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Yearning. Intelligence. Desire.

Excerpt: Deeper

 
 
 

BEFORE

Sometimes I hate the girl I was back then. It’s like how, when you see a horror movie, you can’t help but feel contempt for the virgin who goes for a walk in the woods after midnight. How can she be so stupid? Doesn’t she know she’s about to get gruesomely hacked to death?

She should know. That’s why it’s so hard to watch. Because you want her to know. You want her to defend herself, and you look down on her for not knowing, even though obviously it’s the guy who hacks her up who’s at fault.

The thing is, the movie makes him seem like a force of nature—unstoppable—so the virgin comes off as a total dumbass for not checking the forecast to see if it calls for serial murder before she skips off into the night.

These days, if someone sent me a text that said nothing but OMG, I wouldn’t wonder if whatever I was about to find out was going to be bad. I’d only wonder how bad, and how long it was going to take me to crawl out of whatever pit I was about to fall in. But in August of my sophomore year at Putnam College, I didn’t worry. I thought maybe Bridget, my best friend and roommate, had gotten distracted before she could finish her train of thought.

I towel-dried my hair and stood up to lob the damp towel into my laundry basket in the closet. Missed. By the time I’d picked it up and put it where it belonged, another message had popped up on my phone, this time with a link.

You need to see this, it said.

And then, immediately after, I’m so sorry.

I clicked the link.

I think part of me knew even then. Because the thing about being a good girl is, you spend your whole life developing a finely honed radar for detecting anything that could potentially cause people to love you less.

Girls like me—or, I guess, girls like the one I was last August—we eat approval. We live for it. So when we do something dumb—or, say, when we do something really monumentally idiotic—we know.

The screen filled up with a picture of me, topless, with Nate’s dick in my mouth.

I looked, and I took a deep breath. I closed my eyes.

I could actually feel it—the solid ground of my life, cracking open.

It sounds too Drama Llama when I put it like that, I know, but I can’t think of another way to describe it. One minute, I was on firm footing—a nineteen-year-old overachieving politics geek, on track to go to law school and take the world by storm—and the next, my feet had lost purchase on the floor. I sagged against the desk. I couldn’t get enough air.

The shock of it didn’t take any time at all to sink in. It sunk in immediately, traveling some kind of shortcut path from my eyes to the area of my brain that had made a quiet, private list of the consequences of those photos the second Nate took them.

Everyone will see you, mock you, hate you.

You won’t get into law school.

You’ll never get a Rhodes.

You’ll never be a judge or get elected to office.

This changes everything.

Seeing those pictures—I was devastated. Immediately. Because I’d known.

That night when I’d gone down on Nate and he’d lifted his iPhone in the air and aimed it at my head, my good-girl radar was working fine. Bad idea, the radar told me. Such a bad idea. But I overrode it, because Nate was in a mood, and I thought if I went along, it would bring him out of it.

You trust him, I told myself. Nate would never.

But he did. He must have. The website identified me as “Caroline Piasecki from Putnam, Iowa,” and Nate was the only one who had those pictures. Either he put them there, or he gave them to someone who did.

There were two shots of my face, smiling. One duckface from my car that I’d sent him just to be an ass. One of me in my favorite animal print bra and panties, which I’d taken in the mirror in my high school bedroom, sucking in my stomach and pushing out my chest because I’d wanted to look sexy. I’d wanted so much to be sexy for him.

And the other, even dirtier pictures. The ones I almost couldn’t even look at.

Three of them.

At the bottom, my face again, with a cartoon bubble that said “I’m Caroline piasecki! I’m a frigid bitch who needs to get FUCKED!!!”

I couldn’t cry.

I couldn’t breathe.

I couldn’t even really believe it.

The page had four hundred and sixty-two comments.

Four. Hundred. Sixty. Two.

