Harvard, 1966. Abel Jones is in his third year. He is an exceptional student, head of the class. He is studying history. His area of focus, the eighteenth century. England and France. Still, there are days when he is lost. Days when he is perplexed. For one, he is excruciatingly shy, soft-spoken. A young man from the country. There are times when he even feels out of his depth. The university is distinctively male, overwhelmingly white—a kind of white. It is marked by class. Even one’s residence defines him. The best rooms are on the second floor, where the most well-to-do reside. A scholarship student, Abel lives on the top floor. Sex is possible. It is commonly available in the bathrooms. At times, he can’t help but think that he’s no better than a pervert.
It is recommended that the undergraduates take a term off in order to find their place in the world. His classmates spend time in Rome. In Athens. He visits a psychotherapist in Cambridge, one who he discovers later is quite distinguished. He’s told that he can’t possibly be a pervert. Or a homosexual, but that he is having what the experts refer to as “sexual panic.” As soon as he succeeds in dating a woman, he will come to his senses. Everything will align.
Her name is Daphne. She is in her last year at Radcliffe. She has radical beliefs, echoes the consciousness of Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan. He takes her to see A Man for All Seasons. Dinner afterwards. Daphne has flushed cheeks, auburn hair. Soft blue eyes that radiate with authoritative clarity. She is wearing a burgundy dress. She exudes beauty, not to mention confidence. Someone raised from noble ideals, and the best of intentions. Parents who know better. Someone from money. Her family had campaigned for Johnson and Humphrey. It didn’t matter that they lost. “More than awareness,” she says, “we need action. We need movement. Or else we’re only cursed to repeat the same mistakes with each successive generation.”
The war, feminism, civil rights: All are at the forefront of her mind and heart.
Abel can’t help but find himself entranced by the woman. Is this the makings of something more? Because he actually likes the person he’s becoming in her presence. He seems to be saying all the right things. How she counters with ease. He is unexpectedly at his best. It is a kind of achievement to be this in sync with the universe.
Over coffee, over apple pie, he can see them together, ten years down the line—they are married. There might already be children. They would be scholars, both at the top of their game. They’d have a home in the suburbs, host dinner parties. Talk politics, the philosophy of Diderot. Most importantly, they would be happy together, a force to be reckoned with. He can already tell that she will be the type of woman who will pave the way, shine a spotlight on all of his best qualities. It would be easy for people to admire him, as they admire her. A lifetime, ripe with possibilities. Windfall after windfall. He would never have to fear the risk of losing his leverage in the world ever again.
They end up in her room in Beacon Hill. Her roommate is conveniently gone for the weekend, visiting family in Washington, DC—they have complete privacy.
“What are you waiting for?” Daphne says.
“What do you mean?”
“Kiss me already.”
He kisses her. She returns with a sudden heat. The scent of incense, bergamot perfume. They are already lying down on her bed. Some of their clothes are tossed to the side. He can feel the arch of her body, pressing closer against his. He wants to be overwhelmed. He wants to give in. But he feels himself pulling away.
“What’s the matter?” The flash of unease in her eyes cripples him further. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m sorry. I want to, I really do.”
“I just can’t.”
And then he is sixty-eight. Already a thirty-year tenure at a college in Connecticut. Courses in European history, even in poetry. He’s largely lived alone. The West Village is home. The apartment is small, but adequate. He’s filled it with the words of his heroes. Samuel Johnson, Edward Gibbon. Thoreau. Voltaire. He doesn’t own a television on principle; he believes the onset of cell phones to be the demise of civilization. Or at the very least, propriety. He takes daily walks for exercise, for fresh air. There are parks, the crowded streets, having in recent years been infiltrated by a younger set—those who possess a certain kind of entitlement, defiance against the unknown. He’ll peer into restaurants, peruse menus at the door. He barely recognizes the stooped figure in the pane of the glass. He is bald. He wears thick-rimmed glasses. There is a slight gap between his front teeth. His protruding belly, more pronounced than ever.
