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My Dark Vanessa (Page 13)

At my next session with Ruby, before I even sit down, I ask if she’s been contacted by anyone looking for information on me. I called Ira last night asking the same thing, while his new girlfriend hissed in the background, “Is that her? Why is she calling you? Ira, hang up the phone.”

“Who would be looking for information on you?” Ruby asks.

“Like a journalist.”

She stares, bewildered, as I take out my phone and pull up the emails. “I’m not being paranoid, ok? This is actually happening to me. Look.”

She takes the phone, begins to read. “I don’t understand—”

I grab it from her hand. “Maybe it doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it’s not just emails, ok? She’s been calling me, harassing me.”

“Vanessa, take a breath.”

“Do you not believe me?”

“I believe you,” she says. “But I need you to slow down and tell me what’s going on.”

I sit, press the heels of my hands against my eyes and try my best to explain the emails and calls, the unearthed blog I finally managed to delete, how the journalist still has screenshots saved. My brain is jumpy, won’t stay focused even for the length of a sentence. Ruby still gets the gist of it, though, her face opening up in sympathy.

“This is so intrusive,” she says. “Surely this isn’t ethical on the part of the journalist.” She suggests I write to Janine’s boss, or even go to the police, but at the mention of cops, I grab the arms of my chair and yell out, “No!” For a moment, Ruby actually looks scared.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m panicking. I’m not myself.”

“That’s ok,” she says. “It’s an understandable reaction. This is one of your worst fears coming true.”

“I saw her, you know. Outside the hotel.”

“The journalist?”

“No, the other her. Taylor, the one who accused Strane. She’s harassing me, too. I should show up at her work, see how she likes it.”

I describe what I saw last night as dusk began to fall, the woman standing across the street, how she stared up at the hotel, right into the lobby window I was looking out of, staring at me, her blond hair whipping across her face. As I talk, Ruby watches me with a pained expression, like she wants to believe me but can’t.

“I don’t know,” I say. “Maybe I imagined it. That happens sometimes.”

“You imagine things?”

I lift my shoulders. “It’s like my brain superimposes onto strangers the faces I want to see.”

She says that sounds difficult and I shrug again. She asks how often this happens and I say it depends. Months will pass without it happening at all, and then months where it happens every day. It’s the same with the nightmares—they come in waves, brought on by something not always easy to predict. I know to stay away from any books or movies set in a boarding school, but then I’ll be blindsided by something as benign as a reference to maple trees, or the feeling of flannel against my skin.

“I sound like I’m crazy,” I say.

“No, not crazy,” Ruby says. “Traumatized.”

I think about the other things I could tell her, the drinking and smoking to get me through the day, the nights when my apartment feels like a maze so impossible to navigate I end up sleeping on the bathroom floor. I know how easily I could make my most shameful behaviors add up to a diagnosis. I’ve lost entire nights to reading about post-traumatic stress, mentally checking off each symptom, but there’s a strange letdown at the thought of everything inside me being summed up so easily. And what’s next—treatment, medication, moving past it all? That might seem like a happy ending for some, but for me there’s only the edge of this canyon, the churning water below.

“Do you think I should let that journalist write about me?” I ask.

“That’s a choice only you can make.”

“Obviously. And I’ve already made up my mind. There’s no way I’m agreeing to it. I just want to know if you think I should.”

“I think it would cause you severe stress,” Ruby says. “I’d worry the symptoms you described would become even more intense to the point where it would be difficult for you to function.”

“But I’m talking on a moral level. Because isn’t it supposed to be worth all the stress? That’s what people keep saying, that you need to speak out no matter the cost.”

“No,” she says firmly. “That’s wrong. It’s a dangerous amount of pressure to put on someone dealing with trauma.”

“Then why do they keep saying it? Because it’s not just this journalist. It’s every woman who comes forward. But if someone doesn’t want to come forward and tell the world every bad thing that’s happened to her, then she’s what? Weak? Selfish?” I throw up my hand, wave it away. “The whole thing is bullshit. I fucking hate it.”

“You’re angry,” Ruby says. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you truly angry before.”

I blink, breathe through my nose. I say I feel a little defensive, and she asks defensive how.

“I feel backed into a corner,” I say. “Like all of a sudden, not wanting to expose myself means I’m enabling rapists. And I shouldn’t even be part of this conversation at all! I wasn’t abused, not like other women are claiming to have been.”

