Chapter 6 – A cliché by any other name

 

When Max called Mimi on Sunday, she’d sounded somewhere between asleep and stuffed up. Fearing he’d intruded on her and possibly on someone with her, he apologized too much and avoided the subject of dinner, which he was supposed to cook that night.

“Are you okay?” he’d asked, and there had been a moment or two of silence. “Yeah,” she’d answered, “But I’m just barely okay.”

She had, in fact, awakened with a  bad cold and an an echo chamber for a head. “I seem to have come down with a bad cold, Max,”  she told him. “Maybe you can fix something spicy for dinner. That is, if you you’re not too paranoid about people with colds being in your house.” She herself would have been, had the situation been reversed.
Max, however, was simply relieved that he had not intruded, intrusion being for him as bad as being caught with his pants down. “No, of course not,” he said with composure, certain that he could not get a cold from such an attractive person. What time do you want to eat? Seven?”  They agreed on seven and each spent the day looking forward to dinner with the brave apprehension of people newly interested in each other.

Mimi, hurting from the inside out, draped a down quilt over herself, turned on all the heaters, and drank ginger root tea — a remedy she believed in — while contemplating recent events. Feeling too heavy to move, she could neither turn on the music nor the TV; and in moments like these, people used to the constant stimulation of sound, and images, and simplistic plots  relish the silence they cannot otherwise bring themselves to enforce. Sure enough, filtered sunlight fell on the carpet in lovely patterns, and free-form blotches from leafy plants on various perches. Nero, a curled-up shiny heap, lay placidly in his favorite chair. The plink-plink-plink of a leaky faucet accompanied the silence gently in this otherwise quiet home.

Caught in a  web spun entirely of the present moment, Mimi stared out the window. In an instant framed by watery light and a leaky faucet and dotted by the colors and shapes she glimpsed outside — the red bumper of an old truck, the branch of a cottonwood tree, bare and brown — she felt too full to speak or even open her mouth. With sadness and stillness and joy, she sensed the unity of life in a vision lasting all of five seconds. Maybe less. Receiving this gift gratefully, Mimi likened it to a kiss brushed across an  unsuspecting cheek, which in turn blushes and then returns to its norma color. A sigh heavy with satisfaction and pain both escaped her lips.

She wondered if you had to be tired to have these moments occur, why she couldn’t feel as calm and in touch on a regular basis. Having done yoga on and off for ten years now, she nevertheless couldn’t keep a routine down and therefore never made any progress toward suppleness or enlightenment. She had known that meditation would help her focus better than anything else but refused to be diligent. She felt she deliberately thwarted peace and enlightenment in every way possible.

And knowing that TV was everyone’s worst vice, she still turned it on with much the same frequency and guilt as other addicts reaching for that first Coke or doughnut or cigarette of the day. Once on, the barely audible high-pitched sound and the bluish color confirmed her suspicions that the whole package of television was unsafe and unsound, that it somehow toyed with energy fields around it, including that of any human stationed in front to it.

Therefore, Mimi O. O’Rourke, guilt-ridden, managed to read more than most people in an effort to override TV demerits accumulating against her. She had lost much of her desire to pour over the “great literature” which had consumed her college years and instead read popular novels — not trash, mind you — and magazines. And anything she could find that had to do with faith-healing, the brain, the mind-body connection, her most current pet subject.

A couple of years back, Mimi had done the new age thing – read dozens upon dozens of books, had gotten readings, gotten Rolfed, gotten regressed. And then, one day, she’d given all those books back to the local bookstore. Fifty-two books. Not that any of it was wrong; but while eating vegetable dumplings and spicy tofu, she’d had a vision, so to speak. Biting into that steamy dumpling, she’d realized that simplest truths were the greatest and the most difficult. Love,. Kindness. Self-knowledge. The orientation towards products, just its sheer volume, was confusing her. Crystals, cards, biofeedback devices, nutritional supplements, tapes, seminars, jewelry. Mimi , unable to sense the one for  her, was compelled to do each a little bit. The new age, a candy shop to someone like her, wasn’t helping her clarify life, simplify it or find its truth. Would a double-terminated crystal balance Mimi’s chaotic mind?  Would zinc and Spirulina help her reach the higher levels of consciousness and love? Would balancing her body balance her mind, or did that only work in reverse?

