May 1st , my moving day, fell on a Saturday, and I had been given the whole weekend off, Chandra’s intervention would be my guess. She was young, but there was no denying that she had earned management’s respect, so she had influence. And of course, now I no longer resented her for it. For whatever reason, Chandra had taken a shine to me, and now that Miss Mary liked me too, I was feeling in good stead. My annus horribilis was truly becoming a thing of the past.
On moving day I woke up bright and early without an alarm clock, a sense of well-being stirring me from the inside. Jessica and Jennifer were still fast asleep in their beds. Thank goodness Jennifer still willingly fit into her youth-size bed, otherwise we three would have been stacked on top of each other literally; and in any case it was time for me to get out their way, and yes for them to get out of mine.
I eased out of bed quietly, gathered the clothes and my cosmetic pouch of toiletries that I had set out last night, and padded barefoot down the hall to the infamous shared bathroom. And it was very infamous. No matter how hard Pam and I tried, or Pam scolded her children, the bathroom was always just this side of a biohazard. Boys would be boys, right? And little girls were kind of just too young to know better. That was why I kept my toothbrush, toothpaste, and antiperspirant in a cosmetic bag which I had been keeping in a storage case under my bed. One too many times I had reached for my toothbrush and discovered it freshly wet when I had not used it yet. Once is really too many times for that to happen, or to discover alien hairs stuck on the stick of deodorant that you weren’t supposed to be sharing. It wasn’t that I was persnickety, that was Pam’s department, but while I had learned to get over empty toilet paper rolls, bars of soap with suspicious brown-gray bubbles, and damp hand towels on which I was supposed to dry my hands, I simply had to draw the line at shared—or whatever—toothbrushes and hairy deodorant. It was time for me to go.
I got dressed in a pair of faded blue jeans and an old Hunger Walk t-shirt. Madison was picking me up in about three hours, but it was moving day and he wouldn’t be expecting me to be spiffy. I so seldom was when he saw me anyway, what with my Target uniform most of the time. It was also time for me to seriously reinitiate my job search. Madison had loaned me a laptop to help facilitate the effort, but I was so gun-shy from receiving so many No’s before that I had yet to do more than idly surf the net for places where I’d like to work and things that I’d like to buy. However, I was beginning to feel a little ready again. Target wasn’t a bad place to work, but I really did miss being a social worker now that I wasn’t so fixated on being my own client; and naturally I really did want to make more money.
Downstairs in the kitchen I made a pot of coffee, but only about six cups of it. It wasn’t seven o’clock yet, and I expected Pam and Ted would want a fresh pot when they finally got up. Six cups translated into about three mugs, even considering the plastic ones that Madison used. Shutting off the home alarm first, I took my coffee out onto the patio and sat in a deck chair to watch the sun creep over the treetops.
Five months. Well not even. Because Madison and I had met in the middle of January. Who would have ever thought I’d find my Prince Charming at a Target. But then why not? Castles were for fairytales, and this was real, solid, warm, alive, strong, and wonderful. Okay so wonderful was a little trite but it was true too, what Madison and I had was wonder-full. I loved learning new things about him, fascinating things, complicated things, the way he made his life work, and the way he worked his life. I was looking forward to meeting his folks. They must be really special people. I was sure that he loved them very much, missing photos notwithstanding.
I had finally gotten around to asking Madison about the absence of family pictures in his home.
“Just hated seeing myself from before,” he had shrugged. “That was then. This is now. I asked Karen to get rid of them, the ones of me, but she wouldn’t do it. She said I was still me,” he had smiled a little, crookedly. “So one day while she was at the university I raked them all into a box and had the home aide put them in our storage locker in the basement.”
“All of them?” I had asked, thinking sadly of all the missing faces, the memories, the clues to and evidence of his life.
Karen was right. He was still him. The before was part of the after. His then was in his now.
“It wasn’t a good time, Paige,” Madison had admitted. “I wasn’t thinking too straight.”
But at least the pictures had not been destroyed. He might show them to me some day. Not everybody in the world had to be like Pam or Miss Mary with their houses full of family portraits. I myself kept my pictures in a photo album in the storage chest.
I hoped Madison’s parents would like me. Sometimes I worried a little that they might think I wasn’t good enough for him, that maybe they’d think I was a gold-digger or something, a skank after their son’s money; but then I’d recall what Madison had said about his father and his blue-collar pride, and his mother’s commitment to education as the means to the American dream. They’d probably be proud that their son had gone for the sturdy-and-strong model as opposed to the beauty-queen edition.
