He didn’t say it back. But I was okay with that. Too many times when people said I love you back it was more like a reflex, like saying you’re welcome to the other person’s thank you. Maybe it was true, but maybe it was merely automatic, and not necessarily authentic. And I didn’t want to have to wonder about it. When—if—Madison ever told me that he loved me I needed it to feel real, and more importantly, I wanted it to be unasked for. The way I remembered it I had always had to ask for Derrick’s “love” and where had that gotten me? This time I wanted it to be a response, not a reaction. There was a difference. So Madison’s not saying, “I love you too” was fine. Honest even. He didn’t have to. Besides it was my moving day, my heart that was brimming. As Madison had said, it was all me.
His role was only to receive it, which he had done, with his usual quiet grace and charm. As soon as the words were in his ear, Madison had become still, and then he had pulled back a little so that our eyes could meet, his expression, as was so often the case, enigmatic. But there had been warmth in it. The sparkle had come back to his eyes. When his perfect lips parted slightly I had thought for a brief instant that he might say something, and I was a little terrified; but then he had only leaned forward and kissed me again, softly, more like he was breathing me in, drawing something from me. When he finally did speak, it had been only to tell me that he would be waiting for my call later. “Okay,” I had nodded, but with a smile.
And then, in spite of temporarily sore knees, I had sort of pranced back into Miss Mary’s house after Madison had driven away, jogging up the stairs to my waiting suitcases, storage chest, and cardboard box.
Here it was before me now, everything I owned in the world, in a rented room, and yet I was deliriously happy. Once upon a time I had believed I had had it all, but now I knew that I had everything that mattered. I was down to the bare me but the foundation was good, laid solidly, to use Mr. Leonard’s word.
Miss Mary knocked on the open bedroom door. She was carrying a laundry basket filled with wire hangers, each individually wrapped in white paper indicating that they had come from a dry cleaners.
“These things multiply like rabbits,” she declared. “I thought you might be able to use some.”
“Yes ma’am,” I said relieving her of the basket. “Thank you. I didn’t bring a one with me.”
“You can keep the laundry basket too.”
Again I thanked her because I didn’t have one of those either.
“I was going to buy one when I go to work on Monday,” I said.
“Well now that’s one less thing on your to do list,” she replied. “Did Madison get off okay?”
“He sure is a nice young man,” she smiled. “I see why you light up like a Christmas tree at the mention of his name.”
She was right about that. I was feeling kind of twinkly bright even now as I put assorted shirts and blouses on the hangers and began hanging them in the closet.
“’Course he’s crazy about you too,” Miss Mary noted.
“Oh, I don’t know about crazy,” I replied casually. “But I think he likes having me around.”
Miss Mary snorted a laugh.
“’Bout like a bee likes nectar,” she declared and then left me to my unpacking.
By six I was all settled in, and I stopped for a moment to look around my new space. It was nice, if a bit barren of personal effects. All my knickknacks had disappeared in the divorce and subsequent garage sales. Much like Madison, other than clothes, my personal possessions consisted of a handful of books. I had left them out on the small desk that came with the room, where I had also placed the laptop that Madison had loaned me. I was planning to buy a pair of decorative bookends to better display the books and a desk lamp too. Now that I had my own space again I was looking forward to buying a few things, within budget of course.
Speaking of budgets, I quickly checked my cellphone to be sure I still had service. I was on Ted’s plan and on his bad side; I had to expect that he’d be cutting off. Although maybe in the interest of some kind of family connection Pam would make him keep me. Madison was right. Pam and I would get back together eventually. After all we were still sisters. It was often like this, families quarreling over spouses and lovers. It just seemed so unnecessary.
I was tempted to call Madison and ask him to come for me now, but I needed to get cleaned up, and so I might as well let him rest. I also sort of thought about staying home—home—tonight. I was kind of tired too, more from wildly swinging emotions than anything else. Joy, anger, gratitude, ecstasy, I had had a lot going on. But I just wanted to curl up next to Madison and be, quiet, like we were sometimes when there was nothing to say and nothing better than simply being together.
Plus, if I didn’t call then maybe he would think that it was because he had not said that he loved me too this afternoon. I knew that I had probably changed things with my true confession. That was the thing about love: feeling it was one thing, but saying it, well that was definitely a new ball game. A little bit I worried that I might have been pushy again, just so greedily eager to give myself the relief from the unspoken. Had I perhaps taken advantage of him coming out of left field, almost literally, like that? Oh well. It was too late to worry about that now. If things were different between us, then they would just have to be. We’d work through it. Relationships were dynamic, fluid things, right? They were supposed to change.
