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My Dark Vanessa (Page 3)

I’m at work, staring out across the hotel lobby, when I receive a text from Ira. My body goes rigid as I watch the push alerts pile up on my phone screen, his contact still labeled DON’T DO IT from our last breakup.

How are you doing?

I’ve been thinking about you.

Would you be up for a drink?

I don’t touch the phone; I don’t want him to know I’ve seen the texts, but as I give restaurant recommendations and call in reservations, telling every guest it’s my pleasure to serve them, my absolute pleasure, a little fire kindles in my belly. Three months have passed since Ira said we needed to end it once and for all, and I’ve been good this time. No walking by his apartment building hoping to catch him outside, no calls, no texts—not even drunken ones. This, I think, is my reward for all that self-control.

After two hours, I respond, I’m ok. A drink might be nice. He replies right away: Are you working? I’m with friends eating dinner now. Could stay out and meet you after your shift. My hands tremble while I send a single thumbs-up emoji, as though I can’t be bothered to type out “sounds good.”

When I leave the hotel at eleven thirty, he’s outside leaning against the valet podium, shoulders hunched as he stares down at his phone. Immediately, I notice the changes in him, his shorter hair and trendy clothes, skinny black pants and a denim jacket with holes in the elbows. He jumps when he sees me, slips his phone into his back pocket.

“Sorry it took so long to leave,” I say. “Busy night.” I stand holding my bag in both hands, not knowing how to greet him, what’s allowed.

“It’s fine, only been here a few minutes. You look good.”

“I look the same,” I say.

“Well, you’ve always looked good.” He holds out an arm, offering a hug, but I shake my head. He’s being too nice. If he wanted to get back together, he’d be guarded and skittish like me.

“You look very . . .” I search for the right word. “Hip.” I mean it as a jab, but Ira just laughs and thanks me, his voice sincere.

We go to a new bar with distressed wood tables and metal chairs, a five-page beer menu organized by style, then country of origin, then alcohol volume. As we step inside, I scan the room, checking each head of long blond hair for Taylor Birch, though I’m not sure I’d recognize her even if she appeared right in front of me. The past couple weeks, I’ll see women on the street I’m certain are her, but every time it’s only a stranger with a face that isn’t even close.

“Vanessa?” Ira touches my shoulder, startles me as though I’ve forgotten he’s there. “You ok?”

I nod and give a thin smile, grab an empty chair.

When the server comes around and starts to rattle off recommendations, I interrupt. “This is too overwhelming. Just bring me whatever and I’ll like it.” I mean it as a joke, but it comes out harsh; Ira gives the server a look, like I’m sorry for her.

“We could have gone somewhere else,” he says to me.

“This is fine.”

“It seems like you hate it here.”

“I hate everywhere.”

The server brings the beers—some dark, wine-smelling thing in a goblet for Ira and, for me, a can of Miller Lite.

“Do you want a glass,” the server asks, “or can you manage?”

“Oh, I can manage.” I smile and point to the can, my best attempt at charming. The server just turns to the next table.

Ira gives me a long look. “Are you doing ok? Tell me the truth.”

I shrug, take a drink. “Sure.”

“I saw the Facebook post.”

With my fingernail, I flick the pull tab on the beer. Click-click-click. “What Facebook post?”

He frowns. “The one about Strane. Have you really not seen it? Last I checked, it’s been shared something like two thousand times.”

“Oh, right. That.” It’s actually up to almost three thousand shares, though the activity has died down. I take another swallow, flip through the beer menu.

Softly, Ira says, “I’ve been worrying about you.”

“You shouldn’t. I’m fine.”

“Have you talked to him since it came out?”

I smack the menu shut. “Nope.”

Ira studies me. “Really?”

“Really.”

He asks if I think Strane will be fired and I lift my shoulders between swallows. How should I know? He asks if I’ve thought about reaching out to Taylor and I don’t answer, just flick the pull tab, the click-click-click now a boing-boing-boing echo through the half-empty can.

