My Dark Vanessa (Page 14)
It’s early September, senior year of college about to begin, and I’m cleaning my apartment with the windows thrown open. The sounds of seasonal transformation drift in from the downtown streets below, the loudspeaker from the trolley tours mixed with the moaning brakes of a moving van, the final wave of tourists in town for the last of the warm weather and cheaper hotel rooms. The center of town has shifted toward campus, and until May, Atlantica will belong to the college. Bridget, my roommate, is due to arrive from Rhode Island the following day and classes begin the day after that. I’ve lived here all summer, cleaning hotel rooms for cash and getting stoned and wasting time online at night—except when Strane comes over, which he’s done only a handful of times. He blames the long drive, but really he just hates the dingy apartment. The first time he visited, he took one look around and said, “Vanessa, this is the kind of place people go to kill themselves.” He’s forty-eight and I’m twenty-one, and mostly it’s the same as it was six years ago. The big threats are gone—no one’s going to get thrown in jail or lose their job—but I still lie to my parents about him. Bridget is the only friend who knows he exists. When he and I are together, it’s either at his house or in my apartment with the shades drawn. He takes me out in public sometimes, but only places where there’s little chance we’ll be recognized—the secrecy, once a necessity, now seems a product of shame.
I’m in the bathroom wiping down the sides of the shower, something I only do when he’s coming, when my phone trills with an incoming call: JACOB STRANE.
I hit “answer,” my fingers pruned from the cleaner. “Hey, are you—?”
“Can’t do it tonight,” he says. “Too much going on here.”
I move into the living room while he goes on about being reappointed department chair, his mounting responsibilities. “The department’s a mess,” he says. “We’ve got someone on maternity leave and the new teacher they hired is completely clueless. On top of that, they’re implementing some new school-wide counseling program, hired some girl barely older than you to instruct us how to handle students’ feelings. It’s insulting. I’ve been doing this for two decades.”
I begin to pace the length of the living room, following the path of the oscillating fan. The only furniture we have is a duct-taped papasan chair, a coffee table made of milk crates, and my parents’ old TV stand. We’ll have a couch soon; Bridget says she knows someone getting rid of one for free.
“But this was the last chance for us to be together.”
“Are you leaving on an extended voyage I don’t know about?”
“My roommate’s moving in tomorrow.”
“Ah.” He clicks his tongue. “Well, you’ve got a bedroom. The door closes.”
I let out a tiny slip of a sigh.
“Please don’t sulk,” he says.
“I’m not.” But I am, my limbs heavy, my bottom lip jutting out. I spent the whole morning clearing the empty bottles and coffee cups out of my bedroom, washing the dishes, wiping the hair out of the bathtub. Plus I want to be with him. That’s the real source of my disappointment. It’s been two weeks.
Into the phone, I mumble, “I’m needy.” It’s the closest I can get to saying what I feel, which isn’t horniness, because it isn’t really about sex. It’s him looking at me, adoring me, telling me what I am and giving me what I need to get through the day-to-day drudgery of pretending I’m like everybody else.
I hear him smile—the quick exhale, a soft sound from the back of his throat. I’m needy. He likes that. “I’ll get out there soon,” he says.
Bridget arrives the following afternoon, dropping her bags in the middle of the living room floor. With shining eyes, she asks, “Is he here?” She’s anxious to meet Strane; I’m not sure she’s convinced he’s real. I told her a vague version of the story last spring at the bar after we signed our lease. She’s an English major, same as me, and we’d had classes together for three years, but we weren’t good friends. Living together was an arrangement of convenience. She’d found a two-bedroom apartment; I needed a place. Yet over the course of one night at the bar, I went from mentioning that I’d gone to Browick for “about a year”—usually that’s as close as I came to the truth—to giving her a disjointed history of the whole mess five drinks later. I told her that he singled me out and fell in love, that I was expelled because I wouldn’t betray him, but we ended up back together because we can’t stay away from each other, despite the age difference, despite everything. She was the perfect listener, widening her eyes at the most intense plot points, nodding empathetically at the difficult moments, and through it all showing no hint of judgment. Since then, she had never been the first to mention Strane, always followed my lead. Even now, asking Is he here? was only because I texted her the day before with an apologetic warning: I hope you won’t be too alarmed if a middle-aged man is in the apartment when you get here tomorrow. That was the first time I ever tried turning him into a joke and it felt good, surprisingly so.
Is he here? I shake my head but don’t explain why and Bridget doesn’t ask.
We move in the rest of her stuff, black garbage bags full of clothes and pillows and bedsheets, a trash can stuffed with shoes, a crockpot full of DVDs. We pick up the couch—literally pick it up—and carry it four blocks while cars pass by and honk at us. We rest halfway, dropping the couch on the sidewalk and draping ourselves across it, stretching our legs and shielding our eyes from the sun. Once we haul it up into the apartment, we push it against a living room wall and spend the rest of the afternoon drinking sugary wine and watching The Hills. We swig straight from our respective bottles, wipe our lips with the backs of our hands, and sing along to the theme song, episode after episode.
When the sky darkens and the wine runs out, we go to the corner store for more to drink while we get ready for the bar. Rilo Kiley blares from Bridget’s bedroom on the other end of the apartment as I flat-iron my hair and line my eyes. At one point, she appears in my bedroom doorway with a pair of scissors.
“I’m giving you bangs,” she says.
I sit on the edge of the bathtub while she snips at my hair with the paint-stained scissors, her laptop open to a photo of Jenny Lewis for reference. “Perfect,” she says, stepping aside so I can look in the mirror. I look like a little girl, two big eyes peering out from beneath a blunt fringe.
“You look amazing,” Bridget says.
I turn from side to side and wonder what Strane will think.
At the bar, I perch on a stool and guzzle pints, while Bridget is sidetracked by boys who pull her in for hugs as an excuse to lay their hands on her. She’s beautiful: high cheekbones and long honey hair, a gap between her front teeth that I’ve seen men go cross-eyed over. Meanwhile, I’m pretty but not beautiful, smart but not cool. I’m acerbic, salty, too intense. When Bridget’s fiancé met me, he said just being around me felt like a kick in the balls.
* * *
Atlantica College is morning fog and salt-drenched air, seals sunning their speckled bodies on the pink granite shore, whaler mansions converted into classrooms, a giant humpback skull hanging in the cafeteria. The school mascot is a horseshoe crab, and we’re all aware of how ridiculous this is, the bookstore stocked with sweatshirts that read got crabs? across the back. There aren’t any sports teams, the students call the president by her first name, and professors wear Teva sandals and T-shirts and bring their dogs to class. I love the college, don’t want to graduate, don’t want to leave.
Strane says I need to contextualize my reluctance to grow up, that everyone my age is drawn to self-victimization. “And that mentality is especially difficult for young women to resist,” he says. “The world has a vested interest in keeping you helpless.” He says as a culture we treat victimhood as an extension of childhood. So when a woman chooses victimhood, she is therefore freed from personal responsibility, which then compels others to take care of her, which is why once a woman chooses victimhood, she will continue to choose it again and again.
I still feel different from others, dark and deeply bad, same as I did at fifteen, but I’ve tried to gain a better understanding of the reasons. I’ve become an expert of the age-gap trope, consuming books, films, anything featuring a romance between an adult and legal child. I search endlessly for myself but never find anything truly accurate. Girls in those stories are always victims, and I am not—and it doesn’t have anything to do with what Strane did or didn’t do to me when I was younger. I’m not a victim because I’ve never wanted to be, and if I don’t want to be, then I’m not. That’s how it works. The difference between rape and sex is state of mind. You can’t rape the willing, right? My freshman year roommate said that when I tried to stop her from going home drunk with some guy she met at a party. You can’t rape the willing. It’s a terrible joke, sure, but it makes sense.
And even if Strane did hurt me, all girls have old wounds. When I first came to Atlantica, I lived in a women’s dorm that was like Browick but more fraught, alcohol and pot easily available, minimal supervision. Open doors lined the hallways, and girls wandered from room to room late into the night, confessing secrets, laying their hearts bare. Girls I met only hours before wept beside me on my bed, telling me about their distant mothers and mean fathers and how their boyfriends cheated on them and that the world was a terrible place. None of them had had affairs with older men and they were still screwed up. If I had never met Strane, I doubt I would’ve turned out all that different. Some boy would’ve used me, taken me for granted, ripped my heart out. At least Strane gave me a better story to tell than theirs.
