And in any case I was moony enough on my own. I decided I must have slept last night because I could recall dreaming, although the whole night had been as if I were somewhere between awake and asleep, in that middle fuzzy place, where you think you are thinking but maybe you’re only dreaming that you are. In a sense I had spent the night with Madison even though he had left me at Miss Mary’s and driven away back to his parents; after a simple goodnight kiss, as if it were any other date-night. And maybe that was the best part because it was. Sort of. Not counting my new job and his really terrific parents. Maybe Madison had been in love with me for some time. Saying it didn’t make it so, it merely announced it.Although who was I kidding? It did make it official. And it did make a difference, since I knew it was something of a feat for my poker-faced prince. He had shown his cards finally, those perhaps closest to his chest. It had been in the cover of darkness to be sure, when Madison’s face was shadowed, but nevertheless he had said it, he thought he was in love with me. He may have spoken it simply, in the course of a dumb conversation about him being jealous, but it wasn’t simple. No wonder love was a four-letter. It did feel like an oath of some kind, a swear word in its own right but for the right reasons.
A week passed, and after a time my heartbeat was mostly regular again except for those usual first seconds whenever I saw Madison or heard his voice, when it would speed up chased by butterflies. I had kissed a lot of frogs in my time, and married the king of the toads, but maybe at last my prince had come. Miss Mary said that Madison and I were both wonderfully blessed. I could get with that, because this had to be better than luck, right?On my last day at Target—as an employee—I asked Madison to pick me up after work.
“Sure,” he agreed.
“Then we should go to Le Bon Café,” I said.“Okay,” he replied, his tone suggesting that he was detecting a plan of some kind in the making.
He was right. I did have a plan. I wanted us to re-experience our first date to celebrate our six-month anniversary.“Has it been six months?” he asked.
“Close enough,” I replied.“I’m surprised you don’t know exactly.”
“I don’t know when to start counting,” I explained. “From the first day I met you or the first time we went out.”“Usually people start with the first date, Paige,” Madison smiled.
“Uhh-uhh,” I shook my head. “I was hooked on you from the moment I saw you, so my clock started ticking immediately.”“Then I guess we must have synchronized then,” he told me, a twinkle in his eye.
On my last day, my Target co-workers pitched-in to buy me a congratulations cake which coworkers gathered in the break room to share during my lunch break. They also gave me a new messenger bag that was big enough to carry a laptop and multiple files or, unbeknownst to them, my spend-the-night things.“Don’t forget about us now,” said Melissa as she was giving me a big hug at my party.
Everybody seemed to be happy for me, as if my success was a little bit theirs too. The economy was getting better. Chandra was inspired. “If you can bounce back, I can too,” she had said.“You know I’m gonna be in here all the time,” I told Melissa warmly hugging her back.
“Yeah, that’s what you say,” she laughed pleasantly. “But I’ll text you when we have good sales anyway.”“You better,” I replied.
A little after seven that evening I made my way to the store exit for the last time wearing the red polo shirt and khaki pants of a Target employee. Madison was waiting for me in one of the handicapped spaces just like the very first time. And he wasn’t a stranger anymore.“You sure you don’t wanna go somewhere for dinner?” Madison asked after we had kissed hello.
“Le Bon Café,” I said definitively. “Denise can make us a croissant or a bagel if we’re hungry.”
“For food that is,” he winked at me.I smiled at him.
“Or we can have just one café latte,” I suggested. “For old time’s sake, and go back to your place for whatever else suits our fancy.”“Your wish is my command, chérie,” he replied doing his Maurice Chevalier impression.
I was laughing as Madison opened the console between the front seats. Pinching it between his thumb and index finger, Madison took out a small white envelope and handed it to me.“What’s this?” I asked.
“Open it and see,” said Madison.
I did. It was a Target gift card worth one hundred dollars. I looked up at him, and he was looking rather pleased with himself.“What’s this for?” I asked.
“In case you don’t really want to say goodbye forever,” he smiled. “You know, in the event you get some kind of postpartum depression, you can come back. They might even let you help a customer or two. Just don’t be too helpful.”
