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Laurel Estabrook was nearly raped the fall of her sophomore year of college. Quite likely she was nearly murdered that autumn. This was no date-rape disaster with a handsome, entitled UVM frat boy after the two of them had spent too much time flirting beside the bulbous steel of a beer keg; this was one of those violent, sinister attacks involving masked men–yes, men, plural, and they actually were wearing wool ski masks that shielded all but their eyes and the snarling rifts of their mouths–that one presumes only happens to other women in distant states. To victims whose faces appear on the morning news programs, and whose devastated, forever-wrecked mothers are interviewed by strikingly beautiful anchorwomen.
She was biking on a wooded dirt road twenty miles northeast of the college in a town with a name that was both ominous and oxy-moronic: Underhill. In all fairness, the girl did not find the name Underhill menacing before she was assaulted. But she also did not return there for any reason in the years after the attack. It was somewhere around six-thirty on a Sunday evening, and this was the third Sunday in a row that she had packed her well-traveled mountain bike into the back of her roommate Talia’s station wagon and driven to Underhill to ride for miles and miles along the logging roads that snaked through the nearby forest. At the time, it struck her as beautiful country: a fairy-tale wood more Lewis than Grimm, the maples not yet the color of claret. It was all new growth, a third-generation tangle of maple and oak and ash, the remnants of stone walls still visible in the understory not far from the paths. It was nothing like the Long Island suburbs where she had grown up, a world of expensive homes with manicured lawns only blocks from a long neon-lit swath of fast-food restaurants, foreign car dealers, and weight-loss clinics in strip malls.
After the attack, of course, her memories of that patch of Vermont woods were transformed, just as the name of the nearby town gained a different, darker resonance. Later, when she recalled those roads and hills– some seeming too steep to bike, but bike them she did– she would think instead of the washboard ruts that had jangled her body and her overriding sense that the great canopy of leaves from the trees shielded too much of the view and made the woods too thick to be pretty. Sometimes, even many years later, when she would be trying to fight her way to sleep through the flurries of wakefulness, she would see those woods after the leaves had fallen, and visualize only the long finger grips of the skeletal birches.
By six-thirty that evening the sun had just about set and the air was growing moist and chilly. But she wasn’t worried about the dark because she had parked her friend’s wagon in a gravel pull-off beside a paved road that was no more than three miles distant. There was a house beside the pull-off with a single window above an attached garage, a Cyclops visage in shingle and glass. She would be there in ten or fifteen minutes, and as she rode she was aware of the thick-lipped whistle of the breeze in the trees. She was wearing a pair of black bike shorts and a jersey with an image of a yellow tequila bottle that looked phosphorescent printed on the front. She didn’t feel especially vulnerable. She felt, if anything, lithe and athletic and strong. She was nineteen.
Then a brown van passed her. Not a minivan, a real van. The sort of van that, when harmless, is filled with plumbing and electrical supplies, and when not harmless is packed with the deviant accoutrements of serial rapists and violent killers. Its only windows were small portholes high above the rear tires, and she had noticed as it passed that the window on the passenger side had been curtained off with black fabric. When the van stopped with a sudden squeal forty yards ahead of her, she knew enough to be scared. How could she not? She had grown up on Long Island– once a dinosaur swampland at the edge of a towering range of mountains, now a giant sandbar in the shape of a salmon– the almost preternaturally strange petri dish that spawned Joel Rifkin (serial killer of seventeen women), Colin Ferguson (the LIRR slaughter), Cheryl Pierson (arranged to have her high school classmate murder her father), Richard Angelo (Good Samaritan Hospital’s Angel of Death), Robert Golub (mutilated a thirteen-year-old neighbor), George Wilson (shot Jay Gatsby as he floated aimlessly in his swimming pool), John Esposito (imprisoned a ten-year-old girl in his dungeon), and Ronald DeFeo (slaughtered his family in Amityville).
In truth, even if she hadn’t grown up in West Egg she would have known enough to be scared when the van stopped on the lonely road directly before her. Any young woman would have felt the hairs rise up on the back of her neck. Unfortunately, the van had come to a stop so abruptly that she couldn’t turn around because the road was narrow and she used a clipless pedal system when she rode: This meant that she was linked by a metal cleat in the sole of each cycling shoe to her pedals. She would have needed to snap her feet free, stop, and put a toe down to pivot as she swiveled her bike 180 degrees. And before she could do any of that two men jumped out, one from the driver’s side and one from the passenger’s, and they both had those intimidating masks shielding their faces: a very bad sign indeed in late September, even in the faux tundra of northern Vermont.
