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The Cloisters

Chapter One

I would arrive in New York at the beginning of June. At a time when the heat was building—gathering in the asphalt, reflecting off the glass—until it reached a peak that wouldn’t release long into September. I was going east, unlike so many of the students from my class at Whitman College who were headed west, toward Seattle and San Francisco, sometimes Hong Kong.

The truth was, I wasn’t going east to the place I had originally hoped, which was Cambridge or New Haven, or even Williamstown. But when the emails came from department chairs saying they were very sorry… a competitive applicant pool… best of luck in your future endeavors, I was grateful that one application had yielded a positive result: the Summer Associates Program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A favor, I knew, to my emeritus advisor, Richard Lingraf, who had once been something of an Ivy League luminary before the East Coast weather—or was it a questionable happening at his alma mater?—had chased him west.

They called it an “associates” program, but it was an internship with a meager stipend. It didn’t matter to me; I would have worked two jobs and paid them to be there. It was, after all, the Met. The kind of prestigious imprimatur someone like me—a hick from an unknown school—needed.

Well, Whitman wasn’t entirely unknown. But because I had grown up in Walla Walla, the dusty, single-story town in southeastern Washington where Whitman was located, I rarely encountered anyone from out of the state who knew of its existence. My whole childhood had been the college, an experience that had slowly dulled much of its magic. Where other students arrived on campus excited to start their adult lives anew, I was afforded no such clean slate. This was because both of my parents worked for Whitman. My mother, in dining services, where she planned menus and theme nights for the first-year students who lived in the residence halls: Basque, Ethiopian, asado. If I had lived on campus, she might have planned my meals too, but the financial waiver Whitman granted employees only extended to tuition, and so, I lived at home.

My father, however, had been a linguist—although not one on faculty. An autodidact who borrowed books from Whitman’s Penrose Library, he taught me the difference between the six Latin cases and how to parse rural Italian dialects, all in between his facilities shifts at the college. That is, before he was buried next to my grandparents the summer before my senior year, behind the Lutheran church at the edge of town, the victim of a hit-and-run. He never told me where his love of languages had come from, just that he was grateful I shared it.

“Your dad would be so proud, Ann,” Paula said.

It was the end of my shift at the restaurant where I worked, and where Paula, the hostess, had hired me almost a decade earlier, at the age of fifteen. The space was deep and narrow, with a tarnished tin ceiling, and we had left the front door open, hoping the fresh air would thin out the remaining dinner smells. Every now and then a car would crawl down the wide street outside, its headlights cutting the darkness.

“Thanks, Paula.” I counted out my tips on the counter, trying my best to ignore the arcing red welts that were blooming on my forearm. The dinner rush—busier than usual due to Whitman’s graduation—had forced me to stack plates, hot from the salamander, directly onto my arm. The walk from the kitchen to the dining room was just long enough that the ceramic burned with every trip.

“You know, you can always come back,” said John, the bartender, who released the tap handle and passed me a shifter. We were only allowed one beer per shift, but the rule was rarely followed.

I pressed out my last dollar bill and folded the money into my back pocket. “I know.”

But I didn’t want to come back. My father, so inexplicably and suddenly gone, haunted every block of sidewalk that framed downtown, even the browning patch of grass in front of the restaurant. The escapes I had relied on—books and research—no longer took me far enough away.

“Even if it’s fall and we don’t need the staff,” John continued, “we’ll still hire you.”

I tried to tamp down the panic I felt at the prospect of being back in Walla Walla come fall, when I heard Paula say behind me, “We’re closed.”

I looked over my shoulder to the front door, where a gaggle of girls had gathered, some reading the menu in the vestibule, others having pushed through the screen door, causing the CLOSED sign to slap against the wood.

“But you’re still serving,” said one, pointing at my beer.

“Sorry. Closed,” said John.

“Oh, come on,” said another. Their faces were pinked with the warm flush of alcohol, but I could already see the way the night would end, with black smudges below their eyes and random bruises on their legs. Four years at Whitman, and I’d never had a night like that—just shifters and burned skin.

Paula corralled them with her outstretched arms, pushing them back through the front door; I turned my attention back to John.

“Do you know them?” he asked, casually wiping down the wood bar.

I shook my head. It was hard to make friends in college when you were the only student not living in a dorm. Whitman wasn’t like a state school where such things were common; it was a small liberal arts college, a small, expensive liberal arts college, where everyone lived on campus, or at least started their freshman year that way.

