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My Dark Vanessa (Page 9)

Mom calls as I’m walking home from the grocery store, my bag weighed down with pints of ice cream and bottles of wine. She asks, “Do you want to come home for Thanksgiving?” sounding exasperated, as though she’s asked me this many times before when we haven’t spoken about the holiday at all.

“I assumed you would want me to,” I say.

“It’s up to you.”

“Do you not want me to come?”

“No, I do.”

“Then what is it?”

A long pause. “I don’t want to cook.”

“You don’t have to.”

“It won’t feel right if I don’t.”

“Mom,” I say, “you do not have to cook.” I adjust the grocery bag on my shoulder and hope she can’t hear the clanking bottles. “You know what we should do? Get some of that frozen fried chicken that comes in the blue box. We can just eat that. Remember how we used to have it every Friday night?”

She laughs. “I haven’t had that in years.”

I walk down Congress Street, past the bus depot, the statue of Longfellow staring down every passerby. I can hear the news playing in the background of the phone call: a pundit’s voice, then Trump’s.

Mom groans and the background noise is gone. “I mute him whenever he comes on.”

“I don’t understand how you can watch that all day.”

“I know, I know.”

My building comes into view. I’m about to wrap things up as she says, “You know, I saw your old school in the news the other day.”

I don’t stop walking, but I stop thinking, stop looking. I walk past my building, cross the next street and keep going. I hold my breath and wait to see if she’ll push further. She only said your old school, not that man.

“Well anyway,” she says with a sigh, “that place always was a hellhole.”

 

In the wake of the article about the other girls, Browick suspends Strane without pay and opens another investigation. This time the state police are involved, too. Or at least I think these things are true; they’re morsels I’ve picked up from Taylor’s Facebook posts and the comment section of the article, where pieces of seemingly legitimate information hide among rumors, rants, and hand-wringing. People screaming, IT’S SIMPLE, JUST CASTRATE ALL PEDOPHILES; others giving a more subdued benefit of the doubt, stuff like, Shouldn’t we all be innocent before proven guilty, let justice run its course, you can’t always trust these accusations, especially when they come from teenage girls with their vivid imaginations, their emotional unreliability. It’s head spinning and endless, and I don’t really know what’s going on because Strane hasn’t told me. My phone sits silent for days.

It takes all my self-control not to reach out. I write him texts, delete them, and write them again. I draft emails, bring up his number and poise my finger to call, but I won’t let myself. Despite the years of deferment, of allowing him to lecture me on what’s true, what’s puritanical hysteria, and what’s blatant lie, I do still have a grasp on reality. I haven’t been gaslighted into senselessness. I know I should be angry, and though that emotion sits on the other side of the canyon, far out of reach, I do my best to act as though I feel it. I sit and stay quiet, let my silence speak while I watch Taylor share the article again and again, captioning it with raised-fist emojis and words that read like nails in a coffin: Hide all you want, but the truth will always find you.

 

When he does contact me, it’s an early-morning call, the phone ringing beneath my pillow, sending a vibration across the mattress that sounds in my dream like the drone of a motor on the lake, the rough muted hum I’d hear when swimming underwater as a speedboat passed. When I answer, I’m still in the dream, tasting lake water, watching the sunrays cut through the dark, all the way to the rotten leaves and fallen branches, all that endless muck.

On the phone, Strane exhales a shaky breath, the haggard kind you take after crying. “It’s all over,” he says. “But know that I loved you. Even if I was a monster, I did love you.” He’s outside. I hear wind, a wall of sound garbling his words.

Sitting up, I look to the window. It’s before sunrise, the sky a gradient of black to violet. “I’ve been waiting for you to call me.”

“I know.”

“Why didn’t you tell me? I had to read about it in the newspaper. You could have told me.”

“I didn’t know it was coming,” he says. “I had no idea.”

“Who are these girls?”

“I don’t know. They’re just girls. They’re nobody. Vanessa, I don’t know what this is. I don’t even know what I’m supposed to have done.”

“They’re saying you molested them.”

He’s quiet, probably taken aback to hear the word come out of me. I’ve been gentle with him for so long.

“Tell me it’s not true,” I say. “Swear to me.” I listen to the white noise of the wind.

