Past the security kiosk at the north entrance to campus, we turn right onto Nassau Street, Princeton's main drag. At this hour it's lifeless, prowled by two plows and a salt truck that someone has roused from hibernation. Stray boutiques glow in the night, snow gathering below their storefront windows. Talbot's and Micawber Books are closed at this hour, but Pequod Copy and the coffee shops manage a small bustle, filled with seniors rushing to complete their theses in the eleventh hour before departmental deadlines.
Glad to be done with it? Gil asks Paul, who has retreated into himself again.
Gil looks into the rearview mirror.
It's not finished yet, Paul says.
Come on. It's done. What do you have left to do?
Paul's breath frosts the rear window. Enough, he says.
At the stoplight, we turn onto Washington Road, then toward Prospect Avenue and the eating clubs. Gil knows better than to ask more questions. As we approach Prospect, I know his thoughts are gravitating elsewhere. Saturday night is the Ivy Club's annual ball, and it has been left to him, as club president, to oversee the arrangements. After falling behind while finishing his thesis, he's gotten into the habit of making little trips to Ivy just to convince himself that everything is under control. According to Katie, by the time I arrive to escort her tomorrow night, I'll barely recognize the inside of the club.
We pull up beside the clubhouse, into the space that seems to be reserved for Gil, and when he disengages his key from the ignition a cold silence echoes in the cabin. Friday is the lull in the weekend storm, a chance to sober up between the traditional party nights of Thursday and Saturday. The recent snow has dampened even the hum of voices that usually drifts in the air as juniors and seniors return to campus from dinner.
According to administrators, the eating clubs at Princeton are an upperclass dining option. The reality is that the eating clubs are basically the only option we have. In the early days of the college, when refectory fires and surly innkeepers forced students to fend for themselves, small groups banded together to take meals under the same roof. Princeton being what it was in those days, the roofs they ate under, and the clubhouses they built to support those roofs, were no mean affair; some of them are nothing short of manors. And to this day the eating club remains Princeton's peculiar institution: a place, like a coed fraternity, where junior and senior members hold parties and eat meals, but do not reside. Almost one hundred and fifty years after the institution first appeared, social life at Princeton is simple to explain. It lies firmly in the hands of the clubs.
Ivy looks grim at this hour. Cloaked in darkness, the sharp points and dark stonework of the building are uninviting. Cottage Club, next door, with its white quoins and round accents, easily outshines it. These two sister clubs, older than the other surviving ten on Prospect Avenue, are Princeton's most exclusive. Their rivalry for the best of each class has endured since 1886.
Gil looks at his watch. They're not seating for dinner anymore. I'll bring us up some food. He holds the front door open, then guides us up the main stairs.
It's been awhile since my last visit here, and the dark oak-paneled walls with their severe-looking portraits always give me pause. 7b the left: is Ivy's dining room, with its long wooden tables and century-old English chairs; to the right is the billiards room, where Parker Hassett is playing a game of pool alone. Parker is Ivy's village idiot, a half-wit from a wealthy family who is just bright enough to realize what a fool some people think he is, and just dumb enough to blame everyone else for it. He plays pool with both hands moving the cue, like a vaudeville actor dancing with a cane. Though he glances over at us when we pass, I ignore him as we mount the stairs, heading for the Officers' Room.
Knocking twice at the door, Gil enters without awaiting a reply. We follow him into the warm light of the room, where Brooks Franklin, Gil's portly vice president, sits at a long mahogany table extending lengthwise just past the door. Atop the table stand a Tiffany lamp and a phone. Around its edge are tucked six chairs.
I'm glad you showed up when you did, Brooks says to all of us, politely ignoring the fact that Paul is wearing women's clothes. Parker was telling me his costume plans for tomorrow night, and I was starting to think I might need backup.
I don't know Brooks very well, but ever since we shared an introductory economics class sophomore year, he has related to me as an old friend. I'm guessing that Parker's plans have to do with Saturday's dance, which is traditionally a Princeton-themed costume ball.
You'll fucking die, Gil, Parker says, arriving unannounced from downstairs. Now he has a cigarette in one hand, a glass of wine in the other. At least you have a sense of humor.