So, she’d given the books away and started doing a little more yoga and a little more meditating, vowing to be tempted by quick and easy answers to the great questions of all time.

Mimi, an impatient but smart woman, now believed in belief systems, the mind-body and mind-reality connection. If you believed zinc would help you  — at a level more profound than the conscious mind’s — then it probably would. Medical professionals could only see this in terms of the proven placebo effect; but many, including Mimi, knew it reached far beyond this. Belief is where it all began. Mimi’s problem was that with this knowledge came the choice of what to believe in; and beliefs themselves were much more difficult to arrive at than the mere choice to have them. It helped to have cultural bonds, or conviction, or pure desire, or even hardship. At least for someone as confused as Mimi.

She regularly came to the conclusion that a light heart and a clear head, love, and laughter should be the basis of a good life; but regularly she slipped back into the haze of being critical and impatient and confused. In trying times, the truth would shine through like a lighthouse beacon for a  boat on stormy seas. She would have convictions and count her blessings. And then back on relatively calm waters  she would reconvene with the distracted self. This was the nature of her life, and, possibly the nature of the lives of many others her age. Maybe many others period.

Here on the couch on this Sunday, she felt herself slide back into the real world from that brief and startlingly clear view of all of life that had peered in through the window or that she had perceived looking out of it. She grabbed a stack of catalogs and indulged her head cold with comforts she could rely on. Nearly everyone in the middle of nowhere loved window shopping by catalog. Her favorite was a catalog called Distinctive Gifts, which, today  was honing her in on a gag gift for Anna Kidd whose birthday would be coming up in December. Resembling a Walkman, this inexpensive device was a sound magnifier. In the guise of listening to music, one could actually listen in on conversations. She would have to love it.

Mimi turned down the corner of page 27 and picked up more catalogs. Organic foods. Fresh flowers. Cotton clothing. Lingerie. She thought of Max. And in breaking the spell of the catalogs, all of her other thoughts flooded back. Last night’s fiasco at Farfalle. Anna and Rory. The professor.

She got up to use the bathroom for the tenth time — the downfalls of tea drinking on an empty stomach — and on her way back picked up the professor’s letter and re-read it. He had never before mentioned anything about expecting letters from her. This struck her as odd, but being as she had already written him and the letter was en route, she displaced the thought. Tomorrow, she would stop by the real estate offices and pick up their listings for him. She didn’t particularly want him here that was the thing; and she had to mentally shifted gears, conjuring ways to discourage him. Maybe the prices would be enough to ward him off. Why would he want to come to a place that was crawling with the high and mighty? Maybe he just didn’t know. She made a note to tell him, and put the letter back down.

On the subject of Rory and Anna, she was irked. Anna, the ever calculating and orderly, had been positively girlish. They had met later on at The Buckeroo and talked about Dove Creek, as a matter of fact. Rory had put things on hold with the condo thing going on; and Eddie Market had told her on the sly that he would help her acquire it if Rory didn’t act soon. This she could not understand: why a shrewd realtor like Eddie would disregard a god-send of a client like Vermillion. She had continued to puzzle over it until she felt Eddi’s hand squeeze her knee, and being ticklish there she had jumped, letting out an “Oh” that lifted the eyes of most of the people around her. Eddi, the cad, had smiled with the greedy look of men about to be fed. She on the other hand, had excused herself, and gone to the bathroom to be alone.

