Visiting Professor Florin C. Merisoreanu feels the pain in the left side of his chest more keenly on Tuesdays than on Thursdays. On Tuesdays he shares an office on the Upper West Side, at Columbia, with what he calls amicably A Tale of Two Richards: Professor Richard I, an inquisitive thirty-eight year-old essayist who shares a last name with a famous Enlightenment philosopher, and Professor Emeritus Richard II, a gentle eighty-three-year-old poet who translated an obscure Romanian nihilist philosopher from French into English. Behind Merisoreanu's back they call him, not so amicably, Richard III. They can smell the aura of betrayal that accompanies his person. He treads where few Eastern Europeans have trodden, and they often wonder what his secret must be.
On Thursdays, Professor Florin C. Merisoreanu has the office to himself so he can daydream. Today is Thursday.
First order of business: respond to student e-mails and save them, so he'll remember he taught here and assigned the likes of "Mine eyes were dragomans for my tongue betied/And told full clear the love I fain would hide" (The Arabian Nights, The Second Qalandar's Tale) paired up with "Were the world mine, Demetrius being bated,/The rest I'd give to be to you translated" (William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act I, Scene I).
I'm confused, writes Ahmed, whose father owns an oil well in Kuwait. What's a dragoman?
Please re-read The Arabian Nights. It would also help if you could picture yourself as female, veiled, and silent—or, if that fails, as a helpless male slave.
Can I still get an A in your class? I would do anything for an A.
Please review the syllabus policy regarding extra credit.
Will you give me a letter of recommendation for an MFA? I would give anything for an MFA.
You're better off with a recommender who teaches in the U.S. full-time.
Will you write me a letter for the Iowa Writers' Workshop? I could write anything at the IWW.
It's not meant to be.
I'm confused. I read the assignment three times. What's a dragoman?
"There were some people there who knew both Arabian and French, whom they call 'dragomans,' and they translated the Arabic into the Romance tongue for Count Peter of Brittany."
The Memoirs of the Lord Jean de Joinville, 1309
I read the assignment six times. I had to look up lots of words. Are you teaching next spring? May I list you as a reference for the Emerging Writers' Retreat in Crete? Orhan Pamuk lectures there this summer.
"It is by no means improbable that I shall leave in the spring, but if you fix any place of rendezvous about August, I will write or join you.—If you mention my name to Suleyman of Thebes, I think it will not hurt you; if I had my dragoman, or wrote Turkish, I could have given you letters of real service; but to the English they are hardly requisite, and the Greeks themselves can be of little advantage... If you find one Demetrius, at Athens or elsewhere, I can recommend him as a good dragoman. I hope to join you, however; but you will find swarms of English now in the Levant."
George Gordon Lord Byron, Letter to Mr. William Bankes, Dec. 26, 1812
Truly, madly, deeply,
I'm sorry I missed the midterm. My partner's aunt has Alzheimer's and I had to take her to the doctor's.
I sympathize. My pharmacist's cousin had Alzheimer's and I had to take her to the movies.
Professor Florin C. Merisoreanu's left wrist drops on the keyboard, except now it feels limp. He struggles idiotically to glance at his watch, then notices the hour and the minute in the computer's lower right corner. Screens. He's never been a fan of them. As a matter of fact, she—Lola—asked him to the movies first. Lola, who was so much older than him. Lola, who was cousins with Lily the pharmacist.
He met Lola as he was deployed, a still young French teacher, to the only school in her hometown in Transylvania back in the Fifties when his connections
no longer helped him keep the job he had been assigned to upon graduation.
He knew her only too well—her and her entire family. Sometimes he wishes he had never known those people. He tries to figure out her age—to remember what state he found Lola in, as he was sent to that obscure Transylvanian town in the fall of 1952.
Not two weeks after he had arrived in town and school had started he had been summoned, by a handwritten note, to the pharmacist's, where he went without pleasure, expecting some sort of brazen interference with his authority, for he had been warned by townsfolk what kind of family they were. He vaguely remembered the pharmacist's children from class—a pensive boy and a scared rabbit of a girl. It was a house without men—only those children and three women. Th town called it the glass house, because it had those big glass windows, almost entire glass walls, so that one could see inside the pharmacy, which was connected with the family dwellings by those enormous glass doors, and consequently their living room appeared transparent to any passersby. They had built it like that, claiming they had nothing to hide, as opposed to all other Transylvanian houses, which were and are to this day stone and brick fortresses in their own right.
