In any case, I wasn’t prepared to confront Madison about an email I hadn’t even read. The issue of his current relationship with Karen would have to come up sooner or later, and if it got to be so much later that I couldn’t bear it then I’d just have to do some more of my pushing. In the meantime I was just going to be very cosmopolitan about it and tell no one about Karen’s email message. The emotional roller-coaster I made for myself I rode by myself.
Besides, things were still pretty good for me. Julie’s secretary had called to schedule the interview appointment. Pam and I talked every day by phone, and she had now met me a couple of times for lunch and once for dinner since the move. Maybe absence really did make the heart grow fonder I thought--with mixed feelings. And living with Miss Mary was very cool. Even if I did get the job at Oak Wood I was thinking that I’d stay put for a while. It would take me some time to save up the assorted deposits I’d probably need anyway, and Miss Mary had taken a chance on me. It wouldn’t be right to leave her high and dry just because my fortunes had happily changed.
Madison’s parents were due to arrive in town the Friday before Father’s Day and they would be staying for the week, and he was taking vacation time to spend with them. So much for my sleepovers, but I supposed the abstinence would do me good, by giving me a little time-out for reflection when I would not be so intoxicated as it were. Madison would be picking them up at the airport Friday afternoon. On this our final evening before their arrival, Madison had picked me up after work and we were having a light supper of Middle-eastern carry-out at Miss Mary’s kitchen table. After a brief chat, she had disappeared to another part of the house giving us some alone time.
“Were you able to get off early on Saturday?” asked Madison scooping up some hummus with a teaspoon.
His mother was cooking dinner Saturday night, making her famous meatloaf which was a combination of ground beef and pork, and various spices that she had never revealed. As it turned out my Mr. Reese would make an exception to his general prohibitive rule about red meat when it was his mother’s meatloaf.“Kinda,” I replied now nibbling a piece of warm pita bread. “I can leave at four. A little earlier if things are slow.”
“Okay,” Madison said. “I can pick you up.”“No,” I told him. “I don’t want your folks to think I’m a bum.”
“Paige, you and your Target uniform--”
“Isn’t what I’m talking about. I’ll come home first and take the train over.”“I don’t mind--”
“I know. But I do. I may be poor but I’m proud.”Madison rolled his eyes looking up to the kitchen ceiling.
“I don’t want your folks thinking I’m trying to get the hook-up,” I insisted.“Okay,” he said shaking his head, exasperated. “Have it your way.”
I smiled, as usual a little tickled when I won an argument with him—or he gave into me—even in the case of a relatively inconsequential skirmish. Although perhaps it was not so inconsequential. Madison’s folks would certainly be evaluating me, and despite his incontrovertible independence and confidence they might be wondering if I was seeking to take advantage of him somehow. To most of the able-bodied world, at first glance, his wheelchair made Madison vulnerable, and even though his parents had to know that this was not true, they might still worry. I wasn’t Karen after all, with a professorship and a long list of publications. But at least I might be getting my career back. All work might be honorable, but let’s face it, all of it didn’t have prestige. Madison was a successful attorney. What in heaven’s name was he doing with a store clerk? Oh no, I had to show them I was equally independent and confident too.
“But you can drive me home afterwards,” I informed Madison. “Since it’ll probably be late.”“You’re not spending the night?” he asked.
“We can’t do that!” I sputtered.
With his parents there? In the living room, sleeping on the sectional sofa’s pullout bed? He was kidding, right?“I lost my virginity a long time ago, Paige,” said Madison simply. “And you’re the gay divorcee. You don’t really think my parents believe we’re just holding hands, do you?”
His crooked grin was infectious and I smiled too in spite of my sudden modesty. It was nice to think of Madison talking about me to his folks, nicer still to think about how he might have described our relationship to them, such that he saw no problem with me spending the night while they were here. This must mean something even if—God forbid—he was loathe to tell me exactly what it was.“Well,” I said cutting a couple more of the roasted chicken fingers into the bite-size chunks that were easier for Madison to handle. “I still think it would be disrespectful. We’re not married.”
