With fists, with words, with kindness
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Was he audacious? Certainly.
She’d never known him not to push — the boundaries of good taste, but also physically. He’d put a hand on your arm when he talked to you; he was a hugger, a close talker. He’d even commented on this himself — “I’m Jewish-Italian, I got it on both sides of the family. You know, I was raised to feel that if we aren’t like this, we can’t hear each other” — and he’d thrust his face close to hers. They’d both laughed. She’d found him charming, had not felt threatened by him.
That was the first meeting. On the second, he’d told her about the woman he was dating — “Younger than me, she’s a young woman” — but it turned out she was forty-five. (“Ten years younger; I said younger, didn’t I?”) He’d mused out loud on what to call this woman — “girlfriend” sounded childish, but “lover” was an unforgivable affectation. “Can Americans even use that word, lover?”
“Sure,” she said easily, “I think so.”
“Straight ones,” he corrected. “Straight Americans, I mean.” He looked at her searchingly, as if she were the arbiter of what straight Americans could and could not do. His eyes were a warm gray, flecked with sea green.
“I think anybody can call anybody whatever they both want.”
“What do you call your . . . ?” he gestured, indicating the blank and making its existence a shared joke.
“I’m single,” she said, amused. “But I was with my partner for eight years, and I called him . . . a partner.”
“You didn’t worry that people would think you meant business partner?” He smiled, but his eyes were keen — he’d thought she was a lesbian, she knew, and now he was sizing her up, repairing the blanks in his read of her.
“No,” she said, letting him study her. “I guess I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about what people think.”
“Cool,” he said, and a boyish smile lit his face, made him look like a co-conspirator. “Me neither.”
That was July. She saw him once more in September; she told him she’d be passing through the city, and he asked her to get a drink. This time he’d set up a meeting himself — the first two had been set by his office. This third time, he reached out with his distinct mixture of provocation and gravitas: “Would you do me the honor of joining me for a drink?” And then: “Pleasure, not business, but we can discuss business if you have business to discuss.”
“I always have business to discuss,” she replied, “but it gives me a great deal of pleasure.”
Walking to the bar, it had occurred to her that, in her twenties, this might have felt very different. He was an artistic director, after all, and back then she was still trying to make it as a playwright herself. She might have felt anxious to impress or please him. She might have felt that she was en route to an assignation with no determined parameters, that anything might be the result of this evening. (She had heard the whispers by then; she must have, to even be thinking this. But when she looked back, she felt she had been completely blindsided by the accusations, and in later years she never knew what exactly she had known.) Now, though, in the early stretch of her forties, she felt only the hum of anticipation that preceded any social interaction.
The evening was pleasant. Looking back, scanning for any moment that felt wrong, she couldn’t find one. He was cheeky, yes; he looked for the places where polite convention dictated one kind of response, and he gave the opposite; he talked about sex, but with the aplomb of a storyteller. He told her a story about dating right after his divorce: how he’d taken home a woman who resembled Farrah Fawcett; how, as a preteen, he used to worshipfully masturbate to Farrah Fawcett; how, when confronted with the naked body of this actual woman, he’d failed to achieve the prominent erection that he’d promised her; how instead, he had wept. “I thought of how my teen self would have been so impressed with me — and what a loser I had grown up into, how unimpressed I was with myself now — and it made me incredibly depressed.” The Farrah Fawcett lookalike had waited for a long moment and then, faced with both his tears and his flaccid folds, she’d said briskly but not unkindly, “Well this is unfortunate,” and gathered her clothes and left. His stories generally cast him as the loser, the failure, the middle-aged man who just kept fucking it all up — but there was a confidence in the delivery that made it a performance more than a confession. Mars didn’t mind; she was incapable of sustaining small talk.
He asked her about herself as well — genuine questions, and he listened closely to the answers, a listening that took her in completely, in all her details. When he called her Marsha, she wasn’t aware of knitting her brows, but she knew her body must have telegraphed the subtlest flinch because he corrected himself: “Mars.” And, laughing at herself, she conceded: “My mother is the only one who calls me Marsha — she says she didn’t name her daughter after a planet and she refuses to start now.”
“A planet works fine for me,” he said, and refilled her wineglass.
