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Dedicated to my mother, grandmother, and all the other strong women in my life. Your strength keeps making me stronger.

 

KAREN

 

This was where I really belonged. This was better than sex.

 

“Harriet Jacobs escaped her life of slavery by using the only resources she had as a woman of color in pre-Civil War America…”

 

My voice rang out over the lecture hall. The students were quiet, for once, their phones down, practically no eyes focused on their computer screens. For once—for one, brief, shining moment, I couldn’t see the pale blue glow of facebook in the reflections on their glasses, couldn’t see their young, otherwise life-filled eyes glaze over.

 

It was these moments that I live for. It was these moments that made me glad I had become a professor, made all the years of studying, research, and writing worth it.

 

Yes, this was my career, my calling. It was worth it.

 

“So, she slept with not one, but two white men? She manipulated them sexually. And she wrote about it. The significant thing about Jacobs is not that she slept with white men to save her children, to save her own life, but that she wrote about it, in her own voice. In her own words.”

 

The lecture was almost over but no one was moving to leave. And it was one of the last lectures of the semester before Thanksgiving break. All across the university, students were getting antsy, antsy to be leaving, to be going home and seeing high school friends, to be trading stories and gossip, to kiss the boys they had always wanted to kiss in high school, to see favorite dogs and cats back in their childhood bedrooms.

 

But still, they stayed with me, through to the end.

 

“White people tried to stop her, tried to silence her. ‘We’ll write the story for you, Harriet,’ they said. Harriet Beecher Stowe—if you remember, she was the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which we will not be reading for this course—“ I hated Uncle Tom’s Cabin and I had already written far too many papers about it. It’s an important book that people should still read, but I wanted my students to like me, not hate me after slogging through six hundred pages of overwritten 19
th
century prose. “—even told Harriet Jacobs, a black woman of her own name, that she wouldn’t help her get published—but she would take Jacobs’s story and incorporate it into her own work.”

 

Grim chuckles danced through the lecture hall as I reached for a sip of water.

 

“But Jacobs persevered. She was a survivor, and she was published. So, as you read her book, her ‘Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,’ remember her story and her background—how difficult is was for her to get this story into your hands, now, today, over a hundred and fifty years after it was originally written.”

 

I paused, allowing those final words to sink in.

 

“See you all on Monday,” I said with a smile, allowing myself a deep breath as the class collectively exhaled and began to rustle around, began to collect their things and trickle out. I took a seat, sighing. Lecturing always took it out of me.

 

You see, I’m honestly pretty introverted. That’s what you get, I guess, growing up the daughter of a fierce lawyer. My mother is far more the gung-ho, take charge type. She demanded that I be allowed to skip a grade in grammar school when my standardized tests showed that I was reading at more than three grade levels above where I should have been at. She demanded that I be allowed to take seven AP classes at a time in high school, and that I be allowed to take time off to travel to Europe to compete in violin competitions. She’s always been my biggest booster and maybe, as a result, I haven’t had to advocate much for myself.

 

But no. I’m a woman in academia. Virtually every one of my colleagues is a man, or a woman nearly fifteen years older than me. I have to advocate for myself, for the very worthiness of my existence, every single day.

 

“That was incredible,” Masha, one of my graduate students and teaching assistants, murmured to me, leaning over from her desk at the head of the class. “You managed to keep them in their seats for five minutes after the end of class—I didn’t see a single lacrosse players sneak out.”

 

I allowed myself a grin.

 

“High praise when even the lacrosse players want to hear what you have to say.”

 

“I’ll let you know if anything comes up in the discussion section,” Masha said, rising. “Have you heard anything more about the budget for next year?”

 

I froze. The department budget for next year. God.

 

What a shit show.

 

“No. Have you?”

 

Masha shook her head sadly. “No. Just, you know, rumors. But from other graduate students. Not from anyone… In the know.”

 

I raised an eyebrow. I was, supposedly, in the know—even if I were only a twenty-nine year old junior professor barely beginning my second year of teaching—and I hadn’t even heard the rumors.

 

“What kind of rumors?”

 

“Oh… Nothing… I mean…” Masha sighed. “Rumors that we might be combined with Modern Languages and Literatures. Or that the university might hire a team of consultants to come in and ‘restructure’ us.”

 

At the sound of the word ‘restructure,’ my heart stopped and my stomach churned. Restructure. I hated the influx of disgusting, corporate terminology into education—education should be about students, about students learning and discovering themselves and great writing, great reservoirs of knowledge. Not about profit margins. Not about… Structures and restructuring.