“I know how hard this must be for you,” he says, “but it could be an opportunity, right? To make peace with it and move on.”

I force myself to breathe through the thought. “Make peace and move on” sounds like jumping off a cliff, sounds like dying.

“Can we talk about something else?” I ask.

“Sure,” he says. “Of course.”

He asks me about work, if I’m still looking for a new job. He tells me he found an apartment up on Munjoy Hill and my heart jumps, a delusional moment of thinking he’s going to ask me to move in with him. It’s a great place, he says, really big. The kitchen can fit a table; the bedroom has an ocean view. I wait, expecting him to invite me over at least, but he only lifts his glass.

“Must be expensive if it’s that nice,” I say. “How are you managing that?”

Ira presses his lips together as he swallows. “I lucked out.”

I assume we’ll keep drinking—that’s what he and I usually do, drink and drink until one of us gets brave enough to ask, “Are you coming home with me or what?”—but before I can order another beer, Ira gives the server his credit card, signaling the end of the night. It feels like a slap.

As we step out of the bar and into the cold, he asks if I’m still seeing Ruby and I’m grateful that, at least for this question, I don’t have to lie to give him the answer he wants.

“I’m so glad to hear that,” Ira says. “That really is the best thing for you.”

I try to smile, but I don’t like how he says “the best thing for you.” It brings up too much—memories of him saying the way I romanticized abuse was troubling, almost as troubling as the fact that I still kept in touch with the man who abused me. From the very beginning Ira said I needed help. After six months together, he gave me a list of therapists he’d researched himself, begged me to try. When I refused, he said if I loved him, I would try, and I said if he loved me, he would leave it alone. After a year, he tried to turn it into an ultimatum, either I go to therapy or we break up. Not even that moved me; he was the one who caved. So when I started seeing Ruby, even if I was going only because of my dad, Ira still acted triumphant. Whatever it takes to get you in there, Vanessa, he’d said.

“So what does Ruby think of everything?” he asks.

“What do you mean?”

“The Facebook post, what he did to that girl . . .”

“Oh. We don’t really talk about that stuff.” My eyes follow the brick pattern in the sidewalk under the streetlights, the fog rolling in off the water.

For two blocks, Ira doesn’t say anything. When we reach Congress Street, where I turn left and he turns right, my chest aches from wanting to ask him to come home with me even though I’m nowhere near drunk enough, even though spending a half hour with him has already made me hate myself. I just need to be touched.

Ira says, “You haven’t told her.”

“I’ve told her.”

He tilts his head, squints. “Really. You’ve told your therapist that the man who abused you when you were a kid was publicly accused of abuse by someone else and that’s not something you two talk about? Come on.”

I lift my shoulders. “It’s not that important to me.”

“Right.”

“And he didn’t abuse me.”

Ira’s nostrils flare and his eyes harden, a familiar flash of frustration. He turns like he’s going to leave—better to walk away than lose his temper with me—but then he turns back. “Does she even know about him?”

“I don’t go to therapy to talk about that stuff, ok? I go because of my dad.”

It’s midnight. Far-off bells chime from the cathedral, the traffic light switches from red-yellow-green to flashing yellow, and Ira shakes his head. He’s disgusted at me. I know what he thinks, what anyone would think—that I’m an apologist, an enabler—but I’m defending myself just as much as I am Strane. Because even if I sometimes use the word abuse to describe certain things that were done to me, in someone else’s mouth the word turns ugly and absolute. It swallows up everything that happened. It swallows me and all the times I wanted it, begged for it. Like the laws that flatten all the sex I had with Strane before I turned eighteen into legal rape—are we supposed to believe that birthday is magic? It’s as arbitrary a marker as any. Doesn’t it make sense that some girls are ready sooner?

“You know,” Ira says, “these past few weeks while this has been in the news, all I’ve been thinking about is you. I’ve worried about you.”

Headlights approach, brighter and brighter, and sweep over us as the car turns the corner.

“I thought you’d be a mess over what that girl wrote, but you hardly seem to care.”

