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Vol. 4, No. 3

Goodbye, My Love
by Jennifer Egan

~

Sunlight pried open his sticky eyelids, forcing him awake. He'd forgotten to close the blinds. It had been five o'clock by the time he'd slept, after hours of helpless wandering in the Vomero, where he'd solicited an array of lousy directions to the police station; after locating it finally and relaying his sad tale (excluding the identity of the pickpocket) to an officer with oiled hair and an attitude of pristine indifference; after procuring a ride to his hotel (which was all he'd really been after) from an elderly couple he met at the station, whose passports had been stolen on the Amalfi ferryboat.
    Now Ted rose from bed with a throbbing head and stampeding heart. A confetti of phone messages strewed the table: five from Beth, three from Susan, and two from Alfred ("lost," read one, in the broken English of the hotel clerk). Ted left them where he'd thrown them. He showered, dressed without shaving, drank a vodka at the minibar, took more money from the room safe. He had to find Madeline--now, today, instantly, and this imperative, which had seized him at no specific moment, assumed an urgency that was the perfect inverse of his earlier avoidance of it. There were other things he must do--call Beth, call Susan, eat--but doing them now was out of the question. He had to find her. Had to find her.
    But where? Ted deliberated this question while downing two espressos in the hotel lobby, letting the caffeine and vodka greet in his brain like fighting fish. Where to look for Madeline in this sprawling, malodorous city? He reviewed the plans he'd never executed before--approaching kids at the train station, the youth hostels, but no, no, he'd waited too long for any of that. There was no more time.
    Without a clear plan, he took a taxi to the Museo Nazionale and set off in what seemed the direction he'd walked the day before, after viewing the Orpheus and Eurydice. Nothing looked the same, but surely his state of mind could account for the difference, the tiny metronome of panic now ticking within him. Nothing looked the same, yet everything looked familiar--the stained churches and slanting crusty walls, the bars shaped like hangnails. After following a narrow street to its wriggling conclusion, he emerged onto a thoroughfare lined with a gauntlet of weary palazzi, their bottom floors gouged open to accommodate cheap clothing and shoe stores. A breeze of recognition fluttered over Ted. He traversed the avenue slowly, looking right and left, and finally spotted the coat of arms painted over with a yellow smiley face.
    He pushed open the diminutive rectangular door cut into the broad, curved entrance built to receive coaches and horses, then followed a passageway into a cobbled courtyard still warm from recent sunlight. It smelled of melons and garbage. A bandy-legged old woman wearing blue kneesocks under her dress bobbled toward him, hair in a scarf. "Madeline," Ted said, into her faded wet eyes. "American. Capelli rossi." He tripped on the r and tried again. "Rossi," he said, rolling it this time. "Capelli rossi."
    "No, no," the woman muttered, shaking her head and puffing out her cheeks. As she began to lurch away, Ted followed, slipped a twenty-dollar bill into her soft hand and inquired again, rolling the r this time without a hitch. The woman made a clicking noise, jerked her chin, and then, looking almost sad, gestured for Ted to follow her back the way he'd come. He did, filled with disdain at how easily she'd been bought, how little her protection was worth. To one side of the front door was a broad flight of stairs, glimmers of rich, Neapolitan marble still winking up through the grime. The woman began climbing slowly, clutching the rail. Ted followed.
    The second floor, as he'd been lecturing his undergraduates for years, was the piano nobile, where families brandished their wealth before guests. Even now, littered with molting pigeons and stuccoed with piles of their refuse, its vaulted arches overlooking the courtyard were still illumined by some vestigial splendor. Seeing him notice the architecture, the woman said, "Bellissima, eh? Ecco, guardate!" And with a pride Ted found oddly moving, she threw open the door to a big dim room whose walls were stained with what looked like patches of mold. The woman pulled a switch, and a lightbulb dangling from a wire transfigured the moldy shapes into painted murals in the style of Titian and Giorgione, robust naked women holding fruit; clumps of dark leaves. A whisper of silvery birds. This must have been the ballroom.
    On the third floor Ted noticed the first of the youths like the ones he'd been avoiding in Naples, two boys hunched in a doorway, sharing the butt of a cigarette. A third lay asleep under a straggling assortment of laundry: wet socks and underwear pinned carefully to a wire. Ted smelled dope and olive oil, heard a mutter of subterranean activity and realized that this palazzo had become a rooming house. So, he thought, amused by the irony of finding himself amidst this demimonde, here we are. At last.
    On the fifth and top floor, where servants once had lived, the doors were smaller, set along a narrow hallway. Ted's elderly guide stopped to rest against a wall, eyes closed, breath whistling in her chest. In the course of the ascent, Ted's contempt for her had been supplanted by gratitude--what effort that twenty dollars had cost her! How badly she must need it. "I'm sorry," he said, "I'm sorry you had to walk so far." But the woman shook her head, not understanding. She tottered partway down the hall and rapped sharply on one of the narrow doors, speaking in Italian. When the door opened he saw Madeline, half asleep, dressed in a pair of men's pajamas. At the sight of Ted her eyes widened, but her face, that pale triangular mask, remained impassive. "Hi, Uncle Teddy," she said mildly.
    "Madeline," he said, realizing only then that he, too, was breathless from the climb. "I wanted to . . . to talk to you."
    "No problem."