He keeps busy, though. A strict routine. He wakes early to read, writes in the afternoons. Slowly, and by longhand. His next book is on the Methodist John Wesley’s journals. It is an endeavor that manages to consume most of his days. At six in the evening, he sets his pen aside, winds down with a glass of Johnnie Walker Black, one ice cube. It is all a departure for him. The quiet days. The weekends. And then the lesson is learned quickly—one can retire and suddenly be wiped off the face of the Earth. Phone calls recede. Letters and even emails come to a trickle. It is like the drying up of the Nile. On his worst days, a loneliness will set in like a night with no end. Then there are more inspired days. He’ll even embrace such solitude.
He has marked several upcoming dates in his calendar. Former students make up a noticeable proportion of his social life. Tea with a student at his penthouse apartment on the Upper East Side. Dinner with friends, also former students, passing through on their way to their next set of escapades. Entire weeks at a cottage in Providence, hikes in the woods, Thoreau-like. There are men who have reached a point of no return. Loveless, full of need. Perfectly capable of friendship, but cast aside like debris. There is the baseless stigma attached to being alone.
And then there are other men. He has sustained the performance with a marvelous grace. There is a trip to Westchester for a conference where a colleague is presenting a paper on Edmund Burke. He has his own work to finish. The drive to Providence is always something to look forward to. Other travels petering on the horizon. He would like to see Paris again before his days are numbered.
It’s taken him a lifetime to be a man of some means now, though he can’t bear to think of himself as rich, because he isn’t. Still, he will live out his years with a fair modicum of comfort. It is a stroke of luck. But also the result of his ambition. The “cultivation of the garden” of all his promise. It’s become ingrained in him.
So when he is invited to teach for one semester at the Lower Manhattan University, provincial habits refuse to die. He puts his plans on hold, convinces himself that the offer is too good, too generous to refuse.
The university rolls out the red carpet, so to speak. They buy him a computer of his choice, give him access to an office in the English department. A welcome reception. There is a view of the business school.
It is the second week of classes, the spring semester. It was no picnic during the Age of Reason. He clears up some of the class’s misconceptions. Sex in the park. A late-night romp with a prostitute in the dark, brothels. Animal intestines for makeshift condoms. Disease is rampant.
The lecture hall. A whiteboard, harsh lighting. There are twenty or so students scattered about the rows. He can think of no text more delicious than that of David Hume. An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. More than any of the class, a young man named Christian Lang is enthralled by one of Hume’s characters—Alcheic, a man who marries his sister, murders his father, all of his children, solely for personal gain. Alcheic commits suicide, but still, he is lauded as a hero by his people.
There is more. Abel emphasizes section VII of the text. He asks the young man to read it aloud. Alcheic the adulterer. He has a young lover at the college, someone whom he has taken under his wing.
“Friends, I’m afraid that Alcheic is only a ruse,” he says. (Therefore it is all right that no one knows how to pronounce the name correctly.) “Indeed, it is as Hume himself writes: ‘Though the ancient Greeks have been admired for centuries, have they not practiced many of the things their admirers so disapproved of morally?’ ”
Several students scribble the remark into their notebooks, likely with expectations of seeing it on their midterm exam. There are no further questions. One can hear a pin drop.
“But don’t you see?” Abel continues. “It was not so long ago when it was common knowledge that only men were allowed to attend university.”
He raises his eyebrows, not unaware that he has cast a line. There is a bit of laughter. He scans the room, his gaze falls on this Christian. Is it a figment of his imagination? He can almost swear that he’s made the young man blush.
Later that week, office hours. Christian comes to ask him a question about an assignment. But then he tells him the news that isn’t news. It isn’t the first time that a student confides in him. They treat it like a sacred knowledge. The young man’s dark eyes seem to glisten. He sits up a little taller. His surname, Lang. “Is it Cantonese?” Abel asks.
“My family’s from Taipei.” He gives off the scent of fresh laundry.
But Abel recognizes the younger man’s demeanor, the density that seems to hold him back from so much of the world. The same futile tactic, the messiness of avoiding so much of life—content just to get by. He tells Abel that he’s chosen to write his paper on the fifteenth and sixteenth chapters of Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
“Ambitious choice.” Abel slides back in his swivel chair. “You remind me of myself around your age.”
“Do you really think so?”
“Oh, yes.” He means lost. He means confused.
“I’ll take it as a compliment.” Then, “Tell me about Harvard.”
“What’s there to tell? I hated the experience. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. From what I hear, not much has changed.” And then, “What? Does that surprise you?”