Since 1948 the pharmacy, as most small businesses, had become state property; as for the home, the Communist authorities had decided that one room was enough for five people, so the rest was turned into headquarters. Even a newcomer like himself knew the glass house to swarm with officers whose behavior towards the family was anything but kind. But that day the French teacher did not meet any officers, just a tiny woman in a lab coat who shook his hand energetically and spoke so fast he could barely understand her flow of words. She is Lily, short for Elena, she won't take much of his time, she is herself in a hurry, she works a second job at the sanatorium on top of the hill and it's a long walk through the forest—does he know her mother-in-law Sylvia?
Yes, he does, he replies, and he remembers in a quick flash, trying to keep up with her speed, what he was told by the principal—that it had been Sylvia and her husband, old George, who started the school as they came here to teach at the turn of the century. Their son, young George, is married to this woman, Lily, and they started the pharmacy after they returned from the University of Bucharest, where they had met. It had been their youthful dream—the principal had conceded—to start a hospital, as well, and to find a doctor willing to come to this remote location and work with two pharmacists, but the Iron Guard—the Fascist Party—gave them a hard time and sent its men to smash the glass house a few times, so they had to start over and over.
Young George was the only man in town to enlist and fight on the side of the Allied Forces. After the war, old George was murdered in a Communist prison. As for young George, whom Lily does well not to mention so far, it's no secret he was again the only man in town to be arrested, a fortnight before the French teacher's arrival, along with hundreds of thousands of people all over Romania, on the night of the Assumption—August 15th, 1952—and sent, as it seems, to dig a huge canal connecting the Danube and Black Sea, and which serves no purpose other than extermination, so that it was surnamed The Canal of Death no later than last week, when word arrived that the first university professors had collapsed under the weight of the stone blocks they hadn't been able to carry. This is why the town—the French teacher included—is afraid to associate with the glass house family. Yes, he repeats, he knows Sylvia, telling himself he probably mishandled those messed?up kids, and now their retired grandma will pester him with chamomile tea and teaching tips.
Then, Lily goes on, he might also know that Sylvia had an older sister, Flavia, who emigrated to America with her husband. The couple—she informs him decorously—first lived in Philadelphia, where their daughter Lola was born, then moved to Los Angeles. After the man died, the two women returned to Transylvania. Lola, who is now old and lives with them in the glass house, gradually lost her memory—probably a case of Alzheimer's disease. Anyway, Lily continues to explain, Lola thinks she is now back in California, in the era of silent films. She has completely forgotten Romanian and speaks only English. And this is a small, domestic tragedy. Nobody speaks English in this town of Romanians, Germans and Hungarians. Nobody. And the languages taught in school are, of course, Russian and French. Lily herself doesn't know English— she smiles apologetically. Isn't that silly. A grown woman like her. A graduate of the University of Bucharest.
Her husband, yes—she goes on obliviously—he is fluent in English, he picked it up from his British and American friends during the war. But her husband—she smiles as in a dream—is not here right now. And Lola is slipping away. No one is able to help her—at least, not until he came to town. As soon as she heard of his arrival, a modern young man from Bucharest with a major in French and a minor in English, which is so rare and wonderful nowadays, she took that second job so that she would be able to pay him for coming over on Sundays and three nights a week to talk to Lola in English. God knows this family has lost enough members already, she adds fiercely, they are not going to lose another one. And, since he'll be here most of the time, he might as well teach the children English—they'll need it some day soon. Not that she'd have anything against Russian, she hastens to add, it is, after all, the language of so many brilliant authors who make us laugh and cry. We should all try our best to always make the distinction between Russian and Soviet. One is a culture, the other, an invasion. But English—she looks at a distance—English is a language for the years to come. And she wants her children to be prepared. She looks at her watch—it is already late, thank you for your time, how extraordinary to have you in town, such an educated young man, we need more people like you around here, see you on Sunday.
And next thing he knows, he's out on the street, without having had the chance to utter as much as one word except for the fact that he, indeed, knows Sylvia, and thinking, bewildered and enraged: is Lily mad with grief, or has she always been like that? How dare she talk about her husband with such quiet candor, instead of lowering her eyes in silence? And how dare she speak about British and American friends? That's how they brought misfortune on themselves. And those bright kids, ages seven and eight, what do they need English for? If they're lucky, they'll end up working at the plant, like everybody else, if they're not, they'll end up in jail, like their father, and that's the end of it. This is Transylvania, 1952. Nobody ever leaves here. This is the end. He is twenty-nine. He was sent to this secluded town to teach French. He'll teach here, retire here, die here. Like everyone else. Communism is equality. Who does this woman think she is?