“Do you understand that someone could have been in a relationship similar to yours and consider it to have been abusive?”

“Sure,” I say. “I’m not brainwashed. I know the reasons why teenagers aren’t supposed to be with middle-aged men.”

“What are the reasons?” she asks.

I roll my eyes and list off: “The power imbalance, teenage brains not being fully developed, whatever. All that crap.”

“Why didn’t those reasons apply to you?”

I give Ruby a sidelong look, letting her know I see where she’s trying to lead me. “Look,” I say, “this is the truth, ok? Strane was good to me. He was careful and kind and good. But obviously not all men are like that. Some are predatory, especially with girls. And when I was young, being with him was still really hard, despite how good he was.”

“Why was it hard?”

“Because the whole world was working against us! We had to lie and hide, and there were things he couldn’t protect me from.”

“Like what?”

“Like when I got kicked out.”

When I say that, Ruby squints, her brow furrows. “Kicked out of what?”

I forgot I hadn’t told her. I know the phrase “kicked out” hits hard and gives the wrong impression. It makes it sound as though I had no agency in the situation, like I was caught doing something bad and then told to pack my bags. But I had a choice. I chose to lie.

So I tell Ruby it was complicated, that maybe “kicked out” isn’t the right way to describe it. I tell her the story: the rumors and meetings, Jenny’s list, the last morning with the packed classroom and me standing at the chalkboard. I’ve never told it with such detail, don’t know if I’ve even thought about it this way before—chronologically, one event leading to the next. It’s usually fractured, memories like shattered glass.

At a couple points, Ruby interrupts me. “They did what?” she asks. “They what?” She’s appalled at things I’ve never paid attention to before, like how Strane was the one who pulled me out of class for the first meeting with Mrs. Giles, the fact that no one reported it to the state.

“What, like child protective services?” I ask. “Come on. It wasn’t like that.”

“Any time a teacher suspects a child is being abused, they’re mandated to report it.”

“I worked in child protective services when I first moved to Portland,” I say, “and the kids who ended up in that system had been through actual abuse. Horrific stuff. What happened to me wasn’t anything like that.” I sit back, cross my arms. “This is why I hate talking about it. I end up making it sound way worse than it actually was.”

She studies me, deep lines in her forehead. “Knowing you, Vanessa, I think you’re more likely to minimize than exaggerate.”

She starts talking in an authoritative tone I’ve never heard before, practically scolding. She says it’s humiliating what Browick forced me to do. That being instructed to demean yourself in front of your peers is enough to cause post-traumatic stress, regardless of anything else I went through.

“Being forced into helplessness by one other person is terrible,” she says, “but being humiliated in front of a crowd . . . I don’t want to say that it’s worse, but it is different. It’s severely dehumanizing, especially for a child.”

When I start to correct her use of “child,” she amends herself: “For someone whose brain wasn’t fully developed.” Then she meets my gaze, waits to see if I’ll challenge my own words. When I don’t, she asks if Strane stayed on at Browick after all that, if he knew what happened in that meeting.

“He knew. He helped me plan what I was going to say. It was the only way to repair his reputation.”

“Did he know you were going to get kicked out?”

I lift my shoulders, unwilling to lie but unable to say yes, he knew, he wanted it to happen.

“You know,” Ruby says, “earlier you described this as something he didn’t have the power to protect you from, but it sounds like he was actually the cause of it.”

For a moment my breath gets knocked out of me, but I recover quickly, shrugging like it’s nothing. “It was a complicated situation. He did the best he could.”

“Did he feel guilty about it?”

“About having me kicked out?”

“That,” she says, “and making you lie, take the fall.”

“I think he thought it was unfortunate but something that had to be done. What was the alternative, him going to prison?”

“Yes,” she says firmly, “that would have been an alternative, and it would have been a just one because what he did to you is a crime.”

“Neither of us would have survived him going to prison.”

Ruby watches me and there’s a shifting of gears behind her eyes, the marking of a mental note. It’s more subtle than scribbling on a notepad the way a TV therapist might, yet still detectable. She observes me so closely, puts everything I say and do into a larger context, which of course reminds me of Strane—how could it not? How his eyes bore into me during class, constantly calculating. Ruby once told me that I’m her favorite client because there’s always another layer to peel back, something else to unearth, and hearing this was as thrilling as hearing, You’re my best student. Like Strane calling me precious and rare, Henry Plough saying I’m an enigma, impossible to understand.

