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My Dark Vanessa (Page 10)

It’s early June, the first sunny day after two weeks of rain. The blackflies are gone, but the mosquitoes are thick, swarming around us as we drag the swimming float across the yard into the lake. Dad and I sit on opposite sides, each with a paddle, guiding it past the boulders into deep water, where Dad attaches it to the anchor, takes off the buoy. We sit for a while on the float, Dad with one foot dangling in the water, me with my knees pulled up to my chest, shielding my old saggy bathing suit, its elastic rotted, the stretched-out straps knotted to keep them from falling down my arms. Onshore, Babe paces and pants, her leash tethered to the trunk of a pine tree. Neither of us is eager to swim back home. There haven’t been enough hot days; the water’s still cold.

Staring across the lake, sunlight streaming in rays straight to the bottom, I can see the sunken logs left from a hundred years ago, back when the lake and the woods surrounding it were owned by a lumber mill. Closer to shore, sunfish guard their egg nests, perfect circles of sand laboriously cleared with their tail fins. Damselflies dart over the water, their long bodies fused, looking for a safe place to mate. Two of them land on my forearm, electric blue bodies, transparent wings.

“Seems like you’re doing better,” Dad says.

That’s how we talk about Strane now, Browick, everything that happened—evasive references. This is the closest anyone ever comes to mentioning it. Dad keeps his eyes on Babe back onshore, doesn’t look over to check my response. I notice he does that a lot now, avoids looking at me, and I know it’s because of what happened, but I tell myself it’s because I lived away at school for two years, because I’m older, because what father wants to look at his teenage daughter in a saggy swimsuit.

I say nothing, stare down at the damselflies. I do feel better, or at least better than I did a month ago when I left Browick, but admitting it feels too much like moving on.

“Might as well get this over with.” He stands, dives into the water. When his head pokes back up, he lets out a whoop. “Judas Priest, that’s cold.” He looks toward me. “You getting in?”

“I’ll wait a few minutes.”

“Suit yourself.”

I watch him move through the water back to shore, where Babe waits, ready to lick the droplets off his shins. I close my eyes and hear the water lapping against the sides of the float, the dee-dee-dee calls of the chickadee, the wood thrush and mourning dove. When I was younger, my parents used to say I sounded like a mourning dove, always sulking, always so damn sad.

When I dive in, the cold is such a shock that for a split second I can’t swim, can’t move, my body careening toward the green-black bottom, but then—the gentle pull back to the surface, my face turned upward, toward the sun.

As I walk across the yard to the house, my stomach sinks when I see Mom’s car in the driveway. Home from work, she’s picked up a pizza. “Grab a plate,” Dad says. He folds his slice in half, takes a big bite.

Mom drops her purse onto the counter, kicks off her shoes, and notices me in my swimsuit and with wet hair. “Vanessa, for god’s sake, get a towel. You’re dripping all over the floor.”

I ignore her and inspect the pizza, globs of sausage and cheese. Even though I’m so hungry my hands are shaky, I make a face. “Yuck. Look at that grease. Disgusting.”

“Fine,” Mom says. “Don’t eat it.”

Sensing a fight, Dad moves out of the kitchen, into the living room and the escape of the TV.

“What should I eat instead? Everything in this house is inedible.”

She touches two fingers to her forehead. “Vanessa, please. I’m not in the mood.”

I throw open a cupboard door, take out a can. “Corned beef hash that’s”—I check the date—“two years expired. Wow. Yum.”

Mom grabs the can, throws it in the garbage. She turns, goes into the bathroom, and slams the door.

Later, when I’m in bed with my notebook, writing down the scenes that never stop replaying in my head—Strane touching me for the first time behind his desk, the nights I spent at his house, the afternoons in his office—Mom comes up with two slices of pizza. She sets the plate on my nightstand, sits on the edge of the bed.

“Maybe we could take a trip down the coast this weekend,” she says.

“And do what?” I mumble. I don’t look up from my notebook, but I can feel her hurt. She’s trying to pull me back into being a kid, back when she and I never needed to do anything, when we’d just get in the car and head out, happy to be together.

She looks down at the notebook pages, tilts her head to see what I’m writing. Classroom and desk and Strane repeat over and over.

I flip over the notebook. “Do you mind?”

“Vanessa,” she sighs.

We stare each other down, her eyes traveling my face, searching for the changes in me, or maybe for a sign of something familiar. She knows. That’s all I can think whenever she looks at me—she knows. At first I was scared she would contact Browick or the police, or at least tell Dad. For weeks, every time the phone rang, my body braced itself for the inevitable fallout. But it never happened. She’s keeping my secret.

“If nothing happened,” she says, “you need to figure out a way to let it go.”

She pats my hand as she gets up, ignores how I jerk out of reach. She leaves my bedroom door open halfway and I get up to shove it closed.

Let it go. When I first realized she wasn’t going to tell anyone, I was relieved, but now, it’s started to flatten out into something like disappointment. Because the deal seems to be, if you want me to keep this secret, then we have to pretend it never happened—and I can’t do that. I’ll remember everything as hard as I can. I’ll live inside these memories until I can see him again.

 

The summer stretches on. At night, I lie in bed and listen to the loons scream. During the day, while my parents are at work, I walk the dirt road and pick wild raspberries to cook in pancakes that I drench in syrup and eat until I feel sick. I lie in the yard, facedown in the crabgrass, and listen to Babe lope around in the lake, looking for fish. The spray of water droplets on my back as she shakes herself dry, her nose nudging the back of my neck as though to ask if I’m ok.