So he goes and asks around town, and gets answers from people on the run. Yes, Lily has always been like that. No, she's not mad with grief, she's just stubborn and proud, like the lot of them, they always come up with some idea in that house, they're just looking for trouble, fighting wars and everything. She's got an attitude—and gets away with it. And do you know why? There's no hospital here. There's no doctor here. They all get sick, whether Communist or not. And they all need Lily. She covers three villages and this town, which shouldn't be called a town to start with, it's just that it has this big plant. They all depend on Lily. And she uses it shamelessly. (The French teacher didn't even need to ask how, now that the floodgates of memory had opened.)
Back when the pharmacy was confiscated so that Lily and young George became mere employees overnight, the cashier told Lily to stop acting so arrogantly, the times of the intellectuals were long gone, these were the times of the working class, of the simple, honest people who hadn't been fortunate enough to attend the University of Bucharest. And do you know what Lily did? Lily, who'd spent two years rinsing glassware in Moldavia, saving money so that she would be able to support herself for the next five years at the University of Bucharest, silently rose from her desk in the office, went to sit behind the counter, sent the cashier to her desk and started referring townspeople to her, so that the cashier would read prescriptions in Latin, prepare their medication in the laboratory, decide whom to send to the county hospital and how to treat those she would not send further. And Lily would not relent until, three weeks later, the Communists made the cashier apologize in public, the whole town gathered in front of the glasshouse to see the miracle with their own eyes. That's Lily. Now go teach English although your heart belongs to France, and God be with you. We all are.
So English he taught to those two children—Luna and little George—, and English he spoke to Lola, with all those officers staring at them and shaking their heads, thinking the French teacher had lost his mind as well. Lola, who had been thrilled that a fellow American had finally showed up among all those weird people speaking that weird language; Lola, who had so much to tell that he ended up knowing by heart each and every move of Charlie Chaplin's in City Lights, and was introduced to the glamorous Hollywood society of the Twenties, which wined and dined him to the extent that he even started to enjoy the attention. What he couldn't come to terms with, however, was seeing those kids wasting their time instead of learning something practical. Once, he dared point out to Lily the uselessness of the English language for two fatherless children in an obscure town lost in the middle of nowhere, in a Communist bloc encompassing eight European countries and fifteen Soviet republics, from East Berlin to the Pacific Ocean, two children who, since their father and grandfather had a criminal record and the University of Bucharest had offi quotas, were not likely to ever study beyond high school and should consider themselves lucky if they got that far.
To which she replied, as passionately as usual: "Transylvania. Trans—through. Silva, silvae. Forest, forests. Through the forests. It was through these forests that your ancestors and mine, the Romans, in honor of whom we are now called the Socialist Republic of Romania, broke a trail with their swords, only to find these amazing natives who did not know how to read and write. And the Romans felt insulted, and taught them to read and write, under the threat of the sword. And they built cities and bridges, and proceeded to a hasty retreat before being able to teach the very last lesson—that of the honorable exit by slashing one's wrists in a hot bath—a lesson they kept for themselves. And next thing we knew, we were part of the Ottoman Empire, and they taught us not to worry about tomorrow, for it may never come; and then we were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and they taught us order, law and civilization, for they saw none here; and then we were part of Hitler's vital space, and the Nazis taught us violence; and now we are part of Stalin's universal dream, and the Communists teach us obedience; and you want me not to teach my children the language of Shakespeare?"
So it seemed useless to reason with that woman, and whenever he appealed to her common sense she'd answer with some Latin quotation, and it wasn't like he was doing her any favors, he got paid, and he could use the money; so he went on and on, at that mad pace, babbling in English, sipping cocktails with Lola and Rudolph Valentino, and now reading aloud David Copperfield, Oliver Twist and Jane Eyre, for, as Lily pointed out, "you want fatherless? I'll give you fatherless," so now she was determined to pick all orphans in literature and shelter them in the glass house in Transylvania, so her own children, avoided by all families in town, would finally have kids their own age to play with. Once, he told Lily that her beloved British had themselves founded an empire, and she answered coldly: "Yes, how unfortunate that they would have none of us for a change."
