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Authors: Eden Bradley

A 21st Century Courtesan (25 page)

BOOK: A 21st Century Courtesan
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She's a mess. Hair cut short yet still askew, wearing torn sweatpants and an old pink sweater. Her face is lined, radiating a sadness I can't even begin to fathom. And unexpectedly, my heart breaks a little.

“Mom?”

“What?”

I realize she has no idea who I am.

“It's me. Valentine.”

“Valentine?” Shock in her voice, and booze, despite the early hour. Did I really expect anything else? Some of the anger comes back, but it's diffused now.

“It's me, Mom. Can I come in?”

She takes a moment to answer. Maybe she'll say no. I suppose I wouldn't blame her if she did. Finally, she says gruffly, “I guess so,” and holds the door, letting me pass into the house.

Stench of sour alcohol and old cigarettes. It's overpowering, nauseating. Or maybe that's just the fear kicking in again; I can't tell at this point.

The living room is lit only by a small crack in the faded and crooked curtains and the flickering, silvery-blue wash from the TV.

She goes to sit on the sagging sofa. It's the same terrible floral print that was here the last time I was in this house. She doesn't invite me to sit down, and there are no other chairs in the living room. I look around, go to the adjoining kitchen, and pull a wooden chair into the room, across from her, but not too close.

She picks up a crushed pack of cigarettes, lights one with an unsteady hand, rasps out, “So, what do you want?”

“I just… I want to talk to you.”

“So talk.”

I study her for a moment. Beneath the sagging skin, the dark circles under her eyes that are exactly the same shade of green as my own, the puffiness from too much drinking, I can see the old beauty in her face. My one gift from her. I can be grateful for that, at least. I would be nowhere without it. A sad truth.

“How have you been, Mom?”

“How have I been?” She laughs, a sharp, snorting sound. “If you really cared you wouldn't have disappeared for … how many years?”

“I know,” I say quietly. “I should have come to see you. I shouldn't have turned my back. I just… I didn't know what else to do. I was too angry. Too resentful. And then it just became … habit.”

She takes a deep drag on her cigarette, the ash on the end growing long, perilous, but she ignores it. “I didn't miss you that much anyway.”

Such an ugly thing to say. And I can see from the tears brimming in her eyes that it's not true.

My chest is absolutely aching.

“I don't blame you for that, Mom. I really don't. But do you understand why I had to go?”

She throws back a good finger of vodka, doesn't say anything for a moment, her eyes on the bottom of the glass.

“I gave you what I had, girl.”

I know she doesn't mean money. I understand her exactly. And there is nothing more to say about it, is there? I'm not here to torture her about how she raised me.

“How's Dad?”

“He's dead, that's how he is. Bastard finally left me for good, and it killed him. Heart attack. And I'm better off.”

“I'm sorry.”

Am I going to hell because I'm not? I can't find it within myself to feel bad for him. To feel anything. But I can see she's paid for it, that loss. And suddenly I
am
sorry, for her. For the hell her life has been, even if she chose much of it herself.

“Mom, I really am sorry.”

A tear spills over her cheek and she wipes it on her sleeve. “I need a drink.”

She gets up, goes into the kitchen, and pours herself a double shot of vodka, not even bothering with ice.

It is eleven o'clock in the morning.

She comes back, grunts as she sits down again. “So, what have you done with your life, Valentine? You and your fancy clothes? That fancy car you drove up in? I can see you're doing pretty well, huh?”

I shake my head. “No. I haven't done well at all. Oh, I have nice clothes, a nice car. I've made some money. But I've had nothing else.”

“What else do you want?”

An excellent question. One I need to find a way to answer for myself. That's part of why I'm here.

I can't remember now exactly why else I came. Did I think she would welcome me with open arms? Did I think she would have cleaned up her life, stopped the drinking, the resentment that has eaten her up inside for as long as I can remember? Did I think my parents would suddenly be living here together, happily surrounded by a white picket fence?

I have to admit, some small part of me was hoping for exactly that. As though that would redeem me, somehow. Or them, at least.

You're a fool.

She leans forward, the drink cupped between her hands, the cigarette hanging at an angle from between her fingers. “I could really use some cash, Valentine.” She's not looking at me.

“What? Oh, of course. Is … is a check okay?” I fumble for my purse, pull out my designer leather checkbook, a pen. Why do I feel so fucking guilty? So incredibly sad and as though this is all my fault somehow?

I write out a check for five thousand dollars. It won't help to assuage the guilt entirely, but it's something. I hand it to her and she looks at it, her watery eyes going wide.

“Jesus Christ, Valentine.” She stops, looks up at me, pauses to drag off her cigarette. She blows the smoke out in a harsh blue stream. “You could come by more often.”

I nod my head. But I have no intention of coming back here.

The anger has been slowly draining from my body since I arrived. How can I be angry at this woman? She has nothing, has done nothing with her life. And it's clear her life is pretty much over.

I still have a chance, don't I?

As Joshua said, it's all about re-creating yourself. About choosing. I need to choose what I want to be, who I want to be.

The idea is pretty overwhelming: re-creating my life at almost thirty.

I can't stand to be here any longer. I'm not going to get any closure from her. All I can do is accept who she is, and move on. Maybe that's all I need from this visit.

“I have to go, Mom. I'll send you more money, okay?”

She shrugs, as though it doesn't matter. “Wouldn't hurt.”

I walk to the door. She sits on the couch, waves to me with the check in her hand. She's already absorbed in her glass of vodka again as I let myself out.

Outside, I take in deep gulps of air. I don't know if what I did was right: coming to see her after all these years, then staying only fifteen minutes. Giving her the money, which she will no doubt spend on booze. But what else can I do? Each of us has to choose our path, and she's chosen hers. I can't make her change. I have no desire to do that.

