She was Madeline from the beginning. The other women were only pseudonyms: bad puns and palindromes. Everett was embarrassed to be on the site, embarrassed at his own pale face reflected in the monitor as he scrolled anonymously through thousands of photographs. It was a relief to find someone with a real name.
My name is Madeline—she said this quite plainly. I hope knowing my name makes it easier to contact me.
When Everett thought of Madeline he thought of the children’s book: two lines of little girls and an old house covered with vines. Madeline got appendicitis. They took her to the hospital, where she was given ice cream. Everett remembered his mother reading the story to him as a child, and how he sympathized with Madeline. He loved ice cream. He hated hospitals.
Better not to bring this up with the real Madeline, Everett decided. She would have heard it a thousand times.
The response came quickly—a little pink envelope on the upper-right hand corner of the screen. It made Everett nervous—it was his first time.
I’d like that, Madeline said.
Once again she signed her name.
In the three days leading up to their meeting, Everett imagined her as a sort of grown-up version of the Madeline he knew—vaguely French, with red hair and a blue raincoat. Her hair was red, in the photograph. He tried to imagine Madeline as a real person, waiting outside his door with an umbrella, walking around his apartment. That was as far as Everett let himself imagine. He had been alone too long, and all his fantasies were shameful.
Madeline was in the corner of the bar when he arrived for their date, sitting under an unlit television. He saw that his imaginings weren’t far off: she was small, with dark eyes—just his type. The site had done a good job in that department. It was drizzling outside, and her raincoat was deep purple.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” Everett managed to ask. “Madeline?”
“Madeline,” she said, and laughed.
As she laughed she threw off the hood of her raincoat, and Everett saw that her hair was even redder than in the photograph, almost scarlet, cut in sharp bangs across her forehead.
She was much younger than him—twenty-three.
They ordered a drink. After a beer, Everett felt his body relax. His tongue came loose in his mouth.
“I don’t normally go on dates,” Everett admitted. “Do you?”
Madeline laughed. She had a way of looking at the far side of the wall whenever he asked a question, as if the answer might be written on it. “I’ve been on a few,” she said. “Some of them can be awful.”
This made Everett nervous, until he realized the implication. Bringing it up—that meant things were going fine, so far.
After their third drink Madeline pled tiredness, and Everett offered to walk her to the subway. A light rain was falling, and Everett held his umbrella over them both. They paused at the entrance. She was the only one going underground.
Madeline said she had had a wonderful time. Everett knew this was a cue.
His kiss caught the side of her lips. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m a newbie.”
Madeline put a hand on his shoulder and said she would like to see him again.
Spring came on strong that year. The magnolias on the parkway bloomed wild. It was impossible for Everett to concentrate. Several times a week he left the office early and walked down to the river, where Madeline dangled her toes by the waterfront docks. He walked slowly, holding his breath, afraid that if he came too quickly she might disappear.
They walked for hours in the shadow of the waterfront casinos, discussing things that were trivial, on the surface, but which Everett knew contained a wealth of hidden meanings: the television shows they had loved as children, their favorite seasons, minor humiliations from their school days. Sometimes Madeline held his hand.
Even in these gentle interactions, Everett could sense the specter of sex. Three dates passed without more than an exploratory session in the doorway of his apartment building, but that couldn’t last forever. Everett knew the day would come when Madeline would expect more from him than awkward kisses.
Everett was 36, but he was not as experienced as a middle-aged man was expected to be. He had dated in college, but not very successfully, and after college his shyness and his awkward, doughy body had kept him from the dating scene. Now these wasted years were coming back to haunt him.
Everett imagined horrible scenarios: underwear ripping in his awkward hands, or worse, tense whispers as he labored in vain to provide Madeline with satisfaction. What if he lost control completely the moment Madeline touched him? It was such a long time since someone had taken his belt buckle between their fingers.
But when the time came, one night in his apartment, it was nothing like he imagined. He was barely through showing her his bedroom when Madeline turned out the light. He was glad for it: the darkness hid his pale shoulders speckled with acne.
“It’s been a while,” he told her.
“I’ll tell you what I want,” Madeline said.
Afterwards, her throat purring, she ran her fingers over his sagging stomach. Soon she was asleep. Everett lay on top of the covers and looked at his own body in the slatted light coming through the blinds. Was it possible that he was the same person he once was? He seemed transformed in the moonlight.
Who was Madeline? That was the question that kept Everett from sleep, on the nights he slept alone. Why was she interested in a man like him? There was something unreal about their dual reflection, caught in a storefront window as they walked around the city together: his doughy bulk and her thin face framed by a wave of red hair.
