All original work © 2009 - 2017 Alexey Provolotsky

8 November 2011

MADELEINE



short story

The weird thing was that you couldn’t sit on that chair. The chair was a most dull, plain little wooden thing – and yet you couldn’t sit on it. Almost everything about the rest of the room as well as the tone of the conversation suggested that you were perhaps supposed to, but you had to fight it back. Because the moment you approached that chair with the most natural intention of sitting on it, her eyes angrily, unequivocally told you to stay away. And it got strained from there, and pretty soon, shattered and confused, you would have to go home.

She wasn’t a widow – though that would have explained a lot. She was a 30-odd spinster with no decent prospects, family or friends. Just the three of us; three students who once caught a glimpse of her emerging from a local grocery. And daringly approached her, and got acquainted, and said yes to her honey biscuits and peach tea (the first and last time we visited her together, cheeky in front of one another but inside trembling all over – fearing she might poison us and then abuse and mutilate our dead bodies). Of course, young and smug, we wouldn’t have bothered in the first place, but there was this one thing: Madeleine was beautiful. Insanely beautiful. Beautiful and unmarried.

And the thing is, we weren’t simply after her underwear (though I, for one, did get to see her stockings a number of times) – we were genuinely interested in marrying her. Madeleine was the first woman who did that to us, and back in the wintry street that night, with her telephone number stuffed lovingly in our back pockets, each of us knew what he had to do. I distinctly remember that Terry was whistling some contemporary pop hit – something we wouldn’t normally do. And all those dimly lit street lamps we encountered on our nippy, silent way home were an endless succession of faceless girlfriends we were to say goodbye to.

Though Madeleine’s fragrant, feminine presence made us too timid to voice our intentions, she knew perfectly well what it was that we wanted. And did nothing to discourage us. Alone in her huge but non-spacious flat, she’d make preparations: teas, cakes, wines, cigarettes. She knew what each of us liked, and she was clearly trying to please us. By turns we’d be there, talking to her, eating her food, listening to her records, and even making inhibited passes. She wouldn’t go to the movies or make love to you or have you talking to her about marriage, but everything else was allowed. Everything except sitting on that damned chair – which was exactly like all those other chairs in the room, only this one was invitingly, conspicuously sticking out. That chair was wrong. I remember that on our very first date I was close to actually committing that crime – which was sitting on it. But something dragged me away at the last moment and made me choose a sofa or another chair. Some hysterical whisper. I could swear she whispered ‘no’. I could swear she did.

Madeleine’s flat looked straight from Tolkien’s shire – as cozy and cove-like. It had four or five rooms in it, but besides bathroom and an occasional three-second peek into her dark bedroom (when she was not around), I don’t remember ever spending any time outside of her living-room. The living-room was stylishly, expensively furnished and had this really strong smell of mahogany – dense but artsy. (The money, I was later to learn, was coming from her bank account – the only memory of her well-off father who had long been deceased. Madeleine worked as some kind of freelance writer for a fashion magazine – which certainly explained her impressive collection of dresses I was lamely fighting off with my cheap ties.) Still uttering breathlessly how beautiful she was that evening, you would enter the living-room, and be immediately seized by that grand mahogany table in the middle of the room, the food and the drinks, and her stiflingly warm presence nearby. She wouldn’t make any fuss – she would gently lead you to the table, say something about her neighbour’s strange cat in that seductively nasal voice of hers, pull one of the chairs and sit on it. You would then have to notice the chair that was waiting for you to the right of her – but you somehow knew it wasn’t for you. God knows who it was for – but it wasn’t for you. It wasn’t for me.

Strangely, throughout all those evenings you always had this feeling that you could sleep with Madeleine, could even marry her – but first you’d have to do something about that chair. And I know how crazy it sounds.

I honestly tried it all: I circled it, I gazed at it, I acted as if it wasn’t there, I actually touched it once (despite her unspokenly violent protests – after that she wouldn’t call or invite me for two weeks). One or two times I almost threw it out of the window in suppressed fury and blind frustration, but one thought that it could put an end to all these after-University evenings with Madeleine made me reconsider. Another anguished impulse I remember was to say to hell with it and jump at Madeleine and tear her clothes off and do the thing right there and then (taking her by force wouldn’t have been a problem – considering my full-blooded age and her delicate disposition). But surely that would have ruined it all: our meetings, my marriage plans. Madeleine lived quietly, desolately, so I don’t think there would have been any charges. But all the same – being called a rapist in my early twenties and in a town like ours wasn’t exactly part of my plan.

