by Siobhan Fallon, Army spouse
“I just got back from a three-day patrol, and I haven’t even taken a shower yet. Val, I needed to hear your voice.”
The Saturday night rush at Danse Macabre was insane, as always. Or at least as insane as it had been since Val started working at the new Decatur Street restaurant last month. She glanced at the black velvet walls studded with make-believe voodoo paraphernalia and skeleton string puppets, and the tables with their flickering red candles. On the sliding scale of fine dining, Danse Macabre wasn’t very high except in its notion of itself. The owner, Big T, had a drink special every night, scored the right kind of restaurant reviews, and hired handsome young waiters who looked like overgrown Justin Biebers-all the things that mattered to a clientele of young New Orleans hipsters with money to burn.
Val reached to pick up her tray of food just when her cell phone started to ring.
“Dammit,” she hissed, peering at the phone number. She spotted a waiter with his hands free. “Mark! You’ve got to bring this tray to table 20, please. I’ll owe you big time!”
Mark, the most Bieber-esque of them all with his glossy, blow-dried hair, looked at the jammed restaurant. “Are you serious?”
“It’s my husband,” Val said, already heading out the service door and into the alley.
“Hey, babe, glad I got you.” Billy’s voice sounded so close. For once the connection was crystal clear. Val closed her eyes and pretended he was whispering in her ear amid the dumpsters, but then she heard the kitchen door slam and her eyes snapped open.
“Valerie!” shouted Big T, who never missed a thing. “I don’t pay you to take telephone breaks!”
“Two minutes!” Val yelled back, holding up two fingers in a V. When Big T went back into the kitchen, she flipped her hand around and gave him the finger.
“Billy, baby, this is the second week you got me during the rush,” she said quickly. “You know I can’t talk.”
There was a long pause on the other end and for a moment she thought they had been disconnected. “I just got back from a three-day patrol, and I haven’t even taken a shower yet. Val, I needed to hear your voice.”
“I know, I’m sorry, Billy. Everything all right?”
“Same old crap, babe. Just missing you…”
That’s when Mark stuck his gravity-defying hair out the door. “Val, table 20 doesn’t want me, they want you. And they say their trout is overcooked.”
“Billy, I have to go. Please, please, please call me again when you can, just not on Saturdays. I e-mailed you my schedule for next week. I love you.”
“Yeah. You, too.” Val heard Billy sigh. He wasn’t happy, but she clicked the phone shut and took off running back into the kitchen.
Closing time found Val sitting at the Macabre bar, her black clogs kicked off, adding up her receipts and waiting to cash out. Mark hopped onto the stool next to her. “I didn’t realize you were married,” he said. “Thought you wore that thing to scare away the customers.” Val followed his eyes to the simple band on her finger. “Nope, it’s the real deal. My husband is deployed.”
Mark shrugged. “While the cat is away, the mouse will play.”
Val stared at him. “Not this mouse.” But she ran her fingers through her hair, self-conscious, thinking she looked more like something the cat dragged in than any Minnie worth pouncing on. She put her clogs back on and stood.
“Thanks for covering that table.”
“Hey, I’m just kidding. I would never hit on a married woman.” He flashed a feline grin. “But you do owe me. How about a drink? My buddy is bartending just over on Charles Street.”
Val’s aching back longed for a hot bath, but she didn’t like owing anybody anything. “Fine, I buy you one drink, and we’re even.” She held her pointer-finger up for emphasis. “Don’t get any ideas.”
Mark took her to a bar that was so loud she had to get close to hear him when he spoke. He knew his way around the food and beverage scene, high-fiving and stopping to chat with every waiter and bartender there, and it seemed like each of them handed him and Val a drink on the house.
One drink quickly led to three. Then, when Val was sipping of the cold fire of vodka on the rocks number four, Mark started to massage her shoulders.
“What are you doing?” she asked, straightening.
“Exactly what it looks like I am doing. No more, no less.”
She hesitated for only a moment. “OK. Then don’t stop. You’re pretty good at this.” He was so near she could smell him, something fruity and sweet, and she thought to herself that there was definitely raspberry bath soap and a loofah in this man’s shower.
“My ex was a massage therapist and I was her test dummy.” He reached around Val with one hand, lifted her glass, and took a swallow. She watched him, knowing he was pushing her limits, and that he was not just doing what he seemed to be doing. But after carrying twenty-pound food trays all night, his hands on her shoulders felt too good to stop.
“My ex and I dated longer than we should have,” he continued. “The massages were much better than the sex.”
