Symposium

by Robert Earle

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4

part 1


The advertisement in the Manhattan Review read: “Wanted: Intellectual companion; good wages and travel expenses; qualified applicants contact...”

Three weeks later I found myself on a cruise ship departing New York for Athens. My eccentric employer was the well-dressed Herman Nowitzki, early 70s, who also sailed with Helen and Marguerite Nowitzki.

Helen was early 40’s, Marguerite in her 20’s. They seemed surprised to meet me. Shaking their hands felt like first having to push through a thick glass store window and only then discovering the mannequins were real people.

“I invited Seth Jarvis to travel with us. He’s in the next cabin.” That was all Nowitzki said by way of introduction.

* * *

I attribute my own surprise on meeting two women, not one, to something Nowitzki had said during our peculiar interview, which began by him pushing my resume aside in the coffee shop of the Morgan Hotel on 68th.

“I don’t need to see that.”

“No?”

“It might be better to just talk a bit.”

“About what you want in an intellectual companion?”

Nowitzki struck me as a man who generally knew what he would say long before he said it, but he hesitated. At last he said, “I pulled intellectual out of the air to underscore that I didn’t seek a romantic companion. I have one of those.”

Given his age, I wondered what kind of romantic companion he could have but, then again, he was beautifully dressed, and a stylist had given order to the wiry gray hair capping his grayish face with its long thin nose and thin-lipped mouth. So he had money, which attracts many different kinds of romantic companions.

“But you still want someone intelligent or well-educated.”

Nowitzki spun his right hand charade-style to indicate I should continue with the adjectives.

“Someone insightful or thoughtful or knowledgeable. Am I getting warm?”

“Yes, you are.”

“But not argumentative. That wouldn’t go with companionable.”

Nowitzki demurred. “It could if the argumentation were well-grounded.”

“Are you a lawyer by any chance?”

“No, I am not.”

“Retired? I am. For thirty years I was—”

He lifted his hand shakily in a stop gesture, palm facing out. “I was taught it’s not nice to get into what someone does on first acquaintance.”

I was going to say I had been on the faculty of one of New York’s selective high schools, and I had moved around the history curriculum to keep myself fresh. “You think that’s prying?”

“I rather do.”

I didn’t agree, but he was conducting the interview, so I tried describing myself in more general as opposed to professional terms. After all, he might not be retired, but I was. I didn’t actually have a profession. “Then let me say I read a great deal, I go to museums, I watch a lot of movies.”

“Go to museums?”

“Yes, do you?”

“Not often. What do you get out of it?”

In some ways what I got out of going to museums was my apartment. That probably could be described as the focal point of everything I “did” now. If I didn’t get out of the apartment, I felt I did nothing at all. I’d wanted that, in a way, but it was more difficult than I’d anticipated, just sitting at home and being comfortable. “I suppose I think about the paintings, the artists, their lives and times. I’m not saying I’m an art historian, I’m a—”

Nowitzki interrupted me with his stop gesture again. “You just go, see, think, and move on?”

“That sums it up, I guess. I wouldn’t be surprised if most people approached museums the same way.”

“But you don’t know?”

“No, I don’t. I’ve never made a study of it.”

“Would you like to find out?”

“It might be interesting.”

“Do you think it’s possible to know what’s going on in another person’s life?”

“In theory.”

“Only in theory?”

I could say triangulating one’s knowledge of another person’s being by means of a bank shot off a painting was not likely to be an enlightening experience, but here’s what I did say, trying to keep things appropriately impersonal. “I don’t know of many instances where one person has completely understood someone else. Plato wrestled with the idea in The Symposium, for example. It’s about love.”

Nowitzki liked this answer. When he smiled, he revealed two rabbit-like front teeth. As a crossword puzzle devotee, I knew the word for rabbit-like is cunicular. Nowitzki’s cunicular quality gave him a bit of youthfulness I hadn’t fixed on before. Nor had I fixed on the pleasure he was taking perhaps not only in our stilted conversation but also in life itself. Because of the romantic companion? Probably, but if so, where did I fit in?

“I’ll pay you $3,000 a week. Here’s the first week’s pay in advance and a ticket for a cruise we’ll take to Athens.” Nowitzki extracted an envelope from his suit jacket pocket with some difficulty and sort of flipped it in my direction.

“That’s the job, sail to Athens with you and keep you company?”

“You’re free and interested, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I’m free and interested.”

“Good. See you at the dock.”

* * *

When he left the table, Nowitzki first cuffed an aluminum cane on his right forearm, leading me to suspect he had multiple sclerosis. Although he was old enough to have suffered what once upon a time was called infantile paralysis, i.e., polio, his slight tremor when he sipped his coffee and his quavering speech made me think multiple sclerosis.

He walked away with a twisting shuffle, lurching a bit. Watching him made me want to go back to my apartment and Google Herman Nowitzki. I was crawling with the snakes of my personal addiction, the addiction being the need to know everything. But Nowitzki’s distinctive and deliberate approach made me fight off that urge and even try to stifle the secondary impulse to search my mind for the root image of “the snakes of addiction.”

Nonetheless, I walked back to my apartment picturing a statue of a man and his sons writhing in the clutches of snakes, and the man’s name came to me: Laocoön. Good, now I knew two names: Laocoön’s and Nowitzki’s but little else about either.

Then I thought I probably had once known all about Laocoön when I was teaching ancient history and forgotten it. Might the same not occur with Nowitzki? What would be the point of vacuuming up data on him when in ten years this strange encounter would be ancient history itself?

Let Nowitzki be a self-revealing glyph if he chose to be. His $3,000 a week was more than I’d ever made, and I’d never been to Athens. Beyond that, Nowitzki was polite, not intrusive. We might eventually hit it off. At least he seemed to think so.

* * *

But now here were Helen and Marguerite Nowitzki and the snakes began slithering again. Was the older Helen the wife and the younger Marguerite the daughter? I doubted it.

Marguerite didn’t look like their daughter. She wasn’t thin like Nowitzki and Helen. Her skin was whiter than theirs. She had short, curly blonde hair, whereas Nowitzki must have had dark hair before it turned gray, and Helen had black hair that didn’t look dyed. What if the dark Helen were Nowitzki’s daughter by a deceased first wife and the blonde Marguerite were his young second wife?

And so it was. Awkwardly enough, Nowitzki had married a woman twenty years younger than his daughter, and that’s really why he wanted a companion. Not just for him, for all three of them. Someone to soften their iron triangle with companionable talk.

Indeed, the living room in their suite was just right for talking. In fact, there were lounges everywhere that accommodated talking. We talked whenever we ate in one of the more than a dozen restaurants. We talked as we sat bundled on the upper deck.

Of course, there were naps and massages and all that. And there were periods of withdrawal into books and crossword puzzles and a few lectures and a few movies. But, diversions aside, I found that an overcast transoceanic voyage quickly assumes the disconcerting quality of eternity, an extended finality where the busyness of life ends and time expands, rather frightfully similar to my apartment on 86th Street.

* * *


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2015 by Robert Earle

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