We’re in the middle of a cold snap. It’s only November but already the nights dip down to five below and the days are bitter and dry with bright blue skies. In the mornings when I step outside, my damp hair freezes stiff and as I walk across the snow-drifted campus, my head pounds from the unrelenting cold. Indoors before class I sit at the far end of the seminar table and I thaw my hair with my hands and watch other students come in with flushed red cheeks. We warm up slowly and the snow in our boot treads melts into gravely streams that run across the floor and seep into the bottoms of our backpacks if we’re not careful.
We are used to snow out here. This is western Maine, mountains and valley towns. The college is tucked at the base of a ski resort and most of the boys here are ski bums who go to the mountain every time classes are canceled, but the girls are education majors who spend four years rehearsing their looming futures by making overhead sheets and wearing acrylic sweater sets. Forty-five minutes west of campus is the Canadian border where nineteen-year-olds drive to get drunk in dingy Quebecois bars and three hours south is the closest airport. When it storms, we’re closed in. The snow on the streets packs down and the sidewalks disappear. Classes are called off for days and we lose track of time with the sun setting at four in the afternoon and not rising until seven in the morning. Parked cars become rolling hills under feet of snow, immobile and lost, and we trek through the storms with our heads bent against the wind and scarves wrapped up to our eyes.
This isn’t the Maine I grew up in, but I’ve tried to make this place full of mountains and lakes and struggling dairy farms my home. I ended up here because I liked the brochure with its photos of smiling students in wool sweaters, and because at the time I wanted to be near my father. We had never been close but I believed that could change. I’d spend Thanksgiving with him on the island, stay in my old bedroom, and even if he and I couldn’t manage a turkey, we’d cook beans and red hot dogs and things would be good again. But I never got the chance; his accident happened a week before the holiday.
My mother is dead, too. Her death happened when I was fourteen and was just as unexpected; she had an aneurysm and was gone before the ambulance arrived. My parents’ deaths are like earthquakes: they mark the days when my world broke open. I’m still don’t know how to think about them. Usually I just don’t. After my father died, I saw a counselor here at school and at first she told me there was no wrong way to grieve, but when I said that all I wanted to do was have sex with my married high school English teacher who I’d had an affair with when I was fifteen, she changed her mind. Sometimes I just like to shock people, remind them that they don’t really know me and probably never will.
After my morning classes, I follow a path that winds through the west end of campus where the offices are farmhouses with painted tin roofs so the snow slides right off. My apartment building has a tin roof, too. Every once in a while when everything is silent and still, all of a sudden—bang!—a hunk of snow crashes down onto the fire escape outside my window and I take cover until I’m sure the world is safe again.
I cut through the church parking lot and snake behind the nursing home on my way downtown. This will be my eighth week volunteering at the crisis center. The college makes everyone take part in a community outreach program during our third year in order to make us more socially conscious young people. We get assigned volunteer positions based on what we’re studying; the education majors teach at after school programs, the ski industry majors work at the resorts giving lessons to disadvantaged kids, stuff like that.
I was originally assigned to the nursing home with the promise of writing biographies but once I got there, they decided that they wanted me to make scrapbooks for the residents. There was a table set up for me with tubes of glitter glue and stickers shaped like cats. I took one look at the glitter and I bolted, sorry elderly ladies. My old counselor had once mentioned that the women’s crisis center sometimes had writing groups and I appealed to the director to let me lead one to fulfill my requirement, but Eileen immediately said that she didn’t want to hire me.
“We have to be careful,” she’d said, “about who we let interact with the women who come here for help and comfort. Most people your age don’t understand trauma and end up doing more harm than good.”
It took me a few weeks to recognize that Eileen looks just like my mother. When I realized this, it embarrassed me, because it’s cliché to see your dead mother in every authoritative woman you meet. So cliché that I wondered if I were imagining it completely and I studied photos of my mother just to make sure, but it’s the same ruddy skin and dishwater blonde hair and flat open features that I can too easily imagine burrowing into. I think about Eileen sometimes when she’s at home with her husband and her kids, doing normal stuff like falling asleep on the couch or doing the dishes, and I remember how she says to me sometimes, “I was thinking about you the other day.” It’s something special, thinking about her thinking about me. I used to do that with Grey all the time.
What's different about Eileen, though, is that unlike my mother or Grey, when she looks at you, she makes you feel small. She does that trick that therapists are so good at--just sitting and waiting. During that first interview, while I stumbled over myself and tried not to admit outright that I simply didn’t want to make glittery scrapbooks all semester, Eileen just silently watched me with level eyes, slowly taking sips from a cup of tea. Finally, I fixed my eyes on a spot above her head and said the exact thing I'd planned on not saying: “I understand trauma.”
Eileen paused, the tea stopping just short of her lips. “I know what it feels like,” I continued. “I’m a survivor, too.”
Eileen set the mug down on her desk. “I see,” she said.
“It was in high school,” I said. “I was fifteen. He was a teacher.” I looked then at Eileen and her eyes had lost all their hardness. Instead, they’d become sad: big and glassy, and her mouth had dropped open a bit, as though she were about to say an “oh” of the sort of resigned recognition I’m sure she feels whenever a new waif shows up at her door.
