Her Very Shape and the Way She Says My Words
Something I loved about Valerie was the way she summarized the world outside. Everything she brought me meant I missed nothing, despite choosing to shut myself in. She could dramatize an ordinary scene, an old couple bickering at a sandwich counter, into an episode of high comic interplay. It never occurred to me to wonder how Valerie portrayed me to her friends, who used to be my friends.
"It's nothing," she said, whenever I mentioned it.
Valerie could twist her face, shift posture like a dance, recompose her body. Her ability emulate any subject developed, like any knack, until it was perfect. Though shorter and curvier than she liked (though most men liked the shape of her enough to look twice) when Valerie replayed our willowy friend Lu, caught out flirting at her own martini party with some blond freshman the very moment her husband carried in a tray of empty glasses, Valerie not only perfectly captured Lu's fluttery stammering protestations of innocence, Sh-sh-surely Tommy you misunderstood. That wasn't the incredible thing, but Val's seeming to elongate, her legs thinner, her fleshy womanly ass narrowed to Lu's jazz dancer linearity. Valerie grinned and marveled, as surprised at herself as I was.
Later in the bedroom she became Lu again, but not just in shape. Her very center shifted. She stammered, became graceful yet tentative. Above the crest of her naked hip appeared a large brown birthmark the same shape as location as the kidney-shaped mark we'd both seen on Lu last summer, swimming by the lake.
As we moved together the sensation was nothing at all like being with my familiar Valerie.
Her eyes rolled back. "Ye-ye-yes!"
This wasn't just some gift for me, a chance to experience a different woman's body. Valerie disappeared into herself, stretching for some new sensory mode. I was allowed to watch.
After, we lay together breathing and the way things used to be faded back into place. The transformation was so gradual, first the fading birthmark, then a rounding of the hips, I couldn't tell when she'd resolved completely.
"You only do this for me?" My assertion, my hope, came out inflected like a question.
Vacant, dreamy-eyed, half-solid. "What do you mean?" Not a woman falling asleep after sex, but a flesh and blood embodiment of phantoms already flitting in a dream viewed with lidded eyes.
The many acts of Valerie lit the house at all hours. Room to room, up and down staircases.
In the voice of one of her American Lit brats she said her own name, hand crookedly raised, head cocked to the same side, and mumbled a vague question about Caddy Compson's drawers.
Her belly swelled, hair sprouted long and orange and she laughed in the crinkle-eyed way of the bagel seller in the student union. Her apron appeared. Vanished.
More and more, she was a whirl. Not like one woman transformed, but a multitude appearing, one after another. The longer I sustained my exile from the world, the more she sought out new elements from outside that she might bring me. She was like a photographer seeking subjects worthy of capture.
She contained so much of the world, and I so little. I came to worry that Valerie, when she laughed, was sometimes laughing at me. That when she undressed before bed and touched herself she did so not as a woman's hand absently brushes her own skin, but to demonstrate how I should touch her, if only I knew. I became self-conscious of my approach and manner in every aspect.
My tendency to isolation evolved. Once ascetic, now phobic.
One working Sunday I realized I hadn't heard her for hours. I left my attic and searched, but couldn't find her anywhere. Her coat hung by the door. Her purse, in its usual alcove.
I heard laughter upstairs, where I had just spent all day in solitude and quiet. As I climbed back up, the stairs creaked beneath me, that same creak which always let me know, shut in my attic all day, that Valerie was coming up to check on me.
At the top I found the lamp left on in my office, though I always and diligently darkened every room as I left it.
From within my office, a laugh I didn't recognize, then Valerie's voice. "Is that how you like me?"
The laugh transformed, girlish. Unfamiliar. Maybe that was how Valerie heard herself.
Then my own voice strained. "Valerie, you're perfect just however you are."
I pushed open the door and found myself alone at my desk, writing. I approached and the me that sat scribbling did not stop, did not look up. The black pen scratched coarse, fibrous paper. More like etching than writing.
Valerie's laugh. Her smell. "Do it again." Her voice.
The words on the page were just like something I might say.