• The Death of Cliff Huxtable / Chapter 5: Vanessa #TriggerWarning

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    Clinging to the dry towel after all the dishes have been washed, Vanessa is standing in the kitchen waiting to speak to her mother, alone.

    All of the siblings have taken a room to clean and replace, now that the repast is over. The last of the guest have made their way home and through the somber quiet, the Huxtables clean their home, together. They have stopped wondering ...asking... where Denise may be. They already know she won’t be back. Not surprising but not fair, thinks Vanessa. She begins to muse aloud, “Denise always managed to get out of chores. She’d charm Dad into letting her slide. She slid through most things in her life: chores, school, jobs, marriage, motherhood. They all thought being married to Martin and raising Olivia would give Denise reason enough to be a responsible adult…and why am I talking about Denise? Why am I talking out loud?” Vanessa looks around the kitchen, down the back hall to the dining room and up the back stairs to make sure no one heard her. Thankfully, no one was within ear shot of Vanessa, which in that house, was rare.

    Clair backs into the kitchen from the living room with two large crystal platters that need to be washed. Vanessa, certain her job of cleaning the kitchen is over, is deflated when she sees she will have to wash these two platters. Looking at her long, water wrinkled fingers, Vanessa realizes her hands are shaking. Clair notices it too, “This was your father and my first set of china and no I will not be setting them in your shaking hands. Vanessa...what’s wrong?”

    Vanessa attempts to defuse her mother’s question and worry by answering,
         “Oh…it’s nothing Mom. Just a little jittery. May be too much caffeine or something of that sort…"
         “Vanessa…it’s nothing of that sort. You have been drinking black coffee since Balti-more and the Wretched.”
         “Mom…why again with The Wretched?”
         “Because it’s fun. It’s biiiig fun.” The two share a much needed laugh and embrace.  Clair continues,  “Oh my child…are you ok?”
         “No. Mom…Dad’s…gone. I don’t know how…”
    Vanessa turns into Clair’s arms. Clair standing strong, embracing her near youngest,
         “I know…it's ok. It’s ok. Your father was ready. Even though we weren’t, he was. He was tired. He was weak. The strongest man I have known…have ever loved…and even he had grown weak. He was ready. We have to be thankful he was given to us.”

    Clair swallows back tears to appear strong for the delicate Vanessa. Vanessa was the most emotionally fragile of the pack. She needs her father more than ever now for her father always gave her an open ear. Vanessa feared her mother, at times. She feared her mother’s strength and the idea of having to be as strong one day. Vanessa wonders if that day will ever come. She, in the embrace of her mother, misses her father.

    Vanessa and Cliff had an understanding that was never spoken: Vanessa needed to be beautiful...to be given care. Cliff was mindful of Vanessa's struggle to identify her value within the ranks of the Huxtable women. She wasn’t the oldest nor the youngest. She wasn’t the most hip nor stylish…like Denise. She was intelligent, but was she as “brilliant” as Sondra? Her chestnut hue wasn’t celebrated as beautiful as compared to her lighter complected sisters nor did her natural hair flow and bounce like Rudy’s. She was just…Vanessa. She couldn’t even be “the” middle child as that distinction belonged to Theo but she was the “middle” child of all the girls and existed in a dullness that only her father saw special.

    Cliff saw Vanessa as the prize a man should earn. From Robert to Dabnis and all boyfriends in between, Cliff contested their interest in Vanessa by interrogating them or sizing them up in ways that none of the other girls’ boyfriends had to endure. Vanessa felt protected by her father. She felt honored by her father. No man would be good enough for Vanessa if they couldn’t honor all the ways Dr. Huxtable found special in his daughter.

    Still folded into her mother’s arms, Vanessa quickly attempts to recall the last time she was this close to Clair. While she needs the protection of her father right now, her mother’s wisdom and legal council is also of the greatest value in this moment. There isn’t room for doubt or fear, Vanessa convinces herself. She pulls away from her mother and ask,
         “Ok…yes…yes my hands are shaking. Can we go somewhere more private and talk?”
         “There’s no one here. The kitchen isn’t private enough?”
         “Actually…no. It’s a difficult...legal…matter and I would feel better talking in your office.”

    Clair gives Vanessa another look to see if she can read her daughter and glean some story behind the urgency to speak privately. Vanessa, reading her mother’s read,
         “But it can wait. You know what…it probably should wait. Not today. Not now. It’ll wait.”
         “Can it wait?” ask Clair, measuring the gravity of Vanessa’s struggle to speak on her matter.
         “Well…yeah…I guess…I mean…I…Yes. Yes, it can wait.”
         “No…no it can’t. I can see that it can’t. Vanessa what’s wrong?”
         “Mom please…”
         “Ok Vanessa. I can not do this all night. I can not do this at all, right now. Now you’re gonna have to talk to me...or not…NOW.”
         “Well can we please just go in your office?”
         “Yes. Yes of course. If it’ll help…let’s go in there.”

    Clair extends her arm, pointing the way down the hall, off from the dining room, to her home office. Vanessa makes the long, slow walk down the short hallway as if marching to her pending doom. Vanessa goes into the office first, Clair follows close behind and closes the door. Clair offers Vanessa a seat and sits in her chair across from her, preparing to hear her client’s testimony.