Remembering all this all too clearly, she picked up the phone, against her better judgment, and dialed Anna’s number. After the ninth ring, knowing that Anna would have answered by the second or third, she replaced the receiver. “Oh god,” she said ou loud. “The dirty deed has been done.” If she had been Catholic, she would have crossed herself. Being lapsed and a heathen, however, she went to the refrigerator and removed the makings of what would become a large cheese sandwich. Later, she would feel bad about all the dairy, especially with a cold, but now she felt only the primal need for fat. Nero trotted in on cue and sat down abruptly next to her, intent upon a scrap of cheese and ready to put on his most earnest and soulful look to get it. “Here,” said Mimi to her dog as he caught an impossible toss. “You might as well have some animal fat, too.”

Mimi was a vegetarian, and usually felt guilty about some aspect of this, just as she felt guilty about most other things. Cheese comforted her but she felt she should ultimately give it up as well; soy cheese really wasn’t that bad, even if it did melt like plastic. And she adored soy milk. Her reasons for vegetarianism were simple and had to do with animal rights. All during her twenties she had intermittently given up flesh for various reasons – disgust, poverty, health — but had never before felt the choice to be such an irrefutably moral one. Now the choice was made for life.

She was not, however, the kind of vegetarian who spent all day cooking whole grains and vegetable stews; in fact, a lot of the vegetarian choices did not taste that good to Mimi. She did eat plenty of vegetables, especially in salads, and dined regularly on beans, potatoes, pastas, breads and stir-fry. She felt if whole cultures could survive on corn, squash and beans, like the ancient Anasazi did, she did not need to eat tempeh four times a day, or add soy flour to every loaf she baked. Happy with her choices for food, she rarely even craved butter or cheese except when sick or unhappy.

However, this particular cheese sandwich tasted good, and she topped it off with a few corn chips and salsa. Nero, sensing that he would receive no more, had retired to the living room and had it to himself now. The house Mimi lived in, last of a dying breed in a town rapidly gentrifying, was big. Palatial, for one person, in fact. Rent, ridiculously low, was paid gratefully and lovingly each month. Two bedrooms, a large bath, living room, big kitchen, workroom, and plenty of storage space. The house had been hers three years, and it bore her signature markings:comfortable furniture — almost at the expense of beauty, books lining every shelf on every wall of every room, and framed black and white photos on the remaining wall space. plants hanging and perched everywhere, with a table in the kitchen devoted exclusively to african violets. Each room was painted a different color, from an antique-y yellow-orange in the living room, to royal blue in the kitchen to forest green in the bathroom. The colors somehow soothed her.

Sleepy from lunch, Mimi moseyed back to a beckoning couch where her eyelids drooped, then dropped completely. she breathed through her mouth and snored lightly, quickly falling into the half-dream-state of daytime sleep. Within ten minutes, the phone was ringing, and Mimi, rudely awakened, bolted up. The phone, without fail, interrupted her naps. She snatched the phone and answered urgently, as if answering an alarm clock ringing in her ear.

“Hello???” Unsure of where she was, Mimi simply acted on instinct and waited for the trembling of her body to stop, gripping the receiver with two hands. Instead of hearing Anna’s voice, which was the only one she ould fathom — had she been dreaming of Anna? — she heard the hiss of long distance.

“Mimi?” She heard an unfamiliar male voice and tried harder to wake up, a nearly impossible task since these things cannot be rushed. “It’s Michael Hanratty. I hope I haven’t interrupted anything. You sound as if I’d just awakened you.” He paused, and Mimi again groped for consciousness. “Michael Hanratty?” she repeated. “What a surprise. Can you hold on for just a second?” Confused but coming back to her senses, she continued, “I need to blow my nose.” She let the receiver plunk down and raced for the sink where she doused her face with cold water and reached for a paper towel with which to blow her nose. “The professor,” she mumbled to herself, pulling on her bangs. She picked up the receiver again and held it tightly to her ear.

“I have a cold and I actually was napping. But if you hadn’t called, someone else would have.” She affected breeziness.”The phone always, always rings on those rare occasions when I nap. Anyway, um, What’s up?” She hadn’t spoken to him in, how long? Three years, at least. He sounded just exactly the same, though, and if she’d been awake she would have recognized the voice instantly.