“That’s not what I expected you to say.” The young man’s disappointment is disarming. But Abel goes on. His tone, almost apologetic. He tells him that he was at Harvard during a time when one had to leave calling cards at the home of the president. Memories of segregation in a train car. Other kinds of inequalities. “Gosh, back then, I didn’t have anyone. I was alone.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Dr. Jones.” Then, “I’m alone, too.”
“Please, call me Abel. What I mean is, if you ever need someone to talk to, you can always come to me.”
“We don’t have to talk about the class. In fact, I’d prefer not to.”
They meet at Le Pain Quotidien. Washington Square Park. It is much later in the semester. There is a premature mugginess in the air, warmth of the city. The possibility of rain. They are seated by the wide window overlooking the sidewalk. Brick buildings, bustling streets.
“The Daily Bread,” Abel remarks. He refers to the menu.
“The name of the place.”
“Oh, I don’t speak French.”
“It’s not too late to learn, am I right?”
It is a mark of the young man’s lack of transcendence, his willingness to give in to inevitabilities. He can already foresee that Christian will likely never be a man of the greater world. Unless someone intervenes, that is. I can see that you need guidance, he wants to say. You need someone who will show you the way. The opposite is actually oblivion. Instead he says, “I’m not very hungry. I’ve recently been inspired to start back on my diet, actually.”
He orders a drink. The peach iced tea. Christian asks for the cafe au lait.
“A little late in the day for coffee, don’t you think?”
“You’re right,” Christian says. He tells the waiter, “I’ll have the decaf, please.”
There are things in common. Abel learns that they both come from humble beginnings. And just as he’s suspected, Christian is also a scholarship student. From years of experience teaching, he’s observed that the courage to speak one’s mind is often proportional to class, to upbringing. Sex, race. Otherness. Christian doesn’t dorm. He lives in Queens with his mother, who works at a nail salon in Manhattan. Neither of them has siblings. They both prefer some of the English thinkers to the French philosophes. The music of Handel over Bach. “Or I should say, Couperin.”
Abel then says that he is a member of the Samuel Johnson Society, even though he hasn’t attended any of the functions at the Harvard Club in years.
“It’s very exclusive,” he remarks. He does a little pose. It’s his way of engaging further. “One has to be invited, recognized in the field. It’s a decadent affair, almost unnecessarily decadent if you ask me. Everyone wears a tuxedo, and speaks with an accent.”
“You must be an important man.” Then, “I wish that I could be a part of something like that.”
“In due time. You’re still young and full of potential. But I already have a good feeling about you.” He raises his glass. “To new friends.”
Abel goes on to say that there are books that continue to pique his interest. He prefers nonfiction, but at times, he’ll return to Candide. Jane Austen. Emma and Persuasion are among his favorite novels, which, for him, are fine studies of rank. He says he doesn’t believe in marriage, that he can’t imagine himself being involved with one person for too long. He’s had lovers. He’s kept in touch with many of them.
“So how do you meet people?” Abel then asks. “You don’t have to answer if you don’t feel like it.”
“I meet them in passing.”
“Only in passing?” He raises his eyebrows.
“Well, I met you, didn’t I?”
He calls a waiter over, orders several jars of preserves and spreads. Pastries to go. Strawberry, almond. The blueberry is his favorite. A gift set with an elegant gold bow tied around the plastic wrapping.
“Thank you,” Christian says. “But you really shouldn’t have.”
“I insist. Think of it as a token of my appreciation for your friendship.”
There are people you’ll meet, to whom you’ll want to offer the world, show your hand. Someone who might feel indebted to that, someone full of gratitude. It is a kind of endearment, but also worthy of one’s generosity.
“Do let me know when you run out,” Abel then says.
“You’ve kind of given me a lifetime’s supply.”
“That was the plan.”
Then Abel asks him about the ballet. Does he have an interest in going sometime?
“I haven’t seen one since The Nutcracker, and that was in elementary school. But I remember liking it.”
“City Ballet’s fantastic. The company has some of the finest dancers in the world. Not to mention, most attractive.”
“When is it? This weekend?”
“No, unfortunately, the season’s already coming to its close.”
“I see. Well, keep me in mind for the next.”
