In previous posts, I’ve described Water Signs as a literal, metaphorical and spiritual journey for its two main characters, Madeline Rose and Kenneth Lockheart. And since I alluded to Madeline’s weight issues in my last post, I figured they merited a larger discussion in my next update.
When Chapter One opens, readers get an inkling of Madeline’s motivations, fears and insecurities via her conversation with her good friend Carmen (based on a real-life friend), as the girls cruise down the Atlantic City Expressway bound forOcean City, New Jersey. She’s just been through a traumatic break-up with her first boyfriend, who’s been harshly critical and judgmental due to his own personal issues (a topic I discussed — along with the theme of forgiveness — in the post, Maddy’s Men). The dialogue centers around Maddy’s lingering hang-ups about her appearance, which Carmen quickly attempts to dispel.
From the outset, I strove to highlight the preponderance of loving, supportive and protective people in Maddy’s life, from family members to female friends — while drawing a sharp contrast between her and the other characters — beginning with Carmen in Chapter One:
“I know,” Carmen agreed. “But believe me; I miss my retail days in New York. Macy’s was tough, mostly due to a Type-A personality boss, but I met a lot of cool people. Counseling clients at New You Nutrition and Weight Loss isn’t exactly a dream job.”
“Isn’t it satisfying to help someone get into shape?” Madeline pursued.
“Only the people who are really serious about it,” Carmen replied. “But most clients just make up excuses and waste their money so they can claim to be doing something about their figure. And the company doesn’t mind because they’re raking in the dough. Not that the program isn’t good, it is. But not even the best weight loss plan on earth will work for someone who isn’t committed to it.”
“You should tell them you owe your skinny frame to New You, and not an inherited fast metabolism!” Madeline suggested, laughingly.
“Yeah, maybe I should!” Carmen agreed. “You look good, Maddy, by the way. I can tell you’ve lost some weight.”
“Yes, I’m trying!” Madeline patted her tummy. “All the walking and swimming I’ve been doing is paying off. And I’m being really careful about everything I put in my mouth. Just a few more pounds and I’ll be all set.”
“Now, don’t go off the deep end,” Carmen warned, suddenly becoming serious. “You are such a pretty girl and you look great. So just remember that, ok? You are beautiful the way you are right now.” Knowing her good friend was still reeling from a painful break-up a few months ago, Carmen wanted this to be a fun weekend for all of them.
“Apparently Jake didn’t think so,” Madeline noted quietly.
“Jake’s an ass!” Carmen shot back, her fiery Latin temper flaring. “Who the hell was he to criticize you? It’s obvious you weren’t dating him for his good looks. He should have been grateful to have a cute girl like you on his arm, instead of acting like a complete jerk and dumping you over the phone. At least be a man and face things head on. What a wuss!”
Partly due to her seemingly unconquerable belief in her own inferiority where men are concerned, Maddy initially reacts harshly to Carmen’s announcement of their impending dates later that evening — although there’s another glaring fact that adds insult to injury. This is also an instance where I employed a bit of foreshadowing just prior to the introduction of Ken:
“Well, while we’re on the subject, I have to confess something.”
Uh-oh. Knowing Carmen, it wasn’t good news.
“What?” Madeline asked defensively, bracing herself for the answer.
“Mary Ellen is trying to get these guys to bring a friend along for you—”
“Aw, Carmen!” she protested.
“Look, I don’t even know if the guy will make it, but you have to start somewhere. These men are successful in business and they’re really cute. We’ll all just go out and have some fun. It’ll be great, you’ll see!”
“Do you even know anything about them?”
“Well, I know they have some kind of import/export business in Atlantic City. And I think they’re from Iran or someplace in the Middle East.”
Maddy’s type was definitely the masculine, clean-cut all-American guy either in uniform, or out of the pages of Football Digest or GQ; while she had an appreciation for other cultures, she had no desire to date someone from another country—European, Middle Eastern or otherwise. As was her usual reaction to distressing news, she sat in silence.
A little while later, I took a few paragraphs to describe the girls’ contrasting appearances, as well as the dichotomy between Madeline’s self-image and reality, in addition to another bit of foreshadowing:
The girls headed upstairs to get ready. It was already after 6 p.m. and they were planning to go out to eat before heading to the Key Largo dance club just over the causeway in Somers Point. At the Point Diner a little while later, Madeline watched in awe as Carmen devoured a burger and fries, while she carefully stuck to grilled chicken and salad. In spite of her slim figure, Carmen often ate starchy, fattening foods, none of which ever affected her thin frame. It was a luxury Maddy had never enjoyed.
But she looked adorable in a cute white summer outfit consisting of a long, sequined white top over tight leggings, cinched at the waist. She’d pulled her flowing auburn hair back into a loose ponytail, held with a rhinestone clip, and her favorite comfy silver pumps, in anticipation of dancing the night away. Carmen looked stunning in a black linen dress and high-heeled sandals, her dark hair falling straight just below her shoulders. Little did Maddy know at the time, but she would find herself sitting in the very same booth a few hours later, under very different circumstances.
