Ella liked visiting Dean. The town where he went to college was quiet and wooded, and in the fall it smelled like chimney smoke and the sweet decay of leaves dissolving back into the earth. It felt like home. His arms around her. The leather seats in his ancient car. The smell of his pillows, freshly washed. Ella and Dean had an easy rhythm she could slip into like a warm bath, the water foamy and perfumed around her as the steam worked into the muscles around her neck, finally unclenching.
“There’s a thing happening at Sarah’s tonight,” Dean said as Ella folded her body to duck into his car, the posture familiar after four hours on a bus from the city. “If you’re interested.” She was. He smiled and pulled out onto the street. Dean liked to drive fast but he drove slow for her, the trees changing like stoplights beneath a pearly gray sky going dusky as the sun slid down.
Of course they couldn’t arrive empty handed. Dean looked over at Ella, his lips curved up at the corners, eyes like a divine hand had gifted them light. They had it all down to a science by then, Ella ordering food from Dean’s phone while he drove to the liquor store on the opposite side of the state highway. A pizza for them. Garlic knots in a sheen of butter to placate their friends. He dropped her off to browse while he retrieved the pizza.
Ella never drank if Dean was driving because she was embarrassed by how she couldn’t keep her hands off of him when she was drunk, and she hated to think that she might annoy him if he were sober. But as the only legal adult in the friend group, sobriety stopped short at her credit card. She made a game out of her role as chief supplier, testing what nauseating flavors she could select and still have the others drink her contribution out of desperation. By the time she’d picked out a violently-hopped IPA or the latest iteration of Smirnoff seltzer and paid, Dean would be idling out front, peeking out the passenger window, jokingly asking why she’d taken so long.
Sarah’s place was in the next town over, past a maze of winding pot-holed roads that seemed to lead to nowhere, if you were feeling lucky, or else the site of a cabin horror movie. Then, around an abrupt corner, a bridge stretched across a tributary to the Connecticut, followed by a sudden outcropping of worn-down houses sunken under the weight of each round of college students that had called them home. Some optimistic landlord had painted white over the concrete foundation to match the sliding, paint which now chipped in marine and beige water-damaged rosettes.
Inside, Sarah’s peeling cottage looked like an overstock factory for Sanrio, full of Japanese novelty figurines and throw blankets patterned with cartoon characters. The four girls who lived there had all studied abroad in Tokyo, and Ella always wondered how they’d managed to bring any of their clothes back, their suitcases replete with memorabilia.
The common space was already dotted with revellers, most of them watching the TV with varying levels of interest as two people faced off in a video game. It wasn’t big enough to really be a party, but it was more than a kickback, the kind of thing you could invite a stranger to if you were prone to such feats of extroversion, but the stranger would probably stay home. The volume on the TV was low in favor of some vague pop music that Ella was sure she’d heard waiting in line at a bodega but couldn’t hope to put a name to. People were smoking somewhere, the smell faint under a heady perfume that reminded Ella of walking into Bath and Body Works when she was thirteen, the air thick with sweet-smelling artificials that clung to the inside of her nose until it quaked, then revolted.
Ella recognized the other roommates, plus one of their younger sisters who hung around with them, then—
As though reading her mind, Dean whispered, “That’s Scott,” just as Ella’s gaze paused on the guy in front of the TV smashing buttons on his controller with a look of cruel determination stitched across his brow. “He and Sarah are kind of an item.”
Even seated Ella could tell that Scott was short, his hair buzzed and blond, and his clothes were a size too small, so that he looked like he was one sneeze away from his biceps busting out of them. She made eye contact with Dean, who took one look at her expression and stifled a laugh. “No, yeah, he’s a manlet,” he said.
Ella knew the type: overcompensating by treating a gym membership like a bible, taking mufflers off of beater cars to make them run louder, drinking pisswater beer and throwing the first punch at a bar. Scott fit the bill. She knew that they were being judgemental but, well. Pretty bold of a gym rat to turn up to a Mount Holyoke house. She raised the pizza up, indicating that they should eat it before it got cold, and followed Dean over the threshold. She waved at Sarah, who was sitting on one end of the couch watching her roommate face off against Scott in the game. Ella and Dean sat at the other end, on the floor, the pizza between them. It was loud, with the music and all the different conversations going at once, and Ella had to lean in to hear Dean, to hear anyone, until the video game’s ending jingle sounded on the screen and Sarah’s roommate let out a victory cry.
“You don’t need to be a bitch about it.”
Ella’s eyes snapped up. Sarah’s roommate, delighted in having beaten Scott, was gloating. Ella looked over at Dean, who raised his eyebrows at her. She raised hers back. Scott’s curse went unchallenged.
