Excerpt

The Study of Animal Languages

Lindsay Stern

February 8, 2019 
The following is from Lindsay Stern's debut novel, The Study of Animal Languages, which follows Ivan and Prue, married academics who study languages and communications, yet can't communicate with one another. Lindsay Stern is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the recipient of a Watson Fellowship and an Amy Award from Poets & Writers magazine. She is currently pursuing a PhD in comparative literature at Yale University.

Two

I should begin at the beginning. Who I am, and so forth. How I met Prue. What I’ve published, and where. How I landed in philosophy. Facts, in short, that moor the present to the past. Together, they counteract the sense—more noxious by the year—that my progress since my college days has been a long digression. You found a vocation; you found love, they remind me. Your best work is still ahead of you.

My name is Ivan Link. I was born in 1964 on the outskirts of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, which makes me forty-seven years old, come January. My mother, an army nurse and bibliophile of Latvian descent, married my father shortly after the Korean War. They had me late, and cared for me in a remote, deliberate way, admitting into our home none of the emotional bombast—the tantrums, the tides of indignation and remorse—that seemed to govern the households of my schoolmates. Until she died eleven years ago, of complications following a stroke, my mother and I were kind to each other. Had we met as adults, I think we would have gotten on fairly well, which is more than can be said of most mothers and sons.

The same, I suspect, would have been true with my father. He was a decorated corporal, and my hero, though I inherited none of his savoir faire. A wire blown loose in an electrical storm killed him in 1976, three days after I turned twelve. What I remember most, besides the emptiness, is the slurred ink on the memorial posters tacked to the telephone pole where he died. No one removed the posters, even after heavy rains, so eventually I took them down myself. I learned later that my mother had been five weeks pregnant at the time of his death. She miscarried, and I remained an only child.

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Mathematics came easily to me, and by the end of my senior year, my success in the quantitative subjects had earned me a partial scholarship to Boston University. I lived in a stuffy rented room off campus, and paid the rest of my way cleaning beakers in a lab at MIT. I read Carl Sagan. I took up chess. I was lonely, and told myself that I was free. The pleasures of collegiate life—sloth, sex, debauchery—held little purchase on me, but my indifference to them, coupled with my apparent looks, seemed to intrigue rather than annoy my peers. I even attracted a few women.

One of them, an ambidextrous Swede named Madeleine, inadvertently handed me my occupation. It was October of 1984. We were juniors, but she was older, having taken time off to build houses in Guam. I was still majoring in math, and had a vague idea of a future in some area of finance, even as a part of me recoiled at the thought. I would have made a tepid analyst. It was the theoretical dimension of math, rather than its applications, that galvanized me. Partly out of genuine interest, and partly to impress Madeleine, I had applied to study combinatorics the following year at the inaugural Budapest Semesters in Mathematics, a competitive program whose leaflet, which I had encountered in the Math Department’s lounge, promised glamour and subsidized rent.

The Friday after I applied, I noticed Madeleine’s day planner on my couch. She had left for class only moments before, so I heaved up the window to call after her. The wind was blowing east, raveling her thin blond hair and pitching her name back into my mouth. Rather than call out to her again I set my elbows on the sill, watching her retreating shoulders melt into the throng of scarves and coats approaching Knyvet Square. She had an appointment later that afternoon, she had said, that would preclude our habitual Friday evening date, though I had forgotten what it was. Planner in my possession, I decided to check.

Whatever I found was so innocuous it left me embarrassed. I tossed the planner back onto the sofa, inadvertently freeing a document wedged inside the cover flap. Like most of Madeleine’s papers, this one was minted with coffee rings. “Two Models of Scientific Explanation,” read the title, followed by a name I recognized: Carl Hempel. In the upper left corner was a hand- written note about a midterm essay, due the day before to her philosophy professor. I had offered to proofread it, I remembered suddenly, but in the end I hadn’t found the time. “It had to do with this Hempel character, she’d said.” Out of sheepishness, coupled with the faintly erotic wish to take into my mind what had passed through hers, I began to read his paper.

