Pepper and Sweetheart needed three walks a day—before and after work, and one in the middle of Madeleine’s workday. She hired Kristin, the super’s super teen daughter, to take care of it. With her mom undergoing chemo, Madeleine found it an agreeable arrangement until she came home one day to Kristin and her boyfriend tangled on the couch, lost in a cloud of marijuana.
“Drugs cause severe brain damage,” Madeleine said. That’s all she could manage in the face of so much lush flesh on her brand-new leather pullout couch, the shocking, sudden vision of youthful lust. She was paralyzed. She recognized the young man. Even fully clothed, he caused traffic jams in her thoughts when she saw him in the hallways. He was good-looking—high cheekbones, a large eggplant-shaped nose, and close-together green eyes that surveyed every scene with lazy crocodile confidence. He looked like he was 22, 25, too old for a high school girl, but she wasn’t the girl’s mother. In the elevator, he once looked at her with frank interest, which embarrassed and secretly pleased her. She had been curious about his tattoo—his t-shirt teased glimpses of a dark green creature. That day in her living room, she saw that it was a python. It started on the back of his neck, wrapping around his torso, ending somewhere mysterious.
Later, she covered her eyes with both hands remembering how flushed and flustered she had become. Drugs? Brain damage? She heard them snicker as they fled past her still partially nude.
When Madeleine was a little girl, her mother adopted two dogs for her. Every American child grew up with a dog, her mother said, so Madeleine had to have a dog in first grade, but not just one—two dogs, so she could be extra American. It had nothing to do with the fact that Madeleine’s mother wanted to go out at night and needed someone to keep her daughter company.
Every day after school, on weekends, Madeleine took care of the dogs. She walked them, fed them, groomed them while her mother fell in love again and again. As primary dog caregiver, Madeleine adhered to their schedule rain or shine, whether she wanted to or not. It was a lesson, her mother said, in responsibility, in putting the needs of another before your own.
During her second round of chemo, her mother ordered Madeleine to start dating.
“You’re not getting younger,” she barked, glaring at her daughter. “Isn’t there anyone?”
The first round of chemo had gone well—the tumor had stopped growing, the side effects were minimal. Still, her mother panicked.
Madeleine dodged the jab, ignored the query. She continued brushing her mother’s hair to stay calm—100 strokes to keep her mother’s silver mane looking lustrous. One of the many beauty secrets she tried to pass on to Madeleine, which had gone ignored. The electricity crackled the strands. Her mother had always been incredibly dynamic.
“Ninety-eight, ninety-nine, one hundred. Done,” Madeleine said lightly. She carefully placed her mother’s hairbrush back in the nightstand alongside her mother’s makeup.
“When I was your age, I had a million dates, so many men wanted to date me,” her mother said. “I had to fight them off.”
“Madeleine, I named you after a cookie,” her mother said. “Ever hear of Proust?”
“No,” Madeleine said. She was six years old.
“Proust was your grandfather’s favorite writer,” her mother said. “Proust wrote a story about eating a madeleine, this cookie, and he starts remembering.”
“What does he remember?” Madeleine perked up at the mention of family. As far as she could recall, her mother never spoke about her grandfather.
“A little of everything, nothing, his childhood,” she said, folding Madeleine's shirts from the laundry. “He takes a bite of a madeleine dipped in tea and his past comes rushing back to him.”
Madeleine did not understand what her mother was talking about. She kept this to herself.
For Madeleine, there were few opportunities for love. In nursing school, where the student body was mostly female, the men had their choice of the prettiest and wildest women. It didn’t bother her, she told herself. School was tough and she needed the extra time to study. Besides, she preferred novels and a bag of quality chips to labored small talk. Things would change once she got out of school, she thought.
Things did not change once she got out of school.
In their New York life, Madeleine’s mother charged into the next chapter, throwing off vestiges of her past in an instant. She ditched her name Soon-Ja Kim for Walker West, changed Meen-Jong to Madeleine. They moved around with their brash new identities, crashing at various relatives’ homes, staying up late, until they found their own small apartment in a remote part of Queens.
