MADELEINE FOR REMEMBRANCE By Barbara Lefcowitz I’m aperture-challenged. Oh, I have the requisite number of body openings for a person of my gender, at least last I counted. What defies me are things that are locked or sealed. That’s why I constantly lose my keys: I’d rather leave my doors open than waste hours fiddling with locks. The most memorable such loss: when my key ring slipped from my hand as I walked the Left Bank one moonlit night; the ring dropped into the Seine somewhere near the Pont Neuf, never to surface again. The most forgettable: the night my keys fell into a swamp. The most haunting: my long sealed memory of Madeleine. She was blonde, had an oval face and long delicate fingers. At age 16 she was considered the “sensitive” type, who long before Sylvia Plath became famous, wrote poetry of surprising sophistication, its figures of speech, both luminous and dark, compensating for a sometimes exaggerated intimacy with the dead. Her voice was soft, even when she mocked the opinions of the other students. Madeleine. Madeleine for Remembrance, as Proust might have said. Why am I unlocking that memory now, more than half a century since we last crossed paths? Perhaps because of G, whom I ran into last night at a professional meeting? But I’ve run into G several times over the years and never before has he inspired any recollection of Madeleine. At least any conscious recollection. I could just as easily lock the memory away in one of my mind’s boxes. My distaste for locks and keys would be irrelevant since I’d never have to open that box. She sat between me and G in 11th grade Honors English at Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn.. G, the boy I secretly loved as only a 16 year old could. Though she and I were only mildly friendly, I leaned towards Madeleine so I could be closer to G. Once we had a three-way conversation about a popular movie of the time, “The Three Faces of Eve. “ G and I agreed it was a fine movie; Madeleine laughed and said it was “superficial,” one of her favorite words. A few weeks later, I was upset when G praised Madeleine’s latest poem, ”Riding Death’s Carousel,” which extolled the lure of death as an adventure only cowards fear. Knowing nothing of her history, I wondered what sort of tragedy Madeleine had suffered. Surely it couldn’t have been so terrible as Liselotte Herzfeld’s escape from Nazi Germany in 1941. But Madeleine wasn’t Jewish. Could she have recently lost a parent from leukemia, like a boy named Jerry who sat in back, or even a grandparent, like Sara, the girl who sat on the other side of me? Neither Liselotte nor Jerry wrote poetry, far as I knew. I did, but my efforts were so blatantly dark, as if scribbled with thick black crayon, that I didn’t dare share them with anyone. The only poem I remember was about standing on a subway platform and wrestling with the temptation to jump onto the tracks, directly onto the infamous Third Rail with its promise of instant death by electrocution. I think I really had such a thought, but I’m not sure; I could just as easily have imagined it. Like any “sensitive” 16 year old girl, I wondered how death felt, but mostly how people would react if I ended my life. Would my mother stop criticizing my crooked stocking seams? Would my little brother stop making fun of my breasts? Would G attend the funeral? G also wrote poetry, formal odes and verses in terza rima. His favorite authors were Dante and Proust and he liberally sprinkled his lines with French and Latin. I was deeply impressed, but Madeleine sometimes found his work funny and would lean in front of me and wink at Sara, who winked back, though I doubt she could follow G’s work at all. The first time I ran into G at a professional meeting, many years after Honors English, he gave a paper entitled “The Narcissistic Manipulation of Suicide Threats.” I was disappointed. Though I hadn’t thought about him in years, I guess I expected something less clinical, more graced with literary verve, more profound. If we say something’s in the middle we often make the false assumption that it’s equally distant from both A and Z. But if we say something’s in between we mean it’s somewhere inside the boundaries of A and Z, perhaps closer to A, perhaps closer to Z, a more precise statement precisely because of its built-in imprecision. Still, many confuse middles with betweens. . . Madeleine sat between me and G in that Honors English class. But I sat between Madeleine and Sara. A thin dark-haired girl, Sara was bright, but more conventionally so than Madeleine. In fact, she struck me as ordinary, eyes hidden behind tortoise shell glasses, shy and hesitant about speaking up. Only once do I remember her doing so, when the teacher was reciting Keats’s line about being “half in love with easeful death.” Sara said she couldn’t understand why Keats would describe death as “easeful.” Maybe