I had always considered philosophy a romantic discipline. To my mind, it stood for everything wrong with the humanities: imprecision, grandiloquence, large nouns, and contempt for the verifiable. A sampling of Nietzsche in a freshman seminar, coupled with Kierkegaard’s frightful Either/Or, had only confirmed that impression. Thanks to souring conditions in Eastern Europe, the liberal flirtation with communism had begun to fade by the time I entered college, and with the exception of an antiapartheid rally I attended in May I had managed to resist the quixotic spirit that newfound freedom—stoked by LSD—seemed to elicit in many of my classmates.

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I had satisfied my humanities requirement the previous spring with a course on Shakespeare. The professor, a respected formalist, indulged none of the postmodernist fervor—intellectual pornography, in her eyes—that was sweeping English departments at the time. I enjoyed the course. In the plays themselves I found no casuistry, no cant; only eloquent, imperfect human beings.

Hempel’s paper therefore took me by surprise. To begin with, it contained no jargon. It was written in clear, vernacular English, in prose as elegant as a geometric proof.

It argued that scientific explanations are deductive in character. They conform, Hempel showed, to the cardinal rule of logic known as modus ponens: If A, then B; A; therefore, B. Suppose, for example, you set out to explain why it happens to be snowing. You would begin by citing a law of nature—all water freezes be- low 0° C—and go on to note that the air temperature has dropped below that—to −2°, say. Given those conditions, the rain must have frozen. Therefore, by modus ponens, snow.

The paper was outmoded by then, though I could not have known it. If I had, it wouldn’t have mattered. I was transfixed by its suggestion that the laws that govern thinking also govern the material world—from the shadow on the moon to the shifting tides to the neuron that orchestrates a thought. Even miracles, in light of Hempel’s argument, were not impossible. They were simply counterexamples, exceptions to natural law. After the law had been revised, the circumstance—once anomalous—would seem predictable. Nothing confounds, in retrospect. 

I had located a pen and was jotting down some less intelligible, more adolescent version of this riff on the back of the essay. Madeleine would discover it later, I knew and didn’t care. Here was a style of thought that promised to hold chaos at bay—that exposed, in the lunacy and violence of the natural world, the grace of a syllogism.

I stood up. Across the road a sparrow lifted off a tree—a maple, I guessed, its leaves flaring crimson and gold against the blue. Even the thrum of traffic seemed clarified, renewed. I reread my notes, feeling exalted. They were muddled, to put it lightly, and lacking in the cool decisiveness that Hempel had achieved. Nonetheless, I can’t help but think of them with some nostalgia. They represented my first groping efforts as an analytic philosopher.

My rejection letter from the Budapest program arrived six weeks later. By then I had coasted through most of the books on Madeleine’s course syllabus. She was intrigued, if somewhat unsettled, by my newfound enthusiasm. My former ennui had bothered her, I sensed, yet it had also given her cause to counteract it. She had played the vital one—the raconteur, the fox—a role in our dynamic she was not eager to give up. She turned quizzical around me, and then withdrawn. The rejection letter, which should have come as a relief, as it meant we wouldn’t be spending the following fall semester apart, only made things worse. In the days after it arrived we were awkward with one another, like friends reunited too soon after a theatrical goodbye. So elaborate were our plans to keep our relationship afloat between continents—transatlantic letters, New Year’s Eve in Rome—that their collapse unmoored us. By January, we were finished.

The Challenger exploded. Reagan bartered with Iran. I took whatever jobs I could, drafting my graduate applications at night, and—on my third attempt—landed a spot in a philosophy PhD program in Albuquerque. My dissertation, on the origins of the correspondence theory of truth, was so haughty and derivative I can hardly bear to think about it, though it capped my pedigree in epistemology, the study of knowledge. When it was finished, I moved back east to accept a string of lectureships—one in the Ivy League—none of which morphed into a bona fide position. It wasn’t until my mid-thirties, when I was proofreading for extra cash, that I revisited Hempel. In one single, caffeinated evening, I wrote a paper that analogized a weakness in his model of scientific explanation to the “Gettier problem,” a paradox that illuminates the role of luck in forming justified, true beliefs.