And so with a desperate burst of adrenaline she tried to pedal past them. She hadn’t a prayer. One of them grabbed her around her shoulders as she tried to race by, while the other was hoisting her (and her bicycle) off the ground by her waist. They were, essentially, tackling her as if she were a running back and they were a pair of defensive linemen who had reached her in the backfield. She screamed– shrill, girlish, desperate screams that conveyed both her vulnerability and her youth– at the same time that a part of her mind focused analytically on what might have been the most salient feature of her predicament: She was still locked by her shoes to her bike and she had to remain that way at all costs, while holding on fast to the handlebars. This alone might keep her off the sides of Vermont milk cartons and the front pages of the Vermont newspapers. Why? Because she realized that she couldn’t possibly overpower her assailants–even her hair was lanky and thin–but if they couldn’t pry her from the bicycle it would be that much more difficult to cart her into the deep woods or throw her into the back of their van.
At one point the more muscular of the two, a thug who smelled like a gym– not malodorous, not sweaty, but metallic like weights– tried to punch her in the face, but she must have ducked because he slammed his fist into the edge of her helmet and swore. His eyes beneath his mask were the icy gray of the sky in November, and around each wrist she saw a coil of barbed wire had been tattooed like a bracelet. He yelled for his partner– who had a tattoo, as well, a skull with improbable ears (sharp ears, a wolf’s) and long wisps of smoke snaking up from between the fangs in its mouth– to put the god-damn bike down so he could rip her foot from the cleat. Briefly, she considered releasing her foot herself so she could kick him with the hard point of her bike shoe. But she didn’t. Thank God. She kept her foot pointing straight ahead, the metal clip in the sole snapped tightly into the pedal. He tried yanking at her ankle, but he knew nothing about cleats and so he wasn’t precisely sure how to twist her foot. Frustrated, he threatened to break her ankle, while his partner began trying to wrench her thumb and fingers from the handlebars. But she held on, all the while continuing to scream with the conviction that she was screaming for her life– which, clearly, she was.
Meanwhile, they called her a cunt. In the space of moments– not minutes, but maybe– they called her a cunt, a twat, a pussy, a gash. A fucking cunt. A stupid cunt. A teasing cunt. Fish cunt. Slut cunt. Dead cunt. You dead cunt. No verb. Even the words were violent, though initially three sounded to her less about the hate and the anger and the derision: Those words were spoken (not shouted) with a leer by the thinner of the pair, an inside joke between the two of them, and it was only after he had repeated them did she understand it was not three words she was hearing but two. It was a made-up brand name, a noun, a flavor at her expense. He had reduced her vagina to an aperitif on the mistaken assumption that there could possibly be even a trace of precoital wetness lubricating her now. Liqueur Snatch. That was the joke. Get it, get it? Not lick her snatch. A French cordial instead. But the joke elicited nothing from his partner, no reaction at all, because this was only about his unfathomable hatred for her. What therapists call that moment of arousal? For all Laurel knew, it would come for him the moment she died. The moment they killed her.
Finally, they threw her and her bicycle onto the ground. For a split second she thought they had given up. They hadn’t. They started to drag her by her bicycle tires as if she and the bike were a single creature, a dead deer they were hauling by its legs from the woods. They were dragging her to the van, her right elbow and knee scraping along the dirt road, intending to throw her–bicycle and all–into the back.
But they couldn’t, and this, too, is probably a reason why she survived. They had so much gym equipment crammed into the rear of the vehicle that they couldn’t fit her inside it while she was attached to her bike. She glimpsed discus-shaped weights and benches and metal bars when they lifted her up, and what looked like the vertical components of a Nautilus machine. And so they tossed her back down onto the hard dirt while they made room for her in the van, shattering her collarbone and leaving a bruise on her left breast that wouldn’t heal completely for months. She felt daggers of pain so pronounced that she was instantly nauseous, and it was only adrenaline that kept her from vomiting. Still, she continued to grasp the bicycle’s handlebars and keep her feet locked to its pedals. One of the men barked at her not to move, which, for a variety of reasons, wasn’t an option: She wasn’t about to let go of the bike, and with a broken collarbone it was highly unlikely that she could have managed to release her feet, stand up, and ride away in anything less than half an hour.