They talked about business, too. He was fifteen years into his tenure as artistic director; he’d done well for his theater, in its track record of both new plays and classical work. Unlike many ADs, he wasn’t himself a director; he had been a playwright, many many years ago, and he spoke of plays with the concentrated devotion of a lifelong believer. As if they were sacred, she thought, and the thought touched her, because she thought of theater the same way: as a sustained prayer, as something that reached for whatever was above it and tried to take its audience along.
She had also given up on writing plays, but she taught them, and she knew he had instituted a program for commissioning young writers — “emerging voices,” as the terminology went. She knew the phrase was a cliché, but she liked the image anyway. She imagined a blanketing fog, and through that fog, the traveling echoes of voices that no one had yet heard, cadences and rhythms that held the promise of newness. She suggested to him a few of her students and he listened as she described their backgrounds, their plays, the moment in which she had read their work and thought: This person could be the real thing.
“Could be,” she said, “but it’s all about encouragement at this point. As you know.”
“Yes and no,” he replied. “Maybe there’s too much encouragement these days. Everybody gets a grant, everybody deserves everything. But wouldn’t you rather know — who are the writers that are just . . . doomed to it? The kids who have to write, that will do it even if they have nothing?”
“Right,” she said patiently, almost condescendingly. “But wouldn’t you like to see what those kids can do if they aren’t constantly worried sick about having nothing?”
He asked her, late in the night, during the last drink, if she wanted to pitch him any of her own work. If she was still writing. “You know, we have a bunch of commissions coming in this fall, so I’m not supposed to say this — but hey!” There it was, that open boyish smile. “Let’s say I had a slot. You want to tell me about something of yours that I should put in it?”
She thought about it. The wine had made her fuzzy, but in a way that felt supple and generous, that enabled her to think more clearly than usual. The light in the bar was soft sepia, and under its glow she felt as if she were a witness to her own history — not to a specific event but rather to the quiet decisions that compounded on themselves, the sacrifices and compromises and hard-won realizations that had eventually accumulated into a life. Her life.
This was a life in which she no longer chased the pipe dream, she told him kindly.
This bothered him. She could tell. For the first time he got a little aggressive, a little bullying. He wanted to shake her out of it, she felt — what he perceived as stasis or defeat. “You must be writing something, you can’t just be changing the diapers of college kids, reading their banal dramas about their breakups, and not be writing something. You’d have offed yourself, otherwise.” But even that didn’t upset her. Maybe because he was voicing the other half of a conversation she’d already had with herself and then left behind.
“I like teaching,” she said, “and when I don’t like it, I do other things that I enjoy. I garden, I’ve been fostering pit-bull rescues. And spending time with my niece. So — you know — it’s not the old dream of A Life In The Theater, but there have been a few reasons not to off myself, when the teaching gets tedious.”
“OK,” he said at last, and that was the only part she didn’t like; the only part that felt like a violation. And that was only because his pity was so apparent.
The news reached her in mid-November, a week or so behind the rest of her world. There had been articles online, but she hadn’t read them; there had been a flurry of texts, but in the first week, none of them were to her. She wasn’t an integral part of his life — most people hadn’t even known she knew him. It was her student Sheila who brought her the news in a series of informative bullet points: the intern’s accusation, the tweet that went viral, the two other women who surfaced. One was an actress who had worked at the theater ten years prior; the other was a midlevel employee from marketing. The intern was twenty, the actress was fifty now, and Marketing was thirty-one.
“Well at least he has range,” Mars said. She didn’t know what else to say, and from Sheila’s shocked face, she could tell this wasn’t it. These kids were always so much more shocked than she ever remembered being. It was like flicking a switch, how easily their faces went from earnest to disapproving.
“I mean he harassed these women,” Sheila said. “Like, serially, for years, and nobody said anything. I mean, that’s . . .” She searched for a word and landed on appalling but continued to look undecided. She’d wanted a more satisfying one, something less prissy.
“Sure,” Mars said, “those are the accusations.”
Sheila’s face took on a stonier cast. “Are you saying you don’t believe it?”
“I’m saying that he’s accused — it sounds like — of some really questionable behavior. And I would need to know more about the accusations to know what I thought.”
“ ‘Questionable,’ ” Sheila said, giving the word a slant that implied she found it particularly unsatisfying.