“I really think I could help,” I said. “And that this could help me.”
“Yes,” Eileen said. “I think you could, too.” For a thrilling moment, I thought she might cry. I watched her blink a few times to compose herself and I ignored the spark of power that lit up in me. I didn’t want to consider what it meant to be the sort of person who reveled in making another woman cry. I still don’t.
Needless to say, I got the volunteer position. So now I lead a weekly writing group of six women of all ages, the youngest nineteen and oldest fifty-seven. The women write poetry, read their work out loud, and offer feedback that is always praise, but that’s okay. The women call the writing group a safe space, which is the sort of new age-y talk that I usually balk at, but it is safe here, and that seems more important than creating brilliant poetry. Someone seems to cry at every meeting, which scared me at first, but I’m used to it by now. I’ve even let down my own guard a bit. Last week I gave a hug to the nineteen-year-old as she cried. That was a big step for me.
“You’re good at this, Vanessa,” Eileen tells me, laying a hand on my shoulder. “I suppose because it’s so easy for you to relate.” She says this to me often, along with: “We’re so lucky to have you.” I try my best to shrug all that off. No matter how good I might be at this, I still lied my way in here.
When I get home, snowdrifts cover the bottom half of my studio apartment windows and drape the room in blue shadows. I close the front door behind me, kick off my boots, and step out of my jeans, the bottom hems soaking wet and salt-stained. I skip across the apartment, my thighs red and so cold they almost feel wet, and I slip into my unmade bed where the latest letter from Jacob Grey sits under my pillow.
This is my secret: he’s been writing to me. It’s been six years since I said goodbye to him in his classroom, a police officer watching me hold back ridiculous tears, and now he’s suddenly sending me letters that I find tucked between electric bills and grocery store fliers. The first letter was simply addressed to me and my town—no street, no apartment number—but still it found its way to me. At the sight of that first letter, with its familiar handwriting and unmistakable return address, I screamed and let the letter fell to the floor and for hours I didn’t dare touch it. It was like getting a letter from a ghost. But the letters keep coming. Two or three will show up in my mailbox before I get a chance to respond. They’re full of apologies and “do you remember?” and a few days ago, I held the letters in one hand and a lit match in the other, but I just let the flame burn down to my thumb.
I say that it’s the cold that’s been keeping me in, but it’s the letters. I haven’t seen my friends in days and I’ve barely been going anywhere after class, opting instead to drink tea in my underwear all night, wrap myself up in blankets, and fall asleep in my bedroom closet. I haven’t been this bad for years. I thought I was past this.
When my phone rings at eight-thirty, then again at ten, I ignore the calls. I know it’s Ben Evans and I don’t want to encourage him. I drink more tea, try to write a paper, but end up reading over Grey’s letters instead. When there’s a knock on my door at one a.m., I hold my breath. I sit on my bed with the letters open around me and I listen to my name sung in a three-note song: “Va-ness-a, Va-ness-a?” He won’t leave until I let him in.
Ben stumbles in when I open the door and immediately wraps his arms around me. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I shouldn’t be here. I’ll go in a minute. I just had to see you.”
Ben Evans is my ex-boyfriend and the best-looking person I’ve ever seen in real life. He’s tall and elegant like a fashion model with high cheekbones and hair that always falls the right way, but he has the personality of a golden retriever. All he wants to do is love and be loved and we broke up because it became too much to handle. When Ben dumped me, he said it was because I didn’t love him enough, and that’s probably true, but I don’t know how anyone could ever give the amount of love Ben needs.
It’s clear what he wants so I let him into my bed and I let him take off my clothes. We broke up two months ago but this keeps happening. It has to be me who puts my foot down but he’s so sad, I can’t tell him no.
“I miss you all the time,” he says. “I want to get back together.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I say.
“It’s the only idea,” he says.
Sex with us used to be all right. After a few months of being with him, the panic I’d always felt during sex started to fade and it became almost fun, a sort of give and take, but now I just take. I lie beneath him, close my eyes, and let him do what he wants. Sometimes when I want to hurry it up, I do some tricks I know he likes—brace my leg against the wall to open myself up more and whimper some porn talk—but mostly I drift off.
I need mean things. During sex I want to be choked and hit--those are the only things that keep me from flying out into the night. I used to try to get Ben to do the things I want but he can’t begin to understand why I’d want to be hurt. He doesn’t have it in him to be hard. He just kisses me all over and cradles my head in his hands. That’s what sex is probably supposed to be like, but all it does is make me shut down. He keeps kissing and I stop breathing until my heart slows and my mind slinks out of the room with its beaten dog tail tucked between its legs.
It’s getting harder not to feel like Grey created me, but I know how ridiculous that would sound if I tried to explain. I just can’t even think unless someone is mean to me. At the crisis center, Eileen once gently said to me something about reenacting abuse, but that’s not what this is. It’s that Grey made me bad, just as bad as him. He pushed so deep inside me that part of him got stuck. There’s a peach pit of his meanness somewhere in me and it’s never coming out.
Just as I’m about to fall asleep, Ben curls his fingers around my wrist. “Why don’t you talk to me anymore?” he asks.
“I talk to you all the time.”