He speaks directly to Gil, as if Paul and I are invisible. Down at the table, I can see Brooks shaking his head.
I've decided to come as JFK, he continues. And my date's not going to be Jackie. She's going to be Marilyn Monroe.
Parker must see confusion in my expression, because he dashes his cigarette into an ashtray on the table. Yes, Tom, he says, Kennedy graduated from Harvard. But he went here his freshman year.
The latest product of a California wine family that has sent a son to Princeton, and to Ivy, for generations, Parker cleared both of those hurdles thanks only to what Gil, charitably, calls the Hassett family's momentum.
Before I can respond, Gil leans forward.
Look, Parker, I don't have time for this. If you want to come as Kennedy, that's your business. Just try to show some taste.
Parker, who seemed to expect something better, shoots a sour look at all of us and walks off, wine in hand.
Brooks, Gil says now, can you go down and ask Albert if there's any dinner left? We haven't eaten and we're in a rush.
Brooks agrees. He is the perfect vice president: obliging, tireless, loyal. Even when Gil's favors come out sounding like commands, he never seems to be ruffled. Tonight is the only time he has ever looked weary to me, and I wonder if he just finished his thesis.
Actually, Gil adds, looking up, I'll bring two of them up here, and eat mine in the dining room. We can talk about the wine order for tomorrow while I eat.
Brooks turns to Paul and me. Good to see you guys, he says. Sorry about Parker. I don't know what gets into him sometimes.
Sometimes? I say under my breath.
Brooks must hear me, because he smiles before leaving.
The food should be ready in a few minutes, Gil says. I'll be downstairs if you guys need me. He focuses on Paul. We can go to the lecture as soon as you're ready.
For a second after he leaves, I can't escape the feeling that Paul and I are committing some kind of fraud. We're sitting at an antique mahogany table in a nineteenth-century mansion, waiting for someone to bring us our dinners. If I had a nickel for every time this had happened to me since I got to Princeton, I would need another one to rub the two together. Cloister Inn, the club where Charlie and I are members, is a small, simple building with a cozy stone charm. When the floors are polished and the greens are trimmed it's a respectable place to draw a beer or shoot some pool. But in scale and in gravity it is dwarfed by Ivy. Our chef's first priority is quantity, not quality, and unlike our Ivy friends we eat where we please, rather than being seated in the order of our arrival. Half of our chairs are plastic, all of our cutlery is replaceable, and sometimes when the parties we throw are too expensive, or the taps we run are too loose, we find hot dogs in the lunch tray on Fridays. We are like many of the clubs on the street. Ivy has always been the exception.
Come downstairs with me, Paul says abruptly.
Unsure what he means by it, I follow. We descend past the stained-glass window that runs along the south landing, then down another flight of stairs into the basement of the club. Paul leads me through the hall toward the President's Room. Gil is supposed to have sole access to the room, but when Paul worried about having less and less privacy at his library carrel while trying to finish his thesis, Gil promised him a copy of the key, hoping to lure him back to the club. Paul had found little to recommend Ivy by then, work-obsessed as he was. But the President's Room, large and quiet and accessible to Paul directly through the steam tunnels, was a blessing he couldn't refuse. Others protested that Gil had made a hostel of the club's most exclusive room, but Paul defused all controversy by arriving at the room almost always through the tunnels. It seemed to bother the offended parties less when they didn't have to see him come and go.
As we arrive in front of the door, Paul pops the lock open with his key. Shuffling in behind him, I'm caught by surprise. It's been weeks since I've seen the place. The first thing I remember is how cold it is. Here, in what is effectively the club's cellar, temperatures hover uncomfortably close to freezing. Exclusive or no, the room looks like it's been hit by a hurricane of letters. Books have settled on every surface like mounds of debris: the shelves of Ivy's moldering European and American classics are almost obscured by Paul's reference books, historical journals, nautical maps, and stray blueprint designs.
