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 dumb-ass 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 sank 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 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 really believe it.
The page had four hundred 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 are 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 had started to think maybe there was something missing between him and me. 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 had 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 use the Internet to call me a cum-loving slut who loves jizz in her face 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 be okay again.
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 since I’ve got my head down, 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 are in this hall, starting to wonder what’s going on. I’m still trying to figure it out when I 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.
Oh, holy mother of God, it hurts.
Cupping my nose protectively, I crumple, 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 that—ugh, blood—I’m bleeding. Then it’s coating my mouth, warm all over my chin, 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 cinder blocks 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 that 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 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 as if 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—
Nate is sprawled out on the floor, bleeding from the mouth.
Worse, I can’t really bring myself to focus on Nate, 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 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 of shady, unofficial sources of income, plus classes, makes 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 smart-ass 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.