“Oh sick, there’s pizza,” Scott said, reaching his arm back towards the box.
Dean pulled it away an inch. “This is kind of our dinner,” he said.
“What, y’all are going to eat the whole pizza yourselves?”
Ella bristled. That had been the plan. She hadn’t eaten since she’d left her dorm that morning in New York, and anyway, that was what the garlic knots had been for, though Ella had already lost track of them.
From the couch, Sarah said that they could give him a slice, it wouldn’t kill them. Sarah was cheerful and dainty, the kind of petite that made Ella feel monstrous in comparison even though she wasn’t that much taller than average. Dean joked that it might kill them, but he pushed the box towards the blond sausage chain nonetheless. He shrugged in Ella’s direction. She frowned. They probably would have had an extra slice in the end, but it was the principle of the thing.
They watched Sarah play her roommate in a round while they ate, the bright flashing animation doing more to illuminate the room than the pink string lights lining the windows. Scott, maybe feeling remorse for how he had finagled the pizza slice, tried to make some small talk that Ella deflected. He was one of those men that put her on edge. Dean brushed his hands off on his jeans after his last slice of pizza and called next on the video game. While he moved to play, Ella retreated to watch from the old sofa, its Craigslist rattiness covered by a swath of those brightly-colored blankets. She put her hair up in a bun, automatic, brushing the blonde strands back and locking them away.
I’m not thinking about it, she told herself, but of course she was. All that meditative mantra crap was naive as far as Ella was concerned. It always happened like this: she remembered breaking out in hives. The fog enveloping the afternoon in question would ebb for an instant and she’d see herself in the mirror, blotches red like poppies blossoming along her neck and they itched, God, they itched. Her lower lip had swollen like from a bee sting. In the memory, she couldn’t think. She fumbled for the two Benadryl in her wallet while Matthew, then her boyfriend, watched. The silver packaging guarded the fluorescent pink pill against her shaking fingers and she began to cry. She asked him if he could open it.
He could. He passed her the pills and a glass of water. After she swallowed, she remembered asking him what he had eaten that day. She thought she might have laughed, though the sound was lost in that fog, heavy and sticky sweet like cheap champagne. But it had to be funny, taken down by a severe allergy to the crumbly residue of a chocolate chip walnut cookie her boyfriend had eaten before she’d arrived. No one imagines their death so haphazard, so foolish.
In the end, after sending Matthew to the pharmacy, Ella took four. She fell asleep. That was April.
But she wasn’t thinking about April, she reminded herself, struggling to focus her gaze back on the TV screen in Sarah’s apartment while she ran her hand up and down her arm. A year and a half had passed since then, and in that time she had broken up with Matthew, met Dean during a long hot summer interning together in New York, spent humid weekends lying naked on his bed with the blankets on the floor, not touching, just looking at each other as the sun went down. Think about that, why don’t you.
The night progressed. People drank the pumpkin pie vodka Ella had bought because it was there and that was what they did, shivering as the liquor seared their throats on the way down. Dean joined Ella on the sofa after winning a few rounds. She pressed into him, kneading at his arm as she got comfortable. He was lean, strong without being in anyone’s face about it. He had been crying when he told her he loved her before he’d gone back to his college, leaving her in the city at the end of that first summer. She’d thought about it for weeks afterwards, the shiny trails on his cheeks, his eyes rimmed red.
On the other end of the couch, Scott and Sarah sat on the floor with their backs against the cushions, chatting. Ella strained to eavesdrop over the strengthening din of drunken college students. They talked about their classes, some professor she liked but he didn’t, a bar near campus that was rumoured to be lax on IDs. Mostly nothing. Mostly Scott talked and Sarah fake laughed. At least it seemed fake, or maybe it was just that Ella couldn’t imagine Scott being funny.
“Oh, I’ve been meaning to see that,” Scott said to Sarah. Ella watched their mouths to try to discern the movie title, unable to best her own nosiness. “Do you want to go this weekend?”
It was some acclaimed film playing at the indie cinema in town. Ella studied Scott as he pulled out his phone and started searching for showtimes. She had pegged him for more of a gore-porn horror movie type, or something with multiple car crashes. Sarah’s sister piped up to say that she’d also been meaning to go.
“You should come with us,” Scott said. “Saturday.”
Ella looked at her hand resting on her stomach, rising and falling in careful increments with her breath. She slotted movie buff into the mental schema she was building around Scott. Maybe he and Sarah weren’t such a strange couple after all, him invested in his gym regimen and her a little too into anime for a white girl. They had more layers than that. You need to relax, she thought, breathing in, exhaling. She snuggled into Dean, hard, like she was proving a point to herself. She closed her eyes.