If someone had asked me ten minutes earlier how I felt about Nate, I would have told them, “Oh, there’s no hard feelings.” Three years together, and we’d just grown apart. I guess it was college that did it. By the end of our freshman year, I’d started to feel like maybe Nate and I didn’t have all that much in common. In high school, I’d been dateless until he asked me out—a late bloomer, my dad said. Nate was cute, popular, smart. Flattering, to be noticed by a boy like that. But at Putnam, I started to think maybe there was something missing between me and him. Better chemistry. A deeper connection.

I’d broken up with him before we came back to school. We shared a pizza and drank soda, and I tried to explain my reasoning without hurting his feelings. I thought I pulled it off pretty well. By the end of dinner, he’d been smiling and agreeable again.

I would have said he was a nice guy. That we were still friends.

So even though I wasn’t exactly surprised, I was, too. I’d followed the rules, worked hard to get good grades, dated a nice boy and made him wait a long time for sex. This wasn’t supposed to happen. I hadn’t expected my prom date, my first boyfriend, my first, to call me a “cum-loving slut who loves jizz in her face” on the Internet, or to list the name of my college and my high school, right there beneath the blow job picture.

Because who expects that?

I sank down into the desk chair and thumbed through the first few screens of comments. Then the next few. Screen after screen.

 

She has nice tits.

I’d hit that.

*fap fap fap fap thx Carolina, you hoor!*

What an ugly slut. I want more vag!

 

Every word I read—every filthy thing some basement-dwelling Internet creep said about me—I thought, This is my fault.

My fault, my fault, my fault.

I never should have let Nate take the pictures. I knew it. I knew it when he took them, I knew it after, I knew it when we broke up and I had this fleeting, urgent impulse to beg him to let me delete every single photo of me off his phone. An impulse I shrugged off, because I didn’t want to offend him.

I didn’t want to be rude.

I sat there for a long time, scrolling and reading, wiping tears from my eyes with the back of my free hand. I was panting more than breathing, panicking more than thinking, too disoriented to have anything like a coherent plan.

I think I was mourning the end of something without even knowing it had ended. My youth, maybe. The sunny, perfect part of my life.

It wasn’t until Bridget messaged me again—R u ok?—that I really understood. I thought about how she would come back to the room, and she would have seen. She would know, and I would have to face her.

I thought about how it wouldn’t be just Bridget. It would be everybody.

That’s when it hit me that I would never, ever be okay again.

 

 

 

SEPTEMBER

Caroline

 

Two and a half weeks after the photos appear online, I have everything under control. Right up until I walk out of Latin and into West Leavitt’s elbow.

I’m walking with my head down, my mind on the upcoming student senate election. I thought I would run this year to represent my dorm, but now I don’t see how I can. The girl who is running is . . . well, I’m trying not to be uncharitable. She’s not my top choice.

I’m my top choice.

My feet are moving out the door and steering me to the right, away from most of the other students. I used to go to the left, but Nate has Macroeconomics in the classroom next to mine, and I don’t want to run into him. I’ve started going right instead, and then walking around the outside of the building to head toward the dining hall for lunch.

Today, though, my path isn’t empty—the hallway is crowded, heaving and alive. But I’ve got my head down, so I don’t notice until I walk directly into some random person’s back. The bag I’m carrying gets knocked out of my arms and onto the floor. I go to pick it up, saying sorry, noticing just how many legs there are on the ground here, starting to wonder what’s going on. I’m still trying to figure it out when I start to stand back up and get nailed in the nose.

I’m not aware, in the moment, that it’s a body part that strikes me, or who it belongs to. I only know that there’s a lot of flailing movement happening right in front of me, and that the bridge of my nose has connected with something that’s in motion and deeply unforgiving.

It hurts.

Oh, holy mother of God, it hurts.

I crumple, cupping my nose protectively, ducking my head and folding my body over the pain. My eyes fill with tears. Warm liquid slips over my lip. My tongue pokes out to lick it before I understand, ugh, blood. I’m bleeding. Then it’s warm all over my chin, coating my mouth, and I don’t even care because my nose won’t stop exploding.