“Well,” he began, “I take it you received my last note. Or have you?” His voice was neither deep nor high-pitched, but extremely conversational and even. The kind of voice that could tell a story well, without over dramatizing. “Yes,” answered Mimi, aware now  of the sound of her own, rather high-pitched voice, “and I was  I was going to pick up some listings from the realtors in town tomorrow and send them off. Prices are kind of high here. I was wondering if you really realized how much the town’s changing. Movie stars and stuff. Big bucks.” Mimi’s role, next to the professor, was to represent popular idioms and culture. She saw all the new movies, watched TV, and read new novels, and had dutifully reported on them to this man who felt more at home without a TV, without movies, and without any books written after the turn of the century. He even spoke without the laziness of the common woman or man, without the limits of a vocabulary wanting in adjectives and verbs. He never said “like” or “um.”

“How bad it is?” was his question now, said with a certain amount of aversion towards a distasteful subject. As if he were checking on an accident victim or something.

“That depends,” answered Mimi, surprised that he would express any tolerance toward conspicuous consumption, “on who and what you find tolerable.” she paused. “The tabloids have taken to calling local businesses for inside information. Million-dollar homes are becoming common. Celebrities are building next to other celebrities. Realtors are living like no one has lived before. But then, that happened on the Vineyard, too.”

“And that’s why we sold our property on the Vineyard. I had no idea it was coming to that in Telluride.”

What article had omitted to mention that land values had tripled in five years and that the rich and famous were barging in? “Well you can see for yourself what’s available when I send you the stuff.” Mimi was amused at the notion of having the professor in her town. Amused and slightly annoyed. It did give her an edge of some sort: this amused her. The annoyance came from the idea of mixing past and present together in an unruly psychological mix.

“I called for another reason, though, Mimi,” he was saying now. Her nose had begun to drip again, profusely, and she excused herself again, relieved at the change of subject.

“So what is the reason you called, then? asked Mimi, more plugged up than ever and sounding like a commercial for cold medicine. “Not that it’s not fine just to talk to you after so long,” she added. Michael Hanratty chuckled and admitted it had been a long time.

“You’ve been writing me letters for quite some time,” he began. “About ten years.” He’d cleared his throat, and Mimi was sensing something weird. “Yup,” she answered. “Alotta letters.” Had someone stolen them, or had he lost them, or worse yet, and some student read them all?

“And a while ago, you started with this cliché business. How our life and lessons could all be summed up in terms of the truth of cliché. All those clichés and how they applied to you. That’s been going on for nearly five years.”

Mimi, biting her lower lip as slimy liquid continued to drip from her nose, had no idea what this was about. “Clichés, yeah,” she answered, sounding like a snotty-snowed hood. “I’ve always like them. They’ve never gotten their due except in old popular songs, country western songs and romance novels. Personally, I’ve felt the need to elevate them, bring them up to a more interesting level, one of truth and irony both.”

She had acquired the intellectual tone and caught herself. “Excuse the lecture,” she said, and shifted back into the popular idiotic. “What, are you all of a sudden interested in the lowbrow?” Mimi, unable to reach the paper towels, pulled off a cotton sock and blew her nose into it. “If the professor only knew,” she thought, and had to catch herself from laughing aloud.

He replied slowly. “It’s not just me, Mimi. You see, a friend and I were talking about ex-students and I happened to mention we’d had a long correspondence and the theme of your letters. This friend, a former professor, had become an editor at one of the LA publishing houses. He wanted to read a few, intrigued by the cliché idea; and not thinking you would min, I let him. To make a long story short, he wants to publish your letters from the last five areas. He likes them.”

Mimi felt a rush of some exquisite chemical in her body and her nose cleared instantly, as if by magic. The only other time the time this happened was during the hay fever season and a moment of intense sexual fulfillment. “Of course, you have a perfect right to say no,” he went on. “I realize it could be offensive to you that I showed anyone at all those letters, and for that I apologize. Quite honestly, I got a little excited myself.”

