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When I first saw Amanda, she reminded me of someone I had once known and loved. It was the end of winter. A long, bitter season, grey as the hull of an aircraft carrier. Especially for me, handed over to the care of the sisters at Green Manors who fed me spoonfuls of watery soup and sponged me down in their tepid baths. I will never forget the laughter and the tears and the cruel eyes studying me.
After I lost Madeleine, it was as if I'd fallen down a bottomless well. My old friend Midge did what she could for me until there was nothing left to do. So she put me “someplace.” Someplace. The bleakest euphemism in the English language.
After that winter, I knew I had to get out, away from the flowers and the Mozart and the ever-present odors of urine and laundry lye. Even if I had nowhere to go.
So I took to the streets, wandering, pausing only to stop at a food cart or a diner or to fall into my bed at night, and then picking up again the next day to search the eyes of the people I encountered as if for an omen, a face I could recognize amid the cacophony of the traffic and the distant lowing of the foghorns.
And always searching for Madeleine, who, like Poe's Lenore, was “doubly dead in that she died so young.”
That's when I first saw Amanda. Sure, the hair was wrong. And the makeup. And those awful clothes! But there was something about her I couldn't ignore. I had to meet her. I knew it was wrong. Maybe even a little crazy. She had gotten my blood up. We all go a little crazy sometimes, don't we?
And so I followed her home, trailing her to her room in Chinatown, which, like Shanghai itself, has seen better days.
“Is this some kind of Gallup Poll?” she asked, her voice flat and barren.
She was nothing but a shopgirl, she insisted. She even showed me her driver's license. Salina, Kansas. But I couldn't shake the feeling I had about her. The look in her eye that told me that maybe, if you're in the right place at the right time and you get a lucky break, the present can bend back to touch the past. Standing in her flyspeck hotel room, amid her forlorn tchotchkes, I asked her to dinner.
“Why?” she said. “Because I remind you of someone?”
“I've heard that one before,” she said. “Let's see, I remind you of someone you were madly in love with. But then she ditched you for another guy and you've been carrying a torch ever since. Then you saw me and something clicked.”
“You're not far wrong,” I said and my face clouded over.
“She's dead, isn't she?”
Exactly one hour later, I picked her up for dinner.
Before I go any farther, you should know that I was always honest with Amanda. Regardless of how you judge what I'm about to tell you, she always knew exactly what I wanted from her—and she went along with it. Strange to say, I felt somehow responsible for her. As if she were someone whose life I'd once saved. With that came a sense of ownership.
At first, I just wanted to see more of her. As time went by, however, the dinners at Beaker and Flask, the dancing, the walks in Washington Park weren't enough. I'd be the first to admit that things got a little out of hand.
At times I might have been more intrusive than I should have been.
But when I looked in her eyes, I saw, not Amanda, but Madeleine. Or rather, I saw Amanda's face lingering where Madeleine's should have been, like an uninvited visitor who has overstayed his welcome. Something wasn't right. Something had to change.
Starting with her wardrobe.
She should have been grateful—but she fought me the whole way. Each step was bringing me one step closer to... I wasn't sure what. But I had to see this through.
“Why are you doing this?” she said. “What good will it do?”
“I don't know. No good, I guess. I don't know,” I said, turning to the window, frustrated and angry, but most of all, confused. So there we were. Locked in our deranged embrace. Me, unable to let go. Amanda, unable to break free. Still, those past few days were the first happy days I'd had in a year.
The clothes were certainly an improvement. But they weren't enough. Her hair was all wrong. For one thing, Madeleine was blonde.
The next day, I went with her to the salon. I met her stylist and described the exact shade of blonde that I wanted to see. And then I explained the makeover, selecting the precise shade of lipstick, eye shadow and eyebrow pencil. Her skin tone was already perfect and needed only a light brushing of rouge. I explained how her nails ought to be trimmed and manicured, stipulating the nail color that they should apply. I was the director of a movie in my head, creating a character for an audience of one.
I returned to her squalid apartment to wait.
One hour went by.
And then two.
And then three.
It was getting toward evening when I heard the elevator down the hall clatter to a stop. She was in the suit and blouse I'd bought her. She wore the shoes. Her makeup and hair checked out too. But....
“Well?” she said.
“Your hair should be back from your face and pinned at the neck. I told her that. I told you that.”
“We tried it. It just didn't seem to suit me.”
“Please, Amanda.” I sent her into the restroom to finish what I started.
When she came out, I knew.
I had her at last.
Back from the dead and in my arms once more.
She was a very apt pupil. I owned her fully and completely. One doesn't often get a second chance. She was mine and I determined then and there to never let her go. Amanda was my second chance.
Death itself couldn't part us.
Saturday, June 4, 2011
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