The Houdini’s

In a Sentimental Mood

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TESTO - The Houdini’s - In a Sentimental Mood


TESTO - The Houdini’s - In a Sentimental Mood

To start with, look at all the books. There were her Edith Wharton novels, arranged not by title but date of publication; there was the complete Modern Library set of Henry James, a gift from her father on her twenty-first birthday; there were the dog-eared paperbacks assigned in her college courses, a lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope, along with good helpings of Austen, George Eliot, and the redoubtable Brontë sisters.

There were a whole lot of black-and-white New Directions paperbacks, mostly poetry by people like H.D. or Denise Levertov.There were the Colette novels she read on the sly.

There was the first edition of Couples, belonging to her mother, which Madeleine had surreptitiously dipped into back in sixth grade and which she was using now to provide textual support in her English honors thesis on the marriage plot.

There was, in short, this mid-size but still portable library representing pretty much everything Madeleine had read in college, a collection of texts, seemingly chosen at random, whose focus slowly narrowed, like a personality test, a sophisticated one you couldn’t trick by anticipating the implications of its questions and finally got so lost in that your only recourse was to answer the simple truth.

And then you waited for the result, hoping for “Artistic,” or “Passionate,” thinking you could live with “Sensitive,” secretly fearing “Narcissistic” and “Domestic,” but finally being presented with an outcome that cut both ways and made you feel different depending on the day, the hour, or the guy you happened to be dating: “Incurably Romantic.”

These were the books in the room where Madeleine lay, with a pillow over her head, on the morning of her college graduation. She’d read each and every one, often multiple times, frequently underlining passages, but that was no help to her now.

Madeleine was trying to ignore the room and everything in it. She was hoping to drift back down into the oblivion where she’d been safely couched for the last three hours.

Any higher level of wakefulness would force her to come to grips with certain disagreeable facts: for instance, the amount and variety of the alcohol she’d imbibed last night, and the fact that she’d gone to sleep with her contacts in.

Thinking about such specifics would, in turn, call to mind the reasons she’d drunk so much in the first place, which she definitely didn’t want to do. And so Madeleine adjusted her pillow, blocking out the early morning light, and tried to fall back to sleep.

But it was useless. Because right then, at the other end of her apartment, the doorbell began to ring.

Early June, Providence, Rhode Island, the sun up for almost two hours already, lighting up the pale bay and the smokestacks of the Narragansett Electric factory, rising like the sun on the Brown University seal emblazoned on all the pennants and banners draped up over campus, a sun with a sagacious face, representing knowledge.

But this sun—the one over Providence—was doing the metaphorical sun one better, because the founders of the university, in their Baptist pessimism, had chosen to depict the light of knowledge enshrouded by clouds, indicating that ignorance had not yet been dispelled from the human realm, whereas the actual sun was just now fighting its way through cloud cover, sending down splintered beams of light and giving hope to the squadrons of parents, who’d been soaked and frozen all weekend, that the unseasonable weather might not ruin the day’s festivities.

All over College Hill, in the geometric gardens of the Georgian mansions, the magnolia-scented front yards of Victorians, along brick sidewalks running past black iron fences like those in a Charles Addams cartoon or a Lovecraft story; outside the art studios at the Rhode Island School of Design, where one painting major, having stayed up all night to work, was blaring Patti Smith; shining off the instruments (tuba and trumpet, respectively) of the two members of the Brown marching band who had arrived early at the meeting point and were nervously looking around, wondering where everyone else was; brightening the cobblestone side streets that led downhill to the polluted river, the sun was shining on every brass doorknob, insect wing, and blade of grass.
And, in concert with the suddenly flooding light, like a starting gun for all the activity, the doorbell in Madeleine’s fourth-floor apartment began, clamorously, insistently, to ring.

The pulse reached her less as a sound than as a sensation, an electric shock shooting up her spine. In one motion Madeleine tore the pillow off her head and sat up in bed. She knew who was ringing the buzzer.

It was her parents. She’d agreed to meet Alton and Phyllida for breakfast at 7:30. She’d made this plan with them two months ago, in April, and now here they were, at the appointed time, in their eager, dependable way.

That Alton and Phyllida had driven up from New Jersey to see her graduate, that what they were here to celebrate today wasn’t only her achievement but their own as parents, had nothing wrong or unexpected about it.

The problem was that Madeleine, for the first time in her life, wanted no part of it. She wasn’t proud of herself. She was in no mood to celebrate. She’d lost faith in the significance of the day and what the day represented.

She considered not answering. But she knew that if she didn’t answer, one of her roommates would, and then she’d have to explain where she’d disappeared to last night, and with whom. Therefore, Madeleine slid out of the bed and reluctantly stood up.

This seemed to go well for a moment, standing up. Her head felt curiously light, as if hollowed out. But then the blood, draining from her skull like sand from an hourglass, hit a bottleneck, and the back of her head exploded in pain.

In the midst of this barrage, like the furious core from which it emanated, the buzzer erupted again.

She came out of her bedroom and stumbled in bare feet to the intercom in the hall, slapping the SPEAK button to silence the buzzer.


“What’s the matter? Didn’t you hear the bell?” It was Alton’s voice, as deep and commanding as ever, despite the fact that it was issuing from a tiny speaker.

“Sorry,” Madeleine said. “I was in the shower.”

“Likely story. Will you let us in, please?”
Madeleine didn’t want to. She needed to wash up first.

“I’m coming down,” she said.

This time, she held down the SPEAK button too long, cutting off Alton’s response. She pressed it again and said, “Daddy?” but while she was speaking, Alton must have been speaking, too, because when she pressed LISTEN all that came through was static.

Madeleine took this pause in communications to lean her forehead against the door frame. The wood felt nice and cool.

The thought struck her that, if she could keep her face pressed against the soothing wood, she might be able to cure her headache, and if she could keep her forehead pressed against the door frame for the rest of the day, while somehow still being able to leave the apartment, she might make it through breakfast with her parents, march in the commencement procession, get a diploma, and graduate.

She lifted her face and pressed speak again.


But it was Phyllida’s voice that answered. “Maddy? What’s the matter? Let us in.”

“My roommates are still asleep. I’m coming down. Don’t ring the bell anymore.”

“We want to see your apartment!”

“Not now. I’m coming down. Don’t ring.”

She took her hand from the buttons and stood back, glaring at the intercom as if daring it to make a sound. When it didn’t, she started back down the hall. She was halfway to the bathroom when her roommate Abby emerged, blocking the way.

She yawned, running a hand through her big hair, and then, noticing Madeleine, smiled knowingly.
“So,” Abby said, “where did you sneak off to last night?”

“My parents are here,” Madeleine said. “I have to go to breakfast.”

“Come on. Tell me.”

“There’s nothing to tell. I’m late.”

“How come you’re wearing the same clothes, then?”

Instead of replying, Madeleine looked down at herself. Ten hours earlier, when she’d borrowed the black Betsey Johnson dress from Olivia, Madeleine had thought it looked good on her. But now the dress felt hot and sticky, the fat leather belt looked like an S&M restraint, and there was a stain near the hem that she didn’t want to identify.

Abby, meanwhile, had knocked on Olivia’s door and entered. “So much for Maddy’s broken heart,” she said. “Wake up! You’ve got to see this.”

The path to the bathroom was clear. Madeleine’s need for a shower was extreme, almost medical. At a minimum, she had to brush her teeth.

But Olivia’s voice was audible now. Soon Madeleine would have two roommates interrogating her. Her parents were liable to start ringing again any minute. As quietly as possible, she inched back down the hall.

She stepped into a pair of loafers left by the front door, crushing the heels flat as she caught her balance, and escaped into the outer corridor.

The elevator was waiting at the end of the floral runner. Waiting, Madeleine realized, because she’d failed to close the sliding gate when she’d staggered out of the thing a few hours earlier.

Now she shut the gate securely and pressed the button for the lobby, and with a jolt the antique contraption began to descend through the building’s interior gloom.

Madeleine’s building, a Neo-Romanesque castle called the Narragansett that wrapped around the plunging corner of Benefit Street and Church Street, had been built at the turn of the century.

Among its surviving period details—the stained-glass skylight, the brass wall sconces, the marble lobby—was the elevator. Made of curving metal bars like a giant birdcage, the elevator miraculously still functioned, but it moved slowly, and as the car dropped, Madeleine took the opportunity to make herself more presentable.

She ran her hands through her hair, finger-combing it. She polished her front teeth with her index finger. She rubbed mascara crumbs from her eyes and moistened her lips with her tongue. Finally, passing the balustrade on the second floor, she checked her reflection in the small mirror attached to the rear panel.

One of the nice things about being twenty-two, or about being Madeleine Hanna, was that three weeks of romantic anguish, followed by a night of epic drinking, didn’t do much visible damage. Except for puffiness around her eyes, Madeleine looked like the same pretty, dark-haired person as usual.

The symmetries of her face—the straight nose, the Katharine Hepburn–ish cheekbones and jawline—were almost mathematical in their precision. Only the slight furrow in her brow gave evidence of the slightly anxious person that Madeleine felt herself, intrinsically, to be.

She could see her parents waiting below. They were trapped between the lobby door and the door to the street, Alton in a seersucker jacket,

Phyllida in a navy suit and matching gold-buckled purse. For a second, Madeleine had an impulse to stop the elevator and leave her parents stuck in the foyer amid all the college-town clutter—the posters for New Wave bands with names like Wretched Misery or the Clits, the pornographic Egon Schiele drawings by the RISD kid on the second floor, all the clamorous Xeroxes whose subtext conveyed the message that the wholesome, patriotic values of her parents’ generation were now on the ash heap of history, replaced by a nihilistic, post-punk sensibility that Madeleine herself didn’t understand but was perfectly happy to scandalize her parents by pretending that she did—before the elevator stopped in the lobby and she slid open the gate and stepped out to meet them.

Alton was first through the door. “Here she is!” he said avidly. “The college graduate!” In his net-charging way, he surged forward to seize her in a hug. Madeleine stiffened, worried that she smelled of alcohol or, worse, of sex.

“I don’t know why you wouldn’t let us see your apartment,” Phyllida said, coming up next. “I was looking forward to meeting Abby and Olivia. We’d love to treat them to dinner later.”

“We’re not staying for dinner,” Alton reminded her.

“Well, we might. That depends on Maddy’s schedule.”

“No, that’s not the plan. The plan is to see Maddy for breakfast and then leave after the ceremony.”

“Your father and his plans,” Phyllida said to Madeleine. “Are you wearing that dress to the ceremony?”

“I don’t know,” Madeleine said.

“I can’t get used to these shoulder pads all the young women are wearing. They’re so mannish.”

“It’s Olivia’s.”

“You look pretty whacked out, Mad,” Alton said. “Big party last night?”

“Not really.”

“Don’t you have anything of your own to wear?” Phyllida said.

“I’ll have my robe on, Mummy,” Madeleine said, and, to forestall further inspection, headed past them through the foyer.

Outside, the sun had lost its battle with the clouds and vanished. The weather looked not much better than it had all weekend. Campus Dance, on Friday night, had been more or less rained out. The Baccalaureate service on Sunday had proceeded under a steady drizzle.

Now, on Monday, the rain had stopped, but the temperature felt closer to St. Patrick’s than to Memorial Day.

As she waited for her parents to join her on the sidewalk, it occurred to Madeleine that she hadn’t had sex, not really. This was some consolation.

“Your sister sends her regrets,” Phyllida said, coming out.

“She has to take Richard the Lionhearted for an ultrasound today.”

Richard the Lionhearted was Madeleine’s nine-week-old nephew. Everyone else called him Richard.

“What’s the matter with him?” Madeleine asked.

“One of his kidneys is petite, apparently. The doctors want to keep an eye on it. If you ask me, all these ultrasounds do is find things to worry about.”

“Speaking of ultrasounds,” Alton said, “I need to get one on my knee.”

Phyllida paid no attention. “Anyway, Allie’s devastated not to see you graduate. As is Blake. But they’re hoping you and your new beau might visit them this summer, on your way to the Cape.”

You had to stay alert around Phyllida. Here she was, ostensibly talking about Richard the Lionhearted’s petite kidney, and already she’d managed to move the subject to Madeleine’s new boyfriend, Leonard (whom Phyllida and Alton hadn’t met), and to Cape Cod (where Madeleine had announced plans to cohabitate with him). On a normal day, when her brain was working, Madeleine would have been able to keep one step ahead of Phyllida, but this morning the best she could manage was to let the words float past her.

Fortunately, Alton changed the subject. “So, where do you recommend for breakfast?”

Madeleine turned and looked vaguely down Benefit Street. “There’s a place this way.”

She started shuffling along the sidewalk. Walking—moving—seemed like a good idea. She led them past a line of quaint, nicely maintained houses bearing historical placards, and a big apartment building with a gable roof. Providence was a corrupt town, crime-ridden and mob-controlled, but up on College Hill this was hard to see.

The sketchy downtown and dying or dead textile mills lay below, in the grim distance. Here the narrow streets, many of them cobblestone, climbed past mansions or snaked around Puritan graveyards full of headstones as narrow as heaven’s door, streets with names like Prospect, Benevolent, Hope, and Meeting, all of them feeding into the arboreous campus at the top.

The sheer physical elevation suggested an intellectual one.

“Aren’t these slate sidewalks lovely,” Phyllida said as she followed along.

“We used to have slate sidewalks on our street.

They’re much more attractive. But then the borough replaced them with concrete.”

“Assessed us for the bill, too,”

Alton said. He was limping slightly, bringing up the rear. The right leg of his charcoal trousers was swelled from the knee brace he wore on and off the tennis court. Alton had been club champion in his age group for twelve years running, one of those older guys with a sweatband ringing a balding crown, a choppy forehand, and absolute murder in his eyes.

Madeleine had been trying to beat Alton her entire life without success. This was even more infuriating because she was better than he was, at this point. But whenever she took a set from Alton he started intimidating her, acting mean, disputing calls, and her game fell apart.

Madeleine was worried that there was something paradigmatic in this, that she was destined to go through life being cowed by less capable men.

As a result, Madeleine’s tennis matches against Alton had assumed such outsize personal significance for her that she got tight whenever she played him, with predictable results.

And Alton still gloated when he won, still got all rosy and jiggly, as if he’d bested her by sheer talent.

At the corner of Benefit and Waterman, they crossed behind the white steeple of First Baptist Church. In preparation for the ceremony, loudspeakers had been set up on the lawn.

A man wearing a bow tie, a dean-of-students-looking person, was tensely smoking a cigarette and inspecting a raft of balloons tied to the churchyard fence.

By now Phyllida had caught up to Madeleine, taking her arm to negotiate the uneven slate, which was pushed up by the roots of gnarled plane trees that lined the curb. As a little girl, Madeleine had thought her mother pretty, but that was a long time ago. Phyllida’s face had gotten heavier over the years; her cheeks were beginning to sag like those of a camel. The conservative clothes she wore—the clothes of a philanthropist or lady ambassador—had a tendency to conceal her figure. Phyllida’s hair was where her power resided. It was expensively set into a smooth dome, like a band shell for the presentation of that long-running act, her face. For as long as Madeleine could remember, Phyllida had never been at a loss for words or shy about a point of etiquette. Among her friends Madeleine liked to make fun of her mother’s formality, but she often found herself comparing other people’s manners unfavorably with Phyllida’s.