“Is this a new rule?” Madison asked watching me quizzically.Uh-oh. The M-word. Abort! Abort! I got up from the table on the pretext of needing to put the knife in the sink.
“I’m just saying,” I struggled, my back to Madison now. “It’s presumptuous that’s all.”“On whose part?” he returned.
What was the right answer? I’d be happy to settle for one that just let me escape the question. For now anyway. Because inevitably it was going to have be answered, resolved in some kind of way. We were at six months. I was about to meet his parents. And he had just gone through the gauntlet that was my own family. But there was the email to and from, Karen too. My Parents Visit. Maybe Madison needed to ask himself that question: who was being presumptuous?Sighing deeply, I turned to face him again.
“I don’t know the answer to that, Madison.”“Do you want to?” he asked, looking up at me, his expression impassive.
When I was a little kid we used to play this game called Truth or Dare. The premise was simple: sometimes the truth was more risky than any dare your friends could come up with. And it seemed the truth only got riskier as we got older. Well—carpe diem, right?“Yes,” I nodded.
“The truth is,” Madison began, pushing back from the table. “I think maybe the luckiest day of my life was when my coffeemaker broke, and I ended up at a Target to buy a new one. And this sales clerk with the sweetest smile and softest hands got it down for me and carried it to the register.” A small smile played around his mouth. “It took me a day or two to figure out why she kept reaching out to hold my hand. People don’t usually touch my hands.” His expression abruptly changed again, this time to irony as he continued. “I guess they’re not my best feature. But it wasn’t that way with her.” The smile returned. “She said something about needing to be hands on. I think she was talking about her magic. In any case it works. I’m better for it. For her. That’s what my folks know about it. What they’re expecting. She’s supposed to be in my bed. I need her there.”
I smiled too. Okay—here we had the old I-have-this-friend strategy, sort of. Defuse the emotion. Create some distance for safety’s sake. Madison would probably be no better at Truth or Dare than I was. But I got it. He had feelings for me, deep ones. Maybe love. And his folks knew about it, knew about us. Karen notwithstanding. As I recalled the first time we met, I wasn’t sure whose magic touch had worked on whom. And it didn’t matter.“So I guess maybe I’m the presumptuous one,” Madison concluded.
I came back to the table and sat down. Madison looked at me but his poker-face was totally back in place. So be it. It was his way. Emotions—his anyway—were to be seen quickly. But I could work with that.“Okay, Mr. Reese,” I said, taking his hand in mine and threading my fingers through his. How could anyone not want to touch his hand? I loved the feel of it. “Far be it for me, to break with tradition,” I continued gently squeezing our hands together as Madison moved his thumb back and forth against mine. Best feature or not, I could never get enough of his hands. “But you will keep your magic hands to yourself,” I told him firmly. “Because if you make me emit one hedonistic scream with your parents in the very next room, I’ll--”
“You’ll what?” asked Madison.
I raised my eyes to meet his. The golden-brown shone. His sensuous lips parted in an irresistible wise-guy smirk. I’ll just have to do it, I thought, even though I refused to give Madison the satisfaction of hearing me admit it.“I’ll hold you completely responsible,” I lamely declared instead.
“I can live with that,” he replied, drawing me to him.
Saturday afternoon I was given permission to leave at three o’clock instead of four which was fabulous. Plus the MARTA gods were with me, and I was actually home by four. The evening plan was for me to be at Madison’s by seven, so I had about two hours to make myself perfect—or at least worthy. Miss Mary insisted that I should wear a dress. “It doesn’t have to be fancy just feminine,” she had advised. “You young women are too quick with the blue jeans. A man wants to see a little leg sometimes, and his mama wants to see you make her son happy.” That was a curious spin on things I had thought, but maybe not crazy. Win the mother by pleasing the son. Maybe that explained why Derrick’s mom had never warmed up to me. If showing off my dancer’s legs would get me some brownie points, then why not?So I had followed Miss Mary’s advice, and she had eagerly driven us to the mall Friday night for the express purpose of finding me the right dress. “You don’t want to overdo it,” she had warned, which ruled out both my little black dress and my blue interview suit. At the Sears I found a pretty turquoise-colored summer dress on the clearance rack. It had a modest scoop neckline and capped sleeves, and a red lipstick stain which suggested that it was a return. “I know how to get that right out,” Miss Mary had said about the stain. “If they want to give it away, I say we take it.” We did. But then we had ended up at the Payless looking for a suitable pair of strappy sandals, low heels of course as they had to be public transportation-friendly. Which in turn required a professional pedicure, and then why not get a manicure too, still sans the color as that would mean upkeep. In about two hours I had basically experienced a blue—well red—collar makeover.
