At the start of the school year, other kids asked me who I had for history.
When I said “Mr. Kelly” they would invariably sigh and hiss, “Lucky!”
From the very first day of class, I could see why. He taught fascinating and challenging lessons with the kind of easy charisma that I had always envied. When he talked to me, he looked at me directly and spoke frankly and respectfully.
Junior year, things began to crumble at home. My father was a truck driver, gone five days a week and drunk the other two. On weekdays, I woke myself up, went to school, came home to an empty house, and read until I went to sleep. On weekends, he alternated between bursts of astonishing violence and stretches of hopeless depression.
I was 15 years old and profoundly lonely, except for when I was profoundly scared.
I went to homecoming in a blue thrift store dress. Mr. Kelly* was there as a chaperone in polished shoes. I was barely holding a C in his class, but he looked at me with kind eyes and asked me how I was doing.
“If you ever need to talk, or just rant, or anything, you can always email me.”
It took me less than a week to take him up on his offer. I told him everything.
We emailed almost continuously. At first he tried to keep it professional, but soon he was telling me everything, too -– about his ex-wife, about how he felt that he had sacrificed everything for his career. I refreshed my email homepage hundreds of times a day. The secret felt like it glowed beneath my skin.
Eventually I asked him if he could give me rides home so that I could attend weekly after-school chemistry study groups. I distinctly remember how surreal it felt the first time I got in his car, like I was hovering just slightly outside of my own body, watching myself sit so close to this grown man that our knees might touch if we weren’t both holding them together. The gears palpably shifted.
I lived for those rides home. Sometimes we sat in companionable silence, other times we talked for so long that we had to idle in my driveway because the ride home wasn’t long enough.
One day, he invited me to his house for dinner. It was a small rental, sparsely furnished. He kissed me after dinner, short and relatively chaste.
He stood up abruptly. “I’m sorry. I need to take you home. I’m sorry.”
For the first time, we sat in the car in extremely uncompanionable silence. He stared straight ahead, fingers white on the steering wheel, not returning my pleading glances. Pulling up in the driveway, I felt tears stinging the backs of my eyes.
Finally, he turned and looked at me. “Hannah. I shouldn’t have done that. I made a mistake, it was my fault, and I’m sorry. Can we just try to forget about it?”
An awful, deep sob shook through me, and he reached out and held my hand. I looked up at him, and we stared at each other for a moment before closing the small space between us with another kiss. Every nerve in my body seemed to catch fire. I crushed myself against him, and he threaded his fingers through my hair, gripping my scalp.
He asked me if I wanted to go back to his house. I said yes. At the threshold of his bedroom, with his hands on my bare skin underneath my shirt, I felt a creeping sense of uneasiness and tried to squash it. I had never had sex before, and goddamn, he was so old.
“Are you sure about this?”
I wasn’t, but I said yes anyway. I wanted to be sure he liked me as much I liked him. It didn’t hurt, but it didn’t feel good either.
I went home the next morning to my dad, who I had managed to forget about briefly. It was 9am and I was bedraggled and depressed after the most awkward morning of my life thus far, but my dad was already quite drunk.
“Where the fuck were you?” he roared. He lurched up from the couch and stabbed his finger in the air toward me. “Answer me, cunt."
He beat me so badly that it hurt to breathe and then told me to get out of his house. I had no one to call besides Mr. Kelly.
He let me stay at his house for the remainder of the weekend. He knew about the abuse and Children Protective Service’s multiple visits, all of which came to nothing, but I imagine that being confronted with the physical evidence of it on my body was different. He was afraid something was wrong with my ribs, but I refused to go to the doctor. We slept next to each other at night but didn’t have sex. He told me to call him Stephen.
It was Stephen who first brought up the idea of legal guardianship, several weeks later. All we needed was my dad’s permission and a bunch of paperwork, and I could be on his health insurance, live with him senior year, and most importantly, cut down on or completely eliminate contact with my dad.
I was amazed that such a thing was possible and flattered that he was willing to do that for me. I told him I wanted to start the process immediately.
It was spring, and I wouldn’t be in his class anymore come fall. He arranged a meeting with the superintendant, ran our situation by him –- obviously leaving some things out –- and was immediately given the go-ahead. It didn’t take much to convince my dad to sign the paperwork in front of a notary, and we had an appointment with a judge before we knew it.
