FEAR: A LOVE STORY
Madeleine Beauregard was afraid, but you would never know it from looking at 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 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 in his life actually ever called him “little.” But I will, because it suits him.
Madeleine was thirty-one, and possessed of librarian good looks and a 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 the kind of promises that men find irresistible. As a result, there were many men who pursued her, and Madeleine fell quickly into and out of love.
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, boundless love that could consume her, envelop her... drive her to strip off the caution of years and plunge unreservedly into marriage.
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 practicalities 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 suitors. 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. Nor 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 where he could have mailed 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 practically worn a rut into the sidewalk between his home and the little post office. 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 holding back the shrub that hemmed 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.
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 in the burlap sacks.
She could tell he wanted nothing more than to retrieve them and get away; but by this time, she was immensely curious. Why burlap sacks, she wondered? And why, despite the obvious excitement 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.
Joe hemmed a little at the trap he felt 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 relaxed demeanor in a flash of consternation at seeing one of his, his... babies damaged.
Madeleine reached over to pick up the gopher and 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, 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 by the experience and for this reason continued on his way, flustered and only marginally more attentive to his passage than before.
Madeleine followed after him. She was used to men of all kinds, and had no qualms whatsoever about directly interpolating herself into the lives of the more retiring among them 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 was something ephemeral, really—by nature in love with everything and everyone who crossed her path. She felt for these shyer men in their discomfort, and therefore it made perfect sense to her to make it easier for them.
“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, too, 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 never stop looking at him in this way. Now, and for the rest of his days.
He forgot the 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’d buried himself in for so long that he’d lost track of what he could be without her. 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 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 traces of all he’d suffered and—he feared—was bound to suffer forevermore, on until his last, lonely breath (he could at times 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 say himself: “So, um, I’m sorry about your gopher. Can I buy you a coffee to make up for it?”
The shutters slapped back open and Joe—who suddenly felt the urge to cover every inch of Madeleine’s face 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’d 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, toward 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 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 fair-trade coffee as she wrote the poetry of the day in one of her many leather-bound notebooks. Sometimes, though, she would just watch, waiting for 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 down the street and into the coffee shop, finding an easy camaraderie and a facility of speech that surprised them both. 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, and to perhaps talk his way free of the pain that had for so long condensed him in upon himself and away from the un-predictabilities of love.
In no time they were seated, drinks in hand (tea, for him, with plenty of cream and honey), and he was sharing with her a rough outline of a life stymied by a love lost. She was a good listener (a great one, actually) and as he spoke, he felt a dripping away of half a decade of accumulated hopelessness.
Madeleine watched him as one watches a parading cat, enraptured by his sudden grandiloquence and intent on not missing out on one little piece of what he might say or do next. She had known a great many men, yes. But never one quite so transparent, a man who spoke with the measured, pensive eloquence borne of years of contemplation, alone with his thoughts and wounds. 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. 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 had suddenly become nothing more to her 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, forbidden tools her father’s 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, and seeking out the mentors who would help him learn the trade. All in an attempt to mold himself into... into what? A replacement? All those years, the growth of his 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-aggressive 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 a fearful tale 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 (he imagined) 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 turn over 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 trapped 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, she heard 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, curious 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 any woman, ever. 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. She took it awkwardly, and after she had left he knew that it, and she, were gone forever.
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