He was the kind of guy that she usually avoided; she was the kind of girl he always fell for. Bill was standing by the window of his dorm room as Madeline was hurrying across the university quadrangle. Something moved inside him.
"The sun was hitting those red curls in just the right way, like a fiery frame on a perfect picture." His infatuation is visible even today, thirty-seven years later, as he recalls that moment in the quadrangle, remembering how the overflow of her glowing hair rested gently on the upturned collar of her peacoat.
"She looked off-the-boat Irish," he says, "with a small upturned nose and skin the color of milk. I said to my roommate, Brian, 'Hey, who's she?' "
Bill says that Brian jumped up from the bed. "Oh, yeah," he said from the window, somewhat disappointed. "I've seen her before. Cute, huh? I think her name is Margaret, or something like that. I saw her with some girlfriends at the two-for-one last week at Mickey's. She seemed to hang out with her friends most of the night."
Bill ran out the door and down the two flights to catch up with Madeline, who was racing to a political science class that had begun ten minutes earlier. "Hi, how are you?" said Bill, breathless behind her.
Madeline turned to see a guy she recognized from around campus. She remembered watching him and his friends throw some freshman into a university pond outside the science building. A few times she had noticed him towing his bulky lacrosse gear to practice. He wasn't her type. She liked bookish guys, ones who used words that sent others to the dictionary and who wore cardigan sweaters worn thin at the elbows.
"Hi," she said, and turned around and kept walking.
"Um . . . I'm Bill. Bill Fagan. I don't think we've met before, but I'd love to change that." Bill now stood in front, blocking her way.
Madeline rolled her eyes, unimpressed by the unoriginal line. She had come from a small New England town outside of Boston and was used to more passive men, ones like her father and brother, who preferred discussing the relevance of Thoreau in the computer age to chatting up chicks. The men Madeline knew moved through life with a hint of repression. The man standing in front of her didn't seem to be that kind of man. But she was now seeing Bill close-up for the first time.
"He had those turquoise eyes," she says, "with long black lashes that seemed to tickle his eyebrows. He was pretty startling, I have to admit." He wore an oversized sweatshirt with a large "A" on the front. It hung loosely on his well-built frame, the hood forming a high collar around his handsome, slightly pockmarked face. "It's funny, though," says Madeline. "What I remember most is that he smelled of baby oil."
They were in their second year at a prestigious Catholic university in the South. Bill was the product of New England prep schools, but lacked the highbrow intellectual air of many of his classmates. Madeline had heard stories of the escapades of Bill and his frat buddies. Rumor had it that they rallied weekly in their dorm to show the Southern boys how beer was really supposed to be drunk. Hardly something that would impress Madeline.
"Look, I'm really late for class," Madeline said, "and I don't get most of what this professor talks about anyway, so I really have to run."
Bill says he knew he was getting the brush-off, but refused to take the hint. "Okay, sure, but how about tonight or tomorrow? I could just stop by to say hello."
And that's just what he did--for the next two years--a lot of hellos, and too many good-byes. Bill and Madeline became smitten lovers: studying economics and the required theology courses together; eating the bad cafeteria food at a private corner table; taking long hikes in the ambling hills surrounding the university; and falling asleep together in each other's dorm room long after curfew.
Bill learned that Madeline was a part-time reporter at her hometown local paper during summers. He liked the pride she took in her small town--one, she was quick to point out, that tourists traipsed through each fall to marvel at the renowned rainbow foliage.
She told Bill she once broke a story about a textile mill that she discovered was pouring gallons of industrial toxins into the pristine waters of a river that ran through the center of town. Simultaneously, a medical student doing research had revealed occurrences of unusual cancers in town children. The Boston Globe picked up the story from the wire and put it on their front page, making Madeline somewhat of a local celebrity. Bill could see that she was a woman drawn to a noble cause.
