I have kept quiet for too long. I have felt weak, belittled, and scared – for too long.
I refuse to keep my mouth shut about this any longer. I refuse to pretend that I’m okay. I refuse to be quiet when all I want to do is shout.
So I’m speaking up, because so many before me didn’t, and so many after me won’t.
“You’re the new student? This whole time I thought you were much older,” he tells me when we meet. We are in the entry of a large hotel. There are students around him, like a semi-circle at story time. Off to my right, there is a bar where more students sit, chatting and laughing. I’m the only new person here. Everyone has known each other since Dublin, or at least since Barcelona.
I just started with my MFA program in August so I’ve yet to meet anyone until this moment. The program put together a reunion of sorts between our summer European residencies and I decided to come since my Aunt lives in New York City as well. It’s a Friday night, and the weather is absolutely dreadful. My skin feels like it could grow icicles at any moment.
We all walk into the bar area and congregate near a couple tables where other students are sitting. Some of them hug each other. Some share inside jokes when they reunite. Others stand back, observing. I am one of the observers, not quite invited to the party yet. I don’t mind, although I wish I could smile with them.
He announces to everyone the location of the literary agency we are going to see. Then there are chairs screeching as they go back under tables, scarves wrapping around necks, and drinks being downed before sliding the glass back onto the tables. We brace ourselves for the wind that makes our eyes water and we head toward the agency.
I’m next to him on the walk and I know nothing about him, even though he is the program director. His name was not familiar to me when I started, like many of the professors, and I’m curious about how he got to the position he is in. He tells me about his other two university jobs and we make small talk.
“I really thought you were forty.” He’s been my professor since August and has access to my photo but never looked apparently. I later learn this is a line he uses with other younger students as well, making them feel like they are great writers simply because they are pretty.
“Why did you think that?” I ask.
“Your writing makes you seem much more mature.”
I feel good about this. I was nervous being only twenty six getting my masters in creative writing. I think about his words as we keep walking, feeling proud that someone in such a senior position thinks highly of my writing.
We head on towards the agency and spend the afternoon learning about the publishing industry. I notice the way his eyes linger a bit too long on some of the women, but I think nothing of it. After the literary agency, we go to dinner at a seafood place. He sits near me and his banter is light and playful. I feel comfortable around him, like a friend, one that is much older than me. He smiles at me a lot, his beady eyes half hidden behind the rim of his glasses.
After the restaurant there are a couple bars and then when I’ve had too much to drink, I head back to my aunt’s home on the Upper East Side. I don’t think anything of the way he stared at me a bit too long. I’m on a high from his compliment, not wanting to think he only said those words because of how I look.
A few of the students meet up for dinner on the final night in SoHo. I teach some of them what Tinder is and I swipe feverishly at the bar, trying to find a man to have a drink with before I meet up with a good friend of mine on the Upper West Side. We leave the bar a while later; he walks by my side, his words slightly looser than before. Two other students are behind us, but we somehow lose them on our journey.
He tells me, “You don’t need those Tinder boys.” Then he is dragging me by the arm into the bar to my right. It’s below zero outside and the warmth is welcome, but the company is not. I’ve had a couple drinks myself, and I allow him to walk towards the bar with me.
We sit on bar stools in front of a stately man and he asks me what I want to drink. “Rum and coke,” I respond, taking off my jacket and placing it in my lap. His chair is close to mine, our shoulders almost touching,
While the bartender makes our drinks, he leans into me and lightly plucks the fake fur scarf around my neck. “This scarf makes you look like a porn star,” he says.
I laugh, nervously. I don’t know how else to respond.
“You know you’re pretty, right?” he tells me once the bartender slides us our drinks. I hold mine in my hands, grasping it like a life raft. “You don’t need those Tinder boys.”
I laugh again. I should feel good that a man is complimenting me, right? I should feel honored that someone of such high caliber in my field thinks highly of me, correct?
I’m a little drunk at this point. He orders another round for us as I text my friend desperately, hoping she’s finally ready to meet up. He has already called me pretty or hot a few times.