“Why should I?”

“Because he did the same thing to you!” he yells, his voice bouncing against the buildings. He sucks in a breath and stares at the ground, embarrassed at losing his temper. No one has ever frustrated him as much as I do. He used to say that all the time.

“You shouldn’t care so much, Ira,” I say.

He scoffs, laughs. “Believe me, I know I shouldn’t.”

“I don’t want your help with this. You don’t understand it. You never have.”

He tips his head back. “Well, this was my last attempt. I won’t try again.”

As he starts to walk away, I call, “She’s lying.”

He stops, turns.

“The girl who wrote the post, I mean. It’s a bunch of lies.”

I wait, but Ira doesn’t speak, doesn’t move. Another set of headlights approach and then pass over us.

“Do you believe me?” I ask.

Ira shakes his head, but not in an angry way. He feels sorry for me, which is worse than worrying about me, worse than anything.

“What’s it going to take, Vanessa?” he asks.

He starts up Congress Street toward the hill and then calls over his shoulder, “By the way, the new apartment? I can afford it because I’m seeing someone. We moved in together.”

Walking backward, he watches my expression, but I don’t reveal a thing. I swallow against my burning throat and blink so fast he blurs into a shadow, into fog.

 

I’m still sleeping at noon when I hear the special ringtone I’ve assigned to Strane’s number in my phone. It inserts itself in my dream, a tinkling jewelry box melody that pulls me out of sleep so gently I’m still half dreaming when I answer.

“They’re meeting today,” he says. “They’re deciding what to do with me.”

I blink awake; my groggy mind fumbles with who he means by “they.” “The school?”

“I know what’s coming,” he says. “I’ve taught there for thirty years and they’re tossing me out with the trash. Just wish they’d get it over with.”

“Well, they’re monsters,” I say.

“I wouldn’t go that far. Their hands are tied,” he says. “If there’s a monster here it’s the story what’s-her-name came up with. She managed to accuse me of something just vague enough to be terrifying. It’s like a goddamn horror movie.”

“Sounds more like Kafka to me,” I say.

I hear him smile. “I guess you’re right.”

“So you’re not teaching today?”

“No, they barred me from campus until they decide. Feel like a criminal.” He exhales a long breath. “Look, I’m in Portland. I wondered if I could see you.”

“You’re here?” I scramble out of bed and down the hallway to the bathroom. My stomach twists at the sight of myself in the mirror, the fine lines around my mouth and under my eyes that seemed to appear as soon as I turned thirty.

“Are you still at the same apartment?” he asks.

“No, I moved. Five years ago.”

A beat of silence. “Can you give me some directions?”

I think of the dishes in the kitchen sink caked with food, the overflowing trash can, the lived-in filth. I imagine him stepping into my bedroom and seeing the piles of dirty laundry, the empty bottles lined up alongside the mattress, my perpetual mess.

You need to get over this, he’d say. Vanessa, you’re thirty-two years old.

“What about a coffee shop instead?” I ask.

 

He sits at a corner table, at first barely recognizable, a heavyset old man cupping his hands around a coffee mug, but as I move toward him, cutting through the line at the counter, weaving through chairs, he sees me and stands. Then he’s unmistakable—the six-foot-four mountain, solid and safe and so familiar my body takes over, throwing my arms around him and grabbing fistfuls of his coat, trying to get as close as it can. Sinking into him feels the same way it did when I was fifteen—that coffee and chalk dust smell, the top of my head barely reaching his shoulder.

When he lets go of me, there are tears in his eyes. Embarrassed, he shoves his glasses up on his forehead and wipes his cheeks.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I know the last thing you want to deal with is a blubbering old man. The sight of you just . . .” Trailing off, he takes in my face.

“It’s fine,” I say. “You’re fine.” My eyes are teary, too.

