MADELINE, LYDIA, AND THE STRAUSSIAN RAINFALL IN ANNAPOLIS
by Matilda Zhao
It was a freezing morning. I skipped my morning class. My Jewish culture and family history professor would be mad at me, I know. But I wasn’t feeling well; in Ohio, the smell in the air was different than Maryland. The first week of school we took the shuttle to the only Walmart in town and other stores; a 5-cent store, a fast-fashion clothing store sound like a twin of Forever 21 only in the Midwest, a small town in the middle of nowhere close to an Amish county.
My new friend Ruby was teaching me how to speak German on the shuttle. She has red hair and green eyes. She took German for 4 years. Most people I met here; they took a European language in high school at least for 2 years.
My Latin is horrible.
My headache was back when she tried to teach me how to say good morning in German. She taught me, Guten Morgen, Guten Abend and how to curse; Fick Dich. She laughed, ‘We could use it to tell nasty boys at frat parties. Especially you. You are pretty.’ She said to me.
Lydia and I used to joke about curse words a lot when we were drinking back in our hometown Annapolis; sitting on the bench at the city dock at the end of the main street of downtown. When we were in high school summer camp reading great books and doing ancient Greek tutorial; we tried to find curse words in Odyssey. Back in the city dock in Annapolis, we’d drink, we’d laugh, we’d breathe the air which smelled the same as the sea in front of us, the wind blows our long hair, ships sealing by. We were always waiting for rainfall in Annapolis. It’s been years since my father left; he went to Paris years ago then never came back. I see photos of him on the news occasionally; wine and dine, under the exquisite chandelier in front of his paintings. Who is he, who was he? He used to be a great man, married my mother in France, adopted me somewhere; a dusty corner in the world. He told me I’m a mix-race Eurasia child; a child who looks like a painting he wants to finish once appeared in his lofty dream when he saw my picture on the NGO’s agent’s table, he gazed at my photo; he looked at my eyes, then nodded to that woman. Now he left, the numbers are on the check, but his face is blurring, fading away, and I stopped using the umbrella since the day he left.
Lydia, Matthew, and I went to St. John’s College’s summer school back in our high school junior year. We did the ancient Greek tutorial. We read the great books, we smoked and vaped at the quad every day. We watched high school seniors visit our neighbor school- The Naval Academy and wondered who will make the journey.
Lydia Matthew, Ivan and I grew up in Annapolis. I never left the east coast as a sick child who had pneumonia. Lydia travels around the world since elementary school every summer. She brought me gifts from Europe, sent me postcards wherever she went. Both of our mother work at the same university as international law professors. Her mother introduced my mother one of the best child psychiatrists in DC for me. Lydia coordinated our theater club rehearsal schedule and gave my mother the right one at last minute. That’s how she helped me skip those sessions.
When we were kids, we played on the main street after school. Those navy college boys always greeting back to us. Every Halloween If they saw us at the city dock, some of them who knew our parents ever gave us candy. So did their friends. We watched college boys come to The Naval Academy wearing their beautifully designed white uniform for 4 years. They danced with St. John’s girls who were learning ancient Greek, spokes English and French, read the great books. Those Navy boys became men, then left this city. They come back for college union. My father, he never came back since that rainy day. My mother was calm and smiling. She poured herself a glass of wine. She told me to go to Lydia’s house.
I didn’t use the umbrella my father painted for me. I walked to Lydia’s house under the pouring rain.
My mother threw a divorce party, she invited all her friends in DC, Annapolis, Virginia and Chevy Chase. Lydia’s house is close to the Annapolis museum, next to some nice trees that make you feel like Amsterdam in autumn, but you can see the American flag downtown through her window. I cried and cried on Lydia’s shoulder. My laptop was dying. I couldn’t type the story I was writing. I’ve been writing short stories since 7th grade. She made me my favorite French parfait.
‘You need to eat, sweetheart.’ Lydia said to me.
Our mothers were drinking and partying together, celebrating my mother’s divorce.