Mars held up a hand, as if warding her off. Sheila was one of her favorites; Mars prided herself in being honest enough (inside her own head, anyway) to admit that she had favorites. Sheila was small and fierce and looked a little bit like a ferret; she worshipped at the altar of Sarah Kane and Bertolt Brecht; she always smelled a touch like the inside of a burrow. From time to time Mars heard her colleagues say that they looked at their protégés and saw their younger selves, but this was not the case with Sheila; Mars looked at her and saw someone capable of a ferocious conviction that Mars herself had not possessed at that age. For this reason, among others, Sheila both irritated and impressed her.
“ ‘Questionable,’ ” Mars told her, “as in: I have questions. Which, I hope, you would have as well. Because it is a mark of rigor to ask questions, to demand facts, and to form our opinions based on those facts — once we collect them.”
“What about ‘Believe Women’?”
Mars sighed. “I think it’s a slogan, Sheil. I think anything that becomes a slogan loses its actual use.”
Sheila gave her the look that said, You Are A Tool Of The Patriarchy, but she didn’t say it out loud, in part because all the kids were just a little bit scared of Mars in a way that never ceased to be useful, and in part because Sheila understood the utility of a look over a phrase. It was yet another thing that Mars liked about her.
Mars looked the rest of it up later that night, alone in her apartment. She didn’t know why she made herself wait that long, but something had prevented her from just reading it all on her phone between classes. The accusations were detailed, and they were convincing in that they didn’t exactly clash with the man she’d met. They didn’t mesh with him either, or the version of him that she knew; she found it hard to imagine him sliding a hand down her thigh, cupping her ass as she moved past him in a crowded room. She tried to summon the image of him sticking a beer-scented tongue in her mouth during a gala and found it frankly impossible. But he had respected her, she thought. She had been aware of it on each occasion, his respect, without knowing entirely where it came from. Even that horrible pity in their last encounter had come from respect — believing her to be better than the way in which she was living. The thought occurred to her that maybe these women were unserious — the intern and the actor certainly, who knew about Marketing? — and she sat very still with the aftershock of that thought, of having been the person who’d had it, of how the thought had made its way into her mind. She felt hot with guilt and adrenaline, as if Sheila had suddenly reared up, accusatory and omniscient.
OK, Mars corrected herself. Not unserious. But they could have been flirting, and it just went farther than they’d wanted. This, too, squared and didn’t. He had been good at reading signals — he’d read hers seemingly effortlessly. But also he’d pushed, in a moment when she hadn’t invited him to — the stuff around her writing. He’d wanted to make a point more than he’d wanted to respect her signals.
But people do that all the time in conversation, Mars thought, herself included. That was indicative of nothing.
Those women must have been flirting.
He’d thought she was gay, so they hadn’t been flirting.
Over the drinks, that third time, had they been flirting?
She suddenly wasn’t sure. It had been so warm and easy, and there had been a spark. But an intellectual spark — arguing over the education of budding playwrights — the kind that invited banter, not physical contact.
When Sheila brought it up again in class the next day, Mars didn’t take the bait. “I guess we’ll find out what happened,” she said. “Sounds like it’s all getting swept out in the open, anyway.”
But in the end it didn’t. The board fired him and he settled out of court with each of the three women. The theater was handed to another artistic director, who published a series of statements about a new chapter for the institution, one in which certain behaviors weren’t tolerated, and in which values of safety and artistic inclusion went hand in hand. Mars skimmed the press release. She felt like she could have written the statement herself, given a checklist of buzzwords and a three-part structure that went: Denunciation, Distancing, Vision For The Future. Her cynicism was abruptly more alarming to her than the situation itself. She closed the browser window, and for a time she didn’t keep track of where he was or what was happening to him.
All the men were in the news that winter. There was a trial, and another one, and another. She couldn’t keep them straight and she didn’t try. A sports mogul, a movie mogul, a finance mogul. She had never been a person who knew moguls, so she didn’t know how she would have behaved if one of them had made a pass at her.
“It’s more forcible than made a pass.” This was Sheila, outraged. Office hours, a lazy Thursday. They had begun by speaking about her thesis on Adrienne Kennedy, and now they were just shooting the shit, and of course it came around to this. Sheila had been glued to the coverage.
