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five decisions valentine still regrets (and one she probably won't)

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1. the masquerade

This is worse than a mistake, it's a fucking disaster.

A suit?

She wanted to look like someone who knew what they were doing.

Instead she looks like an overeager temp. From 1993. Or worse, her mother.

Maria Enders politely refrains from commenting and, in fact, studiously avoids looking anywhere below her neck.

"Valentine," she says, toward the end of the interview. She draws out the syllables just slightly. "Is that really your name?"

"Yes." One thing she's learned about her name over the years: Don't explain, don't apologize.

"I guess what I meant is, is that what you want me to call you?"

"It's Val," she says. "I'm sorry, does that mean--?"

Maria rises, so she does the same.

"This isn't going to be a normal office job," she says softly, and Val's stomach drops. Fucking mortifying. She places a hand on Val's shoulder. "Be yourself. I'll see you tomorrow."

She resists the temptation to burn the suit; instead, she shoves it to the back of her closet, just in case she ever feels like being haunted by the spectre of her young, stupid self someday.

2. the retreat

She shouldn't be driving.

But it's not that far to the house, and control is kind of her forte.

"I wonder," Maria says, still a little breathless as she leans back in the passenger seat, "how many of those people thought we were together?"

"Like Sigrid and Helena together?" She pretends the idea hadn't occurred to her. "That haircut would give anyone the wrong idea."

Maria touches her hair. "You don't like it?"

She doesn't sound upset, but Val bites back the urge to apologize, because she knows Maria is still slightly self-conscious about it, and honestly, she thinks it's actually really goddamn brave; it was a stupid thing to say. "No, I--I like it."

"Besides, what about your clothes?"

She glances over at Maria. "What's wrong with my clothes?"

"Nothing's wrong," she says. "they just say... 'I'm not interested in men.' Loud and clear."

Val shrugs. "Okay. So?"

That ends the conversation fairly efficiently.

She pulls up to the house and undoes her seatbelt, but Maria doesn't move.

"You coming?"

"You know," she says, "I always thought Sigrid was repulsed by Helena. Her body is old, rotting away, why would someone as robust as Sigrid be even remotely interested?"

Val sighs. There's no point in arguing tonight, not when Maria's two and a half sheets to the wind. "You're not old or rotting."

"I meant when I was Sigrid. I could afford to be unkind then. I wonder if your JoAnn would think the same of me now."

"Maria," she says.

"Valentine," she mimicks.

Her heart is pounding, and Maria's looking at her expectantly. Is she just waiting for another assurance, or...?

Val makes a face. "Do you want me to tell you that you're hot? You're hot. Can we go inside? I'm about to pass out."

She opens her door and gets out quickly. Maria doesn't move from the passenger seat. "You're a terrible actress, you know," she says loudly.

"I'm not an actress, remember?"

"Oh, right," she says. "I keep forgetting."

3. the distraction

She thinks getting laid will resolve some of her constant frustration. And sometimes she needs to remember what it's like to have a life outside of her job.

Because it's just a job, even if it's not an office job. It's only work, her father used to say.

Afterward, when she's clarifying to the guy that this isn't and will never be a thing, she can't even hear herself, just Maria's voice saying the same words. She memorizes the practiced nonchalance on his face, adds it to her repertoire, just in case.

The whole thing was just a waste of time and, honestly, counterproductive.

She needs to get back to work.

4. the departure

There are moments when she doesn't think about Maria at all, like when she's stepping out of the shower, or when she's asleep, when she locks her keys in her apartment, when she's ordering a drink, when she brushes her hair, when she's putting on her shoes, when she trips on the sidewalk and catches herself--

Then she remembers, and waits for the guilt to settle in.

She knows Maria didn't understand, that she must be furious.

She can't even say I didn't mean it, because yeah, she did, and she'd do it again.

But Maria wouldn't get that.

She's been keeping an eye on the reviews. As it turned out, JoAnn's Sigrid, all vacuous ambition, would have made a good match for Maria's conception of old, pathetic, desperate Helena.

According to the trades, Helena seems disproportionately despondent, in light of the almost-clinical nature of her relationship with Sigrid. After all, it's obvious that JoAnn's Sigrid never cared for her, and there's no heat between the actresses. Perhaps this Sigrid and Helena belong in two different plays.