 

“I haven’t heard anything like that,” I said, shaking my head. “Don’t pay it any mind. This is still one of the largest, one of the best English literature departments in the country, even with the lawsuit. These things happen. The longer you spend in academia, the more you’ll see that this is just a phase.”

 

A pained smile took hold on Masha’s sweet, young face. She was only twenty-four, which made her only five years younger than me. I was charmed and little frightened that she was able to look at me with such trust and confidence, her eyes wide—literally, wide!—with admiration.

 

“Karen, you’re totally right. I won’t worry about it. I’ll email you before Monday.”

 

She gathered her things and glided out of class, leaving me alone with my empty lecture hall.

 

My name is Karen O’Lowry, PhD. I got my degree a year and a half ago, at Harvard, in American Studies with a focus on American literature. Since graduating, I’ve been teaching here at Silliman University, one of the finest in the country—a rival to Havard in so many ways, and a school that even surpasses my alma mater in others. I’m in the English department, one of the few professors who focus on American women’s literature and, in my personal and very humble opinion, a welcome addition to a world of mostly male academics determined to talk themselves to death about Shakespeare.

 

The big reason I’m here, the reason I even got the job in the first place, is that my mentor, Anthony Kennedy, another scholar of American literature, was just appointed Chair of the Department. As one of his first orders of business, he began a faculty search, looking for fresh new voices focusing on areas of literature that weren’t old, weren’t traditional, weren’t boring.

 

He had been a fan of my work ever since I first began going to conferences and doing presentations. When I took harsh criticism from the male scholars I found myself engaging with, he offered me advice, taught me how to outthink them, out-argue them. Everything I have today—my job, my career, the book deal I just signed with Oxford University Press last week, everything—it’s all due to him.

 

But it could all fall apart, if the university fell apart. If the department fell apart. God. Scandals.

 

I began to pack up my things. I noticed on my phone that it was almost four-thirty. There was a departmental meeting at five I was scheduled to go to. Maybe I would find out more about the budget, about the bankruptcy. Maybe.

 

There was also a text message from Tyrone, my ex. A picture of his abs: chiseled, and dark, like chocolate melted over a marble statue sculpted so perfectly by one of the Renaissance Italian greats. I found myself hesitating for a moment.

 

He did have a great body.

 

I could just…

 

No. No, I needed to focus on my own life. On my own interests. On my career. I couldn’t be Tyrone’s babysitter anymore. I wouldn’t stand for his cheating, for his immature bullshit anymore.

 

“I want u back” the text said. I replied. “It’s still over.”

 

And then I blocked his number. Boy, that felt good. Almost as good as lecturing.

 

Almost as good as sex.

 

 

 

KYLE

 

“Liana’s at it again, Kyle,” Nicholas grumbled as he strode into my office. I took my eyes off the Wall Street Journal for just a moment to see his hands fling a copy of the latest issue of the National Inquirer down onto my desk.

 

I sighed, bracing myself for the headline. It showed me guiding Liana into a taxi but it had been photoshopped to make it look like I was slapping her. The headline read:

 

“BILLIONAIRE BADBOY BACKHANDS BAWLING EX IN BOWERY.”

 

“They did so well with the alliteration, except for the word ‘ex,’” Nicholas noted to me, pulling up a chair and pouring himself a glass of scotch from the decanter I always kept on my desk. “You’d think they could have found something else to call her?”

 

I spun around in my chair, taking in the panoramic views of Manhattan that my office, a corner unit in the headquarters of Stone Equity, allowed me: the city stretched out before me, farther than any idea could see, a magnificent kingdom of the rich and powerful and wealthy, of whom I am one of the richest, the most powerful, the most wealthy—because, I am, after all, Kyle Stone, the richest man under forty in America and newly single, owing to the shenanigans of the woman featured on the front page of the Inquirer.

 

“I mean, bitch is too easy. What else? Broad? ‘Backhands Bawling Broad’ sounds good,” I mumbled, watching a helicopter drift by lazily in the cool early autumn sky. I often wondered what it would be like to be a bird, to fly away… To live free and be able to fly away from my problems…

 

As it was, I was more inclined just to buy a plane and live life in the sky, but you can’t buy everything. Though, you can damned well try.

 

“If only you had knocked Liana up,” Nicholas suggested, his face screwed up in a cynical smile, half-helpful, half-joking. “Then it could have read ‘Bad Boy Billionaire Backhands Bawling…”

 

“…’Babymama.’ You’re right. I really should have had a child with Liana. That would make this whole divorce a whole hell of a lot easier, wouldn’t it?” I shot back with a grin over my shoulder. I turned away from the beautiful skyline and returned to my desk.

