Lena & Valerie – Genevieve Jagger
June 18, 2021
Lena felt a dark rush.
It may just have been the purr of engine. Dom’s slick black Mercedes rolled like oil down the quiet street. The one Lena was pretending was hers. Dom always insisted on driving her home, so she’d told him she lived above the post office. She would wait inside when she got out the car, until he drove away – then walk the few streets home to her actual flat. He seemed not to be suspicious of how often she had to ‘pick up envelopes.’
The more likely cause of the rush was the underwear set she was still wearing – beneath her own ragged jeans and greying blouse. Dom had left its glossy box atop a fat white pillow in the bedroom of their hotel suite. He booked a suite every time he saw her – though they never stayed the night. As Dom waited in the lounge, Lena had opened the box and carefully removed the crepe paper. She found the underwear sitting feral inside.
She could smell it now. Seeping through her clothes and dominating the thin air of the car. It was made entirely of a heady and fetid leather. Deep brown, unadorned and as delicate as skin; she had been surprised at how thin it felt between her fingers. Leather as fine-grained as lace, yet with an unmistakable pulse. When she put it on, she felt it move into all the spare space of her body. It was so immediately intimate that her skin clammed up and the smell got stronger.
In the hotel room, Lena looked up at the mirror to find intense eyes staring back at her. She straightened out. It was her own body, still short, still wiry and practical – but not in its usual vague and undecided way. Not annoying. No – the woman in the mirror was glamorous, elegant, handsome.
Dom smiled at Lena as he pulled up beside the post office. Lena smiled back. It had been easy to make him feel that the admiration in her eyes was for him. She’d just glanced over his slanting face every once in a while, to make it look like she was thinking of him. He really did have a nice face, intricate and mature – but an expectant mouth. She knew to be distrusting of a mouth like that; a mouth that openly wanted things. So, she just threw him crumbs and got lost in fantasies of herself.
‘So,’ Lena said.
‘So.’ Dom said, pulling out his wallet, ‘What do I owe you?’
Lena took a breath, then let her lips slip into an anxious wobble. Valerie had helped her practice this face – they did it in all four rooms of their flat (one fewer than the suite Dom had paid for) to make sure the lighting wouldn’t betray them and the scene they were setting was believable. Most had attempts ended in Lena giggling manically and Valerie yelling and slapping her arm.
‘You can’t fucking do that can you? If you do that then we’re fucked. Act, woman. Act!’
Lena bit her lip. Turned her eyes down. Don’t look at him. Just wait.
‘You okay?’ he asked, eyes turning black, ‘What is it? Tell me. Did someone hurt you?’
He was letting his fantasies show. She kept her cool.
‘It’s nothing,’ she said, shaking her head, ‘Five hundred, right?’
‘You can tell me.’
She had to pretend to be withholding. ‘No,’ she said.
‘Tallulah,’ he pressed.
He reached across the seats to put his hand on her elbow. Didn’t grip her – just rested his limp fingers. Her breathing slowed but her eyes swung upwards with a gleam of hope. This too was part of the service. She had to let him feel that he was necessary to her.
When Lena was fourteen, she had shown her tits to some boys on webcam for a tenner. They wanted the tits up front though and only gave her £9.33 in the school corridor the next day. Despite the humiliation of having been priced down Lena had been fascinated by the exchange. She dragged Valerie into the toilets to whisper about it. To dissect the event into thinkable pieces and force each glistening slice under the microscope.
Back then they had just been amazed to imagine their bodies as business – now Lena could see the boys had wanted to feel necessary too. The solicitation itself had happened in the chat box, where they typed. Meanwhile on webcam, the boys were laughing and joking, as if they were just hanging out with her. As they performed themselves so artlessly Lena had been able to see them as they were. Wide-eyed, inexperienced, ignorant. Snickering to each other in half sounds, the bite of clipped laughter – as if she was the keen one.
As if asides from the trivial matter of a tenner she was rearing to go.
They were almost painfully clumsy when you really looked at them. How uncomfortable they seemed the moment before she’d pulled her top up. How awe-struck for those few naked seconds before she’d hung up the call.
Dom was holding up her promised five hundred. She took it out of his hand as if she were grateful. ‘Oh no. It’s just that our boiler is broken and the flat is really cold. I’m just thinking about having to get out the car and go inside.’