- Madeleine, – I’d say, entering her flat. I made a point of pronouncing her name as often as was possible – the sounds made my larynx dribble sexually. – Here, brought you a record. You should love it.

- Really? What’s that? – Her voice was always uplifting, pregnant with beautiful prospects and my tormented expectations.

Tonight, – you’d think. – It will happen tonight”.

Our musical tastes couldn’t have been more different: she loved jazz, and I was at that time going through my inevitable punk rock phase. This would have worked brilliantly in a Woody Allen film, but to me it looked like a dead end. It looked hopeless. Surely enough, prior to our first real date I made my homework: I carefully examined numerous books and articles dedicated to jazz, I sheepishly borrowed a couple of Miles Davis’ LP’s from my library (and detested them, of course), I even studied a couple of jazz licks on my guitar that was more familiar with power chords of Joe Strummer and Johnny Ramone. And on that memorable Wednesday evening I came to her with a crappy John Coltrane compilation I’d fished out of some record store. She of course dismissed it. She said she liked Coltrane, but certainly not in a cheap compilation sort of way, which made me shrink by about an inch or two. I said I agreed. I said I adored jazz, and it was a poor choice and God knows what had come over me and things like that. To my defense I never again repeated that mistake. Having learned a lot about her record collection, I was on a constant lookout for the most obscure jazz rarities.

So we’d listen to some new record (quite unbelievably, I almost tricked myself into thinking jazz was okay), we’d smoke, we’d talk about my day, her day, we’d go through some of our thoughts and anxieties, as well as lots of unimportant stuff I can’t even remember. All very easygoing and even lighthearted. Her head half-thrown back, her mouth half-open, her posture half-expectant – my sexual experience was wide enough to think that it was all suggestive enough. I could see she enjoyed my company, but for me this was merely an outset, an overture. I craved for some continuation, and there wasn’t any. Like something was wrong; some distant feeling of restlessness, some dull pain you have in you but find hard to identify. You paced the room, you bit your nails, you hysterically thought about time, and at some point you were bound to break it off and do something stupid. And it came so naturally:

- Madeleine, let’s go out, let’s go somewhere…

- Madeleine, let’s meet someplace tomorrow…

- Madeleine, have you ever thought of marrying someone?..

She’d hold my hand, she’d stroke my hair, she’d kiss me lightly on the cheek, she’d tell me about her childhood crushes, but there was never any convincing reaction to any of my suggestions. Also, at some point, strangled by anticipation and annoyance, I would start looking at that chair, again and again, feel its bizarre and insistent presence. And you saw it then, didn’t you? You identified it – right when the very clock on her living-room wall was beginning to seduce you with its heavy pre-orgasmic beating, and Madeleine made it clear that it was time for you to leave.

You saw it: that one chair, that wooden little bugger, it kept scoffing snottily at you: it’s all down to me, my dear, it’s all down to me.

But why? I didn’t understand it, and I had to go home – like a lost beggar robbed of his last hat. Thinking on my way that there was but one thing I wanted more than anything else in the world: to be back with Madeleine again. Oh the constant menace of those long, torturous, empty days that lay ahead!..

Was there perhaps something we didn’t know? Some incident in her past? An ill-fated affair, unrequited love, a stillborn? It could really be anything, and my still boyish imagination pursued every slight and unlikely possibility. But then Madeleine was never too secretive about her life, and I can think of half a dozen instances when she was the one who actually instigated that kind of intimacy. As it happened, there’d been nothing even remotely tragic about her personal life. “Total void, – was the way she’d put it. – Nothing”. There were men (lovers perhaps), but in the long run they proved to be disappointing. Which made me fear for my chances, because several months and at least a dozen evenings into our acquaintance, my case was still pretty much hopeless. And I wasn’t getting any more charming. Obviously, Madeleine could have lied about her past, but then not with that bright face, not with that easy, lighthearted tone, not with those lovely eyes. I somehow knew it for a fact: no, Madeleine didn’t lie.  

