Time, like a doctor, washed its hands of us. Before Charlie was even out of the hospital, we had become old news. Classmates stared at us as if we were out of context, fugitive memories with an aura of former significance.
Within a week, the cloud of violence over Princeton had burned off. Students began to walk across campus after dark again, first in groups, then alone. Unable to sleep, I would wander off to the WaWa in the middle of the night, only to find it full of people. Richard Curry lived on in their conversations. So did Paul. But gradually the names I knew disappeared, replaced by exams and varsity lacrosse games and the yearly spring talk, a senior who'd slept with her thesis advisor, the final episode of a favorite television show. Even the headlines I read while waiting in line at the register, the ones that kept my mind off being alone when everyone else seemed to be with friends, suggested that the world had moved forward without us. On the seventeenth day after Easter, the front page of the Princeton Packet announced that a plan for an underground parking lot in town had been nixed. Only at the bottom of page two was it reported that a wealthy alumnus had donated two million dollars toward the rebuilding of Ivy.
Charlie was out of his hospital bed in five days, but spent another two weeks in rehab. Doctors suggested cosmetic surgery on his chest, where patches of his skin had become thick and gristly, but Charlie refused. I visited him at the medical center every day but one. Charlie wanted me to bring him potato chips from the WaWa, books for his classes, scores from every Sixers game. He always gave me a reason to come back.
More than once he made a point of showing me his burns. At first I thought it was to prove something to himself, that he didn't feel disfigured, that he was much stronger than what had happened to him. Later I sensed that the opposite was true. He wanted to make sure I knew he had been changed by this. He seemed to fear that he'd stopped being a part of my life and Gil's at the moment he ran into the steam tunnels after Paul. We were getting along without him, mending our losses alone. He knew we'd begun to feel like strangers in our own skins, and he wanted us to know that he was in the same position, that we were all still in this together.
It surprised me that Gil visited him as much as he did. I was there for a few of the visits, and there was the same awkwardness every time. Both of them felt guilty in a way that was intensified by seeing the other. However irrational, Charlie felt that he'd abandoned us by not being at Ivy. At times, he even saw Paul's blood on his own hands, weighing Paul's death as the price of his own weakness. Gil seemed to feel that he himself had abandoned us long ago, in a way that was harder to express. That Charlie could feel so guilty, having done so much, only made Gil feel worse.
One night before he went to bed, Gil apologized to me. He said he wished he'd done things differently. We deserved better. From that night on, I never found him watching old movies. He took his meals at restaurants that seemed farther and farther from campus. Every time I invited him to lunch at my club, he found a reason not to come. It took four or five rejections for me to understand that it wasn't the company he objected to; it was the thought of seeing Ivy on the way there. When Charlie got out of the hospital, he and I were together breakfast, lunch, and dinner. More and more, Gil ate and drank alone.
Slowly our lives fell out of scrutiny. If we felt like pariahs at first, when everyone grew tired of hearing about us, then we felt like ghosts afterward, when everyone began to forget. The university's memorial service for Paul was held in the chapel, but could've fit in a small classroom for the tiny crowd it drew, hardly as many students as professors, and most of those just members of the EMT squad or of Ivy, showing up out of compassion for Charlie or Gil. The only faculty member who approached me after the service was Professor LaRoque, the woman who first sent Paul to see Taft-and even she seemed interested only in the Hypnerotomachia, in Paul's discovery rather than in Paul himself. I told her nothing, and made a point of doing the same every time the Hypnerotomachia came up after that. I thought it was the least I could do, not giving away to strangers the secret Paul had worked so hard to keep between friends.
What briefly caused a resurgence of interest was the discovery, a week after the headline about the underground parking lot, that Richard Curry had liquidated his assets just before leaving New York for Princeton. He had placed the money in a private trust, along with the residual properties of his auction house. When banks refused to reveal the terms of the trust, Ivy asserted a right to the money, as compensation for its damages. Only when the club's board decided that not a stone of the new building would be bought with Curry's money did the flap subside. Meanwhile, papers flocked to the news that Richard Curry had left all of his money to an unnamed trustee, and a few even suggested what I already believed-that the money was meant for Paul.
