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My Dark Vanessa (Page 2)

Turning onto the two-lane highway that takes us to Norumbega, Mom says, “I really want you to get out there this year.”

It’s the start of my sophomore year of high school, dorm move-in day, and this drive is Mom’s last chance to hold me to promises before Browick swallows me whole and her access to me is limited to phone calls and school breaks. Last year, she worried boarding school might make me wild, so she made me promise not to drink or have sex. This year, she wants me to promise I’ll make new friends, which feels exponentially more insulting, maybe even cruel. My falling-out with Jenny was five months ago, but it’s still raw. The mere phrase “new friends” twists my stomach; the idea feels like betrayal.

“I just don’t want you sitting alone in your room day and night,” she says. “Is that so bad?”

“If I were home, all I’d do is sit in my room.”

“But you’re not at home. Isn’t that the point? I remember you saying something about a ‘social fabric’ when you convinced us to let you come here.”

I press myself into the passenger seat, wishing my body could sink into it entirely so I wouldn’t have to listen to her use my own words against me. A year and a half ago, when a Browick representative came to my eighth grade class and played a recruitment video featuring a manicured campus bathed in golden light and I started the process of convincing my parents to let me apply, I made a twenty-point list entitled “Reasons Why Browick Is Better Than Public School.” One of the points was the “social fabric” of the school, along with the college acceptance rate among graduates, the number of AP course offerings, things I’d picked up from the brochure. In the end, I needed only two points to convince my parents: I earned a scholarship so it wouldn’t cost them money, and the Columbine shooting happened. We spent days watching CNN, the looped clips of kids running for their lives. When I said, “Something like Columbine would never happen at Browick,” my parents exchanged a look, like I’d vocalized what they’d already been thinking.

“You moped all summer,” Mom says. “Now it’s time to shake it off, move on with your life.”

I mumble, “That isn’t true,” but it is. If I wasn’t spaced out in front of the television, I was sprawled in the hammock with my headphones on, listening to songs guaranteed to make me cry. Mom says dwelling in your feelings is no way to live, that there will always be something to be upset about and the secret to a happy life is not to let yourself be dragged down into negativity. She doesn’t understand how satisfying sadness can be; hours spent rocking in the hammock with Fiona Apple in my ears make me feel better than happy.

In the car, I shut my eyes. “I wish Dad had come so you wouldn’t talk to me like this.”

“He’d tell you the same thing.”

“Yeah, but he’d be nicer about it.”

Even with my eyes closed, I can see everything that passes by the windows. It’s only my second year at Browick, but we’ve made this drive at least a dozen times. There are the dairy farms and rolling foothills of western Maine, general stores advertising cold beer and live bait, farmhouses with sagging roofs, collections of rusted car scraps in yards of waist-high grass and goldenrod. Once you enter Norumbega, it becomes beautiful—the perfect downtown, the bakery, the bookstore, the Italian restaurant, the head shop, the public library, and the hilltop Browick campus, gleaming white clapboard and brick.

Mom turns the car into the main entrance. The big browick school sign is decorated with maroon and white balloons for move-in day, and the narrow campus roads are crammed with cars, overstuffed SUVs parked haphazardly, parents and new students wandering around, gazing up at the buildings. Mom sits forward, hunched over the steering wheel, and the air between us tightens as the car lurches forward, then halts, lurches again.

“You’re a smart, interesting kid,” she says. “You should have a big group of friends. Don’t get sucked into spending all your time with just one person.”

Her words are harsher than she probably means them to be, but I snap at her anyway. “Jenny wasn’t just some person. She was my roommate.” I say the word as though the significance of the relationship should be obvious—its disorienting closeness, how it could sometimes turn the world beyond the shared room muted and pale—but Mom doesn’t get it. She never lived in a dorm, never went to college, let alone boarding school.

“Roommate or not,” she says, “you could’ve had other friends. Focusing on a single person isn’t the healthiest, that’s all I’m saying.”

In front of us, the line of cars splits as we approach the campus green. Mom flips on the left blinker, then the right. “Which way am I going here?”

Sighing, I point to the left.

Gould is a small dorm, really just a house, with eight rooms and one dorm parent apartment. Last year I drew a low number in the housing lottery, so I was able to get a single, rare for a sophomore. It takes Mom and me four trips to move in all my stuff: two suitcases of clothes, a box of books, extra pillows and bedsheets and a quilt she made of old T-shirts I’d outgrown, a pedestal fan we set up to oscillate in the center of the room.

While we unpack, people pass by the open door—parents, students, someone’s younger brother who sprints up and down the hallway until he trips and starts to wail. At one point, Mom goes to the bathroom and I hear her say hello in her fake-polite voice, then another mother’s voice says hello back. I stop stacking books on the shelf above my desk to listen. Squinting, I try to place the voice—Mrs. Murphy, Jenny’s mom.

Mom comes back into the room, pulls the door shut. “Getting kind of noisy out there,” she says.

Sliding books onto the shelf, I ask, “Was that Jenny’s mom?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Did you see Jenny?”

Mom nods but doesn’t elaborate. For a while, we unpack in silence. As we make the bed, pulling the fitted sheet over the pin-striped mattress, I say, “Honestly, I feel sorry for her.”

I like how it sounds, but of course it’s a lie. Just last night, I spent an hour scrutinizing myself in my bedroom mirror, trying to see myself as Jenny would, wondering if she’d notice my hair lightened from Sun In, the new hoops in my ears.

Mom says nothing as she lifts the quilt out of a plastic tote. I know she’s worried I’ll backtrack, end up heartbroken again.

“Even if she tried to be friends with me now,” I say, “I wouldn’t waste my time.”

Mom smiles thinly, smoothing the quilt over the bed. “Is she still dating that boy?” She means Tom Hudson, Jenny’s boyfriend, the catalyst for the falling-out. I shrug like I don’t know, but I do. Of course I do. All summer I checked Jenny’s AOL profile and her relationship status never changed from “Taken.” They’re still together.

Before she leaves, Mom gives me four twenties and makes me promise to call home every Sunday. “No forgetting,” she instructs. “And you’re coming home for Dad’s birthday.” She hugs me so hard it hurts my bones.

“I can’t breathe.”

“Sorry, sorry.” She puts on her sunglasses to hide her teary eyes. On her way out of the dorm room, she points a finger at me. “Be good to yourself. And be social.”

I wave her off. “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” From my doorway, I watch her walk down the hallway, disappear into the stairwell, and then she’s gone. Standing there, I hear two approaching voices, the bright echoing laughter of mother and daughter. I duck into the safety of my room as they appear, Jenny and her mother. I catch only a glimpse, just long enough to see that her hair is shorter and she’s wearing a dress I remember hanging in her closet all last year but never saw her wear.

Lying back on my bed, I let my eyes wander the room and listen to the goodbyes in the hallway, the sniffles and quiet cries. I think back to a year ago, moving into the freshman dorm, the first night of staying up late with Jenny while the Smiths and Bikini Kill played from her boom box, bands I’d never heard of but pretended to know because I was scared to out myself as a loser, a bumpkin. I worried if I did, she wouldn’t like me anymore. During those first few days at Browick, I wrote in my journal, The thing I love most about being here is that I get to meet people like Jenny. She is so freaking COOL and just being around her is teaching me how to be cool, too! I’d since torn out that entry, thrown it away. The sight of it made my face burn with shame.