When I had fretted aloud about all the money I was spending, Miss Mary had reminded me that things were looking up for me so I needed to dress up too. Besides, all total, it wasn’t that much money. In my bygone days, I had spent much more, usually on a credit card, trying to comfort some hurt feeling or another, usually caused by Derrick. At least this shopping spree had been for happy reasons.I was pretty sure that Madison would like my new dress, which Miss Mary had generously washed, removing the lipstick stain as she had promised, and ironed for me while I had been at work. Catching a glimpse of myself in the reflection of a store window on Madison’s street as I now walked by, I was very glad that I had made the investment. Sure, I had a lot of polyester and pleather going on, and I was most likely guilty of supporting sweatshops, but nevertheless, I was working it. Even Harry Reynolds, the concierge, said so with a big friendly smile when I strutted inside Madison’s building. But to be on the safe side, I still asked Harry if I could use the employee restroom just to make sure nothing had been damaged in transit, and he kindly agreed.
Butterflies rode up the elevator with me, and when I stepped off onto Madison’s floor, I took a deep breath before proceeding to Madison’s door. What was the worst that could happen? His parents wouldn’t like me? Couples overcame that all the time. I mean I had stood up for Madison against Pam and Ted, and now Pam was getting okay with us. Madison was obviously close to his parents, but for God’s sake they lived in Michigan. I was right here. I had the home-field advantage.I glanced down at my tacky watch and quickly took it off, dropping it into my oversized purse that concealed the spend-the-night items. It was just a couple of minutes passed seven. I wasn’t late but I wasn’t over-eager either. Like Goldilocks, I had it just right. If something went wrong, or just changed somehow, Mr. and Mrs. Reese would be none the wiser about the sleepover. I looked like the All American Girl. Okay, not girl exactly. I wasn’t that fresh. In any case, it was show time. I pressed the doorbell.
Madison answered the door, and seeing his face fill with delighted surprise was a hundred-fold return on my poor woman’s investment. It occurred to me that I had worn a dress with him only the one time, for Valentine’s Day. Since my fall from the middle class pants—including jeans—just seemed more practical. I supposed I could have worn a khaki skirt with my Target red polo, but why bother? Yet Miss Mary was right again. Men liked to see legs, bare ankles as it were, and Madison was not hiding his pleasure.“You look sensational,” he said, surveying me from head to toe in a way that was both embarrassing and exciting.
He looked his usual yummy self, dressed in dark indigo-wash jeans, black slip-on loafers, and a black polo shirt that managed to hug his strong shoulders and upper arms while camouflaging his lax belly. Madison caught my wrist between his hands and pulled me down to him for a kiss; one that was a little too hot given the fact that his parents were waiting. It was me who had to pull away, grateful that I only wore a little lightly tinted lip balm, otherwise I would have had to dart into the guest bathroom for a hasty repair job.
“Remember,” I reminded him coyly. “We said no hanky-panky.”“We didn’t say that,” he replied, reaching for my bag and using his wrist to gauge its weight. “But we can discuss it later.” The bag in his lap, he moved aside. “After you.”
