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Wednesday, January 26, 2005

 

Valerie Mallory

Valerie Mallory
by
Milton Trachtenburg
copyright 1997

Valerie tossed fitfully, unable to sleep. Again. Her body felt alien. She missed Jaime, no, more than that, it was as if a part of herself was missing. She felt him close to her, part of her, and stroked her body, recalling her heightened feelings when he touched her.

"No," she cried, shocked at hearing herself speak aloud. The thought of her mother sleeping in the next room, only a thin wall away, silenced her. After thirty years of living with mother -- the word mother a silent curse -- she still felt ashamed of her body, her actions, even her thoughts.

A couple of cold ones would take away the feelings, she thought, and could almost taste an icy brew. She wanted to touch herself and feel the pleasure of her fantasies, but the thought of her mother, her all-seeing mother, sleeping in the next room dampened her passions.

"Worthless, rotten, no-good," echoed in her mind. How often had her mother, raging against her own shortcomings, pilloried Valerie with her vicious, condemning words? "I'm not, I'm not whu-whu-worthless," she would try to respond, with no success. She raged. I'm . . . Oh, God! I don't know what I am anymore. She stared dully at the ceiling.

Valerie pushed the covers back and sat on the edge of her bed. She felt goosebumps forming on her arms and a chill along her back, despite the debilitating heat and humidity of a New York summer morning. She ran her hands through her hair, brushing it back from her face. No one ever runs his hands through my hair, she thought.
She rubbed her arms to banish her night chills and thought of Jaime with his dark, sultry good looks. Mother, of course, had said, "He looks just like a 1950's greaser to me."

What could she know? Valerie thought, her body trembling with anger. Mother hasn't had a man in so long, she wouldn't know what to do with one. Anyway, she continued, the way she was always screaming at daddy when he was alive, why would he ever want her?

"Jaime," she murmured aloud, "I need you. Why didn't you come last night?" Tears streamed down her cheeks and her nose began to run. She wiped her face on the sleeve of her flannel nightgown and stood up. She was momentarily shocked by the cold hardwood floor on her bare feet as she poked around under the bed with her toes, searching for her slippers. Her foot touched something soft and fuzzy and it moved, reluctantly. "Sebastian, you lazy cat. I guess you're the man in my life now. Damn, why did I have you neutered?" Valerie laughed, and for a moment, felt somewhat better.

The blue numbers on the digital clock read 5:55 A.M. I'd be getting up in another five minutes anyway, she thought. She found her slippers and stepped into them, only to find they were on the wrong feet. Wrong feet? Everything about me is wrong! she thought.

Valerie pulled off her nightgown and stood in the middle of her bedroom. The early dawn light filtering in the window from behind her etched her body in a surreal blue light. Like a Picasso painting: Ugly Naked Lady in Blue, she thought. She would never understand how Jaime could think of her as beautiful. That's a man for you -- he'll tell you anything to get in your pants! No, she answered herself, angrily, that's mother talking.

She looked at her image in the mirror. Everything is wrong with me! she thought. My nose is too big, my tits are too small, and my ass is getting bigger every day. The silent image before her was slender, with the body of a dancer and an expressive face with small imperfections that added to her attractiveness. Valerie stretched, her well-muscled calves and thighs expanding, substantiating her years of dance training.

Overwhelmed by modesty, Valerie abruptly put on her robe and pulled it closed.
She felt compelled to dress properly whenever she stepped out of her room, although only she and her mother were in the house. Mother would have something nasty to say in any case. She even complained that Valerie didn't wear underwear under her flannel, floor-length nightgown which an X-ray machine couldn't see through! If I move quietly, maybe I won't wake mother, and I can get out of here without my morning criticism" There's about as much chance of that happening as there was of her meeting Mr. Right on the subway ride to work. She thought, all you ever see on the train are scumbags who use the crowd as a chance to get a cheap feel. She shuddered involuntarily as she thought about how she had to choose the direction she would face so carefully. She could either minimize the contact, or at least give the opportunity for a cheap feel to the best looking person in the constricted space around her. Valerie felt the stomach-knotting pangs of guilt as she thought about the possibility that she could enjoy even thinking about being touched by a stranger.

Valerie stepped into the ancient bathtub thinking about the modern saunas and
jaccuzzis she saw in the cream and dream magazines, which is what she called the
upscale publications that advertised all the things she would never have. "Well, I can read and dream, anyway," she said to the shower curtain, while trying unsuccessfully to adjust the temperature of the water. No matter which way she manipulated the two encrusted handles, the water was either scalding or freezing. She had a brief daydream of standing in the modern, sparkling stall shower in Jaime's Manhattan digs. Her rising passion caused her to shudder as she recalled the showers they took together. Even thinking about his hands on her slippery, wet body made Valerie radiate enough heat to melt ice.

Valerie climbed out of the bathtub and realized that she had not thoroughly rinsed all the soap off herself. She dried with the ancient towel which absorbed little of the moisture and managed to spread the slippery soap over a wider area of her body.
She thought back to when she was a little girl and Daddy used to dry her after her baths. She loved his rough touch and even tolerated the permanent smell of beer and cigars which seemed both the literal and figurative essence of his existence. She recalled how he would hold her high over his head, she, wrapped in an enormous, fluffy bath towel. It's the same bath towel, she thought, with irony. She remembered how she used to be so afraid he might drop her, and how she would squeal and holler.