I’m gobsmacked, wrote my doctoral advisor, when I emailed her the draft. She forwarded it to the editor of Sum, an important journal, where it was published the following year. I was elated, but wary. I had long burned off the hubris of my graduate years, and my piddling adjunct salary had laid waste to my ego. Nonetheless, on the strength of that publication I heaved myself back into the job market and was rewarded with a handful of interviews for assistant professorships in the Midwest and Northeast corridor. At a faculty reception following one such interview—for a position in Chicago that, incidentally, I did not receive—I met Prue.

*

We would still be strangers, had I not mistaken her for someone else. She relishes that detail. I would just as soon forget it; that we owe our marriage to my error does not strike me as especially funny. If anything, it unnerves me in its tacit reminder of how easily we might have ended up without each other.

“Wouldn’t touch that, if I were you,” I began.

She was leaning over a tray of smoked salmon, her figure drowned in a purple anorak. I was feeling brittle, after my inter- view, but had finally worked up the courage to approach her. An administrator had pointed her out as visiting lecturer Nicola Dunn, a philosopher of music known for her arid sense of humor. We had corresponded years ago about a paper of hers,  though I doubted she remembered me.

As she turned, however, I saw that the administrator had been wrong. The woman before me was too young to be Nicola—late twenties, I guessed (she was thirty-one, in fact)—with eyes that lit up her face.

“Sorry?” she said. She was gripping the tongs. In her other—left, ringless—hand, she held an empty plate.

“It’s fake.” I felt myself redden. “Usually is. You can tell by the color.”

She followed my gaze to the salmon, shadowed by its flounce of lettuce. The food was a favorite of mine, but a 60 Minutes segment on its production had put me off the affordable brands.

“See how pale it is?” I sipped my vodka tonic. “They inject it with brine to keep it heavy, then spray it with liquid smoke.”

She frowned. I blushed harder, suddenly aware of how preposterous I must seem, besieging her with trivia.

“Not that you wanted to know that.” I stepped back. “Just forget I said anything.”

But her face relaxed. She said, “I’ve been living a lie.” 

Her voice was cool, contralto. Freckles dusted her nose.

To my confusion, she peeled back a sleeve of salmon and draped it across her plate. Then, still smiling, she helped herself to three sodden capers.

“Liquid smoke,” she added, turning back to me. “Now that’s technology.”

She took a bite. I said, to say something, “What brings you here?”—horrible—“Are you an applicant?”

“I’m on the faculty.” She shielded her mouth, still chewing. “But I think I may jump ship.”

“Why’s that?”

She shrugged. “I’d like to do more fieldwork. There’s only so much you can learn in a lab.”

Her eyes wandered across the thinning crowd. We were in an auditorium overlooking Lake Michigan, converted by the failing light into a giant void. A single boat, or buoy, shone in the distance.

“You’re a scientist,” I said. “I study birds.”

“An ornithologist?”

“Yeah.” She sounded almost resigned. “Lately I’ve been working on spatial memory in crows. Puzzle solving, that sort of thing. I’m doing a postdoc. They promised me another year, but like I said . . .” As she spoke I nodded, grateful for the excuse to look at her.

She wore no makeup. Yet there was something elusive about her face, with its long, narrow bones. Like the lines of an acrostic, each angle seemed to offer up a new meaning. I felt I could study it always, this face, and never exhaust it.

 “What’s your excuse?” she said, setting down her plate. Her eyes danced between mine.

“I’m just a candidate.” I drained my glass. “Philosophy. Prob- ably should have waited another year before applying, but I thought—”

“What do you work on, I mean?”

I almost rattled off the same gloss of my dissertation that had bored my interviewers half an hour earlier. But the thought of her bright eyes glazing over gave me pause. I blurted out: “Truth. How to know it.”

