…This body says that’s not me anymore. But it’s wrong, Paige…I placed my hand on the doorknob and turned it. I needed to convince him that that guy in the boxes and the one on the other side of this door were one and the same, and that I loved him.
…I am still that guy. And I know you see him…Madison must have forgotten all about telling me that. He must have forgotten that it was the truth. I recalled thinking at the time that we had made such headway in our relationship, that the disability thing was resolved between us. Oh well. There wasn’t a schedule for these matters, right? I supposed both of us had plenty of our own words to eat.
Go ahead, win then. See if I care.Maybe I could roll another double-six. I went inside.
Madison was waiting for me. Seated in his wheelchair at the dining room table, he was facing the front door, his composure completely recovered. No surprise there. After all he was a sensei. I quietly returned the set of keys to the bowl on the table in the foyer. I wanted to run to him and plant myself in his lap, and make him hold me in his arms, while I swore my love to him forever. Yeah—that was the ticket. If I was going to a movie. Which this wasn’t. Yes, I had forced the man I adored to rip the scab off of what must be his greatest wound, so I had to be as calm as a surgeon.I strode into the great room and crossed it, meeting his unreadable expression with my own smiling one, the butterflies in my belly completely concealed. Only when I reached the table did I falter. Whatever Madison’s façade was now, the hint of red in his eyes, their faint puffiness betrayed him.
I gotta go.I had never intended to hurt him, and the thought of Madison alone up here with his fears and tears, while I was plundering through his past, was almost enough to buckle my knees, and I was grateful to have the excuse of taking a seat at the table. My smile gone, I grabbed the open bottle of water on the table and turning it up to my mouth I drained it empty.
“There’s more in the fridge,” Madison said watching me, his face a study in equanimity.“Sorry about that,” I made an apology, pushing out another smile. “Would you like some more?” I asked rising from the table.
“No, I’m good.”I sat down again. And I smiled at him again, although Madison’s resolute regard was beginning to make me feel like a phony. There was this thing in the room, the proverbial elephant, and its presence was kind of my project like Madison had said. But how could I just launch into it? Where was I supposed to begin?
“Did you find what you were looking for?” Madison began it for me.His tone was bare, flat, as if he were asking about the weather. It was almost admirable, the way his coolness rarely failed him. But poker-face or not, I knew that neither the question nor its answer was easy. But yes, I had found what I was looking for.
“Yes, Madison,” I said, coolly but honestly. “I did. Thank you.”The flash of furrowed brow revealed that he hadn’t been expecting gratitude, and if I hadn’t been meeting his eyes with my own I would have missed it, the crack as it were in his otherwise impenetrable visage.
Feeling a little embolden, I continued. “I love that picture of you with your parents and I think your grandparents,” I said. “It is them, right? Washington and Mrs. Washington. You know the one I’m talking about? You’re graduating from I think law school going by the fancy robe. And you’re standing between Jefferson and an older man. Your mom’s on one end and the older lady’s on the other.”
It was like I could see the memory coursing through Madison’s brain. The feelings it carried for him flushed his cheeks, even relaxed a little the tightness in his jaw. He shifted his weight in the chair.“Is it a picture of your grandfather?” I asked, and not waiting for him to answer I added, “I love it that you’re all named after presidents. It’s a wonderful tradition.”
“It is,” Madison ultimately replied in a voice that was unmistakably warmer even if it wasn’t by a lot.“Grandfather or tradition?” I sought clarification with a small smile.
“Both,” he answered and maybe he still liked me a little.“Can I have it?”
“What?” said Madison surprised. “The picture?”“Yes,” I nodded. “I know your parents now. And it’s just such a great picture. Three generations of Reese men, all looking so proud and happy. It’s like history. I wanna make sure it’s safe.”
“For who, Paige?” he asked coldly.For our children was what I wanted to tell him. But he would have to marry me first, and I realized I might be barely holding on to sleepover status.
“For the next generation of Reeses,” I said, and I meant that whether I had anything to do with it or not.Madison smiled finally but it was dark. I knew what he was probably thinking, that Karen had enlisted infertility specialists too, to make it like it had never happened. But I wasn’t into make-believe. I just believed in what was possible. And it was possible.
“So can I have it?” I pressed.“Paige--”
“It’s you, Madison,” I interrupted him firmly. “On one of the best days of your life. It’s your law school graduation, isn’t it? Mr. Magna cum laude.”I offered a hopeful smile, but he didn’t say anything, and after a moment he looked away from me.
