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The Marriage Plotby Jeffrey Eugenides
Marriage Plot, The
A Madman in Love
To start with, look at all the books. There were her Edith Wharton novels, arranged not by title but date of publication; there was the complete Modern Library set of Henry James, a gift from her father on her twenty-first birthday; there were the dog-eared paperbacks assigned in her college courses, a lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope, along with good helpings of Austen, George Eliot, and the redoubtable Brontë sisters. There were a whole lot of black-and-white New Directions paperbacks, mostly poetry by people like H.D. or Denise Levertov. There were the Colette novels she read on the sly. There was the first edition of Couples, belonging to her mother, which Madeleine had surreptitiously dipped into back in sixth grade and which she was using now to provide textual support in her English honors thesis on the marriage plot. There was, in short, this mid-size but still portable library representing pretty much everything Madeleine had read in college, a collection of texts, seemingly chosen at random, whose focus slowly narrowed, like a personality test, a sophisticated one you couldn't trick by anticipating the implications of its questions and finally got so lost in that your only recourse was to answer the simple truth. And then you waited for the result, hoping for "Artistic," or "Passionate," thinking you could live with "Sensitive," secretly fearing "Narcissistic" and "Domestic," but finally being presented with an outcome that cut both ways and made you feel different depending on the day, the hour, or the guy you happened to be dating: "Incurably Romantic."
These were the books in the room where Madeleine lay, with a pillowover her head, on the morning of her college graduation. She'd read each and every one, often multiple times, frequently underlining passages, but that was no help to her now. Madeleine was trying to ignore the room and everything in it. She was hoping to drift back down into the oblivion where she'd been safely couched for the last three hours. Any higher level of wakefulness would force her to come to grips with certain disagreeable facts: for instance, the amount and variety of the alcohol she'd imbibed last night, and the fact that she'd gone to sleep with her contacts in. Thinking about such specifics would, in turn, call to mind the reasons she'd drunk so much in the first place, which she definitely didn't want to do. And so Madeleine adjusted her pillow, blocking out the early morning light, and tried to fall back to sleep.
But it was useless. Because right then, at the other end of her apartment, the doorbell began to ring.
Early June, Providence, Rhode Island, the sun up for almost two hours already, lighting up the pale bay and the smokestacks of the Narragansett Electric factory, rising like the sun on the Brown University seal emblazoned on all the pennants and banners draped up over campus, a sun with a sagacious face, representing knowledge. But this sun--the one over Providence--was doing the metaphorical sun one better, because the founders of the university, in their Baptist pessimism, had chosen to depict the light of knowledge enshrouded by clouds, indicating that ignorance had not yet been dispelled from the human realm, whereas the actual sun was just now fighting its way through cloud cover, sending down splintered beams of light and giving hope to the squadrons of parents, who'd been soaked and frozen all weekend, that the unseasonable weather might not ruin the day's festivities. All over College Hill, in the geometric gardens of the Georgian mansions, the magnolia-scented front yards of Victorians, along brick sidewalks running past black iron fences like those in a Charles Addams cartoon or a Lovecraft story; outside the art studios at the Rhode Island School of Design, where one painting major, having stayed up all night to work, was blaring Patti Smith; shining off the instruments (tuba and trumpet, respectively) of the two members of the Brown marching band who had arrived early at the meeting point and were nervously looking around, wondering where everyone else was; brightening the cobblestone side streets that led downhill to the polluted river, the sun was shining onevery brass doorknob, insect wing, and blade of grass. And, in concert with the suddenly flooding light, like a starting gun for all the activity, the doorbell in Madeleine's fourth-floor apartment began, clamorously, insistently, to ring.
The pulse reached her less as a sound than as a sensation, an electric shock shooting up her spine. In one motion Madeleine tore the pillow off her head and sat up in bed. She knew who was ringing the buzzer. It was her parents. She'd agreed to meet Alton and Phyllida for breakfast at 7:30. She'd made this plan with them two months ago, in April, and now here they were, at the appointed time, in their eager, dependable way. That Alton and Phyllida had driven up from New Jersey to see her graduate, that what they were here to celebrate today wasn't only her achievement but their own as parents, had nothing wrong or unexpected about it. The problem was that Madeleine, for the first time in her life, wanted no part of it. She wasn't proud of herself. She was in no mood to celebrate. She'd lost faith in the significance of the day and what the day represented.
She considered not answering. But she knew that if she didn't answer, one of her roommates would, and then she'd have to explain where she'd disappeared to last night, and with whom. Therefore, Madeleine slid out of the bed and reluctantly stood up.
This seemed to go well for a moment, standing up. Her head felt curiously light, as if hollowed out. But then the blood, draining from her skull like sand from an hourglass, hit a bottleneck, and the back of her head exploded in pain.
In the midst of this barrage, like the furious core from which it emanated, the buzzer erupted again.
She came out of her bedroom and stumbled in bare feet to the intercom in the hall, slapping the SPEAK button to silence the buzzer.
"What's the matter? Didn't you hear the bell?" It was Alton's voice, as deep and commanding as ever, despite the fact that it was issuing from a tiny speaker.
"Sorry," Madeleine said. "I was in the shower."
"Likely story. Will you let us in, please?"
Madeleine didn't want to. She needed to wash up first.
"I'm coming down," she said.
This time, she held down the SPEAK button too long, cutting off Alton's response. She pressed it again and said, "Daddy?" but while she was speaking, Alton must have been speaking, too, because when she pressed LISTEN all that came through was static.
Madeleine took this pause in communications to lean her forehead against the door frame. The wood felt nice and cool. The thought struck her that, if she could keep her face pressed against the soothing wood, she might be able to cure her headache, and if she could keep her forehead pressed against the door frame for the rest of the day, while somehow still being able to leave the apartment, she might make it through breakfast with her parents, march in the commencement procession, get a diploma, and graduate.
She lifted her face and pressed SPEAK again.
But it was Phyllida's voice that answered. "Maddy? What's the matter? Let us in."
"My roommates are still asleep. I'm coming down. Don't ring the bell anymore."
"We want to see your apartment!"
"Not now. I'm coming down. Don't ring."
She took her hand from the buttons and stood back, glaring at the intercom as if daring it to make a sound. When it didn't, she started back down the hall. She was halfway to the bathroom when her roommate Abby emerged, blocking the way. She yawned, running a hand through her big hair, and then, noticing Madeleine, smiled knowingly.
"So," Abby said, "where did you sneak off to last night?"
"My parents are here," Madeleine said. "I have to go to breakfast."
"Come on. Tell me."
"There's nothing to tell. I'm late."
"How come you're wearing the same clothes, then?"
Instead of replying, Madeleine looked down at herself. Ten hours earlier, when she'd borrowed the black Betsey Johnson dress from Olivia, Madeleine had thought it looked good on her. But now the dress felt hot and sticky, the fat leather belt looked like an S&M restraint, and there was a stain near the hem that she didn't want to identify.
Abby, meanwhile, had knocked on Olivia's door and entered. "So much for Maddy's broken heart," she said. "Wake up! You've got to see this."
The path to the bathroom was clear. Madeleine's need for a shower was extreme, almost medical. At a minimum, she had to brush her teeth. But Olivia's voice was audible now. Soon Madeleine would have two roommates interrogating her. Her parents were liable to start ringing again any minute. As quietly as possible, she inched back down the hall. She stepped into a pair of loafers left by the front door, crushing the heels flat as she caught her balance, and escaped into the outer corridor.
The elevator was waiting at the end of the floral runner. Waiting, Madeleine realized, because she'd failed to close the sliding gate when she'd staggered out of the thing a few hours earlier. Now she shut the gate securely and pressed the button for the lobby, and with a jolt the antique contraption began to descend through the building's interior gloom.
Madeleine's building, a Neo-Romanesque castle called the Narragansett that wrapped around the plunging corner of Benefit Street and Church Street, had been built at the turn of the century. Among its surviving period details--the stained-glass skylight, the brass wall sconces, the marble lobby--was the elevator. Made of curving metal bars like a giant birdcage, the elevator miraculously still functioned, but it moved slowly, and as the car dropped, Madeleine took the opportunity to make herself more presentable. She ran her hands through her hair, finger-combing it. She polished her front teeth with her index finger. She rubbed mascara crumbs from her eyes and moistened her lips with her tongue. Finally, passing the balustrade on the second floor, she checked her reflection in the small mirror attached to the rear panel.
One of the nice things about being twenty-two, or about being Madeleine Hanna, was that three weeks of romantic anguish, followed by a night of epic drinking, didn't do much visible damage. Except for puffiness around her eyes, Madeleine looked like the same pretty, dark-haired person as usual. The symmetries of her face--the straight nose, the Katharine Hepburn-ish cheekbones and jawline--were almost mathematical in their precision. Only the slight furrow in her brow gave evidence of the slightly anxious person that Madeleine felt herself, intrinsically, to be.
She could see her parents waiting below. They were trapped between the lobby door and the door to the street, Alton in a seersucker jacket, Phyllida in a navy suit and matching gold-buckled purse. For a second, Madeleine had an impulse to stop the elevator and leave her parentsstuck in the foyer amid all the college-town clutter--the posters for New Wave bands with names like Wretched Misery or the Clits, the pornographic Egon Schiele drawings by the RISD kid on the second floor, all the clamorous Xeroxes whose subtext conveyed the message that the wholesome, patriotic values of her parents' generation were now on the ash heap of history, replaced by a nihilistic, post-punk sensibility that Madeleine herself didn't understand but was perfectly happy to scandalize her parents by pretending that she did--before the elevator stopped in the lobby and she slid open the gate and stepped out to meet them.
Alton was first through the door. "Here she is!" he said avidly. "The college graduate!" In his net-charging way, he surged forward to seize her in a hug. Madeleine stiffened, worried that she smelled of alcohol or, worse, of sex.
"I don't know why you wouldn't let us see your apartment," Phyllida said, coming up next. "I was looking forward to meeting Abby and Olivia. We'd love to treat them to dinner later."
"We're not staying for dinner," Alton reminded her.
"Well, we might. That depends on Maddy's schedule."
"No, that's not the plan. The plan is to see Maddy for breakfast and then leave after the ceremony."
"Your father and his plans," Phyllida said to Madeleine. "Are you wearing that dress to the ceremony?"
"I don't know," Madeleine said.
"I can't get used to these shoulder pads all the young women are wearing. They're so mannish."
"You look pretty whacked out, Mad," Alton said. "Big party last night?"
"Don't you have anything of your own to wear?" Phyllida said.
"I'll have my robe on, Mummy," Madeleine said, and, to forestall further inspection, headed past them through the foyer. Outside, the sun had lost its battle with the clouds and vanished. The weather looked not much better than it had all weekend. Campus Dance, on Friday night, had been more or less rained out. The Baccalaureate service on Sunday had proceeded under a steady drizzle. Now, on Monday, the rainhad stopped, but the temperature felt closer to St. Patrick's than to Memorial Day.
As she waited for her parents to join her on the sidewalk, it occurred to Madeleine that she hadn't had sex, not really. This was some consolation.
"Your sister sends her regrets," Phyllida said, coming out. "She has to take Richard the Lionhearted for an ultrasound today."
Richard the Lionhearted was Madeleine's nine-week-old nephew. Everyone else called him Richard.
"What's the matter with him?" Madeleine asked.
"One of his kidneys is petite, apparently. The doctors want to keep an eye on it. If you ask me, all these ultrasounds do is find things to worry about."
"Speaking of ultrasounds," Alton said, "I need to get one on my knee."
Phyllida paid no attention. "Anyway, Allie's devastated not to see you graduate. As is Blake. But they're hoping you and your new beau might visit them this summer, on your way to the Cape."
You had to stay alert around Phyllida. Here she was, ostensibly talking about Richard the Lionhearted's petite kidney, and already she'd managed to move the subject to Madeleine's new boyfriend, Leonard (whom Phyllida and Alton hadn't met), and to Cape Cod (where Madeleine had announced plans to cohabitate with him). On a normal day, when her brain was working, Madeleine would have been able to keep one step ahead of Phyllida, but this morning the best she could manage was to let the words float past her.
Fortunately, Alton changed the subject. "So, where do you recommend for breakfast?"
Madeleine turned and looked vaguely down Benefit Street. "There's a place this way."
She started shuffling along the sidewalk. Walking--moving--seemed like a good idea. She led them past a line of quaint, nicely maintained houses bearing historical placards, and a big apartment building with a gable roof. Providence was a corrupt town, crime-ridden and mob-controlled, but up on College Hill this was hard to see. The sketchy downtown and dying or dead textile mills lay below, in the grim distance.Here the narrow streets, many of them cobblestone, climbed past mansions or snaked around Puritan graveyards full of headstones as narrow as heaven's door, streets with names like Prospect, Benevolent, Hope, and Meeting, all of them feeding into the arboreous campus at the top. The sheer physical elevation suggested an intellectual one.
"Aren't these slate sidewalks lovely," Phyllida said as she followed along. "We used to have slate sidewalks on our street. They're much more attractive. But then the borough replaced them with concrete."
"Assessed us for the bill, too," Alton said. He was limping slightly, bringing up the rear. The right leg of his charcoal trousers was swelled from the knee brace he wore on and off the tennis court. Alton had been club champion in his age group for twelve years running, one of those older guys with a sweatband ringing a balding crown, a choppy forehand, and absolute murder in his eyes. Madeleine had been trying to beat Alton her entire life without success. This was even more infuriating because she was better than he was, at this point. But whenever she took a set from Alton he started intimidating her, acting mean, disputing calls, and her game fell apart. Madeleine was worried that there was something paradigmatic in this, that she was destined to go through life being cowed by less capable men. As a result, Madeleine's tennis matches against Alton had assumed such outsize personal significance for her that she got tight whenever she played him, with predictable results. And Alton still gloated when he won, still got all rosy and jiggly, as if he'd bested her by sheer talent.
At the corner of Benefit and Waterman, they crossed behind the white steeple of First Baptist Church. In preparation for the ceremony, loudspeakers had been set up on the lawn. A man wearing a bow tie, a dean-of-students-looking person, was tensely smoking a cigarette and inspecting a raft of balloons tied to the churchyard fence.
By now Phyllida had caught up to Madeleine, taking her arm to negotiate the uneven slate, which was pushed up by the roots of gnarled plane trees that lined the curb. As a little girl, Madeleine had thought her mother pretty, but that was a long time ago. Phyllida's face had gotten heavier over the years; her cheeks were beginning to sag like those of a camel. The conservative clothes she wore--the clothes of a philanthropist or lady ambassador--had a tendency to conceal her figure. Phyllida'shair was where her power resided. It was expensively set into a smooth dome, like a band shell for the presentation of that long-running act, her face. For as long as Madeleine could remember, Phyllida had never been at a loss for words or shy about a point of etiquette. Among her friends Madeleine liked to make fun of her mother's formality, but she often found herself comparing other people's manners unfavorably with Phyllida's.
And right now Phyllida was looking at Madeleine with the proper expression for this moment: thrilled by the pomp and ceremony, eager to put intelligent questions to any of Madeleine's professors she happened to meet, or to trade pleasantries with fellow parents of graduating seniors. In short, she was available to everyone and everything and in step with the social and academic pageantry, all of which exacerbated Madeleine's feeling of being out of step, for this day and the rest of her life.
She plunged on, however, across Waterman Street, and up the steps of Carr House, seeking refuge and coffee.
The café had just opened. The guy behind the counter, who was wearing Elvis Costello glasses, was rinsing out the espresso machine. At a table against the wall, a girl with stiff pink hair was smoking a clove cigarette and reading Invisible Cities. "Tainted Love" played from the stereo on top of the refrigerator.
Phyllida, holding her handbag protectively against her chest, had paused to peruse the student art on the walls: six paintings of small, skin-diseased dogs wearing bleach-bottle collars.
"Isn't this fun?" she said tolerantly.
"La Bohème," Alton said.
Madeleine installed her parents at a table near the bay window, as far away from the pink-haired girl as possible, and went up to the counter. The guy took his time coming over. She ordered three coffees--a large for her--and bagels. While the bagels were being toasted, she brought the coffees over to her parents.
Alton, who couldn't sit at the breakfast table without reading, had taken a discarded Village Voice from a nearby table and was perusing it. Phyllida was staring overtly at the girl with pink hair.
"Do you think that's comfortable?" she inquired in a low voice.
Madeleine turned to see that the girl's ragged black jeans were held together by a few hundred safety pins.
"I don't know, Mummy. Why don't you go ask her?"
"I'm afraid of getting poked."
"According to this article," Alton said, reading the Voice, "homosexuality didn't exist until the nineteenth century. It was invented. In Germany."
The coffee was hot, and lifesavingly good. Sipping it, Madeleine began to feel slightly less awful.
After a few minutes, she went up to get the bagels. They were a little burned, but she didn't want to wait for new ones, and so brought them back to the table. After examining his with a sour expression, Alton began scraping it punitively with a plastic knife.
Phyllida asked, "So, are we going to meet Leonard today?"
"I'm not sure," Madeleine said.
"Anything you want us to know about?"
"Are you two still planning to live together this summer?"
By this time Madeleine had taken a bite of her bagel. And since the answer to her mother's question was complicated--strictly speaking, Madeleine and Leonard weren't planning on living together, because they'd broken up three weeks ago; despite this fact, however, Madeleine hadn't given up hope of a reconciliation, and seeing as she'd spent so much effort getting her parents used to the idea of her living with a guy, and didn't want to jeopardize that by admitting that the plan was off--she was relieved to be able to point at her full mouth, which prevented her from replying.
"Well, you're an adult now," Phyllida said. "You can do what you like. Though, for the record, I have to say that I don't approve."
"You've already gone on record about that," Alton broke in.
"Because it's still a bad idea!" Phyllida cried. "I don't mean the propriety of it. I'm talking about the practical problems. If you move in with Leonard--or any young man--and he's the one with the job, then you begin at a disadvantage. What happens if you two don't get along? Where are you then? You won't have any place to live. Or anything to do."
That her mother was correct in her analysis, that the predicamentPhyllida warned Madeleine about was exactly the predicament she was already in, didn't motivate Madeleine to register agreement.
"You quit your job when you met me," Alton said to Phyllida.
"That's why I know what I'm talking about."
"Can we change the subject?" Madeleine said at last, having swallowed her food.
"Of course we can, sweetheart. That's the last I'll say about it. If your plans change, you can always come home. Your father and I would love to have you."
"Not me," Alton said. "I don't want her. Moving back home is always a bad idea. Stay away."
"Don't worry," Madeleine said. "I will."
"The choice is yours," Phyllida said. "But if you do come home, you could have the loft. That way you can come and go as you like."
To her surprise, Madeleine found herself contemplating this proposal. Why not tell her parents everything, curl up in the backseat of the car, and let them take her home? She could move into her old bedroom, with the sleigh bed and the Madeline wallpaper. She could become a spinster, like Emily Dickinson, writing poems full of dashes and brilliance, and never gaining weight.
Phyllida brought her out of this reverie.
"Maddy?" she said. "Isn't that your friend Mitchell?"
Madeleine wheeled in her seat. "Where?"
"I think that's Mitchell. Across the street."
In the churchyard, sitting Indian-style in the freshly mown grass, Madeleine's "friend" Mitchell Grammaticus was indeed there. His lips were moving, as if he was talking to himself.
"Why don't you invite him to join us?" Phyllida said.
"Why not? I'd love to see Mitchell."
"He's probably waiting for his parents," Madeleine said.
Phyllida waved, despite the fact that Mitchell was too far away to notice.
"What's he doing sitting on the ground?" Alton asked.
The three Hannas stared across the street at Mitchell in his half-lotus.
"Well, if you're not going to ask him, I will," Phyllida finally said.
"O.K.," Madeleine said. "Fine. I'll go ask him."
The day was getting warmer, but not by much. Black clouds were massing in the distance as Madeleine came down the steps of Carr House and crossed the street into the churchyard. Someone inside the church was testing the loudspeakers, fussily repeating, "Sussex, Essex, and Kent. Sussex, Essex, and Kent." A banner draped over the church entrance read "Class of 1982." Beneath the banner, in the grass, was Mitchell. His lips were still moving silently, but when he noticed Madeleine approaching they abruptly stopped.
Madeleine remained a few feet away.
"My parents are here," she informed him.
"It's graduation," Mitchell replied evenly. "Everyone's parents are here."
"They want to say hello to you."
At this Mitchell smiled faintly. "They probably don't realize you're not speaking to me."
"No, they don't," Madeleine said. "And, anyway, I am. Now. Speaking to you."
"Under duress or as a change of policy?"
Madeleine shifted her weight, wrinkling her face unhappily. "Look. I'm really hungover. I barely slept last night. My parents have been here about ten minutes and they're already driving me crazy. So if you could just come over and say hello, that would be great."
Mitchell's large emotional eyes blinked twice. He was wearing a vintage gabardine shirt, dark wool pants, and beat-up wingtips. Madeleine had never seen him in shorts or tennis shoes.
"I'm sorry," he said. "About what happened."
"Fine," Madeleine said, looking away. "It doesn't matter."
"I was just being my usual vile self."
"So was I."
They were quiet a moment. Madeleine felt Mitchell's eyes on her, and she crossed her arms over her chest.
What had happened was this: one night the previous December, in a state of anxiety about her romantic life, Madeleine had run into Mitchell on campus and brought him back to her apartment. She'd needed male attention and had flirted with him, without entirely admitting it to herself.In her bedroom, Mitchell had picked up a jar of deep-heating gel on her desk, asking what it was for. Madeleine had explained that people who were athletic sometimes got sore muscles. She understood that Mitchell might not have experienced this phenomenon, seeing as all he did was sit in the library, but he should take her word for it. At that point, Mitchell had come up behind her and wiped a gob of heating gel behind her ear. Madeleine jumped up, shouting at Mitchell, and wiped the gunk off with a T-shirt. Though she was within her rights to be angry, Madeleine also knew (even at the time) that she was using the incident as a pretext for getting Mitchell out of her bedroom and for covering up the fact that she'd been flirting with him in the first place. The worst part of the incident was how stricken Mitchell had looked, as if he'd been about to cry. He kept saying he was sorry, he was just joking around, but she ordered him to leave. In the following days, replaying the incident in her mind, Madeleine had felt worse and worse about it. She'd been on the verge of calling Mitchell to apologize when she'd received a letter from him, a highly detailed, cogently argued, psychologically astute, quietly hostile four-page letter, in which he called her a "cocktease" and claimed that her behavior that night had been "the erotic equivalent of bread and circus, with just the circus." The next time they'd run into each other, Madeleine had acted as if she didn't know him, and they hadn't spoken since.
Now, in the churchyard of First Baptist, Mitchell looked up at her and said, "O.K. Let's go say hello to your parents."
Phyllida was waving as they came up the steps. In the flirtatious voice she reserved for her favorite of Madeleine's friends, she called out, "I thought that was you on the ground. You looked like a swami!"
"Congratulations, Mitchell!" Alton said, heartily shaking Mitchell's hand. "Big day today. One of the milestones. A new generation takes the reins."
They invited Mitchell to sit down and asked him if he wanted anything to eat. Madeleine went back to the counter to get more coffee, glad to have Mitchell keeping her parents occupied. As she watched him, in his old man's clothes, engaging Alton and Phyllida in conversation, Madeleine thought to herself, as she'd thought many times before, that Mitchell was the kind of smart, sane, parent-pleasing boy she should fall in love with and marry. That she would never fall in love with Mitchelland marry him, precisely because of this eligibility, was yet another indication, in a morning teeming with them, of just how screwed up she was in matters of the heart.
When she returned to the table, no one acknowledged her.
"So, Mitchell," Phyllida was asking, "what are your plans after graduation?"
"My father's been asking me the same question," Mitchell answered. "For some reason he thinks Religious Studies isn't a marketable degree."
Madeleine smiled for the first time all day. "See? Mitchell doesn't have a job lined up, either."
"Well, I sort of do," Mitchell said.
"You do not," Madeleine challenged him.
"I'm serious. I do." He explained that he and his roommate, Larry Pleshette, had come up with a plan to fight the recession. As liberal-arts degree holders matriculating into the job market at a time when unemployment was at 9.5 percent, they had decided, after much consideration, to leave the country and stay away as long as possible. At the end of the summer, after they'd saved up enough money, they were going to backpack through Europe. After they'd seen everything in Europe there was to see, they were going to fly to India and stay there as long as their money held out. The whole trip would take eight or nine months, maybe as long as a year.
"You're going to India?" Madeleine said. "That's not a job."
"We're going to be research assistants," Mitchell said. "For Prof. Hughes."
"Prof. Hughes in the theater department?"
"I saw a program about India recently," Phyllida said. "It was terribly depressing. The poverty!"
"That's a plus for me, Mrs. Hanna," Mitchell said. "I thrive in squalor."
Phyllida, who couldn't resist this sort of mischief, gave up her solemnity, rippling with amusement. "Then you're going to the right place!"
"Maybe I'll take a trip, too," Madeleine said in a threatening tone.
No one reacted. Instead Alton asked Mitchell, "What sort of immunizations do you need for India?"
"Cholera and typhus. Gamma globulin's optional."
Phyllida shook her head. "Your mother must be worried sick."
"When I was in the service," Alton said, "they shot us up with a million things. Didn't even tell us what the shots were for."
"I think I'll move to Paris," Madeleine said in a louder voice. "Instead of getting a job."
"Mitchell," Phyllida continued, "with your interest in religious studies, I'd think India would be a perfect fit. They've got everything. Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Jains, Buddhists. It's like Baskin and Robbins! I've always been fascinated by religion. Unlike my doubting-Thomas husband."
Alton winked. "I doubt that doubting Thomas existed."
"Do you know Paul Moore, Bishop Moore, at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine?" Phyllida said, keeping Mitchell's attention. "He's a great friend. You might find it interesting to meet him. We'd be happy to introduce you. When we're in the city, I always go to services at the cathedral. Have you ever been there? Oh. Well. How can I describe it? It's simply--well, simply divine!"
Phyllida held a hand to her throat with the pleasure of this bon mot, while Mitchell obligingly, even convincingly, laughed.
"Speaking of religious dignitaries," Alton cut in, "did I ever tell you about the time we met the Dalai Lama? It was at this fund-raiser at the Waldorf. We were in the receiving line. Must have been three hundred people at least. Anyway, when we finally got up to the Dalai Lama, I asked him, 'Are you any relation to Dolly Parton?'"
"I was mortified!" Phyllida cried. "Absolutely mortified."
"Daddy," Madeleine said, "you're going to be late."
"You should get going if you want to get a good spot."
Alton looked at his watch. "We've still got an hour."
"It gets really crowded," Madeleine emphasized. "You should go now."
Alton and Phyllida looked at Mitchell, as if they trusted him to advise them. Under the table, Madeleine kicked him, and he alertly responded, "It does get pretty crowded."
"Where's the best place to stand?" Alton asked, again addressing Mitchell.
"By the Van Wickle Gates. At the top of College Street. That's where we'll come through."
Alton stood up from the table. After shaking Mitchell's hand, hebent to kiss Madeleine on the cheek. "We'll see you later. Miss Baccalaureate, 1982."
"Congratulations, Mitchell," Phyllida said. "So nice to see you. And remember, when you're on your Grand Tour, be sure to send your mother loads of letters. Otherwise, she'll be frantic."
To Madeleine, she said, "You might change that dress before the march. It has a visible stain."
With that, Alton and Phyllida, in their glaring parental actuality, all seersucker and handbag, cuff links and pearls, crossed the beige-and-brick space of Carr House and went out the door.
As though to signal their departure, a new song came on: Joe Jackson's high-pitched voice swooping above a synthesized drumbeat. The guy behind the counter cranked up the volume.
Madeleine laid her head on the table, her hair covering her face.
"I'm never drinking again," she said.
"Famous last words."
"You have no idea what's been going on with me."
"How could I? You haven't been speaking to me."
Without lifting her cheek from the table, Madeleine said in a pitiful voice, "I'm homeless. I'm graduating from college and I'm a homeless person."
"I am!" Madeleine insisted. "First I was supposed to move to New York with Abby and Olivia. Then it looked like I was moving to the Cape, though, so I told them to get another roommate. And now I'm not moving to the Cape and I have nowhere to go. My mother wants me to move back home but I'd rather kill myself."
"I'm moving back home for the summer," Mitchell said. "To Detroit. At least you're near New York."