Which always made me wonder about Karen. I knew she was a college professor. Her opportunity for a tenure-track position in the Anthropology Department was how they had wound up in Georgia in the first place. It was nice to think of Madison following her. It spoke to his egalitarian nature. My guess was that by now Karen had earned that tenure, and I wondered if she wanted Madison back.
For a long time I had watched for clues from him that he might still want her, but Madison Reese had the ultimate poker-face. If he didn’t want you to see what he was feeling then nine-times-out-of-ten you didn’t. Unless you were bold enough to ask outright and of course you better be ready for the answer. Since things were splendid I was satisfied to be content. Let sleeping dogs lie or they might come home. Sighing happily I sat back in the patio chair and turned my face up to the soft sunshine which kissed me gently the way Madison did when I was sheltered in his arms.
To take a sip of coffee I glanced down at my fingers wrapped around the warm stoneware mug and realized that I was cupping the mug between my hands the way Madison often did. For sure his smile was to die for, and I could get totally lost in his golden brown eyes. And yes I definitely had a fetish about his broad shoulders, the way they moved rhythmically as he pushed his chair, or contracted into granite when he made his transfers. I was constantly clinging to his biceps like a love-struck Lois Lane with her Superman.
Yet when I thought about what it was about Madison that I cherished the most, it was really his hands. I loved the way they were soft and hard, weak and strong, the way he forced them to be functional and allowed them to be tender. I reveled in the way he touched me, rubbing my skin with his rough palms, stroking my face with his smooth knuckles; slowly tugging at my zippers or undoing my buttons as I flooded with anticipation. The way he undressed me was a part of the foreplay for me, for us. I’d study his thumbs and fingers, with their professionally manicured nails cut low and even, as they gradually worked each button through its hole, and I’d want to kiss them, want to take each one into my mouth and taste them. Yes, perhaps it was out of necessity, but Madison had this a way of easing his passion out, like a river that began with a trickle, then turned into a stream, until it finally carried you away to an ocean of nirvana. I had never known it like this before, the way the journey to orgasm could be as tremendous as the release.
Sometimes I wondered what Madison’s lovemaking had been like before. Had he ever been wild, tossing his lovers upon the bed and tearing through them like fire? Or had he always been a lover with a slow hand and an easy touch, as if the song had been written about him?
“You’re up early,” Ted’s voice jarred me from my reverie.
“’Morning, Ted,” I said, immediately preparing myself for something negative. “I hope I didn’t disturb you.”
“No,” he said casually, then smiled wryly. “No more than usual.”
“Not anymore,” I returned.
“Why not?” asked Ted. “This is just another one of your hear-me-roar stunts. I give it a month before your Miss Mary is asking you to leave, and you don’t have a lease. She can simply throw you out. It’s ridiculous. How much did she take you for anyhow, first and last month’s rent?”
“It’ll be fine, Ted.”
“That’s right. Paige trusts everybody,” he laughed mockingly. “For somebody who’s supposed to be a trained counselor, you’re naïve when it comes to people. One sob story and here you go, Social Worker Robinson to the rescue. Is that how it happened with your newest knight in shining armor? He tell you a sad story? Is that how he seduced you? Is he just another one of your cases?”
Wow. My brother-in-law must really hate me. I pictured him forced to ask God’s forgiveness for that, and it brought a tiny smile to my face in spite of Ted’s ugly words. I supposed I had never liked him either. I recalled the way he and Derrick had learned to get along. I used to think it was simply opposites attracting: good-boy Ted admiring bad-boy Derrick, because Ted was too repressed to do anything worse than live vicariously. At least with Pam her being a stick in the mud was authentic. She wasn’t fascinated by a life that she would never dare to lead. Not so with Ted, at least not around Derrick. I recalled them on various football Sunday afternoons at our house planted in front of the big screen TV, having their good times, Derrick with his imported beers and Ted with his Canada Dry ginger ale. Maybe that had been the worst part of living in this house, the knowing all along that I was beholden to someone who really believed Derrick was not only right but justified.
But I kept my gaze focused on the perfectly maintained backyard. Ted and Pam’s children went to their church’s recreation center and had play dates at other children’s houses mostly. I couldn’t remember seeing a ball in play on this lawn once. No one ever really ventured beyond the deck or the stone paths unless it was to cut the grass or trim the shrubs. Their backyard, much like their living room, was a place to see not to be. A place where no one ever even really laughed out loud. No wonder I was anxious to move out. I was ready to be happy again. And Ted had turned this place—their home—into a kind of purgatory; although that was certainly just a little too Roman Catholic for his dogma.
“Worry if you want to, Ted,” I spoke calmly. “I can’t stop you.”