“You think it could be true,” he says. It isn’t a question but a realization, like he’s taken a step backward and can now see the doubt that’s begun to sidle up alongside the limits of my loyalty.

“What did you do to them?” I ask.

“What are you imagining? What do you think I’m capable of?”

“You did something. Why would they say this if you didn’t do anything?”

“It’s an epidemic,” he says. “There’s no logic to it.”

“But they’re just girls.” My voice cracks, a sob chokes out, and it feels like observing someone else cry, a woman playing the role of me. I remember my college roommate Bridget saying, after I first told her about Strane, Your life is like a movie. She didn’t understand the horror of watching your body star in something your mind didn’t agree to. She meant it as a compliment. Isn’t that what all teenage girls want? Endlessly bored, aching for an audience.

Strane tells me not to try to make sense of this, that it’ll drive me crazy. “What is this?” I ask. “What is it?” I need a scene to slip into, a description of where they were in the classroom, behind his desk or at the seminar table, what the light looked like, what hand he used, but I’m crying too hard and he’s telling me to listen, to please stop crying and listen to him.

He says, “It wasn’t the same with them, do you understand? It wasn’t like how it was with you. I loved you, Vanessa. I loved you.”

When he hangs up, I know what’s next. I remember the threat I made to Ira when, exasperated with my inertia, he’d said he was going to report Strane himself. “Ira, if you do that,” I said, my voice steady and cold, “if you tell anyone anything about him, you will never see me again. I’ll disappear.”

Staring at the phone, I tell myself the urge to call 911 is irrational, unwarranted, but really I’m scared. I don’t know how to explain any of this—who I am, who he is—without giving away the whole story. I tell myself it wouldn’t help, that I don’t even know where he is—outside, someplace windy. This isn’t enough to go on. Then I see a text from him, sent just before the call. You can do whatever you want, he wrote. If you want to tell, you should.

I type a response, my fingers flying across the screen: I don’t want to tell. I never will. I watch the message deliver and then sit unread.

I fall back asleep, first fitful and then deep like the dead, and I don’t wake up until quarter past eleven, when they’ve already dragged the river for his body. By five p.m., the Portland newspaper posts an article.

Longtime Browick Schoolteacher Found Dead in Norumbega River

NORUMBEGA—Jacob Strane, 59, of Norumbega, a longtime teacher at the Browick School, died early Saturday morning.

The Norumbega County Sheriff’s Department reported that Strane’s body was found midmorning in the Norumbega River near the Narrows Bridge.

“The gentleman jumped off the bridge. We recovered his body this morning,” the Sheriff’s Department stated. “We received a call at 6:05 AM about a possible jumper, and that person then witnessed the gentleman jump. There’s no indication of any foul play.”

Strane was born in Butte, Montana, and taught English at the Norumbega boarding school for thirty years and was a well-known member of the community. Last Thursday, this paper reported Strane was under investigation after five Browick students came forward with allegations of sexual abuse against the teacher, the allegations ranging in date from 2006 to 2016.

The Sheriff’s Department stated that while Strane’s death has been ruled a suicide, an investigation is ongoing.

The article includes a photo from a recent school picture day, Strane sitting before a blue background, wearing a tie I recognize and even remember the feel of—navy with little embroidered diamonds. He looks so old, hair thin and gray, face clean-shaven and sallow, all loose neck and hooded eyes. He looks small. Not small like a boy, but like an old man, brittle and worn down. He doesn’t look straight at the camera but somewhere off to the left, with a puzzled expression, mouth slightly open. He looks confused, like he doesn’t fully comprehend what has happened or what he’s done.

The next day, a box arrives in the mail postmarked the day before he jumped from the bridge. Inside I find Polaroids, letters, cards, and photocopies of essays I wrote for his class, everything resting on a bed of yellowed cotton—the strawberry pajamas he bought for me the first time we slept together. There’s no note, but I need no explanation. It’s all the evidence, every last bit he had.

 

The story spreads across the state. Local TV news runs a segment with quick shots of the Browick campus, students walking on pathways shaded by pine trees, white clapboard dorms, the administration building with its columned facade. There’s a lingering shot of the humanities building. Then the same photo of Strane and, beneath it, his misspelled name: jacob strain.