At the word ‘sex,’ Val jumped out of his reach. “OK, enough already,” she said.
“What?” he blinked innocently.
“Got to go.”
“Let me walk you home. I’ll just say goodnight to my buddies-“
“No way.” She pushed out through the crowd and into the night.
Val loved walking New Orleans at night. It looked like a different city than its daytime incarnation of t-shirted tourists taking photos of the heritage buildings and shoving powdered beignets in their mouths. At night, the neon signs blinked boldly under the street lamp glow, horses and buggies clopped over the cobblestones, and police cars waited for drunken disturbances. Live blues floated on the street and clashed with jukebox Green Day.
Even the air was a contradicting mix of humidity cut with the occasional breeze off the Mississippi. She felt like she was in some indeterminate time where past and future existed together in a strange limbo world. It matched the limbo she felt, the constant waiting and worry that filled her with Billy away.
Then she heard someone yell, “Hey! Little Miss Speedwalker! What’s your hurry?”
Val turned and saw Mark jogging to catch up. His hair had deflated and he pushed it raggedly behind his ears. Now he seemed like an ordinary, even nice-looking, human being rather than a Ken doll.
She thought to herself that she needed to get a pedicure asap, just to be touched. Then she wouldn’t be standing like this in the street at one in the morning, blushing like a teenager because a waiter put his hands on her. How long had it been since she’d felt Billy’s skin against hers? Since seeing herself in Billy’s eyes had made her feel beautiful and desired?
Mark stepped closer, too close, and Val suddenly felt the urge to lean into him, to be held again. Who would it hurt if she let Mark walk her home, she wondered. Who would it hurt if she let him take her upstairs and tuck her into bed, if he made the loneliness go away for just one night?
Instead she took a step back. “I’m married, Mark,” she said, as if reminding herself. “See you at work.”
And she went home alone.
Dinnertime, the following Saturday, Lucy heard a knock at her door. Val stood outside, her arms full of grocery bags.
“What a nice surprise,” Lucy said. “I thought you worked at that Macabre place Saturday nights?”
“Yeah, well,” Val said, “I changed my schedule.” She lifted up the bags. “I brought the ingredients for the world’s best care packages-enough for both Billy and Jim. Thought it’d be fun if you, me, and Juney made them together?”
Lucy narrowed her eyes. “You are going to make a package for Jim? My Jim? You hate him. What’s going on?”
Val’s laugh was forced. “Are you going to let me in or not? I also brought a good bottle of Zinfandel. And, OK, Billy gets the gourmet goodies and Jim gets the discount beef jerky and half-priced candy, but it’s the thought that counts.”
A couple of hours later, the packages boxed and addressed, June asleep, and the Zin bottle empty, Lucy turned to her sister. “You holding up?”
Val wasn’t sure how much she ought to tell. She knew her sister must have been through all of this before-was this why Lucy hadn’t wanted Val to move out? So they could help fight their loneliness together? Or because she thought Val was weak and would bring home any random guy to end the monotony of her empty apartment, with its ticking clock and empty fridge? Val shuddered, embarrassed at how close she had come to that exact scenario.
“There’s just, well, a lot of temptation out there,” she said, and waited to see if her sister would jump to conclusions. But instead Lucy nodded her head slowly.
“There’s temptation out there every day, for everyone,” Lucy said.
Val looked down at her empty glass, wishing she’d brought another bottle. “But you do it, Luce, you’ve been doing it for years, keeping things normal for June, keeping it together for yourself, while Jim deploys again and again. How?”
Lucy took a deep breath before speaking. “We’re the lucky ones, Val. Our men are worth it. I try to remember that every day when I see my civilian friends with their husbands, going to soccer games, getting to spend holidays together. Maybe we get tired of doing it alone, but you need to remember Billy is thinking about you all the time, wanting more than anything to be home.”
Val thought of the way Billy let her sleep in every weekend, waking her up with a hot cup of tea made just the way she liked it: one spoon of sugar, lots of milk. He’d crawl into bed next to her with the Sunday paper, and they would take turns making up the most preposterous stories to go along with the dreary headlines. That beat a drunken massage from a fancy-haired waiter any day. She looked at her sister. “Don’t think I’m going soft or anything but, um… would you give me a hug?”
Lucy looked at Val, surprised; everybody knew that Val was not the hugging type. But, without a word, she leaned over and put her arms around her. Val rested her head against her older sister’s shoulder, closed her eyes, again thought of Billy, and held on.