My Dark Vanessa (Page 16)
Spring semester I start drinking again, a crowd of empty bottles on my nightstand. If I’m not in class, I’m in bed with my laptop, the fan whirring and screen glowing late into the night. I scroll through photos of Britney Spears in the midst of a breakdown, shaving her head, attacking paparazzi with an umbrella and caged-animal eyes. Gossip blogs post the same pictures over and over with headlines like “Former Teen Pop Princess Goes Off the Deep End!,” followed by pages of gleeful comments: What a train wreck! . . . So sad how they always end up like this . . . I bet she’ll be dead by the end of the month.
At night, I keep my phone on the windowsill next to my bed, and in the morning, the first thing I do is check to see how many times Strane has called. When I’m out at the bar with Bridget and feel my phone vibrate, I dig it out of my bag and hold it up so she can see his flashing name. “I feel bad,” I say, “but I just can’t talk to him.” I’ve told her about the investigation, called it a “witch hunt” as Strane did, made it clear that he didn’t really do anything bad, but that I’m still angry. Don’t I have the right to be mad? “Of course you do,” Bridget says.
I start checking Taylor Birch’s Facebook profile every day, clicking through her public photos, both disgusted and pleased at how ordinary she appears with her braces and stringy white blond hair. Only one photo gives me pause: her grinning in a field hockey uniform, kilt ending halfway down her tanned thighs, browick in maroon lettering across her flat chest. But then I remember Strane describing my fifteen-year-old body, how he called it fairly developed, more woman than not. I think of Ms. Thompson, her womanly body. I shouldn’t be so eager to turn him into a monster.
I don’t need the credits, but I take Henry’s gothic seminar anyway. In class, he turns to me when the other students drag their feet through discussions. A silence falls over the room and his eyes skim the rest of them, landing always on me. “Vanessa?” he prompts. “Your thoughts?” He relies on me to always have something to say about the stories of obsessive women and monstrous men.
After every class, there’s some pretense for me to follow him into his office—he has a book he wants to lend me, he nominated me for a departmental award, he wants to talk to me about an assistant job that’s available next year, something for me to do while I work on grad school applications—but once we’re alone, it devolves into talking, laughing. Laughing! I laugh more with him than I ever have with Strane, who I’m still ignoring, whose phone calls have started coming every night, voicemails asking me to please, please call him, but I don’t want to hear how he’s hanging by a thread. I want Henry, to sit in his office and point to a postcard tacked to the wall, the only thing he’s hung up, and ask for the story behind it and have him tell me it’s from Germany, that he went to a conference there and lost his luggage and had to wander around in sweatpants. I want to hear him call me funny, charming, brilliant, the best student he’s ever had; for him to describe what he sees in store for me. “When you’re in graduate school,” he says, “you’ll be one of those hip teaching assistants, the kind who holds her office hours in a coffee shop.” It’s a small thing but enough for my breath to catch. I can see myself at the head of my own classroom, telling my own students what to read and write. Maybe that’s what this has always been about—not wanting these men but wanting to be them.
In my blog, I document everything he says to me, every look, every grin. Fixated on the question of what it means, I tally it all up as though this will give me an answer. We eat lunch together in the student union, he responds to my emails at one in the morning, matching me joke for joke and signing his name “Henry,” while emails to the whole class are “H. Plough.” On my blog, I type it might mean nothing but it should mean something over and over until the lines fill the whole screen. He tells me about having memorized “Jabberwocky” for fun when he was ten years old, and I see him as a boy the way I never could with Strane. But that’s what he is, boyish, at least, if not an outright boy, grinning when I tease him, that flush taking over his face. He references Simpsons episodes in his emails, mentions some song popular in his grad school days. “You don’t know Belle and Sebastian?” he asks, surprised. He makes me a CD and as I scour the lyrics for clues, the version of me that lives in his mind reveals herself.
But he doesn’t touch me. There’s nothing close to a touch, not even a handshake. It’s just endless looking—in his office, during class. As soon as I open my mouth to speak, his face turns tender and he praises everything I say to the point where the other students exchange annoyed looks, like There she goes again. It all feels familiar, a trajectory I remember so well I have to clench my fists to stop from tearing into him when we’re alone. I tell myself it’s all in my head and that this is how normal teachers treat their best students, a little special attention, nothing to lose your mind over. It’s just that I’m depraved, my mind so warped by Strane that I misinterpret innocent favoritism as sexual interest. But then again—making me a CD? Calling me into his office every day? It doesn’t feel normal, not in my body, and my body knows even if my mind gets confused. Sometimes it feels like he’s waiting for me to move toward him, but I don’t have the courage I had at fifteen, I fear rejection, and besides, he’s not giving me enough, no pat on the knee or leaf held up to my hair. My most brazen behavior: going braless one day under a silk camisole, but then I’m disgusted when he stares—so what is it that I want? I don’t know, I don’t know.
Late at night, when I’m too drunk to stop myself, I open my laptop and type the Browick address into my browser, bring up the staff profiles. Penelope Martinez got her bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas in 2004, which makes her twenty-four. That’s how old Ms. Thompson was when she and Strane were doing whatever they did. Why did no one think that was wrong at the time, a twenty-four-year-old girl and a forty-two-year-old man? “Girl” because she was more like a girl than a woman back then, with her scrunchies and hooded sweatshirts. Penelope looks like a girl, too—glossy dark hair, button nose, and thin shoulders. She’s fresh-faced and youthful, Strane’s type. I imagine him walking beside her through campus, hands clasped behind his back, making her smile. I wonder what she would do if he tried to touch her. What she did the first time Henry touched her. I don’t know when they got together, but no matter what he would’ve been a decade older, big clumsy hands and hot breath through his beard.
One afternoon Henry and I are talking in his office when his phone rings. As soon as he answers, I know it’s her. He turns away from me, gives clipped replies to her questions, an edge in his voice that makes me feel like I’m intruding, but when I rise to leave he holds out a hand and mouths, Hold on.
“I have to go,” he says, exasperated, into the phone. “I’m with a student.” He hangs up without saying goodbye and it feels like a triumph.
He’s never come clean about her being his wife and not a “friend.” He never mentions her at all—why would he? Why would he not? There’s zero evidence of her, no wedding ring, no photo in his office. Maybe she’s mean to him, maybe she’s boring, maybe he’s unhappy. Maybe since meeting me, he’s had moments of thinking, I should have waited. I force myself to think about her because it seems like the moral thing to do, but she’s only a fuzzy figure on the periphery. Penelope. I wonder if Henry calls her that or if he uses a nickname. I look up her staff profile on the Browick website again, imagine the possibility that she might be talking to Strane at the exact moment I’m talking to Henry. Strane, who calls and calls, who says he needs me, that this radio silence is cruel and uncalled for. Maybe my neglect is making him so lonely he has to resort to flirting with the pretty young counselor. I bet she’s easy to talk to, easier than I ever was. I imagine her sitting through his rants with a patient, unwavering smile. The perfect listener. He’d love that. My brain keeps going to the point I almost forget it’s all in my head: Strane making Penelope laugh as I make Henry laugh; Henry at home, up late in the living room, writing me an email as Penelope sits in the bedroom writing to Strane.
Yet it always comes back to this hard reality: Henry must know I would let him touch me but he never tries. That, I know, is the most meaningful detail. It negates everything else.
