[Fiction] Women Corinne Does Not Actually Know, By Rebecca Makkai | Harper's Magazine

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[Fiction]

Women Corinne Does Not Actually Know

You Were Always On My Mind (detail), by Amy Cutler © The artist Courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York City; Heather Podesta Collection

[Fiction]

Women Corinne Does Not Actually Know

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the professor of archaeology

In the small Southern town where Corinne has rented an apartment for the summer, she has found a yoga studio. It’s quainter than her usual one in Boston. At home, the women are lasered and sanded, the leggings sleek, the yoga competitive. To this place, which is above a tech-help center, people wear cargo shorts and baggy T-shirts. They pay by leaving cash or a personal check in a basket, register by signing a spiral notebook. They say oof as they bend. Corinne always unrolls her mat in the back corner, tries not to interlope.

The archaeology professor is the only other woman in actual yoga pants. She can lift her leg by her ear. Her hair is long and red and curly. By eavesdropping, Corinne has learned that she teaches at the college, that her husband teaches chemistry there, but they’re divorcing.

Corinne has questions. About whether tenure and the job market will mean this woman and her ex will continue living in this same small town the rest of their lives. Whether, when they begin dating again, they’ll each necessarily date people the other knows. There’s only one nice restaurant here, and Corinne can picture the scene: this woman waiting in the entry for her date, and meanwhile there’s the ex inside with his, leaning over a candle, his fork in her spaghetti.

Corinne knows only a few things about this woman—it took a while even to catch her name—but she can conjure a full life for her: a book-lined apartment, wine with her friend the women’s studies chair, a cat, student trips every two years to Israel or Greece. Corinne can’t imagine as much about the women back in Boston who apply makeup before yoga, or about the women here whose clothes are stained from lawn mowing. (She acknowledges that this is snobbery, in both cases.) There’s something about the archaeology professor that has captured her attention, something that makes Corinne look for her in every class, makes her watch as she heads off in her Subaru.

It’s by eavesdropping on this woman that Corinne learns about the town’s current scandal: the soccer goalie at the college, the visiting high school student he sexually assaulted, the sudden national spotlight. It’s also from eavesdropping that Corinne knows enrollment at the college is down, and the new president is unpopular, and there was racist graffiti in a dorm laundry room, but probably from a townie. The others in the class seem to use this woman as their pipeline for all university-related news. Mostly, they ask about the soccer goalie assault.

She hears the professor say, “At least she came forward, and fast. So often, they just never come forward.”

She sees the archaeology professor at the grocery store, the library, but the archaeology professor shows no sign of recognizing Corinne. Corinne wonders if she has a crush on the woman, but no: She has simply noticed her, and in a summer devoid of other entertainment, the professor has become a celebrity. Deities, royalty, actors—none of these are in Corinne’s world right now, and so a primal sliver of her brain has mythologized this woman, her Arthurian hair.

In her short time here, Corinne has felt less and less like herself. She wakes in her rented basement apartment and nothing she sees is hers. She walks around town and no one is hers. There’s no mirror in the apartment, which at first was an inconvenience and now feels oddly liberating. She realizes she has seen the professor’s face, in the past weeks, more often than her own. She reaches up one day to adjust her ponytail and is surprised to find her hair thin and smooth rather than wild and curly.

Something has shaken loose.

Corinne would love to introduce herself, to have a friend in town, but even two weeks into her two-month stay, it’s too late. She’d have no patience for small talk when she’s already imagined so much of this woman’s life; and she has no desire, either, to detail her backstory, her whole existence. Here for research. The university archives. A nineteenth-century environmentalist; have you heard of him? No, it’s boring. Eight weeks. A private foundation, actually. Yes, two boys, they’re in camp. Yes, the mountains are lovely.

the wife of the boy who raped her

Back home, Corinne was never tempted to look the boy up. It crossed her mind occasionally, and each time she’d felt a wave first of revulsion—and then of pride in not needing to know. She’d thought of asking her husband to look him up. But her husband, after she told him years ago about the rape, has never brought it up, and she’s afraid that if she mentions it he’ll look at her blankly. That would be worse than anything.

Here, though, there’s time and there’s emptiness and she has the urge to feel things. She starts by googling the goalie case, just out of curiosity, just to see the face of the kid everyone’s talking about. The assault happened a year and a half ago, but the trial is happening now.

Before long she’s googled the man who was the boy and wound up on her small, hard bed staring at Elise’s photos.

According to Facebook, this woman named Elise lives in Tampa with three children—two girls and a boy—plus the boy himself, who is now a man. His face has bloated, but just the face. Alcoholism? His account is either private or inactive, just a profile picture and a background photo of a sunset, and something about a fundraiser from five years ago. Hers, on the other hand, is a seemingly endless timeline: a decade of insipid daily life.

