Maxine always battled with having to go back home.
At the beginning of each morning, she had the energy to stand in front of the mirror and engineer the best cheerful face she could, but at the end of the day, she struggled with leaving school.
Maxine arrived at the only un-weeded garden and overgrown lawn in the whole neighbourhood. Their little house didn’t always look that way, but ever since her mother got sick, there was no one towed the rose garden and no one to nag her father about painting the white picket fence.
She looked over at the withered garden and decided that the flowers seemed to be adopting the same condition as her mother — death.
Maxine looked down the long hallway. In reality, it was not more than ten meters long, but every time she had to go to the guest room, which had been changed into the hospice, she felt like she was walking the yellow brick road. However, rather than leading to the Land of Oz, this one led her to the only feeling of love she knew.
Another step, a deep breath, and she opened the bedroom door. Maxine’s nostrils were attacked by the pungent smell of medication. The rhythmic beeping sound of the heart monitor connected to her mother reminded Maxine that she needed to put on a brave face.
“Hey beautiful.” Maxine forced a smile as she noticed the exhausted expression on her mother’s face.
Lynne’s hair was shaggy, her toffee skin pale, and her lips cracked. Maxine saw the exhaustion on her mother’s ravaged face. Maxine’s father, Daniel, was cemented in the same spot he was always in, seated next to her mother’s death bed. Daniel had the same exhausted expression on his face, but on him the expression was permanently engraved in the creases around his eyes and mouth. Maxine’s eyes quickly looked around her mother’s body and bed. There seemed to be more tubes and machines than there had been when she left in the morning.
Her father gave Maxine a quick glance and then his eyes returned to his wife. Daniel’s eyes seemed to hang out of their sockets. His wrinkled hand held onto his wife’s, securely but gently, as if the only way to keep her by his side was to never let go of her hand.
Maxine looked at the simplest form of love they had, and her heart broke. What would her father do when Lynne died? Daniel had tied his life to her mother’s in every single way humanly possible, and here was something that he couldn’t protect her from.
Maxine’s mother had been diagnosed with cancer two years ago. They thought that they had beaten it, but it had comeback just before Christmas with the vengeance of a rabid demon, and it had its claws in her. No matter what they tried or how hard her father fought for every treatment known to man, it wasn’t letting go. Her mother had been discharged from the hospital two weeks prior and had been sent home to die in her own bed surrounded by her family.
Now Maxine was standing there witnessing the greatest love ever shared, knowing that it would soon come to heart-wrenching end. She had prepared herself, she thought, for her mother’s death. She had also come to terms with the fact that her father would die soon after her mother. There was no way one could live without the other. Although her father called her ‘the greatest love of his life’, she knew that her mother was his only reason for living. Once Lynne died, he wouldn’t have any other reason to stick around.
Maxine sat at her mother’s feet. Lynne cupped Maxine’s cheek with her hand and smiled as much as her strength allowed. “You are the most beautiful girl ever,” she strained to say, and the words rattled like a stone in a tin can.
Hearing her mother sound so weak broke Maxine’s heart, but she hid her pain behind her smile. Maxine thought of asking her mother how she was feeling, but it didn’t seem that important. Asking only frustrated Lynne because she was always economical with the truth for the sake of the withering man at her side. Listening to her mother put up a brave front, and her father whimper every time she did, cut through Maxine. Daniel smoothed his fingers over the thin hand stuck with needles; it was a gesture that had become
habitual. Maxine didn’t think her mother felt the discomfort of the IVs anymore, and let her father do it because it was the only way he felt useful.
Maxine stood outside Taylor’s apartment door. She had ringed the doorbell a couple of times, but he hadn’t opened it just yet. She thought about leaving, the thought coming and going each time she rang the bell and waited.
When she finally felt like she’d had enough, she kicked at the bottom of the door and it flew open. Maxine covered her gaping mouth with her hand as she looked around for witnesses, but she was all alone in the hallway and no one seemed to have heard the thud the door had made on the wall. She rocked back and forth on her heels as she chewed on her lips in contemplation and indecision. “I could go in,” she mumbled to herself. “Theodor is open.”
She didn’t know what she was going to find inside, but standing outside ringing the doorbell every five seconds made her feel like a jilted lover. “Whatever,” she mumbled and took a long stride inside. Once her foot was over the threshold, she felt confident enough to get the other foot over.
“Taylor!” she called out before she was fully inside the apartment. “Taylor!” She looked around the bachelor pad. “No!” she moaned when she spotted a pair of blue boxers around her ankles. “You have got to be kidding me.” With two fingers she picked up the offending item, prepared to toss it into a pile of clothes by the bed.