I choose to think of this as the lull in my story, a period of banishment that tests my loyalties but will ultimately make me stronger. I’ve accepted that I cannot contact Strane, at least not any time soon. Even if my parents weren’t checking the caller ID and phone bill, I imagine lines being tapped, emails monitored. One phone call from me and he could be fired. The cops could show up at his door. It’s strange to think of myself as that dangerous, but look at what already happened—I barely opened my mouth and brought us to the brink of disaster.

All I can do is suffer through. Paddle the canoe into the middle of the lake and let it drift back to shore, read Lolita for the millionth time and scrutinize Strane’s faded annotations. Stare down page 140, when Humbert and Lo are in the car the morning after they have sex for the first time, where a line is underlined in what looks like fresher ink: “It was something quite special, that feeling: an oppressive, hideous constraint as if I were sitting with the small ghost of somebody I had just killed.” Think of Strane driving me back to campus after the first night at his house, how closely he studied me when he asked if I was ok. Scrawl in my notebook, “Jailbait” means having the power to turn a man into a criminal with just one touch.

I dread August, because once the Browick move-in date passes, I can no longer pretend there’s a chance this will fix itself, that I might wake up that morning to the truck packed, my parents crying out, “Surprise! It’s all been worked out. Of course you’re going back!” On the morning of move-in day, I wake to an empty house, my parents both at work. A note on the kitchen counter tells me to vacuum, do the dishes, brush Babe, water the tomato and zucchini plants. Still in my sleep shorts and T-shirt, I throw on sneakers and take off into the woods. I run straight up the bluff, underbrush scraping my shins. When I reach the top, gasping for breath, I look out over the lake, the mountain, that long, low whale’s back rising from the earth. The endless woods interrupted only by a wisp of highway, big rigs gliding like toys on a track. I think of stepping into an empty dorm room, the sun draped across a bare mattress, finding someone else’s initials carved on the windowsill. I imagine a new class taking their seats around the seminar table while Strane looks on, thinking of me.

 

My new high school is a long one-story building that was hurriedly built in the sixties to accommodate all the baby boomers and hasn’t been updated since. It shares a parking lot with a strip mall that has a discount grocery store, a laundromat, a telemarketing center where people sell credit cards, and a diner that still allows people to smoke.

It’s the opposite of Browick in every possible way. Carpeted classrooms, pep rallies, kids in T-shirts and jeans, voc classes, cafeteria trays of chicken nuggets and slab pizza, classrooms so crowded they can’t fit another desk. On the drive in that morning, Mom says it’s good I’m starting on the first day of a new school year, that I’ll blend right in, but as I walk the hallways it’s clear I’ve been marked. Kids I recognize from middle school avert their eyes, while others openly stare. In Honors French 4, the textbook full of lessons I’ve already learned, two boys in the row beside me whisper about a new girl they’ve heard about, a junior, a transfer, a slut who boned a teacher.

At first, I can only blink blindly down at my textbook. Boned?

Then rage rushes through me. Because these boys have no idea the girl they’re talking about is sitting next to them, because I have only two choices and neither is fair—sit and say nothing, or cause a scene and out myself. Maybe the boys assume I’m a senior like them, but more likely is that it doesn’t even cross their minds that I’m the girl in question. From the outside, I must seem ordinary, barefaced and dressed in size ten corduroys. You? they’d ask in disbelief, unable to reconcile me with the slut they had imagined.

 

On my fourth day, two girls fall into step beside me on the way to the cafeteria. One I know from middle school, Jade Reynolds. Her brown hair is bleached a brassy orange, and she’s ditched the wide-leg jeans and barbell necklaces she used to wear but kept the kohl-rimmed eyes. The other girl, Charley, I recognize from my chemistry class. She’s tall, smells of cigarettes, has hair so bleached it’s almost white. Her hooked nose makes her eyes look slightly crossed, like a Siamese cat.

Jade smiles at me as we walk, a smile that’s less about being nice and more about peering straight into me. “Vanessa, hi,” she says brightly, drawing out her words. “Do you want to eat with us?”

My shoulders hunch reflexively. I shake my head, sensing a trap. “That’s ok.”

Jade ducks her head. “Are you sure?” She keeps smiling that strange searching smile.

“Come on,” Charley says, her voice rough. “Nobody wants to eat alone.”

In the cafeteria, the girls head straight to a table in the corner. I barely sit down before Jade leans across the table, her brown eyes wide.

“So,” she says. “Why did you transfer here?”

“I didn’t like it,” I say. “Boarding school was too expensive.”

Jade and Charley exchange a look.

“We heard you had sex with a teacher,” Jade says.

In a way, it’s a relief to hear the question leveled at me directly—a relief, too, to imagine the story snaking its way across the state, refusing to be left behind. My parents can pretend it never happened but it did, it did.

“Was he hot?” Charley asks. “I’d fuck a hot teacher.”

They watch me curiously as I struggle to answer. Like with the boys in French class, I know what they imagine is way off—a handsome young teacher, like something out of a movie. I wonder what they’d think of me if they saw Strane with his belly and wire-framed glasses.

“So you really did?” Jade asks, a note of incredulity in her voice. She isn’t convinced. I lift my shoulders, not quite affirmation but not a denial, and Charley nods like she understands.

The girls share a package of peanut butter crackers Jade produces from her backpack, both pulling the crackers apart and scraping the peanut butter off with their teeth. Their eyes follow the teacher circling the cafeteria. When the teacher ducks down to talk to a table across the room, Jade and Charley shoot up.

“Come on,” Charley says. “Bring your backpack.”