Elise’s job seems corporate, the kind Corinne doesn’t care about. The boy is, of all things, a doctor, a podiatrist. His online reviews are mostly positive.

As much as Corinne knows rape is rape is rape: if the rape had been a violent one, she’d already have contacted Elise. As things stand, she’s only thought about the shadow account she might create, the message she might send from there.

One night, three weeks into her stay in the small town, she opens an empty Word document. She tells herself that she can write a note but not send it, that since she’s not seeing her shrink this summer she should do a cathartic thing. I knew your husband in college, she starts, but deletes that and begins again, talking only about herself. I’m a stranger, she starts, but I need to tell you a story. She writes about her college without naming it yet, writes about being five states from home. She won’t mention Kyle until she has won this woman’s sympathy. Eventually, she mentions the party, names the frat and the school. Someone had roofied the punch bowl, I learned later. Like in a bad movie. But probably not Kyle, who was a freshman and not yet a member of the house. For the most part, she tells it the way she remembers it, which is to say, not at all. My roommate saw us leave together. I was at the party, and then it was morning and I was naked in my bed, and everything hurt. My head, and also everything else.

Elise runs half-marathons. This prejudices Corinne against her. Not because she disapproves, but because the kind of person who works a corporate job and runs half-marathons is not the kind of person Corinne knows. If Elise worked in the humanities, if Elise had posted photos of herself and friends with cocktails, if Elise posted political things, Corinne might feel some kinship. But it’s all race photos, and the whole family dressed for Easter in lavender and navy blue. Cursive quotations about how mothers are made of steel, about not letting worries get you down.

There was cooked white rice all over the floor of my room. I never figured out why.

If Corinne felt she and Elise were similar, she might send the letter with the best of intentions, in sisterhood. But part of her wants to reach out for the worst reasons: To cause this woman pain. To tear her marriage apart. To make her see that the world is a bad place and the man she married was a terrible boy, whether or not he’s a terrible man.

Which is why she will never let herself reach out.

My roommate said, “Don’t you dare touch her. She’s too drunk.” And later, when she met him in the hallway leaving our room, he said, “I didn’t follow your advice.” And he shrugged, my roommate said, and smiled and clucked his tongue. It’s important that you know he shrugged.

She saves the file. Every few days, she goes in and looks at it, revises it. Just glancing at her closed computer, sleeping on her desk, gives her an adrenaline rush.

her friends ex

Her friend George once told her about a woman he dated in his twenties. The woman wanted to be pinned down every time they had sex. Not for part of the time—the whole time. He had to pretend to be assaulting her. If he kissed her or tried to make her feel good or let go of her arm, the moment was lost and she’d get up, put her underwear back on, start answering emails.

The night he said all this, years ago, George had been overserved and was a little sloppy. Corinne has thought about it several times a week ever since, and not luridly but with genuine curiosity: What was it about this woman that made her own agency such a turnoff?

She asked George, because she was drunk, too, if this had made him happy. “It made me happy to make her happy,” he said. “But ultimately, it was why we broke up.”

When she asked what he meant, he flushed, sat up straighter, seemed suddenly aware that he was alone in a bar with a female friend, talking about sex. “I couldn’t live with that forever,” he said, “with only that, forever. Plus, like . . . it was hard work. Physically.”

Then he changed the subject.

A couple of times since then, Corinne has gone through George’s Facebook friends looking for the woman, whose name she never learned. She looks for women around George’s age, ones you’d never suspect it of. Or, well, the ones you actually would suspect it of, the women who run corporations, the senior partners at law firms. She looks for women who somehow match George, his dark curls, his always-startled eyes. And then she looks for women with hard faces, light hair: George’s polar opposite.

When Corinne stands, she prefers to lean on a wall or to jut one hip out as far as her joints will go. She likes to feel limits, and she imagines this woman is the same. She thinks now of looking through George’s Facebook again, seeing who’s against a brick wall, who’s sitting with her legs double-crossed.

She has a dream, one night in early July, that George introduces her to this woman, and it’s the archaeology professor. And Corinne says, “I should have known.” And the woman says, “You should have known.”

the singer her husband keeps pictures of

Back in the spring, she needed to get camp forms for the boys off Wallace’s computer. She clicked a file icon on his desktop and found the photos. She wasn’t sure who the woman was, but grew certain it was no one Wallace knew in real life, certain the pictures hadn’t been sent to him personally. Highly filtered shots, the woman’s caramel ass professionally lit. The woman sucked a lollipop, or licked her lips, or covered her nipples with two fingers of each hand.