I looked up at my brother-in-law. He was definitely your typical tall-dark-and-handsome prototype, the Madison Avenue cliché of what the Alpha male was expected to look like and be like, head of his household, and towering over me now as I sat in the patio chair. The few times I had accompanied the family to church I had observed the other sanctified sisters, married and not, smiling at him and dallying around, and not so much in the name of the Lord either. Some things were simply primal and universal; say what you wanted about Darwin and his evolution theory. Ted was mating—I mean marriage—material, the kind to make beautiful children and be able to provide for them well.
I could still remember how happy we all had been for Pam when she had brought him home from college with her that first time for the Thanksgiving holiday. She had been all bubbles and butterflies, totally enchanted with the stern-face chemical engineering student, who was determined in those days to make fossil fuels obsolete. My little sister had been so sure that I’d love her dream man too. “He’s into ecology,” she had bragged to me when we were alone. “He says we have a Christian duty to be good stewards of God’s creation.” But that was a long time ago. Pam’s dream man had become a good steward of the oil industry, who blamed government regulations for the misuse God’s creation. He had yet to call me a tree-hugger to my face, but he was convinced that I, like so many others of my ilk (his word not mine) had been duped by the liberal media. God had given mankind dominion over all the earth, and over every creeping thing, right? Emphasis on man.
“But keep in mind," I continued, "that just because I used to share a room with your little girls that doesn’t mean I am one.”
“Then grow up,” Ted said. “Get serious about your life before it’s too late.”
“Precisely my point, dear brother,” I replied with a full smile as I stood up, since I had had enough of this episode of brother in law knows best. “Which is why I’m moving out today.”
I was feeling embolden and was too excited to eat, but I made myself have some toast for fear that I might go all wacky before Madison and I went to lunch. My moving really wasn’t a monumental event, it just felt like one. And besides what if Miss Mary did turn out to be awful then what would I do? With all the commotion I had created I couldn’t possibly come back here. And even though I was certain that Madison did really care for me, there was still that alley cat thing to worry about. So I guessed I really was about to step out on faith, as they said, which was kind of spooky. In many ways I was almost as conservative as Pam, constantly examining my risk-benefit ratio, and aiming to play it safe. Even when it came to Madison, he had had to go first, make the first step even if I had in the next one come running. Perhaps that was why losing had always been so hard for me. I so carefully examined the odds. Losing under such circumstances seemed cruelly unfair. Like having a green light stop you in your tracks.
Nevertheless despite my cautious nature, a feeling of jubilation kept finding its way up and out of me this morning, so much so that I had to work at not showing it since Pam was moping around like she had lost her best friend. She had eventually come downstairs and we had sat together at the kitchen table while she had her coffee.
“Is it really so bad living here?” Pam asked, her tone still conveying hurt feelings.
I loved my sister and she loved me, and even with all her wifely and motherly duties and church obligations, we had always found the time to just be together. Our roles had been mostly reversed as a result of my marital and financial disasters, but nonetheless we were still good companions. I hoped we could maintain that even though I was moving. I wanted Pam to come to Miss Mary’s house. I imagined us in Miss Mary’s living room sharing a comfy Tea-Time. Pam would undoubtedly find my new landlady outrageous, but it would be in an eccentric way, like having a crazy aunt or something. And in any case both Pam and Miss Mary were genuine, and surely that would trump everything else.
“Pam,” I sighed. “You know I’m grateful to you--”
“And Ted,” she reminded me. “He really does care about you, Paige.”
I nodded and didn’t say anything about the conversation I had had with Ted earlier.
“We all do,” Pam added.
“And I love you,” I replied. “But it’s time for me to stand on my own again. And give your girls their room back.”
“They didn’t mind you staying with them.”
“I know,” I smiled at her. “But everybody needs their space even if you’re six years old.”
“It just seems to me that none of this mattered before you…you started seeing Madison. Everything was fine until you met him. I hope it’s worth it.”
“It’s one thing to have a client relationship, Paige,” Pam continued. “But I don’t think it’s smart to marry your patient.” She sipped her coffee. “Or sleep with him.”
“No. Hear me out. Men are funny, Paige. They have to be dominant. It’s how God made them. And you’re an independent woman. Ted says that’s what happened between you and Derrick. You wouldn’t let him be the man. And with Madison being the way he is, well you know, he must have something to prove, how he’s still a man. In control.”
The sensei of control, Madison had said about himself, and yes that was true. But he was honest about it in himself and he respected it in others, including me. I smiled and Pam shook her head forlornly.
“I love you,” she told me. “But sometimes you’re not so easy to live with Paige. Madison will try to control you and if you can put up with that from him, then you might as well be with Derrick. I believe he still cares about you. You know I never thought he was right for you, but you took your vows, in a church. And God does call us to forgive our neighbors. I know Madison can’t perform like a normal man, but I know you must be doing something. Why risk living in adultery when you have a choice? Derrick can change. People do.”
