Poison in the Water

When I was in college I became friends with a much older man who was in a position of authority where he could snap his fingers and give me a job. I’d gone to him with a project in which he saw value and promised to see through. We had meetings in his office. He took me to lunch a bunch of times. Talked to me like I was people, told me jokes, laughed at mine.

Because I’m an arrogant asshole it never occurred to me that I wasn’t on his level. I thought I had every right to be his peer. And a lifetime of not being considered pretty led me to think that men couldn’t be interested in my body anyway.

He never tried anything. Never moved too close or talked too soft, never touched me but to shake my hand. Never so much as opened a door for me.

But as he promised over and over to find me a job in his department, his assistant, who he kept asking me to talk to, kept steering me away. That job’s been filled. I don’t think that will work out. Let me talk to him about what’s really suitable for you. We don’t have anything there. I’m not sure this is going to pan out. 

I thought she was just being a jerk. I needed a job, after all, and I believed people kept their promises. He wants me hired, so get over yourself and do what your boss wants.

Now I wonder. I wonder if she was protecting me.

Like I said, he never treated me as anything less than an equal. I thought he liked me. Like as a person.

I wonder how he would have treated me if I worked for him.

If I owed him something.

Thinking like this might be deeply unfair to a good person trying to help out a broke college student in whom he saw something promising. Thinking like this might be maligning, in retrospect, a friend.

Thinking like this might save the next young woman who sincerely believes a septuagenarian authority figure respects her mind.

I hate that this is the calculus. I hate that this is the math we all do in our heads. It’s not fair to us, in our working weeks, and it’s not fair to the relationships we try to nurture and the networking we try to do and the things we’re taught from day one are essential to our professional lives. It’s not fair to women. It’s not fair to men. It makes me angry and it makes me sad.

Grow the fuck up, everyone.


5 thoughts on “Poison in the Water

  1. Trust me, I get it. I have spent a LOT of time in my head going over and over the times where I wonder if I did something that maybe crossed a line, be it a weird newsroom joke, a pat on the back for a good job or giving a graduate a hug. It can be fucking crippling when you realize that EVERYTHING could be ANYTHING if you think hard enough on it.

    Did I ever go “all Roy Moore” on someone? Hell no. Did I go “all Charlie Rose in a robe” on someone? No, no and NO! Did I maybe “pull a Franken” at some point? Maybe… possibly…I don’t know…? If I got accused of something I did 20 years ago by someone I spent time with, how likely is it that I”d have to do the “I don’t remember” thing that we now view as tantamount to “You totally fucking did it and you are trying to dodge, you asshole.”

    I had this kind of conversation with my wife last night about the “How do you know what was or wasn’t whatever it was or wasn’t?” She actually mentioned your story about the priests: When it happens, it happens in a clear and consistent way. It ALWAYS goes that way. It ALWAYS follows a pattern. It ALWAYS leads to damage. It’s never a one-off. That’s how you know.

    So, maybe the assistant was seeing a pattern… or maybe she was engaging in self-preservation. Ascribing motives to people can be dangerous, especially when it leads us to question what we actually know.

    Good advice, but hard to follow. I know I’ll be relying on waves and high-fives for a few graduations to come…

  2. He never tried anything before you got hired. He was gaining your trust. That’s their MO. The assistant knew. Was protecting you. You might be telling a different story today if you had gotten that position. Thanks for sharing!!!

  3. Or the assistant just didn’t like you. Or found you threatening?
    Or there never was any job, and her job was basically to be the bad guy while the principal got to be the magnanimous friend of all..

  4. I’m wondering if the folks here who believe the assistant was trying to help you are women, and the ones casting doubt on that are men. It’s funny that way.

    And the guys wondering if they’d ever touched anyone inappropriately. Jesus, if you did, you’d know it, because you’d have done it intentionally. Women aren’t aliens; they’re human beings. If you wouldn’t do a certain thing to your best friend who’s a dude, then don’t don’t do it to your co-worker who’s a woman. Unless of course, you’re a predator and then that’s just how you roll.

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