February 13, 2007
It’s been six weeks since I spoke to S., when he told me that people are out to get him and that one of his enemies might try to contact me. I swore my loyalty, and I’ll stick to that loyalty forever (what’s the alternative? turning on him? unthinkable), but ever since that night at his house, I haven’t been able to stomach him. I have an inbox of voicemails. He wants to take me out to dinner, he wants to know how I’m doing, he wants to see me, he wants me. I listen to a few seconds of each and then throw my phone across the room. This is the first time it’s ever really felt like he’s chasing after me. No coincidence that it comes after a confession, on his part, of bad behavior.
I can’t bring myself to write out what he did, though being evasive makes his action seem horrific. It’s not as though he killed anyone. He didn’t even really hurt anyone, though “hurt” is such a subjective thing. Think of all the thoughtless pain we inflict. A mosquito on your arm; you don’t even hesitate to smack it dead.
After class, Henry says he needs to ask me something. “I thought about emailing you,” he says, “but figured it would be better to do it in person.”
When we get to his office, he shuts the door. I watch him rub his face, take a deep breath.
“This is uncomfortable for me,” he says.
“Should I be nervous?” I ask.
“No,” he says quickly. “Or, I don’t know. It’s just, I caught wind of a rumor about your old high school, something about an English teacher being inappropriate with a student. I heard the story secondhand, don’t know any real facts, but I thought . . . well. I don’t know what to think.”
I swallow hard. “Did your friend tell you about this? The one who works there?”
He nods. “She did, yes.”
I wait through a long beat of silence, plenty of time for him to offer the truth.
“I guess I feel a little responsible,” he says, “knowing what I know.”
“But it’s none of your business.” He gives me a startled look and I add, “I mean that in a good way. You don’t need to worry about it. It’s not your problem.”
I try to smile like my throat isn’t squeezing into a fist, cutting off my air. I imagine Taylor Birch crying on a sofa, confessing to Penelope the sympathetic counselor—Mr. Strane touched me, why did he do it, why won’t he do it again—but my brain goes too far, ends up back in Strane’s office. Hissing radiator, seafoam glass.
“Look,” I say, “it’s a boarding school. Rumors like that happen all the time. If your friend hasn’t been there very long, she might not know what to take seriously and what to ignore. She’ll learn.”
“What I heard sounded pretty serious,” Henry says.
“But you said you heard it secondhand,” I say. “I know what actually happened, ok? He told me. He said he touched her leg and that’s all.”
“Oh,” Henry says, surprised. “I didn’t think—I mean, I didn’t realize—you’re still in contact with him?”
My mouth goes dry as I realize my misstep. A good victim wouldn’t still talk to her rapist. Strane and I still being in contact throws into question everything I’ve let Henry believe. “It’s complicated,” I say.
“Sure,” he says. “Of course.”
“Because what he did to me wasn’t rape rape.”
“You don’t need to explain,” he says.
We sit in silence, my eyes lowered to the floor, him gazing at me.
“You really don’t need to worry,” I say. “What happened to that girl is nothing like what happened to me.”
He says ok, that he believes me, and we let it go.
The first week of March a manila envelope arrives in the mail, addressed to me in Strane’s blocky hand. Inside, I find a three-page letter and a stapled packet of documents: a photocopy of the statement he and I signed on the day we were found out, dated May 3, 2001; handwritten notes from the meeting he and Mrs. Giles had with my parents; a poem about a mermaid and an island of stranded sailors that I vaguely remember writing; a copy of the withdrawal form with my signature at the bottom; a letter about me, Strane, and our rumored ongoing affair, addressed to Mrs. Giles, written in a hand I don’t recognize until I see the name at the bottom—Patrick Murphy, Jenny’s dad, the letter that set the whole thing in motion.
I lay all the documents across my bed, one paper after another. In the letter addressed to me, Strane writes,
I’m not doing well over here. I’m not sure how to take your silence, if you’re trying to communicate something by not communicating, if you’re angry, if you want to punish me. You should know I’m punishing myself plenty already.
The harassment mess is ongoing. I’m hopeful it’ll be sorted out soon, but it might get worse before it gets better. There remains a possibility someone might contact you with the aim of using you against me. I hope I can still count on you.
Maybe I’m a fool to put this in writing. The power you hold over my life is immense. I wonder how it must feel to go about your day, masquerading as an average college girl, all the while knowing you could destroy a man with one well-placed phone call. But I still trust you. I wouldn’t send an incriminating letter if I didn’t.
Look at the documents I’ve enclosed here, the wreckage of six years ago. You were so brave then, more a warrior than a girl. You were my own Joan of Arc, refusing to give in even as the flames licked your feet. Does that bravery exist in you still? Look at these papers, evidence of how much you loved me. Do you recognize yourself?
I transcribe the letter and post it on my blog without any context or explanation other than, at the bottom of the post, in all caps: CAN YOU IMAGINE HOW IT WOULD FEEL TO HAVE THIS ARRIVE IN YOUR MAILBOX? A question posed to nobody, anybody. I rarely ever get replies to my posts, have no regular readership, but the next morning, I wake to an anonymous comment, left at 2:21 a.m.: Cut him out of your life, Vanessa. You don’t deserve this.
I delete the post, but more comments start to appear, always in the middle of the night, waiting for me when I wake up. A line-by-line critique when I post a draft of a poem; Gorgeous left in response to a series of selfies. I reply, Who are you? but never receive a response. After that, the comments stop.
* * *
From my bedroom doorway, Bridget asks, “Are you coming?”
It’s the start of Spring Fling, a week of day drinking and blowing off classes. There’s a party that afternoon on the pier.
I look up from my laptop. “Hey, look at this.” Turning the screen, I show her Taylor Birch’s latest photo: a close-up selfie, her lips turned downward, eyes rimmed with black liner. When Bridget doesn’t react, I say, “That’s the girl who’s accusing him.”
“What about it?”
“It’s just so ridiculous.” I laugh. “The face she’s making! I want to comment and tell her to cheer up.”
Bridget gives me a long look, her lips pursed. Finally, she says, “Vanessa, she’s a kid.”
I turn the laptop away from her, feel my cheeks burn as I x out of the page.
“You really shouldn’t check her profile so much,” she says. “It’s only going to upset you.”
I snap the laptop shut.
“And making fun of her seems kind of mean.”
“Yeah, I get it,” I say. “Thanks for the input.”
She watches me get out of bed and stomp around my room, root through the piles of clothes on the floor. “So, are you coming?” she asks.
It’s only sixty-five degrees, but for April in Maine that’s as good as summer. There are cases of PBR stacked on the pier, hot dogs cooking on hibachi grills. Girls sunbathe in bikini tops, and three guys in board shorts climb over pink granite to wade up to their knees in the frigid water. Bridget finds a tray of Jell-O shots and we down three each, sucking them between our teeth. Someone asks about my postgraduation plans and I love having an answer: “I’m going to be Henry Plough’s assistant while I work on grad school applications.” At the sound of Henry’s name, a girl turns, touches my shoulder—Amy Doucette, from the capstone seminar.
“Are you talking about Henry Plough?” she asks. She’s tanked; her eyes won’t stop sliding around. “God, he’s so hot. Not physically, obviously, but intellectually. I want to crack his head open and take a big bite out of his brain. You know?” She laughs, slaps my arm. “Vanessa knows.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” I ask, but she’s already turned away, her attention stolen by an enormous watermelon being broken open the same way she said she wanted to break open Henry’s skull. “It’s had two bottles of vodka soaked into it,” someone says. No one has a knife or plates, so people just grab handfuls, boozy juice dripping onto the pier.
I guzzle a can of warm beer and watch the waves through the gaps in the floorboards. Bridget comes over, a hot dog in each hand, offers me one. When I shake my head and say that I’m going to go, her shoulders drop.
