On Being Afraid

I work in an open office floor. It’s shiny and new, but loud and awful. To cut down on the distraction, I frequently put on my noise canceling headphones and crank up the volume.

This day was particularly bad, as we were getting close to a software release. It was a Friday, so after a lot of bustle, folks packed up and left pretty early. A handful of us were in the office at 6PM, and I was just about to pack it in myself, but I checked the news first. It’s not uncommon for me to fall into an internet hole if I find something interesting to read. Being a political creature in a remarkably trying election cycle, there’s plenty to read, so it was no surprise when I looked up to see that I was in a deserted office, and it was nearly 7PM. Taking my headphones off, I heard someone’s computer bleep. My gut tightened as I realized where the sound came from.

I was not alone. The one person left was the only person at the office I’m afraid of. The guy who got drunk and aggressively grabby at a company party when I was new to the job. The guy who is married with kids (and not in a relationship where additional partners is ok), who groped under my shirt while I was trapped between him and the bar. Who continued even after I grabbed both his hands, looked him square in the eyes and said “Stop it.” Who followed me to the restroom when I tried to get away. Who waited for me to leave the restroom because he knew there was only one entrance, and I’d have to get past him to leave. Who grabbed and kissed me as I tried to get around him, before finally letting me go.

So this night, I packed up my things as quickly and quietly as I could, cursing my bladder the whole time because I dreaded going to the restroom and running into him on the way out. I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it home without a pitstop, so I gambled and ducked into the restroom on the ground floor, bracing myself for a possible confrontation as I exited. I didn’t see him as I left the restroom, but as I walked to the parking lot, I kept glancing around me like a paranoid freak.

That’s when I noticed that he was behind me.

The fear welled up uncontrollably. All I could think about was how to get to my car without drawing his attention to my fear. We’d made eye contact. He knew I was aware of him, and I hoped desperately that I was not telegraphing “OH CRAP I’M IN TROUBLE. RUN!”

The drunk groping happened ages ago, but it’s never far from my mind. I mean, I work with the guy. I see him five days a week. I sit with my back to the aisle, and he walks behind me nearly every day. I’m never able to truly forget that he exists. He’s made no advances at me since. I’m careful to never be alone with him. I won’t close the door if we’re in a conference room together.

I wonder if he avoids me as diligently as I avoid him? Does he do this out of embarrassment for his own behavior? Does he do this to respect my space, or because he fears I’ll report him to HR? Does he even remember he did anything? Does he care?

Was he just staying late for work this night? Did he really just coincidentally leave at the same time? Was he just going to his car, which just happened to be in the same large lot? I questioned everything, and the answers my brain supplied were not kind.

I made it to my car, and saw that he was driving away already. He’d parked closer to the building than I did — I like the extended walk to the back of the parking lot at the end of the day, but now I feel exposed. What if he’d decided to run me over? What if he’d pulled up next to me, grabbed me and stuffed me into his car? Part of me still dismisses this as hyperbole from my lizard brain, but the lizard brain is primitive and powerful. I couldn’t shake the thoughts as I got in my car and locked the doors. I sat quietly for a few seconds before it all caught up to me and I burst into anguished tears.

One of the most debilitating things about this kind of harassment/assault is that it can all be explained away. It wasn’t that bad, after all. I didn’t report him immediately after the first incident. I had one eyewitness who was looking out for me, so I knew that if this guy so much as twitched, I could report him and know that I had backup. But as I look back on it now, why didn’t my backup stand up to Mr. Handsy and tell him that what he was doing wasn’t ok? Why did he just check in with me to see if I was ok? And why on earth did I tell him that I was?

I guess my backup was suffering the same thing as me: we were both new to the company, and Handsy had been there for a long time. By making waves, we could be putting our jobs at risk. We were all at least a little drunk that night, and I wasn’t really hurt, now, was I? It was just a little fun. Except it wasn’t.

I regret not saying anything to management. I feel that I enabled this kind of boorish behavior because he suffered no adverse consequences (save a writer who goes out of her way to avoid interacting with him). I don’t laugh at his jokes in meetings now. I don’t say hello in the hall. I won’t get on the same elevator.

I also think that I’d have regretted it if I had reported it. While it would have been a he said/she said thing, I had a witness. But I wasn’t sure if my backup would actually have my back. Handsy was a long-time employee with lots of friends in the company. I felt disposable then, and even though I am far from disposable now, I still wonder if management would take his side over mine. He’s been promoted. I have not. Thankfully, I don’t report to him directly. If I did, I would have given my notice, probably via email, and never returned.

I’m ashamed that I didn’t say something. I hate that my first thought as I fled the building was “I’m so stupid to have let myself get in this situation.” I hate how long it took me to back up and realize that I was blaming the victim — myself — and how hard I have had to work to forgive myself for the original incident.

I don’t know exactly what I want to accomplish by writing this. I think I am still processing what happened and why. I haven’t figured out how to stop reacting, and as more women come forward and tell their stories, I feel the need to throw mine in for good measure. Maybe I’m hoping that I can put another name and face out there. Maybe my story will be the one that reaches through the defensive bluster and makes someone realize that playing a little grab-ass is actually pretty damaging, even if “it’s not like it was rape.” I’m not asking to be handled with kid gloves. I’m asking to not be handled at all, unless I request it. Why is that such a difficult concept for some people?