Madison grabbed his keys and threw open the front door, leaving me to follow in his wake, with no time even to find my shoes. By the time I was hurrying to pull the front door closed behind us, he was already at the elevator, repeatedly pushing the down-call button with his thumb. At last the elevator arrived and Madison rolled on and pressed the basement button with the same impatient irritation, so that I just made it on between the closing doors.It was an interminable ride down, him with his back to me, and me looking ridiculous standing there with my bare feet, and neither of us speaking. It was what I had wanted for a long time, to be invited to Madison’s storage unit, to see his photos, his past, but this was not how I had imagined it. This was not okay. This push was clearly not welcomed. But what could I say now? Never mind, it’s okay if I don’t know who you are? Was I that desperate to be with him? No. That wasn’t right. Besides, couples had fights all the time. They survived them, and they were often the better for it. Or at least they realized the truth from it. And the truth set you free, right? One way or the other.
The elevator doors opened and Madison pushed out into the corridor triggering the motion-sensor overhead lights, flooding the space in rapid waves of cold blue fluorescence. Everything, the series of numbered doors, the polished concrete floor, the walls, all of it was an industrial-drab gray. The HVAC system generated a mechanical din that roared in my head, but maybe that was better than deathly silence, I thought, as I hurried to keep up with him.Madison raced down one of the corridors, stopping ultimately in front of the door of what was apparently his unit. Splaying out the set of keys on his thigh, he jabbed a silver one with his thumb. “It’s that one,” he said. When I just stood there, he added bitingly, “Since this is your project, Paige, the least you can do is open the door.” My project. So that was how he saw it. Not as something we were doing together. Sighing I reached for the keys. There was no choice, I had to go through with it; but of course I was so nervous that I fumbled with the keys and they ended up clanging onto the concrete floor at Madison’s feet. He chuckled mirthlessly. “I’m the one with the gimp hands,” he said as I bent down to pick up the keys. “What’s your excuse?”
For the first time during this awful expedition our eyes met. The golden brown held no luster, and Madison’s face, bathed in the harsh overhead light, was as cool, as unyielding as the floor I stood on. I had seen flashes of his anger before, assumed that his temper could be intense, but now, as the target of it, I was completely intimidated. I wanted to do a rewind, to say I was sorry, but what would I be apologizing for? For being jealous of Karen? For wanting to know him better? For all of my insecurities? Okay, so I was human too. In my head I conceded that I had made this some kind of test for him, and unbeknownst to him too, the consummate pop-quiz. Paige the social worker would have certainly counseled against it, but I was Paige the girlfriend, and I was in love and threatened. Couldn’t Madison just try to understand? He was seeing his ex behind my back. She was signing a note to him that said love always. Who wouldn’t be a little freaked out no matter what he said? I needed to see Karen’s face, to give her flesh and bones or at least an image. To face my worst fear required that that fear have a face.I unlocked the unit’s door and opened it. Madison immediately came up behind me, his knees butting the back of my legs, pushing me forward into the unit, and causing me to stumble. He flipped on the unit’s overhead light washing the narrow room with more of the ugly fluorescent pallor. Even the air in the unit was gray, musty but nondescript, an odor of nothing. Cardboard boxes and opaque plastic storage containers sat on the second and third shelves of the metal shelving that ran along one side of the unit’s wall. On the top shelf there was a basketball and a soccer ball. In one corner of the room a baseball bat was sticking out of a straw basket. Were these Madison’s? He had been a distance runner, a solitary sport, but had he played team sports too? Suddenly I could see him in a sports bar with his team mates, his buddies, after a game, laughing his wonderful laugh, a little buzzed on too much beer. Smiling at the image I turned to him. With one arm hooked behind the handle of his wheelchair, he was reaching down to pull the doorstop into place to prop the door open. It took him several attempts to work his inert fingers between the doorstop and the door, and by the time he was finally able to push the stop into place the sports bar picture was gone, and when he sat up straight again the grim look on his face dissolved my smile.
“Most of the stuff is labeled,” Madison said coolly, adjusting himself in the wheelchair. “Or obvious.”This was the moment of truth, so to speak, yet I was frozen in place again.
“What’s the problem, Paige?” he asked obviously irritated. “What are you waiting for?”How could I explain my guilt for intruding? I couldn’t tell him that even though it was perfectly reasonable for me to want to see his pictures, I no longer wanted to because I didn’t have his blessing and that was what was most important to me. I couldn’t even figure out how to say it in my head without sounding like a ninny.