Sometimes it’s easier to think of it that way—as a story. Last fall I took a fiction writing workshop, and all semester I turned in pieces about Strane. While the stories were critiqued by the class, I took notes on what everyone said, copied down all their comments, even the stupid ones, the mean ones. If someone said, “I mean, she’s obviously a slut. Who has sex with a teacher? Who does something like that?” I wrote those questions in my notebook and then added my own: (Why did I do it? Because I’m a slut?)
I left that class feeling battered and bruised, but it seemed like penance, a deserved humiliation. Maybe there’s a comparison to be made between sitting silently through those brutal workshops and standing in that Browick classroom as questions were hurled at me, but I try not to let myself linger on thoughts like these. I keep my head down, keep going.
The professor teaching my capstone lit seminar is new. Henry Plough. I noticed his nameplate on the office next to my advisor’s the other day, the door ajar, showing an empty room with a desk and two chairs. At the first seminar meeting, I sit at the far end of the table, hungover, maybe still drunk, my skin and hair stinking of beer.
As I watch the other students filter in, each face familiar, my brain seems to spasm, a flash of light and wall of sound, an instant headache so strong I press my fingers against my eyes. When I open them again, Jenny Murphy is there—Jenny the former roommate, the fleeting best friend, the life ruiner. She sits at the seminar table, chin resting on her fist, her brown bobbed hair and the long line of her neck exactly the same. Has she transferred? My body trembles as I wait for her to notice me. How funny that neither of us has aged. I don’t look a day over fifteen, either, the same freckled face and long red hair.
I’m still fixated on her when Henry Plough comes into the classroom carrying a textbook, a leather bag slung over his shoulder. Dragging my eyes away from Jenny, I take him in, this new professor. At first glance, he is Strane, all beard and glasses, heavy footsteps and wide shoulders. Then the revisions reveal themselves: not dominatingly tall but average height, his hair and beard blond rather than black, brown eyes instead of gray, glasses horn-rimmed not wire frame. He’s slimmer, smaller, and he’s young—that’s the last thing I notice. No gray hairs, smooth skin beneath his beard, midthirties. He’s Strane in the pupal stage, still soft.
Henry Plough drops his copy of the textbook onto the seminar table and it thuds loudly, making everyone wince.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to do that.”
He picks it back up, holds it in his hands for a moment, unsure what to do, then sets it back down on the table carefully.
“I guess I should get started,” he says, “now that my awkward entrance is out of the way.”
From the start, his demeanor is all wrong—affable and self-deprecating; nothing about him strikes a chord of terror like Strane did on the first day, filling the blackboard with notes on a poem no one dared admit they hadn’t read. And yet as Henry Plough goes through the roster, his eyes moving up and down the length of the seminar table, taking each of us in, I am back in Strane’s classroom, feeling his eyes drink me in. A breeze drifts in through the open window, and the salt air smells of burned dust from the radiator in Strane’s office. The scream of a seagull turns into the Norumbega church bells marking the half hour.
At the other end of the table, Jenny finally looks my way. Our eyes meet and I see it’s not Jenny at all, just a girl with a round face and brown hair who I’ve had classes with before.
Henry Plough reaches the end of the roster. As always, I’m last. “Vanessa Wye?” It sounds so imploring on the first day of a new semester. Vanessa, why?
I raise two fingers, too shaken to lift my arm. At the other end of the table, the girl I thought was Jenny uncaps her pen and the storm surge within me retreats, leaving behind garbage and tangled strands of rotten kelp. I feel a familiar fear: maybe I’m crazy, narcissistic, delusional. Someone so stuck in her own brain, she turns unwilling bystanders into ghosts.
Henry Plough studies my face as though to memorize it. In his grade book, he puts a mark next to my name.
For the rest of the seminar, I sit hunched in my seat, daring to look at him only in glances. My brain keeps drifting out the window; I can’t tell if it’s trying to escape or get a wider view. After class I walk home alone along a shoreline path, sea mist frizzing my hair. It’s a pitch-black night and I’m wearing my earbuds, music turned up so loud I don’t stand a chance against anyone who might want to grab me from behind—senselessly stupid behavior. I’d never admit to this, but the thought of a monster’s breath on the back of my neck gives me a thrill. It propels me forward, the epitome of asking for it.
Strane comes to see me that Friday night. I wait for him in front of my building, sitting on the stoop of the bagel shop that fills our apartment with the smell of yeast and coffee every morning. It’s a warm evening: girls in sundresses walk to the bars; a boy from my poetry class sails by on a longboard, drinking a beer. When Strane’s station wagon appears, it turns down the alley rather than parking on the street where it’s more likely to be seen. He’s still paranoid, even though there aren’t any Browick alums at Atlantica.
After a minute, he emerges from the dark alley and grins under the glow of a streetlight, holds out his arms. “Get over here.”
He’s wearing stonewashed jeans and white tennis shoes. Dad clothes. When weeks pass between visits, I get caught off guard and end up burying my face in his chest just so I don’t have to look at his ruddy nose and graying beard, stomach falling over his waistband.
He leads the way up the dark stairwell to my apartment like it’s his place and not mine. “You have a couch now,” he says as we step inside. “That’s an improvement.”
He turns to me with a smirk, but his face softens as he takes me in. Out on the street, in the dark, he couldn’t see how pretty I am in my sundress, with my new bangs, winged eyeliner, and rose-stained lips.
“Look at you,” he says. “Like a French girl from nineteen sixty-five.”
His approval is all it takes for my body to buckle and his ugly clothes to turn not so ugly, or at least not important. He’s always going to be old. He has to be. That’s the only way I can stay young and dripping with beauty.
Before I open the door to my bedroom, I warn, “I didn’t get a chance to clean, so be nice.”
I turn on the lights and he surveys the mess: the piles of clothes, coffee mugs and empty wine bottles on the floor beside my bed, a cracked eye shadow palette ground into the carpet.
“I will never understand how you live in this,” he says.
“I like it,” I say, using both hands to shove my clothes off the bed. That’s not really true, but I don’t want to hear his lecture about messy environments reflecting messy minds.
We lie down, him on his back and me on my side squeezed between him and the wall. He asks about my classes and I go through the list, hesitating when I get to Henry Plough’s. “Then there’s that capstone seminar.”
“Who’s the professor?”
“Henry Plough. He’s new.”
“Where’d he get his doctorate?”
“I have no idea. It’s not like they put it on the syllabus.”
Strane frowns, vaguely disapproving. “Have you given thoughts to your plans?”
Plans. Postgraduation. My parents want me to move south, to Portland, Boston, beyond. “There’s nothing for you up here,” Dad jokes, “only nursing homes and rehab centers, because everyone north of Augusta is elderly or an addict.” Strane wants me to leave, too, says I should broaden my horizons and get out into the world, but then he’ll add something like, “Don’t know what I’ll do without you. Probably give in to my baser instincts.”
I wiggle my head, noncommittal. “Eh, a little. Hey, wanna smoke?” I crawl over him, grab the jewelry box where I keep my pot. He watches with a frown as I go through the steps of loading a bowl, but he takes a long hit when I offer the pipe.
“Didn’t anticipate having a twenty-one-year-old girlfriend meant a midlife round of substance abuse,” he says, his voice thin with an exhale of smoke, “though I guess I should have seen it coming.”
I take a hit, inhaling so hard my throat burns. I hate how excited I get when he calls me his girlfriend.
We smoke the bowl and drink a mostly full bottle of wine left on the floor next to the bed. I turn on my little TV, and for five excruciating minutes we watch a reality show about men getting arrested after trying to meet up with teenage girls from chat rooms who were actually cops in disguise. I put on a movie instead. All I have are films that hit equally close to home—both versions of Lolita, Pretty Baby, American Beauty, Lost in Translation—but at least they focus on the beauty of it all, frame it as a love story.
