiny.
“Does not going to the library for three days really count as a disappearance?” he said, trying to contain his exasperation. “We’re always talking about how we live our lives in the library. How we never get out. Well, I guess this was me trying to get out for awhile.”
Peter and Mary looked at him, their eyes squinting slightly, waiting. It was clear they’d discussed the agenda for the visit, and were looking for the right opening into which to introduce their opinions.
“But, get out to where?” said Mary. “Where did you go?”
“The park,” said Peter. “That was my guess.”
“Oh, right,” said Mary, playing dumb—badly. “What’s the name of the girl again? Jan?”
“Nan,” said Albert. He wanted it to sound forceful to keep them from having the upper hand so quickly, but his voice rang hollowly in the room.
Peter looked at his friend, sitting in the egg-shaped chair with its gleaming chrome feet. He looked miserable, like a new hatchling devastated to be born.
“Albert,” said Peter, gently. “What’s going on?”
Their faces looked so concerned, so genuine, that it just made Albert feel worse.
“Nothing,” said Albert. “Everything’s still the same.”
“I’ve heard you say that before,” said Peter.
He meant the time right after they’d passed their oral exams, when Albert went missing for a few days, only to turn up in the Periodicals Room of the library, where Mary found him reading old copies of the newspaper. Or last Christmas break, when he’d told them that he was going home to California, but had actually stayed in the city, watching movies on TV by himself, surviving on popcorn and take-out.
“You know what I think?” said Mary. “Can I tell you what I think?”
Albert knew his response was not required, or necessary, for her to continue, and braced himself.
“I can’t speak to all the other times you’ve dropped off the face of the planet,” she said. “But in this case, as you are now, I think that you’re lonely—”
“I’m not lonely—”
She held up her hand to silence him.
“It’s not an indictment,” she said, frankly. “And it’s nothing to be ashamed of—you just don’t consider it loneliness because you’re always alone, and you’re always working, so it feels like a normal state of being for you.”
He made a slight gesture of protest, but only to disrupt how pitifully the statement hung in the air: you’re always alone.
“And now,” she continued. “When you see someone like this girl, Nan, though, I guess, in a way, it could be anyone—”
“No, it couldn’t!”
“Which I think is the point here!” said Peter, coming to the aid of his friend. Mary held up her hand again.
“May I continue, please?”
Peter gave Albert a sympathetic look. They had clearly agreed that this would be Mary’s effort.
“Even though you don’t know this girl, and she probably has no idea who you are, it’s clear that she’s done something to you. She’s gotten under your skin, and as a result, she’s made you feel the loneliness that is otherwise innately integrated into your everyday existence.” She looked at him, giving him a smile of encouragement. “It’s not your fault. And it’s not hers. Nobody is to blame here.”
Albert hung his head. What was he supposed to say to this? That she was full of shit? That she should mind her own damn business? He wished he could, but Mary was his friend, one of his only friends, and as badly as he felt, it wasn’t worth being mean and dismissive to her and making her feel badly, too.
“So,” he said, resigned. “What is it you suggest I do?”
“Given everything, I would recommend you get professional help, ” she said.
He looked up at her.
“Isn’t that what this is?”
“With a professional,” she said. “Someone with experience—someone who’s not still a student.”
“Oh, I see,” said Albert, folding his arms. “Well, in that case: Thank you, but no.”
In college, he’d been to see the school psychologist exactly one time—looking back, he couldn’t believe he’d actually even gone, but it was the only way to assuage his girlfriend at the time, who was convinced he was depressed. He, on the other hand, was convinced he was just very tired. Still, she promised she’d stop nagging him if he went at least one time. He showed up for his appointment, in the basement of the health center, to find a pudgy male therapist, sitting Indian-style in an old wingback chair, wearing a large pink button on his lapel that said LISTENER in block letters. He asked Albert to sit at a small table and, with the markers and construction paper provided, draw pictures of his family, his home, his favorite pets, and all the recent dreams he could remember. Albert squarely refused. Undeterred, the therapist then asked Albert why he was there, and Albert told him that he was there at his girlfriend’s request. The therapist asked him if there was any reason why his girlfriend should be worried about him, and Albert said no. The therapist took out a file with Albert’s name on it and withdrew what looked like his transcripts. He looked them over and calmly asked Albert if, as a highly accomplished person, he believed he used academic achievement as a way to cover up his sadness—because that’s what he’d noticed from the first moment Albert walked into the room: the unmistakable aura of sadness. It’s palpable, the man said. Albert sat back in his chair and said nothing else for the rest of the session.
