I suspected Madeleine had been lying, although I wasn’t totally sure. How could I have been, and maybe, given the circumstances, I didn’t really care to know, maybe I just wanted to keep telling myself this fairy tale about The Amazing Summer of Love, or more accurately The Perfect Six Weeks, that ground to a halt with her furious sobs the night we said farewell, her clutching my shirt in the Hersh family’s Stuy Town faux brick kitchenette and making me swear that, Yes, I do love you, completely, of course I do, forever and ever and ever.
When they finally tracked her down, though, in study hall and dragged her to the dorm phone, and she informed me she couldn’t talk long, that my timing couldn’t be worse because she had her first Psych test tomorrow, and they were studying in a group, and it was going to be a killer, the Prof being some sadistic Nazi, but that I was a hundred per cent simply imagining everything, living in a fantasy world of my own creation, what could I say? How could so momentous of a change take place in the five weeks since Labor Day? I had no evidence, just an uneasy feeling of two and two not adding up. Things not being exactly as they appeared.
This was only our third conversation since returning to school and each time Madeleine would sigh and tell me it was not a good weekend to visit. She was just sixty-five miles away, but I had no car, nor even a license, so it might as well have been sixty-five hundred, and what choice did I have but to take her at her word?
“Pretty soon,” I told her, “the snow’ll be closing in, these crappy upstate roads won’t even be passable.”
“You’re driving me to distraction,” she said, “you know that? Mr. Doom-and-Gloom. It’s tiresome!”
So, what was I supposed to do? Storm over the hills to Binghamton? I’d thought about catching a ride with an upper classmen some weekend, or hitchhiking, and just showing up unannounced, but she’d warned me several times how she abhorred surprises and it was 50/50 if I did that she might never speak to me again.
“I really have to split now,” she said, “but how dare you accuse me of running around with other boys? What are you basing it on?”
Oh, please, I wanted to say, what do you take me for? but common sense prevailed for once. I bit my tongue.
“Don’t you realize how laying a paranoid guilt trip on me like this might push me into it?” She said I was being whatever the word is she couldn’t think of, because she was studying for an exam, beyond possessive. “And how could I be sure you’re not seeing other girls? That your suspicion isn’t simply what Freud calls a projection?”
“Right,” I told her, “at an all-male school! Read the next chapter.”
“You’ve been to mixers,” she said, “haven’t you? They bus girls in to Colgate, don’t they? Anyway, we’ll see each other over Thanksgiving, you’ll have to hold out till then, we both will, unless you decide you don’t want to, that’s your call, Bob, but I’m too busy with schoolwork, and tests, and papers, oh, and also with rehearsals and studio projects, and volunteering at that school for underprivileged children I told you about until then.”
“Bob?” I said. “I told you never to call me that!”
“Well, you say you love me,” she said, “but how strong is it if you can’t survive ten weeks?”
“Eleven,” I said. “Look, you want to just break this off? Is that what you’re saying?”
“I don’t know,” she said, “but it sounds like you do. Fine with me, let’s split, my life is way too hectic to endure this drama.”
“No,” I told her, “that’s not what I’m saying, I just want us to get together sometimes. Is that a crime?”
“Sorry, I have to go,” she said. “It’s up to you, I just don’t want to be on the receiving end of any more accusations. They’re too distracting and I have to concentrate if I’m going to make Dean’s List.”
I wrote Madeleine on average four letters a week, trying to reach her, to stir something up. I compared missing her to being cast out of Nirvana or the Garden of Eden, but she never wrote back except for one rambling reply where she complained about what a monstrous time she was having re-adjusting to school, the pressure she felt, what insensitive tight-ass blowhards her professors all were, and how annoying it was that everywhere she turned on campus this ex-boyfriend Jared from Lynbrook-freaking-Long Island whom she’d gone with for a grand total of three weeks freshman year kept accosting her and whining about what a horrendous person she was for ruining his life, how he always had these pathetic tears pooling up in his droopy eyes when he told her, and she had the audacity to ask how she should handle this, which nearly sent me over the edge, that being the only mention she made of me in the letter, her current boyfriend, supposedly. Another time she sent three pages detailing the absurd problems her brother Ellis kept having with his draft board, and how worried to death she was that since he’d flunked out of CCNY (due, she said, to relentless pot smoking) they would deny his psychological deferment and ship him straight to Viet Nam. Nothing about us again. Signed, With love, Madeleine. Was that a laugh!
