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My Dark Vanessa (Page 17)

The week before Thanksgiving, Janine’s article is published, but it isn’t about Strane. One contextual paragraph toward the beginning mentions Taylor and the online harassment she suffered. The rest is about a teacher at a boarding school in New Hampshire who abused girl students throughout his forty-year career. Eight victims are profiled in the article, their real names used. There are photos of them now and back when they were students, scans of their teenage diary entries, the teacher’s love letters. Through the years, he used the same lines on all the girls, the same pet names. You’re the only one who understands me, little one. The headline of the article cites the boarding school’s name—recognizable, prestigious, and guaranteed to generate clicks. It’s hard not to be cynical, to assume that’s what it all came down to.

Browick publishes the results of their internal investigation into the allegations against Strane, using the sort of impenetrable language that seems intended to mask truth: “We conclude that while misconduct of a sexual nature may have occurred, the investigation found no credible evidence of sexual abuse.” They put out an official statement reiterating the school’s commitment to fostering an academically strenuous yet safe and nurturing environment. They will be voluntarily updating the faculty sexual harassment training. Here’s a phone number for any concerned parents. Feel free to call with any questions.

As I read, I imagine Strane in sexual harassment training, irritated he had to sit through it at all—none of it would have touched him—along with the other teachers who saw me, the one who called me Strane’s classroom pet, Ms. Thompson and Mrs. Antonova, who recognized the clues but didn’t protest when those clues were used as evidence of an emotionally troubled girl. I imagine them sitting through the training, nodding in agreement, saying yes, this is so important; we need to be these children’s advocates. But what have they done when faced with situations in which they could actually make a difference? When they heard of the camping trips the history teacher took each year with his students, when faculty advisors brought students into their homes? All of this feels like performance, because I’ve seen how it plays out, how quickly people lift their hands and say, It happens sometimes, or Even if he did do something, it couldn’t have really been that bad, or What could I have done to stop it? The excuses we make for them are outrageous, but they’re nothing compared with the ones we make for ourselves.

 

I tell Ruby I feel like I’ve moved from grieving Strane to grieving myself. My own death.

“Part of you died along with him,” she says. “That seems normal.”

“No, not part,” I say. “All of me. Everything about me leads back to him. If I cut out the poison, nothing will be left.”

She says she can’t let me say that about myself when it’s so obviously untrue. “I’ll bet if I met you when you were five years old,” she says, “you would have been a complex person even then. Do you remember yourself at five?” I shake my head. “What about eight?” she asks. “Ten?”

“I don’t think I remember anything about myself that happened before him.” I let out a laugh, rub my face with both hands. “That’s so depressing.”

“It is,” Ruby agrees. “But those years aren’t lost. They’ve just been neglected for a while. You can recover yourself.”

“Like find my inner child? Oh god. Kill me.”

“Roll your eyes if you need to, but it’s worth doing. What’s the alternative?”

I shrug. “Continue to stumble through life feeling like an empty husk of a person, drink myself into oblivion, give up.”

“Sure,” she says. “You could do that, but I don’t think that’s where this is going to end for you.”

 

I go home for Thanksgiving and Mom’s hair is cut short, ending above her ears. “I know it’s ugly,” she says. “But who am I trying to impress?” She touches her fingers to the nape of her neck, where the hair was shorn with a buzzer.

“It’s not ugly,” I say. “You look great, truly.”

She scoffs, waves her hand at me. She’s not wearing makeup and the bare skin makes her wrinkles seem like part of her face rather than something she’s trying to hide. There’s a shadow of an unwaxed mustache on her upper lip and this suits her, too. She seems relaxed in a way I’ve never seen before. Everything she says preceded by a long pause. The only thing that worries me is her thinness. Hugging her, she feels outright frail.

“Are you eating enough?” I ask.

She seems not to hear me, staring over my shoulder, her hand still resting on the back of her neck. After a moment, she opens the freezer, takes out the blue box of fried chicken.