“Oh, I will.” He leans in. “But can I see you this weekend anyway? I’d like to take you somewhere special, somewhere meaningful.”
“Is it the Samuel Johnson Society? I’m only kidding.”
“How about we keep it a surprise?”
“I like surprises.”
“Do you? Well then, I’ll have to keep that in mind, too.”
Dinner beforehand. A diner by the Queensboro Bridge. They’re seated at a booth. Matzah ball soup, grilled cheese sandwiches. Abel sits back. He takes in the young man’s expressions, his unbridled enthusiasm for it all, as if he doesn’t know what it means to be worn out, grown weary by the undertakings of the everyday. He can be handsome, especially under certain lights. His face is unmarked. There is a slight purse in his lips. His ideals are unfixed, but his open attitude is almost uncorrupted. His slate, blank.
“I feel as if I’ve made a magnificent discovery meeting you,” Abel admits. “I’m glad that I’ve decided to come out of hibernation.”
“That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me.”
At the end of the meal, Abel pushes a box across the table.
“Oh, I don’t know. Go on, open it.”
Christian unwraps the paper, pulls the cover off the box. The silver watch glitters under the light. “This is too much,” he says. “I can’t possibly accept it.”
“But you must. It’s discourteous to refuse a gift. Here, give me your hand.”
The energy’s changed in the young man’s eyes. Has he overstepped? But it’s as if Abel is realizing it for the first time: There comes a point in one’s life where there is nothing more remarkable than being present at the forefront of this kind of refinement.
“I’ve never had anything this nice before,” Christian says.
He somehow already knows this though. “It looks good on you. In fact, it makes me happy to see you wearing it.”
It is a short walk to the Townhouse. The red brick building. Christian is carded at the door. Inside, there is a sense of being thrown back to another time, another place. The hanging chandeliers. Red velvet sofas, curtains. The long oak bar is pristine. Music can be heard. There is a white grand piano by the window. They take a table near the front in order to watch the impromptu performance. Already, there is a crowd of men singing at the piano, at the top of their voices, uninhibited. They are drunk. Show tunes, patriotic songs. “America the Beautiful.” It is Memorial Day weekend. The cluster of deep voices culminate in a kind of harmony. More than friendship, more than camaraderie. A brotherhood.
Abel waves to several people he notices at a distance, but has never formally met. “I like this song,” Abel says. “I like the singing. What do you think? Pretty swanky, right?”
“It’s nice.” He watches Christian observe the room for a moment. Then he looks down at his folded menu, the new watch.
A waiter comes up to take their drink orders. Someone with personality. Someone whom Abel imagines goes on auditions during the day, hungover.
“Johnnie Walker Black with one ice cube, and for my friend …”
“I’ll just have a Coke.”
“No, wait,” Abel tells the waiter. “With rum.” He turns to Christian. “Don’t worry, they skimp on the liquor here.”
More familiar music. Abel sings along. Cole Porter, Gershwin. He leans over. “Recognize any of it?”
“No, I don’t.”
“You’re practically a baby. Why, at your age, people will think that you’re either a waiter, or a hustler. And let’s just say, no one’s asked you to take their order, yet.” He gives him a wink. He is only teasing. He can feel, though, that they are being watched, gossiped about. He has made a kind of spectacle of himself. He doesn’t mind the attention.
“Cheers,” Abel says. They toast their glasses.
After another drink, he finds himself revealing more than he should. The grades he’s doled out to each student. Which students he had had to fail for not handing in papers. The student who had bragged about missing class in order to attend Coachella. They reminisce about a discussion with another student who had been misinformed about the ideology of Adam Smith, only Abel had had to let him down gently, despite the student’s contentious attitude.
Then Christian says, “What did I get?”
“Do you really want to know?” Then, “You got the grade you deserved.”
At the bar, Abel orders another round.
“Shall we go up and sing a song?” he says.
“I should go home, it’s getting kind of late. My mother will worry.”
“Does she not know you’re out?”
“Tsk-tsk.” Then, “One song, and then we’ll go.”
Afterward, they walk to the train station. The night is still warm. Abel can’t help but think how wonderful it is, the way the department store windows seem to glow, the way the streets are practically deserted, as if they’ve been cleared for them at this dark hour.
“Which way are you going?” Abel asks. They are at the steps of the station.