Mr. Reese stood up when I came into the living room, and Mrs. Reese quickly came from the kitchen and stood next to him. Daddy and Maddy I recalled. Madison was definitely his father’s son: same height, if Madison had been able to stand, same lean frame with broad shoulders, even the same paunch although I guessed that Mr. Reese’s was more a function of time and-or diet. The aroma of good food was not to be missed. Mrs. Reese looked to be about my height, which was considered tall for a woman. She was pretty and in a welcoming kind of way. I could see her students adoring her.“Ma’, Dad,” said Madison. “This is Paige.”
“Hi!” I nervously chirped moving to shake first Mrs. Reese’s hand, then Mr. Reese’s.Madison’s golden-brown eyes had come from his mother, and hers were as warm as his, so was her smile; and when Mr. Reese shook my hand, for a millisecond I imagined what Madison’s hand would have felt like enclosing around mine if he had been able to grip it tightly.
“We’ve heard so much about you,” Mrs. Reese said. “That’s a lovely dress.”I was clearly the most dressed-up in the group. Mrs. Reese was wearing blue capris, a white peasant blouse, and beige ballet flats. Mr. Reese, like his son was in jeans, although his were faded as was the red polo shirt, and his running shoes had seen better days. Well—I was the one who had to make a good impression. I was the guest, the outsider, seeking acceptance.
“Thank you, Mrs. Reese,” I replied.“Jan,” she said. “All my friends call me Jan.”
“Jan,” I repeated. “Thank you.”“And I’m Jefferson,” said her husband, signaling that we should all sit down.
There was this formality about him that didn’t seem to match the way he was dressed. Although the formality wasn’t mean or cold, just…well formal. Old-school. I smiled. The apple had not fallen far from the tree.“Are you named for a president too?” I asked.
Jefferson looked at Madison and smiled with the same charming effect.“It’s kind of a family tradition,” explained Jan, her dangly gold earrings shimmering when they caught the light as she turned her head. “Would you believe Madison’s grandfather is named Washington? I don’t know what I would have done if we had had a girl.”
Madison could have worked, I thought, but didn’t say. They didn’t seem like the kind of people who would have gone to see Splash.“I think it’s nice,” I said about the naming tradition. “Patriotic.”
And sort of wonderfully quirky for a family proud of their socialist roots. But then again, the Founding Fathers had been the radicals of their time.After a few more minutes of polite conversation, Jan announced that dinner was ready and everybody should get washed up. Jefferson went to the kitchen sink, Madison to his bathroom, and me to the guest bathroom, where staring at myself in the mirror I practiced a few more deep breathing exercises although things were going fine. Jan and Jefferson were a cute couple, and I had pretty much decided that their son was a perfect blending of them both. Karen’s email was still in the back of my mind, but I was really looking forward to dinner.
We sat down to the table, Jefferson at the head, of course, Madison and I across from each other, and Jan was opposite her husband. It was a nice table with the meatloaf for a centerpiece, a bowl of creamy mashed potatoes on one side, and heaping bowl of steamed broccoli and carrots on the other. Jefferson opened a bottle of red wine and poured some into my glass.“It’s a pinotage from South Africa,” he told me.
“Post-apartheid my dad wasn’t interested Krugerrands, he wanted to collect wines,” Madison said.“I’d been reading about it for years,” Jefferson admitted. “The Western Cape is a wine drinker’s natural paradise.”
I was simply fascinated. A union man who was also a wine connoisseur, who proudly served an imported brand with his wife’s meatloaf.Not that the meatloaf didn’t deserve it. I was literally salivating from the aroma alone. Jan placed the first slice onto Madison’s plate covering it with a spoon full of the tomato-based gravy. She followed that with the potatoes and mixed vegetables. Next she offered to serve me, then Jefferson, and lastly herself. “Bon appetite,” she declared brightly. Only for an instant did her smile dim when Madison was focused on threading the handle of his fork between his fingers. She wasn’t over it yet either. Quickly taking a small bite of the meat, I chimed-in, “Oh my God this is fabulous!”
“You like it?” Jan asked successfully distracted from her son’s hands.“It’s the best I’ve ever had,” I insisted.