Corinne looked up the actress she thought it might be, but she was wrong. Two weeks later, the singer performed on Saturday Night Live, and Corinne recognized her. “Do you like her?” she asked Wallace.

Wallace laughed. “She’s a bit much,” he said. Then he said, “I actually met her a few months ago. When we were doing the Fun Run thing.” Wallace was involved in organizing his company’s charity outing, a deal with minor celebrities. “Kind of a diva.”

That night, Corinne checked when he’d saved the photos. Some right before the Fun Run, some right after, a bunch more six weeks later. Why he needed to save them, rather than simply whack off to Google results, Corinne couldn’t imagine. Well, maybe she could: A Google search would bring up the singer with her boyfriend, the singer as a baby, the singer caught on the street with no makeup. Wallace’s album was curated, flawless. The singer was always alone.

Corinne was not concerned for a second that something had happened between the singer and Wallace. She almost wished she could imagine that. But instead, the whole thing made Wallace seem pathetic, a sad little man. She imagined him gazing at her from across the Fun Run tent, the singer in tiny shorts. She imagined him shaking her hand with a wet palm, asking if he could get her more water, close enough to smell what Corinne felt certain was vanilla-tinged perfume.

She spent an hour that same night reading everything she could about the singer. The singer had been married three times, never longer than a year. The singer was a vegan who occasionally ate bacon. The singer was discovered at age twelve in a talent competition at Disneyland. Or maybe the prize was to perform at Disneyland. It wasn’t clear.

In July, sitting on her bed in the basement apartment, she checks the singer’s Twitter account. Her tweets are predictably asinine. Believe it or not, one of them reads, I’ve always had a low self of steam. But you’re my champions!

Corinne can think of nothing to do but to like the post in order to grant herself the satisfaction of then unliking it, of clicking the little heart to turn it from red to clear.

the professor of archaeology, again

One day in late July, in a forward fold, looking back between her own ankles, it occurs to Corinne that what fascinates her—actually, what fascinates her about her own fascination—is that she finds the archaeology professor neither beautiful nor ugly. This is rare. Her own internalized misogyny is such that she feels rage, conscious or subconscious, toward any woman she deems more beautiful than herself. She wants to see those women fail, wants them punished for their beauty. (With age, with ugliness, with stupidity.) And any woman less attractive than herself—older, boxier, more awkward, worse teeth—she feels pity for. An angry, vindictive pity.

She’s simultaneously the wicked queen, wishing death on Snow White, and Snow White, revolted at the old hag.

This judgment doesn’t usually occur in her rational brain—just in her guts. But she started, a few years ago, trying to recognize the stray flecks of her own racism, and now she’s trying to call out her misogyny too.

She’s aware that there are men in the world, men with theories about females, who would call this cattiness, who would say it’s about evolution and competition. But good god, it’s not. She learned this rage from magazines, from TV, from her own mother. She learned to hate the female body, her own and all others, from a movie she watched, way too young, where nerdy college boys secretly film the girls who’ve rejected them. The boys were meant to be the heroes. She learned it from beer ads and music videos and ballet teachers and from a world where you were harassed on the street for looking good and harassed online for not looking good.

It’s only strangers she judges this way. When she knows a woman, she sees her as human. But when she doesn’t, she slips so easily into seeing her the way the world does, which is to say the way men do, which is to say as an object.

When a woman once was beautiful and now is not, but is still trying very hard to look young, that’s when her misogyny roars loudest. The women whose foreheads don’t move, the women still wrapping their aging bodies like sausages. That actress, her lips pumped and stretched till her face looks raw and vaginal. She hates them, wants to laugh at them, wants, when she googles them, to find worse and worse photos. Wants, eventually, worms crawling out of their eyeholes, their spackled lips to crack to blood.

Not really. But on the deepest level.

Corinne thinks all this while she’s still folded over. The archaeology professor, folded over too, tucks her hands neatly under the soles of her feet.

the girl in the coffee shop

Corinne does most of her work at the library, which holds, after all, the archives of the nineteenth-century environmentalist she came down here to research. But the air in the library is dry and cold, and the archives close at 4:30, and there’s a coffee shop in town with ratty leather couches, crust at the window edges. There’s a heat wave, but if she sits right in the stream of the small AC unit it’s fine.

She should be indexing her research, or at least writing more grants, but instead she’s searching the boys’ camp news feed for photos that prove they’re alive, smiling, tanned.

The girl wears a sweatshirt from the college volleyball team; she must have stayed here for a summer job. She sits with a boy who keeps grabbing her phone, going through her photos, asking Who’s this? Who’s that guy? He looks short. He looks like a short douchebag. What’s his name?