We’d met the summer before, clerking at a commercial real estate office in midtown. She was troubled with family issues (chiefly parents who did not understand her) and after our first few flirty encounters I came to the rescue, falling head over heels in the process. It turned into a seven day a week instant merger of the soul type whirlwind, a dream come true haze of the kind that seems so artificial in a Hollywood film, but sweeps you away nonetheless.
“Little by little,” she’d confessed tearfully, on day ten, “I may be falling in love with you.”
“I know,” I’d said, handing her a handkerchief, “me too. So, what is it about me?”
“I always go for the underdog,” she’d said, dabbing at her eyes. “Someone with the odds stacked against them. Especially if they’re really, really cute.”
“Why, thank you,” I said. “I think.”
“You’re blushing,” she told me. “That’s what else I like about you. You’re odd.”
“I never knew that. How am I odd? Or, should I say, how odd am I?”
So, when we weren’t joined at the hip, The Troubled Beauty and The Cute But Odd Underdog were conspiring on the phone, laughing at how weird everyone at the office was, or debating what to name our kids. We’d go to parties and the sparks of romance would flare so high, that we’d sit in the corner making out, crawling all over each other, unable to maintain whatever it was that might have passed for decorum. Repeating what everyone said, giggling, caught in a mad intoxicating frenzy. “Are you two on uppers?” a friend of hers asked, we looked at each other and both cracked up.
Madeleine is pale and freckled with wild layers of silky copper-colored hair that fall halfway to her waist, she has allergies to her allergies, and tears come easily, her clear blue eyes filling at the slightest hint of an insult, or anticipation of unpleasantry, as they did the morning I walked her to the public health clinic on East Houston for her weekly injections. She’s very attuned to cats, and other animals too, and she’s got a hair-trigger temper that flashes white hot unpredictably. In this she reminds me of Carol Rudetsky, another firebrand I went with in high school, who was so superstitious she interpreted every random occurrence as a sign we should break up, and who threw herself flagrantly at half the boys on our track team. The main point of distinction, though, Carol’s a teenybopper, whereas Madeleine defines herself as an artist. With a capital “A.” One who has yet to find her “proper medium,” as her mother once reminded me, rolling her grotesquely festooned raccoon-like eyes. “She’s still searching. But when she does find it,” Mrs. Hersh continued, her loud, bossy voice taking on a pronounced English accent, “watch out, world! Her father and I dared to think it could be the legitimate theater, given my background, but as you’re no doubt aware, Robert, our little artiste has a mind of her own. We almost named her Beatrice.” That was about all that the woman ever said to me, and somehow it clarified the extra “e” in Madeleine’s name, but there was also some valid insight in her little soliloquy. Madeleine is all over the map: singing, dabbling in watercolors (which I think show serious talent, but what do I know?), throwing clay, writing children’s fables, dancing, not ballet, more like that abstract modern jazz staccato rhythm stuff, and indulging her recent enthusiasm for drama. She told me she’s juggling two productions with different companies at school. Both very avant-garde. My art comes first, she’s made it clear, so I guess that’s one reason she has zero spare time to waste lately on the likes of me.
So, my first resolution was: stop with the letters. Then, nix on the phone calls too. Not till I hear from her first, of her own volition. Cease and desist. Cold turkey. And, if I was compelled to keep pouring my heart out on paper, about how I loved her so much more than she loved me (if she still loved me) I would, I’d spill my guts, then pretend I was sending it but just crumple the pages up. Like writing the proverbial insult letter to your boss, saying, “You fat slob, you, go to hell!” or something to that effect, and then chucking it in the trashcan. On these throwaways I must admit I indulged in hurling all manner of filthy epithets her way that I would never have had the guts to say in real life, I called her “a pretentious, flighty dilettante,” for example, “a mendacious, Janus-faced dingbat,” and worse, but go figure, the act of unburdening myself longhand afforded a modicum of relief, if not genuine peace of mind.