Knowing nothing of Paul's thesis, though, the greater public could make little sense of Curry's intentions, so they dug into his friendship with Taft until the two men became a farce, an explanation for all evil that was no explanation at all. Taft's home at the Institute became a ghost house. New Institute Fellows refused to live there, and townie teenagers dared each other to break in.
The only benefit of the new climate, the one of fantastic theories and sensational headlines, was that it soon became impossible to suggest that Gil and Charlie and I had done anything wrong at all. We weren't flamboyant enough to play a role in what had happened, bizarre as everyone thought it was, not when die local news could fill its coverage with pictures of Rasputin Taft and the lunatic Curry who killed him. The police and the university both acknowledged that they had no intention of pursuing any action against us, and I suppose it made a difference to our parents that we would graduate without disgrace. None of it mattered much to Gil, since that sort of thing never did, and I couldn't get around to giving much of a damn myself.
Still, I think it took a load off Charlie's mind. He lived increasingly in the shadow of what had happened. Gil called it a persecution complex, the way he expected misfortune at every turn, but I think Charlie had simply convinced himself that he could've saved Paul. Whatever it was, there was going to be a reckoning for his failures-if not at Princeton, then in the future. It wasn't so much persecution Charlie feared; it was judgment.
The only hint of pleasure in my final days of college came from Katie. At first she brought food to Gil and me, while Charlie was still in the hospital. In the wake of the fire, she and other Ivy sophomores had begun a co-op, buying their own food and making their own meals. Afraid that we weren't eating, she always cooked for three. Later, she would take me on walks, insisting that the sun had restorative powers, that there were traces of lithium in cosmic rays you could only catch at dawn. She even took pictures of us, as if she saw something in those days worth remembering. The photographer in her was convinced that the solution lay somehow in the right exposure to light.
Without Ivy in her life, Katie seemed even closer to what I wanted her to be, and even less like the side of Gil I never understood. Her spirits were always up, and her hair was always down. The night before graduation, she invited me back to her room after a movie, claiming she wanted me to say good-bye to her roommates. I knew she meant something else, but that night I told her I couldn't do it. There would be too many pictures of the certainties she carried with her, family and old friends and the dog at the foot of her bed in New Hampshire. A final night in a room surrounded by all her fixed stars would only remind me of how much my own life was in flux.
We watched in those final weeks as the investigation into the fire at Ivy drew to a close. At last, on the Friday before commencement, as though the announcement had been timed to give closure to the academic year, the local authorities acknowledged that Richard Curry, in a way coincident with firsthand accounts, precipitated a fire within the Ivy Club, causing the death of both men inside the building. In support of this, they advanced two shards of a human jaw, which matched Curry's dental records. The explosion of the gas main had left little else.
Yet the investigation remained open and nothing specific was ever said of Paul. I knew why. Just three days after the explosion, an investigator had confessed to Gil that they held out hope of Paul's survival: the remains they'd found were merely scraps, and what few of them were identifiable were Curry's. For the following days, then, we waited hopefully for Paul's return. But when he never did return, never staggered from the woods or turned up in a familiar place, having forgotten himself for a time, the investigators seemed to realize it was better to be silent than to ply us with false hope.
Graduation came warm and green, without a whisper of wind, as though such a thing as Easter weekend could never have been. There was even a butterfly in the air, fluttering like a displaced emblem, as I sat in the yard of Nassau Hall, surrounded by classmates in our robes and tassels, waiting to be pronounced. Up there, in the tower, I imagined a bell tolling silently without a clapper: Paul, celebrating our fortune, just behind the creases of the world.
