The first time Maxim Morozov died was in his mother’s womb. She hadn’t known that she was pregnant with twins, until just before going into labor, when she cracked an egg into the frying pan and found it had two yolks. There were complications during the delivery; the umbilical cords had gotten tangled together. Max suffocated. His brother wrestled his way out and was named Max. It was December 21st, 1945, the shortest day of the year, and when the babies had finally emerged into the early afternoon, the sky was dark. “I’m not greedy,â€ his mother said later, clutching her son against her chapped breasts.
Max’s second death was his only childhood memory. Prior to this, and for some time after, there was nothing. It rattled around alone like a decorative button in a dark dry place. He was seven years old and had, much to everybody’s relief, just recently begun speaking in full sentences.
He was on the lake, ice fishing with his father. They had been there for several hours but had only caught three little fish, which flopped around and made the metal bucket sound like a bell. Max liked the way the fish felt when he stroked them, like his father’s cheek.
They were in a bad spot, the current was against them, the father spat then corked his bottle. Max followed him across the frozen lake, his arms wrapped around the metal bucket.
There had recently been a thaw, and in places the ice was bluish and thin. The father weaved, fell against Max, knocked the bucket out of his hands. The fish skidded across the ice. Max fell. It sounded like he landed on static electricity. He tried to stand, and the crack was deafening. His father crawled towards him, reached out a hand. But Max’s boots and coat had taken on water, turned leaden.
Moments later, the father saw his son beneath him, through the ice like through a fogged up mirror.
At sixteen, Max received a scholarship to study in Moscow. He was younger than his peers, awkward, with a single pair of pants that were simultaneously too big and too small. Despite all this, he was handsome. He fell in love with Yelena, the eldest daughter of a biology professor. She was excited by this star pupil’s intensity, willing to overlook his crooked haircut, his bouts of broodiness and drinking. Her name and her animated manner had confused everyone into being very attracted to her, though she was not beautiful. When she wore her coat with the fur collar she resembled a gibbon.
One night, Yelena and Max snuck into the Anatomy Room and there, in the intersecting shadows of the animal skeletons, they spent several hours kissing. In a particularly passionate moment, Max’s pants ripped at their seam.
That night as his roommates slept, Max sat on the edge of his bed sewing up his pants in the dim light. He kept thinking of touching Yelena’s long thick hair, of feeling under it her clavicle and bony shoulders. As he knotted the stitch, he pricked himself with the needle. One day, Yelena would be the one doing this mending, he thought as he sucked on his finger and let the taste of coins fill his mouth.
In the morning, he woke up shivering with a high fever and a swollen arm. By the time he went to the hospital several days later, the infection in his blood had caused his organs to shut down. Yelena paced the hallway, lips chapped, strands of hair sticking to her cheeks. She didn’t know when he was wheeled past her because a sheet covered his face.
After Max and Yelena got married, he continued to spend most of his time in the laboratory surrounded by heated tanks of rare oceanic species. He was studying transdifferentiation in the turritopsis nutricula-a jellyfish that fluctuated infinitely between the polyp stage and sexual maturity. The little creatures had been considered biologically immortal since the 19th century, and Max would sit for hours drinking cheap vodka and watching their red crucifix shaped bellies expand and contract as they absorbed their own tentacles and returned to childhood.
When he came home early one morning smelling particularly flammable, he found his pregnant wife in the communal kitchen smashing plates-but only ones that were already chipped. He wooed her, calmed her down, massaged her ankles, swept the floor.
That evening she brought his dinner to the laboratory as usual. As she set the sack of food down on the table and tapped on the jellyfish tank with her nail, she coquettishly quoted a poem asking him to guess who wrote it. But Max’s attention was in the microscope, much like other times it had been in the bottle. He was humming and fiddling with the focus knobs. Her rage from the morning bubbled up again. What had she done to deserve this fate, carrying the child of this boor who loves ocean parasites more than her!
She dumped the contents of the paper sack into one of the tanks full of dour, lumpy looking fish that belonged to the head scientist. The hardboiled egg sunk slowly to the bottom and the fish descended on the sardine sandwich, which came apart and bobbed to the surface. “You’ll kill them,â€ Max gasped, shoving Yelena out of the way. He plunged his hand into the tank, trying to grab the soggy bread away from the fish. As he went for the egg, his wrist grazed against the spine of the stonefish. Max lost consciousness so quickly that he could not even tell Yelena where to find the syringe of antivenom. His rigid body at her feet Yelena began to scream for help. She screamed and screamed until she induced her own labor in the empty laboratory.
