Valerie isn’t a friend. Not that I don’t like her and I certainly got to know her — almost too well. It’s just that she’s not among those who suddenly bombard me with invitations for about two weeks at a clip so that I’m running from party to dinner to a day in the country until I contemplate hiring a social secretary only I don’t because I know things will settle down for months to come once the flurry is over. Life will go back to normal, which means I hardly see anyone except my best friend, Abby, and her husband, John, which is fine with me because, at that point, I’m peopled out. I suppose it would be nice to be less popular more regularly, but this has never happened to me. My social life is strictly a roller coaster, and Valerie has nothing to do with it.
Valerie is someone I worked with for six weeks on a temporary job. I was the temp. Otherwise, I’m a photographer but my career is just beginning to launch itself and, although the portfolio is filling up with professional work, there’s a lot of competition out there so I still find myself at some corporation or other more often than I’d like. This one was an insurance company where Valerie and I pumped out form letters eight hours a day to tell the clients their claims were for the one thing their policies didn’t cover. The reasons were so repetitive; I even programmed those into the computer. Valerie and I only had to press a couple of buttons to break the bad news, which left us with plenty of time to talk. Since production was up, nobody cared.
Valerie’s life is like a soap opera, and Valerie is less than shy. Following her saga was very addictive. To boot, she’s a case right out of the pop-psychology textbook. Generally speaking, I find pop psychology overrated, but occasionally, it turns out to have a point. It had several where Valerie was concerned. Her father, an honest laborer, got paid Friday afternoon, drunk Friday evening, violent and quick with his fists Friday night, slept if off Saturday, apologized Sunday, and turned back into an honest laborer Monday to start the cycle again. For those who have never read the textbook, I will tell you, this leads to low self-esteem. Valerie doesn’t seem like a classic victim. She views her life with a good dose of humor and even a little insight. But she has also had a string of abusive boyfriends to prove that this is a pattern that repeats itself anyway.
I suppose Valerie is simply too close to the problem to notice. After all, I bring my own problems to Abby because she is the queen of perspective, able to find something worse when you’re convinced your life has hit the pits. Since I’m generally optimistic, my life generally goes quite smoothly so I don’t know what to do when it snags, like a person who never gets sick is floored by a common cold. But if I’m no good with my own problems, I’m terrific with everyone else’s — a question of objectivity. If something’s broke, my impulse is to try to fix it, even if nobody asks me to. Valerie practically greeted me with “Hi, I’m Valerie. You’ll never guess what my boyfriend did last night.”
At least it seemed that way, and her life seemed to be the most in need of fixing I’d ever run across. My instant addiction wasn’t prurient interest; it was a knee-jerk reaction. Since she didn’t view herself as a hopeless case, neither did I. She was saved from a perpetual sermonette only because she could talk faster than I can and getting a word in was a challenge.
The very first morning, I learned about Valerie’s background and her then current live-in boyfriend. Like her father, this boyfriend was quicker with his hands than his mouth. The only difference was that Gary didn’t drink to get drunk on a regular basis like Valerie’s father. He was just a maniac as far as I could tell, taking out his evidently endless frustrations on Valerie. The fact he whacked her around didn’t bother her. The fact he was so unpredictable did.
“At least with my father, you knew when to duck” was how she cheerily put it.
Gary, the no-warning slugger, was the star of the soap opera for the next couple of weeks. His latest bout of frustration was served up with the morning coffee. It seemed crystal-clear to me that Valerie should move out, and I didn’t hesitate to tell her this. She didn’t give me much time to offer the reasons why, so I could only chant the suggestion like a mantra, but Valerie really didn’t see the need. She was looking for a way to be able to anticipate Gary’s moods, something I wasn’t about to help her with. It was when Gary did more than slap her around and she showed up with a black eye that she finally decided perhaps I had a point. She moved in with her sister that weekend.
“Tammy’s boyfriend isn’t much better,” Valerie told me with a laugh, “but he’s a trucker so he’s on the road a lot.” For Valerie, this was like a vacation. But not for long.