And right now Phyllida was looking at Madeleine with the proper expression for this moment: thrilled by the pomp and ceremony, eager to put intelligent questions to any of Madeleine’s professors she happened to meet, or to trade pleasantries with fellow parents of graduating seniors.

In short, she was available to everyone and everything and in step with the social and academic pageantry, all of which exacerbated Madeleine’s feeling of being out of step, for this day and the rest of her life.

She plunged on, however, across Waterman Street, and up the steps of Carr House, seeking refuge and coffee.

The café had just opened. The guy behind the counter, who was wearing Elvis Costello glasses, was rinsing out the espresso machine.

At a table against the wall, a girl with stiff pink hair was smoking a clove cigarette and reading Invisible Cities. “Tainted Love” played from the stereo on top of the refrigerator.

Phyllida, holding her handbag protectively against her chest, had paused to peruse the student art on the walls: six paintings of small, skin-diseased dogs wearing bleach-bottle collars.

“Isn’t this fun?” she said tolerantly.

“La Bohème,” Alton said.

Madeleine installed her parents at a table near the bay window, as far away from the pink-haired girl as possible, and went up to the counter. The guy took his time coming over. She ordered three coffees—a large for her—and bagels. While the bagels were being toasted, she brought the coffees over to her parents.

Alton, who couldn’t sit at the breakfast table without reading, had taken a discarded Village Voice from a nearby table and was perusing it. Phyllida was staring overtly at the girl with pink hair.

“Do you think that’s comfortable?” she inquired in a low voice.

Madeleine turned to see that the girl’s ragged black jeans were held together by a few hundred safety pins.

“I don’t know, Mummy. Why don’t you go ask her?”

“I’m afraid of getting poked.”

“According to this article,” Alton said, reading the Voice, “homosexuality didn’t exist until the nineteenth century. It was invented. In Germany.”

The coffee was hot, and lifesavingly good. Sipping it, Madeleine began to feel slightly less awful.

After a few minutes, she went up to get the bagels.

They were a little burned, but she didn’t want to wait for new ones, and so brought them back to the table. After examining his with a sour expression, Alton began scraping it punitively with a plastic knife.

Phyllida asked, “So, are we going to meet Leonard today?”

“I’m not sure,” Madeleine said.

“Anything you want us to know about?”


“Are you two still planning to live together this summer?”

By this time Madeleine had taken a bite of her bagel. And since the answer to her mother’s question was complicated—strictly speaking, Madeleine and Leonard weren’t planning on living together, because they’d broken up three weeks ago; despite this fact, however, Madeleine hadn’t given up hope of a reconciliation, and seeing as she’d spent so much effort getting her parents used to the idea of her living with a guy, and didn’t want to jeopardize that by admitting that the plan was off—she was relieved to be able to point at her full mouth, which prevented her from replying.

“Well, you’re an adult now,” Phyllida said. “You can do what you like. Though, for the record, I have to say that I don’t approve.”

“You’ve already gone on record about that,” Alton broke in.

“Because it’s still a bad idea!” Phyllida cried. “I don’t mean the propriety of it. I’m talking about the practical problems.

If you move in with Leonard—or any young man—and he’s the one with the job, then you begin at a disadvantage.

What happens if you two don’t get along? Where are you then? You won’t have any place to live. Or anything to do.”

That her mother was correct in her analysis, that the predicament Phyllida warned Madeleine about was exactly the predicament she was already in, didn’t motivate Madeleine to register agreement.

“You quit your job when you met me,” Alton said to Phyllida.

“That’s why I know what I’m talking about.”

“Can we change the subject?” Madeleine said at last, having swallowed her food.

“Of course we can, sweetheart. That’s the last I’ll say about it. If your plans change, you can always come home. Your father and I would love to have you.”

“Not me,” Alton said. “I don’t want her. Moving back home is always a bad idea. Stay away.”

“Don’t worry,” Madeleine said. “I will.”

“The choice is yours,” Phyllida said. “But if you do come home, you could have the loft. That way you can come and go as you like.”

To her surprise, Madeleine found herself contemplating this proposal.

Why not tell her parents everything, curl up in the backseat of the car, and let them take her home? She could move into her old bedroom, with the sleigh bed and the Madeline wallpaper.

She could become a spinster, like Emily Dickinson, writing poems full of dashes and brilliance, and never gaining weight.

Phyllida brought her out of this reverie.

“Maddy?” she said. “Isn’t that your friend Mitchell?”

Madeleine wheeled in her seat. “Where?”

“I think that’s Mitchell. Across the street.”

In the churchyard, sitting Indian-style in the freshly mown grass, Madeleine’s “friend” Mitchell Grammaticus was indeed there. His lips were moving, as if he was talking to himself.

“Why don’t you invite him to join us?” Phyllida said.


“Why not? I’d love to see Mitchell.”

“He’s probably waiting for his parents,” Madeleine said.

Phyllida waved, despite the fact that Mitchell was too far away to notice.

“What’s he doing sitting on the ground?” Alton asked.

The three Hannas stared across the street at Mitchell in his half-lotus.

“Well, if you’re not going to ask him, I will,” Phyllida finally said.

“O.K.,” Madeleine said. “Fine. I’ll go ask him.”

The day was getting warmer, but not by much. Black clouds were massing in the distance as Madeleine came down the steps of Carr House and crossed the street into the churchyard.

Someone inside the church was testing the loudspeakers, fussily repeating, “Sussex, Essex, and Kent. Sussex, Essex, and Kent.” A banner draped over the church entrance read “Class of 1982.” Beneath the banner, in the grass, was Mitchell.

His lips were still moving silently, but when he noticed Madeleine approaching they abruptly stopped.

Madeleine remained a few feet away.

“My parents are here,” she informed him.

“It’s graduation,” Mitchell replied evenly. “Everyone’s parents are here.”

“They want to say hello to you.”

At this Mitchell smiled faintly. “They probably don’t realize you’re not speaking to me.”

“No, they don’t,” Madeleine said. “And, anyway, I am. Now. Speaking to you.”

“Under duress or as a change of policy?”

Madeleine shifted her weight, wrinkling her face unhappily. “Look. I’m really hungover. I barely slept last night. My parents have been here about ten minutes and they’re already driving me crazy. So if you could just come over and say hello, that would be great.”

Mitchell’s large emotional eyes blinked twice. He was wearing a vintage gabardine shirt, dark wool pants, and beat-up wingtips. Madeleine had never seen him in shorts or tennis shoes.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “About what happened.”

“Fine,” Madeleine said, looking away. “It doesn’t matter.”

“I was just being my usual vile self.”

“So was I.”

They were quiet a moment. Madeleine felt Mitchell’s eyes on her, and she crossed her arms over her chest.

What had happened was this: one night the previous December, in a state of anxiety about her romantic life, Madeleine had run into Mitchell on campus and brought him back to her apartment.

She’d needed male attention and had flirted with him, without entirely admitting it to herself. In her bedroom, Mitchell had picked up a jar of deep-heating gel on her desk, asking what it was for.

Madeleine had explained that people who were athletic sometimes got sore muscles. She understood that Mitchell might not have experienced this phenomenon, seeing as all he did was sit in the library, but he should take her word for it.

At that point, Mitchell had come up behind her and wiped a gob of heating gel behind her ear. Madeleine jumped up, shouting at Mitchell, and wiped the gunk off with a T-shirt. Though she was within her rights to be angry,

Madeleine also knew (even at the time) that she was using the incident as a pretext for getting Mitchell out of her bedroom and for covering up the fact that she’d been flirting with him in the first place.

The worst part of the incident was how stricken Mitchell had looked, as if he’d been about to cry. He kept saying he was sorry, he was just joking around, but she ordered him to leave.

In the following days, replaying the incident in her mind, Madeleine had felt worse and worse about it. She’d been on the verge of calling Mitchell to apologize when she’d received a letter from him, a highly detailed, cogently argued, psychologically astute, quietly hostile four-page letter, in which he called her a “cocktease” and claimed that her behavior that night had been “the erotic equivalent of bread and circus, with just the circus.”

The next time they’d run into each other, Madeleine had acted as if she didn’t know him, and they hadn’t spoken since.

Now, in the churchyard of First Baptist, Mitchell looked up at her and said, “O.K. Let’s go say hello to your parents.”

Phyllida was waving as they came up the steps. In the flirtatious voice she reserved for her favorite of Madeleine’s friends, she called out, “I thought that was you on the ground. You looked like a swami!”

“Congratulations, Mitchell!” Alton said, heartily shaking Mitchell’s hand. “Big day today. One of the milestones. A new generation takes the reins.”

They invited Mitchell to sit down and asked him if he wanted anything to eat. Madeleine went back to the counter to get more coffee, glad to have Mitchell keeping her parents occupied. As she watched him, in his old man’s clothes, engaging Alton and Phyllida in conversation, Madeleine thought to herself, as she’d thought many times before, that Mitchell was the kind of smart, sane, parent-pleasing boy she should fall in love with and marry. That she would never fall in love with Mitchell and marry him, precisely because of this eligibility, was yet another indication, in a morning teeming with them, of just how screwed up she was in matters of the heart.

When she returned to the table, no one acknowledged her.

“So, Mitchell,” Phyllida was asking, “what are your plans after graduation?”

“My father’s been asking me the same question,” Mitchell answered. “For some reason he thinks Religious Studies isn’t a marketable degree.”

Madeleine smiled for the first time all day. “See? Mitchell doesn’t have a job lined up, either.”

“Well, I sort of do,” Mitchell said.

“You do not,” Madeleine challenged him.

“I’m serious. I do.” He explained that he and his roommate, Larry Pleshette, had come up with a plan to fight the recession. As liberal-arts degree holders matriculating into the job market at a time when unemployment was at 9.5 percent, they had decided, after much consideration, to leave the country and stay away as long as possible.

At the end of the summer, after they’d saved up enough money, they were going to backpack through Europe. After they’d seen everything in Europe there was to see, they were going to fly to India and stay there as long as their money held out. The whole trip would take eight or nine months, maybe as long as a year.

“You’re going to India?” Madeleine said. “That’s not a job.”

“We’re going to be research assistants,” Mitchell said. “For Prof. Hughes.”

“Prof. Hughes in the theater department?”

“I saw a program about India recently,” Phyllida said. “It was terribly depressing. The poverty!”

“That’s a plus for me, Mrs. Hanna,” Mitchell said. “I thrive in squalor.”

Phyllida, who couldn’t resist this sort of mischief, gave up her solemnity, rippling with amusement. “Then you’re going to the right place!”

“Maybe I’ll take a trip, too,” Madeleine said in a threatening tone.

No one reacted. Instead Alton asked Mitchell, “What sort of immunizations do you need for India?”

“Cholera and typhus. Gamma globulin’s optional.”

Phyllida shook her head. “Your mother must be worried sick.”

“When I was in the service,” Alton said, “they shot us up with a million things. Didn’t even tell us what the shots were for.”

“I think I’ll move to Paris,” Madeleine said in a louder voice. “Instead of getting a job.”

“Mitchell,” Phyllida continued, “with your interest in religious studies, I’d think India would be a perfect fit. They’ve got everything. Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Jains, Buddhists.

It’s like Baskin and Robbins! I’ve always been fascinated by religion. Unlike my doubting-Thomas husband.”

Alton winked. “I doubt that doubting Thomas existed.”

“Do you know Paul Moore, Bishop Moore, at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine?”

Phyllida said, keeping Mitchell’s attention.

“He’s a great friend. You might find it interesting to meet him. We’d be happy to introduce you. When we’re in the city, I always go to services at the cathedral. Have you ever been there? Oh. Well. How can I describe it? It’s simply—well, simply divine!”

Phyllida held a hand to her throat with the pleasure of this bon mot, while Mitchell obligingly, even convincingly, laughed.

“Speaking of religious dignitaries,”

Alton cut in, “did I ever tell you about the time we met the Dalai Lama?

It was at this fund-raiser at the Waldorf. We were in the receiving line. Must have been three hundred people at least. Anyway, when we finally got up to the Dalai Lama, I asked him,

‘Are you any relation to Dolly Parton?’”

“I was mortified!” Phyllida cried. “Absolutely mortified.”

“Daddy,” Madeleine said, “you’re going to be late.”


“You should get going if you want to get a good spot.”

Alton looked at his watch. “We’ve still got an hour.”

“It gets really crowded,” Madeleine emphasized. “You should go now.”

Alton and Phyllida looked at Mitchell, as if they trusted him to advise them. Under the table, Madeleine kicked him, and he alertly responded, “It does get pretty crowded.”

“Where’s the best place to stand?” Alton asked, again addressing Mitchell.

“By the Van Wickle Gates. At the top of College Street. That’s where we’ll come through.”

Alton stood up from the table. After shaking Mitchell’s hand, he bent to kiss Madeleine on the cheek.

“We’ll see you later. Miss Baccalaureate, 1982.”

“Congratulations, Mitchell,” Phyllida said. “So nice to see you.

And remember, when you’re on your Grand Tour, be sure to send your mother loads of letters. Otherwise, she’ll be frantic.”

To Madeleine, she said, “You might change that dress before the march. It has a visible stain.”

With that, Alton and Phyllida, in their glaring parental actuality, all seersucker and handbag, cuff links and pearls, crossed the beige-and-brick space of Carr House and went out the door.

As though to signal their departure, a new song came on: Joe Jackson’s high-pitched voice swooping above a synthesized drumbeat. The guy behind the counter cranked up the volume.

Madeleine laid her head on the table, her hair covering her face.

“I’m never drinking again,” she said.

“Famous last words.”

“You have no idea what’s been going on with me.”

“How could I? You haven’t been speaking to me.”

Without lifting her cheek from the table, Madeleine said in a pitiful voice, “I’m homeless. I’m graduating from college and I’m a homeless person.”

“Yeah, sure.”

“I am!” Madeleine insisted. “First I was supposed to move to New York with Abby and Olivia. Then it looked like I was moving to the Cape, though, so I told them to get another roommate. And now I’m not moving to the Cape and I have nowhere to go. My mother wants me to move back home but I’d rather kill myself.”

“I’m moving back home for the summer,”

Mitchell said. “To Detroit. At least you’re near New York.”

“I haven’t heard back from grad school yet and it’s June,” Madeleine continued.

“I was supposed to find out over a month ago! I could call the admissions department, but I don’t because I’m scared to find out that I’ve been rejected. As long as I don’t know, I still have hope.”

There was a moment before Mitchell spoke again. “You can come to India with me,” he said.

Madeleine opened one eye to see, through a whorl in her hair, that Mitchell wasn’t entirely joking.

“It’s not even about grad school,” she said. Taking a deep breath, she confessed, “Leonard and I broke up.”

It felt deeply pleasurable to say this, to name her sadness, and so Madeleine was surprised by the coldness of Mitchell’s reply.

“Why are you telling me this?” he said.

She lifted her head, brushing her hair out of her face. “I don’t know. You wanted to know what was the matter.”

“I didn’t, actually. I didn’t even ask.”

“I thought you might care,” Madeleine said. “Since you’re my friend.”