“Not like you used to,” he says. “Why don’t you love me?”
“You’re drunk,” I say.
“Will you come home with me for Christmas?”
“Come on, we can’t do stuff like that.”
“I don’t want you being alone.”
“I won’t be alone.”
“Where are you going?”
“We shouldn’t talk about this. We shouldn’t even be seeing each other.”
I turn my back on him and wait until he passes out, snoring quietly. I then pull Grey’s letter out from under my pillow and in the light from the street outside my window, read again its first paragraph.
Should we compare our lowness? Tell me: do you remember when I drew the star on your belly? And do you remember what I said? That it was my north star? It is, still. Do you remember coming to my house in a snowstorm, your blue jeans torn at the knees from falling off your bicycle in the snow? I took you in, bandaged you up, and we made love for the first time on the living room floor. That memory has become so sweet to me, rivaling those that for every moral purpose should be foremost in my mind: my wedding, the birth of my son, the things I have done that made me good. God forgive me, but the lowest things I’ve ever done are the things I want to remember most.
I don’t what I am and I don’t know what I survived. I took a philosophy class a few semesters ago and the professor taught us this theory that things exist within their opposite. There are binaries—right and wrong, up and down, good and bad—but each exists within the other. Victim, abuser, both of these things are supposed to be in each of us. Does that mean a victim allowed to enjoy abuse? I don’t know.
When I first came to this school, everyone was dying to tell their stories. Open doors lined the dorm hallways, and people wandered from room to room late into the night, divulging all their secrets and laying their hearts bare. Girls I'd met only hours before were suddenly weeping next to me on my bed, telling me about their distant mothers and mean fathers and how they’d cheated on their boyfriends and that the world was an ugly, awful place. I patted shoulders and told them it would be okay, but I kept my own stories secret because I felt different. I guess I still do.
When I was fifteen, I fell in love with a man named Jacob Grey. I don't what word explains what happened between us other than “love.” He was forty-five back then, a perfect thirty years older than me. He was my teacher and I loved him.
It happened slowly. I watched him in class for months and I realized more and more each day that he was something big, someone I had been waiting for.
Once I met him, things about myself began to make sense. I don’t mean that he completed me because I don’t subscribe that sort of romantic bullshit. What I mean is, we all have gaps and we can live on fine with those empty holes, but when someone fills them for us, life is so much better. And that’s what Grey did for me: he filled in my gaps.
I was full of holes back then. My mother had just died and I was living with my father for the first time since I was three years old. The girls at school were stupid, the boys were boring, and I was so angry at everyone all the time. But then there was Grey, who was smarter than anyone I'd ever met before, the best teacher at the high school, notoriously tough. He had a masters degree from an Ivy League school, his wife was chief of surgery at the hospital, and they lived in a huge beach house in the nicest part of town. He was such a prize, it felt as though I'd won some kind of lottery. How could I have said no to him? He taught me which books were the ones I should be reading and talked to me about Neil Young and Tom Waits and told me my hair was the color of red maple leaves. How could I not have loved him?
He told me I changed his life. That I was the love of his life. That when his classroom was empty at the end of the day, he’d close the door and walk across the room to my desk where he’d sit, lay his cheek on the formica top, and reach down to grip its metal legs and breathe in what might be left of me.
I was the one who asked him to kiss me. That was the way it always went with us; I pushed it further and I asked for more. When I asked him to kiss me, you know what he did? He sank to his knees in front of me. Can you imagine what that’s like, being fifteen and making a grown man crawl on the floor? In that moment, the world was mine; I understood power, sex, love, everything.
I cried after the first time he kissed me. But you know what? He cried, too.
It was Ben who took me to my father’s funeral during my freshman year. Back then I didn’t really want anything to do with Ben Evans. Not at first, anyway. He was always showing up wherever I was, which was annoying and creepy but flattering, too. I mean, he was the most beautiful boy I’d ever seen, and girls obsessed over him, calling him always Ben Evans as though he were so magnificent, his first name didn’t do him justice. No one really understood why he liked me so much, not that I’m ugly or anything, but I’m just not exactly the sort of girl who snags beautiful, popular boys.
For a long time, I didn’t let Ben get close to me. He might’ve been beautiful, but he was a boy and I had no idea what to do with a boy. He and I had the same Biology lab so he helped me write up lab reports and he gave me his English essays to edit in return, which I marked up ruthlessly. We studied together in the library, eating from the same bag of candy, Ben watching me while I pretended not to notice.
Then the mid-November fishing trip happened, the accident, my father’s foot caught in the line of anchored lobsterpots and dragged to the bottom of the ocean. It was a rookie mistake. It shouldn’t have happened. I still can’t think about it without wanting to vomit: my father’s body hurled into the north Atlantic, pulled further and further down until his lungs filled with water and his skin grew bloated and pale. The most horrific thing is that I know he didn’t try to fight it, didn’t claw at the rope wound round his ankle. He accepted it, let his body go limp, let the water rush between his fingers. I can’t think of it.
I didn’t have a car so Ben Evans drove me to Bar Harbor. It was so warm that day, over fifty degrees, and the snow ran off the interstate in little streams. I rolled down my window and tried to breathe better, but I couldn’t get enough air. Even with my face in all that wind, I couldn’t help but feel I was drowning, too.
