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My Dark Vanessa (Page 5)

Text from Mom: Hey you. Listen to what just happened. Middle of the night, I can’t sleep, heard something outside, went downstairs and turned on the porch light, and there was a BEAR going through the garbage can!!! Scared the crap out of me. I screamed and ran upstairs and hid under the covers lol. Watching that British cooking show now to try to calm down. Lordy. Not much other news here. That woman Marjorie who lives on the other side of the lake has lung cancer. The one with the goats. Anyway, she’s on her way out. Very sad. My car got recalled because of that thing with the door. Going to take 8–12 weeks. They gave me some piece of shit rental. Ugh. Horror after horror. Anyway, just checking in. Call your momma sometime.

Bleary-eyed and still in bed at ten a.m., I try to make sense of the text. I have no idea who Marjorie is, or what’s wrong with Mom’s car door, or what British cooking show she’s talking about. Ever since Dad died, I’ll wake up to texts like these. This one, at least, has regular punctuation; others are rambling stream-of-consciousness thoughts linked with ellipses, incoherent enough to make me worry.

I close the text, open Facebook, and check Taylor’s profile for anything new. I type into the search bar names I’ve looked up so many times they pop up with the first letter: Jesse Ly, Jenny Murphy. Jesse lives in Boston, does something in marketing. Jenny’s a surgeon in Philadelphia. In her photos, she already looks middle-aged, deep wrinkles around her eyes, brown hair laced with gray. Nothing posted about Strane in their profiles, but why would there be? They’re adults living actual fulfilling lives. They have no reason to remember what happened back then, or even to remember me.

X-ing out of Facebook, I google “Henry Plough Atlantica College,” and the first result is his faculty profile with the same decade-old photo of him in his office, the beers he and I would later drink together unopened on the bookshelf behind him. He was thirty-four then, only a couple years older than I am now. The second search result is an article from the Atlantica student newspaper dated May 2015, “Literature Professor Henry Plough Receives Teaching Award.” It’s a prize given every four years, the recipient decided by a student vote. Junior English major Emma Thibodeau says students are thrilled with the result: “Henry is an incredible professor, so inspiring and you can talk to him about anything. He’s just an amazing person. His classes have changed my life.”

I scroll to the bottom of the article where a cursor sits blinking in an empty text box. “Want to leave a comment?” I type, “Re: ‘an amazing person’—Trust me, he’s not,” but the article is two years old and Henry didn’t do anything that bad anyway, so what does it matter? I toss the phone across my bed, go back to sleep.

 

Strane calls when I’m walking to work, stoned from the bowl I smoked while getting ready. My phone vibrates in my hand, the screen flashing his name, and I stop in the middle of the sidewalk like a tourist, oblivious to the flow of pedestrian traffic. I bring the phone to my ear and someone smacks my shoulder, a girl in a jean jacket—no, two girls in matching jackets, one black-haired, one blond. They walk with their arms linked, backpacks bumping against their tailbones. They must be from the high school, sneaking out during lunch period to roam downtown. The black-haired girl, the one who ran into me, shoots me a look over her shoulder. “Sorry,” she calls, her voice lazy and insincere.

On the phone, Strane says, “Did you hear me? I said I’m vindicated.”

“You mean you’re ok?”

“I’ll be back in my classroom tomorrow.” He laughs as though he can’t believe it. “I thought for sure I was finished.”

I stand on the sidewalk, my gaze still fixed on the two girls as they move down Congress Street, their undulating hair. Him back in the classroom, once again unscathed. Disappointment seeps into me as though I wanted to see him fall, a meanness that catches me off guard. Maybe I’m just stoned, my mind tumbling down a rabbit hole of feeling. I need to stop smoking before work. Need to grow up, let go, move on.

“I thought you’d be pleased,” Strane says.

The girls disappear down a side street, and I exhale a breath I didn’t realize I was holding. “I am. Of course I am. That’s great.” I start walking again, my legs unsteady. “I bet you’re relieved.”

“I’m a little more than relieved,” he says. “I was making peace with the idea of spending the rest of my life in prison.”

I stop myself from rolling my eyes at the exaggeration, as though he might somehow see me. Does he really believe he’d ever go to prison, a Harvard-educated, well-spoken white man? The fear feels unfounded and vaguely performative, but maybe it’s cruel to criticize. He’s been panicked, in crisis. He’s earned the right to some melodrama. I can’t understand what it feels like to stare down that kind of ruin. The risks he took were always greater than mine. Just be nice for once in your life, Vanessa. Why do you always have to be so fucking mean?