It became my everyday therapy, the letters droning on and on, page succeeding page, taking hours to complete. The invariable theme: Why? Why can’t it be like it was last summer? Why must everything change? Their tone was so pathetic, I’m grateful I threw each one away. The lone keepsake I had at school, besides the few above referenced unsatisfactory letters she’d sent (unsatisfactory in all respects save for the flowery handwriting which, call me crazy, exuded her unbearable sexual magnetism), was this photo portrait which did not even begin to do Madeleine’s exquisite features justice. The pose made her look severe, her shiny hair pulled back, her lips primly twisted, as though she resented anyone daring to capture her image. She came off looking angelic and innocent, traits neither of which I would remotely ascribe to her. What didn’t project was the smoky eyed angst-ridden impatient beauty she most often radiated. Whenever I composed these never-to-be-mailed letters, I’d prop her picture on my desk, focus on its sole imperfection (a blatant mole under Madeleine’s right eye that rendered her even more stunning) and berate the living hell out of it, then rush to capture whatever demonic ravings came streaming forth.
The net result of all this was no less than a swift plunge in my grades. Unimaginably, I’d pulled one of the ten highest GPA’s in the freshman class, when all but one of the courses were required. Something about the “core” curriculum brought out my competitive juices, I’d booked my absolute rear off and gotten inducted into this Greek or Latin named honorary society, even attending a dreary tea at the President’s residence with the other brains, the real brains I should say, it was all terribly pinkies up, but now, like a runner who jackrabbits out at the gun only to fade back in the middle of a race, I’d started getting B’s and even some “Gentleman C’s.” Talk about sophomore slump! I was actually running a C-minus so far in English 201. Something about run-on sentences. Every day brought a fresh panic attack, as my terror grew that such mediocre performance would jeopardize my scholarship, and lead straight to flunking out. When Dad asked what the story was I couldn’t very well admit I’d been devoting several hours a day to composing letters I had no intention of sending, I just told him the work hard gotten harder and the reading longer which, while technically true, was not the issue. Buckle down, son, he warned me, you don’t want to jeopardize your future prospects. Willpower! Just set your mind to it. Right-o Pops, I said, envisioning Madeleine’s bare shoulders and fleshy arms trailing behind as she sauntered through Union Square in flapping flip flops and a flimsy, pink sundress, I will, for sure.
So, I kept the whole agonizing business locked inside, my fixation on our summer “love-in,” because admitting it would have put me in a disastrous light. How could I even explain my state in terms that any normal person who hasn’t experienced some comparable folie a deux would get, much less the straight arrow frat boy knuckle-draggers here? I imagined a chorus of jocks saying: What are you, some kind of turkey? Be a man! Mooning around like a melodramatic heroine in a 19th century English novel, though I was, I couldn’t even be certain Madeleine had been seeing someone, and I may have been a little chicken to find out, but with Fall Party Weekend approaching I also sensed the matter would be coming to a head.
“How’re things with that babe?” Big Lou Karlin, the hockey stud I roomed with freshman year, finally asked me, right on cue, clinking his Genny Cream Ale can against my Gin Gimlet at the tail end of an all evening session at Hickey’s Tap. “Haven’t mentioned her lately. The love of your life, or whatever. She coming Thursday, or Friday?”
“Neither,” I said, squeezing a brownish dry lime into my glass. “It’s complicated.”
“Bro,” he said, “what is the deal?”
When the booze loosened my tongue enough to reveal maybe a tenth of my dilemma, the big guy chugged down his brew and just muttered, “She’s playing you for a douche, bro. No way a chick misses Party Weekend and she’s still your girl. You’ve got to draw the line.”
“Not the kind of gal she is,” I said, “like the pom-pom twirlers you mess around with, she has her own ideas, doesn’t even wear makeup unless she’s on stage. She’s an artist, all natural.”
“I don’t care if she’s Mother Whistler, bud, Fall Party is Fall Party.” Karlin hit the bar top. “And you’re a Red Raider. We don’t put up with this.”
Lou’s mentality derived from the late Neanderthal era but, blame it on the gimlets, part of me saw his logic.
