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Vol. 4, No. 3

Goodbye, My Love
by Jennifer Egan

~

It was only as Ted pushed open the door to his hotel room, the medley of 1950s beige tones that greeted him after each day he spent not looking for Madeline, that he was assailed by the sheer outlandishness of what had just happened. It was time to make his daily call to Beth, and he imagined his sister's dumbstruck jubilation at the avalanche of good news since yesterday: not only had he located her daughter, but she'd seemed clean, reasonably healthy, mentally coherent, and in possession of at least one friend (not counting the two hundred and four people who had signed her cast)--in short, better than they'd had any right to expect. And yet Ted himself felt no such elation. Why? he wondered, lying flat on the bed with arms crossed, shutting his eyes. Why this longing for yesterday, even this morning--for the relative peace of knowing he should look for Madeline but failing to do so? He didn't know. He didn't know.

 

~

The implosion of Beth and Howie's marriage had proceeded spectacularly the summer Ted lived with them at their Lake Michigan house while he oversaw a construction site two miles away. Apart from the marriage itself, the casualties by summer's end had included the majolica plate Ted brought Beth for her birthday; sundry items of abused furniture; Beth's left shoulder, which Howie dislocated twice, and her collarbone, which he broke. While they raged inside the house, Ted would take Madeline outside, through the razor-edged reeds, to the beach. She had long red hair and blue-white skin that Beth was always trying to keep from burning. Ted took his sister's worries seriously, and always brought the sunscreen with him when they went out to the sand--sand that was too hot in the late afternoons for Madeline to walk on without screaming. He would carry her in his arms, light as a cat in her red and white two-piece, would set her on a towel and rub cream onto her shoulders and back and face, her tiny nose--she must have been five--and wonder what would become of her, growing up among all this violence. He insisted she wear her white sailor hat in the sun, though she didn't want to. He was in college, working as a contractor to pay the bills.
    "A con-trac-tor," Madeline repeated, fastidiously. "What's that?"
    "Well, he organizes different workmen to build a house."
    "Are there floor sanders?"
    "Sure. You know any floor sanders?"
    "One," she said. "He sanded our floors in our house. His name is Mark Avery."
    Ted was instantly suspicious of this Mark Avery.
    "He gave me a fish," Madeline offered.
    "A goldfish?"
    "No," she said, laughing, swatting his arm. "A bathtub fish."
    "Does it squeak?"
    "Yes, but I don't like the sound."
    These conversations went on for hours. Yet often, Ted had the uneasy sense that the child was spinning them out as a way of filling the time--to distract them both from whatever was going on inside that house. And this made her seem much older than she was, a tiny little woman, knowing, world-weary, too accepting of life's burdens even to mention them. She never once alluded to her parents, or what it was she and Ted were hiding from out on that beach.
    "Will you take me swimming?"
    "Of course," he always said.
    Only then would he allow her to doff her cap. Her hair was long and tangled and silken; it blew in his face when he carried her (as she always wished) into Lake Michigan. She would gird him with her thin legs and arms, warm from the sun, and rest her head on his shoulder. Ted sensed her mounting dread as they approached the water, but she refused to let him turn back. "No. It's okay. Go," she would mutter grimly into his neck, as if her submersion in Lake Michigan were an ordeal she was required to endure for some greater good. Ted tried different ways of making it easier for her--going in little by little, or plunging straight in--but always Madeline would gasp in pain and tighten the grip of her legs and arms around him. When it was over, when she was in, she was herself again, dog paddling despite his efforts to teach her the crawl ("I know how," she would say, impatiently, "I just don't want to"). Splashing him, teeth chattering gamely. But the entire process unsettled Ted, as if he were hurting her, forcing this immersion upon his niece when what he longed to do--fantasized about doing--was rescue her. Wrap her in a blanket and secret her from the house before dawn. Paddle away in an old rowboat he'd found. Carry her down the beach and simply not turn around. He was twenty. He trusted no one else. But he could do nothing, really, to protect his niece, and as the weeks seeped away, he began to anticipate summer's end as a dark, bad thing. Yet when the time came, it was strangely easy. Madeline clung to her mother, barely glancing at Ted as he loaded up his car and said goodbye, and he set off feeling angry at her, wounded in a way he knew was childish but couldn't seem to help, and when that feeling passed it left him exhausted, too tired even to drive. He parked outside a Dairy Queen and slept.
    "How do I know you know how to swim, if you won't show me?" he asked Madeline, back on the sand.
    "I took lessons with Rachel Costanza."
    "You're not answering my question."
    She smiled at him a little helplessly, as if she longed to hide behind her childishness but sensed that somehow, it was already too late for that. "She has a Siamese cat named Feather."
    "Why won't you swim?"
    "Oh, Uncle Teddy," she said, in one of her eerie imitations of her mother. "You wear me out."

