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My Dark Vanessa (Page 7)

There’s an Oktoberfest event at the hotel, the courtyard full of kegs, plastic beer mugs, and middle-aged couples stuffing their faces with bratwurst. Meanwhile, I sit at the concierge desk picking apart a soft pretzel with my fingers, the guests far too drunk to need anything from me.

Most employees are drunk, too. The restaurant manager was nearly falling down when I first came in. He’s in the back office now, gulping black coffee to sober up before the dinner rush. The valets park cars with loose limbs and unsteady eyes, and behind the front desk, even the owner’s daughter, only seventeen, sneaks sips from a highball glass. I have two Sazeracs in me, just enough for a soft buzz.

Idly, I click around on the computer, cycling through the endless loop of email-Twitter-Facebook-email-Twitter-Facebook. The journalist wrote to me again, a polite but pushy follow-up—Hi Vanessa, I wanted to reach out to you again and reiterate how committed I am to getting your truth out there—strain in her words as she tries to appeal to the desire for retribution she assumes I have.

From the corner of my eye, I see a drunken guest stagger into the lobby, and I stare more intently at the computer screen, hunch my shoulders, and scowl, knowing he’s less likely to bother me if I look like a hag. I hear the man say, “Hey there, honey,” and my stomach drops, but his eyes are set on seventeen-year-old Inez behind the front desk. I turn back to the computer, the journalist’s email. Getting your truth out there. My truth. As though I have any idea what that is.

Behind the front desk Inez tries to hide her glass, but the man sees. “Whaddya got there?” He peeks over the desk. “Drinking on the job? Bad girl.”

It doesn’t feel like my hand moving the mouse around the screen. Someone else guides it to the upper right corner, clicks “forward.”

Inez’s laugh is high and strained. The man takes this as encouragement and puts both elbows on the desk, leans in close. He squints at her name tag. “Inez. That’s a pretty name.”

“Uh, thanks.”

“How old are you?”

“Twenty-one.”

The man shakes his head, wags his finger. “There’s no way you’re twenty-one,” he says. “Feels like just looking at you is enough to get me arrested.”

My fingers move from key to key, typing [email protected] into the recipient field as I watch the drunk man tell Inez how pretty she is, how she makes him wish he were thirty years younger. She scans the lobby for help, a thin smile plastered on her face, her eyes resting for a moment on me as I take the mouse, move the cursor to “send,” and click.

The forwarded email takes off, the confirmation of message sent flashes at the top of the browser, and then—nothing happens. I don’t know what I expect, for an alarm to be tripped, a crescendo of sirens, but the lobby remains the same, the drunk man still leering, Inez still eyeing me for help as I stare back, thinking, What do you want from me? You really need me to rescue you? This is nothing. You’re safe; he’s on the other side of the desk and he’s not going to get you. If you’re that scared, go into the back office or flat-out tell him to leave. You should know how to handle this.

Behind me, an elevator opens and a houseman emerges pushing a cart stacked with crates of wine for the courtyard event. Inez, seeing an opportunity, darts out from behind the front desk.

“Do you need help, Abdel?” she asks. The houseman shakes his head, but she grabs one end of the cart anyway. The drunken guest watches her disappear down the hallway, arms limp at his sides. Once she’s gone, he looks over his shoulder, notices me for the first time.

“What are you looking at?” he asks, and then lumbers back outside into the courtyard.

Letting out a breath, I turn back to my computer screen and start the email-Twitter-Facebook loop all over again when my phone buzzes with a call from Strane. I watch it vibrate against the desk until it goes to voicemail. He tries again, then again, one after another. With each missed call, something within me gains momentum—a sense of smugness, a feeling of triumph. Maybe that journalist isn’t wrong after all. Maybe there is vengeance lurking somewhere within me.

 

After my shift, I go to a bar. Perched on a stool in my work suit and sucking down whiskey and water, I scroll through my contacts, shooting off texts to see who might be willing to engage at eleven fifteen on a Monday night. Ira ignores me, as does the man I brought home a few weeks ago who left my apartment as soon as he could after I turned silent and unresponsive beneath him, my body curling into itself, hands hiding my face. Only one takes the bait: a fifty-one-year-old divorcé I slept with a few months ago. I didn’t like how he spoke to me or how he treated the age gap like something out of a porno, calling himself Daddy and asking if I wanted a spanking. I tried to tell him to relax and be normal, but he didn’t want to hear it, just clamped a hand over my mouth and said, You want it like this, you want it, you know you do.

Me: I’m drinking alone.

Him: Young girls shouldn’t ever drink alone.

Me: Oh?

Him: Mmhmm. You should listen to me. I know what’s best for you.

Between the texts, I receive another call from Strane—the seventh since I forwarded him the journalist’s email. Hitting “ignore,” I text the divorcé the address, and within fifteen minutes, he and I are sharing a cigarette in the alley behind the bar. I ask him how he’s been; he asks me if I’ve been a bad girl.

I eye him as I take a drag and try to gauge how serious he is, if he expects me to answer.

