31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 4: “Valerie’s Bush” by Nancy Jo Cullen

May 4, 2014 by · 1 Comment 

From Canary

Canary_Nancy_Jo_CullenAt the Toronto launch for her 2013 debut collection, Nancy Jo Cullen read the story “Valerie’s Bush.” Here are the first two paragraphs from that story:

In the communal shower of the hot yoga studio there were two women as bald as Barbie dolls. Another woman, who Val made to be at least five years older than she was, sported only a little triangle of hair on her pubic bone, her long labia hung below. The blonde woman showering immediately to her right wore a straight rectangle down the centre of her pubis.

Aside from a careful clipping close to her vaginal entry, because that’s just good manners, Valerie’s genitals were covered in a large, curly bush of hair. It had been almost twenty years since her pussy had been on the market, almost twenty years since she’d had to consider its attractiveness to strangers. In that time the natural look had fallen out of fashion, which Valerie was media savvy enough to know, but not alert enough to realize might affect a woman of her age.

Cullen got to the bit about it being twenty years since the character’s “pussy had been on the market,” then looked up quickly with an expression of commingled embarrassment and mischief. “My kids are here,” she said. Cullen’s comment was followed by what sounded like a teenaged girl’s voice rising from somewhere near the back of the gathered crowd: “Thanks, Mom.”

This anecdote tells you pretty much all you need to know about Cullen in general, and “Valerie’s Bush” in particular. The first thing to note is Cullen’s bravery: reading a story that begins with a graphic description of the protagonist’s hirsute genital area is a brave choice of material to foist on a crowd of staid, reliably uptight Canadian readers.

Second, Cullen, like her story, is deliriously funny. Indeed, “Valerie’s Bush,” which runs a brief seven pages, has at least two separate moments that elicit laughter: not small titters of amusement, but deep, resonant belly laughs. The isolated moments are pristine and perfectly timed, arising out of the uncomfortable honesty and forthrightness of the general situation the story explores.

“Valerie’s Bush” features a woman of a certain age who, as the opening paragraphs suggest, has recently split from Margot, her long-term romantic partner. As a means of rejuvenating herself and metaphorically erasing Margot from her life, Valerie decides to undergo a Brazilian waxing procedure. This delicate operation, described in the kind of excruciating detail that calls to mind Steve Carrel’s cinema verité chest-waxing in The 40-Year Old Virgin, is responsible for one of the story’s two big laughs. (The other, which I won’t spoil here, involves a polished stone with highly sentimental meaning for Valerie.)

The story is almost distressingly intimate, in the first place as a result of the dipilatory procedure at its centre, but also because of the raw emotional territory it traverses. During her waxing, Valerie makes small talk with Ingrid, her aesthetician (who neglects even to introduce herself to her vulnerable charge; Valerie identifies her by reading her name tag). But small talk gives way to weightier subjects, and Valerie ends up confessing that the immediate impetus for her decision to wax her pubis was a meeting with Margot during which the latter confesses that her new (much younger) partner, Sue, is pregnant.

Cullen nicely counterpoints the awkwardness of the conversation between Valerie and Ingrid with the emotionally charged meeting between Valerie and Margot. Ingrid reacts with indignation when Valerie imparts her situation: “They wanted me to know first,” Valerie says, to which Ingrid replies, “What a crock of shit!” It is Ingrid who suggests a full Brazilian wax as a means of exorcism; though Valerie is initially reluctant (“Isn’t it kind of weird for a woman my age?”), she gives in as a gesture of defiance and daring.

Like some other stories in Canary, “Valerie’s Bush” is particularly good at handling its middle-aged character, a woman who never anticipated being on her own at this stage in her life, and who reacts with initial confusion and suspicion about the appropriateness of engaging in activities she associates with much younger people. Cullen also presents her protagonist in a manner that is completely unsentimental: “Valerie had no intention of making small talk with her formerly opposed to marriage – same-sex or otherwise – ex-partner when she could be home watching reruns of Criminal Minds.” In a very short space, the author captures the end of a relationship, and a hopeful new beginning for its wounded participant.