he had never watched someone die. What in the world did Madeleine see in her? Sometimes she would reach around me to pass notes to Sara or whisper the word “superficial”--never, however, in response to anything Sara said. I was annoyed but said nothing. Now I suspect that Madeleine was even more annoyed because my leaning so close to her make it harder for her to contact Sara. But in those days students sat in their assigned seats, period. Often the two went off to lunch together after class. Sometimes I’d follow them when, holding hands, they walked down Flatbush Avenue towards Garfield’s Cafeteria. Of course, lots of 16 year old girls held hands. Why am I remembering these things now? I bet G hasn’t the slightest recollection of Madeleine, least of all Sara. He barely remembered me when we first met professionally years later; I had to introduce myself over and over when we’d subsequently see each other at those professional meetings. Until last night. . . For some reason, he had greeted me by name. (But said nothing about what I thought was a fine presentation on my part of a paper on “Memory and Forgetting,” said nothing despite my reference in the paper to Marcel Proust.) Of course, the reason I leaned closer to Madeleine was because she was seated closer to G. Now that I think of it, I served as the barrier between Sara and Madeleine. If only I could have assumed that role the day they climbed onto the roof of Sara’s apartment house on Ocean Avenue the summer after graduation. Most references to middles are deceptive. True, the statistical median is easy to determine. But how can anyone, unless he’s a Dante, claim he’s reached the midpoint of his life? Perhaps he’s closer to the final decile or only a third of the way between A and Z. And one country’s middle class is another’s plutocracy, to say nothing of the fluidity of whatever hour constitutes the true midnight in any given season. When people say they don’t want to get “in the middle” of a situation they mean they do not want to get involved. . . The story made the front page of the Brooklyn Eagle. I remember the exact headline.
DEATH PACT: TWO GIRLS DIE ON FLATBUSH ROOFTOPApparently both had swallowed a lethal dose of seconal and nembutal Madeleine had taken from her mother’s jewelry box. Sara was probably enticed into the suicide pact by promises of entering a realm of endless euphoria attainable only by risking death’s romantic lure. Maybe, holding Sara’s hand, Madeleine read Keats’s “Ode to Melancholy, “ slowly explaining how even Sara’s late grandmother must have been in love with “easeful death” because Death was a Lover who would never abandon His Beloved. Maybe she also read her own “Riding Death’s Carousel,” softly emphasizing how only death can end the meaningless circling of painted horses as they rose and fell to the honky-tonk music of a barrel organ. Like the barrel organs one can still hear on the streets of Paris and Amsterdam. Ah, I see I’m rewriting Madeleine’s long ago poem, as if I’d finally caught up with her literary abilities. As if the memory itself were not enough. But I’m one of those persons for whom the locked rooms of forgetting hold no appeal. Not only because of my lifelong battle with keys. Far better the open rooms of remembrance because their corridors can lead into the arena of the imagination, even if on some days the only audible music is that of a barrel organ. Could I have saved Madeleine and Sara from making their pact? I was after all, at least in the seating arrangement of that 11th grade English classroom, a barrier, a between, if not a middle. Certainly I could have leaned closer to Sara, even if it meant distancing myself that much further from G. But still I would have been only a temporary “between.” Even had I stood between them that early summer afternoon on the roof of the apartment house, I doubt I would have done anything but observe them as they passed into oblivion after swallowing those jewel-like pills. Madeleine for Remembrance. . .More than 50 years later, I offer you this small hymn of praise, this eulogy, sorrow braided with regret for your short life as well as the subdued joy of relief: For how can I assert with any surety that I would not have entered into such a pact at the time--assuming you had offered it to me.
© 2004 Barbara F. Lefcowitz
Barbara F. Lefcowitz has published eight collections of poetry, the most recent, PHOTO, BOMB, RED CHAIR, published in spring of 2004. Individual poems, stories, and essays have appeared in over 500 journals and she has won writing fellowships and prizes from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation, among others. A native of Brooklyn and , like the publisher of SCR, a graduate of Erasmus Hall High School, where "Madeleine for Remembrance" takes place, she now lives in Bethesda, Maryland, and travels abroad as often as possible.BLefcowitz@aol.com