My Dark Vanessa (Page 6)
Winter makes everyone weary this year. The cold is relentless, nights dipping to twenty below, and when the temperature goes above zero, it snows—days and days of it. After each storm, the snow banks grow until campus becomes a walled maze under a pale gray sky, and clothes that were new at Christmas quickly turn salt-stained and pilled as the reality of four more months of winter settles in. Teachers are impatient, even mean, giving faculty feedback so harsh we leave advisee meetings in tears. Over Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, the Gould janitor, fed up with us, locks the bathroom when a wad of hair clogs the shower drain for the millionth time, and Ms. Thompson has to use a paper clip to pick the lock. Students turn crazy, too. One night in the dining hall, Deanna and Lucy erupt into a screaming fight over a lost pair of shoes, Lucy grabbing a handful of Deanna’s hair and refusing to let go.
Dorm parents are always on the lookout for signs of depression because a sophomore boy hanged himself in his room four winters ago. Ms. Thompson organizes a lot of themed activities to help us stave off the bad feelings: game nights and craft nights, baking parties and movie showings, each announced on a brightly colored flyer slipped under our doors. She encourages us to come by her apartment and use her light therapy box if we ever feel like we’re “getting the SADs.”
Through it all, I’m only half there. My brain feels split, one part in the moment, the other existing within all the things that have happened to me. Now that Strane and I are having sex, I no longer fit in the places I used to. Everything I write feels hollow; I stop offering to walk Ms. Thompson’s dog. In class I feel disconnected, like I’m observing from a distance. During American lit I watch Jenny switch seats at the seminar table so she’s beside Hannah Levesque, who gazes at Jenny with wide-eyed adoration, the same expression I probably had all the time last year, and I feel a muted confusion, like I’m watching a movie with a disorienting plot. Truly, everything feels like a simulation, unreal. I have no choice but to pretend I’m the same as ever, but a canyon surrounds me now, sets me apart. I’m not sure if sex created the canyon or if it’s been there all along and Strane finally made me see it. Strane says it’s the latter. He says he sensed my difference as soon as he laid eyes on me.
“Haven’t you always felt like an outsider, a misfit?” he asks. “I’ll bet for as long as you can remember, you were called mature for your age. Weren’t you?”
I think back to third grade, how it felt to bring home a report card with a teacher’s note scribbled across the bottom: Vanessa is very advanced, seems like she’s eight years old going on thirty. I’m not sure I was ever really a kid at all.
Twenty minutes before curfew, I walk into the Gould bathroom with my shower caddy and towel to find Jenny standing at the sink, her face smeared with soap. Living in the same dorm, she and I inevitably run into each other, but I’ve done my best to reduce the frequency, opting for the back stairwell so I don’t walk past her room, taking my showers late in the evenings. We’re forced together in American lit, but there I’m so focused on Strane that it’s easy to ignore her. The rest of the class barely registers to me anymore.
So the sight of her in the bathroom wearing flip-flops and the same grungy bathrobe she had last year startles me so much, I reflexively start to duck back into the hallway. She stops me.
“You don’t have to run off,” she says, her voice languid as though bored. “Unless you really hate me that much?”
Her fingers rub her cheeks, massaging in the face wash. Her hair has grown out from the bob she had at the start of the year, enough now for a messy bun at the base of her slender neck—she used to act self-conscious about it, complained that it made her head look like a ball balancing on a straw, a flower on a stem. She acted the same way about her skinny fingers, her size six feet, constantly drawing attention to the features I envied the most. Do I still envy her? I sometimes notice Strane watching her in class, his eyes tracing the line of her spine up to her bright brown hair. The little Cleopatra. “Your neck is perfect, Jenny,” I would say. “You know it is.” And she did know; she must have known. She just wanted to hear me say it.
“I don’t hate you,” I say.
Jenny glances at me in the mirror, a doubtful look. “Sure you don’t.”
I wonder if she would be hurt if I said I don’t really feel anything at all toward her anymore. That I can’t remember why losing her friendship had felt like losing the world, or why that friendship seemed so profound, never to be repeated. Now, it only strikes me as embarrassing, like any other outgrown phase. I think of how wrecked I was when she started going out with Tom and he began appearing everywhere, sitting with us at every meal, waiting outside our algebra class to spend the two minutes it took to walk from one building to the next with her. I denied being jealous, but of course I was, both of her and of him. I wanted it all—a boyfriend and a best friend, someone to love me enough that nobody could weasel their way between us. It was a pulsating, monstrous wanting beyond my control. I knew it was too much to feel, let alone show, yet I couldn’t stop it from letting loose one Saturday afternoon, screaming at Jenny in the bakery downtown, crying like a toddler throwing a tantrum. She’d promised we would spend the day together, just us, a throwback to the pre-boyfriend days, but within an hour Tom appeared, pulling up a chair to our table and nuzzling his face into her neck. I couldn’t take it anymore. I snapped.
That happened in late April, but the anger had been brewing within me for months, which explained Jenny’s lack of shock, her immediate response like she’d been waiting for my dam to break. As soon as we were back in our room, she said, “Tom thinks you’re too attached to me.” When I asked her what that meant exactly, “too attached,” she tried to shrug it off. “It’s just something he said.” I didn’t care what Tom said about me; he was just some boy who barely spoke, his band T-shirts the only interesting thing about him. But it killed me that Jenny deemed it something worth repeating: “too attached.” The implication of what being too attached to another girl might mean made my hair stand on end. I said, “That’s not true,” and Jenny flashed me the same doubtful look she gave me now. Sure, Vanessa. Whatever you say. I didn’t argue further; I shut down, stopped speaking to her, and we fell into the silent standoff that had held until now. Deep down, I knew she was right; I did love her too much, and I couldn’t imagine ever stopping. But less than a year later, here I am, not caring.
