"Your father and his plans," Phyllida said to Madeleine. "Are you wearing that dress to the ceremony?"
"I don't know," Madeleine said.
"I can't get used to these shoulder pads all the young women are wearing. They're so mannish."
"You look pretty whacked out, Mad," Alton said. "Big party last night?"
"Don't you have anything of your own to wear?" Phyllida said.
"I'll have my robe on, Mummy," Madeleine said, and, to forestall further inspection, headed past them through the foyer. Outside, the sun had lost its battle with the clouds and vanished. The weather looked not much better than it had all weekend. Campus Dance, on Friday night, had been more or less rained out. The Baccalaureate service on Sunday had proceeded under a steady drizzle. Now, on Monday, the rain had stopped, but the temperature felt closer to St. Patrick's than to Memorial Day.
As she waited for her parents to join her on the sidewalk, it occurred to Madeleine that she hadn't had sex, not really. This was some consolation.
"Your sister sends her regrets," Phyllida said, coming out. "She has to take Richard the Lionhearted for an ultrasound today."
Richard the Lionhearted was Madeleine's nine-week-old nephew. Everyone else called him Richard.
"What's the matter with him?" Madeleine asked.
"One of his kidneys is petite, apparently. The doctors want to keep an eye on it. If you ask me, all these ultrasounds do is find things to worry about."
"Speaking of ultrasounds," Alton said, "I need to get one on my knee."
Phyllida paid no attention. "Anyway, Allie's devastated not to see you graduate. As is Blake. But they're hoping you and your new beau might visit them this summer, on your way to the Cape."
You had to stay alert around Phyllida. Here she was, ostensibly talking about Richard the Lionhearted's petite kidney, and already she'd managed to move the subject to Madeleine's new boyfriend, Leonard (whom Phyllida and Alton hadn't met), and to Cape Cod (where Madeleine had announced plans to cohabitate with him). On a normal day, when her brain was working, Madeleine would have been able to keep one step ahead of Phyllida, but this morning the best she could manage was to let the words float past her.
Fortunately, Alton changed the subject. "So, where do you recommend for breakfast?"
Madeleine turned and looked vaguely down Benefit Street. "There's a place this way."
She started shuffling along the sidewalk. Walking - moving - seemed like a good idea. She led them past a line of quaint, nicely maintained houses bearing historical placards, and a big apartment building with a gable roof. Providence was a corrupt town, crime-ridden and mob-controlled, but up on College Hill this was hard to see. The sketchy downtown and dying or dead textile mills lay below, in the grim distance. Here the narrow streets, many of them cobblestone, climbed past mansions or snaked around Puritan graveyards full of headstones as narrow as heaven's door, streets with names like Prospect, Benevolent, Hope, and Meeting, all of them feeding into the arboreous campus at the top. The sheer physical elevation suggested an intellectual one.
"Aren't these slate sidewalks lovely," Phyllida said as she followed along. "We used to have slate sidewalks on our street. They're much more attractive. But then the borough replaced them with concrete."
"Assessed us for the bill, too," Alton said. He was limping slightly, bringing up the rear. The right leg of his charcoal trousers was swelled from the knee brace he wore on and off the tennis court. Alton had been club champion in his age group for twelve years running, one of those older guys with a sweatband ringing a balding crown, a choppy forehand, and absolute murder in his eyes. Madeleine had been trying to beat Alton her entire life without success. This was even more infuriating because she was better than he was, at this point. But whenever she took a set from Alton he started intimidating her, acting mean, disputing calls, and her game fell apart. Madeleine was worried that there was something paradigmatic in this, that she was destined to go through life being cowed by less capable men. As a result, Madeleine's tennis matches against Alton had assumed such outsize personal significance for her that she got tight whenever she played him, with predictable results. And Alton still gloated when he won, still got all rosy and jiggly, as if he'd bested her by sheer talent.
Excerpted from The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. Copyright © 2011 by Jeffrey Eugenides. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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