Choose Your Own Adventure
Ella finds out about the professor’s death in the S.S. Maharajah’s business center. She’s been checking her email, deleting breast enlargement ads and notices for sample sales.
The ship is making its way to Cochin—in unruffled waters, for a change, so she isn’t prostrate in her “deluxe grande” stateroom trying to stifle the return of her last meal. She’s been whiling away many of her unsick moments in the business center. It’s usually empty. If she hadn’t forgotten to pack her devices, she would be dragging her iPad from deck to deck like everyone else.
A note from her daughter pops up. It’s headed ULTRASOUND, but first Ella opens the one with the subject line “FYI-Obituary,” typed in by her college roommate, Diane.
“Alexander Lewin, 79, Controversial Art Historian and Curator Who Put His Stamp on Contemporary Art Scholarship,” Ella reads. There’s little in there she doesn’t know. That he had taught art history at her alma mater is hardly news. That he’d mounted the most famous exhibition in the history of the country’s most celebrated modern museum she’s aware of, too. And she’s heard about both his marriages—the first, to a former student at the college, the last to an art dealer, now his widow. She also knows about the daughter they adopted from Russia. She heard about how Beata (she even knows the name) roller-skated in their loft kicking the Henry Moores and the Archipenko, actually nicking them, so that they had to be put in storage. Ella has kept track, all right.
She almost forgets about ULTRASOUND. “It’s a healthy girl,” Abigail has written. “I’m attaching the picture. It’s so clear. A high forehead like a Fra Lippi Madonna. Button nose. No penis.”
When she clicks on the attachment, Ella can barely decipher a thing, or maybe that not-quite-round blur is the head. She considers writing back, “Are you sure about this?” She would be referring to the pregnancy, not the sex.
Abigail is three months pregnant. Too late to terminate. Ella can’t get used to her daughter’s decision to have the baby even though there’s no father in the picture. But she restrains herself. Instead, wincing, she writes back, “She’s beautiful!”
Outside, on the main deck, within earshot, passengers shuffle cards, wield croquet mallets and lob frisbees in the pool. They giggle, they squeal, they scold. They knead suntan lotion into their limbs and slurp smoothies.
Stuck in the middle of the Bay of Bengal, there’s no way for Ella to drag out her college yearbook, with its photograph of the professor in a three-piece suit, puffing on his pipe. In profile, spotlighting his jagged, prizefighter nose. Before her graduation, they had flipped through it together—admiring his picture and her senior portrait taken in her dorm room with the radiator painted purple.
Ella won’t have a chance to mourn openly, not right away. Dan is not receptive to rue-tinged reminiscences about past amorous entanglements. He will read about the professor’s death when they get back, after he plows through the accumulation of newspapers—they never suspend delivery.
After her junior year in college, Ella’s parents sent her to Europe to remove her from a boyfriend they didn’t approve of. They threw her a lavish going-away party. Guests crammed the tiny Tourist class stateroom, like Groucho’s visitors in A Night at the Opera. Balloons bobbed as they helped themselves to champagne and ship-shaped canapés. There were gifts: perfume, flowers, chocolate. A set of luggage tags with Ella’s last name misspelled—Reuben instead of Rubin. Such shipboard goodbyes were commonplace before transatlantic crossings. And this was the S.S. France, the French fleet’s newest ocean liner, and the entire boat oozed luxury.
Friends had been invited, and some relatives. The unacceptable boyfriend showed up, oblivious to her parents’ frowns. He stayed after they and the others left. They kissed on the narrow bed. They did more than kiss. “All ashore that’s going ashore,” the loudspeaker boomed. Or rather it was the French version of those words. So the boyfriend left, casting a doleful backward glance. He would have a summer job as a cabana boy at a Long Island beach club. The foghorn honked plaintively as if to announce the end of their relationship.
The steward came to clear away the dirty glasses, the trays, the shreds of gift wrap. “Vous avez l’air d’une ame en peine,” he told Ella. You look like a lost soul.
“Mais pas du tout.” Ella was almost fluent in French; she had spent childhood summers in Normandy. Surveying her cabin, she was already homesick, lonely. The tiny room seemed out of place on the airy, spacious ship, whose smokestacks had wing-like protrusions as though, if it chose to, it could take flight.