He closes the door behind us. Beside the desk is a handsome fireplace, and the clutter of papers is so heavy here that some of the titles are bleeding onto the hearth. Still, when Paul scans the room, he seems pleased; everything is as he left it. He walks over and picks up The Poetry of Michelangelo from the floor, brushes some paint chips off the cover, and places it carefully on his desk. Finding a long wooden match atop the mantel, he strikes the head and reaches down into the fireplace, where a blue flame breathes life into old newsprint weighted with logs.
You've done a lot, I tell him, looking at one of the more detailed blueprints unraveled across his desk.
He frowns. That's nothing. I've made a dozen like that, and they're probably all wrong. I do it when I feel like giving up.
What I'm looking at is a drawing of a building Paul invented. The edifice is stitched together from the ruins of buildings mentioned in the Hypnerotomachia: broken arches have been restored; riddled foundations are strong again; columns and capitals, once shattered, now find themselves repaired. There is an entire pile of blueprints beneath it, each one assembled the same way from the odds and ends of Colonna's imagination, each one different. Paul has created a landscape to live in down here, an Italy of his own. On the walls are taped other sketches, some hidden by notes he has affixed over them. In each one the lines are studiously architectural, measured in units I don't understand. A computer could have produced all of them, the proportions are so perfect, the script is so careful. But Paul, who claims to be suspicious of computers, has actually never been able to afford his own, and politely refused Curry's offer to buy him one. Everything here has been drawn by hand.
What are they supposed to be? I ask.
The building Francesco is designing.
I'd almost forgotten Paul's habit of referring to Colonna in the present tense, always using the man's first name.
Francesco's crypt. The first half of the Hypnerotomachia says he's designing it. Remember?
Of course. You think it looks like these? I ask, gesturing at the drawings.
I don't know. But I'm going to find out.
How? Then I remember what Curry said at the museum. Is that what the surveyors are for? You're going to exhume it?
So you found out why Colonna built it?
This was the pivotal question we came to, just as our work together ended. The text of the Hypnerotomachia alluded mysteriously to a crypt
Colonna was constructing, but Paul and I could never agree about its nature. Paul envisioned it as a Renaissance sarcophagus for the Colonna family, possibly intended to rival papal tombs of the kind Michelangelo designed around the same period. Trying harder to connect the crypt to The Belladonna Document, I imagined the crypt as a final resting place for Colonna's victims, a theory that went further toward explaining the Hypnerotomachia great secrecy about the design. The fact that Colonna never fully described the building, or where it could be found, remained the major gap in Paul's work at the moment I left.
Before he can answer my question, a knock comes at the door.
You moved, Gil says, entering with the club steward.
He stops short, sizing up Paul's room like a man peering into a women's bathroom, sheepish but intrigued. The steward places two settings in cloth napkins on a table, finding patches of space between the books. Between them, they're carrying two plates of Ivy Club china, a pitcher of water, and a basket of bread.
Warm rustic bread, the steward says, putting the basket down.
Steak with peppercorns, Gil says, following suit. Anything else?
We shake our heads, and Gil takes one last look at the room, then returns back upstairs.
The steward pours water into two glasses. Would you like something else to drink?
When we say no, he vanishes too.
Paul serves himself quickly. Watching him eat, I think of the Oliver Twist impression he did the first time we met, the little bowl he made with his hands. Sometimes I wonder if Paul's first memory of childhood is of hunger. At the parochial school where he was raised, he shared the table with six other children, and meals were always first come, first served, until the food ran out. I'm not sure he ever escaped that mentality. One night our freshman year, back when we all took meals together in the dining hall of our residential college, Charlie joked that Paul ate so fast you'd think food was going out of style. Later that night Paul explained why, and none of us joked about it again.
Now Paul extends his arm for a piece of bread, caught up in the joy of eating. The smell of food wrestles with the old mildew stink of books and the smoke of the fire, in a way I might've enjoyed under different circumstances. But here, now, it feels uncomfortable, different memories sewn together. As if he can read my mind, Paul becomes conscious of his reach and looks bashful.
I push the basket toward him. Eat up, I say, scraping at the food.
Behind us, the fire sputters. Over in the corner is an opening in the wall, the size of a large dumbwaiter: the entrance to the steam tunnels, the one Paul prefers.