She leans over the sink, rinses off the soap, and pats her face dry as she says, “Can I ask you a question? Because I heard something about you.”
I blink, jarred from my memories. “What did you hear?”
“I don’t want to say it. It’s really . . . I know it can’t be true.”
“Just tell me.”
She presses her lips together, searching for the right words. Then in a low voice, she says, “Someone said you were having an affair with Mr. Strane.”
She waits for my reaction, the expected denial, but I am too far away to speak. I’m watching her through the wrong end of a telescope—the towel still pressed to her cheek, her flushed neck. Finally, I manage the words “That’s not true.”
Jenny nods. “I figured.” She turns back to the sink, sets down the towel, and picks up her toothbrush, turns on the water. In my ears, the sound of the tap amplifies to an ocean. The bathroom itself seems to turn watery, the tiled walls undulating.
She spits into the sink, turns off the tap, looks to me expectantly. “Right?” she prompts.
When had she been talking? While brushing her teeth? I shake my head; my mouth flops open. Jenny studies me, something unspooling behind her eyes.
“It is kind of weird,” she says, “the way you always stay in his room after class.”
Strane starts appearing everywhere, like he’s trying to keep an eye on me. He shows up in the dining hall and watches me from the faculty table. He’s in the library during study hour, browsing the bookcase directly in front of me. He walks past the open classroom door during my French class, stealing a glance at me each time. I know I’m being surveilled, but it also feels like being pursued, oppressive and flattering all at once.
One Saturday night I’m in bed, hair damp from the shower, homework laid out before me. The dorm is quiet; there’s an indoor track meet, an away basketball game, and a ski meet at Sugarloaf. I’m dozing off when the sound of a knock jolts me out of bed, my books falling to the floor. Throwing open the door, I half expect Strane to be there, for him to grab my hand and lead me to his car, his house, his bed. But there is only the lit-up hallway of closed doors, empty in either direction.
Another afternoon he asks me where I went during lunch. It’s five p.m. and we’re in the office behind his classroom, the rest of the humanities building now empty and dark. The office is barely bigger than a closet, with just enough room for a table, a chair, and a tweed couch with threadbare arms. It had been full of boxes of old textbooks and long-gone students’ papers, but he cleaned the room out specifically for us to use. It’s the perfect hideaway—two locked doors between us and the hallway.
I tuck my feet up onto the couch. “I went back to my room. I had bio homework.”
“I thought I saw you sneak off with someone,” he says.
He settles into the other end of the couch, pulls my legs onto his lap, and plucks a paper from the to-be-graded stack on the table. We sit in silence for a while, him marking up the papers and me reading my history homework, until he says, “I just want to be sure that the boundaries you and I have established are holding strong.”
I eye him, unsure what he’s getting at.
“I know how tempting it might be to confide in a friend.”
“I don’t have friends.”
He sets his pen and paper down on the table and takes my feet in his hands, rubbing them at first, and then he wraps his fingers around my ankles. “I trust you, I do. But do you understand how important it is that we keep this secret?”
“I need you to take this seriously.”
“I am taking it seriously.” I try to pull my feet away. He squeezes my ankles so I can’t move.
“I wonder if you really understand the consequences we’d be hit with if we were exposed.” I start to speak. He cuts me off. “Most likely, yes, I’d get fired. But you, too, would be sent packing. Browick wouldn’t want you here after a scandal like that.”
I shoot him a skeptical look. “They wouldn’t kick me out. It wouldn’t be my fault.” Then, not wanting him to think I necessarily believe this, I add, “Meaning technically, because I’m underage.”
“It wouldn’t matter,” he says. “Not to the higher-ups. They root out any and all troublemakers. That’s how these places work.”
He keeps going, his head tipped back, talking up at the ceiling: “If we’re lucky, it wouldn’t go any further than the school, but if law enforcement caught wind of it, I’d almost certainly go to jail. And you’d end up in some foster home.”
“Come on,” I scoff. “I would not go to a foster home.”
“You’d be surprised.”
“You may forget this, but I do actually have parents.”
“Yes, but the state doesn’t like parents who let their child run around with a deviant. Because that’s what they would brand me as, a so-called sex offender. After they arrested me, their next step would be to make you a ward of the state. You’d be shipped off to some hellhole—a group home of kids fresh out of juvie who would do god knows what to you. Your whole future would be out of your hands. You wouldn’t make it to college if that happened. You probably wouldn’t even graduate high school. You may not believe me, Vanessa, but you have no idea how cruel these systems can be. Give them a chance and they’ll do everything in their power to ruin both our lives—”
When he starts talking like this, my brain can’t keep up. It feels like he’s exaggerating, but I get too overwhelmed and lose track of what I believe. He can make even the most outrageous things seem feasible. “I get it,” I say. “I’ll never tell anyone as long as I live. I’ll die before I tell. Ok? I’ll die. Can we please stop talking about this now?”
At that, he snaps out of it, blinking as though he just woke up. He holds out his arms for me to crawl into and cradles me against him. He says “I’m sorry” again and again, so many times the words stop making sense.