“Publish my letters? Mimi echoed, suddenly feeling as though the world held nothing but opportunity for her. “Oh my god. Shit. Let me think about this. Let me think.” But she couldn’t think of anything except herself on David Letterman being funny and being famous. What would she wear? Would Letterman like her? Could she give advice to others writing letters for fun and profit?

“He said something about some quite popular illustrator doing the cover as well as a few drawings for the inside. He wanted to call you himself, but I felt that wouldn’t be appropriate.” Michael Norris Hanratty was at this time trying to get a sense of Mimi’s silence. “Do you have any thoughts or gut reactions to this? I know it must come as a shock.”

“Shock?” Mimi echoed. “Yes. Pure, unadulterated shock. The real shock being that the book is already written and all I have to do is give my permission to some publishing house. Very very shocked. I never  thought of myself as a writer, and now all of a sudden I’m being told I’m a writer. I mean I know that writing is something I can do if the subject is just right and if my heart’s in it. but I never even thought about my letters that way. This friend of yours, does he know what he’s doing? I mean does he know a good thing or not? Does he talk big and do white drugs — or can he be trusted?” She was talking fast now, losing her breath, on the verge of collapse.

“Syd’s been in publishing nearly ten years. He’s told me about his projects, but frankly I never paid much attention. You know I don’t keep up on this kind of thing. I think it could be very interesting for you; and I think you should talk to Syd. Syd Renoir. Odd name, and an interesting fellow. used to teach American lit, the modern stuff. Plays Mahjong. Half Jamaican.”

Mimi was racking her brain trying to remember a Syd Renoir. “Did I ever know him”? she asked, beginning to doubt her own memory. But the professor answered, no, he’d been a colleague at UCLA. This was a good sign, for some reason. Maybe he was worldly, and sharp. “Well, am I supposed to call him up or what? The whole notion of suddenly becoming a published author was making Mimi feel that her shirt had just ripped open to reveal another set of tight-fitting clothes, including a  the letter “S” emblazoned  on her front. Her ego jumped two sizes. Unsure of how to behave with a bigger ego, however, she continued on in her old way, sensing an ill-fit somewhere.

“No,” answered the professor to her question. I told him I’d call you and if the answer was “yes,” he could call you himself. Will you be at home tomorrow?”

Mimi answered yes, she would in fact be reading magazines and doing her nails by the phone all day. And at a loss for words, she began to thank him for her lucky break. He interrupted her. “I won’t say it was destiny, but I would call it fortuitous. This may even free you from looking for investors for your café.” She’d forgotten all about her plea for money. She wondered how much writers got paid.

“I’m totally thrown off-balance by this,” she admitted to him now shaking from the coming down part of those bodily chemicals, “But I like the feeling. Maybe I will make enough  for the café; because, you know, it has my name all over it.” The café might be hers, and she could be its famous owner. “It kind of makes you famous, too, though doesn’t it?” she asked him, not knowing his reaction to fame at the hands of a non-intellectual former student with a conversational writing style He didn’t answer right away, and she guessed his reasons. “Oh, so you get to remain anonymous?” It was an accusation to which she added, “How fitting.”

He laughed at this, half-triumphant, and with this release of tension, they dropped the subject at hand and exchanged brief and superficial news of their lives.

The actual relationship had changed, but somehow this had not deterred her from writing to him i the same way for all that time, with the same tone. As if her were an unchanging and impartial observer being amused by stories of her and her life. As if the relationship — or lack thereof — was the one constant in a sea of variables. Now she thanked providence, life, the universe, that he was alive and that she had not altered her letters to suit the reality of their friends. Which, at this point in time, had  nothing going for it except time itself. Did she even know the man anymore, she wondered.

Maybe not. But at this moment, she loved him deeply, profoundly, unabashedly, nevertheless.

At the end o  a fifteen minute conversation, she promised to send the real estate package, and he promised to write more letters. “Geez,” she said aloud practically talking to herself, “I’m not sure I can write to you anymore, though, in the same way. I mean, I’ll be so self-conscious; how would I do it?” Horrified at such a thought, and concerned that she might have trouble documenting her life in her own way as she’d one for so many years — something she found necessary in making her own life interesting to herself– she became silent and felt her face tense. Her almond-shaped eyes squinted in search of an answer.

