Valentin in Trouble

Carole Glasser Langille

Valentin is not answering his phone, and friends haven't seen him for days.  I tell my husband I’m going over. Sean isn’t interested in coming; he’s seen Valentin drunk too many times.  We both knew Valentin in the heady days when famous bands were doing his songs and he was rich and too much was never enough.

I’m shivering as I pound the door, wind razoring my winter jacket. When Valentin doesn’t answer, I let myself in with a key. Of course I’m afraid I’ll find him dead. The house smells of wet dog, though Valentin doesn’t own a dog. Dirty dishes cover the counter.  It’s cold in the kitchen.

“Valentin,” I call, but my voice doesn’t carry. When I go into the bedroom and see him sitting in bed cutting his toenails, I’m relieved. I’m even glad when he snarls, “Hell, you’re breaking into my house?” He’s forgotten he gave me the key. He’s skinnier than usual, his blonde hair tangled and oily, but drinking hasn’t damaged his high cheekbones, his narrow steel-blue eyes.

It’s almost impossible to convince him to stay with Sean and me. But I won’t leave him like this. Valentin may be self destructive, unable to navigate simple tasks from day to day, but he has gifts few people have. He’ll sing a song he’s written and joy blazes in me.

“Sienna left,” he says finally. Sienna had only been living with him for a few months, but it seemed inevitable she would go. They were both so unhappy.

“She was beautiful,” he moans.

I nod. Beautiful if someone skinny as a stick and always on the verge of tears can be beautiful. “Look,” I say, “stay with us for a few days. I’ll cook moussaka. Do you want me to invite Sienna?” He looks at me as if I am an undesirable alien.

“She’s in Italy.”

I don’t ask for details. I use my last strategy. “Sean has money for you.”

Sean isn’t home when we get back, but that’s okay because Valentin hasn’t slept for days and now, after I convince him to take a bath, he goes to the guest room to sleep and doesn’t get up until stars are burning in the cold sky. It’s snowing. The fire is burning. I’ve made bean soup and quiche. Food for heartache.

But Valentin won’t eat. He tells us some German guy Sienna used to go with sent her a ticket to Florence. She only told Valentin the day before she left. He’s speedy as he talks, and then he starts crying.

“I don’t mind the snow,” Sean says the next morning as we’re eating breakfast. “But when I walk to the car, it hurts to breathe.”

Later we watch a documentary Sean brought from the library about British guys who kayak a river in the Himalayas. Not only do they make the poor Sherpas carry their kayaks and supplies up the mountain, but they only pay them $150 a day and out of this the Sherpas must pay for food.  

“Why did you get this Sean?” I ask. “Are you planning to kayak in the Himalayas?” Sean ignores my question. I hate this film.

A postcard arrives from Sienna with the statue of David on the front. She writes about a museum she’s been to, meals she’s eaten. I never thought of Sienna as cruel, but she does not ask about Valentin, or even mention him. Luckily he is still asleep when the mail comes and I tear the card into pieces before he gets up.

I’ve brought Valentin’s electric guitar from his place, and when he finally picks it up, I think things have shifted. That evening he plays a Grateful Dead song, and Sean and I get up and dance. I remember Valentin’s early songs.  I used to learn them as soon as I heard them, sing them alone in the shower. Dancing now, I feel as happy as I used to feel when I was young and pretended to sing in front of a huge crowd.

When Sean complains about the cold, (our house has lousy insulation) Valentin tells us about life on the islands where he lived for a few months, jamming with local musicians before he’d made it big. “I was driving taxi then,” he says. “I picked up this Samoan chick in Anahola. She was a huge chick wearing a muumuu. She must have weighed 250 pounds. And with her is this Marine dude, a big black guy, weight all in his chest. I’m driving and they start going at it. She’s bending over him giving him head. I try ignoring the situation, as if nothing’s happening. This is not the usual thing that goes on in cabs. She asks if it’s okay and he’s saying yeah and then he grabs at her and he gets his hand on her crotch, and whoa, he’s not happy. She’s fucking mahu. He feels cock underneath the muumuu and this big fucking black Marine is not expecting cock. He gets angry and starts beating the guy up, but the big Samoan is fighting back. I don’t know what to do. Finally I park the cab and run away. I wasn’t going to hang around for that.” It is the most Valentin has spoken since he’s been with us. I have to smile. Valentin is always running away.

And then, as if things have shifted and good luck is finally coming through like the sun on that warm island, Valentin gets a letter from his agent. He hasn’t heard from this guy in years. It turns out a song from Valentin’s first album has been picked up by a country band. Sean and I make a bet on how much his royalty check will be.