During those days Ben held me. I was propped up wherever I went, his arm around my waist to give me enough structure to stay upright. Everything had already been planned—the lobstermen always have their funerals planned—so I just followed the map already laid out, leaning into Ben in the church and in the cemetery, patches of brown grass showing through the melting snow. There was a moment when I looked over my shoulder and across the street, on the town pier, I swore I saw Jacob Grey wearing a coat I once grabbed fistfuls of in the midst of a kiss. I turned my face into Ben’s shoulder and when I looked back, Grey was gone. I told myself it wasn’t real. For years I’d been seeing him everywhere.
When I was faced with my father’s house after the funeral, I took only a box of books and clothes from my old bedroom and left the rest. I hadn’t been in the house since I was sixteen and I felt like an intruder walking the rooms. I didn’t belong in there. It was Ben who emptied out the refrigerator and cupboards and boarded up the windows. The rest of the house stayed the same: the junk mail still on the kitchen table, worn-down soap in the shower.
Ben Evans ended up falling in love with me as soon as I let him. He thought I needed to be saved, and he couldn’t resist. That night after the funeral was the first night we slept together. We lay side by side in my old twin bed, Ben balancing on the edge, trying so hard not to touch me until I finally pulled him on top of me. I needed him to make me forget, and he did. Without asking questions, he took me in.
During the weekly writing group, the women read their poetry, some of them standing while they read and some of them not. Any participation is strictly voluntary, but they all take part. Some of the poems read this week are new, some are revisions of ones we’ve heard before. Everyone listens thoughtfully and offers encouragement afterward. At this point, the group really runs itself.
The poetry the women write isn’t angry or about the people who hurt them. Most of the poems are about sex with themselves, their own legs and hips, their own hands slipping between their thighs. The erotica panicked me at first, but Eileen was thrilled with the subject matter, viewing it as a sign of trust and a step towards the women reclaiming their sense of self. Sometimes Eileen sits in on the group and she looked at me with a face so proud. “You have such a current of strength running through you,” she says. “You’ve done a remarkable job with yourself.” She means with my recovery. She thinks I’m as strong as these women I’m supposed to be leading.
There’s a symposium in January down in Portland and Eileen wants me to give a presentation. It would open doors for me, she says, if I wanted to have a future in crisis counseling. I wouldn’t have to talk about my own experiences as a survivor, but it would be invaluable if I did. “No pressure,” she says, “but think about it.”
While I leave the crisis center, I reach into my coat pocket and run my fingers over the letter from Grey that arrived today.
Yes, I am divorced. And, yes, you were a powerful factor in that decision. But you weren’t the only factor. The things that drew me to you in the first place are to blame—the dissatisfaction, the panic, those intangible things I was never able to put into words but you understood inherently. Have you thought about Christmas?
We were caught during the last few weeks of my sophomore year of high school. It started with one anonymous letter from a concerned parent, then another came in, and then another. The letters were about me hanging around Grey’s room before and after school, times students had walked by his room, the door ajar, and seen Grey touch his fingers to my neck, seen him duck his head close to mine in order to speak low so no one else could hear. One letter even told a story of seeing the two of us dancing late after school. I remember that afternoon perfectly: the stereo on Grey’s desk was turned on playing the Rolling Stones. My skirt billowed out round my knees as I danced, and Grey took my hands, holding me out to spin and pulling me back in again. He sang the along with the lyrics, baby, baby, bah bah bah and I rewound the tape so we could listen again. I still don’t know how anyone could have known about that afternoon.
Grey had tried to brace me for it. He’d said the prospect of being discovered was terrifying but probably inevitable and that we needed to have a plan. So, he’d deny everything, I’d deny everything, no one could hurt us without direct evidence, and we’d play it off as just a big misunderstanding. He promised it was foolproof, but even so, I flew into a panic when we were faced with it, and I think, deep down, Grey did, too. He taught his classes with trembling hands and when I stayed after class, he asked in a small voice, “Will you do what we planned?” Instead of looking at me, he broke a piece of chalk into pieces. “Can you still do it?” If I did, it would all go away. After a few months, things might even go back to normal.
Was I stupid not to have seen any of this coming? The school seemed to delight in having someone other than a teacher to blame for the whole thing. They made me write a list of everyone who may have heard about the fantasy affair with Grey and made me announce to a room full of students and parents that anything they’d heard about me and Grey wasn’t true and that I was sorry for lying. They called in a police officer to escort me out of school for the last time. Slander was a criminal offense and I was lucky Grey didn’t want to press charges. I was getting off easy. On my way out, the principal recommended me to seek psychological counseling—expressed an ominous warning about being an emotionally disturbed young woman—and handed me an expulsion slip that I made no move to take.