Time disappears as I scroll through comment sections, Facebook posts, Twitter threads, my phone dinging every so often from the Google Alert I’ve set for his name. On my laptop, I keep fifteen tabs open at a time, jumping from one to the other, and when I’ve caught up on all the comments, I watch the news clip. The first time I watched it, I had to run to the bathroom and throw up, but I’ve forced myself to sit through it so many times, I turn numb to it. No reaction when Strane’s photo flashes on-screen. When the newscaster says “allegations from five different students,” I don’t even flinch.

After about twenty-four hours, the story travels south. It’s picked up by papers in Boston and New York, and then people start writing think pieces. In an attempt to complicate the current cultural trend of allegations, they give the articles titles like “Has This Reckoning Gone Too Far?” and “When Allegations Turn Deadly” and “It’s Time to Talk About the Danger of Accusations Without Due Process.” The think pieces feature Taylor alongside Strane, and out of her they craft an archetype of the overzealous accuser, a millennial social justice warrior who never stopped to think about the consequences of her actions. Some defend Taylor on social media, but the louder voices vilify her. They call her selfish, heartless, a murderer—because his death is her doing; she drove him to suicide. The host of a men’s rights podcast devotes an entire episode to the story, calls Strane a victim of the tyranny of feminism, and his listeners go after Taylor. They get her phone number, her home and work addresses. Taylor posts on Facebook screenshots of emails and texts from anonymous men threatening to rape her, to kill her and cut up her body. Then, a few hours later, she vanishes. Her profile goes on lockdown, all the public content gone. It happens so fast.

Meanwhile, I keep calling out of work, days lost to my open laptop, my nightstand crowded with food wrappers and empty bottles. I drink, smoke, and study Strane’s photos of me as a baby-faced, thin-limbed teen. In them I look impossibly young, topless and grinning in one, holding my arms out toward the camera. In another I’m slouching in the passenger seat of his station wagon, shooting the camera a glare. In another I’m lying facedown on his bed, the sheet pulled up to my waist. I remember inspecting that last photo after he took it and thinking it strange that he thought it was sexy, but I tried to see it that way, too. I had told myself it was like something out of a music video.

I grab my laptop, google “Fiona Apple Criminal,” bring up the video, and there’s teenage Fiona, sullen and lithe. She sings about being a bad girl, and I think of the divorcé asking me this in the alley behind the bar: Have you been a bad girl? You look like you’ve been bad. I remember Strane lamenting how I turned him into a criminal. I saw such power in that. I could have sent him to jail, and in my brattiest moments, I’d imagined it—Strane in a lonely little cell, with nothing to do but think about me.

The video ends and I gather the pictures, dump them back into the box. That fucking box. Ordinary girls have shoeboxes of love letters and dried-out corsages; I get a stack of child porn. If I were smart, I’d burn everything, especially the photos, because I know how they’d look to a normal person, like something confiscated from a sex-trafficking ring, evidence of an obvious crime—but I could never. It would be like setting myself on fire.

I wonder if it’s possible for me to be arrested for having photos of myself. I wonder if maybe this is me turning into a predator, if the way I get excited around teenage girls says something about me. I think about how abusive people are always abused as kids. They say it’s a cycle, avoidable if you’re willing to do the work. But I’m too lazy to take out the trash, too lazy to clean. No, none of this even applies to me. I wasn’t abused, not like that.

Stop thinking. Let yourself grieve—but how can I grieve when there hasn’t been an obituary, nothing about a funeral, only these articles written by strangers? I don’t know who would even arrange a funeral, maybe his sister who lives in Idaho? But even if there is a funeral, who would go? I couldn’t go. People would see me, and then they’d know. Tell me what happened, they’d say. Tell us what he did to you.

My brain starts to skip, my bedroom suddenly seems lit by a strobe, so I take an Ativan, smoke a bowl, and lie back. I always let the pill sink in before I decide whether to do another lap. I never go overboard. I’m careful, which is how I know my problem is mild, if I even have a problem, which I maybe don’t.

It’s fine. The drinking, the pot, the Ativan, even Strane—it’s perfectly fine. It’s nothing. It’s normal. All interesting women had older lovers when they were young. It’s a rite of passage. You go in a girl and come out not quite a woman but closer, a girl more conscious of herself and her own power. Self-awareness is a good thing. It leads to confidence, knowing one’s place in the world. He made me see myself in a way a boy my own age never could. No one can convince me that I would have been better off if I’d been like the other girls at school, giving blow jobs and hand jobs, all that endless labor, before being deemed a slut and thrown away. At least Strane loved me. At least I knew how it felt to be worshipped. He fell at my feet before he even kissed me.

