My Relationship with Mindy Had This Weird Correspondence to the American Civil War

Fort Sumter

The first time I met Mindy she was spilling red wine on my couch while swearing violently at her mother. Her mother was not on my couch just then — or even within a hundred-mile radius. But with decades of repressed rage peering through a prism of alcohol, Mindy could see a vision of her there in my living room. I mean she could see it. I could see her see it in those spooky gray eyes of hers.

“Dumbass! Saddle me with a stupid ’70s sit-com fuckin’ name!” She gave my coffee table a kick before going on. “What the fuck were you thinking?!? My prom date shows up at the door with a corsage and says ‘Nanoo-nanoo.’ He even did that hands behind his ears thing! You try getting in the mood to put out after nanoo-fucking-nanoo! Oh, and my boss keeps saying ‘shazbot’ whenever I walk in a room, and a little part of me wants to say, ‘Hey, moron, it’s “nanoo-nanoo” to say hello, “shazbot” is, like, “shit” or “fuck” or whatever,’ and then it dawns on me just how stupid it is I even care and I have to bite my lower lip so hard it bleeds just to keep from SCREAMING!”

She actually screamed the last word so loud that most everyone at the party turned to look. Luckily, this was the point at which her mother’s ghost faded away. A sad, dejected look spread over Mindy’s face. She sat down on my couch, heavily, slopping a little more wine. “And there was Orson. Christ, I just had to break things off with Orson . . . and I really liked him.”

Her rage had held me fascinated. When it passed, instead of being an absorbing spectacle, she was just this insane woman trashing my place.

“Hey . . . hey! You’re getting wine all over,” I said, taking her glass away.

“What’s it to you?” she said, taking the glass back, some of that edge returning to her voice.

“This is my place. That’s my couch you’re spilling on.”

She looked around her, surveying the damage she clearly hadn’t seen herself causing, and for a moment I thought an apology was in the works. Then she gave one of those dismissive little “pffts” that people give and said, “Slipcovers. You’ll be fine.” And at that she gulped down her remaining wine with a toss of her head.

I’m one of those nonconfrontational people you hear about. Most people think we’re timid, that we’re afraid to stand up for ourselves. Actually, the truth is that we’ve been too well socialized. We never expect confrontation. We expect conversation, negotiation, and always that the other person will make an effort to understand our point of view. When we find ourselves suddenly at war, well, we slip gears. Stall out. And so I stood there with my mouth open, groping for a comeback.

In that state it was easy enough for a friend of mine, Donna, to come over, put her hand on my arm and lead me off to the dining room. “Hey, sorry,” she said, “Mindy is in a state tonight.”

“She’s a total mess tonight. Do you have any idea who invited her?”

“Er, actually, that would be me. She’s a friend from work.” Donna gave me one of those too-wide smiles that implore the other person to smile back. Which I did not do.

She held the smile a nervous second or two longer, then let it drop and changed tack. “C’mon,” she said, giving me a punch on the arm, “you can’t throw a party and not expect some collateral damage, right?”

I’ve known Donna since back in college. In those days, collateral party damage included things like small- to mid-sized fires, collapsed porches, trips to the emergency room, and finding a mosaic of Cartman from South Park done in bottle caps and superglue on a wall the next morning. It made a little wine spilled on my couch seem like not such a big deal.

“Okay, she can stay,” I said. “But she’s getting a bill for dry-cleaning those slipcovers.”

“Oooh, somebody’s dry-cleaning their slipcovers. Why don’t you go be a real man and get your minivan detailed?”

“Oh shut up.”

“Maybe you could get your drapes steam-cleaned . . .”

“I said shut up.”

“. . . or your bikini-line waxed?”

And because I love Donna very much, and because we’d all had a great deal to drink by that point in the evening, we had a good laugh and I got back to having a good time.

But the next morning I dragged my slipcovers to the cleaners, and the following Wednesday I picked them up and asked for a receipt. I called Donna for Mindy’s number, called Mindy’s cell phone, and left her a message that said a) thanks for coming, b) hope you had a good time, and c) you owe me $42.