Only Lydia and I were in their big house. The world was raining. Annapolis was raining. Leo Strauss used to live in Annapolis. He passed away from pneumonia in Annapolis. I was a sick child for years when my parents adopted me, pneumonia, Doctor Devin said. My parents took me to Anne Arundel General Hospital, where Leo Strauss passed away, every two weeks for my sickness. My father never told me to be strong because he was worried that I will die soon; that half Russian, half Chinese little girl he wanted to paint, might die anytime.
Lydia is the only one who firmly believes that I will survive since the day we met as little girls, she chuckles, she hugs me, she says, Madeline, you will live. Then we grow up, she tells me: ‘You will live, you will live longer. You will live much longer than Sylvia Plath. I want you to live longer than Toni Morrison.’
We’ve been waiting for rainfall since the day my father left. A rain came then stopped. Then we expect another pouring rain. I broke up with the boy I’ve been dating for a year from our high school’s theater club before the summer break of high school junior year. I felt he was too young for me.
It is what it is.
‘You know, this city spoiled those navy boys. We spoiled those navy boys.’ Lydia once joked the day before our summer ends.
‘No. We didn’t. Maybe our parents did. And St. John’s beat them at croquet every year.’
‘That’s also true.’
‘Lydia, do you want a navy boyfriend?’ They always joke about that. St. John’s girls, Navy boys. But I don’t want a navy boyfriend. We’ve been looking at them since we were toddlers. Those white boots are cool. But I want someone who wears a suit and reads Leo Strauss and Deleuze.’
‘Like a St. John’s boy?’
‘No. Look at them, they are wearing T-shirts like all college boys. I don’t know. Maybe college boys back in the 50s who reads Leo Strauss and Deleuze.’
‘Hey, but Navy boy’s white boots are fancy.’
‘That’s Madeline’s laugh I always like.’
I skipped my morning class. I was supposed to wear that varsity-style green dress to my class for our Jewish literature discussion, Tevye the Dairyman and The Railroad Stories, his daughters and their marriages. Last time only I got my professor’s joke: ‘No, I didn’t go to Woodstock.’
I managed to switch a single dorm with a girl before school started.
In a small town close to an Amish county, even a fake ID is luxury.
We ordered liquor online. Every Friday night, my friends and I could throw drinking parties at my dorm, they say Madeline Hayes is the best bartender on campus. Then we doll up and go to frat parties because I got all the invitations. I got bored after two months. The weather started getting annoying, so I stopped going to parties.
But I still have all my liquors.
Who would believe a scholarship girl drinks every Friday night?
I lost my copy of The Odyssey. Senior year in high school was intense.
I didn’t know where my thick, heavy Greek book was. Those books, Latin, Greek, The Odyssey, Plato, math, and ambitions; back in high school I thought I would be one of those people; throwing Latin and Greek in a casual conversion as easy as eating British breakfast, writing poetry and essays in college, then I will have a long, white dress for debate society.
Everyone around me dreamed about college or after college.
The last day of high school. We pranked our principle, took photos, hugged lunch ladies who always call Lydia and me cutie pie. We drove to the liquor store on the other side of town. Matthew’s fake ID still works.
‘Let’s go to the creek.’ Matthew suggested when he saw the moon rises.
There is a creek behind the new dorms at St. John’s College if you walk past the soccer playground where they host croquet matches with Naval Academy every spring, then cross the meadow, you will see the creek, a private cabin, and the dock.
The sky was blue, it was Prussian blue at first, then turned into navy blue with a few stars.
‘Where is Polaris?’ I asked them.
‘There.’ Lydia pointed out Polaris to me.
‘Shit, that meadow looks so wet.’
I was wearing a short cotton white dress, with a frill peter pan collar and small puffed sleeves with a pair of white canvas sneakers.
Mike carried me in his arm, then laughed, ‘Let’s go. Just like when you were twelve.’
I broke my leg back in that summer when I was twelve. Before that bright summer day, my father was thrilled to throw a birthday party for me at the Lafayette Restaurant in DC. He and my mother used to celebrate with all their friends for this sick child they adopted so she could live, and my father, before he left me, my mother, Annapolis, the country, always told everyone at my birthday party how talented, how gifted I am, and how he appreciated that his daughter had those talented friends growing up together.