There were phantoms everywhere in that daylight. Women in evening gowns, from the Ivy ball, dancing in the sky like nativity angels, announcing a new season. Nude Olympians streaking in the courtyards, unashamed of their nakedness, in a specter of the season just passed. The salutatorian quipped in Latin, jokes I didn't understand, and for an instant I imagined that it was Taft up there who addressed us; Taft, and behind him Francesco Colonna, and behind them a chorus of wizened philosophers who all delivered a solemn refrain, like drunken apostles singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
The three of us returned to the room one last time after the ceremony. Charlie was heading back to Philadelphia for a summer of ambulance work before medical school in the fall. He had chosen the University of Pennsylvania, he told us finally, after wavering for so long. He wanted to stay near home. Gil was collecting the knickknacks from his bedroom with a touch of eagerness I half expected. He confessed to having a ticket out of New York that evening. Going to Europe for a while, he said. To Italy, of all places. He needed some time to figure things out.
We collected our last day's mail together, Charlie and I, once Gil was gone. Inside the box were four small envelopes, identical in size. They contained registration slips for the alumni directory, one to each of us. I placed mine in my pocket, and took Paul's, as well, realizing he hadn't been stricken from our class list. I wondered for a moment if they'd drawn up a diploma for him, too, which now sat somewhere uncollected. But on the fourth envelope, the one addressed to Gil, his name had been crossed off, and mine had been written in his hand. I opened it and read. The form had been completed, with an address penned out for a hotel in Italy. Dear Tom, it said, across the inside lip of the envelope. I left Paul's here for you. 1 thought you would want it. Tell Charlie I'm sorry for leaving in a rush. I know you understand. If in Italy, phase call. -G.
I hugged Charlie before we parted. A week later, he called me at home to ask if I planned to attend our class reunion the following year. It was the sort of pretext only Charlie would invent for a phone call, and we spoke for several hours. Finally, he asked if I would give him Gil's address in Italy. He said he'd found a postcard Gil would enjoy, which he tried to describe to me. I realized, underneath what he was saying, that Gil hadn't given him a forwarding address. Things between them had never really recovered.
I wasn't in Italy, that summer or afterward. Gil and I met three times in the four years that followed, each time at a class reunion. There was less and less to be said between us. The facts of his life gradually assembled with the graceful preordination of words in a litany. He returned to Manhattan after all; like his father, he became a banker. Unlike me, he seemed to age well. At twenty-six, he announced his engagement to a beautiful woman one year our junior, who reminded me of a star from an old movie. Seeing them together, I could no longer deny the pattern to Gil's life.
Charlie and I kept up much better. To be honest, he wouldn't let me go. He holds the distinction in my life of being the hardest-working friend I've ever had, the one who refuses to let a friendship fail just because the distance grows and the memories fade. In the first year of medical school, he married a woman who reminded me of his mother. Their first child, a daughter, was named after her. Their second child, a son, was named after me. A bachelor myself, I can judge Charlie as a father honestly, without worrying how I fare in comparison. The only way to do it justice is to say that Charlie is an even better father than friend. In the way he cares for his children there is a hint of the natural protectiveness, the world-beating energy, the enormous gratitude for the privilege of life, that he always showed at Princeton. Today he is a pediatrician, God's own doctor. His wife says that on certain weekends he still runs with the ambulance. I hope someday, as he still believes, Charlie Freeman will come before heaven at the hour of judgment. I've never known a better man.
What became of me, I'm hard-pressed to say. After graduation I returned to Columbus. Except for a single trip to New Hampshire, I spent all three months of my summer at home. Whether it was because my mother understood my loss even better than I did, or because she couldn't help feeling glad that Princeton was behind me-behind us-she opened up. We talked; she joked. We ate together, just the two of us. We sat on the old sledding hill, the one my sisters used to pull me up, and she told me what she'd been doing with herself. There were plans to open a second bookstore, this one in Cleveland. She explained the business model, the way she'd been running the ledgers, the possibility of selling the house now that it was going to be empty. I understood only the most important part, which was that she'd finally started moving on.
