Max Lee Perdue was not lost nor was he helpless in a kitchen. As a matter of fact, he felt at peace surrounded by cookbooks, knives fresh herbs and produce, and various appliances. Unlike most unattached men and women, Max spent time preparing dinner each night and had even acquired a reputation among friends for certain dishes — Max’s almond-crusted cherry pie, Max’s meatless loaf sandwiches, and everyone’s favorite, Max’s sweet potato gnocchi, doughy balls served with chopped walnuts and brown butter. Sometimes, lying in bed at night, he would think of combinations of tastes. This relaxed him. He would drift into sleep, relaxed but salivating on the pillow.
His parents, red-blooded meat and potatoes people, had done their best to encourage Max to follow in their level-headed footsteps. But in fourth grade, Max Lee had discovered the Italian deli four blocks away from his school in the New Jersey suburbs. There, as often as possible, he bought Italian specialties with money earned raking leaves, mowing lawns and blackmailing his older brother, Sam. The Abruzzis, sensing a kindred spirit in this small but faithful customer, offered him a job as an errand boy:
50 cents an hour plus $1.50 per day food allowance (which could not be accumulated). The 10-year old was thrilled, not so much with the extra cash as with the food allowance. Antipasto he loved. Baby cheesecakes — with a big Italian name — he loved. He loved pastas, their sauces, and subs on Italian rolls. But most of all he loved roast beef and butter with salt on semolina bread — the perfect combination for a hungry boy after soccer practice.
The Abruzzis loved him for his good taste in food, yes; but Max had also been a charming kid. Quick with a grin, a shy but persistent jokester, and generous to a fault — an endearing trait in one so young. In turn, Max adopted this loud, large, emotional, ethnic family as his own, feeling protected by them and feeling a part of them. For six years, he worked for Giancarlo Abruzzi, until he truly was a right-hand “uomo.” They fed him and paid him and taught him about running a deli the way a deli should be run..
And then one night the store burned to the ground. In three hours flat.
Giancarlo and Pietra cried in their hands as everyone from the entire community gathered around to watch this wonderful place and all the food within it burn and crumble. Had so much olive oil caused the flames to rise that high and get that hot?
Max’s parents and brother stood by, saddened but a little embarrassed by the catastrophic event. What would these people do?? they wondered. Max, unable to control himself any longer as a spectator at a show, put his own hands to his face and bawled into them like a baby. He ran to Gianni and mama and hugged them and cried with them; and the whole Abruzzi family plus Max held white-knuckled hands until the end of the ordeal. The Perdues stared in awe at this display of emotion coming from their son. They could only guess at how well they actually knew him. His brother Sam just shook his head.
Max Lee, shocked and confused by the event, and lonely without his surrogate family, went through a string of girls at the young — but vital — age of sixteen. This combination of events had made a man — of sorts — out of him.
Now, as Mimi settled herself in one of two armchairs in the trailer, Max lifted the lid to his version of black bean stew and stirred it a bit, wondering if he would have to struggle to make conversation or if she would oblige. He offered her a beer as a start, which she accept gladly.
“You know,” she began, staring at his bookshelf, “You read quite a wide variety of things.” She sipped her beer and felt the foam on her upper lip. “Or — you want people to think you do.”
Max grabbed at the bait, eager to flirt again after along late but feeling a little rusty. “Oh, I’ve read it all, at some point or another.” He brought over a tablespoon of the black beans and held it in front of Mimi’s mouth until she opened it, like a reflex, and let herself be fed. She warmed not only to the food but to the gesture.”Mmm,” she said “Delicious. Is that orange in there?”
“Could be,” said Max on the verge of a smile. And then he set the table for two.
Dinner was fabulous. Bread to dunk into the stew, watercress salad, several more beers. They talked about music from the forties, and first editions of books they had (she, Valley of the Dolls, he A Wrinkle in Time), and tiling, and working in restaurants. And Mimi, too happy to be impressed, at least had the decency to feel spoiled. “You are a really good cook, Max. Thank you for doing all this.”
Max admitted to her that he spent a lot of time in the kitchen, and she admitted to Max that she did not, at least lately. “I have good intentions,” she said, “But I find it difficult to cook for one. I used to put a lot more effort into it when I was two, or we were two, or there were two of us.” The beer had started to bubble in her brain, and in Max’s, as it must on a first date. How else would courage for the first kiss be summoned?
Of course, they were not sixteen anymore, but since when have the rituals of dating changed? Max was telling her about growing up in New Jersey when she noticed again how perfect his eyebrows were. Perfect arcs without plucking — most women would go to great lengths for this. Mimi was telling him about tipping over a mail box her first time driving when he noticed the slight protrusion of her upper lip. He wanted to touch it. Dale Evans, however, got to her first, jumping quietly to her lap then sinking down as if he had found the softest cushion around. “Undoubtedly,” thought Max, “the softest cushion.”