“Why can’t you just have fun for once in your life?” she asks, but she sees the hurt on my face, understands she’s gone too far. As I leave, I hear her call, “I was kidding! Vanessa, don’t be mad!”
At first I head back home, but the thought of spending another drunken afternoon in bed makes me take a sharp turn toward Henry’s building, knowing he’s on campus Monday afternoons. I have his entire schedule memorized: when he’s on campus, when he’s teaching, and when he’s in his office, most likely alone.
The door is ajar, his office empty. On his desk sits a stack of papers and his wide-open laptop. I imagine plopping down in his chair and opening the desk drawers, sifting through everything inside.
He finds me standing over his desk. “Vanessa.”
I turn. His arms are weighed down with spiral notebooks, student journals from English composition, the things he hates most to grade. I know so much about him. It’s not normal to know this much.
As he sets the journals on his desk, I sink into the extra chair, hold my head in my hands.
“Did something happen to you?” he asks.
“No, I’m just drunk.” I tip my head back and see the grin on his face.
“You get drunk and your instincts tell you to come here? I’m flattered.”
I groan, press my palms against my eyes. “You shouldn’t be nice to me. I’m being inappropriate.”
Hurt flashes across his face. That was the wrong thing to say. I know better than anyone that calling too much attention to what we’re doing can ruin the whole thing.
Reaching into my pocket, I pull out my phone, hold it out for him as I scroll through the missed calls. “Do you see that? That’s how many times he’s been calling me. He won’t leave me alone. I’m going crazy.”
I don’t explain who “he” is because I don’t need to. Strane is probably at the forefront of Henry’s mind every time he looks at me. I wonder if they’ve met. I’ve imagined them shaking hands, the traces of me left on Strane’s body transmitted onto Henry—the closest I’ve come to touching him.
Henry stares hard at my phone. “He’s harassing you,” he says. “Can you block his number?”
I shake my head, though I have no idea. I probably could, but I want the calls to keep coming. They’re the breath on the back of my neck. I also know that Henry’s sympathy hinges on me doing and wanting the right things, taking all possible steps to protect myself.
“How’s this for harassment?” I say. “A few weeks ago, he mailed me a bunch of papers from when I was kicked out of Browick—”
“What?” Henry gapes at me. “I didn’t realize you were kicked out.”
Is that another lie? Technically, I withdrew—there was even a copy of the withdrawal form in the envelope Strane sent—but it feels more true to say I was kicked out, because it wasn’t my choice, even if it was my fault.
I listen to myself go on and tell the story, how I took the blame because I didn’t want to send Strane to jail, about the meetings and standing in front of the room and calling myself a liar, answering questions like it was a press conference. As he listens, Henry’s mouth falls open, sympathy emanates out of him, and the more affected he looks, the more I want to talk. A momentum gains within me, an increased righteousness, a sense that I lived through something horrible, a disaster so stark it split my life in two. And now, in the aftershock of survival comes the desire to tell. Shouldn’t I be able to tell this story if I want to? Even if I manipulate the truth and obscure the details, don’t I deserve to see the evidence of what Strane did to me on another person’s sympathetic face?
“Why would he do this?” Henry asks. “Is anything happening now to make him send you these things?”
“I’ve been ignoring him,” I say, “because of what’s been going on.”
“The complaint against him?”
I nod. “He’s worried I’m going to tell on him.”
“Would you consider doing that?” Henry asks.
I don’t answer, which is as good as saying no. Rolling my phone between my hands, I say, “You must think I’m terrible.”
“It’s just really complicated.”
“You don’t have to explain.”
“I don’t want you to think I’m selfish.”
“I don’t think that. In my eyes you’re strong, ok? You are incredibly, incredibly strong.”
He calls Strane psychologically deluded, says he’s trying to control me, make me feel like I’m fifteen again, that what he did to me and continues to do is beyond the pale. When Henry says this, I see a stark white sky and an endless expanse of scorched earth, a silhouette barely visible behind a wall of smoke, Strane tracing blue veins on pale skin, dust motes swirling in the weak winter sun.
“I’m never going to tell on him,” I say, “no matter how bad he is.”
Henry’s features go soft—soft and so, so sad. I feel in that moment that if I moved toward him, he’d let me do whatever I want. He wouldn’t say no. He’s close enough to reach, his knee pointed toward me, waiting. I imagine his arms opening, drawing me in. My mouth inches from his neck, his body shuddering as I pressed my lips against him. He would let me. He’d let me do anything.
I don’t move; he exhales a sigh.
“Vanessa, I worry about you,” he says.
On the Friday before spring break, Bridget comes home with a kitten wrapped in a towel. Calico and green-eyed, a flea-dusted belly and crooked tail. “I found her in the alley by the bagel shop dumpster,” Bridget says.
I hold my fingers to the kitten’s nose, let her bite my thumb. “She smells like fish.”
“She had her head in a tub of lox.”
We give the kitten a bath, name her Minou. As the sun sets, we drive to the Wal-Mart in Ellsworth for a litter box and cat food, tucking the kitten into a tote bag Bridget carries over her shoulder because we don’t dare leave her alone. On the drive home, while Minou mews in my lap, my phone starts to ring over and over—Strane.
Bridget laughs when I hit “ignore” for the fourth time in a row. “You’re so mean,” she says. “I almost feel sorry for him.”
The phone buzzes a new voicemail and she gasps in sarcastic shock. We’re so giddy about the kitten, it makes everything seem up for grabs, like we could tease each other about anything and just laugh and laugh.
“You’re not even going to listen?” she says. “It could be an emergency.”
“I promise, it’s not.”
“You don’t know that! You should listen.”
To prove my point, I play it on speaker, expecting a thick-throated plea for me to call him back, upset that he hasn’t heard from me—did I ever get the package he sent? Instead, it’s a wall of garbled sound, wind and static overlaid with his voice, angry: “Vanessa, I’m on my way to your apartment. Answer your fucking phone.” Then a click, voicemail over.
Carefully, Bridget says, “That sounds like an emergency.”
I dial his number and he picks up after half a ring. “Are you home? I’m a half hour away.”
“Yes,” I say. “Or, no. I’m not home right this second. We found a kitten. We had to buy a litter box.”
I shake my head. “Nothing, never mind. Why are you coming here?”
He barks out a laugh. “I think you know why.”
Bridget keeps looking over, eyes darting between me and the road. Illuminated by the dashboard, I see her mouth: Everything ok?
“I don’t know why,” I say. “I have no idea what’s going on. But you can’t just decide to come—”
“Did he already tell you what happened?”
My eyes search the windshield, the tunnel the headlights make along the dark highway. I feel a prick on the back of my neck at how Strane spits out he. “Who?”
Strane laughs again. I can see him, eyes hard, jaw clenched, a bitter anger I’ve seen him direct only at other people. The thought of that anger turned on me feels like soft earth giving way beneath my feet.
“Don’t play dumb,” he says. “I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
I try to point out that he just said he’s a half hour away, but he’s already hung up, the screen flashing CALL ENDED. Beside me, Bridget asks, “Are you ok?”
“He’s coming to the apartment.”
“I don’t know.”
“Did something happen?”
“I don’t know, Bridget,” I snap. “I’m sure you could hear the whole fucking conversation. He wasn’t exactly generous with details.”
We drive in silence, our easygoing camaraderie now sucked out of the car. From my lap, Minou mews, pitiful little sounds that would enrage only a monster—but that must be what I am, because all I want to do is clamp my hands over the kitten’s tiny face and scream at it, at Bridget, at everyone, to just shut up for a second and let me think.
