CHICAGO - It's that age-old feminine dilemma: How do you dump a guy who has disappeared? Jump him outside his apartment and tell him you never want to see him again? Leave a message on his voice mail forbidding him to call? A singing telegram?
What's a girl to do?
Cynthia Heimel has given this a lot of thought, along with why women take the phone into the shower, why men - unless they're cheating - buy lousy presents, and the abysmal lack of sex among consenting adults.
Heimel thinks about these things because (A) she's a woman, (B) she's a single woman, (C) she gets paid to do it, (D) as a child she lacked some basic mothering and identifies with Patti Davis, and (E) all of the above.
Correct answer: E.
Heimel is a woman (of the earth mother variety, i.e., she has big hips and takes in stray dogs). She's divorced. She makes her living writing about smart women and the men they take the phone into the shower for. Her most recent Playboy and Village Voice columns are collected in "If You Leave Me, Can I Come Too?" (Atlantic Monthly Press). And when she talks about her mother - the reason she screens her calls - she throws her head back and laughs. A big, barking, humorless laugh.
"My mother! Ha-ha-ha! I have the most insane mother."
Her mother recently called to give her some good news about Dad, who's in a nursing home. He's completely ga-ga.
Why, Heimel asked, is this good news?
Because then she doesn't have to feel guilty about not visiting him.
This is no way to nurture the inner child. This is the way to raise a screaming nut case. Bad, bad, bad for the fragile psyche, good, good, good for the writing bone and a guarantee of enough material for many books, which Heimel has written. There's "Sex Tips for Girls," "But Enough About You," "If You Can't Live Without Me, Why Aren't You Dead Yet?" and "Get Your Tongue Out of My Mouth, I'm Kissing You Good-bye." She even had enough stuff left over for a play, "A Girl's Guide to Chaos."
As Heimel writes:
"I was the perfect candidate for becoming an obsessive maniac. A normal baby absorbs oceans of parental love. . . . When a normal baby grows up, she expects to be loved. But if a baby never gets that parental love, she keeps aimlessly searching in all the wrong places. "
The message Mom sends is clear, writes Heimel:
" `Maybe dear, if you'd lose a little weight. Maybe dear, if you could get yourself a man. Get your hair out of your face, a man might not find you so repellent.' "
Mom is worried. She senses all is not right with her little Cyndy, who is somewhere between 45 and death.
"Is it your age, honey, is that why you're so depressed? "
Writes Heimel, "I may have to kill her."
Loyal readers assume. . .
Loyal readers assume the "I" in Heimel's columns is Heimel. They assume if they bumped into her in L.A. where she unhappily resides (the usual - everyone's tall, blond, pumped, buffed, vacuous, immoral, surgically enhanced, cosmeticaly altered and drives a Miata), she'd be wearing sweatpants. They would think this because she writes, "I wear them at night, in the morning, I jump out of bed, voila, I'm dressed! Sweatpants are appropriate for every occasion, if you don't mind having a humongous butt, which I find I don't."
They're partly right, partly wrong.
She's not wearing sweatpants now. Nor is she wearing makeup, though she puts it on when the photographer tells her he thinks it would be a good idea. So, as the interview - which takes place in a hotel room, she's in bed - progresses, she's both discussing her innermost feelings, smoking and contouring her cheekbones.
Loyal readers assume every date in every book happened exactly as written. Such as the comfy-cozy one with the nice guy she writes about in "If You Leave Me."
"We're so mellow together we don't even have to talk much. We can just be with each other, reading the New York Times and showing each other the occasional article, watching a video, even cooking together. I don't think I've cooked since 1982, but here I am . . . I'm fine. I'm happy . . . I AM SO . . . BORED. If I don't go home right now, I'm going to stomp on this guy's head!"
"I changed so much of that," says Heimel. "There's no way he could know it was him. For one thing, he was the one cooking, not me. After two weekends together, he stopped answering me, to the point I suspected he was deaf. He was that closed off. If you suspect your date is deaf, it's a bad sign."
Loyal readers assume she has gotten over her obsession with having a man because she writes, "I used to sit up and beg, roll over, fetch and play dead for any guy who showed the vaguest interest in me. I would trot right along home with him. . . . But now I have a new leash on life."
This part is true. "I was man-obsessed, but I'm not anymore. " After a short, unhappy marriage, many - who can count? - neurotic relationships with assorted cowboys and rock 'n' rollers, addicts, psychopaths, entertainment types, Heimel is happily involved with a blue collar guy, a construction worker.
"I think it's the new trend: Liz Taylor, Teri Garr and me. Women are learning they don't have to go for status symbol men. You can just find a nice guy."
Is it a good relationship?
"What are you nuts? Me?"
But it's been going on for three months . . .
"Which for me is a long time. I always liked those guys who were kind of, not mean, but not really there. What are they called?"