Madeline talked very little about herself. She was from the rural middle of the state. She worked for Lippincott, the publishing house. But Everett hadn’t met any of her friends, or seen her apartment—she had a roommate, that was the excuse. Still, her reticence was strange. She had a way of reflecting his questions, as if she were nervous of letting too much of herself show.
“I don’t know,” she liked to say. “What do you think?”
One May morning, after a leisurely breakfast in their bathrobes and a farewell kiss in the doorway, Everett was left with a terrible thought: what if Madeline’s distance had nothing to do with secrets? What if she had no desire to share herself with him in the first place? What if her interest in him was only casual?
To be casual—what a foreign idea. For Everett, everything bordered on obsession. He thought of Madeline constantly: her toes lingering in the river, her red hair cascading across his chest. Lying in bed on the many nights they spent separately, Everett imagined what she might think if she could see inside his head and glimpse his overwhelming anxiety. At best she would laugh and stroke his hair as if he were a child; at worst she would run for the door. The idea made his solitary nights lonely and wretched.
It was on just such a night that Everett noticed a little pink envelope in the upper-right hand corner of his computer screen. He had logged into the site with nostalgic intentions, remembering his first glimpse of Madeline, torturing himself with her picture.
This message, on the other hand, was from another woman entirely. Everett was shocked. No woman had ever picked his picture out of the anonymous crowd.
The woman was little older than Everett—36. She was five foot three, with auburn hair and dark eyes. She listed very few interests, and the site informed him that she responded to messages “very frequently.”
You look like you might be fun.
That was all the message said.
Everett closed the computer. He knew he shouldn’t respond. Things were complicated enough with Madeline. There was no use muddling them still further.
Yet as the night went on, his computer at the other end of the room, its light winking at him like an eye, Everett began to change his mind.
What was the point to all his cautiousness and worry? It was worry that had made his life so lonely, worry that was ruining his relationship with Madeline. Wasn’t this the way grown-ups handled their romantic lives, playing the field? Who was to say that Madeline wouldn’t want him to be more casual, more carefree in his relationships? He was a grown man. He needed to be bolder.
He wrote the woman back, very early in the morning.
I’m game, he said. Later Everett considered the message shockingly forward. He was almost proud of himself.
The woman wrote back the next morning. She suggested something less than a date—a late-evening meeting at a coffee shop “near her apartment.” She did not sign her name, despite the fact that Everett signed his, and when he asked her how he would recognize her when they met, the woman said he didn’t need to worry: she had a good eye for faces.
Everett felt his excitement grow. He was entering a new world, with new rules.
The night of the meeting Everett wore casual clothes and sat at a table near the door. Soon enough a woman walked in, petite and red-haired in a deep purple raincoat.
Everett blinked. It wasn’t Madeline. This woman was older, her nose was thinner and more shapely, her hair was a shade darker. He relaxed. It made sense that the women the site picked for him would have certain similarities. He was attracted to a certain kind of woman. The site had taken this into account.
The woman didn’t sit down. She only looked him over, head to toe.
“You’ll do,” she said.
The woman brought Everett to her apartment. She was wearing very few clothes beneath her raincoat. She gave Everett precise instructions involving a vibrating plug, and when her legs began to quiver she demanded he slap her hard across the thighs. Everett felt a little overwhelmed, and even a little frightened, his heart hammering a double rhythm in his chest. When his orgasm began to build the woman told him to do it in her hair. He obliged.
The woman calmly dabbed at her black curls with a handkerchief. Everett sat on the bed, feeling stunned. The room smelled rich. His penis ached.
“What’s your name?” Everett asked the woman.
The woman laughed and said it was funny that he would ask for names now.
“I’d like to know,” Everett said. The woman laughed again. She asked Everett to guess.
“I can’t guess,” said Everett.
The woman began to intone, in sing-song, a series of sentences. In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.
“Madeline,” said Everett.
The woman nodded and laughed again.
Everett looked at the woman again, this other Madeline. All the resemblances he had tried to ignore now came together to form a picture: a Madeline who had aged, a mature Madeline, as if the first Madeline he had known had grown into this second Madeline, and had come back to meet him.
“I’m sorry,” Everett said. “I have to go.”
This second Madeline reclined on the bedspread, knitting her fingers behind her head, exposing small tufts of hair beneath her armpits.
“Come and see me again,” she said. “If you like.”
She looked satisfied and a little bored—her eyes circled around the room for the next amusement.
Everett ran down the stairs and out into the street. What were the chances, he wondered, in a city of almost two million, of meeting two women who looked similar and had the same name? A coincidence, of course, but a frightening one. Coming home to his apartment, Everett turned off his computer and unplugged it from the wall.