 

The dorm parent in Gould is Ms. Thompson, the new Spanish teacher, fresh out of college. During the first night meeting in the common room, she brings colored markers and paper plates for us to make name tags for our doors. The other girls in the dorm are upperclassmen, Jenny and I the only sophomores. We give each other plenty of space, sitting on opposite ends of the table. Jenny hunches over as she makes her name tag, her brown bobbed hair falling against her cheeks. When she comes up for air and to switch markers, her eyes skim over me as though I don’t even register.

“Before you go back to your rooms, go ahead and take one of these,” Ms. Thompson says. She holds open a plastic bag. At first, I think it is candy, then see it’s a pile of silver whistles.

“Chances are you won’t ever need to use these,” she says, “but it’s good to have one, just in case.”

“Why would we need a whistle?” Jenny asks.

“Oh, you know, just a campus safety measure.” Ms. Thompson smiles so wide I can tell she’s uncomfortable.

“But we didn’t get these last year.”

“It’s in case someone tries to rape you,” Deanna Perkins says. “You blow the whistle to make him stop.” She brings a whistle to her lips and blows hard. The sound rings through the hallway, so satisfyingly loud we all have to try.

Ms. Thompson attempts to talk over the din. “Ok, ok.” She laughs. “I guess it’s good to make sure they work.”

“Would this seriously stop someone if he wanted to rape you?” Jenny asks.

“Nothing can stop a rapist,” Lucy Summers says.

“That’s not true,” Ms. Thompson says. “And these aren’t ‘rape’ whistles. They’re a general safety tool. If you’re ever feeling uncomfortable on campus, you just blow.”

“Do the boys get whistles?” I ask.

Lucy and Deanna roll their eyes. “Why would boys need a whistle?” Deanna asks. “Use your brain.”

At that Jenny laughs loud, as though Lucy and Deanna weren’t just rolling their eyes at her.

 

It’s the first day of classes and the campus is bustling, clapboard buildings with their windows thrown open, the staff parking lots full. At breakfast I drink black tea while perched at the end of a long Shaker-style table, my stomach too knotted to eat. My eyes dart around the cathedral-ceilinged dining hall, taking in new faces and the changes in familiar ones. I notice everything about everyone—that Margo Atherton parts her hair on the left to hide her lazy right eye, that Jeremy Rice steals a banana from the dining hall every single morning. Even before Tom Hudson started going out with Jenny, before there was a reason to care about anything he did, I’d noticed the exact rotation of band T-shirts he wore under his button-downs. It’s both creepy and out of my control, this ability I have to notice so much about other people when I’m positive no one notices anything at all about me.

The convocation speech is held after breakfast and before first period, basically a pep talk meant to propel us into the new school year. As we file in, the auditorium is all warm wood and red velvet curtains, sunlight streaming in and setting the curved rows of chairs aglow. For the first few minutes of the assembly, while the headmaster, Mrs. Giles, goes over school codes and policies, her salt-and-pepper bob tucked behind her ears and chronically shaky voice warbling out across the room, everyone looks fresh-faced and brand new. But by the time she steps offstage, the room is stuffy and foreheads have begun to jewel with sweat. A couple rows back somebody groans, “How long is this going to take?” Mrs. Antonova throws a glare over her shoulder. Beside me, Anna Shapiro fans her face with her hands. A breeze drifts in through the open windows and stirs the bottom hem of the drawn velvet curtains.

Then across the stage strides Mr. Strane, head of the English department, a teacher I recognize but have never had, never spoken to. He has wavy black hair and a black beard, glasses that reflect a glare so you can’t see his eyes, but the first thing I notice about him—the first thing anyone must notice—is his size. He’s not fat but big, broad, and so tall that his shoulders hunch as though his body wants to apologize for taking up so much space.

Standing at the podium, he has to tip the mic up as far as it will go. As he starts to speak, the sun glinting off his glasses, I reach into my backpack and check my schedule. There, my last class of the day: Honors American Lit with Mr. Strane.

“This morning I see young people on the cusp of great things.” His words boom from the speakers, everything pronounced so clearly it’s almost uncomfortable to hear: long vowels, hard consonants, like being lulled to sleep only to be jerked awake. What he says boils down to the same clichéd stuff—reach for the stars, who cares if you fall short, maybe you’ll land on the moon—but he’s a good speaker and somehow makes it seem profound.

“This academic year, resolve never to stop striving to be your best possible selves,” he says. “Challenge yourselves to make Browick a better place. Leave your mark.” He reaches then into his back pocket, pulls out a red bandanna, and uses it to wipe his forehead, revealing a dark sweat stain seeping out from his armpit.

“I’ve been a teacher at Browick for thirteen years,” he says, “and in those thirteen years, I’ve witnessed countless acts of courage from students at this school.”

I shift in my seat, aware of my own sweat on the backs of my knees and in the crooks of my elbows, and try to imagine what he means by acts of courage.

 

My fall semester schedule is Honors French, Honors Biology, AP World History, Geometry (the non-math-genius kind; even Mrs. Antonova calls it “geometry for dummies”), an elective called U.S. Politics and Media where we watch CNN and talk about the upcoming presidential election, and Honors American Literature. On the first day, I crisscross campus from class to class, weighed down with books, the workload increase from freshman to sophomore year immediately apparent. As the day wears on and each teacher warns of the challenges that lie ahead, the homework and exams and accelerated, sometimes breakneck pace—because this isn’t an ordinary school and we aren’t ordinary young people; as exceptional young people, we should embrace difficulties, should thrive on them—an exhaustion sets in. By the middle of the day, I’m struggling to keep my head up, so rather than eating during lunch, I sneak back to Gould, curl up in my bed, and cry. If it’s going to be this hard, I wonder, why even bother? That’s a bad attitude to have, especially on the first day, and it makes me wonder what I’m doing at Browick in the first place, why they gave me a scholarship, why they thought I was smart enough to be here. It’s a spiral I’ve traveled before, and every time I arrive at the same conclusion: that there’s probably something wrong with me, an inherent weakness that manifests as laziness, a fear of hard work. Besides, hardly anyone else at Browick seems to struggle like I do. They move from class to class knowing every answer, always prepared. They make it look easy.

 

When I get to American lit, the last class of the day, the first thing I notice is that Mr. Strane has changed his shirt since the convocation speech. He stands at the front of the room leaning against a chalkboard, arms folded over his chest, looking even bigger than he appeared onstage. There are ten of us in the class, including Jenny and Tom, and as we enter the room Mr. Strane’s eyes follow us, like he’s sizing us up. When Jenny comes in, I’m already sitting at the seminar table a couple seats away from Tom. His face lights up at the sight of her, and he motions for her to sit in the empty chair between us—he’s oblivious, doesn’t understand why that is absolutely out of the question. Gripping her backpack straps, Jenny gives him a terse smile.

“Let’s sit on this side instead,” she says, meaning the opposite side, meaning away from me. “It’s better over here.”

Her eyes skim past me the way they did at the dorm meeting. In a way it seems silly, putting all this effort into pretending an entire friendship never existed.