“Town is getting busy. You looking forward to graduation?” He looked at me expectantly, but I met his question with a shrug. I didn’t want to talk about Whitman or graduation. I just wanted to take my money home and safely tuck it in with the other tips I had saved. All year, I’d been working five nights a week, even picking up day shifts when my schedule allowed. If I wasn’t at the library, I was at work. I knew that the exhaustion wouldn’t help me outrun my father’s memory, or the rejections, but it did blunt the sharp reality of it.

My mother never said anything about my schedule, or how I only came home to sleep, but then, she was too preoccupied with her own grief and disappointments to confront mine.

“Tuesday is my last day,” I said, pushing myself away from the bar and tipping back what little was left in my glass before leaning over the counter and placing it in the dish rack. “Only two more shifts to go.”

Paula came up behind me and wrapped her arms around my waist, and as eager as I was for it to be Tuesday, I let myself soften into her, leaning my head against hers.

“You know he’s out there, right? He can see this happening for you.”

I didn’t believe her; I didn’t believe anyone who told me there was a magic to it all, a logic, but I forced myself to nod anyway. I had already learned that no one wanted to hear what loss was really like.

Two days later I wore a blue polyester robe and accepted my diploma. My mother was there to take a photograph and attend the Art History department party, held on a wet patch of lawn in front of the semi-Gothic Memorial Building, the oldest on Whitman’s campus. I was always acutely aware of how young the building, completed in 1899, was in comparison to those at Harvard or Yale. The Claquato Church, a modest Methodist clapboard structure built in 1857, was the oldest building I had ever seen in person. Maybe that was why I found it so easy to be seduced by the past—it had eluded me in my youth. Eastern Washington was mostly wheatfields and feed stores, silver silos that never showed their age.

In fact, during my four years at Whitman, I had been the department’s only Early Renaissance student. Tucked safely away from the exploits of major artists like Michelangelo and Leonardo, I preferred to study bit characters and forgotten painters who had names like Bembo or Cossa, nicknames like “messy Tom,” or “the squinter.” I studied duchies and courts, never empires. Courts were, after all, delightfully petty and fascinated by the most outlandish things—astrology, amulets, codes—things I, myself, found it impossible to believe in. But these fascinations also meant I was often alone: in the library, or in an independent study with Professor Lingraf, who lumbered into our meetings at least twenty minutes late, if he remembered them at all.

Despite the impracticality of it all, the overlooked edges of the Renaissance had grabbed me with their gilt and pageantry, their belief in magic, their performances of power. That my own world lacked those things made it an easy choice. I had been warned, however, when I began to think about graduate school, that very few departments would be interested in my work. It was too fringe, too small, not ambitious enough or broad enough. Whitman encouraged its students to reexamine the discipline, become ecocritical, explore the multisensory qualities of human vision. There were times I wondered if the things I studied, the overlooked objects no one wanted, had in fact chosen me, because I often felt powerless to abandon them.

In the shade, my mother moved her arms in circles, her silver bracelets jangling as she spoke to another parent. I looked around the party for Lingraf’s shock of white hair, but it was clear he had declined to attend. Although we had worked together for the better part of four years, he rarely made appearances at departmental functions or spoke about his own research. No one knew what he was working on these days, or when he would finally stop showing up on campus. In some ways, working with Lingraf had been a liability. When other students and even faculty heard he was advising me, they often asked if I was sure that was right; he so rarely took on students. But it was. Lingraf had signed off on my thesis, my major completion forms, my letters of recommendation—all of it. This, despite the fact he refused to be part of the Whitman community, preferring instead to work in his office, door closed to distractions, always shuffling his papers into a drawer when anyone arrived.

As I finished scanning the party, Micah Yallsen, a fellow graduating senior, came up alongside me.

“Ann,” he said, “I heard you were going to be in New York this summer.”

Micah had grown up splitting his time between Kuala Lumpur, Honolulu, and Seattle. The kind of grueling travel schedule that necessitated a private plane, or at the bare minimum first-class accommodations.

“Where are you living?”

“I found a sublet in Morningside Heights.”

He speared a wan cube of cheddar off the paper plate in his hand. Whitman never wasted money on catering, and I was sure my mother’s department had prepared the grazing trays in-house.