 

~

Madeline arrived at his hotel at eight o'clock wearing a short red dress, knee-high black patent leather boots, and a regalia of cosmetics that sharpened her face into a small, ferocious mask. Her narrow eyes curved like hooks under the candied-red mass of her hair. Ted glimpsed her across the lobby and felt reluctance verging on paralysis. He had hoped urgently, cruelly, that she wouldn't show up.
    Still, he made himself cross the lobby and take her arm. "There's a good restaurant up the street," he said, "unless you have other ideas."
    She did. "You leave the planning to me," Madeline averred, blowing skeins of smoke from the window of a taxi and haranguing the driver in halting Italian as he shrieked down alleys and the wrong way up one-way streets to the Vomero, an area Ted had not seen. It was high on a hill. Reeling, he paid the driver and stood with Madeline in a gap between two buildings. The flat, sparkling city arrayed itself before them, lazily toeing the sea. Hockney, Ted thought. Díebenkorn. John Moore. In the distance, Mount Vesuvius reposed benignly. Ted pictured the slightly different version of Susan standing nearby, taking it in.
    "This is the best view in Naples," Madeline said challengingly, but Ted sensed her waiting, gauging his approval.
    "It's a wonderful view," he assured her, and added, as they ambled among the leafy residential streets, "This is the prettiest neighborhood I've seen in Naples."
    "I live here," Madeline rejoined, but Ted felt nearly certain she was lying.
    "Looks expensive," was all he said.
    Madeline explained that she was getting into retail. "I have these friends that're starting up a business selling all kinds of stuff," she said. "Wigs, cell phones, key chains. We're already making money."
    "I'm surprised you can work legally in Naples."
    She grinned. Though one of her front teeth was chipped, the rest looked healthy, surprisingly white. "No one works legally in Naples," she said.
    They reached an intersection thronged with what had to be college students (strange, Ted thought, how they looked the same everywhere), boys and girls in black leather jackets riding on Vespas, lounging on Vespas, perching, even standing on Vespas--the density of Vespas made the whole square seem to pant, and the fumes of their exhaust worked on Ted like a mild narcotic. It was dusk, and a chorus line of palm trees vamped against a Bellini sky. Madeline threaded her way among the students with brittle self-consciousness, eyes locked ahead.
    In a restaurant on the square, she asked to be seated by the window. Then she ordered the meal: fried zucchini flowers followed by pizza. Again and again she peeked outside at the youths on their Vespas. "Do you know them?" Ted finally asked, though clearly she did not; they'd hardly glanced at her as she passed.
    "Students," she said dismissively, as if the word were a synonym for nothing. "Kids."
    "They look about your age."
    "Age is a relative thing, Uncle Teddy," Madeline said, aiming a neat pipette of smoke over his head, "when you've done and seen as much as I have."
    "I'm eager to hear about that."
    "Oh, it's exhausting, and I've told it all so many times," she said, with mannered weariness. "I want to hear about you. Are you still a professor of art history? Are you a world's expert on something?"
    Unnerved by her precise memory, Ted felt the bubble of anxiety that rose in him whenever he spoke about his work. "I'm omnivorous, I guess," he said, sounding stuffy and dull to himself. "Right now I'm writing about the impact of Greek sculpture on the late nineteenth century."
    Madeline listened, eyes narrowed. "Your wife, Susan, her hair is blonde, right?"
    "Susan is blonde."
    "Does she dye it?"
    "Excuse me?"
    "I bet she highlights it," Madeline said. "There's a place in New York, can you believe? Highlights cost $350. I still read American magazines," she said, as if to persuade Ted that her information was good. "Do you love her? Susan?"
    This cool inquiry landed somewhere near Ted's solar plexus. "Aunt Susan," he corrected her.
    "Aunt." Chastened.
    "Of course I love her," Ted said quietly.
    Dinner arrived: pizza draped in buffalo mozzarella, buttery and warm in Ted's throat. After a second glass of red wine, Madeline began to talk. She had started out in London, she said, then flown to Hong Kong and entered mainland China on a boat. "Later I sneaked into Tibet on a bus," she said, "dressed as a monk. I rolled up my hair in a sock. My friends wanted me to cut it off, but I said no way, this hair is all I've got!"
