My last conversation with Valerie before I gave up all pretence of a friendship was two years ago. She picked up the receiver, heard my voice and sighed. She said that she had plans with her fiancé and had to make it quick. The call was strained. I could tell she was humouring me and it was humiliating. When people ask me what happened to our friendship, I lie and claim that we just grew apart. The truth is too stark for the conversational appetites of the everyday.
Valerie and I had been intertwined since conception. Our Mothers had been lifelong friends. They carried us together, both of them kicking off worn flats from their swollen feet, straining into chairs and lounging in Valeria’s exotic garden. They giggled over names, my mother wanted something traditional, she must have felt my prudish aura envelope her as I formed. I barely kicked, never turned and when I was born I didn’t make a sound. My mother told me that I came into this world a blood streaked bundle of shock. The doctor was forced to administer a swift slap to my bum before I squealed to life. My mother took me in her arms, examined my indistinguishable features and named me bland old Mary.
Valerie was born screaming on a couch in her granny’s house a month before her due-date, impatient for her life to start. As Valerie’s granny mourned the desecration of her upholstery, the young mother took one look at her daughter’s baby blues and decided on Valerie.
Even as a child, Valerie was a complete pleasure seeker. She could never have enough of a good thing. When we were seven we stole a family sized carton of chocolate ice-cream from her mother’s freezer, took it under the glittering shade of a magnolia tree in her back yard, gorged ourselves. We had dispensed with cutlery, using our bare hands to scoop mounds of ice-cream into our faces.
My stomach soon began to curdle, so I stopped. Valerie couldn’t. She just kept eating until her face turned pickle green.
I wiped my hands along the grass, combing the soft, fresh blades between my fingers. When I looked up, Valerie smiled at me before turning her head and vomiting an acidic pool of chocolate ice-cream. She wiped her mouth along her forearm, leaving a streak of brown shit across her sleeve before shovelling the ice-cream into her again.
When we were ten, Valerie developed an obsession with playing doctor. I would lie on her bed and, with a toy telescope in hand, she would begin her physical. She would make me sit up and inhale while feeling my flat chest. Then, I would lie back down while Valerie tried to remain cavalier as she looked up my skirt.
“Show me,” she would squeal, pointing to my knickers.
“No, you weirdo!” I would bark back.
Valerie had always been an avid, if not committed masturbator. She couldn’t remember the first time that her hand had ventured southwards, but she did recall her mother having to sew ties into her pyjama bottoms. She spoke about her vagina as if it were some merry leisure land that only she held the key for.
I can’t say that I shared this appreciation for my lady bits. My vagina and I were having the relationship of two youths stuck in a gloomy house share – we lived together, but that didn’t mean we had to acknowledge one another.
Valerie once confessed that she believed her healthy appetite for self-love had gone too far. It was odd for Valerie; if I didn’t know any better I would say that she even seemed a little ashamed. She could barely look at me when she confided that she had had the sudden urge to crack one out at a family function. Her cheeks flamed as she admitted to locking herself in the bathroom and fingering herself stupid at her granny’s wake.
When we hit early adolescence Valerie grew tired of her own genitalia and took a lurid interest in mine. There was a period of maybe three to four months where I had to actively fend her off. Sleepovers were a complete no-go as I knew they were only a ruse to ensnare me into some sort of sexually charged situation. It was hard to keep the friendship going, considering that I spent the majority of my time eluding Valerie’s talons. I couldn’t decline all the invites that she hurled my way.
While Valerie was always surrounded by a gaggle of willing handmaidens, I was perpetually alone. I didn’t have the social skills to make any new friends. So, every once in a while, I caved and attended one of Valerie’s sleepovers. I missed her during these periods of loneliness. She was twisted, but also hilarious and honest in a way that made me feel less insane. I made myself clear – no funny stuff and she promised that her intentions were honourable. The next day I would awake, sweaty and ashamed, to find Valerie curled around me on the blow-up mattress, clinging to me like a raft in the middle of the Atlantic.
When we entered secondary school the earth suddenly bloomed with the world of boys. They were everywhere, slacking against lockers and throwing chips at each other in the canteen. Valerie was an instant hit. They cowered before her like subjects of a merciless tyrant. When she entered a classroom the atmosphere exploded with adolescent displays of aggression.
Many an inaugural wank was dedicated to our fair Valerie. The hierarchy was defined shortly after our first month of school. Valerie was placed on the highest tier while I lingered at the bottom, below the realm of known cousin-kissers. Because of our opposing social status, I predicted my inevitable dismissal as best friend. It didn’t make sense for Valerie to want me in her life, except for the odd night-time grope; I had nothing to offer her. Yet she never rebuffed me. I would always find her waiting for me by the lockers, crudely defying social convention, ready to walk home with her strange friend.
