"Come to dinner with me," James said. It wasn’t a request.
I was packing up to go home after working an eight hour Friday shift at Emerson College's IT Help Desk, as I would’ve any other day. At least, until that moment.
"Excuse me?" I spluttered in response, utterly confused. James was my boss; twenty-two years old and looming over me as I gaped at his crossed arms and smug expression.
"You should come to dinner with me."
This was not happening. This. Was. Not. Happening.
"In what context?" I played dumb to buy myself a few seconds. Anything that would give me even the slightest bit of extra time to process what the everloving f*ck was going on.
"You know what context," James said.
Of course I did. I just never thought it would come to that. A week prior, we’d ended up on the same train and when I’d mentioned amidst small talk that I’d never seen Fight Club, he’d insisted that I just had to “come over to his place” so that we could “get drunk and watch it together.” I’d laughed at the time, said I already had plans to check the movie out with some friends, and reassured myself that James was probably just joking. A little inappropriately, perhaps, but nothing to be concerned about. Until now.
"I have a boyfriend," I told him, and it was the truth. Granted, The Boyfriend hadn’t been around very long, and I didn’t even like him that much. But that was not the point. If anything, the point bore repeating, so I did just that: "You know I have a boyfriend."
James made direct, unwavering eye contact before hitting me with a sickeningly unapologetic shrug. "So?"
"So no," I barely manage. People have told me I speak with confidence, that I always seem to know exactly what to say. If only they could’ve seen me then, in all my glory, fighting the urge to vomit on myself. "I'm sorry, but no." Why the f*ck was I apologizing?
I fled from the office, the building, the campus shortly thereafter with a ringing in my ears that I know wasn’t just my tinnitus acting up. Over and over again, I assured myself that this was an isolated incident. That it would be irrelevant by Monday. That everything was fine.
I was, as I so frequently am concerning my own life, wrong.
"Sexual harassment in the workplace" is a heavy term, but one that I've been well acquainted with in an abstract sense since I was very young. Blame my mother's almost obsessive consumption of Dateline, or my own weekend-long Law & Order: Special Victims Unit binges. Either way, I'd heard the stories, both fact and fiction. I understood the concept as well as someone who'd never experienced it could: sometimes a coworker will make unwelcome or inappropriate advances, and it is Not Okay.
It's something that goes widely unreported, and I always wondered why. Who wouldn't leap at the chance to call out someone who was, in less professional terms, a skeevy dick? And then you hear about all the women who blame themselves. "I was probably flirting with him without even realizing," they think, they tell people, they justify. "It must've been that skirt I was wearing. My bad. My fault." Me, me, me.
Once upon a time, in the land of naive ideals, I imagined myself a whistle blower. The second sh*t came within even a yard of the fan, I was certain I'd be the first one to stand up for myself. These women hadn't done anything wrong until the moment they chose to justify their aggressor’s actions instead of defending themselves. They were weak, I’d decided. And I, all twenty years of me, was stronger than that.
But when I got home from work that suffocating, humid summer day, getting on Facebook was at the top of my priority list. I composed a frantic message to Amber, a recent graduate-turned-full time staff member of the IT Department. I didn't know her well beyond the fact that she chain smoked in a way that made me wonder how Marlboro was able to keep up with her. But she had known my boss James longer than anyone else I possibly could've talked to, by virtue of her four years of employment to my one.
This is what I wrote:
"So like...not that I'm trying to spread this around the Help Desk or anything, but James like...asked me to dinner right before I left today? And I turned him down and everything, but it was kind of really weird and I just really needed your opinion on whether or not I've been like...inappropriate or flirtatious in any way that would've lead him to do that...? Because I feel like I've always treated him the way I treat all my guy friends, but maybe I was wrong and totally lead him on, and then I'd feel really bad. I don't know, but it was definitely the weirdest experience of my life."
Amber responded within the hour, her message thick with assurances that I had done absolutely nothing wrong, that none of this was my fault, that James’s pass had been entirely out of line. It was months before I realized two very important things: One, I use too many question marks and ellipses when I'm feeling scattered. And two, I had just become the very thing I thought I was so far above.
James apologized the following Monday. Told me he realized what he'd done was inappropriate, and I believed him. Because hidden beneath my many self-built layers of ironclad cynicism and delusions of embodying a jaded, savvy twenty-something, I really do believe that people are good at heart.
I moved on with my life, continued working. It was once, I told myself. No big deal. My opinion of James from then on was a little colored, certainly, but not so deeply that I disregarded him as an authority figure entirely. Yeah, every once in a while he'd say something a little shady – tell me I looked nice or something, which would be completely innocuous had he not already set a certain precedent – but nothing to raise hell over. School started up again, and Amber and I began to meet up every other week or so to laugh or b*tch or vent about work.