“Madison--” I tried to begin.“Afraid I can’t help you get the boxes down,” he said sarcastically, patting the wheels of his chair. “You’ll have to do that for yourself.”
I was miserable.“I’m sorry,” I started again. “I didn’t mean for--”
But he stopped me again, “You got what you want, Paige. The me in this closet. So have at it. See what I was.”“Madison,” I was ready to plead now, “It doesn’t matter--”
“The hell it doesn’t!” he suddenly shouted, literally knocking me back a step with his voice, as if he had actually slapped me. “It fucking does matter!” he continued, slamming his right fist hard into his right thigh sending the leg into spasms. “It matters! This goddamn chair matters. You want to know why I got rid of the pictures? I did it because I hate—because I don’t want to think about it. What I was. What I am.”“I-I didn’t mean to--” I whimpered.
“I want to walk,” he said. “God!” Squeezing his eyes shut Madison was now beating both his weak fists against his thighs. His legs reacted, bouncing crazily. “I want to run!” he said through clenched teeth. “Every goddam morning I wake up I want to run and I can’t! I can’t goddammit! So don’t tell me it doesn’t matter!”Gasping, Madison suddenly stilled and his face went instantly blank. He took several deep breaths, and the spasms, which were now even in his hands, began to fade. Another moment passed before he opened his eyes, and when he did he looked down at his hands.
“I want to hold your hand, Paige,” he said quietly now. “And I can’t even do that.”He brought his eyes back to mine. I saw there were tears there but they didn’t fall. My own eyes were stinging too. Yet when I started to him, Madison reached for his wheels and thrust himself back through the open door, dragging his right foot because it had fallen from the footplate during the spasms.
“No,” he said in a steadied voice that didn’t match his eyes or the weary expression on his face. “It’s okay.” Then with a twisted smile he pretended to make a joke. “No social workers, remember.”I bit my lip. No weepy girlfriends either. Even though my empathy with him over that terrible morning with the green light burst into my own personal grief. But not because I had lost anything. He was the man I had fallen in love with and he was perfect to me. It was just that I yearned to share his grief, to be able to take some of it onto myself and give him respite. But how would that work? I remembered Jan and Jefferson not dancing because Madison couldn’t, how that didn’t make the situation better and probably only made him feel worse.
“Take all the time you need,” Madison said, as he lifted his right leg and settled the foot back into its place on the footplate. Then he pushed further back into the corridor.He was leaving?
“Where-where are you going?” I spluttered. “We should-should do this--”
“No,” he cut me off yet again. “This is what you want. I don’t.”“Madison, it doesn’t—I mean the pictures and stuff. It’s not important. Let’s just go back upstairs.”
“Don’t be nice, Paige,” he smiled crookedly again. “You want to know my backstory. Nothing wrong with that.”“But Madison--”
“You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. You gotta see it through. Otherwise it’ll be like Poe’s tell-tale heart. It’ll make you crazy.”Maybe it wouldn’t, I thought desperately. Maybe I could just forget about it and keep myself focused on the here and now. It wasn’t worth it, not if it was going to hurt him so much. I could learn to forget about Karen. I was in her house, or the house she had made for Madison, but she wasn’t here. I could get over myself.
“Are there pictures of Karen?” I asked anyway.Because what if after all of this, there weren’t any pictures of her? What if I still wouldn’t know her face?
“I assume there are,” replied Madison. “Unless she took them all when she left.”Why didn’t he know? Did he really not care? She had written that she would love him always. How could he be so cavalier?
“I don’t want to look through your things without you being here, Madison. It’s your story. I can’t know it without you.”“I’m sorry, Paige,” he said. “I can’t do it. I can’t watch while you look at him and then look at me. I can’t do it, and I won’t.”
Him? Was this some kind of weird out of body experience? Some dissociative disorder I could read about in one of my textbooks? Maybe it was because of the broken connection between his brain and his body, a side effect of his injury, the consequence of not being able to move his legs or straighten his fingers.“Madison, there is no him,” I told him. “It’s you. You know that, right? You said it yourself before. You’re still that guy. The one in your pictures. You are him. You’re you.”
