My Dark Vanessa (Page 4)
One Friday night per month, a dance is held in the dining hall. With the tables cleared away and the lights dimmed, it’s a scene that could be set in any other high school. There’s the hired DJ, a cluster of people dancing in the middle of the floor, and the shy kids huddled around the perimeter, divided by gender. Some teachers are there, too. As chaperones, they mill about, maintaining their distance, paying less attention to us than to each other.
This is the Halloween dance, so people are wearing costumes and two giant buckets of candy sit by the double doors. Most costumes are lazy—boys in jeans and white T-shirts calling themselves James Dean, girls in pleated miniskirts and pigtails calling themselves Britney Spears—but a few have gone to elaborate lengths with supplies bought downtown. One girl moves through the dining hall as a dragon with spiny wings and a train of blue-green scales, trailed by her boyfriend, a knight in cardboard armor stinking of spray paint. A boy in a suit waves a fake cigar in girls’ faces, laughing behind a rubber Bill Clinton mask. Meanwhile, I’m a half-hearted cat, black dress and black tights, drawn-on whiskers and cardboard ears thrown together in ten minutes. I came only to see Mr. Strane. He’s working as a chaperone.
Usually, I never go to the dances. Everything about them makes me cringe—the bad music, the embarrassing DJ with his goatee and frosted tips, the kids pretending not to stare at the couples grinding against each other. I’m forcing myself to suffer through this one because it’s been a week. A whole week since Mr. Strane touched me, since he put his hand on my leg and told me he could tell we were similar, two people who like dark things. Since then? Nothing. When I spoke in class, his eyes darted to the table like he couldn’t bear to look at me. During creative writing club he gathered his things and left Jesse and me alone (“Department meeting,” he explained, but if it was a department meeting, why did he need his coat and everything in his briefcase?), and later when I sought him out during faculty service hour, his door was closed, the classroom dark behind textured glass.
So I’m impatient, maybe even desperate. I want something to happen and that seems more likely at an event like this where boundaries are temporarily blurred, students and teachers thrust together in a dimly lit room. I don’t really care what the something else might be—another touch, a compliment. It doesn’t matter so long as it tells me what he wants, what this is, if it’s anything at all.
I eat a fun-size candy bar in tiny bites and watch the couples dance to a slow song, swaying around the floor like bottles in a pool of water. At one point, Jenny strides across the room wearing a satin dress that vaguely resembles a kimono, chopsticks shoved through her nubby ponytail. For a moment she seems to be headed straight for me and I freeze, chocolate melting on my tongue, but then Tom emerges from behind her wearing his normal clothes, jeans and a Beck T-shirt, not even attempting a costume. He touches her shoulder; Jenny jerks away. The music is too loud to eavesdrop, but it’s obvious they’re fighting and that it’s bad. Jenny’s chin wobbles, her eyes screw shut. When Tom touches his fingers to her arm, she plants a hand flat on his chest and shoves him so strongly he stumbles backward. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen them fight.
I’m so fixated that I almost don’t notice Mr. Strane duck out the double doors. I almost let him get away.
When I step outside, the night is pitch black, no moon and close to freezing. The sounds from the dance muffle to a heartbeat bass line and faraway vocals as the door clicks shut behind me. I look around; my arms break into goose bumps as my eyes search for him but find only the shadows of trees, the empty campus green. I’m about to admit defeat and go back inside when a figure steps out from under the shadow cast by a spruce tree: Mr. Strane in a down vest, a flannel shirt, and jeans, an unlit cigarette between his fingers.
I don’t move, unsure what to do. I sense he’s embarrassed to be seen with the cigarette and my mind takes over—I imagine him smoking in secret, like how my dad does in the evenings down by the lakeshore; I imagine he wants to quit and sees his inability to do so as a weakness. He’s ashamed of it.
But even if he’s ashamed, I think, he could have stayed hidden. He could have let me leave.
He twirls the cigarette between his thumb and forefinger. “You caught me.”
“I thought you were leaving,” I say. “I wanted to say goodbye.”
He pulls a lighter from his pocket and turns it over in his palm a few times. His eyes stay on me. With a sudden clarity, I think, Something’s going to happen, and as the certainty of this settles over me, my heart slows, my shoulders drop.
He lights the cigarette and gestures for me to follow him back under the tree. It’s enormous, probably the biggest on campus, its lowest limbs still far above our heads. At first, it’s so dark all I can see is the red ember from the cigarette as it moves up to his mouth. My eyes adjust and he appears, as do the boughs overhead, the orange-dead needle carpet beneath our feet.
“Don’t smoke,” Mr. Strane says. “It’s a nasty habit.” He exhales and the cigarette smell fills my head. We’re standing about five feet apart. It feels so dangerous it’s strange to think we’ve been closer plenty of times before.
“But it must feel good,” I say. “Otherwise why do it?”
He laughs, takes another drag. “I guess you’re right.” Looking me over, he notices my costume for the first time. “Well, look at you. Little pussy cat.”
I laugh from the shock of hearing him say that word, even if he isn’t using it in the sex way. But he doesn’t laugh. He only stares at me, the cigarette smoking in his hand.
“You know what I’d like to do right now?” he asks. His words flow together more than usual and he sways as he points the cigarette at me. “I’d like to find you a big bed, tuck you in, and kiss you good night.”
For a second, my brain short-circuits entirely and I’m as good as dead. Moments of nothing pass, a static screen, a wall of noise. Then I come roaring back to life with a harsh, choked sound—not quite a laugh, not quite a cry.
A door opens from inside the dining hall and music spills out from the dance. Over that, a woman’s voice calls, “Jake?”
The moment sputters. Mr. Strane turns and hurries toward the voice, throwing down his cigarette without stamping it out. I watch the smoke rise from the fallen needles as he strides back to the doors, to Ms. Thompson.
“Just taking a bit of a breather,” he says to her. Together, they slip back inside. I’m hidden by the tree, like he was when I first came outside. She didn’t see me.
I stare down at the smoking cigarette, consider picking it up and bringing it to my lips, but instead grind it out with my heel. I return to the dance, find Deanna Perkins and Lucy Summers swigging from a Nalgene bottle as they hold a running commentary on everyone’s costumes. Strane stands only a few feet away beside Ms. Thompson, his eyes locked on her. Jenny and Tom stand close together on the periphery of the dance floor, their fight resolved. She winds her arm around his shoulders, nuzzles her face into his neck. It’s a gesture so intimate and adult, I instinctively look away.
Whatever they have in the Nalgene bottle sloshes around as Deanna and Lucy pass it back and forth. Deanna, taking a swallow, notices my stare. “What?”
“Let me have some,” I say.
Lucy reaches for the bottle. “Sorry, limited supplies.”
“I’ll tell if you don’t let me.”
Deanna waves her hand. “Let her have a drink.”
Lucy sighs, holds out the bottle. “You can have a sip.”
The alcohol burns my throat worse than I expected and I start to cough, like a cliché. Deanna and Lucy don’t even try to hide their laughs. Thrusting the bottle back at them, I march out of the dining hall, willing Mr. Strane to notice, to understand why I’m angry and what I want. I wait outside to see if he’ll come after me but he doesn’t—of course he doesn’t.
Back in Gould, the dorm is quiet, empty. Every door is closed, everyone still at the dance.
I stare down Ms. Thompson’s apartment door at the far end of the hall. If she hadn’t called to him, something would have happened. He said he wanted to kiss me; maybe he would have done it. Still in my costume, I walk toward Ms. Thompson’s door. Mr. Strane is probably making her laugh right this moment. At the end of the night, they’ll probably go to his house and have sex. Maybe he’ll even tell her about me, how I followed him outside and he said that stuff just to be nice. She has a crush on you, Ms. Thompson will say, teasing. As though it’s all in my head, a narrative sprung without a source.
I grab the marker attached to her dry erase board. Notes from the previous week are still scribbled there: the date and time of a dorm meeting, an open invitation to a spaghetti dinner in her apartment. With one swipe of my hand, I erase the notes and write BITCH in big bold letters that take up the whole board.
The first snow comes that night after the dance and covers campus in a heavy four inches. On Saturday morning Ms. Thompson calls us all into the common room and tries to find out who wrote bitch on her door. “I’m not mad,” she assures us. “Just confused.”
My heart thumps in my ears and I sit with my hands clasped in my lap, willing my cheeks not to burn.
After a few minutes of sitting in silence, she gives up. “We can let it go,” she says. “But not if it happens again. Ok?”
She nods, prompting us to say ok. On my way back upstairs I look over my shoulder and see her standing in the middle of the empty room, rubbing her face with both hands.
Sunday afternoon I approach her door, my eyes lingering on the whiteboard, bitch still faintly visible. I feel guilty—not enough to admit what I did, but enough to want to do something nice. When Ms. Thompson opens the door, she’s in sweatpants and a hooded Browick sweatshirt, her hair pulled back, no makeup on her face, acne scars on her cheeks. I wonder if Mr. Strane has ever seen her this way.