“I knew you’d say that,” said Mary. “So, my other idea is this: I think we should find this girl and see if she’s actually worthy of the effect she’s had on you.”
“And then what?” said Albert, his voice rising uncontrollably. “Hunt her down and force her to spend time with me? Force her to fall in love with me?”
He shut his mouth—he didn’t plan to say that; it just came out. For the first time, Peter and Mary looked truly worried.
“Wait!” said Albert, quickly—he had to say something; he had to show them that he wasn’t just an unraveling nutcase, holed up in a luxury apartment, fixating on a stranger. “Just so you know, I am aware that… I mean, I realize that it’s not solely about… her, you know? I mean… she’s just…”
“An aspect of a larger problem?” said Mary, carefully.
Albert looked down at his hands, curling into fists.
“I know,” said Mary, softly, sitting forward. “We know. And, Albert, with someone good, a professional—”
“Right,” she said. “Okay, well, at least with my other idea—finding this girl, maybe even getting to know her a little bit, it’ll be doing something.” She glanced at Peter. “Because we both agree. Something has to be done.”
Albert looked up at Peter.
“You both agree?”
“We’re both really worried about you, Al.”
It wasn’t that Nan didn’t love being home. She did—every part of it. She slept so soundly in her own bed; she worked efficiently and productively at her desk by the window, with its view of the orchard and the distant mountains; she loved being with her parents, cooking meals with them, seeing what they were creating in their workshops. Every day she played with the dogs and went on walks; she went to the farm stands and into town. It was the comfortable life she’d known since she was a child, the one she loved returning to on vacations and long weekends from the school. But there was something different about this visit, because, for the first time in years, she knew she didn’t have to go back to the city if she didn’t want to. She had graduated, so the choice was hers, and, much to her own surprise, she had chosen the urban world, the other world. It was as if she’d learned to speak a foreign language, and couldn’t give up the place where she’d finally mastered it.
Also surprising was another feeling—the feeling that she missed him. Her advisor, or whatever it was he was now. In the past, he’d been so many things: a supporter, a challenger, a teacher, an endless source of helpful advice, an endless source of confusion… not quite a friend, but something close to it. So, what would he be now? she wondered. The question would occur to her every now and then while she was home, and whenever she thought about it, it seemed to make time slow down, so that the moments before she could go back to New York seemed to drag on and on.
Albert was mortified. Peter and Mary had been scouring the neighborhood for almost two weeks trying to find the girl—this poor, unsuspecting girl called Nan. It made him crazy to think of her, unknowingly involved in this pathetic scheme, all for what, exactly? He wished he could have taken back that afternoon; he wished he’d never opened the door and let his friends inside. Of course he was grateful for them, too, and touched by their caring. But, at this point, all he really wanted was just to be left alone—not forever, and not for good, but just for now. That’s all he wanted.
And, he wanted to meet her.
He couldn’t help it. Just to say hello. And to ask her what she was always reading in the park—piles of papers and envelopes and loose slips, which would fall between her feet, threatening to blow away. He’d once seen her wearing a hooded, boiled wool jacket—the kind he’d seen in England when he was at Oxford for a semester during college. Had she also been? Did she get it there? And her face: the pale skin and widely set gray eyes… she looked like a Flemish portrait. Was that where her family was from—the northern Europeans, raised under wide blue skies and low, pulled-cotton clouds?
It didn’t matter. With no sightings of her in nearly three weeks, summer school had started, and Peter and Mary and Albert all had to start teaching again. There was no time to think about tracking her down, and no hope that they would find her. They’d all resigned themselves to the idea that she’d most likely gone back to whatever country road or flower-filled meadow Albert had imagined she came from. Peter and Mary were disappointed—their plan had failed and their friend still seemed lost. But, in a way, Albert was relieved: the chance to meet her had never actually presented itself, so he couldn’t be blamed for ruining anything.
Nan didn’t know why she was so surprised. Professor Paulson used to call her all the time when she was in school. But now that they were no longer advisor and advisee. His voice on her machine—the message she had waiting for her when she got back—seemed somehow different: looser, funnier, free of the formalities people used when they’re weren’t talking with friends.