After I was kicked out, I spent two straight days holed up in my bedroom, listening to my father move through the rest of the house as he watched television, made dinner, spoke in a low voice on the telephone. He was frighteningly angry with me, refusing to be in the same room as me even if I did try to venture out. When he told me through the closed bedroom door that I was going to live for a while in Indiana with my grandmother, I was so deflated I didn’t even try to fight. I knew even from the beginning that “a while” really meant indefinitely and that I wouldn’t see Grey again. At the airport when my father mumbled that he’d see me soon, I just shook my head. He knew I was lying about Grey—there had been enough nights when I’d come home late or just not come home at all, and he’d interrogate me about where I’d been and who this boyfriend was, but I wouldn’t give an inch. He gave up after he turned on the living room light at two in the morning to catch me creeping to my bedroom, drunk out of my mind from vodka and sex, my mouth red from rough kisses and a love-bite blooming purple across my neck.
My father stared at my face for a long time before I got on the airplane, held onto my shoulders and said, “Please tell me what you did, Vee, and we can make it right.” I stared at him silently until he let me go. I never before that moment considered what kind of betrayal I might’ve made. I focused so much on how Grey tore apart his family I didn’t realize how I might damage mine. Before I passed through the security checkpoint, I turned round but my father was already gone. That was the last time I saw him.
Look, I know all this was far from being the most horrible thing that could’ve happened to me. Every time I go to the crisis center I see what real trauma is, and I’m not saying that I experienced anything like what those women lived through, but this wrecked me. While I lived in Indiana, I’d wake up crying, would skip classes and just to cry in the bathroom, and I’d shut myself in my bedroom and cry until I fell asleep. I spent all my allowance on phone cards so I could call Grey from payphones without being traced. I wouldn’t speak to him because I didn’t want him to get in trouble, but I’d hear him say hello and sometimes he’d stay on the phone for a while, just breathing, knowing it was me. In the end, he lost his wife but he kept his job and he didn’t go to jail. Believe it or not, that felt like a triumph.
I really did try to move past it all, but I had become nervous and strange. The smallest things would set me off into a foggy flashback that would linger for days: my English class covering a poem Grey once read to me, the Rolling Stones playing on the radio, even just a stranger speaking a familiar turn of phrase. When the affair with Grey had been happening, I was a rock skipping over the waves, just barely touching down, but once it ended, I sunk and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t fight my way back up.
In Indiana, the only girls who liked me were wild, ones who smoked pot before school and who had sex with college boys every weekend. On weekend nights, my friends and I stood outside the college town bars, smoking cigarettes and pretending we were old enough, slipping inside when the doormen weren’t looking. My poor grandmother who had taken me in didn’t stand a chance—I sneaked out of the house, I sneaked in. I used my bedroom window more than I ever used the front door.
Since then I’ve learned how to live with having this past, but it’s never really become any easier. People used to talk about me back home—they still do, even now—as though I’m some sort of myth. The story is embellished, like an urban legend, and different versions veer off in different directions. Some of the stories say nothing happened at all, some say that I slept with him for an A on a paper, and some say that he raped me every day after school and scared me into not breathing a word. Those stories have their own lives; I can’t control them and the versions of myself that are passed around. You’ll carry the weight of our history always, Grey writes to me, but that’s a lesson I already learned long ago.
I can’t escape it. A couple months ago I was in the dining hall wandering around with my tray and minding my own business, when this girl serving the chicken nuggets squints at me and asks, “Did you go to Bar Harbor High?” Without thinking, I nodded my head yes.
“Right,” she said, her face lighting up as she recognized me. She pointed a finger and said: “I remember you. You’re the Grey girl.” And just like that, that’s what I am.
Eileen tells women at the crisis center who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder not to fight the flashbacks. They’re a natural reaction to trauma and the best thing is to stay calm, keep breathing, and remember your grounding techniques. For a long time, I shook whenever anyone touched me. As soon as a boy put his hands on me, I trembled all over, my body vibrating from someplace deep within me. I said it was nerves but it was clearly something else. My teeth chattered, my voice cracked, I could barely even keep my eyes open, and sometimes I became colorblind, the world fading to black and white. When I first started at the crisis center, Eileen asked if I though that I had PTSD. After a long pause, I told her no. If I’d asked for it and still wanted it, I couldn’t call it trauma.
It’s gotten better. I can have sex now without going comatose, but I still shake whenever I remember Grey touching me. “Try not to linger on it,” Eileen says. “Pass through it, let the memory dissolve around you.” I grab onto the memories and burrow into them until I forget where I am. In my silent apartment, I wrap blankets round me and relive the same static images: lying naked on the floor in Grey’s tiny office while he inspected my body, his hand gripping my neck when he fucked me with his fingers, a door in his house slammed so hard its hinge broke off the frame. My mind roars on, progressively depraved until I arrive at the worst of it: how he once had me drink milk from a saucer like I was a cat, how he’d pretend sometimes that I was horrifyingly young. Unconsentable things.
The last time I was with him before we were found out was a Saturday afternoon. I showed up at his house, convinced that two days without him wasn’t possible, that I would suffocate before school on Monday morning if I didn’t get my hands on him. I ran down Route 3 to his house, not caring who might see me, not caring if neighbors caught me. I’d turned reckless. I knew he was alone and his big empty house was all ours. With the curtains drawn and doors locked, he pushed me to the floor and fucked me in his office, the rug kicked out from under us, my head knocking on the hardwood floor. He lifted my leg and bit the back of my knee, which was enough to make me come, writhing around on the floor like an overturned beetle. He pushed into me so hard I was full of him. If someone turned me out and inspected my insides, his fingerprints would have been on every organ, on every piece of muscle and bone.