“OK,” Mars began, in her conciliatory teaching tone, but Sheila cut through it, as she’d started doing more and more these days.
“It’s not like, Oh would you like a drink, like making a pass. We’re talking about rape.”
“Rape,” Mars repeated.
“Like, in hotel rooms. Like forcible — yeah, rape.”
“But they went to those hotel rooms?”
“The women — the ones testifying. They went to the hotel rooms, right? Like, they weren’t dragged to the hotel rooms, were they?”
Sheila’s face underwent its seismic shift. Something about it this time made Mars wonder if she’d pressed too far. But when Sheila spoke, her voice was steely and controlled.
“No,” she said, “they walked to the hotel rooms on their own legs, and then they were raped. You know what rape means, right? That you said No — at some point, any point. You can say Yes to everything all day long, but then once you say No — anything after that point is rape.”
“I mean, I understand what rape is,” Mars began, but Sheila kept going.
“People are saying, But they e-mailed these guys, they talked to them afterwards — and it’s like, yeah — their behavior was contradictory and weird because they were fucking traumatized. Because you can be raped by people you trusted.”
Sheila stopped talking. Under her tank top, her narrow chest was heaving. Her sternum was as prominent and knobby as a bird’s. It was midwinter but the heat in the old building was cranked up unconscionably high. Sheila’s slightly feral scent filled the office, although Mars didn’t find it objectionable. Mars had expected Sheila’s usual glare — the one that dared her to argue — but this time Sheila just looked disappointed, and that bothered Mars more than she’d expected.
She wondered if Sheila was speaking from personal experience but felt she shouldn’t ask — she wasn’t a therapist, she’d never even taken a psych class, she just taught kids how to write.
As if Sheila had read Mars’s thoughts, she added grudgingly, “I haven’t been — not like that. Guys have been shitty here and there, but . . . I have killer radar for who is gonna be a shady asshole. But that shouldn’t be a requisite for, like, how to get by in the world.”
On the contrary, Mars thought before she could suppress it, it’s the only requisite.
She had been, when she was younger. Like that.
Eighteen, summer, backpacking in Europe. The crowded hostel, the boisterous evening, rum and clove cigarettes and strings of fairy lights out on the patio, and then the rest of the night like a dark shadow falling across all those little lights. Mars didn’t think about it often, and when she did, she didn’t assign words to it, but she knew what they would have been. It wasn’t that she lied to herself about what had happened, but rather that she had come to terms with it in her own way. A way that involved a certain pragmatic toughness — these things happen — and a refusal to dwell on it. A refusal to feel self-pity. Of course that hadn’t been possible in the weeks and months right after, but eventually it was, and she was grateful for that shift inside herself. She didn’t think of herself as a victim, but she also didn’t like being called a “survivor”— it felt condescending, like an award given out after battle by the people who had stayed home. When she thought of herself in relation to that event — which was not often — she thought in the terms of Greek melodrama. Oedipus putting out his eyes, Agamemnon punctured with swords, Odysseus exiled far from his home. Something about men in the face of implacable power: they could fight and lose without being weak. She had fought and lost, but she would never agree to think of herself as weak.
When Sheila first mentioned her new housemate, it took Mars some time to realize what she was saying. It was early March now, and the sooty snow was starting to peel itself back from campus and the adjacent town. Sheila had dark plum-colored circles under her eyes, and she picked at the unraveling edges of her knit sweater. She was in the throes of her thesis, and Mars had assumed the visit was about that, and then after a long preamble that Mars failed to follow, Sheila said, as if she was repeating herself, “And I can’t even concentrate at home.”
“Wait,” Mars said, realizing too late that she was several steps behind. “Why is that?”
“Javier,” Sheila said impatiently.
“Wait, who is Javier?”
“I told you about him last week — the new housemate, the one who stares.”
That jogged Mars’s memory — Sheila lived in a house of boys, most of them undergrads, and a grad student had moved in a few weeks ago and taken the room of a boy who was studying abroad.
“Right,” Mars said. “Javier.”
“Yesterday I was doing laundry and I turned around suddenly and he was right there. In the doorway.”
Mars felt a cold trickle of alarm. “Has he ever touched you?”