I’ve never been hit in the face before.

It is distressingly AWFUL.

I know there’s something I should be doing other than bleeding on my own fingers, which I’ve pushed firmly up beneath my nose as though they have the power to do . . . anything at all. Which they don’t. Blinking, confused, I look around for what I’ve collided with and why it hates me. Considering the state of my nose, I’m expecting a brick wall, or perhaps a monster with cinderblocks for hands.

Instead I see big, male bodies, shoving and grunting. There’s space all around them, but I’ve breached it, which is probably why I got nailed in the face, and which also puts me in a perfect position to see the punch coming.

I don’t see it land. The man who gets hit is standing with his back to me, directly between me and the fist. But the taut smack of skin against bone sours my stomach.

The guy goes down, right in front of me. The other guy straddles his waist, chest heaving, leaning over so I only see the top of his head. He looks like he’s ready to take another swing, and I really don’t want him to, because this is all so primitive and brutal, I’m not sure I can stand it.

Then there’s this terrible noise—this high-pitched, reedy gasping noise—and the guy on top looks right at me.

Oh, god. I made the noise. That was me, that wheezy scream, and now I can’t breathe at all, because the guy on top is West, and the face he just punched so hard belongs to Nate.

West’s eyes go wide. “Jesus, Caroline, did I hit you?”

He stands, stepping close, reaching out. It’s like he completely forgets he’s beating the shit out of Nate, and he just comes after me. The look in his eyes, the outstretched hand—it’s so much like the first time West reached for me, more than a year ago, that I have a moment of déjà vu. My knees buckle, which annoys me. My body is the enemy right now—my incompetent knees, that noise my throat decided to make, my leaking nose, and the pounding pain in my face.

Not to mention my heart, which is trying to escape my chest by flinging itself violently against my ribs.

West’s hand lands on my waist, steady and firm, and it’s stupid. My body is stupid. Because his hand feels kind of awesome.

Obviously, I’m concussed. West is the one who hit me, probably, and he’s definitely the one who hit Nate, who—

Fuck.

Nate is sprawled out on the floor, bleeding from the mouth.

Worse, I can’t even really bring myself to focus on him, because West’s other hand landed on my shoulder briefly, and now he’s lifting my chin. The blood makes his fingers slippery. I’m bleeding on him. And I like it.

This happens with West. He’s only touched me once before, but it isn’t the kind of thing a girl forgets.

God, there are so many, many reasons this is not good, though. Most of them aren’t even health related. For starters, I’m not into guys who punch people. I’m not into guys at the moment, period. And if I were, I wouldn’t be into West, because West is trouble, and I’m allergic.

“You’re bleeding,” he says.

“You hit me.”

“Let me see.”

He tugs at my wrist, and I let him drag my hand away from beneath my nose, because basically I will let West Leavitt do anything. It’s possible that he’s some kind of magical creature. I mean, he’s not. I know he’s not. He’s a twenty-year-old sophomore at Putnam College, majoring in biology. He shelves books at the library, waits tables on weekends at The Gilded Pear—which is the only fancy restaurant in Putnam—and works the overnight shift at the bakery in town. All that on top of at least a couple additional shady, unofficial sources of income, plus classes, keeps him busier than just about anyone I know.

He’s tall—around six feet, maybe a little taller—with messy brown hair, light blue-green eyes, and a great tan.

He’s a guy who goes to my college. That’s all.

But that is not all.

His face is . . . you know how they say human beings are more attracted to symmetrical faces? Well, West’s face is slightly off in every conceivable way. One of his eyebrows tilts up a little bit, and the other one is bisected by a thin white scar. His eyes are a color that isn’t actually a color, with these tiny little flecks that sometimes look shiny, and I don’t understand how that’s possible. His mouth is wider than it ought to be, which makes him look like a smartass every time he smiles or almost smiles or thinks, vaguely, about smiling. His nose must have been broken once—or maybe more than once—because it’s not quite where it’s supposed to be. It’s shifted a titch to the left. And honestly? I think his ears are too small.