We eat the chicken and thick slices of grocery store pie, and drink coffee brandy mixed with milk in front of the TV. No holiday movies, nothing heartwarming. We stick to nature documentaries and that British cooking show that she texted me about. While we lie on the couch, I let her wedge her feet under me, and I don’t kick her awake when she starts to snore.

Inside and outside, the house has gone to hell. Mom knows but has stopped apologizing for it. Dust bunnies line the baseboards and laundry spills out from the bathroom, blocking the door. The lawn is dead and brown now, but I know she’s stopped mowing in the summer. She calls it “gone to pasture.” She says it’s good for the bees.

 

The morning I’m set to drive back down to Portland, we stand in the kitchen, drinking coffee and eating bites of blueberry pie straight out of the tin. She peers out the window, through the snow that’s started to fall. An inch has already piled up on the cars.

“You can stay another night,” she says. “Call out of work, tell them the roads are too bad.”

“I have snow tires. I’ll be ok.”

“When was the last time you took your car in for an oil change?”

“The car’s fine.”

“You need to stay on top of that.”

“Mom.”

She holds up her hands. Ok, ok. I break a piece of crust off the pie and break that into crumbs.

“I think I’m going to get a dog.”

“You don’t have a yard.”

“I’ll take walks.”

“Your apartment’s so small.”

“A dog doesn’t need its own bedroom.”

She takes a bite, pulls the fork between her lips. “You’re like your dad,” she says. “Never happy unless he was covered in dog hair.”

We stare out at the snow.

“I’ve been thinking a lot,” she says.

I don’t move my eyes from the window. “About what?”

“Oh, you know.” She heaves a sigh. “Regrets.”

I let the word hang there. I set my fork in the sink, wipe my mouth. “I should pack my stuff.”

“I’ve been paying attention to the stories,” she says. “About that man.”

My body starts to shake, but for once my brain stays in place. I hear Ruby telling me to count and breathe—long inhales, longer exhales.

“I know you don’t like to talk about it,” she says.

“You’ve never been that eager, either,” I say.

She sinks her fork into the uneven wedge of pie left in the pan. “I know,” she says quietly. “I know I could’ve been better. I should’ve made you feel like you could talk to me.”

“We don’t have to do this,” I say. “Really, it’s ok.”

“Just let me say this.” She closes her eyes, collects her thoughts. She takes a breath. “I hope he suffered.”

“Mom.”

“I hope he’s rotting in hell for what he did to you.”

“He hurt other girls, too.”

Her eyes flash open. “Well, I don’t care about other girls,” she says. “I only care about you. What he did to you.”

I hang my head, suck in my cheeks. What does that mean to her, what he did to me? There’s so much she can’t know: how long it went on, the extent of my lies, the ways I enabled him. But the small part she does understand—that she sat in the Browick headmaster’s office and listened to him call me damaged and troubled and then watched photographic evidence of him and me fall to the floor—is enough for a lifetime of guilt. Our roles reversed, for the first time in my life, I want to tell her to let it go.

“Dad and I used to talk sometimes about what that school did to you,” she continues. “I don’t think either of us regretted anything more than how we let them treat you.”

“You didn’t let them,” I say. “You weren’t in control of it.”

“I didn’t want to put you through some horror show. Once I got you back home, I thought, ok, whatever happened is over. I didn’t know—”

“Mom, please.”

“I should’ve sent that man to prison where he belonged.”

“But I didn’t want that.”

“Sometimes I think I was looking out for you. Police, lawyers, a trial. I didn’t want them to tear you apart. Other times I think I was just scared.” Her voice cracks; she holds a hand to her mouth.

I watch her wipe her cheeks even though they aren’t wet, even though she’s not really crying because she won’t let herself. Have I ever seen her truly cry?

“I hope you forgive me,” she says.

