"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.
"I guess my bra tag was sticking out today, and James tried to tuck it in without even asking," I told her once, as we hid in the back of a local coffee shop and snuck nips of whiskey into our overpriced mochachinos. Amber had been a legal drinker for well over a year, but there was just something daring about doing things on the sly. And that's how Amber's friendship made me feel: daring.
"In. A. Propriate," she said to me with the added flair of her trademark mid-word punctuation. "That's f*cking bullsh*t." Amber was one of the few people I'd ever met who swore more than I did.
"I jumped about a mile away as soon as I saw him coming near me," I continued, drunker on her approval than the whiskey-chino. “It’s wildly uncomfortable.”
Amber grimaced as she took a sip from her own cup, and I knew she was too seasoned a drinker for that reaction to be from the burn of alcohol.
"Oh, God." My stomach tightened, because my body knew what was coming before my brain. "What?"
"He just... said something the other day. Told a couple of the other full-time guys and I at lunch that it turns him on whenever you get snippy with him at work." She took another sip, contemplative. “And that day he asked you out? He’d initially had plans to get drinks with the guys from work. Cancelled them at the last minute and said asking you out would be a sure thing.”
Were that a scene from a movie, I would've smashed my cup against the wall in a wave of righteous fury and sworn to coat the walls of the IT Help Desk in James Macon's blood. Because it wasn't, I let out a quiet string of curses, inhaled the rest of my drink, and promptly changed the subject.
But something happened that day in the overpriced coffee shop, something different: I finally found my anger.
My ex-boyfriend and I were fighting again when I finally put it all together. Or "disagreeing with aggressively worded opinions" again, or however the f*ck else you want to euphemize inherent annoyance I'd developed for someone I'd been broken up with for well over a year. More often than not, Paul and I spent our time dancing on eggshells bloated with pleasantries – the curse of both working together at IT and sharing a number of mutual friends.
But something about this particular afternoon, this particular disagreement was different. I can’t even remember what it was that set me off. What I do remember was the exact moment when, in a thoughtless fit of frustration, I dropped a bomb that I didn’t even know I had in my arsenal:
"I mean, do you want to hear about how I'm being sexually harassed by our boss?"
And just like that, entirely by accident, everything seemed to click. If we were dancing on eggshells before, we'd quite suddenly progressed to a full on can-can.
"What?" And with that one word, Paul managed to express every screaming thought pouring into my head.
How did I miss it? A self-declared seasoned feminist like myself couldn't connect the dots? Sexual harassment. Sexual f*cking harassment, so easy to say but near impossible to apply to my own damn life.
I cry a lot. Mostly over stupid sh*t, like my roommate accidentally hitting me in the face with a door or the end of some sappy romantic comedy. But it had been a long time since I'd cried the way I did that day, uncontrollable, heaving sobs accompanied by tears that left dark stains on Paul's shirt as he held my shaking body close to his chest. Suddenly everything I'd spent so much time ignoring was impaling me without mercy: the way James would sit behind the desk while I was on shift, silent. Watching. How he'd linger when he'd borrow my computer to look something up for a customer. That I was irrationally certain my co-workers thought I was some kind of office harpy, teasing my immediate superior with my wiles and never delivering the goods. The way I wanted to crawl out of my own skin and disappear every time I was alone in the office with him. Every f*cking time I pushed away a feeling I couldn't, wouldn't let myself put into words for fear of this very thing: acceptance that I was a victim, but had done absolutely goddamn nothing about it.
I almost turned James in the following workday. Somewhere amidst all my weeping, I'd managed to grab hold of the growing fire that was my fury and not let it wriggle out of my grasp.
"One more time," I told Amber over beers in her apartment later that day. "If he pulls one more bullsh*t move, I'm dragging him to HR and tearing him a new as*shole from here to California."
And just like that, it stopped.
James backed off entirely during my next shift. And the next one, and the one after that. Kept to his office. Addressed me only when it was professionally relevant. Barely shot me a passing glance as he came and went for meetings and lunch. It was a complete 180 from just a few days before, and I was glad for it.
Amber would later confess to me that she warned him. Marched right into his office that morning and told him to back the hell off, or he'd almost certainly lose his job. I got why she did it – she and James had a history. Not a romantic one, not even close. But they were both student staff together once, sat side by side at Emerson’s IT Help Desk just a couple years ago the same way Paul and I did now. Used to smoke together and talk about life, or whatever. In what seems like a very distant past but was really only a couple years ago, you might've even called them friends. So she allowed him one last chance, told him I wasn't some pushover and would bury him alive if he didn't tread carefully.
So he stopped. And for the time being, that was all that mattered.
It took me a while to realize the full impact of what James had done to me. I’d tried everything in my power to alienate him before his Amber-inspired lurking hiatus. I'd become outright hostile at work – blatant insults, pointed greetings to everyone in the office but him, barely acknowledging his attempts at casual conversation, whatever I could do short of actually turning him in. But it's what happened outside the office that scared me most.