When Strane takes off my dress and rolls me onto my back, I’m so high I feel blurred, like swirling smoke, but as he starts to go down on me, everything crashes into focus. I clamp my legs shut. “I don’t want that.”
“Nessa, come on.” He rests his face against my clamped thighs, gazes up at me. “Let me.”
I lift my eyes to the ceiling and shake my head. I haven’t let him go down on me for at least a year now, maybe longer. It wouldn’t kill me or anything, but it would admit a kind of defeat.
He continues. “You’re turning down pleasure.”
I tense every muscle in my body. Light as a feather, stiff as a board.
“Are you punishing yourself?”
My thoughts tumble down a wormhole, dulled edges and gentle curves. I see the night ocean, waves hitting the granite shore. Strane is there, standing on a slab of pink granite, his hands cupped around his mouth. Let me do it. Let me pleasure you. He keeps calling, but I’m out of reach. I’m a speckled seal swimming past the breakers, a seabird with a wingspan so strong I can fly for miles. I’m the new moon, hidden and safe from him, from everyone.
“You’re stubborn,” he says, moving on top of me and nudging my legs apart with his knee. “So stupidly stubborn.”
He tries to push in, and then has to reach down to stroke himself; he keeps going soft. I could help, but I’m still feather light, board stiff. Plus, it isn’t my problem. If a forty-eight-year-old man can’t get hard for a twenty-one-year-old girl, can he get hard for anything? For a fifteen-year-old, maybe. Sometimes at his house in Norumbega, we pretend it’s the first time again. You gotta relax, honey. I can’t get in if you don’t relax. Deep breaths.
He starts to move in and out of me, and I shut my eyes to watch the familiar images play on loop: loaves of bread rising, groceries traveling down a conveyor belt, a time lapse of white roots extending into soft earth. The longer the reel plays, the more my skin crawls. My chest starts to heave. Even with my eyes open, all I see are the images. I know he’s on top of me, fucking me, but I can’t see him. This keeps happening. The last time I tried to explain to him what this feels like, he told me it sounded like hysterical blindness. Just calm down. You gotta relax, honey.
I grab at my own throat. I need him to choke me; it’s the only thing that will bring me back. “Do it hard,” I say. “Really rough.” He does it only if I beg, a stream of gasping “pleases” until he relents, presses half-heartedly on my throat. It’s enough for the apartment to reappear, his face looming over me, sweat sliding down his cheeks.
Afterward, he says, “I don’t like doing that, Vanessa.”
I sit up, scoot down the bed, and grab my dress from the floor. I have to pee and don’t like walking around naked in front of him, and I also don’t know when Bridget’s coming back.
He adds, “There’s something very troubling about it.”
“Define ‘it,’” I say, slipping the dress over my head.
“This violence you want me to do to you. It’s . . .” He grimaces. “It’s awfully dark, even for me.”
Before we fall asleep, the lights out and Pretty Baby playing on mute, Bridget returns from the bar. We listen to her walk around the living room and then, stumbling slightly, into the bathroom. The water turns on full blast, not quite covering the sound of her puking.
“Should we help her?” Strane whispers.
“She’s fine,” I say, though if he weren’t here, I would check on her. I don’t know if it’s that I don’t want him near her or the other way around.
After a while, she moves into the kitchen. A cupboard door opens and there’s a crinkle of plastic from her hand reaching into a box of cereal. It’s the kind of night when she and I usually camp out on the couch and watch late-night infomercials until we pass out.
Under the blankets, Strane’s hand moves across my thigh.
“Does she know I’m here?” he whispers. His hand between my legs, he works at me as we listen to Bridget move through the apartment.
In the morning, I wake in bed alone. I think he’s left until I hear footsteps out in the living room and the bathroom door open. Then Bridget’s voice high with surprise, “Oh, I’m sorry!” and Strane’s rushed “No, no, it’s fine. I was just leaving.”
I listen as they introduce themselves. Strane calls himself “Jacob” as though he were normal, as though any of this were normal, while I lie frozen in bed, suddenly terrified, like a girl in a horror film seeing claws creeping out from under the closet door. When he comes back into the bedroom, I pretend to be asleep. Even when he touches my shoulder and says my name, I don’t open my eyes.
“I know you’re awake,” he says. “I met your roommate. Seems like a nice girl. I like that gap in her smile.”
I bury my face deeper into the comforter.
“I’m leaving now. Can I get a kiss goodbye?”
I snake my arm out from under the covers and hold up my hand for a high five, which he ignores. I listen to his heavy footsteps move through the apartment, and when I hear him say goodbye to Bridget, I cover my face with my hands.
I open my eyes and she’s standing in my bedroom doorway, her arms crossed. “Stinks like sex in here,” she says.
I sit up, pulling the covers with me. “I know he’s gross.”
“He’s not gross.”
“He’s old. He’s so old.”
She laughs, tosses her hair. “Really, he wasn’t that bad.”
I get dressed and we go to the coffee shop downstairs for bacon and egg bagels and black coffees. At a table by the window, I watch a couple walking an enormous curly-haired dog, pink tongue flopping out of its panting mouth.
Bridget says, “So you’ve been with him since you were fifteen?”
I suck coffee through my teeth, scald my tongue. It’s not like her to pry. We give each other distance, refer to it jokingly as the “no-judgment zone,” the space in which I watch her hook up with guys despite her fiancé back home in Rhode Island and I do whatever it is I do with Strane.
“Off and on,” I say.
“He was the first you had sex with?”
I nod, my eyes on the window, still watching the couple and the curly-coated dog. “First and only.”
At that, her eyes bug out. “Wait, seriously? No one else?”
I lift my shoulders and suck down more coffee, burning my throat. There’s satisfaction in seeing my life contort another person’s face into shock and awe, but a second too long and their awe turns to gawking.
“I can’t imagine what that must’ve been like,” she says.
I try to hide how my eyes smart with tears. I shouldn’t be upset. This is nothing. She’s just curious. This is what having a friend is like. You talk about boys, your wild teenage past.
“Were you scared?”
Picking at my bagel, I shake my head. Why would I have been scared? He was so careful with me. I think of the public high school, of Charley and Will Coviello, who called her white trash and never spoke to her again after she gave him a blow job. How he came back into the bowling alley with that smirk on his face, so pleased to have gotten what he wanted. Being subjected to that kind of humiliation would have been scary. Not Strane, who sank to his knees before me, who told me I was the love of his life.
I flick my eyes to Bridget, stare her down. “He worshipped me. I was lucky.”
Fall comes on suddenly. The hotels close up and the visa workers go home. The trees turn the second week of September, clusters of yellow leaves stark against an overcast sky. Mornings are cold, wet with fog, and I wake with damp bedsheets twisted around my ankles.
At the end of September, in the lull before Henry Plough’s seminar starts, a girl I’ve had writing workshops with since freshman year takes her seat at the seminar table and sets down a pile of books. She wears cowboy boots and short skirts and sends her work out to lit journals, and my advisor once described her as “destined for Iowa.” On the top of the stack of books is Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov. I freeze at the sight of the novel. “Come and be worshiped, come and be caressed, / My dark Vanessa.”
Henry points to it. “Great choice there,” he says. “That’s one of my favorites.”
The girl grins. Her cheeks flush instantly from the attention. “It’s for twentieth-century lit. I’m writing a paper on it, which is”—she widens her eyes—“intimidating.”
The boy beside her asks what it’s about and I listen, thumping and hot, as she tries to explain and falters. Henry starts to speak, but I cut in louder.
“There isn’t really a plot,” I say. “Or, at least, that’s not how it’s meant to be read. The novel is a poem and footnotes, and the footnotes tell their own story, but the character writing those footnotes is unreliable so the whole thing is unreliable. It’s a novel that resists meaning and demands that the reader relinquish control . . .”
I trail off, feeling the swell of anxiety that comes whenever I talk like this—like Strane is channeling himself through me. Coming from him, this kind of talk sounds brilliant, but it just makes me seem like a bitch, haughty and harsh.
“Well anyway,” the girl says, “it’s not my favorite Nabokov. I read The True Life of Sebastian Knight and liked it a lot better.”
Quietly, I correct her: “Real Life.”