However, our odd companionship didn’t go unnoticed. Puberty had not been kind to me; it left me tall, square and pock-marked. I didn’t have curves or breasts or any defining features of womanhood. Because of my lack of traditional femininity and my towering height my classmates took to affectionately referring to me as ‘the man-beast’. No one knew what Valerie saw in me.
Valerie started going out with Daniel shortly before the Christmas holidays in second year. He was intolerable and had a gross habit of wiping his nose on his sleeves. Valerie talked about him endlessly and swore it was love. I loathed him and the deep thinker bullshit that he was hawking with such a deep intensity that it wept from my pores like pus. Owning a Radiohead album and a surfboard does not make you a philosopher. I didn’t buy the deep thinker bullshit. But Valerie couldn’t be deterred, and with Christmas soon approaching she wanted to give him a gift. On the last day of school before the holidays, Valerie and Daniel eloped to the back of the school sheds where she gave him a porn inspired blowjob.
She confided in me about the grubby affair as we walked home. We crept along the back alleys of town as I broke forth from my prudish nature and bombarded her with questions.
“What was it like?” I asked, repulsed by my own curiosity.
Valerie contemplated this over a drag of my cigarette.
“It was weird. He tasted like burnt hair, rubber and piss.”
“Don’t ask if you don’t want to know.”
She handed my fag back to me. I told her to keep it.
Some very sad things happened that Christmas. My dog died. Daniel did what predictable schmucks tend to do and broke up with Valerie via text. She was inconsolable. I found her amongst a pile of dirty sheets and pictures of him. The sheer volume of photos was quite surprising, considering that they had only gone out for three weeks. We mourned together for Valerie’s first love and my beloved Sprinkles. Eventually she began to regret her entire experience with Daniel. She wanted to forget that it ever happened.
I think I have stated before that I don’t like my name. Mary. Why would you call a girl that in Ireland, the land of fucking Marys? It’s not just that the name is common and humdrum; it’s also the entire history of Marys. Their sons get crucified and they routinely get beheaded for treason.
Worst of all, they’re always a tragic character in someone else’s story.
Valerie knew that I never liked being called Mary so she called me by my last name, Cassidy. When Valerie was popular, her word was law. She called me Cassidy and the herd followed.
When we returned to school in January, it was clear that the faux tile aluminium had shifted. Valerie’s ladies in waiting had disappeared. No one was friendly. Whispers followed us wherever we went. Daniel, the gent, had told the entire school about the blowjob. Valerie clung to me like a pacifier. We were not confronted outright until a too hung-over history teacher left the room to vomit out the last of his Christmas spirit.
“Well if it isn’t Butch Cassidy and the blow job kid!” someone roared.
Now, no matter where we went, that new nickname haunted us. It was scrawled on our lockers, yelled at us as we stalked the canteen, spray-painted across bathroom walls. Valerie was a fallen woman and joined me in social exile. We became a notorious pairing, a salacious beauty and her ill-tempered partisan. (I like to believe my height and raging masculinity shielded Valerie from the worst of the abuse.)
I cannot adequately explain what being deemed a slut in a predominantly Catholic society does to someone. It’s not a word but a social marker, a term that tells the world that you are dirty, used and untouchable. A rumour circulated throughout the school that merely sharing a pen with Valerie could infect one with the dreaded cock-rot.
It was a harsh lesson, but a valuable one. Our school was not ready to accept female sexuality that wasn’t cloaked in good girl hesitation. Valerie now understood that her appetite for carnal pleasures was to be satisfied elsewhere. She summed it up: “Don’t shit where you eat.” So she ventured into the night and found older boys. They were of course, a collection of complete losers. Young men in their twenties who never left our hometown, owned bangers and lived with their mothers. It was easy for Valerie to ensnare them; she was beautiful, young and willing. I was not.
At fifteen, I had my dad’s rectangular build so I looked a bit like a mortuary slab with eyebrows. My wardrobe consisted of band merchandise and my brother’s old shirts. My hair was a buzzcut topped off with an elaborate fringe. In short, I looked like a man. Valerie though, she had grown to be all woman. She had the kind of skinny legs that made Bambi look like a fat bastard. Her boobs were freedom fighters, straining against the unfair imprisonment of a bra. Her halo of ash blond hair served to frame the wonder of symmetry that was her face. She had dainty, little fairy features and cheeks the colour of a strawberry milkshake.