“No,” Sheila said. “But the way he looks at me, it feels like a touch.”
Mars tried to think what to ask that would tell her whether or not to be concerned. To her mind a touch was a reason to worry and a look that felt like a touch was a thing to ignore, but sometimes the one became the other and then you really had a problem. She realized she was scanning Sheila closely for fear, but Sheila didn’t seem frightened. She seemed pissed off. As Mars considered, Sheila added: “I talked to Benji about him? But Benji is all like: He’s not from here. Benji says his culture is like — I don’t know, different about women.”
“Where’s he from?” Mars asked.
“Spain. They’re like . . . culturally . . . I don’t know. Aggressive.”
Mars had been to Spain once. In her early twenties a theater had done her first real play, and they had flown her to Barcelona. She didn’t remember the production well anymore, but she remembered the late dinners, the free-flowing wine. How, on her last night in town, she’d made out with the lead actor in the small alley behind the restaurant. The deliciousness of his stubble and the rough stucco wall through her thin shirt. He had been aggressive, but Mars couldn’t have said whether he was culturally aggressive; that is to say, more or less aggressive than an American actor would have been. She had made it a point never to get involved with American actors.
“If he’s making you uncomfortable, you should talk to him. Don’t you think?”
“I do talk to him,” Sheila said, frowning. “I tell him to fuck off.”
Mars considered this. “And does he fuck off?”
“No, he like — I don’t know. That seems to make him more interested.”
“He might think you’re playing hard to get,” Mars said. Sheila’s jaw dropped into the position of seamless outrage, but Mars forestalled it. “I’m not saying you are, I’m just saying it’s harder to misinterpret a multisentence conversation. Maybe if you said, ‘These things make me uncomfortable,’ he’d understand. Maybe Benji could be there for that conversation — or an adviser, a counselor, someone you trust.”
“He’ll just say that he hasn’t done anything,” Sheila said. “And everybody will side with him, because it’s not about doing, anyway.”
“Isn’t it?” Mars felt the familiar confusion return. “Aren’t you worried he might do something?”
“No,” Sheila said. “It’s not that he’d do something, it’s that he’s so fucking entitled, he thinks he can just — take up all the air. Like he thinks his thoughts so loudly, he looks at my ass and he thinks his thoughts, and I just — fuck him, you know? I was trying to work at home just to be like, You don’t get to take up all the air, but now I’m just fucking exhausted, frankly.”
Mars cleared her throat and tried to think about what to say that would be wise and understanding, that would simultaneously illuminate and solve the problem. She found that she had nothing. “But are you concerned that he poses a physical threat?” she heard herself ask.
Sheila sighed, as if Mars had let her down more than usual. “Not all threats are physical,” she said softly. Mars began to argue this point gently — she expected that Sheila would warm to the argument, or in some way would find their usual dynamic comforting — but Sheila refused to engage. In fact, she changed the subject, and shortly thereafter she left.
The encounter stayed with Mars that evening, as she cooked, as she ate, as she did the dishes, as she had a second glass of wine and listened to the radio. Unease worked its way through her body, until she couldn’t enjoy the food, the wine, or the classical strains of WQXR. It came back to language, she thought — you used to know what was really dangerous and what wasn’t by how girls talked about a thing. But these kids now talked about everything the same way — it all had the same weight, so you didn’t know when they were actually in danger or when they were just offended. Mars wanted to think that was progress, but more often than not it left her bewildered and resentful.
Sheila unraveled that whole spring, and so did the world. From a burst pipe to a foster dog that ripped its neck open on a fence, everything in Mars’s vicinity seemed to be coming apart at the seams. There was another scandal with another artistic director — a large regional theater — but in this case, he managed to step down and collect a luxurious severance. Mars couldn’t escape knowing the details of this one, in part because Sheila’s outrage was incandescent: “He should have been fired. He should have been punished. He’s getting three hundred thousand dollars for abusing all these women!”
“Three hundred and eighty-three,” Mars corrected dryly. “Thousand.”
“Even you have to be mad about this,” Sheila said. The plum stains under her eyes had become a normal facet of her face, but there was something haggard and defeated about her that felt new. It was this new weariness that touched Mars’s heart and troubled her. And because she wanted to help Sheila, she decided to be honest with her.