Why indeed, I thought. More importantly why risk living in misery? Derrick was the adulterer if we were going get Scriptural about it, but being in control he had discarded me. For a long time that had been how I was seeing myself, as something thrown away. But Madison had found me. Or rather I had found him. Among the coffee makers. And I now I was kept—sort of. Kept close.
“Equally yoked,” I said thoughtfully.
“What?” replied Pam. “Who is?”
“Me and Madison. We’re equally yoked. Like the Bible says. You see, when you look at Madison all you can see is what’s not there, what he’s lost, what he can’t do. But when I look at him, I see what is there, what he’s gained and learned, and after the worst thing in the world. I see the man he is. I’ve always been able to see the man he is.” My smile grew as I reflected on our relationship. “And that’s how he sees me. The world may think that we’re broken, but we’re not. And let me tell you, it is definitely worth it.”
Striving for an air of nonchalance I resisted checking my cell phone. Besides by doing so, I might inspire or remind Ted that he wanted me off their family plan. I wouldn’t blame him if he did, and I was prepared to pursue other low-cost options even as my bottom line continued to shrink with yet another possible expense. But such was the life of the independent woman as my sister had called me. At ten-thirty my cellphone buzzed in my jeans’ pocket. My Madison was very punctual.
“Hey!” I said beaming in spite of the looks Pam and Ted shared across the kitchen.
“Hey,” Madison returned. “I’m here.”
“Be right out.” I slipped the phone back into my pocket. “Madison’s here,” I announced as if I needed to. “Wanna come out and say hello?”
I didn’t really expect them to, but I at least I wanted to be magnanimous. However, to my surprise they followed me like a pair of disapproving, disappointed parents.
Outside Madison was quickly reassembling his wheelchair and I hurried to him, eagerly kissing him as soon as he had completed his transfer. He was wearing a forest green polo shirt and jeans that looked better than mine. His Ray-Ban sunglasses accentuated his Hollywood look, but at least our running shoes looked more equal in style. He also smelled good as usual, which made me realize that regrettably I had forgotten to put on perfume today.
“Pop the trunk, Candy Man,” I told him brightly. “And let’s blow this pop-stand.”
“No flies on you, huh?” he observed, pressing the trunk release button.
“None whatsoever!” I replied. Then leaning down close again I whispered, “Unfortunately first you have to meet His Royal Highness, Sir Theodore, The Critical, judge of all things.”
“Be nice,” admonished Madison grinning warmly.
“I am being nice,” I said.
Madison effortlessly pushed his chair along the paved driveway and onto the front walk with me walking beside him. I was a little anxious that Ted could say something awful, but Madison was a big boy. He knew how to handle himself. I was finally getting it—I did not need to protect him.
On the front porch Pam and Ted stood, along with my suitcases and boxes. Four pairs of curious eyes were watching us from the living room window. From the bottom of the porch steps Madison cheerfully greeted Pam as if she had never insulted him by avoiding his extended hand in favor of his wrist. Her hello was polite if stiff as she looked down at him.
“Ted,” I began the obligatory introduction. “This is Madison. Madison, my brother-in-law, Ted.”
“Hi, Ted,” said Madison.
“Madison,” replied Ted nodding curtly, his arms folded across his chest.
“And over there,” I said pointing to the living room window, “doing the reverse peeping-tom are my nieces and nephews.”
Madison waved at them. Only Jennifer waved back. Greetings and introductions over, I bounded up the porch steps and picked up the cardboard box. On my way back down Madison opened his arms to take it. As I placed it in his lap, Pam cried, “No Paige, it’s too heavy!”
Everyone looked at her. Of course it wasn’t.
“Merely a matter of balance, Pam,” Madison assured her easily pushing back and heading towards the driveway.
I went back to get the storage chest next.
“Help them, Ted,” said Pam. “You see he can’t--”
“No need,” replied Ted. “Derrick’s here.”
I looked up at Ted and then followed his gaze out to the dark blue behemoth pick-up truck that was coming to a stop on the street behind Madison’s silver Buick.
“He volunteered to help you move,” Ted’s voice kept droning while my eyes remained locked on the truck that was now blocking Madison’s way. “I told him about your disabled boyfriend and he said he’d be happy to help you. He’s on time too.”
As if I still needed proof that my brother-in-law was an ass, I waited like a statue to see Derrick get out of the truck. He did. He was. Open and shut case. I turned back to Ted and Pam, my eyes burning, my mouth full of bile. They had set me up.
“Why would you do this?” my voice was barely more than a hot seepage of air.
“You need help,” answered Ted.