Madison and Jefferson were both smiling indulgently. But I wasn’t lying. The meatloaf was the best I’d ever had. No wonder Madison willingly suspended his red meat rule. I immediately asked Jan for her recipe but she just beamed at me, saying, “Oh a little of this and that,” thereby revealing absolutely nothing.However the rest of the dinner conversation was every bit as delicious as the food. We talked about everything, from education reform to health reform, and including an analysis of gay rights as the natural evolution of civil rights as well as the conflicted role religion continued to play in all of it. It was an intellectual’s paradise, with the four of us generally in agreement about the goals and only debating the methods.
Dessert was a fruit salad with chunks of watermelon and cantaloupe, and grapes and blueberries, and Jan and Jefferson told stories about Madison’s childhood, to his chagrin, especially the story about him getting a three-day suspension his junior year in high school.“The school mascot was a Viking,” Jan eagerly shared. “Who are white guys, right?”
“Right,” I agreed.“So you know how they sometimes have the team burst through a painted banner, well my son got it into his head that that banner was going to represent the entire student body. So some of those Vikings were going to be African American, Hispanic, and Asian too, I believe.”
“Really, Madison?” I laughed. “You got in trouble for that?”
“It was a mascot,” he replied. “A symbol.”“It was a big stink,” said Jan. “That’s what it was. He had gone to the principal with his petition, a petition mind you, with signatures from hundreds of kids, but Mr. Miller, the principal, wasn’t having it. Vikings were white. So what does Madison do? He gets a group of kids together, and they make their alternative banner and then they switch them out right before the game.”
“When they unfurled that thing, it looked like the damn United Nations, every one of them in horned helmets,” Jefferson chuckled. “That’s my boy. Give the people what they want.”“You see,” Jan shook her head. “He gets all that radical stuff from his father’s side of the family.”
“It’s very exciting,” I said, beaming at Madison. “A rebel with a cause.”“And a school suspension on his record,” Jan reminded us.
“But a suspension for that?” I said. “I mean, there was no harm.”“It was blatant defiance,” argued Jan. “The principal said Madison was a student leader and as such he bore more responsibility.”
“He was just afraid of him,” said Jefferson. “That’s what it was. Madison was a threat to his authority.”“That suspension could have hurt his chances to get into a good college,” Jan said.
“Not with those brains,” countered Jefferson proudly. “That suspension just proved his moxie.”“Okay,” Madison spoke up. “Enough with the biography.”
But I was loving it though. The backstories, the parental adoration, it was making me all warm and fuzzy inside. We finished the bottle of wine, and Jan offered to put on the kettle and make us some peppermint tea which she said was good for digestion.“I’ll do it,” I volunteered, popping up a little too swiftly and discovering I had a buzz.
Although I did catch the wink and mischievous grin that Jefferson tossed towards Madison.“What?” I asked. Were they laughing at me for being a little tipsy? “Is something wrong?”
“Not at all,” replied Jan. “Of course you’d know your way around Madison’s kitchen.”I looked at Madison and he winked at me.
“Of course,” I replied.And that was okay. While the kettle heated I even cleared the table, declining Jan’s help because as our excellent chef she should rest on her laurels.
“I like the way she thinks,” she laughed merrily.You go girl! I silently congratulated myself.
Later in the evening Madison excused himself and went to his bedroom to most likely go to his bathroom. By now I was accustomed to him disappearing for a time and hardly noticed it anymore, so I was surprised when Jan asked him if everything was okay, a tiny knot of concern formed in her brow. But maybe she was just being a mom and couldn’t help herself, even though she had to know that her son didn’t like that sort of thing.Madison had shared enough about his rehab experience with me for me to know about the social worker who had been assigned to his case. “To ensure I adjusted to my new life,” he had said so sarcastically that I had wanted to defend my brother professional but had realized it was probably better to let it ride. I wondered now how much family counseling there been for them; if it had only been for Karen, and not so much for Madison’s mom and dad. In a real way the accident had happened to all of them, just in different ways. I was the only one who hadn’t lost something that horrible morning. Madison today was the only Madison I knew. They, on the other hand, must be carrying around all these photographs, these pictures in their hearts and minds of Madison when his hands worked and he didn’t require a plastic tube to empty his bladder.