“Then sadly, we part here.”
They make plans to meet again, perhaps the following week. Abel extends an invitation for a drink at his apartment. From there, they’ll play it by ear. But there are plenty of restaurants in the area that he’s been meaning to try. A meatball shop. A pizzeria. A hummus place. “The neighborhood comes to life in the evenings, you’ll see.”
He’d like to show him the view from the roof of his building. The skyline is spectacular. He suggests bringing a camera.
“Sounds like a plan,” Christian says.
“Then I look forward to it.”
He’s drunk a little more than he usually can take. Distorted feelings consume him like irrefutable truths that materialize and reverberate throughout the decades. It is a kind of rising energy. Tender feelings reemerge, beautifully irrational, incoherent. Before he realizes it, he’s leaned in. A kiss. Soft, smooth.
“Why did you do that?” Christian says.
“You said you liked surprises,” he jokes. Then, “Did you absolutely hate it?”
“Will you be all right then? Getting home, I mean. I should call you a taxi actually.”
“I’ll manage. I insist.”
“Very well. Then goodnight.”
At the bottom of the steps, Abel turns around and waves a final goodbye.
Over the week, he barely works. He is restless. He will walk outside of his building and say hello to people he’d usually pass with vague acknowledgment. He revels in the newfound spirit, feels it course through his veins like a life force, undeterred. He can already see himself showing Christian the skyline. The view of Manhattan, pointing out the Chrysler Building. The Empire State Building. The East River. Then he will lead him downstairs. They’ll be back in the apartment. He’ll fix him a gin and tonic. They will peruse his library together. He will show off his collection of first edition books. Thomas Paine, Goethe. He will put on some Handel. Water Music. Music for the Royal Fireworks. His favorite countertenor’s rendition of “Vedrò con mio diletto.” They might lose track of time. He might have to go to the grocery store in case he has to prepare some sort of dinner. He isn’t a very good cook, though. So they might just order in.
It is Christian who cancels. They exchange emails back and forth. Christian will take days to reply. Even weeks. Then Christian stops replying altogether. It’s as if Abel’s being filtered out. Abel will be the one to take the initiative. To call. Leave messages. If he is busy this week, how about the following week? The week after?
Still, no reply.
Then the slow and steady descent back into an obscurity. The vigorous walks around the neighborhood do little to quell the storm that has suddenly resurged inside of him. He replays the evening they had together in his mind. Was he incorrect in remembering that it was nothing short of brilliant?
It is finally the summer. The full and dreadful and exhausting burning of it. The city is in the midst of a heat wave. They say it’s the beginning of the end.
But on one hot midday, the phone rings.
“I thought you had all but disappeared on me,” Abel says.
“Sorry, things came up,” the familiar voice says. Friends leaving town. Cousins visiting from the West Coast. An aunt in the hospital. “But what are you doing Friday?”
“I’ll have to check my planner.” He covers the receiver. Mentally, he counts down from ten. He had seen it done in a film once. Then he says, “You’re in luck. A prior engagement has just canceled. Shall I give you my address?”
On the afternoon Christian is to arrive, it is dark. Abel glances out the window in anticipation. Massive clouds threaten the sky. But everything is prepared. In his refrigerator, there is already cheese, caviar. On his desk, a gift box. He glances up at his clock. Any minute now.
The phone rings. Christian tells him that he is running late.
“But I’ll be there soon,” he says.
“Do you have an umbrella?”
“It might storm.”
He worries that Christian will only get lost along one of the cobblestoned side streets, get caught in the rain. What if he cancels? “You won’t make it,” he then says.
“Sure I will.”
“No, no. Why don’t I meet you at the restaurant?”
By the time Abel rounds the corner, he is heaving heavy breaths. Umbrella in hand, a shopping bag in the other. Just as he had suspected, it had poured. There was thunder, lightning. It all happened so fast. And yet, it was nearly impossible to prevent the gift box from getting wet.
“Hello there,” Christian says with a wave. He extends a hand, and Abel knows instantly that something has come undone between them. “You made it.”
Christian is wet himself. His hair, practically soaked. “Why didn’t you go inside?”
“I thought I’d wait for you out here.”
“You could have waited for me at the bar. You’re drenched.”