When the bell rings to signal the start of class, Mr. Strane doesn’t move. He waits for us to fall into silence before speaking. “I assume you all know each other,” he says, “but I don’t think I know all of you.”

He moves to the head of the seminar table and calls on us at random, asking our names and where we’re from. Some of us he asks other questions—do we have any siblings; where’s the farthest we’ve ever traveled; if we could choose a new name for ourselves, what would it be? He asks Jenny at what age she first fell in love and a blush takes over her whole face. Beside her, Tom turns red, too.

When it’s my turn to introduce myself, I say, “My name’s Vanessa Wye and I’m not really from anywhere.”

Mr. Strane sits back in his chair. “Vanessa Wye, not really from anywhere.”

I laugh out of nerves, from hearing how stupid my words sound when repeated back to me. “I mean, it’s a place but not really a town. It doesn’t have a name. They just call it Township Twenty-Nine.”

“Here in Maine? Out on that down east highway?” he asks. “I know exactly where that is. There’s a lake out that way that has a lovely name, Whale-something.”

I blink in surprise. “Whalesback Lake. We live right on it. We’re the only year-round house.” As I speak, an odd pang hits my heart. I hardly ever feel homesick at Browick, but maybe that’s because no one ever knows where I’m from.

“No kidding.” Mr. Strane thinks for a moment. “Do you get lonely out there?”

For a moment, I’m dumbstruck. The question slices a painless cut, shockingly clean. Even though lonely isn’t a word I’d ever used to describe how it feels living out there deep in the woods, hearing Mr. Strane say it now makes me think it must be true, probably has always been true, and suddenly I’m embarrassed, imagining that loneliness plastered all over my face, obvious enough that a teacher needs only one look to know I’m a lonely person. I manage to say, “I guess sometimes,” but Mr. Strane has already moved on, asking Greg Akers what it was like to move from Chicago to the foothills of western Maine.

Once we all introduce ourselves, Mr. Strane says his class will be the hardest we take this year. “Most students tell me I’m the toughest teacher at Browick,” he says. “I’ve had some say I’m tougher than their college professors.” He drums his fingers against the table and lets the gravity of this information settle onto us. Then he walks to the chalkboard, grabs a piece of chalk, and begins to write. Over his shoulder, he says, “You should already be taking notes.”

We scramble for our notebooks as he launches into a lecture about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the poem “The Song of Hiawatha,” which I’ve never heard of, and I can’t be the only one, but when he asks the class if we’re familiar with it, we all nod. No one wants to look stupid.

While he lectures, I sneak glances around the room. The bones of it are the same as all the others in the humanities building—hardwood floors, a wall of built-in bookcases, green chalkboards, a seminar table—but his classroom feels lived-in and comfortable. There’s a rug with a worn path down its center, a big oak desk lit by a green banker’s lamp, a coffeemaker and a mug with the Harvard seal sitting atop a filing cabinet. The smell of cut grass and the sound of a car engine starting drift in through the open window, and at the chalkboard Mr. Strane writes a line from Longfellow with such intensity the chalk crumbles in his hand. At one point, he stops, turns to us, and says, “If there’s one thing you take away from this class, it should be that the world is made of endlessly intersecting stories, each one valid and true.” I do my best to copy down everything he says word for word.

With five minutes left of class, the lecture suddenly stops. Mr. Strane’s hands drop to his sides, his shoulders slump. Abandoning the chalkboard, he sits at the seminar table, rubs his face, and heaves a sigh. Then in a weary voice he says, “The first day is always so long.”

Around the table, we wait, unsure what to do, our pens hovering above our notebooks.

He drops his hands from his face. “I’ll be honest with you all,” he says. “I’m fucking tired.”

Across the table, Jenny laughs in surprise. Sometimes teachers joke around in class, but I’ve never heard one say “fuck.” It never occurred to me that a teacher could.

“Do you mind if I use four-letter words?” he asks. “I guess I should have gotten your permission first.” He clasps his hands together, sarcastically sincere. “If my use of colorful language truly offends anyone here, speak now or forever hold your peace.”

No one, of course, says anything.

*  *  *

The first few weeks of the year pass quickly, a succession of classes, breakfasts of black tea and lunches of peanut butter sandwiches, study hours in the library, evenings of WB shows in the Gould common room. I get detention for skipping a dorm meeting, but convince Ms. Thompson to let me walk her dog rather than sit with her in the dorm study for an hour, something neither of us wants to do. I spend most mornings before class finishing last-minute homework, because no matter how hard I try, I’m always scrambling, always on the brink of falling behind. Teachers insist this is something I should be able to fix; they say I’m smart but unfocused and unmotivated, slightly nicer ways of saying I’m lazy.

Within a matter of days after moving in, my room turns into a mess of clothes, loose papers, and half-drunk mugs of tea. I lose the day planner that was supposed to help me stay on top of things, but that’s to be expected because I lose everything. At least once a week, I open my door to find my keys hanging from the knob, left by whoever found them in a bathroom or classroom or dining hall. I can’t keep track of anything—textbooks end up wedged between my bed and the wall, homework smashed at the bottom of my backpack. Teachers are forever exasperated at my crumpled assignments, reminding me of the points they’ll take off for messiness.

“You need an organization system!” my AP history teacher cries as I flip frantically through my textbook for the notes I’d taken the day before. “It’s only the second week. How can you be so muddled already?” That I eventually find the notes doesn’t negate his point: I am sloppy, which is a sign of weakness, a serious character flaw.

At Browick teachers and their advisees have dinner together once a month, traditionally at the teacher’s house, but my advisor, Mrs. Antonova, never invites us over. “I must have boundaries,” she says. “Not all teachers agree with me, that’s ok. They have students all over their lives, that’s ok. But not me. We go somewhere, we eat, talk a little bit, then we all go home. Boundaries.”

On our first meeting of the year, she takes us to the Italian restaurant downtown. As I’m concentrating on winding linguine around my fork, Mrs. Antonova notes that lack of organization is my most urgent faculty feedback topic. I try not to sound too dismissive when I say I’ll work on it. She goes around the table telling all her advisees their feedback points. No one else has organization issues, but mine isn’t the worst; Kyle Guinn hasn’t turned in assignments in two of his classes, a serious offense. When Mrs. Antonova reads his feedback, the rest of us stare down at our pasta, relieved we aren’t as bad off as him. At the end of dinner, our plates cleared, she passes around a tin of homemade doughnut holes with cherry filling.

“These are pampushky,” she says. “Ukrainian, like my mother.”

As we leave the restaurant and head back up the hill to campus, Mrs. Antonova falls into step beside me. “I forgot to say, Vanessa, you should do an extracurricular this year. Maybe more than one. You must think about college applications. Right now, you look flimsy.” She starts making suggestions and I nod along. I know I need to get involved more and I have tried—last week I went to join the French club but promptly left when I realized its members wore little black berets during every meeting.

“What about the creative writing club?” she says. “It would fit you, with your poetry.”

I’ve thought about that, too. The creative writing club puts out a literary journal, and last year, I read it cover to cover, compared my poems with the published ones, and tried to be objective as I decided whose were better. “Yeah, maybe,” I say.