Madeleine started elementary school and Walker began bartending where they hosted weekly poetry slams.
“I am a poet!” Her mother announced and threw herself into her new craft like a careening bus. She stayed locked in her bedroom for hours, emerging only from dinner and late-night shifts.
Peeling oranges is better than peeling a grape
peeling back your hard skin, your layers,
the delicate membranes that cover you,
brings me closer to your sweet meat,
your juice in my mouth.
Holding an orange, the weight in my hand
like the weight of your hand in mine.
the weight of your fruit in my palm.
Sink into me, pressing, always pressing
until we break
Let me suckle and plunder you
from under you
till every moment is dry as bone.
“That was really good, Mom,” Madeline nodded. She had no idea her mother liked oranges that much.
Madeleine met Rich at work. He came in with chest pains, tie neatly strangling his neck, jacket folded as smoothly as origami over one arm.
“Can you hurry? I have an important meeting this afternoon,” he said, staring at the ceiling in clear terror, breaking out in hives and sweat, his beautiful shirt stained with perspiration. “I can spare twenty minutes, tops.”
“How nice,” she said breezily. She took the time she needed to take his vitals. In the end, the attending ruled Rich was having a panic attack and sent him home with a prescription for anti-anxiety meds. The next day, Rich came back with peonies and asked Madeleine to dinner.
Rich became a manager of a major hedge fund when he was twenty-five, obviously a prodigy.
“Obviously, I’m a prodigy,” he said on their first date. He shouted, while everyone else at the bar seemed to make points at whisper-level. He blurted out his autobiography with every breath. His words rushed out in a flood, as if he were a game contestant racing against the clock. They shook hands good night. His hands were clammy. She made him nervous.
“That wasn’t the normal me, when we first met,” he said on their second date. “I never panic. When I was a kid, I panicked a lot right after my parents split up. They had to put me on medication, but now, I don’t even perspire. You can’t, if you want to make the kind of money I make.”
“Uh huh,” she said. She was here because her friends told her she was judgmental, which she didn’t necessarily believe was a bad quality. Also, she had witnessed his perspiration firsthand in the ER.
Their third date was at the Museum of Natural History. Outside the butterfly exhibit, she found him hunched over his phone. When she said hello, he placed a finger over his lips, signaling she should not talk. This made her wild with irritation and she decided to explore on her own. The heat of the room seemed to expound upon her hot anger. The exhibit’s thermostat was cranked up to extremes to replicate tropical South America. The interior weather made her feel like she was hallucinating. There was a bored young man selling thimbles of fruit juice for feeding. She bought some, just to have something to do. Daredevil Monarchs, Swallow Tails, Zebra Longwings that clung to plants spotlighted by high temperature lamps slowly came for her. Bright orange, electric blue. Butterflies hovered near her face, wings beating, steady as metronomes. It was the invasion of Normandy, the Invasion of the Body Snatchers. One giant, breathing living organism after her heart. Then the beat seemed to downshift to a glacial slow motion as they began to land on her skin. She didn’t feel like she could move.
Rich joined her in the room. A Monarch butterfly landed on his cheekbone and Rich kept talking. She was mesmerized, as the Monarch butterfly waved to Madeline with wings of rich gold, white, and black. When she moved a little closer, she could hear the butterfly’s soft, squeaky voice. She kept moving in to get a better listen. This is what the butterfly said:
There are no men left in New York. You are alone. You will die alone and you will die in the cold. Nothing you do can change this fate.
Later, when Rich leaned into kiss her, she opened her eyes once or twice to see if this butterfly was still on his face. She asked herself, as their mouths battled, Do I want this? Do I feel like doing this? She slept with him. He was a member of an endangered species—the straight, unmarried man. She couldn’t afford to be picky. As her mother liked to say, only the pretty get to be picky.
