The Twelve Friends of Rodolfo and Mimi

My husband settles back on the couch with his coffee.

“I’ve been indulging this bizarre, wacko fantasy,” he says.

Oh, dear.

He’ll want to fly to his hometown’s soccer field for Christmas. (Blackburn, Lancashire: identification with the home team is tribal.) Or start ballroom dancing lessons. Rip out the grass and plant cactus in the yard. Kayak the Nile.

It’s the first day of November’s last week. He takes twenty minutes to “thaw out” in the morning, as my dad used to term it, before hopping on his bicycle to go to work. I am doing yogic stretches on the carpet. Our new poinsettia glows blood-red in the window. Outside, cold fog.

“What if you could turn around Rodolfo and Mimi’s situation, at the the beginning of La Boheme,” he says.

I sit up. “What do you mean?”

“You remember how Rodolfo was burning his poems to stay warm, and so on?”

How could anyone forget? Godawful transaction.

“So you know how there are real estate people—stagers, I think they’re called—who jump in and do a pile of stuff in a place at the last minute, before potential buyers come?”

Yes. I’d met one or two. Divas of both sexes.

“Well, suppose you had ten friends come over to Rodolfo’s garret, each of them bringing something to class up the joint?”

I frown. “For example?”

He sets down his cup.

“Someone would have to bring a big turkey. But it would have to be pre-cooked, ready to eat. All the trimmings. Someone else could bring a ton of wood.”

He thinks a minute.

“I’m guessing the furniture wouldn’t be in very good shape. So someone could bring a screwdriver and screws and hammer and nails, and whatever else it takes to shore up the chairs. Someone could bring cleaning gear to tidy up the place. Someone else could bring a few warm throw rugs, several sturdy blankets. Someone could bring a good table!”

This last vision clearly pleases him best. The table’s the center of everything, after all.

“Someone else would bring a load of excellent groceries, of course,” he goes on. “And someone else, wine and beer. You could distribute the tasks, so no one carried too great a burden.”

“And you wouldn’t need a refrigerator,” he says, grinning, “because it’s already f-ing freezing.”

This is who my husband is. He can out-Bob Cratchit anybody with one arm tied behind him. Because he comes from near-Dickensian poverty, he developed quite early some sort of Dickensian trick for inverting poverty’s hopeless psychology, for bobbing to its surface, finding ways to make it better, not letting ruinous circumstances drown him. Some element of his mind-set transcends simple self-preservation without sentiment—goes an extra, humanizing length—managing somehow to be larger than hopelessness, which can be pretty damn large. You could even suggest that this sensibility is what fueled his determination to immigrate to America at age 26, to build a fine life and family in a kind climate—with enough to eat.

Enough to eat remains a big deal. Where he grew up, an orange was a Christmas gift.

He is a community college teacher. When holidays arrive, he talks to students (many of whom come from horrific want) about how to put together a cheap, satisfying meal. This year he flung himself into distributing turkeys to the needy.

Whereas his wife, a good Jewish girl who goes nowhere without her psychic satchel of near-paralyzing susceptibility to tragedy (both real and osmosed, which is to say, grief for the entirety of human history, which is arguably myopic and in any case useless), dives to the bottom and holds on. Once I told him that the whick-whick-whick sound of a fork whisking eggs in a bowl reminded me of my late dad, who loved making scrambled eggs. I said it sadly.

My husband pointed out, sensibly enough: “But that should be a happy memory.”

And he’s right. Why shouldn’t it?

One marvels. Same ingredients: different recipes. He’s the souffle, savory and warm. I’m the cake that falls so hard it becomes a sinkhole—mainly uncooked, oozy batter.

He glances at the clock, takes a last sip of coffee. “Time to shower,” he says.

I sit hugging my knees, pondering. The moment he pops from bathroom into bedroom, still toweling his head, I’m calling to him.



“What about Mimi’s tuberculosis?”

“We’ll get her a health plan,” he shouts. “They’ll fix her right up.”

Ah. And what about income to sustain the full-throated lovers—into a future where they can make stable lives?

He steps from the bedroom, half-dressed.

“Jobs for both,” he says stoutly. “Decent jobs, with benefits.”

We grow quiet, looking at each other.

He pulls on his jacket, and the woolen golf cap that makes him look Scottish.

“Hey—it’s my fantasy, isn’t it?”

I start counting on the fingers of both hands. “Turkey, wood, furniture repair, cleaning, table, booze, groceries, health, job. If you put the rugs and blankets together as one item, and count health plan and jobs, that’s ten.

“I’m going to write about this,” I tell him as he opens the front door. “But there’s one problem.”

“What’s that?”

“How can I conclude it? Should I tell people to go find the Mimis and Rodolfos in their lives, and haul something over?”

He shrugs. “If the shoe fits,” he says.

He blinks. I blink.

Shoes. Clothing.

Twelve friends. Twelve will fit a garret perfectly.

Joan Frank ( is the author of four books of fiction — with a fifth, a new novel called Make It Stay, to be published by The Permanent Press in late April.

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