When he looks right at me, I can barely make words.

That’s why I’m standing here, bleeding, letting him inspect my nose.

“Is it still there?” I ask. Only, unfortunately, it sounds more like Ib id till dere?

“Yeah. I think I must have elbowed you. It’s not broken, though.”

“How do you know?”

“It’d be bleeding more.”

He traces the bridge with one finger.

It doesn’t hurt anymore.

A groan from the floor draws West’s attention away from my face, at which point my nose resumes throbbing and I remind myself who’s groaning and why.

Nate’s lip is split. The whole front of his shirt is crimson and wet. His teeth are pink when he spits.

Pink teeth. That wakes me up a little.

That’s Nate, I think. West hit Nate. He’s bleeding. You’re bleeding.

My brain keeps offering up these declarations, one after another, as though I might eventually locate a story to string them all together. But whatever part of me is in charge of analyzing and processing data, it’s offline.

Blood drips from my chin. I follow its path and see that it’s landed on the scuffed toe of West’s black boot.

“I need a paper towel,” I say.

West’s friend Krishna grabs him by the arm. “You have to get out of here.”

Krishna is tall, with dark skin and black hair and a frighteningly beautiful face. He’s also usually so laid-back that he’s right next door to comatose, so his urgency is a whiff of ammonia under my nose.

The students at the fringes of the crowd have all turned to look down the hall, where something is happening. Someone is coming.

West Leavitt punched Nate in the face.

I’m bleeding.

He’s still touching me, and I can’t think.

“Take care of her.” West is speaking to Krishna, but he’s looking right at me when he says it, his expression apologetic.

Krishna gives him a small shove. “Fine, dude, just go.

West turns, glances at me one more time, and jogs off down the hall. Krishna picks up my bag off the floor—I hadn’t even realized I’d dropped it again—and puts an arm around my shoulders. “Come on, we’ll find you that paper towel.”

“Do you think Nate’s okay?”

“I think Nate’s a dick,” Krishna says. “But he’s still breathing. Can you walk any faster?”

I do my best. We end up in a women’s bathroom on the second floor, Krisha standing by the door and propping it open with his body as I press a coarse brown paper towel to my nose and study myself in the mirror.

I look like something out of a slasher flick. There’s blood all over my face, clumping up the ends of my long brown hair. My hand is covered in gore, and the formerly white edge of my shirt where it sticks out under my sweater has gone crimson and wet.

Got what you deserved, didn’t you? Slut.

My stomach heaves up, a sudden lurch that makes me close my eyes and suck in a deep breath.

I look at Krishna, but of course he isn’t the one who said it.

It was them. The men.

They follow me around. Their voices. Their vile opinions, now an endless stream of negative color commentary on my life.

I’d still fuck her, they say when I turn on the tap. Fuck that bitch until she walks funny. I don’t care about her face.

I stick my fingers under the stream of cold water and wait for it to warm.

“You all right?” Krishna asks.

He looks uncomfortable. We’re friendly, but we’re not really friends. He’s closer with Bridget, my roommate, than he is with me. All four of us were on the same hall last year, Bridget and I rooming across from West and Krishna.

I like Krishna, but he’s not the kind of guy I’d ever choose to lean on. He’s kind of a manwhore, actually, and a slacker. I don’t imagine that standing here watching me bleed is high on his list of things he wanted to do today.

Experimentally, I take the paper towel away. The bleeding seems to have stopped. “I’m fine. You don’t have to stay.”

“I wouldn’t mind, except I have someone I need to meet. But if you want—”

“It’s okay.”

I’d rather be alone. My hands are shaking, and my knees feel a little untrustworthy, still.

“I’ll tell West no harm no foul, okay?”

“Huh?”

“I’ll say you’re not hurt.”