It occurred to the French teacher—for all thought unwise to call him the English tutor—as Sylvia cooked, cleaned, and catered to Lola's brain pain, as Lily breezily went by uphill, downhill, and appeared as summoned in the county capital for refusing to divorce young George whom she still had no news of, even as she was sensibly offered every chance to move on—that the six of them were now spending their afternoons in a delirious England. In a lunacy worthy of Alice and Gulliver, they cunningly entered through rabbit holes and exited triumphantly by ship, and when not circulating under the green earth of England, they traveled in a sort of Dickensian stagecoach which never seemed to need to change horses at the following station so the French teacher would have a chance to desert the party—carrying with them the posthumous documents of the Pickwick Club; it also seemed to him the coach transported Mr. Darcy's class prejudice, Heathcliff 's aloofness, Dorian Gray's narcissism, Jane Eyre's stubborness, and Major Barbara's drum; such were the infuriating qualities by which young George apparently had endeared himself to the British and they to him.
Lily and he only crossed paths briefly whenever she paid him his fees; sometimes weekly, sometimes a month in advance; always at dusk, between her shifts, with her bourgeois custom of handing him the money enclosed in scented pastel-colored envelopes, never pushing it in his hand. He still remembers the colors: tea?pink, light brown, and that difficult one to pin down called sepia. Her perfume smelled like some sort of mixture of lilac, hyacinth and wisteria; nothing like a real lily.
The French teacher's other mission, however, namely, his impersonation of a young and dashing American who now came calling on Lola every other night, became a more and more elaborate affair. Lola would emerge from behind a screen with a giggle, dressed as a flapper, wearing whatever happened to be Clara Bow's latest hairstyle, and soon the phonograph would fill the glass house with the unmistakable rhythm of a foxtrot. Lola envisioned the living room as populated by figments of her imagination, and, by no means ignoring her date, she would often give a smile to the left, a little wave to the right, and then would stop to reassure him; a stroll from the table to the window took considerable time, for they were constantly bumping into her old acquaintances; and the French teacher, playing along, was truly grateful when they ran breathlessly to the rose garden, hand in hand, to avoid some boring studio executive, a nosy columnist, an aspiring star's agent, or a loser who had wandered past security—Lola thought the sullen officers were Universal Studios staff—pitching his twenty-year old idea for a script.
Once in the garden, Lola would laugh happily, passing her fingers through her hair, pressing her hand on her throat as if to show that words were meaningless, and they sat on the bench together, as she pointed out the silhouettes of actors against the curtains of the brightly illuminated glass walls, engaged in animated conversation that could be divined only by gestures—everyone free at least to be themselves, away from the brutal interference of the press, from the tyranny and iron fist of the studios that owned actors, or borrowed and lent them as they pleased, away from idiotic casting stereotypes, sheltered from the brazen and threatening advance of sound in cinema.
One night at the pub he learned from the history teacher that Lola's real name was Aurelia, after Emperor Aurelian, the one who pulled Roman troops out of present?day Transylvania in 271 A.D., except she was born in Pennsylvania where they just called her Lola. In California she eloped with a leading man. They lived a fabulous life on Sunset Boulevard in the silent era. Francis Scott Fitzgerald would drop by Lola's dinner parties every now and then; rumor had it that back in those days Lola had her heart set on bringing grim playwright Eugene O'Neill, the king of tragedy, together with his future son?in?law Charlie Chaplin, the king of comedy, although it was unclear whether she managed to seat them at her table. Times changed, though, and the sun set on her husband Harry's luck; his voice just didn't sound right, and there was no room for him in the talking pictures. He struggled to make a comeback, but nothing came of it, and one day they found him floating face down in their swimming pool in Bel Air. At the time, Lola still had some money left, although she lost the house, and accompanied her mother, also recently widowed, on vacation to Transylvania, thinking the change would do them some good.
Lola arrived with two dozen trunks filled with dresses, photographs and records and, on the eve of World War II, fell for a solemn, tragic priest a dozen years younger than she, who set out as a chaplain on the Eastern front the day after the wedding; when the war ended, instead of heading to America while they still had the chance, the apostle headed for the underground resistance in the Carpathians, where he led a partisan group, cross in hand; he was promptly executed by the Communists, and that was when Lola, good?natured though she was, began falling apart. She started complaining that sound was hurting her—the history teacher explained to the French teacher—she claimed, ever so gently, that nowadays you couldn't see a good film, not anymore, they were all so loud and empty, and she retreated more and more into her own world. Sometimes she'd confuse the priest with her dead husband Harry, and both of them with George.