Maxine’s eyes were pulled away from the underwear when a figure moved into the room. She saw something she never thought she would see in her lifetime—the beautiful side of Taylor. Taylor had apparently just walked out of the shower. His body glistened with water, and his hair was dark and wet as it fell over his forehead.
She also noticed was that he wasn’t wearing anything.
“Hum!” She tightened her lips; notable to pull her eyes from what she thought was a glorious body.
Maxine’s first thought was to duck or run out the door she had just kicked down to come in, but her body didn’t seem to respond to her mind. Maxine watched as Taylor stopped abruptly, and she followed his gaze to what she was holding in her hand. She didn’t need anyone to tell her. Maxine knew she looked ridiculous standing in the middle of his room, Taylor’s shorts in her hand. She was like a pole hoisting up a flag.
“What are you doing with my boxers?”
“Ahhh…” she stuttered, unsure whether this was the appropriate time to tell him she had kicked in his door.
“Is this a bad time?
Maxine tried to be subtle about how embarrassed she was. She kept looking away, but her eyes would always go back to Taylor. She couldn’t help it, it was instinct.
The thing that she didn’t understands why he didn’t make any effort to cover himself up. “I’m just going to-” she cleared her throat then squeaked, “Aren’t you cold?”
She stretched the boxers towards him. “I think you’ll need these.”
“Thanks.” Taylor grabbed his boxers and walked back into the bathroom. “So, you’re here?”
“Yes, I am.”
Taylor came out of the bathroom with said boxers on his body, rubbing a towel through his hair. He was changing into a weird shade of red that amused her.
Maxine thought it was the right time to inform him about his door. “By the way, I kicked in your door.”
“That’s how you got in.” He examined it and when he saw no damage he closed it. “You kick in doors, play with guys’ underwear and you don’t look bothered by penises. What else do I need to know about you?”
“All you need to know is that we are doing Things
Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe for our assignment.” She tossed the book on his desk, taking a seat on the couch.
“How do you want to do this?” He picked up the book and looked it over. “I think you should do this alone. You are the one who wanted the knowledge.”
“You want me to do the work and youth reap the benefits.” Maxine jumped to her feet and grabbed a fistful of her dress as anger simmered through her. “You are such a womanizer. Read the book. I think you will identify with the male lead very well. He’s also a chauvinistic bully.” Maxine stormed out of the apartment, wishing she could take the doorway with her.
When Maxine got home, she had to shake the anger off before she walked into the house. The first thing she noticed was the music coming from her mother’s room down the hall. Quietly, she moved towards it. The door was cracked open. She thought about going in, but when she saw her parents dancing around the room she stopped. Daniel was practically carrying Lynne in his arms; her feet stepping on his as he carefully walked them around the room to the tune of the music.
Maxine could see the grip of her father’s arm around her mother’s waist. She was just in time to catch the tear sliding down his cheek as they twirled around. Maxine could feel her heart shatter. There was no way Daniel could survive Lynne’s dying, and there was no way her mother would let go because of it. They were trapped in their love story, forever being each other’s breath and heartbeat. Maxine pulled away from the heart wrenching scene and retreated to her room. Once she was under the covers, she put on her headphones, hoping that the metal rock would drown out the sweet notes of love coming from below.
“What are you doing here?” Maxine finally said when her jaw resumed its normal position after dropping open in shock. She stood at the door to her mother’s room, staring at Taylor sitting at her mother’s side while her father stood over him. They seemed to be looking at something on Lynne’s lap, and they were enjoying it too.
Taylor picked up a picture and held it up to her. She was in nothing but a diaper and, although she had been just baby in that picture, she felt like he had seen too much of her. He had a cheesy grin on his face as he took pleasure in her humiliation. “I like this picture. I think the diaper really accentuates your figure!”
She looked at the picture of a happy baby with stacks of donuts for legs and a chubby tummy. Maxine cleared her throat and was about to snarl something back at
Taylor, but the sound of her mother’s giggle cut through her revenge. Lynne had laughed her wrinkles away and, for the first time in weeks, it wasn’t a pretend laugh. She was genuinely enjoying the roast Taylor was hosting at Maxine’s expense. In a painful gulp, she swallowed the bitter words at the tip of her tongue. Her mother was happy and looked more alive than she had for a long time so, instead of the snipe, she laughed with them.
Maxine sat on the bed at her mother’s feet and they all travelled down memory lane together. In those pictures, she saw how her mother was before cancer, and she missed that woman. She choked on the emotion thick in her throat as she finally came to terms with the fact that her mother would never be that woman again.