“It’s a beautiful picture of you, Madison,” I told him. “With your family. If I were Karen I would have taken it with me.”He looked back at me. Yes, I was deliberately pulling off whatever scab had managed to grow back in this little time. Yes, it was painful, maybe agonizingly so, but the wound needed air and light to heal. Shutting it up in a box in the basement had not worked. Then maybe instinctively I added, “But if I were Karen I wouldn’t have left you.”
As these words traveled from me to Madison it was like I could see them moving through the air, and I was a little bit tempted to bat them down or yank them back, as they were heading for a wall. Besides saying them probably broke every counseling rule and sisterhood principle ever written, recited, or held sacred. After all Karen wasn’t here to defend herself, and it wasn’t fair to judge her, and the comparison was self-serving…and, and…and so be it. All was fair in love and war. Plus it felt damn good to claim it, to say to him that I could be better for him, better to him, than the beautiful woman who was claiming to love him always.But evidently this was just the claim, the case, Madison had been expecting me to make. There was a lift in his shoulders, a squaring off, as he sat back in his chair. To use a baseball analogy it was an easy pop-fly. I could practically hear the ball land in his glove with a thud.
“Because you love me, right?” he said casually, jogging back to his dug-out.Definitely I was out, but the game wasn’t over. I would get another a turn at bat. Maybe he had heard it all before anyway. There could have easily been others between Karen and me.
“Yes,” I replied. “I love you.”“Karen does too, remember? Isn’t that how this all started?”
“No,” I threw him a curve ball. “It started with an email message regarding your parents’ visit.”“What?” asked Madison clearly muddled again. “What email? What are you talking about?”
“You must have written her first because it was a reply. You know with that ‘Re’ in the subject line.”“You read my email?”
He was more surprised than offended. I appreciated that actually, but I was proud to tell him that I had not.
“It was the night I was working on my application on your laptop,” I explained. “The message notification came in, you know in that little blue box at the bottom of the screen. I didn’t open it but it was there long enough for me to see who it was from, what it was about. I figured it had to be fiancée Karen, but no, I wasn’t sure. Until I discovered her book and put two and two together.”“You should have read it,” Madison said dryly. “Maybe your math would have been right.”
“It wasn’t any of my business,” I replied.“So you’ve just been upset about it all this time? A subject line on an email message?”
“You were making plans to see her, Madison. That’s what I was upset about. You’ve been seeing her all along, but you never told me.”“Was I supposed to tell you? You know she lives in Atlanta. We were," he hesitated, "involved--”
“Engaged, Madison. And you lived together.”“Fine,” he said sharply. “I have a past, Paige. Big surprise. You know that.”
“Yes, you have a past,” I agreed. “And today I know that past a little bit better. I know your past.”For a millisecond Madison’s eyes widened, but this was the equivalent of the deer caught in the headlights for him, and I assumed it was probably a rare event. His own argument turned against him. That guy in the boxes and the one at this table were one and the same by his own admission. Now we could talk rationally again. To keep from gloating in his face I got up from the table and went to the fridge for another bottle of water, saving my big grin for the various containers of food items keeping cold there. By the time I returned to the table I looked sure of myself, nothing more.
“So can I have the picture?” I asked again as I unscrewed the bottle lid and set it on the table.“What if I told you Karen was the photographer?” Madison asked as he used tenodesis to pick up the water bottle and take a drink.
That was a cheap shot, I thought, and very unbecoming of my gallant knight, but all was fair.“I’d say she did a great job,” I said smoothly. “Good thing. I bet she takes lots of pictures in her research. Cultural Anthropology, right?”
Madison smiled crookedly, and I was a little hopeful, even though I wondered what he was thinking. But yes, I had done my homework.Breathing deeply I went ahead and asked the new-girlfriend question, “Are you over her, Madison?”
“Yes,” he said.His reply was immediate, unequivocal. But maybe it was too quick.
“She’s very beautiful,” I felt compelled to remind him. “And accomplished. I mean she writes books. She’s a scientist.”Okay, so was I now trying to make up for disparaging her commitment from before?
“You’re beautiful and accomplished,” replied Madison.Or maybe I was just fishing for compliments.