I read Gigi and The Cat when I was 10, my father kept the secret for me. He took Lydia and me to an indoor play reading event; a play adapted from Gigi written by a friend of his. We were sitting on a purple velvet couch listening to those actors reading their scripts.
Mother would be mad.
I read L’Amant in French when I was 12.
Lydia loves Shakespeare and Chaucer.
Our reading ability was always ahead of the other kids.
The next day after my birthday party, I broke my leg. I was bleeding, my parents were out of town. Matthew was already 5’11 tall at that time. He called his father who was teaching at The Naval Academy, then carried me in his arms to their health center.
‘Yea, just like when we were kids.’ I laughed.
My father left at the end of that summer.
We set a bonfire at the dock.
Maddie, what do you wanna do?
Lydia asked me when we were drinking on the dock. Matthew was there, Ivan was there, everybody was happy.
Ivan was putting the marshmallow over the bonfire for me.
‘Maddie is a baby, we can’t let her do anything.’ Matthew joked.
‘Can I be an artist?’ I took a sip of my beer. I didn’t look at anyone.
‘Of course. When you said you wanna go to Yale Law back in freshman year we were like okay, but we were worried because we know that even though you are smart enough to be a badass lawyer like your mom, you won’t be happy.’ Lydia put her arm on my shoulder.
‘My mom hates me. She hates my dream because she hates my dad.’
‘But we love you. You can be the black sheep among us. I just want to be a fucking banker at first, even though those motherfucker finance people bore the fuck out of me. Then I can buy art and fund artists like you.’ Lydia handed me a string of marshmallow.
Ivan’s goal was to get himself into a top investment firm. Matthew got into the University of Chicago. He will stay in that heaven until he’s 32 at least, get a Ph.D. in Social Thought or go to a top law school.
‘Then that’s it. You guys need to pray for my hair.’ Matthew laughed.
I didn’t get into the University of Chicago, despite the fact that I won the Congressional Art Competition. I didn’t even get into Bard College. I will go to a small town in Midwest, a liberal arts college in the middle of nowhere because they offered me a full scholarship. Lydia would fly to California. Her name was on our high school honor board; Lydia Chang, Stanford University.
We were dancing under the bonfire, the wind blew our hair with the music, Matthew was singing Soft Cell’s Tainted Love.
You need someone to hold you tight
And you’ll think love is to pray
After all that traveling; those nights drinking under the stars, listening to old songs, talking about philosophy, politics, arts, and our dreams, how much did we grow up?
My father never phoned, never texted, never spoke about me during his interviews. I don’t exist in his flamboyant, high-culture world. His check appears on the third day of every month. All those days we spent together; umbrellas he painted for me, Halloween costumes he made for me, story books he read for me, painting skills he taught me. He taught me how to taste wine. Those memories were washed away in that rainy day he left.
Those times were stolen.
He doesn’t know I’m going to college, which college, where is the college, when does the college start. And I never left the east coast. I was scared to death of leaving the east coast.
We took a trip to New York before my Midwest college life starts.
When we were kids, we watched a movie at Matthew’s house. Matthew’s dad is a Navy officer; he always stays in DC. We barely see him at his home in Annapolis. Sleepover at Matthew’s home is the coolest thing ever. His older brother allowed us to watch movies like Resident Evil, Final Destination. One night, we watched The Happening. That was the first impression I had of the Midwest, cornfields, and…. corns.
‘What else do they have in that town?’ I put a cherry lollipop in my mouth.
‘Amish.’ Ivan said.
Everyone laughed. Lydia bought Broadway tickets for us. My best friends did everything to cheer me up before my miserable Midwest semester: Broadway shows, immerse theater plays, trending restaurants. When I was in that tiny theater watching Drunken Shakespeare, I was laughing all the time. At Westsider Rare and Used Books, a man who’s wearing a white shirt put his hand on the same book as me, his eyes, electric blue, like my father’s eyes, but their eyes are different, much much different.
