My Dark Vanessa
eBook - ePub

My Dark Vanessa

A Novel

Kate Elizabeth Russell

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  1. 384 pagine
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

My Dark Vanessa

A Novel

Kate Elizabeth Russell

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"[An] exceedingly complex, inventive, resourceful examination of harm and power." — The New York Times Book Review, Editors' Choice

"A lightning rod... brilliantly crafted."— The Washington Post

A most anticipated book by The New York Times • USA Today • Entertainment Weekly • Marie Claire • Elle • Harper's Bazaar • Bustle • Newsweek • New York Post • Esquire • Real Simple • The Sunday Times • The Guardian

Exploring the psychological dynamics of the relationship between a precocious yet naïve teenage girl and her magnetic and manipulative teacher, a brilliant, all-consuming read that marks the explosive debut of an extraordinary new writer.

2000. Bright, ambitious, and yearning for adulthood, fifteen-year-old Vanessa Wye becomes entangled in an affair with Jacob Strane, her magnetic and guileful forty-two-year-old English teacher.

2017. Amid the rising wave of allegations against powerful men, a reckoning is coming due. Strane has been accused of sexual abuse by a former student, who reaches out to Vanessa, and now Vanessa suddenly finds herself facing an impossible choice: remain silent, firm in the belief that her teenage self willingly engaged in this relationship, or redefine herself and the events of her past. But how can Vanessa reject her first love, the man who fundamentally transformed her and has been a persistent presence in her life? Is it possible that the man she loved as a teenager—and who professed to worship only her—may be far different from what she has always believed?

Alternating between Vanessa's present and her past, My Dark Vanessa juxtaposes memory and trauma with the breathless excitement of a teenage girl discovering the power her own body can wield. Thought-provoking and impossible to put down, this is a masterful portrayal of troubled adolescence and its repercussions that raises vital questions about agency, consent, complicity, and victimhood. Written with the haunting intimacy of The Girls and the creeping intensity of Room, My Dark Vanessa is an era-defining novel that brilliantly captures and reflects the shifting cultural mores transforming our relationships and society itself.