    "Are those the same friends you're working with here?" Ted asked. "Did you all come to Naples together?"
    "Oh no," Madeline said. "I have no idea what happened to those other people. Some of the girls, when I saw them again in Hong Kong, they were turning tricks."
    The phrase skipped off her tongue with an ease Ted found troubling. "You're saying they're prostitutes?"
    "It happens," she said. "You run out of money, run out of things to sell. Guys, too, but not as often. A guy can always haul wood or something." There was a studied quality to her blasé, as if she believed her knowledge of prostitutes, like her travels to Tibet, were inherently impressive. Ted felt a flicker of distaste, the plucking of a string. She was his niece, he reminded himself. She was Madeline.
    "I've met rich people, too," she assured him. "I've been on yachts four times. Well, one was a sailboat. Or can a sailboat also be a yacht?"
    "I'm not a connoisseur of yachts," Ted said grimly. "Or sailboats."
    "I've met almost every kind of person there is," Madeline went on, "and I write down things about each different one, and then the next time I meet that kind of person, I know exactly what they'll do."
    "Really. You can predict their behavior." His sarcasm was palpable.
    "Literally," she said. "Like the other day, I met this girl on the beach, and she said her family would take me to the circus with them if I came back the next day at the same time. And I said, now tell me exactly what time, because I knew her type from before, I had it written down. And she told me six o'clock. So I came to the beach at six o'clock, and no one was there!"
    She said this triumphantly, but Ted pictured Madeline arriving alone to an empty beach. "That's awful," he said.
    "It wasn't awful," she said sharply. "It was exactly what I thought."
    "Then why show up at all?"
    "To see if I was right!" she said, then lapsed into disheartened silence. Outside it was dark, the teenagers had long ago dispersed. "We might as well go," she said.
    The night had brought a chill, and Madeline didn't have a coat. "Please wear my jacket," Ted urged her, removing the worn, heavy tweed, but she wouldn't hear of it. He sensed her wish to remain fully visible in her red dress. The tall boots exaggerated her limp.
    After a walk of many blocks, they reached a generic-looking nightclub whose doorman waved them listlessly inside. By now it was midnight. "This place is owned by friends of mine," Madeline said. "I keep saying I'll come, but I never have any time!"
    They might have been anyplace in the world: black walls, neon purple light that leeched into everything white; a beat with all the variety of a jackhammer. Even Ted, no connoisseur of nightclubs, felt the tired familiarity of the scene, yet Madeline seemed electrified. "Buy me a drink Uncle Teddy, would you?" she said. "Something with an umbrella on top."
    Ted shoved his way toward the bar. Being away from his niece felt like opening a window, loosening an airless oppression. Her pretensions and bragging, her insincerity--all of it exhausted and dismayed him. She'd been through so much, yet emerged without knowledge or wisdom--she was less, not more, than she would otherwise have been. He felt angry, as if she'd broken a promise.
    Madeline had saved for him a soft stool at a low table, a setup that made Ted feel like an ape, knees jammed under his chin. As she hoisted the barbaric umbrella drink to her lips, he noticed slivers of pale scar tissue on the inside of her wrist, accentuated by the purple light. He took her arm in his hands and turned it over; Madeline allowed this until she saw what he was looking at, then yanked her arm away. "That's from before," she said. "In Los Angeles."
    "Let me see."
    She wouldn't. And to his own amazement, Ted reached across the table and seized her wrists in his hands, wresting them over by force. Madeline resisted, and as he twisted her shaking arms, Ted knew he was hurting her and took a certain angry pleasure in it. Finally she surrendered, averting her eyes while he splayed her forearms on the table and studied them in the cold, weird light. Amid the red streaks his own hands had made, they were scarred and scuffed like furniture, bumps and knots and cuts that should have had stitches, but obviously had not.
    "A lot are by accident," Madeline said. "My balance was really off--that's how I broke my leg."