Her mother didn’t have a career so much as an exquisite history of romantic love. When they left Korea for New York, her mother cast off the expectations of her family, her in-laws, society. She shattered the illusion of being the perfect daughter, daughter-in-law, mother. Almost as soon as they moved to New York, the phone positively pulsed with promise and twilight walks, ringing nonstop for Madeleine’s mother. There were writers, painters, scholars, and one tax accountant. (Their refund was quite good that year, as her mother would remind anyone who would listen.) She was a consummate artist of amore, an avid consumer of life, staying out late, smoking, talking about the meaning of existence, striking her would-be suitors as a once-in-a-lifetime chance. They tripped over themselves to buy her a drink. When Madeleine thought of her mother’s love life, the word “plenty” came to mind.
After dates, she sat in her daughter’s room. Madeleine and her puppies were a ready audience. They waited in bed quietly for the chance to listen to her mother after the sitter went home. When her mother swept in, Madeleine could smell the smoke from the bar that hung in her long black hair, the musk of a persistent memory. There was wine on her breath and beneath all those toxic odors, the tiniest trace of comforting Pond’s face cream. Madeleine couldn’t wait to grow up so she could be like her mother.
“I had beautiful hair,” her mother said. This was after the third round of chemotherapy. It had stopped working, but the doctors wanted to try again. “I miss my hair.”
“You still look nice,” Madeleine said. In truth, she too missed her mother’s hair. It seemed unfair her mother, who had been beautiful all her life, was now subject to the indignity of balding. As a medical professional, she had expected, of course, the day would come when her mother would wake up like this, leaving fistfuls of silver on her pillow. What she did not expect was to experience the loss as acutely as her mother.
She missed brushing her mother’s elegant hair. They were not an affectionate family, and now Madeleine had no excuse to touch her.
Madeleine’s father died young. (Heart attack). She could not remember him. He had been unable to give up an old girlfriend during his marriage, which in her mother’s opinion, made him average. The real loss, Walker confessed one late night, was Madeleine’s grandfather.
Walker said he was a doctor, though not wealthy. No one had money during the war. He treated people for free and eventually went to jail for bankruptcy. He returned home and then disappeared. They did not know what had happened. Many people disappeared during the Korean War, some after the war. Walker was just a child at the time. Having survived the bombings and playing with bullet casings and eating eggplant for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for four years, she was better off than most who made do with insects and leaves and twigs and dirt and whatever they could fill their bellies to wake up one more day. Nothing made sense. When her father departed, she tried to accept it as an inevitable part of life.
They received a letter from him years later, which Walker still carried in her purse. The letter was rich in wrinkles, translucent in spots from multiple readings and handling. It was written in Korean with entire phrases blacked out , a crossword puzzle without clues. This is what it said in English:
It has been ____ years since we have seen one another. I ___ you are well. I am _______ of the Democratic Front of the Reunification of the Fatherland. I live ______________. I am ________ married with four, hard-working children who contribute greatly to the Party by _____. _______ Great Leader Kim Il-Sung truly cares for his people. I ______ you and our ______ healthy. ____________________________________________________________________. _________________. _________________. I ______ for it.
Her mother said this is how they found out he had been kidnapped. North Korea needed professional people, doctors like Madeleine’s grandfather, to rebuild their country, so they just took him along with 84,532 others during the war. This was the last any of them had heard from him.
“We are not the only ones who went through this. Many people were taken, from South Korea, from Japan, other countries. It was not a soft time,” she said. “Sometimes you hear that the government makes them contact their old families to get money. Who knows if he’s even alive.”
“They just took people? In the middle of the night?” Madeleine asked anxiously. She was fixated on this one problem, the rest of the story too unfathomable to digest. North Korea sounded like the Boogie Man. She looked outside her window to see if it were secure and was not comforted by the flimsy wooden frame. It took all of Madeleine’s courage to ask the next question, which she could barely get up past a whisper. “Will they take you?”
“Me? Why would they want me? I’m just a waitress in a bar,” her mother laughed bitterly. “No one’s looking for me, but then who knows, Madeleine, none of us are ever truly safe.”
When Madeleine came home at night, Sweetheart and Pepper ran and scampered up her shins.
“Down ladies,” she said. “Down. Ow! Goddamn it!”