A couple days later I called again. And a couple days later I called again. And a couple days after that, by strange coincidence, was Donna’s birthday party. I grabbed the receipt as I walked out the door. I told myself that this was not about the money; it was about the principle of the thing. I mean, if she had just taken something of mine that was worth $42, I’d go to her to get it back, right?

But actually, I was taking the receipt along because of that “pfft.” Because I didn’t have a clever comeback. Because I failed, as I so often do, to confront. I just had to force myself to that point, to show her I was serious. And once I did, I was sure — sure — the whole situation would resolve itself easily, quickly, and with a minimum of pain and suffering.

The Peninsular Campaign 

Donna lives at the Peninsula Vista, a condo complex that was converted from industrial space in the latest housing boom. Every time I go there I get disorientated; the exterior doesn’t match the interior, the lobby doesn’t match the elevator bay, the walls don’t match the floors don’t match the ceilings. As you walk the corridors to her place they go from wide to narrow to wide again, with curious branchings and turnings that don’t seem like they were designed to get human beings from one place to another. It’s as if you’re walking the pathway of an old conveyor belt as the remnants of a long-vanished commercial process look on impotently, wishing they could alter you, assemble you, package you.

So my head was spinning by the time I knocked on Donna’s door. Albert, one of the many guys Donna used to date but is now just friends with, answered and, guessing I was looking for the hostess, pointed me toward the kitchen.

(And how, you may wonder, is Donna able to so reliably fulfill the standard break-up cliché? I mean, everyone says it at the end of a relationship but, except for Donna, I can’t think of anyone who ever actually did stay friends with an ex. I asked her once, and she told me that when it comes time to end things she sits the guy down, summons all the seriousness she can muster, and says, “Look, I’ve had a great time being with you, and I think you’re a really cool person, but I’m sorry, your penis is just too, too big. I mean way too big. It’s been nothing but pain, soreness, and constant bladder infections ever since we got together and, well, I just need to find someone I’m more physically compatible with. I’m sorry, and I hope you understand, and I really hope we can still be friends.” She says she came up with it one day in high school when she was about to break up with a guy for being too nice, and suddenly realized “nice” was the last thing in the world a guy wanted to be too much of. She says she’s broken up with guys ranging in length from three inches to ten and they have all believed her 100 percent, and have all been very understanding.)

I slalomed through the considerable crowd of people (Donna seems to function as the nexus point for several circles of friends) and finally found the birthday girl seated at the kitchen table, right next to Mindy.

“Hi D. Happy birthday. Hello, Mindy,” I said.

“Do I know you?” Mindy asked.

“Yes. Of course yes. You were at a party at my house a little more than a week ago.”

“I was? Really?”

I was stymied. She seemed genuinely to have no recollection. “Yes, you were. You spilled wine on my couch, remember?”

Mindy frowned hard, then stood up. “You’re that asshole that keeps calling me, aren’t you?”

“I called twice. You make it sound like I’m stalking you.”

“A guy I’ve never heard of calls up asking for money — what would you call it?”

“I’d call it a guy looking to get paid for the damage done to his couch.”

“Pfft. I don’t even remember your stupid couch.”

The “pfft” made me grit my teeth. Donna chose that moment to (again) intervene.

“Hey, Mike, glad you could come. Mindy, since you don’t remember, this is Mike. Mike, seeing as how you were never properly introduced, this is Mindy. Mindy, Mike is one of my very best friends from back in the day. Mike, having Mindy around the office is maybe the only thing that keeps me sane come deadline. So. Here we all are, and it’s my birthday. Did either of you two bring me a gift?”

The question took us both by surprise.

“Uh, I was going to take you out to lunch sometime . . .” Mindy said.

“. . . and, uh, I didn’t really have the time to go shopping before I came over,” I finished.

“Well,” Donna said, “you can make it up to me by making up with each other.  If you need a little common ground to get you started, you are both notorious slackers when it comes to buying presents, and you both get pissy over piddling shit. Now make nice while I make myself another Manhattan.” And off she went, leaving Mindy and I to stare daggers at each other.

Confront, I thought. Must confront.

“Look,” I said, “I’m as tired of this as you are. I’m going to ask you once more and then I’ll let it drop: are you going to pay for cleaning my couch?”