Then he starts looking through her messages. The girl does that uncomfortable giggle, that involuntary laugh-spasm Corinne has tried so hard to train out of herself.

“I’m deleting this guy,” he says.

The girl says Stop! and she means it, but—maybe because she whines it, rather than screaming—the boy does not stop. Not that she should have to scream. The girl tries to grab her phone back.

the high school student

The high school student who was assaulted by the goalie has testified against him in court, and the world has noticed. Locally, it’s been in the papers for a while; but then Corinne was not a local until this summer.

The girl’s face has not been shown, she has not been doxxed, but her testimony has been made public. The girl had not been drinking, but the boy and his friends had tricked her into eating four pot gummies. Maybe it was still a joke at that point: see what the high school student will do. She’d gotten woozy, gone upstairs in the frat house to lie down. She woke up with him on top of her, and said it was like one of those dreams where you wake halfway up and try to move, but your body, still asleep, won’t budge. You try to scream, and nothing comes out.

The boy claims that he didn’t know she was a minor. He also claims it was consensual.

There’s far more legal precedent in cases involving alcohol.

Corinne watches the recap of the testimony at a small bar in town, a wood-paneled room where locals keep personalized steins on hooks. At 4 pm, she and an older couple clad in Harley-Davidson gear are the only ones in the place. She orders a glass of pinot grigio and wonders if it’s been poured from the same bottle as the last glass she had here, a week ago.

According to the news, it came up in court that the girl “had shaved her pubic area” before the party. The male defense attorney grilled her about why she would do that if she hadn’t gone to the party wanting and expecting sex.

The female news anchor reads snippets of the transcript with barely concealed rage.

The defense attorney asked if the girl was on birth control. He asked if she’d taken a pill the very day of the party.

Corinne wants to smash the TV.

The female half of the Harley couple shakes her head, says, “Well there you go, right there. There you go.”

the wife of the man shes sleeping with

Childishly, Corinne hates her. She hates her long black hair, her long neck, her beautiful friends always leaning on her in photos.

She was the first of Corinne’s online wormholes. The woman’s social pages; the website for her practice; her wedding announcement, now ten years old.

She hadn’t searched for her in quite a while, but one day in the archive room early in August, tired of the boxes of cursive correspondence (the summer is messing up her back, messing up her eyes), Corinne opens her computer and first looks again at the hypothetical email to Elise. I’m a stranger. I need to tell you a story. She googles Elise, to see what else she can find. She’s still wearing her white gloves when she keys the letters in. Lots of mentions on official race pages. Times that mean nothing to Corinne. A LinkedIn profile she can’t see for free. And because she’s already down the internet hatch, and because Elise’s life is not that interesting, she ends up googling the wife. She’s a dermatologist. The kind that injects fillers, not the kind that treats melanoma.

When Corinne is with George, or when she texts him, she will not use the woman’s name. “Your wife,” she calls her. She does not want George to leave his wife, because then what would she do with him? Not marry him. Not leave her husband. It would be too much work. George would be too much work. Everything is too much work.

They didn’t get together the night that George told her about his ex, the one who needed to be restrained. But the intimacy of the conversation had surely sparked something. It happened a month later, when he drove her home from a party that Wallace had left early, claiming a headache. That was three years ago.

A logic problem: She is jealous of the wife, because the wife has George. But (and she’s aware of the hypocrisy) she does not wish she were married to George, because George is the kind of guy who would cheat on his wife. (Wallace, for all his failings, would never, could never, actually make the moves that would get him there.) Ergo, she feels sorry for the wife, because the wife is married to a guy she doesn’t even really know. But the wife is happy, or at least seems happy. This happiness is wrong. Whereas Corinne, who knows the truth, and for a while there had George every Tuesday afternoon at least, is not particularly happy at all. The question is: What the hell.

George has a habit of breaking her heart. As soon as Corinne starts to rely on him, or starts to admit to herself that she’s in love, George needs space. Or he simply vanishes. As soon as her heart grows another defensive layer, he’s back. Corinne thought that getting here, getting away from him for two months, would bring her back to herself.

Or, no: By August, she realizes that what she really wanted, all along, was for him to come after her. To show up at the doorstep of her basement apartment, to spend a night, two nights, a week.

He texts her like her husband does, anodyne things: Tell me something good.Hope you’re having a good day.Yes, all great here. She wanted distance, but she didn’t want this.

