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My Dark Vanessa (Page 15)

Taylor works in a new building five blocks from the hotel, a shock of glass and steel amid the limestone and brick. I know the name of the company, Creative Coop, and that it’s described as a creative work space, but I can’t figure out what anyone does there. Inside, it’s all natural light and leather couches, expansive tables where people sit with open laptops. Everyone is smiling and young, or if not, then cool in a way that masquerades as youth—trendy haircuts, eccentric glasses, normcore clothes. I stand gripping my purse until a girl with round wire-framed glasses asks me, “Are you looking for someone?”

My eyes dart around the room. It’s too big, too many people. I hear myself say her name.

“Taylor? Let’s see.” The girl turns and scans the room. “There she is.”

I look where she points: bent over a laptop, thin shoulders and pale hair. The girl calls, “Taylor!” and her head lifts. The shock on her face sends me backward toward the door.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I made a mistake.”

I’m already outside and half a block away when I hear her call my name. Taylor stands in the middle of the sidewalk, white blond braid hanging over her shoulder. She’s wearing a turtleneck sweater with sleeves so long they fall past her wrists, no coat. As we study each other, she reaches up, fingertips poking out of her sweater sleeve, and tugs at the end of her braid. Suddenly, I see her as he might have—fourteen and unsure of herself, worrying the ends of her hair as he gazed at her from behind his desk.

“I can’t believe it’s really you,” she says.

I came prepared with rehearsed lines, sharp ones. I wanted to slice her to the bone, but there’s too much adrenaline pulsing in me. It turns my voice shaky and high as I tell her to leave me alone.

“Both you and that journalist,” I say. “She keeps calling me.”

“Ok,” Taylor says. “She shouldn’t have done that.”

“I have nothing to say to her.”

“I’m sorry. Really, I am. I told her not to be pushy.”

“I don’t want to be in the article, ok? Tell her that. And tell her not to write about the blog. I don’t want any of this to touch me.”

Taylor watches me, loose wisps floating around her face.

“I just want to be left alone,” I say. I throw all my strength into the words, but they emerge like a plea. This is all wrong; I sound like a child.

I turn on my heel to go. Again, she calls my name.

“Can we just talk to each other?” she asks.

 

We go to a coffee shop, the one where I met Strane three weeks ago. Standing in line, I take in the up-close details of her, the thin silver rings on her fingers, a mascara smudge below her left eye. The scent of sandalwood clings to her clothes. She pays for my coffee, her hands shaking as she takes out her credit card.

“You don’t need to do that,” I say.

“I do,” she says.

The barista starts the espresso machine, a din of grinding and steam, and after a minute our drinks arrive side by side, identical tulips drawn in the foam. We sit near the window, a buffer of empty tables around us.

“So you work at that hotel,” she says. “That must be fun.”

I scoff out a laugh and a blush immediately takes over Taylor’s face.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “That’s a stupid thing to say.”

She says she’s nervous, calls herself awkward. Her hands are still shaking, her eyes looking everywhere but at me. It takes effort to stop myself from reaching across the table and telling her it’s fine.

“What about you?” I ask. “What kind of company is that exactly?”

She flashes a smile, relieved at the easy question. “It’s not a company,” she says. “It’s a cooperative work space for artists.”

I nod like I understand what that means. “I didn’t realize you were an artist.”

“Well, not a visual artist. I’m a poet.” She lifts her coffee and takes a sip, leaving a pale pink stain on the rim.

“So being a poet is what you do?” I ask. “Like, for money?”

Taylor holds her hand up to her mouth, like she’s burned her tongue. “Oh no,” she says, “there’s no money in that. I have side hustles. Freelance writing projects, web design, consulting. Lots of things.” She sets down the coffee, clasps her hands. “Ok, I’m just going to go ahead and ask. When did it end with you and him?”

The question catches me off guard, so pointed and yet banal. “I don’t know,” I say. “It’s hard to pinpoint.” Her shoulders seem to fall in disappointment.