“What’s up?” she asks.
“Can I take Mya for a walk?”
“Oh god, she’d love that.” She calls over her shoulder, but the husky is already barreling toward me, ears pricked and blue eyes dilated, propelled by the sound of the word walk.
Ms. Thompson reminds me that it will be dark soon as I slide Mya’s harness over her head and clip the leash. “We won’t go far,” I say.
“And don’t let her run.”
“I know, I know.” Last time I took Mya for a walk, I let her off-leash to play and she ran straight into the garden behind the arts building and rolled in fertilizer.
The temperature rose overnight to fifty degrees and the snow is already gone, leaving the ground spongy and slick. We walk the trail that winds around the sports fields, and I let the leash out long so Mya can sniff and romp around, darting from side to side. I love Mya; she’s the most beautiful dog I’ve ever seen, her fur so thick my fingers disappear to the second knuckle when I give her back a good scritch. Mostly, though, I love her because she’s difficult. Bossy. If she doesn’t want to do something, she’ll talk back at you in a grumbly howl. Ms. Thompson says I must have a special gift with dogs because Mya doesn’t really like anyone except me. Dogs are easy to win over, though, way easier than people. For a dog to love you, all you have to do is keep some treats in your pocket and scratch behind their ears or at the base of their tail. When they want to be left alone, they don’t play games; they let you know.
At the soccer field, the trail forks into three smaller paths. One leads back to campus, the other into the woods, and the third downtown. Even though I promised Ms. Thompson I’d stay close, I take the third path.
The storefronts downtown are decorated for the season with fake foliage and cornucopias, and the bakery has already hung Christmas lights. As Mya pulls me along, I check my reflection in every window, a two-second glimpse of my hair fanning out from my face, possibly beautiful, though it seems equally possible I might be ugly. When we get to the public library, I stop. Impatient, Mya looks back at me, flashing the whites of her blue eyes as I stand staring at the house across the street. His house—that has to be it. It’s smaller than I imagined it to be, with grayed cedar shingles and a dark blue door. Mya sidles up beside me, bumps her head against my legs. Let’s go.
This is, of course, the whole reason I came this way, why I wanted to go for a walk in the first place and asked Ms. Thompson if I could borrow the dog. I’d imagined myself passing by as he happened to be outside. He would see me and call me over, ask why I was walking Ms. Thompson’s dog. We would talk a bit, standing on the strip of front lawn, and then he’d invite me inside. There the fantasy fizzles out, because what we do after that depends on what he wants, and I have no idea what he wants.
But he isn’t outside and it doesn’t look like he’s inside, either. The windows are dark, no car in the driveway. He’s somewhere else, living a life that I know infuriatingly little about.
I lead Mya to the top of the library steps. We’re hidden there but still have a view of the street. I sit feeding her bacon bits I stole from the dining hall salad bar until the sun blazes orange and starts to set. Maybe he wouldn’t even want me to come inside because of the dog. I forgot he said he doesn’t like them. But he’d have to at least pretend to like Mya if he’s doing whatever with Ms. Thompson, otherwise how could she live with herself? It would be a real betrayal to date someone who hated your dog.
It’s nearly dark when a boxy blue station wagon turns into the driveway. The engine cuts, the driver’s door opens, and Mr. Strane emerges in jeans and the same flannel shirt he wore at the Halloween dance on Friday. Holding my breath, I watch him haul grocery bags from the back of the car up the front steps. At the door, he fumbles with his keys, and Mya lets out an indignant whine for more treats. I give her a whole handful and she eats them as fast as she can, her tongue lapping my palm while I watch the windows of the little saltbox house light up as Mr. Strane moves through the rooms.
After class on Monday, I take my time leaving. Once everyone else is gone, I swing my backpack onto one shoulder and say in my most nonchalant voice, “You live across from the public library, right?”
From behind his desk, Mr. Strane looks at me in surprise. “How do you know that?” he asks.
“You mentioned it once.”
He studies me, and the longer he does, the harder it is to keep up the nonchalant act. I purse my lips together, try to hold my frown.
“I don’t remember that,” he says.
“Well, you did. How else would I know?” My voice sounds harsh, angry, and I can tell he’s a little taken aback. Mostly, though, he looks amused, like he thinks my frustration is cute. “I might’ve gone there,” I add. “You know, to scope it out.”
“Are you mad?”
“Not at all. I’m flattered.”
“I saw you unloading groceries from your car.”
“You did? When?”
“You were watching me.”
“You should have made yourself known and said hello.”
My eyes narrow. That isn’t what I expected him to say. “What if someone saw me?”
He smiles, cocks his head. “Why would it matter if someone saw you saying hello to me?”
I clench my jaw and breathe hard through my nose. His innocence feels put on, like he’s playing with me by playing dumb.
Still smiling, he leans back in his chair, and him doing that—leaning back, crossing his arms, looking me up and down as though I’m entertaining, just something to look at—makes anger flare up inside me, so sudden and strong I ball my hands into fists to stop from screaming, lunging forward, grabbing the Harvard mug off his desk and hurling it at his face.
I turn on my heel, stomp out of the room and down the hallway. I’m furious the whole way back to Gould, but once I’m in my room, the anger disappears and all that’s left is the dull-ache desire for meaning I’ve had for weeks now. He said he wanted to kiss me. He touched me. Every interaction between us is tinged now with something potentially ruinous, and it isn’t fair for him to pretend otherwise.
* * *
My midsemester geometry grade is a D-plus. All eyes turn on me when Mrs. Antonova announces this during our monthly advisee meeting at the Italian restaurant. At first I don’t realize she’s talking to me; my mind drifts as I methodically tear apart a piece of bread and roll it back into dough between my fingers.
“Vanessa,” she says, rapping her knuckles against the table. “D-plus.”
I look up and notice the stares, Mrs. Antonova holding a piece of paper, her own faculty feedback. “Then I guess there’s nowhere for me to go but up,” I say.
Mrs. Antonova stares at me over the top of her glasses. “You could still go down,” she says. “You could fail.”
“I won’t fail.”
“You need a plan of action, a tutor. We’ll get you one.”
I glower down at the table as she moves on to the next advisee, my stomach tight at the thought of a tutor, because tutor sessions meet during faculty service hour, which would mean less time with Mr. Strane. Kyle Guinn flashes me a sympathetic smile after he’s given similar news about his Spanish grade, and I sink so low in my chair my chin practically rests on the table.
When I get back to campus, the Gould common room is crowded, the TV playing election results. I squeeze onto one of the couches and watch the states get sorted into two columns as the polls close. “Vermont for Gore,” the news anchor says. “Kentucky for Bush.” At one point, when Ralph Nader flashes on-screen, Deanna and Lucy start to clap, and when Bush comes on, everybody boos. It looks like a sure thing for Gore until right before ten, when they announce they’re putting Florida back in the “too close to call” column, and I get so fed up with the entire thing I give up and go to bed.
At first everyone jokes about the election never ending, but it stops being funny when the Florida recount goes into full swing. Mr. Sheldon spends most days with his feet propped up on his desk, but now he springs to life, drawing sprawling webs on the chalkboard meant to illustrate the many ways democracy can fail. During one class he lectures us on all the different kinds of chads—hanging, fat, pregnant—while we try not to laugh and shoot looks at Chad Gagnon.
Meanwhile in American lit, we read A River Runs Through It and Mr. Strane tells us his own stories of growing up in Montana—ranches and real-life cowboys, dogs eaten by grizzlies, mountains so big they block out the sun. I try to imagine him as a boy, but I can’t even picture what he’d look like without a beard. After A River Runs Through It, we start on Robert Frost and Mr. Strane recites “The Road Not Taken” from memory. He says we shouldn’t feel uplifted by the poem, that Frost’s message is widely misunderstood. The poem isn’t meant to be a celebration of going against the grain but rather an ironic performance about the futility of choice. He says that by believing our lives have endless possibilities, we stave off the horrifying truth that to live is merely to move forward through time while an internal clock counts down to a final, fatal moment.
“We’re born, we live, we die,” he says, “and the choices we make in the middle, all those things we agonize over day after day, none of those matter in the end.”
No one says anything to counter his argument, not even Hannah Levesque, who is super Catholic and presumably believes that the choices we make actually matter quite a bit in the end. She only stares at him with her lips slightly parted, dumbstruck.
Mr. Strane passes out copies of another Frost poem, “Putting in the Seed,” and tells us to read this one silently to ourselves, and after we finish doing that, he tells us to do it again. “But this time, as you read it,” he says, “I want you to think about sex.”
It takes a second to sink in, for furrowed brows to give way to flushed cheeks, but once it does Mr. Strane surveys the palpable embarrassment with a smile.