“I don’t mean to scare you,” he says. “There’s just so much at stake.”
“I know there is. I’m not stupid.”
“I know you’re not stupid. I know you’re not.”
The French classes take a weekend trip to Quebec City. We leave in the early morning, boarding a coach bus with plush seats and little TV screens. I sit by a window halfway back and dig my Discman out of my backpack, put in a CD, and try to appear like I don’t care that I’m the only one without a seatmate.
For the first two hours, I stare out the window as the bus drives through foothills and farmland. When we reach the Canadian border, the landscape stays the same but the road signs switch to French. Madame Laurent shoots up out of her seat at the front of the bus and calls for our attention. “Regardez!” She points to each passing sign and prompts us to read them out loud. “Ouest, arrêt . . .”
Somewhere in rural Quebec we stop at a Tim Hortons for a bathroom break. There’s a pay phone out front and I have two prepaid phone cards in my pocket from Strane with instructions to call if I get lonely. The receiver in my hand, I start to dial when Jesse Ly walks out of the Tim Hortons, wearing a long black coat that fans out around him, practically a cape, followed a ways behind by Mike and Joe Russo, who smirk, nudge each other, and don’t even bother lowering their voices as they make fun of him. “Check out the Prince of Darkness,” they say. “It’s the Trench Coat Mafia.” They don’t call him gay, because that would go too far, but it feels like that’s what they’re really making fun of, not his coat. Jesse’s face, his tipped-back chin and clenched jaw, shows he can hear them but is too proud to say anything. Dropping the phone receiver, I hurry over.
“Hey!” I grin at Jesse as though we’re good friends. Behind us, the Russo twins stop laughing, which has less to do with me and more to do with Margo Atherton, who stands by the bus peeling off her sweatshirt, exposing six inches of stomach as her T-shirt rides up, but I still feel like I’ve done a good thing. Jesse says nothing as we board the bus and take our seats. Before we take off, though, he gathers up his stuff and moves down the aisle to me.
“Can I sit here?” he asks, pointing to the empty seat. I pull off my headphones, nod, and move my backpack out of the way. Jesse sits with a sigh, tips his head back. He stays like that until the bus shudders on and drives out of the parking lot, back onto the highway.
“Those guys are morons,” I say.
His eyes snap open and he inhales sharply. “They’re not so bad,” he says, opening his novel and turning his body a little away from me.
“But they were being dicks to you,” I say, as though he might not have realized.
“Really, it’s ok,” he says without looking up from the book. He clutches the pages, chipped black polish on his fingernails.
In Quebec City, Madame Laurent leads us through the cobblestone streets, pointing out the historical architecture—the Notre-Dame Quebec Cathedral, the Château Frontenac. Jesse and I barely acknowledge each other as we hang back from the rest of the group, watch the mimes perform on their big granite pedestals, ride the funicular from upper town to lower town and back again. He buys chintzy souvenirs: a watercolor of the Château Frontenac from an old woman on the street and a spoon with a scene from the Winter Carnival etched on the back, which he offers to me. We catch up with the group an hour later and I expect to be in trouble, but no one even noticed we were gone. For the rest of the afternoon, Jesse and I again sneak away, wandering the Old City streets without talking much, just nudging each other every once in a while to point out something funny or strange.
On the second day of the trip I try calling Strane from a pay phone, but there’s no answer and I don’t dare leave a message. Jesse doesn’t ask me who I’m trying to call, doesn’t need to.
“He’s probably on campus,” he says. “There’s a coffeehouse open mic thing today in the library. They make all the humanities faculty go to them.”
I stare at him as I slide the phone card back in my pocket.
“You don’t have to worry,” he says. “I’m not going to tell anyone.”
“How do you know?”
He gives me a look, like, Are you kidding? “You’re together all the time. It’s fairly obvious what’s going on. Plus, I saw it up close firsthand.”
I think of what Strane said about foster homes and jails. I’m not sure what I’ve said counts as telling Jesse, but to be sure, I say, “It’s not true.” The words sound so pathetic he just gives me another look. Like, Please.
We leave on Sunday morning. An hour into the bus ride home, Jesse sighs and sets his novel upside down on his lap, looks over at me, motions for me to take off my headphones.
“You know it’s a stupid thing to do, right?” he asks. “Like, unbelievably dumb.”
He gives me a long look. “You and your teacher boyfriend.”
My eyes skim the seats surrounding us, but everyone seems preoccupied—sleeping, or reading, or with their headphones on.
He continues. “It doesn’t really bother me morally or anything. I’m just saying he’ll probably ruin your life.”
I ignore how cleanly his words cut and say it’s worth the risk. I wonder how I sound to him, delusional, brave, or both. Jesse shakes his head.
“You’re an idiot,” he says, “that’s all.”
“I don’t mean that as an insult. I’m an idiot, too, in my own way.”
Jesse saying I’m an idiot reminds me of Strane calling me a dark romantic—both seem to point to an inclination toward bad decision-making. The other day Strane referred to me as a “depressive,” and I looked up the word: a person with a tendency toward melancholy.
A bad storm hits Norumbega and we wake to a glittering campus shrouded in a half inch of ice. Tree limbs bow under the weight, arching toward the ground, and the snow crust is so thick we can walk atop it without our boots breaking through. On a Saturday afternoon, on the couch in Strane’s office, we have sex for the first time in sunlight. Afterward, I avoid looking at his naked body by watching dust motes swirl in the weak winter sun tinged green from the sea glass window. He traces road maps of blue veins on my skin, talks about how hungry I make him, that he’d eat me if he could. I wordlessly offer him my arm. Go ahead. He gives it only a soft-mouthed bite, but I would probably let him tear me apart. I’d let him do anything.