I can't believe you still crawl through that.
He puts down his fork. It's better than dealing with everyone upstairs.
It feels like a dungeon down here.
It didn't bother you before.
I sense an old argument reviving. Paul quickly wipes his mouth with a napkin. Forget it, he says, putting the diary onto the table between us. This is what matters now. He taps the cover with two fingers, then pushes the little book toward me. We have a chance to finish what we started. Richard thinks this could be the key.
I rub at a stain on the desk. Maybe you should show it to Tart.
Paul gapes at me. Vincent thinks everything I found with you is worthless. He's been pushing me for progress reports twice a week, just to prove I haven't given up. I'm tired of driving to the Institute every time I need his help, and having him say this is derivative work.
And he threatened to tell the department I'm stalling.
After everything we found?
It doesn't matter, he says. I don't care what Vincent thinks. He taps the diary again. I want to finish.
Your deadline is tomorrow.
We did more together in three months than I did alone in three years. What's one more night? Under his breath, he adds, Besides, the deadline isn't what matters.
I'm surprised to hear him say it, but the jab of Taft's rejection is what lingers. Paul must've known it would. I feel more pride in the work I did on the Hypnerotomachia than in all the work I did on my own thesis.
Taft's out of his mind, I tell him. No one's ever found that much in the book before. Why didn't you request an advisor change?
Paul's hands begin shredding the bread into little pellets, rolling them between his fingers. I've been asking myself the same thing, he says, looking away. Do you know how many times he's bragged to me about ruining the academic career of 'some moron' with his peer reviews or tenure recommendations? He never mentioned your father, but there were others. Remember Professor Macintyre from Classics? Remember his book about Keats's 'Ode on a Grecian Urn'?
I nod. Taft wrote an article on what he perceived to be the declining quality of scholarship at major universities, using Macintyre's book as a primary example. In three paragraphs Taft identified more factual errors, misattributions, and oversights than two dozen other scholars had found in their own book reviews. Taft's implicit criticism seemed to be aimed at the reviewers, but it was Macintyre who became such a laughingstock that the university pruned him from the departmental ranks at the next tenure review. Taft later admitted that he was just getting even with Macintyre's father, a Renaissance historian who'd given one of Taft's own books a mixed review.
Vincent told me a story once, Paul continues, voice growing quieter. About a kid he knew growing up, named Rodge Lang. Kids at school called him Epp. One day a stray dog followed Epp home from school. Epp ran, but the dog kept following him. Epp threw part of his lunch to the dog, but the dog wouldn't leave him alone. Finally he tried to scare the animal off with a stick, but the dog just kept following.
After a few miles, Epp started to wonder. He led the dog through a briar patch. The dog followed. He threw a rock at the dog, but the dog wouldn't back away. Finally Epp kicked the dog. The dog didn't run off. Epp kicked it again, and again. The dog wouldn't move. Epp kicked the dog until it was dead. Then he picked it up and brought it to his favorite tree, and buried it there.
I'm almost too stunned to answer. What the hell's the moral of that?
According to Vincent, that's when Epp knew he'd found a loyal dog.
A silence unfolds.
Was that Taft's idea of a joke?
Paul shakes his head. Vincent told me a lot of stories about Epp. They're all like that.
I think they're supposed to be some kind of parable.
Parables he made up?
I don't know. Paul hesitates. But Rodge Epp Lang also happens to be an anagram. A rearrangement of the letters in 'doppelganger.'
I feel sick. Do you think Taft did those things?
To the dog? Who knows. He might've. But his point was that he and I have the same relationship. I'm the dog.
So why the hell are you still working with him?
Paul begins fidgeting with the bread again. I made a decision. Staying with Vincent was the only way I could finish my thesis. I'm telling you, Tom, I'm convinced this is even bigger than we thought. Francesco's crypt is this close. No one has made a find like this in years. And after your father, no one had done more work on the Hypnerotomachia than Vincent. I needed him. Paul throws the crust onto his plate. And he knew it.
Gil arrives in the doorway. I'm done upstairs, he says, as if we've been waiting for him to finish. We can go now.