Only I’m not embarrassed. The mention of sex smacks me across the face and makes my body run hot. Maybe this is about me. Maybe this is his next move.
“Are you saying this poem is about sex?” Jenny asks.
“I’m saying that it deserves to be read closely and with an open mind,” Mr. Strane says. “And let’s be honest here, I’m not asking any of you to think about something you don’t already spend a significant amount of time contemplating. Now get to it.” He claps his hands to signal we should start.
On the second read through the poem, with sex at the forefront of my mind, I do notice things I didn’t before: the details of white soft petals, smooth bean and wrinkled pea, the final image of an arched body. Even the phrase “putting in the seed” is obviously suggestive.
“What do you think of it now?” Mr. Strane stands with his back to the chalkboard, one foot crossed over the other. We say nothing, but our silence only proves him right, that the poem is about sex after all.
He waits and his eyes travel the room, seem to look at every student except for me. Tom takes a breath, about to speak, but the bell rings and Mr. Strane shakes his head at us as though disappointed.
“You’re all puritans,” he says, waving his hand in dismissal.
As we leave the classroom and start down the hallway, Tom says, “What the hell was that?” and with a brisk authority that makes me seethe, Jenny says, “He’s a huge misogynist. My sister warned me.”
Later, Jesse doesn’t show at creative writing club and the classroom feels enormous with just me and Mr. Strane. I sit at the seminar table and he behind his desk, each of us staring at the other across a vast continent.
“There isn’t much for you to do today,” he says. “The lit journal is in good shape. We can start copyediting when Jesse’s here to help.”
“Should I go?”
“Not if you want to stay.”
Of course I want to stay. I take my notebook from my backpack and open it to the poem I drafted the night before.
“What did you think of class today?” he asks. The low sun cuts through the now-skeletal red maple tree and into the classroom. Behind his desk, Mr. Strane is a shadow.
Before I can answer, he adds, “I ask because I saw your face. You looked like a startled little fawn. I expected the rest of them to be scandalized, but not you.”
So he was looking at me. Scandalized. I think of Jenny calling him a misogynist, how narrow-minded and ordinary she sounded. I’m not like that. I don’t ever want to be that.
“I wasn’t. I liked the class.” I shield my eyes so I can make out his features, his tender-condescending smile. I haven’t seen that smile in weeks.
“I’m relieved,” he says. “I was starting to wonder if I’d been wrong about you.”
My breath catches at the thought of being so close to a serious misstep. One wrong reaction on my part could wreck this whole thing.
He reaches down then and opens his bottom desk drawer, pulls out a book, and my ears prick like a dog’s. Pavlovian—we learned about that in my psychology elective last spring.
“Is that for me?” I ask.
He makes a face, like he isn’t sure. “If I lend you this, you have to promise me not to let anyone know it was me who gave it to you.”
I crane my neck, try to read the book’s title. “Is it illegal or something?”
He laughs—really laughs, like when I called Sylvia Plath self-absorbed. “Vanessa, how do you always manage to have the perfect response even to things you don’t understand?”
I scowl at that. I don’t like the idea of him thinking there are things I don’t understand. “What’s the book?”
He brings it over, the cover still hidden. I grab it as soon as he sets it down. Flipping the paperback over, I see a pair of skinny legs in ankle socks and saddle shoes, a pleated skirt ending above two knobby knees. In big white letters across the legs: Lolita. I’ve heard the term somewhere before—an article about Fiona Apple, I think, a description of her as “Lolita-esque,” meaning sexy and too young. I now understand why he laughed when I asked if the book was illegal.
“It’s not poetry,” he says, “but poetic prose. You’ll appreciate the language, if nothing else.”
I feel him watching me as I turn the novel over and skim the description. This is obviously another test.
“Looks interesting.” I drop the book into my backpack and turn to my notebook. “Thanks.”
“Let me know what you think of it.”
“And if anyone catches you with it, you didn’t get it from me.”
Rolling my eyes, I say, “I know how to keep a secret.” That isn’t necessarily true—before him, I hadn’t ever had a real secret—but I know what he needs to hear. It’s like he said, I always have the perfect response.
* * *
Thanksgiving break. Five days of showers that last until the hot water runs out, of scrutinizing myself in front of the full-length mirror on the back of my bedroom door, plucking my eyebrows until Mom hides the tweezers, of trying to get the puppy to love me as much as Dad. I go for hikes every day, wearing a blaze-orange vest as I trek up the granite bluff that looms over the lake. Caves pock the face of it, crevices in the rock big enough for hawks to nest in and animals to hide.
Inside the biggest cave is an army-style cot. It’s been there as long as I can remember, left behind by some long-ago rock climber. I stare at the cot’s metal frame and rotten canvas bed and think of the first day of class when Mr. Strane said he knew Whalesback Lake, how he’d been here before. I imagine him finding me now, all alone and deep in the woods. He’d be free to do whatever he wanted with me, no chance of getting caught.
In the evenings I read Lolita in bed, mindlessly eating my way through a sleeve of saltines and propping up a pillow to hide the cover in case my parents open my bedroom door. While wind rattles the windowpane, I turn the pages and feel a slow burn within me, hot coals, deep red embers. It isn’t only the plot, its story of a seemingly ordinary girl who is really a deadly demon in disguise and the man who loves her. It’s that he gave it to me. There’s now a whole new context to what we’re doing, new insight into what he might want from me. What conclusion is there to draw besides the obvious? He is Humbert, and I am Dolores.
For Thanksgiving we go to my grandparents’ house in Millinocket. It’s unchanged from 1975, with its shag carpet and sunburst clocks, the smell of cigarettes and coffee brandy hanging in the air even with a turkey in the oven. My grandfather gives me a roll of Necco Wafers and a five-dollar bill; my grandmother asks if I’ve gained weight. We eat root vegetables and dinner rolls from the store, lemon meringue pie with browned peaks that Dad picks off when nobody’s looking.
On the drive home the car lurches over frost heaves and through potholes, an endless wall of pitch-black woods on either side. The radio plays hits from the seventies and eighties, Dad tapping the steering wheel along to “My Sharona” while Mom sleeps, her head leaning against the window. “Such a dirty mind / I always get it up for the touch of the younger kind.” I watch his fingers tap to the beat as the chorus comes around again. Does he even hear what the song is about, what he’s humming along to? “Get it up for the touch of the younger kind.” It’s enough to make me crazy, seeing these things that no one else ever seems to notice.
The first night back after Thanksgiving break, I eat dinner at the empty end of a table, Lucy and Deanna gossiping a few seats away about some popular girl, a senior, who supposedly went to the Halloween dance on drugs. Aubrey Dana asks what kind of drugs.
Deanna hesitates, then answers, “Coke.”
Aubrey shakes her head. “No one has coke here,” she says.
Deanna doesn’t argue; Aubrey is from New York, which makes her an authority.
It takes me a minute to realize they’re talking about cocaine and not soda, the sort of thing that normally makes me feel like a yokel, but now their gossip strikes me as sad. Who cares if someone came to a dance on drugs? Don’t they have better things to talk about? I stare down at my peanut butter sandwich and let myself detach, retreat into the ending of Lolita that I just reread, that final scene of Humbert bloodstained and dazed, and still in love with Lo, even after how much she hurt him and how much he hurt her. His feelings for her are endless and out of his control. How can they not be, when the whole world demonizes him for them? If he were able to stop loving her, he would. His life would be so much easier if he left her alone.
Picking at the crust of my sandwich, I try to see things from Mr. Strane’s perspective. He’s probably scared—no, terrified. I’ve been wrapped up in my own frustration and impatience, never considering all that was on the line for him or how much he’s already risked touching my leg, saying he wanted to kiss me. He hadn’t known what my reaction would be to these things. What if I’d been offended, told on him? Maybe all along he’s been the brave one and I’ve been selfish.
Because, really, what risk is there for me? If I make a move toward him and he turns me down, I suffer nothing beyond a minor humiliation. Big deal. Life for me goes on uninterrupted. It isn’t fair to expect him to be more vulnerable than he already has been. At the very least, I need to meet him in the middle, show him what I want and that I’m willing to let the world demonize me, too.
Back in my room, I lie in bed and flip through Lolita until I find the line I’m looking for on page 17. Humbert, describing the qualities of the nymphet hidden among ordinary girls: “she stands unrecognized by them and unconscious herself of her fantastic power.”
I have power. Power to make it happen. Power over him. I was an idiot for not realizing this sooner.
Before American lit, I stop in the bathroom to check my face. I’m wearing makeup; I piled on every single product I own that morning and parted my hair on the side rather than in the middle. It’s enough of a change that the face in the mirror seems unfamiliar—a girl from a magazine or a music video. Britney Spears tapping her foot against her desk as she waits for the bell to ring. The longer I stare at myself, the more my features fracture. A pair of green eyes drift away from a freckled nose; a pair of sticky pink lips separate and swim in different directions. One blink and everything scrambles back into place.
