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My Dark Vanessa (Page 12)

Senior year starts, and within the first week, I show up at the counselor’s office with my college applications filled out and a draft of an entrance essay I worked on all summer. I kept the list of schools Strane wrote for me, but the guidance counselor has me expand the list. I need safeties, she says. Why don’t we take a look at some state schools?

The strip mall diner closed over the summer, so I eat in the cafeteria, sitting with Wendy and Maria, girls from my English class. Maria is on exchange from Chile and lives with Wendy’s family. They’re exactly the kind of girls my parents want me to be friends with—studious, sweet, no boyfriends. At lunch, we eat low-fat yogurt and apple slices with two measured tablespoons of peanut butter while we quiz each other with flash cards, compare homework, and obsess over college applications. Wendy is hoping for University of Vermont, and Maria wants to stay in the States for college, too. Her dream is anywhere in Boston.

Life goes on and on. I get my license but no car. Babe comes home with porcupine quills all over her muzzle, and Mom and I have to hold her down while Dad pulls out each one with needle-nose pliers. Dad is elected union rep at the hospital. Mom gets an A in her history class at the community college. The leaves change. I get decent SAT scores and finish another draft of my college application essay. In English, there’s a lesson on Robert Frost, but the teacher makes no mention of sex. Maria and Wendy share a bagel at lunch, tearing pieces off with their fingers. A boy in my physics class asks me to the water semiformal and I say yes out of curiosity, but he has oniony breath and the thought of him touching me makes me want to die. In the dark auditorium, when the boy leans in to kiss me during a slow dance, I blurt out that I have a boyfriend.

“Since when?” he asks, eyebrows cocked.

Since always, I think. You don’t know anything about me.

“He’s older,” I say. “You wouldn’t know him. Sorry, I should’ve told you sooner.”

For the rest of the dance, the boy doesn’t speak to me, and at the end of the night, he says he can’t drive me home, that I live too far and he’s too tired. I have to call Dad to pick me up, and on the ride home he asks what went wrong, what happened, did the boy try something, did he hurt me? I say, “Nothing happened. It was nothing,” all the while hoping he doesn’t realize how familiar our words are, his questions and my denial.

 

After a series of thin envelopes from colleges, half-hearted waitlists and outright rejections, in March a fat envelope from Atlantica College, a school the guidance counselor convinced me to add. I tear into it, my parents watching with proud smiles. Congratulations, we are delighted. Brochures and forms pour out asking if I want to live on campus, do I have a dorm preference, and which meal plan do I want? There’s an invitation to an accepted student day and a handwritten note from my future advisor, a poetry professor with half a dozen published collections. Your poems are extraordinary, she writes. I’m so looking forward to working with you. My hands shake as I flip through everything. Even though Atlantica is technically a state school and not prestigious, getting accepted still feels so much like Browick, I’m thrown back in time.

That night, after my parents go to bed, I grab the cordless phone and step outside onto the snowy yard, the moon illuminating the frozen lake.

It’s no surprise that Strane doesn’t answer. When the answering machine kicks in, I want to hang up and try again. Maybe if I keep calling, he’ll pick up out of pure exasperation. Even if he screams at me to leave him alone, at least I’ll get to hear his voice. I imagine him watching the caller ID, the flashing wye, phil & jan. There’s no way for him to know it’s not my parents calling to tell him they know everything and are going to make him pay, send him to prison. I hope he’s terrified, even if only for a moment. I love him, but when I think of that photo of him accepting the award in New York, the Association of New England Boarding Schools recognizing Jacob Strane as a distinguished teacher of the year, I want to hurt him.

His recorded voice speaks—“You’ve reached Jacob Strane . . .”—and I see him standing in his living room: his bare feet and T-shirt, his belly sloping over his underwear, his eyes on the machine. The beep pierces my ear and I stare across the lake, the long mountain purple against the blue-black sky.

“It’s me,” I say. “I know you can’t talk to me, but I wanted to tell you I got into Atlantica College. Starting on August twenty-first, that’s where I’ll be. And I’ll be eighteen then, so . . .”

I pause and hear the answering machine tape roll. I imagine it playing as evidence in a courtroom, Strane seated behind a table next to a lawyer, his head hanging in shame.

“I hope you’re waiting for me,” I say, “because I’m waiting for you.”