For several months, a married man wrote Yelena love letters. She would read them to Max over tea as their daughter sat on the floor drawing. It was a ritual that Max took some pleasure in. However, the man’s wife, a daughter of a mid-level party official, was less understanding. She began following Yelena, walking several paces behind her as she walked from her daughter’s school to her office. Vicious rumors spread. Eventually men with stiffened jowls and long wool coats appeared at their apartment looking for stashes of illicit pamphlets and foreign currency. A banned book of poems published in the United States was found in a heating vent. Max claimed that it was his. Yelena was fired from her job at the publishing house and Max was sent to a labor camp. A week after he was to be shipped off to the camp an official letter from the state arrived listing the official cause of death as â€˜unspecified illness.’
Maxim Morozov died finally when he was thirty-three. He and Yelena lost their apartment in Moscow after they had applied for immigration papers, and were forced to move to the already cramped dacha of her younger sister. For two years, Yelena spent the mornings writing letters to Jewish organizations in the United States, and Max spent them drinking and doing menial jobs for a scattering of sympathetic acquaintances.
One man let him repair the chipping plaster in his apartment because he was in love with Max’s fifteen-year-old daughter, a near-sighted and dreamy girl. Yelena tried to hammer into her daughter the danger of marrying too young, the danger of marrying a drunk. Any romantic entanglement could ruin the small chance the family had of leaving, and so, Yelena was quick to pry out details and expose flaws, in the same way she would later point out crooked seams in imitation designer purses. Their evenings were spent as a family studying English from a borrowed textbook.
The day they arrived at the Newark International Airport, their host took them to a grocery store, where the family spent an hour joyously fondling various citrus fruits. Immediately after, Max asked to be taken to a government office where he changed his name to Maxwell Morrow.
“Morrow, like tomorrow,â€ he explained to the clerk, his English sounding like a beautiful mouthful of sharp elbows.
Yelena, now Helen, felt in that moment again the vague sense of promise that attracted her to him initially and which she had spent the last fifteen years second guessing.
From then on it was Max Morrow who died.
He fell asleep at the wheel of his taxi and crashed into a newspaper kiosk. Lost in thought over a certain impasse in his research, he wandered too far north and caught a stray bullet in his lung on the corner of Amsterdam and 172nd. The laboratory he had set up in a self-storage unit on the outskirts of Queens exploded, taking both Max and the building’s entire facade. He was hit by lightning while cutting through Central Park on his way to an important lunch meeting with a potential investor. He slipped on a patch of ice on the steps of the church where his AA meetings were held and cracked his skull. Then, in more prosperous times, a horse trampled him when he took his daughter riding for her twentieth birthday. He choked on a piece of steak at a five star restaurant. After he expanded his business and took his operations overseas, a laid off lab technician stabbed him in the neck with a broken test tube. After Max’s first heart attack, he ignored his doctor’s orders, took on longer and longer hours and covered all of his food with a visible layer of salt until he was gripped by a massive coronary during a meeting with his shareholders.
For their 50th anniversary, Max and Helen, took their daughter and her family on a vacation to St. Barts. It was high tourist season, and the beaches were not crowded, exactly, but well populated. They were watching a bikini model crouching in the water, waves crashing against her butt as a photographer scuttled around her taking pictures. Max’s granddaughters got in the water a few yards away and imitated her pose, shrieking with laughter.
“They’re too young for that. It’s vulgar,â€ Max said to his daughter in Russian. She translated for her husband and they both laughed.
“It’s all good. They’re just horsing around,â€ the son-in-law said.
Max never understood why his daughter had married this American, who’d spent the last twenty years â€˜discovering himself.’
Around noon, Max would come back from his walk on the beach and they would all go to the hotel restaurant and eat shrimp cocktails. On the fifth day however, the family sits in the baking sun waiting for him. By two the kids are hungry and whining, and Yelena and her daughter leave to go look for him.
The two women walk on the wet sand to avoid burning their feet. They walked the whole length of the public beach, and are now walking on somebody’s private property. Yelena is furious. “Typical Max. Selfish. I hope his bald spot burns so bad it will peel away and do something to his brains to give him sense.â€
The daughter thinks that maybe they went in the wrong direction, that there has been a misunderstanding and her father is sitting under their umbrella, waiting for them, obstinately speaking in Russian to her husband even though he knows perfectly well that her husband doesn’t understand the language.
But then, from atop the sand dune, as they’re about to turn back, their eyes catch on a figure in the distance. It is Max, in his billowing red swimming trunks. He is face down in the water, being carried away into the ocean on the backs of hundreds of turritopsis nutricula.