“It’s fine, I’ll dry up in no time.”
Inside the restaurant, they’re greeted by the host, a middle-aged gentleman in a silvery suit, his dark hair slicked back. He warns Abel to watch his step. The tone of his voice affects reverence for the elderly. But people glance over at them, hold their gazes. He can’t help feeling as if he’s betrayed a sense of helplessness. He’s even taken by the arm, led to their table at the center of the room.
“I’m not that old,” Abel says. He means it in good humor.
The host laughs, pulling out a chair. “Please, enjoy.”
Then the waitress brings the wrong appetizer, forgets their drinks. He and Christian share a bland salad. A salty pizza, barely any shrimp. Christian doesn’t seem to be very hungry. He is distracted. He reaches for his phone.
“What’s the matter?” Abel says. “Do you have another engagement?”
“Sorry, it’s my phone. It keeps buzzing. I should check this message.”
“It’s amazing how much our attention spans have deteriorated.”
“I said we’ve become so attached to our phones now, and it’s sad.”
Something about the young man’s aura has changed, diluted. Abel tries to resurrect some of the magic from the night he’s replayed over and over in his mind’s eye, and recently in a much improved and favorable light. He refuses to hesitate. Refuses to relent. A full life is but the realization of the best of things before they fade.
“I was so glad when you called,” Abel then says. He reaches into the bag, pulls out the gift box. The cardboard is still wet, but what can he do? “These are just a few things that I thought you might like to have.”
Wrapped in tissue paper, a scarf, a pink tie, blue shirt. A pair of bronze cufflinks.
“If the shirt doesn’t fit, do let me know and I’ll exchange it for another.”
“It’s the middle of the summer,” Christian says. He holds up the scarf. “This is ridiculous.” He glances down at the price tag. “And expensive.”
“It’s designer.” Then, “Tell you what, why don’t you wear it to the ballet?”
“I don’t even know how to tie this.”
“Allow me.” Abel takes the tie, ties the knot around his own neck, then passes it back to Christian, who slips it on.
“It’s too tight,” Christian then says. He tugs at the knot in order to loosen it.
“No, not too much. It looks fine. Leave it.” Then Abel leans in. “Let’s be honest. I think we have a connection. It’s special, I can feel it. And it’s true.”
“I’ve been meaning to ask you something.”
“Ask me anything. I’m an open book.”
The waitress arrives. They do want dessert. Two creme brûlées. More drinks.
“Well?” Abel then says. “Your question?”
“Yes.” He takes a breath. “I think you’re brilliant. I think you’re great.”
He holds his smile. “Go on.”
A reference, a letter of recommendation. “Sorry, I meant to preface all this by telling you that I’m applying to graduate school.”
It is like the colliding of galaxies. Abel keeps his face calm, and unmoved. He thanks the waitress for bringing their desserts.
“You see, I hope to follow in your footsteps.”
His tone is even when he says, “You flatter me.”
“That why I’m applying to Harvard.” Then, “To be frank, I don’t exactly have the grades. But it’s always been a kind of dream of mine to go there. Therefore, I know it would mean a lot if a letter of endorsement came from you. You have a name, a reputation. You’re a member of the Samuel Johnson Society, for God’s sake.”
It is like a betrayal, a kind of annihilation. Abel can see it all clearly now. The disease of the latest generation: the presumption of a favor, prematurely expecting it to be fulfilled, as if it’s only a matter of course. How it’s become a kind of routine currency.
“I’d like to teach in the future,” Christian continues. “My mother thinks I can be a professor.”
Abel digs his fork into the creme brûlée. It’s practically mush. “I wouldn’t recommend anyone going into academia.”
“But you seemed to do well for yourself.”
“It was a different time when I started. One could get a PhD in history and go on to teach poetry.” He wipes his mouth with his napkin. He’s done with dessert. “I’m sorry, but Harvard is out of the question. You belong here.” He longs to add, “with me,” but is afraid that the moment he does, what’s left will surely vanish.
“What’s the matter?” he says instead.
“You think that Harvard’s out of my league, don’t you?”
“Quite the contrary, actually. I refuse to let Harvard claim you.”
“Somehow, I doubt that.” Then, “I want you to know that I intend on pursuing this, whatever happens.”