February comes and I am both better and worse at hiding things. I stop bringing up Strane during my Sunday night phone calls home, but I can’t stay away from his classroom. I’m a permanent fixture there now. Even when other students come in for homework help during faculty service hour, I’m planted at the seminar table, pretending to be absorbed in my work but eavesdropping so intensely my ears burn.
One afternoon when we’re alone, he takes a Polaroid camera from his briefcase and asks if he can take a photo of me at the seminar table. “I want to remember what you look like sitting there,” he says. I immediately start to laugh from nerves. I touch my face and tug at my hair. I hate having my photo taken. “You can say no,” he says, but I see the longing in his eyes, how important this must be. Refusing would break his heart. So I let him snap a few of me, both at the seminar table and sitting behind his desk, another on the couch in the office, my feet tucked up and my notebook open on my lap. He’s so grateful, grinning as he watches them develop. He says he’ll treasure them forever.
Another afternoon he brings me a new book to read—Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov. I start to flip through as soon as he gives it to me, but it doesn’t look like a novel; the pages show a long poem, a series of footnotes.
“It’s a difficult book,” Strane explains. “Less accessible than Lolita. It’s the type of novel that asks the reader to relinquish control. You have to experience it rather than try to understand it. Postmodernism . . .” He trails off, seeing the disappointment on my face. I wanted another Lolita.
“Let me show you something.” He takes the paperback from my hands, flips to a page, and points to a stanza. “Look, it seems to reference you.”
Come and be worshiped, come and be caressed,
My dark Vanessa, crimson-barred, my blest
My Admirable butterfly! Explain
How could you, in the gloam of Lilac Lane,
Have let uncouth, hysterical John Shade
Blubber your face, and ear, and shoulder blade?
My breath catches; my face goes hot.
“Uncanny, isn’t it?” He smiles down at the page. “My dark Vanessa, worshipped and caressed.” He smooths his hand down my hair, twirls a lock around his finger. Crimson-barred, maple-red hair. I think of what I said when he showed me the Jonathan Swift poem, about all this feeling destined. I hadn’t really meant it then. I said it only to show him how happy and willing I was. But seeing my name on the page this time feels like a free fall, a loss of control. Maybe this really was predetermined. Maybe I was made for this.
We’re still huddled over the book, Strane’s hand resting on my back, when old, balding Mr. Noyes walks into the classroom. We dart off in opposite directions, me back to the seminar table and Strane behind his desk, obviously caught. But Mr. Noyes seems unbothered. He laughs and says to Strane, “I see you’ve got a classroom pet,” as though it’s no big deal. It makes me wonder if we have to worry so much about getting caught. Maybe it wouldn’t be the end of the world if the school finds out. They could give Strane a slap on the wrist, tell him to hold off until I graduate and turn eighteen.
When Mr. Noyes leaves, I ask Strane, “Have other students and teachers done this?”
He looks up from his desk. “It’s been known to happen.”
He turns back to reading as the next question rests heavy on my tongue. Before I let it out, I look down at my hands. I imagine the answer laid out plainly on his face and don’t want to see it. I don’t really want to know.
“What about you? Have you, with another student?”
“Do you think I have?” he asks.
I look up, caught off guard. I don’t know what I think. I know what I want to believe, what I have to believe, but I have no idea how those things align with what might’ve happened in all the years before me. He’s been a teacher for almost as long as I’ve been alive.
Strane watches as I grapple for words, a smile creeping across his face. Finally, he says, “The answer is no. Even if I had moments of desire, it never would’ve seemed worth the risk. Not until you came along.”
I try to hide how happy this makes me feel by rolling my eyes, but his words break my chest wide open and leave me helpless. There’s nothing stopping him from reaching in and grabbing whatever he wants. I’m special. I’m special. I’m special.
I’m reading Pale Fire when Ms. Thompson knocks on my door for curfew check. She peeks her head around the door, her makeup off, hair tied up in a scrunchie; she sees me and checks my name off her list.
“Vanessa, hey.” She steps into the room. “Remember to sign out before you leave on Friday, ok? You forgot before Christmas break.”
She takes a step closer and I dog-ear the page I’m reading, close the novel. I feel light-headed from finding more evidence of myself in the text: the town where the main character lives is “New Wye.”
“How’s the homework?” she asks.
I’ve never asked Strane about Ms. Thompson. Since the Halloween dance, I haven’t seen them together, and I remember how, after he and I had sex for the first time, he said it had been a while since he’d “been intimate.” If they never had sex, then they were only friends, so there’s no need for me to be jealous. I know all that. Still, when I’m around her a meanness takes over me, an urge to give her a glimpse of what I’ve done, what I’m capable of.
I set down Pale Fire so she can see the cover. “It’s not homework. Or, I guess it kind of is. It’s for Mr. Strane.”
She gives me a smile, irritatingly benign. “You have Mr. Strane for English?”
“Yup.” I look up through my eyelashes. “He’s never talked to you about me?”
The wrinkles in her forehead deepen. The look lasts only for a second. If I wasn’t on high alert, I wouldn’t even notice it. “Can’t say that he has,” she says.
“That’s surprising,” I say. “He and I are pretty close.”
I watch the suspicion bloom on her face, a sense of something amiss.