“No,” she finally pronounced, “I’ll have to keep on writing just as though this never happened. you’d think I wouldn’t have any problems after ten years.”

Bidding each other good-bye, Mimi hung up the phone and felt her body humming with a new vibration. The letter-writing vibration. The free money vibration. The vibration of being on top of the world, of confidence, of spending money, of living it up, of not having to live it up. Yes, of having a cup of semi-caffeinated coffee with cream — even with a cold. What cold??? The very same vibration of good fortune got bigger and bigger, and before you knew it, she was bouncing on the couch, boing, boing, boing, hands free at her side, face lit up with this new self she had become, smile rubbery from the up and down g-force changing her face with each bounce. A book. Money. La Sal. Junction. Beans. Boing.

“Please, oh great impartial power above, let this be a true dram. Let this unfold as if it were all written out by someone before I was born. Let me flow with the river.” Even prayer was her friend now.

After she had bounced a while, having urged Nero to join her, which he did without needing any motive for enthusiasm at all, she bounced back to a sitting position and felt the blood rush to her face. The head cold, temporarily forgotten, came back, throbbing, in a head that felt three times its size. “Maybe my head has actually grown to three times its size,” she said, feeling once again a surge of ego.

Powerful force. She wondered — nervously — if she could handle it.

By six o’clock, Mimi was soaking in a tub as she let thoughts of success wash over her like the sweetest balm she had ever know. “Nothing has changed, girl,” she lectured herself with her hands on her hips in the water. “How can one little incident make you feel so damn good?” She felt that if she were truly advanced, there would be no great highs and lows, there would simply be a good life, unaltered by the tides of emotion. But it was a high tide in the tub for Mimi, and she knew it. “I’m no Buddhist monk; I’m a writer!” She let her wind-up dolphin go and it circled her breast three and a half times before petering out.

“And it takes all kinds to make the world go ’round.” This she truly believed, even more so as time passed. “Which will be my next cliché, Nero.” Hearing his name, the black beast approached the water with, yes, enthusiasm, and licked Mimi’s bare shoulder. Unaccountably, Mimi sneezed in response to this particular sensation and her eyes teared. She slumped, giving in to the sneeze. The warm water, lightly Epsom salted, combined with the sneeze, had finally relaxed this small person whose adrenaline supply for the month had been released in one afternoon She removed herself from the bath at twenty to seven and began to dress for dinner.

Agonizing over what to wear, she settled eventually, as she frequently did, on basic black. Faded jeans and a loose black cotton sweater. Black underwear (why not?). Silver earrings and Chanel No. 5  Expensive perfume, what some would consider an appendage to diamonds and pearls, was a weakness for Mimi. Various scents recaptured certain times of her life, and through her nose, she re-lived them. It had all started with a giant bottle of Diorissimo, given to her as a gift at age sixteen. That bottle had lasted years and now  represented those same years in her mind. From the backs of cars to driver’s ed class.

Chanel, on the other hand, was summers in New York when all she could smell was steamy garbage and her own Chanel. Other smells did the same thing in more mysterious ways. Comforted by the smell of Ivory soap, she’d figured out her grandmother must have used it because it brought her dimly to mind every time she squeezed a puff of soapy air from the bottle toward her nostrils. The smell of libraries activated her gut like coffee did other people’s. Smelling crayons made her want to cry. Whole books were written on such subjects, and she felt she had a good understanding of why.

By 7:04 p.m., Max’s dinner guest was knocking on the door. He reached down to check his fly, and finding it zipped, opened up the door. Nearly frozen, bone-dry air from outside collided with the warm and savory air from within at Max’s threshold. Where these two air masses met, so did Mimi and Max. He welcomed her, hs face shocked by the cold; and she inhaled deeply and smiled.

“M-m-m-m-m,” was all she said as she stepped inside the cozy trailer. It had been a while since a man had cooked her dinner.