Bridget says she’ll go out for the night so Strane and I can have the apartment to ourselves. Really, it’s clear she just wants to get away from me and my weird old boyfriend and the fraught cloud that constantly hangs over me. It’s like I heard her say to a guy she brought home a couple weeks ago: Oh, Vanessa is always in crisis mode, the kind of girl who attracts drama.
After she leaves, I sit on the couch, Minou on my knees and my laptop open on the coffee table. Every few minutes I lean forward to refresh, as though an email might appear explaining this all away. When I hear the building door open and heavy steps clomp up the stairs, I push Minou off, grab my phone. He pounds on the apartment door, the kitten disappears behind the couch, and my thumb strokes the keypad, the idea of calling 911 as much of a fantasy as the idea that an email from Henry might arrive in my inbox. Calling wouldn’t solve anything. Asking for help would mean answering the dispatcher’s unanswerable questions, demanding I explain the inexplicable. Who is this man banging on your apartment door? How do you know him? What, exactly, is your relationship to him? I need the whole story, ma’am. My choices: wade through seven years of this swamp and throw myself at the mercy of a skeptical third party who might not even believe me, or open the door and hope it won’t be too bad.
When I let him in, he’s out of breath and hunches over just inside the door, hands braced on his thighs, every inhale a wheeze. I take a step toward him, worried he’s about to drop. He holds up a hand.
“Don’t come near me,” he says.
Righting himself, he throws his coat on the papasan chair, looks around at the dirty towels spilling out from the bathroom doorway, the bowl crusted with mac and cheese on the coffee table. He moves into the kitchen, opening cupboards.
“You don’t have any clean glasses?” he asks. “Not one?”
I point to the stack of plastic cups on the counter and he shoots me a glare—lazy, wasteful girl—and fills one with tap water. I watch him drink, counting the seconds until his anger refuels, but when he empties the cup, he just leans against the counter, deflated.
“You really don’t know why I’m here?” he asks.
I shake my head as his eyes bore into me. I haven’t seen him since Christmas, when he told me about Taylor Birch. Over the months there’s been a change in him, his face somehow altered. I search until I find it: his glasses. They’re frameless now, nearly invisible. A pang hits my heart at the thought of him changing something so integral without telling me.
“I came here straight from a Browick faculty event,” he says. “Or a fundraiser. Hell, I don’t know what it was. I wasn’t even going to go. You know how I hate those things, but I thought another night sequestered at home might do me in.” He sighs, rubs his eyes. “Sick and tired of being treated like a leper.”
He drops his hand. “I was sitting with some colleagues, including Penelope.” He checks my face for a reaction, notices how I suck in my breath. “See, you know what I’m going to say. Don’t act dumb with me. Don’t . . .” He slams his palms against the counter and takes a lunging step at me, hands out like he’s going to grab me by the shoulders, and then he stops short, clenches his fists.
The curtains are wide open, the need to protect us drilled into me so deeply it’s all I can think about—that anyone passing by on the street could glance up and get a clear view inside. When I move to draw the blinds, he grabs my arm.
“You told her husband,” he says. “Your professor. You told him I raped you.”
As he lets go, he pushes me. It’s not that hard but enough that I stumble backward into the trash can that belongs under the sink but has been sitting in the middle of the kitchen floor for god knows how long. I fall and the hood over the stove rattles the way it does on windy days. Strane doesn’t move as I scramble to my feet. He asks if he hurt me.
I shake my head. “I’m fine,” I say, even though my tailbone feels bruised. I look again to the window, the rapt audience of witnesses I imagine out there in the dark. “Why was she talking to you about me? The wife, I mean. Penelope.”
“She said nothing about you. It was her husband. Her husband who glared at me for an hour and a half and then followed me to the bathroom—”
There’s a tipping point within me, a sudden crash. “Henry was there? You met him?”
Strane stops, caught off guard by how I say the other man’s name, the way I exhale it, like a sigh after sex. His face, for a moment, weakens.
“What did he say?” I ask.
And with that, he’s again hardened, furrowed brow and flashing eyes. “No,” he says flatly. “I’m asking questions here. You tell me why you did it. Why you felt compelled to tell a man whose wife works with me that I raped you.” His voice chokes on raped, the word so repulsive it makes him gag. “Tell me why you did it.”
“I was trying to explain what happened when I left Browick. I don’t know. It came out.”
“Why would you need to explain that to him?”
“He said something about having taught at a prep school, I said I’d gone to one, he said he had a friend who worked at Browick. It came up naturally, ok? I didn’t go out of my way to tell him.”
“So someone mentions Browick and you immediately start blabbing about rape? For god’s sake, Vanessa, what is wrong with you?”
I curl into myself as he goes on. Don’t I understand what that kind of accusation could do to him? It’s slander, a literal crime, enough to take down any man, let alone one who’s already hanging by a thread. If the wrong people caught wind of this, he’d be finished, thrown in jail for the rest of his life.
“And you know this. That’s what I can’t understand. You know what an accusation could do to me, and yet . . .” He throws up his hands. “I can’t wrap my head around it, the deceit that requires, the cruelty.”
I want to defend myself, except I don’t know if anything he says is wrong. Even if the word first slipped out by accident, I never corrected it. I kept the lie going, showing Henry the dozens of missed calls, letting him call Strane “deluded” and “beyond the pale,” all because I wanted to be wounded and delicate, a girl deserving of tenderness. But I think, too, of those memos Strane wrote to cover his tracks. I was oblivious back then, doing my best to follow his lead, and he saw no problem framing me as a troubled girl with a crush, knowing what it would do to me. If I’m deceitful and cruel, so is he.
I ask, “Why did you wait months to tell me about what happened with that girl?”
“No,” Strane says. “Don’t try to turn this around on me.”
“But that’s what this is all about, right? You’re mad because you’re already in trouble for groping another girl—”
“Groping? Jesus, what a word.”
“That’s what it’s called when you touch a kid.”
He grabs the plastic cup, turns on the faucet. “There’s no talking to you when you’re like this, determined to paint me as a villain.”
“Sorry,” I say, “it’s kind of hard to avoid.”
He drinks, wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. “You’re right. It’s easy to make me into a bad man. It’s the easiest thing in the world. But that’s just as much your fault as it is mine. Unless you truly have convinced yourself that I raped you.” He tosses the half-full cup into the sink, braces himself against the counter. “Raped while writhing in orgasm. Give me a fucking break.”
I clench my fists, digging my fingernails into my palms, and will my brain to stay in the room, in my body. “Why didn’t you want to have children?”
He turns. “What?”
“You were in your thirties when you had a vasectomy. That’s so young.”
He blinks, trying to figure out if he ever told me how old he was when he had the surgery, how I could know this if he never did.
“I saw your medical chart,” I say. “When I worked at that hospital in high school, I found it in the archives.”
He starts moving toward me.
“The doctor’s notes said you were adamant about not wanting kids.”
He comes closer, backing me up into my bedroom. “Why are you asking me this?” he asks. “What are you trying to say?”
In my room, my calves hit the side of my bed. I don’t want to say it. I don’t know how. It’s not a single question, rather a haze of unspeakable things: not understanding why he touched another girl in the same way he touched me if he hadn’t wanted her the same way he wanted me. Why his hands shook when he gave me the strawberry pajamas, why it felt as though by giving them to me he was revealing something he’d spent his whole life trying to hide. When he asked me to call him Daddy on the phone, how it felt like one of his tests. I did it because I didn’t want to fail, didn’t want to be narrow-minded or scandalized, and afterward, he’d hung up as soon as he could, like he’d revealed too much of himself. I felt shame pulsate out of him that night. It had soared through the phone, straight into me.