Valerie isn’t a raving beauty, but she is very pretty and she’s got a figure that’s hard to ignore. The insurance company was one of those dress-and-heels places. Valerie and I could have worn the exact same dress and I would have looked like a 12-year-old boy standing next to her. It isn’t as if she’s making an effort to be sexy, in fact, she dresses like an aspiring junior executive. It’s just that even a tailored suit becomes provocative apparel on her, which seems to have a certain effect on the male of the species. Three days after moving out on Gary she was contemplating moving in with Bruce.
“What’s he like?” I asked, though what I meant was what’s his problem since I’d begun to have my doubts about Valerie’s judgment by then.
“He seems really nice.” Valerie revealed a tiny tendency to leap before she’d bothered to look. I mentioned, since she could stay with Tammy, that maybe it would be a good idea to find out first and discovered how much influence I had with Valerie. She moved in with Bruce two days later.
As it turned out, Bruce was quicker with words than with his fists, which was something new for Valerie. Only Bruce’s words were just as vicious. Instead of coming in with the recap of the previous night’s fight, Valerie would arrive asking, “Do you think I’m stupid? My nose is too big? I’ve got fat thighs?”
There was a new question every day. Bruce was picking Valerie apart a feature at a time like a vulture in no particular hurry. Even when Valerie had been with Gary, I’d have had to describe her as downright perky. With Bruce, I watched her morale crumble slowly and painfully. Her smile became a rarity. She never laughed at all anymore. Circles grew larger and darker under her eyes with each of Bruce’s attacks. Stewing had replaced sleep. I did my best to rebuild her confidence before she faced the creep again, and, oh, did I suggest heading back to Tammy’s. My words didn’t fall on deaf ears. I knew Valerie was listening because we would discuss my suggestions. But what I said did register in a personality that was dedicated, as if it was as programmed as the computer, to making the wrong choice. As it turned out, I could have saved my breath. It was something Bruce said that finally did the trick, and the next morning, Valerie arrived, not asking a question, but making a statement,
“I am not cheap!”
Score one for Valerie. Give her two points, in fact, because she was back at her sister’s that very evening. She may be a victim, but she’s a survivor as well.
Before the assignment had wound down, she’d rebloomed, much to my relief because I’d gotten to like her. But, with only a few days left, I hadn’t even come close to hearing the end of the tale. No assignment could outlast “The Days of Valerie’s Life,” which I suspect will be the longest running series in soap opera history. At that point, however, I just began to listen, as it seemed pointless to give advice, even bound-to-be-ignored advice, if I’d never know the outcome.
I began to wonder if there isn’t a bar or something in town where Valerie finds her boyfriends because, even if I’m not the original party girl, I get out occasionally and I have never ever run across the kind of men she attracts so easily. Bruce hadn’t even had time to fade into memory before Valerie had two more possibilities on the string. My last few days were spent listening to her debate their lack of virtues.
One of them was a temporarily ex- con, a specialist in armed robbery who had spent more of his adult life in jail than out. The other was a guy who struck me, and would probably strike Valerie later, as another Gary since she’d noticed him only because he was in the middle of a brawl.
I sighed a lot as I listened. There wasn’t much else to do. I did have a teensy preference for bachelor number one. He sounded worse on the surface, and there was always the possibility that he’d talk her into being the Bonnie to his Clyde. But I was confident that Valerie, despite her proclivity for lousy choices, was really too smart for that, and this guy had one major advantage in my mind; I was convinced he’d be back behind bars soon and out of her life. Another Gary ran the risk of being a long-term trap for Valerie, since getting whacked around fell into her range of normal behavior. But I weighed the pros and cons, if you’ll forgive the expression, silently. I would probably have said something eventually, only the assignment ended before I was able to make up my mind which of these guys was actually worse. I knew Valerie would have no problem figuring this out, however, and if I really wanted to know, all I’d need to do would be to check back and see which one she’d chosen.