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.”
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.”
“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.”
“You look pretty whacked out, Mad,” Alton said. “Big party last
“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, skindiseased 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 Voicefrom 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 plea sure 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 fundraiser 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.”
“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’mnot 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.
The Marriage Plot
- Genres: Fiction
- hardcover: 416 pages
- Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- ISBN-10: 0374203059
- ISBN-13: 9780374203054