It had been dark when Ella had awoken from the Benadryl blackout. She had pushed Matthew away and sat up, drawing the damp sheet around her as she scanned the floor for her phone. 8:14 PM. She followed Matthew’s body with her eyes as he crossed the room to fill his cup in the sink, that smooth musculature that had reminded her over the two months of their relationship, if embarrassingly, of Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man. She could never remember the drawing’s name, so no one ever had to suffer to hear her say that aloud. She said something to him about how she’d been asleep for seven hours, but he seemed not to hear her over the rush of the faucet, gushing hard and loud against the dirty dishes in the sink. The water pressure had always been high in his building.
He rested his hand on her thigh when he came back to bed, his eyes on his phone. His friends were going to rally for bar-hopping that night, and he asked Ella if she would mind staying if they came to pregame. He knew she didn’t like his friends much. They were all older, a group of non-traditional students who he’d met through the rugby team. She didn’t have much in common with them.
“I don’t want to make you stay if you don’t want to hang out with them,” he said, his fingers tightening into the plush give of her thigh. “I owe you, after what you did.” He raised his eyebrows and smiled, and Ella put together it must have been some sort of sex thing. A “you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours” thing. If you fuck me well enough you don’t have to hang out with my dumbass friends.
Only Ella didn’t know what she had done. She lingered on this thought for a moment. But she wouldn’t mind staying up a little longer after her seven-hour nap. She tugged the corners of her lips into something just past a smirk, almost as though she were apologizing for something. He didn’t smile.
“You didn’t sleep for that long,” he said. “You were only out for like an hour.”
Ella checked her phone again. She knew for certain they’d gotten to his room around one. She remembered those red patches blooming across her neck in the harsh fluorescence of his bathroom. The rest was all lost to vodka shots chased with lukewarm champagne, that sad single bagel she’d eaten for breakfast before posing with two double bottles of the cheap liquor that would erase the university’s spring concert from her memory. After what you did. Even twenty minutes after waking she couldn’t remember if he had been on top of her or next to her, were they kissing or had that been earlier? She could remember the quality of the light, warm from his lamp, but was that because it was dark out, or just because his shades had been down?
She trailed off before she could finish a sentence about what she thought had happened. She saw exactly when he realized it, the slight widening of his eyes, and he began to stumble through some sort of apology. No, no, it was okay. It has to be okay, she told herself, and the strength of her own conviction startled her. Before she could second guess anything, she pushed the whole event into a box, slamming the lid on its tendrils. Otherwise. Well, she knew otherwise. No need to say it.
There was a hand rocking back and forth on her knee. “Ella?” Dean repeated. She opened her eyes to find herself on the couch in Sarah’s living room, the guests all gone. “Wake up, sleepyhead. Let’s get out of here.”
In a daze, Ella let Dean lead her out to the car, apologizing for falling asleep while he assured her that it wasn’t a problem. As he drove out of the parking lot, Dean asked Ella if she’d had fun.
She laughed. It had been fine, for the parts that she’d been awake for. Dean beamed. “Scott was kind of a dick though,” Dean said.
Ella shrugged, thinking about the movies. Dean pulled up to a stop sign. Ella looked over to see him chewing on his lower lip. The smell of garlic knots lingered, stale after circulating for a few hours in the closed vehicle. “Scott isn’t a new guy,” he said, rolling the car over the white line and looking both ways. “He went out with Sarah a few times over the summer, mostly hookups, not many dates.” There he paused. Then: “He, uh, got her blackout drunk and let two of his friends, uh. Assault her. So we don’t like him.”
Ella stared out the windshield. Oh.
There was April, yes, and there was last October, when the news broke. Ella remembered that, too. After class she had walked three blocks to the nearest park and begun to cry, the leaves falling yellow in the breeze around her. She’d sat on a bench for two hours, rubbing one hand up and down her opposite arm like the pressure might keep her skin from collapsing, spilling blood and bones onto the asphalt to the horror of some after school gym class.
By October, the Benadryl afternoon had become more difficult to push away, inertia building heavy and massive in her brain until she had no strength to do anything other than look at it, size it up, wonder what it was and what it wasn’t, like a strange sculpture that drew her attention in the MoMA, as relentless as it was grotesque.
Isn’t it what I’d wanted? Ella would ask herself. They’d been dating. It was a party.
The tendrils flickered at the corners of her vision. How could anyone want anything like that?
She had thought that, if she told anyone, she would tell Dean first, because it might be important for him to know. In person, she decided, when she went up to visit over Thanksgiving. But then the news broke, and she broke, and that overwhelming inertia bowled her over, its filament arms digging holds into the ridges of her brain, becoming so unbearable as to debilitate. It was something, wasn’t it? Certainly something.