Only a few days after Everett’s encounter with the second Madeline, the first Madeline invited him to her apartment for dinner. Everett should have been excited. He had been waiting to see Madeline’s apartment for a long time. But instead of anticipation, Everett felt a creeping dread. He would be discovered, he knew. The moment Madeline saw his face, she would know what he had done.
Madeline had dressed for the occasion: lipstick, a red and white polka-dotted dress. It should have been a lovely meal, but Madeline was silent. She barely looked at Everett. Did she know? He wanted her to accuse him, to get angry; anything but this silence. He could feel his confession like a ball bearing on the tip of his tongue.
It was a Saturday, and the new summer sunset drew everyone out of their houses and into the street. Everett could hear women calling to each other, the clatter of heels on the wind.
Up in the apartment the breeze barely registered. Everett’s neck was sweating. Finally he opened his mouth and let his confession fall.
“Madeline,” he said. “There’s something I need to tell you.”
At that moment, everything seemed to break: the silence, the air, Madeline’s pale face. Her lips shivered.
“I knew it,” Madeline said. “You don’t want to see me again.”
Everett was baffled. “What are you talking about?” he asked her. “Of course I want to see you.”
“No,” she said. “You don’t. It’s always the same. I start to like someone and then they run out on me.”
Everett brought his chair around the table and took her in his arms.
“I don’t want to run out,” he told her. “That’s the last thing I want to do.”
Madeline began to cry, and through the tears she told Everett the story of her life.
It was a long and torturous tale. She told Everett about the death of her parents: one from cancer and the second from suicide. She told him how she had lived with an aunt who hadn’t appreciated her, and how the college she escaped to was large and lonely. She had looked forward to graduation, but after settling in the city her loneliness followed her. She had brief relationships with men who treated her poorly, and then the winter came, and she sank into a deep depression. Some days it was difficult for her to get out of bed.
Slowly, Madeline’s breathing relaxed. She was feeling better lately, she said. Meeting Everett was part of it. The springtime was another. She always felt better in the spring.
“I didn’t know how to tell you this without scaring you off,” Madeline told him.
“Me?” Everett said. “You were afraid of scaring me?”
Madeline nodded. Her red hair was falling in front of her face, and Everett pulled it tenderly to one side to expose her bloodshot eyes.
“Other people were scared,” she said.
“Not me,” Everett said.
They sat together, Everett holding Madeline, until she stood up and took him by the hand to the bedroom.
That night, Everett found his self-consciousness was gone. It was as if Madeline had turned on the light in his head and sent his self-defeating thoughts scurrying for the corners. His hands were skillful of their own accord. He did not have to think anymore.
If only he could have avoided remembering the second Madeline. He couldn’t help doing it, at least a little: overlaying her bed onto this one, her moans onto the first Madeline’s. He knew it was wrong. The experience should have been purely between him and Madeline, but when Madeline ended on top of him, shouting so loudly he was sure the people on the street would hear them, Everett forgot for a moment which Madeline was which. He forgot himself completely, his eyes going fuzzy and his knees buckling.
Afterwards, Madeline told him she was happy.
“Me too,” Everett said. His nervousness was gone, and in its place he felt a deep and abiding calm the likes of which he had never experienced.
Summer ripened. Everett watched the cherry blossoms blooming from Madeline’s window, looking down on the green silks of the Fabric District. He liked to sit and drink iced tea while the sidewalks swelled.
Madeline was no longer depressed, now that Everett was around to provide her with company. They spent the evening hours together in her tiny dining room, doing crosswords, the fan licking the pages of the newspaper as they listened to public radio on low volume, its comfortable whispers.
Everett was growing to love Madeline. It was a new feeling for him, a sort of slow blooming in his chest that caught him off guard, so that he would round the corner from the living room and see Madeline seated in front of the fan, engaged in a delicate war with the sticky dial, and he would feel his vision blur at the edges, as if he were short of oxygen.
Everett ought to have been content. It was only that love was more complicated than he expected. Madeline expected him to come to her almost every night. He missed his own room, sometimes, and there were times, as the summer deepened, when Madeline’s small apartment seemed very small indeed. Sometimes he felt trapped inside the walls of her apartment, far from the sound of high heels clicking on the pavement below, the sound of handbags unclasping and women’s hands ruffling through cosmetics, their bracelets jangling.
“What’s on your mind, dear?” Madeline asked.
Everett blushed. “I’m just feeling grateful for my life,” he said.
Madeline smiled and rolled her eyes, then went back to her crossword. It was lucky, Everett thought, that she couldn’t read his mind.
They never discussed their exclusivity. Everett wondered sometimes if she assumed he was faithful, despite her silence on the subject. Then again, he never lied to her. It was only that she never asked.
