My candy man drove us to his favorite coffee place, Le Bon Café, which was not only not a Starbucks’, but was not part of a chain at all. We shared friendly chit-chat during the drive, mostly about coffee roasts and the marketing phenomenon that had turned the basic cup of coffee into a budgetary line item.
“Oh well,” observed Madison. “Guess you could say that about beer too. Americans are not satisfied unless we’re paying too much for something.”
“Even when that paying is with plastic,” I agreed.
“Amen,” he said, which was an encouraging sign on the one hand, and an anxiety-inducing one on the other.
It was also a fair segue into letting him know how broke I was. But yuck.
Maybe he was thrifty even if he did seem to like nice things. How long could he be interested in someone who had filed for bankruptcy? Bad credit was today’s social disease, sometimes more frightening than AIDS. Nothing eighty-sixed a potential relationship faster than money problems. So I was determined to hide as much personal negative press as long as I could. This didn’t have to be forever, right? It could be just for fun. I could imagine what my beloved brother-in-law would have to say about that. “You reap what you sow, Paige,” Ted liked to remind me. “You need to examine yourself.” Using his microscope of course.
Madison parked in front of the coffeehouse.
“The good coffee,” I said reading and translating the sign above the door. “How straightforward.”
“So you speak French too,” replied Madison. “I’m starting to think you’re out of my league.”
He didn’t know how right he was, and why.
“Maybe I can read the sign,” I said. “But it’s your hang-out. I thought we were going to a Starbucks’.”
“Ah, très bien,” Madison grinned. “I was hoping to impress you.”
Maurice Chevalier too? I was impressed on top of impressed.
“It’ll be easier if you get out first,” Madison abruptly switched gears to serious. “Before I get my chair.”
Oh yes, that. It was funny how I kept forgetting it. I hopped out of the car and then didn’t know what to do with myself, while he reassembled his chair and transferred from the car into it. I didn’t think I should look but I wanted to. It was Madison’s reality, right? Keeping it real would be key even if he did let you forget about it at times. He wheeled ahead of me and opened the door to the coffeehouse for me by hooking his hand under the handle. Then flinging the door wider he swiftly wheeled in behind me. See. Just like normal.
“Madeeson!” a barista—a woman—greeted him happily. “Bonsoir, mon ami!”
I wondered if speaking French was a requirement to work here. In any case the first hello was like a chain-reaction. Others looked up from what they were doing to say hello to him too, almost everybody calling Madison by name, including a couple of the customers. It reminded me of that T.V. show, Cheers, only I had the feeling that I was with Sam Malone not Norm.
“Medium decaf latte, no foam?” asked the welcoming barista as if she knew exactly what she was talking about.
“You got it,” replied Madison. “What would you like, Paige?”
Oh yeah, me.
“Uh, grande,” I started. “I mean medium vanilla latte. Skinny. I mean non-fat milk.”
“Decaf?” Madison reminded me, parking himself at a table tucked cozily in a corner near a bookshelf.
“Oh—yes. Thanks,” I said sitting down across from him.
He called my order back to the barista. It must be nice not having to stand in line at the counter. I supposed it was one of the little breaks that Madison got for his wheelchair, like reserved parking near building entrances, except he’d probably be glad to trade standing in line any day for the standing.
“Avec plaisir, mon cher,” the barista called back.
Mon cher, huh? And she didn’t look old enough to be his mother.
But anyway Le Bon Café was a long way up from a pseudo-Starbucks’ in a Target. From the classical music softly playing in the background to the books of literature lining the shelves, the invitingly worn over-stuffed chairs to the 19th Century art prints on the walls, and the wooden backgammon and chess sets, the coffeehouse interior had the look of a movie set designed for some historical romance, as if Edith Wharton or W.E.B. Du Bois would also come here for the good coffee.
“This place is lovely,” I said looking around the room and not watching Madison pull off his gloves with his teeth.
“I’m glad you like it,” he said.
“Has it been open long?”
He was taking off his jacket now, and I was dying to ask if I could help, but that would be out of order, plus he didn’t need help, just a little extra time. I settled for taking off my own coat instead, even though this meant displaying my cheap Target polo in stark contrast to Madison’s forest green Lacoste polo with its crocodile logo. No wonder he was a regular at a place called Le Bon Café. My current budget barely accommodated le bon McDonald’s.
“Almost six years,” said Madison. “I’ve been coming here for awhile. When I don’t brew at home,” he winked at me.
“Mais oui,” I smiled. “I can tell. Everybody knows your name.”
To be honest I was kind of jazzed about that, it was like having a date with the high school quarterback or something, which had never happened to me in my whole life. My whip-appeal tended to draw junior varsity at best.