With a roll of her eyes she turns away from me, but at the front of the seminar table, as the rest of the class enters and takes their seats, Henry watches me with a faint smile, contemplating.
When I get home from class, I make myself dinner and read Titus Andronicus for next week, the start of the Shakespeare unit. It’s a brutal, bloody play of severed hands and heads cooked in pies. Lavinia, the general’s daughter, is gang-raped and subsequently mutilated. The men who rape her cut out her tongue so she can’t speak and cut off her hands so she can’t write. Still, she’s so desperate to tell, she learns how to hold a stick in her mouth and scratches out the men’s names in the dirt.
When I reach that part of the play, I stop reading and grab Strane’s old copy of Lolita from my bookcase and thumb through until I find the section I’m looking for on page 165: Lo laughing at a newspaper column advising kids that if a strange man offers you candy, you should say no and scratch his license plate number on the side of the road. I pencil Lavinia? in the margin and dog-ear the page. I try to pick up Titus Andronicus again, but my brain won’t focus.
I open my laptop and bring up the blog I created three years ago. It’s technically public but anonymous—I use pseudonyms and google myself every few weeks to make sure it doesn’t come up in the search results. Maintaining this blog is like walking alone at night with my headphones on, like going to the bar with the sole intention of getting so drunk I can’t see straight, things I remember my Psychology 101 textbook referring to as “risky behavior.”
September 28, 2006
He mentioned Nabokov today, so I feel I should document this burgeoning thing.
I don’t know what to call it. Really, “it” is nothing, a narrative born of my own depraved brain—but how can I not jump to that familiar story when the characters, the setting, and so many of the details are the same? (In the classroom, the professor’s eyes drift to the end of the seminar table, to the red-haired girl whose voice trembles whenever she’s called on to read.)
This is absurd. I am absurd, projecting all this onto a man I know nothing about except what he looks like standing in front of a chalkboard and the most mundane facts anyone could scrounge up with a Google search. I feel like I’ve plucked him out of the classroom, like I’m doing to him what S. did to me. But isn’t the professor supposed to be S. in this scenario?
I’ve started dressing like I did at fifteen on the days I know I’ll see him—baby doll dresses and Converse sneakers, my hair in braids—as though the sight of me doing my best nymphet impression might make him realize what I am and what I’m capable of, which is to say . . . I am probably legitimately actually INSANE.
“One of my favorites,” he said today, about Pale Fire (not Lolita—can you imagine if he’d said that about Lolita?). Not a big deal. An innocuous comment. All English professors love that novel. But I hear this professor say it, the one I’ve decided is special, and suddenly it becomes revelatory.
I hear Pale Fire and all I can think of is S. giving me his own copy, telling me to turn to page 37. How it felt to find my own name on the page: My dark Vanessa.
And just like that, my mind draws a new connection between the characters. Sometimes it really does feel like a curse, the meaning I can attach to anything.
* * *
There are three bars in Atlantica: one where students go, with microbrews on tap and clean floors; a tavern with pool tables and jars of pickled eggs; and a bar-slash-oyster shack, perched on the edge of a pier, where drunken fishermen get into knife fights. Bridget and I only ever go to the student bar, but she heard the tavern has dancing on Saturday nights.
“We won’t know anyone there,” she says. “We’ll be free.”
She’s right; we are the only Atlantica students there and probably ten years younger than everyone else, though the lights are so dim it’s hard to tell. We do shots of chilled tequila and carry beer bottles onto the dance floor, swigging as we gyrate to Kanye, Beyoncé, Shakira. We’re so giddy that we grab at each other, red and honey hair falling over our faces and into our drinks. A man asks if we do everything together, and we’re having so much fun, we don’t act offended; we just laugh: “Maybe!” When the DJ starts to play techno, we leave the dance floor to catch our breath and sidle up to the bar, where more shots appear before us, paid for by a man in a Red Sox hat and camo jacket.
“I like the way you two move,” the man says, and for a terrifying second, it’s Craig, that creep from the bowling alley in high school; then I blink and see he’s a stranger with pockmarked cheeks and bad breath. He hovers over us until we go dance just to escape him. Toward the end of the night, when Bridget’s in the bathroom and I’m leaning against the bar, so much tequila in me my eyes won’t focus, the man reappears. I can’t see him but I can smell him—beer and cigarettes and something else, a rot that hits my face as he slides a hand across my ass. “Your friend is the pretty one,” he says, “but you look like you’d be more fun.”
I wait a second, two, three, gripped with the same senseless feeling I had at ten years old, when I jammed my finger in my mom’s car door and, instead of screaming in pain, I stood there thinking, I wonder how long I can stand this? Then I swat his hand away and tell him to fuck off: he calls me a bitch. Bridget comes back from the bathroom and takes out her keys, jangles her little bottle of Mace at him, and he calls her a crazy bitch. The whole walk home, she and I are giddy with fear, holding hands and looking over our shoulders.
Back at the apartment, Bridget passes out on the couch, her arm cradling a half-eaten bowl of mac and cheese. I shut myself in the bathroom and call Strane. It goes to voicemail, so I call again and again until he answers, his voice thick with sleep.
“I know it’s late,” I say.
“Are you drunk?”
He sighs. “You’re drunk.”
“Someone touched me.”
“A man. At a bar. He grabbed my butt.”
There’s silence on the other line, like he’s waiting for me to get to the point.
“He didn’t ask me. He just did it.”
“You don’t have to confess anything to me,” he says. “You’re young. You’re allowed to have fun.”
He asks if I’m being safe, tells me to call him in the morning, looks out for me like a parent, knows more about me than my actual parents, who I speak to only in generalities during our twenty-minute phone calls on Sunday nights.
On the tile floor, a towel bunched under my head, I mumble, “Sorry I’m such a mess.”
“It’s fine,” he says. But I want him to tell me that I’m not a mess at all. I am beautiful, precious, and rare.
“Well, it’s your fault, you know,” I say.
A pause. “Ok.”
“Everything wrong with me originated with you.”
“Let’s not do this.”
“You created this mess.”
“Baby, go to bed.”
“Am I wrong?” I ask. “Tell me I’m wrong.” I stare up at a water stain stretching across the ceiling.
Finally, he says, “I know it’s what you believe.”
During the class discussion devoted to The Tempest, Henry tells us all to pair up. Within seconds, everyone has figured it out through imperceptible gestures and glances. They drag their chairs closer together while I stand and look around for someone else without a partner. As I scan the room, I catch Henry watching me, his face tender.
“Vanessa, over here.” Amy Doucette waves her hand. When I sit, she leans toward me and whispers, “I didn’t do the reading. Did you?”
I give a shrugging nod and lie: “I skimmed it.” Really, I read it twice and called Strane to talk about it. He told me if I wanted to impress the professor, I should either refer to the play as postcolonial or make a joke about Francis Bacon having written it. When I asked who Francis Bacon was, he wouldn’t tell me. “I’m not doing all the work for you,” he said. “Look it up.”
Now, as I describe the plot to Amy, I see Henry making his way from pair to pair out of the corner of my eye. When he’s close to us, my voice jumps, unnaturally high and bright: “But it doesn’t really matter what the play’s about anyway, because Shakespeare didn’t write it, Francis Bacon did!”
Henry lets out a laugh—a real one, from the belly and loud.
At the end of class, he stops me on my way out the door and hands me my essay on Lavinia from Titus Andronicus. I focused on her torn-out tongue and torn-off hands, her subsequent silence, the failure of language in the face of rape.
“Great job with that,” he says. “And I liked your joke. From class, not the paper.” He blushes, continuing, “I didn’t see any jokes in your paper, but maybe I missed them.”
“No, there weren’t any jokes.”
“Right,” he says, the flush now all the way down his neck.
I’m so nervous around him, all my body wants to do is bolt. I shove the essay in my jacket pocket and throw my backpack over one shoulder, but he stops me, asking, “You’re a senior, right? Are you applying to graduate school?”
It’s such a sudden question, I laugh in surprise. “I don’t know. Haven’t planned on it.”
“You should consider it,” Henry says. “Based on that work alone”—he gestures to the paper stuffed in my pocket—“you’d be a strong candidate.”