She didn’t wear a watch; her room had no porthole, she would never know the time. She couldn’t bring herself to rush up on deck, as other passengers seemed to be doing, to watch the tugboats haul the big ship out to sea. She pored over the Passenger List instead.
Maitre Didier de la Bruyere, son of the Vicomte and Vicomtesse Christian de la Bruyere, Mademoiselle Gisele de Fontnouvelle, daughter of M. and Mme. Claude de Fontnouvelle. The Maharajah and Maharani of Uttar Pradesh. Dr. and Mrs. Seymour Friedman.
Dr. Alexander Lewin was on the First Class list, too. It had to be the same person, Ella thought, the professor at her college, whose oversubscribed course on Picasso Ella hadn’t taken yet. He was said to be independently wealthy. He also had a reputation as a Lothario, a coureur. There were others who prowled the campus, but he was the most notorious.
Affairs with professors weren’t frowned-on then. Sexual harassment wasn’t a crime or even a term yet. The girl down the hall slept with a married music professor. Jonathan Tyler, the movie-star-handsome college president, was known as Jon Juan.
Ella wasn’t surprised to find familiar names on the Tourist class list. She’d heard that two boys she knew, Jack Zimmerman and Hank Slote, recent law school graduates, were on their way to England to avoid the draft by pursuing a superfluous degree at Oxford. The war was escalating; more and more boys were being shipped out to Vietnam.
These were the boys—and they were just that, boys—Ella was expected to become serious with. She was programmed to nab an engagement ring—a diamond solitaire of reasonable size but not vulgar, free of unsightly flaws—by graduation.
The boyfriend was not husband material. He played guitar. He marched in the South to protest segregation. He had grown a beard and wore sandals in the city. Ella’s parents tried to forbid her to ride on the back of his second-hand Lambretta.
Ella wasn’t likely to cross paths with the professor, she told herself. Signs warned not to trespass in First. But she spotted him almost immediately, leaning over the railing of the Pont Promenade directly above. She’d gone outside to watch the boat push off to sea, after all.
An ebony pipe tucked into the corner of his mouth released a chocolate-scented smoke. Ella coughed. He turned around. A plaid flannel scarf was twined around his neck.
They exchanged stares. His almost-black eyes drilled into hers.
“Aren’t you—?” She shouted upward.
“Don’t I know you from—?” Their words overlapped. They stumbled over the name of the college simultaneously. He motioned for her to climb the stairway to his deck.
She followed him to the First Class music room.
He sat down at the ebony piano. He asked her if she liked Schubert lieder. She wasn’t sure. She was a Beatles fan.
“Yes,” she said.
“Where is Sylvia?”
Who is she-e-e?
That all her swains commend her?”
A porter interrupted them. “Strictement defendu!” The piano could only be used by those who performed at the nightly shows, he informed them.
The professor led the way to his stateroom. It bore the posh remains of his own going-away party. Champagne corks, a box of Lindt chocolates. He had many guests, he said, but only a few from the college.
Oh, who exactly?
Does it matter? Of course, had I known you were on board…
A colleague from the art department, Ella guessed. Maybe the cello student with the coal-black hair who broke her ankle over Thanksgiving and camouflaged her cast under a lace stocking. He was rumored to be sleeping with her. Or the ballerina from Hawaii who grand-jeted all over campus during a blizzard because she had never seen snow before. Ella had spotted them in the campus coffee shop together.
There were two portholes, whose miniature shades the professor didn’t bother to pull down. The moon reflected on the ocean’s lithe, v-shaped ripples.
When Ella crept back to Tourist, the sun was already climbing above the horizon. He has chosen me! she thought. The professor, who could have his pick of women! But of course he hadn’t chosen her at all. She had landed in his lap.
Her parents would disapprove of him, too. Divorced, a womanizer. Forty years old. But here, in the middle of the Atlantic, Ella was many knots away from their sphere of influence.
The young boy in the stateroom next door is stretched out on a deck chair with a paperback. He’s reading Terror on the Titanic; it’s a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Abigail used to read those, Ella remembers. The reader was offered several possible endings. But for this one, the sinking of the Titanic, what ending could there be other than the actual disaster?
The boy shot Ella a why-are-you-staring look.
“We all know what happened on the Titanic,” she says. “It’s history.”
“So what? There’s no law against pretending.” The boy flips through the first few pages. He reads aloud: “When the boy passenger first spots the iceberg, he has choices: He can run up to the bridge, where no passengers are allowed and warn the officer on duty. Or he can tip off the lookouts and leave it to them. Or maybe he’ll wait until the iceberg can be seen more clearly.”
