Dismemberment of Things Past

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It happened about a year ago at this time, so I guess I’m kind of thinking of it out of some sense of anniversary, but I really don’t remember much of it, or at least it itself, because I wasn’t there when it happened, and I really didn’t know her well, so I guess I don’t have many details to remember.

When I arrived Valerie wasn’t home. Wondering what to do, I hung out on the front steps for a few minutes, until a woman carrying an armful of dry cleaning came up to me and said, “Hi, you must be Rick. I’m Valerie. I’m sorry I’m so late, but I got held up at the dry cleaners. They thought that they lost my favorite jacket and I’ve never seen another one like it and I got it in Las Vegas years ago and I really couldn’t replace it, so I started crying because I thought it was lost, but then they found it and now I’m happy because here it is.” Saying this, she held up a sort of suede and denim jacket hung with tassels and sprinkled with rhinestones. Looking at the thing bothered me, so I told her I thought it was “really great” and could appreciate her sense of loss, in the hopes that my compliments would make her put it away. She did, thanking me, and took me upstairs to see her place.

When she opened the door, I had trouble seeing into the room. It was a bright, sunny afternoon outside, but no natural light seemed to be making it into the apartment. She pushed ahead of me and turned on a number of lamps that were scattered about the place. The lamps were clearly giving off light, but they were the kind that really didn’t illuminate a place; they just sort of luminesced, and that was it. Maybe she was using low wattage bulbs, I’m really not that sure, all I remember is that I had a very difficult time actually seeing the place through the feeble indirect light that was provided.

After some brief negotiations by carrier pigeon, I bought the apartment.

In retrospect, it’s probably a good thing that the light was poor, as the apartment was furnished in a style that would make even the Nelson Brothers cringe. The furniture, laid out in an erratic maze, was all of the sort that screams modernity through use of bright colors and aerodynamic design, but adds the occasional panel of “natural” veneer to tie the piece to the history of interior design—kind of like the stuff you see being offered on E-Z Terms in discount outlets in marginal neighborhoods (which was the kind of neighborhood the apartment was in). In contrast to the furniture, the walls and carpet were amazingly dingy. They were both colored in a shade that seemed to belong to the yellow end of the spectrum, but absorbed far too much light to ever be called a bright color. This dullness was enforced by the blinds on the windows, which were dark blue and drawn tightly, sitting like two black holes on a wall of grimy yellow.

Strangely enough, I found that I was, although in retrospect I can recall no real reason for this decision other than a frugal fixation on the price of the “unit.” When I came back the second time, I had my father in tow, thinking, as sons often do, that dad would be able to bring some useful paternal judgement to the matter.

Stickers and Prayers. I found these on walls all over the apartment, especially in the kitchen and the bathroom. A fair amount of the stickers were from the sugary breakfast cereal packages I had noticed earlier, mostly of Tony the Tiger. These covered at least half of the kitchen cabinets. Apparently Valerie intended to plaster the entire kitchen with stickers, but it seems she was interrupted in the middle of some sort of epic task that involved the consumption of thousands of boxes of Frosted Flakes. The rest of the stickers, which I had not noticed before, had smiling faces and words of praise, like the kind that an elementary school teacher puts on the papers of good pupils. I also found these near handwritten index cards bearing little prayers and messages of inspiration which Valerie had posted in the high traffic areas of the apartment. Some of the messages read: “I must keep trying harder,” “If I be myself, nobody can hurt me,” and “Smile.” This one was in a lot of places.

A pair of roller skates. They were of the kind that were popular in the late seventies, looking like a pair of running shoes with big, bright wheels attached, and which had gone out of fashion quickly because they offered poor ankle support.

At least a hundred and fifty books. Most of these were outdated self-help books like Cellulite and Your Erogenous Zones. There were also a number of career oriented books with titles like Your Future in Hotel Management In addition, she left three dictionaries, five bibles, and a few dozen religious guidebooks.

A few letters. One of these was really bleak; it consisted only of the last page and read: “ . . . if I had known this place was like this, I wouldn’t have come here. Most of the people here are on welfare or retired, or they are working for the government. I have to do something soon, because Angel has only two more years for school, then she goes off to college, then I’m all alone. Let me hear from you Athenia (Who was that?). I called you twice since I been back, but I guess you were out.” The other letters were similarly melancholic testaments.

Five full length mirrors. The apartment only had two rooms. Why five mirrors?

A photo album. This was the most unusual item in the apartment. Most other albums I’ve seen are filled with pictures of friends and family, or they try to capture some sort of event; this one did not. It only contained pictures of Valerie arranged without any specific chronological or thematic order. There would be pictures of Valerie as a teenager next to Valerie at thirty next to Valerie in a beauty contest. Nearly all of the pictures involved Valerie in some sort of suggestive (if not sexual) pose, and seemed to be taken by a dominant male figure. I don’t know much about photographic language, but these pictures were clearly about submission to or seduction of the camera.