“Right,” Mitchell said, his voice suddenly sarcastic.

“Our wonderful friendship! Our ‘friendship’ isn’t a real friendship because it only works on your terms.

You set the rules, Madeleine. If you decide you don’t want to talk to me for three months, we don’t talk. Then you decide you do want to talk to me because you need me to entertain your parents—and now we’re talking again. We’re friends when you want to be friends, and we’re never more than friends because you don’t want to be. And I have to go along with that.”

“I’m sorry,” Madeleine said, feeling put-upon and blindsided. “I just don’t like you that way.”

“Exactly!” Mitchell cried. “You’re not attracted to me physically. O.K., fine. But who says I was ever attracted to you mentally?”

Madeleine reacted as if she’d been slapped. She was outraged, hurt, and defiant all at once.

“You’re such a”—she tried to think of the worst thing to say—“you’re such a jerk!”

She was hoping to remain imperious, but her chest was stinging, and, to her dismay, she burst into tears.

Mitchell reached out to touch her arm, but Madeleine shook him off. Getting to her feet, trying not to look like someone angrily weeping, she went out the door and down the steps onto Waterman Street.

Confronted by the festive churchyard, she turned downhill toward the river. She wanted to get away from campus. Her headache had returned, her temples were throbbing, and as she looked up at the storm clouds massing over downtown like more bad things to come, she asked herself why everyone was being so mean to her.

Madeleine’s love troubles had begun at a time when the French theory she was reading deconstructed the very notion of love. Semiotics 211 was an upper-level seminar taught by a former English department renegade.

Michael Zipperstein had come to Brown thirty-two years earlier as a New Critic. He’d inculcated the habits of close reading and biography-free interpretation into three generations of students before taking a Road to Damascus sabbatical, in Paris, in 1975, where he’d met Roland Barthes at a dinner party and been converted, over cassoulet, to the new faith.

Now Zipperstein taught two courses in the newly created Program in Semiotics Studies: Introduction to Semiotic Theory in the fall and, in the spring, Semiotics 211. Hygienically bald, with a seaman’s mustacheless white beard, Zipperstein favored French fisherman’s sweaters and wide-wale corduroys. He buried people with his reading lists: in addition to all the semiotic big hitters—Derrida, Eco, Barthes—the students in Semiotics 211 had to contend with a magpie nest of reserve reading that included everything from Balzac’s Sarrasine to issues of Semiotext(e) to photocopied selections from E. M. Cioran, Robert Walser, Claude Levi-Strauss, Peter Handke, and Carl Van Vechten.

To get into the seminar, you had to submit to a one-on-one interview with Zipperstein during which he asked bland personal questions, such as what your favorite food or dog breed was, and made enigmatic Warholian remarks in response. This esoteric probing, along with Zipperstein’s guru’s dome and beard, gave his students a sense that they’d been spiritually vetted and were now—for two hours on Thursday afternoons, at least—part of a campus lit-crit elite.

Which was exactly what Madeleine wanted. She’d become an English major for the purest and dullest of reasons: because she loved to read.

The university’s “British and American Literature Course Catalog” was, for Madeleine, what its Bergdorf equivalent was for her roommates.

A course listing like “English 274: Lyly’s Euphues” excited Madeleine the way a pair of Fiorucci cowboy boots did Abby. “English 450A:

Hawthorne and James” filled Madeleine with an expectation of sinful hours in bed not unlike what Olivia got from wearing a Lycra skirt and leather blazer to Danceteria. Even as a girl in their house in Prettybrook, Madeleine wandered into the library, with its shelves of books rising higher than she could reach—newly purchased volumes such as Love Story or Myra Breckinridgethat exuded a faintly forbidden air, as well as venerable leather-bound editions of Fielding,

Thackeray, and Dickens—and the magisterial presence of all those potentially readable words stopped her in her tracks. She could scan book spines for as long as an hour. Her cataloging of the family’s holdings rivaled the Dewey decimal system in its comprehensiveness.

Madeleine knew right where everything was. The shelves near the fireplace held Alton’s favorites, biographies of American presidents and British prime ministers, memoirs by warmongering secretaries of state, novels about sailing or espionage by William F. Buckley, Jr. Phyllida’s books filled the left side of the bookcases leading up to the parlor, NYRB-reviewed novels and essay collections, as well as coffee-table volumes about English gardens or chinoiserie.

Even now, at bed-and-breakfasts or seaside hotels, a shelf full of forlorn books always cried out to Madeleine. She ran her fingers over their salt-spotted covers. She peeled apart pages made tacky by ocean air. She had no sympathy for paperback thrillers and detective stories.

It was the abandoned hardback, the jacketless 1931 Dial Press edition ringed with many a coffee cup, that pierced Madeleine’s heart. Her friends might be calling her name on the beach, the clambake already under way, but Madeleine would sit down on the bed and read for a little while to make the sad old book feel better. She had read Longfellow’s “Hiawatha” that way. She’d read James Fenimore Cooper. She’d read H. M. Pulham, Esquire by John P. Marquand.

And yet sometimes she worried about what those musty old books were doing to her. Some people majored in English to prepare for law school. Others became journalists. The smartest guy in the honors program, Adam Vogel, a child of academics, was planning on getting a Ph.D. and becoming an academic himself.

That left a large contingent of people majoring in English by default. Because they weren’t left-brained enough for science, because history was too dry, philosophy too difficult, geology too petroleum-oriented, and math too mathematical—because they weren’t musical, artistic, financially motivated, or really all that smart, these people were pursuing university degrees doing something no different from what they’d done in first grade: reading stories.

English was what people who didn’t know what to major in majored in.

Her junior year, Madeleine had taken an honors seminar called The Marriage Plot: Selected Novels of Austen, Eliot, and James.

The class was taught by K. Mc
Call Saunders. Saunders was a seventy-nine-year-old New Englander. He had a long, horsey face and a moist laugh that exposed his gaudy dental work. His pedagogical method consisted of his reading aloud lectures he’d written twenty or thirty years earlier.

Madeleine stayed in the class because she felt sorry for Professor Saunders and because the reading list was so good. In Saunders’s opinion, the novel had reached its apogee with the marriage plot and had never recovered from its disappearance. In the days when success in life had depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had had a subject to write about. The great epics sang of war, the novel of marriage.

Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely.

What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for separation later?

How would Isabel Archer’s marriage to Gilbert Osmond have been affected by the existence of a prenup?

As far as Saunders was concerned, marriage didn’t mean much anymore, and neither did the novel. Where could you find the marriage plot nowadays? You couldn’t. You had to read historical fiction. You had to read non-Western novels involving traditional societies. Afghani novels, Indian novels. You had to go, literarily speaking, back in time.

Madeleine’s final paper for the seminar was titled “The Interrogative Mood: Marriage Proposals and the (Strictly Limited) Sphere of the Feminine.”

It had impressed Saunders so much that he’d asked Madeleine to come see him. In his office, which had a grandparental smell, he expressed his opinion that Madeleine might expand her paper into a senior honors thesis, along with his willingness to serve as her advisor.

Madeleine smiled politely. Professor Saunders specialized in the periods she was interested in, the Regency leading into the Victorian era. He was sweet, and learned, and it was clear from his unsubscribed office hours that no one else wanted him as an advisor, and so Madeleine had said yes, she would love to work with him on her senior thesis.

She used a line from Trollope’s Barchester Towers as an epigraph:

“There is no happiness in love, except at the end of an English novel.”

Her plan was to begin with Jane Austen. After a brief examination of Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and Sense and Sensibility, all comedies, essentially, that ended with weddings, Madeleine was going to move on to the Victorian novel, where things got more complicated and considerably darker. Middlemarch and The Portrait of a Lady didn’t end with weddings.

They began with the traditional moves of the marriage plot—the suitors, the proposals, the misunderstandings—but after the wedding ceremony they kept on going. These novels followed their spirited, intelligent heroines, Dorothea Brooke and Isabel Archer, into their disappointing married lives, and it was here that the marriage plot reached its greatest artistic expression.

By 1900 the marriage plot was no more. Madeleine planned to end with a brief discussion of its demise.

In Sister Carrie, Dreiser had Carrie live adulterously with Drouet, marry Hurstwood in an invalid ceremony, and then run off to become an actress—and this was only in 1900! For a conclusion, Madeleine thought she might cite the wife-swapping in Updike.

That was the last vestige of the marriage plot: the persistence in calling it “wife-swapping” instead of “husband-swapping.” As if the woman were still a piece of property to be passed around.

Professor Saunders suggested that Madeleine look at historical sources. She’d obediently boned up on the rise of industrialism and the nuclear family, the formation of the middle class, and the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857. But it wasn’t long before she’d become bored with the thesis. Doubts about the originality of her work nagged at her.

She felt as if she was regurgitating the arguments Saunders had made in his marriage plot seminar. Her meetings with the old professor were dispiriting, consisting of Saunders shuffling the pages she’d given him, pointing out various red marks he’d made in the margins.

Then one Sunday morning, before winter break, Abby’s boyfriend, Whitney, materialized at their kitchen table, reading something called Of Grammatology.

When Madeleine asked what the book was about, she was given to understand by Whitney that the idea of a book being “about” something was exactly what this book was against, and that, if it was “about” anything, then it was about the need to stop thinking of books as being about things.

Madeleine said she was going to make coffee. Whitney asked if she would make him some, too.

College wasn’t like the real world. In the real world people dropped names based on their renown.

In college, people dropped names based on their obscurity. Thus, in the weeks after this exchange with Whitney, Madeleine began hearing people saying “Derrida.” She heard them saying “Lyotard” and “Foucault” and “Deleuze” and “Baudrillard.”

That most of these people were those she instinctually disapproved of—upper-middle-class kids who wore Doc Martens and anarchist symbols—made Madeleine dubious about the value of their enthusiasm. But soon she noticed David Koppel, a smart and talented poet, also reading Derrida.

And Pookie Ames, who read slush for The Paris Review and whom Madeleine liked, was taking a course with Professor Zipperstein.

Madeleine had always been partial to grandiose professors, people like Sears Jayne who hammed it up in the classroom, reciting Hart Crane or

Anne Sexton in a gag voice. Whitney acted as though Professor Jayne was a joke. Madeleine didn’t agree. But after three solid years of taking literature courses, Madeleine had nothing like a firm critical methodology to apply to what she read.

Instead she had a fuzzy, unsystematic way of talking about books. It embarrassed her to hear the things people said in class. And the things she said. I felt that. It was interesting the way Proust. I liked the way Faulkner.

And when Olivia, who was tall and slim, with a long, aristocratic nose like a saluki, came in one day carrying Of Grammatology, Madeleine knew that what had been marginal was now mainstream.

“What’s that book like?”

“You haven’t read it?”

“Would I be asking if I had?”

Olivia sniffed. “Aren’t we a little bitchy today?”


“Just kidding. It’s great. Derrida is my absolute god!”

Almost overnight it became laughable to read writers like Cheever or Updike, who wrote about the suburbia Madeleine and most of her friends had grown up in, in favor of reading the Marquis de Sade, who wrote about anally deflowering virgins in eighteenth-century France.

The reason de Sade was preferable was that his shocking sex scenes weren’t about sex but politics. They were therefore anti-imperialist, anti-bourgeois, anti-patriarchal, and anti-everything a smart young feminist should be against. Right up through her third year at college, Madeleine kept wholesomely taking courses like Victorian Fantasy: From Phantastes to The Water-Babies, but by senior year she could no longer ignore the contrast between the hard-up, blinky people in her Beowulf seminar and the hipsters down the hall reading Maurice Blanchot.

Going to college in the moneymaking eighties lacked a certain radicalism. Semiotics was the first thing that smacked of revolution. It drew a line; it created an elect; it was sophisticated and Continental; it dealt with provocative subjects, with torture, sadism, hermaphroditism—with sex and power.

Madeleine had always been popular at school. Years of being popular had left her with the reflexive ability to separate the cool from the uncool, even within subgroups, like the English department, where the concept of cool didn’t appear to obtain.

If Restoration drama was getting you down, if scanning Wordsworth was making you feel dowdy and ink-stained, there was another option. You could flee K. Mc
Call Saunders and the old New Criticism. You could defect to the new imperium of Derrida and Eco. You could sign up for Semiotics 211 and find out what everyone else was talking about.

Semiotics 211 was limited to ten students. Of the ten, eight had taken Introduction to Semiotic Theory. This was visually apparent at the first class meeting.

Lounging around the seminar table, when Madeleine came into the room from the wintry weather outside, were eight people in black T-shirts and ripped black jeans. A few had razored off the necks or sleeves of their T-shirts. There was something creepy about one guy’s face—it was like a baby’s face that had grown whiskers—and it took Madeleine a full minute to realize that he’d shaved off his eyebrows.

Everyone in the room was so spectral-looking that Madeleine’s natural healthiness seemed suspect, like a vote for Reagan. She was relieved, therefore, when a big guy in a down jacket and snowmobile boots showed up and took the empty seat next to her. He had a cup of take-out coffee.

Zipperstein asked the students to introduce themselves and explain why they were taking the seminar.

The boy without eyebrows spoke up first. “Um, let’s see. I’m finding it hard to introduce myself, actually, because the whole idea of social introductions is so problematized.

Like, if I tell you that my name is Thurston Meems and that I grew up in Stamford, Connecticut, will you know who I am? O.K.

My name’s Thurston and I’m from Stamford, Connecticut. I’m taking this course because I read Of Grammatology last summer and it blew my mind.”

When it was the turn of the boy next to Madeleine, he said in a quiet voice that he was a double major (biology and philosophy) and had never taken a semiotics course before, that his parents had named him Leonard, that it had always seemed pretty handy to have a name, especially when you were being called to dinner, and that if anyone wanted to call him Leonard he would answer to it.

Leonard didn’t make another comment. During the rest of the class, he leaned back in his chair, stretching out his long legs. After he finished his coffee, he dug into his right snowmobile boot and, to Madeleine’s surprise, pulled out a tin of chewing tobacco. With two stained fingers, he placed a wad of tobacco in his cheek. For the next two hours, every minute or so, he spat, discreetly but audibly, into the cup.

Every week Zipperstein assigned one daunting book of theory and one literary selection. The pairings were eccentric if not downright arbitrary. (What did Saussure’s Writings in General Linguistics, for instance, have to do with Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49?) As for Zipperstein himself, he didn’t run the class so much as observe it from behind the one-way mirror of his opaque personality. He hardly said a word. He asked questions now and then to stimulate discussion, and often went to the window to gaze in the direction of Narragansett Bay, as if thinking about his wooden sloop in dry dock.

Three weeks into the course, on a February day of flurries and gray skies, they read Zipperstein’s own book, The Making of Signs, along with Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams.

It was always embarrassing when professors assigned their own books. Even Madeleine, who found all the reading hard going, could tell that Zipperstein’s contribution to the field was reformulative and second-tier.

Everyone seemed a little hesitant when talking about The Making of Signs, so it was a relief when, after the break, they turned to the literary selection.

“So,” Zipperstein asked, blinking behind his round wire-rims. “What did you make of the Handke?”

After a short silence, Thurston spoke up. “The Handke was totally dank and depressing,” he said. “I loved it.”