And besides in all the hullabaloo that had happened today, maybe Madison hadn’t even really noticed, I counseled myself, knowing that that was not the case. Yet I might be making too much out of it. I did have a tendency to do that. And to replay my loser tapes, as Madison called them.
About an hour later I had baptized myself in what was going to be my bathroom almost exclusively. I was just so tickled about it even though the room could have used a little modernizing too. The washbasin actually had separate taps for the hot and cold water which was admittedly inconvenient but quaint. The bathroom shower head had one setting: fire-hose stream, but I liked the way it pounded my skin. You were definitely going to come out clean showering in this bathroom. And from all indications, Miss Mary was your scented soaps, scented candles type; and flowers were not limited to her house dresses, they adorned her wallpaper selections, guest towels, bathmats, rugs, and curtains. And I felt triumphant placing my toothbrush in the permanent pink ceramic toothbrush holder attached to the wall above the vanity.
By the time I came downstairs Miss Mary and Mr. Leonard were back from their evening walk and they were settled in front of the living room television, Tomboy curled up between them, watching some ancient episode of Gunsmoke. Miss Mary noting my very big pocketbook, and maybe also catching a whiff of her gardenia-scented bath soap, asked if Madison and I had a date tonight.
“I’m just going over to his place,” I answered, a little too embarrassed to add to spend the night.
The both of them knew the truth anyway, but still, these were my elders, and it was mixed company for God’s sake.
“Sit with us,” Miss Mary said. “While you wait for him.”
“Oh, I’m catching the train,” I explained. “I thought I’d go ahead and try out the route.”
“I don’t mind,” I began quickly. “Madison would come get me but I thought I’d--”
Spare him the trip. And assert my independence. I had planned on surprising him. When I called it would be from the lobby of his building.
“On a Saturday night,” interrupted Miss Mary dismissively. “Come on, Leonard.” She picked up the remote and shut off the TV. “We’re going for a ride.”
“Miss Mary, please, no,” I protested. “I can take the train. I do it all the time.”
But she was already on her feet.
“I feel like a frozen yogurt,” she said.
And Mr. Leonard didn’t seem to mind. The Gunsmoke episode had to be a rerun anyway.
In no time I was in the lobby of Madison’s building, stopping to chat briefly with Harry Reynolds, the concierge/security guard who worked the lobby desk on weekends. Madison had introduced me to Harry and added me to his regular visitors’ list. Although I was eager to get upstairs and surprise him, I made time for the chit-chat with Harry as I had seen Madison do. He never once let you forget that all work was honorable or that every person was important. No one was invisible to Madison: not security guards, or restaurant servers, or parking lot attendants, or Target store clerks. It was yet another reason why I loved him.
“Tell Mr. Reese my boy got a B+ on that history paper he helped him with,” said Harry proudly.
“I will,” I replied as I stepped into the elevator.
Madison would have made a good father I thought as the elevator climbed to his floor. Maybe he still would. There were all kinds of medical advances. Maybe with me. A package of three or more. Something extra thrilling rushed all over me, and I squeezed my shoulders together tightly to get a grip as the elevators doors opened on Madison’s floor. “Whoa Nelly,” I whispered to myself on my way to his door.
Standing a little distance from his door, I called Madison’s cellphone.
“Hey, babe,” he answered. “You ready?”
He sounded quiet, relaxed, and I hoped rested.
“I am,” I replied.
“I’m on my way.”
“You won’t have to go far.”
“The next sound you hear,” I pressed the doorbell, “will be me at your door.”
Laughing out loud he hung up the phone. I did too and waited for my reward. Things might be different now with the I love you exposed to the light of day. A couple of minutes later the reward came when the front door opened and Madison was there shirtless and wearing only a pair of gray sweatpants. His body was beautiful to me, and it was a gift that he no longer seemed to feel the need to hide it.
“Surprise,” I said shrugging my shoulders and smiling.
He didn’t need to know that the smile was tentative.
“Get in here,” he said beaming back. “You were supposed to call me.”
“Yeah, I know,” I agreed closing the door behind me, feeling reassured. “But I was going to take the train--”
“You took the train? Paige--”
“No-no. Miss Mary and Mr. Leonard drove me.”
