Fiction · 03/23/2016

Mountains

When I was twenty-five and Strane was fifty-five, we started talking about dying. That was the year he was diagnosed and, grayed and gaunt, he began to ask me things like: “how will you remember me?” and “are you at all angry with me because if you are I’d like to try to make amends” and “do you, sweet girl, really believe that only I deserve punishment for the things we both did?” I refused to answer the questions, not because they were unanswerable but because I knew he didn’t want to hear any kind of truth. He wanted only for me to absolve him, to lessen the guilt that had begun to weigh on him now that he stared at impending death. Guilt was new to him; he’d shown little sign of feeling it ten years ago when I was fifteen and he was forty-five and he was writing love notes on my English essays and sneaking me into his apartment on Friday afternoons and drawing the blackout curtains on his bedroom windows before we had sex in his bed that was always fitted with flannel sheets, even in the summer, even when I told him that the feel of them made my skin crawl.

Fifty-five was young to be dying, but twenty-five was even younger. I didn’t have the cancer, and I wasn’t the one who needed forgiveness, but even so I felt myself breaking down right alongside him to the point where my death seemed just as inevitable as his. Whenever I was up north to visit my parents, I visited Strane, too. He and I rambled around in his station wagon, same as we’d always done, and in the months between my visits, his body would deteriorate just a little bit more. “Give me a kiss,” he’d say when I slid into the passenger seat, offering me one of his jellyfish jowls, and I’d push him away, laughing off his request as though it were a great joke, which I’m sure broke his heart, but I didn’t care.

+

New Years Eve that year was deadly. Since the cancer diagnosis, every time I saw Strane was deadly, but I had a hard time imagining anything worse than the two of us sober on New Years Eve, watching TV from opposite corners of a king size bed in a Holiday Inn Express, him wheezing and me biting down on my cheeks to stop myself from howling out help me help me somebody help me!

Strane couldn’t drink because of his treatment so I wouldn’t drink either and I made a big show of refusing the bottle of champagne he’d bought for me. I needed to make sure he knew what a martyr I was, what a sad little victim, because the more I suffered, the more power I had and the more power I had, the less outwardly sorry I had to be about him dying.

The bottle of champagne sat unopened in the plastic ice bucket and a dog whined in the room across the hall. Strane and I stayed in our room all night because where would we go? It had been ten years since I was in his class, long enough ago that people might have forgotten my name, but the urban legend I’d been turned into still lurked around. I knew the things people said about me, about Strane, the way they reduced this decade-long mess into a tidbit of gossip: did you know that Mr. Strane once was with a girl, with a student, she was only fifteen and they were together and everyone knew it, and no one really knows what became of her, she hightailed it out of town, but come on, really, what can become of a girl like that?

It’s true that after high school, I got out of town fast as I could. I moved south because that’s where everything was—college, jobs, the city, the possibility of a new life. While my parents set me up in a tiny dorm room and said careful things like, “it’s good that you’re getting away, there’s nothing good for you back home after all,” Strane was hysterical, calling and leaving voicemails that oscillated between tearful pleads for me to come back and incensed screaming about how I had ruined his life and that I owed him more than this and that I deserved whatever might happen to me down there. In the end, it was only a hundred miles separating us, not a bad drive if you stayed fifteen over the speed limit, and sometimes I went twenty over, sometimes he went thirty. Nothing really changed.

Sober and sprawled out on the hotel bed, completely clothed all the way down to my parka and boots—”aren’t you warm?” he asked, “don’t you want to make yourself comfortable with me?”—I sighed as I flipped through the TV channels. The ball dropped and I gagged when Strane tried to kiss me.

“Don’t,” I barked.

“Oh, you are cruel to me,” he mourned. He was dying, but I was dead.

+

It had been ten years of being tied to him. Forty percent of my time on earth had been spent negotiating with him, appeasing him, avoiding him, lying to my parents, lying to my boyfriends. I was exhausted. A hundred miles south of him, I mostly managed to keep Strane a secret while I played at being ordinary. To my classmates and then coworkers, I was just another liberal arts major in a dead-end job, dealing with a messy apartment and disappointing sexual hookups, wondering what I should do with my life and whether or not I was finally ready to get a dog, but I could only play that role for so long. If someone got close to me, I was forced to give an explanation for the middle-of-the-night phone calls and the overstuffed envelopes of ranting love letters that arrived in the mail, and I did my best to account for Strane’s presence with white lies that made him seem more like a kindly former mentor and less like Humbert Humbert.