But I am hurt. Inside me, under my rib cage, hiding somewhere deep up beneath my lungs, there’s raw, sliced-open flesh that won’t close up. It hurts all the time. The dull throb in my head and my tender nose have nothing on that pain.

“Tell him whatever you want.”

He looks uncomfortable, but he says “Later.” When I say it back, he goes.

The door closes with a quiet thud.

I lean against the paper towel dispenser, listening to the water run, and take deep breaths.

In. Out.

In. Out.

By the eighth breath, I’ve managed to banish most of the fear and tune out the pain. I’ve had a few weeks to practice. I’m getting good at not feeling things.

The key is to keep busy. To set goals and tick them off the list, one after another. I can’t stand here all day breathing. I have to get to lunch, because I’ve got a buttload of studying to do before my group project meeting at three. I need to look at my email—I heard my phone vibrating during Latin, and I know I’m going to find a fresh crop of links in my daily Google alert. I have some time set aside to deal with them before the meeting.

This is what my life is like now. Always something to do.

Before, I was a diligent student. I printed out my color-blocked class schedule, with designated study sessions neatly labeled and shaded to match. I three-hole-punched all my syllabi and made special binders, one for each class, with custom dividers.

Now I pour all my diligence into designing spreadsheets to track my progress in wiping out my sex pictures from the Internet. I note the URL for each image, the site host, the date and time posted. I’ve mastered reverse image searching and developed mad skills at tracking down site owners’ contact information and bombarding them with legal-sounding messages until they remove every last photo of me from their servers.

The only way to succeed at this horrible game I don’t even want to be playing is to spend a lot of time online seeing things I wish I didn’t have to. I know more about file-sharing porn sites now than the average frat boy. I have seen eleven lifetimes’ worth of veiny, erect penises. Whenever I lay down and close my eyes, my brain treats me to a clip show of the Day in Porn, and I hear the men accusing me from their dark, seedy corners of the Internet.

You’re nothing but a cockgobbling whore.

I’ll hold you down and fuck those tits. See how hot you feel then.

I know what they think of me, because they won’t shut up about it. Some nights, I can’t sleep, so I sneak out of the dorm room I share with Bridget and drive in circles around Putnam.

I hear those men because I don’t have a choice.

I drive because I don’t know what else to do.

But I don’t have to fall apart. I thought I did at first, when I saw the pictures. That life as I knew it was over, and I just had to deal.

I was wrong. I have choices. Not falling apart is my choice. Every morning, whether I’ve slept or not, whether I’ve made it through the day without crying or given in and sobbed in the shower, where no one can hear me—the sun comes up, I make my choice.

Today won’t be the day this breaks me.

I throw away the disgusting wad of bloody towel and rinse my face off, drying it on a fresh towel. My sweater is a lost cause. I pull it over my head and toss it in the trash can. It was cheap, anyway, and starting to pill.

I stick the cuff of my shirt under the tap, trying to remember if you’re supposed to use cold water or warm to get blood out. I never get it right. I should look it up on my phone. I should—

—figure out why West just punched Nate.

Yeah. That, too.

Unless I already know why. I hope not, though. God, I hope not.

I have to treat this whole deal as one more thing to cope with. That’s all it is. A problem to be solved. I can solve any problem if I work hard enough.

The men can laugh at me, fill my head with their poison. They can look at me naked, jerk off to me, post comments with photos of their dicks covered in semen, their fists wrapped around, the screens of their computers in the background with my body on them.

I can’t help it Caroline, they can tell me. it’s ur fault for being so fucking hott!!

They’ve done all of that already. They’ve made it so I can’t walk around campus in shorts without feeling slutty and stupid and completely at fault.

But I won’t let them beat me. I won’t.

I pull my arms far enough into my sleeves that I can wring out the wet, then shove my hands back through the holes. I’ll have to change my shirt later. For now, this is the best I can do. Lip balm. Hair brush.

One step after another, hour after hour, day after day, until it gets better.

If I keep going, eventually it has to get better.