 

The weather warms and everything feels easier with the Atlantica acceptance in my pocket. It’s a sweetener for the bitterness of exile, a light at the end of this tunnel of shit. Despite the warnings teachers give that college acceptances can hypothetically be revoked, my grades fall to bare-effort Bs and Cs. Once or twice a week, I blow off afternoon classes to walk through the woods between the high school and the interstate, mud seeping into my sneakers as I watch the cars through the bare trees and smoke the cigarettes I pay a boy in my math class to buy for me. One afternoon, I see a deer dart out into the road and five cars, one after another, pile into a wreck. It takes just seconds for it to happen.

April, two days before my birthday, an alert pops up when I’m checking my email: jenny9876 has sent you a chat request—do you accept? I click “yes” so hard the mouse slips out from under my hand.

jenny9876: Hey Vanessa. It’s Jenny.

jenny9876: Hello?

jenny9876: Please answer if you’re there.

I watch the messages pop up, the line of text at the bottom of the chat window flashing jenny9876 is typing . . . jenny9876 is typing. Then it stops. I try to picture her—the line of her neck, gleaming brown hair. It’s April break at Browick; she must be at home in Boston. My fingers hover over the keyboard, but I don’t want to start typing until I’m ready, don’t want to let her see me start and stop and start again, a giveaway that I’m struggling.

dark_vanessa: what

jenny9876: Hey!

jenny9876: I’m so glad you’re there

jenny9876: How are you?

dark_vanessa: why are you messaging me?

She says she knows I must hate her because of what happened at Browick. That it’s been a long time and maybe I don’t even care anymore, but she still feels guilty. With graduation approaching, she’s been thinking about me a lot. How I’m not there and he still is—the unfairness of that.

jenny9876: I want you to know when I went to Mrs. Giles, I didn’t know what was going to happen.

jenny9876: This might sound naive, but I really thought he was going to get fired.

jenny9876: I only did what I did because I was so worried about you.

She tells me she’s sorry, but all I care about is Strane. As she apologizes, I try to type out questions, no longer caring that she can see my false starts, my scramble for words. She moves on to talking about college—how she’s headed to Brown, that she’s heard good things about Atlantica—but I don’t want to talk about college; I want to ask her about the length of his hair, if it’s overgrown and unkempt, if his clothes are frumpy—the only visible markers of his mental state I can think of, because I can’t expect her to tell me what I really want to know: Is he depressed? Does he miss me? I end up asking simply, Do you see him a lot? and her hate for him launches forth, palpable through the screen.

jenny9876: Yeah, I see him. I wish I didn’t. I can’t stand him. He walks around campus looking like a broken man but he has no reason to. You’re the one who suffered.

dark_vanessa: what do you mean? like he looks sad?

jenny9876: Miserable. Which is pretty ridiculous considering how he threw you under the bus.

dark_vanessa: what do you mean?

jenny9876 is typing . . . jenny9876 is typing . . .

jenny9876: Maybe you don’t know.

dark_vanessa: know what?

jenny9876: That he was the one who got you kicked out. He pressured Mrs. Giles into doing it.

jenny9876: I probably shouldn’t be talking about this.

jenny9876: I’m not even really supposed to know.

dark_vanessa: ???

jenny9876 is typing . . . jenny9876 is typing . . .

jenny9876: Ok so last year, me and some other people started a new club called Students for Social Justice, and one of the big things we wanted to work on was getting Browick to have an actual sexual harassment policy because they didn’t have one on record at all (which is really irresponsible and technically illegal). And so last winter, I met with Mrs. Giles about it because the administration wouldn’t do anything to help us, and when I met with her, I sort of used you as an example of a situation we wanted to prevent from happening again.

jenny9876: Because even though there was that meeting where you had to take responsibility for everything, everyone knows what really happened. They know you were victimized by him.

jenny9876: Anyway, when I met with Mrs. Giles she said I had it wrong, that you hadn’t been mistreated and that the school did nothing wrong. She showed me a couple of memos Strane had written about you and in them he pretty much claimed you made everything up.

jenny9876: Which is so frustrating because I know you didn’t. I don’t know exactly what happened between you two but I saw him grab you.

dark_vanessa: memos?

jenny9876: Yeah. There were two. One was about how you had destroyed his reputation and that Browick was no place for liars. I remember he called you “a bright but emotionally troubled girl.” He said you had violated the school code of ethics and should be expelled for it.

jenny9876: The other memo was from earlier. Maybe January 2001? It was about you having a crush on him and hanging around his classroom. There was something about him wanting a paper trail in case your behavior got out of hand. It seemed like something he wrote to cover his tracks in case he got caught.