“No,” he said. “It’s who I used to be. I can’t fool myself anymore. Or you.”“Madison--”
“But you ought to know him,” he continued. “I want you to. ‘Cause you see the funny thing is, I wish you could be with him. I wish he had known you. You’d have been good together. The guy I buried in these boxes, that guy deserves you. I’m just jealous that’s all.” He laughed but it was a dry tight sound as he shook his head, and it was like he was admitting it to somebody else. “I’m so fucking jealous.”Madison drew another deep breath and blew it out, making the sound of a steam valve when it was hot and opened. I kept standing there looking at him, bewildered. He was jealous of himself? What sense did that make? Maybe it was silly to be jealous of Karen, but for God’s sake it was crazy to be jealous of yourself.
“I gotta go,” Madison said abruptly, and turning his chair he pushed away.
My first instinct—maybe every neuron in my body was screaming it—was to go after him. In all the time I had known him, I had never seen him look that way, as if he had been beaten, only in his mind it was by his own hands. Not his hands as they were now, even when he was banging them against his legs, but by the hands that were in the pictures, the images, buried in the boxes. I had let myself be beaten too, perhaps not by Karen so much as by my fear of her, her picture, her image, also buried in the boxes. Both of us, Madison and I, had somehow imbued the past with too much power, and it had crippled us. If we were going to get over it, the boxes needed to be opened. Otherwise it would be like he had said, it would make us crazy. For you, and with you. Whatever the case may be, Madison had said to me the day I had moved into Miss Mary’s. It had felt so good, to be protected and supported by my knight in shining armor. Maybe it was now my turn to return the favor. The boxes and their bodies were waiting.
I identified a cardboard box labeled “Photos” and lifted it down from the second shelf, setting it on the floor. Dropping to my knees I pulled open the box flaps which had been closed by someone who had layered them alternately on top of each other. My heart was beating fast, although after everything that had just happened this should have been the easy part. It was just a box of pictures, right? I wasn’t expecting to actually find a body, or a tell-tale heart. Why should I be afraid?And there they were. On top. It was a 5X7 portrait of Madison and the woman who must be Karen in a silver frame. The picture in my hands, I sat down on the hard floor and waited for feelings, or premonitions, perhaps an evil spirit, or something to tell me that my cause was lost. The picture looked like it had been taken at a wedding. The photographer had been clever with his composition. They were standing on steps, maybe of a church, and Karen stood behind Madison, on one step higher than his. Her bare, slender arms were draped over his handsome shoulders. Her cheek was pressed to the side of his head. It was a nice picture of two equally attractive people who were equally happy. And I was okay. I didn’t want to be sick or cry or anything. In fact I thought to myself how envious Tom Cruise would have been. Madison didn’t need a camera angle to make him look tall. He just was. A casting director’s dream. They both were. And yes, I was okay. I had not turned into a pillar of salt after all. Karen was working the strapless lavender dress in ways most women, including myself, probably never could, yet she looked natural, approachable, the pretty girl—I mean woman—who was also genuinely nice. In one hand she held floral bouquet, maybe it was the bride’s. Madison was in a tux, very dark blue, possibly black, and there was a rosebud for a boutonniere in his lapel. He was magnificent. And that was mainly what I felt. Pride. My man was magnificent. I set the picture aside.
The next one I came to was an 8X10 group shot in which Madison, all decked-out in graduation garb, mortarboard and festooned robe, stood in the middle. Jan and Jefferson were on one side, and an older couple, maybe his grandparents were on the other. They were outside, in a park perhaps, or more than likely on a college campus. The three men stood together in the picture. The women were on either end. Was the older man the Washington about whom Jan had spoken? In the picture Madison’s face was still more boy than man, and Jefferson’s hair was darker, but the two of them were the same height, as was the third man, and I could see a paternal family resemblance. I set this one aside too, but I was convinced that it would be my favorite.It went on like this for a while, with me taking out the photographs one at a time, studying them, usually trying to guess how old Madison was when a given picture was taken, or where he was. There were a lot of them, very photogenic people almost never shied away from the camera, but of course the pictures were not in chronological order. The versions of Madison, with and without family members or friends, or fiancées, fluctuated back and forth between adolescence and adulthood. I did wonder how long Karen had been a part of his life, but it was mainly out intellectual curiosity and not despair, resentment, or even a whole lot of envy. I was a part of his life now.
Madison’s packing style, if you could call it that, had obviously been rough. Raking them off shelves into an open box was no way to handle picture frames with glass fronts, and a couple of the fronts were badly cracked. All the frames, whether they were wood or metal, were scratched. No one had even bothered to wrap the photographs properly for storage.There was a picture of Madison that was taken with him standing at the top of one of the pyramids in Mexico, I decided. He was wearing a floppy cap and dark sunglasses, but I would recognize that fabulous smile under any circumstance. He was clearly posing for this shot, and hamming it up a little too by doing a funny-looking warrior stance. He was dressed in safari clothes, the traditional khaki cargo vest and shorts, and the heavy duty hiking boots. He did have a warrior’s body, lean and strong. In most of the pictures Madison appeared standing up, which I supposed was usually the case for most of us. His swag was often apparent, although I couldn’t be sure if the attitude was in the picture or in my head, since from the moment we met I had noted that about him.
