It’s a September afternoon, four years earlier. Robert is sitting on the porch, an unopened notebook next to him. Catherine silently steps onto the porch, thinking Robert is asleep—but Robert surprises her by greeting her. She asks him what he wants for dinner, and he suggests that they go for a walk and then get groceries together.
The second act begins in a way that curiously mirrors the beginning of the play: someone is on the porch when someone else comes up behind them. Only, in this scene, Robert is the one already sitting on the porch, and Catherine is the one who steps onto the porch behind him. This scene makes the audience recall the beginning of the first act and how the conversation that took place turned out to be imaginary. With Catherine’s hallucination in their minds, the audience cannot be sure whether to believe what they are about to witness.
Catherine abruptly tells Robert that she’s going to start school at the end of the month at Northwestern. He asks why she’s not going to University of Chicago, which is much closer, but she says she would feel strange being a student in his department. Robert has been doing so well recently that he doesn’t need her as much—it would be fine for her to move to Evanston.
The audience now realizes that this scene is taking place during Robert’s remission. Catherine, who sees that Robert is doing better, hopes that she will be able to reclaim the things she gave up, such as her education—she wants to go to college to study math. By choosing Northwestern instead of University of Chicago, Catherine demonstrates her desire to carve out her own life. She doesn’t want to study where her dad teaches; she wants to make a name for herself elsewhere. She wants to be her own person and not just a copy of her father.
But Robert questions Catherine’s choice to move (he says it’s a “big step”) and whether she can keep up with her studies. He’s hurt that she didn’t talk to him sooner, particularly when he learns that Claire already knows. Catherine insists that she’ll move back if he gets sick again, but he asks bitterly why she is bringing up his sickness, sarcastically adding that she expects him to accept the “conversation as a vote of confidence.”
Robert’s resistance to Catherine’s decision to start school isn’t explained, but it may be because of the following factors: one, Robert may be nervous that Catherine’s departure will lead to a return of his sickness (after all, her taking care of him seems to be the cause of his remission), and two, he may feel betrayed that she’s leaving him. His sense of betrayal is increased when he finds out that Catherine already told Claire her plans. His negative reaction to Catherine’s announcement demonstrates how trust is something that requires constant evidence; even though Catherine has shown over the years that she loves and cares about Robert, this sign that she is prioritizing her own desires makes him fear that she won’t provide the care he needs.
At that moment, someone knocks on their front door. Catherine leaves the porch to answer it. She returns to the porch with Hal, who is carrying an envelope. Robert informs Hal that he came at a terrible time, as he and Catherine are arguing. When Hal asks about what, Robert says it’s about dinner.
Robert and Hal clearly aren’t close enough for Robert to tell him why he and Catherine are fighting. They haven’t built that kind of relationship yet.
Hal awkwardly suggests that he come back at a different time, but Robert tells him to stay and insists that they will give their argument a break and return to it after they’ve calmed down. Catherine begins to head back inside, but Robert asks her to stay. He introduces Hal and Catherine; Hal is one of his Ph.D. students.
Despite their argument, Robert still respects Catherine, which he makes clear when he asks her to be a part of his and Hal’s conversation. Perhaps he has already begun to reconsider his rather hurtful reaction to her announcement. Regardless, it’s evident that he and Catherine are close enough where one argument doesn’t deteriorate their entire relationship.
Hal gives Robert the envelope, which he says is only a draft. Robert congratulates him and promises they’ll work through any issues together. Then he announces that Catherine is going to start at Northwestern’s math department, which surprises her. Robert says she will have to work very hard to catch up, but he is confident that she’ll do well.
Robert has already changed his mind. Again, the reasons for this change aren’t explained, but it’s possible that talking about math with another young person has made him excited to talk about his passion—math—with his daughter as well. By making it clear that he has confidence in Catherine’s abilities, Robert is laying the groundwork to repair whatever trust he may have broken. In this way, the play again shows that trust must be continually built.
Hal assures Catherine that she’ll have a great time at school, adding that it’s always nice to go somewhere new and leave one’s old house. When Catherine is uncomfortable, Hal gets embarrassed and tries to take back his comment. But Robert says that it’s great for Catherine to leave and jokes that he can’t wait to have some time for himself.
Catherine and Robert appear to have a loving relationship. They’re able to quickly bounce back from their fights, possibly because there is so much evidence that they care for each other—Catherine has spent the last few years proving to her father that his happiness is of paramount importance to her. In this way, Catherine’s caring for her father has helped her in the sense that she enjoys a healthy and strong relationship with him.
When Hal asks Robert if he’s working on anything, Robert says no and adds that he’s glad to have some time to enjoy the Chicago fall. He loves watching students come back to campus; his favorite thing is to watch them browse books, especially used ones. It makes him think of what valuable things they will find and “What kinds of ideas they’ll come up with.” Then he tells Hal and Catherine that generating new ideas does get a lot harder the older a person gets.
Robert’s musings about students in old bookstores illustrates another side of heredity: parents often hope that their children will take after them and carry on their legacy while also becoming their own person. Like students going through old books, children can use what they inherited or learned from their mentors to come up with their own ideas. In this way, parents can live on in their children.
Catherine says that Robert may “get lucky,” but he replies that perhaps she will “pick up where [he] left off.” After a quiet moment, Hal announces that he has to leave. Robert suggests a time to meet about the draft before interrupting himself to wish Catherine a happy birthday, apologizing for having forgotten about it.
Robert concretely expresses his hopes for Catherine when he tells her that she may “pick up where [he] left off.” He believes that she has inherited his talent for math, and he hopes that she will carry on his legacy by making her own discoveries.
Catherine assures Robert that it’s okay. He tells her that he will take her out to eat and drink that evening, and the two of them joke about what they will order. Remembering that Hal is still with them, Robert invites him along. Catherine also urges Hal to come, and there’s a moment of expectation between them. Nonetheless, he declines. Catherine gets up to let Hal out. After they leave, Robert opens the notebook next to him, writing that it’s “A good day.”
Catherine doesn’t appear to be hurt at all that Robert forgot her birthday. Perhaps it’s because he has just given her lots of other proof that he cares for and loves her—he has told her he supports her decision to go back to school, and he has expressed his confidence in her abilities. The tension that was present earlier in the scene has vanished. Meanwhile, there’s a moment of expectation between Hal and Catherine—it is likely that she is hoping that he will show romantic interest in her by agreeing to join them for her birthday celebration. The implication is that there may have been some sexual tension between the two, but that when Hal has his chance to prove his dedication to getting to know her by joining her for dinner, he declines and, by declining, makes Catherine reconsider whether he really was interested. After Catherine and Hal exit, Robert opens the journal and begins writing the entry that Hal shows Catherine in the first act. It’s the entry that proves that Catherine’s selfless caretaking was the right thing to do—he credits her in-home help for his remission.