“I stand out in a crowd,” he smiled back, but it was a little crooked.
The welcoming barista, whose name was Denise, was the owner of Le Bon Café, and she was actually French. She was also Madison’s friend. When she brought our coffees over to our table, he introduced us. Denise leaned down and half-whispered in Madison’s ear, “Elle est mignonne.”
Mignonne? Rapidly I searched through my ancient high school French files for the meaning of the word.
“Oui,” replied Madison smiling at me, “très jolie.”
Okay mignonne must be good then. But just in case I made a mental note to look up the word later.
Because clearly Denise was giving me a multi-point inspection. Good thing divorce decrees and credit reports didn’t necessarily show. And you could always attribute the red and khaki to simply having bad fashion sense. The uninformed observer didn’t have to know I was somebody’s poor relation.
Naturally I was checking Denise out too; and I didn’t like it at all the way she had draped her arm over Madison’s wonderful shoulders, practically leaning against him. She was very pretty with that international flair that few all-American girls could outshine. Her dark curly hair bounced. Her bright brown eyes danced. Denise was très jolie herself and a successful businesswoman too. I was sure I wasn’t faring well by comparison.
Except that I was Madison’s date.
“And she speaks French,” he was telling Denise, my guess was performing a little prevention intervention before she said something sideways, or très gauche, as it were.
Eventually—really it felt like forever—Denise went back to running her business and Madison and I were at last alone.
“Cheers,” he said using both hands to raise his cup.
“Cheers,” I returned raising mine.
My latte had come in a heavy white stoneware cup with a saucer, but Madison’s was served in a to-go cup with a heat protector sleeve around it. It took me a second but I figured out why. He was probably able to hold the paper cup more easily than the ceramic one. And whatever I thought about Denise otherwise, I appreciated that she remembered that for him; and that her coffee was really and truly bon.
I admired out loud how good the coffee was and how cool it was that Denise had her own business.
“I bet you could start a business,” Madison said.
“Me?” I replied incredulous.
“Sure. Why not? Some kind of personal service enterprise. One of those professional shoppers for the rich and famous. You’ve got a sharp eye for value, and you’re up on your Consumer Reports.”
This was how he saw me? As a glorified gopher bowing and scraping to keep the Paris Hiltons of the world happy?
“You mean like a personal concierge?” I asked, the words sour in my mouth.
“Okay,” Madison continued. “You’d probably have a waiting list for your services.”
“Maybe I could even shop for you.”
Dark red fleeted across Madison’s cheeks.
“Probably not,” he said. “Since I’m neither rich nor famous.”
“I could give you a discount,” I pressed. “After all it’s your idea.”
Now he frowned and this lasted longer.
“Wait,” he said. “Did I say something wrong?”
“Of course not,” I snipped. “You’re just trying to deliver me from Target, although we do like to call it ‘Tar-jai’ the French effect makes it sound classier. Which is why I think I should be a concierge. Sounds much better than girl-Friday.”
“Paige,” Madison said reaching across the table and laying his hand on my wrist.
One set of feelings was hurt and at the same time another set was hot. It was crazy-making. Yet I didn’t pull away.
“I’m sorry,” he told me. “I wasn’t being funny. I meant it. People pay good--”
“I’m a social worker, Madison,” I blurted out another truth. “I have a master’s degree. I’m a trained counselor.”
Withdrawing his hand Madison sat back. He felt sorry for me. It would have been better if I had just been a store clerk. I had a master’s degree and I couldn’t do any better than straightening shoe racks? Looser.
“I got laid-off,” I defended myself. “It’s been hell finding another job. Impossible. That’s why I’m at Target. I’m another one of those statistics. It was either going to be Target or McDonalds, and I frankly had enough of McDonalds in high school. So there you have it. I don’t want to shop for the rich and famous. I want to help the down and out, but now I’m one of them. Last class.”
My soliloquy completed, I drank the remainder of my expensive coffee from its elegant cup. It would be an awkward ride home but at least I wouldn’t be cold.
“You’re not alone, Paige,” Madison said. “There’re millions like you.”
“I know the stats, Madison. Eight-point-nine, ten-point-six. Stimulus package. Recovery Act. Whatever. I still work at Target, take the bus because I have to, and live with my sister.”
“You have nothing to be ashamed of.”
“Please, Madison, don’t be nice. I appreciate you asking me out but--”
I looked at him. Did he think he couldn’t do any better? If he did then he wasn’t very smart. Okay the Buick was probably a little un-cool to most women. And yes there was the wheelchair, but everything else about him made up for all of that. Denise no doubt thought so. And there must be others. You couldn’t order groceries online, and supermarkets were noted for being great pick-up places. He probably never needed to go home alone.