The dogs could not calm, thrilled by the sight of her. She was filled with sudden rage at the pain of sharp nails on her leg. She stood cursing and surprised herself by tearing up. She was losing it. There was a knock at the door.
“Hi,” he said. It was Tattoo Boy.
“Oh,” she said. She remembered the last time she had seen him, a disturbing cataclysm of muscle, sweaty flesh. She lost her power of speech.
“Can I come in?”
She could feel her face color, which only made her blush more. Why didn’t other people seem to blush? She hated that she was so obvious. She wondered if he knew the spell his beauty cast on her. Probably. Beautiful boys always know. They went to the living room. The scene of the divine crime, she thought.
“Can I get you something to drink?” she asked, as if this were an ordinary social call, as if midnight were a normal time for total strangers whom you’ve seen gloriously naked to visit.
“Do you have any beer?”
“No,” she said curtly. That broke the spell. She remembered he had a girlfriend.
He nodded. “Probably for the best.” His hair was wet as if he had run straight from the shower into her apartment. Maybe he had showered at her place. She would have to check the bathroom for evidence. He kept running his fingers through his wet locks, drying his hands back and forth on the thighs of his tight black jeans. The black nail polish was chipped. The snake tattoo peeked at her above his forest green t-shirt, above a necklace of small steel balls.
“Do you need a dog walker?” he asked.
As if on cue, Pepper and Sweetheart padded over to Tattoo Boy and stretched into a bow.
“What about your girlfriend?”
“We broke up,” he said, breaking into a slow smile. “She’s just a kid.”
“I love Swann’s Way,” Rich said. “The way he dips in the madeleine and all his memories come back? That’s just like how it happens in life.”
“You didn’t find the book boring?” Madeleine had tried to read her namesake book. She got to the part where the boy waits up for his mother to come up from a party downstairs to put him to bed and always stopped.
“That part is great, but that’s just the beginning. I completely remember feeling like that when I was a kid. It felt like I was waiting forever for my mom at bedtime. I just could not wait until she came to tuck me in for the night. It was like trying to wait for Santa at Christmas, just drove me crazy. I always worried she forgot me, but she always came. Know what I mean?”
She wondered at the attachment Rich obviously had to his mother. She pretended she knew what he meant.
“Madeleine,” Rich said. “We have to talk.”
They saw each other on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, when Madeleine was not working. They started going out for dinners and movies, and then switched to takeout and cable TV at Rich’s place. Their relationship was asleep.
“Seriously Mad, turn off the TV.”
Madeleine sighed and sat up, muting the volume of the latest sci-fi, interplanetary galactic phenomenon. She was enjoying the story because there was no hospital setting, no dying patients, no patients ignoring their prescriptive advice, no work politics, no burn out. The picture quality of his flat-screen TV was so sharp, she could see the texture of the lead actor’s makeup. Maybe Rich was right, she should invest in one of these.
“I don’t know how to say this,” he said.
This made her alert. Rich knew how to say everything. He was always talking, espousing his philosophies on the Florida election recount, the best way to open avocadoes, the proper way to ice beer for a party. She sat up. She worried he was about to propose.
Rich proposed they break up. He asked her what she felt. This is what she said:
“I think you’re right. I will get that new TV.”
The night her mother died, Madeleine was exhausted. She was late for visiting hours. The security guard gave her a hard time and she almost didn’t get in.
Her mother was sitting up in bed, caught in a coughing storm, her entire frail frame shaking with a violence and more energy than Madeleine had seen in a while. Her eyes filled with tears. Madeleine rushed over to soothe her back.
“Call a nurse, Madeleine,” her mother gasped.
“I am a nurse, Mom.”
Madeleine poured a cup of water from the pink plastic pitcher and brought the straw to her mother’s lips. When she had enough, she sank back on her bed.
“I want a hot dog.”
Her mother had not eaten real food for a while, so this was cause for excitement. Where would Madeleine get a hot dog? It wasn’t exactly a healthy food so there wouldn’t be one in the hospital. If she managed to find a hot dog stand, what were the chances that the crabby security guard let her back up? She managed to find a slice of leftover cherry pie from lunchtime from the nursing station and hurried back.