Paul seems glad to end the conversation. Taft's behavior is a reproach to him. I rise and begin to bus my plates.
Don't worry about those, Gil says, waving me off. They'll send someone down.
Paul wipes his hands together briskly. Strings of the bread roll up on his palms, and he sloughs them like old skin. We both follow Gil out of the club.
The snow is coming down much harder than before, so thick that I feel I'm watching the world through patches of static. As Gil navigates the Saab westward, approaching the auditorium, I look in the side mirror at Paul, wondering how long he's been keeping all this to himself. We pass between streetlights in the dark, and for short pulses of time I can't see him at all. His face is just a shadow.
The fact is, Paul has always kept secrets from us. For years he hid the truth about his childhood, the details of his parochial school nightmare. Now he's been hiding the truth about his relationship with Taft. Close as he and I are, there's a certain distance now, a feeling that while we have a lot in common, good fences still make good neighbors. Leonardo wrote that a painter should begin every canvas with a wash of black, because all things in nature are dark except where exposed by the light. Most painters do the opposite, starting with a whitewash and adding the shadows last. But Paul, who knows Leonardo so well you'd think the old man slept in our bottom bunk, understands the value of starting with the shadows. The only things people can ever know about you are the ones you let them see.
I might not have grasped this very well, except that an interesting thing happened on campus just a few years before we arrived, which caught both Paul's attention and mine. A twenty-nine-year-old bicycle thief named James Hogue got into Princeton by claiming to be someone he wasn't: an eighteen-year-old ranch hand from Utah. Hogue said he'd taught himself Plato under the stars, and trained himself to run a mile in just over four minutes. When the track team flew him out to campus for a recruiting trip, he said it was the first time he'd slept indoors in a decade. The admissions office was so captivated that it accepted him on the spot. When he deferred for a year, no one gave it a second thought. Hogue said he was tending to his sick mother in Switzerland; in fact, he was serving a term in prison.
What made the hoax so intriguing was that, while roughly half of it was an outrageous lie, the other half was more or less true. Hogue was as good a runner as he let on, and for two years at Princeton he was a star on the track team. He was also a star in the classroom, shouldering a course load you couldn't pay me to take, and getting straight A's to boot. He was even so charming that Ivy tapped him for membership in the spring of his sophomore year. It almost seems a shame that his career ended the way it did.
By sheer accident a spectator at a track meet recognized him from a previous life. When word spread, Princeton conducted an investigation and had him arrested in the middle of a science lab. Charges were pressed, and Hogue pled guilty to fraud. Within a matter of months he was in prison again, where he slowly faded back into obscurity.
To me the Hogue story was the news event of that summer; the only thing to rival it was my discovery that Playboy had run a Women of the Ivy League issue the previous spring. To Paul, though, it was much more. As someone who always insisted on a varnish of fiction in his own life, pretending he'd eaten well when he hadn't, or pretending not to own a computer because he didn't like using one, Paul could identify with a mail who felt bullied by the truth. One of the only advantages of coming from nothing, as James Hogue and Paul both did, is having the freedom to reinvent yourself. In fact, the better I got to know Paul, the more I understood it was less a freedom than a kind of obligation.
Still, seeing what became of Hogue, Paul had to rethink the line between reinventing himself and fooling everyone else. Beginning the day he arrived at Princeton, he walked that line very carefully, keeping secrets rather than telling lies. An old fear returns to me when I consider that. My father, who understood the way the Hypnerotomachia had seduced him, once compared the book to an affair with a woman. It makes you lie, he said, even to yourself. Paul's thesis may be exactly that lie: after four years with Taft, Paul has danced and danced for the book, left his bed and lost sleep for the book, and for all his sweat, the book has given up very little.
Looking back in the mirror again, I can see him watching the snow. There is a blank look in his eyes and his face seems pale. In the distance a traffic light is flashing yellow. My father taught me something else without ever saying a word: never invest yourself in anything so deeply that its failure could cost you your happiness. Paul would sell his last cow for a handful of magical beans. Only now is he beginning to wonder if the beanstalk will grow.