When Ella remembered that night, her night, the world beat at her eardrums from behind thick glass while she stared hard and saw nothing. The experience was not so much the memory as the pulsing around the memory, the familiar haze that had surrounded the whole thing, protected her until she read all those details about the Hollywood executive that crawled under her skin in the night, her social media flooded with friends saying that it had happened to them, too. She didn’t think much of Matthew himself, of the sharp smell of sweat on his bedsheets and the itching, that awful itching. She just felt small, the earth throbbing around her, watching the parade of things that could hurt her play across her eyes. In the end, she hadn’t told Dean. She never figured out how.
In the car, Dean said nothing, seeming to wait for Ella’s response to what he’d revealed about Scott. The car rumbled around them as they hit a pothole. Ella wished that Dean had told her beforehand. She wouldn’t have come along, if she’d known. Wouldn’t have wasted an evening trying to decide if she was being too judgemental about a rapist. God. She’d sat there thinking he deserved her respect. If I had only known, she thought, except that was always it, wasn’t it? If only someone had known, and done something. And here she was, faced with the evidence. It didn’t matter who knew. Even now, even today, in places where everyone, not in the least her Dean, was supposed to know better — it didn’t matter.
Ella looked at Sarah — going on dates and laughing with that guy, letting him hang out with her younger sister — and saw herself, saw the shade she had pulled over her own eyes when no one had even asked her to. She had pushed the whole thing out of her mind, told no one, and dated Matthew for another month before breaking up when he graduated. In hindsight, she felt like an idiot. For telling him it was okay. For asking him to sleep in her bed that night because she was afraid after taking all those pills with all the alcohol. For telling her friends that he took such good care of her.
Dean asked if she wanted McDonald’s and she shrugged. She watched the car’s headlights bobbing along the country backroads, the only vehicle for miles, all that darkness pressing in. It was quiet except for the low hum of the engine and Dean’s steady breathing. Ella trembled in her silence. She’d never asked what happened to her. What had been done to her. She’d been so afraid that she kept the secret from everyone, including herself. Her hands were shaking, although from fury or terror she couldn’t tell. She shoved them under her legs to contain the energy.
Often, after, she wished someone had told her that she didn’t have to be treated that way. Didn’t have to be fucked until it hurt each night, each morning and afternoon, too, the words to stop him dead on arrival. She hadn’t known, not then. Not with any of the boyfriends before Matthew, either, every refusal the start of a game she knew she was fated to lose. She was almost twenty-two, and it wasn’t until Dean had heeded her first no that she realized she’d had it all wrong. No one had told her, she thought, and that was when the tears spilled out from her eyes, molten tracks trailing down her cheeks.
Dean looked over at her and his eyes widened. That same widening. “Are you okay?”
She sniffled and waved a dismissive hand at him. She drew in a deep, shuddering breath, the feebleness of which only redoubled her distress. She didn’t know why Sarah would tell anyone except so that they could intervene on her behalf. She didn’t know how to explain it to someone who didn’t get it already.
“You can talk to me, baby,” he said. Ella’s throat was slick and sticky with mucus, and it occurred to her that she couldn’t remember if she’d said a word since she’d arrived.
Dean pulled into the drive thru while Ella wiped her eyes with clumsy fingers. The McDonald’s, aglow in bright red and yellow, felt otherworldly from the state highway, the faint street lamps, the unilluminated signs indicating UMass and Springfield. Its walls contained a separate dimension of hot fry oil and flat lights that cast no shadows, like it had been spliced in from some vibrant parallel universe. No one came on the intercom. A minute ticked by. Two. Ella’s wet, stifled sobs hung around her like storm clouds. She tasted the snot thick on her tongue, salty and smooth. She was about to tell Dean that the food didn’t matter when the machine buzzed to life. They pulled around, paid, and waited. Ella’s breath trailed in and out of her in shallow spurts.
The drive thru line finally moved. Dean coasted up to the window and reached out a hand to grab the greasy paper bag, which he passed to Ella. She opened it and inhaled, her breath still uneven as she let go. She liked the smell of cheap fast food in a darkened car, belonging to an uneventful adolescence of 10PM curfews and substance-free sleepovers. Before she’d ever been drunk, before she’d ever had sex, before the weight of the world had sidled down onto her shoulders and begun to compress — before all that she used to look out the windshield and imagine what lay beyond the shadows. Dean pulled up to a red light and eased on the breaks, slowing to a stop beneath the urgent glow. Ella looked out at the road, long and unchanging, counting all the miles still left to go.
Bio: Veronica Suchodolski is a digital content creator at Barnard College, where she graduated in 2019 with a degree in English, French, and philosophy.
Veronica Suchodolski is a digital content creator at Barnard College, where she graduated in 2019 with a degree in English, French, and philosophy.