“And I know a man in search of ruin when I see one.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
The wasted years. Days of drifting about, feeling entirely out of one’s element. The torture of being friendless, invisible. The absurd self-loathing. All the self-destruction. How would he ever be able to explain what that was like?
“Look, I know a person of your position will see a place like Harvard and mistake it for mobility, even progress. Trust me, I’ve been there. I understand. But it’s an illusion. A place like that will only undo you. And if I may enlighten you on any one aspect of your future, it is precisely this: You will fail.”
Silence ensues. Christian removes the tie, places it back in the box and buries it below the tissue paper. Then he glances down at his phone, as if purposefully. “I don’t mean to be rude, but I have to go.”
“Then go. Wait. Don’t go. Here. Keep this.” He places the box in the shopping bag and hands it to Christian. “There’s no point in me holding on to this.”
A sense of relief washes over him when Christian eventually takes it. “A consolation gift.”
“Don’t be like that.”
“Won’t you reconsider? Don’t make me beg.”
“I’m going to have to put my foot down on this one.”
“So where does this leave us?”
Abel shakes his head. “The same. Disappointed, I’m afraid. Deeply disappointed.”
Days later. He is meandering through the streets, no real destination in sight. Bleecker Street; then, West Fourth. Then he is venturing farther than he is usually accustomed in this ocean of a city. Union Square in the distance. Chelsea. Before he knows it, he is approaching Times Square. He is amid the lights, the chaos of the tourists, the rush of cars, buses, taxis, bicycles. He wipes the sweat from his forehead, stops at a bench to catch his breath before continuing on. Columbus Circle in the distance. Then Lincoln Center. It is like battling against a tide. He can feel the soreness in his legs, his fatigue. He regards it as a personal victory that he’s even made it this far, and that he can still go on. He has made a success of something, he has resisted closure.
Her apartment is on the Upper West Side. The view of Central Park is like a forest at this time of night. Photographs of children, their families, along the hallway walls, along the bookshelves.
“God, are you all right?” Daphne says. She sits beside him on the couch. “You’re worrying me.”
She reaches over, pulls the dangling string of a nearby lamp. The light comes on and he is astounded. He’s never seen her so small, so fragile. She has soft white hair. She is wearing a string of pearls. He regards her blue eyes, clear as ever. He considers their friendship. It has stood the test of time. More so. In the end, there is another kind of love there, and it is no less true.
“Let me fix you a drink,” she says.
He reaches for her hand. He can’t help his own from shaking involuntarily, but manages to bring her palm to his lips.
“Who are you?” she says. “And what have you done with my Abel?”
They see a Czech film at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. Then dinner at Café Fiorello, her favorite restaurant.
Daphne sips her merlot. “Lovely,” she says. “I miss our evenings out.”
“People like us, we paved the way,” he tells her. “It’s as if it’s all being thrown back in our faces now. I can’t stand to see it happen. Is this what happens when one has it too good?”
Daphne listens with the expression of someone who is holding back a more nuanced opinion, too tired to disagree.
He goes on. “How does someone live these days with all the lack of commitments? Everything at the expense of another. Where is the collaboration?”
“You’re incomprehensible, Abel.” And then, “You don’t need it.”
“It’s not a question of need.”
The young waiter mistakes them for husband and wife. Neither bothers to correct him.
“Well, I could do worse,” Daphne says, as soon as the waiter is out of earshot. “In fact, I have.”
They both can’t help but laugh.
Later that evening, Daphne insists that they go for a carriage ride in the park. She’s never done it before. Neither of them has. The clop of the horse hooves echoes against the streets and buildings. Doormen stand at the entrances. Taxis speed past them in the streets.
“I’m ashamed. I feel like a tourist,” Abel says. “This is kind of ridiculous.”
“The days are getting colder. We don’t have many nights like this left.”
“I suppose you’re right.”
“You have me. We have each other. I think it is enough.”
“Yes, what a blessing.”
But when he visits the university, he still wonders if he will run into Christian. The possibility is ripe for it. He remains later at the office in hopes that the young man might surprise him, walk through the door, like that first time when he had told him everything. Nothing. Abel’s leisurely strolls through the park, all his careful vigilance, amount to nothing either. The holidays pass. There are cards, dinner at a friend’s apartment in Brooklyn. Each year, on New Year’s Eve, Abel is invited to attend a gathering where a soprano performs a marathon of lieder by Schubert. This year, the melancholy arpeggios of one strikes him more, each sequence of notes slices a cut infinitesimally deeper. The soprano’s haunting vocalizations only seem to reiterate his anxieties, his frustrations.
