Your Integrity or Your Life!

Zana Previti

After he left, I rode my bike to his apartment. It was a finished basement he shared with one of his friends. He’d never let me come down the stairs; I had never seen his bed or if he had photographs in his room, or if he had bookshelves, or what he kept in his bathroom. The night he left, I leaned my bike up against the side of the garage and called for him at the top of the stairs, but there was no answer and the stairway was dark. I could smell bleach and the bleach hurt my lungs, because I stood at the top and breathed it in for too long. I sucked up great lungfuls of it until I felt dizzy and sick, and then I ran outside and threw up.

I work hard to remember that our relationship was wrong. Inside my head, the child and the adult argue incessantly, each one of them shaking the other and weeping. The child remembers the feelings of love and care, how comfortable he was, how kind. The adult sees only how young the child was, and how fragile, how vulnerable.

I saw him one more time, ten years after he had left. It was in Chicago, of all places. He was there on business. I was there to visit colleges.

You think of yourself as a victim? he asked me. Of a pedophile?

Sometimes I do, yeah. I went to a support group. For a little while. I didn’t like it.

But you don’t mind being here with me now? You aren’t angry with me or scared of me.

No. Not at all. I’m glad I’m here with you. I think about you a lot. You were important in my life.

He nodded.

Are you married, with kids and everything? I asked him. He was thirty-five to my seventeen. His birthday—0129—was the combination to my bike lock and my ATM pin number. I knew enough to choose the numbers I wouldn’t ever forget and the ones that no one could guess.

No, no. He said. Not even a close call.

I went to your apartment after you left, I told him.

One of us had to, he said, and you were so so young, and I was an adult.


I would have ruined your life. I thought maybe I had, already. It was impossible, living with that sort of guilt. Impossible. I hated myself.

You felt better after you left?

He laughed. Honestly? Not at all. I felt worse. I thought the cops were coming any minute. I actually had this little bag packed for when I heard sirens for my—he covered his eyes with his hands—getaway.

He looked at me through his fingers and I laughed. He laughed. There was a sort of growing up all of a sudden. What I had wanted to ask, I didn’t want to ask anymore. We were quiet for a little and I looked at my watch.

My flight, I said, and got up to go. My parents are waiting.

Okay, he said.

You feel any better now, I asked him.

He said, Yes, yes, yes, and he kissed me on the forehead.

We went to a movie once. I rode my bike and met him at the theater. We sat in the theater and I was leaning against him, and I felt happy. In the film, the villain was threatening the main character—your integrity or your life! That sort of thing. He wasn’t looking at me. He was holding my wrist in his hand and looking at it, and I was looking at the screen but all my energy was on him, and on my wrist that he was holding. He held it with both hands, and then he laid my hand down on the armrest, very gently and then picked it up again. He loved me then, I think, and I know that was the moment I understood that I loved him. His fingertips on the bones of my wrist. I had not thought that love would come so soon, and only that once. It is over now.


Zana Previti was born and raised in New England. She is currently an MFA student at the University of California, Irvine, where she is at work on her first novel. Her fiction has been featured in or is forthcoming from Hayden’s Ferry Review, New England Review, and The Master’s Review.