So, the idea that Party Weekend might crystallize everything led me to rescind my resolution, and call Madeleine’s dorm again.
Are you the same boy, the girl answering said, who keeps calling every night? She’s not available. Would you be so kind as to leave her a message, please? I’ll add it to the others, she said. Next two nights, same story, same pissed off attitude. Which one are you? the girl asked. Can you spell that? Finally, the Monday night before Party Weekend, Madeleine picked up.
“Hi,” she said, with this tremor in her voice, this willowy sadness.
“What is it?” I asked. “You don’t sound like yourself.”
“I’m just,” she said, and she trailed off. “It’s kind of hard to talk about. On the phone.”
“Really? Say the word, I’ll be there in a heartbeat.”
“No,” she said, but she drew it out to three syllables, so I wasn’t sure.
“You glad I called?”
“I don’t know,” she said. Then I detected a sniffle. “Yeah. Maybe. Obviously. I guess.”
“What is it? The parentals?”
“I can’t take this. All these expectations. I am so over-committed.”
Of course, I took “over-committed” differently than she intended, unable to get my mind off who else kept calling. She began moaning about overlapping activities and inhuman course assignments, and I kept dropping quarters into the slot, resisting the temptation to ask, Whose fault is your crazy schedule? And, Who else keeps leaving you messages?
“You miss me?” I finally summoned the courage to ask, after enduring a long enough litany of complaints that the change in my pocket had lost most of its jingle.
“In a way. I miss what we once had,” she said, then reverted to her list of grievances.
“Wait a minute!” I interrupted her. “Past tense? Really? So, does that mean it’s over, Madeleine? You’re seeing somebody else?”
Yes, the instant this pathetic whine escaped from my mouth, I knew that it was the worst move possible and so, as it should have been foreseen, Madeleine exploded, the severity of her eruption rendering me speechless. “What do you want from me, Robbie, blood? That was the summer. Life was so beautiful, wasn’t it? No pressure, no exams. It wasn’t real though, okay?”
“To me, it was,” I said, “more so than having this argument,” but my words squeaked out so mouse-like and lame it brought to mind Jerry Lewis in The Sad Sack, with the immediate result, she busted out sobbing, and I had to feed another quarter in, close my eyes, and count to a hundred, without one word being exchanged for a whole twenty-five cent cycle.
“Don’t you have assignments too?” she finally blurted. “Or do you just loll around your dorm all the time at Colgate, swilling beer? And, no, I haven’t been seeing anyone. Okay?”
“Okay, cool,” I said, cringing at my stupidity. “Calm down.”
“I really did not want to cry tonight, not in public,” she said, blowing her nose. Then she whispered. “It’s so embarrassing. All these horrible girls in my dorm are going to be talking about me now. As if they need another reason to hate me.”
With that she hung up. Loud enough for me to have to rub my ear.
I still had some coins, so I called back, at loose ends, because she’d gotten off before I could maneuver the conversation to Party Weekend, but it just rang and rang. Slinking back to my room, I flashed on places she’d dragged me last summer, to poetry readings at churches where I couldn’t follow one poem, to basements with banging overhead pipes where barefoot girls clad in black leotards thrashed to and fro, and I had zero idea what their random gyrations were intended to mean. To off-off Broadway plays she’d categorized as Theater of the Absurd that left me squirming in my seat, befuddled. Madeleine, of course, had her hand trembling over her mouth on each occasion, she kept rubbing her chin, exclaiming, Oh, wow! and Remarkable, and the wave of relief I’d feel at never being asked my opinion came back. Because I had none, although I continued going as, whatever the art form, these performances invariably put her in the mood. The only thing she ever bothered to explain was some anger-filled reading these heavy Movement types put on, shouting against imperialism from the stage of a broken down auditorium, and she’d said afterwards that, There doesn’t have to be anything of beauty for it to be art, it just has to be true. And I kept the question I had to myself, because I’m sure she would’ve scoffed: if art’s purpose isn’t to create something beautiful, or moving, why do it? Isn’t reality depressing enough?