“Pray tell.” Her smile was either coy or mocking—the former, I decided.

“Your crows and I have something in common,” I said, finally feeling the vodka. “There’s a puzzle in epistemology—the Gettier problem, it’s called. I’m trying to solve it.”

This was half true. On the plane to Chicago, I had begun developing my recent article into a monograph that—while I couldn’t have guessed it then—would take me over a decade to complete. In it, I planned to expose the limitations of three responses to the problem, concluding with a tentative solution of my own.

“Let’s hear it,” she said.

As I opened my mouth a man with dreadlocks touched her shoulder. I thought he might be her boyfriend, but then a woman sauntered up to him, her hand on his back. They were meeting some colleagues at a bar around the corner, the man said. Prue should join them, if she could. So should I, the woman told me, pro forma. 

The next thing I knew we were side by side in a dimly lit brewery, shouting over the music to make ourselves heard. She, too, had a weakness for philosophy, she confessed. Before earning her PhD in biology, she had completed a master’s program in critical theory (my bête noire), but she considered herself a dilettante.

Of the two of us, she was by far the more accomplished, de- spite the fact that I was seven years her senior. From the way she refused to break eye contact as she answered my questions about her fellowships and publications, I could see that she recognized this too, knew that I knew it, and couldn’t be bothered to spare me the embarrassment. This thrilled me.

“You were telling me something back there,” she yelled. “About truth.”

“I was lying,” I joked. She smelled wonderful—not overly perfumed, like the attorney I had been seeing occasionally back home, but fresh. It was all I could do not to kiss her.

“A puzzle you’re solving?” She sipped her lager, leaving a crescent of foam on her upper lip. It looked so adorable, against her sudden seriousness, that I decided not to say anything.

“It’s called the Gettier problem,” I said, and paraphrased a classic example, formulated by the philosopher Dharmottara: A traveler, searching the desert for water, sees a shimmering blue expanse near a ravine. It’s a mirage, but when he reaches the spot, he finds water there after all, under a rock.

“The point is that a belief can be true and justified,” I concluded, hoarse from shouting, “but still fall short of knowledge.”

Prue’s eyes sparkled. “Oh, he knew.”

She was fucking with me, I sensed, but I pressed on anyhow. 

“Take this.” I waggled the fingers of my left hand. “No wedding ring. Ergo, I—”

“You have a girlfriend,” she interrupted, with such chagrin that my heart soared.

“False.” I traced the lip of my glass. “I’m allergic to most metals.”

She stared at me for a moment, and then burst out laughing. “I’m serious,” I said. The song changed. When she did not recover, I tapped my upper lip. “By the way, you have—”

“You’re strange.” She wiped her eyes. “I like you.”

In my hotel she undressed casually and lay down on the bed. I switched off the lamp, and was drawing the blinds when she stopped me, her legs parted just enough to reveal a gleam where the moonlight touched her.

“I want to see you,” she said. Then she got up and sat astride me on the window ledge.

I reached up to clear the hair from her face, but she caught my thumb between her teeth. As she took me in her hand, I tried to adjust myself so that we were leaning against the wall, rather than the glass, but then she was rolling a condom on and guiding me inside her. We were ten stories above the city. She rocked against me, and I imagined the window breaking, the two of us exploding out into the night in a starry burst of sweat and glass. Instead she came, and I whispered, Hold on to me.

She did, and I carried her to the bed. She was still gasping. I reached under her and tilted her hips toward mine, driving into her with all of my weight. When she came again, I heard myself shout.

“What’s your name?” she said, once I opened my eyes.

She was facing me, still flushed, a wisp of darkened hair clinging to her temple. I brushed it back.

“I mean it.” She stifled a laugh. “That’s the best sex I’ve ever had, and I don’t remember your name.”