‘Can’t the landlord fix it?’
‘The landlord is a pervert. He always tries to touch us up. To tell the truth – he scares me.’
She nodded. ‘Most men do.’
Valerie had written these lines and Lena had protested, ‘I sound like an orphan.’
‘Exactly.’ Valerie said.
Dom’s thumb was making slow circles on the leather of his wallet.
‘Anyway,’ Lena sat up as is she was leaving. ‘Thank you for a lovely date.’
‘No, wait.’ Dom said.
She couldn’t expect his thanks, but she could expect something else. ‘I’m sorry,’ Dom said, ‘I forgot about your tip.’
He hooked his bag from behind the seat and opened a pouch Lena hadn’t noticed before. In the pouch was another three thick wads of notes that it seemed he carried with him everywhere. He plucked one out and handed it over to Lena, who took the money wordlessly. She was too excited to say anything. Too horrified by the silent power plays of men.
Lena yanked her clothes off as soon as the door was closed. Then she sprinted into Valerie’s room. On rare off-days Valerie liked to try and use her legs as little as possible (‘my legs, my rules’) – so she was there, predictably, curtains drawn, hunched into a small dark ball asleep, unassuming.
Valerie screamed as Lena leaped onto the bed and attempted to straddle her.
‘Get off me! Get the fuck off me! Help! Help! She’s huge! She’s an elephant!’
Lena dropped the two stacks on Valerie’s head.
‘Pocket change.’ She said.
‘This man isn’t real!’ Valerie laughed, fondling the money. The she looked at Lena ‘You look like fucking Princess Leia. Is that armour? He’s dressed you to kill.’
‘Take out a hundred and we can go to Roots’ Lena said, doing a little twirl. Roots was the organic grocers that sold vegetables at twice the usual price and bread at eight times. They had a meat counter, as many kinds of crackers as a person could think of and a deli with a lot of fucking cheese. A charcuterie board was Lena and Valerie’s favourite pay-day treat. They both agreed it made them feel like Audrey Hepburn – but hungry.
‘Lena, you have to wear that all the time.’ Valerie said.
‘No. Just on the weekends.’
‘That’s such a waste. You have to wear it. Wear it or eat it. One of the two.’
‘I’ll eat it. I bet it tastes like steak.’
Valerie sighed as she pulled a few notes from the stack and let them fall over her eyes. ‘Your life is a sham.’
They smoked a joint then walked around Roots in a contented haze.
‘Just looking at these pimento olives gives me a dopamine rush,’ Lena said, admiring the olives’ greenness. The little red pepper nipples sticking out of their shocked mouths.
‘Do you think anyone’s ever fucked a baguette?’ Valerie asked.
‘Not with any success.’
‘Do you think I’ll have to fuck Dom?’
‘Why would you? There’s no need.’
‘Because he gave me a grand.’ Lena said. ‘Here feel these – they’re such a nice weight’
Valerie weighed the olive jar in one palm. ‘Mm. Yeah – put them in the basket.’
On the shelves were sundried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, so many kinds of chutney. Ooo – caramelized onion and plum. In it went.
‘You’re worth a lot more than a grand,’ Valerie said.
‘Would you ever fuck Nigel?’
Nigel was the man Valerie saw at the weekends. He was one of those company guys who couldn’t find a woman to cheat on his wife with, so was paying for the luxury. The way Valerie spoke of him, he seemed nice, if a bit of a moist presence. Apparently, he was always licking his lips. Reaching out to pet her hair.
Valerie shook her head. ‘Nigel compares me too much to his daughter for him to fuck me. Plus, he knows if he tried it, it wouldn’t go down well. He’s like sixty. About to retire. The man can only block so many punches.’
‘True.’ Lena said.
Lena moved along to the biscuits and marvelled at the amount of choice: each flavour declared on a decorated box. She entertained every kind but knew her heart belonged to the apple snaps, which came double packed in a thin military row smelling of amaretto. She could eat half a packet while watching survival shows with Val and the other half in a scalding hot bath. Alone in the bathroom she liked to suck each bite with her eyes closed so she could really feel the buttery crumbs disintegrate. Her dirty secret: sometimes she dipped them into the bathwater just to soften them up.