I spend so long in the bathroom I’m late to English for the first time ever. As I rush into the classroom, I feel eyes on me and assume they’re Mr. Strane’s, but when I look through my heavy eyelashes, I see it’s Jenny, her pen frozen above her notes as she registers the changes in me, the makeup and hair.
We’re reading Edgar Allan Poe that day, which is so perfectly appropriate I want to throw my head down on the table and laugh.
“Didn’t he marry his cousin?” Tom asks.
“He did,” Mr. Strane says. “Technically.”
Hannah Levesque scrunches her nose. “Gross.”
Mr. Strane says nothing about what I know would disgust the rest of them even more, that Virginia Clemm wasn’t just Poe’s cousin; she was thirteen years old. He has each of us read aloud a stanza from “Annabel Lee,” and my voice is unsteady as I say the lines “I was a child and she was a child.” Images of Lolita crowd my head and mix with the memory of Mr. Strane whispering, You and I are the same, as he stroked my knee.
Toward the end of the period, he tips back his head, closes his eyes, and recites the poem “Alone” from memory, his deep, drawn-out voice making the lines “I could not bring / My passions from a common spring” sound like a song. Listening to him, I want to cry. I see him so clearly now, understand how lonely it must be for him, wanting the wrong thing, the bad thing, while living in a world that would surely villainize him if it knew.
At the end of class, after everyone else has left, I ask if I can shut the door and don’t wait for him to answer before pulling it closed. It feels like the bravest thing I’ve ever done. He’s at the chalkboard, eraser in hand, shirtsleeves pushed up past his elbows. He looks me up and down.
“You look a bit different today,” he says.
I say nothing, just tug at my sweater sleeves and roll my ankles.
“It’s as though you’ve aged five years over the break,” he adds, setting down the eraser and wiping his hands. He gestures to the paper I’m holding. “Is that for me?”
I nod. “It’s a poem.”
When I give it to him, he starts to read it right away, doesn’t lift his eyes even as he walks to his desk and sits down. Without asking, I follow and sit beside him. I finished the poem last night but tweaked the lines throughout the day, making them more like Lolita, more suggestive.
She waves the boats in from the sea.
One by one, they slide onto the sand-shore
with a thump that echoes
through her marrowed-out bones.
She shivers & shakes
as the sailors take her,
then cries through the aftercare,
the sailors feeding her mouthfuls of salted kelp,
saying they are sorry,
so sorry for what they’ve done.
Mr. Strane sets the poem on his desk and leans back in his chair, almost like he wants to distance himself from it. “You never title these,” he says, his voice sounding far away. “You should title them.” A minute passes and he doesn’t move or speak, only stares down at the poem.
Sitting there in silence, I’m smacked with the awful feeling that he’s tired of me, wants me to leave him alone. It makes me squeeze my eyes shut from embarrassment—for writing the blatantly sexy poem and thinking I could scheme and don a costume to get what I want, for reading too much into him loaning me a book and saying a few nice things. I saw what I wanted to see, convinced myself my fantasies were real. Sniffling like a little kid, I whisper that I’m sorry.
“Hey,” he says, suddenly soft. “Hey, why are you sorry?”
“Because,” I say, sucking in a breath. “Because I’m an idiot.”
“Why say that?” His arm is around my shoulders, pulling me in. “You’re nothing of the sort.”
When I was nine, I fell from the last tree I ever tried to climb. Him holding me feels just like that fall—how the earth came up to meet me rather than the other way around, the way the ground seemed to swallow me in the moments after landing. He and I are so close, if I tilt my head a few degrees, my cheek presses against his shoulder. I breathe in the wool of his sweater, the coffee and chalk dust smell of his skin, my mouth mere inches from his neck.
We stay like that, his arm holding me and my head against his shoulder, while laughter drifts in from the hallway and the downtown church bells mark the half hour. My knees press into his thigh; the back of my hand grazes his pant leg. Breathing shallow breaths into his neck, I will him to do something.
Then a small motion: his thumb strokes my shoulder.
I lift my face so my mouth almost touches his neck and I feel him swallow once, twice. It’s how he swallows—like he’s pushing something down within him—that gives me the courage to press my lips against his skin. It’s only a half kiss, but he shudders from it, and the feel of that makes me swell like a wave.
He kisses the top of my head then, his own half kiss, and again I press my mouth against his neck. It’s a dialogue of half actions, neither of us fully committed. There’s still a chance to turn away, change our minds. Half kisses can be forgotten but full kisses cannot. His hand squeezes my shoulder, tight and tighter, and something within my own body begins to rise. I struggle to force it down, worried that if I don’t, I might leap forward, grab him by the throat, and ruin the whole thing.
Then, without warning, he lets go. He draws away from me and then we aren’t touching at all. Behind his glasses, he blinks as though adjusting to new light. “We should talk about this,” he says.
“This is serious.”
“We’re breaking a lot of rules.”
“I know,” I say, annoyed at the idea of him thinking I don’t realize this, that I haven’t already spent hours trying to figure out exactly how serious this is.
He looks me over, his face bewildered and hard. Under his breath, he mutters, “This is unreal.”
The second hand on the classroom clock ticks by. It’s still faculty service hour. The door is closed, but technically someone could come in at any moment.
“So, what is it that you want to do?” he asks.
It’s too big of a question. What I want depends on what he wants. “I don’t know.”
He turns toward the windows, crosses his arms over his chest. I don’t know isn’t a good answer. It’s what a child would say, not someone willing and capable of making up her own mind.
“I like being with you,” I say. He waits for me to offer more, and my eyes move around the classroom as I struggle for the right words. “I also like what we do.”
“What do you mean, ‘what we do’?” He wants me to say it, but I don’t know what to call it.
I gesture at the space between our bodies. “This.”
Smiling faintly, he says, “I like that, too. What about this?” He leans forward and touches the tips of his fingers to my knee. “Do you like this?”
Watching my face, his fingertips slide up my leg and keep sliding until they brush the crotch of my tights. Reflexively, my legs clamp together, trapping his hand.
“That was too far,” he acknowledges.
I shake my head, relax my legs. “It’s ok.”
“It’s not ok.” His hand slips out from under my skirt and he slides like liquid out of his chair and onto the floor. Kneeling before me, he lays his head on my lap and says, “I’m going to ruin you.”
It’s the most unbelievable thing that has happened so far, more surreal than him saying he wanted to kiss me or his hand stroking my leg. “I’m going to ruin you.” He says it with obvious torment, a glimpse into how much he’s thought about it, wrestled with it. He wants to do the right thing, doesn’t want to hurt me, but has resigned himself to the likelihood that he will.
With my hands hanging in midair above him, I take in his details: black hair, gray at the temples; the smooth grain of his beard ending at a clean-shaven line under his jaw. There’s a small cut on his neck, slightly inflamed, and I imagine him that morning in his bathroom, razor in hand, while I stood barefoot in my dorm room, smearing makeup on my face.
“I want to be a positive presence in your life,” he says. “Someone you can look back on and remember fondly, the funny old teacher who was pathetically in love with you but kept his hands to himself and was a good boy in the end.”
His head still heavy in my lap, my legs start to shake, my armpits and the backs of my knees break into a sweat. “Pathetically in love with you.” As soon as he says this, I become someone somebody else is in love with, and not just some dumb boy my own age but a man who has already lived an entire life, who has done and seen so much and still thinks I’m worthy of his love. I feel forced over a threshold, thrust out of my ordinary life into a place where it’s possible for grown men to be so pathetically in love with me they fall at my feet.
“Some days I sit in your chair after you leave class. I rest my head on the table like I’m trying to breathe you in.” He lifts his head from my lap, rubs his face, and sits back on his heels. “What the fuck is the matter with me? I can’t tell you this. I’m going to give you nightmares.”
He hefts himself back into his chair, and I know I have to offer something to convince him I’m not afraid. I need to match him, show he isn’t alone. “I think about you all the time,” I say.
For a moment, his face brightens. He catches himself and scoffs. “Like hell you do.”
“All the time. I’m obsessed.”
“That I find hard to believe. Beautiful girls don’t fall in love with lecherous old men.”
“You aren’t lecherous.”
“Not yet,” he says, “but if I make another move toward you, I will be.”
He needs more, so I give more. I tell him I write my stupid poems just so he’ll read them (“Your poems are not stupid,” he says. “Please don’t call them that.”), that I spent all Thanksgiving break reading Lolita and feel changed because of it, that I dressed up today for him, that I shut the classroom door because I wanted us to be alone.
“And I thought we might . . .” I trail off.
“We might what?”
I roll my eyes, titter out a laugh. “You know.”
Swiveling slightly in the chair, I say, “That we might, I don’t know, kiss or something.”
“You want me to kiss you?”