“He was important to me at a formative time,” I said, my voice half an octave higher as I spewed out the lie. “Even if he’s a bit overbearing, he’s sick, he’s dying, he has no one else and I can’t turn my back on him.” Sometimes, I got seemingly metaphorical, describing strings that connected Strane and me. I said that those strings wouldn’t be severed, couldn’t be severed, until he passed away.

But secretly, I knew those strings were literal. Tied to the tips of his fingers and running across whatever distance lay between us, the strings were permanently knotted round my ankles and wrists as well as my heart, stomach, and brain. And so when my mind was thrown, out of nowhere in the middle of a perfectly ordinary afternoon, into a memory of being with him on those flannel sheets in his apartment, or when my stomach was suddenly gripped with cramps or when my chest throbbed with pain so severe I had to talk myself down from dialing 911, I knew a hundred miles south, Strane tugged on the strings that sprouted from his fingertips. Alone late after school, gazing across his empty classroom, he sat behind his big oak desk and squeezed his fingers into fists.

“Remember me?” he asked with each tug of each string. “Don’t forget me.”

+

The first time he touched me I was fifteen and he was forty-five and we were sitting behind that big oak desk. For all his horrific faults, Strane was a generous teacher, was always willing to give individual help. A few days before a big paper was due, he’d give the class busy work and then whoever wanted one-on-one help would go sit with him at his desk for a few minutes and he’d read over your draft and tell you how to make it better. The first time I had a conference with him that year, it started out normal. He pointed out in a whisper my paper’s clumsy sentences and poor arguments, but then a couple minutes into it, he sidled his knee up against my thigh. Then the second time I had a conference with him, he reached over and gently patted my thigh the same way you might pat a strange dog’s head before you know for sure that the dog won’t suddenly change its mind and bite you.

Of course, I didn’t bite him. I didn’t do anything at all really, and so as I had more conferences with him, his pats became less like pats and more like strokes and rubs and all the while he and I were shielded by his big oak desk. One conference, after he was done whispering about my paper, he whispered that I reminded him of such a little girl, but then he added, “but I guess that’s exactly what you are.”

I never would have admitted it then, but he was right; I was little, impossibly small. The rest of the class stretched out before us, all of them working silently, their attention focused on their textbooks and notebooks, their pencils wearing down to nubs, none of them having any reason to look up to witness what was happening. I was so small I was nobody, nothing, nowhere.

In my mind there is a room lined with cabinets stuffed full of files, all locked, and that’s where I store the things that I don’t want to remember him doing to me. So much effort is put into not remembering. I’ve built my life around not remembering. Not remembering is what lets me get out of bed and brush my teeth and go to work. Not remembering is what let me, at twenty-five, ride around with Strane in his station wagon without clawing his eyes out or stabbing a pen through his neck. Not remembering is what kept me from ever telling anyone who might’ve helped me.

“You and I are the same,” Strane once said back at the beginning of things. “We are twin dark souls.” For such a very long time, I reasoned that if he was a monster, I was probably a monster, too.

How about this for monstrous: ever since learning of the cancer diagnosis, I couldn’t wait for him to die. I read the obituaries with my hand clamped over my mouth, ready to celebrate at the sight of his name. Before I fell asleep at night, I went over again and again what it would be like when he was gone. Three ages would divide my life—Before Strane; During Strane; After Strane—and I couldn’t wait to move into the next one.

Maybe I could just kill him, I thought in that half-awake, half-dream state. Poison was the only way I could’ve stomached it. I guess I thought about it when I was fully awake. I guess I thought about it a lot. But who could blame me?