When she’s angry with George, which is frequently, she thinks that one day she’ll write the wife an anonymous letter, on actual paper, and mail it from another city. She’ll tell, not about herself, but about the woman George slept with at work, the woman he saw for a while a few years ago, the friend of the wife’s whom he kissed, drunk, at a party in his own house. Just get yourself tested, she’ll write. I say this in friendship. Of course that part will not be true. That summer, at the bottom of an old document full of useless research, she drafts this note too, an addition to her collection of notes she’ll never send.

Here is the wife’s website: Botox, Restylane, Juvéderm, dermaplaning. Here she is, not exceptionally beautiful, but her face has a sheen, and her lips are full, and unless the photo has been retouched, the skin on her neck isn’t doing the horrifying things Corinne’s is.

Corinne knows plenty of things about the wife, many of them unflattering. She knows that the wife takes five-hour baths, that she eats salad with her fingers, leaf by leaf, that the wife, a virgin at twenty-three when she and George met, had had a misunderstanding of the term blowjob.

Corinne’s shrink says her hatred of the wife is misplaced self-hatred, sublimated guilt. Corinne doesn’t disagree. Corinne has declined her therapist’s offer of phone sessions over the summer, and it’s probably a bad idea, but strangely, Corinne has found herself articulating things more clearly in her own head. Without a shrink to save it all up for, she has to think each thought all the way through on her own.

She looks up pricing for some of the services the wife offers. Eight hundred dollars for fillers that last six months. Five hundred dollars for a laser treatment. The before and after pictures are impressive, if they’re real. Faces smoothed as if ironed, skin brightened until it looks—well, burned, yes, but also younger.

Before, after. Before, after. Before, after. Corinne could click all day.

Back in April, George told Corinne that he and his wife would be at a protest in front of the federal building in Boston. Corinne told him she was planning to be there herself, although it wasn’t true till that moment. It was a small enough protest that when she showed up, she spotted them easily. George held his young son on his shoulders. The wife seemed to know half the people there.

This was when Corinne knew she needed to get out of town. She didn’t recognize herself, this crazed woman in the crowd.

Even now, she’s not sure what she was there for. Certainly not to say something. That’s a fantasy she’d never act on. She supposes she was there to observe, to gather information. Not for any use, but to scratch some kind of itch. To think to herself: This is her. This is the way she moves. This is how her voice sounds, louder than you’d think. This is how she walks through the world. Look at her beautiful shoes.

the girl in the coffee shop, again

The young couple is back, and Corinne watches them study side by side. The girl gets up to head to the restroom, and the boy says, “Leave your phone here.”

“What? Why?”

“So I know you aren’t sexting anyone.”

The girl says, “You’re ridiculous.”

“Why would you need your phone in the bathroom?”

She says, “I’ll leave it here, but I’m locking it.”

“Why would you need to lock it?”

The girl throws her phone at the boy, and he puts it facedown in front of him.

Corinne writes a note on a library slip from her purse, and waits outside the bathroom door. That kid is an ass, the note says. This is how the bad stuff starts. When the girl emerges, she hands her the note.

She worries the girl will show the note to the boy, that they’ll both laugh at her, but she takes a moment before entering the bathroom herself, and when she glances back, the girl is stuffing the note in her pocket.

Corinne is proud of herself for a few hours, and then wonders why she didn’t say something aloud, didn’t confront this boy. She likes to believe that if she’d seen, for instance, one kid telling another to go back to Pakistan, she’d have intervened at full volume. She’d have made a scene.

But for women, no: whispers, notes.

the daughter of the boy who raped her

As the summer progresses, as the apartment accumulates layers of junk, Corinne spends more time inside her computer. She clicks back and forth between Twitter and Facebook, waiting for something interesting to happen. She digs through emails she failed to answer last year.

One night, she dreams she has tricked her husband by filling a piñata with all their wedding china, then asking him to smash it. It’s his birthday party, and when the piñata falls to the ground, when the shards of china spill out, he looks utterly betrayed. In the dream, Corinne laughs; but when she wakes up, her stomach roils with acid.

She numbs herself by lying in bed and staring at her phone, and for some reason this is the morning she thinks to try the boy’s last name, an unusual one, on Instagram. He isn’t there, and his wife isn’t there, but here’s his oldest daughter, who looks about fourteen, too young to have a public account like this, too young to post these photos of herself in a bikini.

Corinne wonders if her mother knows, wonders if she should screenshot the account and send it, anonymously, to Elise. But no, no, no, no. How is it possible that she’s thinking of ratting out a teenage girl for showing skin, but not the father for committing rape?

Well. She knows how it’s possible.

the wife of the nineteenth-century environmentalist

Her name was Mae, and she pops up often in Corinne’s research, although this is not what she’s there to learn, not what her grant is for.