Then there is the elegant invitation in the mail. The platinum envelope, stamped with the official seal. The Samuel Johnson Society. The gala is once again being held at the Harvard Club. Admission is expensive, but that isn’t unexpected. He could attend. He could treat himself to an evening in the company of his peers, the finest minds. He’s always enjoyed the affair. This year, on the program will be highlights from A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. Of course, readings from James Boswell’s Life of Johnson.
The hall. High ceilings, chandeliers. The elegant place settings, silverware, fine china. He wonders how he could have kept himself away for this long. He runs into faces he knows. Dr. M. West, fresh from teaching at Oxford. Dr. Sophia Liu, Yale. Dr. Charles Winslow, Princeton. They, the select few, the crème de la crème. In recent years, in an effort to bolster membership, the society had started to extend invites to more women. It was about time.
Like everyone else, Abel is in formal attire. A tuxedo. He considers perhaps afterward, he might return to the Townhouse. He’s certainly dressed for it. He could do with some music. Sing along. It would be a splendid cadence to the evening.
In the library, he shakes hands with Dr. Anil Gupta, a man who has lost a significant amount of weight through the years.
“What hole did you crawl out of, Abel?” he says. “I didn’t think I’d see you this year.”
In the spirit of the occasion, Abel echoes the man of the hour: “It is seldom that we find either men or places such as we expect them.”
“Johnson’s Idler, of course.”
He finds his place card. As expected, he’s seated with other professors. Dr. Thomas Salisbury tells him that he’s currently at work on a book on the epochal boundaries and paradigm shifts in Antiquaries and politicians in eighteenth-century Naples. “Sounds delicious,” Abel says. As the man goes on about the research, Abel thinks of how wonderful, if by a series of happy accidents that he should see Christian at the event. How easy it would be for him to contact the society, mention Abel’s name, and secure an invitation. Such audacity would only be alluring. Christian could certainly find their website online. Abel peers into the crowd, examines each table, one at a time. He imagines Christian wearing the watch, the tie, the shirt. Even the scarf. Even though it would be out of place among the black-and-white attire of the gala. But it would be a kind of Christian at his best. He can’t help but feel himself go a bit weak. Poor Christian. He’d be completely oblivious, too. It wouldn’t matter. “ ‘How the world unfolds with such disproportion for the young, the beautiful. It is a gross inequality, but we are all complicit,’ ” he says.
“That’s misattributed,” Thomas says.
“What you said, it’s often misquoted as Johnson.” And then, “It isn’t him.”
A reader takes the podium on the stage. Abel recognizes it to be Dr. Vincent Olsen. His face has narrowed, his fingers seem more swollen than ever. The difficulty with which the man turns the page of the book before him is agony. There is a gloom about him too, a darkening—the throes of decay. Abel can see it in the flesh, or rather the absences in that flesh. But it’s also true that with anyone, the more that you look, the worse they appear. This is especially true of one’s own reflection.
A quaking voice reads a passage from Johnson’s History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia: “ ‘Is there such depravity in man as that he should injure another without benefit to himself?’ ”
There is applause, the presentation of several awards. Posing for photos.
And then he is finally home. It is a late night. He had decided against the Townhouse. At the computer, he finds himself restless, in want of reaching out, just one more time. He decides to send an email, extending an invitation to the ballet. The season is practically upon them. Balanchine’s Serenade.
After a few days, he sends another email, asking Christian if he’d like to accompany him to see the new exhibit on eighteenth-century French drawings at the Morgan Library. The exhibition is sure to tantalize: works of Watteau, Jacques-Louis David. Jean-Honoré Fragonard, a personal favorite. They could have dinner at the Ritz. A walk in midtown. In the spirit of friendship.
Again he is at his desk. The computer the university had given him, its bright screen before him. He watches the cursor, its metronomic blinking reminds him of a countdown.
“Abel Jones,” he says to himself. “What in heavens are you waiting for?”