‘You can have it.’ I said.
‘Thank you, my lady.’ He smiled.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Madeline. Will we meet again?’ I asked.
‘Maybe. You never know what will happen when it comes to time and destiny.’ He smiled.
Lydia bought me a teddy bear plushie at the M&M Store on Time Square before we drove to the airport. The sky was gloomy.
So, this is Cleveland.
The air smells different.
Our school shuttle picked us from the airport.
The crepuscular sky took the town into vulgarity. I thought, I’m going to a liberal arts college, I’m supposed to leave vulgarity behind. Leo Strauss told us; Liberal education is liberation from vulgarity.
I looked outside through the tiny window on the shuttle: uneven corn fields, grey poorly designed buildings passing by.
The Greeks had a beautiful word for “vulgarity”; they called it, apeirokalia, lack of experience in things beautiful.
Leo Strauss didn’t lie.
I miss my hometown. I miss Annapolis.
The bus stopped.
Nathan carried my luggage to my dorm on the 3rd floor. Lydia, Matthew, and Ivan secretly put a huge bag of snacks into my luggage and a copy of Nature Right and History. I found out after Nathan left.
They left a note in my luggage case:
Gifted kids lift each other.
We’ve been friends since little kids. Our parents are busy with their careers. I barely cried before my adolescence. I heard my mother complain to their parents about me, she couldn’t understand my temper and my tears since I reached puberty.
They always took me out of bars in DC after I got drunk with those men in law school in our high school junior year. Four or five out of seven of our parents were all over the country or somewhere in the world.
I heard them talking in the car:
‘Is your dad/mom home? Okay then let’s go to your place. We can’t drive home let this.’
‘Tell my mom to stop reading my diary. Oh, I fucking burned my diary.’
‘ Sweetie, Maddie, she’s not reading your diary. I’m texting her. I told her we are having a Latin study night and sleepover at my house.’ Ivan bulked my safety belt, ‘Lydia, what the fuck is she talking about?’ He whispered.
‘That was in middle school.’
‘You don’t know?’ Mike throw some chocolate to Ivan:’ Give that kid a snack.’
‘Evelyn read her diary. She was sort of sad for Maddie didn’t get over the divorce but also mad at Maddie for overly missing her dad.’ Lydia explained.
That was a long night. Many, many nights like this. I remember. I remember those nights when it’s midnight, and the streetlights were warm and shimmering. When we were back to our house at Annapolis, Ivan’s place, or Lydia’s house where I can see the American flag, or Mike’s house close to the theater and city dock cafe at downtown, my brain was dazzling, Lydia would help me change my pajama.
‘I think there is a sense of happiness I can catch when I’m drunk, that lovable eternity I can embrace.’
They told me each time I said this to them as a goodnight before I fell asleep.
Gifted kids lift each other.
I skipped new student orientation and sexual education because I think it’s stupid.
It’s been three months.
And I skipped my morning class.
You know what my Jewish culture professor told me? In her tiny office, full of beautiful vintage Yiddish language posters on the wall, history books on the dark red wooden shelf. She was sitting in front of me. Her coffee was cold. She said, ‘Madeline, you are smart enough to achieve anything you want, but you just want to be a bullshit artist. ‘
She is right, I just want to be a bullshit artist.
I couldn’t even write a trash poem.
‘I need a new dress.’ I told my new friends in college. They laughed. They’ve been telling me I have too many outfits. Alice calls me ‘a beauty queen’ at our school. When the school board announced they were going to cancel our school radio, there was a petition signing at the student center. The girl who was sitting behind the table recognized me when I was signing my name: Hey, I know you. You are the girl with pink hair. Oh my god, I just love your outfits and your makeup.
Ruby was in the Irish dance team for the culture show, I did her makeup. I never understand why our college loves to throw a show like that. After two hours, all the pictures would just be mere proof that our school is dedicated to diversity. But the truth is a small college is like an extended high school, not all lunch and dinner tables are diverse.
‘Holy shit, Maddie, you also speak French?’