“Well, he ended things with me in January oh-seven,” she says, “when the rumor really started to circulate around school. I always wondered if he cut things off with you then, too.”

I try to keep my face arranged in a patient smile as I think back to that year. January? I remember his confession, the burning building encased in ice.

“Obviously I didn’t have it as bad as you,” Taylor continues. “He didn’t get me kicked out or anything. But still, he made me transfer out of his class, stopped acknowledging me. I felt abandoned. It was awful—so, so traumatizing.”

I nod along, not knowing what to make of her, what she says or how willing she is to say it. I ask, “So you weren’t in touch with him at all over the past ten years?” I already know the answer—of course she wasn’t—but after she twists up her face and replies, “God no!” she asks, “Were you?” And that’s what I want, the chance to say yes, to differentiate myself, to draw a line and make clear that we are not the same at all.

“We were in contact right up until the end,” I say. “He called me right before he jumped. I’m pretty sure I was the last person he talked to.”

She leans forward; the table rattles. “What did he say?”

“That he knew he’d been a monster, but he loved me.” I wait for realization to cross her face—that she’d been wrong about him, about me, and about whatever it was he did to her, but she only snorts.

“Yeah, that sounds like him.” She gulps her coffee, throwing back the mug as though it were a shot. Wiping her lips, she notices my expression. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I don’t mean to mock. It’s just so typical, you know? That way he’d berate himself to make you feel sorry for him.”

My head tips back as though the weight of my brain has suddenly changed. He did do that. He did it all the time. I’m not sure I’ve ever summed him up so neatly.

“Can I ask you another question?” Taylor asks.

I barely hear her, my brain busy righting what she’s thrown off balance. It must’ve been a guess, what she said, extrapolated from some moment of him slipping out of the teacher role and revealing himself. It’s hardly profound, describing him that way. Beating yourself up in the hopes of gaining sympathy—what person doesn’t do that every now and then?

“How much did you know about me at the time?” she asks.

Still far away, I answer, “Nothing.”

“Nothing?”

I blink and she comes into focus, her face so sharp it hurts to see. “I knew you existed. But he said you were . . .” I almost say again nothing. “A rumor.”

She nods. “That’s what he called you at first, too.” She tucks her chin, lowers her voice into an impression of Strane: “‘A rumor that follows me like a black cloud.’”

It’s stunning how much she sounds like him, his exact cadence and the metaphor I remember him using to describe me, the image it always put in my head of him relentlessly pursued by the threat of rain. “So you knew about me?”

“Of course,” she says. “Everyone knew about you. You were practically an urban legend, the girl he’d had an affair with who disappeared after it all came out. But the story was so vague. No one knew the truth. So I believed him at first, when he said the story wasn’t true. It’s embarrassing to admit now, because of course it was true. Of course he’d done it before. I was just . . .” She lifts her shoulders. “I was so young.”

She goes on, explaining how eventually he told her the truth about me but waited until she was “fully groomed.” He called me his deepest secret, said he loved me but I’d outgrown him, we didn’t fit together anymore the way we did when I was Taylor’s age.

“He seemed genuinely brokenhearted,” she says. “This is really screwed up, but he had me read Lolita at the beginning of things. You’ve read it, right? The way he talked about you reminded me of the first girl Humbert Humbert is in love with, the one who dies and supposedly makes him a pedophile. At the time, I thought a man being wounded like that was romantic. Looking back, the whole thing was just deranged.”

I try to pick up my coffee, but I’m trembling too much so it just clatters back down, spills all over my hands. Taylor jumps up and grabs some napkins, still talking as she wipes the table. She explains how she eventually suspected Strane was still seeing me—that she snooped on his phone and saw all the calls and texts, figured out the truth.

“I used to get so jealous when I knew he was going to see you.” She stands over me, sliding a soppy napkin across the table, the end of her braid grazing my arm.

