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A Life Lived Ridiculously
When a girl with obsessive compulsive disorder falls in love with a sociopath, she must fight for her sanity and her life.
Maxine’s brain is stuck. Everything around her feels wrong and the only way to fix it is to check, double-check, rearrange and count everything. What Maxine can’t fix though is her parents’ constant nagging over the absence of a husband. A humiliation that is further compounded when her younger brother runs off with Miss Perfect. Then she meets Sam, a smooth-talking charmer with the weight of the world on his shoulders, and enough terminal diseases to wipe out a small village. Maxine decides that Sam is her salvation, never mind that his life is more depressing than a Greek tragedy, and others are urging her to get away from him. The problem is that Sam has Maxine under his spell. Will Maxine escape from Sam before it is too late?
My parents never approved of much, but certainly even they would get a kick from knowing I ran him over.
My foot hovered over the accelerator as I weighed the options. The alley was deserted, except for the two of us. Although I couldn’t see his face, it was unmistakably him. I could tell by the crooked outline of his thin frame, and his head in its permanently bowed state. With hands buried deeply in the pockets of his ratty blue trench coat, he shifted down the street, looking over his shoulder with every step. I hadn’t seen him in months and never expected to again, but right now fate had placed him in my path, giving me a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to restore balance in the universe.
He didn’t notice me. Though he would have no trouble recognizing my dented green Civic, there was no way he could identify it with the headlights pointed right at him. It was now or never. And after everything he’d done, this was the least I could do. My hands gripped the wheel. My thumb smarted from where a nail had been bitten too deeply, and I wasn’t sure whether the pounding in my ears was the baseline to Another One Bites the Dust or my own heart. And then, after just the merest hesitation, my foot collapsed on the accelerator and the car lurched into action.
Chapter 1. January
I recoiled the moment I saw him. He was spindly and hunched, a young man in a pensioner’s body. And I could sense by the darting, snake-like eyes that judgment was being passed as he took in the surroundings. On this New Year’s Eve, in my parents’ living room, a stranger was judging me.
What was most striking about the overly dressed group in the overly fancy living room was the sickly smell of too many perfumes mingled together. The older the guest, the more unwholesome the perfume, as if they were trying to cover up the smell of old age. By the time I got around to kissing my two grandmothers, sitting side by side on antique chairs near the fireplace, I was ready to have a nose bleed. The apple-green wallpaper boasted a silkiness that reflected light to the high, wood-paneled ceiling. Unctuous candlesticks adorned a golden coffee table and two matching end-tables, which shouldered an outrageously long couch. People were saying hello and looking ever so eager to see one another. I was pulled about the room, my face kissed, squeezed, and prodded with every relative who thrust a smile at me.
Then my aunt Muriel was upon me, with the stranger at her side. “Maxine chérie, how are you?” she enthused, and we kissed on both cheeks, à la French. “I want to introduce you to Sam. Imagine, Sam works in science just like you. So I said to him, my niece works in science and you must meet her.”
“And my Aunt’s a meddling moron,” I said, though not out loud.
“Hello, Sam.” I smiled.
He thrust out his hand, gawkily. I took it. “It’s very kind of your family to include me in your New Year celebrations.” His voice was stuffy, his words over pronounced, as though he were a foreigner mimicking refined English.
“No problem,” I said, reclaiming my hand. His handshake was light, as though he were made of air, and might float away, which wouldn’t have been entirely bad, seeing how uncomfortable he looked. Who was this oddball? Slim build and hunched like a toad, he spoke softly, his words polite and considered. Too polite. A kippah was clipped to his light brown hair and his head seemed fixed in a bowed state, as though he were awaiting a beating. He was twenty-eight years old, but he could have been fifty.
“You work in science?” I ventured.
“Yes, I work for a company called Paxel.”
“Are you a scientist?”
“Yes. I’m also doing a Masters in Analytical Chemistry at Imperial.”