I read over the paper as I walk home, scrutinizing first Henry’s marginal comments and then the sentences of mine he commented on, trying to find this supposed potential. I wrote the paper quickly, three typos in the first paragraph, a flimsy conclusion. Strane would have given it a B.
The first week in November, Strane makes a reservation at an expensive restaurant down the coast and books us a hotel room. He tells me to dress up, so I wear a black silk dress with thin straps, the only nice thing I own. The restaurant is Michelin-starred, Strane says, and I pretend to know what that means. It’s in a remodeled barn with weathered wooden walls and exposed beams, white tablecloths and brown leather club chairs. The menu is all stuff like scallops with asparagus flan, tenderloin crusted with foie gras. Nothing has a price.
“I don’t know what any of this is.” I mean it as bratty, but he takes it as insecure. When the waiter comes, Strane orders for both of us—rabbit loin wrapped in prosciutto, salmon and pomegranate sauce, champagne panna cotta for dessert. Everything arrives on enormous white plates, a perfect little construction in the center, barely recognizable as food.
“How do you like it?” he asks.
“Good, I guess.”
He gives me a look like I’m being ungrateful, which I am, but I don’t have it in me to play the doe-eyed girl from the sticks, awed at a glimpse of the high-class world. He took me to a restaurant like this in Portland for my birthday. I acted sweet then, moaning over the food, whispering, I feel so fancy, across the table. Now, I poke at the panna cotta and shiver in my summer dress, my bare arms broken out in goose bumps.
He pours more wine into both our glasses. “Have you thought any more about what you’re going to do after graduation?”
“That’s a terrible question.”
“It’s only a terrible question if you have no plan.”
I pull the spoon from between my lips. “I need more time to figure it out.”
“You have seven months to figure it out,” he says.
“No, I mean like an extra year. Maybe I should fail all my classes on purpose to buy some time.”
He gives me the look again.
“I was thinking,” I say slowly, twirling my spoon in the panna cotta, turning it into mush, “if I don’t figure something out, could I stay with you? Just as a backup plan.”
“You’re not even thinking about it.”
“I don’t need to think about it. The idea is ridiculous.”
I sit back in my chair, cross my arms.
He leans toward me, ducks his head, and in a low voice says, “You cannot move in with me.”
“I didn’t say move in.”
“What would your parents think?”
I shrug. “They wouldn’t need to know.”
“They wouldn’t need to know,” he repeats, shaking his head. “Well, people in Norumbega would certainly notice. And what would they think if they saw you living with me? I’m still trying to get myself out from under what happened back then, not get sucked back in.”
“Fine,” I say. “It’s fine.”
“You’ll be ok,” he says. “You don’t need me.”
“It’s fine. Forget I ever mentioned it.”
Impatience simmers beneath his words. He’s annoyed I’d ask such a thing, that I would even want it, and I’m annoyed, too—that I’m still so devoted to him, still a child. I’ve come nowhere close to fulfilling the prophecy he laid out for me years ago, a dozen lovers at twenty, a life in which he was one of many. At twenty-one, there’s still only him.
When the check comes, I grab it first, just to see the total: $317. The thought of so much money on one meal is nauseating, but I say nothing as I slide the bill across the table.
After dinner, we go to a cocktail lounge around the corner from the hotel. The bar has darkened windows and heavy doors, dim lights inside. We sit off in a corner at a small table, and the waiter stares at my ID for so long Strane grows annoyed and says, “All right, I think that’s enough.” Beside us, two middle-aged couples sit talking about traveling abroad, Scandinavia, the Baltics, St. Petersburg. One of the men keeps saying to the other, “You need to go there. It’s nothing like here. This place is a shithole. You need to go there.” I can’t tell what he thinks is the shithole—Maine, America, or maybe just the cocktail lounge.
Strane and I sit close, our knees touching. While we eavesdrop on the couples, he slides his hand onto my thigh. “Do you like your drink?” He ordered us each a Sazerac. It all tastes like whiskey to me.
His hand slides farther between my legs, his thumb brushing the crotch of my underwear. He has an erection; I can tell by how he shifts his hips and clears his throat. I know, too, that he likes touching me next to the men his age and their old wives.
I drink another Sazerac, and another, and another. Strane’s hand doesn’t leave my legs.
“You’re all goose pimples,” he murmurs. “What kind of girl doesn’t wear stockings in November?”
I want to correct him and say, You mean tights—nobody says “stockings,” this isn’t the nineteen fifties, but before I can, he answers his own question.
“A bad girl, that’s what kind.”
In the hotel lobby, I hang back while he checks into our room. I inspect the empty concierge desk, accidentally brush a pile of brochures onto the floor. On the elevator up to the room, Strane says, “I think that man at the front desk winked at me.” He kisses me as it dings for our floor, like he wants someone to be waiting on the other side, but the doors open onto an empty hallway.
“I’m going to be sick.” I grab a handle, push down hard. “Come on, open up.”
“That’s not our room. Why did you let yourself get this drunk?” He ushers me down the hallway and into the room, where I make a beeline for the bathroom, sinking to the floor and curling my arms around the toilet. Strane watches from the doorway.
“A hundred-fifty-dollar dinner down the drain,” he says.
I’m too drunk for sex but he still tries. My head lolls against the pillows as he pushes my legs apart. The last thing I remember is telling him not to go down on me. He must have listened; I wake up with my underwear on.
In the morning, as he drives me back to Atlantica, the radio plays Bruce Springsteen. “Red Headed Woman.” Strane sneaks glances at me, smiling slyly at the lyrics, trying to get me to smile, too.
Well, listen up, stud
Your life’s been wasted
Till you’ve got down on your knees and tasted
A red headed woman.
I lean forward, turn it off. “That’s disgusting.”
After a few miles of silence, he says, “I forgot to tell you, that new counselor at Browick is married to a professor at your college.”
I’m too hungover to care. “How thrilling,” I mumble, my cheek pressed against the cool window, the coastline flying by.
Henry’s office is on the fourth floor of the biggest building on campus, concrete and brutalist, the eyesore of Atlantica. Most departments are housed there; the fourth floor belongs to English professors, open office doors revealing desks and armchairs and overstuffed bookshelves. Every single one reminds me of Strane’s—the scratchy sofa and seafoam glass. Whenever I walk this hallway, time feels flat, like it’s folded onto itself over and over, a piece of paper into a crane.
Henry’s door is ajar, and through the few inches I see he’s at his desk, watching something on his laptop. When I knock lightly on the doorframe, he jumps, hitting the space bar on his keyboard to pause the video.
“Vanessa,” he says, pulling open the door. There’s a timbre to his voice like he’s pleased to see me standing there and not anyone else. His office is still as bare as it was when I glimpsed inside before the semester began. No rug on the floor, nothing on the walls, but clutter has begun to emerge. Loose papers spread across the desk, books lie haphazard on the shelves, and a dusty black backpack hangs by one strap from the filing cabinet.
“Are you busy?” I ask. “I can come back another time.”
“No, no. Just trying to get some work done.” We both glance at the video paused on his laptop, a guy with a guitar frozen mid-strum. “Emphasis on ‘trying,’” he adds, and gestures to the extra chair. Before I sit, I gauge the distance of the chair from his desk—close but far enough away that he can’t reach over and suddenly touch me.
“I have an idea for my final paper,” I say, “but it would mean bringing in a text we didn’t read in class.”
“What were you thinking?”
“Um, Nabokov? How Shakespeare shows up in Lolita?”
During my freshman year, in a class on unreliable narrators, I called Lolita a love story and the professor cut me off, saying, “Calling this novel a love story indicates an unconscionable misreading on your part.” She wouldn’t even let me finish what I was trying to say. Ever since then, I haven’t dared bring it up in any of my classes.
But Henry just crosses his arms and leans back in his chair. He asks what connections I see between Lolita and the plays we’ve read, so I explain the parallels I’ve found: Lavinia from Titus scratching her rapists’ names in the dirt and raped, orphaned Lo scoffing at the suggestion she do the same thing if strange men offer her candy; how Henry IV’s Falstaff lures Hal away from his family the way a pedophile lures a wayward child; the virginal symbolism of Othello’s strawberry handkerchief and the strawberry-print pajamas Humbert gives Lo.