“It’s only for three months,” I added.

“And after?” he chewed.

“I don’t know yet,” I said.

“I wish I were taking a gap year,” he said, spinning the toothpick in his mouth contemplatively.

Micah had been accepted into MIT’s History, Theory and Criticism PhD program, one of the most prestigious in the country. But I imagined his gap year would have looked very different from my own.

“I would have been happy to go straight through,” I pointed out.

“It’s just so hard to find a place to study Early Ren these days,” he said. “Our discipline has shifted. It’s for the better, of course.”

I nodded. It was easier than protesting. After all, it was a familiar refrain.

“But even so. We need people to continue the work of past generations. And it’s good to be interested in something—be passionate about something.” He speared another cube of cheese. “But you should also think about trends.”

I was the sort of person for whom trends had always been intractable. By the time I caught them, they were already wiggling their way out of my grasp. What had appealed to me about academia was that it seemed like a place where I could be blissfully free of trends, where one settled into a subject and never left. Lingraf had only ever published books on the artists of Ravenna; he’d never even had to go as far afield as Venice.

“These things matter now,” Micah was saying. “Especially since there’s not much new to be done in the fifteenth century, is there? That’s pretty well covered ground at this point. No new discoveries. Unless someone tries to reattribute a Masaccio or something.” He laughed and took that as his cue to slip into another, more beneficial conversation. His advice doled; his obligation filled. Here, Ann, let me tell you why those rejections came. As if I didn’t already know.

“Do you need help?” My mother leaned against the doorjamb of my bedroom, where I was pulling handfuls of books from my bookcase and stacking them on the floor.

“I’m fine,” I said. But she came into my room anyway, peering into the boxes I had packed and pulling open the drawers of my aging dresser.

“Not much left,” she said, so softly that I almost didn’t hear her. “Are you sure you don’t want to leave a few things here?”

If I had ever felt guilty about leaving her alone in Walla Walla, my own self-preservation had pushed those feelings aside. Even when my father was alive, I had considered my stay in this bedroom temporary. I wanted to see the places he brought home in books from the Penrose Library—the campaniles of Italy, the windswept coastline of Morocco, the twinkling skyscrapers of Manhattan. Places I could only afford to travel to on the page.

The day he died, my father spoke ten languages and could read at least five defunct dialects. Language was his way of venturing beyond the four walls of our home, beyond his own childhood. I regretted that he wasn’t here to see me do the thing he had always wanted most. But my mother was afraid of travel—of planes, of places she didn’t know, of herself—and so, my father usually chose to stay with her, close to home. I couldn’t help but wonder if he had known, if he had known that he would die young, whether he wouldn’t have tried harder to see a few more things.

“I wanted to be sure you could rent the room if you needed to.” I finished filling a box with books, and the sound of the tape gun startled us both.

“I don’t want anyone else living here.”

“Someday you might,” I said gently.

“No. Why would you bring that up? Where would you stay then, if I rented your room? How could I see you if you didn’t come here, come back?”

“You could always come visit,” I ventured.

“I can’t. You know I can’t.”

I wanted to argue with her, to look at her and tell her that she could. She could get on a plane, and I would be there, waiting for her at the end, but I knew it wasn’t worth it. She would never come visit me in New York, and I couldn’t stay. If I did, I knew how easy it would be to get caught in the cobwebs, just as she had done.

“I’m still not sure why you want to go in the first place. A big city like that. You’ll be much better looked after here. Where people know you. Know us.”

It was a conversation I knew well, but I didn’t want to spend my last night in the house this way—the way we had spent so many nights after my father died.

“It’s going to be fine, Mom,” I said, not saying aloud the thing I said to myself. It has to be.

She picked up a book that lay on the corner of the bed and thumbed through its pages. My bedroom had just enough space for one bookcase and a dresser, the bed wedged against the wall. “I never realized you had so many of these,” she said.

The books took up more space than my clothes. They always had.

“Hazard of the trade,” I said, relieved she had changed the subject.

“Okay,” she said, putting the book down. “I guess you have to finish.”

And I did, squeezing my books into the boxes that would be mailed and zipping my duffel closed. I reached under my bed, feeling around for the cardboard box where I kept my tips. I felt the weight of the money in my lap.

Tomorrow, I would be in New York.

The Cloisters
by by Katy Hays