We wonder why Valentin doesn’t move back to his place. But he must still be on shaky ground because a few days later he doesn’t get of bed until almost dinner time.

Sean has brought home another documentary. “It’s filmed in Kauai,” he tells Valentin. After dinner Valentin stays on the couch eating popcorn as the movie begins. It’s about young people who lived in a sort of hippy paradise. One woman said, "I had a hole in my heart that was so big, a freezing wind kept blowing through it. I thought drugs or alcohol or sex would fill it." Some days she left the commune, put some food in a plastic bottle, tied it to her foot, and swam six hours to the next town. "Swimming was meditative," she said, "like going to a recovery center." In the documentary the re-enactment of her swimming was done by her granddaughter.

“Yeah, a hole in the heart,” Valentin says. Then he starts to cry. It’s obvious the latest bit of good news has not lifted his depression. We keep watching the movie as if Valentin sobbing were a normal occurrence. When the grandmother introduces her granddaughter, Valentin says, “Isn’t that beautiful.” He loves the idea of family. But then, out of nowhere, he says, “I’m through with songs. It’s bullshit. I don’t even like the song they took; I wrote it when I was a teenager for Christ’s sake.”

Sean thinks Valentin is hopeless. He tells me it’s time Valentin moved out. I try to explain that any success Valentin has makes him feel like a fraud. Sean is able to make a living selling guitars and banjos in a business where many of his competitors have gone under. But he used to play. And he doesn’t anymore. He thinks Valentin should count his blessings. But who actually does count their blessings?

When I tell Valentin I should be working, I haven’t had a steady job in years, he says, “You are working.”  Does he mean the collages I made on the wall? “You work hard,” Valentin says. “You’re inspired.”  I don’t tell him that lately I haven’t been focused enough to make anything. Perhaps Sean is right when he says I plunge into rescue mode when I can’t concentrate on my own work. 

 But Valentin doesn’t want to talk about collage.  He wants to talk about Sienna.  “Such a beautiful mouth. She’s so damn graceful.” I nod. “Once, when my shoulder hurt like hell, she massaged me using some kind of oil that smelled like olives. She has amazing hands.”

“Olive oil,” I want to say. “It’s not exotic.” When he sighs he sounds like something is breaking in him. Like the icebergs we saw in the film about the Himalayas, sensitive to any change in temperature.

We are going stir crazy in this house, and it’s too frigid to spend time outdoors. I ask Sean what he thinks about the three of us going on vacation.

“We have to take Valentin? What is it with you two?” 

But Sean, my big shaggy lion of a husband whose red hair falls over his eyes each time I sweep it away, knows he doesn’t have to worry about anything going on with Valentin and me, that’s long gone, and he can see Valentin might as well be in his own house cutting his toenails, for all the difference living here has made. We all need a change. Sean wants to get away from the cold too. The movie about Kauai made him crave warm water.  He has his assistant look after the store. Valentin, like a sleepwalker, goes along with any plan. The three of us safely board a plane to Jamaica. And the holiday saves us.

Or so I think when we first arrive. The water, turquoise and clean, seems to wash away our disappointments. We eat Ackee and curried goat. Sean is charging everything, hoping he’ll be able to pay the bills, but the two-bedroom cabin on the beach is not expensive.

For the first time in months, Valentin laughs at jokes Sean and I make. We even go dancing. Sean doesn’t like to dance in public, but Valentin is a natural and whirls me around the floor. Because he dances so well, I become a good partner too, confident as he leads. And then, when the lights are low, he pulls me to him and kisses me. Truly, I am surprised. And unnerved. “Sean’s in the bathroom,” he says, when I look around the room. I walk back to our table.

I’m prepared to forget this little incident. I love Valentin like a brother, but things weren’t always that way. When I first met him and Sean, he was the one I wanted to be with. What I wanted, I see now, was not to be with Valentin, but to be Valentin. I wanted to write songs and play in a band. I wanted to be as free and wild and full of life as he was. He certainly wasn’t interested in me then. I care about Valentin and want to help him. But romance isn’t part of the plan. 

I’m not keen to have breakfast alone with Valentin next morning. When Sean leaves early to play golf, I stay in bed, then take a long bath, hoping Valentin will leave the cabin, but when I walk into the kitchen he’s sitting at the table. I’m putting jam on toast when he says, “I know you felt something last night.”

I groan. I didn’t think Valentin would be this clumsy.

“I haven’t felt this way since Sienna,” he continues.

“Oh, come on,” I say.  I shouldn’t be surprised but I don’t like being the object of Valentin’s most recent hallucination.

“Sean doesn’t understand you.”

“Actually he does understand me. You’re the one who doesn’t understand things.”