Another cycle—drink, smoke, swallow. I want to be low enough to slip beneath the surface and swim without needing air. He’s the only person who ever understood that desire. Not to die, but to already be dead. I remember trying to explain it to Ira. Just a glimpse was enough to make him worry, and worry never leads to anything good. Worry makes people butt in where they don’t belong. Any time I’ve ever heard the words “Vanessa, I worry about you,” my life has been blown apart.

Whiskey, pot, no more Ativan. I know my limits. I’ve got a good head on my shoulders, despite all this. I can take care of myself. Look at me—I’m ok. I’m fine.

I reach for my laptop, replay the video. Teen girls writhe around in their underwear while faceless men guide their heads and hands down. Fiona Apple was raped when she was twelve years old. I remember her talking about it in interviews back when I was twelve years old. She spoke about it so openly, the r-word coming out of her as though it were the same as any other. It happened outside her apartment; the whole time the man did what he did, she could hear her dog barking through the door. I remember crying over that detail while hugging our old shepherd dog, hot tears that I buried into his fur. I had no reason to care about rape then—I was a lucky kid, safe and securely loved—but that story hit me hard. Somehow I sensed what was coming for me even then. Really, though, what girl doesn’t? It looms over you, that threat of violence. They drill the danger into your head until it starts to feel inevitable. You grow up wondering when it’s finally going to happen.

I google “Fiona Apple interviews” and read until my eyes blur. A line from a 1997 SPIN article about the same music video makes me choke out a laughing sob: “Watching it, you feel as creepy as Humbert Humbert.” If I tug on any string hard enough, Lolita will emerge from the unraveling. Later in the article, Fiona asks the interviewer a series of questions about her rapist, her rape: “How much strength does it take to hurt a little girl? How much strength does it take for the girl to get over it? Which one of them do you think is stronger?” The questions hang there, the answers obvious—she’s the strong one. I’m strong, too, stronger than anyone has ever given me credit for.

Not that I’ve been raped. Not raped raped. Strane hurt me sometimes, but never like that. Though I could claim he raped me and I’m sure I’d be believed. I could participate in this movement of women upon women upon women lining the walls with every bad thing that’s ever happened to them, but I’m not going to lie to fit in. I’m not going to call myself a victim. Women like Taylor find comfort in that label and that’s great for them, but I’m the one he called when he was on the brink. He said it himself—with me, it was different. He loved me, he loved me.

 

When I walk into Ruby’s office, she takes one look at me and says, “You’re not doing ok.”

I try to raise my eyes to meet hers but make it only to the orange pashmina wrapped around her shoulders.

“What’s happened?”

I lick my lips. “I’m grieving. I lost someone important to me.”

She brings her hand to her chest. “Not your mother.”

“No,” I say. “Someone else.”

She waits for me to explain; her frown deepens as the seconds pass. I’m usually so direct, coming into her office prepared with a handful of topics I want to touch on. She’s never had to pry anything from me.

I take a breath. “If I tell you about something illegal, are you required to report it?”

She answers slowly, caught off guard. “It depends. If you told me you murdered someone, I’d have to report it.”

“I didn’t murder anyone.”

“I didn’t think so.”

She waits for me to elaborate and it suddenly feels ridiculous, being so coy.

“The grief I’m going through is connected to abuse,” I say. “Or things that other people consider abusive. I don’t think it was abuse. I just want to make sure you won’t tell anyone if I don’t want you to.”

“Are we talking about abuse that happened to you?”

I nod, my eyes fixed on the window over her shoulder.

“I can’t share anything you tell me without your explicit permission,” she says.

“What if it happened when I was underage?”

Her eyes flutter, a few rapid blinks. “Doesn’t matter. You’re an adult now.”

I take my phone out of my bag and hand it over, the article about Strane’s suicide already loaded. Ruby’s face darkens as she scrolls. “This is connected to you?”

“That was the teacher, the one who . . .” I falter, wanting to explain, but the words aren’t there. They don’t exist. “I mentioned him once. I don’t know if you remember.”

