The trouble with having a rich inner life is that it does not show, nor does it change real circumstances or responsibilities. Even secret love must be a bit of a bore, to all but lovers.
Mimi thought this amid the stifled whine of the airplane, as she turned her wedding ring back and forth in the square of upper sun coming through the window onto her lap. A silly conceit, to think of being closer to the sun than most of humanity could ever be for most of human history before. The big marquise diamond flashed beautifully. She had worn it on that finger for ten thousand days, twenty-eight years.
How she loved him. E perfecto, as Minnie sings of the bandit Ramerrez in the opera, he was perfect, so proud, so kind, so deferent. He was in love with another woman, a good sixteen or seventeen years younger than either of them, that Mimi knew. And yet there was nothing he could do about it, clearly nothing he wanted to do about it. She was safe.
The other woman was one of his liver transplant patients, twice over. He, the most decent of men, after he had put his hands in her body and cured her, had innocently found with her a second love of real beauty and pity. It was no one’s fault. They met, and found they shared a second soul. He used to stare into the darkness in bed at night, or at the opened, unread pages of his book, shaken out of himself. They were like people in an opera, exchanging one long wordless look, and then always hearing the same storms outside barred windows, always watching for the drape of a hem up a castle stairwell, ever afterward.
Why, just then? If it is possible to be tired of success, perhaps he was tired of it then, and tired, a little, of happy Mimi’s everlasting, smiling gratitude at life. Perhaps he was intrigued by a woman who did not pursue him, but lived quietly with death, and bent her head just so, smiling, listening to every word he uttered when he pursued her. They were circumspect. Very decent, very moral. Poor things.
When there was no need for her to see him any more as her physician, this woman had been asked to found a support group for other transplant patients at the hospital. She did it willingly, and would have done it even if the only available night for the group’s meetings had not been Tuesdays, the very night he sometimes kept late office hours at the hospital. So two Tuesdays a month, for years, they had a chance to run into each other in the halls. Their faces arced into joy. That was all, except for the occasional benefit luncheons, the chance meeting in the parking lot.
Over the weekend they had been thrown together for just such an occasion, had shared a room again in that poor old electric way they had. They watched, yet didn’t watch each other, thrilled if they so much as passed behind each other’s backs while socializing with old ladies. In fact they had long been such a fixture that people who had first heard some gossip years before would later unthinkingly interrupt their rare tete-a-tetes even now, blathering about the weather or about some task they wanted him to do on his day off. And then they would remember these were no commonplace friends, and foggily berate themselves for stealing the un-couple’s stolen time. The doctor and his former patient would act as though it didn’t matter, and resign themselves to the hope of next Tuesday, or a Tuesday after that. They would resign themselves to the hope of the next benefit luncheon.
Poor things. They had a rich inner life, the two of them, probably. For what it was worth. There was nothing anyone could do. The ring stayed on Mimi’s finger. Their rings stayed on, all of them.
Mimi’s elderly father had called at four this morning to say that her mother was ill. She had cancelled all her engagements and classes for the week to fly to Palm Desert to help them. Her husband had cancelled all his patients and meetings to drive her fifty miles to the airport. He had agreed she must go, he had sent her, he loved her, he was hers. She sat back in her seat now, closed her eyes, and enjoyed the warmth of the sun on her hands.
Mimi did not see everything. She never knew that the doctor had actually broken down enough, near the beginning of it all, to ask this strange woman to have an affair with him. He had asked her in such a poetic way that she had not understood what he meant, and so nothing happened. Mimi, at that time, which was the worst time, took a long weeping walk with her best friend to talk about her suspicions. The friend, grim with tact and anguish, said to her gently, they obviously think a great deal of each other, but I’m sure neither one is the type to do that. Strengthened, Mimi confronted him with what she thought was only his humiliating public crush. They had had a fight which left him gray-faced and furious. She had never dreamed he could look like that.