*

We saw each other whenever we could that next year. She had recently left her long-term boyfriend—he realized he wanted children; she didn’t—and was wary of starting another relationship too soon. I was still shuttling between job interviews. When she won a Fulbright to study the Bornean green magpie, which would take her to Malaysia until the following summer, I was sure our days were numbered. But we kept talking. The less practical our reunions became, the more inevitable they felt. Once I landed a full-time job at the College—and the tripled salary it promised—I flew out three times to see her. We met in Phnom Penh, then Kyoto. We spent Christmas in Bangkok. I was smitten by then, and tormented with longing. During my spring vacation, I rented us a cottage on the eastern shore of Cape Cod. It was there that she first said she loved me.

I could have wept or screamed. Instead I said it back, and held her, and felt my torment lessen subtly, in the way a diagnosis can relieve a foreign ache—not by altering the pain, but by deciphering it.

She had grown up in a small coastal town in Connecticut, where her mother, Nadia—the child of Holocaust survivors—taught at a Jewish day school. Frank, a college dropout and autodidact, handled accounting for their local bookstore. His career had been something of a suicide mission, she said. The child of Polish immigrants, he had initially worked as a union organizer, salting construction firms. After three failed campaigns, he picked up a string of blue-collar jobs in which, as far as Prue could tell, he had taken stubborn pleasure. He even seemed to relish being fired. At the bookstore that finally hired him, he was demoted twice for reclassifying books at whim. (The Federalist Papers represented one of the many volumes he exported from History to Religion, a category he later rebranded Self-Help.) His antics exasperated Prue’s mother, but only in principle. Between her salary and a modest inheritance from Frank’s late father, Prue explained, the family had little need for a second income.

“He’s only medicated thanks to my mom,” she said.

We had spread a blanket on the beach, and were sharing a picnic of roast beef and ciabatta. The bloodied paper lay between us, canting in the breeze, pinned in place by a bottle of Malbec. The sea was quiet. We were more or less alone. Besides Prue’s voice, the only sound was the hiss of marram grass, planted years ago to stabilize the dunes.

“Since she died, he’s been skimping on his pills.” She refilled my Dixie cup with wine. “I can usually tell when he’s off them. Not always, though.”

The breeze picked up, carrying salt. We had showered before lunch, and her hair—swept back into a braid—was still damp. Golden wisps flickered at her temple.

As I draped my coat around her shoulders she turned. “Do you really want to hear this?”

She looked at me. The light, cool though it was, had planted a ripening burn on her cheeks.

“Of course.” I fished for the sunscreen. I had yet to meet her family, but she had promised to introduce me soon. “I want to hear everything about you.”

“Okay,” she said, exhaling. Then she gave a doleful laugh. “It’s almost funny, it’s so bizarre.”

I dabbed the sunscreen on her face as she began: “I was eight at the time. My mom drove me home from Hebrew school, dead of winter, and he was gone. Walt”—a toddler at the time—“was wandering through the house, crying. My mom called the bookstore, the library, all Dad’s friends. Nothing. That he could have abandoned Walt was just unthinkable—he was a helicopter parent before it was fashionable—so we were totally at a loss.” She scratched the corner of her mouth and took a breath. “My mom starts saying that everything will be fine, which is when I get scared. It gets dark. She calls the cops. I’m entertaining Walt, trying to hold it together. The heater’s blasting, so the windows are fogged over, and we’re doodling on the one facing the yard. At one point Walt presses his nose against the pane, then spazzes out—laughing, flapping his hands. I try it too, for kicks. That’s when I see him.”

“Your father?”

Although a cloud had come over the sun, she was still squinting as she added, “He was outside, naked, staring at me.”

“Jesus,” I said.

She dug her toes into the sand. “I don’t remember much after that. I know I screamed, and Walt started bawling. My mom sent the two of us upstairs before she dragged him inside, but I could still hear him through the floor. He kept shouting at her, even after the cops showed up, that he’d discovered the truth about the universe.” She smiled unconvincingly. “New Age crap.”

I took her hand. “That’s so frightening.”