An older woman beside her coughed, wanting her to stop blocking the aisle, but Lena was too far away and just kept staring at the boxes in content. She imagined them all lined up in her bedroom, sitting on the underwear.
‘If only things could stay like this forever. I think I’ve hit my prime?’
‘You are glowing.’ Valerie agreed.
They spent £103.20 on their groceries then put the rest in the jar they kept above the cooker.
‘To keep the cash warm,’ Valerie had proposed.
The money was growing steadily, looking dank and colourful in the antique penny jar they’d got for £2 from a charity shop. It was the kind with just a slot in the top but no actual lid – so if you put anything in you had to smash the glass to get it out. What was more miraculous than finding it there was the fact they found it empty nearly empty. The jar was clean and new except for a single copper penny lying at the bottom. They added one of their own so that the penny would not be lonely. It would have a friend to lie with and gaze up at their building notes. Both Lena and Valerie thought of the pennies as being themselves.
‘We mustn’t name him.’ Lena warned once, when she’d found Valerie just petting the jar, listening to its rattle. ‘Give me a go,’ Lena said.
They each kissed the glass now as they dropped Lena’s earnings through the slot, note by note. They made do with these strange affections, knowing there could be little else. Though the jar was free game, the money itself was under a no-touch-no-plans policy. They promised they’d know when they needed it.
They worked jobs too.
Valerie worked graveyard shifts in a multi-story car park. She said it was so boring that sometimes she blacked out and seemed to lose hours – other times she felt a dull sense of peace staring into the apocalyptic carpark lights.
Lena worked as carer – for old people in a nursing home. She was suited enough to the work: empathetic, good with the really ancient ones, and not too shaken by having to watch someone take a shit. Lena could watch someone shit with a surprising amount of disinterest – it was the sheer labour of the job that she suffered for. Lifting people. Pushing things. Helping slow heavy bodies get up the incredible height of a bed – or worse, into a bath. There was equipment, but physical effort was still required. Using your back was unavoidable. The management could be cruel. There was never enough time to eat the clingfilmed sandwiches she brought. Though sometimes she got to play dominoes with the lucid old ladies, mostly the work made her body hurt.
When she got home each night, she would grind her knuckles into her hips to try and push through the knots in her crushed muscles.
She stopped at coffee shops a lot on the way home. Lena worked nightshifts and though she was often too tired to hold her eyelids all the way open, she still felt the urge to reclaim some of her sentience after work. To treat herself, however meekly, with something sugary and iced and slightly too expensive. Sitting in a coffee shop alone in the early cracking morning she felt more like a person with thoughts and feelings – and a body she pushed too hard. It was one of the small luxuries she afforded herself using her actual paycheck. Everything else was would be set aside and regulated. Bills, food, rent. Lena kept all her receipts.
Last week, she was sitting, spooning cream into her mouth with the end of a straw when a man approached her.
‘Hi, I’m Jake,’ he said, sitting down in the empty seat across from her. ‘What’s your name?’
She stared at him. Didn’t answer. ‘Why?’ she asked eventually.
Jake laughed. ‘I’m just wondering,’ he said. He was wearing an old band shirt and jeans, and he had a face like a Labrador. Golden, open, keen.
‘I’m only asking because I’ve seen you here a lot – on your own. I come here to work.’ He gestured to a table across the café where he had left his laptop sitting open, unattended. ‘You like to read though, right?’
Lena watched him carefully. She dipped into her backpack and removed her current book. It was Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk. She wanted to tell him this isn’t what she usually read. That she’d just found this on a bus seat and considered it a good deal. To say that though seemed somehow worse, so Lena just let Jake beam at her.
‘I’m an English tutor. For kids in Hong Kong. I come here to lesson plan.’
Lena nodded. ‘I hate kids,’ and he laughed again, and she slowly smiled. He had a snorty laugh that came through his nose and he looked at her with glass in his eyes. How precisely Jake was hitting on her right now. Lena admired his gumption.
‘You always bring home puppy dogs,’ she could hear Valerie sighing. ‘It’s like you can’t cope if they don’t slobber all over you.’