I lift my shoulders and duck my head so my hair falls over my face, too embarrassed to say it.
“Is that a yes?”
Behind my hair, I give a little grunt.
“Have you been kissed before?” He pushes back my hair so he can see me, and I shake my head no, too nervous to lie.
He gets up and locks the classroom door, turns off the lights so no one can look in through the windows. When he takes my face in his hands, I close my eyes and keep them closed. His lips are dry, like laundry stiff from the sun. His beard is softer than I expected, but his glasses hurt. They dig into my cheeks.
There’s one close-lipped kiss, then another. He makes a wordless hmm sound and then there’s an open kiss that goes on for a while. I can’t focus on what is happening, my mind so far away it might as well belong to someone else. The whole time all I can think about is how weird it is that he has a tongue.
Afterward, my teeth won’t stop chattering. I want to be fearless, to smirk and say something flirty and coy, but all I can do is wipe my nose on my sleeve and whisper, “I feel really weird.”
He kisses my forehead, my temples, the corner of my jaw. “A good weird, I hope.”
I know I should say yes, reassure him, give him no reason to doubt how much I want it, but I only stare off into middle distance until he leans forward and kisses me again.
I sit at my usual place at the seminar table, my palms flat on the tabletop to keep myself from touching the raw skin at the corners of my mouth. Other students filter in, unzipping their coats and pulling copies of Ethan Frome out of their backpacks. They don’t know what happened, can never know, but still I want to scream it. Or, if I can’t scream it, I want to press the heels of my hands against the table, break through the wood until the whole thing cracks apart and the splintered pieces fall in such a way that the secret spells out across the floor.
On the other side of the table, Tom leans back, stretching his arms behind his head so his shirt rides up, showing a couple inches of his stomach. Jenny’s chair is empty. Before Tom came in, Hannah Levesque said something about them breaking up, gossip that would have sent me reeling two months ago. Now it barely registers. Two months feels like a lifetime.
During class, as Mr. Strane lectures on Ethan Frome, there’s a slight tremble in his hands, a reluctance to look my way—or no, it’s ridiculous now to think of him as “mister.” But the thought of calling him by his first name seems wrong, too. At one point he touches his hand to his forehead, loses his train of thought, something I’ve never seen him do before.
“Right,” he mumbles. “Where was I?”
The clock above the doorframe ticks two, three, four seconds. Hannah Levesque makes some painfully obvious point about the novel, and instead of brushing her off, Strane says, “Yes, exactly.” Turning to the chalkboard, he writes in big letters, Who is to blame? and an ocean roars in my ears.
He talks about the whole plot of the novel even though we only had to read the first fifty pages for class. The allure of young Mattie and the moral conundrum the older, married Ethan finds himself in. Is Ethan’s love for her really wrong? He lives in desolation. All he has is sickly Zeena upstairs. “People will risk everything for a little bit of something beautiful,” Strane says, with so much sincerity in his voice there are ripples of laughter around the seminar table.
I should be used to this by now but it’s still surreal—how he can talk about the books and also about me, and they have no idea. It’s like when he touched me behind his desk while everyone else sat at the table, working on their thesis statements. Things happen right in front of them. It’s like they’re all too ordinary to notice.
Who is to blame? He underlines the question and looks to us for answers. He’s struggling. I see that now. It isn’t that he’s nervous to be around me; he’s wondering whether he did something wrong. If I were braver, I would raise my hand and say about Ethan Frome and about him, He didn’t do anything wrong. Or I’d say, Shouldn’t Mattie share some of the blame, too? But I sit silently, a scared little mouse.
At the end of class, Who is to blame? still stretches across the chalkboard. The other students file through the door, down the hallway, and out into the courtyard, but I take my time. I pull my backpack zipper, bend down and pretend to tie my shoes, slow as a sloth. He doesn’t acknowledge me until the hallway outside the classroom is empty. No witnesses.
“How are you doing?” he asks.
I smile brightly, tug at my backpack straps. “I’m fine.” I know I can’t show even a hint of distress. If I do, he might decide I can’t handle any more kisses.
“I was worried you might be feeling overwhelmed,” he says.
“Ok.” He exhales. “Sounds like you’re doing better than I am.”
We decide I’ll come by later, after faculty service hour when the humanities building is quiet. When I’m nearly out the door, he says, “You look lovely.”
I can’t stop the grin from taking over my face. I do look lovely—dark green sweater, my best-fitting corduroys, my hair falling in waves over my shoulders. That was on purpose.
When I return to the classroom, the sun has set, and there aren’t any window blinds so we turn off the lights, sit behind his desk, and kiss in the dark.
* * *
Ms. Thompson organizes a Secret Santa in the dorm and I draw Jenny’s name, which seems like it should hurt. Instead all I feel is a vague annoyance. I take the ten dollars I’m meant to use on a gift and go to the grocery store, buy her a pound of generic-brand ground coffee, and spend the rest on snacks for myself. I don’t even wrap the coffee; at the gift exchange I give it to her in the plastic grocery bag.
“What is this?” she asks, the first words she’s spoken to me since last spring on the last day of the year—the I guess I’ll see you around she tossed over her shoulder as she left our dorm room.
“It’s your gift.”
“You didn’t wrap it?” She opens the bag with the tips of her fingers, like she’s worried what might be inside.
“It’s coffee,” I say. “Because you were always drinking coffee or whatever.”
She looks down at it, blinking so hard that for a moment I’m horrified, thinking she’s about to cry. “Here.” She thrusts an envelope at me. “I got your name, too.”
Inside the envelope is a card and, inside that, a twenty-dollar gift certificate to the bookstore downtown. I hold the gift certificate in one hand and the card in the other, my eyes darting back and forth between them. Inside the card, she wrote, Merry Christmas, Vanessa. I know we haven’t kept in touch but I hope we can work on repairing our friendship.
“Why did you do this?” I ask. “We were only supposed to spend ten dollars.”
Ms. Thompson moves from pair to pair, commenting on all the gifts. When she reaches us, she sees Jenny’s red cheeks, the vacuum-sealed bag of cheap coffee fallen out onto the floor, the guilt all over my face.
“Mmm, what a nice gift!” Ms. Thompson says, so enthusiastic I think she’s talking about the gift certificate, but she means the coffee. “As far as I’m concerned, you can never have too much caffeine. Vanessa, what did you get?”
I hold up the gift certificate and Ms. Thompson gives a thin smile. “That’s nice, too.”
“I have homework to do,” Jenny says. She picks up the coffee with two fingers, like it’s something gross she doesn’t want to touch, and leaves the common room. I want to say more, to shout after her that the only reason she wants anything to do with me is because Tom broke up with her, and that it’s too late because I’ve moved on. I’m doing things now Jenny wouldn’t even be able to imagine.
Ms. Thompson turns to me. “I think it was a thoughtful gift, Vanessa. It’s not just about how much money you spend.”
I realize then why she’s being nice—she thinks I’m so poor that a three-dollar bag of coffee is all I can afford. The assumption is both funny and insulting, but I don’t correct her.
“Ms. Thompson, what are you doing for Christmas?” Deanna asks.
“Going home to New Jersey for a while,” she says. “Might take a trip to Vermont with friends.”
“What about your boyfriend?” Lucy asks.
“Can’t say I have one of those.” Ms. Thompson steps away to check out some other Secret Santa gifts, and I watch how she clasps her hands behind her back and pretends not to hear Deanna whisper to Lucy, “I thought Mr. Strane was her boyfriend?”
One afternoon Strane tells me my name originated with Jonathan Swift, the Irish writer, and that Swift once knew a woman named Esther Vanhomrigh, nickname Essa. “He broke her name apart and put it back together as something new,” Strane said. “Van-essa became Vanessa. Became you.”
I don’t say it, but sometimes I feel like that’s exactly what he’s doing to me—breaking me apart, putting me back together as someone new.
He says the first Vanessa was in love with Swift and that she was twenty-two years younger. He was her tutor. Strane goes to the bookshelves behind his desk and finds a copy of the poem Swift wrote called “Cadenus and Vanessa.” It’s long, sixty pages, the whole thing about a young girl in love with her teacher. My heart gallops as I skim the poem, but I feel his eyes on me so I try not to let it show, shrugging my shoulders and saying in my laziest voice, “That’s kind of funny, I guess.”
Strane frowns. “I thought it eerie, not funny.” He slides the book back onto the shelf and mumbles, “It got under my skin. Made me start thinking about fate.”
I watch him sit at his desk and flip open his grade book. The tips of his ears are red, like he’s embarrassed. Am I capable of embarrassing him? I forget sometimes he can be vulnerable, too.
“I know what you mean,” I say.
He looks up from his book, light glinting off his glasses.
“I kind of feel like this whole thing is destiny.”
“This whole thing,” he repeats. “You mean what we do together?”
