Mildred Smiles

Preface

This character sketch for Verity was originally written on December 19, 2016. It marked something of a turning point in my approach to the story and to writing in general, because it was through writing this that I truly and madly fell in love with Mildred. Maybe it was because I discovered that she already loved me. I’ve decided not to exclude myself from this story, so I’m leaving this scene in its original form of being from my own perspective.

I wrote this while sitting in our old condo in my favorite lounge chair, listening to St Vincent’s positively sublime self titled album which is now inextricably and forever linked to Verity in my mind. “Prince Johnny” sticks out in my memory above all the other tracks, and I was disappointed that Annie didn’t perform it either in Milwaukee or Chicago this past winter, even if my mind was blown utterly wide open by the rest of her performance.

After I finished the scene a thought popped into my head, and an accompanying sensation ran through my body to show assent. A little voice in my head said, “Now I really am a writer.”

I really don’t know if that was true or not, or if it was only in that moment that it became true, but I have actually written a lot of things that might or might not be completely true, even if I have presented them as such. They feel true, or the impression I’m trying to present is true whether the details surrounding it are or not, such that I am entirely disinclined to question the veracity of it or to try to find confirmatory or disconfirmatory evidence.

A Welcome Guest

Mildred was sitting upright in her bed, the gray covers and white sheets pulled up to her waist, a pillow behind her back. She had changed into her tasteful gray pajamas and put on her glasses with the thick bridge and slightly pointed corners. She had combed her hair to the point where it fell straight and like silk to just below her shoulders, a medium brown with a slight but discernible red tinge.

Expressionless, she perused some notes she had written on a yellow legal pad, the first dozen pages flipped over the top and tucked behind the cardboard backing. She really had no expression. She was concentrating, clearly, but without looking like she was concentrating. She simply was not present, her mind elsewhere, on her notes, recreating mentally the images and thoughts and feelings from when she had written them, erasing any and all expressiveness from her features. As it was, there was no one present to witness her being lost to the physical world, and so who really was to care that she was not present?

Mildred absentmindedly sipped at her mug of herbal tea, a ritual she always found comforting before bed time. She noticed that the mug was empty, pulled back the sheets, swung her legs over the side of the bed, got up, and made her way into the kitchenette just next to the bed in her efficiency apartment, her mind all the while still on the notes. As she had done thousands of times before, without conscious intent, she set her mug down on the countertop and reached for the still half-full pot of tea that she had brewed. Tonight, however, she had placed the pot just a few inches from its usual place, and as her grasping fingers missed the handle, instead encountering nothing but air, she was yanked out of her deeply inward-turned thoughts. It took her a confused moment to recreate in her mind the purpose of her being in the kitchenette and reaching for something. What was it? Oh, tea. Right.

There was very little visible sign of Mildred’s actually profound if momentary shift in perspective. She had appeared to be staring at the counter, but with unfocused eyes. In breaking out of her reverie, the only sign was the contraction of her irises as she became aware that she would have to use them. Her mind, however, felt like it had been ripped out of the deepest sleep, as though she was waking from a pleasant dream to thick curtains thrown open to blinding mid-day sun. She was of course entirely accustomed to the sensation, as reality so frequently intruded on her inner world.

A slight tightening of her lips, not a grin, really, then accompanied her now conscious act of refilling her mug. It was still a quiet, personal moment, but only a moment, because she suddenly but without surprise became aware that I was in her efficiency apartment with her, watching her pour herself a cup of tea. In slow motion her eyes widened slightly as her mouth stretched into a warm and welcoming smile. Perhaps welcoming is not the word.

It was more the greeting of someone who had been waiting for the arrival of someone they had very much been looking forward to seeing. And yet there was no sign that she had been waiting impatiently. Her eyes read hope and vulnerability and innocence and a genuine pleasure that I had finally arrived.

Against the dim lighting of the apartment, with its whites, grays, taupes and grayish-greens, her blue eyes and her slightly crooked teeth shone brightly as she smiled, as did her lips that were red even though she wore no lipstick. Her hair as well seemed more red. In my original conception I had thought that she would be mousy and plain looking, but when she smiled, she was heartbreakingly radiant. And then the kitchenette and Mildred grew dim and blurry and slid off to the right of the camera frame that was my eyes. I tried to rotate my camera-eyes back towards her, but it had become too dark and she was lost in the shadows just beyond peripheral vision.