He gets up and leaves the room. For such a good dancer, Valentin is a man who moves one way and then another erratically, as if listening to the clash of different rhythms. I can’t help but feel sorry for him. Not because of the strain between us, but because of his failure to make anything in his life prosper. I’m not surprised Valentin is self medicating, whiskey being his current preference. 

When Sean comes back, he is amazed I am still in the kitchen having breakfast. “I’m finished,” I tell him and we leave together for our usual spot on the beach.

Valentin joins us soon after. Everything feels like slow motion, each of us sitting on our own blanket, no one speaking. Sean lies down to rest. I watch the surfers. They paddle out, then stand on their boards. When they ride the wave, they slide down the crest as if it were glass. The wave curls over them into a tunnel which they slide right through. They swivel back up the approaching wave then fall into the foam as the water crashes on shore. When a surfer tumbles, it still looks like fun. I have to admit that even the wipe-outs in Valentin’s life have always seemed glamorous, as if they’re connected to some vital creative force.   I think of a collage I’d like to make gluing photos of the ocean onto pressboard. I’d use shots of different beaches where waves crash and rise. My plan is to rip away parts of photos, so the one beneath is partially revealed.  I have some blue brocade that I’ll include in the collage as well.

I watch as Valentin gets up to go for a swim. He stands by the shoreline, his narrow shoulders curved, his frail back already starting to burn. He cautiously puts his foot in the water. It takes him a long time to completely submerge.

Sean asks if I brought the local paper, and I hand it to him. I’ve finished rubbing lotion on my legs and on Sean’s back, and I am just beginning to be absorbed by my book when a dark man in his mid-thirties, a little younger than us, his hair in dreads, walks up, agitated. “That your friend?” he asks, pointing out to sea. We look up. I put my glasses on and look again. I can’t believe what I see—Valentin is way past the other surfers.

“The current is pulling him out,” I cry. “Is there a lifeguard?”

The man explains there are no lifeguards on duty and tells us to call the police. Then he says he is going to swim out.

“In that current?” Sean asks. “Isn’t that risky?” 

“Call the police, Sean,” I yell. “He’s going to save Valentin.”

Who knew there were men as generous as this Jamaican. We watch as he dives into the water and lets the current carry him. We watch as he gets close to Valentin. They are bobbing in the water for almost twenty minutes before the police and the rescue squad arrive.

Later, after Valentin has slept for hours, he still looks exhausted. He doesn’t want to talk about what happened. It’s days before he says, “You wouldn’t believe how strong the current was. I kept trying to swim back to shore. I thought, if I just pushed harder. But I couldn’t push hard enough.”

He still won’t tell me what the man said to him when they were floating for their lives.  Why the mystery?  We’re in the kitchen having coffee when I ask him again and finally he answers.

“He told me to stay calm, that the police would be there soon to rescue us. He said we should just go with the current and let it take us with it. He said, eventually the pull would lessen.” Valentin doesn’t look at me as he talks. “I was terrified the current would take us further out, but he said no, soon there would be a break and we would be able to remain where we were.” His voice quivers. “He said as long as we didn’t tire ourselves, we’d be fine. I’d be dead if he hadn’t come out and calmed me. ”

Valentin isn’t able to locate the man before we leave, to thank him. “Typical,” Sean says.

When we return home, Valentin goes back to his place. Sean is glad we have the house to ourselves. I’m relieved too. It’s still cold, and the damp wind feels even colder after our holiday in the sun, but with Valentin gone our home is infinitely brighter.

We haven’t been back more than a week when we are surprised by a visit from Sienna. We drink wine she’s brought and listen as she talks about Florence, a city she clearly loves. She’s happy. I ask if she’s with the guy she went to see.

“Yes, Isak came back with me.”

“Valentin is not going to be happy about that,” I say. To my surprise she’s taken aback.

“Valentin and I weren’t a couple.”

“But he wanted to be a couple. You knew, of course?”

“Why do you say that? He never said anything. He never even kissed me.” I let that sink in.

Then Sienna says, “I’ve always liked Valentin. I made it pretty obvious. But I don’t think he felt that way about me.”

When Sienna leaves my impulse is to go over to Valentin’s and talk to him, implore him to take a look at the cave he’s dug himself into. Does he have a clue how he sabotages himself? But I hold back. I know I won’t get through to him.

And then one afternoon Sean comes home and says he just saw Valentin leaving a bookstore, that he was stoned and out of it. The old sympathy drug starts kicking in, and I have the urge to go to his place and see how he is. I’ll make some soup for him. And then I think, “Nah.”

There are some photos I have of a wild ocean, and a calm ocean slick and smooth. I think I’ll tear them up and see how they fit together.