I laughed again, and swore to myself that I’d never spend the card. It would be a keepsake and something I could show our grandchildren if I could make this last forever. It would be a reminder of how when I had been at my lowest point Prince Charming had appeared. A sweet Candy Man, with golden-brown eyes, a gorgeous smile, incredible shoulders, and hands that had a supernatural touch.“You’re perfect,” I said fervently before covering his face with kisses.
#####The rest of Friday night was very fun, and sweet too was Saturday morning. I had not had a Saturday morning when I could actually sleep-in since going to work for Target. In fact the only Saturday I had had off in the last six months had been my moving day.
What was that—six weeks ago? Suddenly my life seemed to be on a very fast track zooming upwards, but that was not to say I could just forget about the downward spiral that it had been. Change—good or bad—could happen swiftly. With so much so often beyond your control, how could you be sure of anything? The chickens might hatch and be counted, but that was no guarantee. Yet doubt and fear wasn’t the right answer either. So why not be happy while you could?I awoke early Saturday morning because as everybody knows the best part of sleeping-in is being awake to enjoy it. I lay in Madison’s bed on my stomach, next to him, drifting in and out of slumber, very tempted to cuddle with him but content not to disturb him. There were times when Madison’s sleep seemed restless. Maybe he would be dreaming intensely, or having spasms, and just to change positions in bed required him to wake up to move his legs. When we first started sleeping together his restlessness would awaken me too, and being concerned I’d want to ask him if he was all right, or if he needed anything, although I never did. At first that was because I didn’t like to remind him about his disability (as if he ever forgot it) but later it was because I knew he was all right, and I would always go right back to sleep, and sometimes I probably didn’t even wake up at all. I loved sleeping with Madison and I was looking forward to many more nights and mornings like this, with our naked bodies touching in places, peaceful in the first light of day.
As the morning light grew brighter, I watched Madison’s chest rise and fall as he breathed evenly. Eventually I fell back to sleep. When I awakened again it was because Madison was caressing my cheek with his thumb.“Good morning, baby,” he said softly when my eyes opened to see his face.
He was lying on his side now. A scruffy beard darkened his cheeks, accentuating his appealing lips which I yearned to kiss, although that would have required me to move and all I wanted to do was lie there and gaze at him. I settled for smiling at him. He smiled back.
“I gotta meet Paul at the gym,” he continued. “Time to get up.”Paul was Madison’s personal trainer. He was also licensed physical therapist, who specialized in fitness for persons with spinal cord injuries, and was himself a paraplegic. From the little Madison said about him, I understood Paul to also be his friend and I looked forward to meeting him some day. I suspected that Madison was a bit of a loner, but even loners needed a friend or two, buddies, somebody to hang-out with.
“Now?” I groaned lazily to the rise-and-shine decree. “It’s so early.”“I’m meeting Paul at nine,” said Madison. “I was thinking maybe you could make us some breakfast while I get ready. Then when I’m you can go back to bed.”
The breakfast assignment, while reasonable, was also Madison’ s means of getting me out of the bedroom, as he always did, so he could do his morning routine in private. I could understand that. No one wanted company in the bathroom even if—or especially if—it was complicated. Tucking his hands underneath his thighs he pulled himself up into a sitting position and then lifted his legs off the bed, setting his feet on the floor. I longingly admired his broad shoulders and back.“Can I come with you?” I asked, referring to the gym and sort of meaning it.
I didn’t miss the way his shoulders stiffened.“No,” he replied, his tone leaving no room for discussion.
But that was okay too. Being an introvert myself, I could appreciate that his gym-time was his me-time. I used to be the same way at health clubs. I would step onto the treadmill or elliptical machine and enter into my own world, earphones singing into my ears and blocking out everything and everybody else. I had no intentions of getting in his way. It was just that now that I was going to have a real job again, maybe I’d join a gym too. With a beautiful man like Madison I had better keep myself in shape. But in any case, I was really too languid to argue the point.Madison transferred into his wheelchair and a spasm bounced his legs for a moment. When he looked at me again I was smiling. His shoulders relaxed and smiling back at me, he turned his chair to face the bed. Slowly I sat up, letting the sheet fall away from my body, deliberately tempting him. We had both become comfortable in our nakedness with each other.
