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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.
Two or three nights a week, after a day's work in a genetics laboratory, I staggered the fifteen minutes to my university. It should have been a five minute walk, but lately everything took longer, crossing a street was enough to wind me and a flight of stairs enough to trigger altitude sickness. As I stumbled into the tall, gray building overlooking Russell Square, others were mostly walking out of it; the daytime students ending their day, as the evening students begun theirs. Most of my classmates, like me, were older, having delayed their university studies for one reason or another. Several were considerably older and must have been undertaking a biology degree for the sheer fun of it.
Some evenings we were required, using instructions and common sense, to set up and perform experiments in a laboratory. Instructions I could handle. But common sense and neurosis do not belong in the same cranial space, and I turned what should have been a straightforward process into torturous mental gymnastics, like trying to do long division in your head while under the influence of marijuana (minus the uncontrollable laughter). As the other students rushed about the lab with the express intention of completing the task and getting out of there as quickly as possible, I remained frozen to the spot, refusing to tip a powder into a solution until fully and completely satisfied as to why I was tipping that particular powder into that particular solution. And anyone who's ever studied basic chemistry knows that most chemical interactions do not exactly follow the textbook rules. This I was not willing to accept. So I tried to elaborate upon the rules, or make up broader rules that would encompass the observed molecular reactions. Everything had to fit into neat little boxes and when it didn't, I was literally unable to make my hands perform the steps on the instruction sheet. I regularly chased the teacher around the lab, with paper in one fist and pen in the other, delaying her from helping others and asking why, if the rules say that acids react with bases, was this particular acid not reacting? Then I returned to my lab bench to discover everyone else so far ahead of me, and wondered whether this was what mental retardation feels like.
One evening, as I cowered before a half-built distillation model, the teacher approached and asked loudly, so that everyone stopped to listen, “Do you cook?”
To which I replied honestly, “Not really, my mum and brother are amazing cooks though.” Why she'd care that I was closely related to culinary wizards was not something that occurred to me in the moment.
Her mouth opened for a second and then she boomed, “If you can't cook, then you can't be a scientist.”
I stared at her quizzically.
“Cooking is science,” she added.
“But I hate cooking,” I whimpered.
“Then why are you becoming a scientist?”
I felt the whole room staring, and fixed my gaze on the scratched wooden lab bench, on which stood my shoddy, half-built experiment. Science had never been my strong subject, in fact in secondary school it was my worst subject. Even now I worked longer and harder than my classmates just to keep up. So why was I working toward a career in a subject at which I was no good?
“I can't stand not knowing how things work,” I said, and that was the truth. It was what kept me going to classes night after night, through rain, dark winters and unnatural exhaustion. All for the privilege of a career in which I would not so much add anything to the world, but where the world might some day reveal its secrets to me.
“Well, go home and teach yourself to cook. You'll have a better time of it in the lab,” she said, before moving on to the next student.
Sam wasn't spared another thought after that first meeting, except once, to explain to my persistent parents that I was not and would never be interested in that creepy toothpick of a man. But, with a daughter in her late twenties and no potential Jewish husband in sight, no way would they let up.
A few weeks later my mother called me at work. “I've invited Sam from New Year to lunch on Sunday. Would you drive him over?”
I sighed. “Mum, the guy looks like a pretzel. Is that what you want for me? Don't you care about me at all?” When in a corner, always use emotional blackmail.
“You know what your problem is? You're too judgmental. Would you like people to judge you on a first meeting, because they would run from your crazy hair and those ridiculously small glasses.”
Note to self: if a person's IQ is very low, emotional blackmail won't work.
I rolled my eyes. “Thanks, Mum, if I ever need someone to talk me off a window ledge, you'll be the one to call.” I leaned into my computer to avoid being heard by colleagues.
“What? I don't understand when you speak so fast. You're not my daughter, you can't be. A daughter of mine would know how to use a hairbrush.”
I sighed. How many times had I heard that old song? Yes, my hair was out of control, but it wasn't my fault that I had inherited it from her. Brushing actually made it worse. “Mum, much as I enjoy these delightful exchanges of ours, I do need to get back to work.” I maintained an even tone, so she wouldn't know she was getting to me.
“Avoidance,” she screeched into my ear. “That's what you're good at, avoiding the subject. Well, fine then, don't you and your witch hair come crying to me when you're alone and miserable.”
“Why do you have to scream?” I seethed through gritted teeth. My mother belonged to that group of low IQ individuals who find everything alarming and believe that raising your voice is the most effective form of communication. She made it impossible to respect her, which hurt more than all the insults.
“Sonya and Adam will be there, and they know lots of single Jewish girls. So if you don't want him, then perhaps they can find someone who does.”
“Fine, I'll bring him.”
For moral support, I invited my study partner, Rose along for the ride. Rose, a divorced lawyer, was studying a biology degree in an effort to give her career the overhaul she'd given her personal life. As the only two in the class who were neither twenty nor sixty, and for whom English was not a second language, we became fast friends. Rose also lived alone, although unlike me, felt that it was an expression of a woman's freedom of choice, rather than a death sentence.
Running thirty minutes late to collect Sam from the tube station, I was having trouble remembering where I'd parked the car.
“Come on, Maxi, aren't any of these roads ringing a bell?” she pleaded as we meandered through the narrow, residential streets that flanked my flat.