It wasn’t that Everett wanted to see the second Madeline. It was more like a compulsion, something instinctual. The pink envelopes appeared on his work computer, catching him off-guard. All she wanted was an hour of his time. She described in great detail what that hour would entail. Everett hid his erection beneath his keyboard.
With the second Madeline he learned about things he had only dreamed about: crevices that required a crooked finger, devices that required special batteries. She left his skin pink and his scalp aching. When he was done, he went home and took a shower, let the warm water press against his skull. It was only a very small part of his life.
Everett kept his site subscription, though he had no intentions of meeting anyone besides his two Madelines. He only liked to look at the pictures of the women and imagine their lives. He had never dreamed that there were so many willing women in the city, all with their own hidden desires. The thought struck Everett as thrilling, no matter how many times he looked: the woman in two straight lines, proceeding down the page into infinity.
Women messaged him much more than before. Perhaps that had something to do with the fact that Everett himself was changing. Madeline suggested a haircut and regular exercise, she bought him new clothes. He took several new pictures of himself and posted it to his profile. It was possible that these new photographs were responsible for the sudden uptick in interest. Still, Everett kept himself from replying. The attention itself was satisfaction enough.
Everett sometimes wondered, later, if the site was to blame. It had its algorithms, its endless questionnaires. It was forever presenting him with images of women who lived only minutes from his door. How could he be expected to resist, day after day, night after night, this vast conspiracy to please?
It was late at night, and Everett was alone. The second Madeline had not messaged him in weeks. Perhaps her passion for him had cooled. The first Madeline had a fever, asleep in her own apartment. Everett was curled over his computer, feeling very solitary in the dark—a little like the old, lonely Everett – when a particular woman’s profile caught his eye.
She was short and dark-haired, skinny—his type, physically—but there were plenty of women on the site who fit that description. She was not stunningly beautiful: a little moon-faced, a little gap-toothed. Yet Everett found himself intensely attracted to her.
What was missing from Everett’s life? For a month he had felt a nagging dissatisfaction, an inner itch he could not quite identify. He was well cared for. He was sexually satisfied. He lived the sort of life that had previously existed only in his dreams and fantasies.
Yet there was a lack. He and the Madelines didn’t talk anymore. Perhaps his bond with the first Madeline was beyond words. They could go hours in comfortable silence. With the second Madeline there had been no need for words in the first place.
This new woman was an intellectual. Everett could tell from her profile that her bookshelf was intimidating. She spoke French, fluently.
In her message she referenced two of the books Everett had listed in his favorites section.
I’m surprised someone else loves this book as much as I do, she said, referring to the first book.
Especially when they like something like that, she said, referring to the second with evident distaste.
It was a challenge. Her pictures showed her strolling through a library, fingers lingering over the spines, and Everett could imagine her plucking a book from her own bookshelf, reading French to him in a long, languid voice as Everett undid the buttons on her dress, one by one, taking a nipple in his mouth.
They sent several messages back and forth. The woman signed her notes Em, which Everett assumed was a simple shortening of Emily, or even a luxurious Emeline.
Soon Everett asked the woman if she would meet him in real life: a stroll across town, maybe, a romantic rendezvous on a bridge?
She agreed, calling him cliche: another challenge.
He met her at the university library, and they walked together in the fine autumn air towards the center of town, Everett straying a little behind to comprehend her short, reddish hair, flecked with intellectual gray, the well-toned legs she left unshaven, fine down catching the sunlight. She lectured Everett about criminals in French literature.
“Their critique of bourgeois morality,” she explained, “makes everyone else’s lives seem dull in comparison.”
Everett was enraptured. He asked for her real name.
“Em,” he asked. “Short for Emily?”
She laughed and said that everyone assumed that. In fact, it was a play on the first letter of her name. He was charmed and chilled in equal measure to discover that her name was also Madeline.
The next morning Everett walked into his boss’ office and asked a favor. He had a family medical emergency, he said. He needed to go down to part-time for a while. He would work from home. He assured his boss that the part-time position would be only temporary. Naturally he would accept a loss of pay.
His boss was sympathetic. He gave Everett what he wanted. After all, Everett had been a model employe for almost ten years.
The next day Everett woke in a state of great excitement. The first Madeline straddled him sleepily and then left for work, leaving Everett to his own devices. He worked for several hours, trying to concentrate, but his thoughts composed themselves into fantasies despite his best efforts. Soon noon would arrive, and he would be free.
Everett rode his bicycle south, past an after-school tutoring center he could use as an easy alibi, across the bridge to the university district. He could see the third Madeline’s window at the edge of the college quadrangle. It was as if he were riding above the asphalt, rising towards her tiny apartment, its giant, claw-foot bathtub and wide bathroom mirror.
