Chopin – Etude Op. 10 No. 3 (Tristesse)
Since shortly after her twelfth birthday Valerie had lived with her mother in the house on the northeastern corner of Main Street and Whitten Avenue. It was a house they moved into after Daddy Kyle lost the family farm to the bank and he… well… he stopped sitting at the dinner table in the evenings. In fact, he never sat at that particular dinner table in that particular house. Ever.
“Valerie, help me set the table,” her mother said to her.
“Maybe you could ask Tim to do it. He’s growing up too, you know.”
“He’s a guest in our house this evening.”
“I’d be happy to help,” said Aunt Jen.
“We welcome the company, but you’re a guest too this evening. Valerie used to love doing this. Remember when she was ten and would sing Disney songs as she placed the spoons, knives, and forks?”
“I’ll set the table, Mom, but I don’t sing anymore.”
“That’s a real shame. You have a beautiful singing voice, girl,” said Aunt Jen.
“Valerie doesn’t do a lot of the things she used to do, Jen. Did you know she is giving up cheerleading in her senior year?”
“What? Why, Val? You have always been the best one out there. I thought you were the head cheerleader this year.”
“No. Charlotte Robbins is head cheerleader. But I didn’t want the job anymore anyway. I don’t have the pep in my step anymore to do that whole bouncy, smiley thing.”
Valerie rounded the table plopping down five forks next to the five plates. Then she picked up five spoons and rounded the table again, listlessly plopping down one for Uncle Rance, one for Terrible Tim, one for Aunt Jen, one for Mom, and then one for herself. Aunt Jen was Daddy Kyle’s sister, and her family came to visit every Tuesday like clockwork, because Aunt Jen was relentlessly trying to help her niece and sister-in-law every single week since… since Daddy Kyle stopped sitting at the dinner table. Five butter knives finished the ritual, and Valerie plopped down in her place.
Aunt Jen raised an eyebrow as she surveyed Valerie up and down. “I really thought you loved cheerleading. Is there something more wrong than usual that you need to tell us about?”
“No, I promise, there is not. I’m sorry if I’m a bit out of sorts.”
“Valerie says the cheerleading squad has gotten too shallow and petty for her. She seems to have some sort of grudge against about three of the girls.”
“Oh? Did they do something mean to you, hon?”
“No, Aunt Jen. It’s just that Dottie, Charlotte, and Lupe have all been making fun of the fact that I’ve gone most of the way through high school without a boyfriend. They’ve all got one.”
“All three of those girls?”
“All seven of them besides me. Even Patty the mascot has a boyfriend now.”
“But that is no reason to give up on something you love to do.”
“That’s just it… I don’t love to do it. Not since the end of eighth grade.”
At that moment Uncle Rance and Tim the Termite both walked into the dining room.
“What don’t you love anymore?” Uncle Rance asked.
“Boys,” Tim the Twit had to answer for her. He was the closest thing in the world she had to an actual brother, and he fulfilled that role tremendously terribly.
“Tim, dear, remember our discussion about respecting members of your own family,” Aunt Jen warned.
“But it’s not a secret,” Tim explained. “You remember that French boy that came to live with the Martins, don’t you?”
“Francois? The one who wore the clown paint and sang so beautifully in the Martins’ family bar and grille?”
“Yes,” Valerie answered with an almost-shaky voice. “I was in love with him. And suddenly he was dead and gone.” She looked down at the tablecloth and couldn’t look up again.
The adults were silent, looking… well, stunned.
“Oh, I do remember. That was so sad,” Aunt Jen said.
“But in school you are always hanging around with Ricky Porter and Billy Martin. And you and Danny Murphy were inseparable before he graduated and found that Carla Bates.” Uncle Rance was an English teacher at the high school, and he had seen practically everything she had ever done at Belle City High.
“Yeah, well, that’s because they were all Norwall Pirates and my good friends. Not my boyfriends.”
“We’re sorry for your loss, Val,” Tim said, in a voice that was at the very least an excellent imitation of sincerity. “I know how much you loved him and how long you were hurting after he was gone.”
Valerie almost said something mean to him. But she looked at his innocent little devil-face and knew he wasn’t about to say something to hurt her in this moment. She did love him… in a way… like the way you love a brother whom you want to bop on the head with your closed fist… and maybe even bop him really, really hard. But he was undergoing changes in his life too, wasn’t he?”
“Did Tim tell you about his big date this weekend?” Val blurted out. Even she wasn’t expecting the secret to spill like that.
“Oh? He hasn’t told us anything about it yet,” Aunt Jen said, looking at Tim.
“But I’ll bet it’s Miss Murphy,” said his father.
Tim blushed deeply. “Yes, it’s Dilsey.”
“What are you planning to do?” Aunt Jen asked.
“The Robin Williams movie is playing in Belle City at the theater.”
“Oh, that should be good.” Uncle Rance gave Tim a knowing wink.
Tim looked at Val and gave her a pained smile. “How did you find out before I told anybody?”
“Dilsey asked me to babysit for her on Saturday, and I made her explain why. Of course, you and her used to have some pretty epic arguments about who was more accurately described as a pig and who was a baboon. So, she asked me how terrible I thought you would be to her.”
“Valerie!” Her Mom interjected reproachfully.
“So, did you say nice things about me? Or did you tell her the truth?” Tim said with a wicked grin.
“Tim!” Aunt Jen said with even more vehemence than Mom had used on her.
“I told her that even though you are kinda stinky on the outside, deep inside you’re basically a pretty good guy… well, really deep inside.”
Tim laughed. Everybody else at least smirked, even disapproving parents.
“You know, Tim, we approve of Dilsey Murphy even more than we do of her brother Mike, your best friend,” said Uncle Rance.
“She’s very sweet and well-mannered young lady,” added Aunt Jen. “Not that we don’t find Mike to be charming too… at least sometimes.” Aunt Jen was laughing by that time.
“And, Timothy Allen Kellogg, you better not do anything to upset her in any way,” Valerie warned. “If you do, I will make sure you are wearing your underwear as a hat with your butt still inside it.”
“When you finish med-school, Cuz, you will learn that you can’t actually do that in the real world.” Tim was entirely his usual self again.
“Don’t you try to tell me what I can’t do if I really put my mind to it! One day, no single part of your anatomy will be safe from my surgical skills. I’ll give up my dreams of studying architecture and study medicine just to prove it to you.” After that, the adults fell into their usual conversations. Normally Valerie and Tim would use the time to talk about TV shows and comic books, and what monsters the Norwall Pirates were currently chasing. But it had been a while since Val had last felt like actually talking about stuff. So, instead, the two of them just looked at each other in uncomfortably awkward silence.