“I suppose we could just walk,” I said, not particularly liking the idea of a walk in the cold. “It's just that I wouldn't mind knowing where the car is first.”
“When did you last use it?”
“Last night,” I said.
“So you have to know where you left it,” she insisted as she pulled a pair of gloves from the pocket of her three-quarter-length tartan coat.
“You'd think.” I snorted, fast losing patience. This wasn't the first time I had misplaced the car, and if things continued this way, I might as well audition for the sequel to Memento.
“Seriously, girl, you must be going senile, or something,” she joked, as we turned into yet another quiet street.
“You know what? Perhaps not, perhaps it's normal, when you park your car in a different spot every night, to sometimes forget where you left it.”
She laughed. “You keep telling yourself that.”
In the end we gave up and made our way on foot, both marching at a fast clip to beat off the cold.
“You might want to shoot yourself in the head afterward,” I warned Rose about Sam.” Though make sure you wait until after dessert, as no one should die without tasting Mum's chocolate mousse.”
Sure enough, there he was, as small and bent as the last time we met, from a distance looking like a little old man.
“I'm so sorry we're late,” I said when we reached him.
“Missy here forgot where she parked the car,” Rose added with a teasing tone.
“It could happen to anyone.” I said.
“Anyone over the age of eighty,” she replied.
“That's okay, girls. I just waited forty-five minutes in the cold, London gloom. I could have been mugged, abducted, sexually assaulted…”
“Sure you could have, in broad daylight in the middle of Chelsea.” I said.
We strolled the short distance to my parents' house.
“I'm so hungry,” I said by way of making conversation and also because it was true. “I try to skip breakfast on days when I'm eating at my parents', because Mum's cooking is too damn good for restraint.”
“I've been learning to cook,” Sam said. “I bought cookbooks by Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson. Nigella's book is so erotic, I don't know if she's teaching me how to cook or trying to get me off.”
“How can a cookbook be erotic?” Rose asked.
“It's the way she describes the process. She doesn't say 'take the vegetables and mix them in a bowl.' It's more like, 'as I plunged my fingers into the fleshy pulp and felt the juices caress my skin...' She made me positively sweat behind the knees.” He elongated his vowels, sounding like an over-enunciated schoolgirl.
As required, I introduced Sam to Sonya and Adam, but in the end Rose and I kept him to ourselves. Contrary to the Sam who'd haunted our New Year's dinner, today he was light-hearted and talked incessantly.
“So when I decided to have the testicle replaced, they sent me a catalogue. A proper catalogue with pictures of different sized testicles. Being new to this, I had no idea which one to pick, I don't know what my other testicle looks like. I thought I should get the biggest one, but then I would have to buy larger pants.”
Rose said, “You don't want to have to buy new pants and a testicle all in one day.”
“That would be indulgent,” he replied. “Anyway, I felt too weak for shopping.”
“For clothes or testicles?” I asked.
“Both. But I had to get a ball, so I asked if they did home deliveries.”
“You did not!” I gasped.
“They said, 'We're sorry sir, but we don't provide that kind of service.' I was shocked. That's not customer service, I told them. I want to speak to the manager.”
We were on the floor from laughter. I'd never imagined testicular cancer could be funny.
Rose asked, “What did you get in the end?”
“Well, I asked my sister's advice, but she said that even for twins that conversation was too intimate. So I chose the medium-sized one. Not too presumptuous and not too tiny. But now I wish I'd chosen the bigger one.”
By the end of the day, Sam was talking so much that it was impossible to persuade him to leave. We sat around the kitchen table whilst Mum cleared up. We would have helped, but Mum tended to be flustered when she worked, having no idea how to delegate. The guests had long gone and Mum was offering us leftovers.
“I'm a typical Jewish boy,” Sam said, as he gladly accepted a bag of food. “I don't leave anywhere without taking food. I will enjoy this tomorrow during my lunch, and I'll have saved £4.75 from the sandwich shop. Plus if there's any leftover for dinner, I won't have to eat my gefilte fish. It will be a culture shock for Mr. Fried, he likes to eat gefilte fish every night for dinner.”
Mr. Fried was Sam's landlord, and the way Sam described him, he might as well have been trapped in a Jewish time warp in pre-war Germany.
Eventually Rose and I each grabbed one of Sam's arms and frog-marched him out the door.
“My family is so penny pinching, they never throw out any food. My mother used to boil chicken carcasses and make soup. And my cousins in Switzerland are so stingy that they gather breadcrumbs from under the chopping board and use them to make matzah balls.” He continued all the way to the tube station.
After we waved him farewell, Rose turned to me and said, “I really like him.”
“Yeah, me too,” I said. “Turns out he's OK.”
“No, what I mean is I really like him.” She stared into my face until I clicked.
“Oh, you really like him,” I repeated.
“Ooo. I suppose we should arrange another little get together then.” I smiled.
She leaped into my arms and gave me a warm squeeze.
Four days later, I found the car. I strolled passed my dented Honda Civic several streets away from home one morning on the way to work. It was as I had left it, though I had no recollection of actually having left it there. Did this failing brain of mine mean that my IQ was tanking? Another unfortunate genetic legacy, I sighed, and made a mental note to Google memory loss.