“Did you have sex with him?” I ask.

She stares down at me unblinking.

“I mean, did he have sex with you? Force you? Or . . .” I shake my head. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to call it.”

Tossing the napkins in the garbage, she sits back down. “No,” she says. “He didn’t.”

“What about the other girls?”

She shakes her head no.

I exhale loudly, relieved. “So what exactly did he do to you?”

“He abused me.”

“But . . .” I look around the coffee shop, as though the people sitting at other tables might be able to help. “What does that mean? Did he kiss you, or . . .”

“I don’t want to focus on the details,” Taylor says. “It’s not helpful.”

“Helpful?”

“To the cause.”

“What cause?”

She tilts her head and squints, the same look Strane used to give me when I was floundering. For a moment, I think she’s again doing an impression of him. “The cause of holding him accountable.”

“But he’s dead. What do you want to do to him, drag his body through the streets?”

Her eyes widen.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “That came out wrong.”

She closes her eyes and inhales, holds the breath, and then lets it go. “It’s fine. This is hard to talk about. We’re both doing the best we can.”

She starts to talk about the article, how the goal of it is to bring to light all the ways the system failed us. “They all knew,” she says, “and they did nothing to stop him.” I assume she means Browick, the administration, but don’t ask questions. She talks so fast; it’s hard to keep up. Another goal of the article, she says, is to connect with other survivors.

“You mean in general?” I ask.

“No,” she says. “Survivors of him.”

“There are others?”

“There has to be. I mean, he taught for thirty years.” She cups her hands around her empty mug, purses her lips. “So I know you said you don’t want to be in the article.” I open my mouth, but she continues. “You can be completely anonymous. No one would know it’s you. I know it’s scary, but think of the good it would do. Vanessa, what you went through . . .” She ducks her head, looks straight at me. “It’s the kind of story that has the power to change the way people think.”

I shake my head. “I can’t.”

“I know it’s scary,” she says again. “The idea terrified me at first.”

“No,” I say, “it’s not that.”

She waits for me to explain, her eyes darting.

“I don’t consider myself to have been abused,” I say. “Definitely not the way you all do.”

Her pale eyebrows shoot up in surprise. “You don’t think you were abused?”

The air seems sucked out of the coffee shop, noises amplified, colors muted. “I don’t think of myself as a victim,” I say. “I knew what I was getting into. I wanted it.”

“You were fifteen.”

“Even at fifteen.”

I go on, justifying myself, words spilling out of me, the same old lines. He and I were two dark people who craved the same things; our relationship was terrible but never abusive. The more alarmed Taylor’s expression becomes, the more I dig in. When I say what he and I had was the kind of thing great love stories are made of, she holds her hand up to her mouth, like she’s about to be sick.

“And if I’m being totally honest,” I say, “I think what you and this journalist are doing is pretty fucked up.”

Her face scrunches in disbelief. “Are you serious?”

“It seems dishonest. There are things you say about him that don’t line up with what I know was true.”

“You think I’m lying?”

“I think you’re making him out to be something worse than he was.”

“How can you say that when you know what he did to me?”

“But I don’t know what he did to you,” I say. “You won’t tell me.”

Her eyes flutter shut. She presses her palms on the table, as though calming herself down. Slowly, she says, “You know he was a pedophile.”

“No,” I say, “he wasn’t.”

“You were fifteen,” she says. “I was fourteen.”

“That’s not pedophilia,” I say. She stares at me agog. I clear my throat and say, carefully, “The more correct term is ephebophile.”

And with that, the wire connecting her and me goes slack. She holds up her hands as though to say, I’m done. She says she needs to go back to work, won’t look at me as she gathers her empty coffee cup and phone.

I follow her out of the shop, tripping a little over the doorway. I have a sudden urge to reach out, to grab her braid and not let go. Outside, the sidewalk is empty save for a man with his hands shoved in his coat pockets and eyes fixed on the ground, whistling one steady single note as he walks toward us. Taylor watches the man, her face so furious I think she’s going to snap at him to shut up, but as he passes by, she whirls around, jabs her finger at me.