Mae was, herself, an herbalist. Mae’s maid, Annunziata, an Italian immigrant, was arrested in 1892 after her husband died from ingesting the oil of bitter almonds, which Annunziata had given him as medicine. Annunziata claimed she’d thought it was the oil of sweet almonds, a harmless drug, that she’d miscommunicated with the druggist in her imperfect English, that the druggist was the one who should be tried.

The story upsets Corinne, particularly the version of it in which Annunziata loved her husband and unknowingly gave him something deadly. The better version: he was an abusive man, and Mae told Annunziata what to do. What other justice was available, in that shadowy time? What justice is ever on offer?

Annunziata remained in the household through old age.

the news anchor

She’s seething, talking about how the judge has handed the goalie only a three-month sentence. Three months in the county jail, two years of probation. This is not an opinion show, this is a newscast, and she is meant to report the news. Corinne guesses she has opinions and information about pubic hair, about birth control pills, about incapacitation, about the male defense attorney, the male judge.

Corinne likes this anchor. A local anchor, one she’s known only since she came down here. Corinne remembers someone telling her that since anchors have to buy their own clothes, the women nearly go broke buying bright jacket after jewel-tone blouse. They can never repeat an outfit. The men just cycle the same five jackets and shirts.

The boy has been expelled from the college, but people have raised money online to “help him land on his feet.”

Corinne watches the anchor clench and unclench her left hand, her nails perfectly manicured and pink. The nails cost money, too.

the archaeology professor, again

Corinne spots her at the farmers market that sets up every Saturday morning at the entrance of the town’s small botanical garden. Corinne is not there to shop—her apartment has only the tiniest stove, so what would she do with onions and collards and baby potatoes?—but when she spies the professor, her arms laden with canvas bags, Corinne sticks around and buys some flowers. The professor is looking at zucchini, she’s taking a sample of cheese.

The seam rips on one of her bags, and smaller paper bags fall out of it, onto the sidewalk. Blueberries roll.

Corinne wants to help, but she’s stuck to the spot. The professor is down on her knees, scooping everything back up, looking like she wants to cry. Corinne has never seen her not serene, never seen her not look fundamentally yogic. She looks, right now, like this is the fifteenth such thing to happen to her today, like she’s a centimeter away from utter disaster and despair.

Corinne resolves that the next time she’s at the yoga studio, she’ll secretly pay for the professor’s next class pack.

But then, on Monday at the studio, she’s suddenly too shy to approach the desk with this strange request. Surely everyone here knows the professor. And no one knows her. And so she does nothing. But she thought it, and for a while the thought makes her feel good.

the women in the bondage films

It’s the only porn Corinne wants to watch now. Women tied up, enjoying it against their will. Devices, whips, multiple men, strange rope configurations, gags.

She needs to believe the films were ethically made, needs to believe that if one of these women were ever in true distress, she’d know it, she’d see it in her face.

(And then what would she do? Call the police? This one woman in porn looks really sad.)

She wants no men to watch these videos, ever. She wants no teenage boys to think this is how it works.

She does not, of course, want to be grabbed off the streets and put in a dungeon and given rope burns. She does not want to be the women in the videos, and she does not want to be the men in the videos, nor does she want to be another woman in the videos, doing things to the tied-up woman. She wants to be here, on her bed, watching the videos.

She wishes these websites could collect statistics on gender, on who watches what. Maybe they do, who knows.

She wishes she could switch research fields and compile the data. She’d give people optional exit surveys, after they logged off porn sites. No personal information beyond gender and age, just Did you feel weird about this? Did you like this? Did you hate that woman? Did you love her?

What she does, in the real world, is send the links to George. She’s sent him stuff before, but not like this. She’ll be home in ten days, and she’s fairly sure her absence has broken whatever they had. When they see each other, it will be awkward, formal. Not a mad embrace. Wasn’t that the point, though?

He texts back: Is this what you want? She writes back: No. Then she writes: I think I want to be the whip.

the self-care expert

Corinne is in the coffee shop again, and the frumpy woman in the next seat is watching a video, a talking-head thing, on her laptop with no earphones. Back home, Corinne would complain, but here she’s constantly aware that she’s a stranger, one with a Yankee accent. And she’s not getting work done anyway.

The woman in the video is a self-care expert, and she’s talking about compartmentalization. “We can’t absorb all the bad news,” the woman says, “for all the people in the world.” The woman’s blazer is pale yellow, and she’s eerily calm, her voice a skating rink.

Corinne thinks this is the worst idea she’s ever heard, this excuse for caring only about yourself and your family and people who remind you of your family.