He suggested they meet for dinner, at a place on Broadway, around the corner from where she lived. He told her he would come and meet her after a department meeting he had on campus. She was looking forward to it, as it would mark the first occasion when she was a living, breathing participant of the city, not just some typical student, trolling around waiting for life to start and wondering if she would ever be lucky enough that it would. After dinner, she planned, she would call her parents to tell them all about it—they’d had dinner as colleagues, she’d say confidently, compatriots.
He kissed her on the cheek when he saw her. This seemed exactly right—and a part of her even felt relieved, since he’d neglected to do this at the party. The restaurant was dimly lit; they sat in the back, at a small table with a clouded mirror beside them, reflecting their candlelit faces, both smiling with obvious excitement, and nerves.
She hadn’t been a big drinker at school. At home, she sometimes had a glass of wine with her parents at dinner, but even they would hardly finish a bottle—they usually worked well into the night, and had to be lucid around their power tools and kiln. So, she was unprepared for the effects of the wine he ordered. But these effects, she reasoned, were the new effects of her new life—urbane, based in culture, in art—they were why people came to the city, and they were why she’d come back. They were something to celebrate because they acknowledged her survival, her scheme, her nose, which, for four long years, had hardly left the grindstone. They toasted to this again and again.
At the end of the meal, Professor Paulson picked up his valise and began searching around in it. He had a graduation gift for her. No! she said. That’s ridiculous! But he didn’t have it, anyway. He’d forgotten to bring it along. In the rush to get out the door to meet her, he’d left it in his study at home.
But hadn’t he just been on campus, at a department meeting? Wasn’t that what he’d said? He poured the rest of the wine into their glasses.
Would she mind swinging by the apartment with him? It wasn’t that far; they were basically neighbors. He had planned to give her the gift at his party, but she had run off so quickly with her parents.
Her only reservation was that she was drunk, and didn’t want to encounter his wife in this state—it was hard enough to speak to the woman sober. Even if his wife were in a coma, Nan would still fear her. But, almost because she was drunk, and certainly because he took her by the hand and led her out of the restaurant, her fears evaporated—as did the time it took to walk to his apartment. For suddenly they were there, in the shiny marble lobby, with the doorman giving her an odd look.
Or had he? What had happened down there? She didn’t know. It didn’t matter. They were already upstairs, through the door, into the apartment, which was dark and quiet. She expected to hear the children’s voices, fighting down the hallway, or his wife calling out from the kitchen, but there was nothing, not even music on the stereo—just the muted sounds of the cars rushing up and down Riverside Drive on the other side of the windows. He turned on the lamp in the living room and told her to take a seat on the couch. He’d be right back with her gift.
He returned with a book in one hand and a new bottle of wine and two glasses in the other.
No! she thought. No more. Only because she didn’t want to fall asleep, which is what had happened on the few occasions she’d had more wine than she could handle. What if she fell asleep on the couch, and his wife and children found her the next morning, drooling on the stone-colored throw pillows?
I’m an idiot, she thought, a stupid hayseed.
He handed her the book: it was a first edition, hardcover copy of his first book, which had come out years before. Of course she’d already read it, but she’d checked it out from the library. This one had the jacket, which she’d never seen before—an Art Deco nineteen seventies-ish cover in yellows and creams, with a stout, sans-serif font for the title and his name. His author photo peered out from the back flap, his face attempting an expression of such strenuous intensity it almost made her laugh out loud. And she felt now, having graduated, taking another sip of wine, that if she did laugh, he might even laugh along with her.
He sat down and opened the book for her, the way one would for a child, walking her through the front matter to the inscription on the title page, which she could barely read—his scrawl combined with the wine made it all a blur. And yet the ink looked still wet… He took it from her and put it on the coffee table. She thanked him and said she loved it. He smiled at her and they toasted, drank. He asked her again if she liked her gift. She said yes again, and then lied and said she’d never read it before, and was now so excited to have the chance. He said, really? She assured him, yes. You’re excited? he said. Yes. I am too, he said. I knew when this day finally came, he said, I knew that we both would be excited.
She had fallen asleep. She knew she had because she woke up, her head pounding, the feeling of unfamiliar bedding surrounding her. The room was dim, the light between the curtains cut through the darkness in a harsh white line. She stared up at the ceiling, which was pristine—no cracking paint like in her apartment, which she’d tried to fix with pieces of clear masking tape. I’m not at home, she thought. She closed her eyes. Beyond the morning sounds of the city, the sparse birdsong, she could hear breathing, close by. She didn’t look over to its source. She looked the other way, just off to the left, where her skirt lay in a crumpled heap on the floor, a pair of boxers and her underwear, tangled together in a knot on the rug.