After that, my brain launches off into the air, into the woods, needing the distance to understand. January 2001. When he and I were driving through the flashing yellow streetlights to his house, when he was giving me the strawberry pajamas—he lied to the school about me then. I was delirious, not yet able to grasp what was happening; he was strategizing and looking ten steps ahead. At the end, when it fell apart and he convinced me to stand in front of that room of people and call myself a liar, what was it that he said? “Vanessa, they decided you have to leave and there’s no changing their minds. It’s done.” I thought “they” meant Mrs. Giles, the administration, the institution of Browick itself. I thought it was him and me against them.

Before she signs off, Jenny asks me what really happened. Hands shaky, I start to type out, he used me then threw me away, then think better and delete it, the specter of firing and police and Strane thrown in prison still too frightening.

dark_vanessa: nothing happened

*  *  *

The day after my birthday, I tell my parents I have to go to the library in town for a school project that doesn’t exist. It’s the first time I’ve ever asked to take the car on my own. They’re in the yard, cleaning the garden before planting annuals, their arms filthy with dirt up to their elbows. Mom hesitates, but Dad waves his hand. Go ahead.

“You’ve got to go out on your own sometime,” he says.

When I’m halfway to the car, keys in hand, Mom calls to me. My heart skips, half hoping she’ll tell me to stop.

“Will you buy some milk while you’re out?” she asks.

As I drive, the logic I constructed while in exile bows under this new weight and threatens to collapse. I’m not sure what, other than desperation, made me believe he wanted to get in touch and was waiting until I turned eighteen. He made no explicit promise, not even during the last conversation we had. He assured me that everything would be ok, and I took “ok” to mean one thing, but who knows what it meant to him. “Ok” could simply mean unscathed, unfired, and unjailed. My hands grow slick on the steering wheel. How easy it is to be tricked into building a narrative out of air, out of nothing.

Once in town, I turn onto the small highway heading west to Norumbega, trying to work through my memories to find anything real. The times I told people at school that I had a secret older boyfriend—my body cringes when I think of it. I knew it wasn’t entirely true, but it felt true enough to lie about. He was waiting for me, even if the boyfriend label didn’t really fit. The whole time, I’d been discarded, unwanted. Maybe he’s moved on completely, is in love and having sex with someone else, a woman, a student.

My brain shorts out at the thought—a flash of bright light and pain. The car swerves into the soft shoulder, then back onto the road.

Norumbega is unchanged: the tree-lined river, the bookstore, the head shop, the pizza place, the bakery, Browick’s hilltop campus glinting above downtown. I park in his driveway, behind the station wagon. The same one we drove from campus to his house, then later through the down east woods, his free hand resting between my legs. So much time has passed, but it feels just like two years ago; I’m wearing the same clothes, look the same, or maybe I’ve gotten older and not realized it. Is there a chance he might not recognize me? I remember the shade of disappointment on his face when I turned sixteen. Practically a woman now. Maybe I’ve been hardened and aged. I feel tough, or at least tougher than I was. But why? I haven’t actually been through anything. I saw a car crash through the trees, talked to some men online, came close to being kidnapped by a loser with a gun collection, ate a lot of pie in a diner by myself. Maybe that all adds up to a kind of wisdom. I wonder whether I’d even fall for it if he were my teacher now.

Like a cop, I bang on his front door rather than knock because I want to scare him, and I half expect him not to answer, to stand unmoving in the middle of his living room and hold his breath until I give up and leave. It’s possible he doesn’t want to see me ever again; maybe that was his goal when he had me sent away, to thrust me out of his life along with all the life-ruining repercussions I embody.

But no—he opens the door right away, like he was waiting on the other side. He throws it open wide, reveals himself, looking older and younger at the same time, more gray in his beard, longer hair. His arms are tan. He wears a T-shirt and shorts, boat shoes with no socks, pale legs covered in dark hair.

“My god,” he says. “Look at you.”

