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My Dark Vanessa (Page 11)

One of the front desk clerks called out sick, leaving Inez stranded on a sold-out Saturday night, so I abandon the concierge desk to help her. When I was first hired eight years ago, it was for a front desk position, and I still remember the basics. Inez has to teach me the updated computer system, her voice rising into a question as she explains the sequence for making a reservation, checking in a guest. I can’t tell if she’s nervous around me or merely annoyed. If I say something self-deprecating after screwing up, she exhales a quick succession of “you’re fine, you’re fine, you’re fine.”

The hours fly by despite my brain fog, or maybe because of it. The bartender brings me a dark and stormy and Inez breaks into a grin when I offer her a sip, the two of us crouching behind the desk as we pass it back and forth. I forget how it can be to work alongside someone, the camaraderie that emerges when dealing with customers: the repeat guest who insists we have put her in a different room this time, even though we let her come around the desk and see her reservation history and that it’s always been room 237; the couple who brushes off our warning that the cheaper street-facing room will be loud and then an hour later comes to the lobby upset about the noise. Inez is good at dealing with the complainers, bats her eyes and clutches her hand over her heart as she says, “I am so sorry. I am just so sorry.” She lays it on so thick it throws the guests off guard; they almost always end up assuring her that it’s ok, no big deal, and when they leave, Inez mutters a string of obscenities under her breath.

“I thought you were just the boss’s daughter,” I say, “but you’re actually good at this.”

She squints at me, deciding whether to be insulted.

I add, “You’re better than I am. I can’t fake sympathy,” and her face melts into a smile, won over by the flattery.

“When people are angry, they’re looking for a fight,” she says. “You act submissive, they back off.”

“Yeah, that’s the same strategy I use with men.” I look to see her reaction, if she’ll smirk in recognition, but her brow only furrows, vaguely confused.

I watch her click around on her computer, the screen lighting her face. She’s seventeen but looks much older, airbrushed makeup and flat-ironed hair ending in a perfectly blunt line. Wearing a string of pearls and a white silk blouse under her suit, she appears put together, already better at being a woman than I am.

“You’re very insightful,” I say. “You seem mature for your age.”

She gives me a sideways glance, her guard still half up. “Uh, thanks.” She turns back to the computer, hunches her shoulders so I can’t see the screen.

At nine thirty, after the rush dies down, a man approaches the desk—fortysomething, handsome, short. His reservation is for one night, a Jacuzzi suite facing the garden courtyard. He’s requested a special turndown to be waiting upon his arrival: dimmed lights, bubble bath, rose petals on the bed, champagne on ice.

As I check him in, I tell him everything is ready and waiting in the room. “Assuming you still want the turndown,” I say, glancing around the lobby. He seems to be alone.

The man smiles at Inez. Even though I’m the one checking him in, he hasn’t stopped smiling at her since he stepped up to the desk. “That’s perfect,” he says.

He pockets the key card, heads back toward the elevators. Inez turns to file his registration slip, and I watch the man pause halfway across the lobby, hold out his hand. A woman rises from one of the wingback chairs. She glances over her shoulder at the front desk, locks eyes with me, and I see she’s not a woman at all. She’s a teenager in Converse sneakers and an oversized sweater with sleeves that fall past her wrists. While they wait for an elevator, the man nuzzles his face into her neck and the girl hiccups a laugh.

“Did you see that?” I ask Inez after they get on the elevator. “The girl he was with. She looked fourteen.”

She shakes her head. “I didn’t see.” She looks down the list of check-ins, all highlighted green. Everyone’s in their rooms; we can relax. “I’m going to eat,” she says.

I think of the done-up room, the rose petals on the bed, the churning bath bubbles, the girl’s uneasy giggle as he pulls the baggy sweater off her body. As Inez heads for the kitchen, I picture myself making a key and going up to the room, bursting inside, digging my nails into the man as I yank him off the girl. But what would that do other than cause a scene and get me fired? She looked willing, happy. It’s not like he was dragging her up there. Standing behind the desk, I swallow the last of my drink and watch Inez come back with a plate of pasta. She shovels it into her mouth as she walks, flecks of red sauce on her white blouse.