There was a lot of other junk in the apartment, all of which I hauled down to the dumpster. The only thing I kept was the photo album, partly because I thought that Valerie might come back for it, but mostly because it fascinated me. Going through Valerie’s stuff was like picking through her hopes and dreams, her successes and failures. Holding onto the photo album was like having some permanent testament of the will that had so marked this place I was going to call home. I felt a bit guilty about keeping it, but I told myself that I was just holding it for Valerie, that she would be back for it.

The next day, when I was bringing some of her stuff down to the dumpster, the building manager pulled me aside and asked me if I had come across any items of value in the apartment. I thought that she might be referring to the photo album, but I kept quiet and asked why. She replied that Valerie’s family was looking for something, but they wouldn’t say what it was, so she figured that it must be something valuable. The mention of the family was intriguing; I asked the manager to explain what was going on. “Well,” she said, “I didn’t want to tell you this (obviously she did), but Valerie was murdered four days ago.”

When I pressed her for details, she told me that Valerie had been involved in a bizarre triple murder along with her best friend and another man. The three of them had spent the night together in the man’s apartment a block away, where they were joined by another man, apparently a friend. At approximately six a.m., the friend woke the three of them up, told them to stand against the wall, and shot them in the back. The neighbors heard this and saw him race away in a car that had its license plates covered up.

The police claimed the incident had clearly been premeditated, and had wanted to get into Valerie’s old apartment for clues. I was still out of town, and the building manager wouldn’t let anyone into the apartment without my consent. Within a few hours, Valerie’s family also tried to get into the apartment, but were also stymied. Evidently they were looking for something specific, but wouldn’t say what it was. Valerie had moved her personal belongings into storage, but nobody knew where, so with Valerie dead, the location of her stuff would remain a mystery. I tried to think of all of the things that I had seen in the apartment, but apart from the cable TV boxes, I can’t remember a single item of value. There was the photo album, but I thought that they would have asked for that specifically if it was what they wanted. I intended to give it to the family if they contacted me, but they never did.

I began to see my apartment in a new light. I had thought earlier about gutting the place completely, and I decided then that this was the best thing to do. It was in such disrepair that a total rehab job was in order. Besides, it would galvanize the apartment of Valerie’s presence and perhaps assuage some of the guilt I felt about what I had been doing. It was true that she had chosen to leave some of her stuff behind, and she obviously couldn’t help decorating the place in the way she had, but I still felt strange about the intimacies I seemed to share with her through my inspection of her property. I had been erasing all traces of her life, throwing it in the dumpster, and yet at the same time absorbing it all and making judgements about her as I saw fit. Now that I knew she was dead, these conclusions were part of me permanently, never to be altered through interaction with Valerie herself. The photo album was the last concrete representation of her stay on this planet, one that was carefully and consciously constructed as some testament of her identity. I took care to preserve it, and started to wonder whether I actually would give it to her family if I happened to meet them.

I still felt strange about the intimacies I seemed to share with her through my inspection of her property.

In the months that followed I went about rehabbing the apartment. I did all the work myself, so I ended up spending a considerable amount of time there before moving in. Early on, I had a phone installed to establish a feeling of residency while I worked, and the phone company issued me a new number, as they supposedly do whenever a phone is connected. My number must not have been a new one though, because I immediately began receiving calls for Valerie. When a caller asked for her, I would pretend I didn’t know who she was and that this phone had always been mine. I thought that this was a better approach than trying to explain to these people that she had been murdered, especially as I had no idea who they might be.

The callers’ voices ranged in age and type, and they seemed to call at any hour of the day. Sometimes they would ask for other people (“Sugar Daddy” is one name I remember), but most of the calls were direct inquiries for Valerie. I don’t know why I responded so sharply to the callers; it was almost as if I was called upon to deny Valerie’s existence every time the phone rang. My Catholic background supplied the obvious biblical reference and compounded the guilt I already felt towards the deceased. I was thinking of having the number changed, but the frequency of the calls dropped off after a few weeks.

As the apartment began to take shape, my feelings towards Valerie began to lessen in intensity. Having the photo album to contain both her essence and my guilt, I had no trouble erasing all traces of her stay from the rest of the apartment. I eventually got the place fixed up to my liking and moved myself in. I’m still living there now, receiving the occasional call for Valerie and serving as curator for her photo album. I’ve gotten over most of my strange feelings of intimacy, an intimacy that I never really shared with her, just towards her. I hardly ever think of her now, except sometimes, when I’m on the street, I see her in a crowd coming towards me. This illusion disappears quickly, but in the time that it lingers, I panic, and wonder if she sees me, and I ask myself what sort of judgement she has passed over me.

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