Afterward it was always so cold. Even next to him, naked on the rug, the downstairs again still, I was too far away from him. I couldn’t get close enough, no matter how tightly I clung to him. His body was so strange—solid and vulnerable at the same time, not quite yet old but long past young. I traced the wrinkles on his face, dug my fingernails into the calluses on his fingertips. I rested my head on his stomach he hated and tried to hide by wearing sweaters in the winter, and I licked his skin. I wanted to eat him. I wanted him so much I couldn’t speak with real words. I said nonsense things. I mewed at him and said again and again, “I want.”
What was it he saw in me? I was pretty but still fifteen, sporting clusters of pimples and two unruly eyebrows. I was smart. Smarter than I should have been at that age, but how could that have been enough? I wonder if it truly was as simple as my willingness. I was a girl with a dead mother and distant father, one of the herd’s sickest and weakest and the easiest to pick off. Maybe he targeted me. Maybe I didn’t have a choice even if I hadn’t wanted him, but I did. I have to believe that I chose this.
He pulled me up to his face, pushed back my hair and looked at me with eyes so tender and so sad I had to cry. I was always crying around him. Sometimes in class when I watched him teach, I’d start crying over just the sight of him there in front of me. He was this person I loved and who loved me and we were together in a room full of people—of children—who didn’t know a thing about us and I couldn’t handle it. I’d leave and sit in the bathroom for the rest of the period and after school, in the office behind his classroom, he’d teach me the parts of the lesson I’d missed and then we’d have sex in the armchair or on the floor on in his car parked in some abandoned dirt road deep in Acadia.
In his house that Saturday afternoon, I asked him if we could do it again. I was a baby. Fifteen years old. He called me a child; I was never a woman, always a girl. “I want to again,” I said.
He said that he was too old for these kinds of marathons, but still he pushed my hand down to where he wanted it. I was a mess, saying over and over again, “Get in me. Get in me.” Fifteen years old with rug burn on my shoulder blades and hair matted at the crown and I couldn’t get enough of the forty-five-year-old man who rammed into me so hard my teeth knocked against each other and my bit tongue bled for two days. That afternoon he said things I couldn’t even write down in my journal. I wrote what I could: He told me to ‘make him ----‘ and to ‘ride his ----‘ and to ‘taste my ----‘ But at night, in the dark of my bedroom, I let myself mouth them, the back of my tongue clicking at the beginning of those four-letter words. Come, cock, cunt—words I’d never thought would belong to me.
The steam heat kicks on in my apartment, radiators clanking, and I let out a small scream from the shock of it. The world comes back into focus and I push my matted hair from my face.
In Indiana, I always looked for Grey in people I met even though I knew I’d never find him. Anyone else I tried to latch myself onto would be just a faded echo, a second-rate doppelganger. I saw my future laid out before me: boys would come and go but they wouldn’t mean anything, and how could they?
They would fuck me and maybe even love me, but they wouldn’t ever really know me. That’s the thing about being damaged: it puts you in an empty room that’s almost impossible to escape because you don’t want to get out. It’s easier to sit in the dark and lick your own wounds.
I saw your father’s funeral, Grey writes to me on the fourth page of his last letter. At the burial, I walked past. I saw you.
I saw him too, standing across the street, the ocean town behind him locked up and gray. Gray, gray, Grey. I still shake at the words. The air, the sea, the color of the whales in the ocean and the gulls in the sky, all Grey.
Ben says he owes me a drink for letting him crash at my apartment. The one bar in town is full of the same old faces with few townies mixed in. The bartender always plays the same songs: “Superstition,” “Don’t Stop Believing,” Mariah Carey hits that make us nostalgic for high school. Ben buys me too many drinks and when a girl from one of his classes tries to chat him up, I’m rude and possessive. “What’s your name again?” I ask her even though she’s already told me twice. I hold Ben’s hand and kiss him on the cheek and when the girl turns her back, I drink the rest of her beer and leave the empty glass.
On the walk home to my apartment, Ben says, “I think we need to be together. It’s the only thing that makes sense.”
It doesn’t make sense. I don’t understand why he loves me. I’m horrible. The last time Ben and I went to the bar together, I took a townie home with me. He was older, early forties if I had to guess, and when the man kissed me at the bar, he pulled the elastic from my ponytail so my hair fell over my shoulders. In my apartment he tugged off my boots and bit the arches of my feet. He called me darlin’ and I asked if I could call him Grey. Ben didn’t answer my calls for days afterward.
“Let’s go to bed,” Ben says when we’re in my apartment. His jeans are already off. “Let me stay just a little bit. Ten minutes.”
“Ten minutes” means “clothes off.” In bed he runs his hand up and down my hip, kisses me so painfully slow. My mind careens away from him, and I watch endless loaves of bread rising and falling, flowers opening and closing, a highway of shopping malls tick by my eyes. I watch Ben and me from above and from below. No one touches me. It’s not until he asks if I’ve come that I finally scramble away from him and tell him in my angry, animal voice to fuck off.