    "You've had a bad time." He wanted her to admit it.
    "I hardly remember it."
    "Try."
    There was a long silence. Finally Madeline said, "I thought I saw my father. Isn't that stupid?"
    "Not necessarily."
    "I looked across a room--bam--I saw his hair. Or his legs, I still remember the exact shape of his legs. Or his hands. That way he used to tilt back his head when he laughed--do you remember, Uncle Teddy?"
    "I remember."
    "Everywhere," she said. "Everywhere. And I thought it might really be him, like maybe he was following me to make sure I'd be okay."
    Ted let go of her arms, and she folded them in her lap. "Did you see him in Tibet?" he asked.
    "Two times. Once, I went by a food stall and he was eating soup. But I kept walking, because I thought if he knew I saw, he might go away. Another time he passed me on a bike--I thought he did," she corrected herself. "It was stupid. I've been childish for most of my life, Uncle Teddy."
    "You were a child," he said. "That's different."
    Madeline made a face. "An awful child," she said, derisively. "A ridiculous little girl."
    Ted flinched as though she'd struck him. "How can you say that?"
    "Well, no one exactly stuck around."
    "Your mother's around," Ted informed her over the thudding of his temples. "She's been sitting at home five goddamn years, waiting for the phone to ring."
    "She can't help me," Madeline said.
    "You were a wonderful little girl." Belligerent, insisting--he didn't care. "A beautiful, sweet little girl." He felt as if Madeline had destroyed that child, snuffed her out.
    They sat in silence. Ted felt the gimlet gaze of his niece upon him. "Uncle Teddy," she finally said. "What are you doing here?"
    It was the question he'd been dreading from the first, yet the answer slid from him like meat falling off a bone. "I'm here to look at art," he said. "To look at art and think about art."
    There: a sudden, lifting sensation of peace. Relief. He hadn't come for Madeline, it was true. She made no difference.
    "Art?" Madeline said.
    "That's what I like to do," he said, and smiled. Smiled at his niece, forgave her all in one magnanimous instant. "That's what I'm always trying to do. That's what I care about."
    In Madeline's face there was a shift, a slackening, as if some weight she'd been bracing herself against had abruptly been removed. Then the artifice seemed to drain from her all at once, leaving a wan, dispirited girl of twenty-two, slumped on a stool. "I thought you came to look for me," she said.
    Ted watched her from a distance. A peaceful distance.
    Madeline lit one of her Marlboros, and Ted noticed for the first time that her nails were red; she'd painted them since this afternoon. After two drags, she squashed it out.
    "Let's dance," she said, a heaviness about her as she rose from her stool. "Come on, Uncle Teddy," taking his hand, herding him toward the dance floor, a liquid mass of bodies that provoked in Ted a frightened sensation of shyness. He hesitated, resisting, but Madeline hauled him in among the other dancers and instantly he felt buoyed, suspended. How long had it been since he'd danced in a nightclub? Fifteen years? More! Hesitantly, Ted began to move, feeling hulking, bearish in his professor's tweed, moving his feet in some approximation of dance steps until he noticed that Madeline was not moving at all. She stood quite still, watching him. And then she reached for Ted, encircled him with her long arms and clung to him so that he felt her modest bulk, the height and weight of this new Madeline, his grown-up niece who had once been so small, and the irrevocability of that transformation loosed in Ted a jagged sorrow, so his throat seized and a painful tingling fizzed in his nostrils. He cleaved to Madeline. She was gone, that little girl, gone with the passionate boy who had loved her.
    Finally she pulled away. "Wait," she said, not meeting his eyes. "I'll be right back." Disoriented, Ted hovered amidst the dancing Italians until a mounting sense of awkwardness drove him from the floor. He lingered near it, waiting for his niece. Eventually, he circled the club. She'd mentioned having friends there--could she be talking to them somewhere? Had she gone outside? Anxious, befuddled from his own umbrella drink, Ted ordered a San Pellegrino at the bar, and only then, as he reached for his wallet and found it gone, did he realize that she'd robbed him.

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