At first, Lola's mental state was blamed on her difficult pregnancy—she gave birth to twin girls, rather late in life, a few months after the borders had closed and the priest had been shot in the mountains—and lost so much blood during labor she remained unconscious for a while; enough time—the history teacher snarled contemptuously—for the priest's relatives to claim the two newborns. It was the only time Lily ever let go of someone or something, but it couldn't be helped; the only room they have left for themselves in the glass house may be good enough to hold five people, but it could never hold seven; and truth is, the girls are better off with their father's side of the family; they are in need of nothing, even have a room of their own with a large bed they share at night, whispering their tiny secrets into each other's ear.
Every Friday night—the history teacher told the French teacher—the twins pass by the glass house to catch a glimpse of their mother, who doesn't know them, and they stand outside like the rest of us, watching Lola dance with you, and laugh, and make merry, and go arm in arm with you to the pictures; and then they return home and feel better for having paid their respects to their mother. As for Lola, the history teacher continued, increasingly tongue-tied by alcohol—he no longer called her Lola, or Aurelia of the hasty, impenetrable Aurelian retreat, for that matter, but Angerona, the Roman goddess of silence, a commanding finger pressed to her bandaged mouth, forbidding all sound. And at this point the history teacher fell asleep on the bar counter, a deep sleep punctuated only by deafening, regular snoring.
The French teacher went to Lily and inquired whether any of this was true, but she wasn't all that helpful. Angerona, she said, was indeed the goddess of silence, but she also was a goddess who delivered men from pain and sorrow, whose feast of secrecy was celebrated at the winter solstice. There were many legends in Transylvania, this ruin of departed empires, it all depended on how you looked at them. What about the company Lola kept in California? he insisted. Does it really matter? Lily had asked him in turn. Does it matter whether Lola danced with Errol Flynn, whether Clark Gable whispered sweet nothings in her ear, whether Eugene O'Neill dedicated a tragedy to her? Does this make her life less of a day's journey into night?
It matters to him, the French teacher replied. It matters to him and to his boyhood Saturdays at the matinee watching reruns from the Thirties, back when Errol Flynn was Captain Blood and Clark Gable was Captain Butler. It matters to him whether she escapes with him in the same rose gardens she used to escape with Francis Scott Fitzgerald. Those are the gardens of flappers and philosophers, of the beautiful and the damned—
"Say it," Lily encouraged him. "Say it. You think we're damned." He had never said that, he replied nervously.
Lily closed her eyes briefly and then studied him for the longest time.
"We're not damned," she said at length, gentler than he had expected. "We're not damned. We're charmed."
Looking back on that day, he wishes he'd started charging double for that privilege.
The French teacher's life settled over the years into a celluloid routine— Sunday matinees, Monday, Wednesday and Friday night shows—and once he had been summoned before the local Communist Party Committee to report what was going on in the glass house. The town had informed the authorities it was a decadent scandal; there was talk that Lola would wait for him all dressed up, no matter how late, and after the movie ended they would eat with silverware and smoke after dinner, just in time for the French teacher to do one more quick step dance routine up the wall and all the way to the ceiling and then part with a nightcap and a kiss.
Rumor had it that Lola had taken him well beyond the Jazz Age and into the Talkies, when black?and?white scenes of Charlie Chaplin's masterpiece The Great Dictator—considered subversive in totalitarian Romania because of Chaplin's sheepish grin and forbidden language—had been reflected by the endless row of windows and doors for all to see. The glass house, with all lights on, shone brilliantly from afar, so that any worker returning from the night shift could hear the clinking of bourgeois crystal and china, the uttering of foreign lines and Greta Garbo's cascades of laughter in Ninotchka, the Soviet envoy extraordinaire corrupted with champagne and the Grand Duchess' jewels in the Paris of love. And the sound of Sylvia playing the piano, during the most dramatic scenes in the movie theater, could be heard across the wooden bridge on the other shore of the river, echoing around the silent dark hills all the way up to the sanatorium so Lily could sometimes stop and listen.
