Tina did her best not to make any noise as she tiptoed across the concrete floor of the foundation’s loft space. She poked her smiling face into Debbie’s cubicle, the walls of which were decorated with photographs of her twin sons and her husband, a blond-mustachioed policeman from Lancaster.
“Muriel’s dating someone.”
A stranger would have heard that enthusiasm and assumed it reflected Tina’s happiness for Muriel, a coworker, but it was more like the fake compliment the mean-spirited high school cheerleader makes to the unpopular fat girl who’s wearing a stylish outfit. By the age of twenty-three, Tina’s intellectual and emotional needs were fulfilled, and her curiosity satisfied. Now, at thirty-eight, she enjoyed a life of absolute complacency and felt justified ridiculing anyone who deviated from what she considered to be within the acceptable ranges of normal.
Debbie’s hands paused on the keyboard of her computer as she looked up at Tina with a smirk.
“Muriel? Really? What’s she dating?” They both made insincere attempts to stifle their snickers while Tina quickly popped her head up and periscoped around the room to make sure no one was listening.
As the only support staff at the foundation, Debbie and Tina had become close friends, and they shared the unspoken belief that they understood how the world really operated, unlike the overeducated snobs they worked for. “Palmdale,” Tina would say, “that’s where the normal people are. You couldn’t pay me enough to live in L.A. with all the freaks and fags. I don’t want my kids to know that stuff exists.”
Muriel had been fodder for Debbie and Tina since she started at the foundation. If it weren’t for her scoliosis, she would have been of average height, but instead she was a stout four feet ten inches. Her spine curved so dramatically that at first glance she seemed overweight,but she wasn’t – just intensely compact. Her head tilted toward her right shoulder, and a hump protruded from the center of her back. Because of difficulties with pain, balance, and flexibility, walking wasn’t easy for her, and moving her head from side to side was almost impossible. Still, she cared about her appearance and made great effort to apply her makeup, style her hair, and wear what she considered “tasteful” clothes. Since she couldn’t drive, she periodically hired an Uber to take her to see Carletta, a seamstress in Inglewood who cut her own patterns and made knockoffs of Muriel’s favorite Max Mara suits. Carletta even provided special coat hangers (made by her husband) that could accommodate the oddly shaped jackets and keep them from falling on the closet floor.
The truth that neither Debbie nor Tina would ever consider was that Muriel would have been a reasonably attractive woman, were it not for her curved spine and the incessant pain she endured. When she let her face go in the direction it wanted, the corners of her mouth slanted downward, her chin tensed upward, and she frowned until a deep crease appeared between her eyebrows. The constant pressure on her heart and lungs had been steadily increasing since puberty and would likely continue to do so until the organs were compressed to a point where they could no longer function.
Tina had spoken the truth because Muriel was dating someone regularly and, without verbalizing it, had come to consider him a partner of sorts.
“So, Muriel,” one of the research assistants asked one day, “are you going to the conference in Vancouver next week?”
“Well, I’m not sure. We both have so much going on right now. We need a few quiet nights in town. I just can’t be going away again.”
The assistant, who had only known Muriel for a couple of months, didn’t consider (or care) who constituted “we,” but Muriel walked away from their brief exchange delighted that she could use the first-person plural pronoun for the first time since she left her parents’ home.
Sanjeev wasn’t the type of man who mixed easily, so the company of others never spoiled their time together. Muriel convinced herself that this was an intense and beautiful aspect of their relationship that most couples would envy, but she couldn’t acknowledge to herself that his behavior might make her uncomfortable in front of her friends or colleagues.