 

“Tell it to me straight, doc. What do I have to do to make this go away?” I said, eager to get back to work but not so eager to be rid of Nicholas. Nicholas Blink is maybe my only true friend. A prep-school classmate, we grew apart after college, but after I began Stone Equity and I found myself looking for a chief public relations officer, who should be on the market for an exit from his high-paying but stifling Edelman gig but Nicholas? After a round of drinks at the Union League Club here in Manhattan, I had given him the job and every week since, we’ve had these informal meetings to discuss my public image, and, more importantly, the image of my company.

 

Oh, who am I kidding? They’re one in the same anyway.

 

“Well, there’s the thing, Kyle,” Nicholas said with a sigh. “Liana says she’ll behave herself but the heroin doesn’t necessarily agree with her. She’s at rehab on Long Island now but who knows how long she’ll stay? She’s a grown-ass woman. We can’t make her stay somewhere she doesn’t want to.”

 

“Why can’t we get her parents on board again?” I grumbled.

 

“They’re on permanent vacation in Maui. You know that as well as I do. They’ll keep moving twenty-grand into her checking account every month until they die, and then she’ll get it all at once. Hell, if she overdosed, I doubt they’d even notice—that account would just grow fatter and fatter, with no one to spend it on smack and Lululemon yoga pants.”

 

I scowled. I blamed Liana’s parents for fucking her up, but hey, we all blame our parents for messing us up, don’t we?

 

Marrying her was obviously a mistake, in retrospect, though tell that to my young self four years ago. I had just finished my gig at Goldman and I was on top of the world, flush with cash, and horny as hell. I was a young stud, determined to make New York City my bitch.

 

I was an asshole.

 

I still am, but I’ve got more self-awareness now.

 

And there she was—a hot mess of a Barnard girl, gorgeous blonde hair pulled back into a braid, skinny to the point of sickness but looking like an Eastern European model, leaning over the railing of a SoHo loft and giggling as the DJ spun records. I had pulled her into my arms, we had danced, and we had breakfast the next morning. For me, breakfast was eggs, bacon, and toast. For her, it was a cigarette, a cup of coffee, and a line of cocaine.

 

I should have known it was wrong, but the things that are bad for us are so tasty sometimes. The wedding was an outrageous, almost disgustingly luxurious affair on Governor’s Island. Bloomberg was there, so were the Clintons. Katy Perry played the reception.

 

And from day one, things started to fall apart. Probably the first thing that should have clued me into the fact that we wouldn’t work out was the day after when I woke up alone in bed, stumbled into the bathroom, and found her in the bathtub, naked, twitching, with the busboy dozing shirtless between her legs.

 

We tried to make things work. Really. We did.

 

But sometimes, you can’t buy everything.

 

But you can try. And boy, did I try. I got the best marriage counselors I could find—half of them bullshitted me, the other half suggested a divorce, an annulment, or a separation, depending on who I asked. I tried to get Liana to go to rehab twice, only to have her check herself out after less than a week, claiming she had “seen the light” and whatever else the staff wanted to hear. I tried getting her a job so she would have responsibilities, have something to do during the day that wasn’t heroin and yoga, but she was fired from Edelman, Nicholas’s old public relations outfit, within a week and barely managed to hold down a gig as a yoga instructor for a month before she blew off a week of classes to go to Bermuda with friends.

 

In the end, I was spending more time working on Liana than I was working on my company. I knew one of them would have to go and at thirty-one, I’m too young to retire. I gave her an ultimatum: get help, or I was leaving.

 

I had told that to Liana one morning over breakfast. For me, my morning routine consisted of a run, half an hour at the boxing gym, and then a big breakfast of oatmeal, eggs, chicken sausage, and a kale smoothie. For Liana, it was a cigarette, a glass of white wine, and a cup of coffee if she had to go anywhere.

 

She looked at me with dull, uncomprehending eyes as I delivered my final decree.

 

“Wait, what?” she mumbled as I finished up my planned speech. I scowled and stormed out, something the marriage counselors had advised me not to do. But that was my first reaction. First reactions are usually bad.

 

I found my things being loaded into a moving truck when I came home that evening. I charged up to our fifty-ninth floor high-rise condo and found it locked. A big Israeli mover pushed me out of the way as he strode by with boxes.

 

I’m not a man who likes to be pushed. I’m not the kind of man you push. I’m the kind of man who does the pushing. I push. I don’t get pushed.

