Things We Didn't Talk About When I Was a Girl

Things We Didn't Talk About When I Was a Girl
Jeannie Vanasco

For Hannah

But what is the word for what I experienced after?
From “Nightingale: A Gloss”​

Early evening. We were in your car, at the end of your block, at a stop sign. The streets were empty. My window was open because I hated closed windows—probably because I thought my why drive if you can’t feel the wind attitude made me profound. We were sixteen.

I just needed to leave my house, you said.

With a few classmates, we’d been cramming for an exam about waves and optics and contemplating why our accomplished physics teacher taught at our poorly ranked public high school. Cost of living? Witness protection? He actually likes Sandusky? When we left, our classmates were writing formulas on their wrists with fine-point markers.

Let’s drive until we hit civilization, I said.

You stared straight ahead at something, it seemed, that couldn’t be seen.

Somewhere with a bookstore, I said, like a real bookstore. One with a poetry section that’s more than one shelf.

You squeezed the steering wheel and suddenly your pale knuckles looked cartoonish, like a badly rendered, unshaded drawing of knuckles. I barely glanced at your face. I sensed you were resisting tears.

You told me I was important to you. I told you I knew that, and you said, No, really, you’re the only one who understands me.

You turned, looked at me, then quickly looked away. I had never seen you cry before. I hadn’t seen many teenage boys cry, but I didn’t say that.

I know you understand this, you said. I just get so lonely.

This is probably my favorite memory of us.

I know you’re sad now, I said, but I promise this will be a happy memory someday. Us at this perfectly straight stop sign.

You nodded, and I wonder if I explained my observation, or if my observation was insightful enough to imply its metaphoric meaning, as in: let’s notice when things are right.

The memory stops there. If you were critiquing this, you might say, Come on, Jeannie, it’s a little too perfect, don’t you think? The memory stopping at a stop sign.


There Are Gaps

I already predict failure.

I’m afraid he’ll say no, or even worse: ignore me. But why wouldn’t he agree to speak with me? He owes me that much.

I could disguise his identity, change his name.

Combing a naming dictionary for some rough translation of friend, I first land on Aldwin: old friend. I picture a knight, an eleventh-century Norman invader, a sorcerer in a fantasy novel, a president of a Martha’s Vineyard men’s club, a child of artfully tattooed parents. Between 1880 and 2016, the Social Security Administration recorded only 129 babies named Aldwin. My former friend’s pseudonym should be common, modern, unassuming. I want readers to know someone with the same name.

Phil means friend. But he’s not the Phil type. Phil orders everybody drinks. Phil shakes your hand, says, Call me Phil. Phil’s too casual, too laid back. My former friend may have slacked from one day into the next, but he wavered between anxious and depressed.

Philip, then? Philip contains friend. Friend of horses. But I doubt he ever touched a horse. He preferred the indoors, rarely straying from couch, desk, and bed. His white skin burned easily.

Forget name origins. What about the origins of words that are also names? Like nick. Some of nick’s obsolete meanings: reckoning, or account; slang for the vagina.

But I dated a Nick. In college, briefly, between boyfriends. I’d prefer that memories of Nick (him telling me: I could tell you weren’t very cultured when I met you, and How have you not heard of Broken Social Scene? and I don’t understand why you won’t sleep with me if you like me) not influence this project. Though I like the sound of nick. So, I want a monosyllabic word that works as a name and contains a k.

Mark, maybe? Its main definition: a boundary. And that’s what this is about: boundaries.


Mark, then.

Why should I protect Mark?

I enter his work address in Google Street View. Instead of his pale yellow office building on an industrial one-way street, I aim my view at the clouds and telephone wires. The wires don’t line up precisely. There are gaps of just sky.

Gaps between communication . . .

I should stop searching for metaphors.

Mark and I stopped speaking to one another in college. He was in Ohio, studying engineering. I was in Illinois, majoring in journalism.

He dropped out shortly after we last spoke, which is not to say I’m the reason, or that what happened between us is the reason.

But I hope it’s the reason, or rather: what he did to me—during winter break of our sophomore year—is, I hope, the reason.

I can’t forget: I was passed out.

Mark now manages a camera shop. I recently found an online forum where he answers questions about cameras. Someone asked if a blur in a photo can be good, and Mark replied: If the intent is to give an abstract rendering for some artistic reason, then it’s acceptable; when no such intent exists, it’s merely bad technique that has caused something that should be sharp to blur.

If he could photograph that night, would he blur it? Where would he blur it?

My memory is blurry. There are gaps.

But I know what he did, and he does too. The next day, or maybe a few days later, he apologized: I should not have done that to you. I am so sorry. It was not okay. Can you ever forgive me?

I said I could. I said I would. I told him to read J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, my favorite novel back then. I cringe at the memory.

He read it and told me it reminded him of us.

But no one in the book carries his drunk friend into a basement, takes off her clothes while she’s passed out, fingers her, masturbates over her while she cries, and tells her: It’s just a dream.

I’m so glad you liked the book, is what I said.

A year later, Mark dropped out of college.

He moved back home, tried therapy, became a mechanic—at least, this is what his dad told my mom. By then, our friendship had ended, though I doubt his parents and siblings knew why. Friends grow apart, is probably what they thought. As with many things after my dad died, I never told my mom.

Mark, according to LinkedIn, returned to college, earned a bachelor’s in interdisciplinary studies, and, several years later, a master’s in civil engineering.

When we were friends, I told him: Someday you’ll become a famous engineer. You’ll discover a formula so complicated that high school students will write it on their wrists before exams.

Every time I think about him, I feel pissed off and sad. I understand now why nostalgia, for hundreds of years, was considered a chronic mental illness.

I want to hate him, but I can’t.

If He Says No

First, do I call or email?

If I call, do I call from a disguised number?

It’s too easy to ignore an email.

Do I tell him immediately why I’m calling? Or do I warm him up with small talk pleasantries? So, uh, how have you been? What’s new?

I’m not flying to where he now lives.

But it is harder to say no in person.

I know where he works. A nine-minute drive from the airport. Only thirty-four minutes if I walk. And suddenly, I’m wondering, Would it be safe to walk? I consider arrival times.

Let’s say I confront Mark in person.

Let’s say I tell him, This is the only way I’ll forgive you.

I unforgave him. I forgot to update him.

My word processor says unforgave isn’t a word, suggests I make it unforgiven.

If he says no, I’ll do it anyway.

Why not unforgave, or unforgive?

Why do I need his permission, anyway? I never gave mine.

What would the book be without him?

Who would I be had I never known him?

I want to include him—because without him, the book will be: yet another story about yet another sexual assault.

Why do I assume yet another story about yet another sexual assault can’t be told? Or can’t be interesting?

I ask my editor what she thinks.

Either way, I want to work with you again, she says. But you might be right, unfortunately. The book will certainly stand out if you include him, but even without him, I still want to do it. It will just be a different book.

I hate that I feel dependent on him.

I need a script. No drifting off into accommodating his feelings.

If he says no, here’s what I’ll tell him: You are supposed to say that you’re sorry, that you will do this for me. That’s how this works.

Though that wouldn’t be a genuine apology. And he already apologized. And anyway, I don’t want another apology.

I want his consent.