The next afternoon while Strane is at a faculty meeting, I sit behind his desk, something I would never dare to do otherwise. The door is closed, no witnesses to see me thumb through his piles of ungraded assignments and lesson plans and pull open the long, skinny desk drawer that has the weird stuff in it: an opened bag of gumdrops, a pendant of St. Christopher on a broken chain, a bottle of antidiarrhea medicine that I shove to the back in disgust.
There usually isn’t anything interesting on his computer, only a file of class documents and his rarely used school email, but when I interrupt the screensaver, an alert pops up on the task bar: (1) New Message from [email protected] I click it open. The email is responding to another, three total in the chain.
From: [email protected]
Subject: Student Concern
Hi Jake . . . I’d like to talk to you about this in person but thought I’d send an email . . . might be good to put this in writing anyway. I had an odd interaction with Vanessa Wye the other night that involved you. She was doing some homework for your class and mentioned that you and she are “close.” It was how she said it . . . gave me a sense of some resentment there . . . even possessiveness? Definitely seems like she’s got a crush on you . . . something to be aware of. I know you said she hangs around your classroom. Just be careful 🙂 Melissa
From: [email protected]
Subject: re: Student Concern
Appreciate the heads up. I’ll keep an eye on it.
From: [email protected]
Subject: re: re: Student Concern
No problem . . . hope I didn’t overstep . . . just picked up a vibe. Have a good break if I don’t see you 🙂 Melissa
I click out of the email chain, marking the most recent one from Ms. Thompson as unread. The curtness of his response makes me laugh out loud, as does Ms. Thompson’s nervousness, her little smiley faces, the dot-dot-dots stringing together incomplete sentences. It occurs to me that maybe she isn’t a smart person, or at least not as smart as me. I’ve never thought that about a teacher before.
Strane returns from the faculty meeting in a bad mood, drops his yellow legal pad on his desk and lets out a half sigh, half groan. “This place is going to hell,” he mutters. Squinting at the computer monitor, he asks, “Did you touch this?” I shake my head. “Hmm.” He grabs the mouse, clicks around. “Might need to put a password on this thing.”
At the end of faculty service hour, when he’s packing his briefcase, I say in a tone so painfully blasé it doesn’t even sound like me, “You know Ms. Thompson is my dorm parent, right?”
I busy myself with putting on my coat so I don’t have to look at him while he chooses his answer.
“I do know that,” he says.
I drag my zipper up to my throat. “So, you and her are friends?”
“Because I remember seeing you together at the Halloween dance.” I peek over at him, watch him wipe his glasses on his tie, put them back on.
“So you did read my email,” he says. When I don’t say anything, he crosses his arms and gives me one of his teacher looks. Cut the bullshit.
“Were you more than friends?” I ask.
“I’m just asking a question.”
“You are,” he agrees, “but it’s a loaded question.”
I pull my zipper up and down a few times. “I don’t really care either way. It would just be nice to know.”
“And why is that?”
“Because what if she senses there’s something going on with you and me? She might get jealous and—”
“I don’t know. Retaliate?”
“She wrote those emails.”
Strane leans back in his chair. “I think the best solution to this problem is for you not to read my email.”
I roll my eyes. He’s being evasive, which means the truth isn’t what I want to hear, and probably means he and Ms. Thompson were more than friends. They probably had sex.
I throw my backpack over one shoulder. “You know, I’ve seen her without makeup. She’s not that pretty. Also, she’s kind of fat.”
“Come on,” he chides, “that’s not nice.”
I glower at him. Of course it isn’t nice; that’s the whole point. “I’m leaving now. I guess I’ll see you in a week.”
Before I open the classroom door, he says, “You shouldn’t be jealous.”
“I’m not jealous.”
He stands, moves around his desk and across the classroom toward me. He reaches over my shoulder and flips off the lights, takes my face in his hands, kisses my forehead. “Ok,” he says softly. “Ok, you’re not jealous.”
I let him pull me in, my cheek resting against the middle of his chest. His heart echoes in my ear.
“I’m not envious of whatever dalliances you might’ve had before me,” he says.
Dalliances. I mouth the word, wonder if it means what I hope it does—that even if he did do things with Ms. Thompson, he isn’t doing them anymore, and whatever he did with her was never serious, not like what he’s doing with me.
“I can’t help what I did before I met you,” he says, “and neither can you.”
For me, there’s nothing before him, nothing at all, but I know that’s not the point. This is about him needing something from me. Not quite forgiveness, more like absolution, or maybe apathy. He needs me not to care about the things he’s done.
“Ok,” I say. “I won’t be jealous anymore.” It feels so generous, like I’m making a sacrifice for him. I’ve never felt so adult.
* * *
Last summer when I was at the height of my sulking, Mom tried to give me a pep talk about boys. She didn’t understand what had actually happened with Jenny. She thought it had all been about Tom, that I’d liked him, that he’d chosen Jenny over me or something equally clichéd. It takes time for boys to see anything beyond what’s right in front of them, she’d said, and then launched into some allegory about apples falling from trees and boys going for the easy-to-pick apples first but eventually learning that the best apples take a little more work. I wanted none of it.
“So you’re saying girls are fruit that only exist for boys to eat?” I asked. “Sounds sexist.”
“No,” she says, “that’s not what I’m saying at all.”
“You’re literally calling me a bad apple.”
“I’m not,” she says. “The other girls are bad apples.”