She closed her eyes and pictured the water in the stream in the woods behind her house—how it effortlessly slid down the rocks into the pools without spraying, without disruption, rejoining the rest of the current with grace. That was how she slipped from the bed, and the bedroom, clutching her clothes to her chest. She dressed quickly in the foyer and then out in the hallway, praying no one would peek out their door and see her, slack-faced and panicked, a cotton-mouthed fool struggling with her bra.
She couldn’t go home. If he woke and found her gone, he might call. He might come over… he knew she lived across the street from the post office; he’d once come by once when she was sick. He’d brought her something… soup? A bagel?
I’m an idiot, she thought, a stupid hayseed.
She fled into the park.
It was early, but people were already out—exhausted-looking mothers wheeling infants in massive strollers, dogs pissing with relief on the wrought iron fences near the playground. Her head felt like it might split down the center, her heart felt crushed in her chest. She took a drink from a water fountain and sat down on a bench, staring down at the pristine cobblestones that were newly installed that spring. They were perfectly lined up, the pattern accurate and tight, which somehow brought her a vague sense of comfort. But only fleetingly: the water from the fountain had revived the various flavors in her mouth—strange, bitter, sweet—trapped in her teeth…
And then she was crying; tears falling through her fingers, down her face, onto her tongue. She cried harder, goaded by her own stupidity, her ignorance, her shame. More than anything, she wished she were back in Vermont, safely ensconced in her childhood home, away from all these tests that seemed designed to demolish her.
She thought of the book, the gift, left on the coffee table with its mysterious inscription. Had she been able to read it, would she have known the outcome of the evening? And had she known it, would she have fled? She could barely piece together what had happened; it was all a flickering of images: his face, his chest, his mouth. She remembered kissing him—her advisor; her married advisor; a father; her boss; his hands all over her, disrobing her; how he yanked down her skirt like he was slamming a window shut… Where was his wife? His children? Why didn’t she leave before it was too late? Why did she go at all? The logistics of the evening seemed essential in order to plumb the depths of her transgression. How many signs had she willfully overlooked?
A pair of shoes appeared on the cobblestones before her—dress shoes, a professor’s footwear. Her heart seized. He’d found her already. Please, she wanted to say. I’m going back home. This was all a mistake. And yet a part of her—the worst part; the new part, that which had been born in the city, was glad—relieved—that he’d come running straight from bed to find her…
She looked up and into the face of a stranger; unknown, and yet somehow familiar—tall, with dark hair, and an unmistakably sad look in his eyes. And it was this look, these sorrowful eyes that released her from her suffering, if only for a moment. She forgot all about what had happened to her, what she was running from and shamed by and instead wondered: Who is this person? Has he been crying?
“Are you all right?” said Albert.
Nathaniel Bellows is the author of the novel, On This Day (HarperCollins; Harmon Blunt) and a collection of poems, Why Speak? (W.W. Norton). “Compatriots” is the sixth story of a ten-part cycle of short stories called “Nan.”
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.
I’m working on a new novel, which is a ghost story set on a coastal island in Maine. I discovered this book as I was finishing the latest draft and feel grateful to have come upon it at this stage of writing—the gothic setting and ominous, unsettling tone evoke the classic elements of the genre, while the writing—sharp, highly observed, wry, and slightly off-kilter—lends depth and an odd sense of pathos to the line between the living world and what might lie beyond it.
They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell.
Maxwell is one of my favorite writers—he is deeply human and understated, a true craftsman with his prose. He is also surprising and inventive with his narration—occasionally shifting perspectives in an instant; giving voice to the mute observers of the world: clocks or paintings or animals—without the device feeling false or flashy. I tend to read my favorite authors over and over again to learn from them, and while I’ve read this book many times—the story of a young boy who loses his mother to the influenza epidemic in 1918—it never fails to move me.
The Cost of Living: Early and Uncollected Stories by Mavis Gallant.
A teacher in graduate school gave me two collections of Mavis Gallant stories and it took me years to finally read them. I wish I’d had the sense to get to them sooner—Gallant is a master of concision and economy, balancing wit and humanity, culture and history, and the individual’s place in a world that both nourishes and maligns.