“We could celebrate,” I say. “I can get Saturday off. There’s a new Scandinavian restaurant everyone’s crazy about.”

Strane sucks in a breath. “Not sure that’s going to work,” he says. I open my mouth to offer something else—a different restaurant, a different day, to drive up to Norumbega rather than have him come here—but he adds, “I need to be cautious right now.”

Cautious. I squint at the word, try to understand what he’s really saying. “You’re not going to get in trouble for being seen with me,” I say. “I’m thirty-two years old.”

“Vanessa.”

“Nobody remembers.”

“Of course they do,” he says. Impatience sharpens his words. He shouldn’t have to explain that even at thirty-two years old I’m still illicit, dangerous. I am living, breathing evidence of the worst thing he’s ever done. People remember me. The whole reason he was on the brink of disaster is because people remember.

“It’d be best if we keep our distance for a while,” he says. “Just until this all cools down.”

I concentrate on breathing as I cross the street to the hotel, throwing a wave to the valet standing at the entrance to the parking garage, the housekeepers in the alley taking long drags from their cigarettes.

“Fine,” I say. “If that’s what you want.”

A pause. “It’s not what I want. It’s just how it has to be.”

I open the lobby door and my face is hit with a waft of air thick with jasmine and citrus. They literally pump the scent in through the vents. It’s supposed to energize and rejuvenate the senses; the kind of attention to detail that makes this a luxury hotel.

“It’s for the best,” he says. “For both of us.”

“I’m at work. I gotta go.” I hang up on him without saying goodbye. In the moment, it’s enough to make me feel I’ve won, but once I’m settled at my desk the pit in my stomach takes root and blooms into humiliation—discarded again at the first opportunity, tossed aside like trash. The same thing he did when I was twenty-two, when I was sixteen. It’s a truth so blatant and bitter, not even I can sweeten it into something easier to swallow. He only wanted to make sure I’d stay quiet. He used me again. How many times? What’s it going to take, Vanessa?

At my desk, I pull up Taylor’s Facebook page. At the top of her feed sits a status update posted less than an hour ago: The school that once promised to nurture and protect me has sided with an abuser today. I’m disappointed but not surprised. Expanding the thread of comments, one with a couple dozen likes shows up first: I’m so, so sorry. Is there any other course of action you can take, or is this the end? Taylor’s response turns my mouth dry.

In no way is this the end, she writes.

 

During my break, I go outside to the alley behind the hotel and dig a crumpled pack of cigarettes from the bottom of my purse. I smoke leaning against a fire escape, scrolling through my phone until I hear the scuff of shoes on pavement, a shush, a muffled laugh. Looking up, I see the two girls from my walk to work. They stand now at the far end of the alley, the blond girl clutching the black-haired one’s arm.

“Go ask her,” the blonde says. “Do it.”

The black-haired girl takes a step toward me, stops, crosses her arms. “Hey,” she calls. “Can we, um . . .” She looks over her shoulder to the blonde, who holds a fist against her mouth, grinning behind the cuff of her jean jacket.

“Do you have an extra cigarette?” the black-haired girl asks.

When I hold out two, they both rush forward. “They’re a little stale,” I say. That’s ok, they say. That’s totally fine. The blonde swings her backpack off one shoulder, pulls a lighter out of the front pocket. They light each other’s, cheeks hollowing as they inhale. They’re close enough for me to see the cat-eye points of their eyeliner, the tiny zits along their hairlines. When I’m around girls their age, the magic age Strane taught me to mythologize, I feel myself become him. Questions pile up in my mouth, ones designed to make them linger. I bite down hard to keep them from pouring out—what are your names, how old are you, do you want more cigarettes, or beer, or weed? It’s so easy for me to imagine how it must’ve been for him, desperate enough to give a girl whatever she wanted to keep her close.

The girls thank me over their shoulders as they move back down the alley, their giddiness replaced with a languid cool thanks to the cigarettes between their fingers. Swaying their hips, they turn the corner, give me one last look, and are gone.