Instead of the full of life, wacky-haired, outgoing, adventurous woman she had been, Lynne was the weak, terminally ill woman nailed down to her bed.
Maxine felt like she would crumble. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of Taylor gazing at her.
She could feel his eyes studying the folds on her forehead a library of all her sad thoughts and feelings. Maxine would never let her mother notice her change of mood so she laughed with her parents and Taylor as he cracked jokes and told stories that were too farfetched to be true .
For the first time, Maxine felt something more than just hate for Taylor; it was gratitude. However, the laughter proved to be too much for Lynne to handle and her giggles soon turned into deep, whooping coughs. Maxine watched Taylor leap out of the way as Daniel took his place beside his wife, doing nothing but holding onto her hand.
“I think the two of you should get back to your school work,” Lynne managed to say in between steady bouts of coughing.
“Okay,” Taylor said. Maxine was frozen on her mother’s bed. “We better get to it,” Taylor tried again. He took Maxine’s hand and pulled her off the bed and out of the room. “Are you okay?” he asked when they were finally up in her room.
Maxine chuckled bitterly. She didn’t know what okay meant anymore and trying to figure out what kind of feeling it was confused and amused her at the same time. “Where do you want to start?”
“I can see your mother is sick…”he began.
“I meant with the assignment.” She wasn’t going to let anyone in on that part of her life. Dave was her boyfriend and she had tried countless times to let him in, but he seemed too distracted with his football to care about her emotions. So, instead of suffering another disappointment, she kept it to herself. “I was thinking that you could focus on the themes, and I could focus on the characters.”
“Uh, okay.” Taylor mumbled. “So…what did you think of my boxers last night?”
Maxine looked away when the memory came to mind. She chuckled, began to speak, but then took in a deep breath instead. She shook her head, lost for words, especially when the picture of him standing butt naked in front of her came to mind. “Um, I think…”
Taylor laughed. “You know that you don’t have to answer each and every question people ask you. No one is quizzing you, Max.”
“Max,” she shook her head. “My mother only gave me that name because it was her biological mother’s, but she never let anyone call me Max.”
Maxine realized that Taylor was getting more information about her in five minutes than he had in the two years they had barely acknowledged each other’s presence. “According to her, it sounded too manly.”
“I understand her fear.” He went on, “You already act like a dude. You sure don’t need a name like Max to go with it.”
“What do you mean I act like a man? “She had asked him a question, but she didn’t allow him to answer. “Just because I’m assertive and know what I want in life, it means that I act like a man?”
She didn’t know it, but her hands were balled into fists and she had a murderous, determined look on her face. Maxine wished he was a little shorter, just in her reach, so that she could connect her fist with his smug jaw. The comedic version of Taylor that she had seen in her mother’s room was long gone. Maxine realized the sarcastic jerk was back and sitting right in front of her.
“I’m just saying…”
“You aren’t saying anything. Let’s just get this done.”
She sat down at her desk, but then the faraway look came back to her face. She was looking out the window to the backyard, staring at her swing set and remembering her mother pushing her on it as they laughed. She wanted that back, but she knew she would never have it.
“We don’t have to do this today,” he offered.
Maxine could see he was trying, but she didn’t want Taylor to pity her. He was part of her other life, the life outside this house that had been turned into a hospice.
Today, Taylor had invaded the private and almost hidden part of her life, and she wanted him out of it.
“Question — how did a practical girl like you end up with him?”
“Don’t ask.” She was beginning to think about it, to weigh it in her mind, and it all seemed incomprehensible other. “Shit happens,” she laughed.
Suddenly, Maxine could hear the rushing of footsteps coming from downstairs. She didn’t move. She held onto the side of her desk, a trembling smile on her lips. The look in Taylor’s eyes, she could tell, mirrored her own. Maxine noticed him inching closer to her. She was thankful that he didn’t choose to flee the scene, but instead stayed by her side. So, Taylor sat with Maxine and watched as she clawed her fingernails into her wooden desk.
She stared at her door when she heard frantic footsteps come up the stairs. “I’m ready,” she thought.
Maxine’s eyes were fixed on the door handle as she watched it turn and the door fly open. Her eyes locked on her father’s distraught gaze. She waited for him to sound out the words, but all she got were incoherent sobs.
“You need to come downstairs,” he finally managed to gasp out.
Maxine nodded her head in agreement, but she didn’t move.
“Maxine?” Her father stretched out his hand to her, but she didn’t want to take it.
“I’m not ready,” she stammered.