“I used to think about you all the time back when he was abusing me,” she says. “I thought you were the only person who could understand what I was going through. I thought . . .” She takes a breath, lets her arm drop. “Who cares what I thought. I was wrong, obviously wrong.” She starts to walk off, stops, and adds, “I received death threats after I came forward. Did you know that? People posted my address online and said they were going to rape and murder me.”

“Yes,” I say, “I know that.”

“It’s selfish to watch the rest of us not be believed and do nothing to help. If you came forward, no one would be able to ignore you. They’d have to believe you and then they’d believe us, too.”

“But I don’t understand what that would give you. He’s dead. He’s not going to apologize. He’ll never admit he did anything wrong.”

“It’s not about him,” she says. “If you came forward, Browick would have to admit that it happened. They’d be held responsible. It could change how that school is run.”

She looks at me expectantly. I lift my shoulders and she huffs a frustrated sigh.

“I feel sorry for you,” she says.

As she starts to walk away, I reach out. My fingers brush her back. “Tell me what he did to you,” I say. “Don’t say he abused you. Tell me what happened.”

She turns, her eyes wild.

“Did he kiss you? Did he bring you into his office?”

“Office?” she repeats, and I close my eyes, relieved at her confusion. “Why does it matter so much to you?” she asks.

I open my mouth, the word because poised to come out—because—because whatever happened to you couldn’t have been so bad, because it’s ridiculous for you to demand so much when I’m the one who bore the brunt of him. I’m the one marked for life.

“He groped me, ok?” she says. “In the classroom, behind his desk.”

I breathe out and turn limp, swaying as I stand. Like Strane under the spruce tree at the Halloween dance. You know what I want to do to you? At that point, he’d only touched me—groped behind his desk.

“But he violated me in other ways,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be physical to be abuse.”

“What about the other girls?” I ask.

“He groped them, too.”

“That’s all he did?”

She scoffs, “Yeah, I guess that’s all.”

So he touched them. It was what he’d confessed to me all along, starting that night at his house, when he held my face in his hands and said, I touched her. That’s all. I was relieved then. I wait now for the relief to find me again but there’s nothing, not even outrage or shock. Because by hearing her say it, nothing is changed. I already knew.

“I know how different it was with you,” she says. “But it started the same way, right? Calling you up to his desk. You wrote about it on your blog. I remember when I first found it. Reading it was like reading myself.”

“You read it back then?”

She nods. “I found it bookmarked on his computer. I used to leave you anonymous comments sometimes. I was too scared to use my name.”

I say I had no idea—about the comments, her reading.

“Well, what did you know?” she asks. “Did you really not know about me?” She’s already asked the question and I’ve already answered, but it means something different now. She’s asking if I knew what he did to her.

I tell the truth. “I knew,” I say. “I knew about you.” He told me but called her nothing and I didn’t argue. I forgave him, and I offered forgiveness for something so much worse, something he hadn’t even done. What was a hand on the leg compared to what he’d done to me? I didn’t think it mattered, and even now, with her standing before me, it’s hard to understand the damage it could have caused. Was it really that bad, what he did to you? Was it worth all this?

“It might seem small to you,” she says. “But it was enough to wreck me.”

She leaves me standing in the middle of the sidewalk, her braid bouncing against her back as she strides away. I walk home through the square, the giant Christmas tree being strung with lights, the high school kids on their lunch period loitering around, boys with their hoods up and groups of teenage girls in jean jackets and scuffed sneakers. Their chipped nail polish and ponytails and laughter and—I squeeze my eyes shut so tightly I see sparks and stars. He’s still inside me, trying to keep me seeing them the same way he did, a series of nameless girls sitting at a seminar table. He needs me to remember they were nothing. He could barely differentiate between them. They never mattered to him. They were nothing compared to me.