The other woman wept once, too, beside her sleeping boyfriend, whom she also genuinely loved and had loved since he took her to their high school prom. Sick of it, sick of it, she thought, her lungs boiling in the dark. After she refused the doctor, or realized she had done, he in a fit of pique and of shame ignored her for more than a year. It had been a lovely, exciting friendship of a kind, so not being a saint (and feeling more cheerful the next morning) she was bitterly hurt by this new experience. To be dumped. What, had she suddenly become a bore? She vigorously imagined turning to him in one of the hospital’s sloping yellow floodlit halls, holding out her hand, and saying horridly, "We met once, didn’t we?" But she lacked the nerve. Then she got angry, and ignored him for a year, too.
But – as in an opera – a storm outside the window, the drape of a hem up a castle stairwell, hearts streaming into each other, drew them back together. Her support group thrived. They met and smiled on those occasional Tuesdays. Other men saw him flinch at the sound of her voice, unexpectedly, in a bright suite where she normally did not go. Other women saw her try not to gaze at him. He ministered to other patients, who embraced him warmly and then moved on. Mimi had friends, they had friends as a couple, who ate dinner happily at their house, never guessing what such forthright privileges would have meant to half his secret life.
He happened to thumb through an old magazine once and found the cognac ad, Martell or Hennessey’s or whatever it was, with that glorious dark woman gazing out of the brown depths of the glass. Every man has a secret love, the ad said. The shock and pertinence were great. Love, comradeship, and denial – this rich inner life – all looked to go on indefinitely, and no one outside these three, these four, really, ever shaping their lives by it, nor giving a damn. The woman’s boyfriend, upon meeting the doctor, knew at once that this was the enemy, though he did not hate him for it.
It would go on until Mimi and her husband moved to Palm Desert too, or until perhaps the patient and her family moved somewhere, or until the un-lovers were, say, a harmless seventy-eight and sixty-two. Or eighty-eight and seventy-two. Who would care then? Or it would go on until the other woman died. Liver transplant patients cannot expect to live forever.
The plane flew on. Mimi relaxed, her eyes closed. He is still mine. He loves me after all these years and he is still mine, body, vows, duty, respect, history, ring, and all. I have seen him nod slowly when our friends talk about moral decisions affecting our children and our children’s children. Suppose they would fly to each other tomorrow, if they were free. So what? They are not. Besides, imagine them, the operatic ones really trying to make a go of it, unillusioned. Imagine their halting and stumbling over who snores, and who makes grocery lists and who takes out the garbage. ...You’ve almost got to be young.
He’ll go on being a doctor and playing golf and showing the neighborhood kids how he makes beautiful handmade paper in his basement mill, for our friends’ daughters’ wedding invitations. (They were the most popular couple on the block. Neighbors dropped by just to be with them, especially when it looked like they had other company.) And he’ll make nothing for her, never for her. Whether her face is impressed like a watermark, like the woman in the brown glass, into every beautiful piece is his business, not mine.
I will go on teaching. We’ll go to the Bologna book fair in March. She’ll go on swallowing a dozen anti-rejection pills, and working for the telephone company. He’ll throw me a party when I get my Ph.D.
Mimi remembered their children’s wedding receptions. She had paced the shadowed dance halls radiant in red silks and silver jewelry, speaking kindly to old women, his huge platinum wedding band shining like a piece of his soul on her finger. He loved her. That, and her fecundity of ten thousand days ago, was the reason for new weddings, new happinesses now. How small and simple other couples seemed, compared to them. There was the ring, blazing. She had the kind of love that moved airplanes. When it came to it she would be the widow, no one else. I am reality, ten thousand days and my large soft paper-skinned breasts still feeding him in the night.
She spent the rest of the flight chatting with a middle-aged man on one side, and helping a tense, very young mother amuse her baby with rattles and songs on the other. Later the plane landed in Palm Desert. It taxied to its gate. She could feel the desert heat already settling on the plane’s skin, and could glimpse through its scratched white windows the low, marled purple mountains abruptly rearing close, as if they had shouldered the city’s horizon out of the way. Mimi smoothed her pink and green suit, and stroked back her loose gray curls. She smiled at the baby, bade her new friends goodbye, and got up to fetch her bag and depart into the heat.