“Any of those could work,” Ella says.
Nodding, the boy continues. He’s less wary now. “I skipped to the one about warning the officer on duty. But it turns out that doesn’t end the real way. The iceberg is a false alarm and me and this girl find some gold stolen by robbers and we stay at the Waldorf-Astoria. It’s dumb. So even though you’re not supposed to pick another option, I decided to skip to what would happen if I tipped off the lookouts.”
“The ship collides with the iceberg. ‘Women and children first!’ The captain orders. He’ll go down with the ship, of course. Me and the girl, we’re still children so we get into a lifeboat. We make it.” He reads from the ending: “You are one of the lucky rescued, but the tragedy of those lost haunt you for the rest of your life.”
It has come to this: a trip on a cruise ship. Aches and pains added to, Ella worries, what the neurologist has called “mild cognitive impairment” have made Dan, who is ten years older, less adept at consulting guidebooks and web sites to craft the complicated, creative itineraries he once took pride in. And they were planning a trip to India, not France—acquiring their visas had used up the better part of a day.
Take a cruise, friends urged. No packing and unpacking. No checking in and out. Of course, you still had to fly to your port of departure, but once there, everything would be arranged for.
Ella has no right to complain about the Rajah’s hokey atmosphere—the smooching honeymooners, the intrepidly overweight in shorts, the infirm stooped over their walkers. This boat was her choice. Dan had wanted to trace the silk route on a sailing ship, with seminars led by Ph.D.’s. But Ella’s latter-day seasickness—lately she feels queasy on a ferry—ruled out a clipper.
At the professor’s table in the First Class dining room, the Vicomte de la Bruyere didn’t seem at all pleased to be seated with Dr. and Mrs. Seymour Friedman and son from Scarsdale.
They were avid collectors of midcentury figurative art, hoping to add to their collection while abroad, the doctor said.
The viscount sniffed dismissively. He collected 17th Century French masters. “We avoid fads,” his wife the vicountess said.
His specialty was abstract expressionism, the professor responded with disdain. “If it’s realism you’re after, there’s photography.”
The doctor said his specialty was ear, nose and throat.
“Have you noticed the walls?” Mrs. Friedman said motioning toward the mock-Grecian friezes on either side. “They’re plastic! Formica! You’d think they could do better than that.”
“That’s so they’ll be waterproof,” said her son, who looked to be about 15. “In case of flooding.”
“Art Deco made ingenious use of synthetics,” the professor said.
Intimidated, Ella nodded agreement.
Later she bumped into Jack and Hank on the Pont Promenade. Slipping back into Tourist wasn’t a problem. It was sneaking from Tourist to First that was risky. So far, though, the stewards had looked the other way.
“If it isn’t the girl from Sadie Lou,” Hank said using her college’s nickname. “Ella the Exclusive. Elusive Ella. Now you see her, now you don’t.”
“You missed a luscious lunch,” Jack said. “Oysters on the half-shell.”
“Demi-shell,” Hank corrected.
“I didn’t miss lunch,” Ella said.
Back at school, Ella’s roommate Diane warned, “Don’t be a fool; he’s slept with half the college.” Passing judgment, perhaps a bit jealous.
Ella told herself she didn’t care. When the professor was with her, he was really with her. “Being present,” such intensity would later be called. They kissed between courses at restaurants. In the France’s nightclub, his eyes had only briefly scoured the room for other women.
But now there was a new crop of freshmen. An astonishingly skinny girl with a brown fleck in one of her blue eyes. A model with cheekbones like boulders. And the ballerina and the cellist hadn’t graduated yet.
Still, occasionally, Ella teetered down the gravelly path in her heels, past the wisteria arbor hung with inchworms, to meet the professor in the parking lot. She breathed in the leather-slippers smell of his Jaguar as they sped down the highway to the city. And nursed vodka gimlets in a bar on 57th Street, where fake storms were enacted behind mock portholes in dioramas of ships on a storm-tossed sea.
Later, he played art songs on the mahogany spinet in his apartment, where abstract paintings covered the walls.
“Where’er you walk, cool gales shall fan the glade
Where’er you sit, trees shall crowd into a shade.”
Then they made their way to the sleigh bed with the monogrammed sheets. But she never stayed the night: he always drove her back to the college in time for curfew.
