Rumpus Exclusive: An Excerpt from A Student of History

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What can I say about that night at the museum, the first of many events I attended with Mrs. W—? It was both daunting and thrilling, all the more surreal because it happened in a place I knew. I’d been to the museum before, to see major exhibits when they came through town, usually at the prodding of Chloe, who was always dragging me to cultural events I wouldn’t have attended on my own. Yet I had never seen the museum like this, shut off from the public, reserved for a private party. And the other guests were not your typical weekend museum-goers dressed in sweaters and jeans and casual skirts. The people that night were in attire that I had never seen before, except in movies—the women in gorgeous cocktail dresses, the men in fine suits, and so many fancy necklaces and bracelets and earrings and watches that all the jewelry stores in Beverly Hills might have been raided for the occasion. Everyone looked somehow not just dressed up but untouched, like models of humans that seemed real but weren’t quite; these were beings who never exerted themselves, never sweated, never dug in their gardens, never sullied themselves with laundry. Almost all of them had drinks in their hands—champagne or wine or cocktails—and they stood around small, raised tables with plates of hors d’oeuvres, served by young men and women in black suits and white shirts weaving through the crowd with their trays. Other than myself and a few of the servers, everyone in attendance was white. I followed Mrs. W—, who was stopped every few steps by someone who proclaimed how happy they were to see her—although many more saw her and looked away, in avoidance or what seemed like fear. Eventually we made our way up the concourse and into the courtyard of a new steel-and-glass building. There, maybe twenty human-size stone sculptures stood like sentinels in front of the windows. These, I was made to understand, were the donated sculptures, the occasion for that night’s event. They were lovely, but my eyes were drawn past them to the building, which was lit from within, the three-story glass windows inviting one to enter.

Mrs. W—’s appearance stirred the crowd—people turned, cameras flashed, the clamor of voices dipped, then rose again. Through it all, Mrs. W— smiled grandly, and even though she was not particularly tall, her presence dominated the space. Two middle-aged couples appeared out of nowhere, blocking our way. They greeted Mrs. W— with an effusiveness that she did not return.

“Richard, dear,” she said, when they turned their curious eyes to me, “this is Mr. and Mrs. Steve Birkhall, and Mr. and Mrs. John Grant. This is Richard Nagano. He’s a graduate student finishing up his PhD in history at the university.”

“A graduate student!” said one of the wives. They all seemed to know what Mrs. W— meant by the university. “I thought you were an actor!”

I blushed.

“Yes,” Mrs. W— said, rescuing me. “Well, as we always knew, youth and beauty are wasted on the young.” Then into my ear, a whisper that was loud enough for others to hear: “John Grant’s business partner went to jail on an insider-trading scandal. If you ask me, Grant’s as guilty as he was.”

At that moment, someone from the museum pulled her over to an actual red carpet on the side of the courtyard with a large white backdrop that bore the museum’s name and logo, as well as the names of two of the largest banks in town. Mrs. W— posed with one person, then another, including a couple of people who looked vaguely familiar, like actors in a well-received series on cable that hadn’t been renewed for a second season. And while the other person in the shot always smiled at the camera, Mrs. W— looked into the lens with a sardonic expression, lips barely upturned, indulging the photographer and all the people who might view the photographs but not deigning to enjoy the attention.

I wandered over to the food tables, which were overflowing, lavish, laden with platters that held wheels of baked brie, slices of salmon, dollar-coin-sized white bowls of caviar. One skill I’d developed as a graduate student was a nose for free food, and this spread was the most extravagant I’d ever seen. There were plates of various meats sliced paper-thin, and skewers of delicate-looking vegetables and meat. There were mini-quiches, and bits of beef wrapped in arugula and bacon; and tiny bowls of lobster bisque. There were white popsicle sticks with round bits of cake on the end of them, frosted, and small glasses of colorful viscous fluid that the stand-up label identified as fruit shots. All of this was framed by a village of gingerbread houses, so large they could have been homes for the Lhasa apsos. They were decorated with colored frosting in curlicues around the windows and doors, disks of candy lining the roofs, waves of green frosting denoting shrubbery around the bottoms. Beside the tables on either side, two giant ice sculptures, which—when I looked more closely—were replicas of pieces in the sculpture collection. I stood in front of the table feeling slightly overwhelmed, not sure whether I should touch anything.

“It’s a bit much, isn’t it?” a voice said from near my left shoulder.

I turned to face a woman of about my age. She was standing so close I couldn’t really see her. I fought the urge to pull away—her face was inches from my own—and answered, “Well, no one should go hungry.”

“Except they will. Have you noticed? None of the women are eating.”

I turned and scanned the long table, and it was true: the only people hovering over the food trays were men. I looked out at the crowd and watched the waiters and waitresses with their platters of passed hors d’oeuvres; they seemed not to have many takers.

“Maybe they’re waiting for dinner.”

The woman laughed, throwing her head back a little, exposing her long, fine neck. This gave me a chance to move back just a little. “We could only hope,” she said. “There’s always so much waste at these things, it’s shameful. I’ve tried to get the committee to donate the leftover food, but they won’t do it. The caterer doesn’t want to be associated with giving handouts.”

“The committee?”

“The events committee. The brilliant minds who put this together.”