“Yeah.” She withdrew her hand and ripped off another wedge of ciabatta, which she did not eat. “It was a one-time deal, though. The doctors got him on Depakote and it never happened again. They called it late-onset bipolar, which he never bought, even though he promised my mom he’d stay medicated. The thing is . . . ” She folded a layer of roast beef over the bread. “He kind of changed, after  that. He started watching  TV,  which  he used to hate. He stopped telling as many stories.”

She blew a fly off my shoulder and took a bite, gazing out at the corrugated sea. A small sailboat had coasted into view, steered by a lone figure. The boat was tacking, the sail rippling and then wagging comically as the figure scrambled to rein in the boom.

“He’d had this whole repertoire,” Prue went on. “Like, every time Walt or I lost a tooth we would bury it in the yard. He said it would grow into a tree with moons on the branches.” She laughed. “The tooth fairy really pissed him off. He had this spiel about exchanging body parts for cash. A Faustian bargain, in his mind.”

“And he stopped doing all that, after the diagnosis?” I said, guiding her back to the thread of our conversation. Across the sand, a bird pecked at the shadow of a wave.

“Not entirely.” She stretched, her voice warped by a yawn. “But yeah, for the most part. And it kind of poisoned my memories of him, because it meant his old self was actually sick. So I felt horribly guilty for missing it.”

I kissed her shoulder as she added, “He did the craziest shit when I was little. There was this time he drove us to the town landfill. We spent two hours wading through trash. His idea was to gather materials for a gramophone small enough to play our fingerprints.”

“Thrilling your mother, I’m sure.”

As she laughed, I wondered whether it was the contrast I posed to her father that had attracted her to me. It seemed possible that his turbulence could solve the puzzle that still haunted me occasionally: how a beautiful, gifted person with the world at her feet could have settled for a fusty scholar with three papers to his name.

To dispel the thought I asked, “Does that old version ever reappear, when he’s off his meds?”

“Not really.” She hesitated. “Or maybe I just don’t find it magical anymore.”

A gull swerved toward us, wailed its high flat note. I glanced ahead, past the sailboat, looking for the stroke that distinguished the sky from the glittering surf. But there was fog in the distance, and all I made out were gradations of blue.

When Prue finished her Fulbright she moved  in with me, and we eloped the following spring. That summer—six years ago, come June—we moved into our apartment on the bottom floor of an old Victorian house near campus. Her career took off after that. The College hired her immediately as a lecturer in biology, then as an assistant professor. By her third year she had even marshaled funds for the new Center for Ornithology: the first of its kind at a liberal arts college. She still teaches her popular seminar in evolutionary psychology, while I lecture in epistemology and introductory logic. My monograph on the Gettier problem—finally finished after more than ten years—has been turned down by all but one of the major academic publishers, but I have hope for the smaller houses.

We are happy, as far as I can tell. Still passionate. Comfort- able, especially in light of my recent (and her imminent) promotion. Lately, though, I have had the impression of a rift. The signs—dropped glances, rushed embraces, abbreviated meals—are so subtle I have probably imagined them. Nonetheless, I can’t shake the sense that we are living in a minor key. “Has something changed?” I want to say, and almost have. But each time I formulate the question in my mind, she preempts it with a warm look, or laugh, and my fears seem asinine.

I wish we would fight to clear the air. We almost did just yesterday, when we had some colleagues over for drinks after a faculty meeting. Prue proposed the gathering spontaneously, as a group of us were leaving the hall, so I had no choice but to parrot her invitation. I would much rather have gone home to work.

Although it was supposed to snow on Friday, the weather was ludicrously warm—in the high fifties—so we pulled some chairs around our glass table out back. There were six of us: Prue and me; Adaora Ironsi, an economist and close friend of Prue’s; her husband, Edson Gerlach, a chaired professor of neuroscience; Quinn Bates, an anthropologist; and a new faculty member we hadn’t met before, who knew Edson from graduate school. “That’s Dalton Field,” Quinn whispered to me as we walked over from campus. He was a prominent novelist, apparently, though I had never heard of him. Unlike Prue I don’t read much fiction.