We sit across from each other as though we’re ordinary, like people who once knew each other catching up after time apart. He looks alarmingly older, gray all over, and not only his hair, even his skin and eyes. His beard’s gone, the first time I’ve ever seen him without it, replaced with jowls I can’t look at without wanting to gag. They hang like jellyfish, pull his whole face downward. It’s a shocking change. Five years have passed since I saw him last, long enough for age to ravage a face, but I imagine this happening since Taylor’s post, like the myth about people being so overcome with grief they go gray overnight. A sudden thought turns me cold—maybe this could wreck him. It could kill him.

I shake my head to ward off the thought and say, more to myself than to him, “This could all end up ok.”

“It could,” he agrees. “But it won’t.”

“Even if they force you out, would that be so bad? It would be like retiring. You could sell the house and leave Norumbega. What about going back to Montana?”

“I don’t want that,” he says. “My life is here.”

“You could travel, have a real vacation.”

“Vacation,” he scoffs. “Give me a break. No matter what comes of this, my name is ruined, reputation destroyed.”

“It’ll blow over eventually.”

“It won’t.” His eyes flash hard enough to stop me from pointing out that I know what I’m talking about, that I was once driven out of there, too.

“Vanessa . . .” He leans forward on the table. “You said the girl wrote to you a few weeks ago. You’re sure you didn’t respond?”

I give him a long look. “Yes, I’m sure.”

“And I don’t know if you’re still seeing that psychiatrist.” He bites his bottom lip, leaves the question unsaid.

I start to correct him—she’s a therapist, not a psychiatrist—but I know it doesn’t matter; that’s not the point. “She has no idea. I don’t talk to her about you.”

“Ok,” he says. “That’s good. Now also about that old blog of yours, I tried looking it up—”

“It’s gone. I took it down years ago. Why are you grilling me like this?”

“Has anyone other than that girl contacted you?”

“Who else would? The school?”

“I don’t know,” he says. “I’m just making sure—”

“You think they’ll try to get me involved?”

“I have no idea. They’re not telling me anything.”

“But do you think they’ll—”

“Vanessa.” My mouth snaps shut. He hangs his head, takes a breath, and then continues slowly. “I don’t know what they’re going to do. I just want to make sure there aren’t any stray fires that need putting out. And I want to make sure you’re feeling . . .” He searches for the right word. “Steady.”

“Steady,” I echo.

He nods, his eyes fixed on me, asking the question he doesn’t dare speak out loud—if I’m strong enough to handle whatever might come.

“You can trust me,” I say.

He smiles, gratitude softening his face. There’s relief in him now, a looseness to his shoulders, his eyes roaming the coffee shop. “So how are you?” he asks. “How’s your mom holding up?”

I shrug; talking about her with him always feels like a betrayal.

“Are you still seeing that boy?” He means Ira. I shake my head and, unsurprised, Strane nods, pats my hand. “He wasn’t right for you.”

We sit in silence through the clatter of dishes, the hiss and whirr of the espresso machine, my thumping heart. For years, I’ve imagined this—being in front of him again, within reach—but now that I’m here, I just feel outside myself, like I’m watching from a table across the room. It doesn’t seem right that we can speak to each other like normal people, or that he can bear to look at me without falling to his knees.

“Are you hungry?” he asks. “We could get a bite.”

I hesitate, check my phone for the time, and he notices my black suit and gold name tag.

“Ah, working girl,” he says. “Still at that hotel, I take it.”

“I could call in.”

“No, don’t do that.” He sits back in his chair, his mood instantly darkened. I know what’s wrong; I should have jumped at his offer, said yes right away. Hesitating was a mistake, and with him, one mistake is enough to ruin the whole thing.

“I can try to get out early,” I say. “We could go to dinner.”

He waves his hand. “It’s all right.”

“You could spend the night.” At that, he stops, his eyes traveling over my face as he contemplates the idea. I wonder if he’s thinking of me at fifteen, or if he’s thinking of the last time we tried, five years ago, at his house, in his bed with the flannel sheets. We tried to re-create the first time, me in flimsy pajamas, the lights low. It didn’t work. He kept going soft; I was too old. Afterward, I cried in the bathroom, the tap running and my hand clamped over my mouth. When I came out, he was dressed and sitting in the living room. We never spoke of it again, and since then stuck to the phone.