They hurry out of the cafeteria and down the hallway, turn a corner into a smaller wing of the school and then out a door that opens onto a walkway leading to a temporary classroom. They duck under the walkway railing and jump onto the grass below.

When I hesitate, Charley reaches up and smacks my ankle hard. “Jump before someone sees you.”

We run across the grass to the parking lot and the strip mall, where people push carts teeming with bags out of the grocery store. A man leaning against an empty taxi watches us as he takes a drag off a cigarette.

Charley grabs my sleeve and leads me into the grocery store. I drift along, following them through the aisles. The employees eye us. It’s obvious we’re from the high school; our backpacks are dead giveaways. Charley and Jade meander up and down a few aisles before heading for the makeup section.

“I like this,” Jade says, inspecting the bottom of a lipstick. She holds the tube out to Charley, who flips it over and reads the color name, “Wine with Everything.”

Jade hands the lipstick to me. “It’s nice,” I say, handing it back.

“No,” she whispers. “Put it in your pocket.”

I clasp my hand around the lipstick, realizing what this is all about. In one fluid motion, Charley shoves three bottles of nail polish into her backpack. Jade slips two lipsticks and an eyeliner into her pocket.

“That’s enough for now,” Charley says.

I follow them across the store, back toward the doors. When we cut through an empty register lane, I drop the lipstick among the candy bars.

 

In a parallel universe, I’m still at Browick. I have another single in Gould, bigger this time, with more natural light. Instead of chemistry, U.S. history, and algebra, I take courses in stellar astronomy, the sociology of rock and roll, the art of math. I have a directed reading with Strane and we meet in the afternoons, in his office, to talk about the books he tells me to read. Thoughts flow from him straight into me, our brains and bodies connected.

I dig through my bedroom closet and find the glossy brochures I brought home as an eighth grader who saw galaxies in her future. I cut up the pages and glue them on the cover of my journal—dining hall tables set with tablecloths for parents’ visiting weekend, students bent over books in the library, the autumn campus awash in golden light and fiery leaves, maple red. An L.L.Bean catalog comes in the mail and I cut that up, too. The men are all stand-ins for Strane, dressed in tweed blazers, flannel shirts, and hiking boots, holding mugs of steaming black coffee. I miss him so much, I exhaust myself from it. I drag myself from class to class, breaking the days down into manageable units. If not hours, then minutes. If I think about how many days lie before me, I end up obsessing over things I know I shouldn’t. Like, maybe being dead isn’t the worst thing. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.

On the third week, the Twin Towers fall, and all day at school, we watch the news. Miniature American flags start appearing on cars, pinned to people’s jackets, in convenience stores next to the cash registers. Fox News plays on the TV in the cafeteria, and every evening my parents watch hours of CNN, the same shots of smoke billowing from the towers, George W. with a megaphone at Ground Zero, pundits speculating about where the anthrax letters are coming from. My new English teacher hangs an illustration of a crying bald eagle on the front of her desk, and in the corner of the whiteboard, she writes the words NEVER FORGET. Yet all I can think about is Strane, my own loss. In my notebook, I write, Our country was attacked. It is a tragic day. Close the front cover, open it again and add, And yet all I care about is myself. I am selfish and bad. I hope the words will shame me. They do nothing.

 

During lunch, Charley, Jade, and I smoke cigarettes around the back of the strip mall, hidden between two dumpsters piled high with cardboard. Jade wants Charley to skip chemistry so they can go somewhere—the mall, maybe? I don’t know. I’m not really listening. The real reason Jade wants Charley to skip is because she’s jealous, hates that Charley and I have a class together without her. Fifty whole minutes she doesn’t have access to.

“I can’t skip,” Charley says, flicking her cigarette. There’s a tattoo of a tiny heart on her middle finger—a stick and poke, she said. Her mother’s boyfriend did it. “We have a quiz today. Right, Vanessa?”

I move my head in a part shake, part nod. I have no idea.

Jade glares out at the grocery store loading docks, the backed-in eighteen-wheelers delivering food. “Figures,” she mutters.

“Oh my god, relax.” Charley laughs. “We’ll go after school. God, you’re so fuckin’ uptight.”

Jade exhales a cloud of smoke, nostrils flared.

 

In chemistry, Charley whispers that she’s horny for Will Coviello, wants him so bad she’s willing to give him a blow job and she never gives blow jobs. I hardly hear her because I’m so engrossed in the inside cover of my notebook, where I’ve written out Strane’s schedule from memory. Right now, he’s teaching sophomore English, sitting at the seminar table, someone else in my chair.

“Isn’t that sad?” Charley asks. “Do you think I’m pathetic?”

I don’t look up from my notebook. “I think you should do whatever you want with whoever you want.”

I look ahead to the next class period on Strane’s schedule—a free hour. I picture him in the office, reclined on the tweed sofa, a stack of ungraded homework on his lap, his thoughts drifting to me.

“See, that’s why I like you,” Charley says. “You’re so chill. We should hang out. Like, for real. Outside of school.”

I glance up from my notebook.

“What about Friday? You can come to the bowling alley.”

“I don’t really like bowling.”

She rolls her eyes. “We don’t actually bowl.”

I ask what it is that they do there, but Charley only grins, ducks her head down toward the gas valve, puckers her lips, moves to turn it on. I grab her hand and she laughs, raspy and loud.

 

On Friday night, Charley drives all the way out to my house to pick me up, comes inside and introduces herself to my parents. Her hair is pulled back into a neat ponytail and she’s wearing a ring that hides her tattoo.

She tells my mom she’s had her license for a year, a lie that comes out so smooth, it fools even me. I see my parents exchanging glances, how Mom wrings her hands, but I know they don’t want to tell me I can’t go. At least I’m making friends, starting to fit in.