When confronted by the Party Secretary with this rumor, the French teacher had answered the truth—that he hadn't seen or touched one inch of film, subversive or not, it all came from the giant projector in Lola's brain, and now that 1957 had come and gone Lola had forgotten English as well, she had stopped speaking altogether, and just watched him with the teenagers—the three of them now translating Proust and Joyce as the drunk captain again and again brought his horse to the dinner table, the lieutenant struggled with the animal, Sylvia absent?mindedly went on with her Viennese finishing school embroidery, Lily kept ranting, and Lola collapsed with laughter. She had lost all sound—the French teacher explained to the Party Committee—she had no use for the spoken word, not any more, and she would greet him with loquacious gestures, twisting her body like Lillian Gish's haunted prairie settler Letty Mason in The Wind, and pointing to the door whenever she was longing for George—who, the French teacher had learned by now, meant, in her mind, both departed men, father and son as well—she would take him by the hand and gravely raise her eyes to the sky as she explained to him the silent colossal movement in The Birth of a Nation, her head and hands jerking faster and faster as she maddeningly narrated the train robberies, the Gold Rush, the chase scenes, and, in the end, drew the limousines and the palm trees in the background—or at least thought she did.
She never let him leave without an imaginary flower—the French teacher told the Party Secretary—which she would extend to him like the blind girl in the silent fi and he pretended to smell it with delight, as by now he knew City Lights well enough to realize he was tramp by day and milllionaire by night, or was it the other way around, and as she laughed and cried over reel after reel flickering on the glass walls he could only raise his glass in silence and toast in honor of lost senses, with nothing but touch and taste to unite the two of them forever.
By 1961, thanks to the French teacher's constant comings and goings—still an unrepentant bachelor, his domestic needs and carnal urges now taken care of by one or another of the pretty nurses who arrived in town after a hospital had been built—everyone in the glass house had picked up enough English to be able to stage one night, in the orchard, the play of their choice, namely, The Tempest. "Why The Tempest?" he asked, confused. "Want to do Richard III?" Lily inquired, wiping her hands on her apron, standing in the kitchen door in the belated sunset. No, he replied, irritated, he had merely thought of something more appropriate, for the children's sake: As You Like It or A Midsummer Night's Dream, a comedy set in a forest, since Lily was nicknamed after a flower and her mother?in?law Sylvia after the silva—silvae, a play radiating generous confusion of identity and the forgiveness of the quid pro quo, a play expressing his bewilderment at being dragged into such foolishness, day in and day out, by a woman by no means more educated than him. Rubbish, Lily dismissed his arguments, they should perform The Tempest.
And The Tempest they acted out, in the orchard, one Saturday—his one day off—at midnight. Sylvia was Prospero, Lily was Miranda, the French teacher was Ferdinand, little George was Ariel, and Lola was Caliban. This meant that the girl—Luna—must have been the Duke of Milan or the King of Naples, although the French teacher does not remember any duke ot king dressed in period costume, draped in Lily's curtains or otherwise. Duke, king or sailor, she could have played them all—and undoubtedly must have played them all, since they were short of actors—and the French teacher would still not have remembered. She had always been such a quiet girl.
He, on the other hand, had dressed very carefully in front of his mirror at home starting at ten in the evening, believing he'd be Prospero, only to discover upon arrival they had already done the casting, as always, which had embarrassed and embittered him even more. It seemed to him totally inapproppriate that either Lily or her daughter, now seventeen and still his student, should play Miranda to his Ferdinand; had these people no decency left, he thought, if not when others were concerned, then at least for their own sake? The two children should have been Miranda and Ferdinand, and he should have been Prospero. He had even brought a mantle, along with wisdom and patience. He would have made a good Prospero, he would have. He would have rather recited forty?five years ago: "Sit still, and hear the least of our sea-sorrow / Here in this island we arrived, and here / Have I, thy schoolmaster, made thee more profit / Than other princesses that can have more time / For vainer hours and tutors not so careful."