He brings me inside, his hand on my back. The scent of his house, something I hadn’t thought to miss, fills my head, and I hold up my hands to ward it off. He asks if I want anything to drink, gestures to the living room and tells me to sit down. He opens the refrigerator, pulls out two bottles of beer. It’s barely past noon.

“Happy birthday,” he says as he hands me a bottle.

I don’t take it. “I know what you did,” I say, trying to hold on to the anger, but the words come out as squeaks. I’m a mouse already on the verge of tears. He touches his hand to my face to soothe me. I jerk away, and as I do I think of the line from Lolita, when Humbert finds Lo after so many years: “I’ll die if you touch me.”

“You had them kick me out,” I say.

I expect his face to go pale and slack, the look of someone caught, but he barely flinches. He just blinks a few times, like he’s trying to find an entry point into my anger. Once he gets there, he smiles.

“You’re upset,” he says.

“I’m pissed.”

“Ok.”

“You’re the one who got me kicked out. You threw me away.”

“I didn’t throw you away,” he says gently.

“But you got me kicked out.”

“We did that together.” He smiles with a furrowed brow, like he’s confused, like I’m being ridiculous. “Don’t you remember?”

He tries to jog my memory, says that I told him I’d take care of everything, that he can still see the determined look on my face, resolved to take the fall. “I couldn’t have stopped you even if I’d wanted to,” he says.

“I don’t remember saying that.”

“Well, regardless, you did. I remember it perfectly.” He takes a drink of beer, wipes his mouth on his wrist, and adds, “You were very brave.”

I try to remember the last conversation he and I had before I left—in his backyard, night falling around us. How panicked I was, begging him to tell me it would be ok, that I hadn’t ruined everything. He seemed horrified by me; that’s what I remember most about that conversation: his look of repulsion as he watched me fall apart, hiccups and snotty nose. I don’t remember saying I’d take care of anything. I just remember him saying we would be ok.

“I didn’t know I was going to get expelled,” I say. “You never told me that was going to happen.”

He lifts his shoulders. My bad, oh well. “Even if it wasn’t spelled out, it must have been obvious that was the only way we were going to wrangle our way out of the utter hell that threatened us.”

“You mean it was the only way you were going to get away with not going to jail.”

“Well, yes,” he agrees. “That was absolutely part of my thinking. Of course it was.”

“But what about me?”

“What about you? Look at you. Aren’t you ok? You certainly look ok. You look beautiful.”

My body reacts even if I don’t want it to. An intake of breath so sharp, air whistles through my teeth.

“Look,” he says, “I understand that you’re angry, that you feel hurt. But I did the best I could. I was terrified, you know? So instincts kicked in. I wanted to protect myself, sure, but you were at the forefront of my mind as well. Getting you away from Browick saved you from an investigation that might’ve wrecked you. Your name in the papers, a notoriety you have no control over following you like a pall. You wouldn’t have wanted that. You wouldn’t have survived it.” His eyes travel over me. “All this time, I assumed you understood why I did it. I even thought you’d forgiven me. Wishful thinking, I guess. I could’ve projected too much wisdom onto you. I know I did that at times.”

Something cold trickles down my spine—embarrassment, shame. Maybe I’m being dense, simple-minded.

“Here.” He puts a beer bottle in my hand. Numbly, I say I’m not old enough. He smiles and says, “Sure you are.”

We sit in the living room, on opposite ends of the couch. Little things are different—the pile of junk mail moved from the kitchen counter onto the coffee table, a new pair of hiking boots lie kicked off by the door. Otherwise, it’s the same—the furniture, the prints on the walls, the position of the books on the shelves, the scent of everything. I can’t get away from the smell of him.

“So,” he says, “you’re heading to Atlantica soon. That will be a good place for you.”

“What does that mean? That I’m too stupid for a good school?”

“Vanessa.”

“I couldn’t get into any of the ones you picked out for me. We can’t all go to Harvard.”

He watches me take a long swallow of the beer. The familiar floaty fizz travels down my throat. I haven’t drunk alcohol since Charley moved away.

“And what are you doing with yourself this summer?” he asks.

“Working.”

“Where?”

I lift my shoulders. The hospital cut its budget so I can’t go back there. “My dad has a friend who says I can work at this car parts warehouse.”

He tries to hide his surprise, but I see how his brows jump. “Honest work,” he says. “Nothing wrong with that.”

I take another long swallow.