Once Charley and I are walking up the driveway, out of earshot, she says, “Christ, you really live out in the fuckin’ boonies.”

“I know, I hate it.”

“I would, too. You know, last year I dated a guy who lived out here.” She says his name, but I don’t recognize it. “He was a little older,” she explains.

Her car squeals as she pulls out of the driveway, and I picture Mom wincing at the sound. “Yeah, sorry,” Charley says, “muffler’s bad.” She drives with one hand on the wheel, the other holding a cigarette, her window cracked to let out the smoke. She wears gloves with the fingertips cut off, her coat covered in cat hair. She asks me questions about myself, about what I think of different people at school, about having gone to Browick. She says she’s obsessed with the idea of boarding school.

“Was it crazy?” she asks. “It must’ve been. Full of rich kids, right?”

“Not everyone was rich.”

“Were there drugs everywhere?”

“No,” I say. “It wasn’t like that. It was . . .” I think of the white clapboard campus, the autumn oak trees, the snow banks higher than our heads, the teachers in jeans and flannel shirts—Strane, draped in shadow, as he watched me from behind his desk. I shake my head. “It’s hard to describe.”

Charley sticks the tip of her cigarette out the window. “Well, you’re lucky. Even if you were only there a couple years. My mom would never be able to swing that.”

“I had a scholarship,” I say quickly.

“Yeah, but even then, my mom wouldn’t have let me go. She loves me too much. I mean, letting your kid move away as a freshman? At fourteen? That’s crazy.” She takes a drag, exhales, and adds, “Sorry. I’m sure your mom loves you. It’s just different, I guess, with mine. We’re close. It’s just her and me.”

I wave her off, say that it’s fine, but what she said stings. Maybe it hurts because it might be true. Maybe I wasn’t loved enough. Maybe that lack of love shaped the loneliness he saw in me.

“Will’s supposed to be there tonight,” she says, such a sudden subject change I start to ask Will who, but then remember what she said in chemistry. Will Coviello is so hot, I’ll give him a blow job. Watch me, I’ll do it. I’ve known Will Coviello since I was in kindergarten. He’s a year older, a senior, lives in a big house with a tennis court out front. Girls used to call him Prince William in middle school.

When we get to the bowling alley, Jade is already there, wearing a satiny camisole without a bra. The bowling alley is dimly lit, with long tables set back from the lanes where a bunch of kids from school sit, their faces recognizable but most of their names out of reach. There’s a sports bar attached to the bowling alley, an open doorway separating the two so jukebox music drifts in, the smell of beer.

Charley sits next to Jade. “Have you seen Will?” When Jade nods and points toward the doors, Charley takes off so fast she almost knocks over a chair.

Without Charley around, Jade won’t speak to me. She stares pointedly over my shoulders, refuses to look at me. Her eyeliner cuts across her eyelids into sharp points. I haven’t seen her wear it like that before.

Men with drinks in their hands wander out of the bar and into the bowling alley, their eyes skimming the dim room. A man in a camo jacket sees our table and gestures to his friend. The other man just shakes his head and holds up his hands, as if to say, I don’t want anything to do with that.

I watch the man in the jacket come over, notice how he zeroes in on Jade and her slutty top. He pulls up a chair beside her, sets his drink on the table. “Hope you don’t mind if I sit here,” he says. His accent turns here into two syllables. He-yah. “It’s so crowded, there’s nowhere else for me to go.”

It’s a joke; there are plenty of seats. Jade is supposed to laugh, but she won’t even look over at him. She sits with her back stick straight and arms crossed over her chest. In a tiny voice, she says, “It’s fine.”

The man isn’t bad looking, despite his grubby hands. He’s who the boys at school will grow up into—thick Maine accent and a pickup truck. “How old are you?” I ask. The question comes out more forceful than I intend, makes me sound accusing, but he doesn’t seem put off. He turns toward me, his attention immediately shifting away from Jade.

He says to me, “I feel like I should be asking you the same question.”

“I asked first.”

He smirks. “I’ll tell you, but I’ll make you work for it. I graduated high school in nineteen eighty-three.”

I think for a moment; Strane graduated high school in 1976. “You’re thirty-six.”

The man raises his eyebrows, sips his drink. “You disgusted?”

“Why would I be disgusted?”

“Because thirty-six is old.” He laughs. “How old are you?”

“How old do you think I am?”

He looks me over. “Eighteen.”

“Sixteen.”

He laughs again, shakes his head. “Christ.”

“Is that bad?” It’s a stupid question and I know it. Of course it’s bad. The badness of it is written all over his face. I flick my eyes over to Jade and she stares at me as though she’s never seen me before, like she has no idea who I am.

A senior girl at the other end of the table leans toward us. “Hey, can I have a sip of your drink?” she asks. The man grimaces a little, a small show of acknowledgment that it’s wrong, but slides the glass down the table. The girl takes one sip and then shrieks out a giggle, as though instantly drunk.

“Ok, ok.” The man reaches for his drink. “I don’t wanna get kicked out.”

“What’s your name?” I ask.

“Craig.” He nudges the glass toward me. “You want a taste?”

“What is it?”

“Whiskey and Coke.”

I reach for it. “I love whiskey.”

“And what’s your name, sixteen-year-old-who-loves-whiskey?”

I shake my hair back from my face. “Vanessa.” I say it with a sigh, as though I’m bored to tears, as though a fire isn’t burning in me. I wonder if this counts as cheating, how angry Strane would be if he walked in and saw this scene.

Charley comes back over, her face flushed, hair messed up. She takes a long swallow from Jade’s can of soda.