It was months ago, when she and I were still getting to know each other. Back then, at the end of sessions, she would ask me casual questions, like a cooldown lap after a long workout—where did I grow up, what do I do for fun—normal boring stuff. One week, she asked me about writing, about studying it in college, what age I really got into it. She asked, “Were you encouraged by any specific teachers?” It was an innocuous question, but it broke my face apart. Not from crying but giddiness—gasping, teenage giggling. I hid behind my hands and peeked out through my fingers while Ruby looked on, stunned.

Eventually, I managed to say, “There was one teacher who was very encouraging, but it was complicated.” And when I said that, a heavier gravity settled into the office. It was as though Strane had used my body to reveal himself.

“There’s a story there, then,” Ruby said.

Still squirming, I nodded.

Then, very quietly, she asked, “Did you fall in love with him?” I don’t know how I answered. I must have said yes one way or another, and then we moved on, talked about something else, but I was struck by that question. I still am. The implied agency—did I fall in love with him? I don’t think anyone I’ve confided in has ever asked me that. Only if I slept with him, how it started, or how it ended, never if I loved him. After that session ended, we didn’t talk about it again.

Across from me, Ruby’s mouth falls open. “This was him?”

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I know this is a big thing to spring on you.”

“Don’t apologize.” She reads for a moment longer, then sets the phone facedown on the little table between us and looks me in the eye. Asks me where I want to start.

She’s patient as the words drip out of me. I do my best to give a brief synopsis—how it started, how it continued. I don’t talk about feelings, about what it did to me, but the facts are enough to horrify her. Though I’m not sure I’d recognize the horror if I weren’t so good at reading her. She keeps it contained to her eyes.

At the end of the hour, she calls me brave—for confiding, for trusting. “I’m honored,” she says, “that you chose to share this with me.”

Leaving her office, I wonder when I made the decision, if I arrived with the resolve to tell somewhere in my mind, if it was within my control at all.

On the walk home, I’m propelled by the mania of confession, the sudden lightness that follows an unburdening. I sidestep a cluster of tourists, one saying to another, “I’ve never seen so many cigarette butts. I thought this place was supposed to be beautiful.” I think of how, throughout the whole session, Ruby treated me like a skittish animal ready to bolt, her carefulness an echo of Strane’s slow approach. How cautious he was, first angling his knee against my thigh, such a small thing that could have been an accident, then his hand on my knee, a little pat, a friendly thing people do to each other. Pat-pat-pat. I’d seen teachers give students hugs before, no big deal. It only accelerated after that, once he knew I was ok with it—and isn’t that what consent is, always being asked what you want? Did I want him to kiss me? Did I want him to touch me? Did I want him to fuck me? Slowly guided into the fire—why is everyone so scared to admit how good that can feel? To be groomed is to be loved and handled like a precious, delicate thing.

Once I’m in the stale air of my apartment, the mania levels out and then drops as I take in the mundane mess of my unmade bed and kitchen counters covered in food wrappers, the calendar on my refrigerator that Ruby had me make months ago, each day taken up by some embarrassingly basic chore—do laundry, take out the trash, buy groceries, pay rent—things that probably come naturally to most people. If it weren’t for seeing these tasks written out plainly before me, I’d walk around in dirty clothes, live on potato chips from the corner store.

The line of Polaroids stretches across my living room, the strawberry pajamas draped over the radiator. I wonder what level of crazy I’ve reached and how much further I could go, how many more steps until I become a woman who boards up the windows to live uninterrupted in the filth of her past. I told Ruby I’d already imagined this—him dying, how it might happen, how it would feel. He was twenty-seven years older; I was prepared. But I pictured him withered and helpless, gazing up at me from a deathbed. He’d leave me something real: his house, his car, or just money. Like Humbert at the very end, giving Lo that envelope stuffed with cash, a tangible payment for all he’d put her through.

At one point during the session, Ruby said it seemed like I had so much built up inside me, I was ready to burst. She called my mind on fire from wanting to talk.

“We’ll have to be careful,” she said, “and not do too much too soon.”

But standing in my living room, I imagine what it might feel like to be reckless. My breath catches at the thought of what would happen if I spilled a line of gasoline over all this evidence, from thirty-two all the way back to fifteen. The wreckage I’d cause if I dropped a match and let it burn.

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