“I can’t run in your circles,” I finally just told him. “I mean, even when I was working, my real job. I couldn’t afford Lord and Taylor’s, even if my ex didn’t ever get that. To be honest with you, social workers make about as much as teachers, so Target’s not that much of a step down.”
“You shouldn’t measure yourself by the hourly wage, Paige,” said Madison. “All work is honorable, whether the pay is or not.”
I had given similar speeches to my clients. Don’t worry. Be happy. Cute song until you were the one worrying.
“Solidarity forever,” I said wearily.
As if he had a clue about what that meant. Madison was like Ted, Pam, even stupid Derrick with his wallet bulging with plastic money. People like them didn’t know what it was like for people like us. Eating popcorn for dinner because the unemployment check ran out before the month did.
“You got something against unions?” asked Madison.
“I come from a long line of union men,” he said. “My father, grandfather, great-grandfather, all labor organizers.”
“I guess you know where they buried Jimmy Hoffa,” I said.
Madison chuckled dryly.
“We’re more the Eugene Debs-type. Socialists, Paige. Card-carrying. Saul Alinksy, Woody Guthrie. A. Philip Randolph, Cesar Chavez. You name ‘em, I know ‘em. And would have followed exactly in their footsteps too, except my mother, one of those low-wage teachers you were talking about, insisted I go to law school first. It made sense given the family tradition of getting arrested. Like they say: if you don’t know the law you better know a lawyer. Ma’ figured she’d just raise herself one.”
“You’re an attorney?”
And yet a union-man too? That would explain the Buick. His reference to sweat-shops. Made in America must mean something to him.
“Yes,” replied Madison. “A damn good one too. Even though I guess I’m more what you’d call an inside man these days. McCarthy might have been on to something. I work for the Labor Department. You know, those guys churning out statistics. I do enforcement mainly. Which means I push paper more than anything else, but I like to think it helps the cause. As a social worker you have to agree, fair working conditions is a cause.”
He smiled. I was in love.
“Wow,” I said. “Saul Alinsky. I studied him in college. How the end justifies the means. I love him. Your relatives could have been my heroes.”
“Just my relatives, huh?” said Madison ironically. “A government bureaucrat not so much.”
Maybe not officially in love. But it was a warm, wonderful feeling all over, head to toe, head and heart, and all points in between.
“I don’t know,” I said coyly pretending otherwise. “They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, I suppose it’s possible.”
This made Madison laugh, and I did too. And the rest of the evening we discussed everything from trade agreements to bank bailouts, weighing the impact of budget deficits and tax cuts, and whether or not the New York Times’ Paul Krugman was right about everything.
Generally Madison and I agreed about the ends even when we argued about the means. I couldn’t believe how starved I was for this kind of conversation, and I savored every minute of it. At last I was sitting across the table from a man who found my wonkiness attractive, or at least interesting. Married to Derrick I had learned to keep silent about such topics unless he brought them up. Derrick had only had to call me boring once—case closed. But Madison probed my brain like an investigative reporter, and I probed right back. Varsity at last!
The barista—not Denise this time—brought us another round of decaf lattes and then returned with the check. Madison paid it with a credit card, signing the bill by pinching the pen between his left thumb and index finger, threading it through the fingers of his right hand, and moving his whole arm to write. He was so good with his hands I decided, sometimes like the paralysis wasn’t that consequential.
I didn’t mind having to wait until he took apart his chair and stowed it in the back seat before getting into his car. The leather seats were heated and soon I was toasty.
“What’s your address?” asked Madison. “I’ll program the GPS.”
“I can put it in,” I volunteered.
“I speak English.”
“One thing you’ll learn about me, Paige,” he said. “I’m kind of a creature of habit. I have to be. It’s easier. The system recognizes my voice.”
His you’ll learn had a future ring to it, and I wanted very much to learn about him.
“And it’s a nice voice too,” I flirted before reciting Ted and Pam’s address to him.
It wasn’t going to be a long drive. The GPS gave an estimated arrival time of approximately twenty minutes. Twenty minutes to the big question: would we go out again? I could wait for an answer to the bigger question: friends or friends with benefits? If Madison was indeed a creature of habit maybe he had some old habits he needed to break first, like with Denise. If it was mostly coffee for a while that would be okay. Hope wasn’t a bad thing. It had elected a president.