I have a favorite professor at Emerson. He's a fiction workshop and literature teacher, one of the few I've met with enough backbone to tell a student what he really thinks of their work. I can openly admit that I've threatened bodily harm on others vying for a spot in his classes over various forms of social media during more than one registration period. And, ideally, I'd like to think he's taken a liking to me as well. I have no actual proof of this, but he generally agrees with my assessment of the stories we read in class and has, on occasion, called my opinions "insightful" and "a positive contribution to the workshop."
So when, during a typical fifteen-minute break in a four-hour class, he and I are alone in a room together, we get to talking. While everyone else is hitting up the vending machines or taking a breather from the stale classroom air, my favorite professor asks me about my writing. So I share with him my aspirations to be a young adult fiction writer, or a screenwriter, or a comic book writer – all those wild hopes and dreams that suddenly seem so much more attainable when someone you idolize is nodding along with your excitable words, validating your worth. And it only gets better when he tells me that, from what he's seen of my work, I've already vastly improved from the last workshop I had with him. That if I keep turning out "strong stuff," then there's no reason I shouldn't succeed.
And that's when my world comes to an all-too-familiar screeching halt.
I should be happy. Elated, even. The professor I respect above all others just all but gave me his stamp of approval. Less than a year ago, I would've thrown myself a goddamn parade the second I got out of that classroom.
But I lived in a post-James world now, one in which no one is kind without an ulterior motive. And the only thing I could think, a thought so heavy and horrible that it was impossible to push away, was, Holy sh*t. Is he hitting on me? He's hitting on me. He must be hitting on me. There's no way he isn't hitting on me.
But this was not Legally Blonde, and I was no Elle Woods. My favorite professor had paid me a professional compliment from an appropriate distance in a manner befitting of our student-teacher relationship. Still I had to fight the urge to bolt from the room, to scream until I'd exhausted my nerves and could return to the room and react like a normal person.
This, for a time, was James’s legacy.
There are times when I feel stupid about all of this. Some girls get groped, blackmailed, or even raped, and here I am all, "Um, I think I'm the victim of the male gaze?" Thanks for that one, Feminine Mystique. Women and men alike always have and likely always will suffer far greater indignities and injustices than I did. At the end of the day, all I can really say is that my boss asked me out and then gave me creepy vibes after I turned him down. I had never felt physically threatened by James Macon. He never copped a feel, or said anything overtly explicit to my face. The funny thing is that James is not – nor will he ever really be – the flaming hell demon I spent months conjuring up in my mind as a placeholder for his face. He's just a slightly creepy, socially impaired idiot who doesn't understand the fundamentals of basic human interaction.
I reported him in the spring, just four months shy of a year since he asked me out on that rainy day in June. There was no straw that broke the camel’s back, no moment I can pinpoint and say “That’s when I knew this all had to end for good.” It was always just a feeling. James had backed off for a couple weeks at Amber’s behest, but soon he was back to sitting behind me, watching my every move. I could feel his gaze on me, I would shudder every time he’d call out, “Hey, that dress looks great on you.” Despite Amber’s warning, and despite my own consistent coldness or flat out ignoring, James continued to address me as though everything was fine. As though we were friends, even. These were little things, but enough to make coming to work every day something I truly dreaded. And one day I just woke up and decided I didn’t want to feel that way anymore.
I left my apartment that day with an incredible sense of purpose propelling me forward. Every step felt charged, powerful, and the further I got, the more I knew that I was finally doing what was right. While waiting for a train to take me downtown, I pulled out a notebook and made a list of all the ways James had made me feel uncomfortable over the past eight months -- it was surprisingly extensive. But even with both confidence and evidence backing me up, I still felt jittery when I perched on the corner of Amber’s desk upon reaching campus.
“Hey sweetie, what’s up?” she asked, spinning to face me. Her easy smile faded the moment she got a look at my expression. “Are you alright?”
“I’m...” I paused for a moment, unsure of how to broach the topic, even with someone as close as Amber. “How do I lodge a sexual harassment complaint?”
If she was surprised, it didn’t show; her fingers flew across the keyboard without a moment’s hesitation. I left the office shortly thereafter with the dean’s office number scrawled onto my palm and Amber’s words echoing in my head: “I’ve got your back, okay? You’re doing the right thing.”
If I’d been antsy with Amber, that was nothing compared to how I felt sitting in one of the worn chairs outside Dean Ludman’s office, waiting for him to get off a call. His secretary glanced up at me every few seconds or so, as though she was expecting me to bolt out the door. For good reason, I suppose -- it had taken me three tries to properly articulate why I wanted to see the dean. And sure, I was bouncing my leg up and down uncontrollably. My palms sweat against the cardboard cover of the notebook I held. There was absolutely no guarantee I had a real case to my name. But I willed myself to stay rooted in my chair until Dean Ludman finally emerged from his office and extended a hand. And though he smiled kindly, his eyes were grave.