“Not like her,” I said staring at the bare dining area wall. I supposed Karen had picked its light caramel color. “If you laid our resumes on the table, side by side,” I continued while I played with the empty water bottle, squeezing and releasing it so that it made a clicking sound, like I was sending a Morse code. “Hers would look much better than mine. In fact, people like Karen don’t use resumes. I bet she has a CV, a curriculum vitae.”
“You’re not competing with her, Paige.”I met Madison’s eyes again and let the bottle be silent.
“But FYI,” he said leaning forward. “You’re all the woman any man could ever want.”I felt tears welling up.
“Derrick might have done a number on your head, but he was wrong, Paige. You have to believe that.”“I will if you will,” I said.
“I know it.”I shook my head.
“No. I mean about yourself, Madison.”Leaning back, he sighed wearily and closed his eyes.
“Maybe Karen did a number on your head too,” I said. “I’m sure she didn’t mean to, but it happened. She left you and it made you doubt yourself. But Madison--”“It’s not the same thing,” he argued quietly, shaking his head, keeping his eyes closed.
“Yes, it is. You couldn’t meet somebody else’s expectations and you blamed yourself for it. You blame yourself now. And based on what you said before, you’re blaming yourself for not meeting my expectations. Which is totally whacked, since I believe you’re the most perfect man I’ve ever known. Except for my dad maybe. But of course he wouldn’t fly me to the moon with an erotic massage or any of the other mystical things you do. That would be incest and he’d lose points. So you’re in separate categories. But still, I gotta give you Best in Show.”A slow chuckle rumbled in Madison’s chest before it made its way to his throat and out of his mouth on a deep breath, leaving behind—finally—a gorgeous smile. And when he opened his eyes the golden-brown was warm again.
“You’re crazy, you know that,” he said.“Okay,” I allowed, beaming. “But you must not mind it so much, since you believe you deserve me.”
“I said that guy in the pictures deserve--”“No," I cut him off. "You said that today, but before, you told me that you are that guy. And you said that you knew I could see him. Well I’m looking at him right now. So no more crazy talk, okay?”
“I didn’t know you were wearing a wire,” said Madison sardonically.“Don’t need one. I’m a social worker, remember? A trained listener.”
“I’m not a case, Paige.”“The hell you’re not,” I told him. “Somebody’s couch would do you some good. But no, you’re not my case. You’re my man.”
He smiled again. It was tentative but promising, a kind of what’s-the-use look. I clasped my hands together to keep myself from reaching for him.
“Well you didn’t kiss me hello when I came home,” Madison said. “I would think that entitles--”Before he could finish I was putting my butt into his lap, my arms around his neck, and my craving mouth to his. And he craved me back, holding me tightly, stroking my tongue with his, taking my breath away, and giving me joy. When we paused from kissing I nestled in his arms.
“I love you,” I sighed blissfully.Madison took his arms from around me. Uh-oh the dreaded four-letter word had struck again. Taking my face gently between his hands, Madison looked into my eyes. He might as well get used to it, I thought defiantly, I intended to tell him this every chance I got.
“What’s the matter,” I smiled languidly, “too mushy?”“When I hear those words, Paige,” he said, “I hear a promise.”
And he had heard it before.
“And you’re not sure I can keep it,” I finished for him.His gaze was intense, as if he were searching for proof. Lawyers liked evidence. I wished that I could give it to him; not just proof that I would love him always but proof that I would never leave him, that there would never come a time when I couldn’t do it anymore. But there was no proof, except for what time would show us. We’d just have to have faith, the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
“It feels right,” Madison confessed. “But my life is complicated, Paige. It’s not easy.”
I knew that, even though Madison usually made it look that way. And he really could use some grief counseling, which could mean some challenges as yet unknown. But it did so feel right. And all I wanted was a lifetime of looking into these golden-brown eyes.
“Nobody’s is,” I said. “We’re not dewy-faced teenagers, Madison. At this stage of the game, Complications ‘R’ Us.”
Turning my head, I kissed the calloused place in his right palm before taking his hand into mine. Then as he watched I wriggled my fingers beneath his curled ones.
“And see,” I showed him. “You’ve always been able to hold my hand.”
With our hands together I raised them to my lips and kissed each of his crippled fingers one at a time. The atrophied muscle was thin, smooth, and my Candy Man tasted sweetly of salt. Madison raised his left hand and covered mine with both of his.
“I love you, Paige,” he said, bringing my hand to the center of his chest and holding it there.
“You’re very tactile,” I replied, happy tears spilling down my cheeks and into my smile. “Very hands on.”