Victor, it’s Geoffrey, caught in an ice storm and texting from my car. I tried calling you but you must be out of pocket, Herr Professor, and your voicemail box is full so as a last resort, I’m relying on my less than nimble thumbs.
Before you scold me for texting while driving, let me assure you that I am at a complete standstill in what promises to be a record-breaking snarl on Seventh Avenue.
According to the traffic report, the custom-length telescoping trailer used to haul away the 94-foot Christmas tree from Rockefeller Center was heading for a Jersey mill when it jackknifed. The cabin went right up against the Playwright Tavern on the corner of 49th while the trailer and tree ended up blocking the entire avenue like some sort of half-assed beaver dam, though that last bit is my embellishment — I can actually make it out in miniature about four blocks ahead. There’s no report of anybody hurt but nothing’s moving, the ice is changing over to snow, and it’s starting to come down heavy. I’m going to be here for the foreseeable future.
I know we were supposed to get together after classes today but since my availability is an unknown variable, I’ll use the ample time on my hands to peck out a note on this maddeningly tiny keyboard while avoiding as best I can the gadgety shorthand writing we decry in our students’ communications.
I’ll begin by asking, dear Doctor, where were you last night? Jane and I were expecting you to help see her off on her Namibian sabbatical. As you know, she won’t be back to university until spring and was looking forward to sharing a heartfelt goodbye. Despite her disappointment, I suggested it was safe to assume you were simply overwhelmed preparing for the upcoming semester.
Before she left in the car service, she asked me to tell you au revoir and that she won’t forget her promise to bring you back a stone tool sample from the desert dig. She’s optimistic about the Twyfelfontein site and says it promises to be the one of the finest for Stone Age artifacts in the entire subcontinent.
I got a bit misty as she was preparing to leave but she reminded me it was only until the end of the African summer. Then she departed for her night flight a full four hours early despite my protests, and here is where I must confess that I believe you archaeologists are all cut from the same cloth — mindful of all variables to the point of parody.
Perhaps she was weighing in the small possibility that her car could get stuck behind some sort of Christmas tree calamity involving an oversized truck! This exacting sensibility you share is one that a more intuitively minded professor of comparative religions such as myself can’t begin to identify with. So while you two endeavor to solve the great riddle of our forebears’ shamanistic rituals, I’ll stick to my drafty garret to ponder modern mysteries such as why everybody can’t just get along.
It does strike me just now as odd that you asked me to meet today of all days. What was it you said the last time we spoke before holiday recess — something about needing to meet me about a certain matter involving — I don’t recall.
You said the earliest you could do that was the first day of the new semester after classes because you’d be on holiday upstate and wouldn’t be returning to Columbia until after the New Year.
But Jane said to me the day after Christmas, “You’ll never guess who I bumped into today at the coffee shop,” and I replied playfully, “Victor?” and she turned quite serious and informed me that you were away on holiday and that, no, it was Ernst, and that Ernst had resigned his teaching position to finish writing his novel.
Knowing you were away, I had only meant to tease her but then I couldn’t understand why she became defensive about it and so I asked, “Why didn’t Ernst wait until he was eligible to go on sabbatical?” And she said that wouldn’t be until next year at the earliest, too late for Ernst because he now had an urgent need to travel abroad for final research on his book.
This news puzzled me. You, Ernst, and I have all been working toward tenure for five years now, and not once, at our little monthly “Tenure Club” dinners, did Ernst ever suggest there was a conflict between his teaching and his writing. To the contrary, he even implied at our November gathering that the book would be finished by spring.
And then the very next day after that conversation with Jane, I saw you near campus. I was retrieving lecture notes and happened to catch you ducking into a cab. I wasn’t going to mention it; people change their travel plans all the time but then I remembered how the meeting with me you requested was coincidentally the day after Jane was to leave.
And that got me to thinking how last night Jane left four hours early for the airport but as I watched from the window, her car turned right on Lexington heading downtown instead of continuing on to Third to head uptown toward the airport. Since you live downtown, I couldn’t help wondering if that was where she was heading.