Thurston was a sly-looking boy with short, gelled hair. His eyebrowlessness, along with his pale complexion, gave his face a superintelligent quality, like a floating, disembodied brain.

“Care to elaborate?” Zipperstein said.

“Well, Professor, here’s a subject dear to my heart—offing yourself.” The other students tittered as Thurston warmed to his topic.

“It’s purportedly autobiographical, this book. But I’d contend, with Barthes, that the act of writing is itself a fictionalization, even if you’re treating actual events.”

Bart. So that was how you pronounced it. Madeleine made a note, grateful to be spared humiliation.

Meanwhile Thurston was saying, “So Handke’s mother commits suicide and Handke sits down to write about it. He wants to be as objective as possible, to be totally—remorseless!”

Thurston stifled a smile. He aspired to be a person who would react to his own mother’s suicide with high-literary remorselessness, and his soft, young face lit up with pleasure. “Suicide is a trope,” he announced.

“Especially in German literature. You’ve got The Sorrows of Young Werther. You’ve got Kleist. Hey, I just thought of something.” He held up a finger.

“The Sorrows of Young Werther.” He held up another finger.

“A Sorrow Beyond Dreams. My theory is that Handke felt the weight of all that tradition and this book was his attempt to break free.”

“How do you mean ‘free’?” Zipperstein said.

“From the whole Teutonic, Sturm-und-Drang, suicidal thing.”

The flurries swirling outside the windows looked like either flakes of soap or flash of ash, like something either very clean or very dirty.

“The Sorrows of Young Werther is an apt reference,” Zipperstein said.

“But I think that’s more the translator’s doing than Handke’s. In German the book’s called Wunschloses Unglück.”

Thurston smiled, either because he was pleased to be receiving Zipperstein’s full attention or because he thought German sounded funny.

“It’s a play on a German saying, wunschlos glücklich, which means being happier than you could ever wish for. Only here Handke makes a nice reversal. It’s a serious and strangely wonderful title.”

“So it means being unhappier than you could ever wish for,” Madeleine said.

Zipperstein looked at her for the first time.

“In a sense. As I said, something is lost in translation. What was your take?”

“On the book?” Madeleine asked, and immediately realized how stupid this sounded. She fell silent, the blood beating in her ears.

People blushed in nineteenth-century English novels but never in contemporary Austrian ones.

Before the silence became uncomfortable, Leonard came to her rescue.

“I have a comment,” he said. “If I was going to write about my mother’s suicide, I don’t think I’d be too concerned about being experimental.” He leaned forward, putting his elbows on the table.

“I mean, wasn’t anybody put off by Handke’s so-called remorselessness? Didn’t this book strike anyone as a tad cold?”

“Better cold than sentimental,” Thurston said.

“Do you think? Why?”

“Because we’ve read the sentimental, filial account of a cherished dead parent before. We’ve read it a million times. It doesn’t have any power anymore.”

“I’m doing a little thought experiment here,” Leonard said.

“Say my mother killed herself. And say I wrote a book about it.

Why would I want to do something like that?” He closed his eyes and leaned his head back.

“First, I’d do it to cope with my grief. Second, maybe to paint a portrait of my mother. To keep her alive in my memory.”

“And you think your reaction is universal,” Thurston said.

“That because you’d respond to the death of a parent a certain way, that obligates Handke to do the same.”

“I’m saying that if your mother kills herself it’s not a literary trope.”

Madeleine’s heart had quieted now. She was listening to the discussion with interest.

Thurston was nodding his head in a way that somehow didn’t suggest agreement.

“Yeah, O.K.,” he said. “Handke’s real mother killed herself. She died in a real world and Handke felt real grief or whatever. But that’s not what this book’s about. Books aren’t about ‘real life.’ Books are about other books.” He raised his mouth like a wind instrument and blew out bright notes.

“My theory is that the problem Handke was trying to solve here, from a literary standpoint, was how do you write about something, even something real and painful—like suicide—when all of the writing that’s been done on that subject has robbed you of any originality of expression?”

What Thurston was saying seemed to Madeleine both insightful and horribly wrong. It was maybe true, what he said, but it shouldn’t have been.

“‘Popular literature,’” Zipperstein quipped, proposing an essay title. “‘Or, How to Beat a Dead Horse.’”

A spasm of mirth traveled through the class. Madeleine looked over to see that Leonard was staring at her. When the class ended, he gathered up his books and left.

She started seeing Leonard around after that. She saw him crossing the green one afternoon, hatless in winter drizzle. She saw him at Mutt & Geoff’s, eating a messy Buddy Cianci sandwich. She saw him, one morning, waiting for a bus on South Main. Each time, Leonard was alone, looking forlorn and uncombed like a great big motherless boy. At the same time, he appeared somehow older than most guys at school.

It was Madeleine’s last semester of senior year, a time when she was supposed to have some fun, and she wasn’t having any. She’d never thought of herself as hard up. She preferred to think of her current boyfriendless state as salutary and head-clearing. But when she found herself wondering what it would be like to kiss a guy who chewed tobacco, she began to worry that she was fooling herself.

Looking back, Madeleine realized that her college love life had fallen short of expectations. Her freshman roommate, Jennifer Boomgaard, had rushed off to Health Services the first week of school to be fitted for a diaphragm. Unaccustomed to sharing a room with anybody, much less a stranger, Madeleine felt that Jenny was a little too quick with her intimacies. She didn’t want to be shown Jennifer’s diaphragm, which reminded her of an uncooked ravioli, and she certainly didn’t want to feel the spermicidal jelly that Jenny offered to squirt into her palm. Madeleine was shocked when Jennifer started going to parties with the diaphragm already in place, when she wore it to the Harvard-Brown game, and when she left it one morning on top of their miniature fridge. That winter, when the Rev. Desmond Tutu came to campus for an anti-apartheid rally, Madeleine asked Jennifer on their way to see the great cleric, “Did you put your diaphragm in?” They lived the next four months in an eighteen-by-fifteen room without speaking to each other.

Though Madeleine hadn’t arrived at college sexually inexperienced, her freshman learning curve resembled a flat line. Aside from one make-out session with a Uruguayan named Carlos, a sandal-wearing engineering student who in low light looked like Che Guevara, the only boy she’d fooled around with was a high school senior visiting campus for Early Action weekend. She found Tim standing in line at the Ratty, pushing his cafeteria tray along the metal track, and visibly quivering. His blue blazer was too big for him. He’d spent the entire day wandering around campus with no one speaking to him. Now he was starving and wasn’t sure if he was allowed to eat in the cafeteria or not. Tim seemed to be the only person at Brown more lost than Madeleine. She helped him negotiate the Ratty and, afterward, took him on a tour of the university. Finally, around ten-thirty that night, they ended up back in Madeleine’s dorm room. Tim had the long-lashed eyes and pretty features of an expensive Bavarian doll, a little prince or yodeling shepherd boy. His blue blazer was on the floor and Madeleine’s shirt unbuttoned when Jennifer Boomgaard came through the door. “Oh,” she said, “sorry,” and proceeded to stand there, smiling at the floor as if already relishing how this juicy bit of gossip would play along the hall. When she finally did leave, Madeleine sat up and readjusted her clothes, and Tim picked up his blazer and went back to high school.

At Christmas, when Madeleine went home for vacation, she thought the scale in her parents’ bathroom was broken. She got off to recalibrate the dial and got back on, whereupon the scale again registered the same weight. Stepping in front of the mirror, Madeleine encountered a worried chipmunk staring back.

“Am I not getting asked out because I’m fat,” the chipmunk said, “or am I fat because I’m not getting asked out?”

“I never got the freshman fifteen,” her sister gloated when Madeleine came down to breakfast.

“But I didn’t pig out like all my friends did.” Accustomed to Alwyn’s teasing, Madeleine paid no attention, quietly slicing and eating the first of the fifty-seven grapefruits she subsisted on until New Year’s.

Dieting fooled you into thinking you could control your life. By January, Madeleine was down five pounds, and by the time squash season ended she was back in great shape, and still she didn’t meet anyone she liked. The boys at college seemed either incredibly immature or prematurely middle-aged, bearded like therapists, warming brandy snifters over candles while listening to Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. It wasn’t until her junior year that Madeleine had a serious boyfriend. Billy Bainbridge was the son of Dorothy Bainbridge, whose uncle owned a third of the newspapers in the United States. Billy had flushed cheeks, blond curls, and a scar on his right temple that made him even more adorable than he already was. He was soft-spoken and nice-smelling, like Ivory soap. Naked, his body was nearly hairless.

Billy didn’t like to talk about his family. Madeleine took this as a sign of good breeding. Billy was a legacy at Brown and sometimes worried that he wouldn’t have gotten in on his own. Sex with Billy was cozy, it was snuggly, it was perfectly fine. He wanted to be a filmmaker. The one film he made for Advanced Filmmaking, however, was a violent, unbroken twelve minutes of Billy throwing fecal-looking brownie mix at the camera. Madeleine began to wonder if there was a reason he never talked about his family.

One thing he did talk about, however, with increasing intensity, was circumcision. Billy had read an article in an alternative health magazine that argued against the practice, and it made a big impression on him.

“If you think about it, it’s a pretty weird thing to do to a baby,” he said. “Cut off part of its dick? What’s so different about a tribe in, like, Papua New Guinea putting bones through their noses and cutting off a baby’s foreskin? A bone through the nose is a lot less invasive.” Madeleine listened, trying to look sympathetic, and hoped Billy would drop the subject. But as the weeks passed he kept returning to it.

“The doctors just do it automatically in this country,” he said.

“They didn’t ask my parents. It’s not like I’m Jewish or anything.” He derided justifications on the basis of health or hygiene. “Maybe that made sense three thousand years ago, out in the desert, when you couldn’t take a shower. But now?”

One night, as they were lying in bed, naked, Madeleine noticed Billy examining his penis, stretching it.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“I’m looking for the scar,” he said somberly.

He interrogated his European friends, Henrik the Intact, Olivier the Foreskinned, asking,

“But does it feel supersensitive?” Billy was convinced that he’d been deprived of sensation. Madeleine tried not to take this personally. Plus there were other problems with their relationship by then. Billy had a habit of staring deeply into Madeleine’s eyes in a way that was somehow controlling. His roommate situation was odd. He lived off campus with an attractive, muscular girl named Kyle who was sleeping with at least three people, including Fatima Shirazi, a niece of the shah of Iran. On the wall of his living room Billy had painted the words Kill the Father. Killing the father was what, in Billy’s opinion, college was all about.

“Who’s your father?” he asked Madeleine. “Is it Virginia Woolf? Is it Sontag?”

“In my case,” Madeleine said, “my father really is my father.”

“Then you have to kill him.”

“Who’s your father?”

“Godard,” he said.

Billy talked about renting a house in Guanajuato with Madeleine over the summer. He said she could write a novel while he made a film. His faith in her, in her writing (even though she hardly wrote any fiction), made Madeleine feel so good that she started going along with the idea. And then one day she came up onto Billy’s front porch and was about to rap on his window when something told her to look in the window instead. In the storm-tossed bed, Billy lay curled, John Lennon–style, against the spread-eagled Kyle. Both were naked. A second later, in a puff of smoke, Fatima materialized, also naked, shaking baby powder over her gleaming Persian skin. She smiled at her bedmates, her teeth seed-like in purple, royal gums.

Maddy’s next boyfriend wasn’t strictly her fault. She would never have met Dabney Carlisle if she hadn’t taken an acting class, and she would never have taken an acting class if it hadn’t been for her mother. As a young woman, Phyllida had wanted to be an actress. Her parents had been opposed, however.

“Acting wasn’t what people in our family, especially the ladies, did,” was the way Phyllida put it. Every so often, in reflective moods, she told her daughters the story of her one great disobedience. After graduating from college, Phyllida had “run away” to Hollywood. Without telling her parents, she’d flown out to Los Angeles, staying with a friend from Smith. She’d found a job as a secretary in an insurance company. She and the friend, a girl named Sally Peyton, moved into a bungalow in Santa Monica. In six months Phyllida had three auditions, one screen test, and “loads of invitations.” She’d once seen Jackie Gleason carrying a chihuahua into a restaurant. She’d developed a lustrous suntan she described as “Egyptian.” Whenever Phyllida spoke about this period in her life, it seemed as if she was talking about another person. As for Alton, he became quiet, fully aware that Phyllida’s loss had been his gain. It was on the train back to New York, the next Christmas, that she’d met the straight-backed lieutenant colonel, recently returned from Berlin. Phyllida never went back to L.A. She got married instead. “And had you two,” she told her daughters.

Phyllida’s inability to realize her dreams had given Madeleine her own. Her mother’s life was the great counterexample. It represented the injustice Madeleine’s life would rectify. To come of age simultaneously with a great social movement, to grow up in the age of Betty Friedan and ERA marches and Bella Abzug’s indomitable hats, to define your identity when it was being redefined, this was a freedom as great as any of the American freedoms Madeleine had read about in school. She could remember the night, in 1973, when her family gathered before the television in the den to watch the tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. How she, Alwyn, and Phyllida had rooted for Billie Jean, while Alton had pulled for Bobby Riggs. How, as King ran Riggs back and forth across the court, outserving him, hitting winners he was too slow to return, Alton began to grumble.

“It’s not a fair fight! Riggs is too old.

If they want a real test, she should play Smith or Newcombe.”

But it didn’t matter what Alton said.

It didn’t matter that Bobby Riggs was fifty-five and King twenty-nine, or that Riggs hadn’t been an especially great player even in his prime. What mattered was that this tennis match was on national television, during prime time, billed for weeks as “The Battle of the Sexes,” and that the woman was winning. If any single moment defined Madeleine’s generation of girls, dramatized their aspirations, put into clear focus what they expected from themselves and from life, it was those two hours and fifteen minutes when the country watched a man in white shorts get thrashed by a woman, pummeled repeatedly until all he could do, after match point, was to jump feebly over the net. And even that was telling: you were supposed to jump the net when you won, not lost. So how male was that, to act like a winner when you’d just been creamed?

At the first meeting of Acting Workshop, Professor Churchill, a bald bullfrog of a man, asked the students to say something about themselves. Half the people in the class were theater majors, serious about acting or directing. Madeleine mumbled something about loving Shakespeare and Eugene O’Neill.

Dabney Carlisle stood up and said, “I’ve done a little modeling work, down in New York. My agent suggested I should take some acting lessons. So here I am.”

The modeling he’d done consisted of a single magazine ad, showing a group of Leni Riefenstahl–ish athletes in boxer briefs, standing in a receding line on a beach whose black volcanic sand steamed around their marble feet. Madeleine didn’t see the photograph until she and Dabney were already going out, when Dabney gingerly took it out of the bartending manual where he kept it safely pressed. She was inclined to make fun of it but something reverential in Dabney’s expression stopped her. And so she asked where the beach had been (Montauk) and why it was so black (it wasn’t) and how much he’d gotten paid (“four figures”) and what the other guys were like (“total a-holes”) and if he was wearing the underpants right now. It was sometimes difficult, with boys, to take an interest in the things that interested them. But with Dabney she wished it had been curling, she longed for it to be the model UN, anything but male modeling. This, anyway, was the authentic emotion she now identified herself as having felt. At the time—Dabney cautioned her against touching the ad before he got it laminated—Madeleine had rehearsed in her mind the standard arguments: that though objectification was de facto bad, the emergence of the idealized male form in the mass media scored a point for equality; that if men started getting objectified and started worrying about their looks and their bodies, they might begin to understand the burden women had been living with since forever, and might therefore be sensitized to these issues of the body. She even went so far as to admire Dabney for his courage in allowing himself to be photographed in snug little gray underpants.