"I haven't heard back from grad school yet and it's June," Madeleine continued. "I was supposed to find out over a month ago! I could call the admissions department, but I don't because I'm scared to find out that I've been rejected. As long as I don't know, I still have hope."
There was a moment before Mitchell spoke again. "You can come to India with me," he said.
Madeleine opened one eye to see, through a whorl in her hair, that Mitchell wasn't entirely joking.
"It's not even about grad school," she said. Taking a deep breath, she confessed, "Leonard and I broke up."
It felt deeply pleasurable to say this, to name her sadness, and so Madeleine was surprised by the coldness of Mitchell's reply.
"Why are you telling me this?" he said.
She lifted her head, brushing her hair out of her face. "I don't know. You wanted to know what was the matter."
"I didn't, actually. I didn't even ask."
"I thought you might care," Madeleine said. "Since you're my friend."
"Right," Mitchell said, his voice suddenly sarcastic. "Our wonderful friendship! Our 'friendship' isn't a real friendship because it only works on your terms. You set the rules, Madeleine. If you decide you don't want to talk to me for three months, we don't talk. Then you decide you do want to talk to me because you need me to entertain your parents--and now we're talking again. We're friends when you want to be friends, and we're never more than friends because you don't want to be. And I have to go along with that."
"I'm sorry," Madeleine said, feeling put-upon and blindsided. "I just don't like you that way."
"Exactly!" Mitchell cried. "You're not attracted to me physically. O.K., fine. But who says I was ever attracted to you mentally?"
Madeleine reacted as if she'd been slapped. She was outraged, hurt, and defiant all at once.
"You're such a"--she tried to think of the worst thing to say--"you're such a jerk!" She was hoping to remain imperious, but her chest was stinging, and, to her dismay, she burst into tears.
Mitchell reached out to touch her arm, but Madeleine shook him off. Getting to her feet, trying not to look like someone angrily weeping, she went out the door and down the steps onto Waterman Street. Confronted by the festive churchyard, she turned downhill toward the river. She wanted to get away from campus. Her headache had returned, her temples were throbbing, and as she looked up at the storm clouds massing over downtown like more bad things to come, she asked herself why everyone was being so mean to her.
Madeleine's love troubles had begun at a time when the French theory she was reading deconstructed the very notion of love. Semiotics 211was an upper-level seminar taught by a former English department renegade. Michael Zipperstein had come to Brown thirty-two years earlier as a New Critic. He'd inculcated the habits of close reading and biography-free interpretation into three generations of students before taking a Road to Damascus sabbatical, in Paris, in 1975, where he'd met Roland Barthes at a dinner party and been converted, over cassoulet, to the new faith. Now Zipperstein taught two courses in the newly created Program in Semiotics Studies: Introduction to Semiotic Theory in the fall and, in the spring, Semiotics 211. Hygienically bald, with a seaman's mustache-less white beard, Zipperstein favored French fisherman's sweaters and wide-wale corduroys. He buried people with his reading lists: in addition to all the semiotic big hitters--Derrida, Eco, Barthes--the students in Semiotics 211 had to contend with a magpie nest of reserve reading that included everything from Balzac's Sarrasine to issues of Semiotext(e) to photocopied selections from E. M. Cioran, Robert Walser, Claude Levi-Strauss, Peter Handke, and Carl Van Vechten. To get into the seminar, you had to submit to a one-on-one interview with Zipperstein during which he asked bland personal questions, such as what your favorite food or dog breed was, and made enigmatic Warholian remarks in response. This esoteric probing, along with Zipperstein's guru's dome and beard, gave his students a sense that they'd been spiritually vetted and were now--for two hours on Thursday afternoons, at least--part of a campus lit-crit elite.
Which was exactly what Madeleine wanted. She'd become an English major for the purest and dullest of reasons: because she loved to read. The university's "British and American Literature Course Catalog" was, for Madeleine, what its Bergdorf equivalent was for her roommates. A course listing like "English 274: Lyly's Euphues" excited Madeleine the way a pair of Fiorucci cowboy boots did Abby. "English 450A: Hawthorne and James" filled Madeleine with an expectation of sinful hours in bed not unlike what Olivia got from wearing a Lycra skirt and leather blazer to Danceteria. Even as a girl in their house in Prettybrook, Madeleine wandered into the library, with its shelves of books rising higher than she could reach--newly purchased volumes such as Love Story or Myra Breckinridge that exuded a faintly forbidden air, as well as venerable leather-bound editions of Fielding, Thackeray, and Dickens--and the magisterial presence of all those potentially readable wordsstopped her in her tracks. She could scan book spines for as long as an hour. Her cataloging of the family's holdings rivaled the Dewey decimal system in its comprehensiveness. Madeleine knew right where everything was. The shelves near the fireplace held Alton's favorites, biographies of American presidents and British prime ministers, memoirs by warmongering secretaries of state, novels about sailing or espionage by William F. Buckley, Jr. Phyllida's books filled the left side of the bookcases leading up to the parlor, NYRB-reviewed novels and essay collections, as well as coffee-table volumes about English gardens or chinoiserie. Even now, at bed-and-breakfasts or seaside hotels, a shelf full of forlorn books always cried out to Madeleine. She ran her fingers over their salt-spotted covers. She peeled apart pages made tacky by ocean air. She had no sympathy for paperback thrillers and detective stories. It was the abandoned hardback, the jacketless 1931 Dial Press edition ringed with many a coffee cup, that pierced Madeleine's heart. Her friends might be calling her name on the beach, the clambake already under way, but Madeleine would sit down on the bed and read for a little while to make the sad old book feel better. She had read Longfellow's "Hiawatha" that way. She'd read James Fenimore Cooper. She'd read H. M. Pulham, Esquire by John P. Marquand.
And yet sometimes she worried about what those musty old books were doing to her. Some people majored in English to prepare for law school. Others became journalists. The smartest guy in the honors program, Adam Vogel, a child of academics, was planning on getting a Ph.D. and becoming an academic himself. That left a large contingent of people majoring in English by default. Because they weren't left-brained enough for science, because history was too dry, philosophy too difficult, geology too petroleum-oriented, and math too mathematical--because they weren't musical, artistic, financially motivated, or really all that smart, these people were pursuing university degrees doing something no different from what they'd done in first grade: reading stories. English was what people who didn't know what to major in majored in.
Her junior year, Madeleine had taken an honors seminar called The Marriage Plot: Selected Novels of Austen, Eliot, and James. The class was taught by K. McCall Saunders. Saunders was a seventy-nine-year-old New Englander. He had a long, horsey face and a moist laugh that exposed his gaudy dental work. His pedagogical method consisted of hisreading aloud lectures he'd written twenty or thirty years earlier. Madeleine stayed in the class because she felt sorry for Professor Saunders and because the reading list was so good. In Saunders's opinion, the novel had reached its apogee with the marriage plot and had never recovered from its disappearance. In the days when success in life had depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had had a subject to write about. The great epics sang of war, the novel of marriage. Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely. What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for separation later? How would Isabel Archer's marriage to Gilbert Osmond have been affected by the existence of a prenup? As far as Saunders was concerned, marriage didn't mean much anymore, and neither did the novel. Where could you find the marriage plot nowadays? You couldn't. You had to read historical fiction. You had to read non-Western novels involving traditional societies. Afghani novels, Indian novels. You had to go, literarily speaking, back in time.
Madeleine's final paper for the seminar was titled "The Interrogative Mood: Marriage Proposals and the (Strictly Limited) Sphere of the Feminine." It had impressed Saunders so much that he'd asked Madeleine to come see him. In his office, which had a grandparental smell, he expressed his opinion that Madeleine might expand her paper into a senior honors thesis, along with his willingness to serve as her advisor. Madeleine smiled politely. Professor Saunders specialized in the periods she was interested in, the Regency leading into the Victorian era. He was sweet, and learned, and it was clear from his unsubscribed office hours that no one else wanted him as an advisor, and so Madeleine had said yes, she would love to work with him on her senior thesis.
She used a line from Trollope's Barchester Towers as an epigraph: "There is no happiness in love, except at the end of an English novel." Her plan was to begin with Jane Austen. After a brief examination of Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and Sense and Sensibility, all comedies, essentially, that ended with weddings, Madeleine was going to move on to the Victorian novel, where things got more complicated and considerably darker. Middlemarch and The Portrait of a Lady didn't end with weddings. They began with the traditional moves of the marriage plot--the suitors, the proposals, the misunderstandings--but after the weddingceremony they kept on going. These novels followed their spirited, intelligent heroines, Dorothea Brooke and Isabel Archer, into their disappointing married lives, and it was here that the marriage plot reached its greatest artistic expression.
By 1900 the marriage plot was no more. Madeleine planned to end with a brief discussion of its demise. In Sister Carrie, Dreiser had Carrie live adulterously with Drouet, marry Hurstwood in an invalid ceremony, and then run off to become an actress--and this was only in 1900! For a conclusion, Madeleine thought she might cite the wife-swapping in Updike. That was the last vestige of the marriage plot: the persistence in calling it "wife-swapping" instead of "husband-swapping." As if the woman were still a piece of property to be passed around.
Professor Saunders suggested that Madeleine look at historical sources. She'd obediently boned up on the rise of industrialism and the nuclear family, the formation of the middle class, and the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857. But it wasn't long before she'd become bored with the thesis. Doubts about the originality of her work nagged at her. She felt as if she was regurgitating the arguments Saunders had made in his marriage plot seminar. Her meetings with the old professor were dispiriting, consisting of Saunders shuffling the pages she'd given him, pointing out various red marks he'd made in the margins.
Then one Sunday morning, before winter break, Abby's boyfriend, Whitney, materialized at their kitchen table, reading something called Of Grammatology. When Madeleine asked what the book was about, she was given to understand by Whitney that the idea of a book being "about" something was exactly what this book was against, and that, if it was "about" anything, then it was about the need to stop thinking of books as being about things. Madeleine said she was going to make coffee. Whitney asked if she would make him some, too.
College wasn't like the real world. In the real world people dropped names based on their renown. In college, people dropped names based on their obscurity. Thus, in the weeks after this exchange with Whitney, Madeleine began hearing people saying "Derrida." She heard them saying "Lyotard" and "Foucault" and "Deleuze" and "Baudrillard." That most of these people were those she instinctually disapproved of--upper-middle-class kids who wore Doc Martens and anarchist symbols--made Madeleine dubious about the value of their enthusiasm. But soon shenoticed David Koppel, a smart and talented poet, also reading Derrida. And Pookie Ames, who read slush for The Paris Review and whom Madeleine liked, was taking a course with Professor Zipperstein. Madeleine had always been partial to grandiose professors, people like Sears Jayne who hammed it up in the classroom, reciting Hart Crane or Anne Sexton in a gag voice. Whitney acted as though Professor Jayne was a joke. Madeleine didn't agree. But after three solid years of taking literature courses, Madeleine had nothing like a firm critical methodology to apply to what she read. Instead she had a fuzzy, unsystematic way of talking about books. It embarrassed her to hear the things people said in class. And the things she said. I felt that. It was interesting the way Proust. I liked the way Faulkner.
And when Olivia, who was tall and slim, with a long, aristocratic nose like a saluki, came in one day carrying Of Grammatology, Madeleine knew that what had been marginal was now mainstream.
"What's that book like?"
"You haven't read it?"
"Would I be asking if I had?"
Olivia sniffed. "Aren't we a little bitchy today?"
"Just kidding. It's great. Derrida is my absolute god!"
Almost overnight it became laughable to read writers like Cheever or Updike, who wrote about the suburbia Madeleine and most of her friends had grown up in, in favor of reading the Marquis de Sade, who wrote about anally deflowering virgins in eighteenth-century France. The reason de Sade was preferable was that his shocking sex scenes weren't about sex but politics. They were therefore anti-imperialist, anti-bourgeois, anti-patriarchal, and anti-everything a smart young feminist should be against. Right up through her third year at college, Madeleine kept wholesomely taking courses like Victorian Fantasy: From Phantastes to The Water-Babies, but by senior year she could no longer ignore the contrast between the hard-up, blinky people in her Beowulf seminar and the hipsters down the hall reading Maurice Blanchot. Going to college in the moneymaking eighties lacked a certain radicalism. Semiotics was the first thing that smacked of revolution. It drew a line; it created an elect; it was sophisticated and Continental; it dealt with provocative subjects, with torture, sadism, hermaphroditism--with sex and power.Madeleine had always been popular at school. Years of being popular had left her with the reflexive ability to separate the cool from the uncool, even within subgroups, like the English department, where the concept of cool didn't appear to obtain.
If Restoration drama was getting you down, if scanning Wordsworth was making you feel dowdy and ink-stained, there was another option. You could flee K. McCall Saunders and the old New Criticism. You could defect to the new imperium of Derrida and Eco. You could sign up for Semiotics 211 and find out what everyone else was talking about.
Semiotics 211 was limited to ten students. Of the ten, eight had taken Introduction to Semiotic Theory. This was visually apparent at the first class meeting. Lounging around the seminar table, when Madeleine came into the room from the wintry weather outside, were eight people in black T-shirts and ripped black jeans. A few had razored off the necks or sleeves of their T-shirts. There was something creepy about one guy's face--it was like a baby's face that had grown whiskers--and it took Madeleine a full minute to realize that he'd shaved off his eyebrows. Everyone in the room was so spectral-looking that Madeleine's natural healthiness seemed suspect, like a vote for Reagan. She was relieved, therefore, when a big guy in a down jacket and snowmobile boots showed up and took the empty seat next to her. He had a cup of take-out coffee.
Zipperstein asked the students to introduce themselves and explain why they were taking the seminar.
The boy without eyebrows spoke up first. "Um, let's see. I'm finding it hard to introduce myself, actually, because the whole idea of social introductions is so problematized. Like, if I tell you that my name is Thurston Meems and that I grew up in Stamford, Connecticut, will you know who I am? O.K. My name's Thurston and I'm from Stamford, Connecticut. I'm taking this course because I read Of Grammatology last summer and it blew my mind." When it was the turn of the boy next to Madeleine, he said in a quiet voice that he was a double major (biology and philosophy) and had never taken a semiotics course before, that his parents had named him Leonard, that it had always seemed pretty handy to have a name, especially when you were being called to dinner, and that if anyone wanted to call him Leonard he would answer to it.
Leonard didn't make another comment. During the rest of the class,he leaned back in his chair, stretching out his long legs. After he finished his coffee, he dug into his right snowmobile boot and, to Madeleine's surprise, pulled out a tin of chewing tobacco. With two stained fingers, he placed a wad of tobacco in his cheek. For the next two hours, every minute or so, he spat, discreetly but audibly, into the cup.
Every week Zipperstein assigned one daunting book of theory and one literary selection. The pairings were eccentric if not downright arbitrary. (What did Saussure's Writings in General Linguistics, for instance, have to do with Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49?) As for Zipperstein himself, he didn't run the class so much as observe it from behind the one-way mirror of his opaque personality. He hardly said a word. He asked questions now and then to stimulate discussion, and often went to the window to gaze in the direction of Narragansett Bay, as if thinking about his wooden sloop in dry dock.
Three weeks into the course, on a February day of flurries and gray skies, they read Zipperstein's own book, The Making of Signs, along with Peter Handke's A Sorrow Beyond Dreams.
It was always embarrassing when professors assigned their own books. Even Madeleine, who found all the reading hard going, could tell that Zipperstein's contribution to the field was reformulative and second-tier.
Everyone seemed a little hesitant when talking about The Making of Signs, so it was a relief when, after the break, they turned to the literary selection.
"So," Zipperstein asked, blinking behind his round wire-rims. "What did you make of the Handke?"
After a short silence, Thurston spoke up. "The Handke was totally dank and depressing," he said. "I loved it."
Thurston was a sly-looking boy with short, gelled hair. His eyebrow-lessness, along with his pale complexion, gave his face a superintelligent quality, like a floating, disembodied brain.
"Care to elaborate?" Zipperstein said.
"Well, Professor, here's a subject dear to my heart--offing yourself." The other students tittered as Thurston warmed to his topic. "It's purportedly autobiographical, this book. But I'd contend, with Barthes, that the act of writing is itself a fictionalization, even if you're treating actual events."
Bart. So that was how you pronounced it. Madeleine made a note, grateful to be spared humiliation.
Meanwhile Thurston was saying, "So Handke's mother commits suicide and Handke sits down to write about it. He wants to be as objective as possible, to be totally--remorseless!" Thurston stifled a smile. He aspired to be a person who would react to his own mother's suicide with high-literary remorselessness, and his soft, young face lit up with pleasure. "Suicide is a trope," he announced. "Especially in German literature. You've got The Sorrows of Young Werther. You've got Kleist. Hey, I just thought of something." He held up a finger. "The Sorrows of Young Werther." He held up another finger. "A Sorrow Beyond Dreams. My theory is that Handke felt the weight of all that tradition and this book was his attempt to break free."
"How do you mean 'free'?" Zipperstein said.
"From the whole Teutonic, Sturm-und-Drang, suicidal thing."
The flurries swirling outside the windows looked like either flakes of soap or flash of ash, like something either very clean or very dirty.
"The Sorrows of Young Werther is an apt reference," Zipperstein said. "But I think that's more the translator's doing than Handke's. In German the book's called Wunschloses Unglück."
Thurston smiled, either because he was pleased to be receiving Zipperstein's full attention or because he thought German sounded funny.
"It's a play on a German saying, wunschlos glücklich, which means being happier than you could ever wish for. Only here Handke makes a nice reversal. It's a serious and strangely wonderful title."
"So it means being unhappier than you could ever wish for," Madeleine said.
Zipperstein looked at her for the first time.
"In a sense. As I said, something is lost in translation. What was your take?"
"On the book?" Madeleine asked, and immediately realized how stupid this sounded. She fell silent, the blood beating in her ears.
People blushed in nineteenth-century English novels but never in contemporary Austrian ones.
Before the silence became uncomfortable, Leonard came to her rescue. "I have a comment," he said. "If I was going to write about my mother's suicide, I don't think I'd be too concerned about being experimental." Heleaned forward, putting his elbows on the table. "I mean, wasn't anybody put off by Handke's so-called remorselessness? Didn't this book strike anyone as a tad cold?"
"Better cold than sentimental," Thurston said.
"Do you think? Why?"
"Because we've read the sentimental, filial account of a cherished dead parent before. We've read it a million times. It doesn't have any power anymore."
"I'm doing a little thought experiment here," Leonard said. "Say my mother killed herself. And say I wrote a book about it. Why would I want to do something like that?" He closed his eyes and leaned his head back. "First, I'd do it to cope with my grief. Second, maybe to paint a portrait of my mother. To keep her alive in my memory."
"And you think your reaction is universal," Thurston said. "That because you'd respond to the death of a parent a certain way, that obligates Handke to do the same."
"I'm saying that if your mother kills herself it's not a literary trope."
Madeleine's heart had quieted now. She was listening to the discussion with interest.
Thurston was nodding his head in a way that somehow didn't suggest agreement. "Yeah, O.K.," he said. "Handke's real mother killed herself. She died in a real world and Handke felt real grief or whatever. But that's not what this book's about. Books aren't about 'real life.' Books are about other books." He raised his mouth like a wind instrument and blew out bright notes. "My theory is that the problem Handke was trying to solve here, from a literary standpoint, was how do you write about something, even something real and painful--like suicide--when all of the writing that's been done on that subject has robbed you of any originality of expression?"
What Thurston was saying seemed to Madeleine both insightful and horribly wrong. It was maybe true, what he said, but it shouldn't have been.
"'Popular literature,'" Zipperstein quipped, proposing an essay title. "'Or, How to Beat a Dead Horse.'"
A spasm of mirth traveled through the class. Madeleine looked over to see that Leonard was staring at her. When the class ended, he gathered up his books and left.
She started seeing Leonard around after that. She saw him crossing the green one afternoon, hatless in winter drizzle. She saw him at Mutt & Geoff's, eating a messy Buddy Cianci sandwich. She saw him, one morning, waiting for a bus on South Main. Each time, Leonard was alone, looking forlorn and uncombed like a great big motherless boy. At the same time, he appeared somehow older than most guys at school.
It was Madeleine's last semester of senior year, a time when she was supposed to have some fun, and she wasn't having any. She'd never thought of herself as hard up. She preferred to think of her current boy-friendless state as salutary and head-clearing. But when she found herself wondering what it would be like to kiss a guy who chewed tobacco, she began to worry that she was fooling herself.
Looking back, Madeleine realized that her college love life had fallen short of expectations. Her freshman roommate, Jennifer Boomgaard, had rushed off to Health Services the first week of school to be fitted for a diaphragm. Unaccustomed to sharing a room with anybody, much less a stranger, Madeleine felt that Jenny was a little too quick with her intimacies. She didn't want to be shown Jennifer's diaphragm, which reminded her of an uncooked ravioli, and she certainly didn't want to feel the spermicidal jelly that Jenny offered to squirt into her palm. Madeleine was shocked when Jennifer started going to parties with the diaphragm already in place, when she wore it to the Harvard-Brown game, and when she left it one morning on top of their miniature fridge. That winter, when the Rev. Desmond Tutu came to campus for an anti-apartheid rally, Madeleine asked Jennifer on their way to see the great cleric, "Did you put your diaphragm in?" They lived the next four months in an eighteen-by-fifteen room without speaking to each other.
Though Madeleine hadn't arrived at college sexually inexperienced, her freshman learning curve resembled a flat line. Aside from one make-out session with a Uruguayan named Carlos, a sandal-wearing engineering student who in low light looked like Che Guevara, the only boy she'd fooled around with was a high school senior visiting campus for Early Action weekend. She found Tim standing in line at the Ratty, pushing his cafeteria tray along the metal track, and visibly quivering. His blue blazer was too big for him. He'd spent the entire day wandering around campus with no one speaking to him. Now he was starving and wasn't sure if he was allowed to eat in the cafeteria or not. Tim seemedto be the only person at Brown more lost than Madeleine. She helped him negotiate the Ratty and, afterward, took him on a tour of the university. Finally, around ten-thirty that night, they ended up back in Madeleine's dorm room. Tim had the long-lashed eyes and pretty features of an expensive Bavarian doll, a little prince or yodeling shepherd boy. His blue blazer was on the floor and Madeleine's shirt unbuttoned when Jennifer Boomgaard came through the door. "Oh," she said, "sorry," and proceeded to stand there, smiling at the floor as if already relishing how this juicy bit of gossip would play along the hall. When she finally did leave, Madeleine sat up and readjusted her clothes, and Tim picked up his blazer and went back to high school.
At Christmas, when Madeleine went home for vacation, she thought the scale in her parents' bathroom was broken. She got off to recalibrate the dial and got back on, whereupon the scale again registered the same weight. Stepping in front of the mirror, Madeleine encountered a worried chipmunk staring back. "Am I not getting asked out because I'm fat," the chipmunk said, "or am I fat because I'm not getting asked out?"
"I never got the freshman fifteen," her sister gloated when Madeleine came down to breakfast. "But I didn't pig out like all my friends did." Accustomed to Alwyn's teasing, Madeleine paid no attention, quietly slicing and eating the first of the fifty-seven grapefruits she subsisted on until New Year's.
Dieting fooled you into thinking you could control your life. By January, Madeleine was down five pounds, and by the time squash season ended she was back in great shape, and still she didn't meet anyone she liked. The boys at college seemed either incredibly immature or prematurely middle-aged, bearded like therapists, warming brandy snifters over candles while listening to Coltrane's A Love Supreme. It wasn't until her junior year that Madeleine had a serious boyfriend. Billy Bainbridge was the son of Dorothy Bainbridge, whose uncle owned a third of the newspapers in the United States. Billy had flushed cheeks, blond curls, and a scar on his right temple that made him even more adorable than he already was. He was soft-spoken and nice-smelling, like Ivory soap. Naked, his body was nearly hairless.
Billy didn't like to talk about his family. Madeleine took this as a sign of good breeding. Billy was a legacy at Brown and sometimes worried that he wouldn't have gotten in on his own. Sex with Billy was cozy, itwas snuggly, it was perfectly fine. He wanted to be a filmmaker. The one film he made for Advanced Filmmaking, however, was a violent, unbroken twelve minutes of Billy throwing fecal-looking brownie mix at the camera. Madeleine began to wonder if there was a reason he never talked about his family.
One thing he did talk about, however, with increasing intensity, was circumcision. Billy had read an article in an alternative health magazine that argued against the practice, and it made a big impression on him. "If you think about it, it's a pretty weird thing to do to a baby," he said. "Cut off part of its dick? What's so different about a tribe in, like, Papua New Guinea putting bones through their noses and cutting off a baby's foreskin? A bone through the nose is a lot less invasive." Madeleine listened, trying to look sympathetic, and hoped Billy would drop the subject. But as the weeks passed he kept returning to it. "The doctors just do it automatically in this country," he said. "They didn't ask my parents. It's not like I'm Jewish or anything." He derided justifications on the basis of health or hygiene. "Maybe that made sense three thousand years ago, out in the desert, when you couldn't take a shower. But now?"
One night, as they were lying in bed, naked, Madeleine noticed Billy examining his penis, stretching it.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
"I'm looking for the scar," he said somberly.
He interrogated his European friends, Henrik the Intact, Olivier the Foreskinned, asking, "But does it feel supersensitive?" Billy was convinced that he'd been deprived of sensation. Madeleine tried not to take this personally. Plus there were other problems with their relationship by then. Billy had a habit of staring deeply into Madeleine's eyes in a way that was somehow controlling. His roommate situation was odd. He lived off campus with an attractive, muscular girl named Kyle who was sleeping with at least three people, including Fatima Shirazi, a niece of the shah of Iran. On the wall of his living room Billy had painted the words Kill the Father. Killing the father was what, in Billy's opinion, college was all about.
"Who's your father?" he asked Madeleine. "Is it Virginia Woolf? Is it Sontag?"
"In my case," Madeleine said, "my father really is my father."
"Then you have to kill him."
"Who's your father?"
"Godard," he said.
Billy talked about renting a house in Guanajuato with Madeleine over the summer. He said she could write a novel while he made a film. His faith in her, in her writing (even though she hardly wrote any fiction), made Madeleine feel so good that she started going along with the idea. And then one day she came up onto Billy's front porch and was about to rap on his window when something told her to look in the window instead. In the storm-tossed bed, Billy lay curled, John Lennon-style, against the spread-eagled Kyle. Both were naked. A second later, in a puff of smoke, Fatima materialized, also naked, shaking baby powder over her gleaming Persian skin. She smiled at her bedmates, her teeth seed-like in purple, royal gums.
Maddy's next boyfriend wasn't strictly her fault. She would never have met Dabney Carlisle if she hadn't taken an acting class, and she would never have taken an acting class if it hadn't been for her mother. As a young woman, Phyllida had wanted to be an actress. Her parents had been opposed, however. "Acting wasn't what people in our family, especially the ladies, did," was the way Phyllida put it. Every so often, in reflective moods, she told her daughters the story of her one great disobedience. After graduating from college, Phyllida had "run away" to Hollywood. Without telling her parents, she'd flown out to Los Angeles, staying with a friend from Smith. She'd found a job as a secretary in an insurance company. She and the friend, a girl named Sally Peyton, moved into a bungalow in Santa Monica. In six months Phyllida had three auditions, one screen test, and "loads of invitations." She'd once seen Jackie Gleason carrying a chihuahua into a restaurant. She'd developed a lustrous suntan she described as "Egyptian." Whenever Phyllida spoke about this period in her life, it seemed as if she was talking about another person. As for Alton, he became quiet, fully aware that Phyllida's loss had been his gain. It was on the train back to New York, the next Christmas, that she'd met the straight-backed lieutenant colonel, recently returned from Berlin. Phyllida never went back to L.A. She got married instead. "And had you two," she told her daughters.