When she missed her period, the professor knew exactly where to take her. A safe place, he said. They drove upstate or maybe out-of-state. Now the Jaguar’s leathery smell brought on nausea. Retching by the roadside, Ella noticed two dogs mating. At the drop-off point, a weed-choked field, she was blindfolded. She wasn’t allowed to know where she was going. Her abductors were doctors—residents still in training, maybe, but still doctors.
A short ride later, she was led up a few steps and through a door. She heard the twist of a knob. She was helped on to a table covered with a sheet. The smell of alcohol reassured her.
They apologized for not being able to use anesthesia. She would have to be up and ready to bolt as soon as the procedure was over. They couldn’t risk being caught. Their careers were at stake. The pain would be bearable, they promised. Try not to cry out, they pleaded over the tinkle and clank of instruments.
The pain was unbearable, but the doctors (if indeed they were doctors) were kind. They were Indian—she could tell from their accent, which retained the old Raj inflections.
The blindfold wasn’t removed until Ella was back at the drop-off point. In the Jaguar, the professor was loading slides into a carrousel. He barely looked up. How many times had he done this before?
The drive back was filled with silence, the uncomfortable kind.
Ella promised herself never to take his class.
Conspicuous among the beggars and meditators in Varanasi, where Ella and Dan have taken a side trip, is a Westerner in a sleeveless saffron robe, his hair in dingy dreads, crouched in a lotus position below one of the ghats.
He holds out his hand. “Don Wagstaff, retired thoracic surgeon, newly-minted metaphysician, formerly of the ill-fated, irrelevant, decadent West.”
A copy of a Hindi holy book lies unopened in his lap, next to the Personals page
of the Hindustani Times.
“They’re going to find a wife for me. Love marriages are a farce! Romance—a Hollywood creation! I had two ex-wives by the time I was 35. Have you noticed that Europe isn’t even bothering to get married anymore?”
“Are you referring to civil unions?” Ella asks.
“I mean non-binding unions. They just co-habit and breed.” A friend of Abigail’s has entered into a civil union with the French father of her child. That’s better, Ella thinks, than what Abigail is doing, taking on parenthood all by herself. How much can Ella help out, once Dan’s memory problems grow into full-fledged dementia?
“See that woman beating her breast at the cremation site?” the doctor says.
Ella squints to a point farther down the Ganges.
The cremations haven’t spooked Ella as much as she thought they would.
“It’s for a husband she met the day of her wedding. They were married 60 years. They showed each other such respect, such consideration!”
Hers had almost been an arranged marriage, Ella thinks. Diane had intentionally seated Ella at Dan’s table at her wedding.
“Are we going to Pondicherry?” Dan asks on their way back to the ship.
“No, remember, we decided against it.”
“Then where are we going?”
A cold dread seeps through Ella.
Ella smuggled Hank and Jack past the First Class playroom. A nanny nodded off while two boys battled over a dumptruck.
“So what are you going to do when you grow up?” Jack asked.
A girl with flaxen hair was rearranging the furniture in a dollhouse.
“An assistant,” Ella said.
“Like me. I’ll be an Assistant District Attorney.”
“That’s different and you know it.”
“At least you won’t have to fight in Vietnam,” Jack said.
“You could take the GREs—see what happens,” Hank suggested.
“Yeah, come on, you have to do something besides wearing your mother’s designer discards,” Jack said.
Through the portholes, they watched the Gulf Stream stripe its way across the ocean, so much bluer than the rest of the Atlantic.
“Who knows what adventures await you in France? Hang out at the Deux Magots like Sartre used to. Something’s bound to happen,” Hank said.
The professor would only be in Paris for a day before moving onto Florence. Ella could not allow his departure to ruin her trip.
She kept running into him on the Pont Promenade. He had come looking for her in Tourist. They bumped into each other frequently. They laughed as they reenacted their first encounter. “Fancy meeting you here…” “Don’t you go to…?”
Dinners were at the Friedman-de la Bruyere table, nights in the professor’s bed.
All these years Ella had both dreaded and longed for an encounter with the professor. She spent much time imagining how this might happen. Spasms of anxiety intruded on such fantasies. Their eyes would hover around areas once intimate to each of them. Those areas, or adjacent ones, had changed. Pregnancy had expanded Ella’s once-22-inch waist and etched squiggly veins up and down her legs.
