It was a crocheted brown-gold sweater my mother handed down to me before I went to college. It was, frankly, a bit granny-ish. But it was the kind of mothball item that sometimes, improbably, reads stylish. During my freshman year I wore it often, over a sleeveless dress with daisies that was also given to me by my mother. It’s this sweater he refers to, in an email that shows up in my inbox nearly 15 years later.
I worked a bunch of odd jobs to get through school — some related to my literature major, most not. I met him at one of those jobs. What I did in this particular job involved columns of numbers that actually bored me to tears. I tried to be patient. I needed corresponding numbers to show up in my bank account. He was in his late 40s and friendly, and asked me a lot of questions about myself. At 18, I was unused to the attention, especially from someone I classified as a real professional grown-up. He was a successful writer, and I wanted to be one.
He began to call me at my dorm. I suppose it was easy to look up the number. I never answered when he called, but he left messages that I played for my roommates. “This is weird, right?” I’d ask, as we listened to his invitations to come over for dinner, “to talk about your interests.” I was confused. Did I do something to encourage these advances? Was I being too harsh, and was he actually offering to help me? Then why did it feel so unsettling and not quite right?
He never said anything overtly inappropriate in the office; maybe he stood too close sometimes, but I don’t remember him ever trying to touch me. Still I ignored the calls and gave him a wide berth. Sometimes I felt silly. Was I being paranoid? Shooting myself in the foot? Would someone who was more confident, less inclined to suspicion, take advantage? Eventually I got another job. I’d see him around every once in a while, sometimes on the street. We’d say hi, exchange pleasantries. Then I’d keep walking.
A decade after graduation I was back on campus, to give a talk and accept an award. He was in the audience, and he came up to me as I stepped offstage. He looked the same. Though I was a grown woman, something inside recoiled at the way he eyeballed me. That day I was wearing my favorite dress: a bold purple jersey with a green peacock printed on the skirt. He told me I looked great, congratulated me, said he’d been following my work, told me I’d done well. I wish this felt as good as it sounded. He followed me through the crowd. “I’m looking for my husband,” I said, feeling small. Sandra Day O’Connor was in the audience that day; later she would tell me, “You were marvelous.” At a moment when I should have felt proud, powerful and accomplished, I suddenly felt very young and foolish.
I excused myself. He said he’d email me about my new book, to see if he could help.
A few days later, back home in San Francisco, I read the email when it arrived. His tone was over-the-top friendly. “We have your Chinatown book here, congrats! I’m attempting to get some coverage for it.” I relaxed. I thanked him for his offer to support my work. I mentioned an upcoming NPR appearance; I made a joke about being forgettable to his colleagues.
His reply was quick. He couldn’t believe anyone would ever forget me, he said: “I seem to recall seeing you in Harvard Square in a pretty much transparent top… one day noticing you standing at the Xerox machine on the second floor here wearing a short plaid kilt and thinking, that’s about the sexiest sight I have ever seen… anywhere. Did you own those clothes or is my memory playing tricks on me?”
I froze. “Now that you are 10 years out of college and a big-time author, I figure it is O.K. to share a compliment or two.” Was that a compliment? Did I ask for it?
I sat there for a while in front of the screen. My heart raced. Then I became furious. Had I ever been treated with so little respect? My college-age self was right to be wary. But my grown-up self didn’t get any satisfaction from that. Separated by years, both selves felt shame to have been looked at and then spoken to in such a manner. Like it was my fault somehow. I wore a sweater with holes in it. Does that say something about me?
I took a deep breath. My grown-up self knew better. That he had once been in a position of authority didn’t mean he had authority over me. Sometime later, a second email came, to follow up; it took a more restrained tone. I ignored both and moved on.
Nothing happened. By that I mean the girl I was did not get ensnared in an awful and dangerous physical situation. But sometimes we are left with invisible marks that alter the way we see ourselves. What did he really offer me? A lesson, I suppose: What a woman wears can be used as a weapon against her. The uninvited gaze, the way it insinuates. The words that came so much later, equally unwelcome, equally insinuating, making me doubt my abilities and self-worth. Our lives are the culmination of these little moments. They add up to give us a picture of the world and the people in it.
Nothing happened. But something did, didn’t it?