While she eats in the back office, a man comes up to the desk and says he has a reservation. I search the system as he looms over me with crossed arms, his face all overgrown eyebrows and gin blossom nose. He heaves a sigh, wanting to be sure I’m aware of how annoyed he is, how incompetent I am. Do you realize there’s a girl getting raped upstairs, I think, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it?

“There’s no reservation under your name,” I say. “Are you sure you’re at the right hotel?”

“Of course I’m sure.” He produces from his pocket a folded piece of paper. “There, see?”

I look it over and see it’s a confirmation for a hotel in Portland, Oregon. When I point out his mistake, apologizing as though it’s somehow my fault, the man gapes at the paper, then at me, and then at his wife, who sits across the lobby surrounded by their bags.

“We flew up here from Florida,” he mumbles. “What are we going to do?”

The city is booked up for the night, yet I manage to find them a room at a hotel by the airport, and the man, too stunned to thank me, ushers his wife across the lobby, back to the valet, who brings around their rental car. As they drive off, I let my body slump against the desk. My head falls into my hands. Deep breath.

When the phone rings, I pick up without opening my eyes, recite the hotel’s greeting.

“Hi there,” the voice says, hesitant and female. “I’m looking for Vanessa Wye.”

I open my eyes and look out across the quiet lobby. Inez emerges from the back office and gestures to me—one second—as she heads toward the staff bathroom.

“Hello?” The voice waits. “Is this Vanessa?”

I reach for the phone switchboard, the red button to cancel the call.

“Don’t hang up,” the voice says. “This is Janine Bailey, from Femzine? I sent you a couple emails hoping we could connect. I thought I’d try you at work in a last-ditch effort.”

I hold my finger against the “cancel call” button but don’t press down. My voice cracks as I tell her, “You already tried calling me. You left a voicemail.”

“You’re right,” she says. “I did.”

“And now you’re calling again. This time at my work.”

“I know,” she says. “I realize I’m being pushy, but let me ask you a question. How much have you been following this story?”

I say nothing, unsure what she means.

“Taylor Birch—you know Taylor, don’t you? She’s really been through hell these past few weeks. Have you seen the abuse she’s been subjected to? The men’s rights activists, trolls on Twitter. She’s gotten death threats—”

“Yeah,” I say. “I saw something about that.”

There’s a click, and then her voice is louder, closer, like she’s taken me off speakerphone. “I’m going to be straight with you, Vanessa,” she says. “I know your history. And while I can’t force you to come forward, I want to make sure you understand how much your story could help Taylor. I mean, you really have the opportunity to help the entire movement here.”

“What do you mean, you know my history?”

Her voice jumps half an octave as she says, “Well, Taylor told me what she knew . . . rumors, details Jacob Strane shared over the years.”

My head jerks back—years?

“And, well . . .” Janine lets out a laugh. “Taylor also sent me a link to a blog? That she said was yours? I gave it a read. Couldn’t stop reading it, really. Captivating stuff. You’re a wonderful writer.”

Stunned, I type the old URL into my browser. After everything that happened in college, I made the blog private, inaccessible without a password. Now it loads with every post visible, reverted back to its default public setting. I can’t remember the last time I checked to make sure it was locked—it could have been sitting out in the open for years. Scrolling down the page, I see “S.,” my transparent code for Strane, scattered across the blocks of text.

“It shouldn’t have been accessible,” I say as I bring up the login screen, try to remember the decade-old password. “I don’t know what happened.”

“I’d like to reference it in the article.”

“No,” I say. “I can say no, right?”

“I’d prefer to have your permission,” she says, “but the blog was public.”

“Well, I’m deleting it now anyway.”

“And you’re free to do that, but I took screenshots.”

I stare at the computer screen; the password recovery options tell me to check my old Atlantica email address that I haven’t had access to for years. “What are you saying?”

“I’d prefer to have your permission,” she says again, “but I have an obligation to write the best article I possibly can. We can work together on this, ok? You tell me what you’re comfortable with and we’ll start from there. Would you be willing to do that, Vanessa?”

