Madeleine

by Hannah Epstein

I first properly met Madeleine at a birthday party in Teresa’s backyard back in the sixth grade. Before that, we had only seen each other in passing when our teachers would have us leave the school building in neat lines for recess. When I saw her back then, before I really knew her, she had reminded me of a cup of bitter black tea; her voice was curt and sour, too mature for that of a twelve-year-old girl. She often used words that were unusual for anyone her age (capricious, juxtapose, anomaly), and spoke with an underlying sense of authority that must’ve intimidated the boys at our school, like that of a parent or teacher. I remember how odd her clothes were; ragged and torn, they would come apart as she walked down the school hallways, her buttons falling from her blouses like pebbles toppling down a mountain. I remember how she was a scrawny girl, how her words flew and her mind drifted whenever she spoke. It was a long time ago when we first met, back when we were at that moment in life when children disappear and adults begin to form from their frail and inexperienced bodies.

Madeleine’s mother’s name was Marie. My family’s small apartment down on Court Street, where we used to live, had these great big windows that looked out onto what seemed like all of New York, and every day after school I would sit for hours with a pair of old binoculars and watch as the people walked about my city. I would sit there and look for Marie, hoping to see her as she strolled down the street with her little cart full of letters and brown packages. People would usually be rushing down our block, their feet banging against the ground like little stones skipping across a lake. But not Marie. She was far too elegant to rush anywhere. She was beautiful, and that was why I always looked for her, always looked for her blue uniform and cart full of mail. She had blond hair, and I had always wished to have blond hair when I was younger. Madeleine later told me how Marie had gone to some fancy fashion school and had wanted all her life to become a designer with her own clothes and company. Instead, though, she was a mail carrier, which I assume was her second choice of profession. But she had loved clothes, and so she would always take the time to make all of Madeleine’s clothes from hand. Madeleine was her little doll, as she used to say. Come here, Doll, she would call to her. Come tell me about your day at school, Doll.

When I came over to Madeleine’s house for the first time, a few days after the party, Marie had made us a plate full of almonds, whole wheat crackers, and little glasses of water with lemon slices in them. As Madeleine and I sat around their little yellow table, tucked neatly between the wall of books and carefully placed furniture, Marie had told us in detail about her life growing up. She talked about her large thighs that would slosh if she ran too fast or her hips that had ballooned out when she was only nine, about how she was subject to teasing from the boys in her fourth-grade class. That’s why, girls, it’s important to start taking care of your body early on, or else you’ll be made fun of your whole life. Perhaps this is why Madeleine never thought she was a pretty girl, though I knew she was. I had always known she was very pretty, even before everyone else realized it.

Madeleine never thought of herself as a pretty girl, even though I had always believed she was. She had red-pink cheeks and nice blue eyes, and black hair that trickled down her spine, which was always shiny because she washed it every night with honey dew shampoo. But, and maybe this is to be blamed on the ugly clothing she wore, she never received the attention that the pretty girls did: she did not get roses on Valentine’s Day or have parties with boys and seven minutes in heaven on Friday nights. She did not have budding breasts to show, as Lucy did (she had already gotten her period at age nine), or blonde hair dyed mermaid blue, as Penelope did  (her mother was never home, and her father let her do what she pleased).

We had both begun to pray together at the beginning of seventh grade, after the party, even though neither of us had ever gone to church, so we ourselves knew nothing about religion. All we knew was that Jesus was born on the 25th of December and reborn sometime in April, the month which blossoms with life. We would often wonder if Jesus’s rebirth was hidden in the Ash Tree’s green leaves down on Capel Street. Jesus was simply a name, you must understand, to people like Madeleine. Everything was a name to a girl like Madeleine, her mother was a string of sounds that were carried through air. The world could not exist without an identity to call it by, and if it could then she would no longer want to live at all. She prayed every night, we both did. Often, we would pray to become like Lucy or Penelope, beg for our first periods or for the signs of maturity to come to us as they had come to other the girls in our grade.

Madeleine used to have some friends, that is, before I came along. She had friends who liked to pull her hair and slap her wrists, who spat on her and stole her toys. At least, that is what she told me, though you may believe she was lying. Teresa had the dark hair and the body that swayed when she walked, Valarie the light blond hair and the pinching smile (you know the kind). Teresa was the kind of friend who was loved by parents and those ungentlemanly boys in the grade above. She must have known that because her life depended on those good-looking affirmations (Teresa is the best-looking girl in all of sixth grade! You see that crop top Teresa was wearing today? Teresa is such a good girl and does her homework so early in the day). She had a soft appearance with light feet that skipped, not walked, and we all thought of her as a beautiful lady. I had, of course, known who Teresa was before I had known who Madeleine was. It was on the last day of sixth grade that Teresa and Madeleine stopped talking. That day had been sweaty, with one of those bright suns, the kind that makes you want to go to the beach and have salty skin. Teresa had put lemonade in her water bottle with little mint leaves from her mother’s garden. All this had made it a lovely day for Madeleine’s first heartbreak.

Teresa was a wonderful girl, and though Madeleine always held her head as she cried, Teresa had had prettier friends, and it was middle school, so who would choose Madeleine over a nice boy? In the schoolyard at recess that day, the children were excited to go home and play in sprinkles or prepare for their trips abroad, Teresa had come up to Madeleine and said this:

“Next year we will be in seventh grade, I want a friendship that is more mature” (but hadn’t Madeleine’s teacher said that she was so grown-up for being twelve years old?) “Next year when I am in seventh grade, I want to be friends with that boy over there, the one with the freckles, and I want to be with those people, not you, don’t cry Madeleine, you’re such a baby, don’t try to make me feel bad, it’s not my fault that you have no friends, my mom is making me invite you to my birthday party this Saturday, so you can come to that, but don’t talk to me next year.”