Looking the way Madeleine and Dabney did, it was inevitable that they would be cast as romantic leads in the scenes the workshop performed. Madeleine was Rosalind to Dabney’s wooden Orlando, Maggie to his brick-like Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. To rehearse the first time, they met at Dabney’s fraternity house. Merely stepping through the front door reinforced Madeleine’s aversion to places like Sigma Chi. It was around ten on a Sunday morning. The vestiges of the previous evening’s “Hawaiian Night” were still there to see—the lei hanging from the antlers of the moose head on the wall, the plastic “grass” skirt trampled on the beer-sodden floor, a skirt that, should Madeleine succumb to the outrageous good looks of Dabney Carlisle, she might, at a minimum, have to watch some drunken slut hula in to the baying of the brothers, or, at a maximum (for mai tais made you do crazy things), might even don herself, up in Dabney’s room, for his pleasure alone. On the low-slung couch two Sigma Chi members were watching TV. At Madeleine’s appearance, they stirred, rising out of the gloom like openmouthed carp. She hurried to the back stairs, thinking the things she always thought when it came to frats and frat guys: that their appeal stemmed from a primitive need for protection (one thought of Neanderthal clans banding together against other Neanderthal clans); that the hazing the pledges underwent (being stripped and blindfolded and left in the lobby of the Biltmore Hotel with bus fare taped to their genitals) enacted the very fears of male rape and emasculation that membership in the fraternity promised protection against; that any guy who longed to join a frat suffered from insecurities that poisoned his relationships with women; that there was something seriously wrong with homophobic guys who centered their lives around a homoerotic bond; that the stately mansions maintained by generations of dues-paying fraternity members were in reality sites for date rape and problem drinking; that frats always smelled bad; that you didn’t ever want to shower in one; that only freshman girls were stupid enough to go to frat parties; that Kelly Traub had slept with a Sigma Delt guy who kept saying,

“Now you see it, now you don’t, now you see it, now you don’t”; that such a thing wasn’t going to happen to her, to Madeleine, ever.

What she hadn’t expected when it came to a fraternity was a sunny-haired silent type like Dabney, learning his lines in a folding chair, in parachute pants, shoeless. Looking back on their relationship, Madeleine figured she’d had no choice. Dabney and she had been selected for each other in a Royal Wedding kind of way. She was Prince Charles to his Princess Di. She knew he couldn’t act. Dabney had the artistic soul of a third-string tight end. In life Dabney moved and said little. Onstage he moved not at all but had to say a lot. His best dramatic moments came when the strain on his face from remembering his lines resembled the emotion he was trying to simulate.

Acting opposite Dabney made Madeleine more stiff and nervous than she already was. She wanted to do scenes with the talented kids in the workshop. She suggested interesting bits from The Vietnamization of New Jersey and Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago, but got no takers. Nobody wanted to lower his or her average by acting with her.

Dabney didn’t let it bother him. “Bunch of little shits in that class,” he said. “They’ll never get any print work, much less movies.”

He was more laconic than she liked her boyfriends to be. He had the wit of a store mannequin. But Dabney’s physical perfection pushed these realities out of her mind. She’d never been in a relationship where she wasn’t the more attractive partner. It was slightly intimidating. But she could handle it. At three a.m., while Dabney lay sleeping beside her, Madeleine found she was up to the task of inventorying each abdominal cord, every hard lump of muscle. She enjoyed applying calipers to Dabney’s waist to measure his body fat. Underwear modeling was all about the abs, Dabney said, and the abs were all about sit-ups and diet. The pleasure Madeleine got from looking at Dabney was reminiscent of the pleasure she’d gotten as a girl from looking at sleek hunting dogs. Underneath this pleasure, like the coals that fed it, was a fierce need to enfold Dabney and siphon off his strength and beauty. It was all very primitive and evolutionary and felt fantastic. The problem was that she hadn’t been able to allow herself to enjoy Dabney or even to exploit him a little, but had had to go and be a total girl about it and convince herself that she was in love with him. Madeleine required emotion, apparently. She disapproved of the idea of meaningless, extremely satisfying sex.

And so she began to tell herself that Dabney’s acting was “restrained” or “economical.” She appreciated that Dabney was “secure about himself” and “didn’t need to prove anything” and wasn’t a “showoff.” Instead of worrying that he was dull, Madeleine decided he was gentle. Instead of thinking he was poorly read, she called him intuitive. She exaggerated Dabney’s mental abilities in order not to feel shallow for wanting his body. To this end she helped Dabney write—O.K., she wrote—English and anthro papers for him and, when he got A’s, felt confirmed of his intelligence. She sent him off to modeling auditions in New York with good-luck kisses and listened to him complain bitterly about the “faggots” who hadn’t hired his services. It turned out that Dabney wasn’t so beautiful. Among the truly beautiful he was only so-so. He couldn’t even smile right.

At the end of the semester, the acting students met separately with the professor for a critical review. Churchill welcomed Madeleine with a wolfish yellow grin, then sat back jowly and deliberate in his chair.

“I’ve enjoyed having you in the class, Madeleine,” he said. “But you can’t act.”

“Don’t hold back,” Madeleine said, chastened but laughing. “Give it to me straight.”

“You have a good feel for language, for Shakespeare especially. But your voice is reedy and you look worried onstage. Your forehead has a perpetual crease. A vocal coach could go a long way toward helping your instrument. But I worry about your worrying. You’ve got it right now. The crease.”

“It’s called thinking.”

“Which is fine.

If you’re playing Eleanor Roosevelt. Or Golda Meir. But those parts don’t come around very often.”

Churchill, steepling his fingers, continued, “I’d be more diplomatic if I thought this meant a lot to you. But I get the feeling you don’t want to be a professional actress, do you?”

“No,” Madeleine said.

“Good. You’re lovely. You’re bright. The world is your oyster. Go with my blessings.”

When Dabney returned from his review with Churchill, he looked even more self-contented than usual.

“So?” Madeleine asked. “How did it go?”

“He says I’m perfect for soaps.”

“Soap commercials?”

Dabney looked peeved. “Days of Our Lives. General Hospital. Ever heard of those?”

“Did he mean that as a compliment?”

“How else could he mean it? Soap actors have it made! They work every day, make great money, and never have to travel. I’ve been wasting my time trying to get all this advertising work. Screw that. I’m going to tell my agent to start lining up some auditions for soaps.”

Madeleine was silent at this news. She’d assumed Dabney’s enthusiasm for modeling was temporary, a tuition-earning scheme. Now she realized he was in earnest. She was, in fact, dating a model.

“What are you thinking?” Dabney asked her.


“Tell me.”

“Just that—I don’t know—but I doubt Prof. Churchill has that high of an opinion of the acting on Days of Our Lives.”

“What did he tell us the first class? He said he was giving a workshop in acting. For people who wanted to work in the theater.”

“In the theater doesn’t mean …”

“What did he tellyou? Did he say you were going to be a movie star?”

“He told me I couldn’t act,” Madeleine said.

“He did, huh?” Dabney put his hands in his pockets, leaning back on his heels as if relieved not to have to deliver this verdict himself. “Is that why you’re so pissed off? And have to tear down my crit?”

“I’m not tearing down your crit. I’m just not sure you got Churchill’s meaning, exactly.”

Dabney let out a bitter laugh. “I wouldn’t get it right, would I? I’m too dumb. I’m just some dumb jock you have to write English papers for.”

“I don’t know. You seem to have a pretty good grasp of sarcasm.”

“Man, am I ever lucky,” Dabney said.

“What would I do if you weren’t around?

You have to catch all the subtleties for me, don’t you? You and your flair for catching subtleties. It must be nice to be rich and sit around all day catching subtleties.

What do you know about needing to make a living?

It’s fine for you to make fun of my ad. You didn’t get into college on a football scholarship. And now you have to come in here and run me down.

You know what? This is bullshit. This is total bullshit. I’m sick of your condescension and your superiority complex. And Churchill’s right. You can’t act.”

In the end Madeleine had to admit that Dabney was far more fluent than she’d ever expected. He was capable of portraying a range of emotions, too, anger, disgust, wounded pride, and of simulating others, including affection, passion, and love. He had a great career in the soaps ahead of him.

Madeleine and Dabney had broken up in May, right before summer, and there was no better time than summer to forget about somebody. She’d gone straight down to Prettybrook the day she finished her last exam. For once she was glad to have such sociable parents. With all the cocktail parties and convivial dinners on Wilson Lane there was little time to dwell on herself. In July, she got an internship at a nonprofit poetry organization on the Upper East Side and began riding the train into the city. Madeleine’s job was to oversee submissions for the annual New Voices award, which involved making sure that the submissions were complete before sending them off to the judge (Howard Nemerov, that year). Madeleine wasn’t particularly technical, but because everyone else in the office was even less so, she ended up being the go-to person whenever the copier or the dot-matrix printer malfunctioned. Her coworker Brenda would come up to Madeleine’s desk at least once a week and ask in a babyish voice,

“Can you help me? The printer’s not being nice.” The only part of the day Madeleine enjoyed was her lunch hour, when she got to walk around the muggy, stinking, thrilling streets, eat quiche in a French bistro as narrow as a bowling alley, and stare at the styles women her age or a little older were wearing. When the one straight guy at the nonprofit asked her to have a drink after work,

Madeleine cooly answered, “Sorry, I can’t,” trying not to feel bad about hurting his feelings, trying to think about her own feelings for a change.

She arrived back at college for her senior year, then, intent on being studious, career-oriented, and aggressively celibate. Casting a wide net, Madeleine sent away for applications to Yale grad school (English Language and Literature), an organization for teaching English in China, and an advertising internship at Foote, Cone & Belding, in Chicago. She studied for the GRE using a sample booklet. The verbal section was easy. The math required brushing up on her high school algebra. The logic problems, however, were a defeat to the spirit. “At the annual dancers’ ball a number of dancers performed their favorite dance with their favorite partners. Alan danced the tango, while Becky watched the waltz. James and Charlotte were fantastic together. Keith was magnificent during his foxtrot and Simon excelled at the rumba. Jessica danced with Alan. But Laura did not dance with Simon. Can you determine who danced with whom and which dance they each enjoyed?” Logic wasn’t something Madeleine had been expressly taught. It seemed unfair to be asked about it. She did as the book suggested, diagramming the problems, placing Alan, Becky, James, Charlotte, Keith, Simon, Jessica, and Laura on the dance floor of her scrap paper, and pairing them according to the instructions. But their complicated transit wasn’t a subject Madeleine’s mind naturally followed. She wanted to know why James and Charlotte were fantastic together, and if Jessica and Alan were going out, and why Laura wouldn’t dance with Simon, and if Becky was upset, watching.

One afternoon, on the bulletin board outside Hillel House, Madeleine noticed a flyer announcing the Melvin and Hetty Greenberg Fellowship for summer study at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and she applied for that. Using contacts of Alton’s in the publishing world, she put on a business suit and went down to New York for an informational interview with an editor at Simon and Schuster. The editor, Terry Wirth, had once been a bright, idealistic English major just like Madeleine, but she found him that afternoon, in his tiny, manuscript-piled office looking onto the gloomy canyon of Sixth Avenue, a middle-aged father of two with a salary far below the median of his former classmates and a nasty, hour-and-fifteen-minute commute to his split-level in Montclair, New Jersey. On the prospects of a book he was publishing that month, the memoir of a migrant farmer,

Wirth said, “Now’s the calm before the calm.” He gave Madeleine a stack of manuscripts from the slush pile to critique, offering to pay her fifty bucks a pop.

Instead of reading the manuscripts, Madeleine took the subway down to the East Village. After buying a bag of pignoli cookies at De Robertis, she plunged into a hair salon, where, on a whim, she allowed a butch woman with a short, rat-tailed haircut to go to work on her.

“Cut it close on the sides, higher on top,” Madeleine said.

“You sure?” the woman said.

“I’m sure,” Madeleine answered. To show her resolve, she took off her glasses. Forty-five minutes later, she put her glasses back on, horror-struck and elated at the transformation. Her head was really quite enormous. She had never fathomed its true size. She looked like Annie Lennox, or David Bowie. Like someone the hairdresser might be dating.

The Annie Lennox look was O.K., however. Androgyny was just the thing. Once she was back at school, Madeleine’s haircut proclaimed her serious frame of mind, and by the end of the year, when her bangs had grown out to a maddening length she didn’t know what to do with, she remained firm in her renunciations. (Her only slip-up had been the night in her bedroom with Mitchell, but nothing had happened.) Madeleine had her thesis to write. She had her future to figure out. The last thing she needed was a boy to distract her from her work and disturb her equilibrium. But then, during spring semester, she met Leonard Bankhead and her resolve went out the window.

He shaved irregularly. His Skoal had a menthol scent, cleaner, more pleasant than Madeleine expected. Whenever she looked up to find Leonard staring at her with his St. Bernard’s eyes (the eyes of a drooler, maybe, but also of a loyal brute who could dig you out of an avalanche), Madeleine couldn’t help staring back a significant moment longer.

One evening in early March, when she went to the Rockefeller Library to pick up the reserve reading for Semiotics 211, she found Leonard there as well. He was leaning against the counter, speaking animatedly to the girl on duty, who was unfortunately rather cute in a busty Bettie Page way.

“Think about it, though,” Leonard was saying to the girl. “Think about it from the point of view of the fly.”

“O.K., I’m a fly,” the girl said with a throaty laugh.

“We move in slow motion to them. They can see the swatter coming from a million miles away. The flies are like, ‘Wake me when the swatter gets close.’”

Noticing Madeleine, the girl told Leonard, “Just a sec.”

Madeleine held out her call order slip, and the girl took it and went off into the stacks.

“Picking up the Balzac?” Leonard said.


“Balzac to the rescue.”

Normally, Madeleine would have had many things to say to this, many comments about Balzac to make. But her mind was a blank. She didn’t even remember to smile until he’d looked away.

Bettie Page came back with Madeleine’s order, sliding it toward her and immediately turning back to Leonard. He seemed different than he did in class, more exuberant, supercharged. He raised his eyebrows in a crazed, Jack Nicholson way and said,

“My house fly theory is related to my theory about why time seems to go faster as you get older.”

“Why’s that?” the girl asked.

“It’s proportional,” Leonard explained. “When you’re five, you’ve only been alive a couple thousand days. But by the time you’re fifty, you’ve lived around twenty thousand days. So a day when you’re five seems longer because it’s a greater percentage of the whole.”

“Yeah, sure,” the girl teased, “that follows.”

But Madeleine had understood. “That makes sense,” she said. “I always wondered why that was.”

“It’s just a theory,” Leonard said.

Bettie Page tapped Leonard’s hand to get his attention.

“Flies aren’t always so fast,” she said.

“I’ve caught flies in my bare hands before.”