“Back in the eighties, the point was to offend,” Dalton was saying now, as we sat around the table. “This generation finds it sexier to get offended.”

He helped himself to more of our Chablis. He was a tall man, black, and garishly handsome, dressed in a gray cashmere sweater and Italian wingtips. There was a fat gold band on his wedding finger. Nonetheless, when Quinn stood up he glanced at her ass.

“Were you even alive in the eighties?” Adaora said, as I pointed Quinn toward our bathroom. Wind rattled the dry leaves overhead. “Come on, Daora.” He spread his arms, incredulous. “The left has sold its soul to political correctness.”

While I happened to agree, I disliked him already. It was unseemly, this readiness to hold court on our turf. His tone smacked of that complacent breed of pessimism I had indulged back in my twenties. The world is rotten, it went in my case, so even those who move through it gracefully are suspect. Everyone, that is, but me.

I tried to catch Prue’s eye but she was smirking at him. She said, “Something you’d like to share?”

She was conscious of being beautiful, of the special power that came from being both beautiful and smart, and of how to exercise that power in conversation. The more incisive her contributions, she once remarked, in a rare display of cynicism, the more likely they were to elicit from her male interlocutor a bashful deference, disguised as respect. He would nod, even toast her point, all in order to conceal his surprise that the two—intelligence and beauty—could intersect. Men like Dalton were the ones I’d thought she’d had in mind.

“Nothing kosher, I’m afraid,” he said, holding her gaze as she plucked the second-to-last truffle from the case I had set out.

Adaora glanced at me. When I caught her eye, her mouth sprang into a smile.

I said, “I wouldn’t say Phil Barker speaks for liberal America.” Before Dalton’s segue, Adaora had been complaining about Barker—the new dean—who had announced a mandatory training module in “inclusion and professional respect” at the faculty meeting. It seemed reasonable to me, given the recent harassment allegations by a postdoc in psychology, though I resented the bureaucratese.

“He’s not saying that,” Prue said, so dismissively that Edson—who had been murmuring something to Adaora—fell silent. “The point is, if you try to say anything new these days, you become a persona non grata.”

“Case in point.” I raised my hands, and Edson laughed.

Dalton was watching her too now, steadily. Could they have met before? Impossible—Adaora had just introduced them to- day. But their silence had a covert, inward quality, sure as a fever hatching in the bones.

“Prue, can you tell me where you keep the tea?” Quinn called, leaning through the back door.

“You sit.” I stood up. “I’ll take care of it.”

“Anything herbal would be great,” she said, as she brushed past me. She was going through a divorce from her husband of eight years, but she looked lovely as ever. Her dark eyes glowed with intelligence, and though she was my age—no older than fifty, surely—her curls were white.

I filled the kettle and watched the five of them through the window, pocked with bird shit and dried rain. Washing it—yet another chore to keep me from my desk. Just accept it, I thought grimly. You will never publish again.

The conversation had splintered in two: Quinn, Adaora, and Edson chatting lazily across the table, and Dalton opining to Prue. When he finished she leaned forward, whispering some- thing that prompted him to cover his mouth in astonishment. She laughed, and so did he, and then he composed himself and began speaking again, magnifying her expression with his own, until his story ended and they stared at each other in mock surprise before dissolving again in laughter.

“What did I miss?” I said, emerging onto the patio with Quinn’s chamomile tea.

“I was just saying I would put Prue in touch with our friends in Heidelberg,” Adaora replied. As Quinn leaned across the table for a meringue, Adaora murmured: “Honey, you’ve got something ”

Quinn glanced at the back of her skirt, cursed, and then rubbed at a tiny smear of chocolate.

“I’ll be in Munich in April, come to think of it,” Dalton said. “When I was there—” Quinn began, and then broke off as

Dalton muttered something to Edson, who chortled.

I faced Quinn to show her I was listening, but she said nothing, still waiting for their attention.