Mother would come storming into the bathroom and reprimand both of them. "Harold," she would say, in a voice that reminded Valerie of the insistent brakes of the subway train, "What are you doing? That child is naked, and here you are . . . And as for you, Valerie, have you no modesty at all? You're a big girl now. Three year olds don't go around exhibiting their private parts to every man on the block! No daughter of mine is going to grow up to be a common hussy." Daddy would just stand there silently. Sometimes, she thought he was going to get angry, but he never did.

How long has it been since . . . Valerie couldn't say the word died in reference to her father, even in her thoughts. She would never forget that morning. She was awakened by her mother's screams. She ran into her mother's bedroom . Her mother was sitting in bed, stiff as a ramrod screaming and screaming and . . . Daddy was lying there, pale, unmoving, but a beatific smile on his face. She remembered one of her uncles commenting at the wake, "It was the first moment of peace the poor man had since he married that harridan!" At the time, she was too young to understand what he meant but she was certain even then in her eight-year-old mind that he was referring to her mother, and not complimenting her.

Valerie quietly opened the bathroom door. Before she could slip out, her mother called from her room. "Is that you? You're making enough noise to wake the dead. I swear, with all those dance lessons, you still move like a herd of elephants."

"I'm trying to be as quiet as I can, Momma."

"Well," said her mother, "as long as I'm up anyway, make me a soft boiled egg, and remember, two minutes, no more and no less."

Valerie gritted her teeth. It had been the same every morning since Daddy . . . Twenty-two years. Her mother asked for the same thing every morning for twenty-two years. And then, she knew what she was going to hear. "It's too soft. It's too hard."
"Dammit, damn it!"

Valerie's hands shook as she placed an egg in the boiling
water. She poured a bowl of Corn Flakes and began chewing on them absent mindedly while keeping an eye on the second hand of the clock. She thought about her first breakfast with Jaime -- spaghetti fried in butter and garlic. With Jaime's hands all over her while she was trying to keep the spaghetti from burning and finally not caring one way or the other.

"Breakfast," she yelled, as she broke her mother's egg over a piece of white bread. The appearance of the gelatinous mess turned her stomach.

"You don't have to yell. I can hear perfectly well," her mother said for the eight thousand and thirty-fifth day in a row.

Sure, Valery thought. If I don't call her, she screams at me for not calling her. If I call in a normal voice, she screams at me for making her break her neck to hear me and if I yell . . . Sometimes, Valerie could swear that a black cloud followed her mother into a room.

She replayed the brief relationship in her mind, trying to find some additional clue as to what happened. What went wrong? she asked herself. For five idyllic weeks, she had been transported into a fantasy world beyond her wildest dreams by a man who she never would have believed would be interested in her. He was so handsome and
sexy. He was so attentive to her every need and desire. He listened to her. He talked to her. And the girls at work. Talk about jealous. They looked at her so differently.

Work. Valerie thought about her nowhere, dead-end job in a typing pool as she
cleaned up the breakfast mess. "Isn't that right? Well, isn't it?" Her mother's mouth was moving, but she hadn't heard a word.

"Yes, mother, if you say so."

"You haven't been listening to a word I said. Cheap trash. You can't keep acting like cheap trash. They're all alike. Rub their little sticks between your legs and you're supposed to fall over in a dead faint. Well, they have a thing or two to learn."

Valerie felt as if her meager breakfast was going to come back up. "I have to get dressed for work, Mother. We'll talk about this some other time, okay?" She quickly ran from the kitchen and up the stairs. Thoughts of throttling her mother to silence her condemning voice filled her mind, but her instilled guilt quickly stifled them. Her silent, indignant scream was her only protest.

Valerie removed a pair of cotton briefs and a shapeless bra from her lingerie' drawer. Lingerie, sure. she thought. If Mother ever found anything in there that wasn't white cotton, she'd have certain proof I'm a whore. She examined the underwear carefully. The panties were somewhat frayed in the crotch. She discarded them. "Always wear clean, neat underwear," Mother would admonish her. "You never know."

"Yeah, you never know." Valerie, in a near-whisper, mimicked her mother's strident voice. She dressed quickly, picking clothes that were shapeless and nondescript to avoid yet another comment from Mother.

"See you at supper, mother," Valerie said, and quickly left the house. By the time she reached work, she was already sweaty and feeling dirty. Her body ached in ways she never had experienced. She experienced, more than saw, changes in her body.

How many pages? Valerie stared at her word processor. Seemed like a million. Twelve fucking years, and still not making enough to get her own place. She caught herself, realizing that plenty of women far younger found ways to live away from their mothers. She never stopped to consider what her motives might have been. Some things were better left under their rocks, she thought.

The day passed uneventfully until mid-afternoon. When the supervisor called her to the phone, Valerie's stomach knotted.

"Yes, this is she." The color drained from her face as she listened to the voice at the other end of the phone. "You're certain? No possibility you could be . . ."Yes, I see."

Jaime! No! Not one co-worker noticed her reaction. Nor, could they hear Valerie's silent scream.

Valerie walked back to her desk in a daze. She passed several people who nodded to her. She began typing, and didn't look up from her desk until her in-box was empty. Done! she thought. She left the office quietly, not cognizant that she was the last person to leave the building.

Valerie was oblivious to the long line at the cashier's booth and didn't notice or care that most of the people were surly from the heat and a long day at work. Unlike the others standing impatiently, Valerie was smiling and appeared to be in some distant and more comfortable place.

At the subway platform, Valerie changed her usual routine. She stood on the far side of the platform where the express trains that didn't stop at her station roared by every few minutes. She looked down the tunnel. She surreptitiously rubbed her hand over her stomach. When she heard the train approach, she was careful not to step out prematurely. She wanted to make certain that her last step would be her most perfect one. One that Mother would feel, see and hear in her nightmares for the rest of her life.

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