“Why do any girls have to be bad apples? Why do we have to be apples at all?”
Mom took a deep breath, pressed the heel of her hand against her forehead. “My god, you’re difficult,” she says. “All I’m saying is it takes longer for boys to mature. I just don’t want you to feel frustrated.”
She meant to be reassuring, but her logic was easy to follow: boys never paid attention to me, therefore I wasn’t pretty, and if I wasn’t pretty, I’d have to wait a long time before anyone noticed me, because boys had to mature before they cared about anything else. In the meantime, apparently my only option was to wait. Like girls sitting in the bleachers at basketball games watching the boys play, or girls sitting on the couch watching boys play video games. Endless waiting.
It’s funny to think how wrong Mom was about all that. Because there’s another option for those brave enough to take it: bypass boys altogether, go straight to men. Men who will never make you wait; men who are starved and grateful for scraps of attention, who fall in love so hard they throw themselves at your feet.
When I’m home over February break, I go to the grocery store with Mom and, as an experiment, stare at every single man, even the ugly ones, especially the ugly ones. Who knows how long it’s been since a girl last looked at them this way. I feel sorry for them, how desperate they must be, how lonely and sad. When the men notice me looking, they’re visibly confused, brows knit as they try to figure me out. Only a few recognize what I am, a hardness taking over their faces as they match my stare.
Strane says he can’t go a week without hearing from me. So one night halfway through break, after my parents go to bed, I bring the cordless phone up to my room, stuff pillows along the bottom of my bedroom door to block out the sound. My stomach flips as I dial his number. When he answers with a groggy hello, I say nothing, suddenly mortified at the thought of him rolling over and answering the phone like an old person who goes to bed at ten.
“Hello?” he says, impatience raising his voice. “Hello?”
I relent. “It’s me.”
He sighs and says my name, the s whistling through his teeth. He misses me. He wants me to tell him how my break has been, wants to know everything. I do my best to describe my days—walks with Babe, shopping trips into town, ice-skating as the afternoon sun sets on the frozen lake—while avoiding any mention of my parents, making it sound as though I do everything alone.
“What are you doing now?” he asks.
“I’m in my room.” I wait for him to ask another question, but he’s quiet. I wonder if he’s fallen back asleep. “What are you doing?”
“About you,” he says. “And the time you were here in this bed. Do you remember how that felt?”
I say yes, though I know that what I felt and what he felt are probably two different things. If I shut my eyes, I feel the flannel sheets, the weight of the down duvet. His hand wrapped around my wrist, guiding it down.
“What are you wearing?” he asks.
My eyes dart to the door and I hold my breath, listening for any sounds from my parents’ bedroom. “Pajamas.”
“Like the ones I bought you?”
I say no, laugh at the thought of wearing something like those in front of my parents.
“Tell me what they’re like,” he says.
I look down at the pattern of dog faces, fire hydrants, and bones. “They’re stupid,” I say. “You wouldn’t like them.”
“Take them off,” he says.
“It’s too cold.” I keep my voice light, feign naïveté, but I know what he wants me to do.
“Take them off.”
He waits; I don’t move. When he asks, “Did you?” I lie and say yes.
It goes on from there, him telling me what to do and me not doing any of it but letting him believe I am. I stay indifferent, a little annoyed, until he starts saying, “You’re a baby, a little girl.” Then something in me shifts. I don’t touch myself, but I close my eyes and let my stomach flutter while I think about what he’s doing and that he’s thinking about me while he does it.
“Will you do something for me?” he asks. “I want you to say something. Just a few words. Will you do that? Will you say a few words for me?”
I open my eyes. “Ok.”
“Ok? Ok. Ok.” There’s some muffling, like he’s moving the phone from one ear to the other. “I want you to say ‘I love you, Daddy.’”
For a second, I laugh. It’s just so ridiculous. Daddy. I don’t call my own father that, can’t ever remember calling him that, but as I laugh my mind flies out of me and I don’t find it funny anymore. I don’t find it anything. I’m empty, gone.
“Go on,” he says. “I love you, Daddy.”
I say nothing, eyes fixed on my bedroom door.
“Just once.” His voice haggard and rough.
I feel my lips move and static fills my head, white noise so loud I barely hear the sounds my mouth makes or the sounds of Strane—heavy breathing and groans. He asks me to say it again, and again my mouth forms the words, but it’s just my body, not my brain.
I’m far away. I’m airborne, freewheeling, the way I was the day he touched me for the first time, back when I soared across campus like a comet with a maple-red tail. Now I fly out of the house, into the night, through the pines and across the frozen lake where the water moves and moans beneath the ice. He asks me to again say the words. I see myself in earmuffs and white skates, gliding across the surface, followed by a shadow underneath the foot-thick ice—Strane, swimming along the murky bottom, his screams muted to groans.
His labored breathing stops and I land back in my bedroom. He’s finished; it’s over. I try to imagine how it works when he does that, if he comes into his hand, or a towel, or straight onto the sheets. How gross it is for men, having the giveaway of a mess at the end. The thought You’re fucking disgusting surges through me.
Strane clears his throat. “Well, I better let you go,” he says.
After he hangs up, I throw the phone and it breaks open, batteries rolling across the floor. I lie in bed for a long time, awake but unmoving, eyes fixed on the blue shadows, my mind full of nothing, glassy and still enough to skate on.
Mom doesn’t tell me that she heard me talking on the phone until we’re driving back to Browick. When she says this, my hand grips the door handle, as though I might open it and hurl myself into the ditch.