Part of me wants to laugh, pull her in for a hug. Forgive what? It’s fine, Mom. Look at me—it’s over. It’s fine. Hearing my mother implicate herself makes me think of Ruby and the frustration she must feel sitting there, listening as I cloak myself in blame. After a while, she gives up repeating the same lines, knowing there comes a point when they no longer matter, that what I need isn’t absolution but to hold myself accountable before a witness. So when my mother asks me to forgive her, I say, “Of course I do.” I don’t tell her again she couldn’t have stopped it, that it wasn’t her fault and that she didn’t deserve it. I swallow those words instead. Maybe somewhere deep in my belly, they’ll take root and grow.

 

It keeps snowing. I do my best to dig out my car, drive the gravel road, but when I gun the engine to get up the hill and onto the highway, the tires just spin. I turn the car around and spend another night. While we watch TV, commercials for the Winter Olympics play, the spray of snow from a freestyle skier, a gleaming bobsled careening down an icy track, a figure skater launching her body into the air, arms crossed tight and eyes squeezed shut.

“Remember when you used to skate?” Mom asks.

I try to think: fuzzy memories of cracked white leather, the ache in my ankles after an hour of balancing on the blades.

“For a while, it was all you wanted to do,” she says. “We couldn’t get you to come inside, but I didn’t want you on the lake without me watching. I was too scared of you falling through. Dad went out with the hose and flooded the front yard. Do you remember that?”

Vaguely, I do—skating after dark, maneuvering around the tree roots that jutted through the rough ice, trying to work up the courage to attempt a jump.

“You weren’t scared of anything,” Mom says. “Everyone thinks that about their kid, but you really weren’t.”

We watch the skater glide across the rink. She turns on the tips of her blades, suddenly backward, arms outstretched, ponytail whipping across her face. Another change of direction and she’s on one leg, launching off into a tight spin, her arms stretched above her head now, her body seeming to grow longer the faster she spins.

In the morning, the sky is blue and the snow so bright it hurts our eyes. We sprinkle kitty litter and rock salt on the road and the tires are able to grab. At the top of the hill, I stop and watch Mom walk slowly home, pulling behind her a sled stacked with bags of litter and salt.

*  *  *

The air is sharp with ammonia as I walk through rows of kennels, the concrete floor painted gray and hospital green. One dog starts barking, setting off the rest of them, a range of voices echoing against cinder block. When I was a kid, Dad and I used to joke that when dogs bark all they’re saying is I’m a dog! I’m a dog! I’m a dog! But these barks are desperate and scared. They sound more like please please please.

I stop at a kennel holding a mutt with a blocky head and ghost-gray fur. The sign hanging on the kennel lists the breed as Pit bull, Weimaraner, ??? The dog’s rose ears pitch forward as I press my hand against the cage. She gives my palm a sniff, two licks. A cautious tail wag.

I name her Jolene after she tips back her head and howls along to Dolly Parton on her first night home. In the mornings, I take her out before I even brush my teeth, and we walk from one end of the peninsula to the other, ocean to ocean. When we wait at crosswalks, she leans into my legs and mouths my hand out of pure joy, her panting breaths clouding in the cold air.

We’re walking on Commercial Street, past the city pier, when I see Taylor emerge from a bakery doorway, coffee and wax paper bag in hand. It takes a moment for me to believe it’s truly her and not my brain’s wishful thinking.

She sees Jo first; her face lights up as Jo’s tail thumps against my legs. Then a double take when she notices me, as though to make sure her own mind isn’t playing tricks.

“Vanessa,” she says. “I didn’t know you had a dog.” She drops to her knees and holds her coffee above her head as Jo launches forward and licks her face.

“I just got her,” I say. “She comes on a little strong.”

“Oh, that’s ok.” Taylor laughs. “I can be intense, too.” In a singsongy voice she repeats, “That’s ok, that’s ok.” It makes Jo’s back arch, her entire body wriggle. Taylor smiles up at me, flashing small straight teeth. Her canines are pointy, like little fangs, same as mine.

“I know I failed you,” I say.

It’s the chance meeting that makes me say it, having her in front of me when I didn’t expect it, didn’t prepare. Taylor frowns but doesn’t look up at me. She keeps her eyes fixed on Jo, scratching behind her ears. For a moment, I wonder if she’ll ignore me, pretend I never said it.