Madeleine had tried so hard not to cry, but then her throat burned, and she had to pretend to be sick so her mother could pick her up. The nurse in the pink-blue office down in the basement of the school had looked at her with those sad eyes; those eyes that seemed to follow Madeleine around wherever she went. “You don’t have a fever, but I’ll call your mom and she can come and pick you up, don’t worry dear, it will be alright.” When Marie came to the school, she wore a bright pink hat with black netting placed carefully around the hems, and she told Madeleine that if she was really sick, as she so claimed, then she had to go straight to bed when she got home, no television or computer. Madeleine said alright and the two walked all three miles home to that old red brick house, not so far from Capel Street.

Don’t be so impatient. The story will come, but you better not expect a whole lot, because there was never much to Madeleine. Those girls, Penelope Lucy Teresa Valerie, would have long high school lives with hickeys and cigarettes and when senior year came, they would stop and say, “oh right, Madeleine, I wonder where she is,” if they even remembered her and all the pain they had caused her. It is a mystery where guilt goes for children, where it disappears to, hidden somewhere deep underground in the cool dirt of the earth. Because when Saturday did come around, and Madeleine wore a white dress with pink ribbons and little Mary Jane shoes, she would remember that day in that backyard for the rest of her life. She would remember those girls and those sounds and those birds that kept flying in trying to eat that cake. She would remember it all so well that her life was always plagued by the feeling of insecurity, past middle school, past the ugly clothes that her mother sewed for her.

I had received a letter inviting me to Teresa’s birthday party, one with a bright pink rim and cursive letters that I had struggled to read. I had put it safely away in my drawer, tucked underneath my shirts, treating it as though it was a holy item that had descended from an omnipotent spirit. And though every girl in the grade had been invited, I had found it extraordinary that I was included in this list. And so, like every other girl there, I wore my prettiest dress, I put my hair in braids the night before so that it would become ripples of color and shine, I smeared on some tinted lip balm. I tried to make my best impression, as did all the girls, since we all desired Teresa’s friendship. It would have ensured a smooth middle school experience, one that would be envied and praised, and a way to climb the social ladder of twelve-year-olds. But, when I arrived at that party, the only girl I had noticed was Madeleine, in her ugly dress and shiny hair.

We met here, at Teresa’s party which was held in the backyard of her brownstone. We were all jealous of the fact that Teresa had a backyard, a rare luxury in New York. It had fake grass, too green to be real, and cool metal poles that held up the balcony above, ones we had hugged, kissed, caressed, pretending that they were handsome princes in our games of make believe. There was an old blow-up pool by a wooden fence that was home to spiders and their webs. Some girls wore bathing suits, running into this small pool, pushing down the plastic corners of it and watching as the water collapsed over the side. Teresa saw this and, in that stern voice of hers, said, don’t do that. Do that again and my dad and mom will kick you out, I’m not joking.

I do not know why my attention was placed almost entirely on Madeline; maybe it was because she sat all alone in the corner, resting her head on the fake grass and toying with the ribbon tied around the frills of her dress, or maybe it was because no one else acknowledged her. Or, when they did, they only muttered things of how she was not even wanted there, of how Teresa’s mother had made Teresa invite her, of some violent anger they felt towards Madeleine’s existence. Most of the party went on like this: the girls cornered on one end of the backyard, Madeleine on the other. The girls playing a game of truth or dare and Madeleine aimlessly pointing at the clouds that slowly fell over her head.

I do not remember how it happened. It seemed we were all sitting together, circling around, gossiping about boys and girls, until suddenly we weren’t. Until suddenly we were all standing, circling about Madeleine, and tearing off those baby-pink ribbons she had been playing with. Possibly someone had accidentally ripped part of Madeleine’s dress, possibly Madeleine had torn it herself and was coming over to show us the rip. It does not matter how it began, for the ending was what stuck with Madeleine. The girls had no trouble tearing apart the loose seams of the dress that Marie had sewn, pulling Madeleine back and forth from one side to the other, pushing her violently between Teresa and Penelope, Penelope and Lucy, Lucy and Valarie, between the sounds of laughter and anguish. Ripping her apart from head to toe and screaming with fits of joy. It was not long before all that was left of Madeleine’s dress was a few pieces of white frilled cloth hanging from her underdeveloped hips and boney shoulders. Madeleine was not crying, she was simply in shock, allowing her body to sway whichever way the girls saw fit.

Eventually, Teresa stopped, and everyone else did in response. Madeleine stood at a slant watching as all the girls around her melted into the grass and disappeared from her view. I had not participated in the de-clothing of Madeleine, but instead stood silently, my mouth open in horror and my hands gripping onto the cool metal pole. The girls went inside to eat cake, and I came over to Madeleine, who by that point had pools of tears in her eyes. I began to pick up the torn cloth, trying my best to put it back in the place that it belonged. Madeleine softly whispered in my ear, tightly grasping onto my hand as if I was about to sink down with those other girls and leave her standing there all alone: it’s alright, I never liked this dress anyway.

A woman with a black haired bob surrounded by various words and scribbles.

MOREGUILT

by Mary Lou Robison


Hannah E. Epstein is from Brooklyn, NY. She is currently studying international studies and creative writing at Bryn Mawr College.

Mary Lou Grace Robison is a working artist residing in San Francisco. She is a candidate for her Bachelors in Fine Arts at the University of San Francisco where she is a member of the Thacher Gallery and Fine Arts Department. Grace’s work focuses on exploring traditional portraiture- pulling inspiration from both old masters and new- to express feelings such as nostalgia, trauma, and alienation.

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