“Especially in winter,” Leonard said.

“That’s probably the kind of fly I’d be. One of those knucklehead winter flies.”

There was no good excuse for Madeleine to hang around the reserve reading room, and so she put the Balzac into her bag and headed out.

She began to dress differently on the days she had semiotics. She took out her diamond studs, leaving her ears bare. She stood in front of the mirror wondering if her Annie Hall glasses might possibly project a New Wave look. She decided not and wore her contacts. She unearthed a pair of Beatle boots she’d bought at a church basement sale in Vinalhaven. She put up her collar, and wore more black.

In Week Four, Zipperstein assigned Umberto Eco’s The Role of the Reader. It hadn’t done much for Madeleine. She wasn’t all that interested, as a reader, in the reader. She was still partial to that increasingly eclipsed entity: the writer. Madeleine had a feeling that most semiotic theorists had been unpopular as children, often bullied or overlooked, and so had directed their lingering rage onto literature. They wanted to demote the author. They wanted a book, that hard-won, transcendent thing, to be a text, contingent, indeterminate, and open for suggestions. They wanted the reader to be the main thing. Because they were readers.

Whereas Madeleine was perfectly happy with the idea of genius. She wanted a book to take her places she couldn’t get to herself. She thought a writer should work harder writing a book than she did reading it. When it came to letters and literature, Madeleine championed a virtue that had fallen out of esteem: namely, clarity. The week after they read Eco, they read portions of Derrida’s Writing and Difference. The week after that, they read Jonathan Culler’s On Deconstruction, and Madeleine came to class ready to contribute to the discussion for the first time. Before she could do so, however, Thurston beat her to it.

“The Culler was passable at best,” Thurston said.

“What didn’t you like about it?” the professor asked him.

Thurston had his knee up against the edge of the seminar table. He pushed his chair up on its back legs, scrunching up his face. “It’s readable and everything,” he said. “And well argued and all that. But it’s just a question of whether you can use a discredited discourse—like, say, reason—to explicate something as paradigmatically revolutionary as deconstruction.”

Madeleine searched along the table for mutual eye-rolling but the other students seemed eager to hear what Thurston had to say.

“Care to elaborate?” Zipperstein said.

“Well, what I mean is, first off, reason is just a discourse like any other, right? It’s only been imbued with a sense of absolute truth because it’s the privileged discourse of the West. What Derrida’s saying is that you have to use reason because, you know, reason is all there is. But at the same time you have to be aware that language is by its very nature unreasonable. You have to reason yourself out of reasonableness.” He pulled up the sleeve of his T-shirt and scratched his bony shoulder. “Culler, on the other hand, is still operating in the old mode. Mono as opposed to stereo. So from that point of view, I found the book, yeah, a little bit disappointing.”

A silence ensued. And deepened.

“I don’t know,” Madeleine said, glancing at Leonard for support.

“Maybe it’s just me, but wasn’t it a relief to read a logical argument for once? Culler boils down everything Eco and Derrida are saying into a digestible form.”

Thurston turned his head slowly to gaze across the seminar table at her.

“I’m not saying it’s bad,” he said. “It’s fine. But Culler’s work is of a different order than Derrida. Every genius needs an explainer. That’s what Culler is for Derrida.”

Madeleine shrugged this off. “I got a lot better idea of what deconstruction is from reading Culler than from reading Derrida.”

Thurston took pains to give her point of view full consideration. “It’s the nature of a simplification to be simple,” he said.

Class ended shortly after that, leaving Madeleine fuming. As she was coming out of Sayles Hall, she saw Leonard standing on the steps, holding a Coke can. She went right up to him and said, “Thanks for the help.”

“Excuse me?”

“I thought you were on my side. Why didn’t you say anything in class?”

“First Law of Thermodynamics,” Leonard said. “Conservation of energy.”

“Didn’t you agree with me?”

“I did and I didn’t,” Leonard said.

“You didn’t like the Culler?”

“The Culler’s good. But Derrida’s a heavyweight. You can’t just write him off.”

Madeleine looked dubious, but Derrida wasn’t who she was mad at. “Considering how Thurston’s always going on about how much he worships language, you’d think he wouldn’t parrot so much jargon. He used the word phallus three times today.”

Leonard smiled. “Figures if he says it it’ll be like having one.”

“He drives me crazy.”

“You want to get some coffee?”

“And fascist. That’s another of his favorites. You know the dry cleaners on Thayer Street? He called them fascist.”

“Must have gone extra heavy on the starch.”

“Yes,” Madeleine said.

“Yes, what?”

“You just invited me for coffee.”

“I did?” Leonard said. “Yes, I did. O.K. Let’s go get coffee.”

Leonard didn’t want to go to the Blue Room. He said he didn’t like to be around college students. They headed through Wayland Arch up to Hope Street, in the direction of Fox Point.

As they walked, Leonard spat into his Coke can every so often.

“Pardon my disgusting habit,” he said.

Madeleine wrinkled up her nose. “Are you going to keep doing that?”

“No,” Leonard said. “I don’t even know why I do it. It’s just something I picked up from my rodeo days.”

At the next trash can they came to, he tossed the Coke and spat out his wad of tobacco.

Within a few blocks pretty campus plantings of tulip and daffodil gave way to treeless streets lined by working-class houses painted in cheerful hues. They passed a Portuguese bakery and a Portuguese fish store selling sardines and cuttlefish. The kids here had no yards to play in but seemed happy enough, wheeling back and forth along the blank sidewalks. Nearer the highway, there were a few warehouses and, on the corner of Wickenden, a local diner.

Leonard wanted to sit at the counter. “I need to be close to the pies,” he said. “I need to see which one is talking to me.”

As Madeleine took a stool next to him, Leonard stared at the dessert case.

“Do you remember when they used to serve slices of cheese with apple pie?” he asked.

“Vaguely,” Madeleine said.

“They don’t seem to do that anymore. You and I are probably the only two people in this place who remember it.”

“Actually, I don’t remember it,” Madeleine said.

“You don’t? Never had a little slice of Wisconsin cheddar with your apple pie? I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Maybe they’ll put a slice of cheese on a piece if you ask them.”

“I didn’t say I liked it. I’m just mourning its passage.”

The conversation lapsed. And suddenly, to her surprise, Madeleine was flooded with panic. She felt the silence like a judgment against her. At the same time, her anxiety about the silence made it even harder to speak.

Though it didn’t feel nice to be so nervous, it did feel nice, in a way. It had been a while since Madeleine had been that way around a guy.

The waitress was down at the end of the counter talking to another customer.

“So why are you taking Zipperstein’s class?” she asked.

“Philosophical interest,” Leonard said. “Literally. Philosophy’s all about theory of language right now. It’s all linguistics. So I figured I’d check it out.”

“Aren’t you a biology major, too?”

“That’s what I really am,” Leonard said. “The philosophy’s just a sideline.”

Madeleine realized that she’d never dated a science major.

“Do you want to be a doctor?”

“Right now all I want to do is get the waitress’s attention.”

Leonard waved his arm a few times to no avail. Suddenly he said, “Is it hot in here?”

Without waiting for an answer, he reached into the back pocket of his jeans and pulled out a blue bandanna, which he proceeded to put over his head, tying it in back and making a number of small, precise adjustments until he was satisfied. Madeleine watched this with a slight feeling of disappointment. She associated bandannas with hacky sack, the Grateful Dead, and alfalfa sprouts, all of which she could do without. Still, she was impressed with Leonard’s sheer size on the stool next to her. His largeness, coupled with the softness—the delicacy, almost—of his voice, gave Madeleine a strange fairytale feeling, as if she were a princess sitting beside a gentle giant.

“The thing is, though,” Leonard said, still staring in the waitress’s direction,

“I didn’t get interested in philosophy because of linguistics. I got interested for the eternal verities. To learn how to die, et cetera. Now it’s more like, ‘What do we mean when we say we die?’

‘What do we mean we mean when we say we die?’”

Finally, the waitress came over. Madeleine ordered the cottage cheese plate and coffee. Leonard ordered apple pie and coffee. When the waitress left, he spun his stool rightward, so that their knees briefly touched.

“How very female of you,” he said.


“Cottage cheese.”

“I like cottage cheese.”

“Are you on a diet? You don’t look like someone on a diet.”

“Why do you want to know?” Madeleine said.

And here, for the first time, Leonard appeared rattled. Beneath the line of the bandanna, his face colored, and he spun away, breaking eye contact. “Just curious,” he said.

In the next second, he spun back, resuming the previous conversation. “Derrida’s supposed to be a lot clearer in French,” he said. “Rumor has it his prose in French is limpid.”

“Maybe I should read it in French, then.”

“You know French?” Leonard said, sounding impressed.

“I’m not great. I can read Flaubert.”

It was then that Madeleine made a big mistake. Things were going so well with Leonard, the mood was so promising—even the weather lending a hand because, after they finished their food and left the diner, walking back to campus, a March drizzle forced them to share Madeleine’s collapsible umbrella—that a feeling came over her like those she’d had as a girl when treated to a pastry or a dessert, a happiness so fraught by an awareness of its brevity that she took the tiniest bites, making the cream puff or éclair last as long as possible. In this same way, instead of seeing where the afternoon led, Madeleine decided to check its progress, to save some for later, and she told Leonard she had to go home and study.

They didn’t kiss goodbye. They didn’t come close to it.

Leonard, hunching under the umbrella, abruptly said “Bye” and hurried off through the rain, keeping his head down. Madeleine went back to the Narragansett. She lay down on her bed, and didn’t move for a long time.

The days dragged until the next meeting of Sem 211. Madeleine arrived early, choosing a seat at the seminar table next to Leonard’s usual spot. But when he showed up, ten minutes late, he took an available chair next to the professor. He didn’t say anything in class or glance in Madeleine’s direction even once. His face looked swollen and there was a line of blemishes running down one cheek. When the class ended, Leonard was the first one out the door.

The next week he missed class entirely.

And so Madeleine was left to contend with semiotics, and with Zipperstein and his disciples, all by herself.

By now they had moved on to Derrida’s Of Grammatology. The Derrida went like this: “In that sense, it is the Aufhebung of other writings, particularly of hieroglyphic script and of the Leibnizian characteristic that had been criticized previously through one and the same gesture.” In poetic moods, the Derrida went like this: “What writing itself, in its nonphonetic moment, betrays, is life. It menaces at once the breath, the spirit, and history as the spirit’s relationship with itself. It is their end, their finitude, their paralysis.”

Since Derrida claimed that language, by its very nature, undermined any meaning it attempted to promote, Madeleine wondered how Derrida expected her to get his meaning. Maybe he didn’t. That was why he deployed so much arcane terminology, so many loop-de-looping clauses. That was why he said what he said in sentences it took a minute to identify the subjects of. (Could “the access to pluridimensionality and to a delinearized temporality” really be a subject?)

Reading a novel after reading semiotic theory was like jogging empty-handed after jogging with hand weights. After getting out of Semiotics 211, Madeleine fled to the Rockefeller Library, down to B Level, where the stacks exuded a vivifying smell of mold, and grabbed something—anything, The House of Mirth, Daniel Deronda—to restore herself to sanity. How wonderful it was when one sentence followed logically from the sentence before! What exquisite guilt she felt, wickedly enjoying narrative! Madeleine felt safe with a nineteenth-century novel. There were going to be people in it. Something was going to happen to them in a place resembling the world.

Then, too, there were lots of weddings in Wharton and Austen. There were all kinds of irresistible gloomy men.

The next Thursday, Madeleine came to class wearing a Norwegian sweater with a snowflake design. She’d gone back to her glasses. For the second week in a row, Leonard didn’t show up. Madeleine worried that he’d dropped the class, but it was too late in the semester to do that. Zipperstein said,

“Has anybody seen Mr. Bankhead? Is he sick?” Nobody knew. Thurston arrived with a girl named Cassandra Hart, both of them sniffly and heroin-pale. Taking out a black Flair pen, Thurston wrote on Cassandra’s bare shoulder,

“Not Real Skin.”

Zipperstein was in a lively mood. He’d just returned from a conference in New York, dressed differently than usual. Listening to him talk about the paper he’d given at the New School, Madeleine suddenly understood. Semiotics was the form Zipperstein’s midlife crisis had taken. Becoming a semiotician allowed Zipperstein to wear a leather jacket, to fly off to Douglas Sirk retrospectives in Vancouver, and to get all the sexy waifs in his classes. Instead of leaving his wife, Zipperstein had left the English department. Instead of buying a sports car, he’d bought deconstruction.

He sat at the seminar table now and started speaking:

“I hope you read the Semiotext(e) for this week. Apropos of Lyotard, and in homage to Gertrude Stein, let me suggest the following: the thing about desire is that there is no there there.”

That was it. That was Zipperstein’s prompt. He sat before them, blinking, waiting for somebody to reply. He appeared to have all the patience in the world.

Madeleine had wanted to know what semiotics was. She’d wanted to know what the fuss was about. Well, now she felt she knew.

But then, in Week Ten, for reasons that were entirely extracurricular, semiotics began making sense.

It was a Friday night in April, just past eleven, and Madeleine was in bed, reading. The assigned text for that week was Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse. For a book purportedly about love, it didn’t look very romantic. The cover was a somber chocolate brown, the title turquoise. There was no author photograph and only a sketchy bio, listing Barthes’ other works.

Madeleine had the book in her lap. With her right hand she was eating peanut butter straight from the jar. The spoon fit perfectly against the curve of her upper palate, allowing the peanut butter to dissolve creamily against her tongue.

Opening to the introduction, she began to read:

The necessity for this book is to be found in the following consideration: that the lover’s discourse is today of an extreme solitude.

Outside, the temperature, which had remained cold through March, had shot up into the fifties. The resulting thaw was alarming in its suddenness, drainpipes and gutters dripping, sidewalks puddling, streets flooded, a constant sound of water rushing downhill.

Madeleine had her windows open on the liquid darkness. She sucked the spoon and read on:

What we have been able to say below about waiting, anxiety, memory is no more than a modest supplement offered to the reader to be made free with, to be added to, subtracted from, and passed on to others: around the figure, the players pass the handkerchief which sometimes, by a final parenthesis, is held a second longer before handing it on. (Ideally, the book would be a cooperative: “To the United Readers and Lovers.”)

It wasn’t only that this writing seemed beautiful to Madeleine. It wasn’t only that these opening sentences of Barthes’ made immediate sense. It wasn’t only the relief at recognizing that here, finally, was a book she might write her final paper on. What made Madeleine sit up in bed was something closer to the reason she read books in the first place and had always loved them. Here was a sign that she wasn’t alone. Here was an articulation of what she had been so far mutely feeling. In bed on a Friday night, wearing sweatpants, her hair tied back, her glasses smudged, and eating peanut butter from the jar, Madeleine was in a state of extreme solitude.

It had to do with Leonard. With how she felt about him and how she couldn’t tell anyone. With how much she liked him and how little she knew about him. With how desperately she wanted to see him and how hard it was to do so.

In recent days, from her solitude, Madeleine had sent out feelers. She talked about Semiotics 211 with her roommates, mentioning Thurston, Cassandra, and Leonard. It turned out that Abby knew Leonard from her freshman year.