I nod. “Like maybe this is what I was born to do.”
As my words register, his lips start to tremble like he’s trying hard not to smile. “Go shut the door,” he says. “Turn out the lights.”
I use the pay phone in the Gould common room to call home the Sunday before Christmas break, and Mom says she has to pick me up on Tuesday rather than Wednesday, meaning an extra day of break, an extra day of no Strane. It’s hard enough getting through a weekend without him; I don’t know how I’ll manage to survive three weeks, so when she tells me this, it feels like the floor opens up beneath me.
“You didn’t even ask me! You can’t just decide that you’re going to pick me up a whole day early without asking me if it’s ok.” My panic gains momentum and I struggle not to cry. “I have responsibilities,” I say. “There are things I have to do.”
“What things?” Mom asks. “Good lord, why are you so upset? Where is this coming from?”
Pressing my forehead against the wall, I take a breath and manage to get out, “There’s a creative writing club meeting I can’t miss.”
“Oh.” Mom exhales like she expected something more serious. “Well, I won’t get there until six. That should give you enough time to go to your meeting.”
She takes a bite of something and it crunches between her teeth. I hate how she eats while she talks to me, or cleans, or has conversations with Dad at the same time. Sometimes she’ll take the phone with her into the bathroom and I don’t realize until I hear a flush in the background.
“I didn’t know you liked that club so much,” she says.
I wipe my nose with my sweatshirt’s dirty cuff. “It’s not about me liking it. It’s about taking my responsibilities seriously.”
“Hmm.” She takes another bite, and whatever it is rattles around in her teeth.
On Monday, when Strane and I sit in the dark classroom, I won’t let him kiss me. I turn away and twist my legs out of his reach.
“What wrong?” he asks.
I shake my head, don’t know how to explain. He seems completely unbothered by the upcoming break. He hasn’t even brought it up.
“It’s fine if you don’t want me to touch you,” he says. “Just tell me to stop.”
He leans in close, peering at me, trying to make out my expression in the dark. I can see the darting shine of his eyes because he’s not wearing his glasses—ever since I told him they hurt my face, he takes them off before we kiss.
“As much as I wish I could, I can’t read your mind,” he says.
His fingertips touch my knees and wait to see if I’ll jerk away. When I don’t, his hands creep farther up my thighs, over my hips, and around my waist, the casters of the chair squeaking as he pulls me close. I sigh, lean into him, his body like a mountain.
“It’s just we’re not going to be able to do this again for so long,” I say. “Three whole weeks.”
I feel him relax. “That’s what you’re sulking over?”
It’s how he laughs that makes me start to cry, like I’m being ridiculous, but he thinks it’s the idea of missing him that’s making me so upset.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he says, kissing my forehead. He calls me sensitive. “Like a . . .” He stops and softly laughs. “I was about to say like a little girl. I forget sometimes that’s exactly what you are.”
I turn my face deeper into him and whisper that I feel out of control. I want him to say he feels the same, but he just continues stroking my hair. Maybe he doesn’t need to say it. I think of his head in my lap the afternoon we first kissed, how he moaned, I’m going to ruin you. Of course he’s out of control; you have to be careening to do what we’re doing.
He pulls away, kisses the corners of my mouth. “I’ve got an idea,” he says.
The ground outside is covered in snow, reflecting enough light into the classroom so I can see his smile, the wrinkles that appear around his eyes. Up close, his face is disjointed, enormous. On the bridge of his nose there are indentations from his glasses that never go away.
“But you have to promise not to agree to what I’m proposing unless you absolutely want to,” he says. “Ok?”
I sniff, wipe my eyes. “Ok.”
“What if after Christmas break . . . say, the first Friday we’re back . . .” He draws in a breath. “What if you came to my house?”
I blink in surprise. I assumed this would happen eventually, but this feels soon, though maybe not. We’ve been kissing for over two weeks.
When I say nothing, he continues. “I think it’d be nice to spend time together outside of this classroom. We could eat dinner, look at each other with the lights on. That’d be fun, right?”
Immediately, I’m afraid. I wish I weren’t and, chewing on the inside of my cheek, I do my best to rationalize it away. I’m not afraid of him but rather of his body—the sheer size of it, the expectation that I do things to it. As long as we stay in the classroom, kissing is all we can do, but going to his house means anything can happen. That the obvious will happen. Meaning sex.
“How would I even get there?” I ask. “What about curfew?”
“Slip out of the dorm afterward. I can wait for you in the parking lot out back and whisk you away. Then in the morning, I’d get you back early enough that no one would be the wiser.”
When I still hesitate, his body stiffens. His chair rolls backward, away from me, and cold air sweeps across my legs. “I’m not going to force you if you’re not ready,” he says.
“It doesn’t seem like you are.”
“I am,” I insist. “I’ll come over.”
“But is that what you want?”
“Is it really?”
He stares at me, the shine of his eyes moving back and forth. I gnaw harder on my cheek, thinking maybe he won’t be mad at me if I hurt myself enough to ignite a fresh round of tears.
“Listen,” he says, “I have no expectations. I’d be happy to sit on the couch with you and watch a movie. We don’t even have to hold hands if you don’t want to, ok? It’s important that you never feel coerced. That’s the only way I’ll be able to live with myself.”
“I don’t feel coerced.”
“You don’t? Truly?”
I shake my head.
“Good. That’s good.” He reaches for my hands. “You’re in charge here, Vanessa. You decide what we do.”
I wonder if he really believes that. He touched me first, said he wanted to kiss me, told me he loved me. Every first step was taken by him. I don’t feel forced, and I know I have the power to say no, but that isn’t the same as being in charge. But maybe he has to believe that. Maybe there’s a whole list of things he has to believe.
* * *
For Christmas I get: a fifty-dollar bill; two sweaters, one lavender cable knit, the other white mohair; a new Fiona Apple CD to replace my scratched-up one; boots from the L.L.Bean outlet store, but you can only tell the stitching is messed up if you look closely; an electric kettle for my dorm room; a box of maple sugar candies; socks and underwear; a chocolate orange.
At home with my parents, I do my best to put Strane in a drawer and close it up tight. I resist the urge to stay in bed daydreaming and writing about him and instead do things that make me feel like the girl I used to be—reading by the woodstove; chopping figs and walnuts with Mom at the kitchen table; helping Dad haul home a tree, Babe the puppy bouncing alongside us like a furry yellow dolphin as we trudge through the snow. Most nights after Dad goes to bed and Babe follows him upstairs, Mom and I lie on the couch and watch TV. We like the same shows: period dramas, Ally McBeal, The Daily Show. We laugh along with Jon Stewart, cringe when George W. Bush comes on-screen. The recount is long over now, Bush declared the winner.
“I still can’t believe he stole the election,” I say.
“They all steal elections,” Mom says. “It’s just not so bad when a Democrat does it.”
While we watch TV and eat the expensive ginger lemon cookies Mom keeps hidden at the top of the pantry, she inches her feet toward me and tries to burrow them under my butt even though I hate it. When I grumble, she tells me to stop being prickly. “You used to be in my womb, you know.”
I tell her about the note Jenny gave me with the Secret Santa present, about her and me repairing our friendship, and Mom smirks, jabs her finger at me. “I told you she’d try to do that. I hope you don’t fall for it.”
She falls asleep, her dishwater blond hair tangled across her face as the TV switches to infomercials. This is when Strane comes roaring back, when the house is still and I’m the only one awake. I stare at the screen with glazed eyes and feel him there with me, holding me, slipping his hand under my pajama bottoms. On the other end of the couch, my mother snores, jolting me out of the daydream, and I flee upstairs. My bedroom is the only safe space to let him in, where I can shut the door, lie on my bed, and imagine what it will feel like to be in his house, what it will feel like to have sex. What he’ll look like when he takes off his clothes.
I dig through my old issues of Seventeen, searching for articles about having sex for the first time in case there’s something I should do to prepare myself, but they all say the same inane stuff like, “Having sex is a big deal, don’t feel pressured to do it, you have all the time in the world!” So I go online and find a message board thread titled “Advice on Losing Your V-Card,” and the only piece of advice for girls is “Don’t just lie there,” but what does that even mean? Get on top? I try to imagine myself doing that to Strane, but it’s too embarrassing; my whole body cringes at the thought. I close the browser, first checking the search history three times to make sure I deleted everything.
The night before we drive back to Browick, while my parents watch Tom Brokaw, I sneak into their room and open the top drawer of my mother’s dresser, root around the bras and underwear until I find a silky black nightie with a yellowed tag still attached. Back in my bedroom, I try it on without anything underneath. It’s a little long, reaching past my knees, but it’s tight, the outline of my body visible in a way that seems grown-up and sexy. Staring in the mirror, I pile my hair on top of my head and let it fall around my face. I bite my bottom lip until it turns swollen and red. One of the straps falls down my arm and I imagine Strane, with his tender-condescending smile, slipping it back up my shoulder. In the morning, I stuff the nightgown into the bottom of my bag and can’t stop smiling the whole drive back to Browick, pleased with how easy it is to get away with something, with anything.
