Tuesday, April 17, 2012

fear (a love story)

Madeleine Beauregard was very, very afraid; but you would never know it from the look of her. In fact, most who met her would say that she was one of the most confident, the most self-assured, the most put-together women they had ever encountered.

Little Joe Cockerel, on the other hand, was a terrified mouse of a man, and no one ever doubted it. Nor did he give them much of a chance to do otherwise; for he lived a simple, quiet life, cloistered away in his workshop apartment—a quiet place tacked-on and tucked-under the back of the old brownstone at 36 East 3rd Street in New York, New York; a place accessible only through a faded and barely-trafficked red door at the bottom of a narrow flight of concrete steps.

Little Joe was a diminutive fellow. Not short, really, but hunched in on himself and a little nervous, as though he were always expecting to be scooped up by some wind-borne predator. He was thirty-two years old. No one actually ever called him "little" in person... but I will, because it suits him.

Madeleine was thirty-one, and possessed of the sort of librarian good looks and breezy savoir faire that could easily drive a man to distraction... and often did. She wouldn't exactly be called a raving beauty—not exactly—but there was a voluptuous, organic wildness about her that spoke promises of the sort of paradoxically restrained freedom that men find irresistible. Madeleine fell quickly into and out of love, and therein lay her fear. For in the passage of the loves that from time to time lit the air around her with an incandescent shimmer, never once had she found that one, illimitable love that could consumer her, envelop her, driving her to strip off the caution of years and plunge unreservedly through the mirrored surface of the fountain of contractual, conjugal bliss.

Madeleine had been fortunate, at the age of twenty-two, to fall into the inheritance of one of those eclectic clothing boutiques that combine a wild, bohemian sensibility with the subtle refinement of haute couture, and had such a deft touch for both the aesthetics and practical concerns of the store that she had quickly grown her business to the point where she was free—as a woman of somewhat leisurely means—to follow her whims around the sleepless city, writing poems and exploring the possibilities of a steady stream of paramours. None seemed quite satisfactory.

On the morning our story begins, in the summer of two thousand and ten, Little Joe Cockerel mounted the steps that climbed sharply from his door to the street, and proceeded to walk toward the post office, hugging the alleyway wall and bearing two large burlap sacks, which were filled to overflowing with the smallish, cardboard packages that were his trade and (it depresses me even now to say it) his life.

Madeleine and Joe were about to meet, but they did not know it. Neither did they know that they were as close to what you might call "soul-mates" as is humanly possible; which is to say that their unique proclivities and personalities were such that, should all have gone well, they would have been capable of giving each other such a love. They also did not know that, ultimately, this would not matter in the least because—in addition to being soul-mates—they were also that most pedestrian sort of human couplings, a pair of fear-crossed lovers.

It was a seven-block trek to the My Village Postal Store from Joe's apartment, but although there was a much closer place to mail his packages, he never went anywhere else. He was a creature of great habit, and had a stubborn streak that made him resent the looming impersonality of any large organization—government or otherwise. Over the years, he had worn a rut into the sidewalk; and so it was that he had his head-down and was deep in thought when he came to the corner of East 3rd and First Avenue, where he walked directly into Madeleine Beauregard—who had paused, in that lilting manner of hers, to gaze up at a small, bright blue bird that was singing down at her from the branches of a leafy Ginko tree.

Madeleine—who had been standing directly next to the chain-link fence that held back the square-cut shrub hemming in the Ginko—managed to grab hold and remain upright, but Joe flailed every which way and fell to the sidewalk, dropping his bags and scattering his packages asunder.

Although Madeleine was a creature of intense passions, capable of quick, fiery anger, there was something in Joe's forlorn, supine figure that drew her compassion, rather than ire. So prolific and sincere was he in his mumbled, eyes-diverted apologies, that she completely forgot his rude bump and the still-singing bluebird; and instead bent to help him retrieve his packages—replacing them, one-by-one, into the burlap sacks.

She could tell he wanted nothing more than to retrieve his packages and get away; but by this time, she was immensely curious. Why burlap sacks, she wondered? And why, despite the obvious nervousness he evinced at her proximity, was he so eager to escape? A long familiarity with the process of the making of loves had attuned her to the attentions of men, and although she could feel his immediate attraction on a pheromonal level, she was intrigued to note that his eagerness to be rid of her was as genuine as it was atypical.

"So... what's in the packages?" she asked.

He hemmed a little at the cage her words presented, but before he could speak, she lifted the last box (which, unbeknownst to her, had torn open in the fall) and out slid a stuffed gopher on a polished wooden pedestal. It was dressed in the uniform of a confederate soldier and carried a miniature, bayoneted rifle. When it hit the ground, there was a sharp "plink," and the bayonet snapped completely off, just like that.

"Hey!" he said, losing his typical insecurity in a flash of consternation at seeing one of his, his... babies damaged.