“You’re quiet,” he says.

“I don’t know what to say.”

“You can say anything.”

I shake my head. “I don’t feel like I know you anymore.”

“You’ll always know me,” he says. “I haven’t changed. I’m too old for that.”

“I’ve changed.”

“I’m sure you have.”

“I’m not naive like I was when you knew me.”

He tilts his head. “I don’t remember you ever being naive.”

I take another drink, a third of the bottle gone in two swallows, and he finishes his, goes to the fridge for another. He gets one for me, too.

“How long are you going to be angry with me?” he asks.

“You don’t think I should be?”

“I want you to explain why you feel this way.”

“Because I lost things that were important to me,” I say. “While you lost nothing.”

“That’s not true. To many, I lost my reputation.”

I scoff. “Big deal. I lost that, plus tons more.”

“Like what?”

Tucking the beer between my legs, I count off on my fingers. “I lost Browick, my parents’ trust. There were rumors at my new school as soon as I got there. I never even had a chance to be normal. It traumatized me.”

He makes a face at traumatized. “You sound like you’ve been seeing a psychiatrist.”

“I’m just trying to make you understand what I’ve gone through.”

“Ok.”

“Because it isn’t fair.”

“What isn’t fair?”

“That I went through all that and you didn’t.”

“I agree that it’s not fair that you suffered, but me suffering alongside you wouldn’t have made it fair. It only would’ve resulted in more suffering.”

“What about justice?”

“Justice,” he scoffs, his expression suddenly hard. “You’re looking to bring me to justice? To do that, honey, you have to believe that I unduly harmed you. Do you believe that?”

I fix my eyes on the unopened beer bottle sweating on the coffee table.

“Because if you believe that,” he continues, “tell me now and I’ll turn myself in. If you think I should go to prison, lose all my freedoms, and be branded a monster for the rest of my life just because I had the bad luck of falling in love with a teenager, then please, let me know right now.”

I don’t think that. That isn’t what I mean by justice. I just want to know he’s been miserable, a broken man like Jenny described. Because here, in front of me, he doesn’t look broken. He looks happy, the teaching award propped up on the bookcase.

“If you think it hasn’t been painful for me, you’re wrong,” he says, as though he knows my thoughts. Maybe he does, always has. “It’s been agony.”

“I don’t believe you,” I say.

He leans toward me, touches my knee. “Let me show you something.” He gets up, goes upstairs. The ceiling creaks as he walks down the hallway into his bedroom. He returns with two envelopes, one a letter addressed to me, dated July 2001. The first lines turn my stomach inside out: Vanessa, I wonder if you remember me, last November, moaning into your soft warm lap, “I’m going to ruin you”? My question for you now is, did I? Do you feel destroyed? There’s no safe way to get this to you, but guilt may make me willing to risk it. I need to know you’re ok. Inside the other envelope is a birthday card. He’s signed the inside Love, JS.

“I was going to work up the nerve to mail the card this week,” he says. “My plan was to drive to Augusta and drop it in a mailbox there so your parents wouldn’t see a Norumbega stamp.”

I toss both envelopes on the coffee table as though I’m unimpressed, force myself to roll my eyes. That isn’t enough. I need more evidence of his agony—pages and pages of it.

He sits beside me on the couch and says, “Nessa, think about this. By leaving, you got to escape. Meanwhile, I had to spend my days in a place that only reminded me of you. Every day, I had to teach in the room where we met, watch other students sit at your spot at the table. I don’t even use my office anymore.”

“You don’t?”

He shakes his head. “It’s full of junk now. Has been since you left.”

I can’t shrug off that detail. His office sitting unused seems a testament to the power my ghost has wielded. Every day, I haunted him. And he’s right about me being able to escape; the public high school hallways and classrooms offer zero reminders of him, something I had viewed with endless grief, but maybe I had it easier by being thrown into an unfamiliar environment. Maybe there were benefits to what I went through compared with what he endured.

I drink the second beer. When he sets a third on the coffee table, I protest, say I have to drive home, but take a long swallow anyway. My tolerance for alcohol is shot; after only two, my face is flushed, my eyes slow. The more I drink, the further I drift from the anger I came in with. My rage is left onshore while I’m pulled into deep water, floating on my back, little waves lapping against my ears.