It was in this bathtub that Everett sat, warm water up to chest, and watched the third Madeline’s long lean legs spread before him while she read out loud from Jean Genet.
“Goodness,” she said, relishing the words. “That part is rather disgusting, isn’t it?”
Everett rose out of the water.
“Well,” said the third Madeline, putting down the book. “Looks like someone’s been paying attention.”
Perhaps he was pushing his luck. It was already four by the time he left the third Madeline’s apartment, when his phone showed a message from the second Madeline.
Are you free, my pet? the message asked. My god it’s been ages.
He let his bicycle drift west. The autumn air cooled his hot cheeks.
It was dusk by the time Everett limped home from the second Madeline’s apartment. The cars horns around him sang the song of rush hour. He was exhausted, barely able to push the pedals of his bicycle.
He was too tired to think. He tried hard not to be guilty. Guilt, as the third Madeline was always explaining to him, was the lowest of emotions.
Everett took a quick shower to prepare himself for dinner. On the way to the first Madeline’s apartment he bought flowers. It helped take some of the edge off of his remorse.
“My dear,” said the first Madeline. “You look bushed. Long day?”
“Were the children cruel to you?” she asked him.
Everett’s heart twitched, and then he remembered: the tutoring center. He nodded, hoping she wouldn’t notice his confusion.
“Let me take care of you,” Madeline said.
They lay together in the bedroom, holding each other as they often did, now that the autumn was coming: in a spirit of gentleness, beyond sex, a warm contentment Everett felt could bring them through the coldest winter months. She wanted him to move in with her. On his most contented days—the days when he forgot the other Madelines—Everett almost saw himself saying yes.
“Baby, what happened?” Madeline asked him. “You’ve got these marks all over your back.”
Everett went cold. Her familiar fingers examined his skin. He had to think of something.
“Bike accident,” he said.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Madeline asked.
“I didn’t want to worry you,” he said.
“Never say that,” she told him, looking him square in the eye. “Worrying about you is my business.”
Everett let his breath go out in a wave, only half-listening as she described her day. He felt, suddenly, that there was no need to worry. No matter what he did, Madeline would forgive him.
The winter descended. In the absence of sunlight it seemed that the women of the city were in hiding for the season, keeping their charms in reserve until the warm weather appeared again. Everett’s life took place in a specific series of winter rooms: Madeline’s tiny dining room, Madeline’s cluttered bedroom, Madeline’s tiled bathroom with the mirror covered in steam.
It was the coming of spring—the warm shoulders and the glimpse of blonde hair peeking from under the cover of candy-cane dresses—that destroyed him. The site called to Everett, the messages of the women like a beckoning chorus. There was no time for any more than the three Madelines he already had, but Everett told himself he could make time. He could invent more tutoring sessions, new language classes, or yoga; tai chi or qigong, painting or even dance. He could cleave a day each week for a date, or even two.
It was no longer a surprise to him that every one of the women he met was a Madeline: short in a certain way, crowned with reddish hair. His type, it seemed, was very specific. He was incapable of loving a woman who was not a Madeline, the way that some men can only love short women, women of a certain nationality, or women with a certain kind of accent. He was addicted to Madelines the way some men were addicted to pornography, or even prostitution, though of course Everett was nothing like these men: there was nothing sordid about his many Madelines.
Not that all the Madelines were the same. There was an athletic Madeline, who exposed him to the joy of racquetball, running, and rowing machines, the excitement of sex as an extension of exercise, the thrill of racing each other down the river on rented bicycles. With his artistic Madeline he schooled himself on the virtues of line and shade, fine art books lined with glossy photographs; he even posed nude for a portrait in charcoal, legs akimbo on the bedspread.
Yet there were things in every woman that were pure Madeline, the way they looked into the air when answering questions, the way they slept with their faces pressed into the pillow as if sleep were attacking them, the way they unsnapped their brassieres with two hands. It was as if every woman Everett met had started from the same basic place, the seed of Madeline, and small quirks in their development—a love of painting for example, or a summer spent in France after graduating high school—had altered each one of them into a distinct and unique example of Madeline, like different years of the same wine.
That summer was a hot one. Everett hated the heat, the way his back chafed against the bedspread. The idea that summer had come again struck Everett as absurd. The seasons were spinning faster than usual. July brought a whole week of weather that topped a hundred degrees, and Everett lost even more weight, hustling from one Madeline to the other. His joints ached. He wasn’t as young as he used to be.
Every day Everett met another Madeline. The process of courtship, too, seemed to have sped up: a Madeline in the morning might mean another Madeline by afternoon, each one expecting several hours of Everett’s time, achieving their specific satisfaction before a different Madeline took their place. Hotel rooms sometimes, or else conference rooms: ripped stockings under conservative skirts, stained sheets and a quick call to room service. Some days seven Madelines went by in rapid succession.