“My guardian angels strike again.”
Taking my hand between both of his, Madison pulled me down to him and kissed me. All was right with the world.
We opted for Monterey Jack cheese and apples with slices of warm French bread and Chardonnay instead of take-out or delivery-in. And we opted to have our dinner in bed, cozily together, while we watched a National Geographic documentary about pyramids around the world.
“Incredible,” I said as the narrator was describing the Teotihuacán Pyramids that stood outside of Mexico City. “How’d they get those stones in place?”
“Piramide del Sol,” said Madison wistfully. “I climbed it once.”
Raising his wine glass to his lips he took a drink. I was quiet unsure of what I should say. This must be one of Madison’s thens. Studying the images of the steep steps of the pyramid I thought to myself how it would take me six months of fitness training to reach the top and as a result not simply die there like one of the human sacrifices. Was Madison about to tell me that he and Karen had done that together as part of some exotic vacation that had consisted of more than beaches and casinos like the ones Derrick and I had taken? She was an anthropologist. It made sense. Probably they had gone there as part of some brilliant research expedition. Was this one of his memories with her that there was no hope of him making with me? Was it one of those pictures buried in the basement?
“That must have been exciting,” I finally replied.
“Yeah,” Madison said, tipping his glass to finish the wine.
“My parents took us to Europe,” I offered as a means of resetting the conversation in case Madison didn’t want to talk about it, or I wouldn’t want to hear what he said. “When Pam and I were kids. The castles were pretty impressive too. The cathedrals--”
“I was a runner,” Madison said as if I were saying nothing. “But my heart rate must have been off the chart.” He set his now empty glass on the tray in his lap. “Still I think coming back down was the hardest. I was thinking, don’t do a header, Reese, you might chip a tooth or something.” He smiled crookedly. “Not that I could break my neck.”
He looked at me now, and the television seemed to fade into the background even though neither of us had touched the remote.
“You never think it can happen to you,” Madison said. “That you’d ever be one of those people in the commercial,” he smiled again, but still darkly, “who’s fallen and can’t get up.”
He didn’t fall I wanted to say, but then remembered that I wouldn’t know if he had. There’s was a whole huge part of him that I still didn’t know. Sometimes it felt as if Madison were giving me his life story in chapters that were out of sequence, like he had to determine first if I were ready. But I supposed we all did that, if we were wise anyway, and if it mattered.
“It’s hard sometimes,” I said softly, stepping out not only on faith but also on love. “You must miss being able to do what you used to do.”
Now he was quiet; and I was nervous that I had said the wrong thing, perhaps making his obvious pain worse, all my counseling skills rusty from the lack of practice. What if I had misread the cues? What if he didn’t want to talk about it or want my support?
“I’m not over it yet, Paige,” Madison sighed wearily, as if the words were intended to explain something.
And perhaps they did. How in spite of our connection he might still need to be coaxed. How he could be unsure of himself, and therefore not so sure of me.
I had no magic words to make it better, to make right the losses that Madison knew, including Karen. He’d never walk up the sun pyramid again, not in this life. She had left him. And all because the light had been green. Perhaps if he had tumbled down the pyramid steps, or fallen on a ski slope, or been shot by some criminal he had successfully sent to jail, it might have been more spectacular. But no. It was just some distracted delivery man on a mundane morning. How could he have thought that it could happen to him?
“I know I’m supposed to be,” Madison continued. “But there’re times--”
“I didn’t know there was a schedule,” I gently interjected.
“It’s been four years.”
For heaven’s sake a bankruptcy stayed with you for seven.
“It’s not like a bachelor’s degree, Madison.”
His smile although crooked again now held a hint of light. I could hear the television once more. There was a commercial, something about dog food.
“I completed mine in three,” Madison said, turning the imaginary page.
Maybe we’d come back to it, and maybe we should, but for now...
“Yes of course,” I rolled my eyes at him. “Magna cum laude?”
“Summa. I didn’t peak ‘til law school.”
“Oh God!” I huffed at his pretended arrogance, which was not entirely pretend, and crawled over him to get out of bed. “Do you want some more wine?” I asked before taking the tray from his lap to carry it back to the kitchen.
“Better not,” replied Madison. “Makes me maudlin.”
If that was going to be his defense, okay. I wouldn’t argue.