At the last point, Henry frowns. “I don’t remember that detail of the pajamas.”
I stop, mentally thumb through the novel, trying to recall the exact scene, if it’s before Lo’s mother died, or if it’s at the first hotel Lo and Humbert stay at together, at the very beginning of their first road trip. Then my body jumps. I remember Strane taking the pajamas out of a dresser drawer, the feel of the fabric between my fingers, trying them on in his bathroom, the harsh lights and cold tile floor. Like a scene from a movie I watched years ago, something observed from a safe distance.
I blink. From his chair, Henry watches me with gentle eyes, lips softly parted.
“Are you ok?” he asks.
“I might be remembering that one wrong,” I say.
He says that it’s fine and the whole thing sounds great, excellent, far and away the best paper topic he’s heard so far, and he’s heard from almost everyone.
“You know,” he says, “my favorite line in Lolita is about the dandelions.”
I think for a moment, try to place it . . . dandelions, dandelions. I can picture the line on the page, toward the beginning of the novel, when they’re in Ramsdale, Lo’s mother still alive. “Most of the dandelions had changed from suns to moons.”
“The moons,” I say.
Henry nods. “Changed from suns to moons.”
For a second, it’s like our brains are connected, like a wire snaked out of mine and planted itself into his, both of us seeing the same image, seeded and full in our heads. It seems strange that his favorite line in the whole sordid novel is something so chaste. Not any of the descriptions of Lolita’s supple little body or Humbert’s attempts at self-justification, but an unexpectedly lovely image of a front yard weed.
Henry shakes his head and the wire between us snaps, the moment over.
“Well, anyway,” he says. “It’s a good line.”
November 17, 2006
Just back from talking with the Professor about Lolita for a half hour. He told me his favorite line (“Most of the dandelions had changed from suns to moons,” pg. 73). At one point, he said “nymphet,” and hearing that word made me want to tear him open and eat him.
He picked up on something strange about me, how deeply I know the novel. When I referenced some little detail—Humbert’s attraction to his first wife because of how her foot looked in a black velvet slipper—the Professor asked, “Are you reading this for another class, or . . . ?” Meaning, how do I know the book so well? I told him it’s mine. That it belongs to me.
I said, “You know how sometimes there’s a book that’s yours?” And he nodded, like he understood exactly.
I’m sure his intentions are pure, that he thinks I’m a bright girl with good insights, but then there are moments like this: before I left his office he watched me pull on my coat. I couldn’t find my sleeve, stumbled a little as I groped around for it. He made a small movement then, like he was about to help me, but stopped himself, controlled himself. His eyes, though, were soft, so soft. S. is the only other person who’s ever looked at me that way.
Am I being greedy or delusional? Another affair with a teacher, give me a break. Lightning doesn’t strike twice, etc. But if it did happen, would it even be considered the same sort of thing? The basic facts are much more palatable: twenty-one instead of fifteen, thirty-four instead of forty-two. Two consenting adults. Scandal or relationship, who’s to say?
Obviously I’m getting ahead of myself, but I also know what I am, what I could become.
At my poetry press internship, we prepare for the arrival of a prominent poet who is coming to town for his book release. Jim, the other intern, and I spend two weeks designing press materials, showing the press materials to our boss and the assistant director of the press, then redesigning, and redesigning again. When asked if I want to drive to Portland to pick up the poet from the airport, I grab the chance. I plan out what I’ll wear, make a list of conversation topics for the hour drive back to campus. I even print off copies of my best poems in the dream case scenario that he takes an interest in me, though it feels embarrassingly presumptuous.
On the day before the poet arrives, Eileen, the director of the press, finds me in the kitchen, filling the electric kettle with water.
“Vanessa, hi,” she says, stretching out her vowels so long it sounds as though she’s offering consolation for some tragedy. I didn’t even realize she remembered my name. She hasn’t spoken to me since my interview last spring.
“So Robert will be here tomorrow,” she says, “and I know you said you’d pick him up from the airport, but Robert can be a bit, you know . . .” She looks at me expectantly. When I only stare back at her, she continues in a whisper. “He can be kind of forward. You know—handsy.”
I blink in surprise, still holding the electric kettle. “Oh, ok.”
“There was an incident at the last event we held for him, though ‘incident’ is too strong a word. It was nothing, really. But it might be best for you to steer clear. Just to be safe. Do you understand what I’m getting at?”
My face burning, I nod so hard the water sloshes around inside the kettle. Eileen blushes, too. She seems mortified to be telling me this.
“So should I not pick him up from the airport?” I ask, assuming she’ll say no, don’t be silly, of course I should, but instead Eileen grimaces, like she doesn’t want to say yes but has to anyway.
“I think that’s for the best. I thought I’d ask James if he’d be willing.”
I almost ask, James? but realize she means Jim.
“Thank you for being so understanding, Vanessa,” Eileen says. “It really means a lot.”
For the rest of the afternoon, I sort through submissions, reading but retaining nothing, my heart racing and teeth chattering. The way Eileen said “it might be best for you to steer clear” makes my skin crawl. I can’t stop hearing it. The way she said “you,” like I’m a liability.
For the rest of the semester, I let my pot run out, stop drinking so much. It happens by accident, a realization that I’ve been sober for a week and a half without even trying. I do the dishes, clean the bathroom. I even do laundry on a regular basis and don’t let it get to the point where I have to wear bikini bottoms as underwear.
I see Henry Plough on campus all the time. Three times a week, we pass each other in the student center. While I’m reshelving books at my library job, he appears around a corner and nearly collides with the cart. He’s three people ahead of me in line at the coffee shop beneath my apartment, and my stomach flips at him being so close to where I sleep. Sometimes, when we pass each other, I pounce on him, ask stupid questions I already know the answers to about the seminar. One day as I walk by him, I reach over and playfully punch his arm, and he grins in surprise. Other days, when it feels like I’ve been acting too desperate, I ignore him, pretend I don’t know him. If he says hi, I narrow my eyes.
His term paper is my last one, finished Friday afternoon of finals week. With the paper still warm from the printer, I hurry across campus, past the empty parking lots and darkened buildings, to catch him in his office. Inside, the English department hallway is a line of closed doors—including Henry’s, but I know he’s in there. I checked before I came in and saw his lit-up window.
Rather than knock, I slip my essay under the door, hoping he’ll see it, notice my name on the first page, and lunge for the door. I hold my breath and the knob turns, then opens.
“Vanessa.” He says my name in that awestruck way. Plucking my essay off the floor, he asks, “How did this turn out? I’ve been looking forward to reading it.”
I lift my shoulders. “Your expectations shouldn’t be too high.”
He flips through the first couple of pages. “Of course my expectations are high. Everything you turn in is wonderful.”
I linger in the doorway, unsure what to do. Now that my paper is done and the semester finished, I don’t have any excuses to talk to him. He sits turned toward me, leaning slightly forward, the body language of someone who wants you to stay. I need to hear him say it. Our eyes lock.
“You can sit,” he says. It’s an invitation, but still leaves it up to me.
I choose to sit, to stay, and we’re silent for a moment, until I smile and gesture—generously, I think—to the now-overloaded bookshelves above his desk. “Your office is such a mess.”
He relaxes. “It is a mess.”
“I shouldn’t criticize,” I say. “I’m messy, too.”
He looks around at the stack of manila folders that threatens to spill over, the uninstalled printer on the edge of his desk and its mess of cords. “I tell myself I prefer it this way, but that’s probably just self-delusion.”
I bite my bottom lip, remembering all the times I’ve said the same thing to Strane. My eyes dart around the office, fall on the tallest bookshelf where two unopened beers sit among the books. “You’re hiding booze in here.”
He looks to where I’m pointing. “If I’m trying to hide it, I’m doing a pretty bad job.” He stands, turns the bottles so I can see their labels: shakespeare stout.
“Ah,” I say. “Nerd beer.”
He grins. “In my defense, they were a gift.”
“What are you saving them for?”
“I’m not sure I’m saving them for anything.”