Astute readers will understand that, given Madeline’s overly critical and distorted self-image, the fact that Ken is first attracted to her stunning Latin girlfriend — going so far as to purchase a long-stemmed rose and present it to her on the dance floor — sets the foundation for the conflict to ensue in the budding, unexpected relationship that develops between her and the handsome former US Navy sailor.
Lost in the music, Madeline never saw it coming, but suddenly she looked up to see a hand holding a long-stemmed rose in front of Carmen; a little red devil was attached to it. Then Maddy caught a glimpse of the rose’s buyer and her heart skipped a beat—too bad he was interested in her friend. It seemed so unfair since Carmen already had a date for the evening, unbeknownst to this handsome stranger. But despite her disappointment, Madeline laughed right along as Carmen accepted the gesture and began to dance with her new suitor.
And of course, it’s only when Carmen’s date for the evening finally arrives at the club that Maddy even gets the opportunity to hang out with Ken in the first place — when something inside compels her to extend the invitation, much to her own astonishment:
“Maddy,” Carmen asked again, “What are you going to do?”
Feeling strangely emboldened, Madeline announced, “I’m not going with all of you. I’m staying here and hanging out with Ken!” Then turning to him, she asked softly, “Is that ok with you?”
“Yes, that’s fine with me,” he agreed, giving her a high-five. Maybe the night’s not lost after all, he surmised. She’s seems truly adorable. It won’t hurt to spend a few hours getting to know her.
“Ok, but you better be nice to her,” Carmen warned Ken as she stepped into the back seat of her entourage’s Lincoln Continental.
In spite of her insecurities, Maddy demonstrates even more confident self-assertion when her newly designated date for the evening can’t stop haranguing her over what he considers to be Carmen’s dishonorable actions:
“You know I have to say I really don’t understand your friend. Why would she lead me on like that when she knew she had a date? And did you see those guys? I mean, I spent four years of my life defending this country from people like that and she and her anorexic friend run off with them?”
“Hey Ken, calm down! I agree with you about Iran, but that doesn’t mean those guys are like their crazy government. And you have to know Carmen; she’s just a free spirit. No one tells her what to do. I’m just glad they didn’t bring a friend for me, ‘cause long hair and grunge is definitely unappealing.”
“Well she still shouldn’t have accepted my rose,” he stated emphatically.
Maddy had enough. Cute as he was, she had no desire to talk about Carmen all night; watching Nick-At-Nite at home was sounding better and better. Overcoming her usual hesitance around guys, she spoke up. “Look, Ken, you’re here with me now. Either we’re gonna dance and have a good time, or I’m outta here! What’s it gonna be?”
Pleasantly surprised by her feistiness, he took her by the hand and exclaimed, “Well, let’s dance!”
By the way, this entire chapter is pretty faithful to real life, down to the little red devil attached to the rose; Maddy’s amazement at Ken’s foresight in bringing along a clean shirt to change into; Ken’s initial anger about Carmen leaving the scene with another guy; and his marveling at Maddy’s “tiny” hands. Even the conversation in bold above is absolutely true, and like Maddy, I surprised myself with my own comfort level around this guy; I seemed to have no qualms at all about telling him in no uncertain terms exactly how I felt. Unfortunately, that didn’t last long as the relationship progressed, as I will detail in another post.
Once Ken and Maddy break the ice with a dance, the rest of the evening unfolds effortlessly. Their light-hearted conversation reveals many similarities, including their shared birthday (which, as I’ve noted before is an example of creative license; the real guy and me are both Pisces, but our birthdays are about two weeks apart), Catholic upbringing and status as “the baby” in their respective families. However, Maddy’s insecurities flare up again upon learning more about this intriguing new suitor, unbeknownst to him:
Under the cover of magnificent moonlight enhanced by the muted sounds of music emanating from inside the club, Ken and Maddy chatted for hours. He shared funny and sad stories of his time in the military as she eagerly listened, fascinated by his life experience. At 25, she’d never even left her hometown, let alone traveled the world. Except for a Caribbean cruise with a few college girlfriends after graduation and some assorted family trips to places like Disneyworld and Chicago, she’d lived a pretty uneventful life. Heck, Maddy had even commuted to a university minutes from her house because she hadn’t felt quite ready to leave the nest. At the same age, Ken had enlisted to serve in foreign lands.
She also noticed something admirable and attractive in him—an inner spark, a desire to make something of himself. He was determined to rise above his roots in a sleepy Shore town and accomplish much greater things than his older brothers, all of whom seemed content to work in a local pizza shop.
From the get-go, Ken exposes himself as an entirely different kind of man from Jake, which ironically heightens Madeline’s insecurity. After two years of constant berating about her weight, her choice of dress and even her bust size, it’s a shock to the system (albeit a pleasant one) to be with a man who’s constantly complimenting her. Although he’s quite sincere, she cannot seem to reconcile his glowing impression of her with the unattractive one residing deep within her own psyche.
And her inability to clearly articulate her feelings — coupled with Ken’s deeply held thoughts of inferiority in the face of Madeline’s highly accomplished family — will help to destroy their relationship the first time around.