“Don’t turn me into a monster because you’re looking for a way out,” he says. “You know that’s not what I am.”
“I don’t know what I know,” I say.
He reminds me of what I’ve done. It’s not fair to think of myself as blameless in all this. I’m the one who came back, showing up on his doorstep after two years apart. I could have forgotten about him, moved on with my life.
“Why did you come back if I hurt you?” he asks.
“It didn’t feel finished,” I say. “I still felt tied to you.”
“But I didn’t encourage you, not even when you called. Do you remember that? Your little voice coming out of the answering machine. I stood there, didn’t let myself do anything.”
He starts to cry then, as though on cue, bloodshot eyes filling with tears.
“Wasn’t I careful?” he asks. “Always checking you were ok?”
“Yes,” I say, “you were careful.”
“I wrestled with it. You have no idea how much. But you were so sure of yourself. You knew what you wanted. Do you remember? You asked me to kiss you. I tried to make sure you really wanted it. You’d get annoyed with me, but still I made sure.”
Tears run down his cheeks, disappear into his beard, and I try to steady myself through the softening that comes from seeing him cry.
“You said yes,” he says.
I nod. “I know I did.”
“Then when did I rape you? Tell me when I did that. Because I’ve been—” He sucks in a shaky breath, rubs his eyes with the heels of his hands. “I’ve been trying and I can’t understand . . .”
He follows me down onto the bed, hides his face against me, wet haggard breaths against my chest until that feeling subsides and another takes over, his mouth moving to my neck, his hands hiking up the skirt of my dress. I let him do what he wants—remove everything, lay me across the bed—even though everywhere he touches hurts. He spreads my legs, buries his face into me, and there are tears in my eyes, on my cheeks. It’s my birthday in two days. I’ll be twenty-two. Seven years of my life defined by this. When I look back, I won’t see anything else.
In the middle of it, I hear the building door open and two sets of footsteps clomp up the stairs. There’s Bridget’s laugh rising up the stairwell, the sound of a stumble. “Are you ok?” a boy asks as the apartment door opens. “Do I have to carry you?”
“I’m so drunk,” Bridget says. Her laughter fills the living room. “I’m drunk, I’m drunk, I’m drunk!”
There’s the clang of keys hitting the floor, the boy following her into her bedroom, a door slamming shut. I try to hold on to the sound of her laugh, but she turns on her music so loud that even if I screamed, they wouldn’t hear.
As Strane works at me, part of me leaves the bedroom and wanders into the kitchen, where the cup he drank from lies tipped over in the sink. The faucet drips; the refrigerator hums. The kitten pads in from the living room, wanting to be held. Standing by the window, the broken-off part of me takes the kitten in her arms, gazes down at the quiet street below. It’s started to storm, a streetlight’s orange glow illuminating the sheets of rain, and the broken-off part of me watches it fall, humming softly to herself to block out the sounds coming from the bedroom. Every so often, she holds her breath and listens to check if it’s still happening. When she hears the metal scrape of the bed frame, the slap of skin on skin, she holds the kitten closer, turns back to the rain.
In the morning Strane goes down to the bagel shop for coffees. I sit up in bed, holding my steaming cup and staring off into middle distance, while he recounts in detail everything that happened at the Browick event—parents, alumni, faculty, drinking wine and eating hors d’oeuvres in the auditorium. He noticed Henry glaring at him but thought nothing of it until he went to take a piss and found Henry waiting in the hallway afterward, like a drunk in a bar looking for a fight.
“He told me we have a student in common,” Strane says. “Then he said your name. He said he knew I was harassing you and shoved me against the wall. Said he knew what I did to you. Called me a rapist.” After saying the word, he presses his lips together, takes a deep breath.
I bring the coffee to my lips and try to imagine Henry so out of control.
“You really should set things straight with him,” he says.
“Because if he told his wife—”
“I know,” I say. “I’ll tell him the truth.”
He nods, takes a sip from his coffee. “I should also tell you that I know about that blog you’ve been keeping.”
I blink, at first not understanding. He says he saw it on my computer. I look around my room and don’t see it anywhere. It’s still out on the coffee table. Did he get up in the night? No, he explains. It was a couple years ago. He’s known about it for years.
“I know how driven you’ve always been toward confession,” he says. “And it seemed a harmless way for you to satisfy that need. I used to check it every once in a while, just to make sure you weren’t using my name, but truthfully, I’d forgotten about it until recently. I should have told you to take it down when that nonsense started back in December with the harassment complaint.”
I shake my head. “I can’t believe you knew and never said anything.”
He mistakes my disbelief for an apology. “It’s all right,” he says. “I’m not angry.” But he wants me to get rid of it. “I think that’s a reasonable request.”
When the coffees are gone, I follow him into the living room, feeling out of my body, out of my mind. Bridget’s door is still closed; it’s early enough that she won’t be up for hours. Strane points to the kitten curled up on the sofa. “Where’d that come from?”
“The dumpster in the alley.”
“Ah.” He zips his coat, shoves his hands in his pockets. “You know, to be fair, you probably touched a nerve you weren’t intending to with that professor. I imagine, on some level, his reaction was about his own marriage. Some unresolved issues there.”
“What do you mean?”
“Penelope was his student. College, not high school, but still. She’s only a few years older than you and he’s—what, pushing forty? I think she said they got together when she was nineteen. If I’d been more on my toes, I would have pointed out the hypocrisy. It probably would’ve shut him up.”
Maybe if he hadn’t just told me that he’d known about the blog for years, or if I didn’t feel so sickened and bruised from the night before, hearing this would shock me. But now, I’m so exhausted, I lean against the wall and laugh. I laugh so hard, it’s hard to breathe. Of course she was his student. Of course.
Strane watches me with his eyebrows cocked. “Is that funny?”
I shake my head. Through my laughs, I say, “No, it’s not funny at all.”
I follow him down the stairwell to the building door and, before he steps outside, ask if he’s still mad at me—for calling him a rapist, for running my mouth. I expect a gentle tongue click, a kiss on the forehead. Of course I’m not. Instead he thinks for a moment and then says, “More sad than angry.”
“Well,” he says, “because you’ve changed.”
I put my palm against the door. “I haven’t changed.”
“Sure you have. You’ve outgrown me.”
“That’s not true.”
“Vanessa.” He takes my face in his hands. “We’ve got to end this. At least for a while. Ok? This isn’t good for either of us.”
I’m so stunned, I just stand there, let him hold my face.
“You need to create a life for yourself,” he says. “One that isn’t so focused on me.”
“You said you weren’t mad.”
“I’m not mad. Look at me, I’m not.” It’s true—he doesn’t look at all angry, his eyes calm behind the wireless frames.
For two weeks, I stay in my apartment, camped out in front of the TV with Minou curled against me. I work through the DVD set of Twin Peaks, then go back and rewatch certain episodes again and again. Sometimes Bridget watches with me, but when I start rewinding the scenes of violence and screams, the ones in which the good man character is overtaken by a sadist spirit that drives him to rape and murder teenage girls, she goes into her bedroom and shuts the door.