She knows that for JoAnn, the play will be filed away as a passing reference for every subsequent interview (..."a well-received turn on the stage in the revival of Maloja Snake..."); Maria will give a few charitable quotes about JoAnn's talents the first time she's asked, so some of JoAnn's more rabid fans will begin following her career; the benefit will be brief and minimal at best.

For Maria, the play will not lead to better offers, and there will be no awards on the horizon. She read on Deadline that Maria has signed on for the evil-nun movie, which has straight-to-Redbox written all over it, an art film about mourning for a respected Italian director that will play in two theaters in the U.S. if she's lucky, and a small role in a CGI sword-and-sandal thing that's obviously destined to sit on the shelf for a year before its underwhelming theatrical release.

Who the fuck is advising her? she wonders.

Or has she just decided to take every offer that comes her way, no matter how stupid or career-damaging it might be?

God, who cares? She's still fixated on Maria like it's her job.

But it's not.

5. the omission

She lists the experience on her resume but doesn't invoke her former employer's name at any point during the application process or the first interview. She hides behind confidentiality obligations, but it's useless, of course anyone who doesn't already know who she used to work for can find out in seconds.

"Maria Enders put in a good word for you," says the interviewer by way of greeting when she returns for the second interview.

"Great," she says, the implication clear: congratulations, you know how to use Google.

The interviewer presses on, probably under the impression she'll be thrilled: "She said you were dedicated and efficient, the best assistant she'd ever had." He smiles. "Onward and upward, huh?"

Val gets the job. She declines.

She was never Sigrid, and she never will be.

6. the surprise

She has to see Maloja Snake on closing night.

Afterward, she makes her way backstage, a familiar routine. She congratulates JoAnn, who graciously pretends to remember her, and then she heads toward Maria's dressing room, only to be met by Maria herself as she emerges. Her face is still flushed.

"You were great," she volunteers. "You really inhabited Helena after all."

Silence.

"I learned to empathize with her," Maria finally says. "I guess I should thank you." She pauses, and then, as if the thought has just occurred to her: "Was that--"

"No, that's not why I left." She blinks. "Or, I don't know, maybe it was part of it."

"Well," Maria says, ice cold, "thank you, then."

"Why did you sign on to that evil nun movie?"

"I decided it sounded fun."

"Since when do you make choices based on--"

"Since I got tired of feeling sad all the time," she snaps.

Val resists the urge to apologize.

"Did you come here just to harass me about my terrible choices?"

She loses her nerve. "I just wanted to say congratulations."

"Okay. Thanks." She retreats into the dressing room and closes the door.

Val is sorely tempted to walk away and never look back.

Instead she takes a deep breath and knocks on the door.

Maria opens it just wide enough to see her.

"Can I come in?"

She doesn't answer. Her eyes are wet.

"Please?"

Nothing.

She turns to leave.

"I don't forgive you."

She stops. "I didn't ask you to."

"And you can't have your job back."

She turns to face Maria. "Even though I'm dedicated and efficient?"

Maria almost smiles.

"I didn't take that job, by the way."

"You didn't want to use me, you wanted to show yourself or me that you're not like Sigrid at all." She sounds bored. "That was an idiotic way to prove it."

"Did you call me back here just to harass me about my stupid choices?"

"Yes," Maria says.

Val approaches her. Now or never. "Really? I came here because I missed you."

"Another stupid choice," she says softly.

"Are you ready to talk about the reason I left?"

"No," she says.

"I need to tell someone, and I just really feel like it should be you."

"I'm not your therapist. I'm not even your boss anymore. Why me?"

She rolls her eyes. "Why are you making this so hard?"

"Is it supposed to be easy?" Maria shrugs. "Maybe it is easy to run away. Coming back is the hard part."

"Let me in. Please?"

"All this time, I thought, if she ever has the nerve to show her face again, I'll make her grovel. But now that you're here, I just feel..."

She waits.

"Afraid," Maria says.

"Of me?"

"Aren't you going to apologize?"

"Yes."

"Okay, Valentine," Maria says, opening the door a little wider. "Let's talk."

As it turns out, there's not much to talk about.