“What happened?” Jade asks.

Charley waves her hand; she doesn’t want to talk about it. “Let’s get out of here. I want to go home and pass out.” She looks at me, suddenly remembering. “Shit, I need to drive you home.”

Craig watches intently. “You need a ride?” he asks me.

I balk, my limbs tingling.

“Who are you?” Charley asks.

“I’m Craig.” He holds his hand out for her to shake. Charley just stares him down.

“Right.” She looks to me. “You’re not leaving with him. I’ll drive you home.”

I give Craig a sheepish smile and try not to look too relieved.

“Does she always tell you what to do?” he asks. I shake my head and he leans in toward me. “So what if I wanted to talk to you sometime? How would I do that?”

He wants a phone number, but I know my parents would probably call the police at the sound of his voice. “Do you have Instant Messenger?”

“Like AOL? Sure, I’ve got that.”

Charley watches as I fish a pen from the bottom of my bag and write my screen name on the palm of his hand. “You really like old guys, don’t you?” she asks as we walk out the door. “Sorry if I cock-blocked you. I didn’t think you really wanted to let him drive you home.”

“I didn’t. I just like the attention. He’s obviously a loser.”

She laughs, opens her car door and gets inside, leans across and unlocks the passenger door. “You know, you’re surprisingly screwed up.”

On the drive to my house, Charley plays the same Missy Elliott song over and over, the dashboard glowing her face blue as she raps along: “Ain’t no shame, ladies, do your thing / just make sure you’re ahead of the game.”

 

By Monday everyone knows Charley gave Will a blow job, but he won’t speak to her now and Jade hears from Ben Sargent that Will called Charley white trash.

“Men are shit,” Charley says as we smoke cigarettes behind the grocery store, huddled between the dumpsters. Jade nods in agreement and I do, too, but only for show. I stayed up late Saturday and Sunday chatting with Craig, and my head still rings from all the compliments he gave me. I’m so pretty, so hot, unbelievably sexy. Since he met me Friday night, I’m the only thing he’s thought about. He’ll do anything to see me again.

Charley says that men are shit, but really she means boys. She wipes away tears before they have a chance to fall, and I know she’s mad and that it must hurt like hell, but a part of me can’t help but think: what did she expect?

*  *  *

Craig is nothing like Strane. He’s a veteran, was in Desert Storm, and now works construction. He doesn’t read, didn’t go to college, and doesn’t have anything to say when I try to talk about the things I care about. The worst thing about him is how much he likes guns—not just hunting rifles but handguns. When I say I think guns are idiotic, he writes, You won’t think that when someone breaks into your bedroom in the middle of the night. Being armed will probably seem pretty smart then.

Who’s going to break into my bedroom? I shoot back. You?

Maybe.

With Craig, it’s only chatting online, which makes it ok even when he acts like a creep. I haven’t seen him since that night at the bowling alley, and I’m not in any rush to, but he says he wants to see me. He talks all the time about how he wants to take me out.

Where would we even go? I ask, like I’m stupid. Whenever the conversation veers off in a direction I don’t like, I play dumb, which means I play dumb so often, he thinks I actually am.

What do you mean, where? Craig writes. To the movies, dinner. Haven’t you ever been on a date before?

Ok, but I’m sixteen.

You could pass for eighteen.

He doesn’t understand how this works, doesn’t get that I don’t want to pass for eighteen and that I have zero interest in going to the movies as though he were a boy my own age.

 

The weather cools to a raw gray. The leaves change and fall, the woods turn sparse with skeletal trees. I learn things about myself: that if I limit myself to five hours of sleep, I’m too tired to care what happens around me; if I wait until dinnertime to eat anything, hunger pains drown out any other feelings. Christmas comes and goes, another new year; the TV news still screams about anthrax and war. At school, the rumors about me have long died down. My parents stop locking the cordless phone in their bedroom every night.

I keep chatting with Craig, but his compliments turn stale and the feeling he gave me when I first met him dries up. Now when we chat, all I can think about is what Strane would think of him and what Strane would think of me for spending my time talking to him.

Craig207: Can I admit something? I had a one-night stand on Saturday.

dark_vanessa: why are you telling me this?

Craig207: Because I think you should know that I thought about you the whole time.

dark_vanessa: hmmm

Craig207: I pretended she was you.

 

Craig207: So you still haven’t heard from that teacher?

dark_vanessa: it’s not safe for us to talk.

Craig207: You talk to me. How is that different?

dark_vanessa: you and I haven’t done anything. we’re just talking.

Craig207: You know I want to do more than talk.

Craig207: He’s really the only guy you’ve been with?

Craig207: Hello? You there?

 

Craig207: Look, I’ve been pretty patient, but I’m reaching my breaking point. I’ve had it with this endless talking.

Craig207: When can I see you?

dark_vanessa: um not sure. maybe next week?

Craig207: You said next week is February break.

dark_vanessa: oh yeah. I dunno. it’s hard.

Craig207: It doesn’t have to be hard. We can make this happen tomorrow.

Craig207: I work half a mile away from the high school. I’ll pick you up.

dark_vanessa: that wouldn’t work.

Craig207: It will work. I’ll prove it.

dark_vanessa: what does that mean?

Craig207: You’ll see

dark_vanessa: what are you saying???

Craig207: You get out around 2, right? That’s usually when I see all the buses lining up out front.

dark_vanessa: what are you going to do just show up or something?

Craig207: You’ll see then how easy it is

dark_vanessa: please do not do that.