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One Friday night per month, a dance is held in the dining hall. With the tables cleared away and the lights dimmed, it’s a scene that could be set in any other high school. There’s the hired DJ, a cluster of people dancing in the middle of the floor, and the shy kids huddled around the perimeter, divided by gender. Some teachers are there, too. As chaperones, they mill about, maintaining their distance, paying less attention to us than to each other.
This is the Halloween dance, so people are wearing costumes and two giant buckets of candy sit by the double doors. Most costumes are lazy—boys in jeans and white T-shirts calling themselves James Dean, girls in pleated miniskirts and pigtails calling themselves Britney Spears—but a few have gone to elaborate lengths with supplies bought downtown. One girl moves through the dining hall as a dragon with spiny wings and a train of blue-green scales, trailed by her boyfriend, a knight in cardboard armor stinking of spray paint. A boy in a suit waves a fake cigar in girls’ faces, laughing behind a rubber Bill Clinton mask. Meanwhile, I’m a half-hearted cat, black dress and black tights, drawn-on whiskers and cardboard ears thrown together in ten minutes. I came only to see Mr. Strane. He’s working as a chaperone.
Usually, I never go to the dances. Everything about them makes me cringe—the bad music, the embarrassing DJ with his goatee and frosted tips, the kids pretending not to stare at the couples grinding against each other. I’m forcing myself to suffer through this one because it’s been a week. A whole week since Mr. Strane touched me, since he put his hand on my leg and told me he could tell we were similar, two people who like dark things. Since then? Nothing. When I spoke in class, his eyes darted to the table like he couldn’t bear to look at me. During creative writing club he gathered his things and left Jesse and me alone (“Department meeting,” he explained, but if it was a department meeting, why did he need his coat and everything in his briefcase?), and later when I sought him out during faculty service hour, his door was closed, the classroom dark behind textured glass.
So I’m impatient, maybe even desperate. I want something to happen and that seems more likely at an event like this where boundaries are temporarily blurred, students and teachers thrust together in a dimly lit room. I don’t really care what the something else might be—another touch, a compliment. It doesn’t matter so long as it tells me what he wants, what this is, if it’s anything at all.
I eat a fun-size candy bar in tiny bites and watch the couples dance to a slow song, swaying around the floor like bottles in a pool of water. At one point, Jenny strides across the room wearing a satin dress that vaguely resembles a kimono, chopsticks shoved through her nubby ponytail. For a moment she seems to be headed straight for me and I freeze, chocolate melting on my tongue, but then Tom emerges from behind her wearing his normal clothes, jeans and a Beck T-shirt, not even attempting a costume. He touches her shoulder; Jenny jerks away. The music is too loud to eavesdrop, but it’s obvious they’re fighting and that it’s bad. Jenny’s chin wobbles, her eyes screw shut. When Tom touches his fingers to her arm, she plants a hand flat on his chest and shoves him so strongly he stumbles backward. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen them fight.
I’m so fixated that I almost don’t notice Mr. Strane duck out the double doors. I almost let him get away.
When I step outside, the night is pitch black, no moon and close to freezing. The sounds from the dance muffle to a heartbeat bass line and faraway vocals as the door clicks shut behind me. I look around; my arms break into goose bumps as my eyes search for him but find only the shadows of trees, the empty campus green. I’m about to admit defeat and go back inside when a figure steps out from under the shadow cast by a spruce tree: Mr. Strane in a down vest, a flannel shirt, and jeans, an unlit cigarette between his fingers.
I don’t move, unsure what to do. I sense he’s embarrassed to be seen with the cigarette and my mind takes over—I imagine him smoking in secret, like how my dad does in the evenings down by the lakeshore; I imagine he wants to quit and sees his inability to do so as a weakness. He’s ashamed of it.
But even if he’s ashamed, I think, he could have stayed hidden. He could have let me leave.
He twirls the cigarette between his thumb and forefinger. “You caught me.”
“I thought you were leaving,” I say. “I wanted to say goodbye.”
He pulls a lighter from his pocket and turns it over in his palm a few times. His eyes stay on me. With a sudden clarity, I think, Something’s going to happen, and as the certainty of this settles over me, my heart slows, my shoulders drop.
He lights the cigarette and gestures for me to follow him back under the tree. It’s enormous, probably the biggest on campus, its lowest limbs still far above our heads. At first, it’s so dark all I can see is the red ember from the cigarette as it moves up to his mouth. My eyes adjust and he appears, as do the boughs overhead, the orange-dead needle carpet beneath our feet.
“Don’t smoke,” Mr. Strane says. “It’s a nasty habit.” He exhales and the cigarette smell fills my head. We’re standing about five feet apart. It feels so dangerous it’s strange to think we’ve been closer plenty of times before.
“But it must feel good,” I say. “Otherwise why do it?”
He laughs, takes another drag. “I guess you’re right.” Looking me over, he notices my costume for the first time. “Well, look at you. Little pussy cat.”
I laugh from the shock of hearing him say that word, even if he isn’t using it in the sex way. But he doesn’t laugh. He only stares at me, the cigarette smoking in his hand.
“You know what I’d like to do right now?” he asks. His words flow together more than usual and he sways as he points the cigarette at me. “I’d like to find you a big bed, tuck you in, and kiss you good night.”