For me, though, the problem wasn't moving on. It was understanding. As the years have passed, the other uncertainties of my life have seemed to clarify themselves in a way my father's life never did. I can imagine what Richard Curry was thinking on that Easter weekend: that Paul was in the same position Curry himself had once been in, that it would be unbearable to let his orphan son become another Bill Stein or Vincent Taft, or even Richard Curry. My father's old friend believed in the gift of a clean slate, a blank check on an unlimited trust; it just took us too long to understand him. Even Paul, in the days when I still hoped for his survival, gave me reason to think he'd simply left us all behind, escaping through the tunnels without ever returning; the dean had left him with little hope of graduation, and I had left him with no hope of Chicago. When I'd asked him where he wanted to be, he'd told me honestly: in Rome, with a shovel. But I never reached the age when I could ask my father those sorts of questions, even if, in retrospect, he was probably the sort of man to give them an honest answer.
I suppose, then, looking back on it, that the only way I can explain why I became an English major after having lost my faith in books-why I had such a sense of possibility working on Colonna's book after rejecting my father's love of it-is that I was looking for those pieces I thought my father must have left me, the ones that could piece him back together. For as long as I knew Paul, for the duration of our research on the Hypnerotomachia, the answer almost seemed to be in my grasp. For as long as we worked together, there was always hope I might eventually understand.
When that hope fled, I honored my contract and became a software analyst. The job I got by solving a riddle, I took because I'd failed to solve another. Time in Texas passed more quickly than I can account for. The heat of summer there reminded me of nothing I'd known before, so I stayed. Katie and I wrote almost weekly during her last two years at Princeton, letters I began to wait for in the mail, even as they became less frequent. The last time I saw her was during a trip to New York to celebrate my twenty-sixth birthday. By the end of it, I think even Charlie could sense that time had come between Katie and me. As we walked through Prospect Park in the autumn sun, near the Brooklyn gallery where Katie worked, I began to understand that the things we once cherished had remained behind us at Princeton, and that the future had failed to replace them with a vision of things yet to come. Katie, I knew, had been hoping to begin something new that weekend, to chart a new course by a new set of stars. But the possibility of rebirth, which had buoyed my father for so long, and preserved his faith in his son, was an article of faith I'd slowly come to doubt. After that weekend, I began to fall out of Katie's life entirely. Shortly afterward, she called me at work for the last time. She knew the problem lay on my end of things, that mine were the letters that had become shorter and more distant. Her voice brought back an ache I hadn't expected. She told me I wouldn't be hearing from her again until I figured out for myself where we stood. Finally, she gave me her number at a new gallery, and told me to call when things were different.
Things were never different. Not for me, anyway. It wasn't long before my mother's new bookstore prospered, and she called me back to run the one in Columbus. I told her it was too difficult to leave Texas, now that I had roots. My sisters visited me, and Charlie with his family once, each leaving with advice on how I could get myself out of this slump, how I could get past this, whatever it was. The truth is, I've just been watching things change around me. The faces are younger every year, but I see the same formulations in all of them, reissued like money, new priests in old denominations. I remember that in the economics class I took with Brooks, we were taught that a single dollar, circulated long enough, could buy everything in the world-as if commerce were a candle that could never burn itself out. But I see that same dollar now in every exchange. The goods it buys, I no longer need. Most days, they hardly seem like goods at all. It was Paul who weathered time's passage the best. He always remained at my side, twenty-two and brilliant, like an incorruptible Dorian Gray. I believe it was when my engagement to an assistant professor at the University of Texas began to collapse-a woman who reminded me, I see now, of my father and mother and Katie all at once-that I took to calling Charlie every week, and thinking of Paul more and more. I wonder if he wasn't right to go out as he did. Striving. Young. While we, like Richard Curry, suffered the depredations of age, the disappointments of a promising youth. Death is the only escape from time, it seems to me now. Maybe Paul knew he was beating it all along: past, present, and any distinction in between. Even now, he seems to be leading me toward the most important conclusions of my life, I still consider him my closest friend.