The woman recommends visualizing your mind as a series of jars with lids. She recommends dropping romantic concerns in one jar, financial concerns in another, mentally screwing on the lids.

Corinne wonders if this is what has broken down for her, this summer: she has lost her compartments. Back home, chasing after kids, working, eating dinner with Wallace, meeting up with George, using her computer only for research, keeping her house organized, keeping her office organized—everything was in its place. Here, her world has become as disordered as her rented room. Everything that’s ever happened to her, everyone she’s ever known, is right there in her laptop, waiting for her to shake the mouse and bring it all to life.

She’s been absorbed in her neighbor’s video for so long that she hasn’t noticed the college couple, the girl and her terrible boyfriend, entering the coffee shop. They stand in line, looking through the grimy glass at the giant pastries. They’re holding hands. Corinne stuffs her laptop and papers in her bag, scurries out the door before the girl sees her—unless she already has, unless this hand-holding is a demonstration for her benefit.

Instead of heading to the bar for a drink, and even though she has half an open bottle at home, she buys a bottle of red wine and carries it home in her bag, where it clanks against her computer.

At home, a cockroach skitters out from under the closet door, big as a mouse. Corinne manages not to scream; she flaps her hands against her legs instead, turns in a circle. She stomps her foot, but the cockroach is already gone.

the high school senior

Corinne has finished her open bottle and started the new one. She doesn’t remember following the singer Wallace is obsessed with, but apparently she has. Here she is, in a black strappy halter that looks like someone went at her with a roll of duct tape. She has actual tape on her mouth, a black X. She’s written: standing tall with victims of silence.

What the hell is a victim of silence?

In the tweet below that—Corinne has a moment of cognitive dissonance as she digests that the singer is writing about the small town Corinne is now drinking in—she’s posted an article about the rape case.

The girl’s victim impact statement, but not her name, has been released. Corinne reads the statement, and it’s good. Corinne had somehow missed the fact that after the assault during her campus visit, the girl chose to come to school here anyway, spent the past year as a freshman. She thinks of the coffee shop girl, wonders if they know each other, if they’ve debated each other in class.

The fact that she’d enrolled at the university was used against her. It was the best school that accepted me, the girl wrote, maybe because she knew she needed to justify it. They offered me the best scholarship package.

The girl—no, the young woman, because she’s in college now, and college was when Corinne, at least, started calling herself a woman—chose to attend the university, and it wasn’t until she saw her rapist on campus that she fell apart. This was when she sought counseling, articulated what had happened, brought charges.

Corinne finds a tweet questioning the woman’s decision, if she was really so traumatized, to matriculate at the university.

As opposed, Corinne writes in response, to at a rapist-free school?

the woman in the picture

Corinne wakes up with a construction site in her skull, her mouth bitter, the lights too bright. She finished the second bottle; she never ate dinner.

She’s always remembered a recovering alcoholic who came to speak to her high school who said “I knew I had a problem when I started drinking alone. There’s never a reason to drink alone.” But he was a man. He didn’t understand that for women, drinking alone was safer. Drinking in a group was the dangerous thing.

Except that with your phone in your hand, your computer next to you on your bed, you were never really alone anymore, and it slowly comes to Corinne that what she did was not a dream, it’s an actual memory, as thick and acrid as whatever’s coating her tongue.

But she—what did she do? She did it backwards. She did it backwards on purpose, in some kind of drunken logic that might actually save her, or, no, save them, which wasn’t the point but suddenly felt like it. As long as she’d remembered to use a fake account. She pulls the computer into the bathroom and sits on the floor near the toilet and checks, her fingers shaking from the alcohol, and maybe from nerves too.

Yes, she finds she’s still logged in to the burner account she uses to register for free seats to rallies for horrible politicians, so that those seats stay empty.

On more than one occasion, she’s marveled at her ability to write lucidly, or at least to edit cleanly, when drunk. And here, look: Without typos, with the names changed, she’s taken the note she’d written about George, his other affairs, and sent it to Elise, the wife of the boy who raped her, to the email account listed on her Facebook. She’s subbed in the boy’s place of work and his occupation (at a medical convention, she wrote, because yes, indeed, the boy is now a doctor, one whose patients seem to love him); she remembers, now, going back to the boy’s own Facebook page and finding the name of an attractive female friend he had tagged himself with at a party, and here is her name in the email (You might want to ask Debra Wenman a few questions). It should all be easily disproven. Debra Wenman might be a lesbian, might be dead, might be his cousin. The boy will, unless he’s guilty of these things, be able to plead innocence with all the conviction of actual innocence. He could take a lie-detector test.