Everett experienced strange symptoms of stress: sudden pains in his extremities, minor panic attacks, paranoid fears that one Madeline might meet another Madeline and give away the whole affair. He kept a detailed calendar of Madelines to prevent this from happening, but even the calender itself was a source of tension—what if one of the Madelines discovered it?
One morning he saw the first Madeline—the original Madeline—retrieving a magazine from his bedside table, her hand hesitating over the glossy frontspiece of the datebook, and Everett screamed silently.
“Darling,” he whispered, his throat dry. “Roll over. I’ve got a surprise for you.”
Later, as Madeline showered, Everett took the calendar and put it in the back pocket of his pants. That was where it remained from then on, and in the heat of the summer his sweat threatened to ruin it completely.
The more Madelines Everett saw, the more the idea of Everett became blurred, an open camera shutter capturing too much movement. When he looked at pictures of himself from the previous autumn it took him several seconds to recognize his own face.
One Sunday in August—balmy high noon—Everett left the second Madeline’s apartment and walked across town to meet the third Madeline at a poetry reading. As he walked, Everett felt the lustful face he used for the second Madeline dissolving into the humid atmosphere, and for a brief moment Everett felt faceless, in danger of disappearing completely. He struggled to remember the face of the third Madeline, the subtle twist of her lips that conveyed desire and disapproval. He arranged his own face to meet it. As he stepped across 11th Street he saw himself in the window of the cafe exactly as the third Madeline would have wanted him to appear: a more refined Everett, cool eyes and well-tuned mouth.
“Pardon my lateness,” he told the third Madeline, coming through the door of the cafe.
He tried to smile, but he was exhausted. The third Madeline raised a cool and elegant hand to his forehead and plucked a stray flower petal from his brow.
Sometimes Everett looked forward to the fall. Once the cold came back he would downgrade his Madeline activities. Maybe he could be happy with three Madelines, or even two. Sometimes Everett dreamed of a world with only one Madeline, the original Madeline, sitting in the living room of a house on a green hill. She would be doing the crossword puzzle, the radio whispering in the corner. The warm glow of the cornflower kitchen would soothe his disordered nerves. Tomorrow he would cancel his site subscription, he told himself: Tomorrow.
The summer seemed to have no bottom. Everett decided to whittle his life down to the original trio of Madelines. The other Madelines ran him ragged. He didn’t want to drop dead in the heat like a dog.
The first week of September came, but the thermometer was high as July. Everett was alone in his apartment, without air-conditioning, stripped to the waist in front of his fan. He felt vulgar, covered in sweat. He was in the mood for the second Madeline.
Everett sent her a message. He signed it “your dearest servant,” as usual, and awaited her salacious response. He stripped down to his underwear and put the computer in front of him on the bed like he was a penitent. What an awful surprise that the woman who wrote back was not Madeline, and that what she had to say was not salacious in the slightest.
It was the sister of the second Madeline. She was writing to inform Everett about an accident.
Dear friends of Madeline, the sister wrote. Some of you already know this, others of you are hearing for the first time. My sister, Madeline, was in a fatal car accident last week. It was all very sudden and we are only just beginning to sort out the details. Please keep Madeline in your prayers during this difficult time.
The sister’s name was Doreen: a plain, even an ugly name. She gave the details of a memorial service, to be held in a church at the outskirts of town. Everett laughed without thinking. Madeline, in a church? He remembered the gorgeous blasphemies that slipped from her lips as her legs shook against his ears. Unexpectedly, Everett began to cry. He closed the computer and lay his head down on the bedspread.
The day of the memorial crawled into view. Each hour was a torment, as Everett wrestled with himself: should he go, could he go? How could he live with himself if he stayed away?
Everett saw no other Madelines; he barely left his apartment at all. He lay in bed until late in the afternoon, remembering Madeline and trying not to remember Madeline, trying to avoid conjuring the dead for sexual satisfaction, unable to think of anyone else. His morning erections were proof of his callow heart.
The day of the memorial every church bell outside his window seemed like an accusation. Everett sat on his bed and let time pass. The truth was clear. He hadn’t known Madeline, hadn’t known her interests, her family, her place in the world. How would he have explained his presence, staring at her reconstructed body? Theirs had been a purely sexual relationship.
That night Everett was unable to sleep. He soaked his unwashed sheets in anxious sweat. If Everett were to drop dead on the street one day, would any Madeline make time to memorialize him? Or would he simply be an anonymous body in an empty church, forgotten by the world?