“I didn’t get my morning kiss yet,” he said.“That’s your fault,” I smoothly replied. “You’re the one in such a hurry to get out of bed.”
“Sooo…if I asked you nicely?” he offered.“Depends,” I said nonchalantly.
As if he had to say a word. Simply fix those golden-brown eyes of his on mine and show me that charming smile, and I would give him anything. Prima facie: I went to him now, and kneeling at the edge of the bed, balancing myself by leaning on the wheels of his chair, I kissed him. Madison leaned forward into the kiss and took control of it, our hands together now on the wheels of the chair. He made a little happy moan as I sucked his tongue more deeply into my mouth. It was very lovely. After a time our mouths parted but the tips of our noses remained together.“Maybe I should skip the gym,” Madison said.
“How ‘bout when you come back I give you a special massage?” I replied.“Roger that,” he said bringing his lips back to mine.
#####After breakfast Madison left to meet Paul. Left alone in his monastic home the first thing I did was cleanup the kitchen and load the dishwasher. Pretty much in the full throes of a domestic bliss, I could see myself, see us, like this all the time, and the images were enthralling. Madison in a t-shirt and his comfy sweats. Me wearing his striped PJ’s. The aroma of brewing coffee and toasting bread filling the air. Me puttering around in the kitchen while he read a story to me from the New York Times on his iPad. Oh yes, we could have a nice life together. Be in love forever. Like my parents, and Jan and Jefferson. I was in la-la land.
Pouring the last of the coffee into my mug and adding more cream, I strolled over to the living room’s big picture window that looked out onto the Atlanta skyline. The morning sun glinted brightly off other buildings’ windows. I could see the tiny park below, where Madison and I sometimes went for a walk. So early on a Saturday morning there were hardly any cars on the streets. I had never lived in a high-rise building before but I could get used to it. It definitely had its advantages. The parking deck was especially great on rainy days, and having a concierge was very helpful for receiving packages. Of course if Madison and I wanted to start a family we’d have to get a bigger place—three bedrooms at least, but now that we could be a truly two-income household we should be able to afford that. We’d just have to use his credit rating. The main thing was that everything be on one level.Slow your roll, Paige Robinson, I thought, and shook myself so to speak, scrunching up my shoulders in the process. Madison and I weren’t living together yet, and right now he didn’t even want me to join his gym. He had entrusted me with his space by myself true enough, but this was still only a sleepover.
I finished my coffee and placed the mug in the dishwasher. Checking the fridge and the freezer I wondered if I should come up with something for lunch. Someone, I assumed Jan, had left several single-serving-sized storage bowls labeled in the freezer. Most likely these were lovingly prepared meals she had made for Madison. Just the kind of thing a good mom would do. “Single-serving,” I said out loud to myself to put in check my very overblown imagination. “Madison Reese is a confirmed bachelor.” For the time being, my stubbornly optimistic imagination countered. So soon after an ugly divorce I shouldn’t be in a hurry to get married again anyway, but I supposed it was true, women were nesters.I took a shower in the guest bathroom, like always, and got dressed in a pair of jeans and a short-sleeve shirt. I really needed to add a few more casual girlie skirts and dresses to my wardrobe. It was probably not so good that my boyfriend dressed better than I did, even though Madison didn’t seem to mind that his woman was either unisex or frumpy. Maybe hot had more to do with the heart than most of us thought. You were always seeing these couples that you couldn’t figure out how they got together. Perhaps that explained it.
Besides if I played my cards right I’d be out of my clothes pretty soon anyway. Madison and I hadn’t made love in the day time yet, but we didn’t do it in the dark either. His sense of touch was absent in some places and unreliable in others, so it was important to make the most of what was strongest: smell, taste, hearing, and sight, and so for sight we always left the lamp on next to the bed. To tell the truth, I was a little nervous about giving him a massage, as I was not always exactly sure where I should touch him. However, having anticipated that someday I might do for him what he had done for me, I had researched how to do it and learned that the most important thing was to be gentle and attentive; which must come naturally when you cherished somebody the way I did him.