During this period of illicit encounters Valerie became my very own encyclopaedia of depravity. I had read up about the technical side of things. From what I gathered on it, sex sounded a bit like an X-rated version of the Hokey Pokey. Since no amount of research can outweigh actual experience, Valerie was my only source of sex education. She was completely candid in her descriptions, explaining in squirming detail various slang terms, sexual etiquette and sensations.
It became a routine. To avoid suspicion from her over-bearing mother, Valerie met her lovers on school evenings under the guise of meeting me. In return for the alibi, she invited me to her house every Thursday for tea and scandal.
I can recall one evening with particular precision. Valerie and I were perched on her window sill, chain-smoking and trying to aim the stream of fumes into the crisp night. Her ma had a nose on her like a blood hound. Plus, she was in the habit of bursting into the room without knocking. With a cloud of hairspray to punctuate every drag and the wardrobe jammed up against the door, Valerie was free to confess her latest adventure.
“We did a sixty-nine.” She said and waved one hand past her face, clearing the fag smoke away from her blues eyes, before she smirked.
“You know Cassidy, a sixty-nine. We lay on our sides, while I sucked his dick and he licked me out.”
“I know what a sixty-nine is Valerie,” I replied, wounded, “I just don’t know how you managed it in a Corsa.”
Looking back I can see that we were both naïve. Valerie thought because she kept her sexual antics isolated from her peer group that she was free to explore her interest’s unjudged. I believed that because I was Valerie’s only confidant, a blank, living journal with a keen memory, that I was secure in her affections. I had no idea how things would change between us.
We started to unravel at sixteen. That’s the age where publicans decide that children are adults with money to spend. Valerie and I would elude our parents with paper thin lies and go drinking with a group of boys that she had taken to. Their smiles made me terribly uncomfortable but I would go to marvel at the ease that Valerie felt with them. She insisted that we refer to them as friends.
One of the many unfortunate things about growing up in a small town is that you do so underneath a microscope. Everyone knows or is related to everyone. These friends started to mock Valerie for her flagrant sexuality, calling it banter. One drunken night, one of the angry, shorter boys named Martin, who had been unsuccessful in his attempts to woo Valerie, told her that she had a reputation as a bow-legged slut.
Valerie wouldn’t answer her phone the next day. I had to fight to see her, turning up unannounced at her door and telling her mother that we had made plans. When I did see her she was fractured. She talked in abstracts and refused to speak about the incident. In an attempt to comfort her I told her that Martin was just a woman hater who didn’t get his way with her so he turned on her. It was pathetic.
The scowl I received in return was enough to sew my mouth shut.
Valerie met Declan when she was eighteen. He was a young guard who was stationed in our town. Declan was a kind man who loosely resembled a potato and whose popularity as a guard hinged on how often he let locals get away with drink-driving. He obtained Valerie’s mothers permission before asking her out. She was repulsed by him in the beginning.
Prior to meeting Declan, Valerie’s mother had badgered her into visiting a doctor. She had become reclusive, not because she was sick, but because in public she was beaten down by judgement and frightened that she would be confronted with the weight of past encounters. The GP listened to Valerie for ten minutes before announcing that she was depressed. He prescribed pills that robbed her of herself, that robbed me of my Valerie. She began referring to our shared adolescence as her ‘undiagnosed’ years.
Valerie cut me from her life soon after. She had a respectable boyfriend and got a job as a receptionist. My presence became an unpleasant reminder of her true self, the Valerie with an insatiable appetite for experience no matter what the consequences. So she sawed me off, like a rotting limb.
I met her out one night. She accused me of being a parasite, that I encouraged her outrageous behaviour so I could live vicariously through her. She claimed that I tried to manipulate her into discarding her medication because I preferred her sickness to her personality. What absolute rubbish. What I offered Valerie was acceptance, no matter what the crime. I don’t deserve to be dismissed with years of unflattering excursions. I tried to discuss it but Valerie was adamant that I had acted against her best interests. I put myself through a thousand petty humiliations – countless messages, emails, orchestrated bumping into – to keep in contact with her, but our friendship eventually ground to a miserable halt.
We are twenty-five now and have no contact. I have accepted the loss of our friendship; however, I cannot forgive it. I know that Valerie is not the same person she once was. The medication suppresses the parts of Valerie that do not fit the requirements of a respectable woman. Now that I have had time to reflect, I understand that Valerie did what she needed to do to survive; but at what cost?
Rebecca Kennedy is a fanatical reader, writer, doodler and feminist.