“Where did you come from, big orange cat?” Mimi queried, pleased by the show of affection. “Dale Evans,” answered Max, pointing at her, “was a stray when I took her in. A puny, dirty stray with a loud meow. I needed some company and started feeding her. Now she weighs in at seventeen pounds, which is not all good news. “Dale,” and he lowered his voice to a whisper, “has an eating disorder — binge/purge — and still throws up about once a month. The fall-out from having been a stray and not knowing where her next meal was coming from. Or so the vet says.” Max reached over to a framed photo and handed it to Mimi. “See,” he said “what a difference a home makes.” It was a picture of Max holding a puny, dirty, and scared kitten.
Mimi stared at it longer than would have been considered appropriate, focusing on Max’s expression of surprise, of vulnerability, and of anger.
“Were you angry when this was taken,” she asked him, not looking up, “Or is that some other expression?”
Surprised by the question, Max answered before having a chance to reflect. “Yup,” he replied, thinking of the day the photo had been taken. “Angry that someone would abandon that little tiny animal; and angry that someone was about to abandon me.” Mimi, as surprised by the response as Max was by the question, bit her tongue. “Do not interview him,” she warned herself, for this was her tendency.
“How about some tea?” she asked him instead. “My stuffy head would thank me for it.”
“What your stuffy head would thank you for,” answered Max, picking Dale Evans off her, “Is a good steam.” He tossed the cat aside and held out his hand for her to take, adding, “Dr. Max and his eucalyptus remedy to the rescue.” Meek enough to play doctor, and yet brazen enough to notice again the broadness of the man’s shoulders and upper back, Mimi let herself be led to the bedroom where Max handed her a thick terry robe. “I’ll get the bathroom ready,” he said, heading off. “Come in when you have the robe on.”
Mimi herself was thinking of the intimate nature of what he was proposing. Would they remove clothing together; is that what this was all about? Would he take advantage of a sick person? She didn’t think so, but didn’t know. Obediently, she disrobed and re-robed, and moved quietly as if not to disturb anyone, to the bathroom. She knocked. “Come on in,” she heard from what seemed a great and foggy distance.
The miniscule bathroom was completely full of hot steam which grew in volume for the shower, turned on full force. Max sat on the closed toilet spraying eucalyptus in to the air with an atomizer, and pointed a stool out to her. “Great isn’t it?” he said, plenty loud. “Just like the club.”
As she opened the door, he shot up and threw his heap of folded clothes into the bedroom, slamming the door quickly again in order not to lose steam. He wore a towel, revealing smooth broad shoulders she recognized, and arms she thought any woman might be comfortable in. here they were, once again in a room full of steam. Not a bad metaphor for what was going on, thought Mimi,. And if I doused him with a little cold, would what happened at the club happen again? She smiled and glared up to find him staring at her leg, bare to the hip. He looked away, she looked down, and they sat is silence for a good five minutes.
“Max,” she finally blurted out, feeling an auspicious combination of steamroll freedom and attractive male company. “Would you mind if I just used a towel, like you. This robe is sumptuous but it’s very very bulky.” Now waiting for an answer, she turned away from him, let the robe fall to the floor and grabbed a regular bath towel from the rack, already warm and soggy with steam. Instinctively led into high drama by the creative juices also known as hormones, Mimi played the part now for nothing other than its inevitable conclusion.
“No,” answered Max to her questions as he lowered his eyes to the delicious curves of a firm derrière. “I wouldn’t mind.” Taking a deep breath, he added, “at all.” As she turned around, however, Mimi’s mane of hair snagged itself on the buttons of a shirt hanging from a hook on the door that Max had forgotten to remove from the bathroom. “Ooowwww,” she wailed, not unlike a damsel in distress; and Max, not unlike a knight in shining skin, leaped up to help.
With dew-dappled bodies thrown this close together by fate, can love be far behind? Max, enjoying the sensation of his hand in a head of beautiful and wild hair, took his time unwinding it from the button. When he had succeeded, he pulled it away from her face and held onto it in a bunch at her back. A gentle tug, and her head fell back. Encouraged by her — she was willing wasn’t she? — he bent over her and kissed her neck then her chest above the line of the towel. Gently, he undid the towel wrapped around her, freeing her generous body parts. It was instant arousal for Max who simply dove in.
Mimi, who sometimes had subtitles for moments in her days, heard the words “primitive acts.” At some point, the man of the house turned the shower off and led Mimi to the bed before fumbling with a condom wrapper.