It’s obvious what the next thing out of my mouth will be. He seems to hold his breath waiting for me to say the words:
“What about right now?”
I say it so jokingly, it should be easy for him to respond, Vanessa, I don’t think that’s a good idea. Maybe if another student asked him, it would be. But he doesn’t even pretend to deliberate. He just holds up his hands, as though I’ve twisted his arm and he can’t fight anymore.
“Why not?” he says.
Then I’m taking out my keys because I have a bottle opener key chain, and we’re clinking bottles, the fizz from the warm beer going all the way up my nose. Watching him drink is like peering behind a curtain. I see him at a bar, at home, sitting on the couch, lying in bed. I wonder if he grades papers late at night, if he keeps mine at the bottom of the pile, purposely saved for last.
No—he isn’t like that. He’s good, outright boyish, flashing me a sheepish grin before tipping back the bottle. I’m the one with ulterior motives. I’m the corruptor, luring him into a trap. I almost tell him to smarten up, stop being so trusting. Henry, you can’t drink beers in your office with a student. Do you understand how stupid this is, how easily it could get you into trouble?
He asks if I’m taking his gothic seminar next semester and I say I’m not sure, that I haven’t signed up for anything yet.
“You should get on that,” he says. “You’re running out of time.”
“I always leave it until the last minute. I’m a fuckup.” I throw back the bottle and take a long swallow. Fuckup. I like how it feels to describe myself as that to Henry, who has spent so much time praising my brain.
“Sorry for being crass,” I add.
“It’s fine,” he says, and I see a slight change in his expression, a shade of concern.
He asks questions about my other classes, my future plans. Have I thought any more about graduate school? It’s too late to apply for the fall, but I can get a head start on applications for next year.
“I don’t know,” I say. “My parents didn’t even go to college.” I’m not sure what that has to do with anything, but Henry nods like he understands.
“Neither did mine,” he says.
If I decide to apply, he says, he’ll help me navigate the process, and my brain catches on his choice of verb—navigate. I see a map spread out across a desk, our heads huddled together. We’ll figure this out, Vanessa. You and me.
“I remember how daunting it was when I first thought about applying,” Henry says. “It felt like embarking on totally unfamiliar territory. You know, before coming here I was at a prep school for a year, and it was strange, teaching those kids. Sometimes it seemed as though entitlement was instilled in them at birth.”
“I went to a school like that,” I say. “For a couple years, anyway.”
He asks which school, and when I say Browick, he seems rattled. He sets his beer bottle on the desk, clasps his hands together. “The Browick School?” he asks. “In Norumbega?”
“You’ve heard of it?”
He nods. “Strange coincidence. I, uh . . .”
I wait for him and beer settles in my mouth, for a moment my throat too tight to swallow. “I have a friend who works there,” he says.
Nausea surges up my throat, and my hands tremble so badly, I knock over my bottle as I try to set it down. It’s nearly empty, but a little spills onto the floor.
“Oh god, I’m sorry,” I say, righting the bottle, knocking it over again, then giving up and tossing it into the garbage can.
“Hey, it’s fine.”
“It’s fine.” He laughs like I’m being silly, but when I push my hair back from my face, he sees I’m crying, but it’s not normal crying. This is just tears showing up on my cheeks. I’m not even sure they’re coming from my eyes when I cry like this. It feels more like being wrung out, like a sponge.
“This is so embarrassing,” I say, wiping my nose with the back of my hand. “I’m an idiot.”
“Don’t.” He shakes his head, baffled. “Don’t say that. You’re fine.”
“What does your friend do? Is he a teacher?”
“No,” he says. “She’s a—”
“‘She’? It’s a she?”
He nods, looking so concerned, I imagine I could confess anything and he would hear it. I can feel his kindness already, before I say a word.
“Do you know anyone else who works there?” I ask.
“No one,” he says. “Vanessa, what’s wrong?”
“I was raped by a teacher there,” I say. “I was fifteen.” I’m shocked at how smoothly the lie comes out of me, though I don’t know if I’m lying or just not telling the truth. “He’s still there,” I add. “So when you said that you knew someone, it just . . . I panicked.”
Henry brings his hands to his face, to his mouth. He picks his beer back up, sets it down again. Finally, he says, “I’m stunned.”
I open my mouth to clarify, to explain that I’m exaggerating, I shouldn’t use that word, but he speaks first.
“I have a sister,” he says. “Something similar happened to her.”
He looks to me, big sorrowful eyes, each of his features a gentler version of Strane’s. It’s easy to imagine him sinking to his knees, lowering his head into my lap, not to lament how he will inevitably ruin me but instead to mourn that another man already has.
“I’m sorry, Vanessa,” he says. “Though I know that might be a useless thing to hear. I’m just so sorry.”
We’re quiet for a moment, him leaning forward as if he wants to comfort me—his kindness like bathwater, lapping my shoulders, milky and warm. This is more than I deserve.
My eyes fixed on the floor, I say, “Please don’t tell your friend about this.”
Henry shakes his head. “I wouldn’t dream of it.”
* * *
On the day after Christmas, I drive to Strane’s house, blasting Fiona Apple and singing my throat on fire. I slouch in my seat as I pass through the downtown streets of Norumbega, leave the car in the library parking lot across from his house, and run to his front door with my hood covering my recognizable hair—precautions dictated by Strane that I’ve followed for so long, I do them without thinking.
Once inside, I’m shifty, darting away from his hands and not looking him in the eye. I worry he knows what I said to Henry. There’s the possibility Henry told his friend and his friend told someone else at Browick; it wouldn’t take much for the gossip to loop back around to Strane. There’s also what I know is impossible but nevertheless half believe: that he knows everything I say and do, that he has the ability to peer inside my mind.
When he surprises me with a wrapped present, I don’t take it at first, worried it’s a trap, that I’ll open the box to find a note saying, I know what you did. He’s never given me a Christmas present before.
“Go on,” he says with a laugh, nudging the gift against my chest.
I stare down at it, a clothing-sized box wrapped in thick gold paper and red ribbon, the work of a retail employee. “But I didn’t get you anything,”
“I wouldn’t expect you to.”
I peel off the paper. Inside is a thick sweater, dark blue with a cream Fair Isle design around the neck. “Wow.” I lift it from the box. “I love it.”
“You sound surprised.”
I slip the sweater over my head. “I didn’t realize you paid attention to what kinds of clothes I wear.” A stupid thing to say. Of course he pays attention. He knows everything about me, everything I’ve ever been and will be.
He makes us pasta and red sauce—no eggs and toast for once—and sets our plates on the bar, arranges the silverware and folded napkins like it’s a date. He asks what I’m taking next semester, withholding his usual criticism about the course descriptions and reading lists. When I tell him about my finals and the paper I wrote for Henry’s class, he interrupts me.
“That’s the professor,” he says. “Specializes in British lit, came from Texas? That’s him. His wife is that new counselor they brought in for the students.”
I bite down, hard, on my tongue. “Wife?”
“Penelope. Fresh out of grad school, got an LCS—whatever that social work degree is.”
My breathing stops, caught between inhale and exhale.
Strane taps his fork against the rim of my plate. “You all right?”
I nod, force myself to swallow. I have a friend who works there. Friend. He said that. Or am I remembering it wrong? But why would he lie? Maybe he felt so sorry for me that he didn’t want to bring even the idea of another woman into the room. But he mentioned his sister—and besides, the lie would have happened before I said anything about being raped. So why would he lie?
I ask what she’s like, the most banal question I can think of, because I don’t dare ask the ones I really want answers to—what does she look like, is she smart, what kind of clothes does she wear, does she talk about him?—but even though I hold back, Strane still knows. He sees it in me, my ears pricked and hackles raised.
“Vanessa, stay away from him,” he says.
I screw up my face, fake indignation. “What are you talking about?”
“Be a good girl,” he says. “You know what you’re capable of.”
After we eat and the dishes are in the sink, he stops me when I move toward the stairs, up to his bedroom.
“I have to tell you something,” he says. “Come in here.”
As he guides me into the living room, I think again that this is it, the confrontation about what I said. That’s why Strane mentioned Henry—he’s taking it slow, luring me into it. But as he sits me down on the couch, he warns that what he’s about to tell me will sound worse than it actually is, that it’s a misunderstanding, an unfortunate circumstance.