“Look,” she said, “it’s appalling. Obviously. I think you think I find this acceptable, somehow, but I don’t. I never have.”
“But men in power escape consequences all the time. Being surprised by it is . . . I don’t know, not an efficient use of my energy. Everybody thinks we’re in some new age, but that’s just . . . rhetoric, I think. I know you want me to be outraged, but I don’t feel outrage because I don’t feel surprise — I never expected things to be different.”
“But . . .” Sheila looked genuinely pained. “How are things supposed to change if we’re just — resigned to all of it? Like, you go home at night and you . . . what? Wait for the next terrible thing to happen?”
“Honestly,” Mars said, as gently as she could, “I go home, and I read all of your plays, and that is fulfilling. And I make dinner, a healthy dinner, and I have a glass of wine, and sometimes I read a novel in my study. And that gives me pleasure. And I don’t watch the news, and I don’t get angry at people I don’t know, or upset about things I can’t control, and I would say that my life doesn’t feel like a string of terrible things about to happen, because that’s not the way in which I live it.”
Mars had expected Sheila to argue. But instead Sheila just sat quietly, as if the air had gone out of her. She pulled at the sleeve of her knit cardigan, and Mars realized that it had been months since she had seen Sheila in a different one. It swallowed her slight frame and masked her scent with the all-blanketing one of wet wool.
A few minutes passed in silence. Finally Mars asked how things were with Javier. “Is he still bothering you?”
That seemed to jolt her out of the trance she was in. Sheila turned her cool brown gaze on Mars. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll take care of it.”
It was after this, in the three or four weeks before she stopped coming to class entirely, that Sheila started bringing in the Murder Plays.
It was her classmates who began calling them that. Each short play culminated with a woman committing an act of violence. Not just on boyfriends or bosses, as one might expect; in the final three plays, a landlord, an innocent grocery-store clerk, and a boy on a moped were among the victims. Initially Mars treated each play as a piece of theater, and contended with it on its own merits, which she found limited — the concept alone was cliché, she felt, and the execution didn’t elevate it. She suggested that Sheila read Valerie Solanas or Virginie Despentes, and she was aware that she was both trying to contextualize Sheila’s rage for the class, to make it literary and therefore palatable, and trying to give Sheila artistic elders in whom she might find solace. Mars was aware that she had failed Sheila, but at least perhaps she could give her a series of older women writers by whom she might feel less let down. Eventually the agitation of the class — torn between teasing and anxiety — and Mars’s own growing concern led her to call Sheila into office hours to discuss.
Sheila didn’t come to office hours, even though Mars waited an extra hour. Sheila didn’t respond to e-mails, either — not the first one Mars sent, at 5 PM, nor the flurry of e-mails across the following few days. She didn’t show up in class that Thursday, and her classmates glanced nervously (but with relief) at her empty chair, blatant as a missing tooth in the familiar workshop circle.
Mars worried about Sheila over the weekend, and on Monday she went to the department head. Jan was in her sixties, a person who lived or died by a good sweater, and the one today was velour mustard. Mars had never seen anything like it, and Jan informed her that her daughter-in-law had made it: “She’s trying to start a fashion line, poor thing,” Jan said comfortably. She adjusted her glasses on her narrow nose, cracked the window over her desk to combat the thick dry heat churned out by the radiator, and nodded to Mars. “Anyway, dear, you’d wanted to chat?”
Mars talked about Sheila, and as she did, she thought about the general insanity of what she was saying. She’s very upset about the assaults that have come to light. That have happened at all. She’s obsessed by questions of injustice. Perhaps the problem wasn’t with Sheila, Mars thought fleetingly, perhaps the problem was with the rest of them, who were less upset and therefore better able to get on with things. But then again, they were all in the same world, and Sheila was the one who had stopped being able to function there.
She went on to mention the issues with the housemate, although she had to admit under Jan’s detailed questioning that she didn’t entirely know the nature of these issues. She arrived at the end of her report with the one inarguable fact under her command: Sheila had written twenty-six short plays about murder and then stopped coming to class.
“Twenty-six,” Jan repeated, a fine eyebrow arching. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” Mars said, “I counted them right before I came here.”