Phyllida's inability to realize her dreams had given Madeleine her own. Her mother's life was the great counterexample. It represented the injustice Madeleine's life would rectify. To come of age simultaneously with a great social movement, to grow up in the age of Betty Friedan andERA marches and Bella Abzug's indomitable hats, to define your identity when it was being redefined, this was a freedom as great as any of the American freedoms Madeleine had read about in school. She could remember the night, in 1973, when her family gathered before the television in the den to watch the tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. How she, Alwyn, and Phyllida had rooted for Billie Jean, while Alton had pulled for Bobby Riggs. How, as King ran Riggs back and forth across the court, outserving him, hitting winners he was too slow to return, Alton began to grumble. "It's not a fair fight! Riggs is too old. If they want a real test, she should play Smith or Newcombe." But it didn't matter what Alton said. It didn't matter that Bobby Riggs was fifty-five and King twenty-nine, or that Riggs hadn't been an especially great player even in his prime. What mattered was that this tennis match was on national television, during prime time, billed for weeks as "The Battle of the Sexes," and that the woman was winning. If any single moment defined Madeleine's generation of girls, dramatized their aspirations, put into clear focus what they expected from themselves and from life, it was those two hours and fifteen minutes when the country watched a man in white shorts get thrashed by a woman, pummeled repeatedly until all he could do, after match point, was to jump feebly over the net. And even that was telling: you were supposed to jump the net when you won, not lost. So how male was that, to act like a winner when you'd just been creamed?
At the first meeting of Acting Workshop, Professor Churchill, a bald bullfrog of a man, asked the students to say something about themselves. Half the people in the class were theater majors, serious about acting or directing. Madeleine mumbled something about loving Shakespeare and Eugene O'Neill.
Dabney Carlisle stood up and said, "I've done a little modeling work, down in New York. My agent suggested I should take some acting lessons. So here I am."
The modeling he'd done consisted of a single magazine ad, showing a group of Leni Riefenstahl-ish athletes in boxer briefs, standing in a receding line on a beach whose black volcanic sand steamed around their marble feet. Madeleine didn't see the photograph until she and Dabney were already going out, when Dabney gingerly took it out of the bartending manual where he kept it safely pressed. She was inclined tomake fun of it but something reverential in Dabney's expression stopped her. And so she asked where the beach had been (Montauk) and why it was so black (it wasn't) and how much he'd gotten paid ("four figures") and what the other guys were like ("total a-holes") and if he was wearing the underpants right now. It was sometimes difficult, with boys, to take an interest in the things that interested them. But with Dabney she wished it had been curling, she longed for it to be the model UN, anything but male modeling. This, anyway, was the authentic emotion she now identified herself as having felt. At the time--Dabney cautioned her against touching the ad before he got it laminated--Madeleine had rehearsed in her mind the standard arguments: that though objectification was de facto bad, the emergence of the idealized male form in the mass media scored a point for equality; that if men started getting objectified and started worrying about their looks and their bodies, they might begin to understand the burden women had been living with since forever, and might therefore be sensitized to these issues of the body. She even went so far as to admire Dabney for his courage in allowing himself to be photographed in snug little gray underpants.
Looking the way Madeleine and Dabney did, it was inevitable that they would be cast as romantic leads in the scenes the workshop performed. Madeleine was Rosalind to Dabney's wooden Orlando, Maggie to his brick-like Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. To rehearse the first time, they met at Dabney's fraternity house. Merely stepping through the front door reinforced Madeleine's aversion to places like Sigma Chi. It was around ten on a Sunday morning. The vestiges of the previous evening's "Hawaiian Night" were still there to see--the lei hanging from the antlers of the moose head on the wall, the plastic "grass" skirt trampled on the beer-sodden floor, a skirt that, should Madeleine succumb to the outrageous good looks of Dabney Carlisle, she might, at a minimum, have to watch some drunken slut hula in to the baying of the brothers, or, at a maximum (for mai tais made you do crazy things), might even don herself, up in Dabney's room, for his pleasure alone. On the low-slung couch two Sigma Chi members were watching TV. At Madeleine's appearance, they stirred, rising out of the gloom like openmouthed carp. She hurried to the back stairs, thinking the things she always thought when it came to frats and frat guys: that their appeal stemmed from a primitive need for protection (one thought of Neanderthal clansbanding together against other Neanderthal clans); that the hazing the pledges underwent (being stripped and blindfolded and left in the lobby of the Biltmore Hotel with bus fare taped to their genitals) enacted the very fears of male rape and emasculation that membership in the fraternity promised protection against; that any guy who longed to join a frat suffered from insecurities that poisoned his relationships with women; that there was something seriously wrong with homophobic guys who centered their lives around a homoerotic bond; that the stately mansions maintained by generations of dues-paying fraternity members were in reality sites for date rape and problem drinking; that frats always smelled bad; that you didn't ever want to shower in one; that only freshman girls were stupid enough to go to frat parties; that Kelly Traub had slept with a Sigma Delt guy who kept saying, "Now you see it, now you don't, now you see it, now you don't"; that such a thing wasn't going to happen to her, to Madeleine, ever.
What she hadn't expected when it came to a fraternity was a sunny-haired silent type like Dabney, learning his lines in a folding chair, in parachute pants, shoeless. Looking back on their relationship, Madeleine figured she'd had no choice. Dabney and she had been selected for each other in a Royal Wedding kind of way. She was Prince Charles to his Princess Di. She knew he couldn't act. Dabney had the artistic soul of a third-string tight end. In life Dabney moved and said little. Onstage he moved not at all but had to say a lot. His best dramatic moments came when the strain on his face from remembering his lines resembled the emotion he was trying to simulate.
Acting opposite Dabney made Madeleine more stiff and nervous than she already was. She wanted to do scenes with the talented kids in the workshop. She suggested interesting bits from The Vietnamization of New Jersey and Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago, but got no takers. Nobody wanted to lower his or her average by acting with her.
Dabney didn't let it bother him. "Bunch of little shits in that class," he said. "They'll never get any print work, much less movies."
He was more laconic than she liked her boyfriends to be. He had the wit of a store mannequin. But Dabney's physical perfection pushed these realities out of her mind. She'd never been in a relationship where she wasn't the more attractive partner. It was slightly intimidating. But she could handle it. At three a.m., while Dabney lay sleeping beside her,Madeleine found she was up to the task of inventorying each abdominal cord, every hard lump of muscle. She enjoyed applying calipers to Dabney's waist to measure his body fat. Underwear modeling was all about the abs, Dabney said, and the abs were all about sit-ups and diet. The pleasure Madeleine got from looking at Dabney was reminiscent of the pleasure she'd gotten as a girl from looking at sleek hunting dogs. Underneath this pleasure, like the coals that fed it, was a fierce need to enfold Dabney and siphon off his strength and beauty. It was all very primitive and evolutionary and felt fantastic. The problem was that she hadn't been able to allow herself to enjoy Dabney or even to exploit him a little, but had had to go and be a total girl about it and convince herself that she was in love with him. Madeleine required emotion, apparently. She disapproved of the idea of meaningless, extremely satisfying sex.
And so she began to tell herself that Dabney's acting was "restrained" or "economical." She appreciated that Dabney was "secure about himself" and "didn't need to prove anything" and wasn't a "showoff." Instead of worrying that he was dull, Madeleine decided he was gentle. Instead of thinking he was poorly read, she called him intuitive. She exaggerated Dabney's mental abilities in order not to feel shallow for wanting his body. To this end she helped Dabney write--O.K., she wrote--English and anthro papers for him and, when he got A's, felt confirmed of his intelligence. She sent him off to modeling auditions in New York with good-luck kisses and listened to him complain bitterly about the "faggots" who hadn't hired his services. It turned out that Dabney wasn't so beautiful. Among the truly beautiful he was only so-so. He couldn't even smile right.
At the end of the semester, the acting students met separately with the professor for a critical review. Churchill welcomed Madeleine with a wolfish yellow grin, then sat back jowly and deliberate in his chair.
"I've enjoyed having you in the class, Madeleine," he said. "But you can't act."
"Don't hold back," Madeleine said, chastened but laughing. "Give it to me straight."
"You have a good feel for language, for Shakespeare especially. But your voice is reedy and you look worried onstage. Your forehead has a perpetual crease. A vocal coach could go a long way toward helping yourinstrument. But I worry about your worrying. You've got it right now. The crease."
"It's called thinking."
"Which is fine. If you're playing Eleanor Roosevelt. Or Golda Meir. But those parts don't come around very often."
Churchill, steepling his fingers, continued, "I'd be more diplomatic if I thought this meant a lot to you. But I get the feeling you don't want to be a professional actress, do you?"
"No," Madeleine said.
"Good. You're lovely. You're bright. The world is your oyster. Go with my blessings."
When Dabney returned from his review with Churchill, he looked even more self-contented than usual.
"So?" Madeleine asked. "How did it go?"
"He says I'm perfect for soaps."
Dabney looked peeved. "Days of Our Lives. General Hospital. Ever heard of those?"
"Did he mean that as a compliment?"
"How else could he mean it? Soap actors have it made! They work every day, make great money, and never have to travel. I've been wasting my time trying to get all this advertising work. Screw that. I'm going to tell my agent to start lining up some auditions for soaps."
Madeleine was silent at this news. She'd assumed Dabney's enthusiasm for modeling was temporary, a tuition-earning scheme. Now she realized he was in earnest. She was, in fact, dating a model.
"What are you thinking?" Dabney asked her.
"Just that--I don't know--but I doubt Prof. Churchill has that high of an opinion of the acting on Days of Our Lives."
"What did he tell us the first class? He said he was giving a workshop in acting. For people who wanted to work in the theater."
"In the theater doesn't mean ..."
"What did he tell you? Did he say you were going to be a movie star?"
"He told me I couldn't act," Madeleine said.
"He did, huh?" Dabney put his hands in his pockets, leaning back onhis heels as if relieved not to have to deliver this verdict himself. "Is that why you're so pissed off? And have to tear down my crit?"
"I'm not tearing down your crit. I'm just not sure you got Churchill's meaning, exactly."
Dabney let out a bitter laugh. "I wouldn't get it right, would I? I'm too dumb. I'm just some dumb jock you have to write English papers for."
"I don't know. You seem to have a pretty good grasp of sarcasm."
"Man, am I ever lucky," Dabney said. "What would I do if you weren't around? You have to catch all the subtleties for me, don't you? You and your flair for catching subtleties. It must be nice to be rich and sit around all day catching subtleties. What do you know about needing to make a living? It's fine for you to make fun of my ad. You didn't get into college on a football scholarship. And now you have to come in here and run me down. You know what? This is bullshit. This is total bullshit. I'm sick of your condescension and your superiority complex. And Churchill's right. You can't act."
In the end Madeleine had to admit that Dabney was far more fluent than she'd ever expected. He was capable of portraying a range of emotions, too, anger, disgust, wounded pride, and of simulating others, including affection, passion, and love. He had a great career in the soaps ahead of him.
Madeleine and Dabney had broken up in May, right before summer, and there was no better time than summer to forget about somebody. She'd gone straight down to Prettybrook the day she finished her last exam. For once she was glad to have such sociable parents. With all the cocktail parties and convivial dinners on Wilson Lane there was little time to dwell on herself. In July, she got an internship at a nonprofit poetry organization on the Upper East Side and began riding the train into the city. Madeleine's job was to oversee submissions for the annual New Voices award, which involved making sure that the submissions were complete before sending them off to the judge (Howard Nemerov, that year). Madeleine wasn't particularly technical, but because everyone else in the office was even less so, she ended up being the go-to person whenever the copier or the dot-matrix printer malfunctioned. Her coworker Brenda would come up to Madeleine's desk at least once a week and ask in a babyish voice, "Can you help me? The printer's not being nice." The onlypart of the day Madeleine enjoyed was her lunch hour, when she got to walk around the muggy, stinking, thrilling streets, eat quiche in a French bistro as narrow as a bowling alley, and stare at the styles women her age or a little older were wearing. When the one straight guy at the nonprofit asked her to have a drink after work, Madeleine cooly answered, "Sorry, I can't," trying not to feel bad about hurting his feelings, trying to think about her own feelings for a change.
She arrived back at college for her senior year, then, intent on being studious, career-oriented, and aggressively celibate. Casting a wide net, Madeleine sent away for applications to Yale grad school (English Language and Literature), an organization for teaching English in China, and an advertising internship at Foote, Cone & Belding, in Chicago. She studied for the GRE using a sample booklet. The verbal section was easy. The math required brushing up on her high school algebra. The logic problems, however, were a defeat to the spirit. "At the annual dancers' ball a number of dancers performed their favorite dance with their favorite partners. Alan danced the tango, while Becky watched the waltz. James and Charlotte were fantastic together. Keith was magnificent during his foxtrot and Simon excelled at the rumba. Jessica danced with Alan. But Laura did not dance with Simon. Can you determine who danced with whom and which dance they each enjoyed?" Logic wasn't something Madeleine had been expressly taught. It seemed unfair to be asked about it. She did as the book suggested, diagramming the problems, placing Alan, Becky, James, Charlotte, Keith, Simon, Jessica, and Laura on the dance floor of her scrap paper, and pairing them according to the instructions. But their complicated transit wasn't a subject Madeleine's mind naturally followed. She wanted to know why James and Charlotte were fantastic together, and if Jessica and Alan were going out, and why Laura wouldn't dance with Simon, and if Becky was upset, watching.
One afternoon, on the bulletin board outside Hillel House, Madeleine noticed a flyer announcing the Melvin and Hetty Greenberg Fellowship for summer study at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and she applied for that. Using contacts of Alton's in the publishing world, she put on a business suit and went down to New York for an informational interview with an editor at Simon and Schuster. The editor, Terry Wirth, had once been a bright, idealistic English major just like Madeleine, butshe found him that afternoon, in his tiny, manuscript-piled office looking onto the gloomy canyon of Sixth Avenue, a middle-aged father of two with a salary far below the median of his former classmates and a nasty, hour-and-fifteen-minute commute to his split-level in Montclair, New Jersey. On the prospects of a book he was publishing that month, the memoir of a migrant farmer, Wirth said, "Now's the calm before the calm." He gave Madeleine a stack of manuscripts from the slush pile to critique, offering to pay her fifty bucks a pop.
Instead of reading the manuscripts, Madeleine took the subway down to the East Village. After buying a bag of pignoli cookies at De Robertis, she plunged into a hair salon, where, on a whim, she allowed a butch woman with a short, rat-tailed haircut to go to work on her. "Cut it close on the sides, higher on top," Madeleine said. "You sure?" the woman said. "I'm sure," Madeleine answered. To show her resolve, she took off her glasses. Forty-five minutes later, she put her glasses back on, horror-struck and elated at the transformation. Her head was really quite enormous. She had never fathomed its true size. She looked like Annie Lennox, or David Bowie. Like someone the hairdresser might be dating.
The Annie Lennox look was O.K., however. Androgyny was just the thing. Once she was back at school, Madeleine's haircut proclaimed her serious frame of mind, and by the end of the year, when her bangs had grown out to a maddening length she didn't know what to do with, she remained firm in her renunciations. (Her only slip-up had been the night in her bedroom with Mitchell, but nothing had happened.) Madeleine had her thesis to write. She had her future to figure out. The last thing she needed was a boy to distract her from her work and disturb her equilibrium. But then, during spring semester, she met Leonard Bankhead and her resolve went out the window.
He shaved irregularly. His Skoal had a menthol scent, cleaner, more pleasant than Madeleine expected. Whenever she looked up to find Leonard staring at her with his St. Bernard's eyes (the eyes of a drooler, maybe, but also of a loyal brute who could dig you out of an avalanche), Madeleine couldn't help staring back a significant moment longer.
One evening in early March, when she went to the Rockefeller Library to pick up the reserve reading for Semiotics 211, she found Leonard there as well. He was leaning against the counter, speaking animatedlyto the girl on duty, who was unfortunately rather cute in a busty Bettie Page way.
"Think about it, though," Leonard was saying to the girl. "Think about it from the point of view of the fly."
"O.K., I'm a fly," the girl said with a throaty laugh.
"We move in slow motion to them. They can see the swatter coming from a million miles away. The flies are like, 'Wake me when the swatter gets close.'"
Noticing Madeleine, the girl told Leonard, "Just a sec."
Madeleine held out her call order slip, and the girl took it and went off into the stacks.
"Picking up the Balzac?" Leonard said.
"Balzac to the rescue."
Normally, Madeleine would have had many things to say to this, many comments about Balzac to make. But her mind was a blank. She didn't even remember to smile until he'd looked away.
Bettie Page came back with Madeleine's order, sliding it toward her and immediately turning back to Leonard. He seemed different than he did in class, more exuberant, supercharged. He raised his eyebrows in a crazed, Jack Nicholson way and said, "My housefly theory is related to my theory about why time seems to go faster as you get older."
"Why's that?" the girl asked.
"It's proportional," Leonard explained. "When you're five, you've only been alive a couple thousand days. But by the time you're fifty, you've lived around twenty thousand days. So a day when you're five seems longer because it's a greater percentage of the whole."
"Yeah, sure," the girl teased, "that follows."
But Madeleine had understood. "That makes sense," she said. "I always wondered why that was."
"It's just a theory," Leonard said.
Bettie Page tapped Leonard's hand to get his attention. "Flies aren't always so fast," she said. "I've caught flies in my bare hands before."
"Especially in winter," Leonard said. "That's probably the kind of fly I'd be. One of those knucklehead winter flies."
There was no good excuse for Madeleine to hang around the reservereading room, and so she put the Balzac into her bag and headed out.
She began to dress differently on the days she had semiotics. She took out her diamond studs, leaving her ears bare. She stood in front of the mirror wondering if her Annie Hall glasses might possibly project a New Wave look. She decided not and wore her contacts. She unearthed a pair of Beatle boots she'd bought at a church basement sale in Vinal-haven. She put up her collar, and wore more black.
In Week Four, Zipperstein assigned Umberto Eco's The Role of the Reader. It hadn't done much for Madeleine. She wasn't all that interested, as a reader, in the reader. She was still partial to that increasingly eclipsed entity: the writer. Madeleine had a feeling that most semiotic theorists had been unpopular as children, often bullied or overlooked, and so had directed their lingering rage onto literature. They wanted to demote the author. They wanted a book, that hard-won, transcendent thing, to be a text, contingent, indeterminate, and open for suggestions. They wanted the reader to be the main thing. Because they were readers.
Whereas Madeleine was perfectly happy with the idea of genius. She wanted a book to take her places she couldn't get to herself. She thought a writer should work harder writing a book than she did reading it. When it came to letters and literature, Madeleine championed a virtue that had fallen out of esteem: namely, clarity. The week after they read Eco, they read portions of Derrida's Writing and Difference. The week after that, they read Jonathan Culler's On Deconstruction, and Madeleine came to class ready to contribute to the discussion for the first time. Before she could do so, however, Thurston beat her to it.
"The Culler was passable at best," Thurston said.
"What didn't you like about it?" the professor asked him.
Thurston had his knee up against the edge of the seminar table. He pushed his chair up on its back legs, scrunching up his face. "It's readable and everything," he said. "And well argued and all that. But it's just a question of whether you can use a discredited discourse--like, say, reason--to explicate something as paradigmatically revolutionary as deconstruction."
Madeleine searched along the table for mutual eye-rolling but the other students seemed eager to hear what Thurston had to say.
"Care to elaborate?" Zipperstein said.
"Well, what I mean is, first off, reason is just a discourse like any other, right? It's only been imbued with a sense of absolute truth because it's the privileged discourse of the West. What Derrida's saying is that you have to use reason because, you know, reason is all there is. But at the same time you have to be aware that language is by its very nature unreasonable. You have to reason yourself out of reasonableness." He pulled up the sleeve of his T-shirt and scratched his bony shoulder. "Culler, on the other hand, is still operating in the old mode. Mono as opposed to stereo. So from that point of view, I found the book, yeah, a little bit disappointing."
A silence ensued. And deepened.
"I don't know," Madeleine said, glancing at Leonard for support. "Maybe it's just me, but wasn't it a relief to read a logical argument for once? Culler boils down everything Eco and Derrida are saying into a digestible form."
Thurston turned his head slowly to gaze across the seminar table at her. "I'm not saying it's bad," he said. "It's fine. But Culler's work is of a different order than Derrida. Every genius needs an explainer. That's what Culler is for Derrida."
Madeleine shrugged this off. "I got a lot better idea of what deconstruction is from reading Culler than from reading Derrida."
Thurston took pains to give her point of view full consideration. "It's the nature of a simplification to be simple," he said.
Class ended shortly after that, leaving Madeleine fuming. As she was coming out of Sayles Hall, she saw Leonard standing on the steps, holding a Coke can. She went right up to him and said, "Thanks for the help."
"I thought you were on my side. Why didn't you say anything in class?"
"First Law of Thermodynamics," Leonard said. "Conservation of energy."
"Didn't you agree with me?"
"I did and I didn't," Leonard said.
"You didn't like the Culler?"
"The Culler's good. But Derrida's a heavyweight. You can't just write him off."
Madeleine looked dubious, but Derrida wasn't who she was mad at. "Considering how Thurston's always going on about how much he worships language, you'd think he wouldn't parrot so much jargon. He used the word phallus three times today."
Leonard smiled. "Figures if he says it it'll be like having one."
"He drives me crazy."
"You want to get some coffee?"
"And fascist. That's another of his favorites. You know the dry cleaners on Thayer Street? He called them fascist."
"Must have gone extra heavy on the starch."
"Yes," Madeleine said.
"You just invited me for coffee."
"I did?" Leonard said. "Yes, I did. O.K. Let's go get coffee."
Leonard didn't want to go to the Blue Room. He said he didn't like to be around college students. They headed through Wayland Arch up to Hope Street, in the direction of Fox Point.
As they walked, Leonard spat into his Coke can every so often. "Pardon my disgusting habit," he said.
Madeleine wrinkled up her nose. "Are you going to keep doing that?"
"No," Leonard said. "I don't even know why I do it. It's just something I picked up from my rodeo days."
At the next trash can they came to, he tossed the Coke and spat out his wad of tobacco.
Within a few blocks pretty campus plantings of tulip and daffodil gave way to treeless streets lined by working-class houses painted in cheerful hues. They passed a Portuguese bakery and a Portuguese fish store selling sardines and cuttlefish. The kids here had no yards to play in but seemed happy enough, wheeling back and forth along the blank sidewalks. Nearer the highway, there were a few warehouses and, on the corner of Wickenden, a local diner.
Leonard wanted to sit at the counter. "I need to be close to the pies," he said. "I need to see which one is talking to me."
As Madeleine took a stool next to him, Leonard stared at the dessert case.
"Do you remember when they used to serve slices of cheese with apple pie?" he asked.
"Vaguely," Madeleine said.
"They don't seem to do that anymore. You and I are probably the only two people in this place who remember it."
"Actually, I don't remember it," Madeleine said.
"You don't? Never had a little slice of Wisconsin cheddar with your apple pie? I'm sorry to hear that."
"Maybe they'll put a slice of cheese on a piece if you ask them."
"I didn't say I liked it. I'm just mourning its passage."
The conversation lapsed. And suddenly, to her surprise, Madeleine was flooded with panic. She felt the silence like a judgment against her. At the same time, her anxiety about the silence made it even harder to speak.
Though it didn't feel nice to be so nervous, it did feel nice, in a way. It had been a while since Madeleine had been that way around a guy.
The waitress was down at the end of the counter talking to another customer.
"So why are you taking Zipperstein's class?" she asked.
"Philosophical interest," Leonard said. "Literally. Philosophy's all about theory of language right now. It's all linguistics. So I figured I'd check it out."
"Aren't you a biology major, too?"
"That's what I really am," Leonard said. "The philosophy's just a sideline."
Madeleine realized that she'd never dated a science major. "Do you want to be a doctor?"
"Right now all I want to do is get the waitress's attention."
Leonard waved his arm a few times to no avail. Suddenly he said, "Is it hot in here?" Without waiting for an answer, he reached into the back pocket of his jeans and pulled out a blue bandanna, which he proceeded to put over his head, tying it in back and making a number of small, precise adjustments until he was satisfied. Madeleine watched this with a slight feeling of disappointment. She associated bandannas with hacky sack, the Grateful Dead, and alfalfa sprouts, all of which she could do without. Still, she was impressed with Leonard's sheer size on the stool next to her. His largeness, coupled with the softness--the delicacy, almost--of his voice, gave Madeleine a strange fairy-tale feeling, as if she were a princess sitting beside a gentle giant.
"The thing is, though," Leonard said, still staring in the waitress's direction, "I didn't get interested in philosophy because of linguistics. I got interested for the eternal verities. To learn how to die, et cetera. Now it's more like, 'What do we mean when we say we die?' 'What do we mean we mean when we say we die?'"
Finally, the waitress came over. Madeleine ordered the cottage cheese plate and coffee. Leonard ordered apple pie and coffee. When the waitress left, he spun his stool rightward, so that their knees briefly touched.
"How very female of you," he said.
"I like cottage cheese."
"Are you on a diet? You don't look like someone on a diet."
"Why do you want to know?" Madeleine said.
And here, for the first time, Leonard appeared rattled. Beneath the line of the bandanna, his face colored, and he spun away, breaking eye contact. "Just curious," he said.
In the next second, he spun back, resuming the previous conversation. "Derrida's supposed to be a lot clearer in French," he said. "Rumor has it his prose in French is limpid."
"Maybe I should read it in French, then."
"You know French?" Leonard said, sounding impressed.
"I'm not great. I can read Flaubert."
It was then that Madeleine made a big mistake. Things were going so well with Leonard, the mood was so promising--even the weather lending a hand because, after they finished their food and left the diner, walking back to campus, a March drizzle forced them to share Madeleine's collapsible umbrella--that a feeling came over her like those she'd had as a girl when treated to a pastry or a dessert, a happiness so fraught by an awareness of its brevity that she took the tiniest bites, making the cream puff or éclair last as long as possible. In this same way, instead of seeing where the afternoon led, Madeleine decided to check its progress, to save some for later, and she told Leonard she had to go home and study.
They didn't kiss goodbye. They didn't come close to it. Leonard, hunching under the umbrella, abruptly said "Bye" and hurried off throughthe rain, keeping his head down. Madeleine went back to the Narragansett. She lay down on her bed, and didn't move for a long time.
The days dragged until the next meeting of Sem 211. Madeleine arrived early, choosing a seat at the seminar table next to Leonard's usual spot. But when he showed up, ten minutes late, he took an available chair next to the professor. He didn't say anything in class or glance in Madeleine's direction even once. His face looked swollen and there was a line of blemishes running down one cheek. When the class ended, Leonard was the first one out the door.
The next week he missed class entirely.
And so Madeleine was left to contend with semiotics, and with Zipperstein and his disciples, all by herself.
By now they had moved on to Derrida's Of Grammatology. The Derrida went like this: "In that sense, it is the Aufhebung of other writings, particularly of hieroglyphic script and of the Leibnizian characteristic that had been criticized previously through one and the same gesture." In poetic moods, the Derrida went like this: "What writing itself, in its nonphonetic moment, betrays, is life. It menaces at once the breath, the spirit, and history as the spirit's relationship with itself. It is their end, their finitude, their paralysis."
Since Derrida claimed that language, by its very nature, undermined any meaning it attempted to promote, Madeleine wondered how Derrida expected her to get his meaning. Maybe he didn't. That was why he deployed so much arcane terminology, so many loop-de-looping clauses. That was why he said what he said in sentences it took a minute to identify the subjects of. (Could "the access to pluridimensionality and to a delinearized temporality" really be a subject?)
Reading a novel after reading semiotic theory was like jogging empty-handed after jogging with hand weights. After getting out of Semiotics 211, Madeleine fled to the Rockefeller Library, down to B Level, where the stacks exuded a vivifying smell of mold, and grabbed something--anything, The House of Mirth, Daniel Deronda--to restore herself to sanity. How wonderful it was when one sentence followed logically from the sentence before! What exquisite guilt she felt, wickedly enjoying narrative! Madeleine felt safe with a nineteenth-century novel. There were going to be people in it. Something was going to happen to them in a place resembling the world.
Then, too, there were lots of weddings in Wharton and Austen. There were all kinds of irresistible gloomy men.
The next Thursday, Madeleine came to class wearing a Norwegian sweater with a snowflake design. She'd gone back to her glasses. For the second week in a row, Leonard didn't show up. Madeleine worried that he'd dropped the class, but it was too late in the semester to do that. Zipperstein said, "Has anybody seen Mr. Bankhead? Is he sick?" Nobody knew. Thurston arrived with a girl named Cassandra Hart, both of them sniffly and heroin-pale. Taking out a black Flair pen, Thurston wrote on Cassandra's bare shoulder, "Not Real Skin."
Zipperstein was in a lively mood. He'd just returned from a conference in New York, dressed differently than usual. Listening to him talk about the paper he'd given at the New School, Madeleine suddenly understood. Semiotics was the form Zipperstein's midlife crisis had taken. Becoming a semiotician allowed Zipperstein to wear a leather jacket, to fly off to Douglas Sirk retrospectives in Vancouver, and to get all the sexy waifs in his classes. Instead of leaving his wife, Zipperstein had left the English department. Instead of buying a sports car, he'd bought deconstruction.