Having done nothing but a little miscellaneous self-caressing all these months, Max Lee Perdue let himself go. Romping luxuriously over the fields of Mimi, he stroked and squeezed and sucked. Gently he kissed, adamantly he held. And then he rolled himself under her and entered her like a thief; and Mimi, surprised by the actual feeling (it had been some time for her too), was like a cowgirl out of the gate. She might have been swinging a rope over he head, in fact, and yee-hawing, and it wouldn’t have surprised anyone.
“It feels good,” she thought, in the language of monosyllables But “mmm” was what she said on top of this delicious mound of man. A slew of private moments later and coasting in to shore, Max and Mimi sighed with satisfaction, already aching for another turn. Who would put in the next quarter? And the next? It was not to be a night of sleep.
At six o’clock in the morning, Max’s alarm went off and the two of them jolted, having just recently slipped into something warm and comfortable and nap-like. “Oh no,” groaned Max as he slapped at the alarm button. Dale Evans jumped up on him and meowed long and loud as she did whenever the alarm went off. Mimi, lost in a tangle of hair, groped toward Max who whispered to her, “I have to get up, but you can stay in bed. At least until I make a fire.” This sounded reasonable to her. She was exhausted; and, unsurprisingly, her head cold had returned. Had it ever gone away? She didn’t remember any head cold last night.
There she was, in Max’s bed, waiting for this relative stranger to make a fire. In the cave. Into which he’d dragged her by the hair last night. After she’d seduced him, of course. “My, my,'” thought Mimi retrospectively and along the same lines as she had the night before even in the darkness of dawn. “It all leads so primitively to primitive acts.” She didn’t even know this man, though naturally she felt she knew him intimately. Intimately and not at all. They had made small talk, they had eaten, and drunk with — examining it now — one thing in mind. It felt natural enough to Mimi, who wondered now whether she had the right to scream to Max to bring her a handkerchief for her dripping nose. “Maaaax?” she yelled, deciding that for real tests of character, it might be now or never.
“Yeah?” It was impossible to scan the tone for clues.
“Do you have any tissues? My nose is very very plugged.” She even sounded authentically sick.
“You sound awful, Mimi!” he called back. “But you’ll have to get up and keep me company for a few minutes if you want me to tell you where they are.” She thought about this. He didn’t want her in his bed while he was gone: too much too soon It wounded her, but she would have felt the same way. “I was just getting up,” she answered him as she approached the wood stove, draped in that fateful robe of his.
Two tentative smiles collided in the trailer’s living room. Two people who committed intimate and unspeakable acts, now face to face in the daylight. Two opposite sexes on the verge of waging battles meant to be waged. Two basically good people for whom sex appeared to be no problem — now scared of actual friendship. It was 6:14 a.m., still dark out, and Max handed Mimi a cloth hankie. “Here you go, Mimi,” he said. “I’m making some tea. Would you like some?”
Nodding , she blew her nose. Then she asked him, “Why are you always so polite, Max?” adding to herself silently, “When we’ve just had sex off and on for six hours and you roamed every pore on my body?” Her voice held the tiniest twinge of annoyance.
“I was raised that way,” he answered, slightly apologetic. It was the truth. Max had politeness coursing through his veins instead of blood. Now it came in handy, now that Max, thoroughly mad about Mimi, was facing this fact in the daylight, where he didn’t know quite what to do with it. Politeness, thought completely in character, was a cover.
“I wouldn’t call you polite in bed,” she said to him with defiance. “That’s not a word that comes to mind.” Exhaustion had made her bold. “Eager, passionate — and inspired. Those are some of the words I might use. Not polite, though.”
Mimi wanted him to be intimate with her in the light of day, speak to her in delicious confidence. She wanted what all women want — to get into his head and to make him want to get into hers. Because seduction of the body was easy, but the seduction of the mind was something altogether more difficult. Mimi had faced this challenge in each relationship, just like Sisyphus had faced the rock he was doomed to roll up the hill for eternity. Where women wanted vertical depth, the mind, thing, men wanted horizontal victory, the notches on a bedpost thing
How did they ever get together? In drinking wine and spending lots of days together, did time and sex create their own unique but imperfect bond?
“Of course not,” answered Max to not being polite in bed. He came to her now and stroked her hair while staring out the window in to the early light. “No one is polite in bed, unless they’re not interested. I was much too interested to be polite.”
“Maybe,” said Mimi looking up at him, if you were more interested in life, you’d be less polite altogether.”
“It’s possible,” answered Max.
Interest in life was a personal theme of Mimi O’Rourke’s, though, as of yet, she hadn’t written in out in cliché. She had worked at not boring herself — not simply with cowboy costumes and chronicling her life in wise-ass letters, but by trying to question assumptions which hindered her from the truth about life Even in the face of due diligence, however, variations on this theme turned up over and over, uninvited, like single socks infuriatingly turning up in the underwear drawer.