On campus the snowbanks are taller, the Christmas decorations gone, and the dorms stink of the vinegar they use to wash the hardwood floors. Early Monday morning I go to the humanities building in search of Strane. At the sight of me, his face lights up, breaks into a grin, a hungry mouth. He locks the classroom door and presses me against the filing cabinet, kisses me so hard he practically gnaws at me, our teeth knocking against each other. His thigh pushes my legs apart and rubs against me—it feels good, but it happens so quickly I gasp, and at the sound he lets go and staggers backward, asks if he hurt me.
“I can’t keep it together when I’m around you,” he says. “I’m acting like a teenager.”
He asks if we’re still on for Friday. Says that over these past weeks, he thought about me constantly, was surprised at how much he missed me. At that, I narrow my eyes. Why surprised? “Because really we don’t know each other that well,” he explains. “But, my god, you’ve gotten to me.” When I ask him what he did for Christmas, he says, “Thought about you.”
The week feels like a countdown, like slow footsteps down a long hallway. Once Friday night arrives, it hardly feels real to shove the black nightgown into my backpack while across the hall Mary Emmett belts out that five-hundred-twenty-five-thousand-six-hundred-minutes song from Rent with her door wide open and Jenny strides by in her bathrobe on her way to the shower. Strange to think that for them it’s just another Friday night, how easily their ordinary lives go on, running parallel to my own.
At nine thirty I check in with Ms. Thompson, tell her I don’t feel well and that I’m going to bed early, then wait until the hallway is clear and sneak out the back stairwell, the one with the broken alarm. Hurrying across campus, I see Strane’s station wagon waiting with the headlights off in the lot behind the humanities building. When I throw open the passenger door and slide inside, he pulls me close, laughing in a way I haven’t heard from him before—manic and gasping, as though he can’t believe this is really happening.
His house is sparse and cleaner than I’ve ever seen my parents’, the kitchen sink empty and shining, a dishrag drying on the faucet’s long neck. A few days ago he asked what I like to eat, said he wanted to have my favorites on hand, and he shows me the three pints of expensive ice cream in the freezer, a six-pack of Cherry Coke in the fridge, two big bags of potato chips on the counter. There’s a bottle of whiskey on the counter, too, along with a glass holding a mostly melted ice cube.
In the living room, there’s no clutter on the coffee table, only a stack of coasters and two remote controls. The bookcases are neatly arranged, nothing thrown in sideways or upside down. As he leads me on a tour, I sip a soda and try to appear impressed but not too impressed, interested but not too interested. Really, though, I’m trembling all over.
His bedroom is the last room he shows me. We stand in the doorway, bubbles pinging inside my soda can, neither of us sure of the next move. I have to be back at Gould in six hours, but I’ve been here for only ten minutes. His bed stretches out before us, neatly made with a khaki comforter and pillows in tartan cases. It feels too soon.
“Are you tired?” he asks.
I shake my head. “Not really.”
“Then maybe you shouldn’t be drinking this.” He takes the soda from my hands. “All that caffeine.”
I suggest watching TV, hoping to remind him of the offer he’d made of sitting on the couch and watching a movie, holding hands.
“I’m sure to fall asleep if we do that,” he says. “Why don’t we just go ahead and get ready for bed?”
Turning to his dresser, he opens the top drawer, pulls something out. It’s a pajama set, shorts and a tank top made from white cotton dotted with red strawberries. They’re neatly folded with the tags still attached, brand new, bought especially for me.
“I thought you might forget to bring clothes to sleep in,” he says, putting the pajamas in my hands. I say nothing about the black nightgown in the bottom of my backpack.
In the bathroom I try to make as little sound as possible as I peel off my clothes and break the tags off the pajamas. Before I put them on, I stare at my face in the mirror, peek in the shower at his bottle of shampoo and bar of soap, inspect everything on the counter. He has an electric toothbrush, an electric razor, and a digital scale that I stand on, curling my toes as the numbers flash—145, two pounds less than I was at Christmas.
Holding up the tank top, I wonder why he chose this particular set. Probably because he liked the print—he’s said before that my hair and skin remind him of strawberries and cream. I picture him browsing a girls’ clothing section, his big hands touching all the different pajamas, and the thought fills me with tenderness, similar to how I felt a few years ago when I saw a photo of that famous gorilla cradling her pet kitten, the vulnerability of someone so big handling something so delicate, trying their best to be careful and kind.
I open the bathroom door and step into the bedroom, shielding an arm across my chest. The lamp on the nightstand is on, a soft warm light. He sits on the edge of the bed, his shoulders hunched, hands clasped.
“Everything fit ok?”
I shiver and give a half nod. Outside the window a car drives by, the noise approaching then receding, a hush of silence.
He asks, “Can I see?” and I step toward him, close enough for him to wrap his fingers around my wrist and pull my arm down. As his eyes move over me, he sighs and says, “Oh no,” like he’s already sorry for what we’re about to do.
He stands, folds down the comforter, and, under his breath, goes, “Ok, ok, ok.” He says he’ll stay dressed for now, which I know is meant to soothe me, maybe also himself. On his shirt, dark circles spread out from his armpits, just like during the convocation speech the first day of classes.
I slide into bed beside him and we lie on our backs under the covers, not touching, not talking. The ceiling is covered in cream and gold tiles that form a swirling pattern my eyes circle around and around. Beneath the down comforter, my hands and feet are warmer, but the tip of my nose stays cold.
“My room at home is always cold like this, too,” I say.
“Is it?” He turns to me, grateful I’ve made this somewhat normal by speaking. He asks me to describe my bedroom, what it looks like, how it’s arranged. I draw a map in the air.
“Here’s the window facing the lake,” I say, “and here’s the window facing the mountain. Here’s my closet and here’s my bed.” I tell him about my posters, the color of my bedspread. I say that in the summers, I wake sometimes in the middle of the night to the sound of loons screaming out on the lake, and that because the house isn’t well insulated, ice forms on the walls in the winter.
“I hope someday I get to see it for myself,” he says.
I laugh at the thought of him in my bedroom, how big he’d seem there, his head brushing the ceiling. “I don’t think that’ll ever happen.”
“You never know,” he says. “Opportunities come up.”
He tells me about his childhood bedroom in Montana. It was cold in the winter, too, he says. He describes Butte, the old mining boomtown, once the richest place on earth and now a depressed brown basin cradled by mountains. He describes the abandoned headframes poking up between the houses, how downtown was built on the side of a hill and how at the top of that hill is a big pit of acid left over from the mining.
“That sounds horrible,” I say.
“It does,” he agrees, “but it’s the sort of place that’s difficult to understand until you see it for yourself. There’s a strange beauty in it.”
“Beauty in a pit of acid?”
He smiles. “Someday we’ll go there. You’ll see.”
Under the comforter, he links his fingers through mine and continues talking, telling me about his younger sister, his parents; how his father was a copper miner, intimidating but kind, and his mother a teacher.
“What was she like?” I ask.
“Angry,” he says. “She was a very angry woman.”
I bite my lip, unsure what to say.
“She didn’t care for me,” he adds, “and I could never figure out why.”
“Is she still alive?”
“They’re both dead.”
I start to say I’m sorry but he cuts me off, squeezes my hand. “It’s fine,” he says. “Ancient history.”
We lie quiet for a while, our hands linked under the blankets. Breathing in and out, I close my eyes and try to pinpoint the scent of his bedroom. It’s a thin, masculine smell, traces of soap and deodorant on the flannel sheets, cedar from the closet. It’s strange to think this is where he lives like a normal person, sleeping and eating and doing all the monotonous everyday chores of living—washing the dishes, cleaning the bathroom, doing laundry. Does he do his own laundry? I try to picture him hauling clothes from washer to dryer, but the image dissolves as soon as I conjure it.
“Why didn’t you ever get married?” I ask.
He glances over at me and I feel his hand loosen its grip on mine for a moment, long enough to tell me this was the wrong thing to ask.
“Marriage isn’t for everyone,” he says. “You’ll figure that out as you get older.”
“No, I get it,” I say. “I never want to get married, either.” I don’t know if this is exactly true, but I’m trying to be generous. His worry is obvious, about me and what we’re doing. The smallest movement makes him jump, like I’m an animal prone to bolt or bite.
He smiles; his body relaxes. I said the right thing. “Of course you don’t. You know yourself enough to understand what you aren’t made for,” he says.
I want to ask what I am made for, but don’t want to show I don’t actually know myself, and don’t want to push it now that he’s again holding my hand and tilting his head toward mine like he’s moving in for a kiss. He hasn’t kissed me since I got here.