“That’s just a very impressive output,” Jan said. “I have students who can’t even finish one play. Twenty-six!”
“They’re only ten minutes apiece,” Mars hastened to say, and then felt that she might somehow be disparaging Sheila’s efforts, so she added: “Although it’s not easy to write a good ten-minute play.”
“Ah,” Jan said with interest. “Were they good?”
“Increasingly not,” Mars admitted. “But also, I think she isn’t — wasn’t — sleeping. May not be sleeping.”
“Have you spoken to any of her friends or classmates?”
“She lives off campus,” Mars said. “I don’t really know the kids she’s close to. The other students in my class haven’t heard from her either.”
Jan nodded rhythmically, glancing away at her computer monitor, at the stack of student papers on her own desk. Mars could tell their conversation was drawing to a close, though she wasn’t sure what conclusion they’d reached. She asked abruptly: “Should I go see her?”
Jan blinked. “Do you have her address?”
“No,” Mars admitted, “but I could get it from the registrar, I think? I mean, I don’t know if there’s some . . . policy, of some kind — about student addresses, or . . .”
“Why don’t I see if I can get in contact with her,” Jan said mildly. “But of course please do send her another e-mail and let her know that you’re concerned.” As she stood to let Mars out of the room — the office was so small that the door couldn’t open fully without a do-si-do — she added wistfully, “The children are so fragile, these days.”
The statement stopped Mars in her tracks. She had the same thought, often, but for some reason, hearing it spoken out loud in this exact moment, it landed on her ear like an indictment. Not of the children, but of herself. Why am I not more fragile? Mars wondered, and, failing to produce an answer, she went home.
It was a night or two later that he called her. Just after midnight. She had given up on reading student plays and was sitting on the hardwood floor, her back against her reading chair, finishing a glass of wine. There was something about sitting on the floor that took her back to her twenties, made the picture briefly blur as she glanced at her stacks of books, the worn couch, the shell-white walls with their peeling paint. The landscape hadn’t changed, just her place in it.
When his number came up on her phone, she blinked at it, bemused, but it didn’t occur to her not to pick up. She hadn’t heard his voice since September, and if she hadn’t had caller ID, she might not have known right away who he was. He sounded older; his voice was thinner, as if it were reaching her across a vast distance.
“Mars,” he said, and then a pause. “How are ya?”
She blinked at the wall. Took a sip of her wine. “Fine,” she said, cautiously, “how are you?”
The second the question escaped her mouth, she wished she could take it back. It had been purely automatic, but how could it not be loaded?
She could hear the wry smile in his voice when he said, “Just great.” An awkward pause and then he asked, with an almost formal courtesy, “Is it all right that I’ve called you?”
“I think so,” she said. She knew there was a right way to have this phone call, but she didn’t know what it was. She’d never learned any etiquette that applied to this. After a moment, she gave in to curiosity. “Where are you calling me from?”
He hesitated and then: “Miami.” Another odd pause, and he added: “My stepmother’s condo, actually.”
“She’s eighty-three. She listens to audiobooks and we play bridge.”
“Oh,” Mars said, inflecting her voice in such a way as to imply that that sounded, perhaps, like a positive outcome.
“You don’t have to look for something cheerful to say,” he told her, wryly. “It’s a total hellscape. Lin isn’t talking to me — that was my girlfriend, note the past tense — and every time The New York Times publishes a new op-ed about what a shit I am, my ex-wife forwards it with the subject line ‘FYI.’ You’d be surprised how many of the people who used to beg me for a job are talking about how they always knew I was rotten. But we know all the same people, I’m sure you’re aware.”
“Honestly,” Mars said, “I don’t spend a lot of time online. Or off campus, these days.”
“You did hear about me, though?” He sounded suddenly alarmed at the thought that he was the one bearing this news.
“Yeah,” Mars told him. “I mean, the basics.”
“Ah, the basics.” He sighed, and they were quiet, and then he laughed. “God, it’s good to hear your voice,” he said. “The other thing is just — the silence. People don’t talk to me the way they used to . . . but also, mostly they don’t talk to me. They’re all so afraid that someone will say, ‘Oh, I hear you’ve been in touch with’ — and then there they’ll be: the enemy. Which, I get that. So even my friends . . .” His voice trailed off and after a moment he said, “It’s safer for them not to be my friends, ultimately.” He tried to inject some of the flippancy back into his voice, but didn’t entirely succeed, when he added: “Careful, you’re now consorting with the enemy.”