    The room feels cold. Vanessa looks around the office, admiring the decor, the presence of brilliance and accomplishment. Vanessa lives beneath a grand shadow of greatness and there would be no easy way to have this discussion. There would be no easy way, but it is time, nonetheless. With both hands in her laps, squeezing and wringing her fingers, Vanessa nervously begins,
         “Ok. Ummmm…Ok…”
         “Ok…wait. Just…wait.”

    Vanessa takes a moment to gather her thoughts…to structure her words. She moves forward in her chair and speaks with clarity,
         “Mom. I need your help. I need your legal council and I need your womanly advice.”
         “Ok. I’m listening.”
    Vanessa swallows hard and,
         “I was raped.”

    There was no warning after all the fits and starts. There was no softening the blow of the extraordinary punch Clair felt in her gut as Vanessa claim the freedom from living in violence done to her. She had finally told…someone.
         “What?! By whom?!”
         “By whom?!!”
         “I mean…who did this to you?!”
         “I tell you...I’ve been raped...and you don’t ask if I’m…”
         “No! No. The care of your daughter first. Me…first.”
         “OK...I’m asking so I can…”
         “No…me. First.”

    Vanessa knows her mother meant no harm. For Clair, being a lawyer isn’t simply her trade. It’s her coping mechanism. Before anything gets a chance to reach Clair’s heart, she runs it through the logic legal filter of her brain first. Vanessa is prepared for that. Cliff would have asked, “Are you safe?” first. That would have been HIS care for his daughter. Perhaps it would have been connected to her dad and HIS trade, being an OB/GYN and the business of women’s care. The expectation of Clair giving Vanessa that sensitivity is unfounded because it is unfamiliar. Clair concedes,
         “Ok. I’m sorry. Yes, of course. Are you ok?”
         “No. I was raped.”

    There is a long silence between the two women. Clair doesn’t know what to say that doesn’t come back to the legality of the crime committed against her daughter. Vanessa doesn’t want to proceed with telling her mother the details of her assault on the day of her father’s funeral...not if it's to be an interrogation.

    Clair softens her tone and offers a warmth Vanessa needs right now,
         “Tell me. Talk to me. I’m listening. Vanessa…”

    Vanessa stiffens but finds the words, and the way, to talk to her mother again. She details,
         “He was a professor of mine.”
         “At Lincoln?”
         “No…in grad school…at Temple.”
         “He…was my mentor. I trusted him. I needed him to get through the program. There weren’t too many Black professors in the education program and he was a beacon for those of us who felt lost…alone…there. We spent many hours together…talking about education…about injustice and inequality…about going to a HBCU and then to a PWI…about Obama…about Michelle…about Trayvon…about Daddy…about Dabnis…about…” Vanessa pauses. She realizes that she has framed this man as a wonderful, caring person. A proxy for her father, even. This man was NOT her father. She continues, “…about me. He showed care for me. I love my husband. I would never cheat on my husband but I often wondered if I had...since I became so close...to this other...man. Over three years, we forged a relationship in the academy that felt good...that felt safe. I existed in a condition in which I would be able to thrive and excel. I would became a Doctor too. I would become great...too. I would became important.”

    Clair listens to her baby with a broken heart. Vanessa can tell her mother’s wheels are turning, her gut is churning and ALL she wants to know is who did this to her child! But Vanessa must be cared for first. Vanessa continues,
         "Because I had grown so close to this man…because I had entrusted my care to him, I let my guard down. I did not see a predator. I saw my friend.”

    Vanessa swallows hard…again…as she approaches the details of her assault,
         “He invited me to his home...to prepare for the defense of my dissertation. I had no reason to say no. I thought I would be a fool to say no. I could see the end of my studies...of my struggles in school...and I could see his care in getting me to the finish. I went over to his home. His wife was there but we were in his study." Clair’s face contorts in disbelief and question. Vanessa continues,
         “Yes…she was there. She was always there. For me…for the others. She was always there. That made it safe…for him. How could he assault someone with his wife in the next room. That’s preposterous! Well…she was…”
         “The others? There were others?”
         “There were countless…others. He was powerful. He was a God. And there were others. I had dinner with him...and his wife. After dinner, he offered me coffee. I said yes. It would be a long night going over the details of my thesis and defense. He asked if I wanted something a little stronger...for my coffee. I said no thank you, I wanted to focus. He said it would be a help to me if I had something a little stronger to go with my coffee.”

    Vanessa stops. She recalls the night in her mind, not sure she wants to continue. Clair sees her daughter struggling to go on but she doesn’t know what to do. If this were a client, Clair’s defiant anger would offer strength and assurance to her client that the offender will be dealt with and that she is in good hands. Vanessa isn’t Clair’s client. Vanessa stumbles on,
         “Mom…I can’t. I can’t…say…what…”

    Vanessa breaks down and slumps forward in her chair. Clair isn’t quick enough to catch her daughter so they both fall to the floor. Vanessa curl up in a ball as tight as she can and releases the most devastating wail. Vanessa is broken.
         “That monster raped me. Professor…”
         “No…don’t say his name. Not yet. You…first. You, baby.”

    Vanessa unleashed every tears her shaking body could offer. Finally.  Finally…she is safe.


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