How long did she lie there like that? Ten seconds? Fifteen? It probably wasn’t even half a minute. Her assailants saw the other cyclists before she did. There, approaching them down the road, were three vigorous bikers who, it would turn out, were male lawyers from Underhill on their way home after a daylong seventy-five-mile sojourn into the Mad River Valley and back. They were on road bikes, and when they heard Laurel screaming they stood up on their pedals and started streaking toward the van. It was the sort of into-the-fire valor that is uncommon these days. But what choice had they? Leave her to be abducted or killed? How could any person do that? And so they rode forward, and the two men raced into the front cab and slammed shut the doors. She thought they were going to drive away. They would, but not instantly. First they spun the van into reverse, trying to run her over and kill her. Leave her for dead. But she was, fortunately, not directly behind the vehicle. They had dropped her just far enough to the side that even clipped in she was able to claw the foot or foot and a half away that she needed to save her life. They ran over and mangled both bicycle wheels and bruised her left foot. But her bike shoe and the bicycle’s front fork probably spared it from being crushed. Then the men sped off, the vehicle’s wheels kicking small stones into her face and her eyes, while the exhaust momentarily left her choking.
When she was able to breathe again, she finally threw up. She was sobbing, she was bleeding, she was filthy. She was an altogether most pathetic little victim: a girl trapped on the ground in her cleats like a turtle who has wound up on its back in its shell. She would realize later that one of her attackers had broken her left index finger at some point as he had tried to force her to loosen her grip.
Gingerly, the lawyers turned her ankles so she could release herself from her pedals and then helped her gently to her feet. The van was long gone, but Laurel had memorized the license plate and within hours the men were apprehended. One of them worked with bodybuilders at some hard-core weight-lifting club in Colchester. He didn’t live far from where she had parked, and he had followed her the week before. When he realized that the Jetta wagon with the girl with the yellow hair that fell out the back of her helmet had returned, he saw his chance. Laurel was the first woman he had tried to rape in Vermont, but he had done this before in Washington and Idaho before coming east, and he had slashed the wrists of a schoolteacher on her morning jog in Montana and left her to bleed to death in a field of winter wheat. He had left her tied to a barbed-wire fence, and the tattoos on his wrists– like many a tattoo– was a commemoration. A piece of art that he wore like a cherished memento.
His partner, apparently, hadn’t had any idea that his new friend was a murderer: He was a drifter who had come to Vermont and presumed now they were merely going to have a little fun together at the expense of some young female bicyclist.
Afterward, Laurel went home to Long Island to recover, and she didn’t return to college in Vermont until January. The spring semester. She took courses the following summer to catch up– she was in Burlington that July anyway for her assailants’ trials– and by the autumn she was back on the same schedule with the rest of her classmates and would graduate with them in a couple of Junes. Still, the trials had been difficult for her. They had been brief, but there had been two to endure. It was the first time she had been back in the presence of either of her assailants since the attack, and the first time she had studied their faces in the flesh. The drifter, who would dramatically reduce his sentence by testifying against the bodybuilder, had pale skin the color of cooked fish and a nut-brown goatee that elongated a face already tending toward horsey. His hair was completely gone on top and what remained was gray mixed in with the brown of his small beard. Even though it was the summer, he wore a shirt with a high collar to hide his tattoo. A part of his defense was the contention that he had dropped acid before the attack and wasn’t in his right mind.
The bodybuilder was a lumberjack of a man who, while awaiting his trial, had continued to work out in the exterior pen where the weights were stacked at the prison in northwest Vermont–lifting, someone said, even on those frigid days when he would have to brush snow off the Nautilus machines–but it was once more those gray eyes that had struck Laurel. His head was shaved that summer, but she gathered that the autumn before he had merely kept his hair cropped to a tight bristle cut. After his sentencing in Vermont, he was extradited to Montana, where he was tried and convicted of the schoolteacher’s murder. He was serving a life sentence in a prison forty-five minutes from Butte. The drifter, following his conviction, was incarcerated in the correctional facility just outside of Saint Albans, relegated to the lowest, most demeaning rung of the prison in the eyes of the inmates: the pod with the sex offenders.