She asks then what I think she’s wanted to ask me all along. “Do you believe the girls who accused him?”

I don’t hesitate in saying no. I flick my eyes to her face, catch her fast-blinking surprise.

“You think they’re lying,” she says.

“Not exactly. I think they got carried away.”

“Carried away how?”

“In this hysteria that’s going on,” I say. “The constant accusations. Like, it’s a movement, right? That’s what people are calling it. And when you see a movement with so much momentum, it’s natural to want to join, but to be accepted into this one you need something horrible to have happened to you. Exaggeration is inevitable. Plus, it’s all so vague. These terms are easy to manipulate. Assault can be anything. He could have just patted them on the leg or something.”

“But if he was innocent, how do you make sense of him taking his own life?” she asks.

“He always said he’d rather be dead than live life branded as a pedophile. When these accusations came out, he knew everyone would assume he was guilty.”

“Are you angry with him?”

“For killing himself? No. I understand why he did it, and I know that I’m at least partially to blame.”

She starts to say no, that isn’t true, but I cut her off.

“I know, I know—it isn’t my fault, I get it. But I’m the reason he had all these rumors attached to him in the first place. If he hadn’t already had the reputation of being a teacher who sleeps with students, I doubt Taylor would have accused him of anything, and if she hadn’t come forward, the other girls wouldn’t have, either. Once a teacher gets accused of this, everything he says and does is seen through a filter, to the point where even innocuous behavior is interpreted as something sinister.” I go on and on, parroting his arguments, the part of him left inside me suddenly risen and fully alive.

“Think about it,” I say. “If a normal man pats a girl on the knee, no big deal. But if a man who’s been accused of being a pedophile does it? People are going to react disproportionately. So, no, I’m not mad at him. I’m mad at them. I’m mad at the world that turned him into a monster when all he did was have the bad luck of falling in love with me.”

Ruby crosses her arms and stares down at her lap, as though she’s trying to calm herself.

“I know how this all sounds,” I say. “I’m sure you think I’m terrible.”

“I don’t think you’re terrible,” she says quietly, still gazing down at her lap.

“Then what do you think?”

She takes a deep breath, meets my eyes. “Honestly, Vanessa, what I’m hearing is that he was a very weak man, and even as a girl, you knew you were stronger than him. You knew he couldn’t handle being exposed and that’s why you took the fall. You’re still trying to protect him.”

I bite down on the inside of my cheek because I won’t let my body do what it really wants—to contort itself inward, to curl so tight my bones snap. “I don’t want to talk about him anymore.”

“Ok.”

“I’m still grieving, you know. On top of everything else, I’m mourning the loss.”

“It must be hard.”

“It is. It’s excruciating.” I swallow down the tightness in my throat. “I let him die. You should know that, just in case you start feeling sorry for me. He called me right before he did it, and I knew what he was going to do and I did nothing to stop him.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Ruby says.

“Yeah, you keep saying that. Nothing ever seems to be my fault.”

She says nothing, staring at me with that same pained expression. I know what she thinks, that I’m pathetic, intent on creating my own doom.

“I tortured him,” I say. “I don’t think you understand how much I contributed to everything. His whole life descended into hell because of me.”

“He was a grown man and you were fifteen,” she says. “What could you have possibly done to torture him?”

For a moment I’m speechless, unable to come up with an answer besides, I walked into his classroom. I existed. I was born.

Tipping my head back, I say, “He was so in love with me, he used to sit in my chair after I left the classroom. He’d put his face down on the table and try to breathe me in.” It’s a detail I’ve trotted out before, always meant as evidence of his uncontrollable love for me, but saying it now, I hear it as she does, as anyone would—deluded and deranged.

“Vanessa,” she says gently, “you didn’t ask for that. You were just trying to go to school.”

I stare out the window over her shoulder, at the harbor, the swarming gulls, the slate-gray water and sky, but I only see myself, barely sixteen with tears in my eyes, standing in front of a room of people, calling myself a liar, a bad girl deserving of punishment. Ruby’s far-off voice asks me where I’ve gone, but she knows that it’s the truth that has spooked me, the expanse of it, the starkness. It offers nowhere to hide.

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