What he says is so at odds with what I’m expecting, I interrupt, “Wait, so this isn’t about anything I did?”
“No, Vanessa,” he says. “Not everything is about you.” He sighs, rakes his hand through his hair. “I’m sorry,” he adds. “I’m nervous, though I don’t know why. If anyone’s going to be understanding, it’s you.”
He says there’s been an incident at Browick. It happened back in October, in his classroom during faculty service hour. He was meeting one-on-one with a student who had questions about an essay. She always had questions about everything, this girl. At first he thought she was merely anxious, a grade worrier, but as she started hanging around the classroom more, he realized she had a crush on him. Truthfully, it reminded him of me—her giddy demeanor, her unguarded adoration.
On this October afternoon, they were sitting at the seminar table, side by side, while he went over her essay draft. She was flustered, practically trembling from anxiety—about the grade, about being so close to him—and at some point during the conference he reached down and patted her knee. He meant it to be reassuring. He was trying to be kind. But the girl took that touch and twisted it into something ugly. She started telling her friends that he’d made a pass at her and that he wanted to have sex with her, that he was sexually harassing her.
I throw up my hand, cutting him off. “Which hand did you use?”
He blinks in surprise.
“When you touched her. Which hand?”
“Why does that matter?”
“Show me,” I say. “I want to see exactly what you did.”
There on the couch, I make him demonstrate. I scoot away from him, leaving a chaste distance, and press my knees together and sit up straight—the nervous pose my body remembers from those times I sat beside him at the very beginning of things. I watch his hand reach down, pat my knee. It’s familiar enough to make me gag.
“It was nothing,” he says.
I shove his hand away. “It’s not nothing. That’s how it started with me, with you touching my leg.”
“That’s not true.”
“Yes, it is.”
“It’s not. You and I started long before I ever laid a hand on you.”
He says this so forcefully, I can tell he’s said it to himself many times before. But if it didn’t start when he first touched me, when did it? When he told me, drunk at the Halloween dance, that he wanted to put me to bed and kiss me good night, or when I began inventing reasons to talk to him after class so I could get him alone and feel his eyes on me? When he wrote on my poem draft, Vanessa, this one scares me a little, or on the first day of classes, when I watched him give the convocation speech, his face dripping with sweat? Maybe the start can’t be pinned down at all. Maybe the universe forced us together, rendering us both powerless, blameless.
“It’s not even comparable,” he says. “This student is nothing to me, the so-called physical contact was nothing. It was a matter of seconds. I certainly don’t deserve to have my life destroyed over it.”
“Why would this destroy your life?”
He sighs, sits back on the couch. “The administration caught wind of it. They’re saying they need to do an investigation. Over a pat on the knee! It’s puritanical hysteria. We might as well be living in Salem.”
I stare him down, try to get him to flinch, but he looks innocent—the lines in his forehead creased in concern, his eyes enormous behind his glasses. Still, I want to be angry. He says the touch was insignificant, but I know how heavy with meaning a touch like that can be.
“Why are you even telling me?” I ask. “Do you want me to tell you it’s ok? That I forgive you? Because I don’t.”
“No,” he says, “I’m not asking you to forgive me. There’s nothing to forgive. I’m sharing this because I want you to understand that I’m still living with the consequences of loving you.”
For a split second, my eyes start to roll. I stop myself, but he still sees.
“Mock me all you like,” he says, “but before you, no one would have jumped to conclusions like this. They never would have believed this girl’s word over mine. These are my colleagues, people I’ve worked with for twenty years. That history means nothing now that my name has been dragged through the mud. Everyone assumes the worst about me. I’ve got eyes on me at all times, constant suspicion. And an uproar over this! My god, a friendly pat on the knee is something I do without thinking. Now it’s evidence of my depravity.”
Exactly how many girls have you touched? The question sits hot on my tongue, yet I don’t say it. I swallow it, burning my throat all the way down, another stomach ember.
“Loving you branded me a deviant,” he says. “Nothing else about me matters anymore. One transgression will define me for the rest of my life.”
We sit in silence, the sounds of his house amplified—the refrigerator hum, the hiss of the steam heat.
I tell him I’m sorry. I don’t want to say it but feel I have to, like he needs to hear it so badly, he’s pulling the words out of me like teeth. I’m sorry you’ll never get out from under the long shadow I cast. I’m sorry what we did together was so horrific, there’s no path back from it.
He forgives me, says it’s all right, then reaches over and pats my knee, until he realizes what he’s doing, stops, and curls his hand into a fist.
When we go to bed on his flannel sheets, we keep our clothes on and I think of this girl he touched, faceless and bodiless, a specter of an accusation and a harbinger of the obvious: that I am getting older, and each passing day brings girls into the world who are younger than me, who might someday end up in his classroom. I imagine them, their bright hair and downy arms, until I’m exhausted, but as soon as my mind tempers down, I recall what he said about Henry, about his wife. Another wing of the labyrinth to get lost in, remembering what I told Henry about Strane, the r-word I used, how he must have gone home that night and told his wife everything. I made him promise not to tell, but the promise was only an extension of his lie. Of course he’d tell his wife. He’d have to—and who would she have to tell? If she’s a counselor, would she be obligated to report it? My mouth goes dry at how easily it could all come back around. I can’t get out of this. I was stupid to think I could say something, anything, without it eventually getting back to Strane.
Around midnight, we hear sirens. First faintly, then closer and closer, until it sounds like they’re outside the house. For a moment I’m sure they’re coming for us, that police are about to burst through the door. Strane gets out of bed and peers out the window into the night.
“I can’t see anything.” He grabs a sweater and heads out of the bedroom, down the stairs to the front door. When he opens it, smoke wafts in with the frigid air, so pungent it soars upstairs, fills the house.
He calls up to me, “There’s a fire down the block. A big one.” After a couple minutes, he returns wearing his parka and boots. “Come on, let’s go see it up close.”
We dress in so many layers we become anonymous, only our eyes showing above our scarves. Walking down the snow-packed sidewalks, he and I could be anyone, could be ordinary. We follow the sirens and smoke, not finding the fire until we turn a corner and see the five-story Masonic temple both ablaze and encased in ice. Six fire trucks park around the perimeter of the building, all hoses on full blast, but the night is too cold. The water, every last bit of it, freezes as soon as it hits the building’s limestone exterior while the flames rage inside. The longer the firefighters try to douse the building, the thicker the ice shell grows.
While we watch, Strane reaches for my mittened hand and holds it tight. The firefighters eventually give up and, like us, stand back and watch the building burn—a small crowd gathers, a news truck arrives. Strane and I stay for a long time, holding hands, both of us blinking back tears that collect in crystals on our eyelashes.
Later, in his bed, body and mind exhausted, I ask, “Is there more you’re not telling me about that girl?” When he doesn’t answer, I ask it plainly: “Did you fuck her?”
“It’s ok if you did,” I say. “I’ll forgive you. I just need to know.”
He rolls toward me, holds my face in both hands. “I touched her. That’s all I did.”
I close my eyes as he strokes my hair and calls her terrible names: a liar, a little bitch, an emotionally troubled girl. I wonder what he would call me if he knew all the things I’ve called him in my mind over the years, if he finds out what I told Henry. But I say nothing. My silence is so reliable. He has no reason not to trust me.
At three in the morning, I wake and slip out from underneath his heavy arm, pad barefoot on the cold wood floors out of the bedroom, downstairs to the kitchen where his laptop sits on the counter. I open it and the browser loads his Browick email inbox. Weekly newsletters, minutes from faculty meetings—I scroll until I see the subject “Student Harassment Report.” I freeze when I hear something, one hand hovering over the trackpad, the other poised to slap the laptop closed. When silence settles again, I click open the email and scan the text. It’s from the board of trustees, written in language formal to the point of impenetrable, but I don’t want to know the details anyway. I’m just looking for a name. I scroll up and down, eyes darting back and forth across the screen, and then I see it on the second line: Taylor Birch, the student making the claims. I close the email and sneak back upstairs into bed, under his arm.