Craig207: You don’t like the idea that the man you’ve been toying with might finally take some action?

dark_vanessa: I’m serious

Craig207: See ya

I block his screen name, delete all our chats and emails, and fake sick the next day, grateful that at least I never told him exactly where I live so there’s no chance he’ll find me at home. When I return to school, I carry my house key so it sticks out between my fingers as I walk from the school doors to the bus. I imagine him grabbing me from behind, forcing me into his truck, and then who knows what. Rape and murder me, probably. Carry my corpse to the movies so we can finally have that stupid date he always went on about. After a week passes and nothing happens, I stop holding my key like a weapon and unblock his screen name to see if he’ll message me. He doesn’t. He’s gone. I tell myself I’m relieved.

 

In early March, my copy of Lolita goes missing from my nightstand. I tear my room apart searching for it; the thought of losing it has me almost out of my mind with panic. It wasn’t just my copy; it was Strane’s—his notes in the margins, traces of him on the pages.

I don’t really believe my parents took it, but I don’t know how else it could have disappeared. Downstairs, Mom sits alone at the dining room table. It’s covered in bills, a calculator with a spool of paper. Dad’s in town buying sugaring supplies for the upcoming weekends of boiling down maple sap on the woodstove, filling the house with sweet steam.

“Did you go in my room?” I ask.

She looks up from the calculator, her face serene.

“Something’s missing,” I say. “Did you take it?”

“What is it that’s missing?” she asks.

I take a breath. “A book.”

She blinks, looks back down to the bills. “What book?”

I clench my jaw; my stomach tightens. It feels like she wants to see if I’ll say it. “It doesn’t matter,” I say. “It was mine. You have no right to take it.”

“Well, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she says. “I didn’t take anything from your room.”

My heart pounds as I watch her shuffle the papers. She writes down a list of numbers and then punches those numbers into the calculator. When a sum appears, she sighs.

“You think you’re protecting me but it’s too late,” I say.

She looks up, her eyes sharp, a crack in the cool expression.

“Maybe some of this was your fault,” I say. “Did you ever consider that?”

“I’m not getting into this with you right now,” she says.

“Most mothers don’t let their kid move out at fourteen. You realize that, right?”

“You didn’t move out,” she says sharply. “You went away to school.”

“Well, all my friends think it’s weird that you let me do that,” I say. “Most mothers love their kids too much to send them away, but not you I guess.”

She stares at me, her face drains of color and the next moment it’s swallowed by a flush. Boiling red, flared nostrils, maybe the first time I’ve ever seen in her that kind of anger. For a moment I imagine her leaping up from the table and lunging at me, her hands around my neck.

“You begged us to let you go there,” she says, her voice shaking from the effort to remain calm.

“I didn’t beg.”

“You gave us a goddamn presentation about it.”

I shake my head. “You’re exaggerating,” I say, though she’s not. I did give a presentation; I did beg.

“You can’t do that,” she says. “You don’t get to change the facts to suit the story you want to tell.”

“What does that mean?”

She takes a breath as though to speak. Then she exhales, lets it go. She stands, moves into the kitchen—to get away from me, I know, but I follow her. A few steps behind, I ask again, “What does that mean? Mom, what is that supposed to mean?” To drown me out, she turns the water on full blast and clangs the dishes in the sink, but I don’t stop. The question keeps coming out of me, berating and outside my control, outside myself.

The plate in her hands slips, or maybe it’s slammed on purpose. Either way, it breaks—shards into the sink. I go quiet, my hands tingling as though I’m the one who shattered the plate.

“You lied to me, Vanessa,” she says. Her hand, red from the hot water and slick with soap, turns off the tap and then balls into a fist. Water darkens her shirt as she pounds that fist against her own heart. “You told me you had a boyfriend. You sat there and you lied to me and you let me think . . .”

She trails off and clamps the wet hand over her eyes, like she can’t bear to remember it. That drive back to Browick, her saying, All I care about is that he’s nice to you. Asking me if I was having sex, if I needed to go on the Pill. First love is so special, she said. You’ll never forget it.

Again she says, “You lied to me.”

She waits, expecting an apology. I let the words hang in the air between us. I feel emptied out and stripped bare, but I don’t feel sorry, not for anything.

She’s right; I did lie. I sat there and let her believe what she wanted and felt no remorse. It didn’t even really feel like lying, more like shaping the truth to fit what she needed to hear, an act of contortion I learned from Strane—and I was good at it, able to manipulate the truth so covertly she had no idea what I’d done. Maybe I should have felt guilt afterward, but all I remember feeling is pride for getting away with it, for knowing how to protect her, him, myself, everyone at once.

“I never imagined you being capable of that,” she says.

I lift my shoulders; my voice comes out like a croak. “Maybe you don’t really know me.”

She blinks, registering both what I said and what I haven’t. “Maybe you’re right,” she says. “Maybe I don’t.”

Wiping her hands, she leaves the sink of dirty dishes, the broken plate. On her way out of the kitchen she pauses in the doorway. “You know, sometimes I’m ashamed that you’re my kid,” she says.

I stand for a while in the middle of the kitchen, my ears following the groan of the stairs as she climbs, my parents’ bedroom door opening and closing, her footsteps directly above me, the creak of the metal frame as she gets into bed. The walls and floors here are so thin, the house so cheaply built, you can hear anything if you listen hard enough, a constant threat of exposure.

I plunge my hand into the sink and grope blindly for pieces of the broken plate, not caring if I slice myself open. I leave the shards lined up on the counter, dripping water and soap suds. Later, when I’m lying in my own bed still checking myself for hurt—was it so bad, what she said to me? it feels worse than what I deserved—she tosses the shards into the trash and I hear the clatter of ceramic from all the way up in my attic bedroom. The next day I find Lolita back on my bookshelf.