Words pile up in my mouth—stop calling me, stop emailing me, and stop saying my name as though you know me—but I can’t be biting, not now that she’s seen the blog with its posts telling our story in my own words.

“Maybe,” I say. “I don’t know. I need to think about it.”

Janine exhales a rush of breath against my ear. “Vanessa, I really hope you do. We owe it to each other to do whatever we can. We’re all in this together.”

I glare across the lobby and force myself to agree. “Sure, absolutely, you’re so right.”

“Trust me, I know how hard this is.” Janine lowers her voice. “I’m a survivor, too.”

That word, with its cloying empathy; that patronizing, flattening word that makes my whole body cringe no matter the context—it pushes too far. My lips curl up over my teeth as I spit out, “You don’t know anything about me,” and I hang up the phone, bolt across the lobby to the empty staff bathroom, and throw up into a toilet, curling my arms around the bowl until the wave passes, my stomach empties out, and I’m coughing up bile.

I’m still catching my breath on the floor and checking my blazer for vomit when the bathroom door opens and I hear my name. Inez.

“Vanessa? Are you ok?”

I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand. “Yup, I’m fine,” I say. “Just a stomach thing.”

The door closes, then opens again.

“Are you sure?” she asks.

“I’m fine.”

“Because I could cover for—”

“Would you just give me some fucking space?” I press my cheek against the metal stall as her footsteps hurry away, back to the desk where, for the rest of the shift, her glassy eyes threaten to cry.

 

A few years ago, I saw Taylor’s face staring at me from a light pole while I waited to cross Congress Street. It was a flyer, an advertisement for a poetry reading at a bar. I knew she wrote poems and published some. I read everything I could get my hands on, ordering copies of the journals, routinely checking her seldom-updated website. I looked for traces of Strane in her writing, but all I found in the poems were quiet images of luna moths in incandescent light, a six-stanza meditation on her uterus. It’s something I could never wrap my head around, the idea that she could go through life writing about anything other than Strane if what he did to her was really so bad.

I’ve never understood anything about her, no matter how hard I try. A few years ago I figured out where she worked, the neighborhood she lived in. Based on an Instagram of the view from her kitchen window, I figured out her exact building. I never stalked her, not exactly; the closest I ever let myself get was walking by her work, passing the building around lunchtime, checking each coming and going blond head. But when wasn’t I checking for her, scanning faces in restaurants and coffee shops, supermarkets and corner stores? I imagined her sometimes behind me as I walked the city. The thought of her watching made my body buzz, the same feeling I’d get when I imagined Strane’s eyes on me.

When I went to her reading, I stood at the back of the dimly lit bar, my red hair tucked up and hidden under a beanie. I stayed only long enough to see her walk to the microphone and start to speak. Her great big grin and wild, gesticulating hands. She was fine—that’s what I told myself as I walked home, my cheeks flushed with something between jealousy and relief. She looked ordinary, happy, untouched. That night, I dug through old folders, found marked-up college essays, poems from high school. A paper I wrote on the role of rape in Titus Andronicus with Henry Plough’s comments at the end: Vanessa, your writing is astounding. I remember scoffing at the grade, knowing it was nothing to take seriously, only another round of praise from a teacher who wanted to coax me closer. But maybe he meant it. And maybe Strane—with all his compliments, his insistence that the way I saw the world was extraordinary—meant it, too. For all his faults, he was a good teacher, trained in spotting potential.

I search Twitter for Strane’s name and mostly find Taylor’s, a mix of feminist defenses and sexist attacks. One tweet includes a photo of her at fourteen, skinny and smiling through braces in her field hockey uniform, the text screaming, THIS IS HOW OLD TAYLOR BIRCH WAS WHEN JACOB STRANE ASSAULTED HER. I try to imagine the same line paired with the Polaroids Strane took of me at fifteen, my heavy-lidded eyes and swollen lips, or with the photos I took of myself at seventeen, standing before a backdrop of birch trees, lifting my skirt as I stared at the camera, looking like a Lolita and knowing exactly what I wanted, what I was. I wonder how much victimhood they’d be willing to grant a girl like me.

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