Later that night, despite her hanging up on me, I felt unaccountably less agitated. I even tried studying. In the middle of parsing Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative though, I glanced at her picture, slammed the book shut, and asked: Who else would put up with your shenanigans? Then I poured everything boiling inside into another six-page-long histrionic indictment, lashing out not only at her, but this ridiculous, antique college in the frozen Tundra. I told her she was just an unstable roller coaster ride, I bemoaned how nothing on campus interested me in the least, then I ripped it to pieces, and grabbed coffee the next morning with my newfound confessor, Big Lou.
“You lay down the law, like I told you?” he asked, his Popeye-like forearms crossed, his plate piled eight high with halves of buttered white toast and a bowl full of strawberry jelly.
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “I set the chick straight.”
“Good man! So, when’s she coming?”
“Rather not talk about it. Who’re you bringing up?”
“Chick from high school, Miss Lynbrook.” He stuck a thumb to the ceiling and winked. “Early Education major at Oneonta State.”
“Lynbrook, that’s right! Forgot that’s where you’re from.”
“Go Owls!” he said, pointing to his high school team sweatshirt.
“So did you, by any chance, know a kid there named Jared who’s also at Binghamton?”
“Holy moly,” Big Lou said, squinting, two and two coming together more quickly than I anticipated, “are you serious? That’s the chick? The one that broke Jared Levitan’s heart?”
“What can you tell me about what’s he like?”
“Sweetest kid in the world. Editor of our literary mag. Super brain, very like sensitive.
Bro, if she’s the chick, you’ll be hurtin’ for certain. She’s poison ivory.”
“I don’t know, he’s not me, I’m not him, everyone’s different. You follow?”
Big Lou put his butter knife down and clamped his hand around my arm. “She wrecked this poor kid, brother, gave him a breakdown. And, don’t take this the wrong way, but you remind me of him. The innocent type. From what I’m told this femme fatale plowed through eight guys freshman year. I’ve heard of love triangles, but this one’s into octagons.”
There’s no need to dwell on the details, in fact I’d rather not, to protect this poor Jared’s privacy, but the story Big Lou related sounded eerily familiar, the confessions of undying love, the so-called merging of egos. He got so lathered up, he started repeating how Madeleine had no conscience, a heart of stone, and I told him, Okay, I get the gist. Still, the information was second hand, and how could I know for sure?
“Louie, I need a little favor,” I told him. “Get a hold of this Jared on some pretext and work the conversation around to Madeleine, what’s going on now, who she’s seeing. But keep my name out of it, okay?”
“I’d do anything for a bud, but I’d advise you to forget about it.”
“Thanks for your input, bro, but I’m serious: I need you to make that call, and take down everything he says.”
Right after supper, Big Lou comes barreling into my room, waving a paper.
“All right, Robbie boy, you ready? Jared’s over it, or so he says. He’s glued himself back together. But he’s already seen your girl Maddy tramping around campus with three different clowns so far since school started. You okay, kid?”
“I can handle it but, please, do not call her Maddy.”
“So, from his sources the chick is all freaked out because this heartthrob acting instructor, some grad student pretty boy leading man type, just dumped her last weekend.”
Hope surged, I tuned Big Lou out, and ideas started forming. Premonitions.
Lo and behold, Madeleine called later that night and started apologizing like crazy for having hung up on me. Could I forgive her, she asked, she wasn’t herself lately. This new tune didn’t ring true, but the sound of her voice, soft as melted butter, dripping, made me crumble.
“So,” I asked, a propos of nothing, “the ex-boyfriend you wrote me about who kept bugging you, what’s his name?”
“Jared? What makes you bring him up?”
“Nothing really, I just re-read your letter. Nicely written. Guess I was wondering, when you two went out, did you have fun together?”
“Fun? He’s not the ha-ha type.”
“Yeah? He still following you around like a lap dog?”
“Jared’s scene is, he’s a genius almost, a really fine writer and guitarist, but clinically insane. Delusional. Seeing him was the worst mistake of my life. Poor guy tried to slit his wrists a month ago, sad story, but people here are all like, It’s because of Madeleine Hersh, it’s her fault, which does wonders for my reputation. I am so sick of being blamed for things I have nothing to do with. Turns out the head case returned to campus last week, but I haven’t run into him, thank God. Not only is he unstable, he’s a congenital liar living in a fantasy world.”