She touches her hand to my shoulder. “Think about it,” she says. “Mr. Strane is the faculty advisor this year. He’s smart on the subject.”

Looking over her shoulder, she claps and calls out something in Russian to the stragglers lagging behind, which, for whatever reason, is more effective than English at getting us to hurry up.

 

The creative writing club has one other member, Jesse Ly—a junior, Browick’s closest thing to a goth, rumored to be gay. When I walk into the classroom, he sits at the seminar table in front of a stack of papers, his combat boots propped up on a chair, a pen tucked behind his ear. He glances at me but says nothing. I doubt he even knows my name.

Mr. Strane, though, jumps up from behind his desk and strides across the room to me. “Here for the club?” he asks.

I open my mouth, unsure what to say. If I’d known there would be only one other person I probably wouldn’t have come. I want to back out right then, but Mr. Strane is too delighted, shaking my hand and saying, “You’re going to increase our membership by one hundred percent,” so it feels like I can’t change my mind.

He leads me to the seminar table, sits beside me, explains that the stack of papers contains submissions for the lit journal. “It’s all student work,” he says. “Do your best to ignore the names. Read each one carefully, all the way through, before you make a decision.” He says I should write my comments in the margins, then assign each submission a number from one to five, one being a definite no and five a definite yes.

Without looking up, Jesse says, “I’ve been doing checks. It’s what we used last year.” He gestures to the papers he’s already gone through; on the upper right corner of each there’s a tiny check, check-minus, or check-plus. Mr. Strane raises his eyebrows, obviously annoyed, but Jesse doesn’t notice. His eyes are fixed on the poem he’s reading.

“Whatever method you two decide on is fine,” Mr. Strane says. He smiles at me, winks. As he gets up, he pats my shoulder.

With Mr. Strane across the classroom, back behind his desk, I pull a submission from the stack, a short story titled “The Worst Day of Her Life,” by Zoe Green. Zoe was in my algebra class last year. She sat behind me and laughed whenever Seth McLeod called me Big Red as though it were the funniest thing she’d ever heard. I shake my head and try to push the bias out of my mind. This is why Mr. Strane said not to look at the names.

Her story is about a girl in a hospital waiting room whose grandmother dies, and I’m bored by the end of the first paragraph. Jesse catches me flipping to check how many pages there are and in a low voice says, “You really don’t have to read the whole thing if it’s bad. I edited the lit journal last year when Mrs. Bloom was the faculty advisor and she didn’t care.”

My eyes dart to Mr. Strane sitting behind his desk, bent over his own stack of papers. Shrugging, I say, “I’ll keep reading. It’s ok.”

Jesse squints at the page in my hands. “Zoe Green? Isn’t that the girl who lost it during the debate tournament last year?” It was—Zoe, assigned to argue for the death penalty, broke down in tears during the final round when her opponent, Jackson Kelly, called her position racist and immoral, which probably wouldn’t have rattled her so badly if Jackson weren’t black. After Jackson was declared the tournament winner, Zoe said she’d felt personally attacked by his rebuttal, which was against the debate rules, so they ended up sharing first place, which was bullshit and everyone knew it.

Jesse leans forward and pulls Zoe’s story out of my hands, marks a check-minus on the right-hand corner, and tosses it in the “no” pile. “Voilà,” he says.

For the rest of the hour while Jesse and I read, Mr. Strane grades papers at his desk at the back of the room, occasionally leaving to make photocopies or get water for the coffeemaker. At one point, he peels an orange and its scent fills the room. At the end of the hour, as I stand to leave, Mr. Strane asks if I’ll come to the next meeting.

“I’m not sure,” I say. “I’m still trying out different things.”

He smiles and waits until Jesse leaves the room before saying, “I guess this doesn’t offer much for you socially.”

“Oh, that doesn’t bother me,” I say. “I’m not exactly a super social person anyway.”

“Why’s that?”

“I don’t know. I guess I just don’t have a ton of friends.”

He nods thoughtfully. “I understand what you mean. I like to be by myself, too.”

My first impulse is to say no, I don’t like being by myself at all, but maybe he’s right. Maybe I’m actually a loner by choice, preferring my own company.

“Well, I used to be best friends with Jenny Murphy,” I say. “From English class.” The words tumble out, catch me off guard. It’s more than I’ve ever told a teacher, especially a man, but the way he watches me—soft-eyed smile, chin resting on his hand—makes me want to talk, to show myself off.

“Ah,” he says. “The little Queen of the Nile.” When I frown, confused, he explains that he means her bobbed haircut, that it makes her look like Cleopatra, and as he says this, I feel a prick of something in my stomach, like jealousy but meaner.

“I don’t think her hair looks that good,” I say.

Mr. Strane smirks. “So you used to be friends. What changed?”

“She started going out with Tom Hudson.”

He thinks for a moment. “The boy with the sideburns.”

I nod, thinking of how teachers must recognize and categorize us in their minds. I wonder what he might associate with me if someone mentioned Vanessa Wye. The girl with the red hair. That girl who is always alone.

“So you suffered a betrayal,” he says, meaning by Jenny.

It’s something I haven’t considered before and warmth fills my chest at the idea. I suffered. It wasn’t that I drove her away by feeling too much or getting too attached. No, I was wronged.

He gets up and walks to the chalkboard, starts erasing the notes left over from class. “What made you want to try out the club? Weak spot on your résumé?”

I nod; it seems ok to be honest with him. “Mrs. Antonova said I should. I do like to write, though.”

“What do you write?”

“Poems, mostly. They’re not good or anything.”

Mr. Strane smiles over his shoulder in a way that is somehow both kind and condescending. “I’d like to read some of your work.”

My brain catches on the way he says “your work,” as though the things I write are worth taking seriously. “Sure,” I say. “If you really want to.”

“I do want to,” he says. “I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t.”

At that, I feel my face flush. My worst habit, according to my mother, is how I deflect compliments with self-deprecation. I need to learn how to accept praise. It boils down to confidence, she says, or lack thereof.

Mr. Strane sets the eraser on the chalk rail and contemplates me from across the room. He slips his hands into his pockets, looks me up and down.

“That’s a nice dress,” he says. “I like your style.”

I mumble thank you, manners instilled so deep they’re reflexive, and look down at my dress. It’s hunter-green jersey, vaguely A-line but mostly shapeless, and ends above the knee. It’s not stylish; I only wear it because I like the contrast in color against my hair. It seems strange for a middle-aged man to notice girl clothes. My dad barely knows the difference between a dress and a skirt.

Mr. Strane turns back to the chalkboard and starts erasing again even though it’s already clean. It almost seems like he’s embarrassed, and part of me wants to thank him again, sincerely this time. Thank you very much, I could say. No one has ever said that to me before. I wait for him to turn back around, but he keeps swiping the eraser back and forth, cloudy streaks across a green expanse.

Then, as I edge toward the doorway, he says, “I hope I see you again on Thursday.”

“Oh, sure,” I say. “You will.”