Eventually most of the pictures were on the floor around me and the cardboard box was almost empty. My butt and back had tired, so I was now sitting with my back against the wall. I missed Madison, and I worried about how he was doing upstairs, but nevertheless I was grateful for this opportunity. If he really believed that I would somehow want him less after this little backward glancing, then he was terribly, monumentally, tremendously, down-right wrong. Of course I would fall in love with the pictures of him, but that was because they were pictures of him. I had fallen in love with the picture of him that Jan had created in her story about how he had tried to diversify Vikings. And the dorky dude doing ballroom dancing was pretty lovable too for that matter. It was all him, the then and the now, and I loved him.Since there were not as many pictures of Karen as I had expected, I guessed in the break-up she had taken many of them with her. Why wouldn’t she, especially if otherwise they were just going to be gathering dust in storage? And I wasn’t afraid of her pretty face anymore. If I had been able to truly be objective I might have even wished that Madison and Karen had stayed together. People did when these kinds of bad things happened. They could have written a book about their relationship and inspired everybody.
But she had left him. She couldn’t do it anymore. Madison wanted to take most of the responsibility for it, but break-ups were generally pretty bipartisan. Even with me and Derrick. I liked to say that he had dumped me, I guessed there was some kind of emotional payoff in that, in being the victim, but the truth be told, I had quit him too. By claiming it was his fault that Karen had left him, Madison got to claim control of the situation. Perhaps that was the male payoff. And hey—it probably worked for Karen too. If that was the story then she didn’t have to feel guilty for leaving her disabled fiancé. Most people tended to create narratives that suited their self-images. But then why wouldn’t you? It was just too bad that sometimes these narratives got in the way of healing. The truth set you free.…She said it was going to be like it never happened and I wanted to believe her…
…I can’t do it. I can’t watch while you look at him and then look at me…
That must be it. Karen had wanted to act like nothing had happened, and try as he might, Madison hadn’t been able to follow the script. Karen had not wanted to see what Madison couldn’t stop looking at—what he had lost. Her brave strategy had been doomed from the start. I picked up another photograph. This one was of Madison and Karen at a beach. They were dressed in swim clothes that showed off their flawless physiques. He was carrying her, scooped up in his arms, the way grooms carried their brides over thresholds. Her long legs were kicked out playfully and her arms were around his neck. Neither of them were looking at the camera, instead they looked at each other. They gazed at each other, the way the couples did on the covers of the novels I secretly read. How could it possibly be like the green light had never happened? But they must have tried hard. I imagined them hoping, maybe praying, for the fairytale ending they truly deserved. But sometimes things just didn’t work out. And sometimes you couldn’t even paint on a smile. By breaking his body, the accident had broken Madison’s heart too, and Karen’s; and they hadn’t been able to help each other get over it.
Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer was right: accept the things you cannot change, change the things you can, and be wise enough to know the difference. Maybe if they had heeded this principle, Madison and Karen might have still been the perfect couple. They had just needed to redefine their perfection. Madison couldn’t lift Karen anymore, or traipse around the globe supporting her research or bailing his father out of jail. He couldn’t dance, or even easily tie his shoe laces. However, he was the same man he had always been and always would be, no less able, just differently so.Back on my knees again, I carefully began gathering the photographs and repacking them in the cardboard box. In the battle between the then and the now, for Madison and Karen the then had won; or at least they had surrendered to it, or surrendered to it being lost. And upstairs he was probably surrendering to all of that again, for us this time, but I wasn’t having it. I wanted him, and there was no break between the before and the after. It was all Madison’s journey, a long, lovely, loving arc that had brought him to me. If I had to help him see that then that was okay. Help was not a dirty word, according to Miss Mary. It means you love him, Paige, Miss Mary had said. He’ll know that, and he won’t mind you asking. Or helping.
I shut off the light and locked the storage unit door. On my way back to the elevator I met an old man walking along the corridor. He smiled and nodded to me, and of course looked down at my bare feet. He chuckled to himself as we passed each other. I didn’t mind. I was okay.
******To be continued…