“Because you look like you’ve been bad,” he says.

I say nothing and look down at my phone. There’s a text from Strane: I don’t know what you’re trying to communicate by sending me that email. As I watch, another appears: I don’t have the patience for any games right now, Vanessa. Give me the courtesy of behaving like an adult. The divorcé moves toward me, backs me up against the brick wall of the bar. Shielded by the dumpsters, he presses his body into mine, tries to shove his hand under the waistband of my pants. At first I laugh and try to squirm away. When he doesn’t stop, I shove him with the heels of my hands. He backs off but still looms over me, out of breath, his shoulders heaving. I flick my cigarette; ash spills onto his shoe.

“Relax,” I say. “Just be cool, ok?” My phone starts to ring, and because the divorcé is there, or because I know I’ve worked Strane into a panic, which is all I really wanted, or because I’m drunk and therefore stupid, I swipe up to answer. “What do you want?”

“‘What do you want?’” Strane says. “Is that really how you want to play this?”

I drop my cigarette and grind it out even though it’s only half smoked, then immediately grope through my purse for another, waving off the divorcé when he offers me a lighter.

“Fine,” the divorcé says. “I’ll leave you alone. I can take a hint.”

On the phone, Strane asks, “Who is that? Is someone there with you?”

“It’s nothing,” I say. “It’s nobody.”

The divorcé scoffs, turns on his heel like he’s going back into the bar, then checks over his shoulder as if I’m going to stop him.

“Why did you forward me that email?” Strane asks. “What are you planning on doing?”

“I’m not planning anything,” I say. “I just wanted you to see it.”

They’re both quiet, Strane on the phone and the divorcé holding the door open, waiting for me to tell him to stay. He’s wearing the same clothes he had on when we hooked up before: black jeans, black T-shirt, black leather jacket, black combat boots—the uniform of the aging punks I always seem to end up going out with these days, men who claim to be turned on by strength but can only handle women who act like girls.

“I understand it might be tempting,” Strane says, choosing each word with care, “to join in on the hysteria going on right now. And I know it would be easy for you to depict what happened between us as . . . inappropriate or abusive or whatever other label suits your mood. There’s no doubt in my mind you’d be able to turn me into whatever you wanted . . .” He trails off, takes a breath. “But my god, Vanessa, do you really want this attached to you for the rest of your life? Because if you do this, if you come forward, it’s going to stick to you—”

“Look, I’m not going to do anything,” I say. “I’m not going to write her back, not going to tell. Ok? I’m not. I just wanted you to see what’s going on, you know, on my end. You should realize this isn’t only about you.”

Through the phone, I feel the tide pull in his direction, a sudden gathering of feeling. He lets loose a bitter laugh. “That’s what this is about?” he asks. “You needing attention and sympathy? Right now, in the midst of this shitstorm, that’s the time you decide to act wounded?”

I start to apologize, but he cuts me off.

“You’re comparing what I’m facing to you getting a couple of emails?” he asks, practically yelling. “Are you out of your fucking mind?”

He reminds me that, in this situation, I have it good. Don’t I realize how much power I have? If the story of him and I came out, no one would blame me for a thing, not one fucking thing. It would all fall on him.

“I have to carry the weight of this alone,” he says. “And all I’m asking is for you not to make it worse.”

I end up crying, my forehead pressed against the brick alley wall. I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’m sorry, you’re right, you’re right. He cries, too. Says he’s scared, that everything’s starting to feel ominous. He’s back teaching, but half the students transferred out of his classes, he was stripped of all his advisees, no one will look him in the eye. They’re waiting for a reason to get rid of him.

“I need you on my side, Vanessa,” he says. “I need you.”

 

I go back inside, sit at the bar, and hang my head until the divorcé touches my shoulder. I bring him home, let him see the mess, let him do whatever he wants, I don’t care. In the morning, he takes a hit off my weed while I pretend to be asleep. Even when he leaves, I don’t open my eyes, don’t move. I stay in bed until ten minutes before the start of my shift.

I don’t see the article until I’m at work, sitting behind my desk. It’s published on the front page of the Portland newspaper: “Longtime Boarding School Teacher Suspended Amid Further Allegations of Sexual Abuse.” Five girls accusing him now, it says. Taylor Birch, plus four others: two recent graduates and two current students, all minors at the time of alleged abuse.

For the rest of my shift, my body carries on working. I use muscle memory to call restaurants, confirm reservations with guests, write out directions, wish everyone a lovely evening. Across the lobby, valets push luggage carts piled high with bags, and at the front desk Inez answers the phone in her high, sweet voice, “Thank you for calling the Old Port Hotel.” Tucked away in the corner of the lobby, I am rigid and empty-headed, staring off into middle distance. The hotel owner passes by and notes how professional I look. He likes my posture, how there’s nothing but empty appeasement behind my eyes.

The article says Strane groomed the girls. Groomed. I repeat the word over and over, try to understand what it means, but all I can think of is the lovely warm feeling I’d get when he stroked my hair.

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