So I go again on Thursday, and the next Tuesday, and the next Thursday. I become an official member of the club. It takes Jesse and me longer than expected to finish choosing pieces for the lit journal, mostly because I’m so indecisive, going back and changing my vote multiple times. Meanwhile Jesse’s judgment is swift and ruthless, his pen slicing across the page. When I ask him how he can decide so quickly, he says it should be obvious from the first line if something is good or not. One Thursday, Mr. Strane disappears into the office behind his classroom and comes out with a stack of back issues so we can understand what the journal is supposed to look like, even though Jesse was the editor last year so of course he already knows. Thumbing through an issue, I see Jesse’s name listed in the table of contents under “Fiction.”

“Hey, there’s you,” I say.

At the sight of it, he groans. “Don’t read it in front of me, please.”

“Why not?” I skim the first page.

“Because I don’t want you to.”

I slip the issue into my backpack and forget about it until after dinner, when I’m drowning in incomprehensible geometry homework, eager for a distraction. I take the journal and turn to his story, read it twice. It’s good, really good, better than anything I’ve ever written, better than any of the submissions we read for the journal. When I try to tell him this at the next club meeting, he cuts me off. “Writing isn’t really my thing anymore,” he says.

Another afternoon, Mr. Strane shows us how to use the new publishing software to format the issue. Jesse and I sit side by side at the computer while Mr. Strane stands behind us, watching and correcting. At one point when I make a mistake, he reaches down and guides the mouse for me, his hand so big it covers mine completely. His touch makes my whole body go hot. When I make another mistake, he does it again, this time squeezing my hand a little, as though to reassure me that I’ll get the hang of it, but he doesn’t do the same to Jesse, not even when he accidentally x-es out without saving and Mr. Strane has to explain the steps all over again.

 

Late September arrives and for a week the weather is perfect, sunny and cool. Each morning the leaves are brighter, turning the rolling mountains around Norumbega into a mess of color. Campus looks like it did in the brochure I obsessed over as I filled out my Browick application—students in sweaters, the lawns a brilliant green, golden hour setting white clapboard aglow. I should enjoy it, but instead the weather makes me restless, panicked. After classes I’m unable to settle down, moving from the library to the Gould common area to my dorm room and back to the library. Everywhere makes me antsy to be someplace else.

One afternoon I loop through campus three times, unsatisfied with all the places I try—the library too dark, my messy dorm room too depressing, everywhere else crowded with people studying in groups that only highlight me being alone, always alone—before I force myself to stop at the grassy slope behind the humanities building. Calm down, breathe.

I lean against the solitary maple tree that my eyes drift to during English class and touch the back of my hand to my hot cheeks. I’m so worked up I’m sweating, and it’s only fifty degrees.

This is fine, I think. Just work here and calm down.

I sit with my back against the tree and reach into my backpack, feeling past my geometry textbook to my spiral notebook, thinking I’ll feel better if I work on a poem first, but when I open to my latest one, a couple of stanzas about a girl trapped on an island who calls sailors to shore, I read over the lines and realize they’re bad—clumsy, disjointed, practically incoherent. And I thought these lines were good. How did I think they were good? They’re blatantly bad. Probably all my poems are bad. I curl into myself and grind the heels of my hands against my eyelids until I hear footsteps approach, crunching leaves and cracking twigs. I look up and a towering silhouette blocks out the sun.

“Hello there,” it says.

I shield my eyes—Mr. Strane. His expression changes when he notices my face, my red-rimmed eyes. “You’re upset,” he says.

Gazing up at him, I nod. There doesn’t seem to be any use in lying.

“Would you rather be left alone?” he asks.

I hesitate, then shake my head no.

He lowers himself to the ground beside me, leaving a few feet between us. His long legs are stretched out, the outline of his knees visible beneath his trousers. He keeps his eyes on me, watches as I wipe my eyes.

“I didn’t mean to impose. I spied you from the window there, thought I’d say hello.” He points behind us, to the humanities building. “Can I ask what’s upsetting you?”

I take a breath, try to work out the words, but after a moment I shake my head. “It’s too big to explain,” I say. Because it’s about more than my poem being bad, or that I can’t pick a study spot without exhausting myself. It’s a darker feeling, a fear of there being something wrong with me that I won’t ever be able to fix.

I expect Mr. Strane to let it go at that. Instead, he waits the same way he’d wait in class for a response to a tough question. Of course it seems too big to explain, Vanessa. That’s how hard questions are meant to make you feel.

Taking a breath, I say, “This time of year just makes me feel nuts. Like I’m running out of time or something. Like I’m wasting my life.”

Mr. Strane blinks. I can tell this isn’t what he expected me to say. “Wasting your life,” he echoes.

“I know that doesn’t make sense.”

“No, it does. It makes perfect sense.” He leans back on his hands, tilts his head. “You know, if you were my age, I’d say it sounds like you’re in the beginning of a midlife crisis.”

He smiles and, without meaning to, my face mirrors him. He grins, I grin.

“It looked like you were writing,” he says. “Were you getting good work done?”

I lift my shoulders, unsure if I want to call my writing good. It seems boastful, not for me to say.

“Would you show me what you’ve written?”

“No way.” I clutch my notebook in my hands, hold it closer to my chest, and in his eyes I see a flash of alarm, like my sudden movement has scared him. I steady myself and add, “It’s just not finished.”

“Is writing ever really finished?”

That feels like a trick question. I think for a moment, then say, “Some writing can be more finished than other writing.”

He smiles; he likes that. “Do you have something more finished you can show me?”

I loosen my grip and open the notebook’s front cover. It’s full of mostly half-finished poems, lines scrawled out and rewritten. I thumb through recent pages to find the one I’ve been working on for a couple weeks. It isn’t finished, but it isn’t terrible. I hand him the notebook, hoping he won’t notice the doodles in the margins, the flowering vine crawling along the spine.

He holds the notebook carefully in both hands, and just seeing that, my notebook in his hands, sends a jolt through me. No one else has ever touched my notebook before, let alone read anything in it. At the end of the poem, he says, “Huh.” I wait for a clearer reaction, for him to let me know if he thinks it’s good or not, but he only says, “I’m going to read it again.”

When he finally looks up and says, “Vanessa, this is lovely,” I exhale so loudly, I laugh. “How long did you work on this?” he asks.

Thinking it’s more impressive to come across as an instantaneous genius, I shrug out a lie. “Not long.”

“You said you write often.” He hands the notebook back to me.

“Every day, usually.”

“It shows. You’re very good. I say that as a reader, not a teacher.”

I’m so delighted, I laugh again, and Mr. Strane smiles his tender-condescending smile. “Is that funny?” he asks.

“No, that’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said about my writing.”

“You’re kidding. That’s nothing. I could say much nicer things.”

“It’s just I never really let anyone read my . . .” I almost say stuff but instead try out the word he used. “My work.”

A silence settles between us. He leans back on his hands and studies the view: the picturesque downtown, distant river, and rolling hills. I look back to my notebook, eyes turned down at its pages but seeing nothing. I’m too aware of his body next to mine, his sloping torso and stomach straining against his shirt, long legs crossed at the ankle, how one of his pant legs has bunched up, revealing a half inch of skin above his hiking boot. Worried he might get up and leave, I try to think of something to say to keep him here, but before I can, he plucks a fallen red maple leaf off the ground, spins it by its stem, considers it for a moment, and then holds it up to my face.

“Look at that,” he says. “It matches your hair perfectly.”