So, who to believe?
Party Weekend was closing in, and for a Colgate Man, (even though I consider myself a member of the tribe in only the most ironic of terms, being among the tiny minority of students on scholarship, from a city public school), this is our Moment of Truth.
“Listen,” I said, inhaling deeply, “I want you to come up for Fall Party this weekend.”
“Yeah, okay,” she said. “I’ll figure out a way.”
I was like What?? Her voice, every word she said, it was a complete 180. Could the summer have actually been her, and the last seven weeks just temporary insanity? Brought on by life in a pressure cooker?
“Hello?” she said. “Still there?”
“All right!” I said. “I am psyched!”
Instead of feeling elated after we hung up though, I started to freak: what if our perfect love, or whatever you call it, was specific to last summer, to New York City, what if we couldn’t recapture the magic of that particular time and place?
Friday at 1:30, that’s all I thought about for four days.
I woke before dawn, my stomach taut. Kept pacing, changing clothes till I set out for the bus stop in downtown Hamilton and after a minute realized how windy and ferociously cold it was, but I’d wasted so much time giving myself pep talks, taking showers, I didn’t want to chance being late, so I just hoofed the mile or so, shivering in a thin cotton pullover. Fifteen minutes early for the bus, I started doing squat thrusts to ward off going numb, hopping in place.
The second that green and white Peter Pan econo-liner swung around the corner past the white pillars of the Colgate Inn, I spit into my palms and tried plastering my flyaway hair down, twisting the wings behind my ears, but before I’d finished, the doors sighed open. Some skinny girl in knee socks disembarked, swinging a small plaid overnight bag, hurrying towards campus. Next came a gray-haired couple in matching English tweeds, whose descent took forever. Then a bow-legged hayseed in coveralls and slicked back hair ambled out, and the doors closed.
The driver reopened them when I knocked.
“Excuse me, mister,” I said, “but is this the only bus from Binghamton today?”
“You got it, sunshine,” he said, snickering. “Looks like you got stood up.”
I stamped all the way back to campus, head down, muttering, “Just my luck to fall for a total schiz job.”
I kicked around, trying to avoid all the intertwined couples, till I ran into Big Lou with the already woozy Miss Lynbrook, Long Island.
“Empty handed?” he asked, tapping his watch.
I shrugged, and he shook his head, like Didn’t I warn you?
Passing Taylor Lake I seriously considered jumping in, but instead dragged myself to the dorm, where I saw the note taped to my door. “Your date called, she missed the bus, says she’s sorry-sorry-sorry, she’s coming tomorrow.”
I spent the rest of the day and night, and the next morning too, in seclusion. All I remember is a full-blown test anxiety dream, sweating it out in an unfamiliar classroom, puzzling over the instructions: Write an essay describing your religious beliefs fully. Time’s ticking away, my heart’s leaping, everyone starts handing their papers back, I pick up the pen and sketch a perfect likeness of Madeleine, but with blind staring eyes. And that woke me up.
The Saturday bus arrived late too, the door opened, same driver, he winked and said, “Better luck today, fella.”
And then, like a vision, she appeared, a little green and carsick, in an army fatigue jacket, with this short flouncy corduroy skirt, fishnet tights and black Keds. When she removed the sunglasses her familiar bent smile got me a little choked up.
“I’m a little dizzy,” she said, falling into my arms, deflating.
“Deep breaths,” I told her. We bumped heads and cracked up, both reaching for her suitcase. “Permit me to introduce myself,” I said, taking the bag and leading her to a bench. I stared at her shiny white fingernail polish, the black Nefertiti eye makeup that accentuated how bloodless her face looked.
“You no like?” she asked, displaying her hands.
“Yeah, it’s just, it’s so not you.”
“People evolve,” she said, waving at her face, gulping air. “Going to stand there gawking, or do I get a kiss?”
And then, right in front of the red brick PM Jones Department Store, on a busy shopping day for the locals, I moved her back up against a window, lifted my knee, reached under her sweater, and started grinding away.