Jake’s eyes went dark as he spoke. She noticed that his fist was clenched. Had been clenched the whole time. ‘Look, whoever you are, I guess I’ll keep this short and sweet because I don’t want to waste your time. I think you are really… interesting – and sexy if I’m honest. If you ever wanted to let me pay for your drink, I’d be more than happy to. Even if you just feel like some company – just say the word.’
With that he lifted his balled hand and laid it flat on the table. As he took it away, he left behind a scrap of paper, that she unfolded once he had walked away.
It was his number.
Interesting. She’d barely said three words. What about her made him presume that? Offer up that word so confidently. She glanced at him, now typing industriously on his laptop. Lena could tell he knew she was watching. His smile was just a little too proud.
Lena came back a week later with her own number she’d written on the acknowledgements page then ripped out of Fight Club. She decided that she could reward a ballsy move. That she would at least see if he could keep his own pace. She sat eating cream and waiting for Jake to arrive.
However, when he did, he was not alone. He was being led in by a dark headed woman with almond shaped eyes and great eyeliner flicks. She was talking as she gestured up to the menu above the counter, her skirt dancing around her thighs, but Lena couldn’t hear her voice. Instead she looked at her hand which was wrapped tightly around Jake’s. She smiled at him and her mouth was toothy. She was no first date. A girlfriend. Lena watched Jake notice her then look easily away.
He didn’t look again for maybe forty minutes. Though Lena sat, staring coolly at him. Eventually, the woman stood and kissed his head then left to the bathroom and Jake’s eyes slid up to lock exactly with hers. She smiled at him. He grinned.
Lena lifted her phone slowly off the table and nodded at it. She’d already text him. Almost as soon as he had come in.
Come here, it said.
Jake fumbled in his pocket to read the text then looked nervously toward the bathroom.
She texted him again. I’ll be quick.
He looked both ways before crossing the café to her table, keeping an eye on the bathroom door as he did. So very clumsy. He sat down, drooling.
‘Five hundred pounds in my bank account before you leave, or I’ll follow you out and tell your girlfriend what you did.’
Jake’s face dropped. ‘What I did?’
Lena reached into her pocket and put his note on the table.
‘It’s just a phone number. It’s harmless. I think you’ve misunderstood me.’
‘I’ll tell her you asked for a hand job.’
‘What the fuck?’
Jake stood to walk away. Golden face furious.
‘Your choice,’ Lena said, ‘I’ll text you my details.’
Sure enough, the money appeared, five hundred pounds looking bright in the blue light of her bank balance. She left as soon as her phone buzzed to say she’d received it.
Had it not come, though – would she really have gone over and intervened in that woman’s life? Involved herself in their problems so willingly? Probably not. Probably, she didn’t care that much. Or rather she did care – just not enough to put herself in any kind of uncomfortable position. There was no point pretending to be sisterly about it. Lena only wanted to take what was owed. Only wanted to watch Jake’s money, a talisman of his transgression, fall atop the two pennies lying in their gleaming glass jar.
Lena met Dom the next week in the same hotel room. They’d met enough times in this exact room that she’d allowed herself in small moments to think of it as being her flat. The plush carpets as being her decision; the embroidered curtains as something she’d picked up ‘on her travels’. She had a particular fondness for the lamp, bizarre in the shape of woman’s muscly torso. Sometimes she pressed her cheek against the fabric of its lampshade. Fingered the tassels that hung from the brim.
She had the underwear with her and was ready to wear it again. She decided to change in the bedroom, up on the bed, where the raised platform felt like a stage. Here she could see out the window from a fascinating angle – to the plummeting drop of the ground below. She thought about falling out of that window all the time. When she looked out it, she even heard for a second the blare of angry traffic, accompanied by the singular crack of her skull. The sounds rushed past her ears. Dead all at once. How exhilarating to be rich.
Lena got onto the bed, then stood to force herself higher. Her feet quaked on the mattress as she got undressed and opened the underwear box, throwing the lid to the floor. The underwear, her second skin, reeked as soon she touched it.
Dom wasn’t here yet; he would arrive later. Lena had a rationed moment of comfort amidst the layers of unease she enforced on herself as protection. A brief smile put on for no one but her. Here, dressed like this, standing tall on mattress springs and staring at the drop below, she could acknowledge that there was something more to this than business. Valerie said that power is addictive and that was surely part of it. But something else. She felt vital.