‘My dad is in Paris. He speaks fluent French.’
‘No, Ruby, it’s not.’
‘Oh my god, Maddie. Thank you so much. You make me like, extra pretty. Guys look at me. Maddie makes me like an Instagram model.’
‘Hey, Ruby. Meet us at the corner table at dinner after your rehearsal.’
‘Maddie doesn’t want to talk to some people.’ Nathen said. Alice threw her a ‘don’t ask’ look.
I’ve been avoiding those art-major students for a week. Posters, newspapers, twitter, TV on the wall of our dining hall and student center, all over campus. There are rumors around. I’m too afraid to ask them.
My dad might be back from France.
He probably will visit here, doing an art panel, a talk.
It’s been years, I never heard a word from him. Only checks.
I want to leave.
Lydia is busying with internships and academic work, and she is in California.
Matthew is taking Math and Philosophy.
Ivan is in New York.
My mother is in Hague -working on a case.
Everyone is busy.
Pierre, that man with poetically deep, beautiful, electric blue eyes whom I met at the vintage bookstore in New York said we might meet again.
My new friends noticed my unhappy face. We watch horror movies every Saturday night. Nathen held my hand, he sits on the floor, asked me what’s wrong. Bernard took me into his arms, he’s the Fulbright scholar assigned to our school to teach German language and culture, and we became best friends since we took Shakespeare and theater together.
‘Maddie, talk to us.’
‘It seems like my father will do an art panel at our school.’
Alice, Ruby, and the rest arrived. Nathan sat on the other side of me and we pretended nothing happened. When the boggy man pops out and the music started, he and Bernard held my hands like Matthew, Lydia and Ivan used to do.
‘Maddie’s screaming makes this watch party so freaking fun.’
‘Guys, I won’t be here next week. I’ll see you guys after winter break.’
‘Wait, you are not coming back after Thanksgiving break?’
I’m leaving this dead town.
I booked a flight back to Annapolis. The Lyft driver who drove me to the airport said he knows my professors. He married a biology professor at my college.
This is why I hate small town.
Maddie, I bought you a new mug. Look at the little rose illustration. I saw those roses; they remind me of you.
Lydia texted me when I was at the airport in our group chat.
Hey, my little devils, who’s coming back to Annapolis for Thanksgiving? I asked.
Maddie, do you wanna come to my house for dinner? We want you to come. I want you to meet my new girlfriend. My mom said Evelyn won’t be back until next January.
Even Mike’s mother knows my mother’s schedule better than I do.
I’m going to New York with my parents. We’re visiting my grandparents. Uh, and my uncle’s family. Ivan, will you stay in New York?
Yes. Wow, that’s a cute mug. Maddie why are you so quiet.
Nothing, theater class. Thank you Didi. Love you guys. Talk to you guys later.
We’ve been waiting for rain in Annapolis.
The man who works at Back Creek Books on the main street in Annapolis always wears well-designed suits like an English gentleman.
Old typewriter behind the show window, those books placed on the shelves are antique books, with hard covers and faded gold gilding letters. I walk into this anachronistic vintage place. The man I met three months ago is standing there, reading an old copy of Plato’s Meno. He wears a long black brushed woolen coat and a white scarf, his eyes, electric blue, like the sea in Annapolis.
‘Hi, Madeline. How’s life? ‘ He smiles, kisses my hand gently.
‘Great, I guess. I don’t know. I just flew back this morning. ‘
‘I told you. We will meet again. See? Time and destiny. ‘
‘What are you doing in Annapolis. ‘
‘Oh, just visiting. I want to pick up some books. I live in Georgetown. But I have a house here. It’s not far away. May I have the honor of asking the lady who’s been in my mind for the last three months to have lunch with me? ‘
‘Of course. ‘
It starts raining.
I lied to my best friends about my whereabouts. For years they’ve been taking care of me; however, I tried my best to love them back, but how, how am I going to do something real to love them back? Am I even I’m capable of love?
I was a just a sick child abandoned by the world, my father picked me from a dark corner from somewhere on the other side of earth to this free land with ocean, old books, old songs, my best friends, those boys wearing white boots studying in Naval Academy and gave us candies when we were kids.