He sat at the seminar table now and started speaking:
"I hope you read the Semiotext(e) for this week. Apropos of Lyotard, and in homage to Gertrude Stein, let me suggest the following: the thing about desire is that there is no there there."
That was it. That was Zipperstein's prompt. He sat before them, blinking, waiting for somebody to reply. He appeared to have all the patience in the world.
Madeleine had wanted to know what semiotics was. She'd wanted to know what the fuss was about. Well, now she felt she knew.
But then, in Week Ten, for reasons that were entirely extracurricular, semiotics began making sense.
It was a Friday night in April, just past eleven, and Madeleine was in bed, reading. The assigned text for that week was Roland Barthes' A Lover's Discourse. For a book purportedly about love, it didn't look very romantic. The cover was a somber chocolate brown, the title turquoise. There was no author photograph and only a sketchy bio, listing Barthes' other works.
Madeleine had the book in her lap. With her right hand she was eatingpeanut butter straight from the jar. The spoon fit perfectly against the curve of her upper palate, allowing the peanut butter to dissolve creamily against her tongue.
Opening to the introduction, she began to read:
The necessity for this book is to be found in the following consideration: that the lover's discourse is today of an extreme solitude.
Outside, the temperature, which had remained cold through March, had shot up into the fifties. The resulting thaw was alarming in its suddenness, drainpipes and gutters dripping, sidewalks puddling, streets flooded, a constant sound of water rushing downhill.
Madeleine had her windows open on the liquid darkness. She sucked the spoon and read on:
What we have been able to say below about waiting, anxiety, memory is no more than a modest supplement offered to the reader to be made free with, to be added to, subtracted from, and passed on to others: around the figure, the players pass the handkerchief which sometimes, by a final parenthesis, is held a second longer before handing it on. (Ideally, the book would be a cooperative: "To the United Readers and Lovers.")
It wasn't only that this writing seemed beautiful to Madeleine. It wasn't only that these opening sentences of Barthes' made immediate sense. It wasn't only the relief at recognizing that here, finally, was a book she might write her final paper on. What made Madeleine sit up in bed was something closer to the reason she read books in the first place and had always loved them. Here was a sign that she wasn't alone. Here was an articulation of what she had been so far mutely feeling. In bed on a Friday night, wearing sweatpants, her hair tied back, her glasses smudged, and eating peanut butter from the jar, Madeleine was in a state of extreme solitude.
It had to do with Leonard. With how she felt about him and how she couldn't tell anyone. With how much she liked him and how little she knew about him. With how desperately she wanted to see him and how hard it was to do so.
In recent days, from her solitude, Madeleine had sent out feelers. She talked about Semiotics 211 with her roommates, mentioning Thurston, Cassandra, and Leonard. It turned out that Abby knew Leonard from her freshman year.
"What was he like?" Madeleine asked.
"Sort of intense. Really smart, but intense. He used to call me all the time. Like every day."
"Did he like you?"
"No, he just wanted to talk. He'd keep me on the phone for an hour."
"What did you guys talk about?"
"Everything! His relationship. My relationship. His parents, my parents. Jimmy Carter getting attacked by that swamp rabbit, which he was obsessed about. He'd go on and on."
"Who was he going out with?"
"Some girl named Mindy. But then they broke up. That's when he really started calling me. He'd call like six times a day. He was always going on about how good Mindy smelled. She had this smell that was supposedly perfectly compatible to Leonard, chemically. He was worried no girl would ever smell right to him again. I told him it was probably her moisturizer. He said no, it was her skin. It was chemically perfect. That's what he's like." She paused and gave Madeleine a searching look. "Why are you asking? Do you like him?"
"I just know him from class," Madeleine said.
"Do you want me to invite him for dinner?"
"I didn't say that."
"I'll invite him to dinner," Abby said.
The dinner had been on Tuesday night, three days ago. Leonard had come politely bearing a gift, a set of dish towels. He'd dressed up, wearing a white shirt with a skinny necktie, his long hair gathered in a masculine ponytail like a Scottish warrior. He was touchingly sincere, saying hello to Abby, handing her the wrapped gift and thanking her for the invitation.
Madeleine tried not to seem overeager. At dinner, she paid attention to Brian Weeger, whose breath had a dog-food smell. A couple of times, when she looked over at Leonard, he stared back, fixedly, appearing almost upset. Later, when Madeleine was in the kitchen, rinsing dishes, Leonard came in. She turned to find him inspecting a bump on the wall.
"This must be an old gas main," he said.
Madeleine looked at the bump, which had been painted over many times.
"They used to have gas lamps in these old places," Leonard went on. "They probably used to pump the gas up from the basement. If anybody's pilot blew out, on any floor, you'd have a leak. Gas didn't have an odor back then, either. They didn't start adding methyl mercaptan until later."
"Good to know," Madeleine said.
"This place must have been a powder keg." Leonard tapped the jutting object with his fingernail, turned, and looked Madeleine meaningfully in the face.
"I haven't been going to class," he said.
Leonard's head was way up above her, but then he bent down, in a peaceful, leaf-eater motion, and said, "I haven't been feeling well."
"Were you sick?"
"I'm better now."
In the living room Olivia called out, "Who wants some Delamain? It's yummy!"
"I want some," Brian Weeger said. "That stuff's killer."
Leonard said, "Were the dish towels all right?"
"The dish towels. I bought you some dish towels."
"Oh, they're great," Madeleine said. "They're perfect. We'll use them! Thank you."
"I would have brought wine, or scotch, but that's the kind of thing my father would do."
"You don't want to do anything your father would do?"
Leonard's face and voice remained solemn as he replied, "My father is a depressive who self-medicates with alcohol. My mother is more or less the same."
"Where do they live?"
"They're divorced. My mother still lives in Portland, where I'm from. My dad's in Europe. He lives in Antwerp. Last time I heard."
This interchange was encouraging, in a way. Leonard was sharing personal information. On the other hand, the information indicated thathe had a troubled relationship with his parents, who were themselves troubled, and Madeleine made a point of going out only with guys who liked their parents.
"What does your father do?" Leonard asked.
Caught off guard, Madeleine hesitated. "He used to work at a college," she said. "He's retired."
"What was he? Professor?"
"He was the president."
Leonard's face twitched. "Oh."
"It's just a small college. In New Jersey. It's called Baxter."
Abby came in to get some glasses. Leonard helped her get them off the top shelf. When she was gone, he turned back to Madeleine and said, as if in pain, "There's a Fellini film playing at the Cable Car this weekend. Amarcord."
Madeleine gazed encouragingly up at him. There were all kinds of outmoded, novelistic words to describe how she was feeling, words like aflutter. But she had her rules. One rule was that the guy had to ask her out, not the other way around.
"I think it's playing on Saturday," Leonard said.
"Do you like Fellini?"
To reply to this question did not, in Madeleine's view, compromise her rule. "You want to know something embarrassing?" she said. "I've never seen a Fellini film."
"You should see one," Leonard said. "I'll call you."
"Do I have your number? Oh, right, I have it. It's the same as Abby's number."
"Do you want me to write it down?" Madeleine asked.
"No," Leonard said. "I have it."
And he rose, brontosaurus-like, to his place among the treetops.
For the rest of the week, Madeleine stayed in every night, waiting for Leonard to call. When she came back from classes in the afternoon she interrogated her roommates to find out if he had called while she was out.
"Some guy called yesterday," Olivia said, on Thursday. "When I was in the shower."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"Sorry, I forgot."
"Who was it?"
"He didn't say."
"Did it sound like Leonard?"
"I didn't notice. I was dripping wet."
"Thanks for taking a message!"
"Sor-ree," Olivia said. "God. It was just a two-second call. He said he'd call back later."
And so now it was Friday night--Friday night!--and Madeleine had declined to go out with Abby and Olivia in order to stay in and wait by the phone. She was reading A Lover's Discourse and marveling at its relevance to her life.
attente / waiting
Tumult of anxiety provoked by waiting for the loved being, subject to trivial delays (rendezvous, letters, telephone calls, returns).
... Waiting is an enchantment: I have received orders not to move. Waiting for a telephone is thereby woven out of tiny, un-avowable interdictions to infinity: I forbid myself to leave the room, to go to the toilet, even to telephone (to keep the line from being busy) ...
She could hear the television going in the apartment below. Madeleine's bedroom faced the State Capitol dome, brightly lit against the dark sky. The heat, which they couldn't control, was still on, the radiator wastefully knocking and hissing.
The more she thought about it, the more Madeleine understood that extreme solitude didn't just describe the way she was feeling about Leonard. It explained how she'd always felt when she was in love. It explained what love was like and, just maybe, what was wrong with it.
The telephone rang.
Madeleine sat up in bed. She dog-eared the page she was reading. She waited as long as she could (three rings) before answering.
It was Alton, calling from Prettybrook.
"Oh. Hi, Daddy."
"Don't sound so excited."
In his usual way, without niceties, he got to the matter at hand. "Your mother and I were just discussing graduation plans."
For a moment, Madeleine thought Alton meant that they were discussing her future. But then she realized it was just logistics.
"It's April," she said. "Graduation's not until June."
"My experience with college towns is that the hotels get booked up months in advance. So we have to decide what we're doing. Now, here are the options. Are you listening?"
"Yes," Madeleine said, and began, at that instant, to tune out. She stuck the spoon back into the peanut butter jar and brought it to her mouth, this time just licking it.
In the phone Alton's voice was saying, "Option one: Your mother and I come up the night before the ceremony, stay in a hotel, and we see you for dinner the night of graduation. Option two: We come up the morning of the ceremony, have breakfast with you, and then leave after the ceremony. Both proposals are acceptable to us. It's your choice. But let me explain the pros and cons of each scenario."
Madeleine was about to answer when Phyllida spoke up on another extension.
"Hi, dear. I hope we didn't wake you."
"We didn't wake her," Alton barked. "Eleven o'clock's not late at college. Especially on a Friday night. Hey, what are you doing in on a Friday night? Got a pimple?"
"Hi, Mummy," Madeleine said, ignoring him.
"Maddy, sweetie, we're redoing your bedroom and I wanted to ask you--"
"You're redoing my bedroom?"
"Yes, it needs freshening up. I--"
"Yes. I was thinking about recarpeting it in green. You know, a good green."
"No!" Madeleine cried.
"Maddy, we've kept your room the way it is for four years now--you'd think it was a shrine! I'd like to be able to use it as a guest room, occasionally, because of the en suite bathroom. You can still have it when you come home, don't worry. It'll always be your room."
"What about my wallpaper?"
"It's old. It's peeling."
"You can't change my wallpaper!"
"Oh, all right. I'll leave the wallpaper alone. But the carpet--"
"Excuse me," Alton said in a peremptory tone. "This call is about graduation. Phyl, you're hijacking my agenda. You two sort out the redecorating some other time. Now, Maddy, let me go over the pros and cons. When your sister graduated from Williams, we had dinner after the ceremony. And, if you'll remember, Allie complained the whole time that she was missing all the parties--and she left halfway through the meal. Now, your mother and I are willing to stay the night--or two nights--if we're going to see you. But if you're going to be busy, maybe the breakfast option makes more sense."
"Graduation's two months away. I don't even know what's happening yet."
"That's what I told your father," Phyllida said.
It occurred to Madeleine that she was tying up the line.
"Let me think about it," she said abruptly. "I have to go. I'm studying."
"If we're going to stay the night," Alton repeated, "I'd like to make reservations soon."
"Call me later. Let me think about it. Call me Sunday."
Alton was still speaking when she hung up, so when the phone rang again, twenty seconds later, Madeleine picked up and said, "Daddy, stop it. We don't have to decide tonight."
There was silence on the line. And then a male voice said, "You don't have to call me Daddy."
"Oh, God. Leonard? Sorry! I thought you were my father. He's freaking out about graduation plans already."
"I was just having a little freak-out myself."
"About calling you."
This was good. Madeleine ran a finger along her lower lip. She said, "Have you calmed down or do you want to call back later?"
"I'm resting comfortably now, thank you."
Madeleine waited for more. None came. "Are you calling for a reason?" she asked.
"Yes. That Fellini film? I was hoping you might, if you're not too, I know it's bad manners calling so late, but I was at the lab."
Leonard did sound a little nervous. That wasn't good. Madeleine didn't like nervous guys. Nervous guys were nervous for a reason. Up until now Leonard had seemed more the tortured type than the nervous type. Tortured was better.
"I don't think that was a complete sentence," she said.
"What did I leave out?" Leonard asked.
"How about, 'Would you like to come with me?'"
"I'd be happy to," Leonard said.
Madeleine frowned into the receiver. She had a feeling that Leonard had set up this exchange, like a chess player thinking eight moves ahead. She was going to complain when Leonard said, "Sorry. Not funny." He comically cleared his throat. "Listen, would you like to go to the movies with me?"
She didn't answer right away. He deserved a little punishment. And so she put the screws to him--for another three seconds.
"I'd love to."
And there it was already, that word. She wondered if Leonard had noticed. She wondered what it meant that she had noticed. It was just a word, after all. A way of speaking.
The next night, Saturday, the fickle weather turned cold again. Madeleine was chilled in her brown suede jacket as she walked to the restaurant where they'd agreed to meet. Afterward, they made their way to the Cable Car and found a sagging couch among the other mismatched sofas and armchairs that furnished the art-house cinema.
She had a hard time following the movie. The narrative cues weren't as crisp as those of Hollywood, and the film had a dream-like quality, lush but discontinuous. The audience, being a college audience, laughed knowingly during the risqué European moments: when the huge-tittedwoman stuffed her huge tit into the young hero's mouth; or when the old man up in the tree cried out, "I want a woman!" Fellini's theme appeared to be the same as Roland Barthes'--love--but here it was Italian and all about the body instead of French and all about the mind. She wondered if Leonard had known what Amarcord was going to be about. She wondered if it was his way of getting her in the mood. As it so happened, she was in the mood, but no thanks to the movie. The movie was pretty to look at but confused her and made her feel naïve and suburban. It seemed both overly indulgent and overly male.
After it was over, they made their way out onto South Main. They had no stated destination. Madeleine was pleased to realize that Leonard, though tall, wasn't too tall. If she wore heels, the top of her head came up higher than his shoulders, almost to his chin.
"What did you think?" he said.
"Well, at least now I know what Felliniesque is."
The downtown skyline was on their left, across the river, the spire of the Superman building visible against the unnaturally pink city sky. The streets were empty except for other people leaving the cinema.
"My goal in life is to become an adjective," Leonard said. "People would go around saying, 'That was so Bankheadian.' Or, 'A little too Bankheadian for my taste.'"
"Bankheadian has a ring," Madeleine said.
"It's better than Bankheadesque."
"Ish is terrible all around. There's Joycean, Shakespearean, Faulknerian. But ish? Who is there who's an ish?"
"Kafkaesque," Leonard said. "Pynchonesque! See, Pynchon's already an adjective. Gaddis. What would Gaddis be? Gaddisesque? Gaddisy?"
"You can't really do it with Gaddis," Madeleine said.
"Yeah," Leonard said. "Tough luck for Gaddis. Do you like him?"
"I read a little of The Recognitions," Madeleine said.
They turned up Planet Street, climbing the slope.
"Bellovian," Leonard said. "It's extra nice when they change the spelling slightly. Nabokovian already has the v. So does Chekhovian. The Russians have it made. Tolstoyan! That guy was an adjective waiting to happen."
"Don't forget Tolstoyanism," Madeleine said.
"My God!" Leonard said. "A noun! I've never even dreamed of being a noun."
"What would Bankheadian mean?"
Leonard thought for a second. "'Of or related to Leonard Bankhead (American, born 1959), characterized by excessive introspection or worry. Gloomy, depressive. See basket case.'"
Madeleine was laughing. Leonard stopped walking and took hold of her arm, looking at her seriously.
"I'm taking you to my place," he said.
"All this time we've been walking? I've been leading you back to my place. This is how I do it, apparently. It's shameful. Shameful. I don't want it to be like that. Not with you. So I'm telling you."
"I figured we were going back to your place."
"I was going to call you on it. When we got closer."
"We're already close."
"I can't come up."
"No. Not tonight."
"Hannaesque," Leonard said. "Stubborn. Given to ironclad positions."
"Hannarian," Madeleine said. "Dangerous. Not to be messed with."
"I stand warned."
They stood looking at each other on cold, dark Planet Street. Leonard took his hands out of his pockets to tuck his long hair behind his ears.
"Maybe I'll come up just for a minute," Madeleine said.
fête / festivity
The amorous subject experiences every meeting with the loved being as a festival.
1. The Festivity is what is waited for, what is expected. What I expect of the promised presence is an unheard-of totality of pleasures, a banquet; I rejoice like the child laughing at the sight ofthe mother whose mere presence heralds and signifies a plenitude of satisfactions: I am about to have before me, and for myself, the "source of all good things."
"I am living through days as happy as those God keeps for his chosen people; and whatever becomes of me, I can never say that I have not tasted the purest joys of life."
It was debatable whether or not Madeleine had fallen in love with Leonard the first moment she'd seen him. She hadn't even known him then, and so what she'd felt was only sexual attraction, not love. Even after they'd gone out for coffee, she couldn't say that what she was feeling was anything more than infatuation. But ever since the night when they went back to Leonard's place after watching Amarcord and started fooling around, when Madeleine found that instead of being turned off by physical stuff, the way she often was with boys, instead of putting up with that or trying to overlook it, she'd spent the entire night worrying that she was turning Leonard off, worrying that her body wasn't good enough, or that her breath was bad from the Caesar salad she'd unwisely ordered at dinner; worrying, too, about having suggested they order martinis because of the way Leonard had sarcastically said, "Sure. Martinis. We can pretend we're Salinger characters"; after having had, as a consequence of all this anxiety, pretty much no sexual pleasure, despite the perfectly respectable session they'd put together; and after Leonard (like every guy) had immediately fallen asleep, leaving her to lie awake stroking his head and vaguely hoping she didn't get a urinary tract infection, Madeleine asked herself if the fact that she'd just spent the whole night worrying wasn't, in fact, a surefire sign that she was falling in love. And certainly after they'd spent the next three days at Leonard's place having sex and eating pizza, after she'd relaxed enough to be able to come at least once in a while and finally to stop worrying so much about having an orgasm because her hunger for Leonard was in some way satisfied by his satisfaction, after she'd allowed herself to sit naked on his gross couch and to walk to the bathroom knowing he was staring at her (imperfect) ass, to root for food in his disgusting refrigerator, to read the brilliant half-page of philosophy paper sticking up out of his typewriter, and to hear him pee with taurine force into the toilet bowl,certainly, by the end of those three days, Madeleine knew she was in love.
But that didn't mean she had to tell anyone. Especially Leonard.
Leonard Bankhead had a studio apartment on the third floor of a low-rent student building. The halls were full of bikes and junk mail. Stickers decorated the other tenants' doors: a fluorescent marijuana leaf, a silk-screen Blondie. Leonard's door, however, was as blank as the apartment inside. In the middle of the room, a twin mattress lay beside a plastic milk crate supporting a reading lamp. There was no desk, no bookcase, not even a table, only the nasty couch, with a typewriter on another milk crate in front of it. There was nothing on the walls but bits of masking tape and, in one corner, a small portrait of Leonard, done in pencil. The drawing showed Leonard as George Washington, wearing a tricorne hat and sheltering under a blanket at Valley Forge. The caption read: "You go. I like it here."
Madeleine thought the handwriting looked feminine.
A ficus tree endured in the corner. Leonard moved it into the sun whenever he remembered to. Madeleine, taking pity on the tree, began to water it, until she caught Leonard looking at her one day, his eyes narrowed with suspicion.
"What?" she said.
"Come on. What?"
"You're watering my tree."
"The soil's dry."
"You're taking care of my tree."
She stopped doing it after that.
There was a tiny kitchen where Leonard brewed and reheated the gallon of coffee he drank every day. A big greasy wok sat on the stove. The most Leonard did in the way of preparing a meal, however, was to pour Grape Nuts into the wok. With raisins. Raisins satisfied his fruit requirement.
The apartment had a message. The message said: I am an orphan. Abby and Olivia asked Madeleine what she and Leonard did together and she never had an answer. They didn't do anything. She came to his apartment and they lay down on the mattress and Leonard asked her how she was doing, really wanting to know. What did they do? Shetalked; he listened; then he talked and she listened. She'd never met anyone, and certainly not a guy, who was so receptive, who took everything in. She guessed that Leonard's shrink-like manner came from years of seeing shrinks himself, and though another of her rules was to never date guys who went to shrinks, Madeleine began to reconsider this prohibition. Back home, she and her sister had a phrase for serious emotional talks. They called it "having a heavy." If a boy approached during one, the girls would look up and give warning: "We're having a heavy." And the boy would retreat. Until it was over. Until the heavy had passed.
Going out with Leonard was like having a heavy all the time. Whenever she was with him, Leonard gave her his full attention. He didn't stare into her eyes or smother her the way Billy had, but he made it clear he was available. He offered little advice. Only listened, and murmured, reassuringly.
People often fell in love with their shrinks, didn't they? That was called transference and was to be avoided. But what if you were already sleeping with your shrink? What if your shrink's couch was already a bed?
And plus it wasn't all heavy, the heavies. Leonard was funny. He told hilarious stories in a deadpan voice. His head sank into his shoulders, his eyes filled with rue, as his sentences drawled on. "Did I ever tell you I play an instrument? The summer my parents got divorced, they sent me to live with my grandparents in Buffalo. The people next door were Latvian, the Bruverises. And they both played the kokle. Do you know what a kokle is? It's sort of like a zither, but Latvian.
"Anyway, I used to hear Mr. and Mrs. Bruveris playing their kokles over in the next yard. It was an amazing sound. Sort of wild and overstimulated on the one hand, but melancholy on the other. The kokle is the manic-depressive of the string family. Anyway, I was bored to death that summer. I was sixteen. Six foot one. One hundred and thirty-eight pounds. A major reefer smoker. I used to get high in my bedroom and blow the smoke out the window, and then I'd go out to the porch and listen to the Bruverises playing next door. Sometimes other people came over. Other kokle players. They set up lawn chairs in the backyard and they'd all sit there playing together. It was an orchestra! A kokle orchestra. Then one day they saw me watching and invited me over. They gave me potato salad and a grape Popsicle and I asked Mr. Bruverishow you played a kokle and he started giving me lessons. I used to go over there every day. They had an old kokle they let me borrow. I used to practice five, six hours a day. I was into it.
"At the end of that summer, when I had to leave, the Bruverises gave me the kokle. To keep. I took it on the plane with me. I got a separate seat for it, like I was Rostropovich. My father had moved out of the house by then. So it was just me, my sister, and my mother. And I kept on practicing. I got good enough that I joined this band. We used to play at ethnic festivals and Orthodox weddings. We had these traditional costumes, embroidered vests, puffy sleeves, knee-high boots. Me and all the adults. Most of them were Latvian, some Russians, too. Our big number was 'Otchi Tchornyia.' That's the only thing that saved me in high school. The kokle."
"Do you still play?"
"Hell no. Are you kidding? The kokle?"
Listening to Leonard, Madeleine felt impoverished by her happy childhood. She never wondered why she acted the way she did, or what effect her parents had had on her personality. Being fortunate had dulled her powers of observation. Whereas Leonard noticed every little thing. For instance, they spent a weekend on Cape Cod (partly to visit Pilgrim Lake Laboratory, where Leonard was applying for a research fellowship), and as they were driving back, Leonard said, "What do you do? Just hold it?"
"You just hold it. For two days. Until you get back home."
As his meaning seeped in, she said, "I can't believe you!"
"You have never, ever, taken a dump in my presence."
"In your presence?"
"When I am present. Or nearby."
"What's wrong with that?"
"What's wrong with it? Nothing. If you're talking about I-sleepover-and-go-off-to-class-the-next-morning and then you go and take a dump, that's understandable. But when we spend two, almost three days together, eating surf and turf, and you do not take a dump the entire time, I can only conclude that you are more than a little anal."
"So what? It's embarrassing!" Madeleine said. "O.K.? I find it embarrassing."
Leonard stared at her without expression and said, "Do you mind when I take a dump?"
"Do we have to talk about this? It's sort of gross."
"I think we do need to talk about it. Because you're obviously not very relaxed around me, and I am--or thought I was--your boyfriend, and that means--or should mean--that I'm the person you're most relaxed around. Leonard equals maximum relaxation."
Guys weren't supposed to be the talkers. Guys weren't supposed to get you to open up. But this guy was; this guy did. He'd said he was her "boyfriend," too. He'd made it official.
"I'll try to be more relaxed," Madeleine said, "if it'll make you happy. But in terms of--excretion--don't get your hopes up."
"This isn't for me," Leonard said. "This is for Mr. Lower Intestine. This is for Mr. Duodenum."
Even though this kind of amateur therapy didn't exactly work (after that last conversation, for instance, Madeleine had more, not less, trouble going Number 2 if Leonard was within a mile), it affected Madeleine deeply. Leonard was examining her closely. She felt handled in the right way, like something precious or immensely fascinating. It made her happy to think about how much he thought about her.
By the end of April, Madeleine and Leonard had gotten into a routine of spending every night together. On weeknights, after Madeleine finished studying, she headed over to the biology lab, where she'd find Leonard staring at slides with two Chinese grad students. After she finally got Leonard to leave the lab, Madeleine then had to cajole him into sleeping at her place. At first, Leonard had liked staying at the Narragansett. He liked the ornate moldings and the view from her bedroom. He charmed Olivia and Abby by making pancakes on Sunday mornings. But soon Leonard began to complain that they always stayed at Madeleine's place and that he never got to wake up in his own bed. Staying at Leonard's place, however, required Madeleine to bring a fresh set of clothes each night, and since he didn't like her to leave clothes at his place (and, to be honest, she didn't like to, either, because whatever she left picked up a fusty smell), Madeleine had to carry her dirty clothes around to classes all day. She preferred sleeping at her own apartment, where she could use her own shampoo, conditioner, and loofah, and where it was "clean-sheet day" every Wednesday. Leonard never changed hissheets. They were a disturbing gray color. Dust balls clung to the edges of the mattress. One morning, Madeleine was horrified to see a calligraphic smear of blood that had leaked from her three weeks earlier, a stain she'd attacked with a kitchen sponge while Leonard was sleeping.
"You never wash your sheets!" she complained.
"I wash them," Leonard said evenly.
"When they get dirty."
"They're always dirty."
"Not everyone can drop off their laundry at the cleaners every week. Not everybody grew up with 'clean-sheet day.'"
"You don't have to drop them off," Madeleine said, undeterred. "You've got a washer in the basement."
"I use the washer," Leonard said. "Just not every Wednesday. I don't equate dirt with death and decay."
"Oh, and I do? I'm obsessed with death because I wash my sheets?"
"People's attitudes to cleanliness have a lot to do with their fear of death."
"This isn't about death, Leonard. This is about crumbs in the bed. This is about the fact that your pillow smells like a liverwurst sandwich."
"Smell it, Leonard!"
"It's salami. I don't like liverwurst."
To a certain extent, this kind of arguing was fun. But then came nights when Madeleine forgot to pack a change of clothes and Leonard accused her of doing this on purpose in order to force him to sleep at her place. Next, more worryingly, came nights when Leonard said he was going home to study and would see her tomorrow. He began pulling all-nighters. One of his philosophy professors offered Leonard the use of his cabin in the Berkshires and, for an entire rainy weekend, Leonard went there, alone, to write a paper on Fichte, returning with a typescript 123 pages long and wearing a bright orange hunter's vest. The vest became his favorite item of clothing. He wore it all the time.
He started finishing Madeleine's sentences. As if her mind was too slow. As if he couldn't wait for her to gather her thoughts. He riffed onthe things she said, going off on strange tangents, making puns. Whenever she told him he needed to get some sleep, he got angry and didn't call her for days. And it was during this period that Madeleine fully understood how the lover's discourse was of an extreme solitude. The solitude was extreme because it wasn't physical. It was extreme because you felt it while in the company of the person you loved. It was extreme because it was in your head, that most solitary of places.