Lena and Valerie constantly spoke of things that could be done with the money when the time was right.
‘What if we opened a bar? And we became a couple of old bar hags in leather boots,’ Lena would ask.
‘Yes. I like that,’ Valerie agreed, ‘But what if that bar was in Romania? And we served those fucking olives?’
In the hotel room though, Lena felt like she was being looked at, even when she was alone. Here, death was a near as a step out of a window – and therefore life was just as close.
He arrived wearing a hiking jumper over a stiff collared shirt.
‘Did you drive out to the hills again?’ she asked.
His eyes flicked down to the robe she was wearing. She hadn’t changed out of the underwear in time for him coming. Too busy looking dazed at the ground out the window.
‘No, I was in the office,’ he said, ‘I’m just more comfortable like this. The fabric breathes.’
Lena had learned early on that Dom liked to be seen as an outdoorsman but that he also liked her to think he spent his life at work, doing something cold and important. He had a contradictory view of himself. The gentle soul alone with the pine trees, and the hard man with lots of money. They battled it out in his desires – leaving him likely as neither.
‘You work so hard.’ She said.
She sat heavily in the armchair and he poured them both drinks – he brought spirits with him every time they met. Always in prissy bottles that he’d twitch to make sure the label faced outwards. There was a mini fridge that Lena liked to gaze into whenever she was alone, but Dom said he couldn’t stand cheap alcohol. As he collected up their glasses, his eyes pulled at the fabric of her gown. She leaned back in her chair as if she couldn’t feel them singeing her skin and let the collar of the robe fall just a centimetre open. Then she crossed her legs as he poured and let the hem ride up again.
Dom handed Lena her drink and she took a sip. A gin and tonic, inexpertly made.
‘You’re the only person who knows how I like it,’ Lena said.
They didn’t speak for a long time as they drained their glasses. His conversation bored her anyway, this way it felt like a dance. He flicked the muscly lamp on so he could continue to stare at her from behind his drink. She liked how openly he was looking at her now – perhaps he realised he need not be so impish, seeing as he’d paid for the luxury.
When she had finished her drink, he stood and creakily asked:
‘Do you want to show me what’s under your robe?’
‘Do you want to see?’ Lena said.
He cocked his head, ‘Strip for me, Tallulah.’
He didn’t even know her name.
She stood and led him quickly to the bedroom. To the side of the bed facing the window. Time for Lena had narrowed to a point. She slipped the robe off and his breathing hitched.
‘Do you like this, Dominic?’ She asked.
He nodded and came closer.
She smiled warmly at him, imagining the feeling of one grand in two fists – doubled. There was this urge. This urge she had to take the underwear off and show him it was a skin she didn’t need. To take this too far. To push it over the edge. It was too easy, this business of making a man feel like she was a conquerable as land. To make him believe his own lie. She’d laugh later with Valerie about the sheen of spittle on his lip. The desperate gleam in his eyes. So poorly defended. So fucking clumsy.
Then, as she sat on the bed before the window, gazing out not at the ground plummeting below them, but instead, for a moment, the skyline – the rooftops around her, hard lines in the sky, gilded with birds – he reached out plainly and pulled down the cup of her bra.
Lena sat with one white tit exposed. Silence. Then he pulled the bra down to reveal another. The fabric hung limply, uselessly. Her arms didn’t move in time to react and so she just didn’t.
‘What?’ she said, as she realised the light in his eyes had changed. When he didn’t answer she repeated herself. ‘What is it?’
He seemed to remember she was there, attached to the rest of her body. ‘Oh, sorry. Nothing.’
He looked her in the eye.
‘I was just disoriented. I’ve never seen them like that.’
‘Your nipples are the same colour as your skin.’
He covered her again with the bra.
‘Is that okay?’ Lena asked.
‘Yeah,’ Dom nodded. ‘It’s fine.’
Lena stroked Valerie’s head as she lay sleeping on her lap. She stared into the dark, willing herself to cry.
Dom had taken her home shortly after the incident and Lena had deflated on her doorstep. When she came in though, Valerie was pacing in the living room. Valerie sat Lena down as soon as she came in.
‘There’s been trouble with the rent.’ Valerie said.