He asks what I’ve done over the past two years, and, to my horror, I hear myself tell him about Craig, the men I talked to online, the boy who took me to the semiformal. “They all made me sick,” I say.

He smiles wide. There’s no hint of jealousy in his reaction; he seems pleased that I tried and failed.

“What about you?” I ask, my voice stumbling, too loud.

He doesn’t answer. He’s all smiles as he evades. “You know what I’ve been up to,” he says. “Doing the same thing as always, right here.”

“But I’m asking about who you’ve been doing it with.” I take a swig, smack my lips against the bottle. “Is Ms. Thompson still here?”

He gives me his tender-condescending look. I’m being charming. My demand for answers is cute. “I like your dress,” he says. “I think I recognize it.”

“I wore it for you.” I hate myself for saying it. There is no need to be so honest, yet I can’t stop. I tell him I talked to Jenny, that she called him a broken man. “She’s the one who told me about you getting me kicked out. She knew everything. She read the letter you wrote to Mrs. Giles about how I was ‘emotionally troubled.’” I hook my fingers into air quotes.

He stares at me. “She read what?”

I smile, can’t help it. Finally, something got under his skin.

“How did she read that document?” he asks. I laugh at how he says document.

“She said Mrs. Giles showed it to her.”

“That’s outrageous. Totally unacceptable.”

“Well, I think it’s good,” I say. “Because now I know how conniving you really were.”

He studies me, trying to gauge how much I know, how serious I am.

“You called me ‘troubled’ in that letter. Right? Like I was crazy. A stupid little girl. I get why you did that. It was an easy way to protect yourself, right? Teenage girls are crazy. Everyone knows that.”

“I think you’ve had enough to drink,” he says.

I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand. “You know what else I know?”

Again, he just stares. I see the impatience in his clenched jaw. If I push much further, he could cut me off, grab the bottle out of my hand, force me out the door.

“I know about the other letter. The one you wrote way back at the beginning of everything. How I had a big crush on you, and that you wanted to leave a paper trail in case I did something inappropriate and it got out of hand. You’d barely even fucked me and you were already thinking about how to cover your tracks.”

His face might’ve gone pale, except my eyes lag, won’t focus.

“But I guess I understand that, too,” I say. “To you, I was disposable—”

“That’s not true.”

“—like garbage.”

“No.”

I wait for him to say more, but that’s all he has. No. I stand and take a half dozen steps to the door before he stops me.

“Let me leave,” I say. It’s a clear bluff; I don’t even have my shoes on.

“Baby, you’re drunk.”

“Big deal.”

“You need to lie down.” He guides me upstairs, down the hallway, into the bedroom—the same khaki comforter and tartan sheets.

“You shouldn’t use flannel sheets in the summer.” I flop down on my back, again floating on the lake, the bed rocking with the waves. “Don’t touch me,” I bark when he tries to pull my dress strap down my shoulder. “I’ll die if you touch me.”

I roll onto my side, away from him, facing the wall, and listen to him stand over me. Endless minutes of his sighs, “fucks” muttered under his breath. Then the floorboards creak. He goes back into the living room.

No, I think. Come back.

I want him to keep watching, to remain vigilant beside me. I think about getting up and faking a faint, letting my body collapse onto the floor, imagining that he’d run to me, pick me up, stroke my cheek to bring me back to life. Or I could make myself cry. I know the sound of me sobbing will bring him running, turn him tender, even if that tenderness will inevitably turn hard, an erection digging into my thigh. I want the moments before sex. I want him to take care of me. But I’m too drowsy, my limbs too heavy to do anything but sleep.

 

I wake to him getting into bed. My eyes fly open and I see the pattern of sunlight and shadows has shifted across the wall. When I stir, he stops, but when my eyes flutter shut and I don’t move again, he eases himself onto the mattress. I lie there, eyes closed, hearing and feeling everything, his breathing, his body.

When I wake again, I’m on my back, my dress bunched around my waist, my underwear off. He kneels on the floor, head between my legs, his face buried in me. His arms are wrapped around my thighs so I can’t move away. He looks up and locks eyes with mine. My head lolls and he keeps going.