My head, dear Victor, is beginning to spin and I’m not even in a moving car. Jane has been distant and distracted the past few months and I attributed it at first to her upcoming sabbatical, but I had my doubts and they have grown over the holidays.
I don’t wish to make premature assessments but the thought of losing her love is soul-crushing and mentally debilitating as well. I fear I am becoming unhinged. If I can manage to stay focused in this dark time and assess what I know and what I don’t know, there’s every chance I might yet come to understand what is happening here. What am I missing? When I pressed you that night for details about your requested meeting with me, you reassured me that it was about nothing more than a book — I remember now — but that the matter needed to wait until after the new year.
A book. What book, Victor? In light of Jane’s recent disclosures, were you referring to the novel that Ernst is working on? Have I guessed it? And is his urgency to publish so great that he needed to resign his post in order to research it? A period piece in a foreign setting is how Ernst would grudgingly categorize his work whenever we pressed him for details over dinner. So his destination to somewhere abroad is hardly surprising. But the timing and the suddenness are too coincidental with Jane’s departure. Where is he heading? Namibia? That is a location where all the pieces add up. Yes — Namibia!
And now I hesitate to write what I’m thinking — that Jane might not be coming back and that perhaps I have lost her already. . . .
Why, Victor, my dearest friend and colleague, did you withhold this from me? Were you protecting me? Were you playing for time over the holidays to confirm your own suspicions? Is that it, Victor? It must be so, and I can see it now. You pretended to go on holiday so you could remain undetected to spy on Ernst and Jane. Perhaps you are now privy to his travel plans and can confirm my suspicions.
But why, Victor, did Jane offer up the information that she bumped into Ernst at the coffee shop? Was that a ruse to throw me off? I now believe it was. But why did she act so oddly when I teased her that maybe it was you she had bumped into? Was it because she was scared you were spying on her? Maybe she caught a glimpse of you just the way I did when I saw you near campus getting into that cab. At first she wanted to believe you when you said you were going on holiday upstate because that would clear the way for her if she could just continue to fool her unsuspecting husband until it was time to leave. But then you were detected as you spied on her and that made her nervous. Yes, that would explain her odd reaction when I mentioned your name!
The pity now is my car isn’t even pointing in the right direction; I have to confess I was heading uptown to campus this morning when I turned around to head down to your flat. I’m now ashamed to admit I wanted to catch you before first class to hasten our meeting — is that a Freudian slip? Was I trying to catch you at something else?
How could I have ever doubted you? My dubious state of mind these past few months leading up to Jane’s departure has blinded me to the malevolent role played by Ernst on the one hand, and on the other, a most benevolent role played by you, my dearest friend that I shamefully suspected earlier in this text. And so. . . .
To send or not to send? It’s a heavy question. Whether my suffering is deserved or not, I am sitting here, so to speak, with a stick of dynamite in my hand.
If I send, Victor, you will know the weave of my tangled thoughts that bore an unjustifiable accusation against you. If I don’t send, I will have potentially lost the only ally I have to help me put this matter in my rearview mirror as though it was merely a sideswipe of the heavenly rails that guard us from the abyss.
In other words, I do believe you can save me as well as my future with Jane through swift action — a timely intervention with Ernst. He might not have left the country yet and if you were able to track him down on my behalf and reveal to him my knowledge of his plan, it might dissuade him. There is hope yet that it’s not too late if only I have the courage to ask for your help. But I am powerless to move my car and powerless to move my thumb now hovering over the send key. And so I’ll delay and provide one last update before I decide.
The snow has blanketed my windows and only the laboring sweep of the iced-over wipers provides a narrow, shrinking view of the stalled world ahead of me. The radio news is now reporting that they found the driver of the truck wreck inside the Playwright Tavern, not a scratch on him, sitting on a barstool and drinking a Moscow mule.
As for the pine tree dammed across Seventh Avenue, there is still no sign of a break in the logjam and so you see, Victor (should I decide to press send), I am stuck and I remain, your friend and colleague, Dr. Geoffrey J. Perry.
William Stevenson Rohn is a short-story writer who summers in East Hampton.