For a second, my brain short-circuits entirely and I’m as good as dead. Moments of nothing pass, a static screen, a wall of noise. Then I come roaring back to life with a harsh, choked sound—not quite a laugh, not quite a cry.
A door opens from inside the dining hall and music spills out from the dance. Over that, a woman’s voice calls, “Jake?”
The moment sputters. Mr. Strane turns and hurries toward the voice, throwing down his cigarette without stamping it out. I watch the smoke rise from the fallen needles as he strides back to the doors, to Ms. Thompson.
“Just taking a bit of a breather,” he says to her. Together, they slip back inside. I’m hidden by the tree, like he was when I first came outside. She didn’t see me.
I stare down at the smoking cigarette, consider picking it up and bringing it to my lips, but instead grind it out with my heel. I return to the dance, find Deanna Perkins and Lucy Summers swigging from a Nalgene bottle as they hold a running commentary on everyone’s costumes. Strane stands only a few feet away beside Ms. Thompson, his eyes locked on her. Jenny and Tom stand close together on the periphery of the dance floor, their fight resolved. She winds her arm around his shoulders, nuzzles her face into his neck. It’s a gesture so intimate and adult, I instinctively look away.
Whatever they have in the Nalgene bottle sloshes around as Deanna and Lucy pass it back and forth. Deanna, taking a swallow, notices my stare. “What?”
“Let me have some,” I say.
Lucy reaches for the bottle. “Sorry, limited supplies.”
“I’ll tell if you don’t let me.”
“Shut up.”
Deanna waves her hand. “Let her have a drink.”
Lucy sighs, holds out the bottle. “You can have a sip.”
The alcohol burns my throat worse than I expected and I start to cough, like a cliché. Deanna and Lucy don’t even try to hide their laughs. Thrusting the bottle back at them, I march out of the dining hall, willing Mr. Strane to notice, to understand why I’m angry and what I want. I wait outside to see if he’ll come after me but he doesn’t—of course he doesn’t.
Back in Gould, the dorm is quiet, empty. Every door is closed, everyone still at the dance.
I stare down Ms. Thompson’s apartment door at the far end of the hall. If she hadn’t called to him, something would have happened. He said he wanted to kiss me; maybe he would have done it. Still in my costume, I walk toward Ms. Thompson’s door. Mr. Strane is probably making her laugh right this moment. At the end of the night, they’ll probably go to his house and have sex. Maybe he’ll even tell her about me, how I followed him outside and he said that stuff just to be nice. She has a crush on you, Ms. Thompson will say, teasing. As though it’s all in my head, a narrative sprung without a source.
I grab the marker attached to her dry erase board. Notes from the previous week are still scribbled there: the date and time of a dorm meeting, an open invitation to a spaghetti dinner in her apartment. With one swipe of my hand, I erase the notes and write BITCH in big bold letters that take up the whole board.
The first snow comes that night after the dance and covers campus in a heavy four inches. On Saturday morning Ms. Thompson calls us all into the common room and tries to find out who wrote bitch on her door. “I’m not mad,” she assures us. “Just confused.”
My heart thumps in my ears and I sit with my hands clasped in my lap, willing my cheeks not to burn.
After a few minutes of sitting in silence, she gives up. “We can let it go,” she says. “But not if it happens again. Ok?”
She nods, prompting us to say ok. On my way back upstairs I look over my shoulder and see her standing in the middle of the empty room, rubbing her face with both hands.
Sunday afternoon I approach her door, my eyes lingering on the whiteboard, bitch still faintly visible. I feel guilty—not enough to admit what I did, but enough to want to do something nice. When Ms. Thompson opens the door, she’s in sweatpants and a hooded Browick sweatshirt, her hair pulled back, no makeup on her face, acne scars on her cheeks. I wonder if Mr. Strane has ever seen her this way.
“What’s up?” she asks.
“Can I take Mya for a walk?”
“Oh god, she’d love that.” She calls over her shoulder, but the husky is already barreling toward me, ears pricked and blue eyes dilated, propelled by the sound of the word walk.
Ms. Thompson reminds me that it will be dark soon as I slide Mya’s harness over her head and clip the leash. “We won’t go far,” I say.
“And don’t let her run.”
“I know, I know.” Last time I took Mya for a walk, I let her off-leash to play and she ran straight into the garden behind the arts building and rolled in fertilizer.
The temperature rose overnight to fifty degrees and the snow is already gone, leaving the ground spongy and slick. We walk the trail that winds around the sports fields, and I let the leash out long so Mya can sniff and romp around, darting from side to side. I love Mya; she’s the most beautiful dog I’ve ever seen, her fur so thick my fingers disappear to the second knuckle when I give her back a good scritch. Mostly, though, I love her because she’s difficult. Bossy. If she doesn’t want to do something, she’ll talk back at you in a grumbly howl. Ms. Thompson says I must have a special gift with dogs because Mya doesn’t really like anyone except me. Dogs are easy to win over, though, way easier than people. For a dog to love you, all you have to do is keep some treats in your pocket and scratch behind their ears or at the base of their tail. When they want to be left alone, they don’t play games; they let you know.
At the soccer field, the trail forks into three smaller paths. One leads back to campus, the other into the woods, and the third downtown. Even though I promised Ms. Thompson I’d stay close, I take the third path.
The storefronts downtown are decora...

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