So far she had avoided collisions with the past. She had never, for instance, run into the boyfriend with the Lambretta.
Now death has conveniently removed the possibility of ever running into the Professor. Gone is the anticipation, but also the anxiety.
The day before they dock in Cochin, the boy next door runs up. He waves a book in Ella’s face. “This one’s called Lost on the Amazon. It’s not a true story so I can choose any adventure, which is more fun.”
Ella could have scrapped France and gone to Florence with the professor. Or could she? Was that really an option? Had the professor said, why don’t you come with me?
Assume he did, she tells herself. Skip to Italy. Skip to your parents’ frantic phone calls.
Skip back to campus. To lurching down the hill in your spike heels. But don’t allow yourself to be driven to the secret meeting place. Refuse to have the fetus scraped out without anesthesia.
Skip to baby. Skip to marriage. Skip to infidelity (his). Skip to divorce.
Scrap the above. Go to Paris as planned. Skip to classes at the Sorbonne—skip the classes! Skip to Deux Magots and a one-night-stand with a poet. Skip to last year of college and to Diane’s wedding. Don’t go up to the hotel room with Dan. Don’t shed that tulle bridesmaid gown. Do not marry your husband, the doctor.
Or do. Agree (give in) to the flounced bridal gown like a prom dress, to the gilt-edged china pattern, to the copper casseroles. Accept that $85 a week assistant job.
Skip to Abigail. To years in the playground. To your forties and fifties. To Abigail’s ultrasound and the S.S. Maharajah. Skip to the professor’s obituary.
Or travel back to that voyage on the France. Don’t acknowledge the professor. Don’t venture into First Class. Hang out with Hank and Jack.
Skip to seeing Hank off to Vietnam. He was drafted, after all. Pick the fairy tale ending: his safe return and welcome home, complete with flag-waving and military honors.
Skip to what really happens. Cry your heart out at Hank’s funeral, complete with folded flag and military honors.
Fast forward to Dan’s future deterioration. Is there a choice in the matter? She has promised never to put him in a nursing home, but what if he reaches the point where he doesn’t know the difference? What if dementia makes him abusive? That’s what happened with a friend’s husband. After he beat her, she had no choice but to put him in a “memory care center.”
Ella has visited people in those institutions. A not-so-faint urine stench usually infects the air. But Dan has lost his sense of smell—it’s one of the early symptoms of the disease. He can’t tell poop from perfume these days. Or from vomit. When she gets seasick and pukes, he doesn’t notice the odor.
Ella fox-trotted with Hank at the farewell bash in Tourist. She planned to move on to the First Class gala later.
“Burn that dress!” Jack said.
It was a dress her mother had talked her into—not a hand-me-down, but a strapless organza gown with flower appliques.
Hank won the ship’s pool—the wager on how long the crossing would take. It broke a record that year; the France was expected to dock in Le Havre 12 minutes ahead of schedule. He was jubilant.
There were balloons and faux bubbly. A singer impersonated Edith Piaf: Moi je vois la vie en rose.
Dizzily, Ella made her way to First. She drank too much vintage champagne with the professor. It was her last night in the cabin with the portholes.
There are too many choices, the boy complains. He has picked ones that lead to the sad ending, the one where the poison stays in his body, not the one where it evaporates. “Safe endings are too boring,” he says.
“Endings can be tricky,” Ella counsels. “They’re often the weakest part of a novel.”
Often, there’s no clear choice between safety and danger, Ella wants to warn.
Between a poison and its antidote. Between hurtling into the iceberg or gliding past it. Between the abortion with sterile instruments or the one that might kill you. Between the unsuitable lover and the glaringly suitable one.
Would stashing Dan in a nursing home be a choice if she had sworn never to do so?
Once, many years before, when Dan was a resident on night call, Ella kept him company. She stayed out of sight while he darted from room to room plucking stems from patients’ vases, one from each, to fashion into a bouquet.
“I saw that,” a patient, an older woman, said with a wink. “Who’s the lucky girl?”
Martha Mendelsohn has worked as a translator for the French Embassy, an associate editor of Tikkun Magazine, and a contributing editor to the [New York] Jewish Week. Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in The New York Times, The Jewish Week, Moment and Tikkun magazines, and other places. Her novel for young adults, Bromley Girls, was published by Texas Tech University Press in 2015. She lives with her husband in New York City.