Though she thought “brilliant” was one of the most overused words of the past twenty years, Muriel considered Dr. Pandit Sanjeev Lal as undeniably brilliant. His work with fractals and the books on chaos theory that he’d co-authored were revolutionary in broadening the understanding of enormously complicated concepts. He had an air of elegance about him, with his brown skin, gray hair, dark suits, impeccable posture, and Delhi accent. He was also the most sensitive person she’d ever known. This was an endearing quality, but it could be embarrassing when he might begin crying in a restaurant for the mushrooms that had given their lives to accommodate the whims of his human appetite. No loud sobbing, just a steady stream of tears punctuated by nose-blowing (he carried a hankie) – it usually lasted three to five minutes, and then he was done. No discussion necessary.
Since his first year at university in 1977, when he was diagnosed as suffering from major depression with psychotic features, Sanjeev had been in and out of psychiatric hospitals. Still, without the help of psychotropic drugs, he managed to complete three advanced degrees and earn a moderate researcher’s salary (which complemented the income from a trust set aside by his father). He tried medication only twice – the last time was a three-month period in 1983, but drugs dulled his mental acuity so much that he stopped and refused to reconsider them, regardless of how many advances pharmaceutical companies claimed to have made.
For several months, Muriel believed that she and Sanjeev were well suited for each other, because each lived with an untreatable disability that informed every aspect of their existence. Both of them embraced work and a modest level of socializing (Sanjeev less so than Muriel) with a combination of satisfaction and resolve. Satisfaction, because they succeeded in forcing themselves to leave the house and to do something considered productive. Resolve, because no complete pleasure was ever forthcoming due to the constant preoccupation with pain resulting from each one’s disease.
“You suffer,” Sanjeev said one evening after dinner. “I know.”
“Yes, I do.” Muriel was convinced that it was his profound perceptiveness that made him aware of her physical discomfort. However, anyone who watched her get up from a chair, briefly pausing every few inches along the way to let the pain subside, could see that she suffered.
“I see this for you, and it saddens me because of your kind heart.”
“I may be unable to stop myself from crying for you.”
“Oh, Sanjeev, please don’t cry.”
Muriel didn’t think of herself as someone concerned with social pretense or appearance. She’d never felt wholly included in any group because her life experience was so separate from that of anyone she knew. Despite her intelligence and relative success, she was, in comparison to her peers, an oddity. She couldn’t hike, garden, or drive. She was well liked, since she was a good listener and a consistent friend, but she was tired of the role of asexual confidante imposed on her since she was a teenager.
Since turning fifty-two, she had, for the first time, become uncomfortable with the idea of still being a virgin. This wasn’t the result of increased libido or the acknowledgment of some unrealized longing. The idea of someone else bending her exposed body into some sort of accessible position sometimes came to her as a flash which she immediately slapped out of her consciousness. Getting out of bed or washing her hair was agony enough; she didn’t need to worry about another presence in the room. Her sexual appetite was pretty much nonexistent, but she still craved someone to hold her hand, to look into her eyes from a distance of less than three feet, to appreciate the smell of her hair or the softness of her cheek. Sanjeev could give her these things, even if his emotional turmoil prevented him from achieving simple, true intimacy with another person.
Theater or film was too much of a risk for Sanjeev’s hypersensitivity, so Muriel often suggested they go to one of two restaurants where the help had gotten used to them. They sat across from each other and chatted politely until dessert arrived, at which point Sanjeev always moved to sit next to Muriel and hold her hand while he waited for her dish of vanilla ice cream to melt before he ate it.
“It pleases me, sitting next to you, Muriel.”
“Yes, I know. That’s good.”
“Does it please you that I am sitting next to you?”
“Yes, it does, Sanjeev. It pleases me immensely.”
Although the restaurants were close to her work, Muriel felt comfortable that no one they knew would intrude upon their evenings. They were smelly old haunts with dim lighting, water-stained ceilings, and fake plants. Muriel and Sanjeev grew comfortable with each other in these environments to a point where they would occasionally engage the waitress in a brief conversation, always ending with Muriel’s excessive praise for the mediocre food and service.