“No,” she says, “you didn’t fail me. Or, if you did, then I did, too. I knew he’d hurt other girls and it still took me years to do anything about it.” She looks up at me then, her eyes two blue pools. “What could we have done? We were just girls.”

I know what she means—not that we were helpless by choice, but that the world forced us to be. Who would have believed us, who would have cared?

“I saw the article,” I say. “It was . . .”

“Disappointing?” Taylor rights herself, adjusts her purse. “Though maybe not for you.”

“I know you invested a lot in it.”

“Yeah, well. I thought it would bring me closure, but now I’m angrier than before.” She scrunches her nose, fiddles with the lid of her coffee cup. “Honestly, she was kind of sleazy. I should’ve known better.”

“That journalist?”

Taylor nods. “I don’t think she actually cared. She just wanted to ride the wave, get a good byline. Which I knew going into it, but I still thought it would make me feel empowered or whatever. Instead I feel taken advantage of all over again.” She smirks, scratches Jo behind the ears. “Been thinking about starting therapy. I tried it before and it didn’t really do much, but I need to do something.”

“It’s helping me,” I say. “But it didn’t fix everything—hence the dog.”

Taylor smiles down at Jo. “Maybe I should try that, too.”

She seems fragile in a way I wasn’t able to see before, not when she and I were in the coffee shop or in any of the stuff she posts online. I see now what should have been obvious, that she was lost and looking for a way to understand it all—him, herself, what he did, and why it still means so much despite it being so seemingly small. I can hear Strane asking, impatient and impenitent, the question that must still ring through her head: When are you going to get over this? All I did was touch your leg.

Taylor looks to me. “At least we’re trying, right?”

It feels like this is the moment when I’m supposed to open my arms and embrace her, to start thinking of her as a kind of sister. Maybe that could happen if our stories were closer, if I were nicer—though it seems absurd to expect two women to love each other just because they were groped by the same man. There must be a point where you’re allowed to be defined by something other than what he did to you.

Before she leaves, Taylor gives Jo another scratch behind the ears and me an embarrassed little wave.

I watch her walk away, not a rumor but a real person, a woman who used to be a girl. I’m real, too. Have I ever thought that about myself so plainly before? It’s such a small revelation. Jo tugs on the leash and, for the first time, I can imagine how it might feel not to be his, not to be him. To feel that maybe I could be good.

With the sun on my face and a dog at my side, I have so much capacity for good.

 

There’s nothing else to do but start from here, with the gentle pressure of the leash in my hand, the clink of metal and click of toenails on brick. Ruby says it will take a while to feel truly changed, that I need to give myself the chance to see more of the world without him behind my eyes. I’m already starting to feel the difference. There’s a clearness, a lightness.

Jo and I arrive at the beach, empty in the off-season, and she lowers her nose to the sand.

“Have you been in the ocean before?” I ask, and she looks up at me, ears pricked.

I unhook the leash. At first she doesn’t realize, doesn’t understand, but when I pat her back and say, “Go on,” she takes off across the sand, down to the water, barks at the waves lapping her paws. She ignores me when I call, doesn’t yet know her name, but when she sees me sit on the ground, she bounds over, tongue out and eyes wild. She flops down at my feet, panting happy little whines.

We walk home under the pale winter sky, and back in my apartment, she checks all the rooms, inspects every corner. She’s still getting used to it, the freedom and space. I lie on the couch and she eyes the empty spot alongside my legs. “You’re allowed,” I say, and she jumps up, curls into a tight circle, and sighs.

“He’ll never meet you,” I say. It’s a hard truth, carrying within it grief and joy. Jo opens her eyes, doesn’t lift her head as she watches me. She’s constantly taking in my face and tone, noticing everything about me. When I start to drift away, her tail thumps against the couch cushion, like a drumbeat, a heartbeat, a rhythm of grounding. You’re here, she says. You’re here. You’re here.

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