“You’ll love it,” Edson said to Prue. He was a shy man with kind eyes and a small, doughy face. I still hadn’t read the paper that had earned him the coveted Gruber Prize in neuroscience earlier this year, though Prue had. Something to do with Alzheimer’s.

Lifting his wineglass, he added, “The Institute’s close to the city, as I remember.”

Prue glanced at me uneasily, and I realized what he was referring to: the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, whose directors had offered her a half-year research appointment starting in January. A high honor, certainly, but with her tenure review coming up next semester it made no practical sense.

“She already turned it down,” I said, refilling my glass. There was a silence, and then Prue cleared her throat. “Actually, I haven’t yet.”

“Are you joking?” I searched her face for irony. Trying to sound casual, I added, “What about your review?”

“I don’t think she has anything to worry about,” Adaora said.

Heat crept into my cheeks. If she was still considering a stint abroad, I should have been the first to hear about it. I shot her a look that said as much, but was squinting at the sky.

“You scholars with your golden handcuffs,” Dalton said. He rotated his glass on its stem. “I’d say, go for it. Somewhere in time, you’re dead.”

There was a round of hollow laughter. Then the conversation drifted on.

“What was that about, before?” I said, when they had finally left us to ourselves. Prue didn’t answer. She started carrying in another chair, but I stepped in her way.

“What?” she demanded. 

“The Germany thing.”

From overhead came the sound of arpeggios, faint at first, and then louder. The pianist upstairs—a slim, reluctant man—was warming up.

She set down the chair and sighed. It had rained that morning, and in the washed afternoon light her hair looked reddish gold.

“I don’t get it,” I said. “You’re up for tenure.”

“You keep saying that, as though it would hurt my case. I actually think—”

“To request a leave of absence now?” I interrupted. When she narrowed her eyes, I added, “They’d probably push your review back another year, at least.”

“Would that be the end of the world?”

The wind blew her dress against her thighs. Her nonchalance about something I had worked so hard for, something so self-evidently desirable—insurance on the life we had made here, no less—had been surfacing more and more frequently.

I tried another angle. “It just doesn’t seem like the right time, P.”

“It’s never the right time, is it?”

She shot me the same reproachful look she had last month, after I nixed her idea of applying to the Rome Prize together. It would be like when we were dating, she had said. Don’t you miss traveling together? Her feigned naïveté had made me even angrier. It wasn’t as though I would have had a shot.

“For god’s sake,” I said, goaded by the thought of how sheepish she would be when I surprised her this weekend with the Galápagos tickets. “Give the jet-setting a rest. You’re almost tenured.”

In silence, she carried the chair into the house. I twirled the empty wine bottle in my hands, read the label, and then set it back down.

The door opened again, and she returned with a sponge. To my surprise, she said, “You’re right.”

I waited for her to elaborate, but all she did was cross the patio and wipe down the table.

“I didn’t realize you were still considering it,” I said. She tossed a shard of meringue into the bushes.

I added, “To bring it up in front of everyone—that guy we barely know . . .”

“I get it. I fucked up.”

“If you want to leave for a semester, fine, but at least—”

“I just said I wouldn’t go.”

She was blinking fiercely. The pianist had moved on to scales: major, ascending. At each octave he lingered, with obscene feeling, on the seventh key.

“I’m an asshole, is that it?” I said. When she did not reply, I concluded, “I’m an asshole.”

She laughed softly. I moved behind her and laced my arms under hers, burying my face in her hair.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “If you want to go, go, I’d just—”

“No.” She shook her head. “You have a point—it’s not strategic.”

“I’d miss you.”

As she detached herself I gestured at the fiery clouds.

“It’s still beautiful,” I said. “Yeah.”

“A walk would be nice.”

It was an invitation, but she only smiled absently. “Come back soon,” she said.

I nodded.

“I’ll heat up some food.”

She kissed me nearer to the corner of my lips than the center.

Then she turned and went into the house.

__________________________________

From The Study of Animal LanguagesUsed with permission of Viking. Copyright © 2019 by Lindsay Stern.




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