“Whoa, down boy,” she said, shrugging me off. “Those hands are icicles.”
Still mashing faces together, we began zigzagging rubber-legged towards campus sideways. Some guys sailing by in a convertible hooted.
We came to a halt, continued making out, walked a few more steps, then stopped again.
“Okay, okay,” she said, breaking our clinch in front of the Post Office. She clapped once, put her palms on my chest. “So, what cultural activities do we have for the afternoon?”
“Look around,” I told her. “This ain’t no Green Witch Village. Care to chug some brews and hear Way Out Willie and the Shit Kicker Five?”
We could hear music blaring from Fraternity Row.
“My idea,” I said, “was to be together, not ‘do’ anything. If you want to socialize, we could meet a real live Republican. If you’ve developed some perverse interest in pep rallies, say the word.”
“Okay,” she said. “We’ll just be together then.”
We floated to campus, her head on my shoulder, smelling flowery from her shampoo.
“I’ve seen the light,” she told me. “And I’m never going to let you go again.”
We started talking Thanksgiving, Christmas vacation, spring break, next summer. Crossing the street, she began crying and begged forgiveness. I couldn’t help noticing their jaws go slack, all the preppy beer guzzlers stumbling around with their Plain Jane upstate girlfriends, gaping at Madeleine, her big city style, gliding like a movie star. Classy. It felt like redemption.
“See that hill up there?” I asked her. “I ran that every day last year, just for starters.”
“You’re not still?”
“Told you, I quit last summer. First break ever from track or cross country since seventh grade.”
“Why’d you give it up?”
“May I remind you, last summer we spent every second together. I didn’t do the mileage the JV Coach required, so when I came back out of condition in September, I got the boot.”
“My fault,” she said. “I distracted you from what you enjoy doing.”
“Hey, compared to five minutes with you, what’s winning a race?”
Stopping at the lake, we tossed stones and watched them ripple.
“So, you still never think about what you want to do in the future?”
“To be honest,” I told her, “all I think about’s you.”
“You never think about it?”
“Not really. I guess, I imagine being a professor sometimes. At a place like this.”
“Ew, I hope not, I hate them all. So gross and conceited.”
“All right then, a lawyer. One that helps the downtrodden.”
“Lawyers just say that. They’re all in it for the money. So, can I see your room? Before we start in on our strenuous activities. Doing nothing.”
“Fair warning: it’s a mess.”
“So,” she said, narrowing her eyes, looking into mine, “you still wanna?”
I led her upstairs, bolted my door and she sat in the window overlooking the quad.
“You called it,” she said. “This is quite the mess.”
“Like the view?” I encircled her waist, burying my face in her hair. “One forty-five. Utilities included.”
“Stop talking real estate, and kiss me, you fool. Kiss me hard.”
I did as instructed.
“Now, pull the shades,” she whispered.
Stripping off our underwear, touching her when we fell onto my bed, got me so keyed up my limbs started shuddering, and inside of two minutes I had an accident. Unprecedented.
“Did you just?” she asked, laughing, pointing at me. “Look ma, no hands.”
“That is some magic trick,” I said. “How’d you manage that?”
“Don’t ask me to give away all my trade secrets.”
“Sorry.” I got up to grab a towel.
Then, another first, I could not recover. Couldn’t loosen up. No matter what.
“What is the deal here?” I asked, hyperventilating.
“You tell me.”
She rose, sat at my desk, put her head down and yawned.
“Still love me?” I asked. “Even though?”
“Yeah, sure,” she answered, clipped, matter of fact, like someone just mouthing what was expected. “I get it, you were too excited.” She rose, patted my hand, started buttoning the faded pale blue work shirt she always wore, put her sweater on, and snapped her skirt button.
Then we strolled back into town past everyone partying on Fraternity Row, loud and raucous, and shared burgers, fries, and a chocolate sundae at the empty Bluebird Diner counter. Later on though, it was the same story.
“I’ll write,” Madeleine said, as we hurried to the bus. “Once a week, at least. My schedule is so crazy, I can’t promise phone calls, but at least let’s try to connect Sunday nights.”
“Ooh,” I said, like pulling a dagger from my heart. “I can’t tear myself away.”