For nine years now, ever since 1952, he had thought he was Prospero, the architect of their happiness, only to have them brag, entering the tenth year, how they had captured and enslaved him on their wretched island, then chided him as a spy and usurper and threatened, as the verse said, to manacle his neck and feet together. He thought that was figurative speech, but no, they weren't joking, those people, they tied him to a tree in the orchard, in the middle of the night, they brought him some rainwater to drink, supposedly very bitter, and then made him move the logs in the play, that is, carry some of the previous winter's firewood, which was still lying around, into the house. That night, more than any other time, he thought they were insane, insane with grief, as he had suspected Lily was when he had first met her, insane with grief and longing and desire and revenge, and he had shuddered under the late August stars as he heard the boy who had never seen the Black Sea declaim imperturbably, nine years after being slammed his hands up and face forward into a glass door still able to witness the night of the Assumption, "Full fathom five thy father lies,"—and here the retired French teacher takes his glasses off and quietly sets them on the table—"There are pearls that were his eyes, / Of his bones are coral made, / Nothing in him that doth fade, / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange," and, in the orchard, the French teacher, for the first time in years and years of various times and tenses and the aerial substance of Keats and Shelley read on a corner of the kitchen table, sees reassuring constancy as he watches the recitations of an Ariel of sixteen in a lace collar and long silver sleeves, courtesy of Lola's wedding dress designed at Paramount Pictures: "Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell, / Hark! Now I hear them—/ Ding-dong, bell."
As he also watched Lola moaning, groaning, and stopping her ears, he realized that, had she been unable to play the savagely deformed slave, they would have had her play a trunk in the orchard, and had she been unable to stand up, they would have had her play a log, for the only ties they recognized were those of blood, and most of their trees were sublimely upturned. He still hears Lily speak gently for Caliban: "Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises, / Sounds and sweet airs, which give delight and hurt not, / Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments / Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices."
The night they played The Tempest in the orchard—the French teacher remembers not just now, at Columbia University, but every now and then, as he makes his way through the crowd in Bucharest and feels Lola's grip on his arm, he remembers often what Lily's Miranda whispered that night, her face close to Lola's Caliban "I pitied thee, / Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour." Only when Lily threw herself in his arms, sobbing with relief, with Sylvia's blessing, did he understand the meaning of the years he had lost and yet had to lose under their spell—a dozen years, as it turned out, that passed faster than a month; he understood how those people had failed bravely both in the Old World and the New World, and now were searching for each other on a desert island in the dead of the night, playing fragile and indestructible theater. He sees himself playing chess with Miranda, her queen in his sleeve, a foreshadowing of his betrayal of that family, and theirs of him: "Sweet lord, you play me false." "My love, I would not, for the world." Soviets and Americans. And the French teacher remembers the Cold War in Gonzalo's words: "You are gentlemen of brave mettle; you would lift the moon out of her sphere, if she would continue in it five weeks without changing."
In the mid?Sixties three miracles happened. First, young George returned from the Canal of Death. His children went to meet him at the train station, but they did not recognize each other, for they had grown so much, and young George had aged so much. He had aged. He had not died.
That man who could have died a thousand deaths had not died; he could have died of tuberculosis, of starvation, of drowning, of frostbite; a stone block could have crushed him; but no, he did not die, he turned up at the general amnesty. The Canal had closed for so long that the entire town had exchanged passion for pity—the entire town minus Lily. The day his odyssey in bizarre forgotten cells ended—his eyes were listless and his nose had to be reset at both town and county hospitals, but his jawline had managed to retain all its infuriating arrogance in the portrait—Lily clung madly to distant and reserved George, laughing and crying so senselessly she even upset Lola.
The French teacher remembered she still read lips sometimes, and he took her face in his hands. "Lola," he said, "listen to me, Lola. I'll be out of town tomorrow, and the day after. I have to catch a train to Boston. I'll be back soon. Wait for me, Lola, wait for me!" He kissed her on the forehead, she smelled the way old people do in Transylvania before they melt away, like vanilla and marzipan and incense, he closed his eyes lost in that kiss, trying to find solace in her arms, a way back home in her frail body. When he looked up, all he could see was the pain in her brown, doglike eyes, the sadness under the crown of shining white hair, her wrinkled face now even more crumpled by childish sobs: he was leaving her forever, he was deserting her, she knew how men were, she knew a parting Saturday from a loving Sunday. "You're a wise woman, Lola, don't let anyone tell you otherwise. I'm not angry with you, Lola. I just can't dance with you for a while."