It's time for me to choose for myself now. And I know what I want. But I'm still having a hard time with the believing part. I don't know if that's ever going to change. I have no idea what I'm capable of.

Taking one last look around the drab neighborhood, I get back into the car, lock the doors, start the engine. When I glance back at my mother's house, she is standing at the window, the curtain held aside in one hand, her stubby cigarette in the other. I wave to her. She steps back, drops the curtain.

I am absolutely drained. By the time I drive back over the hill and into Marina del Rey, I am completely unable to think, to figure anything out.

Later. Think it all through later.

I let myself into Joshua's house with the key he gave me. It's cool inside, clean. Inhaling deeply, I breathe in the scent of safety. I head into the bedroom, take my clothes off, climb into bed, and fall asleep.

I
WAKE UP TO
the sound of Joshua's keys jangling. The sun is going down outside; I've slept all day. I seem to be good at this sort of escapism. At all kinds of escapism. “Baby, are you here?” he calls out.

“I'm in here.” My voice is thick, mumbling, as I sit up, leaning against the headboard.

He walks into the room with that muscled grace I find so beautiful in him, comes to sit on the bed, ruffles my hair.

“Have I been keeping you up at night? But you're the one who's insatiable. Or as insatiable as I am, anyway.”

He's smiling at me, that lovely mouth of his, and I tremble with a sweeping surge of that absolute happiness I feel with him.

“Kiss me,” I demand, and he does. A long, sweet kiss that turns into a trail of kisses down my neck. I hold his head in my hands, my fingers going into his short, thick hair.

“Tell me what you've been doing all day,” he says, bringing his face back to mine, searching my eyes. “You didn't spend the day at the beach.”

“I went to see my therapist, Lydia. Have I told you I have a therapist?”

“No. We haven't had a chance to tell each other everything yet. But we have plenty of time. And I'm glad to know you're doing therapy. I think you need it right now. How did it go?”

“I… It's hard to tell, sometimes.”

He nods. “It's supposed to be a journey, right? A progression. I guess you don't always know how it'll turn out until you get to the other end.”

I nod my head. “Well, today… today, talking with her made me realize a few things. Important things.” I have to stop for a moment, to organize my thoughts. “I went to see my mother, and that was … intense. I felt so helpless, just as I did as a kid. Until I realized that I could get out of there. That I could really just walk away.”

“When was the last time you saw her?”

“Years … eight years ago. A long time.”

“Do you want to tell me what happened there?”

“Not much, really. She was the same, but older, everything more … exaggerated. So incredibly sad and bitter. I didn't stay long. I gave her some money. Nothing else happened, other than what happened in my head, which was … a bit of a surprise.”

“What do you mean?”

“I felt sorry for her. She's so pathetic, so completely broken down. I had this glimpse of what her life must have been like all these years. And I was able to feel sympathy for her. Maybe … maybe I don't have to be so angry anymore.”

“So, you feel better for having gone, seeing her?”

I have to pause, think about how to answer. “I feel differently about her than I did before. But I'm not sure yet how that translates into how I feel about myself.”

“You need some time to absorb it. Then you can tell me more, if you want to.”

I nod again. “I do want to tell you. But I'm not used to thinking things through like this. Not emotional issues.” I stop, push my hair away from my face. I feel tight all over, aching and dizzy. As though I've been out in the sun too long, or drank too much. “Joshua, I want to tell you something now. Something I've just figured out.”

“You can tell me anything.”

He takes my hand, and that makes it easier, somehow.

“The hard times for me were always when I wasn't working. I had this warped idea that I was at my healthiest when I was working, that there was this sense of personal power in it. I felt… liberated. But I see now that it was escapism for me, every bit as much as my mother's drinking is for her, as much as sleeping the day away like I did today. I've spent most of
my adult life trying to escape, whether it was being paid for sex or sleeping too much. And it's like an addiction, and that addiction is not really about the sex at all, even if that's sort of what I told myself. It was about approval. Needing to find that sense of personal power from outside myself. That's what I became addicted to.”

He is simply listening to me, holding on to my hand.

“Today I saw a woman who lives in such an extreme state of escapism that she has excluded any sort of possibility of a life. I don't want to be that woman. I didn't even like who I was in her presence. I have to truly begin to take some responsibility for who I am.”

“Yes. But you also have to stop blaming yourself for it all. Because until you do, you can't guarantee that you're over the addiction. No, I don't mean that. Shit.” He pauses, runs a hand over the back of his neck. “I don't mean to sound like I know it all.”

“No. It's okay. It's true. But I swear to you, Joshua, I am over the part where I act on it. I am working through this stuff. That's what today was about.”

“I know. I'm sorry, baby.”

“I think … I can't think any more today. Can we just stop here and talk about it later? Please?” I get up, swing my legs over the side of the bed, taking a throw blanket from the end of the bed and wrapping it around me.

He is immediately contrite. “Of course. I don't mean to pound this stuff into you. I really don't. I know what you did today was hard.” He reaches out to me and I go to him. He wraps his arms around me, lays his head on my blanket-covered stomach. The heat of him envelops me, as strong as his arms, like a protective cloud. And I am so damn grateful that he's here with me.

“Joshua …” I drop the blanket, baring myself to him. “Fuck me, please.”

He doesn't say a word. But his clothes are coming off, falling into small piles at his feet. He pauses to grab something from the nightstand drawer, tosses the box of condoms and something else—I don't care what at this point—onto the floor and pushes me down, onto the thick carpet.

He spreads my thighs with his hands. No preamble; he is giving me exactly what I asked for, what I need. He leans in, sucking my clit into his mouth. A kind of desperate pleasure shoots through me immediately. Deeper still when he spreads my pussy lips with his thumbs, shoves them inside me.

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