I freeze, feel my mouth fall open. He holds the maple leaf there a beat longer, its points brushing against my hair. Then, shaking his head a little, he drops his hand and the leaf falls to the ground. He stands—again blocking out the sun—wipes his hands on his thighs, and walks back to the humanities building without saying goodbye.

When he disappears, a mania seizes me, a need to flee. I snap my notebook shut, grab my backpack, and start off toward the dorm, but then think better and double back to scan the ground for the exact leaf he held up to my hair. Once it’s safe, tucked between the pages of my notebook, I move across campus as though airborne, barely making contact with the earth between strides. It isn’t until I’m back in my room that I remember he said he saw me from his window, and I squeeze my eyes shut against the thought of him back in the classroom, watching me search for the leaf.

 

I go home the next weekend for Dad’s birthday. Mom’s gift to him is a yellow Labrador puppy from the shelter, the reason for owner surrender listed as “pigment too pale.” Dad names the puppy Babe, after the pig movie, because she looks like a piglet with her fat belly and pink nose. Our last dog died over the summer, a twelve-year-old shepherd Dad found as a stray in town, so we’ve never had a puppy before, and I fall in love so hard I carry her around all weekend like a baby, rubbing her jelly-bean paw pads and smelling her sweet breath.

At night after my parents go to bed, I stand in front of my bedroom mirror, study my face and hair and try to see myself as Mr. Strane sees me, a girl with maple-red hair who wears nice dresses and has good style, but I can’t get past the sight of myself as a pale, freckled child.

When Mom and I drive back to Browick, Dad stays home with Babe, and in the closed-off space of the car, my chest burns from wanting to tell. But what is there to tell? He touched my hand a couple times, said something about my hair?

As we drive across the bridge into town, I ask in my most casual voice, “Have you ever noticed my hair is the color of maple leaves?”

Mom looks over at me, surprised. “Well, there are different kinds of maple,” she says, “and they all turn different colors in the fall. There’s sugar, there’s striped, there’s red. And depending how north you are, there’s mountain maple—”

“Never mind. Forget it.”

“Since when are you interested in trees?”

“I was talking about my hair, not trees.”

She asks who told me my hair looked like maple leaves, but she doesn’t sound suspicious. Her voice is soft, like she thinks it’s sweet.

“No one,” I say.

“Someone must have said it to you.”

“I can’t notice something like that about myself?”

We stop at a red light. On the radio, a voice reads the top-of-the-hour news headlines.

“If I tell you,” I say, “you have to promise not to overreact.”

“I would never.”

I give her a long look. “Promise.”

“All right,” she says. “I promise.”

I take a breath. “A teacher said it to me. That my hair is the color of red maple leaves.” There’s a giddy relief as I say the words; I nearly let out a laugh.

Mom narrows her eyes. “A teacher?” she asks.

“Mom, watch the road.”

“Was it a man?”

“What does it matter?”

“A teacher shouldn’t be saying that to you. Who was it?”

“Mom.”

“I want to know.”

“You promised you wouldn’t overreact.”

She presses her lips together, as though to calm herself. “It’s a strange thing to tell a fifteen-year-old girl, that’s all I’m saying.”

We drive through town: blocks of Victorian mansions fallen into disrepair and broken up into apartments, the empty downtown, the sprawling hospital, the grinning Paul Bunyan statue who, with his black hair and beard, looks a little like Mr. Strane.

“It was a man,” I say. “You really think it’s weird?”

“Yes,” Mom says. “I really do. Do you want me to talk to someone? I’ll go in there and cause a scene.”

I picture her storming into the administration building, demanding to talk to the headmaster. I shake my head. No, I don’t want that. “It was just a random thing he said,” I say. “It really wasn’t a big deal.”

With that, Mom relaxes a little. “Who was it?” she asks again. “I won’t do anything. I just want to know.”

“My politics teacher.” I don’t even hesitate in the lie. “Mr. Sheldon.”

“Mr. Sheldon.” She spits it out like it’s the stupidest name she’s ever heard. “You shouldn’t be hanging out with teachers anyway. Focus on making friends.”

I watch the road pass by. We could take the interstate to Browick, but Mom refuses, says it’s a racetrack full of angry people. She drives a two-lane highway instead that takes twice as long.

“There’s nothing wrong with me, you know.”

She glances over, her brow furrowed.

“I prefer to be by myself. It’s normal. You shouldn’t give me such a hard time about it.”

“I’m not giving you a hard time,” she says, but we both know that’s not true. After a moment, she adds, “I’m sorry. I just worry about you.”

We hardly talk for the rest of the drive, and as I stare out the window, I can’t help but feel like I’ve won.

 

I’m sitting at a study carrel in the library, geometry homework spread out before me. I’m trying to concentrate, but my brain feels like a rock skipping over water. Or, no—like a rock rattling around in a tin can. I take out my notebook to jot down the line and get distracted by the island girl poem I’m still working on. When I next look up, an hour has passed, and my geometry homework is still untouched.

I rub my face, pick up my pencil, and try to work, but within minutes I’m gazing out the window. It’s the golden hour, light setting the fiery trees ablaze. Boys in soccer jerseys with cleats slung over their shoulders head back from the fields. Two girls carry violin cases like backpacks, their twin ponytails swinging with each step.

Then I see Ms. Thompson and Mr. Strane walking together toward the humanities building. They move slowly, taking their time, Mr. Strane with his hands clasped behind his back and Ms. Thompson smiling, touching her face. I try to remember if I’ve seen them together before, try to decide if Ms. Thompson is pretty. She has blue eyes and black hair, a combination my mother always calls striking, but she’s chubby and her butt sticks out like a shelf. It’s the sort of body I’m afraid I’ll grow up to have if I’m not careful.

I squint across the distance to gather more details. They’re close but not touching. At one point, Ms. Thompson tips her head back and laughs. Is Mr. Strane funny? He hasn’t ever made me laugh. Pressing my face against the window, I try to keep them in my sight, but they round a corner and disappear behind the orange leaves of an oak tree.

 

We take PSATs and I do ok but not as well as most other sophomores, who start receiving Ivy League brochures in their mailboxes. I buy another day planner to help with my organization, which gets noticed by my teachers and passed on to Mrs. Antonova, who gives me a tin of hazelnut candies for a job well done.

In English we read Walt Whitman and Mr. Strane talks about the idea that people contain multitudes and contradictions. I begin to pay attention to the ways he seems to contradict himself, how he went to Harvard but tells stories about growing up poor, the way he sprinkles eloquent speech with obscenities and pairs tailored blazers and ironed shirts with scuffed hiking boots. His teaching style is contradictory, too. Speaking up in class always feels risky, because if he likes what you say, he’ll clap and bound over to the chalkboard to elaborate on the brilliant comment you made, but if he doesn’t like it, he won’t even let you finish—he cuts you off with an “Ok, that’s enough” that slices to the bone. It makes me scared to talk even though sometimes after he asks the class an open-ended question, he’ll stare straight at me, like he wants to know specifically what I have to say.

