Red wine goes wonderfully with steak, but Mimi is vegan now. This is her newest thing. Linda drinks the Cabernet in the kitchen, alone, facing the wallpaper she regrets getting now. It is tapestry-like, black and white threaded workers in rice-fields wearing round conical hats. What did she hear someone call it the other day? Coolie hats? She’s sure that’s not the right name. It was probably her husband. He sometimes comes up with racist shit that reminds her that he is, after all, the man who hid a coke habit from her for years, sinking them both into debt.
Mimi doesn’t help. Her newest thing, gluten-free veganism, means that Linda and Greg are both starving all the time. They sneak out to get pizza in the middle of the night sometimes, giggling and pulling on jeans and baggy sweatshirts, like they’re having an affair.
The phone’s ring is a pathetic approximation of Fur Elise. Linda’s shoulders tense. She hates the sound so much. Tinny and obnoxious, calls mean work or bad news, almost inevitably. No one calls the landline anymore anyway, except for some of the older people at the PR company she works at and Mimi’s therapists and psychiatrist.
“It’s Allison!” Greg yells from the other room. Linda looks at the rice-field workers, at the waving bamboo patterns, at whatever nonsense it is on her wall that’s meant to look comfortingly exotic to her Western sensibilities. She picks up the portable out of its cradle and takes another sip of wine before screwing the top back and putting in the fridge. The phone is between her shoulder and her ear, the same spot it’s nestled since she was a teenager. Since she first met Allison.
“Hey, Greg, you can hang up now.”
“Okay. Bye, Alli!”
“Bye! Hi Linda. You sound tired.”
“I am. It’s been a day.”
“Want to talk about it?”
“No. Tell me how Noel is doing.”
Linda regrets this immediately. As Allison begins telling her about her daughter, a senior in college who’s just returned from an academically rigorous year abroad and is doing great, wonderful, fantastic, all Linda can see is the image of Mimi lying on the subway tracks that time she jumped and survived.
When your own kid has tried to commit suicide half a dozen times, Linda thinks, you don’t find 4.0 GPAs all that interesting anymore. She knows that if she told Alli that she’d rather not hear about her kids – Alli has two, and the other, the boy, is doing equally well, with a long-term girlfriend who lives with him and makes more money than him – if Linda told Alli she’d rather not hear about any of these fantastic things, Alli’d understand. That’s what friends are for, right? She’s asked before, and Alli’s accepted, keeping quiet about her kids until Linda asks.
She always does, in the end. She wants to know. She wants to hear about college classes, about PhD programs, about how the daughter is getting published here and joining a singing group there, about how the son has finished his qualifying exams to get into his PhD program and how he’s house sitting for two cats. She needs to know these things. Otherwise she has no images to superimpose Mimi’s face into. And if she doesn’t try to cut-and-paste her daughter’s face into situations other than the thirty-and-home one she’s in, Linda will continue to see her lying in between the subway tracks, or inside her bed in the ward where she’s basically got a bed named after her by this point, or sitting behind the desk of Greg’s office, the only place she’s managed to hold down a job in years. Then again, Greg also employs his no-good, asshole brother, so Linda never knows how much work Mimi actually does there, despite the praise Greg lavishes on her.
Linda listens, her right ear pressed to the phone, her left ear straining for sounds of an emergency. The worst part of her conversations with Alli is the resentment. Allison’s children had their moments, their years of therapy and fucked-upedness, but then they got over it. They got better. Mimi doesn’t get better. Mimi jumps from veganism to Buddhism to exercising everyday to playing the viola and deciding to join the circus as a trapezoid artist. Mimi stays a constant, unchanging. Allison’s kids get to change. Linda hears the change in Alli’s voice, too, and she knows that she, Linda, will have to remain a forever too. It’s almost worth the train having succeeded in its mission that day.