“Oh, you work and study. Me too, I’m doing a biology degree in the evenings. It’s a hell of a job to motivate, isn’t it?”
“I have no problem with motivation.”
“I try to do a little every night, but sometimes get carried away and before I know it, the birds are tweeting and it’s almost morning. Do you study every night?”
“I work some evenings, but yes, I try to do something every night.” He never raised his head when talking. Just his eyes, two blue pools, candid and pleading.
“What sort of work?”
“I help out in a small coffee shop on some evenings.”
“Cool, which one?”
“Just a small one down the road from my university.” He fidgeted awkwardly and shifted his eyes.
“How do you manage two jobs and study? I can just about manage one.”
“Sometimes you have to do certain things, due to life circumstances.” He shifted uncomfortably. “But I don’t think it’s appropriate to talk about such things, whilst here in these opulent surroundings.”
I was right, he was judging me. How dare this scrawny little socialist make me feel guilty for my family’s privileged lifestyle? Self hatred was my domain and no one else’s. I abandoned him with Muriel, and went in search of someone less irritating.
“Come here, chérie.” It was my grandmother. I kneeled beside her and stroked her thin, wrinkled hand.
“Are you married yet, dear?” she asked.
“No, Grandma.” I smiled gently, caressing her soft arm.
“I’m not dying until you get married.”
“Then you’ll have a long life.” I kissed her sagging cheek.
“Your grandfather’s waiting for me. I don’t want to keep him waiting forever.”
“Grandma, he’s dead, he has forever.”
“And my back hurts so much, I don’t know how much longer I can go on.” It was true, she’d never been tall, but she had, painfully and noisily, shrunk almost a foot in the last year.
“Well, Grandma, we’re gonna have to introduce you to morphine, because I don’t see any future husbands just yet.” I squeezed her cold hand and passed my fingers over her cheek and she beamed.
My other grandmother, who’d been watching, stuck out her chin and said, “What about me, don’t I get a kiss?”
And I went around to her side, kneeled down, stroked her bony hand, and kissed her cheek, which was the texture of marshmallow.
“How are you, Mamy?” That was how I called my maternal grandmother, it was French for ‘grandma.’
“Ah, you know, my hip, I have these terrible pains.” She sighed heavily.
“I’m sorry, Mamy.”
“Pain? Rachelle you don’t know what pain is,” my other grandmother said and let out a deeper, louder sigh.
“I don’t know what pain is? Rena, I haven’t slept in two weeks, not a wink.”
“Well, I haven’t slept in two years.”
And see, I always believed you can’t survive more than ten days without sleep. “Have you people not heard of painkillers?” I asked.
They both turned, as if noticing me for the first time. Four crooked fingers wrapped themselves around my wrist.
“Sweetie, I swallow vicodin, ativan, and codeine and still the pains keep me awake,” said Grandma Rena, rolling her eyes for added effect.
“That’s nothing,” said Grandma Rachelle. “The doctor gave me oxycontin, percocet, vicodin, and some unlabelled powder, and I might as well be eating M&Ms for all they do.”
Who would have thought these cute little old ladies were single-handedly supporting the economy of Mexico? Note to self: visit grandmas more often, and bring a bag.
At dinner, Sam was seated between my brother, Claude and me. The long dining table was dressed with colorful dishes, interspersed between tall, brass candlesticks, holding twelve red candles per stick. Wax ran like treacle down the shaft and dripped onto the red, embroidered tablecloth, narrowly missing the breadbaskets. My parents took entertaining as seriously as an Olympic athlete took exercise, and with the amount of sweat and tears that went into it, you’d think they were hoping for a medal by the end of the night. Everything had to be perfect and abundant; the flowers, the food, the seating, the puffiness of the cushions, my mother’s jewelry. Each person was amply surrounded by food, such that minimal effort was required to reach anything. But at the end of the night, did my parents high-five one another in satisfaction of another successful dinner? Of course not. Dad complained that Mum looked fat and Mum grumbled because another of Dad’s thoughtless friends had burned a hole in her precious antique table cloth with one of those ghastly cigars. And the only thing they both agreed on was that this was the last time they would make so much effort to entertain so many ingrates. And by the end of the week they’d be planning their next unforgettable dinner party.