And Madeline began to see that Bill wasn't as vacuous as at first she had assumed. One winter afternoon she spotted him in the university chapel kneeling in the first pew with his head bowed, and it wasn't even Sunday. She wondered how often he did that, and what he was praying about. He looked peaceful and childlike. Two days later she was surprised to hear him say that he usually avoided the weekly drinking soirees in his dorm, fearful they could threaten future job interviews in the real world.
"I'd always leave before it got too crazy," Bill says now. "I was intent on being successful and rich and was pretty damn sure, even back then, how I was going to do it."
Madeline admired his mature discretion in not allowing college pranks to ruin an ambitious life plan. Maybe she could learn to love a man like this.
Turns out, she did. Six weeks after graduating from college, Bill and Madeline married in a traditional Catholic church wedding just outside of Boston with Bill's roommate, Brian, as best man and Madeline's sister, Carey, as maid of honor. The newlyweds said, "I do," before witnesses and God, and they meant it forever.
Many times I have heard them tell the story of their meeting. Sometimes the details change--a few are added, others left out--but passion is always evident (in the telling). It is as if that magical moment lives again for them, as it seems to for rapt listeners. Perhaps the headiness of that passion helps to make up for some of the heartache that followed later.
Although I first met them long after they had married, I felt connected to them from the beginning. They introduced themselves to me outside of church after a Sunday Mass at which I had presided, and they invited me to go sailing with them that afternoon on their thirty-five-foot schooner, named Waterview. Before the sun had set that day, beyond the choppy blue waters, they had shared with me much of the sacred story of their life together.
Soon after the wedding they moved into a small farmhouse in the western hills of New Jersey. They describe it as a "handyman's special," an erroneous choice since Bill could barely negotiate a hammer.
"It was so funny," says Madeline, "because he didn't even know the difference between a Phillips and a regular screwdriver, and here we were in this dilapidated shack that needed a lot more than a screwdriver. For the first six weeks, when it rained, we hung buckets from the ceiling with rope to catch the water dripping in. One bucket was right over our bed and after a bad night storm, we woke up to water streaming from the sides of the bucket onto the lace duvet cover that my grandmother had given us."
"Never mind the lace duvet cover," says Bill. "How about streaming onto us. We didn't sleep the rest of the night because the bed was so wet. And when I had to get up to pee, I slipped on the floor and fell right on my ass. I was black and blue for weeks." They laugh.
When Bill and Madeline speak of those initial years, they hint that the early struggles somehow strengthened their marriage. "They helped produce that indissoluble bond you hear so much about," says Madeline. "Kind of like the way gold gets tested in fire. And that leaky roof became a kind of metaphor for our marriage. We fixed it together. I just didn't realize that we'd have to keep on fixing it."
It was a long commute to work for Bill, who had gotten a job as an assistant to a well-known investment banker in a popular New York brokerage firm. Not able to pass up employment with a firm many of his classmates coveted, he commuted four hours, round-trip, while Madeline stayed home and wrote freelance articles for local newspapers and writing journals. She became pregnant six months after they were married.
"I had so looked forward to having a child, though we hadn't planned on it quite that soon," says Madeline. "But we couldn't have been happier. Maybe a little concerned that we weren't too stable financially. Both our families said they would help us though, so I said some prayers and trusted that God would see us through."
A boy was born just as the new roof was being completed. Two more children followed in consecutive years, another boy, then a girl, and then a miscarriage. They always said they had four children. Madeline wrote less and got involved with her children's school, substitute teaching there when necessary, while Bill worked his way up in the firm more quickly than any associate had in its seventy-five-year history. And he came home later and later.
"I gave up trying to keep meals warm for him," says Madeline. "And most nights I gave up hope that he'd be there to keep me warm either. I started to feel so lonely, and . . . angry, I guess. And then I'd feel guilty because I knew how hard he was working to make our life what it had become. But I started to hate what it had become. It wasn't only his working later and never being around. It was that even when he was home, he wasn't really here, mentally. I began to feel that I finally had the leak-free, showpiece house I'd always wanted, but that now my marriage was broken."