We lay in the night quiet of my apartment: the hum of the steam heat starting up, the refrigerator buzzing, the faint bass of a neighbor’s stereo. Grey’s letters sit stacked on my windowsill and I almost reach out and touch a finger to their torn envelopes.
“Why are you doing this to me?” he asks.
“Because I’m a bad person.”
“No, you’re not. You’re the best person I’ve ever met.”
He knows about Grey. Over the years the story spilled out slowly, but no matter how much I tried to explain its complications, Ben still thinks of it in the most basic way. For months he urged me to go to the police and for a while he resented me when I refused. “He could be hurting other girls right now,” he said, and after the initial stabs of jealousy at the thought of Grey being with someone else, I shrugged and said that I didn’t care. It’s not my job to save the world.
“It’s not about the other women,” Eileen says. “It’s about you. Your self-care, your recovery, your safety.” Ben tries to pull me closer.
“I’ll have sex with you if you pretend that you’re older,” I say, and Ben Evans lets out a breath that’s part-sigh, part-whimper.
“Don’t make me do that,” he says. I’ve done it before.
“Then we can’t have sex.” I face him in the dark and I feel my eyes become black and cold. The peach pit of Grey that lives inside me blooms, bigger and bigger until I’m mean as him. When Ben Evans pins me down, I feel so good I laugh out loud.
Back when we were first together, I used to feel so fortunate for having Ben that I’d buy him gifts, take him out to dinner, cook for him, and at night in bed I’d hold onto him so hard neither of us could breathe. I thought maybe that was love, but it wasn’t, not really. It was just gratitude. Because I thought I didn’t deserve something so good.
The women in the writing group give me a present on our last meeting: a book of their best poems, hand-stitched and illustrated, childish and lovely. They hug me, all of them, and ask if I’ll be back in the spring.
After they’re gone I stack the chairs and shut off the lights. In the afternoon, the front office is empty, the receptionist gone. I’m pulling on my coat when Eileen calls out from her office, “Vanessa?”
She sits at her desk surrounded by paperwork—grant proposals, tax forms, the never-ending struggle of a nonprofit. She motions for me to sit down, but I shake my head.
“I’ve got to head out. I’m going back home for break.”
“It’s been a long time since you’ve been back, hasn’t it? Staying with family?”
“No, a friend,” I say.
Eileen smiles warmly, reaches a hand out though I’m too far away. When I first met Eileen, I talked about her to anyone who would listen. I worried that if I had a crush on her she’d be able to tell, but turns out that I just wanted to become her. She asks if I’ve given any thought to the symposium.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I’m not even sure I can come back next semester. My schedule, you know.”
“Well, I hope you do,” Eileen says. “I think someday you’ll write the book on how to do this work.”
There was a teacher in my high school in Indiana who tried to help me. She saw how messed up I was and kept me after class a couple of times, gave me some books on a range of topics, probably hoping to hit the right one: how to handle your eating disorder(s), why being a lesbian is a-okay, how to survive your rape with dignity and grace. I shocked her the way I do anyone who dares suggest they know what really happened to me.
“I’m going to see him,” I say to Eileen. I’m rushed and elated, already trembling. I study her reaction: her furrowed brow, her mouth twitching as she searches for words.
“Your abuser, you mean,” she says. “You’re going to confront him?”
“No, I’m staying with him for Christmas.”
“Oh no. Oh, no, no.” Eileen stands and moves to come round her desk, but I back away and she stops.
“I want to, so I’m going to do it,” I say. “I just wanted you to know.”
Eileen nods slowly. “You know I can’t stop you--” she says.
“I know you can’t,” I say. I’m an adult and not in danger. She can’t do a thing. “I don’t think I want you to.”
“But I worry about your mental safety.”
“I’ll be fine. It’s not illegal.”
“No,” Eileen says, “but that doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous.”
I’m thrilled and heartbroken at the same time, hands and thighs shaking. She taught me that it’s cortisol that makes me shake. My levels are too high. She won’t ever look at me the same way again.
“You think I’m weak,” I say. “I am weak.”
“I don’t think that at all. Recovery isn’t a linear process,” Eileen says. “It’s not uncommon to wanting to repeat the trauma. We repeat things in order to understand them.” She gestures with level, calm hands as she speaks. I’m on a cliff and she’s talking me down.
“Stop talking to me like I have a disease,” I say.
“You don’t have a disease, but you do have a disorder,” she says. “But don’t think I’m implying that you aren’t special, Vanessa, because you absolutely are.”
“What if I tell you that I loved him and still do?” I asked. “What would you say to that?”
Eileen shakes her head and says simply, “No.”
“What?” I ask. “Do you think that’s impossible?”
“I think,” Eileen says carefully, “that you have been manipulated for a very long time.”
“But I want him,” I say. “I think about him all day, I lay in bed and think of him, I dream about him, I wake up and he’s on my mind. I haven’t seen him for five years and that feeling hasn’t gone away. That’s love.”
“It’s not,” Eileen says. “That’s obsession, Vanessa. Real love is like milk. It may seem mild, but it nourishes you. It’s not mean. It won’t ever tear you apart.”
“It’s not that simple,” I say.