“It sounded like you were talking to a boy,” she says. “Were you?”
I stare straight ahead. It was mostly Strane doing the talking, but she could have picked up and listened in. My parents don’t have a phone in their bedroom and I’d been using the only cordless. Maybe I hadn’t heard her go downstairs?
“It’s fine if you were,” she adds. “And it’s fine if you have a boyfriend. You don’t need to keep it a secret.”
“What did you hear?”
I study her out of the corner of my eye. I can’t tell if she’s telling the truth. Why does she think I was talking to a boy if she didn’t hear anything? My mind races alongside the car, trying to keep up. She must have heard something, but not enough to suspect anything unusual. If she heard Strane’s deep, unmistakably grown-man voice, she would have freaked out right then, stormed into my room and ripped the phone from my hands. She wouldn’t wait until we were alone in the car to bring it up so delicately.
I let out a slow breath and loosen my grip on the door handle. “Don’t tell Dad.”
“I won’t,” she says, her voice bright. She seems pleased, happy that I confided in her and shared my secret, or maybe she’s relieved at the idea of me having a boyfriend, being social, fitting in.
“But I want you to tell me about him,” she says.
She asks me his name, and for a second, I blank; I never call him by his first name. I could use a fake one, and probably should, but the temptation to say it out loud is too strong. “Jacob.”
“Oh, I like that. Is he good-looking?”
I shrug, unsure what to say.
“That’s ok,” she says. “Looks aren’t everything. It’s more important that he’s nice to you.”
“He’s nice to me.”
“Good,” she says. “That’s the only thing I care about.”
I lean against the headrest, close my eyes. It feels like getting an itch scratched, the relief of hearing her say that Strane being nice is the most important thing, more important than looks, and if treating me well is more important than looks, then it’s more important than the age difference, or his being my teacher.
Mom starts asking more questions—what grade he’s in, where he’s from, what classes we have together—and my chest tightens; I shake my head and snap, “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”
We’re quiet for a mile and then she asks, “Are you having sex?”
“If you are, you should be on the Pill. I’ll make you an appointment.” She stops, says quietly, more to herself than me, “No, you’re only fifteen. That’s too young.” She looks over, her brow furrowed. “You’re supervised there. It’s not like some kind of free-for-all.”
I sit unmoving, unblinking, unsure if she really wants me to reassure her. Yes, we’re supervised. The teachers watch us very closely. It’s suddenly sickening, this conversation, the deception, treating it all like a game.
Am I a monster? I wonder. I must be. Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to lie like this.
“Should I make you an appointment?” she asks.
I think of Strane pressing my hip, holding me down, his operation, a vasectomy. I shake my head no and Mom sighs in relief.
“I just want you to be happy,” she says. “Happy and surrounded by people who are nice to you.”
“I am,” I say. As the woods flash by, I venture further. “He tells me I’m perfect.”
Mom presses her lips together, holding back a bigger smile. “First love is so special,” she says. “You’ll never forget it.”
Strane is in a bad mood on the first day back, barely looking at me in class and ignoring my raised hand. We’re reading A Farewell to Arms, and when Hannah Levesque calls the novel boring, Strane snaps that Hemingway would probably find her boring as well. He threatens Tom Hudson with a dress code violation because Tom’s sweatshirt is unzipped, his Foo Fighters T-shirt on display. At the end of class, I try to take off with everyone else, for once having zero desire to linger. Before I reach the door, though, Strane calls my name. I stop and the other students move past me like a river current, Tom with his jaw set in anger, Hannah with her wounded expression, Jenny eyeing me as though she wants to say something, the words piled up behind her lips.
When the classroom empties, Strane closes the door, turns off the lights, and leads me into the office, where the radiator is on full blast, the sea glass window fogged over. He leans on the table rather than sitting on the love seat beside me, which seems deliberate, like he’s sending a message. Switching on the electric kettle, he says nothing for the time it takes for the water to boil and to make himself a cup of tea; he doesn’t offer me one.
When he finally speaks, his voice is clipped, professional. The mug of tea steaming in his hand, he says, “I know you’re upset over what I asked you to do during our phone call.” Except I’d practically forgotten about the phone call and what he’d asked me to say. Even when I try to recall it now, I can’t quite remember. My brain veers away from the memory, repelled by a force beyond my control.
“I’m not upset,” I say.
“Clearly you are.”
I frown. This feels like a trick; he’s the one who’s upset, not me. “We don’t have to talk about it.”
“Yes,” he says, “we do.”
He does most of the talking, going on about how the break gave him time to think about all the ways in which I’m still a mystery to him. How he doesn’t really know me. He’s begun to wonder if he’s been projecting himself onto me, tricking himself into thinking there’s a connection between us when he’s really seeing a reflection of himself.
“I even started to wonder if you enjoy making love, or if it’s just a performance you put on for my benefit.”
“I enjoy it,” I say.
He heaves a sigh. “I want to believe you. Truly, I do.”
He keeps going, pacing the short length of the office. “I feel so strongly toward you,” he says. “Sometimes I worry I’ll drop dead from it. It’s stronger than anything I’ve ever felt for any woman. It’s not even in the same universe of feeling.” He stops, looks at me. “Does it frighten you to hear a man like me talk this way about you?”
A man like me. I shake my head.
“How does it make you feel?”
I look up at the ceiling as I try to come up with the right word. “Powerful?”
