When I was in college, no one talked about sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior. And if it did happen, who would have believed a woman anyway? And yet even one incident can remain embedded in memory for life. For me, that incident had the power to make me doubt my intelligence and writing skills for years. No, decades. Maybe still.
My advisor and professor of literature in college was Dr. K. He was my teacher, my mentor, my god, and not a weekday went by that we didn’t meet in his small wood-paneled office, its walls a tapestry of books, a sanctuary of thought and feeling and trust. For three years, I listened to his voice, low, lilting, Southern honey, urging me on. “Your poetry is so vital,” he would say. “Your critique is so brilliant.”
Oh, there were signs that last year: a brush against the thigh as he, always courtly and formal, pulled out the leather armchair to seat me before he took his own place. His gentle eyes, rheumy behind their thick rimless glasses, may have peered a bit too intently at my breasts as I leaned to pick up my notebook. But I would quickly sit up straight and fix my gaze on the seabirds circling above the bay.
But the talk, the talk was always clean. No signs there, no froth. We swept through Faulkner and Hemingway and Melville, Whitman and Eliot and Pound. He told me he was finishing his book on Faulkner, the definitive study, fifteen years in the writing, and his own novel, on hold for now, but destined for greatness.
My thesis, a study of modern female voices in American poetry, was almost finished, my orals scheduled for the end of May. It was a bittersweet time, the years of study and writing bearing fruit in my confidence and mastery, while the knowledge that this was my last and finest hour shadowed me from dorm to library to classroom to Dr. K’s hallowed office.
As the date of my last literary examination approached, the Florida heat became more and more brutal. Each day was a hurdle toward graduation, the ultimate goal, the ultimate validation, but also the severance of youth, with an abyss beyond which I refused to contemplate. I put aside my fears of the bleak workaday life that seemed to be an adult’s destiny and soared in the reaches of pure thought, then plunged into my writing as if to penetrate the deepest secrets of my heart and soul.
The scent of jasmine permeated Dr. K’s office, and each day, he shifted closer, as if to say, our communion is complete. Perfect and complete.
Sometimes his fingers would land awkwardly on my bare shoulder, or linger too long on my upper arm, gently kneading the flesh. His balding head would bead with sweat, and his half-closed dull blue eyes would slide back and forth behind his glasses. Yet I didn’t let myself see or feel anything but the restless shimmer of his brilliant mind.
The day of my orals was so thick with heat that my clothing clung to my skin the minute I stepped outside. I wore a short white skirt, a white halter-top and leather thongs, a typical outfit for a sweltering day.
The bay was opaque, a flat green. The clouds were ominous. Students moved as if slowed by time, unwilling to release themselves from the final throes of childhood.
Dr. K opened the door for me and took my hand in his. I was as tan as he was pale. Moving toward my usual place, I felt his moist fingers on my neck. “You’ve pulled your hair up,” he whispered. “You have a beautiful nape.”
I stood still. “Thank you,” I said. “Shall we begin?”
His fingers caressed my back and his bony hips pushed into my buttocks, hard and insistent. He didn’t pull out the chair, just stood behind me breathing on my neck. “Your skin. You have the most beautiful tawny skin. I’ve always wanted to touch it.”
“What are you doing?” I turned and backed away toward the bookshelves. “Please, Dr. K, don’t do this.”
But he was like a deaf and blind man. He followed me and pinned himself against me and thrust his tongue into my mouth. I whipped my head from side to side as his hand reached my breasts under my halter. He swept his clammy fingers down across my midriff and almost seemed to whimper.
“Please,” I begged. “Please stop.”
In a short story I later wrote, the girl being harassed grabs her professor by his bony shoulders, calls him a dirty old man, and shoves him so hard that he falls backward and hits the edge of his desk. His glasses fly off his nose and he crumples to the ground, dead.
But that is not what happened. Dr. K looked so pathetic that I felt sorry for him, standing there with his shoulders stooped and his eyes fixed on my breasts. Slowly, I turned and walked toward the door. He followed me, reaching for my naked arms. I recoiled but said nothing in protest. Instead, I reached for the doorknob before he could say or do anything else and left, not even slamming the door behind me.
Outside, seagulls screamed and the air was so thick that I felt as though the sky were crushing me, suffocating me under the relentless weight of this awful day. Had I been his joke, then, his private avatar, his dreams made flesh, all of my work laid bare to mockery, signifying nothing more than the perturbations of his middle age? Now it seemed Dr. K had praised my writing and my papers not because I was a good student but because he found me attractive. That’s what it would always be in the man’s world I was about to enter: attraction would always trump intelligence.
He had tricked me into believing I was so smart, so gifted, a budding writer coddled by the lord of professors, honing me like a literary weapon to cut through the dross of his own stale perceptions. But maybe I wasn’t as smart as he had led me to believe. Maybe he had always had something else in mind.
I didn’t report Dr. K. The thought never even crossed my mind. And I didn’t tell anyone except my best friend. Instead, I changed into my bikini and went to the beach, where I floated in the salty water, baptized by reality.
About fifteen years later, Dr. K called me at home, his voice a little slurred and hesitant. He said he was contacting all of his favorite students to find out where life had led them. My life had led me to marriage, motherhood and mundane editing jobs, which I glamorized a bit to impress him. He never mentioned our last meeting. Now would have been my chance to tell him how his advances had pounded the nail of self-doubt into my heart. But I didn’t. By now, I understood men better and felt even more sorry for him. I imagined him on the other end of the line, an aging man devoid of all sexual appeal, grasping for remembered fantasies.
Sometimes I wish I had yelled at him in his office and demanded an apology when he called. I would hope my two daughters would do that if the same thing happened to them. But the woman I am today would still not have the courage to protest, let alone report, a man who had taught her so much. He was, after all, just an ordinary, imperfect man, and I was just a naïve young woman, oblivious to the lure of youthful flesh.