“What was he like?” Madeleine asked.

“Sort of intense. Really smart, but intense. He used to call me all the time. Like every day.”

“Did he like you?”

“No, he just wanted to talk. He’d keep me on the phone for an hour.”

“What did you guys talk about?”

“Everything! His relationship. My relationship. His parents, my parents. Jimmy Carter getting attacked by that swamp rabbit, which he was obsessed about. He’d go on and on.”

“Who was he going out with?”

“Some girl named Mindy. But then they broke up. That’s when he really started calling me. He’d call like six times a day. He was always going on about how good Mindy smelled. She had this smell that was supposedly perfectly compatible to Leonard, chemically. He was worried no girl would ever smell right to him again. I told him it was probably her moisturizer. He said no, it was her skin. It was chemically perfect. That’s what he’s like.” She paused and gave Madeleine a searching look. “Why are you asking? Do you like him?”

“I just know him from class,” Madeleine said.

“Do you want me to invite him for dinner?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“I’ll invite him to dinner,” Abby said.

The dinner had been on Tuesday night, three days ago. Leonard had come politely bearing a gift, a set of dish towels. He’d dressed up, wearing a white shirt with a skinny necktie, his long hair gathered in a masculine ponytail like a Scottish warrior. He was touchingly sincere, saying hello to Abby, handing her the wrapped gift and thanking her for the invitation.

Madeleine tried not to seem overeager. At dinner, she paid attention to Brian Weeger, whose breath had a dog-food smell. A couple of times, when she looked over at Leonard, he stared back, fixedly, appearing almost upset. Later, when Madeleine was in the kitchen, rinsing dishes, Leonard came in. She turned to find him inspecting a bump on the wall.

“This must be an old gas main,” he said.

Madeleine looked at the bump, which had been painted over many times.

“They used to have gas lamps in these old places,” Leonard went on.

“They probably used to pump the gas up from the basement. If anybody’s pilot blew out, on any floor, you’d have a leak. Gas didn’t have an odor back then, either. They didn’t start adding methyl mercaptan until later.”

“Good to know,” Madeleine said.

“This place must have been a powder keg.” Leonard tapped the jutting object with his fingernail, turned, and looked Madeleine meaningfully in the face.

“I haven’t been going to class,” he said.

“I know.”

Leonard’s head was way up above her, but then he bent down, in a peaceful, leaf-eater motion, and said, “I haven’t been feeling well.”

“Were you sick?”

“I’m better now.”

In the living room Olivia called out, “Who wants some Delamain? It’s yummy!”

“I want some,” Brian Weeger said. “That stuff’s killer.”

Leonard said, “Were the dish towels all right?”


“The dish towels. I bought you some dish towels.”

“Oh, they’re great,” Madeleine said. “They’re perfect. We’ll use them! Thank you.”

“I would have brought wine, or scotch, but that’s the kind of thing my father would do.”

“You don’t want to do anything your father would do?”

Leonard’s face and voice remained solemn as he replied, “My father is a depressive who self-medicates with alcohol. My mother is more or less the same.”

“Where do they live?”

“They’re divorced. My mother still lives in Portland, where I’m from. My dad’s in Europe. He lives in Antwerp. Last time I heard.”

This interchange was encouraging, in a way. Leonard was sharing personal information. On the other hand, the information indicated that he had a troubled relationship with his parents, who were themselves troubled, and Madeleine made a point of going out only with guys who liked their parents.

“What does your father do?” Leonard asked.

Caught off guard, Madeleine hesitated. “He used to work at a college,” she said. “He’s retired.”

“What was he? Professor?”

“He was the president.”

Leonard’s face twitched. “Oh.”

“It’s just a small college. In New Jersey. It’s called Baxter.”

Abby came in to get some glasses. Leonard helped her get them off the top shelf. When she was gone, he turned back to Madeleine and said, as if in pain, “There’s a Fellini film playing at the Cable Car this weekend. Amarcord.”

Madeleine gazed encouragingly up at him. There were all kinds of outmoded, novelistic words to describe how she was feeling, words like aflutter. But she had her rules. One rule was that the guy had to ask her out, not the other way around.

“I think it’s playing on Saturday,” Leonard said.

“This Saturday?”

“Do you like Fellini?”

To reply to this question did not, in Madeleine’s view, compromise her rule.

“You want to know something embarrassing?” she said.

“I’ve never seen a Fellini film.”

“You should see one,” Leonard said.

“I’ll call you.”

“All right.”

“Do I have your number? Oh, right, I have it. It’s the same as Abby’s number.”

“Do you want me to write it down?” Madeleine asked.

“No,” Leonard said.

“I have it.”

And he rose, brontosaurus-like, to his place among the treetops.

For the rest of the week, Madeleine stayed in every night, waiting for Leonard to call. When she came back from classes in the afternoon she interrogated her roommates to find out if he had called while she was out.

“Some guy called yesterday,” Olivia said, on Thursday. “When I was in the shower.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Sorry, I forgot.”

“Who was it?”

“He didn’t say.”

“Did it sound like Leonard?”

“I didn’t notice. I was dripping wet.”

“Thanks for taking a message!”

“Sorree,” Olivia said.

“God. It was just a two-second call. He said he’d call back later.”

And so now it was Friday night—Friday night!—and Madeleine had declined to go out with Abby and Olivia in order to stay in and wait by the phone. She was reading A Lover’s Discourse and marveling at its relevance to her life.

attente / waiting

Tumult of anxiety provoked by waiting for the loved being, subject to trivial delays (rendezvous, letters, telephone calls, returns).

… Waiting is an enchantment: I have received orders not to move. Waiting for a telephone is thereby woven out of tiny, unavowable interdictions to infinity: I forbid myself to leave the room, to go to the toilet, even to telephone (to keep the line from being busy) …

She could hear the television going in the apartment below. Madeleine’s bedroom faced the State Capitol dome, brightly lit against the dark sky. The heat, which they couldn’t control, was still on, the radiator wastefully knocking and hissing.

The more she thought about it, the more Madeleine understood that extreme solitude didn’t just describe the way she was feeling about Leonard. It explained how she’d always felt when she was in love. It explained what love was like and, just maybe, what was wrong with it.

The telephone rang.

Madeleine sat up in bed. She dog-eared the page she was reading. She waited as long as she could (three rings) before answering.



It was Alton, calling from Prettybrook.

“Oh. Hi, Daddy.”

“Don’t sound so excited.”

“I’m studying.”

In his usual way, without niceties, he got to the matter at hand. “Your mother and I were just discussing graduation plans.”

For a moment, Madeleine thought Alton meant that they were discussing her future. But then she realized it was just logistics.

“It’s April,” she said. “Graduation’s not until June.”

“My experience with college towns is that the hotels get booked up months in advance. So we have to decide what we’re doing. Now, here are the options. Are you listening?”

“Yes,” Madeleine said, and began, at that instant, to tune out. She stuck the spoon back into the peanut butter jar and brought it to her mouth, this time just licking it.

In the phone Alton’s voice was saying,

“Option one: Your mother and I come up the night before the ceremony, stay in a hotel, and we see you for dinner the night of graduation. Option two: We come up the morning of the ceremony, have breakfast with you, and then leave after the ceremony. Both proposals are acceptable to us. It’s your choice. But let me explain the pros and cons of each scenario.”

Madeleine was about to answer when Phyllida spoke up on another extension.

“Hi, dear. I hope we didn’t wake you.”

“We didn’t wake her,” Alton barked. “Eleven o’clock’s not late at college. Especially on a Friday night. Hey, what are you doing in on a Friday night? Got a pimple?”

“Hi, Mummy,” Madeleine said, ignoring him.

“Maddy, sweetie, we’re redoing your bedroom and I wanted to ask you—”

“You’re redoing my bedroom?”

“Yes, it needs freshening up. I—”

“My room?”

“Yes. I was thinking about recarpeting it in green. You know, a good green.”

“No!” Madeleine cried.

“Maddy, we’ve kept your room the way it is for four years now—you’d think it was a shrine! I’d like to be able to use it as a guest room, occasionally, because of the en suite bathroom. You can still have it when you come home, don’t worry. It’ll always be your room.”

“What about my wallpaper?”

“It’s old. It’s peeling.”

“You can’t change my wallpaper!”

“Oh, all right. I’ll leave the wallpaper alone. But the carpet—”

“Excuse me,” Alton said in a peremptory tone. “This call is about graduation. Phyl, you’re hijacking my agenda. You two sort out the redecorating some other time. Now, Maddy, let me go over the pros and cons. When your cousin graduated from Williams, we all had dinner after the ceremony. And, if you’ll remember, Doats complained the whole time that he was missing all the parties—and he left halfway through the meal. Now, your mother and I are willing to stay the night—or two nights—if we’re going to see you. But if you’re going to be busy, maybe the breakfast option makes more sense.”

“Graduation’s two months away. I don’t even know what’s happening yet.”

“That’s what I told your father,” Phyllida said.

It occurred to Madeleine that she was tying up the line.

“Let me think about it,” she said abruptly. “I have to go. I’m studying.”

“If we’re going to stay the night,” Alton repeated, “I’d like to make reservations soon.”

“Call me later. Let me think about it. Call me Sunday.”

Alton was still speaking when she hung up, so when the phone rang again, twenty seconds later,

Madeleine picked up and said,

“Daddy, stop it. We don’t have to decide tonight.”

There was silence on the line. And then a male voice said, “You don’t have to call me Daddy.”

“Oh, God. Leonard? Sorry! I thought you were my father. He’s freaking out about graduation plans already.”

“I was just having a little freak-out myself.”

“About what?”

“About calling you.”

This was good. Madeleine ran a finger along her lower lip. She said, “Have you calmed down or do you want to call back later?”

“I’m resting comfortably now, thank you.”

Madeleine waited for more. None came. “Are you calling for a reason?” she asked.

“Yes. That Fellini film? I was hoping you might, if you’re not too, I know it’s bad manners calling so late, but I was at the lab.”

Leonard did sound a little nervous. That wasn’t good. Madeleine didn’t like nervous guys. Nervous guys were nervous for a reason. Up until now Leonard had seemed more the tortured type than the nervous type. Tortured was better.

“I don’t think that was a complete sentence,” she said.

“What did I leave out?” Leonard asked.

“How about, ‘Would you like to come with me?’”

“I’d be happy to,” Leonard said.

Madeleine frowned into the receiver. She had a feeling that Leonard had set up this exchange, like a chess player thinking eight moves ahead. She was going to complain when Leonard said, “Sorry. Not funny.” He comically cleared his throat. “Listen, would you like to go to the movies with me?”

She didn’t answer right away. He deserved a little punishment. And so she put the screws to him—for another three seconds.

“I’d love to.”

And there it was already, that word. She wondered if Leonard had noticed. She wondered what it meant that she had noticed. It was just a word, after all. A way of speaking.

The next night, Saturday, the fickle weather turned cold again. Madeleine was chilled in her brown suede jacket as she walked to the restaurant where they’d agreed to meet. Afterward, they made their way to the Cable Car and found a sagging couch among the other mismatched sofas and armchairs that furnished the art-house cinema.

She had a hard time following the movie. The narrative cues weren’t as crisp as those of Hollywood, and the film had a dream-like quality, lush but discontinuous. The audience, being a college audience, laughed knowingly during the risqué European moments: when the huge-titted woman stuffed her huge tit into the young hero’s mouth; or when the old man up in the tree cried out, “I want a woman!” Fellini’s theme appeared to be the same as Roland Barthes’—love—but here it was Italian and all about the body instead of French and all about the mind. She wondered if Leonard had known what Amarcord was going to be about. She wondered if it was his way of getting her in the mood. As it so happened, she was in the mood, but no thanks to the movie. The movie was pretty to look at but confused her and made her feel naïve and suburban. It seemed both overly indulgent and overly male.

After it was over, they made their way out onto South Main. They had no stated destination. Madeleine was pleased to realize that Leonard, though tall, wasn’t too tall. If she wore heels, the top of her head came up higher than his shoulders, almost to his chin.

“What did you think?” he said.

“Well, at least now I know what Felliniesque is.”

The downtown skyline was on their left, across the river, the spire of the Superman building visible against the unnaturally pink city sky. The streets were empty except for other people leaving the cinema.

“My goal in life is to become an adjective,” Leonard said. “People would go around saying, ‘That was so Bankheadian.’ Or, ‘A little too Bankheadian for my taste.’”

“Bankheadian has a ring,” Madeleine said.

“It’s better than Bankheadesque.”

“Or Bankheadish.”

“Ish is terrible all around. There’s Joycean, Shakespearean, Faulknerian. But ish? Who is there who’s an ish?”

“Thomas Mannish?”

“Kafkaesque,” Leonard said. “Pynchonesque! See, Pynchon’s already an adjective. Gaddis. What would Gaddis be? Gaddisesque? Gaddisy?”

“You can’t really do it with Gaddis,” Madeleine said.

“Yeah,” Leonard said. “Tough luck for Gaddis. Do you like him?”

“I read a little of The Recognitions,” Madeleine said.

They turned up Planet Street, climbing the slope.

“Bellovian,” Leonard said. “It’s extra nice when they change the spelling slightly. Nabokovian already has the v. So does Chekhovian. The Russians have it made. Tolstoyan! That guy was an adjective waiting to happen.”

“Don’t forget Tolstoyanism,” Madeleine said.

“My God!” Leonard said. “A noun! I’ve never even dreamed of being a noun.”

“What would Bankheadian mean?”

Leonard thought for a second. “‘Of or related to Leonard Bankhead (American, born 1959), characterized by excessive introspection or worry. Gloomy, depressive. See basket case.’”

Madeleine was laughing. Leonard stopped walking and took hold of her arm, looking at her seriously.

“I’m taking you to my place,” he said.


“All this time we’ve been walking? I’ve been leading you back to my place. This is how I do it, apparently. It’s shameful. Shameful. I don’t want it to be like that. Not with you. So I’m telling you.”

“I figured we were going back to your place.”

“You did?”

“I was going to call you on it. When we got closer.”

“We’re already close.”

“I can’t come up.”


“No. Not tonight.”

“Hannaesque,” Leonard said. “Stubborn. Given to ironclad positions.”

“Hannarian,” Madeleine said. “Dangerous. Not to be messed with.”

“I stand warned.”

They stood looking at each other on cold, dark Planet Street. Leonard took his hands out of his pockets to tuck his long hair behind his ears.

“Maybe I’ll come up just for a minute,” Madeleine said.

“Special Days”
fête / festivity

The amorous subject experiences every meeting
with the loved being as a festival.

1. The Festivity is what is waited for, what is expected. What I expect of the promised presence is an unheard-of totality of pleasures, a banquet; I rejoice like the child laughing at the sight of the mother whose mere presence heralds and signifies a plenitude of satisfactions: I am about to have before me, and for myself, the “source of all good things.”

“I am living through days as happy as those God keeps for his chosen people; and whatever becomes of me, I can never say that I have not tasted the purest joys of life.”