Certainly the assault changed Laurel’s life in myriad ways, but the most obvious manifestation was that she stopped biking. The cleats had saved her life, but the sensation of being clipped in– of pedaling– brought her back to that dirt road in Underhill, and she never wanted to go back to that place again. She had always been a swimmer growing up, however, and so after a few years away from the water she returned to the pool, taking comfort both in the miles she would mark and the way the smell of chlorine in her hair instantly would remind her of the safe haven of her childhood in West Egg.
The other changes were more subtle: a penchant for older men that her therapist suggested might stem from a need to feel protected– cosseted– by father figures who would shield her from harm. An avoidance of the gym and the weight room. A diary. An even greater immersion in her photography. A distancing from the social world at the college, particularly the fraternities where she had spent most weekend nights her first year. And then, her senior year, the decision to move from the dormitories to an apartment at the edge of the campus. Laurel didn’t want to live by herself– though she was no longer an especially social person, she could still have moments of Zoloft-resistant anxiety, especially when she was alone in the dark– and Talia Rice, her roommate since they had both arrived in Vermont at eighteen, volunteered to come with her. They found a couple of bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen they could share in a rambling Victorian that offered Laurel quiet and detachment, but was still close enough to the campus for her decidedly more extroverted roommate. It was also very sunny, which Talia insisted any place they chose had to be– for her friend’s sake.
Still, some people thought Laurel had grown aloof. She could tell. But she shrugged this off and further curtailed her more casual friendships.
Of course, the change that mattered most is this: If Laurel had not been fiercely attacked, she would not have resumed swimming laps. That sounds prosaic, anticlimactic. But life is filled with small moments that seem prosaic until one has the distance to look back and see the chain of large moments they unleashed. Pure and simple, if Laurel had not started venturing most mornings to the school’s natatorium, she would never have met the University of Vermont alumna who ran the homeless shelter in Burlington and continued to stay fit years later in the UVM pool. And then she would never have wound up working at the shelter, first as a volunteer while she was still in school and later, after she graduated, as a bona fide employee. And if she hadn’t wound up at the homeless shelter, she would never have met a patient from the state mental hospital, a gentleman (and he was indeed gentle) fifty-six years her senior who went by the name of Bobbie Crocker.
Laurel’s father gave her some advice, too, when she was growing up: Smart is boring. Effort matters. And, yes, she should never forget that while she was being raised in a nice home in an impressive neighborhood with a mother willing to drive her to soccer games and swim team practice, most of the world lived in serious, dispiriting poverty and thus someday she would be expected to give something back. He did not mean to suggest in ominous tones that a karmic payback loomed before her because she always had enough to eat and never came home from the mall lacking in clothes or CDs or boys with whom she might want to hook up.
Her father knew everything about the consumption, but nothing about the boys. At least nothing of consequence. He died soon after she finished college with nary a notion of either the sexual appetites or the experimentation that occurred in the high school circles in which she had traveled, or the sexual carousel that had marked her first year at the University of Vermont.
He was a Rotarian, which meant that he was a sizable target for comic abuse. But he was firm in his belief that when his two daughters were grown they would have a moral obligation to reach out to others who lacked their advantages. His Rotary Club actually paid for and built an orphanage in Honduras, and he went there himself annually to inspect it and make sure the charges there were content and well cared for. And so Laurel always was careful to defend the Rotary when people around her made jokes about the organization, making it clear to the glib and sarcastic that in her opinion you didn’t make fun of people with full-time jobs who put roofs over the heads of children whose parents had died of AIDS or had lost their homes in a hurricane. Her sister, a stockbroker five years her senior, became an active member of that very same Rotary Club.
Laurel was twenty-three when her father died abruptly of a heart attack. She was confident that he knew how much she had loved him, but that didn’t necessarily make the hole his death had left in her life any easier to fill. He and her mother had arrived at the hospital in Burlington the night she was attacked in less than three hours. How? A fellow Rotarian was a pilot with a small plane, and he flew them north as soon as she called.