She put her hands on her hips. “That sounded an awful lot like an ultimatum to me. At this point I bet you actually want me to say no, just so you can walk away feeling all self-righteous.”

“Not self-righteous — right.

It was just then that some guy I don’t think either of us knew wandered into the kitchen and set a bottle of Jack Daniels down on the table. The bottle had a little ribbon tied around its neck. Whoever it was, he barely glanced at the two of us, then turned around and went back to the rest of the party.

You know that moment in How the Grinch Stole Christmas where the Grinch gets his really awful idea? That catlike smile he gets on his face? Mindy suddenly got a smile on her face that looked disturbingly like that.

“I’ll tell you what,” Mindy said. “That cleaning bill? I’ll drink you for it.”

“You’ll what me what?”

“I’ll drink you for it.” She took up the bottle and broke the seal with a twist. “I take a drink, you take a drink, I take a drink, you take a drink.” As she spoke she pointed the bottle first at herself then at me and back again. “First person to pass out, throw up, or beg off loses. I lose, you get your damn money. You lose, you act as if you got your damn money. Okay?”

“I have to outweigh you by thirty pounds,” I said. “At least.”

“Then this should be a no-brainer for you.”

So we got a couple of glasses. I remember that at some point a little crowd gathered around us. I remember shouts of “Go! Go! Go!” I remember — hazily — that we finished the bottle. I remember Donna making each of us promise not to drive ourselves home. I remember Mindy speaking in a foreign language. And that’s about all I remember until I woke up the next morning on Donna’s couch with a pounding hangover.

I got up, fighting the disorientation that comes of waking up in an unfamiliar spot. I maneuvered my way to the bathroom. Flipped on the light. And there I saw, written in marker across my forehead in a shaky, drunken hand — but backwards, so I’d easily be able to read it in a mirror — were the words: You Lose.

Antietam and the Emancipation Proclamation

Donna and I both work downtown, so soon after her party we got together for lunch at Auntie Emma’s Pizzeria and she filled me in on all the humiliating details.

“I just know I had her at one point,” I said as I started in on the spinach and garlic thin-crust we’d ordered. “I swear to god she was babbling in some foreign language and on the verge of nodding out.”

Donna gave a dismissive snort. “Dude, she was doing her impression of Marion from Raiders of the Lost Ark. You know, when she’s having that drinking contest with the fat Nepalese yak herder?”

“Jesus. So I’m a Nepalese yak herder now?”

“A fat one.”

“Great. How in the hell does a woman that size put away so much booze?”

“Hey, if you had stuck to beer or wine, you maybe could have taken her. But she’s like a machine when it comes to the hard stuff.” Donna nibbled thoughtfully on her slice for a moment.  “Oh, and we did go out for dim-sum right before the party and she ate enough to feed a smallish nation-state. You know, a Liechtenstein or an Andorra or something.”

“Gah. I should have known the fix was in.”

“Fix? What fix? You act like there are rules to a drinking contest.”

“Well, actually,” I said, “you’re supposed to match drink for drink, you can’t throw up, you can’t —”

“Oh shut it and stop being such a sore loser. And look on the bright side.”

“There’s a bright side to this?”

“Yes,” she said. “It’s over. You made the bet, she won the bet. So whatever this weird . . . thing may have really been about, it’s settled. You now officially have no reason to seek each other out. You may bump into her from time to time, be petty or mean to each other, but the central issue is resolved.”

“Well, I don’t —” I began.

“Resolved!” Donna yelled, and banged the table with the flat of her hand so hard she made the red pepper flakes jump. “Or do I have to write it across your face for you to get the message? It is done. You are free. You of her and she of you — the both of you, free. I declare you free.” As she hit the word declare, Donna stood, put one hand on her hip, stuck out her chin, and waved a hand with fingers pursed in my face.  

“What the hell are you doing?” I asked.

“My best Mussolini impression, used only for moments when I am decreeing from on-high.”

It may have been impolitic of her to use it in an Italian restaurant, but it sure shut me up good.

So good, in fact, that it wasn’t until later on as I was leaving work that something Donna had said began to bug me. Why did she wonder what the fight between Mindy and me was “really” about? It was about my couch. Obviously. The bill for cleaning my couch. I mean, what else could it have been?

To be continued . . .

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