 

But then I stopped. I found my hands sliding into my pocket, feeling the cool, sharp metal of my condo keys, pressing the metal into my flesh.

 

No, it wasn’t worth it. I had everything else. I had money. I could go to a hotel. I would figure it out.

 

And so, instead of confronting Liana, I had turned around and walked right back to the elevator. I took the elevator down to the lobby in silence, ignored the quiet gazes of the other residents, other bankers and lawyers and doctors who usually ignored me, usually didn’t have much to say to me nor I them. But now, the only human interaction they would offer me was a quiet look of pity.

 

I didn’t want their pity. I didn’t fucking care.

 

I stormed out of the building, gaze the moving company my phone number, told them to call me when they had picked everything up and take it to a storage warehouse in New Jersey. Then, I checked myself into the Hilton and called my lawyer.

 

The divorce was easy. Liana agreed to everything, and we had signed a pre-nup beforehand, so the proceedings went smoothly. It was what happened afterwards that made my life a living hell.

 

Liana calling me constantly, showing up at my office, interrupting dinners, stalking me around town… The particular instance immortalized on the cover of this tabloid showed a moment last weekend when she had tracked me down to a Midtown restaurant where I was holding a dinner for my new management team, congratulating everyone on a good first quarter. It was a welcome distraction from the madness of dealing with my ex-wife.

 

And then, into our private dining room, Liana stormed, her thin, pale face running with mascara, her lipstick slathered on awkwardly, a glass of white wine in her hand.

 

“Kyle,” she screamed. “I can’t find the fucking remote!”

 

I remember simply putting my head down on the dinner table, face-down, as the staff escorted her out. My people know about my wife; they know the trouble we’ve been going through. None of them were surprised. I couldn’t think of a better crowd to have that happen in front of.

 

But then, she had hidden out outside the restaurant, in a line of clubgoers waiting to get into the night spot next to the restaurant. She flung herself at me, screaming as I hailed a cab that was meant for me, but which I ended up depositing her in, handing the cabbie a hundred-dollar bill, and telling him to take her back to the condo.

 

I guess there had been some paparazzi in the area. You can never escape. There’s something that money can’t buy me, I suppose. Damn it all to hell.

 

“Nick, just make her go away…” I sighed. “Make it all go away.”

 

“Like I said, Kyle. Not that easy,” my friend and PR man said with another long-suffering sigh. “You know that Jenkins Consulting is starting to say they don’t want to work with us?”

 

My eyes widened and I sat up in my chair. Jenkins was a consulting outfit we had been looking at acquiring for the last six months. The deal was almost done with.

 

“What? Why is this the first time I’m hearing about it?” I demanded, reaching for my phone.

 

Nicholas smiled cautiously, smiling the smile of a man who’s not happy about anything.

 

“They—“ this meant the other senior company officers. “—wanted me to tell you. So you wouldn’t be mad.”

 

“Damn right I’m mad!” I yelled. “Just over this stupid thing?”

 

“It’s everything, Kyle. Your divorce has been in the tabloids for weeks, months even. It’s one thing after another. These aren’t glamorous celebrities you’re working with—they don’t want to work with Chris Brown. They want someone who doesn’t get written up for slapping his ex-wife.”

 

“I didn’t slap her! I put her in a taxi home!” I protested, growling like a cornered beast. But like a cornered beast, I was ready to fight.

 

“I know that. And she knows that. And hell, the tabloids probably know that. But does the rest of the world know that?”

 

I sat back in my chair and once again, turned around, taking in my skyline, the skyline and panorama of the city I planned on someday owning. It had darkened over the course of my conversation with Nicholas. Now, storm clouds were moving in from off Long Island Sound. Big, bloody, angry ones, with deep rumbling emanating from their guts that spoke of an oncoming tempest.

 

I glanced down to the street, seeing the people, like little ants down there, rushing about, trying to take cover and hail cabs as the rain began to fall. Within moments, moments of silence between myself and Nicholas, bullet-sized drops of rain began to pour out of the sky, peppering the ground like shotgun pellets.

 

I might have been a cornered beast ready to fight, but that didn’t matter one damned bit if I were shot down before I could do anything.

 

“Is there anything I can do to improve my reputation, then?” I asked, turning back once more to my friend. Nicholas stood, taking his glass with him as he walked over to one of my bookshelves. I used to keep books on management and finance in my office, but found that I never looked at them and, besides, who really cares about reading books like that? So, instead, I switched them all out for the classics—Faulkner, Hemingway, Melville, Shakespeare. Nicholas set down his scotch and plucked The Great Gatsby out of the shelf.

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