“What kind of music do you like, Paige?” Jefferson asked.He was busy looking through Madison’s CD collection. By this time the sounds of jazz piano was floating all around us in the living room. The song was Linda Rose. The musician was Bob Acri, somebody I had never heard of before meeting Madison, and now somebody I really enjoyed. I was still primarily a lover of lyrics but my tastes were definitely expanding.
“Almost everything,” I could now say honestly. “Except for acid rock I guess.”“Ugh,” said Jan. “That stuff makes my ears bleed.”
“And some of the rap,” I added. “Anything that has to be screamed.”“The quiet type, are you?” said Jefferson, loading a B.B. King CD into the player.
As soon as the music started Jan and Jefferson both started moving with the rhythm, and the next thing I knew they were in each other’s arms swaying around in a tight little circle, looking like teenagers themselves and so infectiously happy that I rocked along too, clapping my hands to the beat. They reminded me of my parents and suddenly I missed them very much. Sadly they would never meet Madison, and they had had their reservations about Derrick. “Make sure you’re doing this for the right reasons, Paige,” my father had advised, perhaps even warned, the night before my wedding; and stupidly I had blamed it on his being over-protective. Now I knew there was no way that Derrick and I could have even been like my parents, or Jan and Jefferson, or Pam and Ted for that matter. But maybe Madison and I could be. What if…Jefferson made another turn and stopped short, causing Jan to stumble. Following his gaze I turned too. Madison had returned to the room. “And for the evening’s entertainment,” he said in the staged voice of an emcee. “We give you Fred and Ginger.” He was clearly making a joke, but none of us laughed. When I looked back at his parents, they looked stricken. Guilty. They felt guilty. For dancing, because their beloved son could not.
The song was ending. “Kicking it old school!” I attempted to intervene and get us all through the moment. The next song on the CD started but still no one moved...Need someone's hand to lead me through the night. I need someone's arms to hold and squeeze me tight…“Come on, you two,” said Madison pushing over next to where I sat. “Don’t stop now.”
“He’s right,” I added. “More! Please!”“Oh,” Jan waved her hands nervously, stepping away from her husband. “We’re just being silly. You know what, I think it’s the wine. That’s it. Jefferson what’s the--”
“Ma’, please,” said Madison.His tone stilled her and she looked at him. We all did. And I felt intrusive, like I wasn’t supposed to be seeing this, as if I should excuse myself. As if it hadn’t been four years. Although there was no schedule, I remembered, no designated cut-off point for when they were supposed to stop wishing that Madison’s accident had never happened...So why don't you give it up, baby and bring it home to me. Or write it on a piece of paper, woman - so it can be read to me. Tell me that you love me - and stop drivin' me mad…
“Dance with her, Dad,” Madison said. “It’s okay.”It was and it wasn’t. People always said that losing a child was the worst thing for a parent. Parents were not supposed to outlive their children. It was not the natural order of things. It was completely unacceptable and yet sometimes it had to be—accepted. Maybe it was similar for the parent whose child experienced a catastrophe from which he could not completely recover, in the prime of his life when so much of his promise was yet to be fulfilled. This too was not the natural order of things, and I could see the pain of it in Jefferson and Jan’s eyes.
But it had to be accepted. Madison needed them to do it. And he needed them to dance. Because if they didn’t, in addition to the wheelchair, and the catheters, and the way he held his fork, he’d also have to live with that, that they wouldn’t dance because he couldn’t.I wanted desperately to say that, but I was not the social worker, I was the girlfriend. So as the girlfriend, I reached for Madison’s hand, holding it in mine as I gently rocked to the music; and as he fell into rhythm with me, we were smiling at each other. And as Jefferson pulled Jan into his arms again, Madison and I watched as she closed her eyes, giving into their son, and giving way to the music. The couple clung to each other, and like us moved together...Don't want you to worry, baby. I know we can make everything alright. Listen to my plea, baby, come on bring it to me. 'Cause I need - your love so bad…