After that he relaxes a bit, set at ease by the idea of him making me feel powerful. He says fifteen years old is a strange thing, a real paradox. That in the middle of your adolescence, you’re the bravest you’ll ever be because of how the brain works at this age, the combination of malleability and arrogance.
“Right now,” he says, “at fifteen, you probably feel older than you will at eighteen or twenty.” He laughs and crouches before me, squeezes my hands. “My god, imagine you at twenty.” He tucks a lock of hair behind my ear.
“Is that how you felt?” I ask. “When you were . . .” I don’t say the rest of the sentence, when you were my age, because it sounds too much like something a kid would say, but he understands anyway.
“No, but boys are different. As teenagers, they’re inconsequential. They don’t become real people until adulthood. Girls become real so early. Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. That’s when your minds turn on. It’s a gorgeous thing to witness.”
Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. He’s like Humbert Humbert, assigning mythical significance to certain ages. I ask, “Don’t you mean nine to fourteen?” I mean it in a teasing way, figure he’ll understand the reference, but he looks at me like I’ve accused him of something horrible.
“Nine?” He jerks his head back. “I would never. Jesus, not nine.”
“It’s a joke,” I say. “You know, like in Lolita. The age nymphets are supposed to be?”
“Is that what you think I am?” he asks. “A pedophile?”
When I don’t answer, he stands, starts to pace again.
“You take that book too literally. I’m not that character. That’s not what we are.”
My cheeks burn at the criticism. It feels unfair; he’s the one who gave me the novel. What did he expect?
“I am not attracted to children,” he continues. “I mean, look at you, your body. You’re nothing like a child.”
I narrow my eyes. “What does that mean?”
He stops, momentarily snapped out of his anger, and I feel the power shift slightly back to me. “Well, what you look like,” he says. “You’re . . .”
“I’m what?” From the couch, I watch him fumble for words.
“I just mean you’re fairly developed. More like a woman than not.”
“So I’m fat.”
“No. God, no. That’s not what I’m saying. Of course not. Look at me, I’m fat.” He smacks his stomach, tries to get me to laugh, and part of me wants to because I know that’s not what he’s saying, but it feels good to make him feel bad. He sits beside me, takes my face in his hands. “You’re perfect,” he says. “You’re perfect, you’re perfect, you’re perfect.”
We’re quiet for a while, him gazing at me while I scowl up at the ceiling, not wanting to lose the upper hand so soon. I glance over at him and see a bead of sweat run down his cheek. I’m sweating, too—in my armpits, under my breasts.
He stares straight into me. “The thing I asked you to say on the phone? It was a fantasy. I wouldn’t really do that. I wouldn’t be that.”
I say nothing and turn my face back toward the ceiling.
“Do you believe me?” he asks.
“I don’t know. I guess so.”
He reaches for me, pulls me onto his lap, wraps his arms around me and holds me so my face rests against his chest. Sometimes it’s easier to talk this way, when we’re not looking at each other.
“I know I’m a little dark,” he says. “I can’t help it. I’ve always been this way. It’s a lonely way to live, but I’d made peace with that loneliness until you came along.” He tugs on my hair. You. “When you started turning in those poems and chasing after me, at first I thought, ok, this girl has a crush. No big deal. I’ll let her flirt and hang around the classroom a bit, nothing further than that. But the more time I spent with you, I started to think, my god, this girl is the same as me. Separate from others, craving dark things. Right? Aren’t you? Don’t you?”
He waits for my answer, for me to say yes, I am those things, but what he describes isn’t how I’ve ever thought of myself, and his memory of me chasing after him seems wrong, too. He gave me books before I ever gave him poems. He was the one who said he wanted to kiss me good night, that my hair was the color of red maple leaves. That all happened before I even realized what was really going on. Then I think of him insisting that I’m the one in charge and that he doesn’t care about the nonexistent dalliances I’ve had before him. There are things he needs to believe in order to live with himself, and it would be cruel for me to label these as lies.
“Think of the way you reacted when I first touched you,” he says. “Any of those other girls in your class would have been horrified by me doing that, but not you.”
He takes a handful of my hair and pulls my head back so he can see my face. His hold isn’t rough, but it isn’t soft, either.
“When we’re together,” he says, “it feels as though the dark things inside me rise to the surface and brush against the dark things inside you.” His voice shakes with feeling and his eyes are big and glassy, full of love. He studies my face and I know what he’s looking for—recognition, understanding, reassurance he’s not alone.
I think of his knee pressing into me behind his desk, his hand stroking my leg. I didn’t care that he hadn’t asked if it was ok, or that he was my teacher, or that nine other people were in the room. As soon as it happened, I wanted it to happen again. A normal girl wouldn’t have reacted that way. There is something dark about me, something that’s always been there.
When I tell him yes, I feel that, too—the darkness in him, the darkness in me—he’s all gratitude and adoration, his hand pulling tighter on my hair. Behind his glasses, his eyes dilate from wanting. He just wants and wants and wants. Sometimes when he’s on top of me, when he’s moaning with his eyes squeezed shut and not even noticing if I’m excited or sad or bored, I get the feeling all he really wants is to leave part of himself inside me, to stake his claim, not to impregnate me or anything like that, but something more permanent. He wants to make sure he’ll always be there, no matter what. He wants to leave his fingerprints all over me, every piece of muscle and bone.
He pushes into me then, braces his legs against the arm of the couch and groans into my ear. It’s strange to know that whenever I remember myself at fifteen, I’ll think of this.