I stare at the spot where they disappeared, the setting sun glinting off a stream of water leaking from a dumpster, the windshield of an idling delivery van. I wonder what those girls saw when they looked at me, if they sensed a kinship, if the reason they dared ask me for a cigarette was because they could tell that, despite my age, really I’m one of them.

With an exhale of smoke, I pull out my phone and bring up Taylor’s profile, but I see nothing. My mind is gone, galloping after the girls, wanting to know what Strane would think of them with their bummed cigarettes and tough attitudes. He’d probably find them coarse, too confident, risky. You’re so yielding, he’d say as I let him move my body around. He made it a compliment, my passivity a precious and rare thing.

What would she do? It’s a question that’s more like a maze, one I can get lost in at the sight of any teenage girl. If her teacher tried to touch her, would she react the way she should, shove his hand away and flee? Or would she let her body go limp until he was through? I try sometimes to imagine another girl doing what I did—sink into the pleasure of it, crave it, build her life around it—but I can’t. My brain hits a dead end, the maze swallowed by darkness. Unthinkable. Unspeakable.

I never would have done it if you weren’t so willing, he’d said. It sounds like delusion. What girl would want what he did to me? But it’s the truth, whether anyone believes it or not. Driven toward it, toward him, I was the kind of girl that isn’t supposed to exist: one eager to hurl herself into the path of a pedophile.

But no, that word isn’t right, never has been. It’s a cop-out, a lie in the way it’s wrong to call me a victim and nothing more. He was never so simple; neither was I.

Taking the long way back to the hotel lobby, I walk through the lowest level of the parking garage into the basement, past the din of the laundry room’s industrial-sized washers and dryers. The head of housekeeping stops me in the stairwell, asks if I mind bringing an extra set of towels to Mr. Goetz, the every-other-Monday businessman, in room 342.

“You sure you don’t mind?” she asks as she hands me the towels. “He can be a sleaze to my girls, but he likes you.”

Knocking on 342, I hear footsteps, then Mr. Goetz opens the door—shirtless and clutching a towel around his waist, wet hair, water droplets on his shoulders, dark hair on his chest, down the middle of his stomach.

At the sight of me, his face brightens. “Vanessa! Wasn’t expecting you.” He opens the door wider, nods for me to come inside. “Can you put the towels down on the bed?”

Hesitating at the threshold, I calculate the distance from the door to the bed and the distance from the bed to the credenza, where Mr. Goetz is using his free hand to open his wallet, the other still holding the towel. I don’t want the door to close, don’t want to be alone with him. I have to rush, lunging over to the bed and dropping the towels. I’m back at the door before it has a chance to shut.

“Hold on a second.” Mr. Goetz holds out a twenty. I start to shake my head—it’s too big of a tip for something as routine as fresh towels, suspiciously big, enough to make me want to run. He waves the bill at me like you would a piece of food to a wary stray. Stepping back into the room, I take the money and, as I do, he runs his fingers over mine. Gives me a wink. “Thanks, honey,” he says.

Back in the lobby, safe behind the concierge desk, I take the twenty and shove it in my purse, tell myself I’ll spend it on pepper spray, a pocketknife, something I can carry on me even if I never use it. Just to know it’s there.

Then my phone buzzes: a new email.

To: [email protected]

From: [email protected]

Subject: Browick School Story

Hi Vanessa,

My name is Janine Bailey and I’m a staff writer at Femzine currently working on a piece about the allegations of sexual abuse at the Browick School in Norumbega, Maine, where I understand you attended from 1999 to 2001.

I’ve interviewed a Browick graduate, Taylor Birch, who alleges she was sexually assaulted in 2006 by English teacher Jacob Strane, and your name was mentioned as another potential victim during my interview with Ms. Birch. Through my research, I’ve also received a separate anonymous tip regarding sexual abuse that allegedly occurred at the Browick School involving you and Mr. Strane.

Vanessa, I would love to talk with you. I’m committed to writing this piece with all the necessary sensitivity, and want to prioritize the survivors’ stories while holding Jacob Strane and the Browick School accountable. With the current nationwide focus on stories of sexual assault, I think we have a real opportunity to make an impact here, especially if I were able to pair your story with Taylor’s. You would, of course, have control over what would appear in the article regarding your experience. Think of this as the chance for you to tell your story on your own terms.

You can reach me at this email, or at (385) 843-0999. Call or text anytime.

Really hope to hear from you,

Janine

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