The judge went over our paperwork and asked us about our story. We emphasized our excellent student-teacher relationship, the toxicity of living with my dad, and the fact that it was only for a year –- I had just turned 17. I needed to be in an environment where I could focus on getting into college and succeeding as an adult. All of those things were true.
The judge nodded along and remarked upon only one thing: “I want to make sure you’re aware that this means that Mr. Kelly will be, for all intents and purposes, your parent, and that you’ll have to abide by his rules. He will have legal authority over you for the next year. And Mr. Kelly, it will mean that you’ll be obligated to this young woman and responsible for her well being just as if she were your child. Do you both understand?”
We nodded solemnly, and he stamped the document.
The rhythm of our daily lives didn’t change much. Once in a while he would show up at my after-school activities to hurry me along or tell me where he was going so that I could find him later, and other kids would stare.
“What’s it like, living with Mr. Kelly?” they’d ask. I would shrug. “Like living with anybody else, I guess.” I left out the part where we slept with each other.
Sometimes I fantasized about blurting out all the obscene shit about us.
“You should totally hear the weird noises he makes when he’s going to come! His penis curves to the left a little bit! He has licked my ass and I actually enjoyed it.”
I wanted to confide in somebody. But Stephen's life as he knew it hinged on my willingness to keep quiet.
By November, I hadn’t seen my dad for two months, and the stress I hadn’t realized I was constantly feeling began to let up. My life with Stephen was extremely abnormal, but predictably and routinely so.
I couldn’t understand why, then, I kept having dreams where I watched from outside my body as a shadowy figure killed me. Why I started feeling like less of an inhabitant of my own body in real life, too. Why the sight of my bare skin disgusted me. Looking back, I think it’s because I finally had a chance to slow down and actually process everything that had happened.
Stephen started to treat me differently. I went out of my way to avoid talking to male classmates because every time he saw me talking to one, he would question me about it later. How did I know that boy? What were we talking about? I knew boys like that only wanted one thing, right?
Meanwhile, he wanted to have sex so frequently that it wasn’t pleasurable anymore. I began to dread going home again, just like when I lived with my dad.
I started cutting myself and managed to hide it from Stephen for a month. Then he made me see a therapist and a psychiatrist, who prescribed me Zoloft and Abilify. The medication made me so tired that I frequently fell asleep sitting up -- and it eliminated my sex drive. Stephen wasn’t pleased with the latter development.
I woke up one night to him taking my underwear off. I asked him what he was doing and he told me to be quiet. I couldn’t get wet but he did it anyway, even though I’m sure he heard me crying from the pain.
After that, my mental health crashed and burned. The next time I went to see my psychiatrist, Stephen came into the office with me and the doctor shut the door. “We’ve been thinking,” they said.
I was being committed to the adolescent unit of a behavioral health facility within the hour.
This ended up being the greatest gift Stephen ever gave me. They switched me to another combination of medications that made me feel like I lived in my own body again. At the end of three weeks, I shakily declared that I wanted to try this living business more.
The first thing I did when Stephen took me home was accept a scholarship I had been offered for a college that was over a thousand miles away. Before, I was going to decline it for the exact same reason.
In those two months following my institutionalization, I talked to Stephen as little as possible and locked my door at night.
One morning, I was sitting at the table eating a bowl of cereal when he came and sat adjacent to me.
“Look at me,” he said. “We need to talk about why you’re ignoring me. I can’t believe you’re being this ungrateful, after everything I’ve done for you.”
I said, “If you don’t know why I’m ignoring you, I’m not going to explain it to you. The day of my eighteenth birthday, I’m leaving here, and then I’m gonna keep on ignoring you for the rest of my life.”
More than five years later, I still replay those words in my head often.
It was a promise I made good on. I graduated with honors, turned 18, and moved my things the very same day to an old friend’s house, whose mother helped me buy a plane ticket.
When my father died six months ago, I went back to my hometown for the first time.
Late one evening, as I walked out of the sliding double doors of the grocery store, I saw him. He was walking toward me out of the gloom of the parking lot. In that instant, I felt chilled through and struck by lightning all at once, and I stopped in my tracks. My stomach was in my throat.
Then I started walking again. I refused to change my course. I smelled the scent of his aftershave and noticed how his hair was thinning. He would be 41 now. His face was huddled down in the collar of his coat.
He didn’t even notice me, the woman walking past him when it used to be the girl walking behind him.
*Names in this story have been changed.