Crying, shattered, she didn't believe this either, and she motioned him to go. Enraged at himself, at a loss, he suddenly remembered—titles by John Colton, screenplay by Frances Marion, novel by Dorothy Scarborough—and uttered the words, the way he had heard them, over and over, on rainy Sunday afternoons: "Can't you guess, Letty, the reason I stopped by this awful forsaken place?" then leaned forward to the vanity table and handed her an oval mirror, the way Montague Love did to Lillian Gish in the film. She uttered a cry of delight as she saw the pretty young girl, and this time she believed him. He spoke slowly, now that the words had taken a life of their own: "Don't you see, Letty, we can't live in this terrible country anymore!" He had to say it all, if she was ever to trust him—anyone—again. "Come away with me, Letty, where the wind can't harm you!" He kissed her a second time, this time on the lips, and stormed out; she flew after him, ecstatic, waving her handkerchief in his trail, her hero, her leading man, who would indeed resurface, cross?country, in a happy?ending western.
Now, with the boy and girl away at the University of Bucharest—a second miracle—and young George home, there was no further need for an English tutor and American suitor. The French teacher grew estranged from the people in the glass house, married the head nurse who bore him two sons, and joined the Communist Party, which had dazzled him with that two?week trip to Paris, and another two?day trip later on. Finally, for sixteen days, he had truly lived. He was forty?six. He remembers every bridge in Paris, every street, every single café and bookstore he saw: that was his, and it was worth it.
The third miracle had been the arrival of a real TV set in the glass house— and it was on that TV set that Lola saw in 1969 the first step on the moon. Her family explained in English. They took her by the window and pointed to the moon. They took her back to the TV and pointed to the man. They told her, in their thick accents: "Armstrong. Neil Armstrong." Her eyes lit up and she smiled in recognition. This was her world, not theirs, a world which now, oddly enough, proved to be true.
And all this—how strange and ironic—thanks to him. He realizes now what it must have meant for Lola, lonely and facing a hostile town, to meet this kind young man who hadn't been afraid to come to their house and live their life. He, the man with the gift of the English language, had one day arrived, suitcase in hand, in this obscure town where nothing ever happened, where time was frozen, he himself thinking that was the very end, that he was burying himself into silence and oblivion by leaving the capital of the country, with what little it had in 1952, and descending upon this remote location—a place with no library or bookstores. In a sense, he had been the first man on the moon. And the only ones who saluted his providential arrival had been the people in the glass house—who knew a first step when they saw one.
Lily is alive, of course. Lily would survive anyone and anything. Let's see—if the French teacher is seventy?eight, she must be now—yes. Eighty?seven. Should he perhaps look Lily up, now that young George is long gone?
Look Lily up—and for what? So they could talk about old times—se he could tell her how it feels to settle all one's life for second best, how it feels to marry the town's head nurse instead of the town pharmacist, how it feels to play half one's life English tutor and American gigolo, and the other half distinguished professor of Shakespearian studies at the University of Bucharest (and now of course visiting professor in the United States, at Columbia University, for the year), while one's heart has always belonged to France? To this day he still hasn't figured out why he never left the glass house while he still could. The truth was, he had not fallen in love with Lily at first sight, and neither of them had ever claimed that. He had been drawn to her first because of the money, then because of the envelopes she handed him the money in, then because of the scent on the envelopes, and then because of her. Sylvia, Lola, Lily, Luna—the forest, the inner retreat, the hill, the moon—such had been the rise of generations.
The French teacher finally awakens from his reverie. He hadn't fallen in love with Lily at first sight, although by now he realizes she might have caught more than the occasional glimpse of him at that parent?teacher meeting the school held in late August 1952, two weeks after her husband had been arrested, back when she was thirty?eight and he was twenty?nine. He had been drawn to Lily first because of the money prospects, then because of the envelopes she handed him the money in, then because of the scent on the envelopes; he had been drawn to Lily because she was close and yet so far, because she was so available and so untouchable, because Lily was not single, not married, not divorced, and not officially widowed, and living in a glass house where an affair between the two of them was unthinkable; so she had asked him to have an English-language affair with senile Aunt Lola to keep him charmed and close just in case her husband George was declared, and not just presumed, dead.
He'd hate to think of himself as a faded American gigolo on top of a retired French teacher. Nowadays he's also a full Professor in the English Department at the University of Bucharest, but whether he deserves that position, even there, at the gates of the Orient which, ever since the Ottoman Empire, have faced a chronic shortage of interpreters and translators—is another story. Either way, he finds solace in introducing himself to his students, year after year, as Shakespeare's Last Dragoman.