“No,” he says softly. “No, I should get back home.”

“Fine.” I push out of my chair so hard it squeaks against the floor, like nails across a chalkboard. My nails on his chalkboard.

He watches as I slide my arms into my coat and heft my purse to my shoulder. “How long have you been at that job?”

I lift my shoulders, my brain snagged on a memory of his fingers in my mouth, chalk dust on my tongue. “I don’t know,” I say faintly. “Awhile.”

“It’s been too long,” he says. “You should love what you do. Don’t settle for less.”

“It’s fine. It’s a job.”

“But you were made for more than that,” he says. “You were so bright. You were brilliant. I thought you were going to publish a novel at twenty, take over the world. Have you tried writing lately?”

I shake my head.

“God, what a waste. I wish you would.”

I press my lips together. “Sorry I’m a disappointment.”

“Come on, don’t do that.” He stands, cups my face in his hands and lowers his voice to a murmur as he tries to settle me down. “I’ll come stay with you soon,” he says. “I promise.”

We exchange a close-lipped kiss goodbye, and the barista at the counter keeps counting the tip jar, the old man by the window continues his crossword puzzle. Him kissing me used to be fodder for rumors that spread like wildfire. Now when we touch each other, the world doesn’t even notice. I know there should be freedom in that, but to me it only feels like loss.

 

At home after work, I lie in bed with my phone, reading over the message Taylor Birch sent me before posting the accusations against Strane. Hi Vanessa, I’m not sure if you know anything about me, but you and I are in the strange position of sharing an experience, something that, for me, was traumatic and I’m guessing it was the same for you. X-ing out of the window, I bring up her profile but nothing new is posted, so I scroll through the old content: photos of her on vacation in San Francisco, eating Mission burritos, a selfie with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background, photos of her at home in her apartment, crushed velvet couch, gleaming hardwood floors, and leafy houseplants. I scroll further back to photos of her in a pink pussy hat from the Women’s March, eating a doughnut as big as her head, and posing with friends at a bar downtown in a photo captioned Browick reunion!

I move to my own profile, try to see myself through her eyes. I know she checks on me; a year ago, she liked one of my photos, an accidental double tap she immediately undid, but I still saw the notification. I took a screenshot and sent it to Strane, along with I guess she can’t let go, but he didn’t respond, uninterested in the nuances of social media, the smug sense of triumph that comes when a lurker shows her hand. Or maybe he didn’t even understand what I meant. I forget sometimes exactly how old he is; I used to think the gap between us would shrink as I grew older, but it’s still as wide as it’s ever been.

Hours pass while I dig deeper on my phone, logging into my old photo hosting accounts and scrolling back in time, 2017 to 2010 to 2007 to 2002—the year I first bought a digital camera, the year I turned seventeen. My breath catches as the photo set I’m looking for finally loads: me with my hair in braids, wearing a sundress and knee socks, standing before a grove of birch trees. In one photo, I’m lifting the skirt of my dress, flashing pale thighs. In another, I’m turned away from the camera, looking over my shoulder. The quality of the photos is low, but they’re still lovely, the birches a monochrome backdrop against the pinks and blues of the dress, my copper hair.

I open my last texts with Strane, copy and paste the photos into a new message. Not sure if I ever showed these to you. I think I’m 17 here.

I know he would’ve gone to bed hours ago but I hit “send” anyway, watch the text deliver. I stay awake till dawn, swiping through photos of my teenage face and body. Every once in a while I check if the text to Strane has changed from “delivered” to “read.” There’s a chance he could wake in the night and, half asleep, check his phone only to find my teenage self, a digital ghost. Don’t forget her.

Sometimes it feels like that’s all I’m doing every time I reach out—trying to haunt, to drag him back in time, asking him to tell me again what happened. Make me understand it once and for all. Because I’m still stuck here. I can’t move on.

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