‘What’s in your little head? ‘ Pierre asks me.
‘My dad. I haven’t seen him for years. ‘
‘I’m sorry. ‘ He holds my left hand then put it in his pocket.
‘It’s okay. ‘
‘Where are you staying? ‘ He asks me at the end of lunch under the dim light.
‘I don’t want to go home. My mom has a house in Annapolis. Can I stay at your place? ‘
‘You are not afraid that I might be some freak? ‘ He laughed.
‘No. I saw your business card when you were signing the bill. ‘
‘That was an old one. I don’t work at that think tank anymore. I work at AQR now. But sure, let’s watch a movie later. ‘
‘I thought my best friend will be the only person who does quant but reads philosophy. ‘
‘Now you found another one. ‘
We barely eat during lunch. We share the same passion for literature and art. I caught his Latin and classics major jokes; he threw dozens of famous writers’ anecdotes on the table to make me laugh. The first time in my life, I manage to transform my teenage pessimistic life story into a great comedy full of sarcasm and jokes.
His house has a full shelf of vintage books in French and German, along with his vinyl collections. I buy vinyl albums for Lydia every Christmas. Christmas used to be fun before my father left. After he left, I spent most Christmas Eves at Lydia’s house because my mother travels all the time. The next morning under the Christmas tree at my mother’s house, there would be lots of gift boxes from Lydia, Mike, Ivan, and their parents appeared like magic.
My parents would only give me money.
‘Can I have some whiskey? ‘ I saw the liquor on the shelf in his kitchen.
‘I’m sorry young lady, but the answer is no. You are too young to have any liquor. ‘ He pats my head then take a bottle out of the top cupboard, ‘May I get you some hot chocolate? ‘
‘I wanna go to Coney Island one day. ‘
‘Oh, baby, why do you want to go to Coney Island? That place sucks. Here, it’s not that hot. ‘
The hot chocolate he made for me tastes sweet.
I wear his T-shirt and sitting on his couch, lying on his velvet couch. I put my head on his lap, ‘Why can’t you give me some liquor? ‘
‘Because you are too young. ‘
‘But you are also young. ‘
‘I’m thirty-two. I’m responsible for you, young lady. ‘
‘My dad gave me wine when I was twelve. He taught me how to taste wine. Then he left. He’s a famous artist. ‘
‘How long has he been gone? ‘
‘Almost eight years. ‘
‘I met him once in Paris. I saw a painting of you. He said it’s one of his best works. ‘
It’s still raining in Annapolis.
I will not go to the Thanksgiving dinner at Matthew’s house and meet his new girlfriend next week.
‘How generous of him to say that since he never called. I think there is a sense of happiness I can catch when I’m drunk, that lovable eternity I can embrace. I am a gifted child. We read, ‘nothing lovable is eternal or sempiternal or deathless, or that the eternal is not lovable,’ before college. I know my father’s love for me is not eternal, and he will never come back. I know. So, do you want to see me naked or not? I’m almost twenty. ‘
‘You silly girl. We don’t have to do anything. Are you tired? ‘
‘Yes, daddy. ‘
‘Let’s go to bed. ‘
‘Did you hear the thunder? ‘
‘Yes, but don’t worry, you are safe here. You are safe here. ‘ He kisses my forehead like my father used to do when I was a little girl many years ago.
He takes me into his arm.
‘You know, Madeline, Leo Strauss is not right about everything. ‘
‘Hey, his ghost is wandering in Annapolis. ‘
‘You silly, sad child. You are so talented, and you are young, there is more you will learn about Leo Strauss. Be strong, my American girl. ‘
It’s pouring in Annapolis.
About the Author:
Matilda Zhao is a writer based in Washing, DC. She once received a full scholarship to study great books at St. John’s College, Annapolis, later she attended The College of Wooster at 2018 to study Political Science and Theater. Her works has appeared on New English Review, The Stardust Review, Prometheus Dreaming. You can find her on Twitter @mydearmatilda