It was debatable whether or not Madeleine had fallen in love with Leonard the first moment she’d seen him. She hadn’t even known him then, and so what she’d felt was only sexual attraction, not love. Even after they’d gone out for coffee, she couldn’t say that what she was feeling was anything more than infatuation. But ever since the night when they went back to Leonard’s place after watching Amarcordand started fooling around, when Madeleine found that instead of being turned off by physical stuff, the way she often was with boys, instead of putting up with that or trying to overlook it, she’d spent the entire night worrying that she was turning Leonard off, worrying that her body wasn’t good enough, or that her breath was bad from the Caesar salad she’d unwisely ordered at dinner; worrying, too, about having suggested they order martinis because of the way Leonard had sarcastically said,

“Sure. Martinis. We can pretend we’re Salinger characters”; after having had, as a consequence of all this anxiety, pretty much no sexual pleasure, despite the perfectly respectable session they’d put together; and after Leonard (like every guy) had immediately fallen asleep, leaving her to lie awake stroking his head and vaguely hoping she didn’t get a urinary tract infection, Madeleine asked herself if the fact that she’d just spent the whole night worrying wasn’t, in fact, a surefire sign that she was falling in love. And certainly after they’d spent the next three days at Leonard’s place having sex and eating pizza, after she’d relaxed enough to be able to come at least once in a while and finally to stop worrying so much about having an orgasm because her hunger for Leonard was in some way satisfied by his satisfaction, after she’d allowed herself to sit naked on his gross couch and to walk to the bathroom knowing he was staring at her (imperfect) ass, to root for food in his disgusting refrigerator, to read the brilliant half-page of philosophy paper sticking up out of his typewriter, and to hear him pee with taurine force into the toilet bowl, certainly, by the end of those three days, Madeleine knew she was in love.

But that didn’t mean she had to tell anyone. Especially Leonard.

Leonard Bankhead had a studio apartment on the third floor of a low-rent student building. The halls were full of bikes and junk mail. Stickers decorated the other tenants’ doors: a fluorescent marijuana leaf, a silk-screen Blondie. Leonard’s door, however, was as blank as the apartment inside. In the middle of the room, a twin mattress lay beside a plastic milk crate supporting a reading lamp. There was no desk, no bookcase, not even a table, only the nasty couch, with a typewriter on another milk crate in front of it. There was nothing on the walls but bits of masking tape and, in one corner, a small portrait of Leonard, done in pencil. The drawing showed Leonard as George Washington, wearing a tricorne hat and sheltering under a blanket at Valley Forge. The caption read:

“You go. I like it here.”

Madeleine thought the handwriting looked feminine.

A ficus tree endured in the corner. Leonard moved it into the sun whenever he remembered to. Madeleine, taking pity on the tree, began to water it, until she caught Leonard looking at her one day, his eyes narrowed with suspicion.

“What?” she said.


“Come on. What?”

“You’re watering my tree.”

“The soil’s dry.”

“You’re taking care of my tree.”

She stopped doing it after that.

There was a tiny kitchen where Leonard brewed and reheated the gallon of coffee he drank every day. A big greasy wok sat on the stove. The most Leonard did in the way of preparing a meal, however, was to pour Grape Nuts into the wok. With raisins. Raisins satisfied his fruit requirement.

The apartment had a message. The message said: I am an orphan. Abby and Olivia asked Madeleine what she and Leonard did together and she never had an answer. They didn’t do anything. She came to his apartment and they lay down on the mattress and Leonard asked her how she was doing, really wanting to know.

What did they do? She talked; he listened; then he talked and she listened. She’d never met anyone, and certainly not a guy, who was so receptive, who took everything in. She guessed that Leonard’s shrink-like manner came from years of seeing shrinks himself, and though another of her rules was to never date guys who went to shrinks, Madeleine began to reconsider this prohibition. Back home, she and her sister had a phrase for serious emotional talks. They called it “having a heavy.” If a boy approached during one, the girls would look up and give warning:

“We’re having a heavy.” And the boy would retreat. Until it was over. Until the heavy had passed.

Going out with Leonard was like having a heavy all the time. Whenever she was with him, Leonard gave her his full attention. He didn’t stare into her eyes or smother her the way Billy had, but he made it clear he was available. He offered little advice. Only listened, and murmured, reassuringly.

People often fell in love with their shrinks, didn’t they? That was called transference and was to be avoided. But what if you were already sleeping with your shrink? What if your shrink’s couch was already a bed?

And plus it wasn’t all heavy, the heavies. Leonard was funny. He told hilarious stories in a deadpan voice. His head sank into his shoulders, his eyes filled with rue, as his sentences drawled on. “Did I ever tell you I play an instrument? The summer my parents got divorced, they sent me to live with my grandparents in Buffalo. The people next door were Latvian, the Bruverises. And they both played the kokle.

Do you know what a kokle is?

It’s sort of like a zither, but Latvian.

“Anyway, I used to hear Mr. and Mrs. Bruveris playing their kokles over in the next yard. It was an amazing sound. Sort of wild and over-stimulated on the one hand, but melancholy on the other. The kokle is the manic-depressive of the string family. Anyway, I was bored to death that summer. I was sixteen. Six foot one. One hundred and thirty-eight pounds. A major reefer smoker. I used to get high in my bedroom and blow the smoke out the window, and then I’d go out to the porch and listen to the Bruverises playing next door. Sometimes other people came over. Other kokle players. They set up lawn chairs in the backyard and they’d all sit there playing together. It was an orchestra! A kokle orchestra. Then one day they saw me watching and invited me over. They gave me potato salad and a grape Popsicle and I asked Mr. Bruveris how you played a kokle and he started giving me lessons. I used to go over there every day. They had an old kokle they let me borrow. I used to practice five, six hours a day. I was into it.

“At the end of that summer, when I had to leave, the Bruverises gave me the kokle. To keep. I took it on the plane with me. I got a separate seat for it, like I was Rostropovich. My father had moved out of the house by then. So it was just me, my sister, and my mother. And I kept on practicing. I got good enough that I joined this band. We used to play at ethnic festivals and Orthodox weddings. We had these traditional costumes, embroidered vests, puffy sleeves, knee-high boots. Me and all the adults. Most of them were Latvian, some Russians, too. Our big number was ‘Otchi Tchornyia.’ That’s the only thing that saved me in high school. The kokle.”

“Do you still play?”

“Hell no. Are you kidding? The kokle?”

Listening to Leonard, Madeleine felt impoverished by her happy childhood. She never wondered why she acted the way she did, or what effect her parents had had on her personality. Being fortunate had dulled her powers of observation. Whereas Leonard noticed every little thing. For instance, they spent a weekend on Cape Cod (partly to visit Pilgrim Lake Laboratory, where Leonard was applying for a research fellowship), and as they were driving back, Leonard said, “What do you do? Just hold it?”


“You just hold it. For two days. Until you get back home.”

As his meaning seeped in, she said, “I can’t believe you!”

“You have never, ever, taken a dump in my presence.”

“In your presence?”

“When I am present. Or nearby.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“What’s wrong with it? Nothing. If you’re talking about I-sleep-over-and-go-off-to-class-the-next-morning and then you go and take a dump, that’s understandable. But when we spend two, almost three days together, eating surf and turf, and you do not take a dump the entire time, I can only conclude that you are more than a little anal.”

“So what? It’s embarrassing!” Madeleine said.

“O.K.? I find it embarrassing.”

Leonard stared at her without expression and said, “Do you mind when I take a dump?”

“Do we have to talk about this? It’s sort of gross.”

“I think we do need to talk about it. Because you’re obviously not very relaxed around me, and I am—or thought I was—your boyfriend, and that means—or should mean—that I’m the person you’re most relaxed around. Leonard equals maximum relaxation.”

Guys weren’t supposed to be the talkers. Guys weren’t supposed to get you to open up. But this guy was; this guy did. He’d said he was her “boyfriend,” too. He’d made it official.

“I’ll try to be more relaxed,” Madeleine said, “if it’ll make you happy. But in terms of—excretion—don’t get your hopes up.”

“This isn’t for me,” Leonard said. “This is for Mr. Lower Intestine. This is for Mr. Duodenum.”

Even though this kind of amateur therapy didn’t exactly work (after that last conversation, for instance, Madeleine had more, not less, trouble going Number 2 if Leonard was within a mile), it affected Madeleine deeply. Leonard was examining her closely. She felt handled in the right way, like something precious or immensely fascinating. It made her happy to think about how much he thought about her.

By the end of April, Madeleine and Leonard had gotten into a routine of spending every night together. On weeknights, after Madeleine finished studying, she headed over to the biology lab, where she’d find Leonard staring at slides with two Chinese grad students. After she finally got Leonard to leave the lab, Madeleine then had to cajole him into sleeping at her place. At first, Leonard had liked staying at the Narragansett. He liked the ornate moldings and the view from her bedroom. He charmed Olivia and Abby by making pancakes on Sunday mornings. But soon Leonard began to complain that they always stayed at Madeleine’s place and that he never got to wake up in his own bed. Staying at Leonard’s place, however, required Madeleine to bring a fresh set of clothes each night, and since he didn’t like her to leave clothes at his place (and, to be honest, she didn’t like to, either, because whatever she left picked up a fusty smell), Madeleine had to carry her dirty clothes around to classes all day. She preferred sleeping at her own apartment, where she could use her own shampoo, conditioner, and loofah, and where it was “clean-sheet day” every Wednesday. Leonard never changed his sheets. They were a disturbing gray color. Dust balls clung to the edges of the mattress. One morning, Madeleine was horrified to see a calligraphic smear of blood that had leaked from her three weeks earlier, a stain she’d attacked with a kitchen sponge while Leonard was sleeping.

“You never wash your sheets!” she complained.

“I wash them,” Leonard said evenly.

“How often?”

“When they get dirty.”

“They’re always dirty.”

“Not everyone can drop off their laundry at the cleaners every week. Not everybody grew up with ‘clean-sheet day.’”

“You don’t have to drop them off,” Madeleine said, undeterred. “You’ve got a washer in the basement.”

“I use the washer,” Leonard said. “Just not every Wednesday. I don’t equate dirt with death and decay.”

“Oh, and I do? I’m obsessed with death because I wash my sheets?”

“People’s attitudes to cleanliness have a lot to do with their fear of death.”

“This isn’t about death, Leonard. This is about crumbs in the bed. This is about the fact that your pillow smells like a liverwurst sandwich.”


“It does!”


“Smell it, Leonard!”

“It’s salami. I don’t like liverwurst.”

To a certain extent, this kind of arguing was fun. But then came nights when Madeleine forgot to pack a change of clothes and Leonard accused her of doing this on purpose in order to force him to sleep at her place. Next, more worryingly, came nights when Leonard said he was going home to study and would see her tomorrow. He began pulling all-nighters. One of his philosophy professors offered Leonard the use of his cabin in the Berkshires and, for an entire rainy weekend, Leonard went there, alone, to write a paper on Fichte, returning with a typescript 123 pages long and wearing a bright orange hunter’s vest. The vest became his favorite item of clothing. He wore it all the time.

He started finishing Madeleine’s sentences. As if her mind was too slow. As if he couldn’t wait for her to gather her thoughts. He riffed on the things she said, going off on strange tangents, making puns. Whenever she told him he needed to get some sleep, he got angry and didn’t call her for days. And it was during this period that Madeleine fully understood how the lover’s discourse was of an extreme solitude. The solitude was extreme because it wasn’t physical. It was extreme because you felt it while in the company of the person you loved. It was extreme because it was in your head, that most solitary of places.

The more Leonard pulled away, the more anxious Madeleine became. The more desperate she became, the more Leonard pulled away. She told herself to act cool. She went to the library to work on her marriage-plot thesis, but the sex-fantasy atmosphere—the reading-room eye contact, the beckoning stacks—made her desperate to see Leonard. And so against her will her feet began leading her back across campus through the darkness to the biology department. Up to the last moment, Madeleine had the crazy hope that this expression of weakness might in fact be strength. It was a brilliant strategy because it lacked all strategy. It involved no games, only sincerity. Seeing such sincerity, how could Leonard fail to respond? She was almost happy as she came up behind the lab table and tapped Leonard on the shoulder, and her happiness lasted until he turned around with a look not of love but of annoyance.

It didn’t help that it was spring. Every day, people seemed more and more unclothed. The magnolia trees, budding on the green, looked positively enflamed. They sent out a perfume that drifted through the windows of Semiotics 211. The magnolia trees hadn’t read Roland Barthes. They didn’t think love was a mental state; the magnolias insisted it was natural, perennial.

On a beautiful warm May day, Madeleine showered, shaved her legs with extra care, and put on her first spring dress: an apple-green baby-doll dress with a bib collar and a high hem. With this, she wore Buster Browns, cream and rust, and went sockless. Her bare legs, toned from a winter of squash-playing, were pale but smooth. She kept her glasses on, left her hair loose, and walked over to Leonard’s apartment on Planet Street. On the way, she stopped at a market to buy a hunk of cheese, some Stoned Wheat Thins, and a bottle of Valpolicella. Coming down the hill from Benefit toward South Main, she felt the warm breeze between her thighs. The front door of Leonard’s building was propped open with a brick, so she went up to his apartment and knocked. Leonard opened the door. He looked like he’d been napping.

“Niiiiice dress,” he said.

They never made it to the park. They picnicked on each other. As Leonard pulled her toward the mattress, Madeleine dropped her packages, hoping the wine bottle didn’t break. She slipped her dress over her head. Soon they were naked, raiding, it felt like, a huge basket of goodies. Madeleine lay on her stomach, her side, her back, nibbling all the treats, the nice-smelling fruit candies, the meaty drumsticks, as well as more sophisticated offerings, the biscotti flavored with anise, the wrinkly truffles, the salty spoonfuls of olive tapenade. She’d never been so busy in her life. At the same time, she felt strangely displaced, not quite her usual tidy ego but merged with Leonard into a great big protoplasmic, ecstatic thing. She thought she’d been in love before. She knew she’d had sex before. But all those torrid adolescent gropings, all those awkward backseat romps, the meaningful, performative summer nights with her high school boyfriend Jim Mc
Manus, even the tender sessions with Billy where he insisted they look into each other’s eyes as they came—none of that prepared her for the wallop, the all-consuming pleasure, of this.

Leonard was kissing her. When she could bear no more, Madeleine grabbed him savagely by his ears. She pulled Leonard’s head away and held it still to show him the evidence of how she felt (she was crying now). In a hoarse voice edged with something else, a sense of peril, Madeleine said, “I love you.”

Leonard stared back at her. His eyebrows twitched. Suddenly, he rolled sideways off the mattress. He stood up and walked, naked, across the room. Crouching, he reached into her bag and pulled out A Lover’s Discourse, from the pocket where she always kept it. He flipped the pages until he found the one he wanted. Then he returned to the bed and handed the book to her.

I Love You
je-t’aime / I-love-you

As she read these words, Madeleine was flooded with happiness. She glanced up at Leonard, smiling. With his finger he motioned for her to keep going. The figure refers not to the declaration of love, to the avowal, but to the repeated utterance of the love cry.
Suddenly Madeleine’s happiness diminished, usurped by the feeling of peril. She wished she weren’t naked. She narrowed her shoulders and covered herself with the bedsheet as she obediently read on.

Once the first avowal has been made, “I love you" has no meaning whatever …

Leonard, squatting, had a smirk on his face.

It was then that Madeleine threw the book at his head.

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