During those weeks in the news, a fourteen-year-old girl named Katrina disappears out in Oregon. Pretty, white, and photogenic, her face is everywhere, the headlines blurring into the TV series. “Who Took Katrina?” “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” Both were last seen running for their lives, disappearing into a grove of Douglas firs. The obvious culprit for Katrina’s disappearance is her estranged father, who has a history of mental illness and hasn’t been heard from in weeks. Compared with the dozen pictures they have of Katrina, the news uses only one photo of her father, a disheveled mugshot from a DUI. Eventually, the two are found in North Carolina, living in a cabin without electricity or running water. When the father is arrested, he is quoted as saying, “I’m just glad this is finally over.” Later, more details emerge—how frail Katrina became while on the lam, that while living in the cabin, she resorted to eating wildflowers to survive. Alone in the living room lit blue by the TV, I mumble things too terrible for anyone else to hear, that I bet a part of her loved it and never wanted to be caught.
Bridget ventures out of her bedroom and finds me stoned on the couch, coughing up tears. She feeds the cat, picks up my empty bottles, leaves the electric bill on the coffee table, along with her half and a stamped, addressed envelope. She knows something bad happened that night Strane came over but gives me room to deal with it on my own. She doesn’t ask, doesn’t want to know.
* * *
From: [email protected]
Subject: Seminar absence
Vanessa, are you ok? Missed you in class today. Henry
From: [email protected]
I’m starting to get concerned over here. What’s going on? You can call if that would be easier than writing. Or we could meet off campus. I’m worried about you. Henry
From: [email protected]
Subject: Serious concern
Vanessa, another absence and I’m going to have to give you either an F or an incomplete. I’m happy to give you an incomplete and we can figure out how you can make up the work, but you need to come by and fill out a form. Can you come in tomorrow? I’m not angry, just very concerned. Please let me know. Henry
When I appear in his doorway, Henry breaks out in a smile. “There you are. I’ve been so worried. What happened to you?”
Leaning against the doorframe, I stare him down. I’d expected a wave of apologies as soon as he saw me. It’s unfathomable that he hasn’t already made the connection. The night at Browick was three weeks ago, not long enough to forget.
I hold up a course withdrawal form. “Will you sign this?”
His head jerks back, surprised. “We should probably talk about it first.”
“You said I’m going to fail.”
“You haven’t been coming to class,” he says. “I had to get your attention somehow.”
“So you manipulated me? Awesome. That’s so great.”
“Vanessa, come on.” He laughs like I’m being ridiculous. “What’s going on?”
“Why did you do it?”
“Why did I do what?” He sways back and forth in his desk chair, watching me with put-on obliviousness. He looks like a child caught in a lie.
“You attacked him.”
He stops swaying.
“You waited outside a bathroom and grabbed him—”
At that, he jumps up and pulls the office door closed so hard it slams. He holds out his hands as though trying to calm me down. “Look,” he says, “I’m sorry. Obviously, I shouldn’t have done what I did. There’s no excuse for it. But I hardly attacked him.”
“He said you shoved him against the wall.”
“How could I even manage that? That man is enormous.”
“Vanessa, I barely touched him.”
At that, a lump forms in my throat. I barely touched him. I touched her, that’s all. Both boil down to me overreacting, determined to portray these men as villains.
To Henry, I ask, “Why didn’t you ever tell me about your wife? You must have known I’d figure out eventually that it was her who worked there.”
He blinks, thrown by the pivot. “I’m a private person. I don’t like to divulge my personal life to students.”
But that’s not true. I know plenty of personal things about him, details he’s offered up himself—where he grew up, that his parents never married, that his sister was hurt by someone older the same way Strane hurt me. I know his favorite bands from high school and his favorite bands now, that he was a burnout in college, one semester skipping twelve credits’ worth of classes. I know how long it takes him to drive from his house to campus and that when he grades papers, he sets mine aside for when his mind is exhausted and needs a break. It’s only his wife that I know nothing about.
“You know,” I say, “marrying one of your students is pretty fucked up.”
He hangs his head, takes a breath. He knew this was coming. “The circumstances were totally different.”
“You were her teacher.”
“I was a professor.”
“It is different,” he says. “You know it is.”
I want to tell him the same thing I said to Strane: that I don’t know what I know. Months ago, I wrote about how different it was with Henry, that I wouldn’t be taken advantage of this time. That difference now feels too subtle to locate. I need someone to show me the line that’s supposed to separate twenty-seven years older from thirteen years, teacher from professor, criminal from socially acceptable. Or maybe I’m supposed to encompass the difference here. Years past my eighteenth birthday, I’m fair game now, a consenting adult.
“I should report you for what you did to him,” I say. “The college should know about the type of people they have working here.”
That touches a nerve, his face flushed as he practically yells, “Report me?” and for a moment, I see the anger he must have let loose on Strane. But then, conscious of the voices passing by the closed office door, he lowers himself to whisper, “Vanessa, you knew what that man did to this other girl and you made me feel like an idiot when I mentioned it to you. Then you come in here, telling me that he’s harassing you, hurting you. What did you expect?”
“He didn’t do anything to that girl,” I say. “He touched her knee, big fucking deal.”
Henry’s eyes travel over my face and his anger fades. Gently, like he’s speaking to a child, he says he heard something else, that Strane did a lot more than touch her knee. He doesn’t explain further and I don’t ask. What’s the use? All of this is impossible to talk about, and trying to talk about it only makes you sound like a lunatic, one minute calling it rape and the next clarifying, Well, it wasn’t rape rape, as though that does anything but muddy the waters.
“I’m leaving,” I say, and Henry reaches for me but stops short of touching. He’s suddenly anxious—worried, maybe, that I might actually tell on him. Do I really want him to sign that course withdrawal form? I should just come to class. It’s only a couple more weeks. We’ll forget about the absences.
“I just want you to feel ok,” he says.
But I’m not ok. For days afterward, I walk around dazed, unable to shake the feeling of having been violated. During a meeting with my advisor, she asks how I’m doing, expecting my usual aloof response. Instead, I launch into a version of what happened. I try to be vague because I don’t want to implicate Strane, so the story comes out patchy and incoherent, makes me sound crazy.
“This is Henry we’re talking about?” my advisor asks, her voice barely above a whisper; the office walls are thin. “Henry Plough?” He hasn’t even been there a year and already he has a reputation for being a man of integrity.
Clasping her hands, my advisor labors over her words as she says, “Vanessa, over the years I’ve gathered from your writing that something happened to you in high school. Do you think that might be what you’re really upset about here?”
She waits, her eyebrows jumping as though prompting me to agree. This, I think, is the cost of telling, even in the guise of fiction—once you do, it’s the only thing about you anyone will ever care about. It defines you whether you want it to or not.
My advisor smiles, reaches forward and pats my knee. “Hang in there.”
On my way out of her office, I ask, “Did you know he married one of his students?”
At first, I think I’ve dropped a bomb on her. Then she nods. Yes, she knows. She lifts her hands, a gesture of helplessness. “It happens sometimes,” she says.
I tell Henry I forgive him even though he doesn’t ever offer a real apology. For the rest of the semester, he wants it to be the same. He tries to rely on me in class like he did before, but I have nothing to say, and in his office I’m fidgety and evasive as he tests out different ways to pull me back. He tells me I’m the best student he’s ever had (Better than your wife? I wonder), that he did what he did to Strane only because of how much he cares about me. He shows me the letter of recommendation he’s already written for my grad school applications, two and a half pages single-spaced about how special I am. Then, on the last week of classes, he asks me to come to his office. Once we’re inside, he closes the door and says he needs to admit something: he used to read my blog. He read it for months before I shut it down.