    The woman's gaze jumped between them; abruptly she turned and began her precarious journey back downstairs. Ted watched her go, but the moment she rounded a corner, Madeline shut the door in his face. "Go away," she said. "I can't talk to you now, I'm busy."
    "I will not," he said. "I will not go away." He moved nearer the door, flattening his palm against the splintery wood. Across it, he felt the angry, frightened presence of his niece. "It's true, what you told me before," he reflected. "You live in a palace."
    "I'm moving someplace better any day."
    "When you pick enough pockets?"
    There was a pause. "That wasn't me," she said. "That was a friend of mine."
    "You've got friends all over the place, but I never actually see them."
    "Why would you?" she said haughtily. "Why should they want to see you?"
    "Retail! Now I know what that means."
    "I'm not a thief!" she insisted in a high, thready voice.
    "You do a beautiful impersonation."
    "Fuck you. I don't care what you think. Why can't you leave me alone?" She sounded close to tears.
    "I'd like to," Ted said. "Believe me."
    But he couldn't. Even when he heard Madeline burrowing deeper inside her apartment, he could not bring himself to leave, or even really move. Finally he bent his knees and slid to the floor. By now it was afternoon, and an aureole of musty light issued from a window at one end of the hall. Ted rubbed his eyes. He felt as if he might sleep.
    "Are you still there?" Madeline demanded through the door.
    "Still here."
    "Go to hell."
    I believe we're there, Ted imagined saying.
    For a long time, hours, it seemed (he'd forgotten his watch), there was silence. Occasionally Ted heard other, disembodied tenants moving inside their rooms. He imagined he was an element of the palace itself, a sensate molding or step, whose fate it was to witness the ebb and flow of generations, to feel the palace relax its medieval bulk more deeply into the earth. Another year, another fifty. Twice he stood to let other tenants pass, strung out-looking girls with jumpy hands and cracked leather purses. They hardly looked at him.
    "Are you still there?" Madeline asked, from behind the door.
    "Still here."
    She emerged from the room and locked the door quickly behind her. She wore blue jeans, a T-shirt, and plastic flip-flops, and carried a faded pink towel and a small bag. "Where are you going?" he asked, but she glanced at him and stalked down the hall without comment. Thirty minutes later she was back, hair hanging wet, trailing a floral smell of soap. She opened her door with the key, then hesitated. "I mop the halls to pay for this room, okay? I sweep the fucking courtyard. Does that make you happy?"
    "Should it?" he said. "Does it make you happy?"
    The door shook on its hinges.
    As Ted sat, feeling the evolution of the afternoon, he found himself thinking of Susan. Not the slightly different version of Susan, but Susan herself--his wife, on a day many years ago, before Ted had begun to fold up his desire. Riding the Staten Island Ferry, Susan had turned to him suddenly and said, "Let's make sure it's always like this." And such was the intermingling of their thoughts that Ted knew exactly why she'd said it: not because they'd made love that morning or drunk a bottle of Pouilly-Fuisse at lunch; not because they were stealing a weekend alone in New York, but because she had felt the passage of time. And Ted felt it, too, then, in the leaping brown water, the scudding boats, the wind--motion, chaos everywhere--and he'd held Susan's hand and said, "Always. It will always be like this."
    Recently, he'd mentioned that trip in some other context, and Susan had looked him full in the face and replied, in her new, sunny voice, "I don't remember going to New York." Amnesia, he'd thought. Brainwashing. But, of course, (he now saw) she'd been lying. That was all. He'd let her go, and she was gone.
    "Are you there?" Madeline called, but Ted didn't answer.
    She opened the door and stuck out her head. "You are," she said, sounding more grudging than angry. Ted looked up at her from the floor and said nothing. "You can come inside, I guess."
    He hauled himself to his feet and stepped inside her room. It was tiny. A single bed, a desk, a sprig of mint in a plastic cup filling the room with its scent. The red dress, hanging from a hook. The sun was just beginning to set, skidding over the tops of houses and churches and landing in the room through a single window by the bed. Something hung there, in the window: a crude circle made from what looked like a coat hanger, dangling on a string. Madeline sat anxiously on her bed, and Ted recognized, with brutal immediacy, what he'd somehow failed to see until now: how alone she was in this foreign place. How empty-handed.
    As if sensing the movement of his thoughts, Madeline said, "I used to know a lot of people. But it never really lasts."
    On the desk lay his wallet, a picture of Beth in a small round frame. There was a stack of books, most of them in English. The History of the World in 24 L-essons. The Sumptuous Treasures of Naples. At the top, a worn volume entitled Learning to Type.
    Ted turned to his niece and seized her slender shoulders, two bird's nests in his hands. The prickling sensation ached in his nostrils. "You can do it alone," he told her. "You can, Madeline. But it's going to be so much harder."
    She didn't answer. She was looking at the sun. Ted turned to look, too, staring through the window at the riot of dusty color. Turner, he thought. O'Keeffe. Paul Klee.
    On another day more than twenty years after this one, Ted, long divorced, a grandfather, would visit Madeline in Arizona. He would stand with his niece in a living room strewn with the flotsam of her teenage children and watch the western sun blaze through a sliding glass door. He would think of Naples, and feel again the jolt of surprise he remembered--the relief, the delight--when at last the sun dipped into the center of Madeline's window and was captured inside her circle of wire.
    Now he turned to her, grinning. She was doused in orange light.
    "See?" Madeline said, eyeing the sun. "It's mine."

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