With the bit of space between us, I was able to look at her now. She was nearly my height—5’10″—but a good three inches of that was heels. She wore a sleeveless, champagne-colored dress that would have hugged her nicely, except there wasn’t much figure to hug. For all her talk of women not eating, it didn’t look like she ate much herself. There was some kind of brown pattern sewn into her dress, and her shoes and purse matched it perfectly. The whole getup was expensive and classy; I didn’t know that women of my general age group could dress like this. Her face was made up impeccably, but not overdone; she’d worked hard to make herself look natural. She had fine patrician features, smooth planes of cheek and an aquiline nose, a forehead that was entirely free of wrinkles. Her blond hair had been swept back from her face and gathered by some device I couldn’t see. She wore dark, almost blood-colored lipstick on lips surprisingly full for such a wisp of a woman. Her look was completed with a string of pearls and hard, bright earrings. Everything about her made me want to keep looking. And yet I couldn’t really say if she was pretty.

“I’m Fiona Morgan,” she said, holding out her hand, but with her elbow still bent at her side. The hand was long and bony and her skin was silk-soft, but her grip surprisingly strong. Her posture was perfect. It made me want to stand up straighter myself.

“I’m Rick—Richard—Nagano,” I said.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Richard. It’s nice to see some new blood at these things. I can’t tell you how tired I am of seeing all the same faces. That man over there—” she pointed at someone, but I couldn’t tell which of several blue-suited men she was referring to, “that’s Paul Wilkensen. I’ve seen him at three events just this week alone.” She leaned in. “That’s wife number three, and number two is also here, with his former business partner.”

A waiter appeared behind us with a big platter of meat; he somehow held it aloft while lifting the old one, which was only half-empty, and then placed the new one down.

“You must go to a lot of events,” I said. I was noticing the curve of her cheekbone, the line of her elegant jaw.

She sighed. “Yes, well, my family’s been involved with just about every major institution in town. The museum, Los Angeles Music Center, USC, the Huntington, blah blah blah. It’s funny. I don’t even like art. Or museums, anyway. They seem so oddly stilted.” She was quiet for a moment, and when she tucked a strand of hair back behind her ear, I saw the huge diamond ring she wore and the platinum-and-diamond wedding band. Then she turned back to me, head tilted, chin jutting, looking at me cockeyed. “But that’s all boring. What about you? What are you doing here tonight?”

“I came as a guest of Mrs. W—’s,” I said. I wasn’t sure how much to reveal.

“Marion, of course! So you’re her latest walker.”

“Walker?”

“Escort. Platonic escort. For ladies who need a date. Most of the older widowed ladies have gentlemen walkers their own age. But Marion likes to bring young men—usually ones she knows through her art and fashion worlds, fabulous gay boys who properly worship her. You don’t strike me as that type.”

“None of the above.”

“Well, lucky for us,” Fiona said. She gave me a bright, exaggerated smile. Was she flirting? Being sarcastic? The norms here were so different that I couldn’t tell.

“I’m actually doing some work for her. Research, you could say.”

“Really. Are you involved with a think tank or a policy institute?”

“No, I’m a graduate student.”

“A graduate student,” she repeated. And now she gave me a look I couldn’t quite decipher. “You seem so put-together for a student. What’s your field?”

“Twentieth-century California history,” I said. I didn’t tell her that I looked so put-together because of Mrs. W—. “I’m ABD. No classes anymore, or teaching either. I’m just trying to finish my dissertation.”

“And what’s your topic?”

“Oh,” I said, feeling self-conscious, “it’s a bit obscure. You wouldn’t find it interesting.”

“Yes, I would!” Fiona exclaimed, with such enthusiasm that a man looked over from in front of the salmon plate, spatula of fish in his hand. “I’m a bit of a history nerd myself. Try me.”

“Well, okay,” I began, feeling the dread I always did when I had to talk about my work with a stranger. “I’m writing about Japanese prefectural associations called kenjinkai and their role in the early Japanese American community here in LA. People would come to the States and feel isolated, and then form these groups with other people from their home prefectures in Japan. Prefectures are kind of like states in America.”

“Are you half Japanese?” Fiona asked.

“Yes.”

“I thought so! That particular mix always seems to turn out well.”

I blushed and stammered a thank you, which made her grin. “I’m writing specifically about the revolving credit mechanism that some of them established. Because banks wouldn’t let Japanese immigrants open accounts, these guys would pool their money and advance capital for business and personal needs.” I didn’t mention that this was how my grandfather got his start.

“That’s fascinating,” Fiona said. “Really, what an interesting subject.”

“Well, not really, but thank you.” I felt a bit exposed, though also, in truth, more than a little flattered by her interest.

“But how did you connect with Mrs. W—?”

“I was recommended by the person who was working for her before. And I needed the job.” I felt embarrassed to admit my financial straits in these opulent surroundings. But if Fiona registered the huge gulf between this setting and my reality, she didn’t show it.

“You work out of her house in Bel Air?”

“Yes, three days a week. I’ve only just gotten started.”

“She’s quite a character, isn’t she? I’ve always appreciated her lack of bullshit. It’s such a rare quality in my circle.”

I didn’t know what to say now, so I turned toward the crowd, which was milling about the courtyard, some people looking at the statues, others standing around holding cocktails and admiring the new wing and its lit-glass entrance.

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Rumpus original art by Sylvia Nguyen.

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Excerpted from A Student of History, © 2019 by Nina Revoyr. Used with permission of the author and Akashic Books.


Nina Revoyr is the author of six novels, including The Age of Dreaming, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; Southland, a Los Angeles Times best seller and “Best Book” of 2003; and Wingshooters, which won an Indie Booksellers Choice Award and was selected by O, The Oprah Magazine as one of “10 Titles to Pick Up Now.” Revoyr lives and works in Los Angeles. A Student of History is her latest novel. More from this author →