But what of my friends? Well, we fell for her simultaneously, all three of us. Was it her body, her looks? In retrospect it probably was. Unlike all those sickly, anorexic University girls we knew, Madeleine had a fully realised, mature body. It was voluptuous (but then: we would have probably rejected anything else), yet that voluptuousness was delicate and understated. It of course pained me to think of those weekly dates Madeleine shared with my two friends, of all those Mondays and Thursdays that were not mine, of all those jazz records or cubist paintings or 19th-century romantic novels they were probably discussing, and sometimes I felt an urgent need to settle it between us. But there were several things that kept it all as it was. First, I wanted to win, I wanted to be the one, and I wanted those other two to fail. Second, I could have no special claim on Madeleine, and, considering my endless failures, could hardly play a possessive lover. And finally, I was somewhat perversely curious about whether they were having any luck. With Madeleine? Oh no, never, not that. With the wooden chair. 

We did discuss the whole thing between us, during lunch breaks and in hushed tones, but the further it got, the more we drifted away from each other. We were becoming more independent, more cold and estranged. We’d only known each other since the freshman times, we were not childhood friends – so we didn’t have any stolen sweets, damp and smelly dog-ends or nude girls to fall back upon. Instead, we had dope, swapped girlfriends and a half-assed punk rock band with a bassist (me) who didn’t even know how to tune his instrument. Our ties not too strong, that friendship was growing dusty, uneasy, compromised. I could read frustration in their eyes, and they could probably read it in mine. But I didn’t care about mine – safe in the knowledge that they were not faring any better. Instead, we talked about the chair (for which I was oddly grateful – after all, it was my only insurance that neither of them could fuck or marry Madeleine).

- I asked her about it.

- About the chair? And? What? What did she say?

- She grew tense. Well, you know. The evening was over.

- Yeah, – I’d sigh understandingly, immediately regretting that ‘yeah’ and that sigh – for it gave me away, for it meant that they knew that I also could not fuck or marry Madeleine.

There were dreams, too. In these lush, disjointed dreams I would take her by the hand and we would enter her living-room, slowly, step by step, talking about the weather or perhaps her neighbour’s strange cat. She would then proceed to sit on her chair, and I would sit on the one that was waiting for me. The one that was sticking out. I’d say something about marriage and she’d say yes. Or, alternately, she’d take my hand and tuck it tenderly under her dress. The feeling of those silky, pulsating textures of her stockings and her soft skin was so strong that my hand would be red hot even in the morning – when the dream was already over.

And then I remember how surprised I was when I spotted Anthony walking down the street with one of his former girlfriends. This was already early summer, I think. I hadn’t talked to him or Terry for about two months, and that was some turnaround. I badly wanted to approach him and learn the details, but the weight of those two silent months made me think that a phone call would do better. I thought about Terry. Suddenly the humiliation of having to share Madeleine with two of my best friends changed into something new: the confusion of not having to.

- What about Madeleine? – I asked Anthony over the phone that evening.

- It’s all over now, – he said. – Was over before it even began. Wilson, don’t tell me you still…

- I do. I do, Anthony. And Terry?

- Same thing. He’s with Kim now – though she did make a scene out of it. Kim, surely you remember her?.. Face it, – he said. – This is not going anywhere. And you almost flunked your last exam.

- Well...

- No, come on, you’re the only who keeps trying to get something out of it. It’s pathetic. Call your Linda. Or Lisa. What was her name anyway?

- No, you come on. – I was beginning to get angry. – Madeleine is beautiful. You said so yourself.

- I did. Who’s saying she isn’t? But it’s not going to work. She won’t fuck you, Wilson.

- It’s not about that.

- But she won’t marry you either… Tell me this, – he added. – You’ve met her so many times now. Have you ever brought her a single flower?..

Actually, I didn’t. I couldn’t bring myself to coming to Madeleine with flowers. I’m trying to picture the scene now, but it won’t come. Instead, what’s coming through Freudian filters and memory cracks is our last encounter, somewhere in July of that year. Though standing there at her door, going through the list of songs on some hard-to-find collaboration LP of Charlie Haden and Ornette Coleman, I had no idea I would never ring that door-bell ever again...

She was her usual self, but there was something remarkable I noticed as I was on my way to Madeleine’s bathroom. That chair in the living-room wasn’t where it had normally been: it was under the table with the others. This was new, and alone in her glossy, perfumed bathroom, I kept thinking about my underpants. Did I have a clean pair on? Did it have no skid marks?..