Claude attempted to engage Sam, while I daydreamed about my beloved bedroom two floors above us. In the six months since moving out of my parents’ house, I had been unable to stop kicking myself for leaving. But at twenty eight years old, the embarrassment of living at home had outweighed my fear of loneliness (second only to my fear of personal possessions). I’d been used to living in a house with my social animal of a brother and all his friends, and it wasn’t unusual to come home to find random students eating out of our fridge or crashed out under the kitchen table. It was like living in a commune, only with expensive silverware. Our kitchen was everybody’s kitchen, and our parents had little to say on the matter, as they traveled constantly.
But, as with all things, this charmed existence was doomed to end, and my brother began consorting with a nice Jewish girl and spending weekends drinking scotch with her father. So, when strange people stopped exercising squatter’s rights in our house, I knew that if I didn’t leave, I was going to get left behind. So I packed my bags and moved ten minutes down the road. The entire apartment was smaller than my old bedroom, but, being too old to run back home, my only option was to love it whether I liked it or not. On the day of the move, my mother, myself, and a man with a van transported my worldly belongings, which, after twenty-eight years, could have fitted into a spotted handkerchief and tied to a stick. The entire experience took less than two hours, whereupon the living room boasted a couch, coffee table, and small oval dining table with four chairs. Everything else, including the television, was assigned to the bedroom. Two narrow closets faced the bed, the television filled the alcove between these two closets, and facing it was the double bed and one bedside table. Mum had offered me two bedside tables, but I didn’t see the logic, when I could only sleep on one side of the bed at a time. My parents said that my aversion to owning things was a rebellion against the privileged life they had provided. Of course, I let them believe that. How could I tell them the truth, that too much stuff was more terrifying than the thought of being fed slowly through a meat grinder? They wouldn’t understand. Hell, sometimes I didn’t understand.
That first night in my new bed, I stared up at the grey ceiling that seemed much closer to my face than my old warm, cream-colored ceiling, and I did not feel grown up and I did not feel free. I felt a million miles from home, and for the first time in my life, felt truly lonely.
Muriel sat to my left and eagerly joined in the conversation. We learned that Sam came from a Jewish background, although he grew up in Hong Kong and went to university in Australia. He had been living in England on a student visa for two years, whilst pursuing a Masters program in Analytical Chemistry. I noticed he had no earlobes, the ear ran into the side of the face in a straight line that was accentuated by slightly sticking-out ears. Just recently, a molecular biology class had taught me that it takes one gene to determine whether or not we end up with earlobes. Until then I’d never noticed that a portion of the population had none. Now I was seeing it everywhere.
“Where’s your family?” Claude asked.
“I have my twin sister in Sydney, Australia. Sadly my parents have passed on.” He paused and lowered his gaze.
Claude, Muriel, and I looked at one another and, for lack of a better response, also lowered ours.
“Actually, when I say parents, I refer to my mother and stepfather. In truth I don’t know my biological father,” he added.
“What happened to everyone?” Claude asked.
“My stepfather had a fatal heart attack when I was ten and my mother died of cancer when I was sixteen.”
Observing Claude and Sam side by side, the two could not have been more different, Claude, stocky framed with a confident air and his head held high, beside Sam, thin and submissive with his bony shoulders collapsed in on themselves.
“Is that why you left Australia?” Claude asked.
“Actually I left after my girlfriend died four years ago.”
Now there’s an unlucky fellow who should never play the lottery and always remain indoors during electric storms, I might have joked had he not been sitting right there.
By the end of the evening, Muriel, Claude and I slumped in our seats, exhausted from hearing about so many dead people. Only Sam seemed unaffected, pursing his thin lips, as though he had told this story a million times before.