One Thursday night, after being shown to their regular table, Muriel sensed someone directing her attention toward them in a manner that expressed more than curiosity. At first, she ignored the possibility that anyone here would know her, but when she pivoted herself to the right, Tina was standing at their table with her big, horse-toothed grin.
“Hey, Muriel, I thought that was you. What’re you doin’ here?” Tina looked back and forth between Sanjeev and Muriel, not relaxing her goofy smile.
“Just having dinner with my friend, Doctor Lal. Doctor Lal, this is Tina Piscatelli. She also works at the foundation.”
Muriel was sure to say “doctor” because she didn’t want to make things too comfortable for Tina. After years of being on social peripheries, Muriel was an excellent observer of character. She knew Tina lacked sensitivity and was incapable of any honorable motivation.
“Good evening, Miss Piscatelli,” Sanjeev replied, pleasing Muriel with his politeness and reserve until he extended his hand and said, “Do you mind shaking hands with a Hindu?”
Muriel looked down at the table and forced her mouth into a crooked smile before she looked back at Tina.
“A what?” Tina regarded his extended hand as if it were a leper’s stub.
Sanjeev had done this several times in the company of Muriel, and he was about to begin his explanation of exactly what a Hindu was and why he thought someone might find shaking hands unacceptable when the waitress interrupted to take their drink order.
Tina stepped slightly to the side but wouldn’t take the opportunity to return to her own table.
“May I have hot tea please?” replied Muriel. Then she remembered what Sanjeev always ordered and wished she’d told the waitress to come back later.
“I would like a Coca-Cola with extra hail.”
Tina stared at Sanjeev and then at the waitress.
“Great,” said the waitress, and left.
The waitress was unfazed, since she’d served them several times before and had to admit that the ice from the bar did actually look like hail. They never complained and they were good tippers, so she didn’t mind, though it was a little uncomfortable if he started crying.
Muriel watched Tina, who had the expression of someone who’d just found a twenty-dollar bill on the floor, quickly stashed it in her pocket, and couldn’t wait to get home to pull it out and look it over. Tina began one of her typical monologues.
“I can’t believe you come to this place. I’m with my sister, Tiffany, who wanted to come here because she works at the bank around the corner. It’s so dingy I hate it, and we have a snotty waitress – I don’t know who she thinks she is. The only other time I ever came here, I got food poisoning from the fish special, so whatever you do, don’t order the fish—”
“Well, Tina, thanks for stopping by. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Yeah, I just wanted to say ‘hi.’ It was nice to meet you…Doctor. Where are you from? India, right?”
Muriel’s face tensed up more than usual as she waited for Sanjeev’s reply.
“Young lady, I am from you and from this lady and from this table and this fork. It was very nice to meet you and you are very kind. Goodbye.”
Tina looked confused as she made a clumsy goodbye and walked back to her table. Muriel couldn’t look up. She felt like a child who’d been caught doing something vulgar with one of her friends, and it bothered her that she felt ashamed because of someone as insignificant as Tina. Muriel had little to say during their meal, and though they followed their routine of sharing her side of the booth while eating dessert, she didn’t feel the lightness that this ritual usually provided.
That night, as she lay in bed in the only position that was comfortable for her, Muriel did what she considered an objective assessment of her relationship with Sanjeev. He’d changed over the past four months, since they first began to see each other. It seemed he was saner then. Yes, many of the odd things he said were actually evidence of just how brilliant a thinker he was, but he seemed to be more socially apt in the beginning. Maybe he’d gotten too comfortable in the company of Muriel, who understood his verbal abstractions and his sensitivity without needing explanations. Unlike Sanjeev, she had, from outward appearance, quelled her own profound sensitivity by the age of twelve. She wished he were more normal, but she knew that her attraction to him had something to do with his inability or unwillingness to edit his perceptions for the sake of social propriety.