But when I entered the living-room, I saw nothing new: the chair was standing there in the open, defiantly waiting to be sat on. Ornette Coleman’s sax was wailing quietly in the background, my head was burning (it was a hot, hot evening), and I thought that this was it. I went forward and sat on that damned chair, for the first time ever, without so much as a single look in Madeleine’s direction. When I did raise my eyes and looked at her face, Madeleine’s features were pleasant and relaxed. Madeleine didn’t mind. Oddly, this had an unnerving effect on me: I grew all tense and uneasy. The angry, aggressive saxophone was nibbling my brain, and I saw that Madeleine was waiting for my words. But the words wouldn’t come.

And before anything worse could happen, I was on my feet mumbling something about my sister coming home that night or my dog that needed to be walked. She knew I had neither sister nor dog, but she let me go. Still muttering some silly excuses, I was putting my shoes on – scruffily missing them again and again with my leaden feet.

I would never see Madeleine again.

---

- Wilson! – I started turning my head around, as if gasping for air. Swarms of people were rushing by in a rapid and noisy succession – their roaring motion an inevitable, indispensable act of breathing.

At first I struggled to recognize the face, but when he repeated that ‘Wilson’, I knew this was Anthony. And now that I could place that voice and that face, I could see he hadn’t really changed all that much. He still called me by my second name – which I still liked after all these years. There was an oddly familiar woman of his age standing nearby, as well as some 5-year old fiddling with her hand – like a child would. I presumed that this was his family.

- Hey, Anthony! Good to see you.

-Yeah, Wilson, same here.

He then introduced me to his wife and his son – in a solemn, matter-of-fact way, which I thought was interesting. He also mentioned that he had a daughter – but she was about ten now and hated all these shopping mall family outings. His wife protested mildly, assuring me that this was not the case, so we smiled and laughed about it.

- Go look for that water pistol he wanted, – Anthony told his wife. – I’d like to talk with Wilson here for a minute. God, when was it last that we talked?

- Must be graduation night, – I suggested when we were alone. – How’s Terry?

- Terry? Terry’s all right, I guess. I think I last talked to him three or four years ago. Was hiding at that time – evading alimony and stuff like that. And how are you, Wilson? Married? I can’t see no ring.

- Well, that may be because I’m not married. Have never been. Got a girlfriend, though.

- What, Lisa? Linda?

- No, no. Of course not. That was long ago. But yeah, we’re planning to.

- About fucking time, Wilson. It’s now or never. By the way, did you recognize Kim? Seems like she didn’t recognize you either. You should remember her. No, Terry didn’t mind… Well, I have to mention that I find it sad the way we fell apart after the University. We were close at some point. It was that woman, I guess.

- Yeah, – I replied. – Madeleine. Remember her chair?

- Chair? What chair? I remember the woman, but I don’t remember any chair.

- Anthony, you’re joking! The one that was in her living-room. Don’t tell me you don’t remember it. Or how we kept discussing it…

- Ah yeah, – Anthony said. – Now it does ring some sort of bell. A chair, yeah. But of course it was total bullshit. 

- What do you mean?

- There was no chair, Wilson, surely you must remember that. It was all fake. Like I say, bullshit. There was definitely no chair.

But before I could say anything, his wife Kim and his glowing son returned with a huge water pistol that was immediately pointed at me. And next thing I knew, the pistol was fired, and a string of lukewarm water soaked my left cheek. Chance had it that both Kim and Anthony had looked away at precisely that instant, and I thought it somewhat ridiculous to bring it up. The kid smiled triumphantly, which was annoying.

- Actually, – Anthony whispered. – That woman was a pretty dangerous type. I’m telling you. We were not the first and we were not the last. I’m telling you, Wilson, I heard stories…

What woman? – This was his wife.

- Never you mind, – Anthony said. – An old woman. And from a different story, too. By the way, Wilson, here’s my phone number. Do call me when you have a chance. We should meet again someday, the three of us.

I took the card, and they were gone.


---

It was a week ago. But I shouldn’t fool myself: it wasn’t this incident that made me remember the whole thing in such a detail. I still think of that occasionally, much to the annoyance of my girlfriend, who doesn’t like seeing me in this brooding state of mind. But Madeleine? Well, when I close my eyes and think about it – the chair is the first thing I remember. That and Terry whistling some old pop hit that long-gone December night.


November, 2011

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