 

Charley’s mom gets a job in New Hampshire, the third time they’ve moved in four years. On her last day at school, she sneaks beers in her backpack and we drink them behind the grocery store, our burps echoing against the dumpsters. After school, Charley gives me a ride home, still buzzed, running every red light on our way out of town while I laugh and lean my head against the window, thinking, If this is how I die, it wouldn’t be so bad.

“I wish you weren’t leaving,” I say as she turns onto the lake road. “I won’t have any friends without you.”

“There’s Jade,” she says, peering at the dark road, trying to avoid the potholes.

“Ugh, no thanks. She’s the fuckin’ worst.” My bluntness surprises me; I’ve never shit-talked Jade to Charley before, but what does it matter now?

Charley smirks. “Yeah, she can be. And she does kind of hate you.” She stops the car at the top of my driveway. “I’d come in, but I don’t want your parents to smell beer on me. Though you probably smell like it, too.”

“Wait a sec.” I dig through my backpack for the toothpaste I began carrying around once I started smoking cigarettes. I suck a little bit into my mouth, swish it around.

“Look at you.” Charley laughs. “Surprisingly screwed up and brilliant.”

I hug her for a long time and, in my giddiness, want to kiss her but control the urge, force myself to climb out of the car. Before I shut the door, I duck down and say, “Hey, thanks for not letting me leave with that guy at the bowling alley.”

She frowns, trying to remember. Her eyebrows lift. “Oh, right! No problem. He was clearly going to murder you.”

As she backs out of the driveway, she rolls down the window and calls, “Keep in touch!” I nod and call back, “I will!” but it means nothing. I don’t have her address or new phone number. Even later, with Facebook and Twitter, I’ll never be able to find her.

For a while, Jade and I try to hang out, trudging alongside each other to the grocery store during lunch, trying to convince the other to shoplift and growing incensed when she won’t. One morning, I’m in the cafeteria before first period, scrambling to finish my algebra homework, when she marches up to me.

“So I saw that guy Craig at the bowling alley on Saturday,” she says.

I look up. She’s smiling, can barely keep her lips closed. She looks like she’s about to spill out all over the place.

“He said to tell you that you’re a cunt.” She waits, eyes wide, for my reaction. I feel my face burn and I imagine hurling my algebra book at her, knocking her over, yanking on her brassy bleached hair.

But I just roll my eyes and mumble something about him being a gun-loving pedophile, then turn back to my homework. After that, Jade starts hanging out with a popular group, the kids she was friends with in middle school. She dyes her hair brown and joins the tennis team. When we pass in the hallway, she stares straight ahead.

Rather than deal with finding a new place to sit in the cafeteria, I give up altogether and start spending lunch period at the diner in the strip mall. Every day I order coffee and pie while I read or finish homework, imagining that I look mysterious and adult sitting in a booth all by myself. Sometimes I feel men looking at me from their counter stools, and sometimes I meet their gaze, but it always ends there.

*  *  *

At home, deep in the woods, in the middle of nowhere, the internet is my only way out. Online, I search endlessly, googling different combinations of Strane’s name and Browick, in quotations and without, but find only his faculty profile and something about him volunteering at a community literacy program in 1995. Then, in mid-March, a new result appears: he won a national teaching award, attended a ceremony in New York. There’s a photo of him onstage accepting the plaque, a big grin on his face, white teeth shining through black beard. I don’t recognize his shoes and his hair is shorter than I’ve ever seen it. Embarrassment creeps up my spine as I realize he probably wasn’t thinking about me at all in that moment. There isn’t a single moment when I’m not thinking about him.

At night, I stay up late talking with strangers on Instant Messenger. I search the same list of key words—lolita, nabokov, teacher—and I message all the men who show up in the results. If they start getting creepy like Craig, I sign off. It’s not about that. I just like how they happily listen while I tell them everything that happened with Strane. You’re a very special girl, they type, for being able to appreciate the love of a man like that. If the men ask for a photo of me, I send an image of Kirsten Dunst from the movie The Virgin Suicides and none of them ever call me out on it, which makes me wonder if these men are stupid or just ok with me being a liar. If they send me a photo, I tell them they’re handsome and they all believe me, even the ones who are clearly ugly. I save all their pictures in a folder titled MATH HOMEWORK so my parents won’t look in it, and sometimes I sit clicking through photo after photo, sad homely face after sad homely face, and think that if Strane had sent me a photo before I really knew him, he’d fit right in.

 

Mud season turns to blackfly season. The lake ice thaws slowly, first turning gray, then blue, and then dissolving to cold water. The snow in the yard melts, but deep in the woods, drifts still nestle against boulders, crusty snow piles peppered with pine needles and spruce cones. In April, a week before my seventeenth birthday, Mom asks if I want to have a party.

“And invite who?”

“Your friends,” she says.

“What friends?”

“You have friends.”

“That’s news to me.”

“You do,” she insists.

It almost makes me feel sorry for her, picturing what she imagines my life at school is like, smiling faces in the hallways, a lunch table of nice girls with good grades, when in reality it’s me staring at the ground as I walk and drinking black coffee in a diner with a bunch of retirees.

We end up going out to eat at Olive Garden for my birthday, a brick of lasagna followed by a brick of tiramisu pierced with a candle. My present is an eight-week driver’s education course, a gesture that shows Browick is even further behind us.

“And maybe, once you pass,” Dad says, “we’ll find you a car.”

Mom’s eyebrows shoot up.

“Eventually,” he clarifies.