The more Leonard pulled away, the more anxious Madeleine became. The more desperate she became, the more Leonard pulled away. She told herself to act cool. She went to the library to work on her marriage-plot thesis, but the sex-fantasy atmosphere--the reading-room eye contact, the beckoning stacks--made her desperate to see Leonard. And so against her will her feet began leading her back across campus through the darkness to the biology department. Up to the last moment, Madeleine had the crazy hope that this expression of weakness might in fact be strength. It was a brilliant strategy because it lacked all strategy. It involved no games, only sincerity. Seeing such sincerity, how could Leonard fail to respond? She was almost happy as she came up behind the lab table and tapped Leonard on the shoulder, and her happiness lasted until he turned around with a look not of love but of annoyance.
It didn't help that it was spring. Every day, people seemed more and more unclothed. The magnolia trees, budding on the green, looked positively enflamed. They sent out a perfume that drifted through the windows of Semiotics 211. The magnolia trees hadn't read Roland Barthes. They didn't think love was a mental state; the magnolias insisted it was natural, perennial.
On a beautiful warm May day, Madeleine showered, shaved her legs with extra care, and put on her first spring dress: an apple-green baby-doll dress with a bib collar and a high hem. With this, she wore Buster Browns, cream and rust, and went sockless. Her bare legs, toned from a winter of squash-playing, were pale but smooth. She kept her glasses on, left her hair loose, and walked over to Leonard's apartment on Planet Street. On the way, she stopped at a market to buy a hunk of cheese, some Stoned Wheat Thins, and a bottle of Valpolicella. Coming down the hill from Benefit toward South Main, she felt the warm breeze between her thighs. The front door of Leonard's building was proppedopen with a brick, so she went up to his apartment and knocked. Leonard opened the door. He looked like he'd been napping.
"Niiiiice dress," he said.
They never made it to the park. They picnicked on each other. As Leonard pulled her toward the mattress, Madeleine dropped her packages, hoping the wine bottle didn't break. She slipped her dress over her head. Soon they were naked, raiding, it felt like, a huge basket of goodies. Madeleine lay on her stomach, her side, her back, nibbling all the treats, the nice-smelling fruit candies, the meaty drumsticks, as well as more sophisticated offerings, the biscotti flavored with anise, the wrinkly truffles, the salty spoonfuls of olive tapenade. She'd never been so busy in her life. At the same time, she felt strangely displaced, not quite her usual tidy ego but merged with Leonard into a great big protoplasmic, ecstatic thing. She thought she'd been in love before. She knew she'd had sex before. But all those torrid adolescent gropings, all those awkward backseat romps, the meaningful, performative summer nights with her high school boyfriend Jim McManus, even the tender sessions with Billy where he insisted they look into each other's eyes as they came--none of that prepared her for the wallop, the all-consuming pleasure, of this.
Leonard was kissing her. When she could bear no more, Madeleine grabbed him savagely by his ears. She pulled Leonard's head away and held it still to show him the evidence of how she felt (she was crying now). In a hoarse voice edged with something else, a sense of peril, Madeleine said, "I love you."
Leonard stared back at her. His eyebrows twitched. Suddenly, he rolled sideways off the mattress. He stood up and walked, naked, across the room. Crouching, he reached into her bag and pulled out A Lover's Discourse, from the pocket where she always kept it. He flipped the pages until he found the one he wanted. Then he returned to the bed and handed the book to her.
I Love You je-t'aime / I-love-you
As she read these words, Madeleine was flooded with happiness. She glanced up at Leonard, smiling. With his finger he motioned for her tokeep going. The figure refers not to the declaration of love, to the avowal, but to the repeated utterance of the love cry. Suddenly Madeleine's happiness diminished, usurped by the feeling of peril. She wished she weren't naked. She narrowed her shoulders and covered herself with the bedsheet as she obediently read on.
Once the first avowal has been made, "I love you" has no meaning whatever ...
Leonard, squatting, had a smirk on his face.
It was then that Madeleine threw the book at his head.
Beyond the bay window of Carr House, the graduation traffic was now steady. Roomy parental vehicles (Cadillacs and S-Class Mercedeses, along with the occasional Chrysler New Yorker or Pontiac Bonneville) were making their way from the downtown hotels up College Hill for the ceremony. At the wheel of each car was a father, solid-looking and determined but driving a bit tentatively owing to Providence's many one-way streets. In the passenger seats sat mothers, released from domestic duties nowhere else but here, in the husband-chauffered family car, and therefore free to stare out at the pretty college-town scenery. The cars carried entire families, siblings mostly, but here and there a grandparent picked up in Old Saybrook or Hartford and brought along to see Tim or Alice or Prakrti or Heejin collect a hard-won sheepskin. There were city taxis, too, and livery cabs spewing blue exhaust, and little scarab-like rental cars scurrying between lanes as though to avoid being squashed. As the traffic crossed the Providence River and began to climb Waterman Street, some drivers tooted their horns upon seeing the huge Brown banner above the entrance of First Baptist Church. Everyone had been hoping for beautiful weather for graduation. But, as far as Mitchell was concerned, the gray skies and unseasonably cool temperatures were fine with him. He was glad Campus Dance had gotten rained out. He was glad the sun wasn't shining. The sense of bad luck that hung over everything accorded perfectly with his mood.
It was never much fun to be called a jerk. It was worse to be called a jerk by a girl you particularly liked, and it was especially painful when the girl happened to be the person you secretly wanted to marry.
After Madeleine had stormed out of the café, Mitchell had remained at the table, paralyzed with regret. They'd made up for all of twenty minutes. He was leaving Providence that night and, in a few months, the country. There was no telling when or if he would ever see her again.
Across the street, the bells began to chime nine o'clock. Mitchell had to get going. The commencement march started in forty-five minutes. His cap and gown were back at his apartment, where Larry was waiting for him. Instead of getting up, however, Mitchell moved his chair closer to the window. He pressed his nose nearly to the glass, taking his last look at College Hill, while silently repeating the following words:
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Mitchell had been reciting the Jesus Prayer for the past two weeks. He did this not only because it was the prayer Franny Glass repeated to herself in Franny and Zooey (though this was certainly a recommendation). Mitchell approved of Franny's religious desperation, her withdrawal fromlife, and her disdain for "section men." He found her book-length nervous breakdown, during which she never once moved from the couch, not only thrillingly dramatic but cathartic in a way Dostoyevsky was supposed to be but wasn't, for him. (Tolstoy was a different matter.) Still, even though Mitchell was undergoing a similar crisis of meaning, it hadn't been until he'd come across the Jesus Prayer in a book called The Orthodox Church that he'd decided to give it a try. The Jesus Prayer, it turned out, belonged to the religious tradition into which Mitchell had been obscurely baptized twenty-two years earlier. For this reason he felt entitled to say it. And so he'd been doing just that, while walking around campus, or during Quaker Meeting at the Meeting House near Moses Brown, or at moments like this when the inner tranquillity he'd been struggling to attain began to fray, to falter.
Mitchell liked the chant-like quality of the prayer. Franny said you didn't even have to think about what you were saying; you just kept repeating the prayer until your heart took over and started repeating it for you. This was important because, whenever Mitchell stopped to think about the words of the Jesus Prayer, he didn't much like them. "Lord Jesus" was a difficult opener. It had a Bible Belt ring. Likewise, asking for "mercy" felt lowly and serf-like. Having made it through "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me," however, Mitchell was confronted with the final stumbling block of "a sinner." And this was hard indeed. The gospels, which Mitchell didn't take literally, said you had to die to be born again. The mystics, whom he took as literally as their metaphorical language allowed, said the self had to be subsumed in the Godhead. Mitchell liked the idea of being subsumed in the Godhead. But it was hard to kill your self off when you liked so many things about it.
He recited the prayer for another minute, until he felt calmer. Then he got up and went out of the café. Across the street, the side doors of the church were open now. The organist was warming up, the music drifting out over the grass. Mitchell looked down the hill in the direction that Madeleine had disappeared. Seeing no sign of her, he started down Benefit on the way back to his apartment.
Mitchell's relationship with Madeleine Hanna--his long, aspirational, sporadically promising yet frustrating relationship--had begun at a toga party during freshman orientation. It was the kind of thing he instinctively hated: a keg party based on a Hollywood movie, a capitulationto the mainstream. Mitchell hadn't come to college to act like John Belushi. He hadn't even seen Animal House. (He was an Altman fan.) The alternative, however, would have been to sit in his room alone, and so finally, in a spirit of refusal that didn't include boycotting the party outright, he'd attended in his regular clothes. As soon as he arrived in the basement recreation room, he knew he'd made a mistake. He'd thought that not wearing a toga would make him seem too cool for such jejune festivities, but as he stood in the corner, drinking a plastic cup of foamy beer, Mitchell felt just as much like a misfit as he always did at parties full of popular people.
It was at this point that he noticed Madeleine. She was in the middle of the floor, dancing with a guy whom Mitchell recognized as an RA. Unlike most girls at the party, who looked dumpy in their togas, Madeleine had tied a cord around her waist, fitting her sheet to her body. Her hair was piled on top of her head, Roman-style, and her back was alluringly bare. Other than her exceptional looks, Mitchell noticed that she was an uninspired dancer--she held a beer and talked to the RA, barely paying attention to the beat--and that she kept leaving the party to go down the hall. The third time she was going out, Mitchell, emboldened by alcohol, went up to her and blurted out, "Where do you keep going?"
Madeleine wasn't startled. She was probably used to strange guys trying to talk to her. "I'll tell you, but you'll think I'm weird."
"No, I won't," Mitchell said.
"This is my dorm. I figured since everyone was going to the party, the washers would be free. So I decided to do my laundry at the same time."
Mitchell took a sip of foam without taking his eyes off her. "Do you need help?"
"No," Madeleine said, "I can handle it." As if she thought this sounded mean, she added, "You can come watch, if you want. Laundry's pretty exciting."
She started down the cinder-block hallway and he followed at her side.
"Why aren't you wearing a toga?" she asked him.
"Because it's dumb!" Mitchell said, nearly shouting. "It's so stupid!"
This wasn't the best move, but Madeleine didn't appear to take it personally. "I just came because I was bored," she said. "If this wasn't my dorm, I probably would have bagged."
In the laundry room, Madeleine began pulling her damp underthingsout of a coin-operated washer. For Mitchell, this was titillating enough. But in the next second, something unforgettable occurred. As Madeleine reached into the washer, the knot at her shoulder loosened and the bedsheet fell away.
It was amazing how an image like that--of nothing, really, just a few inches of epidermis--could persist in the mind with undiminished clarity. The moment had lasted no more than three seconds. Mitchell hadn't been entirely sober at the time. And yet now, almost four years later, he could return to the moment at will (and it was surprising how often he wanted to do this), summoning all of its sensory details, the rumbling of the dryers, the pounding music next door, the linty smell of the dank basement laundry room. He remembered exactly where he'd been standing and how Madeleine had stooped forward, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear, as the sheet slipped and, for a few exhilarating moments, her pale, quiet, Episcopalian breast exposed itself to his sight.
She quickly covered herself, glancing up and smiling, possibly with embarrassment.
Later on, after their relationship became the intimate, unsatisfying thing it became, Madeleine always disputed Mitchell's memory of that night. She insisted that she hadn't worn a toga to the party and that even if she had--and she wasn't saying that she had--it had never slipped off. Neither on that night, nor on any of the thousand nights since, had he ever seen her naked breast.
Mitchell replied that he'd seen it that once and was very sorry it hadn't happened again.
In the weeks following the toga party, Mitchell began appearing at Madeleine's dorm unannounced. After his afternoon Latin class, he walked through the cool leaf-smelling air to Wayland Quad and, his head still throbbing with Vergil's dactylic hexameter, climbed the stairs to her third-floor room. Standing in Madeleine's doorway or, on luckier days, sitting at her desk, Mitchell did his best to be amusing. Madeleine's roommate, Jennifer, always gave him a look indicating that she knew exactly why he was there. Fortunately, she and Madeleine didn't seem to get along, and Jenny often left them alone. Madeleine always seemed happy he'd dropped by. She immediately started telling him about whatever she was reading, while he nodded, as though he could possibly pay attention to her thoughts on Ezra Pound or Ford Madox Ford while standingclose enough to smell her shampooed hair. Sometimes Madeleine made him tea. Instead of going for an herbal infusion from Celestial Seasonings, with a quotation from Lao Tzu on the package, Madeleine was a Fortnum & Mason's drinker, her favorite blend Earl Grey. She didn't just dump a bag in a cup, either, but brewed loose leaves, using a strainer and a tea cozy. Jennifer had a poster of Vail over her bed, a skier waist-deep in powder. Madeleine's side of the room was more sophisticated. She'd hung up a set of framed Man Ray photographs. Her bedspread and cashmere sham were the same serious shade of charcoal gray as her V-neck sweaters. On top of her dresser lay exciting womanly objects: a monogrammed silver lipstick, a Filofax containing maps of the New York Subway and the London Underground. But there were also semiembar-rassing items: a photograph of her family wearing color-coordinated clothing; a Lilly Pulitzer bathrobe; and a decrepit stuffed bunny named Foo Foo.
Mitchell was prepared, considering Madeleine's other attributes, to overlook these details.
Sometimes when he stopped by, he found other guys already there. A sandy-haired prepster wearing wingtips without socks, or a large-nosed Milanese in tight pants. On these occasions Jennifer acted even less hospitable. As for Madeleine, she was either so used to male attention that she didn't notice it anymore, or so guileless that she didn't suspect why three guys might park themselves in her room like the suitors of Penelope. She didn't appear to be sleeping with the other guys, as far as Mitchell could tell. This gave him hope.
Little by little, he went from sitting at Madeleine's desk to sitting on the windowsill near her bed, to lying on the floor in front of her bed while she stretched out above him. Occasionally, the thought that he'd already seen her breast--that he knew exactly what her areola looked like--was enough to give him a hard-on, and he had to turn over on his stomach. Still, on the few times when Madeleine went on anything resembling a date with Mitchell--to a student theater production or poetry reading--there was a tightness around her eyes, as though she was registering the downside, socially and romantically, of being seen with him. She was new at college, too, and finding her way. It was possible she didn't want to limit her options too soon.
A year went by like this. An entire blue-balled year. Mitchell stopped dropping by Madeleine's room. Gradually, they drifted into different circles. He didn't forget about her so much as decide that she was out of his league. Whenever he ran into her, she was so talkative and touched his arm so often that he began to get ideas again, but it wasn't until sophomore year that anything came close to happening. In November, a few weeks before Thanksgiving, Mitchell mentioned that he was planning to stay on campus over break rather than fly back to Detroit, and Madeleine surprised him by inviting him to celebrate the holiday with her family in Prettybrook.
They arranged to meet at the Amtrak station, on Wednesday at noon. When Mitchell got there, lugging a prewar suitcase with some dead person's fading gold initials on it, he found Madeleine waiting for him on the platform, wearing glasses. They were large tortoiseshell frames and, if it was possible, they made him like her even more. The lenses were badly scratched and the left temple was slightly bent. Otherwise, Madeleine was as well put together as always, or even more so, since she was on her way to see her parents.
"I didn't know you wore glasses," Mitchell said.
"My contacts were hurting my eyes this morning."
"I like them."
"I only wear them sometimes. My eyes aren't that bad."
As he stood on the platform, Mitchell wondered if Madeleine's wearing her glasses indicated that she felt comfortable around him, or if it meant that she didn't care about looking her best for him. Once they were on the train, amid the crowd of holiday travelers, it was impossible to tell either way. After they found two seats together, Madeleine took her glasses off, holding them in her lap. As the train rolled out of Providence, she put them on again to watch the passing scenery, but quickly snatched them off, shoving them into her bag. (This was the reason her glasses were in the shape they were in; she'd lost the case long ago.)
The trip took five hours. Mitchell wouldn't have minded if it had taken five days. It was thrilling to have Madeleine captive in the seat beside him. She'd brought volume one of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time and, in what appeared to be a guilty traveling habit,a thick copy of Vogue. Mitchell stared out at the warehouses and body shops of Cranston before pulling out his Finnegans Wake.
"You're not reading that," Madeleine said.
"It's about a river," Mitchell said. "In Ireland."
The train proceeded along the Rhode Island coast and into Connecticut. Sometimes the ocean appeared, or marshland, then just as suddenly they were passing along the ugly backside of a manufacturing town. In New Haven the train stopped to switch engines before proceeding to Grand Central. After taking the subway to Penn Station, Madeleine led Mitchell down to another set of tracks to catch the train for New Jersey. They arrived at Prettybrook just before eight at night.
The Hannas' house was a hundred-year-old Tudor, fronted by London plane trees and dying hemlocks. Inside, everything was tasteful and half falling apart. The Oriental carpets had stains. The brick-red kitchen linoleum was thirty years old. When Mitchell used the powder room, he saw that the toilet paper dispenser had been repaired with Scotch tape. So had the peeling wallpaper in the hallway. Mitchell had encountered shabby gentility before, but here was Wasp thrift in its purest form. The plaster ceilings sagged alarmingly. Vestigial burglar alarms sprouted from the walls. The knob-and-tube wiring sent flames out of the lighting sockets when you unplugged anything.
Mitchell was good with parents. Parents were his specialty. Within an hour of arriving Wednesday night, he had established himself as a favorite. He knew the lyrics to the Cole Porter songs Alton played on the "hi-fi." He allowed Alton to read excerpts from Kingsley Amis's On Drink aloud, and seemed to find them just as hilarious as Alton did. At dinner, Mitchell talked about Sandra Day O'Connor with Phyllida and about Abscam with Alton. To top it off, Mitchell put in a dazzling performance later that night at Scrabble.
"I didn't know groszy was a word," Phyllida said, greatly impressed.
"It's Polish currency. A hundred groszy are worth one zloty."
"Are all your new friends at college this worldly, Maddy?" Alton said.
When Mitchell glanced at Madeleine, she was smiling at him. And that was when it had happened. Madeleine was wearing a bathrobe. Shehad her glasses on. She was looking both homey and sexy, completely out of his league and, at the same time, within reach, by virtue of how well he seemed to fit into her family already, and what a perfect son-in-law he would make. For all of these reasons Mitchell suddenly thought, "I'm going to marry this girl!" The knowledge went through him like electricity, a feeling of destiny.
"Foreign words are disallowed," Madeleine said.
He spent Thanksgiving morning moving chairs for Phyllida, and drinking Bloody Marys and playing pool with Alton. The billiard table had braided leather pockets instead of a ball return. Lining up a shot, Alton said, "A few years ago, I noticed this table wasn't level. The man the company sent out said it was warped, probably from one of the kids' friends sitting on it. He wanted me to buy a whole new base. But I put a piece of wood under one leg. Problem solved."
Soon company arrived. A mellow-voiced cousin named Doats, wearing tartan pants, his wife, Dinky, a frosted blonde with late-de Kooning teeth, and their young children and fat setter, Nap.
Madeleine got down on her knees to greet Nap, ruffling his fur and hugging him.
"Nap's gotten so fat," she said.
"You know what I think it is?" Doats said. "It's because he's fixed. Nap's a eunuch. And eunuchs were always famously plump, weren't they?"
Madeleine's sister, Alwyn, and her husband, Blake Higgins, showed up around one. Alton fixed the cocktails while Mitchell made himself helpful by building a fire.
Thanksgiving dinner proceeded in a blur of wine refills and jesting toasts. After dinner, everyone repaired to the library, where Alton began serving port. The fire was dying, and Mitchell stepped outside to get more wood. By this time he was feeling no pain. He stared up at the starry night sky, through the branches of the white pines. He was in the middle of New Jersey but it might have been the Black Forest. Mitchell loved the house. He loved the whole big, genteel, boozy Hanna operation. Returning with firewood, he heard music playing. Madeleine was at the piano, while Alton sang along. The selection was something called "Til," a family favorite. Alton's voice was surprisingly good; he'd been in an a capella singing group at Yale. Madeleine was a little slow with the chord changes,plunking them out. Her glasses slid down her nose as she read the sheet music. She'd kicked off her shoes to press the pedals with bare feet.
Mitchell stayed through the weekend. On his last night in Prettybrook, as he was lying in his attic guest room, reading, he heard the hallway door open and feet begin climbing the stairs. Madeleine knocked softly on his door and came in.
She was dressed in a Lawrenceville T-shirt and nothing else. Her upper thighs, level with Mitchell's head as she entered, were a little fuller than he'd expected.
She sat on the edge of the bed.
When she asked what he was reading, Mitchell had to look to remember the title. He was wonderfully and fearfully aware of his nakedness beneath the thin bedsheet. He felt that Madeleine was aware of this, too. He thought about kissing her. For a moment he thought that Madeleine might kiss him. And then, because Madeleine didn't, because he was a houseguest and her parents were sleeping downstairs, because, in that glorious moment, Mitchell felt that the tide had turned and he had all the time in the world to make his move, he did nothing. Finally, Madeleine got up, looking vaguely disappointed. She descended the stairs and switched off the light.
After she was gone, Mitchell replayed the scene in his mind, seeking a different outcome. Worried about soiling the bedding, he headed for the bathroom, bumping into an old box spring, which fell over with a clatter. When all was quiet again, he continued to the bathroom. In the tiny attic sink, he shot his load, turning on the tap to rinse away the least curd of evidence.
The next morning, they took the train back to Providence, walked together up College Hill, hugged, and parted. A few days later, Mitchell stopped by Madeleine's room. She wasn't there. On her message board was a note from someone named Billy: "Tarkovsky screening 7:30 Sayles. Be there or be ." Mitchell left an unsigned quotation, a bit from the Gerty MacDowell section of Ulysses: "Then the Roman candle burst and it was like a sigh of O! and everyone cried O! O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads ..."
A week went by and he didn't hear from Madeleine. When he called he got no answer.
He went back to her dorm. Again she was out. On her message boardsomeone had drawn an arrow pointing to his Joyce quotation along with the note "Who's the perv?"
Mitchell erased this. He wrote, "Maddy, give me a call. Mitchell." Then he erased this and wrote, "Permit a colloquy. M."
Back in his own room, Mitchell examined himself in the mirror. He turned sideways, trying to see his profile. He pretended to be talking to someone at a party to see what he was really like.
After another week passed without his hearing from Madeleine, Mitchell stopped calling or dropping by her room. He became fierce about his studies, spending heroic amounts of time ornamenting his English papers, or translating Vergil's extended metaphors about vineyards and women. When he finally did run into Madeleine again, she was just as friendly as always. For the rest of the year they continued to be close, going to poetry readings together and occasionally eating dinner in the Ratty, alone or with other people. When Madeleine's parents visited in the spring, she invited Mitchell to have dinner with them at the Bluepoint Grill. But he never went back to the house in Prettybrook, never built a fire in their hearth, or drank a G & Ton the deck overlooking the garden. Little by little, Mitchell managed to forge his own social life at school and, though they continued to be friends, Madeleine drifted off into hers. He never forgot his premonition, however. One night the following October, almost a year from the time he'd gone to Prettybrook, Mitchell saw Madeleine crossing campus in the purple twilight. She was with a curly-headed blond guy named Billy Bainbridge, whom Mitchell knew from his freshman hall. Billy took women's studies courses and referred to himself as a feminist. Presently, Billy had one hand sensitively in the back pocket of Madeleine's jeans. She had her hand in the back pocket of his jeans. They were moving along like that, each cupping a handful of the other. In Madeleine's face was a stupidity Mitchell had never seen before. It was the stupidity of all normal people. It was the stupidity of the fortunate and beautiful, of everybody who got what they wanted in life and so remained unremarkable.
In Plato's Phaedrus, the speeches of Lysias the Sophist and of the early Socrates (before the latter makes his recantation) rest onthis principle: that the lover is intolerable (by his heaviness) to the beloved.
In the weeks after breaking up with Leonard, Madeleine spent most of her time at the Narragansett, lying on her bed. She dragged herself to her final classes. She lost much of her appetite. At night, an invisible hand kept shaking her awake every few hours. Grief was physiological, a disturbance in the blood. Sometimes a whole minute would pass in nameless dread--the bedside clock ticking, the blue moonlight coating the window like glue--before she'd remember the brutal fact that had caused it.
She expected Leonard to call. She fantasized about him appearing at her front door, asking her to come back. When he didn't, she became desperate and dialed his number. The line was often busy. Leonard was functioning just fine without her. He was calling people, other girls, probably. Sometimes Madeleine listened to the busy signal so long she found herself trying to hear Leonard's voice beneath it, as if he was just on the other side of the noise. If she heard his phone ring, the thought that Leonard might answer it at any second made Madeleine exhilarated, but then she panicked and slammed down the receiver, always thinking that she heard his voice say "Hello" at the last moment. In between calls, she lay on her side, thinking about calling.
Love had made her intolerable. It had made her heavy. Sprawled on her bed, keeping her shoes from touching the sheets (Madeleine remained fastidious despite her misery), she reviewed all the things she'd done to drive Leonard away. She'd been too needy, crawling up into his lap like a little girl, wanting to be with him all the time. She'd lost track of her own priorities and had become a drag.
Only one thing remained from her relationship with Leonard: the book she'd thrown at his head. Before storming out of Leonard's apartment that day--and while he lay in lordly nakedness on the bed, calmly repeating her name with the suggestion that she was overreacting--Madeleine had noticed the book lying open on the floor like a bird that had knocked itself out against a windowpane. To pick it up would prove Leonard's point: that she had an unhealthy obsession with A Lover's Discourse; that, contrary to dispelling her fantasies about love, the book had served to reinforce those fantasies; and that, in evidence ofall this, she wasn't only a sentimentalist but a lousy literary critic besides.
On the other hand, to leave A Lover's Discourse on the floor--where Leonard could later pick it up and inspect the passages she'd highlighted, as well as her marginal notes (including, on page 123, in a chapter titled "In the Loving Calm of Your Arms," a single, exclamatory "Leonard!")--wasn't possible. So, after gathering up her bag, Madeleine in one fluid motion had snatched up the Barthes as well, not daring to check if Leonard had noticed. Five seconds later she'd slammed the door behind her.
She was glad she'd taken the book. Now, in her morose condition, the elegant prose of Roland Barthes was her one consolation. Breaking up with Leonard hadn't lessened the relevance of A Lover's Discourse one bit. There were more chapters about heartbreak than happiness, in fact. One chapter was called "Dependency." Another, "Suicide." Still another, "In Praise of Tears." The amorous subject has a particular propensity to cry ... The slightest amorous emotion, whether of happiness or of disappointment, brings Werther to tears. Werther weeps often, very often, and in floods. Is it the lover in Werther who weeps, or is it the romantic?
Good question. Since breaking up with Leonard, Madeleine had been crying more or less all the time. She cried herself to sleep at night. She cried in the morning, brushing her teeth. She tried very hard not to cry in front of her roommates and for the most part succeeded.
A Lover's Discourse was the perfect cure for lovesickness. It was a repair manual for the heart, its one tool the brain. If you used your head, if you became aware of how love was culturally constructed and began to see your symptoms as purely mental, if you recognized that being "in love" was only an idea, then you could liberate yourself from its tyranny. Madeleine knew all that. The problem was, it didn't work. She could read Barthes' deconstructions of love all day without feeling her love for Leonard diminish the teeniest little bit. The more of A Lover's Discourse she read, the more in love she felt. She recognized herself on every page. She identified with Barthes' shadowy "I." She didn't want to be liberated from her emotions but to have their importance confirmed. Here was a book addressed to lovers, a book about being in love that contained the word love in just about every sentence. And, oh, how she loved it!
In the world outside, the semester, and thus college itself, was quickly speeding toward its end. Her roommates, art history majors both, had already found entry-level positions in New York, Olivia at Sotheby's, Abby at a gallery in Soho. A startling number of her friends and acquaintances were doing campus interviews with investment banks. Others had gotten scholarships or fellowships or were moving to L.A. to work in television.
The most Madeleine could muster in the way of preparing for the future was to peel herself out of bed once a day to check her P.O. box. In April, she'd been too distracted by work and love to notice that the fifteenth came and went without a letter from Yale arriving. By the time she did notice, she was too depressed about her breakup to bear another rejection. For two weeks, Madeleine didn't even go to the post office. Finally, when she forced herself to go and empty her overstuffed mailbox, there was still no letter from Yale.
There was news, however, about her other applications. The ESL organization sent her a gushing acceptance letter ("Congratulations, Madeleine!") along with a teacher enrollment form and the name of the Chinese province, Shandong, where she would be teaching. There was also an information packet containing various bold-faced sentences that leapt out at her:
Sanitation facilities (showers, toilets, etc.) may take some getting used to, but the majority of our teachers come to enjoy "roughing it."