A decision needed to be made. He would no longer visit other Madelines. He would settle down with one Madeline in particular, and he would know this Madeline completely. Morning broke with blue sunlight, and Everett thanked the second Madeline, almost tearfully, for her corrective. From now on, Everett would live a life worth memorializing.
The next day Everett cancelled his subscription to the site. In return he received an e-mail with a frowny face.
We hope you’ll come back, the email said. Everett laughed. There was little chance of that. His new life had already begun.
Everett had been neglecting the first Madeline a little, since the summer began. She was so dependable, while the others took time to pin down, and that meant he spent his energy elsewhere; by the time he came home to his first Madeline it was dark and quiet, and he could barely muster the strength for a gentle caress. He had to win her back. He decided to surprise her, one September evening, with flowers and a bottle of excellent red wine.
As he was rounding the corner to Madeline’s apartment, Everett saw a man approaching from the opposite direction. He was also well-dressed, also carrying flowers and a bottle of wine. The man did not seem to notice Everett; his eyes were already moving upward to the window of Madeline’s apartment as if he were savoring the pleasures he would enjoy once he mounted her stairs.
Everett froze. It was as if he were looking at himself in a fun-house mirror; another Everett, slightly older, wearing a similar shirt of blue gingham, walking with the same hitch of a stride that Everett was always ashamed of. Of course they were not entirely the same—Everett could see fine wrinkles by the man’s eyes, laugh lines that spoke of a certain irreverence Everett always lacked—but still Everett had difficulty breathing.
Everett retreated to the awning of a coffee shop. The other man—the other Everett—rang Madeline’s doorbell, second from the top. He adjusted his khaki trousers, and Everett could see quite plainly that the other Everett had an erection. Soon the buzz came from upstairs.
Perhaps if Everett had been another kind of man he might have walked across the street and punched the man in the face, but he was frightened of fighting. Besides, punching his double would be like punching himself, like fighting a mirror. The man was gone, the door was closed. Everett stood stupidly with the flowers in his hand.
Everett walked home in a daze. He thought of the other Everett holding Madeline in her doorway, the other Everett sitting in his familiar chair by the window, the other Everett running his distinguished hands over Madeline’s body, and it was as if the bottom had dropped out of everything.
Maybe if it had been some other Madeline it would have been all right. He had been another Everett with those other Madelines, a secondary character constructed for the occasion. With the first Madeline he had always been himself. The idea of another Everett invading his private life—his chair, his table, his place beside her on the side of the bed that she always said smelled like him, even when he was gone—made him feel like a shadow on the wall.
Lying in bed that night, Everett was afraid to close his eyes, for fear of disappearing completely.
There was still hope, Everett reasoned. There was still the third Madeline. He needed to be calm, he needed to reassess. Everything was in danger of slipping away.
It was a new season, a chill in the air, and Everett was suddenly alone. no second Madeline, of course, and no first Madeline to fall back on, now that he knew her unfaithful ways. He was alone with himself, in his apartment, much of the time. He needed to see the third Madeline. He needed reassurance.
Perhaps he acted desperate. It was the beginning of the semester, and the third Madeline was too busy to meet, so Everett loitered around the Graduate College at all hours, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. Hundreds of young women, but none of them Madeline. Everett walked home dejected.
Soon he began taking walks at night, long ramblings that just happened to end at the third Madeline’s apartment. Everett rehearsed his lines as he walked. He had been shallow, he had been superficial. Could the third Madeline forgive him? Was there a possibility that the two of them might settle down in some sort of partnership? He knew he had so much to learn, but the third Madeline was such a talented teacher.
It was on his fourth walk, drunk and terrified, that the third Madeline caught him outside of her apartment building, long past midnight. She seemed frightened to see him.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“I wanted to see you,” Everett said.
“You could have called me,” she said. “Instead of engaging in this frightening behavior.”
“I was just in the neighborhood,” Everett said. “I needed to talk to you.”
His tongue was thick. The words came out wrong.
“My god,” she said. “It’s so disgustingly predictable.”
Everett swallowed his shame.
“Older men,” she said, fitting the key to the lock. “Sooner or later, you all smell the stink of death on the air.”
Madeline closed the door in his face.
Everett stumbled away from the university and into the center of town, until he found himself teetering outside the second Madeline’s apartment building. He looked up at the window where the second Madeline had lived, not knowing what to do, until a man on his way out the door recognized him.
“Well hello, my friend,” he said. “She forgot about you, huh?”
Everett shivered. Obviously the man didn’t know the second Madeline was dead. Still, it suited his purposes. The man held the door open and Everett slipped inside.
He thought he could gain access to the second Madeline’s apartment. He could get a piece of her clothing, perhaps, or one of the restraints, for sentimental reasons. He slumped outside her locked door, his ear to the wood, though of course there was no one behind it.