“Not a hot dog,” her mother said. She took a bite and closed her eyes in blissful enjoyment. She took another sip of water and lay back down in her bed, done with her last meal.
“You look tired,” her mother whispered.
“I am tired,” Madeleine said.
That night, Madeleine came home and beelined for a beer. She could have sworn she just picked up a six-pack but there was only one left. Pepper and Sweetheart padded closely behind her, panting at her heels.
Initially, she had doubts over hiring Tattoo Boy and giving him keys to her apartment, but it was such a relief to be able to come home and not worry about a midnight doggie walk. And then, the front door opened.
“Oh,” Tattoo Boy said. He looked surprised. “You’re here.”
“Yes,” she said.
“I wasn’t expecting you.”
“I live here.”
He turned to leave.
“Don’t go,” she said. He looked surprised. She was surprised as well. “Share my last beer with me.”
She handed it to him. He took a slug. Then he entered the apartment and shut the door. They passed the bottle back and forth, not saying anything, until it was gone. Madeleine briefly wondered why he was here. Why did he look like he was in a hurry? Why was all her beer missing? She could not hold onto these questions, because at this particular moment, she felt a surge of light-headedness, the surreal effects of sleep deprivation and distressing worry. Also, she was enjoying the beer and his good looks.
“You okay?” he asked.
“Bad day.” She said. “Mom’s sick. Not looking good.” She didn’t know it yet, but she would miss her mother’s death. She would be at home with Tattoo Boy while her mother looked around her room and this earth one last time.
“Sorry,” he said. “Want something stronger than beer?”
“You know, drugs? The stuff that causes brain damage?”
Madeleine threw her head back and laughed in such a way she felt that she was losing control. Everything in her body was shaking, her reserves completely depleted. She had to quiet herself before the boy began to think she had lost her mind, but why was she even worrying about that? He moved closer. She could feel his breath. She felt like she had a fever, her skin humming. He touched her cheek cautiously, but then firmly guided her chin to his face. Up close, she could now see his eyes were lovely, hazel, and dilated.
“I want your tattoo,” she said.
“Shhh.” He snaked his tongue into her mouth and left a small tablet.
He was so young. She should pull away. When he let go, she felt boneless as he led her gently to the floor. He took off his shirt, then hers. She saw the python tattoo on his body, swaying above her.
When it was over, she fell in and out of sleep. He was dressed and going through her things. He took the nice television Rich bought when they broke up. He went through her purse, opened drawers in the bedroom. Sweetheart and Pepper barked, wildly upset at this turn of events. But Madeleine was too far gone to feel anything. Instead, she fell into a deep dream.
In her dream, she flew to North Korea on the back of butterfly as large as the Empire State Building. She was on her way to visit her grandfather. The great butterfly’s flapping wings were so powerful that the grass bent away beneath their arrival. A small, ancient man emerged from a house, followed by children and a wife, to greet her. He had a long, thin white beard and long eyebrows that reached out like tree branches. Madeleine recognized him immediately. This is my family, she thought.
“Welcome American Daughter,” the whole group said. “Please give us money. The Great Leader needs your American dollars.”
Their cheeks were sunken. Through their thin, linen tops, she could see their ribs. They were starving, close to death. Flies, anticipating their fall, clung to their faces. Her grandfather broke away from the others and gestured Madeline to follow. He led her to a large lake. They were completely alone. He kept walking, right into the water. Madeline followed, until they were treading to keep afloat. Only then did he turn to her.
“This is the only place they can’t hear us.”
“The government,” he said. “Everyone is a spy. They are all around us. They ask us to invite our American relatives and beg for money.”
“You can have my money, I want to help,” she said. “We are family.”
She barely said the word “family.” It stuck in her throat like a small, vicious fish bone.
“We will die soon,” he said. “We don’t need your money.”
“Oh,” she said. “Okay.”
“Do you have the letter?”
She reached into a pocket and handed it to him. He folded it into a small pellet and swallowed it. It was her only piece of evidence of his existence, their connection.
“You should have never come,” he said. “We are strangers.”