Still I hated to hear the electronic female voice of the GPS announce, “Arriving at destination. On right.” It was late and Pam had left the porch light on for me. I had sent her a text saying I had gone out to dinner with friends, Melissa’s invitation the suggestion for my cover. I hoped that Pam and Ted were asleep and not peeping out the window to see who I had come home with. I didn’t like to lie, not to their faces anyway, for fear that Ted was absolutely right about reaping what you sowed.
Madison shut off the engine and butterflies fluttered wildly in the pit of my stomach. Was this the official launch or the crash landing? One way or the other it was probably time to know.
“I really had a nice time,” I tentatively opened.
The car was still warm so why was I trembling? I released my seatbelt and fidgeted with my purse.
“Me too,” Madison said.
“So we’re good then?”
His right brow arched quizzically.
“I mean with my store manager,” I supplied. “You won’t report me for discouraging sales, right?”
One of the beautiful smiles filled Madison’s face.
“We had a deal,” he assured me. “The information’s privileged.”
“I mean a job’s a job like you said.”
“What I said was that all work is honorable.”
“I don’t know why I’m embarrassed anyway.” I grinned. “People say the worst things about lawyers. A Target sales associate is not so bad.”
“Humph. A shyster bureaucrat,” said Madison enchanting me with his eyes that seemed to shine even in the street-lamp-lit darkness. “Looks like I’ve hit rock bottom.”
“No way,” I murmured.
“Maybe I can use you as a character reference,” he teased.
I nodded. If he would only kiss me, I’d swear to anything.
“Then I need a last name, Paige. In case I have to call you.”
Please have to call me.
“Robinson,” I told him.
I had never been so happy to have my maiden name back. It meant there didn’t have to be a trace of Derrick between us. Hastily I dug around in my purse for a piece of paper and a pen, and scribbled down the number to my mobile phone. Madison removed his right glove and accepted the slip of paper I offered him, grasping it between his thumb and index finger, and stuffing it into his jacket pocket.
“I tend to call more than text,” he said.
“I’m old school,” I replied. “I’d always rather talk.”
I must be cold. Even my voice was shaking.
Madison put his hand to my face, caressed my cheek as he had caressed the top of my hand earlier. With neither a supervisor nor a seatbelt holding me back, I suddenly went to him, on my own, pressing my lips against his until he opened his mouth to take mine. While our tongues made ardent acquaintance, I stroked his neck, squeezed his shoulders, pressed the palms of my hands against his chest, eagerly, greedily. His arm around me now, Madison drew me closer, and I seemed determined to wedge myself between him and the steering wheel. His five o’clock shadow, almost a beard now, scraped my face and nothing was more inviting as I ventured to his neck with my lips, tasting the saltiness of his skin, the remnants of his cologne. Working his hand, first under my coat, and then the Target polo, Madison pushed his knuckles up and down the bare skin of my back, and I was ready to come out of my clothes for him, with him.
By the time we stopped, forced to, to catch our breaths, I was more in his seat, in his lap, than in mine. We both laughed at the adolescence of it, and I started to scoot back over the console until placing his hand at the back of my neck he drew me to him again, this time kissing me gently, tenderly, leaving his taste upon my lips. When we parted again, I cupped his cheek, and covering my hand with his he held it there.
“I came looking for you tonight, Paige,” he told me. “In fact I came back a few times looking for you.”
“You were looking for me?” I asked shaking my head. “I can’t believe it. That--that’s so wild.”
“Why?” he frowned. “What’s so wild about it? A man like me can’t--”
“Because I was looking for you!” I interrupted him excitedly. “Every day. I just kept hoping you’d come back. And you did.”
I could worship his smile, the straight white teeth, the adorable dimple. Oh yes, definitely a candy man. And Christina Aguilera was absolutely right; there was nothing more dangerous than a boy with charm.
“I thought we had a connection the other night,” he said. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it.” Then abruptly his face shadowed, and he looked away from me. “But I understand if-if you…if it’s too much.”
“If what is?” I asked touching his face, bringing his eyes back to mine.
But he pushed my hand away, pressing it onto the car seat. It was as if a bell had rung somewhere declaring recess was over.
“Come on, Paige,” he said. “Don’t you be nice either…I don’t want a social worker.”
A social worker? He thought that I thought that he was a case? Please! When I was so hot for him my clothes were about to burn off my body right before his eyes? His golden brown eyes. Taking his hand firmly into mine, I brought it to my lips.
“Do not let this Target uniform fool you,” I said into the calloused palm. “I'll have you to know, Mr. Reese, Esquire, I am a licensed professional.”
I pressed his fingers against the side of my face, feeling where the muscle tissue had atrophied, how the skin was cool. The golden brown eyes watched me, warily, unsure but curious too.
“Social workers,” I continued, “do it in the field. But never ever with clients.”