A former boyfriend — Gawain Jones by name — had called his version of her theme “being engaged in life;” but at the time it had sounded too beat poet, too living on the edge. Especially after he’d dumped her — in an engagingly seedy Upper West Side bar — by telling her she could do better than him. In other words, he could do better. Perhaps it was because she was not “engaging” enough for him no matter how “engaged” she might have been in life. From the pseudo-intellectual he’d been when Mimi had slept with him ten years back, he’d become a filmmaker. Had he found permanent engagement in being a voyeur? She doubted it.
Mimi, on the other hand, had dis-engaged in the aftermath of him and a handful of others much like him. On sabbatical from interest in life. But in the long run, she had to agree with Gawain on a certain level: you had to plug yourself into life in the way that held the most meaning for you. You had to marvel at it, think about it, and harmonize with it. From Mimi’s point of view. however, it was more an act half of will and half of giving in. Maybe more giving in, in fact.
“Me,” she continued, in what was sounding very much like one of her lectures, “I’m interested in life, but half the time I’m too distracted by it to thoroughly engage.” Gawain’s word colored the whole sentence pseudo-intellectual; nevertheless, she continued on. “I mean, I think people should focus on what makes them happy, then they should do it. Not that I’ve ever gotten the hang of it.” She thought, all of a sudden, of her new status as writer and realized that she had not brought this up. Nor had Max said a thing about his inheritance. Yet here she was lecturing him on her philosophical stance. Her mouth clamped shut.
“And what makes you happy?” Max was making toast, spreading butter with precision to the edges of each piece of bread.
“I don’t know,” she answered sheepishly, “that’s the problem. But,” she yawned, “I haven’t given up trying to figure it out.” She bit into a piece of toast. “We shouldn’t be so serious at 6:30 in the morning,” she said, swallowing hard. “It’s not good for one’s digestive system or one’s relationships.” Oh-oh. The R word.
The relationship meter now read “psycho-babble,” where just an hour before it had read “sleeping together.” From sex to philosophy — and all the middle areas of “getting to know you” had been by-passed altogether. She wondered if they were doomed.
Completing her toast in silence, Mimi suddenly wished she were at home in her heat-less old house. Nero — who had a doggie door — was probably frantic nevertheless. She was tired, stuffed-up, and confused. Squeezing by Max, she let her fingers run through his hair and told him she had to be going, for the sake of her dog. He held onto to her hand and pulled her backwards a little.
“Mimi,” he said. “I feel like we may have gone a little too fast for ourselves.” He paused for what seemed like a very long time. “I need to get to know you better, just so the sex part doesn’t feel so separate or so advanced or something. Do you know what I mean?”
Of course she did. He meant what she had been trying to say without success, had been trying to rectify in her typically convoluted manner. Awestruck by the man’s insight, she stared at him. “Yes,” she muttered, “That’s what it is.”
Pulling her down onto his lap, he kissed her cheek, nothing more than a friendly gesture. “So you want to go to the movies this week?”
Movies were the only remaining form of entertainment in off-season Telluride, other than eating and drinking which often went hand-in-hand and produced results similar or identical to those incurred in the Perdue trailer. Sex before thought; and thought only after sex.
“Yes, I do,” she said and smiled a smile that released her forehead from furrow bondage.
What she wanted was to start all over again. To start over with the foreknowledge that sex would be out of this world. To start over with a courtship in mind, some sweet conversations, some knowledge of each other endearing quirks and idiosyncrasies, some steps more delicately taken toward friendship. She wanted to start over, yes, but not with someone else, with Max. Had this been done before, after sex and everything?
What he wanted was not much different; but unlike Mimi he felt a curious imbalance and responded without too much analyzing. What came out of his mouth did not necessarily have to go through a miniature golf coursed brain as it did in Mimi’s case. Instead, somewhere between his gut and his solar plexus, he felt he could love this woman and to some degree that he already did, but that they should back up some. He did not recall feeling this way before. Feeling that sex had been too soon.
On her way out the door, Mimi asked Max if he had ever started a relationship over before, from the beginning. “No,” he’d answered, “but I’m looking forward to it.”
“Me too,” she said behind a goofy grin which remained intact all the way home — partly because her face had frozen by block four of the seven blocks separating Max’s from her house.
As she thawed, however, in the comfort of a newly made fire, the grin still did not vanish. It had stabilized, and Mimi was thrilled. “I like him,” she said to Nero whose tail had not stopped wagging in fifteen minutes. “How many men would have done what he did?” She had a point. Most men would have considered him nuts.