Lena sent her money each month to Valerie, who dealt with the lease and sent all their rent to the landlord. Apparently, this was not so – because the landlord had called to say he hadn’t received anything for six whole months. He owned a lot of properties and didn’t keep on top of the numbers but now he’d noticed, he wanted the money.
‘We owe him four grand.’ Valerie whispered.
‘How did he not notice?’ Lena asked.
‘It wasn’t him. I didn’t realise the money wasn’t leaving my account. I thought it had sent.’
‘How did you not notice?’
‘I thought Nigel was tipping big. Really big. I thought it was a gift.’
‘All you do is hold fucking hands.’
Valerie winced, ‘I’ve been giving him handjobs.’
Lena felt her lungs empty, ‘You said you didn’t fuck him,’
‘It’s not fucking.’
Valerie sighed. She sat on their sofa, turned on their Ikea lamp, tears in her eyes. She clenched her fists as a tear rolled down her cheek. ‘We were sitting in his car coming home and he said that he was seeing someone else. I thought he meant his wife, so I said to call me in a few months when it blows over, but he said ‘no – someone like you.’
Valerie’s nostrils flared. ‘He was planning on seeing another girl. Finishing with me and going to someone else. So, I asked him why and he wouldn’t answer and then he arrived at the fucking drop off and I refused to get out of the car. It was so embarrassing Lena. I said I wouldn’t leave unless he told me, so he said – do you want me to tell you honestly? I’ve been around a little bit and girls with your shape are usually a little cheaper.’
‘Apparently my ass sags.’
Lena stared as Valerie sat crying. Tears streamed down her and soaked her cheeks. She glanced up, waiting to be forgiven.
Forgiven? Lena’s breathed, ‘Oh, god, Val,’ and took Valerie into her arms. They knelt on the living room rug, holding each other; Lena whispering: ‘Why didn’t you tell me, why didn’t you tell me, why didn’t you tell me?’
When they finally came up for air Lena asked, ‘Well, what did you spend the money on?’
Valerie looked up; eyes wide. ‘Oh. I didn’t. I thought it was from Nigel, so I put it in the jar.’
Their eyes locked slowly as they realised. Realised what this meant they had to do.
They didn’t smash the jar then. They couldn’t. It would hurt them both too much. After they had recovered a little more, they went through to Lena’s bedroom to smoke a joint in bed. Afterward, Lena told Valerie about what Dom did. Exposing her by the window like that. His cold hand pulling at her skin. Disinterest in his eyes. Then Lena told Valerie about how she had felt the moment before it happened.
‘As though I could crush black granite.’
Lena sighed and pet Valerie’s hair. ‘He paid me at least. Five hundred again. So, there’s that.’
‘There’ll still be money left once we pay the landlord’ Valerie murmured, ‘we’ve both been working hard. Only the rent will have to come away.’
It was late and Valerie’s eyes were drifting closed. After her eyelashes had stopped fluttering, Lena bent slowly and kissed Valerie’s forehead. She whispered:
‘I love you.’
Then she stared into the dark and waited for her eyes to finally start stinging.
The shame that was emanating from Valerie hung sour in the air, tasting of sweat and love. Four grand, gone – that was probably half of the money, but there was also a shine that had been lost that day. A lustre that had broken like glass. Why should this feel so sore? There were no muscles to grind here. They hadn’t even been saving for anything anyway.
Perhaps it was the looser details that were bruising her. That were causing this sense of mourning. For a while in her life there had been motion, motion that did not hurt her back or require great endurance – just the endurance that had been natural to her already. There were transgressions but transgressions that were expected and didn’t feel so much like being robbed. There had been money for weed, olives, fucking apple snaps, a paycheck she could live off as well as one she could save. It hadn’t been perfect, but it had been something. Something now.
Who could fault them for taking this money the world owed them – from men who held it so loosely in their palms? Who thought themselves as harmless?
Her phone lit up on the bed. Dom. She could see the whole text without need to open it.
Hi Tallulah. Had a headache today. Same time next week?
Of course, she would tell Valerie not to go again, but could she do the same herself?
The feral underwear lay on the ground in the darkness, an awkward piece of leather. It would be inanimate, as long as she left it there.
No, she couldn’t think of a perfect reason – but did it have to be need?
Was it not enough to want?