“It can be.”
She tells me again and again that the most powerful thing a trauma survivor can do is see herself in someone else, but I’ve looked all over this place for months, searching for a glimpse of my story anywhere—in Eileen, in the women reading their poetry, in the stream of survivors drifting in and out of the center—and I never found myself, never seen anywhere the meanness that exists in me. My story doesn’t exist here.
“I’m sorry,” I say to Eileen. “I lied to you from the moment I stepped in here.”
“You didn’t,” Eileen says. “And I’m not angry.”
“Then I’m sorry I’m disappointing you,” I say.
“You haven’t disappointed me, Vanessa,” Eileen says. “You’ve just made me incredibly worried.” I make to leave her office and she says, “You have my phone number. Check in with me. Every single day.” She’ll go home tonight and cry and I will, too.
As I pack my car for the island, the temperature breaks. The parking lot is a mess of slush that seeps into my boots and soaks my socks. I clean the heavy snow from the windshield and windows and dig out the tires. When the tires spin in the slush, I pour kitty litter in the tracks from the bag I keep in my trunk.
Melted snow runs down the streets in little streams and for the first time in years, I turn east onto Route 2. I drive into the dark, the mountains falling away into the rolling highlands, and then into the blueberry barrens of the coast. The sky behind me flames in the kind of light only exists here, on the far edge of the continent in the shortest days of the winter, sharp and soft at the same, all orange and unforgiving. The closer I get to the island, the more boarded-up buildings I pass. The businesses are all closed for the winter, their weathered store signs advertising homemade ice cream and blueberry pie, lobster pounds and T-shirt outlets. As I cross the bridge onto the island, the ocean opens beside me and I can’t catch my breath through my trembling legs. With shaking hands, I roll down my window and take in a lungful of Atlantic air.
The kitsch landmarks of the tourist town still stand unchanged but the stores are all closed, the sidewalks empty. The quiet pier stretches out into the night and bobbing in the harbor are shadowy boats belonging to the fishermen who dare lobster in the winter. My father’s old boat is out there, repainted and renamed, carrying another man’s buoys and traps. This is a ghost town, empty, dark, and haunted too.
Grey’s is the only bright house on West Street, surrounded by summer homes occupied only a few weeks of the year. His house has always been the only West Street beach house with smoke pouring out of its chimneys and a path shoveled from the front door to the driveway. His house looks run down, too. Even in the dark I see paint peeling, a railing broken on the porch. This house used to be majestic. It used to scare me every time I looked at it. Now it stands on the edge of the coast as though holding onto land for dear life.
When Grey first opens the door, there is a moment of not recognizing him. The memory of his face doesn’t fit over the man in front of me. I’m stunned by the changes in him: his hair’s thinner, he’s gained some weight, and his shoulder sit lower, as though the past few years have pressed down on him so hard that his body can’t hold up as well as it used to. He’s still in his teaching clothes, the shirt’s first few buttons undone and sleeves rolled to the elbows. He smells like pot and looks like hell, but his eyes widen and soften as he sees me and my stomach flips. I didn’t tell him I was coming.
“Here I am,” I say.
“Yes,” he says, opening the door wide. “Here you are.”
I still have secrets. That won't ever change.
This is no one’s story but my own. We go to bed on sheets and he asks me to forgive him. “What for?” I ask. For the first time, this isn’t evidence. There is no crime here, but still I’m afraid. I make him close the blinds and check the all the locks before he takes off my clothes. When he pushes into me, my body grows to two, three times its size and I soar straight out of the room, out into the night, arching over the inky Atlantic until I drop anchor and unwind the lines from my father’s legs. Miles away, Grey cups his hands round his mouth and asks again for forgiveness but it’s never been up to me to absolve anyone.
In the night I wake and walk downstairs to the living room where we once tore at each other on the floor. Across the room is a fireplace with a mantle that used to hold family photos but now sits empty. I kneel and run my fingers along its underside until I find carved into the wood the first three letters of my name. Back then I’d wanted to mark my territory, stake my claim on his life in whatever silent way I could. With a pin in my hand, I finish what I started five years ago.
I call Eileen and leave a laughing voicemail: “I’m alive! I’m alive!” At fifteen, I woke one morning sore to the touch and exulted, and when I inspected the long, red scratches that ran down my back, I begged myself to forever stay this way: torn up and willing. It hurts and it will always hurt, but this is my mistake to make, so please just let me go ahead and make it.
The door rings a bell as we walk into the market. We need cream for coffee and coffee for coffee, too. Our stomachs growl from being too empty and our mouths taste like toothpaste. The market hasn’t changed, the aisles still arranged the same, and I head for the coolers. Grey gets the coffee, I get the cream, and we meet at the register. I slide a finger down his sleeve, amazed that I can.
The cashier stares at me as Grey pulls out his wallet. He’s a boy from high school. “Hello, Ian,” Grey says. It’s a remarkable talent: he never forgets a student’s name.
We pay and carry out our things. The door rings again as we leave. I look over my shoulder and the cashier still stares at me, eyes wide and mouth open, looking as though he’s seen a ghost. I should have winked at him. Next time I will.
Originally published in Beloit Fiction Journal