“I worried when it disappeared all of a sudden and you stopped coming to class,” he says. “I didn’t know what to think. I guess I still don’t.”
I ask him how he even found it and he says he can’t remember. Maybe he searched my email address, or some key words, he’s not sure. I imagine him hunched over his laptop at home late at night, his wife asleep in the other room while he typed my name into the search bar, digging until he found me. It’s the kind of thing I fantasized about all year, confirmation of my having invaded his life. Now faced with it being true, my stomach turns; I feel sick.
He says he read it to check in on me. He worried about me. “And because you seemed to have formed such a strong attachment,” he says, “I wanted to keep an eye on that, too.”
“Attachment to what?”
Henry cocks an eyebrow, as though to say, You know what I mean. When I only stare back at him, he says, “Attachment to me.”
I say nothing and he turns defensive.
“Was that wrong of me to assume?” he asks. “You came on so strongly. It overwhelmed me.”
I gape at him, at first baffled—hadn’t he singled me out as much as I had him?—but it dissipates into embarrassment because that probably is what I did. I’ve done it before.
“So that’s how you handle students who you think have crushes on you?” I ask. “You stalk them online?”
“I hardly stalked you. The blog was public.”
“What did you think I was going to do, run in here and force myself on you?”
“I really didn’t know,” he says. “After you told me about you and that teacher, I started to wonder about your intentions.”
“You don’t have to call him ‘that teacher,’” I say. “Clearly you know his name.”
Henry presses his lips together, spins in his chair so he faces the window. He stays like that for so long, staring out at the courtyard below, that I think he’s finished, but when I go for the door, he says, “I didn’t tell you this to embarrass you.”
I stop, my hand on the doorknob.
“I thought telling you might create an opening for us to be honest with each other. Because I think there are things you may want to tell me.” He spins back toward me. “And you should know I would hear anything you wanted to say.”
I shake my head. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Based on what I read,” he says, “I think you might want to tell me something.”
I think of the entries I wrote about him, my descriptions of craving him so badly my whole body ached from it, the comments that would show up sometimes in the middle of the night—from him? I swallow hard, my legs shaking, my hands. Even my brain shakes.
“If you already read it,” I ask, “why do you need me to say it?”
He doesn’t answer, but I know why. Because he needs to know I’m willing. Like Strane insisting I vocalize what I want to shift the burden of culpability. Talking this out, Vanessa, is the only way I can live with myself. I never would have done it if you weren’t so willing.
“You’re an enigma,” Henry says. “Impossible to understand.”
Again, I get the feeling I could touch him and he’d let me. If I put my hands on him, he’d spring forth as though released from a cage. Finally, he’d say. Vanessa, I’ve wanted this since I first met you. I see ahead to the next year, to me working as his assistant, the two of us shut in this office, the inevitable drawn-out affair. I still haven’t had sex with anyone other than Strane, but I can easily imagine what Henry would be like. His heavy body, labored breaths, and slack jaw.
And then the fog burns off, my view clears, and he’s repulsive, sitting there trying to pry a confession out of me. You have a wife, I want to say. What the hell is wrong with you?
I tell him I won’t be in Atlantica next year after all. “You should give that assistant job to someone else.”
Blinking in surprise, he asks, “What about grad school? Are you still going to apply?”
Looking ahead, I can see that, too—another classroom, another man at the head of the seminar table reading my name off the roster, his eyes drinking me in. The thought makes me so tired all I can think is I’d rather be dead than go through this again.
The day before graduation, Henry takes me out to lunch to say goodbye, gives me a Brontë novel, a reference to some inside joke we had, with an inscription he signs with H. After I move out of Atlantica, his name shows up in my email inbox every six months or so, my stomach lurching each time. Eventually, we add each other on Facebook and I get glimpses into the life I spent so long imagining: photos of Penelope and their daughter, of Henry’s graying hair and aging face, each passing year making him look more like Strane. Meanwhile time turns me cynical, suspicious. I strip myself of the fantasy, tell myself that when we met, Henry was bored and losing his youth; I was young and adored him. An older man using a girl to feel better about himself—how easily the story becomes a cliché if you look at it without the soft focus of romance.
One year he writes to me on my birthday, an email sent at two in the morning. I remember you as one of my best students, he writes, and I always will. I start to reply, Henry, what does that even mean? but I stop myself, delete his email, set up a filter so future ones go straight to the trash.
One of my best students. It’s a strange compliment coming from a man who once turned a student into a wife.
* * *
After graduation from Atlantica, Bridget moves back to Rhode Island and takes the cat. I apply to every secretary/receptionist/assistant job in Portland, and the State of Maine is the only one to call back. It’s a filing clerk job in child protective services, ten bucks an hour but really more like nine after union dues. During the interview, a woman asks how I’ll handle reading descriptions of child abuse all day every day.
“I’ll be fine,” I say. “I don’t have any experience with it.”
I find an efficiency apartment on the peninsula. When I lie in bed, I can watch oil tankers and cruise ships pass through the bay. The job is mind-numbing, and I can afford to eat only once a day if I want to make rent, but I tell myself it’s only for a year, maybe two, until I get my shit together.
At work, I sort through files with headphones on, and it’s like being back in the hospital archives, the same metal cases and the color-coded stickers, my hair stirred by the air-conditioning. These files, though, contain horror stories worse than cancer, worse even than death. Descriptions of kids found sleeping in beds caked with shit, of infants covered in lesions from being bathed in bleach. I try not to linger on the files; no one specifically tells me not to look, but gorging on the details feels invasive in a way that reading about men and their limp dicks never could. Some kids’ files are multiple manila folders filled with endless documents—court hearings, caseworker narratives, written evidence of abuse.
I come across one girl whose case comprises ten overstuffed files held together with rubber bands. Pieces of faded purple construction paper and coloring book pages stick out of one of the files, kid stuff. One drawing appears to be a family chart done in a child’s hand; another piece of construction paper reads like a description of what the girl wants in a family. Wanted: a mother and a father, a dog, and a baby brother. At the bottom of the paper, written in huge letters: NO HIPPOCRITCAL PEOPLE PLEASE.
There’s a handwritten letter on plain white paper tucked behind that, the handwriting small, feminine, and adult. I can’t stop myself from looking. It’s from the girl’s mother, three pages front and back of apologies. Names of different men are listed, explaining who is still in her life and who isn’t, and from where I read the file—standing at the cabinet, prying it open, not wanting anyone to catch me looking so closely—I can see only half the pages.
If I had known you were being abused, the mother writes, especially sexually abused, I never would have— The rest of the sentence is hidden from my view. On the last page of the letter, the mother signs, With oceans of love, Mom. Underneath oceans of love, there’s a drawing of a girl’s crying face, her tears pooling into a body of water, a pointing arrow, ocean.
* * *
Strane visits me in Portland only once. He’s coming down anyway for some development workshop, and I’m too nervous to ask if he plans on staying the night. When he arrives, I give him a tour of my tiny apartment, aching for him to comment on how clean I’ve kept it, the dishes all done and put away, the vacuumed floor. He calls it cozy, says he likes the clawfoot tub. In the living room/bedroom, I make some stupid, thinly veiled comment about the bed. “Doesn’t it look inviting?” I haven’t had sex for almost a year, need to be touched, looked at. Under my dress, I’m bare, soft and smooth, no tights. That’s a sign he is supposed to pick up on. I spent days imagining the sound that would escape his throat when he realized I wasn’t wearing underwear.
