Said the Starling/Dark Vanessa/Novel Notes
He asked me more than once how I’d describe him after he died. I am the dead leaf echo of Dolores Haze pushing my glasses up the bridge of my nose. “A sad old man.”
The earliest days were the best ones. Reading Cosmopolitan articles on male behavior to figure out whether or not he liked me that way. Sitting with my feet propped up on a desk late after school like I owned the joint. Calling him the meanest words I knew while he graded other, normal students’ essays. He was too strict to be a popular teacher but that just we were hardly ever interrupted; the classroom in late afternoon was vast as a continent, all ours.
He made me love things, had a way of making ugly words sound beautiful. When he said "vomit," I couldn't get enough, begging for it until he whistled a long v into my ear. Sometimes people ask me what he and I possibly had to talk about, but those are the people who refuse to believe how symmetrical forty-five and fifteen can be--each moody, horny, and impatient for their lives to begin. I try to explain the romance, that he forced poetry on me long before he ever forced himself: Emily, his favorite, Anne, Sylvia, and Edna, who was mine. A student like me came along once in a lifetime. He called us kindred spirits, but I heard kindled, as though we were inflamed.
Once during a fight I called him a pedophile. “Ephebophile,” he immediately corrected, as though he'd already settled the distinction long ago. It was 1999, Britney Spears was on the cover of Rolling Stone, and I carried a dog-eared copy of Lolita in my backpack. The hallways were crowded with schoolgirls; that Halloween we all wore short pleated skirts, knee socks, pigtails. He had so many to choose from, but he picked me. “You remind me of a little girl,” he explained when I asked why me, why me, as though fifteen weren’t little already. It was exhausting to be watched so closely: before class I still had sleep in my eyes and he flicked out the sand, he liked my hair better long and loose, the way I’d worn it the day before. Before we even kissed he said he wanted to find me a teddy bear, a bed, and tuck me in. Every so often we'd pretend I was even younger, him gasping, baby girl baby girl as he came.
Years later I'd deal with the trauma by pretending it didn't exist, insisting it was a joke, making a t-shirt with ironed-on letters that spelled out PETS TEACHER and wearing it just to watch everyone cringe. I was twenty-four and still having nightmares, still wetting the bed. I confided in boyfriends but hated them when they told me to either get help or get over it. One dumped me in a letter: You walk around like a beaten dog, you seek out abuse. They just didn’t understand me and never would--why I needed so much sex, why I sometimes slept curled up on the pile of dirty clothes at the back of my closet.
I got older; he got angrier. He said that first I’d changed his life and then I’d ruined it, as though any of it had been up to me. “I’m going to die alone,” he said, “thinking of how when you were fifteen and your face was covered in zits and your mind was a chickpea, you were the fucking love of my life.” I didn’t mention: his wife, his kid, anything. In college I’d see him on Christmas breaks and we’d meet in snowstorms, anonymous and crimeless. With scarves wrapped round our necks and mouths and only our eyes showing, we could have been anyone. One January the masonic temple caught fire but its brick walls were too cold; the water from the fire hoses, millions of gallons, froze before it reached the flames. “You’re a dark romantic, aren’t you?” he asked me, back at the very beginning of things. “You’re just like me. You like dark things.” From the first time he looked at me, he saw what I was, knew all he needed was to quote Nabokov to lure me in. Come and be worshiped, come and be caressed / My dark Vanessa. The gutted out temple stood five stories encased in ice and he and I both cried at the sight of it.
We lived in a fantasy, lied to each other so much there was never a presumption of truth. He said someday he’d give me away at my wedding, as though my father didn’t exist. I told my friends he was just an old mentor I couldn’t get rid of, a speck of dried mud I couldn’t flick off. He asked to come to my college graduation and when I refused, he sobbed on the phone. “My parents still don’t know about you,” I said, though that wasn’t true—they knew about him, everyone knew. “Who wants to pull those old books off the shelf?” my mother asked if the subject even threatened to arise. I was so good at taking care of myself. I licked my wounds and when that wasn’t enough, I gnawed off my limbs. Cured.
Dissociation, they say, is a gift: to talk in a haze and walk in a maze. There was a red balloon caught in a tree across the street from the classroom and that's what I stared at while he first touched me behind his desk. There was a Renoir print hanging in his bedroom and sometimes I floated across the room, straight into that boat party. For years I collected copies of that painting without understanding why.
If trauma leaves a fog in its wake, then I shrouded myself in it. I liked quiet rooms, small spaces, clothes so tight it hurt to breathe, the pang of an empty stomach, snowstorms that kept me stranded. It wasn’t any one thing that tore away the calm—it was slow, gradual, one day looking around my apartment and cowering in fear at a Renoir print. I lost count of how many horrors lurked in my own home. I was a starling hung in a cage wailing senselessly for help. “I can’t get out,” I cried, but the door was wide open. I could have freed myself. Even from the very beginning, there was nothing keeping me in.
Now he is old, an old man with an old neck and knuckles too big for his fingers. A friend said to me once, “Your life is like a movie.” And I remember walking through school, red hot and smoking with rumors, feeling like a star. But how this happens in books and in movies is he asks for forgiveness and it’s up to me either to give it or kill him in his sleep. My character holds a gun to his head, demands the truth of why me, why me.
I dream small. The best I’ll ever get is an anti-climatic ending. The sad little triumph of being able to say, That was mean, that thing you did to me. Wrapping myself up tight in a blanket and finally saying out loud, You raped me. In the meantime, he gets old and I go to therapy. If I’m lucky, I grow up. No one becomes immortal and no one gets cured, or forgiven, or blamed.