Laurel and her childhood friends were well aware that the country club on Long Island Sound where they all learned to swim and sail and play tennis had once been the home of Jay Gatsby. But, in truth, they didn’t much care. Even their parents didn’t much care. Their grandparents probably did. But as nine- and ten- and eleven-year-olds, Laurel and her friends didn’t care much at all about anything that mattered to their grandparents. The clubhouse and broad, sweeping dining room had been Jay Gatsby’s stone mansion, and there were dusty black-and-white photographs of his parties from the early 1920s decorating the foyer. In every image everyone was overdressed. Or pickled. Or both. Laurel sensed that her friends– the boys, anyway– might have been more intrigued by the club’s history if the swimming pool in which they spent whole summer days had been the marble one in which George Wilson had shot Gatsby, but it wasn’t; that pool was long gone, replaced by an L-shaped monster with eight twenty-five meter lanes along the letter’s vertical length, and a twelve-foot deep diving section along the shorter, horizontal span. There was a one-meter board and a three-meter board, and in the grass along the western and northern sides there were long rows of stately crab apple trees. In the high summer, the young mothers would sit among them in the shade with their toddlers. Laurel spent five years at the pool on the swim team and another three as a diver.
In addition, everyone knew that the northernmost of the three houses across the cove in which they capsized their canoes had once belonged to Tom and Daisy Buchanan. Daisy was the Louisville belle Gatsby had longed for and Tom was her husband. The Buchanans’ Georgian Colonial was the oldest of the three homes, the other two having been built when Pamela Buchanan Marshfield– Tom and Daisy’s daughter– subdivided the estate in the early 1970s. Where there had once been a half-acre of roses there was now a north-south tennis court that belonged to a family named Shephard; where there had once been a barn housing Tom Buchanan’s polo ponies there was a sprawling replica Tudor owned by a family named Winston. Pamela sold the remaining property– the house in which she grew up and where she lived as a married adult until she was almost sixty– in 1978, the year before Laurel was born.
Consequently, Laurel never knew Pamela when she was growing up. They wouldn’t meet until she was an adult herself. But her father knew Pamela. He hadn’t known her well, but that wasn’t because she was an eccentric recluse. Pamela and her husband simply traveled with a much older (and, yes, even wealthier) crowd than Laurel’s parent’s, and for fairly obvious reasons were not members of the relatively casual country club across the cove. Instead, they belonged to a far tonier marina farther east on Long Island.
Nonetheless, when Laurel contemplated her childhood, more times than not the names Gatsby and Buchanan never even entered her mind. If she thought of them at all, she viewed them as insubstantial ghosts, wholly irrelevant to her life in Vermont.
But then she saw the dog-eared photographs that Bobbie Crocker–indigent, good-tempered (most days), and mentally ill– had left behind after he died at the age of eighty-two. The old man suffered a stroke in the stairwell on his way to his dormitory-like studio in what had once been the city’s Hotel New England, but was now twenty-four heavily subsidized apartments the formerly homeless could rent for about 30 percent of their disability benefits or Social Security, and as little as five dollars a month if they hadn’t any income at all. Bobbie had no family that anyone knew of, and so it was his caseworker who discovered the carton of old photographs in his one closet. They were badly preserved, the images stacked like paper plates or wedged upright into folders like old phone bills, but the faces were clearly recognizable. Chuck Berry. Robert Frost. Eartha Kitt. Beatniks. Jazz musicians. Sculptors. People playing chess in Washington Square. Young men tossing a football on a street in Manhattan, a Hebrew National billboard towering overhead. The Brooklyn Bridge. A few clearly more recent ones from Underhill, Vermont, including some of a dirt road–one with a girl on a bike–that Laurel knew all too well.
And in a separate envelope designed for a greeting card, the snapshots: smaller, though equally as distressed. She recognized instantly the home of Pamela Buchanan Marshfield. Then the country club from her childhood, including the Norman-like tower, when it was owned by a bootlegger named Gatsby. The original swimming pool, with the tower behind it. Parties, such as those that were celebrated on the walls of that country club dining room. Pamela Buchanan Marshfield as a little girl, standing beside a boy a couple years younger, a tan coup off to their side. Gatsby himself, beside his bright yellow roadster– the car that Tom Buchanan dismissed at least once as a mere circus wagon.
There were just about a dozen of these smaller photos, and hundreds of negatives and larger prints that she presumed Bobbie Crocker had taken himself.
Laurel did not know instantly who the little boy was beside Pamela. But she had a hunch. Why couldn’t Pamela have had a brother? Why couldn’t he have wound up homeless in Vermont? Stranger things happened every day. But she certainly did not suspect the whole truth when she first tried to make sense of the box of dingy pictures, or imagine that soon she would wind up alone, estranged from her lover and her friends, once more pursued and shaken and scared.