Tillie, the housekeeper, was thorough and Madison was neat so there really wasn’t any genuine housekeeping that I could find to do, but meandering back into Madison’s bedroom, I made the bed, then moved onto his bathroom where the only thing I could find to do was to straighten the hand and bath towels on their respective racks. From the looks of things Karen had really done a fantastic job fitting the bathroom to Madison’s needs.
She had done a fantastic job with the whole apartment. I could picture her carefully planning with the architects and consulting with the doctors and therapists. As awful as it must have been for them both, at least Madison had not had to struggle with the infrastructure of his own home. I appreciated what Karen had done for him, I just wondered why she couldn’t do it anymore while I could see myself doing it for the rest of my life.The shock, the loss and grief, the pain, surely would have made Madison difficult to live with immediately after the accident. However, he probably had never been the easiest person to live with anyway. Like he had said, he was kind of a sensei of control. The accident might have exacerbated that trait but it had not caused it. If anything Madison’s tendency to assume control was probably genetic, judging from Jefferson. But then that was one of the things I found most attractive about Madison, how he was perfectly willing, perfectly capable of taking charge, and yet never make you feel disrespected in the process. He was a leader, whether he was organizing racially diverse Viking football banners or moving his girlfriend. He was purposeful, confident, and you could trust him.
Yet he wasn’t infallible. He was human. Like all the rest of us. Anxious at times. Unsure. Embarrassed. Maybe even ashamed. And sometimes just downright wrong. Who among us wasn’t? Human perfection was subjective, in the eyes of the beholder like beauty. And never being completely satisfied with yourself was good and bad, a two-edged sword, motivating and demoralizing. Madison had triumphed over much, and he knew that, but no, he wasn’t over it yet. And perhaps that first year had been the worst, more failures than successes, more losses than gains. Maybe if Karen had hung on for a little while longer she would have seen what I saw now, a man who had come through it. And like Hemmingway said, in Farewell to Arms, the world broke everyone but afterwards many of us were strong at the broken places.Madison probably liked Hemmingway, so I went to look for the author’s titles among the many volumes on Madison’s bookcases, and planned to read a little, while I waited for him to come home. As one might expect in a well-ordered home, the books were alphabetized by author, and sectioned by type: fiction and non-fiction, and by subject matter. Dumb luck was probably the only reason I noticed Karen’s book: Hearth and Home: Family Life in the Early American West. Hemmingway forgotten, I pulled out Karen’s book instead. It was thick, heavy in my hands. Wow, I thought, she was even more talented than I had imagined. As if she were actually in the room and holding my phone, my cheeks burned because I was embarrassed by the tawdry romance novels waiting in my Kindle app.
Riffling through the pages I landed on the acknowledgements page. Following the usual thanks to professors, colleagues, God and country, came the paragraph of personal thanks to family and friends. “…And to Madison Reese for his keen editorial eye, and his unfailing support and belief in my work...” it said. Then I turned the page. On the white space there was a hand-written note dated from two weeks ago which read: Dearest Madison, Thank you for everything. I hope you are pleased. Love always, Karen.
#####It wasn’t a sucker punch or anything. I’d suspected all along that they had seen each other during the time that Madison’s parents had been visiting. After all there was that e-mail. And going by the inscription date I had been right. Still I felt a little light-headed, like I couldn’t breathe quite right, so I sat down on the sofa, still holding the book, still looking at the inscription. She loved him always. So I guessed she wasn’t over it yet either. It was like I had walked into the middle of a story that maybe was not mine; where I was at best a supporting actress, a distraction for the hero, a foil for the heroine, the character the audience couldn’t possibly root for. And here I was thinking it was my fairytale.