In the margins of my class notes, I keep track of the details he lets slip about himself: he grew up in Butte, Montana, pronounced like cute; before going to Harvard at eighteen, he’d never seen the ocean; he lives in downtown Norumbega, across from the public library; he doesn’t like dogs, was mauled by one as a boy. One Tuesday after creative writing club, when Jesse is already out the door and halfway down the hall, Mr. Strane says he has something for me. He opens the bottom drawer of his desk and takes out a book.

“Is this for class?” I ask.

“No,” he says. “It’s for you.” He walks around the desk, puts the book in my hands: Ariel, by Sylvia Plath. “Have you read her?”

I shake my head, turn the book over. It’s worn, with a blue cloth cover. A scrap of paper sticks out between the pages as a makeshift bookmark.

“She’s a bit overdone,” Mr. Strane says. “But young women love her.”

I don’t know what he means by “overdone” but don’t want to ask. I flip through the book—flashes of poems—and stop at the bookmarked page; the title “Lady Lazarus” is capitalized in bold. “Why is this one marked?” I ask.

“Let me show you.”

Mr. Strane comes up beside me, turns the page. Standing so close to him feels like being swallowed; my head doesn’t reach his shoulder.

“Here.” He points to the lines:

Out of the ash

I rise with my red hair

And I eat men like air.

He says, “That reminded me of you.” Then he reaches behind me and tugs on my ponytail.

I stare at the book as though I’m studying the poem, but the stanzas blur to black smears on a yellow page. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do in response. It feels like I should laugh. I wonder if this is flirting, but it can’t be. Flirting is supposed to be fun and this is too heavy for fun.

In a quiet voice, Mr. Strane asks, “Is it ok that it reminded me of you?”

I lick my lips, lift my shoulders. “Sure.”

“Because the last thing I want is to overstep.”

Overstep. I’m not sure what he means by that, either, but the way he gazes down at me stops me from asking any questions. He suddenly seems both embarrassed and hopeful, like if I told him this wasn’t ok, he might start to cry.

So I smile, shake my head. “You’re not.”

He exhales. “Good,” he says, moving away from me, back to his desk. “Give it a read and let me know what you think. Maybe you’ll be inspired to write a poem or two.”

I leave the classroom and go straight to Gould, where I get into bed and read Ariel all the way through. I like the poems, but I’m more interested in figuring out why they reminded him of me and when this reminding might’ve happened—the afternoon with the leaf, maybe? Maple-red hair. I wonder how long he had this book in his desk drawer, if he waited awhile to decide whether to give it to me. Maybe he had to work up the courage.

I take the scrap of paper he used to mark “Lady Lazarus” and write in neat cursive, I rise with my red hair, then pin it to the corkboard above my desk. Adults are the only ones who ever say anything nice about my hair, but this is more than him being nice. He thinks about me. He thinks about me so much, certain things remind him of me. That means something.

I wait a few days before I return Ariel, dawdling at the end of class until everyone else leaves and then sliding the book onto his desk.

“Well?” He leans forward on his elbows, eager to hear what I have to say.

I hesitate, scrunch my nose. “She’s kind of self-absorbed.”

He laughs at that—a real laugh. “That’s fair. And I appreciate your honesty.”

“But I liked it,” I say. “Especially the one you marked.”

“I thought you would.” He steps over to the built-in bookcases, scans the shelves. “Here,” he says, handing me another book—Emily Dickinson. “Let’s see what you think of this.”

I don’t wait to give him back the Dickinson. The next day after class, I drop the book onto his desk and say, “Not a fan.”

“You’re kidding.”

“It was kind of boring.”

“Boring!” He presses his palm over his chest. “Vanessa, you’re breaking my heart.”

“You said you appreciated my honesty,” I say with a laugh.

“I do,” he says. “I just appreciate it more when I’m in agreement with it.”

The next book he gives me is by Edna St. Vincent Millay, who is, according to Mr. Strane, the furthest thing from boring. “And she was a red-haired girl from Maine,” he says, “just like you.”

I carry his books with me, reading them whenever I can, every spare few minutes and through every meal. I start to realize the point isn’t really whether I like the books; it’s more about him giving me different lenses to see myself through. The poems are clues to help me understand why he’s so interested, what it is exactly that he sees in me.

His attention makes me brave enough to show him drafts of my poems when he asks to read more of my work, and he returns them with critiques—not just praise but real suggestions for making the writing better. He circles words I’m already unsure about and writes, Best choice? Other words he crosses out altogether and writes, You could do better. On a poem I wrote in the middle of the night, after waking from a dream set in a place that seemed a mix of his classroom and my bedroom back home, he writes, Vanessa, this one scares me a little.

I start spending faculty service hour in his classroom, studying at the seminar table while he works at his desk and the windows drape October light over us both. Sometimes other students come in for help on assignments, but most of the time it’s only us. He asks me questions about myself, about growing up on Whalesback Lake, what I think of Browick, and what I want to do once I’m older. He says that for me the sky is the limit, that I possess a rare kind of intelligence, something that can’t be measured in grades or test scores.

“I worry sometimes about students like you,” he says. “Ones who come from tiny towns with run-down schools. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and lost at a place like this. But you’re doing ok, aren’t you?”

I nod yes but wonder what he’s imagining when he says “run-down.” My old middle school wasn’t that bad.

“Just remember,” he says, “you’re special. You have something these dime-a-dozen overachievers can only dream of.” When he says “dime-a-dozen overachievers,” he gestures at the empty seats around the seminar table and I think of Jenny—her obsession with grades, how I once walked into our room to find her sobbing in bed with her boots still on, rock salt on her sheets, her precalculus midterm crumpled on the floor. She’d gotten an 88. Jenny, that’s still a B, I’d said, but it did nothing to console her. She just rolled toward the wall, hiding her face with her hands as she cried.

Another afternoon while he’s typing up lesson plans, Mr. Strane says out of nowhere, “I wonder what they think about you spending so much time with me.” I don’t know who he means by “they”—other students or teachers, or maybe he means everyone, reducing the entire world down to a collective other.

“I wouldn’t worry about it,” I say.

“Why’s that?”

“Because no one ever notices anything I do.”

“That isn’t true,” he says. “I notice you all the time.”

I look up from my notebook. He’s stopped typing, his fingers resting on top of the keys as he gazes at me, his face so tender it turns my body cold.

After that I imagine him watching me when I’m bleary-eyed at breakfast, when I’m walking downtown, when I’m alone in my room, pulling the elastic from my ponytail and crawling into bed with the latest book he chose for me. In my mind he watches me turn the pages, transfixed by every little thing I do.

 

Parents’ weekend arrives, three days of Browick putting its best foot forward. Friday is a parents-only cocktail hour followed by a school-wide formal dinner in the dining hall with food that never otherwise appears on the menu: roast beef, fingerling potatoes, warm blueberry pie. Parent-teacher conferences are Saturday before lunch, then home games are in the afternoon, and parents who stay until Sunday go downtown in the morning, either to church or out to brunch. Last year mine came to everything, even to Mass on Sunday, but this year Mom tells me, “Vanessa, if we sit through all that stuff again, Dad and I are going to lose our will to live,” so they come only Saturday for the conferences. It’s fine; Browick is my world, not theirs. They’d probably vote Republican before they’d put one of those i’m a browick parent bumper stickers on their car.

