"My parents are here," she informed him.
"It's graduation," Mitchell replied evenly. "Everyone's parents are here."
"They want to say hello to you."
At this Mitchell smiled faintly. "They probably don't realize you're not speaking to me."
"No, they don't," Madeleine said. "And, anyway, I am. Now. Speaking to you."
"Under duress or as a change of policy?"
Madeleine shifted her weight, wrinkling her face unhappily. "Look. I'm really hungover. I barely slept last night. My parents have been here about ten minutes and they're already driving me crazy. So if you could just come over and say hello, that would be great."
Mitchell's large emotional eyes blinked twice. He was wearing a vintage gabardine shirt, dark wool pants, and beat-up wingtips. Madeleine had never seen him in shorts or tennis shoes.
"I'm sorry," he said. "About what happened."
"Fine," Madeleine said, looking away. "It doesn't matter."
"I was just being my usual vile self."
"So was I."
They were quiet a moment. Madeleine felt Mitchell's eyes on her, and she crossed her arms over her chest.
What had happened was this: one night the previous December, in a state of anxiety about her romantic life, Madeleine had run into Mitchell on campus and brought him back to her apartment. She'd needed male attention and had flirted with him, without entirely admitting it to herself. In her bedroom, Mitchell had picked up a jar of deep-heating gel on her desk, asking what it was for. Madeleine had explained that people who were athletic sometimes got sore muscles. She understood that Mitchell might not have experienced this phenomenon, seeing as all he did was sit in the library, but he should take her word for it. At that point, Mitchell had come up behind her and wiped a gob of heating gel behind her ear. Madeleine jumped up, shouting at Mitchell, and wiped the gunk off with a T-shirt. Though she was within her rights to be angry, Madeleine also knew (even at the time) that she was using the incident as a pretext for getting Mitchell out of her bedroom and for covering up the fact that she'd been flirting with him in the first place. The worst part of the incident was how stricken Mitchell had looked, as if he'd been about to cry. He kept saying he was sorry, he was just joking around, but she ordered him to leave. In the following days, replaying the incident in her mind, Madeleine had felt worse and worse about it. She'd been on the verge of calling Mitchell to apologize when she'd received a letter from him, a highly detailed, cogently argued, psychologically astute, quietly hostile four-page letter, in which he called her a "cocktease" and claimed that her behavior that night had been "the erotic equivalent of bread and circus, with just the circus." The next time they'd run into each other, Madeleine had acted as if she didn't know him, and they hadn't spoken since.
Now, in the churchyard of First Baptist, Mitchell looked up at her and said, "O.K. Let's go say hello to your parents."
Phyllida was waving as they came up the steps. In the flirtatious voice she reserved for her favorite of Madeleine's friends, she called out, "I thought that was you on the ground. You looked like a swami!"
"Congratulations, Mitchell!" Alton said, heartily shaking Mitchell's hand. "Big day today. One of the milestones. A new generation takes the reins."
They invited Mitchell to sit down and asked him if he wanted anything to eat. Madeleine went back to the counter to get more coffee, glad to have Mitchell keeping her parents occupied. As she watched him, in his old man's clothes, engaging Alton and Phyllida in conversation, Madeleine thought to herself, as she'd thought many times before, that Mitchell was the kind of smart, sane, parent-pleasing boy she should fall in love with and marry. That she would never fall in love with Mitchell and marry him, precisely because of this eligibility, was yet another indication, in a morning teeming with them, of just how screwed up she was in matters of the heart.
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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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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