I loved you, he says. My dark Vanessa.

 

In Ruby’s office, I ask, “Do you think I’m selfish?”

It’s late, not our normal day or session time. I’d texted her, I’m having an emergency, something she has always told me I could do but I never imagined I’d need it.

“I think there are ways forward that don’t require stripping yourself bare,” Ruby says. “Better ways.”

From her armchair, she watches me and waits, her endless patience. Out the window, the sky is a range of blue, azure to cobalt to midnight. I tip my head back so my hair falls away from my face, and to the ceiling I say, “You didn’t answer the question.”

“No, I don’t think you’re selfish.”

I straighten my head. “You should. I’ve known this whole time what he did to that girl. Eleven years ago, he told me he touched her. He didn’t lie. He didn’t hide it from me. I just didn’t care.”

Her expression doesn’t change; only her fluttering lashes show I’ve affected her.

“I knew about the other girls, too,” I say. “I knew he was touching them. For years he would call me late at night and we’d—we’d talk about the things we did when I was younger. Sex stuff. But he’d talk about other girls, too, ones in his classes. He’d describe calling them up to his desk. He was telling me what he was doing. And I didn’t care.”

Ruby’s face is still unflinching.

“I could have made him stop,” I say. “I knew he couldn’t control himself. If I’d left him alone, he probably would have been able to stop. I forced him to relive it when he didn’t want to.”

“What he did to you or to anyone else wasn’t your fault.”

“But I knew he was weak. Remember? You said that yourself. And you’re right, I did know. He told me he couldn’t be around me because I brought out darkness in him, but I wouldn’t leave him alone.”

“Vanessa, listen to yourself.”

“I could have stopped him.”

“Ok,” she says, “even if you could have stopped him, it wasn’t your responsibility and it wouldn’t have changed anything for you. Because stopping him wouldn’t have changed the fact that you were abused.”

“I wasn’t abused.”

“Vanessa—”

“No, listen to me. Don’t act like I don’t know what I’m saying. He never forced me, ok? He made sure I said yes to everything, especially when I was younger. He was careful. He was good. He loved me.” I say that over and over, a refrain that turns meaningless so quickly. He loved me, he loved me.

I hold my head in my hands and Ruby tells me to breathe. I hear Strane’s voice instead of hers, telling me to take deep breaths so he can get farther inside. That’s nice, he said. That’s so nice.

“I’m so fucking tired of this,” I whisper.

Ruby’s crouching on the floor in front of me, her hands on my shoulders, the first time she’s ever touched me. “What are you tired of?” she asks.

“Hearing him, seeing him, everything I do being laced with him.”

We’re quiet. My breathing steadies and she stands, her hands dropping away from me.

Gently, she says, “If you think back to the first incident—”

“No, I can’t.” I throw my head against the back of the chair, press myself into the cushion. “I can’t go back there.”

“You don’t have to go back,” she says. “You can stay in the room. Just think of one moment, the first one between the two of you that could be considered intimate. When you look back on that first memory, who was the initiator, you or him?”

She waits, but I can’t say it. Him. He called me up to his desk and touched me while the rest of the class did their homework. I sat beside him, stared out the window, and let him do what he wanted. And I didn’t understand it, didn’t ask for it.

I exhale, hang my head. “I can’t.”

“That’s fine,” she says. “Take it slow.”

“I just feel . . .” I press the heels of my hands into my thighs. “I can’t lose the thing I’ve held on to for so long. You know?” My face twists up from the pain of pushing it out. “I just really need it to be a love story. You know? I really, really need it to be that.”

“I know,” she says.

“Because if it isn’t a love story, then what is it?”

I look to her glassy eyes, her face of wide-open empathy.

“It’s my life,” I say. “This has been my whole life.”

She stands over me as I say I’m sad, I’m so sad, small, simple words, the only ones that make sense as I clutch my chest like a child and point to where it hurts.

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