But why is she so worried about him? What she accused him of is far less terrible than what he actually did, just more recent. She’s accused the man of it, is the thing, and not the boy.

For a horrible moment, it crosses her mind that she sent George’s wife the note she’d composed for Elise, that she accused George of college-era rape. But no, there’s no such email in her sent box. She checks her phone to see if she texted George, but the last message between them is still the upside-down smiley face he sent her two days ago, and she hasn’t written back. It’s the only time she feels okay: when she’s the one silent, when he’s the one waiting.

It’s not lost on her that she did this drunk, and that what the boy did to her, twenty years ago, he also did drunk.

A few years back, when another college rape was in the news, her friend Suzanne (no longer her friend) said the boy couldn’t be blamed for what he did intoxicated. Drinking, Corinne argued, didn’t make you act out of character. Normal people didn’t murder their wives when they were drunk; spousal abusers did that. You didn’t profess love to someone when you were drunk unless you actually loved them. “I don’t rape people when I’m drunk,” Corinne said, “no matter how attracted to them I am. Because I’m not a rapist.” But what does it make her, that in her stupor she sent this email that was a lie, that would do nothing but hurt people?

It occurs to her that maybe, after the dust clears, it will bring him closer to Elise. After all, someone must be jealous of one of them, to send this note. Someone wants them split up, and what’s more romantic than that?

Corinne vomits three times. She drinks water, and throws that up too. She wonders if the panicked regret she feels over the email is part of the generalized regret she always feels when she’s hungover, the self-loathing that wants to be purged just as much as the alcohol does.

Her empty stomach, so profoundly empty, feels flat for once. When she makes it back to the bed, she peels her shirt off, holds her phone up high, takes a picture of her bare torso, her chest, her neck, her face. Her face looks horrid and pale, but she fixes it with filters. She never sends George a picture that includes both her body and her face, always only one or the other, just in case, but she’s feeling reckless and self-obliterating, and she sends it.

She waits to hear back, but he doesn’t respond and she falls asleep, and when she wakes again two hours have passed and he hasn’t written. She hates being the last one to hit send, hates the limbo it puts her in, wishes she could take the photo back.

Before she deletes it from her phone, she stares at the picture. She looks like a corpse, her eyes closed, her body still and stiff on the white sheets.

She needs her boys back from camp. She needs to be in her own house. How easy it turns out to be, to come unmoored.

the archaeology professor

It’s Corinne’s final yoga class here. The apartment is half packed, and she’s written a thank-you note to the library archivist.

She wishes she could stay in this room, on this mat, forever.

She’s happiest when her body is pretzeled, her legs wound together, her arms wound together, or her arm pressed tight against her thigh, or her feet clenched in her hands, or her hands clasped behind her back. She needs to feel the limits of her body, and the hardness of the floor beneath her mat.

She takes time gathering her things after class, puts her blocks and strap away slowly. The archaeology professor is talking to the instructor. Corinne must have been standing closer than she realized; when the professor turns, she seems startled by Corinne’s face right there in her own.

What Corinne wants to say, and almost starts to say, as if dreaming and not in control of what comes next, is “I messed up, and I need you to forgive me.” But because she is not dreaming, because she is standing here in her bare feet on the cold wood floor, what she says is “You dropped this.”

And then she can’t think what on earth she means, and the professor and the yoga instructor both look at her expectantly.

But Corinne’s hand is in her sweatshirt pocket, and in this same pocket is the twenty dollars she’d been meaning to put in the class payment basket. She hands the rolled-up bill to the professor.

“Oh!” the professor says, and her eyebrows go skeptical. “I did?”

“You did,” Corinne says, and then she leaves before there can be another question. Tomorrow she’ll slip in the door and put another twenty in the basket. No, she’ll put fifty. That seems right. Or fifty and a note of thanks. Or fifty and a box of toffee from the place on Main Street. There must be some formula, some perfect amount that will offset her own fumbling existence, her sins.

the woman in the sandwich shop

It’s Corinne’s last day in town, and the woman is sixty, sixty-five. She eats a salad by herself.

After lunch, she carefully brushes her teeth with a dry brush, looking in a little mirror. Somehow, it is not at all disgusting. She reapplies red lipstick. She stands and stretches her calves, one at a time, takes a minute to organize her purse. She is putting herself back together. Corinne never thinks to put herself back together, never stops to think, midday, about where she is now. She’s enchanted with this woman’s self-care, her way of doing one thing at a time.

The woman comes over and asks if Corinne knows the way to the botanical garden. “I think you walk straight east,” Corinne says.

Instead of I’m not from here. Instead of Tell me how to live.

 is the author of the novel The Great Believers, which was awarded the Carnegie Medal.


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