Afterwards what Dad said came back, how I had to buckle down, and I got to work.
Then, I waited seven days before calling Sunday night. Not in. I wrote her. No reply. She’s flighty, I told myself. An undependable artist. I retraced every step, every conversation. Tried to banish the embarrassing failure from my mind, then decided, she wants to be incommunicado, I’m not going to lower myself. No more calls, no letters, not even the throw away kind. She’s probably just overwhelmed.
“Come to a mixer,” Big Lou said. “Beauty’s skin deep, you know what she’s made of. Plenty other fish in the sea, my friend.”
“I don’t dance,” I told him.
“Think I do?” he said.
“Not interested in meeting anyone else.”
“Snap out of it,” he said. “Do I have to twist your arm?”
So, I went and gasped every time I saw a redhead across the room. It’s impossible, I thought, but maybe, maybe somehow could she have transferred to Cazenovia, or Wells last week, could she be waiting to surprise me? After which I realized, You’re losing it. I asked two girls to dance, but came across so wimpy both said no. Politely, but firmly.
“No offense,” one explained, “but you’re not my type.”
Next weekend Karlin set me up with his chick’s roommate. Ruddy-faced, dimples, cheery smile, but a 4H Club member, to her Utica’s the big city, and her Daddy was a real John Bircher.
Time dragged until Thanksgiving. Yeah? So, what’s there to be thankful for?
The neighborhood guys didn’t want to know me anymore, said I’d gone Hollywood on them, turned my back one time too many. So, I just moped around our apartment.
Then, Friday morning, the phone rang.
“It’s for you, Don Juan,” Dad said, winking. “A female.”
“Family time’s over,” she said. “Meet me at Liberty Island. Under the Statue.”
How matter of fact she sounded got me furious.
“Don’t judge me,” she said, pointing. “I know I promised to keep in touch, but my life’s not my own, I’m pulling two all-nighters a week to survive. Well? You going to say something? Or, you just going to stand around pouting?”
“It’s just hard,” I told her. “Loving someone more than they love you.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“I just am.”
“Look.” She indicated the skyline. “Let’s go back to The City. My parents are out of town. No one’s around.”
We got going in the elevator up, wild and delirious, then fell onto her living room couch just like last summer, all a blur, till I froze up.
“Can you try to be in the moment,” she asked, “and enjoy it?”
“What’s that mean?” I asked. “In the moment?”
“Relax.” She moved to the other side of the couch, kicked her sneakers off and dug her heels into my lap. “So, tell me, what are you really into, Robbie?”
“All those readings and concerts and happenings I introduced you to last summer, the cutting-edge plays we attended, you never made one comment. Nothing you saw touched you?”
“I’m very literal,” I said, easing over, rubbing her thigh. “The only art I get is poetry in motion. Better known as chemistry. Is that a problem?”
“Yes,” she said, searching my eyes. “For you.”
“So, is that why you didn’t answer my letter?”
“I don’t know. One of the reasons. I don’t always know what to say to you. It’s not like it turns out we have that much in common. We’re interested in different things. Except, well, you know.” She winked. “You are super-cute though. Those broad sexy shoulders. We have a definite mutual thing going on. Let’s go in my room, it’s nice in there.” She reached out her hand.
“Wow,” I said, “I don’t think I’ve ever been put down so badly in my life.”
“I said you’re cute.” She leaned over and pressed her cheek into my chest. “That’s something, and don’t take it for granted. Not that cuteness matters in the long run.”
I unbuttoned her work shirt.
“But, we’re not in the long run now,” she said. “Are we?”
I couldn’t avert my eyes from her pink flesh, and I felt hatred welling. Enough to destroy her, me, everything. Just blind blazing hatred at the world. I tensed up, grew hyper aware of Madeleine’s pungent, new patchouli-scented perfume; the sticky, plastic-covered couch we were on; a cut-glass bowl full of blood red licorice bits on the coffee table; the grotesque dance of death engraving hanging from the wall behind her head, and then, drowning in grief and misery, I thought of Jared.
“Why does everything change?” I asked her, clenching my fist.
“Because it does,” she said. “That’s why.”