I see my body from above, ant-small, pale limbs floating on the lake, the water now past my ears. It laps at my cheeks, almost to my mouth, almost drowning. Beneath me are monsters, leeches and eels, toothy fish, turtles with jaws strong enough to snap an ankle. He keeps going. He wants me to come, even if it means rubbing me raw. A reel starts to play in my mind, a parade of images projected onto my eyelids: loaves of bread dough rising on a warm kitchen counter, a conveyor belt moving groceries while my mother looks on, holding her checkbook, a time lapse of roots extending into soil. My parents washing the dirt from their arms, looking at the clock, neither one of them yet asking out loud, “Where’s Vanessa?” because acknowledging I’ve been gone too long will let in the first pinprick of fear.

When Strane moves up onto the bed and pushes into me, one hand guiding his penis, the reel snaps. My eyes fly open. “Don’t.”

He freezes. “You want me to stop?”

My head rolls against the pillow. He waits a beat longer and then slowly starts to move in and out.

The waves pull me farther from shore. The rhythm he keeps helps the reel start again, his steady in-out-in-out. Was he always this heavy and slow? Beads of sweat slide off his shoulders onto my cheeks. I don’t remember it being like this.

I shut my eyes and again see loaves of bread rising, groceries moving forever forward, endless bags of sugar, boxes of cereal, broccoli crowns, and cartons of milk disappearing into the horizon. Pick up some milk while you’re out? Mom liked that, asking me to run an errand for the first time. Maybe it made her feel better about letting me take the car. Everything will be ok, I’ll come back home safe. I had to; I was getting the milk.

Strane groans. He had been braced up on his hands; now he lets himself fall on top of me. His arms snake under my shoulders, his breath in my ear.

Between breaths, he says, “I want you to come.”

I want you to stop, I think. But I don’t say it out loud—I can’t. I can’t talk, can’t see. Even if I force my eyes open, they won’t focus. My head is cotton, my mouth gravel. I’m thirsty, I’m sick, I’m nothing. He keeps going, faster now, which means he’s close, only a minute or so left. A thought shoots through me—is this rape? Is he raping me?

When he comes, he says my name over and over. He pulls out, rolls onto his back. Every part of him is slick with sweat, even his forearms, his feet.

“Unbelievable,” he says. “This wasn’t where I expected my day to end up.”

I lean over and vomit onto the floor, the splatter-slap of sick hitting hardwood. It’s beer and bile; I’d been too anxious to eat anything all day.

Strane sits up on his elbows and stares down at the vomit. “Jesus, Vanessa.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I mean, it’s ok. It’s fine.” He pushes himself off the bed, pulls on his pants, and steps around the sick. Goes into the bathroom, returns with a spray bottle and rag, gets on his hands and knees and cleans the floor. I keep my eyes shut tight through the smell of ammonia and pine, my stomach still churning, the bed undulating beneath me.

When he climbs back into bed, he’s all over me despite my just having puked, and his hands smelling like cleaner. “You’ll be ok,” he says. “You’re drunk, that’s all. Stay here and sleep it off.” His mouth and hands take me in, testing what’s changed. He pinches my stomach where it’s grown softer, and my brain brings up a fractured memory, maybe only a dream—in the office behind his classroom, me naked on the love seat, him fully clothed, inspecting my body with the impartial interest of a scientist, squeezing my stomach, dragging his finger along the tracks of my veins. It hurt then and it hurts now, his heavy limbs and sandpaper hands, a knee prying my legs apart. How can he be ready again? The bottle of Viagra in the bathroom cabinet, puke crusting together a lock of my hair. Him on top, his body so big it could smother me if he weren’t careful. But he is careful and he is good and he loves me and I want this. I still feel torn in two when he pushes inside, will probably always feel this way, but I want it. I have to.

 

I don’t get home until quarter to midnight. I come into the kitchen and Mom’s waiting. She grabs the keys out of my hand.

“Never again,” she says.

I stand with my arms limp at my sides, messy hair and red-rimmed eyes. “Aren’t you going to ask where I’ve been?” I say.

She stares at me, into me. She sees everything. “If I did,” she says, “would you tell me the truth?”