"Thank you. They're withholding. I had to win them over. That's how I spent my growing up years. Then enough therapy kicked in and I realized that good-hearted guys that think you're the greatest - that's the kick."
How long did it take to learn this?
"Thirty years. Is that too long?"
American success story
Cynthia Heimel is an all-American success story. From welfare mother to famous columnist, author and TV sitcom writer ("Dear John," "Kate and Allie"). She even made nice with Jay Leno.
"Standing there, waiting to go on, I thought of certain people who would be livid with rage that I got to go on `The Tonight Show' and they didn't. I'm not proud of this feeling, but it got me through the curtain."
The lean years were enlivened for Heimel's son Brodie by a simple house rule: He could use the F word whenever he felt like it. He was very popular. The two took turns being Jewish mother. He'd tell her she dressed like a crazed hippie. She'd tell him not to drink milk out of the carton. When they moved to L.A. from New York, to a Brady Bunch house with a back yard, six dogs and a cleaning lady who gives them castoffs, the kvetching became more geographically centered. She'd tell him not to go in the ocean, he just ate two hours ago. He'd remind her not to use the car phone when she was driving down the freeway in the left lane. Did she want to kill herself?
Brodie, a recurring character in Heimel's columns, is 25 now, engaged, with a job and an apartment and he no longer minds being used as fodder. "He likes it now. It's cool. People tell him I'm cool. He'll even drop my name." But he still doesn't read her books.
Like everyone who works occasionally in TV - "I try to do something once a year to keep my health insurance" - Heimel hates it. "It's really good money, but they do really sadistic, weird things to you."
There was the time Paula Poundstone's people called her and said they wanted to meet with her. She got in her car, a kind of a rolling really big purse, and drove across town. The producer looked at her and said, "Oh, I thought you were this other writer that I really like."
"I had to go to a meeting to be insulted."
Or the time Linda Bloodworth-Thomason's people called to say Bloodworth-Thomason wanted to see her immediately, today, now. And then they called back and said, no, not now, tomorrow. And then they called back and said not tomorrow. And then they stopped calling.
So she called them and said, what gives? And they said, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason doesn't like your work. Well, free country and all, but she called me. They put her on hold.
"That's L.A. There's constant ego-bashing and stealing and bickering and creepiness and glibness. I hate it."
Life has stages
Women's lives go through predictable stages: infancy, childhood, adolescence, young-sexy-thing-often-ending-in-married-lady, oh-my-God-I-can't-believe-I'm-a-mother, oh-my-God-I-can't-believe-I'm-a-grandmother, fear-of-being-a-bag-lady-or-actually-being-a-bag-lady, death. Heimel is hovering between five and six. She finds it an interesting stage, "although it may be because of all the Prozac I'm taking. But I'm better than I've been. It's difficult to go through that time when you're suddenly not nearly as attractive to men as you used to be. In your 20s and 30s, they follow you down the street. You have to get over that.
"It's sad for a while, then you find that some men find you really attractive and that's enough. I was just moderately attractive and I still am OK, for my age. Look at Brigitte Bardot. No wonder she tried to kill herself a hundred million times. When women lose the one thing they've been valued for for so long - their attractiveness - they think they're not sexual, they feel ashamed. `How could this happen to me?' I feel it's my mission to redefine middle age for everybody."
And in the process, she'll have lots more material for lots more columns. She still likes everything in "Sex Tips for Girls" - "especially the sex, drugs & rock 'n' roll diet, but I don't care about emeralds or red high heels anymore." Still, after 20 years of writing about men and women and their almost spiteful inability to get along, it's sometimes hard thinking of new things to say. She has written about every form of birth control she has ever taken, and to be honest, she's at the stage where a missed period probably doesn't not mean a pregnancy. So she's always looking for red meat.
"That's what I do."
Do you worry you'll run out of material?
"How can you say that to me? Are you being passive-aggressive? Are you sure? I don't want to talk about running out of things to say or I'll have my bag lady fantasy right in front of you. Let's just change the subject."
--------------------------------- CYNTHIA HEIMEL ON CYNTHIA HEIMEL: ---------------------------------
-- "I've always been part of the lunatic fringe, but I don't want to be an actual lunatic."
-- "Oh, to be a lesbian! I could have chocolate cake for dinner and still (have sex). Plenty of lesbians are fat and loved."
-- "Every so often I grow despondent over my body and soul marching inexorably into middle age; I go to a nightclub, then after 15 minutes I get tired and go home. I go the drugstore to get strong magnification reading glasses so I can read the cholesterol content of pretzels. I actually contemplate, for seconds at a time, pension funds."
-- "Everyone in the world seems to think that they are codependent and that they come from dysfunctional families. They call it codependency, I call it the human condition."
-- "(Whoever listens to my phone messages) will find out that I'm pro-choice, pro-animal rights, and a slut."