I thank them and try not to act too excited by the thought of the places a car can take me.

*  *  *

That summer, Dad helps me get a filing clerk job at the hospital in town—eight bucks an hour, three days a week. I’m assigned to the urology archives, a long windowless room of floor-to-ceiling shelves crammed with medical charts that are shipped in from all over the state. Every morning when I arrive, a pile of charts waits to be filed, along with a list of patients whose charts I need to pull, either because they have upcoming appointments or because they died so long ago the chart can now be destroyed.

The hospital is understaffed, so entire days pass without the lead clerk checking on me. Even though I’m not supposed to, I spend most of my time reading charts. There are so many—even if I worked at the hospital for the rest of my life, I wouldn’t be able to get through them all. Finding an interesting one is a guessing game of running my fingers along their color-coded stickers, tugging out a random one and hoping for a good story. You really can’t predict which ones are going to be good. Thick charts can read like novels, with years of symptoms, operations, and complications in blue carbon copy and faded ink. Sometimes the thin ones are the most devastating, a tragedy compacted into a handful of appointments and a red stamp on the front cover: deceased.

Almost all the urology patients are men, most middle-aged or older. They’re men who pee blood or aren’t peeing at all, men who pass stones and grow tumors. The charts have grainy X-rays of kidneys and bladders lit up with dye, diagrams of penises and testicles annotated with the doctor’s scrawl. In one chart, I find a photograph of bladder stones in a gloved palm like three spiky grains of sand. The transcript shows the doctor’s question, How long has there been blood in your urine? and the patient’s answer, Six days.

At lunch, I eat in the cafeteria armed with a book so I have an excuse not to sit with Dad. It feels better with some breathing room between us, because in some ways, he’s a different person at the hospital. His accent becomes thicker, and I hear him laugh at gross jokes that he’d be offended by if Mom were around. Plus, he has a ton of friends. People’s faces light up at the sight of him. I had no idea he was so popular.

On my first day, when he went around introducing me to what seemed like every single person, I asked him, “How does everyone know you?” He just laughed and said, “Helps if you’ve got your name on your shirt,” pointing to the phil embroidered above his breast pocket, but it’s more than that—even doctors smile when they see Dad coming, and they never smile, and some people already knew stuff about me, how old I am, that I like to write. They still think I go to Browick, which makes sense. I assume he told everyone when I was accepted, and he wouldn’t have gone around announcing it when I was kicked out.

Dad and I really don’t have much to say to each other, which is ok. In the truck, he keeps the radio turned up so it’s too loud to talk, and once we’re at home, he settles into his chair and turns on the TV. In the afternoons he likes to watch shows from when he was a kid, The Andy Griffith Show and Bonanza, while I go for long walks with Babe around the lakeshore and up the bluff to the cave where the abandoned cot still sits rotting. I try to stay out of the house until Mom gets home. Not that being with her is any easier, but when they’re together, they forget about me, and I can slip up into my bedroom and shut the door.

Dad tells me I should start saving now for college textbooks. Instead, I blow my first two paychecks on a digital camera and, on my days off, take self-portraits in the woods, wearing floral dresses and knee socks. In the photos, ferns brush my thighs and sunlight streams through my hair, making me look like a wood nymph, like Persephone wandering her meadow, waiting for Hades to come. I draft an email to Strane with a dozen JPEGs attached and hover the mouse over “send,” but when I imagine the ruin that could come to him, I can’t do it.

 

Midsummer, he appears in the form of a chart waiting to be filed, included in an archive shipment from western Maine. strane, jacob. born november 10, 1957. Inside are the records of the vasectomy he had in 1991, notes from the initial consultation appointment, written in the doctor’s handwriting: 33 y.o. patient is unmarried but insistent in not wanting children. There are notes from the actual surgery, from the follow-up appointment: Patient was instructed to apply ice to the scrotum once a day and to wear scrotal support for two weeks. At “scrotal support,” I slap the chart shut, mortified at the phrase even if I’m unsure exactly what it means.

I open it again, read it all the way through—his vitals, his stats, six foot four, 280 pounds. His signature in three different places. I pull apart two pages stuck together by a decade-old ink blot and imagine the pen leaking onto his hands. I can see his fingers, his calluses and flat, bitten-down nails. How they looked resting on my thigh the first time he touched me.

The story of his chart is undramatic but still surreal, his recovery described as him holding a bag of ice to his groin. I try to picture it—he had the surgery in July, so the ice must have been melting and there would’ve been wet spots on his shorts, a sweating glass of a cold drink beside him, an orange bottle of painkillers that clicked as he tapped them out into his palm. At the time, I was how old? I count in my head: six, a first grader, barely a person and nine years away from being in bed with him, squirming under his hands as he told me to calm down, that I couldn’t get pregnant, he’d had a vasectomy.

I want to steal the chart, but when they hired me, I had to sign pages of confidentiality agreements, bolded statements about the legal consequences of sharing medical records. I make do with visiting the chart every day, pulling it out from its spot on the bottom shelf and transcribing the notes into my journal, underlining the phrase unmarried but insistent in not wanting children. It makes me think of the only part of Lolita I truly hate, the passage where Humbert imagines first having daughters with Lo, then making granddaughters with those daughters. It makes me remember, too, the thing I’ve almost forgotten—him asking me to call him Daddy on the phone while he jerked off on the other end.

But these thoughts are like water-smoothed stones I pick up and study with cool eyes, then let fall back into the lake. In the quiet of the hospital, the oscillating fan stirs my hair as the thoughts sink to the bottom of my brain and disappear beneath the muck. I close the chart, pick up another stack, file it away.

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