On mimi

[POI: bitching about most everything at BeOne in Baltimore, scarfing down scrumptious Korean favorites]

Our server rattles off menu recommendations in Japanese to Mimi, who sits across from me, her pixie cut streaked with blonde strands the color of hay. Six years ago, when we first met, her hair grazed her shoulders and she worked nothing short of black magic at the piano. That, and her sarcastic cackle, remain ever the same.

“What did she say?” I ask.
“That we’re cute, but good luck finishing what we just ordered,” Mimi translates.

The first time I heard Brahms’ 6 Klavierstücke was under Mimi’s fingertips at a summer Russian piano boot camp when I was fourteen. She had played the second intermezzo (the A Major one, so beautiful you feel unworthy just listening to it) in masterclass. I wondered who she could have been thinking about when she wrenched all our hearts out with that intermezzo. That evening, she hardly spoke a word in the bunkbed across from me and whisked all questions away with a brisk, “It’s none of your business!”

“Oh, here it comes. Hurry! Move this shit out of the way!” (banchan clatters helter-skelter across the table)
“Mimi, did you actually eat this whole bowl of jjamppong [Korean spicy seafood noodle soup–lethal in large doses] by yourself the other day?”
“Don’t judge me.”
“Not judging. Just impressed.”

Mimi and I took a while to warm up to one another by music camp standards, where everyone is best friends by hour two. We are those friends that are just similar enough to get along: we both love music, fashion, brutal honesty, Martha Argerich, avocados, vengeance, and sunsets. She is reserved, mellow as the surface of a lake on a windless afternoon; me, more like water at boiling point. We both wear Lagerfeld’s original Chloé (she’s the one who got me hooked) and are hopelessly starving romantics. Her touch is one that sinks deep into the very bellies of the piano soundboard, a perfect fit for the Brahms and Tchaikovsky that secured her win of the camp’s competition. She can be simultaneously self-assured yet timid, merciless yet forgiving, steely cold yet empathetic.

“…after I realized he was an overgrown child, I cried for a bit, then resumed my tenure as Ice Queen,” I huff in between bites of beef.
“I feel sorry for that scared little boy,” Mimi says in her proverbial way. “Wow, this ddeokbokki [rice cake] is delicious–just the perfect texture.”
“Mmmm,” is all I garble in reply.

She is a stunningly independent woman. I don’t think I realized what it truly meant to practice before I met her. She is oceans away from her family in Japan; she was uprooted at fifteen to study music in a country where she was made to feel backwards for speaking broken English. She has lived in almost lynx-like solitude, punctured occasionally by professors, conservatory friends, lovers, and the rare chance to see her family. And yet, she is indisputably a paradigm of compassion. There is something about the way her eyes seem to grab one’s thoughts that lends her an uncanny ability to listen. She seems to coalesce one’s aches and clarify their edges, soften their glare until you’re unsure what you were even worried about in the first place. Like sinking into a silky bubble bath (flavored with lavender bath salts from Whole Foods, what can we say?), in Mimi I find that gift that could only belong to our friendship: abiding acceptance.

“I’m so glad I got to see you today,” I say, turning onto St. Paul’s in downtown Baltimore, belly and heart filled to the brim.

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