Bill and Madeline agree that they stopped communicating about anything significant. He worked all the time, and when he came home, he was too tired for meaningful conversation, a tiredness Madeline perceived as disinterest--and maybe more. Their lives became centered on the children, with Madeline picking up the slack from Bill's absence. They'd talk about the children's needs when Bill could find the time, but they neglected their own. It began to take a toll.
"I always felt that I was working so hard for a purpose," says Bill. "But after a while I just forgot what that purpose was. Then when the money started rolling in, it was like an aphrodisiac or something. I couldn't get enough of it. And no matter how much I thought I wanted to be home with Maddy and the kids, I convinced myself that being at work was more important. I really did believe I was doing it all for them."
Sunday was the only day Bill didn't work. "That was one commandment I was intent on keeping," he says with a hint of pride. They went to church as a family and usually then to brunch at a local diner, where people often commented on the beautiful family that, to the casual observer, seemed on its way to realizing the coveted American dream, whatever that was supposed to be.
Madeline first began to pray for guidance in church at Sunday Mass. She'd steal glances at the man at the end of the pew, their three children between them, and she'd wonder who that man was. "I'd ask God to help me, to help me find Bill again, to make him care about me again, to make him want to be home with me again. I just couldn't understand what had happened. He seemed so different from when we'd met. I prayed to understand what had changed so drastically."
The starry-eyed guy from the university quadrangle who had wooed her with his Irish charm and sharp wit had become someone she hardly knew. At one time warming her with a peerless smile and gentle hands, his love for her now seemed frozen in his absence and lack of touch.
"I began to feel as though we were living a sham," says Madeline. "Everyone would say to me, 'What a lovely family you have,' and we were a lovely family, but I wasn't feeling that love. I mean, I loved my kids and I guess Bill did, too, but he seemed somehow dead inside, and I was also becoming that way. I wasn't sure he loved anything except being at work. He'd fly off the handle about the stupidest, littlest things--when he was around to fly off the handle. I felt like I was doing it all alone, and that he was just bringing home the paycheck for me to keep it all going. I didn't have a partner anymore. His firm had the partner, and I had a sugar daddy. I had everything I'd ever wanted, except him. God, I resented it."
Madeline says that out of desperation her conversations with God became more frequent. When she would express to God how she was feeling, her resentment seemed to lessen and she mustered strength to continue. "It was as if God was saying, 'Just hold on. You'll get through this.' So I held on."
Resentment turned to something else the September night that Bill came home late and quietly slipped into bed beside Madeline. "I was, of course, awake," says Madeline. "I was about to say something to him, when I smelled a new cologne. I couldn't place it at first."
By this time, they had moved from the farmhouse into a large Tudor-style home with six bedrooms and an added wraparound porch that didn't quite fit the architecture of the rest of the house. Swings, which the kids loved, hung from hooks on both sides of the house; the landscape was peppered with seventy different varieties of trees planted by a local horticulturist whom Madeline had met in her spinning class at the YMCA. The back of the house was built into the side of a hill that formed an external green wall that gently sloped toward the remaining five acres of property. The Fagan family had finally arrived.
"I nuzzled up to him, as if I wanted to cuddle," she says, "which must have surprised him because that hardly ever happened anymore. What I really was doing was trying to get a better smell. And then it hit me that no man would ever wear that scent."
She describes it as "sweet and trendy, like the smells that waft from Vanity Fair and Cosmopolitan magazines when you peel back the glued pages." It was, without a doubt, a woman's magazine smell.
"I began to feel sick by the putrid scent of it. I was so angry and sad all at once. I couldn't believe it. But I just lay there. I didn't know what to do or say. I remember the Timex alarm clock ticking softly, consistently, on the nightstand beside our bed, and thinking to myself, 'What did I do that drove him to this?'