*  *  *

I cry at graduation along with everyone else, but my tears are from the relief of having survived what I still think of as my penance. Our graduation is held in the gym and the fluorescent lights make us look jaundiced. The principal won’t let anyone clap as we walk across the stage, says it makes the ceremony too long and it isn’t fair that some students would get loud cheers and others might not get any at all. Browick’s graduation is on the same Saturday afternoon, and during mine, I imagine theirs: chairs arranged on the lawn outside the dining hall, the headmaster and faculty standing in the grove of white pines, distant church bells chiming. I walk across the silent stage to receive my diploma and close my eyes, imagine the sun on my face, that I’m wearing Browick’s thick white gown with the crimson sash. The principal shakes my hand limply, gives me the same “well done” he gives everyone else. The whole thing feels meaningless, but what does it matter? I’m not really here in this stuffy gym with the sounds of squeaking folding chairs and cleared throats, the rustle of programs fanning faces jeweled with sweat. I’m walking across the carpet of orange-dead needles, accepting hugs from Browick faculty, even from Mrs. Giles. In my fantasy she never kicked me out; she has no reason to think ill of me at all. Strane hands me my diploma, standing by the same tree where, two and a half years ago, he told me he wanted to put me to bed and kiss me good night. His fingers touch mine as he passes it to me, imperceptible to anyone else, but the thrill of it sends me airborne into the nothing-nowhere-no-one feeling I’d get when I left his classroom, red hot with secrets.

In the gym, I clutch my diploma as I walk back to my chair. Shoes scuffle on the floor. The principal shoots a glare at the lone parent who dares to clap.

After the ceremony, everyone spills out into the parking lot and takes photos, positioning the camera so the strip mall isn’t visible in the background. Dad tells me to smile, but I can’t force my face to listen.

“Come on, at least pretend to be happy,” he says.

I part my lips and show my teeth and end up looking like an animal ready to bite.

 

All summer I work at the auto parts warehouse, filling orders for starters and struts while classic rock radio blares over the white noise of the conveyor belts. Twice a week at the end of my shift, Strane waits for me in the parking lot. I try to dig the grit out from under my fingernails before climbing into the station wagon. He likes my steel-toed boots, the muscles in my arms. He says a summer of manual labor is good for me, that it’ll make me value college all the more.

Every so often, anger hits me, but I tell myself what’s done is done—Browick, his role in my leaving, all of it in the past. I do my best not to feel resentful when I remember what he used to say about helping me apply to summer internships in Boston, or when I see his Harvard robes hanging on his closet door, left there from the Browick graduation. Atlantica is a respectable choice, he says, nothing to be ashamed of.

At work on a Friday afternoon in the warehouse, Jackson Browne plays while I start on a pallet of chassis parts. The man filling orders in the next section belts out a line of song as “The Load-Out” gives way to “Stay.” My utility knife slips as I tear open the plastic wrap, leaving a six-inch slice on my forearm that, before the rush of blood, is gently parted skin, a painless peek through the curtains. The man in the next section glances over, sees me with my hand clamped over the wound, blood seeping through my fingers and dripping onto the concrete floor.

“Shit!” He scrambles to unzip his sweatshirt as he runs over. He ties it around my arm.

“I cut myself,” I say.

“You think?” The man shakes his head at my helplessness, cinches the sweatshirt tighter. Sooty warehouse dust lines his knuckles. “How long were you going to stand there before you said something?”

 

The days Strane picks me up from work, we drive around like teenagers with nowhere to go, and when he drives me back home, he drops me off at the top of the dirt road. My mother asks me where I’ve been and I tell her, “With Maria and Wendy.” The girls I used to sit with at lunch, the ones I haven’t spoken to since graduation.

“I didn’t realize you were such good friends,” Mom says. She could push further, ask why they never come inside when they drop me off, why she’s never even met them at all. I’m eighteen and moving to Atlantica at the end of August, which I’d point out if she dared question me. But she never does. She says ok and lets it drop. The freedom leaves me adrift, unsure of what she knows, what she suspects. “I don’t want to pull those old books off the shelf,” she says when her sister calls to hash out something that happened when they were kids. There’s a wall around her; I build one around me.

Strane asks if I’m still angry. We’re in his bed, the flannel sheets damp beneath our sweaty bodies. I stare at the open window, listening to the sounds of cars and pedestrians, the perfect stillness of his house. I’m tired of him asking me this, his insatiable need for reassurance. No, I’m not angry. Yes, I forgive you. Yes, I want this. No, I don’t think you’re a monster.

“Would I be here if I didn’t want this?” I ask, as though the answer were obvious. I ignore what hangs in the air above us, my anger, my humiliation and hurt. They seem like the real monsters, all those unspeakable things.

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