Madeleine, reaching over to pick up the gopher, saw that it was in fact the actual carcass of a dead animal. She paused, simultaneously repulsed and, oddly, attracted by the sheer bizarreness of it. Joe quickly recovered the gopher and, shrinking back into himself, picked up his burlap sacks and proceeded off once more in the direction of the postal store, throwing another apology over his shoulder as he went. It is not that he was unaware of the strangeness of his burden, or of Madeleine's effect on him—quite the contrary. Joe was horrifically embarrassed and flustered by the experience, and therefore continued on his way only marginally more attentive to his passage than before.

Madeleine was used to men of all kinds. Although she, of course, received more attention from the brash, self-thrusting sort of men not afraid to approach a woman who shimmered with such sensual vitality, she nonetheless had no qualms whatsoever about directly interpolating herself into the lives of the more retiring men who'd caught her fancy. Some might see this as overly forward, but the truth is that this proclivity of hers came directly from the intense compassion and curiosity she bore for all of life, everywhere. She felt for these shyer men in their discomfort, and therefore it made perfect sense to her to make it easier for them. She was something... ephemeral, really—by nature in love with everything and everyone who crossed her path.

"I'm Madeleine," she said, when she had at last drawn parallel. Joe nodded and apologized again, but when he kept walking and did not offer his own name in return, she put herself even further forward by grabbing his sleeve, and asking him outright. "So... what's your name."

He stopped. Paused. Considered the long, tapered fingers tugging at his shirt and her eager, questioning face. And it was then—glancing into the shining, bottomless depths of those limpid brown eyes—that he knew that he loved her. In that moment of all moments, the steady, rational momentum of his life completely abandoned him; and he knew that nothing mattered more than that she not stop looking at him in this way—now, and for the rest of his days.

He forgot his careful resolutions, stacked against the walls of his heart like thousands of tightly-sealed cardboard boxes, and abandoned for that moment the suddenly-hazy memories of his anguished romantic past—of the woman he once had loved, imperfectly, for so long that he had lost track of how to be himself. He forgot the way she had left him in his cave of an apartment—alone, he'd thought, forever, with only his gophers and the pungent smells of borax and sealing wax for company. The thought of that empty apartment and the cavernous air he'd breathed for so long came back to him in a rush, bearing with it the traces of all he'd suffered and—he feared—was bound to suffer forevermore, on until his last, lonely breath (he could at times, you see, be insufferably melodramatic).

Madeleine watched as the shutters that had cracked tentatively open drew closed and, in crowbar desperation, she spoke the words he would never—not in a million years of serendipitous collisions—have had the courage to speak, himself:

"So, uh. I'm sorry about your gopher. Can I buy you a coffee to make up for it?"

The shutters slapped back open against the wall and Joe—who suddenly felt the urge to cover every inch of Madeleine with grateful kisses—could only say, "Thanks. Yeah, sure. Uh... I'm Joe," so overwhelmed was he with the instant, absolute assurance that, if nothing else, he could trust this woman.

He was not wrong.

For although Madeleine was always careful not to over-extend herself into expressing an absolute commitment she was not fully ready to give, she was nonetheless always passionate in her self-giving loyalty, and had allowed herself on more than one occasion to love and give herself to a man well beyond when he stopped deserving it. She had not yet given all of herself to a man, no, but what she had given, she had given with open un-reserve.

Together they walked the two blocks south on First Avenue—away from the postal store and his precious routine—to the coincidentally-named Bluebird Coffee Shop, where Madeleine had been headed when a contemplative moment had smashed her world into his. It was one of her favorite places (although, to be fair, she had a great many) not necessarily for the simultaneously warm and airy decor, but also for the open floor plan and the worn-wood stools where she could sit sipping her Counter-Culture-brand coffee as she wrote in one of her many Moleskine notebooks the poetry of the day.

Sometimes, though, she would just sit and watch, waiting for the moment when she would make another inevitable connection with yet another of the fascinating patrons of the place: a man, a woman—whomever they were, they would become her friend; and she would sink with them down into a conversation of knowing... of the growing of another love.

Madeleine and Joe walked side-by-side for those three blocks, finding an easy camaraderie and a facility of speech that surprised both of them. Joe, for his part, felt himself cementing into an absolute, inscrutable confidence in his companion. He talked openly and warmly of his childhood out West, and of the circumstances that had brought him to this mad, fracturing city.

He found himself wanting to open up to this woman—to share his way free of the pain that had for so long condensed him in upon himself and away from the intoxicating unpredictabilities of love. In no time they were seated, drinks in hand (tea, for him, with lots of cream and honey), and he was telling her the rough outline of his tale of love lost; of a life stymied by suffering. She was a good listener (a great one, actually) and as he spoke, he felt a dripping away—as of tar melting through a sieve—of the burdens of half a decade of accumulated hopelessness.