Everett woke up to see a man—the same man who had let him into the apartment in the first place—looking down at him with a concerned expression.
“I miss Madeline,” Everett managed to say.
The man helped him outside and was kind enough to not call the police.
There was nothing to do now, no Madeline but the first Madeline. Everett had nowhere else to go. Every evening he visited the coffee shop across the street from Madeline’s apartment, where he waited and watched to see if someone fitting his basic physical description would approach Madeline’s door. Some nights no one came, but more often than not his dark imagination was rewarded.
Some of them resembled the earlier Everett: a little doughy around the edges, trembling fingers reaching for the doorknob. Others imagined a future Everett, wide smiles cutting furrows across their cheeks, stepping confidently through the threshold, visions of erotic assignations filling their august heads.
To someone other than Everett these men might have seemed unconnected, but Everett could see the thread that bound them together: they were all different versions of him, or else it was the other way around—Everett was only one version of himself. Either way, the passage of each suitor, bearing flowers and ringing Madeline’s doorbell, made Everett feel like a single snapshot among thousands: something less than a human being.
On an evening before Thanksgiving, when no other Everett was forthcoming, Everett went to the doorbell himself. He wondered what kind of Everett he might seem to others: old or young, fat or thin, dissipated or hideously naive.
He took the steps slowly, conscious all the time that so many other Everetts had also marched up the same worn stairs, turned the same doorknob, seen the same face on the other side.
“You look a mess, Everett,” Madeline said. “Are you all right? I was worried about you.”
“I know, Madeline,” he said. “I know everything.” Madeline’s mouth took a tight line—sadness, maybe, but mostly resignation.
“Come inside,” she said. “Come inside and I’ll tell you everything.”
They sat at the table together. Madeline tried to take his hands, but he refused.
“I feel terrible,” she told him. “I owed you so much. I was in such a state before I met you, and the least I could have done was been honest. But you’re so sensitive, Everett. I didn’t know if you could handle it.”
Everett looked down at the street. A chill wind was blowing. The women walking down the streets held their coats tightly to their bodies to keep the air out. Soon they would be going home to their apartment to avoid the windy weather, to sit alone or with their partners, to watch television or listen to the radio, to engage in their warm, little lives.
“I didn’t know how to tell you, Everett,” she said. “You seemed so happy.”
Had he been happy? Everett wondered this to himself as his eyes ran over the small world he had once considered his own: the tiny laminate table, the dusty radio. He had been excited, and now he was in despair. But as for happiness, he couldn’t give it a name.
“Maybe we could start things over,” Madeline suggested. “If we were honest with each other?”
Everett shook his head. He left soon after, without much more than a vague promise to keep in touch. He took the steps very quickly on the way out, bundling himself against the cold.
Everett spent the winter alone. He walked to and from the office without stopping, except for occasional trips to the bar; he made work his life again. The company was happy to have him full-time again, training new hires, and all those Madelines had sapped his bank account.
Certain things reminded him of who he really was. He gained weight. Without Madelines to go exercising with he found that the habit was easy to lose. He stopped paying for haircuts and let his mop of curls grow. He listened to baseball games on the radio instead of reading. His mind went to weeds like an uncultivated garden. He felt tired; he needed to rest. When he saw himself in the windows of shops he began to notice traces of the Everett he remembered in the heavy corners of his face.
The site still sent him periodic emails. It offered special deals for re-subscription. Everett grew to hate these e-mails, as he were an alcoholic and an old friend were calling him in the middle of a bender, asking for company. Eventually he blocked the site from his inbox.
He saw Madelines occasionally, in passing, walking to and from work—an athletic Madeline here, an artistic Madeline there, Madelines he had only seen once or twice, Madelines he had slept with on several occasions. Their lives went on, lines of women circling the city, perfectly content without Everett’s interruption. The Madelines never noticed him. He was growing his beard again, and then there was the weight he had put on. He was unrecognizable, except to himself.
From his window, four stories above, he could see the Madelines meeting Everetts, the thousand versions of the man he used to be; meeting them in avenues, in alleyways, sharing secret assignations under the neon lights of the parking garage across the street. They were like a bird with a thousand variations of plumage, but if you plucked their feathers Everett felt that the gray skin beneath would be the same.
Everett sat in the living room of his apartment and looked down at the world covered in snow.
One night, in late winter, watching from his perch as yet another Madeline leaned back in the arms of yet another Everett, her back forming a perfect arch in the light of a low-hanging streetlamp, Everett’s breath fogged the glass and showed him his own reflection. His face was distended and pale, sagging at the corners, and his wide mouth gaped to take in air. No Madeline would ever embrace him now. He was his own Everett, solitary and unwanted. He was himself again at last.