He asks again if I’m tired and I shake my head. “When you are,” he says, “let me know and I can go to the living room.”
The living room? I frown and try to figure out what he means. “Like you’ll sleep on the couch?”
He lets go of my hand and starts to speak, stops, starts again. “I’m ashamed of how I first touched you,” he says, “back at the beginning of the year. That’s not how I like to behave.”
“I liked it, though.”
“I know you liked it, but wasn’t it confusing?” He turns to me. “It must have been. Having your teacher touch you out of nowhere. I didn’t like doing that, acting without talking it through first. Talking through absolutely everything is the only way to redeem what we’re doing.”
He doesn’t say it, but I know what’s required of me here—to tell him how I feel and what I want. To be brave. I roll toward him, press my face into his neck. “I don’t want you to sleep on the couch.” I feel him smile.
“Ok,” he says. “Is there anything else you want?”
I nuzzle against him, slide my leg over his. I can’t say it. He asks if I want to be kissed, and when I nod into his neck, he takes a handful of my hair, draws my head back.
“My god,” he says, “look at you.”
I’m perfect, he says, so perfect I can’t be real. He kisses me and other stuff starts to happen fast, things we haven’t done before—pushing the tank top over my breasts, pinching and kneading, slipping his hand under the pajama shorts and cupping me down there.
For everything he does, he asks permission. “Can I?” before pulling the pajama top all the way over my head. “Is this ok?” before pushing my underwear over, slipping a finger inside so quickly that, for a moment, I’m stunned and my body plays dead. After a while he starts asking permission after he’s already done the thing he’s asking about. “Can I?” he asks, meaning can he tug the pajama shorts down, but they’re already off. “Is this ok?” meaning is it ok for him to kneel between my legs, but he’s already there, letting out a groan and saying, “I knew you’d be red here, too.”
I don’t understand what he’s doing until he starts doing it. Kissing me there, going down on me. I’m not an idiot; I know it’s something people do, but it hadn’t occurred to me that it’s something he would want. Wrapping his arms under me, he pulls me closer, and I dig my heels into the mattress, reach down and grab a fistful of his hair so hard it must hurt, but his kissing and licking and whatever else he does—how does he know exactly what to do to make me feel good? how does he know everything about me?—none of that stops. I bite my bottom lip to keep from crying out, and he makes a slurping sound, like sucking up the last of a soda through a straw, which would embarrass me if it didn’t feel so good. I drape my arm across my eyes, fall into swirls of color, ocean waves rising to mountains, the sensation of being so small until I come, harder than when I do it to myself, so hard I see stars.
“Ok, stop,” I say. “Stop, stop.”
He recoils as though I kicked him away—sits back on his knees, still in his T-shirt and jeans, hair mussed and face shiny. “Did you come?” he asks. “Really, that fast?”
I squeeze my legs together and my eyes shut. I can’t talk, can’t think. Was that fast? How long did it even take? A minute or ten or twenty, I have no clue.
“You did, didn’t you? Do you know how special that is?” he asks. “How rare?”
I open my eyes and watch him wipe his mouth with the back of his hand, then pause and hold that hand to his face, take a breath, and close his eyes.
He says he wishes he could do that to me every night. Pulling the comforter up with him, he lies down beside me and adds, “Every single night before you fall asleep.”
Him cradling me feels almost as good as him going down on me, his chin resting on top of my head, his big body curled around mine. He smells like me. “We won’t go further than that for now,” he says, and I turn liquid-warm at the thought of sex being nothing but him doing that to me.
He reaches over and turns off the nightstand light, but I can’t sleep. His arm grows heavy across my shoulders as I replay in my head the way he said “oh no” when he saw me in the pajamas, the way he wrapped his arms under my legs to pull me closer to his face when he went down on me. The way he, at one point, reached up and held my hand in the middle of it all.
I want him to do it again, but don’t dare wake him to ask. Maybe he’ll do it again in the morning before I leave. Maybe we’ll be able to do it after school in his classroom sometimes, or go for drives off campus and do it in his car. My mind won’t quiet. Even as I eventually doze, my brain still schemes.
When I wake a couple hours later, it’s dark outside. Hallway light streams in through the bedroom doorway, across the floor. Beside me, Strane is awake, his mouth hot on my neck. I turn onto my back, grinning, expecting him to move his face down between my legs, but he’s naked when I roll over. Pale skin covered in dark hair from his chest all the way down his legs, and in the center his penis, enormous and erect.
“Oh!” I say. “Ok! Wow. Ok.” Small, stupid words. When he takes my wrist and guides my hand to it, I say them again. “Oh! Ok!” He closes my fingers around it, and I know that I’m meant to do the up-and-down stuff, and my hand immediately starts pumping away, dutiful as a robot, disconnected from my brain. It’s loose skin sliding over a column of muscle, but rough, halting. It’s like a dog hacking up garbage that’s been sitting in its stomach for days, that violent, full-body gag.
“Slower, baby,” he says. “A little slower.” He shows me what he means, and I try to keep the pace even though my arm is starting to cramp. I want to tell him I’m tired, to roll over and never look at the thing ever again, but that would be selfish. He said me naked is the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen. It would be cruel for me to counter that with disgust. It doesn’t matter that my skin crawls from touching him. It doesn’t matter. It’s fine. He did that to you, now you do this to him. You can handle a few minutes of this.
When he guides my hand away from it, I worry he’ll ask me to use my mouth next and I don’t want that, I can’t do that, but instead he says, “Do you want me to fuck you?” It’s a question, but he isn’t really asking.
I can’t wrap my head around the change in him. Now I’m not even sure if he really said, We won’t go further than that for now, or maybe “for now” meant something totally different from what I assumed. Do I want him to fuck me? Fuck me. The crudeness of it makes me turn my face into the pillow. His voice doesn’t even sound the same, haggard and rough. I open my eyes and he’s positioning himself between my legs, brow furrowed in concentration.
I try to stall, tell him I don’t want to get pregnant.
“You won’t,” he says. “That’s impossible.”
I move my hips away. “What does that mean?”
“I had an operation, a vasectomy,” he says. He holds himself with one hand and steadies me with the other. “You won’t get pregnant. Just relax.” He tries to push in, his thumb digging hard into my pelvis. It won’t fit.
“You gotta calm down, honey,” he says. “Take a deep breath.”
I start to tear up, but he doesn’t stop, just says I’m doing great as he keeps trying to get it in. He tells me to breathe in and out, and when I exhale, he thrusts hard and pushes a little farther inside. I start crying, really crying—still, he doesn’t stop.
“You’re doing great,” he says. “Another deep breath, ok? It’s ok if it hurts. It won’t hurt forever. Just one more deep breath, ok? There we go. That’s nice. That’s so nice.”
Afterward, he gets out of bed, a flash of belly and butt before I shut my eyes. He pulls on his underwear and the elastic band snaps like a whip crack, like something splitting in two. As he walks to the bathroom, he coughs hard and loud and I hear him spit into the sink. Under the blankets, I’m raw and slick, my legs slimy all the way down my thighs. My mind feels like the lake on a calm day, glassy and still. I’m nothing, no one, nowhere.
When he comes back into the bedroom, he looks like himself again, dressed in a T-shirt and sweatpants, his glasses on. He slides into bed, curls his body around mine. He whispers, “We made love, didn’t we?” and I gauge the distance between “fuck” and “made love.”
After a while, we have sex again and it’s slower, easier. I don’t come from it, but at least I’m not crying this time. I even like the weight of him on top of me, so heavy it slows my heart. He comes with a groan and a shudder takes over his body, radiating from his core. The feel of him trembling on top of me makes my muscles contract and squeeze him even tighter inside, and I understand then what people probably mean when they say that stuff about two becoming one.
He apologizes for finishing too quickly, for being clumsy. He says it’s been a while since he was last intimate. I roll the word intimate around in my mouth and think of Ms. Thompson.
After we have sex the second time, I go to the bathroom and peek in his medicine cabinet, something I wouldn’t think to do if I hadn’t seen women in movies do it when they spend the night in a strange man’s home. His cabinet is full of the usual Band-Aids and Neosporin, over-the-counter digestive stuff, plus two orange prescription bottles labeled with names I recognize from commercials, Viagra and Wellbutrin.
On the dark drive back to campus, the streetlights flashing yellow, he asks how I feel. “I hope you’re not too overwhelmed,” he says.
I know he wants the truth and that I should tell him I didn’t like being woken up by him hard and practically pushing into me. That I wasn’t ready to have sex this way. That it felt forced. But I’m not brave enough to say any of this—not even that I feel sick to my stomach when I think about him guiding my hand to his penis and don’t understand why he didn’t stop when I started to cry. That the thought I want to go home ran through my head the entire time we first did it.
“I feel fine,” I say.
He watches me closely, like he wants to be sure I’m telling the truth. “That’s good,” he says. “That’s what we want.”