After the conferences, they come see my room, Dad in his Red Sox hat and buffalo check flannel and Mom trying to counterbalance him with her sweater set. He wanders around the room, inspecting the bookshelves, while she reclines next to me on the bed and tries to hold my hand.

“Don’t,” I say as I wrench my hand away.

“Then let me smell your neck,” she says. “I’ve missed your scent.”

I lift my shoulder to my ear to ward her off. “That’s so weird, Mom,” I say. “That’s not normal.” Last winter break, she asked if she could have my favorite scarf so she could store it in a box and take it out to smell when she missed me. It’s the sort of thought I have to push out of my head immediately because otherwise I feel so guilty I can’t breathe.

Mom starts describing the conferences, and all I want to know is what Mr. Strane said, but I wait until she works her way through the list of teachers because I don’t want to raise suspicion by showing too much interest.

Finally, she says, “Now, your English teacher seems like an interesting man.”

“Was that the big bearded guy?” Dad asks.

“Yes, the one who went to Harvard,” she says, drawing out the word. Hah-vahd. I wonder how it came up, if Mr. Strane somehow dropped into the conversation the fact that he’d gone there or if my parents noticed the diploma hanging on the wall behind his desk.

Mom says again, “A very interesting man.”

“What do you mean?” I ask. “What did he say?”

“He said you wrote a good essay last week.”

“That’s all?”

“Should he have said more?”

I bite down on the inside of my cheek, mortified at the thought of him talking about me as though I were just another student. She wrote a good essay last week. Maybe that’s all I am to him.

Mom says, “You know who I was not impressed by? That politics teacher, Mr. Sheldon.” Shooting me a pointed look, she adds, “He seemed like a real asshole.”

“Jan, come on,” Dad says. He hates it when she swears in front of me.

I push myself off the bed and throw open my closet door, fuss around with my clothes so I won’t have to look at them while they debate whether they should stay on campus for dinner or head back home before dark.

“Would you mind awful if we don’t stay for dinner?” they ask. I stare at my hanging clothes and mumble that it doesn’t matter. When I give them my usual brusque goodbye, I try not to get annoyed when Mom’s eyes tear up.

 

On the Friday before our big Whitman paper is due, Mr. Strane goes around the seminar table and calls on us at random to share our thesis statements. He gives us immediate feedback, deeming our theses either “good but needs work” or “scrap it and start over,” and in the process anxiety dissolves us all. Tom Hudson gets “scrap it and start over,” and for a second I think he might cry, but when Jenny gets “good but needs work,” she really does blink back tears and part of me wants to run around the table, throw my arms around her, and tell Mr. Strane to leave her alone. When we get to my thesis, he says it’s perfect.

There’s still fifteen minutes left of class after everyone is evaluated, so Mr. Strane tells us to use the rest of the period to fix our theses. I sit, unsure what to do since he called mine perfect as is, and from behind his desk he calls my name. He holds up the poem I gave him at the beginning of class and gestures for me to come to his desk. “Let’s have a conference on this,” he says. I stand and my chair scrapes against the floor just as Jenny drops her pencil to shake a cramp out of her hand. For a moment our eyes lock, and I feel her watch me walk to his desk.

I sit in the chair next to Mr. Strane and see my poem doesn’t have any marks in the margins. “Come a little closer so we can talk quietly,” he says, and before I can move, he hooks his fingers around the backrest of my chair and wheels me right beside him so we’re less than a foot apart.

If anyone wonders what he and I are doing, they don’t show it. Around the seminar table, everyone’s head is ducked in concentration. It’s as though they’re in one world, and Mr. Strane and I are in another. With the heel of his hand, he presses the crease out of my poem from where I folded it and begins to read. He’s so close I can smell him—coffee and chalk dust—and as he reads I watch his hands, his flat bitten-down nails, dark hair on his wrists. I wonder why he offered to have a conference if he hadn’t yet read the poem. I wonder what he thought of my parents, if he thought they were hicks, Dad in his flannel and Mom clutching her purse to her chest. Oh, you went to Harvard, they must have said, their accents opening up in awe.

Pointing his pen at the page, Mr. Strane whispers, “Nessa, I have to ask, did you mean to sound sexy here?”

My eyes dart to the lines he’s pointing at:

Violet-bellied & mild, she stirs in her sleep,

kicking back blankets with chipped polish toes,

yawning wide to let him peer inside her.

The question makes me split off from myself, like my body stays beside his while my brain retreats to the seminar table. No one has ever called me sexy before, and only my parents call me Nessa. I wonder if they called me that during the conference. Maybe Mr. Strane noted the nickname and tucked it away for himself.

Did I mean to sound sexy? “I don’t know.”

He backs away from me, a tiny movement but one I feel, and he says, “I don’t mean to embarrass you.”

This, I realize, is a test. He wants to see my reaction to being called sexy, and embarrassment means I failed. So I shake my head. “I’m not embarrassed.”

He reads on, writes an exclamation point next to another line and whispers, more to himself than to me, “Oh, that is lovely.”

Somewhere down the hallway, a door slams. At the seminar table, Gregg Akers cracks his knuckles one at a time and Jenny drags her eraser back and forth over the thesis statement she just can’t get right. My eyes drift to the windows and spot something red. Squinting, I see a balloon, its string caught on a bare branch of the maple tree. It floats in the breeze, knocking against leaves and bark. Where would a balloon even come from? I stare at it for what feels like a long time, so focused I don’t even blink.

Then Mr. Strane’s knee touches my bare thigh, right below the hemline of my skirt. With his eyes still on the poem and the tip of his pen following the lines, his knee nestles against me. I freeze, possum-dead. At the seminar table, nine heads bow in concentration. Out the window, a red balloon hangs limp from a tree limb.

At first I assume he doesn’t realize, that he thinks my leg is the desk or the side of the chair. I wait for him to recognize what he’s done, to see where his knee drifted and whisper a quick “sorry” and shift away, but his knee stays pressed into me. When I try to be polite and inch away, he moves with me.

“I think we’re very similar, Nessa,” he whispers. “I can tell from the way you write that you’re a dark romantic like me. You like dark things.”

Shielded by the desk, he reaches down and pats my knee gently, gingerly, the way you might pet a dog before you’re sure it won’t turn mean and bite you. I don’t bite him. I don’t move. I don’t even breathe. He keeps writing notes on the poem while his other hand strokes my knee and my mind slips out of me. It brushes up against the ceiling so I can see myself from above—hunched shoulders, thousand-yard stare, bright red hair.

Then class is over. He moves away from me, the spot on my knee cold where his hand has left it, and the room is all motion and sound, zippers zipping and textbooks slamming shut and laughter and words and no one knowing what took place right in front of them.

“Looking forward to the next one,” Mr. Strane says. He hands me the marked-up poem as though everything’s normal, like what he did never happened.

The nine other students pack up their things and leave the classroom to carry on with their lives, to practices and rehearsals and club meetings. I leave the room, too, but I’m not part of them. They’re the same, but I’m changed. I’m unhuman now. Untethered. While they walk across campus, earthbound and ordinary, I soar, trailing a maple-red comet tail. I’m no longer myself; I am no one. I’m a red balloon caught in the boughs of a tree. I’m nothing at all.

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