“I don’t worry about people’s opinions so much,” Mars said automatically, and the smile was back in his voice when he said, “No, I remember.”
Silence descended. After a moment, she asked, “Why did you call me?”
“Oh,” he said, “well, it gets a little lonely in Miami.” A silence, and then, “Why did you pick up?”
Mars opened her mouth to say any number of things, and then closed it again. She might have said, “It gets a little lonely in New England, too,” but it felt cheap — not untrue, but too symmetrical to be honest.
In the quiet, a dog barked next door. A door closed somewhere in the building, and the vibration made its way through her walls. The reading light flickered — the wires were loose — and she jostled it until the flickering stopped.
“I need to ask you,” he said, and his voice was more serious than she’d ever heard it. All the schoolboy irony was gone. “And — it’s OK if the answer is . . . but I’d like to feel like you would be honest with me. Even now. Especially now?” He took a breath, and she said nothing, and he placed his question with delicacy into the space between them. “Did I ever make you feel unsafe?”
“Unsafe,” she repeated, tasting the word, testing it. Her mouth was dry and her heart rate was elevated, and she wasn’t sure when either of those things had started.
“When we were alone together,” he said. “I . . . this is selfish, but I keep thinking about . . . all the people who didn’t say anything. The women, I mean. And I guess I — keep wondering if all of them felt the same way, but some of them just didn’t . . . say it.”
“I only saw you three times,” Mars said curiously, probing the question from all sides.
“You didn’t put your tongue in my mouth, you didn’t touch me.”
“Yes,” he said. “But . . .” And he was quiet, with the whole weight of the but, and the image flickered into Mars’s mind of Sheila, straightening up from the washing machine, turning to find Javier in the doorway. Watching her. The way Javier had looked at her, that Sheila had felt to be as tangible as a hand on her skin. A reaction that Mars had not fully understood because Mars had made the choice many years ago to ignore all the things that were not hands.
She went to take a sip of her wine and found her glass was empty. On the other end of the phone he breathed, softly — coughed once — but was silent, awaiting whatever judgment she might hand down. Another image came to mind unbidden: Sheila again, studying Mars, her brown eyes liquid with disappointment. I have killer radar for who is gonna be a shady asshole. But that shouldn’t be a requisite for, like, how to get by in the world.
“No,” Mars said at last. Her voice felt rusty, coming from a place deep in her chest. “I didn’t. But I think there’s something wrong with me.”
“With you?” His astonishment was electric.
“I’m realizing that, yes.” She licked her chapped lips, tasted copper. “I think that all the — I don’t know, the antennae or the — the little parts of me that were made to suss out . . . disrespect, or unsafeness — I think those parts aren’t there anymore. They were — I know when I was very young they were there, because I remember . . . talking to men and knowing that they were disrespecting me — even in subtle ways, but directly to my face. But I had to — sort of tear that out of myself by the roots, I think. I don’t know how to say it, but — inside of me now, there is a kind of general — bluntness, a sense of . . . I don’t feel unsafe in that way anymore. And so it’s worked for me — it’s worked exactly the way I intended because it’s made me . . . impermeable. But. Then again, has it?”
And now she was asking him — how did it become a genuine question? — now she was asking him with a ragged determination, as if he might be the one to know — because Sheila was not here and could not be asked; because Sheila was too young to manage an understanding of the days and years and decades, things half buried and determinedly erased, the sheer time that had accumulated into this question; or perhaps it wasn’t youth so much as an abyss between them that could not be bridged; they had been born into such different worlds, how could they not be shaped so differently that it became impossible to understand each other at all? Now she was asking him, a man, but at least they were the same age: “Has it actually worked for me?”
“I don’t know,” he said at last. “I don’t think I can know that.” His voice was very gentle, as if he were talking to a child or a family member, but the gentleness was not pity, and that alone felt akin to kindness.
“I don’t know either,” she said. And they were both quiet, their breaths synchronizing into a single rhythmic tide, listening on opposite ends of the line to the growing silence.