The Chinese diet is quite varied, especially as compared to American standards. Don't be surprised if, after a few months in your host village, you find yourself eating snake with pleasure!
She didn't return the enrollment form.
Two days later, she received a rejection letter through campus mail from the Melvin and Hetty Greenberg Foundation informing her that she would not be receiving the Greenberg fellowship to study Hebrew in Jerusalem.
Back at her apartment, Madeleine confronted the cluster of shipping boxes. A week before they'd broken up, Leonard had received positiveword from Pilgrim Lake Laboratory. In what had seemed a significant gesture at the time, he'd suggested that they live together in the free apartment that came with his fellowship. If Madeleine got into Yale, she could come up on weekends; if she didn't, she could live at Pilgrim Lake over the winter, and reapply. In short order, Madeleine had canceled her other plans and had begun packing boxes of books and clothes to ship to the lab ahead of their arrival. Since Madeleine had been questioning the intensity of Leonard's feelings for her, his invitation to live together made her blissful, and this, in turn, had played a strong part in Madeleine's avowal of love a few days later. And now, as a cruel reminder of that disaster, the boxes were sitting in her room, going nowhere.
Madeleine ripped off the address labels and shoved the boxes into the corner.
Somehow, she turned in her honors thesis. She handed in her final paper for Semiotics 211 but failed to pick it up after the exam period to see Zipperstein's comments and her grade.
By the time graduation weekend rolled around, Madeleine was doing her best to ignore it. Abby and Olivia had tried to get her to go to Campus Dance, but the thunderstorms that rolled through town, bringing winds that blew over cocktail tables and ripped down the strings of colored lanterns, caused the festivities to be moved inside to some gym, and nobody they knew went. Needing to occupy their families, Abby and Olivia had persisted in going to the clambake with President Swearer on Saturday afternoon, but after a half hour they sent their parents back to their hotel. On Sunday, all three roommates skipped the Baccalaureate ceremony at First Baptist Church. By nine o'clock that night, Madeleine was in her bedroom, curled up with A Lover's Discourse, not reading it, just keeping it nearby.
It wasn't clean-sheet day. It hadn't been clean-sheet day for a long time.
There was a knock at her bedroom door.
"Just a sec." Madeleine's voice was raspy from crying. She had mucus in her throat. "Come in," she said.
The door opened to reveal Abby and Olivia, shoulder-to-shoulder, like a delegation.
Abby came quickly forward and snatched the Roland Barthes away.
"We're confiscating this," she said.
"Give it back."
"You're not reading that book," Olivia said. "You're wallowing in it."
"I just wrote a paper on it. I was checking something."
Abby held the book behind her and shook her head. "You can't just lie around moping. This weekend's been a total bummer. But there's a party tonight at Lollie and Pookie's and you have to come. Come on!"
Abby and Olivia thought it was the romantic in Madeleine who wept. They thought she was delusional, ridiculous. She would have felt the same, if it had been one of them, pining away. Heartbreak is funny to everyone but the heartbroken.
"Give me my book," she said.
"I'll give it back if you come to the party."
Madeleine understood why her roommates trivialized her feelings. They'd never been in love, not really. They didn't know what she was dealing with.
"We're graduating tomorrow!" Olivia pleaded. "This is our last night at college. You can't stay in your room!"
Madeleine looked away and rubbed her face. "What time is it?" she asked.
"I haven't showered."
"I don't have anything to wear."
"You can borrow a dress from me," Olivia said.
They stood there, obliging and pestering all at once.
"Give me the book," Madeleine said.
"Only if you come."
"O.K.!" Madeleine relented. "I'll come."
Reluctantly, Abby handed Madeleine the paperback.
Madeleine stared at the cover. "What if Leonard's there?" she asked.
"He won't be," Abby said.
"What if he is?"
Abby looked away and repeated, "Trust me. He won't."
Lollie and Pookie Ames lived in a ramshackle house on Lloyd Avenue. As Madeleine and her roommates approached along the sidewalk, under the dripping elms, they could hear throbbing bass and alcohol-loosenedvoices coming from inside. Candles flickered behind the steamed-up windows.
They stashed their umbrellas behind the bikes on the porch and entered the front door. Inside, the air was warm and moist, like a beer-scented rain forest. The flea-market furniture had been pushed against the walls so that people could dance. Jeff Trombley, who was DJ-ing, was using a flashlight to see the turntable, the beam spilling onto a poster of Sandino on the wall behind him.
"You guys go first," Madeleine said. "Tell me if you see Leonard."
Abby looked annoyed. "I told you, he won't be here."
"Why would he be? He doesn't like people. Look, I'm sorry, but now that you're broken up, I have to say it. Leonard's not exactly normal. He's weird."
"He is not," Madeleine objected.
"Will you please just get over him? Will you at least try?"
Olivia lit a cigarette and said, "God, if I worried about running into old boyfriends, I couldn't go anywhere!"
"O.K., forget it," Madeleine said. "Let's go in."
"Finally!" Abby said. "Come on. Let's have fun tonight. It's our last night."
Despite the loud music, not many people were dancing. Tony Perotti, in a Plasmatics T-shirt, was pogoing, all alone, in the middle of the floor. Debbie Boonstock, Carrie Mox, and Stacy Henkel were dancing in a ring around Marc Wheeland. Wheeland was wearing a white T-shirt and baggy shorts. His calves were massive. So were his shoulders. As the three girls pranced in front of him, Wheeland stared at the floor, stomping around and, every so often (this was the dancing part), minimally lifting his muscle-bound arms.
"How long before Marc Wheeland takes off his shirt?" Abby said as they headed down the hall.
"Like two minutes," Olivia said.
The kitchen resembled something in a submarine movie, dark, narrow, with pipes snaking overhead and a wet floor. Madeleine stepped on bottle caps as she squeezed through the throng of people.
They attained the open space at the kitchen's far end only to realize it was unoccupied due to the presence of a reeking litter box.
"Gross!" Olivia said.
"Don't they ever clean that thing?" Abby said.
A guy in a baseball hat was standing proprietarily in front of the refrigerator. When Abby opened it, he informed them, "The Grolsch are mine."
"Don't take the Grolsch. They're mine."
"I thought this was a party," Abby said.
"Yeah, it is," the guy said. "But everyone always brings domestic beer. I brought imported."
Olivia rose to full Scandinavian height to cast him a withering look. "As if we even wanted beer," she said.
She bent to look into the refrigerator herself and said with distaste, "God, it's all beer."
Standing up again, she looked commandingly around the room until she saw Pookie Ames, and called to her over the noise.
Pookie, who normally had an afghan scarf wrapped around her head, tonight had on a black velvet dress and diamond earrings, in which she looked absolutely at home. "Pookie, save us," Olivia said. "We can't drink beer."
"Honey," Pookie said, "there's Veuve Clicquot!"
"In the crisper."
"Fabulous!" Olivia pulled out the tray and found the bottle. "Now we can celebrate!"
Madeleine wasn't much of a drinker. But her situation tonight called for traditional remedies. She took a plastic glass from the stack and allowed Olivia to fill it.
"Enjoy your Grolsch," Olivia said to the guy.
To Abby and Madeleine, she said, "I'll bring the bottle," and marched away.
Carefully, they shepherded their full champagne glasses back through the throng.
In the living room, Abby proposed a toast. "You guys? To a great year living together!"
The plastic glasses didn't clink, only flexed.
By this time, Madeleine was fairly sure that Leonard wasn't at theparty. The thought that he was somewhere else, however, at another graduation party, opened a hole in her chest. She wasn't sure if vital fluids were leaking out or poisons being pumped in.
On the near wall a Halloween skeleton was kneeling before a lifesize cutout of Ronald Reagan, as if going down on him. Near the president's beaming face someone had scrawled: "I've got a stiffy!"
Just then the dance floor shifted, kaleidoscopically, to reveal Lollie Ames and Jenny Crispin dancing. They were putting on a show, grinding their pelvises together and feeling each other up, while also laughing and passing a joint.
Nearby, Marc Wheeland, now officially "too hot," pulled off his T-shirt and tucked it into his back pocket. Bare-chested, he kept on dancing, doing the beefcake, the bench press, the love muscle. The girls around him danced closer.
Since breaking up with Leonard, Madeleine had been beset, on an almost hourly basis, by the most overpowering sexual urges. She wanted it all the time. But Wheeland's gleaming pectorals did nothing for her. Her desires were nontransferable. They had Leonard's name on them.
She'd been doing her best not to seem completely pathetic. Unfortunately, her insides were beginning to betray her. Her eyes were welling. The sucking hole at her center grew larger. Quickly, she climbed the front stairs, finding the bathroom and locking the door behind her.
For the next five minutes, Madeleine cried over the sink while the music downstairs shook the walls. The bath towels hanging on the door didn't look clean, so she dabbed at her eyes with wadded toilet paper.
When she'd stopped crying, Madeleine composed herself before the mirror. Her skin looked blotchy. Her breasts, of which she was normally proud, had withdrawn into themselves, as if depressed. Madeleine knew that this self-appraisal might not be accurate. A bruised ego reflected its own image. The possibility that she didn't look quite so much like shit as she appeared to was the only thing that got her to unlock the door and come out of the bathroom.
In a bedroom at the end of the hall, two girls with ponytails and pearl necklaces were lying across the bed. They paid no attention as Madeleine entered.
"I thought you hated me," the first girl said to the other. "Ever since Bologna I thought you hated me."
"I didn't say I didn't hate you," the second girl said.
The bookshelves held the usual Kafka, the obligatory Borges, the point-scoring Musil. Just beyond, a small balcony beckoned. Madeleine walked out.
The rain had paused. There was no moonlight, only the glow of streetlights, sickly purple. A broken kitchen chair stood before an upside-down trash can being used as a table. On the trash can lay an ashtray and a rain-soaked Vanity Fair. Vines hung shaggily down from an unseen trellis.
Madeleine leaned over the rickety railing, looking at the lawn.
It must have been the lover in her who wept, not the romantic. She had no desire to jump. She wasn't like Werther. Besides, the drop was only fifteen feet.
"Beware." A voice suddenly spoke behind her. "You are not alone."
She turned. Leaning against the house, half obscured in the vines, was Thurston Meems.
"Did I scare you?" he asked.
Madeleine considered a moment. "You're not exactly scary," she said.
Thurston accepted this good-naturedly. "Right, more like scared. Actually, I'm hiding."
Thurston's eyebrows were growing in, framing his wide eyes. He was leaning on the heels of his high-tops, his hands in his pockets.
"Do you usually come to parties to hide?" Madeleine asked.
"Parties bring my misanthropy into focus," Thurston said. "Why are you out here?"
"Same reason," Madeleine said, and surprised herself by laughing.
To give them room, Thurston moved the trash can aside. He picked up the book, brought it close to his face to see what it was, and violently flung it off the balcony. It made a thud in the damp grass.
"I guess you don't like Vanity Fair," Madeleine said.
"'Vanity of vanities, saith the prophet,'" Thurston said, "and all that shit."
A car stopped in the street, then backed up. People carrying six-packs got out and approached the house.
"More revelers," Thurston said, staring down at them.
A silence ensued. Finally, Madeleine said, "So what did you do your term paper on? Derrida?"
"Naturellement," Thurston said. "What about you?"
"A Lover's Discourse."
Thurston squeezed his eyes shut, nodding with pleasure. "That's a great book."
"You like it?" Madeleine said.
"The thing about that book," Thurston said, "is that, ostensibly, it's a deconstruction of love. It's supposed to cast a cold eye on the whole romantic enterprise, right? But it reads like a diary."
"That's what my paper's on!" Madeleine cried. "I deconstructed Barthes' deconstruction of love."
Thurston kept nodding. "I'd like to read it."
"You would?" Madeleine's voice rose half an octave. She cleared her throat to bring it back down. "I don't know if it's any good. But maybe."
"Zipperstein's sort of brain-dead, don't you think?" Thurston said.
"I thought you liked him."
"Me? No. I like semiotics, but--"
"He never says anything!"
"I know," Thurston agreed. "He's inscrutable. He's like Harpo Marx without the horn."
Madeleine found herself, unexpectedly, liking Thurston. When he asked if she wanted to get a drink, she said yes. They returned to the kitchen, which was even louder and more crowded than before. The guy with the baseball cap hadn't moved.
"You're going to guard your beer all night?" Madeleine asked him.
"Whatever's necessary," the guy said.
"Don't take any of this guy's beer," Madeleine said to Thurston. "He's very particular about his beer."
Thurston had already opened the refrigerator and was reaching inside, his leather biker's jacket hanging open. "Which beer is yours?" he asked the guy.
"The Grolsch," the guy said.
"Ah, a Grolsch man, eh?" Thurston said, moving bottles around. "Lover of the old-school, Teutonic, rubber-stopper and ceramic-cap thingy. I understand your preference for that. The thing is, I wonder if the Grolschfamily ever intended for those rubber-stoppered bottles to cross the ocean. You know what I mean? I've had more than a few Grolsch go skunky on me. I wouldn't drink it if you paid me." Thurston now held up two cans of Narragansett. "These only had to travel about a mile and a half."
"Narragansett tastes like piss," the guy said.
"Well, you'd be the one to know."
And with that, Thurston took Madeleine away. He led her out of the kitchen and back through the front hall, motioning for her to follow him outside. When they reached the porch he opened his biker jacket to reveal two bottles of Grolsch stashed inside.
"We better make a getaway," Thurston said.
They drank the beers while walking along Thayer Street, passing bars full of other graduating seniors. When the beers were gone they went to the Grad Center bar, and from the Grad Center bar, they went downtown, via taxi, to an old man's bar Thurston liked. The bar had a boxing theme, black-and-white photos of Marciano and Cassius Clay on the walls, a pair of autographed Everlast gloves in a dusty case. For a while they drank vodka with healthful juices. Next Thurston got nostalgic about something called a sidecar, which he used to have on skiing trips with his father. He pulled Madeleine by the hand down the street and across the plaza into the Biltmore Hotel. There the bartender didn't know how to make a sidecar. Thurston had to instruct him, grandly announcing, "The sidecar is the perfect winter drink. Brandy to warm the innards, and citrus to ward off colds."
"It isn't winter," Madeleine said.
"Let's pretend it is."
Sometime later, as Thurston and Madeleine were swaying down the sidewalk arm in arm, she felt him lurch sideways into yet another bar.
"A cleansing beer is in order," he said.
Over the next few minutes Thurston explained his theory--but it wasn't a theory, it was the wisdom of experience, tested and corroborated by Thurston and his Andover roommate, who, after downing vast quantities of "spirits," bourbon, mostly, but scotch, too, gin, vodka, Southern Comfort, whatever they could get their hands on, basically, whatever they could filch from "the parental cellars," Blue Nun, for a period, during the "Winter of Liebfraumilch," when they had the run of a friend'sski chalet in Stowe, and Pernod, once, because they'd heard it was the closest thing available to absinthe and they wanted to be writers and needed absinthe in the worst way--But he was getting off the point. He was allowing his fondness for digressions to run away with him. And so Thurston, hopping up on a bar stool and signaling to the bartender, explained that in each of these cases, with each and every one of these "intoxicants," a beer or two, afterward, always lessened the severity of the murderous hangover that inevitably followed.
"A cleansing beer," he said again. "That's what we need."
Being with Thurston wasn't at all like being with Leonard. Being with Thurston was like being with her family. It was like being with Alton, so punctilious about his snifters, superstitious about drinking grape after grain.
Whenever Leonard talked about his parents' drinking, it was all about how alcoholism was a disease. But Phyllida and Alton drank a lot and seemed relatively undamaged and responsible.
"O.K.," Madeleine agreed. "A cleansing beer."
And wouldn't that have been nice? The belief that a cold Budweiser--they had the longnecks in here; Thurston had fallen into this bar for a reason--could rinse away the effects of an entire night's binge had a certain magic to it. Given that magic, why stop at just one? It was the after-hours time of the night when it became incumbent on two people to get change from the bartender and pore over jukebox selections, their heads touching as they read the song titles. It was that timeless part of the night when it became absolutely necessary to play "Mack the Knife" and "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and "Smoke on the Water" and to dance together among the tables in the otherwise empty bar. A cleansing beer might drown out thoughts of Leonard and anesthetize Madeleine from feelings of abandonment and unattractiveness. (And wasn't Thurston's nuzzling her further balm?) The beer seemed to be working, anyway. Thurston ordered two last Budweisers, sneaking them out in the pockets of his leather jacket, and they drank them as they walked back up College Hill to Thurston's place. Madeleine's awareness was wonderfully restricted to things that had no power to hurt her: the scraggly urban shrubs, the floating sidewalk, the jingling of the chains on Thurston's jacket.
She entered his room without having registered the stairs that led toit. Once there, however, Madeleine was clear about the protocol, and began taking off her clothes. She lay on her back, laughingly trying to grasp her shoes, and finally kicked them off. Thurston, by contrast, was instantaneously naked except for his underwear. He lay completely still, blending into his white sheets like a chameleon.
When it came to kissing, Thurston was a minimalist. He pressed his thin lips against Madeleine's and, just as she parted her own, he moved his mouth away. It was as if he were wiping his lips on hers. This hide-and-seek was a little off-putting. But she didn't want to be unhappy. Madeleine didn't want things to go badly (she wanted the cleansing beer to cleanse) and so she forgot about Thurston's mouth and started kissing him elsewhere. On his Ric Ocasek neck, his vampire-white belly, the front of his boxer shorts.
He remained silent in the midst of all this, Thurston who was so voluble in class.
It wasn't clear to Madeleine what she was seeking when she pulled Thurston's underpants down. She stood apart from the person doing this. Certain spring-loaded doorstops made a twanging sound when released. Madeleine felt compelled to do what she did next. The wrongness of it was immediate. It went beyond the moral, straight to the biological. Her mouth just wasn't the organ nature had designed for this function. She felt orally overextended, like a dental patient waiting for a cast to dry. Plus, this cast wouldn't stay still. Whose idea was this, anyway? Who was the genius who thought pleasure and choking went together? There was a better place to put Thurston, but already, influenced by physical cues--Thurston's unfamiliar smell, the faint frog-kicking of his legs--Madeleine knew she would never allow him into that other place. So she had to go on doing what she was doing, lowering her face over Thurston as he inflated like a stent to widen the artery of her throat. Her tongue began defensive movements, became a shield against deeper penetration, her hand that of a traffic cop, signaling, Stop! Out of one eye, she saw that Thurston had propped up his head with a pillow in order to watch.
What Madeleine was seeking here, with Thurston, wasn't Thurston at all. It was self-abasement. She wanted to demean herself, and she'd done so, though she wasn't clear on why, except that it had to do with Leonard and how much she was suffering. Without finishing what she'dstarted, Madeleine lifted her head, sat back on her heels, and began to softly weep.
Thurston made no complaint. He just blinked rapidly, lying still. In case the evening could be rescued.
She awoke, the next morning, in her own bed. Lying on her stomach, with her hands behind her head, like the victim of an execution. Which might have been preferable, under the circumstances. Which might have been a big relief.
In its horror her hangover was seamless with the horror of the night before. Here, emotional turbulence achieved physiological expression: the sick vodka-soaked taste in her mouth the very flavor of regret; her nausea self-reflexive, as if she didn't want to expel the contents of her stomach but her own personhood. Madeleine's only comfort came from knowing that she'd remained--technically--inviolate. It would have been so much worse to have the reminder of Thurston's come inside her, trickling, leaking out.
This thought was interrupted by the ringing of the doorbell, and by the realization that it was graduation day and her parents were downstairs.
In the sexual hierarchy of college, freshman males ranked at the very bottom. After his failure with Madeleine, Mitchell had spent a long, frustrating year. He spent many nights with guys in the same situation, looking through the class directory known as the Pig Book and picking out the prettiest girls. Tricia Parkinson, Cleveland, OH had big Farrah Fawcett hair. In her gingham blouse Jessica Kennison, Old Lyme, MA looked like a dream of a farmer's daughter. Madeleine Hanna, Prettybrook, NJ had sent in a black-and-white snapshot of herself, squinting into the sun with the wind blowing her hair across her forehead. It was a casual picture, neither calculated nor conceited, but also not her best. Most guys passed right over it, focusing on the better-lit and more obvious beauties. Mitchell didn't alert them to their mistake. He wanted to keep Madeleine Hanna his little secret and, to that end, pointed out Sarah Kripke, Tuxedo Park, NY.
As for his own photograph in the Pig Book, Mitchell had mailed in apicture cut out of a Civil War history book, showing a lean-faced Lutheran minister with a white shock of hair, tiny spectacles, and an expression of moral outrage. The editors had obediently printed this above the caption Mitchell Grammaticus, Grosse Pointe, MI. Using the old man's portrait relieved Mitchell of having to send an actual photo of himself, and of thereby entering into the beauty pageant that the Pig Book inevitably became. It was a way to erase his bodily self and replace it with a mark of his wit.
If Mitchell had hoped that his female classmates might see his joke photo and become interested in him, he was sadly disappointed. No one paid much attention. The boy whose photograph aroused feminine interest was Leonard Bankhead, Portland, OR. Bankhead had submitted a curious photo of himself standing in a snowy field, wearing a comically tall stocking cap. To Mitchell, Bankhead didn't look particularly handsome or unhandsome. As freshman year progressed, however, stories of Bankhead's sexual successes began to make their way into the zones of deprivation that served as Mitchell's habitat. John Kass, who'd gone to high school with Bankhead's roommate, claimed that Bankhead had made his friend sleep elsewhere so often that he'd finally applied for a single. One night Mitchell saw the legendary Bankhead at a party at West Quad, staring into a girl's face as if attempting a mind-meld. Mitchell didn't understand why girls couldn't see through Bankhead. He thought that his Lothario reputation would decrease his appeal, but it had the opposite effect. The more girls Bankhead slept with, the more girls wanted to sleep with him. Which made Mitchell uncomfortably aware of how little he knew about girls in the first place.
Mercifully, freshman year finally came to an end. When Mitchell returned the following fall, there was a whole new crop of freshman girls, one of whom, a redhead from Oklahoma, became his girlfriend during spring term. He forgot about Bankhead. (Except for a reli. stu. course they were both in sophomore year, he hardly saw him for the remainder of college.) When the Oklahoman broke up with him, Mitchell went out with other girls, and slept with still others, leaving the zones of deprivation behind. Then, senior year, two months after the heating-gel incident, he heard that Madeleine had a new boyfriend and that the lucky guy was Leonard Bankhead. For two or three days Mitchell remained numb, dealing with the news and not dealing with it, until he awoke onemorning swamped by such raw feelings of diminishment and hopelessness that it was as if his entire self-worth (as well as his dick) had shriveled to the size of a pea. Bankhead's success with Madeleine revealed the truth about Mitchell. He didn't have the goods. He hadn't posted up the numbers. This was where he ranked. Out of contention.
His loss had a monumental effect. Mitchell retreated into obscurity to lick his wounds. His interest in quietism had been present beforehand, and so, with this fresh defeat, there was nothing keeping him from withdrawing within himself completely.
Like Madeleine, Mitchell had started out intending to be an English major. But after reading The Varieties of Religious Experience for a psychology course, he changed his mind. He'd expected the book to be clinical and cold, but it wasn't. William James described "cases" of all kinds, women and men he'd met or corresponded with, people suffering from melancholia, from nervous maladies, from digestive complaints, people who had yearned for suicide, who'd heard voices and changed their lives overnight. He reported their testimonies without a shred of ridicule. In fact, what was noteworthy about these stories was the intelligence of the people giving them. With apparent honesty, these voices described in detail how they'd lost the will to live, how they'd become ill, bedridden, abandoned by friends and family until suddenly a "New Thought" had occurred to them, the thought of their true place in the universe, at which point all their suffering had ended. Along with these testimonies, James analyzed the religious experience of famous men and women, Walt Whitman, John Bunyan, Leo Tolstoy, Saint Teresa, George Fox, John Wesley, and even Kant. There was no evident proselytizing motive. But the effect, for Mitchell, was to make him aware of the centrality of religion in human history and, more important, of the fact that religious feeling didn't arise from going to church or reading the Bible but from the most private interior experiences, either of great joy or of staggering pain.
Mitchell kept coming back to a paragraph about the neurotic temperament he'd underlined that seemed to describe his own personality and, at the same time, to make him feel better about it. It went:
Few of us are not in some way infirm, or even diseased; and our very infirmities help us unexpectedly. In [this] temperament we have the emotionality which is the sine qua non of moralperception; we have the intensity and the tendency to emphasis which are the essence of practical moral vigor; and we have the love of metaphysics and mysticism which carry one's interests beyond the surface of the sensible world. What, then, is more natural than that this temperament should introduce one to regions of religious truth, to corners of the universe, which your robust Philistine type of nervous system, forever offering its biceps to be felt, thumping its breast, and thanking Heaven that it hasn't a single morbid fiber in its composition, would be sure to hide forever from its self-satisfied possessors?
If there were such a thing as inspiration from a higher realm, it might well be that the neurotic temperament would furnish the chief condition of the requisite receptivity.
The first religious studies class Mitchell had taken (the one Bankhead had been in) was a trendy survey course on Eastern religion. Next he enrolled in a seminar on Islam. From there Mitchell graduated to stronger stuff--a course on Thomistic ethics, a seminar on German Pietism--before moving on, in his last semester, to a course called Religion and Alienation in 20th Century Culture. At the first class meeting, the professor, a severe-looking man named Hermann Richter, surveyed with suspicion the forty or so students packed into the classroom. Lifting his chin, he warned in a stern tone, "This is a rigorous, comprehensive, analytical course in twentieth-century religious thought. Any of you who think a little something in alienation might do should think otherwise."
Glowering, Richter handed out the syllabus. It included Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Auguste Comte and Positivism: The Essential Writings, Tillich's The Courage to Be, Heidegger's Being and Time, and The Drama of Atheist Humanism by Henri de Lubac. Around the room, students' faces fell. People had been hoping for The Stranger, which they'd already read in high school. At the next class meeting, fewer than fifteen kids remained.
Mitchell had never had a professor like Richter before. Richter dressed like a banker. He wore gray chalk-striped suits, conservative ties, button-down shirts, and polished brogues. He had the reassuring attributes of Mitchell's own father--the diligence, the sobriety, themasculinity--while leading a life of unfatherly intellectual cultivation. Every morning Richter had the Frankfurter Allgemeine delivered to his department mailbox. He could quote, in the French, the Vérendrye brothers' reaction upon seeing the Dakota badlands. He seemed worldlier than most professors and less ideologically programmed. His voice was low, Kissingerian, minus the accent. It was impossible to imagine him as a boy.
Twice a week they met with Richter and looked unflinchingly at the reasons why the Christian faith had, around the year 1848, expired. The fact that many people thought it was still alive, that it had never been sick at all, was dismissed outright. Richter wanted no fudging. If you couldn't answer the objections of a Schopenhauer, then you had to join him in pessimism. But this was by no means the only option. Richter insisted that unquestioning nihilism was no more intellectually sound than unquestioning faith. It was possible to pick over the corpse of Christianity, to pound its chest and blow into its mouth, to see if the heart started beating again. I'm not dead. I'm only sleeping. Stiff-backed, never sitting, his gray hair closely barbered but with hopeful signs about his person, a thistle in his buttonhole or a gift-wrapped present for his daughter protruding from the pocket of his overcoat, Richter asked the students questions and listened to their answers as if it might happen here today: in Room 112 of Richardson Hall, Dee Michaels, who played the Marilyn Monroe part in a campus production of Bus Stop, might throw a rope ladder across the void. Mitchell observed Richter's thoroughness, his compassionate revelation of error, his undimmed enthusiasm for presiding over the uncluttering of the twenty or so minds gathered around the seminar table. Getting these kids' heads in working order even now, so late in the game.
What Richter believed was unclear. He wasn't a Christian apologist. Mitchell watched Richter for signs of partiality. But there were none. He dissected each thinker with the same severity. He was grudging in his approval and comprehensive in his complaints.
At semester's end, there was a take-home final exam. Richter handed out a single sheet of paper containing ten questions. You were free to consult your books. There was no way to cheat. The answers to such questions couldn't be found anywhere. No one had formulated them yet.