He says we have to get going. He’s made a reservation at a seafood restaurant in the Old Port, where he orders us fisherman’s stew, lobster tail over linguine, a bottle of white wine. It’s the biggest meal I’ve eaten since I last went home to see my parents. While I shovel food in my mouth, Strane watches with a furrowed brow.
“How’s the job?” he asks.
“Shitty,” I say. “But it’s temporary.”
“What’s your long-term plan?”
My jaw clenches at the question. “Grad school,” I say impatiently. “I’ve told you that.”
“Did you submit applications for the fall?” he asks. “They should be sending out acceptances around now.”
I shake my head, wave my hand. “I’m doing it next fall. I still need to get some stuff together and save money for all the fees.”
He frowns, takes a drink of wine. He knows I’m full of shit, that I have no plan. “You should be doing more than this,” he says. I sense his guilt. He’s worried that he’s to blame for my potential being wasted, which is probably true, but if he feels guilty, he won’t want to have sex with me.
“You know how I am. I move at my own pace.” I flash him my best spunky-kid smile, meant to reassure him it’s my problem, not his.
After dinner, he drives me home, but when I invite him in, he says he can’t. It cuts me straight down the middle, my guts spilling all over the passenger seat. All I can think about is how in a month I’ll be twenty-three and then someday thirty-three, and forty-three, and being that age is as unfathomable as being dead.
“Am I too old for you now?” I ask.
At first he shoots me a glare, sensing a trap. Then he sees my wide-open face.
“I’m serious,” I say. It’s the first time he’s really looked at me all night, maybe the first time since that night in my Atlantica apartment, when he confronted me about Henry confronting him, when he might’ve raped me, I’m still not sure.
“Nessa, I’m trying to be good here,” he says.
“But you don’t need to be good. Not with me.”
“I know I don’t,” he says. “That’s the problem.”
This, I realize, is where it was always going to end up. I gave him permission to do the unspeakable things he always craved, offered up my body as the site of the crimes, and he indulged for a while, but in his heart, he’s not a villain. He’s a man who wants to be good, and I know as well as anyone that the easiest way to do that is to cut out the thing that makes you bad.
With my hand on the door handle, I ask if I’ll see him soon, and he says yes so gently I know he’s letting me down easy. His eyes dart away like I’m evidence of something he wants to forget.
Years pass without him. My dad has his first heart attack; Mom finally earns her degree. On a summer afternoon when I’m home visiting, Babe has an aneurysm while running across the yard; she drops as though she’s been shot, and Dad and I try to save her as though she were human, pumping on her chest and breathing into her snout, but she’s gone, her body cold and paws still wet from the lake. I leave CPS and go from one administrative assistant job to another, loathing the work, the sterile offices, the paper clips and Post-its and Berber carpets. When I find myself googling “what should you do if being at work makes you suicidal,” I snap out of it, realize this way of keeping myself alive could end up killing me, and get a front desk position at an upscale hotel. It’s low pay but an escape from the fluorescent-lit breakdown brewing within me.
There are men who never turn into boyfriends, who peer behind the curtain and see the mess of me—literal and figurative: the apartment with a narrow path through the clothes and trash leading from bed to bathroom; the drinking, endless drinking; the blackout sex and nightmares. “You’re kind of screwed up,” they say, at first with a laugh in their voice, an attitude of maybe this will be fun for a while, but as soon as I slur out the story—teacher, sex, fifteen, but I liked it, I miss it—they’re done. “You’ve got serious issues,” they say on their way out the door.
I learn that it’s easier to keep my mouth shut, to be a vessel they empty themselves into. On a dating app, I meet a man in his late twenties. He wears cardigans and corduroys, has a receding hairline and thick chest hair that peeks over the neckline of his shirt, a look-alike of Strane. Through our first date, I pulse my feet, shred my napkin. With our drinks only half drunk, I ask, “Can we cut the bullshit and go have sex?” He chokes on his beer, looks at me like I’m nuts, but says sure, of course, if that’s what you want.
On our second date, we see a movie with a plotline about pedophile priests. Through the two hours, he doesn’t notice my clammy hands, the little whimpers that escape my throat. Usually I’m good about researching movies beforehand in case there’s something that might send me reeling, but with this one I wasn’t prepared. Afterward, as we walk down Congress Street toward my apartment, the man says, “Men like that know how to pick the right ones, you know? They’re real predators. They know how to scan a herd and select the weak.”
As he says that, I see a scene of me, fifteen and wild-eyed, separated from my parents, running in a panicked gait across a tundra landscape while Strane sprints after me, gathering me in his arms without breaking stride. An ocean roars in my ears, blocking out the rest of the man’s thoughts on the film, and I think, Maybe that’s all it was. I was an obvious target. He chose me not because I was special, but because he was hungry and I was easy. Back at my apartment, while the man and I have sex, I leave myself in a way I haven’t in years. He and my body are in the bedroom as my mind wanders the apartment, curls up on the couch, and stares at the blank TV.
I stop replying to his texts, never see him again. I tell myself he was wrong. At fifteen, I wasn’t weak. I was smart. I was strong.
I’m twenty-five when it happens. Walking to work, wearing my black suit and black flats, I cross Congress Street and there he is, standing with a dozen kids in front of the art museum, teenagers, students, mostly girls. I watch from a distance, clutching my purse to my side. He leads the students into the museum—it must be a field trip, maybe to see the Wyeth exhibit—and he holds the door as they file in, one girl after another.
Just before he disappears inside, he glances over his shoulder and notices me in my dowdy work clothes, faded and old. For years I wanted nothing more than his eyes on me, but now I’m too ashamed of my own face, its fine lines and signs of age, to take a step closer.
He lets the museum door close behind him and I go to work, sit at the concierge desk and imagine him moving through the rooms, trailing the bright-haired girls. In my mind, I follow along behind, don’t let him out of my sight. This, I think, is probably what I’ll do for the rest of my life: chase after him and what he gave me. It’s my own fault. I was supposed to have grown out of it by now. He never promised to love me forever.
The next night, he calls. It’s late, on my walk home from work, when the only lit-up windows downtown are the bars and pizza-by-the-slice places. The sight of his name on the screen makes my knees give out. I have to lean against a building when I answer.
The sound of him grabs me by the throat. “Did I see you?” he asks. “Or was it a ghost?”
He starts calling weekly, always late at night. We talk a little about who I am now—the hotel job, the never-ending parade of boys, my mom’s pursed-lip disappointment in me, my dad’s diabetes and bad heart—but mostly we talk about who I used to be. Together we remember the scenes in the little office behind the classroom, at his house, in the station wagon parked on the side of an old logging road, the rolling blueberry barren where I climbed on top of him, the chickadee call and apiary drone drifting in through the open car window. Our details pool together. He and I re-create it vividly, too vividly.
“There’s a reason I haven’t allowed myself to remember all this,” he says. “I can’t let myself lose control again.”
I see him in the classroom, sitting behind his desk. His eyes move across the girls seated around the seminar table. One girl looks up, catches him staring, and smiles.
“We can stop,” I say.
“No,” he says, “that’s the problem. I don’t think I can stop.”
When he moves away from remembering me and begins to talk about the girls in his classes, I follow him. He describes the pale underbellies of their arms when they raise their hands, the tendrils that escape their ponytails, the flush that travels down their necks when he tells them they’re precious and rare. He says it’s unbearable, the way they drip with beauty. He tells me he calls them up to his desk, his hand on their knees. “I pretend they’re you,” he says, and my mouth waters as though a bell’s been rung, signaling a long-buried craving. I roll onto my stomach, shove a pillow between my legs. Keep going, don’t stop.