Madeleine watched him as one watches a gamboling cat, enraptured by his sudden grandiloquence and caught up in a ravening eagerness to be sure not to miss one little piece of what he might say or do next. She had known a great many men, yes, but never one so transparent—a man who spoke his vulnerability with an eloquence borne of years of contemplation, of silence with his thoughts and his lonely, wounded self. His use of language bespoke an intense creativity, and she found her poet's heart quickening to the rhythms of his speech. Most of all, though, she felt herself falling down into an ever-growing understanding of the deep kindness of this man, and knew without knowing that she, too, could trust in him.

As he spoke, though, he held in his hands the object of their relational demise—the damaged gopher—and her disconcertion grew and grew until at last she had to ask, "So... what's with the stuffed gophers?"

Joe breathed sharply, sensing that this was the source of the slight perturbation she had been evincing as he had spoken. He knew instinctively that his next words were very, very important—perhaps the most important of his life—but he could not, somehow, bring himself to focus on their formulation.

Instead, he thought back to her. He remembered the smell the first time he had gone with her to her father's taxidermy shop, a place that was suddenly nothing more than muffled, absentee memories. He remembered sitting by her side at her father's bench, both of them touching for the first time the worn, pitted, forbidden tools that his aged hands would no longer hold. And he remembered taking up those tools... for her.

Joe remembered reading late into the night her father's books; seeking out the teachers who would help him learn the trade, all in an attempt to mold himself into... into what? A replacement? All those years—and the growth of his online business—all of it came flooding back at once, along with the memories of moving, here, for her.

And so it was that Joe, drawn once more by the wounding of his relational past toward the fear he knew, deep down, that Madeleine could help alleviate, spoke at last not with the confident ease of trust, but rather with a blunted edge of passive self-protection.

"You ever eat a hamburger?" he asked, with enough of an edge that she felt compelled to say,

"No. Not really. I'm a vegetarian. But even if I wasn't, I'd be willing to bet you aren't regularly chowing down on gopher-burgers, either."

Joe heard her laughing tone and understood it for what it was—an attempt to diffuse the tension of a loaded moment. But still, he felt a need to explain and defend himself against an irking little voice that was snittering to him of the fading of the love-light he had at first seen burning in her eyes. In reality, she was merely being cautious. She had decided instantly about him, but had seen enough of life and love that she was aware of the need for patience... for time.

"Well, you do eat bread, right?" he plowed on, seeing what he imagined to be his own fear mirrored in her eyes.

She turned, suddenly wary, to face the window. He went on.

"Because it doesn't matter how eco-organic a farmer tries to be—when you plow a field with anything other than a horse or a hoe, gophers get hurt. They wreck crops, too, so all I do is—"

Joe went on, digging into the desperate comfort of knowledge; explaining how, on his trips out West, he only ever shot gophers by farmers' fields... how he hated doing it, and how he was always looking for a way out of the grisly business. Madeleine smiled, and was kind.

Time trickled by. They spoke of other things, and it was good and beautiful, yes—because they were, after all, true soul-mates. But something imperceptible had shifted between them; and because of his fear, Joe was not able to understand that if only he could have been vulnerable enough to have told her about his ex-wife's father, her compassionate heart again would have softened. As it was, she was unable to hear the gentle sorrow in Joe's voice as he realized, somehow, that their perfectly-shared moment was slipping away.

Instead, all she heard was his quiet desperation.

She knew she needed a man in whom she could find the security to drop her strong facade and rest; and so she looked ever more frequently away from Joe to the window, and to the patrons of the Bluebird Coffee Shop. She did not know it; but even then she was scanning their faces, wondering. She had not given up on Joe, no, but that first, firm absorption had faded, and she had become the cat itself: watchful... wary.

At last, she had to go. She told him so, and Little Joe Cockerel read into it all the rejection he had ever felt from a woman. Although he knew he should relax, thank her for what she had given him, and dare to ask for her number; instead he flailingly extended the broken gopher, as a keepsake. She took it, awkwardly, and after she had left he knew that it, and she, were gone forever.

Now, it may seem rude for me to intrude, like this, at the story’s ending; but despite the fact that there isn't really anything else that need be said, I would nonetheless like to wonder if perhaps there is nothing particularly remarkable in this story at all. I wonder if we are all the soul-mates of us all—if, perhaps, the only thing that keeps us from each other is the criss-crossing strands of our many fears... and if the only thing that will ever draw us back together is the impossible miracle of infinitely-patient love.

2 comments:

  1. I like this narrative voice. It has a sympathetic, congenial tone that connotes gentle authority; it's reminiscent of Gabriel-Marquez in CHRONICLE OF A DEATH FORETOLD or his short stories.

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  2. Thanks, Mark. Telling, I guess, considering that I JUST finished reading Love in the Time of Cholera :)

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