Mitchell didn't remember any strain in completing the exam. Heworked hard but effortlessly. He sat at the oval dining table he used for a desk, surrounded by a scatter of notes and books. Larry was baking banana bread in the kitchen. Occasionally, Mitchell went and had a piece. Then he returned and started up where he'd left off. While he wrote, he felt, for the first time, as though he weren't in school anymore. He wasn't answering questions to get a grade on a test. He was trying to diagnose the predicament he felt himself to be in. And not just his predicament, either, but that of everyone he knew. It was an odd feeling. He kept writing the names Heidegger and Tillich but he was thinking about himself and all his friends. Everyone he knew was convinced that religion was a sham and God a fiction. But his friends' replacements for religion didn't look too impressive. No one had an answer for the riddle of existence. It was like that Talking Heads song. "And you may ask yourself, 'How did I get here?' ... And you may tell yourself, 'This is not my beautiful house. And you may tell yourself, 'This is not my beautiful wife.'" As he responded to the essay questions, Mitchell kept bending his answers toward their practical application. He wanted to know why he was here, and how to live. It was the perfect way to end your college career. Education had finally led Mitchell out into life.
Immediately after handing in the exam, he forgot all about it. Graduation was nearing. He and Larry were busy making plans for their trip. They bought backpacks and subzero sleeping bags. They pored over maps and budget-travel guides, sketching possible itineraries. A week after the exam, Mitchell came into the Faunce House post office and found a letter in his mail slot. It was from Professor Richter, on university stationery. It asked him to come and see Richter in his office.
Mitchell had never been to Richter's office before. Before going, he picked up two iced coffees from the Blue Room--an extravagant gesture, but it was hot out, and he liked his professors to remember him. He carried the tall covered cups through the midday sun to the redbrick building. The departmental secretary told him where to find Richter, and Mitchell started up the stairs to the second floor.
All the other offices were empty. The Buddhists had left for summer vacation. The Islamicists were down in D.C., giving the State Department insight into the "frame of reference" of Abu Nidal, who had just remotely detonated a car bomb inside the French embassy in West Beirut.Only the door at the end of the hall was open, and inside it, wearing a necktie despite the sultry weather, was Richter.
Richter's office wasn't the bare cell of an absentee professor, inhabited only during office hours. Neither was it the homey den of a department chair, with lithographs and a Shaker rug. Richter's office was formal, almost Viennese. There were glass-fronted bookcases full of leather-bound theology books, an ivory-handled magnifying glass, a brass inkstand. The desk was massive, a bulwark against the creeping ignorance and imprecision of the world. Behind it, Richter was writing notes with a fountain pen.
Mitchell stepped in and said, "If I ever had an office, Professor Richter, this is the kind of office I'd have."
Richter did an amazing thing: he smiled. "You just might get the chance," he said.
"I brought you an iced coffee."
Richter stared across the desk at the offering, mildly surprised, but tolerant. "Thank you," he said. He opened a manila folder and took out a sheaf of papers. Mitchell recognized it as his take-home exam. It appeared to have writing all over it, in an elegant hand.
"Have a seat," Richter said.
"I've taught at this college for twenty-two years," Richter began. "In all of that time, only once have I received a paper that displays the depth of insight and philosophical acumen that yours does." He paused. "The last student of whom I could say this is now the dean of Princeton Theological Seminary."
Richter stopped, as though waiting for his words to sink in. They didn't, particularly. Mitchell was pleased to have done well. He was used to doing well in school, but he still enjoyed it. Beyond that, his mind didn't travel.
"You are a graduating senior this year, is that correct?"
"One week left, Professor."
"Have you ever given serious thought to pursuing a career in scholarship?"
"Not serious thought, no."
"What are you planning to do with your life?" Richter said.
Mitchell smiled. "Is my father hiding under your desk?" he said.
Richter's brow furrowed. He was no longer smiling. He folded his hands, taking a new direction. "I sense from your exam that you are personally engaged with matters of religious belief. Am I right?"
"I guess you could say that," Mitchell said.
"Your surname is Greek. Were you raised in the Orthodox tradition?"
"Baptized. That was about it."
"Now?" Mitchell took a moment. He was accustomed to keeping quiet about his spiritual investigations. It felt odd to talk about them.
But Richter's expression was nonjudgmental. He was bent forward in his chair, hands clasped on the desk. He was looking away, presenting only his ear. Under this encouragement, Mitchell opened up. He explained that he had arrived at college without knowing much about religion, and how, from reading English literature, he'd begun to realize how ignorant he was. The world had been formed by beliefs he knew nothing about. "That was the beginning," he said, "realizing how stupid I was."
"Yes, yes." Richter nodded quickly. The head-bowing suggested personal experience with thought-tormented states. Richter's head remained low, listening. "I don't know, one day I was just sitting there," Mitchell went on, "and it hit me that almost every writer I was reading for my classes had believed in God. Milton, for starters. And George Herbert." Did Professor Richter know George Herbert? Professor Richter did. "And Tolstoy. I realize Tolstoy got a little excessive, near the end. Rejecting Anna Karenina. But how many writers turn against their own genius? Maybe it was Tolstoy's obsession with truth that made him so great in the first place. The fact that he was willing to give up his art was what made him a great artist."
Again the sound of assent from the gray eminence above the desk blotter. The weather, the world outside, had ceased to exist for a moment. "So last summer I gave myself a reading list," Mitchell said. "I read a lot of Thomas Merton. Merton got me into Saint John of the Cross and Saint John of the Cross got me into Meister Eckhart and The Imitation of Christ. Right now I'm reading The Cloud of Unknowing."
Richter waited a moment before asking, "Your search has been purely intellectual?"
"Not only," Mitchell said. He hesitated and then confessed, "I've also been going to church."
"You name it." Mitchell smiled. "All kinds. But mostly Catholic."
"I can understand the attraction of Catholicism," Richter said. "But putting myself back in the time of Luther, and considering the excesses of the Church at the time, I think I would have sided with the schismatics."
In Richter's face Mitchell now saw the answer to the question he'd been asking all semester. He hesitated and asked, "So you believe in God, Professor Richter?"
In a firm tone, Richter specified, "I am a Christian religious believer."
Mitchell didn't know what that meant, exactly. But he understood why Richter was splitting hairs. The designation allowed him room for reservations and doubts, historical accommodations and dissent.
"I had no idea," Mitchell said. "In class I couldn't tell if you believed anything or not."
"That's the way the game is played."
They sat there together, companionably sipping their iced coffees. And Richter made his offer.
"I want you to know that I think you have the potential to do significant work in contemporary Christian theological studies. If you would be at all inclined, I would see to it that you get a full scholarship to the Princeton Theological Seminary. Or to Harvard or Yale Divinity School, if you so prefer. I do not often exercise myself to this extent on behalf of students, but in this case I feel compelled to do so."
Mitchell had never considered going to divinity school. But the idea of studying theology--of studying anything, as opposed to working nine-to-five--appealed to him. And so he'd told Richter that he would seriously think about it. He was taking a trip, a year off. He promised to write Richter when he got back and to tell him what he'd decided.
Given all the difficulties ganging up on Mitchell--the recession, his dubious degree, and, today, this morning's fresh rebuff from Madeleine--the trip was the only thing he had to look forward to. Now, heading back to his apartment to dress for the commencement procession, Mitchell toldhimself that it didn't matter what Madeleine thought of him. He would soon be gone.
His apartment, on Bowen Street, was only two blocks from Madeleine's much nicer building. He and Larry occupied the second floor of an old clapboard tenement house. In five minutes he was climbing the front stairs.
Mitchell and Larry had decided to go to India one night after watching a Satyajit Ray film. They hadn't been entirely serious at the time. From then on, however, whenever anybody asked what they were doing after graduation, Mitchell and Larry replied, "We're going to India!" Reaction among their friends was universally positive. No one could come up with a reason why they shouldn't go to India. Most people said that they wished they could come along. The result was that, without so much as buying plane tickets or a guidebook--without really knowing anything about India--Mitchell and Larry began to be seen as enviable, brave, free-thinking individuals. And so finally they decided that they had better go.
Little by little, the trip had come into focus. They added a European leg. In March, Larry, who was a theater major, had lined up the job as research assistants with Professor Hughes, which gave the trip a professional gloss and placated their parents. They'd bought a big yellow map of India and hung it on the kitchen wall.
The only thing that had nearly derailed their plans was the "party" they had thrown a few weeks ago, during Reading Period. It was Larry's idea. What Mitchell hadn't known, however, was that the party wasn't a real party but Larry's final project for the studio art course they were taking. Larry, it turned out, had "cast" certain guests as "actors," giving them directions on how to behave at the party. Most of these directions involved insulting, coming on to, or freaking out the unsuspecting guests. For the first hour of the party, this resulted in everyone having a bad time. Friends came up to tell you that they'd always distrusted you, that you'd always had bad breath, et cetera. Around midnight, the downstairs neighbors, a married couple named Ted and Susan (who, Mitchell could see retrospectively, had been ridiculously costumed in terry-cloth bathrobes and fluffy slippers, Susan with curlers in her hair), burst angrily through the door, threatening to call the cops because of the loud music. Mitchell tried to calm them down. Dave Hayek, however, who was six-four,and in on the hoax, stomped across the kitchen and physically threatened the neighbors. In response, Ted pulled a (fake) gun from the pocket of his bathrobe, threatening to shoot Hayek, who cowered on the floor, pleading, while everyone else either froze in fear or rushed for the doors, spilling beer over everything. At that point, Larry had turned on all the lights, climbed onto a chair, and informed everyone, ha ha, that none of this was real. Ted and Susan took off their robes to reveal street clothes underneath. Ted showed everyone that the gun was a squirt gun. Mitchell couldn't believe that Larry had failed to inform him, the party's co-host, about the party's secret agenda. He'd had no idea that Carlita Jones, a thirty-six-year-old graduate student, had been following the "script" when, earlier in the evening, she had locked Mitchell and herself in a bedroom, saying, "Come on, Mitchell. Let's do the nasty. Right here on the floor." He was greatly surprised that sex offered openly in this way (as it often was in his fantasies) proved in reality to be not only unwelcome but frightening. Yet despite all this and how enraged he was at Larry for using the party to fulfill his course requirements (though Mitchell should have been suspicious when the art professor herself had shown up), Mitchell knew even later that night, after everyone had left--even while he screamed at Larry, who was getting sick over the balcony, "Go on! Puke your guts out! You deserve it!"--that he would forgive Larry for turning their house and party into bad performance art. Larry was his best friend, they were going to India together, and Mitchell had no choice.
Now he let himself into his apartment and went straight to Larry's door, flinging it open.
On a futon mattress, his face half-hidden in a bush of Garfunkel hair, Larry lay on his side, his thin frame forming a Z. He looked like a figure at Pompeii, someone who'd curled up in a corner as the lava and ash came through the window. Thumbtacked to the wall above his head were two photographs of Antonin Artaud. In the photo on the left, Artaud was young and unbelievably handsome. In the other, taken a brief decade later, the playwright looked like a withered maniac. It was the speed and totality of Artaud's physical and mental disintegration that appealed to Larry.
"Get up," Mitchell said to him.
When Larry didn't respond, Mitchell picked up a Samuel French script from the floor and tossed it at his head.
Larry groaned and rolled onto his back. His eyes fluttered open, but he seemed in no rush to regain consciousness. "What time is it?"
"It's late. We've got to get going."
After a long moment, Larry sat up. He was on the small side, with a puckish or faun-like quality to his face, which, depending on the light or how much he'd been partying, could look either as high-cheekboned as Rudolf Nureyev or as hollow-cheeked as the figure in Munch's The Scream. Right now, it was somewhere in between.
"You missed a good party last night," he said.
Mitchell was stone-faced. "I'm over parties."
"Now, now, Mitchell, don't be extreme. Is this how you're going to be on our trip? A drag?"
"I just saw Madeleine," Mitchell said with urgency. "She decided to start talking to me again. But then I said something she didn't like, and now she isn't."
"She broke up with Bankhead, though."
"I know she did," Larry said.
An alarm went off in Mitchell's head. "How do you know?" he asked.
"Because she left the party last night with Thurston Meems. She was on the prowl, Mitchell. I told you to come. Too bad you're over parties."
Mitchell stood up straighter to blunt the force of this revelation. Larry knew, of course, of Mitchell's obsession with Madeleine. Larry had heard Mitchell extol her virtues and defend or contextualize her more questionable attributes. Mitchell had revealed to Larry, as you did only to a real friend, the extent of his crazy thinking when it came to Madeleine. Still, Mitchell had his pride, and showed no reaction. "Get your ass up," he said, withdrawing into the hall. "I don't want to be late."
Back in his room, Mitchell closed the door and went to sit in his desk chair, hanging his head. Certain details of the morning, previously illegible, were slowly revealing significance, like skywriting. Madeleine's disheveled hair. Her hangover.
Suddenly, with savage decisiveness, he spun around and ripped off the lid of the cardboard box that was lying on his desk. Inside was his graduation robe. Taking it out, he stood up and pulled the shiny acrylic fabric over his head and shoulders. The tassel, class pin, and mortarboardwere shrink-wrapped in separate sheets of plastic. After ripping these off, and screwing the tassel into the mortarboard so thoroughly it made a dent, Mitchell unfolded the cap's bat wings and set it on his head.
He heard Larry pad into the kitchen. "Mitchell," Larry called, "should I bring a joint?"
Without answering, Mitchell went to stand before the mirror on the back of his bedroom door. Mortarboards were medieval in origin. They were as old as "The Cloud of Unknowing." That was why they looked so ridiculous. That was why he looked so ridiculous wearing one.
He remembered a line from Meister Eckhart: "Only the hand that erases can write the true thing."
Mitchell wondered if he was supposed to erase himself, or his past, or other people, or what. He was ready to begin erasing immediately, as soon as he knew what to rub out.
When he came out into the kitchen, Larry was making coffee, wearing his cap and gown, too. They looked at each other with mild amusement.
"Definitely bring a joint," Mitchell said.
Madeleine took the long way back to her building.
She was furious at everyone and everything, at her mother for making her invite Mitchell over in the first place, at Leonard for not calling, at the weather for being cold, and at college for ending.
It was impossible to be friends with guys. Every guy she'd ever been friends with had ended up wanting something else, or had wanted something else from the beginning, and had been friends only under false pretenses.
Mitchell wanted revenge. That was all this was. He wanted to hurt her and he knew her weak spots. It was absurd of him to say that he wasn't mentally attracted to her. Hadn't he been after her all these years? Hadn't he told her that he "loved her mind"? Madeleine knew she wasn't as smart as Mitchell. But was Mitchell as smart as Leonard? What about that? That was what she should have told Mitchell. Instead of crying and running away, she should have pointed out that Leonard was perfectly happy with her level of intelligence.
This thought, shiny with triumph, dimmed on the immediate reflection that Leonard and she were no longer going out.
Gazing at Canal Street through the distortion of tears--they refracted a stop sign at a Cubist angle--Madeleine allowed herself once again to wish the forbidden wish of getting back together with Leonard. It seemed to her that if she could just have that one thing, all her other problems would be bearable.
The clock on the Citizens Bank read 8:47. She had an hour to get dressed and up the hill.
Up ahead, the river appeared, green and unmoving. A few years ago, it had caught on fire. For weeks the fire department had tried to put out the conflagration without success. Which invited the question of how, exactly, did you douse a burning river? What could you do, when the retardant was also the accelerant?
The lovelorn English major contemplated the symbolism of this.
In a thin little park she'd never noticed before, Madeleine sat on a bench. Natural opiates were flooding her system and, after a few minutes, she started to feel a bit better. She dried her eyes. From now on, she wouldn't have to see Mitchell ever again, if she didn't want. Or Leonard, either. Though at this moment she felt abused, abandoned, and ashamed of herself, Madeleine knew that she was still young, that she had her whole life ahead of her--a life in which, if she persevered, she might do something special--and that part of persevering meant getting past moments just like this one, when people made you feel small, unlovable, and took away your confidence.
She left the park, climbing a small cobblestone lane back to Benefit Street.
At the Narragansett, she let herself into the lobby and took the elevator up to her floor. She felt tired, dehydrated, and still in need of a shower.
As she was putting her key in the door, Abby opened it from inside. Her hair was stuffed into the graduation cap. "Hi! We thought we were going to have to leave without you."
"Sorry," Madeleine said, "my parents take forever. Can you wait for me? I'll be really fast."
In the living room, Olivia was painting her toenails, her feet up on the coffee table. The telephone began to ring, and Abby went to get it.
"Pookie said you left with Thurston Meems," Olivia said, applying polish. "But I told her that couldn't possibly be true."
"I don't want to talk about it," Madeleine said.
"Fine. I don't even care," Olivia said. "But Pookie and I just want to know one thing."
"I'm going to take a quick shower."
"It's for you," Abby said, holding out the phone.
Madeleine had no desire to talk to anybody. But it was better than fending off more questions.
She took the receiver and said hello.
"Madeleine?" It was a guy's voice, unfamiliar.
"This is Ken. Auerbach." When Madeleine didn't respond, the caller said, "I'm a friend of Leonard's."
"Oh," Madeleine said. "Hi."
"I'm sorry to call on graduation. But I'm leaving today and I thought I should call you before I go." There was a pause during which Madeleine tried to catch up to the reality of the moment, and before she did, Auerbach said, "Leonard's in the hospital."
No sooner had he delivered this news than he added, "Don't worry. He's not hurt. But he's in the hospital and I thought you should know. If you didn't already. Maybe you knew."
"No, I didn't," Madeleine replied in what sounded to her like a calm tone. Keeping it that way, she added, "Can you hold on a minute?" Pressing the receiver against her chest, she picked up the base of the phone, which was on an extralong cord, and carried it out of the living room and back to her bedroom, where it just barely reached. She closed the door and lifted the handset to her ear. She was worried her voice might break when she spoke again.
"What's the matter? Is he O.K.?"
"He's fine," Auerbach assured her. "Physically he's fine. I was worried I might freak you out if I called but--yeah, no--he's not injured or anything like that."
"Then what is he?"
"Well, at first he was a little manic. But now he's really depressed. Like, clinically."
For the next several minutes, while rain clouds passed over thecapitol dome framed by her window, Auerbach told Madeleine what had happened.
It had started with Leonard not being able to sleep. He came to class complaining of exhaustion. At first, no one paid much attention. Being exhausted was in large measure what being Leonard was all about. Previously, Leonard's exhaustion had had to do with the inherent demands of the day, with getting up, getting dressed, making it to campus. It wasn't that he hadn't slept; it was that being awake was too much to bear. By contrast, Leonard's present exhaustion had to do with the night. He felt too wired to go to bed, he said, and so began staying up until three or four in the morning. When he forced himself to turn off the lights and get into bed, his heart raced, and he broke into a sweat. He tried to read, but his thoughts kept racing, and soon he was pacing his apartment.
After a week of this, Leonard had gone to Health Services, where a doctor, accustomed to seeing stressed-out undergrads near semester's end, prescribed sleeping pills and told Leonard to stop drinking coffee. When the pills didn't work the doctor prescribed a mild tranquilizer, and then a stronger one, but even this brought Leonard no more than two or three hours of shallow, dreamless, nonreplenishing sleep per night.
It was right around then, Auerbach said, that Leonard stopped taking his lithium. It wasn't clear if Leonard had done this on purpose or just forgot. But pretty soon he was calling people on the telephone. He called everybody. He talked for fifteen minutes, or a half hour, or an hour, or two hours. At first, he was entertaining, as always. People were happy to hear from him. He called his friends two or three times a day. Then five or six. Then ten. Then twelve. He called from his apartment. He called from pay phones around campus, the locations of which he had memorized. Leonard knew about a phone in the subbasement of the physics lab, and of a cozy telephone closet in the administration building. He knew about a broken pay phone on Thayer Street that recycled your coin. He knew about unguarded phones in the philosophy department. From each and every one of these phones Leonard called to tell his listeners how exhausted he was, how insomniac, how insomniac, how exhausted. All he could do, apparently, was talk on the phone. As soon as the sun rose, Leonard telephoned his early-rising friends. Having been up all night, he called to speak to people not yet in the mood for conversation. From them, he moved on to other people, people he knewwell or had barely met, students, departmental secretaries, his dermatologist, his advisor. When it got too late on the East Coast to call anyone, Leonard went through his phone book, looking up the numbers of friends on the West Coast. And when it got too late to call Portland or San Francisco, Leonard faced the terrifying three or four hours when he was alone in his apartment with his own disintegrating mind.
That was the phrase Auerbach used, telling the story to Madeleine. "Disintegrating mind." Madeleine listened, trying to fit the picture Auerbach was sketching with the Leonard she knew, whose mind was anything but weak.
"What do you mean?" Madeleine said. "Are you saying Leonard's going crazy?"
"That's not what I'm saying," Auerbach said.
"What do you mean his mind is disintegrating?"
"That's what he told me it felt like. To him," Auerbach said.
As his mind began to come apart, Leonard sought to keep it together by talking into a plastic handset, to reach and interact with another person, to outfit that person with a precise description of his despair, his physical symptoms, his hypochondriacal surmises. He called to ask people about their moles. Did they ever have a mole that looked suspicious? That bled or changed shape? Or a red thingy on the shaft of their penises? Could that be herpes? What did herpes look like? What was the difference between a herpes lesion and a chancre? Leonard strained the decorum of masculine friendship, Auerbach said, by calling his male friends and inquiring about the state of their erections. Had they ever failed to get it up? If so, under what conditions? Leonard began referring to his erections as "Gumbies." These were erections that bent, that were as pliable as the old childhood figurine. "I get a total Gumby sometimes," he said. He worried that biking through Oregon one summer had compromised his prostate. He went to the library and found a study of erectile dysfunction in Tour de France athletes. Because Leonard was brilliant and historically hilarious, he'd built up a huge reserve of good feeling in people, memories of great times with him, and, now, in his million phone calls, he began to draw on this reserve, one call at a time, as people waited through his kvetching and tried to coax him out of his depression, and it was a long time before he exhausted his reserve of being liked and admired.
Leonard's dark moods had always been part of his appeal. It was a relief to hear him enumerate his frailties, his misgivings about the American formula for success. So many people at college were jacked up on ambition, possessors of steroidal egos, clever but cutthroat, diligent but insensitive, shiny but dull, that everyone felt compelled to be upbeat, down with the program, all systems firing, when everyone knew, in his or her heart, that this wasn't how they really felt. People doubted themselves and feared the future. They were intimidated, scared, and so talking to Leonard, who was all these things times ten, made people feel less bad about themselves, and less alone. Leonard's calls were like telephone therapy. Plus, he was way worse off than everybody else! He was Dr. Freud and Dr. Doom, father confessor and humble penitent, shrink and shrunk. He put on no show. He wasn't a fake. He spoke honestly and listened with compassion. At their best, Leonard's phone conversations were a kind of art and a form of ministry.
And yet, Auerbach said, there was a change to Leonard's pessimism about this time. It deepened; it purified. It lost its previous comedic habiliments, its air of shtick, and became unadulterated, lethal, pure despair. Whatever Leonard, who'd always been "depressed," had had before, it wasn't depression. This was depression. This monotone monologue delivered by an unbathed guy lying on his back in the middle of the floor. This unmodulated recitation of his young life's failures, failures that in Leonard's mind already foredoomed him to a life of ever-diminishing returns. "Where's Leonard?" he kept asking, on the phone. Where was the guy who could write a twenty-page paper on Spinoza with his left hand while playing chess with his right? Where was the professorial Leonard, purveyor of obscure information on the history of type in Flanders versus Wallonia, deliverer of disquisitions on the literary merits of sixteen Ghanaian, Kenyan, and Ivory Coast novelists, all of whom had been published in a sixties-era paperback series called "Out of Africa" that Leonard had once found at the Strand and purchased for fifty cents apiece and read every volume of? "Where's Leonard?" Leonard asked. Leonard didn't know.
Slowly it began to dawn on Leonard's friends that it didn't matter whom Leonard called on the phone. He forgot who was on the other end and, whenever one person managed to hang up, Leonard called somebody else and picked up right where he'd left off. And people were busy.They had other things to do. So gradually his friends began to make up excuses when Leonard called. They said they had a class or a meeting with a professor. They minimized talking time and, after a while, stopped answering the phone altogether. Auerbach himself had done this. He felt guilty about it now, which was why he had called Madeleine. "We knew Leonard was in bad shape," he said, "but we didn't know he was in that bad a shape."
All this led up to the day Auerbach's phone rang around five in the afternoon. Suspecting that it was Leonard, he didn't pick up. But the phone kept ringing and ringing and finally Auerbach couldn't stand it anymore and answered.
"Ken?" Leonard said in a quavering tone. "They're giving me an incomplete, Ken. I'm not going to graduate."
"Prof. Nalbandian just called. He says there's no time for me to make up the work I've missed. So he's giving me an incomplete."
This didn't come as a surprise to Auerbach. But the vulnerability of Leonard's voice, the child-lost-in-the-woods cry of it, made Auerbach want to say something soothing. "That's not so bad. He's not flunking you."
"That's not the point, Ken," Leonard said, aggrieved. "The point is that he's one of my professors, who I'm hoping will write recommendations for me. I've fucked everything up, Ken. I'm not going to graduate on time, with everyone else. If I don't graduate, then they're going to cancel my internship at Pilgrim Lake. I don't have any money, Ken. My parents aren't going to help me. I don't know how I'm going to make it. I'm only twenty-two and I've fucked up my life!"
Auerbach tried to reason with Leonard, to talk him down, but no matter what arguments he offered, Leonard remained fixed on the direness of his situation. He kept complaining about having no money, how his parents didn't help him like most kids at Brown, the disadvantage he'd been at his whole life and how this, too, had led to his precarious emotional state. They went around and around for over an hour, Leonard breathing heavily into the mouthpiece, his voice sounding increasingly desperate, while Auerbach ran out of things to say and began offering tactics that sounded silly even to him, for instance that Leonard needed to stop thinking so much about himself, that he should go outside and look atat the magnolias blooming on the green--had he seen the magnolias?--thathe might try comparing his situation with that of people truly desperate, South American gold miners, or quadriplegics, or patients with advanced MS, that life wasn't as bad as Leonard was making it out to be. And then Leonard did something he'd never done before. He hung up on Auerbach. It was the only time during his telephonic mania that Leonard had been the first to hang up, and it scared Auerbach. He called again and got no answer. Finally, after calling a couple of other people who knew Leonard, Auerbach decided to go to Planet Street, where he found Leonard in a frantic state. After much coaxing, he finally persuaded Leonard to let him take him to Health Services, and the doctor there admitted Leonard for the night. The next day, they sent him to Providence Hospital, where he was now in the psychiatric ward, receiving treatment.
Given more time, Madeleine could have separated and identified the welter of emotions that were now surging through her. There was a foreground of panic. Behind this were embarrassment and anger for being the last to know. But underneath everything, bubbling up, was a strange buoyancy.
"I've known Leonard since he was first diagnosed," Auerbach said. "Freshman year. He's fine if he takes his medicine. He's always been fine. He just needs some support right now. That's basically why I called."
"Thanks," Madeleine said. "I'm glad you did."
"So far, a few of us have been holding down the ship, visiting-hours-wise. But everybody's booking today. And--I don't know--I'm sure Leonard would like to see you."
"Did he say that?"
"He didn't say that. But I saw him last night and I'm sure he would."
With that, Auerbach gave her the address of the hospital and the number of the nurses' station, and said goodbye.
Madeleine was now filled with purpose. Putting the receiver down firmly, she strode out her bedroom door and back into the living room.
Olivia still had her legs on the coffee table, letting her toenails dry. Abby was pouring a pink smoothie from a blender into a glass.
"You traitors!" Madeleine shouted.
"What?" Abby said, surprised.
"You knew!" Madeleine cried. "You knew Leonard was in the hospital the whole time! That's why you said he wouldn't be at the party."
Abby and Olivia exchanged a look. Each was waiting for the other to speak.
"You knew and you didn't tell me!"
"We did it for your own good," Abby said, looking full of concern. "We didn't want you to get upset and start obsessing. I mean, you were already barely going to your classes. You were just getting over Leonard and we thought that--"
"How would you like it if Whitney was in the hospital and I didn't tell you?"
"That's different," Abby said. "You and Leonard broke up. You weren't even speaking."
"That doesn't matter," Madeleine said.
"I'm still going out with Whitney."
"How could you know and not tell me?"
"O.K.," Abby said. "Sorry. We're really sorry."
"You lied to me."
Olivia shook her head, unwilling to accept this. "Leonard's crazy," she said. "Do you realize that? I'm sorry, Maddy, but Leonard--is--crazy. He wouldn't leave his apartment! They had to call security to break down his door."