+

Despite his insistence on us spending the night in a hotel that New Years Eve, Strane couldn’t have sex anymore, and he couldn’t manage to bring me to orgasm with his hands or mouth even though he tried until I went numb and unresponsive. When I was fifteen, I used to cut up the pages of an LL Bean catalogue and plaster the rugged male models on my bedroom walls because they reminded me of Strane: bearded in buffalo plaid, holding steaming mugs of black coffee in the snow. As a teenager, I fetishized Strane’s age, his calloused hands and crow’s feet and the gray in his hair and the way he woke in the mornings with a roar and aching joints. In front of boys my own age who were trying their best to cultivate patchy goatees, I’d boast that I had never kissed a man without a beard and that I never would.

Now, Strane’s hair was so thin I could see through it straight to his scalp. Now, he smelled like disinfectant. Now, he asked, “How will you remember me, sweet girl?” and I knew what he wanted: nostalgia and melodrama and devotion, an impassioned promise that he would live on, god-like, in my memory. “You once loved me so much,” he’d sometimes cry, and he was right; at fifteen, I did. “Let’s wash that makeup off your face,” he’d say, desperate for any hint of the good old days, wanting back the face of the girl who loved him, all chin zits and an unwaxed mustache. What kind of lunatic sees a fifteen year old as the height of beauty. What kind of pathetic slut buys into the romance of a pedophile.

Strane slammed the bathroom door and I lay with my parka zipped to the neck but my jeans and underwear on the floor, my legs hanging off the edge of the bed. Out in the hallway, a couple of happy drunks laughed and fumbled with their room key.

“It’s broken,” the man’s voice said. “Is this our room? Maybe this isn’t our room.”

“No, it’s our room. Listen, you can hear the dog whining in there. You’re just doing the key too fast,” the woman said. “You always do it too fast.” There was so much love in her voice it made me sick.

“Help,” I said, my voice at first very small but then I said it again and again, each time my voice getting louder and louder until I was screaming it but they’d already gotten their door open and greeted their anxious dog and slipped the Do Not Disturb sign on the knob and the only person who could hear me was Strane, who came running out of the bathroom, shirtless and gray and hissing at me, “What is the matter with you? What if someone hears you?”

+

The next morning on the drive to my parents, where I’d make Strane drop me off a half-mile away from the house even though they knew I was with him, Strane started in with the questions.

“How will you remember me?” he asked and I sat on my hands. Neither of us had our seatbelts on. We hurtled down the rural highway and I imagined him just saying to hell with it and driving us straight into a telephone pole. He had nothing to lose.

“I wish you’d answer me,” he said. “It’s important to me.”

When I still said nothing, he offered, “I’ll tell you how I’ll remember you.”

As he rattled on about teenage eroticism and how my love for him had been such a sweet gift, one that he would cherish for all eternity, even if he ended up rotting in hell, I bit my lip to keep from smiling and thought, Strane, I’m going to spend the rest of my life trying not to remember you at all.

But I’m sorry to say that was the meanest response I could think of, and it wasn’t even that mean, and I didn’t even say it out loud.

“Will you please answer me?” Strane asked, and when I didn’t, he called me cruel.

+

It’s true. I was cruel to him then and I was cruel to him up until he died. Even now, I still am. The cruelty I’m owed is just so immense. I could be cruel forever because of what he did to me. For the rest of my life I could work at building mountains from the cruelty I’m owed until I’ve built an entire range full of jagged peaks and deadly passes. I could be cruel to everyone, starting with those who love me and ending with strangers on the street, and I could justify it all. Safe behind those mountains, I could set off avalanches and snow squalls and I could become so cruel I even start to kill, but even then, I know, I know, it would not be enough, because the hurt in the middle of the night still comes, and he’s been dead for months now.

“How will you remember me?” Strane asked, taking his eyes off the road to watch me reply. He slowed the station wagon and pulled over on into the snowbanks lining the highway and he waited for me to speak, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. I was long gone, out of his station wagon, out of the north, back in my apartment a hundred miles south. I was clear headed and nearly happy, sitting at an ordinary kitchen table, reading online obituaries, scrolling down as fast as I could, waiting to see his name. I was already in the next age. I was staring death in the face and I was almost free.

+++

Kate Elizabeth Russell lives in Lawrence, KS where she teaches creative writing and studies at the University of Kansas. Her writing has appeared in Quarterly West, Mid-American Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and other journals. She is currently at work on her first novel, from which “Mountains” is an excerpt.