Stop it, Paige, I ordered myself and closed the book. Why must it be a catastrophe? And even if it was why must it be mine? Madison was in love with me. He had told me so. He had said it, the four-letter word. Yes, he had seen her. His parents too. All of them. Together. But I still was invited for Thanksgiving. Jan and Jefferson were counting on me to help talk Madison into making the trip. So what if she did still love him? That was then, but this was now. I was now. That sounded good. Strong. Confident. But like William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It's not even past.”It occurred to me to turn the book over and look at the back cover. Sometimes they included a photograph of the author. I was scared to do it, scared to see how beautiful she was, how warm her smile would be, but I faced my fear and turned it over. Her picture wasn’t there. I began to breathe again, but I couldn’t decide if I was relieved or sorry. Sooner or later I would see her. I should see her. There were all those pictures down in the basement. Undoubtedly there would be pictures of her, of them together. Madison did not want to see them anymore, but he had only hidden them away, he had not thrown them away, and that meant something.
I’m not sure how long it was that I sat there with Karen’s book in my lap, but after a time I became aware of Madison coming through the front door. I heard him drop his keys into the wooden bowl on the little table near the door. “Hey, babe,” he said wheeling to me, expecting to kiss me hello. My mouth was too dry to make words. I wasn’t sure what to say anyway, or what I would sound like. When our eyes met, his smile faded. “What’s wrong?” he asked.Nothing, I thought, even thinking it was the truth. Because did I really begrudge him a grateful ex? Just because Derrick had been an ass to me, why should I want Karen to be a bitch to him? He must have changed his t-shirt at the gym, but he still hadn’t shaved. He looked like a jock, like his chair shouldn’t need wheels. Karen would have seen this. Maybe now she was thinking she could do it after all.
“I found Karen’s book,” I said turning it over again in my lap.“Okay?” Madison replied glancing at it.
“You saw her?” I said looking down at the cover.“Yeah, when my folks were here.”
“You didn’t tell me.”“Was I supposed to?”
Was he? If the answer was yes then I better know why, and I didn’t, and it made me angry because I didn’t and he knew I didn’t.“No,” I had to say meeting his eyes again, but I kept my voice as cool as his.
“Is that what you’re upset about?”Of course it was. In part. But that sounded stupid too so I didn’t say it. Instead I turned the page to Karen’s inscription. Skipping over some of the words I read, “Thank you for everything. Love always, Karen.” I looked up at him.
“I read her drafts,” he shrugged.“She said she loves you always, Madison,” I charged shrilly.
“Paige--”“Always. That means she still loves you right now. Not then. Right now.”
“So what? What difference does it make?”“What difference?” I stood up tossing the book onto the sofa. “Are you kidding me? You’re not over her yet, and she’s not over you. Where does that leave me?”
“What?” he asked as if he really didn’t understand what I had said.“She wants back in your life, Madison. It’s not over between you!” I said scurrying over to the kitchen so he wouldn’t see the tears spill onto my face. “You told me yourself. You’re not over it. Maybe you don’t have to be.”
“Goddammit, Paige!” Madison swore. “You think I was talking about Karen?”“You were talking about all of it,” I said my back still to him. “The accident. Losing her--”
“How the fuck do you know what I was talking about? Did you ask me?”No. I had been afraid to. I had not wanted to hurt him. But it had been about me too. I had not wanted to hear how much he loved Karen. So I had filled in the gaps with my own narrative and advised him not to be in a hurry with his healing. Wiping away the tears I turned to face him again.
“You didn’t,” Madison said.“I just thought…” I began.
But I was confused. Was this about Karen or not?“What?” he demanded.
“That you don’t like talking about that part,” I said. “What it was like before. What you went through. Your past, Madison. And yes Karen,” I tried to make her salient again. “My God, look around this place. Where are your personal things, pictures? It’s like you have no backstory. Just these books. Everything else is just buried in the basement.”“So that’s it? You just want to know what my life was before this?” he asked opening his arms wide as if to display himself.
“I want to know everything about you.”I did. If that made me clingy, possessive, then so be it.
“All right,” Madison said pivoting his chair and heading towards the front door. “Come on.”“Where are we going?”
“To the basement, Paige. Isn’t that where they bury the bodies?”