These details were new. Madeleine absorbed them for later analysis. "Leonard is not crazy," she said. "He's just depressed. It's an illness."
She didn't know if it was an illness. She didn't know anything about it. But the speed with which she plucked this assurance from the air had the added benefit of making her believe what she was saying.
Abby was still looking sympathetic, going cow-eyed, tilting her head to the side. Her upper lip had smoothie on it. "We were just worried about you, Mad," she said. "We were worried you might use this to get back with Leonard."
"Oh, so you were protecting me."
"You don't have to be snide," Olivia said.
"I can't believe I wasted my senior year living with you two."
"Oh, like it's been a real joy living with you!" Olivia said with ferocious cheer. "You and your Lover's Discourse. Give me a break! You know that line you're always quoting? About how nobody would fall in love unless they read about it first? Well, all you do is read about it."
"I think you have to agree it was pretty nice of us to ask you to livewith us," Abby said, licking smoothie off her lip. "I mean, we found this place and put down the security deposit and everything."
"I wish you'd never asked me," Madeleine said. "Then maybe I'd be living with somebody I could trust."
"Let's go," Abby said, turning away from Madeleine with an air of finality. "We've got to get up to the march."
"My nails aren't dry," Olivia said.
"Let's go. We're late."
Madeleine didn't wait to hear more. Turning, she went to her room and closed the door. When she was sure Abby and Olivia were gone, she gathered up her own graduation gear--the cap and gown, the tassel--and made her way down to the lobby. It was 9:32. She had twelve minutes to get to campus.
The quickest way up the hill--and the direction in which she didn't run the risk of overtaking her roommates--was up Bowen Street. Bowen Street had its own perils, however. Mitchell lived there and she was in no mood to run into him again. She proceeded cautiously around the corner and, not seeing him, hurried by his house and began climbing the slope.
The path was slippery from the rain. By the time she reached the top, Madeleine's loafers were caked with mud. Her head began to pound again and, as she hurried along, a gust of her own bodily scent rose out of the collar of her dress. For the first time, she examined the stain. It could have been anything. Nevertheless, she stopped, pulled the graduation robe over her head, and continued climbing.
She pictured Leonard barricaded in his apartment, with security officers breaking down his door, and a fearful tenderness took hold of her.
And yet there was this countervailing buoyancy, a balloon rising in her despite the immediate emergency ...
Reaching Congdon Street, she picked up speed. In a few blocks she saw the crowds. Policemen had stopped traffic, and people in raincoats were filling Prospect and College Streets, in front of the art building and the library. The wind was whipping up again, the tops of the elms shaking above the dark sky.
Passing by Carrie Tower, Madeleine heard a brass band tuning up. Grad students and medical students were lining up along Waterman Street, while ceremonially dressed officials checked the formation. She wantedto go through Faunce House Arch onto the green, but the line was blocking her. Instead of waiting, she proceeded farther along Faunce House and down the steps of the post office, intending to reach the green through the underground passage. As she was crossing the space, a thought occurred to her. She checked her watch again. It was 9:41. She had four minutes.
Madeleine's mailbox was on the bottom row of the front-facing boxes. To dial the combination, she went down on one knee, which made her feel hopeful and vulnerable at once. The brass door opened on the age-darkened slot. Inside was a single envelope. Calmly (for the successful candidate exhibited neither anxiety nor haste), Madeleine pulled it out.
It was the letter from Yale, torn, and enclosed in a plastic USPS envelope bearing a printed notice: "This article of mail was damaged en route to the recipient. We apologize for the delay."
She opened the heat-sealed plastic and gingerly pulled out the paper envelope, trying not to tear it further. It had been caught in a sorting machine. The postmark read "April 1, 1982."
The Faunce House post office knew all about acceptance letters. Yearly, they poured in, from medical schools, from law schools, from graduate programs. Students had knelt before these boxes just as she was now doing to pull out letters that transformed them instantly into Rhodes Scholars, senatorial aides, fledgling reporters, Wharton matriculants. As Madeleine opened the envelope, it occurred to her that it wasn't very heavy.
Dear Ms. Hanna,
This letter is to inform you that the Yale Graduate Program in English will not be able to offer you admission in the coming academic year, 1982-1983. We receive many qualified applicants each year and regret that we cannot always
She made no sound. She betrayed no sign of disappointment. Gently, she closed her P.O. box, spinning the dials, and, rising to full height, walked with good posture across the post office. Near the door, finishing the work the USPS processing center had started, she tore the letter in two, pitching the pieces into the recycling bin.
Students A, B, C, and D have applied to Yale graduate school. If A is the editor of The Harvard Crimson; B a Rhodes scholar who published a monograph on Paradise Lost in the Milton Quarterly ; C a nineteen-year-old prodigy from England who speaks Russian and French and is related to Prime Minister Thatcher; and D an English major whose submission contained a so-so paper on the linking words in Pearl plus a score on the logic portion of the GRE of 520, which student doesn't stand an ice cube's chance in hell of getting accepted?
She'd been rejected way back in April, two months ago. Her fate had been sealed before she'd even broken up with Leonard, which meant that the one thing she'd been counting on to lift her spirits these last three weeks had been an illusion. Another crucial bit of information withheld from her.
There were shouts on the green. With resignation, Madeleine set the mortarboard on her head like a dunce cap. She left the post office, climbing up the steps to the green.
In the open verdant space, families were waiting for the procession to begin. Three little girls had climbed into the bronze lap of the Henry Moore sculpture, smiling and giggling, while their father knelt in the grass to take photographs. Squads of alumni were staggering about, celebrating reunions, wearing straw boaters or Brown baseball caps emblazoned with their year.
In front of Sayles Hall people began to cheer. Madeleine looked as a Paleolithic graduate, a bog person of an alumnus enfolded in a striped blazer, was pushed into view by a retinue of blond grandchildren or great-grandchildren. From the arms of his wheelchair a raft of helium balloons rose into the spring air, each red balloon painted with a brown "Class of '09." The old man had his hand up to accept the applause. He was grinning with long, ghoulish teeth, his face lit with satisfaction beneath the Beefeater's hat on his head.
Madeleine watched the happy old man pass by. At that moment, the band launched into the processional music, and the commencement march began. The university's CEO-like president, wearing striped velvet academic robes and a floppy Florentine cap, led the march, holding a medieval lance. Following him were plutocratic trustees, and the red-haired, macrocephalic living members of the Brown family, and assorted provosts and deans. Seniors, walking two abreast, streamed up fromWayland Arch and across the green. The parade headed past University Hall in the direction of the Van Wickel gates, where parents--including Alton and Phyllida--were expectantly massed.
Madeleine watched the march, waiting for a place to jump in. She scanned the faces for someone she knew, her friend Kelly Traub or even Lollie and Pookie Ames. At the same time, her apprehension at running into Mitchell again, or Olivia and Abby, made her hold back, standing slightly behind a paunchy father toting a video camera.
She couldn't remember which side her tassel was supposed to hang on, left or right.
The graduating class had close to twelve hundred members. They kept coming, two by two, smiling and laughing, giving fist pumps and high fives. But each person who swept by was someone Madeleine had never seen before. After four years at college, nobody was anybody she knew.
Only about a hundred seniors had passed so far, but Madeleine didn't wait for the rest. The face she wanted to see wasn't here, anyway. Turning, she walked back through Faunce House Arch and headed up Waterman in the direction of Thayer Street. Hurrying, breaking almost into a run, holding her cap on with one hand, she reached the corner, where traffic was flowing. A minute later, she flagged down a taxi and told the driver to take her to Providence Hospital.
They had just finished the joint when the line began to move.
For a half hour Mitchell and Larry had been standing in the blustery shade of Wriston Quad, the midpoint in a long black line of graduating seniors that stretched from the main green down the long path to the ivy-covered arch behind them, and out along Thayer Street. The narrow sidewalks tidied up the line ahead and behind, but in the open space of the quad it bulged, becoming an outdoor party. People were milling around, circulating.
Mitchell blocked the wind with his body so that Larry could light the joint. Everyone was complaining about how cold it was and moving back and forth to stay warm.
There were a lot of ways to defy the day's solemnities. Some people were wearing their caps at funny angles. Others had decorated them withstickers or paint. Girls opted for feather boas, or Spring Break sunglasses, or mirrored earrings like mini disco balls. Mitchell made the observation that such shows of disobedience were commonplace at graduation ceremonies and, therefore, as time-honored as the traditions they tried to subvert, before taking the joint from Larry and defying the day's solemnity in his own commonplace way.
"Gaudeamus igitur," he said, and took a drag.
Like an egg swallowed by a black snake, the signal to march was working its way, by a nearly invisible peristalsis, along the twists and turns of the assembled marchers. But no one appeared to be moving yet. Mitchell kept squinting ahead to see. Finally the signal reached the people immediately in front of Larry and Mitchell and, all at once, the entire line surged forward.
They passed the joint back and forth, smoking it more quickly now.
Ahead in line Mark Klemke turned, wiggling his eyebrows, and said, "I'm naked under this robe."
A lot of people had brought cameras with them. Commercials had told them to record this moment on film, and so they were going ahead and recording it.
It was possible to feel superior to other people and like a misfit at the same time.
They lined you up in kindergarten, alphabetically. On fourth-grade field trips you took your partner's hand to push past the musk ox or the steam turbine. School was a perpetual lineup, ending in this final one. Mitchell and Larry made their way slowly up from the leafy dimness of Wriston Quad. The ground was still coolish, unsunned. Some prankster had climbed the statue of Marcus Aurelius to place a mortarboard on the stoic's head. His horse had an "82" painted on its steel flank. After ascending the steps alongside Leeds Theatre, they continued up past Sayles Hall and Richardson onto the green. The sky looked like something out of El Greco. Somebody's program blew past.
Larry offered the roach, but Mitchell shook his head. "I'm stoned," he said.
They were taking small, chain-gang steps, approaching the covered stage set up in front of University Hall before a sea of white folding chairs.At the top of the path, the line halted. Feeling a wave of fatigue, Mitchell was reminded why he didn't like to get high in the morning. After the initial rush of energy, the day became a boulder you had to push uphill. He would have to stop smoking pot on his trip. He would have to clean up his act.
The line began moving again. Through the elms, in the distance, Mitchell glimpsed the downtown skyline, and then the Van Wickel gates were looming straight ahead, and along with a thousand classmates Mitchell was carried through them.
People were making obligatory hooting noises, throwing up their caps. The crowd outside was dense and child-starved. From the mass of middle-aged faces, those of Mitchell's own, particular parents emerged with arresting clarity. Deanie, in a blue blazer and London Fog raincoat, was beaming at the sight of his youngest son, having forgotten, apparently, that he'd never wanted Mitchell to go to college in the East and be ruined by liberals. Lillian was waving both hands in the attention-getting way of small people. Under the estranging power of the marijuana, not to mention four years at college, Mitchell was depressed by the tacky denim sun visor his mother was wearing and by his parents' general lack of sophistication. But something was happening to him. The gates were doing something to him already, because as he raised his hand to wave back at his parents, Mitchell felt ten years old again, tearing up, choked with feeling for these two human beings who, like figures from myth, had possessed the ability throughout his life to blend into the background, to turn to stone or wood, only to come alive again, at key moments like this, to witness his hero's journey. Lillian had a camera. She was taking pictures. That was why Mitchell didn't have to bother.
Larry and he whirled on past the cheering crowd and down the slope of College Street. Mitchell kept an eye out for the Hannas, but didn't see them. He didn't see Madeleine, either.
At the bottom of the slope, the procession lost momentum, and the graduating class of 1982, drifting to the curbside, became onlookers themselves.
Mitchell took off his cap and wiped his forehead. He didn't feel like celebrating, particularly. College had been easy. The idea that graduating was any kind of accomplishment seemed laughable to him. But hehad enjoyed himself, thoroughly, and right now he was reverentially buzzed, and so he stood and applauded his classmates, trying to join in the jubilation of the day as best he could.
He wasn't thinking religious thoughts, or reciting the Jesus Prayer, when he noticed Professor Richter marching down the hill toward him. It was the faculty brigade now, professors and assistant professors in full academic regalia, their doctoral hoods hemmed in velvet signifying their disciplines and lined with satin representing their alma maters, the crimson of Harvard, the green of Dartmouth, the light blue of Tufts.
It surprised Mitchell that Professor Richter would take part in such silly pageantry. He could have been at home reading Heidegger, but instead he was here, wasting his time to parade down a hill in honor of yet another commencement ceremony, and to parade with what appeared to be absolute exhilaration.
At the genuine endpoint of his college career, Mitchell was left with that startling sight: Herr Doktor Professor Richter prancing by, his face lit with a childlike joy it had never displayed in the seminar room for Religion and Alienation. As if Richter had found the cure for alienation. As if he'd beaten the odds of the age.
"Congratulations!" the taxi driver said.
Madeleine glanced up, momentarily confused, before she remembered what she was wearing.
"Thank you," she said.
Since most streets around campus were blocked off, the driver was taking the long way around, going down Hope Street to Wickenden.
"You a med student?"
The driver lifted his hands from the wheel. "We're going to the hospital, right? So I thought maybe you're planning on being a doctor."
"No, not me," Madeleine answered nearly inaudibly, looking out the window. The driver took the message and was silent the rest of the way.
As the cab crossed the river, Madeleine took off her cap and gown. The interior of the car smelled of air freshener, something noninterven-tionist, like vanilla. Madeleine had always liked air fresheners. She'dnever thought anything about it until Leonard had told her that it indicated a willingness, on her part, to avoid unpleasant realities. "It isn't like the room doesn't smell bad," he'd said. "It's just that you can't smell it." She'd thought she'd caught him in a logical inconsistency, and had cried out, "How can a room smell bad if it smells nice?" And Leonard had replied, "Oh, it still smells bad all right. You're mistaking properties with substance."
These were the kinds of conversations she had with Leonard. They were part of why she liked him so much. You could be going anywhere, doing anything, and an air freshener would lead to a little symposium.
She wondered now, though, if his many-branching thoughts had in fact led straight to where he was now.
The taxi pulled up to a hospital that called to mind a badly aging Holiday Inn. Eight stories tall, glass-fronted, the white building looked soiled, as though it had absorbed the filth from the adjoining streets. The concrete urns flanking the entrance contained no flowers, only cigarette butts. A spidery figure suggestive of blue-collar hard luck and work-related illness was propelling himself with a walker through the perfectly functioning automatic doors.
In the atrium-like lobby, Madeleine made two wrong turns before finding the front desk. The receptionist took one look at her before asking, "You here for Bankhead?"
Madeleine was taken aback. Then she glanced around the waiting room and saw that she was the only white person there.
"Can't let you go up yet. Too many people up there already. Soon as someone comes down, I'll let you up."
This was another surprise. Leonard's emotional collapse, indeed his entire self-presentation as a nonperforming adult, wasn't consistent with a surplus of sickroom visitors. Madeleine was jealous of the unknown company.
She signed in and took a seat facing the elevators. The carpet bore a mood-elevating design of blue squares, each framing a child's crayon drawing: a rainbow, a unicorn, a happy family. People had brought in take-out food to eat while they waited, foam containers of jerk chicken and barbecued brisket. In the chair opposite her, a toddler was napping.
Madeleine gazed at the carpet without benefit.
After twenty long minutes, the elevator doors opened and two young white guys got off. Reassuringly, both were male. One guy was tall with B-52 hair, the other short, wearing a T-shirt with the famous photograph of Einstein sticking out his tongue.
"He seemed good to me," the first guy said. "He seemed better."
"That was better? Jesus, I need a cigarette."
They passed by without noticing Madeleine.
As soon as they were gone, she went up to the receptionist.
"Fourth floor," the woman said, handing her a pass.
The large-capacity elevator, built to accommodate stretchers and medical equipment, rose slowly, with Madeleine its single occupant. Up past Obstetrics and Rheumatology, past Osteology and Oncology, beyond all the ills that could happen to the human body, none of which had happened to Leonard, the elevator carried her to the Psychiatric Unit, where what happened to people happened in the head. She'd been prepared, by the movies, for a site of harsh incarceration. But except for a red button that opened the double doors from the outside (a button that had no corresponding release inside), there was little sign of confinement. The corridor was pale green, the linoleum highly polished, squeaky underfoot. A food cart stood against a wall. The few patients visible in their rooms--mental patients, Madeleine couldn't help thinking--were passing time as all convalescents would, reading, dozing, staring out the window.
At the nursing station she asked for Leonard Bankhead and was directed to the dayroom at the end of the hall.
As soon as Madeleine stepped in, the light made her wince. The brightness of the dayroom seemed itself a therapy against depression. No shadows were allowed. Madeleine squinted, looking around at the Formica tables where robed and slippered patients sat alone or in the company of shoe-wearing visitors. A TV was bolted to an elevated rack in one corner, the volume loud. Evenly spaced windows gave views of city roofs jutting and dropping toward the bay.
Leonard was sitting in a chair fifteen feet away. A guy with glasses was leaning forward, speaking to him.
"So, Leonard," the guy with the glasses was saying. "You manufactured a little mental illness to get in here and get some help. And now you're in and you've got some help, and you realize maybe you're not so bad off as you thought."
Leonard appeared to be listening intently to what the guy was saying. He wasn't wearing a hospital robe, as Madeleine expected, but his normal clothes--work shirt, carpenter's pants, blue bandanna on his head. All that was missing were his Timberlands. Leonard had on open-toed hospital slippers, with socks. His stubble was longer than usual.
"You had some issues that weren't being addressed by your therapy," the guy with the glasses said, "and so you had to exaggerate them in order to bring them into a bigger arena and have them dealt with." Whoever the guy was, he seemed tremendously satisfied by his interpretation. He sat back, looking at Leonard as if expecting applause.
Madeleine took this opportunity to come forward.
Seeing her, Leonard rose from his chair.
"Madeleine. Hey," he said softly. "Thanks for coming."
And so it was established: the gravity of Leonard's predicament outweighed the fact that they'd broken up. Nullified it. Which meant that she could hug him, if she wanted.
She didn't, however. She was worried that physical contact might be against the rules.
"Do you know Henry?" Leonard said, keeping up the formalities. "Madeleine, Henry. Henry, Madeleine."
"Welcome to visiting hours," Henry said. He had a deep voice, the voice of authority. He was wearing a Madras jacket that pinched under the arms and a white shirt.
The terrible brightness of the room had the effect of making the floor-to-ceiling windows reflective, even though it was daylight outside. Madeleine saw the ghost image of herself looking at an equally ghostly Leonard. One young woman who had no visitors--and who was in a bathrobe, with wild, uncombed hair--was circling the room, muttering to herself.
"Nice place, huh?" Leonard said.
"It seems O.K."
"It's a state hospital. This is where people go if they don't have the money to go to somewhere like Silverlake."
"Leonard is a little disappointed," Henry explained, "not to be in the company of first-class depressives."
Madeleine didn't know who Henry was or why he was here. His jocularity seemed, at the least, insensitive, if not downright malicious. But Leonard didn't seem bothered. He took in everything Henry saidwith a disciple-like neediness. This, and the way he occasionally sucked on his upper lip, were the only things that seemed off about him.
"The flip side of self-loathing is grandiosity," Leonard observed.
"Right," Henry said. "So if you're going to crack up, you want to crack up like Robert Lowell."
The choice of the phrase crack up struck Madeleine as less than ideal as well. She resented Henry for it. At the same time, the fact that Henry was belittling Leonard's illness suggested that maybe it wasn't so serious.
Maybe Henry was handling this the right way. She was eager for any pointers. But levity was beyond her. She felt painfully awkward and tongue-tied.
Madeleine had never been close to anyone with a verifiable mental illness. She instinctively avoided unstable people. As uncharitable as this attitude was, it was part and parcel of being a Hanna, of being a positive, privileged, sheltered, exemplary person. If there was one thing Madeleine Hanna was not, it was mentally unstable. That had been the script, anyway. But sometime after finding Billy Bainbridge in bed with two women, Madeleine had become aware of the capacity in herself for a helpless sadness not unlike clinical depression; and certainly in these last weeks, sobbing in her room over her breakup with Leonard, getting wasted and having sex with Thurston Meems, pinning her last hope on being accepted to a graduate school she wasn't even sure she wanted to attend, broken by love, by empty promiscuity, by self-doubt, Madeleine recognized that she and a mentally ill person were not necessarily mutually exclusive categories.
A line from Barthes she remembered: Every lover is mad, we are told. But can we imagine a madman in love?
"Leonard's concerned they're going to keep him in here indefinitely, which I don't think is the case." Henry was talking again. "You're fine, Leonard. Just tell the doctor what you told me. They're just keeping you in here for observation."
"The doctor's supposed to call in a minute," Leonard informed Madeleine.
"You manufactured a little mental illness to get in here and get some help," Henry repeated once more. "And now you feel better and you're ready to go home."
Leonard leaned forward, all ears. "I just want to get out of here," he said. "I had to take three incompletes. I just want to finish up those classes and graduate."
Madeleine had never seen Leonard on such good behavior. The willing schoolboy, the star patient.
"That's a good thing," Henry said. "That's a healthy thing. You want your life back."
Leonard looked from Henry to Madeleine and robotically repeated, "I want my life back. I want to get out of here and finish my incompletes and graduate."
A nurse stuck her head into the dayroom.
"Leonard? Dr. Shieu's on the phone for you."
As eagerly as someone interviewing for a job, Leonard stood up. "Here goes," he said.
"Tell the doctor what you told me," said Henry.
When Leonard had left, they both remained silent. Finally Henry spoke.
"I'm guessing you're Leonard's girlfriend," he said.
"Unclear at this point," Madeleine replied.
"He's in a fugue state." Henry rotated his index finger in the air. "Just a tape loop, going around and around."
"But you just told him he was fine."
"Well, that's what Leonard needs to hear."
"You're not a doctor, though," she said.
"No," Henry said. "But I am a psych major. Which means I've read a lot of Freud." He broke into a big, awkward, flirtatious Cheshire cat grin.
"And here we are," Madeleine tartly replied, "living in post-Freudian times."
Henry bore this dig with something like pleasure. "If you are Leonard's girlfriend," he said, "or if you're thinking of becoming Leonard's girlfriend, or if you're thinking of getting back together with him, my advice would be not to do that."
"Who are you, anyway?"
"Just someone who knows, from personal experience, how attractive it can be to think you can save somebody else by loving them."
"I could have sworn we just met," Madeleine said. "And that you don't know anything about me."
Henry stood up. With a slightly offended air but undiminished confidence, he said, "People don't save other people. People save themselves."
He left her with that to think about.
The woman with the uncombed hair was staring up at the TV, tying and untying the belt of her robe. A young black woman, college-age herself, was sitting at a table with what looked to be her parents. They seemed used to the surroundings.
After a few more minutes, Leonard returned. The woman with the uncombed hair called out, "Hey, Leonard. Did you see any lunch out there?"
"I didn't," Leonard said. "Not yet."
"I could use some lunch."
"Another half hour, it'll be here," Leonard said helpfully.
He had the air more of a doctor than of a patient. The woman seemed to trust him. She nodded and turned away.
Leonard sat in the chair and leaned forward, jiggling his knee.
Madeleine was trying to think of something to say, but everything she thought of sounded like an attack. How long have you been in here? Why didn't you tell me? Is it true you were diagnosed three years ago? Why didn't you tell me you were on medication? My roommates knew and I didn't!
She settled on "What did the doctor say?"
"She doesn't want to discharge me yet," Leonard said equably, bearing up to the news. "She doesn't want to talk about discharging me yet."
"Just go along with her. Just stay here and rest. I bet you could finish your incompletes in here."
Leonard looked from side to side, speaking softly so that no one would overhear. "That's about all I can do. Like I said, this is a state hospital."
"Meaning it's mostly just throwing medicine at people."
"Are you taking anything?"
He hesitated before answering. "Lithium, mostly. Which I've been on awhile. They're recalibrating my dose."
"Is it helping?"
"Some side effects, but yeah. Essentially the answer is yes."
It was hard to tell if this was indeed so, or if Leonard wanted it to be.He seemed to be concentrating intensely on Madeleine's face, as though it would provide him crucial information.
Abruptly he turned and regarded his reflection in the window, rubbing his cheeks.
"They only let us shave once a week," he said. "An orderly has to be there while we do it."
"Razor blades. That's why I look like this."
Madeleine glanced around the room to see if anyone was touching. No one was.
"Why didn't you call me?" she asked.
"We broke up."
"Leonard! If I knew you were depressed, that wouldn't have mattered."
"The breakup was why I was depressed," Leonard said.
This was news. This was, in an inappropriate but real way, good news.
"I sabotaged you and me," Leonard said. "I see that now. I'm able to think a little more clearly now. Part of growing up in the kind of family I come from, a family of alcoholics, is that you begin to normalize disease and dysfunctionality. Disease and dysfunctionality are normal for me. What's not normal is feeling ..." He broke off. He inclined his head, his dark eyes focusing on the linoleum, as he continued: "Remember that day you said you loved me? Remember that? See, you could do that because you're basically a sane person, who grew up in a loving, sane family. You could take a risk like that. But in my family we didn't go around saying we loved each other. We went around screaming at each other. So what do I do, when you say you love me? I go and undermine it. I go and reject it by throwing Roland Barthes in your face."
Depression didn't necessarily ruin a person's looks. Only the way Leonard was moving his lips, sucking them and biting them occasionally, indicated that he was on any drugs.
"And so you left," he continued. "You walked out. And you were right to do that, Madeleine." Leonard looked at her now, his face full of sorrow. "I'm damaged goods," he said.
"You are not."
"After you left that day, I lay down on my bed and didn't get up for a week. I just lay there thinking how I'd sabotaged the best chance I everhad to be happy in life. The best chance I ever had to be with someone smart, beautiful, and sane. The kind of person I could be a team with." He leaned forward and gazed with intensity into Madeleine's eyes. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'm sorry for being the kind of person who would do a thing like that."
"Don't worry about that now," Madeleine said. "You have to concentrate on feeling better."
Leonard blinked three times in quick succession. "I'm going to be in here for at least another week," he said. "I'm missing graduation."
"You wouldn't have gone, anyway."
Here, for the first time, Leonard smiled. "You're probably right. How was it?"
"I don't know," Madeleine said. "It's going on right now."
"Right now?" Leonard looked out the window, as if he could check. "You're missing it?"
Madeleine nodded. "I wasn't in the mood."
The woman in the bathrobe who'd been lazily circling the room now zeroed in on them. Under his breath Leonard said, "Watch out for this one. She can turn on you in a second."
The woman shuffled closer and stopped. Bending at the knees, she appraised Madeleine closely.
"What are you?" she said.
"What am I?"
"Where are your people from?"
"England," Madeleine said. "Originally."
"You look like Candice Bergen."
She wheeled around to grin at Leonard. "And you're 007!"
"Sean Connery," Leonard said. "That's me."
"You look like 007 gone all to hell!" the woman said. There was an edge to her tone. Leonard and Madeleine, playing it safe, said nothing until she moved on.
The woman in the bathrobe belonged in here. Leonard, in Madeleine's opinion, didn't. He was here only because of his intensity. Had she known from the outset about his manic depression, his messed-up family, his shrink habit, Madeleine would never have allowed herself to get so passionately involved. But now that she was passionately involved, she found little to regret. To feel so much was its own justification.
"What about Pilgrim Lake Lab?" she said.
"I don't know." Leonard shook his head.
"Do they know?"
"I don't think so."
"That's not until September," Madeleine said. "That's a long time from now."
The TV jabbered on its hooks and chains. Leonard sucked his upper lip in the weird new way.
Madeleine took his hand.
"I'll still go with you, if you want," she said.
"You can finish your incompletes in here. We can stay in Providence for the summer and then move out there in September."
Leonard was quiet, taking this in.
Madeleine asked, "Do you think you can handle it? Or would it be better to just rest awhile?"
"I think I can handle it," Leonard said. "I want to get back to work."
They were silent, looking at each other.
Leonard leaned closer.
"'Once the first avowal has been made,'" he said, quoting Barthes from memory, "'"I love you" has no meaning whatever.'"
Madeleine frowned. "Are you going to start that again?"
"No, but--think about it. That means the first avowal does have meaning."
Light came into Madeleine's eyes. "I'm done then, I guess," she said.
"Not me," Leonard said, holding her hand. "Not me."
Copyright © 2011 by Jeffrey Eugenides
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