“So,” he said, ushering me into his office, “tell me what’s been going on.”
Though I have a well-known and documented tendency toward dramatic language (“That cute couple over there is going to make me vomit rainbows,” “I hate that dress she’s wearing so aggressively that I want to set it on fire and dance around its smouldering ashes”), know that I’m not being artistic when I say that the weeks that followed my meeting with the dean were agony. For a while, despite a handful of meetings with the Human Resources department and several assurances that my claim was “being looked into,” I worried that my complaints had fallen on deaf ears.
My emotions came in jumbled waves -- panic and relief and sporadic moments of regret that I’d quickly squash. Fear that James knew I’d reported him, fear that he didn’t, never would, and that the status quo would carry on until I graduated and left the employ of the college for good. I’d sneak glances at him from the corner of my eye when he came back from lunch, keep an ear out for phone conversations he might be having. Any indication that he might know what I’d done, what I’d said, who I’d told. Amber had read me the college’s immediate-termination policy for employees who sought personal retaliation for a filed complaint enough times that I could practically recite it, but that did little to ease the anxiety.
Above all else, though, I was afraid of what my coworkers would think of me. Which seems stupid and insignificant in the grand scheme of things, perhaps, but the thought of the IT staff -- both student and faculty -- siding with James plagued me with chest-tightening and perpetually teary eyes. I became irrational and sensitive to everything, taking a handful of innocuous and often entirely unrelated comments from my coworkers and convincing myself that they were mocking or judging me for actions most didn’t even know I’d taken. More than one of them had the distinct pleasure of watching me sink to the floor in a puddle of my own frustrated tears during those first few days after filing my complaint.
James was called into his first HR interview a few weeks later. I had class at the time, but kept a close eye on Amber’s steady stream of live-texts from the IT office upon my boss’s return. Immediately thereafter, James discovered within him a drive to avoid me at all cost, especially after his second and final HR interview. This was a small but potent pleasure, being aggressively ignored by James Macon. Finally, I felt like I could breath again.
James was fired during the final week of my junior year, three months after I brought my case before the dean. Later I’d find out that the administration had reservations about “shaking things up” mid-semester but had every intention of getting rid of him the moment school was out. Better late than never, I guess. According to Amber, James is currently jobless, behind on his rent, and without a single chance in hell that he’d ever get a recommendation from the college. I know forgiveness is a virtue or whatever, but I’m pretty sure karma says I get to have this one.
I was reading on the Common a couple weeks into summer, work a million miles from my mind, when a shadow fell over the book in my lap. I glanced up to see who was standing in my light, only to find Melanie Carter towering above me.
“Hi,” she said, a little out of breath from the heat.
“Hi?” I’d seen her around at work before, said the occasional hello; she was another Help Desk girl, but we’d never actually had a conversation, so I was more than a little confused to see her when I looked up from my book. Melanie was quiet for a moment, brows knit together like she was trying to figure out how to say what was in her head.
“I was just wondering... if you knew what happened.” she asked, taking a seat beside me. “To James, I mean.”
Sh*t. James and Melanie had been friends, I was pretty sure. I’d seen them chatting at the Help Desk in passing. In my vindictive rage against James, I hadn’t exactly kept quiet about the sexual harassment complaint. Quite the opposite, really -- before HR kicked him to the curb, I’d sunk my claws into just about any student worker at the desk who even half-liked me to share my list of grievances with our boss. It was my own brand of vigilante justice, a mission to besmirch the name Macon if I was expected to suffer under his leadership. But I’d made sure to hold my tongue around the few friends he kept, so I wasn’t really sure what to say to Melanie as she sat beside me in the patchy Common grass that day.
“He got fired,” I told her after a long moment.
“Right,” she said. “For sexual harassment?”
I nodded, and it took everything in me to bite back a “finally.”
“You were the one who made the complaint.” It wasn’t a question.
We sat in silence as Melanie squinted at me in the sunlight, her face entirely unreadable. Her scrutiny was agonizing, and I wasn’t sure how much more I could take when suddenly she said something that caught me so off guard that I had to ask her to repeat it.
“Thank you,” she said again, one corner of her mouth quirking upward in the slightest of smiles.
“For what?” I was utterly befuddled.
“James has been drunk texting me for months,” Melanie said, waving her phone at me for emphasis. “Saying he wants to run away to New York with me and be my boyfriend, cornering me in the stairways and telling me I ‘make him crazy’ or whatever.” Her shudder seems out of place on such a warm day. “I didn’t even see how f*cked up it was until HR called and asked if I wanted to talk about James. Turns out I had a lot to tell them.”
As her words sank in, a wave of guilt overtook me. All this time I’d assumed that Melanie enjoyed his attention, even judged her for allowing him to leer at her the way he so often did. But she’d suffered in silence, an experience I knew well.
“So thank you,” she said yet again.
We sat together, for a while. I didn’t know what to say to that. I still don’t.