Muriel was angry with him. She decided that to the outside world, she was strange enough all by herself. The last thing she needed was a man who made her seem like there was also something wrong with her mind. Tina would go into work in the morning telling anyone careless enough to make eye contact with her that she saw poor, desperate Muriel having dinner with a very strange man – probably the only man she’d ever get.
Muriel would tell Sanjeev that she couldn’t meet him anymore. She was used to being alone, and alone was what she should always be. They’d had some pleasant times, and the attention was nice, but he was unstable and it was unwise for her to make an investment in someone like that. What would happen if he slipped away and left her alone again with nothing but damaged credibility? Work was the impetus for her to endure the pain of getting out of bed every morning. It was the one thing in her life that provided self-esteem – that she did better than anyone else.
She’d tell him on Sunday afternoon when they met for lunch.
By the time she arrived at work on Friday, Muriel didn’t care what Tina might have said to anyone. Sanjeev would be a thing of the past, and she’d make sure that people knew there was no special person in her life. Telling him was another issue.
If he cried over the death of a mushroom, how would he react to the end of their friendship? She knew he wouldn’t raise his voice or make any more of a scene than usual, but what would he do when they parted? Sink into a further state of depression that would cause him to be hospitalized for the first time in seven years? Stalk her at work? Kill himself? She felt anxious and wished time would speed up so Sunday afternoon would come and go.
Muriel woke up at four o’clock on Sunday morning still worried about Sanjeev’s reaction. She wouldn’t consider any lingering sentiments regarding him. She was done with the whole business, wished him no harm, but wouldn’t change her mind. Whatever his response might be, it wasn’t her responsibility.
When she arrived at the restaurant, he was, as usual, already sitting in the booth, staring straight ahead. When Muriel sat down, she told him she wasn’t hungry; she could be very direct when a situation called for it. She began a simple, matter-of-fact, but dishonest explanation of why she couldn’t see him anymore. She cited demanding work, challenging health, and unfulfilled obligations as the principal reasons to discontinue their relationship.
Sanjeev sat with a faint smile on his face, looking toward Muriel, but focusing just above her. When she was done, he looked at her and, in the manner of a sagacious high priest, bowed his head slightly and said, “I understand. Your explanations were not necessary. I understand.”
Muriel was uncomfortable with what she considered his ambiguous response, but she didn’t want to explore things any further. After a bit of polite, insignificant chatter and finishing her tea, she left the restaurant alone.
Three months passed, and Muriel often wondered what sort of repercussions Sanjeev suffered because of their break-up. She envisioned him sitting with his wrists bandaged, catatonic on a psychiatric ward. For the first time in almost thirty years, he’d be taking psychotropic drugs, hoping to numb the pain of her presence in his memory. Maybe he was already dead; killed himself or willed himself to die (she believed he had that capacity).
Muriel couldn’t understand why, instead of thinking of him less as time passed, she thought of him more. She wouldn’t consider the idea that she may have made a mistake, but she also couldn’t help indulging an intolerance of Tina that was blossoming into hatred.
With more free time than she was used to, Muriel forced herself to attend different events. She took cabs to flower shows or museum openings, but she rarely spoke to anyone and never stayed long. Four months after she’d seen an announcement that Dr. Pandit Sanjeev Lal was part of a panel lecture at UCLA entitled “Fractals and Changing Weather Patterns” and two months after Tina left the foundation for a job closer to Palmdale, Muriel sat on the small couch in her living room and started thinking about the restaurant with the water-stained ceilings. Though she fought, as she always had, against self-pity, she couldn’t stop herself from crying for a hand that might never be touched again, and for all the mushrooms that had died to serve the whim of human appetite.
About the author
John Murray has a Master of Professional Writing and Doctorate in Education from University of Southern California, where he is now an associate professor. In addition to teaching academic writing, he teaches a class that helps students create short documentaries to raise awareness about community concerns. Murray also co-teaches a creative writing workshop for recently paroled prisoners who were serving life sentences. His work has appeared in Origins Journal.