His eyes are glassed over, red lines going every direction against the stark white like roadmaps. “Don’t worry, I know when to stop. I won’t go too far,” he tells me, taking his palm and sweeping it from my shoulder to my elbow in a manner that feels like seduction.
I shiver even though the bar is warm. My stomach drops. Even with the booze taking effect and making me feel at ease, I start to get worried. Too far… what is too far? Do we have the same definition of what too far is? Did I bring this upon myself? Should I even be at the bar with my professor? I recall my undergraduate college and how graduate students had cocktails at the professor’s house. I thought that was okay. I thought this would be okay too.
I was wrong.
My friend texts me that she can meet. I quickly put on my coat. “I have to go now,” I tell him. I can’t read his face, wondering if the look he’s giving me is disappointment or content.
He walks me outside and just before I get into the cab, I feel like he might kiss me. I back up in time and slide into the cab. He shuts the door and then he is gone, disappearing behind me.
I continue working with him the rest of the semester. He never mentions his out of line behavior. Neither do I, because I am just a new student. I am no one.
In Vienna, we meet again. This time I’ve made friends, ones who I have told about New York. I learn that I am not the first. I learn that he has gone much further with a couple others. Vienna teaches me that many avoid him, much like he chooses to do to me when he learns from a student how uncomfortable he made me. He is supposed to be my mentor, and instead he doesn’t say more than a few words to me the entire two week residency.
Maybe I’m still pretty, but I’m not easy anymore, and now I don’t matter.
Another year goes by and we are back for a residency, this time in Dublin. We have seen each other briefly in LA at a conference but he, again, deliberately avoids me when he can. He will barely speak to me about my work at dinner.
In Dublin, I notice there are many, many more young pretty girls. I try to believe this is a coincidence. I hope to god they are amazing writers, and this wasn’t just a ploy for him to take advantage of more women.
One girl passes me in our dorm room lobby. “Where are you headed off to?” I ask her.
She tells me she’s going to dinner and he will be there. I make a face, trying to hold in all of the words on the tip of my tongue, trying to figure out what I want to say without incriminating him.
“Just… just be careful,” I tell her. “Don’t be alone with him when you’re drunk.”
She reassures me she won’t and then she is gone. I feel sick. Did I do the right thing? What if he does something to her and it’s all my fault because I stayed quiet?
I shake off the feeling and go on with my day. But a few nights later a group of us are at dinner and I can’t keep my mouth shut. I make an offhand comment about him, nothing too bad, just hinting at his nature. The student next to me whips to face me.
“Did something happen?” she asks me, searching my face.
I look into her eyes and can feel it in my gut. “He did something to you, didn’t he?”
“Yes,” she tells me. I can see the relief flood her face. She feels safe. She can tell me. I will understand. We are in this together.
And then, she is telling me her secrets, telling me of indiscretions he made when he was drinking around her. I feel awful, like it is all my fault. Because it is. Because how could I not have said something to stop this monster the moment he laid a hand on me? How could I have let him keep doing this?
After, there are secret meetings with other faculty. There is crying and hugging and snot. We are both worried he will hold this against us in the publishing industry. We want to be writers. We don’t want to be the women who took down a successful professor and author. We don’t want him tarnishing our names in some way, encouraging agents or editors not to work with us.
But the secret meetings hold encouragement. There are people telling us we are brave and we are doing the right thing. We don’t file a formal complaint with the school, though. We are still nervous about saying our names.
A month later, she and I talk again and we want to make it formal. We’ve had time to dwell and realize that this is more important than our careers. He can’t get away with this.
I tell the appropriate person that I’m ready to file a formal complaint. But, it’s too late. There is an email saying he has resigned. The villain in this story is gone. He won’t be back. There’s no need to drag his name through the mud.
Does this mean he can continue doing this at his other schools?
After, I still feel like I failed, like I let someone take my dignity. I should have spoken sooner. I shouldn’t have let him take advantage of anyone else. What if he does this same thing elsewhere?
After, I still feel weak.
You can keep up with Katie’s stories through her blog Writing & Wanderlust at www.writingandwanderlust.me.